Isolde walked out into the gardens, the bite of frost in the air a welcome coolness against her hot skin. In summertime she imagined the garden would be hung with lights, guests enticed onto the lawns and terraces with entertainments, music and tables of food and drink. The weather being cold, the host and hostess had assumed their guests would rather remain inside. Isolde was glad of this. It made the garden a quiet sanctuary.
Through open doors she could hear murmuring voices and music. The chamber orchestra played a slow waltz, notes rising and falling in a gentle, light refrain. She allowed her eyes to become accustomed to the night before stepping down from the first terrace onto the dim, gray lawn. Nearby, softened by shadow, was a well-trimmed hedge with topiary in the shape of lions and leaping deer.
She held up her skirts and wandered, peering at the forms, marvelling. The night breeze shivered the clipped edges of the leaves, giving the sculpted animals the illusion of life and breath. She could easily imagine any one of them suddenly vaulting over her head and go darting off into the trees. She wished she could kick off her shoes and feel the grass under her feet. No one was watching her, and if it had been warm she thought she might have succumbed to that temptation even in her heavy, formal gown. She took care to stay within sight of the house, glancing back often even as she explored. There was a ruined wall that skirted the recessed statue of an ancient goddess. Isolde smiled to herself. It had become fashionable to boast a few ruins in your grounds and her host and hostess had evidently fallen prey to this craze. Standing stones that had rested centuries in one place were being dug up and transported miles to grace the estates of the rich and foolish. The remains of ancient towers or dwellings were painstakingly taken apart stone by stone and then rebuilt at the whim of some noble Lord or Lady. She heard a step behind her and turned.
Isolde smiled. "Mr. Jarrolson."
He came to stand beside her, hands clasped behind his back. "Enjoying the party?" he asked.
"Yes, I just thought I would come out for a stroll. It's a lovely garden."
"Even better in daylight. I believe there is a maze somewhere about. But you must be cold, won't you come in? I looked for you," he added, his tone faintly accusatory, faintly pleading. "You promised me a dance."
"I have not forgotten," she said with absolute truth. She smiled at him again. "I knew you would find me when it was time."
He brightened and Isolde felt a pang of sympathy for him. He was impressionable and very earnest. "Shall we?" he said, offering his arm. His breathing had quickened, maybe anticipating the feel of her skin against his. His hand even trembled a little, although Isolde conceded that this could have been caused by the cold. She lifted her hand and placed it confidently on his, but he surprised her by gripping her fingers tightly and turning to face her. "Miss Caverly, I..."
Isolde was braced for a verbal outpouring but not for action. His free hand snaked around her middle, pulling her close while he leaned in to kiss her. She was momentarily too astonished to do anything. His mouth was seeking hers, panting hot breaths on her lips. He was trembling now and groaned in her ear, rubbing his cheek against hers, dragging her even closer to him before kissing her again. Isolde began to struggle, trying to wriggle out from his uncomfortable grip. Wrenching her hand away from his she leaned back, pushing him away.
"Mr. Jarrolson! Stop!" she said furiously. Though she wanted to shout at him, she was aware of the proximity of the house. If someone heard and came out too soon - she didn't like to think of it. She found the back of his hand and pinched him hard. He made a sound like a sob and broke away, so suddenly she stumbled and had to lean against the wall.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Miss Caverly..."
Isolde had had enough. It was ridiculous. And after trying to kiss her he was still calling her Miss Caverly, so polite and proper though the situation was anything but. "Now!" she hissed. "Now! What are you waiting for?"
"Now?" Mr. Jarrolson repeated in bewilderment, gaping at her.
He received an answer, but not from Isolde. A dart hummed through the air like an angry wasp and buried itself in his throat. Isolde felt it. Her own chest tightened as he gasped for air and she suffered his fear, his panic, and his surprise. Though she always wished to look away she never could. Mr. Jarrolson dropped to his knees, scrabbling frantically at his throat, but his eyes never left hers. He knelt there a few moments then collapsed onto his side on the wet grass. He tried to speak or maybe to scream - she couldn't tell. The dart in his neck waggled obscenely as his tongue worked and the tendons of his neck stood out like straining ropes, but the sound that came was nothing but a bubbling croak.
Isolde took two steps and knelt down beside him, still holding his gaze, taking his chin and turning his head a little so he looked directly at her.
"Your debt is called in," she told him. "You understand." He did understand. The confusion was gone. He made another attempt to speak and again there were no words but Isolde nodded. "It's paid in full. Your family won't be harmed. Goodnight Ewart Jarrolson."
Isolde didn't look up as a figure emerged from the bushes. She heard the rustle, caught the movement in the corner of her eye and moved back a little to give him room. The second dart found a home in Mr. Jarrolson right eye.
"What were you waiting for?" Isolde demanded in an angry whisper. She stood up and faced him.
"Wanted to see what would happen."
"Yes ma'am," he said with a grin.
"Oh, just go. I'm not working with you again. You can tell him that if you like. This whole thing was preposterous."
"Not my fault. What did he do anyway?" Golightly nudged the corpse's out flung arm with the toe of his boot and peered down at it, frowning.
"Who knows? Does it matter?"
"No, I suppose."
"Are you going?"
He was very quiet. There was barely a rustle as he left, just a few soft sounds that could have been caused by the wind. Isolde sat on the grass next to Jarrolson's corpse, removed his rings and other jewellery and divested his wallet of notes and his purse of coin. These she hid in a concealed pocket in the hem of her gown. She took off her own necklace, secreting it in another pocket, and decided that Mr. Jarrolson's attentions and the damp and muddy grass had left her appropriately bedraggled. No need to overdo things by going to the extreme of utterly ruining her gown. All the while she counted under her breath, slowly and steadily, never hurrying. Once she reached one hundred she screamed.