Duke of Pleasure(5)

By: Elizabeth Hoyt

Her nest was one big room—big enough for an entire family to live in, really—but only she lived here. On one wall was a row of wooden pegs, and she hung up her hat and mask there. Across from the window was a brick chimney where she’d left the fire carefully banked. She crossed to it and squatted in front of the tiny hearth—a half moon not much bigger than her head, the brick blackened and crumbling. But this high up it drew well enough, and that was the important thing. She stirred the red eyes of the embers with a broken iron rod and stuck some straw on top, then blew gently until the straw smoked and lit. Then she added five pieces of coal, one at a time. When her little fire was burning nicely, she lit a candle and stood it on the rough shelf above the fireplace.

The half-burned candle gave a happy little glow. Alf touched her fingertip to the candlestick’s base and then to the little round mirror next to it. The mirror reflected the tiny candle flame. She tapped her tin cup, a yellow pottery jug she’d found years ago, and her ivory comb. Ned had given her the comb the day before he’d disappeared, and it was perhaps her most precious possession.

Then she picked up a bottle of oil and a rag from the end of the shelf and sat on a three-legged stool by the pile of blankets she used as a bed.

Her long sword was mostly clean. She stroked the oiled cloth along the blade and then tilted it to the candlelight to check for nicks in the edge. The two swords had cost most of her savings and she made sure to keep them clean and razor sharp, both because they were her pride and because in the dark woods they were her main weapons as the Ghost. The long sword’s edge looked good, so she resheathed it and set it aside.

Her short blade was bloodied. That she worked on for a bit with the cloth, humming to herself under her breath. The cloth turned rust red and the sword turned mirror bright.

The sky outside her attic window turned pale pink.

She hung up her swords in their scabbards on the row of pegs. She unbuttoned her padded and quilted tunic, patterned all over in black and red diamonds. Underneath was a plain man’s shirt and she took that off as well, hanging them both up as she shivered in the winter-morning air. Her boots she stood underneath the pegs. Her leggings, also covered in black and red diamonds, hung neatly next to the shirt.

Then she was just in her boys’ smallclothes and dark stockings and garters. Her shoulder-length hair was clubbed, but she took it down and ran her fingers through it, making it messy. She bound her hair back again with a bit of leather cord and let a few strands hang in her face. She took a length of soft cloth and wound it around her breasts, binding them flat, but not too tightly, because it was hard to draw a deep breath otherwise. Besides, her breasts weren’t that big to begin with.

She pulled on a big man’s shirt, a stained brown waistcoat, a tattered pair of boys’ breeches, and a rusty black coat. She put a dagger in her coat pocket, another in the pocket of her waistcoat, and a tiny blade in a thin leather sheath under her right foot in her shoe. She smashed an old wide-brimmed hat on her head and she was Alf.

A boy.

Because this was what she was.

At night she was the Ghost of St Giles. She protected the people of St Giles—her people, living in the big, dark woods. She ran out the monsters—the murderers and rapists and robbers. And she flew over the roofs of the city by moonlight, free and wild.

During the day she was Alf, a boy. She made her living dealing in information. She listened and learned, and if you wanted to know who was running pickpocket boys and girls in Covent Gardens or which doxies had the clap or even what magistrate could be bought and for how much, she could tell you and would—for a price.

But whether the Ghost or Alf, what she wasn’t and would never be, at least not in St Giles, was a woman.