Who could this be at the door at such an early hour?
Lady Hildegard Argelmach, exile's most distinguished poet, blearily rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The clock chimed four in the afternoon. Discarded jars of prisoner's honey and laudanum lay strewn about her bed. A tattered notebook full of poetry, mostly sonnets to her homeland, lay open, some of the pages having fallen on the floor. She reached down to grab one of the pages from Doan, her pet monkey, before he chewed on it any further. To her mild distress, that particular page was written in her own blood and said, in big letters, 'AAAAAAAARGH WHAT RHYMES WITH CORRESPONDENCE?'. She didn't remember writing this, or even knowing some of these words. Were they even in a human language? Before she could dwell on this further, her Starveling Cat reached out a sharp claw from its hiding place under her bed and raked it across her arm, shaving several inches from her already heavily sub-letted soul. She resolved to take extra care not to drop food under her bed any more.
The knock on the door continued. It was giving her a terrible headache. One hand resting on her knife (it never hurt to be careful), she threw open the door and squinted at the terrified post-boy who stood on her doorstep.
“The crazy lady's going to kill me!” sobbed the boy as he ran away. She frowned. It was scandalously untrue. None of her pet urchins had ever died as a direct cause of actions that could legally be attributed to her. She bent down and picked up the battered parcel and crumpled letter on her door mat. By its appearance, the post boy had only made one dispirited attempt to open it. She opened it with her handy prison shiv, taking care not to get too much blood on it.
“A love letter?” she remarked.
Who could it be from? Of course, an elegantly fallen exiled poet such as herself had many suitors, most of whom still believed she actually loved them, a couple of whom she even had vague feelings for. Maybe it was her artist friend, or his beautiful model, or the Charming Jewel Thief, or even the Quiet Deviless!
Love was in the air like a second layer of smog, and all around her, the streets were filled with celebration, veiled women dancing to exotic music, showers of rose petals, couples sipping mushroom wine in the gardens or on tables in open-air restaurants. From her vantage point, she could see fifteen couples engaged in 'secret' dalliances, three of which it might be politically expedient to remember. She sat and hummed a song as she opened the parcel. It was a heart-shaped box of chocolates wrapped with a red silk ribbon.
“Hmmm, breakfast,” she muttered vaguely as she picked up the first one and placed it in her mouth.
An acrid taste burned her throat and she felt her chest tighten as she realised her mistake. She hadn't been cautious. She knew what most poisons smelled like, and she had a perfectly good urchin to taste-test her food, but the thought of love had distracted her. But of course, most love was merely bait for a lure. And she hadn't been keeping her body in that good condition lately, even for her. Her whole body felt numb, then she went dizzy and lost consciousness.
Oh, bother, she thought as she woke up to the familiar sight of a boat moving slowly down a dark river, I'm going to spend all of the Feast of the Exceptional Rose dead! It was a rotten way to spend any day, let alone one of her favourite festivals. There was nothing to drink. The only view was of the far bank, which was frightfully dull with its endless grey mist and withered trees. It was eerily quiet, with no revelry or merry-making, and nobody seemed to be interested in sharing romantic moments with each other, or anything much except coughing and looking pale and wan. What was more, she felt terrible herself and she knew that every part of her anatomy would ache unbearably the next morning, like the worst Prisoner's Honey comedown.
Still, she thought, it was relaxing in its own way. Riverboats were romantic, she supposed, and the sky was a very pretty shade of grey. She could see faint light-grey flickers of life from the Neath, like stars in a particularly foggy sky. Some of the spirit of the festival had obviously worn off onto the boatman, as he had tied a grey ribbon onto his hat and was singing a traditional lover's serenade under his breath to keep time as he rowed. Her lips pursed into a smile and she reached out to pluck a handful of wilted flowers, once white but now a wan shade of beige. She shook the water off them, removed the stalks and tied them together with a ribbon from her hair before presenting them to the boatman. A puzzled expression crossed his face. It was difficult to spot because he had glowing eyes, skeletal features and hid most of his features behind a long tailcoat and stovepipe hat. He reached out a bony hand and snatched the flowers off her, before turning them upside down and examining them closely.
“Haven't you got a vase? And a tablecloth?” she demanded, “Some candles would be nice, too.”
After a long pause, during which she could hear only the faint current of the river and the cry of a distant raven, he said, “Vase. Tablecloth.”
“Maybe a glass of wine? Do you drink? No? I suppose it would go everywhere...”
With a long-suffering sigh, he hooked his oars to the side of the boat and reached underneath his seat. He retrieved a grey cloth bundle, which he unfolded to reveal that it was, indeed, a tablecloth with a vase and several crystal wine glasses and a bottle of Morelways 1872. His eyes bored into her, “Happy now?”
She blinked, “Do you always keep that down there?”
“I have a lot of things. They keep me amused,” he said in his slow, inevitable voice, “Nobody ever asks.”
“People tend to have one thing on their mind, when they come down here,” she mused as she helped him set up the tablecloth. The boat didn't look that large but, as it had to accommodate everyone who died in a single night, it was deceptively spacious. Its dimensions were probably one of those things that would never make sense, even to Correspondence scholars. Suffice to say, there was easily enough room for a tablecloth.
“Its incredibly irritating,” he said.
“You must be terribly lonely,” she whispered in what she hoped was a dusky tone, leaning over just a little closer than necessary as she poured the wine into his glass. He sniffed it suspiciously (What exactly was he worried it contained, that could possibly harm him? She knew there was something in the Neath that meant he could not enter; maybe he feared that it would contaminate his realm?) then began slowly sipping the vintage. His mannerisms were slow and precise. He had a certain elegance about him. His taste in tailoring was impeccable, despite the fact that he had his clothes cut to entirely hide himself. Maybe he just thought it looked secretive, or wanted to hide his gaunt, hollow face. Perfectly understandable; she felt much the same way after several nights with too little sleep and too much wine. She hadn't noticed before but he was actually quite an attractive gentleman.
Maybe my day won't be ruined quite so much after all, she pondered as she relaxed in her seat, glass in hand, and thought of interesting conversations she could have with the most mysterious stranger of all.