“May I?” Elizabeth asked, splaying her forearm across the table towards William. She opened her palm, pressing her knuckles into the linen tablecloth. What was she requesting? He couldn’t comprehend her question — not because he was distracted by the inviting curve of her fingers. Did she want him to thread his fingers through hers? Feel the rapid rhythm of his pulse against her answering heartbeat? No, not that. She wasn’t trying to comfort him either; the hesitation which made her withdraw her offered hand before was absent. Even with her immense bravery, she couldn’t unblinkingly throw aside basic propriety, could she? He squeezed his fingers around the fragile handle of his teacup, anchoring his touch; he wouldn’t break society’s rules.
“Might I take a look at the newspaper myself, Mr Pratt?” Elizabeth clarified, with confusion and mild amusement in her voice.
“Oh,” William choked, trying to get his words out. Clearly, that had been the only possible meaning of her request. “Right. Yes, of course.”
He wrestled the paper closed. A few pages slid out of order, becoming wrinkled as he struggled to put them right again. He was pleased to hand it to her without further incident but was dismayed to notice his hands were stained by the newspaper’s print. “Ink,” he muttered without thinking and displayed his hands. Why did his mouth only give him free rein for inane utterances? What a dullard she must think him.
Elizabeth gave her own hands a cursory glance before holding them up in the air. “I believe mine shall soon match,” she challenged, as if an ink smudge had equal weighting to a faded battle scar. She didn’t appear to carry any such badges of honour. Those marks had disappeared effortlessly — he’d at least need the aid of a bar of soap to clear his hands. Slayer healing was like sleight of hand magic. The damage was merely hidden and concealed behind her eyes; blink and you’d miss it. William was now privy to how it was done.
The pain wasn’t in her eyes now. Instead, they sparked with her vibrant spirit — a wildfire he couldn’t match. She was full of life and he dare not profess his desire to keep her that way. His devotion would seem ridiculous and binding. Was it as hopeless a task as trying to save his mother had been?
William had followed every order his mother’s physician had given. Dr. Gull would speak in hushed tones to William outside his mother’s bedroom and lecture the younger man on their duty to protect the weaker sex. Weaker? He should have argued for Anne’s strength but was silent. Gull proceeded to warn William that his mother must not become over-stimulated by outside influences or her delicate constitution would deteriorate faster. She had to be confined to the house and forgo all social engagements. It didn’t help. They’d only ensured the time she had left was infinitely more miserable. William no longer trusted the Dr. Gulls of the world over his own conscious. Keeping Elizabeth alive meant letting her live.
She was still leafing through the paper when Margaret began clearing away the remnants of breakfast. The clattering of crockery didn’t break Elizabeth’s concentration, so he was surprised when she spoke.
“Thank you, Margaret. It was very delicious,” Elizabeth said, flicking her eyes up.
“Really, it was no trouble,” Margaret said, evading the compliment and swiping her hand across the table to clean the crumbs. “And there’s more food where that came from. We’re well stocked up after my visit to the market yesterday. I’m going to be baking almond cakes and making my special oxtail soup for the evening. I’m going to pick some fresh thyme from the garden for it.”
“It sounds like it’ll be a great feast.”
William was relieved that Elizabeth and Margaret were happy in one another's company — also that today’s soup didn’t include lamb or lettuce after yesterday’s ancient soup mishap. He should arrange to see Henry Giles soon.
Margaret smiled at Elizabeth and took William’s plate away. “At least someone appreciates my talents in the kitchen,” she jested.
William opened his mouth, ready to defend himself, but Elizabeth leaned forward.
“I think,” Elizabeth whispered loudly behind the shield of her hand, “she likes me more than she does you.”
William moved forward, adopting her mannerisms. “She is a most excellent judge of character.”
Margaret bent at her waist, reaching their level. “And she has the most excellent working ears this side of the Thames,” she parroted William’s accent and looked at him squarely. “Little passes her attention.”
“I suppose that it does not,” William agreed, turning red and scratching at the back of his neck. Had she noticed his attraction to Elizabeth? Was it so blatant? Elizabeth seemed to not have read anything into their words — he hoped.
“I meant nothing of it.” Margaret’s features softened. “If I didn’t think you a good sort, I’d have been off long ago.” She collected their plates, dangerously stacking them in her grip and backing through the door towards the kitchen.
Elizabeth folded up the newspaper and rested her elbows on it. “I think we should investigate the murders on Arlington Street further. Half the household is missing.”
"Why do you think they were taken?” he asked, tilting his head to the side and waiting for her response.
"Too much to eat in one sitting. Or something else...” She took a deep breath, raising her shoulders in a shrug. “The lurid details of the murders were only hinted at — too horrific even for the gutter press, I presume — but there was mention of teeth and fingers” — her face scrunched up — “extracted, which likely means torture. Obviously, controlled torture. They wanted something. If they’d merely been doing it for fun, well, they usually don’t stop at — you’d expect more dismemberment and possibly a head...” she trailed off, giving him a look of concern. “Too much?”
No, it was that he realised it was more real for her: what vampires were capable of. He’d read much worse accounts but it had never seized him viscerally. Not even the dead student at the Watcher’s Academy felt believable. The escaped vampire had killed the boy quickly but without relish. Then the body had been covered by a sheet.
“The vampire in the Council basement did not spare me a single salacious detail.” William met her eyes steadily. She must know she could be candid with him, though he was glad he’d already eaten.
Elizabeth suggested that they take the train from Battersea into town. William reluctantly agreed; he suffered from motion sickness on trains. Outside the station, he spotted The Falcon pub which Elizabeth had mentioned visiting the night before. Its exterior didn't suggest that by night it transformed into a demon bar.
She squinted at him through the glare of the sun. “We have more pressing business than the destruction of property owned by the harmless demon class — I believe the publican was human, as far as I could tell.”
“Right, yes,” he said, noting how increasingly flustered her words became. “And if you truly want to learn if someone is a demon, you must ask them directly on their honour and they cannot tell a lie.” he teased her, surprising himself. “I was merely curious about the establishment.”
“My struggle to behave myself as a proper lady — disguised as a boy — wasn’t for naught then,” Elizabeth sighed in relief. “I will remain glad not to have caved in a single demon’s skull with a stool then, even when a chaos demon tried to lay a slimy hoof on me. I only smashed a beer bottle over that particular demon’s head — his friends did get showered by some shards but no deaths. So I can go there if we need information in the future, just obviously not from the chaos demon population.”
“I shall refrain from suggesting we burn down the pub then, until further notice.”
Elizabeth smiled brightly at him and then nodded her head towards the station. “Shall we?”
William took a deep breath as they entered the busy train station. The crowd inside consisted of two powerful opposing currents. Both forces had been agitated by a sudden and final flare of summer; one headed to the gleaming calm of Brighton and the other to the roar and bustle of the city.
They sat opposite one another in the window seats of their compartment. The train was still motionless after the departure time passed. More people clambered in. Discreet conversation was no longer possible, especially when a colicky infant next to William began screaming in his ear.
He was trying not to fidget nervously. His shirt collar was cutting into his throat and his black suit was unabatedly attracting heat. He closed his eyes for the length of a few heartbeats then slowly blinked them open. Elizabeth was there, out of her seat. She was much too close when he already felt like he was drowning. Leaning nearer, she pressed her handkerchief over his clenched fist; it was a utilitarian act. It didn’t mean what it would have from another woman — the ladies of his class had elaborate codes, with their handkerchiefs alone. If a lady drew her handkerchief across her cheek: she was in love you, but drawn through her hand: she hated you. Such misunderstandings had made a mockery of him in the past. From Elizabeth, it was a sign of friendship. He dabbed it against his brow as she returned to her seat. The smell of sweet violets, the flower of Aphrodite, invaded his senses — not calming but at least distracting.
The train came to life and slowly whistled into motion. Its conductor, with the balance of a captain at sea, shunted the carriage doors open. William paid for his and Elizabeth's tickets. The man stared at Elizabeth until she balled up her unadorned ring finger. He returned William’s change with a sly look on his face. The mixture of lechery and disapproval grated on William's nerves. Had he shamed Elizabeth? From an outside perspective, their acquaintance seemed improper; his hatred of locomotives was reinforced.
Elizabeth was dappled by sunlight — her hair glowed — as she looked out of the window. Did she seem more distant now? He focused on the passing landscape instead. The tracks took them into the haze of the beautiful grimy city with flickering images of green parks interspersed. The infant beside him finally settled.
After arriving at Victoria, the rest of their journey was by foot. They skirted around St. James’s Park — avoiding any stray pelicans. While William wouldn’t be ashamed to lose a fight to a vampire with a pelican was another matter. It might make the paper though and give Elizabeth her bird article: Man Pecked to Death by Pelican. Not the Ovidian transformation of woman into bird, but it might do. He was sure she had an amusing anecdote to go with her request, but it would save.
“We’ll need a cover story,” Elizabeth said, stopping at the sign for Arlington Street, “if our connection to the household is questioned. We’ll say we’re distant family from the country,” she suggested self-assuredly.
“What part of the country?”
“I only know London,” Elizabeth grumbled, before blurting out, “Canterbury?”
“I have been there,” William nodded enthusiastically before looking past her, wondering how to broach his next subject. He forced the words free from the riggings of his vocal cords. “And of our connection, what are we to claim?”
“Before, I’d say I was Sir Wyndam's niece visiting from America. We’d travel with one of his daughters so that no one might think—,” she twisted her hands into fist, a slight sneer on her lips, “that they not think I was his mistress.”
William raised an eyebrow slightly shocked at her bluntness. She lowered her gaze to the cobbled streets.
“I didn’t fail to see the look the conductor gave us,” she said, blushing a little. He was reminded of Cecily’s face pinking with shame when his poetry — unmistakably about her — had been public spectacle. Did Elizabeth feel disgust by the implied image of them entwined together in a tangle of sheets and flesh. Was she scandalised? Ashamed? Any such sentiment explained her inability afterwards to cast her eyes on him until they’d departed the train.
“If anyone enquiries about us we should say that we are wed. I have a ring.” Her hands went to the nape of her neck, untwisting a hidden bow. A plain silver band appeared from the front of her high collar dress. She placed it on her hand and eyed it critically. “Hopefully none should look closely. It does not match the fine cut of your suit.”
“Why would anyone believe such a match?” he said, disappointment straining his voice. William couldn’t believe it. He’d failed to ever secure a woman’s attention let alone her eternal vows to be his. He was certainly beneath Elizabeth’s attentions. If she’d been out in society, instead of the slayer, she’d have had her pick of suitors. The reams of poetry written on her exquisiteness and exuberance would have provided enough heat to fuel a home through the coldest of winters.
“If I wore my best dress I might pass suspicion.” She pouted, eyeing her hand-me-down dress — the coarse, faded material too loose across her shoulders. “You are right,” she inferred agreement from his silence. “It is clear we were not born into the same station of life. A love match then. You wished not to change my ill manners or questionable wardrobe.”
Love match was even less believable, but he managed to keep that particular judgement to himself. “Here.” He fished his mother’s wedding ring from his breast pocket. “This might help with the deception. It was my mother’s; she hoped that one day I might marry.”
It gleamed, promising potential denied to the likes of him. He placed it in her palm. He couldn’t slip it onto her finger. It was too cruel a fantasy to indulge in. It fit her perfectly.
“Now take my arm.” She tipped her head at him expectantly. “It’s what one does after taking someone’s hand.”
Was she jesting? He’d never walked with a lady — it implied courtship. She was sure to notice something amiss. Trembling fingers, tensed muscles — a physiological response was sure to betray him.
Elizabeth gave a huge sigh. Tired of waiting, she hooked her hand around his biceps and pulled him in step with her.
Her skirt swished against his leg with every step. The heat of her bare arm seeped through the sleeve of his jacket. He tried to hollow himself out into indifference.
Elizabeth spotted the right address and tugged him down the steps towards the front door. She turned towards him sharply. “I’m not good at this,” she said worriedly, like she’d forgotten why they were here until that moment. “We should have snuck in.” She sighed in defeat. Her free hand hovered against the door and the other constricted painfully around his arm. He knocked the door in her place, to both their surprises.
“It shall be quite alright,” he consoled her. “If we’d been caught breaking in, they’d have called for a constable.”
The door swung open before Elizabeth could argue that a constable would only be a problem for William.
A young maid with a sickly complex stood and glowered at them from the house’s threshold. Her eyes were pale and showed no strength, but there was plenty of energy in her voice. “Yes? Who might you two be?”
“We’re distant relatives of the family that lived here,” Elizabeth began her rushed explanation. “We have spent all night travelling from Canterbury to pay our final respects to them and offer our condolence to you.”
“Then you made your long trek down here for nothing, didn’t you? Nothing here for carrion like you to pick off the bone.” The maid’s mouth twisted into a malicious curve. “The eldest son is inheriting everything as soon as he returns from his grand European tour. So you’re out of luck.”
Elizabeth placed her foot in corner of the door before it could be slammed upon them. “What bit you?” she asked, calmly.
“You were here when it happened, weren’t you?” Elizabeth said, her voice a gentle prod.
The maid was quiet for so long William thought she wouldn’t tell them anything. “They said he was a priest.” She took a steadying breath. “But he was death, I think. They travelled far, like you. And only asked that they might rest a moment and trouble me for a drink. I invited them in.” She rubbed at her throat. “One of them bit me and then threw me against the wall… I crawled away.”
She looked to Elizabeth again, as if awaiting judgement.
“You did all you could,” Elizabeth said definitively. “If it's possible, I need you to tell us what you can recall. I want to stop these monsters.”
“The priest,” she breathed shakily, “he wore a hood but his face — I thought I was mad. I couldn’t tell the police — they’d cart me off to bedlam.” She laughed harshly. “His eyes were yellow, mouth stained red and teeth like razors. More bat than man. But the other three were beautiful. Only one was a man — sounded vaguely Irish. The woman who bit me was American and the other woman sounded local — but didn’t make a lick of sense. I heard young Miss Jane screaming as I got to the street and I kept going.” Her eyes were wide with remembered horror. “The bobbies said they didn’t take anything but I noticed Miss Jane’s china doll Edith was gone.”
Elizabeth decided it would be best to return to Arlington Street at nightfall. It was familiar hunting ground to the vampires now; home still to any fledglings they might have been made. They headed to Watchers Council Headquarters for research materials to compile a rogue's gallery for their potential vampire gang. William was disgusted that Elizabeth couldn't follow him in the building. Women — even Slayers — were barred . He held his anger in and gave her his pocket-sized volume of The Sonnets for the Portuguese — Elizabeth to Elizabeth. He left her sitting on a bench in the sun where he would rather have remained.
William went straight to the library, not caring to reacquaint himself with the men from yesterday. He found Mr Griffith, the head librarian, shelving in the charms and curse section of the library. Griffith was pushing the books into an even line with a small wooden block. Satisfied with his work, he turned to face William. “I ask you Pratt, what kind of monster puts Mcs before Macs?”
“People are careless,” William agreed, surprised by the older man’s sudden lack of formality.
“I heard of your promotion. Congratulations are in order.” He got to his feet and held out his hand. William had been ready to awkwardly shake hands with him. “Your list?”
William took his book list from out of his pocket. Griffith took it and quickly scanned through it.
“Calliope’s Encyclopedia of Magic?” Griffith read aloud, seemingly impressed by its inclusion. “We only have a reference copy, but you are no longer governed by the reference only rule.”
“I would not presume.”
“Presume. My books might now save lives, though I argue a good book can change a life, but in your hands they might now save the world.” He grinned. “I will send them to you. Then I expect them returned in good order and to see you here again after your work with the slayer is completed.” Why was her death a forgone conclusion for everyone else? He must reject such thinking. “Master Giles will not cease in his prattling to me without you to keep him company.”
“It has been but a day.”
“A day to many.” He closed his eyes and huffed. He gave the list another once over, “We have Rhinehardt’s Compendium but it needs repairing. I’ll do a quick shelf check for the others and be back with you momentarily.”
William waited by the window overlooking the courtyard where he knew Elizabeth to be. She was difficult to spot. She was thumbing through the poetry book he’d left her for amusement — sadly, he hadn't a pack of cards to leave her with too.
Her muscles seemed to tense as she looked up at imposing facade of the building. Was she counting in her head all the injustices inflicted on her and all the facets of her life controlled from this very hub? Or she was planning on how to break in and rifle through another library? Her demeanour transformed and she waved at him enthusiastically, probably drawing disapproving glance from his fellow Watchers out there. He waved back sedately, hoping that from a distance his bright smile wasn't giving himself away. She returned to her book a few moments later as a shadow came over William’s shoulder.
“Why, William you sly devil!” Henry gave an impressed whistle through his teeth. “Are you courting that young lady? Did you contrive with Milton yesterday to get out of translating recipes for a rendezvous with her? I forgive you, of course.”
“What?” William slowly ran back through Henry Giles words. “No, that’s — that’s Elizabeth Summers.”
“The slayer?” Henry asked earnestly. He was the first watcher William had spoken to who seemed to take it seriously.
“I’m her watcher now. She’s a brilliant slayer and --.” William’s smile died on his lips. What was wrong with his friend?
“No.” Henry shook his head. “No, Rosaline was already too much.”
“Cecily,” William corrected him.
“Oh, I know her name,” Henry sneered. “I was implying your romantic heart has you falling in love quickly and unwisely. And I shall not be part of it. I shall not be your Mercutio,” Henry almost seethed. “That way lies death and sword play.”
“It’s — she is — we’re friends and I wish for no more.” William didn’t recognise his own voice, maybe because he'd never lied to Henry with it before.
“Oh, no I saw the smile on your face just now.”
“She doesn’t see me as —” William waved his hands. “No woman has cast her sights on me.”
“That you’ve noticed. There's a first for everything.”
William clenched his jaw. “Fine. My heart is — captured.”
“When she dies, what will it do to you?” He looked William straight in the eyes. “And any hint of impropriety will put you in hot water with the Council.”
“I know. You think I don't, but I do.”
Henry nodded and patted William's shoulder. It was the second time he’d offered William such a comforting gesture within the year. William knew Henry thought there'd be a third time. They never agreed on everything.
“Now.” Henry suddenly grinned. “I wish to meet this girl that has enchanted you so thoroughly.”
“What, why?” Elizabeth wasn't exactly keen on watchers.
“So that I might steal her away from you.” He rolled his eyes. “William, I am a happily married man. My wife, however, could do better than I, and I wish not to upset her. I want the slayer's advice on a matter with a demon I’m having. Wait here. I need to get my papers.”