Rafe took a seat at the chess tables, but under some form of protest. The wall was behind him, which made him feel a bit like he was being pinned in by this… this fucking guy. All the chairs were so arranged – black pieces faced the walls, and along the row of tables, other young ladies occupied the seats closest to the wall. Weird. Wouldn’t they want to start the game occasionally? Still, from that vantage point, Rafe could look over whatsisface’s shoulders and keep an eye on the crowd. Whatsisface. Oh, yeah, he’d introduced himself, some name that had ‘And/or’ in it or something like it, and now he was gesturing down at the chess board like he’d invented it. “It’s quite an old game, of course, from the lands around Salem,” he said, as he settled in to the chair.
It’s from the Indus Continent, you idiot. Keeping his thoughts to himself was probably the wiser course of action right now, though. Rafe adjusted his fan a little, and kept looking to the corners of the room. The doorways there were open, but had doors in them – so they were probably opened up for the party. They were also pretty decently sized – probably so servants could move tables up and through them, kind of regularly travelled. If Cornell moved through those spaces, it’d be obvious, but if Aderyn did, she’d move like a goddamn shadow. She was good, like that. Probably better than him, really. Rafe had brown hair, white skin and usually wore grubby dark colours – he was unremarkable to the eye in almost every way, massive pink dress, high heels and silken underwear notwithstanding.
“There’s quite a storied history about it, actually – but I’m sure you don’t have the taste for that kind of thing. No, it’s a lovely, elaborate, intelligent game – a war played out on seventy tiles.”
Sixty-four. They’re right there in fucking front of you just count them you piece of shit. Still, Aderyn had a tell or two. Her fondness for white, and her … uh… Rafe realised that for all that he’d seen Aderyn use kingfisher feathers, she’d never actually worn those colours where he’d seen them. He hadn’t ever had to try and track her, before – just react to her movements. Praefoco and Tully had basically sequestered themselves, and Rafe had already been spiderwalking around the outside of the building to avoid guards.
“The King, here, you see, is the weakest piece on the board; it’s crucial to the way the game plays, but ultimately can’t do anything on its own.”
Know how I know you’ve never tried to use the king offensively? Rafe pushed a piece forwards on the board, barely paying any attention. The man’s voice was a bray, and it didn’t seem to bother him that Rafe was paying him basically no attention. There wasn’t much to notice, really; black tuxedo, yellow shirt, yellow flower, yellow hair, skin and eyes pale enough that they looked yellow and watery. The boy looked as healthy as a streak of piss and he didn’t seem to have anything about him worth nicking. A rapier would be hard to hide, but say, a short knife would be a treat.
“The Rooks – well, yes, you can see the Rooks, or I suppose you’d call them the ‘castles’? But you mustn’t – castling in chess is a verb, not a noun. Ahah – I shouldn’t be teasing you like this, though. After all, when I win, you’ll owe me a kiss, of course?”
Bringing his own knife from the boat would have worked better, but Aina had argued against putting anything sharp into the outfit. Kivis, too. Of course, Kivis seemed to expect Rafe to turn around and slink out of the party, embarrassed and humiliated by the hang on what the fuck did this asshole just say.
Rafe was shaking his head energetically, but streak-of-piss wasn’t paying any attention, as he lofted his piece off the board. “The Queen – ahahah, the Queen is of course, the real power of the board. As you’d well know, mademoiselle – isn’t it true that women are the ones who really wield power?”
Then Nebrin walked into the room, his enormous, cliff-face profile carrying an enormous scowl. He was dressed in a suit that didn’t quite fit, but that was probably just him. Even a tailored suit would look like it’d been painted on a rock. Rafe whipped his head down to look at the board, drawing the fan up further, hiding behind it, and tried to gauge where Nebrin was going, based on the man’s movements. Not towards Cornell – who was off on one side of the room, drinking from a tiny little glass, and laughing too loud at the tiny nobles standing next to him. The man walked past one of the large, round mirrors, and stopped briefly, wrinkling his nose – before moving on.
“The Bishop, you see-“ blah blah fucking blah. Rafe realised he was holding his breath when Nebrin left the room, stalking towards the right hand of the place. Was Nebrin wearing an eyepatch? What the hell had Rafe done in the cold room? Good god, messing a guy up in a fight was one thing, but, but Rafe had been punching Nebrin well after the big bloke stopped swinging back, hadn’t he? Had Rafe…
It was strange to feel sick because of that. Maybe eyes were special. Wait, what was assfeatures saying?
“Ahah, I think you’re in a spot of danger, lady. Take your time, I’m sure you should enjoy the hunt too.”
The board had a very simple little net around Rafe’s king – a pawn could slip into place next to the king and block the diagonal, which pushed it into the path of a Rook or a bishop. It was a very nice, basic little net that failed to consider the king could just take the pawn and be out of check and strand the rook without any greater purpose in the path of a knight. That is to say, like most people who liked chess, Rafe was dealing with someone who thought that he was clever just because he played chess.
Fucking posh kids.
Rafe took his turn. The other took his. Rafe took check, and his opponent didn’t notice it. Rafe cleared his throat, and tapped the butt of his fan against the king – raised eyebrows and a gesture at it, only to hear a laugh. “Oh my! Checkmate.”
It’s not checkmate. You can sacrifice your queen, you idiot.
“Well, we know this doesn’t count. Now that you’ve got a handle on the rules, let’s play for real?”
Rafe dragged his breath in, just as Luke Cornell turned around to survey the room, bidden by one of his conversation mates. While Cornell looked around the room, he gestured to a waiter – two gestures, showing sizes of glasses, then held up two fingers. Like the man had a snake in his gaze, Rafe flipped the fan out and ducked down behind it, and his opponent gave a little laugh.
“Oh no, there’s no need to be embarrassed! If we’d been playing for real, after all, I’d have beaten you in only a few moves. That was quite a quick game, though, wasn’t it?”
Teeth grit, the boy assassin tried to focus on the game. Chess, that is – not the etiquette of the situation, which was its own game, and that was an old game indeed. One of those games which were supposedly about manipulation and awareness and anticipation but what so many of them were about was building a fortress of rules around the most simple of operations so that any behaviour you did could be considered part of a field of errors. They made a game into another way to look down on you.
Last time he’d played this game, it was with a priest who hadn’t expected him to know the rules. Now, because Rafe was being a lady, this, this jackass expected him to know the rules, and be bad at it.
The board was set up again – and Rafe pointed down at one of the white pieces, raising an eyebrow inquisitively. After all, he’d played second last time.
“Why… of course! After all,” he laughed, “Ladies will have their advantages, no? Actually, there’s a way to score checkmate in only … five moves, if you play white.” A laugh that was meant to sound jocular but instead was rank and forced followed hard upon. “Why,” he moved his pawn, responding to Rafe’s. “I heard-“ Rafe snapped the fan shut, and tapped his bishop. Then tapped it again, drawing a line between the idiot’s king and Rafe’s own bishop.
“Why… yes! Something just like that!” said the boy, with a hint of impatience in his voice. “Yes, that’s the kind of way white can score an early checkmate.” He gave that smile, and finally Rafe could see a hint of irritation in it. It was three moves – and Rafe was sure everyone who played chess knew about that trick. “Now that you’ve finished playing arrround,” he said, turning the board around again, looking down at his pieces.
This asshole. Rafe hadn’t agreed to his terms, but now this horse-ass was going to try and force Rafe to play to them. Twice he’d lost, and twice he’d ignored it. He was just going to keep playing until he got what he wanted, and whenever he was rebuffed, he was going to change the rules. Who the hell was this guy? He couldn’t just be some… typical shithead from the noble class, could he? Nobody was reacting to him like he was special. Was this just what boys became when they had money?
Alright. Fine. This idiot wasn’t going to win. Rafe couldn’t win, but that didn’t matter too much because he even want to win. He wanted to hurt this asshole and no achievment, no loss of pride on a tabletop game, could possibly do what he wanted to do right now with fifteen cims of steel.
Rafe had been a woman without a voice for only twenty minutes and he was already planning bloody revolution, even if he had to start on a chessboard.
Alright. If he couldn’t win, he could draw. If he could deadlock the game, maybe this idiot would get bored and wander off. Ugh. That was an odious thought. Hoping for disinterest. Boiling in his skin, Rafe quietly slid his pieces into play.
Then there was a foot up under his skirt, rubbing up against the inside of his thigh.
Rafe wasn’t really sure what his expression was like. He knew what he felt – his cheeks were hot, his knuckles were white – hidden underneath gloves – and the instinct to clamp his legs together and pull the offender into a grip on the floor so Rafe could punch his face until there wasn’t anything left to punch were all well tuned responses. But he looked across the table, around at the party, at nobody reacting to any of it, and had to make a plan first.
Rafe snapped the fan closed again and lunged across the table with it. One hand grabbed the man’s black tie, the other punched the wooden handle of it into the flesh of the man’s throat just above his tie, pushing against his windpipe, choking him in against the fabric and the wood, stopping any screams or breath, and knowing the kind of odious little snot he was dealing with, stopping the foot in motion. With Rafe, in that voluminous pile of pink fabric leaning forwards, across the table, someone might imagine the lucky noble was receiving his wish, and being given his victory kiss!
Rafe put his lips right by his ear, and spoke in a whisper, as close to falsetto as he could manage.
“If you ever talk to me again, I am going to take away one of your fingers.” Rafe said, his voice taking on the high, soft cast of someone trying to teach a dog. “Put your foot down, leave your shoe, and go away and I won’t choke you to death right now.”
Rafe drew back a little and looked his opponent in the eyes. He raised his eyebrows, daring him to say something… then smiled, when the boy nodded. Slowly, Rafe settled back into his seat, but not for a good thirty seconds did he release the tie and move his fan. Gesturing with his head, Rafe flared his nostrils.
The other was up and moving, walking away with the hobble-footed movement of someone walking in only one shoe.
Rafe sagged in his chair and slumped backwards. This plan had been, a few hours ago, a remarkably clever one. Young women could move around freely as they like at parties – so Aderyn would be in the party, moving around freely. To follow her, it’d be easiest to just make like a young woman and move around the party just as freely. Rafe hadn’t been expecting it to be anything like this. He felt like he was nailed to his chair, without a voice, as people drifted back and forth and sat down just to ignore him for a few minutes at a time. A breakout of violence would risk the dress, and the dress was five pounds that wasn’t his. It also risked causing An Incident, which would disrupt whatever it was Aderyn was planning. Thanks to the dress, thanks to what people assumed when they looked at him, Rafe couldn’t do anything, and he couldn’t go anywhere. It was enough to make a boy scream. How the hell did women put up with this shit!?
A few hours ago, this stupid useless idiotic plan had been clever.
This was, this was what Rafe had uncomfortably hitherto put in a large box in his life labelled girl stuff. How babies were born, that was girl stuff. How vaginas worked, that was girl stuff. Was there some password he was missing? Maybe it was about how the girls over there giggled to one another. Or was it because that girl over there was particularly pretty? Well, he was pretty pretty. Well, Kivis had complimented him. Wait, that was not the right mental road to go down. This party, this was girl stuff! There were all these girls, and they were having… fun? Sort of? Looking at the gathering, he couldn’t help but notice how many of the young ladies were either talking to other young ladies, or watching as some boy or other in a fancy suit tried to impress them at a game.
Girl stuff. Rafe had made a non-aggression pact at a young age with girl stuff. Mama Cass or Aina had mentioned ‘girl stuff’ and he’d spun around and walked right out until they were done. Now here he was, up to his neck in Girl Stuff and it was horrible.
How did girls stand it?
When the chair in front of him stirred, Rafe realised that by sitting still, at a chess board, idly replacing the pieces, he must have looked a bit like he was anticipating a game. Too late, though, as a figure sat down across from him, inscrutable behind her veil.
Rafe knew who she was, before she sat down. It was Luke Cornell’s daughter – the one he’d walked behind on the way inside. That dress of hers was a rich, deep green, like the sea at night, decorated about the edges with lines of lace and finery that looked like mint – not the cheap, sugar-dipped mint you saw at the cheap little lolly shops down near Bottle Street, but the expensive stuff that sat in the front window up in Conster Street. It was presented in little tins, with a tiny little hammer next to them; a pale green that made the tongue wonder about its mystery. Her clothing was decorated with colours so delicate. While she adjusted her seat, and shifted the chair in a little, Rafe looked at all the places on her clothes to hide things. Like behind that veil, for example.
Rafe’s fan stilled momentarily. There were literally no other people here wearing veils. Most of the ladies had their hats taken by butlers. Sure, he could see one or two older women around the edges of the room, still wearing their hats as signs of seniority. The gauzy veil, however, of palest green with silvery tracing through it, gave hints of dark brown eyes behind it and nothing more. The question formed in his throat, the base rudeness of what the hell is with the veil before he caught himself, squelched it down, and sat, drawing in his breath, and trying to not think about the way the corset seemed to keep inhaling a little after he was done.
“Ah, bonjour,” she said. “You are seeking an opponent, oui?”
All Rafe could do was nod, holding the fan in place to hide his confused expression. What to do here? Shit, shit, shit, she was his daughter. Was Cornell watching him right now? Was Nebrin? Jesus fucking Christ he didn’t want to have to deal with that right now. Certainly not in this dress.
“Ah, mou – you cannot speak?” the young lady shook her head and put her fingertip to her lips. “I do not mean to presume?”
Rafe shook his head, and shrugged a little lamely.
“Forgive me, forgive me; I do not mean to be rude.” Settling into her chair a little more, her tone of voice had a smile in it, even though its volume hovered somewhere only a little bit above a whisper. “Still, let us do each other this service – let us play some games, and per’aps girls like that,” she tilted her head back, jutting her chin towards two giggling figures in white, silver, blue and yellow, “– will ‘ave less reason to bother girls like us.”
Then one hand came up, to the veil, and the other to the back of her hat, and she lifted it off. Freeing her hair and setting the hat aside on the table, she shook her head, and let a pile of thick, dark hair tumble free. Her hair was glossy and dark, and when she hook her head, peach scents filled the air around her – speaking of expensive shampoos and conditioners.
But then there was her skin.
Rafe hadn’t seen colour like hers on anyone who wasn’t already covered in soot. There were poor kids like her, down in the Dims. Kids with broad accents and bright white teeth, up from the colonies down south. He’d never seen a noblewoman like her – if Luke Cornell even counted as noble. He was rich? Did that count? Either way, when hearing about Luke Cornell’s daughter, Rafe wouldn’t have expected her, with her skin darker than chocolate, speckled around the lips, the eyes, and the forehead, with patches of white-pink skin. It formed in white circles, like she’d been spattered with thrown paint. Around her forehead and cheeks, it made her look like some sort of great hunting cat; around her lips, it made her smile wider.
Her cheekbones were high, her lips full; her eyes were wide and almond-shaped, sparkling and expressive. Rafe was sure that she looked at herself in the mirror in the mornings and hated what she saw, because Rafe had been around enough women to know that was universal. In that moment, though, shaking out her hair, and smiling nervously, with her black-and-white skin, Rafe couldn’t even breathe.
“Ah, ‘allo,” she said, with that half-Gallian accent he’d overheard earlier. “Ah, you must ‘ave come ‘ere with ze party around ze same time as moi; please, do forgive me for presuming on your silence. My faszeire,” was that how she pronounced father? “prefers szat I display some form of animation while at a party, for fear szat I seem sheltered. ‘E would be most embarrassed to consider szat.”
She smiled, rocking her foot back and forth while she sat across from him, gesturing down at her pieces. “Do we play? We do not ‘ave to.”
Rafe held the fan up close to his nose, resting it against the tip of his nose. There wasn’t any makeup there, right? He wasn’t about to smudge anything. Ugh, so many things to pay attention to. It was easier when he walked around and everyone thought he was scum. Sure, he lived his life tense as a spring then, but he could just brain someone when they pushed him too far. Here, he had to be nice. She was setting up her side of the table before Rafe realised he’d even nodded, he was that distracted.
“You seemed… boszered by sze other man. I can understand. Randall Orlean boszered me for a little earlier, too, until ‘e found out about my faszeire.” She sighed, as if even that dispensation of her father’s presence was more than she wanted.
She fumbled with a piece momentarily – her gloves so soft that the polished pieces slipped through them. Huffing with irritation, she peeled off one of her short gloves – giving Rafe an apologetic smile as she did so. “Ah, forgive me. This outfit, it was a gift from my mama, from across the waves?” she said, gesturing widely, now with one bare hand showing that remarkable black-and-white patterning. “She runs a plantation in the Gallian colonies, you see.”
“It is a… strange place, to ‘ear her speak of it.” She murred, tapping her fingertip under her chin. Bare fingers turned the chess pieces as she set them up. “I ‘ave no actual acquaintance with szem, but szey are so very far away it is ‘ard to imagine szey are much like any place. But szen, the Djansk ‘ave colonies down far asouth as sze cape of sze darkest continent, non?”
Rafe gave a helpless little shrug. There was wistfulness to the young woman’s actions. “Mama, I understand, left my faszeire when I was but one year old, which does not seem inappropriate. ‘Ave you ever met my faszeire?” she asked, gesturing with a queen over Rafe’s shoulder. “Luke Cornell. Sze big one, wisz sze snake tattoos on ‘is arms.”
Rafe was adrift, listening to the woman. Luke Cornell was looking over at her, and at him, and he smiled, and waved, and that was exactly not what Rafe wanted to see a mark doing during a potential hit. At least he was sitting. Rafe had underestimated what his weight landing on those shoes had done to his ankles. Once, Rafe had looked at a leg hanging out of a gibbet in a prison quad, and seen the bones peeking out of the sinew and muscle that time and birds had stripped away. It was a lot of little bones that all slid against one another. Now that he’d put all his weight on those heels, and the heels had pushed back, he was convinced he had only one big packed in bone, like a distorted hoof that would only ever fit in these kind of shoes in the future.
Rafe looked down at the pieces, at her gloved fingers and her bare ones. He looked at the way they curled against his own white-gloved fingers. Then he felt the intense grip she had, the squeeze of her fingers fuelled by fear and desperation.
“Madame assassin, I am sure it is you; I beg you, please, ‘ear my case. My name is Xenops Cornell, and I wish to ‘ire you to assassinate my faszeire.”