From the ground, all clouds fly the same. Sage, homespun wisdom from the grassy fields and endlessly sodden skies of Lleywa. It rang in Aderyn’s mind as she stepped downstairs, moving light and easy, a simple plucked flower from a passed vase tucked behind one ear all it took to transform her work clothes to unfashionable party wear in the eyes of people who were not well-versed in the utility represented by a double-buckled belt. It was wisdom that Aderyn had felt it unwise to impart upon Rafe, in no small part because he seemed resistant to wisdom of all stripes, but also because she imagined him giving her an unutterably pained look at her wealthy plights. Perhaps he’d run a fingertip down his cheek and exaggeratedly pout.
“My word, look at that ridiculous outfit.”
She’d smiled at a maid as she rounded a corner, offering a wink of explanation that seemed sufficient as she spiralled her hair up onto the top of her head. One long pin, previously positioned to hold her hair close to her neck, repurposed swiftly to hold her hair up atop her head, a coil of braid out of the way in a style that, with the flower adorning the crest, looked quite fetching. Bright purple flower, too, contrasted quite well with her hair.
“Well, look at the girl. Obviously from Lleywa.”
No makeup, and no jewellery, but that was an acceptability, because after all, she was dealing with Timoritia’s high society, in a house owned by a man of no noble birth. That meant the people here were here as a curiosity and would expect to see –
“How can you tell?“
There it was. The giggle at the hayseed. How excellent.
“Well, she’s not painted blue, so she’s no Hadrian, and she’s not blown up yet, so she’s not from the Isle either,”
Aderyn smiled courteously as she weaved past a waiter and through the crowd. Nobody was questioning her, even in that outfit, certainly not the way they would Rafe. Rafe was not the kind of boy who knew how to look purposeful, to look like he belonged. Aderyn briefly imagined if they’d chosen alternate routes, smiling at the idea of shadowing a lone guard safely through an unoccupied area, then considered how Rafe would react to just one of the looks she was currently receiving.
“Oh you are wicked, aren’t you?”
Best to just keep moving. Move with purpose, and nobody would think anything of it. Her disguise was barely thicker than a breath but it didn’t matter, because here, she was surrounded by people so cuddled in privilege, they had never needed to identify someone who didn’t belong at least when a vichyssoise fork wasn’t involved. A smile, a nod, a bob of a head, and – crucially – correctly identifying barons and knights and using sir and your grace and madam at the right time let her snake through the crowd like smoke.
“Wasn’t there a King from Lleywa?“
Did it much matter that she heard, behind her, the voices idly gossiping? She was barely worth commenting on, so when she heard those words that she knew had to be about her, she didn’t even feel it. Why should she? They didn’t know her mother, her father, know the wonderful soft grass of the fields of Lleywa, or the people there.
“Oh, yes, the Black Thane!” said one of the voices, the conversation having bubbled along quite enough. What a perfect time to interrupt!
“Why, hello there,” Aderyn said, her voice carrying a lilt of enthusiasm, but not quite enough to sound as sing-song as she did, back on the streets talking to Mr Bauer. “Lady E’sparagos!” Aderyn said, stepping into the circle of conversation, radiating sweet naivete. “It’s me, Queeny’s friend, Aderyn!” Tilt the head, smile turning into a beam, the girl watched as the older noblewoman, in her white silks decorated with folded blue fabric roses, ran through a swift range of emotions. First, there was the surprise at the voice, the greater surprise that someone had pronounced her name correctly, and then there was the irritation on seeing a young lady wearing such dowdy pants, and then the realisation that even if she didn’t remember Aderyn, she did remember the young Quynn Wyndsyr, whose parents she may even be stirred enough to call relevant. The woman did all this with a sequence of eye widenings and nose scrunches. It was a little cute, really, like watching a very old hamster pass complex opinions while chewing onions.
“Ah, yes, young l-ady,” said the senior E’sparagos, turning with a sweep of her arm. Nobody missed the awkward pause hiding in lady, as if she was double-checking in her own mind if she was doing the right thing, or perhaps if she could remember Aderyn’s name. No matter. “It’s been quite some time,” she managed, as she looked to the pair talking to her, in their lovely black suits, under the starry sky.
Cameo Tully was a tall man, but he was no broader in the shoulder than Rafe was. The black hair on his head had greyed at the edges, and the whole of it was slicked back. Normally, this made men of his particular expression look like very large, well dressed butler rats, but with his clear blue eyes, and the sincerity of his smile, Aderyn saw nothing of that to him there. Really, he was more like a badger, a large kind looking gentleman who wore his advancing age with some dignity.
Elian Praefoco, on the other hand, had a bit too much of the rodent about him, which Aderyn was careful to file away for the future. That surname was too many letters for a genuinely humble man, so chances are he was a half-noble or someone whose lineage was Legally Dead somewhere back upstream. The man had the polished elbows and gaudy rings that said he knew what poverty was and he never wanted to be associated with it. Brown hair, slightly overlarge ears, and the vaguest hunch forwards, standing next to Tully’s side with a closeness that reminded Aderyn of nothing so much as the boy who fancied himself a bully’s best friend.
That was a signal worth remembering.
“Oh, oh, Lady E’sparagos, I’m – oh, you’re too kind,” Aderyn gushed, pressing her hand to her bosom and leaning forwards, all but prattling as she smiled up to the older woman. “You needn’t pretend that a young lady like me- oh, oh, oh, but where are my manners,” she said, turning and bowing with a bob of her head to the two men, holding their drinks. A little drinking corner, away from the rest of the crowd, discussing… probably nothing with the older woman nearby. After all, she had a pair of sons she was trying to find weddings for, and Tully’s daughter was a well-recognised opportunity. “Um, Lord – Lord Tully, yes?” she said, biting her lower lip, her hair a-quiver as if she was about to swoon. “And M-ister Praefoco?” she asked, looking to Praefoco, mimicking that pause. The effect was palpable. Suddenly, Lady E’sparagos and Tully straightened up, smiling the tiniest of smug smiles, and Praefoco’s eyes darkened.
You could do more with a pause than with a dagger, sometimes.
“Yes indeed, young lady,” Tully said, his voice low as the earth, the laugh hanging in the back of his throat. “But what of you?”
Aderyn smiled coyly, running her finger along her lower lip. Good thing Lady E’sparagos was wearing her heels; standing close to her both drew the eye away from Aderyn’s practical clothing and made her seem smaller, younger. That worked well with, “Oh, well,” she giggled as a nervous girl would. “My name is Aderyn DuThane, and I’m an Assassin.”
Suddenly, everyone was all smiles. That made sense!
“Oh! Oh, and its’ exams now, isn’t it?” Tully asked, turning the glass in his hand with a grin. “Of course, that explains the outfit!”
“Well, I thought it was quite daring,” said E’sparagos. A minute ago she’d have buried Aderyn in a haystack without a thought. “Did you come straight from…?”
“Oh, oh, well,” Aderyn gave a shy little smile. “It’s a group assessment – I need to be available if my classmates need me.”
“Group assessment,” Praefoco said, nodding along with his little ratty way, raising his glass. “Seems wise. You were an Assassin too, weren’t you, Tully?”
Tully nodded. “Mm, yes indeed. That was almost forty years ago, though,” he laughed, tilting his glass towards Praefoco, a tiny little gesture of acceptance and acknowledgement. “I dare say it’s changed quite a bit!” his eye fell back on Aderyn while he put his glass to his lips.
Aderyn gave a shy little dip of her head, hair falling out of its place behind her ear. She used both hands to put it back, smoothing her hair in hand over hand gesture, then back behind her ear again, giving an awkward little giggle. “Oh, I’m sorry – I,” she blushed suddenly. “Oh! Oh no, Mr Praefoco, I’m so sorry!”
“What?” Praefoco asked, blurting and straightening up in the same sudden motion. “What did you-“
“I didn’t even think – of course, if there’s an assessment in the area, of course the school would have asked you, since-“
Praefoco grumbled as he looked over Aderyn’s shoulder, pointedly blanking her. “I don’t believe the school did…” Crucially though, he didn’t look at her like he knew who she was… or who she wasn’t.
Why didn’t Praefoco know she wasn’t invited?
Was he just that relaxed with the idea of an Assassin just wandering into his party? Well, things were going to get very awkward for him indeed.
“That so, Elian?” Tully asked, and the use of a first name was an olive branch. “Bit of a shame! The Guild is a good school, and it never hurts to have good recruiting prospects on hand. You, young lady – you’ve a plan after school?”
“Oh, of course,” she said, “I’m going back to Lleywa, to help run my parents’ estate.”
“Oh? No brothers?” Tully asked, and he looked honestly surprised. “I thought everyone in Lleywa came in pairs.”
“Ahah, no,” Aderyn offered, “That’s the sheep.”
Praefoco gave a wrinkle-nose sneer, tired of the distraction. E’sparagos had pulled his focus and now Aderyn was making it worse. “Mnh, I could use a smoke,” he said, looking up at the tall nobleman. “I’ve some DuMaurier cigarettes up in the study – fancy one, Tully?”
“Ah, DuMaurier,” Tully offered, smiling wide. Setting his glass down on one of the many small, tall tables, he clasped his hands together. “If you ladies will forgive us – it’s definitely a man’s taste, no?” He raised one eyebrow, and reached out to Aderyn, taking her hand – meeting her half-way – as she smiled to him, and dipped her head. “Very nice to meet you, young lady.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Aderyn said, dipping at the knee.
The two men filed away, into the building, and Aderyn turned to Lady E’sparagos, drawing her breath with her nostrils flaring. Now this was the next challenge to escape.