After pulling off four shows in a day, all Alexandra wanted to do was go to her flat and fall into bed.
When she saw the short, goateed man reading a green book in her sitting room, she knew there was no chance of that happening.
“We’ll have to stop meeting like this, Rutger,” she said. “People will talk.”
* * *
Alexandra raised her sequined cat’s-eye to her face and smiled. Her host and escort for the evening, Count Montano, smiled back beneath his Don Quixote and patted her arm. She wanted to throttle the elitist pig, but there were too many witnesses.
Instead, she fingered her pendant necklace and looked over his shoulder for her target. It was hard when everyone was wearing masks, instead of just him. If Rutger had just been blowing smoke with his anonymous tip…
There was a study across the ballroom, flanked by two Guild Guardsmen. That looked promising. Maybe, after this dance, she could get a closer look.
A dark, bullish figure cut through the sea of gossip and color towards them. His face was half-hidden by a wrought-iron knight’s visor, but the lantern jaw beneath was wreathed with an opaque smile.
“Captain Larsson,” Montano said. “What a coincidence to meet you here.”
“There are no coincidences, milord, only fate.” The black knight clicked his heels together, delivered a martinet’s bow. “And who is this charming young lady?”
“Allow me to introduce Miss Alexandra MacGregor, whom I am introducing to society as a favor to Dr. Viktor Ramos. Miss MacGregor, this is Captain Drake Larsson, of the Elite Division of the Malifaux City Guard.”
“Enchanté.” Larsson brushed her gloved fingers with his lips. His eyes, white sparks in his black mask, flickered over her. “Would milady care to dance with a lowly knight?”
The Elite Division…maybe Rutger wasn’t full of it, after all. Alexandra snapped open her fan, fluttered it in what she hoped was a coquettish way, and tried not to play with her pendant. “Why, Captain, it would be my pleasure.”
At least Larsson didn’t dance like a bull. Out of the corner of her eye, Alexandra saw jealous glares cast her way. She smiled. Who knew that one of the Du Bois girls could curdle the cream of City society?
“Are you here to make the other ladies jealous, or is this a business masquerade?”
Larsson laughed. “I’m on duty as part of Secretary Mattheson’s escort. But, since I found you, I think the evening will be considerably more entertaining.”
So, Rutger had been right after all.
“I’d just love to meet Mr. Mattheson,” she cooed. “Where is he?”
Larsson leaned in, and she heard the harsh snort as he smelled her hair. A Union miner would at least ask. “I can introduce you later. Unless you’ve grown tired of my company already?”
With his face buried in her neck, Alexandra risked a tiny grin of triumph. When the dance was ended, she curtsied and excused herself.
Alone in the upstairs powder room, she made certain that no one was around, then lifted her heavy pendant from around her neck. Unlocking its clasp, she unhinged the gold teardrop to reveal a spider’s web of delicate gears and springs. At its heart was something that looked like a milky eye: a soulstone fragment, carefully polished and primed for tonight’s performance.
She closed the pendant, flicked up a hidden knob, and wound the mechanism. Soon she felt an almost inaudible ticking from inside the pendant. Hurrying to an armoire in the corner, she tucked the pendant behind a mass of powder puffs and makeup brushes, then fished a glass vial from her sleeve and downed its clear, tasteless liquid. Almost at once, she began to feel queasy and light-headed. According to Rutger, the chemical would make her convincingly sick, so that she could leave the party early without arousing suspicion. It wasn’t the most comfortable escape plan, but a damn sight better than getting caught in the blast radius.
As she wobbled out to the dance floor, she saw Count Montano open the door for some latecomer and felt a twinge of guilt. The old fool had been nothing but kind to her. Yes, he was a self-deluded sheep who supported the Guild without looking too closely at it, but maybe he didn’t deserve to die with criminals like Mattheson and Larsson.
Then Montano stepped aside, and she forgot about him. Even beneath his grandfather-clock mask, she recognized the latecomer’s hawklike, intelligent features. There was only one person it could be.
“Dr. Ramos arrived, I see. Good.”
She gasped and whirled about in a rush of skirts, tottering on her heels. Larsson was at her elbow, his smile wide.
“The Count invited the good doctor personally, at my suggestion. The society coup of the season, although I rather think that Ramos passing off a Star Theatre trollop as a society maiden might also qualify.”
His hand clamped on her arm like an iron brand.
“Don’t act so surprised. It was easy to spot you. You can take the whore from the brothel, but you can’t take the brothel out of the whore. Now, why don’t we discuss this somewhere more…cozy?“
As he steered her away from Ramos, Larsson made a precise gesture with one finger, and the Guardsmen opened the study doors. Alexandra saw a room lined with books, a crackling fireplace, a shuttered window.
And no one else.
Larsson loomed in the doorway, smiling.
“Yes, I am afraid Secretary Mattheson made a discreet exit after your friend Ramos arrived. Pressing matters elsewhere.”
She bunched her fists and tried to rush him, but the back of his palm caught her cheek and sent her sprawling. Alexandra felt warm salt on her tongue and knew he had split her lip.
“Tell me, ‘milady,’ where is that lovely necklace of yours? Is it some clever device intended to murder the Secretary? Not that it matters; a few rich hedonists is a reasonable price to pay if it finally rids us of Ramos’s interference. And their heirs will donate generously to the Guild to avoid similar Arcanist acts of terror. Although I expect the M&SU will not be quite so generous. As for myself, I believe I shall inspect our men patrolling the perimeter. Just in case the good doctor decides to leave early. Adieu.”
He sketched a mocking bow and closed the door. Alexandra heard the final, hard click of the lock turning.
She stumbled to her feet, the queasiness from her draught competing for attention with Larsson’s backhand. Alexandra paced around the study, passing the bookcases, the fireplace --
She yanked back the shutters, undid the latch, shoved it open. Night air pulsed against her face, making her bruised cheek sting as she kicked off her heels, lifted up her skirts, and clambered up on to the sill.
The walls were built of limestone blocks, thick, rough, and loosely fit together. Alexandra worked her fingers between the cracks and began to climb.
An eternity later, her dress was torn and dirty, the fingertips of her gloves were shredded, and she was panting on the floor of the second-floor library, her arms aching, her stomach heaving.
But she was alive. And she had work to do.
When she slipped out of the library, the soft swish of her skirts sounded like a tidal wave in the silent hallway.
Tiptoeing in her stocking feet, she ducked into the powder room, rummaged through the puffs and brushes until she found the pendant. It felt warm in her palm, almost alive, and its ticking seemed to fill her ears. She could switch it off now. But she didn’t.
Instead, Alexandra rushed back to the library, stuck her head out the window, and peered across the grounds. Lamplight gleamed from the swords and pistols of a wall of Guardsmen outside the gates. She didn’t see Larsson, but the pendant was a burning coal in her hand, and what the hell, that many Guild monkeys all in one place, how could she resist?
She whirled her necklace above her head like a sling, and flung it glimmering into the night.
* * *
A few minutes later, as the panicked, crying guests were being herded outside into new carriages to replace the ones that had been, for lack of a better word, evaporated in the explosion, along with a good squad of Elite Division men, a cat’s-eye mask shared a look with a grandfather clock.
Everything had been set up a bit too neatly. The hint that Mattheson would be here, the pointed invitation to an unusually uninformed Ramos, the escape plan that almost made her too weak to do anything when she learned the truth.
Rutger had turned traitor.
Alexandra waited until Count Montano turned to help a sobbing middle-aged woman, then slipped into the darkened street, the half-melted cobbles still warm on her toes.
The masks were off.
Now, the real dance would begin.
Word Count: 1500 exact!
Ingredients: All! (Okay, "Becoming the Mask" was a bit of a stretch at the end, but I definitely fit the line, the necklace, and the knight in)
Moving on to Arcanists this time...Breaking with my Quill pseudo-tradition, I made a point to not kill the protagonist.