by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
illustrated by safelybeds
The gentle folk up top could keep their fine houses, their gardens staid as soldiers, their broad thoroughfares made for fancy horses and fancier carriages. Boney Jim loved the sewer, and she loved him.
Oh, your better class of people would faint dead away at the stench, and sure there was stench enough to be had. It was a life of wading in knee-deep piss and wash-water afloat with adventuresome turds, no doubt about that, and shoving both your daddles into a heap of shit as often as not to see what was beneath. But there were riches to be had down in the muck, and beauty too: the murmur of the water in the channels, the drape of cobwebs and darts of occasional light from above, the crumble and moss of stone archways overhead. A cathedral underground, it looked sometimes to Jim: the one where he went, like any pious countryman, to kneel at the foot of his Queen.
Rattus Regina, her Majesty of the Underneath, lay spread out now on his old filthy velveteen coat at one bricked edge of the water, bare and spent from all his good works in her service. She was a sight more gorgeous even than any other curve or coin of the sewer-lands: her supple curves of flesh gleaming gold in Jim’s lantern-light, her pale hair caught all up around her head in an unlikely bulging corona that made it four times its size, with the ominous scuttlings and scufflings of little feet sometimes heard from within. Her eyes were sharp and black, black as the dark down here if an unexpected tide of filth chanced to douse your lantern, and she bared her strong yellow teeth at him when she smiled, sweet as honey. She looked to him like a goddess in some temple of the East, all bubbies and serenity and wisdom, her extra arms perhaps tucked away for safe-keeping.
“That was sweet as can be, my pet,” Regina said, in her strong high cracking voice, a voice like the chatterings of furry little bodies in the walls all melded together and made one. She stroked her filthy hand along his bare arm, a bunch of freckled muscle narrow enough to have given him his name. “Now what have you for me this time, hmm? What’s my poppet brought for his fair Queen?”
Jim returned her smile, bashful as a boy, and dug into the many pockets of the coat under her hip. She pulled herself up a bit, eyes glittering with interest, to watch. At last he curled his hand round what he had brought, and drew it out: one treasure of the many he had found in the deep, the tithe he gave her on top of his mouth and cock in thanks for the loot she led him to, a pittance really for all she provided. The locket itself slipped from his hand as he lifted it, danging by its chain from his fingers. It was a pretty thing, to be sure, small but done all in gold, with a lovely filigree of leaves and vines round the centre of its oval.
But in spite of that, he hadn’t expected the way she would react to it. The way her interest flared suddenly into a white-hot fire of intensity, or how she snatched it from his hand with a mix of greed and purest reverence, dangling it instead before her eyes.
“Oh, my pet,” she breathed, the heat of her wind leaving just the faintest fog on the fine gold surface. “This is a treasure, better than any I’ve seen. You could scarce have known what a marvel you had in your heavy pockets, could you?”
Jim grinned, but some part of him was uneasy; as much delight as it brought him to have pleased her, he didn’t see quite the reason why he had. “‘Tis a pretty thing, isn’t it?” he agreed, laughing a bit to shake away the shadows. She turned her eyes on him then, though, and that swept away his disquiet in an instant, for good and all. There was nothing to compare with being, just for a moment, the sole subject of her Majesty’s regard.
“Pretty indeed,” she said, kind as could be, and he went reassured into her reaching arms, to be cradled to her breast. “What a fine lad you are, my Boney Jim. How faithfully you serve, every time you meet your Queen.” Her smile, upside-down to him now, split wide into a grin. “Such an excellent gift deserves a kiss.”
And he tipped his mouth eagerly up for her reward, and it came to him sweet and glorious… and then just as swiftly, far too full of those strong yellow teeth, until his screams rang up into all the vaulting stone above the run of London’s offal.
I. ADVERTISEMENTS OF SERVICES RENDERED.
Three Nights Only! (Aug. 17, 18, 19)
WESTGATE MUSIC HALL.
ILLUSIONIST & MALE-IMPERSONATOR!
[Here the handbill is adorned with an artist’s likeness of a person with dark hair and eyes, dressed as a dandy in a gaudy evening costume with top hat and red-lined cloak. Surrounding miniatures depict such marvels as a levitating candle burning at both ends and a burst of doves from under the cloak, as well as bouquets of flowers and musical notes.]
“Marvel at the Wonders of the East”
ASTOUNDING VISIONS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE!
NEW WONDERS! NEW SONGS! NEW ILLUSIONS!
Come And Witness The Unbelievable!
[And scrawled on the handbill’s back, in some unknown elegant hand for only the benefit of some particular unknown eyes: “Come round the back entrance, after the Saturday show. 5 pounds, in advance. You’ll not find a better offer.”]
In the company houses and slums along the Essex marshland and the Royal Docks, they look after their own, as best they can. The stevedores and sailors tip each other off to who’s hiring, who pays best, who beats the men, who’d just as soon throw you in the water as give you what you’re due. All right, they might hold the best tips close to their own chests, but who wouldn’t? If the family two doors down has nothing to eat this week, the next few along the row can make do with a little less, and usually do. They trade helpful talk sometimes over their stoops and their washing: how to keep the constant smell of offal and varnish and boiling oil out of the house, how to plug up the leaks come winter, how to get tar out from sailcloth. Some of them hailed from the West Indies, others from Nigeria and Ghana, but they are all Londoners together now, and they’ve learnt no one will mind them if they don’t mind themselves.
Most of them dream of the same sorts of things that people usually do, wherever they may live: beautiful faces and shapely curves, either on themselves or on someone else; gold in endless measure and all the fine things it could buy; luck in love and pleasures of the flesh; more children to bring in more pay, and to care for them when old age comes too soon. When these dreams are thwarted, though, or when they become obsessions too powerful to be borne, there is one piece of advice that passes in whispers here that doesn’t in other places. There is something that they know here that people other places don’t.
I hear you, sister, one friend will sometimes say to another, under her breath, when the baby is asleep and the sound of the laundry on the board is loud enough to cover it up. He’s a pig, carrying on with a girl half his age with a good woman like you at home, he should get what’s coming to him. Or: If you could just get one stroke of luck, you could keep the food in those little ones’ mouths for a whole year, maybe. Or: A few more pounds on that bosom and those hips, and he’d have eyes for no one else, I’m sure. Or: It happens to a lot of these men as they get on in years, I know, but that doesn’t mean you have to want for a good stiff prick for ever.
It doesn’t have to be for ever, they whisper. There is a way. There is someone who can help. Oh, it will cost, it always costs and more dearly than you might expect, but it will never cost more than you can afford — even if you don’t have a single penny to your name. But if you’re willing to pay, what you need can be bought. There’s nothing she loves more than working out a deal.
Sister, you need to talk to the river.
II. AN AGREEMENT, OF SORTS.
“I don’t suppose,” the Count said with all the good cheer she could muster, to the leftmost of the two strapping fellows marching her along by her arms, “that you might consider letting me walk in under my own power? Seeing as I’ve approached in the spirit of friendship, you understand.”
The man at least deigned to cast her a look, though neither he nor his partner made any effort to arrest their progress through the narrow twisting paths between stacks of old freight and supplies. They carried no lanterns, and the dockside warehouse was almost as dark as the night outside save some orange light flickering up ahead, but it was still easy enough to see the scepticism writ in every line of his face. She supposed he would cut a fearsome figure to most who might stray here: a prodigiously large man with skin almost bluishly black, hat perched at a rakish angle on his shaved head, strong dockman’s arms left bare under his vest.
“Friendship,” he repeated, and sounded almost amused. Unlike some of his fellows, his accent was nothing but pure East End. “My Lady don’t count you any friend of hers, wizard. It’s your luck you’ve not got a knife at your neck to boot.”
The Count sighed, attempting in the process to blow away a stray lock of hair tumbled from her hat across her face. Maddening to lose the use of her hands for several reasons. “Ah. Yes. Seldom have I been hosted so graciously by people I was attempting to assist. I must pen a formal note of gratitude immediately on my return.”
The man did not seem to care to respond to that, which she imagined she might have expected. They picked their way through a few more claustrophobic harrows of boxes, and then rounded a last twist of piled crates into a sudden, far more open space. Before she could get a good look round, the Count was slung unceremoniously ahead of the two men and to the floor, and could scarcely suppress her “oof” as she stumbled forward. She staggered up quickly, though, recovering herself and adjusting her hat, before pulling back to her full height.
“Well,” she said, and then, “er. Good evening. It’s been some time, hasn’t it?”
The woman in front of her at first only raised a perfect eyebrow. She was precisely as the Count remembered her from their last encounter: long and graceful as running water, with the voluptuous tidal swells at her breast and hip crossed over by ropes of gold coins, beads, and shells, and swathes of bright yellow wax-printed fabric that seemed more meant to decorate her bare flesh than clothe it. Her skin was a lovely deep brown that glowed burnished in the light of the oil-lanterns, and she had large and intense eyes in a paler umber, prominent cheekbones softened with rounded edges, tapering to the point of a stubbornly thrusting chin. Her hair was wrapped into a dense rounded pillar atop her head by more twists of fabric, and studded with more gold ornaments. Complete with her makeshift throne of draped shipping-crates and cartons, backed by a luridly pink carved edifice with extremely suggestive fleshy seams worked into its designs, all before the huge arched window where this forgotten corner of the shipping warehouse looked out across the surface of the moonlit Thames, the complete picture made her look like exactly what she was: a little queen of her own private kingdom.
“Not long enough,” Òkunkun said at last, in a very measured tone. The accent with which she spoke was something unfamiliar to the Count, a lilt that made her vowels bright and tart and each syllable trip ahead or drag behind into unexpected rhythms. “Count Pennyroyal. What are you doing here? I thought I had made it plain that you were not welcome in my territory.”
“Yes, your men were quite plain on that point as well. The issue is not, I assure you, one of any confusion on my part.” The Count paused, to try to take the measure of Òkunkun’s mood, but could read little past the deliberate neutrality of her eyes. Well, nothing for it but to plunge ahead. “I would not have come if it were not a matter of some urgency. You see, something has come to my attention that concerns us both. Or it should.”
Òkunkun did not move, or even change expression, not truly. Yet something in her affect, the Count was quite sure, had begun to shift subtly. Perhaps a glimmer of interest, buried deep in her regal gaze. “And what would that be?”
“Do you happen to know the name Rattus Regina?” the Count asked. “It’s come up before in our… mutual circles, such as they are. Thus far, I understand she’s mostly operated to the south-west, on the Surrey side.”
“The madwoman who skulks in the sewers with vermin?” Òkunkun said, with a drop of disdain that perhaps didn’t allow enough for how many rats must run in the walls of her own dockyard throne room. “I am familiar with her, and more than I care to be. What concern is she of yours and mine?”
The Count smiled. She did love to have an audience finally on the hook. “The concern that she’s no longer confining herself to the south-west, my dear lady. She has, in fact, been at work in Poplar for at least some fortnight past. And even if we were to overlook such uncivilised behaviour as to occupy a disputed borderland, I have intelligence that she does not intend for that to be the end to her expansion.”
It was no longer just that Òkunkun didn’t move; she was now positively still as a statue. “And where did you learn this?” she asked, after letting that sit in only a moment’s deadly cold silence. The Count allowed the curve of her lips to widen, into a grin she was aware was not as pleasant.
“Well, that is an interesting matter, as it so happens — because you see, I don’t know.” Òkunkun looked briefly nonplussed, and then frowned deeply; the Count was going on almost before she could complete the expression, however. “I woke this morning with the certainty deeply embedded in my mind that Regina has been working Poplar, and that she intends to encroach into Limehouse and Canning Town both, challenging both of us in the process if need be. I know it as surely as I know my own name. But I also have not the slightest notion of the source of this knowledge, nor in fact, on consideration, can I remember any portion of my own whereabouts for the entirety of yesternight since dusk.” She glanced up at Òkunkun again, and offered her look of closely-guarded blankness a slighter and somewhat more real smile, if still a bitter one. “It’s a suggestive state of affairs, to say the least. I can only assume that my memory has been tampered with by another sorcerer, to an end at which I cannot currently so much as guess. The knowledge that I do still retain is, as such, very likely intended as a trap.”
“But you believe it to be true?” Òkunkun said, tilting her head a bit on one side. Her hair made the effect rather more dramatic-looking. “More than that, you expect me to believe it to be true, to the point that I should do something about it?”
The Count shrugged, spreading her hand. “I investigated the rumour of her activity in Poplar and found it verified, at least. As for her further intentions, I would say that the means rather speak for themselves in this case, wouldn’t you? Interfering with me in some way I can’t remember and then implanting this message in my mind does make for quite the gauntlet thrown.”
Òkunkun appeared to give that a moment’s consideration and then nodded, slowly. “I don’t disagree. And I take your meaning. I know from personal experience that you don’t exactly go about unguarded.” The Count attempted not to smile too much — remembering fondly the time she had been making arrangements with a wealthy gentleman whom Òkunkun had considered her to be poaching, considering that he owned an ink manufactory in Canning Town, and thus had sent some of her cabal to spy. How long had it taken those poor men to recover the use of their hearing, she wondered? Hopefully not too long. They’d only been doing their jobs. “If this… Regina would dare do such a thing to you, she would harm me and my people, too. She needs to be stopped. If it is a trap, it should be met and disarmed, not ignored.”
“Precisely my thinking,” the Count began — but Òkunkun cut her off neatly before she could gather any more wind in her sails, sitting forward on the edge of the makeshift throne at last with eyes glittering.
“But I cannot possibly imagine,” she went on, right over top, “that you think you are here to propose an alliance. Between us.”
The Count sketched a little bow, the tail of her cloak rustling. “Is it so unthinkable a prospect?”
“Yes,” Òkunkun said, so board-flat that any possible response the Count had been conjuring was at once thrown off-course. She did have quite a way of stopping one short. “You do remember the incident at Blackwall Yard?”
The Count hesitated, and then put forth her most charming smile. “Water under the bridge, surely.”
Òkunkun’s eyebrow raised fractionally. “The occasion with the collier and the poisonous lizards?”
“Professional differences,” the Count said, smoothly. “I’m sure you can understand my position. And they were not actually poisonous.” Under Òkunkun’s steady flat stare, she eventually cleared her throat slightly and adjusted her waistcoat, and added in undertone, “They were venomous. There’s a difference.”
“What happened to that poor man from the Labour party?” Òkunkun said nearly over her, slightly louder. The Count held up a quelling finger.
“That was an accident.”
“It was absolutely deliberate!”
The Count froze, and then relented. “All right, it was, but… many of the consequences were unintended.” The only change in Òkunkun’s expression was to become slightly thicker with thunderclouds all along her brow — possibly literally, her people might have said — and at last the Count sighed. “I will admit, certainly, that we’ve had our minor disagreements in the past. I will even go so far as to admit that I… may have been… less than entirely scrupulous on occasion in my defence of my business opportunities.” Òkunkun snorted very loudly. The Count felt it would be most polite to ignore it. “But I will also remind you that I did not need to warn you about Rattus Regina’s designs on our territories, nor the danger she may pose to your person and your people. On this occasion, on this night, I have come to you with olive branch extended, in the service of your interests.”
“Because in this case, you need my help to protect your own,” Òkunkun said. The Count smiled with her teeth.
“How better for you to be able to trust my intentions?”
Òkunkun watched her for a moment, as one would a bug under a glass. At last she said, perhaps a touch less flatly, “That is not an unfair point.”
She finally turned her gaze away from the Count’s, downward, in introspection or calculation or both, before turning them upward again — and as she did, rose from her seat at last. Fabric flowed around her and chained trinkets clacked and tinkled against each other as she stepped down from the platform her throne was set upon, down onto the same floor the Count occupied. Her men, positioned with all their visible and hidden weapons to either side of where she had sat, shifted uncomfortably and glanced at one another, but did not make any move to intercede. She moved like water flowing as well: a roll of one hip into another, such lovely grace on the surface that it could distract the mind from the unknowable depths beneath.
“I do not like to be threatened in my own domain,” she said, when she had come up directly in front of the Count. Even without her hair towering like that, she stood at least a full head taller than the Count, although to be honest, quite a few people did. “Particularly not by an upstart who’s paddled her way to me through shit, enchanting rats all along the way. If you had not already observed her at work in Poplar” –a word she shaped so roundly in the workings of her tongue that it came out sounding like some sort of a delicacy– “I would consider it beneath my dignity even to rebuke her transgressions.” She paused there a moment, meeting the Count’s eyes, and then perhaps softened slightly, looked troubled slightly. “But if she has entrenched herself there, that means she must be taken seriously. That means I must take her seriously. And I do not have the information that you have about this matter. So for that reason, and that reason alone… I am willing to work beside you, Pennyroyal. Temporarily.” Another pause. “Very temporarily.”
“You do me too much honour,” the Count said, sweeping off her hat to bow low over it with a flourishing skirl of her cape, neither of which was without irony. Òkunkun watched her impassively.
“Yes,” she agreed, before the Count had even drawn fully upright again, and began to walk past her. “We leave now, then. I would not do this by daylight.”
“You do have a change of costume, I assume?” the Count couldn’t hold back saying, as she was hastily rising and turning to follow while she set her hat back on her head. She had a great deal of practice in suppressing her irritation with people, but Òkunkun had a way of straining even that experience to its limits. “I only mean to say, if you go out in the streets in that, you’ll get done for outraging public decency, which may hinder our investigation somewhat.”
“I know my business,” was Òkunkun’s only curt reply, without even bothering to look back over her shoulder as she led the way. In spite of not, currently, knowing where exactly they were going. “See that you mind yours.”
III. A DISCUSSION OF PROCUREMENT IN A PUBLIC BATHING-HOUSE.
True to her word, somehow by the time they set out across the docklands, Òkunkun had changed her apparel for a far less remarkable dress, with a high neck and puffed sleeves and in a much paler shade of yellow. Her hair was likewise no longer sculpted up over her head but had been slicked in some way down to her skull and into a knot at the back, so that its tight curls would at least lie as flat as a white woman’s hair might, with even a hat atop to secure it. The Count could certainly see the utility of that, but it did always annoy her rather how looking “respectable” meant looking as much like a white woman as possible, as though all other ways of looking were manufacturing errors of some sort. Not that she wasn’t complicit in it herself, powdering her skin paler and daubing make-up around her eyes to suggest more of a crease than the lids actually had, before taking the stage — but if you didn’t at least try convincing people they weren’t looking at an Oriental in the footlights, your bookings tended to dry up very quickly. Perhaps the way stupid ideas perpetuated themselves was just that no one could afford to starve in the gutter for refusing to play along.
In any case, they made their way to the road and to the west — without any of Òkunkun’s men, much to their apparent strong dismay as she departed. It would make travel faster and easier, though, and it was beyond all doubt that the lady was quite capable of caring for herself, even in such ill-regarded company. Their destination, as the Count explained as they began to have to wend their way through Poplar’s narrow streets, was the Poplar Baths, where they would find the man with whom she had spotted Rattus Regina in conference earlier that evening.
“Most of his business is done in back alleys, and she was no different,” the Count said, graciously offering Òkunkun a hand across a puddle that she just as graciously ignored, “but tonight is his habitual night for a wash, and the more fortunate we’ll be for it. One does not acquire many pleasant odours in back alleys, for one.”
“Who is this man she spoke to?” Òkunkun asked, glancing around herself as they walked at all the loiterers on the street, many of whom who were regarding her back with at least as much curiosity. “It sounds as though you are familiar.”
The Count wrinkled her nose. “More than I should like to be. Still, one has need occasionally. Tom North deals in weapons — both the ordinary sort, and the types of things that people like us can make use of. He’s dreadful, of course, but I’ve never known him not to fill a request when one was brought to him.”
“Concerning for him to be a stop that this Regina sought to make, then,” Òkunkun commented. The Count glanced at her over her shoulder, and offered a game little grin.
“Isn’t it quite.”
They were at the square, squat building where the baths resided soon enough, and even found the front door mostly deserted; it was a pleasant sort of night, as London went, better suited to drinking and carousing than to bathing indoors. No dirty men could presently be seen passing into the doors with changes of clothes, and only one clean one with laundry under his arm passing out again. That suited their purposes in some ways, the Count thought, and did not in others.
“We ought to avoid attracting attention on our way in,” she said to Òkunkun when they had neared the doors and stepped off to one side, into shadow. “How are you with invisibility?”
“It is not generally my priority,” Òkunkun said, dryly enough to be ironic. The Count only nodded, though, squaring up where she stood.
“Right, I’ll do it, then. A moment, if you please.” She shut her eyes and focused on her breathing, dropping into a light trance almost at once as long practice had taught her. Spirits teemed close, interested in her doings as they so often were, and it was simple enough to reach through the thinned barrier between worlds and coax a few to come back with her, and wreath her and Òkunkun both in their power of passing unseen. When she opened her eyes, she could no longer see Òkunkun or even her own lower self: merely a suggestion of movement here and there in the shadows of the street.
“You’ll have to hold on to me for us to keep together,” she muttered, and held out an arm between them. After only a moment of fumbling, she felt Òkunkun’s hand touch and then wrap around it, and was spared even seeing how reluctantly it might have been done. “I’ll lead the way. And try not to bump into anyone, it tends to spoil the effect.”
“I’m not simple,” Òkunkun said waspishly, which the Count did suppose she somewhat deserved. Rather than respond, though, she took them inside, towards the men’s baths and the stairs to the first class stalls.
If the baths were generally sparsely occupied on this night, the first class areas were nearly deserted. Even if they hadn’t been, though, it would have been simple enough to identify North’s stall by the two street thugs guarding the door. He was far too paranoid even to bathe without protection, which the Count supposed wasn’t unreasonable of him, given what they themselves currently intended. She brought Òkunkun to a stop a few feet away from the men, before they could hear or sense the presence they couldn’t see, and returned her attention to the spirits hiding them, slipping into a brief communion. Her will reshaped them, redirected them, and at last they left off their cover of invisibility and surged instead to wreathe around the guards at the stall door, holding them immobile. Only their eyes could move enough to follow her and Òkunkun’s newly visible forms, as the Count opened the stall door and they strode inside.
North was a lean knobby white man with a narrow weaselly face that came to odd points, with brown hair to his jaw that now hung lank around it with damp. He was reclining in the slipper tub when they came in, a cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth and a half-drunk bottle on the shelf at his elbow, but he was on high alert from the second the door opened, sizing up the threat and already reaching for his discarded coat on the shelf all at once. He relaxed away a little when he saw the Count, but only a little, and she marked the pistol he surely had in there as a potential complication.
“What in blazes are you doing in here, Count?” North snapped, though it was still mushed around the cigar-end. “I know you like making believe, but what you got under them togs still don’t go in the men’s baths.” His eyes fixed on Òkunkun then, as she came up behind the Count with the door shut again behind her, and narrowed. At least he pulled the cigar from his mouth this time. “And here we’ve one not even bothering to pretend. Who’s the–“
“I think,” the Count said extremely pleasantly and with enough force to cut him off like a knife, “that you’ll want to consider very carefully how respectfully you wish to finish that sentence.” She paused briefly, though long enough to satisfy her that North had been entirely thrown off his footing, before continuing. “This is my colleague and peer, the lady Òkunkun, who renders services to her clientele in Canning Town.” She gestured behind her as roundly and graciously as she could, given that there was scarce enough room in the little cubicle for them both to stand.
North looked between the two of them for a moment, and then snorted, brows lifted. “Who’s there to serve in Canning Town?”
“More than I would expect you to know,” Òkunkun said, with arms folded and head haughtily high, and voice loaded with ice. The Count tried not to grin; it was sort of enjoyable seeing that ire directed at someone else for once.
“In any case, we will only require a moment of your time, Mr. North, so you needn’t worry overmuch for your modesty,” she took up the thread again smoothly, instead. “We were simply curious about the needs of a client with whom you met earlier this same evening. A woman of our ilk, who styles herself Rattus Regina, the queen of the sewers.”
North’s face was drawing in as soon as she began to speak, however: becoming closed and narrow by degrees. He did stub out his cigar and set it aside in the process, at least. “Part of what my clients pay for is my discretion,” he said, “as you’d well know, Pennyroyal, having been one of them time to time. If I was doing business with this rat woman, it’s none of yours.”
The Count smiled brilliantly. “Oh, come now, Mr. North, we only want to know what sorts of goods her Majesty might have sought. As a matter of professional curiosity, you understand. We would certainly compensate you for any competitive intelligence you might be able to offer.”
North sat forward in the tub a bit, his eyes glinting under the wet screen of his hair. “And I already told you no. Your money’s not worth the damage to my reputation.” He raised his voice, without ever taking his eyes from them. “Slick! Chester! See these ladies out. They’re done talking.”
“You’ll find your men are indisposed, I’m afraid,” the Count said, with every mark of good cheer, after leaving a beat for the unresponsive silence to deepen North’s frown. He stared balefully up at her with comprehension dawning, only slowly, across his face, and they hovered in that silence a moment — and then he lunged, in the direction she had expected, towards his discarded coat. She was ready, though, and there was no need for spirits now: she just kicked her foot along the bench and sent the fabric sliding out of reach, falling with a suspiciously heavy clunk into a sad heap on the opposite side of the stall floor. North looked back at her, though, with only grim mutiny, and she sought for a soothing tone. “I really do think you’ll find this goes best for you if you cooperate, my good man.”
“The Devil take you,” North said, low and with emphasis. The Count sighed.
“Alas, I feared you wouldn’t agree.” She turned to Òkunkun, mild and polite interest in her tone. “Does enough of this water come from the Thames? I never have been quite certain of the particulars of your style.”
There was no doubt to be found in Òkunkun’s gaze of her understanding. If anything, she actually looked somewhat pleased — a rarity the Count found she enjoyed. “If it flows inside London, it will all serve,” she said.
And North was sitting further forward still, weaselly face purpling with fury, about to shout something else — when Òkunkun lifted her hand, as though to present a point of debate, and the water in North’s tub surged into sudden, violent life. Tendrils of used bathwater lashed like ropes or snakes around his wrists, yanking them hard up against the walls of the tub, and more around his throat, his forehead, holding him immobile with their dingy translucence. Even as he was still in the process of going wild-eyed with shock, even more ropes of water lashed out from the surface and into his face: some stuffing into his nose and mouth, sending him choking and gagging and gargling, and others even battering against his eyes and ears. Muffled, wet sounds of his thrashing and strangling reverberated around the tiny room and off its tile. The Count winced delicately.
That went on for perhaps half a minute, a very short time in actuality and surely a hellish eternity in North’s position. And then Òkunkun’s wrist twitched, and the ropes cramming every hole of North’s face retreated abruptly, although those holding him immobile still remained. His muffled, weakening sounds burst into sudden full audibility, and then dissolved into coughing and spluttering and gagging. He heaved and sagged against his bonds, tears streaming from his red outraged eyes. The Count waited patiently while he ejected the worst of his ordeal from himself.
“What in — bloody hell –” she thought he managed to articulate in a garble down towards his chest at last, thick and wet, and that seemed to indicate further conversation was possible. She turned her smile back on him, warm and sympathetic.
“My dear Mr. North — may I call you Tom? — I can assure you that we have no particular desire to cause you harm. Indeed, we find it a most lamentable necessity.” She paused a moment, but he seemed to have no response to that except more coughing. “And yet, it really is imperative that we know what Rattus Regina’s business with you tonight might have been. Surely you can appreciate our predicament. Our hands, as it were, are as tied as yours are.”
North was able to find some measure of raw, ragged voice then at last, although unfortunately he used it only for a long stream of blistering invective. The Count let it slide past her with no interest whatsoever. By this time, her exposure to such treatment had been enough to render her quite immune.
“No one in this city will deal with you again,” North raged in a rasp when he had apparently run out of curses, glaring sheer poison at her from his hanging head. “I’ll see to it. A pound won’t buy you a single crumb–“
“I think you may be overestimating your popularity in London, Tom,” the Count said, still smiling. By the way North faltered and subsided, too, she was sure he knew his bluff had been called. “But be that as it may, let’s not draw this out any further, shall we? You must see there’s no purpose. Simply tell us what we wish to know, and we’ll be on our way.”
“God damn you!” North spat — but even as she was starting to turn to give Òkunkun another nod, she could see his eyes widening at the corner of her vision, his head jerking up. “No! No, don’t — Stop. I’ll.” He heaved a breath, broke into another spasm of coughing, gasped for his breath. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Buggering hell. Just don’t.”
The Count turned back to him, with polite interest, and Òkunkun pointedly lowered the hand she had begun to raise. He glared at both of them soundly again before gathering his breath to speak, although much of the teeth had gone out of the expression, so far as the Count could see.
“She wanted knives,” he said, croaking like an old bellows. “Good for a fight, and a lot of them — a score in all. I offered her something with a bit more bang to it, if she was looking, but she’d not hear it. Just knives, she says, as sharp as my supplier can get ’em. Will that satisfy you harpies?”
“That will do wonderfully,” the Count said, still all honey and light. “That is quite a lot of knives, though, as you mentioned. Unless she’s planning to sprout a number of extra limbs, our Regina will need more hands to wield those, won’t she? Could you ascertain any plans of hers to that effect?”
North shook his head, his breath wheezing from him. “She’d a couple of them raggedy shit-diggers from off Rosemary Lane in tow, but that was it. Who’s to say she meant to wield ’em at all? She’s mad as old Alfred Bull and then some, from what I saw.”
“She didn’t say she had any additional help? Or interest in acquiring any?”
“Didn’t ask, did I? Not my business.” Almost before North had finished speaking, though, he cut himself off, with his head jerking and the whites of his eyes suddenly showing at all edges. The Count had no need to look round to know that Òkunkun had moved her hand meaningfully upward again. It was hard not to smile: it seemed they worked together far better than either of them might have anticipated. “I swear it!” North squawked meanwhile, starting to try to thrash against his bonds again. “She didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask nothing! I swear it on me life! Christ’s sake!”
The Count glanced at Òkunkun, and made a placating gesture; she dropped her hand again. “You’re quite certain?” the Count said to North again, turning back to him. “You don’t have any idea what she might have meant to do next?”
Trembling, catching his breath, North did at least appear to be thinking desperately. “I — had a couple of the lads keep an eye on ’em, as they was leaving,” he said finally, stumbling on his words. “Said they headed out to the south, towards the Isle of Dogs. And could be… one of the toshers said something about docks? Docks or docking or some damned thing. Not much at all, none of them said more’n they had to. That’s every bit of what I know, I swear.”
“I believe you,” the Count said after only a moment’s pause, soothingly. “Thank you ever so much for your cooperation, my good man. With that, we shall be on our way. Do you see what a simple matter that was, after all?”
North twisted his bound hand into a weak but very rude gesture in their direction as Òkunkun was opening the door again, but neither of them paid it any mind.
“The water will return to its ordinary state when I am gone, and you will be free,” Òkunkun paused to say over her shoulder as they were on their way out. “Perhaps you should use the intervening time to reflect on the words you choose.”
If North had a response to that, though, neither of them heard it. Or saw it, as the case might have been.
Once they were safely back in the dark of the street, the Count also paused a moment to slip into meditation, and call back and release the spirits that she had summoned to bind North’s flunkies. “We should move along with some haste, before they collect themselves to come after,” she said when she’d finished, and straightened her hat “‘South’ on foot and ‘docks’ would mean Regina had some business at the West India Docks, unless I’m mistaken. It does seem a good place to hire on strong men who won’t ask too many questions, though — assuming you don’t get caught poaching them.”
With Òkunkun’s agreement, they headed off in step, towards an alleyway that would both obscure them and take them in the right direction. “Some of my people work there, as well. I may be able to be of more aid.” The Count didn’t feel she had been shirking her portion of tonight’s work in the slightest, of course, and opened her mouth to say so, but before she could Òkunkun was speaking again, in a slightly lower tone. “Who is Alfred Bull? North mentioned him.”
“Ah, indeed.” The Count shrugged, and quite neutrally, she believed. “A rich lunatic who lives shut into his home in Limehouse, for fear of ghosts, I think. North is sought after all around the riverside, so he’s in Limehouse often. I’ve normally met with him when he’s out that way.”
Òkunkun nodded. “Will it be difficult for you, to have lost North as a dealer?”
“You have some notion he might not care to do business with me again?” the Count asked, with a cheeky grin at her sideways. Òkunkun didn’t answer it or the question, though, only watching her with serious eyes, and at last the Count shrugged again. “I hate to burn any contact, of course, but I can’t say I was a regular buyer of North’s. Only the occasional need, as I said. And to be quite honest, it may be worth losing his services in order to also be shut of his personality.”
Òkunkun appeared to nod her understanding at that as well, from what the Count saw at the corner of her eye. After another moment wending down the alley, she spoke again, unexpectedly. “You pronounce my name very well. I have noticed before.”
The Count blinked round at her. “Should I not? It’s only a strong O and then the same thing twice. Not precisely a tongue twister.”
“And yet, the English seem to struggle very much with it, when they bother with the effort at all,” Òkunkun said, and she was smirking this time when the Count glanced at her. “I imagine you may have met the same with your name.” The Count snorted at that, though, and made a point of not looking at her any longer.
“What Englishman would struggle with ‘Pennyroyal’?”
Òkunkun was silent a moment, and no doubt watching her closely, although the Count still did not meet her gaze. “Pennyroyal is not your real name,” she said, at last. There was no question in it. The Count let that sit for another beat of pause, leading the way out the alley’s other end and onto the slightly brighter street again.
“It is now,” she said at last, and nothing more. “This way; it should be easier to break through the fence in the middle, if need be. We’re not far.”
IV. AN INFORMATIVE CONVERSATION WITH A WORKING MAN OF THE DOCKLANDS.
As it happened, however, they never made it as far as the docks proper, which was probably for the best in some respects. Once they had passed west of the railyards along Poplar High Street and reached the northern edge of the dock estate, they were accosted: a man’s deep voice calling across the night-time street, from the stoop of one of the Dock Cottages, and then growing closer until at last they stopped and turned to let the fellow catch up.
“My Lady!” was what he was calling, “my Lady Òkunkun!”, once the Count’s ears could make sense of it through the garble of the night street’s chatter, distant machinery, and the shouts and laughter of wandering drunks. When she and Òkunkun turned, the man caught up short before them on the street’s cobbled edge. He was on the shortish side of medium, eye to eye with Òkunkun when he stood before her, but built thick and stout and strapping under a dockman’s plain vest and cap and rolled shirt-sleeves, his brown-skinned face broad-featured, friendly and handsome.
“It is you, my Lady,” he said, in a mild accent not unlike hers. “I’m sorry to be so rude as to call out to you, I could not be sure–” He actually bowed low then before Òkunkun, as though he were a guest at Buckingham Palace. For her part, Òkunkun smiled back at him like Queen Victoria herself, and let him take her hand to bow over.
“Mr. Adeyemi,” she said, warm and gracious as the Count had never directly heard her. “It has been some time. How do you fare?”
Mr. Adeyemi looked surprised, and then pleased in the extreme, letting out a small breath of laugh. “You remember me!”
“I remember all of my clients,” Òkunkun said, with smooth sweetness. “And does your boon still please you?”
“Oh, ah–” His eyes darted from her to the Count and back again, and then he might have looked a bit flustered as he laughed again, awkwardly. “Yes, it — very much. Thank you, my Lady.” He appeared to collect himself a moment, and then looked at Òkunkun more closely, curiosity and something like a glimmer of worried, half-dared hope in his large dark eyes. “I did not know you would ever come so far in the city. Are you… here to help Benjamin and Ephraim, maybe? And the other men? Did someone back home make a deal with you?”
The Count glanced at Òkunkun, frowning, but the latter appeared to have far more poise and practice than to glance back. Her expression remained carefully neutral, at most enquiring. “Benjamin and Ephraim?”
“Yes.” Mr. Adeyemi paused, uncertain, and then pushed on. “They are men who work on the dock with me, my Lady. They are our people, and good men. There is…” He hesitated again, more and more trouble creeping into his eyes. “There is a woman who has come to the estate the last few nights now. A dirty white woman in rags, with a terrible smile. She comes and lurks around the shadows and asks workers from the docks to come with her, and says she’ll give them better work, that pays better. Many men have gone with her, and — it seems like they choose it. They say it’s good work and they will go. But their eyes look empty, before they leave. It’s strange. It does not seem right.” He would not look away from Òkunkun’s eyes, his own appearing almost pleading. “Benjamin, my friend, left last night without even speaking to me, and Ephraim went tonight. He’s hardly more than a boy. I know nothing certain, but…”
“A sort of Pied Piper in reverse,” the Count muttered. Both Mr. Adeyemi and Òkunkun glanced at her, which she hadn’t exactly intended, and then Mr. Adeyemi looked back at Òkunkun with a questioning frown. Òkunkun quickly resolved her own slightly reproving look at the Count back into benevolent kindness, as she turned her eyes to his again.
“This is a servant of mine, who is helping me at my work tonight,” she said, with a magnanimous gesture at the Count, and went on before the Count could even loudly object. “This woman, who lured these men away — did she say what work she was offering? Or what she wanted with them?”
Mr. Adeyemi shook his head. “None of them said, either. They just went with her.” He appeared to try to control himself a moment longer, and then burst out: “Please, my Lady, will you help them? Even if no one has hired you, I will hire you. I — I do not have much but I will ask the men I drink with to help, they do not like this either. Surely between us–“
“Be at ease, Mr. Adeyemi,” Òkunkun said, her tone gentle and pacifying, her smile small but restored. “You need do no such thing; not every task wants paying for. If these men are our people, then I will look for them, and return them if I can. You have my word.”
“Thank you, my Lady,” Mr. Adeyemi said, sighing it all out at once in a rush of relief. “You are very generous. Thank you.”
“You have no notion where the woman might have gone with them?” the Count asked — not even too shortly, she thought, considering her lingering truculence over the “servant” comment. Mr. Adeyemi shook his head, his brow creasing again.
“No, sir,” he said, “I have not.” She didn’t bother to correct him; it was usually simplest not to, and it wasn’t as though she precisely minded.
“Your friend Benjamin, then, or this boy Ephraim — do you have anything of either of theirs? Or know where anything might be found? Anything at all will do, so long as it was amongst their possessions.”
Mr. Adeyemi looked quite understandably perplexed, but he asked no questions after he had glanced at Òkunkun and she had slightly nodded. “Yes,” he said, hesitatingly, glancing between them. “Benjamin and I shared our rooms with some of the other workers. He left most of his belongings there.”
Probably another reason why Mr. Adeyemi had been concerned, if this Benjamin had not returned. The Count nodded her understanding. “Would you be so kind as to let us see them?”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Adeyemi said — his relief no doubt still carrying him along beyond questions. “These are our lodgings, on the end here. Please, come.”
They followed him through the few late-night passers-by, and then off the street to approach the front of the door along the estate housing that he had indicated. The full row was made up of squat nondescript buildings, dingy and already tired-looking for all their newness: the bare minimum that the West India Company had been willing to afford for the comfort of its menial workers. A gaggle of other men dressed much like Mr. Adeyemi, a few of them just as brown but more in some shade of white, were sat around the stoop or leant up against the wall beside it, passing around a bottle and some smoking noisome cigarettes.
“Who’s them two, then, Adams?” one of the white men called from where he sat, pointing the neck of the bottle up at the Count and Òkunkun with a sloppy grin. Mr. Adeyemi might have snuck a guilty look at Òkunkun when he was called by that name instead of the one she’d used, but if so, she appeared to pay it no mind. “Is the toff along to watch, in trade for paying her off after? Right clever for a dirty bugger!”
The group broke into an uneven roar of laughter at this witticism, but Mr. Adeyemi rounded on the man at once, stiff with dignity and fury both. “Mind your tongue!” he snapped, thunderous and forbidding, and it was either convincing or unexpected enough from him to quiet them all at once. “This great Lady is what keeps food in your mouth, and the ships out of the mud. You will show her and her man the respect they are due.”
“You what?” the man who had spoken said, albeit in a somewhat more subdued tone. Mr. Adeyemi ignored him, however, having already turned to the door of his lodgings to let the Count and Òkunkun inside.
The interior was much as they might have expected: a few small rooms with low ceilings and few windows, shabby and sparse and dusty, only uncluttered by virtue of there being precious few possessions with which the men who lived there could clutter it. Mr. Adeyemi led them unblushingly into a set of sleeping quarters crowded with too many mostly-bare cots, and then directly to one near the middle of one side, which was not especially different from any of the others. He rooted under it and drew out a canvas sack, which he peered into with rather touching care, and then removed from it a plain cross made of dark wood.
The Count accepted it when he held it out to them both, as respectfully as it seemed to deserve, she hoped. Holding it in her palm, she closed her eyes and breathed her way into a new communion with the spirits, and drew them in around her, showing the cross to their curious gaze. With the benefit of their sight, she could see the energy that wreathed it, the traces of the being of its owner that long possession and care had wrapped around it. And once she could see that, she could see also the line of that same being that led away from here: through the wall and out towards the street again, and away across the city, back more sharply to the north-east and at some distance. The lingering energy that led to where the man who matched it could be found now.
She opened her eyes and looked to Òkunkun to speak, but Òkunkun was already nodding at her, looking brisk and ready. “I can follow him as well,” she said. “He has worked on the water for years. It clings to him, and I can trace it.”
The Count stared at her for a heartbeat, before scowling. “You could have mentioned that before I dragged us all in here, spirits included.”
Òkunkun smiled, all demureness laced with a devil’s gleam. “You didn’t ask.”
The Count was about to say something even crosser back to that when Mr. Adeyemi, whom they had both quite forgotten for the moment, interrupted. He seemed more than polite enough to affect not to hear their byplay, at least. “Will you need to keep his cross, sir? To follow him?”
With one look at his face, the Count shook her head, and placed the wood trinket gently back in the lighter palm of Mr. Adeyemi’s dark hand. “Keep it,” she said, and found more warmth creeping into her eyes and the edges of the words than she had entirely intended. “I have all I need for now, and he will want it on his return, no doubt.”
“He will, sir,” Mr. Adeyemi said after a beat of pause, and smiled at her a trust and gratitude that was similarly not precisely comfortable. “Thank you. Thank you both.”
They returned to the street shortly thereafter, leaving Mr. Adeyemi to make to his fellows whatever explanation for his earlier crypticism that he cared to, and fell back into conference once they’d passed alongside other buildings and out of his view. “Back the way we came, but much further,” Òkunkun observed, casting a quick glance along the invisible line that the two of them could nevertheless see. “Perhaps as far as where the railways run.”
“We’d best hire a hansom cab,” the Count said, nodding. Òkunkun gave her a look, however, as though she’d instead emitted some offensive odour.
“Perhaps you think so, getting up as a man,” she said, drawing back up to her full haughtiness. “And how should I look, riding in a cab, and with what seems to be an unrelated gentleman, no less?”
“I beg your pardon,” the Count said, with a note of long suffering, “but are you not the selfsame woman who prances about in scarcely more than a handful of gold when you’re at home?”
“I have never ‘pranced’ in all the time of my being,” Òkunkun said, as forbidding as the stones beneath their feet. The Count eyed her for a long moment, thoughtfully, and refused to give way to the grin that wanted to emerge at the same time.
“That much, in fact, I genuinely believe.” She paused, and then collected herself with a sigh. “You have my word to defend your reputation to any detractors with my life, lady Òkunkun. Not that I entirely understand why you should give a dam in the slightest what any passing Londoner might think of you.” She bowed flourishingly, extending a hand. “With that being said, unless you would enjoy trudging up several miles of river-marsh and meeting me at our destination in some hour’s time, would you do me the honour of joining me in a hansom cab?”
Òkunkun eyed her hand with the extremes of scepticism… and then after a moment, to the Count’s considerable surprise, accepted it with a slight curve of a smile. “I would,” she said, queenly as ever again. “But only because you asked so sweetly.”
Well, the Count supposed with gritted teeth, sometimes one had to make do with what one had.
V. A HANSOM CAB RIDE INTERRUPTED TO INSPECT A PLACE OF BUSINESS.
The cabbie the Count hailed looked at the two of them sceptically, but the Count had always found that in the end a coin was a coin to most of these worthies, and this man was no exception. They piled into the cab in the end, and the Count paid through the hatch, far too generously, for a full hour’s travel, partly to compensate for only giving the quite vague destination of “Stratford” and promising further details as they approached. They rolled down the streets, with Òkunkun now only sat poised with a dignity that seemed to defy any observer to think anything at all of her unseemly behaviour.
“May I ask a possibly impertinent question?” the Count asked, after some few minutes of travel in a quiet that was almost companionable. Òkunkun glanced at her, unamusement writ plain across her face.
“I see no reason why you would break your habit now.”
The Count opted to ignore that, and take permission as granted. “I know with some confidence that your powers include mastery of the waters of the Thames, as I have observed it for myself,” she began, picking her way somewhat delicately inward. “But the men who serve you, and Mr. Adeyemi, and others in your community, they… I have observed at times that they refer to you as though you were, in fact, the river itself. Why is that?”
“Because it is so,” Òkunkun said, complacently. “Those who have lived among my people know me for what I am: the river embodied. It is not that I control its waters, but rather, that its waters flow within me, vast and ancient, and they provide the source of my power. I am òrìṣà: one river and one aspect of the many presided over by Oshun, whom you might call a goddess to many of my people.”
The Count sat with politely raised eyebrows for a long moment after, waiting for Òkunkun to elaborate further or perhaps to reveal it all to be a joke at the Count’s expense. She did not, however, for so long that it seemed that she never would.
“But… you’re not a river,” the Count said, eventually, in a light, reasonable tone that suggested she knew she was currently being made the butt of a joke and was willing to cooperate in that role for the time being. “I suppose you… could be a goddess, or part of one, I have never met one personally and would not know the difference, but you are quite evidently not a river, and least of all that river. I mean to say, we’ve just seen that the Thames is over that way” –she gestured out the cab’s back window, past the driver’s legs and behind them– “and doing the things that a river does, such as flowing, and carrying ships, and, I do beg your pardon, stinking. You, meanwhile, are inside a hansom cab, quite plainly doing the things that a person does, such as sitting, and wearing a hat, and smelling quite nice, actually.”
“You think I smell nice?” Òkunkun repeated, somewhere between amused and incredulous, and the Count actually found herself facing the rarity of being somewhat derailed off her right foot. She cleared her throat slightly to dismiss the altogether uncomfortable sensation.
“That seems… immaterial, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is, certainly you are another powerful wielder of the arcane arts, but you are not — a part of the landscape. It’s a very peculiar claim to make, and I confess I cannot see the utility of it.”
Òkunkun shrugged elegantly. “There is none. It is only the truth. My people accept it as such; why is it you cannot?” The Count opened her mouth to answer, or object again, and Òkunkun saw the frown still deep in her brow and actually laughed, a surprising sound from her in the Count’s experience. “You command spirits to break all laws of the natural world nightly, and yet you cannot understand that two things can be true at once? Yes, plainly I am a woman; but I am also the river you call the Thames. Surely, Pennyroyal, after all your years in this business, your eyes cannot be the only evidence you believe.”
The Count opened her mouth, again, to respond to that… and then let it shut, and considered for another long moment, before speaking. “…I suppose you actually have me there.” She paused for another brief time, continuing to mull the matter over. “Have you… always been a river, then? The Thames has run here since before the time of Christ; am I to understand you’ve been here just as long? Or something like you?”
Now it seemed to be Òkunkun’s turn to hesitate, rather unexpectedly. The knowing amusement that had been in her eyes a moment hence was gone now, and whatever had replaced it was something the Count could not entirely read. “It is only lately that my people have come to live here in numbers,” she said, at last, opaque as the brick passing outside. “I could not exist here until then.”
“That barely answers any of my questions,” the Count pointed out, not unkindly. Òkunkun, however, only smiled at her slightly, and nodded.
…Well, fair enough, the Count supposed. She couldn’t say she didn’t understand having certain things one did not wish to be asked.
“What was the boon you granted Mr. Adeyemi, anyhow?” she asked presently, though — another potentially delicate question, to be sure, but at least a change in subject. Òkunkun only looked briefly surprised, though, and then dismissive.
“Oh, that. He wished his male organ to be larger.”
The Count stared at her for a moment, just long enough to be sure she was serious, and then couldn’t help bursting out in laughter. “And you made it larger?”
“Not at all,” Òkunkun said, serene and smiling as a Madonna. “There is actually a far smaller range of reasonable sizes for that member than men seem to believe, and his was already of an ordinary stature. If I had made it enough larger for him to be able to actually perceive any difference and not feel that he had been cheated, it would have been a monstrosity. An immediate terror to any companion he chose to woo. That would not serve him as he desired.” She waited through a fresh fit of mirth from the Count before continuing, seeming bemused by it but patient. “I made him feel as though it were larger. Which was, truly, the outcome he sought, and the one of most benefit.”
“Do you conclude many of your dealings that way?” the Count said, although she was still grinning. “Giving people what they ought to have rather than what they ask?”
Òkunkun shrugged again. “Some. Helping to pose the correct question can be as important as providing its answer.” She paused a moment, considering, and as she went on she took more apparent pleasure in the telling than the Count had seen in her before, save speaking with Mr. Adeyemi. “For example, one of my clients was a woman whose man had begun to complain that she had grown too fat, and that he did not want her any longer. She asked me to reduce her size so that she could please him. I provided her with oils and told her that she should rub them over her offending parts, and their magic would cause the flesh to fade away. What the oils did, however, was cause terrible irritation: burning and rashes upon her skin. All the same, she applied them faithfully, and she itched and ached for over a week, distracted through her days and kept from her sleep at night. By that time she was in a state of constant fury with everyone and everything — and the next time her lover complained that she was still too large, she flew into a rage and threw him bodily from her house. Then she saw no reason to continue using the oils, and in time she took up with a younger and more handsome man, who thought her body was very fine just as it was.” Òkunkun stopped to glance over at the Count then, and smiled at her stare. “Not the boon requested, but a better one, would you not agree?”
“But that’s not magic, that’s — chicanery,” the Count said, after a moment to find her voice, touched with both indignance and hilarity. “You have real power, I’ve seen it for myself. Why would you then deal in snake oil with those who come to you for aid?”
It was probably going a bit too far for the uneasy peace they’d come to, but Òkunkun did not seem offended. “You misunderstand,” she said. “Magic is a great gift, but it is only one means to an end, and not the proper tool for every task. More often than not, what I must do to truly bring my clients satisfaction is not grant them what they request to the letter, but change their entire perspective on what is the matter.” She offered the Count another, significant smile. “And if you know as much of people as I do and as you seem to, you know that to do so requires more ‘real power’ than making a bit of water move. To change the way that someone has chosen to view the world — if that is not magic, what is?”
The Count tried, several times, to ready a response to that; but in the end, she found she had none.
Instead, in her casting about, she found that her attention caught again on the view passing outside of the hansom: where they were now in the changing streets, and the trail that the spirits illuminated for her. “I think I may know where we’re going,” she said, changing subjects with a new urgency, as she peered out into the night. “But there’s another–” She stopped there, however, interrupting herself to turn and rap on the trapdoor up to the driver. He slowed the cab to open it, and she called up, “Could you let us out at the next corner, please?”
Òkunkun was watching her curiously by the time they had disembarked and resettled themselves, so the Count supposed that whatever Òkunkun detected of their quarry, it was not a full lingering trail like what the spirits showed her. “This isn’t where he is,” she said, although Òkunkun surely knew it, “but he made a stop on his way there. With or without Regina, I cannot say, but it may be worth investigating. I am familiar with the establishment in question, for one thing.”
Òkunkun looked up the street, at the darkling storefronts, and the Count was only a little surprised to see comprehension dawn on her face. “J.M.M. Griffiths’,” she said — another curious thing to hear rolled by her particular tongue. “I know of it, although I have never been. A purveyor of arcane supplies, as I understand. Is that how you know it?”
“Griffiths is an old friend,” the Count said, with a slightly grim little smile, and began striding up the street to the shop in question. “Let’s see what he has to say, shall we?”
The shop-front was as dark as all the rest, and shut up tight, but it scarcely took a heartbeat to gather the spiritual energy to blast it wide. She might have expected Griffiths to be in his rooms upstairs at this advanced hour, but as it happened, he was still at the spindly front counter of the teeming emporium, picking through some task at the till by candle-light: a large solid wall of a man oddly fit to the delicacy of all the items that surrounded him, with his balding pate hatless in his solitude and quivering grey moustaches like a walrus’s.
Or so was their impression in the first instant after the door opened, anyhow, as after that Griffiths had uttered a shrill yelp followed by a wavering, wailing cry of, “Not you! Dear God, not you again!” and dived behind the stacks of boxes by the counter.
After a second to only blink, Òkunkun turned her raised eyebrows to the Count. “Does everyone you do business with despise you?”
“Well, I don’t make their peters bigger, so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage,” the Count said, perhaps a touch peevishly. She raised her voice to carry it behind the counter, as they stepped inside. “Get out from there, Griffiths. I can knock aside a box as easily as a door.”
An indistinct sound issued from behind the boxes, but that was all for the moment. The Count sighed and folded her arms, and waited. After a long moment, Griffiths’ voice floated pitifully out: “Please, Count, have mercy. I’m only a humble shopkeep. I want no part of whatever you’re mixed up in.”
“What do you know of what I’m mixed up in?” the Count asked, frowning, and the silence that answered was telling. “Get out here, man. Have some self-respect.”
After another long hesitation there were shifting sounds from Griffiths’ hiding place, and at least he rose tremulously, head and shoulders, into view. “Please don’t — turn me into anything,” he said, thin with terror and humility, lingering at that height. “I couldn’t bear to be turned into anything.”
“Yes, after a lifetime of being nothing, I imagine it would come as a dreadful shock,” the Count said, all bone-dryness. “Why should you be so alarmed to see me, Griffiths? What have you done now? Forging my testimony for rubber Hands of Glory?”
“Nothing!” Griffiths stammered, even as he rose to his full (and considerable) height with slow caution. “Nothing, on my life, I only thought — well — the way you came in, I thought you must be angry? That something must have gone wrong?”
The Count’s frown was carving deeper than ever, and she took a few steps towards him, in spite of the way he squeaked and backed up towards the wall. “Nothing like that,” she said, though, when he seemed unlikely to offer more. “At least not as far as I am aware. We’re looking for Rattus Regina; I’m sure you must know her by now. She may have stopped in here, or at least one man in her employ did — a gentleman of African descent who ordinarily works on the docks. Do you recall?”
But Griffiths was peering at her through his small round spectacles with slightly horrified confusion, as though she’d gone entirely mad and burst out into tongues. “What — do you mean?” he managed after some moments’ spluttering, more unsteady than ever. “I — of course. Why are you asking? You were with them.”
The sound of Òkunkun’s following footsteps stilled all at once behind the Count, and she found herself quite rooted to the spot as well, staring at Griffiths. Her mind clicking along all on its own. Last night, had Mr. Adeyemi said, of when the man Benjamin had left? She thought he might have done. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, but it came out very soft and dry as paper.
“Quite alarming, I must say, though I mean no offense,” Griffiths was going on over top, though, as apparently she’d been too quiet to hear. “You and that madwoman and all her toughs crowding in here. I had to close up early and take a nerve tonic just to — “
“I came in with them?” the Count asked, still quietly, but able to cut across him this time. Griffiths stared at her a moment, looking more bewildered than ever, and then nodded. The Count gathered her voice, her mind, to continue. “Let us say… for the sake of argument, that I do not remember this. Could you describe what I did, at that time?”
Griffiths was frowning by now himself, which at least calmed his trembling a bit. “Well. I don’t… Very little, as I recall. You only lingered by the door while Rattus Regina conducted her business.” He hesitated a moment, and then added more meekly, “You looked rather displeased, in fact, if I may say so, and not inclined to converse.”
The Count nodded, slowly, thinking much more quickly inasmuch as she was able. “And what was her business? What did she purchase?”
By comparison to North, Griffiths positively jumped at the chance to answer that enquiry. “An amulet,” he said, already beginning to fumble amongst the papers and bills atop the counter again, though far less carefully now. “A peculiar item said to come from ancient Greece, in fact, with a large crystal of salt set as its centrepiece. I can produce the bill of sale, if you would like.”
“Ancient Greece, my eye,” the Count said, with equanimity enough. “I’d wager a pound the thing was strung by two urchins in your back alley for a penny each, like every other piece of junk in this place.” Griffiths might actually have mustered his courage enough by now to look offended at that, but if so she went on without paying it the slightest mind. “…Salt, though? A crystal of salt?” Griffiths nodded, and the Count glanced over at Òkunkun where she had now come up alongside. “Have you ever heard of any magic done with a salt crystal?” Òkunkun shook her head, frowning, and the Count made the same expression as she turned slowly front again. “Ordinary powdered salt figures into wards and traps, of course,” she said, mostly to herself, “but I can’t think what one would want with a crystal of the stuff unless you mistook it for an actual gem. Can’t spread it into a rune, certainly.” She looked back at Griffiths, at last. “Any insight? Why did you carry the thing?”
“I didn’t,” Griffiths said, eyes darting between them behind his spectacles’ magnification. “Rattus Regina requested it as a special order, and to be found the same night, for a suitably lavish price. I cannot speculate as to its purpose; I had to consult many of my contacts even to procure such a rarity.”
“Ah. Three urchins, then.” The Count sighed slightly, and relented. “That will be all, Griffiths, and thank you for your assistance. Please feel free to climb behind the boxes again, if you’d prefer.”
“Why would you have come here with her?” Òkunkun asked when they had left the shop again (and the Count had even been kind enough to fix the door back in place). She was frowning deeply, and the Count could not in the slightest blame her. “And why would she bother to destroy that memory, if you could only come here again and easily learn the truth from that large cowardly man?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.” The Count drew herself up a bit, with a deep breath, settling her person back in order as best she could. “But we’re close to finding out. You can see now where the trail ends as well?” Òkunkun nodded, casting her eyes off briefly in the same direction where the Count would have looked. “I remember hearing bits and pieces when I was a child about Bazalgette’s grand work on the sewers, after the Great Stink — not to draw further attention to the failings of the river you apparently are, of course. That’s when they put in the pumping stations, and unless I’m mistaken, where we are headed is to Abbey Mills. Which makes a great deal of sense, on consideration: such a thing must be like Fenchurch Street Station to a sewer-dweller and her ilk, with enough space inside its workings to hide their doings.”
Òkunkun was nodding again, slowly, taking all of this in. “Then let us make haste,” she said. “The darkest hours of the night are upon us now; I would see all of this behind us by the dawn.”
VI. UNORTHODOX PREPARATIONS FOR ENTERING A PUMPING STATION.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station was set apart across scrubby fields, and they approached up the embankment of the Channelsea, sidling up to it from the south. It was quite the outlandish sight, rising amid emptiness and industry: its ornate arches and windows cut into the brickwork, the high dome of the now-dark lantern, and the spires of its exterior chimneys all making it look more like an Ottoman temple than a home for shit-pumps. The increasing odour, however, left less possibility of mistake.
When they had come up alongside one wall of the massive base of a chimney-stack, passing into its dark-on-dark shadow, Òkunkun caught the Count’s arm, stopping her. “Do you feel that?” she asked, looking ahead with eyes glittering out of the shadow. “I feel power. Far too much of it.”
The Count nodded, glancing at the station and back at Òkunkun, as much as she was visible. “Yes. From what I can glean, she’s spilled blood here. A lot of it.” A grim answer, then, to the riddle of the many men Rattus Regina had apparently enthralled and armed with knives. There did not seem to be a greater concentration of spirits here, however, and with enough men to give to the cause she had hope they might have lived through it, but the thought of them all, blank-eyed under Regina’s command, drawing blades across their own bared arms to spill forth scarlet… it was unspeakable even still. “The place is positively crackling with it. I’m becoming less certain we’re ready for this, to be honest.”
Òkunkun nodded, a shifting in the shadows. “What can we do? I would not use such foul means even if we had them.”
The Count considered that a moment. “I haven’t a focus on my person, but even if I did I’d need one as big as a boulder to match what’s in there. There’s the river, but that’s just a little tributary, it’s probably not enough to do much for you… Sexual congress would work in a pinch, I suppose, but–“
But Òkunkun was laughing now, a bright sound in the dark. “What a romantic proposition!”
“No, I — didn’t–” Once again the Count managed to find herself entirely discomfited as she rounded on Òkunkun, which was very disconcerting in itself. It was deeply alarming to find that her face might actually be heating a bit, something of which she had no longer believed herself capable. “I only meant to say… I wasn’t suggesting that we–“
“Why not?” Òkunkun said, a smile shaping her voice, and more alarmingly still, she was stepping closer. “It seems the most practical solution under the circumstances.”
That wasn’t what the Count would describe as romantic either, but it seemed more prudent not to point that out. “I wouldn’t wish to presume, my Lady,” she said when she had mustered a bit more command of her voice, but was surprised to find it still twisted on her to become far less ironic and more humbly sincere than she had meant. “There are other avenues that could be pursued, if you are disinclined.”
“But I am not,” Òkunkun said, and now her smile was close indeed, the Count actually backed up against the chimney wall. “Are you?”
“I…” The Count was caught up short again, which was maddening. She stared at what she could see of the shapes of Òkunkun’s face and found herself needing to swallow before she could speak. “…I am not, either, no.”
Òkunkun smiled, a faint spreading gleam. “Then it is well. This is one of the areas in which my power concentrates, after all. And I suppose that this evening you have proven yourself… slightly less objectionable than I had found you previously.”
“Clearly you have much to teach me of the ways of romantic seduction,” the Count said dryly, unable to help it this time. But by the time she had done, Òkunkun had already bent to swipe away her hat and press their mouths together; and she had no more voice for rope to hang herself with.
They pressed up against the chimney’s brickwork, entangling. Òkunkun’s hands stroked down the Count’s jaw and throat and smoothed over her lapels, the Count fumbling a moment before finding the presence of mind to clasp Òkunkun’s waist, and then run a hand up between their bodies to cup the sideswell of her breast through cloth. Òkunkun made a soft, pleased sound against her mouth. All at once there was a sense of some tension around her that had been invisible until now, as it gathered itself tighter briefly — and then released. In its wake, for an instant cool water poured seemingly from nowhere over the Count’s hand, startling her quite a bit, and when it had gone the sensation under her fingers changed from fabric to flesh. She startled back slightly from the kiss, just enough to register that Òkunkun was now entirely bare against her, the only thing on her lovely naked skin a sheen of water that was presently dampening the front of the Count’s clothing. For a few seconds she could only stare at this in genuine bafflement, even as she was aware of Òkunkun smirking at her. Did the woman honestly go about clothing herself in only water and magic? The thought was frankly preposterous in its scandalous excitement.
In any case, it was also reason enough to finally tug off her cufflinks, and roll her already-wetted cuffs up to the elbow for the occasion. As well as see to another nagging concern.
“Pardon me, but I must do something about that,” the Count said in a half-whispered rush near Òkunkun’s lips, and did not explain further before easing into spiritual communion — a bit awkward though it was, under the circumstances. A moment later, wisps of power had drawn into a barrier that wove loosely around the two of them: one which quite firmly blocked out nothing but the entire smell of the sewage being pumped.
Òkunkun glanced around them, and then loosed another wonderfully bright laugh, her hands settling on the Count’s shoulders as Òkunkun’s smile turned back to her. “That is a most useful skill for any Londoner,” she said, and the Count’s answering laugh was swallowed up in her mouth again.
Kissing and caressing, they eased their way around the corner of the chimney and up to its stone lower stairs ahead. The Count doffed her cloak to graciously spread it high on the steps for Òkunkun to sit upon, which levelled their heights so that she no longer needed to twist her neck to reach the kiss — somewhat galling though that thought was. Òkunkun made an impossibly beautiful form in the ambient glow of moonlight and distant street-lanterns: her breasts round and full atop the smooth softness of her belly, curving out wide into shapely broad hips and sculpted thighs, every plane and curve dark but gleaming with soft light. As they pressed together, she wound up mostly reclined over several steps, with the Count bracing her own body stretched out over top, her hips clasped between Òkunkun’s long thighs. Her breath hitched and gasped as their bodies ground together, as Òkunkun snuck fingertips inside her waistcoat to tease at the peak of the clothed breast underneath.
Before long the Count could only sag down onto her knees on a lower step, so that her mouth travelled to Òkunkun’s breast and lingered there, teasing the tip of a nipple with the tip of her tongue. Òkunkun arched with a soft sound, her legs spreading wide to welcome the Count’s weight between them. It would have been impossible to resist slipping a hand under herself to press to the place where those legs met, stroking unseen lips and teasing out wetness from between them, as she continued to lick and lightly tug with her mouth at Òkunkun’s breast. And, for that matter, to keep from clambering down to a lower step still, a few moments later, to press her mouth instead to the heat and wet where her hand had been.
Òkunkun cried out softly at the touch of her lips and tongue, a sweet high sound completely unabashed in its pleasure. The Count cupped her lovely hips and rear upward in gentle arms and dragged her tongue upward, from lips to clit, tasting her and feeling with no small satisfaction the quiver in her thighs. She teased her tongue-tip just inside Òkunkun to make her shudder, and then rubbed its broader flat over the hardening little bud of her clitoris, drawing one of Òkunkun’s hands to settle on her hair. She licked slowly at first, aimless patterns, tracing more around its curves than its shape directly, now with all of her tongue and now with as small a teasing tip as she could make it. Òkunkun heaved with panting breath around her, stroking her hair, small tremors coursing through all her flesh from time to time. Perhaps it was only the power of suggestion that made the Count think she tasted like water: the brine of an ocean or flat tang of a river.
She lingered like that for some time, relentless on Òkunkun’s clit, her fingers eventually settling below her own mouth to brush and stroke at the meeting of Òkunkun’s lips. It wasn’t long before Òkunkun’s hand on her hair began to tighten around the curve of her head, and Òkunkun’s breaths began to heave more deeply and catch in the middle, the muscles in her thighs around the Count beginning to twitch and jolt. Her upper body twisted restlessly in place, a soft sound escaping now on almost every pant of breath… and then the Count drove harder with her tongue at one particular angle, still teasing between her lips, and the sounds faltered and then turned suddenly into faster, more urgent cries. The Count redoubled her efforts as much as she could, and Òkunkun shuddered and convulsed — and then arched into a taut, bucking curve, crying out as the flesh under the Count’s fingers pulsed and drenched with new slickness. It was all the Count could do to hold her still enough by her hips to finish out the work, so lost was she in her abandon.
The Count stayed in place a moment, teasing out last shivers and gasps with the tip of her slightly wearied tongue, and then the knowledge of their limited time drove her up to her knees and then her feet again, in spite of the insistent want between her own legs. She wiped delicately at her mouth and made as though to straighten herself up a bit, ready to offer a hand to Òkunkun in tidying up or simply standing upright again — but then Òkunkun was sitting back upright quite under her own power on the steps, and tugging the Count close so she landed in surprise on her knees again, over Òkunkun’s own legs.
“Haste will not serve us,” she said, archly, her eyes sparking brightly below the Count’s for once, and making her swallow again. Her hands at the Count’s waist eased down to her hips, smoothing over the fabric of her trousers. “Stay a while longer. Tell me, do you wear a man’s underthings as well?”
“I should hope not, as he’d be wondering how I made off with them,” the Count said with an unsteady grin. Òkunkun could not seem to help bursting out in laughter, in spite of herself, and swatted at the Count’s hip even as she began to work open the trousers’ fastenings.
The Count’s clothing not being made of water, Òkunkun opted in the end only to tug both trousers and drawers to mid-thigh, the Count’s entirely clothed upper half pressing to her entirely naked one when she gathered them close again. That let Òkunkun slip a hand between the Count’s thighs and press against her, and bring a smile to the Count’s throat at how wet that spot already was. The Count clung to Òkunkun’s shoulders with her eyes shut tight, her head tilted back to allow Òkunkun’s mouth, and focused on her own fast breathing, and on the firm aimless movements of Òkunkun’s cool fingers over the heat of her own lips and clitoris. Heat built high in her, a banked stove, anticipating more.
If she were being completely honest, she had always admired Òkunkun, even when it had been in a far more academic fashion: of course she was beautiful, and sensual, as she had said herself it was a large part of her business to be these things. But it was more than that now, wasn’t it? Even just this single evening was far more time than they had ever spent together, particularly in an amiable fashion, and with that experience she had found Òkunkun to be quite remarkable overall. Strong and poised, and confident in a city that seemed so determined much of the time not even to acknowledge that those who looked like her existed. Clever, quick, funny in her rare, dry way. She was a pleasure, as well as a beauty, and impressive as well as both of those things. It was not so terribly hard to see, after all, why some people might accept her as a goddess.
And now Òkunkun trailed soft lips over her skin, and all the while her fingers pushed slowly inside the Count between her thighs, where the flesh parted and twitched to welcome her in. This was really not where the Count had foreseen this evening going, but she was not at all of a mind to complain. She gasped her breaths and leant on Òkunkun, muscles shaking, as Òkunkun’s two fingers seated fully inside her and her thumb crooked to press the Count’s clitoris, and then slowly her whole hand began to move into a rhythm.
Òkunkun’s fingers worked in her, rubbed against her, and she swayed on her knees and lost count of the time and her breaths. The heat continued to rise until it had consumed all of her, until she was swept away under it, building to a peak that she eagerly sought after. Her cunt bloomed with wet and warmth, soaking Òkunkun’s hand, slicking her own inner thighs, and the pleasure of Òkunkun’s touch turned into delirium and then into need. And then her breaths hitched into gasps and then a soft cry or two, and it all broke open into a burst of light, a climax that tore through her body and left it and her mind both scattered. The throb and cramp of her muscles around Òkunkun’s fingers just drove the sensation to a height that washed white behind her eyes.
And then finally she stilled, and Òkunkun’s hand stilled, in turn, and they stayed hovering for a moment breathing, the Count reorienting herself in her skin and herself by degrees. At last Òkunkun’s fingers began to withdraw, slowly and with the help of the pulses of the Count’s own muscles, and the Count was able to pull herself up a bit to aid the process further, her breath shivering one last time as Òkunkun eased away. She took her time a bit in collapsing back to the step alongside Òkunkun, and then a bit more finally levering herself upward.
When she did push up off the step, though, she was arrested in the process by Òkunkun reaching out and taking gentle hold of her forearm, bared since she had pushed up her sleeves. The Count frowned at Òkunkun, but Òkunkun was looking at her arm — and then the Count knew at once, with a resigned heaviness dampening the aftermath of pleasure, what she must have seen. She followed Òkunkun’s gaze anyway, though, to where the moonlight had picked out the thick white line of scar that bisected her own wrist. Its twin on her other arm was just as plain by her side, both of them bare where ordinarily her cuffs would have hidden them.
Òkunkun’s eyes raised to her own after a moment, with a depth of expression she did not particularly care to see, and the Count smiled as she dropped her gaze and tugged kindly away to begin dressing. “We all have our own tedious little histories,” she said, her tone light due to long practice. Òkunkun said nothing for a moment, only watching her.
“I apologise,” she said at last, and the Count found her tone was one worth appreciating: solemn, respectful, but not pitying. “I did not mean to pry.”
“You didn’t,” the Count said, and managed a more real and more direct smile at her this time. “Shall we? The hour continues to advance.”
Òkunkun rose too at that prompting, and as the Count finished dressing herself and retying the knot that held her hair under her hat (and settling her cuffs back in place), she was actually treated this time to witnessing Òkunkun gathering the water and power around herself that clothed her, seemingly directly out of the air. It was quite a thing to behold: a storm of droplets coalescing from nothing, and then shaping into the solidity of dress and hat and tidy hair. One would never suspect she had been up to anything untoward only a moment before.
With that done, and with no exchange of words necessary, they clasped their dirtied hands together a moment: mingling the fluids of the act, and each drawing in her own way on the power that such an act carried in its aftermath. Where the pumping station still crackled ahead, they now did the same: prepared to face whatever magic Regina had intended the blood of her men to fuel, and have a fighting chance.
VII. THE CONFRONTATION WITH RATTUS REGINA, AT LAST.
The pumping station was just as overdressed inside as it was out: arched and vaulted and lined with ornate metalwork and gilding above the vast tangles of pumping equipment, although what must have been lush and lurid colours on the walls by day were turned shades of grey in the dark. There was no light anywhere inside, although there was no question in the Count’s mind that Regina and her men were in the building somewhere. Likely they did not dare risk lighting lamps, and perhaps drawing the attention of the staff members who lived in the cottages on the grounds.
The two of them made their way up to the central chamber of the building, under the high dome and between the vast pumps. The Count had begun to wonder if they would need to search the entire station, boiler-rooms and sewer access and all, before they found their quarry, but as soon as their footsteps echoed in the center of the building she knew that would not be necessary. She sensed it, in fact, even before the dreadful high chittery voice issued out of the darkness ahead, stopping them both where they stood.
“Why, welcome, dearies,” Rattus Regina said, and tittered jaggedly from wherever she was in the dark. There was also a sound like the skittering of little feet at the edge of hearing, although it was impossible to say whether it was from actual animals out there somewhere, or the echo of her voice. “See, my pets, we have guests. I told you they was coming.”
Yes, even as the Count’s eyes adjusted, she could more sense than see the number of bodies crowded into the opening of the building’s far arm: the men Regina had gathered were with her, stood still and mute in the darkness, no doubt still enthralled. The Count gritted her teeth. If this did come to a fight, it would be a very difficult one — with so many potential opponents that she had no desire to harm, save one.
“It is lovely to have one’s visit anticipated,” she said anyway, her voice ringing off the brickwork, and even swept off her hat in a little bow before replacing it. “As you may imagine, then, we are here to discuss with you certain matters of professional propriety.”
“Is that what you think?” Regina asked, and tittered again, and said nothing more. The Count found a frown drawing into her brow in spite of herself, but took another step forward all the same, and Òkunkun mirrored her beside.
“Show yourself, woman,” Òkunkun said, forbidding and strong as ever. “What is your purpose here? Why have you invaded where you are unwelcome?”
“Ooh, she is quite the bold one, isn’t she, Count?” Regina said — almost confidingly, another note that rang oddly. Not that any of this was precisely ordinary. “What could you mean, dearie? I’ve done nothing to you. I’m just minding me own business, en’t I?”
“But you have done something to me, haven’t you?” the Count put in there, struggling to keep the weight of anger out of her voice. “Or have you forgotten as much as I have?” Regina gave no answer to that at all, though, not even another grating giggle, and the Count’s frown carved to new depths. “What is that amulet for, Regina? What are you playing at with all this?”
“Oh, that old thing?” Regina’s voice floated from what seemed like a shorter distance this time, as though she had come closer, and was all laced with innocence. “Just a pretty bauble, Count. Nothing to be concerning yourself with.” She paused a moment, and now the Count could swear she heard soft footsteps across the tiled floor, moving closer still. “Why don’t you see for yourself?”
And before either of them could respond in any way, a match flared to light, and touched to a lantern-wick up ahead. The lantern was held by one of Regina’s men, a strapping white dockman with an entirely blank expression as he held the light in his hand. But in its glow, he illuminated Rattus Regina herself: wreathed in a gown of filthy rags, dirty hair sculpted up into its customary mad and slightly twitching balloon above her head, huge front teeth bared in a broad and feral grin.
Her hand was held out in front of her, dangling from its fingers a long loop of bulky metalwork and beads. And at the loop’s lowest point, bearing it down with its weight, was a massive chunk of salt that gleamed pinkish-orange in the dim light, wrapped in a circle of beadwork that held it in place. It was a homely, unremarkable thing, all told, nothing that one would associate with magic in the slightest.
And as soon as the Count’s eyes clapped on it, the entire world tilted and shifted. She staggered physically, grunting under her breath, from the sheer force of everything pouring into her mind, battering it, forcing deep into unfelt hollows and filling them to the brim again. Òkunkun’s voice was saying her name sharply, from somewhere miles distant, but she had no breath to answer.
Then it was finished as soon as begun, and she reeled on her feet a moment longer, and then steadied. Her feet firmed up under her, even as her eyes were still fixed on the amulet.
“Are you all right?” Òkunkun was asking, in an urgent undertone, but the Count did not answer. She only took the few brisk steps forward that took her right up in front of Regina, trying not to see the woman’s spreading grin as she took the amulet from Regina’s hands. Hearing Òkunkun’s footsteps, knowing she was hurrying to keep up, to offer support in whatever the Count was doing.
“I’m so sorry,” the Count said, in barely more than a dusty whisper. But she was not speaking to Regina; and even as she said it, she was whirling in place to meet where Òkunkun had come to her, and put the rope of the amulet around her neck.
Òkunkun froze on the spot. Her eyes went wide.
And then everything fell apart.
VIII. AN EXPLANATION.
The way that the spell held Òkunkun was quite beautiful, actually. She floated slightly off the ground, the amulet also floating around her otherwise bare neck, her hair floating around her head. With her control over the water that changed her appearance wrested from her, all the droplets of it simply hovered around her person, in a translucent encasement shaped like an egg wrought of mist. Her form hung bare, though mostly obscured, inside it, and her hair simply formed a cloud of kinked curls that must have been its natural state, around her head. Only her face was clearly visible through the fog, and it was also the only part of the effect that was not perversely pretty. It was frozen in a rictus of shock, but with only her wide eyes able to move and turn and follow.
They followed the Count now, as she approached where Regina’s men had dragged Òkunkun in her peculiar cocoon, to the windowed back wall of the station that looked out over the mud and the Channelsea. The pale distant light drifting in through the windows just made her floating figure all the more eerie and ethereal. The Count scarcely looked at her, though. She only came close with her head down, her hat shielding her eyes, and then sat on the lowest of one of the wrought-iron steps up to the scaffolding beside where Òkunkun was held. For a moment longer, she only sat there, watching in the new lantern-light as Regina ordered her thralls scuffling around the main floor of the pumping station, making whatever preparations they needed to for their departure.
“A salt crystal serves as a desiccant, of course,” the Count said at last, conversationally, pitched for no one but the woman hanging in the mist just above her side. “Ideal for leaching water. I needed it as the particular focus of a spell that would disrupt your control of the waters, and allow it to be channeled through the hands of another. Though adding the spilling of blood for potency was Regina’s idea, for what it’s worth.” She glanced upward, pausing, and then looked just as quickly away again with a small grimace of a smile. “She could never have constructed such an elaborate working alone, in any case. She doesn’t have that sort of ability. A rather impressive sway over wayfinding, treasure-hunting, and thraldom, but that’s all.”
Silence from above her, of course. She had no idea whether Òkunkun’s eyes were still turned towards her, and didn’t care to find out.
“Once, almost twenty years ago,” the Count said, a moment later, “there was a girl called Ming, who lived in Limehouse. She was the daughter of a Chinese trader who had settled in London and taken an English wife, and she also had an older sister, called Shuying, whom she loved dearly.” She closed her eyes a moment, gathering her breath. “Their family muddled along, but they were quite poor, and Shuying earnt a few extra pennies for them by sweeping the floors of one of the public houses. There, she chanced to meet a wealthy landlord’s son named Alfred Bull, who had come slumming to the riverside taverns to do his drinking and gambling. But he was handsome, and charming, and he charmed Shuying, and she fell in love with him. He promised her he would marry her one day, and take her away, and eventually she came to be carrying his child.
“Her family hid her away once she began to show, and she gave birth at home, in secret. For a wonder, both she and the infant lived to be in good health afterward, though Shuying insisted she would not name her daughter until she and Bull could choose a name together. She still believed that Bull would marry her, as he had promised, no matter how she and Ming argued over it.” The Count drew another deep breath, clasping her hands between her knees. “One night, Shuying sent a message to Bull, asking him to meet her on the riverside near her home. She stole out with the baby to see him, to show him his daughter and ask him to do right by them both.
“Of course, Bull had no intention of shackling himself to a poor half-Chinese girl and his bastard by her, nor had he ever. In the face of what he found he had done, and the potential for damage to his reputation… he panicked, and seized Shuying. And in the same action, he threw both her and the babe in her arms over the side and into the Thames, to drown.”
The Count fell silent for a moment there, staring out into the dim-lit activity of the warehouse and seeing none of it. “When Shuying didn’t return home,” she continued at last, “Ming scoured the streets for days, searching for any sign of her sister or the child. Finally, she found a beggar who had chanced to witness the events of that night unseen, and who could tell her what had happened, and what Bull had done. She was furious — but righteous, sure that he could never get away with it. She told everyone she could: the drunks and barkeeps who’d known Shuying, the toughs with no love for Bull’s kind, even the bobbies. It was all equally useless, however. No one listened, or believed, or cared, or dared face someone of Bull’s station. No one would help.” She sighed, sinking deeper into her fold over her knees. “And there was nothing she could do alone. In time, she curdled around her anger, and the injustice of it all, and finally took to drinking in the taverns herself to try to forget.
“Which was where she met, and befriended, an old drunken spiritualist by the name of Bellamy. And in time, Bellamy told Ming that there was a way to have her revenge after all.
“When he was wooing her into bed, Bull had given Shuying a fine locket: a lovely thing, something she would have never dared dream of touching otherwise. Ordinarily she wore it always, but she had left it behind when she went to see him on the night he murdered her, for some reason — perhaps because she was afraid the babe would want to play with it as she carried her, or perhaps one dares even hope she had come to no longer entirely trust Bull. But it had come into Ming’s possession after Shuying’s death, one way or another, and now she was the one who carried it everywhere.” Regina was cooing to one of the men up ahead, reaching up to stroke his hair as he stared ahead blank-eyed, and the Count’s eyes followed her. “Bellamy taught Ming to cast a terrible enchantment: one that, when it was complete, drew the dead souls of Shuying and her infant child themselves out of the ether, and bound them, full of their new power and Ming’s anger, into the locket. And when it was done, Ming lured Bull back to the selfsame spot where he had killed Shuying and her child. And she unleashed their twisted spirits on him, to wreak on him all of their vengeance.”
It took another moment to collect her voice to go on, although it was steady when she did. “It was a truly hideous scene to inflict even on a man like Bull. The spirits descended on him like a bloody cyclone, ripping at him a piece at a time, and his screams rang through the streets. They certainly would have killed him — except that, though Bull was a spoiled lout and a murderer, he was also not a fool. Even in his terror, through the assault, he perceived that it was the locket that Ming held that was the source of his torment. He hurled himself at her, and with his far greater weight he bore her to the ground, and wrested the locket from her grip. And he threw it, just as he had thrown the owners of those souls in life, into the waters of the Thames, and saved himself.
“Bull lived, but he never recovered from what he had experienced. He became first a laughingstock, with his gabble of angry ghosts and witchcraft, and then a recluse, shut up terrified of his own shadow in his father’s home, which would in time become his. It wasn’t enough, but would killing him really have been, come to that?” The Count sighed. “And of course, Ming was utterly destroyed. She had plucked the souls of her sister and niece from their peace in eternity, lashed them back to the mortal plane and driven them to insanity with her own fury — and then lost them, at the bottom of a river that might take them anywhere, trapped for ever mad and tormented on this mortal plane. What could you say except that she had consigned them to Hell with her own hands?
“There was no possibility of redemption, or of going on. She cut her wrists in an alleyway, to keep her parents from finding her body. But as it happened, that allowed Bellamy to find her while she still breathed, and take her back to his rooms. And there he used his powers over the spiritual world to keep her soul bound into her body while he tended to her, until the danger had passed.
“All the same, though… Ming died then. And the person who opened her eyes in that little flat with her wrists bandaged instead, who would soon under Bellamy begin her apprenticeship, was Count Pennyroyal.”
She said nothing more for a long moment. Only drew her breaths, one after another.
“One of Regina’s toshers found the locket in the sewers under the city, perhaps a fortnight ago,” she said at last, quietly. “She recognised it for a work of magic at once, and with a bit of sleuthing was able to trace what she found in it to me. She hasn’t much power, as I said, but enough that, used inventively, she’s proved quite capable of preventing me from simply taking it from her.” A small wan smile tugged at her mouth, for only a second. “So last night, when she approached me, I was forced to accept a bargain. Regina would return the locket to me, and I would craft the spellwork she desired, to trap you and harness your power over the Thames for her own purposes. Hidden rivers run all through the sewers and the underneath, after all, and with control of those, she could turn her men’s scavenging to a truly lucrative affair, as well as wield new power over all of the city from below. But she could not do it herself. She needed me.”
The Count paused again there, for a few seconds. “Neither did Regina erase my memory. I did that myself, as well. I implanted the idea that Regina meant to poach on the disputed territory between both ours, to lead me to you so that I could lead you here, and then I enspelled my own memory away, to return itself at the moment that I laid eyes on the amulet that would bind you. I meant to ensure that I did not accidentally give the game away, of course… but, even though I regarded you only as a troublesome rival at that time, I also meant to prevent my conscience stopping me before I had finished. I would not have wished this fate on anyone, not even an enemy.” She closed her eyes briefly. “…But they are my family, and my greatest sin. I must do what I must.”
A few more long seconds passed, in silence but for the movements and echoing voices of Regina and her crew. At last the Count stood up, dusting off her trousers slightly with her hands. “It’s no excuse,” she said, still without turning towards where Òkunkun floated. “I know that well. But I thought you deserved to know.”
And then she walked away, her steps also ringing off the tiled floor, before she could give in to the urge to look at last.
IX. THE END.
It didn’t take much longer for Regina’s men to finish their preparations, although by that time the beginning hints of dawn light were beginning to stain the edges of the sky, beyond the large windows. Most of their work turned out to have concerned assembling a large and complex makeshift harness of sorts, presumably intended to aid in lowering Òkunkun’s frozen body into the sewers and then hauling it through them. The Count’s stomach turned just looking at it.
“And what of what I’m owed?” the Count asked, no trace of lightness in her voice now, as she leant on the corner of the wall and watched them all at the early stages of setting the harness in its place. Regina glanced round at her from where she had been supervising, and flashed that yellow, toothy smile.
“Have no fear of that, dearie,” she said, turning to the Count as her men continued at their work. “I can’t well keep all these in the sewers, can I? They’re no like of my good treasure-men; they’d be lost in a blink in the Underneath, poor things.” She tittered wildly, though no part of the Count’s expression moved so much as an twitch. “When we’ve got far enough away that you can’t undo your own good work, I’ll send these men back. One of ’em will bring your pretty thing to you, and our business will be done.”
“And I’m meant to trust you on that?” the Count said, stonier than ever. Regina bared her teeth even further, her grin growing quite alarming.
“You’re meant to have no choice,” she said, in a tone that, for her, might have passed as silky. “But I’m good for it, Count, I promise you. I’ve no use for the fool thing meself, and I daresay you’ve earnt it. You did all I asked, and right clever too.”
“What an honour to have garnered your approval.” That did nothing to lessen Regina’s grin, however, and the Count looked slightly away from it. Unfortunately, however, that only landed her eyes on Òkunkun, and Regina followed them.
“I’ll say this, I didn’t expect you to be so sentimental of her,” she said, in some crude approximation of an arch and knowing tone. “Sitting there telling her sweet nothings for who knows how long, even with her dangling like a side of beef at the butcher’s. ‘Twas my understanding you two were at each other’s throats more often’n not.”
The Count looked down again, having nowhere else safe to look remaining. “I don’t think that’s really any of your concern,” she said, quietly. And at least that left her only enduring Regina’s nasty little cackle as the price of ending their talk.
With the harness affixed, Regina was able to pull Òkunkun’s curious shell along with only her own unassisted strength, no doubt due to the strange apparent lightness the spell afforded her. Looking the picture of good cheer, Regina took up the strap when one of her men delivered it to her, and the rest of them fell in around her, an honour guard of blank statue-soldiers taking up the rear of a bizarre procession. The Count circled around to the back of the tableau slowly, to where Òkunkun’s form was beginning to be dragged towards the chamber where the sewer entrance lay, and watched. Every part of her felt entirely blank inside, a slate washed clean of even dust.
“A moment,” she said then, suddenly, her voice ringing with startling strength off the tiles in the faint beginnings of dawn, where until now, no one had been speaking at all. “A moment, Regina, if you please.”
She could see only glimpses of Regina’s back now, amidst the men accompanying her, but the procession did come to a stop. Regina looked back, and then turned around, finding a gap between all those controlled bodies to face the Count with a look of irritation. The strap still dangled from her hand.
“What is it this time, Count?” she demanded, one hand on her hip. “We’re finished, like I said, stop your fussing. You’ll get what’s coming to you.”
The Count stood and regarded her. She regarded the entire scene: Òkunkun floating slightly above, the men still stood with their backs turned in obedient lines all around, Regina glowering at her like the queen of this place that she believed herself to be.
“Possibly,” the Count said, and offered a small, grim smile. “But I’m far more certain that you will.”
And before she could think, before she could hesitate, before Regina could react or understand at all… she summoned in spirits all around her in the most potent, towering vortex she could. And with all their power, she tore apart her own delicate web of spellwork, in one vast and merciless stroke.
The spell on the amulet and on Òkunkun shattered, with violent force. All the droplets of water wreathed around her first burst outward, and then pattered to the tile floor, in a brilliant shower. Òkunkun herself fell with them from where she had floated, to land heavily on one knee on the floor, hunkered low over it with her head hung down and heaving noisy, panting breath.
The Count was poised over her defensively in an instant, despite how Regina had not yet managed to do anything but stare in pure dumb shock, but it was quickly clear she needn’t have bothered. A second later, Òkunkun’s head snapped up, her eyes glittering like fevered lanterns from behind the wild curled cloud of her hair, and her hand snapped up next to point straight out in front of her. The water that had fallen to the tiles reared up again, forming up jagged and menacing as a halo of daggers — and then flew past all the blank-eyed men straight at Regina, before she could even yet speak or move. Bonds of water lashed Regina’s wrists, her ankles, around her head and neck, around her mouth to stop it shut. Even as Regina thrashed and writhed, her eyes showing whites all the way round above the water-gag, Òkunkun’s fist closed — and the bonds lifted her, straight off the ground. Regina was the one floating now, trying to fight, the water muffling screeches of terror and fury that were like nothing but a drowning rat’s.
Òkunkun heaved herself up towards her feet then, staggering and unsteady, and the Count leapt to aid her before she could even think twice about it. To her tremendous surprise, however, Òkunkun readily gripped her arm, hanging on to it for balance and leverage. She pulled herself up by it to stand upright, leaning heavily on the Count’s shoulder as she continued to heave breath through her closed teeth.
“Terribly sorry you’ve only the Channelsea to work with,” the Count said, in the best approximation she could muster of her ordinary cheerful and offhanded tone. Neither of them looked at the other. Òkunkun was still only staring straight ahead, with the fury of a tidal wave burning out of her eyes.
“It still flows in London,” she said. Her voice was harsh and gritted, but strong. And with another deep breath to gather herself, she pushed off the Count’s shoulder, and tottered upright, to throw both her arms into the air above her head.
Then all at once they were surrounded by a sharply rising roar of water, quickly so loud it shattered the air and blotted out all sense. And behind them, the light of the growing dawn darkened… and then the vast windows at the rear of the pumping station burst inward in an unbearable cacophony of breaking glass and violent water and explosive, murderous force.
Water charged in over their heads straight at Regina, like a fluid and twisting battering ram. It slammed into her floating body, knocking it backward, and lashed all around it with terrifying speed. There was only a second’s breath of pause where a little rivulet snatched something away from within that awful rushing roil, something small that glinted and was tossed aside… and then the water compressed. Clenched. Slammed itself together.
There was a hideous, thick crunch, loud enough even to be heard through the hugeness of the roar. And then that knot of water burst inside into a dark and viscous red.
For a few seconds after, the stained water only continued to hover and churn. And then its knot eased — releasing, as it did, a broken and ruined thing of bloody meat, which tumbled with a heavy and truly disgusting thumping sound to the floor. The redness washed out too, spreading in a gory pool around it. And then the water receded, retracting itself back the way it had come through the broken windows, back outside, back to settle into being the innocuous little tributary that no one would ever suspect had just been surged up and wrenched out of its banks with such furious, vengeful force.
Òkunkun collapsed back on the Count’s shoulder in the sudden silence, trembling, panting. The Count held her up, staring ahead numb and wide-eyed at nothing, as the men who had been stood ahead of them were slowly beginning to blink, shift their weight, glance round at each other, and leap back with horrified curses from the heap of what had been Regina on the floor.
Finally, though, the Count looked down. The small, glittering thing that the water had thrown away from Regina before crushing her was now slowly washing up to their feet, on a lazy, desultory rill of leftover water. It touched the edge of the Count’s shoe, and she had to shift Òkunkun’s weight carefully on her shoulder so that she could bend and pick it up, in clumsy, nerveless fingers.
The locket had been scratched and corroded somewhat from its long years in the river and the sewers, but not too badly, it seemed. It was still entirely recognisable: its engravings still distinct and familiar, throwing back the light from her hand. Regina must have worn it around her neck and under her clothes the whole time, the Count supposed from what seemed like an eternal distance, as she held it up to stare at it in her hand. She must have trusted it to no other place but her own person.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she found herself saying, barely audibly, through her numb and trembling lips. “No one could have blamed you if you hadn’t.”
“I could have,” Òkunkun said, tiredly, into her shoulder. Her voice was still scratchy and rough. “It was only right.”
The Count closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to find some semblance of her footing on solid ground again. But when she opened them, the locket was still in her hand, despite what she’d half-expected.
Òkunkun’s arm shifted around her shoulders, tightened, and when she looked up wide-eyed and thunderstruck she found Òkunkun looking back at her, holding her eyes. “I always had them,” Òkunkun said, softly and with an unbearable gentleness. She reached up after a second with her hand round the front of the Count’s shoulder, to brush her cheek with its fingertips instead. “They were with me. They were never truly lost.”
“I know that now,” the Count said. It was still papery and nearly nothing, but it was true.
She held onto Òkunkun’s shoulders, and amidst the ruined windows of the pumping station, the increasingly unnerved and bewildered men milling around and trying to talk out some understanding of things with each other, the ruined remnants of Regina on the floor ahead of them, she began with her mind and power to open a passage out into the ether. And through it, to guide two wayward spirits to finally go free.
It was full sunrise by the time they had finished sorting everything out, a pleasant smear of pink across an otherwise overcast sky. Though her energy and focus were waning at the end of such a long night’s work, the Count was able to summon what she needed to repair the pumping station windows with no sign of damage, as well as reach out to all the staff on the grounds it had surely alarmed and drop them heavily back into sleep again. They would wake on their own in some hour’s time, puzzled perhaps by the sense that they’d had strange dreams of rising water and breaking glass, but with no other harm done.
In the meantime, Òkunkun recovered herself, and restored her appearance to a state of respectable and immaculate dress with the water that remained behind. They both explained as little as possible to the men who had been released from Regina’s thrall, although enough that those worthies were only too happy to help dump Regina’s remains into the sewers below to wash away. From shit she had come, to shit she would return, the Count supposed. A suitable enough end.
As they were all straggling out of the station to go their separate ways, as well, she spotted two amongst the men who were walking together somewhat apart from the rest, both darker of complexion than any of their fellows. One was a tall and portly man, though still thick with muscle, with a short beard, while the other was a strapping youth of perhaps twenty who had a lean high-cheekboned face and a charmingly excitable manner. The Count caught up to them while Òkunkun was embroiled in politely deflecting the attentions of some of the other gentlemen, and cleared her throat.
“I beg your pardon, sir — would your name happen to be Benjamin? And this is young Ephraim?” The men turned to her, and glanced at each other in understandable mistrust, before the bearded man and the younger nodded each in his cautious turn.
“That’s right, mate,” the man called Benjamin said uncertainly, looking closely at the Count’s face and not seeming sure what he’d found there. “How’d you know that?”
The Count smiled, as warmly as she could muster for her exhaustion. “Your friend Adams was quite concerned for your well-being,” she said, barely answering the question. “You should be sure to set his mind at ease when you’ve returned to the dock estate.” She hesitated a moment, wondering if there was anything more she should add, but they were still staring at her with bemused suspicion, and in the end she only gave them an awkward nod and stepped on with a, “Good morning.”
One of the few things the Count had told all of the men was where they were and how to return to where they belonged, and they trailed off in ragged clusters, bit by bit, once outside the pumping station grounds. The morning’s weather was rather mild and fair, in spite of the touches of mist and the low grey sky, and although the walk back to the docklands was a bit far, they were strong healthy sorts and should have no trouble with it. Given the state of herself and Òkunkun, however, the Count chose to split off from them quickly into more populous streets, to see if they two could avail themselves of another cab as the hour grew a bit more decent. Anyone who would question Òkunkun’s propriety over such a thing deserved to be as pulped as Regina, in the Count’s opinion.
Òkunkun had been more quiet than not for all of this time, and she did not speak again until they were safely in a cab, heading back towards the Victoria Docks Road. When she did, though she looked drawn and heavy-eyed, her voice sounded much like its ordinary self again, if unusually quiet and solemn.
“What changed your mind?” she asked. “When you spoke to me while I was imprisoned, you seemed quite committed to your course.”
The Count hesitated for a long moment. At last, she offered a faint smile, and swiftly turned her eyes away. “It’s interesting that you should say that, as it was telling the entire tale aloud that caused me to begin to doubt. As I thought about all the particulars, having laid them bare… I could increasingly see neither the profit nor the sense in simply trading one unpardonable sin for another.” She shrugged, a gesture she did not in the slightest feel. “If anything, when it came to Shuying and her child — to a degree the damage was already done, as it were. I could release them, but not spare them the suffering they had thus far endured. In your case, however, I still had time to prevent the same.” She paused again, and dared another glance at Òkunkun with another slight, false smile. “I suppose what really happened was that my perspective on the entire situation changed. …So there may be something to this magic of yours after all.”
She could not quite bear to look at Òkunkun’s expression at that last. But Òkunkun said nothing, for good or ill, and they rode on in silence.
XI. PARTING OF THE WAYS.
They disembarked and sent the cab on its way not far from the Thames Iron Works, all the sounds and smells of shipbuilding just beginning to drift to them at this early hour. There was an unmistakably eager look in Òkunkun’s eye as she cast it over the wharfs and smoke-belching industry that would open into Canning Town, and while the Count couldn’t say she understood it, she supposed she didn’t need to. “Be it ever so humble,” and all that.
As they turned to face one another at the edge of the road, and perhaps try to sort out what to say to each other, Òkunkun spoke suddenly, offhanded as though continuing a conversation from earlier. The look on her face was hesitant, and peculiarly vulnerable in its candour.
“It is possible,” Òkunkun said, slow as she began, “that the Thames was not always a person as well. It may be that once, many years ago, there was an ordinary girl among the workers in Canning Town, whose young life had been such a misery that she decided it would be better to no longer be herself. And she chose instead to call down the divine spirit of the river that gave her people their lives here, to ride her body and soul in perpetuity, and at least offer some greater source of hope and power to her kin.” She paused there, falling silent, and then met the Count’s eyes again. “But if so, that girl is as dead now as poor Ming is. And there is no one to remember what her name might have been.”
The Count took all of that in at some length, giving it the respectful space it most certainly deserved. “I imagine many lives end before their time, in our parts of the city,” she said at last, also picking her slow way through it. “It’s just fortunate that some get a second chance.” She considered that a moment more, and then smiled unevenly. “Whether it’s deserved or not.”
Òkunkun smiled as well, though, and that was all. She said no more on it, and they only stood a moment longer, tousled by the breeze off the river’s edge.
Eventually the Count drew herself back up with some effort, putting back on a good humour that was still not at all genuine. “Well… that’s it, then. Say what you will, but you can’t claim that I don’t know how to procure an exciting evening’s entertainment.”
“Mm,” Òkunkun said, so sourly again that the Count couldn’t help laughing aloud. “You may want to consider more the merits of boredom, in future.” She paused at that, and then shrugged, her expression softening a touch. “But it did not end so badly, all things considered.”
The Count chose neither to agree nor disagree with that, only looking away with her meaningless smile on her lips. “Will you… be well enough to return to your men?” she asked, tentatively, but Òkunkun waved it off.
“Yes, I am recovered. Do not concern yourself.” She caught the Count’s eyes, and smiled again herself — now an expression that was at once equal parts canny and sincere. “Let us be on our ways, then. But with Poplar made neutral territory again… perhaps we will both find ourselves there on the same evening sometime. And our paths might cross again more amiably, this time.”
“I would like that very much,” the Count said. And she found that to her mild surprise, there was nothing but soft sincerity now in her voice and smile both. “Good morning, my lady Òkunkun.”
Òkunkun nodded, smiling back with a cat’s satisfaction. “Good morning, Count Pennyroyal.”
They had taken perhaps a half-dozen steps apart each, though, when the Count suddenly turned back. She scarcely knew she meant to do it until she was already doing it: the words already tumbling from her mouth, raised so that even at this distance Òkunkun could hear plainly.
“You shouldn’t forgive me, you know,” she said. “I never earned that, not really, and I doubt I ever will. You should have killed me too.” She paused briefly, and smiled in a sharp, dry twist. “You still should.”
Òkunkun stood and regarded her, where she had half-turned back, with no real expression at all. The breeze tugged at the edges of her clothing, and slightly at the ornamentation of her hat. She was very beautiful, standing like that in the early morning light, and regal, and every inch lined with the clear evidence of power. You would have said nothing could hurt her, or even touch her.
“I know my business,” she said, after what seemed like a very long time indeed, and turned back to set off walking again with only a hand raised casually above her shoulder. “See that you mind yours.”
And that, the Count could only assume, was that.
She shook her head slightly after a moment of watching Òkunkun’s back, and turned away to her own direction, walking along the edge of the street by where the stretch of docks and warehouses sprawled out to the river. It was quite some distance back to Limehouse and the security of her own rooms, but she found she was in no hurry to finish the journey. It was a pleasant enough morning and she had nowhere in particular to be until well into the following night, when her next booking was set.
So the Count began to walk west, through streets that were gradually coming awake with the morning, whistling a bit of some tune now and again to herself as she went. And following the line of the Thames, where she could see it in snatches between shipyards and buildings and the edges of wharfs, as it snaked along through the city and led her home.
APPENDIX: ON FALSE NAMES.
Òkunkun is a word in the Yoruba language meaning “darkness” or “gloom.” While the origin and meaning of the name of the River Thames is disputed by experts, a popular theory is that it derives from the Celtic word tame, meaning “dark one.” Similarities have also been pointed out between “Thames” and words for darkness in a number of other languages, although these connections are variable in their clarity. One might further assume that òkunkun would be a rather pointed and tongue-in-cheek self-appellation for a member of the African diaspora living in nineteenth-century London.
Pennyroyal is the common name of Mentha pulegium, a flowering plant in the mint family. In the Victorian language of flowers, the blossoms of the pennyroyal plant have been said to have represented meanings along the lines of “go away” or “you must flee.” It is also perhaps not without poignancy that a tea made of pennyroyal has historically been used as a folk abortifacient.