Upon a Quiet Afternoon

For this particular day, Lady Merriwether Fawkes sits in her conservatory, the great room where most of the festivities of The Masque of All Souls will be centered. A writing desk has been brought in for her and a tea service sits on a tray at her elbow, a cup of golden green tea steaming fragrantly in its saucer. An intermittent stream of young persons passes into and out of the room, which is open to the softly lit patio and garden just without. They are carrying invoices, calling cards, room decor, cleaning utensils and supplies, personal letters, business communiqués, the inevitable bouquets of fresh flowers from any of a dozen or so devils at the Brass Embassy, as well as other errata that go toward the production of the Monday’s Masque and, less happily perhaps, to the eventual closing of this house.

The bustle is contained and orderly, with quite a bit of good humour and japing among Esther’s young nieces and nephews, and even a few laughing sallies from the lady herself. It’s a good day to be quietly preoccupied with such matters, as they are mostly to do with celebration and shared joy. The only thing which might make it better is shared company — and for that, Scarlet has said she would come.

“Esther dear, do remember to bring in fresh tea when Scarlet arrives, please. I’m afraid I’ve drunk most of this pot already.”

“Of course, milady,” the housekeeper replies, a faint note of reproval in her tone — as if she could forget such a detail, even with all the uproar the house is in….

Merri hides a grin and, with a swift glance at the pocket watch open upon her desk, returns to her invoices, humming a sprightly tune.

[Cue Scarlet!]

Where the Heart Is…

I have been told all my life that home is where the heart is. If so, then this lovely old townhouse is no longer my home. How very strange this is to contemplate! The walls and floors, drapes and furnishings, most of all the people who live here with me day by day, nothing has changed — except, for the first time since I purchased the lease, my heart is no longer here. In the main it lies in the keeping of the man who owns a tea shop in the bazaar, in the spacious rooms he and his dear life’s companion keep above it, likely nestled still in their bed, though it is scandalous to say as much, I suppose.

Like Gabriel, I find I grow weary of always doing what is seemly. That wayward heart of mine is a most unseemly creature, for it loves where it will, as many as it will. In these latest choices, it has chosen well at last.

My thoughts range backward into memory, as is only proper when one whom one has loved is lost completely. Dear Scarlet came to tell us the news, showing extraordinary strength in the doing of it for she was quite clearly distraught and had been for some time. First Lamont, then Henrik — it was no mystery to me, her wild sorrow, hatred for the zee, even the unstated regrets she felt about ever opening her heart or learning to love at all. I could not even tell her that yes, this is the price of loving, that sometimes we must lose what we love. I have lost so many, my parents and older brother before I even knew what death was, my grandparents… and then my beloved child. Love and loss are so intricately intertwined, but how does one express that to a dear love already lost in her grief? I could only hold her and let her feel it for herself — let her feel that in spite of her losses, Love remained, she was surrounded by it, held by it, even in such abject sorrow.

In truth, I lost Henrik some time ago. I have had that time to heal my heart of the loss, so that when the news came yesterday it was… an odd, somber re-echoing of what had already come to pass within. Though I have heard some strange stories and many rumors about what happened between us, none of it came close to expressing how truly strange and… poorly functioning… our love was. I still maintain that he was all the things I’ve said and thought of him: honourable, good, intelligent, loyal to his friends, and I doubt he had an enemy in the world except perhaps for the man who murdered his brother, who will now escape all deserved justice for that crime, I suppose.

He and I…. dear God. We simply were not good chemistry. We did things to each other in proximity that… warped us beyond easy recognition of our true selves. I only recognized this clearly after he and Theodor last went to Venderbight and I was left here to pick up the remnants of my life without him. It was terribly, profoundly illuminating to discover that in losing him, I’d regained myself at last. What remained was, somehow, not to succumb to the weakness of character which I still harboured, and which still insisted upon his love, and upon my love for him despite all reason and good sense.

And then… to have to insist upon it to him, when that weakness in me wanted nothing more than to weep (again) and capitulate (again) and say “yes love, I’m so sorry, we’ll try once more.” Refusing to surrender to that was, I think, the second hardest thing I have ever done, and possibly not done entirely well, but it was done. I could once again be the woman I knew myself to be and set aside the pangs of regret which returned to haunt me at the very oddest moments.

I will set it forth here though: I was never angry with the man for aught he had done to me, or said for that matter. There are things for which I perhaps should have been angry, and one thing which angered me later, on another’s behalf — but it does no good to rehash the past. Done is done, and he is gone now. If I can thank him and bless his memory now it is mostly for his soul’s selfless ability to show me, once again, what I do not wish to be in love, as a lover.

Life, and love, goes on. I hope to find Scarlet in the bazaar this afternoon for tea, because I love her and because the loss of Henrik has affected her horribly. I hope to spend time with beloved Gabriel again, and sweet-hearted Sevashke, if he is able. There are old friends to be kept, and new ones to be made, nightmares to be banished, wounds to be mended, scandals to be put down, suspicions to be eased. There are still lectures to be given at University, silent dances at court, fights on the docks, and spires to be marked in the Flit. Most of all, for me at least, there is a card game to be assembled, and a Heart’s Desire to be won. The dead must know that the living remain, and continue.

One hopes they are at peace with that.

For Mr. Anthony Call

The townhouse known as Cl0ckw0rkings is one of the older homes in the Tower of Eyes district. Though several around it are showing signs of age, this place has been restored with what is evidently loving attention to detail. The cab drops you off at the gate, which is opened by a young man not wearing livery but still well dressed and polite. And when you knock and the housekeeper appears (an older woman with sallow skin and a pinched, but earnest face), she takes whatever outerwear you wish to surrender into her custody and shows you in to “her ladyship’s parlour.”

Merri is there with tea and coffee on a tray, smiling gently. “I’m glad you came, Mr. Call. Forgive my lack of energy please, it’s been a tiring time of late, but I should much like to hear your story, if you’re inclined to tell it.”

[Cue Anthony Call, in comments below!]

A Place of Comfort and Rest

“You are so sweet,” she’d said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Yes. I can go home with you. But… No love. I’ve never been like this.” Then her hands scrubbed her face vigourously. “No..lovemaking, I mean. I’m sorry. I can’t be this weak. I’ve too much to do.”

It is disquieting in the extreme to see her friend Scarlet so overset. She’d not been eating much and drinking rather too much laudanum. The strain was clearly beginning to rattle her apart from the inside.

“Oh Scarlet… Love doesn’t make you weak. It’s what makes you strong.” That Merri could say such a thing after Henrik should have been adequate on its own, really. “Just come home with me. We don’t have to do anything you don’t wish to do — but blast it, you need to rest! Let me take care of you as a sister would, then. Let’s go…. ”

And go they had, Merri so concerned for her friend’s state that she hailed a cab to take them both back to her townhouse. Esther hadn’t expected her mistress back so soon, but rolled with the changes as any professional in her position would, accepting the requests for food and drink, and to not be disturbed otherwise. Merri whisked Scarlet up the stairs, one arm about her waist tenderly, then seated her on the divan with care before moving about the room to start the victrola, gather pillows, and otherwise make her dearest friend as comfortable as she could.

If Scarlet ever had any doubts that Merri’s “mothering instincts” had been fully activated, they’ll likely be put to rest immediately! “We’ve just gotten some fresh surface food, Cook should be preparing us a good luncheon. I guess it’s fall in England, the apples are ripening. Here,” she says, pressing a cup of hot tea into her friend’s hands.

The Theft of Papers, Part 7

It is finished at last.

The party at the Topsy King’s court afterward was nothing short of uproarious.

Giddy and shaking in the emotional aftermath, Merri allowed Carlo and Harry to treat her like a conquering hero, though she knew right well she was no such thing. It took her three tries, finally raising her voice sharply, to get Carlo to send word out through Spite and the Docks to let her beloved friends know they were in the clear — for her part, anyway. Once assured the word would reach Theodor, Henrik, and Scarlet, she relaxed back onto a pile of… well, it was best not to think too closely about what was actually in that soft, welcoming pile. She ate something that wasn’t dead rat. The Topsy King shared a bottle of Greyfields “First Growth” with her — Merri was grateful, for the symbols on those tall black spires still whirled dangerously just beneath the surface of her thoughts.

She reached for her bag repeatedly, looking past the collection of old London street signs to assure herself the folders were still there, and that they were intact. The work on the parabola equation, and the encrypted notes… on the Correspondence. They were there, they were there. She’d make up her mind later if she wanted her notes on Hell and devils back from the Brass Embassy, after she’d rested, eaten properly, and knew that her friends were well.

On reflection, she didn’t know if it confused her or reassured her that the Bazaar’s offices were laid out in such stereotypically human fashion — a bureaucracy by any other name. It was a fairly straightforward caper once she was inside: Find the desk to which the materials had been assigned, recover them, and go. It was the getting in, and back out again, that took a level of mastery she had not been sure she owned.

Well, not before. There in the aftermath, she knew she owned it and was strangely rather proud of it. Walking over rice paper and bat bones without a single sound!! No one would ever know she was coming now, unless she wished them to know!

All the thieves were toasting her, some suggesting other robberies, others talking about courier routes and the like. Merri just smiled and nodded, hardly hearing any of it. When they were all sufficiently drunk, she gathered Harry and Carlo up and, with much relief, headed home. For a bath. And a hot meal. A decent cup of tea! And gentle, lovely music.

And, wistfully, hopefully, word from her dear ones that all was indeed well, before she slept at last.

The Theft of the Papers, Part 6

If it took great care and planning to prepare to break into Hookman House, it was as nothing compared to the monumental effort of robbing the offices of the Bazaar itself.

Endless neddy men, flocks of bats, the spires completely covered with Correspondence symbols; these were the obstacles she knew. It was what she didn’t know that wanted to make her frantic; Merri courted every rumor, every whisper, every mad raving in the Flit, examined every known route into and out of the building likeliest to have the papers, called in every favor she had and promised a few she didn’t to gather the resources and information she needed. Many of her contacts faded into the background when they learned her plans, not wanting to be associated in any way with what they plainly considered to be an exotic form of suicide. Most of the rest didn’t care — they were beyond the reach of the neddies and the constables. They told her what she wanted to know.

The minutes turned into hours and the hours eventually spanned a day. She didn’t sleep, drank little, ate even less. Her shoulders and thighs burned with exertion, crossing and recrossing what used to be the eastern half of the city after questions, and after answers. Poor Harry kept up as long as he could, but his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm simply couldn’t keep pace with the determination of his guardian, a woman determined to protect those she loved from coming to harm. She left him curled up in a makeshift hammock near the Topsy King’s court and gave one of the raggedies the string of dead rats she’d found and a fat envelope of reading material (the forbidden kind of course) to watch after her young ward while he slept.

It was eventually Carlo who tracked her down, discovering her amid the stays and supports of one of the great bridges that spanned the Stolen River. Merri was deep in conversation with another darkly-clad woman when she saw him approach, but paid the woman her glim and sent her on her way before her henchman arrived.

Madonna. You’re going to find a place to sleep. Now.”

“Oh I am, am I?” Tired, aching, everything in her bristled at his tone. “Who’s going to make me? You?”

“If you want.” He shifted his weight easily on the vast cables, as if waiting for her to make her move. Carlo had absolutely no illusions about her — it was usually something she found refreshing, but just then it only added to her aggravation. Merri also recalled that the reasons she hired him were his utter loyalty to his employer’s red-gold, and his ruthlessness in carrying out his orders.

Well, let’s give him one, see if it distracts him. I can’t afford to stand down now, this is coming together too quickly. “I want you to head back to the Docks,” she told him flatly, obviously disregarding threats both open and implied. “I’m going to need a distraction at the front offices of the bazaar here in a few hours, something to draw off the neddies. You’re going to have to hire some more toughs — maybe some of the dockworkers striking this week would like to collect a day’s wages for an hour’s work…”

His weight shifted again. “I’ll have it seen to. But you’re going to sleep if I have to knock you out myself, madonna.

“Threats, Carlo?” She readied herself to leap to the deck of the bridge if need be — she was a Black Ribbon duelist, he was not –but she would not kill him without cause. “Aren’t you still taking my rosty-gold?”

Sí. I want to go on taking it too, for a long time. Can’t do that if you’re dead.”

Her eyebrows flickered. “I’m not going to die.”

Carlo stared at her levelly. “I know you’re not. You’re going to sleep a few hours, then you’re going to eat, because without those things you’ll be too spent to do the thing right. I can collect information. I can give orders for you. You already have your plan, you’re just waiting on details now. Even a ‘stupido like me can manage that.”

“You’re not stupid,” she hissed. “You know I could kill you. I know you do.”

“Maybe. I think you’re too spun out right now to pose much of a threat to anyone. Let’s test it. Make your move.”

It held there for a long moment, long enough for her to feel the defiance start to bleed out of her, long enough for her to notice the fuzziness at the edges of her thoughts. His fingers twitched — and that extra fractional second it took her to react to it — an interval that could well have meant the distance between success and failure — was what finally caused her shoulders to sag in defeat.

“Good choice,” he drawled. “Come on. I know a place. You’ll be safe. You still have friends here, madonna,” he told her, gesturing for her to lead the way back across the bridge. “People here take care of each other, they remember a good turn done for them, not like some of those society people.”

Merri bristled again, looked at him sharply, but didn’t have it in her to rebuke him. His opinions about her usual class of friends and acquaintances had never been high — a reverse kind of snobbism, she’d supposed. But it was an argument they could — and certainly would — have later. If she survived the Bazaar.

“Just shut up and tell me where we’re going, so I can tell you what I’m waiting for….”

The Theft of the Papers, Part 5

We did it! But, wait... what?

In the end, the most difficult part had been finding her works in the hundreds of thousands of texts secreted away in that place.

“Hssst. Merri.” Harry was crouched just ahead of her, moving like a ghost-spider atop the ranks of shelves. She could just see him jerk his head toward a table that was partially shadowed at the end of the hall. Piled upon it were courier’s bags and boxes, all of them stuffed full of newly arrived, freshly confiscated material from the scholars, revolutionaries and malcontents of Fallen London. With a nod, she sidled past him, using a hand signal to tell him to keep watch for approaching guards. Pausing only for a moment to listen to the clotted silence in the room around them, she climbed down the shelves like a ladder, leaping silently to the floor and slipping silently to the table.

“No… no… no…” Bag after box after envelope, she rifled through the pile searching as quickly as she could. Harry gave the alert for the next patrol in only barely enough time for her to clamber back up to a safe perch. The vicious dogs paused, sniffed menacingly, but moved on when the human guard, impatient and bored, yanked on their leashes with casual cruelty.

Merri found the folio of the Correspondence research about halfway through the pile, rivers of relief running through her as she stuffed it into her own courier’s bag. Though interrupted twice more, she continued with dogged determination to find her work on the Parabola equation at least, but it simply was not there. A cold knot in the pit of her stomach, she gave the signal to Harry and they slithered their way back across the tops of the stacks, getting out of the building without even raising a hint of an alarm.

Any elation she felt was short-lived, once she paused back on that familiar nearby rooftop to check the contents of the folio more closely. Her encrypted notes on what had happened with Henrik had been removed. There was a note attached to the last page detailing the destination of that specific section.

“Dear God,” she breathed, leaning back against a chimney stack. “They’ve sent it to the Masters of the Bazaar.”

The Theft of the Papers, Part 4

Of course one simply does not break into the Ministry of Public Decency on a whim.

Merri knew it was going to require research, inside information, a clearly formulated plan to get in, get what she’d come for, and get back out again. Fortunately her natural charm and easy manner had served her as well during her time in the Flit as did her reputation as a superior runner. She had many favorable acquaintances at this altitude, most of whom were more open since Randall Ross had inexplicably left. Blaggers, toolings, box men, lurkers, bit fakers and dragsmen willingly parted with what they knew for a smile and a bit of conversation, hardly noting the jade or rosty-gold that crossed their palms.

They did notice it though. Merri considered it insurance, a decent way to expect she’d be welcomed back after all this was over.

She went through the Flit like grass through a goose, concentrating on the areas nearest the Ministry buildings, letting it be known she’d pay highest for information that was freshest. It wasn’t long before she had what she needed to concoct a plan to infiltrate the labyrinthine passages of Hookman House itself.

Theodor might term it `foolishly risky’. Narciso might think it crude — in truth it is, but I haven’t time for finesse just now. I can’t afford to wait, too many people I love are depending on this. I’ve got this one chance. I can’t fail. I simply cannot afford to fail.

“Wotcha.” It was Harry of course, back from his errands. He’d found her studying a map fragment atop the flat roof of a nearby warehouse.

“Trying to make out this script,” Merri murmured, squinting in the awful (lack of) light. “Bring that candle closer, would you?”

“Sure.” He did, leaning over her shoulder in an attempt to help. “Looks like chicken scratch to me.”

“Mmm….” she said. Then what he’d said arrested her and she turned to him, smiling. “How would you know what chicken scratches look like? Have you ever seen a real chicken?”

“Seen one on a sign,” he grinned back at her. “Cock o’ the Dawn. I’s a pub down on Pinchpenny Lane. I’s go’ a chicken on it.”

“I see.” Her mouth flickered in one of those smiles. Harry elbowed her in response.

“So, wotcha gonna do? D’ye make it, yet?”

“I think so,” she murmured.

“How we goin’ in?”

Merri sighed quietly. “Harry. This is dangerous. You know this is dangerous. Do you have any idea how dangerous?”

“Oi.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “True death, prolly. If they catch us.”

“Eventually, yes,” she replied. “They’ll turn us over to the devils for torture first. It could be a long time before we die. Harry, I can’t–”

“Oi!” He glared at her fiercely. “We go’ us an accord! On the cobbles, yer the boss and I listen and do my best to do what you say. Up ‘ere though — ain’t no bosses. I’s you an’ me and we’re in it all togevver! You promised!

Lids dropped over grey eyes dark with concern. She took a deep breath. “I did. And I won’t go back on it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to talk you out of coming with me, Harry. If anything happened to you–”

“An’ if anyfing ‘appened to you–!” He stopped abruptly, looked down at his dirty, scuffed up boots.

God help me. No. Scratch that — help him, he’s too young for this. “All right,” she breathed. “We go together. But once we’re inside — I’m the boss again. Make it?”

Harry scowled. “Yer the boss as long as ye don’ try t’ tell me t’ leave you.”

“I won’t.” She shook her head, smiled at him sadly. “I promised. I keep my promises Harry. We’ll do this together, or not at all.”

To her utter, jaw-dropping astonishment, the boy threw his arms about her neck and hugged her. Before she could think to respond he’d stepped back again of course, trying to look as if nothing untoward had happened. After a moment she cleared her throat, unwilling to embarrass him by any further displays.

“All right then,” she said, pointing to the scrap of paper. “Here’s how it’s going down…”

The Theft of the Papers, Part 3

Too late!
Riches yes.. but…

Merri swore sulphurously, in Italian and English, out loud, for several minutes after she and her urchin accomplices opened the box. Amid the glim, gold, jade and pearls there were some papers, yes — but they weren’t hers. Her young friends stood back admiringly as she finished her litany of oaths, then grinned at her and started picking through the take. She couldn’t have cared less, and in fact urged them on. The box was much lighter when she had it sent home, honestly not caring if it made it there or not.

It’s the Ministry of Public Decency, then. That’s where the special constables are, that’s where the papers will go. She sat down atop a gargoyle’s head and thought about what was taken, not liking the implications.

All my equations and notes on Parabola. Who’s in danger from that? Theodor, perhaps, but he’s the only one of my acquaintance who contributed to those notes at all.

The books and pamphlets on devils and hell, all from surface sources, all heavily proscribed. I doubt anyone I know would be compromised by those as I read them and annotated them, but did not discuss them with anyone else in depth. Those will likely be turned over to the Brass Embassy.

Lastly, my Correspondence research. ALL my Correspondence research, including the notes I made after that… experiment… with Henrik. Her full mouth twisted enigmatically. At least I had the sense to encode that last. It won’t stop them, but it will slow them down a little.

I don’t have time to warn them myself. I’ll have to send Harry, then see about breaking into the Ministry personally.

“You ready for another run?” She asked him suddenly, startling him as he “fished” for treasure over the side of the gutter. “Harry, we just earned more money in one night than you’ve seen in one place in your life. Why are you doing that?”

“Because I wan’ a pirate hat,” he grinned. She glared at him for one moment, then gave in and laughed softly.

“All right. I can understand that. I’m afraid I need your help again, though. Let’s duck into this church and see about nicking some paper and ink so I can write a note. You’re going to have to run it to Elderwick, to the book shop where Henrik and Master Theodor live.”

“Right now?”

She cut off a sharp reply. He was an urchin at heart, he was young, he didn’t understand. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” she said quietly. “It could mean the difference between them staying free or getting shipped to New Newgate. Will you do it?”

“Oi, wotcha, i’s all right.” He wound up his line with a shrug; she slung her leg back over the gargoyle’s gaping mouth and made her way to the now-defunct bell-tower.

Dear Theodor and Henrik,
The papers stolen from my home were taken deliberately and are being transported to the Ministry of Public Decency. You are both directly implicated in them, though in different ways. I am not worried about your safety, either of you, but I thought you should be warned so you could take what precautions you deem necessary.

Please contact Narciso to alert him. And someone please stay with Scarlet until this is over. She’s cunning and resourceful, but I don’t know if she’s ready for this or not. The mere fact of our association might be all that’s needed to have her arrested.

I’ll contact you somehow to let you know when all is clear.

Take care. Love to all —

–M

The Theft of the Papers, Part 2

When Carlo and Harry returned two hours later, Merri had changed into Flit-wear (black velvet cat suit, fingerless gloves, silent boots) and knew with certainty just what had been taken. She was only not pacing the floor through an act of iron will. Harry, who had become something of an expert at gauging her mood in the weeks he’d been living in the same house with her, spoke first.

“Lots o’ raggedies seen him,” he said. “‘Nother box-man on the make, sounds like. Hand off was at All-Christs’ spire, headed off toward carnival, like you made it.”

“Better go, if you’re going,” Carlo grunted. He generally spoke better English than he liked to let on. “This wasn’t a general sweep. You were the only target, madonna, they wanted what you had, specifically. That box is headed for the Special Constables, may God roast their testicles over hell’s own hearthfires.”

With a short, wordless nod she pulled the mask over her face and checked her weapons. It was what she’d half-suspected, but knowing that she was under investigation specifically was just about the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Oi. Yer not sendin’ me t’ the kitchens this time.”

Merri glanced at Harry’s determined face in some surprise, then at Carlo, who was suddenly very busy picking his teeth and clearly not willing to get involved. The boy was referring to the visit of the Unfinished Men the month before. Harry still hadn’t quite forgiven her for it. Carlo didn’t want to be in the middle of it.

“I hadn’t planned on it, no. You’re coming with me, I could use an extra set of eyes. Carlo,” she went on as Harry whooped happily. “Take some red gold and spread it around the Docks. I need some toughs here to keep discreet watch on the house. If any `official problems’ show up, I want them dealt with before anyone in the house gets hurt. Do we understand each other?”

His face split in an evil grin. “Sí, madonna. Un piacere.

“Good. Be quick about it — if I can’t retrieve those papers we’re going to have worse problems than special constables before the night’s over.”

Bene. Arrivederci.” He waved, and was off.

Merri and Harry left via the window, finding the closest route up to the Flit and then heading toward Mrs. Plenty’s Carnival at an all-out, hell-bent for leather run. It would be an hour’s journey even at this altitude. Merri found herself hoping they’d be in time.

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