Chapter 10: A Prostitute, A Former Viscountess, And Two Fish Merchants Walk Into Houndsditch
Swiff swiff. . . . "Lavender's blue, rosemary's green – Hatter, please. I appreciate the offer, but the broom does a perfectly adequate job of getting rid of the dust."
"He got anything for refinishing the bar of an old brothel?"
Alice started, automatically swinging the broom handle out into a defensive position. Then recognition dawned, and she dropped it with a grin. "Nanny!"
Nan Sharpe grinned back at her, large as life and twice as natural. "Hello, my girl," she greeted her old charge, opening her beefy arms for a hug. "Still wandering off to Wonderland every moment you get?"
"Actually, these days, it follows me about," Alice said, glancing back at Hatter gathering up some stray teacups before wrapping Nanny in an embrace. "I've got it mostly under control, though. For God's sake, Nanny, where have you been? I haven't seen you since the – since the Mermaid–"
Nanny gripped her firmly by the shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. "None of that, Alice. All of us made it out of there in one piece. Nobody burned."
"I know, but–" For a moment flames loomed large in her vision, and smoke tickled her nose. "It was a close thing, wasn't it?"
"We still got out. All we lost was an old creaky building that only served rotgut gin."
Alice laughed, the fire fading away. "And beer so watered down it was practically clear. Good thing most of your customers weren't there for the alcohol, hmm?"
"Oh, folks like that'll drink their own piss if they think it'll get 'em plastered," Nanny said with a smirk. "Anyway, to answer your question, been doing my job. Set up temporary headquarters near Threadneedle while we work on getting the Mermaid back up. Buildings don't come cheap, you know. And we couldn't risk coming into Splatter's streets for a while." She touched her eye. "Didn't fancy another dust-up."
"Ah yes, everyone's favorite Haymarket Hector. . .I suppose if you're here that means he's not," Alice said, glancing left and right. "I keep waiting for him to pop up like a Jackbomb and make everyone's lives that much worse."
"The old cockersnipe's probably keeping low to the ground for now," Nanny declared, tugging at the top of her old pink dress. "Ugh – gonna have to ask Polly to give this a bit of a tweak. . .anyway, with the Illustrated blaring on about you and Bumby and what was going on here, he can't afford to get a bobby's attention. I'm pretty sure the bastard never dealt in anybody under marryin' age, but I know he and the crow talked once or twice."
"I do too," Alice said, fists clenching. Victor on the bed next to her, hands knotting themselves together in his lap as he said in a quiet, broken voice, "He was – um – g-going to loan me out to him. . . ." "I suppose it makes sense that he wouldn't want to show his face with Tailor ready to stick a pen and pad in it – or Hightopp dangle some cuffs before it – but I'd rather have someone like that where I can see him." She tapped an anxious foot on the ground. "Much like Bumby's customers. . .I keep waiting for one of them to turn up too."
"Still too hot for 'em yet, I wager," Nanny replied. "And most of 'em ain't stupid, even if they are twisted. But I'd keep your ear to the ground, and don't go anywhere alone. Bastards like that – well, you know how Long Tim met his end."
"I do indeed," Alice nodded, wincing as she saw the man fall before her again, blood pouring out of him in a river over the cleaver buried in his guts. "But if they want to make it a fight, I'm ready for them. Tarrant brought over another little boy they managed to pry from a den of iniquity yesterday. I refuse to let that garbage even set eyes on him or the others ever again."
"Careful, Alice – most of those sorts're lot harder than Splatter," Nanny warned. "And I remember the smack he gave you. Should have insisted you see the doctor, honestly, just like your young man there."
"I'm fine, Nanny," Alice reassured her. "And I don't intend to be taken by surprise this time. Or unarmed."
Nanny grinned. "Knew you had a good head on your shoulders. Even if it's in the clouds half the time." Her expression grew serious. "I ever say I'm sorry for not taking you in?"
"You have – and explained why too," Alice said with a nod. "I don't blame you for me having to stay with Bumby. Or for you not recognizing him – did you two ever say even two words to each other?"
"No – but it ain't a common name, and I knew well how much he was botherin' your sister," Nanny said, rubbing her eyes.
"So did I, and it took a trip through seven domains of Wonderland before I cottoned on he was the same man," Alice reminded her. "And the business with the children – you certainly have no fault there."
"Can't help feeling like shit about it, though." Her peacock feather drooped. "Like I shoulda seen more earlier."
"Oh, I know all about that," Alice said, the shadow of the Jabberwock falling over her. She picked up her broom and jabbed backward, and it dissipated. "But take it from someone who knows – letting it consume you doesn't do any good either."
"I ain't about to look for your old bed in Rutledge," Nanny assured her, smiling. "But you need anything for you and the nippers here that I might be able to get, just ask. Don't do much of the actual standin' on street corners anymore – you want a night off with Victor, I think I can remember how I used to handle you and Lizzie."
"We've actually already hired someone else to help out around here, but the offer is appreciated," Alice said with a grin back. "I should introduce you to June, though – over lunch perhaps? And you should really get to know – oh shit."
Nanny blinked. "Known plenty of that in my time, Alice. Don't need to make the acquaintance of more."
"Actually, you might," Alice said with a tight smile, pointing behind her. "That's Victor's parents coming up the street."
Nanny turned to see the now-familiar Van Dort carriage rolling toward them, the fish on top bouncing and swaying at every crack in the road. "Oh, so that's the King of Cans himself, huh? Didn't think they'd show their faces in this neighborhood."
"Yes, well, they are Victor's family, and they've been helping with – now what?"
Another carriage had pulled up just in front of the Van Dorts. "Hey!" Harland called. "Excuse me, we're stopping here!"
"So am I, chum!" the other driver called back. "I'll be out of your hair in a second, they've already paid! Here you are, Mr. and Mrs. White."
"Thank you very much – oh, hello, Alice!" Mr. White said as he disembarked. His eyes flicked to the woman standing next to her. "And, ah – friend."
"Hello," Alice said, trying not to sound as if she hoped the ground would crack open beneath her and send her flying back to Wonderland. The Whites, the Van Dorts, and my nanny all in one place? Mrs. Van Dort is going to look like the dummy on Guy Fawkes! "I didn't think you were coming over for lunch today."
"Ah, well, our previous engagement fell through – poor George is too sick to receive guests," Mr. White explained, helping Victoria out. "And we didn't think it would be too much of a bother if we just dropped by, so–"
"HARLAND! What's the hold-up?!"
Victoria jumped and stumbled on the step, falling into her husband and sending them both sprawling onto the sidewalk. "Oh! Christopher! Are you all right?"
"Fine – who on earth was that?" Mr. White asked, looking back at the Van Dort carriage.
"Sorry, Mrs. Van Dort!" Harland said, with the anxious smile of those who know there's no placating the person yelling at them. "A cab got to the gate first! He's almost done!"
"We shouldn't have to wait for a cab! We're not mere tradesmen!" Something that sounded like the tip of an umbrella thudded hard against the carriage roof. "Tell him to move!"
The cabbie shot Harland a sympathetic look. "I'm on my way." He clicked his tongue, and his horse trotted back out onto the cobbles. "Boy, glad I don't have to deal with her. . . ."
Mr. White stared as he got back to his feet, pulling Victoria with him. "That's–"
"Victor's mother? Yes," Alice said, grimacing as the Van Dorts pulled up to the gate. "And yes, she's always like that."
The carriage door opened, revealing Mr. Van Dort, followed by a rather green Victor. "Victor?" Alice asked, instantly concerned. "Are you all right? I thought you were just going up by Billingsgate for a look at the docks."
"Eh, well, the docks didn't really agree with Victor," Mr. Van Dort said, fiddling with the top of his cane before going round to help his wife out.
"I m-may have introduced my breakfast to the water," Victor clarified, clutching his stomach. "I am sorry, Father, it's just – the smell. . . ."
"It does take some getting used to," Mr. Van Dort allowed.
"It's disgusting," was Mrs. Van Dort's opinion as she was tugged free of the door. "Oof – don't tear my dress, it's new!" She fanned herself as she joined them on the other side of the carriage. "Ugh, all those slimy things, flopping around. . .I was nearly ill myself."
"I'll admit it's not pretty, but it's how we made our fortune, Nell."
"I know, I know. . . ." Mrs. Van Dort shook her head – then caught sight of the Whites, watching the scene with nervous smiles. "Oh – hello, Mr. White. Hello, Mrs. White," she greeted them, voice as cold as an Ice Snark's breath.
"Hello, Mrs. Van Dort, Mr. Van Dort," Victoria replied, hands held tightly in front of her. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"It has indeed. How are your parents?" Alice was amazed at just how well Mrs. Van Dort made that word sound like a nasty swear.
Victoria's expression grew even more fixed. "They're fine, thank you."
Mrs. Van Dort huffed. "I'm sure they are. . .and who is this?" she asked as her gaze shifted left to the imposing figure of Nanny.
Alice swallowed. "This is my old nanny, Miss Nan Sharpe," she said, calling on every bastion of politeness she had left in her. "Nanny, this is Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, Mr. and Mrs. White, and – well, you know Victor."
"I do indeed," Nanny said, offering her hand to anyone who cared to shake it. "Don't suppose he remembers me much, though. Tailor's articles don't paint a pretty picture."
"I – you are a bit familiar. . . ." Victor took her hand and stared deep into her eyes for a moment. Then he shook his head. "But that's it. I m-might be able to get it if you gave me more time. . . ."
"Don't worry about it," Nanny said kindly, reaching up to give his hair a ruffle. "We only said hello the once, and both of us had our minds on other things at the time."
Victoria was the next to brave Nanny's grip. "A pleasure to meet you." Her gaze slid down from the wilting peacock feather stuck in Nanny's hair, to the anchor tattoo visible on her breast, to the battered bloomers poking out from beneath the bright pink skirt. "You were – Alice's nanny?"
Nanny laughed. "It's all right – I looked a bit more respectable back in those days," she admitted. "Had to take on other employment when the house burned down. That old git Radcliffe said they hadn't laid anything aside for me – guessing he got to it first. That reminds me, Alice, he ain't eaten up all your inheritance, has he? I told 'em, if they were going to do that fund, it ought to be just in your and Lizzie's name, but they were worried you wouldn't know what to do with the house or anything. . . ."
"There's still some money left, Nanny – and it's all in my name now," Alice assured her. "We fixed that earlier this week."
"Good! Ought to set up one for me and my girls, but hard to find the time."
"We've had Victor's in place since he was born," Mr. Van Dort said, stepping forward with an awkward smile. "Alice's old nanny – bet you've got some stories to tell."
"Ain't kidding there," Nanny agreed, giving his hand a boisterous shake. Mr. Van Dort did his best to hide a grimace. "Could write a book, if I had the inclination."
Victor blinked. "I – w-we talked about that once, didn't we?" he said, turning to Alice. "Something about – that Army Ant?"
"Army ants? Don't tell me you're as interested in bugs as he is," Mrs. Van Dort said, making no effort to hide her disgust.
"Nothing akin to his lepidoptery skills, but I know a thing or two," Alice said, Cheshire grinning over her shoulder. "Such as how fast a colony of African red ants can strip flesh from bone should you get in their way. Or how painful an Army Ant's bayonet can be in your shoulder – I was telling the children a story about my fight against the foot soldiers in the Vale of Tears, and you came in and illustrated it," she added to Victor as his parents stared at each other in horror. "You told me I should write the book, and I told you that if I did, I'd have you illustrate it."
Victor screwed up his face, then nodded. "Yes, that – that feels right." He bit his lip. "I'm afraid I'd be a very poor illustrator now."
Alice stepped forward and took his hand. "You'll get it back someday. You've already wrenched a lot out of Bumby's grip."
"Yes," Victoria agreed. "Just the other day you told me about how the skeleton of the founder's horse stands in for the statue of him down Below. And about Paul the Head Waiter – which is still the most gruesome pun I've ever heard."
That got a smile out of him. "True. It's just – so much of what I do get back feels like trivia compared to the things I want to remember."
"It's a start," Alice told him. "You can't have an end without one."
"I'm sorry, what's this about fighting army ants?" Mrs. Van Dort interrupted, waving her fan before her. "Any person of sense just steps on them."
"That only works if you're not their height," Alice informed her. "Of course I don't mean I fought any in London or Oxford – I was talking about Wonderland."
"Wonderland – world fulla nonsense like mad March Hares and cards that strut about like royalty," Nanny explained. "She made it up when she was a wee one, and never got rid of it. Surprises me sometimes that she knows how to live in the real world."
Alice frowned at her, Cheshire's smile dissipating into the dull gray sky. "I've found a balance, thank you very much. Do I look as if I'm going to start yelling at the furniture?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Mrs. Van Dort muttered.
Victor caught the jibe and glared at her. "There's no need to be rude, Mother. She's more stable than I am right now, frankly."
Alice glanced behind her, where Hatter, Carpenter, and the Duchess were giving Victor odd looks. "I don't know if I'd go that far."
"Alice? What do you think of mutton for – oh!"
June jerked to a stop, taking in the little party crowded around the front stoop. "I'm sorry, I didn't know we had company. . .are you all staying to eat?"
Mrs. Van Dort pressed her fan against her lips. "Eat here?" she asked, sounding like she expected to pick up the plague at any moment.
"Oh, you should," Mr. White said brightly. "Miss Thatcher here makes an incredible plate. Better than most of the restaurants in the city. You wouldn't mind having us over, would you? Haven't had a good mutton chop in quite a while."
"I'd be delighted, Mr. White," June said, smiling. "There should be enough to stretch – and if not, I do have some leftover beef from the other night."
"Mutton and beef? How do you afford such things?" Mrs. Van Dort had to know.
"Christmas – people tend to get generous around the holidays," Alice explained with an easy shrug.
"It's not even December yet."
"Well, I think Mr. Tailor's stories have encouraged everyone to stretch their wallets a little wider than usual. People feeling sorry for the children and your son."
To Alice's surprise, Mrs. Van Dort's mouth turned down. "We don't need charity."
"Yes, well, Houndsditch does," Victor replied, frowning deeper at her. "You could make your own donation, you know."
"We have," Victoria added, in a tone of voice that was just a bit challenging. "It's all for a good cause."
"I would too, if I could spare the coin," Nanny nodded. "As it is, I could use a nosh – could you spread some of that mutton my way?"
"My pleasure," June said, bouncing lightly on her heels. "Though, er, you are–"
"Nan Sharpe." She thrust her hand out again. "Assume you're the June Alice mentioned before."
"That would be me," June said, cheerfully shaking. "June Thatcher. Alice has told me about you too – how is the Mangled Mermaid?"
"Still a pile of cinders, unfortunately. But I've made friends with a few builders, and I'm hoping to have meself back in business proper-like by summer."
"You're in business?" Mr. Van Dort said, tilting his head.
"Well, not like you and that cannery, but I used to manage me own bar." Nanny winked. "And the men who came inside it."
It was rather interesting to watch everyone's faces as they made the connection, Alice had to admit, even as she kind of wanted to sink beneath the cobbles. Victoria pressed a hand against her mouth in an attempt to hide shock, while her husband bit back an amused grin. June played with her apron, smiling in an unsure, feel-like-I-should-say-something-but-I-haven't-the-slightest-what way. Victor stared, Mr. Van Dort gawked before letting out a nervous laugh, and Mrs. Van Dort – ah yes, there were the fireworks, moving up her neck and painting her face a glowing red. "Victor," she hissed, "how do you know this woman?"
"I don't know!" Victor cried. "I wish I did!"
"It wasn't in a business sense," Alice said quickly, in an attempt at damage control. "I can promise you your son's never touched a – woman of easy virtue."
"Yeah, word on the street for a while was that he didn't even like girls," Nanny said, smirking. "'Course, the smarter of us knew he had it bad for Alice and no mistake. Notice you ain't telling me he ain't your young man anymore. Or you got another excuse up that sleeve for why he wouldn't be interested in you?"
"Just tell me you told me so before you explode from smugness," Alice said, rolling her eyes.
"Right then, I told you so!" the older woman declared triumphantly. "Head over heels and no mistake! So when's the wedding?"
"Wedding?! Victor Fitzwilliam Van Dort, if you've proposed–" Mrs. Van Dort started, rounding on her son with murder in her eyes.
"I haven't!" Victor protested, hands wrapping around his tie. He glanced apologetically at Alice. "N-not that I'm o-opposed to–"
"I wouldn't want you to ask now anyway," Alice said, fingers itching for the Deadtime Watch. Just one little click, and I could grab Victor – and maybe Victoria – and leave the rest of them to battle it out on their own. Glaring at Nanny, she added, "So I'm supposed to drag him to the altar while he's still amnesiac?"
"You can get his memories back just as well as his wife," Nanny replied, refusing to be shamed. She nudged Victoria. "Come on, you agree with me, don't you?"
"I know from experience you should never rush a wedding," Victoria replied, folding her arms. Then she gave Alice a smile. "But when it does happen, I hope we're on the guest list."
"Guest list? You're going to have to help me plan it," Alice replied, grinning. "I never even played wedding as a child."
"And you're not going to with our son!" Mrs. Van Dort shouted, snapping her fan out like a sword. "We have written a very nice letter to Lord and Lady Kingsleigh, who have five thousand a year, a small summer estate in France–" She glared at both Victoria and Alice. "And an unmarried daughter of the highest breeding."
"Is he going to be allowed to meet this one, or will he have have to bump into her over a piano again?" Alice said coolly, though redness lurked at the edges of her vision. You bitch, another arranged marriage already? How is what you're planning any different from Nanny's business? Oh, right, Nanny's girls generally get some sort of say in the company they'll keep.
"Likely they'll board him up in his room and he won't be allowed out until it's time to go to the church," Victoria said, matching her sarcasm note for note. "Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, how can you be thinking of marriage when your son is still struggling to find himself?"
"I didn't get where I am without planning for the future," Mr. Van Dort replied. "The Kingsleighs will make sure he'll be able to go out in public after all this, ah, mess."
"I am not marrying a total stranger," Victor growled.
"You're not marrying a woman from the East End either!"
"I'm sure we're all just cranky because we're hungry," June cut in, a wide, forced smile on her face. "If you give me just a few minutes, I'm sure I can whip up something to please you all. Like I said, there's mutton and beef, and potatoes and bread and cheese as well. And even chocolate digestives!" She clasped her hands before her. "It's – it's better than making a scene out here, right?"
On cue, Alice noticed a few laborers parked outside the fence, watching the free street theater. "She's right – we can argue just as well inside," she said, pressing the heel of her hand into her forehead. "Unless the Van Dorts would like to take their leave?"
"Oh no – I want to see what's been happening behind my back here," Mrs. Van Dort said, eyes narrowed at Alice. "Though first we'll be fetching something better for dessert. Chocolate digestives, really. . . ."
Alice was tempted briefly to argue – then the Insane Children started leaping around her, shaking their heads wildly. Well, far be it from me to stop them spending their money. "We'd be delighted," she said primly. "Nanny, could I trouble you to keep an eye on the children while I help June with the meal?"
"Be my pleasure," Nanny told her, beaming.
"Is there anything I can do?" Victor asked, stepping forward.
"Victor! Offering to help in the kitchen?" Mrs. Van Dort gasped, aghast. "Who do you think you are?"
"Someone who's finally getting his appetite back after the docks?"
"I could help too, if you like," Victoria said. "At least with the cheese board?"
Mrs. Van Dort goggled. "You know – you're a lady!"
"Am I? I wouldn't know it, talking to you."
A snort escaped before Alice could seal it in. "We all pitch in where we can, Mrs. Van Dort. I promise you, we won't tell anyone." Mrs. Van Dort huffed. "We'll see you in a few minutes?"
"I suppose. If we can find a decent bakery around here," Mrs. Van Dort muttered, wrinkling her nose.
A vague memory of an angry man behind a counter, and two long loaves of bread that had looked quite a bit like skinny mechanical arms, swam through Alice's head. Hmmm. Well, I'm doing my best to make reparations wherever I can, and I did cause a mess in his shop. "Actually, I think I can steer you toward a place. . . ."
One of the first things Victor had discovered, slogging through his brain with Alice and Victoria and Dr. Wilson in search of his lost self, was that he remembered feelings much easier than events. Most of the infamous rehearsal was still a blur to him (apart from setting poor Lady Everglot on fire), but he did recall the anxiety that had turned it into such a disaster – so thick you could slice it up and spread jam on it for tea. His time in the Land of the Dead was a scattered collection of smiling corpses and bright colors, but the shock and wonder he'd felt while down there was clear as crystal. He couldn't tell you how tall Emily had been, nor the color of Victoria's bedroom, but he could easily describe his stunned amazement that either woman would actually be interested in him. And while his first meeting with Alice was still distressingly dim, as if seen through a thick fog – the safety, the warmth, the sheer comfort she inspired in him was bright as the sun.
Which was why it was so worrying that, in trying to recall other lunches he and his parents must have attended, the first feeling he remembered was best described as, Oh God how is it all going to go wrong this time? He swallowed nervously as he stood in front of the stove, watching the potatoes boil away in their pot. I mean, I've already guessed they're not good company. Mother complains about everything she can every chance she gets, and Father makes stupid jokes and only really gets enthusiastic about fish. But surely there are worse people to have lunch with in the world. I shouldn't be this terrified – right?
"I think they're ready, Victor."
Victor jumped, then realized the lid before him was rattling. "Oh – so they are," he said, grabbing a dishcloth and carefully taking the pot off the flame. "H-how are we serving them?"
"Just mashed up – I'd like to do something fancier, but we're low on both time and butter," June said, handing him the peeler and masher and a shallow bowl. "If you could?"
"My pleasure." Victor tipped out the remaining water, then grabbed a fork to spear his first potato. "Alice, did I ever tell you about any dinner parties we went to?" he added, glancing over his shoulder.
"Once in a while," Alice confirmed, slicing up mutton and beef like she'd been born with a knife in her hand. "You had a lot more to say about all the dances and balls she dragged you to, though. Neither of us could understand how she wrangled so many invitations."
A glimmer of himself in the mirror, straightening his tie and trying not to look at the dark circles under his eyes – the third ball in as many days! Why had Father allowed Mother a week in London during the Season? "I still don't," he said, slicing the peel off the fragile white oval in one long brown spiral. "I wonder if we were ever invited back twice by the same people. . . ."
"I doubt it, but I don't know for sure," Alice admitted, another bit of meat dropping from her blade. "You rarely mentioned names. Honestly, you admitted once that most of them were little more than a blur of young ladies whirling around you and frequent trips to hide by the buffet."
"Oh – so if I don't remember any of them clearly, I shouldn't worry," Victor said, smiling weakly.
"I'd wager you don't want to remember," Victoria said sourly, arranging chunks of cheese on a cutting board. "You know, I always tried to give your family the benefit of the doubt when Mother complained about them. My parents can be terrible snobs, and I thought being a little uncouth wasn't reason to consider you the worst neighbors we could ever possibly have. After seeing them in action, however. . . ." She shoved a wedge roughly into place. "I can't believe the nerve of Mrs. Van Dort! To already put you back in the marriage market!"
"I guess someone who's willing to engage her son to another sight-unseen is capable of anything," Alice said, voice cold. "But you would think she'd wait until he had his memories back."
"But – I've never even spoken to her!" "Well at least we have that in our favor!" "Maybe she thinks I'm a better prospect like this," Victor muttered, mashing the potato into the bowl. "We are talking about the woman who wanted Dr. Bumby to get rid of more than just my memories of Emily. . . ." He glanced at the teakettle, sitting innocently by the stove, then swiftly turned to Victoria before he could think much about the sour taste it put in his mouth. "Have you ever met the Kingsleighs?"
"Once – we were invited to Miss Kingsleigh's coming-out-into-society party, and Mother thought it prudent we at least put in an appearance," Victoria said, studying her cheese selection. She switched two slices around. "Yes, that's much better. . .my conversation with her was short, but I can tell you Adelaide Kingsleigh hates bugs of all kinds, and told me directly she thought dogs were only good for making a mess on the carpet. And while she played the harp for us, she didn't seem to take much pleasure in it." She gave Victor a look of pure sympathy. "I don't think your parents could have chosen worse."
"Hold off on that until we determine if she's going to lure Victor into the forest and murder him for his money," Alice said. "But she doesn't sound like nice company."
"It's silly of them to even try to set him up," June agreed, slicing up a loaf of brown bread. "I mean – look, I won't go as far as Miss Sharpe did, but – I thought – it seemed to me you two had an understanding."
Victor blushed as he retrieved another potato. "I – honestly, I never even thought that far ahead. . .but I guess telling you I don't want to live without you constitutes one," he admitted to Alice.
"I'd already decided we could work out all the fine details once you were back to yourself," Alice told him with a nod and a smile. "On our time, not Nanny's. But I guess what's obvious to her and Hightopp and practically everyone else in the city isn't to Nell Van Dort."
"Oh, she's noticed – in fact, it's almost certainly why she wrote that letter," Victoria said darkly. "Doing her best to stop her son marrying the 'poor lunatic from the East End.'"
"I do have an inheritance of over a thousand pounds now. Surely that has to raise my status a little."
"Without a title? Not nearly enough, I'm afraid. Mrs. Van Dort isn't going to rest until she has tea with the Queen."
"Well, I might be able to arrange something. So long as she doesn't mind tentacles. Or the teapot getting up and pouring itself."
"I wouldn't mind that," Victor commented. "Save me from ever having to touch one again." He sighed as he smushed another potato into the bowl. "Why are they so obsessed with titles and standing?"
"Well – to be a little fairer to them, they do have to put up with quite a lot from people like my parents," Victoria admitted, taking June's bread and arranging it around the rim of a plate. "Mother and Father always looked down on people who had to earn their money through a trade."
"Ignoring the obvious point that those people had a steady source of income and they didn't," Alice commented.
"Oh, they were very good at not seeing or hearing what they didn't want to. There were days growing up when I thought they'd forgotten they had a daughter." She huffed. "Strangely enough, I think those were my happiest moments as a child."
"I bet I could say the same of my childhood," Victor said, staring off into the distance as he crushed up the third potato. Woods all around, his faithful companion at his side, far away from people who chased him up trees or demanded he sit up straight and not make a sound. . . . "It's really a shame we didn't meet when we were younger. I think we would have become fast friends very quickly."
"I know – but Mother wouldn't have let me anywhere near 'commoners,'" Victoria said, rolling her eyes.
"How about me?" Alice asked, fetching a large serving dish and piling the mutton on one end and the beef on the other. "We weren't titled, but Papa was a dean of one of the country's most well-respected colleges."
Victoria gazed at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Maybe," she admitted. "I don't think Mother and Father would have actively sought out an acquaintance, but they probably would have accepted an invitation to tea. We would have at least had the chance to talk." She gave Alice a tight smile. "No offense, but they probably wouldn't have liked you. Thought you were a 'weird' child."
"None taken – I was," Alice said with a proud smirk. "The more I hear about your families, the more I'm grateful Papa and Mama wanted us to grow up to be people, instead of their 'perfect heir' or a handy marriage commodity."
"Mmmm – and we already know what the Everglots would think about you mixing with me, Victoria," June commented, getting the butter from the icebox. "But wouldn't it have been fun to all be friends as children! We could have all gone on little adventures together. I liked to play that I was a lady on a steam ship, seeking my fortune in a new world, like Mum."
"I liked imaging what I hoped my wedding would be like," Victoria said, smiling nostalgically. "I'd sneak tablecloths – while we had them – and tie them into dresses."
"No sticking around the house for me," Alice said, chuckling. "Mother had to scold me more than once for taking knives from the kitchen and using them to slay dragons."
A long mouth full of teeth, glittering yellow eyes, curved talons almost as big as he was. . . . "Blue Ben! Come here, boy! Let's play!" "I – I think I made up dragons too," Victor said, wondering at the image in his mind. "But – but I – made pets of them?"
What ridiculousness – forget that immediately, the voice demanded. The memory dimmed, but Victor clung to it, refusing to let it fade completely. Thirteen, obey!
Go drown in the Thames! Victor snapped back, mentally cradling the dragon to his chest.
"Pets?" Alice repeated, staring. Victor got the feeling her friend Gryphon was probably doing the same in her head. "Whyever would you want a creature that devours young maidens and flies around breathing fire as a pet?"
Victor screwed up his face, concentrating past the angry tattoo of forget forget forget being pounded into his skull. Why had he wanted this terrifying creature as his friend? "It's – I'm n-not entirely sure, but – the name 'Gordon Tannen' just popped into my head."
Understanding dawned on Alice's face. "Oooooh. You once named him as your worst bully," she explained, nodding. "Perhaps you had a dark idea or two about how to make him stop."
Victor shifted awkwardly as Blue Ben took to the skies of his mind, chasing a shadowy figure. "Oh."
"Well, at least we know now that your pillow-popping tendencies are natural to you and not a result of Bumby," June said with a grin.
Victor snorted. "I've only done that once!" He looked down at his pile of mash. "Though after today, it might be twice."
"We know what your parents are like – we won't let them get under our skin," Alice reassured him, coming to stand by his side. "Too much, anyway. And it's very likely the Kingsleighs will refuse their kind offer."
"I know, but. . .they won't stop trying, will they?" Victor pressed the masher deep into the bowl. "They want me to make a good marriage and damn the consequences. Never mind that I'm already in love."
Alice took his hand, running her thumb over his knuckles. "We won't let them tear us apart. If worse comes to worst, we can always use Nanny's solution."
"I confess, I'm still having a hard time seeing that woman as a nanny," Victoria admitted.
"She was a little more respectable in her dress and her speech when Mama and Papa employed her – but she's always been the sort to speak her mind," Alice said. "But then again, we all were. Papa was never one to believe in 'women should be seen and not heard.' And Mama often talked with her group about equal rights."
"Our parents wouldn't have gotten along at all then – never mind that Mother was never shy about speaking her opinion," Victoria said, shaking her head. "I'm just – not sure what to even talk to Miss Sharpe about. I don't want to be rude, but her current business. . . ."
"It's all right – even I was shocked when I found out she'd taken on 'Madam' as her new title," Alice reassured her. "Besides, it's unlikely you'll have to talk to her at all. I expect most of this lunch to be her and Mrs. Van Dort sniping at each other." She smiled, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "Dinner and a show."
Victor put his arm around her. "I'm sorry. I wish my parents were less – snooty."
"Oh, it's not all them in this case. Nanny could have just said she was a barmaid and left it at that. But she's proud, and unwilling to bend to anyone. Which probably makes her an excellent madam for her girls, but. . . ."
"Well, I think Mrs. Van Dort wouldn't have thought much more of her for being just a woman who pulls pints," Victoria assured her. "At least all the most unpleasant surprises came out before we ate."
"We hope, anyway," Victor murmured, swirling the masher through his potatoes. He glanced at the ceiling. "Do you think they're back yet?"
"We should probably go and see," Alice said, following his gaze. "Not a good idea to leave them and Nanny alone together – or to make your poor husband have to play referee, Victoria."
"Christopher's been stabbed and shot at, and I still think you're right," Victoria replied. "June and I can finish down here."
"Just a matter of making sure everything's properly seasoned," June agreed, taking the bowl of potatoes from Victor. "And arranged nicely on the plates. Your mother may not think much of our menu, but I want to show her even 'common' food can be nicely turned out."
"I wish you luck with that – from what I understand, this woman is barely satisfied by anything," Alice said, with a significant look at Victor. You don't have to tell me I don't make the cut, Alice. Nor you, he added with a stern glare at the voice. "She certainly won't be able to complain about the taste, though." She gave Victor's arm a tug. "Come on, let's see if they have managed to get something decent for afterward."
There was no sign yet of the Van Dorts or their mysterious dessert when they entered the front foyer. Nanny was there, however, holding court over the children, with Mr. White leaning on a table close by. "And then the bounder tries to – oh, hullo, Alice, Victor," she said, noticing the pair. "Lunch ready yet?"
"Soon – are you corrupting all those innocent young minds?" Alice asked, putting her hands on her hips.
"Not anymore than you do," Nanny retorted, which made her smile.
"Is it true you bit someone who touched your arse the first time you went to the Mermaid?" Abigail asked, the other children giggling.
"Only because he refused to remove the hand," Alice replied. "Some men only respect violence, I'm afraid." She looked over at Mr. White. "I do hope Miss Sharpe hasn't been shocking your sensibilities too much."
"I was a soldier, Miss Liddell," Mr. White said, grinning. "We only play at being respectable. Though I never did realize just how much of a war city life could be. Madam Sharpe told me more about this Jack Splatter fellow. You're a practically a legend now for having injured him so many times and never facing the consequences, Victor."
"I – I am?" Victor said, sharing a surprised look with Alice.
"Yeah – they call you The Swell Who Walks Whitechapel," Nanny reported proudly. "I don't think you're ever going to have to worry about being robbed again. Rumor has it you even scared the bobbies once!"
"Two hours – I missed her by a mere two hours–" "I'll have to ask Harry Hightopp about that," Victor said, astonished. Maybe the real surprise is that I haven't burst more pillows in my life. "Oh, I hope my parents never learn about that reputation."
"What reputation? What have you done now, Victor?"
Victor winced as Nell Van Dort barged through the front door, William in her wake with a large box under his arm. "Haven't you sullied our name enough with your talk about corpse brides and – and Dr. Bumby?"
"I believe we agreed Dr. Bumby wasn't Victor's fault," Alice said, tone dangerous. "If anyone sullied your reputation there, it's you."
"Yes, well – still," Nell said, fanning herself. "We can't afford to take any more hits."
"You're the fish people," Elsie pointed out, the other children nodding along. "What does it matter?"
"We are not just 'the fish people,'" Nell growled through gritted teeth. "My husband is an entrepreneur."
"We run a successful business that everyone can take advantage of," William agreed, nodding importantly. "No shame in that! Even if it involves sweeping guts off the factory floor, eheh."
"Not that he does that," Nell hastened to add.
"Well, there was the one time–"
"You. Don't do that. Anymore. William."
William shrunk back. "Right. Yes. Of course, dear. Don't get all aflutter."
"Nothing wrong with honest labor," Mr. White said, straightening. "Without men willing to sweep up those guts, you wouldn't have your fortune."
"We pay them appropriately," Nell said coolly, nose in the air. "But they certainly aren't our equals. We wouldn't have been blessed with all that money if we weren't intended to dine with the lords and ladies."
"What are you doing here then?" Dennis asked bluntly.
Nell flushed and shot the boy a glare. "We were asked to have lunch with you."
"In the loosest sense of the word," Alice said, shaking her head. "But that reminds me – someone's told Dr. Wilson about this, right? We've all been busy with the actual meal."
"Oh, he came down a bit earlier – said hello, asked what I was doing here," Nanny reported, a twinkle in her eye. "I told 'im who was coming to lunch. Poor fellow stared, then grabbed his coat and said he was sorry he couldn't stay, but he'd made plans with his old friend George. Out the door quick as a wink."
Victor's insides warred between amusement at the story, annoyance that the doctor would ditch them, and envy that he couldn't do the same. "W-well, the table probably would have been too crowded anyway."
"We'll be stretching the limits as it is," Alice agreed. "I'll have to ask him how George is later. I take it the Van Dort driver won't be joining us either."
"Harland knows his place," Nell said. "He said he'd find refreshment elsewhere."
Reggie craned his head. "So what's in the box?" he asked, pointing.
"Fairy cakes!" William said brightly, holding it up. "The bakery was having a special on a dozen. Got half chocolate and half vanilla."
Instantly every child sat up straight, brushing off their clothes and running their fingers through their hair. "We'd be delighted to have you lunch with us, sir," Abigail said in what she thought was a "posh" voice. "Simply delighted."
Victor hid his smile behind his hands. Well, at least they'd guaranteed the children wouldn't be a problem. Alice shook her head good-naturedly. "Nothing works as well as a bribe. . .all right, you lot, June said the meal would be ready shortly – everyone, go wash your hands!"
The children got up and filed out, whispering to each other excitedly. Nell watched them go over her fan. "I could never have borne a large family," she commented, glancing at William. "All that noise and mess. . .how do you stand it?" she asked Alice.
"You get used to it – and they're not really bad children," Alice told her. "In fact, they'll be very very good in order to get those fairy cakes. Thank you."
"Suppose I should get meself cleaned up too," Nanny said, hoisting herself off the floor. "Unless you need help with the serving?"
"Thanks, but we'll be able to manage – Victoria and June are likely bringing up the plates right now."
"I'll take those and see if they need any help," Mr. White volunteered, approaching William and accepting the box. "Where's the washroom here, anyway?"
"Just at the end of the hall, past my and Victor's room – though it probably makes more sense for you to wash your hands in the kitchen sink, if you're heading that way," Alice pointed out. "You could do that if you like too, Nanny – less of a line."
"Just might, thanks," Nanny nodded. She grinned at the Van Dorts. "See you at the table."
Nell grimaced as they departed. "Washing your hands here probably just makes them dirtier."
"The water's not that bad," Alice informed her. "And we have plenty of soap. I know it's–"
"Ollie, come out! ALICE! Ollie's gonna use up all the hot water!"
"Oh dear – back in a tick," Alice said, with an apologetic glance at Victor. She hurried out, skirt flapping. "Ollie, give Elsie her turn!"
Nell was instantly in Victor's face, fan poised to go up his nose. "Victor Van Dort, the company you keep–"
"I didn't know Miss Sharpe was – in that business!" Victor said, holding up his hands. "Maybe I d-did before, but certainly not now!"
"And yet she knows you," Nell snapped, punctuating her sentence with a thwap on his shoulder with the fan. "Seems to think very highly of you."
"That's just because she was once Alice's nanny!"
"Be reasonable, Nell," William put in, shifting from foot to foot. "Can you really see our Victor frequenting a house of ill repute?"
"I didn't think he would marry a corpse either, but he tried it, didn't he?" Nell huffed. "Disgraceful, what some women lower themselves to. . .and on that note, you are not being tricked into marriage with Alice Liddell!"
"Tricked?" Victor straightened to his full indignant height. "Alice would never trick me into anything! I trust her above anyone else!"
"That's what she wants you to think!" Nell jabbed him in the chest with the fan. "Girls like that are all alike! Just looking for a quick meal ticket out of here!"
It's the only reason I can think of for her being interested in you, the voice agreed. Probably she'll just take what money she can and then leave you at the altar, just like everyone else. . . .
Mistress would never do that to me and you know it, Victor replied testily, before turning his ire back on his mother. "If she sees me as a meal ticket, she's taking an awful long time to cash it in. Wouldn't it have been smarter of her to convince me we were already married when I first woke up?"
"Well – I never said she was that clever," Nell said, hiding her awkwardness behind her fan.
"She is clever. She's one of the smartest people I know. And funny, and kind and – and I wouldn't be here without her," Victor reminded them. "Right before he died, Dr. Bumby t-trapped me in the deepest, d-d-darkest part of my mind–" "I'll send you wherever I wish, Thirteen! Back into the dark! Back into your worst nightmares! And you can stay there until you learn to behave!" And then nothing but blackness everywhere, swallowing him, digesting him, reminding him he was useless worthless nothing but a bad boy bad boy bad boy "–and she pulled me out. And kept pulling me out, even w-when–" Fucktoy cocksucker know your place forget and obey "–when it tried to drag me back," he finished, shoving the voice to the back of his mind. "You will show her some respect!"
"It's not that we're not grateful for all she's done for you, Victor," William said, tapping his cane on the ground. "It's just – you could do so much better than a maid in an orphanage! I know young men always want to sow their wild oats–"
"Victor will be doing no 'sowing!'" Nell cut in, thwapping William this time. "Or anything else with a known lunatic!"
"A known recovered lunatic," Victor corrected, fists clenching. "Whom almost everyone who reads the paper – or writes it – hails as a hero."
"I don't know about that. The Weekly seems to think she had more to do with Dr. Bumby's business than she lets on," Nell said suspiciously.
"The Weekly also accused me of being in league with Bumby. Said I was faking my amnesia."
Nell's mouth opened comically wide. "Wha – those – those muckrakers! Who do they think they are, besmirching our good name like that?"
"You see?" Victor nodded. "So why trust them on Alice? Isn't my word – the fact that I love her – good enough for you?"
"We have a certain standing to keep, and–"
"Lunchtime, everyone! Get it while it's hot!"
"We'll be there in just a moment!" Victor called, then clasped his hands and gave his parents his best pleading look. "Please, be – be civil. I know I can't make you like any of them, but you could at least be polite. We're not asking you to sponsor anyone before the Queen. It's one lunch. With my friends."
Nell let out a heavy sigh, rolling her eyes. "We'll be on our best behavior," she said with over-exaggerated poshness. "If they are, anyway."
"If we can get through your wedding rehearsal, we can get through anything," William declared, grinning – which really didn't make Victor feel any better. "Now where's this washroom again?"
Fortunately, Alice was herding the last of the children toward the dining room as they entered the hall. She shot him a worried look as they passed each other – Victor gave her a tight smile in return. "Tricked" into marriage. . .they're asking me to get down on one knee right here and now.
And what happened the last time you tried that? the voice said with a cruel grin in its tone.
I don't know – are you actually asking me to remember something?
The voice spluttered. I – you – just shut up, Thirteen! Nobody cares about your opinion! Nobody cares that you exist, nobody would miss you if you were gone–
Yes, yes, I've heard it all before, Victor thought, rolling his eyes. Mind giving Mother a turn to berate me?
Gladly. Maybe realizing that your own flesh and blood only sees you in terms of what you can give them will make you realize your purpose. Do you think Adelaide Kingsleigh would enjoy seeing you bent over and waiting for a–
Victor's stomach lurched. You are not ruining my appetite again! Leave me alone!
Fortunately his parents were completely unaware of his internal argument, caught up in muttering to each other about the state of the Home. He waited patiently as his parents washed their hands (Nell's lip curled the moment she caught sight of the water, but that was one sneer he couldn't blame her for sporting), then gave his own a quick scrub before bringing them to the table. The children were already seated in their favorite chairs – they straightened up as they entered, trying their best to look prim and proper. Victoria was finishing plate distribution while June got drinks and Alice made sure all the food was in easy reach. "Well – I'm sure it doesn't compare to your table at home, but I think this is quite acceptable for midday," June said brightly as Victor squeezed his mother into a seat.
Nell eyed the spread, then favored June with a cursory nod. "Suppose it doesn't look too bad for leftovers. The meat's cut a bit thin, though."
"The cheese board looks nice," William said, prompting a smile from Victoria. "Bread too – too bad you don't have any sardines! A few of those on a piece of toast – best snack anywhere."
Charlie and Reggie exchanged a dubious look at that – Victor joined in, trying not to remember the stink of rotting guts. "It all looks wonderful," he said, giving Alice's hand a quick squeeze as she took her place by his side.
"Indeed – marvelous work, my dear," Mr. White agreed, giving his wife a quick kiss on the cheek as she sat down next to him.
Nell raised an eyebrow. "Do you think you ought to be so familiar in front of the children?"
Victor clapped his hand over his eyes. So much for civil. . . . "They're a married couple, Mother."
"Don't remind me," Nell muttered. "But public displays of affection are so – common."
"I've seen Lady Vandermere kiss her husband on the cheek," Victoria replied, cool as a cucumber as she picked up the mashed potatoes and started serving. "And Lord Johnson was never shy about holding his wife's hand."
Nell blinked. "Well – all right then. I just – we mustn't teach children bad habits," she said, fanning herself.
"Oh, this lot's already learned them all," Nanny said, taking a healthy dollop of potatoes. "Probably know words that would turn you as blue as one of Victor's corpses." Ollie and Dennis nodded enthusiastically. "Me, I say life's too short not to indulge in a little affection." She winked at Alice as she handed over the bowl. "So long as you're doing it with the right person."
"Of course you would say that," Nell sniffed.
"Lady's gotta make a living. Not all of us can luck into snagging a rich husband."
"I didn't luck into it," Nell replied haughtily. "I considered my prospects, and he was the best one."
"Heh, yes, I'll never forget the day we met," William said, accepting the potatoes from Victor. "I was at the fish stall, serving a few customers, when this young lady in a patched coat appears on the side of the line and demands my attention. First words out of her mouth were, 'Right, I'm Nell Butler, and you're going to marry me.'"
Victor, Victoria, Alice, and Mr. White all exchanged a look. "Isn't it usually the man who presents that news to the woman?" Alice remarked as they started passing around the meat.
"Oh, I didn't mind – courting's such fuss, you know? Better to just get it over and done with right away. Though we didn't go to the church that day, eheh. Had to do a little winning her over. Some flowers, new coat and hat – the usual."
Victor's eyes narrowed. "Really." So it's okay if you go after Father and have him ply you with presents before getting him to the church. . . .
Nell seemed to hear his thought, skewering him with her own glare. "If I hadn't known what I wanted, you wouldn't be here. Besides, I knew from the start I was destined to rise above my roots." She touched her fan to her nose, eyes flicking between Victoria and Alice. "Which is more than I can say for other people at this table."
"Christopher is a very respected former member of Her Majesty's military," Victoria said, voice chill. "If my parents are willing to accept him, you can too."
"Get off your high horse," Nanny agreed, frowning as she sawed into her portion of mutton. "You're fish merchants – you ain't risen that high, even if you got more money than the Crown." She jerked her head at her former charge. "Alice's papa was a Dean at Christ Church. Made a pretty penny himself back in the day."
"Probably nowhere near the amount coming in from your little canning empire, but I'm no stranger to having servants as well as being one," Alice nodded.
"If your father was so important, why are you a maid in the worst part of London?" Nell demanded. "Didn't he provide for you?"
"He did, but I was in bedlam for ten years – and in hospital a year before that," Alice told her, using her fork to spear a piece of cheese. "The bills ate up a lot of what we had – and I'm not entirely sure our lawyer didn't take a good, healthy piece for himself."
"Those lot are all alike," Nanny grumbled. "Only care what they can get out of you. Should have cut him off earlier, but – lady's gotta eat."
"If you got the bulk of my inheritance, I'll consider it money well-spent," Alice said, swallowing her cheese with a smirk. "As it is, I'm still worth a good 1,500 pounds."
For just a moment, Nell's eyes went wide. Then she recovered herself and huffed, putting her nose in the air. "That all? Hmph. Remember when we thought that was a large amount to have in the bank, William?"
"Still is," William said amiably. "Get you a nice house for a few years, anyway."
"Nothing like ours, though." Nell beamed – the first time Victor had seen her look truly happy all day. "We've got three drawing rooms and an actual in-house privy."
Charlie looked up from his piece of bread. "You want your house to stink?"
"We also have our own night-soil man," William quickly added as Nell's expression dropped into a glower. "And it's out back near the garden. Roses there grow a treat!"
"It's right on the town square," Nell said, ignoring the giggles of the children. "Directly across from – what was the Everglots'." Her lip curled in Victoria's direction. "There's someone inquiring after it for a bed and breakfast."
"Good – a better use for all those rooms than rotting away," Victoria replied. "We lived in no more than five of them, I think."
"Why do you need three drawing rooms anyway?" Charlie continued. "Did you each have your own room to draw in?"
Sitting hunched in the window seat, absently doodling butterflies, hoping that Master doesn't see you wasting your time, toys don't need entertainment – get out! Victor tried to grab the memory, but it slipped through his fingers, fading into vague fluff. Damn. . . . He consoled himself with a bite of mutton. Next time.
"They're meant for entertaining," Nell informed Charlie. "We've had some very important people drop by our house. I don't suppose you would know the name of Lord Crumberton, but he came and took tea with us one day."
A man with a mustache clutching his stomach, color high – "I'm sorry, it's the sardines. I can't abide–" The voice moved to strike, but Victor pounced and held on tight. "Wasn't he then sick on our rug?"
". . .the important thing was that he came!" Nell snapped Charlie and the others snickered. "What sort of people do you think you'll mingle with if you stay here, hmmm? Convicts and ruffians! And loose women," she added with a significant look at Nanny.
"I won't argue the point, but you act as if we're going to live here all our lives," Alice said, shaking her head. "I certainly have no plans to stay in Whitechapel longer than I need to."
"I do, but I'm part of the local color now," Nanny said, grinning. "Would be a loss to the community if I packed it in."
"It's not – that bad," Victoria said, weathering the "are you serious" looks everyone but Nanny tossed her way. "So long as you always keep an eye on the street and don't carry anything valuable on you."
"Or know a thing or two about disarming a fellow with a knife," Mr. White added. "Not going to set up a vacation home here anytime soon, however."
"Good, that would be silly," Abigail said between mouthfuls of potatoes.
Nell sighed, snapping her fan shut. "I cannot believe you two ever set foot in this side of town."
"You did," Victoria replied mildly.
"We thought we had to," Nell said, a flash of guilt passing across her face. "Never expected Victor to stir from the house, though. You remember what he was like when he was little, William – barely a day went by without him wetting his combinations!"
Dennis, Reggie, and Ollie burst into raucous laughter as Victor slapped his hands over his face. "Mother!"
"What? You did. We had to set aside money especially for the laundress."
Victor groaned, wondering if it would be acceptable for him to just slide under the table and stay there for the rest of the day. Go ahead – everyone would be happier not looking at your face, the voice encouraged. Dear me, who would ever want these people as their in-laws? No wonder Victoria dropped you as soon as she was able. How long do you think Alice will be able to keep up her little game of 'loving' you now that she's seen where you're from?
She's already seen, Victor replied, though he was glad to feel Alice touch his arm for a little extra support. She hasn't given up on me yet. Though I admit it does prove her bravery.
"Oi there – even we didn't talk about piss while we were eatin' at the Mermaid," Nanny scolded. "Unless we had to mop some up, of course. And there ain't a nipper out there who hasn't had their fair share of accidents." She looked Nell up and down. "Mother like you, I'm surprised he wasn't doing it hourly."
"This is not an appropriate subject for the table," June spoke up, jaw set firmly. "Mrs. Van Dort, you should know better."
"All I'm saying is that he's always been odd," Nell huffed. "You ever know a child – a boy, no less – who played tea party with his reflection in the mirror?"
"Really?" June grinned at Victor. "Oh, that's adorable! Did you do different voices for the other you?"
"I – maybe?" Victor looked up, wrinkling his nose. The memory stayed stubbornly hidden in some dark crevice of his mind. "I wouldn't be surprised, anyway. . . ."
"Sounds like something you would have done, Alice," Nanny chuckled. "When you weren't trying to crawl through them."
"That happened on – all right, twice, but I only broke the first," Alice replied, though she was smiling. "I just wanted to show Lizzie Looking-Glass Land."
"I know – told us all about it at breakfast the next day," Nanny reported. "With Humpty Dumpty on his wall, and the Red Queen running like the blazes to stay in one place, and the White King eating hay to stop himself feeling faint."
Nell exchanged a baffled look with William. "But that's all nonsense," William said slowly.
"Yes, that was the point," Alice told him. "Oh, Nanny, remember when our Drawing-Master came over after I'd been to Wonderland the first time, and I decided to show him Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils?"
"Oh, hell, I'd almost forgotten!" Nanny chortled. "Fellow thought you'd taken ill and threw old paint water over you! Rug was never the same."
"Reminds me of the first time we found you drawing on the wall, Victor," William remarked, getting into the spirit of things. "Nell here asked what you thought you were doing, and you said you were practicing trompe l'oeil!"
Victor laughed. "Really?" Wish I remembered that!
"Yes – not doing half a bad job of it, either. Almost sad to see it go."
Victoria giggled softly, fingers on her lips. "Oh my. . .you two really do seem made for each other," she said, glancing between Victor and Alice.
Victor's chest filled with a pleasant warmth. Nell, on the other hand, had an expression that suggested she wanted nothing more than to take Victoria and chop her up on her plate. "Our Victor was made for someone with breeding," she hissed. "Someone who will actually honor the promises she makes."
"She tried," Mr. White said, voice level, as Victoria's gaze dropped to the tablecloth. "It's not her fault she thought your son was dead. I understand you're upset that things didn't go according to your plan, but I think we'd all appreciate you letting it go. It's been a year."
"And like I said, Alice got some breeding," Nanny added. "More than you."
"That was before she landed herself in a cell in Rutledge. Once mad, always mad. What would the neighbors think?"
"Nothing – you don't have neighbors anymore," Alice said, smirking, though Victor could see a little hurt in her eyes.
"You know what I mean! Or do you? Sounds like you haven't got your head screwed on quite right even now. Is Victor truly getting better with your 'help?'"
"Yes!" Victor snapped, standing up. The children and June shrank back as Mr. White, Victoria, and Nanny started, but he paid them no mind. "You saw me when you first came here! I barely knew my own name!"
"And there's been such improvement since," Nell snapped, fan flicking open.
Victor growled deep in his throat, fists clenching so tight he could feel his nails chewing into his palms. God damn it, these people sometimes. . .how often had he told them that Alice was the only reason he was anything other than Bumby's puppet? You're probably just upset you couldn't get to my strings first. Oh, and I thought you were bad the first time, coming in talking about disowning me when you were the ones who. . .what I wouldn't give to be able to knock that ridiculous hat off your head. Just once. It'd be worth all the – all the. . . .
It'll be worth all the bruises in the world to punch this disgusting Haymarket Hector in the face just once, he thought, his arm already starting to tense for the blow. Alice might lecture me on not getting into it with him, but even she –
Wait. He just admitted he saw her. Confessed to knocking her senseless, in fact. Inside the Mermaid.
And I haven't seen hide nor hair of her in the crowd.
Icy horror extinguished rage as surely as a bucket of water on a flame. Victor spun to face the brothel again, forgetting Splatter's presence entirely. She's still in there. She's unconscious or trapped or simply too frightened to move. Or maybe even – she might – might be – "ALICE!"
His legs exploded into motion, propelling him through the crush of people. "Hey!" Splatter yelled, lunging for his arm. "We ain't done here, you stinking toff! Bleedin' coward – nobody runs from–"
Victor whirled, letting sheer momentum carry his fist straight into Splatter's jaw. The crack of bone against bone sent shockwaves up his arm and left his fingers stinging red, but it was nothing he couldn't handle. He'd dueled an enraged lunatic wielding a stolen sword with a barbecue fork, after all. A mere punch was child's play. He whipped back around and started running again as the astonished Splatter stumbled backward, not wanting to give the man a chance to recover and return the swing. Behind him, he heard Splatter curse – then a crunch of something hitting wood. Glancing back for half a second, he saw the pimp lying unconscious next to a packing crate, with a bunch of fisherman gaping in a half-circle around him. "That swell just nobbled Splatter!"
He blinked, and he was in Houndsditch again, Alice eyeing him with concern. "Are you all right?"
"Probably just daydreaming again," Nell grumbled, though she didn't sound particularly sure of herself.
Yes, daydreaming! the voice agreed, and Victor would swear he detected a note of panic. Delusions! Hallucinations! You never did anything of the sort! Forget! Obey!
Victor looked down at his hand. Despite the voice's repeated protests, he could still feel the sting in his knuckles, the roughness of Splatter's chin against his flesh, the sheer raw rage that had driven his fist forward in the first place. He lifted it and flexed his fingers, a slow smile spreading across his face. "So that's the reason for the nickname."
"Nickname?" Nell asked suspiciously.
"The Swell Who Walks Whitechapel," Victor told her, no longer caring if she knew. This was too good to keep to himself. "I did punch out Jack Splatter!"
Alice's face lit up. "Finally! See, I told you so!" she cried, standing up and hugging him.
"Yes, yes, you did," Victor laughed, returning the embrace. "But it was hard to believe before. . .I guess I just had to be angry enough to remember."
"Jack – what or who is a Jack Splatter?" Nell demanded, waving her fan about.
"Local pimp," Nanny said easily. "Worst one in all the East End, and that's no lie. Stuck a cleaver in my chief nobbler – you'd call 'im a bodyguard – Long Tim minutes before your Victor sent him reelin'. In fact, your son's the only one who's ever got one over on him and lived to tell the tale."
Nell and William stared. "Victor?" William finally said, as if Nanny had declared that yes the Earth was flat after all, and carried on the backs of four elephants atop a giant turtle.
"Yup! Knocked him cold, from what I hear."
"Well, that was less me than the crates behind him," Victor admitted, rubbing the back of his head. "But I did send him reeling back into them!" He demonstrated, narrowly avoiding the hat he'd so wanted to send flying before. "Sorry – God it felt good to finally shut him up!"
"But – but why?" Nell demanded, jaw almost to the tabletop. "What on earth would possess you to – to – punch someone like that?!"
Nothing! the voice insisted. Nothing because it didn't happen! Nothing in the world could have made you do such a ludicrous thing! Nothing except – Alice.
Victor stared at the wall as the memory replayed in his head. Splatter had – had hit Alice. Knocked her clean out. And she'd been trapped in the Mermaid, and – and he could see flames now on the facade of the building, leaping from the rooftop, spilling out the windows. . .smell the stink of old, cheap varnish and burning alcohol. . .hear the garbled, nightmarish wail of a melting player piano. . .and feel his heartbeat pulsing terror, wondering if he was going to find the woman he loved burned to a crisp. . . . "He left her there," he whispered, not caring if it made sense to anyone else. "He left her there to – to burn. . . ."
A room completely consumed by flame. . .Alice yelling at a couch within. . .a beam crashing from the ceiling, missing them by inches. . .heat and smoke choking him. . .Alice slumping into his arms, dead to the world. . . .
His jaw clenched tight. Splatter had condemned Alice (and Nanny – he remembered her too now, crying for Alice to stay with her so they could escape) to that hell without a second thought, and if he hadn't – "Excuse me, I need to go kill him," Victor growled, grabbing a random piece of cutlery and making for the door. "Shouldn't take long, I'll be back before you're done–"
"Nobody knows where he is, Victor – and he's probably finally got himself a gun to go with all those knives," Alice said, catching his arm. "You may have always come back the best in your encounters, but he has hurt you pretty badly in the past too."
"What could you do to him with a fork, anyway?" Abigail asked, peering at the implement in Victor's hand.
"That's actually quite appropriate for him," Victoria told her, unable to help a small smile. "Though I think a barbecue fork would be better, Victor."
A clash of steel against steel, sending unpleasant vibrations up his arm but at least the blade wasn't going through it – "I think you're right," Victor murmured as the rest of the memory faded into a vague haze of anger and terror. He shook his head and glanced apologetically at Alice. "Sorry, I just – that still makes me furious."
"Would someone care to explain to me what's going on?" Nell demanded, slapping the table with her fan.
"He almost killed Alice," Victor told her, the mere thought making him long to sink the tines of the fork into Jack's throat. "He knocked her out in Nanny's old bar and set the place alight. I punched him because he tried to stop me going in there to save her."
Nell and William were getting quite good at this "gaping in shock" business. "You – ran into a burning building?" William said quietly. He nodded at Alice. "For her?"
"He sure did," Nanny confirmed. "Kept her from roastin' just like her parents. Helped the both of us make it out alive, in fact. Ain't a person on the streets who ain't gonna say he's a hero for that."
"And both before and after that, he paced the entire East End – and a good chunk of the West End too – trying to find Alice when she was hallucinating and wandering all over the city," Victoria put in, folding her arms. "He told me about it when Christopher and I officially joined the search. It was practically the only thing he did beyond sleep and eat."
"Yes – you know, Victor, I bet even now, if we blindfolded you and dropped you off in a random part of London, your legs could find their way back all on their own," Mr. White told him with a surprisingly proud smile.
Plunged suddenly into darkness and left all alone, far from all you care about. . . . Victor cringed as the voice sniggered. "F-forgive me if I don't want to put that to the test."
"Your son loves Alice," Victoria continued, looking Nell and William straight in the eye. "I know you wanted something else from his marriage, but – what passed between us is over. It has been for a long time. Alice is not the worst prospect in the world – far from it. These two care about each other more than any other couple I've seen – excepting my dearest husband, of course," she added, smiling at Mr. White. "They belong together. Please – if you truly care about Victor – let him be happy."
"Or at least look the other way when they elope," Nanny said.
Nell and William were silent for a long time. Then, slowly, William reached out and touched Nell's wrist. "Dear. . .I think you'd better write to the Kingsleighs again," he said softly. "Tell them there's been a bit of a – mix-up."
Nell's head swiveled like an owl's. "What? William–"
"Or I suppose we could just wait for the rejection – it was a long shot anyway, wasn't it?" William said, resignation written all over his face. "Nell, let's face it – he's already chosen. And remember that reporter running about? Tailor, I think it was? If he finds out that we tried to stop our son marrying the girl he ran into a burning building for, well – you think our crier can cause scandal?" He gripped her hand suddenly. "We still have a chance to look decent here, Nell. Or do you want us accused of being in league with Bumby?"
Nell stared at him. Then she let out a long sigh, like a deflating balloon. "Fine," she muttered. "I'll let the Kingsleighs know. Only polite. Tell them it snuck up on us."
Victor's heart leapt. So that's what Mother giving up looks like! I never thought I'd see the day. . . . "Thank you," he said sincerely.
"You're welcome," Nell grumbled, fanning herself. "William, please, public decency."
"You don't have to send out an announcement right this moment," Alice reminded them as William went back to his meal and she and Victor sat. "No matter Nanny's opinion, I'm not bringing Victor to the altar without all of him there to say 'I do.' Besides, I want to be married in warmer weather." Noting Nell's continued sour look, she added, "You are aware we educated lords and ladies at Oxford too, right?"
Nell frowned at her. "Of course, but I don't think you know any personally."
"Well, no, but Papa regularly had teas with the undergraduates." She frowned thoughtfully into the middle distance. "I remember one with a funny name. . .rhymed with ours. . .Niddleson?"
Nell's fork clattered against the table. "Niddle – Lord Niddleson?" she demanded, voice rising to a delighted squeak. "The art collector?"
Alice eyed her warily. "Think so. . .yes, if I recall correctly, he was interested in going to Egypt with his father after he finished his schooling. . . ."
"They did! Oh, I heard the funniest story about those statues of the winged ladies they brought back. . . ."
Victor smiled at Alice as Nell set off, chattering on about how this Niddleson had paid a clothier quite a lot of money to design blouses for the apparently-naked statuary. Well, look at that. One lucky name drop, and now suddenly Mother's more than delighted to get along. Probably already wondering how she can turn Alice's vague memory into an invitation to some soiree. . .if it means her stopping the worst of her sniping, though, I can live with it. Why can't they actually care about me as much as their reputation. . .ah well. Maybe if we keep the visits to just once or twice around Christmas, we'll be able to keep from killing each other.
In the meantime – I think we've all earned a reward. "June, why don't you open up the fairy cakes now? I'm sure we've all had enough 'real' food."
"Just what I was thinking," June agreed, standing up and fetching the box from its place on the side table. She popped it open and held it in front of him and Alice. "First pick?"
"I'd be delighted," Victor said, taking a chocolate while slipping his hand into Alice's under the table. "One of the benefits of becoming a Van Dort," he whispered to her, nodding at the box.
"Yes – although you're worth it all on your own," she replied, squeezing his hand as she selected a vanilla.
Victor grinned. God, I'm lucky. . .well then. It tried its best – but I guess we can mark down this lunch as not a total disaster. He bit into his fairy cake, letting his mother's words wash over him. "And from what I heard, the nose broke clean off! Fired the tailor and had it repaired for no less than a thousand pounds! Oh, and then there was this painting from Spain. . . ."