Melisande slipped up to her room that night, avoiding everyone including Baba Anya. She knew she should have been debriefed, or at least gotten Baba Anya's impressions of Ardsley. Most importantly, did that odd edge to his conversation, both during their tea and on the street, mean that he had broken their cover and was now stringing her along? And why did he want to see her privately?
Instead she sat on her bed, the lamp turned down low, hoping anyone who came looking simply assumed she'd gone to bed. Which she had, strictly speaking, but there was little chance of sleep for the foreseeable future. Her nerves were frayed and it wasn't only because of the sudden uneasy feeling that Ardsley suspected something. If he did, it wasn't stopping him from kissing her so hungrily she'd had several very naughty thoughts indeed and had been a breath away from suggesting they find some place, any place, to be alone. It helped save her dignity in that respect that she had very few opportunities to speak, what with being kissed within an inch of her life. By the time they'd paused to catch their breath and her brain caught up with her racing pulse, Ardsley had made his excuses and gone, after seeing her back to the Silver Samovar's door. Now she was still trembling, trying to think clearly and not with the feelings she could no longer pretend were butterflies in her stomach.
If he'd broken her cover, she had only a few choices. Terminating contact was the first and best option. The memory of his mouth on hers, his hands crushing her against him, made it seem decidedly less appealing than it should have. Another choice was to try and openly subvert him. Admittedly her experience was limited but with Baba Anya's help, there was some faint chance he'd be willing to become a double agent. Though after tonight, she found that highly unlikely.
Then of course there was the permanent solution.
Beneath her bed, in a locked case, she had the tools of her trade she didn't especially ever want to use, but with which she was, like any other agent considered ready for the field, at her worst, reasonably adept. Knives for hand fighting and for throwing, a small pocket gun and a larger pistol that could be loaded with stun pellets or with more deadly ammunition, a dart gun that could, likewise, be used to stun or to kill, and a little pillbox with two glass capsules inside. Unlike the other weapons, the pills were meant for her, as a last resort. And in Paris, of course, it was not impossible to acquire other means of disposing of an unwanted problem. Poisons in particular were easy to come by, and given how close they'd become she had a multitude of choices for delivering them–
Melisande stopped herself with a violent shake of the head. No. Not ever. Not under any circumstances could she kill him. Not if it meant a one-way ride to Siberia on her return home. It would have to be one of the other two. Simply never see him, even if it meant leaving Paris suddenly, or to confess all and try and make a better offer than anything Albia had given thus far.
Or . . . that little traitor voice pointed out, there was a true third option. They had meant to play on his affection for her and the harsh reality that England, closed as it was, had a limited pool of marital possibilities and fresh blood was always welcome, to convince him to bring her to England, as wife or simple companion, whichever had seemed appropriate. Why not keep the plan, but . . . alter the terms? Simply . . . become the mask. Never give him any reason to believe the cover wasn't true, cut off her official contacts, and simply be his.
The idea was painfully tempting. Perhaps even telling him–after all, who would understand the life of a spy better than another spy? Defectors were rarely trusted, it was true, but long enough service, or simply agreement to live retired, could sometimes suffice. Married agents were rare, making them often the perfect covers.
All of which, of course, assumed he didn't despise her for lying.
Her stomach hurt, and it wasn't the food. It was probably going to hurt until tomorrow night–at least for once the excuse for skipping lecture would be legitimate. She ached for it just to be over, and knew she was not going to sleep at all. Not unless she went and ran around the entire arrondissement until she collapsed from sheer exhaustion.
Well, when in doubt, there was always vodka. A bit might take the edge off just enough she could get some sleep, and at least not have dark circles under her eyes for Ardsley the next day. Going to the door, she cracked it open and listened, half-expecting Baba Anya to be lurking just outside. Instead the narrow corridor was deserted, the gas lamps dimmed, and she stepped onto the landing quietly, hoping if everyone was asleep, it was very soundly. For a moment, she thought they were, and then she heard the voices. Katia, Vanya, and from the sound of things just coming in. Her stomach and sleeplessness forgotten, Melisande carefully eased down the first few steps, avoiding the one that creaked no matter where you stepped on it, and listened.
"I told you, it won't be ready by then." Vanya sounded more peeved than usual. "The clanks, maybe–"
"I still think it has to be now! Forget the Master noticing, that Brit of Melisande's is suspicious. He's been watching you, you know." Katia didn't sound petulant. That would have been normal. Instead, she sounded cold and collected, far more rational than Vanya ever did. "He's even been asking that Spark friend of his about clanks made from bones." Melisande's eyes widened but she kept herself from gasping.
"How do you know?" Vanya sounded even more peeved, and strangely calm for a Spark.
"That fool? Take him to one of the opium houses and he'll spill anything. I don't know why Melisande's boy is always tagging after him–he is, though. I can't see Gil without finding that . . . spy half a minute behind. Never a moment's privacy. If I hadn't caught him the other night with his hand up my sweet little cousin's skirt when they were 'just saying goodnight' I'd seriously wonder about his tendencies."
Melisande remembered that particularly well. It had taken all the control she possessed not to utterly ruin her cover by kicking Katia through the nearest plate-glass window.
"Why would you want any privacy with this Gil in the first place? I know him from University, he's the worst kind of Gifted. Lazy, selfish, a complete lech–"
"But he is amusing at times, and quite well-funded." Now Katia was taunting him. Strange, Melisande had known they were close, but she hadn't thought lovers, certainly not to the point of Katia rubbing her other conquests in his face. "A girl likes to be taken somewhere besides the catacombs, you know."
"When we're finished you can go wherever you like in Paris." The tremor in his voice was still powerful, even when she was only eavesdropping and was trained to recognize it to boot. "The fools at the University will dance to my tune, and even the Master will not find me so easy to reckon with, either. I'll–"
"Show them all, yes." Katia seemed to know the right tone to soothe the savage madboy. "For the moment I'm more concerned with Melisande and her Englishman. He's nosy and there's something about her I don't like these days."
"You've never especially liked her anyway." Vanya was only stating a fact, though Melisande couldn't help thinking of the old saying that you never heard anything nice about yourself when eavesdropping. "You hate that she's better than you at covert operations, and you hate that your father selected her for the English mission."
"Bah!" Katia still sounded distressingly non-sulky. "Like I'd want her British bookworm. Or to be trapped in some fishtank island until my father saw fit to call me home, playing happy little housewife . . . but I don't think Melisande is playing any more."
"What do you mean?" Like most Sparks, Vanya could be a bit oblivious at times to anything outside his interests.
"I mean I think that mouse has gone and fallen in love with her target. If she hasn't betrayed the Duchy yet, she's well on her way to it. She's probably helping him figure out what it is you're doing. As if the squid wasn't bad enough-"
"That was an accident, if it hadn't gotten loose your Serpent would have been fine." There was nothing sulkier than a Spark being called on his past failures.
"That's not the point," and there was the petulance they all knew and didn't love. "If they figure out what's going on, one or the other of them is going to ruin everything"
"What do you intend for us to do about it?" Vanya sounded coldly competent, a sound Melisande did not like at all. "Kill him?"
Melisande's fists clenched.
"Him? Definitely. Her? Depends on how she takes that."
"Not well." Vanya's tone hadn't warmed any. "Your father might not view our killing her kindly. The Countess Dragomirov would certainly take exception."
"Unless they were convinced that she betrayed us all. Then she'd have to die." Katia's tone suggested she had been considering this for a while, rather than it being a spur of the moment idea. "We'd be doing them a favor."
"And I have wanted to test my newest design against live targets." Vanya simply sounded like any Spark who'd had an idea–dangerous. "Trained agents would be better subjects than first-year students from the university, even if they're more likely to be missed. They'd provide a challenge."
There was a pause. "We'll take them both, then?"
"You can follow her when she meets with him next."
"I can't imagine that will be long." Katia snorted. It wasn't attractive, no matter how pretty her face might be. "If you'd seen them the other night–really, I can't believe how long she's taken to bed him as it is. My father's mistake, sending a scared little virgin to seduce someone."
That stung mostly because it was true. Katia would have been much quicker to wrap Ardsley around her finger, not to mention other body parts–yet Melisande still had the nagging feeling that was the wrong way to reach him. That the waiting was starting to drive her mad was just insult to injury.
"That's your sort of business, not mine. I'd suggest using C-gas, if you have it. Not very subtle but neither will have time to react."
Not until now, we wouldn't. C-gas wasn't subtle, to say the least. But it was fairly easy to screen out if you had time to shield your mouth and nose, or simple breath-holding (another thing she'd out-timed Katia with in training.) Ardsley likely had similar experience, and now he would have advance warning. Stun bullets might be easier to target, but that meant getting the drop on the target. Hard to do when they were expecting you.
"She'll go see him tomorrow, no doubt. I'll keep an eye open and follow. Possibly I'll even manage to catch them in flagrante." That laugh had a prurient sound that made Melisande grit her teeth. "If I can catch them off-guard I won't need anything as obvious as gas. A stun pellet would keep them out for a good hour at least."
"I'll have everything ready." Probably some of the scariest words a Spark could say. "We could just take her now, you know. You think he'd come to rescue her?"
There was just a long enough pause to make Melisande wished she had a weapon. There was an unlit candelabra on the table, meant for emergencies when the gas cut out, and she thought she'd be able to reach it if she had to. Plus, they would be coming up the stairs at her, so she would have the advantage of the high ground. Any commotion would also wake Baba Anya and the servants, too.
Katia seemed to take a while thinking of that. "Quite possibly. He seems like the type to fall for the damsel-in-distress gambit. But if she wakes up and makes any noise then we'll have Anya Leonova to deal with, too. Tomorrow will be better, when she leaves to meet him."
Melisande backed carefully up the steps again, silent as before. She was, of course, meeting Ardsley tomorrow. Even if she managed to lose Katia on the way, it would not be difficult for her to find his flat. She could tell Baba Anya, try to distract them, but Baba Anya was meticulous. She would need to investigate herself. Katia would undoubtedly stall, have some very convincing story about how Melisande had dreamed it or was simply trying to make Katia look bad, and by the time they found Vanya's secret project, wherever he'd hidden it in the warren of sewers and catacombs and death-trap abandoned quarries below the city, for Ardsley at least it might be too late. She had to warn him, but if she waited until their scheduled meeting the chances were well in Katia's favor.
In her room, she stripped off her nightdress, exchanging it for chemise, pantelettes, and corset, and pulled out the trunk beneath her bed, checking to make sure the trap on it was still set before disarming it and working the combination lock. Theoretically there was nothing inside anyone else who lived here didn't already have, but especially after what she'd just heard it never hurt to be cautious. Blades, strapped to wrists and one ankle, an ankle holster for the larger pistol loaded with stun pellets and little pistol at the small of her back loaded with kill shots, the collapsible baton up her sleeve, longer hand-fighting blade in a scabbard between her shoulder blades. Her corset was loose enough to let her move if she had to (she didn't know a female agent who ever really tightened their stays as much as was fashionable) and she opted for her split skirt, buttoning the panels into full legs. Not very ladylike, but far better for climbing.
The sensible thing to do would be to leave without any evidence at all. Any message could be intercepted by Katia and Vanya, but guilt meant she had to take the chance. She could not simply do this without giving Baba Anya some explanation, no matter how vague it had to be.
Melisande wrote the note in English–Katia might be able to read it, but Vanya would not, even if they did find it. It was not especially professional but she didn't have time for codes or cleverness. Am pursuing matters on my own. Inside action forces my hand. If we disappear look to your own house and below it for the culprits. Vague, but hopefully enough.
She didn't dare risk slipping the note under Baba Anya's door, and leaving it in plain sight upped the risk of Katia finding it. She scanned the books lined up on her desk's shelf, and smiled to herself. Passing over the volume of English sonnets and the geography texts (far too obvious), she carefully slipped the note, with just a corner showing, into a textbook of non-intuitive engineering.
Time was up. Melisande looked around the room, allowing herself a brief moment of sentiment. One way or another it was quite possible she'd never see the place again. Fortunately, she'd been prepared for that. Spies weren't supposed to be sentimental.
The small window in her room quietly overlooked the high-peaked roof of the house next door. Melisande slid the sash up–well-oiled, it made no telltale creaks or rattles. She eased herself onto the narrow ledge, balancing silently and sliding the window closed behind her. Pausing, she scanned for any open windows or missed observers taking a midnight stroll. The houses and street appeared as deserted as Paris could be. Taking a deep breath, she focused on her target, the sloping peak of the next roof, and leapt.