The Clank with the Golden Gun
Characters: Ardsley Wooster/OFC, Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, Boris Dolokov, Trelawney Thorpe, Klaus Wulfenbach, and a whole boatload of OCs.
This is a sequel/follow up to "On Her Undying Majesty's Secret Service", set several months before "Girl Genius" begins. You should probably read that fic before reading this one, or you will be hopelessly confused. Original Girl Genius characters were created by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Original characters created by me. Everything (including the O.C.s if they want them) belongs to Studio Foglio. I'm just playing around. (And everything inspired by Ian Fleming is used for gaslamp fantasy parody/tribute purposes, with respect. Please don't sue.)
"One of the many advantages of my single state–I might be an old spinster, but at least I shall never be a widow."
Melisande Velyaminova Wooster's china teacup (more ladylike than a podstaniki, but correspondingly more awkward) hit her saucer with a clatter at Dame Delilah Quartermain's words and she bit back a gasp as the tea sloshed onto her fingers.
There was a sharp tsk from the third woman at the tea table. "Given the circumstances of your niece-in-law, Lilah, that's hardly a politic observation." Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm (it was as impossible to think of her without the soubriquet as it was not to tack on 'Gentleman Adventurer!' to any mention of Othar Trygvassen) was a lady of middle years, steel-colored hair that had once been dark as Melisande's own, and imposing height, and she dominated the tea-table in her old friend and comrade's parlour as firmly as she'd commandeered the bridge of the renegade Duke of Orkney's glass dirigible. "Have you had word lately of your husband's situation, Mrs. Wooster?"
Over a year on and she still felt a happy warmth at being addressed as Ardsley's wife. Not, of course, that it made up entirely for having seen him only once since her arrival in England. "No, but then, as you know, Miss Thorpe, I'm not entirely in the confidence of British Intelligence. Having been Secret Police does, to some degree, put a damper on my relations with Lord M's office."
"Despite his relations with your godmother." Along with the usual Sparkish confidence, Trelawney Thorpe also had their apparently-genetic lack of tact. "Don't worry. Lord M_ only chooses the best for these sorts of things. I'm sure your husband will be fine. Assuming of course there aren't any laboratory accidents. Most Sparks who've lived even as long as young Wulfenbach are reasonably careful about more valuable minions, but of course these things do happen."
"Indeed, sometimes experiments simply don't go as planned." Few people knew that while Trelawney Thorpe did indeed invent the more spectacular devices described in the "Girl Adventurer" pulp novels bearing her name, most of the inventions she'd utilized in her adventures came from the same source as those the far-less-celebrated agents used, Q Branch of the Secret Intelligence Service. Thanks to the books, the name of one of Q Branch's (now retired) spark-inventors was almost as well-known as the titular heroine's–Delilah Quartermain, inventrix and not quite as mad a genius as the famous agent she supplied. "We had one young minion in the department, I think his name was Wilberforce, who had simply the worst luck–it was never anything fatal, but it did once take us three days get the duck feathers out."
Melisande winced. She'd heard far too many of these stories for her own peace of mind since coming to live with her only in-law. It wasn't as if accidents were unheard of for the non-spark members of Deliah's family. Her name might be known even in continental Europa thanks to pulp novels, but few knew that Delilah Quartermain had once had a younger sister, Anna. Anna had not been a Spark, and the man she married, one James Wooster, had not been one either. Neither had lived to see their only son recruited by his aunt's employer, and Melisande herself had seen only one or two daugerrotypes of her late parents-in-law. Ardsley looked a great deal like his father, but the blue eyes obviously ran in his mother's family. She knew they'd died, or been killed, in one of the rare airlock accidents that plagued the Glass City of London. Given Delilah's position, it was possible, likely even, it had been a deliberate attack rather than accidental, but nothing had ever been proven.
"With respect, Aunt Delilah, Miss Thorpe, this conversation is not exactly reassuring." She set her teacup and saucer down. "I do not doubt Ardsley's capabilities. I don't question Lord M_'s assignments. That doesn't mean I don't worry."
"Of course you worry." It would likely be a hot January in Petersburg before Trelawney Thorpe ever said anything that didn't sound authoritative. Melisande had the odd feeling she was being granted permission to worry. "That's why agents shouldn't marry. At least not each other; you know far too well what can happen if something goes wrong."
"There's no point in closing the barn door, Trelawney, at least not that particular one. The horses have long since escaped." Delilah sniffed behind her teacup.
"Yes, I've seen your great-nephew. No question who his father is, I'll say that."
Melisande smiled in spite of herself. "James does look like his father, doesn't he?" In fairness, the shock of dark hair could just as easily come from her side, but the blue eyes were unquestionably Ardsley's doing. She turned to the fireplace (which of course was not burning a real fire; that would require a ridiculous amount of filtering in a closed-air system like the Glass City) and the bassinet beside it. "I don't know whether I hope he goes into the family business or not." It wasn't strictly polite to get up with a guest, even one as familiar as Trelawney Thorpe, but she went to her son's crib anyway. New mothers were allowed these little lapses of etiquette.
"Perhaps he'll have the gift."
Melisande felt a strange lurch in her stomach. "Perhaps." The idea had been mildly amusing at first, when she had only barely realized she was pregnant. The farther along things had gotten, the less pleasant the thought of a child with the Spark became, until, when she was finally holding her son and marveling at the ordinary miracle of a baby, she realized the last thing she wanted was for him to be anything other than an ordinary boy. Certainly not a mad genius, just as likely to get eaten by his own creation as show them, show them all.
Or a spy, vanishing on a mission for months at a time, without her knowing if he was alive or dead . . . .
She shook herself firmly. "I knew who he was when I married him," she said, low enough that only she and James, who of course didn't understand a word, could hear. Carefully, she lifted her son out of his bassinet and returned to the table, cradling him on her lap. "At least if he does turn out to have the Spark he'll have no shortage of mentors." Assuming you don't all blow yourselves up before his first birthday.
"Always good to have more of the Gifted. Not, of course, that those not blessed with it don't contribute in their own way. More tea, Trelawney?" Delilah offered the pot.
If he is a Spark, the first thing he's going to learn is a little humility and to not treat non-Gifted like very clever pets. "I'm sure whatever he decides to be, he'll be wonderful at it. Won't you, James? Just like your father, yes? And–well, modesty forbids."
"It's true, Delilah," Trelawney Thorpe said, adding a generous dollop of cream to her tea. "If your nephew had to go and fall for the oldest trap in the book, he did at least choose a very suitable partner. Useful, too, or so the fellows at Landsdowne House said after that business with the Duke of Devonshire."
"I was glad to be of assistance." Glad to get out of the house, glad to have something to think about besides Ardsley's absence, and at the time her own increasingly awkward condition. "Even if I had to take things rather quickly, but then James here decided he was done waiting."
"If anything, your pregnancy was the perfect cover." Another issue with Sparks, even the most backhanded compliment made one feel far too satisfied just to hear it. "No one would think of using an agent in such a delicate condition."
"Believe me, there were moments when I regretted saying yes." For all she loved her son now he was here, she had been oddly relieved when he'd decided to make his entrance nearly two weeks ahead of schedule. She'd thought, thanks to her training, she was able to withstand an uncommon degree of pain and discomfort, but that had not prepared her for the lack of balance, the sudden kicks and punches, random bouts of nausea and tears . . . it was a good thing that pregnancy was simply too long-term and inefficient to use as a means of information extraction. In labor alone, she'd have given up any secrets she was still hiding if it would have made the pain stop.
Melisande debated mentioning that to Delilah and Trelawney, but thought better of it. Saying something like that to Sparks would only encourage them to think of ways to speed the process along.
There was a discrete cough from the door. "Pardon me, Dame Quartermain, Miss Thorpe." Hudson, Delilah's butler (whom Melisande was 85.5% certain was only semi-retired from intelligence himself) was standing at the door. There was just the slightest pause before he added, "Mrs. Wooster. Lord M_ is here, with a . . . guest."
Melisande's stomach turned to ice. To their credit, Delilah and Trelawney were instantly sober as well. "Here, my dear, give me my great-nephew. I doubt he's here to see me."
Melisande passed her son to Delilah without comment. Trying to maintain a pleasant composure, she rose and smoothed her skirts. "Please, Hudson, show them in." She grasped the back of her chair, standing so anyone coming in the door would not see her knuckles were white.
Lord M_, tall and elegantly dressed as he always was, entered first and, to her mild surprise, alone. "Mrs. Wooster." He always addressed her formally, no matter how many times she insisted otherwise. "Delilah. Trelawney. And I see the young master is out and about." The smile that softened the stern aristocratic features was, as far as she could tell, genuine. From what little she'd gleaned about Lord M_'s daily life he was a father himself, possibly a grandfather, and there was certainly a paternal edge to his treatment of agents. As such, she suspected he'd view himself as James's benevolent adoptive uncle even if it hadn't seemed politic to ask him to be godfather. "And please, Mrs. Wooster, you can let go of your death grip on the furniture. I'm not bringing bad news."
In spite of herself, Melisande slumped with relief. "Thank you, Lord M_."
"So disappointing," he sighed, "Everyone always expects me to be the bearer of bad tidings. Instead, I was bringing a visitor for you. I hope you don't mind, Delilah, I expect your nephew's wife is going to want this guest to stay." As he spoke, he stepped aside, and a small, round woman with ash-blonde hair stepped into the doorway.
"Baba Anya!" Melisande dashed across the room and was in her godmother's embrace before she even could think. "How–why–" She was speaking Russian, forgetting how rude it really was with others in the room. "How did you get here? When?"
Her godmother held her out at arm's length. "Let me look at you, Melichka." Countess Anastasia Leonova Dragomirov looked much the same as she had nearly a year ago in Paris, down to the black brooch she always wore, which Melisande knew now was a memento from her godmother's distant past as a field agent. (And a gift from Lord M_, back when he was a callow young spy, first learning what the lady agents of the Duchy of Moscow did best.) "You look well. Very well. I was afraid between the English food and the English weather, or lack of it, I'd find you pale and sickly."
"I'm perfectly fine, as you can see. Motherhood agrees with me." She turned, but Delilah was already bringing James over. That, and the arched eyebrow from Trelawney Thorpe, reminded her of her manners. "Baba Anya, I don't believe you've met Ardsley's aunt, or her friend, though of course you know them by reputation, I'm sure." As she spoke, she switched back to English, and she opted not to speculate that Lord M_ had presumably briefed her before they arrived. "This is Dame Delilah Quartermain, and of course I'm sure your recognize Miss Trelawney Thorpe. Aunt Delilah, Miss Thorpe, allow me to present the Countess Dragomirov, my godmother."
"Countess, it's a pleasure." Delilah handed James back to Melisande, who was more than happy for the burden. "Melisande has told us about you."
"Nothing classified, I hope," Baba Anya said. "It is an honor to meet you, Dame Delilah. And the famous Miss Thorpe."
"My exploits have been slightly exaggerated." Trelawney Thorpe nodded politely, though. "Not too much, but a bit."
"I'm sure." But Baba Anya's attention, fairly enough, was on the bundle in Melisande's arms. "Now, let me see him. Ah, dziecko," and she crooned softly as Melisande, with only a faint reluctance, handed James over. After a moment of cooing in Russian that sounded embarrassingly like the sort of thing Melisande herself said to him all the time (she hadn't thought it was that soppy), Baba Anya looked up. "He looks like his father," and it wasn't quite accusatory.
"Yes, he does." Melisande felt she could be indulgent. "He's going to be terribly handsome when he grows up."
There was a soft snort from Delilah Quartermain. "Forgive me," she said, when Melisande gave her a dark look and Anya a puzzled one, "but 'terribly handsome' weren't words I was accustomed to hearing in regards to my nephew before Melisande came along."
"I certainly can't understand why not," Melisande muttered to her son.
"Forgive my goddaughter," Anya said. "I'm afraid she's never been entirely rational where your nephew is concerned. Though I suppose that's a good thing for you, isn't it, little one?" She smiled down at James, and Melisande had to smother a laugh. No one, it seemed, could resist a baby.
"I think I'm perfectly rational on the subject, but really, Baba Anya, you have no one to blame but yourself and Uncle Oleg. You're the ones who sent me after Ardsley."
"Have I mentioned, Anya, how pleased we've turned out to be with that?" Lord M_ could sound unprofessionally smug at times.
"Far too often." Cradling the baby, Baba Anya looked less annoyed than she might have at that.
"I appreciate being kept occupied. Speaking of which, Lord M_, not that I don't very much appreciate having a visitor-rather, being allowed this particular visitor, and I don't mean to be rude, but . . . why?" Melisande gestured to the tea table, and Lord M_ nodded briefly so she fixed him a cup. "Allowing me in was one thing–I'm married to an Englishman. My godmother is another story entirely." She heard a slight cough from Trelawney Thorpe, and hoped that for once the Spark of the Realm would keep her own counsel. "I cannot imagine Her Majesty was entirely comfortable allowing one of the Duchy's spymasters into her country, even with supervision."
Lord M_ took a sip of his tea and nodded approvingly, before looking at Melisande over the saucer. "To the point as always, Mrs. Wooster. There is an ulterior motive, of course. One might say, strange times make for strange bedfellows."
"I think my nephew's wife is more than familiar with that concept." Delilah took a decorous sip of tea and looked too innocent to really invite a response.
Lord M_ was far too polite to offer one. "Have you heard of Count Benevolo Vercordi?"
"Not that I recall. One of the Baron's?" Of course, within most of Europe, one was the Baron's man, or one was nothing.
"Not precisely. Oh, he doesn't go out of his way to annoy the Baron, but Count Vercordi is his own man and no one else's. He rules a very small principality on the Cote d'Azur, mostly a summer retreat for those with enough money and time for leisure. Which, of course, involves gambling away what money they have, for the most part."
"Business can't have been very good." Melisande poured a cup of tea for her godmother, strong and without sugar or cream, and set it on the table before refreshing her own cup. "Since when do Sparks go on holiday?"
"Some do, and of course the nobles need something to do now the Baron doesn't permit them to have wars as a hobby." Lord M_ smiled as he took another sip. "We'll have you making proper tea yet. In any case, the Count recently issued a series of invitations to representatives of various noble families, wealthy merchants, anyone who might have a significant cash reserve, really, to come to a special private event. He's being very deliberately coy about it, but everyone he's asked has a large amount of funding at their disposal, and little to no access to the sort of top-level Sparks the Baron has at his disposal."
"Interesting." Melisande looked at her godmother. "I am to assume the Duchy received such an invitation?"
Baba Anya nodded. "Via Paris, which is why I am the designated guest. Obviously, we have a Spark for a ruler in the Duchy, but with all due respect to the Grand Duke . . . ."
"Cousin Alexei has never been the strongest sort of Spark," Melisande concurred, though it still felt vaguely traitorous to say so. "Or the most practical. To this day I'm not quite sure why he thought the world needed a sawmill that runs on jam, but in any case, I do see the point. But I don't see how that leads to your being here, or what help I can be. I certainly haven't been invited."
"Nor has anyone from England." Lord M_ set down his cup again. "Presumably, the Queen's . . . unique condition suggested she would not be interested in whatever it is he's planning to offer, and of course we know that none of the nobility here would be likely to go without her permission."
"Not after what happened to Devonshire, they wouldn't." Melisande began to have an inkling where this was going. "But I suppose Her Majesty would like to have eyes on the inside, invitation or no? And it would have to be someone without any known connections. So you're looking for Melisande La Capere, not Mrs. Ardsley Wooster, yes?"
Baba Anya smiled. "I told you, Bernard, she's quick."
"I had no doubts." Lord M_ was abruptly serious. "That is precisely what we are proposing. Anya will attend, and it of course would be perfectly natural to bring her goddaughter as her companion. Traveling under your maiden name, with your father's surname, there should be nothing to connect you to Britain."
"Not if we go via Paris." Melisande realized she was already thinking of 'our' mission and in terms of 'we.' Apparently she'd missed active status more than she'd thought. "What is the object, though? Presumably this Count is selling something. Are we buying? And if so, for whom?"
"As in, who benefits?" Lord M_'s smile thinned a bit. "A fair question, certainly. Obviously, with Anya taking the lead—"
"As I must," her godmother interrupted, "as I am the one invited." There was a steely edge to her voice, not hostile, but certainly firm.
"Yes," Lord M_ continued, "the Duchy obviously has a solid claim to any valuable discoveries. Your presence, Mrs. Wooster, would give Her Majesty's government an interest as well. We have been . . . negotiating an equitable split."
"You're quite confident that I'll be acting in the interest of Her Majesty, and not my former employer." Melisande looked from Lord M_ to her aunt. "Does my uncle know about this idea?"
There was a long pause, broken only by a quiet baby burbling from James. Baba Anya busied herself adjusting his blanket, not looking at her goddaughter. "Oleg Feyodorovich has a . . . general idea of our intentions. He is still not kindly disposed towards you, though I understand your mother has been trying to persuade him otherwise. Though of course it would not be politic for him to say so Alexei Nicolaiovich is also inclined in your favor."
"He did send a very nice gift when James was born," Melisande said, half to herself. "Of course it was a month before Q branch was done taking it apart and putting it back together before we received it . . . ." To be fair, a mechanical dancing bear that played polkas did have far too many places to hide potential weapons, though she suspected what would annoy cousin Alexei more than the investigation was that it now played slightly out of tune.
"You almost sound as if you would like to go back." Trelawney Thorpe might not be as young as she once was, but she could still put enough authority into her voice even Lord M_ sat up a little straighter.
"I'd like to see my parents again someday." Melisande took her fussy son from Baba Anya, and something about the weight of him in her arms made her own spine a bit stronger, or it felt like it. "I would like for them to meet their grandson, and assuming he doesn't get himself killed, their son-in-law. That will be very difficult to achieve if my uncle has the Grand Duke convinced I'm a notorious traitor who ought to be shot on sight and my husband a dangerous enemy who should be treated likewise. If this mission is primarily for the Duchy then perhaps that point is negotiable."
To her surprise, the Spark of the Realm smiled. "Practical girl. If a bit sentimental," she added, as if she needed to make it clear she wasn't. "A better question would be is this sudden cooperative effort really an attempt to place you in precisely the right position to be shot on sight."
"I beg your pardon–"
Trelawney Thorpe cut off Baba Anya's protests. "It can't have done your reputation any good, Countess, to lose two agents and have a third defect. Your friendship with Lord M_ gets you in the door here, your goddaughter trusts you, and once you're both on the continent–"
"With respect to everyone here," Melisande interrupted, "the only person I trust completely is my husband. Baba Anya, you had a chance to eliminate me in Paris, you did not. Lord M_ assured my husband I would be safe here and my oath of allegiance to Her Majesty would be respected so long as I honored it. I have. And while I have been here I may have limited myself to certain internal security matters and to raising my son, I have not forgotten everything I learned. I would very much be interested in this mission. That doesn't mean I don't remember Secret Police policy about enemy agents working against the Duchy. I know what the official position on my status is likely to be. Smyert shpionen." Lord M_ and Trelawney Thorpe didn't change expression–they obviously knew what that meant. From the slight twist to Delilah's mouth, she didn't, so Melisande repeated in English, "Death to spies."
Baba Anya, of course, knew what it meant. "I hope you know, Melisande, I would never hurt you. But I admit that your uncle and I differ on that point."
"I am not surprised." She wasn't, by either statement.
"If we did not have assurances sufficient for our peace of mind that this is neither an attempt at a re-defection or a trap," Lord M_ said, "we would not even be presenting this offer. Not only are you a valuable asset yourself, Mrs. Wooster, but I have no desire to have to tell Ardsley something happened to you. At the least, it would likely render him highly ineffective in his duties. And those assurances go further than any . . . private confidences I might have in Countess Dragomirov, so you can desist with the smirk, Trelawney, though I know you won't." The Spark of the Realm raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything.
There was a pause, broken only by James's quiet fussing. For once Melisande half-wished he needed changing as that would give her time alone to think. With the perversity that seemed to be typical of babies, he declined to oblige. Finally, she said, "When do you leave for the Cote d'Azur, Baba Anya?"
Her godmother's face was as neutral as her own. "The day after tomorrow. I'm afraid this will have to be a short stay. The Count's little private party begins Friday, and the invitation was rather vague on how long it will last."
"Hm." Melisande looked down at her son. Had he grown since yesterday? It seemed as if he grew almost fast enough to see. Suddenly the weight of her glass locket, with its cunningly concealed picture of her husband, felt very heavy against her neck. What would Ardsley want her to do? To be safe, of course. On the other hand, he would not want her to be bored, either, and he knew that she hadn't been raised to sit quietly at home with her needlework. In fact, hadn't it been her ability in a pitched battle that had prompted him to propose? He could hardly object to her dusting off those skills now that she was fit again.
Besides, it wasn't as if he was here to have a vote. "Well then. I suppose I don't have very long to pack, do I?" Lord M_ smiled, Baba Anya looked cautiously pleased, Trelawney Thorpe was inscrutable, and there was something that might have been fear in Delilah Quartermain's eyes.
The knife dropped by the hilt into Melisande's palm. With a quick flick of her wrist, she flipped it from a combat grip to a stabbing grip, then returned it to the scabbard and unstrapped the rig from her arm. She hadn't dropped the knife or cut off her fingers, always a good sign that she wasn't too rusty. The knife went into her small traveling case, along with the little pistol and the grappling gun. Sentimental reminders of Paris, perhaps, and a harsher reminder to keep one's eye on one's target, and that even family were not always trustworthy.
She was, of course, still packing to go, so perhaps the reminders were necessary.
There was a soft tap at the bedroom door. She'd thought that Aunt Delilah and Baba Anya were asleep. James was in the crib by her bed (officially, it was their bed, hers and Ardsley's, but he had been home to share it precisely once during their marriage, and that for far too short a time.) James was becoming less fussy about sleeping through the night, but even if he'd still been waking what seemed like every five minutes, she'd have kept him with her instead of the nursery. This mission sounded simple, but one never knew. She'd been told seducing a British agent would be easy, and in fairness, it had been. They just hadn't mentioned the very real possibility of her being seduced in return.
"Come in." She kept her voice low, and for now it paid off–no sounds from the bassinet.
Aunt Deliliah opened the door just as carefully. She'd lived through the same long nights as Melisande. "I'm not disturbing you?"
"Not at all. I'm still packing." She supposed she ought to think more about the clothes instead of weapons, but her choices were limited to what she'd brought with her when she defected (which wasn't a great deal, though her split skirts and the jacket cut to conceal her variety of weapons could come in handy) and the English fashions she'd acquired since. Some of those were passable on the Continent, others, more strongly influenced by the Glass City's constant perfect climate and subsequent lack of need for layering, were . . . not. Not unless the Count's resort was very liberal-minded.
"I thought you might be. From what I saw with Trelawney and our other agents, it's normal to be restless right before a mission begins." Delilah studied the travel case and the small trunk propped open beside it. "You'll be all right for gear, then?"
"I have a few things. I'm afraid I'm a bit more lost for appropriate attire, but Baba Anya assured me that's taken care of." Despite having shared her home for over a year now, Melisande was never entirely sure where she stood in her aunt-in-law's estimation. It was hard to tell now whether Delilah's expression was one of concern, disapproval, or a mixture of both. "Hopefully I won't be gone so long it will be a problem."
"Hopefully." The older woman was not frowning, precisely, but close to it. "I'd thought you might be short on supplies. I had these lying around, and thought it might be useful. Just an old idea I had. It was never really up Trelawney's alley, but you might find it more suitable." She held out a small gold compact with an engraved filigree designed, that looked like any other little makeup mirror, and a pair of what appeared to be perfectly ordinary black satin opera gloves with a stitched-on pattern of gold cord and seed pearls around the wrists.
Melisande had worked with espionage quartermasters long enough to know to take both items very, very gingerly. "The compact?"
Delilah was definitely smiling. "One of my nicer thoughts for lady agents. It's safe to open, my dear. Just make sure you always work the clasp to your right. Now, the mirror is removable. It's actually a polarizing lens—look through and you'll be able to see most signs of invisible ink, and if anyone's been dusting any powders or using any sort of liquids on surfaces. Quite handy for detecting knockout or poisoning attempts and traps."
"And the face powder?" It was a pretty pink shade, but Melisande held the puff between thumb and forefinger, well away from her face.
"Compliments your color nicely, my dear." Delilah's smile had just a bit of an edge. "But it is also highly incendiary. Work the latch to your left, and you'll have approximately fifteen seconds before the spark sets the powder off. I suggest you be at least ten feet away by that point."
Melisande gently closed the compact and tucked it in the travel case. "Approximately?"
Delilah shrugged. "These things do vary with humidity and temperature."
She hoped it was "approximately" in the direction of taking longer to ignite. "And the gloves?"
"Try them on." Melisande pushed the sleeves of her dressing gown up and slid on the right-hand glove. At first, all she noted was the silky satin lining, and then it registered that the decorative notions around the wrists felt a tad heavier than gold thread and seed pearls ought to. Delilah obviously saw the look on her face. "The little gray pearl just over your pulse point is the switch. There's twenty feet of high-tensile wire coiled in there. It should be strong enough to support your weight and one other person, provided they're not too heavy. It also should hold most normal humans tied at the wrists, though I make no guarantees about clanks and constructs." She pointed to the left glove, which was lying on the bed. "The pearls on that one dissolve into knockout drops. Two should put an average adult man under for at least an hour."
Melisande nodded. "And the pearls on the right?"
"From the finest oysters in the tidal beds. Do not get the gloves mixed up."
"I won't." Melisande slid the right glove back off and folded them both into the travel case. "Thank you, Aunt Delilah. They're fantastic, much better than I'm used to being issued."
Delilah paused, her gaze wandering to the bassinet. "They might come in handy. I don't like seeing agents go into the field under-armed. And of course Ardsley would never forgive any of us if something happened to you."
Melisande felt a tightening in her throat. "Aunt Delilah—"
Delilah waved her away. "It's the least I can do, besides take care of young James here until you return. Only . . . ." She paused for a long moment. "I already raised my nephew as an orphan. Please don't force me to do the same for his son." She turned back to Melisande and her gaze was steely. "Be sure you come back."
"Believe me," Melisande said, checking that the gun was near the top of the contents before snapping the lid of her travel case shut, "I intend to."