Arc 1: Coming Storm
Chapter 4: Lightning
“This is unexpected.”
A dim part of her mind recognizes the irony in her habit of thinking aloud, recognizes that it is the quintessential Achilles heel for someone of her profession. Still, she starts her thoughts off best with an audible bookend, and as she returns to cleaning, her mind works.
Her orders: ingratiate and observe. It was easy enough to establish herself here, unnoticed and unquestioned. It was a simple matter, hanging around the archaic vents of the castle.
Her orders: do not engage. It’s no trouble to keep mute with the royal family and their nobles. They are kind, which complicates things, but she had expected as much, and in any case theirs is a distant kindness.
Her orders: report. Any who ask why she writes so much mail are told she has a lover, and indeed her correspondences do seem like love letters. One such missive sits folded in the pocket of her apron.
Thank you for your sweet words. The other girls can’t compare to you. I am very pleased to know that Paul is feeling well; I do so worry about his ill-tempered health. His body seems to act with a mind of its own. Keep an eye on him for me.
I recently had to spank Felix quite ferociously for hitting another boy outside of boxing club. He is getting quite rowdy and over-eager. Do let me know if Finley says anything about it; I don’t suspect he’ll hear the news, but you know how I value his opinion. As always, if you think he’s caught onto the boxing tournament we’re planning for him, send word so we may make adjustments. It’s very important that we surprise him with it.
A nice gesture of our appreciation for him, don’t you think?
I have been thinking longingly of you and the curls in your hair. I should like to sing a song for you when next I see you.
All the best,
She does not like being so soppy, but it is an effective cover. Where others see idle chatter she sees business. The praise is good; it means she is invaluable to her motherland and exceeding the usefulness of others in similar positions. This pleases her. It should not please her. She knows she is as strong as her weakest comrade, but some allowance must be made in the chain for human emotion in the end.
Indeed, all is going well, and it is of little consequence, but… The King’s bastard son is not as she imagined him. She saw a cold instinct in his face, and though it was quickly drained and replaced by shock and guilt, the imprint remains. She likes killers, likes the way they see the world as a battle. She did not expect to like the King’s son.
She must remind herself that if the love letters say to fix knife upon throat, that is what she must do. It is best not to get attached. So inspired, she has made plans to take care of an errand tonight which she has delayed too long.
The time becomes the right time. She uncurls herself from her crouch on the floor, dusts her dress off with her hands and places the cleaning supplies in her bucket. After putting the pail in its place, she leaves the castle, head down. She does not tell anyone she is going, though she is supposed to. Nobody will ask after her, and if they do broach the matter she will apologize profusely, tug at her dark hair, stammer, and explain that she is just so brainless that she forgot.
She likes to watch them judge her.
When she steps into her destination, slipping the key back into her pocket, she’s greeted by warmth. The room is cast over with the orange glow of the fireplace as it battles off the settling nip of autumn, and someone is baking bread if her nose is anything to go by, and it is. The strains of a guitar plink to a stop as someone hears the door open. She peers through an ajar door to see the family gathered around in the picture of comfort, guitar in the father’s hand. As she pushes the door open slowly, the woman seated nearby sets aside her sewing, rises, and turns. Her puzzled expression turns to happiness shortly.
“Agnes!” she cries with a cheerful clap. “You came to visit!”
In a rush, the roomful of people rises to greet Agnes, and before long she is sat down with a slice of cake on a plate in her lap, the children gathered around her feet, the woman who has so gladly greeted her at her side. Only the man remains where he is, his solid arms cradling his instrument as he smiles lightly. He’s only a pretty face, but that’s what will be on her conscience at the end of the night. She is out of practice in this.
“I-I’m sorry I took so long to come back…” Agnes offers, putting on the shy girl like a suit. “The job at the palace has kept me so busy! You’d think, an expensive place like that, it would almost clean itself… But it’s such an old, big building… Thank you, though, for getting me the position. I-I don’t mean to sound ungrateful…”
The woman laughs. “Don’t be silly, we know it’s thankless. But we’re glad to help a fellow fugitive.”
Agnes straightens, smiling a little more sharply. “The homeland does not allow unauthorized travel.”
“Believe me, we know. It was such a trial to get out!”
“In particular the homeland does not allow unauthorized travelers to make deals with a certain Lord Pachis.”
It goes as silent as stagnant water. The adults stiffen their backs and tighten their fists; a string on the man’s guitar breaks and the woman recoils from the body contact she has hereto been maintaining. The children look around curiously.
“Girls,” comes the mother’s tight voice, “go upstairs. Do not come down no matter what you hear. Do not make a single peep.”
The youngsters scurry up the steps. Agnes waits until their footsteps stop tapping overhead, then continues, “The penalty for such an action is death.”
“Agnes,” says the man, the first word he has said this whole conversation. He is crying. “How long? Since the start? Even when…?”
Agnes stares at him for a moment. He has served her well.
“From beginning to finish I complete the Chain,” she confirms.
His guitar clatters to the floor as he buries his face in his hands, sobbing. Two men step into the drawing room; Agnes does not turn their way, only waves them to stand behind her guests. Setting her plate aside and rising, she turns to address both of them. Slowly, she reads them their execution sentences. They do not have the decency to face death bravely, she notes with disgust, and it is with gladness and a wonder at why she took so long that she lets her hand fall and the men drag their knives.
“The children?” asks one after the bodies have gone still. Agnes shakes her head.
“Leave the children. You have done well; I will inform the Coupler of your efficiency and restraint.”
As the men bow and slip away, Agnes retrieves the plate she had been given mere moments ago and takes a bite from the cake upon it. “Impressive,” she says, thinking aloud once again.