The sound of guns in the distance is like the ruffian cadence of heavy rain on a tin roof. Black smoke trails in funereal banners through the clouds as, somewhere out there beyond the walls of Londinium, along the embattled coastline, ships burn in the cool of early morning. In response to the distant clatter and the ominous darkening of the sky, the haughty splendour of the Hanover district brews a genteel panic.
Ladies with hats askew and corsets ill-tied usher squalling children into carriages whose matched pairs of bays and quartets of even-socked greys plunge and rear, their eyes rolling in terror. Terse gentlemen, their upper lips so stiff they could be used as walking sticks, harry servants to move ever faster and get their blasted act together, whilst throwing soothing nothings at their good ladies and glances of ill-disguised irritation at their screaming children.
Disorder bubbles everywhere and, at the entrance to Hanover, chancers wait with heavy brown burlaps for the inevitable plunder of suddenly empty houses. No one pays them any mind. It’s not as if any of these deserting lords and ladies give a hoot. Their most precious possessions glisten in poorly closed trunks and hat boxes strapped in haste to the tops of tilting carriages.
Margo grins at the group of ill-dressed thieves as she strides past, tipping her hat and offering them a jaunty wink. ‘What a morning,’ she cries merrily. ‘I might help myself to a trinket or two after a pint of the good stuff. Save me something shiny.’
‘Are you sure this is a short cut to the pub I mentioned?’ Kitty asks plaintively, trailing behind with Leek, who’s looking rather peeved about how many curious and hostile stares she’s accruing in her gypsy disguise.
‘No,’ Margo yells cheerfully, sticking out her foot to prop the behind of a rather rotund gentleman attempting to shoehorn his bulk into a carriage door not made for such exigencies. She gives a hearty shove and responds to his muffled thanks with a chuckle. As she bounces on, leering at hysterical debutantes, Margo says to Kitty in a casual sort of fashion, ‘Pubs are like buses, you know. You can’t stand around and wait for one; you’ll never find it. And you can’t go looking, because they hide from you. It’s more a case of aimlessly wandering around, looking like you’ve nothing better to do. Makes a pub sort of feel obliged to let you fall into it. Out of pity.’
Kitty attempts to do the same thing with Margo’s explanation and his brain as the rotund fellow tried to do with his bulk and the carriage door, but receives not even so much as a friendly shove of assistance. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
Leek pats his arm. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says confidently. ‘Margo could find a pub in the Vatican. She’s just built that way.’
Alex watches the border through the sights of his rifle. ‘There must be something like five thousand of them,’ he says to Lucian, his tone hard with anger. ‘I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing; they’ve no goddamn call to aid our enemy. You can’t buy a Sleathe’s loyalty. On their own territory they fight because they love to kill, but out here…I don’t know, it’s madness. What on earth could they be persuaded by? They want for nothing. They are Sleathe.’
Lucian lifts his eyeglass and takes a look himself, tension and fear writhing in his veins, fighting one another for supremacy. The Sleathe boiling across the border’s thick band of forest look, from this distance, like an oil-logged sea rolling gently under persistent breezes. They are at one and the same time tranquil and deadly.
He’s down to so few men, and the small numbers of allies they’ve rendezvoused with thus far have little skill in combat with these creatures, having had no opportunity to fight them, such matters being left to Lucian and his men. They risk losing any advantage in their rear attack on the forces invading Great Britannia if they’re forced to face the Sleathe to move on to the coast, to the ships waiting to take them to join the battle. But what choice is there? Travelling further along the border will take days, it’s time they don’t have.
‘We can’t avoid them,’ he tells Alex, failing to hide his despair.
Alex smiles up at him, and those periwinkle blue eyes engulf Lucian as they always do. He sees more in them now than ever, the nights they’ve spent together that are as engrained on his flesh as they are in his memory, a trust he doesn’t believe he’s earned, and a love he knows he hasn’t.
‘We’ll find a way,’ Alex says, and he sounds so certain that Lucian almost believes him.
Kitty’s mouth has succumbed to the gravity of shock. He’d never have credited it with any chance of likelihood had he not just witnessed it with his own eyes. And he’s a fucking angel; he’s seen things that would break the minds of even these strong women if he so much as mentioned them. Yet, there it is. Random as you please. The fucking pub. In the middle of Trafalgar square, where the admittedly rather eyesoreish jut of Lord Nelbottom’s statue once poked a cantankerous hat at the heavens.
‘How the hell does a pub find you?’ he demands. ‘I mean, just how the hell?’
Margo gives him a patient look. ‘I am a highly evolved tracking device,’ she says sweetly. ‘I’ve become so sophisticated at finding pubs they practically throw themselves at me.’ She smiles modestly, and it almost breaks her face. ‘It’s a gift.’ She hikes up her skirts. ‘Come along, we’ve an ex-angel to woo for nefarious magicks and if he won’t play ball I’ll have to twist his wings.’
‘He doesn’t have wings,’ snaps Kitty. ‘Ex-angel. It means no bloody wings.’
‘Oh well, I’m sure I can find something to twist,’ she responds lightly, and pulls Leek through the door. Through it.
Kitty follows Margo and Leek, pushing the door open the proper way and muttering to himself. It’s not right how Margo moves things. There are rules, and she barely even pays them the courtesy of five seconds of her admittedly fickle attention span. She doesn’t so much break them, in fact, as walk straight through them, much as she walked through that poor, benighted door and they become anti-rules as she passes, bending in upon themselves, over themselves, as if desperate to allow her to break them. It’s almost sickening. In fact, it is. He’s broken a rule or two in his day, and he felt quite good about it thank you very much, but there are levels.
‘Levels,’ he grumbles as he approaches the bar. ‘Fucking levels.’
‘What are you mumbling about?’ Margo asks, shoving a beer into his hand. ‘You’re supposed to be sending vibes to your friend. Don’t make me have to twist anything on you. Leek doesn’t like me breaking her toys.’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ Kitty yells, exasperated, making everyone at the bar stare at him. ‘Solomon!’ he shouts furiously. ‘Get your bloody arse here before this woman drives me insane or breaks me or, even worse, breaks this world. You know what’ll happen then.’
A long, thin shadow detaches from the wall, morphing into a tall man of peculiar angles and over-attenuated limbs as it does so. ‘No need to shout, old boy,’ he drawls. ‘I’ve been here since dawn, waiting for you.’ He offers Margo his marvellously wide smile. So many teeth in it a shark would suffer significant loss of self-respect. ‘This lovely lady and I have a bargain to make.’
Margo bats her eyelids. ‘Do you want my soul? It is slightly used, but I’m sure it’s good for something.’
‘Oh no, my dear,’ he responds with a tip of his hat. ‘I want you to deal with a little problem for me when I ask it of you.’
‘Tiny,’ he promises. ‘They’re ever such tiny little problems.’
‘Deal,’ she says, spitting in her palm and holding it out.
Kitty sucks in a horrified breath as Solomon spits in his palm and wraps endless fingers about Margo’s elegant hand. ‘Deal,’ Solomon says, his tone thick and unctuous as syrups. ‘And here is my gift in return, as requested.’
Between their joined palms, red light explodes, fierce as volcanic eruption. Margo screams, and the pain in it makes Kitty’s spine tremble, throws Leek into his arms, her face drawn and streaked with tears. The red light expands, swallowing Margo and Solomon whole. Within it he can hear her continued screams, raw as wire wool on an open wound. The light pulses, once, then again, its colours rippling through orange and deep vermillion before it expires of a sudden like a flame under wet fingers and leaves Margo on the floor, still and silent. Solomon stands over her.
‘Well met, my dear,’ he says softly, something like admiration in his gaze. To Kitty he says, ‘Do not wake her, do not move her. She will come around soon enough.’ He doffs his hat and makes to leave, but Kitty slams out a paw to halt him, gripped hard about the bony stretch of his arm.
‘What have you done to her?’ he snarls.
‘What she asked me to,’ replies Solomon gently, peeling Kitty’s claws from his suit.
‘She didn’t ask you anything,’ Kitty spits, furious with his old friend.
‘Oh but she did,’ comes the soft reply as Solomon fades into the wall. ‘She’s never stopped asking me.’
© Ren Warom 2012