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 Eight. Read Chapter Seven here.
This particular private dining chamber at Lusaude’s boasted a little bow-shaped balcony, and over its brass railing Nicholas had a good view of the famous grill room below. The banquettes and chairs were of rich dark wood and red drapes framed the engraved mirrors. Women in extravagant gowns and men in evening dress strolled on the marble floor, or sat at the tables between stands of hothouse Parscian plants and Dienne bronzes, their laughter and talk and the clatter of their plates echoing up to the figured ceiling. The air smelled of smoke, perfume, salmon steak and truffle.
Nicholas took out his watch and checked the time, again: the only nervous gesture he would allow himself to make.
The private chamber was small and intimate, its walls covered in red brocade and the mirror above the mantelpiece etched with names, dates, and mangled verses by diamond rings. On the virgin white cloth of the table stood an unopened absinthe bottle and a silver serving set with the other paraphernalia necessary for drinking it. Nicholas normally preferred wine but for this night he favored the dangerous uncertainty of the wormwood liqueur. For now he was drinking coffee, cut with seltzer water.
He glanced up as the door opened. Reynard sauntered in, crossing the room to lean heavily on the table. “They’ve just arrived — they’re getting out of the coaches now,” he murmured.
His evening dress was a little disheveled and Nicholas could smell brandy on his breath but he knew Reynard was only pretending to be drunk. In the doorway behind him were several young men and women, laughing, leaning on each other tipsily. One of the young men was watching Reynard jealously. Nicholas pitched his voice too low for them to hear. “Very good. Will you be free to alert the others?”
“Yes.” Reynard jerked his head to indicate his companions. “I’m about to shed the window dressing and head for the hotel.” He took Nicholas’s hand and dropped a lingering kiss on his fingers.
Nicholas lifted an eyebrow. “Reynard, really.”
“It will make your reputation,” Reynard explained. “I’m quite fashionable this week.” He released Nicholas and turned to gesture airily to his audience. “Wrong room,” he announced.
Nicholas smiled and sat back as Reynard left, pulling the door closed behind him. No one in the merry group would have the least bit of difficulty believing that Reynard had gone to an assignation when he disappeared from their company in the next half hour.
He lost his amusement as the main doors in the grill room opened to emit a new party from the foyer. Several men and women entered, among them Madame Dompeller. On the fringe of the group was Doctor Octave.
One of the things Reynard had discovered today was that Octave would be performing another circle tonight at the Dompeller town residence near the palace. It was not a house Reynard could gain entrance to, but he had also discovered that Madame Dompeller meant to finish the evening with a late supper at Lusaude’s, the better to advertise the fact that she had just hosted a spiritual gathering.
Nicholas tugged the bellpull to summon the waiter and with a brief instruction handed him the folded square of notepaper he had prepared earlier.
Below, the Dompeller party was still greeting acquaintances and foiling the majordomo’s attempt to lead them to their private dining room. Nicholas watched the waiter deliver the note to Octave.
The spiritualist read the note, refolded it and carefully tucked it away in a vest pocket. Then he excused himself to his puzzled hostess and moved quickly through the crowd, out of Nicholas’s field of view.
In another moment, there was a knock at the door.
“Come,” Nicholas said.
Octave stepped inside, quietly closing the door behind him. Nicholas gestured to the other brocaded armchair. “Do sit down.”
Octave had received the note calmly enough but now his face was pallid and his eyes angry. He moved to the table and put his hand on the back of the empty chair. He had removed his gloves and his nails were dirty. He said, “I know who you are, now. You’re Donatien. The Prefecture has searched for you since you stole the Romele Jewels five years ago.”
“Ah, so you know. Your source of information is good. Too bad you can’t afford to tell anyone.” Nicholas put his cup and saucer aside and reached for the absinthe. “Would you care for a drink?” After last night, he had expected Octave to discover his other persona sooner or later. The game was deep indeed and Octave wasn’t the only player on the other side.
“And what is it that prevents me from speaking of what I know?” Octave was outwardly confident but sweat beaded on his pale forehead and the question was cautious.
He’s wary now, too, Nicholas thought. We’ve made explorations into each other’s territory, and perhaps both of us have made discoveries that we had rather not. “I’ve been to Valent House,” Nicholas said simply. He opened the bottle and poured himself out a measure of the green liqueur. “You didn’t say if you’d like a drink?”
There was a long silence. Nicholas didn’t bother to look up. He busied himself with the absinthe, placing the perforated spoon containing chunks of hard sugar over the top of the glass, then adding a measure of water from the silver carafe to dissolve the sugar and make the intensely bitter stuff drinkable.
In one nervous motion Octave pulled the chair out and sat down. “Yes, thank you. I see we need to speak further.”
“That’s certainly one way of phrasing it.” Nicholas poured out a measure for Octave, then took his own glass and leaned back in his chair. “I’ll taste mine first, if that will make you more comfortable. Though I assure you that adding poison to absinthe is redundant.”
Octave added sugar to his glass, his hand trembling just a little as he held the spoon and carafe. He said, “I realize now that I made a mistake in sending my messenger to you, the night of the ball. I thought you were attempting to meddle in my affairs.”
“You’re not a sorcerer yourself, are you? You didn’t send that golem. Who did?”
“That’s not your concern,” Octave said, then he smiled, giving the impression of a man trying to settle a silly argument with a little cool reason. “I didn’t realize your presence in Mondollot’s cellars was due to the family jewels. I apologize, and we can consider the matter between us closed.”
Nicholas’s eyes narrowed. He tasted the liqueur. The bitter flavor was still intense, even watered down and sweetened. Drinking the stuff at strength or in quantity caused hallucinations and madness. He said, “It’s too late for that, Doctor. I told you, I’ve seen Valent House. You seem to have left the place alive, which apparently isn’t a feat that many people managed to accomplish.”
“Then what do you want?” Octave leaned forward intently, his pose forgotten.
“I want him. The man who filled that house with corpses. His name, and his present location. I’ll do the rest.”
Octave looked away. For a moment, the expression in his protuberant eyes was hunted. “That may be more difficult than you think.”
Nicholas didn’t react. He had suspected that Octave had a more powerful partner and now the good doctor had confirmed it. “But that’s not all I want. I must also know how you obtained enough access to Doctor Edouard Viller’s work to enable you to construct one of his devices.” Mustn’t place too much emphasis on that. He didn’t want Octave to realize how angry he was over that theft of knowledge. If he realizes that, he’ll know I can’t possibly mean to let him escape. “I must know that, and I must know that you will stop using it to fleece people out of their dearly departed’s lost treasures.”
Octave eyed him resentfully. He took the folded square of notepaper out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. On it was written Marita Sun, carrying gold coins for deposit with the Bank of Vienne from the Sultan of Tambarta. Octave said, “So this was not a bluff.”
Nicholas lifted a brow, annoyed. “I don’t bluff, Doctor.” He picked up the note. “This ship sank last year. The fateful result of a complicated and rather dull transaction, involving an attempt to secure a loan from the Crown of Ile-Rien for the disadvantaged little nation of Tambarta. One lifeboat full of confused passengers and some debris survived. Only a crewman who went down with the ship could give an accurate enough description of her position to make salvage possible.” He crumbled the note and met Octave’s eyes. “You should have asked for longitude and latitude. The instructions he gave you were still too vague. It was too ambitious a project for you, Doctor. Better stick to Madame Bienardo’s silver chests, stuck behind the old wine vault in the cellar, or the Viscount of Vencein’s stock of gold plate buried in the garden by a mad grandfather –”
Octave struck the table with his fist, making the glasses jump and the silver spoons rattle on their tray. “So you know that much –”
“I know it all, Doctor.” Nicholas allowed his disgust to show. “Edouard Viller found a way to meld machinery and magic, to create devices that would actually initiate spells on demand. His creations were so complex that no one has been able to duplicate them since he was framed for necromantic murder and hanged. No one except you, that is.” His lip curled. “And you use them to ask the dead where they’ve buried the family silver, so you can come sneaking back and dig it up –”
Octave stood abruptly, knocking his chair back, breathing hard. His white face was shiny with sweat. “What do you care? You’re nothing but a common thief.”
“Oh, there’s nothing common about me, Doctor.” The words were out before Nicholas could stop them. He plunged on, knowing that to try to cover it would only draw more attention to his slip. “What of the ghouls? Are they a byproduct of the process you use to communicate with the dead? And what of the man who needs to murder the way other men need this filth?” He set the absinthe down on the table, hard enough for a little of the green liqueur to slosh out and stain the cloth. “Is he a byproduct, too, or was he drawn to you by it? Can you get rid of him even if you want to?”
Octave drew back stiffly. “If you want to live, You’ll stay out of my affairs, Donatien.”
Nicholas rested his elbows on the table, smiling to himself. He waited until Octave’s hand was on the doorknob before he said, “Perhaps I don’t want to live as badly as you do, Doctor. Think on that.”
Octave hesitated, then thrust open the door and stepped out.
Nicholas gave him a few moments head start, sitting at the table and tapping the arm of his chair impatiently. Then he stood and slipped out the door.
He took the back stairs, passing a couple of heavily veiled women on their way up to assignations, and went down the narrow hall, past doors into the kitchen that disgorged fragrant steam and harried staff. He paused in the alcove near the rear entrance, to collect his coat and deliver a generous payment to his attentive waiter, then stepped into the back alley. The lightest possible rain was falling out of the cloud-covered, nearly pitch dark sky, and with any luck the fog was already rising.
The dark cabriolet was waiting near the mouth of the alley and one of the horses stamped impatiently as he approached. Crack was on the box with Devis and Nicholas knew part of their plan, at least, had already gone awry. He tore open the swing door and leaned inside. “Well?”
Madeline was within, wrapped up in a dark cloak. “Octave’s coach is under a lamp, right next to the front entrance of Serduni’s. There’s such a crowd there that if we take the driver now we might as well do it on the stage at the Grand Opera during the third act of Iragone,” she reported, sounding annoyed. “But I did get a good look at him.”
Nicholas swore. I knew that was going to be a problem on this street. There was no help for it. “You’ll do it at the hotel then, if he goes there,” he said, and swung inside the cramped cab, pulling the little door closed. The windows had no glass, as was common on this type of conveyance, and it also made it far easier to see out in the dark streets.
“It will be easier there,” Madeline admitted. She began to readjust her costume for the next part of the plan, removing the dowdy hat she wore and stuffing it into the bag at her feet. Her cloak fell open, revealing that she was already dressed in a man’s dark suit. The cloak had completely concealed it and the large hat had allowed her to scout out the spiritualist’s coach without anyone being the wiser. “Did you frighten Octave?” she asked, pulling a folded greatcoat out of her bag.
“He was already frightened.” Nicholas scrunched over as far as he could to give her room and looked out the window, though the alley wall cut off any view of the front entrance of Lusaude’s. Crack and Devis would be watching for a signal from the man posted across the street. “Where do you keep family jewelry?”
“In a strongbox in that little cupboard under the third floor stairs. Why?”
“Not you personally, Madeline, but in general.”
“Oh. In a safe, of course.”
“Of course. In my dressing room, I should think. At least, that’s where most of the ladies I know keep theirs.” Madeline fell back on the seat, a little breathless from wrestling with the voluminous cloak and the heavy coat in the confined space.
Nicholas glanced back at her. In the darkened coach, it was difficult to see how well the disguise worked, but she had done this before and he knew how convincing she could be. “Octave inferred we were in Mondollot House’s cellars to steal the Mondollot jewels.”
“That’s ridiculous. Can you see the Duchess’s lady’s maid trooping down to those dank cellars every time the woman wants to wear her emeralds to dinner? Why, she goes to formal court at least seven times a month and she has to wear the presentation pieces then or the Queen would be terribly offended…” She tapped her lower lip, thoughtfully. “He didn’t know about the gold she was hiding, did he?”
“No, I don’t think so. He hadn’t even tried to persuade the Duchess to let him contact the late Duke yet, so he didn’t find out about any hidden wealth that way. He was searching for something he already knew was there.”
“Did he find it, I wonder?”
“Someone found something. There was that empty room that had been broken into, with the plinth that had been recently occupied. It was originally part of the cellar of Ventarin House, whose only claim on history is that it was once the home of Gabard Ventarin, who was court sorcerer two hundred years ago, give or take a decade or two.”
“So he was after something buried under the house of a long-dead sorcerer?” Madeline’s voice was worried. “That sounds rather…dangerous.”
“It does, indeed.” Nicholas leaned out the window, unable to contain his impatience. There was still no sign of Octave. “If he calmly sits down to dinner with the Dompeller party –”
“We’ll feel very foolish.”
Crack leaned down toward the window then and whispered, “He’s out front, waving at his man.”
Nicholas sat back against the cushions. “At last. He must have stopped to make his excuses to Madame Dompeller. It means he’s not exactly panic-stricken.”
“Then I don’t suppose he’s going to run straight to his accomplices.”
“No, but that was a forlorn hope, anyway. If he was that incautious, he wouldn’t have abandoned Valent House last night when he realized someone was following him.” He heard the harness jingle and the cabriolet jerked into motion, moving out of the alley into the crowded street. He had reasoned that if Octave didn’t immediately panic and head for his accomplices’ hiding place, he would return to his hotel, leave his coach and driver, and go on foot.
Devis was adept at this game and his team quicker and more responsive than the nags that usually pulled hire carriages. He kept one or two other vehicles between the cab and Octave’s coach while always keeping the quarry in sight.
Nicholas had no trouble recognizing the streets they were on tonight. “So it is to be the hotel.” If his accusations had failed to panic the good doctor, what they were about to do would not.
Octave’s coach reined in at the walk in front of the Hotel Galvaz’s impressive gaslit facade. Devis followed his instructions, driving on by. Nicholas, shielding his face with a hand on his hat brim, caught sight of Octave hurrying between the dancing caryatids on either side of the entrance.
The cab turned the corner, drove past the hire stables the hotel used and took the next corner into an alley. There it rolled to a stop. Madeline fished a top hat out of the bag at her feet and said, “I’m on. Wish me luck.”
Nicholas caught her hand, pulled her to him, and kissed her far more briefly than he wanted to. “Luck.”
Madeline slipped out of the cab and hurried back down the alley, Crack jumping down from the box to follow her.
Madeline adjusted her cravat, tipped her hat back at a jaunty angle, and lengthened her stride as she walked to the head of the alley. Her hair was bound up tightly around her head, under a short wig and her hat. Subtle application of theatrical makeup coarsened her features and changed the line of her brows, and pouches in her cheeks thickened her face. Padding helped conceal her figure under the vest, coat, and trousers, and the bulky greatcoat capped the disguise. As long as she didn’t remove her gloves, she would be fine.
It was important that the coachman be removed without any sort of attention being drawn to the act. Octave might have accomplices within the hotel and they didn’t want to alert them. She walked past the open stable doors, lamplight and loud talk spilling out onto the muddy stones. Behind her, she knew Crack would be taking up a position at the head of the alley.
She rounded the corner, passing under the weathered arabesques and curlicues of the building’s carved façade. A large group was exiting a line of carriages in the street. She mingled with them as she climbed the steps and entered the hotel.
She made her way across the brightly lit foyer and up the stairs to the Grand Salon. The room was decorated with the usual profusion of carved and gilded paneling, with large mirrors rising to the swagged cornice. An enormous arrangement of plants and flowers dominated the center and reached almost to the bottom dangles of the chandelier. There were a number of men in evening dress scattered about the room in conversational groups. None of them was Octave.
Madeline made her way to the back wall, which was open to a view of the rear foyer below and the grand staircase. She had to make sure Octave left before she proceeded with her part of the plan.
Leaning on the carved balustrade, she didn’t spot Reynard until he stepped up beside her. “He’s gone up to his rooms,” Reynard murmured. “If this is to work, he should be down again in a moment.”
“It’ll work,” Madeline said. “He’ll want to tell his friends that they’ve been found out.” If Octave saw Reynard after the experience at the Eversets’ circle, the doctor would surely become suspicious, but no one else in their organization was as well qualified to idle in the salons of an expensive hotel as Reynard was. Madeline, even in her respectable dark suit, was drawing some attention from a porter who was crossing the salon. It was because she hadn’t given up her greatcoat to the cloakroom and so obviously wasn’t a guest. She swore under her breath as the porter approached. This hotel had enough trouble with its reputation, it couldn’t afford to allow in a possible pickpocket or sneakthief.
Reynard spotted the man approaching and put a hand on Madeline’s shoulder, drawing her to him. The porter veered away.
“Thank you, I –” She tensed. “There he is.”
Octave was hurrying down the grand staircase, having changed his evening dress for a plainer suit and cloak.
Reynard didn’t turn to look. He was pretending to straighten Madeline’s cravat. “We have all the entrances covered, but I suspect he’ll go for the back. He doesn’t strike me as being overly endowed with imagination.”
Madeline leaned one elbow on the balustrade, standing as if coyly enjoying Reynard’s attentions, watching Octave until he disappeared below her level of view. A moment or two, and the spiritualist appeared in the marble-floored chamber below them, moving briskly toward the doors that led to the back street entrance. “Right again,” she said.
“I’ll walk you out.”
There was a crowd around the front entrance now and they drew several curious looks. “You must tell me who your tailor is,” Reynard said to her, as if continuing a conversation, with just the right amount of amused condescension in his tone.
Madeline kept her expression innocently flattered and then they were out on the street.
Madeline stopped at the stable door and Reynard kept walking. Nicholas’s cabriolet, with Devis at the reins, was already at the mouth of the alley. Madeline waited until Reynard had stepped inside and the cab turned up the street before she casually strolled into the stables. She made her way past the carriage stalls to the wooden stairs that led up to the second floor. The liveried hotel servants ignored her, assuming she was someone’s coachman or servant.
The stairs opened onto a low-ceilinged chamber that served as a common room for the men quartered here. It was crowded and the air was warm and damp and smelled strongly of horse from the stalls below. There was a dice game in progress on the straw-strewn floorboards and Madeline circled it, scanning the participants for Octave’s coachman. She had gotten a good look at him in the street outside Lusaude’s. He was a short, square-built man with coarse, heavy features and dead eyes.
He wasn’t among the dice players. Well, he didn’t look the sociable sort. No, there he was, standing against the far wall, alone. Madeline edged her way through the crowd, catching snatches of conversation in a variety of different accents, until she was near enough to her quarry for a few private words.
Much to Nicholas’s consternation, she hadn’t planned exactly how to lure the coachman into their clutches. She liked carefully planned schemes as much as he did, but with no prior knowledge of what the man might be doing, it was impossible to tell how best to proceed.
Besides, she did some of her finest acting under the pressure of desperation. “I have a message,” she said, pitching her voice low and giving herself a faint Aderassi accent.
He eyed her, a sulky expression on his broad face. “From who?” he asked, suspicious.
Madeline realized she could say “From the doctor,” but so could anyone else and she had no corroborating detail to give him. Nicholas had postulated the involvement of a powerful sorcerer, and Arisilde had confirmed it when he had found the enspelled mirror in Octave’s hotel room. Taking a stab in the dark, she said, “The doctor’s friend.”
The man blinked and actually went white around the mouth. He pushed away from the wall and she led the way back across the room to the stairs.
She lengthened her stride as they reached the street, glancing back at him to motion him along, keeping her head down as if she feared pursuit. He quickened his steps to keep up with her.
She rounded the corner into the alley, passed a shadow hunched against the wall that she hoped was Crack. Blocking the alley was the back end of Cusard’s ostler’s wagon.
She turned, gesturing to it as if about to speak, saw the man’s brows lower in suspicion. Then Crack moved, silent and quick, getting a forearm around the larger man’s throat before he could cry out.
The coachman tried to throw his attacker off, then tried to slam him against the alley wall, but Crack held on grimly and the struggling was only making the stranglehold work faster. The only sound was wheezing grunts from the coachman and the scrape of their feet on the muddy stones.
Madeline kept an eye on the mouth of the alley, but no one passed by. Finally the coachman slumped limply to the ground and she hurried forward to help Crack haul him to the wagon.
Following a nervous man on foot wasn’t as easy as following a nervous man in a coach and four. Nicholas had Devis keep the cabriolet hanging back as far as possible. He had chosen it specifically with this in mind, since it was an unobtrusive vehicle and tended to blend in to the city streets.
It didn’t make waiting any easier.
“Really,” Reynard said finally. “I’d rather you fidget than sit there like a bomb about to explode.”
“Sorry,” Nicholas said. The neighborhood they were entering was not quite what he had expected. The buildings were dark on either side of the wide street, the infrequent gas lamps wreathed in night mist, but this was a business district, heavily populated during the day. The traffic was light and they might have to get out and follow Octave on foot. “There’s something wrong here.”
“He didn’t see me, and even if he had spotted Madeline in that get-up, I don’t see how he could have known who she was. I almost didn’t recognize her and I knew what to expect.”
“That mirror in Octave’s room,” Nicholas said. “If his sorcerer warned him through it…”
“But how would he know? Is he following us?”
“Damned if I know.” He shook his head. “I wish I could hand this over to someone else. This is too complicated, too urgent for me to deal with when all my attention and my resources should be devoted to the plot against Montesq.”
“The sooner this is over with the better,” Reynard agreed. “I’m a little confused as to how the Master Criminal of Ile-Rien ended up hot on the trail of a petty confidence man and his friend the murderer, and I was along from the first.”
“Please don’t call me a Master Criminal. It’s overly dramatic. And inaccurate. And the bastard has one of Edouard’s spheres, that’s why I want him.” He’s using Edouard’s work to murder innocent people, Nicholas thought. I can’t let that go on one moment more. If Edouard was still alive he would have been leading the chase himself; he had never meant his work to be used to harm anyone.
Reynard was silent a moment, what little light there was from the street limning his strong profile. “I’m thinking of Valent House. Who could you possibly hand that over to? A sorcerer?”
Nicholas hesitated, though he wasn’t sure why. “Inspector Ronsarde, of course. If he’s good enough to almost catch us –”
“He’s good enough to catch Octave and his friends. Of course. It’s too bad you can’t simply drop the whole matter on his lap, though I admit I would like to be in at the end.”
It was too bad, but such a course was impossible. Octave knew too much about them. If Ronsarde found Octave, he found Donatien/Nicholas Valiarde, and if he found Nicholas, he found everyone else. Nicholas tapped his fingers impatiently on the leather sill of the cab window. I want this done and over with. I want to concentrate on Montesq. We’re so close….
Reynard added, “Though I’m surprised to hear you say it.”
Nicholas frowned at him. “Why?”
“You do have a tendency to become…unduly consumed with certain things, don’t you? Are you sure you aren’t putting off that plan against Montesq?”
“What do you mean?”
“When Montesq is hanged — a laudable goal in itself — that means you no longer have an excuse.”
“I don’t need an excuse.” Nicholas kept looking out the window, watching the damp mostly empty street, making sure that was still Octave stepping out of the shadows under the next lamp. Reynard was one of the few people who would say such things to him, but Reynard wasn’t afraid of anything. And if Nicholas became “unduly consumed” with things he felt Reynard erred in the other direction, by pretending not to care until it burned him away within. At least Nicholas wore his fire on the outside. “We all do what we have to do, don’t we?”
Reynard was silent a moment, his face enigmatic in the shadows. He finally said, “I worry about you, that’s all. All this can only go so far.”
They reached a cross street that seemed completely deserted and Nicholas tapped on the ceiling, signaling for Devis to draw rein.
Nicholas waited until Octave turned the corner then swung the door open and stepped out. He motioned to Devis to stay back here, where there were still a few passing coaches and people to explain the cab’s presence. He and Reynard hurried down the dark street.
They saw Octave still moving away as they reached the corner and followed him cautiously, avoiding the infrequent pools of gaslight from the flickering street lamps. This street was completely deserted, the buildings lining each side as silent and dark as immense tombs in some giant’s mortuary. Nicholas’s walking stick was a sword cane and for tonight’s work Reynard carried a revolver in the pocket of his greatcoat.
They stopped as Octave crossed the street. Their quarry turned down an alley at the side of a tall, bleak building, a deserted manufactory that was solid and square, with dozens of unlovely chimneys thrusting up from the flat roof. Stone steps led up to a wooden double door, the street entrance, but Octave had gone down the alley. “It can’t be,” Nicholas muttered.
“I agree,” Reynard whispered. “Too many people about during the day. Why, we’re only two streets over from the Counting Row.”
“The windows are boarded up,” Nicholas said thoughtfully. “I don’t think he saw us.”
“Perhaps there’s something behind it. We’d better move or we’ll lose him.”
I suppose, Nicholas thought. He smelled a trap. Perhaps it would be best to spring it. They crossed the silent street and Nicholas said, “He didn’t see us, but still he knew he was being followed.”
“Yes, dammit,” Reynard said. “Someone could have warned him, but the only time he was out of our sight was when he went up to his hotel room. I suppose he could have been warned through that mirror thing you found, but how would they know about us?”
“If it was a sorcerer — a real sorcerer and not a damn fool like Octave — he’d know.” And only a real sorcerer could have created that mirror. Nicholas had deliberately staged the meeting at Lusaude’s to keep Octave from having any time to plan or prepare or think, but someone hadn’t needed time.
They reached the side alley and went down it, ignoring the mud and trash their boots disturbed. The door was a small one, set into a slight recess in the stone wall. It was almost too dark to see it, the distant street lamps providing little illumination in these depths. Nicholas touched the door lightly, with the back of his hand, but felt nothing. He did the same to the metal handle, again without effect. I wish Arisilde were here, he thought, and slowly tried the handle.
He exerted just enough pressure to find that it turned. He stopped and stepped back. “It’s not locked,” he told Reynard. “Fancy that.”
“Oh, dear. The good doctor does have a gift for the obvious.”
“But he set this trap under instructions from someone else. It’s that person I worry about.” Nicholas rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then felt in the various pockets of his suit and greatcoat, mentally inventorying the various tools he had brought with him. Whoever had arranged this trap hadn’t had much time; he knew it took hours, often days for the casting of the Great Spells, even if the sorcerer already knew the architecture he was trying to create. And that would be a terrible amount of work simply to eliminate us. Especially when they have other resources at their command.
He found what he was looking for, a small holiday candle, ideal for causing mass confusion in snatch robberies in crowded places. “Step back,” he told Reynard. “And watch the door.”
Nicholas took out a box of matches and lit the candle. It sparked in the dimness, lighting the alley around them, its white light casting stark shadows on the dark walls. Then he flung the door open and tossed it inside.
The candle sparked, sputtered and burst, emitting dozens of tiny flares that lit up a dingy foyer, floorboards thick with dust and spiderwebs depending from the mottled plasterboard. It also cast reflections into a dozen pairs of eyes, some crouched near the floor, some hanging from the ceiling or apparently perched halfway up the wall.
Nicholas heard Reynard swear under his breath. He heartily agreed that they had seen enough. He yanked the door closed, took out a short metal bar used for prying at reluctant locks and thrust it through the handle to wedge it against the wooden frame. It wouldn’t last long, but they only needed a short head start.
As they reached the street Nicholas thought he heard the door burst open behind them and a frustrated snarl. That might have been his imagination. He knew the pairs of eyes, arrested by the brilliance of the sparking candle, had not.
The house was in an old carriage court called Lethe Square, off Erin Street across the river. It was only two stories and seemed on the verge of tumbling down. Surrounded by busy tenements with small shops crammed into the lower floors and right on the edge of a better district, it was an area where there were comings and goings at every hour of the night and the residents didn’t pay much attention to new faces in the neighborhood.
The coach let Nicholas and Reynard off at the top of the alley, then headed for the stables at the end of the street. The infrequent gas lights turned the rising ground fog to yellow and cast odd shadows against the walls. There were other people in the street or passing through the alley to the courts beyond: tradesmen or day workers hurrying home, a few prostitutes and idlers, a group that was obviously down here to slum among the cabarets and brandy houses, despite their dress and attempts at aping the manners of the working class. Why don’t they go to Riverside if they’re so interested in seeing how the lower orders live, Nicholas thought, as he and Reynard hurried up the alley. I’m sure our neighbors across the river would love their company…. The answer of course was that this was a safe slum, filled with the working poor and those living in genteel poverty. Riverside was something else altogether.
They crossed the old carriage court, one side of which was occupied by a lively brandy house and the others by closed shops. Nicholas stopped at the stoop of the little house and knocked twice on the door.
After a moment it opened and Cusard stepped back to let them enter. “Any luck?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” Nicholas answered, heading down the short hallway.
“Yes, we’re still alive, and no, he didn’t lead us anywhere useful,” Reynard elaborated. “It was a trap.”
Cusard swore under his breath as he locked the door behind him. “We’ve done a bit better. You won’t believe what we been hearing from this poor bastard.”
“I’d better believe it, for his sake.” Nicholas opened the parlor door.
Inside was a small room, lit by a flickering lamp on a battered deal table. There was one window, shuttered and boarded over on the outside. Madeline was here, leaning against the dingy wall with her arms folded, still in male dress. She met his eyes and smiled grimly.
Lamane stood near the door and Crack, who was cleaning his fingernails with a knife, near the prisoner. Octave’s driver sat in a straight-backed chair, blindfolded, his hands bound behind the chair back.
Reynard pulled the door closed and Nicholas nodded to Madeline. She said, “Tell us again. Who killed the people we found at Valent House?” Her voice was low and husky. Nicholas would not have recognized it as hers, or even as female, if he hadn’t known her. Sometimes he forgot how good an actress she really was.
“The doctor’s friend.” The driver’s voice was hoarse from fear. Nicholas recognized it as the voice of the man who had driven Octave’s coach last night, who had climbed down from the vehicle to search for him along the muddy riverbank.
“Why did he kill them?”
“For his magic.”
Nicholas frowned at Madeline, who shook her head minutely, telling him to wait. The driver continued, “He needs it. It’s how he does his spells.”
Nothing we didn’t already know, Nicholas thought. Arisilde’s explanations had been more cogent. “And who is this man?” Madeline asked.
“I told you, I don’t know his name. I don’t see him much. Before he showed up, it was just the doctor and us.” Beyond the fear, the man sounded sulky, as if he resented the intrusion of the “doctor’s friend.” “Me and the two others, his servants, I told you about them. The doctor held the circles for money. We started in Duncanny and he used that gadget he has.”
Nicholas pressed his lips together. The “gadget” must be Edouard’s device. Madeline asked, “How did he get the gadget?”
“I don’t know. He had it before I came into it. He paid us well. Then his friend showed up once we were in Vienne, and everything changed. He’s a sorcerer and you have to do what he says. I didn’t have nothing to do with killing anybody, that was all him, for his magic.”
Magic which was necromancy of the very worst kind. Nicholas remembered the melting of the plaster and wood on the walls in that horrible room and Arisilde’s opinion on it. He had been trying to decide what to do with the driver once the man had told them everything he knew of use. He was in that house. He knew what was happening. These facts made the decision considerably easier.
“But Octave himself isn’t a sorcerer,” Madeline was saying.
“No, he just had that gadget. But his friend is. He knows things too. He told the doctor Donatien was after him, and it was the doctor’s fault, for mixing into things he didn’t understand.”
“Where are Octave and his friend now?”
“I don’t know.”
Crack reacted for the first time, snorting derisively. The driver flinched and protested desperately, “I don’t. I told you. We split up after they said we had to leave Valent House. I been with the doctor. He knows, but he didn’t tell me.”
Nicholas glanced at Crack who shrugged noncommittally. It’s very likely the truth, Nicholas decided. It sounded as if Octave’s former compatriots were being increasingly cut out of the scheme.
“What did he want in the cellars of Mondollot House?”
“I don’t know,” the driver said miserably, certain this further protestation of ignorance wouldn’t be believed either. “I know he didn’t find it. He told the doctor it must have been moved, when the Duke rebuilt the house.”
That was why Octave had tried to arrange the circle with the Duchess. Octave’s sorcerer must have entered the house first, to break the wards and allow the ghouls to breach the cellar and search it. Somehow the creatures must have communicated to him that the search was unsuccessful, so Octave was sent to attempt to arrange the circle to speak to the old Duke of Mondollot. But something had been removed from the plinth in that room and not long before he and Crack had arrived. Did Octave’s sorcerer friend have a rival for this prize, whatever it was? A rival who had also broken into Mondollot House that night? No, we would have seen signs of him.
A sudden noise startled him, a muffled report like a pistol shot in the next room. Nicholas was the only one who didn’t reach spasmodically for a weapon in an inner coat pocket. Reynard was closest to the door and tore it open to reveal Cusard, standing unhurt in the center of the outer room, his own pistol drawn.
“Was that you?” Reynard demanded.
Confused, Cusard shook his head. “No, I think it was from outside.”
Muffled cracks and bangs erupted from the direction of the street door. “Stay here and keep an eye on him,” Nicholas told Madeline. She nodded and Crack handed her his extra pistol.
Reynard was already heading down the short hall to the outer door, Cusard behind him. There was another outside door in the disused pantry at the back of the house. Nicholas motioned for Lamane to cover it and stepped to the center of the parlor so he could see down the front hall. Crack moved up beside him. Vienne lived up to its unsettled past at frequent intervals, but gunfire in the streets was rare; this was more likely to be a trap arranged by Octave.
Reynard opened the spydoor and peered through it. Cusard, standing behind him, craned his neck to look over his shoulder. “Well?” Nicholas asked.
“A lot of people standing about and staring,” Reynard muttered. He unbolted the door and stepped out, moving a few paces into the court.
Nicholas swallowed a curse at this incaution, but no shots rang out. He stepped into the archway. Through the open door at the end of the dim hall he could see a few figures milling in the center of the court. “Hey there, did you hear that too?” someone called.
“Yes,” Reynard answered. “Did it come from the street?”
Suddenly the floor moved under Nicholas’s feet and he grabbed the wall for support. Reynard and the others standing in the court staggered. Nicholas felt splinters sink into his hand as the wood and plaster cracked from the stress of the shifting foundation. It was the most disturbing sensation he had ever experienced, as if something deep inside the earth had suddenly turned liquid. He thought of stories from far eastern Parscia and further places, of the earth moving and cracking; he thought of the spell Arisilde had made to hide valuables in the warehouse. Then the sounds came again and this time he heard them clearly. Not muffled shots, they were cracks. The heavy stones that paved the court, snapping like twigs under some pressure from below. The sound was coming from behind him now, from under the house.
Madeline, Nicholas thought. He turned, plunged across the moving floor toward the parlor. He made it two paces before the floorboards in front of him exploded. He shielded his face as wood splinters and clods of dirt flew upward.
Sprawled only a few feet from the gaping hole in the floor, Nicholas felt cold air rush past. The single lamp winked out. The house was shaking, groaning as it shifted on the damaged foundation. Before he could try to stand, something massive shot up through the broken flooring and struck the ceiling.
Nicholas pushed himself away until his back struck the wall. All he could see of the thing was a dark shape against the light-colored walls, a deceptively large shadow in the dim light coming through the still-open door. He knew Crack had been standing near him, but he couldn’t hear anyone else moving in the room.
The thing shifted and the wooden floor cracked in protest. It’s hunting for us, Nicholas thought. Standing up in the small room would be suicidal. He edged along the wall, toward the archway that led into the entry way. If Crack was still here but unconscious, he would be near that narrow opening.
He didn’t see the creature move but suddenly a more solid darkness loomed over him and Nicholas threw himself sideways, rolling away from it. He heard it slam into the boards just behind him, felt the tremor that travelled through what was left of the floor and upped his estimate of its size. He scrambled forward, knowing it would have him in the next instant. A door suddenly flung open, throwing light across the wreck of the room. Nicholas fell against the side of the archway and looked back.
He caught only a glimpse of gray skin, knobby and rough like stone. It moved, turning away from him toward the light. A figure appeared in the door and fired three shots, loud as cannon blasts in the confined space, then the light went out again.
The thing flung itself against the door. That was Madeline firing at it, she’s still in that room. Nicholas staggered, grabbed a broken chair. He had to distract it to give her time to escape.
Someone caught hold of the back of his collar and flung him away, back toward the outer door. He was outside, staggering on the pavement in front of the house, before he saw that it was Crack.
People were screaming, running. Nicholas tore himself free and looked through the door. He ducked back immediately. Dirt clods and shards of stone were flying out of the interior of the house, striking the steps and the court. Crack caught his arm and tried to drag him away. “She’s still in there!” Nicholas shouted, twisting his arm to free himself.
They both must have remembered the boarded-up window at the same moment and instead of fighting they were running for the corner of the little house, knocking into each other in their haste. Lighter on his feet, Nicholas reached it first and as he dug at the first board to rip it free he heard breaking glass from inside the room. She’s alive, she’s breaking in the window from inside, he thought, tearing down the board. Crack was helping, then Reynard was there, taller than both of them and able to get a better grip on the top boards, then Lamane caught up to them.
The last board came free and Madeline launched herself through the window and into Nicholas’s arms, the last glass fragments tearing at her clothes. Over her shoulder as he pulled her free he saw the body of the driver, lying in the open doorway of the room. One of the walls was bowed inward and as the lamp flickered and went out Nicholas heard the crash of the ceiling coming down. Then they were all running down the alley toward the street.
Nicholas realized Cusard wasn’t with them. He knew the old man had gotten out of the house. He had been right behind Reynard. He wondered if Cusard had panicked and left them; he would’ve thought Lamane would break before the old thief.
They came out of the alley into the street. The din from the carriage court was audible and people, a few tradesmen, a couple of puzzled prostitutes, were stopping and staring, though coach traffic was still moving. Others were standing in doorways or peering out windows. Nicholas saw Devis on the box of their cabriolet heading toward them, and behind the smaller vehicle Cusard driving his bulky wagon. More relieved than he liked to admit, Nicholas thought, of course, he went to warn Devis we needed to make a quick escape.
Nicholas pointed at the wagon and Lamane ran for it without further need of instruction. “What happened?” Reynard was asking Madeline.
“I cut the driver loose,” she said. She had lost her hat and when she ran a hand through her disordered hair, forgetting for the moment her men’s clothing, the dark curls tumbled down to her shoulders. “I wanted to give him a chance. It couldn’t get in the door, but it started striking the wall and one of the beams hit him.”
“Not here,” Nicholas said, urgently. “Later.”
The cabriolet drew even with them and they tumbled in.
END CHAPTER EIGHT
Continued in Chapter Nine.
Martha Wells is the author of fourteen novels, including The Cloud Roads, The Wizard Hunters, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. The Siren Depths was published in December 2012 by Night Shade Books, and is the third in the Books of the Raksura series. Her YA fantasy, Emilie and the Hollow World, was published by Angry Robot in April 2013.
She has had short stories in Black Gate, Realms of Fantasy, and Stargate Magazine, and in the anthologies Elemental, The Year’s Best Fantasy #7, Tales of the Emerald Serpent and The Other Half of the Sky. She has essays in the nonfiction anthologies Farscape Forever, Mapping the World of Harry Potter and Chicks Unravel Time.
She has also written media-tie-in novels, Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary and Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement, and has a Star Wars novel, Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge, due out in October 2013.
Her web site is www.marthawells.com
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