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 Fourteen. Read Chapter Thirteen here.
It was full dark by the time they reached the warehouse but Nicholas only meant to stop there temporarily. The small offices there were fairly comfortless, and he wanted to avoid Coldcourt and every other place that Octave might have some knowledge of. So after greetings and exclamations of relief from Cusard and Lamane, he bundled everyone into Cusard’s wagon and directed him to a safehouse they had had some occasion to use in the past, an apartment on the third floor of a small limestone-faced tenement near the Boulevard Panzan. There was no concierge to ask awkward questions and few other tenants.
The wagon pulled into the carriage alley between the buildings and Nicholas climbed down to unlock the side door. The small lobby was dusty and undisturbed, but he sent Crack up to make sure the stairs were clear anyway.
Madeline swung down from the wagonboard and climbed the stoop to stand next to him. Her hair was in wild disarray and she looked exhausted. She said, “Ronsarde doesn’t look well. We’re lucky Halle is here.”
“I suppose.” Leaning against the ornamental iron railing around the stoop, Nicholas rubbed the bridge of his nose. His head still pounded from the explosion, and standing still for a moment had made him realize how very badly he needed a bath and a change of clothing. And to fall down on a bed for a week.
To fall down on a bed for a week with Madeline would have been even better. “This day is not going quite as I had originally planned.”
“Quite.” Madeline’s expression was wry.
“Thank you for saving our lives.”
Her mouth twisted. “You’re welcome, I suppose.”
Before Nicholas could question that comment, Crack appeared in the darkened hall and gestured for them to come up.
Nicholas went first to unlock the door and briefly check the apartment. It was a modest town residence with a salon and parlor, dining room, bedchamber and dressing room, maid’s room and kitchen. The air was stale and dusty and the windows were covered with thick draperies and shades, the furniture concealed under dust covers. He went through the small kitchen to check the back door, which gave on to an outer wooden stair that led down into a narrow alley next to the building’s court; that and the small trapdoor in the pantry that allowed access to the roof were the chief reasons he had originally selected the place. After reassuring himself that all the outer doors and windows were securely locked and showed no signs of tampering, he returned to the front door and called softly for the others to come up.
He stepped back as Reynard and Doctor Halle helped Inspector Ronsarde inside. “Take him to the salon,” Nicholas said, opening one of the doors off the small bare foyer. “There’s a couch and the lamps are better.”
Nicholas went down the hall and back to the kitchen, to lean against the cold stone counter and try to get his thoughts in order. He heard Crack rummaging in the pantry for the coal store, Madeline’s voice giving instructions, the others tramping about.
Finally Madeline came in, eyed him a moment, then leaned against the china closet. “Well?”
Nicholas took in her appearance thoughtfully. “You look like a charwoman. I don’t suppose there are any roles at the Elegante next season which require that?”
“Thank you,” Madeline said, inclining her head graciously. “I shall certainly keep it in mind.” Her expression turned serious. “I gave my word to Halle, you know.”
“Is that what this is about?” Nicholas couldn’t quite manage to laugh. “They are the least of our worries.”
Madeline hesitated. “This sorcerer….”
“Is determined to kill all of us, true, but that’s not what I was thinking of. Donatien is dead, Madeline. It’s over.”
At the mention of the name, Madeline glanced reflexively at the closed door. “But they don’t know –”
“I suspect Ronsarde does know. Whether he will act on that knowledge or not, I have no idea. After we saved his life, I think not. And he still needs our help.”
She was silent a moment. “So it’s over.”
She looked away, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Is that such a bad thing?”
Nicholas’s jaw hardened. “It also means the plan for Montesq is over.”
Madeline stared at him, startled. “I’d forgotten it. With everything… I can’t believe I forgot about it.” She shook her head, disturbed. “But we can’t just let that go. Perhaps –”
It was Nicholas’s turn to look away. That it all still meant something to Madeline was a relief but he wouldn’t show it. “We can’t continue with the plan. Ronsarde would know and that would destroy the whole point of it.”
Madeline paced the cold tile floor, coming up with several objections which she started to voice and then reconsidered. Finally she stopped, hands on hips, and said, “So that’s it. We’re letting Montesq get away with it?”
Not necessarily, Nicholas thought. He would have to kill Montesq himself. It lacked the elegance of allowing the state to execute the Count for a crime he hadn’t committed, but it would be accomplishing the same end, even if Nicholas himself didn’t survive it. He said, “For all practical purposes.”
Madeline did him the courtesy of looking worried instead of skeptical. She said, “Donatien would kill Ronsarde.”
Nicholas pushed away from the counter. “You’re the one who gets lost in your roles, my dear. Besides, Donatien isn’t in charge anymore, I am.”
“That’s supposed to reassure me?”
Nicholas had no answer for that so he pretended not to hear her and went down the hall to stand in the open doorway of the salon. The lamps had been lit and Crack had gotten a fire started in the hearth, dissipating the cold dampness and making the room almost livable.
The dust covers had been pulled away from the broad divan and Doctor Halle was trying to tend to Ronsarde, who was fending him off with acerbic comments about physicians who thought their services indispensable; Halle deflected the sarcasm with the air of long practice and continued treating the Inspector’s injuries. Reynard leaned against the mantel, watching them. Nicholas waited until Halle had finished and was repacking the contents of his medical bag, then caught Reynard’s eye. “I’d like a word alone with the Inspector, please.”
“Of course,” Reynard said easily, gesturing for Doctor Halle to proceed him out. Halle went but his face was guarded; Reynard was worried too, though only someone who knew him well would have been able to discern it. Nicholas smiled bleakly to himself. So Reynard was uneasy about what attitude Nicholas would take to their new allies as well.
The only person who didn’t appear uneasy was Ronsarde himself, who smiled expectantly at him as Nicholas closed the door behind Reynard and Halle.
Ronsarde was still pale and had a swollen eye and a darkening bruise on his jaw, but with the wound in his forehead stitched and the dried blood cleaned away, he looked considerably better. He said, “You were saying?”
Nicholas hesitated, but couldn’t for the life of him think what Ronsarde meant. “Excuse me?”
“About the sorcerer who is so intimately involved in this affair. We are still pooling our resources?”
Ronsarde was continuing the conversation begun when they had first taken refuge in the prison, as if all the intervening struggles hadn’t taken place, or had meant nothing. Well, perhaps they hadn’t. Nicholas said, “I was saying that it is very possible he believes himself to be Constant Macob. But you already knew that.”
Ronsarde shook his head. “Young man –”
Nicholas fought a flash of annoyance and lost. “You know my name, sir, don’t pretend otherwise.” This was no time for masquerades.
“Valiarde, then.” But the Inspector said nothing for a moment, only watched Nicholas thoughtfully. “I had heard you meant to become a physician,” he said finally.
“Events conspired against me.” Nicholas moved to the window and lifted the musty damask curtain just enough to give him a view of the street. “I recognized you that night at Gabrill House, though I don’t think you recognized me.”
“No, I did not,” Ronsarde admitted. “I thought your voice familiar, but it had been too long since we last spoke.”
“Since the trial, you mean.” Ten years, eight months, fourteen days. Nicholas performed the calculation automatically. “You must have recognized the sphere.”
“Yes, that I knew only too well. I would have come to you eventually, if you had not come to me, so to speak.” Ronsarde hesitated, then said, “Count Rive Montesq has had such a run of poor luck since that time, hasn’t he?”
Nicholas dropped the curtain and turned slowly to face the older man, leaning back to sit on the windowsill and folding his arms. Ronsarde’s expression was merely curious, that was all. Nicholas smiled and said, “Has he really?”
“Oh, yes. He has had several large losses of funds and property in the last few years. Not enough to bankrupt him, of course, but enough to seriously inconvenience. And then there have been the losses among his staff. One of his chief financiers, a solicitor, and two personal servants, all vanished without a trace.”
“How terrible,” Nicholas commented. He was glad at least that Ronsarde didn’t know everything; Montesq had suffered more losses than that. “But then perhaps it’s simply a visitation by Fate.”
“Perhaps.” Ronsarde shrugged, then winced as if the motion pained him. “If I didn’t know that the solicitor was a blackmailer of the worse stripe, who had ruined a number of individuals and provoked the suicide of at least one victim, that the financier was his ally in that enterprise, and that the two servants had second careers as thugs and extortionists, I might have been moved to do something about it. But somehow I never quite found the time.”
And am I expected to thank you for that? Nicholas thought. He looked away. This cat and mouse game was not particularly to his liking, even though they both seemed to be taking the role of the cat. “Why were you watching Doctor Octave that night?”
Ronsarde accepted the change in subject gracefully. “Several weeks ago a lady came to me for my assistance in a matter concerning Doctor Octave. Her mother was paying him to hold circles for her and produce various deceased relatives on command. As you might expect, the family was quite wealthy. I began to investigate the good doctor, but could prove nothing definite. He was very careful.” Ronsarde stared into the middle distance, a rueful anger in his expression. “I realize now he was warned against me by this sorcerer whose necromantic activities he evidently supports. Sorcery gives the criminal an unfair advantage.”
“There are ways to even the balance,” Nicholas said, his voice dry.
Ronsarde’s quick smile flickered and the good humor returned to his eyes. “I imagine you are quite familiar with them. But to continue, I managed to help the lady convince her mother to leave the dead in peace, but I still pursued Octave. I discovered that Lady Everset would be hosting a circle and that in all probability it would be held in her garden. This was the first opportunity I had had to observe a circle at close range, when Octave had no knowledge that I would be present.”
“That’s why I was there, too,” Nicholas said, without thinking, and then grimaced and reminded himself not to say too much. All these years of caution and concealment and here he was talking to Ronsarde as if he were as close a colleague as Madeline or Reynard. Being hunted by mad sorcerers and ghouls had obviously unhinged him. “You didn’t realize he was connected with the disappearances.”
It was Ronsarde’s turn to look uncomfortable. He tugged the blanket more closely around him with a short angry jerk. “No, I did not,” he said. “Halle had examined the three bodies that had been recovered at various times from the river and he drew my attention to the lichen. It is a variety that flourishes in the presence of magic. That, and the style of the injuries made before death caused me to believe someone was imprisoning these individuals and killing them in the course of necromantic magics. I noted the similarities to the murders of Constant Macob, committed two centuries ago.”
Nicholas frowned in annoyance. He hadn’t noted it, not until the scene in the cellar of Valent House, when it had become obvious. The Executions of Rogere, the book Doctor Uberque had lent him, had been even more illuminating. One of the methods Macob had used to lure his victims was to poison them with an herbal mixture that caused symptoms anywhere from mild confusion all the way to unreasoning terror. How he had gotten his victims to ingest it was a mystery to the writer of the account, though Nicholas wondered if the stuff might be so potent it could be absorbed through the skin. It explained the confusion and odd behavior of Jeal Meule, as described by the penny sheet The Review of the Day, and why her neighbors had been unable to convince her to go home before her second disappearance. She must have escaped her captor at some point but the poison had clouded her mind and kept her helpless, until he had been able to collect her again. Nicholas asked Ronsarde, “Why did it suggest Macob so readily?”
“Macob’s crimes and his trial were well documented for the time and give much vital information regarding the mind of a man bent on mutilation and mass murder. I’d read the history of it before, but I found it especially useful three years ago in the case of the Viscount of March-Bannot, who was –”
“Cutting people’s heads off and throwing them in the river. Yes, I vaguely recall it.”
“Octave and his associates made the mistake of disposing of one body under the bridge at Alter Point and not into the river itself. The presence of the lichen marked it as part of the same case and not one of the many other unfortunates who are found dead every day in Vienne. Mud adhering to the pants legs indicated the edge of Riverside where it bordered on the Gabardin.”
“Yes, I found Valent House as well.”
“Before I did.” Ronsarde smiled faintly. “Octave was frequently seen near the place, by a person who is at times my informant, who recognized the good doctor after he had been described to him.” His expression turned pensive. “After the circle at Gabrill House I knew someone else had Octave under observation. When I discovered Valent House two days ago it also became apparent that someone else had discovered it first. The signs that my quarry had left in haste and that his lair had been thoroughly searched were unmistakable. I wasn’t certain if I had a second opponent, but I knew that Octave did.”
Nicholas didn’t comment. It had been so very close. Ronsarde had been one step behind him, at the most. He said, “Surely you weren’t arrested for breaking into Valent House.”
“Oh, no,” Ronsarde said, gesturing dismissively. “I was arrested for breaking into Mondollot House.”
Yes, exactly. Nicholas kept his elation in check; there were still too many questions unanswered. “You wanted to look at a small sealed room in one of the subcellars. If you got that far, you found it empty, but there were signs it had not been unoccupied for long.”
“Yes.” Ronsarde watched him as intently, as if Nicholas were a suspect he was questioning. “In actuality the chamber belongs to Ventarin House, destroyed years ago when Ducal Court Street was cut through. I realized Octave had an interest in the Ventarins during the first circle I watched. The family whose deceased relatives he was currently interfering with had been a distant connection of the Ventarins, virtually the only people left in the city of any relation to them whatsoever. Octave questioned their dead on the old Ventarin Great House’s location and its cellars. I believed at the time that he was only after hidden family plate or other trinkets. It wasn’t until I made the connection with Macob that the facts took on a more sinister tone.”
“Yes, two centuries ago Gabard Ventarin was King Rogere’s Court Sorcerer and presided at Constant Macob’s execution,” Nicholas said. “Do you know what was there, in the large box that was removed from the chamber?”
“I have no idea,” Ronsarde admitted. He shook his head after a moment. “We could draw the conclusion that this sorcerer, who seems to believe himself a reincarnation of the Necromancer Macob, had some reason to believe there were relics of his idol stored in the chamber and wished to retrieve them.”
“We could draw that conclusion,” Nicholas said reluctantly, “but we might also wonder why relics of a famous criminal were buried deep inside a sealed room beneath a powerful sorcerer’s home, and not on display somewhere.”
“It isn’t encouraging,” Ronsarde agreed. “Whatever it was, Ventarin seems to have felt that it needed to be concealed and guarded. And we must assume our sorcerer opponent has had it since….”
“Four days ago,” Nicholas supplied.
Ronsarde gazed curiously at him. “How did you discover the chamber?”
“It was how I and my associates became embroiled in all this,” Nicholas said, evasively. “Through an entirely coincidental…occurrence.” He was not going to tell Ronsarde he and Octave had both decided to rob Mondollot House on the same night. “Octave believed I had been to the room before him and removed something. Oddly enough, I hadn’t. The room was empty when I entered it. Octave wanted to question the late Duke of Mondollot, I assume to ascertain if he discovered the room before his death and removed some part of the contents, but the Duchess refused to cooperate with him.” Nicholas hesitated. “Why did you break into Mondollot House? Wouldn’t the Duchess have given you access if you had asked?” After she hid anything linking her to Bisran trading concerns, of course.
“Possibly. After discovering Valent House I realized how very dangerous my opponents were and also, how very influential their friends.” Ronsarde’s expression was grimly amused. “It was intimated to me by my superiors, and I use the term lightly, that I just de-emphasize my investigation. To avoid panic, you see.”
“Ah,” Nicholas breathed. De-emphasize an investigation of multiple abductions and murders, to avoid panic. Yes, that sounds like the Vienne Prefecture. “Which brings us to Count Rive Montesq.”
“Yes, he has been shown to have a pernicious influence on Lord Albier, who is currently acting head of the Prefecture.” Ronsarde’s gaze sharpened. “I am not surprised you knew that.”
Careful, Nicholas reminded himself. Very, very careful. “My interest in Montesq is entirely academic,” he said lightly.
“Of course. But all this aside, we must find this sorcerer, and to find him, we must question Octave.” Ronsarde let out his breath in annoyance. “Unfortunately, when I was arrested, I lost track of his whereabouts.”
Nicholas smiled. “Fortunately, I haven’t.”
Nicholas pushed open the kitchen door to find the others all gathered there, most of them standing and staring at the floor as if they were attending a particularly dreary wake. “Are you all just standing about in here?” he demanded. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Everything all right?” Reynard asked, with an uncharacteristic air of caution.
“Of course.” Nicholas ran a hand through his hair impatiently. “Madeline, we need to consult you on makeup and clothing for disguises, and Crack, you’ll need to fetch Devis, and Reynard –”
“We?” Halle interrupted, his expression cautious.
“Yes, we. What are you all staring at?” Before anyone could formulate an answer, Ronsarde pushed open the door behind Nicholas. He was leaning heavily on the wall, an expression of grim determination on his features. “I see no reason why I cannot accompany you,” the Inspector said, almost peevishly.
“Disguised as what?” Nicholas asked him. “A cripple selling matches?”
“That would be ideal.”
“Until you have to run away!”
“I could sit in the coach,” Ronsarde persisted.
“What would be the point of that?” Nicholas asked, exasperated. It was like dealing with a less sensible version of Madeline.
“He’s right,” Halle said, coming forward to take Ronsarde’s arm and urge him back down the hall toward the salon. “You need rest if you’re to be of any help. You can’t go running about the city….”
Their voices continued, raised in argument, and Nicholas rubbed his hands together, his mind already on the task ahead. “I need to make a list. We’re going to need Cusard for this, too.” As he left the kitchen he heard Reynard’s ironic comment, “Oh, good, now there’s two of them.”
After setting some of the wheels in motion and sending Crack for Cusard, Nicholas found the others gathered in the salon, looking at the sphere which was set atop a pillow on a small table. It looked like nothing more than an odd sort of curio or ornament. Nicholas leaned in the doorway and folded his arms.
“How does it work?” Halle asked, touching the metal with cautious curiosity.
Madeline looked over at Nicholas, who shifted a little uncomfortably, and said, “We don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Ronsarde echoed.
“Edouard left no instructions,” Nicholas explained reluctantly. “None of the intact spheres ever reacted to anything at all, until this one transformed one of the gargoyles back into stone when it attacked Madeline. It was pure chance she had it with her at all. There are two others, but one appears to be dead and the other didn’t react to the gargoyles.”
“You did nothing to cause this one to act?” Ronsarde asked, with a hard stare at Madeline. “You felt nothing?”
“I did nothing,” Madeline replied, faintly exasperated. “I felt quite a number of things — fear, anger, the desire to shriek with hysteria. I’ve felt those emotions before and never had magic spontaneously erupt.” She shook her head impatiently. “I have a small talent for witchery which I’ve never tried seriously to cultivate, but I’ve helped my grandmother with spells and I know what working one feels like. That thing acted all on its own account.”
“Madeline’s grandmother is a witch of some repute,” Nicholas said, smiling slightly at the understatement. “She’s agreed to attempt to help us with our difficulties and will be arriving soon from Lodun.” We hope, he added to himself.
“Is there no sorcerer currently in town whose opinion we could seek?” Ronsarde persisted. He added wryly, “There are some attached to the Prefecture but I can no longer command their assistance. In fact, they would be more likely to turn me in to the nearest constable at once.”
Halle grunted agreement and Nicholas speculated that Ronsarde had made his opinions on sorcery known in no uncertain terms to the practitioners who worked for the Prefecture. “There is a sorcerer whose advice I would like to have. He was the one who helped Edouard construct this sphere,” Nicholas admitted. “But he’s badly ill, in a sort of paralysis.”
“Arisilde Damal?” Ronsarde asked, brows lifting.
Nicholas nodded warily. He had forgotten how much Ronsarde had learned about Edouard’s work during the Crown investigation and the trial.
“It was the opinion of many that he had left the country,” Ronsarde said thoughtfully. “I was asked several times by persons at Lodun to locate him, but was always unsuccessful.”
“That isn’t surprising. If Arisilde didn’t want to be found, it would be impossible to locate him even if you were standing in the same room.”
“An unfortunate tendency of sorcerers,” Ronsarde agreed. “He is ill?”
“Yes.” Nicholas hesitated. “We thought at first it might have been caused by our opponent — it occurred at a rather inopportune moment.”
Reynard snorted at the choice of words.
“But it’s more likely the result of poor health and an opium addiction,” Nicholas finished.
Halle cleared his throat. “Has he been attended? I could examine him….”
Nicholas shook his head. “He’s being seen by a Doctor Brile, who has already brought in other physicians to consult with. I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do.”
There was a moment of silence, then Halle said quietly, “I know Doctor Brile. He’s a very accomplished physician and your friend is in good hands.”
Nicholas realized he had everyone’s attention and that he must have betrayed more than he meant to. He said, “But the point is there is no other sorcerer I will risk taking the sphere to.” He looked down at the apparently innocuous device. “It’s too unpredictable.”
Fontainon House itself was unbreachable, at least without Arisilde’s help, and there was simply no possibility of any of their group receiving last-minute invitations. Taking Octave at his hotel would have been the best solution, but they had little time to make arrangements and after a brief scouting mission Madeline reported that the prospects were not ideal. Octave seemed to realize his danger. He spent all his time either locked in his room or in one of the lounges surrounded by dozens of people.
The next best opportunity would have been late at night after the circle, when Octave was relaxed with his success and the other participants would be on the way home and the worse for the large quantities of wine and brandy consumed before and after the festivities. But for some reason he was not quite willing to articulate, even to himself, Nicholas felt it better not to allow Octave to perform the circle at all.
Madeline had questioned this in her usual fashion, during the long afternoon when Nicholas had been trying to work out details and make contact with the more far-flung elements of his organization. “Why should you care what happens to the woman, just because she’s a relative of the Queen? I thought you said once that Ile-Rien could go hang.”
“It can still go hang for all I care,” Nicholas had replied with some acerbity. “It might be just another one of Octave’s confidence schemes, but if it isn’t, I don’t want to give this fool who thinks he’s Macob another victory.”
Madeline had sighed and given up her game of trying to make him admit fond feelings for his home country. “If he was a fool, we wouldn’t be in this mess, would we?”
“No,” Nicholas had admitted. “No, we wouldn’t.”
At the first opportunity he and Madeline had put together disguises out of the things she had purchased for tonight and, with Crack along for protection, gone to Arisilde’s garret in the Philosopher’s Cross. Nicholas had taken the sphere with him, out of a hope he didn’t dare voice to anyone else. But he knew it was a foolish hope when Madeline sat on the edge of Arisilde’s bed with it and the sphere did nothing but hum and tremble, the way it did in the presence of any magic.
“It’s no good,” Madeline had said, when he followed her to the door. “It must be a natural illness, as the doctor thought, and not a spell.”
“It was worth a try,” Nicholas said. “You and Crack go on and take the sphere back. I’ll be along shortly.”
She had hesitated, but in the end she had gone without questions.
Nicholas went back to the bedchamber and took a chair near Isham, who was patiently guarding his friend. Arisilde looked the same as he had that first night, his face drawn and pinched, his skin pale as wax. “We’ve got some help for you. She should be arriving tomorrow,” Nicholas told Isham, and explained about Madele.
“She will be much welcomed,” Isham said. He was seated in a straight-backed chair at Arisilde’s bedside and looked worn and tired. “The physicians say they can do nothing.” Isham watched the sorcerer’s still face for a time, then said, “I used to try to stop him, sometimes. I talked and talked, which did no good, and then I tried to hide his poisons, which was foolish. If I destroyed them he simply got more.”
“Hiding things from Arisilde is rather problematic,” Nicholas agreed. Isham was skirting the edge of something that had occupied his own thoughts. “I should have tried harder myself. He might have listened to me.” Admitting even that much was an effort. Nicholas had never liked to give in or acknowledge defeat. Maybe if he hadn’t been so afraid of failure he would have tried harder.
Isham shook his head. “We can only work with what we have.”
On impulse Nicholas asked, “What did you make of the sphere?”
“I’ve never seen its like before.” Isham had examined the device tentatively before Madeline had taken it away, but made no comment on it. “It’s something Arisilde has made?”
“He helped make it. It’s capable of working magic; Madeline used it once or twice but she isn’t sure how. It seems to work if and when it likes.”
“Rather like Arisilde,” Isham observed.
“Rather like,” Nicholas agreed, smiling.
Later, back at the apartment, they had held another council of war. They agreed that the only time to take Octave would be when he was on the way to Fontainon House. This was complicated by Reynard’s discovery that the royal cousin meant to send her own coach for the spiritualist.
“You realize of course that we’re all going to be executed as anarchists,” Reynard had pointed out.
“It may be a royal coach, but there’s not going to be anyone royal in it, and it won’t be guarded as if there were.”
“So we’ll only appear to be anarchists to the untrained eye.”
Nicholas rubbed his forehead. “Reynard….”
“If we succeed in capturing Octave, then what?” This was from Doctor Halle.
“Then we ask him where his sorcerer is.” Nicholas leaned back against the escritoire and folded his arms, anticipating the next objection.
“And if he doesn’t want to tell us?” Halle said.
Nicholas smiled. “Then we explain to him that it would be better if he did.”
“I won’t participate in that,” Halle said flatly. “And I won’t condone it.”
“You saw Valent House,” Nicholas said. “We know Octave condoned that. For all we know he participated.”
“And I won’t lower myself to that level.”
You can’t talk to these people, Nicholas thought. “I doubt we’ll have to go quite as low as that,” he said, lifting a brow. “Octave doesn’t seem the stoic type to me.”
Later, Nicholas had been walking down the passage outside the salon, when he heard Doctor Halle’s voice from within and the words made him pause. “Are you certain you know what you’re doing?”
Ronsarde’s voice, preoccupied, replied, “You will have to be more specific, old man.”
“I’m talking about Valiarde.” Halle sounded impatient.
Ronsarde chuckled. “He’s an ally, Cyran, and a good one. You and I are getting somewhat old for all this –”
“That’s beside the point.” Halle took a deep breath, then said quietly, “Have you looked into that young man’s eyes?”
There was a moment’s silence. Then in a far more serious tone, Ronsarde said, “Yes, I have. And I’m greatly afraid that I’m one of the men who helped place that cold opacity there. He wasn’t like that before his foster father died.”
“So you will, at least, be cautious.”
“I’m always cautious.”
“Now that’s a damned lie. You would like to think yourself cautious but I can assure you –”
The conversation devolved into commonplaces and after a moment, Nicholas walked on. None of it meant anything, of course. Neither one of them knew him at all. But it took an effort of will to avoid the mirror at the end of the passage.
The mist was thick, pooling heavily around the nearest street lamp like the creature of the fay called the boneless, which had once haunted the less well-travelled country roads. Arisilde and some of the sorcerers who had spoken of their craft at Lodun favored the presence of mist for the working of illusions; Nicholas couldn’t help but wonder if it aided the working of more dangerous magics as well.
He paced along the stone walk at the edge of the muddy street, rubbing his arms for warmth. The neighborhood was blessedly quiet. Directly behind Nicholas was a block of upper-class apartments with a row of arabesqued lintels under the second floor windows and an ornamental ironwork fence along the street level. The main entrance was on the cross street, and the inhabitants would mostly be out dining or at the theater at this time. Across from it was the massive, forbiddingly dark façade of an older Great House, closed for the season except for caretakers. On the upper corner was the side entrance of a quiet and highly respectable hotel.
There was little traffic except for the occasional passerby and the cabriolet parked near the walk. It was an older vehicle, purchased this afternoon for the purpose, and Devis was on the box, making occasional clucking noises at the two rented horses. Nicholas was dressed as a cabman too, in a slightly shabby greatcoat and fingerless gloves, and a round cap tipped back on his head. Together they must have made a convincing impression, since several people had tried to hire them, only to be told they had already been engaged for someone inside the apartments.
For all the apparent quiet of the neighborhood, Fontainon House was only a few hundred yards down the street. Nicholas could see the gas lamps illuminating its carriage entrance, and sometimes hear the voices of an arriving party. Everyone had had something to say about his choice of site for the ambush, but there had been no other place on the possible routes between here and Octave’s hotel that was fairly quiet and that Nicholas was sure the coach would have to pass.
They would just have to be quick and not only for fear of the constables and the detachment of the Royal Guard attached to Fontainon House. They were only safe from the sorcerer while he believed Nicholas and Ronsarde to be dead. After this, he’s going to know we’re definitely not dead, Nicholas thought grimly. Out of our minds and flailing about like idiots maybe, but not dead.
One of the horses lifted her head and snorted and an instant later Nicholas heard the clop of hooves from an approaching vehicle. He and Devis exchanged a look and Devis straightened up and adjusted his reins nervously.
Nicholas stepped into the street to meet the cabriolet as it materialized out of the mist. It was his own vehicle, the one Devis usually drove, with Crack and Reynard on the box. Nicholas caught the bridle of one of the horses, stroking the anxious animal’s neck as it recognized him and began to aggressively snuffle at his pockets for treats. “They’re not far behind us,” Reynard said in a low voice as he leaned down. “Two coachmen, one groom on the back, no outriders. And the coach doesn’t have the royal seal, only the Fontainon family crest.”
“So we’re not technically anarchists yet,” Nicholas said, in mock innocence.
“Not technically,” Reynard agreed, smiling sourly. “But we have hopes.”
Crack allowed himself a mild grimace at the levity. Then Nicholas stepped back. A couple had emerged from the side entrance of the hotel on the corner and were strolling down the street in their direction. It was Madeline and Doctor Halle, and their appearance meant they had just seen the Fontainon coach turn onto the cross street that was visible from the windows of the hotel’s cafe. Nicholas said, “Get ready.”
Reynard swung down from the box, pretending to be doing something with the harness, and Nicholas moved with apparent idleness to the front of Devis’s cab so he could give him the signal.
In another moment Nicholas heard a larger, heavier vehicle than a cabriolet, then he saw its shape approach out of the mist. The coach drew nearer and he could see the liveried driver and footman on the box. Nicholas turned away, leaning casually against the side of the cab, and fished in his pocket for the round firework packet that was standing in for an anarchist’s bomb. He struck a match and lit the fuse, then as the noise of the approaching coach grew louder, turned and tossed it into the center of the street.
It went off with a loud pop that echoed back from the buildings around them. Smoke poured out of it as the horses screamed and reared and the Fontainon coach jolted to a halt. “A bomb!” Nicholas yelled, and ran across the street.
Devis allowed his frantic team to rear and then turned them, letting them sling the cab half across the street in front of the coach and block its escape. Halted near the smoke, the frightened horses continued to rear and buck, looking as if they meant to tear the cab apart and further terrifying the coach’s team. Reynard had leapt down off the cabriolet and was now running around, yelling like a panic-stricken maniac. On the far promenade, Madeline shrieked and fainted convincingly into Doctor Halle’s arms. Crack stood up on the box, nearly tumbled off as his team tried to join the confused horses in the center of the street, then pointed down the alley next to the apartment block and shouted, “I saw him! He threw the bomb and went that way!”
When they had discussed the plan earlier today, Inspector Ronsarde had been especially fond of that touch.
Nicholas dodged through the growing wall of smoke and almost ran directly into the footman who had been riding on the back of the coach. The man’s forehead was bleeding, as if he had fallen when the vehicle had jolted to a halt. Nicholas grabbed him and yelled frantically, “It was a bomb, go get help!” and sent him staggering away.
Nicholas reached the coach just as the door swung open and Octave fell out. Nicholas grabbed him by the front of his coat and threw him back against the vehicle. “Surprised?” he asked.
“What do you want?” Octave stammered. A flare from the sputtering firework showed Nicholas the other man’s face: he was sickly pale in the white light, his staring eyes red-rimmed and his flesh sagging. Nicholas was bitterly glad the last few days had obviously not been kind to Doctor Octave, either.
“You know what I want — your sorcerer. Where is he?” They needed to get Octave into Devis’s cab and away, but Nicholas could hear Reynard arguing with someone on the other side of the coach, saying something about an entire crew of anarchists running off down the alley. He considered trying to drag Octave to the cab alone, but if the spiritualist resisted at all and was seen, their plan would fall apart.
“I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you if you’ll protect me — You don’t know what he is –”
Nicholas shook him. “Where is he? Tell me, Doctor, it’s your only chance.”
“The palace…the palace on the river. He’s been there –” Octave’s voice rose to a sudden shriek. “There!”
Nicholas had only an instant to realize it wasn’t a trick. Something gripped his shoulder and he was flung to the ground. He rolled over on the muddy stone, the breath knocked out of him, and saw a figure standing over Doctor Octave.
In the poor light and the haze from the firework, he first thought it was a man. He could see the skirts of a greatcoat, a shape that might be a hat, but then he realized how it was towering over Octave, shaking him as if he was a child, and he knew that it wasn’t human.
Nicholas fumbled for the revolver in his coat pocket. He had brought it reluctantly, not liking the thought of one of the coach drivers or footmen accidentally shot, but not meaning this night’s work to fail, either. He drew the gun, aimed at the creature’s head and fired.
It turned toward him, still keeping a grip on the struggling Octave’s coat, and snarled. Nicholas scrambled backward, took aim and fired again, though he knew the first shot hadn’t missed. The Unseelie Court would be easier to fight, he thought in exasperation. At least the fay were highly susceptible to gunfire; the creatures of human sorcery and necromancy obviously were not.
It dropped Octave and started toward Nicholas, moving slowly, its steps deliberate. Nicholas struggled to his feet and backed away. The concealing smoke still swirled around them and the coach blocked the yellow light of the street lamp; he wanted to see what this thing was. Octave lay like a lump on the street, moving only feebly, and Nicholas cursed under his breath. Sacrificing himself so that Doctor Octave could escape a probably righteous and well-deserved fate hadn’t been in his plans either, but he couldn’t let the man be killed until he knew where the sorcerer was hiding.
The tall figure stalked him, stepping out of the shadow of the coach. Its face was that of an old man, with craggy, uneven features, but as the light shifted it became a death’s head, the skin stretched over it to parchment thinness. Nicholas kept moving back, luring it further from Octave, who had managed to struggle to his knees and was trying to crawl away.
Octave must have made some noise, or perhaps it read something in Nicholas’s expression, because it turned suddenly and bounded back toward the injured spiritualist. “No, dammit, no,” Nicholas shouted, starting forward.
It reached Octave in one leap and swung at him with an almost careless backhanded blow. Nicholas saw Octave fall back to the street, spasm once, then go limp. He stopped, cursing, then realized the thing was turning toward him again.
Nicholas moved away, raising the pistol, though it hadn’t done him much good before. He saw Reynard come around the coach and waved him back. Reynard halted, surprised, then got a glimpse of the creature as it moved into the light again. He stepped back, reaching into his coat for his own revolver.
There was a shout and a loud clatter from up the street. Nicholas couldn’t risk a quick glance behind him but whatever was coming, the creature saw it and halted with a thwarted growl. Then it stepped back into the shadows.
Nicholas blinked, resisting the impulse to rub his eyes. The shape of the creature grew darker, harder to see, fading into the pool of shadow on the street until it was gone.
Nicholas stared at the darkness where it had been, then looked for what had alarmed the thing.
A horse troop was coming toward them from down the street, at least twenty men. Nicholas swore under his breath. A mounted troop meant only one thing: Royal Guards.
He whistled a signal that meant “cut and run” and the frantic activity around the coach grew more frantic as the cabriolet suddenly drove off. Nicholas stayed where he was. He was in the middle of the street, in the full light of the gas lamp. If he ran, the horsemen would chase him. The others were almost invisible in the shadows and the troop wouldn’t be able to clear the wreckage of the coach quickly enough to chase Crack’s vehicle.
Nicholas clicked on the revolver’s safety, then dropped it into the street. As he turned back toward the coach, he casually kicked it into the gutter.
The smoke eddied in the still damp air as the firework sparked one last time and went out. Devis had vanished from the rented cab, leaving it and the confused horses to block the street. Madeline and Doctor Halle were nowhere to be seen, having had orders to retreat back to the hotel on the corner as soon as the confusion was well underway. He couldn’t see Reynard either and hoped he had had time to swing aboard the cabriolet before it left. One of the Fontainon footmen was sitting on the curb, still stunned from falling from the box. The coachman had managed to calm his horses finally and now staggered around the side, stopping when he saw Octave.
He bent over the spiritualist anxiously, gripping his shoulder. Nicholas stopped beside him and saw the man needn’t have bothered; Octave’s head was twisted at an unnatural angle, the neck cleanly broken. He resisted an urge to kick the unresponsive body. “He’s dead,” the coachman said, suddenly realizing it. He looked up at Nicholas, confused. He had a shallow cut in his forehead that was bleeding into tangled gray hair. “Did you see what happened?”
Nicholas shook his head in bewilderment and in his best Riverside accent replied, “They said there was a bomb, but all I saw was that sparkler. Are you sure he’s dead?” He sat on his heels beside Octave’s body, flipping his coat open as if looking for a wound and unobtrusively searching the pockets. He was beginning to understand Octave’s behavior. He had been afraid of being cornered by Nicholas, afraid of being caught by the Prefecture, but he had become even more terrified of his sorcerous ally.
“He looks dead,” the coachman muttered, looking away and clutching his head. “I would’ve sworn it was a bomb.”
Octave didn’t have the sphere on him. Damned fool, Nicholas thought. How was he going to perform a circle without it? Unless this was the last circle and Octave had stayed for it only because he needed the money to flee. Lady Bianci wasn’t a member of the demi monde, she was true aristocracy, and would have paid the spiritualist for trying even if he hadn’t been able to produce any messages from the dead.
Then the horsetroop surrounded them. Nicholas stood and stepped back against the coach to avoid being run down. From their badges and braid they were Royal Guard, probably dispatched from the nearby Prince’s Gate to help defend Fontainon House. The lieutenant reined in just in time to keep from trampling the injured coachman and demanded, “What happened here?”
“We were attacked and this gentleman killed! What does it look like?” the coachman shouted, standing up suddenly. Before the lieutenant could reply, the older man swayed, clutching his head, and started to collapse. Nicholas stepped forward hastily to catch him and ease him to the ground; he couldn’t have arranged a better distraction himself.
There was more shouting and confusion, the two footmen were located, and the major-domo of Fontainon House and the corporal in charge of that Guard detachment appeared to add to the conflict. The coachman was revived enough to give his version of events, which disagreed with the footmen’s version, to which Nicholas helpfully added conflicting detail, glad that the blustering Guard lieutenant hadn’t the sense to split them up and question them separately. This resulted in the conclusion that there had been six anarchists, who had thrown a firework instead of a real bomb, and had probably meant to cause a Public Incident of some sort. Nicholas wasn’t sure how they were defining Public Incident but reluctantly decided it was better not to call attention to himself by asking.
“But how was this man killed?” the lieutenant demanded, staring worriedly down at Octave. They had sent one of the Guards to bring Lady Bianci’s personal physician from Fontainon House, but everyone knew it for an empty gesture. “His neck looks broken. Did he fall from the coach?”
Nicholas shifted uneasily and scratched his head in bewilderment along with everyone else. Then the Fontainon major-domo suggested, “The coach door is open. Perhaps he tried to step out and when the horses reared he was thrown down?”
“Yes, that could very well be what happened,” the lieutenant said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. There were nods of agreement among the Fontainon servants. Octave’s death might conceivably have been blamed on them and this was a convenient out. “Yes, that must be it,” the lieutenant concluded and there were relieved sighs all around. He looked up then, frowning. “But who was shooting?”
Nicholas rubbed the bridge of his nose, annoyed. That should have been your first question, you idiot. “Must have been the anarchists, to scare the horses,” he muttered, low under his breath.
One of the footmen heard him and took up the theme. “They was shooting, sir, to scare the horses!”
“Yes, that was it,” the coachman seconded, and there were more nods of agreement and surreptitious relieved sighs. Nicholas smiled to himself. With all this obfuscation, by morning no one would remember what he had seen or who had claimed to see what, and that was just as well.
There was a clatter behind the wrecked coach as another party arrived from Fontainon House, led by a man in evening dress carrying a doctor’s bag, who must be the lady’s personal physician. He fought his way past the horses of the milling Guard troop and demanded, “Whose vehicle is this blocking the street? It will have to be moved so we can bring in a stretcher for the injured.”
While the corporal and the major-domo were explaining that haste was no longer necessary on the injured man’s behalf, Nicholas touched his cap to the lieutenant and said, “All right to move my cab, sir?”
The lieutenant nodded and waved him away distractedly. Nicholas went immediately to the cab, freeing the reins from where someone had tied them to the lamp post, murmuring some soothing words to the still restive horses. It hadn’t been necessary to claim the cab as his; everyone had simply assumed that the person who looked like a cab man belonged to the only empty vehicle.
Nicholas had grabbed the rail and was stepping up to swing into the box, when someone just behind him said, “Stop.”
Nicholas hesitated for a heartbeat, then made a conscious decision to obey. He was close to escape and didn’t intend to ruin it by panicking for no reason. He looked back and saw a tall gray-haired man in formal evening dress. Someone from Fontainon House, Nicholas thought first, then he recognized him. It was Rahene Fallier, the Court Sorcerer. Nicholas’s mouth went dry. He said, “Sir?”
Fallier took a step closer. He said, “There was sorcery here tonight. Did you witness it?”
Interfering bastard, Nicholas thought. It was too late to change his story; the Guard lieutenant wasn’t that much of a fool. “No, sir, I didn’t see nothing of the kind.”
The corporal from Fontainon House was coming over. He was an older man than the lieutenant, with more intelligent eyes. He said, “Sir, did you want to question this man?” To Nicholas he called, “You there, step down.”
They were drawing the attention of the mounted Guards still half searching the area for nonexistent anarchists. Nicholas protested, “They told me to move the cab,” but he stepped back down to the scuffed paving stones. Fallier might not be as suspicious as he seemed.
Fallier took another step toward him, standing only a bare pace away, so that Nicholas had to look up at him. He was frowning, concentrating. Working a spell? Nicholas wondered, keeping his face blank. He remembered powerful sorcerers could sense the past presence of magic. The Sending Octave’s sorcerer had unleashed on him might leave some residue. Or Fallier might detect traces of Arisilde’s powerful spells from the sphere Nicholas had held earlier today.
Then Fallier said, “The resemblance is striking. And you are younger than you look, of course.”
Nicholas let himself appear puzzled. He knows who I am, the thought burned as cold as ice thrust through the heart. He had never met Fallier in his own persona, never seen him at closer range than across the crowded pit at the opera. The resemblance is striking. Fallier knew what he was, as well.
Fallier half-turned to the Guard corporal. “We must detain this man –”
Nicholas moved, not toward the waiting circle of horsemen but back toward the cab, turning and diving under its wheels in the oldest street trick there was. He rolled under the vehicle, narrowly avoiding a crushed skull as one of the horses started and the wheels rocked back, ducked out from under it and bolted away.
There were shouts behind him, the clatter of hooves, as he ran for the corner. Two turns away these broad well-lit streets gave way to the crowded byways and overhung tenements of the old city, where there were alleys so narrow the horses couldn’t follow him. But first he had to get there.
He heard someone riding up on him from the right and dodged sideways so the mounted trooper plunged past him before he could stop. The man wrenched his horse around sharply and the animal reared. Nicholas ducked away from the flailing hooves and ran for the corner again.
Suddenly there was a solid wall not ten feet away, rising out of the lingering mist. Nicholas slid to a stop, baffled, then cursed his own stupidity as he realized what it must be. He flung himself forward but a riding crop cracked across his shoulders, sending him sprawling headlong over the raised curve of the promenade.
Before he could scramble up hands grabbed the back of his coat and dragged him to his feet. He was flung up against a wall — a real one, this time, not Fallier’s illusory creation that was already fading gently away into the damp night air — and his arms were pinned behind him. Someone roughly searched his pockets.
He heard the Guard lieutenant saying, “Where do you want him taken? The nearest Prefecture is –”
Yes, the Prefecture, Nicholas thought, a sudden spark of hope blossoming. Being imprisoned as an anarchist was a better fate than some things that could happen and Fallier might not want to drag up ancient scandals. And he knew there wasn’t a prison in Ile-Rien that could hold him for long. Fallier might not know as much as he thinks he does….
“Not the Prefecture, the palace,” the Court Sorcerer’s voice said.
Well, that’s that. Nicholas laughed, and the two Guards pinning him twitched as if startled. He said, “But really, the palace? Isn’t that rather melodramatic?”
Someone must have gestured because he was jerked away from the cold stone and turned to face Fallier and the lieutenant. The Court Sorcerer didn’t even have the grace to look triumphant. His expression was merely cool. The lieutenant looked a little wary, probably at Nicholas’s sudden change of accent and voice. Then Fallier said, “It hasn’t been a very well-fated destination for members of your family. I can only hope history repeats itself.”
Nicholas smiled in acknowledgement. “The least you could do is tell me how you knew.”
“No,” Fallier said. “That is not the least I can do,” and gestured to the Guards to take him away.
END CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Continued in Chapter Fifteen
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