They say miracles are past.
William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
THEY CALLED it Lovers’ Lane, and he thought that was a mess of something more evil than irony.
The broken ground under his boots was flooded with grimy puddles, which hid the cracks and the gravel and the sharp juts between potholes in the concrete and cobbles. The walls of the narrow alley were no better. Dank and gritty, they dripped with moisture, cracking under the weight of the world. Bandaged water pipes and boarded-over windows offered a bit of aesthetic flair, at least, if one cared for that desolate, grungy look.
Sometimes the water running down the alley was dark with fresh blood. Some stains in the concrete never went away. Corpses and cadavers, the victims of turmoil and violent frays in a world where Her Frail Little Majesty simply could not seem to hold the peace, no matter how many civil agreements and treaties were signed to end the bloodshed, to bring noble families together, to leave revenge in the rich and dusty past with the unforgiving ancestors.
Not too many years ago, Cain had found his parents there, in Lovers’ Lane. Shot—execution style. Murdered and dumped on the uneven cobbles, where the dead were left until the undertaker ventured along with his ancient cart and hoisted them away.
They’d been dumped over the tin shingles, strewn bloodied and cocked at frightening angles on the ground.
When first Cain had found the family hound dead and cold in the parlor of Dietrich Manor, puppy-dog eyes never to roll around in greeting again, he’d cried out in grief. Ah, no, not his dog. Not the German shepherd. Not the one that kept him warm at night, the one that looked more like a great wild wolf than a domesticated breed, the one that barked at all the nightmares and monsters hiding under the bed—God, no!
But when, in Lovers’ Lane, the toe of his boot had nudged the lifeless side of his father, Cain hadn’t managed to do much else but stare.
And the rain fell—a shy and dreary mist the wind tossed to and fro, which felt incredibly clichÃ© even in its monotony—and Cain had stepped over his father’s broken neck, petted the matted blonde curls from his mother’s blank eyes, and dug into his pockets for coins to close them with. He’d come up empty-handed. He hadn’t expected to find much anyway, because the first rule was that you didn’t carry money on your person unless you were planning to spend it immediately, or so his father had taught him very early on once he’d hit adolescence. Money matters were pivotal for a noble heir to master. So Cain had tromped through the dirty puddles and the shadows of Lovers’ Lane, slipped around the corner, and ducked out of the cursed alley to meander his way home.
Except that was when they found him, and it was a long while until he made it back to his warm bed, because—
“Nostalgia, young one?”
Cain started briefly, a meager flutter of the lashes and twitch of the pale skin between his brows, but he repressed the rest of his surprise. He had his revolvers tucked away safely at the small of his back, under his suit coat. He didn’t need them with the undertaker. The undertaker wasn’t even worth a bullet shell.
The undertaker had caught him strolling memory’s way, of course, and stood slouched over the side of his rickety little cart, straight from the streets of Bombay or Peking, threading his ugly knuckles together. His hands were as gray as the fish in the markets, nails all the color of a bruise. Dead-looking. Did one begin to change with one’s occupation after working in it for so long? Cain shuddered involuntarily, closed his eyes, and only opened them when he’d turned his face away, because he refused to watch the undertaker hoist the body of a young woman from the cobbles of Lovers’ Lane and into the bed of his cart.
Limp. Beautiful. Dead.
“Not at all,” Cain mumbled, peeking back at the undertaker only after the girl’s corpse hit the bottom of the cart with a sickening thud and unsympathetic rattle.
The undertaker smiled at him, hair stringy in his eyes and hood pulled down low across the bridge of his nose. “Not at all,” he echoed, and Cain’s frown pinched tighter at the sharp grating of the man’s voice against his ears.
The undertaker was a real freak, if anyone was. Strange and estranging. An ex-resurrectionist, he claimed. Now an honest working man, if anyone actually believed him. His shop was full of horrors. Wondrous horrors. Horrible wonders. All manner of objects from the curious to the funereal—dusty graphoscopes, broken mirrors, bottled specimens, and baby’s coffins.
“Then what’s someone of your name doing wandering Lovers’ Lane?” the undertaker pried.
Someone of your name—
Cain brushed past the undertaker, fingers trailing along the grimy alley wall as he made his way toward the street again. Water and grit squished beneath the soles of his shoes. The rest of Dietrich Security was waiting. Chin held high, Cain said, “Word was that there were bodies—”
“I haven’t seen any bodies but this.”
“Ah, so I’m to trust everything you say now?”
Those bony gray fingers curled around Cain’s arm and tugged him backward, but before the beads of the undertaker’s rosary chain had stopped chattering against one another, the rustle of clothing, the slosh of a puddle, and the click of a hammer cocking bounced off the opposite wall. Their movement together ground to a standstill with the undertaker smiling that crazed yellow smile of his and Cain regarding him from behind the barrel of a revolver engraved with a crest and the model name Rapier-A227.
“I am, after all, the one you should come to with inquiry about bodies,” the undertaker chortled, the last word drawn out below his breath.
Cain’s nose wrinkled. The man smelled like dogs, dirt, and death. But the body of the girl had nothing to do with the rumors Cain was investigating, probably just another domestic dispute. It wasn’t worth his time.
Cain cleared his throat, dismissing the undertaker’s interruption. He uttered a dainty scoff and began again. “Word was that there were bodies—bodies found outside Lovers’ Lane, below the wall. Bodies of Dietrich patrons. Hanging.” Cain shook free of the undertaker’s claws, but the gun didn’t lower until he’d backed away a number of steps. “Maybe a murder, maybe a double suicide, maybe some kind of cult activity or a petty gang’s plot to get a rise out of us.” He returned his Rapier to the small of his back. “Yes, go about your business, Undertaker,” he husked. “But as a Dietrich, investigating such talk is my job.”
The undertaker chuckled to himself, drumming his fingers on the side of his ghastly cart. “But what’s another citizen to you, the great little lord of the most splendid house in New London?” he simpered, and he accepted Cain’s scowl of distaste with a respectful bob of the head. “My lord, because you hold great power, you inevitably fail to understand the importance of those things which we may never ourselves recover.”
Cain smirked. It wasn’t beyond the greatest little lord of the most splendid house in New London to stand in the mess and mire of Lovers’ Lane, caught up in witty remarks with the local undertaker. It was almost fun, really. A flare of humility beneath all the status and the gold. “And what are those things?” he prompted.
“Salvation!” the undertaker gasped. “Repentance! Redemption! The value of one human soul, the same as another human soul after the glamor and name or the lack thereof have all been stripped away, peeled off like the flesh and the bones—”
Cain turned his back, lifting a hand. “Maybe, after the investigation, you can have the bodies,” he offered, sloshing through another puddle. His nose wrinkled; it reeked here. “Especially if it’s interesting,” he added, fingertips grazing the corner of the alley.
He paused before turning out of Lovers’ Lane, smiling over his shoulder down the narrow way at the undertaker. “After all, I wouldn’t want a goddamned Ruslaniv getting a look at them, now would I?”
The undertaker giggled to himself and grabbed his cart by the handles. Cain disappeared around the corner of the alley, and the front wheels of the cart hit a little bump. A pasty white arm jostled and tumbled over the edge, hand dangling near the undertaker’s muddy cloak. Strands of long golden hair hung like satin ribbons between the dirty fingers.
“Oops,” the undertaker cooed and pushed the girl farther into the cart so she wouldn’t fall out, and the sound of his slightly off-key hums filled Lovers’ Lane as he made his way out.
I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect,
between the disaster and the atrocity.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Black Cat
HE COULD see his breath on the air, hanging there like a little cloud. Above the crooked rooftops stretched abandoned laundry lines and rusty pipes. Like drunken eyes, clouded windows looked down on the occasional fallen brick lying in the puddles as the chimney pots belched out their usual smoke and ash. The almost mechanical buzz of the evening coming to life rang in his ears: voices, rattling cabs, shouts, workers, laughter, hawkers. The sky was cold and gray, another dreary winter sunset.
Gravel and glass crunched underfoot. Levi lifted his toe to get a look at the mess on the ground. Trash, debris, the ensigns of a tenement block, the candy trail of the working class. And children played outside in this place—what a nightmare.
There was another shuffle of gravel as the rest of them paused, and Levi felt their eyes. He knew that even if the others would let it go without his reply, Eliott would not, and Eliott was nuisance enough without even trying, so why agitate him?
Levi turned slightly. Yes, they all clustered behind him—William, Eliott, the Witch, the Blond One, and the One with Glasses—staring over fur collars and militia jackets, and Eliott pushed those damn obnoxious tinted spectacles of his up out of his face, letting them perch atop his head as he dug around in his pockets for his mask.
“You’re not gonna be all moody, right?” Eliott demanded.
The Witch snorted, shifting her weight to her other foot. “He’s always moody,” she spat, with venom on her tongue. “Brooding about something or another. One shade of hatred here, another one there, and Daddy’s never proud of him.”
Levi cut her a bitter glance, holding a hand out for Eliott to fork over his mask too. He took it, brushing past the Witch roughly. “Forgive me,” he husked. “I thought you’d have a better insult hiding somewhere in that dark and stinking pit you like to pretend is a heart.”
Ha! That was cruel. He was bound to get an earful for that one. Why did they call her the Witch again? Ah, because she was a well-endowed broad with no titles, and a knack for secrets and schemes, and... that’s right, she’d been a dancer with Father Kelvin’s circus before she’d taken up arms for the Ruslaniv crest—
“Bastard!” she growled, kicked up a leg, and snatched her pistol sword from her boot. It was one of her most prized possessions—other than, of course, those more natural gifts she hid under her clothes too.
Levi ignored the threat, taking his first look at the mask Eliott had designed for him. Black brocade with metallic thread, rook’s feathers, cat’s claws beaded into the shape of little skulls. It was gaudy and funereal and absolutely perfect.
“You’re one to mock me!” The Witch was ranting and raving despite his obvious lack of interest. “You claim your heart is any less empty than mine? You, sitting there high and mighty, hiding in your father’s shadow? The day I lie down and accept such slips of tongue from you, you demented little brat, will be a cold day in hell. And if you ever think that it makes you better than us because you inherited BLACK instead of earning its leadership, then I pity you, you selfish mongrel. I pity you! I pity your father for ever thinking you’d make a good leader for BLACK, because all you’ve ever proved of yourself is never speaking up and simply running off to the library to hide in a book once orders are complete. Ha! Oh, and let’s not even touch on that time with poor sweet little Rosalie, when you were so far head over heels, your head was up your ass—”
Levi knew this one. The Witch had played it so often when it had been more relevant to the present. Your head was so foggy with feelings and romance and love that you forgot your gunslinging side, and because of that unfortunate failure, Rosalie is dead!
Levi spun with a crunch of gravel beneath his heel, feeling all his hatred narrow itself down into one glance at the Witch.
“Oberon’s just as dead,” he reminded in a voice almost like ice. To the side, the One with the Glasses smiled slightly, secretly, looking over at the Blond One, who lingered at his arm with those dark eyes.
The Witch lurched forward with her blade ready—but it was all intimidation, the usual fanfare, because as Eliott held her back with one arm around her waist and a rare look of seriousness on his face, she didn’t try to break free. Instead she kept her burning gaze on Levi a moment longer, until William pulled her aside and motioned for her to put away her blade.
“That’s enough,” Eliott demanded. “Good Christ, the two of you and your tension! Can’t we go one day without you at each other’s throats? You’d think you were related or once... involved.” He said the word with a little wrinkle in the nose, like it tasted bad. “Come on, now. This is supposed to be fun! There’ll be lots of delicious things to eat, and free liquor, and at least a few good-looking guests. This isn’t an assignment, it’s leisure!”
Eliott threw his hands out, and it was quite dramatic, and quite comical, with the hand-painted sign on the building behind him proclaiming Fierce and Fearless Ladies at Foxe’s, surrounded by stuttering gaslights. Beyond Cleveland Street, storefronts and clubs and hotels crumbled together as night fell. Innocent civilians retreated and the shadier faces emerged—a whole new catalogue of virtues and vices, launching the commotion and mishaps of the nightlife in neglected corners of the city. Ladybirds, cash carriers, toolers and palmers, and the flashy mobsmen organizing fights, this their haven on the cobbled streets. Drinks and drugs and duels and the flames of streetlamps slithering within their glass.
Eliott dug in his jacket again, distributing the rest of the masks. Black lace, silver chains, fake spiders, and velvet and leather.
“The scheme might be too obvious,” William insisted, frowning thinly. Behind him, along with the One with the Glasses, the Blond One pranced about, utterly pleased with his mask, peeking into dirty windows and trying to scare anyone who might be around.
Levi took a deep breath. The smoldering rage had died down into a nasty but more tolerable aftertaste, like the burn in the chest after a particularly rich meal. He tucked his mask into his jacket, patted William on the shoulder in reassurance, and sought out Eliott’s eyes behind the black velvet and fur that framed them.
The scheme. They were sneaking into a Dietrich ball, after all.
“It’s a night of leisure,” Levi vowed, for Eliott’s sake.
Eliott took him by the shoulders and shook gently. Buckles and holsters echoed the motion.
“That’s the spirit!” Eliott cried, hooking an arm on Levi’s shoulders and glancing around the group.
At his gaze, the Blond One snapped to attention and saluted, grinning. The One with the Glasses placed a hand on the Blond One’s head and led him back into their midst. William ran his hands along his sides, his back, checking and rechecking the access of his weapons. The Witch glanced up at Levi from where she lounged on her haunches against the wall of Foxe’s.
“Hey,” she mumbled, voice low and sulky.
She looked away with a frown like a stubborn child afraid to admit their fault, and Levi knew it was because of the outrageous way she’d just spoken to the Ruslaniv heir and how bold and stupid it had been. She tucked a few loose dark curls behind her ear, meeting his eyes again.
“We’re going to eat, drink, and be merry, all right?” she said, echoing Eliott’s sentiments. “And we’re going to give those filthy Dietrichs a proper scare. Sounds like leisure to me! Wouldn’t you agree... Rook?”
Levi didn’t say anything. The Rook. The Witch, the Lion, the Spider, the Snake, the Wolf. All of them and their guns, the most feared and enigmatic of all the Ruslaniv gangs, like a bunch of ghosts whose reputations preceded them until they whipped out their guns and the other gangs bowed down to kiss their feet—BLACK.
And what would the world say if they knew the leader of the most notorious Ruslaniv gang in New London was actually the son of Lord Ruslaniv himself? What would they say after years of the Ruslaniv sons being removed from public view for their own safety, of Lord Ruslaniv’s indignant protests: “I won’t have my children involved in this petty blood thirst, this ridiculous feud between two equally great families, I won’t have them see it or think of it or be caught in the middle of it!”
What would they say if they knew the hypocrisy and the lies, and the secrets that had been kept, so very carefully, swept under elegant eighth-century Persian rugs?
Levi sighed. His breath was a little cloud on the brisk night air. As the leader of BLACK, he had to brush off subordinates’ attitudes in a responsible way. “That’s the plan,” he agreed, looking out across the city, beyond the dirty rooftops and broken windows and sagging bell towers, out at the gated manor on the hill that was their destination.
“But I think first....” Levi turned into the racket of the street as night descended and a new world awoke. Some ladybird had emerged from Foxe’s, swaying her hips and waving at possible clients with her sable scarf. Levi sighed again, crossing his arms and refocusing his attention on the matters at hand.
“I think,” he said again, a small smirk trying desperately to break free, “we need to find some more fitting attire for the occasion, hmm?”
“Party!” the Blond One cried.
The One with the Glasses tried to reach him, but he slithered past Eliott and William and threw his hands in the air, joining Levi under the eerie lights. “Listen, I want something purple, with a fur collar and proper little cameo buttons down the front—”
Dietrich Manor awaited them, overlooking New London with its gates open for the annual invite-only All Hallows’ masquerade. And for the first time in ages, since perhaps even before the long and relentless feud between their families had begun, after paying a rampsman to pick pockets for invitations, BLACK had decided to attend. Unobtrusively, of course. Anonymously. Covertly. For some simple fun, a little spying, nothing more.
And why not be stylish about sneaking around?