When the Ris called in a debt, they really didn't think small.
"I liked my last midnight visitor much better," Erdess Neifel remarked dryly.
A blond man clad entirely in black grinned back at her. "I had heard the Sparrow was feisty. I see the rumors were true."
If it weren't for the naked blade in his hand, she might have called for the guard. That said, she wasn't entirely cowed.
"You can't have it." It only took them four years to ask for her syrup recipe.
The man tapped his ear with his dagger. "I'm not sure I heard you."
"The Butterfly could have gotten me to surrender it."
"The Butterfly will get his soon enough," the man replied smoothly, stepping closer. "Give it to me, Sparrow, or this will go very badly for you."
"It will go worse if I do what you want," she said, though at the moment she couldn't really see how. After tonight she was definitely going to stash a dagger under her pillow. Or maybe put bars over her window.
He raised a brow. "You realize I could kill you, right?"
"Then you'd have to search for it," she said with confidence she didn't really feel.
"Or get it from your half-man brother."
Ah. Yes, she thought there was a flaw in this plan.
"Fine," she huffed to cover her fear. "I have it in here today. What will you do with it?"
She went over to the tiny bureau her water basin stood on and pulled out one of the drawers.
"We haven't decided yet," the man said conversationally, as if he were shopping for a dress. "Probably sell it for fabulous amounts of money. Or maybe we'll keep it, so you'll have to keep doing us favors."
"You aren't the ones who keep sending men to steal it, are you?" she asked, not entirely certain she kept her anger from her voice. It was not a pleasant thought that they had made her punish so many thieves.
"No," he said, though somehow it didn't make her feel better.
Erdess pulled a piece of paper off the underside of the drawer, fingered it a moment, then sullenly handed it over. The man took it with a grin, and had the gall to bow.
"A pleasure doing business with you."
Erdess made herself wait two whole hours before she raised the alarm and ordered her household to move to At'Luann.
"You gave them the recipe?" her steward hissed in horror.
"I gave them a very clever decoy," Erdess said with forced calm. "Though when they put those spices together they'll realize they've been duped. I give it two weeks, maybe three."
"You have a plan?" he asked, hopeful.
"I do," Lady Neifel replied. "You're sneaky, right?"
"I beg your pardon?"
Erdess sighed. "You struck me as a very resourceful type when we hired you. I need you to find a thief called The Butterfly."
The man balked. "I don't think I like this plan."
"It's all we've got," she snapped. "We're drowning, not drowned, because I bought us time. We need protection, and he's the only one who can deliver."
The steward sighed and rubbed his temple. "I will...try. But I make no promises, Lady. You had better have a backup plan."
"I hear the Wastelands are pretty this time of year."
Erdess thought it was appropriate to tell her sister-in-law that she was welcome to the country keep while they were in the city residence. She left without a word. The rest of the stay did not go so smoothly.
Her steward was a smart man, but perhaps not as criminally minded as she had hoped. That said, it was probably a good thing he was so honest normally.
She should have expected him to come at night, but then, she hadn't expected him to come at all.
"I would say 'I hate to say I told you so,' but that would be lying."
Erdess glared at the man casually reposing on her bed.
"By the way, I told you so."
Aalor sighed. "That will be difficult."
"I'll pay you, I'm wealthy so long as they don't have the real recipe."
Her companion gave her a wry glance. "I should certainly hope you'd pay, this is probably the biggest thing I'll ever do."
Another sigh. "Do you trust me, Erdess?"
She thought it would take longer to answer, but was surprised to find it did not.
He chuckled, though not with mirth, and rubbed his face. "Great. Do I trust you?"
"That sounds like a personal problem."
"You're right. It does."
"My visitor seemed to think you were in trouble."
Aalor grunted. "Nothing I can't handle."
He looked at her then, or maybe he was looking through her. There was a hard decision being discussed in his eyes.
Curious, Erdess approached. Aalor swung his legs over the side of the bed, and when she drew close, looped a hand around the back of her neck and kissed her.
Erdess, shocked more than dismayed, stumbled away almost immediately, then just as immediately regretted it.
The Butterfly laughed, and she worried someone might hear him.
"All right. I'm off."
"Wait," Erdess pleaded, grabbing hold of his sleeve. "Please. I asked you once why you talked to me, when I would never have known you were nearby otherwise. Now...given what we've been through, what we're going to do, I'm not satisfied with the answer you gave anymore."
He was looking at her again, intense and piercing. For a full minute, neither one of them said anything.
"Sometimes I find something, or say something, and I feel like it was always meant to be," he said softly, slowly, like he was admitting some divine secret. "That's why."
"Because I'm one of those things?" she asked, unsure.
"No," he said. "Because you're the one thing I wish was."
Erdess couldn't say she knew Aalor well, but she did know that failure was not something he did. Which was why looking at his notice of execution confused her.
"This was your plan?" her steward asked dryly.
"He's usually very reliable. This must be part of the plan."
Her steward sighed in defeat. "So what do we do now?"
Erdess didn't know what to tell her faithful retainer. Her first instinct was to rescue him, but she was certain that wouldn't go over well with the king, and making an enemy out of both the Ris and Torric royalty seemed unwise. She had watched men die before.
Erdess didn't recall expressing the desire to go to the execution square, but soon enough she watched her feet carry her over the cobblestones to get a better look at the platform from which the condemned were displayed. The bloodstained block was waiting. The High Executioner was waiting. The headsman was waiting, his face masked by a burlap sack. He looked like a scarecrow.
There were more people in the square than she expected to show up. Then again, it wasn't every day the infamous Butterfly was captured. They all seemed to be waiting too, with baited breath. Erdess recalled her kiss.
Gods. He was saying goodbye.
Was this what he had felt, so many years ago, only by accident watching her mother come out to die? This feeling of fate simply because she didn't want it to be so? She imagined the scene he had described, and saw a woman – features now vague, it had been so long – walk out into the noonday sun, cotton gown trailing like a wedding dress, back straight, head held high.
It had been a long time since Erdess allowed herself the luxury of tears. She dared not dishonor either of them with that weakness now.
A servant was ran up to the High Executioner. The man whispered in the official's ear, and then, his eyes bulged.
"What do you mean, 'gone'?"
Two weeks later, a letter arrived. With it was her fake recipe.
I believe this belongs to you.
Also, I haven't been paid.