She turned around in alarm and marched back up the stairs. Fiearius, who seemed to have been dazing off waiting for her, perked up and followed, his mouth half-forming a question that never quite got out. Before he got the chance, Leta demanded of the guard, “What were you just saying?”
The woman looked startled and then embarrassed and then quickly nervous. “N-nothing, miss,” she explained hurriedly. “Just idle gossip, won’t happen again, miss.”
Leta shook her head in frustration. “No, no, it’s important. What you said. Gates slipping out in the last course?”
Now the poor woman simply seemed confused. “Wh — yes, miss. The schedule indicated Admiral Gates would be discreetly departing early as always.”
“Always?” Fiearius asked, finally seeming to somewhat catch-up in the conversation.
“The Admiral tends to always leave these functions early, sir. The first rank guards that watch him are only ever scheduled until dessert.”
The panic that had been slowly rising in Leta hit its peak. “The assassin had to act before dessert–” she breathed.
“Because he’d be gone after,” Fiearius finished for her, eyes widen.
They both swung their heads toward the ballroom floor where front and center, Admiral Gates was back to his duties, already deep in some political discussion with his fellow military brass.
Fiearius was the first to react.
“You two,” he ordered to the guards, “With us.” He marched down the stairs, Leta on his heel. Together they pressed through the crowd, side-stepping guests who were laughing, drinking, singing — they had no idea an assassin was among them.
Adrenaline surged through her and Leta had half a mind to yell to Gates across the room, but then she glimpsed it, in the corner of her eye: a flash of black metal. A gun. It was locked in a man’s hand, at his side, moving in and out of sight as its holder marched toward Gates through the crowd.
Shock bolted through her veins. Her hands reached for Fiearius’ arm, and then, before she could think to do otherwise, she pushed herself forward and seized the weapon and the man’s forearm in one motion. Gritting her teeth, she twisted his hand hard, drawing the weapon away. Fiearius was yelling her name as the guests jumped back, a chorus of screams erupting around her. The assassin wrestled his hand back, growling furiously to free himself, but in the back of Leta’s mind, she knew she’d done it. She’d already drawn enough attention to him.
“Over here!” a guard yelled over the fray, while another gasped, “Grab him!” In a flash, the man was ripped backwards, his grip freeing from the gun. Leta saw that Fiearius had swung his forearm hard against the man’s throat, dragging him away. The assassin struggled furiously against Fiearius, but his efforts died off when the guards arrived, parting the crowd.
Shock drowned out sound in Leta’s ears as she watched, transfixed. It happened in slow motion: Fiearius stepped away, chest heaving hard; the guards withdrew their weapons, then forced the assassin against a wall, and seized his wrists with metal restraints.
Awed murmurs rippled through the crowd — horrified, confused, even some drunkenly excited at all the commotion. But when the guards escorted the assassin from the room, the scene somehow became a lot more chaotic. She lost sight of Gates who was being flocked to in worry by everyone in the room who needed to earn his favor. She even lost sight of Fiearius amongst the clammer.
She was vaguely aware that people were talking to her, clapping her on the back, congratulating her on a job well done. How brave, they said. How selfless. What a relief she was here to act.
But she’d gotten lucky, said the cold, logical voice in her head. That was all. They’d accidentally forced the assassin to act sloppily, and caught him in a desperate act. If they’d been off at all, the assassin would have done his job quickly and quietly in the mansion somewhere, not desperate and urgent in the middle of the dance floor, not sure he’d get another chance before his target disappeared. Dazed, all Leta could focus on was her own breath, still shorter than it should be, and her own heartbeat, still pounding away in her chest relentlessly.
She was also vaguely aware of the gun she’d wrestled away still sitting heavy and cold in her hand. Part of her wanted to just hand it to someone to get it away from her, but another part, the part she recognized as the one that had spent too much time in the company of space pirates on the Dionysian, wanted to grip it tighter.
Slowly, she began to drift out of her daze and then, much more suddenly, she was dragged out of it by a frantic tugging on her arm. Shaking her head, she forced herself back into the moment and found herself face to face with Liam, whose face was stark white.
“–hear me? Leta? Are you okay?” he was saying, grasping her hands in his.
“Fine,” she said. Realizing she’d sounded a bit harsh, said again, more softly, “I’m fine. Really. I–”
But Liam looked as alarmed as she’d ever seen him, his eyes frantic. He held her elbows and drew her closer.
“Leta, you need to listen to me, right now. I found something,” he explained breathlessly, starting to steer her away from the fray. “When you were gone, I followed someone, I found — ”
“Liam, liam, it’s okay,” she interrupted, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all taken care of. He’s in custody. He failed. Everything’s okay. The guards have the assassin.”
But to her growing dismay, his response was not, “Oh thank goodness.” Nor was it any sort of relief at all. He simply knit his brow, confused.
“Assassin? What? No, I don’t know anything about–” He shook his head furiously. “Leta, there was this man that stuck out to me. I shadowed him for a while. He seemed normal enough, but he went upstairs, I thought why the heck not, and I followed him and he made a call. I heard the whole thing.”
“It was–about you. About Soliveré. That you didn’t know–Something with–Ascendia? And Vescent and Ellegy and –They said things about–” He was stumbling over his words, speaking too fast, but he came to a sharp halt and heaved a deep breath. “He’s a Councillor, Leta. A Society Councillor is here.”
Leta felt as though all the blood in her body had turned cold. Her grip on Liam’s shoulder tightened and she leaned towards him as she hissed, “What? How do you–Are you sure?”
“Positive, without a doubt,” Liam answered without skipping a beat. “I know what I heard. He’s a Councillor.”
Liam opened his mouth, but words didn’t come out. He frantically looked around the two of them, his head whipping back and forth until finally it stopped and his wide eyes grew wider. “Him,” he breathed and Leta followed his line of sight to, “The one talking to Soliveré.”
Not just talking to Soliveré. Smiling with Soliveré, laughing with Soliveré. The two of them seemed to be sharing some cordial joke or story like any of the vague, polite society acquaintances at this party. And then the man, who looked no more interesting than any other middle-aged man in attendance, reached up his hand and let it drop affectionately on Soliveré’s shoulder. His fingers tightened. And that was when Leta had to do something.
What, however, was another matter.
“Fiearius!” she shouted to him without even thinking. He looked over at her, surprised. So did the man beside him. And before she could even consider reason or logic or the best plan of action, she remembered the gun in her hand. Almost of its own accord, it lifted into the air.
A loud bang and a cacophony of gasps filled the ballroom.