L’Echelle, the city of balconies and roses, echoed down the canyons of her architecture with the music of imperial revelry. In the topmost level, on storeys of glass as thick as a kneeling gendarme, the magnificent noble creatures of the Diamond Emperor’s court swirled and bubbled in dances like a champagne overflow made of velvet, silk, and good breeding. They clinked their glasses to their own station, delivered practiced remarks on the indistinct misfortune below, and knew that to the groundlings they looked as angels, apathetic and untouchable among the stars.
Mademoiselle Ivette du Brielle, who had developed a habit of closer scrutiny, viewed the world below quite differently.
Between the damask tablecloths pillaged from distant conquered lands and the spray of hothouse chrysanthemums, Ivette counted three men running down the Rue Boucher, visible through the lattice of bridges and balconies; two large brutes in pursuit of a smaller third.
She excused herself au couche, pleading to the minor lord who had been boring her that she was dazzled to exhaustion by his recounting of an unsuccessful hunt. He smiled indulgently and moved off in search of another unfortunate.
Ivette hurried to one of the lower balconied bedrooms and rammed an ornate mahogany chair below the doorknob. She pulled the pins from her talcum wig and searched out the quick-release clasp where her buttress was fastened. Her mountain of skirts fell away, and their pocket and petticoat undersides revealed her arsenal: the red silk mask with its falcon patterns, cut open back so her brown curls could flow free; the grappling hooks, rope, and launching mechanisms; the spider climbing-legs her tailor, mentor, and conspirator had somehow liberated from the guardian constructs that patrolled the walls; five fist-sized flash pots that would burn on exposure to air; a buckler that doubled as a fashionable bit of mid-line accent on her corset; and the delicate epee and dagger she had lashed to her upper thighs, which she had taken to calling Monsieur Menace and Mademoiselle Surprise, respectively. Fashions this year had left her room to arm a platoon if the need arose, and she and her mentor had refined her skirts into the perfect carrying system. She could not sit, but really, who but old dowagers and incurable bores ever sat at an imperial fête?
Ivette knotted the silk rope onto the balcony, below the glass floor overhead and a dozen storeys above the street, and clamped the rappelling device tight into her belt. If she got a good swing from this height and cleared the cross-bridge at forty feet, she could put herself down near the last covered alley before the river in time to put the two bruisers down before too much harm was done. Or exact vengeance, she supposed, which hardly made for as storied an exploit, but what could one do?
She twisted out over the railing, taut against the rope, her toes pointed like a ballerina. It was a funny thing how the same dance twice at a party bored her, but even the hundredth time, this lean-out over elegant suicide sent her heart up into her throat. She had to move fast, before the spider constructs that patrolled the walls noticed the rope. Those diamond-fanged guardians patrolled the walls for ladders, grappling hooks, or any other ambitious mechanisms of ascension, and the playhouses were full of the tragedies of noble lovers who had lost their lives attempting to dangle below their station. The constructs knew only to cut.
But Ivette was not going for anything so maudlin as love. She hunted the headier prize of unparalleled thrill.
She pushed off the balcony and the rope screamed through the gears of her rappelling harness. She pointed herself like an arrow and swung into the canyon of the streets. It was glorious. A passing priest on the cross bridge threw himself to the cobbles as she swooped through the space where his head had been two steps before. She blew a kiss as she passed. He needn’t have worried. She was far more elegant than that.
The ground rushed up toward her and she squeezed the mechanisms on her belt. Time distended itself as her fall slowed vertically but not horizontally, and she hit the black sponge of the unpaved street running, her epee in her hand before she skidded to a halt outside the alleyway. Her quarry was still in sight, not yet lost in the maze of make-shift shanty towns under the struts and braces of the city. Instead, the two toughs had backed their prey into a corner between load-bearing walls. Efficient for them, and lucky for her.
“Brigands!” she yelled, a practiced depth disguising her coquette’s voice though not her noble accent. “Did you think you could rob and murder under the watchful eyes of the Crimson Kestrel?”
Chittering whispers sounded above, as peasants and low merchants recognized the name and gathered under the eves and on the rope bridges, ready for a show. Ivette kept her eyes on the movements of the two thugs, but she doffed her cap with a free hand and waved it to the applause of the people.
Her quarry turned, indeed bruisers both of them, thick-limbed and looking as strong as pachyderms. Tramplers in a fight too, she wagered, fast enough for a good rush, but she could tell by the way they waddled on those load-column ankles that they lacked the speed to turn or dodge. Not that it would matter terribly in the tight corridor of the alley.
But the crowd above were not the only ones who knew her reputation. The two brutes’ unshaven jaws clenched and they glanced between each other. It was getting now so that many of the ruffians panicked and broke instantly at the presence of le Eschell’s avenging angel. The smaller, third man cowered back against the wall. She offered up the predatory smile of a lady who has caught her rival in last autumn’s fashion.
“Surely you miscreants aren’t thinking you’ll run away and deny me the satisfaction of thrashing you, since I’ve come all this way?” She waved Monsieur Menace in a casual arc.
For the length of a lover’s gaze it seemed like they would stumble a retreat, but the closer man lowered his head with a roar and barreled toward her. Tramplers, she’d known it. She was out of his way and pressed fast against the wall when the second one started his run. That one, she was ready for. She slid back quick as a cat, dropped to crouch and kicked hard against his ankle, where her mentor had showed her. His leg caved with a satisfying crunch, and his pinwheeling arms did not stop his face from smashing against the wall where she had been.
Ivette danced out of his crash with a satisfied flourish as the first charger bellowed and turned back to her. His fists pistoned the air around her dodges, and she slapped the thin flat of her epee against his forearms, drawing welts and stinging lines of blood. She tapped a K and the beginning of an E into his arm. Why had the cow of a man not quit yet? She would rather not have to kill him.
She looked into his face and caught an ugly, intelligent grin. He threw another punch, wider than the others, and she dodged it only to realize too late that his target was not her head, but her hair. He wrapped his fingers in it and yanked her down, hard, bringing her down on one exquisite red knee. She hoisted Menace toward the arm, sharp end this time, no more playing, but she was off balance and too close, and he caught her small hand in the expanse of his. Her tailor had warned her time and again about the hair, had even demonstrated the hold, but Ivette had refused to let sense trump good fashion.
And she had made the deadly mistake of underestimating an opponent.
“That enough of a game for you, girlie?” the big man growled. His breath stank of old meat. Behind her, the second thug groaned up to a semi-crouch, clutching his bleeding face. In seconds, they could kill her, or worse.
This was why she called the dagger in her boot Mademoiselle Surprise. In one red flash she pulled it with her free hand and drove it into the wrist that gripped her sword. The man holding her let go and staggered back at the free and swinging blade. She pulled the dagger back and threw it hard into the arm of the man struggling to rise. He rolled away with a howl. In truth it would not be enough to stop him if he put his mind to beating her, big as he was, but it was enough to make him fear her, and he was fleeing as she put her epee’s point under the chin of the man who’d held her hair.
“You have three seconds to make the smart choice,” she growled. She could hear the silence as the bloodthirsty crowd held their breath. The bandit made a choking sound.
Ivette could no longer hear the footfalls of his running accomplice. The man swallowed, and the sword point drew a wet ruby from his adam’s apple.
“Two,” she said, but he had already turned and fled.
The crowd cheered and whistled. Someone threw anemic little underflowers to her and she blew an indiscreet kiss. She’d have to replace her dagger, but by the time the story reached the Imperial Court, it would probably be a gang of a dozen that the Crimson Kestrel had taken down. She pried herself from her public to inspect whoever she happened to have rescued.
Her heart stopped in her chest.
The denizens of the lower levels always had a patina of mud and detritus, and the foreign and colonial merchants were little better, their film of grime compounded by their distasteful bourgeois ambitiousness. This man was immaculate; doe-brown hair finely trimmed and coiffed, wearing a delicate perfume of roses, wine, and something else subtle, unnamable and intriguing. The smooth angle of his jaw suggested he could have grown a beard but elected to keep his face so smooth it must feel like silk, and she found her hand twitching to confirm with a touch. His dark green clothes were not ostentatious, but any well-bred eye could apprehend the skill in every stitch. He wore a signet ring and a gold chain at his throat. It was no surprise his pursuers had come after him, but they must not have truly understood what they were chasing. His eyes were the wide, sweet, extravagant brown of imported chocolate, and his lips....
Ivette realized she was staring and raised a hasty hand to check her mask.
“This is hardly the place for... one such as you.” She felt her hips swing a bit more than necessary as she stepped toward him. She did not sheathe her epee.
“Nor one such as you, mademoiselle.” She could see his hands shake, but his voice sounded smooth and elegant as smoke, the way cultured men were meant to sound. “But I am lost in a strange place, and you seem to know your way... intimately.”
Ivette pointed Monsieur Menace at his chest and thrilled at the way his eyes widened as he stepped back.
“I have three demands,” she said.
The stranger bowed, as one courtier to another, no less schooled and subtle than she had expected. “I am clearly at your mercy.”
“As a lady in the presence of a man of breeding,” she said, loud enough to provoke jeers from above. “I demand suitable flattery.”
His delicious lips fell open in confusion. “I....” He frowned, and the shift from a private demeanor to an actor on a stage seemed to cost him verbal footing.
She gave her head a coquette’s tilt as she rolled the point of her sword over his heart. “Really, monsieur, I begin to feel most neglected. At this rate I shall soon decide you don’t like me at all.”
“Hardly possible!” he replied, and this time his bow was sweeping as any harlequin’s. Did he dabble in playcraft as well? “I can honestly say, of all those who have ever threatened me with death, yours is by far the hand I would least like to die by.”
“That’s not much of a compliment.” Ivette let her weapon sag slightly in disappointment.
“Mademoiselle, if I die here, even the gardens of heaven will seem a wasteland for knowing how long I must wait to see you again.”
For a moment she had no rejoinder and did not move except to draw a fluttering breath. The groundlings cheered encouragement and his smile widened, like a fencer gloating over a clean hit.
“You had two more demands?” he whispered, leaning in slightly.
Ivette flicked her epee up, caught the fold of his kerchief and launched it into the air like a silk butterfly. She plucked it from the air in a single graceful movement that brought her half a step closer. “As your rescuer, I’d say I’m entitled to a token of your favor.”
“Of course.” He licked his lips and pursed them slightly, as if in anticipation. Cheeky bastard, Ivette thought. “And... the third?”
She stepped closer. The air around him smelled like roses. “As the person with the sword,” she purred, “I’ll be taking your jewelry.”
He staggered in surprise, the groundlings cackled, and Ivette felt her mask digging into the edges of her grin. “That’s what you get for presuming,” she whispered. He gave her a small shake of the head and a smile that looked impressed as he denuded himself of the gold chain and ring, his fingers brushing hers as he dropped them into her hand. She would look at his signet later, when she could do it less obviously. He was close enough to rush her, if he chose, but she did not think he would. She could not deny, however, the way the thought of the weight of his body pushing her back against the wall made her pulse quicken. She stepped back and swept her sword at the crowd in something like salute.
“Take this man to the stair gate on Rue Vanite and present him to the guards,” she said. “Do not mistreat him. He is under my protection.” She dropped her voice and whispered sincerely, “can you make it yourself from here?”
“Odd question from a robber,” he said, but there was no sting in it. His perfect mouth had posed up into a wry grin she suspected served him well with the ladies.
“It was a dance. Who can wish ill to someone they’ve twirled with?”
He dipped his head in acknowledgment, and she kissed the air in his direction. “Welcome to L’Echelle,” she said, and threw down a flash pot. She set off at a practiced run, scooping up her rope from where it had fallen, the end cut smooth by the patrolling constructs above. They never wasted much time. She ducked into an alleyway and listened for the sounds of pursuit in the chaos. No one seemed to be following, but she could hear the sounds of several of the low folk helping the young man to the stair gate, where he could make his case to the guards that he should be somewhere safer, cleaner, and more stylish. She flipped the ring up in her finger. Du Lambert; noble, but unfortunate. Still, it meant she would likely see him again.
She pushed her way through the twist of trash-strewn alleys to one of the chimney passages, nestled behind an abandoned church. These holes, smooth by design, slick with the moisture and smoke of a human city, and full of overhangs and sharp curves, were, despite intuition, the best way up. Ivette opened a bag and drew forth the best of her tools: three modified spider constructs of the kind that guarded the outer walls, fitted with straps for both her hands and one of her knees. She had no idea how her mentor had secured them, but she would have been lost without them.
As soon as she touched the wall they secured, as if hooked into invisible cracks, and began to mindlessly ascend, propelling her back to where she belonged—to a white powdered wig and jealous soiree guests who would be sure to remark on her fashionably long absence.
The old tailor woman turned the ring over in her long fingers, and the wrinkles around her mouth deepened in a frown. Ivette tapped her foot.
“It’s a fake,” the old woman said.
“Surely not!” Ivette’s turn was sharp enough to dislodge the rainbow samples of silk pinned to her petticoats. “Old Madame du Lambert acknowledged him as her nephew from Des Forets—she’s even throwing a party in his honor! And it must be him, for he’s recounting the whole affair quite accurately.”
The tailor sniffed. “I’d heard the words ‘exquisite red angel of vengeance’ were used.”
The woman gave her a severe look. “I also heard they grabbed your hair.”
Ivette hunched her shoulders and declined to answer. The tailor tossed her back the ring.
“It’s a fake. Shoddy etching, and all the du Lambert rings have an interior divot to guard against forgeries. This does not. His story is probably more credible with it stolen. Think, girl.” She tapped her chin, seeming to talk to herself as much as Ivette. “Du Lambert rarely leaves L’Echelle, and this ‘nephew’ of hers is a young man. An imposter would have only to bear a passing resemblance to some gangly child she ignored at a sister’s garden party years ago.”
Ivette stewed. Her tailor was right of course, but it galled her that the woman should take such liberties in speaking to someone so far above her station. But then again, this was the woman who had taught her to use a sword, to swing through the sky, to read the muscles in an opponent’s stance; who knew her secrets and furnished her her tools. Ivette would have had none of it without her. “Why impersonate a du Lambert at all?” she said, giving in and breaking the silence. “It’s well known Madame has run through all her money, and she’s getting too old to seduce anyone to pay for her ghastly party gowns.”
The tailor tapped her teeth. “She must have something he wants.”
“What possible thing?” Ivette attempted to look as petulant as possible, but it was hard not to feel a thrill at the mystery of it.
“I suppose that’s what we must learn. All we know now is he is a liar and a cheat. Possibly even a danger to the Imperium itself—”
“He’s not!” Ivette retorted, with more passion behind the words than she’d intended. The tailor looked at her and she shook her head. “A liar and a cheat, maybe, but I am certain he is not so vile as to threaten the Empire. I cannot imagine him engaging in rebellion, or sedition, or....”
The old tailor picked up her shears and spun them like scimitars, and not for the first time, Ivette wondered who she was, really. How many secrets about the rings of noble houses and the workings of guardian constructs did she possess? Why had she mapped out the chimneys and taken an apprentice noble girl? Was she one of the Imperium’s secret agents? An old privateer gone into hiding? Was she, despite her cultured poise and her knowledge of the noble houses, from somewhere outside the Diamond realm?
The tailor gave her a warm smile as she chalked out the lines for a skirt for du Lambert’s ball, and one part of Ivette’s soul warmed as if her grandmother had brought her a warm plate of petite chou. A smaller part reminded her she had entered into a bargain with this strange woman, and nothing had been asked in return... yet.
The metal arms of the old woman’s scissors closed around the thick red fabric, leaving one half neatly severed from the other. “My dear,” she said, with a grin full of teeth that seemed sharp in the candle light, “you’re going to look ravishing.”
The du Lambert emblem was the blue hyacinth, so Ivette came in imperial rose red. The fête, such as it was, was cramped and wretched, the estate’s larger ballroom having fallen into disrepair beyond Madame’s financial means to rectify. The smaller ballroom opened to a wide balcony vista of the honeycomb of petty nobility estates below the Emperor’s storey; as much a shaded porch as a true hall.
Du Lambert’s aging intimates composed the bulk of the guests—old men of the trade companies with gold canes, and generals of the last war stooped under the weight of pressed uniforms and fading medals so that they shambled like peasants under a heavy yoke. Ivette danced with a few of these out of pity— General Troussard in particular, with his clouded eyes and his embarrassing gratitude at her touch. What few young people du Lambert had managed to draw in were low bores, dutiful grandchildren, and total society unknowns, with two gentleman even having come in suits with black mink collars that looked like they had been locked in a trunk since before the Croviata embargo—unpatriotic, and worse, unfashionable in the extreme.
Her quarry was now late well beyond the indulgence of style, though du Lambert herself was mercifully absent as well. To tide her guests, she had hired patisseries, jugglers, magicians, and poets to entertain the crowd. Ivette received a villanelle comparing her to the red gardens of pagan gods, wilderness and divinity barely contained by walls or dresses. The poet wrote it on a slip of paper which the magician, without touching her, made appear from the curls of her wig. Much as Ivette hated to credit du Lambert with anything, her stalling entertained far better than her presence.
It was not to last. Ivette flinched as the crowd went silent and du Lambert appeared at the head of the steps in a powder blue confection of ribbons and frills that would have stretched good taste on a debutante at her first presentation, never mind a lady of du Lambert’s advanced years. The makeup meant to make her look untouched gave the pallor of a drowned woman, and her breasts were buttressed up so high as to lie flat like a shelf of flesh. Surely she must know better, Ivette thought. The august noble ladies of the Imperium were formidable as sharks in their own right, snapping up what beautiful men they pleased through practiced wit, experience, and position. None of them sank to such grotesque parodies of youth.
Still, the old men muscled themselves to attention, trying to be young soldiers for this woman who was trying to be a young maiden.
Ivette retreated from the spectacle to a table full of strawberries dipped in white chocolate to hide that they were past their prime.
“It’s hard to let go of,” said a smooth voice behind her. She whirled and came face to face with the ‘nephew’. How had he gotten so close without alerting her? A man who could do that should not have been at the mercy of back-alley thieves. He raised a champagne flute to his lips and smiled. “Their youth, I mean. Can you blame them for wanting it back.”
Ivette thrust out her chin. Was this pretender trying to call her out on her moral status? “I’m a noble lady of the Imperium, monsieur,” she said, turning as if his presence barely held her attention. “I think you’ll find I can blame as I like.”
“And do quite any number of things you like as well, I assume.” His dress coat and his smile were both of a perfect cut. His voice was a whisper, not for the stage now, just for her. He held out a hand. “Will you dance, Mademoiselle?”
“Monseuir, I would be enchanted.” She took his hand and let him lead her out. He twirled her at the edge of the balcony, by banks of potted hyacinth, over the killing drop. His steps were light and purposeful; his movements had the grace of hard training. A soldier? A spy? One of his warm hands cradled hers as the other crept into the valley between her skirts and her corset. She parted from him as the dance demanded, but always they came together and her heart quickened. She turned her face away as if watching the shambling crowd and tried to affect an air of cultured disdain. Old Troussard was gone at least, the poor thing.
“You don’t seem as impressed with me as I am with you,” he whispered, his hand drifting rather more boldly than was proper and dangerously close to her skirt’s quick-release. She clucked her tongue at him.
“It’s only that I find it frightfully crass when people presume things to which they have no claim.” She gestured around the room with a slight nod to their host. “Ages, fashions... names.” She gave him a knowing smile, enjoying both the dances. Let him try to make excuses here, in a crowded room. Let him try to guess how she knew.
His grin was sharp and fine as a knife. He brushed his lips close to her ear and added: “...jewelry.”
For a moment she wondered what he was talking about, then the realization hit her like upward rushing ground. He drew up into a proper dancing stance and twirled her again, his manner betraying nothing but the joy of a delighted party guest. His eyes were keen and perfect, his body warm and graceful.
“I’d like my ring back, my little bird of prey. I don’t think you’d enjoy explaining to the party why you have it.”
Ivette felt as if she were dangling over the balcony again, this man and his arms around her more dangerous than any drop. It felt glorious. No masque had ever been this thrilling. She affected a laugh no less joyous than his.
“You have me at a disadvantage! You know who I am, but I haven’t even so much as your name.”
His eyes scanned the fête and he danced her toward a less populated alcove. “Of course you have it. Alexandre du Lambert. This party is in my honor.”
“No, no, my dear sir, I mean your rea-mph!”
His lips were over hers before she finished the word; a warm, delicious indignity. Her plays at pushing him away were more show than force, as well as a fine excuse to have her hands against his chest. His lips, soft as she had imagined, tasted of strawberries and champagne. The kiss obliterated all that had come before, and when he broke for breath and explanation she almost pulled him back down into it.
“Listen,” he whispered, close and urgent, all seriousness now and none the play that had captivated her before. “You can scream or slap me if you want propriety, but please, it’s important and I’m begging of you, on my soul and your loyalty to the Emperor, say nothing of it, if only for tonight.”
She her eyes were on his lips, and it took a few seconds before his words penetrated the warmth in her face. Loyalty to the Emperor? Was he a spy? It explained the ruse, but what could old Madame du Lambert have worth investigating? And why the lie of being her relation?
Think, girl, the tailor had said, but thinking was hard now, with his lips so close and murmuring pleas.
Then in a moment his posture shifted, suddenly nervous, his shoulders dipped in worry. When Ivette followed his eyes, Madame du Lambert in all her hideous childlike frills was nowhere in the crowd.
“I have to go,” he whispered. “I’m unspeakably sorry.”
“Alexander” bowed a hasty apology and pulled himself away without another word. A few of the dutiful granddaughters tittered at her behind their fans, and one elderly maven gave her a disgusted look in between dance steps with a much younger colonel.
Ivette fumed. There was no way to follow him with any dignity after his kiss and departure, and wherever he had gone, it surely had to do with the matter at hand. She felt the weight of her blades below her skirts and flounced in the other direction, playing the spurned paramour. If she hurried, she was sure she could find him from the outside.
“Alexandre” had left the party when he’d noticed du Lambert gone, and so Ivette headed first to the old woman’s personal balcony, sliding as easy as a slow waltz under the great terrace of the ballroom with the help of her spider leg apparatuses. She tensed when the cutter constructs scuttled by, scissor mouths poised to defend the integrity of the upper levels, but she had come across them before, and as long as she wore the husks of their brethren on her hands and knee, they seemed to accept her as one of their own.
Madame’s bedroom suite was below the ballroom and out of the view of the guests, a common arrangement that let the host and any special guest slip away for privacy without giving up the free air of the vertical streets. Ivette unlatched one hand from the construct and drew her epee, moving as close as she dared to the balcony doors.
Immediately, she regretted the choice. Madame du Lambert reclined on a couch in the suite, exercising her questionable wiles on the old General Troussard. He shook and fawned, and she giggled like a girl of ten.
“Oh my big strong buck, my war hero,” Madame cooed, and Ivette turned away before she could reveal herself with an unladylike gag, but Madame’s next words brought her back. “Were you able to lay hands on it? Did you bring it to me?”
Ivette held herself still above the side windows, beside a spray of bright wisteria. She could see them in profile, and the general looked pained and shrunken as he reached below the curtain of medals that granted him access to the troves of treasure he had won expanding the Empire. He drew out a cut diamond so large it seemed his old hands held a lantern full of unmitigated starlight.
The Reve d’Eternite; the centerpiece of the Imperial collection. She had seen it before, at palace fêtes, always guarded and behind glass. It was worth more than all of du Lambert’s estates and hers combined.
What could du Lambert have that would interest an Imperial agent indeed? Her fingers tightened around the hilt of Menace.
From somewhere near her window, a door burst open. Had “Alexandre” begun his arrest without her? Ivette ducked her head back and listened as two heavy boot treads passed her. No, not him. She spied back through the glass. It was the two young men in the old, unfashionable mink.
No, she realized, looking closer at the coats, not old. No wear, none of the lines of long storage. The coats were an old design but newly made, with embargoed furs, and she could see the faint lines of long, curved knives underneath—those of the Croviata Regent guard.
Ivette circled the window, gaining the high ground for a charge. To steal the Emperor’s treasure was one thing, but to sell it to the Empire’s enemies? There could be no forgiving it.
The old general made a strangled noise and brandished a chair at the closer of the two men, while du Lambert retreated behind the other with the gem clutched in her powdered claws. In a movement so quick and casual it looked like he was swatting a fly, the Croviat splintered the chair with one fist and slammed the other through poor Troussard’s blinking face. The general’s medals jangled like bells out of tune as he plowed backwards, skull-first into the carved cherubs of du Lambert’s bed post. Ivette did not think the cracking sound came from the wood. Du Lambert gave a little cry, but she righted herself and placed her hand on the arm of the Croviat screening her.
“I truly am sorry, my Love,” she said to Troussard, and almost sounded it. “But I’m going to live like an Empress.”
Ivette could not tell if the old man shuddered from weeping, or if it was only the throes of an ignominious death. She kissed Menace’s hilt and promised make them pay for it. The old general was guilty only of theft and love. He’d never intended treason.
And yet. These were not alley thugs she could thrash without breaking a sweat. These were a trained military elite. Professional killers. Men who could break her like a naïve heart.
One of the Croviata was dragging something from a corner of the room that Ivette could not see—probably a chest heavy with du Lambert’s blood money. Ivette measured the stance of the other one, calculating if she could take him out by surprise before the two of them could get around either side of her; then all at once she noticed a crack in the far door that had not been there before.
“Alexandre” caught her eyes and gave her a wink as he drew his sword and threw the door open.
“I think not, du Lambert!” His voice and sword were both steady and steel.
Idiot! Ivette thought, but at the same time she wanted to bury him in kisses as if he were the hero of some foolish opera. All eyes turned on him, and du Lambert’s Croviat drew his crescent moon knives and advanced. So much for catching that one by surprise. “Alexandre” parried the first of the man’s crushing blows, but it knocked him back. Ivette did not think he could survive many more, and the other Croviat had drawn his weapons as well and was advancing from the side.
Ivette kicked off the wall and let the force of the spin around the tether of her remaining spider glove send her crashing through the window. The construct claws on her knee caught du Lambert in the back of her atrocious gown amid the shower of glass, and the old woman crumpled, crying out. Underneath her, the Reve d’Eternite skittered across the marble floor, followed quickly by two of Ivette’s flash pots.
“Eyes!” she barked, and “Alexandre” threw his arm up in time to shield himself. Neither of the Croviata did. From around the corners of her gloves, Ivette caught a squinting glimpse of the flash of light cut and magnified by the enormous diamond in burning rainbows on the bedchamber walls.
She did not wait for the closer Croviat to recover but laid into him from behind, knowing she would not get a second chance. Even dazed and half-blind, he was almost fast enough to avoid Menace cutting a canyon into the flesh of his arm. His rejoinding elbow in the close quarters sent her staggering, breathless, backwards into an armoire full of ghastly hosiery. She gulped for air and brought Monsieur Menace up just in time to slow his thick knife enough to dodge. She thought she saw “Alexandre” start toward her, concern on his face, before the other Croviat cut him off from view.
Somewhere on the edge of the chaos, du Lambert was blubbering about plans and wastes.
Ivette fought her lungs back into functioning as she dodged blows that left hand-deep gouges in Madame’s furniture. The Croviat’s bleeding arm slowed him down, but he was still able to drive her away from the middle of the room. She bent for Mademoiselle Surprise; his arm came up in a swipe that took away a red sliver of her hat and sent her dancing back into a corner flanked by disturbingly coquettish portraits of Madame.
No, this would not do. She was faster on her feet, but he had the reach, even with the length of her epee. She needed freedom to move, and the cluttered bedroom was not the place.
And if need be, with the spider legs still raking at the air on her knee, she was almost certainly more dexterous on the walls. She jabbed in hard and reckless with Monsieur Menace and feigned terrified surprise as the Croviat batted her aside toward the balcony. His eyes compressed with murderous intent, and the predation in his grin leeched away the thrill of combat. Her trained rational self knew intimidation was only another tactic, an attack not on her body but on her mind, but her instinct thrashed to run, screamed that death was the least of the things the lumbering tough could inflict on her.
She fought it down and raised her sword to block, letting him push her back toward the balcony rail and the plummet beyond. There was nothing in her vision now but him and the bleeding swings of his blade.
From behind him, she heard du Lambert cry out and the sickening, choking sound of blood spilling across the floor, bubbling up as from a cut throat. The old woman wept. It was the sound of someone dying.
And with that all the thought went out of her fight. The quailing inside of her became something more visceral, more powerful than fear. That these pretenders, traitors, and foreigners could come into the heart of everything elevated and beautiful; that they could pluck the crowning star of the Emperor’s treasure; that they could seduce and befuddle old heroes; that they could take the romance of her escapades and turn them into pain and danger; and worst of all that they could destroy so perfect a work of living art as the man pretending to be Alexandre du Lambert. It was a travesty beyond the bounds of reason, and one that demanded an answer in steel.
Her swings were wild in truth now but with all the force of her body behind them. The Croviat’s eyes widened and he fell back as she railed into him with the steel needle of Menace. He regained his footing and shoved back at her, the long curve of his knife reaping the lace at her neck and leaving a long, shallow cut across her cheek and into the fabric of her mask.
There was no going back to the party now.
The Croviat pressed her, stronger, bigger, kept at bay only by her fury and her speed in a balcony space that was quickly running out.
“Kestrel!” came a voice behind the Croviat. “Duck!”
Ivette hit the floor.
“Alexandre”, his face covered in blood, barreled full force into her attacker. The Croviat stumbled across her back, his arms outstretched like useless wings, and pitched over the shallow railing, “Alexandre” still on his back, wisteria and hyacinth blossoms spraying like fireworks above the chasm of the street.
The Croviat’s thick fingers flailed at the balustrades before he caught a bloody hold. Ivette snapped herself up to the rail and finally breathed again as she saw “Alexandre” below, dangling with his feet over the drop and his arms around a bit of decorative flourish carved in the face of a beautiful lady of the court.
All along the wall, there was a sudden silence as the guardian constructs, like great clockwork spiders, honed in with mindless mechanical determination on the two intruders climbing above their station.
“Hold on!” Ivette cried down to him, her fingers working the grappling mechanism as fast as she ever had. “I’m coming for you.”
The Croviat hauled himself up and got his elbow around the balustrade. He reached a hand up to Madame’s balcony rail.
It was him that the constructs reached first.
Cutting fangs as sharp as diamonds bit into the fingers that held the railing, and Ivette turned her face away from the pops of blood and the crunch of small hand bones. The man slid away, slick, and screaming out in his native tongue, his voice echoing blasphemies up the tall indifferent walls of the city of roses and balconies for what seemed like an eternity before the hard and inevitable silence.
She secured her rope against the statuary above the door. Half of the spiders turned toward it, and the other half to “Alexandre” struggling below. She had no time.
She leapt from the balcony, the rope burning her fingers as she juttered to a fast stop with her back to him. “Hold on to me!” she snapped. “Do it now.”
One arm went around her neck, the other about her waist, and his head was buried in her shoulder when she felt them cut the rope.
But by then, she had the gloves on.
The free-fall drop, suspended from nothing, sent her heart up into her throat. His muscles tightened around her, warm, desperate, full of trust. She put out her hands, and the claws, meant only to carry one person from a state of standing, screeched and screamed in protest as they gouged the marble sides of the chasm. Her shoulders felt like fine fabric stretched to tearing, and the jolt of slowing knocked them both hard into the walls.
But it worked, and by the time they had fallen to one of the middle levels they were moving down at a pace such that she could direct them onto a darkened balcony. “Alexandre’s” feet touched the tiles first, and the arms that had clung to her for life turned into gallant support as she slumped, arms burning. She turned her head and caught him in a long, deep kiss that held no reservation or propriety.
When she finally pulled away, his look was one of wonder and surprise that seemed the most genuine thing she had ever seen in all her years among the poised and practiced darlings of the court.
“Thank you,” he said, as he helped her to her feet, though she could not say if it was for the kiss or for saving his life. She supposed it didn’t matter.
“It is a patriot’s greatest pleasure to assist an agent of the Emperor,” she returned, setting her chin as became a woman of the aristocracy. Her knees were still weak under her, her arms quivering from the shock of the fall, but she was a lady, and she knew how to look like one, under any circumstances.
“Agent....” He looked, for the briefest moment, confused. Then he laughed. His smile was a work of art. “Yes,” he said after a moment, reaching into his breast pocket, “about that.”
Between his soft fingers, the Reve d’Eternite sparkled like conquest in a lover’s eyes.
Ivette’s jaw dropped. Not an imperial agent? She tried to recover. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadva—mmph” she began, but he cut her off, for the second time that evening, with a kiss.
“They’ll be missing Mademoiselle Ivette du Brielle up there,” he whispered into her ear, and she thrilled at the feel of his breath against—
Then, without a warning, he was off and running. She straightened her mask and brushed a bit of blood from her cheek, in order to grant him a few extra moments’ lead. He’d earned that when he pushed the Croviat for her. Perhaps she’s catch him, or perhaps he’d escape.
Either way, the chase would be glorious.