The Late November Fantasy Magazine Rack

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Cemetery-Dance-73-rack Beneath-Ceaseless-Skies-185-rack Clarkesworld-110-rack Lightspeed-Magazine-November-2015-rack
Interfictions-Online-rack Beneath-Ceaseless-Skies-186-rack The-Dark-Issue-10-rack Nightmare-Magazine-November-rack

We’ve got lots of great magazine coverage to point you towards the best new short fiction this month. We started our coverage of Interfictions with issue #6, and reported on the arrival of the massive Best Of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Volume 1. In our reviews section, Learned Foote took a look at Nike Salway’s “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club” in the October Lightspeed, and Fletcher Vredenburgh highlighted the best in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Swords and Sorcery Magazine in his October Round-Up. For vintage fiction fans, Matthew Wuertz journeys back over 60 years to look at a magazine from January 1953, with fiction by Philip K. Dick and Clifford D. Simak, in the latest installment of his issue-by-issue read of Galaxy.

Check out all the details on the magazines above by clicking on the each of the images. Our November Fantasy Magazine Rack is here.

As we’ve mentioned before, all of these magazines are completely dependent on fans and readers to keep them alive. Many are marginal operations for whom a handful of subscriptions may mean the difference between life and death. Why not check one or two out, and try a sample issue? There are magazines here for every budget, from completely free to $12.95/issue. If you find something intriguing, I hope you’ll consider taking a chance on a subscription. I think you’ll find it’s money very well spent.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: The Moriarty Chronicles

Monday, August 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Moriarty_CardPerhaps my favorite Sherlock Holmes pastiche is 1974’s The Return of Moriarty by John Gardner. In it, Professor Moriarty (who did not perish at the Reichenbach Falls) is a Victorian Era godfather, with a criminal organization the envy of the American mob in the Roaring Twenties. A sequel followed it the next year, The Revenge of Moriarty. The trilogy was completed with Moriarty, just a few weeks before Gardner passed away in 2008.

Having completed one muddle of a screenplay about a Civil War naval battle, I took it upon myself to contact John and tell him I was writing a pilot for a proposed TV series about The Return. Extremely polite and friendly, he told me to send it to him when I was done. I did. He and his agent, less than impressed with this amateur effort from a self-taught screenwriter, understandably, passed.

I stayed in email contact with John (who was always nice) up until his death, taking one serious stab at revising the pilot and expanding it to two-hours. I never did resubmit it to his agent (John having passed away by then).

So, read on about The Moriarty Chronicles, a British TV series you, alas, will never see.

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Fantasy Literature: Heroes Die & We Killed the Blonde

Saturday, May 9th, 2015 | Posted by Edward Carmien

Heroes Die Matthew Woodring Stover-small

She would never forget the surge that had slammed up her spine when a shout of dismay had risen from the vast ranks of the Horde, and she had looked down to the battlefield to see the huge banner of the Khulan himself burn with smoking yellow flame.

Among Talann’s gifts was extraordinary vision; like an eagle, she could see — even from a mile or more away — the black clothes and fringe of beard on the man who held the burning banner up for a moment longer, then cast it down to the mud-churned earth at his feet. She had watched breathlessly, mesmerized, her duties forgotten, as the Bear Guard closed around him like the jaws of a dragon, and a tear had tracked through the dust of her cheeks for the death of this unknown hero — but an instant later, she saw him again, still alive, still fighting, cutting through the finest warriors of the Khulan Horde as the prow of a warship cuts through waves.

Thus was a hero born on Overworld, a hero born of heroic deeds witnessed first hand, at a pivotal moment — one of the pivotal moments of this not-quite-parallel earth — in the history of Overworld. Talann, a military page in a human-centric military order, watches a battle lost turn to a battle won. Caine, of course, toppled the enemy standard, killed the great enemy leader, single-handedly saving Ankhana, a human-centric polity, from “the infinite savage warriors of the Khulan Horde.” Ogres, as it happens. Like in the tales of old, they eat humans.

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Future Treasures: Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries, edited by Stephen Jones

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Dark Detectives-smallWe have a tradition here at Black Gate of respecting supernatural detectives.

Let’s face it, they don’t get much respect anywhere else. But who else is going to defend the Earth from the forces of darkness? Usually without a salary, decent pension, or bennies of any kind. We’re not sure why they do it, but we’re glad they do.

Later this month Titan Books will publish Stephen Jones’ anthology Dark Detectives: An Anthology of Supernatural Mysteries, which collects classic tales of occult detectives, including a John Thunstone tale by Manly Wade Wellman, a Titus Crow story by Brian Lumley, a Solar Pons novella by Basil Copper, and a Carnacki novelette by William Hope Hodgson — as well as brand new tales of intrepid investigators of the unknown by Kim Newman, Brian Mooney, Jay Russell, Peter and Tremayne.

Here’s the description.

CRIMES OF TERROR AND DARKNESS

In the battle between good and evil, the supernatural investigators form the first line of defense against the unexplainable. Here are eighteen pulse-pounding tales featuring uncanny sleuths battling against the weird, written by Clive Barker, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Basil Copper, Neil Gaiman, William Hope Hodgson, Brian Lumley, Brian Mooney, Kim Newman, Jay Russell, Peter Tremayne, and Manly Wade Wellman.

Featuring the entire ‘’Seven Stars” saga by Kim Newman, pitting the Diogenes Club against an occult object with the power to ultimately annihilate mankind!

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Hard Boiled Holmes

Monday, January 12th, 2015 | Posted by Bob Byrne

HBH_MurderBy now, readers of this column (all three of you) know that I’m ‘all-in’ on Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons. But I am also a long-time hard boiled fiction afficionado. I’ve got a section of the bookshelves well-stocked with private eye/police novels and short stories, from Hammett and Daly to Stone and Burke.

Now, I wouldn’t bet my house on the premise of the following essay, which first appeared in Sherlock Magazine back when I was a columnist for that fine, now defunct periodical. But I believe that I make a more compelling argument than you thought possible at first glance. The roots of the American hard boiled school can be seen in Sherlock Holmes and the Victorian Era. Yes, really.

And if any of the hard boiled heroes mentioned catch your fancy, leave a comment. I’ll be glad to tell you more about them. Without further ado, I bring you “Hard Boiled Holmes.”

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Raymond Chandler wrote these words in his essay, ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ Ever since, the term ‘mean streets’ has been associated with the hard-boiled genre. One thinks of tough private eyes with guns, bottles, and beautiful dames. But was it really Chandler who created those words to describe the environment that the classic Philip Marlowe operated in?

Is it possible that it was Victorian London that gave birth to the mean streets, which would later become famous as the settings in the pages of Black Mask? Could it be that Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were followers in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes?

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: Meet Nero Wolfe

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Wolfe_Drawing1In 1926, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned his last Holmes tale, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. Rex Stout, a fan of those tales, would shortly create a detective who would not only evoke memories of Holmes, but who would cast his own (gargantuan) shadow: Nero Wolfe. The seventy-four stories, written over forty-one years, would be collectively known as the Corpus, akin to the Sherlockian Canon.

Nero Wolfe lives in a New York City brownstone with Archie Goodwin, Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Horstmann. This boys’ club (Wolfe makes Holmes look like a romantic) is a self-contained unit, with Wolfe and Archie solving crimes, Fritz cooking and taking care of the household chores, and Horstmann assisting Wolfe with his hobby, the cultivation of orchids in a rooftop greenhouse.

Archie often comments on the beauty of the orchids, which is a far cry from the thoughts of General Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: “Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.” Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe, I guess.

Because the characters do not age, the stories all have a comfortable familiarity about them. Also, they are set contemporary to their writing, so while in a Holmes tale, it is ‘always 1895’, the Wolfe stories feel much more like modern mysteries, even though some are over seventy-five years old.

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Black Gate Online Fiction: “That of the Pit”

Monday, December 9th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

By E.E. Knight


This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of E.E. Knight and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by Pitch-Black LLC.

Have you heard the tale, O Exalted One, of how the
old Myrhyran Spire in Dinhun came to be called the
“Tower of Screams” and, even down to this modern and
skeptical day, thought accursed ground?
The Blue Pilgrim?
Yes, your Magnificence. As usual,
Skiar the Last Discern had a part in the legend…

The Blue Pilgrim disliked crowds.

Were he capable of hate, he would have hated them, so irritating was the dirt and wasted effort of shouldering his way through the massed flesh, darkening his already tense visage. Never mind that each additional person who glanced in his direction increased the risk of being recognized.

Dynnenhann, though just a rainwashed capital of a provincial Sayhroed, swelled on Summer Festival week until its river-stone-paved streets were as crowded as those of Fourfalls, the beating heart of the Myrhyran Empire, or even Myrhe itself.

Under the brassy sun of the summer solstice, every mud-sandaled farmer and wool-coated herdsman hauled wife and squalling brood through the red-and-black pennants of Dynnenhann’s gates. The masses crowded the squares and fountains in the day, sang and shouted drunken mirth from the rooftops at night, and then slept the morning away in alleys and stables, doorsteps and archways, as the overflowing gutters reeked with their excrete.

The murdered Selectmen of Old Hanus, as the city had been known in the generation of the Blue Pilgrim’s grandfather, would never have allowed so many people within the city’s walls. The Selectmen listed to the Great Discerns, whose Method deduced that overcrowding abetted disease. But the first Sayhrae had done away with the Discerns of the Blue Pilgrim’s Faith, Great and Small, as his father cried in his crib.

Though he was tall enough to look out over the sea of heads filling the Sayhrae’s stone-paved Plaza (in the days of the Selectmen it had been a garden, or so he’d been told), and strong enough to force his way through the bodies like a buffalo breaking a snowdrift, the Blue Pilgrim still felt trapped by the noise and stink of a crowd.

Also, there was the chance of a passerby feeling, as they pressed flesh, the weapons under his summer-weight cloak and calling for the Kyrhoe, the Sayhrae’s city guard. Under the Sayhrae’s law the Blue Pilgrim was Dhymma, an unassimilated provincial, and arms were forbidden to him within the city walls.

He turned his clean-shaven face and head, covered by the thin, butter-colored si-fiber hood, this way and that as he circled the plaza. His circles grew ever smaller as a hawk’s might as it waited for its prey to make a move from cover. At the outer rim of the plaza he had passed food barrows and wine-carts, smelled the skewered lamb cooking over tiny pots of coals, listened to the kunk as wives thumped fat melons before purchase, shrugged as though uncomprehending the Myr-tongue offers of the tobacco vendors. Nearer the platform, magicians made parrots appear and vanish in orange smoke as they pocketed copper coins; unlike the parrots, the copper currency of the Empire wouldn’t appear again until a visit to a dice-den or a brothel. Poets shouted their delicately chosen words to sprawling, smoking audiences. Dancing girls, creamy breasts bobbing under the summer sun — or half-covered by a wisp of silk, so transparent nudity seemed less shocking — shook their hips jingling the coin-belts about their waists in time to the beat of their drummer. Tiny zills on finger and thumb chimed as graceful arms waved back and forth like dueling cobras.

“I dance for you alone at the top floor of Staghorn House, blue-eyes,” one dancer said as the Blue Pilgrim paused before her to look at the little procession gathering atop the platform dominating the plaza. He had to lift his chin; the platform stood a full spear-length above even his shaven crown. She dropped the purple veil that she had been dancing about, as though it were a partner, and twirled, whipping her head about so her long auburn hair struck him across the chest. “Six Imperials, only six, for a night of pleasure you’ll remember to your final breath.”

He slid sideways through the crowd, counting the scimitar-bearing Kyrhoe going to each corner of the hexagonal platform and grouping at the twin wooden pillars rising from the center — new additions since the arrival of the Third Sayhrae.

“For such a man, only thr — Oww!” the dancer cried, the last brought out by a strike across the buttocks from her drummer.

The Blue Pilgrim ignored the byplay. Yes, he’d heard true, the boy Lar stood trembling in shackles, wearing only a rag wrapped about his waist. Gangly, a little taller than the broad Kyrhoeto either side, pale and dirty with the filth of the Sayhrae’s gaol, the youth fought his tears like a man.

Clean as the boy was dirty, dressed in the black robes of the Empire, the Sayhrae nodded at his trumpeter, who put his mouth to the great instrument wrapped about his body like a coiling serpent. Ta-Waaaaaaaaaa wailed the horn.

The crowd hushed with admirable speed. By the time the echo faded from the dome of Myrric Temple and Imperial Spire at the end of the Plaza — higher even than the city walls, which were the work of old Uluthans — the Blue Pilgrim could only hear the odd mutter here and there in the crowd.

“The Sayhrae will speak,” the leather-lunged trumpeter shouted across the plaza.

From the oldest great-grandfather to toddlers, the crowd went to its knees. He heard a child cry out, instantly smothered by a parental hand. Those — and there were many — who’d also taken up the Myrric faith also bowed their heads.

Now the Blue Pilgrim could have heard a wooden spoon dropped to the paving-stones of the plaza. Only the summer wind defied the silence.

The Sayhrae, his great black beard bound in gold and elaborately knotted, stepped forward as the Kyrhoe attached the boy, ankle and wrist, between the twin wooden pillars.

“Amidst Myrhyran plenty,” the Sayhrae began, in his oddly-cadenced Ulantic, “and the pleasures of this, our Summer Festival, we have found troublemakers endangering our beloved peace. Not ordinary criminals, to be tried and sentenced, but evildoers threatening the highest order. An assassin has been found, bearing weapons within our good city, with designs against our good order. He did injury to one of the Kyrhoe. While being questioned he admitted membership to the Blasphemies, congress with enemies of the Myrhyran Splendor, and past crimes including theft, arson, spoilage, trespass, passing disease of thought, and written heresy.”

The Blue Pilgrim thought it quite a list of offences for such a down-cheeked boy.

“Because he admitted to such he has been granted a Death of Seconds instead of the more usual Death of Minutes, though such are his affiliations that I needed to sign a clemency to save him from a Death of Hours.”

Many of the heads in the crowd began bobbing. The Sayhrae smiled at the silent accolades. “Yes, you are welcome. I am not called the Gentle Hand for nothing.”

Amidst the bobbing the Blue Pilgrim managed to creep a little closer to the platform.

“For crimes against the public, punishment shall be public,” the Sayhrae said, stepping aside so that all might see the youth. “The evildoer Lar will be quartered.”

A Punisher, wearing only a genital box so as not to have to burn clothes touched by tainted blood, stepped behind the pinioned youth, a great, whale-shaped rending scimitar in his cable-like arms. The boy, Lar, whose head had been drooping in his bonds to hide his face, raised his eyes to the all-giving sun one last time —

— and met the gaze of the Blue Pilgrim. A smile broke the boy’s face.

“Hold!” the Sayhrae shouted, raising his hand, following the boy’s gaze out and into the crowd.

The Blue Pilgrim lost enough self-control to wince. Not close enough for a throw —

“Sky-eyes,” the Sayhrae said in Myrhric, pointing. Then shouted:

“Guard! Call the Imperial Guard!”

As always, he overdoes it, the Blue Pilgrim thought. Six men would do the job better.

The trumpeter sounded the wailing alarm and horsemen exploded from the gates beneath the Imperial Spire, from the streets leading off of the Plaza, from the Sayhrae’s plaza tent. But the horses caused a panic in the crowd, which spread and ran like water poured onto a bath-tile floor.

Dodging through the chaos, the Blue Pilgrim lashed out sideways with his foot in the manner of a kicking ostrich and struck at a magician’s belt-pouch. Orange smoke billowed into the air. He sent a fire-eater’s pot of burning oil spilling. He dived and tumbled, casting off his cloak and taking up one of the dancing girl’s dropped purple veils as he did so. When he rolled to his feet, already running, he had it about his head – and so escaped the Plaza and the Sayhrae’s guard.

Again.


“Have some beef-loin?” Dal Aptedese said. The potbellied smuggler waved at a skewer sitting amongst the leavings of a rug-spanning meal. Tobacco-smoke clung to the ceiling of his penthouse like cobwebs, tainting the sunset.

The Blue Pilgrim didn’t even glance at the kebab.

Aptedese grimaced, clapped a hand over his ear in apology. “I’m sorry, my dear Skiar, I forget you do not partake of flesh.”

Not of flesh killed for its meat or hide, the Blue Pilgrim silently corrected. So few even understood the rudiments of the Discern Faith in these times, a testament to the efficiency of the Myrhyrans in enforcing their edicts. Then said: “No offense to your generosity, I hope.”

“None taken. Perhaps some chickpea stew, then.”

“With pleasure and gratitude.” Dal Aptedese’s slave reached for a ladle, filled a bowl, then opened a spice box.

“Unspiced, please.”

Aptedese snorted, looked over to his eye-painted concubine at the window, who smoked and dreamed as she watched the sunset. “He says ‘please’ to a bondsman!”

She laughed, but it was the weary laugh of sense-stupor.

“It is a strange asceticism you follow, Skiar. I could not hold it for a day and a night. In a few years we’ll both be dust, and not a scrap of difference between us. Why deny yourself even harmless delicacies?”

“It is the Way.” The Way also helped one detect poisons or drugs. Dal Aptedese was well-versed in both. He knew he was safe; after a quick welcome at the elegant house he’d closeted himself and meditated, using the Way of the Discerns to release his kra from confining flesh and explore the surrounding rooftops and alleys. The house was unwatched, but he could never be sure of Aptedese, despite their unusual bond. He tasted the chickpea stew, feeling it first on his lips, then his tongue. No numbness, no burning. He gave it another moment, then ate.

“Show me some. I love the trick where you fellows wrap your leg over your shoulders.”

“I’m not some parlor entertainer, moneyman.”

“No need for anger. Asking hurts none.” Aptedese puffed on his own pipe, tipped his head back and sent waves of fragrant tobacco billowing up like a fleshy volcano. “The hunt is on, you know. The rewards are being shouted from the rooftops by every proselyte.”

“That is why I am here. I saved your life once. I thought you might care to return the favor and get me outside the walls by one of your secret ways. You once said you were in my debt. A trader such as yourself would wish to be out of debenture, I posit.”

“Better to be in debt than missing a hand, or a foot, or a more precious appendage. Just having you within my walls, eating my food, could cost me my ears.”

The Blue Pilgrim put down his bowl. “Thank you for the meal. I’ll endanger your house no — ”

“No, no, let’s not be hasty. I’m not so ungrateful. I have a small price for the risk of seeing you outside the walls, horsed, and supplied for a week’s travel. Your weapons. Artifacts such as those… they bring a princely sum in the markets of Fourfalls.”

The Blue Pilgrim put his hands on the axe-haft and dagger-hilt. “Not both. One, and I’ll call the bargain fair and your debt paid.”

“The knife.”

“You would pick the less useful of the two. It is good only for killing.”

“Of course. What nobleman wishes a pick-axe at his waist? Whereas a dagger of the lost craft… that is an item worth putting in a jeweled sheath — which I can also sell him.” Aptedese reached out across his tobacco-bowl and touched two fingers to the plain leather strap across The Blue Pilgrim’s waist. “To bear those weapons in such common harness — it splits my heart.” Aptedese clucked his tongue against his teeth.

“Might we leave tonight?”

The concubine slumped into a cushion as the sun disappeared, and the slave extinguished her knocked-over pipe before it could set the curtains aflame.

“Of course,” Dal Aptedese agreed, “as it appears little else will be going on tonight. A bit of excitement will do me good.”


“A bit of excrement will do you no harm,” the Blue Pilgrim laughed. It felt good to laugh, it was the first moment of humor since hearing about the reckless boy’s capture.

Dal Aptedese grimaced at the river of sewage beside them. “It’s been long since I’ve been in the sewers, especially on Summer Festival. Oh, what was I thinking?”

“Your stall at Fourfalls, and the weight of your purse on the trip back?”

“That’s it precisely.” Apdedese finished tying his loose-fitting leggings above his knees, pulled off his sandals and tied them across his neck.

“Follow,” he said, his voice altered as he pinched his nose shut. He walked into the circular tunnel, bent a little, keeping close to the wall and wavering as he maintained his balance on the slippery stones.

The Blue Pilgrim remembered a field of sunflowers he’d run through on

his way to the city and summoned their healthier aroma in his mind, overlaying it upon the current unpleasantness. Only their splashing footfalls sounded over their breath. Echoes of street noises and a little light came down the sluices.

They turned a corner, then another, and came to a set of bars — recent additions, judging from the outrages done to the old Uluthan masonry through their installation.

“Have no fear, I hired an outlaw craftsman to modify it,” Aptadese droned, his voice buzzing like an insect thanks to his pinched-off nostrils. He waded into the main channel felt around the base of the bars with his toes, gagging. “There… turn it now, as a wheel turns… I’m spent.”

The Blue Pilgrim gripped one of the reinforcing cross-sections and shoved. The bars rotated with a groan, and the flat part at the bottom rose out of the muck.

Now they had a gap. They squeezed through, Aptadese sighing with regret at the smears upon his clothing. “No good deed goes unpunished.” The smuggler moved once more to the front.

The passage darkened ahead. “We’re coming under the city walls,” Aptadese said as the shadows grew close. “Oh, for a stick of cinnamon to break in two — and shove up each nostril.”

The Blue Pilgrim heard a pop in the deeper darkness. His hands went to the hilts of his weapons.

“Rats, probably.” Aptedese squeezed back past him, searching the shadows. “Filthy creatures! Go ahead, my friend, and drive them away. They give me the looseies.”

The Blue Pilgrim heard no squeaks or claws… though he caught a gleam of something that might have been —

He bent, scooped a handful of sewage into his palm, and flung it into the darkness, scattering the spray.

“Ach!” a voice said from the shadow — and he heard another splash.

“Now you fools!” Aptedese shouted, running back for the grate. The Blue Pilgrim saw the shadowy forms of Kyrhoe there.

You forgot our bargain, the Blue Pilgrim thought, drawing his small pick-axe. A favor for a weapon! He hurled it spinning after the fleeing figure, so that the smuggler might be paid in full with Uluthan steel. The axe buried itself in his upper back and the merchant’s arms went up as though he were choking himself. The part of the Blue Pilgrim that floated above himself, calmly observing any crisis noted that from the position of the smugglers nerve-locked arms the flung axe must have smashed the sixth vertebrae. Dal Aptedese pitched face-forward into the sewage channel, where he writhed weakly, unable to raise his mouth from the muck to take air —

No time to admire his handiwork. He turned, drawing the long, straight double-edged killing knife from its plain oil-leather sheath. The Blue Pilgrim went into a fighting crouch, free-hand forward, knife-hand tucked behind his body so his opponent could not see which way he held the blade.

“Take him, or you’re cowards all,” a voice shouted in Myrhric.

The Kyrhoein their scaled armor coats charged, their officer in the center wearing the traditional Myrhyran masked helm with its single, horizontal vision slit and red-feathered point. To the front, at either side of the sewer, javeliniers ran with a great weighted-and-hooked net stretched between them. Others sloshed through the muck carrying clubs and mancatchers.

If the Sayhrae expected to dismember him atop the plaza platform he’d need more men.

He bent as the net approached. The men lowered it to throw it over him, giving him the gap he needed. The javeliniers threw a second too late — he sprang up and over it, spinning horizontally so he just brushed the sewer top — and landed among the clubs and mancatchers.

Within a few score years, few could even imitate the fluid fighting style of the Discerns. None remembered how they accomplished such motions. Some attributed it to careful breeding and selection, others to witchcraft, and not a few suggested the Discerns were demigods. Battle against one has been described as dueling with fog or wrestling water. Though the Blue Pilgrim’s skills were poor when compared to the Great Discerns, against him even the handpicked Kyrhoe, the undisputed war-masters of their age, fought like a team jesters staging combat as comic pantomime.

The Blue Pilgrim passed through the Kyrhoe like a swift breeze. He twisted, causing a Kyrhods club to strike a comrade. Another thrust with the twin tines of his mancatcher and he bent under it like a blade of grass succumbing to a gust of wind — the Blue Pilgrim added to the momentum of the forward thrust by grasping the weapon’s haft and the guardsman flew into the sewer channel.

He pivoted on his free hand, replanted his feet, and was behind the line of soldiers, knife flashing. He opened a knee on one, severed a triceps tendon at the elbow of another, then dropped into a split-legged stance to avoid a head-crushing swing. Striking nothing but air, the warrior fell out of balance and the razor-edged Uluthan blade passed through the back of the man’s ankle, taking the Kyrhoe guardsman off his feet with the surprised look of a man whose body is no longer working as it should.

Up again and facing the officer, the Blue Pilgrim sidestepped a sword thrust and whipped his knife-point through the visor-slit on the plumed helm.

The blade came back smeared with blood and clear vitreous fluid intermingled. The officer wailed out his pain and the Blue Pilgrim spun away from another mancatcher and fled up black tunnel —

And into a net.

The mass of hooks and weights clung to him as he opened the meshing strands with the knife, only to find another tossed across the first. More Kyrhoeappeared, hooting with delight. One smashed the knife from his hand with a wrist-breaking blow of his club, strong hands seized him at the forearms and legs, and the Blue Pilgrim gave up the struggle. He consoled himself with a quick count of the cripples — four men would be drawing Myrhyran maim-pensions for the rest of their days.

A Kyrhoe with red-and-black neck-cloth, its end bloused into a flower-like bloom on his shoulder, knelt next to the netting. “Message to the Sayhrae,” the under-officer grunted, grabbing him under the chin and looking into the Blue Pilgrim’s filth-smeared face. “Tell him that Sky-Eyes is taken. Tell him Porol of the Second Guard has done this.”

“Ha! He is a man after all,” the under-officer added to a javelinier at the net as they bound him.


“Fixed, your Preeminence,” a voice said from the other side of the wall of dark.

The Kyrhoe took off the black hood.

By the smallness of the masoned room, the freshness of the night air, and the muted sounds of the city, the Blue Pilgrim concluded he lay in the Imperial Spire, high above Dynnenhann. Outside he could hear pennants fluttering, probably against the golden paint adorning the spire’s onion-shaped roof. But inside the spire was a bare cupola, lit by a few tapes in oil. He rested on a bed of saltwood, or so he guessed from its neutral color and rough graining. He tried each limb, each joint, even the purple-and-yellow ruin that was his right wrist, and found himself unable to move anything apart from some flexing at the knee. A broad, tight leather belt at his waist disappeared into the table; he guessed it to be fixed somewhere on the underside.

“The long hunt is over,” the Sayhrae said in cultured Myrhric. It occurred to the Blue Pilgrim that this was the first time he heard the Sayhrae’s normal speaking voice, as pleasant as a caress. “A pity that his shorn head is so ugly, or I should have it mounted. Why do you not show a man’s beard, instead of a newborn’s skin?”

The Blue Pilgrim could move his head freely, and by lifting it he could look down his filthy body at the Myrhyran provincial governor. The Sayhrae wore alternating layers of red and black: black undershirt, red vest, black jacket, and long read scarf of state hanging down to his feet. The Sayhrae’s beard had been hurriedly tied together by a knot of gold cording, probably the governor’s own work – the Sayhrae would flog any groomer who allowed his master to go out so disheveled.

“I’m surprised you visited my good city again. I would have thought after the last time —”

“The boy —”

CRACK! The Blue Pilgrim’s vision filled with glittering stars and exploding rainbows.

“Keep that tongue still,” a Punisher said. “While the Sayhrae speaks.”

” — is a friend of mine,” he finished, tasting blood from a split lip.

“Was a friend,” the Sayhrae corrected. “As soon as I found that you were taken, his usefulness as bait ended.” The Sayhrae reached down below the Blue Pilgrim’s field of vision, holding back his loose right sleeve, and he heard fluid dripping.

The Sayhrae lifted the boy’s sodden severed head. The Blue Pilgrim smelled the brine that ran down the face like tears. The Sayhrae placed the head between his fixed legs so the boy looked up at him.

“I expected nothing more from a Myrhyran,” the Blue Pilgrim said, after a moment to rechannel the anger flowing in him.

“We are a cultured people,” the Sayhrae said. “It’s you dough-faces in this foggy land that drive us to such measures with your everlasting obstinacy. Cannot you see what must be, and just bend to the strong wind like the people of Nang or Iapatia? They know peace and plenty. You’ve driven me to become that which I abhor — a tyrant.”

The Blue Pilgrim tried to avoid the milky eyes of his dead disciple. “We would rather rule ourselves. Two generations of warfare haven’t taught you that?”

“But to what end? Where did your precious independence ever win you? The ability to bicker in your lodges over whose sheep get to graze on which meadow. Bah! People must be ruled by those with the vision to direct their efforts to matters greater than a generation’s vision.”

“Myrhyran greatness. Here it means burned villages and slaughtered live-stock, the edict and the lash.”

The Sayhrae ran both hands down his knotted beard, smoothing it. “Discipline is a Myrhyran virtue. Once in place, the lash is no longer needed.”

“If I am to debate, I would rather do so from a standing position, as is our Way.”

“Anything is possible, if I but give the word.” The Sayhrae twirled his finger at the bulky figure looming behind. The Blue Pilgrim felt the table pivot, and Lar’s head thumped to the floor and rolled up against the brine-barrel.

The Sayhrae said: “Put that thing back in storage.” A Punisher moved to comply, but the Blue Pilgrim had eyes only for two gleaming objects on a table across the room. His weapons teased him from a distance that, restricted as he was, might as well have been the length of the Runic River that spanned the Recorded World.

“But I did not come to exchange accusations,” the Sayhrae continued. “I have an offer for you, Sky-Eyes –”

“I’ve never accepted that name,” the Blue Pilgrim said. The Myrhyran slave-name had been given to him in his youth by a pederast who’d bought him to work in a turpentine camp.

The Punisher whirled, sloshing brine from the barrel, but the Sayhrae held up a hand. “Beating a Discern is a waste of sweat.”

He returned his gaze to his old enemy. “I offer a trade better than the one you tried to make with my late friend Dal Aptedese.”

“Neither of us profited from it.”

“Ah, but this one will turn out better. A trifling favor to me, really. I’ve seen you eyeing your weapons. Would you like them back, along with your precious freedom?”

“More folly, Sayhrae. My freedom is not the Empire’s to steal, like a herd of sheep. All you’ve captured is my body.”

“Discerns! Listen, then. I offer you an Imperial Pardon under my seal. All I need from you is the secret of your blades. A steel that never needs sharpening. No matter how we try, our metal-smiths have been unable to unravel its making. We’ve never even succeeded in melting it; the steel shatters under heat like a rock. One way or another, I’ll have the making out of you.”

“What makes you think I know?”

“You lost your knife to my predecessor, years ago.”

“In your predecessor,” the Blue Pilgrim corrected.

The Sayhrae pretended not to hear. “Yet here you are with a new one, of identical design. You either know how to forge a replacement yourself, or you know someone who does.”

“And where is my elephant, to haul around my Uluthan forge? I robbed that knife from a barrow of another Discern.”

“No! Each of the old weapons were unique, and I’ve compared them. They are identical.”

How little he knows, The Blue Pilgrim thought. It will not be me to enlighten him, or to describe the matching blades of three generations, handed down since the Wisdom of the Uiuthan Age.

“You should also know that we don’t lie. I’ve told you I took it from a barrow. But even if I had made it myself, I would not pass secrets to a tribe of killers like the Myrhyrans.”

“Your precious secrets. You Discerns spent too much time peering at blood-smears under a glass, or counting peas in their pods, or playing healer with swamp-moss. What did your eccentricities gain you?”

“You speak too lightly of the Method, symbiot to our Way. It gains us Knowledge.” He remembered the first words his grandfather had taught him:

See within the workings of the world the majesty of the Grand Design
God is as constant as his laws,
Discernabie through the Method,
in the tilt of the balance, in the fall of a feather,
in the alliance of moon and tide,
in the unchanging course of the stars,
there are the proofs of the Design.
To follow it is the Way of Wisdom.

“Useless, unless it brings you power,” the Sayhrae said, his nostrils flaring. “Real power, as can be found in the crafting of our scaled armor, or the Arts of the Pit.”

“I’ve never found the first to be of any use,” the Blue Pilgrim said. “Apart from the noise and the heat, armor keeps the body from moving properly. As to the second, frightening the gullible has never been a goal of the Discerns.”

“You’ll have your proofs. And then you’ll wish you had struck a bargain.”

The Sayhrae disappeared down the stairway descending the supporting column of the Imperial Spire. The Blue Pilgrim heard a gong and the Sayhrae reappeared.

“I’m sorry for what you force me to do. I feel an respect for you, in a way. Even affinity. Since taking my post I’ve outmustered dozens — alas! hundreds — of men you’ve wounded each year. Gimped, missing fingers, sometimes blinded like poor Morwe who tried to take you in the sewers. You could have easily killed each, yet you chose to spare them.”

Dead heroes get an inspiring burial. The crippled evoke only pity and sorrow.

A wizened figure clad all in black carried a silk-covered tray up the stairs and into the room. At a gesture from the Sayhrae, he placed the tray in the center of the cupola on a wooden stand the other Punisher brought forth, a staff-length from the Blue Pilgrim. He lifted off the covering, and the Blue Pilgrim could see a long-necked Myrhyran vase and a silver-white rod, placed to either side of —

A cube.

It was like a die such as men cast in the gambling dens, only the size of a cat’s skull. It was utterly black, its edges and corners so sharp against the tray that it hurt the Blue Pilgrim’s eyes to look at it. He’d never seen anything, not even polished glass or onyx, that gleamed so.

Curiosity overrode his careful tongue.

“What is that?”

“That is of the Pit,” the Sayhrae said, as the wizened figure whispered in the governor’s ear. “Yes, yes, just as we’ve practiced. You forget, Darroie, I have access to scrolls even you may not open.” The Sayhrae picked up the rod and the vase, and the black-robed one backed away toward the stairs, bobbing.

The Sayhrae walked next to the rotating table which held the Blue Pil¬grim. He tapped on the vase with the rod, and poured a little fluid on the floor, speaking words the Blue Pilgrim could not understand. The fluid smelled like blood. He paced about the room, tapping and pouring, tapping and pouring.

“Am I to see a char magically appear to mop up your mess?”

“Our fishermen who hunt the great behemoths of the Runic-bottom will sometimes spill blood upon the surface to draw the beasts up. Of course, com-mon fishermen cannot afford a newborn’s blood. This is much the same, in principal, though it binds as much as it summons.”

One side of the black cube bulged, as though some force pushed it from within.

AH — an elaborate masquerade, to frighten me. The Sorceries of the Pit are rubbish…

The Sayhrae completed his tapping circle of blood-drops behind the Blue Pilgrim. Another side of the cube bulged, this time with enough force to tip it over. The remaining Punisher backed away from the blood-line.

It is working. He tried to calm his heart, saw the pulse in his unwounded wrist, concentrated on the beating vessel until it slowed.

“Even your own priests say that those who dabble in the Arts of the Pit come away with stains none can see. Am I worth your soul, Sayhrae?”

“No. But the wealth your secret will bring me is. Last chance, Sky-Eyes.”

“After such an effort, I must see the result.”

“So be it:

“Akiuk-ba-dir –“

That of the Pit bulged again, this time from the top.

“Nostu-ba-dir–“

That of the Pit swelled, then shrank, then swelled again. The Blue Pilgrim thought he saw the form of some great, heavy-lidded eye pressing against the shiny nothingness that made up the cube’s surface.

“Hephe-bay-a!”

The cube crackled with red and burst asunder, vanishing like a sail eaten by fire. In its place a whirlwind of flame appeared, spinning mixture of deformed tooth and eye and hand and ear and breast and elbow and buttock and chin and hip and tongue and penis and leg, but all out of proportion to the other, each emerging briefly but then sinking back into fire chaos.

“Careful, Discern, for the Fire-Mog burns. Not your flesh, oh no. Burned flesh hurts only the corpus. When the Fire-Mog touches you, it burns your soul, and from such injuries you will never heal nor die.”

The Sayhrae tapped the Blue Pilgrim on the shoulder with his rod and drew back outside the circle of blood.

“Give him a taste.”

An eye flashed from the maelstrom and it drifted, still spinning, toward the Blue Pilgrim.

I’m not here, this is but a dream.

He felt a hot lick —

The blinding pain brought possibility with it… he’d meant what he said to the Sayhrae about his freedom. His body lay in bondage, but what did that mean to his kra? He thought back to his grandfather’s words.

You’re not just flesh, but everything you touch, Skiar.
The wind, the dust, the birdsnest you see in that yew.
You and that yew are connected by numberless tiny particles
Spread yourself, run along paths your feet are too big to follow
Flow with the air…

He’d managed it back then, with his grandfather’s help, saw for a few seconds the view from the bird’s nest. Now his mind was stronger, perhaps strong enough to ignore the bonds, the pain, the distractions…

The Blue Pilgrim felt himself drift down the table, out along the floor, to the walls of the cupola, through the narrow windows. He hovered above the crowded city, watching the end of the summer revelries under lamplight and around bonfire. Too bad he was not in his body among them. While he still disliked crowds, as the city emptied tomorrow he might be able to pass — then he drifted back into the cupola to observe events.

Where his body lay in its bonds, a gentle smile on its face. A trifling thing, really, though elegantly formed. It would be a shame to part with so well-made-and-maintained a tool.

The Fire-Mog’s eye appeared again, looking up at him. He heard an exasperated, otherworldly growl.

“Here!” the Sayrae said, tapping his corporeal form again.

The Fire-Mog searched the air above, reached with an impossibly long arm that stretched and flickered out.

“No, idiot, HERE!” the Sayhrae shouted, pressing the rod hard against his body’s neck.

The Sayhrae always overdoes it…

He had his head turn, reach down, and bite the Sayhrae’s hand with hard white teeth.

“Ia —” the Sayhrae cried, as the rod fell to the floor

Within the circle of blood!

The Fire-Mog danced across the floor with delight

“It’s loose,” the Punisher screamed, running along the rim of the wall for the stairs.

The Fire-Mog reached, pulled what looked like a twisting white sheet from the Punisher with extended fingers and teeth. The Blue Pilgrim heard a scream which flickered the flaming tapes in their oil. The body continued to run, blindly bumping along the wall as a chicken’s body will still run with the head removed. It passed the stairs and crashed into the table holding the Blue Pilgrim’s weapons.

“We’re doomed!” the Sayhrae said, looking to the hand-wide windows in despair.

“Loose me. I will retrieve the rod,” the Blue Pilgrim’s body said to the Sayhrae, who hid behind the elevated table.

Now there was a new face in the flaming whirlwind, horribly tortured.

The Sayhrae nodded, quivering from head to toe. The Blue Pilgrim’s ears heard a series of clicks and he felt the bonds loosen. He drew his arms, his legs, and finally his torso from the table. With slow, unsteady steps his body walked across the blood-circle.

Right through the Fire-Mog.

He bent to pick up his weapons, slowly, as a sleepwalker might. No, he fumbled it. He sent out a fresh tendril to his body, running it down the wall and across the floor. Surely now, he picked up the weapons and had his body set foot on the first of the thousand stairs down.

The Fire-Mog began to whirl around the great punishment table. The Sayhrae raced around, reached for the rod, and the Fire-Mog lashed out with a foot. The Sayhrae and drew back an unburned hand, wailing.

“The rod! You said you’d retrieve it!”

“I will,” the Blue Pilgrim’s voice said. “Perhaps next Summer Festival, after my face fades from memory, and the new Sayhrae is distracted by his duties. I’ll leave it on his desk some night.”

The Blue Pilgrim rejoined krawith body and stepped down the stairs with a new sureness. Overcoming the ache in his wrist, the Blue Pilgrim found his fingers could still grip the small pickaxe.

From the cupola behind he heard a terrible cry:

“Discern!”

Some say that when the summer stars roll around right, and the mys¬terious light flickers in the Forbidden Imperial Spire, you can still hear that last, wailing word. But perhaps it is nothing but a trick of imagination and the warm evening air.


EE Knight

“That of the Pit” originally appeared in Lords of Swords, edited by Daniel E. Blackston (Pitch-Black Books, 2004).

E.E. Knight’s first Blue Pilgrim tale for us was “The Terror in the Vale,” published here on January 13. Cyd Athens at Tangent Online described it as follows:

The Evil Overlord in E.E. Knight’s “The Terror in the Vale” is the Scripton, who is angered when the peaceful vale folk take offense that his soldiers are lifting the skirts of females to determine whether they are girls or women. He alleges that this is necessary because some adults are weaseling their way out of paying taxes by impersonating children…

As is the way of these things, the people resist and fight. This, of course, ups the stakes…
The Scripton decides to change tactics and does this story’s equivalent of releasing the Kraken — he creates a monster.

Read “The Terror in the Vale,” a complete 9,400-word novelette of heroic fantasy featuring the Blue Pilgrim, here.

E.E. Knight is a scifi/fantasy author. He lives with his wife and three kids in Oak Park, IL. He may be contacted through his website at eeknight.com

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The Devil in the Details: A Review of Lawyers in Hell

Friday, September 27th, 2013 | Posted by Joe Bonadonna

Lawyers in Hell-smallLawyers in Hell (Heroes in Hell, Volume 12)
Created by Janet Morris, edited by Janet and Chris Morris, and written “with the diabolical assistance of the damnedest writers in perdition.”
Perseid Press (456 pages, June 8, 2011, $19.95 in trade paperback)

This is volume twelve in the most clever and interesting shared-universe series I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Lawyers in Hell actually precedes Rogues in Hell and Dreamers in Hell, both of which I previously reviewed here. And like those other volumes, this one is also outstanding.  So let me start off with a bit of info on what’s going on this time around in Hell, among the characters drawn from the pages of history, legend, folklore, and mythology.

Hell is a twisted, ironic echo of life on Earth. Here the mighty have fallen, though they retain some delusion of grandeur. Here the lowly have risen in rank, though they are no more than toys for Satan to play with. Everyone in Hell is HSM’s (His Satanic Majesty’s) pawn, his puppet.

Erra is the Babylonian god of mayhem and plague, and rumors of Erra and his 7 Sibitti enforcers running amok in Hell are spreading like hellfire. They have been sent by Heaven to audit Hell, to enforce punishment equally. They are there to make damned sure that every damned soul in Hell “receives injustice justly. Or something like that,” to quote author Nancy Asire. “Lawyers are shaking in their boots or salivating over their opportunities.”

As the title of this volume suggests, each story/chapter revolves around legal battles being fought, court cases being heard, and lawsuits being drawn up. Everyone in Hell wants out of Hell and the damned are going through whatever legal system there can be said to exist in Hell. Where’s Perry Mason when you need him? I don’t think he’s in Hell. Not yet, at any rate.

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

Friday, June 14th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

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 Eleven. Read Chapter Ten here.

Chapter Eleven

“It’s a lovely day not to be under a death sentence from a Sending,” Madeline said, as they came out into the morning light from the dark interior of the stables. They had driven back to Lodun, starting before dawn to reach the town in good time, and had just turned the hired horse and trap back over to the owner. Madeline was in male dress again, Madele having nothing suitable for town that she could borrow. They were both dusty, tired, and somewhat the worse for wear.

Before they left Madele’s house, Nicholas had told the sorceress about Arisilde and asked for her help. She had stood next to their pony trap while he harnessed the horse and had said, “Arisilde Damal, hmm? And he studied at Lodun? I don’t think I’ve heard of him.”

Nicholas thought that was probably just as well and didn’t comment.

After a long moment of thought, she asked, “Is Ian Vardis still Court Sorcerer?”

“No, he died years ago. Rahene Fallier has the position.”

“Ahh,” she said. “Don’t know him. That’s good.” There was another long pause and Nicholas devoted his attention to adjusting the harness. He wouldn’t beg her, if that’s what she was waiting for. Finally she asked, “Is it a spell, or just an illness?”

“We weren’t sure.”

Her brows lifted in surprise.

He hesitated, then said, “He’s an opium addict.”

Madele was now favoring him with one of Madeline’s expressions of sardonic incredulity that seemed to question his sanity. It was worse coming from her, since her thick gray brows heightened the effect. Stung, Nicholas said, “If you feel its beyond your admittedly failing skills –”

Madele rolled her eyes, annoyed. “He a thief too?”

“Yes,” Nicholas snapped.

“Then I’ll come,” she had said, smiling and showing her missing teeth. “I like thieves.”

Madele had promised to come to Vienne tomorrow, which would give her time for making various arrangements for the upkeep of the house and animals with her neighbors. Nicholas hadn’t been sure she would really come, if he could really count on her help, but after Madeline emerged from the house to have a half-hour argument with her over what train the old woman would take from Lodun, he felt she did, at least, mean to travel to Vienne.

Now, here in Lodun, he could only hope she would keep her promise. “Can you arrange the train tickets, and check at the hotel to see if there’s any word from Reynard or Isham?” Nicholas asked Madeline. He had left both with instructions to send a telegram in care of the railroad hotel if there were any new developments with Octave or with Arisilde’s condition. “I need to pursue another line of investigation.”

Madeline brushed road dust from her lapels. “Concerning how Octave became so intimately acquainted with Edouard’s work?”

Nicholas’s expression was enigmatic. “Yes, and how did you ever guess that?”

“Edouard performed most of his experiments here, didn’t he?” She leaned back against the post and tipped back her hat thoughtfully, very much in character as a young man. The street was sparsely occupied, mainly by townspeople on errands or farmers’ carts, with a few students in ragged scholar’s gowns, probably just recovering from a night spent in the cabarets, hurrying along the walk toward the university gates. “I assume you don’t suspect Wirhan Asilva, since we were going to him for help?”

“No, not Asilva.” Asilva had helped Nicholas remove the contents of Edouard’s Lodun workroom after the old philosopher’s arrest, something that could have landed Nicholas in prison and put Asilva, as a sorcerer and subject to charges of necromancy, under a death sentence. He had also fought for Edouard’s release up until the last moment, even as he had protested that Edouard’s spheres were dangerous and should never have been created. He didn’t think Asilva would betray his old friend, even years after Edouard’s death. “There’s something Arisilde said that has made me wonder about Ilamires Rohan. And if we eliminate Arisilde and Asilva, he’s the only other sorcerer familiar with the situation who is still alive now.”

“That we know of.” Madeline looked doubtful. “Rohan was Master of Lodun and Arisilde’s teacher. He could be extremely dangerous, to say the least.”

“That depends.” Nicholas took Madeline’s arm.

“On what?”

“On whether he merely gave the information to Octave or if he is Octave’s mad sorcerer.”

“If that’s the case, it won’t be safe to confront him. Are you sure –”

“I’m sure of one thing. That ‘safe’ is not a state of being any of us are going to experience again until this is over.”


Nicholas spoke to several old acquaintances at the cafe near the northern university gates and discovered that his quarry was not only in town, but that he would be at home later this afternoon entertaining guests. That was ideal for what Nicholas had in mind and it also gave him time to look for more information on Constant Macob.

For that the best place was the Albaran Library, currently housed in one of the oldest structures in Lodun. Standing in the foyer of that venerable building, in the smell of aged paper and dust and time, Nicholas’s student days seemed only a short while ago, as if the intervening years had meant nothing. He dismissed that thought with annoyance. The past was the past, as dead as Edouard. But on impulse, he found one of the attendants and asked for Doctor Uberque.

The attendant led him to a room in the outer wall of the bastion that had once been part of an inner defensive corridor. There were still trapdoors high in the walls and the ceiling, originally placed there so boiling oil could be poured down on anyone who broke through the outer doors. But now the corridor had been partitioned off into half a dozen high-ceilinged rooms and the walls were lined with shelves. The narrow windows that had been crossbow or musket slits were now filled with stained glass. Doctor Uberque stood in front of a large table covered with books and papers. He waved away the attendant before the man could introduce them and said, “Nicholas Valiarde. Did you come back to finish your degree?” He was a tall man with sparse white hair and a lined, good-humored face. He wore a black and purple master scholar’s gown open over his suit, as if he had just come from a tutoring session.

“No, sir.” Nicholas managed not to smile. Uberque was single-minded in the extreme and was as unlikely to be curious about Nicholas’s need for this information as if he was any other student trying to write a monograph. “I’m in town on business, but I need information about a subject I thought you could supply.”

“Yes?”

“Constant Macob.”

Uberque’s eyes went distant. Nicholas had seen the same effect with storytellers in the marketplaces of Parscian cities. They were usually illiterate, but held thousands of lines of poetic sagas in their memories. After a moment, Uberque said, “One of the executed sorcerers from the reign of King Rogere. A disreputable character.”

“The sorcerer or the King?” Nicholas asked, taking a seat at the table.

Uberque took the question seriously. “Either, though that is a different topic entirely. Do you want a reference on Macob?”

“Please.”

Doctor Uberque stepped to the shelves and paced along them thoughtfully. “Everyone remembers Macob as a necromancer and nothing more. Before him, you know, necromancy was frowned on, but it was quite legal. It was mainly concerned with methods of divination, then. Seeing ancient kings on one’s fingernail, and asking them for secret information.” Uberque smiled. “Macob went on quite as any other sorcerer for a number of years. Then his wife and several of his children died in one of the plagues.”

“It’s certain they died naturally?” Nicholas asked, one brow lifting in doubt.

“Well, he was suspected later of causing their deaths, but I don’t think he did. No, I don’t believe so. Healing magic only goes so far and the apothecaries at the time were nearly useless. I think it was after his eldest daughter died that Macob… changed.”

“He went insane?”

“It’s hard to say. Judging from his actions, he must have done. But he didn’t behave like a madman. He was more than clever, more than cunning. His work during this time period was nothing short of brilliant. He continually astounded the masters of Lodun, he was given honors by the King, and he carried on an utterly normal private life in his home in the city. And he killed people. He was caught, in the end, only by accident. The house next to his was sold and the new owners were adding a stables. A courtyard wall collapsed due to incompetence and it knocked down the wall of a wing of Macob’s house. He was away at the time. When the builders hastened to repair the damage, they found the first of the bodies.” Uberque shrugged and continued, “No one will ever know how many he killed. Gabard Ventarin read Macob’s secret journals before he burned them and discovered that Macob had been advancing the frontiers of necromancy in quite a different direction than divination. He had learned how to draw power from not only death, but pain.” Doctor Uberque paused, touching the spine of a book lightly. “‘He called the dark fay allies and conspired with everything of decadence and filth. He brought death to the innocent and concealed the traces of his passing with chaos… ‘ That’s from The Histories of Aden Cathare. You don’t want that, it doesn’t have anything helpful. The Executions of Rogere, that’s better. It’s only fifty years old and there’s half a dozen copies at least, so I can loan you one with a clear conscience.” He frowned at the shelves. “It’s not here. No, it’s not here. We’ll go and have a look for it, shall we?”

The Executions of Rogere secured at last and Doctor Uberque thanked, Nicholas left the musty dimness of the old library. He crossed the open gallery to one of the newer brick buildings that grew like mushrooms on the side of the older structures. The view between the pillars of the gallery was of the towers and courts of the medical college. The day was sunny and the breeze mild; another sign that winter was over for the year. Nicholas touched the pistol in his pocket. He doubted his next appointment would end so congenially.


Ilamires Rohan, former Master of Lodun University, still spent most of the year at his home on the university grounds. The house was four floors of tan-colored stone that took on a golden glow in the afternoon light, with small ornamental turrets along the roof line. It stood in the center of a large garden surrounded by a low stone wall. On leaving the Albaran Library Nicholas had passed through a students’ hall and picked up a reasonably presentable scholar’s gown from the pile at the bottom of a stairwell, discarded there by young students eager to escape tutoring sessions and enjoy the day. With that over his somewhat dusty suit, no one gave him a second look as he crossed the various college courts on the way to Rohan’s house.

The gardeners were preparing the flower beds for spring, and none of them gave him a second look either when Nicholas walked in the back gate and through the kitchen garden to the scullery door. It was long enough after lunch that the kitchen and pantries were deserted except for a pair of maids scrubbing pots, who acknowledged his passing with hasty head-bobs and went back to their conversation.

Nicholas left the gown on the coat rack in the butler’s sitting room and went through a baize servants’ door that led out into the front hallway. The house was lovely from the inside as well. The hall was filled with mellow light from the dozen or so narrow windows above the main door and the cabinets and console tables lining the hall were of well-polished rosewood, the rugs of an expensive weave from the hill country. But Rohan had always had exquisite taste, even when he had been a dean living in a tiny cottage behind the Apothecaries Guild Hall. His star did rise fast, didn’t it, Nicholas thought. And for all its apparent peace Lodun was a competitive world, especially for sorcerers. Nicholas investigated a few receiving rooms, finding them unoccupied, then heard voices and followed them into the large parlor at the end of the hall.

There was a group of men just coming in from the room beyond, talking amiably. They were all older, dressed either in Master Scholars’ gowns or impeccable frock coats. One of the things Nicholas had discovered in his morning reconnaissance was that Rohan was giving a luncheon for several dignitaries from the town and the university this afternoon; he was glad to see his informant had not been mistaken.

“Master Rohan,” Nicholas said lightly.

The old man turned, startled. His face, thin and ascetic, marked by harsh lines and pale from too much time in poorly lit rooms, changed when he recognized his new visitor. That change told Nicholas everything he wanted to know. Rohan said, “I didn’t realize you were here.”

The words had been almost blurted, as if from guilt at forgetting his presence, yet Rohan had to know the butler hadn’t admitted Nicholas or he would have been informed of it. Stiffening with annoyance at the display of ill-mannered impudence and demanding to know why he hadn’t come to the front door like a gentleman would have been more convincing. Nicholas smiled. “Which didn’t you realize: that I was here in town, or that I was here among the living?”

Rohan’s eyes narrowed, as if he suspected mockery but wasn’t sure of the inference, but he said only, “You wanted to speak to me? I’m presently occupied.” His voice was colder. In a few moments enough of his self-control would have returned to allow him to confidently dismiss the intruder.

Nicholas strolled to the table, hands in his pockets, and met Rohan’s eyes deliberately. “I had something to ask you about Edouard’s Lodun affairs. You were doing such a marvelous job of handling them for me when I was younger, I thought surely you could assist me now.”

The old man’s gaze shifted. With a barely perceptible hesitation, he turned to the others. “You’ll excuse me, gentlemen. An obligation to an old friend… ”

The other men assured him that of course it was no trouble at all and Nicholas followed Rohan into his study without pause. He had been seen by the Master of Doire Hall, three deans of the medical college, and the Lord Mayor of Lodun, none of them Rohan’s fellow sorcerers. If Rohan wanted to kill him he wouldn’t be able to do it in his home this afternoon.

The study was spacious, the walls covered in green ribbed silk and lined with glass-fronted bookcases, interrupted only by a lacquered map cabinet and several busts of classical figures on carved pedestals. There was a landscape by Sithare over the marble mantel, a strong sign that Rohan was not having any difficulty with his finances.

Rohan moved to the desk and sat down behind it, as if Nicholas were a student called in for a dressing down. Not a very friendly gesture toward an old friend’s son. He said, “I hope this won’t take long. As you saw I am –”

“There’s only one thing I still need to know; the rest is only curiosity,” Nicholas interrupted. He let the old man wait a heartbeat. “The material you gave to Doctor Octave. Where did it come from? Did you take it from Edouard’s laboratory?”

Rohan sighed. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re implying.” He leaned on the desk and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Some of the notebooks were Edouard’s, the rest were mine.” He raised his head, wearily. “The sphere was mine. Edouard constructed it and I devised the spells.”

Nicholas didn’t allow his expression to change and kept his grip on the revolver in his pocket. This might be a trick. Readily admit what you already know you can’t conceal, and strike as soon as my guard is down. He remembered the teasingly familiar handwriting on the scraps of paper they had found at Valent House; it must have been Rohan’s. His voice deceptively mild, he said, “I didn’t realize you had worked with Edouard. You said –”

“I said I didn’t approve. I said what he did was nonsense.” Rohan slammed a hand down on the desk, then took a deep breath, reaching for calm. “I was afraid. I made it a condition when I agreed to work with him that he tell no one of my involvement. Wirhan Asilva was an old man with no ambitions, even then. He could afford to be mixed up in such things. Arisilde… ” When he spoke the name Rohan’s voice almost broke with bitterness. “Arisilde was a precocious boy. No one could touch him and he knew it. But I was Master of Lodun, and vulnerable.”

This sounded too much like the truth. Nicholas said, “He kept his word to you. He told no one. You could have testified –”

“He was a natural philosopher who wanted to talk to his dead wife and they hanged him for necromancy. I was a sorcerer in a position of power. What do you think they would have done to me?” Rohan shook his head. “I know, I know. Asilva testified and it did no good. I convinced myself that Edouard might be guilty, that he might have killed that woman for his experiment, that he might have concealed the true nature… And I was afraid. Then Edouard was dead, and then Ronsarde proved it was all a mistake, and there seemed no point in dredging it up again.” He rubbed his face tiredly, then spread his gnarled hands on the desk. “Octave wouldn’t tell me what he wanted with the sphere. I suppose he went to you for the same purpose. I knew there were things missing from Edouard’s rooms here when the Crown seized the contents and I knew you and Asilva must have taken them, but I didn’t tell Octave that. That’s not something that can be laid at my door. Did he threaten to expose you as well? Since Edouard was found innocent I don’t think it would be a crime… ”

Rohan was speaking quickly, his hands nervously touching the things on the desk. Nicholas stopped listening. There was something tawdry and anticlimactic about it, to come here expecting evil and find only weakness. He asked, “What did Octave threaten you with?”

Rohan was silent a moment. “It wasn’t the first time I had dabbled in necromancy.” He looked up and added dryly, “I see you’re not shocked. Most sorcerers of my generation have some experience with it, though few will admit it. Octave came to me here, two years ago. He knew. I don’t know how. He knew about my work with it in the past, my work with Edouard, he knew everything. I gave him what he wanted, and he went away.” Rohan winced. “I shouldn’t have, I know that. Edouard meant it to be a method of communication with the etheric plane, but it never worked quite the way he wanted.” Seeing Nicholas’s expression he added, “I can’t be more specific than that. Edouard built the thing; all I did was contribute the necessary spells. I know he wanted it to work for anyone, but it would only function for a person who had some talent for magic. It might be a small talent, just a bare awareness of it, but that was enough.”

But how did Octave know you had it? Nicholas had the feeling that if he could answer that question then all the half-glimpsed plots would unravel. “Is Octave a sorcerer then?”

Rohan shook his head. “He has a little talent, no skill. He isn’t a sorcerer. But with the sphere… I don’t know. I can’t tell you any more.” He sat up a little straighter. “If that is all you have to ask, please go.”

It might all be an act but that seemed unlikely. This was Rohan’s sole involvement with the plot, as the victim of blackmail for past crimes and disloyalties. Nicholas took his hand out of the pocket with the pistol and went to the door. He paused on the threshold, glanced back, and said, “I’m sure Arisilde would send you his regards. If he could remember who you were,” and quietly closed the door behind him.


Nicholas found Madeline waiting at a table outside the little cafe where they had arranged to meet. She stood as he came near, saying, “There was a wire waiting at the hotel from Reynard. He says there’s been a development and we need to return immediately.”


Nicholas spotted Reynard in the crowd on the platform of the Vienne station as he and Madeline stepped off the train. Since they had no baggage to collect they avoided the congestion and were able to make their way over to him and withdraw into one of the recessed waiting areas, left empty by the arrival of the Express. It was a little room lined with upholstered benches, smelling strongly of tobacco and the steam exhaust of trains.

“What’s happened?” Nicholas demanded immediately.

Reynard was as carefully dressed as ever but he looked as if he hadn’t slept. He said, “Ronsarde’s been arrested.”

“What?” Nicholas glanced at Madeline, saw her expression was incredulous, and knew he couldn’t have misheard. “What the devil for?”

“The charge is officially burglary,” Reynard said. From his skeptical expression it was evident what he thought the likelihood of that was. “Apparently he broke into a house in pursuit of evidence and was careless enough to get caught at it. But Cusard says there’s a rumor in the streets that he was assisting a necromancer.”

The mental leap from housebreaking to necromancy was a long one, even for Vienne’s hysterical rumor-mongers. Nicholas felt a curious sense of vertigo; perhaps he was more tired than he realized. “How did that get started?”

Reynard shook his head. “I should tell you from the beginning. The morning after you left for Lodun, the Prefecture found Valent House. Ronsarde was investigating the murders yesterday when he broke into this place he’s accused of breaking into.” Anticipating the question Nicholas was trying to interrupt with, he added, “And no, I don’t know the name of the house. It wasn’t in the papers and Cusard couldn’t find out from his sources in the Prefecture, either. Which makes it sound like a noble family, doesn’t it?”

“An ignoble family, perhaps.” Nicholas was thinking of Montesq. Octave’s initial interest in Edouard Viller, his theft of the scholar’s work, his knowledge of Coldcourt, even the way he had approached Ilamires Rohan. Like footprints on wet pavement they led back to Montesq. Could he be at the root of it? Supporting Octave and his lunatic sorcerer? That would be so…convenient. Convenient and in a way disappointing. He didn’t want Montesq executed for a crime the man had actually committed. That would ruin the whole point of the thing.

“Wait,” Madeline said, exasperated. “I’ve missed something. How did the Prefecture get the idea that Ronsarde was behind the murders at Valent House?”

“They don’t have that idea, of course,” Reynard told her impatiently. “He was done for burglary and whoever managed to pull that off must be damn high up in the ranks, that’s all I can say.” He gestured helplessly. “But this rumor that he’s involved with necromancers is everywhere. There was a small riot last night in front of Valent House. Took a troop of City Guards to keep them from burning the place down.”

“And half of Riverside with it, I imagine.” Madeline’s brow creased as she looked at Nicholas.

Nicholas dragged a hand through his hair. Several women and a porter laden with baggage passed the open doorway, but no one entered. He muttered, “Oh, he must be close. He must be right on top of them.”

Reynard checked his pocket watch. “He’s due to go before the magistrate in an hour. I thought it might help to hear what goes on there.”

“Yes, we’d better go there at once.” Nicholas turned to Madeline. “I want the other spheres removed from Coldcourt. Can you do that while we’re at court?”

“Yes. You think Octave will try for them.”

“No. But I may need them as bait and I don’t want to risk going to Coldcourt again. I don’t want their attention on it. Take the spheres to the warehouse and put them in Arisilde’s safe. I wager even the real Constant Macob couldn’t find them in there.”

“I have the impression,” Reynard began, his eyes grim, “that I’m underinformed. Who the hell is Constant Macob?”

“I’ll explain on the way.”


Madeline found a hire cabriolet to take her on her mission to Coldcourt and Nicholas and Reynard went to the coach. Devis was driving and Crack was waiting on the box. Crack’s greeting was a restrained nod. Standing so as to block any curious onlooker’s view, Nicholas handed Crack back his pistol and touched his hat brim to him.

“It’s very odd,” Reynard commented, once he had seen the book and had Nicholas’s theory on their opponent explained to him, “to be rushing off to see Inspector Ronsarde arraigned before the magistrates. I always expected to be on the other side of the bench, as it were.”

“Odd is a mild word for it,” Nicholas said, his expression hard. Now that he had gotten over the initial shock, he was almost light-headed with rage at Octave and his lunatic sorcerer. They had stolen Edouard’s work, they had tried to kill himself and Madeline, and now… And now Ronsarde. He should be grateful to them for destroying the great Inspector Ronsarde, something that he had never been able to do. Except I stopped trying to destroy him years ago. He wasn’t grateful, he was homicidal. It wasn’t enough that they endanger his friends and servants, they had to attack his most valued enemy as well. “Where’s Octave?”

“The night of our little upset in Lethe Square he moved out of the Hotel Galvaz and into the Dormier, using a false name. Some of Cusard’s men are keeping an eye on him. Oh, and Lamane and I went back to that manufactory that Octave led us to. There was nothing there, just an old, empty building.”

Nicholas grimaced in annoyance. Octave’s behavior was inexplicable. He thought it would be greatly improved by a couple of hard blows to the spiritualist’s head with a crowbar. “Octave should have left the city, at least until we were taken care of.”

“Except that he has an appointment for a circle at Fontainon House. I don’t think he wants to miss that.”

“Fontainon House?” Nicholas didn’t like the cold edge of prescience that simple statement gave him. Fontainon House was the home of the Queen’s maternal cousin, an older woman of few ambitions beyond social achievement, but the house itself was within sight of the palace. It might even be caught in the edge of the palace wards. The idea of Octave holding a circle at Fontainon House didn’t have the feel of another confidence game; it felt like a goal.

“Does that tell you something?” Reynard asked, watching Nicholas’s expression.

“It makes a rather unpleasant suggestion. How did you hear about it?”

“I ran into Madame Algretto at Lusaude’s. They’ve been invited. She wasn’t keen on it after what happened at Gabrill House, but then she hasn’t much choice in her engagements, from what I can tell,” Reynard answered. He watched Nicholas sharply. “This worries you, doesn’t it. Why?”

Nicholas shook his head. His suspicions were almost too nebulous to articulate. Octave had been working his way quickly up through Vienne’s social scale. The Queen’s cousin was practically at the top of that and there had been rumors for years about her odd pastimes. He said, “I never thought there was a plan. I thought Octave was out for what he could get and that this sorcerer was simply mad. But… ”

“But this makes you think differently.”

“Yes.” Nicholas drummed his fingers on the windowsill impatiently. “We need Arisilde. If I’d paid more attention the last time I spoke to him, perhaps –”

Reynard swore. “You can’t live on ifs, Nic. If I had burned the damn letter from Bran instead of keeping it in a moment of sentimental excess, if I’d become suspicious when I realized it was missing instead of shrugging it off to carelessness, the little fool would still be alive. And if I kept living those mistakes over and over again, I’d be as far gone into opium and self-pity as your sorcerer friend.”

Nicholas let out his breath and didn’t answer for a moment, knowing very well he had said something similar to Arisilde the night of the sorcerer’s last fit. For a time, when they had first met, he had wondered if Reynard had loved the young man who had killed himself over the blackmail letter. He had decided since that it was not very likely. But the young man had been a friend and Reynard had felt protective of him and responsible for his undoing. Nicholas thought most of Reynard’s excesses concealed an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I wonder what my excesses conceal, Nicholas thought. Better not to speculate on that. Dryly, he said, “Don’t worry on that account. If I succumb to self-pity I’ll probably do something far more immediate and spectacular than a simple addiction to opium.” That sounded a deal more serious than he had meant it to, so he added, “But I’ll have to get Madeline’s permission first.”

Reynard’s mouth twisted, not in amusement, but he accepted the attempt to lighten the mood. “I’m amazed that Madeline puts up with you.”

“Madeline… has her own life and concerns.” Maybe this wasn’t such an innocuous topic after all.

“Yes, fortuitously so, since it makes her remarkably tolerant of aspects of your personality that would require me to thump your head against the nearest wall.”

“When you meet her grandmother, it will give you an inkling of how she acquired her thick skin.”

As their coach drew near the city prison, Nicholas saw no evidence of the unrest Reynard had spoken of. The streets of Vienne seemed busy as always, as calm as they ever were. He was sure the damage caused by the Sending in Lethe Square had stirred up some trouble, but Vienne had a long history and had seen far worse.

Then the coach passed the Ministry of Finance and entered the Courts Plaza.

The prison took up one side of the sweeping length of the open plaza. Its walls were of a mottled dark stone, several stories high, linking six enormous turreted towers. It had long ago been a fortification for the old city wall, and the places where the numerous gates had been filled in with newer stone were still easily visible. There were actually several entirely separate structures that made up the prison within those high walls, with a courtyard in the center, but they had all been interconnected and the court roofed over decades ago.

The last time Nicholas had been inside it was years ago, when he had first started to uncover some of Count Montesq’s criminal dealings. He had discovered that a brutal murder that was the talk of Vienne had actually been committed by two men in Montesq’s pay. The man who had been sent to prison for it had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and been framed by the actual perpetrators. Nicholas had had no evidence and little faith in Vienne’s justice, so he had taken steps to obtain the innocent man’s release. That was how he had first made Crack’s acquaintance.

Engineering Crack’s escape from the prison had been an unqualified success, especially since as far as the prison authorities knew, there had been no escape. Officially Crack was dead and buried in one of the paupers’ fields in the city outskirts.

As their coach crossed the plaza, it passed the spot where an old gallows stood, a grim monument to Vienne’s courts of justice. It hadn’t been used for the past fifty years, since the Ministry had directed executions to take place inside the prison to prevent the gathering of huge unruly crowds. After Edouard’s death, Nicholas had come every day to this plaza to look at that gallows, to touch it if he could do so unobtrusively, to confront it and all it stood for.

Ronsarde wouldn’t be held in the prison itself, but in the offices of the Prefecture built out from the far side of the prison wall, extending halfway across the back of the plaza. The Prefecture’s headquarters was a strange appendage to the grim prison and had many windows with carving around the gables and fancy ironwork. On the other side of the plaza was the Magistrates Courts and the Law Precincts. These structures were even more ornate, from the pillared portico over the entrance to the wickedly grinning gargoyles carved on the eaves and the depictions of Lady Justice wearing the regalia of the Crown of Ile-Rien above every entrance.

There was a massive fountain in the center of the plaza, with several statues of ancient sea gods spewing water from horns and tridents, and there were usually peddlers and penny sheet vendors to cater to the constant stream of foot traffic. Nicholas frowned. Today the plaza was far more crowded than usual and the milling figures lacked the purposeful air of tradespeople or clerks moving to and from work. They were a mob and they were in an unpleasant mood.

Nicholas signaled for Devis to stop and he and Reynard stepped down from the coach. They had to keep moving to avoid being jostled and shoved by the crowd as Nicholas made his way along the edge of the plaza, trying to get closer to the end of the Justiciary closest to the prison.

The usual peddlers and food vendors were out but there was an angry group clustered around each one, debating loudly about necromancers and dark magic and taxes, and the failure of the Prefecture and the Crown to protect ordinary folk. There were a large number of beggars and idlers, but also clerks and shop-workers, women with market baskets over their arms and children in tow, house servants and workers from the manufactories just across the river. He heard mention several times of Valent House, and also of Lethe Square. He supposed their adventure there hadn’t helped the panic any. And there was no quick way to spread the word that that particular manifestation had been dealt with, except among the criminal classes.

Nicholas stopped at the steps that led down from the central fountain’s dais, unable to make his way closer to the buildings. He was nearer the Courts than the prison and could easily see through the windows of the bridge that connected them on the second floor. Reynard stepped up beside him, muttering, “I’d like to know what the devil stirred up all this so quickly.”

Nicholas shook his head, unable to answer. He had read The Executions of Rogere on the train ride, but what he thought of now was the fragment of The Histories of Aden Cathare that Doctor Uberque had quoted. He concealed the traces of his passing with chaos….

Crack was standing only a few paces away, watching the crowd around them with concentrated suspicion. Nicholas motioned for him to step closer and said, “Send Devis to tell Cusard to come here with as many of his men as he can bring. Hurry.”

Crack nodded sharply and started back toward the coach.

Reynard stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “Are we anticipating trouble, or starting it?” he asked, low-voiced.

“Both, I think,” Nicholas said. He raised a brow as uniformed constables forced some bolder curiosity seekers off the steps of the Courts. “Definitely both.”


They waited. Crack rejoined them after sending Devis for Cusard, and through sheer persistence they made their way almost to the edge of the Courts’ steps. Only one large foul-smelling individual objected to their presence: Nicholas gestured to Crack, who seized the man by the throat, yanked him down to eye level and made a low-voiced comment which caused the offender to mutter an apology and back rapidly away when he was released.

The time scheduled for Ronsarde’s hearing passed and Nicholas could tell they weren’t opening the court yet, even for people who might have a legitimate purpose there. He thought that a mistake; they should have started as soon as possible and allowed anyone who could squeeze in to have a seat in the gallery. Then there would be no reason for most of the spectators to remain and they would drift off back to their own concerns. Delaying the hearing only fed the atmosphere of strained excitement.

The sky was growing cloudy, but the morning breeze seemed to have died away completely. It was becoming warm and close in the plaza with so many bodies jammed into what was rapidly becoming a small area, which wasn’t helping anyone’s mood either. He couldn’t have chosen a better day for this, Nicholas thought, whoever “he” is. I’ll have to remember to keep the weather conditions in mind should I ever need to start a riot. He looked away from the Courts in time to see Cusard, with Lamane at his heels, making a path toward them. Reynard cursed suddenly and Nicholas snapped his gaze back.

At first he saw only a group of constables on the steps of the Prefecture. Then he swore under his breath. Ronsarde was standing in their midst. On the steps of the Prefecture, not on the overhead bridge, where felons could be conducted across to the Courts out of the reach of angry mobs.

“There he is!” someone shouted and the crowd pushed forward.

Nicholas plunged forward too, shouldering aside the men blocking him, using his elbow and his walking stick to jab ribs if they failed to give way. He and Reynard had seen Ronsarde many times before and had both recognized him easily. That the troublemakers who had pushed their way nearest to the buildings had also recognized him, when their only exposure to him should have been as a fuzzy pencil sketch in the penny sheets, was a confirmation of his worst fear. Whoever had arranged Ronsarde’s arrest was still at work and had no intention of allowing the Inspector to ever reach the magistrate’s bench.

The steps were awash in people fighting, pushing. He saw one of the constables shoved to the ground and the others were already buried under the press of bodies. Nicholas paused to get his bearings and a man dressed in a ragged working coat seized his collar and jerked him half off his feet. He slammed the knob of his walking stick into the man’s stomach, then cracked him over the head with it as his opponent released him and doubled over. Someone bumped into him from behind; Nicholas ducked, then realized it was Reynard.

More constables poured out of the Prefecture to vanish into the chaos and struggling figures pressed close around them. Everyone seemed to be shouting, screaming. Suddenly there was breathing space; Nicholas looked back and saw Reynard had drawn the blade from his sword cane.

That proves half these people are hired agitators, Nicholas thought, real Vienne anarchists wouldn’t hesitate to throw themselves on a sword. He had seen enough spontaneous riots in Riverside to know the difference. He managed to push his way up two more steps for a vantage point, Reynard close behind him. He couldn’t see Ronsarde, but the nearest exit to the Plaza was choked with people fleeing the fighting — sightseers escaping before the Crown intervened with a horse troop.

Crack tore his way out of the crowd and fetched up against them. “Can you see him?” Nicholas asked him, having to shout to be heard over the din.

Crack shook his head. “Maybe they got him inside.”

Maybe… No, this was staged too carefully. They wouldn’t have allowed the constables to save him…. Nicholas swore in frustration. “We need to get closer.”

“There!” Reynard shouted suddenly.

Nicholas turned. Reynard had been guarding their backs, facing out into the plaza. Searching the press of bodies behind them, he saw the purposeful knot of men with Ronsarde among them. The Inspector threw a punch and managed a few steps back toward the Prefecture, then someone struck him from behind and he disappeared into the crowd.

They were taking him toward the prison side of the plaza. Nicholas started after them. Reynard caught his arm. “What are we doing, dammit?”

Nicholas hesitated, but only briefly. He had a dozen reasons for this, but the one that currently made the most sense was that someone badly wanted Ronsarde dead, the same someone who wanted them dead, and knowing the reason could tell him a great deal. “Find Ronsarde and get him out of here.”

“I was afraid of that,” Reynard snarled and whipped his blade up, abruptly clearing a path for them.

They fought their way forward, the crowd giving way before Reynard’s weapon and their persistence. Nicholas couldn’t see Ronsarde anymore but kept his eyes on the man who had struck the Inspector: he was a big man wearing a hat with a round crown and he remained just barely in sight over the bobbing heads around them. They broke through into a clear space and Nicholas saw there were at least six others accompanying Ronsarde’s captor and that the Inspector was being dragged between two of them. They were taking him… Toward the old prison gate? Why the hell…? Nicholas felt suddenly cold. No, toward the old gallows.

A firm shove sent him staggering forward a few steps; he sensed rather than saw the passage of something heavy and metal through the air behind him. He turned in time to see the tip of Reynard’s sword cane protruding from the back of a man. The man’s weapon, a makeshift club, fell to the pavement.

Nicholas pushed forward toward the gallows, hoping that Reynard and Crack could follow. The wooden trap had fallen in years ago, so if the Inspector’s captors managed to hang him it would be slow strangulation rather than a quick snapping of the neck — that might buy Nicholas some time.

Another knot of rioters blocked his path. He plunged through them rather than taking the time to go around and found himself ducking as a wild-eyed man swung a broken broom handle at his head. The man staggered and took another swing at him and Nicholas realized he was drunk.

Nicholas dodged around the obstacle, came up from behind and seized him by the shoulders. The man obligingly kept swinging his club, apparently grateful for the temporary support. Nicholas steered his human battering ram in the right direction and the other combatants scattered out of his way.

Ronsarde’s captors were taking the time to hang him because it was the sort of murder that would be attributed to a mob; if they had simply shot him someone might have been suspicious. This wasn’t Octave or his pet sorcerer, Nicholas thought. Whoever planned this knew Vienne too well.

They broke through into another clear stretch of pavement. He aimed the man off to the side in case Reynard or Crack were making their way through behind them and gave him a push. The drunk staggered away in search of more targets and Nicholas ran.

Two of the men were hauling Ronsarde up the steps of the gallows. One of the others spotted Nicholas coming and blocked his path. Nicholas saw the man’s expression change from a malicious grin to sudden alarm. He reached into a coat pocket and Nicholas saw the glint of light on metal. He swung his walking stick, cracking the man across the forearm; the revolver he had been about to draw went skittering across the pavement.

The sight of the revolver made Nicholas realize he was somewhat unprepared for this particular undertaking and he dove for the weapon. He hit the pavement and grasped the barrel just as someone caught hold of the back of his coat. There was a strangled cry and his attacker abruptly released him. He rolled over to see Reynard withdrawing his sword cane from the man’s rib cage, Crack guarding his back. Another man charged down the gallows steps toward them; as Nicholas struggled to his feet he shouted to catch Crack’s attention, then tossed him the walking stick. Crack turned and slugged the newcomer in the stomach with the heavy wooden stick, hard enough to puncture his gut, then caught him by the collar as he staggered and slung him out of the way.

Two down, Nicholas thought, five remaining. He plunged up the steps to the platform which was creaking ominously under the weight of the men atop it. Three of them were wrestling with Ronsarde, who was still resisting despite a bloody face from repeated blows to the head. One was throwing the rope over the scaffold and the other was standing and looking on. The ringleader, obviously. Nicholas motioned for Reynard and Crack to stay back, then pointed the revolver at the leader and said, “Stop.”

They all stared at him, temporarily frozen. Ronsarde was on his knees, blinking, barely seeming conscious. His captors all had the rough clothing and heavy builds of laborers, and from the visible facial scars and the coshes they all seemed equipped with, they did precious little in the way of honest work. The very sort of men who worked for Nicholas. He smiled. “Let’s be reasonable. Release him, and you can leave.”

The ringleader took the smile for weakness. He grinned contemptuously and said, “He won’t shoot. Go on –”

Nicholas pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the man in the chest, sending him staggering back into one of the heavy piers that supported the gallows. He slumped to the platform, leaving a dark stain on the old wood.

Nicholas moved the gun slightly to point it at the man holding the rope, the next likely ringleader candidate. Still smiling, he said, “Let’s begin again. Release him, and you can leave.”

The men holding Ronsarde dropped him and backed away, without waiting for a consensus from the rest of the group. The Inspector swayed and almost collapsed, but managed to stay upright. The one with the rope put up his hands nervously. Nicholas gestured with the pistol toward the edge of the platform. “Very good. Now run away and don’t come back.”

The men scrambled to the edge of the gallows and leapt down. Nicholas put the pistol in his coat pocket and crossed to where Ronsarde had slumped against one of the piers. As he pulled him up Reynard stepped around to take the wounded man’s other arm and said, “I hope you have some idea of what we’re to do now?” His expression was skeptical. Crack, who hovered warily a few steps away, looked too nervous of Ronsarde to question Nicholas’s next course of action.

Surveying the chaos around them, Nicholas muttered, “Why Reynard, you sound dubious.” He couldn’t spot Cusard and Lamane among the crowd; they must have been lost in the confusion. The riot seemed to be gaining momentum. More constables had poured out into the plaza and their efforts to clear the area in front of the Courts were drawing an increasing number of previously neutral onlookers into the fray. Warders in dark brown uniform coats were streaming around the gallows to join the fighting; Nicholas looked back and saw a small iron door now stood open in the prison wall behind them. The sunlight had been completely blotted out by heavy gray clouds; if it suddenly started to pour down rain, the situation might improve, but otherwise it was sure to get worse.

They could hand Ronsarde back over to the Prefecture, under the guise of good citizens preventing a mob murder. The problem was that whoever had arranged for Ronsarde to be exposed to the crowd in the first place had worked from within; they could be turning the Inspector over to the very man who had tried to kill him. “We can’t give him back to the constables,” Nicholas decided. That was as close as he meant to come to admitting that he didn’t know what to do next, even to Reynard. “Let’s just get him out of here first.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” This was so unexpected that Nicholas almost dropped Ronsarde. The Inspector’s voice held only a little strain. His tone was as commonplace as if he were sitting in a drawing room instead of leaning on his rescuers, his face bruised and blackened and dripping blood onto their shoes. He smiled at Nicholas, and added, “I too lack confidence in our good constables at the moment.”

Nicholas tried to answer and found his throat locked. Reynard must have been able to read something in his blank expression, because he said, “That’s settled, then. Our coach is probably stuck outside the plaza. If we can just get to it –”

A sudden wind struck them sharply: if Nicholas hadn’t already been braced to support Ronsarde he would have stumbled backward. He gasped and choked on the foul taint in the air. The Inspector and Reynard coughed too. Except for the worst pockets of fighting, the crowd seemed to pause. Stepping close to Nicholas, Crack muttered, “It smells like that room.”

Not again, Nicholas thought. He said, “We have to get out of here.” Not the same Sending, it couldn’t be. It hadn’t been able to come out in daylight and he had the evidence of his own eyes, besides Madele’s word, that it was dead. This had to be something else.

He and Reynard got Ronsarde down the steps, then Crack grabbed Nicholas’s arm, pointing at the opposite side of the plaza.

A mist rolled over the pitched slate roof of the Courts. It was thin enough that even in the dying light the shapes of the gargoyles and the gables of the building could be seen through it, but there was something about its advance that was inexorable, as if it was destroying everything in its path. It rolled almost majestically down the front of the Magistrates Courts, like a wall of water off a cliff, to pool on the steps at the base.

Then Nicholas saw movement behind it. Chips of stone fell from the gables, striking the pavement below. It’s going to destroy the Courts, Nicholas thought, unable to see the purpose of it. The quicker-witted individuals in the crowd were streaming toward the street exits of the plaza, though some pockets of fighters still seemed oblivious to what was occurring. Then something far larger than a stone chip landed on the pavement at the base of the building; the solid sound of flesh striking stone was audible even at this distance. Then it scrambled awkwardly to its feet and waddled out of the mist. It was large, gray, bent over like one of the orange apes from the jungles in the farthest parts of Parscia, but vestigial wings sprouted from its back. For an instant, Nicholas thought he was seeing a goblin, like some illustration in a book come to life. Then he realized it was one of the stone gargoyles from the building’s gables, but it was stone no longer. In a heartbeat it was joined by two more, then a dozen, then another dozen.

It was too far across the plaza for them to reach the street exit, especially with Ronsarde as injured as he was. Nicholas looked around desperately, then focused on the prison wall behind them. The small door there was closed, but the guards had been running out that way only moments before. It might have been left unlocked. “Go that way.” There was no other way to go. The prison had no other entrances on this side and the Prefecture was too far away to reach in time.

“It’s obviously some sort of sorcerous attack, animating the decorative stonework,” Ronsarde said calmly, as Nicholas and Reynard half-carried him toward the door. “Who do you think it is directed toward?”

Reynard muttered, “I think I can guess.” He glanced back over his shoulder. “They’re coming this way — quickly.”

“I didn’t really want to know that.” Nicholas motioned Crack ahead toward the door. The henchman reached it and pulled on the handle, then whipped a jimmie out of his pocket and jammed it into the lock.

Nicholas cursed under his breath and looked over his shoulder. The mist and the clouds had blotted out almost all the light: it might have been twilight rather than afternoon. People were still running away up the streets, but the ungainly gray shapes in the mist all moved this way. He gritted his teeth and resisted the impulse to tell Crack to hurry; the last thing he wanted to do at the moment was break the man’s concentration.

Finally Crack stepped back, shoved the jimmie into his pocket and drew his pistol. He fired at the lock and on the fifth shot the door gave way with a whine of strained metal. Crack threw his weight on the handle, swung it wide open, and Nicholas and Reynard dragged the Inspector inside. The door wedged against the stone pavement when Crack tried to close it and he fought with it silently. Nicholas leapt to help him and together they tugged it closed, shutting out the approaching mist. Something outside howled angrily just as the door slammed shut and Reynard shoved the heavy locking bar into place.

Nicholas stepped back from the door, reflecting that if one of the prison warders had thought to bar it he and the others would be dead now. Reynard leaned against the door, looking annoyed more than anything else, and Crack wiped sweat from his forehead with his coat sleeve.

“This is a rather tense situation,” Ronsarde said, conversationally. He was supporting himself on the wall, watching them thoughtfully. “What’s our next course of action?”


END CHAPTER ELEVEN

Continued in Chapter Twelve


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Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet, Part V: The Accursed

Saturday, June 8th, 2013 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The AccursedLast October, I looked at the four books of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet that had been published up to that point. I wrote about them in publication order, starting with Bellefleur, from 1980, a novel I thought truly brilliant. I had a slightly more ambiguous reaction to 1982’s A Bloodsmoor Romance, which might have been a function of my being less familiar with the books that had inspired it. At any rate, I was considerably more impressed with 1984’s Mysteries of Winterthurn and thought 1998’s My Heart Laid Bare a successful conclusion to the sequence. If ‘conclusion’ is the appropriate word. Earlier this spring, Oates’ fifth gothic was published, as though the sequence was returning to unlife after being laid to rest.

In fact, Oates wrote all five books in the early 80s, but only published three at the time. My Heart Laid Bare, the fourth, was published a decade and a half later. Now, a decade and a half after that, The Accursed has finally been published. It was the third book written, and so can be viewed as either a belated conclusion to the sequence or else as a kind of keystone to the gothic arch of the whole series. I tend to prefer the latter. My Heart Laid Bare seemed to move away from the Gothic toward a more purely ironic, though not wholly mimetic, form of storytelling. The Accursed is in keeping with the earlier books of the series, not without irony itself, but also filled with the sublime and seemingly supernatural. I found it clarified and extended themes and imagery of all five books, resonating and completing the overall sequence.

Given the structural complexity of each individual book, the way they build themselves up almost as jigsaw puzzles, and particularly given Oates’ choice in The Accursed to withhold the final puzzle-piece of plot until the final chapter, there’s something appropriate about the publication order of the books. The Accursed may after all be best read as the final book of the five. As such, it’s a bravura conclusion, every bit as dense with meaning and as extravagantly well-written as its predecessors. And as intricate, every image linking to each other and to the core themes of the book. But it also comes to seem that the five books replicate as a whole their individual structures: the themes build, and the plot follows.

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