THE GENTEEL 7TH AND 8TH ARRONDISSEMENTS
The sudden rise of a hot and blustery midmorning wind from the southwest announced the arrival of the dog days—or as the French called them, la canicule—to the electric city of Paris. Sweltering summer heat pressed down on la Ville Lumière, making the glittering Seine and every public fountain havens from the sunbaked boulevards that crisscrossed the capital city of France. Parisians and tourists alike fled in droves to such watery oases to find solace from the heatwave all across the city, barring the modish 7th and 8th arrondissements where some people were too sophisticated to run anywhere and were much too cultured to attend the public sanctuaries that the rabble visited. Rather, the cosmopolitan hordes haunting two of Paris’s most refined administrative districts seemed almost to ignore the scorching breath of the sun that curled around them as they walked the streets and went about their daily lives of capitalistic excess and privilege.
Natalia idly observed them all from her seat at a glass patio table outside an upscale artisanal boulangerie and patisserie on the 8th arrondissement’s fashionable Avenue Montaigne. The scent of various fresh breads made with cheeses, fruits, and nuts mingled with the sugary smell of pastries, folding her in a pocket of aroma. She adjusted her sunhat, dipping its floppy brim over her jade eyes and picked at the tarte tatin set before her. Pleasantly surprised by the sweetness of the caramelized apples and the buttery softness of the puff pastry, Natalia could almost forget the reason she was here.
The list of people that the K.G.B. perceived as legitimate threats to the U.S.S.R. and its mission was rather short. Names that the K.G.B. would want removed from the face of the earth if any Soviet operative could get within a kilometer of them appeared on a second and even shorter list—shorter because these people were absurdly proficient at either evading abduction and/or dodging assassination. Because of what the K.G.B. was now calling the “West Berlin Incident,” the psychic who had marred Natalia’s otherwise spotless record as an agent and Black Widow of Rossiya-matushka was now firmly at the top of the first and second list. The psychic was also now ranked first on Natalia’s personal revenge register which had totaled a zero sum until recent. More often than not, people never got the chance to make it onto Natalia’s own hit list since they were typically dead before they could even think of crossing her, but for those who did manage to appear on her list, they did not usually stay there long: whoever crossed Natalia rather swiftly ended up dead.
Comrade Vasily Lebedev—the senior handler of the women who had been given the mantle of Black Widow for graduating top of their class from the Red Room Academy and who were now employed by the K.G.B. as instruments of war and espionage—had received word from K.G.B. high command that the culprit behind the West Berlin Incident must be removed from the board or, at the very least, intimidated into hiding. The K.G.B. didn’t want any more of its beautiful and dangerous Black Widows being thwarted in the field. Nor did Vasily want harm coming to any of his weapons, especially not his favorites, one of the Devushki Vasiliya that brought him so much acclaim in the shadowy world of espionage.
“I don’t care how it’s done, pauchok, and high command doesn’t care how many agents we need to put on this assignment,” Vasily had said in Natalia’s briefing with a few other important agents and handlers three afternoons into the aftermath of the West Berlin Incident, which mutually comprised Natalia’s failed assassination attempt and her being hurled into a psychically-induced coma from which she had awoken thirty-nine hours after initially being telepathically anesthetized. “Every agent on the ground will be looking for them, and once we get concrete intel on the target, you’ll be the only agent allowed within two kilometers of them. We wouldn’t want to tip our hand on your chance for… revenge.”
Natalia knew that what Vasily had meant to say was “redemption.” The K.G.B. had a low tolerance for failure, and an even lesser amount of patience for failed results from its best assets, and Natalia was by far the best in the Soviet Union’s arsenal. The burden of the West Berlin Incident rested not on Natalia’s shoulders solely but was also borne by Vasily since he was the one responsible for Natalia and all the other Devushki Vasiliya.
Comrade Sokolov was the only reason that Natalia had not faced harsher punishment than what she had—being handcuffed to the metal drain pipe of a bathroom sink and being electrocuted with an automobile battery’s jumper cables after waking from a coma was getting off the hook, really; she’d had much worse in the Red Room as a girl. Seeing as how the strange Comrade Sokolov was the leading psychic in the K.G.B.’s psy-ops team, when he had determined that Natalia could not have readily prevented what had happened to her, the K.G.B. had listened.
“The psychic responsible for subduing the asset,” Comrade Sokolov had said to Vasily and a few high-ranking officers after evaluating Natalia, “must have been one of the best to have been able to so effortlessly circumvent the Black Widow Ops Program conditioning the Red Room inculcates into its graduates before shipping them to us.”
“Stronger than you, Mikula?” Vasily had asked with a skeptical furrow of his brow.
“By leagues,” Comrade Sokolov’s tone had been grim as he had turned an appraising eye to Natalia. “Never have I seen such surgical psionic precision or finesse. Work such as this bespeaks not only a natural talent but also a lifetime or more of experience, which is… an inauspicious prospect for the future of our operations should the West Berlin psychic express an interest in continued intervention.”
“Is the asset’s conditioning broken?” One of the higher ups had asked Comrade Sokolov.
“Oddly enough,” the psychic had said, “it’s not. There are no detectable lingering alterations to the asset’s mind, and it seems as though the West Berlin psychic knocked the asset unconscious merely to neutralize the threat she posed. We were lucky in this regard.”
Comrade Sokolov had been positive of this much. Ever since she had woken up bound to a sink and faced with imminent electrical torture, though, Natalia had felt as if something had minutely shifted within her skull. She couldn’t quite explain the feeling, so she sure as hell hadn’t said anything to Vasily or to anybody else about the unsettling sensation. She hadn’t even thought about it much while off-mission to prevent Comrade Sokolov or any of the psy-ops team from detecting her doubts.
As if on cue, a feeling of unreality struck Natalia; she looked about the busy Avenue Montaigne to confirm her surroundings, to confirm her own presence in the rich and sunny environment. It was not exactly a bout of déjà vu or anything of that sort from which Natalia had been suffering as of late, but… Natalia could not put her finger on it. Perhaps it was an intuitive impression of wrongness, of falsehood, and as rapidly as it had solidified, it evaporated.
She glanced down at the empty dish of tarte tatin in front of her and gently slid it away from her. Natalia frowned before returning her gaze to the boulevard and its many upper-crust pedestrians. As expected, there was no one and nothing of import. Yet.
It hadn’t taken long for the K.G.B. to attempt to identify Natalia’s assailant in West Berlin. In fact, the K.G.B. had managed to narrow the search in the same amount of time it had taken to give Natalia a jolt in a dingy bathroom. As Comrade Sokolov had made it clear later in their meeting, there were only so many world-class psychics who could match Natalia’s extensive psychological conditioning or that of any Black Widow. To be precise, the K.G.B. was aware of only three candidates, one of whom was Professor Charles Xavier. Xavier, though, had been in his family estate-turned-mutant academy in Westchester County, New York, on the day of the West Berlin Incident.
Naturally, the remaining two possible suspects were the ones that the K.G.B. knew the least about: the White King and Queen of the New England branch of the Hellfire Club, a clandestine group whose leadership concealed their identities behind aliases based upon the titles of chess pieces—often White and Black—and who typically possessed some… unusual talents, although the Black royalty has historically been of the more mystical bent. Not much else was known about the organization. It claimed itself to be an international socialites club with branches on six of the seven continents; it held quite a bit of political and economic clout which it flexed behind the scenes around the world. Even less was known about the White royalty who co-led the New England branch with the Black King and Queen.
While other agents had been searching for the White royalty of the New England Hellfire Club, Natalia had been given a short-lived respite after her initial briefing. She had used the time to read through the pitifully thin dossiers the K.G.B. had on the enigmatic duo. The White King and Queen, real names unknown, but possibly Christian and Cordelia Winterson, Jeremiah and Jessamine North, or Elias and Emma Frost—the last pair was highly unlikely, but would be quite the scandalous reveal were it true. After all, Elias and Emma Frost were the CEOs and co-presidents on the Board of Directors of Frost International, a multibillion dollar Boston-based shipping, transportation, and personal electronics conglomerate. Of course, no one knew what the Frosts looked like, for they avoided the public eye as though it were the bubonic plague. They managed the family company by proxy via a chain of trusted directors, supervisors, and secretaries.
The White King and Queen were either siblings or lovers due to reports of one being not too far from the other wherever they went. They were also powerful psychics of some sort; however, the exact nature of their preternatural gift or gifts was also unknown beyond their having unparalleled telepathic prowess. Like all of the other leaders of the Hellfire Club that the K.G.B. had run into around the globe, the White King and Queen of the New England branch were as intelligent as they were evasive. The only photographs the U.S.S.R. intelligence community had of New England’s White King and Queen were indistinct CCTV images revealing little more than the pair’s haute couture and fair hair.
When the White royalty did leave a trail to be tracked, it usually went cold. It had taken over two weeks of grueling manpower, several favors traded in, and an inordinate quantity of rubles to get a lead on the White King and Queen of New England’s Hellfire Club. A European source had finally disclosed to the K.G.B. that a pair of towheaded American socialites had appeared in Paris after the conclusion of President Kennedy’s European tour in early July and had been staying since. All agents in the area had been mobilized to investigate the situation.
After almost a week of observation and no sign from the Americans of being watched, real intel that warranted Natalia’s dispatch had trickled in. The pair owned a summer home in Paris’s 8th administrative district. A private Louis Seize penthouse on Avenue Montaigne between the neoclassical façade of Dior and the red window awnings and even redder window box geraniums of the sumptuous Hôtel Plaza Athénée where Natalia was currently staying in a K.G.B.-rented suite. Moreover, the two blondes were characteristically American profligates, purchasing designer fashion from the luxury flagship stores on Avenue Montaigne and visiting some theatre or ballet or opera or museum around the capital city every day. Identities have yet to be confirmed, but more than likely, the K.G.B. had finally found the White King and Queen.
When Natalia had at last been told to remove the Americans from the picture and was preparing to leave the K.G.B. outpost in Novosibirsk where she had been stationed, Vasily had brushed her cheek with his rough knuckles and had said, “You’ll always be one of mine, little spider; make it clear to those capitalist warmongers who trample upon the poor and working class that no one toys with the Devushki Vasiliya.”
Natalia cast her gaze to the waiter, a pale mustachioed Frenchman dressed in a starched white shirt, pressed black pants, and a black vest. He was the same man who had served her tarte tatin on the bakeshop’s patio.
“Yes?” She said in perfect French.
“Will you be staying for our lunch special, miss?” The waiter asked as he took her empty dish. “We will be offering bouillabaisse paired with a toasted garlic-rubbed baguette and rouille that has been prepared onsite.”
“I—” Natalia’s eyes darted to a shimmer in her periphery.
A woman in monochromatic white strode by in the street beyond the waiter’s shoulder. She wore atop her head a pillbox hat with an attached pearl-strung birdcage veil and oversized square-framed Nina Ricci sunglasses upon the bridge of her fine upturned nose. A pair of Italian kid leather gloves reached up to her elbows, and a brocaded dress with a scooped neckline, sheath skirt, and sash tied into a bow about her waspish waist embraced her trim body like a jealous and grasping lover. Diamonds dangled like icicles from her ears and exposed throat, and a Gucci handbag swung from the crook of her arm. The sunlight ran like water down each gently waving strand of her pale blonde hair that bounced with every purposeful step and lifted from her shoulders in the breeze.
Every single person on the glamorous Avenue Montaigne instantly paled in comparison, and they all knew it as they stared at her, stumbling to leave a wide berth for the trail she and her designer pumps blazed. Had Natalia not been paying as close attention as she had been, she would have thought Marilyn Monroe had been resurrected on the streets of Paris or that Jacqueline Kennedy had dyed her hair platinum and had returned to France for an undercover shopping spree after her husband’s return to Washington.
“You know,” Natalia returned her attention to the waiter and brushed aside his curious gaze. “I think I will stay for your lunch special.”
The waiter nodded before stiffly walking away. Natalia’s eyes followed the blonde until she disappeared completely into the crowd. Natalia set her hands upon the glass tabletop and tapped out a steady sunny beat with her manicured fingernails, a tune that gradually morphed into Tchaikovsky. As it always did. She could feel her feet itching for her favorite pair of satin pointe shoes and her face in need of the warmth of the Bolshoi spotlights.
She blinked hard. She yearned for something, felt a twisting in her gut. She was Natalia Alianovna, Black Widow, the deadliest of the U.S.S.R.’s lethal arachnids. She never yearned—it simply wasn’t in her nature, not since… Natalia’s mind blanked. She shook her head. Not since ever. Her sisters never yearned. Those who had were long ago buried outside Red Room Academy in the primeval forests and snowbanks of the B.S.S.R. Natalia stilled her hand and scanned the crowded boulevard.
The intel had indeed been good; the White Queen was in Paris. Natalia had no plans of pursuing the woman, though. Loath to make a move on the Queen without knowing the exact location of the White King—he was not far, of course, which doubled the risk of being detected or deterred from carrying through with her mission—Natalia watched and waited. Her bouillabaisse, garlic-rubbed baguette, and rouille were served to her, and she pecked at her lunch over the span of a half hour, ears ever pricked, eyes ever searching. After paying for her brunch and lunch, she sat outside the bakeshop for an hour more, content in the cool green shadow of the store’s awning, before she stood up from the glass table and decided to promenade along Avenue Montaigne. She stopped outside several shops and stores, silently peering in to watch as the sheep bleated about fashion and the economy and capitalist things for which Natalia had little care.
By midafternoon, she walked back in the direction of the boulangerie and patisserie toward the Plaza Athénée. She may not have spotted the White King during this particular outing, but she had at least seen his colleague, and that was enough of a success for Natalia. The fear of New England’s White royalty slipping between her fingers was practically nonexistent in Natalia’s mind as she reached the magnificent glass doors of the Plaza Athénée; with K.G.B. agents peppered throughout the city, the White royalty would not be able to make a move without someone catching their scent.
When Natalia went up to her suite of extravagant baroque-themed apartments, she tossed her sunhat aside like a discus, kicked off her strappy heeled sandals, and snagged the telephone set off the mahogany end table in the plush sitting room. Ringing the secure K.G.B. number on the rotary dial, Natalia padded as close to the picture window overlooking Avenue Montaigne as the phone cable would allow. She wedged the receiver between her ear and shoulder and waited for the call to go through.
“Pauchok,” Vasily’s voice was clear on the line. “Report.”
“Seen,” Natalia said casually. “The White Queen, anyhow. Hard to miss. Very white. I imagine the King will be equally as easy to spot.”
“He will be. Are you going out tonight as planned?”
“Yes,” Natalia said as she turned her gaze up from the boulevard and to the neighboring buildings. She should be able to use their rooftops and balconies as steppingstones to a location that would lend promising results to spy on the White royalty in their lavish Louis XVI styled penthouse. She had examined the building yesterday after flying in, so she knew how to get a view into the King’s and Queen’s private Parisian home overlooking the Eiffel to the southeast and the Louvre to the southwest. “I have plans tonight.”
“Check in,” Vasily said.
“I will.” Natalia ended the call, cradling the phone set to her body as she stared outside.
She felt at once an eagerness to seek retribution and an unnamable murmur of hesitation in the far recesses of her mind. Shaking her head, she turned her back on the Parisian skyline and began to prepare for the night.
At half past nine, Natalia slipped out of her suite dressed in the same charcoal black and midnight blue as the few shadows which survived the well-lit night in la Ville Lumière. Though it took a series of rather impressive acts of acrobatic excellence to reach her predetermined vantage point, Natalia secured it nonetheless and crouched down atop the roof of the building directly across the boulevard from the stacked luxury apartments atop which sat the White King’s and Queen’s penthouse. Body alert and tense, Natalia was hyperaware of her potentially compromising position; the White royalty had elevation on her since none of the buildings on or around Avenue Montaigne came within a story of the penthouse’s lofty heights. Even from where Natalia was currently hunkered down, all the pair really had to do was go to any one of their south-facing windows and stare exactly at her location to spot her and her long red hair which she had attempted to knot atop her head and conceal under a dark cap. Natalia supposed she could have scaled the building, stolen into their open-air courtyard, and broken in through their patio door, but that seemed to her like too much passive suicidal ideation for a reconnaissance mission.
Natalia sat impossibly still for almost two hours before a light finally turned on in one of the bedrooms at a quarter past eleven. She shifted forward, eyes trained on the sparkling floor to ceiling windows that offered sight into the room. She hadn’t brought binoculars with her, but frankly, she found that she no longer needed them since her graduation from the Red Room three years ago as a young woman of eighteen bitter Russian winters. Vastly improved eyesight was but one of the many biochemical enhancements Natalia had received upon the completion of her training and conditioning as a Black Widow.
A man wearing a navy velvet blazer with pearlescent buttons, a silver silk cravat with blue-black fleur-de-lis, and flat-fronted white chinos crossed the room. His ringed fingers deftly unfastened the closure of his jacket as he walked. He passed by one window, and by the time he reappeared behind the next, he had shrugged out of the velvet garment, revealing the sleek silver waistcoat fitted to his trim torso with a pattern matching that of his necktie over his pressed white dress shirt. He tossed the dark blue blazer over the back of a gilt-framed tapestried chair, pausing long enough to slip loose the knot of his cravat and cast it with a flourish over the back of the same chair. He quickly ran his hand through his tousled tow-colored hair, causing a few long fair strands to fall into his eyes from the styled coiffure he had them swept up in when he retracted his hand, and swaggered out of Natalia’s view.
It was the White King, without a doubt, and his resemblance to the White Queen was uncanny. Natalia tossed aside the nonsense about the pair being lovers—they were blatantly related by blood, and a great amount at that. Whereas the Queen’s angled jaw and cheekbones and hair color had lent her an impression of platinum-tressed Marilyn, the same features translated across the medium of the masculine sex as distinctly James Dean en blond. Her distinct nose, brow, and full lips as those akin to Paul Newman’s on him. He even carried himself with the same monarchical air, his posture impeccable and indicative of generations of fine breeding and indescribable wealth. Summarily, Natalia was certain of one thing: the White King and Queen were American gods of a manifestly Nordic pedigree.
It was twenty minutes before the White King came back into sight, this time wearing cream-colored silk lounge pants and a sheer feather-trimmed floor-length ivory robe that billowed behind him as he strode by the windows, the damask curtains swinging shut of their own accord. Natalia’s eyebrows rose in surprise at both the shock of witnessing what must have been telekinesis—she’d never seen it in action before, but she knew that some of the members of the K.G.B.’s psy-ops team were capable of the feat—and the man’s bold sartorial choice to wear something that was both sheer and trimmed with feathers.
When he reached the final window of the room, his hair wet and straight, he did not will the curtains closed. Natalia remained perfectly still. A flash of silver caught her eyes and drew her attention to his bared sternum where a pair of military identification tags hung from a slender ball chain about his neck. He stared out the window, surveying the horizon with eyes pale like Siberian waters and twice as cold. He cocked a golden eyebrow, and the lights in his room died in response, plunging him in utter darkness. Natalia could still see his silhouette in the window, limned by blue moonlight and the white-orange glow of the sleepless city. The shine made the dog tags wink back at her as he outstretched his arms and drew the heavy curtains closed.
After five consecutive nights and two daring mornings of nocturnal observation, all that Natalia could say about the White King was that he was a man of routine: he exercised before his morning shower and breakfast, he applied the same cologne to his pulse points before getting dressed, he returned to his bedchamber in the evenings wearing a different outfit than the one he had begun the day with, and he took a second shower before turning in for the night.
He spent the same amount of time each morning deliberating upon his outfit for the day, pulling from his various mahogany and gilt wardrobes Italian suit jackets and silk shirts and garments made of cashmere and velvet and fur. Natalia personally thought the fur was a bit unseasonal since Paris was still caught in the snarling jaws of la canicule and only cats were wearing fur in this heat, but what did she know of haute couture? Some nights after his shower, he curled up on a daybed and read The Feminine Mystique, a newly published book which her handlers assured her was the poisonous epitome of American radicalistic arrogance and an indicator of a infirm mind, with a cup of tea set on a nearby end table. Natalia also noted that he never took off the pair of dog tags hanging from his neck, and she had witnessed him on more than one occasion absently bring the tags to his lips and hold them there for moments on end. She wasn’t sure why, but she found it hard to look at the White King when he did that.
After she had bathed and wrapped herself in one of the hotel’s fuzzy pastel pink bathrobes on her seventh day in Paris, she phoned her handlers to report the previous night’s observations. It was not initially Vasily who had greeted her, but the handler she had reached was quick to transfer the call to the senior handler of the K.G.B.’s Black Widows. Natalia’s brow furrowed as she waited. Water dripped from her long hair and dampened the collar of the robe.
“Good morning, pauchok,” Vasily’s voice came on the secured line seconds later.
“Vasily,” Natalia’s tone was guarded. “The King has shown no variance in his behavior or any actions to suggest that he or the Queen know they are under surveillance—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Vasily cut her off. “We’ve just heard that they’re planning to fly back to the United States tomorrow. We have reason to believe that they will be going to Les Invalides this afternoon to view the exhibits in the Musée de l’Armée. Get results by tomorrow morning, little spider.”
With that, the line went dead. Natalia placed the receiver back on the phone set and sat down on her bed. She gazed down at her hands, her fingers interlacing in her lap, and she thought. Or, didn’t think. She knew what needed to happen, but she found herself peculiarly deferring the inevitable. Her fingers unlaced, and her hands fisted the plush material of her bathrobe. She felt herself resisting Vasily’s orders, felt herself attempting to embrace something which she did not quite have a word for anymore, something she had forgotten in her girlhood. Her head began to throb.
Natalia clenched her jaw to ward off an impending headache and geared up for her visit to Les Invalides. She left her suite and emerged on Avenue Montaigne in the midmorning heat wrapped in an eye-catching black gown and armed to the teeth. Guns strapped to thigh holsters hidden in the folds of her pleated skirt. Knives concealed in the bodice of her dress, an inconspicuous set of stilettos pinning her hair into an elaborate blood-red updo, blades hidden in the soles of her heeled shoes. Enough cyanide packed inside a fake diamond ring to drop a herd of white rhinoceroses and a false pearl necklace with timed explosives buried within each pretty bead. Dressed as she was, it was all too easy to flag down a cabdriver on Avenue Montaigne and be driven southward across the lazily flowing Seine, into the stately 7th Arrondissement, and through the sprawling green lawn of the Esplanade des Invalides via the flower-lined Avenue du Maréchal-Gallieni. The cabdriver was so generous (or so enamored) that when he dropped Natalia off at the open wrought iron gates and stone walls of Les Invalides, he forgot to request his fare from her before he drove off.
Natalia slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses and passed through the gateway, her heels clicking on the cream-colored pavers underfoot. Shrubbery-bordered walkways fanned out from the gate in a starburst of stone to connect with all the major entries to Les Invalides from the north. The palatial complex’s long five-story stone facade and central pedimented arch depicting Louis XIV astride a horse were dominated only by the adjoining magnificent Dôme des Invalides that rose over 100 meters high. The dome’s gold leaf ornamentation twinkled in the sunlight and caused the air around it to waver from the reflected heat.
Had the weather not been so intemperately hot, Natalia supposed that the Esplanade des Invalides and the northern yard of the complex would have been rife with picnickers, sunbathers, and tourists. As it was, though, the complex and its lush green lawns were almost wholly devoid of any semblance of human life. Here and there, Natalia would spot a person within one of the buildings as they drifted by a window or hear the distant murmur of foreign tongues from within a hall or courtyard. Flanking the low stone wall surrounding the complex was a parking lot numbering twenty or so vehicles, all unattended and likely unlocked. Natalia kept that in mind should the need to make a hasty retreat, however unlikely, present itself. After what the White King and White Queen had done to her in West Berlin, regardless of who it really was that had botched her assassination attempt, Natalia was not going to let them get out of Paris without at least making it clear that they’d never interfere with K.G.B. matters ever again.
Natalia paused in the shadow of the pedimented archway, gazing up at the stone reliefs of kings, lions, and medieval armaments of all kinds. Her eyes flickered across the Greco-Roman-inspired architectural details, and Natalia was torn in a way newfound to her since coming to France. Such extravagance and waste. Such craftsmanship and manmade beauty. Her mind beat against this place of ugly capitalism, but her soul had not the same resistance.
Something moved her deeply at the sight of this Western masterpiece, this pompous show of everything she had been told was evil in the world and must be expunged to restore morality to mankind. Something wondrous and defiant and utterly unknown to Natalia stirred within her, and that unsettled her in a way that nothing else ever had or ever could. For some equally inexplicable reason, she began to hum Tchaikovsky, and all was righted once more.
Freed from the arch’s strange hold, Natalia passed under it and into the cannon-filled Cour d’Honneur. A plaque written in French supplied Natalia with the name of the complex’s central courtyard and its purpose for military parades. An array of signs likewise pointed out entrances to the surrounding arched five-story buildings. The Saint-Louis-des-Invalides Cathedral made up the rear of the courtyard and offered ingress beneath a bronze statue of Napoleon standing on the second story overlooking the court with a hand in his waistcoat. Flanking the courtyard to the east and west were wings of the Musée de l’Armée which were otherwise unmarked to reveal what lay within each. Natalia followed the small crowd milling about the court, purchased a ticket at one of the entrances, and slipped into a series of rooms dedicated to French history from 1871 to 1945 A.D.
Natalia took off her sunglasses and silently made her way around the exhibits, squeezing between tour groups and studying each display as she kept an eye on the faces surrounding her. She inspected military uniforms from the World Wars, objects from soldiers’ daily lives, emblems, arms, and items relating to France’s colonial history behind protective glass cases. She examined paintings, personal archives, photographs, and cards that gave a distinctly Gallic perspective on the conflicts escalating to the Great War, the inter-war period, and the build-up of nationalistic and political pressures which led to World War II.
Having learned all there was to learn from the exhibits and displays in the Département Contemporain, including the fact that her hotel’s restaurant had apparently served as a cafeteria for the American troops during the Liberation of Paris, Natalia slipped out of a massive set of mahogany doors and broke from the relatively bustling World War rooms. Finding herself in a desolate hall lit only by the sun’s warm rays filtering in through the windows on either side of her, Natalia watched as dust motes spiraled through the light before slinking down the corridor.
An hour or more had elapsed since her arrival and there was still no sign of the White King and White Queen. Perhaps the intel had been bad? Then again, it was just now thirty minutes shy of noon and the Musée de l’Armée was a large portion of an even larger network of interconnected buildings and halls—the pair could have been anywhere. A tingle in the back of her mind and a tug in her gut told Natalia, though, that she was going in the right direction. Since her intuition had yet to fail her in her twenty-one years, she listened. After a series of similarly deserted hallways, a flight or two of stairs, and a set of heavy wooden doors later, Natalia found herself in one of the many rooms of the much less populated Département Ancien.
Only a few museumgoers shuffled about in the room Natalia had crept into, looking at dusty sets of war armor and arms from the 13th to 15th centuries and an impressive collection of medieval swords. Natalia idly inspected the remarkable quantity of blades for a few moments before continuing on into the next room which was named, according to a plaque over the doorway, the Louis XIII Room: The Progress of the Royal Army. Five civilians milled about the Louis XIII Room, which Natalia quickly discovered was more precisely dedicated to artifacts from the Italian campaigns, the wars against the Habsburg Empire, the wars of religion of the 16th century, and the early 17th century French wars. Arms and armors related to major figures of French history spanning from Francis I to Louis XIII were featured, and there was a Turkish cabinet showcasing Ottoman pieces from the same period. Natalia traipsed on through a themed arsenal gallery next and then through a room highlighting courtly leisure activities like hunting and jousting from the late Middle Ages to the mid-17th century.
Finally, she came to an archway bearing a plaque that read “Oriental Cabinets (15th – Early 20th Century).” Beyond laid a room much like the others in the Département Ancien; it was occupied by a handful of immediately visible people, filled with relics of long-dead peoples, and was seemingly absent of any sign of Natalia’s targets. She stifled a sigh as she stepped into the room and immersed herself in the wide assortment of suits of armor, knives, and firearms deriving from the war cultures of the Ottoman, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian civilizations. The Musée de l’Armée’s host of weapons, ornaments, and oriental trophies from the Middle East to the furthermost bounds of Asia, from Maghreb to Japan, was astounding.
As Natalia approached a display of five samurai panoplies upheld by wooden pegs protected behind a glass wall, a glimmer of ash-pale blonde hair appeared in her periphery. Natalia focused all of her mental energy on appreciating the craftsmanship and antiquity of the suits of armor before her, the way the light played off the grotesque black masks, the distinct shape and construction of each piece’s breastplate. The White King and Queen had rounded a corner and were murmuring to one another about an opalescent sea snail shell that had been transformed into a lustrous powder horn and a series of heavy 16th century matchlock guns. Natalia’s hands folded over her stomach, her fingers prepared to slip a set of concealed blades out from a series of slits in her bodice. She quietly walked to the next display in their direction, a collection of Japanese horse armors fitted on life-size model horses, and eavesdropped on their conversation.
“—hard to believe the Portuguese singlehandedly changed the way warfare was fought in Japan forever, is it not?”
The White King’s voice was like liquid crystal, like cut glass: polished, cold, smooth, hard. It sent a chill through Natalia, and she was momentarily torn back to the pressing heat of June 26. His voice—she hadn’t remembered it, couldn’t quite recall it, not until now. He was the one, the one who caused the West Berlin Incident. Natalia’s eyes snapped to his reflection in the glass of the display she stood before.
His back was to her and he was several exhibits away, but she was able to get a clear image of him nonetheless. Light grey slacks and matching Italian suit jacket. Pale cashmere Borsalino fedora. Black leather brogues and gloves. He shifted his weight and turned to examine another matchlock, permitting Natalia sight of the pressed white dress shirt, asymmetric maroon waistcoat, and wine-colored ascot he wore under his unbuttoned suit jacket. He was not visibly armed, but that mattered very little in his case; as a psychic of the highest order, his mind was an armament deadlier than any nuclear or chemical weapon.
At length, the White Queen—wrapped in an ecru shawl-necked and sheath-skirted dress paired with lace gloves and designer pumps—replied with an equally as frigid aristocratic accent: “You know how looking at these dusty old guns catapults me into a depressive spiral, darling.”
The White King glanced to the woman beside him, his eyes studying her profile, and he reached a gloved hand out to her exposed bicep. His fingers had barely brushed the White Queen’s skin when she reached up and gently patted the back of his hand. Natalia’s eyes narrowed. There was something peculiarly childlike in his action, something maternally reassuring about her reaction. Natalia reassessed their relationship in her mind, placing the White Queen in the role of elder sister this time and the White King as younger brother.
“If you need anything, I’ll be at Napoleon’s tomb reliving the days when Joséphine and I used to mock his stature behind his back,” the White Queen flashed the man at her side a wry grin, and Natalia’s brow furrowed in confusion. Was she speaking in code? She must have been—Napoleon Bonaparte died over a century ago. “Who knows? I may ridicule the domineering little toad once more for old time’s sake. Kisses.”
With that, she turned on her heel and sashayed out of the room through the opposite archway. The White King returned to his inspection of the matchlocks and likely to his musing about the Portuguese influence on Japanese warfare as well. Natalia walked on to the next display, no longer paying much attention to what rested behind the sturdy sheets of glass. Her eyes flicked around the room.
Glass displays set in the walls. Glass exhibits anchored to wooden or stone bases strewn about the floor. Weapons of all sorts at every turn. Walls on either side with wide, full-length arched windows looking out to a courtyard each—the Cour d’Honneur to the east and the smaller Cour d'Angoulème to the west. The open archway behind her offered passage to the room concerning the pastimes of France’s court and another arch in the far southern wall opened to a corridor. The few museumgoers in the room slowly made their way in either direction out of the Oriental Cabinets.
Natalia steeled herself. When the last civilian exited the room, she noiselessly turned about and stalked toward the White King. Her fingers twitched against her bodice, and thin blades slipped free and rolled into each of her hands.
“Lovely to see you again, comrade,” the White King said, facing the centuries-old harquebuses rather than Natalia. “Have you enjoyed spying on us?”
Natalia was stunned, nearly stumbling on her way to him. He knew. They knew—had known all along. They’d been playing the K.G.B. this whole time, intentionally leaving a trail to be followed. Why? Natalia’s eyes snapped around the room. No civilians, no witnesses, no White Queen. The heavy mahogany doors thrown open at each archway slammed shut and bolted as if controlled by a spectral breeze. She had walked right into a trap.
Her lip curled, and she charged the White King. She fell upon him as he turned to finally face her, and she buried one knife deep into his back as she jabbed up with her other arm, jamming the blade into his throat. His eyes widened in shock before he collapsed to his knees and—
“You are going to have to try harder than that, sweetheart.”
Natalia whipped around, drawing the last set of blades from her bodice and slashed out at the man behind her. Blood arced in a brilliant scarlet stream in the air until it… didn’t. Before it even fell upon the ground, it had vaporized into prismatic mist. The crimson dripping down her knives and staining her hands melted away into nothingness. The White King—a second White King?—crumpled at her feet.
She staggered, backing into a glass display case, eyes wild. Natalia’s gaze snapped from the first White King to the second, both equally as dead as the other, both the exact same person. How?
“Cute,” a third White King stepped into view from around a rack of North African armors.
Natalia snarled and threw a blade in his direction. Her aim was true, and the knife spiked him between his piercing ice blue eyes. He died on the spot.
After a pregnant pause, Natalia frowned and knelt down beside the second White King. She pressed her index and middle finger to his throat, feeling for a pulse that had already weakly bled out of existence. His flesh was still warm, though, and it was surprisingly soft. She withdrew her hand, uncertain what to make of… well, anything.
“What kind of deception—?”
“You tell us, comrade,” two identical voices—the White King’s—harmonized with one another, and Natalia scanned the room in alarm. A White King leaned against the display of samurai armors she had earlier observed. Another King yawned indifferently by the far mahogany doors. “In fact, why not tell all of us?”
Before her eyes, the three corpses scattered about on the marble floor twitched to life. Quick as a lightning strike, Natalia slammed her final blade into the stirring White King nearest her and watched as he immaterialized into glittering stardust and then empty air. Natalia’s eyes widened, and when she felt the first White King’s hands grasp her shoulders from behind, she surged up, snagging the blade protruding from his throat, and flipped herself over. She landed on his shoulders, her strong legs wrapped about his neck, and with a twist of her body, she severed his spine and leapt off of him. By the time her last victim crashed to the floor, she had already flung the knife she had just recovered and had stuck the White King nearest the far doors in the sternum. Both White Kings burst apart in clouds of sparkling dust that drifted away like smoke into the horizon. Natalia rounded and chucked her final blade at the White King she had previously nailed between the eyes, once more dropping him.
“Illusions of a sort,” said the White King—the final one, the real one?—who leaned casually against the samurai exhibit, “but also tangible constructs, as you clearly noticed. A little blending of telepathic persuasion and telekinetic energy can go quite the distance.”
“Yes,” the corner of his lips ticked up into a roguish grin. “I am the authentic. It really is a delight to see you again, Natalia.”
“You were in West Berlin,” Natalia said dumbly, her composure apparently fractured after such a strange experience.
She’d fought a psychic or two who had tried to distract her with illusions, but never before had they been so… corporeal. She had felt the wet heat of fresh blood on her skin, had felt the smooth fabric of his clothes and the straining solidity of the body they covered.
“Indeed, comrade. Now, is this the point in our exchange where you tell me to keep my nose out of K.G.B. business? I admit that I have been looking forward to it.”
Natalia took a single step toward the White King, and he tilted his head curiously. Something popped in her head, and Natalia’s vision splintered, spidery fissures rapidly spreading inward from the corners of her eyes until her sight had corroded into a series of frost-edged translucent fractals, until she felt as though she were looking directly through the heart of a multifaceted jewel in order to see her surroundings. She attempted to glower at the White King but found that when she turned her gaze on him, she saw his face broken into five different shards and the rest of him jaggedly distorted like a damned Picasso portrait. Natalia stumbled, struggling to make sense of what she saw around her. She shook her head, wincing and nauseous, and felt a white chill tapping on the boundaries of her mind.
“You look a mite ill, comrade,” the White King noted dryly. “Is this really all it takes to squash one of you Soviet spiders? In the spirit of candor, you fail to live up to expectation.”
Natalia gnashed her teeth and rushed the man. He easily sidestepped her and leaned out of the way when she wheel kicked the space between them. Growling out her frustration, she lurched at him, hoping to tackle him if nothing else, her vision crystallized and heartbeat quickening. He merely nudged her out of the way, knocking her into another glass exhibit.
Natalia closed her eyes and recomposed herself. Getting worked up would only result in getting even sloppier. She needed to focus. To breathe. To listen.
“This is just embarr—” Ears pricked and eyes clenched shut, Natalia stepped into the King’s voice, jabbing out with her left fist and brushing the fine fabric of his suit jacket. Reconfiguring the proximity upon hearing his breath spike in surprise as he pulled back from her, she took three quick steps and hooked him across the jaw with her right fist. “Bloody hell!”
It had been a glancing blow, but it had been enough. She let her body turn with the momentum of her right hook, leaning into his recoiling frame and spinning to strike the White King with the back of her left fist or to crush his windpipe with her elbow. He tripped her foot mid-turn, though, and sent her tumbling before him. Twisting, Natalia plucked the stilettos from her updo, sending her long hair cascading around her, and slung the short tapered knives up at the White King from her inelegant stance on the floor. The sleek daggers slowed the second they left Natalia’s hands until they came to a halt in the air, their deadly points half a meter from piercing the man’s thigh and abdomen.
The White King slowly turned his gaze back to Natalia. His jaw was already beginning to bruise. His fedora sat at a jaunty angle atop his head now, and long strands of hair hung down in his face from his coiffure, having been knocked out of place by the force of Natalia’s punch which had also apparently jarred him enough for him to cease the telepathic spell he had over her sight. Her vision had finally returned to normal. The White King’s eyes were ablaze, his glacier blue irises becoming rings of luminous silver light in seconds that seemed to span centuries. Natalia could feel the air crackle with energy around the King and her, and she finally felt like she was beginning to comprehend that this man was not one to be trifled with. She had read as much in his files, but reading and witnessing were two entirely separate things as Natalia was discovering.
“Good hit,” his voice was hard as stone. “Now, if you would, my rebuttal.”
The stilettos redirected their suspended trajectories and were released from the White King’s telekinetic hold, or rather, were expelled like darts from it. On either side of Natalia and the White King, the daggers streaked through the air and struck the marble floor, puncturing it as though it were warmed butter rather than cold rock and sank to the hilt into the polished stone. Before Natalia could even respond, she was hurled across the room and propelled into a case of antique blades from the Middle East, the wind knocked from her lungs as glass shattered, wood cracked, and blades fell around her and cut at her exposed flesh. She slid to the floor amidst the wreckage, gasping and eyes wide but not frightened. She didn’t scare that easily.
The White King’s irises returned to their normal frigid blue hue, and as he strode to her, he turned his gaze down to his white dress shirt which had come untucked during their fight. He fixed his shirt while he walked, and Natalia eyed the man for a moment as he stalked toward her before quickly taking stock of the situation. He had five or six inches of height and maybe twenty or thirty pounds of weight on her, but she was surrounded by fallen swords and was used to capitalizing on her being the smaller opponent in combat. While the King’s attention was elsewhere, Natalia subtly reached across her body, wrapped her fingers around the leather-wrapped grip of a scimitar, assessed the length of the blade and the diminishing distance between the King and her, and waited. Three steps, two steps, one step—
She lunged upward just as the White King stepped within range, and she swung the scimitar’s curved edge out in a wide arc, catching the man off-guard. His reflexes were quick, but they were not anywhere near quick enough to entirely evade the blade. He cursed hotly and staggered away from Natalia, gripping his right bicep. Claret blood spilled like dark wine from between his gloved fingers and trickled from the gash in the arm of his suit jacket. Had he not managed a half-step back before the sword struck him, he would have lost his arm.
Pressing her advantage, Natalia utilized the motion of the first strike to spring into the air. Swinging the scimitar over her head, she planned to bring it crashing down on the White King. She had not expected him to be prepared for the downstroke of the sword, though, much less catch the blade between the flat of his hands and actually stop it, leather gloves ripping and sparks flying. Natalia couldn’t even process how he had done it until after she had collided into him, had felt every bone in her body rattle on impact, and had rolled to the blood-speckled marble floor after he had shoulder-checked her aside as though she were a ragdoll.
She stared up at the White King as he tossed the scimitar over his shoulder, his whole person scinitillating in the afternoon light. His flesh, his hair, his teeth, his eyes… they were coated in some kind of crystalline carapace. Or… the makeup of his entire body had somehow transmuted into a strange, organic diamond substance.
“Bozhe moi…” Natalia breathed, otherwise rendered speechless. He was beautiful and awesome and definitely a hell of a lot harder to kill now. This certainly hadn’t been mentioned in the K.G.B.’s dossier.
The second his body shifted to take a step in Natalia’s direction, she snapped out of her daze and hiked up her skirt, drawing her handguns from the holsters strapped to her thighs. She didn’t even aim. Not at the range she was at and not when a man made of diamond was about to bear down on her. She just fired. Repeatedly. And prayed to a God she just might start believing in if this do-or-die tactic worked.
A fusillade of staccato gunfire filled the room, but much to Natalia’s dread, the White King still stood resolute and immovable. Every single bullet had either flattened into steaming bronze discs when they struck him or had ricocheted wildly off the curves and contours of his dazzling body. One of the bullets actually slung off of him and grazed Natalia’s left shoulder. She couldn’t even feel the stinging pain beyond the numbing shock she felt. Who was this man?
“You are certainly not the first person to realize that you cannot harm me like that in this form, comrade,” The White King said, his voice oddly metallic and detached. “But be my guest and keep trying if you so wish.”
He began to prowl toward her, and after everything she had seen today, Natalia knew with a cold rationality that her only real option left to her was racing in the opposite direction of the White King and hoping for the best. She wasn’t equipped with the means to take him down, not like this. As he continued to unhurriedly advance on her, Natalia scrambled to her feet and ran, covering her retreat with another vain barrage of bullets.
Her eyes darted along the wall to which she dashed. Eastern wall. The Cour d’Honneur was two or three stories below her—she couldn’t remember anymore, but it didn’t matter. She had made jumps much worse than two or three stories and had walked it off afterward. Out one of the windows it was, then.
Natalia gritted her teeth and braced herself seconds before she barreled into a window and soared out of the Oriental Cabinets. For the second time that day, shards of glass burst around her, the sharp splinters sparking in the sunlight and spreading like pearlescent lines of a web behind her. The wind tugged at her snapping hair, and she alit neatly upon the sun-warmed pavers of the complex’s vacant central courtyard as the glass rained down around her like cutting hailstones. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, Natalia glanced back up in the direction from which she had fallen. Outside the long rooms of the Musée de l’Armée, she could now tell that she had in fact been on the third story.
The White King stood in the window with one brogue-shod foot raised on the ledge and one hand gloved in tattered leather resting against the frame. Shimmery colored light sparked like fire off of him, and when he canted his head to scrutinize her from three stories up, glaring starbursts of prismatic color scorched Natalia’s eyes. When she finally averted her gaze and did the only logical thing left to do—sprint out of the Cour d’Honneur, hotwire a car in the parking lot of Les Invalides, and speed back across the Seine away from her second failure as an elite deep-cover agent of the K.G.B.—the bright white spots of his shine that had been burned into the backs of her eyelids remained.