"What is it, my friends?" Marcel said, walking toward the front hall.
There was a tangle of vampires standing at the foot of the front steps, with Henri at the head. A few of them were holding a struggling figure. She made high-pitched squeals from a mouth that sounded covered, though it was impossible to see her in the throng.
"Master . . ." Henri’s eyes were wide. "Master, we have found . . . You will not believe, Master . . ."
"Show me. Bring it forward. What is it?"
The vampires ordered themselves a bit and threw the human into the cleared space on the ground. It was all Magnus could do not to make a sound of alarm, or give away anything at all.
It was Marie Antoinette.
Of course, the glamour he had applied did not affect the vampires. The queen was exposed, her face white with shock.
"You . . . ," she said, addressing the crowd in a shaky voice, "what you have done . . . You will-"
Marcel raised a silencing hand, and to Magnus’s surprise, the queen stopped speaking.
"Who brought her?" he asked. "How did this happen?"
"It was I, monsieur," said a voice. A dapper vampire named Coselle stepped to the front. "I was on my way here, coming down the rue du Bac, and I absolutely could not believe my eyes. She must have gotten out of the Tuileries. She was just on the street, monsieur, looking panicked and lost."
Of course. The queen would not have been accustomed to being out on the streets on her own. And in the dark it was easy to go the wrong way. She had made a wrong turn and crossed the Seine somehow.
"Madame," Marcel said, walking down the stairs. "Or should I say ‘Your Majesty’? Do I have the pleasure of addressing our beloved and most . . . illustrious queen?"
A low snicker from around the room, but aside from that no noise at all.
"I am she," the queen said, rising to her feet. "And I demand-"
Marcel put up his hand again, indicating silence. He descended the rest of the steps and walked to the queen, stood in front of her, and examined her closely. Then he gave a small bow.
"Your Majesty," he said. "I am thrilled beyond words that you could attend my party. We are all thrilled beyond words, are we not, my friends?"
By now, all the vampires who could fit had crowded into the doorway. Those who could not were leaning out of the windows. There were nods and smiles, but no reply. The silence was terrible. Outside Marcel’s courtyard wall, even Paris itself seemed to have fallen silent.
"My dear Marcel," Magnus said, forcing a laugh. "I do hate to disappoint you, but this is not the queen. This is the mistress of one of my clients. Her name is Josette."
As this statement appeared to be plainly and glaringly false, Marcel and the others remained silent, waiting to hear more. Magnus walked down the steps, trying to look like he was amused by this turn of events.
"She’s very good, isn’t she?" he said. "I cater to many tastes, much like you. And I happen to have a client who wishes to do to the queen what she has been doing to the French people for many years. I was hired to do a complete transformation. And I must say, at the risk of sounding immodest, that I have done an excellent job of it."
"I have never known you to be modest," Marcel said without a hint of a smile.
"It’s an overrated quality," Magnus replied with a shrug.
"Then how do you explain the fact that this woman claims she is, in fact, Queen Marie Antoinette?"
"I am the queen, you monster!" she said, her voice now hysterical. "I am the queen. I am the queen!"
Magnus got the impression that she was saying this not as a way of impressing her captors but as a way of assuring herself of her own identity and sanity. He stepped calmly in front of her and snapped his fingers in front of her face. She fell unconscious at once, slumping gently into his arms. "Why," he said, calmly turning toward Marcel, "would the queen of France be wandering down this street, unattended, in the middle of the night?"
"A fair question."
"Because she wasn’t. Josette was. She had to be complete in every way. At first my client wanted her only to look like the queen, but then he insisted on the entire package, as it were. Appearance, personality, all of it. Josette absolutely believes she is Marie Antoinette. In fact, I was doing a bit of work on her in this very regard when she became afeared and escaped from my apartments. Perhaps she followed me here. Sometimes my talents get the better of me."
He set the queen gently on the ground.
"It also appears she has a light glamour on her," Marcel added.
"For mundanes," Magnus said. "You can’t have a woman who looks exactly like the queen passing through the streets. It’s quite a light one, like a summer shawl. She was not supposed to leave the house. I was still working."
Marcel squatted down and took the queen’s face in his hand, turning it from side to side, sometimes looking at the face itself, sometimes at the neck. A long minute or two passed in which the entire assembled group waited for his next utterance.
"Well," Marcel said at last, standing back up. "I must congratulate you on an excellent piece of work."
Magnus had to brace himself in order that his sigh of relief would not be seen.
"All of my work is excellent, but I accept your congratulations," he said, flicking a careless hand in Marcel’s direction.
"A marvel such as this, it would be such a success at one of my gatherings. So I really must insist that you sell her to me."
"Sell her?" Magnus said.
"Yes." Marcel leaned down and traced his finger down the queen’s jawline. "Yes, you must. Whatever your client paid you, I’ll double it. But I really must have her. Quite stunning. Whatever you like, I will pay."
"But, Marcel . . ."
"Now, now, Magnus." Marcel slowly waggled a finger. "We all have our weaknesses, and our weaknesses must be indulged if they are to flourish. I will have her."
It wouldn’t do to imply that this fictional client was more important than Marcel.
Think. He had to think. And he knew that Marcel was watching him think. "If you insist," Magnus replied. "But, as I said, I was still working. I just had a few finishing touches left to do. She still has a few unfortunate habits left over from her previous life. All of those Versailles mannerisms-there are so many of them-they all had to be stitched in like fine embroidery. And I hadn’t yet signed the work. I do like to sign my work."
"How long would this take?"
"Oh, not long at all. I could bring her back tomorrow . . ."
"I would prefer she stayed here. After all, how long does it take you to sign your work?" Marcel asked with a light smile.
"It can take time," Magnus said, responding with his own knowing smile. "I have an exquisite signature."
"While I deal in used goods, I do prefer ones in pristine condition. Don’t be long about it. Henri, Charles . . . take Madam upstairs and put her in the blue room. Let Monsieur Bane complete his signature. We are looking forward to seeing the final product shortly."
"Of course," Magnus said.
Slowly he followed the prostrate queen and the darklings back inside.
After Henri and Charles put the queen on the bed, Magnus locked the door and slid a large wardrobe to block it. Then he threw open the shutters. The blue room was a third-floor room, a sheer drop down to the receiving courtyard. That was the only way out.
Magnus allowed himself a few moments of swearing before shaking his head and taking stock of his situation again. He could probably get himself out of this, but to get both himself and the queen . . . and to return the queen to Axel . . .
He looked out the window again, to the ground below. Most of the vampires had gone back inside. A few servants and darklings remained to greet the carriages, though. Down would not work, but up . . .
Up, in a balloon, for instance.
Magnus was certain of one thing-this work was going to be very difficult. The balloon itself was on the other side of Paris. He reached out with his mind and found what he was looking for. It was rolled up still, in the gazebo in the Bois de Boulogne. He rolled it to the grass, he willed it to inflate, glamoured it invisible, and then he lifted it from the ground. He felt it lift, and he guided it up, over the trees of the park, over the houses and the streets, carefully avoiding the spires of the churches and cathedrals, over the river. It was strongly buoyant and was pulled easily by the wind. It wanted to go straight up into the sky, but Magnus held on.
At some point he would run dry of power, and then he would lose consciousness. He could only hope that this would happen late enough in the process, but there was really no telling. As the balloon drew nearer, he did his best to glamour it completely, making it invisible to even the vampires just below. He watched it come to the window, and as carefully as he could, he guided it close. He leaned out as far as he could and caught hold of it. The basket had a small door, which he managed to get open.
When one steals a flying balloon and animates it to fly over Paris, one should, ideally, have some idea how said balloon normally works. Magnus had never been interested in the mechanics of the balloon-his only interest was that the mundanes could now fly in a colorful piece of silk. So when he discovered that the basket contained a fire, he was dismayed.
Also, the queen herself was probably not heavy, but her dress-and whatever she had concealed or sewn into the dress for her escape-certainly was, and Magnus had no energy to spare. He snapped his fingers, and the queen woke. Just in time he drew a finger across her lips and silenced the scream that was about to come from her mouth.
"Your Majesty," he said, the exhaustion weighing his voice. "There is no time to explain, and no time for introductions. What I need you to do is-as quickly as possible-step out of that window. You cannot see it, but there is something out there that will catch you. But we must be quick."
The queen opened her mouth and, finding that she could not speak, began to run around the room, picking up objects and hurling them at Magnus. Magnus cringed as vases hit the wall next to him. He managed to lash the balloon to the window with the curtain and grabbed the queen. She began to pummel Magnus. Her fists were small and she was clearly unused to this sort of activity, but her blows were not entirely ineffective. He had very little strength left, and she seemed to be running on raw fear, which quicksilvered her veins.
"Your Majesty," he hissed. "You must stop. You must listen to me. Axel-"
On the word "Axel," she froze. This was all he needed. He shoved her backward out the window. The balloon, bumped back by the force, shifted a foot or so away from the window-so she landed half in, half out. She hung there, terrified and grasping at something she could feel but not see, her slippered feet kicking into the air and smacking into the side of the building. Magnus had to accept a few flurried kicks in the chest and face before he was able to roll her over into the basket. Her skirts tumbled over her head, and the Queen of France was reduced to a pile of cloth and two flailing legs. He jumped into the basket himself, closed the basket door, and released the hold on the basket with a deep sigh. The balloon went straight up, shooting above the rooftops. The queen had managed to flip herself over and scramble to her knees. She touched the basket, her eyes wide with a childlike wonder. She drew herself up slowly and peered over the side of the basket, took one look at the view below, and fainted dead away.
"Someday," Magnus said, looking at the crumpled royal person at his feet, "I must write my memoirs."
This was not the balloon ride Magnus had hoped for.
For a start, the balloon was low and suicidally slow, and seemed to like nothing more than dropping suddenly onto roofs and chimneys. The queen was shifting and groaning on the floor of the basket, causing it to sway back and forth in a nausea-inducing way. An owl made a sudden assault. And the sky was dark, so dark that Magnus had largely no idea where he was going. The queen moaned a bit and lifted her head.
"Who are you?" she asked weakly.
"A friend of a friend," Magnus replied.
"What are we-"
"It’s best if you don’t ask, Your Majesty. You really don’t want the answer. And I think we’re being blown south, which is the completely wrong direction."
"Axel . . ."
"Yes." Magnus leaned over and tried to make out the streets below. "Yes, Axel . . . but here’s a question . . . If you were trying to find, say, the Seine, where would you look?"
The queen put her head back down.
He managed to find enough strength to restore the glamour on the balloon, rendering it invisible to the mundanes. He did not have the energy to completely glamour himself in the process, so some people were treated to the view of Magnus’s upper half sailing past their third-story window in the dark. Some people didn’t spare the candles, and he got one or two very interesting views.
Eventually he caught sight of a shop he knew. He pulled the balloon down the street, until more and more looked familiar, and then he caught sight of Notre Dame.
Now the question was . . . where to put the balloon down? You couldn’t just land a balloon in the middle of Paris. Even an invisible one. Paris was just too . . . spiky.
There was only one thing for it, and Magnus already hated it.
"Your Majesty," he said, prodding the queen with his foot. "Your Majesty, you must wake up."
The queen stirred again.
"Now," Magnus said, "you won’t like what I am about to say, but trust me when I say it is the best of several terrible alternatives. . . ."
"Axel. . . ."
"Yes. Now, in a minute we are going to land in the Seine-"
"And it would be very good if you perhaps held your nose. And I’m guessing your dress is full of jewels, so . . ."
The balloon was dropping fast, and the water was coming up. Magnus carefully navigated them to a spot between two bridges.
"You may get-"