"Oh come this way my dear. Welcome to our quarters." A woman said as she bustled the trio inside. "You're so thin, we'll soon have you fed. Shame on you Mr Marcer for allowing a starving girl to be put through such a trial." Maya raised an eyebrow in amusement - she had never seen a kitchen maid be so outspoken. She smiled at the thought of her mother's outrage at the impropriety, and decided that she quite liked the woman.
"I am deeply sorry my Lizzy." Lukah replied, laughing. He affectionately touched a hand to her face in a way that masters didn't. "I'm sure a woman with your talents at baking couldn't think of a worse crime."
"Only thing that's worse is batting your eyes at me in hopes for another of my cakes." The kitchen maid replied, swatting Lukah with a wooden spoon. "The Captain will be needing you slim enough to do your job."
"Lizzy, I am wounded." Lukah said in mock horror as he dodged another hit from her spoon. "I am a growing boy. I could waste away without your cooking."
"The only folk that seem to be wasting away around here is her." The woman said. She beckoned Maya over to a table, which was piled high with steaming pots of sweet smelling foods. "Come here, I'll get you something to eat." She practically forced Maya down onto the chairs and then shook her hands vigorously. "My name's Elizabeth, this cheek thinks he can get away with calling me Lizzy to swizzle me for more food, but he'd be wrong. I cook, clean and bandage these men up when they get into trouble. I have two rules in my kitchen: You eat the food and don't complain about nothing." Maya nodded, Maya briefly wondering why Elizabeth in all her ferocity hadn't been auditioned for the team.
"Maya. Yes, the Captain's told me all about you." Elizabeth spooned out a bowl of stew and three bread rolls. It was more food than Maya could remember seeing over several months.
"It'll be nice to have another woman around here. There is Ethel as well but she's usually too busy preening to work. Where is that damn girl?" Elizabeth called out twice and then shook her head in defeat. "Off with the fairies that girl is."
"At least she's not stupid enough to believe she can join a mission with trained soldiers." Jesse glared at Maya.
"Do excuse my partner, he takes pride in being the most depressing person in the room." Lukah jumped into the seat next to Maya. "Anyway, now you're part of the team we can do introductions. I'm Lukah Marcer, excellent marksman, known for my wit, charm and –"
"Complete inability to take anything seriously." Jesse finished.
"This is Jesse Knightly, the cynical soldier whose preferred method of attack is boring his opponents to death." Lukah went to grab a bread roll from Maya's plate and Elizabeth slapped his hand away.
"You wouldn't know if I'm boring because you never stay to hear what I say." Jesse stole the bread roll while Lukah smiled innocently at Elizabeth.
"That's my survival instincts kicking in." Lukah replied, a smile flickered across Jesse's face. "Then of course there's the Captain… um… we don't really know his name."
Maya raised her eyebrows in alarm. "You work for a man who throws people in the Tower of London and shoots them right in front of you… and you don't even know his name?"
"We don't like to pry." Lukah shrugged looking concerningly unconcerned.
"We need to meet with the Captain." Jesse said pulling Lukah way before he could make a swipe at another bread roll. "I need to discuss how we are going to get the plan to work now that we're stuck with her. With any luck she'll die before we actually get to Venice but I won't get too hopeful."
"Venice?" Maya asked
"All to be revealed. See you later." Lukah waved his arms mysteriously, backing out the room. Moments later he peaked his head around the door. "By the way not your best work on the bread Lizzy, I prefer them saltier."
"So you're the chef?" Maya asked
"Oh, well I'm not sure chef is the right word." Elizabeth replied, "But I look after the Captain's team, yes."
"There are more of them?" Maya asked
"Yes, lots of men, soldier types and…others." Elizabeth explained "The Captain has them doing all kinds of jobs. But it's just Jesse and Lukah on your mission."
"You know their plans. What are they?" Maya asked.
"Oh no, the Captain doesn't tell me much, I only know what I hear the men talking about." Elizabeth laughed. "It's amazing what you can hear when no one thinks you're listening. Anyway, that's enough chatter for now. Eat up." Maya raised an eyebrow, and then she smiled at the thought of Elizabeth the plump chef bossing the soldiers around, sword in hand. She had no doubt that the cook could be infinitely more dangerous than any of the men, especially if they knocked over one of her beloved copper pots.
"Something wrong my dear?" Elizabeth asked when she saw Maya pushing the food around her plate.
It's just…" Maya though back to Raymond lying lifeless on the floor. "They're killers."
"They're soldiers honey." Elizabeth laughed. "And I don't think you can have one without the other. But they are good men… most of them."
"Plus they're cute." A young maid said from the door way.
"I've told you, you're not to go near them Ethel." Elizabeth said sternly.
Ethel laughed. "I'm not doing anything wrong… for now. But didn't you meet dad when he was stationed here."
"That was different, your father and I were in love." Elizabeth replied. "Now stop waiting time it'll be lunch soon and even your smile won't satisfy hungry soldiers."
Ethel pouted and started setting out plates. "That Mr Knightly is a fine one, I do envy you having him on your team."
"He's also a miserable sod." Elizabeth followed her around the kitchen spooning out stew onto the plates. "I thought it was Mr Marcer you were fawning over."
Ethel rolled her eyes. "That was last week. Anyway, he's too blonde for my liking, which is odd for an Italian."
"What do you know about Italians?" Elizabeth laughed. "You've never been to Italy and you're not going either."
"I might do one day." Ethel sniffed.
"Ah yes." The Captain said. He was sitting behind a large, well-kept desk. Lukah propped himself up in a rocking chair in the corner, legs swinging lazily. Jesse seemed to prefer to stare moodily out of the window.
"Come in, Maya." The Captain beckoned her into the room. "We were just discussing the details of our plans. We have been requested to rescue Giacomo Casanova from his current holdings in Doge's Palace in Venice."
"That's where they torture people isn't it?" Maya asked. "Who would want to risk angering the Venetian secret police? All to break an explorer out of prison?"
"The identity of our client will remain anonymous. Consider it classified information." The Captain replied, reaching a folder from a locked draw in his desk as he did so. Maya frowned. The Captain was obviously the type of man who enjoyed being aloof. "The mission is also classified - code named 'Unlucky Men'."
"Geez Captain, thanks for the vote of confidence." Lukah replied. "Why not go with something cheery? How about 'Doge-y Dealings'?" He laughed. "You know, because-"
"We are not using puns in the code name, Lukah." Jesse interrupted, still staring out of the window.
"Ok well if you want to be moody about it, then call the mission, 'Karma's a-'"
"We don't swear in our titles either." The Captain said sternly. "The mission is code named 'Unlucky Men' and that is final." He gave a deep sigh and rubbed his temples. Maya got the impression that Lukah was often testing.
"Now then, on to other matters." The Captain said. "What progress have you made on acquiring invitations to the Romano's party?"
"Well, Mrs Romano has become close friends with Mrs Hampton during their visit from Italy." Jesse replied, finally turning around to look at the others, particularly Maya. Something flickered in Maya's eyes. Mrs Hampton? Surely not. "So I imagine we will receive an invitation in no time once her daughter writes a letter requesting one."
"What? Mrs Hampton? My mother?" Maya cried out angrily. "That's why you wanted me on your team isn't it?"
"I know." said Jesse. "It didn't make any sense to me either until I found that out. You're just here to be mummy's girl."
"Jesse." Lukah cut in, a warning tone to his voice.
"What?" Jesse asked viciously. "It's the only reason she's here, and we all know it. I'm going to get on with some real work. When the rest of you stop playing pretend, let me know." With that he stalked out.
Lukah sighed, looking at Maya apologetically as he watched Jesse leave. "I'm sorry, he doesn't mean these things."
The rooms settled in a heavy silence as they waited for Maya to speak. "I want a hundred pounds."
"Excuse me?" The Captain asked while Lukah sucked in a breath.
"You heard me." Maya said "I want a hundred pounds, I know it's a lot of money."
In fact, a hundred pounds was a huge amount of money. Maya knew that her mother's head footman had earnt seven pounds a year, and that anyone would be shocked that a woman would dare to be so demanding. This was the height of impropriety - not least because ladies like Maya were supposed to marry and inherit money, not seek their own.
But Maya wasn't a lady, not anymore. She had left that life behind now. "Give me a hundred pounds and I'll write the letter for you. I'll get what you want from the party and then I'll leave you to your business."
The Captain sighed under the gaze of Maya's hard stare. He leant back in his chair and rubbed his temples again. "I will speak to our client and tell him what you request, we shall see if he can manage it."
Maya laughed and leant forwards over the Captain's desk. "Your client wants to rescue Casanova from hell. I'm a survivor, not a saviour. Oh…and you're not unlucky men…you're damned."
The Captain raised his eyes to meet Maya's. "Miss Hampton, as you're not a soldier I don't expect you to understand but there is such a thing as a chain of command."
"Yes." Maya spat. "It's the chain I beat you with until you meet my commands."
The Captain narrowed his eyes. He seemed to be deciding whether Maya had actually spoken. "I could of course kill you like I did Raymond."
"But then who would write your letter?" Maya asked
"That's a pretty sharp tongue you've got there." The Captain reached into one of the desk draws and withdrew a stack of bank notes. "Better make sure it doesn't cut your own throat." Maya snatched up the money before he could take it back. "Lukah, show Maya to the maid's quarters, she can room with Ethel."
Lukah nodded and ushered Maya out into the corridor. When they were far enough away Lukah paused and said, "I think you and Jesse will get on well."
Maya laughed. "I'm not sure you've been paying attention. He hates me."
"I have known Jesse for a long time now Maya." Lukah said "His bitter tongue rarely says how he feels, but his music never lies."
"He plays?" Maya asked. In reply Lukah lead her towards a door in the very heart of the quarters.
As they walked the sound of music grew louder. Lukah silently opened a door that revealed a balcony running around the top of a room filled with various instruments. In the middle of which, stood Jesse playing the viola. "A lot of soldiers have musical hobbies." Lukah whispered. Maya nodded, not quite listening - she was enchanted by the music. Jesse was playing a song she hadn't heard before. It was passionate and longing mixed with a range of emotions Maya didn't know how to describe. She leant on the railings at the edge of the balcony, knowing she couldn't let Jesse see her but also desperate to watch him play.
The solider bowed his viola, his left-hand resting in the dent of a rose which had been carved into the neck of the instrument. There was something about the way Jesse poured his emotions into his music that made the blood rise in Maya's cheeks. She felt as though she had caught him in a revealing moment and her presence was somehow inappropriate.
Maya stood in awe as she watched Jesse move with the music as though he could feel the notes traveling through his entire body. She didn't even notice Lukah leave through the door behind her - all she could see was the man with the viola.
Jesse's fingers caressed the strings so lovingly it made Maya's breath catch. Although she hadn't recognised the melody, Jesse played it like an old friend. His shoulders moved and strained to support the pace of the bow. His eyes were closed and his expression unreadable. Jesse's spine curved inwards, drawing himself closer to his instrument, hungrily like a man desperate to touch his lover.
Maya's eyes fluttered shut. She breathed in the melody, feeling her own heart beat in time with it. She imagined the sound encasing the soldier as Jesse played the crescendo, bringing the piece to a climax.
He slumped to the floor as the last few notes sung through the room. His fingers lingering on the strings to draw out the sound.
Once silence had fallen, Jesse took a deep breath, forcing himself to put away his viola. Maya tucked herself against the wall as he walked under the balcony to leave. Part of her wanted to run after Jesse and beg him to play some more. But something in her knew that she could never tell him what she had seen.
"On your way to Elizabeth?" Jesse asked.
Maya spun around too quickly on her heels and her legs knotted against themselves, threatening to throw her off balance. "Er… yes… that's, um, where I was going." she cringed inwardly - she never had learnt to lie.
"Okay… well I'd leave your violin in here." Jesse said, directing Maya back into the music room. She nodded allowing him to take the instrument from her. If Jesse knew that she was lying then his face didn't betray him. "This is where some of the soldiers come to play music." He informed her as they walked onto the main floor of the room. Maya glanced upwards to the balcony she had stood on with Lukah and sighed. There was no way Jesse could have seen them from the floor. "I imagine you'll become a frequent visitor to this room."
"I wouldn't think so." Maya replied.
"Oh really?" Jesse asked raising his eyebrows in surprise. "Why's that?"
"Well I'm only staying for Mrs Romano's party." Maya said. Jesse frowned, so she continued. "You said yourself that it's the only reason I'm here, so I cut a deal for myself. I'll be out of your life as soon as possible."
Something flickered in Jesse's eyes. "Good." He said, keeping his voice steady. Several moments passed where neither of the pair spoke. Jesse stood arms crossed. Eventually it was him who broke the silence, clearing his throat. "Right, Elizabeth then."
"Indeed." Maya said.
"You've already met her, yes?" Jesse asked as he guided them through the halls.
"Yep… she was…" Maya started before realising that she didn't quite know what Elizabeth was.
"Indeed." Jesse confirmed, seeming to almost read her mind.
"Although Lukah seems to have a way with her." Maya continued, "Not exactly the kind of relationship people usually have with their kitchen maids."
"Elizabeth is sweet on anyone who likes her cooking." Jesse replied. "And I'm not sure the assassin violinist has the right to comment on social expectations." They exchanged a smile which quickly disappeared from Jesse's face when Elizabeth came rushing towards them.
"I know you soldiers like to drift through the day but my pots will be boiling over before too long. This way. Quickly." When they didn't move she grew impatient. "Now!" She ushered them along, wielding her wooden spoon as she spoke. "Three doors down the left is your room, Maya. Lukah is waiting for us there."
"Waiting for what?" Maya asked.
"For you to try on the dress you're to wear for Mrs Romano's party of course. Ethel, out of here now." Elizabeth scolded once they entered the room.
Ethel was perched on the end of a dressing table with her head resting on her hands as she listened intently to Lukah talk. "Mum, Lukah was only telling me about Venice."
"Mr Marcer has a job to do, and so do you. Get down stairs and check on the kitchens." Elizabeth pulled Maya behind a divider screen. Ethel stormed off muttering under hear breath. Maya was vaguely aware of a conversation between Jesse and Lukah as she felt Elizabeth pull the air from her lungs as she tightened the dress's corset.
"Who's escorting Maya to the party then?" Jesse asked.
"I am since I have a past with Lucie Romano." Lukah replied.
"What type of past?"
"The one that's not in the present."
"How does the Captain know we are even going to be invited to this party?"
"He has faith in Maya."
"That could be misplaced."
"Don't be a jerk Jesse."
"Is that a cinnamon roll?"
"It had better not be one of my freshly baked rolls Mr Marcer." Elizabeth called to them from behind the screen.
"Absolutely noth." Lukah said in a muffled voice which sounded a lot like a man who had just attempted to stuff an entire cinnamon roll into his mouth. Jesse tried and failed to stifle his laughter. "I thinkth thath we are thupposed to be looking ath Maya's dress now?" Lukah said as he rapidly swallowed before Elizabeth could come out from behind the screen. "How does it look?" He asked, clearing his throat.
"Pretty." Maya replied staring at herself in the mirror. The dress was heavier than the clothes she normally wore and a light peach colour which pretty against Maya's mousey hair. It had been a long time since Maya could remember wearing anything so fine.
She walked out from behind the divider and looked down as she felt the men take in the sight. "It's lovely." Lukah said.
"I don't like it." Jesse said abruptly. Lukah kicked him, but Jesse carried on regardless. "She looks too young. Mrs Romano only talks to people who interest her, and do you honestly believe that Maya looks interesting in that? You've made a lady of het. Get her to try on the other dress."
Lukah sighed. "I suppose you're right. Lucie does like drama." He turned to Maya, pushing another garment into her hands. "Would you mind?"
Maya felt Elizabeth pull her back behind the screen and change the dresses. This one was not for the unmarried woman. It was blood red, highlighting the flush of Maya's cheeks. The front exposed more than she would have wanted and Maya's reflection seemed to confront her with a woman she didn't quite recognise. She supposed the aim was to look sultry all dressed in red. But Maya only saw herself as an awkward raspberry (the least sexy of the fruits).
"Well?" Jesse asked impatiently.
"It's going to need a higher back." Maya replied.
"It's what Mrs Romano wears." Jesse replied.
Maya stepped out from behind the divider. "Well then she clearly doesn't have scars on her back." She spun around to illustrate her point and then immediately wished she hadn't when the men gasped.
"How did this happen?" Lukah asked. Maya flinched as he lightly traced the marks that criss-crossed her upper back.
"Bad parents." Maya replied, her mouth barely moving.
"Your father did this?" Lukah asked.
"No…" Maya sighed. "My mum did…"
Barely a moment passed before Lukah, with determination blazing in his eyes, said, "Never again."
"Well, I think it's time for a drink." Jesse said.
She had drunk too much. That she knew. Yet no amount of drink seemed to wash away the thoughts of her mother. The memories of being left to cry herself to sleep from the searing pain she was in. The memories of lying in her bed gazing up at the ceiling, tears blurring her vision and fear encasing her body, trapping her.
Even worse than that though were the questions she had about her father. Where was he? Why had he never written to her even though he had promised her repeatedly that he would? All the alcohol had done was detach her mind from her body so that Maya felt almost emotionless where she would usually have been filled with loneliness. But even that wasn't enough.
Maya sighed as she walked to the music room. She was vaguely aware of someone behind her but didn't care to find out who it was. She didn't need to talk to anyone right now. She didn't need kind words or pity… she was worth more than that. She needed her violin. She needed to be healed by her music.
Maya's hands craved the smooth touch of the wood. She wanted to play until she could no longer stand or think. Until the tips of her fingers bled from the pressure of her violin strings. Until her arms ached and her head spun. That was what Maya needed. She needed to be healed by destroying herself in song. So, that's what she did.
Maya welcomed in the pain of exhaustion as she played for hours. She closed her eyes and let the music fill her senses. She could still feel someone watching her but she blocked them out with the rest of the world. Nothing mattered but the notes under her fingers. So long as her world was filled with music, Maya knew she would be okay.
Until a string on the violin broke, and her heart along with it. Maya shuddered as she was forced to stop playing, her violin falling from her shoulder. She seemed to shrink, no longer aided by the crutch of her melodies. She felt her knees buckle under the weight of drowsiness. But just as she was about to fall, a pair of hands caught her.
She gasped at the touch and felt herself being pulled in to a man's chest. Maya looked up. "Jesse." She breathed. He said nothing in return as he steadied her against himself, although something in his eyes didn't seem quite stable either. For the first time, Maya felt that they were open. That she could read the soldier in a way that he would never usually let anyone. Unconsciously, she touched his face, and he let her. Jesse held her gaze as Maya traced the outline of his jaw. She wasn't sure who, but one of them shivered when she touched his lips. Before she had the chance to figure it out, Jesse was kissing her. Maya gasped, the sensation taking the rest of her strength.
Jesse wasn't how Maya had expected him to be. His kiss was gentle, caressing and he handled her delicately. His fingers cupping her face like she was made of glass, his touch bringing colour to her cheeks. Jesse only kissed her once and Maya got the feeling he was blushing as he pulled back from her. But she couldn't tell through her blurry eyes.
Maya was too tired to speak, yet her mind now buzzed with questions. Jesse silenced her, placing a finger to her lips and said something she couldn't understand. Then he gathered her up against him and carried her to her room.