The end of winter brings with it a very familiar atmosphere. Soaked cobblestones provide a backdrop as the faint smell of spring rising over the horizon fills the city of Omen with something approaching optimism, even amidst the frequent and inconvenient downpours and the perpetual twilight beneath the Umbra Maximus. The sort of atmosphere that’s liable to put a smile on one’s face, even when one is receiving news of a death, as Nemesis Jones is.
He sits, legs crossed and elbows leaned on a table cleared of dishes, in the booth of the cafe closest to the window, idly watching the raindrops splatter against the streets outside, soaking pedestrians past the ankles. The real occupier of his attention is the newspaper in his hands. Across the front page, written in large letters, the death of the baron Vigenere is proclaimed.
It’s not a surprise, but then again, it also is. The baron was old enough and sick enough that his demise was by no means a complete shock, but if someone had told Nemesis Jones yesterday that Vigenere was mortal, he would have been baffled at the thought. Rationally, yes, the baron was no less mortal than anyone else, but his presence was felt throughout the region, even outside of Omen. Even as far as Nemesis’ home of Citrea Viridia. A philanthropist, cultural figure, and patron of the arts, everyone had felt as though they knew the baron personally, though a comparative few had ever met him in person.
“Lord Vigenere is dead,” he announces in his normal tone - slightly high-pitched and distinctly indifferent-sounding. His companion, a boy around his age with a dark complexion and equally dark expression, whose mere presence seems to cast the room in a light coat of shadow despite the unpleasant yellow lighting in the diner, frowns even deeper.
“He’s a family friend, you know. Him and Fitzroy eat dinner sometimes. Apparently close to my parents as well. Weird to think he’s dead, just like that. Did they list a cause?”
“Old age or illness, I assume. The usual for an old guy.” Nemesis frowns in response, nudging his companion with a foot underneath the table. “Wasn’t aware you’d met the baron. You’re so important, El. A proper high-society gentleman.”
“Oh, don’t give me that. It’s really nothing abnormal.”
Nemesis raises an eyebrow.
“Right, fine, okay. Apparently it’s something abnormal.”
“You’re a right snob sometimes, Elias. And I know you don’t mean to. That’s the frustrating part.” He nudges him again, and Elias shakes his head.
“Not in the mood for banter today, sorry.”
Nemesis falls silent and glances over at the window. His reflection stares back at him - a handsome face, that of a young adult, with light brown skin, sharp, angular features and wavy silver hair framing his face, a nose which looks as though it had, at some point or another, been broken, and a pair of sharp gray eyes.
The people in the street pass the window by, paying the boys no attention. Nemesis observes them carefully, hoping to see something of any vague interest to him, but the closest any of them come to eye-catching is a woman with a hat brim perhaps wider than practically advisable (but most likely still in fashion – not as if Nemesis knows anything about Omenite women’s fashion). Of course, it’s a rainy day. Everyone is dressed in black, umbrellas, overcoats, and hats. Faces are near impossible to discern, even when they might have otherwise been distinctive.
In a city of shrouded pedestrians and grayscale Automata Lex, Nemesis stands out. That’s fine. He doesn’t mind standing out. Plain sight is often the best place to be. His colors are muted, browns and light blues and even dashes of purple, but they’re colors.
Back in Citrea Viridia, people are far more colorful. Light greens, tan browns, and even splashes of brightness are the fashion. Here, it’s as if the color’s been drained from the surroundings and the people.
Elias sighs, drawing Nemesis’ attention back from the street. “...you should find a place to stay. And I’ve got to get back to Fitzroy’s.”
“You don’t have to, you know.”
He laughs humorlessly. “As if. He’ll find me, you know that much. I’ve been out for long enough already, actually.”
“I suppose.” Not that Nemesis is about to argue with something he knows is true, but the look on Elias’ face…
Elias frowns. “...you’re staring.”
“Ah, am I?”
“Is that a crime, now?”
“No, I don’t mind. It’s just making me a little concerned for you.”
“You? Concerned for me?” Nemesis thinks that’s the most preposterous thing he’s heard in some time. He scoffs, shaking his head. “Come on, Elias, I’m fine. I’ll be fine. It’s me who is concerned for you, my friend.”
Elias frowns. “Well, stop it. And quiet down a little, will you? Unless you’d like to let this entire restaurant know just how much you care about me.”
“Why shouldn’t they know?”
Elias sighs. “I should get going. Fitzroy’ll be out for my blood if I’m out much longer. I feel bad leaving you to pay, but…”
“Nonsense. The cost means nothing to me.” He stands, begrudgingly. “I’ll be seeing you, then.”
“I hope so,” Elias agrees.
As he holds the door for Elias, Nemesis thinks to himself that, though he feels far more at home in the Omenite dreariness, he misses the way the sunlight in Citrea Viridia always brought out Elias’ darkness, like a blot of ink spreading behind him, something so distinctive and stunning. Here, Elias looks like just another of the crowd, lost in the shuffle.
With the winter over, all that's left is the dampness of the cobblestone, the cold humid air, and the smell of wet leaves drifting through the streets. Nemesis doesn’t mind the cold. What he really dreads is overpowering heat of the summer, the way it seems to wrap around his limbs and force its way into his skull, choking him, drowning him in the air.
Supposedly, it doesn’t get that hot in Omen. Instead of Lygredyg’s sweltering days and frigid nights, here it goes from pleasantly cool to pleasantly chilly depending on the time of day, from what he’s heard. The thought is pleasing.
It certainly seems to rain more often, though that might be a hasty conclusion from someone who’s been here all of six hours. He hopes he’s right, though. That sort of dreary weather, no matter what anyone else said, has been what he’s comfortable in. Nemesis has always loved the sound of the rain against the street and the damp air just after the clouds clear.
Not that, he supposes, one could truly see rainclouds against the Umbra well enough to know when they’ve passed by.
A full ten minutes after parting ways with Elias, the tense feeling in his stomach hasn’t left. He stares into the window, drumming his fingers against the table in an agitated rhythm, barely aware of the impact of his gloved fingers into the oak, feeling an almost tangible degree of separation between the man he sees and himself. Which is absurd, because he’s Nemesis Jones.
Pocketing the newspaper, he stands, paying the bill in cash and sliding an extra hundred crowns to the waiter, who doesn’t look any older than Nemesis is. Based on just that, there’s a good chance he’s a university student working part-time to pay his bills. The shock on his face is enough to paint an uncontrollable grin on Nemesis’ own.
The air in Omen is pleasant, far more-so than the air in Citrea Viridia. Despite how much he stands out in every possible way, Nemesis feels strangely at home. There’s something very refreshing about walking with confidence through the streets of an unfamiliar city, dressed to the nines, garnering strange looks. Some are hostile, some likely envious. He’s pretty sure he’s the only person on this sidewalk smiling.
But, of course, he can’t simply do this all day. He ducks into an alley. Even the alleys here, he observes, are nicer than the ones in Citrea Viridia - cleaner, wider, and even, he thinks, slightly longer. These are truly a king’s alleys - and here he is, a humble foreign misfit, invading them.
He chuckles quietly to himself and yanks the object in his pocket out by its chain (gently, of course), taking a quick glance at it. Of course, he’d look like a fool if he ran through the streets, studying it intensely, but a discreet glance occasionally can’t hurt.
He crosses the street, doubling back through every alley and bypass he can think of. This isn’t a route anyone in their right mind would take - if someone is tailing him, it’ll be clear as day, but thankfully, he appears unfollowed as he emerges into an older-looking street.
The buildings here are in desperate need of upkeep, the street lamps dimmer, the cobblestone broken and uneven. The device doesn’t offer a single clear answer. If anything, every building around here seems to be rather similar.
It’s hard to tell, because of the Umbra meaning the only visual indicator of time passing is the sky going from gray to darker gray, but he thinks it might be getting quite late. The sky is practically black, though the streetlights maintain a soft, even blue-tinged glow throughout the streets. A quick glance at his wristwatch confirms his suspicions - it’s near midnight, which means he’s been wandering and taking in the scenery for something in the range of seven hours. Though he didn’t notice the time passing, the fact that it did doesn’t come as a surprise to him. There’s so much interesting to see in Omen, and he hasn’t even gone into any of the buildings yet.
However, it does leave the pressing issue of where to go next. Nemesis knows that, at some point or another, he will pass out on his feet - this is an immutable fact of biology, to his endless frustration. If he times it badly enough, he’ll likely get robbed or run over by an automobile, neither of which are on his to-do list. The alley, he supposes, truly isn’t too horrible of an option, though he doesn’t know if the constables here are as unwelcoming to those who might sleep in alleyways as the ones in Citrea Viridia. As it stands currently, nearly every building around here is closed.
Except for one. A larger, three-story building decorated simply, with the flat roof, brick construction, and black shutters that seem to be typical architectural features in this part of town. Through the window, he can see faint lamp-light, indicating that at least one place has yet to close for the evening. He glances at his device, and his eyes widen. If he hadn’t an excuse to look closer at this place before, he certainly doesn’t now.
He approaches calmly. Despite the lamp, the building is dark enough that he can’t make out much inside. What he can make out is mostly bookshelves, rows and rows of them, and their shadows looming inside the narrow space. Though the window has space for a display, it’s completely empty.
On the door, someone has pinned up a sign. Hand-written on old paper, it reads:
ANTIQUE, FINE AND UNSPEAKABLE TEXTS
open whenever I’m around and can be bothered
A grin spreads across his face. They don’t have shops like this back in Citrea Viridia. There’s no other word for it - this is exciting.
He throws open the door.
Even halfway across the continent, entering a bookstore is a breath of relief. The smell of old paper and the jingling of the bell attached to the door is enough to remind him of a different time. The room is dimly lit, candlelight, and the shadows seem to dance upon the surprisingly few rows of books.
It makes sense. Considering the sort of texts this place stocks, the majority would likely be in the back or out on loan. Very little displayable.
The proprietor is a brown-skinned woman with long black hair, sleeves rolled up to her elbows and a book in her hands. She glares at Nemesis through her circular wire-rimmed spectacles, as though upset he had interrupted her reading. Realistically, that’s indeed the case.
“What do you want?”
It isn’t a simple question to answer. When one is alone in a new city, they often do things inexplicably, compelled by sheer curiosity and the underlying current of near-electric anxiety that propels those who wander to become lost. He could say that he was simply fond of bookstores with no sign on the door and a strange ambiance surrounding them, or he could tell her the truth, though he supposes that would, perhaps, be a bad way to introduce oneself.
“Well...what is this place called, first off?” Seems to him like as good an opener as any. “There’s no proper sign on the door. Forgive me, but it seems like bad business. Can’t bring in new customers if no one knows who you are.”
“Have you really come here to lecture me about how to run my bookstore?” She rolls her eyes. She has no irises, he notices - flat circles of black in the center of the sclera. “...Beaumort’s. We’re not looking for money, thank you very much.”
“Beaumort - that’s your name, then? How old are you?” Sometimes, he’s learned, people with strange features, like a complete lack of irises, end up being far older than they look.
She scoffs. “That’s not a strange or invasive question to ask off the bat in the least. I’m Theory Hayes and this is my parents’ bookstore, I just take care of it while they’re out of town. Which is always, so I suppose it’s my bookstore now.”
“A pleasure, Ms. Hayes.” Formalities are formalities no matter where one is, so he sweeps his hat off and bows, and Theory looks about as unimpressed as a person physically can look. “I am Nemesis Jones, private detective extraordinaire.”
She raises an eyebrow, turning back to her book. “That’s not your real name.”
His breath catches in his throat. Though he manages to keep himself from giving any visible reaction, his heart feels far heavier as he realizes that this will certainly be a regular occurrence. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“No one names their child Nemesis. That’s ridiculous.”
At that, he relaxes and frowns. “...coming from someone whose name is a noun.”
“Your name is a noun.” She scoffs. “My name is Theodora, but I highly doubt you’re actually Nemesistopher.”
It’s true, his name isn’t Nemesistopher. “...right, it’s not. ‘S just Nemesis.”
Her frown only seems to deepen by the moment. “...really, why are you here? Am I meant to take the arrival of an overdressed, strange-looking foreigner as something mundane, or are you here on some business my parents didn’t think to warn me in advance about?”
“I was simply looking for somewhere to stay - I’ve not been able to find any hotels, and it’s getting rather late.” Not a complete lie, and something more blurted out on impulse than actively formulated, but still dishonest enough to create that unpleasant feeling in his mouth, that impulse to just spit out the whole truth.
She raises an eyebrow. “Well, that’s not here, and I’m not an information desk. Perhaps you should have made your living arrangements before coming here.”
If only he’d had the opportunity.
“I didn’t assume otherwise. I just-”
“You just what?”
He glances around, to verify the emptiness of the room he knows full well has no business being anything but empty. Sometimes people lurk where they’re not meant to - Nemesis Jones, a habitual lurker, is very much proof of concept. Still, there’s no one in sight or in earshot, thankfully. Just when it seems Theory Hayes is about to pick him up by the scruff of the neck and toss him out into the still-damp streets, he reaches into his pocket and displays the device with a flourish.
“A pocket-watch. You’re here and bothering me because of a pocket-watch,” Theory remarks dryly, as he presses the button on the top and the case springs open. “...oh.”
Where a watch should be, thirteen needles of crystal and multi-colored gemstone quiver as they point at various objects. A wall, a bookshelf, the book in Theory Hayes’ hands, the door to a back room - things otherwise innocuous. A large, red-tipped needle, glowing with a faint light, is fixed on Hayes herself.
“Are you looking to...sell that?” Her eyebrow quirks. “I’m not a pawn shop, though there’s probably one I could direct you to.”
“Not looking to sell, no. After all, it’s not mine. I’m simply...well and truly lost, and came to the first place that looked as though it might get me anywhere at all. If anything, I’m looking to get it...appraised.”
She shakes her head. “Then I can’t help you, beyond directing you to the aforementioned pawn shop. I’m not a hotel, either. I’m not going to let some freeloader with some fancy artificial device breathe all over my books.”
He holds back a chuckle at that. “Take a couple steps back. Whenever did I imply I wouldn’t be able to pay you?”
Despite claiming that she’s not in it for the money, Hayes falls into the trappings of the average person - that being requiring sustenance and shelter, and, by extension, money. Though it takes a good deal of somewhat desperate negotiating, Hayes concedes, and Nemesis moves into the spare room in the loft above Beaumort’s bookstore.
They become shockingly civil roommates. Hayes seemingly finds it hard to be too intolerant of someone as surprisingly neat and put-together as Nemesis Jones, who both pays her a sum she should think is unsustainable and often cooks meals with a surprising amount of skill. He, on the other hand, finds that Hayes is quiet enough that he can often forget she exists - and often, the two simply don’t interact, except to discuss what books they’ve been reading over dinner. They both seem to be fine with that.
During the daytime, Nemesis primarily works on establishing himself. He spends his time in cafes and alleys and parks, speaking to whoever will speak to him, and searching for work. Here and there, he finds it. He locates lost objects, keeps tabs on people, ducks out of the line of sight of Automata Lex, and is offered an exorbitant sum by a schoolboy, equal parts amusingly and frustratingly, to write an essay about the properties of various sodium-based compounds (a subject he finds mind-numbingly boring). His name soon begins to float amidst the denizens of the city, and, to his rather questionable (morally, he supposes) excitement, he finds Omen to be far more in need of his services than Citrea Viridia. A few serious cases are thrown his direction, through one means or another - a missing person, a murder of a gang member, a theft of an object best kept out of the police’s eyes, a case of suspected blackmail by a gentleman on good terms with the constables. All are dealt with promptly, and payment is collected with a flourish of his favorite gray newsboy cap.
He finds himself passing through pawn shops and antique stores alike and presents his compass to each of them in turn. The answers vary in terms of potential selling value (generally exceptionally large, though Nemesis has no need for the money), but the answer he’s searching for - any clues as to his conundrum - are met with a forlorn shrug and a suggestion of another person that might be able to help, but, inevitably, turns out to have roughly the same results. By this point, he supposes he’s been through every single pawnbroker, antiques owner, artificer-for-hire, and strange man in an alleyway in this entire city and has come out with no answers whatsoever and an ever-growing sense of dread that the answers, if they’re even to be found at all, are out of his reach.
Elias, sadly, is even more difficult to deal with. Attempts at contact are made, and each one of them fails. The most he manages is a glimpse through a window, a tapped message in Morse code that, if he must guess, is unlikely to have been received. It’s all he can do to keep himself from being caught, and the one solace the situation gives him is that surely Elias is feeling the oppressive separation just as strongly as Nemesis.
Or perhaps not. One never knows.
And throughout all of this, the weather remains pleasant. Nemesis was right to assume that it never gets too hot or too cold here. For once, he finds the summer entirely manageable, roughly equivalent to a late Citrea Viridian autumn. He gets used to the persistent darkness, learning to tell time in ways that don’t involve sunlight. It rains two or three times a week, on average. Sometimes, he appreciates the excuse to simply stay inside and read, eschewing responsibility as he listens to the rain splatter against the cobblestones and the brick walls of Beaumort’s.
Theory Hayes begins to warm up to him at some point, though he can’t identify precisely when it is. Perhaps it’s when he expresses his dislike of the Institute, if he must pick a specific point. He knows it’s a matter of time before they approach him, a matter of time before they begin to consider him a threat, and that fact causes him no shortage of worry. Theory suggests ways to stay as far under that specific radar as he can manage, and Nemesis appreciates it greatly. He’s not here to cause trouble, and certainly not to pick fights with people he knows are far more powerful than him.
The more he talks with Hayes, the more he appreciates her. That sort of straightforward, undeniably intelligent personality is the perfect counter to his wild creativity. She doesn’t entirely remind him of Elias, but the resemblance is indubitably there, buried beneath the wildly different demeanor. She teaches him things. Things about the city, things he was left wondering after reading one book or another, things about artifice that someone like him would never have been taught otherwise. As someone with a general inclination towards learning, he greatly appreciates it.
She calls him paranoid, once or twice. He rebuffs her, but of course, it’s hard to deny when he sleeps with a pistol within arm’s reach and constant, furtive glances at his compass. He has good reasons to be, he argues, and he’s handling himself quite well so far. It could be so much worse. It’s not paranoia when it’s common sense. Sure, she replies, whatever you say. He thinks it’s a bit hypocritical, considering the way she checks the locks on her doors and takes great pains to redo each one of the Enchantments on the bookstore before she goes to sleep every night. To each their own, he supposes. She must have her reasons.
Newfound rapport aside, she gets on his nerves sometimes. Perhaps this is how Elias has always felt. Hayes is the most stubborn person he’s ever met, save for himself, and her wit is a deadly weapon. And he understands, at the same time, beyond the obvious, why she so rarely has visitors to the bookstore.
In fact, ‘rarely’ begins to seem more like ‘almost never’. Inquiries about it are met with swift and decisive deflection, but as the weeks turn into months he manages to observe a total of three visitors. They’re all hurried, speaking in hushed whispers and glancing around, just like Nemesis, as though terrified the shadows themselves will grow claws. Each of them makes his compass’s needles swing around wildly, until they all point directly at them.
“They’re associates of my parents’,” Theory informs him nonchalantly after the third one leaves. “They’re all like that.”
“Your parents have some peculiar associates.” Of course, he isn’t one to judge. His own parents had presumably had some rather strange associates back in the day. He has a peculiar associate himself and her name is Theory Hayes. “Any reason why?”
“They’re talented artificers. Very infamous.”
“Don’t you mean famous?”
She shakes her head, with a look that practically begs him not to inquire further. Nemesis gets the sense that something is rotten in the house of Hayes.
The months begin to stretch towards half a year. Though he isn’t giving up on finding his answers, he no longer sees any urgency in it - after all, he’s already spoken to anyone in the city who might know, and it seems as though he might never find the information he seeks. Despite himself, he’s become exhausted. Elias remains walled up in the Fitzroy manor, and Nemesis swears that he sees him in the window, and that they meet eyes for a moment before he turns away sharply. Perhaps he’s being watched, and doesn’t want to betray Nemesis’ significance, or maybe he didn’t really see him at all, and is simply returning to his piano after a brief glance out the window. The fact that Nemesis can’t tell is getting increasingly frustrating.
And then, almost exactly six months after Nemesis Jones’s arrival in Omen, there’s a very out-of-the-blue knock on Theory Hayes’ door.