Lasette’s calves ached and she struggled to lift each leg before she was half-way up the tower. But climbing the stairs again would be the least of her worries if she dropped the Count’s dinner. Propping the tray against an open window she breathed out, letting tension ebb from her exhausted body. All day standing wasn’t new but since Pira’s departure her duties were redoubled, taking her back and forth throughout the castle all day. A Pathfinder’s feet would be sore, she thought.
Then she remembered Pira, and was ashamed for thinking of her feet.
Wind came through the window and tickled the veins of sweat in her hair. Lasette shivered. But, looking out at the jagged spill of orange light where the sun dipped into Lake Sorrow, she thought she could have loved Egorian, were she not born a servant.
She ended her reverie and continued climbing.
Lasette paused as she entered Count Varillius’s study, her eyes adjusting to the muted glow of candlelight. The fire was dying down, and she saw Varillius’s feet through the underside of his plush chair as she climbed the last steps into the room.
“Supper m’lord,” she murmured. Twisting in a strange pirouette, she closed the trap door.
Hope of leaving the tray and running quickly disappeared. She needed to be dismissed. A fist sized knot bloomed in Lasette’s belly and started to writhe.
How could she have been so stupid? She looked at herself in the mirror by the door and the knot grew. Her face was sweat streaked and her hair was a rats’ nest.
And she had forgotten to change. He’d made a point to mention her lower cut bodice the last time he’d “doled out his favors,” as he called it, always with a smug grin.
Quickly, Lasette ran her fingers through her hair, biting her lip as she pulled through knots she would have combed out carefully, spilling her dark, curls across her shoulders in a fetching manner—at least enough to distract from her tattered clothes.
“No” wasn’t an option. They tried to tell Pira that, but she didn’t listen. Her boy, now just two, made her more like a mother and less like a lass to the Count, she’d said, thinking his appetite for her would wane.
In his magnanimity, the Count allowed Pira one refusal. When Pira didn’t learn from her mistake, however, he accused her of theft. Lasette had held Renton, screaming, to her chest the night magistrates hauled his mother from the castle.
They pooled together what coin they had for Pira’s release, raising two golden crests by the time the news came, one week after the arrest. She had fallen en route to her cell, gaining a small but deep cut. Untreated in the filth of Egorian’s dungeons infection came, and then fever…then death.
Renton asked “Where mommy?” at least three times a day. Lasette knew she would have to stop lying to him someday, but life under the Count would break his spirit long before the truth of his mother’s fate would.
She pushed memories of Pira away and rounded the chair to where the Count hunched awkwardly.
Sleep, Lasette thought. She could still run. Setting the tray down, she turned to leave when she saw the twisted angle of Count Varillius’s neck.
His body was slouched, thin limbs splayed like a scarecrow’s. But his chin pointed over his shoulder, as if looking at his back. Approaching, Lasette smelled excrement and knew this was not slumber. Then the firelight reflected off of something inside Varillius’s slack-jawed mouth. She leaned in and saw a single golden crest.
Lasette looked around. Unsurprised that someone had finally murdered the Count, she felt no grief. Her eyes went to the coin again.
No one will know, she thought, and Renton will need things that this bastard owes him. As she reached for the coin, a hand streaked from the shadows by the fire, snaring her wrist.
Lasette screamed, but a thumb jammed quickly into her forearm spread numbness through her, killing her scream before it began.
A figure emerged from the shadows, tall and lean, faded grey clothes wrapped tightly around his body. Firelight shadowed half his face, but Lasette saw sharp cheekbones, a long chin, and cobalt eyes. His black hair was tied back from his head in a braid revealing pointed ears.
“No,” he said with quiet insistence. “That stays.”
His speech seemed labored, Lasette thought, as he released his thumb letting movement and speech return. It was not an accent, but the voice of someone unaccustomed to talking, though he did not stammer.
Then she recognized him.
“The drover!” she whispered hoarsely. “You came through with the Taldane horse merchants last week,” she said, seeing the man as he had been dressed then, in a large straw hat and rough canvas clothes.
“Yes. And you should do something about the rats in the wine cellar,” he added flatly.
Lasette recoiled, sensing danger. “Whatever he did, I had no part in it, I swear,” she stammered, tears welling.
“I know,” he said. “I’m here for him. Just him,” he looked toward the window.
“Because of Pira,” Lasette asked hopefully.
“No,” he responded. “But if Pira suffered like others he ordered dead, or killed with his own hands, then maybe some justice comes her way as well.”
The knot in Lasette’s gut unfolded and went quiet, but then she thought of the Count’s extravagant wealth.
“Why bother,” she asked the assassin. “He has so much money,” she said desperately. “They’ll bring him back. What’s the point?”
He looked at her and Lasette felt frozen in place.
“That is the point,” he said with conviction. “Sometimes when someone sees the beyond, what is waiting, and then wakes to life again…it changes them.”
“What if it doesn’t?” Lasette asked, looking back at the Count’s body, remembering how he ran his hands over her, how he kept his nails long enough to gouge. “What if it doesn’t?”
“He’s one crest richer,” the assassin said. “No matter how much gold he has, some little piece of his new life belongs to me. And I have a right to see how my money is being spent.” He spoke the last words in a whisper that made her shudder.
The assassin reached into his tunic. Lasette tensed but then relaxed as he produced a small, black bag. With a graceful turn he dropped it into her hand, jingling.
“Here,” he said. “From what I’ve overheard, you and Renton could use this.”
She felt the weight and her heart rose until she thought of what he was asking.
“I’m no good for lying,” she said as he moved toward the open window. “If someone asks, they won’t believe that I didn’t see anything.” He stopped, one foot on the ledge.
“Then don’t lie,” he said simply. “Tell them everything you saw. That bag is not to ensure your silence, but to ensure that my coin stays where it is.”
“What’s your name,” she said, anticipating the Count’s return, and that she would need to tell him.
“It was the last word he heard,” the assassin said. “He’ll remember it.”
He dropped from the window. Dashing to the sill, Lasette watched him slide down the tower, gripping stones and ledges one after another. Halfway down, he pushed off with both legs, soaring across one corner of the courtyard to land above the stables, rolling gracefully into a long shadow from which he did not emerge.
Lasette stowed the bag inside her skirt and grabbed the bell pull with both hands.
It took less than a week for the Count’s associates to sell some heirlooms and a stake in his vineyards near Ravenmoor, and he was alive again.
But things were different.
One month later, Renton and the gold had been sent to live with Pira’s family in Westcrown, and as Lasette brought dinner to the study she didn’t worry about her hair or the cut of her bodice. The Count no longer doled out “favors,” and had—she imagined—ceased other activities as well.
“Supper m’lord,” Lasette said, setting the tray down by the chair where she had found him that night. He looked at her distractedly, worrying at a golden coin pinched between his thumb and curled fingers.
“Thank you,” he said, staring into the firelight. His manners were still forced, but less so every day.
“Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
As Lasette turned to leave a log snapped loudly in the fire and fell to the hearthstone in a thudding shower of sparks.
“Thane!” the count shrieked, his eyes searching the shadows against the fireplace. He held his breath for a moment before settling stiffly back into his chair.
Lasette closed the door and padded quietly down the steps.
“So that was his name,” she whispered to herself, knowing it was a name she would never have to fear.