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….”

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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.

The Theft of the Papers, Part 1

By the time Merri reached the front door at Cl0ckw0rkings she’d already made the transition from light-hearted socialite to hard-headed, pragmatic airship captain. Esther met her at the door, wringing her hands — but since she was not screaming or fainting or showing other signs of distress, Merri supposed it was simply nervous habit when something upsetting had happened.

“Has anything been touched since the theft was discovered?”

“No, my lady, we left it as it was, but–!”

“Very good. I need to ascertain what was taken. Do not contact the constables, we don’t need them for this. Carlo? Harry?”

“Oi?”

Sí, madonna?

“Harry goes to the Flit, and I want you to concentrate on the flying bridges over the Docks and all the way to the carnival. Ears spread, I want to know what’s up there. Don’t waste too much time on details just yet and get back here with what you can in two hours.”

Their respective responses commingled as they headed for the exit.

“Esther, I’ll want your help to sort through what’s left, as you’ve enough sense not to try to read anything you know shouldn’t. Have Astrid sent up with some tea for both of us. We’ve got two hours.”

“Yes, my lady! Right away!”

.-*-._.-*-._.-*-.

She knew almost as soon as she opened the door that this wasn’t one of the usual thefts that plagued all scholars in the Neath. The papers on her writing desk were still there, largely undisturbed — ever since the first theft, she’d taken to leaving “fake papers” as bait for the unwary. They looked authentic enough and were an easy “grab and go,” things like faked up Correspondence symbols and mathematical equations that, if they were ever solved, would turn out to be attempts to describe the flights of bats in the stalactites above. Or possibly the ratio for a perfectly sweetened cup of tea.

Those were all still where she’d left them. But her locked cabinets had been completely rifled, papers, pens, ink bottles, slide rules and compasses scattered helter-skelter across the floor.

Figlia di puttana,” she whispered. “I think I know what they took.”

After Vendrick

I feel as if I’ve been branded.

Yes, intellectually I know he wanted to die — was doing everything but begging for it.

But… it is the first time I’ve intentionally… slaughtered anyone. And it was a slaughter.

I know that bridge. I knew the axe was there, it’s always been there, the Raggedies are very careful about that. After Vendrick disarmed me, I ran for that bridge, that axe. I grabbed it and swung with all my strength. His head parted from his body in a spray of blood that was too vividly, nightmarishly red, even in the moonish light.

And now I am a Bringer of Death.

It is not an “accomplishment” that rests easily on my soul. It seems, in fact, like yet one more thing to manage, here — like the wounds, the nightmares, the scandal —

–like the incremental, day-to-day loss of one’s soul…

Encounters in The Flit

“Because I’m not a thief, that’s why.”

“`n why ‘r y’ here?”

Merri sighs. This is the third iteration of this conversation, this night alone. “I just enjoy running it. The Flit, the freedom of it. Do I have to be a thief to like that?”

A pause. “Guess not. But if y’ever do wanna make a fas’ pile of glim…”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” She doesn’t bother telling him she’s got more glim piled up than she cares to count. And moon pearls. And jade. It’s not about the money and hasn’t been since I moved out of that wretched abandoned tomb. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”

Rather than try to push past the man, she simply dives off the side of the ledge, catching a flagpole, shimmying up a drainpipe, vaulting to another, hopefully less-populated rooftop. From there she would have run to an improvised bridge, but unfortunately there was someone in the way.

Another sigh, and Merri saunters to a stop. “I say, do excuse me. I’d like to use that bridge, if you wouldn’t mind moving aside for a moment.”

[Cue Heithe.]

Harry

There was a rhythm to it, Merri thought as she leapt the distance to from one roof to another, dive-rolling to cushion the shock of accumulated momentum. It only seemed spontaneous or chaotic if she thought about it too much; when she just let thought go and moved with that internal flow, the running, twisting, leaping, jumping, swinging — it was all as beautiful and necessarily precise as any Ming vase, mathematical equation or baroque fugue…

Don’t think don’t think don’t think! She’d nearly missed the drop-off to that rope bridge, thinking about not thinking! Move move move just keep moving! Vault over the side of the bridge, catch the rope, swing to the spire atop that tower — let go now! Grab the spire one hand got it! Clutch with a leg spiralling spiralling a slide down the peaked roof and up! Run the roof ledge to the end and dive….!

I’m flying… oh sweet God I’m flying…!

It honestly had not occurred to her that she had no idea whether there was anything to catch once she’d taken to the air — but there was indeed another rope, knotted at its fraying end! Catch it long arc swing and up up up to another roof another ledge another sprint move move move…!

Much as she always wanted it to, it couldn’t last. Lungs burning, muscles trembling, Merri finally forced herself to stop. Laughing again, seated atop some church or other, leaning against the cross that jutted up rather crookedly against the backdrop of the cavernous ceiling of the Neath. All this room to move, space to fly, yet so securely confined by borders both seen and unseen. “Oh dear Lord,” she gasped, not sure if she was truly capable of praying anymore or whether there was a God to hear her or if it was just a way of speaking to fend off the loneliness. ” ‘I could live in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams…’ .”

“Oy! ‘oo you talkin’ to, lady?”

The words startled her out of her reverie and her little rattus faber gun was in her hand before she registered it was a child’s voice. Merri peered around herself, trying to penetrate the inky black shadows that surrounded her without success. Fine time to regret selling those silly goggles…!

“Ah, no one, I suppose. Or myself, perhaps. Who are you?”

“Ain’t nobody. Wotchu laffin’ at?”

Merri relaxed marginally, but only marginally — the orphans of the Flit were children, certainly, but they were often feral children. She’d made some positive contacts among the Fisher Kings, but they were only one gang of urchins in the Flit and she wasn’t entirely sure if she was in their territory or not.

“Same answer. Why don’t you show yourself? I have some spore toffee to share, if you’d like.”

It was almost unfair bait — all the urchins adored spore toffee. She caught the slightest movement in the shadows under the chimney-stacks to her right.

“Wotchu want fer it? I ain’t got nuffin’ to pay yer wif.”

“You have yourself, don’t you? I’d very much like someone to share the view — and the toffee.”

“Yer a strange ‘un, ye are.” With that preamble, the voice resolved itself into a scruffy, scrawny, half-starved child. Age indeterminate but certainly not yet adolescent, sex completely impossible to divine under the layers of dirt and rags. “If’n yer wants, I c’n eat yer toffee, jus’ don’ try anyfing funny ‘r I’ll ‘ave yer guts in a pile afore ye can say ‘’Bob’s yer uncle’.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Merri told him (?) honestly, patting the stretch of level beaming beside her, simultaneously retrieving the wrapped spore toffee from her pocket. “My name’s Merri. What’s yours?” She asked, offering him a piece as he took a seat — not quite in arm’s reach, but close enough to lean in and snatch the sweet from her fingers.

“Name’s ‘arry,” he replied just before stuffing the toffee into his mouth. The name confirmed her suspicions about gender, not that it mattered. “That ain’t wut they call ye in the Topsy King’s court, eh? Wotcher wanna lie fer? I ain’t got nuffin’ on ye eiver way!”

“Oh.” She giggled a little and popped another piece into her own mouth. “They call me by my alias, I suppose. The one I took when I came here. Clockworks. Would you prefer that to Merri?”

He shrugged, chewing on his toffee. “Makes no never min’ to me,” he assured her, eyes darting nervously all around them. His hair seemed to be fair, as did what skin she could see under the smudges of soot. “Ye c’n call yerself whatever ye like. They say yer a lady.”

“They?”

“Yeah.”

Merri waiting another moment, but seeing as he expected her to know the identity of this unspecified and very general “they,” she was eventually forced to shrug and find an answer. “I suppose I have some ladylike qualities,” she finally admitted. “I hope I do.”

“Oy, watsa lady doin’ up ‘ere anyway?” The toffee swallowed, he turned immediately suspicious. “Yer don’ dress like a lady. Are ye sure yer not a fief like me?”

Something like a smile flickered over her mouth at that, but carefully, as even these young ones could have a fierce sense of dignity and pride. “Oh… I don’t imagine there could be another thief like you up here, Harry.” She tossed him another piece of toffee, not surprised at his ability to snatch it out of the air, skin it of its wrapping and cram it into his mouth in what seemed to be one smooth motion. “Dressing like a lady to run the Flit would be pretty silly though, don’t you think? I mean, just imagine those great skirts and petticoats and bustles flying in all directions, just trying to walk across a rope bridge!”

Harry apparently liked that imagery, for he cackled appreciatively.

“I dress like a lady when I need to be doing ‘lady things.’ I dress like this,” she concluded, extending a trouser-shod leg and booted foot, “when I want to be up here. It seems to work out all right.”

“Been followin’ yer,” he admitted, bouncing the toffee wrapper on an open and horribly filthy palm. “Ye don’ do much up here. Ye just run a lot. I don’ ken it. Wotcher runnin’ from?”

Merri slotted him a look at that, wondering and a little intimidated at the experiences that went into making a child sound like a man. “Not everyone who runs is running away from something,” she told him, taking out her last piece of toffee and offering it to him. He scooted a little closer to take it. “Sometimes it just feels good to run.”

Harry returned that slotted look, disdainful that she could say something so apparently stupid. “Yer runnin’ from somethin’, I c’n smell it,” he said flatly. “But’cher don’ have ter tell me, I guess. I was jus’ wunnerin’, tha’s all.” He nibbled the toffee, making this piece last longer than its predecessors. “Someone’s lookin’ fer ye. Tall gent, pretty words like yers. Dark hair, sharp eyes. Been askin’ about ye. D’ye ken it?”

Obviously she didn’t, and shook her head thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I know anyone up here that well. I didn’t think I did. Does he have a name?”

Harry shook his head. “I din’ ask. But I c’n fin’ out, if’n ye want.”

“I do. Most certainly,” Merri agreed. “Does he run the Flit? Or just a tourist?”

The lad thought about that for three-quarters of a second. “‘e’s na’ a touris’, na’ quite… I ain’t seen ‘im runnin’ it, but ‘e acts like ‘ e could. Ye get me?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’ll be happy to pay you for whatever you can learn about this man.” She retrieved a couple of pieces of rostygold from her pocket and tossed them to him. “That’ll get you started, I think.”

He clipped them out of the air and caused them to disappear, then got to his feet with a satisfied air. “Oy, I like ye. They said ye’d be all stuck on yerself, but yer not. If ye ask around ‘ere for ‘arry Duffins, I’ll find ye. Ye ken it?”

She chuckled and nodded again. “I do. Thank you, Harry.”

“Never a worry, lady,” he told her with a comical little bow. “Don’ be lookin’ down, now.” And with that parting shot, he disappeared back into the shadows whence he’d come.

Merri sat looking over the lights of the city far below, mulling her encounter with the boy, and the implications of the black-garbed man. Her ties to the surface were cut completely, she couldn’t fathom who from the surface would be here, in the Flit, looking for her. Or why he hadn’t found her, she’d certainly made no effort to hide or disguise herself. Perhaps he’s watching me, too.

Another thought occurred, and this one brought the smile back to her face. With a name and a description, it was completely witihin her talents to begin hunting him. Pleased with that conclusion, she got to her feet and began her descent to the other life, the one she lived on the streets below.

Running The Flit

Was there ever anything more invigorating?

You race along swaying rope bridges and leap between the leering maws of gargoyles. The air up here is clear and cold, and you hear snippets rising up from a hundred conversations far below. The ways of the Flit are open to you, and the residents only curse mildly as you thunder past.

I ran The Flit for the first time today.

Oh, I had been there before in the course of my progress toward the Marvellous and other work for the various ministries. The Topsy King is there, after all, and if one wishes to speak to him, one must venture to where he is. This time I was chasing down that d—able Stuttering Fence for betraying me to the Constables over that execrable iron box (which has inexplicably ended up in my townhouse!) when I paused, just for a moment. I paused from a rope bridge to take in what was below me, the lights of the city flickering far below, the flickering phosphorescence amid the stalactites above, the inky black waters of the Unterzee stretching beyond where my eyes could see. Something filled me from the inside, thundering up and out until I could no longer hold it in. Laughing uproariously, I began to run.

I don’t know how long I ran or how far. All I do know is that I let nothing stop my forward motion. Where a bridge ended, I leapt. Where a wall intruded, I vaulted it, or climbed it, or somehow surmounted it. I leap-frogged over gargoyles, swan-diving to catch a dangling rope from somewhere above, swinging to land on a rooftop ledge, rolling and tumbling to my feet, spurred ever forward, ever onward…

Dear Theodor would probably term it “reckless” and no doubt — no doubt — it was, in a way. But even when I missed, or fell, or took a spill I came to no harm. All I could do was laugh harder, pick myself up, and start running again. I only stopped when my limbs absolutely refused to move any more and laughter had given way to great heaving gasping breaths. I was stretched out atop a peaked roof with naught but the cold air and the squabbling of the urchins and from somewhere, a bit of ale-house music threading up as if through chimney pipes.

It was glorious. Liberating. Invigorating. And I can hardly wait to do it again.

I suspect that, if any of you wish to find me, starting at The Flit might be the thing to do. At least until the route to the Marvellous clears again.