Cat surveyed the Pickering manor house and its graminous yard with a practiced eye under the cover of nervously wringing her hat. She twisted and untwisted the worn out fabric in her hands, it was a practiced motion, designed to make her look like a anxious young lad, rather than an experienced lookout. The hat was a man’s hat, far too large for her undersized head, and a gift from the sewers that were the intestines of London. It was worn, thread-bare, with multiple holes burgeoning and was an old, tired grey that seemed less the colour grey and more like it had simply forgotten how to be a colour and that was the shade it had ended up.
The sewer had deposited the hat near her bolt-hole some hand of days ago and Cat wasn’t one to turn away a free hat. She was even more pleased with her choice now that she had an occasion to wear it. Or, in this case, worry it in her hands as she gave the mark a look over.
Lady Adeline did not know that Cat was an accomplished pickpocket, nor that she had dabbled in burglary. The Lady would be crushed, which was one reason Cat endeavored to keep the Lady from knowing. Other reasons included Cat’s certainty that the Lady would demand she turn herself in and that she return what she had stolen, both of which she couldn’t do for obvious reasons.
So, even though Cat hadn’t been able to read the street signs, she had recognized the change of smell and the effort that the upper middle-class put into trying to ape the upper class. Cook had taught her basic sums so that she could run errands for Lady MacNeal’s household, so she was able to find the house number with little trouble. Cat tended to have some trouble with twos and fives, but the Pickering’s house had neither number so it was relatively easy to locate. From the outside, the manor appeared to almost be a child’s sized version of Lady MacNeal’s, but while the Lady’s house held a balance between easy elegance and warm regard, this house seemed to fall short on both accounts.
From the size of the doors, Cat could tell, there would be no way a beast man of any stature could enter comfortably, let alone an ogre. The stone of the house, though it had been cleaned and polished until it glistened, displayed it’s local nature. The doors, though fashionable in style, lacked the intricacies that would have exclaimed that they were carved by a master craftsman.
With this evaluation complete, she tugged the hat on, obscuring mischievous eyes and poorly cut hair. “Pull yourself together, Cat. This is a job and a good paying one. Work first, play later.”
She slipped between the wrought iron bars of the fence. She could have presented her letter of introduction to the footman at the gate. In truth, she should have, but she wanted a look around before she was forced to fetch and carry.
The gardens echoed the theme of trying to reach something just outside one’s class and means. The garden seemed to be a copy of a number of noble’s gardens she had snuck into, only the trees were smaller and the bushes weren’t as established. From the looks of things, one of the newspapers had probably run an article on the “gardens of nobility” but then only written about parts of the gardens the writer had seen or found interesting. The flow of the garden was disjointed and the “themes” were patchwork with no sense of harmony or cohesiveness.
Cat followed a stone path that led to French doors, “Finally,” Cat murmured to herself looking through the clear glass, “something real.”
Dr. Pickering’s library lay on the other side of the doors. There were a lot of books Cat knew she couldn’t read, but what was more intriguing were the artifacts placed around the room. Marvels from another world stood proudly on display and for the first time, she got an understanding of the people who were going to be robbed.
Cat struggled to get the perfect view of one of the pieces, a strange gold cross whose top seemed to have been looped on itself, when she saw the butler walk into the library. She knew he was the butler, because he was dressed in the same manner that Jeeves used to dress and if there was one thing she learned loitering around Lady MacNeal’s it was that every servant can be identified by their clothes.
Not wanting to be caught where she had no business being, she crawled behind a hedge sculpted to look like a man with a bird’s head. The leaves had even been tinted gold of the party. Cat knew this because some of the gold came off when she accidentally touched it.
The gnome began pacing, clearly muttering to himself and began pinching his arms. It was certainly odd behavior. Cat had never seen anyone other than Crazy Henry harm themselves like that, but Crazy Henry was, as indicated by his name, quite insane. What any self respecting butler of good position could possibly be doing inflicting self harm was beyond her understanding.
Perhaps he is part of the conspiracy and is having second thoughts? It was the only thing that could make sense.
After circling the library a few times, Cat was certain his arms must have been covered in tiny bruises. By his last circle, the butler gathered himself, straightened his shirt and jacket and left the room. His retreat brought a sigh of relief from Cat, who wanted to get to work and not waste her introduction.
She crept out from behind the bush only to freeze in place. She heard the sound of two sets of footsteps coming from where she presumed the kitchen was. Bloody hell. She thought crouching again behind the bush. I’m glad my knees don’t crackle and creak like some of the fellows do, or I’d find myself thrown out quicksticks!
The cook, she could tell the woman was certainly the cook, was a short, fat hag who seemed to be only a muffin away from growing a fourth chin. Her gait was a painful waddle, that, for all its awkwardness, seemed to lumber forward quite quickly. The cook’s hair was swept back into a stern bun that served to make her face even more severe. She carried her white cap, that denoted her rank, under her flabby arm which seemed to practically consume the hat. The cap, despite its current predicament, had been recently bleached and starched, causing it to seem swallowed up by the universal, crisp whiteness of the cook’s uniform.
Cat’s eyes narrowed as she watched the cook’s approach. She shouldn’t be out of the kitchen. Not with the soirée only a few hours away.
The other servant, a footman, was human as well, however that was as close as similarities got. He was tall, very tall to the child-sized Cat. His features were sharp and hollow, more than that, they were narrow and weasel-like. What a futrat.
The two humans stood on the other side of the bush from Cat. Even outside with no one in sight, they whispered, but Cat could make out bits and pieces of what they said.
“His lordship wants…”
“…you see how impossible that is?”
“…doesn’t matter. Get it done.”
“I’ll take care of it…”
Cat listened carefully. Given what was said, or how little she actually heard, it could mean nothing. But based on where it was said… Lade Adeline’s cook never leaves the kitchen. Her word is absolute there. If this had anything to do with her position, they would be talking in her domain.
Cook waddled huskily, rocking like a sailor in a hurricane back toward what Cat presumed was the kitchen. She would be headed there herself as soon as she could get away from this bush. The footman stayed behind. Leisurely, he took out a tin of tobacco and rolled a small fag. The mundungus waifed from him, cloyingly sweet, but under that smell was a darker, even more unpleasant aroma, almost like burnt flesh. No. Cat amended, Exactly like burnt flesh. It smelled like when the plague had broken out among the sewer people a few years back and the bobbers had begun burning the poor. Usually, after they were dead. That was the year the ghouls had migrated up from the lower catacombs of the sewer system to feast on the plague stricken and the dead. Unfortunately, they hadn’t really realized they were supposed to migrate back down after the plague was over.
Just when she thought she would start gagging, a high, but firm voice startled the gaspipe-crawler. He dropped the fag, stepping on it to put it out before walking off quickly. Cat took out a hanky, she had many of different levels of cleanliness, although this one was very clean and wrapped the remains of the cigarette.
Maybe Dravan can tell us something with this? Dravan had once mentioned to her that with the power of Aeaeae, if he had an object of importance to a person, he could divine some information about them. I’m not certain if he was pulling my leg, but it could be worth a shot. Dravan probably wouldn’t turn her into a frog if she brought the trash for his sister. When he had first threatened her with that, she had been terrified, but then Sarah had told her that Dravan didn’t need frogs for his arcane spells. That had eased her fears until Dravan and Sarah had gone on a trip to France. When they came back, Sarah had told her about how the French ate frog legs and Dravan had looked up from is book, turned to her and stated very clearly that it was now his favorite dish. Once again, she was fearful of being turned into a frog.
Cat tucked the butt into a pocket, hoping that the stink would be smothered by the hanky and her clothes, before heading toward the kitchen. The kitchen was loud with the sounds of pots banging and the fat hag’s shrill yells. The door was open to let out the heat that the ovens generated. Cat waited in the lee of the door, letting her eyes adjust to the dim lighting, before attempting to step into the melee.
The cook was shouting at anyone who couldn’t move fast enough to get out of her way, three maids had vanished before Cat’s eyes had finished adjusting. Currently, the sole remaining unfortunate was the scullery maid whose thin frame and narrow features could have made her the by-blow of the earlier footman. Perhaps not though, she looks like she’s just down on her luck rather than a villain. Whatever the girl was, there was no way she was anyone’s legitimate anything. Not with how underfed she was.
Cook looked up and spotted Cat. “Who are you and what are you doing in my kitchen?” She spat, her fat lips slapping together like she was leering at a turkey leg.
“Name’s Cat.” She held up her letter of introduction, “Lady MacNeal gave me an introduction, said to give it to the butler. He around?”
Cook glared darts at Cat before jerking her hand toward the door at the other end, “Mr. Bryne is through there. But,” She grabbed Cat’s shoulder like a vice while Cat was passing by, “don’t disturb the good doctor or the misses or I’ll flay you and then turn you out on your ear.”
Cat nodded, “Yes, mum.” before scooting off through the door and into the rest of the house.
The gnome she had seen harming himself in the library was indeed, Mr. Bryne, the butler. Seeing him closer, Cat saw that they were of comparable size, though his short stature and spindly limbs were because of his race rather than his diet. His cheeks were sunken and his nose pronounced in a most unfortunate way. But given the look of him, and what she had seen earlier, Cat wondered if his sunken cheeks were more due to anxiety than lack of food. Cook certainly isn’t lacking food and the butler should be able to get an acceptable portion even if Cook is trying to stiff the other servants.
Mr. Bryne was muttering and leaning over an open drawer. The cabinet, to which the drawer belonged, seemed to hold dishes. China? Cat had seen some around, the Lady had some about her house, though hers seemed more delicate. Maybe you just think these people’s stuff isn’t as good because it isn’t her stuff. She rebuked herself, Keep your eyes open, he’s a traveler, there’s no telling what he could have picked up.
Without warning, Mr. Bryne stiffened and whipped around, having suddenly become aware of her presence. “Who are you, boy? What are you doing here?” He practically squealed nervously, his eyes wide and the pupils dilated.
Cat noticed a piece of silverware slip into his pocket rather than back into the drawer. She pretended she hadn’t seen, Scoundrel. She thought, taking out her letter of recommendation, “The Lady MacNeal gave me this letter as an introduction.”
“Lady MacNeal?” He sighed reading the letter, “I’ve heard she does a great deal of work with the poor.” He eyed Cat suspiciously, “I won’t have any thieves about in the house.”
Cat shook her head earnestly, “I’m no more a foister than you are, sir.”
Mr. Bryne winced, “Good.” He wrung his hands for a second before remembering himself and putting them at his sides, “Well, I have everything under control, but I don’t suppose I can send you away. Not with her recommendation and Dr. Pickering trying to fund another dig.” He idly tapped the pocket he had slipped the silver spoon in, his mind off somewhere.
This bloke is new to thiefing or he wouldn’t be touching his pocket. Anyone whose knicked anything knows that. That knowledge pleased Cat since it meant Mr. Bryne could be a good man in hard straits rather than a bad man. “What would you like me to do, sir?”
Mr. Bryne glared at Cat, “You will call me, Mr. Bryne.”
Cat worked very hard not to roll her eyes, “Yes, Mr. Bryne.”
“You will attend the needs of the staff, fetch coal should Cook run out, peel potatoes if she needs your hands, whatever is asked of you by anyone.” His beady eyes narrowed menacingly, “Do you understand?”
Cat was trying to look demure, “Yes, Mr. Bryne.”
“Off with you, boy.” Mr. Bryne said before turning back to the silver that he was polishing.
Cat wasn’t certain where she was supposed to be off too. The kitchen was a likely place, especially since Mr. Bryne had said Cook’s name… but… I don’t want to see that witch if I can help it.
 Anything covered in grass
 Victorian Slang for “right away” or “without delay”
 Weasel or ferret: in this case, it is used as an insult to say someone has a thin face.
 An old slang nickname for a thin, scrawny-looking man
 A pickpocket or cheat