Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Chapter Seventeen

Black Gate Online Fiction: The Death of the Necromancer, Chapter Seventeen

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 Seventeen. Read Chapter Sixteen here.

Chapter Seventeen

The stench rising up from the dark swirling water in the stone pit was truly hellish; the handkerchief Nicholas had wrapped around his mouth and nose did little to mask it. He managed to draw enough of a breath to ask, “But have you noticed anything unusual in the refuse lately?”

The oldest sewerman frowned and paused to lean on his broad paddle, which he was using to direct the flow of sluice water down the channel of the main sewer into the collector pit. “Some days it’s hard to say what is usual,” he said, which was a more philosophical answer than Nicholas was hoping for. The man’s much younger assistant, wielding a paddle on the other side of the channel, only nodded in perfect agreement.

Nicholas nodded too, keeping his expression sympathetic. This was only partly because he needed the sewermen’s cooperation to get the information he wanted. After only a few minutes down here it was easy to see that you either became philosophical about your lot in life or you went quickly mad.

It had been three long days since his interview at the palace. The Prefecture’s search along the river had turned up nothing so far, at least according to the frequent bulletins from Giarde. Nicholas was uncomfortable with having his connection to the Alsenes known, even though Halle had been too polite to bring the subject up and Crack, of course, had ventured no opinion at all and Cusard only worried that it would draw attention to them. Reynard had affected to think it amusing, and commented, “Now I know why you tried to hand the Duke of Mere-Bannot that bomb at the Queen’s Birthday celebration two years ago.”

“I was drunk, Reynard, that’s why,” Nicholas had reminded him tiredly. “And besides, Denzil Alsene wasn’t an anarchist. He was a dedicated monarchist, he just thought it should have been him on the throne and not the legally crowned Fontainon who was currently occupying it. That he had to destroy the country to accomplish that goal was immaterial.”

Notices in the penny sheets had cautioned people about the sorcerer’s method of obtaining victims and there had been some panic in Riverside and many false reports, all of which diverted constables from the search. Oddly, there had been no more verifiable disappearances in the past few days. Nicholas found that more ominous than reassuring.

He had kept up his own observations of the Prefecture’s efforts, spying on them from various vantage points with Crack’s help and employing Cusard and Lamane’s network of street children and petty thieves to follow their progress. He brought the information back to Ronsarde, who pored over it, muttering to himself, and sent terse orders to Lord Albier through Captain Giarde. Nicholas felt this procedure was highly unsatisfactory; if directing a methodical search was all that was needed, Albier and his cronies were as good at organizing that as anyone else in authority. What was needed was Ronsarde’s reductive abilities, his genius for ferreting out apparently unrelated clues and finding the relationship between them. He needed to be on the scene, where the constables could report their findings directly to him. It infuriated Nicholas that the Prefecture was probably even now overlooking important information, simply because they didn’t know what they were looking at. He knew the Inspector felt this as deeply as he did.

They had discovered yesterday through a friend of Reynard’s that the warrant issued for Doctor Halle’s arrest had been formally rescinded. This had occasioned an almost violent argument, since Halle had wanted to join the search himself, hoping his experience with Ronsarde’s methods would allow him to bring items of possible significance to the Inspector’s attention that the constables and their officers might overlook. Nicholas had forbidden it on the grounds that their opponents knew Halle was a direct link to Ronsarde; if the doctor tried to take a visible role in the investigation, they would move against him as violently as they had moved against the Inspector. It was no accident that the Prefecture’s principal investigator and the city’s foremost medical expert in violent death had both been effectively stymied. There was at least one person behind all this who knew what he was about.

The argument had raged on until Madeline had stepped in to explain Nicholas’s point of view, even though he had already explained it several times himself. Halle had grudgingly given in then and Nicholas had stormed out of the apartment to spend an hour kicking gutters in the Philosopher’s Cross. He had ended up sitting at Arisilde’s bedside again, hoping for improvement. Part of his anger came from his suspicion that there were things Ronsarde wasn’t telling him.

It was all being taken out of his hands, but they couldn’t stop him from pursuing his own line of inquiry.

Which was why he was currently some distance below the street, squatting on a walkway above the stagnant waters of a sewage collector, talking to sewermen and ratcatchers. The lamplight flickered off the oily stone curving above, though this part of the sewer was well-tended and relatively clean. There were pipes overhead, splitting to cross the domed roof of the collector, some carrying potable water which had been brought in from outside Vienne by aqueducts, ever since the city officials had given up the charmingly naive belief that the river water was drinkable if pumped from the deepest current. “This would be within the past five days, say,” Nicholas persisted. This was the fifth work group he had spoken to and he had learned he didn’t want to offer suggestions for the items that might have been found, since the sewermen were often of the type of witness who tended to say what you wanted to hear, simply to be polite.

The oldest sewerman straightened, one hand on his obviously aching back, and hailed the two men aboard the small boat that was plying the waters of the collector. “Hey, is there any talk of odd things found in the pits?”

An adroit push from a paddle brought the boat within easy speaking range. There was some chin-scratching and due consideration from the two men in the boat, then one said, “We don’t ever find much in the way of coin or valuables. That’s a myth people tell, like the one about the big lizards.”

“I found a silverpiece last year,” the youngest one commented helpfully.

“Perhaps I don’t mean something unusual,” Nicholas said, trying to think of a good way to explain. “Perhaps I mean an unusual amount of something you often find. Like a large concentration of sand, or bits of ironmongery, or –”

“Bones?” one of the boatmen suggested.

“Or bones,” Nicholas agreed, concealing his reaction. “Was that the case?”

“Aye, the word was the Monde Street syphon came up full of bones two days ago. The Prefect figured a wall had broke through in one of the catacombs somewhere and that’s where they come from.”

“No,” the oldest sewerman disagreed. “If that was it, the water level in Monde would drop and our collectors all down fifth precinct would go dry. There hasn’t been enough rain to fill a catacomb.”

The discussion abruptly turned highly technical, as water levels, drainage, rainfall, sluices, collectors, and connecting passages were all brought in as evidence for and against the catacomb hypothesis. Nicholas listened carefully. There were catacombs under Vienne and old covered-over rock quarries, and other places where a wily sorcerer could hide. It was a more likely place than an abandoned river palace, no matter what Octave had said.

The sewermen’s lively discussion moved on to other topics and Nicholas interrupted long enough to bid them good-bye before he moved on to the next group. The sewers called for more research and he had many more questions to ask.

Madeline let herself into the apartment off the Boulevard Panzan, tired and cursing her luck. She had been following the progress of the Prefecture’s search with the others but the frustration of being unable to participate actively was wearing on her. She would have preferred to be off with Reynard, who was pursuing Count Montesq’s possible connection to their mad sorcerer, or Nicholas, who had been damnably uncommunicative about his pursuits.

Doctor Halle was in the salon, standing in front of the fire, apparently as preoccupied and discouraged as she was. He glanced at her as she flung herself down on the sofa and commented, “This inactivity rather grates on one, doesn’t it?”

Madeline laughed ruefully. “I’m glad someone else feels it.” She removed her hat, a plain gray affair to match her plain gray walking dress, an assemble guaranteed not to draw attention on the street and which did nothing to lift her flagging spirits.

Halle leaned on the mantel and cleaned out his pipe. “Ordinarily when the Prefecture has no use for me I see patients at the charity hospitals.”

Madeline nodded in agreement. “I feel fortunate that I didn’t take a role this season; I wouldn’t have been able to do a farce justice with my mind on this.”

His brows lifted. “So you are that Madeline Denare.”

“Come now, you knew that.”

“I did, but I wasn’t sure I should mention it.” He hesitated.

“I’m sure you have questions,” Madeline said, carefully.

Halle smiled gently and shook his head. “Only impertinent ones. Why Reynard Morane persists in presenting himself to society as a debauched and dissipated wretch when he’s as sound as a young horse. How a wandering scion of the infamous Alsenes made the acquaintance of so many congenial thieves.” He looked at her gravely. “And what you are doing here.”

He would ask a hard one, she thought. She shook her head. “I’m not entirely sure of that myself,” she admitted.

Halle didn’t show surprise. He regarded her gravely. “How long have you known Valiarde?”

“Since my first real ingénue role, as Eugenie in The Scarlet Veil. I got into a bit of trouble and Nicholas helped get me out.” She saw the expression that Halle hadn’t quite concealed in time and laughed. “No, not that sort of trouble. I had gotten the attention of a rather terrible person called Lord Stevarin. Did you ever hear of him?”

“Vaguely.” Halle frowned thoughtfully. “He took his own life at his country home, didn’t he?”

It had been so long Madeline had almost forgotten that part of the story. She nodded and said, “Yes, I believe he did.” She would have to judiciously edit the rest of her account. “He was a great theater-goer, but not quite in the way other people are. He would go to look at the actresses, and when he took a fancy to one he would have her abducted, keep her at his town home for a few days — until he was tired of her, I suppose — then dump her out near the river somewhere, usually covered with bruises and too terrified to accuse him of anything. After all, they were only actresses, and he was a lord.”

“Good God,” Halle said softly. After a moment he looked at her sharply. “Then one day he chose you.”

“Yes. He had drugged champagne sent to my dressing room, and then sent his men to haul me off like I was a bag of laundry. Then –”

“You needn’t tell me anymore if you don’t wish –” Halle interrupted hastily.

“No, he never got a chance.” She smiled. “I woke in a bedchamber in his town home, he told me his intentions rather baldly, and I…brained him with a vase.” She wondered what had possessed her to tell this story. You should have made something up. But she didn’t like to lie to Halle and wasn’t doing such a good job of it with a story that was mostly the truth. “I was climbing out the window into the inner court when I met Nicholas climbing up. He had seen me in The Scarlet Veil too, and also had the idea of making my acquaintance but in a more conventional fashion. He saw Lord Stevarin’s men taking away what he thought was a suspicious bundle, discovered I wasn’t in my room and that my dresser had no notion where I’d gone, leapt to a conclusion no one else in his right mind would have leapt to, and followed them. So I got away.”

Halle looked at her a long moment, his gaze penetrating. “And Lord Stevarin killed himself in remorse?” he asked finally, as if he meant to believe her answer, whatever it was.

“No.” Madeline hesitated, then shook her head. It suddenly seemed pointless to conceal it, what with everything else Halle knew. She said, “That wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t a vase. He had a gun, you see, and I took it away from him and shot him with it. I wasn’t afraid. As soon as I realized what he was, I knew I’d kill him.” That was simple truth, though it sounded more like bragging. Madeline knew herself well enough to realize it had more to do with a disbelief in her own mortality than courage. That could catch up to you at any moment, she told herself. And you call Nicholas reckless.

Doctor Halle shook his head. “A young woman, abducted and threatened? Not a court in Ile-Rien would see it as anything but self-defense.”

“Perhaps.” Madeline shrugged. “I never had much to do with courts and Nicholas had good reason not to trust them, after what happened to Edouard. Stevarin had sent his servants away so he wouldn’t be interrupted and so it was very simple to take his coach and transport his body to his country home and make it look like suicide. Nicholas knew how to make it appear as if Stevarin had held the gun, and put powder burns on his hand and around the wound, and all these other things I wouldn’t have thought of if he hadn’t mentioned them. I found it truly fascinating.”

Halle watched her a moment, a worried crease between his brows. “Valiarde doesn’t…use this against you, does he?”

“No, Nicholas only blackmails people he doesn’t like.” She bit her lip. She really wanted to make Halle understand, but she wasn’t sure it was possible. She was only an actress; she didn’t make up those eloquent speeches she gave on stage. “It’s not like that. Nicholas isn’t just a clever criminal. If Edouard hadn’t been killed, he would be a physician or a scholar or a dilettante or…. But if Edouard hadn’t taken him in when he did…he would be a good deal worse.”

“Yet you trust him?”

“I do.”

Halle fiddled with his pipe a moment, then his eyes lifted to meet hers seriously. “Should Ronsarde and I trust him?”

Madeline smiled. “You ask me?”

“You strike me very much as a young woman who goes her own way.”

“Nicholas is a dangerous man,” Madeline said honestly. “But he’s never betrayed anyone who kept faith with him.”

There was the sound of the outer door rattling as someone opened it with a key. Halle cleared his throat almost nervously and Madeline stood, fussing with her hideous hat and unaccountably embarrassed, her face reddening as if the conversation with the doctor had been of a far more intimate nature.

She forgot her embarrassment when Inspector Ronsarde appeared in the doorway, trailed by an expressionless Crack. Ronsarde waved a telegram and his eyes gleamed with triumph. “At long last, a development,” he said. “Summon the others at once!”

Nicholas walked back to the Philosopher’s Cross, threading his way through street vendors and the mid-morning market crowd, until he reached Arisilde’s tenement. He slipped past the concierge, who was arguing with a delivery boy, and started up the stairs.

Nicholas always approached Arisilde’s garret cautiously, though it had remained under observation by Cusard’s men and no one they didn’t know had attempted to enter. Madeline had also visited here with Crack, though they were all careful to take different routes when they left to prevent anyone following them back to the Boulevard Panzan apartment. Nothing had happened here since Arisilde’s illness and Nicholas was almost grudgingly willing to admit that it might be safe.

The door whipped open before he could knock. Madele stood there, glaring at him. “What, you again?” she demanded. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Since you ask,” Nicholas said, stepping past her, “not particularly.” Madele was dressed in what she considered “town clothes,” a shapeless black dress and a hat with somewhat wilted fabric flowers jammed on her head. He stopped in the hallway to take off his coat and boots, not wanting to take the sewer stink that clung to them into Arisilde’s room. Madele stood and stared at him, her arms folded, her brows lowered in suspicion. “What have you done with Isham?” he asked her.

“He’s out at the shops,” Madele said, defensively. “I’ve got to live.”

If Nicholas had only the evidence of his eyes to go by, he would have said Madele had done nothing since Madeline had met her at the train station except sleep and devour whatever food was brought into the apartment. But Isham had told him that Madele spent every night seated on the floor of the parlor in front of the fire, working with the herbs and other supplies he found for her during the day. She had made a healing stone by the second night but so far it had done no good for Arisilde. It had, however, cured various fevers, lung ailments, piles, and other illnesses throughout the tenement, including a case of advanced venereal disease on the first floor, simply by its presence in the building, so Isham had no doubt of Madele’s power. Madele had also rearranged the furnishings in the apartment with special attention to the potted plants, mirrors, and glass bric-a-brac. She had pretended to Isham that she was doing it out of sheer eccentricity, but he had recognized it as a very old method of channeling etherial substance and suspected she was trying to use whatever of Arisilde’s power remained in the apartment to help sustain him. Madele had used none of Arisilde’s extensive collection of magical texts and after some subtle observation Isham had concluded that she was illiterate. Nicholas had suspected it before and wasn’t surprised to hear it confirmed. He said, “You realize you’re ‘living’ enough for three or four old women, don’t you?” and continued on to Arisilde’s bedroom. Madele followed him, grumbling.

Nicholas stopped just inside the door to turn up the gas in the wall sconce. Medicine bottles and other medical paraphernalia littered the dresser near the bed, along with an incense burner and some bunches of herbs. “Did the physician come today?”

“Yes,” Madele admitted, reluctantly. “Didn’t do a damn thing. How much are we paying him?”

“‘We’?” Nicholas sat on the bed. Arisilde’s face was white, his eyes sunken in their deep sockets. Isham had kept the sorcerer clean, forced enough water and broth down his throat to keep him alive, followed the physician’s instructions, but there had been no change. Madele had ventured no opinion as to whether the sorcerer’s condition had been caused by a spell or just the inevitable consequences of his much-abused health, but according to Isham she was exploring both possibilities.

One of the necromantic techniques for creating illness was to write an inscription in blood on a piece of linen or skin and bury it near the house of the victim. Isham had searched the neighborhood for anything of that kind with the help of a few hedgewitches of his acquaintance, but found nothing. Madele had looked again with the same result. Can’t you wake for a challenge, Arisilde? Wouldn’t you appreciate the novelty of defeating a mad sorcerer in battle? Nicholas thought. He said, “More than ‘we’ are paying ‘you.’ Are you asking for further compensation?” Madele had country sensibilities and her idea of compensation would probably be a new hat, which she certainly seemed to be badly in need of.

Madele sniffed and said nothing. Nicholas glanced at her and thought he read defeat in her expression. He looked away. Madele didn’t have a Lodun degree but he suspected she was as knowledgeable as any sorcerer-healer they could find there. And she had been able to do nothing.

The day she had arrived in town Madeline had brought her to the Panzan apartment and they had shown her the sphere. She had held it in her work-roughened hands for a long time, turning it over, watching the wheels within wheels inside it move. Then she had looked up at them with a baffled expression and said, “What in hell is this?”

Madele might have forgotten more sorcery and herbal medicine than most practitioners knew at their best, but the principles of natural philosophy that Edouard had used to construct the sphere were a closed book to her. She could sense the power within it but she had no notion of how to reach it.

There was a rattle from the hall as someone tried the outer door of the apartment. Madele darted out of the bedroom and Nicholas stood, reaching for the pistol in his inside jacket pocket. A moment later he heard Isham’s voice and relaxed.

Isham came down the hall, handing off a string bag of bread and onions to Madele, saying, “Take this to the pantry, please, you horrible old woman. Is… Ah, you are here.” Isham fished a folded telegram out of his sleeve and gave it to Nicholas. “The concierge had this, it arrived only a few moments ago. It is addressed to me but it is surely for you.”

Nicholas tore it open quickly. Important news– come at once. SR. “Yes,” he said, feeling his first flash of hope in three days. “It’s for me.”

They came to the place from the river aboard a small steam launch owned by a friend of Cusard’s. Nicholas stood in the bow, ignoring the spray of foul river water. The light was failing but he could see the turrets and chimneys of the house they were approaching outlined against the reddening sky. It was a monolithic bulk, mostly featureless in the shadow, but swinging lamps lit the garden terraces above the river and the watergate.

Nicholas jammed his hands further into his pockets and braced his feet as a gust of wind tore at him. The air was cold and the water like black glass. The setting sun left the Great Houses lining this side of the embankment in darkness and lit the columns and classical pediments of the buildings on the far side with a pure golden glow. The Prefecture had found the house this morning and it had taken most of the day to convince Lord Albier that Ronsarde and Halle should be permitted to inspect the scene. The battle had been conducted entirely by telegram, with frequent missives fired off to Captain Giarde at the palace for support. In the end, Albier had given in with poor grace and Ronsarde and Halle were formally invited to give advice. Nicholas had not been invited but he was here anyway. Madele had not been invited either but she was the only trustworthy source of sorcerous advice they had at present, so she was now huddled in the cabin of the boat, vocal in her displeasure at being forced to cross running water. Madeline had invited herself and was in her “young man” disguise to help forestall questions from Albier and the other representatives of the Prefecture. Crack had not been invited but he was here to guard their backs.

The chugging engine of the launch abruptly cut off. Nicholas turned back to the cabin and saw the captain standing, staring worriedly at the watergate the boat was still drifting toward. Nicholas glanced at it and saw that they had drawn near enough for the lamps to reveal the official markings on the launch already tied there and the uniforms of the men waiting at the gate.

“Constables,” the captain said, and spat succinctly over the side. He was an old man, featureless under several layers of ragged coats and scarves, looking more like a dustman than a smuggler. Doctor Halle and Ronsarde exchanged a look, then Halle took a step toward the man.

“It’s all right,” Nicholas told the captain. “They’re expecting us.”

The captain grunted thoughtfully, then disappeared back into the cabin. A moment later the engine came to life again.

Ronsarde stepped up beside Nicholas, his eyes on the house ahead. He said, “Albier has been here all day.”

The boat drew up to the watergate with practiced ease, bumped gently against the pilings as Crack stepped over to the tiny stone dock to catch the lines. One of the constables hurried to help him tie it off and a young man in a dark coat and top hat stepped forward to greet Ronsarde. “Inspector, I’m glad you can assist us in this…matter.” The lamps hanging on the pillars of the gate were shaped into elaborate wrought iron lilies; by their light the young man’s bland, handsome face looked ill. He said, “Lord Albier –”

“Lord Albier wishes me in Hell,” Ronsarde said briskly. He gripped Nicholas’s shoulder to steady himself as he stepped off the boat. Halle was immediately beside him, handing him his cane. “So I doubt he was pleased to hear my assistance would be inflicted upon him. I only hope he and his minions haven’t destroyed too many vital traces.”

“Ah… Yes, well.” The man’s eyes widened at the number of people piling off the boat. Nicholas had followed Halle and Madeline was helping her grandmother. “These are…?”

Ronsarde gestured sharply. “My associates.” He started for the stone steps leading up to the house and the young man hurried after him.

“That’s Viarn, Lord Albier’s secretary,” Doctor Halle explained to Nicholas as they followed.

The stairs climbed a terraced garden, cloaked in twilight and shadow, a constable’s lamp illuminating small manicured hedges and stone flower urns. They passed the garden walls screening the entrance of the house from the river and found themselves on a broad court with benches and graceful statuary, lit by gas sconces framing the doorway. Nicholas looked up at the large windows on the second floor where lamps from inside the house revealed a conservatory filled with palms and hothouse flowers. Nicholas tried to think how many gardeners would have been employed to care for those tropical plants and for the gardens on the embankment. During the winter, and with the family at their country seat, surely only two or three.

The doors stood open as they probably never would had the house’s real owners still been in command. A uniformed constable stood guard there. Ronsarde stepped into the foyer beyond, stopping abruptly as he realized there were muddy bootprints on the tiles. Then he saw the muddy boots of the constable at the door, swore violently and strode into the house. Doctor Halle grimaced and hurried after him.

“This is Chaldome House,” Madeline spoke in a low husky voice, part of her “young man” disguise.

In the man’s suit, greatcoat, and hat she wore and with her face subtly made up she looked the role, but he hoped she would be able to maintain it once they saw what was sure to lay within. Stiffly, Nicholas said, “Are you sure you want to be here?”

Madeline looked at him, her dark eyes enigmatic, and followed Halle into the house.

Nicholas felt a tug at his coat sleeve and glanced down. Madele stood there, bundled up in several coats and shawls. She said, “Damp air is bad for my joints.”

He offered her his arm. She took it, muttering to herself, and he helped her up the steps into the house.

The second floor of the entrance hall was open to the conservatory and air from the open doorway rustled in the heavy fronds and stirred the leaves, made the flames in the glass sconces flicker, brought the faint scent of the river into the house. Nicholas realized he had unconsciously braced himself for the heavy odor that had clung to Valent House. But he wasn’t here as long, he thought. There hasn’t been time.

He heard Ronsarde’s voice and followed it through the open double doors at the end of the hall.

The sound led him to a ballroom, high-ceilinged, with a row of marble columns dividing it from another conservatory, this one a glass-walled oval extending out from the side of the house. The torcheres along the walls and the chandeliers were meant to hold candles, so the room was lit only by the kerosene lamps of the constables. Most of it was in shadow but Nicholas could tell the walls were covered with paintings of tropical islands, with plants, birds, exotic animals picked out in fine detail. Nicholas remembered that the current Lord Chaldome was a naturalist of some renown, a member of the Philosophers’ Academy.

Uniformed men were searching, pulling the dustcovers off the furniture in the salons that gave onto the ballroom, even unrolling the rugs which were stacked along the far wall. There were eight tarp-covered forms stretched out on the floor in a line. Lord Albier stood near them, with his secretary and another man in a frock coat and top hat, arguing with restrained, bitter violence with Inspector Ronsarde. Halle was looking around at the shapes on the floor, shaking his head, Madeline standing near him.

Nicholas swore under his breath. “They moved the bodies. They destroyed the scene.” He had dragged poor Madele and her bad joints here for nothing. He supposed it would do no good to explain to Albier that if they hadn’t seen the murder room in Valent House as it was, they would never have realized it was necromancy, or known about the tie to Constant Macob.

Madele slipped her arm free of Nicholas’s and moved away, studying the large chamber thoughtfully.

Madeline turned away from Halle and Ronsarde and Nicholas went forward to meet her. “We may have come here for nothing,” she said, low-voiced. “Albier is a complete fool.”

“Is he?” Nicholas said. Albier was now pointing at them and gesturing to Ronsarde, obviously objecting to their presence. “Or did someone tell him to do this.”

“That’s the question.” Madeline glanced around. “Where is grandmother?”

Nicholas turned, looking around the room. Madele was nowhere to be seen. He let out his breath in annoyance. “We’ll find her when she wants to be found. Try to see as much as you can before we’re thrown out.” Before boarding the steam launch, Nicholas had told Madeline their primary goal was to search for the sphere Octave had made. He hadn’t mentioned this to Ronsarde and Halle.

Madeline nodded and moved away. An agitated party of people were being conducted into the room through the doors in the far wall. Several men in business dress, one older woman who might be a housekeeper or upper servant. She saw the still forms lined up under the sheets and cried out in shock. Albier saw the newcomers, gave Ronsarde one last parting glare, then hurried across the room toward them.

Halle moved immediately toward the bodies and the other doctors who were conferring near them, taking advantage of Albier’s distraction. Nicholas approached Ronsarde. “Well?”

The Inspector leaned on his cane, an expression of thwarted fury on his face. His eyes still on the occupied Albier, he said, “The family is still in the country, but there was a small staff to maintain the house in their absence, including a housekeeper, maids, a footman, and two gardeners to keep up the grounds and conservatories. This morning a dairyman tried to make his usual delivery at the kitchen door. He was well-acquainted with the house and when he realized it appeared to be locked and empty, he brought it to the attention of the local constable. That the servants were all found here, dead, is all I have been able to ascertain, and from the state of the place that is all I will ever be able to ascertain.”

“Did he discover when any of them were last seen alive?”

“The dairyman made a delivery three days ago and found them all quite alive and healthy. There are constables speaking with the other merchants in the area and the servants in the houses to either side, hoping to obtain confirmation of that.”

Nicholas stared around in irritation. “They were killed here?” The ballroom floor was marked only by the dirt and mud from Prefecture boots.

Ronsarde slanted a look at him. “So Albier says.”

“Then where’s the blood?” His recent research told him that there were some of Constant Macob’s necromantic magics that could be performed by strangling or suffocating the victim, but that wasn’t enough for the powerful spells their sorcerer seemed to favor.

“A good question.” Ronsarde looked at him, his eyes serious. “Albier claims that there is no need for haste or further investigation. He says he has the solution.”

“Solution?” Nicholas looked around the ballroom again, baffled. “He’s bluffing, trying to get rid of you.”

“I fear that he is not.” Ronsarde moved away, leaning heavily on his cane.

Worried, Nicholas watched him go. The new arrivals were being led over to the bodies, obviously to view them to establish their identity. Nicholas started to fade out of the way. He noticed, in the far corner of the ballroom, an unobtrusive set of panel doors, made obtrusive by the presence of two constables guarding them. This piqued his curiosity greatly, but he saw no way to discover what was there until Albier saw fit to reveal it. He left the ballroom through one of the attached salons.

He walked through the empty rooms, occasionally encountering constables who took him for one of the doctors or an aide to one of the Inspectors present. The only sound was quiet talk from the ballroom, punctuated by the loud sobs of the older woman as she identified the bodies.

Albier is either a fool or a liar, Nicholas thought. If the sorcerer had been here at all, he hadn’t been here long. The house was clean, freshly swept, ready for the occupancy of its masters at any moment. Most of the furniture was still neatly covered, paintings still on the walls, silver dining services neatly arranged in unbroken glass cabinets. Nothing had been looted, nothing disturbed.

The house wasn’t very old. The design was too modern, with too many public rooms and windows on the first floor. The owners would probably wish they had bought one of the older, more fortress-like Great Houses instead of building for comfort. Still, there had to be a sorcerer hired to ward it against theft. Nicholas made his way down to the kitchens to check the pantries and found Madeline coming up from the cellars. “Did you go down there alone?” he demanded.

She gave him a withering look as she fastened the door latch again. “No, Nicholas, Lord Albier escorted me personally. The constables have already been through it and there’s nothing down there. I was looking at the cisterns.”

Nicholas pinched the bridge of his nose, regained his calm, and asked, “Were they topped off?”

“Yes.” She waved a hand toward the main kitchen. “The fires were banked and then let to burn out and there were beds disturbed in the servants’ quarters. They must have been attacked at night.”

He nodded. “And the intruders didn’t use any water while they were here. To drink, or to clean up the blood.”

Madeline gestured in exasperation. “I don’t see how those people could have been killed here.”

“They weren’t.”

“Well that clears everything up,” Madeline said, annoyed.

Nicholas ignored the sarcasm and took the servants’ passage back to the public rooms. It opened into one of the reception areas off the ballroom. Nicholas looked around at a room as clean and undisturbed as all the others, with jade figures ornamenting the mantelpiece, and swore aloud. He would have taken an oath on anything that no intruders had stayed long in this house. Just long enough to abduct the servants, then to bring the bodies back.

The voices from the ballroom grew loud and agitated, then Doctor Halle appeared, supporting the older woman who had been called in to help identify the corpses. She was gasping for breath and even in the dim light Nicholas could see her face was going blue. He tore a cover off the nearest couch while Madeline shoved the ornamental tables out of the way. Halle lowered the woman to the couch as another doctor bustled in, digging in his medical bag.

Nicholas and Madeline backed away to give the physicians room and Madeline whispered, “Why did they make her look at them now? Surely they don’t always do it that way, not when the death was violent.”

“No, the relatives aren’t brought in until the victims are at the morgue and have been washed and prepared by the undertaker. For some reason, the Prefecture is in an unseemly hurry for identification.” From the look of it, Halle would be busy here for a time. Nicholas went back into the ballroom, Madeline trailing him.

Ronsarde had cornered Albier again. As Nicholas drew near he heard him say, “I’ve been patient throughout this farce, Albier, now tell me what it is you think you have. Unless,” Ronsarde added, smiling, “you are afraid it won’t stand up to my scrutiny.”

Albier returned the smile with the same lack of cordiality. “Very well. I was not trying to delay you, Ronsarde, only making sure of my facts. This way.”

Albier led the way to the doors Nicholas had noted earlier, the ones barred by the constables. Albier nodded to the secretary Viarn, who hurried over, drawing a key out of his pocket.

Viarn unlocked the sliding panels, then pushed them open. The room within was dark, illuminated only by narrow windows high in the outside wall. Another gesture from Albier and one of the solemn constables brought a lamp.

Obviously as impatient with the theatrics as Nicholas, Ronsarde took the lamp away from the constable and held it high, lighting the room.

Nicholas caught sight of another body on the floor, this one left in situ as the others had not been. He pushed forward, elbowing Viarn out of the way.

The body was that of a man, young, with a lanky build and dirty blond hair, sprawled on the parquet floor amid markings of ash and black dust or soot. What many of the marks had represented was permanently obscured by blood, most of it pooled around the man’s body. His throat had been cut and the lamplight glinted off a knife still clutched in one discolored hand.

“There is your sorcerer,” Albier said.

Nicholas looked at Ronsarde, whose expression of stunned incredulity said everything, then back at Lord Albier, who was complacently straightening his gloves. Since Ronsarde was apparently still speechless with rage, Nicholas cleared his throat and asked, “He killed everyone in the house, cleaned up after it, then cut his own throat, I suppose?”

Albier lifted his brows at this presumption, then noticed that everyone within earshot, constables, inspectors, their assistants, the doctors, was staring, waiting for the answer. He said sharply, “He was a sorcerer, called Merith Kahen, trained at Lodun and hired by Lord Chaldome to ward this house and the family estates in the provinces against theft and intrusions. I have been informed the remaining symbols on the floor of that room indicate the practice of necromancy. The conclusions are obvious.”

“Are they?” Ronsarde’s voice was admirably cool, the edge of sarcasm as sharp as a blade.

Albier’s mouth tightened. “He was practicing necromancy at the house in the Gabardin and he became frightened when you discovered the place. He tried to eliminate you with the attack on the Courts Plaza. In the meantime, one of the unfortunate servants here also discovered some evidence of Kahen’s activities, and perhaps confronted him. In his madness Kahen killed everyone in the house then –”

“Conveniently killed himself in remorse,” Nicholas finished. “How very…tidy of him.”

For a moment Albier’s eyes were dangerous, then he turned away with a muttered curse.

Nicholas smiled tightly to himself. Viarn and the constables posted nearby were all pretending not to have noticed the altercation. Ronsarde had been too caught up in his study of the dead man to notice and now he handed Nicholas the lamp without looking at him and leaned down, studying the floor intently. Picking his spot with care, he took one step forward, then one more, so he could kneel awkwardly beside the body. Nicholas took his place in the doorway, holding the lamp so Ronsarde could see. He leaned in as far as he could, to examine the walls of the room. There was none of the melting that he had observed in the cellar chamber in Valent House where the necromancy had taken place. He would have been greatly surprised if there had been.

Ronsarde had carefully lifted the dead hand that was still clasped around the knife. Now he lowered it gently, and said, “Unfortunate young man.”

“Did he cut his own throat?” Nicholas asked. “Not that it matters.”

“He did. Not that it matters.” In a tone of bitter disgust, Ronsarde added, “Magic.”

Nicholas looked around the dark little room again. Albier wasn’t a fool; if they could find any evidence that this scene was as stage-managed as a play at the Elegante, Albier would believe it, if reluctantly. But there would be no evidence. The young sorcerer had been enspelled to kill himself. From the traces of black dust on his hands, he had also been enspelled to draw the circle. But was that simple expediency, or attention to detail? Nicholas wondered. There was even a bucket of soot standing in the corner. When they search his rooms, if they haven’t already, will they find texts and notes on necromancy? Their opponent was learning.

Ronsarde had come to the same conclusion. He said, “There is nothing of use here.” He planted his cane and used it to lever himself to his feet, turning back toward the door. Nicholas stepped out of his way and handed the lantern off to the nearest constable.

There was an outcry from across the ballroom and the old woman that Halle and the other doctor had been tending came running toward them. Her face was red and streaked with tears, and she was gasping, “He wouldn’t do it, he wouldn’t do a thing like this, I swear it! You’ve got to believe –”

Ronsarde stepped forward and caught her hand, turning her away before she could get another look into the room. Nicholas quickly slid the doors closed and the secretary Viarn hastened to lock them.

“He didn’t…he didn’t…” the woman was still trying to say.

“I believe you,” Ronsarde said to the hysterical woman, his voice firm. “Go to your home, mourn him and the others, and know that the accusations against him are vile lies, and in time he will be proved blameless.”

The woman stared at him, as if she couldn’t quite comprehend what he was saying, but her breathing calmed and her eyes were less wild. When the other doctor came to lead her away, she went without protest, only craning her neck to look back at the closed doors.

Halle had followed the woman in and now stepped close to Ronsarde. He said in a low voice, “She was the housekeeper here and the boy, the young sorcerer, was her son. When they discovered he had the talent for magic, Lord Chaldome paid for his education and sent him to Lodun. He was being paid well for his services here, enough so that his mother had no need to work. It sounds as if he had absolutely no motive to feel anger toward the family or the servants.”

Nicholas cleared his throat and said, “His father…?”

“I thought of that,” Halle said impatiently. “His father was a barman at a local wineshop, who died only a few years ago. The possibility that he was a bastard of Lord Chaldome –”

“Is not worth considering,” Ronsarde finished. He looked around the ballroom again, his expression dark. “I greatly fear that this…charade has been designed to throw off pursuit long enough for our culprit to move to another city and begin his work again.”

Nicholas said nothing. He wasn’t so sure that was the case. To throw off pursuit, yes, but not to cover an escape. He saw Lord Albier coming back toward them and murmured, “Watch out, gentlemen.”

Lord Albier advanced on Ronsarde, saying, “Calming the woman’s hysterics with platitudes does her no good. Facing the facts –”

“I gave her the facts,” Ronsarde said coldly. “You are the one who is deluding yourself. If you would be the only one to suffer from it, I would be happy to let you have your delusion. But the killing will continue, if not here, then somewhere else.”

Nicholas moved away, leaving Ronsarde and Halle to argue with Albier. Madeline, he realized, had also disappeared, probably to pursue the search through the rest of the house. He felt fairly confident that she would find nothing.

Doing his best to stay unobtrusive, Nicholas made his own brief examination of the bodies of the unfortunate servants. The wounds on two of them were like those on the corpses found at Valent House, with the tattered, hideously stained clothing torn aside to reveal disembowelments, eyes gouged, rope marks on wrists and ankles. He chose one man and one woman, Nicholas noted. Impartial bastard. The others had been simply slaughtered, their throats cut. Only one large man, who by his coat and mud-stained trousers might have been one of the gardeners, had been killed by repeated blows to the head which had finally crushed his skull. The man must have fought or tried to escape. So he used two for necromancy, and the others had to be killed because…. Because they might have been able to swear to Merith Kahen’s occupation with some harmless pursuit during the time when he was supposed to be killing people in the Gabardin or planning magical attacks on the Courts Plaza.

Nicholas dropped the sheet on the last corpse. He didn’t know why he was doing this; he wasn’t discovering anything Halle wouldn’t be able to tell him.

“What are you doing?”

Nicholas turned on his heel, but the words weren’t directed toward him. Rahene Fallier stood over Madele, who was kneeling on the floor and lifting a sheet to peer at one of the bodies. Nicholas stood slowly, his back stiffening. He hadn’t known Fallier was here but he supposed it was inevitable. Despite his fall from grace in the palace, Fallier would still be working with the Prefecture. Nicholas started to move toward them.

Madele looked up at Fallier, her bright eyes wary. Then she smiled, or at least showed her teeth. She said, “Think again.”

Fallier stared down at her for a long moment then, though Madele had done nothing, or nothing obvious, he took a deliberate step back. Dressed in an impeccable dark suit and towering over the ragged old woman, he looked totally in command and it seemed an uneven contest. But Madele was the kind of woman who would fight like a feral animal when cornered and that wasn’t taking her power into account. The sorcerer adjusted his gloves, his expression revealing nothing, and said, “Who are you?”

Madele said, “I came with Sebastion,” and grinned at him.

Nicholas had no time to wonder when Madele had had the chance to get on a first name basis with Inspector Ronsarde. Fallier growled, “That hardly answers my question.”

She said, “It didn’t that, did it? Go on, now.”

Fallier watched her a moment longer, his lips thinning with annoyance, then he gave her an edged smile and tipped his hat to her.

Nicholas approached cautiously as Fallier moved away. He sat on his heels next to her and said, “I was racing to your rescue but since you seem perfectly capable of rescuing yourself I thought I’d let discretion rule valor.”

Madele turned from her rapt contemplation of Fallier’s departing form to regard Nicholas with a raised brow. “If you were thirty years older or I was a hundred years younger –”

“I would run screaming,” Nicholas assured her. “What have you found?”

Madele chuckled but she looked down at the sheeted body again and her face turned serious. She lifted the arm of the corpse. Nicholas noted it was a woman’s arm, and that it was discolored and the stiffness had passed off, showing that it was at least a day or more since the death, but Halle would have already made note of all that. Madele gently lifted one of the fingers and Nicholas frowned. The corpse wore a ring, a plain dull metal band. “I don’t understand.”

Instead of the sarcastic response he half-expected, Madele gently worked the ring up the finger, so he could see that the skin beneath it was blackened, burned. “What caused that?” Nicholas asked, frowning.

“A magic,” she said. “Unfinished, and harmless.” She tucked the arm back under the sheet, smoothing the cloth over it and giving it an absentminded pat, as if she was tucking in a child. “It makes me wonder if it was a second go.”

“Can you be a trifle more obscure? I think I almost understood what you said that last time.”

She shook her head impatiently. “He was making a magic, with the ring and this poor dead thing, but he didn’t let it finish. Just a thought I had — I do have them occasionally. I need to ruminate on it a bit and take a look somewhere.” She held out a hand and Nicholas helped her up.

Madele wandered away, her course apparently aimless. With Fallier here Nicholas thought he might as well make himself scarce, at least for a time, and he headed for the way out of the ballroom.

Nicholas saw the secretary Viarn hovering near the outer doorway, an expression of tired resignation on his face. He greeted him with a nod and Nicholas took the opportunity to ask, “Lord Albier said the dead sorcerer was trained at Lodun. Who did he study with?”

“I believe it was Ilamires Rohan.” The secretary shook his head. “After all the opportunities Lord Chaldome gave him, it’s hard to believe the young man would betray him so. But madness knows no reason.”

“No,” Nicholas agreed. “No, it doesn’t, does it?” He walked on.

Out on the stone court the wind was in the right direction and the night air was fresh. The lamps flickered and the constables patrolled the grounds, endlessly searching. Nicholas jammed his hands in his pockets and paced to the end of the court where he could see the river. Octave had said, “The palace…the palace on the river. He’s been there –” He’s been there and gone, Nicholas thought. Is that what he meant to say? Octave had known about this house. From the state of the bodies, they could have been killed that very night. If the spiritualist had lived for one more breath, one more heartbeat, would they have known about this place in time to save the occupants? He wasn’t sure why that should be such a bitter thought; this was none of his business.

No, that wasn’t true. What would Edouard have thought if he had known his work had been used in aid of all this killing?

And that wasn’t true, either. Edouard’s dead, Nicholas thought. Might as well admit that as well, if honesty is everything. None of this can hurt him.

I want this sorcerer because I want him, there’s no altruism about it. He has challenged me, he has interfered with me, and I’ll see him in Hell if I have to escort him there personally.
Crack ghosted up and took a post at his elbow, and Nicholas put those thoughts aside for the moment. He said, sourly, “Lord Albier’s solved our little mystery — to his satisfaction.”

Crack grunted noncommittally.

“You know what that means, of course.”

Crack muttered, “We’re on our own again, that’s what.”

Madele burst through the door of Arisilde’s apartment, shedding scarves and shawls. She found Isham seated in an armchair in front of the parlor hearth, a book in his lap.

She dropped her last shawl, still damp from the river spray, and said, “He was making a corpse ring!”

Isham stared. “What?”

“This sorcerer. He’s killed another lot of folk, and on one’s hand I found the making of a corpse ring.”

Madele’s excitement made her country accent thicken and Isham frowned in incomprehension, but he caught the last two words. “Corpse ring?” It was one of the oldest tricks of necromancy, a ring enspelled and left on the hand of a corpse for three days. When it was removed and placed on the hand of a living person, it would simulate death, or a state close to it. Isham shut his book and slammed it down on the table. “I already told you that that was the first thing I looked for! There were no strange tokens, nothing that was not his –”

Madele shook her head impatiently. “Looked with your eyes, or looked with your hands?”

Isham hesitated, then said something vile in Parscian and struggled to his feet.

Madele followed him to Arisilde’s bedchamber, saying, “You said you went out and when you came back he seemed to sleep. Well, he must have gone to sleep, with a bit of his drug to help him along. And while he lay so it must have come in, whatever it was, and put it on him without waking him….”

Still cursing his own stupidity in Parscian, Isham tore back the patched coverlet and grabbed for Arisilde’s hands. He felt carefully around the base of each finger, moving upward slowly, deliberately turning his face away so he would have only the evidence of touch to go by. An illusion strong enough to hide a ring on the finger of a man who had been examined by physicians, who had been searched many times for any evidence of magical attack, could still be powerful enough to confuse the senses even when the searcher was certain it was there. He found nothing and shook his head in frustration.

Madele snatched the coverlet off the bed entirely and took Arisilde’s right foot in one hand, feeling carefully along the toes. Isham watched, but the brief spark of hope was dying as she found nothing and moved on to the left foot.

Madele frowned, then her face went still suddenly, as her fingers reached the smallest toe.

Something else had occurred to Isham and he said urgently, “Madele –” She was already slipping the ring off Arisilde’s toe. Once it lay in her palm the illusion dissolved and she could see it as well as feel it, a small iron band, grimly stained. She met Isham’s anxious gaze, and grinned. “Isn’t it always the last place you look?”


Continued in Chapter Eighteen

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