79. A Waist of Tigers

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I whirled around, my heart pounding.

"What? Who said that?"

Behind me, or rather in front of me now that I was facing him, stood a tall young man with long, curly dark brown hair. He wore an easy smile on his face and a triangular patch of beard on his chin that wasn't really a beard, just a statement: look, I can grow hair here, if I want to.

"W-what did you mean? Who... who do you think I was looking at?"

"Old Flip over there." He nodded towards where Sir Philip and Ella were dancing. Did he mean Sir Philip? But I could have sworn that wasn't what he said.

"Who?"

"Flip. Well, Sir Philip to you, probably. Are you planning to assassinate him? You looked like you were. So I thought I'd ask. I'm his friend, you see, and friends usually try to prevent that sort of thing – their friends getting assassinated, that is. Always such a messy business, and funeral costs are steep these days."

I shook my head, having no clue what to say to that – particularly considering I wasn't even supposed to talk to this man. You weren't supposed to talk to anybody unless you knew them, and had been introduced to them. That's how society worked.

"Who... who are you?" I finally managed.

"Oh, I am so sorry." His smile widened and he gave a snappy bow that made his mahogany locks fly. "My name is Carter, Captain James Carter to be precise. I apologize for accosting you thus without being formerly introduced, but when there is something important at stake, like the impending violent slaughter of a close friend, I tend to forget social niceties."

I looked back between Wilkins on the dance-floor and this fine specimen of military manhood in front of me.

"You are a friend of Sir Philip's?"

"I believed I already mentioned that, yes."

My eyes, which had been fixed on his face before, wandered down to take in the rest of him. He didn't look like the average man, exactly. For starters, he wasn't wearing uniform—very strange for military men who generally used their shiny red coats to attract silly girls like flies. Instead he was wearing a dark blue tailcoat and beneath it a waistcoat decorated with...

Wait a minute!

"Your waistcoat has tigers on it," I said. "Golden tigers."

"Ah, yes!" His smile widened, as if I could not have hit upon a subject that suited him more. "Do you like it?"

"Um... it's nice. The tigers look very... shiny."

He thrust out his chest. "Fabulous, aren't they. I've had a French dressmaker stitch one on for every tiger I killed on Safari."

My eyes snapped up to his face again, narrowed. "Really?"

"No, not really. It's just some story I tell people when I meet them first to see whether they fall for it."

"And do they?"

"Generally, no." He sighed. "I have no idea why. After all, I am the image of a fierce tiger hunter."

"Excuse me, Sir, but..."

"Yes?"

"Are you drunk?"

"Not yet. But I hope will change as the evening progresses." Relaxing his stature, he rubbed his hands together. "Now, back to business. We were talking about your plans to assassinate my friend."

I took a step back. Either this man was drunk in spite of denial, or, the more worrying possibility, he was absolutely sober. In which case he was probably stark-raving mad.

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