It is a well-known fact that the Devil's Quarter from Whistler's Way to Brasswork Row is one of the safest places in Fallen London. The Fisher Kings do not tarry here, the cutthroats sidle further east toward the docks, and even the Game of Knife and Candle considers the Devil's Quarter neutral ground. At the center of this sphere of respectability, at the foot of the Brass Embassy, Moloch Street is Hell's public face: charming, well-kept, and able to offer you whatever you might desire for an oh so reasonable price. The brass gas-lanterns lighting the streets and doorways are always well-shined and steam faintly on cold nights such as this.
This night you are desiring a glass of wine and a nicely charred bit of steak. Two devils--minor functionaries if you are placing their faces correctly from your work in the Embassy file-dungeons--exit the Long Spoon just as you approach. One of them, a devil of mysterious and indistinct gender with an equally mysterious smile, appears to recognize you. They smile and tip their hat with a grin as they hold the door for you.
You thank them and step inside, the Long Spoon wrapping around you with the familiar scent of warm brass, almost-burnt meat, and faintly sulfurous candlesmoke.
Your friend the Affectionate Devil is sitting at his usual table. He looks up nearly the moment you cross the threshold and beams, waving you over and into a seat opposite him. "I am so glad that you could make it, my dear." He lifts the bottle (a Tellerman Farms, your favorite, of course) questioningly, and you raise an eyebrow to say, "Need you even ask?"
By the time you've concluded the usual pleasantries of complimenting the wine, inquiring about each others' health, and ordering your steak, you've ascertained that the other diners are far enough away and engrossed enough in their own conversations to allow you privacy. You pull a parcel wrapped in butcher's paper from inside your coat and slide it toward your friend. He pulls it toward him and back beneath the table with a pickpocket's studied nonchalance. There is the rustle of paper, and his expression only changes when he glances down, obviously inspecting the parcel's contents. He smiles, his teeth gleaming in the firelight. "I knew that I could count on you, my dear."
You smile into your wine, twitching the glass in an acknowledging toast. "I do hope that I've developed a reputation for reliability."
Your friend slides a purse toward you, and it barely has time to clink before you've settled it in an inner pocket. It nestles warm against your side.
"Oh, indeed," he says. "I do so hate to mix business and pleasure, but when this bit of business came up, well...your name was mentioned more than once, and not even by me!"
It is always nice to be appreciated for your skills, even by the agents of Hell. Certainly by agents of Hell that might send a bit of work your way. Such work has certainly been a profitable arrangement. "You flatter me, sir."
"Oh, not at all." He pours you more wine. "There are plenty of competent hands in this city, but not so many that are also trustworthy and discreet." He meets your gaze, and there is something both pleased and measuring in his yellow eyes. "Nor are there so many who have consistently had our interests at heart. Your aid in that business with the constables last month has not been forgotten. Nor have certain other opportunities from...other parties...of which you have pointedly not taken advantage."
You affect a shocked expression. "Why sir, have you been spying on me?" You can barely get the words out with a straight face, and your friend's amused expression says clearly that he knows it.
He holds up his gloved hands. "Not I, I assure you, my dear! My colleagues, however, are less trusting and are, of course, concerned about the character of those they do business with." He tilts his hand as the waiter arrives with your orders. You haven't eaten since a hurried mushroom popover from a street vendor much too early this morning, and the scent of your steak sets your mouth watering. Your friend ordered his usual: seared pork belly with a side of umbilicaria in sauce so heavily spiced that your eyes burn from all the way across the table. He rubs his hands together and inhales the eye-searing aroma with relish.
You take up your knife, test its edge, judge it sufficient to tackle your thoroughly charred steak, and tuck in.
At the end of the meal, your friend reaches for the bill and forestalls your protest with a raised hand. "I insist. We are friends, are we not? You can pay next time."
He assumes that there will be a next time, but you suppose that that is a fair assumption at this point. Never one to turn down free food, you relent and go back to cradling your cup of mushroom tea.
Your friend watches you with an oddly hesitant expression for a long moment, then pulls a small hinged jewelers' box from his coat. "I've been charged to offer you this, as well." He sets the box on the table, looking almost embarrassed. "My superiors sometimes have an...imperfect understanding of the realities of politics at the street level. You are by no means required to wear it."
You reach over, half expecting what you find in the box: a single brass ring set in a bed of black silk. The stone is the color of blood, and the ring itself makes the box warm to the touch. There is, you make out, a sigil carved into the inside of the band. It looks familiar, but you don't let that show in your expression.
Your friend is watching you carefully. "This is a symbol," he says, "nothing more. The ring itself is of no consequence. Half the hired blades in the city wear them, and it means nothing. The offering is merely...an indication that should you wish to wear it, you would have the right."
Ah, decisions. It seems as if you are forever making them. Still, your friend looks somewhat hopeful. As well he might, if your suspicions are correct.
You thank him and smile, closing the box and slipping it in your pocket.
Your friend beams, reaching out to grip your shoulder. You can feel the heat of his hand through his gloves and your coat. "I must admit I was hoping you would accept it. There are always those who are willing to work for our brass, but true loyalty...ah, that is something delicious."
"Loyalty?" You smile, teasingly. "Such an old-fashioned idea."
He laughs and sits back, thumping one gloved hand on the table. "Indeed. And yet it keeps cropping up, like a bad penny, doesn't it?"
It is a well-known fact that the Devil's Quarter from Whistler's Way to Brasswork Row is one of the safest places in Fallen London. There are stories, however, about how it was not always so: whispered tales of when London first fell and chaos reigned. When The Masters and Hell had not yet reached accomodation on what was and was not permitted in the 'Neath. Then, it is said, there was no such thing as spirifers. There was no need for the distinction. The agents of Hell roamed the streets freely, taking flesh or blood or soul whenever, wherever, and from whomever they pleased. Then, roaming Moloch Street meant death of varying levels of permanence, or worse.
You think of this as you walk home, juggling the small warm box in your pocket. You do not believe for a moment that the differences between then and now have to do with the devils themselves. The fact that they have become more genteel in their greed does not change their inherent natures. You would do well to remember this.
Humanity, however, is little different. This you also remember, as you dispatch a very misguided gang of cutthroats that tries to waylay you as you cross Gnarlybone Road.
When you arrive home, you hang your coat and leave the little box in its pocket. You light the lamps by your desk and pull from a locked drawer a plain book. You sit at the desk and flip through the pages, searching.
The Affectionate Devil's request had been simple: retrieve the coded private notes of an archaeologist who had met an unfortunately final death while excavating in the Forgotten Quarter. You would have thought nothing of it, had you not had a similar request from a different devil some months back. Then, the request was to interfere with an expedition, which you did quite handily and without unnecessary questions. Your friend's request was about a different archaeologist, but still...the similarities hinted at something intriguing. Why was Hell so concerned with relics of the Forgotten Quarter? It was enough to make you curious, and so you did some very circumspect investigation on the unfortunate archaeologist. Her specialties? Philology, cryptology, and the symbology of language. Her publications had been dense and precise, her hypotheses sound and well-tested, her reputation among her peers, exemplary. The most interesting thing you learned, however, was in talking with her secretary, who mentioned in passing that the archaeologist's death was such a shame. She gestured to a stack of books sitting on a chair by the office door. "She was always so full of ideas, always researching something. See, there, she didn't even get to those. I suppose I should send them back to the library...."
You glanced at the titles on your way out. The archaeologist had been reading books about the Hellish alphabet when she died.
The next night, in the archaeologist's son's basement, you pored through the crates of the archaeologist's effects. Her notebooks were easy to find and carry away.
Breaking the cypher they were written in was harder. Much harder. Not, however, impossible. An extended frequency analysis followed by a back translation from the vulgate Latin allowed you roughly five hours with the archaeologist's discoveries before your meeting with the Affectionate Devil. During that time you learned much of what she had discovered in the Forgotten Quarter...and knew precisely why Hell had been so very interested in her.
Unearthing, researching, and compiling an index of devils' true names (glyphs, transliterations, and original Hellish spellings, where available), as well as notes on how the warrior kings of the Fourth City had used them to combat Hell's advances, was bound to make the Brass Embassy nervous. If they had not had both hands in her death, you would eat her notebooks yourself, dust and all.
You spent an hour feverishly transcribing the most pertinent parts of the archaeologist's work into your own cypher before wrapping up the notebooks and heading out to the Long Spoon.
Now, three hours later, your hand still aching, you page through those notes. You don't need to look at the glyph on the inside of the brass ring again. Like all Hellish writing, it burns brightly in your memory and will for days.
You turn another page, and yes, there. There is the glyph, wavering on the page, and with it a name. The name is thirteen syllables long and contains an alarming number of consonants.
You sit back in your chair, closing your eyes. Is it your friend's name? A marking, perhaps? "This one is mine, please add to my account..."? Quite possible. Quite possible indeed.
Still, you hope that you never have to test the theory. As the Fourth City discovered, knowing a devil's name is less useful than one might expect. After all, knowing is useless if you cannot use the knowledge, and using it brings the wrath of Hell down upon you. After all, one who knows one devil's name might know others, and they can't allow that, now can they?
You rub your eyes. You have been up for nearly a full day.
You contemplate the fire in your grate but in the end lock the notes back in your desk. Perhaps you will burn them in the morning. Perhaps not. It is not a decision to be made without a good night's rest.
You yawn, stretch, and seek your bed.
The letters of the alphabet of Hell haunt your dreams, burning before your eyes even in sleep.