One step at a time, Angela urged herself.
The tread of her clacking heels on the marble floor reverberated in her ears. Each stride accentuated the tremble racing up her legs and seemed out of rhythm with the musicians’ beat and the party’s vibrant atmosphere.
As she navigated the throng, another bellowing laugh erupted from the celebration’s head table. Glasses clunked onto the white table cloth, sloshing claret drops onto the pristine surface and causing the china to clatter. The trio of faces turned to her as she arrived and dipped into a brief curtsy.
“Yes?” The bushy faced Minster cocked a fluffy brow. His eyes seemed to stab into her, as if sensing her true purpose.
Angela swallowed and ensured her words emerged clear and humble. “Pardon my intrusion Minister Treymon. There’s message for Sir Gerard.”
Shifting his cup aside, Gerard leaned forward. His mouth twitch with amusement, his eyes wavered in wine. “Well, where is it?”
“In the foyer, sir,” said Angela. “It was marked with some urgency and….” She clasped her hands together, inched forward, and lowered her voice. “Privacy, sir.”
His dark eyes glittered for a moment, suggesting some thought within their depths. Slouching back into his seat, Gerard finished his cup and then rose. With a tug, he squared the lapels of his tuxedo jacket and then clapped the second man on back.
“Have that filled by the time I’m back, Maynar.”
“Filled and finished if you take your time about it,” said Maynar, kneading his pudgy shoulder in the wake of the hearty blow.
Angela regained her stoic facade as Maynar’s squinty eyes raked her laced gown. Her dull sage seemed suddenly in need of a good scrub.
Meanwhile, Gerard rounded the table, balancing himself on the backs of vacated chairs. “Where is this foyer?”
“This way, sir,” said Angela.
She turned with an exhale, grateful to put her back to the two dignitaries and have the other in tow. A rough sea of others eating, dancing, and conversing, surged between her and the glass-faced doorway leading from the hall. As she started skirting the dance floor, the musicians perked up, strings and brass rising above the banter. Angela nearly tumbled when a hand clasped hers.
“Messages can wait,” said Gerard as he spun her toward him. “I feel like dancing.”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate, sir.”
“And who’s going to stop me?”
Angela tried to free her hand but found his fingers taunt. “I’m afraid I am.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m not a guest.”
“You work here?”
Angela gulped as he found her waist and settled a hand at the small of her back. “Yes, I do,” she said.
“But you’re not from around here.”
She balked at the unexpected jab. “What makes you say that?”
“Your hair is darker than these northerners. Your skin too. If I had to guess, you’re from the coast, nearer to my home.”
She ground her teeth even as she made her lips curve into a smile. “I’ve been recently hired.”
Gerard smirked. “Then they’ll understand your confusion about the rules.”
He swept her onto the dance floor, in between another couple decked in a tuxedo and sparkling emerald gown. A spin later and Angela found herself against Gerard’s chest, held tight by a sudden stiff arm against her spine and vice-grip on her fingers. Gerard’s breath warmed her ears.
“I don’t think you work here,” he whispered. “I think you’re a spy.”
She cringed as the previous slur in his voice vanished. “For you,” whispered Angela. “And you’re in danger, sir.”
He jolted at the statement, locking his eyes with hers. His broke the stare a second later and gazed over the crowd while drawing them into the center of those dancing. A swirl of ebony and jeweled tones washed around them as they circled to the waltzing tune.
Gerard leaned closer. “Which one?”
“Treymon,” whispered Angela.
“We captured his telegram this morning. There’s an assassin on the loose, here, tonight.”
The music faded to a low rumble of cellos, encouraging spins and quieting their hushed exchange. They traversed the marble during a rise in the violas and flutes. Gerard accelerated their pace without losing the beat.
“What’s your message?”
“Directions to get you to safety.”
Gerard snorted. “I’m not running like some coward.”
“Then you’re going to get shot, stabbed, poisoned or worse,” said Angela. She caught his eye and hardened her gaze. “We need to get you to safety.”
“You?” His lips quirked into a hearty grin, one expanding as Angela bristled.
“There are others waiting outside,” she whispered. “Ones who’d make less appropriate dancing partners.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to tell them to wait,” said Gerard.
He maneuvered them to the opposite side of the room where the columned foyer became visible through the opened doors. Slinging her arm through his, Gerard strode into the entry hall far enough to put them out of sight of his seat of honor and the two waiting for his return. He plucked a pair of glasses with pools of champagne from a waiter’s tray and offered one while downing his.
Angela gripped the glass stem as Gerard inspected her with a thoughtful scan.
“Why are you doing this?”
“If you die,” said Angela, “the Council’s leadership falls to Treymon and his family…and.” She escaped into the fizzing in her glass. “Mine was in Loradno.”
Silence surrounded them in a bubble of sudden stillness, untouched by the music and banter so close by. While bloodied memories tainted her thoughts, a colder part of Angela’s mind wondered if he had heard her, if he understood.
“I’m sorry,” said Gerard.
A blink cleared a swell of rage- filled tears and she lifted her chin. “I won’t let anyone willing to massacre hundreds get command of an army, let alone a nation.”
Gerard frowned. “That was the Hepsbars, not us.”
Gathering the oval locket dangling from her neck, Angela opened the clasp and retrieved the tiny page tucked within. The brittle sheet crinkled in her fingers as she hurriedly unfolded the note. Nimble penmanship crammed the sliver with a squat and fading paragraph, but the imprint of the seal at the end remained unmistakable.
Gerard’s eyes darted over the order, his brow furrowing as he neared the end. “That conspiring bastard.”
“There’s more evidence beside this communiqué,” said Angela, tucking the message back into her locket and within the safety of her gown.
Gerard swiveled toward the hall, where music and laughter soared. He stood rigid, like a hound sensing prey.
“Please sir,” said Angela, hovering at his side. “We need to leave. You’re not safe here.”
“I haven’t been safe for years,” whispered Gerard, his voice a bare murmur. He turned back, his shoulders straightening as if yoked now by a long debated decision. “Thank your friends and find some safe place for yourself. You’ll have been noticed.”
“Where are you going?”
“I won’t run,” said Gerard, “and I can’t imagine my people would respect a leader who did. I’ll take care of this myself.”
“But—” She grasped his arm, and then stared, wide eyed at her own hand.
Gerard gingerly extracted his limb from her grasp, and captured her fingers. “Don’t worry. Treymon is not the only one with plans for my future.”
“Please, sir,” said Angela.
His grin returned, shaded by a malice intent Angela felt grateful was not directed at her.
“Wait and see,” said Gerard.
After a brushed kiss on the back of her hand, he released her and strode into the hall. Angela hurried to the doorway, tucking herself within the fronds of a massive fern. Her thoughts spun on what to tell the others, and on Treymon’s response to whatever actions Gerard might take. As she spied him passing through the parting crowd, she held her breath and prayed for the patience to find out.