“She isn’t wearing a corset tonight,” Liam said.
“Well how is that supposed to count?” I complained, glancing over towards Lady Duberry. “She never does.”
A couple walked in front of us, obviously not deep enough in their wine cups yet, for they looked us in the eye, forcing Liam to swallow whatever response he had while I nodded politely, before offering them both a slight bow. I didn’t fold my hands behind my back, as was proper, instead keeping my left promptly glued to the hilt of my sword, but I didn’t think even the sober party goers would even notice that. Not that it truly mattered, at any rate, what they thought or believe.
For after tonight, it would all finally be over.
And you finally get to go home.
“You’re right, Will, that was in poor taste. I shouldn’t cheat this early in the evening. Another round?”
I smiled, stealing a glance over my partner for the last three years, not letting myself think too hard about how he was the only thing—most definitely the only person—I was going to miss. After. “What else are we going to do?” I stole a glance across the extravagant ballroom, laughter already echoing off the wall our backs were pressed against, tied to our post. “Our jobs?”
“But you’re going first,” I added. “Since you cheated.”
“Fine,” he muttered, though I knew he actually didn’t mind. His eyes scanned for his next target, seeming to the unknowing eye that he was actually watching out for any threats. But try being on guard duty for every ballroom function hosted by the nine—yes, nine—royal families. There were worst ways to pass the time.
I stole another glance towards the stairwell while my partner was distracted, my eyes barely grazing over the golden grandfather clock positioned just to the left of the base of the stairs. No sign yet and not time, either. I released the hold of my sword for just a moment to wipe my hands nonchalantly on my pants, just as Liam leaned over to me.
“I got it,” he said. “Lady Cherie is having an affair with the head of the wine staff.”
Repositioning my sword arm, I took a moment to stare at Liam with open disbelief. “Starting off with a lie. Poor taste.”
“Really?” Liam responded, his tone filled with a cockiness that I could pin down whether it was a hoax or he truly believed his claim. “Take a gander. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Letting myself get distracted for a few moments—and wanting, truly, to enjoy this one last time—I purposefully looked down at the ballroom floor, instead of doing the glazed-eye-sweep I was accustomed to. Guest mingled and talked, while still others danced in-between to the music that seemed soft coming from the far corner against the loud cacophony of voices dominating below. The wait staff was the easiest to spot, dressed in all black and wading through the current of people like lone fish in a sea full of sharks, always moving too fast for any meaningful interactions to occur, yet with a full tray posed so that any hunter they passed by wouldn’t be disappointed after securing their latest drink of pre-dinner snack with ease.
All, that is, except one.
I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the commotion earlier. Sure, it was in the opposite corner of the room, closer to the orchestra, but still, the staff member sitting on his hands and knees, tray discharged on the floor as he wiped up spilled wine with his rag should have caught my eye. What caught it more was Lady Cherie standing right beside him, fanning herself as a red stain was ruining her gorgeous yellow dress. Though no tears grazed her eyes and she didn’t appear very distraught to me. Meanwhile, her husband shouted, fuming, but only a small gaggle of people stood by to watch, not concerned at all by his cries of, “I must speak to your manager immediately,” too busy enjoying their part of the party to bother with his trifles.
Which is why, I assume, no one really noticed as the waiter lead the Lady Cherie away, through the door leading to the kitchen.
To clean her up.
I glance at Liam, who dared to look smug. “Well,” I say, bowing my head slightly in defeat. “Point is yours, sir, for finding the truth. Did you know beforehand?”
“No, though I wish I had. Would have made it more interesting to watch them attempt to flirt throughout the evening.”
“Shame for her husband, though. Not that bad off a chap.”
“Not that—! Will, now I know you’re not in your right mind tonight,” Liam said, aghast, before he toned it down a bit, leaning closer. “Is everything alright?”
Please, don’t ask me that.
I made it a point not to look at him. “Just another night, mate,” I said. “And it’s still your turn.”
I could tell Liam wanted to argue, but something changed his mind, preventing him from pushing the issue. I ignored the part of me that was disappointed. He leaned away, folding his hands behind his back once more. “Dame Montrise is carrying.”
I didn’t bother to call it either a lie or a truth, immediately scanning the crowd for the dame. She was, what, almost sixty years old? A pregnancy at this age would kill her in the best case scenario and complicate the lives of her childhood and the line of succession ten more times in the worse, considering this was the first husband since the original (and she was on number five, after all) she actually liked enough to bed.
Sure enough, though, I had to believe Liam was telling the truth. The dame’s hand was stubbornly on her stomach like mine on my hilt and her husband—the young Gregory Laffer, barely in his 30s—hovered around her like a fool, obviously attempting his first time navigating pregnancy and parenthood.
“Do you think—?”
“That we will be guarding the heirs during the funeral? Undoubtedly,” Liam replied.
I frowned. “Liam, you clever bastard, you’ve cheated me twice in a row!”
Liam had the decency to pretend to look offended. “I daresay I haven’t. What evidence do you have for that accusation?”
“You’ve told me two truths in a row, so now your third must be a lie. That’s how the game works.”
“Does it?” Liam asked. “Or perhaps that’s the trick, the latest addendum to how we pass the time. I’m supposed to tell a lie, but after I speak, will it be obvious? Or will you question whether there’s a grain of truth to it?”
“With you, I can never truly know.”
“Quite right,” he said, smiling proudly.
I couldn’t help it. I glanced over at the clock and noticed a few other of the guests had done so, too. Less than a minute until the grand entrance was scheduled.
And Lady was never tardy.
I’d staked my entire career on it.
I didn’t look at Liam, instead focusing on the stairwell, my left hand resting comfortably on my sword hilt, while my right began to itch, twitching with the anticipation of over five years of work finally coming to fruition. My pistol suddenly felt like an anvil against my lower back, but I refused to even flick my fingers in that direction, lest I clue anyone into my intentions. Five years I’d spent, preparing for this moment. I couldn’t afford to mess up now.
Not with her life counting on it.
“Ready for my final test then, Will?”
“Sure, Liam. Go ahead,” I said, refusing to look at him and hardly truly listening. The man was my only friend here and might, in a different life, be the greatest friend I ever had, period. But even he couldn’t come before this. Nothing could.
“I’m in love with you.”
My head snapped over just as the clock rang and the voice of the caller shouted above even that noise. At the worst time in my life, my attention was divided.
“Announcing the grand duchess, her majesty herself, Heloise de la Peloiquise!”
Liam saw the panic in my eyes as everyone around us began to clap and misread it. “I understand if—”
My heart breaking, I interrupted him. “I’m sorry, Liam, but you’re wrong. You can’t understand. And you currently won’t after this.”
Pulling my pistol out from my waistband, I flipped it and clocked Liam in the head with it, knocking him out cold. Ignoring the hammering inside my chest, I turned 180 degrees on my heel as I rotated the gun, aiming it as the child, no more than a babe, was being carried down the stairs by her wet nurse. I lined my sights on her tiny, tiny skull.
Finally, my target had arrived.
Without hesitation, I pulled the trigger.
Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. With eight completed drafts in various states of revision under her belt, she has no plans of stopping. And she really can’t wait for you to read these stories.
Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters she’s killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. You can find her personal blog here. You can read all of her Muses stories here.