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

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

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 Six. Read Chapter Five here.

Chapter Six

Madeline wasn’t able to sleep. It was for no rational reason: Nicholas had done far more dangerous things than pose as a servant at a house party. At least, she thought he had. Doctor Octave was such an unknown quantity.

Unable to reason away her sleeplessness, she sat up on the chaise in the bedroom, wrapped in her dressing gown, with a glass of watered wine and a book she was unable to pay proper attention to.

It’s not as if Octave is the first sorcerer we’ve had to deal with, she thought for perhaps the third time, tapping one well-kept fingernail on the page before her and staring into space. They had once burgled the town home of a sorcerer called Lemere and found their way through a bewildering maze of magical protections. But Arisilde had been more active then and well able to cope with any attempt at retaliation. If Octave is a sorcerer. Perhaps it was the unknown that disturbed her.

She wished she could tell if it was ordinary nerves or some long buried sense trying to warn her. Nearly all the women in her family had strong talents and inclinations for witchcraft. Madeline had given all that up for the stage and in truth, she didn’t miss it. Her real talent was for acting, and the roles she played in pursuit of Nicholas’s goals were just as thrilling as lead ingénue at the Elegante.

She shook her head at her own folly. Life was safer at the Elegante. Any fool could see Nicholas was obsessed. With destroying Montesq mainly, but also in a broader sense he was obsessed with deception itself. And obsessed with playing the part of Donatien to Vienne’s criminal underworld, and dancing in and out of Inspector Ronsarde’s grasp, and a dozen other things to varying degrees. And now with stalking Octave, for all she knew.

Lately the obsession had been gaining the upper hand. Madeline supposed that if she were of literary bent she would see Donatien as a separate, distinct personality that was fast consuming Nicholas. That, in fact, would make a good play. Davne Ruis could play Nicholas, she thought. And I could play me. Or maybe his mother; that would be a good part, too. But she knew it wasn’t the case. Nicholas and Donatien were too obviously the same personality; at heart and everywhere else that counted they were the same man, with only cosmetic differences to fool the onlookers. They both wanted the same things.

But then sometimes she wasn’t sure she knew Nicholas at all. She suspected Reynard might know him better. He had been helping Nicholas with his various plots for about six years or so and Madeline had only been involved for half that time.

Not long after Nicholas had first taken her into his confidence, Madeline had had a tête-à-tête with Reynard, over brandy on the veranda of the Cafe Exquisite. She had asked him, point blank, if he and Nicholas had ever slept together, wishing to get that question resolved before she embarked on any deeper relationship with him. Sensing her seriousness, Reynard had replied, immediately and without baiting, that they hadn’t. “Not that I didn’t inquire once if he was interested, not long after we first met.” After a moment he admitted, “I had the feeling that if I had pushed the issue, he would have given in. If you can imagine Nic giving in on any point whatsoever, which I admit is rather difficult.”

“But you don’t push issues,” Madeline had said, swirling the warmed brandy in her glass.

“No, I don’t. He didn’t want me, he wanted affection and understanding. I didn’t really want him, I just wanted to try to learn how his mind worked. Neither of us would have gotten what we wanted and we both already had more trouble than we could handle.”

“You can’t find out who someone is by sleeping with them,” Madeline had pointed out.

“Thank you for the words of wisdom, my dear,” Reynard had said, dryly. “Now where were you twenty years ago when the advice would have done me some good?”

Reynard had been of some help, but instinct told Madeline that both of them knew exactly as much as Nicholas wanted them to know and not one hint more.

Such speculations were pointless. Madeline shifted restlessly and tugged her dressing gown more firmly around her. There was a soft scratch on the door. As she put her book aside it opened and Sarasate peered in. “Madame, there’s a telegram.”

“Is there?” She stood hastily, tightening the belt of her gown. She had forgotten her slippers and the stone-flagged floor was cold. “That’s odd.”

She took the folded square of paper and read it, frowning; Sarasate didn’t quite hover. She said, “Nicholas wants me to make sure the attic storeroom hasn’t been disturbed.”

“The attic? The old master’s things?” Sarasate had been a manservant here when Edouard was alive.

“Yes, I’d better go up right away.”

“I’ll get you a lamp, Madame. Would you like me to accompany you?”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” She took a moment to tie back her hair and find an old pair of shoes at the bottom of the armoire, while Sarasate brought her a hand lamp.

Madeline climbed the stairs up to the third floor and opened the door of the library. She caught a faint scent of pipe tobacco and hesitated. It wasn’t the type that Nicholas or Reynard used, but she recognized it just the same.

She smiled to herself and said softly, “Hello, Edouard.”

There was no answer but she hadn’t really expected one. Edouard Viller wasn’t haunting his old home in the sense that most people understood the term, he was simply there. The way the beamed and coffered ceilings that made the upper floor rooms both oppressive and cozy were there. The way the odd-sized spaces and the old inelegant furniture were there. Edouard’s personality lay over Coldcourt like a fine damask cloth.

There was nothing to fear from this haunting. Madeline had never met Edouard when he was alive and she knew he had been executed for one of the most heinous crimes under Ile-Rien law, but the traces of him that were left had convinced her of his innocence without a review of the facts of the case.

She paused to light the lamp on the round table near the center of the room, revealing book-lined walls and two overstuffed chairs, a secretaire with letterscales, inkstand, and blotter, a faded Parscian rug on the floor and cretonne curtains cloaking the windows. She crossed to the bookcase against the far wall and selected the correct volume, placing her palm flat on the cover. It was, appropriately enough, The Book of Ingenious Devices.

The section of the bookcase in front of her slid backward, then lifted up into the air, accompanied by much squeaking of gears and wheels. A cool draft, smelling of must, moved her hair and fluttered the skirts of her gown.

She set the book aside. This portal was one of Edouard’s and Arisilde’s earliest collaborations. Only the key, a spell imprinted on the cover of the book, was true magic. The mechanism that lifted the door was one of Edouard’s mechanical contrivances.

The section of bookcase rose up into the high ceiling of the chamber beyond it, revealing a narrow stairway curving up into dimness. Madeline gathered her skirts and started to climb.

The stairs curved up and around, reaching a heavy wooden door. The key was in the lock. Long ago, Nicholas had taken the key from the drawer where it was kept and left it up here, explaining that if the house was ever searched, a key that fit no obvious lock was sure to be remarked, while if anyone managed to get past the concealed entrance to the stair, an ordinary door was not likely to stop them, locked or not. Madeline thought the Vienne Prefecture unlikely to be quite so astute, but she had long since given up arguing those points with Nicholas; as far as she was concerned, she was in charge of costume and makeup, he was in charge of paranoia.

She opened the door, which creaked a little, and stepped into the room beyond.

There was a little light already in the large chamber — moonlight, falling through three little dormer windows high in the opposite wall. The roof stretched up overhead, the beams beginning just above the windows and vanishing into darkness in the peak somewhere above. A platform about twelve feet in height cut the room in half: it was just below the windows, with a narrow stair at one end of the room giving access to it. There were trunks and boxes piled atop it, though most of the space it afforded was empty. It was there to disguise the real purpose of the attic; if you looked in through the dormer windows from the roof, you saw only a rather odd-sized box room. Edouard’s experiments occupied the lower half of the chamber, under the platform.

Madeline made her way forward, sneezing at the dust. The area below the platform was like a cave; her lamp seemed hardly to penetrate it at all. Shelves lining the back wall held notebooks and bound manuscripts — years of Edouard Viller’s research, saved from destruction at the hands of the Crown Court. Piled around were various bits of machinery, pipes, gears, wheels, several large leather bladder-like things that were obviously made to hold air, but for what purpose she couldn’t imagine. There was a sort of metal cage lying on its side that loomed overhead like a whale’s skeleton and seemed to be connected to half the other odd things around it; it reminded Madeline of the book where the shipwreck survivors landed on an island, which turned out to be the back of an immense sea beast.

She had been up here before in the daylight, but it wasn’t any easier to tell what anything was then, either. It was as if a blacksmith’s work room, a train yard, and a theater propmaker’s shop had all been shaken together and the results carefully collected on the attic floor. But she knew Nicholas hadn’t been concerned about any of these things. She pressed on, making her way toward the far wall.

In a cupboard at the very back of the space, she found her goal. Lined up neatly on one of the shelves were three spherical devices. They were small, each not much larger than a melon, and someone who knew nothing about either magic or navigation would have said they were tarnished armillary spheres. But instead of empty space each seemed to be filled with tiny gears and wheels, all linked together.

Madeline touched one and felt her fingertips tingle.

Though Edouard Viller had designed the spheres, each one needed a spark of real human sorcery, a spell of delicate complexity, to make it live and perform whatever its purpose was. The first one, the oldest one, had been brought to life by Wirhan Asilva, an old sorcerer at Lodun who had worked with Edouard while he was still perfecting his design. She touched Asilva’s sphere; it was cold and there was no answering tingle of awareness. The spell had only lasted a few years, Nicholas told her. Asilva hadn’t been very enthusiastic about Edouard’s experiments and eventually he had refused to work with him anymore. But it had also been Asilva who had helped Nicholas save most of the important contents from Edouard’s workrooms at Lodun, only a few steps ahead of the Crown officials sent to destroy it.

The other spheres had been built with Arisilde’s help and he was the only one who knew anything at all about them.

She touched the third, partly out of thoroughness and partly because she liked that little thrill of power that seemed to course off the warm metal, and snatched her hand back in shock. The third sphere was vibrating. She reached for it again and a spark of blue light travelled along the spiral gears and winked out abruptly.

She lifted it off the shelf and, probably foolishly, tried to peer into it. This is nothing for a lapsed and never-worth-much-in-the-first-place witch to be fooling with, she told herself.

It didn’t explode or blast her thoughts out of her head, but continued to shiver against her hands, like a frightened animal. She tried to see into the depths of it, to discover if any of the delicate works were damaged, but her lamp was no help.

Madeline tucked the sphere under her arm and carried it out of the confined space of the work area and up the narrow stair to the top half of the chamber. Moonlight flooded the platform, a clear colorless illumination almost strong enough to read print by. She ducked her head under the low-hung beams and crouched near the middle window, balancing the sphere on her knees. Again she looked deep into it.

She couldn’t see any damage, or parts shifting around, but deep inside, still following some invisible path, was the blue spark.

Madeline felt a cold spot between her shoulder blades, as if a breeze had touched her in the dead still attic air. She lifted her head and looked out the window.

There was something crouched outside on the parapet, watching her. Tattered clothes, shroud-like in the wind, a skeletal head, teeth, clawlike hands grinding into the stone. She clutched the sphere to her chest and stood up in pure reflex, thumping her head on a ceiling beam.

The thing outside reared back, almost falling off its perch. The sphere shivered violently against her and the creature snarled and vanished over the wall.

Madeline was frozen, but only for an instant. She swore violently and leaned forward to see if it was still out there. She was careful not to touch the window, which was supposed to be warded. It must still be warded, she thought, or that thing would have broken in and killed me. She could only think it was one of the creatures Nicholas had seen in the Mondollot House cellars.

She looked down at the sphere she was still clutching to her. The shivering had stopped and it was only tingling gently, as it always did, the outermost manifestation of the power trapped inside. The creature might have fled the sphere. If it was sensitive to human magic the way the fay were, the sphere would smell of Arisilde, who had been at the height of his power when he had helped Edouard build it.

Worry it out later, she told herself, making her way to the stair. She had to collect her lamp, get back downstairs, check that the ward stones were still there, and make sure everyone in Coldcourt was still alive.

Nicholas had Cusard drop him off at the Philosopher’s Cross. He wanted to talk to Arisilde now, even if he had to wake him, and he wanted Crack and Reynard to go on to Coldcourt, to make sure all was well there and to tell Madeline what they had discovered.

The Cross was still lively and wild, even this late, but far more safe than the streets of Riverside or the Gabardin, and many of the people promenading on the walks were of the beau monde. The cabarets and coffeehouses were still open, the streets well-lit and comfortably crowded, and there were peddlers and beggars gathered on every corner, while a truly astonishing number of prostitutes waited on the after-theater crowd. It would be relatively easy to find a hire cabriolet when he was done, if he could manage to get aboard before the driver got a good look at the current state of his clothes.

Even Arisilde’s normally quiet tenement seemed teeming with life. Nicholas edged past the concierge, who was bargaining room rates with a lady of the night and her top-hatted client. Climbing the stairs turned out to be a greater task than he had anticipated and he knocked on Arisilde’s door greatly exhausted.

The door was thrown open with unexpected violence. Nicholas started back before he recognized Arisilde standing in the doorway. The sorcerer’s eyes were red-rimmed and mad, his fair hair escaped from its braid and hanging in lank strings around his face. He looked like a member of the Unseelie Court from one of Bienuilis’s more excessive paintings.

He stared at Nicholas without recognition, then said, “Ah, it’s you.” Glancing over his shoulder as if he feared pursuit from within the apartment, he leapt back down the little hallway into his rooms. “Quick, inside!”

Nicholas leaned his head against the dusty wall. “Oh, God.” He was too tired for this. He thought of walking away, going back down to the street and finding a cab. But wearily he pushed away from the wall and followed Arisilde, pausing only to pull the door closed behind him.

The candles had guttered in the room with the skylights and the fire had been reduced to coal. The curtains had all been torn down from the windows, exposing the little apartment to the night sky. Most Vienne dwellers, especially in the poor neighborhoods, kept their windows shuttered at night for superstitious fear of night-flying fay, though none had been spotted near the city since the railroad lines had been laid. Obviously that was not something Arisilde worried about. And even in his present condition, Nicholas thought, he is probably more than a match for any creature the fay could produce. That was one of the tragedies of it. No one would ever know what Arisilde was or how powerful he could have been.

Arisilde stood over the table, tearing through a pile of papers and books, scattering them onto the floor. Nicholas eased down into one of the torn armchairs near the hearth, wincing as his bruises made contact with the under-stuffed cushions.

Arisilde whipped around, ran a hand through his disordered hair and whispered, “I can’t remember what I was going to tell you.”

Nicholas sank back in the chair and closed his eyes. He could already tell that getting any sense out of his friend, about the possibility of someone stealing Edouard’s work or the connection between Octave and the disappearances, was patently hopeless, at least for tonight. But the climb back down the steep stairs of the decaying tenement was more than he could stand to contemplate just now. He said, “I’ll wait. Perhaps you’ll think of it.”

He didn’t realize Arisilde had crossed the room until he felt breath on his cheek. He opened his eyes to find Arisilde leaning over him, braced on the arms of the chair, his face scant inches away. A pitifully earnest expression in his violet eyes, he said, “It was important.”

Nicholas said, “I know.” He hesitated. That Arisilde was in a worse state than usual had already occurred to him. That perhaps he should not have ventured into the garret under these circumstances hadn’t crossed his mind — until now. Cautiously, he asked, “Where’s your man Isham?”

Arisilde blinked. For a moment his expression was desperate, as if any concentration was painful. Then he smiled in weary relief and said, “At Coldcourt. I sent him to look for you.”

“That makes sense.” Nicholas told himself he was being a fool. When he had closed his eyes he had seen that room at Valent House again and it was making him imagine things; Arisilde couldn’t bear to step on ants. In his right mind, a traitor voice whispered.

“Doesn’t it?” Arisilde was suddenly elated. “That must be it, then!”

Nicholas pushed him back, so he could see his face more clearly, and asked, “Did you have more opium than you usually do, today?”

Arisilde said, “I didn’t have any today,” and tore away from him so abruptly Nicholas almost tumbled out of the chair. He stood, watching in bewilderment as Arisilde swept the rest of the books and papers off the table and began rubbing his hands over the unpolished surface, as if he was searching for something hidden there. Nicholas said, “None at all?”

“None.” Arisilde shook his head. “I had to be careful. I had to be very, very careful. But I found it out, I did, the thing I wanted to find out.” He slammed his hands against the table, with a force that should have broken his slender wrists. “But now I can’t remember what it was!”

Nicholas went to him, moving slowly so as not to startle, and tried to turn him away from the table, but Arisilde flung himself toward the opposite end of the room, upsetting a chair and careening off another table, sending a collection of little jars and plants crashing to the floor.

Nicholas took a deep breath. He had to get Arisilde’s attention, keep him from turning that energy on himself. “Was it something to do with the things I brought you to look at, the ashes of the golem, maybe?”

Arisilde seemed to pause in thought, leaning on the far wall as if he had fetched up against it in a storm. The shadows were deep there and Nicholas could see nothing of his expression. “No,” Arisilde said slowly. “It wasn’t anything here. I went out today. Oh, damn.” He slid to the floor, helplessly. “Next time I’ll write a letter.”

Nicholas went to him, stumbling a little over the scattered debris in the half-light. He knelt in front of Arisilde, who had buried his face in his hands. “Ari…” Nicholas cleared his throat. It was ridiculously difficult to speak. He wanted to say that if Arisilde had given up the drug for one day, couldn’t he give it up for the next, and the next after that? But past attempts had taught him how useless any kind of remonstrance was; Arisilde would simply refuse to listen, or stop speaking to him at all.

The sorcerer lifted his head, took Nicholas’s hand and ran a thumb along the lifeline, as if he was doing a palm-reading by touch, which he very well might be. He said, “I watched them hang Edouard, do you remember?”

Let’s not do this, not tonight, Nicholas thought, too weary to do anything more than close his eyes in resignation. He had come to realize that the main reason he was uncomfortable in Arisilde’s company was not his disgust for what the opium did to his friend, but the fact that sometimes Arisilde said things like this. Do you remember when Edouard took us to Duncanny, do you remember that day at the river in the spring, do you remember…. When it was at its worst, it was like this: do you remember the day at the trial when Afgin testified, do you remember when Edouard was hanged. Nicholas didn’t want to remember the good times or the bad. He wanted to think about revenge, about Montesq paying for what he had done. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. But he let out his breath, looked at Arisilde again and said, “I remember.”

“If I had stayed in Vienne with Edouard instead of going back to Lodun –”

“Ari, dammit, there was no reason for you to stay.” Nicholas couldn’t conceal his bitter anger. They had had this conversation before too. “No one knew what was about to happen. You can’t blame yourself for that.” Sorcerers could gain knowledge of the present and the past, but only if they knew where to look.

“I was the family witness because you couldn’t bring yourself to it…”

“That was a mistake.” It also wasn’t quite true, or perhaps Arisilde was being polite. They had kept Nicholas from trying to free Edouard or disrupting the execution by holding him down on a bed and forcibly dosing him with laudanum. When Nicholas had finally been conscious and coherent enough to realize the execution was over, he had broken every window, lamp and glass object in the house, so enraged he had no idea what he was doing. But the rage had burned away and what it had left in its place was no less hurtful, but far more useful.

“What?” The light from the hearth behind them gleamed off the whites of Arisilde’s eyes but his voice sounded almost normal. “Do you think all this wreck and ruin came from that moment? Oh no, oh no, never think that. Watching a good friend hang is a terrible thing but it didn’t do this. I did this.” Arisilde leaned forward. His voice dropped to a whisper but it was as intense as if he shouted. “I wanted to kill them all. It’s not what they did, you see, it’s what they didn’t do. I wanted to pull Lodun down stone by burning stone. I wanted to destroy every man, woman, and child in it, I wanted to burn them alive and watch them scream in Hell. And I could have done it. They trained me to do it. But…” Arisilde started to laugh. It was an agonizing sound. “But I never could bear to see anyone hurt. Isn’t it ridiculous?”

“That’s the difference between us, Ari. You wanted to do it; I would have done it.” But the words disturbed him. Arisilde had said some odd things under the influence of opium but hearing him talk this way was almost shocking. Nicholas had never known why his friend had taken this path into ruin and despair. God knew he had seen it happen often enough before; in the teeming streets where he had spent his childhood, men and women fell into this same trap every day.

Arisilde rubbed his face until the skin seemed like to break and Nicholas caught his wrists and pulled his hands away, afraid that he was going to blind himself. Arisilde peered up at him urgently. “You knew I thought Edouard was guilty. You knew because I told you and we talked about it, and then later after the execution I came to you and I said you had been right and I had been wrong, remember? And it was proved later, of course, Ronsarde proved it later, remember?”

“Of course I do. That was when…” I decided not to kill Ronsarde. Nicholas couldn’t finish the thought aloud, not even to Ari who wouldn’t recall this conversation by morning anyway.

“But I didn’t tell you how I knew.” Arisilde let the words trail off. Nicholas thought that was all he meant to say and tried to urge him to stand, but the sorcerer shook his head. His voice perceptibly stronger, he said, “I went to Ilamires Rohan. He was Master of Lodun, then, remember?”

“Of course I remember, Ari, he tried to defend Edouard.”

Arisilde stood up suddenly, dragging Nicholas with him. Ari was so slender, seeming so weak and languid most of the time, Nicholas had forgotten how strong he was. Ari’s hands were buried in the front of his shirt, almost lifting him off his feet, and Nicholas didn’t think he could free himself without hurting him. Arisilde said, softly, terribly, “He didn’t defend him well enough.”


“I went to see him in his study at Lodun. Oh, that beautiful room. I was afraid that my judgment was faulty because I had let Edouard fool me, and he said my judgment was not impaired. He said he knew Edouard was innocent. But he had let the trial go on, because a man of Edouard’s knowledge was too dangerous to live.”

“No.” Nicholas felt oddly hollow. One more betrayal after all the others of that terrible time, what did it really matter? But as the words sank in, and Nicholas remembered the old man, Master of Lodun, sitting with them at the trial as if in sympathy and support, he was astonished to discover that it did still matter. It mattered a great deal.

Arisilde was saying, “Yes, the simple truth, after all the lies. I could have killed him.”

“You should have told me,” Nicholas whispered. “I would have.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t.” Arisilde smiled, and Nicholas saw the other truth. Ari said, “But don’t think he escaped unpunished. He loved me like a son, you know. So I destroyed something he loved.”

Nicholas pulled away and Arisilde released him. The sorcerer was still wearing that mad, gentle smile. Nicholas walked back toward the hearth, not quite aware of what he was doing. The fire was nothing but glowing coals, winking out as he watched. Behind him, Arisilde said, “And Rohan became such a bitter old man, who lost his greatest student, his hand-picked successor…” His voice broke. “That wasn’t what I was going to tell you…I really have to remember that, it was very important.”

Nicholas turned back as Arisilde slumped to the floor again, but the sorcerer’s madness seemed to have died with the fire. He let Nicholas guide him to the big tumbled bed in one of the little rooms off the hall. The most powerful sorcerer in the history of Lodun lay there quietly, saying nothing more, until the servant Isham returned and Nicholas left him to his care.


Continued in Chapter Seven

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