Things had begun to fall apart several months earlier.
The snow was still on the streets of London when Grace scurried down the narrow alleyway, eying the pavement to avoid the small heaps of rubbish piled here and there. She came out of the alley into a tiny courtyard surrounded by the ramshackle tenements towering above her. Cooking smells mingled with the cloying odor of waste and decay. Grace scanned the buildings until she spotted the symbol that had accompanied her instructions earlier that day.
Grace pulled her heavy cloak tightly around her, carefully concealing the fine muslin gown she wore beneath it. She moved purposefully toward the door even as her stomach knotted severely. She rapped quickly on the door and then stepped back, placing some distance between her and whatever was going to answer.
She heard the snick of two deadbolts being drawn back, and then the door swung open just far enough for the man behind it to step halfway over the threshold. He regarded Grace for a long moment and then gave a little nod. “Miss Marlow,” he mumbled as he stepped back and pulled the door open. He motioned her inside.
Grace tensed as she stepped past the man into the narrow hallway behind him. As she noted the crumbling plaster and mouldy wooden floor she heard the door shut behind her and the deadbolts slide back into place.
The lone gas lamp halfway up the hall cast eerie shadows as Grace followed the silent man towards the other end. Here he stopped and pushed open another door. Light spilled suddenly out of the chamber beyond as he turned to step aside, waving his hand to indicate Grace should proceed. As she passed him, Grace’s eyes slid up to his face. Her breath caught for a moment as the bright light revealed a red, puckered scar running from just below his left eye and down across his lips, ending just at his chin. Grace quickly looked away and stepped into the next room.
The light came from both a roaring fire at one end of the room and from a massive chandelier of gas lamps overhead. As her eyes adjusted, Grace noticed the room was entirely windowless, with just one other door directly opposite her on the far wall. A long, low table surrounded by rough wooden stools dominated the space. The stool at the furthest end of the table was occupied.
With a small smile the figure stood up. He was tall and broad, fashionably dressed in a finely-tailored suit. He had a sharp nose and rather widely-set eyes, but the piercing blue irises shone with wisdom and confidence. His dark hair was graying around the edges and his face showed deep wrinkles, making him look like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His top hat sat on the table, his beautiful calfskin gloves thrown down next to it.
His smile widened as he stepped toward Grace. “Good evening, Miss Marlow,” he said, making a small but courteous bow. He paused a moment, observing the young woman wrapped tightly in her dark cloak. “I am Connall Hollow.”
Grace’s voice cracked slightly as she replied. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Hollow.”
Connall motioned to a stool as he perched back on his own. “I do apologize for the rather rustic venue, and commend your bravery for coming here unescorted.”
Grace merely nodded, unwilling to engage in useless small talk. She was impatient to learn why she had been sent to this place to meet this man.
After a moment, Connall began, “Miss Marlow, you were asked to come here because of your connections. You are both the beloved of and confidante to Lord Blackburn, as well as being in the employ of the firm of Marley and Dickens. It is due to these circumstances that you now find yourself in this rather uncomfortable position.”
Grace’s eyes had widened at the name of Lord Blackburn, but she had otherwise remained motionless on her stool. Her mind, however, was suddenly racing. “How could this man know of my connection to Lord Blackburn?” she thought. “We have always guarded ourselves so carefully….”
“I have brought you here because both your lover and your employer commend you as a most trustworthy woman of uncommon intelligence and capability.” Here he gave a little seated bow in an overly-gallant showing.
“I deserve no such great praise, Sir, though I highly esteem the opinions of these gentlemen,” Grace said in a hard voice. She continued to sit ramrod straight, unyielding to his flattery.
Connall’s face quickly became serious. “You have also been summoned here because of your indiscretions, Miss Marlow.” Connall fixed his gaze on Grace as she shifted slightly, almost recoiling from his words. “We know about your gambling debts, and your penchant for providing rather high stakes entertainments. In fact, we know that Scotland Yard has begun investigating your little operation.”
Grace’s face had gone from white to ashen and she seemed to sink down inside herself. “Sir,” she mumbled, “surely you cannot believe these most ludicrous rumours….” Her voice trailed off as Connall chuckled slightly.
“My dear, I care not that you enjoy the games of chance. What matters is that you have a good reason to flee London.”
“What?” Grace gasped, head snapping up and color flooding back into her cheeks. “Flee London?”
“Yes. We have chosen you because people will assume you left town as a result of shame or guilt. However, your departure will also serve as a cover for removing something very precious to a more secure location.”
Grace’s brow furrowed in confusion. “You mean to tell me that I must leave London and ruin my reputation for some mysterious ‘precious thing’?” Grace shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest.
“It is not just some ‘thing’ that you must protect.” Connall’s face filled with worry, and his eyes were nearly pleading. “It is my daughter that must be kept safe.” Connall searched Grace’s face as his statement sank in. Grace met Connall’s gaze and saw the anxiety burning there. Her thoughts were scattered into a million pieces.
“Lord Blackburn will be able to explain all of this to you more fully. He has been in our service for many years and knows our tales. We would never ask this of an outsider if we weren’t desperate.”
A thousand questions burned in Grace’s mind. Finally one made its way to her lips. “And who is ‘we,’ Mr. Hollow?”
Connall sighed and his face seemed to age before Grace’s eyes. “We are the lucht siuil, the travellers of old. We are the wanderers of the Nethereal Realm.”
Though she didn’t understand the answer, Grace blurted out the next question. “And where must I go?”
“You must go to the city of New Babbage. Hopefully there you will find safety and secrecy.” Connall stared down at his hands in his lap and muttered to himself, “And perhaps the brilliant minds resident in that town will be of some use to us.”