I walk up the dull metal staircase, my dress dragging through the foul mixture of filth and blood which coats it. As I approach, my eyes are drawn to the intricate clockwork lock on the door ahead of me, and I grimace. That’s not going to be easy to dismantle. Still, dismantle it I must, and now is better than never, so I reach out and slowly begin the process of disarming what has the potential to cause some serious damage if it is forced by any other than a master. And a master I am. Or at least I should be—it has been my life for almost as long as I have lived.
“My Lord Wyre”
“Might I have the honour of dancing the Cotillion later this evening, with the most beautiful girl in the room?”
I smile and respond that the honour is all my own, before I am whisked off by a faceless, nameless man, who escorts me around the floor with all the grace and elegance of an automaton with faulty clockwork and rusted joints. As we dance, we exchange small talk, and with little difficulty I am able to turn the topic of conversation in the direction of Lord Wyre, my target of the evening. I have already snared him for the final dance of the evening, but I must be able to distract him while we dance, so that the knife will slide in without arousing his suspicion. So I talk, and I discover that his passion lies with the automatons—the clockwork men who surround us, playing out music, cooking our food and cleaning our houses. I smile: here will be an easy man to distract.
Later on, I dance on air as I spin around the ballroom on the arms of the gentleman who won’t live to see the morning. Currently I am engaged in the most fascinating conversation regarding the nature of sentience, and if I am honest with myself, I am reluctant to end it here. It would be so easy to carry out my business—a thin knife between the ribs, before slipping away silently, his dance card in my reticule so that the blame will not fall at my feet—but tonight I cannot find the will to do so. The dance is ending, so I take my curtsey, and slip away to retrieve my heavy coat, becoming a black shadow which can easily pass unnoticed in the dark underbelly of London. For that is where I am headed. I have not made the kill, and if I do not escape I will be punished most severely by my order. Stealing through the dark streets, I pass carriages which bear ladies who I exchanged idle gossip with not two hours past, and I smile as I imagine the chaos which will ensue when I am discovered missing, just minutes after dancing with the elusive Lord Wyre, who is reputed for his refusal to dance with all but a certain type of women. I have reached my destination, and I raise my hand to knock the heavy oaken door, which shields the owner from unwelcome visitors.
My voice is startlingly loud in the dingy hall I find myself in, which is stifling with the stench of chemicals and other nameless substances which I have never seen the need for investigating further.
“Ah… Isobel. I wondered who it could be at such a late hour.”
“I need the items I left with you. The—”
“—I know the ones you mean.” He interrupts with a smile. Waiting, as he calls out an order to his manservant, I take the opportunity to observe him, and I am not disappointed by what I see before me. Several years older than me, and as many inches taller, my friend strikes an imposing figure which is entirely at odds with his nature. A mop of pale hair lies on a head which is generally to be found bowed over a bench of dangerous solutions, blue eyes fixed on a bubbling flask.
A brass mechanical man glides up to me, holding in his arms a worn letter and a bottle of clear liquid, which I take. I turn back to my friend, and tear up slightly.
“Thank you John.” My voice catches, and I turn away.
“I hope to see you again one day when this is over.”
Slowly, I walk out of the door and down the muddy alley. As I reach the entrance, I look back and see him, his arm raised in farewell. I blink back the tears and go on my way.
For two years I wander the continent, meeting all, from Kings and Queens to beggars and liars, but never lingering in one place for long, knowing that I am constantly pursued, for breaking my pact with the Order and sparing Lord Wyre. And then one day, I receive a letter. It isn’t signed, and it isn’t dated, but the three words it contains are enough to send a chill deep into my heart:
‘They are coming’
I knew it would happen, of course, but I had hoped for a little more time. The letter still lies in my pocket, as does the vial of liquid, ready and waiting to be used, but I have barely moved them since I took them from John’s home. I feel them sometimes, the soft fibres of the paper, worn down by years of smoothing the edges, and the tiny bottle with my name carved into the glass. They are all I have left of London and my past, but soon, I fear, I will have much more.
My return to London is far from triumphant. I slink back under the cover of darkness, to the house which I left behind so long ago. And yet it seems my return was foreseen, for there is a message there upon my arrival: a note written in brown ink, and signed with a club. The message is short, but it does not hold back when it comes to meaning.
‘Tonight. Above the docks. You know where I will be.’
I had thought him dead. He has enough enemies for it to be possible, certainly, but is seems that he has outwitted them all. Macabre he calls himself, and his real name is known to only an unfortunate minority. A minority which I am part of. He took me in as a child when I had no-one, and he trained me to kill without a trace of remorse; to become an automaton through which he could carry out his murders. I became as close as he had to flesh and blood, and I took his name as my own. And now he expects me to run at his call as I did all those years before. I take a breath and nod. So be it. I will come, but only one of us will leave.
With a final twist of the gears surrounding it, the lock opens with a dull click, and I enter the room. This is where I was trained, where I took my first life. Little did I then know it would also be where I would take my last. The stench of blood hits me like a wave and I grimace. Would it have killed him to wipe away the blood before summoning me here? Apparently so.
I pause, and remove from my pocket the letter which is all I have left of the man he used to be. When he adopted me, I looked up to him as both a Lord and father; respected above all. I can remember him welcoming me in from the streets, giving me fine clothes and food, and a seat before an open fire. That night I sat there, clothed in fabric which was worth more than my life, and watched the flames dance before me, warming me, and he came to sit by me, one arm around my shoulders, encasing me in his cloak.
It started with the small things. First he gave me a thin knife, and taught me to wield it under the guise of teaching me to protect myself. I learned to kill, first on lifeless automatons, then on real men, brought in from the streets to the room where I stand now. I never got used to the iron tang of blood, and as time passed, I became less and less close to him. Tutors taught me which poison was best to use, in between lessons on dancing and deportment, while he stood by; never speaking, only watching. On my fifteenth birthday he gave me a small bottle of cyanide, with the instruction to use it when my life was most at risk. Neither of us could have predicted that I would one day use it on him. That year my work began in earnest. For four years, I slipped between dancing couples to gather information; danced myself with certain gentlemen whom my guardian had declared as being unfit to see the morning. I was trusted above all; almost revered for my ability to escape notice at any moment. Would that I could have escaped his.
I take a step forwards, my foot gliding slightly across the damp flagstones, and I call out.
He doesn’t answer.
There is only silence, broken occasionally by the dripping of rain as it falls through a hole in the ceiling. I take the bottle from my pocket and hold it up the sparse light, seeing my name glisten before my eyes. Next to the letter, it looks so innocent, but I know that while the letter could cause damage, the bottle can cause far more.
Still holding them, I walk forward again, and as I round the corner, I see a sight which I am far from prepared for.
Ambrose Page lies on the floor in a pool of his own blood. The bottle falls from my hand, and smashes as it hits the hard floor. The liquid it contained mixes with the blood, some of it soaking the hem of my dress. I turn and leave, bringing with me a faint scent of almonds as I hurry back down to the docks. No-one notices me as I flee; to them I am simply another girl who frequents the docks at this time, and they pay me no heed. As I run, rats scatter before me and before long, I am safe in the sanctuary of my own home, where there are no prying eyes to witness my breakdown.
I collapse into a chair, breathing heavily as I try to calm myself. ‘You could not have prevented it’ I tell myself, ‘And even if you could have, was that not the purpose for which you were seeing him in the first place?’ He deserved it, I think, but with his death I have lost the only family I ever had, and I am now truly alone.
The next morning, I am eating when there is an insistent knocking on my door. I rise to open it, but hesitate. Who could it be at such an hour? Perhaps it would be safer to leave it be. I shrug away my doubts and open the door.
“Miss Isobel Page?”
My hand flies to my pocket, and I realise that my letter is no longer there.
I nod in the affirmative, my eyes taking in the familiar uniform.
“You are under arrest for the murder of Mr Ambrose Page.”
I breathe heavily. That letter contains his final instructions for me, before he left me to save himself. If they have found it, then I am as good as dead, because no-one can deny that many of the names on that paper are no longer owned by any living man. I must have dropped it, I think, as I ran from that dingy room last night. Calming myself, I speak again.
“I am permitted, I assume, to write a letter before I leave? There is someone who I should like to take my case.”
He nods, and I cross the room to my desk and take out a sheet of plain paper. Dipping my pen into the inkwell, I begin to write:
Dear Mr Sherlock Holmes…