The story so far: Countess Vi has arrived in London with the assignment to hunt down two possibly connected criminals. She’s just saved a young woman, Tess Gaunt, from certain death at the hands of mysterious creatures sewn together by different body parts. As Arendelle’s prime minister begins her investigation, she realizes that Tess and the mysterious horrors that stalked her might lead her to her next clues…
London is filthy. I always knew it was grand – many, many times larger than Arendelle – with its population greater than that of our entire kingdom. Yet it’s only now, having been to the East End, that I’m exposed to the immiserating conditions of its poorest. I’ve been scouting around the area in my hooded cloak, struggling to get used to the smell and the awful sights. It’s overwhelming.
They live in ways that not even the humblest Arendellian family would find acceptable. They’re crammed up in hovels or squeezed into small rooms, with up to nine people making up one impoverished family. The British call some of the structures in the Whitechapel slums “common lodging houses,” of which there are about two hundred. Our caretaker, Mr. Grey, told me that these can house over eight thousand homeless and destitute every night. Every night!
And forget about the hygiene we Arendellians are used to. Keeping my identity private, I paid a tenant to show me around one of the common lodging houses, and there was barely any ventilation: one window for an entire floor. I’m told cholera and dysentery is common.
I hope you’re having a slightly more pleasant time with Mattias and working on the kind of reforms that our military needs. I wish you were here protecting me, but Arendelle needs your stewardship while I’m away – especially with Anna facing such trying crises on all fronts.
My instincts warn me that this isn’t just a random assignment Peony has forced on me. It’s somehow connected to the Exalted themselves.
But that will be a consideration for another time. For now, I command you not to worry about me, focus on helping Anna, and rest assured I think of you and your werewolf eyes every night.
Several days before Vi and Tess’s encounter
The prime minister of Arendelle had arrived in Mayfair, the most affluent area of London.
The carriage’s horses snorted as they came to a stop before a row of terraced houses in Grosvenor Square, one of the wealthiest residential zones in the West End and the property of the Duke of Grosvenor – one of Britain’s most powerful peers. Out stepped Vi, her red high heel pressing on the carriage steps before setting on cobblestone.
“Good morning, Your Ladyship. Welcome to England,” said an elderly, suited butler, bowing at the waist. Behind Vi was another attendant, who handled her two large articles of luggage. “How was the journey from Arendelle?”
“Pleasant enough, Mr. Grey. Thank you for looking after my houses here,” said Vi. She looked around at the Georgian townhouses that towered around her, with a pleasant, lush green park at the center of the square. London was the pulsating heart of the vast British Empire, a frenemy that Arendelle needed as a pragmatic ally – even though Anna and Victoria had vastly differing views about colonialism. In a past life, Vi would have agreed far more with Britain’s imperial objectives and worked to make Arendelle an expansionist state too. Those days were long gone now that she served Queen Anna as Prime Minister. She had turned her back on her old life and was resisting the demon that her family owed its millennia-old prestige and power to, Mephistopheles.
Vi dismissed those memories, focusing on her mission in London. “I have three people to see in the coming week: teatime with the Home Secretary and the editor of the London Age, and dinner with the chief surgeon of the Royal Academy of Physicians.”
Even Grey, a longtime butler who attended to the maintenance of the Mundilfari properties in Britain, couldn’t hide his surprise. “What a diverse array of gentlemen you’ve lined up to entertain, Your Ladyship.”
Vi nodded, not revealing too much. “These three men are key to my success. Ensure that they answer my summons.”
No one needed to know that the patron of the Home Secretary, David Fullerton, was Peony Sinclair herself, a member of the Exalted and the very woman who’d sent Vi here. The London Age newspaper was actually a recent acquisition by Vi’s lawyers, who’d bought the paper from the previous proprietor just a month ago. No one had been fired: in fact, Vi had bought the newspaper precisely to employ its editor, Boyle Skinner, into her war room for her London operation. And finally, she needed the help of the Chief Surgeon, Dr. Seymour Lane, to help her solve the case of the missing bodies on the Necropolis Railway.
All of the cadavers were of recently deceased nobles, statesmen, and merchants of wealth. Names included Henry Nevill, second Earl of Abergavenny, William Crawford MP, and Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex. They called this body snatcher the Railway Ravager.
There was also one more figure of mystery: the police called him – or her – the East End Eviscerator, for their signature horrific act against the victims: complete disembowelment, leaving their innards alongside their corpses for revolted police to discover in the morning. Worse yet, there were various body parts missing from the discovered corpses.
If Peony was right, there was some connection between this body snatcher and the morbid murders and lurid disappearances around Whitechapel. That was what Vi was here for. She needed to snuff out this criminal (or these criminals) before the entire London establishment tore itself apart in chaos and recriminations. An unstable imperial capital displeased the Exalted and its leader, Yixin. The prime minister of Arendelle was intentionally assigned this task as a way of clearing her debts to Yixin, and to push a lone Queen Anna to her limits. It had certainly done the trick. Despite their disagreements, Anna and Vi cared deeply about one another and had made a great team in government. It would be much harder for Anna without Vi around.
Usually the upper classes didn’t pay any attention to the plight of the poor, let alone the scores of “fallen women” who found themselves working in the brothels of the East End. Many of them weren’t professional sex workers. Divorce, impoverishment, illness among the family, an unexpected tragedy… there were countless reasons for women to land in desperate straits through no fault of their own and seek work in London’s sordid locality. But things were getting serious enough for the government to lose considerable popularity and credibility. According to Vi’s notes, there’d already been eight women murdered, their bodies desecrated and left out in the open as a dare for the Metropolitan Police. Eight. Her mind struggled to comprehend that.
“The work I’m going to be doing here needs the cooperation of the city’s elite,” she said to the butler, slipping out of her bulky coat and revealing an elegant purple dress that was notably more figure-accentuating and bold than those of her British counterparts in her aristocratic circles. She strode up to her house’s door and opened it, not waiting for Grey and her attendant. The plaster walls and rooms of the comfortable home were bare and unfurnished, but the bed had already been moved into the master bedroom. That was enough. She’d decorate the place later. Perhaps she’d take advantage of her time here and go to the many theatres and concert halls that London had to offer. She might be inspired to do something new with Kingdom Hall, Arendelle’s own creative and artistic establishment.
“I don’t plan to stay too long,” she declared to no one, thinking of Anna. “Her Majesty needs me back home. I’m a servant of the Arendellian Crown, not the British one. But for now, Mr. Grey, I work for both.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Vi wrapped the contented Tess in a fluffy warm blanket, who’d just been soaking in a hot bath for close to an hour. There was no more blood, grime, and sweat on the young lady, who looked to be about eighteen years of age to Vi’s twenty-four. Her damp blonde hair was nice and clean from a thorough shampooing, and Vi had provided her with an Arendellian night dress. Now that Vi had the chance to study at her more closely, she noticed that the prostitute had lovely green eyes, like those of a cat’s.
To Tess, who was used to wearing rough, poor quality cotton, Vi’s silk felt heavenly. The Countess’s bedroom was princely and spacious, with its own crackling fireplace, but it was relatively sparse, with few decorations. There was one cheap carpet on the wooden floor, and Vi had hastily bought a single wardrobe to stuff her clothes with. It was the bed that took up most of the room, for Vi enjoyed big beds that she could roll about on. Tess sat at the edge of this bed, sipping at a mug of hot tea that Vi had made for her.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Ma’am,” said Tess quietly, looking up at the Countess. “I’ve never met an aristocrat, a foreign one, before, and I’ve certainly never had one deign to look at me, let alone…” She gestured at herself. “Do all this for me. As if that wasn’t enough, you saved me from that monster. My very life wouldn’t be enough to repay you.” Tess meekly looked up at Vi as the latter drew closer, observing her and making sure she hadn’t overlooked any bruises or other injuries. “You’re not… repulsed by a fallen woman like me?”
Vi suddenly barked in laughter, scaring Tess. “I’ve done things far worse than sleeping with a line of men for money. No, the only repayment I seek from you is some information.”
“What kind of information? Why are you even here, my Lady? In London?” asked Tess quietly. “You say you’re the prime minister of a kingdom called Arendelle, and you look so darkly beautiful, almost supernatural – what were you even doing in our craphole of Whitechapel?”
“I’m on the hunt for the East End Eviscerator,” said Vi. “The serial killer whose name escaped your lips when we first met.”
Tess shook her head in disbelief. “A noblewoman like you, trying to sleuth? I don’t believe it. And it’s much too dangerous, my Lady.”
“Trust me, this isn’t my idea of fun either. But it’s connected to a concurrent case I’m trying to solve.”
“Another horrific mystery?” cried Tess. “Why are you working on these? You can’t skulk about the dark streets of London and expect to be safe – ”
“No interrupting,” demanded Vi, silencing Tess with a slender finger that gently pressed against the younger woman’s soft lip. “Listen to me. Your friends are being murdered just as the bodies of people born into more fortunate circumstances are being stolen on a train taking cadavers to Brookwood Cemetery, just outside this city. That’s the Necropolis Rail’s bane: the Railroad Ravager. Don’t you see how this body snatcher and the murderer stalking the East End’s streets might be related?” Tess trembled slightly as Vi lifted her finger away from Tess’ lips. “Think of those animated monstrosities tonight, woven from multiple body parts. They seemed to be victims as much as they were terrors, and seem to be connected to both mysteries. How did you encounter the first one?”
“I had just gone to run some errands for the Ma’am for the Boudoir, our brothel,” said Tess. “We receive our clients in the Boudoir itself, so I usually don’t walk beyond a few blocks from our home. When I headed back, I noticed footsteps behind me – loud, uneven footsteps. I thought it was an unpleasant man looking to solicit business, but when I turned to face the creature, it lunged for me. Instinct took over and I bolted. I ran like I’d never run before.”
Vi realized that she needed the police’s cooperation with retrieving body parts, so that there could be some analysis done on these creatures. Perhaps some of them might be matched to the stolen cadavers of the Necropolis Rail. Tomorrow, she’d start at the very top with the Home Secretary. She glanced at the clock above the fireplace. “Three o’clock in the dead of the early morning,” she muttered, shaking her head disapprovingly. “It’s time we both got some rest. You’re safe here, in my home. I have safe houses across Europe, so you have nothing to fear under my protection. You can stay here as long as you need – perhaps you needn’t return to Whitechapel if I can find you a place with more permanent, stable work.”
Tess shook her head, reaching back and grabbing a pillow. She scooted away from the bed’s edge. “Thank you, my Lady… but I have to go back. They’re all waiting for me at the Boudoir. Despite our sorry state, we actually draw strength from our community there.”
“Your fellow fallen women, no?” said Vi. “Then I have a request of you – take me to them, so I can talk to them as well.”
Tess smiled. “One isn’t enough, hey? And why aren’t you undressing and climbing into bed, if you so desire me to rest?”
“You jest. I’ll sleep downstairs, on the couch,” said Vi, red eyes glinting.
“My Lady, your bed is larger than my opium-saturated quarters in the Boudoir,” replied Tess, stretching her arms and looking endearingly relaxed. “You can surely share this mattress with me, despite my lowly station.”
“That’s not what I was concerned about, you cheeky girl,” said Vi, resisting a snort. She closed her eyes, smirking. She had to admit that she did feel tired. “Very well. But I was serious about your friends. The more information I have, the quicker I can assemble the clues and identify the link between our animated cadaver tonight, the Railway Ravager, and our East End Eviscerator.”
Tess waited for Vi to bathe as well and change into her night dress, a black lace one that boasted its wearer’s figure. The Countess crawled onto the bed, which was large enough for both of them to sleep at a comfortable distance from each other. Vi lay on her back, but turned to her left when she felt Tess’s eyes on her. “What, girl?”
“That’s the third time you’ve called me girl. I’ve told you my name,” chastised Tess, but she was looking at Vi tenderly, eyes full of gratitude and curiosity. “Are you afraid to use it, since you’re probably going to toss me aside?”
Vi blinked, staring at her. “No one’s tossing anyone aside.” She reached over and gave Tess’s hand a comforting squeeze as they lay a mild distance beside one another. Her lip curled upward, and Tess suddenly laughed. It was awkward, in a pleasant, not-sure-what-she’d-do-next manner.
“Rest assured. I’ll help you in any way I can,” said Tess. “It’s the least I could do, whether or not I stay in the hell that’s the East End.” Her eyes began to flutter and shut, exhaustion overcoming her after a horrific night.
“Don’t… send me… away. Don’t leave… England… so soon,” she sighed, her grip on Vi’s hand relaxing, before going limp.
The Arendellian prime minister couldn’t help smiling at the sleeping young woman as she also felt tiredness beating her, and she allowed herself to sink into a blissful slumber.