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The home base of the Ragtag Army was the rococo parlor, decorated in the French taste, of Rags’s Victorian mansion high in the Arx Ciceronis. Having carted her favorite chair back from the godown in Godtown’s seedy east end to its accustomed place beside her round-topped fireplace, Rags was once again settled in its depths, idly wiggling her feet and pretending to peruse a dog-eared copy of Little Women. Muffin lay at her feet. Across from her, in a comparatively uncomfortable but more fashionable Louis XV chair, Suzie, the team’s radio operator, perused a picture book with a teddy bear tucked under her left arm. She looked bored.
In the middle of the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a blindfold over her eyes and a sheet spread before her, the tall and spindly Alex Taliaferro attempted to reassemble her M249 squad automatic weapon, a task at which she was failing miserably.
Nicky and Jeanne strode in through the double French doors. With them was the straight-backed Ryuji Fujiyoshi, who, at the age of sixteen, was the “old man” of the team. Clinging to his hand was his six-year-old sister Rika, whom everyone called Popkin.
Just as they entered, Alex threw up her hands and shouted, “Where in Jahannam is the gods-damned return spring?”
Nicky leaned over her, plucked the spring from the sheet, and placed it in her hand, at the same time planting a kiss on her cheek.
“Oh, please tell me that was the Lady,” said Alex.
“Nope,” Nicky answered. “That was me.”
“Damn, now I gotta scrub. Thanks anyway.”
“Always pay attention to where you put down your parts, sweetheart.”
“It’s not my fault! You Americans make your guns too gods-damned complicated!”
“It’s Belgian, honey.”
“It’s the American variant, dipwad!” Alex ripped the blindfold from her face and stared down at her half-assembled machine gun. “Blast it all anyway. So what’s this I hear about a party?”
“Tomorrow night,” Rags said, peeking over the top of her book. “An’ it’s black tie. Nicky, you get your dinner suit?”
“Yeah, I’m set,” said Nicky. “But it’s rented. If I get shot up, I gotta buy the frickin’ thing, so let’s avoid a firefight.”
“Lady?” Rags asked.
“I have a dress,” Jeanne mumbled, ducking her head and fidgeting.
Alex rose to her feet and ran a hand through her short-cropped, platinum blond hair, smearing it with gun grease. “Hey, wait a minute, I wanna wear a dinner suit—”
Rags’s expression turned to a glower. “Wear a gown.”
Rags cut her off. “I don’t wanna have to explain you.”
Alex clucked her tongue.
“It’s not so bad,” said Nicky, slipping an arm through hers. “You can be my date.”
“Screw you, Nicky.”
“That’s the goal, yeah, but I didn’t think we’d get there so fast.”
Alex made an inarticulate noise in her throat, disengaged from Nicky, and wrapped an arm around Jeanne’s shoulders. Jeanne tensed.
“Say, Lady,” said Alex with a smooth voice and a wide grin, “how would you like to be my date?”
“Um … I’ll pass.” Jeanne pushed her glasses up her nose and gave Ryuji a nervous glance as she tried to pull away.
“C’mon. They say Swyer takes you higher.”
“Only you say that,” said Nicky as he threw himself on the sofa.
“If you don’t mind,” said Jeanne to Alex, “I’d rather go with a boy—”
“What? My Y-chromosome is as good as the next guy’s.”
“It obviously isn’t,” Nicky replied from the couch, “seeing as how you’re a girl. Personally, I’m gonna spend the night at the bar. Alex, you’re welcome to join me. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Will it taste as awful as that beer you gave me?”
“Then forget it.”
“You wanna be a man, right? Then you gotta drink stuff that gets you drunk but tastes like shit. That’s what men do.”
Her scowl having deepened considerably, Rags said slowly, emphasizing each word, “We ain’t goin’ to have fun, ever’body. This is serious business. We’re there to work. Everyone goes armed. Suzie, you stay here an’ coordinate. Ryuji, you an’ Popkin got a special job.”
Ryuji, silent, simply nodded.
Nicky had never worn a tuxedo before, and he was sweating like mad. Although it was monsoon season, Godtown nights were still stuffy, and dressing up for a fancy ball made him nervous as hell. The tux was poorly fitted, and the trousers were too wide at the waist. However, the jacket was roomy—which meant he had enough space to conceal his piece.
Rags had an arm entwined in his, and that only made him more nervous. The outfit she wore was entirely white: covered in lace and frills, her skirts ballooned around her petticoats and swept the floor. She looked like something from a wedding, though Nicky couldn’t decide if she most resembled the bride or the cake. Rags had clipped to her bangs a positively ridiculous miniature top hat of brushed felt, also white, decorated with folded silk roses.
But in spite of her garish accessories, Nicky knew for a fact that Rags was, quite literally, dressed to kill: her voluminous outfit concealed flesh-hugging high-tech body armor and six weapons, and, as always, she had a pair of crossed stilettos holding together her hairdo.
Behind them stood Jeanne and Alex. To Nicky’s shock, Jeanne wore white opera gloves and a strapless, sequined gown of bright blue that matched her eyes and contrasted pleasantly with her red hair. She also wore a good deal of makeup, which had blotted out the freckles on her face and neck, but missed the ones speckling her upper arms and shoulders. Ruining the dress’s Empire silhouette were Jeanne’s grenade bandolier and her AKM, which she had slid to her back to keep her hands free. Dangling from her left wrist was a fashionable little purse that Nicky hoped contained extra magazines for her rifle, though it hardly looked large enough.
Alex did not have the pleasure of escorting Jeanne, who stood well away from her, but Alex looked quite striking on her own. To Nicky’s surprise, she had got her way: she wore a white shirt, white waistcoat, white tie, and a closely fitted evening tailcoat. Though Nicky had come bare-headed and in a jacket with a simple English cut, Alex had gone all out with the accessories: she sported a beaver fur top hat, white lambskin gloves, patent leather pumps, and diamond studs. A cream-colored rose jutted from her buttonhole. Nicky thought it was excessive, and he was correct: she was not only crossdressing, but doing it in a style too formal for the party’s dress code.
Yet there was no denying that she always looked cute in boys’ clothes. Tall and rail-thin as she was, a man’s formal dress flattered her figure, what with the tailcoat’s close fit and peaked lapels to emphasize her slender waist. If she had worn a gown like the one Jeanne had on, she would have looked like a shapeless stick under an equally shapeless drape of fabric. As it was, she looked confident, intriguing, and not at all unfeminine.
Of course, the effect was somewhat ruined by the light machine gun she had hanging at her waist from a two-point sling.
“Not bad, Alex,” said Nicky. “Seeing as how you’re dressed like Fred Astaire, will you give me a dance?”
“Sorry,” Alex replied, placing a gloved hand on a hip. “I only dance with girls.”
“Eh, well, you’d probably have some trouble dancing at all when you’re packing that thing around. Is that an SAW in your pocket, or you just happy to see me?”
“There’s an interesting point, Nicky. You’re the only one of us four who’s unambiguously a guy, but you’re carrying a sissy Glock.”
The kids fidgeted for a while as they stood in the hall and awaited their introduction. Guarding the gilded doubled doors into the ballroom was a runebot, a hulking, barrel-shaped machine of rust-colored metal, which someone had comically stuffed into a dinner suit. Little was visible of the machine except its round, faceless head, etched all over with intricate Machine Runes. Nicky noticed immediately the prominent symbol in the middle of its forehead, a Mind Rune that gave the machine limited intelligence. Most of the runebots he encountered were designed for combat: strong, but slow and stupid. He almost never saw a Mind Rune because it created a point of vulnerability. If the Mind Rune were destroyed, the runebot would immediately go rogue, and the damned spirits in its runes would flee back to hell.
With its heavy arms, the runebot pushed open one of the doors and announced in a flat, metallic voice, “Mademoiselle Rags, popularly known as the Ragamuffin.”
A chorus of gasps went up, and every head turned to look. A buzz of excited chatter filled the room. Over the noise, Nicky could barely hear Rags muttering under her breath, “It’s Rag and Muffin. Grownups never say it right. Don’t they get it that Muffin is my dog?”