Virginia wasn’t from the Town. She had simply arrived there; wafted in on a spring breeze last year. Nobody knew much about her. She kept to herself, mostly—reading books in the gabled windows of her father’s home, taking strolls along the riverbanks at dusk, crooning softly to herself—a haunting tune that spoke of other places but was also, if you listened long enough, about the Town itself, and somehow, everyone in it. Every so often a young man followed her on these walks at a distance, peering around the trunks of trees, as she passed through light and dappled shadow. They never seemed quite the same after. One or two disappeared altogether.
It was a surprise, then, when she arrived at the midsummer fair, dressed in an elegant off-the-shoulder gown that showcased her perfect collarbones, her impossibly small waist. They certainly didn’t sell anything like that in Town, the women gossiped. She must have had it sent in from the City. Or tailor-made. Or even ordered from Abroad, beyond the seas.
The gentlemen did not stop to wonder where her dress had come from. They stopped their conversations when she passed close by, and stood up a little straighter, smoothing their tusks and tipping their hats.
The Committee had outdone itself this year for the Midsummer Fair. A creaking wooden Ferris wheel rose into the sunny skies. Lady Spore poured fresh glasses of iced dandelion wine for everyone who passed by. Joe and Shae ran underfoot, shrieking and kicking up dust, all fears of Harrakti forgotten. Under a purple velvet canopy near the fringes of the fairgrounds, Zinn was foretelling the futures of curious townsfolk in her deep, gravelly voice. And onlookers cheered as Ivan whacked the high striker to its apex, ringing the bell.
The bustle of the day didn’t seem to reach Virginia. She strolled silently up and down the rows of stalls, a lace parasol in hand to shade her alabaster shoulders. Somehow, her dress maintained its perfect champagne hue as it trailed behind her.
As the evening wore on, the band struck up a cheerful tune in the marquee tent, and folk and beasts alike were drawn in to whirl under the festooned canopy. The twinkling lights swayed overhead, and the sounds of the fair still echoed outside—the whirring engines, the calls of the hawkers.
Virginia stood at the edge of the dance floor, looking perfectly comfortable and perfectly unapproachable. But then, as the band slid into a slightly mournful waltz, a close observer would have noticed her hips begin to sway almost imperceptibly.
Madame Oiseaux was dancing with General Ruzo, and Giulia was laughing as she capered around the floor with Cedric—he was shaking hands with everyone they passed while still keeping a firm grip around her waist. Celia was glancing subtly over at Rafe and then back at her feet, but he was watching Virginia with hunger in his eyes. He wanted to hold the small of her back and kiss each vertebra. He wanted to run a finger along her glistening lamellae and whisper into her auditory canals. There was something about her that called him closer, but also made him faintly afraid.
Palms sweating, he edged towards her, and managed to pull her gently into a dance. The lights of the tent shivered and swam around him as they turned; the rhythm pounding behind his ribcage—one, two, three; one, two, three. Virginia gave a quiet approving roar, and he felt it prickle all the way down his spine.
As the final notes of the waltz transitioned into a lively two-step and the Townsfolk cheered, Rafe and Virginia slipped from the tent and towards the boardwalk. Away from the raucous sounds of the Fair, he was suddenly aware of the shivering sound her dress made as it trailed behind her, and the subtle lapping of the river as it wound southward. The stars above seemed especially bright. He spotted the constellation of the Visitor to the north, the only one he could ever remember.
As they walked, Rafe could think of nothing at all to say. Thoughts rose and then died before reaching his lips, none feeling quite sufficient. Normally, this would have made him uncomfortable, but silence felt natural tonight. There was nothing they needed to say.
They kicked off their shoes and sat side by side on the boardwalk, feet dangling in the deliciously cool water. He held her hand in his lap, caressing each silken fingertip. As the moon rose over the blackened trees on the opposite bank, they turned toward each other, faces shining silver. Virginia reached a slender arm around his back, spread her oral cavity wide, and devoured him whole.
She stood up, smoothing her dress over her hips. A graceful gesture from her small bare foot cast his vacant shoes into the current below, where they landed with a splash and sank out of sight. And she continued her slow promenade, crooning to herself.
By Lindsay Vermeulen