“You’ve lost what?” The Marquis asked Richard, who was standing in front of him, looking vaguely awkward and blushing slightly.
Richard leaned forward and hissed, “The knife, Hunter’s knife.”
De Carabas took a bite of his bagel and chewed slowly as he stared at Richard. The bagels were made by one of the first jews to arrive in East London in the late 1800s and were worth savouring. It also gave him a minute to work out what to say in response. Finally he swallowed, grabbed Richard’s sleeve and pulled him behind a market stall and into one of the gables of London Bridge that stuck out over the river.
Cold wind whipped up into their faces and the view shimmered, this was old London Bridge. Glance and you’d see London now, HMS Belfast in the distance. Concentrate and you’d see the view from the Bridge where it actually is now, straddling a river in Arizona, evening sun turning the water red and sail boats streaking down it. Look deeper still and you could see the echoes of Victorian London, a teaming river, barges pilled high with goods from the world’s ports and smoke curling in the air.
“Hey!” Richard yelped and The Marquis snapped, “You want the whole of London Below to hear that you’ve lost the only thing that makes you special here? That, to be honest, is the only thing that makes you too dangerous to be worth hitting you on the head and robbing your corpse?”
Richard scowled and then deflated. “I think it was stolen.”
The Marquis leaned back against the bridge’s parapet and said, “Well you are in trouble.”
“Yes, I know.”
De Carabas watched Richard squirm for a moment and then, carefully hiding any glee, looked down, pretended to inspect a scuff on his boot and said, “Are you asking for my help?”
It sounded like Richard had gritted his teeth as he said, “Yes.”
The Marquis looked up and smiled, “So you’ll owe me a favour.” Quite a big one, he suspected. But Richard had spine these days and it didn’t do to push him too far.
“Yes, I will owe you a favour.”
“And have you told Door about this little mishap.”
The blush answered for him, even before Richard said, “Well, she’s so busy these days. Has a lot on her plate, I didn’t want to worry her.”
De Carabas hummed, and smiled. “Well not to worry, I’m sure I’ll be able to find it. Why do you think it was stolen?”
They began to walk back through the market, shouldering people aside and back to the stairs that led down into the tunnels under London Bridge station.
“We were in Baron’s Court,” Richard replied. “Me and Door, we were trying to negotiate a truce between the Baron and Ravens Court.”
As it happened, De Carabas was privy to some information that probably would have sealed the truce in a few hours, but it never helped to offer to jump in too early. There were several other little things he was working on which he wanted to resolve themselves first.
He didn’t mention this though, but nodded encouragingly and jumped down from a ledge onto one of the main pathways. Richard followed him and the Marquis noticed he didn’t even flinch at the drop.
“The Baron wanted me to show it to him, so I got it out. Then I had to tell the story again, you know, about Hunter and how I got it.”
Richard grimaced and the Marquis waved a hand to hurry him up. He had no particular desire to relive those memories either.
“I put it back in my pocket and dinner finished soon after. We left the Court, there was a big crowd and I think someone lifted it. I didn’t notice until this morning.”
The Marquis nodded, thinking. It was unlikely the Baron would have organised the theft, he was a clever man and wouldn’t want Door coming after him at the moment.
A member of his court would have to be very, very confident they wouldn’t get caught or they’d end up on the Baron’s rack. Unless they were going to use the knife to launch a bid for power themselves. That wasn’t impossible, but the Baron had seen off a coup fairly recently, which had been the start of the current problems with Ravens Court.
After seeing the number of pieces the lady who had organised that had ended up in, it was hard to picture anyone trying again soon.
Which left someone who wasn’t part of the Baron’s fiefdom, but had been at his Court. It was a place to start at any rate.
He smiled at Richard and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Meet me in two days time in Margarine Cemetery at 11 at night in the evening, don’t be late.”
And with that he slipped away into the dark before Richard could respond.
Two days of calling in favours, hadn’t got him very far and the Marquis was beginning to get frustrated.
“No strangers at all lately?” He asked the Baron’s squirrelly cook, a nervous man whose parents had been rat speakers. There was still something ratty about his shifty face.
He had a tendency to like pretty things that belonged to other people, but didn’t really have the guile to get away with stealing them. The Marquis had smoothed quite a lot of things over for him, it was worth it, to have someone so close to the Baron.
“No,” the cook replied uncertainly, glancing around at the ceiling, his nails, the Marquis’ ear and a peeling poster on the wall.
“I can’t say, I really don’t know.”
“But you know there’s something to know.”
The wretched cook twitched a bit, before saying, “The Baron’s been anxious about something, he’s worried. Off his food.”
“The situation with Raven’s Court…”
“Not that, I don’t think it’s that. That makes him angry, but he has to keep up the front of it for now.”
Now that was interesting, and De Carabas smiled encouragingly.
“Something else. Something else worrying him.”
“But you don’t know what.”
More little, worried glances and the Cook leaned closer to the Marquis and whispered, “Think it’s a person.”
With that he darted off and scurried away.
The Marquis watched him go thoughtfully before wandering away down a disused railway tunnel. There were a group of mushroom people who watched him past and called out to him to join them, but he pulled the lapel of his coat over his face to avoid the spores and just nodded to them.
Richard’s missing dagger, and a worried Baron who was generally unflappable. The Marquis didn’t trust coincidences like that, and he didn’t like this one. It smelled like something big, the sort of thing that caused trouble for everyone and the sort of thing Portico’s authority had generally prevented. But Door wasn’t Portico yet.
He was nearly late to meet Richard, and only had a moment to find a corner to lean in before the other man appeared. He studied him for a moment, loosing the knife hadn’t meant he’d lost the air of confidence he had these days, a confidence the Marquis didn’t even think he was aware of. He’d lost some of the softness in his face he’d had when they’d first met too and now he looked like he belonged here.
He hadn’t lost all his naivety though, when the Marquis stepped forward and greeted him, he still jumped slightly in surprise.
They’d barely said two sentences when they heard a commotion starting behind them. They turned to see runners wearing the Baron’s colours and rats streaming towards them. Some of them were breaking off down side tunnels and up ladders, but the mass of rats carried on past them, running over and between their feet, squeaking frantically. A bell began to peal, and The Marquis grabbed one of the runners.
“The Baron! The Baron’s been murdered!”
“Stabbed in the neck, they just found him.”
Richard and the Marquis’ eyes met, Richard looked horrified and he turned to ask, “Who did it?”
“Don’t know Sir. No one saw and there’s no note. I have to go Sir.”
And with that the girl pulled away and ran on.
The Marquis turned to grabbed Richard’s arm, “We need to find the knife.”
“Do you think it’s connected?”
“Yes and we need to find it soon.”
“There’s lots of knives and swords, down here. We don’t know…”
The Marquis glared at him. “That knife is power, status. If someone has killed the Baron with it, they aren’t just trying to take over his Barony, they have a chance for more.”
“What do you mean, ‘more’?”
De Carabas paced up and down, “No one has tried to take over the whole Underside in centuries. Everything exists in balance. Oh The Earl can fight the Seven Sisters, and the Baron and the Ravens can take territory from each other, but no one has seriously tried for the whole since…”
“Since when?” Richard asked quietly.
“Since a war that lasted nearly a hundred years.”
Richard nodded, taking this in and then said. “How do we stop it?”
He hadn’t wanted to go down this option. For one thing it would lessen his own triumph, and for another…He had come to like Richard, he had got used to him as a mildly irritating and surprisingly kind presence in his life. In the slippery shifting alliances and networks he lived a life dancing between, Richard was oddly constant.
And besides, Door hated it when people upset him.
So he hadn’t wanted to offer this option, but he also didn’t want to live in a world where all the waters in the sewers ran red.
“There is a person. A finder of lost things.”
Richard looked at him and said slowly, “Why didn’t you mention them before?”
“There will be a price. It will be high, it might be something you don’t want to lose.”
The bell was still toiling, but slower and steady now, a funeral dirge. By now most of London Below probably knew. Those with the most influence, the most power, would be planning their moves, waiting to see who jumped first.
Door, amongst other things, would be wondering where Richard was. The Marquis knew she’d move without him, but she’d want to speak to him first. The two of them were a partnership these days.
When Richard nodded, he wasn’t sure if he was sad or relieved.
“So, how do we find the finder?”
“How else?” The Marquis replied, “Down.”
“Covent Garden?” Richard asked uncertainly, looking up at the lit up theatre.
“The place below, Covenant Garden. Names change.”
“How do we get there?”
The Marquis pulled out his lock picks and crouched behind the stage door of Wyndeham's theatre. The theatre had shut hours ago, and out on the Charing Cross Road, revellers from London Above were singing and sirens were screaming.
The lock gave in his hand and they slipped inside. They walked in silence through the backstage area, past racks of empty costumes, and dusty props. The Marquis quickly pocketed a quill pen, a pocket watch and a dented locket with a curl of hair.
They moved deeper, bits of old sets rose around them, a castle turret, a broken balcony and the front of a boat. Richard picked up a yellow newspaper clipping and read out, “Love’s Labour, surely the dullest performance of a comedy in the whole of 1926.” He paused as the Marquis led him over the roots of a painted tree. “How long has this stuff been here?”
The Marquis shrugged, and cleared aside a box of withered flowers to find the trap door.
“It’s down here.” And then, despite his better judgement, “You don’t have to.”
Richard just nodded and said, “Hunter gave me the knife, it’s my responsibility. And my fault if, if…this war does happen. I’m ready.”
The Marquis nodded, opened the trap door and they dropped down into the dark.
Only to land on a stage. Oil lamps suddenly lit up, blinding him for a moment. From far away, applause for actors long ago drifted towards them. Never one to waste applause, the Marquis executed an elegant bow.
Richard slowly dropped the hand from his eyes and the Marquis nodded at the scenery. “Through there.”
It was a garden. Wings of painted trees and bushes stretched across the stage, branches reached over head. The gap between them stretched to distant hills, flecked with wooly sheep.
“It’s just scenery,” Richard said, but not sounding like he really believed it. “Just paint.”
The Marquis shot him a dry smile, “Don’t you know by now? Things are rarely just what you see.”
That got him a wry smile in return. “Oh I know.”
And as he said that, the trees and bushes they were walking through started to become more real, slowly shifting to bark and damp leaves. The carpet beneath their feet became grass and the stars over their heads began to twinkle.
“And what brings you two here?”
The Marquis only just managed not to jump in surprise and Richard’s hand went straight to his pocket, where his knife should have been.
The finder was standing beneath a willow tree, they hadn’t changed in the 150 years or so since he’d last seen them. They could be either gender, and any age between thirty and mid-fifties, but somehow looked like they’d been that age for a very long time. They had long straggly hair and snaggled teeth that cut at their bottom lip when they spoke, and wore a shapeless dress that hung to their shins.
The Marquis bowed and said, “What all people who come to you want, Finder.”
Finder nodded and replied, “But you’re not here for you I think.” They turned to Richard, “And what have you lost young man?”
Richard took a step forward and said quietly. “A knife.”
“It’s not…well it is a weapon, but that’s not why it matters.”
The Finder walked towards Richard and tilted their head. “You’ll pay what’s owed? For this knife, that has a value beyond its blade.”
“I will.” He said it seriously, like a vow, and The Marquis winced slightly. Worth was relative.
The Finder waved behind them, through the garden to the stage. The air shimmered and the Marquis saw himself, and Richard appear and take a few steps forward. The figures were slightly ghostly, light shining through them. He watched himself indicate a blank wall with a flourish and as the ghost Richard took a deep breath and reached up to knock, he realised what he was seeing and what would happen next.
The wall opened and Door appeared. Her face changed from guarded to surprised and filled with joy as she saw him and cried out happily, saying, “You came back!” She jumped forward and into Richard’s arms and the two of them were hugging and talking at once as he spun her round.
The long ago audience oohed like a wind over a moor and then burst into rapturous applause.
The ghosts on the stage began their dance again and De Carabas turned back as The Finder purred, “Is it worth that?”
“No,” Richard said instinctively, shaking his head, his gaze fixed on the figures. “It’s not, it can’t be worth that.”
“Hmmm.” The Finder edged closer to Richard and dragged a long fingernail over his forehead. “Is it worth this?”
The people on stage dissolved and reformed. It was just Richard and Door this time, they were sitting somewhere, it must have been outside as a breeze was blowing Door’s hair and sunlight shone on their faces. Door was rocking in a hammock, reading Mansfield Park. Richard was sitting next to her, idly leafing through a leather bound book.
The ghost Door lifted her head and smiled at the ghost Richard, completely guileless and happy for a moment.
“Is it worth this?” The Finder asked as Richard watched himself and Door. “To stop a war. Stop all those deaths and the rivers of the Undercity running red?”
Richard didn’t turn his face away, but tilted his head towards them. “How did you know that?”
They shrugged. “The thoughts are at the front of your minds. You may as well be screaming them.”
The Marquis frowned, not enjoying being so visible. But The Finder ignored him and moved so close to Richard their mouth was brushing his ear.
“It’s just a memory, there will be others.”
“But not that one,” Richard replied softly.
The Finder shrugged.
Richard ducked his face for a moment, and then nodded. “It’s worth that.”
For a horrible second The Finder’s face contorted, ugly and twisted and horrible with hunger and greed, before it gasped, “Then let me take.”
One finger nail scratched through the skin on Richard’s forehead and twisted, Richard yelped and The Marquis remembered it stung for a moment like a rat bite, but didn’t hurt that much. The hurting was of a different sort, and happened later.
On the stage the ghosts of Door and Richard dissolved away until they were nothing but floating dust motes in the glare of the spotlights.
The Finder stepped back from Richard and murmured, “Sweet…” They then cleared their throat and said, “Are you ready?”
Richard looked up and his face was hard as he said, “Where’s the knife?”
The lights began to flicker and The Finder began to sway, their pale eyes suddenly turned completely grey. The trees around them shivered and a faint scent began to roll across the stage, antiseptic, rot and beneath it all, blood.
“It’s up high, but hasn’t gone far from its murder. On the roof, the roof of the Cross..Charing Cross. Charing Cross Hospital.” The Finder fell forwards like a puppet whose strings had been cut and Richard caught them awkwardly and helped them to sit on the floor.
“You should go now,” The Finder said. “He wants to run it away and I’ll lose it in the dark.”
They slumped to the ground and the Marquis grabbed Richard’s shoulder as he bent over them.
“Come on, we need to move.”
“They will be. But we need to get that knife, come on.”
He pulled Richard after him, back through the tunnels and through all the shortcuts and passageways he knew to west London as quickly as possible.
Richard was quiet for a bit and then said, “I still know it happened, I just can’t grasp it. I know we were in a courtyard, one of the rooms in her house. I know Door was reading and I was trying to learn more about London Below from her grandfather’s writing. I know it happened, I just can’t actually remember it.”
They walked on a bit and Richard said very tentatively, “This doesn’t seem too hard a price.”
The Marquis debated telling Richard that the memory chosen would fade further, that it had been more important than he knew now. That The Finder had never let anyone off without taking all the payment they could.
He just shrugged instead and said, “Perhaps. Luck does seem to follow you around.”
Richard would find out for himself sooner or later anyway.
They walked through Charing Cross hospital, ignored by porter, patients and doctors alike before reaching the lifts at the back. As the lift rose up the Marquis asked Richard brightly, “How are you with heights these days?”
Richard grimaced and shrugged. “Better than I was.” And then, more confidently, “I’ll be okay.” The Marquis watched him and ran the chain of the stolen locket through his fingers as the lift climbed.
The top floor revealed a corridor, and that corridor left to one stacked with filing cupboards and broken clipboards.
“What’s your plan?” Richard asked.
The Marquis made a show of negotiating climbing over a wheelchair missing a wheel to give him time to think and said, “Depends on what we find.”
“So you don’t have a plan?”
“Of course I have a plan.”
“Well what is it then?”
“Depends on what we find.”
He had plans. He always had plans. Almost always anyway and when he didn’t there was a good reason.
The door to the roof opened, there was no one there and he edged out slowly, followed by Richard who had enough sense to follow him in silence. The roof was entirely empty, with one blind spot round the side of the door. The Marquis crept round the edge, and was almost entirely unsurprised there was no one there.
And then even less surprised to hear a harsh voice say, “Looking for this?”
He turned back and there was a man standing in the middle of the roof who hadn’t been there before.
He was bald and ill looking, with a running sore at the side of his mouth. Despite how thin he was, and how grubby, no one could have missed his resemblance to the old Baron.
Richard took a step forward and said, “Give it back to us and we won’t hurt you.”
The Baron’s brother smiled widely, showing how many of his teeth were missing, “Yes you will.”
“I thought you’d died,” The Marquis said. “Everyone thinks you’ve died. Give us the knife and vanish again, we won’t tell anyone about you.”
The man spat. “I should have been Baron, he betrayed me. I’ve spent years, travelling the undercities, and am not hiding in the shadows any more.”
“What do you want?” asked Richard.
Another wide, horrible, smile. “My Barony.” He took a step towards the Marquis and Richard, and started to raise the knife. “My fiefdom.” The Marquis tensed his arm and a knife slid from its holder into his hand. “This whole fucking city.”
And then he rushed them. They both jumped out of the way, and The Marquis spun round him to kick him in the back.
He missed though and the Baron’s brother dived for Richard, who barrelled into him and knocked him to the ground. The two grappled, rolling over and trying to keep a hold on the knife. They were getting closer to the edge and the Marquis hovered over them trying to find an opening, to do something, anything.
He got it when Richard kneed the other man in the stomach and knocked the breath out of him. The Marquis flicked a cosh out of his sleeve and brought it down with enough force to crack his skull. He moved out of the way at the last second though and the cosh just hit his shoulder. He shouted in pain and Richard was able to grab the knife and jumped free.
“Back off!” Richard shouted and the Baron’s brother struggled to his feet.
“I stole that knife from you, it’s mine.”
“A friend gave it me as she died! It’s not yours.”
The Baron’s brother ran forward again and Richard stepped back and the Marquis didn’t see quite what happened as they grappled, but then Richard was staggering back, his hands, sleeves and the knife blade were bright, slippery red and the Baron’s brother was sinking down, staggering and tottering like he was drunk, leaving splashes of blood all over the concrete.
Richard reached out towards him, but didn’t move as the Baron’s brother, heir of nothing at all, reached the edge and fell over, many, many stories to the street below.
“I killed him.”
The Marquis shrugged and said, “He would have killed you.”
He looked over the edge, a crowd of people were surrounding the body. A few of them were looking up and he moved back quickly.
“We should go.”
“Yes, you did and now we need to go.”
He pulled Richard back in the hospital and found a fire escape, they began to run down it and the sound of police sirens started in the distance.
They burst out of the building and ran into the cemetery behind the hospital, once they were deep within it Richard paused for breath, leaning on a gravestone.
“I’ve never killed anyone before.”
The Marquis shrugged awkwardly, not sure how to comfort him or even if it warranted it.
“We should find Door.”
He ignored the slightly regretful pang in his chest as Richard stared at the rain hitting his bloody hands, the water leaving streaks in the red.
It was wrapped up quickly after that. After much yelling at Richard by Door; and negotiations with the Baron’s daughter, with some final suggestions by the Marquis about dwelling on the things that were really important like the death of her father’s killer and her own elevation to Baroness, and not unimportant things like missing murder weapons, London Below let out a breath and weapons were sheathed.
The Marquis left Richard and Door and went home along on the river. Lights twinkled and around him London above rushed past. He slid into a side street at Borough Market, and then down to where a handful of people sold food scavenged or stolen from the market.
He picked up miscellaneous vegetable curry and a bottle of wine, before winding his way to the crypt he was staying in for now.
It wasn’t exactly a home, but it was more than a bolt hole, and had the things in he’d be most sad to lose if he ever had to leave it. He stretched out on a threadbare sofa to eat the curry and raised his glass in a silent toast. There were worse ways, so many worse ways it all could have ended. He must have fallen asleep at some point, before a scratching at the door woke him.
He put his coat back on and kept his fingers around the cosh as he opened to door to see and small, embarrassed looking grey rat with a letter tied to its middle.
He smiled as he opened the letter up.
Dear Marquis de Carabas
I understand you can sometimes be prevailed upon to help those who need a favour…
The smiled turned into a grin as he got to the end of the letter. The night was looking up as he locked the door behind him and headed off into the night.