By Martha Wells
This is a complete novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Martha Wells, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Martha Wells.
This is Chapter Five. Read Chapter Four here.
Trees rose up on either side of the road, turning it into a dark canyon, but Octave’s coach barely slowed. This was far too fast a pace for night travel, even with a moon. The lamps at either side of the driver’s box swayed, the frame shuddered as the wheels struck holes, and Nicholas huddled against the back, trying to keep a solid grip on the outrider’s handle. Fortunately the coach was a sizable one and he wasn’t large enough to make the vehicle draw heavy behind; the chances of reaching the city unnoticed by the driver were good.
Trees gave way to manicured hedges, garden fronts empty and ominous under the moonlight. Greater and lesser houses stood on either side of the road, some still lit for late night guests, others closed and dark. The coach slowed for nothing, even when they passed other traffic; somehow the driver managed to keep his vehicle upright and out of the ditches.
He had to slow as they neared the old city wall. The road grew narrower, buildings clustered more closely to it and each other, and there were more obstacles to dodge. The wall materialized out of night mist and shadow suddenly, as if it were forming itself out of the ground and growing larger as they drew nearer. Gaslights and lamps from a nearby brandy house threw wild shadows on the ancient stone, each weather-stained block larger than the coach Nicholas clung to. Then they were through the immense gates and under the shadow of the old square towers. Cobblestones clattered under the horses’ hooves as they turned down Saints Procession Boulevard.
There was still heavy traffic on the boulevard, even this late at night. The crested coaches of the nobility jostled the smaller vehicles of the merely well-to-do and the little hire cabriolets fought for space to pass. The promenades on either side of the wide street were almost choked with pedestrians at times and the tree-lined verge down the center was often just as crowded; there were a number of theaters on this end of the city and the shows had let out not long ago. Nicholas stood more upright, casual and relaxed, as a groom huddled against the back of the coach and hanging on for dear life was sure to draw attention.
They turned off the boulevard and down a narrower, less frequented street. The houses were dark here, huge structures that blotted out much of the moonlight, as though they were driving down a steep-sided canyon. Nicholas thought the driver was avoiding the theater traffic but the coach didn’t take any of the cross streets that roughly paralleled the boulevard.
Gas street lamps grew less and less frequent and Nicholas wondered if they were taking this street all the way down to Riverside Way.
It was one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and had once been the bankers’ district, but now it was a notorious thieves’ kitchen. For a nondescript address Octave couldn’t have chosen better, Nicholas thought, smiling. Even the Prefecture doesn’t enjoy coming down here.
The buildings were high and narrow, stretching up four and five stories to peaked garrets. Shadows concealed the entrances to courts though Nicholas knew most of them were impassable from trash and filth. The street lamps, tall iron poles topped by ornate grillwork, had disappeared altogether and were replaced by oil lamps and torches, usually above the entrances to penny theaters or cheap brandy shops and cabarets. Crowds gathered around the lighted fronts of these establishments, laughing, calling out to friends, breaking off in apparently amiable groups that suddenly tumbled into fistfights. There were more ordinary businesses here: cafes, tanneries, and dye shops, but from a nighttime view the place looked like nothing but a den of iniquity.
The coachman took the sharp corner too abruptly and Nicholas lost his footing on the platform, his legs swaying dangerously out from the coach before he managed to haul himself up again. The driver must have felt that, he thought, shaking his head to keep the hair out of his eyes. The coach springs weren’t good enough to conceal what must have been an odd shift in the balance of the vehicle. Perhaps he isn’t the observant sort.
But one of the revellers on the corner staggered toward the street and called out helpfully, “Hey, there, skite! Slow down, you almost lost your groom.”
Oh, hell. Nicholas closed his eyes briefly. He didn’t hear that. The coach lurched under him, abruptly gaining speed as it barreled dangerously down the dark street. No, he heard it all right, he thought grimly.
The coach swayed sharply to the right, then again to the left. Nicholas clung tightly, glad of the gloves protecting his sweat-slick hands. Occupied with keeping a grip on the fast-moving vehicle, he didn’t see the next corner until the coach took it at an alarming rate of speed.
His feet slipped and he slammed against the back of the coach. He felt his legs strike the left wheel and hauled himself up desperately before he became tangled in the spokes. He barely found his footing again when the coach careened around another corner.
He had to get off the damn thing. Nicholas leaned out dangerously, getting a glimpse of what they were heading into. He saw the rows of buildings seem to come to an abrupt end not far ahead and suddenly recognized the street. They were on Riverside Way again and about to cross the river.
The buildings fell away behind them and a chill wind swept over him as they broke out into the open. Across the black chasm of the river he could see the lights of the far bank, the docks and warehouses of the shipping district. The coach barreled down a steep incline in the road and the lip of an ancient stone bridge appeared in the erratic light of the lamps.
Nicholas braced himself. The coach hit the bottom of the incline with a crash of springs and abused wood and he leapt into darkness. The breath was knocked out of him as he struck the ground, landing on the grassy verge instead of the stone roadway more by luck than design. He rolled into a foul-smelling muddy flat, gasping for breath.
He propped himself up, shaking his head to clear his senses. The coach had stopped at the top of the bridge above him, the horses trembling with exertion, their sides steaming in the cool air. The coachman climbed from the box as the side door swung open.
His eyes accustomed to the torchlit streets, Nicholas was almost blind in the heavy dark along the river. He scrambled down the bank until he felt the ground crumbling under his hands. There must be a drop-off here where the dirt had eroded away, though he could see little but moonlight limning the water below. The coachman had lifted one of the coach lamps out of its holder and would be down here in moments.
Nicholas ripped off his already torn coat and flung it over the edge of the drop-off, then rolled sideways to leave as little intelligible imprint in the wet ground as possible. He reached a more solid surface covered with patchy grass and struggled upright, and groped his way toward the arch of the bridge.
Above him the light bobbed, suggesting the coachman had started down the steep bank, following his progress through the disturbed mud and dirt. Nicholas worked his way under the low stone arch, blundering into pockets of stinking mud and bruising himself on broken bricks and metal debris. Cursing silently, he slid down and managed to fetch up against the first support pillar and crouched against it, waiting.
He heard their footsteps over the lapping of the water and the distant hum from the busy neighborhood. Their lamp appeared and Nicholas edged quietly around to the far side of the pillar. The light shifted erratically as the coachman investigated, then a voice said, “I think he fell over here. There’s a bit of cloth caught on a bramble down there — looks fresh.”
“You think.” It was Octave’s voice. “You didn’t think. It would have been better to summon a constable than to draw attention with that ridiculous display.”
“If he’s dead, then he can’t follow us,” the coachman muttered, sullen.
Octave said, “If he’s dead,” and Nicholas heard grass rustle as footsteps retreated up the bank. In another moment, the lamp and coachman followed.
Nicholas let out his breath. He listened to the coach make an awkward turn on the bridge, then head back up the incline at a more sedate pace. He gave them time to get up the slope, then climbed back to the road.
He paused there, his breath misting in the cold damp air, and saw the coach passing between houses. He grimaced, then started to run up the sloping road after it. This night’s work was not turning out exactly as he had hoped.
Fortunately, the coach kept to a more restrained pace as the coachman tried to make it look like a completely different vehicle from the one that had just torn so violently through the neighborhood. Nicholas kept to the side of the street, dodging in and out of groups of noisy revelers, avoiding the infrequent pools of lamplight. Hatless, coatless, and with his good servant’s clothes muddy and torn, he fit in among the crowd and no one accosted him.
He kept up the whole distance down Riverside Way and through two turns onto shorter cross streets, but after a long straight stretch he began to fall back. The coach turned left down another intersecting street and Nicholas put on a burst of speed to reach the corner, his lungs aching. This was Gabard Lane, even narrower and more crowded than the other streets of this warren. The coach forged its way through at a good pace but was stopped at the end of the street by a cart that was trying to make a late delivery and had managed to strew barrels down the middle of the lane.
Nicholas leaned against an alley wall, breathless, while the coachman shouted, the carter threatened and spectators took sides. They were near the edge of the Riverside Way area, almost on the border of the Garbardin Quarter. It was run down too, but not as gone to hell as its nearest neighbors.
The carter summoned his helpers out of the nearest brandy house and the barrels were removed. Nicholas pushed off from the wall, his brief respite over.
The coach turned at the end of the lane and Nicholas reached the corner only to stop short and fall back against the wall.
The coach had halted in front of a large building that had more the look of a fortress than a private home. It was several stories tall, with towers sprouting from the pitched roof. It was a Great House, a very old one, fallen on hard times as the neighborhood around it had decayed. As Nicholas watched, the doors of the carriage entrance swung slowly open and the coach passed inside. The windows on the upper floors were apparently lightless behind their heavy shutters and the house had a deserted look.
Nicholas knew little about this particular area, though he was far too familiar with its immediate neighbor Riverside. He stepped around the corner, moving casually down the street toward the only source of light — a small brandy house operating out of what appeared to be the old stable of another Great House, long ago torn down for tenements.
The front wall was open to the street, revealing a high-raftered interior packed with people, noise, and smoke. Outside a few regulars were loitering and an old man was serving from an open barrel, for the patrons who didn’t care to fight their way in.
“It’s a penny for a drink, unless you don’t got your own cup, then it’s two,” he said wearily, as Nicholas sat down on an overturned trough.
“It’s two,” Nicholas answered, tossing the coins over. The old man caught them and passed him a cup.
He took a cautious sip and managed not to wince. It burned all the way down his throat, with a faint aftertaste of kerosene. It brought back a host of disagreeable memories, of the one tiny room he and his mother had occupied in a tenement unpleasantly similar to those throwing their shadows over the street now.
The old man was still watching him. The only other patrons nearby were passed out entirely, huddled up against the wall of the old stable or staring vacantly into space. Nicholas was in no mood to fence. He said, “Whose house is that?”
“I saw you watching it.” The old man grinned, caught Nicholas’s expression, and added hastily, “There’s nothing there. Just old people. Nothing to steal.”
“Valent. It’s Valent House, or it used to be. Just old people live there.”
Nicholas tossed him another penny and stood. He started to dump the brandy in the street but instead handed it off to the most conscious of the huddled figures and walked away.
He went to the opposite corner. It intersected a street where late night coach and wagon traffic still travelled and several raucous establishments spilled customers into the gutters. He went down a short distance until he found an alley that led between two high, featureless brick walls back in the direction of Valent House.
He followed it with difficulty, finding his way past one dead end and two other intersecting passages, and finally came out into a carriage court that had been orphaned by the demolition of its original owner: none of the structures crowding close around opened on it and it was piled high with rubbish. There were windows looking down on it but all were closed or darkened; this entire side of the street seemed completely deserted. Nicholas fought his way through debris, bruising his shin on a broken dog-cart axle in the process, and reached the far wall.
He climbed it in a shower of loose bits of mortar and looked over the top into a dingy little court that had once been a garden, now choked with weeds and long abandoned. Looking up, he saw the outline of gables against the dark sky and knew this was the back of Valent House. The windows in the upper floors were all securely boarded shut and there were, of course, none in the ground floor and only a single door to allow access.
He struggled over the top of the wall and dropped softly down into the remains of a flower bed. The shadow of the house blotted out much of the moonlight and he had to feel for the steps and then the door. He tried the handle cautiously and found it securely locked and far too solid to force. He cursed it silently and stood back to look up at the house again. There was not a hint of light or sound from within, but these walls were thick, and one or a few people, moving quietly and with hand lamps, would not be noticeable from outside.
More searching turned up an alley that led off the garden court and back to the street at the front of the house. There seemed to be no other ground floor entrances but the garden door and the front, which he was not quite fool enough to try.
Nicholas had prepared tonight to pose as a manservant, not act as a housebreaker. He needed to send a message to Cusard. This meant a walk back to Riverside and his older haunts, where he could find a reliable messenger among the street boys who worked for the old thief.
He made his way back to the noisy side street with some difficulty and paused at the corner, to look toward Valent House again. Octave might think the night’s work was over, but it was just beginning.
In a thieves’ kitchen in Riverside, Nicholas found a street boy who worked occasionally for Lamane and who could take a message to Cusard. It would be an hour at least until Cusard could receive it and respond. He used the time to walk back up to Saints Procession Boulevard where there was an office of the Martine-Viendo Wire which stayed open all night, mainly for the convenience of the foreign embassies in the district that began across the street. There he sent a telegram to be delivered to Madeline at Coldcourt.
Both messages were cryptic and not readily to be understood by anyone who might intercept them. The message to Madeline had said only “E’s storeroom — ascertain security of inventory.” He might have waited on that until he could do it himself, but he was impatient and if Octave had found a way to get to Edouard’s research without alerting them, he wanted to know as soon as possible.
He caught a hire cabriolet on the boulevard and took it as far back down to Gabard Lane as the driver was willing to go and walked the rest of the way. He waited on the upper corner, comfortably out of sight of the street where Valent House lay, stamping his feet against the cold. He would have liked to keep watch on the house but wasn’t so dead to common sense as that — Octave would be suspicious at best after the performance on the riverbank.
Fortunately there were few prostitutes working this street and most were easily fended off. The district seemed to be quieting a little as the night wore on, but he had to keep moving to avoid suspicion. The ostler’s wagon with Cusard on the box was a welcome sight. Even more welcome were Reynard and Crack, who climbed down as soon as the wagon reined in at the curb.
“How did you make it here?” Nicholas asked.
“After I found your note, I made my excuses and got the hell away,” Reynard explained. He had changed out of his evening clothes and with the somewhat battered greatcoat he wore, looked sufficiently enough like someone who would be riding in an ostler’s wagon in this part of the city. “We went to the warehouse to see if you’d gone back there and met Cusard.” He glanced around the street. “Lovely neighborhood.”
“I brought these.” Cusard finished tying off his reins and pulled a leather satchel out from under the bench. He handed it down to Nicholas. “Everything there we might need. I checked it myself. Who’s staying with the wagon?”
“You are,” Nicholas said, taking the satchel. “Did you remember the oil?”
“Of course I remembered the oil.” Cusard was affronted at being left behind. “I’m the only official cracksman here and I taught you everything you know. It was a lie, the charge they laid against him.” He gestured at Crack, who rolled his eyes in annoyance.
“I know that,” Nicholas said with asperity. “I’ll work the doors myself. Someone has to wait with the wagon and he’ll have to keep sharp in this patch. You think on that.” In another moment, Nicholas reflected, he would be speaking entirely in backstreet Vienne thieves’ cant. This night was bringing his past back to him in unpleasant detail.
“All right, all right, have your own way, that’s the young for you.” Cusard gave in with poor grace. He handed Crack a dark lantern and Nicholas waited impatiently as it was lit.
“What happened to the coach?” Reynard asked as they started down the street.
“The driver realized I was on the back and I had to jump off and follow on foot.” He led them to the corner and took Crack by the shoulder, pointing out the dark bulk of Valent House. “Octave drove into the carriage door of that house. See if you can tell if he’s still there.”
Crack slipped around the corner. Nicholas leaned back against the wall, feeling through the contents of the satchel Cusard had brought him.
“Your note was incoherent, by the way,” Reynard said, regarding him thoughtfully. “What did you see at the circle that I didn’t?”
“That item that you so adeptly forced him to reveal.”
“Edouard’s last work. Did you ever know what it was?” Nicholas hadn’t known Reynard then and he was well aware his friend had had his own troubles at that time.
“Not really.” Reynard shrugged. “I heard rumors, none of which made much sense.”
Nicholas suspected Reynard was exercising tact, something he only did with close friends. The rumors at the time had been explicit and damning. “It was a mechanical device that would allow someone who had no sorcerous ability to direct sorcerous power, in a limited fashion.”
“Ah. That would tend to explain some of the events at the circle, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes. It took the help of a sorcerer to make it work at first. That’s why Edouard and I lived at Lodun for so long. He worked on it with Arisilde for a time.” He looked back at Reynard. “When one of the devices is completed, it’s in the form of a metal sphere, like the one Octave had.”
“I see why you chased him over half the city. But how did he get his hands on Viller’s work? Didn’t the Crown have it destroyed?”
“We managed to get to Lodun before the Crown did. The University authorities weren’t amenable to having a scholar’s property seized, and their resistance gave me enough time to remove most of the important papers –” Nicholas realized he was saying far more than he had meant to. The conversation was moving away from the security of the bare facts of Edouard’s work and the events surrounding his trial and into the dangerous ground of his own actions, thoughts, and feelings at that nightmarish time. He looked away up the street and added only, “I couldn’t save anything from the workroom he kept in Vienne where he was arrested.” In the last months of his life, Edouard had moved his experiments from Coldcourt to a hired studio on Breakwater Street in Vienne. It had been an odd thing for him to do, since previously he had worked only at his home or his quarters in Lodun. The Prosecution at the trial had made much of this, suggesting that Edouard was trying to hide his activities from his family and servants.
One morning Edouard had unlocked the studio to find a woman, very obviously and messily dead, on the table in his workroom. His reaction had been to run out into the street, shouting for help — not the act of a guilty man, as his counsel had pointed out. She had been a beggar woman who sold charms and flowers on the street and the Prosecution gave evidence that Edouard had been seen to give her money, suggesting this was how he had lured her into his rooms. Edouard was found guilty of trying to use her death to power his magical device and had been executed only a week later.
Nicholas had learned later that Inspector Ronsarde had never been happy with the case. Six months after Edouard’s death the Inspector had penetrated the deception and discovered that the woman had been murdered by a local thug named Ruebene. Ruebene had been killed when the Prefecture attempted to arrest him, leaving Edouard’s name cleared, but the Crown investigation had gone no further. Nicholas had taken up where Ronsarde left off, working for months until he found the link to Edouard’s old patron Count Montesq. The evidence was poor and since the chief witness was one of Montesq’s lower-class mistresses who had been present when the Count had hired Ruebene, and who was then dying of syphilis, he knew it would never go to court.
Besides, Montesq couldn’t be accused of necromancy, only of hiring the death of a beggar.
Nicholas wanted him to suffer far more than that. He took a deep breath and made himself think of the present and not the past. “I don’t know how Octave could have gotten his hands on any of it. And I don’t think I can make myself believe he was able to duplicate Edouard’s work from his own inspiration.”
“No,” Reynard agreed. “He didn’t seem the inspired type, if you know what I mean. I think I detected an air of the professional confidence man about him.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me.” Reluctantly, Nicholas added, “And we have another worry. Ronsarde was at Gabrill House tonight.”
Reynard was badly startled. “That’s not funny.”
“I’m not joking. He was in the garden, watching the circle. I spotted him as I was leaving. He saw me, too, of course, but not close enough to recognize, considering it’s been years since he’s seen me without a disguise of some sort.” Nicholas had avoided contact with Ronsarde after the trial, at first because he had been planning to kill him, later because he was building the Donatien persona.
“Damn.” Reynard folded his arms. “That could complicate everything enormously.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Nicholas’s expression was sour. “If he realizes you’re connected with Donatien, that’s going to give him the answers to more than a few mysteries.” Reynard had been the inside man for several of their early jewel robberies, when they had needed operating funds for the campaigns against Montesq. “But at the moment he has no reason to suspect Donatien’s involvement.”
Reynard wasn’t ready to let it drop. “But what if he saw the sphere? He’ll recognize it just as you did. That will give him every reason to suspect the involvement of a member of the Viller family. And if he connects you with Donatien…”
“We have to assume he did see it, and did know it for Edouard’s work. He could be led straight to us.” The walls of the tenements around them seemed to be closing in and Nicholas told himself this was shadow and imagination. He took another look toward Valent House and saw Crack coming back up the street. “We’ll just have to get to Octave first, and remove the evidence.”
Reynard shrugged philosophically, apparently satisfied with letting the problem rest there. Nicholas wished he could be so sanguine.
Reaching them, Crack said, “There’s an alley with slatted windows looking into the stable. No horses, no coach. Been there recently, though.”
Nicholas swore, resisting the urge to kick the foundation of the nearest wall. “He knows we’re after him. I don’t know if he realized it was me on the coach, but he knows someone is after him.”
“He’s cautious.” Reynard scratched his beard thoughtfully. “The house is still worth looking at.”
Nicholas agreed. Nothing was keeping him out of that house. “Yes, he had to leave in a hurry, if he wasn’t just visiting someone. There may be something left behind. Let’s try that door I found earlier.”
They went down the quiet street, keeping a wary eye on the brandy house in the old stable, the only possible source of interference. But the patrons who had crowded it earlier seemed to have retired and even the old man serving from the barrel had retreated inside. Several bundled forms were still stretched out on the walk in front but they seemed dead to the world and disinclined to interfere.
They reached the corner of the house and turned down the narrow alley that led directly to the garden court, Crack in the lead. As they made their way across the dry overgrown grass, Reynard swore softly and stopped to scrape something off his boot.
Nicholas followed Crack up the steps to the door he had tried earlier and in the muted light of the dark lantern examined it cautiously. It was solid mahogany and barely weathered at all. “New,” he whispered. “And in the last month.”
Crack nodded agreement, taking the lantern as Nicholas fished a leather tool case out of the satchel. He selected a bit and fitted it to a small steel brace, then knelt on the step to work near the keyhole.
Frequent application from a small bottle of oil kept the drilling reasonably quiet. He could hear nothing but their own breathing and an occasional fidget from Reynard. The house might have been empty.
It took almost thirty separate holes and the better part of an hour before Nicholas could wrench out the lock and push the heavy door open.
Crack handed back the lantern and slipped in first, Nicholas and Reynard following. The air smelled of damp and rats and something even more foul, as though meat had spoiled and been left to rot somewhere inside.
They crept down a short hall, the lantern illuminating fragments of rooms, the wire mesh meat safe of a servery, once-white tiles coated with dust and filth, an open and empty coal bin. Crack pushed silently through a door at the end of the hall, then leaned back to motion Nicholas to shut the slide on the lantern entirely. He complied, then followed his henchman through the door, Reynard behind him.
They were in the central foyer. Some light was entering through the cracked glass windows above the deep shadow of the front entrance and Nicholas could tell that this had once been a very fine house. The staircase had a grand elegant sweep, splitting into two midway up its length to lead into the separate wings. Torn and rotting fabric that had once been draperies still clung to the walls and paper and paint had peeled away in the damp. If people were living here, as the old man had said, they must carve out a miserable existence in one or two rooms, probably on the ground floor. The rest of the place was like a tomb.
Crack whispered, “No one’s here. No one alive.”
Nicholas glanced at him in surprise, supposing he was succumbing to a heretofore unexpressed religious streak. Then Reynard said softly, “You smell it too, hey? I can’t tell where it’s coming from; seems to be everywhere.”
“Smell what?” Nicholas asked, puzzled. “The rats?”
Reynard’s mouth twisted, not in amusement. “You’ve never spent a long period of time in a war — or a prison. That’s not rats.”
Nicholas accepted the statement without argument; he was beginning to realize just what it was they might find here. He said, “Crack, look for the cellar door. We’ll search this floor first.”
Crack vanished into the gloom and Nicholas and Reynard turned toward the doors off the entrance hall. The first had been a reception room. Nicholas raised the slide again and lifted the lantern, revealing spiderwebs like lace stretching from the ornate cornice and floral frieze out to the broken remnants of the chandeliers. The carpet had been worn to rags and he could clearly see that it and the heavy layer of dust on the floor had been recently disturbed. What was once a fine table still stood in the center of the room, its surface long ruined by damp, but not as heavily covered in filth as it should have been.
Reynard called softly from another doorway, “Signs of life, here.”
It was a library. The walls were lined with empty shelves and the floor was bare, but a large secretaire stood against one wall, with a straight-backed chair nearby.
Nicholas went to it, holding the lamp close to examine the scarred surface. There was hardly any dust at all and the lamp that stood on the shelf above was still half-filled with oil. The drawers were standing open and one had been pulled all the way out onto the floor.
“Left in a hurry,” Reynard commented softly.
They searched the desk without having to discuss it, each taking one side. Nicholas found nothing but broken pens, an empty ink bottle, and a deserted mouse nest, and Reynard’s haul wasn’t nearly so promising. Nicholas pulled out the other drawers and crouched down to reach further back into the cabinet, disturbing a flurry of spiders and something that skittered noisily away. He was rewarded when his hand brushed paper.
“There’s something back here,” he muttered.
“Hopefully not a rat.”
“Someone pulled out that drawer,” Nicholas argued, “because something was stuck and he didn’t want to leave it.” It felt like a sheaf of torn paper fragments, wedged into a crack.
“Or because he was in a hurry and clumsy.”
“Well, that too.” The paper gave way without tearing and he was able to withdraw his arm. In the dim light, he could see the scraps were covered with handwriting. He reached for the lamp, just as Crack’s voice came from the doorway.
“Found what?” Reynard asked, as Nicholas stood and shoved the paper fragments into his vest pocket.
“What you thought,” Crack elaborated and vanished back into the hall. Reynard turned to Nicholas, brow raised, for a translation.
“The not-rats,” Nicholas explained, already moving toward the door.
Crack led them to an alcove under the staircase. Going down, they found themselves in a hall with bare plaster walls, with various closed doors leading off it, probably to such places as the stillroom, the wine storage, the butler’s pantry, and the bedrooms for the upper servants. Crack turned right and opened a door. The smell warned Nicholas what to expect. It had grown stronger as they neared this room and as the door swung open he nearly gagged. Crack took the lantern out of Nicholas’s hand, knocked the slide all the way up and held it high.
In the center of the room a makeshift table had been fashioned out of planks and overturned tubs. Stretched across the planks was the corpse of a man. The chest and abdomen had been ripped open, the ribs pried back. Most of the organs had been removed and were littering the flagstoned floor, along with a great quantity of blood and other bodily fluids. The entrails were still attached but had been pulled out and were dangling to the floor.
Nicholas heard himself say, “I wasn’t expecting this.”
“There’s more,” Crack said, his soft raspy voice grimly matter-of-fact. “But this is the worst. That room there, closest to the stairs, I checked it first. There’s a hole knocked in the back wall with six of ’em crammed in it.”
Reynard turned to him, aghast. “Six?”
“Kids,” Crack added. He looked at Nicholas earnestly. “There’s more, I know there is. I could find ’em all for you if you need it.”
“That won’t be necessary just at the moment.” Nicholas was staring at the carnage. Whether Crack had sensed it on a visceral level, or observed signs that led him to that conclusion, he knew it was true. Bile was rising in his throat and he had to turn away for a moment and rest his head against the doorframe. Reynard stepped down the hall a few paces and stayed there, cursing under his breath.
Nicholas forced himself to turn back and look at the room again. He had, for a time, trained in the physician’s college at Lodun, though he had given up the courses after Edouard died. He could recognize a dissection when he saw it, and this was not one. This was a vivisection.
He made himself take a step further into the room, confirming the theory. There was no reason to tie down a corpse and the man’s wrists and ankles, practically the only intact flesh still left on the body, bore terrible galls from straining against the bonds. One of the eyes had been gouged out and the face cut and disfigured. He wasn’t alive through much of it, Nicholas told himself. He couldn’t have been. But the moments the victim had lived through had been terrible enough.
He looked down at the debris on the floor. The remains were that of more than one person.
He almost turned and walked out of the room then, certain he was going to be ill. Nothing had ever affected him this way before. He was not squeamish: anatomical studies, the morgue, or the surgeries he had watched had never disturbed him. This was different. This was foul in a way almost past comprehension. He knew what Crack was seeing here, why the other man was so certain they would find more corpses if they searched. This was not something one did once. This was a crescendo, worked up to with time and much experimentation.
Nicholas forced himself to look around the room again and this time saw something else. The whitewashed plaster on the walls, where it wasn’t stained with blood or some other fluid, was melted.
“What the hell…” he said softly, so intrigued by the anomaly he almost forgot the butchery around him. He stepped to the wall nearest the door, where he could reach it without having to move anything aside or step into a puddle, and probed the affected area. It was not only the plaster that was melted, but the wood beneath it. It was fused, the two disparate materials running together, forming glassy textured lumps. Nicholas swore again. This was something he had learned at Lodun too, but not in the medical college. This was something sorcerous; the result, perhaps, of uncontrolled power.
He should search for more telltale signs of sorcery, but he found himself suddenly unable to turn and look at the rest of the room again. He stepped out and nodded to Crack, who dimmed the lantern and pulled the door shut.
They climbed the stairs and once back in the hall Reynard turned immediately to the passage that led outside.
Nicholas caught his arm. “We still have to search the rest of the house. We can come back tomorrow to investigate further, but we have to make sure there’s no one still hiding here.”
Reynard hesitated. He was badly disturbed and doing his best to conceal it. “Yes,” he said finally. “You’re right. Let’s finish it.”
They split up to make quicker work of it. Crack had already scouted the basement, which seemed to contain nothing but the bodies and the instruments that had been used to torture and kill. They found repeated evidence that the house had been inhabited and recently. The ground floor was barren, except in the kitchen which still showed signs of meals prepared and eaten at the deal table. Stores of candles, lamp oil, and various foodstuffs had been left behind. The dust and dirt coating the remaining carpets took footprints easily, though it didn’t hold enough of the shape to make identification of the type of shoe possible.
On the second floor Nicholas found a bedroom that had seen recent use and a search of the drawers and cupboards in the remaining furniture turned up a slim stack of notebooks, covered with elegant, spidery handwriting. He fell on those eagerly, but as he flipped through them they seemed to be nothing but verbatim notes out of a book of sorcerous instruction. It was mildly encouraging that the type of sorcery discussed was necromancy. That was patently obvious from the first page, which went on about all the uses of dried human skin. It was the type of notes a student would make, from a book he was allowed to use but not remove from a master’s library. Nicholas took the notebooks anyway and found nothing more of use.
In the last room at the far end of the left hand wing, the now familiar smell of mortal decay stopped Nicholas in the doorway. It was a bedroom, more completely furnished than the others he had searched. His eyes went to the dressing table, where brushes and combs and a few cut glass bottles stood under a heavy layer of dust. He moved reluctantly to the heavily curtained bed and drew back one of the tattered drapes.
This, at least, was peaceful death. An old woman lay on the counterpane, dressed in a faded gown of a style out of fashion for twenty years, her feet in delicately beaded slippers. Her eyes were closed and her arms folded on her breast. Her flesh was deeply sunken and decayed; she must have lain like that for a year or more.
He let the drape fall back. It was unlikely the usurpers of her house had ever known she was there. He hoped that last loyal servant, who had dressed her in her best and laid her body out and drawn the bedcurtains, had followed those actions with packing her things and locking the door behind her, and had not lingered to become part of the collection in the basement.
Nicholas kept them searching as long as he could, but with only the three of them and lamplight, there was only so much they could do. Finally, Reynard collared him.
“Nic, there is nothing more we can do tonight. We need a medical doctor, and a sorcerer, and enough men to look in every cabinet, cubby, and mousehole in this house. Besides, you aren’t going to find a message scrawled in blood on a wall that says, ‘I did this come find me at such and such address’ no matter how hard you look. Leave it for now. We can come back in the morning with help.”
Nicholas looked around at the silent hall and the disturbed dust hanging in the damp air. Finally he said, “You’re right, let’s go.”
They left the house by the garden door. Nicholas was hoping the outside air, remarkably clean and fresh after the fetid humors inside, would revive him, but he didn’t get two paces down the broken path before he found himself braced against the garden wall, being messily sick.
When he straightened up he saw Crack had gone ahead, probably to scout the street. Reynard was waiting for him, arms folded, staring at the silent house.
Still leaning weakly against the wall, unable to help himself, Nicholas said, “It doesn’t make sense. What does this have to do with spirit circles? You heard him ask Madame Everset’s brother about his ship. It was so obvious that he was after the cargo, probably valuable if they were coming out of a Parscian port. He was after hidden wealth, not… What does this have to do with it?”
Reynard looked back at him, frowning. “But you thought he had something to do with those disappearances, that boy you went to look at in the morgue?”
“There was evidence, I couldn’t discount it, but I thought it would turn out to be some sort of coincidence. This doesn’t make sense.”
“Madness doesn’t have to make sense.” Reynard turned away from the house and took Nicholas’s arm. “Let’s get away from here.”
They found Cusard waiting up the street and climbed aboard the wagon. After a brief whispered explanation from Crack, Cusard whistled and said, “Next time I moan about being left behind, remind me of this.”
Nicholas and Reynard settled in the wagon bed, Crack climbing back to join them as Cusard urged the sleepy horses into motion.
They were silent for a time, watching the darkened houses pass by. The night was winding down in this part of the city and the loudest sound was the clop of hooves on stone.
“What do we do now?” Crack asked.
That’s the first time he’s ever asked, Nicholas thought. No matter what was happening. It was too bad he didn’t have an answer.
“That’s simple enough,” Reynard told Crack. “Tomorrow night you and I will go out, find Octave, and commit his remains to the river.”
“That’s the one thing we can’t do,” Nicholas said. He met Reynard’s eyes. “Octave couldn’t have done all that alone. There must be others. There’s his coachman, for one.” The coachman wasn’t the one Nicholas was worried about. There was someone else in this, someone who wasn’t interested in Octave’s spirit circles.
Reynard returned his gaze steadily. “Are you sure we can afford to wait?”
Nicholas didn’t look away. “No. But if there’s even one other, he’s got to be found. Octave knows too much about us. His colleagues must also.”
“That wasn’t the reason I was thinking of,” Reynard said quietly.
“I know.” Despite the devil-may-care persona Reynard had carefully constructed, his sense of morality was better suited to the officer and gentleman he had once been. His impulses were always in the right direction. Nicholas’s impulses were usually all in the wrong direction and it was only the intellectual knowledge of right and wrong painstakingly instilled in him by Edouard that allowed him to understand most moral decisions. But something in that room had struck him to the heart. He would stop it, but he had to do it his own way.
Reynard said nothing for a time. The wagon boards creaked as Crack shifted uneasily, but the henchman didn’t venture an opinion. Finally Reynard sighed.
“He’s clever, Octave or whoever helps him, to take so many and not be caught, not start some sort of panic. He could keep at it for years.”
Nicholas was staring at the street moving past. It was necromancy, obviously. Octave and his followers were performing — committing — some sort of necromantic magic. There was a memory, just on the edge of recall, that would seem to explain much if he could just capture it. He said, “I think I’ve seen something like that room somewhere before.”
Even Crack looked to him in astonishment. Reynard snorted. “Where? In a slaughterhouse?”
“Not in person,” Nicholas explained with a preoccupied frown. “In a book, an illustration in a book. I used to read the most appalling things as a child, my mother… My mother bought torn-up, broken books by the stack for me, at the old shops near the river, and she didn’t always have the leisure to look at what they were.” He shook his head. “That’s all I can recall of it. I’ll look in Edouard’s library — he used to read appalling things too.”
Reynard said grimly, “Whether he’s committing plagiarism or he’s thought it all up on his own, Doctor Octave’s got to die.”
END CHAPTER FIVE
Continued in Chapter Six
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