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On Her Undying Majesty's Secret Service: A Girl Genius Adventure

By ImperialGirl

Adventure / Action

Chapter 2


Melisande told herself she was, truly, going to the library to do research. There were simply no guarantees of seeing Ardsley. He might not work today. He might have been let go for not showing up the day before. In any case she could quite easily find his home, and she knew he had a laboratory course to assist with this afternoon. While she was sure he could disappear as expertly as the next spy when he needed to (and as the next spy she knew how easy that could be) he had no reason to vanish now. Not from her, anyway.

And she did need help unraveling whatever was in Vanya's notes. She wasn't sure what had possessed her to pocket one of the scattered papers–spite, probably, as she'd been so sure Ardsley was going to kiss her before Vanya had come barging out and ruined things. But he'd also been very strange of late, at least, stranger than even was normal for a Spark. He was spending every evening either huddled in the tea room with his papers and notes, scribbling like the madboy he was, or vanishing somewhere. She presumed to his lab, but as she'd received her assignment already, her mind had been on Ardsley Wooster and not on figuring out what Sparks allegedly working for the same Secret Police she was were up to. Now she was starting to wonder if that might have been a mistake. A rookie mistake, to be sure, and she was entitled to those on her first mission away from home. Vanya had something to do with Katia's purpose here, but as she was not involved she hadn't been read into that operation. Baba Anya presumably was, but she would have told Melisande if it had any bearing on her mission.

Of course she ought to have told Vanya to refrain from any snide remarks to Melisande's target, too, but that would have been asking for self-restraint. Sparks weren't known for that, hence how rarely they were used as field agents. That at least did leave work for the rest of them.

The paper she'd pocketed had a sketch of what looked like a sluice gate of some sort, with a series of notes in Vanya's handwriting that made almost no sense beyond being in reasonably-grammatical Russian. She'd found a few books on dams and aqueducts and was trying to find something that resembled whatever Vanya was working on so intently. She'd found pictures of dams designed to generate power, dams designed to selectively drown villages on cue, aqueducts that fueled fountains made of spinning blades and exploding pumps, and even sketches that theorized about whatever mechanism dammed the stream beneath Castle Heterodyne in Mechanicsburg. Nothing, though, that explained why one might want to make a cascading series of gates designed to be built in tunnels. Plenty to suggest one shouldn't get one's water from a well designed by the local madboy, though.

"Well, well. Turned studious, have you?" Even in a library-appropriate whisper, Katia could sound arch.

"Me? Always." Melisande slipped the sketch underneath her notes, feeling a pang of guilt as she did. Katia was, after all, supposed to be on her side. Not to mention her cousin. Hiding things from her felt unnatural, but some instinct was saying this was the right thing to do. "I'm more surprised to see you here." Surprised you could even find the library, truth to tell.

"I was curious." She certainly didn't look like a student. Even wearing in an ordinary walking dress, Katia managed to be the most elegant person in the room, not that it was difficult in a university full of Sparks, some of whom would probably forget to dress if left entirely to their own devices. "So . . . where's your gentleman?"

"Sh!" Melisande glanced over her shoulder, but no one was paying them attention. "I have no idea. I came here to study."

"Oh, of course you did." The condescending sarcasm was practically visible. "He just happens to work at the library and you just happened to decide you desperately needed to study today, in that very library, after spending all yesterday evening wandering around like a moonstruck dunce with that smile on your face . . . ."

"Ekaterina Olegevna, I did not!" At least she didn't think she had. Most of yesterday, from the time she and Adsley parted, was a pleasant blur. She was dreading transcribing her report because the notes she'd scribbled probably had much to do with the bread and the pine needles and the scent of his skin when she'd kissed him as with any practical knowledge gleaned about his situation (family background, as expected, reason for being in Paris, undetermined as of yet.) Uncle Oleg was not going to be interested in her thoroughly distracted rambling influenced by too much wine and sunlight. "It was a nice change, that's all."

"I'm sure." Katia's eyes narrowed. "Still, you seemed awfully happy . . . you're not actually falling in love with him, are you?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Thank whatever saints and angels looked over foolish spies that Katia couldn't hear the funny little flutter the butterflies in her stomach did at the suggestion. "How would I fall in love with someone when I can't even tell him who I am? I like him, that's all, and considering what I'm supposed to do that's a good thing. I haven't forgotten what I'm doing, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it. Just ask Baba Anya, she'll tell you the same thing."

"Well, I'm glad you're so professional about it. Anything else would be awkward, especially if we have to kill him. So you probably noticed he's right over there, too." Katia pointed, discretely, at something over Melisande's shoulder.

"What?" In spite of herself, she nearly tipped over her chair turning to look. Ardsley was there, trailing along in that Gil Holzfäller's wake, toting a load of books while Gil scribbled on a notepad with a madboy's typical intensity. Ardsley's primary job seemed to be pulling books from shelves, carrying books, and nodding as if all the babbling and scribbling made perfect sense.

Then he looked up over the growing stack of texts, and saw her.

Melisande turned back around, feeling the heat creeping up the back of her neck. "Oh, no. Is he still looking?"

Katia looked torn between sneering and laughing. "Yes, he is. And unless you've learned how to blush on command, in which case I bow to your acting abilities, you do like him."

"He's not coming over, is he?" She didn't dare look, but when Katia didn't say anything she had to risk it. Adsley had stopped following his friend, who had noticed. Gil, blinking with that distracted-Spark expression they all got when pulled out of their fugues, looked over his shoulder, and then followed Ardsley's gaze to their table. The annoyed expression changed with mind-boggling speed from confusion to suspicion to realization to a kind of unholy yet oddly good-natured glee. He turned and said something to Ardsley (whom she couldn't help notice was still looking at her) and whatever it was, it had Ardsley shaking his head and resisting as Gil grabbed his arm.

"Oh, no. They're both coming over." She turned back to Katia. "Maybe you should go."

"Me? Oh, no." Katia grinned, and unlike the expression on Gil Holzfäller's face, it definitely leaned towards malicious. "What's the matter, Melichka, don't you want your boyfriend to meet your family?"

"Only family by unfortunate accident of birth," Melisande muttered, but she said it in Hebrew, which she knew Katia didn't understand. If she wasn't leaving, she wasn't leaving, and that gave Melisande about thirty seconds to gather herself as Ardsley, looking very reluctant, was pulled along by the elbow as Gil made his way to their table. For as big a rakehell as her observations and Ardsley's comments implied, Gil certainly had an aura of authority. Though perhaps it was just the Spark.

He stopped at the side of their table, and looked expectantly at Ardsley. When the latter didn't speak quickly enough, there was a sharp elbow to the ribs that nearly sent the precariously-balanced stack of books tumbling. "Uh–hello, Melisande," Ardsley said, and she noted he chose Europa-German, not French. "My friend here," and she heard just the slightest wry twist to his voice, "wanted me to introduce him. Melisande La Capere, this is–"

"Gil Holzfäller," the Spark interrupted, reaching out and snatching up her hand to plant a very courtly kiss on her knuckles. No butterflies, though, and she was somewhat relieved. "I simply had to meet you. What on Earth have you done to my friend here?"

"I–to–ah–" There really wasn't any way to answer that. She heard Katia sniff derisively, and somewhere in her mind a gear clicked over. "What surprises you? That I'd interest him? That's hardly polite, Herr Holzfäller."

He blinked, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Ardsley tense–almost imperceptibly, but still out of keeping with the situation. Then Gil laughed. "I was wondering more what interest an English stick in the mud could possibly hold for a lovely girl like you. I mean, a fellow like me, with brains and looks and an excellent wit, naturally the ladies are drawn like flies to honey, but a bookworm like Ardsley? I had to find out what had caught your eye."

It was strange, but somehow, in all that bluster, she detected two things–an undertone of genuine affection, and an intent to pry. He wanted to know exactly what were her designs on his friend, and she could hardly blame him for that.

Still, he certainly had a tweak coming. "Why, his modesty, of course." Melisande enjoyed the look of consternation on Gil's face, and she also saw, over his shoulder, the surprise and . . . was it hope? . . . on Ardsley's.

She was a horrible, horrible person.

Gil recovered quickly. "Well said, Mademoiselle!" He grinned. "She does have a point, Wooster, you're very modest. You need to practice your bragging a bit."

Ardsley shifted his grip on the stack of books, which had obviously been grabbed from the shelves and handed off without regard for size or ease of stacking. "With all due respect for your expertise, Gil, I do seem to be doing all right." He gave Melisande a polite, just slightly possessive, smile, and the butterflies were back in violent force. Then he glanced across the table. "But we're being rude. Would you introduce us to your friend?"

A glance told her he'd spoken none too soon. If there was one thing Katia hated it was being ignored. "Of course. This is my cousin, Ekaterina Olegevna. Katia, this is Gil Holzfäller and of course, I've told you about Ardsley Wooster."

Katia stood up. It was amazing how she could make such a simple action as standing absolutely lascivious. Gil and Ardsley both took notice, from the looks on their faces, but something in Ardsley's expression hardened just a bit, and that warmed her heart far more than it really should have. Katia, after all, was still family and colleague, while Ardsley was . . . Ardsley.

Not only despicable, she was doomed.

"A pleasure, Mein Herr," and Katia accepted a kiss on the hand from Gil with a flutter that suggested she derived more than just butterflies in the stomach from the gesture. "And so this is my little cousin's . . . friend. I've heard much about you, Herr Wooster."

Ardsley, for his part, looked less than certain, plus relieved his hands were still occupied with the stack of books. "I'm not sure whether I should be flattered or worried."

"Oh, flattered," Katia said. "My little cousin hasn't thought of anything else the last few days. She was practically walking into walls all yesterday evening. Whatever did you do?"

Melisande was pleased to see she wasn't the only one subject to blushing. Between Katia's coy insinuations and the two raised eyebrows from his friend, Ardsley was turning a fascinating shade of pink. "Simply behaved as a proper English gentleman," he said. "I confess, I've been . . . thinking a great deal about yesterday, as well."

"Very proper," Melisande said, but she found she was smiling at him without forcing it, simply thinking about how nice it had been when he held her hand, kissed it . . . .

A snicker from Gil snapped her out of it. "Now you're both doing it-I haven't seen so many idiot grins since someone set off that canister of aether of Venus in the student canteen. What have I been telling you, Wooster?" He gave his friend a slap on the shoulder almost hard enough to dislodge the books. "You needed to find yourself a girl."

"Gil, really . . . it's hardly a decent subject . . . ." Ardsley threw a pleading, apologetic glance Melisande's way.

"What? All I said was you needed some feminine company, nothing more." Gil somehow managed to pull a positively angelic face. "I don't know what you thought I meant, but apparently your mind was already headed that way."

It would have been cruel, if it weren't true. It would have been embarrassing, if her own mind weren't already trending exactly the same way. "If that is the case, Herr Holzfäller, it makes Ardsley . . . much the same as every other young man I've met in Paris. Only more gentlemanly." She wished there were some tactful way to take his arm, but it was probably for the best. Those were a lot of books.

"Touche, Mademoiselle," and he switched between German and French as fluidly as she or Ardsley, his accent almost as good. "The English and their manners, eh? They say even the servants could pass for nobility anywhere else in Europa."

"That doesn't speak very highly of Europa's nobility," she retorted.

"Speaking from experience?" Such a tiny note to Ardsley voice, but she knew Katia heard it as well, even if Gil Holzfäller missed it. He was thinking of her comments about marriages to counts and barons.

Katia sniffed. "Melisande? She keeps her nose so stuck in her books I doubt she'd know a baronet from a coronet. Probably wouldn't notice Baron Wulfenbach if she tripped over him."

Melisande laughed softly, even though it wasn't really that funny, and of course, everyone would recognize the Baron. After just the barest fraction of a pause, Gil snorted, too, but she saw that Ardsley was simply watching him, a curiously professional blankness to his features. He was looking for something in Gil's reaction, but she had no idea what it was or whether he saw it as Gil turned, and suddenly Ardsley's face was relaxed, with just a hint of a puzzled smile touching the corners of those thoroughly honest blue-gray eyes. Melisande felt an admiring shiver down her spine. She'd seen the spy at work, though she wasn't sure why here, why now, but the transformation was brilliantly done, far beyond what she'd expect.

Ardsley, for his part, simply said "Anyone who tripped over the Baron would probably have problems besides recognizing him."

"No doubt," Gil said. "And if you can believe it, the Baron's not the scariest thing aboard Castle Wulfenbach."

"Oh, really?" Katia arched an eyebrow. "You've been aboard Castle Wulfenbach to know?"

Gil grinned devilishly. "Been there? I grew up there."

"It's the truth," Ardsley said. "At least, he's got so many stories that are so convincing, if it's not true he's the best storyteller I've ever met."

Melisande knew what Katia was thinking, because she was thinking the same thing. Only children of the ruling classes were educated aboard Castle Wulfenbach, at least that was the story everyone heard. Suddenly, a British spy tagging after a Spark like Gil made a certain degree of sense. "Well, if Ardsley says you're telling the truth, then I believe it." She smiled at him, ignoring the quiet snort from Katia.

"And I for one would like to hear some of these stories." Katia did some odd little shift with her shoulders, and abruptly Gil seemed fascinated by something that required him to look somewhere below Katia's chin and above her waist. Ardsley's gaze was trending in the same direction, and then he caught Melisande's eye, and had the grace to blush and look away in a safer direction. "Did you have the time, Herr Holzfäller?"

"Oh, I think I can find a few minutes." He crooked an elbow and Katia slid her arm through his. She was truly an expert at simpering, Melisande noted.

"Are you two coming?" And at sounding as if she didn't care whether you lived or died.

"Yes, come on, Wooster. My little project–" Gil waved at the stack of a dozen or so books– "can wait."

"Gil, I can't. I'm already in trouble from missing work yesterday," though the look he gave Melisande told her he didn't really regret that. "If I take off now I could lose my position."

"What's more important, one of your many jobs," Gil asked, "or a lovely young lady?" He gave Melisande a half-bow.

"Yes," Katia chimed in, "what's more important?"

"Katia, enough." Melisande gave her cousin as dirty a look as she dared. "I don't want to get Ardsley in any trouble."

"Believe me, if I thought I could get away, I would." He was still looking at her, and she saw nothing but sincerity in his expression. "I just can't take the chance."

"You disappoint me, Wooster," Gil sighed. "Though I suppose I can entertain two ladies at once. Shall we, ladies?"

Melisande hesitated. Ardsley obviously saw. "There's no need to stay on my account. I have to finish here, and I'm assisting a lab this afternoon. I wish I didn't have to, but . . . ."

"I could wait." The words came out without thought and Melisande felt as surprised as Ardsley looked. On brief examination she realized she meant it–sitting and waiting for him to be done and free to see her was far more appealing than listening to Katia charm Gil, as she was inevitably going to do.

"All day?" Katia sounded painfully arch. "I knew you were sheltered, cousin, but really." Turning to look, besides Katia's sneer she caught Gil grinning at Ardsley and rapidly lowering his hand from what she suspected was a thumbs-up gesture.

"I appreciate the offer, truly," Ardsley, in the tone of a man carefully tiptoeing around a mine field, "but . . . ."

"I do have things I can work on here." And she did, not least deciphering Vanya's odd notes. "Really, I don't mind."

"Maybe I underestimated you, Ardsley," Gil said. "Once you're finished, maybe you can join us at la Moulin–that is all right, Mademoiselle?" From the dazzlingly stupid smile Katia gave him, it was perfectly fine. Well, she hadn't had much to do since that officer of the Serpents she'd been "coopting" had drowned in the squids-in-the-sewer incident. It might improve her mood and get her out of Melisande's hair. "If you both can't find better ways to spend an evening."

She was certain her face was as red as Ardsley's was turning. Between the two of them they were probably blushing bright enough to illuminate the whole room. "I say, Gil . . . ."

"We'll see you later, then! Oh, set those books aside for me, would you? I'll need them later." He might be obnoxious, but Gil certainly knew how to make an exit, sweeping out with Katia on his arm as if he was leaving a grand ball.

Ardsley looked slightly abashed. "So . . . that was Gil."

"So I gathered." Melisande tried not to laugh. "Here, give me some of those before you drop them." She took the top four off the stack, and glanced at the titles. "Nitrogen Compounds: Their Uses and Abuses? The Tactics of Hannibal's Expeditionary Force? Low-Temperature Physics?" She paused. "And Escoffier's guide to sauces? Do I want to know?"

"I don't want to know and I'll probably end up helping build . . . whatever he has in mind." He sighed. "Gil means well. Whatever he's planning, it should at least be entertaining. And mostly harmless."

Melisande sighed. It shouldn't worry her so much. At least, not other than professionally–her mission would be as much of a bust as Katia's if Ardsley got himself blown up in some sort of lab accident. Yes, she had to worry about him, it was a professional responsibility. "What possesses them? Sparks, I mean."

"I suspect there are many people who'd pay dearly for the answer to that question," he sighed. "So if you think of it, mind letting me know?"

"We'll split the profits." She smiled. "I wasn't just saying it to get rid of them, you know. I can wait. I've no lectures today."

"I do appreciate it, truly. But once I'm finished here, I'm assisting in Professor Lanius in his lab demonstration." He grimaced. "At least today is just the internal anatomy of sea creatures, so probably no one will lose any limbs. Assuming this time he keeps the shark sedated."

Melisande tried not to look too horrified. It shouldn't surprise her, it really shouldn't, but she knew Sparks as well as he did, and that meant the assistant without the Gift would be the one grabbing for the man-eating fish if it decided to make a break for it, probably aided and abetted by said Spark having grafted legs and lungs on it. "Is it an open lecture?"

Ardlsey raised an eyebrow. "Are you actually interested, or just curious to see if I survive the experience?"

"Worried." If she had a good seat in the operating theater's gallery, she might even have a clear shot at anything that broke free, and in the sort of commotion escaping creations usually caused, she might even be able to disappear into the crowd before anyone realized who'd fired. Long odds, but a possibility. "I . . . ." Something painfully honest seemed to be demanding control of her voice, and strangely enough English seemed like the right language for it. "I . . . rather like you, Ardsley Wooster, and I don't want to see you get hurt." It came out in such a rush she mentally backtracked, hoping she'd gotten the grammar right. She'd figure out what had possessed her to say it at all later.

His eyes widened, and he looked away quickly. This time there was no blushing, but rather his face had lost quite a bit of color. "If you don't want to see me hurt, then perhaps observing this afternoon wouldn't be the best idea."

"It's that, or sit somewhere worrying about all the horrible things that could be happening that I'm not there to see."

"You'd really be worrying about me?" He still wasn't quite looking at her, and she wondered what calculations were going on behind the unreadable expression.

"As I said," and she chose her words carefully–so many ways to go wrong here, "I think I like you."

He was deciding something, she could see that. "It starts at three, if you really want to , watch. It's Professor Lanius and a couple of his most senior students. I'll mostly be holding the tools."

"As long as you're standing well back."

"I'll try." He looked straight at her again, and there was some sort of decisiveness to his smile, even if she wasn't quite sure about what. "And I suppose once it's finished, assuming I'm still in one piece, we probably ought to take Gil up on his invitation. Not least because if we don't I'll never hear the end of it. Or he'll draw some . . . ungentlemanly conclusions about what we're up to instead."

"And we wouldn't want him thinking that, would we." Baba Anya was right, of course, give him everything now and he'd lose interest quick, but it was going to be so very hard waiting. "All right, then, I'll see you at the lecture and we can see if your friend's survived dealing with my cousin."

"Should I be worried for Gil?"

Melisande actually had to consider that. "Probably not. Katia's just bored, and while she's not as dumb as she might seem, she's not likely to do him any lasting damage. At least not unless he's easily heartbroken."

"Gil?" Ardsley snorted. "He might have a problem with breaking hearts, but his own? You might want to warn your cousin off."

"Now, if Katia hadn't spent the last three days sniping at me about you, I might." She grimaced. "As it is, she's a big girl. She can take care of herself. And you–" She glanced around, but no one seemed to be giving two mundane students a second glance so the coast was clear to give him a quick peck on the cheek. "You take care of yourself. I don't want to see you lose any limbs."

"You can't possibly want that more than I do." But he had a slightly silly grin that said he wasn't thinking too much about losing a limb any more.


For the next few weeks, Ardsley found he wasn't thinking nearly as much about the inherent hazards of working with Sparks. Even tailing along after Gil to the sort of night clubs, bordellos and opium dens his friend favored no longer was quite as much a chore-crossed-with-tightrope-walking it had seemed before. Not least because Gil seemed to find it amusing that all he had to do was mention Melisande by name and Ardsley's mind promptly wandered to blissful daydreams about the last time he'd seen her, or the next time he would, whichever was sooner. It was not nearly as often as he might have liked, but it was as often as he could possibly manage without his mission suffering. There was an odd degree of crossover, as Gil was always ready to help with a suggestion for a gift (usually something Ardsley couldn't afford), a place to go (likewise, or someplace he couldn't imagine Melisande would find appealing, like the Island of the Monkey Girls), or something charming and witty to say (which at least was often useful for making her laugh.) If anything, it was almost too convenient, too soothing, too easy to fall into this identity completely. Gil was sympathetic, and Melisande . . . .

Ardsley blinked. The optics lab was still quiet (as it ought to be at this hour of the morning, when most students were either still sleeping the sleep of the not-so-innocent future mad scientists, or stumbling in from another night on the town) but he still shouldn't be wool-gathering. He'd come here to take advantage of that, not daydream. It was getting too easy to do that of late. In part, that was why he was doing this–the end of term was coming, and that would be the best time, whether the offer he was waiting for came or not. But one couldn't part with a lady without giving her some token, even if one had to make it oneself.

Of course, if he were a Spark, this would be a great deal easier.

Glass-cutting ought to come naturally, he thought grimly, to someone raised in the Glass City. Strange how when you were raised with something, you never gave a second thought to the sheer amount of work that went into its creation, at least until you tried to do something related on a minuscule scale and . . .couldn't. His fingers were stinging from a hundred tiny glass cuts, but attempting to wear gloves simply meant he didn't have fine enough dexterity to manipulate the tools. That was the true curse of the 'non-intuitive' who was still clever enough to be thought of as more than mindless-minion material–coming up with ideas did not, as with Sparks, automatically come with the knowledge of how to make those ideas work.

There was also the fact that figuring out what Sparks were doing was unnecessarily complex. It wasn't unusual that he'd crossed paths with Melisande's Spark friend, Vanya, given how much time he'd been spending with her and the fact that most young Sparks were in Paris to attend university. But even among Sparks, Vanya seemed strange. He was constantly scribbling, even while walking down the street. He also, from what Ardsley could glean from Melisande's comments, seemed to disappear without warning, and of late had been coming in smelling vaguely of the river. All that certainly suggested he was doing something with that damming system he'd been sketching. Where and what, though, was a mystery, and he couldn't think of how to ask without arousing suspicions. It was bad enough he'd caught himself more than once seconds from blurting out something that would have been impossible to explain without explaining everything.

More disturbing, he had found himself seriously considering, more than once, just confessing it all. Stranger still, there were times when he thought Melisande checked her own tongue, as if she'd wanted to say something and stopped herself at the last second. He could simply be projecting, and it was easy to do–he didn't remember spending time with someone before when he felt as if they understood exactly what he was talking about, even when he wasn't saying anything. He'd heard of 'companionable silence', of course, but had never before experienced it. Sitting in the Bois, as they had several times since that first picnic, with Melisande resting her head on his shoulder, he found he was utterly content to forget Queen, country, and Gilgamesh Wulfenbach completely and simply relax. It was so pleasant it was disconcerting.

He couldn't afford that. Simply couldn't. Nor, intriguing as it might be, could he be distracted by whatever Sparkish scheme Vanya was concocting, at least not unless it put him or Gil in danger. What he would do if it put Melisande in danger, he found he couldn't say–her, or his cover story? Of course, he was well-trained, it was always possible one didn't necessarily conflict with the other. If it came to saving her, it might be Gil never had to know–

Ardsley shook his head violently. Focus on the task at hand and remember it was a going-away gift, a parting forever sort of present, and all the more reason to make it perfect. He considered the array of tools and materials on the workbench and selected a finer-tipped diamond blade, and a fresh piece of the aqua-tinted glass. The angle had to be extremely precise–

"Ow!" Another tiny sliver cracked off and jabbed him in the fingertip. With his luck, today Gil would want to do something like convert lemon juice into a new fuel-cell component. "Damn and blast." He tossed the cutter back on the table and stuck his wounded finger in his mouth. Theoretically, this should work perfectly. Making the metal frame had been easy. The theory behind cutting the glass at the correct angles was sound, as it had worked on large-scale experimental attempts. But cutting it fine enough, in small enough pieces, was apparently impossible.

He looked around furtively, but there was no one to have heard his frustrated outburst. Several of the worktables were in states of disarray, suggesting whichever students had used them last were . . . typical Sparks, or would-bes, who always assumed there'd be a minion along to clean up the razor-sharp bits of glass, discarded crystals, brass fittings deemed useless imperfections, and notes casually discarded–

He saw one set of notes with familiar Cyrillic handwriting.

It really wasn't proper to go rooting through other students' things, even when they were left lying in the open, and was in fact against the University's official policy. Of course that meant everyone made a habit of leaving decoys and booby-trapped notes to deter everyone else who immediately tried to steal anything not locked away. Ardsley checked carefully for traps and noted the positions of any tools, parts, and motes of dust before carefully lifting the sheets of paper from the table.

The handwriting was Vanya's, he recognized it from the other notes he'd stolen. This time, the metalwork looked more like parts of some kind of clank. There were studies of joints, equations measuring stress, violent scratches through notes that obviously hadn't worked or had just somehow offended the Sparkish ego. And strangely enough, though he was fairly certain the notes were for designing a clank, a machine, some of the pieces certainly seemed to resemble bone, like one drawing that seemed to be half a skull riveted onto a hinge mechanism. The eye sockets were covered with crystals of some sort, and going by the facets they were meant to be focusing devices of some sort. The notes were incomplete, so he couldn't tell if the skeletal additions served any practical purpose beyond making the clanks look more intimidating. Not that they needed much help–one sketch showing an arm, complete with a human ulna, had at its wrist a spinning saw blade instead of a hand. Where did they get their fascination with knives?

Footsteps, none too steady by the sound of them, echoed in the hall, and Ardsley quickly returned the notes to their precise spot on the work table, and turned back to his own project. Not that he was getting anywhere, unless injured counted as somewhere. He could either ask for help, and have to deal with the usual condescension (though at least Gil never quite looked like he wanted to pat the poor minion on the head), or admit defeat and go find some suitable token he could buy for what he could afford. It wouldn't be anything as nice as he'd planned, but perhaps it would be slightly less humiliating.

The door to the lab crashed open, just as Ardsley made it back to his own workbench. He supposed he shouldn't really have been surprised by whose voice he heard, even at this hour of the morning. "And in here, my dear, is the optics lab, which as you can see is totally deserted this time of day–" Gil's sweeping tour interrupted itself. "Except for my friend here. Wooster, what in world–did you fall asleep studying?"

"I was working on something. I assumed the lab would be empty, since most people are asleep at this hour." He looked past Gil, at the latest object of his friend's fleeting affections–another East Indian girl, though not, to his relief, the psychopath with the skull bindi. This girl appeared to be less a pirate than one of the Island of the Monkey Girls' chorus dancers, and she appeared to be duly impressed by the university's labs and Gil's . . . intellect. "It's not going so well. If you two want to . . . have a look around, I'll just pack up and go."

"Working on what?" Gil must not be overly impressed with this girl because he sounded genuinely interested. "Aren't you supposed to be done with class projects and tests?"

"Just a personal idea." He picked up his original, blotted sketches, shaking off the glass shards and handed them over. "It was . . . it was going to be a gift for Melisande, and the principle appeared sound in the large-scale models I made, but when I tried to cut the glass for the smaller size–"

"Yes, yes, I see." The subtle resonance was already starting in Gil's voice. "It's a simple matter of refraction, but for the size you want for this design–you tried using normal diamond cutters, didn't you?" It sounded practically accusatory.

"Naturally." In spite of himself, in spite of knowing, intellectually, it was a typical minion reaction to a Spark, he found himself picking up on Gil's building madboy enthusiasm. "Attempting to fracture it wouldn't create the precise angles–"

"Of course, of course, but you're not thinking small enough!" With a quick sweep of his hand, Gil knocked aside the carefully-selected tools Ardlsey had laid out. "I need a work apron, new sheets–get the two-millimeter Viennese leaded, not this junk. Part of your problem is cheap materials."

"Considering how much it costs, it's supposed to be only for classwork, for advanced students," and he left unsaid "with the Spark."

Gil waved a dismissive hand at him. "So it's for my classwork. If we can build this, I'll just make another and call it an extra-credit project. Get the glass, and microcutters from the biology lab, the ones from the small-scale dissection kit. Oh, and find a vial Dr. Veneficus's Transparent Mercury. And get me some goggles!"

"I'm on it." Ardsley was halfway out the door before he realized he was on his way.

The girl, her very pretty face increasingly marred with annoyance, grabbed his arm as he passed. "Is he going to be at this all morning?" she demanded. "He said he was going to show me the University and then we could have breakfast. In bed." The lilting accent did absolutely nothing to mask the ire.

"When he gets like this? Could be hours." Normally, he would have been a little less cavalier, but Gil's sudden enthusiasm was contagious. "If you'll excuse me, miss." He hurried down the hall, mentally reciting Gil's list of supplies as he went. His own project or not, once there was an anxious Spark involved, it was best not to keep them waiting.

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