Arcie Emm

A Shootist Disarmed

A Shootist Disarmed

by Arcie Emm

You may wish to see prior Shootist stories:

  1. The Shootist
  2. A Sylph Protected / A Shootist Avenged

Thank you very much to Puddintane, Renee M, and Stanman for reviewing this concoction for me.

Chapter 1 - Ms. Dupensk

Bursting forth from Transition, the exploration ship detected a habitable planet, causing her pilot to begin dreaming about spending his discovery bonus. Drifting closer, as his ship’s sensors collected more data, those plans grew less ambitious. He determined that it held an abundance of minerals, yet few were rare and those were buried under deep seas. He had found a water planet, where the only livable space was islands, none of them large enough to hold a decent sized city. Bitter at his discovery’s apparent uselessness, particularly to himself, the pilot named the planet Pyrite, fool’s gold.

His judgement proved correct; few paid attention to his find. The main reaction coming from the clerk at the Interstellar Discovery and Charting Partnership while drafting the official chart entry, when he cursed the unimaginative predictability of exploration pilots and officially designated the planet Pyrite 23.

Its brief flirtation with civilization over, the planet returned to obscurity. The next period of forgetfulness passed in an eye-blink to the planet, but lasted over nine centuries for humanity. Not until another, more fortunate, exploration pilot found a nearby band of asteroids, dense in rare minerals, did Pyrite 23 find a purpose, at least to the mining companies intending to exploit the new find.

Recognizing how loneliness, danger, and the emptiness of space could prey on a miner’s thoughts, these companies operated ten day shifts before removing a miner for four days of R&R, which posed a problem for the frugal employers,  where to send them. Transportation to nearby settled worlds seemed a reasonably priced option; however, it came with complete loss of control over the men. Instead of arriving for transport back to the asteroids, many ended up in jails, hospitals, or somewhere lost in drunken stupor. The second option involved contracting pleasure ships. This solved the control problem, but at greater expense. So whenever possible, they found a relatively close, uninhabited world, then built and operated their own facilities. Pyrite 23 fit those requirements perfectly.

Crews descended upon the planet, chose likely islands and built facilities. By the time any of the miners showed up, there was already a frontier port, complete with bars, dance halls, theatres, inns, restaurants, and brothels. Yet unlike most such ports, usually on planets that were empty due to inhospitable weather, beasts, pests, or foliage, Pyrite 23 did not require a protective dome. The temperate climate of the islands made the outside enjoyable, opening unusual opportunities for recreation and entertainment on what would otherwise have been an ordinary miner’s R&R haven.

These more wholesome activities kept the port from taking on the dingy and run down atmosphere so common amongst its kind. Soon people other than the miners started choosing Pyrite 23 as a place to visit. First came the management of the mining companies, and then those seeking adventure upon its seas.

Yet these advantages could not keep the planet going when the asteroid mining operations dried up. Pyrite 23 depended upon the operating funds from the mining companies, the money spent by the miners, and the fees paid by the few adventurous tourists. However, instead of allowing the planet to again fade into obscurity, an entertainment conglomerate purchased the entire operation. With free rein upon the planet, they built resorts and theme parks, often spanning multiple islands. Yet the massive casinos proved the biggest draw, turning the planet into a destination for the masses. And like that first pilot, most who broke free of Transition had dreams of fools gold.

Not all. For those who did not seek short-cuts to wealth, lucrative employment contracts existed, particularly for attractive women. Management recognized the temptation that the seeming availability of beautiful women offered to men, who hoped, though usually failed, to get lucky in more ways than one, even though they usually failed. Old school thinking perhaps, but nobody denied the profits. Thus the passengers aboard the Siren’s Cove Employee Transit Tram could cause a visitor from Darson to go into seizures, as he tried to decide at whom to look.

Even the more worldly would find it difficult not to gawk. So the casino minimized the gawking, here where nothing could be earned, by keeping tourists off the employee trams. As for male employees, most grew used to the feminine richness in which they lived, preferring to spend their commute like anybody else, anywhere else in the universe. This day, like most days, the tram’s passengers, male or female, engaged in sleep, reading, or quiet talk with seatmates. All except one, who sat upright, alone, and stared fiercely out the window at the passing seas.

Like many of the tram’s passengers, she required a second look. That look would show her older than first glance implied, but her beauty had a warmth to it, though somewhat cool at the moment. A frequent visitor or a fellow employee would think her a dealer, probably in one of the more expensive rooms, until she stood, showing her height, leanness, and grace, and then they would recognize her as a dancer, probably in one of the stage productions. At one time they would have been right. Nearly twenty years before, when Ellene Dupensk had first arrived on Pyrite, she’d danced as a chorus girl at Flickers, a small casino pulled down twelve years ago. From Flickers she had moved to larger casinos, until she’d reached Siren’s Cove, where they’d recognized talents of greater worth than those of a showgirl.

She provided a calming influence over her often high-strung colleagues, being a natural peace-maker, problem solver, and confidante. So despite never having had children of her own, they contracted to use her natural mothering instincts, first for the dancers but then, over the years, for all who worked at the casino.

Very much upper management now, she only rode the tram in order to allow employees to approach her with their problems, which was not happening on this particular day. Everyone saw the anger in her eyes and knew the cause behind it; the disagreement between her and the new head of marketing having served as recent grist for the rumour mills, a test of wills that everybody knew she’d lost. They also knew that today was the start of the new marketing gimmick dreamed up by the winner, and that Ms. Ellene rode along to judge its impact, harshly from all appearances.

Nobody would call her a prude, she had spent much of her time on stage wearing nothing more than a headdress, heels, and a smile. Nor did she complain about the costumes her girls wore at the casino, despite how little most covered. But both situations occurred under the watchful eye of casino security, not as the girls made their way to and from work, away from any real protection. She cared less that many of the girls wore similar things on their own, Siren‘s Cove‘s had no responsibility for those bad decisions. However, the casino did have responsibility for what she saw today as the tram crossed the chain of four islands housing the majority of the planet’s single women. Every time she spotted another example of what that smarmy pervert, Elston Dinwald, claimed would ‘showcase’ the beauty of their female employees, Ellene’s teeth clenched a little tighter. She admitted Dinwald and his staff had done a fine job of choosing candidates. Each girl wearing one of the new outfits numbered amongst the casino’s most beautiful, so none of them needed the garish styling of a tasteless pimp to showcase their beauty.

The new outfits were hideous.

Dinwald had started on the right track, the rompers and mini-dresses were the same as those worn by the waitresses in the casino’s premier nightclub, The Pearl. They hugged curves and she had always liked them, particularly their colour, a deep midnight blue . If they had stopped there, she would have dismissed most of her fears. Instead, the new ‘genius’ decided to make them sexier by cutting away additional material to show more skin. Even worse, they’d garishly emblazoned ‘Siren’s Cove’ in large, glittery silver lettering across the back of each girl. They embarrassed her, making her wonder how much of a bonus they’d had to pay to convince the girls to wear such eyesores.

So ridiculous were the outfits she found herself questioning if she had blown everything out of proportion, since the new outfits were so over-the-top as to minimize their actual allure. Such thoughts were brushed aside as they pulled into the next station and she spotted the dark haired girl waiting to board in a too-tight romper, complete with a belly button-exposing neckline and a bottom that gave only a half-assed effort at coverage.

Protests to the contrary, mothers often feel more protective of one child over the others and Ellene wasn’t any different from most. As much as she hated what the seasoned employees were wearing today, she had some confidence that most of her girls could handle the additional burden of their outfits. She felt much less confident about the pretty, little miss on the platform, proudly perched atop high-heeled boots like some junior member of the streetwalker sisterhood. Despite a personal history that had shocked Ellene to read, the child had the survival instincts of a lemming, seeming always willing to follow someone over a cliff.

Instead of the scowl she had directed at the previous bonus seekers, Ellene gestured for the girl to come towards her. Proving herself at least somewhat aware of the need for self-preservation, the girl hesitantly approached, nervously, saying, “Hello Ms. Dupensk, you wished to see me?”

“Hello, Sascha, won’t you take a seat?”

“Umm...okay. Thank you?”

“Tell me about your new outfit, it’s not your normal style.”

Glancing quickly downwards, as if she had forgotten what she wore, Sascha said, “Oh, it’s not, but Mr. Dinwald offered me a bonus to wear it on my way to work. To advertise for the Cove.”

“Sascha, you know, just because Mr. Dinwald asks you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

“Yeeeah, I guess. Is he going to ask me to do something that you don’t want me to do? I heard that the two of you were having a disagreement about something.”

Reminding herself that they had not hired Sascha for her brains, Ellene said, “We were disagreeing about the outfits, I do not think they are completely appropriate for you and the others to wear.”

“Oh? Oh! Why not?”

“Do you think they’re appropriate?”

“Don’t tell Mr. Dinwald I said this, but they’re kind of tacky. I like the Pearl’s version better. They’re nice”

“Very true, and these are also rather skimpy.”

Giggling, Sascha replied, “Not when you compare it to some of my work costumes.”

“Well yes, but casino security makes sure that nobody bothers you when you are wearing those.”

“Nobody bothered me today, Ms. Dupensk.”

“You can’t be too careful, Sascha. So many visitors come from off planet who we are unable to screen. We can’t keep out the scum. And worse, some of them are wealthy and powerful. These people sometimes don’t believe the rules apply to them.”

“But when will any visitor see me? I came directly to the station from my apartment, got on the tram, and will get off at the employee station at the casino.”

Ellene almost blurted out a hasty answer before processing what Sascha had said. However, as the girl’s itinerary bludgeoned its way into her thoughts, she suddenly realized the meaningless nature of the argument between her and Dinwald. They had both overlooked the most important factor, perhaps not surprisingly, since neither of them were treated as a valuable resource like Sascha and the girls. They did not live on an island that had restricted access like those on the employee tram route. As Sascha had said, nobody would see her, well at least not the dangerous perverts she had feared, nor even the regular perverts the casino catered to and that Dinwald hoped to attract. She laughed at the silliness of the entire affair.

“Ms. Dupensk?”

“It’s nothing, Sascha, I guess it’s okay for you to wear Mr. Dinwald’s outfits. Just don’t wear it when you go out.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that, people would laugh.”

Ellene quickly stifled an almost uncontrollable urge to giggle.

Courtesy of Scoundrels

Courtesy of Scoundrels

by Arcie Emm

If for nothing else, Alister could feel thankful for the weather. Though overcast and cool, the rain and biting cold that had kept him tucked away in the freezing, though mostly dry garret during the last three days appeared to be taking a break. Lucky indeed, because hunger would have forced him onto the streets today, no matter the weather, and in his oversized, tattered boots and clothes, he surely would have caught a chill. He had always been sickly, which went a long way to explaining his stature, specifically his lack of it.

Yet his small size and gaunt features usually served him well on the streets, with cup in hand. The fortunate were more likely to sooth their own conscience by passing a few of their tightly held pennies to those who appeared the saddest, a group in which he usually fit. Today, though, was not one of those days. He would eat tonight, but would need to be back on the street tomorrow, good weather or bad.

Too many things worked against him today. The first thing to go wrong was his inability to secure a good spot, leaving him on the edge of the market, closer to the abattoirs than his nose liked, with little sympathetic traffic. Secondly, if he showed the energy to get someone’s attention, they disbelieved that he was as pathetic as he tried to look. Thirdly, his fear of someone robbing him forced him to spend as much time looking for those who preyed on the weak as for those who may help them. And lastly, resulting from the third issue, his constant darting glances make him look shifty, something sure to turn off the gentry.

It proved what he already suspected, he could not be successful alone. And to this point of his nearly sixteen years, difficult as they had been, he had not been. For the first twelve years he had Mam and Billy to look after him, to get him the good spots, to draw attention to his plight, to pocket coins (making them seem poorer than they were), and to keep the predators at bay. Allowed to work without distractions, he could provide enough to mostly keep them in room, clothes, and food, though it did require some nighttime activities, by their mother, to provide the rest. Those activities caught up to her four years back, when she had not awoken from a beating received at the hands of one of her customers. Then it had been just Billy and him. But Billy never was sick like Alister, maybe because his first four years had been happened before Mam had ended up, while carrying Alister, on the streets. Thus, at fifteen, Billy had all the size that Alister lacked, enough to get revenge on the bastard that did their Mam wrong and more than enough to protect Alister over the next four years, while his little brother begged the gentry for coin.

Billy also enjoyed taking coin from them. Though his preferred methods were burgling and muggings, something that had led him to getting nicked by the city watch, three nights before, leaving Alister all alone and with little hope for the future. During the long, unproductive day, he slowly came to the conclusion that he needed to find some others who would welcome him into their midst, probably the little empire run Tommy Tick-Tock, who had wandered past Alister’s spot multiple times that day, a questioning look on his face. Still, Alister was not sure he had the stomach to pay the price the former watchmaker would probably demand in exchange for protection.

Speaking of Tommy, once more he came into sight, but this time not alone. With him was an officer of The Piccadilly Butchers, dressed all fancy like in his riding boots, white trousers, red serge fastened with shiny buttons and white belt into which white, leather gloves were folded. Alister knew the type, arrogant bastards who’d rather ride down than toss a coin to a starving waif. The only time the bastards would even notice somebody like Alister was in the pursuit of their own cruel amusements.

At the moment Alister hoped to see the Tommy and the toff walk by, not liking the sneer on the officer’s face or the fact that he was with Tommy. He particularly did not like the way Tick-Tock was gesturing in his direction. Suddenly deciding it would be best to move on, he darted in the opposite direction from which the two came. Right into the arms of Lazy Eyed Dick.

“Where ya off ta in such a hurry, Ali? When Ole Tommy and the fine gentleman were hoping ta have words with ya.”

Despite the eye, there was nothing wrong with Tommy’s number one, bully boy’s ability to wield the knife that Alister felt pricking at his side. “Ahh, I didn’t notice, Dick. I was just off to find a better spot.”

“Aye, Ali, this ain’t the place for ya. Ya need ta talk ta Tommy, he has a better spot in mind.”

Sick to the stomach, Alister nodded his head in agreement, knowing there was nothing he could say to escape Dick’s clutch. And the idea of a violent escape, well that was just laughable. So he allowed himself to be shoved towards the two other men, everybody in the vicinity minding their own business and ignoring what was happening before their eyes.

“This one?” The officer asked, staring at Alister in surprise.

“Well Captain, I don’t think you meant Billy, Mary Juniper’s other son, the one the watch nicked.”

“Son? Really?”

Tommy sniggered and said, “Aye it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it. Still I swear Ali’s a boy, though you wouldn’t know it when he’s in a dress. He’s a real looker, ain’t he Dick?”

“Yes, indeed, Tommy. Led more than a few poor buggers to their doom, he has.”

Anger and embarrassment warred to make his face the redder, as Lazy Eye and Tick-Tock laughed. It wasn’t like the two implied at all. The tattered dresses he had often worn while begging on the street were good for business. Sad little girls found it easier to gain sympathy than did sad little boys, something also proved by today’s take. He did not feel embarrassed for having done it, but he had not known that others were aware of the other times. When he wore one of Ma’s old working dresses, out in the evening, tempting drunken men into alleys. But not to do what they wanted, instead he led them into the dark, Billy and his cudgel waited to conduct the next part of the transaction.

The officer did not join in the laughter, instead he just stared at Alister. Finally as slight smile came over his face and he said, “Yes, I see now.”

“What’s that, Captain?”

“This is who I’m looking for.”

“Happy to help, we are.”

“Worry not, you’ll get paid. Do you know The Silly Goat, by St. Anna’s Cathedral?”

“Aye, Captain. Though it’s not for my type.”

“No, I imagine not. Can you deliver our young friend there tonight?”

“Well...”

“Worry not, Tommy. There will be another of these waiting for you when you do.”

“Will do, Captain.”

“And Tommy.”

“Aye?”

“Make sure he has bathed first.”

Alister did not know whether to fight or shout. He has seen the flash of gold when the officer passed a coin to Tick-Tock. The man would definitely follow through with the delivery, making sure Alister did not escape, for another coin. Defeated, he slumped in Dick’s grasp.

***

Though Alister constantly watched for a chance to escape, none presented itself under the careful watch of Tick-Tock’s crew. Lazy Eyed Dick had dragged him from the market to Red Betty’s place, in order to get him the bath the officer had demanded. The hard faced woman had in turn taken the boy in hand just as if he were one of her girls. Forcing him to haul the water himself to fill the round metal tub in her kitchen, only one of the buckets spending any time on the stove, she first demanded he undress, then proved her wiry strength and forced him to do so. Soon he was crouched, sitting in the cold water, turning the water black, while the woman’s brush and caustic soap turned his skin an angry pink.

One saving grace was the woman’s disinterested demeanor, caring not or commenting not on his appearance, specifically his short comings. The second one was that she spared him the embarrassment of having Dick stay and watch, when she asked, “And how are yee going to dress the grimy, little blighter when’s I get him clean?”

“Why, his clothes.”

“Use yer noggin’ Dick. If his Lordship wanted him washed, do you really think he’ll be happy to see Ali show up in clothes stinkin’ worse than the boy currently smells hisself?”

“I guess not.”  Thinking for a moment, a difficult task for the man, a smirk suddenly appeared on his face, “Why don’t ya put him in one of the dresses yar girls wear. Ali won’t mind. Will ya boy?”

“Yee ain’t paying me enough for that, Dick.”

He almost piped up at this, in anger that Dick was paying the woman with the money he had earned begging during the day, but Alister kept his silence. Although speaking may have interrupted Dick’s thoughts, before he struck gold. “What about Ali’s other duds, maybe those would work.”

“That’s using your noggin’, Dick. Where’s they at, boy?”

Alister maintained his silence despite a cuff to the back of the head. Dick, using up the remainder of his allocated thoughts for the month, answered for him. “Billy found hisself and Ali a garret in Bingle Alley, likes enough it’s there.”

“Like enough, you go get them and I’ll gets the boy clean.”

“Me?”

“I’m not going, yee’s not paying me enough to tramp all over when I could be doing better things.”

By the time the man was back, Alister was out of the tub, Betty having unbent enough to give him a shift with which to cover his nakedness, although he again wore his ratty boots. Combined with his long, damp, brown hair and delicate features, he looked more natural than wearing Billy’s cast-offs. It drew a laugh from the returning Lazy Eyed Dick, though it was the bundle of cloth in his arms that made Alister’s eyes burn with anger, more than the laugh. Resentment at the man rummaging through his and Billy’s place, something that would not have happened if Billy was free. Everybody, except Alister, knew and feared Billy’s temper.

“Pewww, boy haven’t you heard of water. It’s a good yer a pretty little thing, otherwise the smell of these clothes would have scared away all those men before they met Billy’s cudgel. I guess we’ll have to use some of my things after all, though I’ll be taking these in exchange, maybe they’ll be some use if cleaned.”

Dick did not notice the look of avarice in Betty’s eyes as she said this. To him, clothes were clothes. But Alister saw it, knowing the woman was aware that the cloak in which Dick had wrapped everything, and which Billy had taken from some drunk dandy, was of better quality than any of them had ever worn. Wishing they had sold the cloak when they had the chance, Alister glared from Dick to Betty before she scurried through to the next room with the bundle in hand. When she returned, she brought a threadbare dress and cloak of dark, grey wool and forced the boy to pull the first over his head.

“Blimey, its a bleedin’ wonder that ya look the way ya do, Ali. Can ya do something with his hair or sumthin’, Betty. His Lordship is paying enough, we may as well make Ali as pretty as he can be.”

Trying to fend off Betty’s hands only earned him a rap on the head from her brush. Defeated once more, he let her brush it out before arranging it into a bun. Fortunately Dick did not have anymore recommendations, nor did Betty offer any. Soon Tommy Tick-Tock showed up, laughed for a moment, and had Alister don the cloak, pulling the hood up over his head, trying to hide what the woman had done to accentuate what he in the past had himself exploited. Then they were out the door, the men on either side of the disguised boy, on their way to The Silly Goat.

Alister spared only a moment to realize that the fear of what was about to happen had completely driven away his hunger.

***

The Silly Goat was found outside the territory in which the three were comfortable, causing the two men to furtively look about and appear even more what they were. In turn, Alister preferred for everybody to assume he was who he appeared, having long ago adopted his mother’s advice, ‘I know you don’t want to Ali, so Billy won’t be sassing you none, if he know’s what’s what. But you would be best to not show that you don’t want to, ‘cause if you just seem to be who you appear to be, people will be less likely to notice.‘

Nobody, they passed, doubted what he appeared to be, a teenage whore with her whoremaster and his bully boy. So the only glances the three drew were in curiosity, since though the area around the inn was a better quality, their type were not uncommon. Alister knew that none of the lookers would care anymore about his plight than that of any girl in a like position, so he did not waste energy raising a ruckus, hoping for assistance. Fighting would come later, with the toff, when the tip of Dick’s knife no longer was making its presence known. Alone, with the toff, he would become the hellion Billy had taught him to become if he ever fell into this situation

The Silly Goat stood on a street more prosperous than those surrounding it, it having oil lanterns in place, most of them even having been lit. Still they preferred to stop in the shadows, just outside the circles of light cast by two of those lamps. Then they looked towards the mostly quiet inn, watching as two men entered and one left.

“I’ll be going to get the dandy, Dick. Stay here and keep ahold of Ali, don’t let him run away or the lost gold will be coming out of your hide.”

“Sure thing, boss. Ali won’t run anyway, will ya Ali?”

The sullen glance Dick received in answer, made the two men laugh. Clapping Dick upon the shoulder, Tommy moved out into the light and towards the inn. Waiting for his return, Dick broke their silence to say, “Ya know Ali, ya should look on this as a chance.”

Snorting, Alister said, “Some chance, to get buggered by some sick bastard.”

“Now Ali, ya know’s that we’uns don’t get good chances. But there’s no how yer going to last long without Billy looking after ya. Ya play it right, this fancy fellah could.”

Alister returned to ignoring the man, not saying that those same traitorous thoughts had already been tickling the edges of his own mind. Lots about his life was worthy of disliking, but he did it anyway, in order to survive. Would this really be any worse? He had seen what was at the end of either path, multiple orphans wasted away from hunger or his mother, never waking from her beating. Dick was right, he had no good chance. Nor did he need to yet make a decision, knowing that only at the actual moment would he learn how he would react, in which direction his true self would move.

The two did not wait in uncomfortable silence for long, as the inn’s door opened to disgorge Tommy and the officer. Nervously prattling, the first led the silent second towards their waiting point, though that worthy stopped two lampposts short and would not come any closer. They argued for a moment, before Tick-Tock gestured for the two to come forward.

Head bowed, Alister moved forward, crossing from darkness to light to darkness and back into light, curiosity forcing his head upwards to gauge the officer’s reaction. It was not what he had expected, the man’s ruddy face suddenly growing pale, as if in shock at the Alister’s appearance. It lasted only a moment, anger wiping away the surprise.

“What’s the meaning of this?”

“What’s that, Captain.”

“Why is the boy dressed like this?”

“Well, Captain, you said you wanted him cleaned up an’ we just guessed.”

“Guessed that I’m some God-damned pervert, is that it, Man?”

“Well, then why’d you want Ali?”

“Not that you need to know, but it’s family obligations.”

“What?”

“Why young Master Alister is the last remaining child of my Uncle Leroy, even though he was born on the wrong side of the sheets.”

While Alister’s face assumed the look of shock, which had recently resided upon on his supposed cousin’s own face, a mulish one appeared on Tommy’s, both from the officer’s tone and at the realization he may have missed out on a chance. It turned his voice into a growl, as he said, “I don’t care’s if he’s the bloody King of Siam. We’ve done delivered him, now it’s time for our pay.”

“Oh yes, don’t worry about it, I wouldn’t forget.”

The two men watched him reach into a large pouch, different from the one earlier in the day. But instead of the glint of gold, the light bounced off the brass fittings of a cavalry holster. Tommy only had time to begin jerking backwards before the pistol ball provided more impetus to Tick-Tock’s last movement. Dick gaped, while Alister instinctively acted, elbowing the man in the gut and escaping from Lazy Eye’s grasp. However, curiosity about the officer’s claim of him being family, stopped him before ran too far.

Sneering at the winded thug, the officer said, “Well done, cousin.”

Drawing his hangar from its scabbard, he knocked aside Dick’s feebly raised dagger, and ran him through. Looking at Alister, holding him in place with a glance, the man listened, then shouted. “Help! I’m being robbed.”

***

The two bodies, provided ample reminder as to why Alister should follow his supposed cousin’s warning to hold in place, even though his instincts now urged him to flee. Casual and competent violence, which Tommy and Dick may have admired, if not for being its victim, turned his fear of the man into something more acceptable than the dread he had experienced during the walk from Red Betty’s. Thus Alister did not counter the explanation the officer, who introduced himself as Lieutenant Percival Hamilton, provided to the watchmen. Instead he silently accept the role the two new man assumed he filled.

“Well I was having a nice pork pie at The Silly Goat, have you ever tried one? No, you really should, they are rightly famous for them. But, anyway, I was eating my pie when this ruffian, the one with the red vest, came in to let me know he had something for me.

“Did I think it was strange? Not a whole lot, to be honest, I guessed he was from of of my fellows in the regiment. You see, well...umm, please don’t go bandying this about, but we are always on the lookout for...umm company, yes company that may interest our friends. Then we arrange for them to meet this umm...company.”

“The Tart?” The older of the watchmen asked, nodding in Alister’s direction, not showing his amusement at learning about the indiscretions of his betters.

Hamilton was a fine actor, sighing, almost as if he was just a regular fellow caught out for something embarrassing, instead of trying to explain away two murders. “Aye, her. But I swear, as soon as I spotted her, I told them she was too young for me and to be on their way. They were none too pleased with this and that is when I spotted the larger one wielding a knife. I’m afraid I acted as if I was back on the peninsula, going for my pistol which I had in my pouch, because this isn’t the safest neighbourhood, and fired.

“Oh no, in that I was fortunate. The girl, apparently liking her fellows no more than I, elbowed the one with the knife, giving me time to draw my sword, the demned thing catching as I did so. But I was able to knock aside his attack and with a riposte as pretty as any my fencing instructor ever saw me perform, I ran the poor beggar through.”

The watchman looked at Percival with a calculating look, but the explanation had been chock full of the reactions to be expected from someone who had fended off a robbery. From the embarrassment about the tart, to the seeming pride at the way he had taken out the thugs, it made sense. Particularly since he did not see any reason for the officer to hunt down the two men, then call for help, while the dead men looked like the sort who would not hesitate to rob some fop, like the officer. Still, he decided it was necessary to hear the prostitute’s version of what happened. “You, girl, what’s your name.”

Having learned at an early age to never give the watchmen his real name, Alister was quick to respond. “Edna Smith, Yer Honour.”

“Tell me what you saw.”

“It’s like the young gentleman said, Yer Honour. Tommy and Dick, they’s these two, picked me up earlier and said they had sumthin’ for me to do. They’s terrible mean, so I dinna argue. They brought me here and then they got in a fight and Mr. Lieutenant Hamilton did ‘em in. I’m not sorry either, nor will many be.”

That was enough for the watchmen. They did not doubt what the tart said, the dead men were not the type that anybody would ever miss. All this affair did was spare the city the money to arrest and hang the two at some later point.

“Very well then, it looks like these villains met their just end. Still, my superiors may be interested in discussing the matter further with you, Lieutenant Hamilton.”

“Of course.” Percival agreed, informing the men it was easiest to get in touch with him at his regimental headquarters.

“Very well, Sir. And Edna.”

“Yes, Yer Honour?”

“I think it best that you find your way back to where you belong.”

“Umm...maybe I should escort her.”

The watchman considered the lieutenant, guessing that the excitement had aged young Edna enough in the Captain’s eyes, turning her into someone who could help him celebrate his victory. It really was no business of his and the pretty girl looked like she needed to make some coin to feed herself. So he said, “If you wish, Lieutenant.”

“Umm...yes, yes then. Come, young lady, let’s get you away from this terrible place and back to your home.”

Alister accepted his supposed cousins hand on his arm, guiding him to and past The Silly Goat. Turning a corner, out of sight of the watchmen who waited for the meat wagon, the man said, “Well done. You followed my lead perfectly back there.”

“What else could I do, cousin. Besides, we have so much to talk about.”

Turning a predatory smile towards Alister, Percival said, “Yes, yes we do. But it can wait until we are someplace private.”

***

That private place turned out to be Percival’s home, a townhouse joined to three others, many blocks away from the inn, Alister spent the last number of these covered in the officer’s cloak, its large size hiding him from prying eyes, as to be expected from a young man sneaking a lady of the evening into his home. However, the secrecy rekindled Alister’s nerves, making him wonder if the two-faced man had been lying all along. Still, it was too late to run.

Yet as soon as the two were behind closed doors, Percival began trying to calm his young companion. First, helping him off with the cloak, to be hung from a hook by the door. Then, directing him to a chair at a table, the captain rummaged in cupboards to find cheese and bread, placed them in front of Alister and began to prepare some tea. Not until he had finished, pouring a cup for the boy, who barely chewed the food he ate, and for himself, did he take a seat, across the table.

“Well I am sure that you have an awful lot of questions, but first let me fill you in with some background, before you ask them. Is that okay?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Besides it will give you time to finish your meal. More tea?”

“Yes, please.”

While filling the cup that Alister had already quickly emptied, Percival gathered his thoughts, as he leaned back in his chair. “Right then. As you probably heard, while I spoke to the watch, my name is Percival Hamilton of the Wentworth Hamiltons. But all you need to know about the Hamiltons is that my father’s sister, Dianne, married Master Leroy Chester, whose family owes their wealth to the textile industry. With her, Uncle Leroy, had three children, my cousins Spencer, Forest, and Eleanor. Privileged children, they lacked for nothing while young, maybe that is why they were given such a rough go of it as they grew into adulthood.

“I suppose nobody should have been surprised by what happened to the boys. Like me, Spencer always wanted to be in the cavalry, and with Boney trying to conquer the world, old Spence had the opportunity. Sadly that opportunity led the poor boy and the rest of the 23rd Light Dragoons, to the Tagus valley in Spain, specifically to Talavera, where from all accounts he died a hero. As for Forest, nobody ever expected him to die as a hero, he proved us all right by falling down the stairs at the country house and breaking his neck, two years after Spence’s passing. Probably the fall was wine induced, Forest did have a weakness, but if so it was kept all hush-hush, don’t you know, Dear Uncle Leroy making it out to be a dreadful accident.

“This left only sweet, spoiled Eleanor. Her father doted on her, particularly after my Aunt Dianne and the boys left the two of them alone, and despite causing all sorts of mischief, her father always passed blame onto others. Maybe, if he had reined her in earlier he would not have found himself trying, last year, to avert the scandal that his unwed darling was with child. Probably the get of one of the servants, though my uncle could never determine which. And despite his demands, Eleanor refused to make the matter go away as expected from unwise daughters of her class, believing it to be a symbol of the love with her unnamed beau. A bad decision, her being a little slip of a thing, much like you. The pregnancy was troubled from the start and only grew worse. Neither she nor the babe survived, Uncle Leroy has been devastated ever since.”

Listening to the man, Alister detected the anger in Percival’s voice at any mention of his uncle. He began to suspect that he had not been tracked down, by the officer, to bring about a happy reunion. He asked, “And me? Where do I fit in?”

“You, young Alister, you were the cause of the first scandal that Uncle Leroy ever dealt with, though that time his own fault. He has always preferred staying at the townhouse, close to his businesses, while Aunt Dianne preferred the country house. And so, while in the city, he sought solace from her absence in the arms of a string of willing mistresses. One such was a recently widowed woman, hired on as a maid, by the name of Mary Juniper.”

He was not surprised to hear his mother’s name. It fit with what little he had been told by his mother, whom he had never heard speak the name of the man in whose employ she had worked and whose bed she had warmed. Alister expected the rest of the story to also match.

“Well as cousin Eleanor learned, such dalliances have unintended consequences. Nor did Uncle Leroy act with any more grace that first time. Yet even then he had a gift for covering up scandals, paying off a number of his servants to come forward and admit the child might be theirs, making the woman out to be a harlot. The groundwork finished, he was able to cast her out of his household. From there, I guess you are more aware of what happened than I.”

“Yes.”

“Indeed. Anyway, I recently had the story from one of those servants, whom I found deep in his cups at a tavern lamenting how unhappy has become the Chester household, some even thinking it has been cursed. This led to my starting my search to find you, hoping that you may ease my uncle’s sorrows. You cannot believe how happy I was to finally find you this afternoon, for as soon as I spotted you I doubted not that you had Chester blood.”

“And now you plan to use me to use me to blackmail your dear uncle?”

The predator was back, the sudden glare smoothing the way for the wolfish smile. “Yes, despite your appearance, you are not an innocent are you? It’s easy to forget, even I, so soon after the death of those thugs left not a single one of your feathers ruffled, had done so. And yes, though blackmail is such a dirty word, in you I did hope to obtain us, his closest living relatives, what we deserve. Look at us, me left with an allowance that barely keeps this, my parent’s house, from creditors and me up to the standards of an officer in the Life Guards. There is definitely no money to pay for the manservant expected of a gentleman, nor to buy a captaincy if one became available. And yet I live like a king compared to you, his own flesh and blood. No let us not call it blackmail, it is claiming our birthright.”

Alister recognized the reasoning to be complete balderdash, but knew most rogues needed to explain away their crimes. It was why Lazy Eyed Dick had tried to convince him he was being sold into a better life, just as it was why Billy and Alister, after mugging another mark, would discuss how evil a man must be to want to take advantage of poor, sad looking Ali. Only the most black hearted of scoundrels did not care, often disparaging the excuses of their fellows, instead of courteously accepting them.

“How?”

“Pardon?”

“How do you plan for us to claim our birthright?”

“Then you’re in?”

“Maybe, depending upon the plan.”

“Well I must admit to not having one yet in place. It did not seem worth the effort to create one until I knew you actually existed.”

“Okay, I can understand that.”

“But I do have an idea or two, though they require more thought before I put them into words.”

“How long?”

“A day or two at the most. Though, of course, my house is yours while you wait.”

It was an offer filled with risk, but was it any worse than he would face if he returned to the streets? Alister did not think so, at their worst, both would lead to death. But at its best, this gambit may keep him off the street, because there the best equaled the worst. Yet first he tested his potential co-conspirator, seeing if he could be pushed, trying to determine how desperate was the man.

“I am willing to listen, but I have a condition.”

“A condition?”

“Yes, to prove that you are trustworthy.”

“And how in turn will you prove that you in turn are trustworthy, cousin.”

“I don’t need to be trustworthy, I just need to be afraid of you. And you have ensured that with the ease you dispatched Tommy and Dick, I doubt not you could do away with me, even more easily.”

Looking at his small cousin, dressed as a prostitute, brought forth another of the predator’s grin. “It is good to see you are fully aware of your situation, Alister. It will make for a better partnership. Very well then, what is your condition? I will not promise to accept it, but I am filled with good will, at the moment, and am willing to listen.”

“It’s my brother Billy, the watch got him four days ago, I want you to get him out of the clink.”

“And why would your brother be in the clink?”

“He was accused of burglaring a house in Queen’s crossing.”

“And did he?”

“Oh, of course not.” Alister said, his smile inviting Percival into the lie.

“Burglary, hmm? Those skills may prove useful to our future plans. Very well then, I will see what I can do.”

“Oh, thank you, Percival!”

***

Percival proved prescient, his house seemed like paradise to Alister. It was dry and warm, had food in the cupboards, and soft feather beds in which to sleep, tucked beneath a goose down quilt. It seemed a small price to have nothing to wear other than the shift and dress. For the first time, in a very long time, Alister felt comfortable. He would happily accept this waiting to last forever, then it was over. Three evenings after his arrival, his landlord returned home from his daily business with a welcome companion.

“Billy!” Alister yelled, rushing to give his brother a hug, trying to ignore the grime and stench from prison. Cleanliness had also played its part in seducing him to this place.

Accepting the hug, Billy gently separated from Alister, looked at the way he was dressed, to Percival, and questioned, “Ali?”

From Billy, the diminutive of his name never came across as insulting. That acceptance had manifested in treating his brother the same, be he in dress or trousers. So as he silently asked the question, it was without judgment, for he had hoped, while locked away, that Alister would seek protection, even in this manner.

“No Billy, it’s not like that. Apparently Percival’s my cousin.”

“What?”

Looking to Percival for permission, Alister told his brother what had happened, drawing a raised eyebrow when Billy heard about Tommy and Dick. Then he explained Percival‘s intentions.

“Bastard deserves it, specially after how he did Mam.” Billy said, but then the only part of the Bible that he thought had any value was Exodus 21.

“Ahh, excellent.” Percival said, interrupting the reunion. “And, it just so happens I have finally come up with a plan. Why don’t we adjourn to the kitchen, so that Billy can deal with his hunger while I explain.”

This time, it was Alister who moved about the kitchen, preparing tea and getting Billy his food, there having been silent agreement between the two that left him taking on many of the roles which matched his appearance, as payment for room and board. Percival proved content to wait until they all had a plate and cup before them before he began to speak.

“During the last few days I have thought much about this, which made me recognize that Uncle Leroy is a tough old bugger, who would fight any attempted blackmail with his not insignificant powers. I realized we have to weaken him first, before we can get our due.”

“We’s going to rough him up?” Billy asked.

“Certainly not. Instead we are going to prey upon his mind.”

The brothers looked at each other, their shared confusion showing on both faces. Alister said, “I don’t follow.”

“No, of course, without knowing him, you wouldn’t. See, despite appearing to be an upright, God-fearing gentleman, he is devilishly superstitious. Probably the result of being raised by a nanny who, the few times I met her before she passed away, was a crazy old bat who believed in ghosts and ghouls. He mostly hides it, but everybody knows he built the new townhouse, because he thought his father was haunting the old one. Complete balderdash, no scientific thinking gentleman would ever believe such a thing, knowing instead that it was a manifestation of guilt, probably for having done the old man wrong in some fashion.

“Personally, I have never believed in such a thing. But I swear, when I saw you, Alister, cross from the darkness into the lamp light, outside The Silly Goat, for a moment it felt as if I was staring at the ghost of my cousin Eleanor.”

That explained the look he had seen on Percival’s face, thought Alister, while guessing where the man was headed with his thoughts. “Don’t tell me that you expect me to become her ghost for real. Not only am I not her, or any her, I’m also very much alive, and therefore unqualified.”

Billy, more familiar with sneaking about houses in the dark of night, did not make any such protests. Instead, he asked, “How?”

Ignoring Alister, Percival answered Billy. “The second reason for the new townhouse, was to sooth my uncle’s ego. As a result the place is huge, full of rooms and back ways, easy to move about undetected and to get away if it does happen. I know Spence and I, as boys, drove more than a few staff members to distraction trying to find us, after we had disappeared for entire afternoon without going outside. And that was in the days when the house bustled with people, now it only houses my uncle, the butler, the cook, and four maids.”

“It don’t have a night watchman?”

“Ah yes, I had forgotten Charles, a trooper from Spence’s regiment, who was injured at Talavera, trying to get my cousin to safety. But you need not worry about him. He hobbles about with  a cane and dulls his aches with cheap liquor. He is no worry.”

“Still have to get by him, unless you knows another way in.”

“Why yes, I do. A gift from Forest, if you will, given to me while helping him return home, none the wiser, after he snuck from his bedroom for a night of carousing and ended up only being able to find the way to my door. ‘Tis the key for the door between his balcony and his rooms. Which is in the back of the house, with an easy to climb trellis providing access to the balcony.”

“Is there now?” Billy asked. “Mayhap's I should take a look see first, before Ali and I go committing to anything. Iffen, Your Lordship, is willing to part his key and tell me where to find this place?”

A scowl met this request. Percival saying, “And what’s to stop you from robbing the place and running off.”

“You’se got Ali, I won’t run without him. ‘Sides, any hauntin’s going to be a two man job, Ali will need a watcher so’ns he don’t get caught. I suspect that will be my job, ‘less, Your Lordship, plans to do it.”

Indecision warred within Percival. He saw himself as the boss of this caper, but found it hard to disagree with what Billy said, after all he had expected the two brothers to do the inside work together. Finally deciding, he would have to trust Billy, he said, “Very well then, let’s go. By the time we get there, it will be dark enough for you to go look about.”

Billy just nodded, being fully aware from his past experience, that uneasy trust first had to be overcome before a burglar team could work together. Besides the not-so-fancy-boy officer seemed to be made of sterner stuff than that skunk Freddy, whose blabbing had led to Billy’s capture. And Percival had paid off the clink’s guards to free him from that capture, so Billy felt he owed him an honest effort. Soon the two of them were once heading out the door.

Alister, miffed at the way they had ignored him, seeming to believe they could decide his fate for him, waited and worried that things would not go as smoothly as Percival thought. Instead of returning to the small, luxurious seeming bedroom he had claimed for his own, he settled into an old armchair to bide his time until they returned. Hours later he was jerked awake by friendly laughter being shared between the two men. Rising from his seat, he hurried out to the entranceway.

Seeing him, a large smile appeared on Billy’s face and he said, “Ahh Ali, his lordship were right, it’s a grand place for a ghost.”

***

They did not rush willy-nilly into their haunting endeavor, each recognizing the wisdom in careful planning, much of that falling upon the experienced Billy’s head, which caused him to return, on nearly a nightly basis, to further scout the townhouse. During the day, he and Alister would try to come up with ways of bringing about ghostly encounters with it residents. They then presented these to Percival, who continued to conduct his business as if nothing was different, for approval. Rarely balking at these ideas, Percival contented himself by adding details to match the quirks of the willful Eleanor. That always seemed his main concern, for Alister to appear as much like Eleanor as possible. It started the night after Billy’s arrival, when he fetched a locket containing a tiny portrait of his dead cousin.

Looking from the painting, to a mirror, and back, Alister was forced to admit. “Yeah, I guess I do kinda look like her.”

“More than that. If you fix your hair like hers and maybe wear make-up, you will become even a better match.”

“Oh, that’s rather more than I had expected.”

“You need to look as much like Eleanor as possible.”

“I guess. Okay then, how do I go about doing it?”

“You know.” Percival said, point a finger at his head and twirling it about.

Recognizing, by the idiotic gesture, that Percival had no clue what to do, while at the same time assuming Alister knew, made the potential ghost realize it was time for a reminder. “No I don’t know. Remember, I’m a boy. Sure, my hair is long and I’ve worn a dress enough not to be bothered by one, but the only make-up I’ve ever used has been dirt.”

“Oh! Right, I never thought. It’s too easy to forget you’re Alister, not Ali.”

“I’m both, but not the Eleanor we need me to be. I’ll need help for that.”

“I can’t help.” Percival said, almost in alarm.

“I hadn’t expected you to, but I’m going to need somebody.”

“Oh? I’ll find somebody then.”

***

Two morning later, Alister made his first foray out of the house, since his arrival nearly a week before. Accompanying him was Billy, clean and dressed in an old suit of Percival’s. In turn, Alister still wore the clothes from Red Betty’s, something their current errand hoped to remedy.

With thoughts of making Alister appear even more like Eleanor, Percival had approached one of his friends, known for his rather eclectic tastes. From the man, Percival had obtained the name and address of an establishment, along with a promise to pass along word to the proprietress about Alister’s manufactured desire to look more like a girl. A fake desire that common sense threatened to override as they turned onto the street that held the establishment.

“Bloody Hell , Billy. How could I’ve got myself into this?”

“Aye, it’s a plan that could land us all in Bedlam.”

“What? I thought you believed it was brilliant?”

“Nah, it’s as like ta end in disaster as success. But if it succeeds, we’ll be rich beyond our dreams and ‘tis a sight more comfortable at Percy’s than in the clink or our garret.”

“Yeah, I like that part too.”

“Still, it’s up ta you. Say the word and we’ll keep walking and leave it behind.”

That’s what he thought they should do, but greed and a thirst for revenge took the other side of the argument. They proved persuasive, finally causing him to say, “Well I guess it won’t hurt to see this Madame Heston. We can still run if it gets too strange.”

“It’s up ta you, Ali.”

Before sense returned, Alister turned towards the house, marched up to the door, and used the knocker. It did not take long before it was opened by a perfectly normal looking, middle-aged housewife. As she look questioningly at them, he felt sure they had been led astray. However, on the off chance they had not been, he said, “We’re friends of Dally’s, he said he was going to let you know we was coming.”

A smile answered this, the woman saying, “Ahh, yes, dear Dally, he always does have the most delightful of friends. Do come in, won’t you?”

Leading them to a delicately decorated parlour, she looked the two over, her gaze settling upon settling upon Alister, and asked, “And how may I help you, Dear?”

Alister had rehearsed an entire speech, but found himself blurting out the most simple of lies instead. “I want to look more like a girl, but don’t know how.”

“Well you are well on your way already, most would not guess you are not who you appear to be.”

“But I don’t know what else to do. The hair and the clothes and the make-up and all. I, I want to look like her.”

This was the step that had made Percival the most nervous. Handing over the locket with the painting of Eleanor inside. He had worried that the mysterious Madame Heston would be familiar with the girl and may begin to wonder who Alister could be. But when she opened the locket to look inside there was no recognition, instead she turned once more to look at him.

“We could come close, but my services do not come cheap.”

This last was said as she looked at the clothing the two wore. Billy, in his role as manservant, answered, “My Master had a figure from his friend.”

Watching him hand over a purse for the woman to check, Alister tried not to blush at the seeming admittance that he was some gentleman’s mistress. Instead he remembered the spectacle Percival had raised while handing over that purse, cursing at the cost and bemoaning the fact that he would need to stay away from his favourite entertainments until the next allowance arrived from his uncle.

“Yes that will do quite nicely. You, young man, take a seat here. My maid will bring you tea. And you, young lady, won’t you please follow me?”

They ended up in what Alister guessed too be a sewing room. There Madame Heston summoned her maid, passing on instructions about the tea and to fill the bath, then having him stand in the middle of the room, she slowly circled about him, viewing him from all angles, from far and near.

“Yes, then off with your boots and out of your dress, Dear. And your shift as well. No need to blush, you are not the first I have helped. Yes, stand there a moment, let me look again. My you are the lucky one, so rarely are those that come to me as fortunate in their appearance as you. True, we could wish you had a bit more flesh on your bones, in order to give you a better bosom, but the girl in your picture is not rich in that area either. Agnes, is the bath ready?”

“Just one more bucket to heat, Madame.”

“Hurry Agnes, we have much work to do. And you, my Dear, how would you be called?”

“Ali, Madame.”

“Lovely as you are. While we wait let’s discuss clothing. Do you know what you seek?”

“Not exactly, Madame.”

“Are you wanting formal wear?”

“Oh no, just everyday stuff.”

“You will be dressing every day?”

“That is my hope.”

“Very well then. Your Master’s purse shall see you have the start of a fine wardrobe. Two day dresses, undergarments, a coat, a pair of boots, slippers for inside, and all the necessary accessories.”

“And a pretty, white nightgown?” Alister asked, trying to hide the blush at what could be implied by this request, but unwilling to say that such a nightgown would be perfect, ghostly wear.

“Of course. Do you have a colour preference for your dresses?”

“Whatever you think best, Madame.”

“Wonderful. Ahh, yes, Agnes, is the bath ready?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Excellent. Now, Ali, let us adjourn next door to the bath. It is time to begin your day.”

Something, probably the casual manner in which the woman and her maid treated the situation, set him at ease. He trusted her to help him be whom he was pretending to be, seemingly the perfect confidante, accepting the abnormal as normal. In the bath he found himself using a scented soap, gentle compared to that from Betty’s, even in comparison to what was available at Percival’s. Finished with the bath, his hair still wet despite a good rubbing, he pulled on a pair of white, woolen stockings, fastening them with garters over his knees. Next was a cotton shift, with short-sleeves, a drawstring at its scooped neckline, that fell to just below the top of his stockings. The stays, which followed, made from a cotton drill patterned with small, blue flowers on a white background., proved not nearly as uncomfortable as Alister expected, hugging rather than squeezing. Though it did create small bumps and the cleft that went along with them.

Judged decent, Madame Heston had him take a seat in a chair, where she use a brush and scissors to straighten out his hair. What followed was a lengthy lesson in the creation of pin curls and buns, which in the end left him with a wide ribbon tied around his head, knotted at his skull, and holding together a mass of curls on his head, his very own hands having done the work at her guidance.

“I noticed that your young lady in the picture has the pale skin of the well-to-do, paler than yours. Do you seek it, as well?”

Not mentioning how good it would be for a ghost, he nodded his head and was swept into another lesson dealing with whiteners, rouge, and eyebrow blackening. It left him stunned, seeing Eleanor appear before him in the mirror. Staring at her he barely heard Madame Heston’s warning.

“There are rumours that using make-up is bad for your health. I cannot swear to either the truth or lie in that, so I recommend you only use it on special occasions. Of course, becoming yourself for the first time is a special occasion, so feel free to leave it on for today.”

Still amazed by his appearance, he was easily led through the rest of his dressing, Madame Heston having an assortment of ready made items available, although somewhat limited for someone as small as he, unlike her normal clientele. As a result he ended up wearing brown leather half boots and dressed in a green, long-sleeved day dress. But that was not the entirety of his new clothing, in two carpet bags had been place more undergarments, the nightgown, a pair of leather soled green satin slippers with pointed toes, and a like pair in lavender silk, to be worn with a periwinkle, short-sleeved day dress, made of muslin, when he felt like staying in doors and being pretty.

Barely recognizing himself, he was swept along by her enthusiasm, offering murmurs of agreement when it seemed appropriate. Desperately wishing he had kept going when offered the chance by Billy, he gave a mental shake at his confident contention that they could decide to run after the seeing what Madame Heston was all about. There was no chance he would return to his past looking the way he now did. Instead, he eagerly wished for the safety of the Percival’s house

Realizing he should make some appreciative noises, in case he ever needed the woman’s assistance again, Alister dredged up the energy for fake ebullience, thanking her for making his dreams come true. Madame Heston, for her part, was thrilled with the result and accepted his thanks with the smile of a skilled craftsman. She then helped him on with a long, green, woolen coat, buttoned right up to the lace ribbon, holding his bonnet upon his head, beneath his chin. Offering him green wool gloves which he pulled on with some difficulty, she circled him one more time, looking for something out of place, but finding everything perfect. Shaking her head in pleased amazement, she led him back to the parlour where they found a napping Billy.

Alister could have almost found it comical the way Billy started awake, staring at him in surprise, rubbing his eyes before looking again, forgetting his place as manservant, and blurting out as the prideful, older brother. “Criminy Ali, you’re beautiful.”

Thanking Madame Heston, and Agnes, one more time for their efforts, Alister finally escaped, leading to a quiet walk home. Billy stopping immediately each time he began to speak, feeling confused about his drastically altered brother. One thing for sure, he was not going to offer that they keep on walking and leave it all behind.

***

Alister’s transformation at Madame Heston’s proved a turning point for the conspirators, wiping away any doubt that they would proceed with their plans. Each grew more serious and felt a greater urgency. They finalized their plans, Billy confirming hiding spots and locations within the sleeping house during the next nights, while Percival filled Alister’s head with knowledge about Eleanor, even trying to have him recreate her voice. The result was not perfect, but most would expect a ghost’s voice to be changed, so they accepted the slight differences, particularly since they intended him to be a silent ghost.

So it was, five nights after his further feminization, that Alister slathered his face in whitening, this time unrelieved by rouge or blackening. Over the pure white nightgown from Madame Heston’s, he pulled on his original, poorly fitted, Betty dress, it and the matching cloak covering his ghostly garment until they were inside the Chester townhouse.

Once on the quiet streets, scurrying to keep up with Billy’s pace, Alister felt his heart beating nervously at the thought of what they were about to do. Just like those times when the two had slipped from their garret, he in the fancy lady’s dress, to go hunting. The possibility of something going wrong, like the unwanted curiosity of a watchman or running into someone more prepared than they, felt exactly the same. Yet he could not deny the excitement at the possibility of the ridiculous plan succeeding and the very idea of acting against the world, instead of waiting for it to act against him. It made him feel alive, giving him the energy to keep up to his brother’s pace.

They slowed, Billy looking about for night owls, before pulling him into the darkened shadows of an alley entrance. There he pointed at a large house down the street and quietly said, “There it is. You wait here a moment, I’m going to circle about and see if anything looks out of place.”

Nodding his head, despite his worry at being left alone, Alister watched his brother slip away, fading quickly into the shadows. It was this ability to seemingly disappear which explained why Billy was out scouting alone, for Alister did not have the same knack. Instead, he was better at being the distraction. Yet it is a nervous thing to be a distraction, appearing weak, and relying so much on those unseen to be your protector. And he was glad to see the shadowy figure of Billy, recognizable by the walk, returning from the opposite direction from which he had left.

With Alister now in hand, the two reversed back along the path from which Billy had just come, what he had most recently confirmed to be in place. Soon they fetched up against the back of the house, facing a small, darkened park housing one of the city’s many statues. Seeing Billy point to a balcony and an almost ladder like trellis, Alister began climbing, not seeing his brother glance about nervously after spotting the white of the nightgown peeking out from beneath his dress, almost like a signal flag. After hauling himself over the iron railing, it proved a short wait for Billy, who pulled a key from around his neck, to join him.  They moved to the sturdy wooden door leading into the house. It opened smoothly, Billy having ensured the hinges and lock were well oiled during his previous visits.

Inside Forest’s suite, the middle of the three children’s suites, just as he had been the middle child, the two quietly waited, listening to see if their entrance had been noticed. Deciding everything was fine, Billy nodded for Alister to get ready, which led to the younger brother removing his cloak and dress, handing both to his brother to be stuffed into a cupboard. Next, he removed the ribbon from his hair, to be exchanged for the nightcap in Billy’s coat pocket, first letting his pin-curled hair fall down, before gathering most of it underneath the cap. He was ready.

Ghosting along behind Billy, Alister followed him through to the next suite, Eleanor’s, the simple lock on the door adjoining the two rooms proving no hindrance to Billy’s talents. It was a test of his will. He did not believe in ghosts, yet he felt if they did exist, this would be the moment he found out about them. But it was just another quiet and dark room, no spirits waiting to avenge his usurpation, its emptiness offering the only impact upon his psyche.

Cracking the door open a slit, Billy looked for restless residents. Finding none, he opened it wider, gesturing Alister out on the landing surrounding the wide and open staircase down to the main floor and holding the doors to the family’s suites, only one of which was occupied. It was here Eleanor would haunt.

Arriving at the bookshelf, chosen by Billy as to where he should first be spotted, he looked about in approval. From here he could see almost everything; the doors to the other suites, the open area at the bottom of the stairs, many of the doors on the third floor, where the guest rooms and servant’s quarters were found, and he could even see the stairs, at the far wall, used by those servants. Yet, at the same time, it was close to the escape of Eleanor’s room and within range of whispered orders from Billy. He turned, looked back to nod at his brother, then winced as Billy slammed Eleanor’s door shut, almost immediately opening it again to share the watch.

A nervous wait began, wondering if anybody had heard the noise, if it had woken people from their slumber, if they would come to investigate, or if it would be treated as just another night sound in the big house. In the end, Alister did not need Billy’s hissed warning to hear the clumping walk, he been told to expect from Charles, the night doorman. Turning as if looking for a book in the bookshelf, he did not flinch as the glow of the man’s lantern crept upwards from the floor below.

He waited.

“Now.”

At the whispered command, Alister assumed his most pathetic look, which he used while begging, then turned, looking over the railing towards where the gaping man stood. Watching Charles’ eyes widen and his mouth drop, Alister stared, no change in his own expression. Only when the man took an involuntary step forward, did he react. Letting a pout, which Percival had told him was a common fixture on Eleanor’s own face whenever she was caught doing something improper, wash away the pathetic look, he turned away from the man, almost seeming to glide in his nightgown, Alister moved to and through Eleanor’s door, Billy slamming it shut behind him.

Now was the time for hurry, the two scurried through into Forest’s room, locking this door behind them, waiting to hear if curiosity or fear would earn pride of place in Charles’ thoughts. At first it seemed the second, but then they heard the clumps on the landing outside Forest’s door, lantern light sneaking underneath, accompanied by a steady mutter. “It’s the drink. Has to be the drink. I cannot of seen the young miss. I cannot have.”

Following this, they heard the door to Eleanor’s open, though the doorman did not enter, seemingly content to only look inside. Seeing nothing amiss, Charles closed it again and retreat the way he had come, still muttering. “See Charles, yer just being daft. It wasn’t the young miss, just yer imagination.”

This was as much as they had hoped to accomplish for their night, to create a mystery, it was time to leave. Sharing a grin, they reversed the steps of their arrival, and made their way back to Percival’s. Only then did they let lose the laughter that had been building up inside.

***

The second night of their haunting was an exact replica of the first. They took the third day off, only to repeat it on the fourth. On the fifth they received no response, no matter how many times they slammed the door. Worried, they retreated back to Percival’s, questioning what had gone wrong.

That mystery was solved the next day, when Billy made his way to the tavern that the always talkative Charles visited during the afternoon, to have a drink with his cronies. There he overheard the man lamenting how nobody believed that he had seen Miss Eleanor’s ghost and that he was now ignoring her when she crossed back into the land of the living. Discussing this at supper that evening, the three conspirators decided it was time to go after their second target, the maids. Despite their admiration for the women’s victory over dust, even in the unused suites of the dead children, which allowed the haunters to move about without leaving sign of their mischief.

So one night later, the two brothers once more found themselves in the house and Eleanor’s suite. But this time they had work to do before they drew any attention to their presence.

Opening the door to the bed chamber off the sitting room, the two entered and began opening closets until Alister spotted what they were after, a white linen nightgown, alike enough to the one he wore as to make no difference. Taking the somewhat musty item from where it hung, he arranged it upon the quilt as if it held someone’s sleeping form. Meanwhile Billy opened the curtains in both rooms, letting the full moon shine in, making both nightgowns seem to glow. Lastly, Alister returned to the sitting room, where he took a book of Shakespeare's sonnets, which Percival had informed them was Eleanor’s favourite, from the desk, back into the bed chamber. There, struggling with his poor reading skills, taught to him using the family Bible by his mother, though it had long ago disappeared, he looked for Sonnet LVII, again per Percival’s recommendation. Finding it marked by a folded piece of paper, he passed that to Billy to be shoved out of sight into a pocket, he sat the book, opened to the sonnet, on a pillow.

Taking a deep breath, trying to dispel his nerves, Alister went through the ingrained procedure of opening the door to the landing. However, this time he did not move out onto the landing, instead he stood within its frame, only his shadow, cast by the pale beams of moonlight, establishing his presence outside of Eleanor’s rooms. There he waited, eyes darting about, watching for anybody, while Billy ventured back into the bed chamber to pull a wire, connected to a bell in the room of one of the maids.

They waited, but there was no reaction. Again Billy pulled the wire, then one more time. Alister had begun to think that the bell had been disconnected when he notice a crack appear in the door frame of one of the third floor’s rooms. Turning his gaze towards it, the pout in place, he watched as that crack grew larger, candle-light filling it, then the room’s occupant, cautiously crept out, hesitantly looking over the banister, and locking gazes with Alister.

She screamed.

Not having expected this reaction, Alister quickly backed into the room, turning a questioning look towards Billy. His brother did not even stop to think, rushing into Forest’s room, locking the door as soon as Alister followed. Opening the cupboard he dug out Alister’s old dress and tossed it to him. Catching the urgency, the younger brother spared no time pulling it over his head, not worrying about the nightcap. Just as quickly he wrapped the cloak around him, now hearing shouted questions from beyond the suite’s door. They had stirred up the rat’s nest, it was best to get out quickly. On the balcony, the door locked behind them, Billy did not even wait for Alister to climb down the trellis, instead he picked his brother up and like a trapeze artist, hung him over the side of the railing, dropping him the last number of feet, to tumble upon his bum. In turn, he barely touched more than three of the trellis’ rungs before he jumped down, landing in a crouch, once more picking up Alister, who was holding a foot, a grimace on his face, Billy ran for the shadows, ducking into the alley they used every time they had ghosted into the townhouse.

There he set Alister down, offering his arm as support as they turned to look at the house, watching lantern light chase away moonlight from within Eleanor’s room. Three men spilled out onto her balcony, the same as Forest’s, to look into the dark. One was Charles, who could be heard saying his told-ya-so's, but it was at the other two that Alister looked, guessing one to be his father. His eyes settled upon the thinner of the pair, with dark hair, and features somewhat coarser than his or Eleanor’s, though similar to his son’s, if the portraits of the three children, hanging at the top of the stairs, were to be believed.

And in this moment he realized he felt nothing towards the man. No love, no hate, no disgust, nothing. To Alister he was just another rich bastard who cared not a bit if he and Billy lived or died.

Currently, Leroy Chester did not appear the debonair gentleman he had been reported to be. Standing in his nightshirt, he wildly looked about, finally snapping at Charles. “Quiet man, I’m tired of your blathering. And Doris, do be quiet as well, I’m trying to think.”

The sobbing, which they had heard coming through the balcony door, choked off. A plaintive voice replacing it. “It was just too horrible, Master Leroy, the young Miss standing there looking so sad. My heart broke all over again.”

“Nonsense, it was just the moonlight.” He answered, sounding much less sure of himself than he wished to appear.

“But, how do you explain the bell, and Miss Eleanor’s nightgown, and favourite book?”

Pausing to come up with an answer, Leroy Chester suddenly realized he was standing out in the open, on display for all the world to see his problems. Decorum reared its head, and he waved the two inside, closing the door, and shutting away the rest of the conversation from Alister and Billy’s ears.

“Damn, sorry, Ali. Are you okay?”

“Umm, I think so, though I may have twisted my ankle when I hit the ground.”

“Can you walk?”

“If you give me hand, I think I can.”

“Okay, we better get going. Hisself is going to be quite interested in hearing about this.”

“Aye, we sure stirred them up.”

***

Hearing what happened put a large smile on Percival’s face, but he also decided that it was best to lay low for the next while. Not that Alister was fit for ghosting about, his ankle having swollen to triple its normal size. So while he convalesced, the two men were out and about seeking for any hints of what was going on in the Chester household. It did not take them long to hear rumours of what had happened from multiple sources. It kept Percival in a good mood for the next three days, as the rumours swirled. But then he grew quieter, secretive, coming back to the house later each night.

His fellow conspirators, as conspirators are want to do, grew suspicious, wondering if he was working counter to their own purposes. They knew it to be possible, even probable, for they had received a reminder of how treacherous the Life Guards officer could be.

Such a simple thing. A piece of paper, seemingly nothing more than a bookmark, carried away since leaving it behind would look out of place in their carefully constructed scene in Eleanor’s bed chamber. Yet when they finally took the time to read what Eleanor had written on that simple piece of paper, they realized it was exactly the type of thing that Eleanor’s ghost would want to be found, for it contained the name of her love, who had abandoned her, despite her protecting his own name. Apparently Cousin Percival had used the key for purposes other than helping the drunken Forest home.

Alister and Billy kept this find to themselves, just as Percival kept his plans away from them. They only learned of those via gossip, which told of how the concerned nephew had rushed to his uncle’s side when he heard the terrible rumours. How it had been he who had found a medium willing to keep the matter quiet, to come to Chester house and deal with the ghost of Eleanor. Apparently it had been successful, because there had been no sightings since.

Uncle Leroy proved appreciative, as the two finally found out two weeks after their last escapade. While eating their evening meal, the first together in a days, Percival said, “Well I received a surprise today. An invitation, from dear Uncle Leroy, to spend the weekend with him at his country home.”

“And why would he suddenly do that?” Alister asked.

“I’m guessing that his encounter with the other side made him more appreciative of family on this side.”

“Cut the crap, Percival.” Billy said with a growl. “We know all about your recent dealings with him.”

“And so?” Percival asked, unconcerned, as if he had been expecting this conversation.

“Well you seem to be on your way ta getting what you wanted out of this deal. But what about Ali and me?”

“You will be looked after, rest assured. I am trying to making myself indispensable to Uncle Leroy, for he seems to lost much of his fire. Once I have done that, you will be amply rewarded. Just as I had to wait for you two to plant such a fine crop, now it’s your turn to wait while I harvest it. Of course, you can continue to make use of my hospitality while you wait.”

He then steered the conversation into humorous gossip about the peccadillos of his fellow officers. The two brothers went along with this, knowing they would get nothing more from him. But when he left them to find his bed, Billy looked at his brother and whispered what was on both their minds.

“Hisself don’t need you and me anymore, Ali.”

“Just like he didn’t need Tommy and Dick anymore.”

They had been expecting this day to come and had put a plan in place. Thus, during the night, of the day when Percival and his uncle traveled into the country, the two made one more use of the Forest’s key and entered Chester House. This time it was not for haunting, even Alister wore an old pair of trousers found in the attic, probably from when Percival had been a boy. No, it was to fill the two carpet bags from Madame Heston’s and two more found at the same time as the pants with jewelry and items of gold and silver.

It was quite a haul, Billy had done a good job scouting for more than how best to implement a haunting.

***

The news of the robbery reached the Chester estate late the following afternoon, outraging both its Master and his guest. Percival volunteered to ride immediately to the city, even though it would be late at night before he could arrive, but he promised to look into the matter as early as possible the next day. His uncle accepted the offer with pleasure, knowing such a ride was for a younger man and questioning why he had never noticed this helpful side in his nephew before.

Percival, in turn, had a ride fueled by anger, knowing who was behind the robbery and wishing he had already gotten rid of the pair of brothers. He would only wait to find the goods, before he dealt with them. Hoping they had not had time to fly the coop, he did not stop at the regimental stables to drop off his horse. Instead he rode straight through the city to his house, leaving the poor beast tied up outside while he rushed inside to confront Alister and Billy, wishing he had thought to take his pistol with him to the country. Looking about, the house seemed as empty as when he had lived here alone, before offering his hospitality to the thieves.

Fuming, he shouted. “Alister and Billy, where are you two?”

There was no response, so he shouted again and again, until his rage had begun to cool. Realizing that they were gone.

“Dear, Dear Percy, you are finally home.”

Startled, by the feminine voice, his gaze darted towards the stairs to see Ali descending. But an Ali he had never seen before, looking more like Eleanor than ever before. The boy was dressed as if he had just finished posing for the portrait that hung on the second floor of the Chester townhouse or at a ball. His hair swept up with the assistance of numerous combs, curls sneaking out at ears and onto forehead. Wearing a short-sleeved, evening gown of ivory silk, which dipped low to hint at what was not there, his slender neck circled by three strands of pearls matching the strings around each long-gloved wrist. He was a shocking vision of loveliness as he almost floated down the stairs, his embroidered, silver, satin slippers peeking out from the hems of his skirts.

“Ali, why are you dressed like that?”

“Oh, Dear Percy, you truly are my hero, as you always had promised me you would be. For have you not finally freed me of the cruel shackles that bound me to my father’s accursed house?”

“Ali?”

“No, it is I, your Sweet Ela.”

“Ela? No, you’re Ali, what is the meaning of this?”

“Ali? Who is this Ali of whom you speak? Have you forsaken me for another, I would never do that to you, Dear Percy. Did I not prove it so, when I held your name in my heart, never giving it up to my father, as the symbol of our love grew inside me? I was true to the end, you must know that, don’t you, Dear Percy?”

Percival just stared, he knew this could not be Eleanor, he was a modern gentleman, he did not believe in ghosts. It was Ali. Yet she, no he, looked so perfect, exactly as Eleanor had looked on that night he had decided to seduce her, his first act of revenge against his hated uncle, who had done nothing to help his parents as they lay on their death beds. And how did Ali know his darkest secret? Only he and Eleanor had known the truth. If others had known, surely Uncle Leroy would have known and conducted his own revenge already.

It was almost as if this was Ela.

But no, that was impossible. It could not be. This was Ali, Alister, the beggar boy playing tricks.

He just needed to convince himself, let his intelligence conquer his imagination. He just needed that one thread to grasp, to pull, to unravel the mystery before him. And he knew the picture was not perfect, something was missing, what was it?

The shawl! Eleanor had worn a matching shawl with the gown, against the cold. It had even been included when sitting for the portrait painter. Yes, he needed to latch onto the missing shawl.

But before he could saying anything, something flickered before his eyes. He felt it wrap around his throat. He had forgotten Billy, distracted as he had been by Alister. Reaching up, he tried to squeeze fingers between the skin at his throat and the silken noose, of the missing shawl. He swung a fist backwards, but all he heard was a grunt, Billy undeterred in squeezing the life from him. Struggling, he watched Alister reach the bottom of the stairs and approach. Desperately he reached out, seeking any help.

Alister just stared, before speaking in his own voice. “Really Percival, you don’t believe in ghosts? Do you?”

Brushing aside the reaching hand, Alister took one more step forward, to plant a delicate fist in the stomach of the struggling man. It knocked both the wind and fight from him, causing him to slump. Yet Billy did not let this distract him, instead taking the opportunity to plant a knee in the man’s back, gaining more leverage with the silk, which was wrapped almost as cruelly about  his hands as Percival’s neck. Unwilling to chance letting go, he held on as all struggles ceased, then he held on even longer as the body became a limp corpse. Only when Alister nodded at him, did he finally stop.

“Leave the shawl around his neck, Billy. Maybe we can convince them it was Eleanor’s final revenge. Here, can you help me with the buttons of the dress, I think it should stay with the shawl.”

“Criminy, Ali, of course. If’n we don’t, I may end up thinking you actually are Miss Eleanor.”

“Well that was the reasoning behind raiding her closet, as well as her jewelry box. But Madame Heston did take it to another level, didn’t she, and on such short notice. I’ll be right back, I need to get my things.”

Arranging the dress to lie beside the sprawled corpse of Percival, Alister rushed up the stairs, coming down only moments later after having put on his green dress and coat, carrying the two garment bags, once again full of clothes, along with the better quality of jewelry which Billy had hocked during the day, raising the funds needed for their escape. He also carried Eleanor’s letter, but that soon fluttered down to lay upon the dress.

“So, Big Brother, what’s the plan?”

“I’ve got us a room at The Turtledove. The rest of our things are there. The inn’s near where the Portsmouth coach starts out in the morning. We have tickets on it tomorrow. In Portsmouth we should be able to catch a ship to America.”

“America? I think I will like that. Hopefully I will be able to shed these skirts once and for all.”

“You can do it tonight if you want?”

“I do, but it will be better cover for us to disguise ourselves as husband and wife for the time being. I’ve lasted this long, surely I can handle however long it will take.”

“It’s up to you, Ali.”

“Yes. Well I guess that’s it then. Time to go.”

Letting Billy take the two bags, Alister held the door, looking inside for a moment, staring at their recent partner, and said, “It was him or us, Billy. I’m sure he realized that.”

Billy just grunted, though he looked at the horse waiting out front. “You know, I really hope someone comes along to look after that horse. It’s just not right ta leave a fine beast like that in such shape.”

The End

Bravery of the Nameless

Bravery of the Nameless

by Arcie Emm

At the fence-line she stopped, staring at her home, and wondering if it was safe to return to the unhappy house. Were her parents still yelling at each other or had winter settled between the two? Would her return draw their glacial stares?

Probably.

And it was so unfair, she was not to blame. She was never to blame, just the easiest. As a female, despite being oldest, she was always judged, maybe not as worthless, but definitely as worth less than her brother. Eric the fair-haired angel to her mother, hope to her father, and sniveling, little weasel to her. Eric, who was so good at playing her mother against her father and vice versa, who always got his way despite the damage it did to everyone else, in particular her.

Seeking Escape

Seeking Escape

by Arcie Emm

“I hate my job!”

Of course nobody heard him, he would never make that statement in the presence of others. But here in his private sanctuary, sealed away from the outside world, he held no fear of being overheard. Here he could think his own thoughts, speak them aloud, and truly be himself. The him who liked pretty things, instead of the him that held such a bleak job. It was always a relief to get home and escape from reality.

Well almost always. Today he was unable to fully immerse himself in his fantasies, his job would not let him. He could gaze fondly at the pretty things in his closet, smile at their brightness, and feel the softness. But he was unable to fully indulge, for he was on call and unsure that he would have enough time to make it worthwhile.

Gronk

Gronk

by Arcie Emm

It was a calm night, moonlight being disturbed but rarely by the passage of clouds. And nowhere was the result of this better seen than if one were to stand upon the stone bridge and look down at the reflection shown in creek over which it crossed. Of course there was nobody silly enough to be caught upon that bridge at any time, little alone at night.

The reason for this could barely be seen, floating beside the bridge, his grey skin almost matching the darkened colour of the water. Thus camouflaged he would have been impossible to spot, if not for the long nose sticking out of the water and the platter-like eyes reflecting moonlight he would not have been visible at all. Not that Gronk the Troll was interested in the night, beyond the fact that it did not rain like it had for the last week, which allowed him to pursue serious troll business. He was performing bridge inspection.

A Day with the Champion

A Day with the Champion

by Arcie Emm

It was said that amongst the denizens of the palace, only Emperor Cintarian enjoyed the day known by some as Audience Day, and to most others as Judgment Day. Yet not because of the power that he could wield over his subjects, that power did not need a special day to manifest. No he enjoyed Audience Day because everyone else was so busy that, except for the three hours devoted to dressing before and conducting the audience, most of his day would be free to pursue passion of the moment, currently that being painting.

Amongst everyone else no such benefit could be found. For the nobility, it often served as a bitter reminder that despite their great powers, so too could they be judged. For the bureaucrats who enriched themselves by controlling access to the emperor, it was a day where their wealth did not grow and strict were the lessons against those who tempted to sell a time slot on that day, as the seller often found himself taking it to be judged himself. For the Emperor’s Chosen, the day was one of worry, with everyone having the right to have their cause heard, the palace gates were opened wide to those without security clearance and who were often angry. For the palace servants, there were the additional guests to house and feed, never mind the disgusting task of cleaning the Audience Chamber’s floor after certain judgments. And for the Champion, well he hated having his routine changed.

Ghastly to be woken before sun up. Yet what else could he do, on this day of any day, he needed to be ready to do his duty. So early morning found him in his private gymnasium stretching and running through simple forms to loosen muscles, ensuring his body would not betray him that day. Then to the masseuse table to loosen tightness in his left calf muscle, before a full body massage, with aromatic oils, left his golden skinned body glistening with health. A body so unlike any that have previously laid upon that table in the champion’s quarters.

Even different than Agnes Dubrovsky, the champion who had started him on his improbable path to this day. Hatchet face and with a body little different than the those she defeated to earn the position, her victory had shocked the worlds of the Empire. None more than the Felintin, home of many past champions, where the belief was that Agnes only won because Empress Ceelasion wished to have a female champion. There was a great deal of outrage.

But not at the dueling salon of Werther Kelimon champion of the Canton of Sedicrew, who despite being a wonderful teacher constantly lost his most gifted students to schools run by those of greater renown. He saw it as an opportunity to differentiate himself from better known schools, yet even he was too hidebound to open his doors to a female student. Instead he had keyed upon Nilson Fegrew, winner of the canton’s last two Youth Fencing Tournaments. His skill being the only thing keeping Nilson from being the butt of every joke for being to pretty for a boy. Informed of the offer, Nilson had begged and cajoled his father into selling his personal bond to Master Wether, hoping escape from the boredom of life on their farm.

Years later, Nilson often found himself wondering if he would have been so eager had he been aware of Werther’s plans for his new bondsman. Usually Nilson could convince himself the answer was no.

Yet sometimes, when life weighed heavy, he was not sure. Nilson still remembered the universal shock when The Scepter, along with the Empress and her champion, was lost in space. It had been almost two years into his studies, not long after he stopped denying what was being done to his body, and Kelimon had decided to end the experiment upon learning the new Emperor Cintarian’s Champion was a man. Both fearful of what would happen if cut adrift and eager to continue his studies, Nilson had reluctantly embraced what had been done to him and used it to worm his way into the Werther’s arms. Earning himself a permanent place, Nilson proved a most apt pupil on the mats of both the salon and Master Werther’s bedroom. Having been so willing to exploit something he had previously fought against, it was not hard to imagine that he would have accepted the master’s offer even if fully aware of the man’s plan.

Finished with his massage, Nilson wrapped himself into a robe, moved to a table, and began to eat the simple meal that had been set upon it. Eating the unflavoured noodles and seared squid, while washing it down with a specially prepared drink, was the last step to preparing his body for what may come that day. He would have preferred to do it in quiet solitude, but there was no time, so he did stop his body servants as they began to work on his appearance for the day. Truthfully, though he never said it aloud, he found their gentle fingers rather soothing.

First they worked on the golden hair, which during his days on the beginner circuits had earned him fame beyond his skills with a sword. Long and straight, it brushed the floor at the back of the chair on which he sat. Completely inappropriate though it seemed for his chosen profession, it served a purpose. As Jelynn brushed the hair away from his face, to begin creating a thick braid, Terise began to attach small tablets, a centimeter square of ivory, silver, gold, copper, brass, or steel. Personal marks of those he had defeated in his career, it was these that demanded his hair be so long, for all to fit. They only left enough length in which to weave a metal weight, that with a sudden spin could leave an opponent stunned.

Nilson’s bowls were empty long before his hair was complete, so closing his eyes he brought himself into a meditative state. One that was not broken even as Terise began to paint his face, both enhancing its beauty and forming a haughty mask he could hide behind. At the same time lacquered his  long nails with a burnished copper, creating never used, though welcome weapons of last defense.

Only as they moved away did he open his eyes. Knowing they would return with his uniform, he stood to perform another form, testing that his braid did not bring unbalance. Spinning to a stop he saw them watching him, a question in their eyes. Speaking for the first time that day, in his surgically created soprano voice, Nilson said, “Perfectly done ladies.”

Smiling, they moved forward to dress him. An activity that did not require involve much. His uniform was the result of years of experimentation and though not as exotic as most, for instance he had fought for over a year wearing nothing but paint, it hid little. Wary though he had been when he first adopted it, believing greater dignity should be shown as Emperor’s Champion, he had quickly grown to enjoy its fit. Nor had it been as big of economic hit as he had worried. Admittedly the licensing fees he received from the sale of vids from his fights had dropped, vids that had made him such a hit behind closed doors, but they had been offset by sales of his holographs that were more socially acceptable to display.

Armour being useless against vibra-blades. Nilson wore a sleeveless tunic of feather-lite, white silk embroidered with golden thread around its short skirt and collar, which slithered over wonderful curves as he moved. Underneath there was even less, just a small silken thong, which offered distracting glimpses to an opponent.

Yet most would be surprised to learn the flatness it covered was little different than what was hidden under the trousers of most of the top duelists. Recognizing the potential weakness to blows between their legs, many underwent a surgical procedure that created pouch inside their body in which they could tuck themselves, somewhat safely, away. Admittedly they would not stay tucked away for the extended periods that were normal for Nilson, nor have his cosmetic enhancements, but the idea was the same.

On his feet were boots of Interium raptor leather dyed a gold colour. No longer were they thigh high, as earlier in his career. He found that those limited his flexibility and speed. Now he wore ones that were knee-high and only covered his shins, leaving narrow straps encircling the back of his legs, which minimized the sweat and the sloshy feeling that could occur during a fight. However, he had not gotten rid of the ten centimeter high heels from those original boots. He found the added height brought him closer to eye-level with those he fought, plus the deutuxon stilettos were another surprise he had put to good use.

Twisting and turning in front of a full length mirror, Nilson ensured everything was perfect before offering his thanks to and receiving well wishes from his ladies. Then opening the door he moved out into the sitting lounge of his quarters, where he spotted a older man dozing in a chair. Smiling, he crossed the floor, leaned over to plant a quick kiss on a cheek, and say, “Time to wake up Master.”

“What? Oh, I’m not asleep girly, just resting my eyes.”

“Yeah, right.”

Through it all Nilson had kept Werther Kelimon at his side. No longer lovers, they had moved even beyond mentor and pupil to become best friends. Mutually and wordlessly they usually left the past buried, both what the man had done to the boy and the payment the no-longer boy had later offered to stay. Werther continued to prepare his pupil for what he would face with sword in hand, but rarely offered advice about life. Though he was always there to offer support when decisions made did not to consequences sought. With Werther, unlike with everybody else including himself, Nilson was content being a lovely girl.

Rising to his feet, with the grace of a Master Swordsman, Werther picked up a belt and scabbard, matching Nilson`s boots, and offered, “Shall I?”

“No it bruises the silk of my tunic, can you hold it for me?”

“Of course my dear. Will you wear your cape?”

“I can’t very well ignore a gift of the Emperor’s.”

“No you can’t. Here let me help you with it.” He agreed, before draping the cloak of white satin and gold trim over the champion’s shoulders. Then as Nilson fastened the golden clasp, fashioned in the shape of the Emperor’s phoenix, the older man pulled the long braid free. “Honestly I don’t know how you manage this thing, it weighs a ton.”

“Hardly. But I am so used to it that I would be hopelessly unbalanced without it.”

“Like the raptor whose boots you wear after your accidentally shot off its tail?”

“Very funny. Have you heard what is on the docket?”

“Rumours imply that it is a light load and that your services will not be needed. Still I don’t like rumours and wish I could get more from those damned paper pushers. They are under the impressions that you are sort of on the outs with the emperor and do not believe it is worth their time to talk to me.”

”They’re right. The two of us have nothing in common and in bed we’re both too subby for the other’s enjoyment.”

“I`m sorry.”

“Not your fault old man. After your time I spent too much time seeking love from those who were afraid of me. In seeking to quell their fears it became natural to let myself be controlled. It’s better when the Empress is with us, she naturally takes charge.”

Embarrassed at where the conversation had gone and still feeling guilty, Werther mumbled, “We better go if we are to make it on time.”

“Yes.”

Striding together through the halls of the palace, Werther seemed to fade away, silent of step and shrunken of appearance, as the Amazon beside him drew all attention. As was proper. Soon they entered the mostly full Audience Chamber, ignoring all stares as they moved to take their place at the side of the dais upon which sat two empty thrones. Their wait was short, as almost immediately a fan fare was followed by the entrance of the royal couple, both showing well-bred loveliness. Even the Emperor, though his was a strangely masculine form of beauty.

After his comments to Werther, Nilson was pleased to see that the Empress’s return from the planet of Vernigar, where she had been visiting her family. But now was not the time to think about bridging his relationship with the Emperor, for his tunic would too easily display those thoughts. Better to focus on the droning major domo.

Soon bored with this and the cases being brought forward, he joined in the activity of most in the audience, studying each other. Scanning the crowd his eye was drawn to a red cloak, but of course is was not Dugus von Majoriol, he existed only in Nilson’s past.

Of all his lovers, art loving Dugus had come the closest to being something, but like Werther he had ended up becoming more mentor than companion. Not in the arts of war, but in those of being a woman. It had been Dugus who seen that he learned the manner of a lady, who had planned and payed for the body sculpting that had given Nilson the face and body of what Dugus called a devilish angel. Yet these changes had caused the end of their physical relationship, Dugus had been more interested in the previously angular and still boyish Nilson. They had soon completely parted ways.

A year later Nilson had spent most of week red-eyed, after hearing that Dugus has died in speeder crash with his latest prodigy.

The sound of raised voices pulled his attention away from the man in the red cloak and to the case being argued and that was the correct word. Quickly he determined that it was a tax case, the boy who tried to be old enough to be a man, argued on his family’s behalf trying to explain away their arrears so they did not lose their farm. But despite his passion, Nilson could see that the prosecutor, who embarrassed the boy with a blatant description of his father’s drunkenness and gambling problems, would win the day.

Unless...

...and there it was.

“I seek final judgment.”

With those words, boredom faded from amongst the audience. This is why they were there, hopeing to see the champion at work. Even to just cut down some farm boy who played with the vibra-blade sword so common throughout the empire, a weapon of personal safety, yet useless in revolt against the blasters of the Imperial Army. While they leaned forward, Nilson sighed and reached up to undo the phoenix clasp. Not looking back, knowing it would be caught by Werther, he stuck out a hand waiting for that worthy to slap the hilt of his own blade into palm.

Moving forward, he stopped at the throne, when the emperor gestured, “Disarm him first, I would make an offer.”

“Yes Sire.”

Stepping into the open space in front of the thrones, Nilson studied the boy. Apparently shocked at his own actions he dully studied the swords available for those seeking justice. Finally he took one, sobbed a deep breath and moved in front of Nilson.

Looking across at the scared face Nilson knew that this fight would supply no personal mark to join the others in his hair, yet he offered the full duelists salute. It cost him nothing, while offering respect for the boy’s courage. But that was all that Nilson was willing to offer, he could not make what followed into more of a fight, that would be disrespectful to Werther and all those like him. Still the lightning strike that usually followed a disarming was slow enough to be interrupted.

“Hold my Champion. Young man, I am impressed by your passion and bravery, if not by your intelligence. Yet I offer you a deal, give yourself to my army for an enlistment of ten years and I will wipe out the arrears of your family. This time.”

Falling almost over himself in a bow, the boy could not agree fast enough. Then triumphantly he walked from the room with the Sergeant-at-Arms, off to his new life, while thinking the smiles of the audience were for him. Nilson wondered how long it would take the boy to remember the Emperor’s use of “this time” and realize that his family’s farm would soon be once more doomed by his father’s actions.

Another gesture brought Nilson to stand beside the pleased Emperor’s throne, instead of off to the side. This time with sword still in hand Nilson paid more attention to the next cases, that attention turning the cases quite academic. Soon his attention wandered back to the boy’s bravery.

It made him wonder if he had shown the same bravery, when first he had decided to seduce Werther, how different his life would be. Looking back, he now knew that at that point he had barely dipped his toe in the pool of femininity. Maybe he would have been able to return to the farm, find his own wife, maybe even be happy. Maybe...yes, tonight he would remove himself from his pouch, take Terise or Jelynn, possibly both, to bed and remind himself what it was to be a man. Smiling at the thought his eye was drawn to the couple entering the room and moving to a pair of seats.

The man’s type was obvious, even if he did not know his name Nilson knew him to be a duelist, like those whose marks adorned his braid. But it was the woman who took his breath away, petite and beautiful, he was shocked to see Valentina deBroge, the last of his lover mentors. It had been she who had raised him up to be champion and she who completely torn away the doors holding back his submissiveness in bed. Primed to her presence his response immediately manifested as twin points showing through the silk of his tunic.

Almost instantaneously vid cameras were focussed upon him. But those observant reporters were not the only one to notice the Champion’s reaction to the new arrivals. So too did the Emperor, who frowned before reaching out to possessively grasp and caress a gleaming thigh, below the short skirt of white tunic.

The surprising firmness of the Emperor’s touch, combined with Valentina’s presence, even the knowledge that his reaction would be broadcast into every home of the empire was heady stuff. Dreamily closing his eyes, he could not stop the purr that escaped between his parted lips. All thoughts of Terise or Jelynn were wiped from his mind, right then he could only think about being taken by the Emperor.

Tomorrow he would remember Valentina’s smirk as she studied his reaction. Remember back to when the two of them had come to observe Audience Day, while they had still been together.

Tomorrow he would begin to think about defeating her latest paramour.

The End


Afterward:

Sometimes a character pops into my head and seems so perfect, yet closer study shows gaps through which I can drive a truck. Nilson was such a character who marched into my thoughts a few days ago shouting at me to write a story about his life. Yet quickly I realized it would become repetitive within itself. Instead I decided upon this approach, hinting at instead of reliving. So in a night I basically tried to write a portrait. Caught in a moment, but somewhat distanced.

And in my mind’s eye the visual portrait I saw was of Corson brenn Torisk, a character created by J.F.Rivkin and drawn in the following picture, possibly by Luis Royo:

Champion Butterfly

A people at risk, barbarians at the gate, how many times have I heard that story? How many times has it been my duty to stop it from it from happening? But then would I want it any other way?

So when I was called before milady I was not surprised to hear the story one more time. However, when I realized how different my task would be from normal I worried that my skills were not those needed. They weren't, but...

The Tower of Astrielle

With the arrival of the Tower of the The Great Witch Astrielle on Vilimar's soil, none could ignore the threat. Even Sir Garmra, last of the despised Knights of Ceredol.

A Sylph Protected / A Shootist Avenged

Escaped from Prince Fallan on Darson, Sascha finds himself struggling to understand and survive in the universe into which he has been thrust. It will take all of his skills, both those of a Sylph and those of a Shootist, to overcome the challenges in his path.

Making Friends

Bernie the Junkman made a decent living fixing and selling bots and droids out amongst the asteroid miners. He was basically content, sure his life wasn't perfect and he was a bit of a loner, but despite that he didn't mind being Bernie. Then from a broken robot he learned what could make him even more content.