The sheriff’s estate was in one of the gentrified areas along the The River. It was beautiful, in its old ways; the building loomed high and proud over the river. The walls were flush with the foundation, shooting straight down into the river. On either side of the estate there were well-lit bridges which opened to permit through the larger river traffic. The only place to go was into the estate itself, which was shaped like an U, facing outwards to the river flow with a little lock inside for boats to fill. Normally, it was used to store something like a delightful riverboat, or perhaps a yacht – with the doors open. At the crests of the U, there were two huge gates, shaped out of decorated plates, and interspersed with empty spaces to resist the wind better, that were shut fast. Down beneath the water line, for those brave enough to touch the water outside of thick rubber pants, a weighted mesh net sunk down the floor.
The roofs were slanted downwards, but with a central pathway atop each; the gutters decorated, but a keen eye could see the metal spines that jutted up from the centre inside. Up on the pathways, Rafe couldn’t see any people per se – but he saw the stars that disappeared, momentarily, showing a patrolling frame, probably decked out in blue and black. Blue and black were great colours for nighttime rooftop crawling. The dark blue tended to blur into the sky; turning to look black in the shadows could spare you notice down in between buildings, too. Those colours were fine for patrolling and hiding and skulking, activities that Rafe felt he could do excellently well.
Pink, however, was not a good colour for it.
“Christ, careful there, Brother.” Rafe grumbled as the punt bumped a jutting post out of the water. Sighing, Rafe shrugged his shoulders and pushed the heavy tarpaulin off his shoulders that had hidden what he was wearing. “Don’t want this getting splashed.”
Five pounds. Five pounds! He had to return it intact to get the deposit back, but it was still the most money he’d ever spent on an object, let alone an object that seemed so useless and stupid. Rafe had no idea why girls even liked this sort of thing. Damn thing weighed a lot, too, easily several keegs of fabric spilling down over his hips.
“Mmm, best be careful, careful there.” The Brother grunted, sweating, as he looped rope around the post. “This is probably about as close as we can make it…” The portly man clucked his tongue as he smoothed his own robe, as if somehow that would make him feel far less self-conscious about what Rafe had… become in a few hours.
This morning, Rafe had been a slouching, resentful, cocky street rat, a murderer out of Draftfane and an assassin working for free, dressed in second-hand robes that the priest had found around the church. He had been lean and mean and all sorts of other words boys liked to use to label themselves. Now, he was none of those things. Now, he was… he was…
No good word for it.
Rafe was pink. Rafe was lots of pink. Rafe was all the pink there was.
With the wash of water around them, while the punt slid through the river, Rafe had stood in the centre of it, away from every possible edge. It was low enough and broad enough that he couldn’t quite manage that when they’d pushed against the current at places –and Rafe had responded by darting and dodging the wash of water. It was impressive, but standing like that, for the whole journey, had been undeniably strange to the old priest. He’d worn a heavy raincoat for most of the way, but there was no place for the battered slicker here. A shrug of his shoulders and off it went.
“Alright,” Kivis said. Somewhere over the course of the evening, she’d moved from dismissive into somehow subtly amused. “What, exactly, is your plan here, Rafe?”
Rafe smoothed down the shape of the dress about his midsection. On the dressmaker’s dummy, the dress had seemed a bit formless, with space in the middle where he could easily slip a few things. When the time had come to put it on, the experience had been very different indeed. Something underneath the soft fabric sat snugly about his middle, his normally smooth and hairless body strained into shape by what he was fairly sure were strips of bone. It wasn’t his bone, though, and that made it strange. Thankfully, it wasn’t making it too hard to breathe – up in the top, the dress did a lot of that work for him. He’d imagined he had to stuff it at first, but Aina had demonstrated, while giggling endlessly, the way the strings in the back could be drawn to hold it into shape. She hadn’t been strong enough to do that on her own – Kivis had had to be recruited for that, and it was around then that the woman’s manner had taken its turn for the amused.
Wait, she’d asked him a question. Shit. “I thought I could just walk on in, like Aderyn. You know, go where I pleased.” At Praefoco’s, she’d just walked through the crowd. Way I figure, here, she’s goin’ to do the same thing as last time. Walk into a party, act like she belongs there, walk out again. If that’s how it goes, then shit, I just gotta… hngh… walk the same way.”
“Rafe, you have a lot to learn about how women have to live their lives. And trust me, you will not walk the same way as Aderyn unless you put a little less roll into your hips when you walk.”
“I do not.”
“You so do. When everyone thinks you’re a boy, it looks cocky. Like this, it looks like you want people to notice your rear.”
“You say one thing, your hips say another.”
Rafe dragged in a breath and waved a hand, feeling the evening cold creeping into his lungs and reminding him of how little heat the thin fabric on his arms was helping him retain. What he didn’t say, what sat on his tongue, was the phrase shut up. “Aderyn’s in there, right?” I assume. “So this is just going in and convincing her to come on out again. Simple. Don’t need to do anything cute while I’m in there, don’t need to fight anyone. Just walk in, talk to Aderyn, walk out again.”
Brother Fratarelli ducked down, giving loose a tiny prayer while he shifted around the punt, to sit on the far end, away from Rafe – and to provide him counterbalance for his jump. “That’s all it should take. This isn’t going to be some affair like it, ah, like it was when we last, um. Well, yes.”
“Since Luke Cornell noticed us?”
“Something like that,” the priest appended. “Rafe, nobody in there knows what she looks like but you. I don’t imagine Aderyn needs a disguise-“
“What do you mean?” Kivis asked. “Girl’s Lleywa nobility. She’s probably got friends in there. Heck, might have family in there.”
“Oh.” The priest looked up. “Think they’d, uh, recognise her?”
“Why?” Rafe asked, adjusting his gloves again. They sat up under his armpits. How did anyone get anything done with gloves like this on?
“Because, er… I mean, at a glance, you are the right height –“
“My hair’s brown, you jackass,” Rafe grumbled.
“He’s right, though. Rafe, you look like her.” Kivis stood up in the punt, holding her hands square at his shoulders. “About the same build, the dress hides your legs, and that makeup does make your eyes look a lot more vibrant-“
“Oh, fuck off.”
“You don’t want to talk like that.” Kivis shook her head. “In fact, you don’t want to talk at all. Here.” One large, metal-clad hand held out a fan, delicate and decorated in pale pink and white. “Keep it over your mouth. And whatever you want, do not say anything. You can disguise everything, and good grief, that corset gives you hips milkmaids would kill for, but – “
“Yes, yes, I get it.”
“What I’m saying is, Rafe, you have a back-up career if you ever want it.”
“Can we stop talking about my arse?”
“You’re wearing a corset and high heels, Rafe, trust me, I am not going to be the last person to mention it tonight.”
Rafe sneered, his nose wrinkling up.
“No, you don’t want to do that. Not that expression, not at all. Okay, whenever you want to look at people like that? Bring up the fan. Hold it in front of your face. And then, don’t say anything.”
“Rafe, you have a girly voice, but you don’t speak like a lady-”
“Neither do you.”
Kivis knuckled against the top of his head, knowing that wouldn’t disturb his makeup. “The point is, people are more likely to believe you – especially someone with those hips and that makeup – are too shy to talk than they are that someone dressed like this can’t pronounce vichyssoise.” She tugged on the front of his bodice – a word he’d learned tonight – and settled the choker at his throat. “You want to smile and look dumb.”
“Wait, so I can’t talk?”
“Were you… what. Planning on asking questions?”
“Have a backstory for your noble lady? Got a new name picked out?”
“Then shut up and stay shut up. Don’t worry, it’s nothing women don’t have to deal with all the time. You can cope with it for an evening.”
Rafe drew himself up. “Aderyn doesn’t-”
“Aderyn is much, much better at playing this game than you are. Go on. Up on the bridgewalk, fall in with the people going past, and keep your words behind that fan.”
Rafe’s bodice swelled with indignation, and deflated with defeat. “Alright.” he managed – and swung his hands up to grip the underside of the boardwalk. The gloves were really quite good quality, he could barely feel them on his hands as he gripped the edge of the polished metal fence. Swinging his legs forwards, he started to lift –
then stopped short, as the lift had to accommodate the extra weight below his hips. Good grief! He let his weight hang for a moment, drew in a breath, then hoisted anew. Even while he moved, he knew he couldn’t let the dress catch on anything, so, rather than use his knees to pull himself up, Rafe swung forwards – feet sweeping over Brother Fratarelli’s head – and then back again. Momentum gathered, he tensed his arms and swept over the side of the bridge in a single geometric arc.
Brother Fratarelli waited until he heard the steps click away. Sure he was out of earshot, the priest turned to his friend.
“Was it strictly necessary for him to wear the stockings and underwear, as well?”
Kivis tapped her chin with a metal fingertip. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“Well…” The priest squirmed a little onto the flat board of the boat. Around, the moonlight shone off the surface of the river, a white ring in the black sludge. “Whatever happens, I hope everything goes alright.”
“You want my opinion?” Kivis asked, yawning and stretching.
“Well, I’d say I always do, but now I think you’re going to say something rude.”
“I’m sure Aderyn’s going to come back just fine. So’s that jackass, though he’ll probably ruin the dress. If Aderyn is at this party, she’s fine. Haven’t you noticed how good that girl is at the things she does?”
Brother Fratarelli realised he was gnawing on one of his knuckles, and yanked it away from his mouth defensively. Rafe was away, it was out of his control, and all he could do if he had to help, in some way, was send in Kivis and watch the slaughter, then spend years doing some form of penance. “Then why did you help?”
Kivis shrugged. “Boy’s cute in a dress.” Somewhere in the edges of that voice, there was laughter, and beneath that helm, there was a smirk.
Becoming used to the dress wasn’t so hard. It was a big bell of fabric, and he’d worn robes that hid his legs before. It actually worked out pretty well; he could enjoy the freedom his legs had, bumping against one another. It might be tricky to really get a run going, but he could certainly be more flexible with one leg providing the balance.
Thoughts like that kept him entertained as he slid through the crowd, silent, maintaining that dull, bored expression. His makeup made him look like he was smiling a little, but that didn’t mean he had to help it out. Back behind a form, he saw an invitation, held back and high, some father with his daughter, talking pointlessly about formal behaviour. Man didn’t even see Rafe walk past, let alone feel the fingers pluck the invitation from the back of his waistcoat.
The gatekeeper was bored and busy, a bad combination. He took the invitation from white-and-pink gloved digits, he returned it with a forced smile, and he shooed Rafe on inside, without even blinking. This dress was magic, clearly.
The pathway into the Estate wended around the outside path – marked with little metal trellises, set up and decorated with fine table linens, leading Rafe along a paved path around the side, up the back and past the little private dock, where Rafe watched the enormous frame of Luke the Sinner walking down a gangway. Almost occluded by him, decorated in greens, and wearing a veil – a veil? Really? That was weird – was a more petite figure.
Rafe wished he had pockets to jam his hands into. Well, no, he wished he had a knife. Slowing his steps just a shade, he stopped, looking back down at the skirt of his dress, checking some imaginary slight. Luke hadn’t had a good look at him, but he didn’t want to risk it. Besides – Nebrin was the real concern.
Somehow, Rafe had beaten up a boy that much bigger than him, something that hadn’t happened since he grew up and the boys started carrying knives. No matter how he tried to shake the feeling, Rafe was waiting for the inevitable comeuppance that came from that. Boys like Nebrin didn’t give up. They came back with friends. They came back with ten friends, and they came back with broken bottles and they came back with a plan.
Rafe shivered, though he’d never admit it, and stepped up behind Luke the Sinner. Moving in his shadow, Rafe tried to focus. If Aderyn was here to take out the man, she’d want to be close to him, after all.
“Now then, dear,” He grumbled in a low voice that wasn’t a whisper, despite what he may have thought all his life. “This is your party, as far as I’m concerned.”
“And you know you can take the veil off at any time, and if anyone has a problem with-“
“Oui, Merci, papa.”
… He was hiding his daughter because she was from Gallia? That was pretty weird.
“Just… just so you know. Nobody takes issue with anything of mine, you know?” It was said so sweetly, but Rafe didn’t miss the words he used. What an asshole.
Down the path, they passed a stand of wooden crates, stacked and labelled, and with a tarpaulin over most of them. Two young women and one young man, wearing his hair in a white ponytail that made Rafe immediately want to yank on it and drag his face through something, were talking, facing away from the path, down at the boxes.
“Oh, yes! Bursts of fireworks. Quite lovely, really. They’re designed to all go off with mathematical precision. When you see one of the red burst, the white follows it, then the blue, one-two-three! Lovely pattern you see in the sky, just like the flag!”
Well, talking. More that the boy was yammering and the two young ladies were avoiding telling him to get lost. What was with these people? Weren’t they all posh? Couldn’t they just do what they wanted? Rafe pushed that thought to the back of his head and settled back in behind Cornell.
The path led into the game room, and butlers and maids drew near, taking Luke’s drink order, his coat, the young woman’s parasol, her hat – and suddenly someone was standing in front of Rafe, asking – “Ah, young lady, will your father or date be along soon?”
Thank god for the fan. Rafe flicked it up and out and held his breath just for a moment, forcing a blush onto his cheeks. Gesturing vaguely with his other hand, he pointed over his shoulder, and the butler nodded. “Ah, yes, madam. We’ll come back to you.”
Well… that worked out better than he’d expected. The problem was in that moment of surprise, he’d lost track of Cornell – and surely that’s where Aderyn would be. The main room was a gaming hall – large, larger than the church’s main room by Rafe’s estimate, and the other rooms all connected to it – which made it a good place to start. Plus, it was warm, and people milled and gathered close to gossip and watch the games. Just settle in, move natural. Don’t run, don’t push – people would notice that shit. Okay. He could do this.
Ugh, games. Posh games. Rafe walked past felt tables of dice-rolling men and tall poles surrounded by ladies in lovely dresses, throwing small balls of knotted fabric up into rings. Small, low tables on which board games were set, with men and women sitting on opposite sides, ladies laughing cheerily as they lost to smug boys. That didn’t seem right to Rafe. Back in Bottle Street, if you were smug winning, someone would hit you with a brick.
“Why, belladonna, what do I have here? What wonder has graced my presence?”
Oh fuck, what fresh hell was this.
The man was slightly taller than Rafe was in the heels. Even then, most of him seemed to be empty space – he wore a black suit, with a bright, vivid yellow tunic, a yellow rose in his lapel and he had pale skin and yellow hair. Rafe had heard something about ‘colour matching’ from Aina and Kivis, but in this case it just made the guy look sick. Plus, his hair looked like it was still wet.
“I can’t help but see,” he said, turning his hand, showing glinting cufflinks studded with jewels, “That god has committed his own sin and let someone as lovely as you, in such exquisite finery, walk about here unaccompanied!” shaking his head, yellow-pale-whosit-guy held out his hand.
The hand hung in the air like a dead fish on a forgotten line. Who the fuck was this guy. Who the fuck was this posh kid all grown up. Rafe flicked out the fan and hid his mouth so he had something to do other than tell the jackass to piss off. Turning and looking around, over, around – trying to get a look at the room past this sudden, persistent obstruction – proved more difficult than he’d thought. What, did this guy just think he could walk up to a stranger and start talking to them like that? Back where Rafe was from, a boy did that to you, you put your forehead in his teeth to see how serious he was…
“Oh, come now, pretty lady – surely a mystery like you can offer me a smile?”
Rafe had never wanted to break a person’s nose as badly as in that moment. Not even old Jodson Toddy had been this fucking creepy, and he’d been trying to get Rafe into bed. This jackass just seemed to think this is how you treated people. For the right reason, though, Rafe could swallow that pride, and that violent urge – and he tried to ignore him, casting his gaze around the room, looking for that tell-tale shock of white hair.
“Ahah, so coy,” and the guy, this, this fucking posh kid had his hand on Rafe’s hand, snapping the fan closed, and leaning into his personal space with what he was probably sure was a sly smile but looked more like a toothless shark faking charm. “How about we go… play some games.”
Rafe almost broke cover there and yelled in the guy’s face. This asshole had left himself wide open, after all. Hand on his hand, grab the wrist, twist with it – and buck the body up, shoulder under his chin. Spin the guy in the air, send him face-first onto the floor and stomp on the back of his head. Then keep stomping until he learned some respect. The shoes at least meant he could do some real goddamn damage if –
“Then games it is, my silent lovely!” he said, drawing away, and Rafe’s violent fantasies were blown away while he gathered his thoughts and tried to not indulge further imaginations of using those heels as a weapon to hurt others as much as they were hurting him. “Come – not darts, I’m sure,” Could this guy even see Rafe’s expression? He’d pushed aside the fan. He’d looked. He had to see those blazing blue eyes and the outrage on his face. “You don’t seem the sort of girl who favours more… athletic movements as the ball-toss requires, ahahah,” Had to be able to see the boiling fucking wrath, the need to hurt him. “Tell you what – down here, by the tables.” Surely scorn was a universal language? “Come along, my lady,” As-Yet-Unkilled Corpse said, leading Rafe by one hand, “I’ll show you some things about chess.”
Rafe needed very badly to find a way to hurt this person before it clouded his judgment any further. In that moment, he understood what it was to be Kivis.