Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Chapter Seven
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 Seven . Read Chapter Six here.
It was still dark when Nicholas had the hire cab let him off at the top of Coldcourt’s drive. He could see every window in the sprawling stone house was lit and there were a couple of servants with lamps patrolling the roof between the towers. It didn’t look like there was trouble now; the wide sweep of lawn was an empty landscape of shadows, broken only by the one lone towering oak and the drive. He started toward the house, almost lame from exhaustion, the gravel crunching under his boots. When he entered the circle of light from the lamps hung on either side of the front entrance, the doors swung open and Madeline hurried down the steps to meet him.
Her embrace, in his current state, almost knocked him off his feet. She said, “I was getting worried. The others thought you would be right behind them.”
“It… took longer with Ari than I thought,” he told her. “What’s happened here?”
They entered the welcome warmth of the entrance hall and Madeline paused to secure the doors, saying, “There was something, I think it was the same sort of creature that you saw under Mondollot House, up on the roof. It was peering into Edouard’s old attic. Nothing seemed disturbed and no one was hurt, so perhaps it was only scouting us out. I don’t know what it wanted.”
“I don’t know anything anymore.” Nicholas laughed bitterly. “I suppose Reynard told you what we found.”
“Yes.” Madeline’s face was drawn and harsh in the lamplight as she turned back toward him. “Could Arisilde tell you anything of use?”
Nicholas stopped at the foot of the stairs to look at her. Sometimes Madeline surprised even him. Any other woman would have had the decency to be shocked out of her wits, or to be made ill, or to invoke heavenly wrath on the perpetrators. He didn’t know whether to attribute it to her general bloody-mindedness or the self-absorption and self-possession that usually characterized potentially brilliant actors. He ran his hands through his hair, trying to get his thoughts together. “I don’t think Ari’s going to be of much help.”
“I think it’s finally got the better of him. He was telling me things…” Nicholas shook his head. “I don’t know. Either that or he’s gone mad. Somehow Octave has had access to Edouard’s work. That’s how he’s managing these spirit circles. He has a sphere, like the ones Edouard made with Ari and Asilva. Where that butchery in Valent House comes into it, I don’t know…”
Madeline linked arms with him and towed him up the stairs. “You’re exhausted. Sleep until dawn, and then make plans.”
“Damned realist,” she corrected with a weary smile.
Nicholas left Madeline to make the arrangements for a second, more thorough search of Valent House while he tried to sleep for what was left of the night. What he actually did was retire to his study on the second floor to lay out the notebooks and the scraps of paper their first search had brought to light.
The notebooks proved to be what he had originally thought, a student’s copying from a probably forbidden text on necromancy. Reading through them, he couldn’t see any evidence of the copyist inserting opinion. He hasn’t scribbled his name, present direction, and future plans for destroying the world in the margin either, Nicholas thought sourly. It’s always helpful when they do that. It might be illuminating to ascertain which text the notes had come from. Arisilde, of course, would probably recognize it at a glance. If Arisilde was sane and in any state vaguely approaching sobriety. But Arisilde had been out of touch with Lodun for years and would no longer know who kept such books in their private libraries, so perhaps there was not much point in it anyway. But to find out whose student Octave was, and when… Perhaps he would ask Arisilde anyway.
The scraps of paper from the desk were more intriguing, though not much more helpful. The fragments of words were indecipherable, though Nicholas wanted to say that he recognized something about the handwriting. It wasn’t Edouard’s, which would have been too much to hope for. Though perhaps it didn’t matter either. He knew Octave had somehow re-created Edouard’s work. Perhaps the method was immaterial. Yes, keep telling yourself that.
Speaking of method…. Nicholas took down a heavy volume from the bookcase above the desk. It contained the memoirs of a very methodical man, the bureaucrat who had been responsible for cutting the new streets and plazas through the decaying slums of Vienne. It wasn’t so much a memoir as it was a chronicle of work, describing in exacting detail the alterations that had been wrought on the ancient city. Nicholas had always found it extremely helpful since few reliable maps had ever been made of Vienne.
He flipped through the worn pages, looking for the section on Ducal Court Street. And here it is…. Tearing down tenements, the old theater, what was left of the Bisran ambassador’s home after the last time they burned it down… Ah. “I informed the Duke it would not be necessary to sacrifice Mondollot House” — I’m sure he was pleased — “but that its neighbor Ventarin House would have to be taken down.” The bureaucrat, a man not entirely without finer feelings, had regretted this, finding that Ventarin House was more pleasing to the eye and would have made a better ornament to his street than Mondollot. Ventarin, however, was in the wrong place and presently occupied only by servant caretakers, the family having moved to a country estate to finish dwindling into obscurity in peace. They had not opposed the destruction. “They had no need of the old place, having not indulged in public life for many generations…One of their most illustrious ancestors was Gabard Alis Ventarin, a notable of some two centuries past…who held the position of Court Sorcerer under King Rogere.”
Nicholas closed the book and sat for a while, staring at nothing, tapping one finger on the polished wood of the desk. So the chamber that Octave’s ghoul had broken into had once been part of the cellars under the home of a former court sorcerer. Had the old Duke of Mondollot known what was there? Had he perhaps opened that door, seen what it guarded, and ordered it sealed up again? That was undoubtedly what Octave had wanted to know when he had tried to convince the Duchess to let him contact the late Duke. Something was there, and Octave’s ghouls took it away. But it wasn’t right. Either it wasn’t what he wanted, or something was missing from it. One of the best uses for necromancy was the discerning of secret things, whether past or present. There were other ways for sorcerers to divine the hidden, but none so easy as necromancy provided. It also taught methods of creating illusions that were solid to the touch, ways of affecting the minds and wills of people, animals, even spirits.
In the end Nicholas swept all the fragments together with the notebooks and carefully locked them away in one of the concealed drawers of his desk, and then trudged wearily to a bath and bed.
Nicholas managed to rest for only an hour, feeling the sun rise behind the heavy drapes over the window and listening to the mantel clock tick almost but not quite in time to his heartbeat. Madeline was sleeping deeply, her time in the crowded accommodations used by chorus performers having inured her to any amount of restless twitching on Nicholas’s part. He kept having to fight the impulse to wake her, either to make love or to talk or anything to keep his mind off Octave’s theft of Edouard’s work. Finally he got out of bed, half furious and half depressed, dressed and went down to the library.
It was a long room at the back of the house, the floor to ceiling shelves overflowing with books. Books piled on the warm upholstered armchairs and the rich Parscian carpet, books stuffed into the two boulle cabinets and the satinwood escritoire. I’m going to need a bigger house, Nicholas thought, looking at it. His gaze stopped at the tiny framed miniature on the desk. It was the only remaining portrait of his mother, painted to be placed inside a gold locket which had been sold when she had brought him to Vienne. His father had commissioned the piece not long after the wedding, when there had still been money for such things, though no doubt his family had made a great deal of trouble over the expense. They had not begun to actively plot against her then, but they would have argued over any money being spent on something not directly related to their own comfort. It was not a good likeness of her anyway, at least not according to Nicholas’s memory. The portrait showed only a young, fine-featured woman with dark curling hair, and the artist had captured no nuance of expression or gesture that would have given the little image life. Of course, his father had probably paid three times what the painting had been worth and never knew he was being cheated. Nicholas looked away, banishing the old memories.
He meant to make a thorough search of the historical texts, both the dry scholarly and the lurid popular, for that trace of memory that had bothered him so at Valent House. The more he thought about it, or tried not to think about it, the more vivid that shadow picture became. It was a woodcut, he thought. And the page was stained. That didn’t help. He didn’t have any of his old books from childhood. All those had gone when his mother died, along with most of their possessions. The books in this room had been Edouard’s or had been bought since Nicholas had come here years ago. But the history section took up the entire west wall of the room and from his earlier delvings into it he had high hopes.
He searched, thoroughly engrossed, barely noticing when Sarasate brought in a tray with coffee and rolls. Between Cadarsa’s History of Ile-Rien in Eight Volumes and an ancient copy of Sorceries of Lodun, he stumbled on The Pirates of Chaire, a children’s storybook with illustrations. “What in God’s name is this doing here…” Nicholas muttered, flipping the much battered book open to the flyleaf. There was writing there and he stared at it a moment, taken aback.
It was in Edouard’s hand and it read Don’t you dare get rid of this book.
Nicholas smiled. Edouard Viller had known him better than anyone.
The only reason Nicholas was alive now was that some forgotten benefactor had told Edouard that the Prefecture were always picking up stray children in Riverside. When Edouard had decided he needed a son to fill the lonely days after his wife died, he had gone down to the cells at Almsgate to look for one.
Nicholas barely remembered his own father and the moldering, disgraced, debt-ridden ancestral estate where he had spent the first few years of his life. His mother had brought him to Vienne when he was six and taken back her maiden name of Valiarde, preferring the slums of the great city to coexistence with her husband’s relations. She had made her living by piecework laundry and sewing and if she had ever had to supplement her income by the form of employment more common to destitute women in Vienne, she had never allowed him to find out about it. When he was ten she had died, of some congestive lung ailment that every year carried off hundreds of the poor who crowded into the broken-down buildings in Riverside and the other slums. Nicholas had already dabbled in thieving. After her death he had taken it up as a profession.
He had been lucky enough to encounter Cusard, and before that worthy’s second stint in prison, Nicholas had learned from him the pickpocket’s and cracksman’s skills that would give him an edge over the other street boys. By twelve he had been leader of a local gang and had made them all wealthy and wildly successful by ambitious burglaries and by dealing with fences rather than rag and bone shops. This success brought the attention of the Prefecture. They had set a trap for him with the help of a disgruntled rival and Nicholas had ended his first illegal career in the filth of the Almsgate cells, beaten within an inch of his life and waiting to be hauled off to the real hell of the city prison.
He had been cursing the guards in fluent Aderassi, which his mother had taught him. There had been a fashion at the time for young gentlemen to learn the language so they could go to the court of Adera to complete their social education. She had never forgotten that his father’s family had been noble, despite their poverty and well-deserved obscurity. Nicholas had discovered that he could call people the most terrible things in it and they would not understand him.
Edouard had come to the barred door and called, in the same language, “You have a very foul mouth. Can you read?”
“Yes,” Nicholas had replied, annoyed.
“In what language, Aderassi or Rienish?”
“Perfect,” Edouard had said to the jailer. “I wouldn’t want one I had to start from the beginning, you know. I’ll take him.”
And that had been that. Nicholas replaced the storybook on the shelf.
This time they entered Valent House through the front door. Nicholas was prepared to prove he was an estate agent for a firm on the other side of the river and that Cusard, Crack and Lamane were builders, here to give advice on possible renovations.
For all these elaborate preparations, the street was deserted and no one demanded to know their business, though the builders’ wagon standing outside was probably explanation enough for the curious.
Earlier that morning, when the sun was almost high enough to officially qualify as dawn, Nicholas had gone into the guest bedroom to waken Reynard. Waiting impatiently until the cursing stopped, Nicholas had asked him to make the rounds of the cafes and clubs today to find out when Octave’s next appointment for a spirit circle was, and to delicately ascertain if the good doctor had asked any of his other summoned spirits about lost family wealth. To Nicholas’s unexpressed relief, Madeline had decided she could be of more help finding out about Madame Everset’s late brother, and what had been aboard his ill-fated ship that Octave had been so interested in, than as one more searcher in Valent House.
Standing now in the dust and ruin of the house’s foyer, Nicholas was sure he was right about Octave’s original purpose in holding the circles. It only remained to discover how and why Octave had turned from thievery to necromancy.
Cusard had also brought Lyon Althise, who had trained as a medical doctor but been asked to leave the College of Physicians because of a fondness for drink. He was well known in Vienne’s criminal underclass as being willing to use his medical skills for almost any purpose as long as he was well paid, but Nicholas doubted even he had ever seen anything like this. Althise and Nicholas made another examination of the bodies while the others searched the house under Crack’s direction.
They came up for air after what seemed an interminable time and stood in the kitchen with the scullery door open for the cool breeze. Nicholas was wearing one of his Donatien disguises, the one that made him look about ten years older. Althise didn’t know him as Nicholas Valiarde and he intended to keep it that way.
Althise, leaning on the cracked counter, shook his head. “I can’t do much more than confirm what you’ve already discovered for yourself. Yes, he was alive when it happened, though not for long. Whoever did it used a very sharp knife, and it probably happened no more than a day before you found him. The remaining eye is cloudy and the skin is discoloring. The others have been here much longer, some days, some weeks.” He looked up at Nicholas wearily. He was an older man, his hair graying and his face marked by perpetual weariness and defeat. “I know I’m not being much help.” Althise had been told what was basically the truth: that Donatien had been pursuing a man who had threatened him and stumbled on this house.
Nicholas shook his head. “I’ve begun to realize I may not be able to do much with this. We can’t keep sneaking in here to investigate — someone is sure to report us.” Althise had tried his best but his best hadn’t been good enough for the College of Physicians, either. Doctor Cyran Halle may be Ronsarde’s mouthpiece and a pompous bastard, but I wish I had him here now, Nicholas thought reluctantly.
A startled gasp from Althise brought him out of his own thoughts and he jerked his head toward the open scullery door. There was a figure framed there, between the shadow of the room and the wan light from the ragged garden. It took Nicholas moments to realize it was Arisilde Damal.
“Ari, I didn’t think you’d come,” he said, startled.
Althise sagged back against the counter, relieved that the apparition was evidently expected, and muttered, “And I thought my nerves were gone before I came here.”
“Yes, well, Madeline’s message said it was urgent.” Arisilde came into the kitchen slowly, as cautious as a cat treading on unfamiliar ground. His greatcoat had once been of very good material though now it was threadbare. He hadn’t bothered with a hat and his fine hair was standing up in wisps all over his head. He nodded a distracted greeting to Althise, then looked down at Nicholas, his violet eyes confused. “I’m not at my best today, I’m afraid. We don’t know the people who live here, do we?”
“No, we don’t. In fact –”
“That’s good.” Arisilde was relieved. Pale and battered and somehow otherworldly, he could have been mistaken for a particularly feather-headed member of the fay, but the size of his pupils was almost normal and his hands weren’t trembling. “Because something terrible’s happened here.”
“Hey,” Lamane called from the foyer. “We found something else in the cellar!”
Nicholas refused to allow himself to speculate as he followed the man down the cellar stairs and into the stinking chambers below. Arisilde trailed after him but Althise stayed behind in the kitchen. Nicholas was glad of it. He had told Arisilde not to mention names in front of strangers but it was simply better not to rely on his discretion. They turned down toward the opposite end of the hall, lit now with several oil lamps. As Cusard, Crack and Lamane made way for Nicholas, he felt a cool rush of dank air.
The passage had appeared to end in a bare wall. Now a section a few feet wide and about half a man’s height stood out from it, revealing a dark opening. Nicholas knelt to look inside and saw a rough tunnel supported by moldy brick walls, leading down into pitch blackness. Crack knelt beside him and said, “Look.”
He held the lantern out over the floor of the tunnel, a mix of dirt and brick chips, then pushed the slide down. There was a faint glow emanating from the floor and walls. “Perfect,” Nicholas said softly. “How did you discover it?”
Crack put the slide up again. With Crack, it was always difficult to tell, but Nicholas thought he was excited at the discovery. “We knocked on the walls. Cusard made the lock work.”
Nicholas stood up to look as Cusard showed him the small hole on the outer side of the false door. “It’s an old trick,” he explained. “Slide your finger in that hole, push up on the lever, and snick goes the bolt.” He added grimly, “You can open it from the other side, too. Lets you in and out, this door does.”
Arisilde had taken Nicholas’s place at the tunnel entrance, crawling half into it. He sat back now, closely examining some substance on his fingers. “Nic, this is the same stuff that was on that coat you brought me, and those pieces of fabric from that drowned boy’s clothes. It’s a residue caused by a type of necromantic powder that hasn’t been used in Ile-Rien for hundreds of years. Isn’t that odd? I can’t think who would have made it.”
Nicholas stared at him and Arisilde’s vague eyes grew worried. He said, “That was you that brought me those things to look at, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, of course, but –”
Arisilde sighed. “Thank God. I thought I was going mad.”
“But I didn’t think you’d looked at them at all. Why didn’t you tell me last night?”
“You saw me last night?” Arisilde demanded. “What was I doing?”
“You don’t remember — You said you had something important to tell me. Was that it?”
Arisilde sat down on the filthy floor and tapped his cheek thoughtfully. “It might have been. Did I give you any hints?”
Nicholas ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. “What about the powder from the golem? Did you learn anything from that?”
“The powder from the what?”
Nicholas looked sourly at Cusard, who was regarding the ceiling with pursed lips, and Crack, who was staring down at the sorcerer with a puzzled expression, and gave in. “Never mind.”
“Maybe I’ll recall it, you can never tell.” Arisilde was on his hands and knees now, crawling into the tunnel. “Let’s see where this goes. I love secret tunnels, don’t you?”
“My back’s bad,” Cusard said quickly.
Lamane immediately asserted that his back was bad, too. “I know, I know,” Nicholas said impatiently. “I want to see it for myself, anyway.”
Crack was already following Arisilde. Nicholas crawled after them.
“You don’t need the lamp,” Arisilde was saying, partly to Crack and partly to himself. “Well, I used to know how to do this.” Light flared in the tunnel suddenly, soft and white. “There we go,” Arisilde said, pleased. The spell light seemed to emanate from all over his body.
Nicholas’s fear was that the tunnel would prove to be only a repository for more bodies, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Crack glanced back at him and muttered, “I should go first, in case we run into something.”
“It’s all right,” Nicholas told him. “Arisilde is more capable than he appears.” In fact, the sorcerer was acting more like himself than he had for a long time. Nicholas added, “But thank you for not claiming a bad back.”
“I like this,” Crack said simply. Then, as if realizing that statement needed more explanation, added, “Finding things out. I like it better than stealing.”
So do I, Nicholas thought, but he wouldn’t say it aloud.
“The tunnel gets wider here,” Arisilde reported cheerfully. “I think we found the sewer.” In another moment this supposition was confirmed by the sound of trickling water and the fetid smell of sewage.
The tunnel widened and opened into a ledge, a few feet above a stream of putrid water flowing through a round, brick-lined sewer. Nicholas got to his feet, one hand on the damp wall to steady himself. Arisilde swept his hands over his battered coat, gathering the spell light into a ball, then set it in midair where it hung suspended by nothing and illuminated the tunnel. “Here we are,” Arisilde said. “Is this where you thought it would lead?”
“It’s where the one in the Mondollot House cellars led,” Nicholas told him, thinking of the hole in the wall of the wine vaults that the first ghoul had fled through. He heard a scrabbling and put it down to rats. “I think –”
It came up from below the ledge, too fast for him to move, to shout a warning. He could only fall back against the wall as the claws grasped for his neck and the maw gaped in the withered, hate-filled face. Crack shoved an arm between them, trying to seize it around the neck, and its teeth started to sink into his arm. This gave Nicholas the chance to grab its head, to push it away, but it was too strong. Then Arisilde was suddenly behind it, catching the thing from behind with a handful of its lank dead hair. The spell light flickered and suddenly the tremendous force shoving Nicholas against the wall was gone. He stumbled, caught Crack’s arm and steadied him as the other man almost fell backward over the edge.
The creature lying at their feet bore little resemblance to the ghoul that had whipped up from beneath the ledge and nearly torn them apart. Nicholas stared down at it, amazed. This thing was barely a pile of rag and bone, held together by shreds of skin and tendon. He managed to clear his throat and release Crack’s arm. “One of the ghouls,” he explained.
Arisilde squatted next to it, careless of his balance on the ledge, and picked up one of the bones thoughtfully.
Crack was rubbing his forearm where the creature had planted its teeth. “Did it get you?” Nicholas asked, worried. Crack shook his head and showed his coat sleeve, unpunctured. “In another moment, Ari…” Nicholas found himself almost speechless, which didn’t happen often.
“Yes?” Arisilde looked up inquiringly.
The sorcerer waved it away. “Oh, no trouble at all, no trouble at all.”
Nicholas looked around again. They travel through the sewers, but we knew that already. There didn’t appear to be anything else here to see. Octave, connected with this house, with the ghouls, with necromancy.
“This isn’t a ghoul, precisely,” Arisilde said suddenly. “It’s a lich. The necromancer obtains a long-dead corpse — very long dead, in this poor fellow’s case — then animates it with a spirit that has been enchained to do the necromancer’s bidding. Of course, the easiest way to obtain such a spirit is to kill an innocent victim in an act of ceremonial magic.”
“Like that man was killed in the cellar?” Nicholas asked.
“No, that was something else, another way to raise power.” Arisilde glanced around the tunnel expectantly. “There’s another aspect to the lich-making process. The remains that contained the enchained spirit still, um, hang about, you know. As revenants. Mindless, soul-dead creatures. I don’t see any around here, though.” Arisilde waggled his brows thoughtfully and frowned up at Nicholas. “Necromancy is such a messy business, and someone’s been very busy at it. Very, very busy.”
The woman who called herself Madame Talvera looked darkly at the passersby on the other side of the railing and said, “Communication with the spirits isn’t a game. For those of us who embrace it truly, it is a religion.”
Nicholas nodded encouragingly. Knowing he needed to question another practitioner of spiritualism about Octave, he had been working to arrange this meeting since the day before yesterday. He had found Madame Talvera by asking a couple of old acquaintances whom he knew dabbled in the pastime and also in confidence work. Neither of them had heard of Octave before he had appeared on the scene this year, but both had recommended Madame Talvera as a reliable source of information.
The cafe was on the Street of Flowers, just within the borders of the Philosopher’s Cross. Madame Talvera hadn’t wanted to go any further into that area, because she said she was afraid of witches. Nicholas was glad she didn’t seem to know what Arisilde was; if she had realized that the vague young man sitting next to her and rendering cream pastries into their component parts before devouring them was a powerful Lodun-trained sorcerer, she might not have been as forthcoming.
He had been agreeably surprised that Arisilde had wanted to come with him. After crawling back out of the tunnel, he had had Cusard and the others close the door and leave Valent House. Before going, he had made Arisilde look at the oddly melted wall in the room with the vivisected body. All the sorcerer could tell him was that it had been done by a great release of power, definitely magical. When Nicholas had asked him what sort of magical power, Arisilde had replied, “Very bad power,” and that was all he would say.
The other tables under the striped awning were occupied by tradespeople, but they were close enough to the vicinity of the Cross that no one cared too much about the state of their clothes, which had suffered greatly from the crawl through the tunnel. Nicholas had only had time to remove his Donatien disguise, which he didn’t wear during the day in public if he could help it.
A wind stirred the trees in the strip of garden that ran down the center of the street and the strong scent of rain filled the air. Nicholas stirred his coffee and said, “Is it proper to use one’s religion to earn money?”
“No, not at all. A gift is permissible, but it should be freely given and not more than the giver can easily part with.” She made a sharp gesture. She was Aderassi, olive-skinned and hawk-featured, dark hair pulled back into a severe bun, serious dark eyes. She wore a black, plainly cut dress with a high collar and her hat had a small veil. “There are tricksters, who make tables rock with their toes, and imitate strange voices. You’ve heard of these things?” At his nod she shook her head grimly. “Such things are to be expected. There are men who make their living pretending to be priests, also.”
She touched her glass thoughtfully. He had offered to buy her lunch, but all she would have was water. “It is not a thing of sorcery. The etheric plane is free to anyone who will strive to open their mind to it. The Great Teachers of spiritualism, the Sisters Polacera, have written of many techniques for schooling the senses to embrace it. Speaking to the dead is only a negligible part of what we do. Truly, taken altogether, it is a way of life.”
It’s a cult, Nicholas thought, though a rather harmless one as cults go. He knew about the Polaceras and the other intellectuals who had started the spiritualism craze. “Do you know of a man purporting to be a spiritualist who calls himself Doctor Octave?”
“Oh, him. Everyone knows of him.” She looked disgusted. “I see why you wish to know these things. He has taken money from you perhaps? From someone in your family?”
“He’s been most troubling to me, yes.”
“I first saw him six or seven years ago, when the Polacera Sisters still lived in Vienne. They live in the country now, outside of Chaire. Much more conducive to spiritual living, the country. And of course it’s very nice there, near the sea. But anyway,” Warming to her story, she leaned over the table intently. “He had been to circles held at other houses, by lesser devotees of the movement, but when he came to one of the Polaceras’ circles at their old house in Sitare Court –” She shook her head. “Madame Amelia Polacera ordered him to go, saying his shadow in the ether was as dark as a well at twilight and she would give him none of her teaching. Many important people were there. Doctor Adalmas. Biendere, the writer. Lady Galaise. I’m sure it was most embarrassing for Octave, but –” She shrugged and admitted frankly, “I was glad she sent him away.”
Madame Amelia Polacera may have something after all. Either that or she’s simply a marvelous judge of character. Nicholas asked, “And you saw no more of him after that?”
“I heard he left the city and was studying privately with someone. It was not my concern, so I paid little attention. Then early this year, he returned and became very fashionable, holding circles for wealthy patrons. Many people are curious about spiritualism, but the true devotees will not hold circles for any but the pure and those who truly wish to learn. Octave does it as a party trick.” Her lip curled. “The Madames Polacera will be greatly angered when they hear of it.”
“Did Octave ever show any sign of knowing sorcery?”
She looked startled. “No, he was no sorcerer. Madame Polacera would have known, if he was.”
Nicholas nodded. Perhaps she would at that. “There is just one more thing, Madame. If you wanted to contact a spirit, would you need something from the dead person’s corpse? A lock of hair, perhaps?”
Madame Talvera frowned. “No, of course not. Hair, once it is cut, is dead. It would be of no more use than a cut flower. There is a technique that allows one to see visions of a person, living or dead, using something that they once wore close to their skin. Jewelry is best. Metal is very good at holding the impressions of the glow of ether that surrounds every living soul.”
Arisilde was nodding agreement. “Hair, skin, bones are more useful in necromancy,” he added.
Madame Talvera shuddered. “I have no knowledge of that and I wish none.” She stood abruptly, collecting her little black-beaded reticule. “If that is all you wish to ask me…”
Nicholas stood and thanked her, and watched as she made her way through the tables and out to the street. A light rain had started, which she seemed not to notice. “I hope I didn’t frighten her off,” Arisilde said, worried.
“You may have, but she’d already told us everything she knew of use.” Nicholas left some coins for the waiter and they strolled out onto the promenade. “She’s bound to be nervous of being associated with necromancy.”
Nicholas had held off on questioning the sorcerer about Edouard’s work, knowing that if what Arisilde had told him last night was the truth, then the less he thought about Edouard the better. If Ilamires Rohan had known Edouard was innocent and still let him be executed, revenge was all well and good, but…. But I’d rather have Arisilde, Nicholas found himself thinking. “I know how Octave is contacting the dead,” he said carefully.
“Oh, I must have missed that part. How?”
Nicholas felt some misgivings at further involving Arisilde in this. But he remembered how the sorcerer had destroyed the ghoul in the sewer, so casually, as if that display of power was not even worth comment. I suppose he’s in less danger from Octave than the rest of us are. “He’s using a device very like the ones Edouard made with you and Asilva. He must have had access to Edouard’s notes to create it, but everything that survived the trial is at Coldcourt and hasn’t been disturbed. That leaves you and Asilva…”
Arisilde stopped abruptly, heedless of the sprinkle of rain and the people hurrying past, the wagons splashing in the street. He stared into space, concentrating so hard that Nicholas thought he was performing a spell. Arisilde shook his head and gazed down at Nicholas seriously. “No, I don’t think I told anyone about the spheres. I’m sure I’d remember if I had. And Edouard wouldn’t have wanted me to, you see. No, I’m sure I’d remember that.”
Nicholas smiled. “That’s good to know, but I didn’t really suppose you had.”
Arisilde looked relieved. “Good. If you were sure it was me, of course I’d have to take your word for it.”
They continued up the street, a torrent of water flung up from the wheels of a passing coach narrowly missing them. “I can’t see Asilva telling anyone about them, either,” Arisilde added. “He didn’t really approve of Edouard’s experiments with magic, you know. It didn’t stop him from participating at first — he believed very strongly in knowledge for its own sake, which is not a dictate that everyone at Lodun follows.”
Nicholas glanced up at him and saw Arisilde’s face had taken on a hunted look. He said cautiously, “You mentioned something about that last night, in connection with Ilamires Rohan.”
“Did I?” Arisilde’s smile was quick and not completely convincing. “It doesn’t do to take everything I say too seriously.”
Nicholas decided not to pursue the point. He’s more coherent today than I’ve seen him in the past year– I don’t want to send him back to oblivion with prying questions. It was safer to stick to the present. “That room in the cellar, where the man was killed. Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“I should hope not.”
“I think I’ve seen a drawing, or a woodcut actually, in a book describing it. I’m wondering if it means that this was some sort of specific ritual of necromancy.” Arisilde was frowning down at the wet pavement and didn’t respond. Nicholas added, “If we could identify what our opponent was trying to do, we would be a little further along.”
“I can’t remember anything offhand — of course we both know what that’s worth.” Arisilde smiled a little wryly, then brightened. “I’ll look for it. That will be my job now, won’t it?”
“If you like.” Nicholas wasn’t sure what Arisilde meant to look for, but you never could tell. “We still need to know where Octave got his information and you know the most about Edouard’s research. Was there anyone else who could have known enough to be of help to Octave?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Arisilde wandered into the path of two well-dressed ladies and Nicholas tipped his hat by way of apology and took his friend’s elbow, guiding him out of the middle of the promenade and closer to the wall. “It bears thinking about.” His face growing serious, Arisilde said, “I’m glad you’re looking into this, Nicholas. We can’t really have these goings-on, you know.”
Nicholas had arranged to meet Madeline at the indoor garden in the Conservatory of Arts. It was crowded as more people sought shelter from the rain that trickled down the glass-paned walls and made music against the arched metal panels of the roof high overhead. Most of the little wrought iron tables scattered throughout the large, light chamber were full and it was hard to see past the hanging baskets of greenery and the potted fruit trees. He finally spotted her beneath an orange tree. She was dressed in burgundy velvet and a very extravagant hat and had simply managed to fade in with the fashionably dressed crowd.
“Did you discover anything about Madame Everset’s late brother?” Nicholas asked as they took seats.
“Yes, but first tell me what you found out at that house.” Madeline rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward anxiously.
Nicholas let out his breath in annoyance. She was always accusing him of not sharing his plans with her. “Madeline –”
Arisilde pointed at the remains of Madeline’s iced fruit and said, “Are you going to finish that?”
She slid the china plate toward him and said to Nicholas, “Yes, yes, I know I’m a great burden. Now talk.”
So as the light rain streamed down over the glass walls and the waiters hurried by, he told her about their morning at Valent House, the ghoul and the tunnel to the sewers, and what Madame Talvera had said of Octave’s background.
“Another ghoul? How many of those creatures are we going to run into?”
“The dead brother, Madeline,” Nicholas prompted. “What did you find out about him?”
“Oh, that. Yes, it was as you thought. The ship he was on went down with a very expensive cargo.”
That confirmed his suspicions about what Octave’s game was with the circles. But using spiritualism to fleece the wealthy out of riches their dead relatives might have had some knowledge of is one thing; what we found in Valent House is quite another, Nicholas thought.
“Oh,” Madeline continued, “I ran into Reynard and he wanted me to tell you that he spoke to Madame Algretto and she said Octave has apparently taken rooms at the Hotel Galvaz. Everset never did confront him about the odd events at the end of the circle last night, but that’s to be expected, I suppose.”
“The Hotel Galvaz, hmm?” Nicholas looked thoughtful. That was only a few streets over.
They obtained the number of Octave’s room by a trick that must have been invented at the dawn of creation shortly after the building of the first hotel: Madeline fluttered up to the porter’s desk and asked for her friend Doctor Octave. The porter glanced at the rows of cubbies for keys in the wall behind him and said the good doctor was not in at present. Madeline borrowed a page of hotel stationery to write a brief note, folded it and handed it to the porter, who turned and slipped it into the cubby for the seventh room on the fifth floor. Madeline suddenly recalled that she would be seeing the doctor later at the home of another friend and asked for the note back.
As they climbed the broad stairs up from the grand foyer and the other public rooms, Arisilde used what was for him an easily performed illusion, obscuring their presence with a mild reflection of the available light. It caused the eye to turn away without ever quite knowing from what it had turned. It could be broken by anyone whose suspicions were aroused enough to stare hard at them, but in the middle of the afternoon at the Hotel Galvaz, with people streaming back from late luncheons to prepare for evening entertainments, there was no one whose suspicions were aroused.
The fifth floor hall was presently occupied only by a basket of dried flowers on a spindly legged console table and the light was dim. Madeline hung back at the landing to watch the stairs and give warning if anyone approached. Nicholas knocked first on the door, waited until he was sure there was no answer, then took out his lockpicks. He glanced at Arisilde, who was studying the vine-covered wallpaper intently, and cleared his throat.
“Hmm?” Arisilde stared blankly at him, distracted. “Oh, that’s right.” He touched the door with the back of his hand and frowned for an instant. “No, nothing sorcerous. Carry on.”
That didn’t exactly engender confidence, Nicholas thought. He looked down the hall at Madeline, who was rubbing her temples as if her head hurt. She signaled that no one was approaching and, holding his breath, Nicholas inserted a pick into the lock. Nothing happened. Breathing a trifle easier, he started to work the lock. There couldn’t be too much danger; after all, members of the hotel staff would be in and out several times a day. But a very clever sorcerer could have set a trap that was only tripped if the door was forced or opened without a key. Either Octave’s sorcerer was not very clever or… There’s nothing in the room worth the trouble to guard, Nicholas thought grimly. After a few moments more he was able to ease the door open.
The small parlor just inside was shadowy, lit only by a little daylight creeping through the heavy drapes covering the window. There was a bedroom just beyond, also dark. Octave had been able to afford one of the better class of rooms: the furniture was finely made and well upholstered, and the carpets, hangings and wallpapers were of a style only recently in fashion. Arisilde slipped in after Nicholas and took a quick turn around the parlor, touching the ornaments on the mantel, bending over to poke cautiously at the coal scuttle. Nicholas watched him with a raised eyebrow, but Arisilde didn’t voice any kind of warning, so he continued his own search.
He went through the drawers and shelves of the small drop-leaf desk first, finding nothing but unused stationery and writing implements. The blotting paper revealed only past notes to a tailor and to two aristocratic ladies who had written thanking Octave for holding circles in their homes. Neither was from Madame Everset. Nicholas removed the blotting paper for a sample of Octave’s handwriting, knowing the good doctor would assume the floor maid had done it when she refreshed the writing supplies.
Reynard had said that Octave seemed to have the air of a professional confidence man and Nicholas felt that supposition was confirmed by an examination of the doctor’s belongings. He went through the suits and coats hanging in the wardrobe, carefully searching the pockets, finding the clothes were a mix of items well cared for but in poor quality and items of excellent quality but not cared for overmuch. When he is in funds, he becomes careless, Nicholas noted. The state of Octave’s personal effects confirmed several of Nicholas’s theories about the man’s personality.
None of which disguised the fact that there was nothing of importance here.
Nothing under the bed, between the mattresses, in the back of the wardrobe, behind the framed pictures, and no mysterious slits in the cushions or lumps under the carpet. Nicholas searched the sensible places first, then the less likely, finally progressing to the places only an idiot would hide anything. No papers, no sphere, he thought in disgust, resisting the sudden violent urge to kick a delicate table. There were no books to be found, not even a recent novel. He took this room for show; his real headquarters is somewhere else. Somewhere in the city there was another Valent House in the making. And he’s using one of Edouard’s spheres. For a moment rage made it difficult to think.
“Hah. Found it,” Arisilde reported, leaning around the door. “Want to see?”
“Found what?” Nicholas stepped back into the parlor.
Arisilde was looking at the small framed mirror above the mantel. “It’s a bit like that little job I did for you. The painting of The Scribe. This works on the same principle. I had the feeling there was something here, not something dangerous, just something…” He touched the mirror’s gilt frame gently. “It’s for speaking back and forth, I’m fairly certain, not spying. Hard to tell, though. It works like mine, with the spell all in the other end.”
Nicholas studied the mirror, frowning. “You mean… You told me the painting was a Great Spell.”
Arisilde nodded vigorously. “Oh, it is.”
“So the sorcerer who did this is capable of performing Great Spells?” Not Octave. If the spiritualist had been so powerful he would have had no need for a confidence game. Madame Talvera had said that Amelia Polacera had sent Octave away because his shadow in the ether was dark. Perhaps it hadn’t been Octave’s shadow she had seen.
Arisilde nodded again, preoccupied. “Yes, I suppose that’s the case. He’s asleep right now, I think, or perhaps in some sort of trance state. Whatever it is, I can’t tell anything about him. If he wakes and looks in the mirror, I can get a better sense of him.”
Feeling a prickle of unease crawl up his spine, Nicholas took hold of Arisilde’s arm under the elbow and urged him gently to the door. Resisting the impulse to whisper, he said, “But if he wakes, he could see us, Ari.”
Arisilde stared at him in puzzlement, reluctant to leave this interesting problem. “Oh, yes, of course.” He started. “Oh, yes, that’s right. We’d better go.”
Nicholas took one last quick glance around the room, making sure nothing was disturbed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought Arisilde. The other sorcerer might be able to sense his past presence here the same way Arisilde had sniffed out the spell in the mirror. But if you hadn’t brought Ari, you would never have known about the mirror and you might have lingered too long, or tried to confront Octave here. And there was no telling what might have happened then.
Nicholas closed the door behind them and locked it, leaving the mirror to reflect only the dark, empty room.
END CHAPTER SEVEN
Continued in Chapter Eight
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