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My mistress is never more confident than when engaging in nefarious activities. “Duchesse Claudine Augustille Recherche Dubois,” she announced to the factotum of the spice shop. “Accompanied by M. Pepin.”
The factotum looked alarmed. “Madame, one is not supposed to use one’s real name.”
My mistress paused to consider the etiquette of this. “Would it help if I pretended to be M. Pepin, and he pretended to be La Duchesse?”
“Just write M. and Mme. Noir,” I urged.
The factotum looked relieved. “Very good, Monsieur.”
“Nonsense, Pepin,” protested La Duchesse as I steered her through the shop. “How am I expected to remember a name like Noir? Pseudonyms require subtlety, panache … possibly something from classic literature?”
“I will try to conjure something more literary next time,” I promised her.
Past the foul-smelling shelves and bins of the shop, we found ourselves within one of the more sinister dens of the city of Prosperine. At first it appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary — a selection of well-heeled ladies and gentlemen sat at tables in order to chat, to read from slender volumes, or to embroider while drinking dishes of coffee.
But the flashes of metallic grey, LED green and holographic purple were hard to ignore. For every gentleman with a book, there were another three swapping datacrystals. For every lady with embroidery on her knee, there were several with glowing nano-wands or flat screens. Even setting foot in an establishment like this was illegal on New Ceres. For an aristocrat such as my mistress, there was a great deal to lose. Only one week earlier, the Count and Countess of Chevre had been arrested in Anglais for hosting a scientifiction salon in a speakeasy such as this one. They were currently awaiting trial for sacrilege and treason, and there was talk that the Lumoscenti were pressuring the Lady Governor to withdraw the Chevre family’s rank and titles back three generations.
“Eyes open, Pepin,” said my mistress as we walked among our fellow criminals. “And don’t drink the coffee. It smells positively rancid.”
I recognised the boy first, though I had only seen him at a distance on state occasions. Conrad Nathaniel DeVries had dyed his hair recently, but his black-splashed locks could not disguise the evident family resemblance, including a particularly pointed nose.
I nudged my mistress, and indicated the table where Conrad sat with a group of similarly raucous and badly dressed young gentlemen. They were playing some kind of offworld game with holographic battleships that shot glowing pellets across a flat glass gameboard, and had reached that stage of drunkenness where simply everything is hilarious.
My mistress moved into position behind Conrad before calling attention to herself by plucking at his sleeve. “Young sir,” she murmured. “A word, if you please?”
He shook her off without looking. “Take your wares elsewhere, wench.”
His friends laughed at that, but one of them caught the look in La Duchesse’s eyes, and the laughter stilled in his throat.
“For your mother’s sake, sir,” my mistress said, with glass in her voice. “A moment of your time.”
Conrad whirled at her, eyes bright with absinthe and rage. “Who are you to use my mother’s name—” There he stopped, for he recognised the woman before him. “What are you doing here?”
La Duchesse smiled a winning smile. “Merely a duty visit, my sweet. I knew him in swaddling clothes,” she confided to his friends, even as she drew the resisting lad into her perfumed bosom. As he struggled in her embrace, she whispered into his ear. She was too discreet for even I to hear the words, but I guessed something of what she had said to him.
Don’t be an ass, Nate. The Lumoscenti are coming. This place is being raided tonight, and you know perfectly well that you can’t be caught here.
Everything moved fast after that. Even as the young rascal made his apologies to withdraw, a low whistle sounded from the spice shop frontage.
“The Golden Priests!” someone cried. Many of the patrons simply slipped their contraband out of sight, but others upturned tables and scrambled for the back door.
“Not there,” La Duchesse said in disgust as the brat made to bolt. “This way, Nate. Follow me.”
“My name is Conrad,” he spat at her in disgust. “You’re not my mother.”
“Saints be praised for that, at least,” she said, and dragged him towards a wall thick with tapestries.
There were yelps and howls from outside. “Priests at the exit?” I said, not in the least surprised.
“La Policia, I expect,” said my mistress. “This isn’t an everyday raid.” She pushed us both behind the tapestries. “Is there a door, Pepin?”
There was, though it was old and unused, with a firm lock upon it. “How did you know?”
“No time for questions!”
Within three months of employment in La Duchesse’s household, I had found it necessary to learn the art of picking locks. A beauty such as this one, however, required time and finesse that I did not have. I drew a fountain pen from my inner pocket, thumbed it to draw a fine laser bead and sliced the lock neatly from the door.
Conrad gulped at the hissing sound of metal parting.
“That’s right, lad,” La Duchesse said grimly. “We’re all criminals here.”
Steps led down to a cellar. Conrad clattered down them, and I followed with La Duchesse after bolting the door from this side.
“There’s a tunnel behind the barrels,” she said, without looking to check. “It leads up and out to the alley near the bookshop.”
“That’s why you had Damon wait there with the phaeton,” I said, admiringly. The bookshop was in another street entirely to both the spice shop’s front and back entrances.
She rolled her eyes. “Really, Pepin, I am no amateur in these matters. Make haste, before they find the door behind the tapestry.”
Conrad hesitated by the barrels. I motioned for him to start moving them, and after a moment, he did. Sure enough, there was a small hole in the wall — wide enough for a man to crawl through. Not a woman in current fashions, though.
“You’ll have to leave your skirts,” I told La Duchesse.
“I’m not coming with you. What are you waiting for?’ she barked at Conrad, and he dived into the tunnel as if his life depended on it. In a manner of speaking, of course, it did.
“Leaving you behind was not our plan,” I protested.
“Of course it was, Pepin. I simply did not inform you of that fact.”
“Claudine, you can’t afford to be found here.” I could hear shuffling and shouting in the rooms above. It was only a matter of time before they discovered the cellar.
“For Nate’s sake, I can’t afford not to be,” she said firmly. “The Lumoscenti were tipped off. They’re expecting a ripe sugar-plum out of this raid. If they get me, they might not look too hard for anyone else.”
“Your title won’t protect your from the Lumoscenti! The Count and Countess of Chevre…”
She smiled sickly at me. “That’s why we’re here, Pip. Be off with you, and don’t stop until you and the boy are within the gates of his mother’s estate.”
“Did she know you planned to sacrifice yourself?”
A heavy weight thumped against the door above. The bolt held, for now.
La Duchesse pushed me hard in the middle of my chest. “If ever you loved me, my dear, do as I say.”
How’s a fellow supposed to fight a woman who says things like that?
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