You are not exactly fresh out of prison when first you are approached, but you are still wearing the sober, working class clothes you bought with the pence earned by selling your shackles. You imagine you can still detect the slightest odor of New Newgate lingering about your hair, but the delicate scent of the flowers he sends along with his rather shocking (and thrilling, if you are honest with yourself) notes disguises it beautifully. (And where, you wonder, did he find flowers in the Neath? These are not made from paper, nor are they mushrooms, not even the expensive, long-stemmed ones with the silvery caps.)
You pen a response by the light of your waning candle in the cramped little room you’ve rented in the corner of an attic. This last bouquet has caught you at the end of a long day, and you won’t be able to keep your eyes open for much longer after you’ve posted this note. It makes you sad to think you won’t be awake to wait for his response; in your mind’s eye, you can already see the calling cards piling up on the scarred mahogany table of the lodging house, but your body is already telling you that it won’t be dragged out of bed to retrieve them for the rest of the night. Or what passes for it in a city with no sun.
Your first draft is shy, polite but distant, and you frown as you study the ink while you’re waiting for it to dry. This is the sensible thing to do, you know, but… Your gaze drifts to the bright bouquet in the corner of your dark little room, the silky petals seeming to quiver in the uneven candlelight. Such an elaborate gift requires a stronger response than this.
You shove your first note to the side, careful not to crinkle it just in case you change your mind, and snatch up another piece of paper. You dip your quill, and with a shaking hand, you scribe the first saucy flourish.
Most charming sir: let me emphasise first the pleasure I took in the receipt of your ravishing gift. I have high hopes for equal and greater pleasures as our friendship develops... It has brought the most wonderful colour to my room and to my face -- a flush as pink as these exquisite petals has bloomed on my flesh. I keep them by my bed at night, and their perfume hangs in the air like the last echoes of pleasure in the warm glow after.
You can barely seal the envelope for trembling, your face aflame and the most improper buzzing in your thighs, like a parliament of bats all rushing in a swarm. This is a dangerous game you are playing, but it is all the more rewarding for that. You leave the note on the table for the messenger to take with him, and then you crawl into your bed, your last waking thought a hope that no one is curious enough to peek at your correspondence.
When finally you awake from your sleep, imagining you can still taste the waters of the Unterzee in your mouth in the last lingering vestiges of your strange dream, you first reach for the cards. Has he answered? Is it too soon to expect a response? Have you discouraged him with your enthusiasm, or does he want something… more… from you?
But of the handful of cards waiting for you, none are from him. A little disappointed, you nonetheless secure your scarf around your neck, set your cap, and wander out to Ladybones Road. You’ve heard it’s a favourite haunt of the Brass Embassy types, and you are hoping to meet your admirer there. You pick up several handfuls of cryptic clues from the graffiti on the walls and even one scrap of incendiary gossip from a starving poet who doesn’t realise he’s acquired an eavesdropper. You return to your lodgings in the evening with a lucrative commission to find out what else the indiscreet fellow knows and find yet another handful of cards on the entrance table.
You see your name on one and snatch it up. You slip it into your coat pocket and hasten up the stairs, eager to lock yourself in your room and read the note by the last flickering light of your candle. You tuck yourself into your narrow, lumpy bed and open the envelope, slicing your thumb on the parchment in your haste. You suck the blood from the wound, the sharp, coppery tang overshadowed by the words on the note you are reading.
Dinner? Alone? Well, it will be in public – scandalously public, really – at the Long Spoon. You know this has gone too far, that you should refuse, but what harm could there be in dinner? You use the last gasp of your candle’s flame to pen a quick but affirmative reply, and then you sink back into the dark waters of your recurring dreams, the echo of North! ringing in your ears.
You arrive the next day in your painfully sober clothing. You have been having difficulty with your commission and have yet to be paid, so you cannot afford to buy anything more…persuasive. You hope he won’t mind. After all, you’re fairly sure it isn’t your flesh that he’s after, though you hope he won’t neglect it entirely in his pursuit of... other pleasures. You do at least have in your possession a paper bag of humbug mints. Perhaps you can offer him one after dinner, entice him into spending a few more moments in your company.
He sees you as soon as you arrive and waves you over to his table. He is well-heeled, sleek, handsome, and utterly charming as he takes your hand – an absolute devil of a gentleman. Or the other way around. His hands are encased in slick gloves – “Vakeskin,” he says when he notices your gaze and your touch lingering on the smooth material, “is practically fireproof.” Now that he mentions it, his hand did feel rather warm.
He’s as absorbing as any suitor has the right to be, and his eyes never leave you. You’re so distracted you almost don’t notice how tough the steak is until you’ve choked on it, and he leans forward, concerned. His hand is hot and soothing as it rubs your back, and you almost forget how to swallow entirely.
“Do be more careful,” he implores, hooking one gloved finger briefly under your chin. “It wouldn’t do to be forced to relinquish all the nefarious plans I have for you.”
You smile at his jest -- if that’s what it is -- and nod. The two of you finish your dinners, and then there’s a cry from outside just as he is settling the check. (You had meant to pay for your bit, but you were distracted by the hubbub, and well, he did invite you. Considering the scant few pence jingling in your pocket, it’s probably for the best.)
You still aren’t sure what’s going on outside as he helps you into your coat -- not that you need the help, but it’s nice, the way his hand skims over your arm -- but then someone next to you whispers, “They’re saying it’s Jack! He’s struck again!”
Your companion’s ears perk at this and he falters, his hand hesitating on your elbow. He seems very keen on the pages of the penny dreadfuls being waved about in the lamplight outside, and you’re a bit envious of the sudden gleam in his eye. That greedy look was for you a moment ago.
“My dear,” he says, “forgive me. I must attend to this.”
What he means, you know, is that he must go see if Jack-of-Smiles’ latest victims are in any condition to part with their souls. You try to school your expression, but your bluffing will need some work if you are to continue with your shadowy hobbies, for he gives you a little smile and leans forward as if to kiss your cheek.
He stops just short of your skin, but you can feel the warmth of him. “It does sometimes help with the recovery,” he whispers. “But it’s still such a scandal. We mustn’t speak of it aloud.” One finger drifts down the front of your coat. “But of course, if you have any curiosity about the process, I should be glad to answer your questions.” His finger pauses deliberately on the button that rests against the centre of your chest. “Privately.”
He bows over your hand and takes his leave of you, and you are left standing in the Long Spoon, your face burning like a brand. A lady seated near you, her modish bonnet tilted at a rather too rakish an angle to be terribly ladylike, touches your coat sleeve.
“Ah, Si-, er, Mad-, er, yes!” She clears her throat. “You have a, um.” She gestures discreetly to her own face, beside her lip, right where, come to think of it, the burning sensation seems to be centred. Your hand flies to your face, covering the spot where your companion had nearly kissed you, and the stylish lady gives you a smile that you fancy is full of both sympathy and knowing. “It will fade in time,” she confides. Is that a hint of melancholy you see in her eye?
You are still wondering what might have caused such wistfulness when you reach your quarters, although you have other things to worry about now. You could hear the whispers following you all the way home, more than usual. Quiet snickers, scandalized gasps stifled too late – you imagine you can still hear them when you finally make it to your room. You catch your reflection in the window pane (you sold your only mirror after that one dream, the one with… well, you don’t like to think about it) and see the bright red spot on your face.
It reminds you of long-forgotten surface days, the pink tint your skin might take on if you stayed too long at the shore on holiday – an angrier red if you neglected your mother’s instructions to “wear a hat!”
It had taken you several hours in the sun to achieve what a few moments in his vicinity has accomplished, and it worries you. Surely your quest for pleasure would not drive you to endure the pain of --? But would you feel it if you allowed him to take your --?
You climb into your bed and lie awake for hours. When sleep finally comes for you, you dream about burning kisses, a reddened handprint on your hip, and a contract and a quill. You sign your name, but as you relinquish the paper, you see that your signature reads, simply, North.