I command you to come back, the letter read. They are in open rebellion without you here. You will come back.
Duke Leonard Mephisto gave an exasperated sigh, and crumpled it within his fist. He ran a hand through his already ruffled red hair, and scratched at his beard. Seeing a man wearing anything more than a goatee plainly irritated Oswald Janson, who thought that nobles should be clean shaven, which was the main reason Leonard hardly ever shaved. He looked down at the paper again.
“Damn him,” Leonard said. He had been receiving these letters from the Prince for weeks, telling him he had better get back to his dukedom and maintain order, or else. Before that they had come from Duchess Lavinia Allocer, who he hadn’t listened to because she’d blown things out of proportion many times before. The prince was harsher than she had been, and demanded he keep order rather than recommend it. Well, order was not to be kept in places like his dukedom, they were, rather literally, damned. Leonard stood and rang a bell to call for his manservant. All the Prince had done with his letters was irritate him, and make him spiteful enough to put off visiting his dukedom as long as possible.
The man came in quickly, and helped him dress in clothes for going out: a crimson frock coat with a white undershirt, a red tie, black pants, black shoes, and his matching crimson top hat. He took up his cane and headed for the door. Leonard’s townhouse was decadent, and he had a carriage waiting for his call, but he decided to eschew it today. He would go call on someone, perhaps Richard, or one of his other ‘friends.’ Or maybe, just maybe, he would be able to find his other ‘rival,’ Duchess Emelia Campbell, in that cafe she went to every single Friday in the summer, without fail.
Perhaps it would be best if he made sure John Amon hadn’t gotten himself into too much trouble the night before. With luck, John would be out, and Leonard could continue on his way.
As he started off for John’s house, which he dearly hoped he would find empty, Brownie ran up to him.
“Letters for you, sir,” Brownie said.
He was a young boy, perhaps ten years old at the most, with a round face, short, dark hair, and large brown eyes. His nickname came from the name his mother had given him, William Brown. To distinguish from all the other people with that name, of which there were hundreds in London alone, he was Brownie.
Leonard took the stack of letters. Bills, bills, a letter from the Prince, a letter from Lavinia Allocer, and a letter from the man who worked as the caretaker of his country estate. He stuffed all but the one from the Prince in his pocket.
My loyal servant, Duke Mephisto, began the letter from the Prince.
He gave an exasperated sigh.
You will be coming back to your realm of jurisdiction. There is open rebellion, especially in the smaller towns, and they are barely being kept away from your seat. What will the others think of you if they know that you have lost your dukedom to rebellion that could have been culled with a rope? You must come back before you lose your territory to anarchy-
There Leonard stopped reading, crumpled up the letter, and tossed it into the mud on the side of the street. He’d read enough of them exactly like this, and each one did nothing more than feed his spite. In fact, he resolved right there and then to not read a single other letter about the issue.
“Was it important, sir?” Brownie asked.
“Very, but it’s no concern of yours. Do you know if John is in today?”
“Baron John Amon?”
“Yes, who else?”
“Well, I don’t know, sir.”
“Are you sure?”
Brownie gave an impish smile. “Might be I am, sir.”
Leonard took a small bottle of milk out of his coat pocket. “Are you sure?”
“Well, might be I was wrong, sir, might be I misspoke. Might be that Mister Amon was with his friends ‘round here last night, having a high time. I an’t seen ‘im since, sir, and that’s the truth.”
Leonard frowned. “I suppose I might have to rescue him, then. Here, have your milk, and money for breakfast besides.” He handed the milk and the money to Brownie, who tipped his little hat and ran off.
A paperboy was calling out the news from a street corner. “Death on the railtracks! Man mysteriously killed by a chemical phantom! Top politician dies of a cold! New reform laws up for review in parliament!”
Leonard tapped his shoulder. “Have you seen a baron today, young sir? Baron John Amon, to be exact? Small fellow, brown hair cut close to his head, deathly skinny?”
The paperboy pointed. “Think I saw somebody like that down that alley. Paper, sir?”
Leonard bought a rolled-up paper to skim as he walked towards the place the boy had indicated. The front page article was about a man’s death at the railways station where he’d picked up Johann the previous night:
The body found near the railroad tracks earlier in the night has been identified as a Mr Dominic Sapping, 52, a foreigner of unidentified origin living with his daughter, Miss Sylvia Sapping, 21, a Frenchwoman, and her friend, Miss Deirdre, 19, an Irishwoman. The body was discovered earlier in the night by a group of coalboys, the eldest of whom, young Mr Ansel Conray, 13, claims to have seen an unidentified man running away from the body just after the train that killed Mr Sapping ran by. According to his firsthand account, Mr Sapping was with the unidentified man just before the incident, and talked at length with him before climbing down onto the tracks. He then appeared to go into a catatonic state, kneeling next to the tracks unmoving for several minutes, until the unidentified man came down to take a bag sitting next to him. The unidentified man then narrowly avoided the train which killed Mr Sapping. After the train had run its course and Mr Sapping had been killed, the unidentified man attempted to drag his corpse away from the tracks, before noticing young Conray watching him and fleeing the scene. Police detected a slight chemical residue on Mr Sapping’s hands and face, hinting perhaps at a deliberate murder. The outcome has yet to be determined, and police have not yet determined if there was any prior damage to Mr Sapping’s body. Foul play is suspected.
However, if recent studies hold true, then the body of the dead man should rise from its untimely grave on exactly the 13th of October, a full moon in England. Should that happen, I fear for Leonore and for my newborn child, so recently sprung from his mother’s womb into the world.
It was a few more paragraphs before Leonard realized he had accidentally started reading part IV of one of the pulp horror stories published in the papers every day. He rolled his eyes at the cliches and turned the page.
The story about the man on tracks continued, now with gory images, but it was mostly just the same about how nothing was certain, with more quotes from the boy witness to back up the indecisiveness. Someone had written a favorable article about Leonard’s battles with Oswald Janson on the page after that, and he greatly enjoyed their biting commentary on Janson. After that there was the interesting news that one of the top crusaders for the people, one Augustine Turner, had died of an illness the previous night. The article was rather generous about his achievements, leaving out the bit about how he hadn’t gotten much accomplished during his long career, and how he had badly messed up during the Napoleonic Wars many years prior.
Leonard sighed, shoved the paper into his pocket, and turned into the alley. Hopefully he could find someone to tell him where John had gone this morning.
A woman sat against the wall, nursing a baby. She had a cup that she was using to beg, which Leonard stopped to fill generously. He couldn’t be seen being a hypocrite, talking against reforms that would force the poor into workhouses but not caring for beggars in practice.
“Have you by any chance seen a baron around?” Leonard asked the woman. “Small fellow, brown hair cut close to his head, deathly skinny?”
She shook her head. “I an’t seen no one but you all day.”
“Well, it’s still early. Best of luck.” Leonard tipped his hat to her and continued along his way.
He ended up facing a tall iron fence at the end of the ally, which had a young teenager sitting against it, counting the money he had in a bag.
“Has a baron come down this way?” Leonard asked. “Small fellow, brown hair cut close to his head, deathly skinny?”
The boy gave him a venomous look and continued with his counting. Leonard knelt down and held out a coin in front of him. “Baron?”
“No,” the boy said. He snatched the coin up and looked back down at the bag. “Darn, I’ll have to start all over now.”
“Just add one to your existing number,” said Leonard. “Simple arithmetic.”
“Oh, right.” The coin clinked into the bag, and the boy resumed.
“Who lives on the other side of this wall?”
“Nobody, stupid. It’s a graveyard.” The boy held out his hand. “Money for answers, yeah?”
Leonard pressed another two coins into his hand. “Who goes in this graveyard during the day?”
“Respectable people.” Clink clink.
“Where can I find some unrespectable people?”
Clink. “Look around, stupid.”
“Where would a gentleman go to have a bit of fun with his friends around here?”
“Oh. Well, I guess there’s always the bars, but they an’t usually open as much during the day. You could go smoke opium, if you wanted, or talk to the ladies who-” The boy’s eyes narrowed suddenly. “You an’t gonna arrest me, right? Or them?”
“Of course not. I am looking for a friend.” Friend. Right. What had John Amon ever done to make Leonard consider him a friend?
“Oh. Well, most ‘a them rich folks go to the bars, they don’t know about, y’know, the other stuff- but your friend, he might, if he’s been out a lot. I guess you could find ‘em- ooh, or you might find them where- no, wait-” the boy acted it out dramatically with his hands, “you might find ‘em around here, I guess.”
“Could you take me to them?”
“Heck no! Look, your friend’s probably somewhere around here, I guess. Either that or he went home. How many questions was that?”
“I don’t know, but here, you can have all this.” Leonard dropped a pouch into his hands, and heard the boy cheer as he walked away.
“Anytime you need me to tell you things,” the boy called after him, “I’ll be here!”
Leonard walked back out onto the street, and turned to go down another alley. Why was John still out here at eleven o’clock? Why couldn’t he go home before the sun was up? Muttering, Leonard stalked to the back of the alley, which had nothing in it except a few ripped scraps of clothing. No John. The next alley was sticky with dried blood, and nothing else. No John. No John, no John, and no John.
“Where is he?” Leonard said.
“I don’t think you’ll find John here,” someone said from behind him. “He’s at my father’s house.” There was a fit of violent coughing, and Leonard knew immediately who it was.
“Mr Albert Janson,” he said.
Leonard turned to face him. Albert was young, with dark hair that contrasted his sickly pale skin. He held a red handkerchief at his mouth, and he was coughing bloody spittle into it.
“Still haven’t told your father, hm?”
Albert gave him a dirty look. “I see why Father hates you, Duke Mephisto.”
Leonard smirked. Duke Oswald Janson, his political rival, was yet unaware that his son was dying of the consumption. Or, perhaps he did know, and only preferred to ignore it. Either way, Albert was convinced that he had hidden it quite well, though not well enough to fool Leonard. “You should take a holiday in the country, Albert. It would be good for your health, at least.”
“I don’t – kof – need your advice managing my affliction. I do quite – kof kof – well on my own – kof.”
“Forgive me, then.”
Albert wiped his bloody mouth with his handkerchief, then stuffed it back in his pocket. “I was sent to find you to take lunch at my father’s house with Baron John Amon and Duchess Cora Barbas.”
“Do I have any say in the matter?”
“I would assume not, considering his general mood when sending me to fetch you.”
Leonard smiled. This would be an excellent excuse for the Prince. Sorry, lord, I couldn’t come because I had to fight with a rival. It’s important work, lord, I’m sure you’ll dismiss me.