Suddenly aware that his mouth was open, Jeth clamped it shut with an audible clank. Wincing, he cleared his throat. “I take it you know the princess?”
“Me?” The girl’s eyebrows rose. “No, not really. But I’ve heard the rumors, same as you, I expect.”
Jeth grabbed a glass of champagne and took a sip, giving the girl another look. She certainly seemed rich enough to walk in the same circles as the princess.
“Um, Longshot?” Jeth jumped at the sudden intrusion of Lizzie’s voice and spilled more than a bit of his drink. “You need to make the pickup. No time for romance.”
Jeth grimaced, overwhelmed with an urge to throttle her. Last time Liz gets to run the comm. Ever. He forced a smile to his lips as he took a napkin and wiped himself off. “That’s probably five thousand unis’ worth of imperial champagne I just dumped down my shirt.”
The girl laughed, a surprisingly confident, full-bodied sound. Jeth felt a grin try to overtake him and fought it back. Like it or not, he needed to give this rich girl the cold shoulder. Shame: he suspected she would be a lot of fun if he had the time to spare.
“Anyway, nice talking to you.” Jeth turned and walked away before she could respond. Glancing around, he identified the eastern wall once more and headed toward it.
A few more buffet tables bordered this side of the room, but he avoided them. Instead he grabbed another glass and settled for an open area near the corner. He stood there, facing the dance floor with his drink in his hand, attempting to look uninterested.
Jeth pressed his finger to the communicator patch. “I’m in position.” He lowered his hand, waiting for a confirmation. When several seconds went by, he pressed it again. “Little Hawk? You there?”
“We’re here,” Lizzie came back, and Jeth flinched at the thundering crackle of static that punctuated her words. He resisted the urge to detach the communicator patch from his ear just to get it to stop.
“What the hell was that?” he said once things had quieted.
He regretted the question as the noise sounded again when Lizzie replied, “Something’s wrong with one of the relays. Think it’s going down.”
The sound faded once more but left his head ringing. Jeth pressed the link. “I’ll leave the connection up but don’t talk to me until you get it sorted out. That noise is enough to split my head open.”
Trying to regain his composure, Jeth took another sip of champagne, too aware of how fast his heart was beating and how shallowly his breaths moved in and out. Technology failure was the one thing certain to damage his cool. Too much depended on it working properly. And when it went sideways, there was nothing he could do about it. He didn’t possess the skills for working tech. He hated feeling powerless.
Moments later Jeth caught sight of Celeste as she entered the ballroom from the far door. She spotted him at once, but no sign of recognition appeared on her face aside from the initial lock of her gaze on his. She took her time crossing the room toward him, stopping here and there to offer drinks from her tray.
Jeth marveled at her balance. Her ability to carry that thing without spilling was one of the reasons she’d taken that part of the job. He surely would’ve doused the first person he came across.
Jeth glanced away from Celeste, trying to look bored again. He checked his watch—six minutes to go. He wanted to ask if Shady and Flynn were in place—they’d better be soon, or they’d miss their only chance at disguising the noise of the explosion as they blew a hole through the grate into the sewer beneath the palace—but Jeth resisted the temptation. As with the issue with the relay, there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
Jeth looked back at Celeste, wondering what was taking so long. Any minute now the party hosts would start herding the guests outside for the fireworks display set to signal the official arrival of the princess’s sixteenth birthday. Celeste’s eyes locked on his once more, but this time she glared at him.
Jeth arched an eyebrow, not understanding. In answer, Celeste raised her hand to her mouth. Jeth shook his head, still not getting it. Then he looked down at the nearly full drink in his hand and realization dawned. She couldn’t very well offer to take his glass for him if it wasn’t empty.
Grimacing at his blunder, Jeth raised the glass to his lips and drank the rest of the champagne in one gulp. The liquid burned and bubbled down his throat and into his belly. Thank goodness he’d eaten.
As he wiped the back of his mouth, Celeste finally reached him. “Take that for you, sir?”
“Yes, thank you.” Jeth set his glass on the tray beside two other empties.
“You’re welcome.” As she spoke, Celeste’s grip on the tray slipped and it crashed to the ground, the clatter muffled by the music and noise of the crowd. Fortunately, all the glasses were shatterproof.
Jeth and Celeste both knelt at the same time, their actions well rehearsed. As Celeste moved to pick up the tray with one hand, she reached inside her right boot with the other, pulling out the small, collapsible wrench she’d smuggled inside. Jeth took it from her and slid it inside his own boot with one fluid motion as he picked up the nearest fallen glass. Celeste grabbed the other two, and they both stood up.
“Let’s try that again.” He set the glass on the tray once more.
Celeste pursed her lips but didn’t respond. Subservience went against her nature.
A moment later, the music ended and an amplified voice began to speak, politely asking the guests to move out onto the terrace. Jeth and Celeste exchanged a look, then both turned and headed in that direction, walking slowly.