The Marquis arrived at the party without fanfare or announcement, as was his custom, except when he was announced with great fanfare to make everyone stare and either avoid him or try to crony up to him or, and there was always one who attempted it, tried to pit themselves against him in a match of wits and civility. It was entirely a matter of opinion - his - whether or not the caller introduced him to the crowd. Tonight he slipped in and leaned against a pillar as though he had always been there, waiting for everyone to realize his presence and then exclaim, in every case, Oh! I didn't even see him come in.
"Quite the crowd we have tonight."
Lord Portico would never be so crass as to point out another esteemed member of the peerage sneaking around, so he pretended the Marquis had always been there and he just now chose to come up and speak to him.
He smiled, ivory teeth against black-as-night. "Everyone of note from London Below, and even some who aren't."
"Aren't of note or aren't from London Below?" Lord Portico chuckled, knowing that both were equally true. Carabas cleared his throat and said nothing to either. They watched the multi-, parti-, and brightly-colored folk drift in and out of the dancers, around the edges of the crowd, took note here and there of the presence of someone outside the usual roster.
"What's his majesty doing here?"
The lord of transitions and intersections gave a moderately undignified bleat of laughter. "State occasion, no doubt. He's been let off for diplomatic purposes."
"Mmm." Carabas' finger tapped against the edge of his goblet. "He's looking decidedly... orange."
"Neither sad, nor sick... I heard his latest young lady rejected him."
"What a pity," he shook his head, abandoning the curiosity of the guest list. "What are you up to these days, Portico?"
The old lord shrugged. "Oh, you know. A little of this, a little of that. Very little of that," they chuckled. "There are some nasty rumors going around about you and the Ratspeakers, you know."
The Marquis chuckled but made no response, as Portico no doubt expected. He rarely confirmed or denied rumors, except when it served him to reinforce an impression in someone else. Which Portico knew, and the Marquis knew he knew, and thus they were all very knowledgeable people.
"I may need your help, soon," Lord Portico said then, but the Earl came by and demanded his attention in loud and boisterous tones and the Marquis was left pondering what Portico could possibly need. He'd have to catch him at a later time.
Carabas pushed off of the pillar and slipped through the room looking for something to make this party worthwhile. There always was something, as long as he could find it. And in the next moment, he did.
He did like Sam, tall and lean and gaunt of face but handsome around the mouth and eyes, dark hair and immaculate grooming even if he did go about in bare feet more often than not. He swept through several dancers to approach, kissing the air beside each cheek.
"How are you, my dear Sam? Still sneaking off to Islington?"
The now-pale blue eyes went wide with assumed indignance. "My dear Monsieur le Marquis, I never sneak."
"So you've been visiting in broad daylight, then." The Marquis' tone managed to balance on the fine point between rebuke and affectionate laughter. Not that he had expected Sam to stay away from Islington, not once he'd found out who he was, but the outright audacity of it surprised him.
Sam smiled, with less of sharks' teeth in it than usual for these parties. "Something like that. Why are you interested in Islington?"
"Perhaps I'm more interested in you." Neither was true, although it pleased him well enough to let the lanky creature think it might be one or the other. If Sam thought that, rather than noting a possibility and waiting for more information to come in one way or another. "What can be so fascinating about Islington that you go to visit? It's not as though it ever changes there, day after day. I believe that was the original point."
"Now you are interested in Islington," was all he said on that subject. "Did you know Croup and Vandemar are on the move again?"
Now he was no longer interested in Islington. "To what end?"
"No one's sure. Whoever holds their contract is keeping it very quiet, I should say," he added. "Quieter than usual. So far there's been no developments to show who their target might be, but several parties think it's worth a bit of wariness."
The Marquis made a sort of non-committal noise and declined to speculate further, aloud. He didn't like Croup and Vandemar, too single-minded for his purposes, although it did make them somewhat easier to predict. The only trouble was they didn't seem to have a ready pattern for who they took on as a client, which meant that once they were on the job and the target was established, he could know what they were about and stay out of their way. Before that, it was anyone's guess.
Sam found a likely victim to set his teeth into, metaphorical teeth, at least the Marquis hoped, and slipped away before Carabas could ask about it further. Not that Sam was prone to sharing his details.
Portico had managed to escape his garruluous captor and retreated with his lady back to the buffet table. Behind the buffet table, Carabas noted, and in a rare display of temper even more startling for it being in the public eye. "If I never have to listen to that tittering idiot's questions as he tries to manipulate me into a position of his choosing it will be far, far too soon."
The Marquis did his own bit of sidling into position, not sure which of the several creatures matching that description Portico meant but it didn't much matter, since they were all very much the same. "You do seem a bit beset."
"From all sides, old friend. I'm making arrangements to deal with the problems but they keep multiplying, eating away... Temple and Arch, what do you want!"
The short man bowed, obsequious and made even more annoying by the ridiculous black feather boa over his burgundy leather coat, and disappeared without a word. The Marquis nodded; exactly who he had thought. "Sharks, sensing the blood in the water." That little brat only came out when he sensed a vulnerability in someone, something he could offer.
"There'll be blood enough, and soon. I don't like the look of things, Carabas, and I especially don't like..." He closed his mouth up tight as a contingent of Velvets drifted by, smiling.
One of them stopped to put her fingertips under his chin and tip the Marquis' head up, or at least they tried. He caught her wrist in a grip that dug his fingertips into the meat between the bones, as a reminder to Velvets who touched him without permission. She hissed at him, but there wasn't anything she could do till he let her go.
"You were saying, about the hovering vultures?"
Portico laughed, an empty and echoing sound. His wife shook her head. "If anything happens to us, you will see that our family is taken care of, won't you?" Her hand touched his arm, a gesture more delicate and more pleading, and he liked the House of Arch much better than he had ever liked any of the Velvets, anyway.
"Of course," de Carabas smiled, blinked and smiled some more with all his teeth pressed neat together. A sign of nervousness he quickly suppressed, before anyone in the party could take note. "Do you expect anything to happen?"
"I've taken precautions," Portico shook his head. "It's a little premature to say it's quite that dire just yet, but it would ease my mind to know that my children are well taken care of."
The Marquis' eyebrows rose higher. "I don't know if anyone would consider me a responsible caretaker of children, but I'll do the best I can. They will be under my protection."
"Thank you," Portico said, and they exchanged a gripping of hands and patting of wrists. The Marquis wondered if it was his imagination and the light of the festival hall or if Portico had a few shades of desperation in his smile. Perhaps not, but it would be better to treat him as though he did, with a little bit of extra kindness.
The Marquis did wonder what had the noble and powerful lord of the House of Arch so worried, though. For most of the worthies at the party tonight it would have been business as usual, the machinations of London Below. But Portico was in a position to be above all that, and the thought that he had been dragged down to the level of back-stabbing and fearing for his life unnerved him, just a little. It might be time to make his own arrangements.
"If you'll excuse me," he said then, with another bow and a hand-clasp for each. "In that case, I will need to make my own arrangements."
"Of course," Portico said, and his Lady even favored the Marquis with a hug, pressing her cheek to his for a moment. She smelled of well-worn stone and dusted rooms.
Outside the building the Ratspeakers were the main scavengers, gobbling up the leavings of the feast. There was one other he was interested in though, someone for whom he'd been saving up a treat, and now seemed an ideal time to present it to him.
"Old Bailey!" he called. "Just the man I wanted to see..."