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The Taste of Memory

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A tall, slender man stands in the study. He is garbed all in black; sharp coat, silk shirt, polished leather shoes. Taken together with the pale skin, high cheekbones and glossy feathered hair, it makes for a stark, impeccable image.

He is frowning down at the papers strewn across the desk. The paper is good, thick paper, their contents finely inked. The desk is solid mahogany. There is also a paperweight set upon the desk, carved of stygian ivory, the lamplight glinting off claws and scales and sinuous coils.

The man remembers the previous owner of the townhouse in which he stands; a zee-captain who made his fortune exploring the Unterzee and its dark wonders. He does not need the papers upon the desk to tell him that the house, the money and a ship are his inheritance, the previous owner having passed on. (It is an accurate phrase, though the man is not dead. He has gone on, and he is no longer a man.) Curiously, he also knows that he has never been here before, and that he has never met the previous owner.

It is a puzzle worthy of his attention. It is one of many puzzles; there are outlandish artefacts in a display case, there is his hunger to sate, and there is a sunless sea to explore, one that cannot be truly charted. There is a ship at the docks to inspect and claim.

The Raven Prince knows that he is not himself, yet mystery is what he is. The paradox delights him, and his thin lips curve in a slight smile as he leaves.

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The Raven Prince has never had much patience for the seething noise, sweat and filth that comprise so many of the humans’ cities. London - Fallen London - has retained that mortal charm to it, for all that it now lies miles underground, with shifting false-stars overhead and no proper winds to speak of.

He itches to take wing, or at least to set zail. For now, he takes the long walk down to Wolfstack Docks, bright black eyes taking in familiar sights for the first time. The slinking alley cats; if you can catch one bare-handed, it will tell you a secret. Weak-willed men gather in seedy establishments to lose themselves in honey-dreams. Squid-faced creatures in ill-fitting suits are gathered on a street corner, the dim lamplights leaving them in more shadows than illumination as they make wet, mournful noises among themselves.

Really, the small, mundane steamship that waits at the dock is a disappointment. It actually burns coal to fuel its engines; only one of several tedious concerns.

The paperwork is resolved in short order - he declines to identify himself, a little push with what is left of his glamour settles it, and scrawls Ravenmist down as the ship’s new name before he can give it too much thought. This dull compilation of floating metal is barely worth a name as it is.

There is a small crew of foolhardy mortals to manage the ship. There is the cache of fuel and supplies stowed in the hold; the memories-not-his in his mind are of use in estimating whether the amount is sufficient. There is a heavily bandaged, possibly decaying specimen of humanity, asking for passage to the tomb-colonies.

The Raven Prince indicates permission to come aboard with a seemingly idle flick of his long fingers; his corvid gaze is fixed unblinking upon the emigrant. He might have to revise his use of the word ‘mortal’, as it seems the humans here in the Neath are not dying as and when they ought.

‘It seems.' He cannot have the knowledge direct from the sorry creature’s mind as he should. He can almost feel it, the taste of their little dreams in their simple heads, but he cannot snatch it.

The newly appointed zee-captain shivers, and turns to stare out at the green-tinged black waters. There is no horizon to be seen, only all-consuming darkness, and the tiniest pinpricks of light from the false-stars in the roof.

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The oceanography of the Unterzee is delightfully fey.

Notes on various islands, ports and landmarks have been found, compiled within a folder labeled as “the collective logs of the Solitude”. In the mind’s eye of the memories-not-his, the Raven Prince recognises most of the handwriting as belonging to the departed owner of the townhouse, and the rest to over half a dozen other zee-captains besides. A blank map lies on the desk in his cabin, waiting to be filled in; there are older charts, but they have been rendered obsolete by the latest Alteration.

The Ravenmist makes her slow, deliberate way out to zee, past the lights at the harbour mouth. Names and hints of stories whisper at him from the yellowed papers. They refuse to satisfy him - until, in the light from the prow-lamp, he sees a void beneath the dark glass ripples of the water, and marks it for an abyss named in the notes, named for one of the very first humans to attempt charting the zee.

He sketches the beginnings of his map calmly. The outlines are drawn with measured care, while the letters are sharp scratches. The act of matching name and knowledge to physical feature has already done what the Raven Prince needs; he knows how to nourish his true appetite now.

What is a single name placed, though? He is ravenous for more.

The door is flung open with a flick of his fingers. He steps onto the deck, and takes wing in a flurry of feathers that resolve into a large raven. Beneath him, the crew cry out in shock. There are black rocks on black waters, and illumination from the windows of a grand, lonely house on an island ahead, and even though he will have to descend again in a moment, for now he savours being entirely in his element.

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There are no true winds in the Neath.

This is not to say that there are no winds; the air moves, here where the Raven Prince stands watching the lawn gently ripple, lightly dusted by glimmers from the windows of the imposing yet aging house perched on this gloomy rock.

The air moves, according to the eldest sister of the three who live here, who had spun whispers over dinner like a silk web, about the scalding Wax-Wind that blows from the Elder Continent, rending ships and men alike into something akin to misshapen candle stubs.

The air moves, according to the words written in the collective logs by his predecessor, who spoke with a child to whom the wind speaks.

But none of these are the currents of the world’s breath, that bring rain and fill sails, that might wend their way down from the Surface, that may go whistling through cracks and vents back to the true skies. He would know, creature of the air that he is. The little stirrings are too feeble, barely enough to give a zee-bat or a raven something more than dead air, while the greater winds here are only the discordant voices of angry gods.

The Raven Prince wonders if the Unterzee is some part of the underworlds. But the humans who toil upon his ship, of inked skin and scarred flesh, who will no doubt grow increasingly filthy in the coming weeks, they are too human. Or perhaps just human enough. (The dusty, shambling yet still breathing would-be colonist in his hold reminds him that 'human' is not entirely as he knew it to once mean.) This is a human realm only in part, sharing its air and water, earth and fire, with others that are more familiar to him and his kind by the very nature of their strangeness.

It comforts him, each eldritch detail. The gleaming yellow eyes of the sisters’ maid. The almost tangible blackness of the Neath, that unnerves the crew so. The tale of terror that has been woven for him, as if she had known what to offer him, a burning thrill that he might someday impart to some other poor soul.

He takes wing. Down at the little dock, the lookout with his glim-lamp cries out; the Ravenmist quickly casts off and pursues her captain.