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author: hazard_us ([livejournal.com profile] hazard_us)
email: scorpio_kaur [at] yahoo.com

At the edge of the Great Hall there was a tapestry that showed the routing of her country's legendary champion by her current host's legendary champion. She was not offended; her liege’s castle had the exact same tapestry, the positions of the champions reversed. She pretended to examine it. Those nearest ignored her; she was foreign and ignorant and she would not understand what they spoke of.

She covertly watched them. Her role in this farce was to watch suspected fomentors against this fledgling peace before reporting to her Lord and Lady. It was a fact of this life that peace would lead to dissent; peace was not profitable.

Her eyes were drawn to the main floor. She was no dancer. The sea of faces swirled in dizzying movements to the discordant music. As they turned and parted in unfamilar patterns, she caught a glimpse of someone she thought she would never see in this place.

Why was this not a masquerade? A civilized country would open with a masquerade! She snapped her fan over her face, hoping that it would save her from recognition. He should not be here!

She could not leave her corner of the room now without drawing attention to herself. She remembered what her country’s castle held behind its tapestry. Slipping behind the tapestry and felt with cold fingers for a change in stone. When she found it, she tapped gently and was through the space before it had completely slid open. Royalty was not particularly creative.

She knew it was dangerous to trip through secret passages in unfamiliar castles, but she had done this many times before in more hostile territory. She ignored her pinching silk slippers (so unsuitable for her work), her heavy dress (that saved itself from being completely useless with its possibilities for concealment), and the sucking dampness of the passage floor.

She had only one thought - that she could not be trapped here. Yet the pattern behind her single thought was as strange as the dancers’ steps on the floor; fear was partnered with longing respect, anger pirouetted with respectful longing.

She came to a door, listened for a moment, then stepped outside. Light from the windows of the Great Hall filtered through the last leaves on the ornamental trees in the garden. The scent of rotting crocus and verbena lingered in the cold air and she shivered at the smell of chrysanthemum; there were no good memories in these flowers. This place was not safe.

She had to get to her suite, where she could change her cover and arrange for someone else to take her place. She could not imperil this peace by being recognized as what she was; a spy for her Lord and Lady. She only needed a little more time and -

And then, as the music changed to a familiar dance from her homeland, she heard the crunch of leaves on the ground.

It was him. He had always been good with shadows, making them his own wherever he went. It had been part of his charm when they first met.

He stepped forward into the clearing and shook off his darkness. He was wearing the regalia of this foreign nation; there was no doubt about where his purchased loyalty lay. "Were you not enjoying the party?" he asked in his own tongue, a language from a far-off land that she could understand, but only barely speak.

She was silent, because she was listening for his breath, because there was nothing to say. Their kind only spoke truly with ends and means.

He did not close in on her because he knew well enough what she could do. "You left, lady."

He was not referring to the party. He spoke of the time with the sorcerer where they had worked on the same side. They had won against the corrupted magician that day and won in another way that night, as each recognized their twinning twining ways and found a release in someone who was as familiar with untruths and half-lifes as they were. And then -

"You left me at the inn." She did not know what emotion played on his face when he said, "At least you paid for the room."

They were two of a kind, the dangerous type. That was why she mistrusted the voice inside that swore he could not harm her, not after all he had whispered into her ear months ago, when it had been the two of them, stealing moments from their patrons.

"We can speak freely. There are none in the garden. They are entranced, dancing to the tune of your lady - and they haven’t realized that she plays the music you orchestrate." He played with a button on his sleeve. Every movement was danger.

She wielded his language clumsily. "Then speak freely I shall. What price your loyalty this time?"

They had worked to frustrate each other before, but it had been a game to them. For all their jousting, they had never so obviously been on opposing sides as this and never for such high stakes.

"You must know it." He brushed at a sleeve. "It was a pity your land did not think me worth the price."

More than a pity, she thought. They were at cross purposes and an impasse. "Your employers, they favor not this new arrangement between kings then?"

"Unfortunately, no." His voice was neutral. "You understand what I must do."

Of course she understood. He would report her to his employers, and they would use her presence here to destroy any trust that had been built. They would agitate against the renewed friendship between the countries - and it would be another hundred years of ignorance - or worse yet, war.

The enemy's best proof would be her body.

She tensed when he stepped forward into a splash of light from the windows above, but his face, it spoke everything their words, their ends, and their means could not. "You will leave this nation unharmed. I swear it."

It was more than he should give her. "You should not," she whispered.

He stepped towards her, offering his hand to her, like one of the dancers in the ballroom high above them. "I must."

She took his hand, allowed him to pull her close, and they kissed. She closed her eyes. The smell of the dead garden enveloped her, just as his arms did, just as her poison-dipped dagger found its place in his ribs.

She was not strong. When he staggered, she could not catch him and he slumped against a stone bench. She knelt next to him, her fingers cradling his face, and whispered to him. Later, she would not remember what she spoke. Whatever it was, it pleased him, because he smiled, touched her hands, kissed her fingers with cold lips and then died.

When she was leagues away on a fresh horse, she would allow herself to mourn him, for his final kindness and final weakness.

And she would reflect that sometimes, it was very difficult to dance alone.

the end
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