The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 9)

The bushes rustled just behind the crow, and it gave a loud squawk and flapped awkwardly to the ground. She had been worried about this bird in particular, as it preferred to roost in her rafters and leave white streaks down the other birds’ cages. For that reason, she kept one of its wings clipped, which meant that it couldn’t fly free and was in even more danger than the other released birds. It was amazing that it had lasted this long in a city as dangerous as London.

Thom burst onto the green, flapping his arms and shouting in a thick Scottish brogue, much like the one the mynah had used after spending the night in his care. The startled crow turned its head, screeched, and flopped ungracefully into the air, cartwheeling across the grass with Thom in hot, flappy pursuit. The wolfhound started barking, and the children started laughing, and before she knew what was happening, Frannie herself was chuckling, right there with her boot toes on the hated green of Hyde Park.

Just then, the crow must have finally spotted her. With a loud squawk of relief, it ran at her in an odd, hopping gait, wings outstretched and mouth open. She knelt with a broad smile and offered the arm of her worn tweed jacket. The creature leaped onto her, and she stood, stroking its ruffled feathers and murmuring about how handsome it was, despite its recent fall from dignity. Crows liked that sort of thing.

Thom walked up at a more sedate pace, his cheeks still red from fighting fires all night . . . or from having flapped after a crow in London’s most popular park. As he passed the giggling little girls, he gave a silly bow, causing them to double over with laughter. Frannie was trying very hard not to laugh heartily herself. It took a big man to debase himself publicly for the sake of one rangy old crow.

The crow drew back just a bit as Thom approached, but the fireman was a lot less scary when upright and not hollering.

“You’re going to have to send me another bill,” Frannie said. “I’m getting to think you’re a hard man to repay.” She began to walk away from the Green, away from Hyde Park. Without questioning her, he took his place by her side.

“It’s been a long time since I made myself useful.” He pulled the tie out of his hair and shook it loose before putting it back in place, and Frannie’s stomach did a little flip. It was almost as if Thom had no idea of how handsome he was and, frankly, didn’t care, and that was worlds away from the sort of fellow she was used to.

“Not useful? But you fight fires. You’re the only thing that keeps this entire city from going up in flames!”

He snorted. “To tell ye the truth, I don’t know if that’s so much a wish to be useful as a sort of self-destructive behavior with a silver lining.”

“And the badge?” She gestured at the copper pin on his suspender.

He waved a hand. “Eh, I investigate fires. It’s mostly an honorary title that involves doin’ more paperwork than the other lads. Workin’ with the Coppers isn’t my favorite thing to do, ye ken.”

Frannie breathed a tiny sigh to herself. She didn’t much like him having anything to say to the Coppers, but at least he wasn’t one of them. She barely stayed afloat as it was. If the Coppers ever found out about her secret, she’d lose everything. The crow must have noticed her attention wandering, as it squawked in her ear and flapped its wings.

“I know, I know. You’re a grand lad. Now, can it.”

She looked at Thom out of the corner of her eye as they walked the streets of London, him just the slightest bit behind her. It was a position of politeness that made her feel cared for but not overpowered. Had he draped an arm around her waist or slipped her hand onto his elbow, she would have bolted like a frightened finch. It was the sort of thing Casper would have done. But Thom’s presence, as it was, was comforting. No urchins plucked her sleeve, no dandies doffed a hat. She actually enjoyed the walk, despite the fact that her companion had gone silent and the crow was full of itself again and well aware of an audience. She would have to find it a proper magician, and fast.

Back at the shop, Thom hurried ahead to open the door for her. When it wouldn’t open, Frannie was just as surprised as he was.

“That’s not right,” she muttered, checking that the “Open” sign was facing the street. She knocked, but Casper’s voice didn’t answer. She patted her pockets and sighed. “And I haven’t brought a key.”

Thom looked up the face of the building, as if he might scale it. “Is there a door on the roof?”

Frannie startled and shook her head a little too quickly. “Also locked, and higher than it looks. But we can go around back. I keep a hidden key.”

He raised an eyebrow but didn’t argue. She walked past Maisie’s lodging house and turned the corner after the recently closed haberdashery that was, so far as she knew, still empty. They kept the back alley swept out and as empty as possible to discourage bludrats, but something about the dark, closed-in passage always made Frannie uneasy. Thom moved just a little ahead of her without asking, and her heart rate slowed a bit—that is, until a dark form moved into the alley up ahead.

“Bonjour, darling,” a dusky voice called. “I was hoping you might stop by.”

The crow squawked on Frannie’s arm as Reve stepped languidly into sight, shades of ink and twilight rippling over the daimon’s skin as if she couldn’t decide whether to match the stone wall or the shadows.

“Hello, Reve, dear,” Frannie called, and Thom relaxed at her side.

She set the crow on her shoulder, hoping it wouldn’t ruin anything, and turned her back to block her activity with wide skirts. After counting the correct number of bricks, she withdrew her hidden key, unlocked the door, and put the key back. Thom and Reve had turned away politely, keeping a natural distance from her and from each other.

“Do come in,” Frannie said, opening the door and gesturing into her warm, lamp lit kitchen. The crow squawked and flapped as Reve walked in, followed by Thom. “I’ll be just a moment.”

As Frannie passed through the parlor to deposit the creature in its usual cage, she noticed a hastily scrawled note on the counter. Written in pencil on the brown paper from the snake, was:

Sorry. Emergency. Had to go do business. Will pay you back. JCS.

She gave a huff of annoyance. What kind of emergencies afflicted musical prodigies? At least the fool had locked the door on his way out.

When she returned to the kitchen with an arm still achy from carrying the crow, she found the daimon and the Scotsman quietly watching each other. To Frannie, Reve looked like any other daimon, if more stylish. She was tall and slender, with dark hair worn always in a bun at her nape, and her skin changed colors to indicate her feelings. She had a long, prehensile tail, a trait all daimons shared, but Frannie didn’t really see it anymore. She had known Reve so long that the beautiful daimon was simply herself, and although Frannie had never asked which particular emotion Reve fed on, she knew it must have been something positive.

“Reve, this is Thom Maccallan, the firefighter who stopped the fire from destroying the house. Thom, this is Reve, one of Maisie’s lodgers next door and also a very talented seamstress.”

Reve smiled and gave a graceful, theatrical curtsy, and Tom nodded politely.

“He has never met a daimon before, I think,” Reve said with a coy smile.

“I’m afraid not,” Thom said. “Have ye come from Paris, then?”

As the conversation continued in pleasant tones, Frannie was gratified to see that Thom was well-mannered and curious. She’d seen so much prejudice when her customers met the occasional daimon leaving Maisie’s house. Frannie herself had grown up in a pet store that catered to all types, from the richest of Pinky lords to the most dashing of Bludman magicians to daimons of all shapes and colors. She had learned over the years that the color of one’s skin or the sharpness of one’s teeth had nothing to do with the warmth of one’s heart. Reve was one of her favorites and might have been a good friend, had Frannie had the wisdom to seek the daimon’s company.

“Why, that’s fantastic news. Congratulations!” Thom said, and Frannie turned to find Reve colored all over in pinks and fuchsia, a full-body blush of joy.

“What’s happened?”

“I shall be leasing ze haberdashery next door to Maisie’s. For my shop,” Reve said. “Monsieur Halifax will take ze upstairs for his clockmaking, and I’ll take ze downstairs, a showroom in front and a workroom in back.”

“What lovely news! Reve, darling, I’m so happy for you!” Frannie surprised herself by folding the daimon woman into a warm hug. Daimons were known for affecting less clothing, as Bludmen didn’t care for their blood, and it was strange to feel the heat of Reve’s arms against her own thick jacket. Reve wore mostly ruffled vests and tight breeches when not on the street, with a slit in back for her tail. The first time Frannie had seen daimons as a child, she had been frightened. But she knew that Reve’s reputation as a popular costumer would be a positive force for business. Frannie immediately began to think of what sort of pet she could offer as a shop-warming gift.

“Was there another reason you stopped by? I’m terribly happy for you, dear, but it’s not often I find you in the alley.”

Reve looked down, her long fingers rippling over in a cacophony of colors that made Frannie a little dizzy.

“Your lodger. The musician. ’E is here?”

“Called away on emergency, or so his note said. Why?”

“He is trouble,” Reve said simply, her eyebrows raised in entreaty.

“Maisie mentioned that. Trouble how?”

“I get zis feeling.” She shrugged, green and pink rippling over her arms and the triangle of throat above her ruffled vest. “ ’E has a good heart, but zere is something below, something dark. There is more than wine in his flask. Zey say that artistic genius is just a shade of madness, you know. He’s no good for you, of that I am sure.”

Thom cleared his throat, and Frannie looked down, pulling at a loose string on her sleeve.