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 Three. Read Chapter Two here.
Nicholas gave Madeline his arm as she stepped down from their coach. She smothered an unladylike yawn, glanced around the street, and winced. Nicholas couldn’t agree more. The Philosopher’s Cross was not a pleasant prospect so early in the morning. Under the cold dawn light, with its customarily colorful inhabitants still abed, the place resembled nothing so much as a theater after a long night’s performance: empty of magic, with all the tawdry underpinnings of the stage exposed, and the hall cluttered with trash left behind by the audience.
It was called the Philosopher’s Cross because two great thoroughfares met here: the Street of Flowers and the Saints Procession Boulevard. The Street of Flowers ran all the way up to the Palace wall and down to the river, to intersect with Riverside Way, and the Boulevard connected the Carina Gate and the Old City Gate, at opposite ends of Vienne’s sprawl. It had once been the only street that bisected the city, uninterrupted by canals or masses of decaying slums, failing to suddenly dead end into a tiny alley, but the building projects of the last century had added a new bridge across the river and cut six new streets through crumbling neighborhoods.
Nicholas signaled their coachman to wait and Crack climbed down from the box to accompany them. It was barely after sunrise and the few people who were stirring were well-bundled against the early morning cold and hurrying to their destinations. The remains of stone stalls under the promenades revealed there had once been a great market here, but the area had long since given way to cabarets, coffeehouses, mazes of small alleys and decaying buildings. Some were ancient structures with a certain fallen grandeur, solidly built with chipped and weathered statuary along their gables. Others were new slapdash affairs of cheap brick, leaning slightly as if they meant to topple at any moment. All were darkened with soot and smoke. When the sun was well up, the streets would be crowded not only with old women hawking everything from herbals to hats, but with the beggars, musicians, lunatics, poor sorcerers, witches, artists, and gypsies that the area was famous for.
Crack went a short distance down the filthy alley and opened the door there. Nicholas and Madeline followed more slowly, picking their way carefully through the muck. There was no one watching the tenement’s entrance; the stool in the tiny cupboard where the concierge would normally sit was empty, though the litter of apple cores and crumpled penny sheets around it showed the abandonment was only temporary. The cramped and dirty stairs were lit only by a shattered skylight, visible as a dim circle of light several stories up.
Madeline’s mouth twisted wryly. “Poor Arisilde. But I suppose most of the time he doesn’t notice.”
Nicholas didn’t comment. She was probably right and the reason why had been a nagging worry for some time. Arisilde Damal was undoubtedly the most powerful sorcerer for hire in Ile-Rien and he had the added distinction of often failing to remember what he had been hired for, so if he was caught and questioned his evidence would be next to useless. But Arisilde had been on a one-way journey for some years now and Nicholas knew it was only a matter of time before he arrived at his destination. With Crack going ahead to scout the way, they climbed the stairs.
They reached the narrow landing at the top floor and Crack knocked on the door for the garret apartment. The fact that the door was so readily available was a good sign and indicated that Arisilde was receiving callers. If he had been indisposed the portal would have been far more elusive.
There was the sound of what might be furniture being shifted within, then the door was opened by the sorcerer’s ancient Parscian servant. The man was wearing faded tribal robes and a convincingly evil leer. When he recognized Crack, he dropped the leer and waved them in. Crack stepped aside to wait for them on the landing; he trusted Arisilde, as Nicholas did, but after last night extra caution was called for.
They went down a dingy low-ceilinged little hall and into a long room. The far wall was covered with windows, some draped with patchy patterned velvets and others bare to the dreary sky. In the yellowed ceiling were two small iron-rimmed domes, each a multipaned skylight. Faded carpets covered the floor and there were piles of books and stray papers, jugs, glass vials, bags and little ceramic containers crowding every available surface. There were plants too, herbs growing out of various bottles and jars and more exotic vines that climbed the walls and twined up into the skylights. The room was warm and the air thick with the smell of must and foliage.
The most powerful sorcerer in the city, perhaps in all Ile-Rien, was seated in an armchair with stuffing leaking out of the cushions, gazing up at them with vaguely benevolent eyes. His hair was entirely white and tied back from a face that revealed his youth. Nicholas said, “Hello, Arisilde.”
The Parscian was clearing a chair for Madeline by shifting the papers stacked on it to the floor. Arisilde smiled dreamily and said, “How very good to see you both. I hope your father is well, Nicholas?”
“Very well, Arisilde. He sends you his regards.” As a talented student at Lodun, Arisilde had been part of the cadre of intellectuals who had surrounded Edouard Viller, and had collaborated with him on some of his greatest work. He had also been present at Edouard’s execution, but Arisilde’s hold on present reality had never been too firm and his dissipations over the past years had weakened it greatly.
“And the lovely Madeline. How is your grandmother, my dear?”
Madeline looked taken aback. Nicholas was surprised himself, though he didn’t allow it to show. Madeline was nothing if not reticent about her family and her past; he hadn’t known she had a grandmother still living. If, considering who was asking the question, the woman was still living. An odd expression on her face, Madeline managed to reply, “She’s quite well, thank you, Arisilde.”
The sorcerer smiled up at Nicholas again. His eyes were violet and had once held a lively intelligence. Now their only expression was one of vague contentment and the pupils were so small they resembled pinpricks. He said, “I hope you didn’t come for anything important.”
Nicholas had to close his eyes briefly, summoning patience and controlling the desire to swear violently. Arisilde must have forgotten about the Duchess’s ball last night and their plan for her Bisran gold, even though he had been the one to investigate the house’s sorcerous defenses and discover how to circumvent its ward. Nevertheless, Nicholas stepped forward. He drew out a swatch cut from the coat that had taken the brunt of the ghoul’s attack and a glass vial containing a portion of the golem’s remains. “This first. I wanted you to look at these and tell me what you thought.” Among the clutter on the little table at the sorcerer’s elbow were two opium pipes, an old fashioned tinderbox, a thin iron bodkin fixed in a handle, and a small brass lamp. There was also a bowl of strawberries so soaked with ether that the stink of it in the air burned Nicholas’s throat. They had been lucky to find Arisilde even this coherent.
“Ahh.” Arisilde’s long white fingers touched the fabric gently. “How very strange.” He took the vial and held it up to catch the candlelight. “Someone’s made a golem. A nasty one, too.”
“It came to my home and behaved rather mysteriously,” Nicholas said, hoping to engage the sorcerer’s curiosity.
But the light in Arisilde’s eyes was already fading. He lowered the vial slowly, setting it aside. “I’ll get to it soon, I promise.”
Nicholas sighed inwardly and said only, “Thank you, Arisilde.” There was no point in arguing; Arisilde would either do it or not and that was that. Nicholas had held back other samples to take to practitioners whose talents were lesser but more reliable, but he had hoped to get Arisilde’s opinion. He hesitated now, wondering whether he should broach the topic of the gold at all. This was for Edouard, Ari. You could have remembered it. He was a father to you as well. He said, “Do you remember what we were going to discuss today, Ari? I’ve got the gold stamped with the Bisran Imperial seal, and the forged documents are finally ready. Do you remember you were going to help me place them in Count Montesq’s Great House?”
“Montesq.” Arisilde’s violet eyes darkened. In an entirely different voice, he said, “I remember Montesq.”
Nicholas watched him intently. If destroying Count Montesq, the man who had destroyed Edouard Viller, would help bring Ari out of his daze, then it was doubly worth the risk. He said, “Yes, Montesq. Do you remember the plan we discussed?”
“That, yes, I’ve been working on that. Very powerful protective wards on that Great House. Found that out when I tried to burn it down, years ago, didn’t I? Must be careful, mustn’t leave a trace, going in or coming out. That’s it, isn’t it? We put the Bisran gold and the papers there, then tell the Prefecture, and Montesq is executed for treason.” Arisilde looked pleased. The dangerous light had faded and he sounded more like himself. Nicholas didn’t find it an improvement.
“That’s vaguely it.” Nicholas turned to Madeline for assistance, but Arisilde said, frowning, “While I’m thinking of it, you are looking into these goings-on, aren’t you?”
“Oh, you know, everyone is talking about it.” The sorcerer waved a languid hand unhelpfully. Fortunately the servant understood the gesture and fetched a folded paper from one of the piles of debris and brought it to Nicholas. “Yes, he’s right, it’s in the front page of that,” Arisilde explained.
It was the Review of the Day, the only one of the penny sheet dailies, other than the Court Record or the Lodun Literary Comment, that was occasionally anything more than rabble-rousing nonsense. The title of the piece taking up most of the front page was “Strange Occurrence in Octagon Court.”
It described a young girl called Jeal Meule, who had apparently disappeared as she walked home from her work at a dressmaker’s. The strangest part of the “strange occurrence” seemed to be that the girl had vanished twice. She hadn’t returned home from work and her mother had canvassed the neighbors searching for her, in greater and greater anxiety as the evening wore on. Yet some children and old people who inhabited Octagon Court during the day had reported speaking to Jeal the next afternoon. They said the girl had seemed to be in a state of terror and that no one could persuade her to go home. Some had seen Jeal speak to an old woman of vague description and after that the girl had vanished for good. The dress she had been wearing had been found in the stretch of park land between the western expanse of the old city wall and the gas factory. And everyone knows what that means, Nicholas thought grimly. The family’s only hope was that the body would be caught in the water gates and discovered before it washed out of the city.
The penny sheet writer had tried to link the unfortunate event to the disappearance of three children from Seise Street, a poorer neighborhood on the far side of the city from Octagon Court. The children had been seen speaking to an old woman of roughly the same vague description before they had vanished without a trace.
Madeline had come to look and was reading over Nicholas’s shoulder. She said, “It’s terrible, but it’s fairly common, Arisilde. If the man stays in the city, they’ll hunt him down soon enough.”
“The man?” Arisilde’s brows rose.
“The person who lured the children away,” she explained. “It’s a man dressed as an old woman, obviously.”
“Ahh. I see. Are you looking into it then, Madeline?”
Nicholas folded the paper. The date indicated it was several days old. “The Prefecture is looking into it, Arisilde. People who do that sort of thing are usually mad as well as clumsy. He’ll make a mistake and they’ll catch him easily.”
“Oh, well, then. But….” Arisilde frowned, his violet eyes fixed on some faraway point.
“Yes?” Nicholas asked, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice. It was possible Arisilde had seen something in the smeared print that he and Madeline had missed.
“Nothing.” The dreamy look was back. “Would you like to stay for coffee? It’s a delicacy in Parscia, you know, and Isham is wonderful with it.”
As they went down the stairs later, Madeline said, “Sometimes I think Arisilde believes you work for the Prefecture, like Ronsarde.”
“He might,” Nicholas admitted. “He knew that as a boy I admired Ronsarde. If he thinks Edouard’s alive, then he might think anything.”
The coach took them next to a street near the southern river docks, where all the various river cargo lines had their offices and tall warehouses with steeply-pitched barrel roofs clustered behind the smaller buildings.
They had speculated about Octave’s motives and possible accomplices or employers on the drive from the Philosopher’s Cross, but it hadn’t done them much good. We need facts to speculate, Nicholas thought, and facts are something we’re woefully short of. “I want to find Octave again before he finds us,” he was saying as the coach drew up at the end of the street. “I sent a message to Reynard this morning asking him to try to get some word of the man. If Octave really is a spiritualist.” He opened the coach door and stepped down. The street was moderately busy with mid-morning traffic: horse-drawn vans and lighter passenger coaches trundled past and men of business and shoremen crossed by along the promenade. The breeze carried the smell of the river, alternately fresh and foul, and brought to mind again the missing girl Jeal Meule, and her probable fate.
“And the Duchess accepted him as such,” Madeline pointed out as she stepped down from the coach and took his arm, “or he wouldn’t have been invited last night, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to speak privately to her.”
Nicholas signaled the coach to continue. Devis and Crack would take it to its customary spot in the stables around the corner and then Crack would join them in the warehouse. He said, “Granted, but if he is talking to dead relatives for the aristocracy, his name should at least be mentioned in some of the circles Reynard still has entrance to. We haven’t been much in society lately; that’s probably why we hadn’t heard something of him before.” Nicholas had decided long ago not to risk entertaining at Coldcourt and he had no desire to maintain another house merely for party-giving. Fortunately, among the few members of fashionable society that he maintained contact with, this reticence was ascribed to his sensitivity about Edouard Viller’s death. Keeping a low profile also helped him maintain the Donatien persona, which was essential to his plans for Montesq.
“We should go to the theater tonight, then,” Madeline said. “We can make more inquiries there. And besides, Valeria Dacine is performing Arantha and it should be marvelous.”
They turned into the alley that led past the importers and cargo lines and down to the back entrance of a warehouse that was owned by Nicholas under the name of Ringard Alscen. Nicholas unlocked the deceptively strong door and they passed inside.
He had other strongholds, because he didn’t believe in putting everything in one place, but this was by far the largest. The others were spread throughout the city and Madeline was the only one besides himself who knew the location of them all.
The door opened into an office where shelves stuffed with ledgers lined the walls and two men were playing cards on a battered trunk under the light of a hanging oil lamp. Much like the offices of all the other warehouses along the street. But one of these men was Lamane and the other was one of Cusard’s sons. They both stood at Madeline’s entrance.
Nicholas asked, “Is Cusard here?”
“Oh, aye,” Lamane replied. “He hasn’t stirred. He says it makes him nervous, and he just has to sit there, looking at it.”
“Does he?” Nicholas smiled. “In a while he will be spending it, or at least part of it. I think he’ll like that better.”
They chuckled and Nicholas and Madeline went on through the inner door into the main part of the warehouse.
This was a massive chamber, several stories in height, with a vaulted ceiling that had been augmented by iron girders at some later date. Daylight entered through narrow windows high up in the walls and lanterns made pools of brighter light at intervals.
They crossed the stone-flagged floor between rows of trunks, crates, and barrels. The warehouse did real business for at least two of the smaller cargo lines along the river. Some of the things stored here were for businesses Nicholas owned under other names, though he was careful to keep Valiarde Imports from having any connection with this place. There were men working at the far end, loading a wagon that had pulled up to one of the large panel doors, and Nicholas spotted Crack among them, still keeping watch.
Nicholas stopped to unlock a door at the opposite end and they went through into a much smaller area. There were crates stacked here, too, and shelves lining the walls and locked glass-fronted cabinets. There was also a safe about waist high, square and forbidding, which held nothing more exciting than the receipts from the warehouse’s honest clients.
Cusard glanced up from the clerk’s desk and tipped his cap to them.
“Any problems?” Nicholas asked.
“Not a one. Want to see it?”
Nicholas smiled. “I’ve seen it. Last night, remember?”
“M’lady hasn’t seen it.” Cusard winked at Madeline. “Want to see it?”
Madeline took a seat, laying aside her parasol and slipping off her gloves. “Yes, I want to see it.”
“Very well.” Nicholas surrendered, going to lean against the mantel. “But don’t become attached — it’s not staying long.”
Cusard knelt and slid the braided rug aside — the rug was pure window dressing; this particular safe hole was hidden better than mere human ingenuity could manage — and pressed his palm flat against one of the smooth fieldstone blocks that composed the floor. A small section of the blocks seemed to ripple, not like a trick of the light, but as if the stone itself had become suddenly liquid.
It was one of Arisilde’s old spells, cast before he had begun his retreat into opium. Nicholas knew there was not one sorcerer in a thousand who would have been able to tell that the spell was here, let alone to break it. Arisilde had explained something of the principle: the blocks were still the same fieldstone, but the spell caused them to change their “state” from solidity to something more malleable. It was set to respond only to Nicholas, Madeline, and Cusard. Reynard knew of its location but had claimed at the time to be too unreliable to be trusted with a key to the money box.
“Keep watch for a man calling himself Doctor Octave,” Nicholas told Cusard while they waited. He described the man in detail, including the style of clothing the golem had worn. “He’s probably a sorcerer, possibly a deadly one. And he seems to know somewhat more than is comfortable about us.”
Cusard looked properly taken aback. “Don’t that ruin my mood,” he muttered. “I’ll make sure the others are warned.”
The section of stone was sinking down and rippling sideways, running like water to vanish under the more permanent blocks. Revealed was a compartment lined with mortar, now filled with the small gold bars.
“Forty-seven of them,” Cusard said, with great satisfaction. “That’s what, fifty thousand gold royals?” He fetched out a bar and handed it to Madeline.
Her arm sagged from the unexpected weight as she accepted it. “I didn’t realize it was so heavy.”
“I also want you to pay everyone involved the bonus we discussed,” Nicholas said. There was a penny sheet, Review of the Day again, lying on a nearby table, and his eyes were irresistibly drawn to it. He picked it up and scanned the contents.
“Today?” Cusard asked. “Before we’re finished?”
“We’re finished with their part.”
Cusard hesitated, looking from Nicholas, who was now engrossed in the penny sheet, to Madeline, who was smiling enigmatically and hefting the small bar. He asked, “Is this one of those I’m not going to want to know about, and wish I didn’t know once I do?”
Nicholas turned a page and didn’t answer. Madeline handed Cusard back the bar, and said, a little ruefully, “It’s most likely, yes.”
“When did you get this, Cusard?”
“The pamphlet? My wife carries that about.” Madame Cusard made lunch for all the men who worked in the warehouse and came in daily to clean the offices. It was important that Madame Cusard be seen by her neighbors to work, to help explain the presence of the generous funds that fed and clothed her and all the little Cusards.
“What is it?” Madeline asked.
“They found a body in the river. Washed up in the watergates.”
Cusard snorted. “That’s worth putting in a pamphlet? Happens every day.”
“Not the missing girl Arisilde was interested in?” Madeline said, her brows drawing together.
“No, not her. A young man. Not identified as yet.”
“And,” Nicholas read, “‘Attention was called to the ghastly occurrence when the gatekeepers spied a spectral glow under the surface in the vicinity of the water gate. When the working men drew near, the glow vanished. Upon further investigation, they discovered the young person’s corpse.'”
“A spectral glow?” Madeline frowned. “You’re thinking of last night. That stuff that was on your coat.”
“What stuff?” Cusard demanded.
“When that creature attacked me in the cellar, it left a residue on my clothing,” Nicholas explained, preoccupied. “Once I was away from torchlight, in the darkness of the coach, the glow was plain to see.”
Madeline stood and came over to take the paper. “When they drew near the glow disappeared,” she muttered. “This happened last night. They were carrying lanterns, of course.”
“It bears looking into,” Nicholas said, taking back the penny sheet and folding it. He smiled at Madeline. “You didn’t have any plans for the afternoon, did you?”
“Sometimes I wonder about you,” Madeline said. Her scalp itched under her cap.
“Why do you say that?” Nicholas seemed honestly surprised. They were standing in a corridor beneath the Saints Crossing Morgue, at the ironbound door that was the entrance to the lower levels, and he had just sounded the bellpull for admittance. Nicholas was dressed in a plain dark suit, with the short top hat and caped coat affected by professional men. He wore spectacles and Madeline had used a theatrical powder to tint his hair and beard gray. He carried a surgeon’s bag. Madeline wore a plain dark dress with a white apron and had tucked all her hair away under a white cap. She had skillfully used makeup to change the long lines of her face from elegant to gaunt and to narrow her wide dark eyes. The floor of the hall was wet and filthy and the plaster was dank and smelled of carbolic.
“I think you’ll do anything for curiosity’s sake.”
“I’m trying to establish foundation for a hypothesis.”
“That’s what I said.”
Madeline sighed and supposed it was her own fault for not voicing any real objections. There was no danger in coming here like this; Nicholas was adept at assuming different personas and she had faith in her makeup and her own acting ability. But she could think of better things to do with her afternoons than look at drowned young men. They would be starting rehearsals at the Elegante about now, she remembered, and then tried to put it out of her mind.
There was a thunk from the heavy door and the sound of bolts being pulled back, then it was opened by a man with thinning brown hair wearing an apron over his suit. He said, “Ah, Doctor…?”
“Doctor Rouas, and my nurse.”
Madeline dropped a little curtsey, keeping her eyes downcast. The other man ignored her, which was the attitude most physicians took with nurses and what made it such an effective disguise, almost as good as making oneself look like an article of furniture. He said, “You’re here for our latest unfortunate from the river? It’s this way.”
He motioned them through and locked the door after them, coming forward to lead the way down. This hall was stone and stank even more strongly of carbolic. Madeline knew the heavy door and the size of the locking bolts were not current precautions, but holdovers from when this place had been part of the dungeons of the old prison that had once stood on this site.
The doctor led them down the hall, past ancient archways filled in with brick and modern wooden doors. Finally they turned a corner into a wide chamber with something of both the laboratory and the butcher shop about it. There were shelves containing chemical apparatus and surgical equipment. There was also an air that led one to expect chains, torture devices, and screaming captives. Perhaps it’s only the weight of the past, Madeline thought. Or her imagination.
In the center of the room was a steel operating table and atop that a limp form wrapped in burlap. There was another doctor present just now, an older man, with gray in his receding hair and in his neatly-trimmed mustache and beard. He was washing his hands in the basin against the wall, his sleeves rolled up and his coat hanging on a peg nearby. He glanced up at them, his expression open and friendly. There is something familiar about that face, Madeline thought. He said, “I’m just going.”
“Doctor Rouas, this is Doctor Halle,” their guide said.
“Ah.” The older man dried his hands hastily and came forward to shake hands with Nicholas. He nodded pleasantly to Madeline and this gesture of uncommon politeness on his part she almost met with a blank stare. She recovered herself in time to smile shyly and duck her head, but her mind was reeling. Doctor Halle. Of course she knew that face. Only once before had she seen it at such close range: two years ago at Upper Bannot when Ronsarde had almost uncovered their plot to steal the jewels in the Risais ancestral vault. This man was Doctor Cyran Halle, the good friend and colleague of Inspector Ronsarde.
She had been in disguise then, and far more thorough a disguise than she was wearing now. The other times she had seen him had been at a distance and in innocuous circumstances: the theater, the grill room at Lusaude’s, in a crowd outside the Prefecture. He couldn’t be suspicious and indeed, he didn’t seem so, but Madeline became acutely aware of a nervous flutter in the pit of her stomach.
With an expression of easy goodwill, Nicholas said, “Doctor Halle, I’m familiar with your work. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Thank you.” Halle appeared honestly pleased with the compliment. He nodded toward the body as he rolled his sleeves down. “You’re here to make an examination?”
“No, I’m to attempt an identification only. One of my patients has a son who’s gone missing — though the rest of the family believes him to have run away on his own. The mother isn’t well and I agreed to come here in her place.”
“A sad duty.” There was real sympathy in Halle’s voice. He put on his coat and took his bag from the stained table. “I’ll be out of your way, then. Pleasure meeting you, Doctor, and you, young lady.”
Madeline had to remind herself that this man was dangerous to them, even if he did have impeccable manners and was as genial as a favorite uncle. If he knew who we were, she thought, if he knew Nicholas was Donatien, the man Ronsarde has been searching for all this time….
Nicholas had moved up to the slab and turned the burlap sheet back. Madeline caught sight of a face, hardly recognizable as human, discolored as if it was some nightmare creature of the fay. Nicholas said, “He resembles the boy slightly, but I don’t believe it’s him.” He shook his head, frowning. “I’d rather be absolutely sure…. Has his clothing been saved?”
“Yes, it has. Doctor Halle advised us to do so.” The other doctor turned to open one of the cabinets and as he rummaged through its contents, Madeline took the opportunity to glare at Nicholas with a mixture of annoyance and exasperation.
He frowned at her. He hated to break character in the middle of a performance and normally so did she, but it wasn’t every day that one encountered one’s second most deadly opponent.
The doctor returned with a metal bucket, which he upended on the table. “There’s not much left,” he admitted. “Fragments of a shirt and trousers, the rags of a coat. No shoes. Nothing in the pockets, of course.”
Nicholas used a pencil from the workbench to fastidiously poke through the damp stinking collection. “No, you’re right, that’s not much help.” He tossed the pencil away and took the doctor’s elbow, turning him back toward the body on the slab. “I take it you noticed these marks on his arms? What is your opinion on them?”
With the other physician’s attention engaged, Madeline slipped a pair of sewing scissors out of her sleeve and quickly cut fragments from the torn and bedraggled coat and trousers. She folded the pieces in her handkerchief and tucked it away in the pocket of her apron, then turned back to the two men.
Nicholas took their leave shortly after that and within moments they were back out in the dank corridor on the other side of the ironbound door.
“Interesting that Ronsarde is taking notice of this,” Nicholas said in an undertone. “He must have sent Halle — the man doesn’t stir a foot from his house unless Ronsarde sends him.”
Madeline wouldn’t have put it that way; she had always found Cyran Halle the least objectionable one of the pair, but Nicholas had never forgiven the doctor for describing some of Donatien’s activities as “the products of an hysterical and badly disturbed mind” in a letter to the current head of the city Prefecture. “Interesting? Is that the word for it?” she asked dryly.
“My dear, he suspected nothing.”
They were nearing the stairs up into the main part of the building and Madeline was prevented from answering.
The dingy corridors on the ground floor were far more crowded and it was almost impassable near the public area. Here one of the walls was a glazed partition, behind which stood two rows of black marble tables, inclined toward the glass wall and each cooled by a constant stream of water. They held the bodies of the most recent unidentified dead, usually lost souls found on the street or pulled from the river. Each was left three or four days, in the hope that persons who were missing relatives or friends might come and claim them. Over half the corpses found in the city were eventually claimed this way, but Nicholas had told her that many were probably identified incorrectly. It was just too difficult for the bereaved to recognize even close relations under these circumstances.
They had expected to see the drowned boy on display, but had been told that they could find him in the examination room instead. Madeline wondered if it was Doctor Halle who had saved the nameless young man from this fate. As Nicholas forged a path through the crowd for her, she could see that few of the people here looked as if they were searching for loved ones; most of them looked remarkably like well-dressed tourists, drawn here by the grotesque nature of the display.
Once they were outside in the late afternoon light and relatively fresh air of the street, Madeline had decided it was useless to argue. The day had grown warmer and the morning clouds had given way to brilliant blue sky, incongruous after the morgue. The nights would still be cold, but the snow last night had probably been the last of the season and winter was in its death throes. She asked, “What were you saying about the marks on the boy’s arms?”
“They were shackle galls. He was obviously held prisoner before he was killed.”
“Killed, and not accidently drowned? It does happen, you know.”
“Not in this case. His throat was torn out. It could have happened after death, if something in the river attacked the corpse, but Halle didn’t think so. He had left some case notes for them on the table and I managed to glance over the first page.”
Madeline considered that, frowning. They had to walk two streets over, to where their coach was waiting for them. Nicholas hadn’t wanted it to wait in front of the building so that no one would associate it with the ordinary medical doctor and his nondescript nurse, and she was glad of it. Meeting Cyran Hall wasn’t the same as running into Sebastion Ronsarde, but it was far too close a brush with the famous Inspector for her comfort. “Well, do you think this boy was killed by the same creature, or same sort of creature, that attacked you under Mondollot House?”
“I won’t know that until I have the substance on the corpse’s clothes examined and compared to the substance on my coat. I wish Arisilde…. But there’s no help for that.”
“I could see there was something on the clothes other than river sludge; it was a sort of silvery grease. If it is the same, what does that tell us?”
“At this point, not much.”
Nicholas leaned back in his seat, resigning himself to waiting. From the height of their private box he could watch the crowd swarming into the stalls below. Reynard was late, but then lateness at the theater was eminently fashionable. Nicholas had never managed to catch the habit of it himself. He had spent the first twelve years of his life in the Riverside slums, among decaying tenements and human misery, before Edouard Viller had taken him in. He still found the theater a delight.
Nicholas glanced at Madeline and smiled. She was watching the activity around the stage below with a jeweled lorgnette. She had started as a member of the chorus in the opera five years ago, working her way up to last season, when she had taken a leading role at the Elegante. It was only because of Nicholas’s plans for destroying Count Montesq that she hadn’t accepted a role for this season.
Members of the demi monde had wondered why a fashionable young actress had taken up with a restrained and often reclusive art importer, no matter how wealthy he was. Nicholas still wasn’t sure he knew, either. His original plans had never included Madeline at all.
Three years ago he had sought her acquaintance on impulse, after seeing her several times in her first ingénue role. Before he knew it he was helping her extricate herself from a tangle involving a rather predatory lord who habitually stalked young actresses. Though by the time Nicholas had arrived, the only help Madeline had really required was instruction in the little known art of artistically arranging a body to make its injuries look self-inflicted. After making certain the lord’s death would appear to be suicide, Nicholas had taken Madeline back to Coldcourt. At some point during their first night together, he had been shocked to discover that he had not only told her about his identity as Donatien, but blurted out his entire life story as well. He had told her things that only Edouard, or Nicholas’s long dead mother, had known. It hadn’t just been a haze of lust clouding his brain; he had never had that kind of rapport with anyone before, never felt that kind of bond. He had certainly never expected to find instant camaraderie with a country girl, self-educated and come to Vienne to be an actress.
But Madeline had more than native wit. She had had no intention of staying in the chorus and had prepared for a career in classical theater by reading every new play she could get her hands on and studying the history behind the old period pieces. She had taught herself to speak and read Aderassi so she could take roles in the opera if she had to, but her real goal was the dramas and comedies played out on the stages of the big theaters of the fashionable district.
This theater was the Tragedian, one of the newest in the city. The wide sweep of the stage was lit by gas jets and the walls were delicately molded in white, pale yellow, and gold. The overstuffed seats in the boxes were stamped velvet of an inky blue, matching the plush seats of the stalls, and the curtains were yellow silk brocaded with flowers.
The curtain around the door was swept aside and Reynard appeared. He said, “Did you know the opera is absolutely full of thugs?”
“Well, there is a Bisran composer there,” Nicholas said. Anticipating the request, he started to pour Reynard a glass of wine from the bottle breathing on the little table nearby.
Reynard leaned down to kiss Madeline’s hand and dropped into the nearest chair. “Besides him. The place is stuffed with thugs from the Gamethon Club and they’re blowing whistles, of all things. Of course, it doesn’t help that the damn Bisran is crouched up on the stage, giving alternate signals to the orchestra. It’s driving the conductor mad.” Reynard was dressed much as Nicholas was, in black trousers, tailed coat, and straw-colored gloves appropriate for the theater. Reynard’s black satin vest only had three buttons as was de rigueur for someone who carried themselves as a bit of a dandy; Nicholas’s buttoned further up the chest, exposing less of his starched shirtfront, as befit his persona as a young though staid businessman.
Madeline lowered the lorgnette in alarm. “If someone blows a whistle during Arantha, I’ll have him killed.”
“My dear, I would be devastated if you did not demand the favor of dispatching such an undiscriminating character from me personally. But to continue, the reason I went to the opera was to speak to someone about your Doctor Octave.”
“I’m relieved,” Nicholas said. “Go on.”
“Octave appeared on the scene in just the past month, but he’s already done circles at three or four homes of the beau monde — not the sort of places I could get invitations to, mind.” Reynard leaned forward. “Apparently, at one of the first of these exhibitions, the host hired a real sorcerer, from Lodun, to watch and to certify that Octave was not a sorcerer himself and that he was not performing any sort of spell. That’s what made his reputation.”
“That’s odd.” Nicholas shook his head. “There’s a sorcerer in this business somewhere.” He had taken steps through acquaintances in the Philosopher’s Cross to meet with a spiritualist who might have an insider’s view of Octave’s activities, but real spiritualists were apparently elusive beasts and it would take a day or so to arrange the meeting.
“What do people say about him?” Madeline asked Reynard. “Are they afraid of him?”
“Not that I could tell. I spoke to several people and they all thought him a bit odd, but that’s fairly normal for someone in his business. Though the people I questioned were friends of friends, you understand, not anyone who had been at one of these circles. But tomorrow night Octave is descending far enough in society to preside at a spiritual evening at Captain Everset’s house. Everset used to be invited to court, but then there was that gambling scandal with the son of the Viscount Rale, so he’s a member of the fringe at best, now. He’s stark raving wealthy, though, which keeps him in company. The circle is being held at that new place of his a few miles outside the city proper. I managed to bump into him at the opera and coaxed an overnight invitation out of him.”
“Was it his idea to invite Doctor Octave for a circle?” Nicholas asked. “If we’re going to walk into the good doctor’s lair, I’d like to have a little more forewarning than this.”
“No, it was his wife’s idea. From what I’ve heard, she’s merely bored, sick of Everset, and trying to be fashionable.” Reynard appeared to consider the matter seriously. “Everset is flighty, and not terribly clever. Not the type to be involved with this, I’d think.” He sipped the wine and held the glass up to the light. “He’s invited me along to liven things up, but I wouldn’t have the man on a bet.”
“Very good.” Nicholas nodded to himself. “That should do nicely. I’ll come along as your valet.”
“Good.” Reynard downed the last of his wine. “It’ll be fun.”
“And what do I do?” Madeline asked, her voice caustic. She lowered the lorgnette to eye them critically. “Stay at Coldcourt and roll bandages?”
“But my dear, if Nicholas and I are killed, who else can we depend upon to avenge us?”
Madeline gave him a withering look and said, “What if Octave recognizes you? He knew Nicholas, he might know you as well.”
Reynard shrugged philosophically and made a gesture of turning the query over to Nicholas, who said, “That’s a chance we have to take. Octave wanted something at Mondollot House and he was afraid that we had somehow discovered what it was. We have to find out how he knows about us.” Madeline was right; spiritualists catered to people who knew nothing about real sorcery. Most were tricksters, fakes for the most part who couldn’t attract a ghost in the most haunted house in the city. But speaking to the dead was dangerously close to necromancy.
Necromancy was primarily a magic of divination, of the revealing of secret information through converse with spirits and the dead. There were plenty of simple and harmless necromantic spells, such as those for identifying thieves, or recovering lost objects or people, that did not require the spilling of human blood. There were scarcely any apprentice sorcerers at Lodun, at least not when Nicholas had been studying at the medical college there, who had not used a simple necromantic spell to derive hidden knowledge from visions conjured in a mirror or a swordblade. The more powerful spells did require the use of a corpse, or the parts of a corpse, or a human death, and the whole branch of magic had been outlawed in Ile-Rien for two hundred years or more. If any of the spiritualists had really been necromancers they would have found themselves on the wrong side of a prison wall long before now. That they were ignored by both the law courts and the sorcerers of Lodun showed how powerless they really were. Why would a sorcerer capable of making a golem bother posing as a spiritualist?
Nicholas turned his own glass to the light, watching the blood red sparkle. His hand still ached from the oil burns, though they hadn’t blistered. You don’t have time for this, he reminded himself. Octave was distracting him from the destruction of Count Rive Montesq, his real goal.
Montesq had caused Edouard Viller’s death, as surely as if he had personally fired a bullet into the gentle scholar’s head, by making it appear that Edouard was experimenting with necromancy. Nicholas still didn’t know the full story; he had been away finishing his education at Lodun when it had happened and Edouard had said only that he had regretted accepting Montesq as a patron and that he had discovered him to be dishonest. The only explanation Nicholas could arrive at was that Edouard had learned something about Montesq that the Count found dangerous. What that was, Nicholas had been unable to discover and Edouard had refused to tell anyone anything about his work during the last months of his life.
Nicholas had managed to convince himself that the why didn’t matter; Montesq had done it and he was going to pay for it.
But Nicholas couldn’t simply ignore Octave. He knows we were in the Mondollot House cellars. If he also knows about the Duchess’s Bisran-stamped gold, then we can’t use it to frame Montesq. And he couldn’t afford to ignore the danger. Octave could send another golem tonight, even, he thought.
The house lights dimmed and the noise of the crowd swelled in anticipation before leveling off somewhat. It would never quite cease, but the performances of the actors and actresses in this play were absorbing enough that it would stay a background hum and not rise to drown out the dialogue entirely.
Any more discussion among themselves now, however, would cause Madeline to become agitated. And besides, Nicholas wanted to see the play himself. He said, “We’ll work out the details at dinner tonight.”
END CHAPTER THREE
Continued in Chapter Four
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