Smile and circulate," Irene said through gritted teeth, drawing her skirts back from the blood that had spattered by her feet. She watched the brightly coloured mob in front of her. "It might be messy, but it was only a duel to first blood. It's not as if anyone was killed."
Servants in spotless white and black had come scuttling out like cockroaches to wipe the floor clean and provide fresh cocktails for the onlookers. The height of London's fashion mingled with the cream of its notoriety, assisted by a wide selection of drink and drugs. The chandeliers, sparkle as they might, did very little to light up the corners of the room. Here, the more serious or depraved of the Fae present smoked opium, sipped absinthe, or even discussed the latest novels.
It was, in short, one of Lord Silver's best-ever parties.
"It's not the duel I'm complaining about, it's the calligraphy challenge that started the quarrel," Kai muttered. He hadn't left Irene's side so far this evening, and she was grateful for it. This wasn't a party for them to enjoy: it was one where they needed to be seen. It was a political event and a lion's den. But even here, Kai had his sense of aesthetics. "The choice of ink colours available was completely unsuitable, she should have demanded a steel pen, and frankly the whole thing ought to have been called off until both parties could get better paper. No wonder they came to blows instead of competing as planned. It simply wasn't possible for either to produce work representative of their skills."
"Yes," Silver said, sweeping into place behind them. "I have to admit I'm embarrassed. At one of my parties, anything that a guest demands should be available there and then. I will simply have to lay in better supplies for the future."
"Well, it is the latest thing," Irene answered, trying to calm her heartbeat. She had never been comfortable with anyone mysteriously appearing behind her. And running for her life would be a challenge, in her highly expensive but restrictive silk dress. "I hear it's hit aficionados as badly as the Dutch tulip craze. Remember when everyone had to own the latest bloom? And is it true that there was an ink robbery at Harrods?"
"Your friend the detective would know better than I," Silver said. He was barely six inches behind Irene, and she was painfully conscious of his presence-his height, his warmth, the curve of his lips . . .
Fae were dangerous. Even when they were technically now allies.
She faced Silver, her dress rustling. "Lord Silver. When you invited us, we had expected a smaller occasion. Something more . . ." She considered the word intimate and rejected it hastily. "Discreet."
"You aren't enjoying it?" Silver said, amused. The light from the ether-lamps made a halo of his pale hair, but nobody would have classed him as anything other than the most fallen sort of angel. His shoulders and build-and overly tight trousers-were enough to make anyone think of sin. And the lingering curve of his lips, and glint of his eyes, suggested that he was far more interested in debauching mortals than saving them. He fitted perfectly into this alternate Victorian England as a libertine and man about town; like many powerful Fae, he was a personification of certain types of stories. But the ones that involved his sort of character definitely weren't meant for children. "But you're drinking my champagne . . ."
"It's very good champagne," Irene said, in an attempt to find something on which she could honestly compliment him. Also, there hadn't been anything non-alcoholic on offer. "But as I just said, discreet. There are at least a hundred people here."
The music from the string quartet in the corner speeded up, and a space cleared on the floor. Two guests, a man in stark white and a woman in black, began to tango. At least two possible duels and one assignation broke off, as guests turned to watch and applaud.
"My dear little mouse," Silver said, using the pet name that he knew most annoyed Irene. "You were aware I was going to show off you and your dragon prince to my kind tonight. It might not have been said, but there was certainly an understanding. And your princeling isn't objecting to any of this."
"I'm letting her do that for me," Kai said equably.
In the dramatic lights and shadows thrown by the trembling chandeliers, he had the perfect beauty of a classical statue. His hair was black, with just a touch of blue. His eyes were dark blue, with a hint of underlying fire. And his skin was as pale as marble, but comfortingly warm to the touch. Since his recent selection as dragon representative in the newly built dragon-Fae truce, he had thrown himself into politics. Or at least, he'd thrown himself into choosing the most appropriate clothing for political occasions. Irene had to admit the effort wasn't wasted.
"Agreeable as well as handsome. The perfect partner." Silver's smile made the implication of in the bedroom as well as out of it quite clear, and Irene felt Kai's arm tense under her hand. "Nevertheless, if you want my help in a certain matter, you'll stay at this party for at least another couple of hours."
Irene knew exactly what he meant. She had been named as Librarian representative for this same truce. She would be the mutual point of contact for both Fae and dragon queries and new signatories. And-it was unspoken, but clearly visible in her future-she'd be the person responsible for sorting out any problems. However, the Fae representative had yet to be chosen. And as Silver was on one faction's selection committee (or whatever mechanism they had for choosing a representative), she wanted his assistance.
She sipped her champagne. "I know we're both trying to help each other here . . . Our presence increases your prestige among your own kind. And in return, you could influence the selection of the Fae representative-choosing someone who won't make our lives a living hell." She smiled politely. "However, no one will benefit if Kai or I are killed in a duel on your home ground."
"That won't happen," Silver said categorically.
Irene raised an eyebrow.
"Anyone who challenges you will never be invited to one of my parties again," he clarified. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a tango to interrupt."
Irene watched him go. "It really is very good champagne," she said with a sigh.
"What did Vale say when you asked if he'd show up?" Kai enquired.
Irene couldn't help smiling. "That he found his current researches into ink-smuggling far more rewarding than another pointless party thrown by Lord Silver. He felt he'd already done his bit for the dragon-Fae peace treaty in Paris. And if he did attend, it would be to search the upstairs rooms for evidence of crimes, while everyone else was downstairs. Also, if he had shown up, Mu Dan would have shown up too, an uninvited dragon at a Fae party . . ."
"I don't know why she's spending so much time in this world," Kai muttered petulantly. "As a judge-investigator, surely she's got important business elsewhere. Anywhere elsewhere."
"It's because she wants to recruit Vale to work on some of her cases." Mu Dan had helped Vale and Irene catch a murderer during the signing of the peace treaty in Paris. And she'd been making veiled offers of employment to Vale ever since. "You can't blame her for wanting the best. But don't worry. He's not going to agree." They were both protective of their friend.
Kai nodded. "We should both try to relax," he suggested. "You're prickly because you thought this might be a polite social occasion among neutrals. I'm less concerned because I knew we'd be among enemies."
So much, Irene thought, for the truce. "I live in hope," she said. "We have to start somewhere. And any other generic platitudes that spring to mind."
Kai's eyes narrowed abruptly. "I know that face. What's she doing here?"
"Politics too, I imagine," Irene said. The woman approaching was Fae-and she was a secretary, minion, and cat's paw of one of the most powerful of their kind. "Sterrington, how interesting to see you here."
Sterrington smiled and raised her glass in salute. "How nice to see you both. Stolen any good books lately?" Her dark hair was smoothed back into a low knot at the base of her neck, and her grey watered-silk gown was appropriate to the late Victorian period of this alternate world. Gloves concealed the fact that her right hand was largely cybernetic.
"We've been living quietly lately," Irene answered. "It's been very pleasant. I've actually managed to catch up on my reading."
It had been a relief to have a few weeks in which she was out of danger and able to do mundane things such as move house, renegotiate her relationship with Kai-and even brush up on some of her foreign languages. Acquiring works of fiction for the Library from alternate worlds was her vocation, and her job, but it was rarely peaceful or easy.
"I see." Sterrington's enigmatic smile suggested disbelief, as if Irene had actually been arranging the downfall of monarchs or thefts from imperial fortresses. "How . . . surprising."
"And I'm surprised to see you here," Kai said. "I'd thought that your master wasn't on good terms with Lord Silver."
"If the Cardinal waited to be on good terms with people before dispatching emissaries, he'd never send anyone," Sterrington countered. "Why didn't you visit me in Liechtenstein? I sent an invitation . . ."
Liechtenstein was the major centre of Fae activity on this alternate world. But as such, it was one of the places Irene least wanted to visit. "I must apologise for that, but I would have been . . . uncomfortable. You know we Librarians can't tolerate too high-chaos an environment."
"You managed Venice well enough last year," Sterrington said.
"Yes," Kai said. The faint shadow of scale-patterns blossomed across his cheekbones and the back of his hands, like frost-ferns on a window, and a brief flare of draconic red glinted in his eyes. "Where I was kidnapped by the Guantes. I believe you were working for them?"
"Water under the bridge," Sterrington said lightly. "I thought that under the new peace treaty we were going to be much more understanding . . . about little things like that."
Irene passed her still half-full glass to Kai. "Please could you fetch me some more champagne?" she said quickly.
Kai inclined his head in a gesture not unlike a duellist's salute and stalked off on his errand.
"I seem to have made a strong impression," Sterrington commented. "I can't remember him being that easily offended last time we met."
Irene searched for a way to change the subject. But Sterrington beat her to it. "Would you care for some cocaine? Locally sourced."
"I didn't know you took cocaine."
"I don't, except on rare occasions, but Lord Silver thinks I do. I didn't like to disappoint him." She winced at a clashing noise that almost drowned out the tango. "What is that?"
"Russian sabre dancers." Irene had demanded a look at the bill of entertainments before agreeing to attend. "With tame Afghan hounds."
"No white stallions?"
"They were held up at Customs."
"I'm glad to hear you're not involved in anything more alarming than this sort of affair." Sterrington's elegant gesture took in the scene.
A little warning flag raised itself at the back of Irene's mind. "Is there something more alarming going on, apart from our mutual treaty?" she asked mildly.
"Only the usual," Sterrington said with a shrug. "Deaths, violence, bloodshed, assassinations, murders, thefts. You and I should have a get-together to discuss it all. Have your PA call mine-you do have one, don't you? I can recommend an excellent firm if not." Her tone didn't change, but her eyes searched the crowd as she went on. "By the way, Silver did screen the guest list, I hope?"
"He did," Irene said. She followed Sterrington's gaze as surreptitiously as she could. "But you were waved through, so clearly whoever's checking names at the door isn't as reliable as they might be. Is there a problem?"
"Possibly. Do you see that Fae, the man with the green cravat?"
The cravat in question was a particularly toxic shade of emerald, the sort associated with mambas and poisonous frogs. Otherwise, the man looked average enough-for Silver's parties-and he was within five yards of Kai. "You know him?"
"Know of him. Of course, I haven't met him personally-"
"Get to the point . . ." Irene almost rolled her eyes.
"His name's Rudolf," Sterrington said. "He lost his mother in some business involving a dragon takeover of her world. The Cardinal heard he was planning to publicly revenge himself against the new dragon delegate-and so I dropped by. I suppose desperate people will do desperate things."
Irene's glance swept the room. There was no sign of Silver. And the general press of guests was thick enough that it'd take her at least five minutes to get round the edge of the dance floor, now occupied by waltzers, to reach Kai. "I need your word that you're being truthful about this," she said.
"The Fae have as much to lose as you have," Sterrington said. "Why else would I have bothered to tell you about this? In fact, I think you might owe me a favour for warning you. Can you stop him?"
"Not from across the room." The Librarians' private Language could do a great many things. It could boil champagne, redirect electricity, freeze canals, and generally affect reality. But if it was being spoken, then it had to be audible.
"What are you going to do?"
Not what do we do, Irene noted with an inner sigh. "I'll stop him," she said, and approached the nearest male. "Excuse me, but would you care to dance?"
His eyes widened in surprise. "Ma'am," he began, "this is a most unexpected pleasure, and I can only-"
"Dance," Irene said and forcibly spun him onto the dance floor-in Kai's direction.
"I never dared hope for the honour of your acquaintance, ma'am," her partner began.
But Rudolph was even closer to Kai now-and she saw an opening through the crowd. "You must tell me more about it later."
"Why not now?"
"Because I'm-" She disengaged smoothly and spun round to the next pair. "Changing partners," she finished, hooking the woman out of her partner's arms and shifting her path closer towards Kai.
"Thank you," her new partner breathed, settling against Irene's shoulder. "I've always dreamed of being rescued like that. Did you see where he was putting his hands?"