Puffing and panting, dripping unladylike sweat down her cheeks and off the end of her freckled nose and with her stylish, brand new spectacles fogged, Melissande slipped and staggered her way along yet another narrow, barely lit, cobblestoned Grande Splotze alley.
I’m an idiot. What am I? A raving nutter. I should’ve known I’d be sorry if I wore high heels.
Well. Highish. A good two and a half inches, at any rate, which at this particularly fraught moment was two and a half inches too many.
I swear on Sultan Zazoor’s best war camel, I don’t care what the occasion is, the next time I get mixed up with one of Gerald’s little missions I’m bloody well wearing ballet slippers!
Or better yet, football boots. The studded kind. With reinforced steel toes.
Assuming, of course, there is a next time. Assuming that this time doesn’t end with us well and truly corpsified.
She risked a downwards glance at her pale green silk-swathed chest, where Gerald’s lolling head was awkwardly pillowed. Oh, lord. He did look bad. Don’t die, Gerald. Please don’t die. Feeling him start to slip yet again, the fierce drag on her shoulders and back burning hotter with every unsteady step, she gave a little grunt, blinked fresh sweat out of her eyes, and tried to firm up her grip around his barely moving chest. If she dropped him he’d likely crack his skull on the cobbles, just like an egg.
Which would put the icing on our very lumpy cake, and no mistake.
Directly in front of her, arms clamped around Gerald’s knees, Bibbie was having her own difficulties staying upright. Not long after the night’s fireworks finished, a chilly rain had washed through festive Grande Splotze, chasing the crowds of revellers indoors even before the curfew. Now the capital’s inconveniently empty streets were as treacherous as an ice rink.
So any minute now we’ll be skating, I expect. Wonderful.
Without warning, the narrow, poorly lit alley took a precipitous right-hand turn. Cursing, Bibbie hopped and skipped and jiggled around it—and lost her footing. But then, praise Saint Snodgrass, with an alarmed squeak she found her balance and went on cursing, more inventively than ever.
Keeping up, but only just, Melissande clutched Gerald’s chest so tightly she expected to hear the sharp snap-snap-snap of his ribs.
“Do be careful, Bibbie! And shut up!” she hissed, frantic, at the back of Bibbie’s head. “We don’t want those murderous pillocks to hear us! And whatever else you do, don’t drop Gerald!“
“No, really?” Bibbie retorted over her shoulder. Her neatly coiffed hair was coming down in a tangle of plain pins. “Aren’t you the spoilsport. I was hoping to roll him down the street like a hoop!”
Melissande scowled. If her arms hadn’t been full of unconscious secret government agent she’d have happily slapped Monk’s wretched sister.
They staggered on, still panting and sweating, but mercifully no longer cursing, until they reached the end of the alley. Now the air wasn’t only coldly damp, it was smelly as well, ripe with discarded refuse and possibly a very dead cat. Melissande tried to hold her breath.
“Which way?” said Bibbie, between heaving gasps. “Mel, which—”
“I’m not sure. Give me a moment.”
Bibbie groaned. “Must I?”
Ignoring her, Melissande filtered the disgusting air betweenher teeth as she racked her tired brain for inspiration. If only she and Bibbie had gone with Gerald the day he went to investigate Abel Bestwick’s lodging. But he’d made them stay behind because they were only honorary janitors, and for all he knew Abel Bestwick had all kinds of secret janitorial information strewn about his rented home. Information they weren’t cleared to see. So instead of knowing in practice where they were going, she and Bibbie only knew in theory: 45b Voblinz Lane, smack dab in the middle of fancy Grande Splotze’s insalubrious slummy bits. She spared lolling Gerald’s upside down face an unfriendly glance. If all three of them got out of this scrape in one piece she’d have a few pithy things to say about being treated like a second-class honorary agent.
“Yes, yes, all right. Go left,” she said, haphazard.
“Left?” Bibbie echoed, doubtful. “Are you sure?”
“No, but at least there’s half a chance we’ll be going the right way!”
“Oh, Saint Snodgrass’s elbow,” Bibbie muttered. “Fine. Left it is.” But instead of getting a move on she cocked her head, listening. “I can’t hear anything, Mel. Are you quite certain those buggers are still chasing us? I threw down a pretty good confusion hex, y’know.”
“Bibbie, you and me and Gerald are all that stand between them and utter ruin. That’s what I call motive. Besides, with their thaumaturgics do you honestly think they’re going to stay confused for long?”
“Yes, well, when you put it that way . . .”
“Exactly. Now let’s go!”
They shuffled out of the stinking alley and headed left along a slightly wider and marginally less odiferous thoroughfare. Each side of the street was lined with slovenly buildings, leaning shoulder to shoulder like two lines of drunken sailors. A few crooked chimney pots belched half-hearted, noxious smoke. As with every other alley and lane in this dreadful part of Splotze’s capital, only a few gaslights were properly working and none of them was draped with festive garlands. Dim lamps shone behind tatty curtains here and there, but nobody stirred beyond the safety of their four dilapidated walls. But probably it wouldn’t matter if they did. Grande Splotze’s townsfolk were no match for the villains they were dealing with.
And speaking of villains . . .
Having caught her breath a little, Melissande strained her hearing. But she couldn’t hear any malevolent footsteps behind them. The only sounds were her bellows breathing, and Bibbie’s, and Gerald’s hoarsely squashed exhalations, and the uneven clipping of their reception-worthy heels on the city’s slick, uneven cobbles.
So was I wrong? Have we lost them after all? Oh, please, please let it mean I was wrong!
“Bibbie, I think maybe—”
And then it didn’t matter what she thought because Bibbie misstepped a second time, turned her ankle and with an anguished yelp let go of Gerald’s knees.
“Bibbie!” she shrieked, and dropped rump-first to the wet cobbles, Gerald clutched in her arms.
Ignoring her, Bibbie hopped in a circle. “Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“Bibbie, be quiet!“
“Oh, be quiet yourself!” moaned Bibbie. “Can’t you see I’ve broken my leg?”
No, because she was too busy making sure Gerald was still with them. Luckily, Monk’s careless sister had chosen a fitful pool of gaslight in which to sprain her wretched ankle, so she could get a halfway proper look at him.
Oh, dear. Oh, lord. He’s getting worse.
“Gerald,” she whispered, patting his pale cheek. “Gerald, can you hear me? Gerald, are you there?”
He didn’t answer. Not even his closed eyelids flickered. In the uncertain light his lips looked dangerously pale. Equally alarming was the fine sheen of sweat coating his skin. She pressed gloved fingertips to his neck and waited for the reassuring thub-thub of a pulse. It came at last, far too slowly.
“Well?” said Bibbie, bent in half and rubbing her kid-skin covered ankle. Her voice was steady enough but her eyes were frightened. “How is he?”
“Not dead yet.”
“If only we knew what poison they used,” Bibbie fretted. “Melissande, are you sure there’ll be something at Abel Bestwick’s lodgings that’ll save him?”
No, of course she wasn’t. Only she couldn’t say that. For all her bravado, Bibbie’s courage was hanging by a thread.
Not to mention mine.
“There should be,” she said, chafing Gerald’s cold hand. “Bestwick’s a janitor, he must have some kind of emergency medicine kit.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then he’ll have a crystal ball hidden somewhere. One strong enough to reach Sir Alec. And Sir Alec will know exactly what to do.”
“How?” Bibbie demanded, her voice catching. “When we can’t tell him which poison that bastard gave Gerald?”
Yes, well, trust Emmerabiblia Markham to spot the flaw in her plan.
“Can you walk yet, Bibbie? We have to get on.”
Gingerly, Bibbie put some weight onto her right foot. “I think so,” she said, wincing. Then she frowned. “You know, I really should risk—”
“No,” Melissande snapped. “Are you out of your mind? With Splotze’s etheretics as bad as they are, a levitation hex might explode Gerald to smithereens. Now help me up, then grab hold of his knees again. We can’t stay here, Bibs. It’s not safe.”
Awkward and clumsy, they got Gerald slung between them once more like a lumpy sack of potatoes. If only he weren’t such a dead weight. If only he could open his eyes.
If only he’d not drunk that damned cherry liqueur.
“Right,” said Bibbie. “Which way now?”
Her own pulse racing, Melissande stared around them. A short stone’s throw further along the street was the entrance to another laneway. Should they go that way? She had no idea. What they needed was a bird’s-eye view of Grande Splotze.
“I’m not sure. Lord, I wish Reg was here.”
Bibbie rolled her eyes. “Which one?”
“Emmerabiblia Markham! That’s a dreadful thing to say!”
“Yes. Well.” Sounding shamefaced, Bibbie settled her pale pink satin-clad shoulders under the heaviness of Gerald’s sagging lower half. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought it. Honestly, trying to remember which bits of our lives this new Reg remembers, and which bits she doesn’t, and constantly being reminded that she isn’t our Reg, that’s not much fun either.”
No, it wasn’t. But what could they do about it? Their Reg was gone and the new Reg was the only one they had left. The sooner they all got used to that fact, the better.
“Anyway,” said Bibbie. “I’m ready. Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she said curtly, blinking away the sting of inconvenient grief. “Let’s go. And we’ll keep going until we reach the end of this street.”
Limping only a little bit, Bibbie started walking. Melissande fell into step behind her, pulse racing. Dangling between them in his elegant evening wear, looking less rumpled and more important than ever they’d seen him, Gerald wheezed the damp night air in and out of his lungs.
“Look!” said Bibbie, after a few moments. “There’s a street sign, at last.”
Still slipping and staggering, nearly bursting a blood vessel trying to catch any sound of pursuit, Melissande squinted through her foggy spectacles at the faded board hanging by one rusty nail from the house on the corner.
“Groontzeshilsitz Place,” she said, stumbling over the surfeit of syllables and sibilants. “Sound familiar?”
Bibbie snorted. “Not the way you pronounce it.”
She peered both ways. “Looks like a dead end to the right. We’ll have to go left. Or turn around and take that little laneway after all. Or—”
“We can’t,” Melissande said, shaking her head. If we go back, we’ll run straight into trouble.”
“Y’know,” said Bibbie, “I really do hate it when you’re right.”
“Ha,” she said. “You should be used to it by now.”
They shuffled around till they were pointed in the right direction, then kept going. Several unsteady steps later, Bibbie cocked her head again.
“Do you hear that?”
That was a sluggish sloshing sound, growing more definite the further along the street they walked.
“It’s the Canal,” said Melissande, and briefly closed her eyes. Oh, Saint Snodgrass be praised. “That means we’re going the right way. Gerald said Abel Bestwick’s haunt was directly across from it.”
“Yes, he did,” said Bibbie, suddenly doubtful. “Only across from the Canal sounds awfully vague.”
“Now who’s being the spoilsport? Come on, Bibbie, hurry.”
With an effort that sent her cross-eyed, Melissande picked up the pace, forcing Bibbie to shuffle along faster as well. Every muscle she owned was howling in protest. She had three blisters on each foot and was sweating so much that she thought she could easily drink the Canal dry, even if there were thirty dead cats floating in it.
Miraculously, they’d managed to reach the Canal’s deserted public promenade. Stumbling to the watery thoroughfare’s walled edge, Bibbie looked over her shoulder. “Wait—wait—I need a moment. I have to stop.”
“All right,” Melissande said, rasping. “But only a moment, Bibbie. We’re running out of time.”
They lowered Gerald to the cobbles and fell against the Canal wall, heaving for air. Melissande clutched at her side, where a white-hot pain was sawing her in two. Despite it, she stared across the city rooftops in the direction of the Royal Palace. Oh, dear. There was a definite glow in the night sky, shimmering crimson above the tiles and chimneys and gilding the crowns of the distant trees.
“Y’know, Bibbie,” she said, wheezing only a little bit now. “On second thoughts, perhaps setting fire to the reception hall wasn’t such a good idea after all.”
With no gaslight close by it was too dark to see Bibbie’s face, but she felt the searing touch of her friend’s glare.
“Is that so?” Monk’s sister demanded. “Well, correct me if I’m wrong, Your Highness, but aren’t you the one who shrieked Quick, quick, we need a diversion!“
“Yes, all right, I did,” she said, caught, “but I meant for you to knock over a tray of drinks, not indulge in a spot of wholesale arson! Hartwig’s going to be terribly upset.”
“Right!” said Bibbie. “That’s it. Next time you create the diversion!”
“Oh, come on, Bibbie, don’t be like that! I’m only saying—”
Bibbie stamped her foot. “I don’t care what you’re saying! From here on in, Your Royal Snootiness, you can take care of your own bloody dirty work, because nothing I do is ever good enough for you!”
“What? What?” she spluttered. “Emmerabiblia Markham, that is the most—”
But before she could finish refuting such a rankly unfair accusation, the dank night air was unexpectedly full of feathers and beak and claws and a loud, angry indignation.
“Oy, you pair of hoydens!” Reg screeched. “Put a sock in it, right now! And then you can tell me what you’ve done to my Gerald!”