Helena felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of her neck and slip beneath the collar of her heavy Orlesian gown. This was no good. Her makeup was sticky under the mask, she was sweating like a pig in the stuffy, candlelit hall, and her skin ached for the touch of leather and steel. If only Comte wine-for-brains would put the glass down, stop leering at the elven servant he’d cornered and leave the hall, she could be free of the place and get on with her assignment.
Then, quite suddenly his composure shifted and the tipsy, lecherous pretence fell away like a sloughed skin from behind his fox’s mask. He pushed his glass into the servant’s hands and walked away from her without another glance.
Helena paused by the table of refreshments. She took a glass of red wine just as the Comte swept past her and strode out through the glass doors into the dark courtyard beyond. When he was out of earshot, she slipped through the doors herself and wound between the flowerbeds to a little door shrouded in darkness.
“There you are, Hel,” a smooth voice whispered, and Helena felt warm breath against her neck. She froze for an instant, and then relaxed, turning to see a familiar face – sharply handsome with thick, dark hair. He had foregone his usual robes for drab servants’ attire, but he was unmistakeable.
“I still don’t know how you managed to convince the Comte to let you work here,” she replied as he opened the little servants’ door and they passed through. Inside, he gave Helena a pile of leather.
“Let’s just say he was desperate enough for a few extra hands that he wasn’t as thorough as usual,” he said, and shrugged, “And besides, he can’t tell one elf from another, let alone recognise an apostate.”
“And who could resist your charm?” Helena said, smiling.
“Quite. And perhaps when you’re finished with the mark, we can take some time to… celebrate?” he said, and Helena could feel his eyes on her as she slipped out of the silk gown and pulled on her leather armour.
“Perhaps we can,” she whispered back, and then she strapped her weapons in place. They were ready to go.
The servants’ passages were narrow, cold and dark, with only tiny windows set high into the walls to light the way. They passed through the mansion unseen. The west wing was dedicated to the Comte’s private quarters, and the servants were busy with the banquet in the main hall.
She knew they’d reached the right place when she heard the voices, though she caught only snatches of it through the thick stone. They paused before a small door, plain but for a single keyhole.
“…As we suspected…”
They were gone before Helena could piece their conversation together, and the Comte was left alone in the room. Through the tiny keyhole, Helena saw him walk over to the open balcony doors.
She pushed the door slowly open. It swung without so much as a squeak, and Helena crept up behind the Orlesian, pulling out her dagger ready to slit his throat before he even knew she was there.
“My lord,” the elf’s voice was soft, but it was enough. Helena froze, and the Comte turned. She didn’t have time to think, and she knocked the man to the ground and raised her knife ready to strike, but her arm stopped mid-swing as though it had turned to stone.
Blood magic. Helena didn’t need to see the mage to know; she could feel it in the way it held her from within her own body, as if her very muscles were rebelling against her. The Comte squirmed out from beneath her and scurried away, shouting in Orlesian.
“I’m sorry it had to come to this, my dear, but there are bigger forces at work here than the whims of the Coterie. I only wish it hadn’t been you they sent…”
“Save your excuses for the Chantry, viper. You’ll find no forgiveness here,” Helena whispered, voice hoarse from the exertion of fighting the magic.
Concentrating, she used every ounce of will in her body and forced it to respond, blocking out the searing pain that tore through her. The hold broke with an almost audible snap and Helena sagged to the ground, weary but free.
Mark forgotten, she wanted to tear the flesh from that mage’s bones, but she was weakened and with the sound of guards in the corridor there was no time. She stepped back onto the balcony, feeling the cool, salty breeze hit her skin, and climbed shakily onto the stone rail.
“Don’t be a fool, Hel,” he whispered, his face soft in the candlelight and almost regretful.
“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?” she said and shook her head.
The guards burst into the room – a full complement of Orlesian Chevalier, resplendent in their gaudy plate as they fanned out to either side of the mage. Helena closed her eyes and smiled, then she leant backwards and the breeze guided her gently over the edge.
The last thing she felt was the wind whipping through her hair as the roaring waves drew closer.