J’ai dormi sous l’eau
Ray, Abby and Cletus drifted through a merchant lined London street. Ray was draped in his leper costume. Cletus pulled his coat tight and buried his face in his collar. Abby had stuffed her hair into a hat and acquired a pair of trousers, through possibly larcenous means, between here and Glastonbury. She told people her name was Abe. The journey to London was uneventful, save for the highwayman who ended up shooting himself in the thigh before he was able to finish his opening threat. The weather was cooperative as well, but now, as they shambled through the streets searching for an affordable ferry to Calais, the sky was taking on a grim pallor. An occasional swollen droplet would thump one of them on the head. The streets began to take on the particular odor of a loaded chamber pot. A scream cut above the din of the milling throng. Like a school of minnows, the crowd moved toward the disturbance. In a slip of street, between a tavern and a brothel, the swarm descended on the lifeless body of the tavern matron with several stab wounds to her torso.
“The Fleet Street demon is at it again,” someone announced and a wave of unease rolled through the gathering as they murmured of the third murder in as many days.
Cletus looked above him and it seemed as though the clouds right above them became a blackened roil. The wind ripped through the street and a torrent fell from the sky. A dull chaos erupted as people began trotting off in random directions. Ray, Cletus, and Abby dove into the tavern beside the alley in which the matron was found dead, The Owl and the Raven.
They slid onto a bench at a table in a dim corner. Abby scanned the room then lit the candles on the table with her fingers. Cletus had let Abby chronicle the journey in his book. She set out her quill and ink and wrote the down the name of the tavern, accompanied by a sketch of two lithe figures dressed long, black coats and wearing masks; one of an owl, the other of a raven. Then she wrote. When she wrote she seemed entranced by the scratching of the quill against the paper. She would often go for hours without pause; covering the day’s events, the odd sketch or two, essays on arcane techniques. When she wasn’t writing she was practicing her burgeoning craft. Ray helped where he could, but he wasn’t quite sure how either she or Cletus was using Seraph technology to begin with. Cletus had resisted the urge to offer instruction, preferring to let her find her own road. She’d ask if she needed it.
The evenings since leaving Glastonbury often passed like this, each silent and engulfed in their own thoughts. Despite the weather, the tavern only had a smattering of patrons and all them seemed to be there with the sole purpose of seeking shelter. As night fell, a bard began to sing and recite poetry. This seemed to annoy rather than entertain, as evidenced by his several failed attempts at eliciting audience participation. When his songs ended the room was silent. He began to tell jokes.
“Play something Florentine,” a tall, wide man boomed, thick with a Florentine accent.
“I don’t know any Florentine,” the bard said, near anxious tears.
“Play something Florentine,” the man repeated, slamming his mug on the table.
“But, sir. I don’t know any…”
The man leapt to his feet and almost cracked his head against a rafter. He lurched about in a lumbering imitation of a dance, clapped his hand in time and sang an atonal melody.
“All the girls in Florentine, were all put into quarantine, all for fear of randy bull, by name of Bartolo Conti,” he burst into raucous laughter and threw the rest his drink into his mouth, wiping his face with his sleeve, “I got another one.”
The scattered patrons nervously chuckled and looked at each other.
“Get used to it,” he guffawed, “My boat’s stuck in harbour until the storm passes. Ooooooooh, once there was a man from Venice, whose body odour was deemed a menace…”
“Excuse me,” Ray called from under his hood.
The man stopped and squinted into the corner, “You don’t like Florentine songs?”
“They’re lovely,” Ray replied.
“But,” Ray continued, “Did you say you had a ship?”
The man’s face lit up and he trotted back toward Ray in a comical gait, the purpose of which may have been to make his imposing, powerful frame seem less threatening. It only compounded the problem by making him seem insane. He regarded Ray and his hidden face for a moment.
“Eh, signore? You’re not going to talk business from under that hood, are you?”
“He has a condition,” Cletus chimed in.
“Per favore, signore,” the man said to Cletus, “I was a member of a circus in Florentine. Nothing is going to startle me.”
“You were in the circus,” Abby looked up from her writing for first time that evening.
“Si madamina. Bartolo Conti,” he pounded his chest, “The strongest man in Florence. And probably, no definitely, in all the Holy Roman Empire.”
“What brings you to London?” asked Cletus.
“Eh, I don’t ask you where you’re going, you don’t ask where I’m going. Deal?”
“You’ll have to ask us where we’re going if we hire you to take us there,” Abby said as she wrote.
“Clever,” Bartolo chuckled and took a seat at their table. He lean into Ray, “C’mon. You take the hood down. We’re all friends here, right?”
“Really he’d better not,” Cletus interjected.
Ray pulled his hood down and Bartolo reared back. He saw an alabaster face with solid black eyes the size of florins, reflecting the dancing candle light. Long hair with streaks flowing from his temples like white rivers winding their way through black fields finally descending like waterfalls behind his ears. Sharp and wide cheekbones tapered into a narrow chin. Ray held up his hands, small palms with long thin fingers ending in razor pointed claws, like a raptors talons. He wiggled his wings and their shape was discernable through his cloak.
“Are you an angel or a demon,” Bartolo gasped.
“I can appear as either depending on the person,” Ray replied, “I’ve been mistaken for both. I’m a Seraph. And we need a ship to take us Calais.”
Bartolo stared and gave his bristled chin a few laboured strokes. He looked at Cletus, who just seem tired and Abby engrossed in her writing. He eased into his seat.
“Okay,” Bartolo lowered his voice, “20 Florins. Each.”
“Well we don’t have Florins,” Ray said, thumping an ingot of gold on the table, “You’ll have to settle for that.”
Bartolo stared at the ingot, “Signore, if that’s your idea of settling, I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“Just Calais will be fine. There’s more of that when we get there.”
Bartolo put out his hand, “We have a deal.”
Ray took Bartolo’s hand and they shook.
“That’s a fine grip you have…” Bartolo looked at Ray askance.
“Whatever you say, uomo d’oro,” Bartolo laughed, “Barista! A round for me and my mysterious new friends.”
Cletus stood up and began looking around the room, “I have to make use of the, uh, chamberpot.”
“The back alley is closest this place has to chamberpot,” Bartolo chuckled.
“Really?” Abby said with a touch of despair.
“They have a ladies section,” said Bartolo halfway between laughing and coughing.
Abby put her head back in her book.
As Cletus made for the back door, a small boy in a brown coat, brown gloves, and tricorn hat began darting in circles around Cletus. Cletus attempted in vain to follow the boy’s movements, but he moved with a swiftness that seemed to obscure his motion.
“What is this?” Cletus protested, “What are you doing, child?”
Bartolo turned and saw the source of the commotion, wobbled to his feet and began jogging toward the boy.
“No, no, no, Pietro,” Bartolo scolded the boy, “Paying customers are off limits. You know that.”
Pietro look up at Cletus stone faced and produced one Cletus vials, from what appeared to be thin air and twirled it in his fingers, like a pinwheel caught in a gale, until he pinched it between his thumb and index finger, poking out toward Cletus.
“Yes, thank you,” Cletus grumbled, snatching the vial. The boy nodded, expressionless.
“This is my son, Pietro. In the circus he was known as Il Corvo. He could make anything disappear,” Bartolo bellowed with laughter wiggled his fingers, “Nimble fingers. Pietro, you have this whole big city to play in. Run along.”
“Is he going to be alright?” Abby asked, “The weather is horrid and there’s a murderer on the loose.”
“In Florence they say, ‘Il Corvo può volare tra gocce di pioggia.’ ‘Il Corvo can fly between the raindrops.’ And, if that murderer meets my son, he better hope he left his valuables at home,” Bartolo roared.
Il Corvo dashed from awning to alcove through the sheets of rains flooding the streets. He would pause periodically to peer in a window or check a door. He peered down the street and spied a man trudging through the rain.
“Finally,” he thought. He darted toward the man, hopping between the street stones that still protruded above the rising water, in an effort to mute his approach. Before his hand had breached the man’s pocket, the man was pulled into a narrow alley. In the alley, Pietro could see the back of a figure bent over the man, stabbing him in the chest with a long, wavy dagger that glinted a green reflection of the gaslight behind Pietro. He approached the hunched man with silent steps and stood behind him. The assailant held the blade up and let the rain wash the blood, which streamed down the hilt onto his arm, weaving around his fingers. Crimson rivers gave way to rust, to amber, then ran clear. A crack of lightning, right overhead, lit the streets in a blue light brighter than midday, tearing the air with a deafening roar. The killer placed the blade into his coat pocket and turn to leave. He stumbled into Pietro and glared down at him. Pietro returned the glare with a indifferent gaze. The man grunted and pushed him out of the way, sloshing down through the roiling streets. Pietro pull the dagger out of his sleeve and examined it. It was etched with unfamiliar symbols and characters. Where the hilt met the crossguard, a bas relief eye, inlaid with mother of pearl, stared back at him. He slipped back into the obscurity of the storm.
The following morning looked promising. The sky was still a steely grey, but the rain had diminished to a light drizzle. The banks of the Thames had crept so far into the floodplains that small boats mingled with the houses and bobbed along the streets. Longshoremen waded through the streets toward the wayward boats in an effort to use them to get to the ships tied to the docks that were now some distance out into the river. Cletus strolled in the dim, overcast dawn light through ankle deep water surveying the aftermath and smoking his pipe. He noticed a small figure racing at considerable speed toward him, leaving a wake in the shallow water. As the figure grew closer he recognized Pietro. Pietro cut a circle in the water around Cletus’ feet, hopped onto a fence post and perched. He locked eyes with Cletus.
“Finished with evening’s pilfering,” Cletus glowered.
Pietro gave a sharp nod.
“Well,” Cletus stammered, made nervous by Pietro’s unwavering gaze, “What is it you want from me, then? A pat on the head?”
Pietro removed the green dagger from his coat and held it toward Cletus, hilt first. Cletus looked at it dismissively, then noticed something that piqued his interest. He took the dagger and examined it.
“This is interesting. Where did you find this?”
Pietro made a series of rapid gestures. Cletus softened.
“You’re unable to speak, aren’t you?”
Pietro gave another sharp nod.
“Perhaps we should go rouse your father.”
Pietro again nodded.
A clipped yelp cut the air. Cletus and Pietro looked up in time to see a longshoreman, who was swimming out toward the docks, pulled under the water. Nearby, two more were paddling out in a recovered dinghy. Webbed, kelp entwined hands reached out of the water and capsized the tiny vessel and pulled the two men under.
“Oh dear,” Cletus gasped. He looked back down at the blade, “We should get back to the others.”
Shouting erupted as several more people were pulled under the water. Humanoid figures began emerging from the river. Some of their faces looked like fish and their hands like fins, others like crabs or lobsters with hands to match, others still like tentacled mollusks. They were armed with harpoons and began using them to snare the fleeing workmen.
Pietro grabbed Cletus by the cuff and pulled him stumbling back toward the The Owl and The Raven.