The ballroom was lit with hundreds of torches, oil lamps and candelabras. Ellison assumed there must have been some windows open on the balcony level to create a cross-breeze to keep the room from filling with smoke.
The Singletons glittered across the dance floor in all their splendor. Thousands of skilled crafters had descended on Krim these past few months to fit, cut, sew and embroider and today’s dance was the pinnacle of their work. Even Ellison himself had stepped out through the gate to pick up a fresh outfit for himself. It was still the default assassin’s costume, but missing the smells and stains that his clothes had accumulated over the past few days.
Even Matilda had shined up her breastplate.
The two of them were camped out by the finger foods table. They ignored the liveried servants who frowned at their lack of culture and fancy dress.
There were castles and crowns made of marchpane, which, according to a convenient label, was “sweetenned almondde pastte.” There were also fruit pies — “fruitte piess” — tarts — “tarttess” — and cheesecakes — “cheesseccakkessss.”
Matilda was gnawing at a marchpane castle bigger than her own head, which, judging by daggers the servants glared at her when she took it, had been intended as a decorative centerpiece for that particular grouping of desserts. It had probably taken someone hours to make.
Ellison glanced around. The entire glitterati class of Krim City was in attendance, gathered in small groups around the perimeter of the dance floor.
There was Doctor Buryngton from the Chubb-Baggins Leper Sanatorium and Heritage Medicine Hospital. Rona Mills-Mills-Mills from Lifeworks, also a doctor but of a different kind, was standing next to him in what looked like a Victorian librarian’s dress. Ship captain Maximilian May, head of the Flat Krim Reality Society, looked like the spitting image of Christopher Columbus, in a doublet, tights, puffy sleeves, and a cloak.
Duke Humfridus Hubelet Hamund, head of the Sightless Crossfire Guild, was chatting with Duke Warrenus Oudinnet, head of the Paladins of Death.
Osgar Cerdic Sigeweard, the director of the Krim Chamber of Commerce, wore his traditional Tudor-style merchant garb, though with a little more lace than he normally had on. Barley Mow innkeeper Quimby Plummer had scored an invitation, and had come up with an outfit worthy of King Henry the Eighth for the occasion. He and Osgar were casting glances at one another from opposite sides of the room. Was Quimby planning to make a bid to become Chamber director, and the outfit was a public declaration of his intent?
Marshal Henderson Trask, the Chamber of Commerce security’s chief, was on the other side of the dessert table, watching Matilda eat with obvious disapproval. He must have wanted that marchpane castle for himself, Ellison thought, but had been too polite to take it.
AviNewz editor and publisher Seymour Gellhorn was in attendance, looking back and forth between the two men, making mental notes. Ellison was surprised that he’d been invited, since one of the prevailing theories was that he himself was the Nightingale.
And, of course, Elea Carlyle herself was sitting on a throne, surrounded by ladies-in-waiting, looking out over the whole room.
“Did you know that all the women are going commando tonight?” Matilda said, mouth full of marchpane.
Ellison wiped the wet crumbs off his face. “All of them?”
“Well, the fancy dress ones,” she said. “How else do you think they can go to the bathroom?”
“I figured that they’d hold it,” he said.
“Not with all the wine they’ll be drinking tonight,” said Matilda.
“And how do you know this, anyway?”
“I have my ways.” She took another bite of the castle as she looked out at the dancers.
Wynefrede Aumberden, Ellison noticed, was dancing with everyone, but Raphe Faryndon wasn’t anywhere to be seen. He’d left Krim as soon as he’d been rescued. The fear of death had been too much for him. Ellison didn’t hold that against him — he didn’t enjoy dying, either. Plus, he’d paid Crewe Investigations a very sizable retainer to look into who had kidnapped him. He’d also hired three other firms. That was fine, Ellison thought. A little friendly competition was a good thing.
“Do you notice that Valerie Kingston isn’t here tonight?” he asked Matilda.
“From the Historical Society?” Matilda looked around. “Huh. You’re right. I don’t see her anywhere. You’d think she’d be on the invite list.”
“I had a chat with her last night,” said Ellison. “Apparently, she still has a grudge against Elea.”
“So it makes me wonder,” said Ellison. “She is a historian. She enjoys writing.”
“You think she’s boycotting the Royal Season on principle?”
“I’d like to find out.” Ellison wiped cheesecake off his face and walked around the perimeter of the ballroom until he found Pleasance Pratt. She was keeping an eagle eye on everything happening in the ballroom, occasionally sending off an assistant to deal with one crisis or another. When she saw Ellison, she stepped away from her aides.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked him.
“No,” he said. “I just came over to ask if you were still interested in the Nightingale’s identity. I’ve been making some inquiries.”
“Ah, I should have told you,” she said. “It become a non-issue.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“The latest reports have been full of out-right, obvious lies,” she said. “That one of the Singletons is actually Marilyn Monroe. That another had an affair with Parazzma Parazzmatazzma. That someone else was secretly trillionaire Kure Koyo. Once people saw that, they stopped believing anything in there. It’s become more of a source of entertainment than anything else.”
“So we can call off the watchers on the newspaper building?”
“Yes, please do that,” said Pleasance. “And send us the final bill for that part of it. You are still looking into who the kidnappers are?”
“Yes,” said Ellison. “We’re following leads both here on Krim and in the real world, as well.”
“Good. I never want this to happen again. We’ve already decided to move our next year’s season to a public grid. We’d been planning to hold it on Mermaid Cove, but we don’t want to take the risk. Until we find out who the kidnappers are and take care of the threat, we’re not going to be holding any more events on private grids.”
Ellison scratched his nose. “Just out of curiosity, why isn’t the head of the historical society here?”
“Valerie Kingston?” Pleasance leaning in towards Ellison. “That was an odd situation,” she whispered. “Elea Carlyle specifically asked her not to be invited. Why? Do you think she might be the Nightingale?”
“I don’t have any specific evidence,” said Ellison. “We haven’t seen her near the newspaper building, or visiting Seymour Gellhorn’s house. Or any of her employees, for that matter.”
“So the Nightingale mystery might never be solved,” said Pleasance. “No worries. The important thing is that we got Raphe and Wynefrede back.”
Before Ellison could say anything else, he felt a tug on his arm.
“Can you excuse us for a moment?” Welton Layton, the grid’s assistant manager, nodded at Pleasance and pulled Ellison aside. “I want to thank you for the heads-up about Saugerties Castle,” he told Ellison. “I was there with my team when the Armforge Guild finally took it back and we had them take us to the crypt. They refused at first, but we insisted. We found the crate that Wynefrede was talking about.”
“Full of guns,” said Welton. “Same as the ones your Matilda confiscated at the docks. Exactly the same, down to the smallest scratch.”
“So someone has access to a gate,” said Ellison.
“Yes, and the Armforge Guild is connected somehow,” said Welton.
“So, do you want to hire me to investigate?”
Welton scowled. “I’d rather not,” he said. “We’ve already increased the security controls on our private gates, and the board of directors doesn’t want to rock the boat with our key customers. But I’d like to find out who’s been running guns illegally.”
“So you want to hire me.”
“It’ll be unofficial,” said Welton. “I’ll give you the locations of the private gates, but you have to agree not to let anyone else know. It’s not supposed to be public information.”
Ellison made a zipper gesture across his lips and Welton frowned again. “I’m serious,” he said. “I can get fired for this. But I don’t like the thought that one of our big customers has been lying to my face.”
Ellison nodded. The gun running was probably connected to the kidnapping, he thought. It would help with the other case, and put extra money in his pocket. “I’ll get right on it.”