Sophie Devereaux adored museums. Particularly museum charity functions, where the rich and connected came to marvel at art and artifacts, display their finest feathers, and be seen being cultured and sophisticated. In that atmosphere anyone could fit in, as long as you looked like you belonged and could talk about whatever was on display with passion and conviction. Once you had someone’s attention that way, it was easy to parley that conversation into whatever else you needed. Rumors, gossip, anything and everything on anyone you wanted to know. Talk 18th-century French painting to some would-be art critics and you could learn the entire contents of their houses and their friends’ houses without ever being inside. And if you knew that? Well, then so could the next “inspector” or “insurance agent” that called on them.
She slowly drifted around the room, exchanging greetings with every diamond-and-platinum-encrusted socialite with the warmth of close friends, touching cheek-to-cheek with every social butterfly. Two groups away was her target, Lord Levin Mark, who looked very slightly bored with his company. Sophie planned to change that.
River Song adored museums. They were fascinating and educational, when they weren’t being hysterically funny with their inaccuracies. Particularly during eras like this, where they thought they knew so much more than they did, but hadn’t realized they didn’t know everything yet. The “teenage years” of civilization, as the Doctor put it. A pity he couldn’t be here; he would have enjoyed it, provided both of them would have been able to keep their spoilers to a minimum so as not to shock the poor curator. The man didn’t know a thing about the true origin of watercolor on the east wall, and if he’d known what the artist was thinking about when he painted that grove of trees? Oh my, some things you just couldn’t talk about in polite society.
A very good thing River was only polite when it suited her. She smiled at the social lions ranged around Cyprus Grove at Twilight and drifted amongst them. One of these fine gentlemen was a wanted man, certainly unwanted here on Earth, where his very presence would be enough to start a panic, should he show his true face. The Grand General Leefanot Markovian, of Prushagot V, was apparently an art collector as well as a war criminal with unsavory habits, and a social climber to boot. Certainly River Song would be enough to intrigue him and lure him away from the crowd. She smiled to herself as she drifted through the party, and hid a frown behind a flute of champagne when a dark-haired woman drifted into Markovian’s circle. She made some offhand comment that made Markovian look up in surprise. And then he smiled at her.
River put her hand in her purse and casually moved over to join them.
“The finest examples of art are the expression found within us,” Sophie said, not looking at Lord Mark as she seemingly perused the painting with the devotion of a true connoisseur.
“That was one of Gressor’s favorite quotes,” he said with a smile, gesturing at the painting. “But not too many know of it.”
“Too many are just looking to be awed; put anything in front of them, tell them it’s art, and they’ll swoon just because they’re supposed to. But for the discerning eye…”
“We know better. It’s what makes coming to these events truly worthwhile.”
Lord Mark smiled, and looked intrigued. “That sounds familiar… Princess Jafeya, isn’t it? I didn’t recognize you in that dress.”
Sophie had another name on the tip of her tongue, ready to use, but when her target had just upgraded her to a princess, well, how could she refuse?
“You caught me,” she said, swatting her clutch at him playfully. “And what are you doing here? It’s been a while.”
“The old homestead didn’t care for my hobbies… I have to say I didn’t expect to see anyone from home, but you… This is like a breath of fresh air. What else did you know about Gressor?”
Sophie verbally sparred with the man for while, feeding him the occasional tidbit, but mostly letting him run on and on about the collections he had and new acquisitions he was making. It wasn’t hard to feign enthusiasm for such a wealth of art. Well, it wasn’t really feigning at all; Sophie was just a bit more focused on the wealth than the art, at least tonight.
“I hear they have some grand old Wassermans up in the next hall. Shall we?” he said, holding out an elbow for her to take.
Sophie had been about to take the man up on his offer, with a view to getting him to spill the location of the rare Wasserman sketch he had at his house, when someone else slipped in on Lord Mark’s other side. Dressed to kill, caramel skin and curly hair making quite an impression, the other woman gave him a smile of honeyed sweetness as she looped her hand around his other elbow as if it belonged to her.
“My lord,” she said, making the title sound like nothing so much as an amusing affectation. “I think this gathering could use a little more fun, don’t you think?” She had two glasses of champagne in her hand, and put one to his mouth to sip, making Sophie fume behind his back as the rapport she’d been establishing was interrupted. She looked daggers at the other woman, who seemed curiously immune to the violation of all the unwritten rules of grifting. Never go after a mark at the same time, because that was a good way to get both of you caught. Back off when you see someone else working. And always keep an escape route open.
“It looks like I’m a lucky man tonight,” Lord Mark said pleasantly, and pulled both women towards one of the roped-off galleries for more privacy. He waved them both past the security guards, and then left them both briefly to bribe one man into leaving them alone.
“What are you doing?” Sophie hissed at the other woman. “This is very rude.”
“You’ll be glad I came along. Trust me,” she said, and winked at her as she saluted with her flute of champagne. Sophie sighed; if she hadn’t already been close to getting what she was after, it might have been nice to get to know a fellow grifter, particularly one with the confidence and panache of this stranger. But since this was hardly the time or the place…
Sophie put a superior smile back on her face as Lord Mark returned, and took his arm again.
“Princess Jafeya, your insight is legendary, as always.” Markovian smiled as he looked over the dark haired woman, who smiled challengingly as she looked over the watercolors with a discerning eye.
“I’ve always found the ‘Red Sky’ series to be particularly stimulating. I understand you have one yourself, one of Wasserman’s unfinished works?”
River almost held her breath at the Princess’ casual prodding. Prushagots were notorious warriors, General Markovian one of the worst in seven generations, and it wouldn’t take much to get him riled up enough to forget the veneer of civility he’d cultivated on Earth. It was a good veneer, a well-established one, but given that he was in the presence of Prushagotian royalty, things were about to get a little bit… exciting.
“Oh yes, a hunting scene. Hounds running down a great serpent. Fascinating piece really, a real beauty. You can feel the power, the danger, the excitement of the hunter pouring from every line. I often think on it before I exercise my rights.” Markovian turned to River, the image-induced disguise slipping a little, showing sharp teeth. “I do enjoy it when they offer themselves up for the chase, don’t you, Your Highness?”
Markovian turned back to the Princess to snap his teeth in the air in a playful show of readiness. River slipped her hand into her handbag, waiting for the moment both of them dropped their disguise so she could officially catch them in the act of infiltrating Earth, and use the containment field to catch them. Hopefully before they tried to pounce on her and eat her; she hated running in heels.
Except when the Princess saw Markovian’s fangs, she screamed and sprayed him with a tiny bottle of something from her clutch.
Which meant she was no more a Princess of Prushagot than River was a High Priestess of Clom.
No hope for it. River kicked off her shoes and grabbed the other woman’s hand.
“Run!” she shouted, suiting actions to words. Behind them, Markovian howled and snarled as he clutched at his face, the image-induced appearance breaking apart and showing his true face. The “Princess” easily kept up with River, fear giving her feet wings as they ran through empty galleries and dodged sculptures.
“I don’t suppose,” the woman gasped, “that there’s any good calling the guards?”
“Only if you want him to have a snack,” River warned, and pulled them both to one side for a moment, listening for sounds of pursuit.
“So, I really did see a wolf-snake-man?” she asked, sounding caught between incredulity and face-saving nonchalance.
“Prushagot Grand General. Arrogant, cruel sod.”
“Sophie Devereaux,” she said in quick introduction.
“I suppose you were after him…?” Sophie asked delicately
“To bring him in. Private detective, if you like.”
“For who, the Martians?!” Sophie demanded.
“Intergalactic Courts. Mars doesn’t have jurisdiction here.”
“Of course,” Sophie said, and took a single deep breath. “Do you have handcuffs?”
“Do you have a plan?” River countered.
Sophie smiled. “He rather did like the Wassermans.” A howl sounded down the gallery, and Sophie grabbed River’s hand and began to run along a back hall, circling the way they’d come. “Come on!”
A half-hour later, one very angry Prushagot war criminal contained and hauled off back to where he belonged, River was enjoying a glass of something much stronger than champagne with a woman who’d apparently played everything from secretaries to foreign nobility in her career. Spontaneously pretending to be a long-lost alien princess? Just another feather in her cap. Albeit one with a few bent vanes; neither of them had been able to find their shoes again after running over half the museum.
“I so did like him nearly turning himself in a knot to avoid running into the displays,” River said, raising her glass in a little toast.
“He genuinely liked those paintings,” Sophie said, almost grinning, “He had good taste for an alien warlord.”
“Almost as good as yours,” River said, and toasted her back.
“Pity I won’t be able to find that sketch. It would have been worth a fortune,” Sophie added wistfully. “Doubly so, considering their provenance.”
“I don’t see why not,” River said. “How’s your grieving widow? Traitors of Prushagot forfeit their property to their captors. It’s just going to be a waste, otherwise. Criminal, truly. Someone should see they’re properly handled.”
“How’s your sympathetic best friend?”
“Marvelous,” River said, challenge in her eyes.
Sophie raised her glass to River, and they clinked them together. “I don’t doubt it.”
Years later, Nate looked over Sophie’s shoulder at the curly-haired woman who waved from across the ballroom.
“Someone you know?” he asked.
Sophie slipped her hand into Nate’s and smiled at River. “Oh, yes.” She tightened her grip. “Better get ready to run.”