"I was hoping to spend more time with you after last night," Ardsley murmured, "but this was not exactly what I had in mind."
Melisande pressed herself flatter against the sun-warmed rock. "I'm finding it quite refreshing to have company for surveillance, myself." And the cliff was far more comfortable, rocks aside, than tailing someone through Paris, or her practice surveillance in Petersburg. In January. She'd been told the necessary dress for cold weather gave operatives-in-training an assist, as everyone looked alike bundled in fur stoles and heavy hats, but she suspected her uncle simply wanted to see who would crack under the pressure first. Here the sun was warm, the fresh breeze off the sea was refreshing, and the terrain meant they had a perfect vantage point of the village and its small harbor while remaining relatively out of sight, or at least high enough no one was likely to look up that far. "If anyone asks, we can always say we were having a picnic."
"Without food?" Ardsley had a point. "Might be a less-than-convincing argument."
"Well, what else could two young people be doing on an isolated cliff overlooking the sea, all alone?"
"I have some ideas." She felt his finger tracing a slow pattern on the palm of her hand and looked away from the village long enough to smile at him. Ardsley smiled back, then turned his attention to the village below. "It doesn't look like there's anyone around to see us."
"I noticed." The village was, while not quite hovels, the antithesis of the lavish compound where the Count's guests were staying. The small whitewashed adobe houses were packed close together, and the terra cotta tiles on the roofs were neat, but plain. From their vantage point, Melisande could see a small square at the center of town with a large but functional, rather than ornate, fountain. There were no shops, though it was always possible they had a market day once a week. In such a small town, where presumably most residents were employed by the Count, there were unlikely to be many needs left unmet or a huge population to keep occupied. "If anything, it seems a bit too quiet. No children? No elderly?"
"No one coming home for a family meal at noon? In this climate I'd think people would eat outside." Ardsley was holding a small telescope that when collapsed looked discretely like a pen. "I don't see so much as a drape blowing in the wind. And hardly a sail in the harbor or on the sea–there's a fishing boat, it looks to be, but it's far from shore."
"I wish I had one of those." It was a handy little gadget, though not inconspicuous once in use.
"Put in a requisition when you get back," Ardsley said, this time not taking his eye away from the viewing end.
"You're still annoyed about that license to kill thing, aren't you?" She couldn't entirely blame him.
"Hmph." But she heard a faint note of laughter.
Melisande shook her head with mock sadness and as she turned her gaze from the village, she saw a cloud of dust rising from the coast road, coming southeast from the direction of the Count's estate. She touched Ardsley's shoulder and pointed, and he turned his telescope towards the incoming traffic as they both pressed themselves lower to the warm stones.
"Looks like a dray–there's two in the Count's livery on the seat." As Ardsley spoke, he offered the telescope. Melisande smiled at the courtesy, though he was still peering down at the road.
When she put the device to her eye and adjusted the focus, she had a clear view of the approaching cart. Empty, drawn by two heavy horses, and sitting on the driver's box were a man in a plainer version of the green and gold livery, and . . . "Well, if it isn't your friend, Miss Muliera."
"No friend of mine," Ardsley muttered. "I wonder why the Count's right-hand woman is all the way down here on a supply run?"
"Important supplies, one presumes." Melisande watched as the dray stopped in the square and Velocia stepped down from the driver's box. The red-painted door of one house opened as she approached–obviously whoever was within had been watching for their arrival. A man, the first 'native' of the island she'd seen who wasn't dressed in green and gold, stepped into the square. He was carrying a small box, certainly not big enough to warrant the dray's presence, which he handed to Velocia. She opened the box, and Melisande squinted, but the miniature telescope wasn't strong enough to see any more detail. The major domo then turned and pointed to the dray and then towards the shore, and the man gave a very Mediterranian shrug and beckoned to someone inside the house. A moment later, two more men appeared and crossed the square towards the docks, passing behind one of the other buildings and briefly out of her line of sight.
"Interesting." Ardsely was squinting down at the action, shielding his eyes from the sun. "Definitely looks like they're picking something up. Or someone."
"Not more guests." The men looked like sturdy, hands-on labor types, which both fit with the Count's alleged aversion to using clanks and Sparkish inventions for working, but somehow Melisande didn't think they were just hauling in the day's catch.
"Something important enough to have Miss Muliera picking it up," Ardsley agreed, holding out his hand for the telescope. Melisande wrinkled her nose at him, but it was his, after all, and she handed it back. As he watched she looked out over the village to the sea beyond. The smaller island that housed the monastery was clearly visible in the distance, though too far off for her to see any details.
A glint of light reflecting on the water caught her eye, and she squinted, trying to spot the source. A boat was bobbing midway between the two islands. Going by the set of the sails and the netting and rigs she could barely make out, it was a fishing boat, though the figures moving about on the deck all seemed to be wearing dark robes. The monks from the far island? Melisande supposed they needed to eat and trade like anyone, but it seemed an odd time of day to be out on the water. The flicker of light, too seemed without a source, until she saw it again–something small and glass, in the hands of one of the robed figures. A spyglass, she realized, pointed at the Count's island. Despite the distance, she pressed herself flatter to the rock, and touched Ardsley's arm.
He glanced at her, and she pointed out to sea. "We're not the only ones taking an interest."
Ardsley turned his spyglass from the square to the little boat. "Think that's what they're here to meet?"
"They're too far out to be bringing something to shore," Melisande said. "And they appear to be watching the shore just as intently as we are."
"Allegedly, they're a quiet cloistered order," Ardsley said, "small enough Boris hasn't even worried that they're out to abduct or assassinate the Baron's son and if he's not worried about someone you know they're inconsequential. Still . . . maybe they're worried about the Count expanding his operations."
"Or that they're bringing something dangerous next door." Without the spyglass, she couldn't see the activity in the town square in detail, but the men from the house were hauling a large crate on a sledge to the dray. Melisande fought the urge to grab the spyglass back from Ardsley and take a closer look. "Is there anything on the crate?"
Ardsley, who might not live with his wife all the time but still knew a tone of voice when he heard it, said, "Take a look," and handed her the spyglass.
Melisande gave him a genuinely sweet smile and looked again. "No lettering I can see, except 'fragile', 'this end up . . .' At least they've got that bit right loading it. All in Italian, so it didn't come very far to get here."
"Who just came out of the house?"Ardsley sounded as if he was trying, very hard, to not ask for the spyglass back again.
Melisande squinted. The figure who'd emerged from the house was slight and stoop-shouldered, wrapped in black shawls and moving with the slow, bent gait of the very old. The face surrounded by the shawl looked wizened, too, though she couldn't see any hair to tell if it was white. The old woman had a smaller box, without any markings, that she carried over to Velocia. The majordomo took it and cracked the lid open. Not, unfortunately, enough for Melisande to see inside, but whatever it was made the redhead nod approvingly. The old woman did not appear to change expression but as she turned away, she looked up towards the rocky cliffs and the wizened face squinted just a bit more.
Then she pointed.
Melisande dropped flat to the rock and to Ardsley's credit he ducked at the same instant, before he asked, "They see us?"
Melisande didn't dare raise the spyglass again–foolish; if the light reflecting on the 'fishing boat' caught her eye, of course the same thing might happen to them, assuming Q branch hadn't thought to put a nonreflective lens on this version. She'd have to make a note of that when she returned to the Glass City. "They saw something." When she looked back up she saw that, while the old woman had apparently lost interest, Velocia was now staring up at the overlook.
"Bloody hell, she's spotted us." Ardsley ducked again. "I hope she doesn't have binoculars."
Melisande grimaced. In the square below Velocia had turned and gotten the attention of the men loading the dray. If they decided to come looking, she and Ardsley were in a sticky situation–stay and confront them and look suspicious, or run and look more so. Strictly speaking they were doing nothing wrong, as guests were allegedly welcome anywhere on the island. Practically, there was no reason for them to be lying on an isolated cliff over the sea, overlooking the village, when they were supposed to be out for a midday ride.
No reason–but one.
"Are they looking?" She rolled over so she was sitting up, leaning back on her elbows with her back to the cliff and the village below.
Ardsley blinked and turned to her. "Ah–yes, they're looking, and Miss Muliera is pointing and . . . oh dear, that looks like a spyglass she's getting."
"Good." She grabbed Ardsley's lapels and pulled him into a tight embrace. To his credit, he relaxed from his surprise almost immediately and set about making the performance highly convincing. "Now," she murmured, leaning back and essentially inviting him to lie over her, "you want to do what to me?"
"Not that I object," Ardsley said, and given how readily he was participating in the act she believed him, "but what on Earth are you doing?"
"Look up," she said, tightening her arms around his back in a way that pointed him towards the cliff again, "and while you're ravishing me, keep an eye on them, yes?"
"Ah, I see." He unpinned her hat and tossed it aside, and she made a mental note to brush it off later before putting it back on. "Well," he said, while nuzzling the exquisitely-sensitive spot at the base of her throat, "she's definitely looking. Not sure if she's angry or embarrassed."
"Hm." Melisande gave him a gentle push and he understood, rolling over onto his back and pulling her with him. She looked down, and saw the driver and the men who'd been loading the dray looking up towards them with what even from here she could tell were leering grins. Velocia had clearly just lowered the telescope and looked like she was anything but amused. "I think we've got their attention."
"You've certainly got mine." His hands were occupied, expertly working the buttons of her split riding skirts. Clearly, Ardsley was going to make the most of their cover. "They have their cargo loaded?"
"Looks like." The larger crate was secured on the dray, and Velocia had placed the smaller box on her seat. The men, however, seemed more interested in the show on the cliffs than in finishing their task. She could almost see the woman's face turning red to match her hair at the disorder, and then Ardsley, with a deft sort of move that spoke more of martial arts than marital, had her on the ground again and she lost the view. "I suspect they'll be taking whatever it is to an entrance the guests can't see."
"Post-haste, from the looks of things. She's got them moving out." Ardsley seemed somewhat less than interested at this point. "I expect the Count will hear about this, even if we don't."
"Yes, especially if we're too long getting back." Not that she wanted to leave. Not that this wasn't far more an escape she'd expected.
"Hm." Ardsley clearly did not think rushing back was their highest priority. "Still, just in case anyone is still watching, we probably ought to give the charade a little more time. For veracity's sake."
"Of course." Melisande smiled, toying with the buttons of his riding breeches, and decided not to worry if anyone was watching them or not.