‘Invitations?’ Irene said.
‘Notes offering to horsewhip me in front of my club if I even approach their daughters . . . ’
Irene swallowed nervously. Was it a joke? Should she so much as touch the crab pâté puffs? ‘Some people might call that a threat, sir.’
‘A threat?’ He looked at her, genuine puzzlement in his eyes. ‘Why on earth would you think that?’
She couldn’t quite bring herself to look him in the eyes while replying. If that was an example of Fae tastes, then she wasn’t going to push it any further. ‘They must be people of very limited scope, sir. Clearly.’
He patted her shoulder fondly. His gloves were white kid, soft against her skin, and she could feel the heat of his flesh through them. It was more of a casual flash of power, as a shark might show its fin, than a deliberate attempt to englamour and seduce her, but she could feel it all the same.
Kai was still over by the caviar, but watching her with narrowed eyes, as sharp as a snake. She shook her head minutely, warning him to keep away. Vale looked bored, and was talking on the other side of the room to a hunched man with a brass-rimmed monocle screwed into his right eye.
The room itself was large enough to hold about a hundred and fifty people comfortably, with buffet tables around the edges and waiters circulating silently. Improbable swords and lances hung along the walls in glittering decoration, with Liechtenstein banners positioned above. A string quartet in the corner picked through something light and unobtrusive. The whole room had an unwholesome feel to it, a hothouse sort of closeness and oppression, even though the temperature was perfectly normal. Irene wondered whether everyone present was hiding secrets, something that affected their every word and action.
Even me, she thought with more than a touch of irony.
Silver squeezed her shoulder again. ‘I’ll be back,’ he said smoothly. ‘Don’t go away.’
Between one blink and the next, he was gone.
Irene put her glass down before she was tempted to drink even more wine. There had to be some way to lure out Belphegor, or whoever had killed the vampire and taken the book. And if this ball was as packed with key society suspects as she expected, here would be the perfect place to gather information.
Several conversations and about fifteen minutes later, she’d reached the Yoruban Ambassador – a kindly-looking man a full head taller than her. He was sporting some sort of ceremonial outfit with gold bracelets that weighed more than her entire gown. She wondered how Silver had got him to visit. ‘So, you see,’ she lied with the utmost sincerity, ‘I’m writing an article on important figures in the literary world. I was going to interview Lord Wyndham, but his tragic death . . .’ She let her voice trail away artistically.
‘I never knew that Lord Wyndham was a literary figure?’ the Ambassador queried.
‘Well, not as such. But he does seem to have been very au fait with up-and-coming novelists. I’d heard that he acted as patron to some.’
‘Ah,’ the Ambassador said comprehendingly. ‘I only knew about his collection.’
Since Irene had entirely invented the bit about his patronage of new writers, she wasn’t surprised. ‘It was a fine one,’ she agreed. ‘And he was always so good about making books available to other experts in the field. Not like some bibliophiles who hoard everything and then just gloat about it privately.’
The Ambassador looked slightly furtive, then loomed forward. ‘One hesitates to speak ill of the dead,’ he said in lowered tones, ‘but I think that is giving the gentleman a little too much credit. He was inclined to boast. His nature, you know. Vampires. They just can’t resist it. I’ve known some very pleasant ones, of course,’ he added hastily.
‘Oh, of course,’ Irene agreed quickly and meaninglessly. ‘But I do think that you’re right, Your Excellency. They are so very proud of their advantages.’
‘Exactly,’ the Ambassador said approvingly. ‘I am glad that our host hasn’t brought any here tonight. They always demand to be catered for in such an obtrusive manner – the blood, the open veins, all that manner of thing. It does get in the way of a simple conversation.’
Irene nodded, suppressing annoyance that Silver hadn’t invited any. She’d have liked the chance to question a few. In fact, why hadn’t Silver invited them, if he enjoyed their company? Or even if he was feuding with them? From what Silver had said about the guest list, inviting half a dozen antagonistic vampires seemed like just the sort of thing that he’d do. ‘It does make matters simpler for everyone else,’ she agreed.
‘And we’re spared the anti-blood-sports protestors.’ The Ambassador collected a fresh glass of wine from a passing waiter. ‘But if you’re a reporter, you’ve probably interviewed a few of them already!’ He rumbled a deep laugh.
‘I like to think there’s something to be said on both sides,’ Irene temporized. ‘But about Lord Wyndham’s boasts . . . oh, I beg your pardon.’ Vale was walking towards them, a slight urgency to his movement. ‘If you will excuse me a moment, Your Excellency . . .’
‘Of course,’ the Ambassador said. ‘About that interview later—’
‘I will contact your Embassy staff, sir,’ Irene said, and retreated with another polite curtsey.
Vale shepherded her back over to the buffet table (was she ever going to get away from it?) and made an obvious show of getting her some canapés. ‘Miss Winters, we need to be careful,’ he muttered. ‘One of my contacts tells me that there’s going to be a strike here, at the Liechtenstein Embassy, this evening.’