Melisande watched down the street, not at all sure this was a good idea. In fairness to Ardsley, he was probably right–at the very least, they ought to know where the entrance to Vanya's underground laboratory was. Whether they decided to give that information to the Master of Paris, to Baba Anya, or to simply lie low and wait until Vanya unleashed whatever it was he was building, information was always important. As they knew, from the notes he'd found, the lab itself was likely underneath the same arrondissement where the Silver Samovar was, and they also knew Katia would be likely be looking for them, so staking out the streets nearby seemed like a reasonable plan.
Sitting out in plain sight at a café, having a leisurely late breakfast, was a bit more exposed than she really thought was wise.
"Easy, my dear." Ardsley reached across the table and took her hand, rather more exaggeratedly than was necessary, but then the gesture was also for the benefit of anyone paying attention, not just for her. "We'll see anyone coming well before they see us." That was for her ears only.
"Yes, my love," and it felt good not to be acting, to see his eyes brighten at the endearment. "Coffee makes me jittery." She took another sip anyway, then nibbled a macaroon. After all the exercise last night, she'd have thought she'd be more hungry, but even the sweet was more than her stomach wanted to address. Food just weighed you down if you had to run.
"As long as you can aim one of those little toys you're carrying if it becomes necessary, we'll be all right." He gave her an admiring glance as he said it, and she knew the admiration wasn't for her sartorial choices but for exactly how neatly those clothes were concealing her weapons. "They can't do a snatch and grab in broad daylight."
"Call me superstitious, but whenever someone brings 'can't' into it, I get very nervous." She took another sip of the creamy coffee. The cup rattled just a little as she set it back in the saucer.
"Well, relax. Try to look as if you're enjoying yourself." He was doing a reasonable approximation of that himself. "It's a beautiful morning, you're in Paris . . . ." He stroked the back of her hand. "And I hope the company is pleasant."
In spite of it all, she smiled. "The best." It was so hard to forget everything hanging over them, that even in the best-case scenario they had less than a week (unless she could talk him out of his mission) before an unavoidable separation. The day would have been much more pleasant without that, even with the potential for murder still present.
"Someday we should come back here," Ardsley said, sitting back (though he kept his hand resting over hers.) "Paris, I mean. Just to come to Paris, no university or . . . work, only cafes and museums and strolling down the boulevards . . . ."
"Sounds like a lovely dream." But maybe, someday, if they should all live so long . . . .
Ardsley straightened in his seat for an instant, before deliberately resuming his relaxed slouch. "Showtime. Coming towards the café, opposite side of the street."
Melisande brushed her hand across the table, sending a serviette floating to the ground. As she bent to retrieve it, she looked behind her, up the street, and blinked. Vanya and Katia were walking up the street on the opposite side from the café, looking like perfectly normal students out for a stroll. At least as normal as a Spark ever looked–Vanya was still lugging his notebooks, but Melisande was more interested in a few spots on Katia's clothing that didn't quite hang the way they should as she moved. Katia carried at least one pistol at the small of her back, one in an ankle holster that snagged her hem every other step, and she was walking with just a slightly wider stride than usual, which told Melisande her cousin was wearing the thigh holster she normally reserved for special occasions. For Katia, that was armed to the teeth. It was flattering, in a way.
She sat up, turning her back and forcing herself to keep her eyes on Ardsley. Not that it was normally a difficult thing to do. "We tail them?"
"Wait a minute." He pretended to fiddle with his coffee cup, and leaned forward as if wanting to have a more intimate conversation. "Let them go by. I'll get up and tail them. Wait five minutes and then follow. Unless they split up, then I'll take him, you follow your cousin."
"Assuming they don't come over to start a conversation." That seemed unlikely, but one never knew. "That would be a bit awkward."
Ardsley caressed her cheek, a gesture that both sent pleasant shivers down her spine and neatly obscured her face if Katia and Vayna happened to look their way. "They've stopped in front of the milliner's. Not looking this way yet."
Melisande leaned into his touch, fighting the ridiculous urge to purr. "If she goes in, they're separating for now. I can't imagine Vanya shopping for hats, and I wouldn't put it past Katia to do it even now. Especially if she told Baba Anya she would go look for me, assuming they know I've gone."
"Such lovely family you have." He sat back just a little, and she sighed, but he kept his hand over hers, at least. "Holidays must be a treat."
"You should see my uncle's idea of an Easter-egg hunt." Mention of her family caused a minor lurch. Would she ever see her parents again? Undercover missions ended, committing high treason meant never going back. Spilling everything to Ardsley certainly counted.
Depending on what Vanya was up to, killing him and Katia might still be a gray area.
"She's gone into the shop. He's walking on up the street. I don't think they saw us." He raised her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss on her palm. "I'm on him. Stay with her."
Ardsley stood up. "Hopefully we'll meet in the same place. And we'll have the drop on them."
Melisande caught his wrist. "Be careful."
He grinned, and it reminded her oddly of Gil. "You, too. Remember, I'm just an enemy agent. With you, it's personal." He turned, shifting his gait and posture to a casual saunter, and set off up the street after Vanya.
Melisande took a deep breath, and began a mental countdown. She gave Ardsley and Vanya two minutes, using the time to finish a macaroon and the rest of her coffee. Then, forcing herself to move casually, as close to normally as possible, she crossed the street and pretended to admire the hats in the milliner's window. It looked as if broad-brimmed touring hats were back in this season. What she couldn't see was Katia anywhere at the counters within. It was possible she was hidden behind one of the displays, blocked from Melisande's line of sight. This meant she'd have to go in, or keep loitering in the hopes Katia came out.
She gave loitering a try for five minutes or so, until she saw a pair of Serpents round the corner. It was likely just a routine patrol, but the Master's crack enforcers made anyone nervous, and she was not interested in attracting their attention any day, let alone now. Taking a deep breath, she let her shoulders relax, put on a pleasant smile, and went into the shop.
"Good morning, Mademoiselle," said the shopgirl behind the counter, bobbing a curtsey as she spoke, "may I help you?"
Melisande smiled vaguely, scanning the shop as if surveying the merchandise. She appeared to be the only customer. "I'm sorry, I thought my friend had come in here. Blonde, wearing a green walking suit? I could have sworn I saw her."
"Ah–I do not think so, Mademoiselle." But as she said it, the girl's eyes shifted nervously towards a curtained door at the back of the shop.
"Perhaps I was mistaken." A back door? Or was Katia hiding in a stock room? She flicked her right wrist and felt the hilt of the throwing knife drop into her palm. "I'll browse a bit. Maybe she'll come back." Pretending to be interested in a display of veiled riding hats, she moved casually towards the back of the store. The shopgirl, she noticed, was fidgeting with a length of ribbon, folding into a rosette and then unrolling it again, repeating the process. Her browsing took her almost to the curtained door.
She saw the movement out of the corner of her eye from the front of the shop, behind the counter, and she had just enough time to realize she'd been tricked when the stun pellet hit. Without any warning, there was no time for resisting the drug, and as her vision turned gray the last thing she heard was Katia's voice, saying "Remember what I said would happen if you breathe a word. This is Serpent business," and the shopgirl sobbing acquiescence. Of course, she had the dead Serpent's badge, knew their procedures well enough to fool ordinary Parisians . . . . Melisande had a fleeting moment to feel like a complete fool. Then gray turned to black and she knew nothing more.