Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a new guest short story by Bruce Woods, the author of Royal Blood.
This story refers to events in Royal Blood, but is a standalone story.
(You can find the previous story here.)
About Royal Blood:
Historical and fictional characters come together and change the future of Africa forever. Renowned actress Lady Ellen Terry, detective Sherlock Holmes, financier Cecil Rhodes, hunter/naturalist Frederick Courtney Selous, King Lobengula, and a mysterious, undead adventuress named Paulette Monot become chess pieces in the Great Game, which takes the form of Africa's First Matabele War.
The Wearing of the Green by Bruce Woods
“I’m certain you’re wondering why I’ve sent for you.” My hostess went straight to the heart of the matter, without the little social niceties that one becomes accustomed to in civilized society.
I was surely curious about the summons, though even if she hadn’t proven a boon to me in the recent past, I would never shirk my duty to Ellen Terry who, though currently famed for her roles as an ageless beauty on the stage, was only years away from another reinvention as she continues to function as Lady of the City and titular head of this great metropolis’ community of the undead.
“Whatever the reason,” I answered, careful to be polite, “you know that I will address your concerns to the limits of my capability.”
She smiled slightly at this, lending a rare touch of mortality to the full mouth, determined chin, and eyes that had brought her proposals from prince and photographer alike.
“If I’m not mistaken,” she said, and I wondered once again how humor and imperiousness can share such a small thing as a voice, “your recent adventures have proven Miss Paulette Monot to be far more capable than even you believed.”
Though I perhaps regarded these steps away from humanity with more doubt than she did, it was as good an opportunity as any to practice my blush, and I did so.
“Very pretty,” she said seeing this. “And it is just one of the skills you’ve mastered, if I’m correct.”
The blush triggered yet another. It’s beastly difficult to stop once started.
With some effort, however, I was able to keep its coloring from my voice as I spoke.
“Anything that I can do will of course be done in your service.” I said. “What will you ask of me?”
She shrugged off our innocuous banter as if throwing a switch.
“You’ve met the Holmes brothers. It seems I have a puzzle to solve.”
“And you haven’t turned to them?? I asked.
“As you’re aware, dear Paulette, Mr. Sherlock Holmes is missing and presumed lost to us, and Mycroft, though undoubtedly brilliant, is preoccupied with his brother’s disappearance and prone to lethargy. I’d hoped you had observed the Great Detective enough to mimic his skills in my service.”
“I would not dream of refusing you,” I said, eyes cast down, “but wouldn’t you prefer to seek aid from one of your own?”
“I fear I would not know whom to trust,” she said. “You see, the mystery at hand involves a search for immortality. Some, it seems, find the concept of life unending rather piquant.” Only one who listened carefully, as I did, would catch a hint of world-weariness in her words. It is a condition that afflicts virtually all of us who reach a certain age, and which I knew only Lady Ellen’s passion for the stage had kept at bay.
“Surely,” I said, “you don’t suspect the Kin of involvement?”
“If not actual participation, then at least susceptibility.” She said. “I know of few other paths into a limitless future than our own.”
I settled into a chair.,
“Perhaps it would be best if you would tell me all.” I said.
“Oh I shall,” she said, as if slightly annoyed that I’d had any doubts. “You see, one of ours was accosted.”
Despite my caution, I was compelled to interrupt.
“Surely no mortal has had the temerity to attack one of the Kin!” I said.
Lady Terry stared at me with a mixture of surprise and disappointment.
“If I might be allowed to continue,” she said, her voice positively frosty, “an attempt has been made to draw blood from one of my younger ones while he was comatose. It would have been enough to seed the change were a subject first virtually exsanguinated.”
I had learned my lesson, and sat speechless as she continued.
“The Kin in question had been dabbling in narcotics,” she continued, her voice pinched, “as many of our youth do in order to face the endless future. His assailants were frightened off by another who was still conscious, but one of the attackers left behind a medical kit that would have allowed such a terrible theft. As they fled, my informant tells me that he noticed that both of their collars were trimmed in green.”
Perhaps because I was still young in the Kin, or because my making had been both accidental and unasked for, I failed to commiserate with such misgivings about immortality, and instead looked to my future with wonder (despite the fact that I nervously ticked off the things that were lost along the way). For all that, though, I understood Ellen Terry’s concerns and looked on her with horror as she continued.
“You are new to this community, Paulette, and I understand have some time before your return voyage. And though your fame will spread quickly as a result of your recent activities, you are still largely an unknown quantity. I ask you, then, to look into this matter and help to protect both our invisibility and our distinctiveness in London town.”
I had met the Great Detective, but had never had the opportunity to watch him work. I had, of course, read many of the accounts of his most spectacular cases, and unwilling to disappoint the Lady, tried to call these to mind.
“Certainly,” I said. “Perhaps I should visit the site of this atrocity and interview the rescuer and the erstwhile victim?”
“That is exactly what I presumed you would wish to do,” Ellen Terry replied. “Come with me and we shall begin.”
* * *
Since our destination was not nearby, and because I was loath to make the Lady endure the questionable comfort of my Coilcycle’s pillion pad for any distance, we secured that vehicle in her stables and hailed a dog-cart for the first part of our journey. The carriage gave way to a short train ride, which was itself followed by another sulky before we arrived in full dark at the home of the would-be victims.
It was once a great manse, with wings thrusting left and right from the manor central. Only the left addition proved still inhabitable, though, and it was there we encountered the venerable building’s two occupants.
No butler answered our knocks, but after a seemingly interminable pause the door was opened by the residents themselves, letting us into a notably chilly chamber, its occupants less susceptible to temperature than the norm. Upon seeing me, unknown to them but as clearly Kin as they were, marked by the smallest motions as I stood awaiting entry, they were not surprisingly suspicious. This distrust was quickly banished , however, when they noticed my companion. Surely the attentions of the Lady of the City had seldom been squandered on such drones!
At first I feared they would genuflect, but instead they stood toeing the carpet like errant schoolboys until she had presented us each to each. Tea was out of the question, or course, and I would have been unwilling to sample any leftovers they might have had on hand. Indeed there was something of the public-school hovel about the place, and though my grasp of the social niceties is none too firm, I found myself disapproving.
Ellen Terry succinctly explained who I was and the reason for my visit, and, summoning all I knew of the Great Detective’s methods from my reading, I set to work. I began by studying the small medical bag. It had not been used, either on site or before the criminals’ arrival , so there was little to be learned from its assortment of bright instruments. Then, eyeing my two hosts, I determined who had been the victim and whom the rescuer.
I began with the former.
“Tell me everything you remember about the incident.” I said. “And leave nothing out, it is at times the most seemingly inconsequential details that prove the most important.”
He lit a cigarette before he began, plucked from a jeweled case atop a nearby table, which itself told me that these two had already worked out which of the mortal pleasures they could still partake of and which their bodies would reject, and were determined to enjoy the habit to the fullest.
He exhaled a fragrant cloud and began.
I glanced at the Lady, wondering how such as these had ever been deemed worthy of the Gift. Her answering glare invited no questions, so I turned back to the victim.
“There is not much to tell.” Said Charles, whose name I knew from Her introduction, and whose language immediately told me he had come from better stock than I assumed of his companion. “I had overindulged, and Percy’s arrival saved me from some acute embarrassment. The fiend fled when confronted, and that’s all there is to it.”
It was here that the savior spoke up, confirming my thoughts about him.
“Didn’t come to much,” he said. “They weren’t lookin’ fer a fight. More the smash ‘n grab sort of boyos if ya ken. An’ I was too worried about Charlie here to take after ‘em.” He spoke to the Lady and not to me, as if pandering for her approval.
I allowed myself a noncommittal moue and, following the dictates of the stories I’d read, produced a magnifying glass and, dropping to my knees, began to explore the floor as the Detective might have done.
I was aware that I must have appeared mad, crawling over the carpet (worn to strings in spots), secreting the odd specimen in the vials I carried, before, as much to my own astonishment as any, I discovered a hair. It was blonde, where both of the occupants were dark, and it needed little analysis on my part to determine that it was the hair of a member of the Kin.
* * *
It was but a matter of moments before the Lady was able to identify the strand as the hair of one Geoffrey, Earl of Norfolk (and don’t ask me how she knew this; the abilities of such as she were quite beyond me). Neither of the two questioned were aware of any encounter with that worthy, so it was to the Earl that my investigation then turned.
Fortunately, that gentleman was not in his ancestral seat but enjoying the more energetic ambiance of a townhouse in London, so the journey was short and brief. He welcomed the Lady and I courteously (no surprise on his part that such an esteemed personage was visiting him), and was almost lazy in his remembrance,
“Yes,” he said, “I was accosted by two men, both sporting green trim on their collars. One brandished a club of sorts, but after a brief scuffle they saw that they were outmatched and legged it. I have not seem them since.”
“Can you describe them in detail?” I asked.
“As well as I remember, certainly.” He said. “But you must understand that the encounter was brief and rather chaotic. They invaded my premises in mid afternoon, probably assuming that I would be taking my rest. As you know, dear London rarely admits the sun, and the day was overcast enough to have left me still awake. The bruiser with the life-preserver was the bigger of the two, tending toward corpulence and dark of hair and red of complexion. He took a swing at me which of course I dodged quite easily. He was looking at his weapon, as if the fault was there, when I struck him just hard enough to bring matters to a close.
“His partner, taller, thin, and dressed in black, had thin hair, brushed back in the professorial manner above a fine, high, intelligent forehead, and the most striking grey eyes. He dragged his companion to his feet and, keeping the still discomfited assailant between us, beat a retreat. I believe I heard the bully-boy address his partner as ‘Jimmy’ as they fled, but I would not swear to the fact.”
“I feared as much,” I said. “It appears that our antagonist goes by the name of Moriarty.”
* * *
“That cannot be!” the Lady exclaimed as we took out leave. “Didn’t the villain perish when he grappled with Holmes at Reichenbach Falls?”
I answered, “Public records indicate that the professor shared his forename with a sibling, if indeed there were ever more than one of them. The green, of course, signifies youth or spring. It seems that, whether the villain perished in his plunge into the Falls or no, someone who looks very like him has decided that a bedecking of immortality would suit the raven remnant of London’s dark side well. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will continue my investigation.”
I had not, of course, told Ellen Terry everything. Like a master prestidigitator, I had learned that if one explains the trick much of its magic is lost.
My short cape had several clever pockets sewn into the lining, and in them I’d stored small glass tubes containing soil samples and ashes discovered in my examinations of the manse floor. In truth these were largely for show, as it seemed expected of me, and I had no particular expertise in such things. Still, I opened them each in turn until a fragrance attracted my notice.
As the residents of the tottering pile had turned to tobacco (and opiates) when other pleasures were denied them, so I had allowed scent to fill in where taste could not. I wondered, briefly, if my senses were compensating for those pleasures denied me, and hoped that this adjustment, as the blind are said to hear more acutely, was further evidence of my lingering humanity.
At any rate, several sniffs told me that I was inhaling the aroma of a whiskey. More than that, I was able to identify the liquor as Royal Lochnager, a Scotch endorsed by the Queen herself, and brewed adjacent to the royal estate of Balmoral. I knew that it would be impossible for the ruined mansion’s residents to partake of this, and imagined one of the intruders, perhaps chilled by the cold radiating from the building’s old stones, pausing to take a sip to warm himself, his shivering causing a few drops to fall to the floor and soak into the soil flaked from his shoes.
A call to the brewery brought me the name of the London distributor, and another call resulted in a list (very short) of clients for the distinctive Scotch. A few, members of the gentry, eager to mimic the tastes of their sovereign, were included, along with a single club which bore the distinctive name, “Lepers.”
I was some time in deciding what to wear in venturing into this establishment, and was careful to secrete my little pepper-box pistol among my clothing. I eventually settled on a black dress, just below the knee, a matching buttoned top with padded shoulders, and gloves. Unable to mount my Coilcycle (the dress was a tad snug), I hailed a cab and, confident in my femme fatale attire, arrived at my destination.
The establishment was quite full when I entered, though a quick scan told me that the members, though a despicable assortment of the worst of London’s ne’er-do-wells, were mortal to a man (and I was one of the few women who dared the location). A table near the bar, however, was occupied by a gathering of men sporting green trim on their collars. I studied them to no profit before slipping onto a stool and asking the bartender for a glass of Royal Lochnago.
“Sorry miss,” that worthy answered. “We only keep one bottle of the stuff, pricey as it is, for Mr. Jimmy, seein’ as how he’ll partake of nothin’ else.”
“I see,” I said, striving for a dangerous purr. “Perhaps when he comes in he’ll be in a mood to share. When might I expect him?”
“Cor,” was the answer. “You don’t want to be messin’ about with the like of him. We’ve dragged more than one body out the back as a result of his displeasure.”
I drew myself up in an attempt to appear more formidable before I answered.
“Let me be the judge of that,” I growled, slipping a guinea across the bar. “When?”
He pocketed the coin with a magician’s dexterity, allowing that the connoisseur often stopped in on Thursday evenings, before he looked over my shoulder and immediately fled to the corner of the bar.
I had no need to turn, as the mirror behind the stacked bottles told me that the green-trimmed crew had positioned themselves in a half circle behind me, effectively blocking any avenue of escape. I was not concerned for my safety, of course, but was loath to do anything to reveal my nature in this company.
So I faced them. The man in the middle had something of the aspect of a great ape, huge, florid, and powerful. He slipped a sap from a pocket and examined it, not with a greedy wonder, but as if with surprise that something so simple could be so effective. As I weighed my options, still unwilling to expose myself, the brute flicked the weapon at my head; not with a full swing, but rather a lazy sort of afterthought.
I could have dodged it, certainly, but did not. Despite the half-hearted blow, the lead-filled club struck me just above the ear with terrible force. I may heal with preternatural speed, but head wounds are quicker to give evidence, and the side of my hair was quickly thick with blood.
“Yer may be a rough one,” my assailant said, as I let myself slide from the stool and collapse on the floor, “but any dollymop askin’ after Mr. Jimmy oughta think getting’ outa here with a headache is sort of a consolation prize.”
I allowed myself to appear dazed as they hustled me out the back, screened by their bodies, and threw me into the alley. Two guttersnipes, foraging in the discards, fled as I stood, brushing the detritus from my clothing. It was time to alert the Lady of the City.
* * *
I was still unsure whether the Moriarty we sought was a sibling or indeed Holmes’ nemesis, but I did know where and when he was likely to next appear. I found Ellen Terry removing her makeup after an evening show. I had of course cleaned myself before appearing in her presence, and equally obviously my efforts did nothing to disguise my former injuries, though by now long healed, from her.
“You’ve been harmed,” she stated as I shut the door to seal us from spying eyes and ears, and I shivered slightly at the inhuman ferocity in her tones.
“It was nothing,” I assured her. And went on to tell her what I’d learned.
She absorbed my information without taking notes.
“I will see to the matter,” she said. “Visit me again late on the night mentioned, and you can be sure that the situation will have been remedied.”
I did so, though the time spent waiting passed slowly even for one so immune to the passage of hours as I.
Eventually the appointed evening arrived, and the Lady spoke as soon as the door was closed.
“It is over,” she said. “You’ll see no more green-trimmed collars in London I assure you. Our adversaries now appreciate the great risk of their endeavors, and will interfere in our doings no more. There were even some concessions that I presume will be to the benefit of the Kin. Again, I thank you for your efforts.”
With that she turned away, dismissing me with her shoulder.
As I left the dressing room, I realized that she had neither confirmed nor refuted my suspicions about Moriarty, and that what I had secretly hoped would be a blood bath had been more in the line of a negotiation, with little or no concern for Holmes or for the city.
It was a shocking demonstration of just how far from mortality and its concerns Ellen Terry had progressed over the years.
A journey I knew, that, try as I might to delay it, I would make as well.