OFF: This is a joint post by myself and Largehobbit....
ON: It was an hour past midnight and a thick fog sat heavy upon the cobbled streets of Greenwich Hill. Only the barest flicker of lamps above fought through to lend their poor illumination to the night. Bolak stood atop the broad stone flagstones that rose from the cobbles of Rose Street up to the grand entrance to the Ladys Grace. His diminutive frame standing at barely four feet, the red oak portal towered high above him emitting its warm glow into the night.
The dwarfs eyes sparkled with the crimson reflections of his pipe as he pulled a long and blissful draw on the tobacco. The distant click of boots on stone told of someone approaching through the fog and Bolak turned with interest to see who might emerge from the ghostly shroud. The even tread and sharp report of the approaching steps brought a smile to Bolaks face as he took another draw on his pipe and released a thick fog his own making into the chilled night air.
“Constable McCree what brings you out at this late hour?” he called into the shadows just as a familiar figure strode out into the porchlight of the Ladys Grace.
“Might ask you the same Mr Linnik.” barked McCree with a grin. “Bit late for a bit of ows ya father at your gaff aint it.”
Bolak laughed as he tapped out his pipe on the top step. “Oh the Grace is closed for business and the girls are all sound asleep.” he assured the constable. “We keep it respectable here on Rose street.”
“That’s a shame.” McCree replied with a wry smile, “I’m just knocking off for the night.”
“Try O’riellys down on Blakes Street.” Bolak advised, “I hear he keeps a late door at weeks end.”
Bolak waved off the constable and returned to the warmth of the hallway, closing the door fast behind him. He was the last awake in the vast establishment as was all too often the case. He did not sleep well. The card rooms had closed several hours before and the main bar and bedrooms shortly thereafter. A few clients with coin remained closeted in the rooms above with company of their choosing and the help had all been dismissed for the evening.
The Dwarf waddled throughout the lower floor of the building dousing candles and turning down the gas lamps. The familiar creaks and groans of the building brought him no fear, but instead a weary comfort as the old timbers settled down for the night.
A sudden crash from the direction of the kitchens made the small man jump and brows furrowed his lifted the last of the burning candles from a nearby table and made his way through the darkened hallway towards the sound. Reaching the kitchen his saw a dim light seeping beneath the door and the quick flicker of movement upon it. His heart pounding he forced open the door and stepped onto the tiled floor.
He saw straight away the cause for the clatter. A large silver dish lay askew upon the floor with a broken milk jug emptying its contents close to. With a growl of annoyance he stared around the room for the culprit but was surprised to see it empty.
“Who’s there?” he asked,”Who did this? Come out and clean it at once!”
He walked further into the kitchen looking this way and that. He snatched up a rolling pin and glowered beneath the counter. With a sudden rush a dark shape sprang towards him and he fell back with a snarling curse, flailing about him with the rolling pin. He hit the tiles hard and lost his wind. Gasping he scrambled back and froze in sudden realisation as he saw the beast that had attacked him.
The cat eyed him as it lapped up the spilt milk and he bit back a string of oaths as he regained his nerve. “The bloody cat!” he hissed as he regained his feet and went about cleaning up the mess.
Another half hour passed by as he cleaned up the mess and made his way through to the bar. He needed a drink. Pushing open the wide oak door he came to a sudden halt. The fire was ablaze and sitting staring into its crackling flames was a familiar figure,
“D’moonh?” he whispered, closing the door behind him. “Aji is that you?”
The small cloaked form was stirring the fire with an iron poker. “Have I become so predictable that you are not startled by unannounced visitors in the wee hours of the night?” She picked up the poker staring intently at the glowing tip that she slowly drew up to her face. The glow from the searing tip illuminated the dark eyes and disfigured features of the Lady D’mooh. She looked from the poker to Bolak, a mischievous grin coming across her face. “You never know who could be awaiting for you.” she finished, casting the poker into the roaring fire, sending sparks flying onto the stone floor of the bar.
The Lady D’moonh was dressed in a floor length black cloak with a deep hood that kept her features obscured from passing travelers. Of course her diminutive stature brought more comparisons to a lost child wandering the dark streets than a grown woman trying to safeguard her privacy. The streets were no friend to any woman, but the Lady had made it her habit of visiting in the night where she could avoid crowds and gawking bystanders. And this destination was indeed more gawkworthy and scandalous than most of her stops. Aji had no love for the goings on of a glorified brothel. She came for the man and what he could procure.
“The kitchen cat startled close to all of my whitts from me just now.” Bolak laughed as he entered the room fully and made his way to the bar, “You may have heard the clatter?”
Aji pulled back her hood, letting the light of the fire reflect from the soft fur that covered her face. Her simple appearance had left her outside of most polite and impolite society, but Bolak was one that could be trusted. He had some experience with being considered a freak. He made no judgements. And for that Aji cherished the man. “Perhaps the cat spared you of the fright of encountering me several minutes earlier.”
“Perhaps,” Bolak replied with a grin, “I will leave the creature an extra saucer of milk out before I retire. Tranya?” Bolak proceeded to lay out a bottle and two glasses on the bar.
Aji smiled back at the man. “It would seem she has earned her milk for the night.” At the sight of the bottle her features softened. “You always can find the best. I would love a dram.” She moved up to the bar and deftly leapt upon a nearby barstool with the grace of a dancer.
“To our health!” Bolak raised his glass and took a long sip of the blue drink.
“And wealth.” she raised her glass in turn taking a long sip of the blue fluid and letting the warm sensation of the Tranya fight off the cold of the fog outside. “Speaking of fortune, did you by chance acquire the parcels I requested?”
“Of course, of course.” Bolak tapped the side of his nose, “It was not easy.” he clambered down from the stool and made his way to a small cigar cabinet. Moving his hand over some unseen mechanism he opened up the front of the cabinet to reveal a safe. Murmuring under his breath as he reminded himself of the combination there eventually came a soft click and the safe door opened outwards.
Clambering back onto his stool Bolak placed three small packages on the bar and presented them to Aji with a wave of his palm.
Aji gave a brief clap of excitement as the man produced the parcels. “Your efforts are greatly appreciated, as well as your continued discretion. I know these are difficult to procure and should the constabulary find them you would likely lose the bar.” she stated briefly brushing back the fur from her face.
Bolak dismissed her concern with a slight shake of his bald pate, “Constable McCree walks the local beat here about and…” he leaned in closer with a wry smile, “the man though affable enough finds trouble distinguishing his arse from his elbow. We are quite safe from the law I assure you.”
“Indeed. I wish that was the whole of our troubles. I know I should not burden you with these matters. But your unique talents are highly valued. I would hate to lose your resourcefulness.” she chattered, her oversized incisors biting briefly into her lip.
Bolak made to answer when a sharp crack of firewood echoed in the hearth and he looked up. It was not the fire however that caught his attention but the pale drawn face that peered in from the window. As his eyes met the shadowed sockets of the onlooker the spy whoever it might vanished from view. Bolaks eyes widened and he gasped,
“A stranger at the window!”
With one continuous motion Aji pulled her hood back up plunging her features into shadow while at the same time producing two small daggers in her tiny hands.
Bolak wasted no time scurrying over to the tall windows and peering out. It was useless. Nothing could be seen in the fog, though he could hear the hurried clatter of feet retreating from the building and out into the city. With a sharp cursed he pulled close the curtains and then cursed himself thrice more for not thinking to do so earlier upon recognising his house guest.
Turning he noted the ready stance of Aji, her blades in hand and not for the first time considered the blessing and curse of her affliction. To trade ones humanity for the fluid grace which she clearly possessed. He had no doubt that should she so choose she would find no trouble in hunting down their night time stalker.
“Will you follow?” he asked watched her standing there tense and ready.
Moments passed as Aji watched the night outside the bar windows. In time she flipped the blades back in to the large sleeves of her cloak. “Not tonight. They will be coming for us. But not tonight.” her voice distinctly lower than its usual high pitch. “Have you noticed anything unusual in the streets? There are foul things afoot.”
Bolak shivered at the announcement that “they would be coming” Aji always seemed so certain that the matter with which they concerned themselves were both observed and indeed opposed by some unknown force. Bolak took a more pragmatic view of things and chose to believe that if no boats were rocked too hard their nefarious dealings would for the most part go unnoticed. However, tonights watcher at the window was causing him to question his convictions.
“The usual troubles,” he shrugged, “Girls go missing out there, so I keep the employees on a tight leash. Curfew at midnight unless their company checks in. I hear one of the madams from the slums has up and hired a detective. Pretty good one too. Last thing we need if you ask me, some have a go hero poking his nose in our trash. Leave it to the law for all the good they are.”
Aji nodded at Bolak’s assessment. “Exactly the wrong attention we need right now. Matters are at a critical state. Perhaps we should engage this detective to keep him steering in appropriate directions.” Her tiny head shook slightly as potential actions and outcomes rolled through her mind.
“A capital idea.” Bolak agreed “and one deserving of a drink.” he poured out two fresh glasses as he retook his seat.
“So tell me,” Bolak asked after a moment, “How fares your… project?”
Cautiously Aji approached the bar again. She worked to steady her nerves. A watcher was an unforeseen complication. Perhaps his trail would still be fresh… No she kept her mind on what was happening at the moment. She took up her glass and drank from it rather quickly. After a pause she pulled the hood back slightly allowing Bolak to see the smile and look in her eye. “I believe you will be most pleased. It is magnificent if I say so myself.”
“Excellent,” replied Bolak eagerly, “I can not wait to see it and if I may be so bold to ask… you own alchemical studies regarding a… cure for your condition. Has there been any headway made? Is there anything you need to move things along?”
She took a deep measured breath. Her grin fading from her face. “I am as I have been. The curse of my condition is no closer to resolution.” Her dark eyes closed and looked up with a deeply emotive turmoil. “When this world burns Bolak you will always be welcomed in my house.”
Bolak reached out and gave Ajis forearm a squeeze as he smiled up at her. He said no more however as he did not wish to rub more salt into that ever fresh wound. Instead he walked back over to the window once more and peeked through the curtains. He could see nothing through the fog. It was a solid wall of white before his vision. He could see nothing, but he could feel something. A heavy pull like the dull beating of a vast heart beat out there in the darkness.
“Do you still dream of the stars?” he asked without looking back towards his friend. Out there in the darkness something was calling to him. He could feel its vast presence, its familiar siren call, a call that he could never answer. He placed his hand upon the glass of the window feeling the chill of winter seeping through into his flesh.
“I don’t dream anymore. I fear the wickedness of this place has robbed me even of that joy.” she walked up besides him looking in to the great whiteness that blotted out the wretched city. She paused staring in the silence at the nothing beyond. “It’s almost… for a moment all of this is gone, just a great uncharted void stretching out forever. And in the nothing there is life and form and beauty…. “ She turned abruptly leaving the widow. “Then the city comes back and its all gone.”
“It all revolves around that damned ship.” Bolak growled, “Five years it has sat out there, rotting in the docks and not a soul can get aboard. Ever since it arrived my dreams have been troubled and ever since it arrived, this city has slowly drifted into darkness.The thing is like a loadstone for all of our troubles.” Bolak suddenly felt light headed, for a moment he could see the vast ship clearly through the darkness and fog, the sea lapping against its hull and the gilded name, Endeavour etched across its bow. He gasped and stumbled back from the window, finding himself a seat near the fire.
“Listen to us,” he laughed quietly as he watched the fire burn, “We are lucky our watcher has fled or he would be seeing us locked away in the sanitorium for our ravings.”
“I fear I have kept you too much this cold night.” She gathered up her parcels. “Thank you for these. They will make a grand difference.” She reached up and put her tiny hand on the back of his hand. “Thank you my friend.” She pulled up her hood and made for the door fading away as just another shadow on this foggy night.
Aji D'Moonh, Inventor
Bolak Linnik, Proprietor The Lady's Grace
By Zuzutoo & Largehobbit