Rue, who was always game for a new experience, took it and ate it with alacrity.

All the impressionable young ladies, who had no doubt eaten the same on more than one occasion before Percy had come into their midst and begun soliloquising upon its dangers, gasped. They watched her with round eyes, anticipating tragic gastronomic reactions.

Rue liked the flavour well enough but, in truth, it was spicy. “Goodness,” she said, politely, to Mrs Godwit, “that’s quite lovely. It is a bit hot. Might I have a spot of that milk and soda water to wash it down, please?”

Mrs Godwit, grateful for Rue’s complacent response, gestured at one of the staff to pour.

Primrose followed Rue’s lead, trying a bit of the curry herself. She coughed a little, but carried it off beautifully, “Delicious.”

Neither young lady fainted, came over with some exotic rash, or appeared to experience any magnetic misalignment.

Percy harrumphed. “It must not be all that spicy.” He broke a bit off the bread and, pinky up in the air, dipped the tip tentatively into the curry sauce. Then he tried a tiny nibble.

Pure chaos ensued.

“Argh – water – I’m dying!” yelled Percy.

The impressionable young ladies closed in, offering him drinks, cooling cloths, and scented handkerchiefs.

Percy screwed his eyes shut and grabbed his throat, wheezing and coughing.


“Give the man some air,” suggested Quesnel, barely disguising a guffaw. “Can’t you see he’s suffering?”

Percy cracked one watering eye to glare at him. “It burns!”

Rue, sensing the mood, shouldered into the solicitous group and grabbed Percy, just as a caring older sister might. “Come along, Percy dear, I think it’s time we got you home.”

The impressionable young ladies all twittered objections and sighed in distress. As indeed did Primrose, who, even with the Kingair Pack departed, would have been happy to redirect her flirting back at the hapless Lieutenant Broadwattle for the rest of the evening.

Rue, on the other hand, wanted to read her coded message. Or at least try to. And there seemed no indication that Miss Sekhmet’s contact was going to approach either her or Primrose. So she assisted the sputtering Percy in making their farewells.

They walked back to the ship, Percy hacking dramatically the entire way.

“Prim, did anyone try to negotiate anything with you? As if you were me? Anything to do with tea perhaps?” Rue asked.

Prim said, “One of the officers tried to invite me to tea tomorrow without a chaperone. I turned him down, of course. I have more of a care for your reputation than you do mine.”

“I am sorry about that. But it was necessary.”

“Mmm, that’s always your excuse.”

“I talked with Dama’s contact, finally, but I wonder what happened to Miss Sekhmet’s tea negotiator. He seems never to have shown up, which means we wore purple for nothing.”

“He probably went where all good tea negotiators go. Bottom of a cup.”

“Prim, that is not helpful.”

At that juncture, Percy’s coughing reached such a crescendo that they could no longer carry on a civil conversation. Many of those acquainted with the Tunstell twins believed only Prim had inherited their parents’ flare for drama. But Rue knew full well that Percy could produce more than his fair share of theatricality when called upon.

Chilli pepper consumption appeared to call for it.

Quesnel, for his part, was taking every opportunity to whack Percy on the back, as hard as possible without causing permanent damage.

“Your brother is a ridiculous man,” said Rue to Prim. “It wasn’t that spicy.”

Primrose said, “In his defence, it did burn all the way down. Not unlike cognac.”

Rue was arrested. “How do you know what cognac tastes like?”

Prim replied, as though it were nothing of significance, “Queen Mums likes a snifter of an evening.”

“Baroness Ivy Tunstell, vampire queen, drinks cognac?”

Prim grinned. “Apparently Madame Lefoux introduced it to her back when they were girls.”

Quesnel did not look surprised at the sudden appearance of his mother in this particular conversation. Rue wondered if that meant that Madame Lefoux made a habit of corrupting young ladies with cognac.

Rue blinked in amazement. “Your mother shared this habit with you?”

“Not exactly. Percy and I used to sneak a sip upon occasion, because we weren’t supposed to.”

“Percy drinks cognac?”

“Ladies,” rasped Percy, “I’m walking right here.”

Rue and Prim ignored him.

Prim said smugly, “Well, yes, old Percy’s very cultured in the matter of spirits.”

“Madness.” I guess one can still learn something new about friends of twenty years. “Clearly I’m going to have to instruct our cook to stock cognac.”

Primrose looked at her brother thoughtfully. He glared back, eyes still watering slightly. “Perhaps not the best idea. Percy has been known to overindulge.”

“Still right here,” he said.

Rue and Prim continued to ignore him.

“Percy gets looped?” Rue hooted.

“Yes, rather like now.”

Percy drew himself up and said with considerably dignity, “I am not at all looped. It’s simply that I don’t like chilli peppers.”

“I should like to see Percy looped,” commented Rue, meaning it.

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