Natasha Romanov was one with the shadows — and as proverbial wisdom had it, the darkness possessed very keen eyes and ears indeed.
"It's uncanny, I tell you!" Count Gregor Kalagin was pacing before the glowing fireplace in his study with both hands clasped behind his slight back, speaking sharply and loudly enough for the anbaric communicator on his desk to clearly pick up every syllable of heavily accented Goreean. Against the wall beside the mantle stood his body servant, a tall impassive man with powerful hands folded before him and eyes almost as cold as the piercing winter night outside, which sparkled with stars beyond the finely joined glass windows that caught restless glints of the dancing firelight. "She is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, you could lose yourself in her ruby lips and her emerald eyes and the auburn waves of her hair, but the way she moves… Alexei, I swear she must be half Werean! One moment she's there, and the next she's gone!"
A male voice, higher in pitch, answered him soothingly from the artificial device: "Gregori, calm yourself! Surely you must be mistaken? If the Egores saw no ill intent within her —"
"Nothing!" Kalagin spat savagely. "Only the pretty daughter of a Chalean knight's widow, come to us for the Ice Moon Festival! And none have been more merry than she at the feasting and the dance! And yet…" He stopped in his tracks facing Natasha's position, his bullish head truculently lowered and his black moustache bristling. "Things happen when she's around. Unpleasant things."
His brother laughed lightly across the ninety-seven leagues that separated this small stuffy room from his own palatial home outside of Seleka Township. "Are you trying to tell me that a mere slip of a girl is responsible for four deaths? How? Did her loveliness simply cause their hearts to give way?"
"One poisoning, one stabbing, and two found stark and staring in their beds," Kalagin snarled. "The Minister of the Interior among them — and she was seen with all of them before they came to their ends."
"The poisoning I could believe — that's always been a woman's way — but stabbing is a nasty brutish business," the distant voice stated. "The only females capable of it are insane. Is this girl mad?"
Kalagin's narrow shoulders stiffened, and his next words were nearly growled: "If she is, it's a madness the likes of which I've never before beheld."
Natasha did not smile. She could not, in her present form. But cold amusement shimmered through the fragile tissue of her substance, which lay blended within the shadows behind a marble bust of L's'airat that adorned the study wall at right angles to the fireplace: the state of her sanity had been debated by better men than this nervous little tyrant and his debauched brother, but she nevertheless found herself curious to hear what conclusion they'd come to… curious enough to stay her hand, for the moment.
"She's as warm and as sweet as you could wish a woman to be," Kalagin was continuing, "and she sings and dances like a dream made flesh — men flock to her like flies to a Tarik vase full of clover honey. I'll admit that I found her nearly worthy of a tumble myself. But when you get close enough to gaze into her eyes…" He paused. He shook his head. "There's nothing there, Alexei. She's as empty and black as the Mines of Morelik. I took one look and backed away as if from an adder."
In spite of herself Natasha was surprised and impressed by her target's rare depth of perception — and by his ability to hide that reaction from her at the moment it had occurred. At the time he'd bowed and claimed a pressing engagement in way that she hadn't found reason to doubt. He was more dangerous than she'd estimated, and even if she hadn't been operating under orders to terminate him the fact that he'd deceived her would have been more than enough to warrant his death.
From out in the night, a tap in the forefront of her mind: /What was that?/
/Nothing worth mentioning./ She'd share the cause for the emotional ripple Clint had picked up on later — perhaps./Are you in position?/
It was a conversational diversion — Clint Barton never failed to execute his duties on a strike with perfect efficiency, even on nights when he had to perch in a winter-bare tree in bone-numbing cold — but the Arcane Archer did not question it. /Ready./
Alexei was still speaking in that laughing tone: "Yet she has no shortage of lovers, you say? Are you surrounded by incompetents, incapable of seeing a snake when it's right in front of them? I think it's more likely that your own paranoia is getting the better of you — again."
Kalagin shook his head. "I know what I saw," he insisted.
"And why have you called me at this ungodly hour? To ask me what to do about your pretty little problem?"
"No. I issued the order for her not half an hour ago." He straightened more, then sighed, his shoulders slumping fractionally. "Only… damn me to the Ninth Hell, she is intolerably beautiful. I'll be dreaming of her smile long after her ebon soul is dispatched Below and her body's been consigned to the fires."
/Now,/ Natasha sent.
A window pane shattered. The body servant looked round sharply, then looked surprised, then fell forward on his face with a poisoned arrow in his thick throat.
As for Kalagin, he did not turn in the direction of the sound of breaking glass. He was too busy staring at Natasha as she stepped out of the impossibly narrow shadows and into full form again, clad all in gleaming skin-tight black, her hair a cascade of dark flame in the firelight. Before he could even open his mouth to speak she had reached him and Touched him, and his lips did part then, a final shock of indrawn breath and widened hazel eyes as his soul was drawn from his body and into her hand.
She gazed down at his fallen body, which seemed even smaller in death. And she smiled, the faintest curve of the full lips whose alluring venom he had once longed to kiss.
Another tap that penetrated her mental shields on a recognized frequency, this one more imperative than Clint's — the impact of a mail-clad fist on an iron door: /Return to base, both of you./
Clint, not surprised, but keenly questioning: /Is it the Initiative at last?/ But the unmistakeable Jeratai flavour of Lord Fury's mind-touch had already been withdrawn — and after all, what need was there for further conversation? Orders were orders, and Natasha and Clint were Fury's most trusted soldiers.
But for an instant their minds sang together with one predatory note of delight — satisfaction in a mission well accomplished, pleasure in a clean kill, anticipation of what was to come, joy in their bond that united them in body, in mind and in soul, an entwining of spirits which made the meeting of lips pale in comparison.
Natasha tucked Gregor Kalagin's paralyzed soul safely within herself and shadow-walked through the window's glass, leaving his brother's voice calling to the empty room, and once she'd joined her partner they headed south as commanded across the desolate winter landscape of the Northern Empire, never once looking back.