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

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

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 Sixteen. Read Chapter Fifteen here.

Chapter Sixteen

“Stop where you are, please.”

Nicholas stopped. From a doorway a man was pointing a pistol at them. He was a little older than Nicholas, dark-haired, bearded, wearing evening dress. Nicholas thought at first it was one of the off-duty Guards, but then he saw the men behind him were in cavalry uniforms. No, not cavalry uniforms; the sashes were different. Queen’s Guard, Nicholas thought, recognizing the style suddenly.

“Put the weapon on the floor.”

Nicholas hesitated, but only for a heartbeat. The man’s eyes told him that he would shoot without compunction. Keeping his movements slow and deliberate, he lowered the pistol to the floor.

“Very good,” the man said. He stepped further into the room, the gun never wavering from its aim. Nicholas watched him grimly. The Queen’s Guard had traditionally been the personal bodyguard of the Queens of Ile-Rien, and since the current Queen ruled in her own right this made them the first armed troop in the palace, and more politically powerful than the Royal Guard. If this man was their Captain he would not be as easy to escape as the hapless lieutenants they had outwitted.

Ronsarde said, “Captain Giarde, how very good to see you.”

The man stopped, stared hard at the Inspector, then glanced uncertainly at Nicholas. “I don’t think I know –”

Ronsarde straightened up and deliberately began removing the extra hairpieces from his beard, mustaches, and eyebrows. “Flattering of you not to recognize me,” he said in his normal voice. “I threw this together in something of a hurry.”

“Ronsarde?” Giarde’s lips thinned in annoyance. “Good God, man, how dare you come here like this?” He looked again at Nicholas. “That’s not Doctor Halle, is it?”

“No, this is my protégé, Nicholas Valiarde.”

Nicholas stared at Ronsarde in fury, barely managing the self-control not to voice an outraged denial. Protégé?

“How did you find us, if you don’t mind my asking?” Ronsarde continued easily. “You know I am always seeking to improve my technique.”

“I’ve been following Fallier’s movements, actually, and was curious to see who it was he brought here in such secret.” Giarde’s gaze went to Nicholas speculatively. “Your protégé?”

“Our situation has become…complicated,” Ronsarde admitted.

Giarde motioned them to back away, then moved forward to collect Nicholas’s stolen pistol. As if aware this would not be over quickly, he leaned against the nearest pillar and said, “You know you’re being hunted all across the city by your own men, of course, even if the charges do sound ridiculous. Why did you escape when you must have realized the Queen would intervene as soon as the Magistrates Court ruled? And what the hell are you doing here now?”

“I did not intend to escape from the Magistrates Court,” Ronsarde said, as if it should be obvious to anyone. “I was seized, by men hired to insure my silence, and was about to be murdered when I was rescued by some friends and associates. We then spent the next several hours fleeing for our lives. That is the short version.”

Giarde did not appear pleased. “I hope the long one is more illuminating.”

Ronsarde cleared his throat. “Then, as we continued our investigations, Valiarde here was detained without cause and I came to retrieve him.”

“Wait.” Giarde held up a hand. He motioned one of the Guards over, spoke a moment, and sent the man away.

Nicholas stared at Ronsarde in mixed disgust and disbelief. “That’s to be our story, is it? I was doing better as the illegitimate son of the Court Sorcerer,” he said, keeping his voice low.

“Don’t be alarmed,” Ronsarde said, maddeningly. “The situation is well in hand.”

Nicholas wished he had taken his chances with the pistol.

Giarde turned his attention back to them. He said, “It’s odd that you claim this man is working for you, because my sources informed me the prisoner brought in by the Royal Guard Gate troop was involved in an anarchist attack on Lady Bianci’s coach.” He looked at Nicholas. “Is that why Fallier had you brought here?”

Nicholas would have wagered anything that Giarde already knew why Fallier had brought him here, or at least that he had guessed most of the truth. “I was a witness to the attack. The driver and the footmen can verify that,” he said. “I was not arrested by the troop.” Nicholas hesitated, reluctant to say it aloud, but there was no help for it. And the sooner Giarde was distracted from the coach incident the better. Nicholas said, “I’m an indirect descendent of Denzil Alsene. Fallier was extremely interested in me.”

Disgusted, Ronsarde said, “Was that all?” but the Captain’s face was impassive.

Giarde said, “You told him who you were.”

Nicholas smiled. “No. Fallier told me.”

Giarde was silent a moment more, considering. “How exactly did this come about?”

“I haven’t been to Alsene since I was a child,” Nicholas said. “I don’t use the name and I have no desire to. I was about to leave the scene of the coach accident so I could report to the Inspector.” He couldn’t help throwing a dark look at Ronsarde, but the Inspector didn’t seem to notice the sarcasm. “Fallier said he recognized me from the Greanco portrait of Denzil Alsene. I have no idea if he was telling the truth or not.” He suspected it was true but there was no harm in muddying the water a little. “He had me brought here quite against my will.”

“I see.”

“All this aside,” Ronsarde interrupted testily, “the city is being menaced by a mad sorcerer and if I –” He paused and corrected himself graciously, “If we are to do anything about it, I must have a pardon and some assistance, thank you.”

“What are you talking about?” Giarde demanded.

Ronsarde waved his arms in frustration, causing the watching Guards to stir nervously. “The person who caused the disturbance in the Courts Plaza, the deaths in Vienne Prison and Valent House. He is most certainly a sorcerer, he is most assuredly mad, and I would have apprehended him by now without all this deliberate interference.”

“You know who he is?”

Ronsarde glanced at Nicholas. “Not yet, but we have our suspicions. I need a pardon, Captain. The situation is urgent.”

Giarde’s expression was difficult to read. He put his pistol into his coat pocket and said, “It’s very late.”

“She will be awake.”

He can’t mean who I think he means, Nicholas thought, shifting uneasily. This experience was surreal enough already.

Giarde hesitated. “You’re not exaggerating this?”

Ronsarde’s expression was grim. “I only wish I was.”

“All right.” Giarde tossed the pistol Nicholas had stolen to one of the Guards. “Follow me.”

Ronsarde nodded as if pleased. Nicholas took a deep breath to calm his pounding heart.

Giarde led them through dark halls, further into the tower. With the lamps of the Guardsmen sending shadows chasing up old stone walls that bore marks of fire and at least one round impact that looked as if it could have come from a cannonball, they might have been passing back through time. Nicholas would not have been terribly surprised if they were leading him to one of the dungeons below these ancient floors. He thought about bolting down one of the cross corridors they passed but knew that would be useless; he didn’t know the place and would probably be rounded up within minutes.

It was known there were areas in the lower levels of the palace still sealed off from when the Unseelie Court had occupied it for that short time over a hundred years ago. Corridors, storerooms, stairwells, huge echoing cellars, blocked off by falling walls and collapsed roofs, that had been left as they were with no effort expended to reclaim them from the earth.

But the double doors they eventually came to opened into an old if not ancient stairway, lit prosaically by gaslights. The gas pipes were mounted on the walls, since the plaster and wood panelling must be only a thin veneer over solid stone. Nicholas knew they had left the tower; this must be the King’s Bastion.

They went up the stairs and through a few echoing halls with abrupt turns and occasional dead ends, until Nicholas realized he was thoroughly lost. He could tell they were approaching the more well-used portions of the palace when the floor underfoot turned from polished wood to white marble.

They passed several of the semi-public areas, seeing no one but a few quiet servants, then entered a reception room. Giarde said, “Wait here,” and continued on, leaving the other Queen’s Guards with them.

Nicholas folded his arms, resisting the urge to pace. The room was small, chill, with a marble floor and mantels and a set of delicate giltwood chairs that looked as if they would burst apart if sat on. He knew he looked an odd figure here, dressed all in tattered black and with an expression of dark outrage. It was perhaps an appropriate appearance for the first Alsene to visit the palace of Ile-Rien in so many years.

Leaning on his cane, Ronsarde said conversationally, “I discovered your rather colorful antecedents when I was first investigating your foster father. I thought it of no consequence, however.”

Nicholas looked at him, eyes narrowed. “You’re not endearing yourself to me, you know.”

Giarde reappeared and motioned them to follow. As they did, Nicholas noticed the Queen’s Guards remained behind. He glanced sideways at Ronsarde but couldn’t tell if the Inspector seemed relieved or not. They went down another hall and then through an open doorway into a vast chamber.

There was an arched arcade running all along the upper half and a floor covered with parquet and very old Parscian carpets. An enormous chimneypiece of black and white marble would have dominated the room, except for the gold-framed mirrors, the elaborate floral designs of the figured ceiling, and the faded glory of the two-hundred-year-old tapestries. The furniture was all marquetry or vermeille, all in colors of old gold or amber, until the room seem to glow with it. Ronsarde nudged Nicholas with an elbow and pointed up. Three large gold lanterns of intricate design hung from the ceiling. “From the barge of the Grand Cardinal of Bisra, looted during the battle of Akis in the last Bisran War,” he whispered. “The touch of the conquering barbarian among the splendors of civilization.”

“I heard that.”

There was a woman seated in an armchair near the massive hearth. She was small and her face was very young, a girl’s face almost, except it was too thin to be entirely childish. Her hair was red and worn piled up under a very old-fashioned lace cap, and her dark dress looked plain and almost dowdy, until the lamplight caught it and revealed it as a deep indigo velvet. She was laying out cards in a game of solitaire on the little table in front of her and she hadn’t looked up at her visitors.

She said, “You were arrested.” A quick, almost furtive glance revealed she was speaking to Ronsarde. Her voice was light and unexpectedly girlish for someone with such a serious mien.

“I was, my lady,” the Inspector said calmly.

Nicholas felt the back of his neck prickle. Traditionally in Ile-Rien, officers of the royal court and personal servants addressed royalty as “my lady” or “my lord” instead of the more formal and cumbersome “your majesty.” That Ronsarde had been granted that indulgence showed he was closer to the Crown’s confidence than Nicholas had previously suspected.

“Can’t have that,” the Queen muttered, as if to herself. She turned over a card and ran her thumb along the edge, lost in thought. “I know who you are,” she said. Another quick glance showed she was speaking to Nicholas now. “It was distressing that Rahene Fallier brought you here without informing me.”

“Distressing, but not entirely unexpected,” Giarde added.

The Queen shot Giarde a dark look. She made an abrupt gesture, as if embarrassed by this admission. “Politics, you understand.”

“I avoid politics, your majesty,” Nicholas said.

She looked up at him then, for the first time, eyes narrowed as if she suspected mockery. She probably was mocked, to her face or to her back, by the more sophisticated ladies of the court and by those of her advisors who didn’t appreciate serving a woman who appeared barely out of childhood. If he remembered rightly she wasn’t older than twenty-four. Apparently satisfied that he had spoken in all seriousness, she said, “Wise of you,” and looked back down at her game. She placed the card carefully in the array on the table. “There is a resemblance. I think it’s the eyes.” She turned over another card and studied it. “And I suppose your mother must have been the first new blood in that family for several generations.”

She was speaking of his resemblance to the long-dead Denzil. Nicholas damned Greanco’s skill. “Circumstance has made them insular,” he hesitated infinitesimally, “your majesty.”

“It was a pretty damn deliberate circumstance,” the Queen corrected, her voice dry. She glanced at him furtively. “When I was a child I met your aunt Celile once, at a garden party the Valmontes gave at Gardien-on-Bannot.” She shuddered, not theatrically, but apparently in real horror at the memory. “Horrible woman.”

“You should try having to face her over dinner.” The words were out before Nicholas could stop them.

The Queen hesitated, her hand on a card. Her smile was so brief it might have been imaginary. She looked at him directly then, her large eyes utterly serious, and said, “I’ve seen the house, from a distance. It was horrible, too. What was it like there?”

Nicholas drew a breath but was temporarily unable to speak. He knew he needed to answer her but he hadn’t expected this. If he had ever imagined this meeting, he would never in his wildest dreams have constructed it in this fashion. He thought of the decaying, faded glories of the Alsene Great House, the land meant to support it long gone, either sold off to pay debts or taken by the Crown as more punishment for Denzil’s long-ago attempt to seize the throne. Roland Fontainon’s throne, who was this woman’s great-great-grandfather. He said, “Mercifully, I don’t remember much of it.” There were details, long buried beneath the surface, that insisted on springing to mind. He added only, “My father died and my mother fled with me to Vienne.”

She blinked, her expression unchanging. “Are we related?”

“It’s a distant connection.” He suspected she knew it very well; the purpose of the question had been to ascertain if he knew it.

She sat back in her chair. “By the charters of Old Vienne and Riverside, and the Council of Margrave and the Barons of Viern, there is a proposed line of descent that gives you a claim on the throne.” One eyebrow quirked, but her face was serious. “I might have to marry you.”

The shock wasn’t mild but Nicholas realized immediately that he was being tested, in ways both subtle and blunt. It explained what Fallier wanted of me, he thought, feeling a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps that was why the family seldom left the estate. His father had only left long enough to court his mother. And there were those who had never left the slowly rotting house, who had spent their whole lives living for the past. He was probably the first Alsene to come to Vienne in generations. He said, “The Council of Margrave and the Barons of Viern was invalidated by the later action of the Ministry, in their first convening in Vienne.”

“That’s true.” The Queen slumped back in her chair suddenly, frowning. “I’d forgotten.”

Thank you, Doctor Uberque, for a thorough grounding in the history of court law, Nicholas thought, though he didn’t believe for a moment the Queen had forgotten that obscure fact. It was like watching Madeline play a role, only underneath it all Madeline was basically harmless and the Queen was anything but. The woman uses candor like a loaded pistol. He still thought her courtiers probably mocked her, but if they did it within her hearing, they probably didn’t do it twice. In his peripheral vision he saw Giarde wincing and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

She sat up straight again and Nicholas suspected he was about to be dealt another roundhouse blow. She said, “But you’re still the heir to the Alsene properties.”

“Like being the heir to Hell, only less glamorous,” Nicholas said, keeping his voice light. But this was almost a relief. He had never expected nor wanted to inherit anything from the Alsenes and indeed he doubted they had anything worth wanting. He bowed, ironically. “I renounce my claim, your majesty.”

“Really? Because when you say it to me, you know, it’s official.” The Queen pointed this out somewhat diffidently, as if embarrassed by it.

He hadn’t known. He hadn’t lived at Alsene long enough to be taught all the vagaries of the landed noble’s relationship with the Crown. Nicholas said, “I want no part of the family of Alsene. I am not the heir.” There was a curious sense of freedom in saying it.

She glanced at Giarde and said, “We’ll write that into the court proceedings, remind me, please.”

Giarde sighed audibly and the Queen glared at him again. Nicholas would have given a great deal to know what their relationship was. Queens of Ile-Rien had always taken lovers among their personal guard; it was practically a tradition.

A large ginger cat suddenly leapt up onto the table and with great deliberation, settled itself down on top of the card game. The Queen froze, card in hand, and stared at it with a grim set to her mouth. The cat returned her gaze with a challenging air and settled itself more comfortably. The Queen sighed, evidently conceding the point, and set the card aside. She leaned back in her chair and folded her hands, looking thoughtfully down at the carpet. “We were going on to that other matter….”

Giarde evidently took that as a signal to continue. He cleared his throat and glanced at Ronsarde. “I’ve sent for Lord Albier. He’s in charge of the investigation of the incident today. I thought he might benefit from this discussion.”

Ronsarde and Nicholas exchanged a look. Lord Albier was the head of the Prefecture and no one had said yet whether they were under arrest or not.

“And I’ve asked Fallier to attend,” Giarde continued. He smiled. “His reaction should be illuminating.”

The Queen glanced up at him, her mouth twisting ironically. Her expression as she looked at her Guard Captain was much the same as when she had looked at her cat, holding both affection and resigned annoyance.

A butler caught Giarde’s attention from the doorway and the Captain motioned him forward. As the servant conferred with the Queen and Giarde, Nicholas said, low-voiced, to Ronsarde, “Well, are we for prison or not?”

“I’m not sure,” Ronsarde admitted. “It’s always so hard to tell what the dear child is thinking. Giarde has some influence on her but not as much as appearances suggest.” He shrugged philosophically. “You’ve escaped from the Vienne prison twice now, haven’t you? Don’t most sorcerous formulae suggest the third time should be lucky?”

Nicholas rubbed his forehead, to conceal his expression from the others. “Oh, if I’m to be sent to prison I’d prefer it to be for bashing in the head of a Prefecture Inspector and leaving his body in a midden.” He was beginning to feel a deep sense of sympathy for Doctor Halle.

Ronsarde chuckled.

The butler retreated and Giarde glanced at them and explained, “Fallier and Albier are here.”

The Queen shifted uneasily.

“This should be interesting,” Ronsarde muttered.

Nicholas folded his arms. Interesting was a good word for it.

It was Fallier who entered first, Lord Albier following him. Nicholas knew the sorcerer was almost instantly aware of his presence even though he gave no sign of it.

Fallier paused, meeting the Queen’s gaze without challenge but without apology, either. She said nothing, merely looked at him with a light in her eyes that might have been contempt. It was the imperturbable Court Sorcerer who was the first to look away. Turning to Giarde, he said, “I was told this was a matter of some urgency, Captain?” His voice was cool.

“Inspector Ronsarde has some intelligence concerning the sorcerous attack on the Courts,” Giarde said. He looked thoughtfully at the sorcerer. “That is all.”

Fallier’s eyes narrowed slightly and he looked from Giarde to the Queen. Nicholas saw that her hand, resting on the delicate chair arm, the jeweled rings incongruous next to bitten nails, was trembling. She is seething, he thought. He suspected this wasn’t the first time Fallier had attempted politics, as the Queen had called it.

In the meantime, Lord Albier was staring at Ronsarde, caught between astonishment and anger. He was a large, florid man, very much the type of the military officer. The state of his clothes suggested he had dressed hastily. “Captain, I demand an explanation. Inspector Ronsarde is a wanted man. What the –”

“The Inspector has reasons for his rather odd behavior,” Giarde interjected, before Albier could commit the indignity of swearing in front of his sovereign.

Ronsarde smiled at Albier. “Have you been searching for me very hard, sir? If so, I suggest it’s time for another review of the detective force, because I assure you I was not that difficult to find.”

Albier reddened. He looked at Giarde and said harshly, “I should have been informed –”

“You’re being informed now,” Giarde interrupted, apparently tiring of Albier’s discomfiture. “Have you made any progress on discovering who turned the Courts Plaza into a sorcerous spectacle yesterday?”

Albier retained his control with an effort. “We had nothing to investigate. The sorcerers we called in could find no trace of the identity of the person who caused the disruption.” Albier was all but ignoring the Queen, which Nicholas thought was poor judgement indeed.

Giarde nodded to Ronsarde. “I believe the Inspector can shed some light on it. He and his…associate have been investigating the matter.”

For the first time Fallier’s gaze came to rest on Nicholas. He allowed himself one small smile at the sorcerer’s expense and Fallier turned his attention to Ronsarde, without reacting. He is a dangerous man, Nicholas thought. He was making another enemy tonight, that much was obvious.

Ronsarde cleared his throat and began to describe the events of the past few days, beginning with his investigation of Octave.

Listening to him, Nicholas was pointedly reminded of the current difficulties of his situation. Even his delight at Fallier’s discomfort was dampened.

He had told Madeline that Donatien was dead, but perhaps he hadn’t quite believed it himself until now.

The Inspector’s quiet voice as he told their story was working on Nicholas’s nerves like salt on raw flesh. It has to be this way, he told himself. To get this sorcerer, he would have to have help. He was running out of resources and time and more importantly, they had him dead to rights. There was no other choice.

When he looked back he realized the Queen’s eyes were on him, that she had read his reaction as plainly as if he had spoken aloud. Her gaze flicked away as if she was ashamed to be caught watching him.

Ronsarde told them all they had discovered so far, his deductions and Nicholas’s, their individual and shared discoveries, making it sound as though Nicholas had been working under Ronsarde’s auspices from the very beginning. He left out anything that might hint at less than legal activities on Nicholas’s part. The Inspector made it sound as if he had known Nicholas all his life and that was, in a way, true, just not in the way Ronsarde was implying. You should be grateful, he thought, instead of standing here simmering with resentment. Sebastion Ronsarde, Inspector of the Prefecture, sworn to the Crown, was standing here lying like a market whore to save him. And he was telling those lies to the Queen, who was sitting there blinking solemnly and probably all too aware she wasn’t hearing more than half the real story, but trusting Ronsarde anyway.

As the Inspector finished, Giarde and the Queen looked at Albier. He coughed and said, “I had heard some part of this before –”

“And believed none of it –” Ronsarde interrupted.

“You had no proof,” Albier said heatedly, “only outrageous speculations!”

“I assume the destruction and death yesterday is proof enough?” Ronsarde’s voice was icy, for one moment revealing the bitterness he must have felt at his warnings going unheeded.

“Of course.” Albier gestured to Giarde. “But even the great Inspector can give us no clue as to this person’s whereabouts.”

This was too much for Nicholas’s abraded nerves. He interrupted, “There is, in fact, one clue.”

That got everyone’s attention, including Ronsarde, who stared at him, frowning. Nicholas said, “Doctor Octave, before he was killed by his associate, said that the sorcerer was hiding in a ‘palace on the river.'”

“There are a number of deserted or unused Great Houses along the river or on the islands,” Albier muttered.

“And they will be searched,” Giarde said. He looked at the Court Sorcerer, who said, “I will put my apprentices at the disposal of Lord Albier.”

The Queen said suddenly, “You’re dismissed.”

Albier looked startled, almost offended, and actually looked at Giarde for confirmation, but Fallier bowed and turned at once to go, crossing the parquet floor to the doors.

It must have finally dawned on Albier that there were undercurrents of which he was unaware. He bowed to the Queen and to Giarde said, “I’ll make you aware of any progress.” With another dark glance at Ronsarde, he followed Fallier out.

As the doors closed behind them Ronsarde shook his head. “I don’t like to say it, but in light of what brought us here I find I do not entirely trust Fallier.”

Giarde glanced at the Queen and seemed to receive some quiet and almost imperceptible signal. He said, “Fallier may be Court Sorcerer, but he is not her majesty’s only advisor in things sorcerous. The person who holds that position is a very old woman who lives in a corner of the main kitchen in the North Bastion. To consult with her it’s necessary to go to the kitchen in question and crouch on a coal scuttle, but she is always correct, and her advice is untainted by political pressures of any kind. I’ll put this before her and see what she thinks.” He added, “She sent me a note a short time ago to tell me that within the past few hours there have been no less than three etherial assaults on the palace, all repelled by the wards.”

“That…isn’t unexpected,” Nicholas said. He’s still after us, he thought. Killing Octave didn’t satisfy him. Perhaps the man was mad. There was an odd sense of disappointment in that. He really would have preferred a sane opponent. But how could the man be a sorcerer in Ile-Rien and not know the palace at Vienne was the most heavily protected place, both physically and etherically, in this part of the world? The wards that guarded it were woven into the very stones of the oldest parts of the palace, they had been created and maintained by the most powerful sorcerers in Ile-Rien’s history, and some of them were so old they were almost self-aware. How could the man think he could strike at them past that magical barrier? Except…. “Fontainon House.”

Nicholas looked up to realize everyone was staring at him. Ronsarde nodded and said, “Yes, the reason Octave stayed to perform his circle.”

Giarde swore. “Fontainon House is inside the wards.”

The Queen was frowning. She looked at Nicholas, brows lowered, and he explained, “During a circle Octave would apparently materialize ghosts. It’s possible he meant to open a circle in Fontainon House, within the wards, and open a way for something else to materialize.”

“He leaves bodies strewn like discarded trash,” the Queen said, suddenly. She stroked the now somnolent cat with a quick, nervous touch. “I take it we assume he is a madman?”

“The indications are there, my lady,” Ronsarde said.

She subsided again, staring bitterly at the carpet.

“Well?” Giarde asked her. There was a stillness to his expression that brought Nicholas back from all thoughts of their sorcerous opponent. He is asking her if we– I– should be released. Ronsarde had done nothing except try to stay alive; Nicholas was the one who presented a problem.

The Queen’s eyes lifted, met Nicholas’s gaze shyly. Shy doesn’t mean weak, Nicholas thought. It would be entertaining to live long enough for Fallier to realize that. She said, “You’re certain?”

That one baffled him. “Your majesty?”

“About the inheritance? About giving it up?”

It was such an ingenuous question, yet he didn’t doubt her seriousness. “I’m certain, your majesty. I was certain a long time ago.” He found himself adding, “Of course, a true Alsene would say anything to get out of this, would swear allegiance to the devil, even.”

She sighed and looked at nothing in particular. Then she stood, gathering her cat in one large ginger armful. She stepped close to Nicholas before he could react, put her hand on his shoulder and said, gravely, “Your aunt Celile still writes to me. If you fail, I shall give her your address.”

Then she was making her way to the door, the cat’s tail snapping with irritation at its interrupted nap, while the men in the room hastily bowed.

As the doors closed behind her, Nicholas felt something unclench around his heart and distinctly heard Ronsarde draw a relieved breath. Giarde shook his head, as if in continued amazement at his sovereign’s thought processes. With an air of resignation he asked Ronsarde, “Is there any other assistance you require?”

“Albier was correct on one point,” the Inspector said. “We have to find this sorcerer first. We can do nothing until we know where he is.”

“The Prefecture will search the abandoned structures along the river with the help of Fallier and his apprentices. Lord Albier will believe he is directing the investigation, but he’ll take my advice, and I’ll take yours.”

“A pardon, so I can continue my investigations without impediment, would also be helpful,” Ronsarde pointed out.

Giarde folded his arms. “Our influence with the Prefecture is not all inclusive. It will take some time to persuade the Lord Chief Commissioner that your rampage through the lower levels of the prison was done in the Crown’s name.” He added, “But I’m sure something can be arranged.”

Ronsarde’s bow was a trifle ironic. “In the meantime, I would prefer to stay with my associates and contact the Prefecture through you or Lord Albier.”

“That would probably be wise.”

Giarde led them out, pausing in the reception room to say, “Take care, Ronsarde. You have powerful enemies.”

“Yes, that had begun to dawn on me,” Ronsarde confessed.

Giarde sighed and glanced briefly heavenward. “I’m serious. If you leave the palace, I can’t protect you.”

“If I don’t leave the palace, I can’t catch him,” Ronsarde said, patiently. “And that would be too dangerous for all of us.”

Giarde watched him narrowly, then nodded. “We can get you outside the palace walls without drawing unwanted attention. There’s a passage under St. Anne’s Gate that leads to the underground station on the Street of Flowers. My men will take you that far.” He glanced at Nicholas, his eyes hooded, then said, “I think you are keeping dangerous company, Inspector.”

“Oh come now,” Ronsarde said, smiling indulgently. “That’s a terrible thing to say about old Halle.”

Giarde glared at him in exasperation. “I’m the only thing that’s standing between you and a few nights in the Prefecture cells, so I’d think you could at least pretend to show me a little diffidence.”

“I’m sorry.” Ronsarde managed a contrite expression that fooled no one. “I will try to do better.”

“Get out, before I change my mind.”

Following their escort of Queen’s Guards down the opulent halls, Nicholas waited until they were a safe distance from Giarde and the royal environs, then said, accusingly, “You’re enjoying this.”

Ronsarde glanced at him, arching a brow. “And you aren’t?”

There was no answer for that. Seething, Nicholas made no reply.

After a moment of silence, the Inspector said, “Don’t be fooled by her majesty’s rather unusual manner. Her habits of thought are devastatingly precise.”

“Whatever gave you the idea I was fooled,” Nicholas said, coldly. “It was everything I could do not to accept her offer of marriage at once. I think we would have taken Bisra and half of Parscia within the year.”

“A frightening thought.” Ronsarde watched him alertly for a moment, then as they reached the head of the staircase, stopped Nicholas with a hand on his sleeve.

Their escort halted on the steps below, looking back up at them impatiently. Low-voiced, Ronsarde said, “We’ll find this madman. We’ll find him because he doesn’t know when to stop. He lacks the professional criminal’s instinctive knowledge of when to cut and run.” The expression in Ronsarde’s eyes turned rueful. “That’s why I never caught you. You knew when to stop.”

Nicholas swallowed in a dry throat. He wanted to be away from here and pursuing the hunt so urgently it was almost a physical need. He wasn’t sure he knew when to stop, not anymore. “He wants something,” he said, starting down the stairs again. “Even if he’s mad, he wants something and we have to know what it is.”


Continued in Chapter Seventeen

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