It was well beyond the midnight hour at Thadre Keep.
“Have some more tea, my lady,” Myrtle the dressmaker said, pouring hot, steaming black liquid into a bone cup. The tea sloshed and spilled onto the table, and the thin wattles of her face flushed. “I beg your pardon. I'm not used to visiting with someone so high.”
“I appreciate the tea,” Leah said, cupping her hands around her warm cup as Myrtle wiped the spill away with an old rag. “I must ask you, though, not to call me 'my lady'. I am not so high as that, as you must know. Can you imagine how a herald would introduce me at court? 'The woman Leah Tellman, whore to Lord Skasca of Thadre and her own flighty daydreaming.'” Myrtle almost smiled, but she averted her eyes.
“Such weak tea, too, I must offer you,” Myrtle said. “Although with the famine, it's lucky I have any tea at all to offer you.”
“I'm glad to have it,” Leah said. “Even the Lord and Lady of Thadre ate pickled herring and stale bread last night; but though they complain they make no effort to join the Lords at Dragonfell and end the long hunger, and some days I think it must be that the court of Dragonfell is doing just as little.”
“You mustn't say that,” Myrtle said. “I'm sure they're doing everything they can.” She leaned back in her chair, looking tired and old. “It is a strange thing,” she said, “this hunger of the land. I've not seen anything like it in all my years.”
“And Westra is besieged by lazy courtiers,” Leah said. “Myrtle, how is the pain in your hands? Do you think you could make me some travel clothes?”
“The pain in my hands waxes and wanes,” Myrtle said. “How many dresses do you need?”
“Oh, no,” Leah said. “Dresses I have aplenty. What I need are britches and shirts to ride in.”
“To ride in?” Myrtle asked, puzzled.
“Yes, Myrtle,” Leah said, and she laughed and bent across the table to kiss the old woman on the cheek. “Women can ride horses too, especially this woman, and I intend to. What do you think of this project? Can you have the clothes for me in seven days?”
“Well, I've been needing a challenge,” Myrtle said, and Leah saw a light of excitement flicker in her old eyes. “But I'll be needing your measurements. Where are you going?”
“When it comes to that,” Leah said, “I don't know. But it's nice to be prepared, don't you think?”
A few minutes later, Leah stepped out into the dark, early morning hours of Thadre Keep. No one stirred in the chill air, and Leah took a moment to enjoy the peace. It was just as she was sighing and shrugging her shoulders, preparing to move on to her bed in the hall that a dagger smacked into the door behind her. Leah frowned and pulled the dagger loose. A hilt of leather, a neat, compact blade. She grinned.
“Tornface,” she whispered into the dark, and she gripped the familiar dagger as she scanned the darkness. “It makes no difference,” she said quietly into the cold air, “if you are invisible and silent, because when I can smell you, all your glittering strategies fail.” She threw the knife into a dark corner, and she heard a gasp and then a chuckle. Leah moved.
She ran, fleet-footed and sure about the maze of keep shops and and cottages, slipping through a gate in the Keep's fences to escape out into the grassy bluffs surrounding. She could hear nothing behind her; not Tornface's breathing nor his footsteps, but she was sure that he followed. She ducked behind a stand of tall grass- but not the tallest- and waited.
She heard nothing. She saw nothing. She smelled nothing, despite what she had said earlier, but it was a scant moment later when he gripped her hair and bared her throat to his blade. Leah cursed.
“How do you do that?” She spat, and Kirk Tornface laughed, let her go, and handed over her knife.
“It's easy enough to do, Leah,” he said, “when you're so thrilled by the hunt that you can't think straight. You know everything I know, but you must curb your enthusiasm. Your enthusiasm nearly lost me the use of an arm back there.” He showed her a shallow wound on his upper arm.
“It's not like I can become a man at arms like you, Tornface,” Leah said softly. “Skasca would never permit it. I think it's time that I display some enthusiasm instead of curbing it.”
“You're leaving, aren't you?” Tornface asked, and the first dawning rays of sunrise bathed his face and Thadre Keep in pale gray light.
“Yes,” Leah said. “I've been here too long.”She shivered, and Tornface, in an unusually affectionate gesture, stepped forward and drew her into a hug.
“I won't stop you,” Tornface said, and Leah was suddenly aware of the heat of his body and the closeness of his face. “Don't let your enthusiasm get you killed.”
“It's not my enthusiasm that will get me killed,” Leah said, suddenly finding it difficult to speak, “but my apathy.” She kissed him then, full on the mouth, this hard, loyal man who had been her mentor and companion for fourteen years. He stiffened, and she felt his hands grip her arms as if he was going to shove her away, but then, with a helpless sound, he kissed her back. When the kiss finally ended, Leah drew back slightly to examine his face.
“Now I can say I've kissed the ugliest man in Westra,” she said, smiling. “Twice.” She kissed him again, and then they turned to walk back toward the keep. Leah felt cold without his arms around her, but a strange, thrilled feeling bubbled up inside her. It was amazing to her that she had never kissed anyone but Lord Skasca, and that first kiss with Tornface had been her first act of independence. Her first act in fourteen years as Leah Tellman, not Lord Thadre's consort. And now, she knew, Kirk Tornface's loyalty had shifted over to her.