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Once she made a decision, Miss Temple considered it an absolutely ridiculous waste of time to examine the choice further—and so from the vantage of her coach she did not debate the merits of her journey to the St. Royale Hotel, instead allowing herself the calming pleasure of watching the shops pass by to either side and the people of the city all about their day. Normally, this was not a thing she cared for—save for a certain morbid curiosity about what flaws could be deduced from a person's dress and posture—but now, as a consequence of her bold separation from the Doctor and Cardinal Chang, she felt empowered to observe without the burden of judgment, committed as she was to action, an arrow in mid-flight. And the fact was, she did feel that merely being in motion had stilled the tempest of feeling that had overtaken her in the Comte's garden and, even worse, in the street. If she was not up to the challenge of braving the St. Royale Hotel, then how could she consider herself any kind of adventurer? Heroines did not pick their own battles—the ones they knew they could win. On the contrary, they managed what they had to manage, and they did not lie to themselves about relying on others for help instead of accomplishing the thing alone. Would she be safer to have waited for Chang and Svenson—however much of the plan was her own devising—so they could have entered the place in force? It was arguable at the very least (stealth, for one) that she alone was best suited for the task. But the larger issue was her own opinion of herself, and her level of loss, relative to her companions. She smiled and imagined meeting them outside the hote—she chuckled at how long it would take them to find her—vital information in hand and perhaps the woman in red or the Comte d'Orkancz, now utterly subject, in tow.
Besides, the St. Royale held her destiny. The woman in red, this Contessa Lacquer-Sforza (simply another jot of proof, as if any were needed, of the Italian penchant for ridiculous names) was her primary enemy, the woman who had consigned her to death and worse. Further, Miss Temple could not help wonder at the woman's role in the seduction—there was no other word—of Roger Bascombe. She knew objectively that the primary engine must be Roger's ambition, manipulated with ease by the Deputy Minister, to whose opinions, as a committed climber, Roger would slavishly adhere. Nevertheless, she could not but picture the woman and Roger in a room together . . . like a cobra facing a puppy. She had seduced him, obviously, but to what actual—which is to say literal, physical—degree? One perfect raised eyebrow and a single purse of her rich scarlet lips would have had him kneeling. And would she have taken Roger for herself or passed him along to one of her minions—one of the other ladies from Harschmort House—that Mrs. Marchmoor—or was it Hooke? There were really too many names. Miss Temple frowned, for thinking of Roger's idiocy made her cross, and thinking of her enemies turning him to their usage with such evident ease made her even crosser.
The coach pulled up outside the hotel and she paid off the driver. Before the man could jump from his box to help her, a uniformed doorman stepped forward to offer his hand. Miss Temple took it with a smile and carefully climbed down to the street. The coach rattled away as she walked to the door, nodding her thanks to a second doorman as he opened it, and into the grand lobby. There was no sign of any person she recognized—all the better. The St. Royale was openly sumptuous, which didn't quite appeal to Miss Temple's sense of order. Such places did the work for a person, which she recognized was part of the attraction but disapproved of—what was the point of being seen as remarkable when it was not really you being seen at all, but your surroundings? Still, Miss Temple could admire the display. There were scarlet leather banquettes and great gold-rimmed mirrors on the wall, a tinkling fountain with floating lotus flowers, large pots of greenery, and a row of gold and red columns supporting a curving balcony that hung over the lobby, the two colors twisting around the poles like hand-carved ribbons. Above, the ceiling was more glass and gold mirrors, with a crystal chandelier whose dangling end point, a multifaceted ball of glittering glass, was quite as large as Miss Temple's head.
She took all of this in slowly, knowing there was a great deal to see, and that such sights easily dazzled a person, encouraging them to ignore what might be important details: like the row of mirrors against the oddly curving left wall, for example, which were strange in that they seemed placed not so much for people to stand before as to reflect the entirety of the lobby, and even the street beyond it—almost as if they were a row of windows rather than mirrors. Miss Temple immediately thought of the odious comment of the still more odious Mr. Spragg, about the cunning Dutch glass—about her own unintentional display in the Harschmort dressing room. Doing her best to shrug off twin reactions of mortification and thrill, she turned her thoughts more directly to her task. She imagined herself still standing in the lobby, trying to get up her nerve, when Chang and Svenson entered behind her, catching up before she had even done anything—she would feel every bit the helpless fool she was trying not to be.
Miss Temple strode to the desk. The clerk was a tall man with thinning hair brushed forward with a bit too much pomade, so the normally translucent hair tonic had creamed over the skin beneath his hair—the effect being not so much offensive as unnatural and distracting. She smiled with the customary crispness that she brought to most impersonal dealings and informed him she had come to call on the Contessa Lacquer-Sforza. He nodded respectfully and replied that the Contessa was not presently in the hotel, and indicated the door to the restaurant, suggesting that she might desire to take a little tea while she waited. Miss Temple asked if the Contessa would be long in arriving. The man answered that, truthfully, he did not know, but that her normal habit was to meet several ladies for a late tea or early aperitif at this time. He wondered if Miss Temple was acquainted with those ladies, for indeed one or more of them might well be in the restaurant already. She thanked him, and took a step in that direction. He called to her, asking if she wanted to leave her name for the Contessa. Miss Temple told him that it was her habit to remain a surprise, and continued into the restaurant.
Before she could even scan the tables for a familiar or dangerous face, a black-coated fellow was standing far too close and asking if she was meeting someone, if she had come for tea or supper or perhaps, his brow twitching in encouragement, an aperitif. Miss Temple snapped—for she did not like to be pestered under any circumstances—that she would prefer tea and two scones and a bit of fruit—fresh fruit, and peeled—and walked past him, looking around the tables. She proceeded to a small table that faced the doorway but was yet some distance into the restaurant, so that she would not be immediately visible from the doorway—or the lobby—and could herself scrutinize anyone who happened to enter. She placed her bag, holding the revolver, onto the next chair, making sure it was beneath the starched tablecloth and unapparent to any passing eye, and sat back to wait for her tea, her mind wandering again to the question of her present solitude. Miss Temple decided that she liked it perfectly well—in fact, it made her feel quite free. To whom was she obliged? Chang and Svenson could take care of themselves, her aunt was packed away—what hold could any enemy now place over her, aside from a threat to her own bodily safety? None at all—and the idea of drawing the revolver and facing down a host of foes right there in the restaurant became increasingly appealing.
She picked at the weave of the tablecloth—it was of quite a high quality, which pleased her—and found she was equally impressed with the St. Royale's tableware, which, while displaying an elegance of line, did not abjure a certain necessary weight, especially important in one's knife, even if all one were to do with that knife was split a scone and slather cream into the steaming crease. Despite Miss Temple having had tea that very morning, she was looking keenly forward to having tea again—indeed, it was her favorite meal. A diet of scones, tea, fruit, and, if she must, some beef consomme before bedtime and she would be a happy young lady. Her tea arrived first, and she was busily occupied with scrutinizing her waiter's handling of the teapot and the hot water pot and the cup and saucer and the silver strainer and the silver dish in which to set the strainer and the little pitcher of milk and the small plate of fresh-cut wedges of lemon. When all had been arranged before her and the man departed with a nod, Miss Temple set about to deliberately re-arrange everything according to her taste and reach—the lemon going to the side (for she did not care for lemon in her tea, but often enjoyed sucking on one or two slices after she had eaten everything else, as a kind of astringent meal-finisher—apart from which, as she had paid for the lemon slices, it always seemed she might as well sample them), the strainer near it, the milk to the other side, and the pot and hot water positioned to allow her to easily stand—which was often, due to their weight, the length of her arms, and the leverage involved with her chair (whether or not its height allowed her feet to touch the floor, as hers presently did just with the toes) required of her in order to pour. Finally, she made sure there was ample space left for the soon-to-arrive scones, fruit, jam, and thick cream.
She stood and poured just a touch of tea into her cup to see if it was dark enough. It was. She then poured in a bit of milk and took up the teapot again, tipping it slowly. For the first cup, if one was careful, it was usually possible to forgo the strainer, as most of the leaves would be sodden and at the bottom of the pot. The tea was a perfect pale mahogany color, still hot enough to steam. Miss Temple sat down and took a sip. It was perfect, the kind of hearty, savory brew that she imagined really ought to be somehow cut up with a knife and fork and eaten in bites. Within another two minutes, passed affably with sipping, the rest of her dishes had arrived and she was again pleased to find that the jam was a deeply colored blackberry conserve and that the fruit was, of all things in the world, a lovely orange hothouse mango, arranged on its plate in finger-thick, length-wise slices. She wondered idly how much this tea was going to cost, and then shrugged away her care. Who knew if she would even be alive in the morning? Why begrudge the simple pleasures that might unexpectedly appear?
Though she did make a point, when she remembered, to glance at the restaurant doorway and scrutinize whoever might be entering, Miss Temple spent the next twenty minutes assiduously focused on slicing and preparing the scones with just the right thickness to each half, applying an under-ayer of jam, and then on top of that slathering the proper amount of cream. This done, she set these aside and indulged in two strips of mango, one after the other, spearing each with her silver fork on one end and eating her way from the other, bite by bite, down to the tines. After this, she finished her first cup of tea and stood again to pour another, this time using the strainer and also pouring in a nearly equal amount of hot water to dilute the brew that had been steeping all this time. She sampled this, added a bit more milk, and then sat once more and essayed the first half of the first scone, alternating each bite with a sip of tea until it had disappeared. Another slice of mango and she went back to the second half of the first scone, and by the time she had finished that it was also time for another cup of tea, this one requiring just a touch more of the hot water than before. She was down to the final half of her second scone, and the final slice of mango—and trying to decide which of the two to demolish first—when she became aware that the Comte d'Orkancz stood on the opposite side of her table. It was to Miss Temple's great satisfaction that she was able to smile at him brightly and through her surprise announce, "Ah, it seems you have finally arrived."
It was clearly not what he had expected her to say. "I do not believe we have been introduced," replied the Comte.
"We have not," said Miss Temple. "You are the Comte d'Orkancz. I am Celeste Temple. Will you sit?" She indicated the chair near him—which did not hold her bag. "Would you care for some tea?"
"No thank you," he said, looking down at her with both interest and suspicion. "May I ask why you are here?"
"Is it not rude to so interrogate a lady? If we are to have a conversation—I do not know where you are from, they say Paris, but my understanding is even in Paris they are not so rude, or not rude in such an ignorant fashion—it would be much better if you would sit." Miss Temple grinned wickedly. "Unless of course you fear I will shoot you."
"As you would have it," answered the Comte. "I have no wish to be . . . ill-mannered."
He pulled out the chair and sat, his large body having the odd effect of placing him both near to her and far away at the same time, his hands on the table but his face strangely distant beyond them. He was not wearing his fur coat, but instead an immaculate black evening jacket, his stiff white shirt held with gleaming blue studs. She saw that his fingers, which were disturbingly strong and thick, wore many rings of silver, several of them set with blue stones as well. His beard was heavy but neatly trimmed, mouth arrantly sensual, and his eyes glittering blue. The entire air of the man was strangely powerful and utterly, disturbingly, masculine.
"Would you care for something other than tea?" she asked.
"Perhaps a pot of coffee, if you will not object."
"There is no evil in coffee," answered Miss Temple, a bit primly. She raised her hand for the waiter and gave him the Comte's order when he arrived at the table. She turned to the Comte. "Nothing else?" He shook his head. The waiter darted to the kitchen. Miss Temple took another sip of tea and leaned back, her right hand gently gathered the strap on her bag and pulled it onto her lap. The Comte d'Orkancz studied her, his eyes flicking at her hidden hand with a trace of amusement.
"So . . . you were expecting me, it seems," he offered.
"It did not particularly matter who it was, but I knew one of you would arrive, and when you did, that I would meet you. Perhaps I preferred another—that is, perhaps I have more personal business elsewhere—but the substance remains unchanged."