It was a little while before midday when Ainfean took to the streets, now wearing her cloak over the top of her jerkin and leggings so as not to stand out too much. She emerged from the front door of the boarding house and strolled unhurriedly down the street. There were plenty of people about but the road was far from crowded, allowing a cart pulled by two of the largest horses that Ainfean had ever seen to easily navigate its way through; the back of the cart was piled high with barrels that swayed precariously with the uneven nature of the road’s surface. The weight on the back of the cart must surely have weighed several tons but the horses seemed entirely unconcerned, their massive hooves thudding into the cobbles with a constant rhythm; she was convinced that they could have easily served as steeds for even the towering mountain-orcs from far to the east of Glyndorial. Oh, to have been able to ride a beast like that into battle; she wouldn’t even have needed the iron armour, she could have just trampled the trolls if they were foolish enough not to get out of the way.
Deciding that following the horses as they plodded along was as good an idea as any, Ainfean set off. It was a sunny day, the sky a clear blue, but there was a haze over the city that made the sunlight soft and diffuse. The air carried traces of noxious fumes that put Ainfean in mind of the goblin tar pits and the strange potions that the trolls had brewed up to use in battle; more than once she had been sent staggering out of a cloud of swirling green fumes as a bottle smashed nearby, releasing the toxic vapour contained within.
Ahead of her, the cart’s driver pulled the two great horses to a halt. One of them, a grey mare taller at the shoulder than Ainfean even if she were standing up on her toes, snorted and stamped the cobbles once before standing passively while the man shouted to someone in the building that they had stopped in front of. It appeared to be an inn, as far as Ainfean could tell; there was a sign above the door but it was so badly maintained that hardly any of it was legible. Ainfean thought she could make out the words “And Dragon” but she wouldn’t have wanted to swear to it.
As she watched, a man emerged from the dark doorway and opened up two wooden hatches set into the walkway at the side of the road and began helping the driver offload the large barrels. Someone else entered the inn so, reasoning that this meant it was likely open for business, Ainfean followed them inside. At first sight it was not welcoming, dark, dingy and gloomy, with bare, unvarnished floorboards and basic furniture, it also reeked of stale beer, piss and some kind of smoke. There were only four customers sitting on the hard, wooden barstools, and all of them turned to peer at Ainfean with suspicious, unfriendly eyes. It looked like a place where everyone knew everyone else, where they spoke about things they didn’t want anyone else to hear, and where they didn’t tolerate interlopers. In other words, it was exactly the kind of place she was looking for.
“You lost, miss?” said the man standing behind the bar as she approached.
“I’m looking for someone,” said Ainfean. “A man by the name of Kenneth Ackerman.”
“You can call me Kenneth if you want, love,” said one of the other customers, his voice thick with alcohol. Ainfean ignored him.
“Well…” The barman made a show of scratching his chin, his fingers audibly rasping on the pronounced stubble. “I know a few Kenneths, can’t say for sure if I know the name Ackerman though. Sounds German, if you ask me. He a foreigner?” He said the last word with the same tone of voice that Ainfean had heard some of the less tolerant elves in the Senate use when they said the word “Troll”.
“You clearly don’t know anything. Thank you for your time.” Ainfean turned to go.
“Hold on, love, will you not stay and have a little drink with us?”
Ainfean glanced at the cloudy liquid swirling around in the glass of one of the customers. “Not in this lifetime,” she said, and then she walked out.
Her search had started largely as she had expected it to, but the day was young and only the most dedicated of professional drinkers would be around, and they were hardly the most reliable of witnesses even assuming they were sober enough to talk. It wasn’t something you saw happen with elves, one or two exceptions aside, but she had seen enough of the other races of faery propping up bars and staring glassily into the middle-distance to know how things could get.
Despite the less than promising start, she would keep looking, though she decided that she might try a tea shop next rather than a pub. Not because she thought she was more likely to find anything out but because it was getting close to lunchtime and it had been a few hours since that last slice of bread. Spying what looked to be a promising candidate, she headed straight for it, entering via a door that rang cheery little bell as she pushed it open.
Inside, as basic as everything was, it was significantly brighter and cleaner than the pub, although her appearance did still draw a few curious glances from the other customers. And then she got a good look at the face of one of those customers and smiled in recognition.
“Well this is a happy coincidence,” she said, crossing over to the figure who appeared to be trying to hide behind his hand. “Fancy seeing you here, ‘Arold.”
“It’s not even been a bleeding day yet, give us a chance!” he protested, then carried on grumbling under his breath: “Can’t even drink me cup of tea in peace.”
“Now now, Harold, there’s no need for that,” said Ainfean. “I was just passing and decided I wanted something to eat, so in I came and there you were. I tell you what, I’ll buy you a piece of cake to make up for it.”
The glare he directed at her had daggers in it, but he didn’t object either, and nor did he argue when she brought over two plates with scones on them and set one in front of him.
“I’ve never had one of these before,” said Ainfean, peering at the food. “What’s the red jelly on top of it?”
Harold stared at her as if her head had fallen off. “How can you not know what strawberry jam is?” he said.
“I’ve clearly led a very sheltered life.” She took a bite. “Oh my, that’s rather good.” She looked across at his untouched scone. “If you’re not going to eat that then I’ll have it as soon as I’ve finished this one.”
He sat still for a moment, considering whether or not to refuse the scone, but hunger won out over pride in the end and he took a large bite. A small dribble of crimson jam ran down his chin.
“Very elegant,” said Ainfean, passing him a napkin.
He shot her a venomous look but mopped the spilled jam up anyway.
“I don’t suppose you’ve had a chance to find anything out.”
He snorted derisively. “In under a day? Leave it out.” He took another bite of his scone and then carried on speaking. “Funny fing though,” he said, his voice muffled, “an acquaintance of mine said he’d never heard of no Kenny Ackerman but there was a look in ‘is eyes that said maybe he ‘ad but that I was asking dangerous questions.”
“Really?” said Ainfean. Trying not to stare; the sight of the semi-chewed scone was one of the more horrifying things she’d ever seen, including the couple of times she’d been able to see some of her own internal organs. “And the name of this acquaintance? Just on the off-chance that I might want to go and talk to him, you understand.”
Harold looked at her and smirked. “I ain’t telling you that. He’ll know straight off it was me what told you his name. I’ll point you towards a pub he’s known to frequent, might be where he ‘eard a thing or two. Course, they might not take too kindly to you poking your nose in. Might be very unpleasant for you.” He didn’t seem overly displeased at the prospect.
“And the name of this pub?” said Ainfean, but she was already reaching for the leather purse before she finished the question.
Harold’s smirk broadened as she pushed a shilling across the table towards him. “‘ello, darling. Did you miss me?”
Ainfean raised her eyebrows. “You are an odd, odd man.”
Harold swept his hand across the table and the coin vanished without a trace, as if by magic. “Don’t suppose I can persuade you to hand over the rest, for safekeeping like, if you’re planning on heading to that pub. Be easier than trying to get it all back from your corpse.”
Ainfean stared at him.
“What?” he said.
“The name of the pub, Harold, what is it?”
“Oh. The Brittania.” He waved his hand across in a grandiose gesture in time with his revelation and almost knocked his tea over. “Bugger.”
“What? Yeah, yeah. It’s on, er, let me think..Dorset Street somewhere. Yeah, that’s right.”
“Thank you. I will look into it later.”
“You, er, you went to Miss Fenton’s place?” he asked.
“I did. They were very welcoming.”
“I bet they…” He caught the look Ainfean directed at him over the top of her teacup as she took a lengthy sip. “Ahem, anyway. I was going to say that you might want to ask one of the girls to lend you some other clothes, make you look a bit more presentable, bit less like a butcher’s chopping board.”
“What difference would that make?” said Ainfean.
“Well, you know, ladies like that - the ones out on the street, that is - they go from pub to pub looking for business, right? You’ll blend in more, even with your face.”
“Thank you for your advice,” said Ainfean in a flat monotone.
“Don’t mention it,” said Harold, finishing off the last of his scone. “I’ll never get me money back if you’re floating down the Thames with an extra smile. Look, I ain’t kidding here, there’s gangs running these pubs, they ain’t friendly neither. If anyone goes sticking their nose where it ain’t wanted they’ll be lucky if only their nose gets hacked off.”
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m not good at subtlety, I prefer a more direct approach.”
Harold nodded thoughtfully. “Then I’d say it’s been nice knowing you but that’d be bollocks. You sure I can’t have me money back in advance?”
Ainfean ignored him. “Just keep asking around, come and find me at Miss Fenton’s if you find anything.” She took a bite from her still-warm scone; whatever jam was, and for that matter whatever a strawberry was, this was truly delicious. It reminded her of the first time Alfred had made her a “proper cup o’ Yorkshire tea”; it had almost been a sensory overload.
“Enjoying that are you?” said Harold, watching her uneasily. “Never seen anyone look that thrilled about jam before.”
Ainfean snorted in exasperation. “I have never known a people so capable of creating wondrous things yet so indifferent to the wonders they create. I find you utterly baffling.”
“Is jam a wonder?” said Harold. He looked down at the red, gelatinous smears on his plate that were all that remained of his own scone. “It’s just jam.”
“How is it you’ve so thoroughly shaped this world when you barely seem to notice it?” she said with something close to despair. For a few seconds she stared at Harold’s blank expression then shook her head. “Enough. Even I can see that I’m fighting a battle that cannot be won.” She licked the last of the jam from her fingers and stood. “Congratulations, Harold, you have done what whole armies could not accomplish and made me surrender.”
He was starting to look panicked now. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“Nothing,” said Ainfean. “Enjoy the rest of your tea.” She walked out of the shop still shaking her head. Humans! Had there ever been a race more infuriatingly contradictory?
It occurred to her as she strode briskly away from the teashop that although she knew which street The Britannia pub was on, she hadn’t asked Harold for any directions to help her find the street itself. And, for all that his indifference annoyed her, he wasn’t necessarily wrong in the warning he had given about barging in; this was unfamiliar territory where people carried strange weapons she didn’t yet understand. She could almost hear Olindoir telling her it how unwise it would be to start unnecessary confrontations. In her imagination, her old second in command patted her condescendingly on the head. “It’s only taken you two thousand years but you’re finally starting to get it, Ironheart. Well done.” There were times he could be a real ass and she missed him terribly.
So, she wasn’t going to go and declare war on a pub. Hang back, observe, learn, that’s what Olindoir would have said. She set off again picking a direction at random. She would be discreet, she would ask innocent questions and try not to draw attention to herself, and she would try to look like a target for a would-be mugger or another pickpocket; a second source of income and information wouldn’t hurt.
Potential assailants, however, were proving hard to find. Now that Ainfean looked a little less bedraggled than she had when Harold had chanced his arm it seemed that her face and hard, sharp eyes were proving to be a little too discouraging, particularly in broad daylight. She had at least stumbled on Dorset Street and located The Britannia. To her surprise, it looked like quite a nice establishment; from the glance she snatched as the door was swinging shut after a man walked out it looked like there was even carpet on the floor and bar made from polished wood with shining brass taps behind it.
The presence of a group of flint-eyed men standing together just outside, dressed in suits that were better tailored than most of those she had seen in the area, meant that she chose not to linger nearby. The pub might have its shiny facade but it seemed that there was just as much dirt underneath the surface.
The sun was hanging lower in the sky when she finally made her way back down Oxford Street to Miss Fenton’s. It had been a frustrating day. Necessary, perhaps, but still frustrating. Though the idea pained her, she was toying with Harold’s suggestion of disguising herself. She stood out too much and that was a fact, even without an unmarked face her clothes were just too different to what passed for the fashions in this city. Lisariel would have been bouncing up and down with glee at the prospect of witnessing Ainfean’s attempts to blend in.
She pushed open the front door and trudged inside, to be greeted by Jessica chasing Elise up the stairs, the skirts of her red dress flailing around her legs.
“That’s my hairbrush, give it back!” Jessica shouted as they vanished out of sight. Their footsteps were like thunder on the floor of the landing above.
Miss Fenton was sitting at the kitchen table, looking poised and calm, with her hair pulled back into a bun and a figure-hugging black dress, although Ainfean could definitely see tightness around her eyes; frayed patience was battling with an iron will beneath that calm facade. There were two other women at the table; one was Mary, sitting elegantly in green satin, and another woman in blue who Ainfean hadn’t met before., “Please tell me that you haven’t come back with a cart-full of gangsters chasing you,” Miss Fenton said, sounding tired.
Ainfean pulled out a chair and sat down. “You sure you wouldn’t like someone to take the irritation out on,” she said with a smile, nodding at the three women. “I can lend you my sword if you want.”
“Don’t tempt me,” said Miss Fenton. “By the way, could you let Jessica see the sword? She’s been pestering me to ask you all day. Maybe if you show it to her she might calm down a bit. This is Bonnie, by the way.” She gestured towards the mystery woman, who nodded shyly.
“Nice to meet you,” said Ainfean, holding out her hand. Bonnie took it so delicately that Ainfean could barely feel it; she was suddenly painfully aware just how rough her hands were.
“Likewise,” said Bonnie, quietly. “You have a sword?”
“Ainfean isn’t a regular tenant,” said Miss Fenton. “Mystery soldier from a mystery land who’s an expert at giving vague answers to questions. She seems to be decent enough, mind.”
“That’s very kind of you, Miss Fenton. I’ll bring the sword down shortly; she can see it when she’s recovered her hairbrush.”
“That battle might rage for a while yet,” said Mary with an affectionate smile.
Miss Fenton shook her head. “Those two are ageing me prematurely.” She patted Mary’s hand. “I swear, if you weren’t here I’d have strangled both of them.”
“They are full of energy,” said Mary.
“Elise was barely conscious when I left this morning,” said Ainfean.
“She never wakes up before lunch,” said Miss Fenton. “Then suddenly she’s fizzing like a firework.”
“A thing that whizzes up into the sky and explodes in a shower of colourful sparks,” said Mary, correctly interpreting Ainfean’s expression.
“Are you sure you’re from this world?” said Miss Fenton.
“Well I would tell you, but that would ruin the mystery wouldn’t it?” said Ainfean, standing up. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
When she returned downstairs with her bundle of weapons, Ainfean found that Jessica and Elise had returned to the kitchen and were sitting at the table. There was an expectant air in the room; Jessica in particular was almost bouncing up and down in her chair.
“You are unreasonably excited for what is basically just a glorified knife,” said Miss Fenton. Her irritation appeared to have reached a point of no return.
“She is not entirely wrong,” said Ainfean over the chorus of disapproval that ran round the table. “Much like a knife, it is still just a tool, albeit a rather more dangerous one. It is also a lot harder to make.” She set the bow and the quiver to one side and picked up the scabbard.
“Did you make that, Ainfean?” said Jessica, eyes locked on the sheathed sword.
Ainfean laughed. “No, Jessica. It took a master craftsman with years of experience to fashion this. All I did was pay him.” She grasped the leather-wrapped pommel and drew it, the bright metallic sound loud in the kitchen. The steel shone in the early evening light that made the layers in the metal look like running water. Its edge glittered with menace. Ainfean held it out at arm’s length, and twisted around as the other’s watched, transfixed; even Miss Fenton was staring at it.
“You look very comfortable holding that,” said the landlady.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.”
Elise leaned forwards and pointed at the base of the blade. “What’s that at the bottom?”
Ainfean followed her pointing finger. “The dark coloured circle at the centre of the crossguard? It’s a small piece of iron.”
“Why’s that there?”
“Because smiths are foolishly romantic,” said Ainfean. “Jessica, do you want to hold it?”
She rose so eagerly that her chair tipped over, and then she hurried around to stand next to Ainfean.
“Now be careful, and no swinging it around. This is not a toy and it is very sharp. I would hate for you to accidentally decapitate one of your friends; it makes a terrible mess when you do that. Hold you your hand.”
Jessica did as she was told, holding her hand out, palm upwards, as Ainfean placed the pommel in it.
“Ready? It’s heavier than it looks,” said Ainfean. Jessica nodded, her fingers curling around the pommel. “Okay.” Ainfean let go. A second later there was a loud thump as the point of the sword swung downwards and bounced off the table.
Wrapping both hands around the handle, and with a grimace of effort, Jessica manage to lift the sword up so it was horizontal. It was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, but it was horizontal, at least for a couple of seconds and then it thudded into the tabletop again.
“Let me try,” said Elise, standing up and rubbing her hands together. She was more successful that Jessica, able to at least hold the blade up, but the tip wavered around in an uncertain figure of eight.
“Anyone else?” said Ainfean, reaching over to pluck the sword from Elise’s tenuous grasp before it swung too far wide and she accidentally stabbed someone. When no one else was forthcoming she slotted it back into the scabbard and put it down. “How about my bow?” She had strung it while the other two were trying to get to grips with the sword and now passed it to Jessica.
“Oh, this is much lighter, I can actually lift this,” the girl said, hefting the four foot long length of polished wood.
“Now try drawing it,” said Ainfean. She came round to stand behind Jessica. “Put your left hand there, on the wrapped part, and hook two fingers of your right hand around the string here. That’s right. Now stand like this.” She manipulated Jessica’s arms so that she was holding the bow up in the right place, then she put her hands on Jessica’s waist and turned her slight. “Twist your body this way a bit and bring your right foot back a few inches. That’s it.” She released Jessica and stepped back.
“Do I not need an arrow?”
“Ha! No, I’m not quite ready to take the risk of you shooting someone just yet. Now, try drawing the string back with your right hand and pushing forward with your left.”
Jessica put all of her might into it, arms shaking with the strain as the string slowly creaked backwards. It was, Ainfean judged, just about enough of a draw to propel an arrow half the length of the kitchen.
“Now simultaneously breathe out and relax the fingers in your right hand,” she said when it became clear that the string wasn’t going to move another inch. Jessica obeyed and the string snapped out of her fingers with a dull thud. “Not bad for a first attempt,” she said to the panting girl. “Elise?”
Elise took the bow, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I grew up in the country and my brother had a bow for hunting. I could fire that one but it was much shorter than this.”
“It’s a longbow, it’s intended to penetrate armour.”
Without any prompting from Ainfean, Elise took up a broadly correct stance and tried to draw the bow. She pulled the string further back than Jessica had managed and was much more confidant in the release.
“Ow, that hurt!” she exclaimed, blowing on the first two fingers of her drawing hand.
“There’s a reason I have such thick callouses,” said Ainfean, taking the bow and waving her own fingers in the air. Then she stepped to the side and pulled an arrow from the quiver on the table, flicking it up and then plucking it out of the air with the first two fingers of her right hand, slotting the notch in the arrow on to the string and drawing the bow in one smooth motion. The bow creaked with the strain as she sighted down the length of the arrow, her arms rocksteady, her breathing easy and calm. The string had been pulled back more than twice as far as Elise had managed. Slowly and steadily, she relaxed her arm and let the tension ease out of the bent wood until the string was straight once more.
“I swear, your forearm looked like there were mooring ropes from down the docks moving about under the skin when you pulled that back,” said Elise. “How’d you get muscles like that?”
Ainfean smiled as she unstrung the bow with a grunt of effort. “It’s easy. You just have to use this everyday and the muscles turn up on their own.”
“Okay, enough lollygagging,” said Miss Fenton suddenly, breaking the awed silence. “Ainfean was nice enough to show us what she uses in battle, it’s time to go and get your own armour on while I make us some grub.”
Grumbling good naturedly, and with more than a few backward glances to the weapons lying on the table, the women trooped out. Ainfean heard their footsteps thumping up the stairs moments later.
“Just how much practice have you had with those things?” said Miss Fenton.
“Probably too much,” said Ainfean, sitting back down.
“You’ve been to war?”
“I spent most of my life in it.”
“And were they just wars?” Miss Fenton’s expression was unreadable.
“I’m not convinced there’s any such thing,” replied Ainfean. “But they would have happened with or without me. I just tried to end them quickly and without too much death.”
“Did you succeed?”
Ainfean looked across at her for a long moment and then shrugged. “Sometimes, not always.”
Miss Fenton nodded. “Strange that you talk about this life of war and fighting but I don’t recall hearing about any of it. You’d think some word would have found its way back.”
Ainfean smiled, her eyes locked on Miss Fenton’s. “I’m sure it did, I just don’t think that anyone believed what they were hearing. Can I help you with the cooking?”
“Another sudden change of subject,” grumbled Miss Fenton. “One of these days I’ll get the whole truth out of you, Ainfean…” She stopped, suddenly realising she had no idea what her guest’s last name was.
“Sárnait,” said Ainfean, helpfully. “And one day I’ll tell you.”
“What do you know about a pub called The Brittania? said Ainfean. She was standing at the kitchen counter chopping up carrots. Miss Fenton had not been in the least bit surprised that her lodger was proficient with a knife, watching the vegetables for the stew she was making getting speedily and neatly sliced up with a resigned look on her face.
“The Brit?” said Miss Fenton, pausing momentarily in her task of peeling potatoes. “That’s a touch one. It’s not a dive like some, and anyone wandering in there for a quiet drink’ll probably leave the none the wiser - plenty of the girls who work the streets go in there looking for business and they all reckon it’s safe enough - but it’s run by one of the local gangs, even if it ain’t their name on the lease.” She wagged the small peeling life at Ainfean. “At the risk of sounding like a bloody parrot, watch yourself if you’re going in there. Why’d you want to know about that place anyway?”
“I bumped into Harold today. He hinted that he had an acquaintance who might have heard of Kenneth Ackerman who might have been in that pub,” said Ainfean, resisting the urge to ask what a parrot was. “He was rather vague about it all.”
Miss Fenton sniffed dismissively and went back to peeling potatoes. “Can’t really blame him for that,” she said. “He’s a weasel, right enough, and you’ve got him poking around where the wolves live. Don’t you go getting him killed, neither; he’s not a bad man and he’s always been respectful to the girls. Might not seem like much but it’s more’n they get from plenty of the others.”
“I don’t plan on getting anyone killed,” said Ainfean. “Is there anything else you need chopping?”
Miss Fenton passed the bowl of potatoes over. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions - one of the few decent things I ever heard a priest say, that. Not that finely, you want bigger chunks, give you something to bite down on.”
“You said that woman on the street go in there looking for business. Harold said something similar. He suggested trying to pass myself off as one.” Ainfean chopped the last potato into rough quarters and started absent-mindedly twirling the vegetable knife around her fingers.
“Please don’t do that,” said Miss Fenton. “If Jessica sees it she’ll only try to copy you and then I’ll need to take her to the bleeding doctor to get her fingers stitched up.”
“Sorry.” Ainfean washed the knife in the sink and returned it to the drawer.
“Like I said, Harold’s a weasel, not the sharpest tool in the box but he’s got his share of cunning. Might be worth a try. I did say you might be able to borrow one of the girl’s dresses. Course, this brings its own problems.”
Ainfean frowned. “Such as?”
“There’s already plenty of girls working that territory, some of them are with the gangs. They might not give you the friendliest welcome if they think you’re trying to muscle in on their hunting grounds. Course, I doubt they’d cause you much of a problem; you spend time working the streets and you learn how to spot the ones you ought to leave well alone and - no offense - but your face kind of shouts that.”
“I shall take that as a compliment,” said Ainfean.
“Hmm.” Miss Fenton piled all the diced up vegetables into a large pot along with some meat that Ainfean couldn’t readily identify, poured in a bowl full of water, put the lid on and placed it on the top of the stove with a grunt of effort. “Elise used to go pub to pub before she fetched up here. She’d probably go with you given half a chance, bloody fool.”
“Then I won’t tell her where I’m going.”
“Ha! Good luck getting her to lend you one of her dresses without spilling the details, and she’s the only whose dresses you’ll fit into, and even that’s going to be a squeeze.” Miss Fenton turned and pointed a finger at Ainfean. “So ‘elp me, if anything ‘appens to ‘er I’ll have your guts for garters.”
“This is worse than the ones Lisariel used to make me wear,” said Ainfean, glaring at the image in the mirror. Elise had been only too happy to provide Ainfean with a dress - the purple and white confection she was currently staring at it - and her eyes had lit up like the gas lamps at the prospect of showing the elf around.
“Who’s Lisariel?” said Jessica, who, having been forbidden from venturing out with the other two, had elected herself official make-up applier and hair stylist. She was currently applying a hairbrush to the left hand side of Ainfean’s head.
“My lover. I swear, she made it her life’s work to try and get me to wear clothing that was as impractical as possible. Are you okay?” said Ainfean. She turned round to look at Jessica, who was coughing like she’d choked on something.
“Sorry,” the young woman gasped, “just the way you said ‘she’ there. Caught me a bit by surprise.”
“How else would I have said it?” Ainfean rolled her shoulders, feeling the seams of the off-the-shoulder sleeves straining, and muttered something about swinging a sword.
“Just, you know, so casual, like.” Jessica was now blushing furiously. She blushed harder when Ainfean looked round again. “You know, two...ladies!” The last word came out as a furious whisper.
“You told me that you have women as clients,” pointed out Ainfean.
“Yes! But we don’t talk about it.”
Ainfean looked at her for a long moment. “That must have made the negotiations difficult.”
“Don’t mind Jessica,” said Elise, striding back into the room with a bundle of clothes in her arms that she dumped on to the floor at Ainfean’s feet. “Somehow, as filthy as she can be, she’s manage to hang on to an endearing innocence.”
“Elise!” said Jessica, aiming a slap at her friend that missed by quite a long way.
Elise ignored her and looked at Ainfean. “Well you’ve certainly filled it out across the shoulders. The front’s looking a little flat though.”
“I can’t swing my arms properly, it’s too tight,” said Ainfean.
“Well maybe if you’d spent less time playing with your sword and more time playing with this Lisariel your arms wouldn’t be so...bulgy. Might have a bit more to play with here as well.” She jabbed a finger at Ainfean’s chest. “Nothing we can’t fix with the properly applied corsetry though! Jessica, what’s wrong with you now?”
The younger woman was standing back and staring wide-eyed at the back of Ainfean’s head, where the long, silken hair had finally been persuaded to unknot itself, revealing…
“Ainfean, did you know one of your ears has a point on it?”
“Mm? Oh, yes, of course.”
“But it’s a pointy ear!”
Elise was leaning round to look at it now as well. “Ooh, that’s weird!” she said. “Why’s it like that?”
It occurred to Ainfean that she had never asked Alfred if there were any humans who had similarly shaped ears to her, she had just assumed that there probably were; after all, there were types of elf who had much rounder ears than the tapering point that she possessed. It appeared, however, that she was wrong about that. “That’s just how my ears are.”
“So the other one was like that?” said Elise, moving round to look at the offending organ. “What happened to it?”
“Someone tried to cut my head in half. I moved out of the way, just not quite far enough.”
“It’s like something you’d see in one of those fairy tail books with the pictures,” said Jessica. “‘Ere, are you a fairy?”
“No!” said Ainfean. She decided not to tell them that actual fairies were small and vicious and not terribly bright. “I’m an elf.”
There was a long pause.
“A what?” said Elise.
“Don’t they ‘elp make shoes or something? I’m sure I heard that somewhere.”
“I don’t make shoes,” said Ainfean. “Are you meant to be helping me get ready?” She looked at their shocked, wide eyes. “It really doesn’t matter that much.”
“You’re a human, I’m an elf, I’ve never made shoes in my life.”
“Are you a creature of the devil?” said Jessica.
“The what? Never heard of it.” She frowned. “Actually, no, what was it?
“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol'n out of holy writ,
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
“I always wondered what that bit meant.”
“Was that a spell, can you do magic?” Elise’s eyes were shining with excitement now. Jessica, on the other hand, just looked frightened.
“What? No, that was Shakespeare. Richard the Third, actually.” She turned to face them. “Look, it’s just an ear, there’s not really any other difference. Now please, don’t dwell on it, it’s not worth the time.”
“But you’re an elf! That’s…” Elise tried to communicate the magnitude of it all by waving her arms in the air. “We should tell people.”
“Tell them what?” said Ainfean, hands on her hips. “That you’ve found a mythical creature? And when they ask for proof, you can go ‘Look, we’ve got a woman with one pointy ear’ and then they’ll lock us all up.”
“And you can’t do magic?”
“No.” Ainfean looked at Jessica. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” said the young woman, although the pronounced pout did give something of a lie to her words. “I just don’t know why you didn’t say anything.” She turned Ainfean round and started working on Ainfean’s hair again, though her eyes were drawn to the ear nestling in amongst the strands.
“I suppose I didn’t think it mattered that much. Not enough to go through the awkward conversation.”
“The one we just had anyway?” said Elise, holding up a black corset and pursing her lips thoughtfully.
Ainfean laughed. “Yes, that onooohh.” She shuddered and bit her lip.
“What was that?” said Elise.
Ainfean looked over her shoulder at Jessica once more.
“All I did was brush my finger against it,” said Jessica. A mischievous glint entered her eyes. “Is it sensitive?”
“Yes,” growled Ainfean. She faced the front again. “Especially the tip. Please donaaaahhh. Jessica!”
Elise was laughing as she fit the corset around Ainfean’s torso. “So that’s why you kept your ‘air over it. I thought you must just ‘ave been trying to be inconspicuous but really you just didn’t want people poking at it and reducing you to a moaning puddle on the floor. Got it.” She fastened the corset and then grabbed the two drawstrings, one in each hand. “All right, a few good tugs and then we’re all done. Story of my life, that. Here we go.” She set her knee in the small of Ainfean’s back and pulled on the strings. There was a creak of whalebone, the criss-crossed lattice of strings tightened very slightly and then quickly stopped. “Breathe...in!”
“I am,” said Ainfean, looking down. It was certainly figure-hugging, she’d give it that much, but it had made little difference to anything. “What is supposed to be happening?”
“You’re supposed to be getting a waist like an hourglass and tits you could rest a teacup on. Do they not have corsets in elf-land?” gasped Elise, giving up her efforts and rubbing at the red lines that had been scored into her fingers by the strings. “Too much bloody muscle. Jess, grab the other string. Ready? After three. One, two, three, heave!”
Ainfean grunted slightly as the corset creaked fractionally tighter about her waist. “This is the most impractical thing I’ve ever seen. Lisariel would have loved it.”
“Was she carved out of granite as well?” hissed Elise.
“No,” said Ainfean with a fond smile. “She was much more what you might have imagined an elf to be. She actually could do magic. Conjure light and music out of thin air.”
Jessica whimpered. “Elise...I can’t…”
The two women released the string with cries of relief, and possibly also pain.
“Maybe if we ‘ad everyone pulling at once,” said Elise, sounding out of breath. “No, no, a carthorse, that’d probably do it.”
“Is this what you two go through everyday?” said Ainfean, turning to look at the two exhausted women. “Looks harder than my weapons training.”
“Some of us ‘ave normal waists that ‘ave a little give in them,” said Elise. She shook her head. “I give up, that thing ain’t shifting. Jess, tie it off, it’ll ‘ave to do.”
Once Jessica was done, Ainfean stepped into the middle fo the room and started stretching out her arms.
“What are you doing?” asked Jessica.
“I need to see if I can still fight,” replied Ainfean without pausing in her stretches. “I have to see what the limits of movement are.” She threw a couple of quick jabs out in front of her, grimacing at the pull of the sleeves. “These straps are very irritating.” She stepped forward with more intent, snapping out a flurry of punches at an imaginary opponent as she advanced, then she performed a couple of blocking moves before swaying back, down and around like a snake avoiding a succession of strikes. Stepping back and planting her left foot, she hiked the skirt of her dress up with her right hand and sent her right foot lashing out to the side, first at chest height, then head height and then chest height again. Finally, she brought her right foot down with a thump in front of her, pivoting around on it and bringing her left foot around in wide arc that tore through the air, heel first, at head height, before returning to its starting position.
“Hmm, not bad,” she said as the skirts twirled around her from the dissipating momentum. “Gets a little tangled around the legs but nothing I can’t cope with.” She noticed the other two were staring at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Just never seen anyone do anything quite like that, is all,” said Elise. “‘Cept maybe in the circus.”
“When you span round I could see all the way up your skirt,” added Jessica. There was a blush spreading once more across her cheeks. “Did you...did you want to borrow some...you know?”
“Knickers, she means knickers,” said Elise, always willing to go where Jessica feared to tread. “Although if you did that it would distract the punters from your lack of chest upholstery.”