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 a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
Originally published by Avon Books in 1998. eBook cover by Tiger Bright Studios.
Lit by gray moonlight, the monumental façade of Mondollot House loomed over her, studded with lighted windows. High above the street the pediment was a passionately carved relief of the hosts of Heaven and Hell locked in battle, the shrouds of doomed saints and the veils of the angels flying like banners or hanging down to drape gracefully over the stone canopies of the upper windows. A quartet of musicians played from an open balcony somewhere above, entertaining the guests as they arrived. Glass sconces around the doorway had been an unfortunate modern addition; the flicker and peculiar color of gaslight made it look as if the door was meant to be the mouth of Hell itself. Not a serendipitous choice, but the Duchess of Mondollot has never been singled out for restraint or taste, Madeline thought, but kept an ironic smile to herself.
Despite the frosty night air and the chill wind off the river, there were other guests milling around on the wide marble portico, admiring the famous pediment. Madeline tucked her hands more firmly into her muff and shivered, partly from the cold, partly from anticipation. Her coachman received his instructions and urged the horses away, and her escort Captain Reynard Morane strolled back to her. She saw the flakes of snow on the shoulders of his caped greatcoat, and hoped the weather held until later tonight, at least. One disaster at a time, she thought, with an impatient shake of her head. Let’s just get inside the place first.
Reynard extended an arm to her. “Ready, m’dear?”
She took it with a faint smile. “Very ready, sir.”
They joined the crowd of other guests milling toward the entrance.
The tall doors stood open, light and warmth spilling out onto the scuffed paving stones. A servant stood to either side, wearing the knee breeches and silver braided coats of old style livery. The man taking the invitations wore the dark swallowtail coat of fashionable evening dress. I don’t imagine this is the butler, Madeline thought grimly. Reynard handed over their invitation and she held her breath as the man opened the linen-paper envelope
She had come by it honestly, though if she had needed to she could have gone to the finest forger in the city: an old man nearly blind, who worked in a dank cellar off the Philosopher’s Cross. But she could sense something stirring in the eaves overhead, in the dimness high above the reach of the gas lamps. Madeline did not look up and if Reynard was aware of it he betrayed no reaction. Their informant had said a familiar of the sorcerer who protected the house would guard the door, an old and powerful familiar to spy out any magical devices brought in by the guests. Madeline clutched her reticule more tightly. Though none of the objects in it were magical, if it were searched, there was no way a sorcerer of any competence whatsoever could fail to recognize what they were for.
“Captain Morane and Madame Denare,” the man said. “Welcome.” He handed the invitation off to one of the footmen and bowed them in.
They were ushered into the vestibule where servants appeared to collect Madeline’s fur-trimmed paletot and muff and Reynard’s greatcoat, cane and top hat. A demure maid suddenly knelt at Madeline’s feet, brushing away a few traces of gravel that had adhered to the hem of her satin skirts, using a little silver brush and pan specially designed for the purpose. Madeline took Reynard’s arm again and they passed through the entryway into the noisy crush of the main reception area.
Even with the carpets covered by linen drapers and the more delicate furniture removed, the hall was opulent. Gilded cherubs peered down at the milling guests from the heavy carved molding and the ceilings were frescoed with ships sailing along the western coast. They joined the crowd ascending the double staircases and passed through the doors at the top and into the ballroom.
Beeswax, Madeline thought. They must have been at the floors all night. Beeswax, and sandalwood and patchouli, and sweat, heavy in the air. Sweat from the warm presence of so many finely-clothed bodies, and sweat from fear. It was all so familiar. She realized she was digging her gloved nails into Reynard’s arm in a death grip, and forced her fingers to unclench. He patted her hand distractedly, surveying the room.
The first dance had already started and couples swirled across the floor. The ballroom was large even for a house this size, with draped windows leading out onto balconies along the right hand side and doors allowing access to card rooms, refreshment and retiring rooms along the left. Across the back was a clever arrangement of potted winter roses, screening four musicians already hard at work on the cornet, piano, violin, and cello. The room was lit by a multitude of chandeliers burning expensive wax candles, because the vapors from gas were thought to ruin fine fabrics.
Madeline saw the Duchess of Mondollot herself, leading out the Count of… of something, she thought, distractedly. I can’t keep them straight anymore. It wasn’t the nobility they had to be wary of, but the sorcerers. There were three of them standing against the far wall, older gentlemen in dark swallowtail coats, wearing jeweled presentation medals from Lodun. One of them wore a ruby brooch and sash of the Order of Fontainon, but even without it Madeline would have known him. He was Rahene Fallier, the court sorcerer. There would be women sorcerers here too, more dangerous and difficult to spot because they would not be wearing presentation medals or orders with their ball gowns. And the university at Lodun had only allowed women students for the past ten years. Any female sorcerers present would be only a little older than Madeline herself.
She nodded to a few acquaintances in the crowd and she knew others recognized her; she had played the Madwoman in Isle of Stars to packed houses all last season. That wouldn’t affect their plans, since everyone of any wealth or repute in Vienne and the surrounding countryside would be in this house at some time tonight. And of course, someone was bound to recognize Reynard….
“Morane.” The unpleasantly sharp voice was almost at Madeline’s left ear. She snapped her fan at the speaker and lifted an eyebrow in annoyance. He took the hint and stepped back, still glowering at Reynard, and said, “I didn’t think you showed yourself in polite society, Morane.” The speaker was about her own age, wearing dress regimentals of one of the cavalry brigades, a lieutenant from his insignia. The Queen’s Eighth, Madeline realized. Ah. Reynard’s old brigade.
“Is this polite society?” Reynard asked. He stroked his mustache and eyed the speaker with some amusement. “By God, man, it can’t be. You’re here.”
There was a contemptuous edge to the younger man’s smile. “Yes, I’m here. I suppose you have an invitation.” It was too brittle for good-natured banter. There were two other men behind the lieutenant, one in regimentals, the other in civilian dress, both watching intently. “But you always were good at wiggling in where you weren’t wanted.”
Easily, Reynard said, “You should know, my boy.”
They hadn’t drawn the eye of anyone else in the noisy crowd yet, but it was only a matter of time. Madeline hesitated for a heartbeat — she hadn’t meant them to become conspicuous in this way, but it was a ready-made diversion — then said, “You’ll excuse me a moment, my dear.”
“All for the best, my dear. This would probably bore you.” Reynard gave her all his attention, turning toward her, kissing her hand, acting the perfect escort. The young lieutenant nodded to her, somewhat uncomfortably, and as Madeline turned away without acknowledging him, she heard Reynard ask casually, “Run away from any battles lately?”
Once away she moved along the periphery of the dancers, heading for the doors in the left hand wall. A lady alone in the ballroom, without a male escort or other ladies as companions, would be remarked on. A lady moving briskly toward the retiring rooms would be assumed to require a maid’s assistance in some delicate matter and be politely ignored. Once past the retiring rooms, a lady alone would be assumed to be on her way to a private tryst, and also be politely ignored.
She passed through one of the doorways leading off the ballroom and down the hall. It was quiet and the lamps had been turned low, the light sparking off the mirrors, the polished surfaces of the spindly-legged console tables and the porcelain vases stuffed with out-of-season flowers. For such a luxury the duchess had her own forcing-houses; the gold flowers Madeline wore in her aigrette and on her corsage were fabric, in deference to the season. She passed a room with a partly open door, catching a glimpse of a young maid kneeling to pin up the torn hem of an even younger girl’s gown, heard a woman speak sharply in frustration. Past another door where she could hear male voices in conversation and a woman’s low laugh. Madeline’s evening slippers were noiseless on the polished wood floor and no one came out.
She was in the old wing of the house now. The long hall became a bridge over cold silent rooms thirty feet down and the heavy stone walls were covered by tapestry or thin veneers of exotic wood instead of lathe and plaster. There were banners and weapons from long-ago wars, still stained with rust and blood, and ancient family portraits dark with the accumulation of years of smoke and dust. Other halls branched off, some leading to even older sections of the house, others to odd little cul-de-sacs lit by windows with an unexpected view of the street or the surrounding buildings. Music and voices from the ballroom grew further and further away, as if she was at the bottom of a great cavern, hearing echoes from the living surface.
She chose the third staircase she passed, knowing the servants would still be busy toward the front of the house. She caught up her skirts — black gauze with dull gold stripes over black satin and ideal for melding into shadows — and quietly ascended. She gained the third floor without trouble but going up to the fourth passed a footman on his way down. He stepped to the wall to let her have the railing, his head bowed in respect and an effort not to see who she was, ghosting about Mondollot House and obviously on her way to an indiscreet meeting. He would remember her later, but there was no help for it.
The hall at the landing was high and narrower than the others, barely ten feet across. There were more twists and turns to find her way through, stairways that only went up half a floor, and dead ends, but she had committed a map of the house to memory in preparation for this and so far it seemed accurate.
Madeline found the door she wanted and carefully tested the handle. It was unlocked. She frowned. One of Nicholas Valiarde’s rules was that if one was handed good fortune one should first stop to ask the price, because there usually was a price. She eased the door open, saw the room beyond lit only by reflected moonlight from undraped windows. With a cautious glance up and down the corridor, she pushed it open enough to see the whole room. Book-filled cases, chimney piece of carved marble with a caryatid-supported mantle, tapestry-back chairs, pier glasses, and old sideboard heavy with family plate. A deal table supporting a metal strongbox. Now we’ll see, she thought. She took a candle from the holder on the nearest table, lit it from the gas sconce in the hall, then slipped inside and closed the door behind her.
The undraped windows worried her. This side of the house faced Ducal Court Street and anyone below could see the room was occupied. Madeline hoped none of the Duchess’s more alert servants stepped outside for a pipe or a breath of air and happened to look up. She went to the table and upended her reticule next to the solid square shape of the strongbox. Selecting the items she needed out of the litter of scent vials, jewelry she had decided not to wear, and a faded string of Aderassi luck-beads, she set aside snippets of chicory and thistle, a toadstone, and a paper screw containing salt.
Their sorcerer-advisor had said that the ward that protected Mondollot House from intrusion was an old and powerful one. Destroying it would take much effort and be a waste of a good spell. Circumventing it temporarily would be easier and far less likely to attract notice, since wards were invisible to anyone except a sorcerer using gasçoign powder in his eyes or the new Aether-Glasses invented by the Parscian wizard Negretti. The toadstone itself held the necessary spell, dormant and harmless, and in its current state invisible to the familiar who guarded the main doors. The salt sprinkled on it would act as a catalyst and the special properties of the herbs would fuel it. Once all were placed in the influence of the ward’s key object, the ward would withdraw to the very top of the house. When the potency of the salt wore off, it would simply slip back into place, probably before their night’s work had been discovered. Madeline took her lock picks out of their silken case and turned to the strongbox.
There was no lock. She felt the scratches on the hasp and knew there had been a lock here recently, a heavy one, but it was nowhere to be seen. Damn. I have a not-so-good feeling about this. She lifted the flat metal lid.
Inside should be the object that tied the incorporeal ward to the corporeal bulk of Mondollot House. Careful spying and a few bribes had led them to expect not a stone as was more common, but a ceramic object, perhaps a ball, of great delicacy and age.
On a velvet cushion in the bottom of the strongbox were the crushed remnants of something once delicate and beautiful as well as powerful, nothing left now but fine white powder and fragments of cerulean blue. Madeline gave vent to an unladylike curse and slammed the lid down. Some bastard’s been here before us.
“There’s nothing here,” Mother Hebra whispered. She crouched in the brick rubble at the base of the barred gate, hands outstretched. She smiled and nodded to herself. “Aye, not a peep of a nasty old sorcerer’s ward. She must’ve done it.”
“She’s somewhat early,” Nicholas muttered, tucking away his pocketwatch. “But better that than late.” Tools clanked as the others scrambled forward and he reached down to help the old woman up and out of the way.
The oil lamps flickered in the damp cold air, the only light in the brick-lined tunnel. They had removed the layer of bricks blocking the old passage into Mondollot House’s cellars, but Mother Hebra had stopped them before they could touch the rusted iron of the gate, wanting to test to see if it was within the outer perimeter of the ward that protected the house. Nicholas could sense nothing unusual about the gate, but he wasn’t willing to ignore the old witch’s advice. Some household wards were designed to frighten potential intruders, others to trap them, and he was no sorcerer to know the difference.
The tunnel was surprisingly clean and for all its dampness the stale air was free of any stench. Most inhabitants of Vienne, if they thought of the tunnels beneath the city at all, thought of them as filthy adjuncts to the sewers, fit for nothing human. Few knew of the access passages to the new underground rail system, which had to be kept clear and relatively dry for the train workmen.
Crack and Cusard attacked the bars with hacksaws and Nicholas winced at the first high-pitched scrape. They were too far below street level to draw the attention of anyone passing above; he hoped the sound wasn’t echoing up through the house’s cellars, alerting the watchmen posted on the upper levels.
Mother Hebra tugged at his coat sleeve. She was half Nicholas’s height, a walking bundle of dirty rags with only a tuft of gray hair and a pair of bright brown eyes to prove there was anything within. “So you don’t forget later….”
“Oh, I wouldn’t forget you, my dear.” He produced two silver coins and put them in the withered little hand she extended. As a witch, she wasn’t much, but it was really her discretion he was paying for. The hand disappeared back into her rags and the whole bundle shook, apparently with joy at being paid.
Cusard had cut through several bars already and Crack was almost finished with his side. “Rusted through, mostly,” Cusard commented, and Crack grunted agreement.
“Not surprising; it’s much older than this tunnel,” Nicholas said. The passage had once led to another Great House, torn down years past to make way for Ducal Court Street, which stretched not too many feet above their heads.
The last bar gave way, and Cusard and Crack straightened to lift the gate out of the way. Nicholas said, “You can go now, Mother.”
The prompt payment had won her loyalty. “Nay, I’ll wait.” The bundle of rags settled against the wall.
Crack set his end of the gate down and turned to regard Mother Hebra critically. He was a lean, predatory figure, his shoulders permanently stooped from a term at hard labor at the city prison. His eyes were colorless and opaque. The magistrates had called him a born killer, an animal entirely without human feeling. Nicholas had found that to be somewhat of an exaggeration, but knew that if Crack thought Hebra meant to betray them he would act without hesitation. The little witch hissed at him, and Crack turned away.
Nicholas stepped over the rubble and into the lowest cellar of Mondollot House.
There was no new red brick here. Their lamps revealed walls of rough-cut stone, the ceiling arched with thick pillars to support the weight of the structure above. A patina of dust covered everything and the air was dank and stale.
Nicholas led the way toward the far wall, the lamp held high. Obtaining the plans for this house, stored in a chest of moldering family papers at the Mondollot estate in Upper Bannot, had been the hardest part of this particular scheme so far. They were not the original plans, which would have long since turned to dust, but a builder’s copy made only fifty years ago. Nicholas only hoped the good Duchess hadn’t seen fit to renovate her upper cellars since then.
They reached a narrow stair that curved up the wall, vanishing into darkness at the edge of their lamplight. Crack shouldered past Nicholas to take the lead and Nicholas didn’t protest. Whether Crack had sensed something wrong or was merely being cautious, he had learned not to ignore the man’s instincts.
The stairs climbed about thirty feet up the wall, to a narrow landing with a wooden ironbound door. A small portal in the center revealed that it would open into a dark empty space of indeterminate size, lit only by the ghost of reflected light coming from a door or another stairwell on the far wall. Nicholas held the lamp steady so Cusard could work at the lock with his picks. As the door groaned and swung open, Crack stepped forward to take the lead again. Nicholas stopped him. “Is something wrong?”
Crack hesitated. The flicker of lamplight made it even harder than usual to read his expression. His face was sallow and the harsh lines around his mouth and eyes had been drawn there by pain and circumstance rather than age. He wasn’t much older than Nicholas’s thirty years, but he could have easily passed for twice that. “Maybe,” he said finally. “Don’t feel right.”
And that’s the most we’ll have out of him, Nicholas thought. He said, “Go on then, but remember, don’t kill anyone.”
Crack acknowledged that with an annoyed wave and slipped through the door.
“Him and his feelings,” Cusard said, glancing around the shadowed cellar and shivering theatrically. He was an older man, thin and with a roguish cast of feature that was misleading — he was the nicest thief that Nicholas had ever met. He was a confidence man by vocation and far more used to plying his trade in the busy streets than to practicing his cracksman’s skills underground. “It don’t half worry you, especially when he don’t have the words he needs to tell what he does think is wrong.”
Nicholas absentmindedly agreed. He was wondering if Madeline and Reynard had managed to leave the house yet. If Madeline had been discovered interfering with the ward…. If Madeline had been discovered, we would surely know by now. He pushed the worry to the back of his mind; Madeline was quite capable of taking care of herself.
Crack appeared at the gap in the doorway, whispering, “All clear. Come on.”
Nicholas turned his lamp down to a bare flicker of flame, handed it to Cusard, and slipped through the door.
Hesitating a moment for his eyes to adjust, he could see the room was vast and high-ceilinged, lined by huge rotund shapes. Old wooden tuns for wine, or possibly water, if the house had no well. Probably empty now. He moved forward, following the almost weightless scrape of Crack’s boots on the dusty stone. The faint light from the opposite end of the chamber came from a partly open door. He saw Crack’s shadow pass through the door without hesitating and hurried after him.
Reaching it, he stopped, frowning. The heavy lock on the thick plank door had been ripped out and hung by a few distended screws. What in blazes…. Nicholas wondered. It was certainly beyond Crack’s strength. Then he saw that the lock had been torn out from the other side, by someone or something already within the cellar room. The angle of the distended metal allowed no other conclusion. That is hardly encouraging.
Nicholas stepped through the door and found himself at their goal. A long low cellar, modernized with brick-lined walls and gas sconces. One sconce was still lit, revealing man-high vaults in the walls, each crammed with stacked crates, metal chests, or barrels. Except for the one only ten paces away, which was filled with the bulk of a heavy safe.
The single lamp also revealed Crack, standing and watching Nicholas thoughtfully, and the dead man stretched at his feet.
Nicholas raised an eyebrow and came further into the room. There were two other bodies sprawled on the stone flags just past the safe.
Crack said, “I didn’t do it.”
“I know you didn’t.” Engineering Crack’s escape from the Vienne prison had been one of the first acts of Nicholas’s adult criminal career; he knew Crack wouldn’t lie to him. Nicholas sat on his heels for a closer look at the first corpse. Startled, he realized the red effusion around the man’s head wasn’t merely blood but brain matter. The skull had been smashed in by a powerful blow. Behind him, Cusard swore in a low voice.
Exonerated, Crack crouched down to examine his find. The dead man’s suit was plain and dark, probably the uniform of a hired watchman, and the coat was streaked with blood and the filthy muck from the floor of the cellar. Crack pointed to the pistol still tucked into the man’s waistband and Nicholas asked, “Are they all like this?”
Crack nodded. “Except one’s had his throat torn out.”
“Someone’s been before us!” Cusard whispered.
“Safe ain’t touched,” Crack disagreed. “No sign of anyone. Got something else to show you, though.”
Nicholas pulled off his glove to touch the back of the dead man’s neck, then wiped his hand on his trousers. The body was cold, but the cellar air was damp and chill, so it really meant little. He didn’t hesitate. “Cusard, begin on the safe, if you please. And don’t disturb the bodies.” He got to his feet to follow Crack.
Cusard stared. “We going on with it then?”
“We didn’t come all this way for naught,” Nicholas said, and followed Crack to the other end of the cellar.
Nicholas took one of the lamps, though he didn’t turn the flame up; Crack didn’t seem to need the light. Finding his way unerringly, he went to the end of the long cellar, passing all the boxes and bales that contained the stored wealth of the Mondollot family, and rounded a corner.
Nicholas’s eyes were well-adjusted to the dark and he saw the faint light ahead. Not pure yellow firelight, or greasy gaslight, but a dim white radiance, almost like moonglow. It came from an arched doorway, cut into a wall that was formed of old cut stone. There had been a door barring it once, a heavy wooden door of oak that had hardened over time to the strength of iron, that was now torn off its hinges. Nicholas tried to shift it; it was as heavy as stone. “In here,” Crack said, and Nicholas stepped through the arch.
The radiance came from ghost-lichen growing in the groined ceiling. There was just enough of it to illuminate a small chamber, empty except for a long stone slab. Nicholas turned the flame of the lamp up slowly, exposing more of the room. The walls were slick with moisture and the air stale. He moved to the slab and ran his hand across the top, examining the result on his gloved fingers. The stone there was relatively free of dust and the oily moisture, yet the sides of the slab were as dirty as the walls and floor.
He lifted the lamp and bent down, trying to get a better angle. Yes, there was something here. Its outline was roughly square. Oblong. A box, perhaps, he thought. Coffin-sized, at least.
He glanced up at Crack, who was watching intently. Nicholas said, “Someone entered the cellar, by a route yet undetermined, stumbled on the guards, or was stumbled on by them, possibly when he broke the lock on the older cellar to search it. Our intruder killed to prevent discovery, which is usually the act of a desperate and foolish person.” It was Nicholas’s belief that murder was almost always the result of poor planning. There were so many ways of making people do what you wanted other than killing them. “Then he found this room, broke down the door with a rather disturbing degree of strength, removed something that had lain here undisturbed for years, and retired, probably the same way he entered.”
Crack nodded, satisfied. “He ain’t here no more. I’ll go bank on that.”
“It’s a pity.” And now it was doubly important to leave no trace of their presence. If I’m going to be hanged for murder, I’d prefer it to be a murder I actually committed. Nicholas consulted his watch in the lamplight, then tucked it away again. “Cusard should be almost finished with the safe. You go back for the others and start moving the goods out. I want to look around here a little more.” There were six other men waiting up in the tunnel, whose help was necessary if they were to transport the gold quickly. Crack, Cusard, and Lamane, who was Cusard’s second in command, were the only ones who knew him as Nicholas Valiarde. To Mother Hebra and the others hired only for this job, he was Donatien, a shadowy figure of the Vienne underworld who paid well for this sort of work and punished indiscretion just as thoroughly.
Crack nodded and stepped to the door. Hesitating, he said again, “I’ll go bank he’s not here no more….”
“But you would appreciate it if I exercised the strictest caution,” Nicholas finished for him. “Thank you.”
Crack vanished into the darkness and Nicholas stooped to examine the floor. The filth and moisture on the pitted stone revealed footmarks nicely. He found the tracks of his own boots, and Crack’s, noting that the first time his henchman had approached the room he had come only to the threshold. In the distance he could hear the others, muted exclamations as the new arrivals saw the dead men, the rumble of Crack’s voice, a restrained expression of triumph from everyone as Cusard opened the safe. But there were no footmarks left by their hypothetical intruder.
Kneeling to make a more careful survey, and ruining the rough fabric of his workman’s coat and breeches against the slimy stone in the process, Nicholas found three scuffles he couldn’t positively attribute to either Crack or himself, but that was all. He sat up on his heels, annoyed. He was willing to swear his analysis of the room was correct. There was no mistaking that some object had been removed from the plinth, and recently.
Something that had lain in this room for years, in silence, with the ethereal glow of the ghost-lichen gently illuminating it.
He got to his feet, meaning to go back to the guards’ corpses and examine the floor around them more thoroughly, if the others hadn’t already obliterated any traces when carrying out the Duchess’s stock of gold.
He stepped past the ruined door and something caught his eye. He turned his head sharply toward the opposite end of the corridor, where it curved away from the vaults and into the older wine-cellars. Something white fluttered at the end of that corridor, distinct against the shadows. Nicholas turned up the lamp, drawing breath to shout for Crack — an instant later the breath was knocked out of him.
It moved toward him faster than thought and between the first glimpse of it and his next heartbeat it was on him.
A tremendous blow struck him flat on his back and the creature was on top of him. Eyes, bulging because the flesh around them had withered away, stared at him in black hate out of a face gray as dead meat. It bared teeth like an animal’s, long and curving. It was wrapped in a once-white shroud, now filthy and tattered. Nicholas jammed his forearm up into its face, felt the teeth tearing through his sleeve. He had kept his grip on the lantern, though the glass had broken and the oil was burning his hand. He swung it toward the thing’s head with terror-inspired strength.
Whether it was the blow or the touch of burning oil, it shrieked and tore itself away. The oil had set the sleeve of Nicholas’s coat afire; he rolled over, crushing the flames out against the damp stone.
Crack, Cusard, and Lamane were suddenly clustered around him. Nicholas tried to speak, choked on the lungful of smoke he had inhaled, and finally gasped, “After him.”
Crack bolted immediately down the dark corridor. Cusard and Lamane stared at Nicholas, then at each other. “Not you,” Nicholas said to Cusard. “Take charge of the others. Get them out of here with the gold.”
“Aye,” Cusard said in relief and scrambled up to run back to the others. Lamane swore but helped Nicholas to his feet.
Cradling his burned left hand, Nicholas stumbled after Crack. Lamane had a lamp and a pistol; Crack had gone after the thing empty-handed and in the dark.
“Why are we following it?” Lamane whispered.
“We have to find out what it is.”
“It’s a ghoul.”
“It’s not a ghoul,” Nicholas insisted. “It wasn’t human.”
“Then it’s fay,” Lamane muttered. “We need a sorcerer.”
Vienne had been overrun by the Unseelie Court over a hundred years ago, in the time of Queen Ravenna, but as far as the superstitious minds of most city people were concerned, it might as well have happened yesterday. “If it’s a fay, you have iron,” Nicholas said, indicating the pistol.
“That’s true,” Lamane agreed, encouraged. “Fast as it was, though, it’s miles away by now.”
Perhaps, Nicholas thought. Whether it had actually moved that quickly, or it had afflicted him with some sort of paralysis he couldn’t tell; his mind’s eye seemed to have captured an image of it careening off the corridor wall as it charged him, which might indicate that its movement toward him hadn’t been as instantaneous as it had seemed.
This was the lowest level of the Mondollot wine-cellars. The lamplight revealed cask after cask of old vintages, some covered by dust and cobwebs, others obviously newly tapped. Nicholas remembered that there was one of the largest balls of the fashionable season going on not too many feet above their heads, and while a large supply had undoubtedly already been hauled upstairs, servants could be sent for more casks at any moment. He could not afford to pursue this.
They found Crack waiting for them at the far wall, near a pile of broken bricks and stone. Nicholas took the lamp from Lamane and lifted it high. Something had torn its way through the wall, pushing out the older foundation stone and the brick veneer. The passage beyond was narrow, choked by dust and filth. Nicholas grimaced. From the smell it led straight to the sewer.
“That’s where he came in.” Crack offered his opinion. “And that’s where he went out.”
“Ghouls in the sewers,” Nicholas muttered. “Perhaps I should complain to the aldermen.” He shook his head. He had wasted enough time on this already. “Come, gentlemen, we have a small fortune waiting for us.”
Still inwardly cursing, Madeline took a different stairway down to the second floor. They had planned this for months; it was incredible that someone else would scheme to enter Mondollot House on the same night. No, she thought suddenly. Not incredible. On every other night this place was guarded like the fortress it was. But tonight hundreds of people would be allowed in and she couldn’t be the only one who knew of a good forger. This was an ideal time for a robbery and someone else had seized the opportunity.
She reached the ballroom and forced herself to calmly stroll along the periphery, scanning the dancers and the men gathered along the walls for Reynard. He would expect her back by now and be where she could easily find him. He wouldn’t have joined a card game or…. Left, she thought, with a wry twist of her mouth. Unless he had to. Unless he got into a fistfight with a certain young lieutenant and was asked to leave. He would not be able to insist on waiting for her, not knowing where she was in the house or if she had finished with the ward. Damn. But with the ward gone, it would be possible to slip out unnoticed, if she could get down to the first floor….
Madeline saw the Duchess of Mondollot then, a distinguished and lovely matron in pearls and a gown of cream satin, heading directly toward her. She stepped behind the inadequate shelter of a tall flower-filled vase. In desperation, she shielded her face with her fan, pretending to be screening herself from the lecherous view of an innocent group of older gentlemen standing across from her.
But the Duchess passed Madeline without a glance, and in her relief she found herself closely studying the man trailing in the older woman’s wake.
He was odd enough to catch anyone’s attention in this company. His dark beard was unkempt and though his evening dress was of fine quality it was disarrayed, as if he cared nothing for appearances. And why come to the Duchess of Mondollot’s ball, if one cared nothing for appearances? He was shorter than Madeline and his skin appeared pale and unhealthy even for late winter. His eyes glanced over her as he hurried after the Duchess, and they were wild, and perhaps a little mad.
There was something about him that clearly said “underworld,” though in the criminal, not the mythological sense, and Madeline found herself turning to follow him without closely considering her motives.
The Duchess strode down the hall, accompanied also, Madeline now had leisure to notice, by a younger woman whom Madeline knew was a niece and by a tall footman. The Duchess turned into one of the salons and the others followed; Madeline moved past, careful not to glance in after them, her eyes fixed further down the hall as if she were expecting to meet someone. She reached the next closed door, grasped the handle and swung it opened confidently, ready to be apologetic and flustered if it was already occupied.
It was empty, though a fire burned on the hearth and a firescreen was in place, shielding the couches and chairs gathered near it in readiness for ball guests who desired private conversation or other amusements. Madeline closed the door behind her carefully and locked it. All these rooms on this side of the corridor were part of a long suite of salons and there were connecting panel doors to the room the Duchess had entered.
The doors were of light wood, meant to swing open wide and interconnect the rooms for large evening gatherings. Madeline knelt beside them, her satin and gauze skirts whispering, and with utmost care, eased the latch open.
She was careful not to push the door and the air in the room swung it open just enough to give her a view of the other room’s carpet, and a thin slice of tulip-bordered wallpaper and carved wainscotting.
The Duchess was saying, “It’s an unusual request.”
“Mine is an unusual profession.” That must be the odd man. His voice made Madeline grimace in distaste; it was insinuating and suggestive somehow, and reminded her of a barker at a thousand-veils peep show. No wonder the Duchess had called her niece and a footman to accompany her.
“I’ve dealt with spiritualists before,” the Duchess continued, “though you seem to think I have not. None required a lock of the departed one’s hair to seek contact.”
Madeline felt a flicker of disappointment. Spiritualism and speaking to the dead were all the rage among the nobility and the monied classes now, though in years past it would have been feared as necromancy. It certainly explained the man’s strange demeanor.
She started to ease away from the door but with fury in his voice the spiritualist said, “I am no ordinary medium, your grace. What I offer is contact of a more intimate, lasting nature. But to establish that contact I require something from the body of the deceased. A lock of hair is merely the most common item.”
Necromancy indeed, Madeline thought. She had studied magic in her youth, when her family had still hoped she might demonstrate some talent for it. She hadn’t been the best student, but something about this pricked her memory.
“You require a lock of hair, and your fee,” the Duchess said, and her voice held contempt.
“Of course,” the man said, but the fee was clearly an afterthought.
“Aunt, this is ridiculous. Send him away.” The niece, bored and faintly disgusted with the subject.
“No,” the Duchess said slowly. Her voice changed, quickened with real interest. “If you can do as you say…there seems no harm in trying….”
I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Madeline thought, though she couldn’t explain her uneasiness with the whole idea, even to herself.
“I have a lock of my son’s hair. He was killed in the Parscian colony of Sambra. If you could contact him –”
“Your son, not your husband?” The spiritualist was exasperated.
“What does it matter to you whom I wish to contact, as long as your fee is paid?” The Duchess sounded startled. “I would double it if I was pleased; I’m not counted stingy,” she added.
“But your husband would be the more proper one to contact first, surely?” The man’s tone was meant to be wheedling, but he couldn’t disguise his impatience.
“I don’t wish to speak to my husband again, alive or dead or in any state between,” the Duchess snapped. “And I don’t understand what it could possibly matter to you who –”
“Enough,” the man said, sounding disgusted himself. “Consider my offer withdrawn, your grace. And the consequences are your own concern.” Madeline clearly heard the hall door slam.
The Duchess was silent a moment, probably stunned. “I suppose I’ll never know what that was about. Bonsard, make sure that man is conducted out.”
“Yes, my lady.”
I’d do more than that, Madeline thought. I’d summon my sorcerer, and make sure my wards were properly set, and lock away any relics of my dead relatives. That man was mad, and he wanted something. But it wasn’t her concern. She eased away from the door, waited a moment, then slipped out into the hall.
The safe had yielded to Cusard’s ministrations and proved to hold nearly sixty small gold bars, each stamped with the royal seal of Bisra. Nicholas’s men had already packed them on the sledges they had brought and started back down the tunnel under Cusard’s direction when Nicholas, Crack and Lamane caught up to them.
Nicholas motioned them to keep moving, lifting one of the heavy bars with his good hand to examine the crest. The Duchess of Mondollot maintained a trading business with one of the old merchant families of Bisra, Ile-Rien’s longtime enemy to the south. This fact was little known and in the interest of keeping it that way, the Duchess did not store her gold in the Bank Royal of Vienne, which Nicholas knew from experience was much harder to break into. The Bank would also have expected the great lady to pay taxes, something her aristocratic mind couldn’t countenance.
Mother Hebra clucked at his burns and made him wrap his scarf around his injured hand. Lamane was telling the others something about the sewers being infested with ghouls and in such a nice part of the city, too.
“What do you make of it?” Cusard asked Nicholas, when they had reached the street access of the maintenance tunnel, which opened up behind a public stable across Ducal Court Street from Mondollot House. The other men were handing up bars of gold to be stored in the compartment under the empty bed of the waiting cart. The street boys posted as lookouts worked for Cusard and thus for Nicholas too, as did the man who ran the stables.
“I don’t know.” Nicholas waited for the men to finish, then started up the bent metal ladder. The cold wind hit him as he climbed out of the manhole, the chill biting into his burns, making him catch his breath. The horses stamped, restless in the cold. The night was quiet and the men’s hushed voices, the distant music from Mondollot House, and the clank of soft metal against wood as the gold was packed away in the special compartment under the wagon bed, seemed oddly loud. “But I’ll swear it removed something from that room Crack found,” he said as Cusard emerged.
Cusard said, “Well, I don’t much like it. It was such a sweet little job of work, otherwise.”
Someone brought Nicholas his greatcoat from the cart and he shrugged into it gratefully. “I don’t either, that you can be sure of.” The wagon had been loaded and he wanted to look for Reynard and Madeline. He told Cusard, “Take the others and get home; we’ll draw attention standing here.”
The driver snapped the reins and the wagon moved off. Nicholas walked back down the alley toward Ducal Court Street. A layer of dirty ice and a light dusting of snow made the streets and alleys passable; usually they were so choked with mud and waste water that pedestrians had to stay on the promenades or use the stepping stones provided for street crossings. He realized Crack was following him. He smiled to himself and said aloud, “All right. It didn’t go at all well the last time I sent you away, did it? But no more ghoul-hunting tonight.”
At the mouth of the alley, Nicholas paused to remove the small hairpieces that lengthened his sideburns and changed the shape of his mustache and short beard, and rubbed the traces of glue off his cheeks. The touches of gray in his dark hair would have to be washed out. He never appeared as Donatien except in disguise: if any of the men who had participated on one of these jobs recognized him as Nicholas Valiarde it could be ruinous. Maintaining the masquerade wasn’t much of a hardship; in many ways he had been practicing deception for most of his life and at this point it came easily to him.
He buttoned and belted his greatcoat, took the collapsible top hat and cane from one of the pockets, and tugged a doeskin glove onto his uninjured hand. With the other hand in his pocket and the coat concealing everything but his boots and gaiters, he was only a gentleman out for a stroll, a somewhat disreputable servant in tow.
He paused across the wide expanse of street from Mondollot House, as if admiring the lighted façade. Footmen stood ready at the door, waiting to hand down late arrivals or assist those making an early night of it. Nicholas moved on, passing down the length of the large house. Then he spotted their coach, standing at the corner under a gas street lamp, and then Reynard Morane waiting near it. Nicholas crossed to him, Crack a few paces behind.
“Nic….” Reynard stepped down from the promenade to meet them. He was a big man with red hair and a cavalryman’s loose-limbed stride. He took a close look at Nicholas. “Trouble?”
“Things became somewhat rough. Where’s Madeline?”
“That’s the problem. I had the opportunity to provide a diversion for her but it went too well, so to speak, and I found myself asked to leave with no chance to retrieve her.”
“Hmm.” Hands on hips, Nicholas considered the façade of the Great House. For most women of fashionable society, getting out of the place unnoticed would have been an impossible task, but Madeline had studied tumbling and acrobatics for the more active roles in the theater and she wouldn’t necessarily need a ground floor exit. “Let’s go around the side.”
Mondollot House was flanked by shopping promenades and smaller courts leading to other Great Houses and it was possible to circle the place entirely. The shops were closed, except for one busy cabaret set far back under the arcade, and all was quiet. There were no entrances on the first floor of the house except for an occasional heavily barred carriage or servants’ door. The terraces and balconies of the upper floors were all later additions: originally these houses had been impenetrable fortresses, frivolous decoration confined to the rooftops and gables.
They made one circuit, almost back to Ducal Court Street, then retraced their steps. Reaching the far side, Nicholas saw the panel doors on a second floor terrace fly open, emitting light, music, and Madeline.
“You’re late, my dear,” Reynard called softly to her, “we’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Oh, be quiet.” Madeline shut the doors behind her. “I’ve had to leave my best paletot behind because of you.”
“We can afford to buy you another, believe me,” Nicholas told her, concealing his relief. He should know her abilities too well by now to worry much about her safety, but it had been a disturbing night. “And it’s well earned, too.”
Madeline gathered her delicate skirts and swung over the low balustrade, using the scrollwork as a ladder, and dropped to land in a low snowdrift just as Nicholas and Reynard scrambled forward to catch her. She straightened and shook her skirts out, and Nicholas hastened to wrap his coat around her. She said, “Not so well earned. I didn’t have a chance to distract the ward because someone had beaten me to it.”
“Ah.” Nicholas nodded, thoughtful. “Of course. I’m not surprised.”
“He never is,” Reynard said in a tone of mock complaint. “Let’s discuss it somewhere else.”
END CHAPTER ONE
Continued in Chapter Two
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