“You can’t come to the ball,” said Robert.
“Oh, what a shame,” said Eames.
Robert ignored him. “You’ll have my best suit pressed by five,” he said, “as well as my father’s, of course. And make sure you pick out a tie that complements my eyes. Then, while I’m off charming my way into Prince Arthur’s heart—”
“Thought he wasn’t a prince.” Manservants probably weren’t supposed to talk back. Well, he'd never said he was a good manservant.
“While I’m off charming my way into his heart,” said Robert, who did not often allow facts to sway his opinion, “you’ll clean the weapons. Uncle Peter and I are going skeet shooting tomorrow and I want every piece spotless.”
Eames, trying to look like this would be a terrible burden, said, “Yes, Mr. Fischer.” He always had the Fischers’ suits of the night ready by four-thirty at the latest, and there was something eminently satisfying about a clean gun. Besides, they only used twelve of the damn things, and he’d deep-cleaned two weeks ago.
Arthur, who really wasn’t even a prince, furthermore wasn’t even related to the royalty of Cobbelot. He was a baron from a kingdom on the other side of the world. His actual parents were great friends of Queen Mal’s family, though, and when his third betrothal fell through (“No comment,” Arthur had said, which was just typical, and hadn’t stopped the newspapers in the least from using headlines like FOLLOW-THROUGH? MORE LIKE FOLLOW-WHO! ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST), they had shipped him off to Cobbelot, where King Dom’s skill for meddling was unparalleled and Queen Mal’s parties unmatchable.
Every man, woman, and person with or without a clearly self-identified gender in possession of sentience in the land wanted to go to the ball.
With the suits and Robert’s sky-blue tie squared away (by half three, thank you very much, not that Robert said so), Eames busied himself in the gunroom. It was well past nine and he was getting along quite nicely with the rifles, which was good, considering his private schedule, when he heard a chime, like the back of a silver knife against a crystal goblet.
“Give us a mo’,” he said, squinting down the barrel of a Sako Finnlight. The devil’s own work to get the fluting clean, but then, Eames did hear rather frequently about his demonic qualities.
“Oh, whenever you’re ready,” drawled the fairy, and if it were possible to hear an eyeroll he’d be hearing hers.
He set the Finnlight back on its rack and turned. Ariadne was hovering five feet off the floor, legs crossed beneath her. She eschewed traditional fairy-wear of flower-petal frocks, preferring corduroys and layered shirts and little neckerchiefs, but her lineage was fairly hard to miss considering the wings and the wand and all that. “Ready,” said Eames, cheerful. “Didn’t think to see you this soon, after that business in the—”
“You see me every other month because you get into shit and need your sorry ass saved,” Ariadne interrupted flatly. Regardless of the tone, her mouth quirked in a smile. “You know what kind of a bonus I get for being your luck fairy? I’m making bank. Please keep being a mess.”
“I’m not a mess! I’m improvisational—”
“You’re a disaster.”
Eames changed tracks. “But not right now. As you see, I am gainfully employed and enjoying a quiet evening of work while the masters of the house are away at that bloody ball.”
“Yeah,” said Ari. “About that. There’s a clause in the luck fairy contract—”
“You lot have contracts?”
Ari shrugged; Eames ignored the shower of silver glitter this loosed from the wrinkles of her clothes, because fairy glitter just sort of vanished on its own. “Since Saito ascended. It’s a thing now. Anyway, the clause—”
Eames squinted at her, having just put the about that into context. “What’s your clause got to do with a ball?”
She sighed heavily. “I’m trying to tell you, dude. Look. I’m—” Ari straightened her spine, put her shoulders back, and cleared her throat, emitting clouds of glitter. “I am contractually obligated,” she said crisply, “by the stupid clause, to tell you when lucky stuff has a better than fifty per cent chance of happening, and right now, you’re, like—” She pushed up her sleeve and checked one of about seven different wristwatches, or instruments that looked like wristwatches. “Riding an eighty-three-per-cent chance of meeting your true love if you go to the ball. You were at eighty-seven, but then you interrupted me. It drops to zero after midnight.”
He had a job to do, of course, and he hated a bloody ball—but—well, true love.
“True love,” he said. “Is that so.”
“Yup,” said Ari, popping the p. “Real deal. Whole shebang. Fireworks and violins.”
“I do like fireworks,” Eames replied, thoughtful, and looked around the gunroom. “Well, I’m in.”
Ari brightened. “Good.” One of her watches suddenly made a noise like a ratchet, and her face didn’t quite dim, but her expression became thoughtful. “Huh. You’re gonna want…” She waved her little silver wand, and when the glitter whirlwind fell away, a beautiful confection of glass—glass?—and bright metal floated toward Eames’s hand.
It was a perfect replica of an H&K P2000.
“You’re gonna want that.”
“Am I really,” said Eames, looking it over. “Glass, Ms. Luck Fairy?”
She pouted. “Aesthetics sub-clause. It’s fully functional, though. You can’t complain about the actual gun.”
“Oh, it’s one of my favorites.”
“I know, because it is my job to. So get dressed and get to the ball.”
Eames raised an eyebrow. “I’ve got a gunroom to clean,” he said, mainly to be difficult, “and my luck’s getting worse by the minute.”
With an eyeroll, Ariadne executed the least flourish-y gesture possible to make with a little silver wand with a star on the end. The room brightened perceptibly as the barrels and stocks and grips all went as shiny as if they were brand-new. “Get dressed and I’ll get you to the ball. You’re a pain in the ass.”
“I’m printing you luck-fairy money,” Eames corrected, and when she stuck out her tongue he beamed and wiggled his fingers in a wave.
His suit—the one that actually qualified for black-tie—was still quite smart, and he took the liberty of helping himself to one of Robert Fischer’s endless bowties. This one was goldenrod-colored with a dot print, which was at least bloody original, especially combined with the coral watered-silk vest. The tux pieces, in a rich dark brown, were specifically tailored to accommodate a handgun, so the odd glass pistol didn’t even muck with the lines. He combed his hair, parting it neatly on the side, and returned to the gunroom, where Ariadne had gotten distracted by Fischer Senior’s collection of historical pieces. “I’m ready,” he announced.
Ariadne glanced at him. “Sure, yeah,” she said vaguely, and did another wand thing, this one just lazy. There was a rain of silver glitter, a veritable blizzard of it, and when it finished falling Eames was in a grove twenty feet from a wide stretch of moonlit pavement leading to the palace. Of course.
“You have…” Ariadne glanced at one of her watches again, which must have been an actual watch, or at least one that functioned like one. “Ninety minutes ’til zero, buster.”
“Buster,” Eames repeated.
“Knock ’em dead,” Ariadne added cheerfully, utterly ignoring his tone. “I mean, not him, but… you know.”
“Of course.” He squared his shoulders, checked the pistol, and stepped out onto the flagstones.
The palace was suitably palatial, Eames supposed. It was neither gaudy nor austere, but rather inoffensively luxurious. The grand entrance opened straight onto the ballroom, which seemed quite convenient, and also meant that the moment he was up the stairs and through the actual doors, he was confronted with a bustling sea of humanity. All of it terribly well-dressed and polite, of course, but the energy of the place was… highly oriented, to an ever-moving point: a dark-haired gentleman in a perfectly tailored tuxedo in a muted yet daring buff, almost light enough to pass for ivory. At the moment, he was dancing a Viennese waltz with another dark-haired gentleman, somewhat shorter, dressed in navy—
“Well, good for him,” Eames murmured, because Baron Arthur’s dance partner was none other than Eames’s own employer. He took a moment to review; the navy suit flattered Robert’s coloring and it moved quite well.
A throat was cleared quite near Eames’s left ear, and he arranged his face somewhat pleasantly before he turned. “How does sir wish to be introduced?” asked a reed-thin man in the black-and-silver livery of the Cabbelot royal house.
“Eames,” said Eames.
The man blinked, apparently waiting for more. Eames smiled at him, as blandly as possible, and the man made a face like he was thinking your funeral, dude, took an impossibly deep breath, turned himself to face the ballroom, and bellowed, “EEEEEEAMES.”
Absolutely no one took notice, which was just as well.
He nodded to the herald, or whatever his function was, and started sauntering around the edge of the ballroom. A gracious space, he supposed, because gracious was the word you used when too fuck-off big had cost the earth to build. Away from the parquet of the dance floor, people in astonishing gowns and gorgeous suits mingled. Weaving through them and in and out of the archways leading to the other parts of the palace, in their own sort of dance, were squadrons of more palace employees in livery, carrying trays and fans and all manner of things.
On his second loop around the ballroom, having passed the orchestra, Eames slowed his pace. He narrowed his eyes until he was absolutely certain that the gentleman in the olive green with the pale yellow cravat really was who he thought. “Freddie,” he said, just loudly enough to catch the man’s attention. “Freddie Simmons, yeah?”
Yusuf turned and beamed. “Good to see you, mate!” he replied. “I’ll tell Freddie you’ve said hello, of course.” He had the sort of face that never did anything by halves, and when he was happy, it showed. Was that a tinge of relief as well? Perhaps.
“All well?” Eames asked. “Enjoying the evening?”
“Ah, the Queen’s outdone herself. Had seven dances with assorted lords and ladies, would you believe?”
Seven? Goodness. Casually, flicking a bit of glitter off his shoulder—not Ariadne’s, of course; must be from one of the gowns—he said, “Don’t suppose any would like another.”
“I don’t believe I’d be able to find them to ask,” replied Yusuf, but he doesn’t look any less pleased, which was at least encouraging. “Now, with the baron just now, is that—”
“My august employer, yes. His father should be about somewhere.”
“Oh, retired for cognac and cigars and all that. There’s quite a good card room, although—”
Eames allowed himself a smile and a little shrug. “Bit late for that, I think.” But Yusuf wasn’t looking directly at him, eyes fixed somewhere to Eames’s left and about twenty yards back. “But possibly time for—?”
“The baron’s looking a little wooden,” Yusuf said, and winced the least bit.
“Well, I’ll go rescue him, then,” Eames replied, turned on his heel, and took off across the dance floor.
It was easy to dodge around the dancing couples; the music had slowed to a standard waltz, stately enough to approach stultifying. Which may have explained the baron’s sudden shift in mood. Robert couldn’t talk during a Viennese, focused as he was on not stepping on his partner, but with a slower—Eames picked up his pace a little, keeping an eye out for that dark hair and that light suit.
He found them quickly and heard Robert say, “Of course, you’d be welcome to join us at the range anytime. Our gun collection is one of the best in Cobbelot; even King Dom agrees—”
As deferentially as possible, Eames tapped Robert on the shoulder. “Excuse me, my lord. And Master Fischer,” he said, and Baron Arthur looked up sharply, something passing over his expressionless face—but in an instant it was gone.
Instead, Robert Fischer was saying, “Eames? You’re supposed to be—”
“Finished early, sir,” he replied. “And if you wouldn’t mind, may I cut in?”
“I don’t mind,” said the baron, and not even Robert Fischer could argue with Baron Arthur’s stated preference. Eames took the slightest professional pleasure in noting that the marbled sky-blue of Robert’s tie did play up his eyes rather beautifully, but that didn’t change the pouting set of his mouth.
And then, however improbably, Eames was in the arms of the baron, dancing a waltz, in the royal palace of Cobbelot, to the sweet strains of violins and all those other stringed things.
“So, Mr. Eames,” said Arthur, and his left eyebrow arched fractionally, the alabaster of his forehead wrinkling fetchingly. “You’re acquainted with Mr. Fischer.”
“My employer,” Eames replied, “for the nonce. The gun collection is quite nice, I’ll admit, if it’s your sort of thing.”
“I prefer to know the weapons I use.” It could have sounded cold, forbidding, but the baron’s eyes gleamed.
“Typically I feel similarly,” said Eames. “Do you know Mr. Freddie Simmonds? He convinced seven different nobles to dance.”
Arthur’s eyebrows shot up before he martialed his expression. “Didn’t think he had it in him,” he said.
“I thought just the same thing.” Eames took a moment to glance around the ballroom. An enormous clock hung twenty feet from the floor on the wall above the orchestra, ten feet broad if it was an inch, filigreed and gilded within an inch of its time-telling life. There were eight minutes to midnight. “What happens at the end of the evening?” he asked, offhand.
“Fireworks,” Arthur replied. “Midnight on the dot. For my birthday.” His lips curled, dimples appearing on both sides of his mouth.
Whole shebang, he remembered Ariadne saying. Fireworks and violins.
“Is that so?” Eames said, mainly for the sake of saying something, because— “My lord, it’s about to get quite interesting here.”
A laugh rippled through Arthur’s tone as he replied, “It always does.”
Then the clock exploded.
Everything happened rather quickly after that.
“Down,” someone roared from the orchestra, which was encouraging, as they’d have been in the most danger from the blast, and every figure in livery was suddenly pulling firearms from their back holsters. One shouted, “Protect the King—”
“The King is protected,” sang out an unmistakable voice, and there was Queen Mal, stunning in sparkling deep purple with an assault rifle on her shoulder. “Protect the citizenry,” she shouted, and behind her was King Dom, holding pistols in both hands.
Yusuf was up on the second level behind a sniper rifle, calmly aiming and firing, aiming and firing. The assassins—seven of the damn creatures—were immediately obvious, as they were the ones shrieking and falling over. The rifle should have been loaded with tranq darts, but if it wasn’t, well, that wasn’t Eames’s call, exactly.
“Time to go,” Eames said, as clock bits were still raining down from the wall. He had his glass pistol in one hand and Arthur’s arm in the other, and his ears were only ringing slightly, because his ballistic ear plugs were beautifully engineered.
“Well past,” Arthur agreed, knocking the safety on his Glock, and they took off sprinting.
The getaway would have been clean, but the eighth assassin leaped out of the shadow cast by an enormous vase just past the archway into the hall. His gun was nearly bigger than he was, a bloody rocket launcher. “Not so fast, your lordship,” he spat—
—and Arthur froze, face going greenish. His gun clattered as it fell to the marble floor. “Nash,” he breathed.
“In the flesh,” Nash snarled, “despite your best efforts.”
That shook Arthur out of whatever funk he was in, because he snapped, “You sold us out, you—”
Eames huffed an exasperated breath. The eighth assassin, this Nash character, turned to him, and said, “And who’s this—”
Eames leveled the glass pistol and fired.
He shouldn’t have been surprised, he thought later, because the gun didn’t fire a bullet or even a dart; it shot a net of silver that wrapped around Nash, passing through the rocket launcher entirely, and tightened until he fell. “What the—” he howled.
“Not sorry,” Eames told him, because it didn’t do to lie. He still held Arthur by the upper arm, and when he took off running, Arthur paced him easily. All the way through the southeastern hallway to the gardens, the hedgerows and rosebushes and lilies silvery in the moonlight, and into the getaway car parked over the half-wall.
The moment Eames keyed the ignition, the fireworks started—they must have been on a timer, or the palace was simply so enormous no one on the pyrotechnics crew had any idea of what had just happened in the ballroom. As he peeled out, praising himself for securing an automatic, Eames said, “Happy birthday, darling.”
“Thank you,” replied Arthur, sounding perfectly composed. “And thank you for the rescue, Mr. Eames.”
“Anytime. But hopefully not anytime soon.”
“I think I’m done with balls. At least on this continent.”
“I rather agree.” A breathtaking chrysanthemum of red sparks bloomed above the car. “Did you know,” Eames went on, because a brush with death was a good way to put some things rather in perspective, including one’s relationship with one’s comrade-in-arms, “my luck fairy said I’d meet my true love before midnight at that ball?”
“Did she,” said Arthur, almost toneless—but there was that ripple of a laugh again, and he dropped his hand on Eames’s leg, just above the knee. “Imagine that.”
He wasn’t entirely certain what to do with four feet and eleven inches of infuriated luck fairy. “How was that not in the dossier?” Ariadne demanded, for the fifth time. “Not just that you’d already met, whatever, but you’re partners in crime? With the king and queen of Cobbelot as your co-conspirators? And you’ve been dating for two years? How was that not in the dossier—”
Which made it six times. “Well, the true-love bit really was a surprise,” said Eames, in hopes of placating his luck fairy.
“Hey,” Arthur said, affronted. “I told you I liked you once.”
Ariadne threw up her hands, showering silver glitter, and started swearing.
After a moment, Arthur said, very seriously, “For real, though, Ariadne. Your intelligence might not be the best. I’ve been thinking about a change of career. Especially after I burned through the baron thing. Think your manager would have me? If,” he said, looking over at Eames suddenly, eyes laughing, “my true love approves, that is.”
“Of course I approve, darling,” said Eames.
Arthur stood up and kissed him, right there in front of his luck fairy.
And they lived happily ever after.