Moments like those should come with a curtain, really. Someone made such a meaningful declaration, put such weight behind their words, and then, everything should stop and everyone should just move on to another thing. On Bottle Street, you deliver a line like that, and in a fair world, the sting of the moment would sail you through to freer places. Normally, though, Rafe knew it just led to a tiny pause before he’d had the living shit kicked out of him. The chess game played a little further, while he looked at the coins on the side of the board, wondering about what they meant.
Well, to him they meant some safety. Right now it was hard to forget that he was running around in clothes that, for want of a better consideration, Mama Cass owned, down to his skin. A spray of blood on his clothes and he’d be five pounds in debt. Five pounds was the money necessary to pay her back, and it was more money than he’d ever seen before, and… if the dress somehow came out of things alright, five pounds was more money than he’d ever held in his hands.
“You play strangely,” she said, and he jolted out of his ruminations again. “Was szat deliberate? You passed up a chance to check.”
Shaking the fan, Rafe slid a rook back across the board, to where it had been and shrugged. The fan hid a smile, though.
When Rafe was in his element, he didn’t miss anything. You never knew, in the dark places, where the next boot was going to come from. You had to be alert. You had to see it all. Here, though, he knew nothing. People were moving around with glasses and trays and everything he’d assumed about freedom of movement in these crowds was totally wrong. The game, then, the game and the coins, the game, the coins and the movements of Nebrin around the back of the room.
When Nebrin swept around the back of the room this time, he was facing away from Rafe and Xenops, though he did spare a little glare at the back of her head when he turned. With his back to them, Rafe could see the reason all the wait-staff kept their distance from him – and not just because of the man’s single eye and bruised features. Hooked over one shoulder, Nebrin walked carrying a gun with two barrels, each one as wide as Rafe’s fist. Most anyone else who was armed had something small and elegant, something noble. Nebrin was walking around with a gun designed to hunt elephants in a room full of quail.
“Madamoiselle Assassin?” Xenops asked, again, as she repeated her hand movement. Underneath her pawn, she’d stacked five coins, all while Rafe hadn’t so much as noticed. “Do you, um, accept?”
Rafe looked back around the room one last time, checking to see who noticed him acting. Finally, he lowered the fan, closing it and setting it aside with a smile. He reached over, took her pawn. When he lifted his piece, and moved it over hers, there were coins; when he moved his hand back, there were no coins. A tiny little theft – and it brought a smile to her speckled lips.
“… Merci, madamoiselle assassin. I please, um. I beg of you -” she began, then hesitated. “I… would recommend… if you could… please act tonight. It is… very important? It may be if I go back on board szat boat I may never ‘ave a chance to come off it again.”
Rafe nodded, and knocked over his king. He had played enough for one day. Standing and curtseying – as he’d seen the other women do when they raised out of their seats, Rafe slipped to the side, out past the table.
This was something he could cope with. He had a goal – take out Luke Cornell. Well, he had two goals – take out Luke Cornell, and find Aderyn and make sure she was safe. That meant maybe dealing with Nebrin, who was looking for them. That meant he had three goals, and okay-
Okay, he could work this out.
Oh, he also had to keep the dress intact. Because holy shit, five pounds was a lot of money. Wait, why not get out of the dress? It was a horrible thing to move in. More horrible to fight in. And god help him if someone he knew saw him. Well, someone aside from Aderyn. He was already prepared for that eventuality.
Wait, where could he get out of the dress? The estate was a big place, surely he could just slip into a room. No, he needed some place to store the dress where it’d be safe and it’d be there when he came back. Shit. He needed… he needed a woman’s room. And ideally, one unoccupied by a woman in a current sense.
Thanks to Xenops, he knew where one of those was. The houseboat.
Step one, get to the houseboat. Step two, get out of the dress and wear something practical. Step three, find Aderyn, step four, kill Luke the Sinner.
Maybe step four was going to be a little hard.
Rafe put his hands on the railing that ran alongside the pathway. He swung his weight forwards, lifted with his arms and with one motion, hooked his high heels over the rail. It was a short jump to the side of the boat from here, and the boat was covered in handholds. Just as he was about to launch himself, though, a pain shot up the back of his heels, up through his thighs and into the pits of his knees, reminding him that the high heels he was wearing were not shoes as much as they were iron nails, driven up into the flesh of his feet as punishment for some not-understood slight.
For just a moment, Rafe teetered on that rail, his hands gripping the metal, his arms tense, while his throat tried to throw a yelp into the sky.
Slowly, the pain subsided, and Rafe slid his feet up, putting the toes on the rail. Harder to balance. Less hell on the legs, though. Tense and bunched, hands released, and he threw himself forwards, grabbing some rolled and knotted netting with one hand, before swinging his whole frame up, onto the deck, landing on his toes.
Okay, he could do this. He just had to walk on his toes, with his legs tensed a little so the heels didn’t press up against him. All that sitting had clearly given his body enough time to recognise just how badly landing had hurt him.
That meant slow, stealthy movements – and the flickering glow of lanterns around the boat showed there will still guards to contend with. Made sense. Luke Cornell wasn’t the kind of man who let his paranoia go the one night he decided to step off his floating fortress.
One step at a time, Rafe skulked behind the crates and ropes of Luke Cornell’s home. If he couldn’t climb, and he couldn’t run, he had to be thorough.
Deep breath. Okay.
Rafe found it very easy to choke people into unconsciousness. He tried to imagine the stages as he saw them from the outside.
The timing was important, first.
Stepping up behind the guard, with his baggy blue cap on his head, Rafe watched the puffs of breath in the cold air, like the wimpiest of dragons. At that point of exhalation, he struck; one hand clamping over mouth and nose, thumb mashing nostrils shut into the inside edge of his hand, while his big, seamless palm in its delicate white silk pressed across a mouth open to yell. Pressure, more pressure, was important. Rafe forced his head sideways, made him turn, and pulled back with the hand, lifting his head to expose his throat. Forearm, one long, unshaking bone, rammed up against the guard’s throat, under the adam’s apple, forcing it up and into his other tissues. Pressure on the windpipe, he wanted to force a panic in the lungs. The man was heavier than Rafe, but a bit shorter. Everyone attempted escape – this guy put both his arms up to try and wrestle at Rafe’s arm with his weight. Which was fruitless – Rafe was already lifting him by his throat. What was pulling on his arm going to do?
Rafe watched his eyes go wide, saw that panic that showed the guy realised the inevitability of it. Rather than ride into unconsciousness, though, that just made things worse. Rafe knew that point was probably where the edges of the guard’s vision was going all grey. The feeling his world was closing in, that he was going to die. Anxiety. Fear. Terror. Here and now, this man had no idea if he was ever going to wake up.
Rafe had been knocked unconscious in the past, and he’d been choked into the blackness. That feeling of being pulled, inexorably, into the black, was a painful terror he’d kill to avoid ever feeling again.
Rafe kept the choke on a little longer. Some guards tried to be clever. He waited until he felt the blood in his throat slow a little, and set the man down, very gently, on the floor. Turning his cap around in his hand, Rafe set it on the man’s face. No point losing a perfectly good hat.
He’d just inflicted a horrible experience, and it’d been pretty easy. What Rafe didn’t want to think about, though, was how Praefoco had been even easier.
The top floor was where Luke Cornell lived, personally. That meant that’s where Xenops lived, which meant, he was sure, it was where he could find a changing room. Maybe one of those privacy screens. And possibly in Luke’s room, some, you know, pants. But when he slid into the hallway that ran like a curled C around the top floor’s rooms, he was stopped in his tracks by a figure, dressed all in white, emerging from a room with a bag over one shoulder, and a mask across its face. Their face. Wait, her face.
“ADERYN!” Rafe blurted, running towards- ow, ow, ow, okay, no not running, just moving towards her faster, his hand on the wall. Fuck these shoes. Who thought they were a good idea? Jesus!
Aderyn stopped short, and whirled around, hissing through her white mask, her bright blue eyes flaring with the closest thing he’d ever seen to rage. “Don’t use names while you’re infiltrating, you, you, you miscreant.” then her eyes widened even further. “Rafe, you’re in a dress.”
“What was that about names?” he grumbled, leaning against the wall, his backside sore, his thighs an expanse of ache.
“You’re not hiding your face.”
“I’m in disguise.”
“You look like yourself, but with some lovely makeup and a dress.” she noted, shifting her weight and moving the bag over her shoulder to the other shoulder. “Surely you wouldn’t fool anyone who knew what you looked like.”
“The one-eyed man you beat into a pulp?”
“… Well, yes, but-”
“I’m not sure that you should be too concerned about someone you beat half-blind.”
“It’s not him I’m worried about,” Rafe grumbled. “I’m worried about him and the twenty other guys around him. Not to mention his fucking gun.”
Aderyn looked up and down the hall of the boat. “Rafe, please, tell me, is this the best place to have this conversation?”
He stopped short and looked behind himself. “Um, nobody outside of the boat is conscious.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“I’ve been… thorough.”
“Well!” Aderyn put on her smile and adjusted her white tunic. “That’s lovely. I left behind my feather in the library, if you wanted to leave something behind.”
“This place has a library?”
“… Yes. In Luke Cornell’s office.” Aderyn shook her head, and Rafe tried to not feel intense rage at being ridiculed. “It’s where the book was kept.”
“!” Rafe didn’t know what he just said, but it was certainly a sound. “You- the book! You came for the book?”
Aderyn tilted her head and surveyed Rafe very, very slowly. “Yes, Rafe. I came here to retrieve the book that was evidence for the assassination of Cameo Tully that endangered my client. What did you think I came here to do…?”
“… Kill… Luke Cornell?”
“Why would I do that, Rafe?”
“You suggested it-”
“I suggested we find ourselves a client who wanted him dead. I imagined that would not be hard for you.”
“What, at your rates?” Rafe sneered. “Come on-”
“… Is that why you came here in a dress?” Aderyn blinked, then blinked again. “Oh my god you were trying to infiltrate the way I do.”
“What?! No!” Beat. “Well, yes.”
“And it didn’t go how you expected.”
“Not as such, no.”
Aderyn patted Rafe on the cheek. “If it is any consolation, Rafe, you look lovely. I recommend you grow your hair out a little for next time, though. A ponytail isn’t unmanly and you can turn it into a braid.”
“Why… why would I want a braid?!”
Aderyn reached up behind her head, lifting her braid at the end, then slid two fingers into the base of her braid – pulling free a thin leather scabbard, with a black-handled dagger. Tossing the dagger into Rafe’s hands, she shook her head. “Now then. What I’ve come here to do is done. I didn’t intend to choke every one of Luke Cornell’s men, but you’ve added some flair to what should be a subtle theft.”
“Think this’ll stop him coming after Brother Fratarelli though?” Rafe asked. “I mean… really?”
“That isn’t actually my concern, Rafe.”
“Shouldn’t it be?”
Aderyn stood firm. “Rafe, I want you to listen very carefully. I came here with a particular purpose that is orthogonal to the purpose you assumed. The correct course of action here is to leave and to ensure that we are not discovered, and deal with the Luke Cornell problem in its own time.”
“What the fuck does Orthogonal mean.”
“Please focus on the words you did understand, Rafe.”
Rafe rubbed his hand against his chin, wishing his bodice wasn’t up so tight and high that he couldn’t touch his throat like he normally did. When he drew them from his skin, his hands were balled into fists. “… We need to take out Luke Cornell tonight. And that might mean Nebrin, too, if he’s bodyguarding the guy.”
“Wait, what, why not?”
“I’m not being paid.”
“Is that it?! is THAT why?”
“I am a professional, Rafe.” Aderyn said, stepping past him. “Why you came here is not why I came here.”
She made it down the hall, and had her hand on the door before the words found courage enough to escape Rafe’s lips. “… I came here because I was afraid for you. And because you’re my friend.”
“… Because I thought it’d be easy.”
“And it isn’t, is it?”
“No, no, it’s not. It’s not easy being you.”
Turning around, Aderyn walked back to Rafe, and patted his shoulder. “For what it’s worth, Rafe, you’re not being me. You’re being a girl, and yes, that is very hard indeed. Now then, if this is the best place to have this conversation, Rafe, I want you to know that I-”
“YOU BASTARDS,” bellowed Nebrin, as the far door exploded inwards in a hail of bullets and wood, and Rafe was running for the other door before his feet even had time to scream at him. Aderyn was already through the doorway by the time he leapt out, feet given wings by panic, reaching up as he went to catch on anything that might mean he didn’t plunge into the river below.
For one long, aching moment, there was nothing under Rafe but sky, and he couldn’t see Aderyn. The river stretched out below, the gulf between the narrow end of the boat and the high walls of the pavement yawning below him like the mouth of a dreadful, ink-black monster.
And then his fingers felt cable, somewhere hanging in the sky. Weight on metal line that wasn’t meant for it, and it snapped. Rafe swept through the air in an arc, and the second-storey wall of the third-storey estate arced towards him with the force of a battering ram, diverted at the last moment into a window box full of shrubbery. Grunting and rolling, Rafe landed on a verandah, far above the party, tumbled through an open door, and prayed as much as a godless boy could pray that holy shit I hope the dress is okay.
Rafe was pretty confident he could handle Nebrin a second time. Nebrin and that cannon he was carrying?
Not so much.
Sitting up, Rafe looked down at his hands. The gloves were fine. They hadn’t taken on any grime from the cable, which now dangled by the window frame, hanging low and gently swaying in the breeze. Looking back, Rafe allowed himself a moment of curiosity, a moment to see the criss-cross of those cables from one side of the estate to the other, before he realised he’d taken down a row of fluttering pennants, whipping in the evening breeze. Chances were, someone would come to investigate that – not to mention the roar of Nebrin’s gun, over on the boat.
And he’d lost Aderyn.
Rafe stood up, and smoothed himself down. The heels under his skirt felt like icy nails in his feet, and the corset pushing into his sides didn’t respect how deeply he wanted to breath – but he could do this. He was going to do this. The dress was, for now, intact. Luke Cornell was, for now, alive.
Gathering up his skirts in both hands, Rafe set himself a grim expression, and headed for the nearest hallway.