It took more string-pulling than he would have liked, including resorting to emergency codes that he did not think had been meant for situations like this, but the next morning, Ardsley found himself in a borrowed suit of clean clothes, standing beside Melisande (lovely in a cream-colored day dress the Consul General's wife had generously loaned) in the office of the British Consul General with the Consul's wife and private secretary looking on as they recited the words Ardsley had never anticipated saying to anyone. He was nervous enough he very nearly stumbled on his own name, and his fingers shook so much he nearly dropped the ring (as the Consul had insisted on at least waiting until a civilized hour of the morning, it had at least meant enough time to find an inexpensive silver band from the first jeweler's he could find. When he'd assured Melisande it was only until he could find something nicer, she'd given him a knowing look and he suspected that would be the ring she wore for the rest of their lives even if someday he could afford to give her diamonds.)
Melisande's voice was clear and confident on her marriage vows, but less so with the briefer, more somber ceremony that happened after they said "I do" and were pronounced man and wife. The Consul read the oath of allegiance in far more severe tones, and Ardsley could feel her tremble a little as she foreswore all oaths to any foreign powers and promised true fealty to her Undying Majesty Queen Albia. He pressed her hand tightly, and felt her steady herself. Her hand did not shake at all when she signed the papers the Consul presented to her, which would act as temporary proof of citizenship until she arrived in the Glass City and could gather the proper paperwork. She didn't have any of her birth records or identification from the Duchy, but then few defectors ever did.
The wedding breakfast was a brief affair, with a few tea sandwiches and a bottle of quite decent champagne–Ardsley suspected that Consul's wife was very much a romantic and was enjoying the drama of the whole business. By then it was after noon and given they'd been 'missing' nearly an entire day, he knew he at least had to go back to his 'normal' life. The sensible thing, of course, would be for Melisande to remain in the Consulate until she could leave for England, while he continued his cover and departed for Castle Wulfenbach.
He should have realized exactly how well Melisande would take the 'sensible' argument.
"Don't be ridiculous." There was a defiant tilt to her chin, and he had an uncomfortable reminder of how confidently she'd stared down Vanya even while the Spark was in the madness place. "I'm not staying cooped up here. For starters there's some chance I can get my things from Baba Anya, and I owe her some explanation. And anyway . . . ." Her eyes narrowed. "We have barely four days before you have to leave. That's hardly a honeymoon as it is and if you think I'm not spending any more of it than I have to away from you you're very much mistaken."
The Consul, who had been trying to look as if he weren't listening, chuckled. "Your lady wife has a point, Mr. Wooster. And considering the . . . haste to the wedding, I shouldn't think you're that eager to part?"
Despite the urge to blush at the implications, he couldn't argue with that logic. Nor with Melisande. And four days was hardly any time at all, he had to agree, scarcely enough for any sort of honeymoon, let alone a proper one.
"You'll need to hide your wedding ring," he said as they left the gates of the Consulate, after making sure the street was clear of any suspicious-looking characters. Ardsley carried their nearly-ruined clothes from the sewers in a (borrowed) train case that Melisande would return, along with the borrowed clothing they were wearing, when she went back to leave for England. "At least as long as we're in Paris. Much as I'd like to tell everyone I know–actually people I don't know, even, if G–the Baron's people find out, that won't help my cover. They prefer their lab assistants not have any dependents."
"That isn't very reassuring." Melisande kept her expression pleasantly vague just as he did, in case they were being watched, but he heard the waver in her voice. "In any case, I already thought of that." Her hand went to her collar and the glass locked on its velvet cord. When she shook it, he could just barely hear the rattle of something inside. "I have a place for my little secrets now, remember?"
"I had hoped maybe you'd use it for a picture," he teased, "but that certainly works, as well. Unless you think you'll forget what I look like?"
"Not if I was struck blind this instant." She leaned a bit more on his arm. "But I think I'll want one anyway before you leave. I'll want to wear my ring after that." Ardsley tightened his hold on her arm and didn't reply. The thought of how soon that would be was far too depressing to contemplate when they had so little time for better things.
The steps up to his flat were disconcertingly familiar–after so much had happened in barely a day, he felt as if there ought to be some sort of physical evidence of the changes. He'd nearly died, Melisande had nearly died, they had taken on an army of chimaera-clanks single-handed, and he certainly hadn't expected to be returning to his rooms a married man. "I'd offer to carry you across the threshold," he said as they reached the landing, "but that would make disarming the tripwire difficult."
Then he looked for the thread on the hinges, and realized someone already had.
Behind him Melisande had already drawn the little pistol and moved back against the wall. Ardsley pressed against the door, turning the handle slowly with his left hand until he was certain the inner trap had also been disabled. Looking over his shoulder, he held out his right for the gun, wishing the rest of their weapons weren't sunken somewhere in the Paris sewers. Melisande raised an eyebrow. "Didn't those vows have something about love, honor and obey?" he whispered.
"I had my fingers crossed on that last one." But she turned the gun and handed it over, hilt first, then reached up and drew out a few of her hairpins–not as sharp as a hatpin, but folded between her knuckles they'd at least give her a little more than raw strength. Telling her to run back down the stairs in the event of an ambush was probably futile, so any advantage, he supposed, was a good one. "Remember, there's only two rounds left."
"If I have to I'll make them count." Bracing himself, he pushed open the door hard enough to hit anyone hiding behind it, and leapt through. Melisande followed a half-second behind, barely stopping in time to avoid knocking him down where he'd frozen, the pistol aimed, staring in utter disbelief at the person sitting in his desk chair, sipping calmly from the good teacup.
"Well, there you are, Ardsley." The tall, elegantly-dressed gentleman had silver hair, a crisp public-school accent, and probably more reason to be annoyed with Ardsley than anyone else except possibly Melisande's uncle at this point. "And you must be Mademoiselle La Capere–or should I say Velyaminova?" He rose, which only added to the authoritative air of his very presence.
"Lord M_!" It took a moment for Ardsley's voice to work again. "What–how–should you even be here? You're putting my cover at risk! What if G–one of Wulfenbach's people see you?"
"I am hardly the only one taking chances in that respect, my boy." The head of British Intelligence was still looking over Ardsley's shoulder. "After your last communique, I decided it had been far too long since I'd seen Paris, and if I could provide you with some personal advice regarding the Duchy's lovely agents and their usual bag of tricks along the way, well, what is an old friend of your aunt's for? Imagine my surprise when I arrived yesterday and couldn't find hide nor hair of you. But I'm being quite rude. Would you introduce me to your lady friend?"
Ardsley glanced back at Melisande. She was doing an excellent job maintaining her composure, but he saw the uneasy look in her eyes. "Yes," he said, reaching back and swinging the door closed, "I think perhaps I'd better." He set the gun down on the bed. "Lord M_, allow me to present my wife, Melisande Wooster. Melisande, my darling, this is Lord M_. I'd introduce you more properly but I doubt anyone besides her Majesty knows his real name anymore."
It was perversely pleasing to see that something, anything, could crack that implacable aura of authority Lord M_ always projected. A bit disconcerting to be on the receiving end, true, but at least it was nice to know he could still be surprised by something. "My wife," Ardsley repeated.
Melisande, for her part, made a polite curtsey. "I'm honored, Lord M_. We have of course heard a great deal about you in the Duchy. My Uncle Oleg is an admirer. A grudging admirer," she amended, "but an admirer."
"Thank you, Mademoi–Madame," and it was a good sign he corrected himself. "Forgive me for my rudeness, but–Ardsely, what the devil is the meaning of this? How on earth do you interpret 'limit contact' as 'make an honest woman of her?' Forgive me, Mrs. Wooster," and Melisande shrugged off the implied insult. Ardsley received no such apology. "Have you lost your mind? What have you done?"
"Last question first," and it was oddly exhilarating to stand up to Lord M_, "we were married at the Consulate this morning. I apologize for the lack of an invitation but it was a very small affair. Second last question, no, as far as I know, I'm still quite sane. Third, this has nothing to do with my orders, hers, or either of our agencies. And the meaning of this is . . . ." He took Melisande's hand. "I love her. She loves me. And the only way I can be sure she's safe is if she's in England and protected as a subject and citizen, not held as a hostage or watched as a spy."
"Oh, really? Well, meaning no offense, but what else do you think she is?" Lord M_ looked more frazzled than was probably healthy for someone Ardsley had never even heard raise his voice before. "She's a spy, given who her family is she was born a spy, and seducing you into taking her to England was likely her entire purpose in being in Paris! And now you've handed her the key! They train their female agents precisely for this sort of thing, and the only reason they haven't been more successful is our agents are usually smart enough not to fall for it."
"With respect, my Lord," and Melisande certainly knew the right tone to take with an irate aristocrat, "I very much doubt, after the events of the last twenty-four hours, that my uncle will be concerned with me beyond trying to have me killed or arrested or both, possibly in that order. In fact I suspect he'll order me killed, just so it's easier to bring me home so he can have me brought back and kill me again himself."
Ardsley grimaced. "Which is why you are going to be safely on your way to England before I leave Paris." He looked back at Lord M_. "Her transit papers and request for residency are in order, and considering she's my wife, I'm sure that you and my aunt can expedite matters with immigration."
"We'll see what I'm expediting," Lord M_ said, but he at least sat back down. "First, let's hear exactly what it is you've been doing for the last day that would have Oleg Feyodorovich angry enough to kill his own niece?"
"Yes," said a voice from the door, "I would be very much interested in hearing that myself."
Ardsley turned, and Melisande was already facing the intruder, her fists clenched around the improvised weapons but her posture telling him she was too startled to really be ready to attack. And he could see why. "Countess Dragomirov."
"Mr. Wooster." How someone so short and soft and just so unassuming could sound quite so icy was a mystery he hoped never to solve. Her emerald-chip eyes fixed on her goddaughter. "Melisande Petrovna, I assume you have some explanation for where you have been, and I hope that includes where your cousin and Ivan Sergeivich are."
Before Melisande could reply, from behind them, a voice said, hesitantly, "Anya Leonova?" Lord M_ looked as if he'd seen a ghost, but not a frightening one.
Ardsley felt as if he were watching a tennis match as he and Melisande turned from Lord M_ back to the Countess, who looked just as bemused by the situation as her British counterpart appeared to be. "Bernard? Is that really you?" She was fingering the black brooch she wore as she asked.
"Bernard?" It came out in a chorus as he and Melisande turned back again to stare at Lord M_.
"If either of you breathes a word of that to anyone, I'll have you both killed." The matter of his name appeared secondary despite the threat. "Yes, it's me, Anya. A bit older and grayer for wear, I'm afraid, while you've obviously not aged a day."
"Flatterer." But there was a decidedly youthful flush to her cheeks. "And you might say you are more distinguished, not old. But surely, you are not taking up field work again?"
"Perish the thought," Lord M_ replied. "No, I am merely looking out for the nephew of an old friend, who seems to have been lead astray quite thoroughly. Though I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. You appear to have taught your goddaughter well."
"Oh!" Melisande was pressing a hand to her mouth, though out of surprise or to suppress a laugh, Ardsley wasn't sure. "Oh, Baba Anya . . . now I understand. All those stories and sly remarks about British agents and how well they're trained . . . tell me, Lord M_," and she turned back to him, "were you by any chance, as a young agent, stationed in Vienna?"
Ardsley had the rare, distinct pleasure of seeing his superior blush a very unseemly bright red. "I confess, when I was not much older than Ardsley here, I was sent on my first foreign assignment to our station in Vienna, yes."
"And such a charming young agent he was." It was very easy to see the beautiful young woman the Countess must have been in how she smiled now. "I often think on those days."
"Fondly, I hope." Lord M_, sentimental? It was not to be thought of, yet here it was. "I see you still wear my gift?"
"This?" The Countess touched the bauble (Ardsley now recognized it as the sort of finely-carved but inexpensive kind of black rock so popular as keepsakes from the coasts of the Yorkshire Isles) . "Often."
"Every day," Melisande said, and there was no disguising the giggle this time. Though Ardsley noticed as she spoke she was absently caressing the glass locket, and he couldn't help smiling.
"Truly?" Lord M_ looked almost boyishly pleased. Then he sighed and looked at Ardsley and Melisande, the professional disapproval returning even if some of the ire had gone. "I assume you heard at the door what they've done?"
"Aided and abetted by your Consul General, I gather." The Countess switched back to the air of a professional spymistress just as easily. "And that is a serious matter, but there is another issue of which I must speak. Melisande Petrovna, I wonder if you can tell me what has become of your cousin, and of Ivan Sergei'ch? When we discovered your room empty yesterday morning, Ekaterina Olegevna assured me they would find you, not that I had much doubt where you were. And none of you seen since. Do you know where they are?"
Giggling goddaughter and serene bride both melted away and Melisande fixed her godmother with a direct, cool, gaze. "Both dead. My suspicions about Vanya were correct: he was building himself a small army of clanks, rather ingenious ones, actually, though if there are any parts left it'll be the Master of Paris who has the advantage of them now, I suppose. Katia was helping him, as far as she could. Ardsley and I had both found separate pieces of the puzzle, though we'd neither of us figured out what exactly Vanya was building, and Katia decided that was cause enough to get us both out of the way. They drugged us, and took us down to his lab. Katia . . . rather unwisely decided on a very rash method of interrogating me. Your pardon, Lord M_," and she undid a single button of her blouse, showing the dark bruising where the stun pellet struck at close range. "I shot her, and I make no apologies. I'm only alive because she wasn't as clever as she thought she was. As for Vanya . . . ."
Ardsley heard the slight tremor starting in her voice, and pressed her hand. "He suffered the same fate as most Sparks," he said. "His own creations turned on him. We were lucky to escape with our lives."
"And you thought the best way to celebrate your good fortune was with a wedding." But the Countess looked from her goddaughter to Ardsley and finally to Lord M_. "Your operation?"
"None of ours. Ardsley has another mission, one that is not being helped at all by your . . . complication here." He gestured to Melisande. "Really, Anya, you had to set her on him? There wasn't any of our other agents who would have served?"
"How was I to know how they'd do something so extreme?" The Countess put her hands on her hips, and Ardsley had to fight the urge not to laugh. He'd never seen anyone actually stamp their foot at Lord M_, at least not and get away with it. "She had her instructions—"
"I'm sure she did," Lord M_ retorted. "But that's as may be. Ardsley has a very important task at hand, one we cannot afford to have fail. I'm afraid his having a wife simply does not factor into our plans."
"Just a moment, sir," Ardsley interjected. "I have no intention of abandoning the . . . matter to which you're referring. But . . . well, if you'd been there last night, if you knew how close we came . . . I can't leave Melisande alone and unprotected, I won' t have her used as anyone's hostage. I won't be able to concentrate if I'm wondering whether something's happened to her. "
"It's true," Melisande said, "I'll be much safer in England than in Paris, and I certainly can't go back to the Duchy, not now. And while it won't stop me worrying about him, if he knows I'm safe, Ardsley will have a much easier time keeping his wits about him, not to mention it's always motivating to have someone to come home to, don't you think?" Whether the adoring look she gave him was a put-on for Lord M_ and the Countess's benefit or not, it did leave him with a pleasant, warm glow.
Lord M_ didn't look quite as convinced. "I see you two have your story straight, at any rate."
"Now, Bernard," and the Countess sounded more thoughtful than calculating, "they do seem to have though more about this than it first appears. And Melisande is quite correct, I do not believe it would be wise for her to return to the Duchy, if what she says about Katia and Vanya is true."
"I assure you, madame—"
"Yes, yes," she cut Ardsley off with a wave. "I'm sure it happened as my goddaughter says. To be honest I am not surprised, as Melisande and Katia have never gotten along, as I'm sure she told you. Still, Oleg Feyodorovich will not be pleased, and to lose a Spark, even by his own actions, well, it's always difficult. And, of course, there is the matter of your cousin Alexei, Melichka. He will not be pleased, either."
"I don't see why he'd be angry," Melisande said. "Alexei Nicolaiovich has always liked me since we were children, and he was never especially fond of Katia. I think she was too determined to marry him."
"I don't mean about that, or even your defection," the Countess said. "But you have married without his consent, and to a commoner, at that. And not, I gather, for mission purposes, but sincerely?"
"Very sincerely." It was almost the same tone she'd used telling Vanya to shut the power off to Ardsley's bindings the night before. "Still, I hadn't thought of that." She brightened. "Ardsley's aunt is a Spark, though, so there's some chance we might have a son who is, too. Cousin Alexei won't mind that. He thinks there aren't enough in the family besides him."
Ardsley himself was lost. "Cousin Alexei?"
To his surprise, it was Lord M_ who replied. "Her cousin, boy. Alexei Nicolaiovich, Grand Duke of Moscow? Surely you bothered to find out a bit about the Velyaminovs once you knew she was one."
"Your cousin . . . the Grand Duke?" It was not unlike how he suspected many people were going to feel when Gil Holzfäller finally announced his true identity to the world.
"Second cousin." Melisande had the grace to look embarrassed. "It isn't such an important thing–there are plenty of people ahead of me in line and Alexei isn't even married yet. I have no title of my own unless he decided to grant me one, and think that's done for now. It doesn't really matter whom I marry, only he's not going to be happy I didn't ask him first. At least, not now that I mean it."
"Are there any other surprises I need to know about?"
"Oh, I can think of a few," Melisande said, and leaned in to whisper, "but not for mixed company."
Ardsley was suddenly, painfully aware of how little time just under four days was.
"All things considered, England might not be such a bad place for her, at least for now," the Countess continued.
"For always," Melisande said. "After all, my husband is English," and she clearly relished the word 'husband' as much as he was enjoying 'wife.' "And in any case, I've sworn an oath to her Majesty that I'll be a good and loyal subject. I understand they take that sort of thing quite seriously."
The Countess stared at her for a long moment. "Yes. Yes, they do. Which is why it is usually advised one visit before one makes such promises."
Melisande looked up at Ardsley, and he saw the same smile she had given him in the lamplight, when she had said 'yes.' "I made my decision already."
"So I see." There was a sad edge to the Countess's smile. "I suppose the real question is, what will I tell your parents?"
"That I love them, and I will miss them, and I hope someday they can meet my husband." Melisande's voice wavered just a little, and Ardsley tightened his hold on her hand again.
"I will tell them that." She looked past them both. "Bernard, I think, perhaps, we've taken up enough of the young people's time."
Lord M_ looked like he was seriously considering protesting. Instead, he sighed. "Three days, Ardsley. You know what you have to do."
"I know." He looked from Melisande, back to Lord M_. "When were you planning to return home?"
"I hadn't quite decided–ah, I see." He sighed. "If you would like, I would be happy to chaperone Mrs. Wooster on her journey to England. For your peace of mind, since you will be needing that, and as a favor to her godmother."
"Thank you, Lord M_," Melisande said. "I was not looking forward to going to a strange land alone."
"It will be my pleasure. The transition can be quite a shock for the surface-born." There was a steely, professional glint in his eye.
"I'm sure your presence will be very reassuring."
"Bernard," and the Countess's voice was a little firmer.
"Yes, Anya." Lord M_ did not sound nearly as intimidating when he took that tone. "Perhaps we could take a walk, for old times' sake?"
"Yes." That smile was decades younger than she was. "We can commiserate on our terrible luck. What were the odds our proteges would be the exception?"
Despite his having no desire to slow their departure, Ardsley couldn't help it. "Exception to what?" Plus, it was rather flattering to hear himself described as Lord M_'s protégé.
Lord M_ chuckled, such an alien sound it was unnerving. "You think you are the first of our agents to be targeted for a seduce-and-coopt mission, boy? Our agencies have a long and storied history of them–the Duchy's operatives attempt to turn our agents, we try to turn theirs right back. It's been going on as long as we've had espionage, I suppose."
"In approximately ninety percent of the operations, the agents in question might have an affair, pleasant or otherwise, and in the end call it a draw," and from the look the Countess gave Lord M_, Ardsley could guess their own prior acquaintance had fallen into that category. "In perhaps nine percent of cases, the situation ends . . . badly."
"And the remaining one percent?" Melisande asked, but he suspected that, like him, she had already guessed.
The Countess laughed softly. "What else?" She looked to Lord M_. "I believe in this case, the win goes in your column. Without his even really trying, to boot. My goddaughter's assessment of you seems to have been correct, Mr. Wooster. You are quite good."
"Thank you, Countess." Though he wasn't sure he really deserved the compliment. Not professionally, at any rate.
Lord M_ started for the door, and paused at Ardsley's shoulder. "Remember, not a word of this to anyone outside this room. Once you're safely aboard Castle Wulfenbach, no one knows she exists."
Ardsley nodded, then blinked. There was a weight in his coat pocket that not been there a moment ago. He reached into it, and touched a billfold. A thick one.
Lord M_gave him a knowing smile. "For heaven's sake, boy, you're in Paris. Don't spend your wedding night in a student's garret. If . . . your friend notices and asks, tell him your aunt sent you a gift in honor of your new position."
"I'll do that." He fingered the money–there was more there than he'd had to spend at one time since he's come to Paris. "I suppose this will be coming out of my expense report?"
"Let's call it a loan." Lord M_ offered the Countess his arm. "Shall we go, Anya?"
"Yes, Bernard." But the Countess was looking at her goddaughter. "If you need me, Melichka, you know how to contact me."
"I do. Goodbye, Baba Anya." Her voice wavered, but the grip of her hand in Ardsley's was steady.
"Goodbye, my dear." The Countess looked up at Lord M_. "Tell me, do you still appreciate fine Russian tea?" As they went out the door, Ardsley could hear his director (Bernard!) answering in the affirmative.
He waited until the sound of footsteps on the stairs had vanished before turning to Melisande. "Well."
"Well indeed." She looked as bemused–and amused–as he did. "Bernard?"
"Careful. I think he meant it about killing us if we tell anyone." He shook his head, taking out the billfold. "Perhaps that's what this is about. A bribe to keep quiet."
"That or he doesn't think much of your taste in interior decoration." She looked around with a critical eye. "I do hope they have nicer quarters for lab assistants aboard Castle Wulfenbach."
"I have almost four days until I have to worry about that," Ardsley said. "But for once, I have free time in Paris, and the money to do something about it. What would you like to do, my lady?" And he gave her a courtly bow.
Melisande laughed. "Oh, I'm sure we'll think of something. But just this instant, husband, I have a few things I'd like to do right here."
"Really. Why, Mrs. Wooster," and he put his arms around her and pulled her close, "would these involve any shocking liberties?"
"Oh, I certainly hope so." But this time, instead of waiting, she drew his mouth down to hers, and Ardsley suspected that while the liberties might be easier, if he wanted to be shocking, he was going to have to try harder this time.
The next three days passed in a blissful haze. The billfold (which was very generously filled indeed) paid for a room at a not-too-ostentatious inn for two nights, meals at restaurants, and even a night at the Opera (which was happily free of falling chandeliers and abducted ingenues, at least this week.) It also helped fund an evening at la Moulin with Gil and his latest pretty paramour, this one a blonde chorus girl with just enough intelligence to know when she and Gil were clearly not wanted and not quite enough to realize what that meant she should do. Gil, at least, had the presence of mind to realize a man with a lovely lady friend and only a few more nights in Paris did not want to stay out too late, no matter how enjoyable the company.
Which was a good thing, because if they had stayed out much later that evening, Melisande might have resorted to violence.
The last morning came far too soon as it was. They'd returned to Ardsley's flat that evening, as he had to pack what few belongings he had that were worth taking, and, she had to admit, for sentiment. This was the closest thing to a home they had.
She slept longer than she'd meant to, and woke alone in the bed. A quiet rustling and the clicking of a trunk latch told her before she opened her eyes where Ardsley was, and she sat up. "It can't be time already?"
"Soon." He was looking into the cloudy old mirror above the desk, adjusting the stiff collar of his best shirt. "I wish I didn't have to go, love."
"Maybe." She slid out of bed, shivering. The stove wasn't lit, but then today they weren't staying long. "But you're excited too, aren't you?"
He paused, and turned guiltily to her. "You're not angry?"
"If anything, I'm a little jealous." She took over the business of straightening his collar, and then picked up the pin he'd been sent and told to wear. The little gold winged castle was heavier than it looked. "I'll be sitting quietly at home, knitting and having tea and trying not to think about all the horrible things that could be happening to you, while you'll be on a mission, spying on the Baron–"
"Not the Baron himself." There was still something he wasn't saying, something he kept holding back, but she didn't dare pry. "And I'd happily trade that sort of excitement a quiet evening at home with you."
"So you say," she teased, but her throat was oddly tight. Slipping the pin through the stiff ends of the collar, she fastened it and stepped back. "There. The perfect Wulfenbach lackey."
He peered at himself in the mirror. "You think so?"
"Hm." She studied the rust-colored great coat with its brass fittings, the ridiculously-overbuttoned waistcoat (she hoped the laundry on the Castle wasn't done by hand), and heavy-weave brown trousers. "I don't think the color suits you."
"I'll be sure to bring that up at my first supervisor's review." He sighed, and looked down at his watch. "It's nearly time, if I want to make my flight in Marseilles. You can stay here for a bit, if you like–"
"No." She went to the clothes she'd laid out atop her own case, the only thing she'd be taking to the Consulate, and dressed as slowly as she dared. Ardsley helped with the lacings of her corset, the buttons on her blouse, and interrupted with kisses wherever he could reach until they were both fully clothed and facing and he was kissing her so deeply she couldn't breathe, but didn't care.
Ardsley finally broke the kiss, but not the embrace, pulling her as close as he could. She knew without asking it was time, and as such, what else was there to say?
He kissed the top of her head, pressed his face into her hair. "I love you."
Melisande leaned back, looking him in the eye. "Come back to me."
He didn't speak, only nodded, and stroked her cheek, his fingers tracing over her face as if memorizing it. Melisande made herself step away first, or she was not going to let him go.
"I'll leave. I shouldn't be seen with you now. Besides, I don't want to watch you go." She went to the little case and picked it up, gripping the handle until her knuckles turned white to keep from trembling. "Ardsley . . . ."
"I know." His voice caught. "I'll come home to you. I promise."
"I'll be waiting for you. I promise." Then before she could lose her nerve and her dignity and beg him one last time to stay, she opened the door and went out. She managed not to look back until she was on the street, when she couldn't help but look for the garret window. Ardsley was watching, and she paused for a moment, her whole body fighting to run back inside, and then she steeled herself and walked on. The Consulate, Lord M_, and England awaited.
*** Six months later
Ardsley carefully set down the rack of test tubes he was carrying before turning around. "Yes, Herr Dolokov?"
Boris Dolokov, the Baron's amanuensis, assistant, and eyes and ears among the Castle staff, stood at the entrance to the lab with a folded sheet of paper in one hand, his ubiquitous notebook in another, and a pencil in a third, leaving only one of his extraneous pair of hands free to beckon Ardsley over. "You are being reassigned to a special project. If you'll come with me now, please." The 'please' was clearly an afterthought.
Ardsley kept his features neutral, though one small part of him wondered if this was it and his cover was broken. Another part wondered if this was it, and the payoff, after months, had finally arrived. "Of course, Herr Dolokov. If you'll give me a moment to stow–"
"Now, Herr Wooster." The former possibility seemed suddenly more likely. Then again, it wasn't as if Dolokov was especially patient or civil on a good day.
"Certainly, if it's that urgent." He was careful to keep a half-pace behind Dolokov, who was also very conscious of rank among the staff. It did make passing through the crowded central corridor much quicker, as everyone knew to make way for the Baron's right-hands man. They were headed towards one of the large mechanical labs, a reassuring sign, as if he were being arrested there were places for that, and they were in another direction. Plus, if he were being taken into custody Dolokov would probably have brought some sort of backup, Jaegers, even. So there was a definite possibility this was it, this was what he'd been waiting for . . . .
Dolokov rapped twice on the huge metal door, before spinning the locking wheel and pushing it open. "Ardsley Wooster, as you requested, Master Gilgamesh."
"Good!" said a familiar voice, only . . . more confident, easy in command. "Thank you, Boris, you can go back to my father now. We'll be fine." There was a clatter as someone dropped from the framework of what looked like a hoomhoffer in a significant state of disassembly.
"As you say, sir." From the look on his face, Dolokov was none too sure about that, but he withdrew and shut the heavy door behind him.
"Well, Wooster!" Gil even walked with a stronger step than he had in Paris. "I wish you could see the look on your face."
"Gil . . . what is going on? Herr Dolokov said I'd been requested for a special duty . . . ." Confused, he had to look confused.
"You have, old chap, as they say in your language." Gil crossed his arms, and even his grin was somehow more authoritative than it had been. "My father thinks I need an assistant–not just a lab assistant, but a . . . well, a valet, a secretary, a jack-of-all-trades . . . a gentleman's gentleman. And since I know you aren't completely useless in a lab, even for a non-Gifted, and you always managed to get me home when you thought I'd end up in a gutter otherwise, I thought, who better than my old friend, Ardsley Wooster?"
"Your father?" Careful, Ardsley, careful . . . .
"Oh, didn't I mention?" Obviously, he very deliberately hadn't. "My real name is Gilgamesh Wulfenbach. I'm sure you've heard of my father, Klaus? Famous Spark, bad temper, even worse singer but don't mention I said that."
Ardsley had been waiting for this for so long, now that it had finally happened he found he didn't have to feign surprise and disbelief. It felt that unreal. "Gil, that's hardly something to joke about, especially around here." Gil just kept smirking. "You mean . . . you're really . . . Baron Wulfenbach is your . . . ."
"I know. You wouldn't think it from the resemblance, but I promise, I'm truly the son of Baron Wulfenbach. And I'm truly offering you a job as my assistant. So what do you say?"
Ardsley took just a moment to look gobsmacked, and then said, "What would you like me to do first, sir?"
Gil clapped his hands together. "Good! I like an assistant who's ready to work. And you can start by helping me take apart this hoom. It was damaged during the assault on the Gilded Duke's fortress and they were just going to scrap it, but I think there's great room for improvement."
A small waist-high blur of brown and blue sped past, and the . . . whatever-it-was tugged at Gil's sleeve with a claw where a hand usually was. Ardsley tried to get a better look, but the claw and a single blinking eye were all that was visible under an oversize greatcoat and hat. That, and the antennae peeking out above. "Yes, Zoing, what is it?" The creature pointed the claw in Ardsley's direction. "Oh, yes. Zoing, this is Ardsley Wooster. He's going to be working for me from now on."
The single eye blinked balefully at Wooster, and the construct made a sound rather like "Hemekkatee?"
"No, making tea is still your job. In fact, why don't you go get us some while we get back to the hoom?" The creature scuttled off. "My first construct," Gil said, picking up a tool belt and tossing it to Ardsley. "I made him when I was eight."
"Eight?" That he hadn't known. "That's exceptional. Sir." He was going to have to get used to adding that.
"So they tell me." Some things never changed. "Zoing is very useful, but I should warn you, he's very territorial about tea. Funny, I didn't even use any English parts that I know of."
"Maybe he's Russian." That slipped out. That, he hadn't meant to say. No, no, no, don't think about her now, and for God's sake don't remind Gil–
"Russian? Oh, yes, that's right, I seem to recall a certain Russian girl that had you absolutely fascinated by how she took her tea." Gil jumped up onto the leg of the hoom. "In fact I seem to recall you spent your last few days in Paris having an awful lot of talks about tea with her. Whatever happened with–what's her name?"
"Melisande." He was an even better actor than he thought. His voice didn't waver at all. "She wasn't entirely pleased with my choice of employment." That had the benefit of being absolutely true.
"Oh. Well, lots of fish in the sea, and girls in Wulfenbach territory. Not that you're going to have much time for that now! Toss me a right-leaning 7/16 spanner, would you?"
"Certainly, sir." Plenty of fish in the sea, yes . . . but only one Melisande.
"Lord M_ to see you, Madame."
Melisande set down the book she'd been reading. Russian poetry might be beautiful, but it did not do much in the way of lifting one's mood. Of course it was that or more knitting and she had stopped that this morning when she'd realized she'd knitted a lovely soft set of shackles. "Please show him in, Hudson. And have tea for two sent in as well."
He really didn't have to make that sound quite so insulting. Of course, as butlers went, Hudson wasn't precisely the most professional in the world. One of Lord M_'s, or at least a retiree, and while her aunt-in-law didn't mind, Melisande had the distinct feeling she'd been watched since the moment she arrived. Of course, that was only sensible, all things considered.
"Lord M_, so nice to see you." She rose, with a minimum of wobbling, and privately congratulated herself. "Please, do sit down."
'Thank you, Mrs. Wooster." He looked far too relaxed to be bringing bad news, she told herself. Whatever he might think of her, and she still wasn't entirely sure about that, he genuinely cared about his operatives and would never look forward to reporting one's demise. "You're at home alone today?"
"Yes, Aunt Delilah is out paying calls. Or so she says. I think she has some private project she's working on." She eased herself carefully back into her chair. Oh, and this was only going to get worse before it got better.
"Even a retired Spark is still a Spark," Lord M_ observed. "The ones that do retire. You have, of course, met her friend Miss Thorpe?"
"Yes." There wasn't much else one could say, as one did not so much meet Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm and heroine of nearly as many adventures as the legendary Heterodyne Boys, as encounter her and be overwhelmed. "In any case, I think Aunt Delilah doesn't want to upset me."
Lord M_ did an excellent job not looking at the obvious. "A sensible precaution."
"Sensible, except I confess I could do with some upsetting. Or disturbing. Or anything to take my mind off sitting here and finding new ways to keep my mind occupied." Hudson arrived with the tea tray, and Melisande watched for any sign of recognition between the two men. If there was one, she missed it, but all things considered she could believe she was getting rusty. "Cream and sugar, Lord M_?"
"Please." He took the cup, and waited politely as she served herself the same. "Actually, it's about your occupation, or lack thereof, that I wanted to speak. Tell me, Mrs. Wooster, have you met the Duke of Devonshire?"
"Not that I recall, but then I haven't been out and about much of late." She took a sip of tea. "Should I have?"
"That remains to be seen." He produced a thick envelope from his inside breast pocket. "Now, I realize, you might not be in the most . . . fit condition for any sort of field work, but this would be of the most delicate nature, so any, ah, exertions, would almost certainly be kept to a minimum. Strictly reconnaissance and investigative work, so any, um, indisposition on your part wouldn't interfere too much–"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Lord M_, we're professionals. We can stop ignoring the elephant in the room. Although I don't think I'm that size yet." She rested her hand briefly on the curve of her abdomen below the loose maternity corset she'd only recently had to adopt for daily wear. "As long as whatever you have in mind doesn't involve repelling out of airships or deep-sea diving, I'm not so far along I won't be able to function."
He coughed, as that was a bit more than any gentleman really wanted to hear on the subject. "Yes, well, if you're certain . . . Ardsley would never forgive me if I allowed you to put yourself in danger, especially considering your condition." He handed her the envelope. "The Duke holds a very important and very sensitive ministerial post in Her Majesty's government. He recently acquired a fiancé, Miss Dorothy Tumbridge-Glossop. A lovely young lady, except for the fact that as far as we can determine, she doesn't, precisely, exist."
"I beg your pardon?" Melisande set down her teacup. "I take it you mean that more literally than her cover story doesn't check."
"That would presume she had a cover story, or indeed, any history at all." Lord M_ was smiling. "She's come to the capital for the season and to be presented to Her Majesty before the wedding. I could arrange an introduction." Melisande was so busy trying not to tear into the dossier and completely ignore her guest, she could only nod, and take another sip of the sweet, milky tea. Lord M_ raised an eyebrow. "I see Ardsley did manage to convert you to our tastes."
"Hm? Ardsley? Well, I suppose you could say he's responsible." Melisande wrinkled her nose. "Indirectly. It appears that even before birth, an Englishman's tea is sacrosanct." She set the cup aside. "Now, if you don't mind, why don't you tell me a little more about my assignment?"
Ardsley Wooster, British Intelligence, will return...