Old Dunwall whiskey always had a pleasant burn on it sway down. Samuel Beechworth licked his lips, took another swallow from the bottle; it kept the chill of the night at bay but did nothing to warm the empty space where a chunk of him had gone missing, borne away by the letter sitting on the bench beside him, its ink half worn away—though it had only been opened this evening—as he’d folded and unfolded it, reading it more times than he could count.
Dear Mr. Beechworth,
We regret to inform you of the passing of Lady Eliza Amaranth Carter.
As per Lady Carter’s last will and testament, you are hereby granted a sum in the amount of 500 coin, to be picked up at the offices of Martin and Kilney, at your convenience.
It could sit there, on some dusty shelf, until some lawyer or, maybe, some poor servant, helped themselves to it. Samuel had no love of nor great need for money. He got by.
But getting by had never been enough for Eliza. She had sent him gifts over the years, long after they’d stopped seeing one another even under the guise of friendship. A token here, a pouch of gold there. He’d returned each one. And finally no more came. Perhaps that was when she’d written him into her will. Though, he suspected, she probably thought she would outlive him, given the 15 years he had on her, his by-the-by manner and penchant for traveling the night waters of the river with only a bottle of Old Dunwall as his companion.
But here he was, hale and hearty, if half frozen, in the middle of the Wrenhaven and Eliza was where?
Wrapped in white sheets in the hall of her manor? Shipped off to the flooded district, cotton in her mouth and nose and linen wrapped around her eyes to keep the blood contained, lest it infect one of the poor bastards to draw clean up duty?
He took another pull from the bottle, capped it and stashed it in the little nook beneath the seat before turning to wind up the anchor. He stopped as a cool breeze played along the back of his neck, stirring the fine hairs there.
The water around the boat was still. There was no wind tonight. But there was the sudden and unmistakable feeling of someone behind him. He turned.
There, standing barefoot on the narrow prow of the skiff, was Eliza. As she was when he first knew her, 20 years old, apple cheeked and fair skinned, her dark hair falling in coils over her shoulders, shiny and dripping with river water. Her white nightgown clung to her skin, revealing the dusky rose of a nipple, the dark triangle of hair at the meeting of her thighs.
The moon came out from behind a cloud, casting a thin shaft of light across her face and Samuel sat up straighter, breath caught in his throat. Her eyes, once pale green as spring leaves, were as black as the river on a moonless night. So black, they might have been torn out, leaving only empty sockets.
But the black shifted, like river currents, and he knew she was watching him. She opened her mouth. He could see the blood red scrap of her tongue behind teeth white as bone and sharper than human teeth had any right to be.
If she meant to speak words, none came and then she was gone and Samuel was alone with only the sound of the flowing water around him, the burn of whiskey in his throat and the cold, empty space inside him.
He wondered at the vision of Eliza, as he wound up the anchor. Wondered if she was there to warn him of his death. Or the deaths of others.
Shaking his head, he steered the boat back toward the Hound Pits. Havelock and Pendleton had said they would be ready to make their move in the morning and though he was just the ferryman in this little play, Samuel needed his sleep.