He wonders, afterward, just how many men he followed to the gallows and watched them swing.
He wonders – before his brain starts firing away with all the electricity that isn’t there – just exactly how many there were.
Surely there were a lot. Surely.
But it hardly matters, when he can’t remember a single one of them.
After all, all one remembers, when brought back from death and back into the grey light of London Town, is the water.
But, no one has ever been brought back before. Not willingly. Not unwillingly.
He wonders how many he followed to the gallows, and he wonders just how many followed him.
Wonders how many tightened the rope and wonders just how many pushed him up the stairs.
Wonders, vaguely, just how many pushed the board from beneath his feet.
How many laughed, silently, once his feet stilled, hanging so far off the ground?
The man with the dog stares at him from the shadows, all bloody smiles, and rotten limbs.
Marlott burns the gallows.
The sea drowns out the sound of rain.
The sea will be his undoing. He wipes the water from his nose, tastes the salt on his tongue.
He wakes up, and his hair is dry, his feet free from wet sand. He can still smell the seaweed.
It smells rotten. He supposes that he does too.
Blood coats his fingers, invisible to the naked eye.
He blinks the ghosts from his vision, pushes past the dull brown of a corpse stealer, and steps into the brightness of the moon before its departure.
There aren’t any stars out tonight.
No star to take his wish away from him falls next to the bright moon. It’s a cloudless and moonlit night, but starless all the same.
He passed by the roughness of the rope. The stars burned bright, and then not at all.
Esther sleeps soundlessly as the grave in another room.
(he wouldn’t think such things, had he ever known what were to come,
he shouldn’t think at all)
Her son stares at him with his borrowed eyes. His pale and blue fingers grasp the red ball.
None of this is particularly fair, he thinks and turns to the boy.
The stars are gone that night. They are trapped in the borrowed eyes of a child.
They are both silent that night.
Nightingale catches his eye, and he catches his in turn.
He is the ghost with a breath, while Flora breathes only dirt and cobwebs, as real between them as she ever was.
To think of it, she could have been Flora Nightingale. He didn’t steal that from her.
He only ever wanted her safe. Hervey stole that from her.
Perhaps, he did steal her life from her, after all. Or, perhaps it was the mercury, in all its worthlessness.
Mercury, Marlott, Hervey. All boiled down to red on blue on steel, and the death of a girl who only ever wanted to do right.
The night is not silent then.
The sea is screaming. It wishes to return.
To return to what, neither man knows.
While he was properly alive, he never would have imagined that he would have ever worked with Billy Oates.
But, now that he is both, he supposes nothing can be called impossible.
He breaks apart the well, and there is no ghost down below. There’s only a rotten corpse with rotten intentions.
The rest are dead. There aren’t any ghosts there either.
Those are to come later.
Spence is lost to the vastness of the sea, carved open and bled dry, all for another heart.
All for the truth spilled in the house of the Lord.
Nightingale, perhaps, finds another truth, and it is one that they both seem to know, even when one is properly gone, and another is not.
He has always wondered why most he meets don’t have a voice. None has ever spoken to him, but he saw it more as a fault with himself than any fault in the dead.
Joseph cannot speak. Not until the blade is deep in Marlott’s gut.
forgive me, he mouths, throat opening for all the world to see, much like the undoing of a cravat.
Marlott knows why, even before he understands it.
Joe walks away. And, now there’s barely anyone left to grieve for.
The river claims him, not the sea, and for once, Marlott has only thanks to give. The sea is not deserving of Joseph Nightingale, but neither is the river nor the blade.
Death is the very least deserving.
Death smells vaguely of the Thames.
And, even though he wishes that she wouldn’t wait, he wonders if Flora waits where Agnes wasn’t.
But, turns out, dead men have no rights to wishes.
It’s Flora on a table, Flora in periwinkle blue, Flora in the sewers.
Flora in death.
It’s Flora and Joseph, blades to throats, and bloodred smiles.
Once upon a time, John Marlott was a God-fearing man.
The organ plays, bones on keys, and the broken face of the organist would have haunted him, had he not seen more terrible things than such.
Ambrose holds a silent sermon. The pews are filled with ghosts.
He is the only living thing still breathing in the space they’ve left behind.
Perhaps it will be so until God grants them all the mercy of a swift return.
Marlott holds little hope for such a development.
He is a long way away from being God-fearing now.
God, in all his gracious goodness, led his own Son by the hand to death.
Led him to death for the sins of other creations.
Perhaps, God is the greatest traitor of them all.
From the pews, a man stands with the pouch in his hand, ready to collect. Marlott sees the missing hand, trapped in the folds of his coat.
He closes his own hand, traps it in his own coat. The man never turns to look.
Mercury and miracle tonics could only ever do so much, he supposes.
Esther takes a desperate breath into the sterile air of Hervey’s hideout beneath Dipple’s great house.
He knows this well enough, for he pulls her up and away from the sea, up on the shore and away from what she is still seeking.
She begs him, without words, eyes blown wide by the prospect of death.
It smells, yet again, or rotten seaweed. He holds her close, and she soaks his coat with her tears, and the water still dripping from her dress.
The wet wool slows him down, the sand grabs at his boots, but they are now far enough away that he dares a look at her.
Her hair obscures her face, drowns her nose in the smell of the sea, and he blinks, and then she’s gone.
He blinks, and then it is all mud and ice and stolen hearts, a desperate Dipple and a heaving Esther, the pain of reliving life, making her both blind and deaf.
Death does not make you mute, nor does it make you forgiving.
Frederick Dipple is far from alive, despite what the concoction Hervey wished to take part in contained, but he has not yet seen the sea.
(the sea! the sea! the open sea!)
Her son’s borrowed eyes stare back at him, stolen and returned, and almost gone.
No stars reflect there tonight. It has all been lost to the sea.
(the blue, the fresh, the ever free!)
If anyone deserves the vastness of the sky, it is the youngsters who had no chance to return, for there is the space for dreams.
Marlott will steal away the sea if only to keep anyone else from claiming it.
The rest, long parted, can have the forest and the sky.
He meets Sam’s shared eyes, dotted with stars, in the back of the wagon, and almost smiles.
Agnes never came to meet him, her love perhaps dead, and Katherine only laughed in his dreams while he was still filled with proper breath. It grieves him, hurts, but the stolen breath of Esther Rose is enough for him to, perhaps, accept it.
He lied without knowing it, and she forgives him for it.
The red ball still rests in the boy’s hands.
As they go, death smells only vaguely of pine needles and moss.