“An Unknown Person, portraying-- ah, uh,” the herald announces, from the top of the grand staircase, and Tarvek says in her nicest voice, “Gentlemen, you’re going to have to move a little, or I won’t be able to see.”
Her grandmother’s men shuffle awkwardly to each side. They’re both very tall, and earlier one of them picked her up one-handed during an ill-fated escape attempt and parked her back in the corner where she’s supposed to be observing her competition. Even they seem to be interested in whatever’s happening. The herald’s moved on to genuine huffs now. Who could it be? Another Agatha Heterodyne costume that’s too bad for even the herald to recognize? The Storm Queen risen? Master of Paris betrayed? Lucrezia in state? Her heart pounds once in her throat, and her hand goes uselessly to where her weapons ought to be. Maybe she can hit Lucrezia with her paper-mache version of van Rijn’s notebook. That’ll really bring out the element of surprise.
The wall of pectorals in front of her finally clears enough for her to see: two bedraggled looking women, pursued by Seffie’s guards. One woman is decked out as a pirate and has an enormous grin on her face. The other is five foot eleven and wearing about a pound and a half of mud, drying in uneven patches on her Wulfenbach coat. Her eyes are bloodshot and someone’s blacked one of them for her. She, too, is wearing an enormous grin. It is not a happy expression.
Tarvek experiences an emotion.
“Young miss, I don’t know how you got in here, but this is a private affair,” the herald is saying. “If you think that you can just--”
“I am Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, Baroness Wulfenbach, daughter of Klara Wulfenbach, of blessed memory,” Gil says. Her voice sounds like concrete in a meat grinder. “I’m here to attend this party.”
The herald starts stammering again.
Tarvek has twenty-two years of practice slipping her leash. When her guards start laughing, she’s gone. She can dodge them for five minutes-- just enough time to find someone wearing a different costume, someone who won’t be missed for half an hour or so. Enough time to knock said third cousin over the head with a salver. And then enough time to duck into a broom closet and pull the blond wig over her hair and the vest over her shirt. She spares a moment to be sorry for her grandmother’s hairdresser before she slides back into the fray.
Seffie is resplendent at Gil’s elbow, but she can’t be there forever. She moves towards the champagne table and Gil turns. Her eyes snag on Tarvek’s wig. There’s a moment of bright joy, then deep suspicion and fear-- then Gil takes three strides forward and grabs her by the wrist. “What,” she says, “are you wearing?”
“Baroness,” Tarvek says, pointedly, and curtsies. It’s a very good curtsey even though one of her arms is being yanked out of its socket. Why are the Wulfenbachs so brutish? “May I have the honor of this dance?”
“What?” Gil says. “Oh, God. Is this necessary? Are you in danger?” It’s an accusation. “I’m here to get you back.”
“My family wanted to say hello,” Tarvek says. They exchange a look. “Trust me, will you?”
“I asked for that.” Tarvek puts out her other hand. “Please. I’m under heavy observation. And so are you,” she adds, tilting her head towards Seffie, who is coming back from the drinks table with two brimming glasses of champagne and an an award-winning attitude of innocent pleasure.
Gil sighs through her nose. It’s the Baroness’ old habit. Then she dips, courteous and graceful, over Tarvek’s crossed hands, and places one hand on Tarvek’s waist, careful to keep the mud from getting on her gown. “Milady,” she says, and turns them into the waltz.
For the first few minutes they don’t speak. They’re in a thicket of people Tarvek knows to be treacherous or a gossip or a catspaw, and Gil-- for some reason-- takes her cue from Tarvek’s silence, shifting here and there through the crowd to try to find a better spot. Tarvek keeps a weather eye on her in exchange. In close quarters it’s evident that Gil picked up some of the mud in a sewer.
She’s a good dancer. Which shouldn’t be surprising. Light on her feet, considerate of her partner. Tarvek hadn’t thought that she’d have much practice being upright with dancers at all.
“I suppose you think the costume’s hilarious,” Gil says, when Tarvek’s stopped tensing every time a couple swings by. They’re near the orchestra now. If they can’t cover their voices here there’s no point in being subtle at all.
“I think it’s appalling. But...” Tarvek casts her hand over the party, the twenty identical blond wigs. Everyone who’s anyone is here as a Heterodyne girl. “I had to switch my original costume somehow. My grandmother had me as van Rijn. I was hard to miss.“
“Who’s looking for you?”
“My grandmother. In fact, let’s just assume that the answer to your next thirty questions is my grandmother, okay? My grandmother is the one who kidnapped me. My grandmother killed the Lord High Conservator. My grandmother sicced Tweedle on Agatha, if it comes to that.”
Gil falls silent again while she takes this in. Tarvek navigates a spin. “So, where’s the rest of it?”
Tarvek lifts an eyebrow. “The rest of my grandmother?”
“No. You know.” Gil flips a hand. “‘Welcome back to Paris, Wulfenbach, I’m shocked you managed to stay away from your sins for so long. Did you store your gigolos in your coach?’”
Gil’s impression of her sounds a little like a stork with a head cold. “I didn’t think you brought a coach.”
“I couldn’t. It was full of gigolos.”
“Are we making small talk?” Tarvek says. “Two and a half years wasn’t enough time to waste? We aren’t actually attending a party, you know.”
“You’re the one who asked me to dance,” Gil growls, and Tarvek feels obscurely comforted.
“An Unknown Person, portraying Agatha Heterodyne, and husband,” the herald announces, and they both turn to look at the unknown person. She’s about forty, and her costume is covered in sequins. Her husband steps out from behind her. He’s dressed as a Jäger.
“I had to tell you that I can’t go back with you,” Tarvek says. “The people my grandmother has on me are unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. And I might be needed in Paris. Things are chaotic here, I don’t know how much you know--”
“The Storm Queen’s awake, the Master of Paris may have been betrayed, Seffie’s angling for my nonexistent throne, and Lucrezia’s probably on her way in. If she hasn’t already arrived,” Gil says. She reddens. “And Agatha’s in town. I mean, I haven’t had that confirmed, but I’m assuming from the rest of the list.”
The flautists trill. Tarvek repositions her hands on Gil’s shoulders, which tense as she moves over them. “I hate it when you’re right,” she confides. “I don’t think it’s good for you.”
“Have you seen her?” Gil says. Her face lights up again, then darkens. “Have you--”
“No! I was kidnapped!” Tarvek says. “Mostly what I’ve done is be kidnapped! And develop a growing sense of impending doom, which is the other reason I wanted to talk to you. Wulfenbach, do you get the feeling that something’s happening?”
“You mean besides the thirty things that are actually happening?”
“Yes,” Tarvek says, through gritted teeth.
“...Yes,” Gil admits. “I came through the streets. There are barricades up. I assumed it was your family. But it wasn’t, was it?”
“It’s revenants,” Tarvek says. “Walkers. Spotted in your old quarter.”
The music stops. Gil’s hand clenches involuntarily on Tarvek’s waist. “You’re kidding.”
“Revenants would cause a riot. Everyone’s being…” She stops. In a dead voice, she says, “Everyone seems very calm.”
Gil looks down at her. Her dandelion hair is standing out around her ears. Her eyes are wide and almost vague with exhaustion. She says, “We need to get to a window.”
Tarvek glances around at the ones in the hall. They all look out onto the gardens: a clear and pleasant moonless night. “East wing. Can you get us there?”
Gil’s mouth twitches. It’s a quarter of the reckless smile reserved for debutantes and large machinery. Tarvek narrows her eyes, but Gil’s already scanning the exits. “The door’s over there. Can you get to it in under a minute? I’m going to set up a distraction. Meet me in the parlor.”
“There are six. I’ll meet you right inside the door,” Tarvek says. “Lend me a weapon.”
“I have a hammer.”
“Close enough.” She picks up her skirts and bolts. Behind her, she can hear Gil clearing her throat, and then at the full Pax Transylvania volume: “Why are you throwing a party in the middle of the apocalypse?”
Well, it’ll definitely be distracting.
There are two Smoke Knights on the other side of the door, and it’s a breathless, noisy couple of minutes before they go down, but then there’s only the muffled music from the ballroom and their wheezing and her own noisy heartbeat. She runs her hand down the front of her skirt and finds pockets, drops one of their guns in. Thank you, nameless third cousin, currently tied up and in petticoats in a closet. This has been a destructive night. It’s not even nine.
Tarvek’s just barely dragged the second Knight behind a pillar when the doors bang open again and Gil storms in, Seffie hard on her heels. Tarvek drops to a crouch as Seffie says, “Gil, darling, why do you have to be so intransigent?”
“Because somebody has to around your family,” Gil snaps. “Or you turn around and they’re throwing a party for the man who kidnapped Agatha Heterodyne. How could you? He’s got the brains of a brick wall. And I don’t think she even likes men.”
“For the last time, that’s just you, Gil!” Seffie says. “Everybody else is reasonable about it!”
Tarvek hasn’t felt this thirteen since she was actually thirteen, when she was the hand-crafted heir sneaking away from her own party. Except her sister isn’t here to throw grapes at Seffie from the shadows. For a moment she misses Anevka so much that she feels her breath on her shoulder.
She’s just realizing that Anekva’s ghost probably doesn’t have a sinus condition when the third Smoke Knight attacks.
Having a wrestling match in total silence turns out to be harder than it sounds. Tarvek manages to flip the man while he’s still getting into position, pins him against the wall but can’t close the deal-- the Smoke Knight knows the next move and is already sinking his teeth into Tarvek’s fingers. Tarvek opens her mouth on a silent yell.
Gil’s voice is sulky. “It’s just frivolous. We don’t have time for games.”
Tarvek risks a moment of instability, rips the wig off and shoves it into the Knight’s mouth, which is all the window the man needs to rock her off balance and flip her to the floor.
“Things have been hard for you,” Seffie says, in her sweetest voice. “Do you need some time to yourself? There are guards on this door. Smoke Knights. You’ll never know they’re here.”
No more time for subtlety. Tarvek hauls off and punches the man in the eye. He splutters over the wig, skitters backwards. Tarvek lunges for him, but he’s gone into the shadows.
“I-- thank you,” Gil says. She sighs. “Maybe I do need… Thank you.”
The sound of a polite kiss. A sliver of light from the door. Then pain explodes in her right cheek. The Smoke Knight grabs her hair and slams her head against the floor. Her vision clears in time to see a dagger raised and glinting in the light. She throws her hands up--
--against nothing. The Smoke Knight slides bonelessly to the floor next to her, and Gil says, a little breathless, “I left you alone for two minutes.”
“Yes, what took you so long?” Tarvek says, hauling herself upright.
Gil picks up the wig instead of the bait. “I think this might be ruined. Unless you want to go as the digested corpse of Lucrezia Heterodyne instead.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Tarvek yanks out her disarranged pins, letting her hair pool at her waist, and begins to braid it up. It helps her get her breath back, the simple motion, the even pattern. Like running her fingers through cool water. When she opens her eyes, Gil is staring. Probably shocked to remember that Tarvek isn’t a clank designed to ruin her life. Tarvek slides her pins back into place one by one. “I forgot what you sounded like when you lie.”
“You’re so rewarding,” Gil says. She glances down the dark hall, towards the moonlight glimmering at the end. “Not far. Shall we go?”
Tarvek gives her hair a final pat. “What is it you want to see?”
“I told you about the town where the revenants came through,” Gil says, as they move towards the window. “The ones we recovered the engine from. The miniaturized engine, that wasped the whole place. Or so we think. If we knew who was or wasn’t taken we could just--” She flicks her hand, hard, like swatting a mosquito. “But we don’t. Not anymore. It could be anyone. It could be everyone.”
“You think that’s what the Other wants to do here.”
“If she’s brought the shamblers in? Almost certainly,” Gil says. “I think they want to let loose a slaver engine. She doesn’t have to take all of Paris to bring down the Master. She just has to seize the Master’s family. It’d be easy enough, if you just--”
They’ve reached the window.
The city is glowing, bright as a beacon. Aristocrats are still proceeding up the grand sweep of the drive. A couple of late-shift gardeners are working in the box hedges just in front of the house.
Down the block, silhouetted against the sky, are the geisterdamen. For a moment Tarvek remembers--
It had been the Lady Vrin who greeted her when she’d come back from the castle. Vrin had liked her as a child, back when she’d been a reminder of the talents of the goddess-- the great spark Lucrezia had made in the womb, the Storm Queen in miniature. Like a music box or a muse. She’d been lifted onto a spider, which was ten times better than a blimp anyway, and she’d been led into town. There had been people in the streets-- kids mostly. They’d fallen silent as she went by. Vrin had frowned and raised one hand and said something absolute. Everyone had knelt. That wasn’t the part Tarvek remembered. It was that the people looked like they wanted to kneel.
Tarvek had thought, What an honor guard.
Tarvek thinks, What an honor.
There are a hundred Parisians massed at the end of the street. Smiling, laughing, ready to kill.
Tarvek glances up at Gil, whose jaw is set. Her posture has unconsciously straightened out. “Come on,” she says, and begins tugging at the sash. “Help me get this open.”
“Open?” Tarvek says, her stomach plummeting.
“Yes.” Gil tugs harder and some wooden decoration snaps. “I want to hear what they’re saying.”
Tarvek takes a couple of steps back and raises the gun.
Gil doesn’t notice immediately. Then she turns. In the gray light she looks like a woodcut depiction of betrayal.
“Trust me, this isn’t personal,” Tarvek says. “Despite what you are almost certainly going to believe.”
“You’re right about the second part.”
“Well, it’s not. Stop being childish.” Tarvek straightens her aim. “The Lord High Conservator said that the Library believes you may have been wasped.”
“What?” Gil says, and then, suddenly, laughs. She sits down hard on the windowsill. “Oh my God. Of course. They scanned me.”
“They found another resonance over yours,” Tarvek agrees. “Consistent with what happens when the Other imprints herself. You understand why I can’t let you stick your head out a window to listen to the Other’s commands.”
“Obviously,” Gil drawls.
“I’m deadly serious. Put your hands up.”
“Relax, Sturmvoraus,” Gil says. “It’s not Lucrezia. It’s my mother.”
There’s a crashing silence.
“She caught you,” Tarvek says. “You told me you wouldn’t let her catch you.”
“I think I implied that, yes,” Gil says. “I was wrong. She was faster and smarter. And it isn’t a straight copy. I’m not Klara Wulfenbach. She called it an overlay.”
“What the hell,” Tarvek says, “is an overlay?”
“I can’t do anything my mother wouldn’t do.” A bitter laugh. “Isn’t that what you always thought of me?”
Tarvek can’t answer.
“Oh, wait, no,” Gil says. Her voice is rasping again. “I forgot. It’s what you wanted to do to me. What’s the matter, angry that Klara got around to it first?”
“How dare y-- the Other’s plans had nothing to do with me!”
“Until Agatha,” Gil says. “But all right, granting your point, my mother doesn’t care. My mother wants you dead. One of her best qualities. She spotted what you were doing with female sparks before I could go the way your sister did.”
She can’t speak again, although this time it’s because she’s choking on the reminder of what a callous bastard Wulfenbach can be when she tries. “Did it hurt you when you found out you weren’t the greatest female spark of your generation?” she says. “Were you jealous? One less thing to make you special? Is that why you threw yourself at Agatha? If you can’t be her, have her?”
“This is exactly the conversation I thought we’d have,” Gil says. She turns her back to Tarvek and the gun. “Only I thought it’d be yesterday, and I could just push you out of the airship. Help me open the window.”
The geisterdamen haven’t gotten closer. Whatever they’re doing, they look distracted. So does Gil, although in her case, it’s probably fifty percent spite and fifty percent because the sash is stuck. Now that Tarvek knows what she’s looking for she can see it: the concentrated venom in her expression, the straight line of her shoulders. Klara’s got in deep.
It’s been a bad two years. Two and a half.
“Whatever it is, it’s not all-powerful,” Tarvek says, moving to Gil’s side. “Klara wants me dead. You pulled me out of the timestop.”
“Congratulations, you’ve spotted a difference,” Gil grunts. The window pops open, and she leans out into the cool air. “If you get the other four you can win a no-prize.”
“No, I meant--”
“I know what you meant. You’re right. It’s hard for me to notice, most of the time.“ Gil swings one leg over the windowsill. “In some ways it doesn’t feel much different than it would without her. I mean, you’ve done it, Sturmvoraus. What did you do when you were first cut loose? ‘What would my grandmother do?’”
“The difference between you and me,” Tarvek says, reaching for the back of Gil’s waistcoat, “is that my second question was always, ‘How can I avoid that at all costs?’”
Gil turns back, a little too close, and flashes a smile. “Well, I got around to that one.”
“If I care enough,” Gil says. With Tarvek bracing her and with her long torso, she gets some pretty good distance out the window. “If I think it through enough. If I… find a back door. If I’m sneaky enough, underhanded enough--”
“Yes, thank you, point taken.”
“If I’m a ratfink snake enough,” Gil says. She sounds positively cheerful now. “Shhh.”
Tarvek holds onto her and waits while Gil listens to the sound of Paris rioting. She thinks about pushing Gil out the window in recompense for the airship.
Then she puts the idea down.
The thing is-- It’s been ten years at least. Fifteen depending on how you count. She’s been angry at Gil as sort of a sustained, regular hobby, an idea that she could take out and turn over whenever she wants, and it turns out that if you try to stay angry at the same idiot for more than a decade, it loses its zest.
Not in general, mind you. Just in specific. For example: Klara Wulfenbach, frozen and protected from time and age and Tarvek with a knife and three hours to spare. Klara who wouldn’t stop at strangling the continent but had to strangle her daughter. That still has all of its savor.
She’s remembering Gil, when she first came to the castle; she’s remembering how small she was. Scrawny’s probably the right word. Scrawny and malevolent, and desperate for scraps of attention. No wonder Gil had fastened onto Tarvek; no wonder she’d swiveled, like a sunflower, to her brilliant mother the minute Klara had remembered her daughter was worthy of her time. No wonder Gil had trailed after her all these years. No wonder Gil isn’t angry. Tarvek is apparently going to be angry for both of them. More, possibly. An anger that is ringed with teeth and ready to wait.
“Pull me back,” Gil hisses, and Tarvek tugs and they both fall flat on Seffie’s beautiful parquet floor.
Gil moves first, rolling over and planting her hands on either side of Tarvek’s head. She pushes herself up partway. Quiet, she mouths, and then something with more syllables.
What? Tarvek mouths back.
“Oh my god!” Gil hisses. “The gardener’s coming!”
“Well you could have just said so,” Tarvek begins, and then she can hear the footfalls outside the window. It’s a heavy tread. It comes closer. Stops. A long silence.
A little hiss and then the smell of tobacco. The gardener lets out a puff of smoke, and starts to whistle.
Above her, Gil begins soundlessly to laugh.
It’s not funny, Tarvek mouths, but Gil’s shaking her head, manic. Sorry, she pantomimes, and cups a hand to her ear. Can’t hear you.
This is hell: needing to keep her cool, and being trapped underneath Gilgamesh Wulfenbach doing a one-armed push-up and laughing like it’s the first time she’s tried it in two and a half years. She’s sure this was one of Dante’s ideas, one of the mean, creative ones, like the whirlwind or the rain of fire. She jams her own fist into her mouth.
The gardener sighs and starts moving again. The last of the smoke wafts away. Gil collapses to her side. “God,” she says. “You put me in such nice positions.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Well, I heard somebody tonedeaf try to whistle Musetta’s Waltz,” Gil says. “Music is dead. I didn’t hear anything from the revenants, we’ll have to play it by ear.”
“That better not have been an attempt at a joke,” Tarvek warns her. She climbs to her feet.
“No promises!” Gil’s still sitting, but her head tips back against the wall and her eyes drop closed. The black eye stands out in the city light. Tarvek touches her own cheek gingerly. They’re going to match. “Lighten up, Tarvek. It’s a party.”
“Thank you for coming to save me, you pestilent nightmare,” Tarvek says. She really tries to sound snide. She isn’t even close. “I wish you’d pulled it off. I’ll try to return the favor sometime.”
“You can do me the favor of living a long, happy life on another continent,” Gil says. She opens her eyes. “So far away. On the moon if necessary. How are we going to get back into the ballroom?”
Tarvek puts out a hand to pull Gil up. “I’m working it out.”
“Right,” Gil says. “Of course you are.”
The Storm Knights are still out when they get back-- Tarvek checks each one, maybe kicking a little harder than she needs to-- and the musicians on the other side of the door have begun to play a two-step. Tarvek puts her hand on the door and announces: “We’re going to have to split up.” Gil groans, and Tarvek elbows her in the side, sparking another groan. She does have good elbows. “Stop it and use what passes for your brain. I’ll never get out of this party on your arm or you on mine, and we’ll never figure out how far Lucrezia’s spread this unless we stop getting caught up in country dances. And I don’t have a disguise.”
“Stop monologuing and tell me what we’re going to do about it,” Gil snaps, and Tarvek has an idea.
“Help me get my hair down,” she says, yanking the pins out. “No-- that Smoke Knight. Grab her cloak. And I need something stiff. Like a board. Can you get me-- Oh,” she says, as Gil hands her the cloak draped over what is almost certainly a portrait of Andronicus Valois. “Quick thinking. Hold onto that.” She pulls off the vest and yanks, hard, on the skirt. “Thank you. Do I look debauched?”
Gil gives her a professional once-over, running her own hand unnecessarily through her hair as she does so. “I think so. Seffie’s dress is a lighter blue, isn’t it?”
“Can’t be helped.” Tarvek reaches up and undoes Gil’s collar. “If I’m quick-- if I look giggly enough--”
Gil vanishes, leaving Tarvek to try to unlace more of her dress without actually flashing the population of Europa. “I want you to know that I’m very happy to be doing this,” she says, and upends a gallon of port over Tarvek’s skirt.
With a superhuman effort, Tarvek keeps all of her screaming internal. “Thank… you…” she says, taking full, complete breaths between each word. “You’re right. That’s… much better.”
“It is for me, anyway,” Gil says, and loosens a cuff. “Go get ‘em, Xerxsephina von Blitzengaard.”
“I hope you have an aneurysm,” Tarvek says, and sweeps into the party.
This time heads turn. That’s the whole point. To all appearances, Seffie has just dragged Gilgamesh Wulfenbach into the east parlor, ravished her, and then reentered her party with sublime aplomb. Tarvek tucks the makeshift butterfly wings under her arm and tries for “glowing,” but she’s pretty sure she’s hitting “smug” instead. Well, that’s not wrong.
If she can get to Seffie’s private stair-- No, she’ll never get past any of the family’s people, of course, but she’ll just be another drunk dancer if she can get a hat. Her eyes range over the crowd. Pirate, jester, decorative lantern, skeleton queen…
Why would the geisterdamen be out?
The thought is so loud and clear that it stops her in her tracks.
If the city’s been infiltrated-- if Lucrezia’s taken a neighborhood or a factory or a college-- it must have been recent. Tonight. There are revenants in the street. She could slide under the city’s defenses enough for that, she could find its Master’s blind spot and worm her way in, but the instant the geisterdamen appeared the Master must have known. Did know, because he threw up the barricades, before he was betrayed, if he was betrayed. And even if he hadn’t-- Baroness Wulfenbach is here. House Valois is here. Thirty-five of the Fifty Families are here with private guards. Half the sparks Lucrezia even knows about.
Faced with all of her arrayed opposition, why would she show her hand?
Unless that’s not her move. Unless the geisterdamen are another distraction.
For the first time tonight, Tarvek does what she should have done hours ago and thinks it through. The Library compromised. The Master compromised. The Storm Queen compromised-- or at least distracting-- or at least here. Lucrezia could have done just about anything, with a big enough noise, with its defenses offline, with the network of the library to work through.
It’s not just one banlieu. It’s not just a quarter. It’s not a mob or a feint. It’s a takeover. Lucrezia’s wasped the city of Paris.
Tarvek gropes for the wall. She needs a mask. She needs a headdress. She needs a way to avoid the next thought, which is, she can’t tell Gil.
The overlay. I can’t do anything my mother wouldn’t do. Tarvek has made a long and unhappy career out of knowing exactly what the Baroness would do. Klara would kill everyone in this city. She’d do it with a set face and a stony heart. She would tell herself she was choosing the hard but necessary path. She would make herself watch the whole thing.
If I care enough, Gil had said. If I try hard enough.
There’s nothing for it. She’ll have to tr--
Tarvek hits a mental roadblock. She backs up, takes a run at it again. For a lack of better options she will have to take her chances and trus--
No, this isn’t happening. She turns to make for the cheese table, and a hand closes over her wrist. This time it’s the size of a large ham.
“Princess Tarvek,” her guard says. He’s very polite. He has a knife at her waist. “Please stop trying to run away from your family or we will be forced to reassign you to Mr. Obsidian.”
Tarvek smooths her dress down. Her hands immediately pick up a wine stain. “Don’t be ridiculous. I haven’t been trying to run anywhere. I’m attending a party.”
The guard slowly shakes his head. “That’s it. Your grandmother specifically ordered that if you should start to lie at us--”
She draws herself up to her full five foot two. “Lie at you? Lie at you? I remind you that I remain the heir of this family. Any disagreement I may have with my grandmother is none of your business. I have every intention of attending this party, and I need you to unhand me.”
The guard sighs, more in sorrow than in anger, and reaches for her throat.
Bang happens to him.
It’s almost beautiful to watch. One minute he’s six foot three of solid muscle, the pinnacle of House Sturmvoraus’ martial splendor. The next he’s a perforated bath mat and Bang is doing a little jig on his rib cage. She gets one last kick in and steps off. “Wow, I’ve been dying to do that since yesterday,” she says, glancing up at Tarvek, and her eyes and grin both widen. “Heyyy! Shrieky! Good to have you back!”
“Oh my God,” Tarvek says. “Let me get arrested.”
“Well? ‘I can always trust you to find the thuggish solution, Wulfenbach,’” Gil says, from behind Tarvek’s shoulder. “You have to start delivering your lines, you know, I’m doing all of the work here.”
“I think she’s in shock,” Bang says helpfully. “Meeting old friends. Have you two been killing people without me? I made you a sign with the rules about that last time you were in Paris, Shrieky.” Confidentially, to Gil, she adds, “It was just the word ‘don’t’ in different fonts. I wanted to make sure she could follow it even when she was having a panic attack.”
“Dupree,” Gil says, coming to Tarvek’s side, “go terrify Seffie.” She picks up a cheese plate.
“You’re the best, boss,” Bang says, high-fiving her, and vaults through the crowd.
“So that didn’t work,” Gil says. She sounds delighted. “What an incredible shock. What’s next, mastermind? We’ve still got to get you with eyes on--”
“No. I’ve got it,” Tarvek says, still massaging her neck. “I know what she did. I need to get to a lab.”
“Of course. We’ll find you something. What was it?”
“Uh,” Tarvek says.
Gil’s head snaps back.
“No, I--” Tarvek says, and then fails to think of a way to finish the sentence that’s not the simple truth, which is: I can’t trust you.
“No. That’s okay,” Gil says. Her voice is very cold. “I should have known better. Out of curiosity, are you not going to tell me because you were involved, or because you just don’t want me to have an advantage?”
“Would you be quiet? Not every problem is about you,” Tarvek snaps, on autopilot, as her mind tugs this new thread. No. It’s not that she can’t trust-- She can’t trust Klara, certainly, she’s right not to trust Klara--
“I bet it’s both,” Gil says. Her voice is gaining a sparky edge. “I win a lot betting on that kind of thing with you.”
“The last time you had a working mental model of me I was eight and you were seven.” No. Simpler. Be honest. The blunt answer to the question of Does she trust Gilgamesh Wulfenbach to do the impossible? is yes.
“You’ve got a lot of fucking nerve to remind me of the time you tried to kill me!”
The question she’s turning over and over in her mind is: what’s the ratfink snake backdoor bullshit Gil needs to get there?
“Oh, shut up, Holzfäller!” Tarvek says, and Gil’s eyes go wide. “If the Other can take Paris, she’s got Europa, right? Even if she just shuts it down. There’s nowhere safe if we can’t fight it out here. You don’t know anywhere in the world as well.”
“I suppose,” Gil says. “What do you think you’re--”
“So the only way to stop her, Baroness, is to deny her Paris,” Tarvek says. Use it, damn it, pay attention. Use the tool you handed me, use what I'm giving you-- “Isn’t that right?”
Gil’s expression goes completely blank. “Yes.”
“All right,” Tarvek says. “Well, she’s taken it already. She’s wasped the whole city. We have to get it back.”
She can see the moment of indecision, the moment where Gil’s eyes go hard and her face goes set and her mind is doubled. She watches Klara settle onto her like a mask.
She hears Gil say, “Sturmvoraus, I don’t care what we have to do. I need your cure, I need it tonight, and I need it aerosolized. If we use the blimps, we can deploy it over the full city in forty minutes. How long will it take you to synthesize, assuming we can get you the materials? We’ll have to break you out first. Any ideas? Wh-- Tarvek--”
Tarvek already has her hands on Gil’s face to pull her down into a hungry, messy disaster of a kiss. It’s terrible. She doesn’t care. She does it again. It’s significantly less terrible. It lasts a minute and a half.
“Oh,” Gil says, when she pulls back. “Oh, uh. Oh. Okay. Um.”
“Your ovaries really do just reach up and unplug your brain every time they turn on, don’t they,” Tarvek says, marvelling, as her traitorous hand tucks Gil’s impossible hair behind her ear.
Before Gil can remember how to put a verb in a sentence, the herald blares his horn again. “An Unknown Person portraying Agatha Heterodyne, and, ah, entourage,” he announces, and they both pivot a little to see the new disaster.
Agatha’s wearing a purple gown that brushes the floor, and her hair has been pulled ruthlessly into an updo. Behind her, Violetta, Zeetha, and-- Dimo? Is it Dimo?-- are standing in a bedraggled cluster, wearing the mismatched uniforms of the Parisian guard. Agatha has a mask clutched half-heartedly to her face, and parts of her dress are still on fire. She is the most beautiful thing Tarvek’s ever seen.
“...You have to admit,” Gil says, her hand ruining the lace on the back of Tarvek’s dress. “It’s a good costume.”
Tarvek closes her eyes and plants both hands on Gil’s shoulders. “Go,” she says. “Sweep up to her in state. If you pull out that condescending look you can probably stop the first assassination attempt with your expression.”
“What? Are you kidding?” Gil demands. “If I let you go now you’ll be kidnapped, or thrown in jail, or wasped, or eaten by wolves, or the damned sky will fall and it’ll trap you underneath it just to be ironic. It’ll be years before I see you again. I need you tonight.”
“Stop drawing conclusions from a few random encounters. I’ll be fine,” Tarvek says. “I’m in a hurry. My grandmother’s still coming to stuff and display me. Let go of me!”
Gil’s got her hand on Tarvek’s wrist again, because she has no sense of boundaries and no manners and she’s definitely got the possessive attitudes inculcated in a young woman when they’re raised to be the ruler of Europa. “No,” she says. “Come on. Trust me.”
“Absolutely not,” Tarvek says. “I already did that once tonight. I’ve hit my limit.”
“You’re right,” Gil says immediately. “That was a terrible idea. Don’t trust me. Come with us anyway.”
She’s smiling. It’s the whole smile, the one that promises thirty-foot-tall statues, flying machines, dens of iniquity, innocent mistakes. It's a smile that has preceded most of Tarvek's worst regrets.
But then, what the hell. It’s the end of the world.
“If you insist,” Tarvek says, and takes Gil’s hand.