Highland Estate, England
Miss Eva Highland strode across the ballroom floor, smile wide and cheeks aflame, oblivious to the fact that she would greet death within the hour.
Symon watched her from across the room, flanked between two partygoers that had abandoned all notions of personal space as they had downed their third glass of wine. He himself had barely sipped at his glass—his mind was to be clear and focused. Yet he held onto it, grip tightening on the stem each time the guests next to him screeched with laughter.
“My dear, I shall never grow tired of your insults, however cold and stinging they become,” the woman nearest to him commented, voice light with merriment.
“It’s fortunate for you that I shall not be in want of inspiration. Look around! There’s plenty here to gripe about,” the other woman replied. “Don’t believe me? Look at that woman there. Do you see the deep blue of her dress and the puffiness of the skirts? What is she trying to resemble? A blueberry?”
Symon set his jaw against the round of giggles that followed, forcing himself not to be distracted. He couldn’t spare a glance at the women next to him or at the poor subjects of their mockery, however entertaining they might appear. Miss Highland was to be his only focus of the night.
The woman of his attention certainly wasn’t suffering in appearance in any means, which was probably why the ladies failed in joking about her. She wore a dress of soft yellow and her brown locks were pulled up in a bun, adorned with various gems that glittered in the lantern light. Her face was slightly flushed, whether it be from drink or joy, it hardly mattered, for it gave her complexion a glowing appeal. A trail of partiers swarmed after her, mostly men eager to become her next partner. They didn’t wait at the edge of the floor or file out dancing cards, as was the polite and proper thing to do.
Yet Symon wasn’t surprised. Nothing in a Highland party was conventional, at least that’s what was whispered in tea rooms or in the secrecy of parlors. Everything was louder. Brighter. More extravagant.
Symon fished out his pocket watch. 12:46. It was growing late. He knew Highland parties were known to stretch out into the earliest hours, but he hardly expected the guests to still be abuzz with such activity. He folded his arms in annoyance.
Gradually, guests began to depart. They trickled away from the center of the room, streaming out toward the front yard where their carriages waited, where they would rest their heads on lavish pillows as they headed toward their equally lavish residences. Only fifteen or so people remained, nestled in small pockets toward the back of the room, absorbed in conversation and drink.
Miss Highland lingered by the front door, alone now. Symon had watched her personally send her regards to each visitor, smiles and handshakes at the ready. Now, as Symon approached, he could see the smile deflate and her hands come to a rest at her sides. Her eyes sunk to the tile—was that dejection he had spotted? He didn’t have much time to ponder the notion, for her eyes snapped up to meet his.
“Why, Mr. Rudhale, it seems that you have finally grown tired of sulking in the corner,” she said with a smile.
“It seems so,” Symon replied with a smirk.
He felt sick.
“Though I must admit, your guests certainly seemed to enjoy the festivities.”
“They always do. It’s one of the few things I pride myself in.”
Did her smile waver this time? Symon couldn’t tell. He waited a moment, to see if the buzzing in his ears would pass. It didn’t. Why did his head feel light? He forced himself to ignore it. He had plans.
“Or, at least, they usually do,” she continued. “That sour expression you wore all night might just ruin my reputation. You must make it up to me by accompanying me on the balcony.” She strode forward, making it a few steps before she stopped and turned, noticing Symon wasn’t following. “I understand it’s late, Mr. Rudhale, but there’s a nice breeze outside tonight. It shall wake you up.” She extended her arm.
Symon took it, hoping he didn’t appear too reluctant, and led her toward the other end of the ballroom. The guests that Symon had spied still gabbering in the corners flounced forward on tipsy legs to bid their adieus to Miss Highland. Soon, they had vacated the room, not without a heartfelt compliment for the woman, leaving Symon nothing to do except lead her outside.
They stood in the a corner of the balcony. To their left, a mammoth-sized potted plant shielded them from the lantern light from inside that bled across the marble floor. The guardrail was to their right, made of wrought iron that had been painted a light silver. It stretched the whole backside of the house, then vanished to curve around the remaining sides. Before them, the Highland estate stretched on. Symon couldn’t distinguish the inkiness of the sky between the rows of magnificent pines that faced them quite a distance off, nor could he count all the beautiful roses and geraniums that spotted the ground many feet below them. Symon glanced around, astonished that they were the sole spectators of such a scene.
The breeze Miss Highland had mentioned was more of a chill, as was expected with winter weather. Symon found himself shivering within seconds, yet passed over his coat to the woman as she rubbed at her arms. She thanked him generously, and he nodded, not admitting that he had only done so to assuage his guilt for what he was about to do.
It didn’t help.
“I do have a long list of parties that I’m throwing this season,” Miss Highland announced, draping her arms across the lip of the balcony. “Parties that, I assure you, would wipe a frown off any man’s face, even yours...You’re doing it again! Am I that boring to you?”
Symon stirred himself, not realizing his emotions had been so easily etched into his features. “I...I apologize. I’ve been all out of sorts this evening.” He gripped at the railing, yet stopped as Miss Highland’s brow rose.
“I can tell,” she replied. She paused, letting Symon realize just how quiet their surroundings were. The orchestra that had been playing during the party had retired a half hour before, and the city around them was draped in slumber. The only thing he could hear was his breath as it escaped his lips in silver tendrils.
And the agony in his mind.
“Is there a root to your ill feelings? Or are you always like this?” she joked. “Here, take this. I rather feel like embracing the cold tonight.” She shrugged off Symon’s coat and handed it over.
Symon took it, instantly sliding his hands into the pockets. He was about to fire back a retort of his own when his hands slid over something sharp. He closed his eyes, the nausea and lightheadedness returning rapidly. He could envision the dagger now. He could trace the engraved patterns on the hilt. He could see the crimson stains that never seemed to vanish no matter how many times the weapon was washed. He could hear…
A simple sound. Yet it carried with it the sound of alarm.
Symon opened his eyes. Miss Highland came into view. The smile had slid off her face and plunged twenty feet down toward the garden below. She stumbled back, gripping at the railing. Her mouth parted to scream.
Symon sprung forward. One hand grabbed her arm; the other brought the blade to her throat. She quieted instantly.
“If it eases your anxieties, you should be aware that I do not wish to do this,” he said. He had hoped his tone sounded calm, reassuring even, yet his voice was trembling. His hands were trembling.
She was trembling.
“I-If you do not wish to kill me, then why is this blade pressed against my neck?” Miss Highland remarked. She was witty even before the eyes of death. Even when her body shook and betrayed her confidence, her sharp tongue would have nothing of it.
“Because I must.” Symon nudged the blade closer, so close that it nicked her flesh. A bead of blood dripped down the slope of her neck.
Her eyes watered.
He wished that he could give her answers—she deserved that, at least. But he couldn’t. Secrecy threaded his lips together, and he wasn’t that great of a liar. Instead, he focused on the blade. Positioned just so, the cut would be clean and simple; her suffering would be short lived.
“I’m sorry,” he said. It was a whisper struggling to be heard; despair and disgust picked it apart. He readied the weapon.
“The ballroom is all cleared away, Miss Highland. I’ve sent the maids to their chambers, for the hour is growing rather late. I hope you’ll understand my decision.”
That voice—where was it? The high timbre of it sounded like that of a woman’s; the authority in her tone suggested a housekeeper or stewardess. Symon glanced toward the double doors that separated the balcony from the ballroom. A figure stood there, shadow thrown across the ground. Then the shadow moved, passing by the potted plant and toward the railing ahead.
Symon tensed, drawing himself and Miss Highland further into the corner.
“Miss Highland? Are you out here?”
Miss Highland tensed underneath Symon’s grip, and for a moment Symon feared she was going to try to twist out of his grasp. But she remained as calm as ever, the trembling and watery-gaze had vanished. Instead, her eyes were locked on the moon high above, looking contemplative. Relaxed. Symon relaxed too, but only for a moment, for he noticed a strange absence in his hand.
The dagger hit the floor.
Miss Highland bolted forward.
Symon lunged toward her, managing to snare an arm around the woman’s waist before she could create more distance. He swiftly tugged her back a few steps. He shook his head at his own carelessness; why had he been so foolish as to let the blade slip from his fingers? He set the blade back against the woman’s flesh, failing to steady the shakiness of his hands.
His eyes trailed back to the shadow as dread settled in. He didn’t have more time to reflect; the woman had noticed the scuffle, and she was turning in their direction. The housekeeper’s shoes clacked sharply against the floor, and soon she emerged from around the shrub, face pale and expression contorted in dismay.
“Miss Highland!” she gasped. She wavered, one hand to her mouth, the other outstretched toward the woman still locked in the man’s grip. Her eyes darted to the blade, glinting against the brilliance of the moon, then drifted up to meet Symon’s gaze. “Sir...you don’t want to do this. I swear. You must think this through.”
Symon wrenched his eyes from the housekeeper, then from Miss Highland, seeking solace in the line of pines smeared across the horizon. He could be there now, weaving across the roots, breathing in the pine, admiring their strong trunks. Carefree, limitless…
Instead, he was miles away, atop a balcony, holding a blade to the throat of one of the most coveted and cherished ladies in all of England.
“Name what you desire, Mr. Rudhale. I’m certain I have plenty of it,” Miss Highland stated. Her voice was still so calm, so even. She was acting as if she was settled down in one of her lavish parlors, taking tea and discussing a simple bargain to a greedy salesman. Not like she was making a desperate plea for her life. “Money. Jewels.” She fingered one of the emeralds Symon had spotted in her hair earlier in the night, then promptly ripped it free, managing to tear off a lock of her hair. She barely flinched. “This simple piece is worth more than most of the carriage’s my guests arrived here in. That, double Miss Ludmir’s salary.” Miss Highland glanced over at the other woman, who paled, though if it was from the direness of the situation or the skimpiness of her paycheck, Symon couldn’t tell.
His hand shook. For a moment, his resolve teetered.
“If it was jewlery I wanted, I would have left with my pockets full hours ago.”
Miss Highland laughed. The rich sound bounced off the railing and flung itself into the crisp air. “Ah, you do have a point there. I don’t have the best security, I assume.” The playfulness in her tone wavered, then surged back seconds later. “Perhaps I should post guards near my jewelry boxes to ward off thieves. Though I’m not sure they’d do much. Perhaps scare them off with a glare? A witty insult?” More laughter creeped past her lips.
“I beg your pardon, but do you think this is the best place for jokes?” Miss Ludmir questioned. Even though Symon’s gaze was trained on Miss Highland, he could practically see the older woman wringing her hands with worry.
“Death is lingering just behind me, clawing at my throat. If I choose to go out laughing, is that such a terrible thing?” Miss Highland remarked. Her gaze flicked up to Symon’s. Do it, her eyes seemed to say. You’ve wasted enough time already. What’s the point in waiting? “Your arm must be hurting from holding that dreaded thing to my throat for so long. Go on with it, I say. I wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable for one more second, if I can help it.”
She was toying with him. Symon could see it in the curve of her smile, the way laughter kept tumbling past her lips, sailing high toward the moon above. She was terrified—why wouldn’t she be? Yet she played it off so well. She turned her head toward Miss Ludmir. The small movement made her skin tense against the blade; a bead of blood trickled toward her collarbones. She talked as if she hardly noticed, “It’s a shame I never did live long enough to compose a will. You may have whatever you desire from my closet. Everything else, you’re free to sell.”
“You...you’re not going to die tonight, so stop acting as such!” The older woman took a step forward, then glanced toward the open balcony doors, perhaps deciding to rush for help.
Ignoring her, Miss Highland closed her eyes and edged back into Symon’s grasp, exposing more of her throat. “You better hurry up. Nothing annoys me more than having to wait.”
Symon leaned forward, readying his hand. Relax your fingers. Cut from the left to the right. Quickly. He’d done this times before, in deserted alleyways, in the cabin of a ship, on twisting forest paths. But he couldn’t do it here.
He couldn’t do it now.
He flicked the blade away with a flick of his wrist. The weapon slid across the floor, stopping near the lip of the balcony. Let it fall, Symon thought as he pushed Miss Highland away. Let me never see it again.
Symon snuck past the stunned duo, flinging himself toward the ballroom for the last time. He slid through the doors, past wilting candles, alarmed butlers and maids. He ran, trying to block out all feeling, all noise, yet he still heard the desperate scream of Miss Ludmir as she called for a constable. He dared to pause at the front door and throw his gaze over his shoulder. Miss Highland stood in the doorway, a smile on her mouth that, with the distance of the ballroom floor between them, Symon couldn’t read. He wavered there for a moment, unsure.
Then turned sharply and slipped into the night.