On Her Undying Majesty's Secret Service
Characters: Ardsley Wooster/OC, Gil
Summary: Ardsley Wooster, British Intelligence, has an important assignment in Paris. Unbeknownst to him, so does someone else. Set approximately two years before the comic begins.
Disclaimers: Girl Genius, the Secret Blueprints, and its characters belong to Studio Foglio and are used without permission and with greatest respect. (And this story and all contents including original characters are theirs if they want them.) Also inspired by Ian Fleming's James Bond 007, who is the property of the estate of Ian Fleming and whoever won the film rights in the latest legal tiff. Please do not copy/repost without permission.
"Gil, it's really not that complex." Ardsley Wooster patiently tapped the open copy of Langesprachen's 'Treatise on the Rights of the Ninety Minor Houses'. "Or at least it wouldn't be, if you had actually done any studying at all. You didn't, did you?"
"Really, Wooster, you're a horrible bore sometimes, you know that?" Gilgamesh Holzfäller was concentrating far more on the delicate art of balancing his coffee cup on the tip of one boot (which he'd propped on the table) than he was on revising for his exams in modern European history. "Are all Brits as stuffy as you are?"
Only the ones stuck tutoring idiots, but years of training kept the thought locked securely away. Never mind that his pupil and friend was, appearances aside, smarter than he let on and wouldn't need help with the mundane courses like history and literature that Sparks seemed to resent having to take. "Are all your family as lazy about geopolitics as you?" Oh, the irony.
Gil snorted and the coffee cup wobbled precariously. "How many of the minor houses even still exist?"
"Another thing you'd know if you'd studied. We wouldn't be here if you hadn't asked for help." And if your father hadn't wiped half of them out. Ardsley made himself take a sip of tea and got his face under control. "And we haven't even addressed the treaties involving the trade routes through the eastern duchies to China. Or what about the last Anglo-Frankish war? Can you name all ten commanders of Wellington's mechanized divisions? I can almost promise Professor Defatigere will ask about at least one of those."
"Not about Wellington," Gil said. He grinned, and despite himself Ardsley smiled back. For all that he really was, Gil never seemed to have a genuinely nasty edge to his teasing. "Maybe your, what do you call them, public schools, like to talk about him, but I don't think the Parisians are quite as fond of him." He switched the coffee cup from one boot tip to the other, rocking the table in a decidedly perilous manner. "I guess you English need something to be proud of, and it's certainly not your food so it might as well be your navy."
I cannot kill him unless orders change, I cannot kill him unless orders change . . . .
"Speaks the man who's obviously never had treacle tart."
"I don't know about the treacle part, but as for tarts . . . ." Gil grinned, and reached sideways. Ardsley realized he should have seen what was coming, but who could have expected a poor serving girl to be passing at the precise moment Gil needed for his double entendre? The girl shrieked as Gil grabbed her waist and pulled, sending the tray with the steaming press pot and cups flying, fortunately in the opposite direction of their table. "Tarts, I know something about." The girl squealed, though not in a way that suggested she really objected.
There was another feminine shriek, but this far more alarmed and annoyed. Ardsley looked past Gil and his not-unwilling victim and realized where the coffee and cups had gone. A girl, another university student, by the look of her relatively-drab clothes and the books and papers on her table, was now trying to wipe most of that coffee off her notes. She was achieving very little success and looking more and more frustrated by the minute.
"Really, Gil, were you raised, or did your parents just untie you periodically?" Part of his cover meant not normally allowing any real annoyance or disapproval through, but there were limits. He was supposed to be the serious older student, after all.
"You really are a complete stick, Wooster." Gil's attention was mostly on the girl on his lap. "I sometimes think you're constitutionally incapable of having fun. And you, my pretty . . . ." He chucked the waitress under the chin. "What do you know about pirates?"
Ardsley turned his back on Gil and his newest coquette. It was hardly the first time, and Gil would be utterly amiable the next time he needed help with some sparky scheme. Or the next time he failed an exam. It still rankled. "I'm perfectly capable of having fun," he muttered. "Just, restrained fun. British fun. There's nothing wrong with that."
There was something wrong with leaving a lady in distress, though. Retrieving a serviette from their table (he had a feeling they weren't going to be needing any more), he went to the girl's table. She was still dabbing at her notes, but more and more frustratedly and with little sign of making any progress. By the look of the notes she'd been studying languages–he recognized Greek, and a few lines of notes in Cyrillic letters as well. "I'm sorry, Mademoiselle," he said, offering the dry serviette. "He normally means well."
She looked up, and Ardsley found himself staring into wide dark eyes of a color not dissimilar to the spilled black coffee. They were also suspiciously liquid. "It's all right, really, Monsieur," she said, and her accent wasn't immediately familiar but it was neither French nor Wulfenbach German. "I think most of it will dry out. I'm fine." There was a quaver in her voice and a trembling of her lower lip (she had quite lovely lips, he noticed in spite of himself) that belied that assertion.
"Still it was very rude of him." He looked over his shoulder, but Gil had apparently convinced the waitress to come investigate pirate hangouts with him. "I do apologize."
"You really don't have to." She didn't protest his dabbing at the spill. "Your accent–you are British, yes?"
He had been in Paris so long it took him an instant to realize she had spoken his own native language, charmingly accented to boot. "Yes, yes, I am." He smiled, and realized in the back of his mind it was sincere. "You speak English?"
"Oh, not very well," she lied prettily. She looked away quickly, then back up at him. "I don't get much chance to practice. But I like languages. English is . . . tricksy?"
"Tricky." He wasn't sure, but he had the definite impression she was flirting with him. It was a strange feeling, after flitting along in Gil's wake for so long, to have female attention directed solely at him rather than as an afterthought. He picked up a couple of the dripping note pages, gently fanning them to try and dry the coffee stains. "I suppose it's not as practical as German, or as lyrical as French, but I confess I do miss hearing it." He smiled, and her gaze dropped, a quick lowering of the lids, and then she looked back up, her Cupid's-bow mouth curved in a shy smile. When his brain kicked itself back into gear seconds later, his manners reasserted themselves, too.
"Ardsley Wooster," and he offered his hand. "I'm a tutor at the university–student, as was, I can't seem to quite finish. Maybe this term, eh?"
"There are worse things to be than an eternal student." She took his hand, and instead of shaking it he bent over it in a polite, not-quite-bow. The way her eyes sparkled when she smiled was really quite extraordinary. "Melisande La Capere. And I'm a student, too, at least I'm supposed to be. I'm afraid a university full of sparks and would-bes isn't the kindest to students only interested in reading dead languages. Please, sit down. If you have time," she added, a tinge of reluctance in her voice.
Ardsley glanced over his shoulder, but Gil obviously had no intention of putting in a reappearance tonight. He retrieved the books he'd abandoned, not that his wayward friend would be any more interested later. "All the time in the world." He sat, after surreptitiously checking the chair for more of the spill. "Coffee?"
Melisande laughed. "I prefer tea, myself. Especially after this!"
"Really?" He flagged a passing serving girl (and couldn't really blame her for the sideways look he received, given whom he'd been sitting with) and ordered a pot of black tea and a plate of biscuits for two. "I've found the French normally prefer coffee."
"Ah, but I'm not French," Melisande set, closing her notes and setting them aside. "Not on both sides. I'm from the Duchy of Moscow."
That explained the French name, but the soft accent that was decidedly not French. "You're certainly a long way from home. I would have thought, the conservatory in St. Petersburg, perhaps–"
She shrugged. "We're so insular in the Duchy, any student who expresses an interest in going abroad is usually encouraged. The Grand Duke is very like his great-grandfather-he made the court speak French and introduced table manners." She wrinkled her nose. "Of course, he also invented exploding cuff-buttons to prevent his courtiers from using their sleeves as handkerchiefs. He didn't seem to realize how much messier the results of that might be."
"I had heard the Spark ran in your ruling family." Given his ultimate objective, it wasn't reassuring to hear more about Sparks and their pathological inability to foresee consequences.
"And I have heard that it doesn't so much run in your country's, but is your country's." Her smile had changed just a tiny bit. There was more than empty flirtation there. "What other explanation can there be for a Queen called 'her Undying Majesty'?"
In spite of himself Ardsley shivered. It was more than a year since he'd set foot in Britain and slightly longer since he'd actually been in her Majesty's presence and felt the overwhelming power of her will, and the thought of defying that force still made his stomach twist. Somehow, he forced himself to chuckle. "It does make issues of succession easy to deal with."
She laughed, just enough as the joke deserved. "I'm sure it would." Their tea arrived, accompanied by a plate of small cakes, and the requisite jug of milk, bowl of sugar cubes, and, to his surprise, a little pot of blackcurrant preserves. The biscuits weren't the kind that required jam or clotted cream (his mouth watered at the thought of a real cream tea, with real English scones, and a proper supper that evening–he stopped himself. It would be a long time before he was in a position to enjoy real home cooking again. If ever.) Melisande nodded approvingly at the service, and took the pot. "Shall I?"
Ardsley nodded, wondering where she'd picked up that particular English custom. Or maybe it was normal in the Duchy, too. She poured quite elegantly, without spilling a drop, and didn't fill her own cup before setting the pot down. "Cream and sugar?"
"Please." He noted she wrinkled her nose a bit as she added the cream. "I haven't had properly-served tea in quite a while. The Parisians do many foods well, but they've never managed to master tea."
"I agree," she said, passing him the cup. "Though I suspect our definition of a proper tea probably differs a bit." She poured for herself, and to his surprise she reached for the little crock of preserves instead of the cream or sugar. She obviously saw the look on his face. "I'm not the only Russian who comes here. You see? We'd probably bicker about how to make the tea, too–I'll bet you have never used a samovar."
"Wouldn't even know how to turn one on." He sipped contentedly. Even if her own tastes were rather odd, she could certainly make a proper cup. "So, besides all the various methods of making tea, you study languages?"
"As many as I can." She set her own cup down after a delicate sip, and he noticed she kept her little finger properly curled in, not stuck out in the ostentatious gesture everyone who wasn't English seemed to think was proper. "Of course at home we speak French at the court, and Russian. My uncle always said we should learn German as well," and she switched effortlessly back to that language, "since so much of Europa speaks it."
"German, of course," he said, switching himself. "And French, Russian, naturally. But English?" It even felt good, practically tasted good, to speak English again. "That's a bit of an odd one, to speak so fluently. Unless you were planning to go to London to visit the Queen."
Melisande smiled, looking at him from beneath lowered lids. "They do say even a cat may look at a queen. Though I would be quite frightened to look at yours."
"And well you should be. You know, these biscuits are really delicious. You should try one." And just for sheer amusement, he tried that last in Italian.
She took one from the plate and delicately broke off a piece. "Yes, it's lovely." Her Italian had a very pretty lilt. "Though have you ever had mantecados? They practically melt in your mouth."
Spanish, eh? Two could play at this game. He leaned forward. "I can't say as I have." Let's see what she did with this one. "Are you familiar with the island of Wales? They have the most delicious griddle cakes there." That ought to do for her, as even to someone who'd visited Welsh was a tongue-twister.
It did sound lovely in a Russian accent, though. "I've never been. I couldn't spell the names of the travel guides." From the way her eyes lit up, the gauntlet was down. He braced himself for whatever she had next. "Now, kruschiki, if you've ever tried them . . . ."
Melisande pelted him with Polish, Hebrew, Romany, and Romanian. He matched her and countered with Greek, Hungarian, Swedish and Dutch and finally was rewarded with a blank look with his last-ditch effort. "That's all right," he said, switching back to English. "I can't expect many people have reason to learn Manx Gaelic."
She gave a disgusted little sigh. "I should have known, it sounded like Irish." And then, with a sideways smile, she rattled off something in a strange, slightly harsh language, and it was utterly incomprehensible. Her eyes were wonderfully wide and innocent. "Oh, I'm sorry. You don't speak Tartar?"
Ardsley laughed. "Fair enough. Shall we call it a draw?"
"I wish you'd call it a night," a voice behind him muttered in French, adding some rather uncomplimentary comments about students.
He jumped, and looked around. There were still a few other tables occupied, but very few and most appeared to be couples who were absorbed in something other than intense linguistic exchanges. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised that he was somewhat envious, and wished there were a tactful way to change the topic to something more pleasant. Gil, he thought bitterly, would certainly have some charming, witty remark, something flattering about her hair or her eyes or for all he knew the delicate way she filed her nails, whatever it was always seemed to work–
And then Ardsley reminded himself she wasn't sitting here talking languages with Gil, and while he was no deft hand with the ladies, he was trained in reading expressions and she was gazing across the table at him as if there were nowhere else in Paris she wanted to be. He didn't think the tea and biscuits were that good. "I think they're getting impatient with us," he said, leaning in conspiratorially.
"That's all right. The tea's getting cold," she whispered. "And anyway, I do have a lecture tomorrow, and I suppose I've taken up too much of your evening as it is."
"On the contrary. I can't remember when I've enjoyed practicing my languages so much." He saw her reaching for her purse, and waved her off. "Please. My friend dumped coffee on your notes. It's the least I can do."
"Yes, your friend . . . ." She picked at the crumbled remains of a biscuit. "Please, I may offend without meaning, but . . . how exactly did someone like you come to have a friend like, well–"
"Gil?" On the face of it, it was certainly hard to explain. At least, not without explaining far more than he could or wanted to. "He's . . . well, he's really not so bad, once you get to know him. I mean, yes, he is incredibly lazy, and he does spend more on drinking and opium than on his books, and he pays a distressing amount of attention to loose women and pirates. He takes advantage, always leaves you with the reckoning, steals the girl you're trying to impress right out from under your nose, has never studied for his tutoring sessions but passes his exams anyway . . . ."
Melisande was laughing openly. "Really, he sounds a prince!"
Ardsley found himself laughing, too, more honestly than he had in ages. "No, really. Sometimes he just . . . well, I don't tutor for fun. A few months ago I wasn't going to be able to pay my rent, or at least I thought I wasn't. I managed to scrape together the money by the end of the month–skipping meals, mostly–and when I went to pay I found out my friend, the 'one with the scraggly hair who doesn't remember to shave', had paid up. I tried to thank him, but he denied having any idea what I was talking about." He frowned. "Though somehow I ended up spending a lot of that money on drinks that night. Anyway, Gil has been known to do nice things."
"Like saving your rooms for you."
"That," he said, "and talking some pirates out of press-ganging me."
Her eyebrows arched halfway to her hairline. "Pirates?"
"Pirates." That had been embarrassing for a multitude of reasons. He probably could have dealt with the crew, at least with their leader, a very lovely but utterly insane East Indian woman with a skull bindi, who was just clever enough to function and just crazy enough to lose fights she should win. But that would mean blowing his cover into tiny little pieces. Pretending to be terrified was one of the more abasing things he'd had to do yet. Not to mention where he'd been at the time–he wasn't unfamiliar with opium and hashish (training in recognizing narcotics was vital when there were plenty of people who might want to drug you) but that didn't mean he wanted to wander into an opium den unprepared. From that point on he'd learned to ask where exactly they were going when Gil suggested ditching studying for a night on the town. "It was . . . somewhat embarrassing."
"That sounds like the famous British understatement I've heard about." Melisande checked a delicate gold watch she was wearing on a chain around her neck. "Bozhemoi. It's later than I thought." She gathered up her books, and looked at him from beneath lowered eyes. "I wonder, it's late and getting dark. I don't live far, but if you wouldn't mind–"
"I would be honored to escort you to your door." Ardsley picked up his own books, and offered her his free arm. "My lady?"
"Why, thank you, sir." She linked her arm through his, and he couldn't swear to it, but he thought she pressed just a little closer than was strictly necessary. As they walked down the narrow streets in the light of the gas lamps, he was increasingly sure of it. There was a pleasant warmth, every other step a brush here or a press of the hip there that didn't quite have to happen but did, and he forced himself to pay attention to the shadowy doorways, the Master of Paris's evening patrols, who gave him just as careful a look in return, the other people hurrying home in the deepening gloom, everything except the deliciously comfortable feeling of Melisande, so close beside him.
"So, where is it you live?' he finally asked, hoping the sound of his voice would distract him from the other, highly unprofessional thoughts that were starting to tiptoe their way out of his subconscious.
"Rue des Vinsons," she replied, "there's a tea room there that's rather a home away from home for those of us from the Duchy. You should stop in," and she was looking up at him again with that sideways smile, "and I'll show you how tea's supposed to be served."
"Jam goes on a scone with clotted cream, not in your teacup!" Still, how much could it really hurt to try.
"Clotted cream?" She grimaced. "That sounds awful!"
"Not clotted like gone off," he laughed, "clotted like . . . well, it's like whipped cream, in a way. It's marvelous on a fresh-baked scone. You should try it."
"Really." She appeared to consider that. "What's a scone?"
"Oh, now you're just teasing!"
"You only just noticed?" She quirked an eyebrow. "Are you sure you're clever enough to be tutoring anyone?"
"You certainly seem to think you're clever," he retorted. "Especially for someone who supposedly finds English 'tricksy'."
She had the good grace to blush. "I like English. Maybe I practice it a bit more. Still, speaking is different than reading. Thinking it, now . . . I'm always a bit behind, translating in my head."
"Well." He stopped at the sign for Rue des Vinsons and she turned to look up at him. "Any time you would like to practice your English, I'd be happy to oblige. Provided, of course, you don't argue about the milk in the tea."
"If you insist on it," and she wrinkled her nose again. "As I said, I have lecture tomorrow . . . ." He braced himself for the excuses, the week's worth of appointments . . . . "But the day after, I'm entirely free. Perhaps we could buy lunch at the market and have a picnic in the Bois de Bolougne?"
Ardsley did some quick mental calculations. Ostensibly, he was supposed to be at the library the day after tomorrow, doing one of the innumerable little jobs he did to maintain his cover as a poor orphan student whose cheapskate guardian begrudged him every penny. Part of his cover was to convince Gil that he needed to work for a living and that he was ready for something, anything, more lucrative than perpetual student-hood. Missing a day might put that particular job in jeopardy. Which, in turn, might go a long way towards convincing Gil he was in fact desperate for work. Given Gil's proclivities, if he mentioned he'd lost said job because he was busy courting a pretty girl, it might speed things along quite nicely. And, best of all, that meant this was work, not a self-indulgent distraction from his primary mission.
"Shall we meet at the boulangerie on Rue de Relâchement? Say, twelve o'clock?"
Her smile lit up the street, or maybe he just thought it did since it was ages, or felt like ages, since any girl had directed a smile like that at him. "Eleven-thirty. We'll still miss the best bread but maybe there'll be something left."
"Eleven-thirty then. And I'll bring the wine." Wine at a midday meal was a bit decadent even by English standards, but de rigeur in France.
"That will certainly solve any arguments about tea," Melisande laughed. "And I will bring dessert."
The fact that his mind immediately leapt to some very ungentlemanly ideas about what sort of dessert he'd prefer really should have been a hint there'd be no way to explain this as a sensible, professional decision. He told himself he'd justify it all in the report later. "Sounds perfect."
They were in front of a narrow, old stone building that looked almost like any other house on the street, except for the wooden sign above the door that read "The Silver Samovar" in French and Cyrillic. The windows were darkened from lamp smoke but he could still see the glow of lights within. "Well." Melisande looked up at the sign, a wry twist to her lips. "It's not much, but it's home for now."
"I know the feeling." Suddenly he found himself reluctant to leave. He didn't want to go in, either–tea arguments aside, he'd be less than a gentleman if he asked. Just standing here and speaking some sort of common language would be perfectly nice, though, especially if she kept her arm through his while they did. "Well. This is good night, I suppose."
"Yes, I suppose. Or we could keep standing here and eventually it would be good morning." She turned to face him, her hand still resting on his arm as if she didn't want to part, either. "I'd probably be very tired for my lecture."
"And we'd certainly get a lot of strange looks, standing here." He had a report to file, Gil to locate and keep under observation just to make sure his mark didn't end up dead in an opium den (though he was more careful than he appeared to be), and at some, blissful point, he might even get a few hours' sleep. In a bed that was going to seem rather cold and lonely now–no, stop that this instant, you barely know Melisande, you just haven't had any female attention for what seems like eternity, you are not going to start having thoroughly improper and ungentlemanly fantasies about her an hour after you met.
At least wait until after lunch Thursday.
"So we're going for the standing option, then?" She had that not-quite-serious gleam in her eye again. "I wish I'd worn better shoes for it."
He was still embarrassed. "Sorry, I just . . . It's been a long time since I've enjoyed myself quite so much. It's been a true pleasure, Mademoiselle."
"Talking to me?" It might have been the lamplight, but he was fairly certain her cheeks flushed. "Your life must be very dull, Mister Wooster."
"Ardsley," she echoed. She was definitely blushing, and once again she was looking at him from beneath lowered lashes. "In that case, it's Melisande."
A handshake didn't seem appropriate, a bow too formal and distant, and all the other things he might have wanted to do far too forward. So he simply lifted her hand and pressed his lips to the back. "Good night, Melisande."
"Good night. I'll see you day after tomorrow, then?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world." Reluctantly, he released her hand. "Good night."
"You said that part already." She stepped backwards, not turning away. "Good night, Ardsley."
"Now who's repeating herself?" He backed away as well, for once not because he was expecting a knife when he turned around. She moved back into the doorway, reaching for the handle without looking, laughing at him or herself or both.
He made himself turn around, replaying the sound of his name in her voice. He didn't recall it ever sounding so pleasant. Don't look back. If you look back, and she's watching, she'll think you're a besotted fool. If you look back and she's not watching, it'll crush you.
But if she's watching, and you don't look back . . . .
Ardsley looked back. For an instant, he thought she had gone inside, but there was a spill of light from the open door, and then he saw her, peeking around it, a mischievous look in her eyes. She saw him turn, and he threw her a jaunty salute. He could hear her laughing even as she closed the door.
Turning around, he picked up his pace. He suspected he knew which den of iniquity Gil had dragged his latest paramour to, and there was probably still time to make sure everyone got home in one piece. If he hurried, he could shadow Gil, and the poor serving girl if necessary, and still be home in time to write a quick report and maybe get some sleep before having to get up and do it all over again. At least there was Melisande to look forward to. He frowned; that should probably not go in the report. His personal life, provided he maintained his cover, was at his own discretion, and this was, after all, somewhat useful. Gil had been accusing him of being particularly lifeless and pedantic, and he couldn't risk that falling apart because Gil got bored with him. The agency didn't need to know details, and if he managed to have a little fun for himself, well, he'd earned it, hadn't he?
That settled in his mind, he turned off Rue des Vinsons and started for one of the less-respectable districts of Paris. If he hurried, and actually managed a proper, restful night, he found himself hoping for dreams of laughing dark eyes, strange tastes in tea, and a warm, softly curved body pressed 'accidentally' against him as they walked together.
Melisande had to stop and compose herself as she closed the door to the street. Her pulse was racing, and her body was shaking with the after-effects of that peculiar fear and excitement that always came after the danger was over. She resisted the urge to look one more time–surely he was at the corner, turned it and gone. And in any case, they'd meet again in less than two days, and not by accident this time.
The Silver Samovar was done up in high Moscow style, which meant French furnishings that were ten or so years out of date and lots of heavy curtains, with gilding anywhere that seemed feasible. It felt very much like home, complete with the rowdy minor sons of minor nobility who were most assuredly not drinking tea in those glasses. Deftly, she flitted between the tables, dodging well-aimed come-ons and less-well-aimed hands, scanning for the few faces she knew were not only there for tea and camaraderie. Vanya Sergeivich was hunched at a table near the tiled fireplace, his lank dark hair flopping in his eyes as usual as he scribbled something in a notebook. From the gleam in his eyes, if he wasn't in the madness place he was close enough to it she knew better than to interrupt.
"Productive night, Melichka?"
The voice was silk-smooth and condescending as always, and Melisande gritted her teeth before turning. "Very, Ekatarina Olegevna," she said. "Have you seen Anya Leonova? I should tell her about it."
Katia smiled her usual frosty smile. "In the back, with the kettle on, if you're not awash in English tea already." The glint in her Nordic-blue eyes belied what she meant.
"You have a positive gift for making the littlest thing sound obscene," Melisande retorted. "Really, if you weren't so obvious you might have had a chance at this yourself, but Uncle was right, you wouldn't be at all appealing."
Katia's nose twitched. "He likes little French mice, then? Lucky for you."
"You have no idea how lucky, Katia, and you never will. Excuse me." That had all been a mistake. Katia, with her snow-maiden looks and arrogant confidence in her ability to seduce any man (an ability which, Melisande grudgingly admitted, she'd demonstrated often enough Melisande had paid attention to advice her blonde cousin offered) was also an expert at goading people, and she had delighted in tormenting Melisande since she'd arrived. Baiting her was a recipe for trouble. And yet, she was still giddy enough she didn't really care.
Anya Leonova was in the back in her little alcove, curtained and with a private tea-table, just where she usually was of an evening. The tiled stove in the corner was glowing hot, filling the nook with a cheery warmth. Nearby, a proper brass samovar sat ready and waiting to produce proper Russian tea. At the table, in a high-backed chair far more comfortable than any of the rest in the tea room, there was a round little woman with ash-blonde hair in an old-fashioned coiled braid. While she was now small, pleasantly plump, and kindly in the way genuinely sweet elderly ladies could be, it was possible, in a certain kind of light and if you squinted just a bit, to see that Anastasia Leonova Dragomirov had once been a beauty who'd put Katia and Melisande combined to shame. "Good evening, Baba Anya," Melisande said, planting a quick kiss on the rosy cheek before taking a seat in the much smaller chair opposite. She was not, of course, Melisande's grandmother, but her godmother.
"Good evening, Melisande." Baba Anya took a sip, her fingers gracefully lifting the podstanniki with its filigree delicate as any china cup. "Well. You've spoken to him."
The butterflies that had taken up permanent residence somewhere in the pit of her stomach roughly the same time the coffee pot had come flying at her began beating at triple speed. "Spoken? Oh, yes. French, German, Russian, English . . . he says he likes my English."
"It is quite good," and Baba Anya spoke it herself, with a much more fluent accent than Melisande could manage even when she wasn't trying to sound charmingly provincial. "But not too good?"
"Oh, no. He's more than happy to help me." She set her books aside. Part of her had ached to ask if he was as sick of spending time in classrooms as she was at her age, but that would certainly be giving the game away. "I'm meeting him again day after tomorrow."
"More studying?" Baba Anya poured her a glass of tea.
"A picnic in the Bois de Bolougne." The butterflies had apparently learned the can-can in addition to fluttering. She didn't dare pick up the tea or Baba Anya would notice her trembling. "I'm to bring the dessert."
"Hm." Baba Anya stirred her tea thoughtfully. "But not too sweet, I think. You'll make him suspicious."
"Oh, not that," Melisande assured her. "Not yet, anyway." She smiled in spite herself. She could still feel where he had kissed her hand, how his fingers had pressed hers, the softness of his lips . . . she had high hopes this was going to be much more pleasant than she'd expected. "Though if he offers–"
"After two days? You're not that kind of girl," Baba Anya said sharply. "Not for this one, at least. These English agents have two ways of treating a woman. We are after the second. Not the first."
"I just find it hard to believe he is so desperate for female attention." She sighed. "He's a perfect gentleman. And I should thank Uncle Oleg. Ardsley is . . . much better looking than I'd hoped."
"Yes, that is always a benefit," Baba Anya said. "But do not going forgetting what the object is." She reached across the table and patted Melisande's hand. "I know what it is like to be young and on my first seduce and co-opt mission. Especially when the target is a charming young British agent." She smiled, almost wistfully. "They do train them young there. And well. I almost envy you, my dear." She fingered the carved black brooch she always wore at her collar.
"I hope I don't disappoint you." The mention of training was a bit unsettling. Of course, she'd been trained as well, in the best methods of luring and keeping a man, and keeping him satisfied to boot. The point of the training had not been her own satisfaction (at least beyond learning to feign it if necessary), and in fact part of the allure they planned meant the training had gone only so far and no farther. As Uncle Oleg had said when presenting her with her mission instructions, they wanted an unopened package, not a used gift. The butterflies, plus their compatriots lower than her stomach that had flared up when she accidentally-on-purpose pressed against his side, had been an unsettling surprise. But not unwelcome.
Baba Anya smiled. "I'm sure you'll be a credit to us all. Now, you should write up your report and then get some rest. It seems you will be having a busy week. Unless you'd care for more tea."
"No, thank you. I think I'm half-drowned in tea." She grimaced. "And nothing else, no matter what Ekaterina Olegevna tells you."
Baba Anya arched her brows. "Katia is less than discrete. There's a reason she was not selected for this task."
"She would have sent him running," Melisande said, with enough heat and certainty she surprised herself. "Katia's talented, but she's not subtle. And I don't think Ardsley would appreciate her brand of clever."
"Which is why Oleg Feyodorovich chose you, and not her." Baba Anya smiled. "Now, just remember, Melichka dear, reel this one in slowly."
"He took the bait, and I have the hook set," she said, rising from the table. "The reeling in just may be my favorite part."
To his utter embarrassment, Ardsley found himself completely distracted all of Wednesday, to the point Gil was correcting him during what should have been a tutoring session (making up for the one cut short the night before), and he almost didn't notice when Gil started rattling off thoroughly absurd remarks.
"Did I mention I ran into the Storm King? We're having tea and biscuits and going dress shopping next week. And I'm leaving university to join a traveling circus as a cheese juggler."
"Hm." Ardsley stared at the notes open in front him without seeing a word. What would be appropriate food for a picnic lunch? Attire wasn't really a question-his choices were limited to his poor-student cover. What if it rained? What if Melisande changed her mind? "Uh . . . yes, that's right."
Gil snorted. "While we're on the subject, I'm actually lying. I'm not running off to the circus, just popping over for the wedding of Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm, to the Iron Sheik. I was thinking of getting them a tea cozy." There was another pause. "Oh, and have I mentioned I'm the long-lost heir of Baron Wulfenbach?"
"What?" Ardsley's head snapped up. Had Gil just admitted the whole game? Then he saw the look on Gil's face–it wasn't a full-on evil gleam of a madboy, but definitely its kissing cousin. "Oh, come off it!"
"Just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Do you want to pass your exams and finally finish? Aw, forget European history, Ardsley. What's going on?" Gil leaned forward, and every instinct Ardsley had told him the curiosity was sincere. For starters, suddenly it was first names. "You're never this out of touch. Come on, what's up?"
Drawing a long breath, looking away with feigned reluctance, Ardsley bought himself time. How much? He should have spent less time last night pointing a very woozy cafe-girl in the right direction home from the Moulin (Gil didn't usually mean to forget his ladies, it was more that something interesting always caught his attention) and more time figuring out how to spin this to Gil. Sincerity. That was probably best. "There's this girl."
"Oh-ho!" Gil was just too triumphant. "So, the stick in the mud is only human after all. Who is she? A little librarian who batted her eyes at you over the card catalog? No–a world-weary dancer at la Moulin who finds your earnest-scholar act refreshing."
"Neither," Ardsley said, surprising himself with how irritable he sounded. "She's a linguistics student at the university. When you were playing pirate in the café last night you dumped a full coffee service on her notes."
"Did I?" Gil looked genuinely blank. "I suppose I could have. Sorry, old chap, though I suppose I did you a favor."
"Oddly enough, you did." He sighed, putting just the faint note of despair into the sound. His acting teacher would be so proud. "I stopped to help her clean up your mess, and ended up talking for an hour."
"Just talking? You're a terribly slow worker." Gil shook his head sadly.
"She's not that kind of girl," Ardsley snapped. "Anyway, I'm meeting her tomorrow and I'm just a little worried. What if something goes wrong and I ruin everything?"
"Have no fear, my friend," Gil said, with a grin that Ardsley was sure he meant to be reassuring. "You have come to the right advisor."
Ardsely had the terrible suspicion that if he followed most of the advice he was about to receive, the only thing he'd succeed in doing was possibly scarring Melisande for life. Still, he supposed this was more bonding with Gil. "We didn't have any problem talking last night. Her English is actually quite good, and her accent's adorable." He blinked. "I didn't actually intend to say that last part out loud."
"Adorable? We're going to have to work on your priorities." Gil shook his head sadly. "So, you met this charming little French girl–"
"Muscovite," Ardsley corrected. "Though I think she said she was half-French."
"Russian, eh?" Gil raised his eyebrows suggestively. "I hear it's freezing there. You know what they say, cold hands, warm–"
"Gil!" Bonding or not, this had to be a bad idea. "She's not one of your chorus girls or serving wenches. I don't want her to think I'm only out to get a hand up her skirt."
Gil sighed. "For a start, the hand is thinking small. Second, if she's such a nice girl, you have to try the charm offensive if you do want to get up her skirt."
"All right, Herr Expert," Ardsley said, "so how does one be charming without being offensive?"
"Very funny." Gil kicked back, lounging even more lazily on the metal café chair than he had been. Funny how he always wanted to meet at places that served either coffee or alcohol. "So, what did you talk about so far?"
"Well, mostly, we compared languages." Ardsley smiled to himself, remembering how quickly they'd tripped off her tongue, at least up until he'd pulled Manx on her. He could always teach her some . . . . "She must speak at least twenty. Enough to make casual conversation, at least. Though she's very strange about how she takes her tea."
"Her tea?" Gil groaned. "You finally meet a girl who notices you're alive and you're worried about how she takes her tea? Forget how half your country wound up under water, it's amazing there are any of you left. All right, first things first–if you're going to babble at her in one of your awful accents, at least say something nice."
"For a start, you can tell your lovely paramour, what's-her-name, something nice about herself. Like . . . tell her she has beautiful eyes. Does she? What color are they?"
Ardsley considered that for a moment. He certainly remembered Melisande's eyes. "Brown." Gil gave him the stinkeye, so he tried harder. "Chocolate brown. Or maybe more coffee brown. Very dark, but there are these little lighter flecks that you can sort of see in the lamplight. Maybe everyone has that, I never noticed, though. And she has the longest lashes I've ever seen. She has this way of looking up at me through them . . . ." He sighed, and realized abruptly he hadn't had to think very much about any of that.
"Good, now we're getting somewhere!" Gil nodded approvingly. "How about her hair?"
"Also brown . . . she was wearing it up in braids, like Russian girls do. It's probably long . . . ." He sighed again, but it wasn't an unhappy feeling.
"Oh-ho, there's your opening." Gil leaned forward conspiratorially. "If she wears it up again, your goal is to get her to take it down."
"So come across as if I have a hair fetish?" Maybe she'd wear it down. Or just tied back, with a simple ribbon–blue, blue would look nice, or a pretty green. It would set off the highlights nicely in the sun, assuming it was sunny, of course, and perhaps he could untie it and run his fingers through the waves the braids would certainly leave–
Ardsley stopped himself. Maybe he did have a hair fetish.
"No, convince the uptight girl who's holding something back to let her hair down, because shortly after she lets her hair hang down, she may very well start thinking about letting her skirt hike up."
"I told you," Ardsley said, "she's not that sort. She's a lady." No matter what sort of ungentlemanly thoughts he might be thinking about her himself, and it was really annoying to think that Gil might have any sort of thoughts along those lines . . .
Gil rolled his eyes. "Well, that's no fun."
"Some of us like to go for quality over quantity."
"And I say, why can't you have both?" He kicked back in his seat. "Look, Ardsley, do you want to just sit around chatting about tea and crumpets, or do you actually want to get somewhere with this–what's her name?"
Ardsley sighed. "Melisande."
"Hm. Sounds more French than Russian. Sure she's not having you on?"
"She did say she was half-Russian." Though given her surname, he assumed the Russian was her mother. "In any case, her name is Melisande."
"Hm, pretty. Well, do you actually intend to get anywhere with Melisande?" Gil continued. "Or are you happy to stick to picnics in the Bois and nattering about tea?"
How could he do anything besides safe, boring, perfectly proper picnics? What on Earth could he possibly offer? He couldn't be honest with her, ever, so anything more than distant, polite friendship would be cruel. Not to mention, for all his bravado, Gil would not separate a friend from a girl he cared for–and going off with Gil, in whatever capacity, was the heart of his mission. He could always, he supposed, simply admit he wanted nothing besides a quick fling and take Gil's advice–but that could backfire as well, as "womanizing idiot" was not part of the persona he'd created, calculated specifically to garner Gil's sympathy. Casually using a girl for sheer amusement did not fit with the persona, and it didn't fit with his real personality, either, at least as much of that as he was allowed to remember. Seduction and cooption was an entirely valid operational tactic, and in fact he'd been somewhat relieved to find Gil's interests didn't run in that direction as it would have been uncomfortable, if a little easier, to go that route. Entertaining himself with an innocent bystander, one whom he had to admit under other circumstances seemed to have potential to be more than a passing fancy, might do for some agents, but not for him.
But Gil couldn't know all that.
"Of course I'd like more than a picnic," he said. "But . . . well, it's easy for you. You know what to say, and you're never short on cash I've ever noticed. I'm poor, and the only thing I've ever been good at is studying and making a very nice cup of tea. Well, and doing three jobs at once while trying to stay in school. Which might be down to two after tomorrow, as I kind of told her I'd meet her when I'm supposed to be at the library."
"Skivving off work to meet a girl? You?" Gil looked sincerely impressed. "I am in shock. She must be something, after all. So. Compliments. And remember, the right compliment at the right moment, and your fingers get to follow your eyes." Once again, without any bidding, Ardsley had the image of Melisande's long, silky tresses and twining his fingers in them. He didn't realize how long he'd been doing it until he heard Gil snort, sounding as if he were going to choke to death if he didn't get a good guffaw out. "You are a goner already, aren't you? Good God . . . ."
"I cannot wait until you meet a girl you're interested in for longer than five minutes," he grumbled. "I am going to laugh so hard . . . ." Then again, perhaps he ought to hope Gil never ran into the kind of woman it would take to enthrall a Wulfenbach Spark. She'd probably make the Mongfish sisters look like the Three Graces.
"Keep waiting." Gil had a gleam in his eye that looked just this side of sparky. "Now, if you're going to insist on being a gentleman, the place to start will have to be kissing her hand."
"Already done that." And felt how her whole arm, presumably her whole body, trembled when he did.
"I'm impressed. Well, next time, try holding it a moment too long. Maybe, if the lady seems to be enjoying it, just a bit of teeth. Unless you think that's a little too rough–then try the old reverse maneuver–turn her hand over and kiss her palm. Turns their knees to water, that one."
Ardsley was glad that raised eyebrows were an appropriate response for multiple reasons. Gil sounded eerily like his instructors in the more delicate arts of espionage, which meant either Gil really did know what he was talking about, or his own training was less adequate than he'd thought. Either way, listening couldn't hurt. "So once she's weak in the knees, then what?"
Gil's grin had a definite madboy edge now. And the strange thing was, Ardsely found the expression oddly reassuring. Plus there was the weirdly confident sense that he should be taking notes.
By eleven-thirty all boulangerie in Paris were more or less deserted, the best of the breads and rolls having been snatched up in the early-morning hours, and the shop in the Rue de Relâchement was no different. Melisande waited, ignoring the not-so-subtle impatient looks and muttering in heavily-accented dialect about loitering students with too much free time. The store was still stocked with baskets of baguettes and rolls and crusty peasant loaves, though she noticed there wasn't a single good black loaf to be found. Which was a shame. Not that she'd be able to find any decent mushroom caviar or herring to put on it, but it would have made for a nice, homey touch.
As, she hoped, would the Mazarine biscuits in the basket she carried over one arm. The little pastries, with their apricot and almond filling, had taken her most of the previous evening to make. The English biscuits were deliciously crumbly and sweet and it had taken three tries before she hadn't scorched the bottoms. Of course, she could, as Baba Anya had gently suggested, simply let one of the Silver Samovar's cooks make them. But that would somehow have seemed like cheating.
She heard the door to the shop open. Don't look. Don't seem too eager. There was a wooden rack holding baskets of bread between her and the door, but she fancied the footsteps were familiar. Feeling a thoroughly unprofessional sense of giddiness, she peeked around the loaves. Ardsley, in the same slightly threadbare vest and coat he'd been wearing two evenings ago, was standing just inside the door, a bottle of wine in a bottle basket dangling in one hand as he looked around the shop, obviously searching for something.
She couldn't help the grin.
Stepping out where he could see her, she tried not to look too excited. "Ardsley?"
Strange, how her insides felt gooey and warm as he turned and smiled at her. Warm, with just the faintest twinge of . . . guilt. Yes, guilt. Guilt and an odd sadness, knowing that hopeful look on his face would vanish if he knew who she really was. How unpleasant that thought was.
That could be a problem.
"Mademoi–Melisande." He smiled, so open and happy the guilt was absolutely gnawing at her. "I was afraid you'd have thought better of things and weren't going to come."
"Well, as you can see, I took precautions against any flying coffee services." The walking suit she'd chosen looked just fine enough to be the nicest thing a student might have in her closet. The skirt and jacket were dark brown, trimmed with gold and red embroidered ribbon (cheaper than real embroidery would have been, not as cheap as obvious homespun.) The cream-colored blouse she'd picked to go with it fit just tightly enough that, if she unbuttoned the jacket, he might be able to see the outline of her corset under the fabric. The neck, though, was primly high and she'd done the buttons up to the top. Let him wonder a bit. "The stains will blend right in."
"Ah, you should have worn burgundy, then." He lifted the wine basket, and she heard glasses clinking against the dark bottle. "But you look lovely in brown, too. It matches your hair." He blinked. "That didn't sound as complimentary out loud as I thought it would."
"It was very complimentary." As her common brown hair and eyes had always seemed distressingly plain beside Katia's snow-maiden blonde and blue, or Baba Anya's blonde and emerald green, that he seemed to like it was cause for another warm feeling and fluttering of the butterflies. "I brought dessert, as I said. I hope you like Mazarin biscuits. I baked them myself and I'm afraid I might have browned them a bit much."
"I'm sure they'll be lovely. Now, what shall we have for the rest of lunch?"
Lunch, they decided, would be a crusty boule of peasant bread, and from the markets closer to the Bois, they bought sharp, crumbly cheese, apples, and a little sausage, one without garlic. Normally, Melisande would have preferred something more seasoned, but the implications were promising. As they shopped, they chatted in English, partially on her part to discourage eavesdroppers, partially because it seemed to make Ardsley relax. There were still moments when she saw that flicker in his eyes, a quick shading, and she knew why. That was the professional, the real personality that was locked away behind the cover. She knew exactly how he felt. Hopefully he sensed that, somehow, she understood. At some point, the object was to tell him.
But he had to be wrapped around her little finger first.
"I confess, I've been looking forward to today." Ardsley sounded just faintly bashful. They had come to one of the many entrances to the Bois, and she noted approvingly he chose one of the side paths through the trees, not the wider lanes that were always crowded. Of course, Paris being Paris, so were many of the more secluded groves and thickets. While she was determined to follow Anya Leonova's instructions, that was still a disappointment.
"So have I. I might as well have skipped lecture yesterday after all," which she had been tempted to do, but were he at all suspicious he would have someone from the British embassy checking up. "I can't honestly remember what it was about. Le professeur was talking, but my mind . . . someplace else." French, thanks to her father, she at least could grasp the articles. Russian was so much simpler without them. English . . . .
"I know exactly how you feel," and unless that fervent tone was an excellent act, he did.
She was beginning to think they would have to resort to eating along the riverbank, and besides a lack of privacy, the smell of the Seine was not especially appetizing. At last, they found a little pine copse that somehow was still unoccupied. Of course, it was also covered in pine needles and lacking in any seats, and Melisande realized she had neglected to pack a blanket. Ardsley, however, had a solution.
"I should have thought about sitting on the ground," he said, stripping off his somewhat tattered greatcoat and spreading it, lining up, on the pine needles. "Next time I'll plan better. But to be honest, I was so nervous I'm surprised I remembered where we were supposed to meet."
"Nervous?" She laid out the napkin she'd had the foresight to pack with the biscuits, and set out the bread, cheese, sausage and fruit. "I make you nervous?"
He paused, corkscrew in hand. "Bloody terrified, to be honest. All I've done the last two days is worry that you wouldn't show, and now I'm worried I'll say something wrong and completely offend you."
Melisande couldn't help laughing. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, there's no danger of that so far. I've been more worried that you'll think my biscuits are terrible and I'm utterly useless."
"I'm sure your biscuits are lovely!" He paused. "I've said something terrible without meaning too again, haven't I?"
"What, complimenting my biscuits? If that's all it takes to embarrass you, thank goodness I didn't bake buns." She nearly choked trying not to laugh at his expression until he saw the gleam in her eye.
"If you're that bad now, I'm not sure you should have any of this," Ardsley said, holding up the bottle. "Then again, maybe I should have brought something stronger."
"Oh?" She did her best to look prim. "Do you have some nefarious intentions that would be aided by my incapacitation?"
His jaw dropped. "I thought you said English was 'tricksy.'"
She smiled, much more wickedly than she'd intended. "I've been practicing."
"I can see I'm going to have to stay on my toes with you." He wrested the cork free, and she noted that it took less effort than his demeanor suggested. From what she'd gleaned, his cover involved being taken for a typical soft student, the sort of academic at home in a library or lab and an amateur adventurer at best. The muscles in his arm suggested otherwise. "Now, how about slicing the bread?"
The pine needles gave the little grove a pleasant, earthy scent, one that reminded Melisande of the forests where her Uncle Oleg had his summer dacha. She wondered if there were mushrooms and berries growing in the Bois–but then, the Master of Paris had designed the place, so if there were, they probably weren't wild to begin with. Ardsley sat opposite, with the food and wine between them. Melisande broke a piece of the loaf off and handed a chunk to him. "It tastes better if you tear it."
"Really?" He traded her the bread for a glass (more an old jam jar) of wine. "I hope that's not true for cheese. That could be messy."
"Not where I come from, but you English are strange." The food, however, was delicious, especially in the fresh air. Eating and making a significant dent in the bottle of wine kept their conversation light, which gave her a chance to simply observe him. One could tell a great deal about a person by how he sat, held a knife, the way he looked at you when you spoke. As she'd already gathered, he was always just a hair more alert than he appeared to be, and his manners were impeccable. When she was talking, he watched her with unfeigned interest, his blue eyes focused intently on her, his features relaxed, the smile unforced.
And she had the increasingly uncanny feeling he was doing exactly the same thing she was. When she was talking, and only glancing up at him intermittently, she would catch an analytic gleam in his eyes, could almost see the gears turning as he noted how she spoke, the turn of her wrist with the knife (she was careful to keep it a delicate, soft-fingered hold, not a competent grip, even though one flick and she could have buried it to the hilt in the trunk of the pine) and she felt an additional flush of excitement at the thought. Was there the slightest giveaway in her voice, her movements? How good was he? How good did she have to be that he wouldn't rumble her? Was he so good he'd already made her and was stringing her along?
The butterflies in her stomach had apparently taken up permanent residence, and somehow she was enjoying the sensation.
"You know," Ardsley said, examining one of Mazarine biscuits critically, "it's been a while since I've tried one of these. Not sure if that's quite how they're supposed to look. Hmm . . . ." And he took a tentative nibble.
His eyes widened, and he clutched dramatically at his throat, gasping so convincingly Melisande was quite sure she'd managed to poison her target for once completely by accident. Then he cocked his head thoughtfully. "Maybe a bit less jam next time."
"Oh, you–" Her English failed her, and she opted for one of the unsliced apples, aiming a solid toss at his head. He snatched it out of the air with reflexes that really didn't suit a scholar any better than her throw did and took a bite. She looked for something else to throw and, giving up, sat back on her heels. "You're terrible!"
"Really? That should make me more interesting, then." He took another bite, then held out the apple to her. "My aunt would probably be thrilled to hear you say that. I think she's always been disappointed I wasn't a madboy."
"Your aunt?" Hesitating only a second, she took the apple and bit it, just barely touching the edge of where he had done the same.
"My guardian," and she saw those shutters close behind Ardsley's eyes again.
Yes, your aunt. Your mother's sister. The reason they recruited you practically from birth, like me. "She has the Spark?"
"Yes," he said, rather glumly, "she has the Spark. And as I'm her nearest relative, and an only child, I think I've been something of a disappointment, all things considered."
"Your parents didn't?" That they had very little information on–names, and the fact the elder Woosters were dead (as seemed to be the case with many of British Intelligence's agents–they seemed to prefer recruiting orphans), and of course the identity of his maternal aunt. "Have the Spark, I mean?" He shook his head 'no'. " I'm sure they weren't disappointed in you."
"I'm afraid they didn't live long enough to make up their minds on that point," he said, with a trace of bitter humor. "But I hope they would have been proud of me. I may not have the Spark myself, but I'm not a half-bad lab assistant, if I do say so myself. Better than your average minion, anyway."
"Lab assistant? When you're so well-read?" True, he attended Oxford's College of Non-Intuitive Mechanics (the ever-polite British had even found a nice way to refer to the non-gifted) and like everyone else, even spies, who attended the university in Paris, he had to be a top scholar (her own scores in analytic linguistics at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg had been the deciding factor in her admission, that and her father being an old friend of the Master of Paris). Their research indicated his studies, rather like her own, had been somewhat curtailed in favor of things like escape arts, lockpicking, disguises, explosives, disarming clanks, and all the other sorts of things one had to know.
"Perhaps in the Duchy there are opportunities for the gifted in liberal arts, but England already has more than her fair share of historians, schoolteachers, and poets writing odes on the ripples of the waves through the glass, unless they're from the northern islands and like to ramble on about daffodils." Ardsley gave her a droll salute with his wine glass. "I could do worse than to be assistant to a madboy, provided they're not too mad. My aunt hasn't managed to blow herself or anyone else up. At least, not by accident. So I'll end up working for her, or some other Spark who needs a thinking minion."
Melisande found the thought made her stomach clench hard enough to smother the butterflies. "It sounds awful."
"Well, what do you plan to do with your linguistic education?" That could have sounded insulting except for the sympathetic note.
"Once I run out of things to study and excuses to make to my parents, you mean?" Or, if I fail in regards to you? "Go back to St. Petersburg, I suppose. If I do well enough at university, I can teach at the Conservatory. Or tutor children readying to apply to Paris. I'm from a good family so I'd be suitable to teach nobility's children." She felt her cheeks warm a bit, and was surprised at her own embarrassment and need to explain. "I know in England, and Wulfenbach's empire, so they say, it's mostly about who has the Spark, but we have so few . . . titles and land still count for a great deal. My mother's family has land, my father had money, it all worked out. So if I don't find a suitably respectable position, they could always marry me off. Probably will, eventually. My uncle and my mother's family is well-connected, so someone will be interested."
She saw the tightening of his jaw, and his eyes narrowed. "And you think my future career sounds awful?"
"It would be better than some girls get," she said. "Probably a Baron, since I'm only the daughter of a Count's youngest daughter. Perhaps I'll be a Count's second wife, or a Duke's if I'm very, very lucky." Go on, think on that, not just some other man but an old one, one I don't even like. Let that stew for a while. "The Grand Duke's family is rather beyond my aspirations, I'm afraid." Not to mention relatives, but cousins weren't so close it was impossible.
"I hadn't realized you were nobility," he said, but he looked away and she saw the conflicted expression cross his face.
"Anyone who's anyone in the Duchy has a title of some sort," she said. "It's nothing impressive, not unless you're a Duke or Duchess." She took one of the biscuits and nibbled at an edge. Given the situation, it was all too possible an outcome. If she was successful, it might even be viewed as some kind of reward. Though her alternative, if she interpreted her instructions liberally, might not be bad at all. "I'm not saying it's my first choice, but if I can't marry someone I l. . .like, I might as well marry up."
"Do you have to get married?" He had to know how foolish a question that was.
"I don't have the Spark, and I don't have a powerful family. My options are limited." Only a partial lie. Her parents' only influence was her mother's birth, but Uncle Oleg, on the other hand . . . "It could be worse. I could be from one of the Fifty Families and be at Baron Wulfenbach's mercy, for marriage and everything else."
"That is very true. At least both our respective countries are not under the Baron's thumb. Not yet, at any rate."
"And not ever," she said, raising her glass in a toast to that thought. He returned the gesture, expression deadly serious.
Once they had drunk to that, Adrsley settled himself on one elbow, looking a bit more relaxed. "Now we've covered our hopeless futures and the precarious political situations of our respective homelands, I suppose it's time to move on to flattery. I've been given some advice about how I'm supposed to compliment you, in hopes of being able to take shocking liberties once you're sufficiently charmed. Should I start with your hair or your eyes?"
Melisande nearly choked, but it was from trying not to laugh. It was a nice way to cover the flush that was creeping up her neck. "Oh, I don't know," she said, looking up through lowered lashes. (Another of Katia's tricks, one that seemed to work devastatingly well.) "You could always try skipping right to the shocking liberties."
Yes! His eyes widened, and she could see his pupils dilate for just a moment. Gentleman he might be, but he wanted her. Meaning she had practically already won. "You know, I told my friend you weren't that sort of girl," he said, sounding painfully careful.
"Oh, I'm not," she assured him. Not unless you really, really want me to be. "But it would be fun to see you try and change my mind."
He stared at her for a moment and the slow grin was the most open, honest expression she'd seen on his face yet. "Really."
"You'd have to be very convincing, of course," she said, "and I'd have to pretend to be terribly, terribly shocked, but honestly, you think a non-gifted at a school full of Sparks hasn't had her skirts flipped with remote-control fans or scouted for Daugerre clanks in the ladies' dressing room?" That she'd reverse-engineered one into a very useful little watch-cum-pocket camera was information he could have once he was utterly coopted. He'd probably appreciate the irony, though.
"Well, not being a Spark," Ardsley said, sitting up just a bit and making a little more room for her to move closer, "I'm afraid I'm limited to more primitive strategies. Riskier, of course. Direct action always is."
"But the potential rewards are correspondingly greater." The entire reason for live, human agents in the place of clanks and constructs. She settled down on her side, chin resting on her hand, just a trace closer.
"Exactly. So, one learns to gauge risk, and decide when to take chances." His fingers brushed her palm and she shivered. "Sometimes, even in an experiment, you have to do the irrational thing."
"I've apparently been spending time in the wrong sort of labs." His thumb was stroking the pulse point of her wrist. Melisande fought an absurd urge to close her eyes. "Most of the risk-taking I've seen hasn't ended well for the risk-taker."
"You mean the usual famous last words of a Spark?" he said. His accent was even better soft and up close. "'I'm your creator, you will obey me?'" He was stroking her palm now, the tips of his fingers tracing the lines like a fortune-teller.
"And they think we envy them." She couldn't help it. It was close her eyes, or keep watching his, blue-grey and very close to hers, and looking at his eyes meant she risked looking at his mouth, and that could lead to all those places Baba Anya had warned her not to go yet. "I can happily live without the Spark if it means I'm never going to have a giant mechanical badger with venom darts for teeth turn on me."
"Hm." He'd raised her hand, very close to his mouth. "I may only be a 'non-intuitive' engineer, as we call them, but I must be more like my aunt than I thought."
"Why is that?" She risked a look. That smile did have a slightly madboy gleam to it.
"I find your imagination intriguing." He pressed his lips to her palm and it took all the self-control she had left not to sigh. "Enjoying the liberties?"
"They're positively shocking." She closed her eyes again. The crushed pine needles gave the air a rich, spicy scent, the sun dappling through the trees was warm, and between the food, the wine, and how her skin tingled like electrical shocks where he touched her, she could almost forget entirely this was business. "I ought to protest you being so forward."
"Yes, I'm almost starting to feel foolish for defending your reputation in advance." She opened her eyes, and Ardsley was grinning at her. "Of course, it will keep Gil disinterested. He only bothers with women he knows for sure are loose."
"What makes you think he'd be competition?" She mustered up a pout, though it was decidedly not in keeping with her mood. "After all, he ruined my notes with that coffee tray."
"I thanked him for that, you know." He gently brushed a stray lock of her hair back behind her ears. "Do you ever wear your hair down?"
Somehow, she remembered her instructions. "Not often. Not today, either." The disappointment in his eyes was perversely heartening. "A girl has to have some secrets."
"Really. I'm very good at figuring out secrets, you know."
And her stomach clenched with real fear. How good? Good enough to know? Melisande forced herself to relax; tension he might sense and read, correctly, as anxiety. "I can't make it too easy, though."
"I suppose not." He sat back, and it wasn't just a little twinge of regret she felt. "And I suppose it gives me something to look forward to."
"You're very confident, aren't you?" She turned, resting her chin on her hands. "What if I decide you're much too forward and indecent?"
Ardsley shook his head. "If you were really put off, you'd have done something when I kissed your hand just now. Slapped me, screamed, told me to stop. Instead, your pulse jumped, you sighed–"
"I didn't!" She hadn't thought she had, anyway.
"Well, very deep breaths then," he conceded, "and you were smiling. Q.E.D., you don't find me too forward. In fact, I might even be vain enough to hypothesize that you like me."
"I think you've spent too much time around Sparks." She looked away, wishing she could control blushes. "Though I'm not denying your hypothesis has merit."
"I'll prove it, before term's end. You watch." He reached for his glass and drained the last of the contents.
"That's weeks," she said. "You think you'll need that long?"
"You tell me." He looked at the remains of their lunch, and took another biscuit. "I've made one discovery already. You can cook."
"If you think those are good, I'll have you over for a proper Russian tea." Mushrooms, she'd have to find mushrooms, and proper farmer's cheese, herring, fresh and pickled, and she could always plead mission necessity to get a tin of real caviar from Baba Anya's personal supply. Of course, Baba Anya would understand, one didn't have a guest without feeding them properly . . . .
"Well, as long as I don't have to put jam in the tea instead of on the bread."
"I'll have you drinking it the proper way eventually, you wait." I will, because I have you, I already have you, you're mine! Melisande picked up the apple they'd both bitten, and this time she didn't worry about which bite was which.
The textbook looked like any other a student might carry. Especially a teacher's assistant who couldn't afford the newest and best of anything, and wouldn't worry about it being too worn or missing a few pages. Which meant, of course, in a school full of Sparks, and a target who was likely an even more powerful Spark than he was letting on, it was far too obvious a place to keep a codebook. It did, however, make a useful place to stick half-finished reports, as they looked much like all the other scraps of paper with notes scribbled on them. Ardsley took what, to anyone else might have looked like any other wrinkled bit of foolscap jammed between the pages, and smoothed it out. Opening the back of his watch, he double-checked the encryption wheel for which code he was supposed to be using, and, thoroughly prepared, he put his pen to the half-finished report. And stared.
He was in serious trouble. The sun, the food, the wine, it could all be contributing, but he was a trained espionage agent, he knew his own feelings. And conflicted was putting it mildly. For a few blissful hours, he'd almost forgotten he was anything but a student, enjoying a picnic with a beautiful girl who for some reason seemed to hang on his every word. Beautiful, clever, well-read, and to top it off she had certainly implied she was not poor, and there was that not-completely-hidden hint that she was not looking forward to being married off to some elderly Count on his second or third wife. And while he didn't doubt she would have protested any further liberties, she had certainly seemed to enjoy it as far as it went. Keeping from pressing the issue had been the greatest test of his self-control since Gil had created a construct with parts scrounged from dustbins behind some of Paris's finer dining establishments as a prank and the thing had, as most of these things seemed to, gone berserk. Of course then, the trick had only been toeing a fine line between acting terrified while still interested (and controlling combat reflexes just enough he didn't appear too competent fending off the escargot grenades.) That was far less challenging than restraining himself from very thoroughly kissing Melisande and losing himself completely.
It had almost happened when he'd again walked her to her door. For an instant he'd even been sure she wanted him to kiss her, and it had been a near thing, but fortunately or unfortunately the door to the Silver Samovar had opened at that exact moment and a student had stumbled out, his nose buried in notebooks, and slammed straight into them. Melisande had snapped at him in Russian, too quick and accented to follow. He'd blinked owlishly at them from behind a pair of magnifying spectacles, and Ardsley recognized the distracted expression of a Spark in deep thought.
"Vanya, really!" Melisande gathered up some of the papers he'd been carrying and thrust them back at him. Ardsley bent to retrieve the ones scattered at his feet, and caught a glimpse of one that appeared to be a map of the sewers below the arrondissement they were in. There were notes in Cyrillic scrawled on the margins, and what looked like engineering notations on the map itself. He had only an instant to decide, and instinct had taken over–a quick flick of the fingers and it was folded, a twist of the wrist and it was safely tucked up his sleeve.
And he could have sworn he saw a scrap disappearing into the pocket of Melisande's jacket.
The spark–Vanya–took the returned papers rather absently. "Sorry, Melichka. Don't know why you have him standing in doorways, though. You might as well bring him inside and have done with it."
"You talk too much, Ivan Sergei'ich." Her cheeks were flushed pink, but there was a hard glint in her eyes he hadn't seen before. "Tend to your labs and leave my business to me."
To Ardsley's surprise, in what was practically an unheard-of display of docility for a Spark, this Vanya shrugged and backed off a pace. "Just seems pointlessly impractical to me. And inconvenient for people wanting to use the door." He shuffled off, rearranging his papers, and Ardsley breathed a silent sigh of relief as the Spark rounded the corner without appearing to notice that one, possibly two, of his pages were missing.
Melisande let out a very loud sigh by contrast, and rubbed the back of her neck in a very unladylike way. "I am so sorry, Ardsley. Vanya . . .a Spark, you understand, my cousin Katia's friend. Not a very strong one, just . . . I am sorry, he was rude."
"Yes, a bit." He was tempted to go in for the kiss again, but the mood was broken. And besides, she might not have wanted him to do so in the first place. "He called you Melichka?" He was surprised at how annoyed he was the familiarity.
The flush in her cheeks turned a deeper shade of rose, only he now was not entirely certain it was modesty as much as annoyance. "My name is French. It's not as easy to shorten as most Russian names so that's the best they can do."
"Shall I call you Melichka, then?" It sounded harsh and somehow more alien.
He saw a flicker of surprise in her eyes. "No. No, I don't think so. I like how my real name sounds when you say it." He couldn't help raising an eyebrow, and she said, "Your accent."
"I never knew that was such an asset, Melisande." Subtle that wasn't, but from the way her breath quickened it worked. "I'll have to remember that."
"Do." And then she stood on her toes and kissed him, at the little place that was not quite the cheek and not quite the corner of his lips. Hours later he could still feel it. He had walked back to the university in such a daze he could have passed the Heterodyne Boys battling a mutant horde of fire-breathing gerbils and not paid them the slightest attention.
That wasn't good.
Ardsley tapped the pen on the paper, leaving a trail of specks across the bottom. What was he supposed to say, anyway? "Continued contact with subject, sought subject's advice about women, spent the most wonderful afternoon since arriving in Paris with said woman, can't think of anything but when I'll see her again?" It sounded even worse out loud than it did in his head. It would be a disaster of a report. Unless Lord M_ had someone hidden in reserve (which was always possible; they didn't call it the Secret Service for nothing), only the fact that he was their best and only shot at placing an agent with the heir to Baron Wulfenbach would keep them from having him on the next airship back to Blighty.
What to do . . . .
The simple answer was, "Don't see Melisande again." The positive side was he'd no longer be distracted from his primary mission. The negative, of course, was life would be a gray, bleak, Wasteland-like expanse with no meaning at all, but there were always down sides.
Ardsley dropped his head to the desk. No, that wasn't an answer. The 'never seeing her again' part would come, inevitably, hopefully when he found a way to follow Gil home to Castle Wulfenbach. He was running out of time on that, so if it was going to happen, it would have to be soon. Gil had not completed his studies yet, but Ardsley himself was rapidly running out of cover stories. He'd dropped more than a few hints, hopefully subtle ones, about needing work, any work, and of course he had been getting by as an assistant at the university, demonstrating he was more than capable of helping a classroom full of budding Sparks, never mind just one. He had Gil's friendship and sympathy, and for all he was a son of the despot of Europa, that seemed to be worth a great deal. If and when the offer came, there was simply no question but that he'd be going alone. That was his job, his duty, and an absolute certainty, one he'd prepared for for years.
Until today, he'd been perfectly fine with that.
He sighed. "Queen and country, Ardsley. Queen and country." He re-inked the pen and started to write in the code, notes on each contact with Gil, the progress he was making, expenses related, and finally, at the bottom, he added a personal note:
Had social encounter with female university student from Duchy of Moscow Melisande La Capere. Tea, picnic, light conversation. Maintained professional detachment.
"Right. Professional detachment." He folded the paper and returned it to the textbook. Later he'd use a silver stylus to copy it onto a metal sheet, leaving a near-invisible design. At H.Q. they'd use a special solvent to make the writing stand out. "At least you're still an accomplished liar."
Once the report was tucked away, Ardsley unfolded the paper Melisande's Spark friend had dropped. It was, as his cursory glance had suggested, an engineering schematic of part of the Paris catacombs. He had taken a cursory look at maps of them before (and gotten intimately acquainted with the section below the Paris Opera when Gil had that incident with the chorus girl and the madboy in the mask) but didn't know them well enough to see if this was an accurate rendering, or if there were additions made. The notes were, in typical Sparkish fashion, clear as the contents of the sewers. "Outlets to Seine, draining, narrowed tunnel with reassembled brickwork. Skeletons won't do at all . . . ." Maybe his Russian wasn't as good as he'd thought. It was gibberish, and not even the usual "I will show them all" sort of nonsense every Spark was prone to. The engineering notations mostly seemed to involve redirecting the water through a series of increasingly narrow channels, but to where he couldn't tell. That notation had apparently been made on another sheet.
Ardsley gave up, and stuck the paper in the book. Later he could look up the sewer maps in the library, assuming they let him in after he completely avoided work all day. For now, though, he was going to have to do something about the headache he was developing. Putting out the light, lying down, and thinking about how Melisande had trembled when he kissed her hand, about the warm press of her body against him as she reached up and kissed him . . . .
He sighed, and put out the lamp. If nothing else, he ought to have pleasant dreams.