If there is one good thing about being awake before most of the rest of the household (let alone the city), it is that there are few better times for quiet contemplation. There have been no other distractions to rob me of my focus yet, no other voices to divert and diffuse. There is only me, and a cup of fragrant tea, and a sunrise that, in this place, will never come.
Merri sat at her vanity mirror, studying the woman in there who brushed dry a length of chestnut hair. She was a lovely enough creature, one supposed, could certainly be likened so if anything like human emotion enlivened her features, which at that moment were like nothing so much as inanimate porcelain. Still, there was a blessing in the numbness and she was grateful for it.
She’d had quite a variety of pain to divert her in the past 48 hours. Enough trouble, enough heartache.
The scientist in her was already at work identifying the steps which had been taken, the choices made, analyzing the results of each of the processes, looking for changes to make in the event there ever would be a “next time,” At the moment Merri very much doubted there would be, though she dimly recalled making that promise once before, when Gavin had simply disappeared, after the fire in their home and the subsequent death of their child. Scientific method meant little to the heart, it seemed, which had its own agenda, one her mind was not permitted to know…
The heavy knocking on the front door disturbed her reverie. Merri breathed a sigh of relief — she truly did not wish to endure another repetition of her personal recriminations — but her eyes widened at Esther’s subsequent and somewhat muffled scream. She grabbed her little rat-crafted derringer and raced to the stairs, nearly running over her housekeeper in the process.
“Clay men!” Esther gasped, clutching the front of Merri’s dayrobe. “With hammers, my lady! They’re asking for you! Shall I send Jim to the precinct?”
Clay men? “No. Take Harry and the other staff to the back of the house and stay there until I call for you. By no means are any of you to interfere — and if that means you have to sit on Harry to keep him out of this, then do it!”
“Yes, my lady…” Merri barely waited to hear the words though. She ran down to the first landing, then composed herself most carefully to descend to the foyer and the front door. Esther hadn’t let them in, of course; Merri concealed the little gun in her pocket (it would do almost nothing in her defense, but shooting it would certainly alert the neighbors) and went to face her visitors.
She sensed almost as soon as she saw them that these were not actually Clay Men. She hardly knew how she knew it, but her recent work in Watchmaker’s Hill had given her something of an instinct for it. Something was missing from these ambling mounds of earth and stone. These were of the Unfinished.
“Good day,” she told them, taking in their heavy, well-used hammers with a single glance. They were almost twice as tall as she, and far, far bulkier. “I’m Merriwether Fawkes. How may I help you?”
They glanced at each other before one spoke. “We’ve come for the box,” he said, voice sounding like boulders rubbing together.
Merri lifted her eyebrows delicately. “Which box would that be?”
Another shared glance. “You know which box. It ain’t yours. We’ve come to claim it.”
“I see.” She took a half-step back, having fought Unfinished Men several times (most recently in tracking one down as a host for Jack-of-Smiles) and knew that she could not fight two of them and hope to live through the experience. “Are you acting on behalf of its owner?”
Yet a third glance. “We didn’t come here to be questioned,” the other one said, finally speaking up. His voice wasn’t any pleasanter than the first’s. “We came here to get the box. You can hand it over, or we can beat you to death then tear this house apart for it.”
They seemed to be rather eager for that particular outcome, Merri noted. She, however, was a great deal less eager for it, having been an unwilling custodian of the Iron Box, and, in any event, more than willing to reduce the amount of trouble in her life.
“You will tell whomever has sent you that I didn’t want the damned thing to begin with,” she said, moving to ring the bell that would summon Esther. “I’ll have it fetched, it’s quite heavy. Take it and I wish you — and whomever sent you — joy of it.”
The two exchanged another glance, this one openly glum. “Well, if you’re gonna be that way about it,” the first speaker sighed. “I suppose.”
Esther crept into the foyer as if terrified at what she might see. Her relief at seeing her mistress whole and unharmed was nearly more than she could bear, apparently. Merri hoped the overwhelm was caused by happiness, but did not ask. She instructed Esther to have her nephews retrieve the box and hand it over to their visitors. “Under no circumstances are they to speak to these men or provoke them in anyway. Make sure they understand this.”
“I’ll see to it, my lady,” Esther nodded, still frightened but able to function in the well-worn harness of obedience. “You might have a word with Mr. Harry, my lady. He’s been cursing up a storm in the kitchens, trying to get to you.”
For the first time that morning, Merri smiled. “I will. Thank you, Esther.”
It was only as she exited her home later that day that she realized the troubles related to the Iron Box were not yet over. “Special Constables” lingered about in plainclothes — the strength of their moustaches always gave them away — in greater numbers than she’d ever seen them, all watching the house and its surrounds.
Merri clenched her jaw, but continued walking. She was due at the Shuttered Palace — let them follow her there, if they would. She doubted any of them would gain entreé, moustaches or no.
What a chaotic and unsettled few days it has been. Interruptions, quarrels, endings, deaths — not always an ending, as denizens of the Neath know — it’s the kind of strife best loved by Hell, one supposes. Sufficient explanation for why it must happen here with dismaying regularity!
I have recovered from my personal breakdown over the weekend and now feel rather aimless, drifting the twisted streets of this city like a wraith. The Shuttered Palace has become tiresome diversion. My time in the Forgotten Quarter I must limit — as long as I may focus on The Correspondence, all is well. Now that I know the truth of the hunting horns in the distance… hearing them stirs such anger, such indignation. I would that I could ride to the rescue of those poor unfortunates whom the devils hunt and yet I am prevented, as well all are. It is yet another fact of this place I wish I could unknow.
There are so many of them. It’s no wonder we all run mad here occasionally.
I have taken to wandering Watchmaker’s Hill, Spite, and Mrs. Plenty’s Carnival to divert myself, rather aimlessly accepting employment from the various ministries and seeking anything that might provide stimulation. I fear this creeping boredom worst of all, it has ever been my Nemesis.
The most pleasant happening in recent days was the privilege of spending a quiet afternoon renewing a friendship with dear Tobias, whom I have missed dreadfully during his recent absences. His quiet strength and solicitous attention were just the anodyne I needed to soothe the troubles which had plagued me so. Afterward he very kindly set about my usual haunts, quelling some of gossip being spread about me with such deftness and diligence that I find myself untouched by any sort of scandal whatsoever, for the first time in a very long time.
I have been quite fortunate in those of you who’ve chosen to befriend me, truly. No woman could ask for better.
- The Unaccountaby Peckish kind has mostly been a minor annoyance, one that lessened considerably when I enjoyed the last of the fresh food I smuggled in from the surface earlier in the week. I can find no real use for the hunger except to cause me to experience cravings that revulse me and so I’ll be glad when it’s gone.
- On a related note, I believe I’ve found no fewer than five counterfeit heads of St. John the Baptist since this silly season started.
- Loneliness is an underhanded, pernicious kind of hunger. It’s a more serious annoyance than the peckishness, if only because its remedy seems far to seek, indeed.
- In dealing with such unwelcome solitudes I’ve made the acquaintances of the exquisite Rhian Jenkins and a lady who goes by the unlikely psuedonym of “woogawoman,” a moniker I find delightfully intriguing. What is its origin? Why does she use it? Perhaps she’ll trust me enough to confide the truth of it, one day.
- Also, the formidable Madam Ella Kremper bade me come share a bottle of that wretched (wonderful), evil (liberating) Black Wings Absinthe with her. Even after consulting our dear Commodore about the contents, I was out of sorts enough to accept the invitation and drink the inky black stuff. “Blacker than an idiot’s shadow” indeed — and I think I had to be completely idiotic to drink as much of it as I did. Still… it did ease some of the restlessness, though I’m not sure I care for what I remember of the rest of the night. The Scandal, in the aftermath, was fairly entertaining….
- Oh, the poem! Thank you, those of you who’ve shared your feelings about it, your feedback (and even critique, in one case) was much appreciated. No, I haven’t heard from Huffam as yet — I rather doubt I shall, as I doubt it’s the kind of poem he generally cares to publish.
- Rather than continue to ask me the identity of the mysterious “you” in the verses, perhaps you’ll all consent to consider it simply an abstract, or a generality and leave to good breeding any other speculations you might have? Thank you ever so….
- Ambition is a kind of hunger; this one is not an annoyance though what I must do to achieve it is. I am so sick of the Forgotten Quarter I do wish I could forget it, but until this thing with the relics is over I am doomed to return there, it seems. Quite candidly, if I didn’t need the echoes for a rather stunningly expensive purchase, I wouldn’t return at all!
- I did remove myself to the Shuttered Palace after a time as it turns out my cures for certain illnesses are rather well-received. Those luridly bright green tongues! I have seldom laughed so hard…! Almost payment enough! Almost.
Outside of hunger, I again contemplate throwing my doors open to all of Fallen London for an Open Salon. Again, I solicit you, my dearest delicious friends, for advice as to dates and times, if you have any. As for purely physical hungers, I have dinner invitations to keep me… sated. Or as close as I ever get to it, these days.