Disclaimers, explanations, etc. back in Chapter One.
The atmosphere in the casino that evening had a tense edge to it. While everyone was, once again, at the tables, there seemed a disinterest in the games. Even the staff did not provide that cheerful, quietly encouraging feel, the little smile or tilt of the head that promised the next hand, the next spin, the next roll of the dice would be the good one. Most of the guests played, but with a distracted air. Ardsley noted the Greek who'd been eyeing Melisande the previous evening didn't seem to notice much of anything now, even that he'd just lost more on a single turn of the cards than Ardsley made in a year–even counting his Wulfenbach pay and his real pay from the agency. Signore Valentine had been doing slightly better at the baccarat table, but from the way he seemed more interested in watching his lady toy with her fan than in paying attention to his hand, he was disinterested as everyone else in the games.
Boris Dolokhov, on the other hand, appeared to not be interested in anything. Both sets of arms were folded tightly across his chest, and he was standing beside Gil with a tight-jawed grimace. Ardsley, standing at Gil's other shoulder, tried not to draw the construct's attention, as he'd been in a foul mood all day and did not appear to be improving. When he'd returned to the suite that afternoon, admittedly in the kind of good mood that could irritate even friends, only Gil's intervention had kept him from spending the rest of the day doing laundry for the entire Wulfenbach delegation. Gil, for his part, mostly wanted details. When Ardsley was loathe to supply them, he'd cheerfully made his own surmises, wildly creative but just close enough to the truth that Ardsley wasn't sure he'd completely stopped turning red by dinner.
His state of mind wasn't improved by the sight of Melisande entering, trailing in her godmother's wake. Instead of black velvet tonight it was burgundy taffeta, with a cascade of ruffles bustled and drawing the eye to parts of her anatomy that, while he enjoyed thinking of them, did very little to help his concentration. Distracting himself by wondering which agency's expense account paid for the dresses didn't keep his mind occupied long. Though they didn't strictly match, she had the black opera gloves with his aunt's creative embellishments on again. He noticed that while they weren't quite suited to the dress, they did at least seem to fit with the locket on its black velvet choker. The glass locket rested in that little nook between her collar bones that he'd devoted a bit of attention to earlier, and looking there naturally drew his eye to the ribbon-trimmed low neckline of the dress, and the lovely way she filled out the taffeta gown.
A quiet snort beside him forced his attention back to his employer. "Sir?"
"Might want to mind where you're looking, if you're going to insist on being a proper gentleman and not a lovesick twit," Gil said sotto voce.
"Ah–sorry, sir." Ardsley wished he didn't color quite so easily. "I was just–"
"Ogling the young lady like she was a crumpet on a tea-table and you were feeling peckish?" It was a miracle Boris could talk at all, twisting his lip that much. "Once again, Master Gilgamesh," and while Ardsley said 'master' as a title of respect, Boris clearly meant it in the 'son of the head of the house' sense, "I have to point out how inappropriate it is to allow a valet to ignore his duties and traipse around after lady guests."
Ardsley had a sharp retort on the tip of his tongue, but fortunately Gil cut him off. "The lady doesn't object, and I'm perfectly capable of putting on my own boots. Besides, looks like he's not the one doing the following."
At the gaming tables, the Countess had stopped once again by the baccarat players, while Melisande was making her way directly to them. Ardsley felt a perverse satisfaction as she deflected the Greek tycoon's attempt to rise and greet her with a vague polite smile as she passed. Instead, she glided straight to where they were standing, giving Gil a polite sort of almost-curtsey, and nodding to Ardsley before, to his surprise, turning to their sullen third.
"I wish to apologize, Herr Dolokhov," she said, with, if anything, a deeper bow than she'd given Gil. "I was inexcusably rude last night. Can you forgive me, sir?"
Boris appeared as taken aback as Ardsley felt, but Melisande had backed him quite neatly into an etiquette corner. He really only had one out, and graciously for him, he took it. "There's nothing to forgive, Mademoiselle. I was far from polite myself, and let my . . . personal biases color my behavior."
"Thank you, Herr Dolokhov." She turned that perfectly-charming smile on Gil. "If you don't need him for the evening, Herr Wulfenbach, may I steal your valet? Unescorted and unmarried ladies sometimes have difficulty avoiding . . . unwanted attention."
"I can't imagine needing Wooster here tonight," Gil said. "Contrary to popular belief I'm capable of tying my own shoes."
"Or perhaps of building a clank to tie them for you?" Melisande had a knack for teasing Sparks, Ardsley thought. There was always a fine line there, though it wasn't as dangerous to toe it where Gil was concerned as with some lesser Sparks. The greater the talent, the less need to take offense?
"If something interesting doesn't happen soon, I may decide to make something out of the roulette tables and the carving knives from dinner." Gil had just enough of a glint in his eye when he said that for Ardsley to be slightly concerned.
"I'm not sure interesting is the word I'd have chosen," Melisande said, ever tactful, "but I certainly would like to know why we're here." She stepped beside Ardsley, forcing all of them to turn away from watching the games, or turn their backs on a lady, and slipped her arm through his. "I am enjoying the company, of course, but we at least were lead to believe there was a reason for all this."
Ardsley gave himself exactly fifteen seconds to savor her arm through his, the way the silk taffeta of her skirt brushed against him, and then forced himself to focus on the business at hand. "In my experience, interesting and exciting are rarely good descriptions to use for any successful holiday."
"Oh, Ardsley." Melisande tapped him playfully on the arm with her fan. "Sometimes you can be so British it's painful."
"I'm not sure whether that's an insult or a compliment." If only they weren't in company, or if it didn't matter if they were, he could respond to that in the way it deserved. Someday, perhaps . . . . "In any case, perhaps whatever the Count has in mind won't be nearly as eventful as everyone expects."
They should be so lucky.
Another ring of the gong that announced dinner drew everyone's attention to the far staircase, just as it had the night before. Once again, Count Vercordi was at the top of the steps, surveying the crowd. Velocia Muliera was beside him, once again in the green and gold livery with the impressive decolletage, watching from over her master's shoulder with a decidedly less gregarious expression. Ardsley could feel Melisande tense with dislike and he smothered a grin before she saw it and took her ire out on him.
The Count began speaking, "Ladies, gentlemen, guests all." His voice somehow carried, despite sounding mellow and even. A device? Or natural theatrical gifts? "Once again, I welcome you to my home. I hope you have all been enjoying the hospitality, and the amenities of my island?" Was it Ardsley's imagination, or did the Count's gaze linger on him and Melisande for a moment as he said that? "But of course, that isn't why you all came to visit me, is it?" The crowd laughed, but there was a nervous tinge to it. "No, you are waiting to hear what the . . . special prize I am offering is."
You could have heard a pin drop across the entire casino floor. Ardsley realized even he was holding his breath, and he could feel how still Melisande had gone, could see out of the corner of his eye that Gil was, in spite of himself, intrigued.
The Count gestured to Velocia, who gestured to someone at the opposite end of the room. The massive main doors at the top of the opposite stairs swung open with a clang. A group of the liveried servants (though something about their bearing made Ardsley think "soldier" instead) began a careful descent of the steps, two bearing a large box on a sort of litter, draped over with cloth-of-gold so that beyond size (a bit bigger than a coal scuttle) the precise nature of the object remained a mystery. Two more of the servants came behind, carrying a taller, bulkier item, this one ignominiously wrapped in burlap. Those not seated at the tables moved back, even when they weren't in the way. Ardsley strained to get some better hint of what was under the cloths, and he could feel Melisande on her toes beside him, doing the same, but the coverings were thick and heavy and the servants moved too quickly.
While everyone's attention had been on the servants and their concealed burdens, the Count had descended the stairs and was now standing on the casino floor. Ardsley could see why their host seemed to prefer using the stairs for announcements. The Count was not a tall man and the staircase added grandeur, while here it was evident even Velocia had several centimeters on him. The short stature did not in any way diminish his sense of authority. With an imperious gesture, he directed the first litter to his left and the second burlap-wrapped one directly in front of him. Stepping back, he stood beside the first litter while Velocia directed the unwrapping of the first one, the two soldiers winding the burlap around their arms, circling the thing like a bizarre Maypole until the object beneath was revealed.
It was a battle clank.
Not a large one, and that was probably all that kept the crowd reaction down to excited murmurs and a few who'd been in their chairs suddenly being on their feet. Ardsley saw Boris lean forward and Gil's hand come up, a gesture-hold. Melisande was holding her breath beside him, and he noticed she was resting her left hand on her right wrist, subtly near one of the little pearls on the glove. He loosened his grip on her arm, hoping that whatever his aunt had built into those gloves wasn't likely to leave any powder burns.
But despite the weapons bolted to the clank's polished-brass limbs (a gun with five barrels that probably rotated, and on the other wrist a heavy clamp that, despite being blunt rather than sharp, looked ominously practical) the clank seemed less than impressive. The thing had a somewhat basic head, without any obvious weaponry, but of course that never meant much. On Sparkish weaponry, the most innocuous bolt could turn out to be a plasma grenade or a summoning siren for a herd of rabid mimmoths. But this looked like a fairly standard war clank, except that it appeared they'd nailed it to the board on which it was carried.
"Hm." Gil's slightly-interested murmur carried over the general consternation of the room. Ardsley risked a glance at his 'master,' who was studying the clank with an air of academic detachment.
Boris, on the other hand, was on full alert. "Master Gilgamesh, I must insist-"
"Hold, Boris." Gil sounded far more pensive than alarmed. "That appears to be one of the Duke of Schleissen-Guildenstern's old Mark II infantry clanks. They were obsolete when the Heterodyne Boys were in diapers. What's he trying to prove with one of those?"
"I'm not necessarily sure how up-to-date a clank is matters at this range, provided it's functional," Wooster said. He saw Melisande nod, but her gaze was fixed on the clank and she didn't look up at him.
"For once, I believe your valet has a point," Boris said. "We should retreat and summon the guards-"
"I said hold." Gil turned an annoyed look at both of them, then softened just a bit. "Though you might want to consider retreating to a more distant vantage point, Mademoiselle."
"Thank you," Melisande said, tightening her grip and pressing close to Ardsley's side, "but at the moment I feel safer here." Ardsley smiled, but he couldn't help thinking that perhaps Gil was on to something. Even Dolokhov looked as if he thought she ought to reconsider that opinion. "Besides," she added, "what if that thing tracks by motion?"
Ardsley had a brief mental image of Vanya's chimera clanks beneath Paris, with their motion-triggered targeting, and shuddered. "Good point."
Count Vercordi, for his part, looked sanguine. The beatific smile had not wavered a jot a he took in the reactions from his guests, who mostly appeared to be deciding if they were now more along the lines of 'prisoners.' Or 'intended victims.' "Please, my friends, do not be alarmed. I assure you, this . . . device is merely for demonstration purposes. You are in no danger."
"If I had a gold sovereign for every time I've heard that, I could buy an island and retire," Ardsley muttered, low enough he hoped only Melisande could hear. From the tiniest twitch of her shoulders that meant she was hiding a laugh, she had.
The Count, meanwhile, stepped back and gestured for two of the servants who'd accompanied it in to step forward. They did, taking out short swords that looked as if they would rather the Count had volunteered himself. "As you can see," the Count continued, his voice carrying with an actor's skill at projection, "the device is still functional." Indeed, the gun arm was swinging, the clank's torso turning a bit slower than it should have, either from age or being hampered by its legs being bolted in place. "I believe, though I am not familiar with how these mechanical . . . wonders operate, this one is meant as a soldier. To defend its master, as it were." He nodded to the two servants, who glanced reluctantly at each other, and started forward, not at the clank, but at the Count himself.
The clank might have been rusty, but it still managed to bring its gun to bear and fire. One of the servants managed to dodge, flinging himself flat, but the other jerked with the impact of the bullet and staggered, fell. There were, of course, screams from the onlookers, but surprisingly few-none of these people had maintained their positions in a world ruled by Sparks by being easily flustered–but Ardsley found himself instinctively pushing Melisande behind him. To his surprise, he had help, not from Gil, but Boris. Chivalry apparently overrode even personal distaste for a lady's choice in company. Even more surprising was that Melisande didn't object to either of their automatic reactions.
Velocia waved in two other servants, who unceremoniously hefted the dead man by his arms. The Count, though, raised a hand.
"Wait. I do not wish my guests to think this is a mere stage trick. Perhaps, some of you might wish to examine this machine, and its unfortunate assailant, to assure themselves this was no sleight of hand?"
"Sir, I truly don't think it would be wise–" But before Boris could even finish the sentence or Ardsley turn his head, Gil was off, joined by Prince Gosego, Lady Oyone, Sir William, and the Roman.
"Did you really think that was going to work?" Ardsley didn't bother waiting for an answer. Boris knew as well as he did keeping a Spark from investigating something was probably the second-most-pointless endeavor in the world. "Melisande, please, stay here." He expected an objection, but there must have been something in his tone that told her he wasn't speaking as an agent right now, but as a very worried husband with no desire to see his wife shot. Again. She stepped back a bit farther, but he noticed her hand stayed on the wrist of that glove. Poison needle darts? Exploding pearls? With his aunt's designs, one never knew . . . .
Gil was studying the clank's weapon when Ardsley reached him. "Definitely a Mark II. You can tell by the connectors. Old and outdated, terribly inefficient design," and he was clearly struggling to keep the Sparkish impulses under control, "but they managed to get it working." He poked at one of the barrels, and Ardsley caught the acrid scent of gunpowder, mixed with a faint, almost floral tinge. Perhaps someone was wearing cologne, as he didn't recall any weapons that used flowers as part of their charges.
"Quite effectively, too." The speaker, with his strange flat accent, was Sir William, who was examining the dead servant. The Roman, Valentine, was on the corpse's other side, looking but not touching. "He certainly appears to be dead." The 'American' straightened up and looked at the Count. "I'm sorry to say, there's nothing novel about a clank that kills people. We've all seen that before."
"Certainly nothing worthy of the secrecy," Lady Oyone added. Gil, meanwhile, was poking at the clank's neck, clearly longing for a full tool kit and time to examine the thing more closely.
The Count appeared unfazed. "You are satisfied, gentlemen, madame, that the clank is functional and the man is dead?"
"Satisfied?" Gosego raised an eyebrow. "Let us say, I believe it to be the case."
"As functional as anything this archaic can be," Gil muttered. "I don't see how anyone can tolerate such ineffective systems–"
"Sir, with all due respect, I don't believe the Count is really looking for a detailed analysis of the clank's functions." Ardsley used the careful, almost supplicating tone he normally reserved for when Gil was in the madness place.
From the look Gil gave him, he wasn't far from it, either, but he seemed to realize now was not the moment. "No, probably not." He stepped back, turning to the Count. "You've demonstrated you can kill your retainers almost as well as a very minor Spark. We're all supposed to be impressed with this 'marvel'?"
That was not the way Ardsley would have put it to someone who had just watched impassively as his own man was shot down, but the Count only smiled more narrowly. "This, Herr Wulfenbach?" The smile thinned even further. "This is merely part of the demonstration. If you would all please, once again, step back to a safe distance, we'll continue."
Ardsley was afraid for a moment that he'd have to try dragging Gil. He'd done it before, as Sparks did not always realize that sometimes an experiment was explosively beyond saving, but it wouldn't look well in front of the other guests. Fortunately, his 'master' decided not to make an issue of it. That, or the clank was just too old to be overpoweringly interesting, and they both withdrew to where Boris and Melisande were waiting. Ardsley wasn't sure which of them looked more displeased-maybe it was something in the regional temperament. He decided that Melisande would not appreciate his inquiring, and kept quiet.
The Count, meanwhile, had turned to Velocia and the object covered by the gold cloth. "Miss Muliera, if you please."
She uncovered not a box, but a display case, wood and glass, with a small velvet pedestal. The object on it looked far too unassuming for its presentation, which in Ardlsey's experience meant they probably ought to move a safe distance away. It was a small brass cuff, and mounted on its top was a series of switches and what appeared for all the world to be some sort of cloudy crystal. There didn't appear to be any external power source Ardsley could spot, and it seemed too small to have anything concealed within it.
Gil, by his tone, was confused, too. "If that's supposed to be impressive somehow . . . it doesn't even look like a lab-grown crystal, just a piece of rock."
Melisande was watching from half behind Ardsley's back, a position he was determined to keep her in until he was absolutely certain they weren't in immediate mortal danger. At this point that was looking to be 'until whenever they left the island', but a few inconveniences aside he could work with that. "I suppose it's . . . visually appealing," she said. "If a bit gauche."
Velocia had removed the cuff from its case and placed it on her wrist. She looked to the Count, who gestured for her to stand beside the surviving armed servant. "Now, my friends," the Count said, raising his voice to that actor's register again, "this creation is set to defend its master, me, against assaults. You saw what happened with the first attempt. Now, observe the second."
He nodded, and the remaining servant, looking as if he were seriously reconsidering all potential career options and wishing he'd gone for, say, sewer-digger in a reclaimed Wastelands town instead, raised his sword. Velocia, a knife in one hand, trailed just a step behind. The Count remained motionless, his hands clasped behind his back, the smile still on his face. As the servant advanced, the clank once again swung it gun arm up and the barrels whirled. It squeezed off the first round and the servant dodged, with even greater alacrity this time, but Velcoia didn't even flinch. Instead, she raised the arm with the cuff, and flipped a switch.
Ardsley heard a faint buzzing sound, and glanced at Melisande. She was rubbing her ear, and Gil shook his head like he was trying to dislodge an annoying gnat from near his head. The noise did have the same, mildly irritating quality of a stinging insect, and from the reactions in the room, everyone had the same impression.
Everyone but three.
"Herr Dolokhov?" Melisande sounded concerned in spite of herself. "Herr Dolokhov, are you all right?"
Dolokhov did not look all right. One set of hands was clamped over his ears, the other crossed over his chest, and he was doubled over, grimacing and clearly only restraining any vocal protest through sheer force of will. Gil turned, and for a moment Ardsley would have sworn he saw real concern on his 'master's' face. "Boris? What is it?"
Melisande had one hand on Dolokhov's shoulder, but stepped aside as Gil moved in. Dolokhov, meanwhile, tried to straighten, and couldn't. "The noise . . . ." He managed it through clenched teeth. "I'm sorry, sir, but it . . . ." He broke off with a grinding of his jaw and clamped down harder.
Melisande tapped Ardsley's arm, and pointed discretely across the room. While most of the other guests were reacting much as she and Ardsley and Gil had, the Roman, Valentine, had his hands as tightly over his ears as Dolokhov, looking as if it was taking all his willpower (and his wife's arm around him, supporting) to keep him from fleeing the room. To Ardsley's surprise, also attending on the Roman was the "American", looking almost as worried as the Signora. "Dolokhov, Signore Valentine," Ardsley murmured. "Just sensitive ears, or . . . ?"
A sharp exclamation from Gil drew his attention back to the main show. The noise seemed to be emanating from the device on Velocia's arm and she was now walking towards the clank, which was struggling to bring the gun to bear on her. Instead, it jerked, and twisting with a painful grinding of its gears, it turned, and brought itself to bear on the Count. He did not flinch, even when its weapon swung around to point at him, barrels whirling and clicking. Velocia, a strange amused smile on her face, raised her wrist again, and Ardsley heard gun arm itself.
"Enough." The Count gave a dismissive wave, and after a very long heartbeat Velocia worked another switch. The high-pitched buzzing sound stopped even as the clank slumped, inactive again, its limbs clattered useless at its sides. "This device, as you see," the Count said, "is a development only recently discovered-when set to resonate at the proper frequency, this crystal you see, a natural stone, creates a resonance. And that resonance appears to have a highly-detrimental effect on all unnatural, Sparkish technology."
Ardsley heard Gil's snort of derision, but he could also hear the murmurs in the room, speculative, tempted murmurs. Why not? Even if this one device was small and limited, that only meant someone would have to research it, see how to make it function on a grander scale, and who wouldn't dream of having a device that could disable all the Sparkish inventions that kept ordinary, un-Gifted nobles and would-be masters, even less-powerful Sparks at the mercy of the madboys? Or even just slow them down?
Melisande breathed a soft "Bozhemoi," and he saw the same thought in her eyes. No wonder the Count had wanted this kept from the Baron. No wonder England, whose entire existence depended on a single powerful Sparkish trick, had been left off the guest list. What could someone do with that device in the Glass City? Someone could disable Albia's control, force the city's systems to a halt, hold the lives of the entire population at their mercy . . . .
Ardsley shook himself, realizing that the Count was still speaking. A table, a large, round, green-velvet gaming table, had been brought in, chairs placed at even intervals around it. The glass case containing the device now rested at the very center, where the pot in a game of chance should be. One of the liveried croupiers took his place at the far side, racks of tokens and several decks of cards at the ready in front of him.
"So, my friends," Count Vercordi said, and you could have heard a pin drop across the gaming hall, "now you know the stakes of my game. It will cost each of you one hundred thousand marks to enter. The prize will be the table's pot, and sole ownership of my little device, to do with . . . as you see fit." There was a world of possibilities in that single brief pause. In the way the others-Gosego, Franklin, Lady Oyone, the Greek, even, Ardsley noted, the Countess Dragomirov–pressed forward in spite of themselves, they all had their own notions of what those possibilities were. Even Gil had a covetous gleam in his eye, and Ardsley was sure he was thinking of all the ways he could take that device apart and figure out just what that crystal did, and a way of turning it to Sparkish ends.
"Now!" The Count's voice boomed across the room. He gestured with dramatic expansion to the table. "Who will join my game?"