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 Fifteen. Read Chapter Fourteen here.
Madeline took the stairs up to the apartment two at a time. She reached the door and fumbled with the key, cursing herself when she saw how badly her hands were shaking. Finally the lock turned and she flung the door open.
Lamane stood in the doorway to the salon, staring blankly at her. “Did Nicholas come back here?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “No, no one’s come. What’s happened?” Inspector Ronsarde appeared in the doorway past him, a blanket draped over his shoulders.
Madeline shut the door behind her. “No telegrams, messages?”
“No, there’s been nothing.” Lamane looked a little unnerved. Madeline didn’t imagine her expression was terribly reassuring at the moment. She leaned back against the heavy wooden door. This had been her last hope. If Nicholas had been unable to meet them for reasons of his own he would have come here or sent a message. She rubbed her temples, trying to massage away the ache of tension.
Ronsarde let out his breath in exasperation and came forward to take her arm and draw her inside the salon. The fire burned brightly and a card game was laid out on one of the little tables. Ronsarde led her firmly to one of the well-upholstered couches, saying, “Sit down, calm yourself, and tell me what has happened.”
Madeline sat down, glaring at him. “Don’t treat me like one of those stupid women who come to the Prefecture because they think their neighbors are shocking them with electric current –”
“Then don’t become hysterical,” he said sharply. “What has gone wrong?”
She looked away. It wasn’t his fault and the last thing they needed to do now was argue. “I think Nicholas was caught.”
Ronsarde’s face hardened. “By whom?”
Madeline drew breath to speak and then hesitated, remembering who and what he was. No, we’re in this too deeply to hold back now, she thought, exasperated at herself. And Halle knows already. But she trusted Halle more than she did Ronsarde. She said, “A detachment of the Royal Guard rode up as the others were leaving. Nicholas was trapped in the middle of the street and couldn’t slip away.” She quickly told him everything Reynard had witnessed during the carriage wreck concerning Octave’s death and the intrusion of the sorcerer again. “The others are still searching for Nicholas, trying to discover if he was taken to the Prefecture or the palace….” Madeline was the only one who knew what that might mean, that there was a reason other than the crimes he had committed as Donatien that the palace might be interested in Nicholas.
Ronsarde threw the blanket off and paced. Lamane had found a walking cane for him somewhere and his limp didn’t seem to slow him down much, as if some of the old energy Halle had described in his articles was returning to him. He said, “This sorcerer’s ability to anticipate our movements is distressing.”
“He can’t have put another Sending on us,” Madeline protested, gesturing around her at the apartment. “We would all be dead.”
“Oh yes, if he had been able to fix his power on one of us, we would never have gotten through the sewer alive and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to take shelter here unmolested for so long. No, it was Doctor Octave he was following, watching somehow, knowing our next step would be to accost him.” Ronsarde stopped in front of the hearth, staring into it, eyes narrowed. “He unites the ferocity of a madman with the cognitive ability of the sane; this is not a pleasant combination.”
“What about Nicholas?” Madeline said, running a hand through her hair wearily. She wasn’t accustomed to feeling helpless and it wasn’t a sensation she found agreeable in the least.
“If he has been taken to the palace, I can help,” Ronsarde said. His mouth twisted wryly. “I should say, I can try to help. Appealing to them directly was an avenue I meant to take once we had obtained more solid evidence for our theories. It’s always risky to approach royalty, especially after one’s just escaped from prison — you never know the attitude they are going to assume. But even without official assistance I can still secure entry to the place, at least for the present.”
Madeline exchanged a look with Lamane, who shrugged, baffled. She thought Ronsarde was babbling and with everything else that had gone wrong, it didn’t much surprise her at all.
The outer door rattled again and they all tensed, Lamane reaching for the pistol in his coat, but it was Crack who stepped through the salon door. He went immediately to Madeline, standing in front of her and breathing hard. He said, “It’s the palace.”
She swallowed in a suddenly dry throat. She hadn’t believed it, not really, not until now. “How do you know?”
“The Captain found somebody who seen the troop go back in through Prince’s Gate. He was with ’em.”
“Then we are committed.” Ronsarde nodded to himself. “We will pursue the best course we can and hope we are not making a possibly fatal mistake.” He looked around the room thoughtfully, as if marshaling nonexistent troops, ignoring the way the others were staring at him. “I will need your help to obtain materials for a disguise, young lady….”
Nicholas had never been to the palace before, not even in the areas on the north side which were open to the public during Bank Holidays. He had not thought it particularly politic, or sensible, to attend, even though there was said to be a museum display of items from the Bisran Wars in the old Summer Residence that he would have quite liked to see.
He did not think it was particularly politic, or sensible, to be entering the palace now, but then the choice wasn’t his.
The plaza in front of Prince’s Gate was lit by gas lamps and there were so many torches in the towers that the whole edifice looked as if it was on fire. The light washed the ancient stone blocks of the walls and the great iron-sheathed doors with a dull orange-red glow. There was a line of crested carriages waiting to enter the palace grounds for some occasion, with the usual crowd of idlers there to watch.
Nicholas was on horseback, one of the troopers leading his mount, the sound of the hooves muted by paving stones softened and polished by time. The Guards at the gate halted the carriages as the troop passed under the great arch of the Queen Ravenna Memorial. A few necks craned as the occupants tried to see who the troop was escorting, but Nicholas had been placed near the center and he thought no one could get a good view. They had bound his hands with a set of manacles held together by a lock that he would have found laughable under less serious circumstances. He had two pieces of wire sewn into the cuff of his shirtsleeve that would open it with little trouble. It was Fallier he was worried about.
The Court Sorcerer rode ahead in his coach, a fashionable vehicle with the royal crest on its doors. The gate Guard saluted as it went by. Nicholas watched the back of it even as they passed through Prince’s Gate, more aware of it than the menace inherent in the battlemented walls and the armed men surrounding him.
Try as he might, he couldn’t cast Rahene Fallier as Octave’s mad sorcerer.
He didn’t know much about Fallier personally, but everything he knew about his political career suggested a more subtle man than the sorcerer who had transformed the Courts Plaza into a battleground.
As they drew away from the gate the torchlight faded and the shadows grew thick. The troop drew rein in a dark cobblestoned court whose uneven surface spoke of many years use. Gaslight and other such modern innovations evidently had not come to this part of the palace; there were only oil lamps and the scattered illumination from the windows above to light the court. It was surrounded, turned into a deep well almost, by old stone and timbered buildings of elegant design, by massive stone edifices with fantastically carved pediments and new structures of brick, which seemed stark and ugly against the older work. Nicholas realized with a shock that they had passed within the wards, must have passed them at some point outside the gate. And I didn’t even turn to stone, he thought.
He saw that Fallier’s coach continued on, vanishing under a deep archway. This was one of the oldest sections of the whole walled complex, built to be a fortress and the center of Vienne’s defenses. The newer section lay behind the ancient King’s Bastion and was more open, designed more for comfort and entertainment, and less for defense. The old buildings crumbling around him were also the most powerful ethereal point in the city, perhaps in all of Ile-Rien, better warded and more powerfully protected than even Lodun.
Dismounting from the restive cavalry horse, Nicholas pretended to clumsiness, stumbling and letting one of the troopers catch his arm to steady him. Recovering, he looked around at the circle of armed men, all larger than he was. With a rueful expression he said, “Am I that dangerous? Why not draw up an artillery battery?”
One of the troopers chuckled. Walking ahead, the lieutenant glared back at them and snapped his riding crop.
Nicholas smiled to himself, looking down to conceal the expression. He wanted them to think him harmless and he might be succeeding. He had bruises from falling in the street and his shoulder was sore from having his arm wrenched around behind him, but it was nothing that should keep him from taking any opportunity that presented itself.
That was assuming an opportunity presented itself. Oh, no, Nicholas thought, as the troopers hauled him across the court, I’m becoming an optimist. I’ve obviously been with Madeline too long. That thought reminded him of how worried she and the others would be. Well, as far as sorcerous attacks went, there wasn’t a safer place in Ile-Rien. It was all the other dangers he had to worry about.
They took him toward one of the older buildings, a stone and timber structure with three or four stories. As they approached it, Nicholas noted the heavy beams and frame around the door and the apparent lack of windows in the lower floor; it was a guard barracks then, a very old one. He was hustled inside and through a high, timbered hall, empty except for a few Guardsmen talking idly. They glanced at Nicholas curiously as the group passed but didn’t offer any comments. Nicholas marked potential exits and hazards as his captors led him up a flight of wooden stairs at the end of the hall, then down a short corridor.
They stopped before a door and one of the Guards fumbled with keys. They had shed most of the troop by now, either down in the court or coming up through the main hall of the barracks, but there were still five of them and that was about four too many.
The door opened finally and he was led into a small room, windowless, walled with dingy plaster with a plain wooden chair and table the only furnishings. One of them took the manacles off, which was a consideration he hadn’t expected, but then this wasn’t the Prefecture. He said, “Wait. I haven’t been told why I’m being held here.”
One trooper hesitated but then shrugged and said, “I haven’t, either,” as he stepped out.
The troopers were standing right outside, though they hadn’t closed the door. There were quiet voices in the corridor, then Rahene Fallier walked into the room.
Nicholas took a couple of steps back, putting the table between them, suddenly overcome by the gut-level conviction that Fallier was Octave’s sorcerer compatriot, no matter what logic said. He told himself it was ridiculous. Fallier didn’t look mad and surely no one could be mad enough to commit those acts without showing it somehow, in his eyes or in his demeanor. Nicholas said, “Now that we are, I assume, unobserved, will you tell me how you recognized me?”
Fallier stood near the table, removing his evening gloves. His expression enigmatic, he said, “You are as dark as your infamous ancestor was fair. But I’ve seen the Greanco portrait of Denzil Alsene, which is very like seeing the living person, and there is a resemblance.”
Simply from that? Nicholas frowned. Could it be true? It would be impossible to believe, except for the fact that Greanco had had the second sight and his portraits had tended to capture the soul of their subjects, and that Fallier was a powerful sorcerer, with perhaps more insight into those semi-magical works of art than most. And of course there was a portrait, he thought sourly. Denzil Alsene had been a King’s Favorite a century ago before he had hatched his plot to take the throne, and Greanco had been the most celebrated portrait painter of the age. “You could be mistaken.”
“But I am not.” Fallier’s gaze was calm.
Nicholas was aware his palms were sweating through his torn gloves and he couldn’t tell if he was successfully keeping his expression under control. He said, “I can’t think why it’s of interest to you. I have every right to be in this city.”
“That is true to a certain extent,” Fallier said. His face gave nothing away, not his motives, his intentions, and certainly no hint of how he felt about this encounter. There was nothing for Nicholas to grasp on to. The sorcerer continued, “I’ll admit to some curiosity as to why you are in Vienne.”
Fallier didn’t sound very curious. Nicholas said, “I live here.” The cold eyes didn’t change and Nicholas found himself adding, “I’m only a scion of a disgraced family; I don’t see why that piques your interest.” The family was still technically of the nobility of Ile-Rien, though the charter of the duchy of Alsene had been revoked when Denzil Alsene had plotted to take the throne from the then King Roland. Nicholas’s ancestry should be a historical curiosity, nothing more. Surely he wasn’t the only person in Vienne at the moment who was descended from a famous traitor.
Of course you’re not, Nicholas thought in self-disgust. Now tell him you’ve had nothing to do with the Alsenes since your mother fled their moldering estate more than twenty-five years ago, that you use her maiden name of Valiarde, that you have a legitimate business as an importer. Then tell him why you’re disguised as a cabman in the middle of an apparently anarchist attack on Lady Bianci’s coach. And Denzil’s treachery hadn’t simply been against his king. He had plunged the city into turmoil, caused countless deaths, exposed the people to attacks by the dark fay of the Unseelie Court, murdered enemies and allies alike. He was the most hated traitor in Ile-Rien’s long history. His actions and subsequent death had turned the former duchy of Alsene into an enclave of hated outcasts, not that they didn’t deserve that status on their own merit.
Fallier said, “That may well be true, but somehow I doubt it.” A little sarcasm slipped through the stony façade. “I have previous engagements, so I’ll leave you to think of a better excuse for your presence in the street tonight.” The sorcerer stepped back, pulling the door closed behind him, the lock tumblers clicking into place with what Nicholas hoped was only symbolic finality.
He waited a moment, giving Fallier time to get down the corridor. You idiot, you’ve done for yourself now. He had trouble enough in the present without dragging the past into it. And the damnable part of all this was that he hadn’t meant any harm whatsoever to the Queen’s stupid bitch of a cousin, he had only wanted Octave.
He knelt next to the door to carefully examine the lock. It was old and not terribly secure. He touched it lightly with the back of his hand, but there was no reaction. Fallier hadn’t bothered to put any magical warding on it. He extracted the wires from his cuff, carefully inserted one into the lock — an instant later he rolled on the floor clutching his hand to his chest and biting his lip to keep from crying out.
The pain faded rapidly and Nicholas lay on his back, breathing hard, carefully working his fingers to make sure the joints and muscles still worked. “You bastard,” he said aloud. So Fallier had bothered to ward the lock.
After a moment, Nicholas sat up and looked around the room. There was a yellowed map of the city environs pinned to one wall, an empty bookshelf in the corner. This wasn’t a cell, it was only an old, unused chamber. So why hadn’t he been taken somewhere more secure?
All his knowledge of the palace came from what was available in the popular press and a few half-remembered tales passed down from his father’s family, which were all at least a century out of date and probably lies to begin with. But he knew there were better areas for holding prisoners than this, probably in the King’s Bastion. Why hadn’t Fallier had him taken there?
Fallier was taking no chances. He didn’t want anyone else to know Nicholas was here.
Nicholas edged back to the door and through painful trial and error managed to ascertain that the ward didn’t extend beyond the metal of the lock. He pressed his ear to the wooden door, listening for noise from the corridor. He was willing to bet there was at least one guard outside, probably two. After a moment he heard a voice, transformed into an unintelligible mumble by the thickness of the wood, and another answering mumble.
He sat back. Damn it. Given time, he thought he could get past the ward on the lock. Pain wasn’t as effective a deterrent as some other methods, such as the spell that caused you to be distracted by movement glimpsed from the corners of your eyes whenever you focused on the warded object. He could train himself to become accustomed to the pain long enough to work the lock, and the ward might not react to a splinter of wood as quickly as it did to a metal lockpick. But he couldn’t get past the guards.
Nicholas stood and began to pace.
Looking at Ronsarde, Madeline had to shake her head in admiration. The Inspector was as adept at disguise as she and Nicholas.
It was cold and very dark and the air had the feel of the deep night well past midnight, when only those people and spirits up to no good were about. Which includes us, Madeline thought grimly. They stood one street over from the palace, in the open court of a closed porter’s yard, using Cusard’s wagon to shield them from casual view. Down the street Madeline could see the plaza in front of the Prince’s Gate, the circle of gas lamps illuminating one side of the massive arch of the Queen Ravenna Memorial and the classical fountain at its base. The plaza had been busier earlier in the night, carriages carrying guests through the gates, peddlers hawking to the small crowd of sightseers, but it was mostly deserted now except for a coach or two passing by. Madeline knew that if this sorcerer who thought himself Constant Macob somehow found them now, they wouldn’t have a chance of escape. He was following Octave, she reminded herself. And Octave is dead.
It had taken an hour or more to get them to this point. Ronsarde had a special pass that allowed him to enter the palace at any time of the day or night, for the purpose of consulting with the Captains of the Queen’s Guard and the Royal Guard. Since it named the bearer only as a “senior officer of the Prefecture” he could still use it to get in without alerting anyone to his identity. It had been left in the desk in his study in his apartment on Avenue Fount, which was sure to be under observation by the constables. Cusard had had to burgle the apartment to get it, going in through the attic to avoid capture himself. And it had taken Ronsarde some time to assume his disguise.
He had used hairpieces to alter the shapes of his beard and mustache and applied an unobtrusive scar just above the left eye that still served to focus the observer’s attention. In clothes that fit the role and with the bruises and cuts from the fighting outside the prison covered with makeup, he looked an entirely different person.
He stood carefully now, folding the pass and tucking it away in his coat pocket. Everyone had had to admire that document, which was only a sheet of good quality stationery finely written with the Queen’s own hand. “A damn shame there’s not time to get old Besim to make a copy for us,” Cusard had commented sotto-voce to Madeline. “Never know when it would come in handy.” The original is coming in damn handy now, Madeline thought. To Ronsarde she said, “You did agree now. You’re going to go in, get Nicholas, and get out, and no appealing to anyone official for help, correct?” I sound daft, she thought. This is the palace, for God’s sake. She reminded herself they had broken out of Vienne prison earlier today, but then Nicholas had done that before, if not under quite so spectacular circumstances.
“I shall do as I think best,” Ronsarde agreed complacently. “An appeal to Captain Giarde of the Queen’s Guard would be a last resort, of course.”
Cusard groaned, and Reynard and Madeline exchanged a look. Crack stood like a stone, but his jaw muscles tensed. Even Doctor Halle rubbed his face and sighed. Reynard said, tightly, “I thought we had agreed –”
Ronsarde held up a hand. “I will do nothing that endangers our mission –”
“Our mission?” Cusard commented to Crack. “What about us?”
” — but I will not fail to take any opportunity that presents itself.” Ronsarde’s gaze went to Madeline. The ebony cane he carried was no prop, he needed it to walk, but the prospect of action seemed to have cured him of any other injury. He said, “I will find him, my dear. I swear it to you.”
Madeline closed her eyes briefly, wishing she was religious enough to appeal to something supernatural, either of the old gods or the new, without feeling like a hypocrite. She and Reynard had argued over this while Ronsarde was assuming his disguise, but Madeline could think of no other way to proceed, and when pressed, neither could Reynard. She said, “Just remember that if this ends with all of us spending the rest of our lives in prison, he won’t thank you for it.”
Impatiently, Halle said, “Just get on with it, old man, you’re driving everyone to distraction.”
Ronsarde gave him an aggrieved look and adjusted the tilt of his hat. “Please, I’m concentrating.” He nodded cordially to them all and walked out into the square.
There was nothing else to try, Madeline reminded herself. She didn’t like the way Ronsarde was leaning so heavily on the cane, but he might be doing it intentionally, to alter his customary step and mannerisms, which was the essential part of any effective disguise.
“He won’t make it,” Reynard said, voicing it for all of them. Madeline had never seen him so worried and it wasn’t helping her nerves any, either.
But Doctor Halle said calmly, “Oh yes, he will. He helped them work out all their guard procedures several years ago and he knows the palace intimately. If anyone can break it, he can.”
Reynard pressed his lips together and didn’t appear convinced. He motioned for Madeline to step back from the others and when they had drawn a short distance away, he said, “I’m acquainted with Captain Giarde. He was in the First Cavalry before he was appointed to court and we were both stationed in the Bahkri.”
“Well?” Madeline prompted.
“Well, he’s a bastard, but he’s a very discerning bastard. If Ronsarde encounters him, he will be extremely difficult to fool.” Reynard eyed her a moment, his expression a little sardonic. “Is there something I haven’t been told, Madeline?”
“Yes.” Madeline rubbed her face wearily. She was tired of secrets. She was tired, period. “But it’s not something you’re going to care much about, if you understand me.”
“But it’s something others would care about?” Reynard persisted.
“Yes.” She hesitated, then let out her breath in resignation. “Nicholas is related to a noble family who happen to be rather famous traitors to the Crown.”
“That can’t be all, surely? I’m related to a noble family of rather famous drunkards and it never hurt my standing at court. When I had one, that is.”
“They weren’t your run-of-the-mill traitors. Nicholas is related to the Alsenes, as in Denzil Alsene.”
“Oh. That traitor. The traitor, I should say.” Reynard’s brows drew together as he turned over the implications. “Is there still an interdict about Alsenes leaving the old duchy? He’s not committing a crime simply by being in the city, is he?”
“No, that was apparently revoked almost fifty years ago. But…it doesn’t look good.”
“No. No, I suppose it doesn’t.” Reynard looked down the dark street after Ronsarde. “Damn.”
Nicholas had waited a long, tense hour, during which the guards had never left their posts outside the door and he had become increasingly frustrated. Then he heard steps out in the hall and the lock turning. He moved warily to the back of the room, but the man who entered wasn’t Fallier. It was the guard lieutenant who had helped capture him.
The man closed the door deliberately behind him. Smiling, he took a seat in the chair at the battered table, saying, “I hope you find your quarters comfortable?”
“Comfortable enough,” Nicholas replied. He folded his arms and eyed his visitor thoughtfully. He was a large man, strongly built, armed with a dress sword and a serviceable pistol. He obviously thought himself secure enough from an unarmed, slightly built man. “I only wish I knew why I’ve been brought here.”
The lieutenant said, “Perhaps I could tell you, if you were to tell me who you are and why Rahene Fallier is so interested in you.”
Ah, then you don’t know either, Nicholas thought. He looked at the man’s sly, curious face and a plan sprang to mind, complete in practically every detail. He took a deep breath, looking away as if about to reveal some uncomfortable truth, and said, “I’m his bastard son.”
The lieutenant stared, then tried to hide his astonishment and appear offhand. “Not surprising.”
Save me from amateur schemers, Nicholas thought dryly. If everything he understood from his checkered family history was true, then this man didn’t stand a chance among the practiced plotters at work in the royal court. He said, “My mother is….” The Queen was too young, in fact she was several years younger than himself, so that wouldn’t do at all. Ah, perfect. “….the Countess Winrie.”
The lieutenant swore under his breath. The Countess Winrie had been a prostitute famous for the most outrageous practices before she had persuaded the aging but still hale Count to marry her. He had died a year or so after the marriage, leaving the wealthy Countess the unofficial leader of the demi monde and a perpetual thorn in the side of good society. “But….” The lieutenant was frowning in concentration.
“You see what this would do to his reputation,” Nicholas prompted. He began to pace again, slowly, getting his quarry used to the sight of him moving about. “If it were to become known….”
“Ah.” The lieutenant nodded sagely, finally picking up on the innuendo. “You’ve been threatening to come forward and he has been buying your silence.”
Nicholas paused and glanced back at the man, managing a trapped expression, and swallowed as if in a dry throat. He wondered what Madeline would make of this performance. She would probably say something sarcastic about the quality of my audience, he thought. “I have no idea what he intends to do to me,” he hinted hopefully.
The lieutenant assumed an expression of smug knowledge, which Nicholas felt safe in presuming meant he didn’t have the slightest notion either. The man tipped his chair back, propping his booted feet up on the table, and said callously, “Keep you out of the way permanently, I suppose.”
Nicholas felt a flash of anger on behalf of this persona he had just constructed, this powerless young bastard at the mercy of his sorcerer father, and reminded himself not to get too involved in the role. He said, “My father has paid me a great deal of money over the past years and the Countess, who feels some fondness toward me, is still quite wealthy. Anyone who helped me regain my freedom would be well rewarded.”
The lieutenant’s eyes shifted. He said, “I would need some guarantees. You can’t expect me to trust you.”
Nicholas read his expression easily. The man only wanted information to give him a possible advantage over Fallier; he wasn’t quite foolish enough to oppose the Court Sorcerer directly. “Of course not,” Nicholas agreed readily. “Perhaps if I show you this, you will realize my sincerity.” He approached the table, reaching into his pocket.
The lieutenant watched him, trying to look arch but failing to cover his obvious greed. His eyes dropped to the hand Nicholas was withdrawing from the pocket of his old coat and Nicholas kicked the chair leg. Overbalanced, the lieutenant fell backward.
Nicholas stepped in and punched him, knocking the man’s head back against the wall. The thumps hadn’t gone unnoticed by the guards and he heard keys working frantically in the lock. He snatched the pistol from the dazed lieutenant’s holster and leapt over the tangled heap of body and chair on the floor. He put his back to the wall just as the door flew open.
He pointed the gun at the lieutenant and both guards stumbled to a halt. “Any closer and I’ll shoot him, gentlemen. And please don’t call out,” Nicholas said evenly.
The lieutenant gasped and made a garbled noise, trying to push himself up, and Nicholas kicked the supporting hand out from under him. He motioned with the gun. “Move away from the door, please.”
The two men glanced at each other, then obeyed. As they moved out of the way, Nicholas stepped quickly to the door and backed out into the corridor. Two heavy bodies struck the door as soon as it swung to, pounding on it and shouting, but Nicholas was already turning the key in the lock. Experimentally he took a couple of steps away, then smiled. The noise the captives made was inaudible more than two steps away from the door; that would buy him some time at least. Nicholas pocketed the key and strode down the corridor away from the main staircase, turning the corner into the cross corridor. This was a barracks and there wouldn’t be an unguarded servants’ door; he would have to go out the way he had come in. Running now, he passed more closed doors, an open arch into an old practice room filled with wooden fencing dummies, more passages branching toward the back of the building. Around another corner he found a second staircase, smaller and less ornate than the one in the main hall. He hurried down it, keeping his steps quiet.
The stairwell led down into an anteroom, with an archway opening onto the main area. Nicholas paused at the edge of the arch, back against the wall, leaning around to get a view of the hall. The number of men there had greatly increased. Most were in Royal Guard uniforms but a few were in civilian dress. Nicholas cursed under his breath. Of course, that was why the lieutenant had time to question me. The guard was changing, with men going off-duty and their replacements coming on. The confusion might make it easier — if Fallier was trying to keep his capture quiet, most of the men coming on duty might not have been informed there was a prisoner in the barracks. What he needed to do now was steal a uniform coat and…. Nicholas’s attention was suddenly caught by a man in civilian dress standing with his back to him, apparently studying the flags of old decommissioned guard troops displayed along the gallery, and engaged in animated conversation with a Royal Guard lieutenant. For a moment he thought he had recognized him. But it couldn’t be, Nicholas told himself. Not here.
The man turned and Nicholas stared suspiciously at his face, his clothes. It could very well be, he thought grimly. The man was limping, he was the right height, the right build, about the right age, despite possible cosmetic alterations to his hair and features and — and he is using an ebony cane with a carved ivory handle exactly like the one Reynard brought back from Parscia. Nicholas resisted the urge to knock his head against the wall. Damn them.
There was a shout from the gallery and one of the guards Nicholas had left locked in his temporary prison careened down the stairs and ran across the hall, heading for the outside doors. The off-duty guards watched him go, some calling out questions. He’s going for Fallier, Nicholas thought. He must have ordered them to keep my capture secret.
As the men in the hall went about their business, Nicholas snatched off his cap and ducked out into the milling crowd. Keeping his head down, he managed to fetch up against the old man with the cane. “Were you looking for me, sir?” he asked, in a Riverside accent.
Inspector Ronsarde actually had the audacity to smile. “There you are, my good fellow.” He turned to the Guard lieutenant standing at his elbow. This lieutenant was older than the man who had helped with Nicholas’s capture and his gaze was sharper. “I sent my driver here to see if he could locate Sir Diandre. No luck then?”
This last was addressed to Nicholas, who shook his head and said, “No sir, no one here’s heard tell of him.” He kept his head ducked and fervently hoped Ronsarde had chosen the name of a man who was on leave or otherwise inaccessible.
“Ah, well, then. We’ll keep at it. Simply must find him….”
“Have you tried the Gallery Wing, sir? There is a ball tonight and he may be attending,” the lieutenant said. He was choosing his words carefully and his expression was a little guarded. He did not appear an easy man to deceive. Ronsarde must have concocted quite a story to get this far.
“That’s a thought. Yes, if he isn’t here…. I shall try there immediately then, thank you very much.” There was a flicker of suspicion in the man’s eyes. Then Ronsarde paused and with a self-possession that Nicholas would have admired had he been less angry, said, “Could you accompany me or does duty call?”
The suspicion vanished and the lieutenant consulted his pocket watch. “No, I’m afraid I must stay here. I can assign someone to guide you if –”
“Oh, no, don’t bother, I can find my way on my own. I was here for the Queen’s Birthday, you know. Thank you again for your assistance….”
The expostulations and good-byes seemed to go on forever. Nicholas felt sweat running down his back. But finally Ronsarde exchanged one last handshake with his new friend and they made their way down the length of the hall. Nicholas stayed behind the Inspector, who kept to a steady pace despite his limp and the need to hurry. They were almost to the arch of the stone-walled foyer when a Guard corporal stepped forward to accost Ronsarde. “Sir, are you –”
Ronsarde flourished a folded paper. “Here to see Captain Giarde, young man.”
At the sight of the seal on the document and the name of the Queen’s Guard Captain, the corporal backed away, saluting for good measure.
Nicholas didn’t breathe, didn’t dare lift his head until they were out of the main doors and down the steps. Once they were in the cold wind-swept court and out of range of the lamps, Nicholas grabbed Ronsarde’s arm and dragged him to a sheltered corner. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“Looking for you, my boy. Really, what did you think? I would’ve been here sooner, but it took me some time to find where they had taken you. Discovering it was the old barracks was somewhat anticlimactic; I had anticipated having to free you from the holding cells under the Gate Tower.”
“I’m so sorry you were disappointed,” Nicholas said, through gritted teeth. “I risk everything to get you out of that damn prison and you come here?”
“Of course.” Ronsarde glanced around the court. There were groups of people crossing between the shadowy hulks of the buildings around them, laughing and talking, some bearing lanterns. They didn’t look like search parties but in the dark it was hard to tell. The Inspector asked, “Do you know where you are?”
“You were held in the old Queen’s Guard barracks, or what’s left of it. It was expanded when the Royal Guard was chartered.”
“Ordinarily I have a deep appreciation for historical curiosities but at the present moment –”
“And that,” Ronsarde continued, pointedly, “is the Albon Tower, which was enlarged to join the Old Palace, destroying much of the security provided by the old siege walls and bastions, but allowing us to make our way through the lower floors to the new section of the palace grounds, where there is a ball being given for the Lord Mayor in the Gallery Wing. Most of the guests will have left by now but St. Anne’s Gate should still be relatively busy, and they will not be searching for you there.”
“Then let’s go.”
The tower only lay across the court but Nicholas felt exposed and vulnerable as they made their way toward it. There was one guard on the door, standing under a lamp suspended from the mouth of a stone gargoyle. Ronsarde displayed his pass again and they were waved on.
Once inside they found themselves in a large drafty hall, the curved ceiling supported by heavy square pillars. The place had an almost unused air and there were only a few lamps to light the way through. Ronsarde hesitated, getting his bearings, then said, “This way,” and strode forward.
They were almost to the center of the large room when the doors behind them crashed open. Nicholas spun, drawing the pistol. There were Guards pouring into the hall behind them. Ronsarde grabbed his arm and said, “No, it’s too late.”
Light flared behind Nicholas and he glanced over his shoulder. More Guards with lamps moved to block the only other way out.
END CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Continued in Chapter Sixteen
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