The Grand Gallery was awash in colour – all the court arrayed like jewels on the marbled floors, bright against the deep greens of the potted orange trees. The glittering mass of lords and ladies whispered and hissed as satin and brocade swept the floor, a constant sussuration beneath the glass-cut gaiety of courtly conversation. Gems and feathers, dyed in improbable hues of blue and green and yellow, adorned masks that hid nothing at all, least of all the wary, calculating eyes.
Intricate, delicate fountains splashed wine into ready goblets. Garnet and ruby; pale, buttery gold. The dance flowed around them, an intricate, many armed spiral; an elegant, brilliant show.
Thomas moved at its edges, a counter current, a shadowed thread. Eyes caught themselves in the darkness of the Queen's newest Guard, drifted after him, until the dance shifted, and drew them back. He smiled, and smiled, a blandly friendly expression that belied the wicked glint in his eyes. The light shivering off of every jewel and crystal in the room barely touched him. All black, he was, a hole in the colour of the room, but for the red, red ribbons on his sleeves. The Queen's colour. Ravenna's.
He felt her, at his side, at his back. She was a living flame in the center of the dance, a warmth that he reveled in, a warmth that threatened to burn. He welcomed the feeling of incipient disaster that hummed along his bones. It gave his stride the hungry prowl of a hunting beast.
She watched him. All the court could see her eyes, amused and coldly oblivious to Fulstan's anger as they turned to watch her young favorite. The court watched her watching him; the King, humiliated, was powerless to do anything but fume.
Ravenna was the power in this court. Everyone knew.
But Fulstan was King. And Kings had resources. Thomas knew there'd be a dagger in his back if at any time Fulstan felt he had the slightest edge over his Queen.
She enjoyed taunting him. But she'd never so openly flaunt her contempt if mere amusement was her only goal.
No. Her wandering eyes, so enthralling to the scandal loving court, were a distraction.
The Cisternan guards didn't know. The rest of the Queen's Guard didn't know the details, though they had their orders.
This was to be a quiet affair. A knife in the dark, masked by all the glitter and pomp of the King's birthday ball. War was, at this point, inevitable. But it would not come before the Queen of Ile-Rein was ready. The Bisran assassin would not be allowed to push it forward.
Thomas felt his smile grow wolfish, and reigned it back. The thrumming in his bones was strong now. He fairly vibrated with it.
There. There, where the musician's gallery shadowed the corner of the floor. A slim man, his gaudy peacock feathers no more eye catching than any other dancer's. His graceful steps bringing his partner, a giggling girl in brilliant yellow, farther and farther from the center of the dance.
Thomas stalked him. Smiling, smiling, always smiling.
The pair reached the edge of the Gallery, where the spiraling arms of the dance spread out and slowed, breaking into smaller, more static groups of courtiers, all talking, all watching the show as well as each other. The man bowed to his partner, handing her an orange picked just then from a potted tree, and smoothly withdrew from the crowd. A discreet exit, to take care of personal business. Unquestioned.
Thomas slipped out after him.
In the Gallery, the court watched as Ravenna looked lustfully at a dark haired, dark clad Guard. If the courtiers had been less gleefully distracted by Fulstan's glacial glare, they may have noticed that the Guard's face was never once in clear view.
* * *
With all the court in the Grand Gallery, the halls were quiet things, traveled by servants and an occasional bored guard. Thomas padded softly through them. The man in the peacock feathers was out of sight, and Thomas quickened his step.
The music seeping out of the Gallery faded, absorbed by the beat of his pulse in his ears. He released his blandly sardonic smile, and let loose the predatory grin.
High above the musician's galleries shadowing the dance floor, there were servants' passages, to allow maintenance on the great crystal chandeliers.
They were narrow, dusty places, barely head high for most of the servants. The man in the peacock feathers would have to duck.
But the cramped spaces offered a clear, unobstructed view of the dance floor. The refracted light from the chandeliers would dazzle any eye that happened to look up.
And the Bisran assassin would have no trouble targeting the Royal couple.
Thomas felt something like amusement, and no little irritation, that in saving his Queen, he'd be saving the King as well.
There was a Queen's Guard leaning against the far wall, chatting with a pretty servant girl. The guard was wearing the Cisternan colours, and seemed oblivious to his passage, but he nodded, almost imperceptibly, as he went by
Thomas winked, and ducked through the unobtrusive door half hidden by an (inferior) portrait of Ravenna's great uncle.
* * *
The music, and the silken layer of dust, cloaked Thomas' footfalls as he crept along the curving passageway. Periodically, he passed openings, and ducked under the great chains that held the chandeliers. Then, light from the Gallery splashed across him. Each time, briefly, the red ribbons on his sleeves caught fire.
Quickly, his instincts urged him. Quickly. But he kept his steps steady, his eyes alert.
Still, he nearly stepped on the assassin's discarded mask before he saw him. The man had shed his peacock feathered finery and crouched in the narrow passageway, resting a small, collapsible crossbow on one of the heavy chains running out over the Gallery.
Thomas caught his balance and struck immediately, silently, before the man could load the quirrel. Even so, the assassin twisted himself around to catch his blow on the unloaded crossbow's stock.
Eyes met, dark to dark. The assassin, expressionless, whipped out a dagger.
Thomas stepped back to free his main gauche. The narrow confines restricted his options – the rapier would be useless. But the assassin pressed forward, dropping the crossbow, striking at Thomas with quick, economical stabs of the blade. He forced him back a step, and another, and then -- heart stopping feeling -- Thomas felt his heel land on the feathered mask. His foot slid out from under him, and sent him to one knee.
Stripes of light flashed across the assassin's face as he drove his dagger towards Thomas's throat. He managed to throw up an arm, and the blade sliced through the dark brocaded sleeve with hardly a hitch.
Red ribbons fluttered to the floor, stirring dust, until the first drop of blood tamped it down. Thomas hissed, but his free hand held the assassin's wrist in a tight grip, and his main gauche reached the man's heart.
It was over. The nearly silent confrontation had barely raised so much as a cloud of dust. Thomas gulped air as the assassin's body slowly slumped over his blade, until Thomas was nearly holding him in his arms. He let go the man's wrist, and the dagger hit the floor, blade first. The clang of the steel was muted by the ribbons coiled there.
The music, unaffected, spun into a faster tune, a simple country dance. Thomas heard the younger ladies laughing, their voices rising over the music. He knelt in the dust, and listened, as he laid the dead man out on the floor and closed his staring eyes.
* * *
The Queen's Guard ushered him through her antechamber, with no comment on the state of his clothing, still streaked with soft gray dust. The bloodstains, they eyed with concern.
He had wrapped his arm tightly with the remains of the red ribbons – it ached, and fiercely, but moved when he asked it too. Which wasn't much.
Ravenna was waiting for him.
Her hair, unbound, was a fiery flag, burnished even brighter by the bright silk of her gown. Rubies burned at her throat and fingers. He felt the heat from the doorway, and he leaned toward it, instinctively.
"Come then," she said, voice calm. "Let me see what you've done to yourself."
"I did nothing. The Bisran, however, felt the need to comment on my choice of accessories."
She smiled. "No doubt he found the ribbons frivolous. Bisrans have no sense of fashion." She beckoned him forward, and he came, as he always did, drawn towards her like a moth.
"Foolish boy," she chided, in a voice more tender than she used in public. Softly, she rubbed dust from his cheekbone, long fingers hot against his skin. "Couldn't you clean yourself up before you met with your Queen?"
Thomas, grinning tiredly down at her, caught her fingers in his hand, and said nothing.