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 Four. Read Chapter Three here.
The late afternoon air was chill, but Nicholas had lowered the shades on the coach windows so he and Reynard could view the approach to Gabrill House. The wide packed-dirt road led up through a stand of trees toward a triumphal arch, perhaps fifty feet high and wide enough for four coaches to pass through side by side. As they drew nearer Nicholas could see the stones were weathered and faded as if the thing was a relic of some long forgotten age. He knew it had been built no more than ten years ago.
“Strange choice for a garden ornament, isn’t it?” Reynard said.
“If you find that odd, wait till you get inside. This place was built by a wealthy widow from Umberwald. She had two grown sons, neither of whom she allowed to inherit. She had smaller homes built for them — one on either side of the main building.” Constructing opulent houses outside the city wall had become all the rage in the past few decades and they had passed many such, of varying degrees of size and wealth, along the way. It allowed for large gardens and the dirt roads out here were wider and tended to have better drainage than the ancient boulevards within the city proper. “Before Everset bought it last year the owners were selling tickets for people to come out and look at it.”
“Yes, I’d heard that.” Reynard adjusted the set of his gloves as their coach turned off the road and passed under the arch. “You’re not a sorcerer, Nicholas. What do you intend to do if this Octave takes exception to your presence with something more than another golem?”
Nicholas smiled. “Only you would ask that question as we are actually driving up to the house where Octave is.” Two paved carriage ways led toward the house from the entry arch, splitting off to bridge a sunken garden where they glimpsed the tops of tall stands of exotic foliage. The house had been built backwards, so the façade facing them was a large colonnaded oval, which in other homes of this design would have given on to the back garden. But the architect had planned it well and the graceful columned portico had a mound of natural rock at its base, connecting it to the grotto of the sunken garden their carriage was passing over and giving the whole front of the large house the look of an ancient temple in ruins.
“Oh, I’ve no sense of self-preservation,” Reynard replied easily. “That’s what I depend on you for.”
“I suppose we should have brought Madeline, then, because that’s what I depend on her for. But even your reputation wouldn’t support a female valet.”
“I don’t know about that.” Eyeing Nicholas thoughtfully, Reynard said, “Seriously. What if Octave resents your intrusion?”
“Seriously, I only mean to observe Octave. For now,” Nicholas said. There had been no disturbances at Coldcourt or at any of his other headquarters last night, though several of his henchmen had kept watch with firearms just in case.
The hooves of the horses clopped on stone as the carriage passed under an arched opening to the right of the portico and into a well-lit stone-walled passage. They were going through the ground floor of the house itself now. One of the flaws in the backward-facing design was that this was the only practical way to reach the carriage entrance.
The passage opened out into the cool air and late afternoon sun again and their coach pulled up in the semi-circular carriage court, overlooked by the elegant pillars of the back façade of the house.
Reynard collected his hat and stick. “We’re on.” He nodded to Nicholas. “Good luck. And don’t embarrass me, my good fellow.”
“If you’ll do me the same favor,” Nicholas murmured. A footman was already running to open the coach door. “Reputation of the firm, you know.”
As Reynard stepped down a man appeared between the carved set of double doors and came down the steps toward him. Our host, Deran Everset, Nicholas thought, and he looks quite as dissipated as Reynard said he would.
Everset’s clothes were foppish in the extreme, his waistcoat patterned with a loud design and his cravat tied in an elaborate way that seemed to interfere with any attempt to move his head, and his lanky frame wasn’t well suited to the fashion. He was pale, with a long face and limp blond hair, and he was consulting a jeweled watch on a chain. “My God, you’re late,” he said, by way of greeting. “And since when have you kept a coach?”
“It’s on loan,” Reynard said, “from a very, very dear friend of mine.” He clapped Everset on the shoulder, turning him back toward the house. “I hope you have a wild night planned for us.”
“None of this was my idea….” their host protested, the rest of his answer lost as the two men passed inside.
Nicholas stepped out of the coach himself. He stretched, keeping one eye on the doorway into the house as a real valet would, in case a butler appeared. “Can we take down the baggage?” he asked the waiting footman.
“Yes, your man’s the last guest to arrive, so there’s no hurry.” The man scuffed one polished shoe against the clean-swept stones of the court, obviously bored. The house livery was dark green, with gold piping on the coat. “Need a hand?”
Crack, dressed as a coach outrider, had hopped down from the box. “No,” Nicholas told the footman. “Thanks the same, though.”
There was stabling for the horses and coaches built into the walls of the court. Some of the carriage doors still stood open and Nicholas counted at least three town coaches. Reynard had wangled the invitation so quickly there had been no opportunity to find out about the other guests. A terrace ran along the top of the wall; he could see urns of potted flowers and benches facing out into the rest of the garden. He knew the elevated terrace extended out from the back of the carriage court, crossing over the garden to reach a small pavilion built to resemble a classical temple. It was isolated from the main house, but easily reached along the terrace by guests in evening clothes; if they meant to hold the circle anywhere else, Nicholas would eat his hat.
He took Reynard’s single case as Devis handed it down and exchanged a nod with Crack. Crack and Devis would be quartered out here with the coach for the night and would probably be too closely watched to slip out and be of any help to him. Hopefully, he wouldn’t need them.
The footman led him up the steps and through the open doors. Nicholas caught sight of an airy high-ceilinged vestibule, floored in what was probably imitation marble. The classical theme continued in frescoes with nymphs and graces that climbed the walls above a grand staircase. The footman showed him a servants’ door and Nicholas climbed a narrow plain staircase up two floors, hoping this would provide him an early opportunity to scout around.
But as soon as he reached the top he almost walked into one of the upstairs maids, who directed him to the chamber assigned to Reynard.
The room was well-appointed and the eccentricity of the rest of the house hadn’t been extended to the bedrooms, or at least not the guest bedrooms. Heavy damask draperies of pale yellow framed the windows, matching the ivory silk paneled walls and the cushions and covers on the couches, overstuffed chairs, and the delicate little tables. The bed hangings made up for this restraint with embroidered garlands, silk blooms, and a crown of ostrich feathers.
Nicholas had never employed a valet himself and was able to unpack Reynard’s case with speed and efficiency. While the guests were at dinner, maids would be in and out of the rooms, freshening flowers, filling the basin, and making sure the sheets were aired, and he didn’t want the room to look out of the ordinary. Finishing up, he took out his pocket watch — a cheap one, without any ornament, that he kept for this sort of disguise — and gauged the time he had until Reynard came up to dress for dinner. That would be an ideal opportunity to get an initial report on the other guests and whether Octave was present in the house yet. The more information he had to act on, the better.
He slipped out into the hall and shut the door behind him. It was quiet, except for the faint hiss of gaslights inside their porcelain globes and muted voices echoing up the grand stairwell. He moved down the hall, quietly but purposefully, and without furtive caution. In a house of this size, with as many servants as this one had, and with the additional confusion of an overnight party, anyone who looked as if he knew where he was going was not too likely to be questioned.
He found the servants’ stair at the far end of the corridor and went down it quickly, coming out in a narrow low-ceilinged hall that ran toward the back of the house. As he passed an open door someone called out, “Wait, there, whose are you?”
Nicholas stopped obediently. It was a pantry, a small room lined with glass-fronted cabinets, with china and silver plate gleaming inside. The man who had addressed him was gray-haired and stout, dressed in a dark suit and clutching a bundle of keys. The butler, obviously, Nicholas thought. There was a woman in the room too, a respectable-looking matron in a gray gown and an apron. Nicholas said, “Captain Morane’s, sir.”
“Ah, go on, then.” The butler turned back to the agitated woman in the flour-dusted apron. “No, tell Listeri that’s my final word.”
“No, you tell him! I’m sick of his Aderassi chatter and you can –”
Without even having to deliver his carefully prepared excuse concerning gloves left behind in the carriage, Nicholas reached the arch at the end of the passage and the argument was lost in the greater clatter of the kitchen. The stove was a monolithic monument stretching across the far wall, copper fish kettles steaming on the burners. A long plank table was weighed down with molds, baking trays for meringues, and stone dishes for pies. Dressers standing against the brick-lined walls held the plain china and an array of silver pots for chocolate and coffee.
The cook, sweating under his white cap, slammed a pot on the range and shouted an amazing Aderassi profanity. From the hearth an aproned woman turning spitted capons over a sheet metal scallop shouted, “What do you know about it, you dirty foreigner!” The door in the far wall banged open to admit two scullery maids struggling with a tub of water. Nicholas hastened to help them guide it in and deposit it on the tiles near the table, then left them to join their colleague in battle. He escaped through another pantry and out the door into the kitchen garden.
He made his way down a dirt path, past geometrically laid out beds for melons, cabbages, endives, and wooden racks for climbing vegetables. The wall to his left was lined with skeletal pear trees and bordered on the carriage court. There was a wooden door, a back entrance to the stables, but it was fortunately closed. On his right, over the top of the garden wall, he could see the side of one of the two outbuildings the widow had constructed for her sons. The gray stones were overgrown with climbing vines, but it looked as well-kept as the main house. Both were probably used for extra guest and servants’ quarters.
He reached the trellised gate in the back wall and opened it to enter the garden proper. He hesitated, taking his bearings. This was dangerous territory; he could explain his presence in the carriage court and the kitchen garden. Any servant except a gardener would be forbidden this area.
It seemed deserted. Rambling roses, quince trees, and willows obscured the walls that ran down to terminate in a slight dip and another high wall. Tangled greenery that would flower in the spring hung out of the beds and threatened the cobbled pathways. A fountain with a nymph trapped in winter-dry vines played near the center.
Nicholas trotted the length of the wall, over which he could see the carved balusters of the terrace enclosure. At the end of the garden the terrace formed a wide square platform. Overgrown brush screened him from the house now, and he was able to dig fingers and boot tips into the cracks in the rough stone wall. He hauled himself up and slung one leg over the balustrade, hoping the moss stains wouldn’t show too badly on his dark clothes.
The temple was in the center of the platform. It was a simple design, an open circle of columns supporting a carved entablature. The stones were artificially weathered, as the triumphal arch was, giving the little place a look of aged dignity. A fine wooden table had been placed in the center, surrounded by eight chairs.
The great spreading mass of several oak trees, each large as a small hillock and far older than the house itself, blocked the view on three sides of the platform, and the only clear line-of-sight was straight down the connecting stone bridge to the carriage court terrace and the back of the main house. Huge flower urns and classical statues of various faunal gods around the edges of the platform provided some cover, but the little temple would be clearly visible to anyone standing on the further terrace. No one seemed to be out and Nicholas left the sheltering statuary and approached the temple cautiously.
He crouched to examine the underside of the table for wires, or mechanical or magical devices. There seemed to be none, and no secret compartments either. The table was also heavy and sturdy, impossible for a clever spiritualist to rock with his boot tips, which was one of the more common tricks. He moved on to the chairs, checking underneath them and palpating the seat cushions. Next was the temple itself.
Finally he had searched as much of the place as he was able to without a ladder and he went to sit in the concealing shadow of an oversized urn. It was getting late and darkness was gathering in pools under the winter-stripped trees and in the thorny brush. No preparations had been made for the kind of show people such as Captain Everset and his lady would expect for their money.
Is that really a surprise? Nicholas asked himself. You know Octave has real power, or at least access to real power. If he had found the table prepared with flashpowder and false bottomed drawers, it would only have obscured the issue further. He would simply have to wait and see what he could discover during the circle.
Nicholas made it safely back to the room to find Reynard already dressing for dinner.
“There you are,” Reynard said. He was tying his cravat in front of the mirror. “I was beginning to wonder. Did you find anything?”
“No, as I expected. Is Octave here? Who are the other guests?”
“I didn’t see Octave. Madam Everset talked about him as if she expected him to descend on us out of the ether at any moment, though. Whether that means he’s in the house now or not, I couldn’t tell you.” Reynard swore, tore the cravat off and discarded it over his shoulder, selecting a fresh one out of the open drawer. Nicholas caught the bit of cloth before it could flutter to the floor and put it away. Reynard continued, “As to the other guests, they’re what you’d expect. Amelind Danyell, the half-mad one who’s been dangling after what’s his name, the unpleasant poet who’s an opium addict –”
“That’s it. He’s here too, of course, and he’s brought his wife along to play off Danyell. There’s also Danyell’s escort, a pimply-faced bit who has propositioned me twice already and I’m old enough to be his father, for God’s sake. There’s Vearde and his current mistress, Ilian Isolde the opera singer, and of course Count Belennier, who couldn’t get invited to a salon party on a sinking ship since he was caught in that Naissance Court scandal.”
Reynard was about to ruin another cravat. Nicholas impatiently stopped him, turned him around and finished tying it himself. The company was uniformly scandalous, but then no one would have invited Reynard to any other kind of occasion. He had gained a reputation for casual behavior before he had taken an officer’s commission in the Guard, but the worst scandal by far was the one that had lost him that commission and made him Count Montesq’s enemy.
Reynard had been conducting an affair with a younger officer, a member of a noble family, at the same time as the young man was also seeking an engagement with a young woman of an even nobler and far more wealthy family. Montesq’s solicitor Devril, who had a second career as a blackmailer, had managed to buy an incriminating letter written by the young man to Reynard, which had been stolen out of Reynard’s kit when their regiment was stationed on the Tethari peninsula. The young man had paid the blackmail at first, paid it until he had exhausted his personal funds, but Devril’s demands had continued until finally, on the day before the wedding, Devril had made the letter public through intermediaries. The scandal and the pressures of his position and, possibly, the belief that Reynard had given the letter to Devril himself, worked on an excitable temperament, and the young man had killed himself. Reynard had returned to Vienne shortly thereafter to find his friend dead and most of the beau monde of the belief that Reynard had driven him to suicide. The feeling against him was so high his commanding officer had trumped up some charges against him in order to cashier him out of the Guard.
The part of the story that no one else but Nicholas and Madeline knew entirely was that Reynard had tracked down the unscrupulous batman who had stolen the letter and killed him after extracting Devril’s identity. Montesq’s men had discovered that Reynard was on Devril’s trail and planned to eliminate him, but Nicholas had been following the situation as well and managed to contact Reynard and warn him. Together they had rid the world of the blackmailing solicitor Devril, and Reynard had worked with Nicholas ever since.
Nicholas finished tying the cravat and Reynard examined the result in the mirror carefully. “You did that well. Did they teach it at Lodun when you were there?”
“They teach everything at Lodun.” The other guests were familiar names, except for one. “Vearde, do you know him by sight?”
“Yes, I’ve met him on several occasions. Just an acquaintance, though.” Reynard turned to regard him quizzically, with a hint of a smile. “You think he’s really Ronsarde in disguise?”
“No, I do not think that.” Damn Reynard for being so astute, anyway. Nicholas didn’t want to seem like a nervous fool, but Ronsarde was the one enemy he wasn’t completely confident that he could outwit. He put away Reynard’s old suit, knowing a real valet would never leave clothing on the floor. Well, maybe Reynard’s valet might, but it would excite comment among the other servants and he didn’t want to call attention to himself. “We did see Halle at the morgue, you know.”
“When you went to look at that drowned boy? I thought Madeline said there was no connection to Octave?”
“Not yet.” He hadn’t heard back from the practitioners he had given the samples to. He would probably have to go to Arisilde again himself and remind him. “There were only eight chairs around the table.”
“Well, Everset said he wouldn’t be joining us for Octave’s little show. I assume some of the others have also made their excuses. Do you think that matters terribly?”
“No.” Nicholas considered a moment. “Do you think Everset will be suspicious that you haven’t made an excuse?”
“I’ve mentioned that I haven’t seen one of the things yet and I’m curious. That should do it. No one in this group is going to suspect anyone of anything except sneaking off to debauch on the sly.”
“You’re right, of course.” Nicholas had learned early that one of the chief problems in deception was the tendency to try to over explain one’s actions. The truth was that people did the oddest things for the most inconsequential reasons and elaborate justifications only made one look guilty.
Like most parvenu households, the Eversets had paid a great deal for an excellent Aderassi chef and since they had no real taste, had managed to hire only a mediocre one. Nicholas watched the chaos from the safety of the kitchen doorway, with one or two of the other upstairs servants who were malingering now that the guests were settled. Earlier, from the shelter of the stables, they had all watched Octave’s coach arrive. The spiritualist had brought no baggage and no one to accompany him except the coach driver.
The chef Listeri carried on dinner preparations as if the kitchen were a besieged citadel that would inevitably fall to superior force and this entailed a great deal of banging, breakage, and profanity toward the scullery maids. It made Nicholas all the more grateful for his own dignified Andrea, who had never thrown a tantrum in his life.
He shook his head over the choice of an inferior grade of wine for a sauce, then left his indolent pose in the doorway and made his way toward the dining room. Nicholas had made it a point to see all the servants brought in by the guests and to make sure that they were all, as far as he could tell, what they appeared to be. Crack had orders to do the same with the coachmen and outriders quartered in the stables, and Nicholas knew if his henchman had discovered anything suspicious he would have found a way to send word by now. It was only the guests he was worried about.
It proved impossible to get close enough to the dining room to overhear the conversation. The only possibility was a small anteroom used by the butler to marshal the footmen who were serving the courses and it was always occupied. Nicholas grudgingly returned to his position in the kitchen, where Listeri seemed about to succumb to a seizure.
Not that casual conversation over the plates was likely to provide much illumination, though Nicholas knew that Algretto the poet was associated with Count Rive Montesq. Last month Nicholas had been at Contera’s with Reynard and Madeline, when the Count had come in with a large party that had included Algretto. There was nothing particularly damning in that. Algretto’s current popularity made him a much sought-after guest with all levels of society.
But after a time Nicholas had become aware of the particular attention being directed at them from the neighborhood of Montesq’s party. It might be due to Madeline’s presence; as a feted actress she often drew attention. Or it might be due to Reynard, who tended to draw his own share of notice.
“We’re being observed, my dears,” Reynard had said. “Out of jealousy, it’s obvious.” He had betrayed absolutely no discomfort; Reynard loved challenges.
Madeline had laughed and lifted her glass to him as if he had said something extremely witty and cutting about the people watching them. “God,” she murmured, “I must have a guilty conscience. I’m afraid he knows.”
She meant Montesq, who was straightening the black opal studs on his cuffs as he leaned over to speak to one of the women in his entourage. Just that day Nicholas had obtained the rest of the builder’s plans for Montesq’s Great House, which they would need to plant the Duchess of Mondollot’s incriminating Bisran gold. “Guilty?” he said, raising his own glass.
“Not guilty, precisely. An occupied conscience, perhaps.” She touched her hair ornament in a gesture of flirtation and without moving her lips, said, “He’s coming over here.”
Out of the corner of his eye Nicholas had seen Montesq excuse himself to his party and stand. “He knows nothing,” he said.
“And that’s Enora Ragele with him,” Madeline added, in a more audible voice. “The woman’s such a whore.”
“Now Madeline, you sound like an actress,” Reynard chided her gently.
The exchange had been for Montesq’s benefit. The Count reached their table on the tail end of Reynard’s comment and Nicholas stood to shake hands with him.
“It’s been a long time, Valiarde. I had thought you left the country,” Montesq said, easily. He looked every inch the noble of Ile-Rien, from the sober cut of his tail coat to the impeccable grooming of his oiled hair and closely trimmed beard. His smile didn’t reach his flat black eyes.
“I’m not much in society, my lord.” Nicholas turned to introduce Madeline and Reynard. The knife-edge of tension that went through him when Montesq formally kissed Madeline’s hand surprised him, but it was made up for as he watched the Count pretend he had never heard of Reynard Morane before. Though he probably loses track of the people he orders his men to kill; there are so many of them.
The introductions done, Montesq turned back to Nicholas. “Edouard Viller was a great loss to philosophy, Valiarde. I’m sure Lodun feels his absence.”
“We all feel his absence,” Nicholas said quietly. He was finding that being offered condolences, even long after the fact, by his foster-father’s murderer was an almost enjoyable experience. The fact that Montesq had not yet tired of his grotesque private jokes was a sign of weakness. He isn’t aware who the joke is on–yet.
Montesq’s face betrayed nothing. He said, “You are still an art importer?”
“Yes, I am.” Nicholas made his expression one of polite interest. Montesq might be fishing, though he couldn’t think for what.
“Really, and I thought my company was considered scandalous by the beau monde.” The speaker was the poet Algretto, who had come up behind Montesq. He looked as if he had just rolled out of bed, his clothes disordered and his cravat hanging loose around his neck, his blond curls in disarray. The poet had given this same impression every time Nicholas had seen him so he strongly suspected it was a deliberate affectation. “Take care, my lord, this is almost too much.”
Nicholas barely managed to conceal his amusement. There was no mistaking what Algretto was referring to. As an attempt to please his patron it backfired badly; Montesq’s connection to his blackmailing solicitor had almost been exposed during the incident that had won Reynard the shame of the beau monde, and from the Count’s expression he obviously remembered it with no fondness either.
“True,” Reynard said to the poet, his voice amused. “Your company should be scandalous enough. Any more would be a surfeit of riches.”
Algretto started to speak but then glanced at Montesq. He must have read impatience in the set of his patron’s jaw, because he contented himself with an ironic bow, as if acknowledging the hit. Montesq smiled, too well-bred to acknowledge the coarseness of the demi monde he had found himself surrounded by, and said, “My agent will contact your men of business, Valiarde.”
“Of course.” Nicholas smiled, gently.
When Montesq had taken his leave and gone back to his table, Madeline said seriously, “Sometimes your self-control frightens me.”
“Thank you,” Nicholas said, lifting his glass to her, not that he thought she had meant it as a compliment.
“I thought you were as subtle as a ground adder myself,” Reynard commented dryly. “What did I miss?”
“If I had been too obliging, he would have become suspicious.” Nicholas swirled the contents of his wine glass. “He knows I hate him. He just doesn’t realize to what extent I’ve acted on it.”
“So he was testing you,” Reynard said thoughtfully.
Madeline idly shredded a flower petal from the table decoration. “I wonder why.”
Nicholas had smiled, with a razor edge that was anything but gentle. “Perhaps he has an occupied conscience.”
Algretto was a connection to Montesq, but not to Octave. And it was Octave’s appearance on the scene, in the middle of the plan to destroy Montesq, a culmination of years of effort, that worried Nicholas the most. The chef Listeri suddenly became aware of his audience and flung a pot at the wall near the doorway. Nicholas and the other servants hastily scrambled for cover, and Nicholas’s thoughts went abruptly back to his current role.
After dinner had been served, the apparently chronic confusion in the servants’ hall allowed Nicholas to fortify himself with a bowl of gamey stew before slipping out of the house to take up a position near the circle.
Colored lamps had been hung at strategic intervals throughout the formal garden, making the trip out to the platform somewhat more interesting, but he managed it without incident. Once there he scouted the area for any other watchers before climbing up to the balustrade again. A glass candlelamp had been placed in the center of the table and more lamps had been hung from some of the pillars. The shadows among the statuary at the edges of the platform were even darker for these yellow beacons, so he retired behind the large urn with some confidence.
It was cold, though Nicholas had taken the precaution of bringing dark gloves and a scarf to wrap around his throat. The wind had died down since earlier in the day and the quiet of the night was the heavy silence of the country. Nicholas was even able to hear a late carriage go down the road in front of the house, passing Gabrill’s triumphal arch and continuing on toward the even grander parks further away from the city.
Not long after, the doors to the terrace from the main house opened and he heard talk and laughter. Lamps had been lit along the bridge of the terrace and he was able to see the guests making their way toward the temple platform.
Amelind Danyell was in front, her shoulders bare in a gown better suited to a warm salon, escorted by a young man not quite her height with a waistcoat of such startling pattern Nicholas could make it out even in lamplight at this distance. At her other side was Count Belennier, who seemed to be paying Danyell more attention than was quite necessary for a woman who already had one male arm to steady her. Behind them he recognized Algretto, who had come out in his shirtsleeves, possibly in an attempt to encourage an attack of tubercle that would make him even more attractive to women like Danyell. He had given his arm to Madame Everset, his hostess, who had bundled up in a paletot and wrapped a scarf around her head, showing far more sense than most of the others present. Possibly she was more interested in the circle itself than she was in being seen to have it by these people. Nicholas wondered if Octave had solicited some relic of a dead relative from her for tonight.
Behind them was Algretto’s long-suffering wife, a rather plain woman in a dress of muted color under a long shawl, escorted by Reynard. He was paying her all the courteous attention due a lady of her station, despite attempts from the more boisterous members of the party to distract him. Nicholas smiled to himself. Reynard, despite his protests to the contrary, was a gentleman to his bones.
Behind them trailed Octave.
He wore a plain dark suit, without the ostentatious opera cape this time. If he had recognized Reynard, he might have given some sign by now. The man they had encountered at Coldcourt the night before would have, Nicholas thought, but there was no knowing how closely the golem’s personality had matched the real Octave’s.
He seemed to be the last member of the party. Everset had already told Reynard he intended to stay behind. Vearde must have opted out as well and as an opera singer Ilian Isolde could not afford to expose her throat to the night air.
The first group reached the temple and Amelind Danyell called out gaily, “Does it matter where we sit, my dear?”
Madame Everset glanced back at Octave, but he gave her no indication, one way or the other. She answered, “No, dear, it doesn’t matter.”
Two footmen were stationed a short distance down the terrace to answer any calls for service. The guests found seats with a great deal of shuffling back and forth and some subtle jockeying for position on Belennier’s part. Octave reached the temple and stood framed in the entrance, a slight contemptuous smile on his pale face. His appearance was subtly disreputable: frayed cuffs, a cravat that was distinctly gray in the lamplight. Nicholas wondered whether the effect was intentional. Octave stroked his unkempt beard and stared at the people around the table.
It wasn’t until everyone was seated that he came forward into the temple. Most of the guests seemed to regard him as a hired entertainer; they chatted among themselves, Belennier flirting with Danyell, Danyell punishing Algretto with subtle jibes for ignoring her, Algretto parrying with a faintly superior smile, and Danyell’s young escort fighting for some sort of notice from someone. Crouching in the darkness behind the solid bulk of the urn, cold and damp seeping up through his boots from the stone flags, Nicholas was still reminded of why he didn’t much care for society. It had its own predators, just like the streets of Riverside, but they dealt their blows with words, gestures, expressions. Here there were no allies, only enemies, and yet everyone conducted themselves as though they were the dearest of companions. Nicholas hadn’t been oblivious to it, but he had felt as if it all took place on another plane of existence which he could view but not interact with. Not that anyone in his right mind would wish to. He preferred the world where enemies were enemies and war was war, and the blows cut to the bone.
Madame Everset was torn between attending her guests and keeping one eye on Octave; it was obvious she was anxious for the circle to start. Reynard was keeping one eye on Octave also, but in a far more subtle fashion, while carrying on a light conversation with Madame Algretto.
Madame Everset, her voice pitched a little too high from anxiety, said abruptly, “Do we begin, Doctor?”
The others looked toward her, some startled, some amused.
Octave said, “We begin, Madame.” He was standing behind his empty chair now, facing the others, his back to the wide gap between the pillars that marked the entrance to the temple.
Algretto, probably resenting the sudden cessation of attention from himself, drawled, “I, personally, am an unbeliever in this sort of fantasy, Doctor. Do you really propose to make our good hostess’s late brother appear among us?”
Madame Everset winced and Nicholas made the mental note, discover the history of the dead brother. Her face was white in the lamplight and the skin beneath her eyes bruised by fatigue. Nicholas had assumed any signs of strain were due to being married to Captain Everset; now it was obvious Madame had other concerns. It seemed less and less as if she had sought Octave out simply for the societal coup of holding a circle at a salon party. He wondered if perhaps Octave had sought her out, instead.
The doctor said, “Belief is unnecessary.” His voice was almost the same as the golem’s, perhaps a trifle lower in pitch. Nicholas reminded himself again that this might be an entirely different person from the golem he had met. Its reactions were nothing to judge the real man by.
“Is it?” Algretto smiled, prepared to enjoy baiting Octave and plaguing his obviously anxious hostess. “I thought it essential to this sort of…enterprise.”
“Your thought was inaccurate.” Octave was unruffled. He was in his own element and confident. He had his hand in the pocket of his frock coat and there was something about his stance that was not quite natural. Nicholas might have suspected a pistol, but somehow he didn’t think Octave would carry a weapon. Or not that sort of weapon.
Algretto was not accustomed to being parried with such unconcern. Eyes narrowed, he said, “If you would care to word it thus. Your tone is insulting, Doctor. Though what you are a doctor of, exactly, has never been specified.”
Madame Algretto sighed audibly, Amelind Danyell tittered, and Belennier looked bored. Madame Everset tried to interject, saying, “Really, I’m sure no harm was –”
“Really, Algretto,” Reynard said, managing to sound as if the subject both amused and wearied him. “Poetry is your field of expertise. Why don’t you stick with that and let the good doctor carry on?”
Algretto’s eyes went hooded. There was nothing of outright insult in the words, but Reynard was a master of insinuation. The poet said, “I hadn’t thought you were the type to be interested in poetry, or this spirit nonsense, Morane.”
“Oh, I don’t know poetry, but I know what I like.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m here because I was invited. I often am, you know. Everset and I are the dearest of friends. Why are you here?”
Octave was obviously enjoying the confrontation, a smile playing about his pale lips. Belennier said, “Really, gentlemen, surely it’s not –”
Watching his opponent intently, Algretto said, “Perhaps to lend a badly needed air of artistic integrity to the proceedings. But I suppose, after hearing what is said of you, you are unfamiliar with the subject of integrity.”
“Perhaps,” Reynard agreed, smiling gently. “After hearing about your performance of your latest epic at Countess Averae’s literary evening, I think you might be better qualified to lend advice on monkey posturing.”
Algretto came to his feet with a curse, knocking back his chair.
With reflexes honed by years of dueling, Reynard stood just as abruptly, his elbow knocking Doctor Octave’s arm and sending the spiritualist stumbling back a step. In an unconscious gesture to keep his balance, Octave’s hand came out of his pocket.
Nicholas was smiling to himself, thinking, good old Reynard, when Octave’s hand came up and he saw the object the spiritualist was clutching. There was only time for a moment’s glimpse, before Octave hurriedly stuffed it back into concealment. Reynard was saying to Algretto, “Sorry, old fellow, didn’t realize you’d take it personally. My apologies.”
Algretto was hardly appeased but it would have been the worst manners to refuse the offered apology. He managed to nod grudgingly and sit down as Reynard gravely excused himself to Octave for jostling him and took his own seat again.
Nicholas’s smile had died. The object had appeared to be a metallic ball. It had looked very much like one of the models of Edouard Viller’s apparatus, except it was much smaller.
It can’t be, he told himself. The others were destroyed. He had seen the Crown Investigators smash them to bits himself. It had been Edouard’s last experiment in combining natural philosophy and magic, begun from a desire to communicate with his dead wife, whom Nicholas knew only as a portrait in the main salon at Coldcourt. By itself, a device for speaking to the dead, whether it worked or not, was not necromancy. But Count Montesq had made it appear as though Edouard had murdered a woman in an attempt to perform magic, fulfilling the legal definition of necromancy. And when the court had discovered what the device had been meant to do, Edouard had looked all the more guilty.
But how had Octave gotten his hands on one of the devices? Every bit of Edouard’s surviving work, his notes, his journals, the last intact models of the apparatus, everything the Crown hadn’t burned was at Coldcourt. Nicholas cursed silently. Perhaps there was some sort of prototype we never knew about. Arisilde Damal would know, if anyone would. He had worked most closely with Edouard in the initial studies at Lodun. The only alternative was that Octave had somehow recreated that work and had developed the same theories independently.
If he hadn’t, if he had somehow stolen Edouard’s research…. He won’t need a device to speak to the dead, Nicholas thought. He will do it quite comfortably from his own grave. He would rather have seen all of Edouard’s work burned by the Crown than let Octave use it for some filthy trick.
Octave had recovered his composure as the other members of the party resettled themselves. He nodded at the still sullen Algretto and said, “To answer the original question, I am a doctor of the spirit, good sir. Any student of sorcery will tell you of the etheric plane. It is possible to use the ether to reach the souls that dwell beyond it, who were once part of our world. To communicate with them. To bring them — temporarily — back to the living. Now….”
Octave let the silence grow, until the only sound was the wind moving gently through the oaks. His eyes seemed to go blank, then roll up into his head. A tremor passed over him and he moaned softly.
Theatrics, Nicholas thought in disgust. And not very good theatrics at that. Octave must still be rattled from Reynard’s near-battle with Algretto. He wasn’t the only one who found the performance less than convincing. He could see an expression of quite open skepticism on Madame Algretto’s refined features. But if the spiritualist was using a device that Edouard had had some hand in making, he was playing with power indeed.
A sudden loud rasp startled everyone. Someone gasped. The rasping noise came again and Nicholas realized it was the sound of wood scraping painfully against stone. Then he noticed what the others had already seen — the heavy wooden table was rotating; slowly, ponderously, rotating.
Algretto said, “It’s a trick.”
Reynard pushed back from the table to look beneath it. Nicholas writhed inwardly, wishing he had thought of a way to make himself a member of the party, now entitled to jump up and examine the table for himself. Reynard said, “It’s not a trick. He’s not touching it.” He scraped at something with one boot. “And there are splinters on the pavement.”
“Then it’s sorcery.” Algretto smiled. “Such a thing wouldn’t even amuse the market crowds, Doctor. Though I can see why you found this way of earning your bread more amenable than working as a hedgewitch in the Philosopher’s Cross.”
The lamps all flickered once and simultaneously, as if a hand had briefly lowered over the flame of each. Without dropping his pose of rapt concentration, Octave said, “Believe what you wish. I am the key that unlocks all doors between our world and the next.”
“Necromancy,” Madame Algretto said clearly, “is punishable by death, aptly enough.” Her hands hovered over the still moving table, not quite touching it. That she was beginning to find the proceedings distasteful was obvious.
“But not before the party is over, I hope,” said Amelind Danyell slyly.
A trace of irritation in his voice, Octave said, “This is not necromancy, not ghost-summoning or grave-robbing. This is communication of the highest form.”
“This is a table moving,” Algretto pointed out, rather cogently Nicholas had to admit. “We’ve seen nothing but –”
Octave held up a hand for silence. Behind him there was a man standing framed between the pillars of the temple entrance. Nicholas caught his breath. He had glanced in that direction a bare instant before and there had been nothing there.
The man was young, dressed in a naval officer’s uniform. Nicholas stared hard, trying to memorize details.
The others were silent, those facing the other direction whipping around in their chairs to see. Even the table had stopped its halting clockwise progress. Madame Everset came to her feet without conscious volition, as if she had levitated out of her chair. Octave didn’t turn, but he had abandoned his apparently trance-like state and was watching her with avid attention.
It isn’t a projection from a picture-lantern, was Nicholas’s first thought. Its eyes were moving. Bloodshot, as if from salt water or lack of sleep, its eyes went from face to face around the table. It might be an illusion: sorcerous illusions could move, speak. Arisilde was capable of illusions that even seemed solid to the touch. It might be a living accomplice but he didn’t see how a man could have gotten past the servants stationed down the terrace without being remarked.
Madame Everset tried to speak and failed, then managed to gasp, “Justane….”
Or how Octave acquired an accomplice Madame Everset would recognize as her brother, Nicholas thought.
Then Octave murmured, “Ask him, Madame. You remember our agreement.”
Reynard started, his gaze jerking away from the apparition to Octave, and Nicholas knew he wasn’t the only one to hear those discreet words. None of the others seemed to take notice.
Madame Everset nodded, swayed as if she meant to faint, but said, “Justane, your ship. Where did it go down?”
The young man’s searching eyes found her. His face was not corpse white, Nicholas noted, but tanned and reddened from the sun. Somehow he found that point more convincing than anything else. The apparition licked its lips, said, “Off the southern coast of Parscia, the straits of Kashatriy.” His voice was low and hoarse. “But Lise….”
He was gone. There was no gradual fade, no dissolve into mist. He was gone and it was as quick as a door slamming between one world and the next. Madame Everset screamed, “Justane!”
In the suddenly vast silence of the night there was one sound. It was the click, click, click of a man’s bootheels on stone.
Nicholas felt himself seized by something, some invisible force that seemed to stop his heart, to freeze the breath in his lungs. It was very like the moment when the ghoul had rushed him in the Mondollot cellars and he had been momentarily trapped, powerless to move. He wondered if he had made a fatal miscalculation in coming here tonight.
At first nothing was visible. Then the shadows between the lamps resolved into a dark figure walking at an even, unhurried pace up the bridge of the terrace toward the temple. Nicholas squinted, trying to see the man’s face, and realized he was shivering; the normal dank chill of a late winter night had suddenly turned bitter cold. It was as if the temple platform was made of ice and his hands burned with cold inside his gloves. Something scraped across the roof of the temple, as if the wind had dragged a tree branch against it. Nicholas managed to move, jerking his head to stare up at the deeply shadowed edge of the roof. There were no trees overhanging the temple.
He looked at Octave.
The spiritualist was staring with grim concentration at the table. He hadn’t turned to look at the approaching figure but something told Nicholas he was more aware of it than any of them. Octave wet his lips nervously and muttered, “Not yet, not yet….”
That worried Nicholas more than anything. Good God, the man can contact the dead, and he doesn’t know what he’s toying with. The figure drew inexorably closer. Nicholas tried to recognize it, to study its features, anything to understand what was happening, but something seemed to obscure its face. Even though he should be able to see it clearly at this distance his eyes seemed to slide away when he tried to focus on its features. He concentrated harder; Arisilde had told him it was a way to penetrate the most clever of sorcerous illusions, but it didn’t seem to work. The constriction in his chest and his heart pounding like a train engine didn’t help, either.
The figure was two paces from the temple entrance. It stopped. Nicholas caught a glimpse of dark clothing, the swirl of a garment, a cloak or coat. Then it was gone.
Nicholas found himself gripping the balustrade and trembling. The members of the circle still sat or stood like statues, like carvings of yellowed marble in the candlelight.
In the breathless silence, Octave said, “We are finished, Madame.” He bowed briefly to Madame Everset and walked out of the temple and down the terrace.
Madame Everset tried to protest, but her legs seemed to give way and she sagged, gripping her chair for support. Belennier jumped up to grasp her arm and Algretto said, “Get her to the house –”
“Wait,” Reynard interrupted. He called out, “Footman! Get down here with a lamp!”
He’s thinking of our underground ghoul, Nicholas thought. And the scraping across the temple roof. He leaned back against the balustrade until he almost tumbled headfirst backward over it, but saw nothing. With the shadows moving across the weathered stone, there might be any number of ghouls crouched up there.
A confused footman brought another lamp and Reynard snatched it from him and moved back down the terrace, holding it high, trying to see if there was anything waiting for them on that roof. Nicholas could see he was questioning the footman, though he couldn’t hear the low-voiced inquiry; the man shook his head as he answered.
Reynard said, “All right, bring her out this way.”
The others didn’t question him. Even the irrepressible Amelind Danyell was gripping Algretto’s arm and shivering. Madame Algretto had gone to Madame Everset’s side; their hostess seemed to have recovered a little, though she was obviously dazed and shaken. With Belennier’s assistance she stood and the entire party made for the terrace.
It was more than time for Nicholas to go as well. If Everset had any sense he would turn half the household out to search the gardens and the surrounding area. If Nicholas hurried, he might manage to be one of the searchers. He climbed over the balustrade and dropped the rest of the way down, landing somewhat noisily in piled leaves and an unfortunate bush.
His own descent was so noisy that he almost didn’t hear the corresponding crash of dried twigs and leaves from the nearest of the ancient oaks. He tried to fling himself toward cover, stumbled and fell sprawling. A few feet away something dropped to the packed dirt beneath the tree, stumbled, and caught itself on one of the massive lower branches.
There was just enough light to see it had the outline of a man, dressed in a scarf and a hunter’s coat. Startled out of all thought, Nicholas automatically said, “Pardon me, but –” at the same time it said, “Sorry, I –”
They both stopped, staring at each other in astonished and somewhat embarrassed silence. Then the other man said, “Good day to you,” and bolted for the outer garden wall.
Nicholas scrambled to his feet and stumbled toward the relative safety of the kitchen garden, cursing under his breath. He knew that voice. He remembered it from ten years ago at Edouard’s trial, testifying in the witness box, so calm, so confident, so damning. He remembered it from the Crown Hearing that had rescinded the conviction months too late to save Edouard’s life, equally calm, despite the deadly mistake it was admitting. He remembered it from all the close calls, the other trials, when he had been carefully in disguise.
He had spoken to Inspector Ronsarde before, but this was the first time since he was a young man barely out of Lodun that he had used his own voice.
In all the confusion Nicholas managed to get into the formal areas of the house. Servants were running everywhere, and it was easy to look as if he had been summoned.
The guests were gathered in the largest salon, the one with enormous bay windows in the front of the house, that overlooked the grotto and the sunken garden and the triumphal arch, all lit by colored lamps now and as strange in that light as something out of Fayre.
The room was yellow — yellow brocaded fabric on the walls, the firescreen, yellow silk upholstery on the scattered couches and chairs, yellow gowns on the nymphs in the woodland scene in the painted medallion on the high ceiling — and guests and servants were scattered throughout. Madame Everset was draped on a divan like a dead woman, her pale features blue-tinged from shock. A maid hovered over her, trying to persuade her to sip a glass of brandy. Everset stood nearby, ineffectual and bewildered.
Reynard was saying, “Dammit, man, you’ve got to turn the servants out to search.”
Algretto paced impatiently. Danyell was collapsed on a sofa but still the center of a little whirl of activity, with her escort and the opera singer Isolde and a small cluster of maids in anxious attendance. Belennier seemed to be describing what had occurred to a tall, Parscian man who must be Vearde. One of the tables bore wine glasses and a scatter of cards from an interrupted game. As evidence for how Vearde, Everset, and Isolde had occupied themselves while the others were at the circle, Nicholas couldn’t accept it at face value. He would have to pry more information out of the servants in their remaining time here. He wasn’t willing to dismiss the notion of accomplices, not yet.
Octave was nowhere to be seen.
Everset shook his head, baffled. “Why? Search for what?”
Reynard stared. “For accomplices, of course. The weasel frightened your wife out of her wits, you’ve got to find out if those…if those men were what they seemed to be or compatriots of Octave’s.”
Reynard, Nicholas thought wryly, you’ve been keeping company with me too long and it’s beginning to show.
“What’s the point? The bastard’s leaving with his fee. They’re bringing his coach round in the court.”
“Leaving already?” Algretto said, turning back toward them and unexpectedly siding with Reynard. “That’s damned suspicious, Everset. You ought to detain him at least until you’ve had a chance to inventory the plate.”
…Coach round the court. Nicholas was already slipping out of the room. He found the nearest servants’ door and bolted up the stairs to the third floor, digging in an inside coat pocket for notepaper. In the guest room he scribbled a line hastily and stuffed it in the pocket of Reynard’s spare coat, then he was dashing back down the stairs.
He made his way to the front of the house, cutting through the formal rooms since anyone of note was gathered in the salon. He reached a conservatory with a wall that was formed entirely of glass panes in a wrought iron framework, lit only by moonlight now and looking out on the grotto and the sunken garden. He ducked around cane furniture and stands and racks of potted flowers, boot soles skidding on the tile floor. Down the steps to the lower part of the room where a fountain played under a draping of water lilies. Yes, there was a door here for the gardeners.
He unlocked it and stepped out into the chill night air, closing it carefully behind him. He was at the very front of the house, at the head of a stone path cluttered with wind-driven leaves that ran along the edge of the sunken garden and toward the triumphal arch. The stone of the grotto entrance was to his right, the archway that led under the house and to the carriage court to his left. He needed to be on the opposite side.
A brief scramble over the rock left him glad of his gloves. It was made of dark-painted concrete and not much softened by time. He was too near the side of the house to be seen from the windows in the salon; there was a possibility someone would spot the unorthodox method that he planned to depart in, but it would be too late for them to do anything about it and he would probably be taken for one of Octave’s hypothetical accomplices. Nicholas climbed down the side of the grotto entrance and took up a position flat against the wall next to the exit archway for the carriage court.
He had only been there a few moments, barely long enough to calm his breath, when he heard quiet footsteps in the carriage passage. He sank back against the wall, into the thick shadows.
A man stepped out of the passage, stood for a moment in the light from the lamp above the archway, then turned suddenly and looked right at Nicholas. It was Crack.
His henchman swore under his breath. Nicholas smiled and whispered, “I was here first.”
Crack slid into the decorative hedge bordering the path. A moment later his apparently disembodied voice said, “Ain’t I your bodyguard? Ain’t that my job?”
“Two of us hanging onto the back of the coach would be noticed. On my own I’ll be taken for a groom.” Nicholas was only fortunate that Octave kept a private vehicle. Hire coaches often had a harrow installed beneath the groom’s step, to keep children and anyone else from snatching free rides. A private coach wouldn’t be equipped with that deterrent. “And I doubt even Reynard could conceal two servants abandoning him in the middle of the night. And someone has to keep an eye on him.”
Crack snorted, possibly at the idea that Reynard needed guarding.
“And more importantly,” Nicholas added, allowing a hint of steel into his voice, “because I said so.”
Crack had a tidy mind and tended to dislike it when others questioned Nicholas’s orders. The implication that he was guilty of this himself seemed to subdue him. One of the bushes trembled and there was some low muttering, but no further outright objections.
Hooves clopped on the pavement, echoing down the passage. Nicholas moved closer to the edge of the arch and braced himself.
Two pairs of harnessed chestnut horses, then the side of Octave’s dark coach whipped past. The window shade was down. The coach had slowed to navigate the passage but it was still travelling at a good clip; knowing he couldn’t afford to miss, Nicholas took a step forward as it passed and then leapt.
He caught the rail the grooms used to hold on and in another instant his feet found the small platform. Clinging to the handhold, he looked back up at the salon window. No astonished figures were outlined there. He had made his leap unnoticed.
A whip snapped and the coach accelerated as it passed under the arch and reached the road. Gabrill House receded rapidly behind.
END CHAPTER FOUR
Continued in Chapter Five.
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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