There lay a half empty bottle of whiskey on the bed between the two women, who were sitting up with their backs against the wall as they spoke and drank. They shared the same tumbler, as it was the only one that had been found after rummaging through the single cupboard and piles of clothing, and they were passing it back and forth between themselves.
Ophelia grabbed hold of the bottle and filled the glass halfway, and lifted it up to take a long sip. She’d drank half the contents of the bottle alone, but it would take at least three full bottles to make her even tipsy. Her exceedingly, inhuman tolerance for alcohol was something she was grateful for, especially considering that she had a meeting with a certain witch to attend to in a matter of two hours—one now, because she’d already been here inside Mary’s tenement in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, for two hours already.
It had been four days since Annabelle had been brought to them—now buried based upon lycan funeral rites (werewolves received none, but Evadne had rules)—and four days since Ariadne had tasked the siren with bargaining with the Northern Witch Queen to agree for the exhumation of Elizabeth Stride on the terms of inquiry and proper funeral in accordance to witch burial rites.
All these burial rites, all completely different and complex. She did not know of what the witches did, but for lycans it was much like a human ceremony, except with a few differences; the alpha conducted it all instead of a vicar or pastor, none but the alpha and the two first betas were allowed to look upon the body, and the bodies were always burned. For Cold Ones it was much simpler; the bodies of ordinary ones were simply left to float upon the water and become food for the fishes, whilst the old queens of past had been entombed in shallow sea caves with their crowns and riches. But there were no queens of the Cold Ones left, nor had there been since the Matron had assumed control before Ophelia had been born, and so all sirens were simply fish food upon death now.
The very air of London was polluted with death which clogged the lungs of citizens without them realising. And the citizens did not even seem to care about what was happening to the women in the backstreets; the hysteria was vapid and transparent, barely there and only there to mask the prejudices of the classes and their insults against the women that had no other choice but to debase and sell themselves. Charles himself, had theorised to her that, “Jack is probably merely a client of the murdered women who was unsatisfied with the service given; we men pay for pleasure not mediocre performances, and underperforming women deserve what happens to them.” She had merely kept her silence and pondered upon the hypocrisy of ‘underperformance’ when he had lasted nigh on ten minutes at best and gave her no pleasure (truth was she could have read a book), but, on looking back, Ophelia wondered just how she had restrained herself enough to not kill him in that moment. Charles, however, had simply been the voice of the opinion of the majority: the women deserved their deaths; it was only to be expected since they parade themselves around; they are all full of disease and Jack only wants revenge for God-knows-what being transmitted onto him. Always the victims fault, never the perpetrators fault where women, in particular, were involved. The stigmatisation bred from a cultural epidemic of opinions made Ophelia’s blood boil.
Beside her, Mary said something that she did not hear. Ophelia turned her head to look at her friend and said, “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Mary took the bottle from the siren’s hand and placed it on the nearby table. “What’s wrong today? You seem greatly preoccupied?
Mary shrugged. “Pray tell—what’s going on? And do not lie to me, I know when you lie. You said you had a meeting to go to soon, is that what is bothering you?”
Ophelia laughed. “There’s nothing about a meeting with a witch queen that bothers me, I can assure you of that. Though, the prospect of her yet again attempting to rile me with taunts surrounding my rather vicious and dysfunctional relationship with my Matron is less than appetising, and if she begins to ask me to join her clans once more, I shall be a bother for her.”
“Plan to drown the building or wherever you are meeting?”
“Even if I still had that sort of power, I do believe that submerging an entire house on Park Crescent would be rather conspicuous.”
“It would cause quite a stir, however.”
Ophelia laughed. “Well, I do like to be at the centre of gossip and headlining newspapers.”
Mary grinned at her. She took a long swig from the glass before she spoke again. “Tell me more about this meeting—why has it come about?” She said her words so nonchalantly, made it sound as if her being told about the siren’s meeting with a witch queen was the height of nondescript information—Ophelia would always be grateful that she’d told Mary of what she was and her world, simply because it gave her someone to speak outside of her world about all of it.
“The exhumation of Elizabeth Stride’s body,” Ophelia replied and took the glass to drink from it. “She was a witch, after all,” she said after bringing down the glass and resting it on her lap. The corners of her lips turned up when she glanced at Mary and saw the gawk the encompassed the entirety of the other woman’s face. “Oh, please, do not give me that look, you can believe I am what I am but you do not believe she was what she was?”
Mary shook her head. “I believe you—what reason would ye have to lie? I simply would never have guessed someone in my ... career would be of the supernatural repute ...”
“There are many in your career that are supernatural in being. Am I myself not one?”
“Yes, but you’re of a different variety—more mistress than prostitute.”
Ophelia made a dismissive gesture. “They are one in the same, Mary, truly they are. The only difference between them is the money; the lifestyle.”
“I should have chosen to become a mistress.”
Ophelia manoeuvred herself on the bed until she was facing her friend. She reached out and took one of Mary’s hand’s in hers. “Agree to my offer at last, please. I can take you away from all this, take you away from prostitution and buy you a house wherever you wanted. How I hate that Barnett for falling out of employment and meaning you had to turn to the backstreets again. I want to take you away from this life, Mary, I do—please let me.”
Mary looked at their entwined hands. “My answer is the same as the last time we had this conversation.”
“I will keep bringing this conversation up until you allow me to take you away from this. I would take you all away if I could, but for all my riches I do not have enough for that dream. So I must make do with ensuring you all have tenements, warm rooms—if you will not turn from this, then take up resident in the building I am overseeing the construction of from behind male non-de-plumes. I despise this tiny room you have in this desolate place, it is almost uninhabitable and unsafe—just look at the broken window you use to be able to unlock your door, any number of person could use that ... Jack could use that!” Her voice cracked on the end words, as she imagined the man—if it were indeed a man—following her home whilst she was intoxicated, or being a private client invited back for the sole reason of making more money, and killing her made a sickly coldness made of fear and anxiety coil in the very pit of the siren’s stomach.
“Ophelia ... Ophelia!” The sharp tone of Mary’s voice, as well as the squeeze to her hand, brought the siren back to where she was instead of picturing such awful things. “That will never happen.”
As quickly as she’d been torn away from the images of blood and grief, as quickly she was submerged back into it at her friend’s words. “You cannot be certain of such things,” Ophelia whispered. Her words were barely audible.
“Oh, a chara,” Mary whispered. Her free hand came up so that her fingertips cupped Ophelia’s chin and gently angled the siren’s face up until they were looking at each other once more. Mary’s voice was soft as she said, “I know I cannot be certain, but I can be trusted: trust me when I say I will not be a victim of Jack.”
Ophelia would have fallen forward and buried her face in her friend’s lap, were it not for the corset around her torso that stopped her from doing so. So instead she resigned herself to grabbing a hold of Mary’s other hand from her chin and moved it so she could envelope the woman’s hands with her own. “I cannot lose you.”
“You’re not going to lose—”
“You are the only aspect of humanity I have left, Mary Jane Kelly,” said Ophelia. She said it as though it was a confession, one of the heart. “Your friendship is the only goodness I have left in my soul, to lose you would be to lose a piece of myself. You are the only person I have remaining in my life whom I have bared the very fibre’s of my being, my darkness secrets, to and still accepted me with no hesitation or qualms—I will be forever grateful for that—”
“Stop it!” There was an anger in Mary’s voice. She snatched her hands away and fisted them in the material of her skirts. “You speak as if you have already accepted that I will be the next victim of Jack the Ripper—I will not be such a thing. Do not speak to me as if you are speaking to me for what you believe is the last time—save such a speech for when I am on my death bed decades from now, and you are sitting by my side, still looking the same age you do now, instead of reciting what seems to be a farewell speech now.”
Ophelia stared at her friend for a moment before she scrubbed at her face with her hands. “You are right,” she said after she dropped her hands. “Forgive me, you are right.”
Mary smiled. “There is nothing to forgive. You merely let your nonsensical worries rage in your mind, and that’s exactly what they are—nonsense.”
Ophelia was about to argue that her anxieties were anything but nonsense, but at the last moment she chose not to. Instead, she said, “I do believe the alcohol broke down my emotional barrier; I am never usually such a mess, am I?”
To her credit, Mary laughed. “No, no you are not. But the inane armour of distance and cold hatred you have around your body all other times has never existed around me.”
“How true that is,” Ophelia said. She smiled despite herself, before she turned to glance at the time shown on the face of the small clock on the tiny mantelpiece. She pushed herself off of the bed and gathered herself onto her feet, swiping up her coat from the singular chair in the corner beside her as she did. “I am afraid I must be leaving now if I am going to make it in good time for my meeting with Morag—I would much rather be early to Her Majesty’s appointment than late.”
Mary nodded. “I guess I will just have to finish this bottle by myself,” she joked.
“I could always take it with me—”
“Don’t you dare!”
Ophelia laughed. “No, no, I wouldn’t.”
The siren’s smile grew larger, but she did not speak until after she hard shrugged on her coat and fastened the elaborately engraved gold buttons. “Until the next time, Mary, I bid you farewell.”
Mary watched as Ophelia crossed the small space to the door, and spoke just before the other woman had the chance to open it. “This construction you are overseeing, where is it?”
Ophelia half-turned and looked at her friend. “Just off of Whitechapel Road. I’m having two building converted into one large tenement. It will be much better than this dire place.” She made a gesture to encompass the entire building she was standing in.
“This place is not so bad, Ophelia, if you keep to yourself and don’t cause any trouble,” Mary said. “Call for me when it is convenient for you and I shall come look at this place you have paid for—you can tell me more about it, then, and perhaps I will consider leaving here.”
Ophelia’s smile was blinding. “Yes, yes, of course. Tomorrow or the next day I will come and we shall walk to the street. I will find the plans I have somewhere in my rooms and bring them also. Shall we meet in the Ten Bells instead?” When Mary nodded her assent, Ophelia continued with, “I shall meet you in the public house at ten in the morning either tomorrow or the next day—if I am not there by half-ten tomorrow, presume that I cannot make it.”
“Very well. Now, go, I would hate for you to incur the wrath of this witch queen.”
Ophelia nodded and made her leave. The courtyard outside Mary’s small room was dusty, every inch the unsavoury environment that its reputation claimed it was even when empty. The ground was stained with the blood from whatever fist or knife fight had occurred most recently, and was littered with discarded waste. The exterior of Mary’s lodgings was entirely nondescript, square and unflattering to the eye. Ophelia scowled at the broken pane that Mary used to unlock her door for a moment, before beginning to move across the courtyard and out onto Dorset Street. She was surprised to see none of the usual residents of less than ill repute—the petty criminals with knives that were essentially letter openers, the pick-pockets who had learned not to attempt to steal from her months ago, and the like. The only person in the courtyard as she walked through it was a young man in drab clothing, leant against one of the walls as she smoked a cigarette; he stared at Ophelia as she walked by, until the siren raised her eyebrows to stare ‘what do you think you are looking at?’ and made a crude gesture with her hand, that caused the man to glower and walk into the building beside him.
How Ophelia hated this place, and yet it had the strange sensation of home—she hated it, but among the petty criminals and debased humans barely scourging a living she felt the same sense of belonging as she did in the Ten Bells amongst the women who used their bodies for money and the drunkards who couldn’t tell up from down just halfway through the day. She couldn’t help but think that if she were not who she were, if she were human instead of supernatural, that this was where she would be a resident of and selling herself on street corners and back alleys for a few shillings or a guinea at a time would be her occupation, instead of grand houses and receiving payment in the form of jewellery and clothing as she sold herself to the upper and middle class men and killed them when she had what she wanted. She was beyond grateful that she was able to say no, knowing full well that many women in the work of prostitution did not get that right and were raped and abused. Even though she rescued women who suffered that time and time again, gave them money and settled debts and helped them make new lives for themselves, the pimps always found a new worker for their trade in the form of misled country girls newly-arrived to the city and the kidnapping of young girls. For every woman Ophelia saved, if they wanted saving, another girl began her work as a prostitute soon enough; it was an endless cycle, fuelled by such a sickeningly high demand that most prostitutes on the streets were not there voluntarily.
Ophelia stopped thinking about all of that before it put her in a foul mood. Waiting outside the passageway on Dorset Street was a nondescript Hansom Cab that Ariadne had procured for her that morning. She smiled politely at the driver, a spritely young warlock with mottled blue skin and fully white eyes, who had been the one hired to be her chauffer for the day, and brushed her hands against the horse’s mane before climbing into the cab. She tapped on the roof with the tip of her umbrella, which she had left in the space, as soon as she sat down. Immediately the driver had the horse moving, heading off down the street and onwards to her next destination.
It was nearly time for the siren to confront the Northern Queen once again. She needed the ride there to prepare for potentially locking horns with the other woman once more.