No one knew Richard St. Clair’s assistant was a woman—or so he assumed until someone fed him a love potion.
She—he—Phillip(a) was a slim, tallish woman, coming just above Richard’s shoulder (though he suspected her black boots held lifts). She kept her dark red hair closely cropped, the ends tucked under a soft clerk’s cap. In the office, she occasionally stripped off her frock coat to lean over the tables in her vest and white shirt. Richard guessed that she wrapped her breasts though they were likely not very large. She couldn’t hide the narrowness of her shoulders or the subtle flare of her hips though the frock coat covered her shape most of the time.
She made no other efforts to hide her sex. Her face was an oval with a straight nose and slight cleft in the chin. No pasted-on mustache. No false whiskers.
Yet no one seemed to notice. Richard held a minor position in the Office of the Administration of Acreage which included the development of public property plus the inspection and taxation of private land.
He and Phillip(a) occupied a small office of many wooden cabinets, a few low-slung couches, and two large tables for maps and blueprints. The small sign on the door read Department for the Verification of Historical Value, which meant Richard was responsible for determining whether houses and land should be labeled landmarks or plowed over.
The department currently focused on properties in Roesia’s capital, Kingston (“Newville,” some ministers wanted to call it to honor the bloodless retirement of the royal family, but the name just wouldn’t stick).
Phillip(a) helped Richard with inspections and occasionally drafted parts of (exceptionally lengthy) documents for ministerial approval. They visited properties together; Phillip(a) spent afternoons in New Government House’s library researching legal arguments or sat behind Richard in committee meetings, taking notes and handing him potential explanations to ministers’ queries.
No one looked at her twice; no one sniggered or whispered; no one winked or smirked at Richard. Did they truly see pants, short hair, and a frock coat and think, “Male”?
Richard couldn’t remember when he’d realized Phillip(a) was a woman. He couldn’t remember ever not knowing, but surely, in that initial meeting—?
He’d been in the middle of the Trefuen Approval of dumpy, ancient homesteads whose historical value lay more in their foundations than the walls and interiors.
Richard had managed to convince the ministers to turn the property over to the new archaeology department at Kingston Technical College (the Academy, that supposed bastion of all research and education in Roesia, poured scorn on the workmanlike aspects of new sciences like archaeology).
In the middle of endless meetings and multiple inspections, sometimes aided, sometimes hampered by the overeager college heads, Phillipa(a) appeared to locate blueprints, deliver messages, and proofread appeals.
I must have known.
Richard just hadn’t cared.
* * *
Richard's new appointment had enabled his family to purchase a house in Kingston in Residence District on the edge of Trades. He sat in the small but tasteful dining room across the table from his fiancée, Gloria Cartwright. She was lecturing his younger brother, Andrew, in her mild remorseless way on the importance of reputation “even at school” (Andrew would return to Bailey College at the end of the week). In a few minutes, Richard would divert her. He would mention that Lord Rustilion had complimented his latest report or that his inspections had brought him in contact with the Duke of Ennance. Like Richard, Gloria was a proponent of the new-non-royal Government. Like Richard, she tactfully honored aristocrats for their past service to the state. Unlike Richard, she seemed to actually believe her sycophancy.
“You never know when a misguided action will destroy your future,” Gloria told Andrew who was trying to pretend to be absorbed by his food without being obviously rude. “You don’t want to be the object of wagging tongues.”
She was an entirely humorless woman, blind to nuance let alone innuendo. She had prowled society events since her coming out six years earlier, rejecting interested suitors (the Cartwrights had money after all). When Richard had finally obtained a government post, she’d snatched him up, Richard had no idea why.
But he’d let himself be snatched. His family—Mother (currently visiting friends in Ennance), Andrew (a student at Bailey College), and his sister Aubrey (recently married)—had lurked on the edges of “good” society for years of mind-numbing attendance at garden parties, soirees, balls (costume and other), operas, chorals, promenades in the park. Mother, who enjoyed it all, took the lead but all of them had to pander to their betters: flatter, cajole, sell themselves.
Richard had been relieved to have it over, to settle into a government post where he could prove himself by work rather than through small-talk. He had seen his engagement to Gloria as stabilization of his good fortune. She wasn’t unattractive: a plump, tidy woman with a permanently good-natured expression.
Unfortunately, her good-natured expression belied a narrow mind, vigilant to falls from grace. She wasn’t affectionate. She wasn’t interesting. She wasn’t fascinated by history, amused by ministerial oddities or (even) Richard’s moods.
She was nothing like Phillip(a).
He couldn’t break the engagement. Civil servants didn’t do such things; reputation was the New Government’s mighty weapon—no more philandering aristocrats.
Not that ministers didn’t have affairs. If Phillip(a) were willing . . .
Years of praising incompetents, claiming friendship on the slightest of acquaintances, currying favor with slightly corrupt officials, ignoring more kindly but less politically influential contacts—Richard didn’t have many principles. But he’d be damned before he pursued a possibly unwillingly co-worker who protected her gender carelessly but consistently.
“The connections you make now,” Gloria told Andrew, “will form your life’s aspirations.”
Richard sighed and spoke up: “Lord Rustilion complimented my latest report,” he said and gathered all Gloria’s strident, confident attention to himself.