When I brook free of the hanging prisons, I took my first look across the skyline of Fallen London. The slated rooftops overgrown with neon fungi and busy with urchins spying on their next mark. Below, the poets piled ink onto pages and the artists made excuses to get their models nude. A rat crawled over my foot and gave me a look like hardened dock worker. That was my first chill. The eyes of that creature had knowledge beyond what I assumed could have been its years. But also, I could have sworn that rat had thumbs...
A withered voice behind a thin door gave me a room in her building for only a few coins, which was good, because it's all I could scrounge from the cobblestones. The rooms was perfectly square, dusty, micey, and moldy. Later I would buy a reprehensible lizard I named Kaizer, and she took care of the mice, though the sound of her choking the rodents down whole wormed its way into my softly developing nightmares. But first, I needed work.
There was never nothing to be done. Somehow I'd already grown sick on the posturing of the artists of Veilgarden, and I found myself seeking work in the varied markets of Spite. The tight corridors lined with shouting salesmen fit neatly with my already developed skill set, and I felt myself adapting to each new scenario, each new clasp on each new purse. It was that adaptability that had landed me in the Hanging Prisons to begin with, but those people, those high class men and women with their estates, they visited Spite like it was an exotic bazaar in Baghdad. And me, I had no greater impact on their wallet than their appalling bartering.
I once heard a woman remark on how she missed the glowing sun, back on the surface, how the stalactites of the cavern were too foreboding, too like needle-teeth of the sea creatures the dockmen sang about. I couldn't have agreed less. The eyes sees so much more in the shadows. We are aware of so many things we often aren't.
Just as I began to feel the weight of coin in my own purse, just as I could dress myself in finery other than molding prison tatters, the police decided Spite needed a cleaning. All the factions with a stake in the market blamed one another. For my money, the Devils called them in, but either way, it was a fine time deal in secrets. Made a fortune with the help of a few rooftops orphans, and I was able to settle a little more fully back in Veilgarden.
I had grown somewhat more fond of the poets and their struggles since living there, and I was eager to deal with less intelligent fungi on a daily basis. I decided to try my hand at authorship, but the only job I could find was a commission writing about the mushroom gardens. It was enough. Still too much time with sentient moss, but I could have a spoon of prisoner's honey almost any time I needed, and I wasn't fool enough to be hooked on the hallucinogen.
I was, however, fool enough to love. One eve, when I was chumming with a few of the artists at The Singing Mandrake, Henry introduced me to his model, Clara. She was an up-and-comer (something Henry was all too ready to make crude jokes about) and was so fascinating to talk to. Her hair was a velvet curtain framing a face not for art, but of art, from it. She and I slowly started a tryst, then perhaps it was a fling, and when I woke in her bed for the first time, I thought it must have been love.
Despite my awful commission work, I took a generous stab at self-publishing some poems and was lucky enough to be a moderate hit. I'd been books to do readings at some small establishments around the quarter, and the money was beginning to have some real use.
But the nightmares began. I can't remember all of the first. But I can still smell the walls of the room. They're... wrong. Something about them that peels and flakes like dripping dry skin. I can still see it when I sleep. I would start awake and clutch at my breast, feeling my heart pounding, threatening to crack my ribs. Clara showed what support she could, but the nightmares are a beginning in Fallen London and not to be taken lightly. Every so often, while walking the streets, I would spot a half-man, yelling something from the alleyways. Few others seemed to hear him, but the sound was enough to set me running in the opposite direction. All I could catch were the words "the walls are wrong!"
My secret trade from Spite had left me with a small cache of knowledge I could call upon if needed, but I was far enough from that life, I thought, that perhaps there was potential in sharing some more of my life. Clara had been spooked by my terrors, and I tried soothing her with gentle stories of my criminal past. It made her giggle, she said she had such a hard time seeing me that way. Skulking with the man-rats in the sewers, sneaking up to snatch a purse before scurrying back into the shadows. I should never have told her. She shared in return, I thought it was an understanding.
As a model, she'd worked long, likely nude hours in artist's studies, and when the artists spoke with friends and confidants, they were too used to her presence. She may have been a sleek and strong woman, but to them she had become shapes, shades, and shadows. I am glad I never attempted to take up the brush. But she had great secrets. Not the small whispers I had, the cryptic clues that could open the old buildings, the kind you need to see The Mistress. I thought long one lonely eve about taking those secrets and running. I could have left her with nothing, and made myself a loved minion of the Court. Of anyplace, really. But I didn't. I thought of here figure, lying next to me in the sheets, tangled in her wine-red dress, her hair frazzled from the night prior but somehow always perfect, and I hesitated.
She did not.
She took all my secrets, all my knowledge, sold what was valuable, and sent the offended parties after whatever was left. I had nothing on her. Somehow, this place runs more on secrets than anything. When all the secrets you have are exposed, the ones you've gained lose their value. I tried. Damn, I tried to sell those cryptic understandings to whoever would buy, but she'd stained me, my reputation, and my life.
I wrote a scathing criticism of her in my next collected works, but it was universally panned by even my old associates. I hold that someone, somewhere thinks less of her now, but she made the right move. She judged and attacked when the time was perfect. I had assumed to much of her. I thought secrets were like shiny coins to a magpie, something she found pretty but just mindlessly collected. She knew what she was doing, she was my shiny thing.
My third volume, Foolish as a Magpie, sold no copies, and was not even openly reviewed. I am back to where I was. Commissioned work the only thing I can get paid for, scrounging for even a sweet droplet of prisoner's honey. But now the nightmares are here.
I can feel them, teeming on the edges of my eyes, gently stroking and whispers reaffirmations into my ear. The man's voice in the alley has become louder. But now it is not a repellent. It is almost like a siren. It is calling me. He's right. The walls are wrong. The walls are wrong.