Irene suppressed a groan. How many factions were involved in this thing? How was she supposed to conduct a rational investigation with this sort of interference? ‘Who’s doing the striking?’ she demanded in a murmur. ‘And can we use it as a diversion to search the Embassy?’
Vale regarded her from under lowered eyebrows. ‘Miss Winters, that’s a very felonious suggestion.’
‘But it’s a very practical one,’ she said, reminding herself that he was a private detective. Though he didn’t seem to be particularly disapproving. Perhaps it was the fact that she’d suggested it, rather than him, which had forced him to condemn it.
‘Hmph.’ He shovelled more salmon onto her plate. At this rate she’d have indigestion. ‘In answer to your first question, the protestors are the Iron Brotherhood. They are notoriously anti-Fae, so it wouldn’t be out of character for them.’
‘Do you think it would be worth notifying the Embassy staff?’ she asked.
Vale shook his head. ‘They’ll already be expecting something like this. I checked earlier, and they have all the usual precautions – anti-zeppelin guns, glamours, whatever. But do be careful, Miss Winters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to speak to that lady who just came in.’
The lady in question was currently invisible behind a squadron of male admirers, so Irene watched Vale edge across the ballroom, and tried to hide her overstuffed plate behind a bowl of soup.
‘There’s something going on,’ Kai said from behind her shoulder.
Irene very nearly spilled the soup. ‘Really,’ she said through gritted teeth.
‘Absolutely,’ Kai said. ‘Let me get you some of those blinis.’ He picked up a new plate and started depositing more food on it. ‘You need to eat more: it’ll help the healing process.’
‘I also need to be able to walk without falling over,’ Irene said, watching with growing unease as he ladled on something involving crabmeat. ‘Or dance.’
Kai edged a little closer. ‘Have you found out anything yet?’ he muttered.
Irene considered the facts she’d picked up so far. ‘I think Silver’s waiting for something. Or someone. He seemed on edge. But he’s being distracted by the glitterati.’ She could see him at the other side of the ballroom, talking to a voluptuous pair of women in black who hung on each other’s shoulders, clearly already half-drunk. ‘I’ve been talking to a couple of other people. Apparently it’s odd that Silver hasn’t invited any other vampires tonight. I’m wondering if Wyndham’s attack might have been anti-vampire rather than anti-Fae, and I’d like to ask Vale a few more questions about his family and if they have any links to vampires. Oh, and Vale thinks there’s going to be an attack on the Liechtenstein Embassy by an anti-Fae society called the Iron Brotherhood, and – oh, Kai, please not the sour cream.’
‘You need it for a proper contrast with the blinis,’ Kai said firmly.
‘Have you found out anything?’ Irene asked.
‘Nothing definite,’ Kai said slowly. ‘And – well, I haven’t actually been trying to talk to any of the other Fae here. I don’t think they’d tell us anything useful.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Irene agreed neutrally. ‘But have you found out anything from anyone else?’
‘That lady in the corner.’ Kai flicked a glance to their left. The woman in question was elderly, rouged, half buried under a vast white wig, and dressed in a construction of black and white striped satin that was viciously corseted and heavily underwired. ‘She’s very well informed. And she actually is part of the literary world, not just a poseur like Wyndham was.’
‘What’s her name?’ Irene asked.
‘Miss Olga Retrograde,’ Kai said. ‘The elder Miss Olga Retrograde. She said so several times.’
Irene wondered what the younger Miss Retrograde looked like, as she moved towards her. ‘You’d better introduce us. What is she?’
‘A retired lady of pleasure,’ Kai said, rather flatly.
‘Well, at least she won’t assume I’m looking for a job,’ Irene said cheerfully. ‘Oh, Kai, don’t look at me like that – ’
The crowd drifted apart, and Irene could finally see who had just entered the room.
It was Bradamant.
She was as perfect as a black and white photograph, her slender neck rising out of the deep grey silk folds of her bodice like a swan, the train of her dress undulating in smooth liquid elegance.
Kai frowned as Irene broke off mid-sentence, then followed her gaze. ‘What?’ he hissed. ‘Her? Here? How?’
‘Four very good questions,’ Irene said through gritted teeth. ‘My god, she’s wearing a Worth gown. That has to be a Worth gown.’
Kai turned to stare at Irene. ‘What’s the gown got to do with it?’ he asked. ‘Is it particularly effective in concealing weapons or something?’
‘No,’ Irene spat. ‘It’s just one of the best dresses from one of the best dressmakers of the period, or whatever the equivalent is in this alternate. Dear heavens, not only does she come in here to try to steal my mission from under me, she has the nerve to do it while wearing something which screams here-I-am-everyone-look-at-me. I mean, do I go round collecting outfits from alternates just so I can be the best-dressed person at a party?’
‘Irene,’ Kai said, ‘you’re holding my arm a bit tightly.’