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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning
Prologue 1 - Storytime - A Beginning
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    Storytime - A Beginning

    Welcome. Welcome welcome. Please, please be comfortable. That’s it, come this way. Oh, I do realise that you do not know why you are here, and that is perfectly understandable. No, no, it really does not matter. I know why you are here, and that fact should be of great comfort to you. Do not concern yourself, you are perfectly safe in my care. Please, please relax. All I ask you to do is to sit down, just here, in this nice chair. I chose it, especially for you. Settle yourself down, ease yourself into its comforting embrace. Is it not delightful to let go at the end of a busy, busy day?

    Look, my other guests are here also, and all of you are now exactly where you need to be. You see, my friends, one needs an audience to tell a story. Not my story. Oh no, nothing so gauche. A story crafted especially for you. Is that not nice? You, my friends, are worth it. Now be still and listen.

    I want you to think of a house. Not a grand house, yet neither a hovel. A middling house, unremarkable from the outside, presentable yet dull from within. You can see it, can you not? Yes, you can see it - I can tell. It is there, in your head, where it is and where it has always been. Watch the people arrive, and gather around a table. Let us listen.


    “It is decided then?” One asks, “The Austrian must go?”

    The others take a moment before responding. It is clear One does not expect an immediate reply.

    “There will be consequences,” Two states, her voice flat and neutral. “They must be planned for.”

    “Agreed,” says Three, its voice more a simple exhalation of breath than even a whisper.

    “It is a dangerous path,” says Four, his voice precise, each word an exact and separate sound.

    “Well, yes,” says Five, her voice bright and false, rising at the end of each phrase. “If you want to be safe this is not the right table. Besides, things were getting dull.”

    “Even so,” One says, “there is no need to be needlessly risky. But with the actions we will need to take … it will not be subtle. And likely cannot be hidden.”

    “What sound you cannot silence,” Three exhales, “you obscure in noise.” There is an echoing of a memory of a cough. “Wars ... are noisy.”

    “They can be exceedingly noisy,” Four agrees in his precise tones. “Given our constraints shall we not make virtue of necessity? In most places a nudge or two would suffice.”
    “Oh my dear,” Five exclaims, “It is unlike you to be so … forward. It does so remind me of you in your youth.”

    Four smiles, and perhaps the twitching of his lips seems genuine.

    “Between us here, and those we can direct, it should not be too difficult to create favourable circumstances, but it will be harder to guarantee conflict.” Two says.

    “Oh, get the ball rolling, and the sparks will fly!” Five giggles. “Just you watch and see!”

    “Even conflict suppressed can serve our goal,” says Three in an asphyxiating gasp.

    “There is one realm where it is going to prove more difficult, where we will need to act circumspectly and indirectly,” One reminds his fellows.

    “No,” Six says brusquely, and stands. “I will take care of matters there.” Six leaves, and you do not see where Six goes.

    In the silence of Six’s departure the others glance at each other, and the image dissolves.

    And there, the start of our story. Sorry, my mistake, A start of our story. Just the one. Enough for now. But I see that you are tired. No, no - there is no need to get up. You are tired, weary from a long day. Are you not? Yes you are. Why do you not rest? The chair is a good place. Rest awhile. Sit back. Relax. Sleep in a dreamless slumber.
     
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    History - The Day had Dawned

    The day had dawned with such promise.

    After all the wrenching events of the last few months, of battles and of war, and of the Death of Kings now at last there was peace. Peace, and a new King - and if a foreigner he had treated well with native men. And hardly the first time a foreigner had ruled these lands - the older folk could well remember others such. In truth one did not have to be that old. The truly old could remember another year, such as this, in their long-distant youths.

    So the people of the city, and of the country thereabout, on the promise of peace and hope for the future had thronged the streets and the ways down to the Abbey to see the new King crowned, to celebrate this new King on Earth on the nativity of the King of Heaven. A celebration at the turning of the year, and even in these Christian times, of joy at the lengthening of the day.

    The day had dawned with such hope.

    But there was a great shout: a cacophonous cheering that struck terror into the hearts of the new king’s soldiers. Men who had stood and fought in clamour and fury of battle and had not turned tail now quivered in fear as before them this crowd seemed to transform into an angry, vengeful mob, hellbent on their extermination. The crowd cried exclamations of affirmation in their native tongue: a harsh, strange sound for the soldiers who only heard screams of retribution. Violent men, they reacted with bow, blade, and fire. And thus, the day that dawned lovely and bright, and full of good intentions ended; and the heavily setting sun dying in the west ensanguined the skies to match the flames from the buildings set alight - a pyre for of all the hopes that went before, and thus ended the remorseful day.

    As the chronicler wrote the people, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the newcomers who had betrayed them, and anger entered their hearts and corrupted their spirits, and they bided their time to take their revenge.

    In the midst of all this no one marked the two bodies, their broken forms in an alley just off the brook that ran down to the river from the city’s wall. They were discovered the next day, covered in the bitter ashes of the day before, and given a Christian burial. Some days later there was a heavy, chilling rain that washed away the last crimson of their presence. The water drained through a crack in the stone and clay, between building and foundation, to a forgotten chamber, and splashed its sanguinary libation atop of what once might have been called an altar.

    The day had dawned with so much to offer, and now that day had made its final, fateful offering.
     
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    November 1934 - An evening

    “And so William’s reign of England is forever remembered for starting with blood, and his reign was full of it. The Harrying of the North is only the best remembered episode of violent retribution, but there were several, and William never felt secure on his throne. In later years, one speculates - if a man as full of action as William ever permitted such to himself - did in didle moments William wonder what might have been had some members of his guard some familiarity with the English language of the day; or a commander, or anyone with a more phlegmatic disposition that might have seen the things go differently - and if matters had proceeded otherwise what would that mean for us today? But that is a speculation too far for me to indulge tonight. I thank you for coming, for giving your gracious time, and I hope this last hour has not been without interest. Goodnight.”

    There was even some genuine applause, to the speaker’s gentle gratification. The socialising afterwards was a thing to be endured, but not altogether unpleasant, and thankfully the lateness of the hour ensured it did not last overlong. A cab took him back to his dwellings in a reasonable, if not overtly fashionable (and thereby expensive) address. He let himself in, and paused a moment by the servant’s doorway. He could hear the steady rhythm of a body at sleep.

    He continued on into the main room. He needed to read something - he always did after a talk. Something diverting to settle the mind - he had a book already selected. He went to pick it up from the sideboard.

    “A successful evening Professor Sir?” a voice spoke, and a man revealed himself by standing up from the concealing armchair.

    Professor Sir Henry Cannerby made a small gasp, and then recognised his visitor.

    “You gave me quite a start,” Sir Henry said, looking every bit and more of his fifty-four years.

    “I realise that,” his visitor replied. “I let myself in - I didn’t want to miss you.”

    Sir Henry sighed. The man had not apologised, but then he never did. Rather than waste his time on fruitless endeavours Sir Henry crossed to his own chair and sat down. “So, to what do I owe this … pleasure?”

    “It is my Master’s pleasure Professor Sir,” replied the man, who now walked to the drinks cabinet. “May I serve you a brandy? Or something else?”

    Sir Henry nodded, and watched his visitor a moment as he got the drink. As ever the man was neatly attired, like a late Victorian clerk of the better sort. With his coat he did not look terribly out of place even in the modern London.

    “And what is your Master’s pleasure?” Sir Henry asked as the man brought the brandy over on a small silver tray.

    “Here sir,” the man said, and Sir Henry took the drink, sipping it. “My master has informed me that it is time for you to make a decision, whether to properly join his family - or not.”

    Henry took a deep breath. After a moment he said “It’s not an unexpected moment.” He had a further sip of his brandy. “I had thought it would come sooner.”

    The visitor sat back in the opposite armchair, making himself comfortable. “I cannot say for sure, Professor Sir, but I believe my Master knew this lecture was a long cherished dream of yours. Consider the time a gift.”

    Henry nodded, and took a larger glug, and then sighed again. “I am mindful of it. What if I say yes?”

    “If you say yes, Professor Sir, we depart here and you join the family. By the time you finish your … apprenticeship, I doubt many people would recognise you, or remember you. I am told to tell you that I would be placed in your service, to start with, at least.”

    Henry thought about that a moment. “Does that bother you?” he asked.

    The man spread his hands. “It is my Master’s pleasure, if you say yes.”

    Henry took another drink. “And what if I say no?”

    The visitor moved his head to one side. “My master will be disappointed, of course, but he will respect your wish.”

    Another drink. “And that’s it?”

    The man’s lips twitched. “Not precisely. You know better than that. Your current life, Professor Sir, is already at an end.”

    Henry glanced at the glass. “Something in here?” he said, holding it up.

    The man nodded. “Should you say no you will drift off to your painless death. However, you do need to decide quickly - it won’t take long for the drug to take the decision out of your hands.”

    Henry did not immediately reply. He looked aimlessly towards the window. Apparently it had all come to this. Those strange conversations and later revelations, all bait to catch him, but then the real hook - the option to go free.

    “Professor Sir?” the man prompted.

    Henry looked at him. “Tell your Master that he has my most gracious thanks. He has been a remarkable patron. But I must decline - I would be a poor member of his august family.”

    The man nodded. “I understand,” and he stood up.

    “Wait!” Henry said, struggling to his feet and failing, slumping back into the chair.

    “I am sorry, Professor Sir,” the man said, “it affects the legs first.”

    “Wait.” Henry repeated. “I have just one favour to beg of you, if it is permitted. Please don’t let me die alone. Can you stay with me - until I am gone?”

    The man glanced at the clock. “Drain it,” he commanded, and Henry duly emptied his glass. “Very well, Professor Sir, I will.”

    It did not take long for the Professor to drift off. At the very end Martin knelt beside the dying man and saw a flicker of intelligence still there. “Professor Sir,” he said quietly, “you made the right choice.” There was some recognition, and then the eyelids closed. The breathing grew heavier, erratic, and stopped. Martin waited a moment, and sought the pulse. Nothing.

    “You made the right choice,” he said again to the fresh corpse. “Rest forever.” It was his own time to sigh. His Master … would not be happy, but hopefully would not be angry. Time to tidy up. He stood and left the room.

    Within an hour the house was aflame, a tragic accident.
     
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    A Present - Albert - I

    I stand absolutely still, nothing moving, not even any air into my dead lungs. The tunnel is quiet, but not silent. I can hear the scurrying of a couple of rats, and the incessant dripping of some liquid, likely water. I peer into the darkness, watching, listening. The two cubs at my side are impatient, but do their best to contain it. Even so, they wriggle in anticipation. For a moment I must admit the temptation to tease - but these two have done nothing to deserve my humour. They are earnest, and have been genuinely helpful in this hunt. Their names, as presented to me, are Stuart and Margaret - though as soon as her sire and lord had departed she referred to herself as Peggy. I almost pity the creature who created her.

    I draw breath and speak, very softly. “Remember, your job is to distract and to delay. No heroics. Understood?”

    Both nod. Stuart, of my Lord’s line, has a sabre at his side, a legacy of a former life. Peggy has no such military experience, or pretensions. I glance behind, and nod to Ariadne. She returns the gesture, and quickly readies the back-up crew. I know, somewhere, Rupert lurks.

    I flex my fingers and draw another breath. “Three paces behind,” I state, and step into the darkness of the tunnel’s throat. The cubs lift their bulky lamps, and I grasp my cosh. Once within the deeper blackness I sharpen my senses - not as much as I might, but enough to show my way. The rats’ footfalls seem loud, and the dripping water tolls out like a church bell over a sleepy village. The tunnel itself goes back maybe forty yards, before the fill blocks it.

    Ten paces and there is a new sound, just for a moment. I keep walking with slow deliberate strides. Five more paces in, six.

    Another sound, out of place. A shift of gravel, a sound of pressure. I raise my cosh and the two cubs pause. Keeping my cosh raised, I take a stone from my belt pouch, and throw it forward.

    Movement.

    “Now,” I shout, and the cubs fumble briefly with their lamps. I dampen my vision as the harsh electric light shines towards the back half of the tunnel, and we see it - a moving shape that snarls and cries as it launches itself towards one of the lamps. Peggy’s. In its leap there is a hint of forgotten grace, a memory of something that may once have entranced. I turn, following its arc. Peggy darts to the side as the shape hits her lamp, shattering it, and what was diverting becomes a gibbering wreck. I thwack it with my cosh, the impact jarring my hand and up my arm. There is a scream. Stuart turns his lamp to follow the creature, whilst Peggy starts to shoot the thing with her revolver.

    The creature screams again. It clutches at Peggy and she skips backwards. It is all the time I need. I feel my will fill me. I grasp the thing with my other hand, and thrust it to the ground. I hit it again with my cosh, and again.

    The thing writhes: struggling and fighting. It is not enough. I lift a little and then ram it to the ground again. “Die,” I snarl at it and as my will fills me, and finally my cosh strikes its skull. There is a cracking sound as its head breaks. It still yells, still lives, but in that moment Stuart and Peggy have come beside me. Stuart hacks his sabre into the thing’s flesh, and then Peggy pierces it with a metal spike. The thing screams again in incoherence, but it is done.

    I stand, letting go of my cosh, and wave them aside. I pick up the creature by its legs and hurl it against the tunnel roof. Bones and bricks both break. For a brief moment it almost seems stuck, and then it falls to the ground with a wet thump. Whatever is left lies still.

    “Are you two alright?” I ask. There is still one lamp to see by, though already it grows dim as whatever damned thing powers it starts to run out. Stuarts nods, but I can see Peggy has a gash down one side.

    “It got me,” she says, sounding remarkably calm for a cub who has nearly had her existence ripped out of her.

    “Here!” I call out to those waiting outside. “She needs food,” I say to Ariadne, pointing at Peggy. She nods.

    “Please come,” Ariadne says to her, and then taps one of the crew on the shoulder. Peggy glances at me and I nod. Meanwhile Rupert has arrived. “Burn it,” I say to him. A little paraffin and a match is all it takes. Seeing it done I turn and leave the tunnel. Peggy is already looking better.

    “Ariadne, Rupert, search the place thoroughly and then fumigate it. I want no sign of this by sunrise. You two,” I point at Peggy and Stuart, “with me. It is time we report this success. You have done well, and I will tell your lordship such. If ever you are sent to London, and I am there, I would welcome your company.”

    It is a poisoned offer, of course. Any such offer from me is - but it is still genuine. I like these two. I mean, we have nothing in common, but they have made me smile. But back to London it will be. Not tonight, and probably not tomorrow, but most likely the night after that.
     
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    Storytime - Prologues at an End

    So there, my friends, we have it. Five beginnings. Enough, I think, for us to be getting on with.

    What - you say you only count four? The meeting, the new King, Martin, Albert - why yes that does total four. You forget, one more thing has started. The story itself - you and your fellows sitting here, my invited audience. That too is a beginning, and when you hear the story you become a part of it.

    No, do not panic. There is no need. You are safe, perfectly safe, here with me. These images that stalk your thoughts and cloud your eyes, need not concern you.

    Let us consider where we go from here. A decision was made, and messages were sent.

    What form did these messages take? Perhaps you imagine a bird, with words wound about its leg? Maybe a letter, written in ink or blood, in an envelope or sealed with wax - would they travel in the post or be conveyed by a special courier? Or maybe yet they would be transmitted, through cable or through the air, utilising telephony or telegraphy. Or simply spoken in person. Through all these many routes, and more, words travelled. Many messages, and each had their purpose. Some to command, some to suggest, some to obscure, some to divert, a written symphony that you, my friends, from the privilege of my company have a chance to know.

    It is time, my friends. Our prologues are at an end. So please, sit back, relax, and see.

    Sorry, it is I who have forgotten something. There is one last introduction to make.



    Eorhic

    I screw up my eyes, and my lips stretch across my teeth. Still chokes of sound are driven from me.

    I must not scream. I must not … scream. I must … not … scream.

    I try to block out the pain, to remember the stories of those who had suffered and survived. I hurt.

    I must … not scream. I must … not cry.

    I am let go, and I slump into the hay. A kick, two, and a sharp pain in my head. Blackness…

    Cold, stinging water wakes me. “Eorhic, get up,” whispers Oswald, shaking me. Blinking I roll over, fumbling with my rags. It appears I have survived.

    Then I realise it is still dark. “What is it?” I ask.

    “Someone’s buying you.”

    Just then I hear my owner’s voice, “Eorhic, get out here!”

    I shuffle out of the stall, towards the yard. My owner is there talking to a tall man. The waft of air chills me, but not so much as this figure who regards me like … I shiver.

    “You treat him poorly,” the man says, his words clear despite his outland accent.

    “Toughening him up,” my owner says. That is what he always says.

    “Wasteful,” the strange man says, and - I blink - my owner, does he gulp? “I will take him from you. Now.” He passes over a few coins. My price, I suppose. My former owner’s face looks greedy enough.

    My new owner looks at me. “Come. Now.” He mounts a horse I hadn’t even noticed. I trudge behind. He glances back - perhaps to make sure I am indeed following - and clicks at his horse, which begins to walk. So do I, leaving my old owner behind.
     
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    Chapter 1 - Arrival

    Albert - A Present

    London. I suppose I am glad to be back, given this great pile of stone and timber (and iron and steel) is my home. I always miss it when I am away, but there is always a tinge of regret when I return. I feel it now as the cab drives me to the club.

    The drive takes but a few minutes. I thank the driver and off he goes, perhaps a trifle quickly. Discreetly to the side, in a purposeful nook, huddles a beggar. I grasp a coin and throw the unfortunate a sixpence as I walk up the steps. The person gabbles thanks, and then stops when he sees my face. I smile, as friendly as I can, and continue to the door which opens as I approach. “Master Albert,” the doorwarden states as he holds the portal open, subservient yet not obsequious. He is well trained. “Do you require anything?”

    “Thank you, no,” I reply. “Are many members here tonight?”

    The man considers the question. “A few, Master Albert.”

    “Thank you,” I say again, and proceed further in, leaving the doorwarden to his work.

    The Inner Hallway, so called, is the first of the truly private areas. The doorwarden here admits me without fuss. The hallway leads from its nondescript opening towards the rear of the building to the Atrium, off which there are a number of other doors and passageways. A small fountain bubbles and gurgles in the middle, and sitting by it I see - damned the name escapes me. A young scion of the Family.

    “Sir Albert,” he greets me, standing from the table where he had been reading. “I have a message for you.”

    I think the name begins with D - Dominic, Daniel, Damien - something like that. A favoured scion, trusted with such little tasks.

    “You do?” I ask, to stay polite. Or was it Darren?

    From his pocket he takes out an envelope, “I was told it was not certain when you would return, so I have been waiting.”

    I take the plain white envelope, sealed with old-fashioned wax. “How long?” I ask, mildly curious. Does it actually even begin with D?

    “Three days,” he says, “and it is my pleasure.”

    I turn my head a little to the side, “You play the servant very well, - Darius.” It better bloody be Darius.

    The young thing smiles slightly. “I take that as a compliment. Do you require anything?”

    Young, favoured - and ambitious.

    “Wait a moment,” I say, holding up the envelope, “let us see what this reveals.” The seal bears an unsurprising mark. I touch it and concentrate a moment, but it seems undisturbed. I break it, and pull forth the simple hand-written note. It takes but a moment to read.

    “It seems I do not need your aid Darius. I leave you to what other duties you have.” He nods at the dismissal, and resumes his place. I walk on, exiting the Atrium by one of the side passages. They installed a lift about ten years ago, but I still prefer to take the stairs. Three sets of stairs, nothing too easy and not unusual given the history of the building, and the first and final set lead downward, and the last is several hundred steps.

    The servitor that waits down here does not speak. He beckons to one of the seats and then leaves me. I stand. He returns a few moments later, and opens the main door formally, waving me in.

    It is a simple room - far simpler than many might suppose. There is barely any ornamentation, and no ostentation. It is also empty, but I notice a new painting on one wall, a colourful riot of figures and places - India, or somewhere similar. I walk over to it, but as ever it remains just pigments on canvas, and a mystery.

    “Albert,” says a voice behind me, and I know He has entered the room. I turn, as He closes the door behind Him. He smiles, and though through long years I have become accustomed to the palpable nature of His presence, I still feel drawn to this man dressed as simply as this room is furnished. “You like it?”

    “It is wasted on me,” I say.

    “You have never been one for the visual arts,” He agrees. “Everything resolved?”

    Business. “Yes. I was fortunate. In the end it proved easy to locate.”

    “Origin?”

    “I cannot entirely be certain, but I believe it was a distant relation of yours, my Lord. Do you remember Bartholomew Millies?”

    He thought a moment. “Ranulf’s boy?”

    “We lost track of him during the war. Well, he turned up again, and awoke more than a little mad - and then went madder. In the end, there was no other way.”

    My Lord pauses a moment. “We thought him dead all those years ago. Now he is. In a sense nothing has changed.” It is, as far as the memory of the late Bartholemew is concerned, a dismissal.

    I let the silence linger for over a minute before I speak again. “My Lord, you sent me a message.”

    “Yes. I have received a request for your services.” He pauses. “To be more precise, an invitation for you to visit the New World as my representative, to Philadelphia first and other cities as seems sensible.”

    “Me?”

    He laughs at my confusion. “If you agree I am minded to accept.”

    “My Lord?”

    “They are playing a game. I think to indulge them this time. If you agree.” I glance at Him. “Albert,” He says, and He does not have to say anymore. I know the speech, about service and freedom bought, of obligations discharged. It is one of our oldest discussions, and I know I will never be able to make Him understand.

    “I would be happy to go,” I say, “but I should see to a handful of matters here as I might be away some time.”

    “It will take some time for arrangements to be put in place.”

    A thought occurs. “Would you like anyone to accompany me?”

    “Like who?”

    “Like young Darius upstairs. It would … broaden his horizons.”

    There is an almost hissing sound in His chest that erupts in a full-throated laugh. “Oh Albert, you would want to wring his neck within a week. And I have hopes for him yet. Leave earnest initiates behind, take what help you need.”

    The audience is at an end. I could describe it as a feeling, only it is more of a certainty. My Lord walks away, and then turns. “Albert - I will see you again before you go.”

    I nod, and He leaves through His own door. I knock on the door I entered, and the servitor opens it. I depart my head full of questions that will take months to answer.
     
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    Chapter 1.2 - Martin - November 1934 - A few nights later

    Martin waited.

    As he had for several nights he sat in his appointed place, and waited. He sat with his hands in his lap, feet placed lightly, yet flat, on the floor. The wooden chair had no cushion, and he waited.

    “I don’t know what you’ve done,” Caroline had said to him earlier, “He usually has you on a new job practically before the old one’s done.” Or granted him leave.

    Was this punishment? It could be punishment, but the Master had not seemed angry to Martin’s practised eye. He had picked apart every detail of Sir Henry’s death, of course, but that was to be expected. He said he approved of Martin’s actions, and had then asked Martin to make himself ready each night until needed.

    Martin waited.

    Opposite him was a clock. He watched the pendulum swing in its eternal beat, observed the hour hand make its graceful arc. He tried his best not to think. Better to stare at the clock, he reminded himself, than let the mind go idle. The pendulum provided a point of reference.

    Martin waited.

    The door opened, and he was summoned.

    In the study the Master waited, standing. Martin approached and knelt. He felt the Master’s hand on his hand, and turned his face upward to receive his blessing, and he knew he had not been punished. He had not been forgotten. His Master had known he would be needed, just not when, and wanted to keep him close. It all made sense.

    Blessing and benediction completed the Master spoke. “I have a task for you.”

    Martin smiled in fulfilment. “How might I serve?” he asked.

    “The folder on the desk contains the details. Someone has gone missing in The Island. Someone in our service, though he knew it not. Perhaps this disappearance is not a concern. Perhaps it is. Find out.”

    “As you wish,” Martin said, and scooped up the documents, intoxicated with purpose.

    “Martin,” his Master said again. “Alacrity can be a virtue, but in this matter I require accuracy.”

    “I understand,” Martin said, his soul singing.

    “I trust that you do,” the Master said, and then turned, dismissing Martin with his change of posture. Martin made a final obeisance, and withdrew from the room.

    Outside Caroline waited. “All good?” she asked after he closed the door. He smiled at his fellow thrall. “All good. Good service to you,” he said

    “And Good service to you,” she replied, as he hurried up to his small room.

    The documents proved somewhat useful. The missing man - Robert Willams - had that most enviable of things at the Docks that straddled the Isle of Dogs - a permanent job. No casual docker, he was employed as a guard. Evidently one of the Master’s informants, though the man himself apparently thought he was being slipped a few extra shillings by someone in the Port Authority who wished to have an ear close to the ground. He had a routine, every day at around five o’clock he made a telephone call to report which ships were berthed. A security measure - certain phrases were codes - which had been but twice used in the last six years. Yesterday he failed to make that phone call, and again this evening. The man was also married and had a predictable gaggle of children, mostly older now, the youngest being twelve. He’d been in the navy in the Great War.

    Martin paused, and heard the bells toll three o’clock in the morning. Time for a little sleep, and then he would rouse the gang.
     
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    Albert

    I like The King’s Water. Of course, it is mine. The upmarket restaurant one street, the pub on the parallel street, and the shared kitchen between the two. It is, in certain circles, quite the scandal. One of my more successful efforts.

    Tonight I sit in the pub, in a recess set back along the wall with a good view of the door to one of the private rooms. I hire it out, but after about nine in the evening its purpose becomes more general - a place for my kind. Four of them are in it now, playing skittles or darts or somesuch. Younger members of the brood, killing time.

    The common room is reasonably busy tonight, enough to feel occupied without being crowded. A good mix too: of younger professionals and more discerning working-class types, with a few students thrown in. The evening is lively, but not rowdy. You don’t come to the King’s Water to get drunk, you come to have a good time with friends, or to relax surrounded by strangers after a long day, or to scandalise your social class. At a nearby table two journalists are talking excitedly about the news from the Continent - another riot in France. Seems the mayor and several other notables of Nantes got thrown into La Loire. Aided by their drinks the scribblers compete to come up with potential headlines, the worse the pun the better.

    “Guv,” a broad Irish voice drawls, and Dara takes a seat at the table. “Sorry I’m late. Victor wanted to have a word, and you know how he just won’t shut up.”

    I do a half-chuckle, because it’s true. Victor Melhuish is a pleasant sort, willing, comradely - just the sort of person you would happily make some time for if he had a need. Unfortunately with Victor a quarter can all too easily turn into a full hour.

    “Tonight, it does not matter,” I reply, with just a hint of emphasis, and Dara nods slightly. Dara’s not his birth name, but Dara serves. He does much of the nightly work to keep the Water functioning. “Anything happened whilst I was away?”

    “Nah. Pretty normal. Everything good with you?”

    I nod. “It appears I am going to be away for a much longer period of time, quite possibly a few years.”

    Dara frowns. “When?”

    Now I do chuckle. “Whenever arrangements are complete - probably a month or two.” I can see Dara thinking this one through. “I am relying on you to keep this place running whilst I am gone.”

    “Of course guv,” he says, and I reckon that to be genuine enough. Even now he keeps glancing at the bar, keeping an eye on things. He likes the Water.

    “That means,” I continue, “knowing when you can sort out something yourself, and when to bring it to the Sheriffs.”

    “Bu-” he starts to say, and stops himself. I lean back, and I can see him fighting to control his natural antipathy. He swallows, and grimaces as if he has just tasted something astringent and bitter. He glances to one side, and then back to me. “Right guv.” His stare drops to the table, and he mumbles something to himself.

    I wait a moment. “Will you share?”

    He looks up. “You didn’t hear me?” he asks, surprised. I shake my head. I can see him wonder if that is truthful or not, and then he smiles, just a little. Perhaps he realises it does not matter.

    “Just, you’re right. Without you nearby I might need the cover. But still, it sticks in the throat.” He snorts. “You remember when you asked me if I wanted to help you run this place? You said something about a warning to me - about not being part of the rabble no more. Well, this sodding proves it.” Then, more quietly, but still easy enough to hear. “Gods what I fool I was.”

    I smile, and I am proud of him. “I know. We have all been fools Dara.” Memories burst upon me, but I fight them off. This time. “In truth I doubt there will be any trouble. I suspect this place will be under protection whilst I’m away.”

    He thinks for a moment. “You doing another job for the Lord and Mighty?”

    “A favour, Dara.” Then I stare right at him, “best you not mention this, eh? At least until the word is official.”

    His head jerks a couple of times, and then he stops himself. “You didn’t…?”

    “Would you trust the answer?” I ask, and before he can reply, I continue, “but no. Just so you understand the need for discretion. We’ll make some plans, you and I, before I leave. In case of need - and then sometime after I get back we can talk about the future.”

    He stays still a moment, thinking. Then, like striking a match, he grins. “Sure thing guv,” he says. From near the bar a querulous voice sounds suddenly sharp and irate. “I better be doing stuff - you don’t pay me to sit on my arse.” He gets up and moves off to deal with whoever that voice belongs to.

    I like Dara. I hope one night I don’t have to kill him.
     
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    Chapter 1.4 - Martin - November 1934 - Later that day

    The City was awake, lively, and eager. Martin pushed his way through the bustle of the underground station, clutching his satchel. He emerged into the weak light of a smoky winter’s day, a chill breeze doing the rounds but without any real puff. He hurried up Whitechapel towards Shadwell. The lair was tucked away in the grime and the filth, down a slummy sidestreet that perfectly suited their purpose. The building, at least, was sound. A decade earlier Martin had made sure of it. A little violence, and not much money, provided more than enough discretion. For this job, conveniently placed too. Probably.

    He let himself in.

    “It’s about time you turned up,” called out Annie in a sharp voice. She sat in the first room, and of all things she was sewing.

    “Where are the rest?” Martin asked, guessing the answer.

    “Passed out back there,” she said, jabbing a thumb towards the back room. “They’ve been getting bored.”

    “Well, I have a cure for that.” He stopped and smiled at a sudden thought, and scoped up the small blackboard and a piece of chalk. “Want to watch?” he asked

    Annie grinned. “Tempting, but I want to finish this,” she said, holding up the fabric she was repairing. “I’ll listen to the show instead.”

    Slowly, to make no sound, Martin opened to the door to the back room. Inside were half a dozen beds, three of which were occupied by humps. Two of the sleepers were snoring in a discordant duet. Stepping into the room Martin lifted up the blackboard, grasped the chalk tightly, and scraped it along the board, making an entirely unpleasant penetrating screech.

    The effect was immediate and everything he had hoped for. “Five minutes,” Martin shouted, dodging a boot. He went back to the first room where Annie was giggling like the maid she wasn’t. By the time Henry, Angus, and Paddy tramped into the front room he had a large kettle on the stove.

    “Take it there’s a job,” Angus said as he flopped down onto a bench, looking the most awake of the trio.

    “Yes,” Martin replied. “We need to find the whereabouts of someone - Robert Williams.” He briefly explained the job.

    “What if he’s just laid up sick at home?” Paddy asked, squinting.

    “Then it’s an easy job,” Martin replied. “Anyone want to bet against me it’s not?” The grumbling announced no takers. “So my intention is for me and Annie to visit his house while the rest of you snoop around the docks. Unless anyone else has any ideas?”

    “So, basically you want us to gossip, get a few dockers drunk, and the like?” Henry asked. Of all of them he knew the docks the best.

    “Whatever works, just don’t draw too much attention to yourselves. Catch,” Martin said, throwing them all small pouches. “Spend it well - but don’t spend too much of it on yourselves.Any questions?”

    There were none, and Martin hadn’t really expected any. There wasn’t much to say.


    Martin - An hour later

    “It would have been quicker taking a boat,” Annie said, not for the first time as they waited to get through to The Island. The Docks stood astride the bend in the river, nearly blocking all access. The throng had barely moved for half an hour behind the broken cart and its spilled cargo. Meanwhile they had been assailed by the sounds of the dock - shouts, calls, whistles, clangs, groans (of men, timber, and steel). And then there was the smell. Each waft of air brought a new pungence that blocked nostrils and infected clothes. The scents did not mix, but warred with each other in an unending array of chemical clamour and confusion.

    Martin didn’t bother replying. Ahead there was a sound of growling and heaving, and then a splash. The crowd began to move again. As they finally crossed over the bridge there was the stench of vinegar, and glancing to one side Martin could see a few fresh timbers in the water. “Come on,” he said, and marched forward and through the tumult of the wharfside and towards Cubitt Town.

    Past the dockyards they walked down Manchester Road, almost devoid of people. It was, however, not much quieter - the symphony of industry continued unabated, if slightly muffled, by the walls of the factories, workyards, and wharfs on the river side.

    “Gods it’s been ages since I was down here,” Annie said.

    Martin nodded. On their right side they passed The Dorset Arms, quiet at this time, and the buildings gave way to a scattering of allotments and the larger wasteland beyond.

    “You sure you know where we’re going?” Annie asked.

    “Billson Street, to one of the new houses built after the war, especially for veterans. Lucky for Mr Williams,” he said as they turned into Stebondale Street. “Quite a lot of these others,” he just shrugged at the dilapidated dwellings. Annie nodded. “Floods, too, so I hear. I think they finally forced the landlords to board up all the basements in the old houses a few years ago. One hazard, at least, that’s rare north of the docks.”

    Annie said nothing for a moment, and then spoke in a strained tone. “Martin, you keep that up you’re going to make me feel lucky to have lived in Whitechapel.”

    He did not reply. “We turn there,” Martin said, pointing at The Builders Arms a little ahead.

    They turned into Billson Street. “Nice house,” Annie said, as they approached.

    Compared to many others it was a nice house. Not grand of course, but well and solidly constructed. It was still a working man’s house - but its presence seemed to accentuate the decay of some of the other buildings on the street.

    “Come on,” said Martin. From the front the house seemed quiet. He thought about using the knocker, but decided just to bang on the door instead.

    After a minute Annie asked, “The wife didn’t work, you said.”

    “The wording in the notes was ‘believed to be a housewife’,” Martin said. He thumped the door again.

    “Martin,” Annie said softly, “there’s someone watching us ...”
     
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    Chapter 1.5 - Albert IV

    I am looking at a painting. It is said that Holbein was very skilled, and that this is one of his best known works. I am mystified as to why the man and this painting gets so much praise.

    “Albert,” says a warm voice to one side, and I turn to see Sir Antony approach, one arm (as ever) held behind his back. “Still trying, I see.”

    I glance back at the painting. “Still trying. There must be some reason why everyone else likes,” I gesture with my hands, “this, and everything else hanging here.”

    He takes me seriously. “Have you ever considered that maybe you are right, and everyone else is wrong?”

    “Frequently,” I murmur, “but at least I have an excuse to come to this soiree. What did they do to drag you along?” I turn about to regard the long hall, with my kind scattered down its length, singly, or in two and threes, discussing this and that - sometimes even the priceless art on display.

    “It does one good to get out of doors,” he replies. I glance towards the ceiling, “well, out from under your own roof, anyway.” He pauses, “and it is a good idea, now and then, to be seen.”

    “I am not sure talking to an Artiste who does no Art is especially going to help your reputation,” I reply.

    “With the notoriety of my House in this city I think it does not matter. Ah,” he concludes, as towards the far end of the hallway there is a sudden shiver of movement through the figures as a party of six or seven enter. My Lord is among them of course, and Lady Anne, and others. They are greeted by Lord Cyril and Lady Henrietta, the hosts for tonight’s gala.

    “Will you be recognised tonight?” I ask, my tone pitched light but clearly false.

    “Perhaps I should ask you that,” Antony replies evenly, with all the engagement my flippancy deserved.

    “Wait,” I say, as Lady Anne detaches herself from the main group with a smooth excuse. She strides purposefully down the length of the hallway - determination in each step, and in a moment her dagger-like glare marks me her target. Even so there is a beauty to her advance, with each leg sweeping forward in a smooth arc, her shoes making a strange staccato in her haste.

    Wisely Antony stays silent as she approaches. “Satrap Albert,” she says as she ceases movement, inclining her head a few calculated inches. A glance to my side, “Mr Barrow.” No other courtesy for Antony, of course.

    I place my palms on my chest, one atop the other, fingers splayed out, and bow formally from the waist. “My lady,” I say as I straighten, “to what do I, unworthy as I am, do to deserve the honour of your presence so soon at this grand event.”

    Beside me Anthony mutters his own more prosaic, “Lady Anne,” though he makes no other sign of respect.

    Anne’s lips tighten a moment, and then she speaks, “I am here to declare that whilst you are engaged about our Lord’s business your endeavours here are under his personal protection.”

    One has to admire her, she knows exactly what is doing. Her voice was pitched so that it would be heard. Now she speaks more quietly, almost private. “I hope you have a pleasant - and long - time away.”

    I smile broadly. “My lady is too generous,” I say in a loud tone, and then I continue at almost a whisper, “I know you are to be relied upon.”

    With her back to everyone else for a moment she bares her teeth at me, and then the mask is put back into place as purposefully as it was lifted. “At least,” she says, “your choice in attire has improved…”


    ...“I am sorry sir, I know you find this procedure interminable.”

    I must have made a sound. “My apologies Mr Fewett, for the insult to your work.”

    “Sir, despite your evident opinions you bear my ministrations with remarkable grace and patience. I am the one honoured.” The old man almost half-smiles, “and we are done. Only a couple of minor adjustments for the new stock, and I will take this jacket back with me to do likewise,”

    “Leave it,” I say.

    “But sir, it is not - it is not as good as it could be.”

    I smile as I turn to face him fully. “Mr Fewett, I would rather wear this jacket of yours tonight, no matter how imperfect, than anything else I currently own.”

    The conflict in the man’s eyes between his pride in the praise, and his distraught at uncompleted work...



    … has improved, you are dangerously close to looking respectable.” She offers another slight incline of her head, glances at Anthony and turns away. To her retreating back I hold my hands to my chest again, and repeat my bow.

    As I straighten Antony says, “You know, I think I will stay tonight. Next to you I am going to appear welcome, perhaps even wholesome, company.” I smile and he wanders off. I watch him go, and return to my study of the painting and its elusive mysteries.
     
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    Chapter 1.6 - Storytime 3 - A drink

    So, my dear listeners, still at ease? I know you wish to find out who is watching our dear Martin. All in good time, all in good time. And Albert yet has a meeting or two before he embarks on his journey. I know, I know. There is Eorhic too. But we have a digression we must attend to.

    See now a different place, a slightly different time, and of day. A hotel room - grand and imposing. Sense its splendour, smell its polish, see the luxuries denied to those who will be dead by the dawn…


    The woman who is shown into the room does not suffer from a lack of confidence. She strides forward towards her waiting host, whom you recognise to be Six.

    “Please sit,” Six says, gesturing. Six settles into a chair and waits. Apart from two maids, standing attentive at the back well, they are alone.

    The woman begins, “Is all this really necessary?”

    “No,” Six replies, “but it seems expected. You expect it.”

    The woman snorts. “Do you have to have quite so many books?” It is true, this expensive suite has had several bookshelves moved in, and they are full.

    Six smiles, but you see the eyes and there is no emotion there. “You like what you like, I like books.”

    The woman pauses and moment, and then says “Are you going to ask me if I have made up my mind?”

    “No,” Six replies. “I expect you to tell me. So there is no need to ask.”

    The woman laughs at this - it seems to appeal to her. “I want it,” she says suddenly. “I want it all.”

    Six leans forward. “Look at me.” The command is irresistible.

    For some minutes they form a tableau, Six staring into the woman’s eyes - the woman transfixed. Then Six sits up.

    “You do want it,” Six agrees. “And do you remember what you have to give?”

    “My soul, or so you claimed.”

    Six looks up to the maids, and holds up a hand, a single finger outstretched.

    “That was your interpretation of my statement, if you recall,” Six says.

    The woman shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. I want it, will you grant it?”

    A maid approaches, bearing a large crystal goblet. Six indicates the small table between them. The maid frees herself of her freight, and flees back to the safety of the far wall. The liquid in the goblet is dark, its cloying scent fills the space. The woman keeps her eyes on Six, but you see her lips tighten ever so little.

    “If your mind is made up, drink,” Six says.

    The woman glances down to ensure she grasps the goblet securely. Then, looking at Six again she brings it to her lips. The taste at first appals her, and you can see her repress the urge to spit it back up. She swallows with all the determination she can muster, and again, and again, raising the goblet high as she drains it. Two rivulets run down from the edges of her lips - her tongue seeks out the last drops, now eager as the aftertaste soars within her for that first glorious time. She slams the goblet back down on the table, panting, her skin now flush.

    “I will see you one month hence,” Six says. “You keep to your plans, I will make arrangements. And remember your dreams, for they have much to teach you.” Six regards the woman before her, mouth open as she breathes rapidly, yet deeply. “Now go.”

    The woman stands, but slowly, as if unsure of her feet. She looks at her hands, and grins. She strides from the room as she had entered it, full of confidence, and careless of what she has left behind.

    But let us leave Six, watching the woman’s back as she departs, and soar to another place, another when. The clouds obscure the sky, and the rain drives most indoors. Three stands under the shelter of the trees, watching the grand house.Time passes. How long? It does not matter, does it? Just know that time passes.

    At length a figure emerges, congenially saying goodbye, and steps out into the murk and muck. He walks over to Three. It is Four, unconcerned as he gets soaked by the pouring rain.

    “Will he do it?” Three breathes in a broken whisper.

    “Yes,” Four replies, each word precisely pronounced. “He will need watching - but the bulk of it is done. A little refinement now and then, perhaps. though we must have a care. He is old, and his spirit, though still strong-willed, is brittle. Too brash an approach and we’ll have a mind-crushed minion, which is not,” Four says in his clipped tones, “what we need.”

    “No,” exhales Three in agreement.

    And I think that is enough for now. Is it not time to rest again? It surely is. Sleep.
     
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    Chapter 1.7 - Martin - A moment later

    “... in the window.” Annie touched his arm.

    She was right, a child’s face was staring at them. A boy, not quite yet out of school, and even through the glass they could see the streaks on his face and his eyes had an empty, lifeless look.

    “Hang on,” said Martin, and twisted the doorknob. The door swung open.

    There was nothing obvious in the hallway. Martin blocked Annie from going in and sniffed. No smell of death. “Careful,” he warned her, and let her go first. As they entered the hallway the boy appeared at the door to the front room. Annie squatted down near him.

    “Hello,” said with the bright voice not so different from when she plied her former trade, “where are you parents?” He pointed up the stairs.

    “Stay with him,” Martin said, and started to go up. Making sure Annie had turned the boy around he fished out his Webley. Leaning against the wall to get a better vantage of the landing he arrived at the top. The first room was clearly the master room - and on the bed he found the parents. Both were lying on their backs, each under a blanket each, pale, and … breathing.

    Just.

    For several minutes Martin did nothing. He watched the nearly still forms, their chests barely moving. Even when he strained his hearing - and could hear Annie murmuring to the boy - he could not be certain he heard their breathing. More practically he heard nothing else from upstairs.

    Slowly he entered the room, checking the cupboard, chest, and beneath the bed. Nothing. He left the master room and searched the others for any hiding places. Also nothing. He returned again to the two figures. The man was clearly his quarry, except his skin looked too stretched. Martin put on his gloves, knelt down, and put his ear on Robert’s chest. The heart beat, but feebly. Robert did not react to being touched. Martin checked his head, neck, arm … there.

    The signs of the Master’s kin could be healed, but if you knew how to look it still left a mark. Two small patches the right distance apart where the light hair of a body should have been were entirely bare. Martin repeated the search on the woman, another such sign on her. “Bloody hell,” Martin muttered under his breath. The only hope was how easy it had been to spot - the truly skilled punctured flesh where there was no hair to betray them thus.

    He walked back downstairs to see Annie with the child in the front room. They both looked up at him as he entered. “They’re alive,” he said, and then pointedly looking at the child, “but ill. Tell me boy, did you lay them up there?”

    The boy nodded, then blurted out, “They like that when I came home from school. What happened to them?” The last was more a challenge than a question.

    “One thing at a time boy,” Martin said, urgency making him short. “Annie here is going to take you out to get something to eat. And I’m going to get them some help.”

    “Come on them, you heard what Martin said. Now you just told me you haven’t eaten a proper meal all yesterday, or today, so you got to be hungry. We’ll fix that, and then we’ll work out what next to fix. Where are your shoes?”

    Suddenly active the boy scampered off. Annie stood up and walked to Martin. He hooked two fingers and mimed thrusting them into his arm.

    “Bugger. You want me …”

    “No,” Martin interrupted. “You look after the boy. Take him back to Shadwell. When you the others send Henry and Angus here, but keep Paddy with you.” The Irishman might be the smallest of his crew, but if the boy needed protecting Martin could not imagine a better guard than the concentrated lethality from the miner’s runaway.

    “Right. The boy’s called Martin too, by the way.”

    “Great,” Martin said, looking at his namesake who had just appeared. “Now scoot, the both of you. Oh, boy,” he said quickly, “where’s the cellar,” hoping the answer would be there wasn’t one.

    “Under the stairs,” the boy replied, pointing.

    Martin grimaced. “Good. Now, go.” Less than a minute Martin later was alone. Webley out once more he lifted the latch to the stair cupboard. The trap down to the cellar was quite clear, shut, but with no dust - unlike the floor just the other side. It would probably be quite a good cellar, Martin thought, properly concreted and everything - the house was that new. He closed the door again, and had an idea.

    In the kitchen he found two benches and some chairs. He dragged these out to the hallway and piled them up in front of the stair cupboard. It wouldn’t stop anything, but it would delay. Then he left, and marched into the Builder’s Arms at the top of the street. He whacked on the door until it opened.

    “What on earth,” blustered the landlord, opening the door.

    “You will let me use your telephone,” Martin ordered, steeling himself with his Master’s words. Then he gave the stunned man a guinea.

    “Telephone - there,” the landlord stammered, pointing, his mind still catching up.

    “Thank you,” said Martin. He rang the switchboard, and asked for the number he had memorised. It took three rings before it was picked up.

    “What?” said the surly voice.

    “An unannounced guest in Avalon,” Martin said.

    A silence. “Where?”

    Martin gave the address, and added, “two vessels still afloat, but barely.”

    “Right,” the voice drawled. “We’ll send the teams over, and Martin - my Master will want to see you there, as soon after sunset as he can make it. Understand?”

    “Perfectly,” Martin replied, and replaced the receiver.

    He turned. “Anything wrong?” the landlord asked, trying to make sense of it all.

    Martin smiled, “Nothing to concern you, good sir,” and he left, shutting the door. He would wait outside the front of the house, he decided, with the door open, until others got here. Safer all round.
     
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    Chapter 1.8 - Albert V

    The restaurant of The King’s Water is quite a different place from the public house which it backs onto. Here one goes to dine - the name giving a delightful frisson of the profane to those who do not wish to truly blaspheme against their mores. The other part of the scandal, of course, being that the kitchen that produces the fine dishes here also outputs the simpler fare in its lower-brow namesake. Since I began this venture this has generated exactly the sort of clientele I had hoped for - but not just that. As we mention in our interviews you will never get famous as a chef of the Water - but if you work hard you might, in certain select circles get something altogether more precious: a reputation that will take you out of my kitchen to other places that seek fresh talent.

    It is an enticing prospect to the right sort of recruit. And given the peculiar demands of the Water’s kitchen it is said that if you can make it here there is no kitchen in London or the Home Counties that will faze you.

    There are also certain private rooms for my patrons should they wish a more personal experience, or indeed just more private. I sit in one of them now, awaiting my guests. I do prefer my familiar booth in the pub, but tonight this is the more suitable venue. I hear the bells strike seven.

    The door opens, “Monsieur Dupon and Mr Warrenson,” the waiter announces, and steps aside. I stand.

    Henri is, as ever, dressed in precise fashion with cloth from the finest of tailors. Mr Warrenson, in comparison, seems slovenly with that casual disdain that shouts his American heritage.

    “Ah, Albert, mon ami,” says Henri expansively in his native French, “it has been too long since I last had the pleasure of your company.” We grasp hands, but in deference to our natures do not kiss. He switches to English. “Please may I present Mr Silas Warrenson, of Boston originally and but lately arrived from New York.”

    “Good evening sir,” he says, holding out a hand which I shake.

    “Please, sit,” I say, indicating the two places at my table. “Mr Warrenson, would you care to dine?”

    He glances at Henri, and I notice the Frenchman’s hand wiggles slightly. “Ah, I will be quite fine, thank you,” he replies, following instruction.

    Henri switches to Latin. “This man is under my protection,” he states, but simply with no aggression.

    “Of course,” I say, and then add, “it is a genuine offer.”

    “I imagine so,” Henri replies, “but let us keep to business.” He speaks again in French. “I have explained to Silas here that you are going to be travelling to his homeland, and wish to be acquainted with current events.”

    As we speak Mr Warrenson sits patiently. His eyes focus on the French, but not so the Latin.

    “So Mr Warrenson, my friend Henri has explained my predicament to you?” I ask.

    “Well sir, my employer has said you’ve not kept abreast of much news from across the sea of late and have a trip to make in haste.”

    I smile, “That, Mr Warrenson, is an accurate summation. I hope to not be a complete ignoramus. I get the impression these recent economic difficulties remain quite pronounced over there?”

    “That’s sure correct,” Mr Warrenson replies. “It’s been nearly two years since the Banking Crash of Christmas ‘32, but until the Supreme Court rules on the Emergency Bank Recovery Act everything remains up in the air.”

    Henri leans back in his chair, observing. I glance at him and smile. “I must confess, Mr Warrenson, to not quite understanding.”

    “See Sir, the Supreme Court tends to be a big defender of liberty. Whole bunch of cases from the last twenty or so years about it. Now, when President Roosevelt took office back in March ‘33 he knew he needed to get the banking sector working again. So with his supermajority in Congress he passed the Banking Act - but it’s a damned blunt club. I mean it’s worked, sort of. But only to a point, and it caused more than a little controversy. The cases are making their way through the court system, and will probably be decided upon before the ‘36 race. If the Court throws out the Act - well there’s already talk of campaigning to pack the court. He’s done other stuff, of course, but everything’s stuck.”

    “And how is it on the ground, Mr Warrenson? Those activities so entrancing the politicians and lawyers seem rather ephemeral if one can’t eat.”

    “That’s true sir. It’s pretty damned grim. People are starving. Never thought I would see the day. In any big city, if you are out early enough, you’ll probably see a few that didn’t make it through the night. Some of the other scroungers take them to the gravepits for the price of a meal. With winter coming on - I heard it was bad last year, it’ll be worse this year.

    There is not enough snow to properly cover the corpses, just enough to adorn their withered, frozen forms. The promise of a meal is enough to get them cleared by those unlucky enough to still be alive. The people who go to church have long since learned not to look.

    “There’s the soup kitchens and the like, of course, but they don’t always have enough food. In places the army’s been deployed. Hell, just before I left New York more than two dozen were killed over a soup riot when the troops opened fire.”

    Mr Warrenson pauses. I can see in his haunted eyes a glimpse of his horror as he details just how far his country has sunk.

    “And, from what I hear, in the South, it's worse.” He adds, but goes no further.

    I let the silence linger a moment. Glancing at Henri who remains apparently impassive. Then I ask, “And this Prohibition business is at an end?”

    His eyes refocus as he brings himself together to answer the question. “Thank God yes. Montana was the final state needed for ratification a couple of months ago, and President Roosevelt didn’t wait to get it all written up. Been a boon to jobs - but not enough. Not yet.”

    “Well Mr Warrenson, I must thank you for agreeing to come and speak to me.” I pick up the small bell beside my place, and ring it. Through a door Rupert and Ariadne enter the room. “These are my servants, who will be accompanying me. If you would do me the honour of briefing them separately, I believe they will have questions of a more mundane and practical nature.” I turn to Henri and say in French, “there is an office just through that door, he will not be far.”

    Henri thinks a moment, and nods. Permission granted Mr Warrenson gets up and does my bidding. My two greet him warmly, or so it seems. It is not always easy to tell.

    After they withdraw into the office - though I signal to Ariadne to keep the door open - I turn to Henri and say in his truly native French. “Under your protection, but not yours I trust.”

    Henri laughs. “Of course not.” He grins in silence a moment, and adds, “Though I am told if you are a devotee of the rhetorician’s art he cuts quite the figure in debate - but recently returned from across the ocean and so suitable to this purpose.” He pauses, and then asks with a twinkling eye, “I suppose I could ask him to dance for your amusement.” I snort in return, and smile. I can imagine it. Then the humour departs as Henri places an arm on the table and leans a little towards me. “Perhaps, Albert, you might indulge me with a question of my own?”

    “A question, yes.”

    Henri’s lips twitch. “Very well. What is the point of this charade? You will have researched the current goings on in America, and if anything know them better than a stuffy waffly servitor.”

    I think a moment, and then decide it may yet serve a purpose. “I will indulge,” I say first, and draw a deep, un-necessary breath. I exhale as I lean back, breathe in again, and speak. “Two reasons. First, I am the invited guest. That invite imposes obligations on your sect, Henri. Obligations that I expect it to honour. Consider this briefing request a gentle … reminder.”

    A grim chuckle sounds from Henri’s mouth. “Of course. A message.”

    “You cannot be surprised, envoy as you are.”

    “No,” Henri says, shaking his head a litte. “And the second?”

    “The second is a gift of thanks to you: a lesson, if you will.” I see something bridle in Henri’s eyes but he quells it. I hope he actually listens, rather than just seeming to, but that is his choice. “Think of how Mr Warrenson sounded when he spoke of the dead in the streets, of his incomprehension of how this could happen in his country.”

    “Really Albert? People have always starved when times are bad.”

    I consider not bothering further, but I continue. “Henri, can you recall the last time you heard an American be downcast about their country? Like Mr Warrenson was just now?” I see him ponder the question. I wait a few minutes. “This crisis is doing something to America - something deep. It has happened before, if you recall, in other places at other times.” I emphasise the accent I am speaking, exaggerating its anachronistic sound.

    Henri stares at me, perplexed. Then clarity breaks across his face. “Well played,” he says, his accent fully modern, as ever. “I take the point.” He pauses. “I don’t know why they want you over there,” he says, “you would not be my first choice.”

    “It is a mystery,” I say.

    We sit in silence then until our lessers are done.
     
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    Chapter 1.9 - Martin - That evening

    Martin stamped his feet. “You alright?” Henry asked.

    “Impatient,” he replied. “Remember, when the toff turns up keep out the way, unless I or he tells you otherwise. Clear?”

    They nodded, and Angus muttered some affirming expletive. Martin glanced up at the sky. Still light, but the false light of evening. Surely the sun had bloody set by now. He glanced at the house.

    “Constables, if there’s trouble I want one of you to leg it to the station, and the other to make sure no one gets in the way. Understood?”

    “Yes sir,” the men said. One barely looked as if he learned to shave - he’d be doing the running. The other was older. Still, their presence gave an official look - which was why bloody Bartholomew had insisted on them being here. Martin didn’t like the Sheriff’s thrall, but the git knew his job. He was at the police station now.

    It was Bartholomew who decided to spread the story about Richard Williams had his wife being attacked, planting the idea it was some dockyard violence - perhaps a gang unhappy with the man. “The more truth the better the lie,” Bartholomew had said - which Martin knew was right. Of course, he also knew his fellow servitor was just mimicking one of the Masters, aping the superiority. If only he knew … but Martin shut down that thought. His Master had long made it plain: he was never to brag, never to take offence. Let the goats bleat, his Master had said.

    Meanwhile Martin and his two companions were passed off as some sort of special officers from the Port Authority. Once the locals had been assured Robert himself was suspect of no wrongdoing, and the Authority was even going to pay the hospital bill, they became almost friendly. More practically Bartholomew had also left them with a big bore hunting rifle.

    Martin glanced at thy sky again - already darker through the evening smoke. “Right, we better get ready. Angus, Henry - in the kitchen. I’ll stay at the door. Angus - you on the gun. If it comes to it, don’t worry about hitting me. Just shoot.”

    “Aye,” said Angus. As they ready themselves Martin thinks - how minutes to get to the tunnel at Greenwich, to walk under the river, and to get here. Surely Bartholomew would have a car or something at the gardens waiting for when his Master arrived. Of course, the cellar might be empty.

    Just then a car careened around the corner and into the street, stopping just before the house. From the passenger side out stepped Sir Arthur Halesworth, the High Sheriff. Tall, broad, bearded, and with thick hair down to his shoulders, the Sheriff paused and held out a hand that was grasped by a more diminutive set of digits. Martin did his best not to gulp as out climbed the Lady Parr, in what he recognised to be her working clothes. Finally, from the front emerged Bartholemew who started to talk to the constables, drawing them to one side as Sir Arthur walked up to the house.

    “Martin,” the High Sheriff said. Martin made a quick, functional obeisance. “How did you stumble on this one?” His voice was a deep rumbling baritone.

    “I was about my Master’s business,” Martin replied. Sir Arthur nodded.

    “No sound?”

    “No - but I cannot be certain there is anything.”

    “Mmm,” Sir Arthur considered, looking at the hallway. “My lady?” he said, turning to his companion.

    She seemed to think a moment, her apparently gentle face unmoving. “If there is someone there they are staying quiet. And still.”

    “Which would be the only sensible action,” Sir Arthur said, glancing at Henry and Angus down the hall. “Right. Martin - you guard the front door. Your men watch from where they are. We’ll descend. If anything else comes up - delay it.”

    “Very well Sir,” Martin said. His own revolver now out.

    “Are you ready my lady?” Sir Arthur asked.

    “Let me go first,” she said.

    “If you wish.” It took them but a moment to clear the way. Martin heard, rather than saw, the High Sheriff lift the trap. Lady Parr walked into the space beneath the stairs, and went out of sight. Martin waited. He saw Angus heft the rifle up and heard Sir Arthur begin his own descent.

    From beneath the stairs came a sound not quite like a cat’s hiss, and Martin fancied he heard a voice - though he could not tell more. Then silence.

    A few moments later Sir Arthur called up, “Martin. We are coming up. Make sure not to shoot us.”

    Martin waved at Angus and Henry, who already stood easy. Up first was Lady Parr, and she was followed by another. A man, a little short perhaps, European, tanned, with the flat expression of one whose mind was no longer quite their own. Behind him came Sir Arthur.

    “Martin,” Lady Parr said to him in her innocent soprano, “your surmise was correct.”
     
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    Chapter 1.10 - Albert VI

    “Next stop sir,” Rupert says to me as the carriage clanks its way around the track. If necessary I can navigate the Underground railway - but I do appreciate the reassurance of Rupert’s quiet presence.

    The brakes squeal as the train carriage comes to a stop at its appointed place. There is a hissing sound as the doors slide open through some technological wizardry I do not understand. Rupert touches my arm, a signal that it is time. We shuffle off the carriage onto the platform along with a handful of others - the evening rush is over now and the hour is getting late for daytime dwellers.

    I move to the wall and wait a moment, to let others past. I nod to Rupert. We walk towards the exit, but then turn down an unmarked corridor. A short way down its length is a door marked staff only. I knock and open it.

    The room beyond is small - more really a closed off bit of tunnel with a bench down one wall and a single light overhead. It might be mistaken for a dingy staff room. There is another door at the far end. “You will likely have to wait here,” I say to Rupert.

    “As you wish,” he says, and settles himself down on the bench. It is the only outward sign he gives me of his unhappiness.

    There is a clang on the main door of a bolt being thrust back, and then it opens. A rag-covered figure emerges. “Lord Albert, your servitor…”

    I cut it off. “... is already waiting for me to complete my business with Fagin.” The thing stands there, its mouth open. I indulge this for a few seconds. “Will Fagin see me - or not?” I growl.

    “Uh, yes, umm, please follow,” the young thing stammers, tries to turn, falls, picks itself up and shuffles ahead of me. I resist the urge to glance at Rupert, and follow the wretch through the portal to the Lepers’ domain.

    Not that they are called that these nights.

    Several others heave the door shut behind me, as my guide half-shuffles and half-runs ahead - muttering all the while. Other than the doorwardens I see no one else, but I am not surprised. The corridor is lit, but not brightly. I feel as much as hear the rattling of a passing train, and realise this corridor must run nearly parallel to the tunnel the trains use. It also explains why all the corridors that branch off from this one are all on the same side. My guide stops at the fourth, waiting just long enough to know I have marked it, and then it hurries on.

    I follow.

    This new corridor is quite short, maybe only ten paces deep, with a simple open doorway at the end. My guide stands there, talking to someone beyond. I quieten my steps, and it does not seem to notice as I approach. It talks rapidly in some accented dialect. It is telling quite the tale and does not seem to notice me. I look at it with the eyes of the soul, and it seems utterly wrapped up in its own fears. Beyond … there is a presence I know.

    “Shut up,” a voice says. Fagin’s.

    The youngling jabbers on. “I said ... shut … up.” Abruptly the gabbling stops. “Lord Albert is probably right behind by now. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for him not to kick you up the backside - and given your failings I think we should give him the option to satisfy that urge. You agree, don’t you?”

    When the creature now spoke it was with the slight delay “Yes,” it said in a dull monotone.

    “Say ‘Lord Albert, please kick me across the room.’”

    The creature echoes listlessly, without turning. “Lord Albert, please kick me across the room.”

    I consider it a moment - but no. “Enough Fagin,” I say.

    “Really Lord Albert?” he calls back. “Ah well.” Then he speaks to the unfortunate again, “Slither back to your sire and tell him you have disappointed me.” The creature falls to the floor and starts to wriggle out the doorway past me. Then Fagin is at the door. “I must apologise,” he says, “for the youth of today. Please come in.”

    The room beyond is relatively snug, three sofas set around a low table. Fagin hobbles to a large armchair, dragging his twisted leg behind him, and settles into its depths, not concealing his repulsive warty form. A single electric light hangs above the table providing sufficient, if not ample, illumination. At the other end of the room is a desk and filing cabinets. That strikes me as a little obvious on Fagin’s part, but I doubt I am the intended audience of particular display. Fagin waves me to one of the sofas.

    “Again, I apologise for that … situation,” Fagin says.

    I choose to stay silent. I remain standing, and still. No breath fills my lungs and no muscles twitch to animate my features.

    He looks at me and continues. “My grand-childe needed the lesson, as does my childe who argued for her service when she was plainly not ready.” I remain silent. “I suppose I should ask why you wanted to see me?”

    I wait a moment later. “As it happens I was going to ask of you a favour,” I say, and go on, “how courteous of you to arrange matters so that nothing new will be owed between thanks to your educational endeavour, just now.”

    Quieter he says, “I suppose that depends on the favour.”

    A fair point. “As you will know I am going away. I want The King’s Water to be watched whilst I am gone, and Dara too.”

    He grunts. “Lord Mithras puts the place under his personal protection, and you came calling on me?”

    “Yes,” I reply. “My Lord provides protection, I come to you for information. Is that not what your blood is known for?”

    “I’ve annoyed you,” he states.

    “I will answer that, once we have an arrangement in place,” I say.

    Fagin looks long at the table, chin resting on clasped hands, a slight gurgling in his throat I have come to recognise as a sign he is regurgitating some thought. He looks up and his arms drop. “As you wish it. We will undertake this task, and no new debt - that was your wording?”

    “Close enough,” I say. “Good. As to your question, I answer with one of my own. Have I let you become so familiar that you sought to make me part of your lesson without my consent?”

    “I thought …” he began.

    “You presumed,” I correct. “You presumed that I would relish a little … physical release. And so I might - at the correct time, in the correct place, and for the correct reason. This whole charade … was a trifle indulgent, Fagin.”

    “You’re clearly not going to sit,” he says, and raises himself to his feet. Supporting himself on his chair, he continues, “I’ve seen you do a lot worse than kick someone across the room for chastisement. Nora, now…”

    .

    “Proceed,” Lady Anne declares.

    I approach the frightened creature in front of me. She is bound between two posts, her arms and legs spread. One of the servitors offers me the so-called Sword of Justice. I heft the greatsword, draw it high, and pause. I centre myself and will my arms into swift, fluid, sinisterly implacable motion. First one leg, then the other, and the arms, all in the time it takes a human to draw a single breath, or less. The blade comes to rest before Nora falls with a thump to the ground. Her torso topples forward, her face hitting the sod. She has made no vocal sound, and is holding close to what little vitae remains to her - none is spilling from her wounds.

    Lady Anne passes the rest of the sentence. “Let her remain in this state for a month and a day. If she heals herself before that time her blood is forfeit. If any care for her, they are Accountable for her like a sire is a new childe. After this time she may be presented to this Court to retain the right of residency in this Domain in her own right, or she may quit London and seek residency elsewhere. If she has no patron before dawn the sun will claim her…”


    .

    “Nora, now - I’ve seen walls that were more expressive than you when you dismembered her. That was truly cruel - my own lesson was just arsing around - and at least I care about my brood.”

    I have not yet moved any muscle - save those required for speaking - since he invited me in. I wonder if he has noticed. He is sharp, but not all the time. Time for a lesson? A weariness pervades me, but I need him, and perhaps he will yet grow up.

    “Fagin, I am a Satrap to Lord Mithras. You can call me cruel, and I have been cruel. Cruelty and violence are but some of the tools of my trade, and I use them as required - but they do not entertain me.”

    It is time to move beyond this. I continue before he can speak again, “Next time you need a young thing educated, give me warning. It is not the lesson I am opposed to - though I would choose the precise method of instruction - it is the presumption.”

    Fagin says nothing, and the pustules on his face do a good job of concealing what he is thinking. I remain still - and I think I see an understanding of sorts grow in him. He shuffles onto his knees. “I am sorry, Lord Albert.”

    “Fagin, get up - it is past, and it is done.” Purposefully I will my limbs to motion, to act just a little - if only a little - human. “As I said, there is nothing new now owed between us. Just … you are getting too old to be making these mistakes.”

    With some effort he clambers back onto his feet, and I sense some tension leave him. “I don’t feel old,” I think he mutters.

    I smile. “And yet … you remember Nora’s trial. Not so young.” I shake my head. “I must be going. Let me know if you need my assistance in some future tutelary efforts. For the proper reason, at the proper time…” I leave it there, and I am not sure - but I think his expression is caught between a glower and grin.
     
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    Chapter 1.11 - Martin - Two Nights Later

    Martin was glad when the summons came. For two nights and days he had followed his orders, and ensured the boy had come to no harm. The flat in Shadwell was a grimier place than the young Martin had ever known, but no one troubled them. Annie went out with one of the others to get food whilst Martin made sure to stay in. If there was trouble, it was where he needed to be.

    But there had been none.

    A half-hour after the sun had set he felt it like the peal of a bell - it was time. He stood - causing the others to stop their chatter with the swiftness of his action. The boy watched him too. “Annie, get the lad into those new clothes. The rest of you, Sunday best. Annie - you’ll stay here. I want us on the move before the hour tolls.”

    As Annie took the boy into the back room Martin heard him ask, “How does he know?” Annie’s reply was cut off by the closing door. As he waited for the others Martin closed his eyes and breathed deeply, concentrating on the feeling within him. It was a trick the old one had taught him … but it was hard to do when he could hear the groans of the slum without.

    Breathe, concentrate on the sense of knowing where you are desired … desired to be … to be where … maybe.

    He opened his eyes to see Annie hustling the young Martin towards him, looking probably as smart as he had ever done so. The others - well they looked exactly like they were, rough men who had put on some smoother clothes.

    “Henry, lead. Angus - the rear. Paddy, with me and the boy. Let’s get to the station first.”

    He was sure they formed a curious little convoy for those with eyes to spot such things. In Shadwell itself their clothes stuck out like a princess in a pigsty, but once out onto the main road he trusted his crew enough to not be too obvious - but still. By the time they reached the station he was surer. “London Bridge,” he said. The boy was being very quiet, which suited Martin. At least he was looking better fed.

    They travelled through the underground in almost silence. By the time they emerged again to the outside the weak evening twilight was rapidly turning to its sooty winter black. Leaving the mess of the station behind they walked the short distance to Guy’s Hospital - the lad starting to get nervous. Waiting for them was Bartholomew. Martin said to the other three, “Wait nearby. If you don’t see me after an hour, go home. Boy, with me.”

    “You sure?” Angus asked.

    “No point getting bored if I’m longer.” Angus nodded, and with Henry and Paddy stood back. Bartholomew approached.

    “No trouble?” he asked. Martin shook his head, and put his hand on his namesake’s shoulder. Bartholomew followed the motion.

    “Follow me.”

    “How’s my parents?” young Martin blurted out.

    “All in good time,” Bartholomew replied, “now come.” Martin had to give the lad a gentle push to get him moving, as Bartholomew led them into the warren that was the hospital. With some interest Martin noted they were climbing up stairs, rather than down. They came to a door flanked by two guards. One nodded to Bartholomew and opened the door, revealing a short corridor. Bartholomew walked to the first room, and turned holding out his arm indicating they should go in.

    With his heart thudding in his chest Martin did, propelling the boy in front of him, and there was His Master, standing in the corner and with His back turned. Suddenly breathless Martin felt the exhilaration of his duty done, of the fulfilment of His Master’s desire. It was so strong at first he didn’t even see the others there - Lady Parr, Darius of the Master’s family, and a figure Martin did not know but who seemed to be a doctor.

    This one was speaking, “... take it this is the child of my patient? Excellent. Come my boy, I am sure you want to see your father.” Tall, with a long high head and wispy hair he seemed incongruously at ease with bustling young Martin out.

    Martin swallowed. Darius was sitting on a chair pushed up against one wall, and Lady Parr stood next to a large desk. She signalled Bartholomew, who closed the door behind them - staying out of the room. His Master turned around.

    “Martin. Up.”

    Martin stood, not having realised he had knelt. His Master had moved to stand next to Lady Parr. “I tasked you to find out if there was anything amiss in Robert Williams’ disappearance. You have done well.”

    Martin could not help but smile - though he did manage not to grin. “I live to serve,” he murmured.

    “Darius,” His Master said. “Observe my servitor. He is bound, yes, but the ties of blood are strengthened by the value in which I hold him.” Martin felt a singing in his soul. “Anyone can be a tyrant. Only the chosen few can ascend. Let this be a lesson in what follows.”

    The young-looking man gulped “Yes, my Lord,” in reply.

    His Master spoke again to Martin. “Martin, I have two tasks for you. Robert Williams is to join our service under the dominion of young Darius here. He will need assistance adapting to this new existence.” His Master noted Martin’s expression. “You have a question?”

    “Master, what of Mrs Williams?”

    “Dead,” Lady Parr answered. “Her husband would be to, if not for entering your Master’s service.”

    “Does Master Darius have any instructions for me on this matter?” Martin asked.

    “A good question Martin. Darius?”

    The young-looking Master stood sharly, as if he realised he was the only one seated. “Ah … perhaps just to remember that, at some point, I will need to train him in my desires,” he said.

    “Master,” Martin acknowledged, and turned back to His Master. “The second task, my Master?”

    “The second task is to continue this investigation. You will operate under the direction of Lady Parr.”

    “Mistress,” Martin said, bowing low. It was not the first time.

    “Your Master honours me highly,” Lady Parr said. “And we will discuss it presently. Before that, there is an undertaking to be completed. I will be waiting for you and Mr Williams at my office.”

    “Lady Parr,” the Master said, “you have my trust in this matter. Darius, Martin, time to see this through.”
     
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    Chapter 1.12 - Albert VII

    The rain patters on the glass of the window. The gentle staccato of precipitation marks time to the murmuring of conversation from my fellow celebrants at tonight’s gala. My Lord is not present - Lady Anne is our host tonight, and occupies the Regent’s Seat on the dais. Over thirty of my kind are here - and whilst few will stay all night by the time the gala ends an hour before dawn a goodly majority of our population in London will have been present. I always attend. These are the only formal social events I count as pleasures.

    An unofficial sorting has, as usual, taken place. On one side gather those who consider themselves more refined, civilised beings. On the other cluster creatures who might have a word or two to say about what refinement and civilisation actually mean. It is the current echo in a very ancient debate. Then there is the question of how close or far away one chooses to be from the dais, and why. Thus it is that Antony has a place at the table on the disreputable side, but very close to the seat of power. Henri is freer: his role as envoy allows him more movement - literally so - but he always returns to the same general area about half-way down the room amongst those who consider themselves superior. The youngsters, both less certain and less constrained, throng in the middle portion of the hall, through not too close to the dais.

    It is a fascinating dance that I observe from my oriel at the far end of the hall exactly opposite the throne, and therefore in the centre ground.

    The outer walls are lined by silent figures - conditioned vessels who are our fare tonight. In most venues my Lord will permit the fiction of the goblet, the crimson wine - but not here. Here he offers hospitality according to elder lore. There is nothing coarse, nothing depraved. The vessels are modestly attired, in muted shades designed not to attract attention - but one always knows they are there. If one attends one is expected to appreciate my Lord’s offerings, and in the expanse of this hall there is nowhere to hide. Less notorious than the fevered whispers in foreign Courts, and yet altogether more terrifying. The customs of yesteryear brought into the modern night. It is the Blood Court of London, in its second hour, and I will see the whole night through.

    I notice Dara surrounded by a small group of beings younger than he, talking, laughing, almost at ease with each other. One seems quieter, a face I do not immediately recognise. This one offers a comment now and then, but his smile is tight, and fleeting. From Dara’s glances it is clear he is aware of his companion’s uncertainty. In between everything else I keep my eye on them, and Dara notices. He offers me a quick grin. I nod in return, and let my eyes wander further. Henri is approaching Lady Anne, an associate in tow. In the hall, to my right, the Anarch Fowler tells a loud joke to his little entourage of followers, and they all cackle obligingly.

    Dara disengages himself from his group, leading the new face towards me. The remainder start a furious bout of whispering. I beckon to the bench opposite, but Dara shakes his head, though he does prod the newcomer to sit. Dara stands over him, comfortable and confident in whatever this is about.

    “Sorry to bother you Guv,” Dara says, “but this here is Nathaniel, newly arrived from Liverpool. Was introduced whilst you were away. He’s come to the Water a time or two.”

    Which is, at least, part of why Dara has chosen to introduce him to me. “And what brings you to London, Nathaniel?”

    “Ah,” Nathaniel starts, stops, and continues, “I had to leave … said I did something which I didn’t.” Unexpectedly he flushes. I look at Dara.

    “Was picked on by a group of centurions, he decided it was better to flee,” Dara explains.

    “Is that right?” I ask

    “I … suppose so, Sir, yes. In essence.”

    “One of yours, Dara?” Dara shrugs.

    “I don’t know sir,” Nathaniel answers, “never knew my sire.”

    “Which no doubt made you easy prey for some bored louts,” I observe. “Why London?”

    “I knew someone here, hoped he could help me.”

    “Victor Melhuish,” Dara supplied. Well, Victor did some travel at the behest of his sire. “Victor helped present him, and he was told to attend tonight. But Nathaniel here, well guv he’s a bit intimidated, and last night at the Water he asked for my advice on how to handle the whole -” he takes a moment to wave his hand at the vessels, “- business here. So I told him to talk to you, given you are one of the few I know who actually seem to ever relax at one of these. Hope I’m not taking advantage…” Dara lapses into silence.

    I smile, regarding Nathaniel. He cuts an unassuming form, maybe my height or a little less, a neatly cut covering of brown hair on his head. He is holding his hands together, the fingers interlaced, his thumbs rapidly tapping as his green eyes stare towards the floor, only occasionally flicking up to look at me.

    “No,” I say quietly, “you are not.” I look at Nathaniel a little longer, and then shift myself so I am leaning forwards towards him. “Tell me, Nathaniel, do you wish my advice? I will give it, if you desire - truly desire - the consequences.”

    “What … consequences?” Nathaniel asks.

    “I do not know.”

    Nathaniel jerks his head to look at Dara. “I told you,” Dara says evenly, “that whilst Lord Albert can help you, he’s remarkably honest for one his age.”

    I flash Dara a quick, tight, but honest smile. “I do not know you, Nathaniel, so I cannot say. But even now you are being observed. So far you talking to me might be a polite social gesture, engineered by Dara here, by someone who frequents the Water. Go further, and you will cease to be just a clanless neonate refugee exhibiting uncommon social grace, to be a known associate of, well, Dara can probably tell you better than I of how I am described.”

    For the first time Nathaniel looks straight at me and holds my gaze. “He did. He told me you were the strangest elder he ever knew, or heard of. He told me … things. I … suppose I do … want … want to be something … else.”

    “Leave us Dara,” I say, “but ask if Annabelle is yet taken. If she is not, her and someone as fresh as possible. Let us see if I can help Nathaniel partake of my Lord’s hospitality.”

    Dara nods, and steps aside. Nathaniel tracks his movement a moment, until I ask, “How do you usually feed.”

    Nathaniel looks down, and then at me, “Animals,” he murmurs.

    “Why?”

    “To take someone … against their will, I fear … I fear what I might do.”

    “And well you should.” I lean back, and whilst Nathaniel’s speech might still be hesitant his back is now a little straighter. “But you will never master yourself if you do not face it, and tonight … ah,” I pause a moment as I note two women approach. “Tonight I can offer a safer experience.”

    Nathaniel looks to where my gaze is, and sees them just before them stand before us. The servitor behind them leaves as I signal his dismissal with a wave of my hand. “This,” I say, pointing to the older of the pair, “is Annabelle. She is one of the longest serving of my Lord’s current vessels, would you not say Annabelle?”

    “Yes, Master Albert,” she replies, the Black Country imprinted on her speech.

    “Whereas I have not seen the other, your name is?” I ask the younger - much younger - woman.

    “Jane,” she whispers an answer.

    “It’s her first night, Master Albert,” Annabelle says, “she’s just shy.”

    “Indeed. Well, Annabelle, it so happens my companion here is a little shy himself. Thinks you are forced to this life.”

    Nathaniel looks at me, mouth agape.

    “Is that not true?” I ask him.

    “Um, yes, but - you talk…” he closes his mouth, and thinks. “I don’t understand.”

    “Exactly,” I say. “Annabelle, how came you to this service?”

    The older woman turned to Nathaniel, and held his gaze. “I was about Jane’s age here, and I was hunted, and fed from. When I came to, I knew I wanted that experience again. I did not know … stuff, of course. But I asked questions, silly questions, nearly got myself killed, but didn’t, and after wasting about eighteen months was asked a question myself, to which I said yes. Nearly thirty years ago.”

    “Annabelle is one of the older vessels, but her story is not that unusual amongst my Lord’s stable. Even this young thing is here because she would rather be here than elsewhere. Am I right Jane?”

    “Yes,” she answers.

    “Have you ever had your mind played with?” I ask Nathaniel.

    He hangs his head a moment, and then straightens, “Yes.”

    “Willingly?”

    “No!” he says, quickly.

    I smile. “That is a tale for another time, but know this - those who open themselves to dominion can be made to the crafter’s needs like a potter shapes clay - but only if they wish to be the vessel that is being made. Try to turn a person in a jug when all they want to be is a plate, and cracks will soon appear.”

    Jane continues to look with no expression, but Annabelle smiles.

    “Now, onto practical matters, there is no need to make this dramatic. Annabelle, Jane, and the others here are willing vessels. New ones - like Jane I am sure - have their terror controlled and taken away from them. Older ones, like Annabelle, barely require any attention.” I notice Nathaniel has closed his eyes.

    “Well, perhaps a little ceremony, for your first Blood Court.” I grin, “Do you Annabelle, consent to be the source of young Master Nathaniel’s sustenance tonight, to be bitten, to be fed from, to be food?” Nathaniel’s eyes are open again.

    “I do,” she says instantly, a hunger in her own eyes.

    “And do you, Nathaniel, agree to feed from this vessel, under my supervision?”

    “I, ah, ah, yes,” he manages “Umm,” he makes no move.

    “The practical - nothing obscene. Jane, your arm please.” The vessel steps up to me and holds out her left arm. I turn it over, exposing its underside. “The trick is not to make a fuss, like so,” I say. I bend over the wrist, my fangs extending and they plunge into her flesh. She gasps, a catch of her breath as I consume her offering, followed by some rapid pants. First time.

    After what seems like too short a moment I withdraw my head, my tongue caressing the marks I leave behind which immediately begin to heal. Another shuddering breath from the vessel. I draw out a handkerchief and dab my lips, and then wipe Jane’s wrist. “And all done. Now you,”

    “Um,” Nathaniel hesitates, but Annabelle steps up.

    “Young Master, let me help you,” she says. Kneeling down in front of him, she touches his shoulder, and then the back of his head and draws him down to her neck. I watch, and I see him tense - but she whispers to him. He goes slack, and then he too samples my Lord’s gift. I think perhaps he had fed poorly, for he drinks more deeply. I signal a servitor. There is more though - something relaxes as he feeds. There is no sense of gluttony, and nothing as obscene as lust, but something more … he begins to draw back. Annabelle's mouth is curved in the wide loose smile, and her eyes are half-lidded in pure bliss.

    “Thank you, Master,” she offers as she levers herself to her feet, holding tight onto the wall. Two servitors appear. One gently propels Jane away. The other goes to Annabelle. She bats a guiding arm away, turning to Nathaniel. “Please ask for me again,” she says, and then leans in against the servitor who guides her out of the room.

    I pass a handkerchief over to Nathaniel, who tidies himself.

    “How do you feel now?” I ask.

    “Fine,” he says, strongly. He smiles broadly, “I never knew…”

    “Of course you didn’t,” I say. “Abandoned, left to survive as best you might. Tonight … you have done well. Tell, Nathaniel, you said you wanted to become something else. What?”

    “I don’t want to always be afraid. But I don’t want to turn into a monster. I want to be my own person. “

    “Well, you have already begun to walk that road. I might even be able to help you. I am about to go away for a time, but when I return - if you are still walking the night - we should talk again. If you wish it.”

    “If?” he queries.

    I move my hand in a gesture encompassing the gathered throng. “They have all seen you partake of my Lord’s gift with me. You can be sure you are about to hear a lot of stories about me. When I come back you may think you have supped with a devil.”

    “And are you, a devil?” he asked, the thrill of feeding still lending him a confidence that is not yet truly his.

    “I am a Satrap of Lord Mithras. Remember that, when you listen to any tales. For now though enjoy the rest of the Court. And remember what Annabelle asked - her favour is not lightly bestowed.”

    He looks at me a moment more, rises, and leaves me once again alone. I look across at the dais and see Lady Anne returning my gaze. She has, of course, been watching. Sitting as I am I place my hands one atop the other on my chest and bow in her direction. It is the Blood Court of London, now in its third hour, and I am truly enjoying myself.
     
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    Chapter 1.13 - Martin - A moment later
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    Chapter 1.13 - Martin - A moment later

    As they entered the adjoining room. Martin saw Robert sat up in a bed, his son at his side. Little Martin looked to have been crying - holding his father’s arm tight. The doctor touched Robert’s other arm, and Robert saw them. He spoke a soft word, and the boy rubbed his eyes.

    The Master indicated for Martin and Darius to wait, and approached the bedside. The doctor pulled over a chair, and the Master sat.

    “Mr Williams, I trust you are feeling much better?”

    “Yes, sir. Thank you for bringing me my boy. He says your man looked after him.”

    “Martin,” agreed the Master, pointing him out. “He did, at first on his own initiative, and then at my request.”

    “Thank you,” Robert said to Martin.

    Martin nodded his head, and then in the small silence added, “You have a good lad.”

    “It is time,” the Master began again, “to discuss your future, Mr Williams.”

    “What are you going to do with my dad?” young Martin suddenly piped up.

    The Master looked at the boy, who shrank back a little against his father’s side, but the Master just smiled. “I am offering your father service, to join my household. A position, a place, and for you - school, a proper school. But I am not going to do anything to your father he does not wish.” Then the Master looked back at Robert. “However, this is not a discussion for children.”

    “Right,” said Robert. “But -”

    “If I may interject,” said the doctor, “I probably ought to perform that examination on your son we spoke of just now. We will be in my office, just next door. But also,” he said, now speaking directly to the boy, “you need rest, little one. I will give you a draught that will send you sweetly to sleep, and the rest can be settled, perhaps in the morning?”

    The Master nodded. “Alright. You heard the doctor Martin,” Robert said to his son. He hugged him fiercely a moment, and then let go. The boy was reluctant to leave, but let himself be herded out.

    “You have a brave boy,” the Master said.

    Robert nodded. “I do.” Even sitting in the hospital bed he looked proud.

    “So Mr Williams, will you join my household? Your son will be sent to a special school where the children of my household go. At times he will find it hard, I am sure. It is a new life, for you both, if so you choose it. But in his spirit I see him going a very long way, a future most from the Island can never even dream of.”

    “And me?” Robert asked.

    “As we spoke last night, you would be dead were it not for Darius’ blood even now sustaining you. But I will not have you taken unwillingly. If you choose to leave, then tomorrow you and your son can leave. There will be no medical bill, no debt. Your position at the dock would still be open. The arrangement would end, nothing more. But if you choose my service then your son has a future, different from yours, and I promise you the destruction of the one who killed your wife. Darius would be your immediate Master, he is of my line. And Martin here would help ease your transition.”

    “And all I’ve got to give is my soul?”

    The Master glanced at Martin “Some would claim so. Not I.”

    Robert drews his knees up, and rested his elbows on them, and put his head in his hands. “I need to think,” he said.

    “Of course,” the Master replied.

    Robert stayed like that for quite some time. The Master seemed unperturbed, still, not breathing. Martin too knew how to wait. Darius tried to emulate his forebear, but the energy of his youth did somewhat frustrate his efforts. Maybe an hour later the doctor let himself back in.

    “The boy is sleeping,” he said. “He needs nothing more than rest.”

    Robert looked up as the doctor spoke. “Thank you,” he said.

    “Thank the one who paid for my services,” the doctor replied, indicating the Master.

    “No debt?” Robert asked.

    “No debt,” the Master agreed.

    Robert shook his head. “That’s bollocks. I’m not going to turn away the man who saved me and my son. I don’t know what the hell I am getting into, but I didn’t when I signed up to join the Navy neither. What do I have to do?”

    “Darius.” the Master said, “go to the other side of the bed.” Turning back to Robert he continued. “Mr Williams, Darius will slit his wrist. To accept this bond truly, of your own free will, and to enter the service of my household, all you have to do is take his arm, and drink his blood.”

    Robert laughed. “It’s like the bloody flicks,” he said. Darius had moved beside him, the doctor had wordlessly passed him a scalpel. He cut, a line of red formed but it did not quite flow as a mortal’s would.

    Robert grabbed the proffered arm. “The devil shall be my sergeant,” he whispered, and partook of the bloody benediction. Suddenly he gasped, and let go, looking up at Darius with awe. “Master,” he proclaimed, his lips and mouth a deep crimson, his servitude coursing through him. Darius withdrew his arm, the wound healing clean.

    Darius looked at Martin’s Master, who slightly inclined his head. “Robert, welcome to my service, and the service of my Lord and forebear. I am your Master, he is the Lord of us all. Do you understand?”

    “Yes.” Robert’s eyes remained fixed on Darius.

    “In time you will serve me more closely, but for now I wish you to accompany Martin about his tasks, so that you can learn to serve me better. Do you understand?”

    “Yes,” Robert repeated.

    “Lastly, do not forsake your son for me. Honour your child, and my Lord honours me with your service. Do you understand?”

    “I … no,” Robert said, and suddenly he flushed, and his hands formed fists.

    “Calm,” Darius said, and Martin felt a sense of power swirl about the young Master as Robert relaxed a little. “Martin will help you to understand. You will go to him now, and meet Lady Parr. She has a task for you both.”

    “Yes Master,” Robert said, overwhelmed.
     
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    Chapter 1.14 - Albert VIII
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    Chapter 1.14 - Albert VIII

    It is the Blood Court of London, in its tenth hour, and I am still having a fine time. The hall is now all but empty. Only myself and Lady Anne remain, sitting at our respective stations. My presence does not keep her here - it is my Lord’s tradition, and as his representative her duty is plain. But it does mean she has to remain on form. Naturally she does so superbly. That is one reason why My Lord retains her in this role. Sometimes there can be a flurry of attendance at the very end, it is not unusual for we two to be alone in the latter hours. Now and then someone appears in the quiet times to pay their respects. Lady Parr was in just half an hour ago, clearly finding time between one task or another. She had exchanged a greeting with Lady Anne, supped, and nodded to me before she left.

    A door opens behind the dais, and He enters. Lady Anne stands, and My Lord murmurs something to her as He passes by. She resumes her seat, relaxed but straight, and seemingly pleased. My Lord, dressed in his archaic garb, descends from the dais and walks straight to me. As He approaches He moves a hand downward, and I remain seated as he takes the place not so long ago occupied by probably the newest official inhabitant in His Domain.

    “You honour me, My Lord,” I say.

    As ever He is dressed simply in His personal formal garb. Anywhere but here it would be out of place. “It is deserved,” He states, looking around the nearly empty hall. “You made a memorable show tonight.”

    “I suppose that depends on one’s tastes,” I say.

    “I told my seneschal I would talk to you about it, and so I am,” He says. He does not sound angry.

    “Your seneschal does not entirely approve of my methods,” I reply.

    “And you do not entirely approve of her,” My Lord says, still unremarkable in tone.

    “I respect her abilities. She is a most able member of your Household, and an excellent Seneschal. It is your approval that matters, not mine.”

    “And yet you never seek to sway it.”

    “My Lord…”

    He cuts me off with a wave of His hand. “Peace, Albert. It matters not.”

    Lady Anne has been observing us, but circumspectly. I hope this show is also sufficient.

    My Lord continues, “I said I would see you before you go, now seems opportune. You are fully prepared?”

    “Tolerably so. For all the ease of travelling these nights, with trains and steamships, and even newer contraptions, I think in some respects it is harder now than it used to be to actually go to place.”

    My Lord snorts. “I have decided to ask you for an additional favour, whilst you are over there.”

    “My Lord?”

    He pauses some moments, unlike him. “Have you heard rumours of a new line from the Carribean?” There is an interest to His speech that was lacking before.

    Ahh. “Rumours, yes, of varying provenance. Nothing I would count as knowledge.”

    “Ahriman stalks us, it is true,” My Lord says, “but Ahura Mazda has offered me a little illumination. There is a new line, with its own distinctnesses. One in particular - it is held that they resemble corpses. Not dry and desiccated, but a form both foetid and foul, in a state of active decay.”

    I know why this would have attracted My Lord’s attention. I wait some minutes. “What would you have me do?”

    “If you can find one, invite them here. I would know of them.”

    “Sureties?”

    “In this matter I will consider myself bound by your word, Albert. I trust I will not have to rue that undertaking.”

    A human might have swallowed. I have lost the instinct. “And on the matter of my invitation?”

    He shrugs. “Find out what you can. Promise nothing you cannot personally keep. And return.”

    We wait some more minutes. “I think something important may be about to happen in the United States,” I say.

    He says silent a time before speaking. “You will have an opportunity to investigate that as well.” I nod. “How are your studies?” he asks.

    “None since I returned, until then some small progress.”

    He nods. “I will give you a gift, something to occupy your time in your voyage. You may find it useful, now or later.”

    “Thank you, My Lord,” I say.

    “I must be going,” he says, and stands, then turns. “Albert, I mean it - return. Sending you on this errand - trying to find a member of this new line - these are whims. I would be grateful for any success, but not so grateful as to lose you.” He pauses, and then fixes me with his stare, switching to a far older tongue. “Your first aim is to return.”

    “Lugal,” I say, in the same language.

    “Good. Ahura Mazda light your way.” With that He leaves me. He strides back towards the dais, says something more to Lady Anne, and departs through the same door He had entered.

    It is the Blood Court of London, in its eleventh hour, and for the first time tonight I feel unsettled.
     
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    Eohric II

    My new owner does not set a fast pace, walking his horse gently through the dark and quiet streets. Beside me walk two guards. Perhaps they flank me in case I run, but what is the use of that? My new owner said my old owner had been wasteful with his treatment of me - what does that mean?

    It is too much for my pain-numbed mind to think through.

    The horse is of good stock, I can see that just by looking. Well-groomed, not overweight or underfed. Not, I think, meant for war. My new owner’s cloak is a fine-trimmed fur. A sharp stone jags into my foot through my wrapped rags, and I stumble. One of the guards pulls me upright and gives me a gentle push forward. My new owner looks behind at me, and glances down, and then looks forward again.

    It is a long enough walk, but probably not that far given the slow pace, when we approach a small compound, the gate part-open, a man on watch. He calls in as he sees my new owner. The guards beside me shift as we enter the yard. A fair-sized space is enclosed, with a straggle of buildings abutting the wall - a stable, perhaps a warehouse, and some others. On one side of the compound is a fine, if not large, townhouse. A groom takes the bridle of my owner’s horse, and my owner dismounts.

    I stand waiting. My owner looks at me, and then speaks to another attendant, who runs off to the stable. Yes, definitely a stable, the groom is taking the horse there now. A few moments later and a large, bleary-eyed man emerges. My owner walks over to him, and they exchange some words. My owner points at me, and the man makes an obeisance. Turning his head to survey the whole area, my owner then strides over to the house, whilst the large man walks to me.

    He is truly large - tall and broad both. When he speaks his voice almost rumbles. “So, you’re the new boy. What’s your name?”

    “Eohric,” I reply.

    “Hmm,” the man peers down on me - my head is barely higher than his belly. “Today you are blessed, Eorhic. I have been instructed that you are to rest, and to be fed. Later you can do what light tasks we have for you, and then later still you will be washed and will meet with your new Master. Understand?”

    I don’t know what to say.

    “Well?`” the man asked, his low rumbly voice rising in volume.

    “I uhhh - I will do as asked, but no, I don’t.” And I don’t. This is all very strange.

    “Hmmm,” the man inspects me further. “Well, I suppose you don’t at that. But no matter. Do as you’re told. Come, you can rest in the empty stall until Prime, when we eat.”


    The Past I - Nora - April 1859

    Nora’s entire being seems to sing with the thrill that, after so many years, she will see a sunrise again.

    She can still taste the earth. When her torso fell she got a mouthful of it, and even though she turned her head to watch the denizens of the city depart - few looking down at her dismembered form - hours later the soil-flavour lingers. What was it one of the old Lepers had told her - mud survives?

    Mud might, but her time was nearly done. Her guilt had been well-constructed, copper-bottomed. Lady Anne had read out the sentence. Her Sire, Regent Valerius, had watched impassively, never speaking. The Satrap had approached, his expression was almost bored. He took the sword. She braced herself, and then she fell - her torso freed of its limbs, and toppled forward.

    Lady Anne then concluded her sentencing. Technically it was not an execution, but it might as well have been. If any helped her, they would be marked - made Accountable. The language of the pronouncement was clear - and as she watched her fellows leave she knew even her blood had decided she was not worth the risk of saving.

    She had known it was coming. Lady Anne had made a point of telling her. Nora had resolved not to beg - and that promise to herself, at least, she kept.

    It is getting late now. Everyone had left, apart from Lady Anne and the Satrap. The one to kill her should she do aught to help herself, the other to ensure there would be an accounting on any who tried to save her. The sky is lightening.

    “It would be a kindness to make it clean,” Lady Anne says.

    There is a silence.

    “So you desire her to suffer?” This time Lady Anne’s voice is sharper. Some more moments. “Satrap Albert!”

    “Yes, my lady,” the Satrap now replies, his voice smooth. “You wish me to break the sentence you yourself decreed?”

    Now Lady Anne pauses before replying, “Does this have a point, Satrap?”

    “You gave Nora until the dawn. Are you not a person of your word?”

    Nora feels like telling them to stop bickering. If these are her last moments of life, the least they could do would be to let her enjoy the sunrise in peace.

    She hears movement, and feels herself being lifted up. Satrap Albert holds her in front of him - hours ago maybe she would have screamed. Now she has a strange calm.

    “Tell me, little zealot, do you wish to live?”

    Nora cannot see Lady Anne, but she hears her draw a deep breath.

    “Who is going to claim me? You?” she spits back, suddenly angry at the question.

    “If you will have me,” the Satrap replies with a quiet voice.

    “Albert!” Lady Anne exclaims, but Albert ignores her.

    Nora tries to speak, but cannot make any proper sound for a few seconds, then croaks out a “Why?”

    “You were not sentenced to death, I see no reason why you should suffer that fate.”

    Nora does not understand why she is being offered this chance, but she knows it will not be offered again. What was it he said? “If you will have me,” she says, and for a moment she sees the Satrap smile.

    “A moment,” he says and places her gently on the ground, propped upright. “Yes?” he says to Lady Anne.

    “Are you insane?” the Lady says. “You are an officer of this court, you cannot -”

    “I am a Satrap of Lord Mithras, my lady,” Albert intones, “and I am a resident of the Domain of London. I serve the Domain. The Domain did not declare Nora’s death. And so I claim Nora, in line with your judgement. You have no grounds on which to be dis-satisfied.”

    Nora sees a real rage build within Lady Anne, and sees the effort it costs her to restrain it. “My Sire -” she begins, but the Satrap interrupts.

    “Your Sire is Regent only, and though he hopes otherwise my Lord still walks the Earth. You might remember that, my Lady.”

    “Why?” she says again.

    “I have already told you. But you should leave now, my Lady,” the Satrap says softly. “It will be day soon, and our business here is done.”

    He turns, and scoops up Nora, and leaves before Lady Anne can make a reply. There is a carriage waiting for him, and he places her on the seat beside him.

    “Why?” Nora asks. “Why save me?”

    Albert looks down at her broken form, and smiles a little. “Would you believe me if I said I told Lady Anne the truth?”

    Nora doesn’t, but neither does she press. She knows she will have to pay a price for this delivery, and she hopes it is not too dear. But for now her entire being seems to sing with the thrill she will not, after all, see the sun rise.


    End of Chapter 1
     
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