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The Element of Fire
by Martha Wells
Chapters One through Eight
Chapters Nine through Sixteen
THE SUN WAS shining here, too.
Kade and Boliver stood in an open court, bordered on all sides by a low wall and a sheer drop to the sea. The wide blue vault of the sky stretched over them, and the stiff breeze had the tang of salt and dead fish. Kade went to the edge of the ring, which resisted her for a moment before she stepped free of it. The power swelling it had almost the same force as the Knockma Ring, but it was far more turbulent. But then, this ring saw a great deal more use.
She went to the wall and looked down. They were atop a pillar of rock that stood a hundred yards or so above the sea that tore at its base. Leaning out, she could see the stairs that climbed it, leading up from a bare stone dock, and the stern of the fantastically painted ship that was moored there.
On the opposite side of the court, two identical fay with golden skin, red-pupiled eyes, and long amber hair guarded an archway twined with carved oak leaves leading to a narrow delicate bridge. It led from their pillar over the channel of gray-green churning water to the cliff tops of a rocky section of coast. A massive structure grew out of the end of the bridge, with heavy octagonal towers the warm brown of sandstone from the faraway deserts of Parscia. Squinting at it in the afternoon sunlight, Kade saw that light glittered off it at regular points, as if it were adorned with a pattern of jewels, or small round windows. She looked back at Boliver, who was watching the bridge guards warily and cleaning out his pipe onto the immaculate flagstones. "This is the place."
She went up to the guards, who were dressed in cloth of gold and glittering gems and armed with slender swords of silver. They were both watching Kade and Boliver with disinterested amusement, and one said, "Your name and your errand, fair lady, before you pass."
The words "fair lady" had no doubt been applied facetiously. She answered, "I'm Kade Carrion, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and I'm here to see Oberon."
The two exchanged an opaque glance that might have concealed more amusement, or surprise, and the other said, "Then pass gladly, lady."
She walked down the bridge, Boliver padding behind her. Ahead they could see two large wooden doors surrounded by stonework carved into waves and bubbling seafoam. Closer, and the sun brought out the faint tint of rose in the brown stone; closer still, and she saw that the small round windows that studded the tower were not windows but eyes, with dark iris and blue pupil, and that some were watching them, others staring off to sea.
Boliver stage-whispered, "We're being watched!"
Kade ignored him.
Another fay guard, identical to the two at the bridge except for the graceful amber-glazed wings on his back, pulled open one of the heavy doors for them.
Inside was a high stone gallery, floored with white tile, airy and cool. They went down it and into the perfect silence of the place. Corridors branched off at intervals, but they might have been the only living creatures inside.
Thinking over what she had to do--what she was forced to do--Kade was conscious of a curious numbness that might be shock. She was beginning to recognize it as the feeling of anger taken to such a level it was no longer possible to separate it from any other emotion or thought. In a way, it was a liberating sensation. The attitude of the fay guards, or what she suspected was their attitude, would have bothered her very much under any other circumstances; now it seemed the most minor of considerations. Anger this intense defined everything into the goal, and the obstacles that must be overcome to reach the goal, and it would make it very easy to make the decisions to dispose of those obstacles.
It was probably quite close to how Urbain Grandier felt when the Bisran Inquisition had finished with him.
As they neared the end of the hall, they could hear a thread of harp music, and voices and laughter.
"We're going to be roasted," Boliver said, with gloomy relish. "And eaten."
"Stop sniveling," Kade muttered. Boliver had driven her out of her despair with arguments that she should do something constructive; now that she had embarked on a plan, he was arguing against it. Typical fay perversity.
The hall made an abrupt turn, and stairs spilled down into a large roofless court that must be at or near the center of the fortress. More of the amber-skinned guards lined the porticoes, lazy but watchful, armed with gold-bladed pikes.
Most of the Seelie Court was gathered here.
Lake maidens dripped water and glamour from their gowns like pearls. Beautiful ladies wore clothes of flowers, gossamer spangled with dew, silvery gauze, or were covered only by their long hair. There were men of the same ethereal beauty as the guards, in velvets, fine lace, and gold-shot brocade. Here and there a wing as delicate as a butterfly's and more beautifully hued rose above the crowd. The bright sunlight in the open court made so much glamour the air glowed, and a troupe of gaily dressed fay tumblers performed feats impossible for humans. Most of those here were shape-changers.
Kade went down the steps and through the crowd.
They parted for her. There was no stink of unwashed flesh under the perfumes, as there would be in any human gathering. Her faded and dirty smock, her dragging petticoat lace, her page boy's boots, were violently out of place here, and she caught many sidelong glances. She could have used glamour to make herself more pleasing to the eye; several here had done so. But she didn't need to be told that that would have been a mistake.
Titania lay on a leopard-skin couch under a canopy of ostrich feathers, cool shade under the bright light. A small woman, smaller than Kade, the fayre queen wore a mantua heavily laden with pearls and silver embroidery, and her hair was the color of gold, true gold, and her features were much more beautiful than even Queen Falaise's. But Falaise's face had been touched by fear, worry, and care, and Titania's was as perfect as a carved goddess's; Kade suddenly preferred Falaise, for all that lady's wavering will.
Two fay pages with the appearance of fair young boys waited on the fayre queen, one holding a wine carafe, the other her fan. They watched Kade with matched expressions of sly mockery. But seated at her feet was a human boy with skin the color of chocolate and dark curly hair, whose gaze remained locked on the tumblers.
Kade did not curtsey to Titania. She was a queen here in her own right.
Titania's shrewd sapphire eyes considered her. She held a silver wine goblet beaded with moisture, and ran a thoughtful finger over the rim. "Oberon is not here, my sister." Her voice was like harp strings stirred by the wind.
"But you are." A few days ago Kade would have replied I am not your sister, but she couldn't afford to be driven now.
Titania laughed. "And what have you come for?"
"A favor." Kade looked down at the human boy, and when his brown eyes met hers curiously, she asked him, "Do you want to go home?"
There was an almost soundless gasp from the assembled fay, the music ceasing and the tumblers staggering to a halt.
The boy smiled and shook his head. "No, lady," he said into the silence. His voice was a little husky, but still a child's.
Kade looked back at Titania, who smiled. "I love him," the queen of fayre said.
"The sad thing is," Kade found herself replying, "you probably do."
Titania shook her golden head in irritation and set the goblet down on a low jade table. "You always ruin our pastimes, Kade."
"Good." Kade paced a few idle steps away from the bower, to avoid showing her rabid impatience, to keep Titania from knowing how every passing moment grated. She saw the smaller sprites at the edge of the crowd back hastily away. She was hardly surprised; she probably looked like she should be standing over a battlefield piled with corpses with a raven on one shoulder. She had been right not to try to put on a pleasing appearance with glamour; that would have been catering to their whims. She looked like herself, fey and eldritch even in this company.
Watching her with perfect brows lifted archly, Titania said, "I only tolerate your interference because of my affection for your mother."
Words, no sentiment. Copied from some human. Kade smiled at her feet. She couldn't think why she had ever feared Moire, or Titania, when she had spent much of her early life sparring with Ravenna, who could have effortlessly handled both fay queens were she blind, deaf, and lame. Kade said, "I am the Queen of Air and Darkness."
Titania accepted a fan from her page and drew the delicate ivory construction through her fingers. "You do not know what that means."
"Someday I'll find out." Kade looked up and smiled. "And here you will be."
"And what must I do about that?"
"Make me happy."
Titania laughed again, this time in genuine amusement. Or at least genuine for her. She waved the two fay pages away, but let the human boy remain. "What do you want?"
Kade sensed the crowd behind her begin to relax. The clear note of a harp sounded, and the jugglers began to perform again. The boy's eyes strayed in their direction. Boliver was around somewhere; she could smell his pipe. "The first, the power to shape-change."
"Ah." Titania must know every movement of the Unseelie Court, and she did not ask why. "Best tell me what else you want, for I cannot give you that."
"You mean, you won't give me that."
Titania's perfect brow creased in annoyance. "Words. I am not a fool; I can't hand you that much power."
Kade knew it would come to this. "What if I were to offer you a power in return?"
Titania shook her head, consideringly. "You are very desperate."
"Yes. And I am very dangerous, when I am very desperate." That was as close to a threat as she wanted to come. Threats she did not have time to make good on. Kade was at a severe disadvantage and knew it. All she had was bluff and Titania's greed.
"What would you offer?"
Kade felt as if she were about to step off a precipice. After this, there was no going back. She took a deep breath, and jumped. "Knockma." Somewhere in the crowd, she heard a thump: Boliver hitting the floor. He had known what she meant to do, but his sense of the dramatic had gotten the better of him.
Titania stared, honestly shocked. Kade waited, forcing herself to smile lightly. Then Titania shook her head, her expression of honest consternation making her look more human, and, Kade thought, more beautiful. "I cannot do it, not even for so great a prize. I cannot give you that much power."
Kade sighed. I know. If I were you I wouldn't do it either. But I was hoping you'd be too blinded by greed to care. So forget the first plan and try the second. With Knockma dangling before her like a diamond in the sun, Titania would break down eventually. "We can bargain."
Titania tapped her fan on the fur couch, watching her. "Bargain. Very well. But why are you doing this?"
Kade smiled and met Titania's eyes. "For love." The queen of fayre looked frankly disbelieving, but the human boy grinned up at Kade.
Kade met an anxious Boliver at the portico above the court. "How went it?" he asked, nervously hopping from foot to foot.
"Not as good as I hoped; not as bad as I feared." Out of her pocket, she drew one of the concessions she had wrested from the fayre queen. It looked like a well-crafted glass ball, only a few bubbles marring its perfection. Boliver peered at it closely, and she turned it in the light to show the lines of fire glowing ghostlike within. "It will turn a shape-changed being back to its original form." She pocketed the powerful little construction carefully, and they started up the hall toward the entrance.
"Is that all? What will you if it doesn't do its work?"
"What will I? I'll die, that's what will I. Gods below, Boliver, don't ask me these questions at a time like this." Kade had hoped to get the power to shape-change at will from Titania, hoped to get it without having to kill people right and left as Grandier did, but the fayre queen had refused her and she would just have to do it the hard way. It's the only way to get anything done lately.
"I'm sorry, lass. But one transformation is not much. And you'll need that to get in. You'll be going against all the Host."
"Yes." She hated to lose Knockma, but it was a tie to the past, to her mother, and to the Seelie Court and all their wrangling. And if the Host did cross into Knockma, she would never be able to defend it and find Thomas at the same time. Titania would defend it now, with every resource at her disposal, and the Unseelie Court would never have it.
It was also the only home she had ever had. Besides the palace, and that had been taken away. But Knockma had not been taken away, she had given it up, and the difference was important.
And if it would help her destroy Grandier and Denzil, then it was well given.
Kade put a hand in her pocket to touch the glass ball. No, losing Knockma she could live through. It was the next part she had doubts about.
Thomas had worked steadily at loosening the spike in the wall and was rewarded by feeling it begin to shift a trifle. If it wasn't his imagination; his hands were numb with cold. "Any luck?" he asked Aviler.
"No." Aviler left off his own efforts and leaned back against the wall. "I think you should accept Grandier's offer."
Thomas kept working on the spike, without answering. He supposed he should be flattered that Aviler had not automatically assumed that he would leap at any way out.
If he did... Grandier would not let him interfere with his plans to start a war. And once that war was started, Thomas would have no choice but to do his best to help win it. Grandier was well aware that Thomas would not be a willing participant, and Grandier had a talent for influencing people, working his way into their thoughts, bringing them unwillingly over to his side. It was how he wrested the needed information out of his victims before he killed them and took their shapes. There was the possibility that after a year or two of helping Grandier, Thomas would find that he no longer wanted to oppose him.
And then there was Denzil.
Movement out in the anteroom jolted Thomas out of his thoughts. Aviler looked up, puzzled, and they both listened. It sounded as if the troopers who were guarding them were gathering their weapons and leaving. After a long moment of silence, there was a faint shuffling sound from outside the door, and a low deep snarl.
Dontane had said he would have to think of something else. Aviler swore softly, looking around hopelessly for something to use as a weapon. Thomas gathered himself to move, watching the lighted doorway.
A fay appeared in the doorway, the torchlight gleaming from its jaundiced yellow skin. It was perhaps five feet tall, human shaped but with clawed hands and long powerful arms dangling almost to its knees. Its mouth had a wide evil grin revealing far too many sharply pointed teeth, its face distorted by round red eyes and a nose that was an ugly ragged hole.
It sprang at Thomas too quick for thought. He threw himself sideways as far as the chains would allow, flinging up an arm to shield his face. He felt the hard grip on his wrist, the claws tear through the leather of his sleeve, a pressure that nearly tore his arm from the socket. Then its hand came in contact with the iron manacle around his wrist and it shrieked and leapt away.
He rolled over and looked back. The fay staggered, keening in rage, its hand dripping burned flesh, the stink of it filling the room. Thomas's shoulder felt dislocated but as he tried to push himself up he realized the chains had far more slack now. The spike holding them to the wall had been pulled half out by the force of the fay's grip.
The creature turned on Aviler, snarling, and he scrambled back against the wall, swinging a loop of his chains at it. Thomas stretched and hooked the brazier with his boot-heel, bringing it closer with a frantic kick and grabbing the handle. He flung the brazier at the fay's back just as it leapt again at Aviler.
The iron struck the fay and it staggered.
Thomas got to his feet and leaned his whole weight on the chain in one solid jerk. With a spray of wood chips and plaster, the spike came out of the wall.
He grabbed the spike just as the fay reached him again. Its claws sank into his shoulder and it hauled him up and almost off his feet before it felt the tip of the iron in its chest. It tried to shove him away, its other hand finding his throat. With instinct greater than sense, he grabbed its arm and fell against it, driving the iron spike through its thick skin. It fell backward, dragging him down. From the blood on his hands he knew he must have given it a killing blow, but it still had the strength to snap his neck.
Then Thomas fell against the wooden floor. The fay had vanished. He tried to sit up, looking around, braced for it to appear somewhere else. Then he saw the heavy gray dust that covered the floor, the spike, his hands, and that even the creature's blood had disappeared. It had vanished, but in death, dissolving into dust.
His buff coat had protected his shoulder, but his neck was covered with shallow scratches from its claws; he was lucky it hadn't managed to tear his throat out. Aviler started to speak and Thomas shook his head hastily. Dontane would not have sent all the guards away, only those not bribed to silence.
After another moment, Thomas managed to stand. He gathered the chains up and quietly moved along the wall to the door and stood beside it, waiting tensely. Without having to be told, Aviler slumped against the wall, trying to look like a corpse. In the dim light, and for a few moments only, it would fool someone; Thomas would not have long to move. Moments crept by, and Thomas thought impatiently, You can't sit out there forever; you have to see what happened. Come on, damn you. There had to be at least one man out there, to make sure that the fay had done its work. The difficulty was that the one last guard didn't have to sit out there forever, only until Dontane returned with reinforcements.
Then Thomas heard a low scuffling in the anteroom, someone cautiously approaching the door. He flattened back against the wall and stopped breathing. The swordpoint came first, and there was a hesitation; the trooper had seen the spilled and battered brazier, and Aviler's apparently lifeless form. He stepped inside, and Thomas slipped the loop of chain around his neck.
The trooper made the mistake of dropping his sword to grab onto the chain. He staggered forward, trying to slam Thomas against the wall. Thomas held on grimly, feeling the strain in his shoulder. The man fell to his knees abruptly, dragging Thomas with him. He felt something give way under the chain and the trooper collapsed. Thomas held on long enough to make sure the man was dead, then glanced back to check the anteroom. It was empty and the fire was guttering in the hearth.
He searched the trooper's corpse thoroughly and savagely, keeping one eye on the door. Besides the rapier, the trooper had a main gauche with a half-shell guard and a small dagger. He would be armed again at least. After more searching he angrily shoved the body away. "It would be the one without the goddamn keys."
"What now?" Aviler asked, grimacing.
Thomas took the trooper's narrow-bladed dagger and began working at the lock of his manacle. It's been a long time since I've done this, he thought. After a long tense wait, the manacle gave and he shook it off and started on the other.
The chains holding Aviler were of slightly different make and took longer to open. After Thomas had worked over the first one for some time unsuccessfully, Aviler said grimly, "It's not working. Get out of here before they come back."
"I," Thomas said through gritted teeth, "do not have time for theatrics."
Aviler stiffened, but didn't voice any more objections.
The manacles came free finally, and Aviler got to his feet in relief.
Thomas slipped the plain leather baldric of the trooper's rapier over his head and handed Aviler the main gauche. They passed through the anteroom quickly, hesitating only to make sure the troopers had left behind no other weapons.
As Thomas stepped out the doorway onto the landing, he knew he had made a mistake. He heard Aviler gasp an incoherent warning and Thomas dove forward, rolling. This didn't help any of his various bruises and when he came to his feet, he staggered. But Aviler was struggling with the trooper who had waited for them beside the door, and as Thomas reached them, Aviler managed to plunge the main gauche up into the other man's rib cage. The soldier collapsed with a choked-off gasp and Thomas and Aviler rolled the body back into the anteroom. Breathing hard, Aviler explained, "He moved just as you went out and I saw him. Was he there all along?"
"No, he could have easily taken me when I was strangling the other one. Probably came looking for him when he didn't come back for the others." Thomas cast a look back to check the landing, which stretched quietly into darkness in either direction, doorways leading off it and the staircase opening directly in front of them.
Aviler stripped off the soldier's baldric and tossed the extra main gauche to Thomas. The High Minister slung the baldric over his shoulder and picked up the trooper's fallen rapier. Something that jingled as it hit the floor fell from the trooper's baldric and Aviler nudged it with a boot. "This was the one with the keys," he said, with an ironic lift of an eyebrow.
Thomas snorted. "My luck."
They stepped out onto the landing. Hesitating a moment to get his bearings, Thomas saw the bob of lamplight on the stair below. "This way," he said, and led Aviler down to another doorway. It opened onto a progression of rooms that, if Thomas was where he thought he was, would eventually give onto another staircase. The rooms were as dark as the pit, but they had been meant to be viewed as a set, so the doors were all in the same position on the left-hand side of the hearths and were unblocked by furniture, making it relatively easy to cross them even in almost complete darkness. They had made it through the third room when they heard a shout of alarm and running footsteps from the landing.
They stopped to listen, but no one came in their direction. Aviler whispered, "I don't suppose they're going to think that thing ate both of us, killed the two guards, then wandered off."
Thomas smiled grimly. "They could try to tell Denzil that, but I don't think it would be very well received."
They came to the last room, and through its open door, Thomas could see the landing of the other stairwell, lit wanly by one candle in the silver and rock-crystal chandelier hanging above it. Across the threshold was the body of a young woman, the gray and brown of her skirts marking her as a servant. Thomas stepped over her without bothering to pause. He was growing used to seeing dead women and had stopped looking for familiar faces; since it was likely he would be killed at any moment himself, it hardly seemed to matter. After a moment he heard Aviler follow him.
Just as they came out onto the landing, the muffled explosion of a pistol shot destroyed the silence. They both instinctively dove for the stairs. They reached the landing below and cut through another dark suite back the way they had come. The first room was unlit and crowded with dark shapes of furniture. Soldiers were pounding down the stair behind them and Thomas could not find the doorway. He stumbled on a low table, then turned and put his back against the wall. The men coming after them would have oil lamps, and the light would be momentarily blinding. Then there was a muffled thump and Aviler gasped in pain, then said harshly, "Over here, a door."
Thomas made his way toward Aviler's voice and found the edge of a narrow door. Aviler whispered, "It's a servants' stair." He climbed down a few steps, and Thomas stepped inside, closing the door after them.
In the unfamiliar room, it was doubtful the Alsene troopers would find the stair, which had a door meant to blend into the paneling, but Thomas didn't breathe easily until he heard them clatter through the room, cursing and knocking things over, then retreat. After some moments of silence he said lightly, "I won't comment on your clumsiness since it saved our lives."
"Someone else wasn't so lucky," Aviler replied out of the dark. "There's a body down here."
Yes, there would be fay roaming here. This is not going to get any easier, Thomas thought, straightening up and feeling for the wall to guide him down.
"He didn't come down here without a lamp," Aviler was muttering. Before Thomas could point out that he might very well have, Aviler said, "Yes, here it is."
After more fumbling, Aviler found the man's tinderbox and managed to light the lamp. "Good God," he said softly, standing up and looking down in disgust at the corpse the wan light revealed. "What could have done that to his head... No, don't speculate; I'd rather be surprised."
They heard footsteps in the rooms overhead and voices from below, and moved a few steps down the narrow stairs. But the door with its heavy covering of carved paneling and flocked paper cut much of the noise from outside.
Aviler looked around, lifting the lamp high. The original stone of the wall was to one side, radiating cold like a block of ice, and the wooden bones of the lath and plaster facing to the other. The air was stuffy and thick with dust. This was technically a servants' passage, though it had probably been installed more with an eye to moving about quickly and unobtrusively in the event of a palace coup. The years before the reign of Ravenna's father had not been calm or untroubled.
"We're on the west side of the Old Palace," Aviler said quietly. "We could get out through the siege wall into the Old Courts..."
Thomas sheathed the rapier and drew the shorter main gauche, which would be more effective in these close surroundings. "If we can get there. The King's Bastion is probably still sealed off from the other side. Most of the troops are quartered right below us." He took a soft step down the narrow stairs, careful of the creaking boards that would betray their presence.
The bogle dropped from above. It landed on Aviler, knocking him forward. He dropped the candlelamp and the flame guttered wildly, threatening to leave them in darkness. Aviler stumbled into Thomas, who caught himself against the wall. He turned, getting a grip on the thing's greasy skin below its neck and dragging it off the other man. It turned on him more swiftly than a cat, claws flailing, and he stabbed it with the main gauche. It dropped and he saw that Aviler had gotten it from behind with their late guard's dagger. It struggled wildly on the steps, its claws scrabbling on the wood, a random swipe of one long arm sending Thomas staggering back into the wall. Then it froze into immobility.
They stared at one another, breathing hard, then Aviler wiped the blood from the scratches on his forehead. He said softly, "That was rather a noisy episode. Do you think anyone heard?"
After listening for a moment, Thomas shook his head. "No, they'd be hacking through the wall by now." He leaned back against the stone, considering their options. They would have to make for one of the rooms along the outside wall. And they could go no lower than this floor: the levels below had no windows. And what was Kade doing now? That she was planning something he had no doubt. Fortunately Grandier would have as little chance to guess what it was as he had. Kade made her strategy on the run, which was poor planning in a chess game, but in real life tended to make opponents waste time bumbling around wondering what in hell she was thinking. The only problem was her inclination to the dramatic. Would Grandier consider that?
He looked up to find Aviler watching him narrowly. At his look of inquiry Aviler said, "You haven't yet pointed out that I was wrong about Denzil and you were right."
Thomas said dryly, "I thought the consequences so obvious that calling further attention to it was unnecessary."
Aviler snorted and shook his head. "Even though you've saved my life, I can't seem to bring myself to like you."
"That's probably just as well." Thomas was thinking of ways to rooms with outside windows, and that the nearest could only be reached by using this wall passage to travel directly through the part of the palace Denzil had made his stronghold. And why not? They won't be searching for us there. And there's less chance of running into more fay. There was also another possibility in that direction to be explored. "Did you know about the spyhole near the third-floor council chambers?"
Aviler's eyes widened. "No, I did not."
"Denzil doesn't either. When Dontane took me to those chambers, they had their maps laid out, so it must be where they plan their troop movements at the very least."
He could tell the notion appealed to Aviler. "You think it would be worth it, for what we might hear?"
"Perhaps not, but it is on our way."
There were voices coming from the direction of the faint glow of light. "Why you?"
It's my plan, Thomas started to say. Instead, he put a properly sardonic note in his voice and said, "Another noble impulse? You're the only one who has a chance of convincing Roland of any of this; don't you consider that a little more important than your pride?"
They were crouching in the narrow darkened wall passage, beside a gap in the baseboard just large enough for an agile spy. But someone had been through this servants' passage at some point strewing the floor with iron filings, so they couldn't afford to waste time here. The hole in the baseboard had an extra helping of iron sprinkled around it, but there was no sign that its real purpose had been discovered.
Aviler glared, and gestured reluctantly. "All right, damn you." As Thomas bent to scramble under the lintel, Aviler added, "Eventually that little tactic is going to fail, then what will you do?"
Thomas grinned to himself. "Hit you over the head."
From inside the cramped spyhole, he could see the gap carefully cut into the planks below the wall, leading into a narrow crawl space below the first council room. They were there, right enough. He recognized Dontane's voice, but it was impossible to distinguish individual words. He would have to try to get over to the next room.
The crawl space was perhaps two feet high, the bottom made of planks supported by the thick wooden rafters of the room below, lit by soft candlelight finding its way through the cracks in the floorboards above. On the far side, where the wall of the second council room had been erected, another hole had been torn in the baseboards, allowing access to the crawl space below the next room. That was where the voices were coming from. Well, it would be, Thomas thought. He sat back, pulling off and laying aside the baldric and rapier, which would be far more trouble than it was worth in the narrow space. He hesitated over the main gauche, which would be equally unhandy at his back where it could catch on things or in the front of his sash poking him determinedly in the stomach. He settled for wedging it down into his boot, though he knew if he encountered anything more hostile than a rat, he was a dead man.
He worked his way slowly across the crawl space, trying to keep from choking on the dust, gasping in pain when his bruised ribs encountered the sharp corners of a rafter.
About halfway across, something sharp bit through the leather of his glove and he jerked his hand back. It was only a nail loose on the planks. Then he took a closer look and saw the boards of the crawl space were sprinkled with them. They must have fallen down through the cracks from above. Denzil did not trust his fay allies at all.
Thomas edged closer to the gap. The voices were distinctly louder here. And louder. Damn them, he thought; they're coming in here. There was no time to move as a door squeaked open nearly overhead. He froze as heavy footsteps sounded on the floorboards of the room above and Denzil's voice said, "God, you're such a fool."
"I didn't have to tell you," Dontane replied, his tone surly.
You prick, you've been so splendidly stupid, why did you have to ruin it by thinking? Thomas had counted on Dontane being fool enough to try to hide their escape from Denzil as well as from Grandier.
"You did if you wanted to live. You idiot, I would have gotten rid of him in time." Footsteps paced overhead, a long winter cloak brushed the floor. Thomas winced as Denzil came to stand by a dark area that must be a cabinet or other large piece of furniture, the Duke's boots almost directly over his hiding place. He was cramped and his shoulders were aching, but he dared not shift his position.
"They can't escape," Dontane protested.
"Of course they can. Boniface knows the palace very well; he's been spying on everyone in it for years."
"I'm not a fool, damn you, I was--"
"It doesn't matter, not at this point." There was a hesitation, then Denzil asked softly, "What position do you want when I take the throne? Court Sorcerer?"
Ah. I should have known Denzil would contrive to sell everyone to everyone else, Thomas thought. He's lured Dontane away from Grandier, that was why our mercenary friend was so afraid.
"Will the nobles accept me?" Dontane spoke slowly, diverted by visions of the future.
"They will if I order it."
They might at that. Anything to keep Denzil away from home and family.
The door opened again, and a young man's voice, shy with hero worship said, "My lord, there's a message."
"Thank you." Denzil's voice warmed, probably out of habit. He would keep no one close to him who was not his absolute slave. How it must gall him that Grandier remained his own man. Dontane had probably been an easy conquest.
Paper crackled, then with a smile in his voice, Denzil said, "Villon has reached Bel Garde."
Thomas caught his breath.
"No." Dontane sounded horror-stricken. "The cavalry--"
"The siege engine cavalry," Denzil corrected gently.
"How could he get here so quickly?"
"If the messages went to the Granges yesterday, if Villon left his Train of Ordnance behind and traveled through the night, it could be done easily."
"Without Grandier's help I couldn't possibly hold him off."
"Yes, if Evadne hadn't failed I'd have Roland by now." Denzil was silent for a moment, possibly calculating the time as Thomas was. It would have been impossible to conceal the cavalry's movement up the plain to Bel Garde; they would have been spotted easily from the city wall. But it would have taken time to send the message through the dangerous snow-choked streets. And Villon was a cautious general, preferring maneuver and siegecraft to pitched battle. He had taken Bel Garde as a base from which to stage his attack.
Denzil said, "It's unfortunate. If I can't keep Bisra from attacking us in what they will perceive as our weakness, Lord General Villon would be useful. But he won't deal with me. I hope he has more amenable officers. You'll have to send the Host against him."
"Grandier won't allow it. He's counting on Villon to help lead the attack against Bisra."
"And counting on me to convince Villon to support my claim to the throne. But I can't... I won't do that. He is an old friend of Ravenna's, you see."
Denzil was not going to allow a war with Bisra. He wouldn't want a kingdom locked in struggle, war torn and poor. And he really didn't need a war to put him on the throne; he only needed the threat of it. He's going to hold Bisra off somehow. If he can. If he gets past Grandier, Thomas thought.
"I want you to speak to your friends in the Host and persuade them to attack Villon tonight," Denzil said.
"I'll go now, but--"
"Don't go now; wait until dusk. I don't want Grandier to learn of it. We can scarcely ask him to arrange the cloud cover for us, so they will have to wait until dark anyway." Footsteps crossed the floor to pause near Dontane. "Take care. Everything depends on you."
Does it? Thomas thought. Does it really?
He heard them move toward the door. As soon as it closed he rolled away from his painful position over the rafter and began to work his way back toward the hole in the baseboard, half-formed plans turning in his head. He had almost reached it when there was the thump of a chair pushed aside, hurried steps crossed the floor, and the door banged open.
Thomas swore and scrambled through the opening into the spyhole. Dontane and Denzil had departed, but he had never heard the messenger boy leave. He grabbed up his sword and baldric and ducked under the lintel back into the passage.
"Well?" Aviler demanded.
"Move. Someone heard me."
They made their way through the twists and turns of the passage and up a narrow flight of rickety stairs. "Villon's reached Bel Garde," Thomas said.
"Thank God. The court got through."
"It's not over yet. Denzil's sending the Host against him tonight--despite Grandier's orders to the contrary. Villon will have to be warned."
They came to a door with a thin line of chill daylight leaking under it. Thomas listened at it, then carefully prized it open. The room outside was a long formal dining room lit by slanting gray morning sunlight from tall windows opening onto a portico. It was undisturbed except for a little snow that had blown in through a window left carelessly open; the scene had the strange still quality of a painting.
Thomas crossed the room and opened the window further, stepping out onto the portico. The tiled floor was heavily laden with ice, and he held carefully to the light railing and looked out on a view of the garden courts and the siege wall, the bastion rising up beyond. To the north was the open land of the park, and cut off from sight by the side of the Gallery Wing would be the Postern Gate. The ground was two stories down from the bottom of the portico. He stepped back through the window to lift a heavy velvet drapery cord. "Think you could make it?"
Aviler nodded. "Of course."
They started to tear down the drapes, pulling loose the cords and discarding the ones that had gotten wet from the open window and had stiffened with ice.
Aviler tied off a section and tested it, then said, "We can secure it to the table. It's heavy enough to support a dozen men, so--"
"It won't have to. Just you. I'm staying here."
Aviler frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
Thomas tied off two cords and reached for another. "There's barely enough time for you to make it across the city to Bel Garde by nightfall on a good day. I'm going to try to stop them here."
Aviler looked incredulous. "How?"
"I don't know," Thomas snapped. He didn't want to give Aviler the chance to talk him out of this. He controlled himself with effort and said more calmly, "Apparently Dontane's the only one who can talk to the Host besides Grandier. If I can stop him--"
"That would help immeasurably, of course, but Villon is hardly going to be unprepared for an attack by night. That he's here now means he knows what's happened. He will realize the danger."
"And with Ravenna dead you're the only one who knows for certain that Denzil is a danger. Even if the attack on Villon fails, all Denzil has to do is ride up to Bel Garde tomorrow and ask to speak to Roland alone."
Aviler hesitated. Thomas could see him turning over that image and not liking what he saw. But Aviler shook his head. "Outright assassination would hardly serve his purpose--"
"It wouldn't have to be that. But it's hardly politic to allow the man who's near destroyed a city so he can usurp the throne unlimited access to the King."
"All right, all right." Aviler shook his head impatiently. "I'll go on. But I think you're only going to succeed in killing yourself."
"Probably," Thomas admitted.
They finished the makeshift rope and tied it off, and Thomas told Aviler the way over the canal and through the Postern Gate that he and Kade had used.
They secured the rope to the table, and with Thomas to hold it steady, Aviler started to climb. The High Minister disappeared over the portico with no more than a whispered "good luck" and Thomas was grateful, loath to countenance any attempt at sentimentality at this point. When Aviler had reached the snowy ground and vanished into the shelter of the garden walls and frozen hedges below, Thomas pulled the makeshift rope up and bundled it into the bottom cabinet of one of the sideboards. With luck the tangled draperies would look like an aborted attempt at looting. He closed the window and slipped quietly out of the room.
ROLAND COULD NOT stop shivering. He sat near the fire in a windowless interior chamber at Bel Garde. A salon meant for entertaining, its walls were softened by cloth-of-gold draperies and the overmantel and borders delicately painted with black grotesques on gilt backgrounds. Fretfully looking around the room, Roland's eyes lit on a silver and gold filigreed perfume burner he had given Denzil some months ago, and it occurred to Roland just how isolated he had become from the others in his court. He had no other close confidant or advisor but Denzil; most of those who had surrounded him were his cousin's companions, not his, and he had no wish to see any of them.
Lord General Villon had arrived with his men not long ago, and the walls of the little fortress had almost trembled from the cheers of the other guards. After Ravenna's death their situation had seemed hopeless, and now for the first time there was a chance for revenge and victory. Roland had been just as glad as the others to see them, but he was nervous of Villon, knowing the General's opinion of him was not a high one. And having to greet the old warrior with news of the Dowager Queen's death...
Behind Roland, in the center of the room, Villon and his officers, their cloaks still steaming from melting snow, met with Renier and the Queen's Guard lieutenant who had brought Falaise. They were talking intently, pointing to the maps laid out on the round table, making some plan. Roland had no wish to join in their council. They all thought him a coward, or a fool, and perhaps they were right.
A new voice made Roland look up, and he saw that Elaine had been brought in again. The hem of her skirt was torn and dirty, and her face was a pale oval in the candlelight. Her only companion was an Albon knight standing at her elbow as if she were a prisoner, and Roland wondered if she had been left to sit in some cold anteroom, without even a maid to accompany her. Such treatment suddenly reminded him of one of Fulstan's more subtle tricks, when Roland had been left alone in a bare room to contemplate his fate for hours, only to discover later that the King had left the palace and that there would be no punishment after all.
"Hasn't anyone even sent for a lady to care for her?" Roland interrupted. All heads turned toward him, and he wished they would stop looking at him as if he were mad, or had just grown an extra limb. "God, just let her alone. Your damned questions are worthless."
"At once, m'lord," someone said. Roland found himself meeting General Villon's expressionless gaze and quickly looked away. Elaine still stood shivering in the center of the room and he motioned her to come over by the fire. She came obediently, taking a low cushioned stool near his chair, moving stiffly as if the cold and shock had solidified her muscles. Roland felt more at ease in her presence. Here, at least, was someone who knew he could not have disobeyed his mother's order, who did not think him a coward. If he had stayed in the tower he would be dead as well, or Bel Garde overrun by fay and they would all be prisoners. But he wondered if he would have had the courage to order his own son or daughter to safety while he met death. I will never know, because we'll all die here and I will never live to have a son or daughter...
There was more quiet talk, but the council seemed to be over. Roland stared into the fire, trying not to see images it hurt to think about. Since hearing Falaise's tale, he had sunk deeper into grief and pain, and he felt powerless to help himself. He heard Renier move up behind his chair, and he said the words he had been living on since that moment in the tower. "He will explain himself. There will be some reason."
"Yes, my lord," a soft voice answered. "But if he meant to betray you, wouldn't he also have a reason, a clever lie?"
Roland looked down at Elaine, startled, and heard Renier gasp. He glanced up and saw that his Preceptor looked as shocked as if a pet cat had spoken. But Roland knew that his mother would not have had women close to her who were fools; they had been at the focal point of the court with her.
Renier stepped forward to take Elaine's arm and Roland motioned him away, irritated at the interruption. He wanted to talk, and the young woman's eyes were red and bruised from crying and the expression in them anything but cruel. "If he loved me how could he betray me?" he asked, hearing the tears in his own voice.
"If he loved you, he couldn't," she whispered.
Roland hesitated. If his mother had asked it of her, this woman would have flung herself off the roof of the highest tower in the city. She would believe whatever Ravenna had told her to believe. But Ravenna was not here to tell her what to say now. If Elaine was repeating his mother's views, it was only because she believed in them herself.
"You were close as boys," Elaine persisted. "I remember it. But didn't he change?"
Didn't he? Roland asked himself. Had the teasing turned to mockery? I know he has a cruel streak. God, he could hardly hide it. "That was because..." Roland began, and thought, because after I tried to die, he knew how much I needed him, and he thought me pathetic, and it made him feel powerful. He felt anger stir in him, old tired anger. "Yes, he changed."
They sat in silence for a time, until a matron who had been one of Ravenna's gentlewomen came for Elaine. She let the older woman lead her away, but reluctantly, with a worried glance back at Roland.
The frigid wind tore at Kade's hair, blowing it into her face, and she shook it away irritatedly. "You'll be ready?"
The gold and amber fay leaned on his pikestaff and looked down at her with a smile. "If you can flush the birds, my lady, we can chase them."
It was late afternoon, the sky a low solid gray like the polished surface of an ancient shield, the housetops around them still sheathed in ice and snow. Kade had left Boliver at Knockma, to help the others pack what was necessary and to take them through the ring to Chariot, another of her mother's enchanted castles. She hadn't been to it for years, so it would not occur to the Host to search for her there. She had little memory of what it was like, except that it was big and old, and hidden rather prosaically in the hills of Monbeaudreux, a province in the south. It was protected from the Bisran border by steadily rising mountains that were too high and rugged to cross except on foot. The summer and spring lasted longer there, and they grew olive trees. At the moment it sounded like heaven.
The fay from the Seelie Court, with his white blond hair, delicate features, and the embroidered satin of his doublet and cloak, was unreal in this world of gray and white. "Chase them far," Kade told him. "I don't want them turning back on us. I've paid enough for it."
"To the ends of the earth, and that will be a pleasure." The fay swept a bow to her, and suddenly a golden hawk glittered in the air beside her, and with a powerful sweep of its wings, it shot toward the sky.
Kade watched him until he disappeared into the clouds. She couldn't afford mistakes, and she wasn't at all sure of herself. She had been lax over the last few years, using what she could of the swift instinctive fay magic, depending on glamour and illusion. Swift, and in the end ineffective against the sorcery that was practiced so painstakingly, using as poor a tool as letters from a dead language's alphabet to symbolize concepts that passed understanding. With fay magic it was impossible to attempt something beyond one's skill; with sorcery it was all too possible, and all too deadly.
Kade hugged herself and shivered. She hadn't given sorcery the long hours of study it needed. Her efforts seemed so ungainly compared to the elegant and involved work of sorcerers like Galen Dubell and Dr. Surete. Both of whom are dead now, she thought, savagely, and at least I'm alive. But it all came home to rest in the end, and she had taken the easy way out far too often.
Kade knew she should have returned to make up with Roland at once after their father had died. She would not have had to stay long, and it might have made the difference in so many things. If she went to him now to tell him about Denzil, he would never believe her.
The glass ball Titania had traded her was in a deep pocket of her smock, and when it brushed against her she could feel the warmth radiating out of it even through all her layers of clothing. God, I hope it's contained, she thought. I hope it's not sapping my strength or power, or leaking something into the ether that's going to interfere with the spell. She was not at all sure that what she was attempting would work. She had bought the Seelie Court's help with Knockma, and they would hound the Host from the city, but she would have to stir the creatures out of the palace herself.
Kade heard something at the edge of the roof, then saw a small fay with ugly wizened features and cornflower blue hair peering at her over the edge. Its narrow eyes widened at her, and she snarled, "Bugger off." It vanished, and she stretched, easing the tension in her tight shoulders. She was a little shocked to realize it was not the cold that was making her tremble. It's going to work, she told herself. It's not going to work, a little voice answered. I'm going to die.
She took out a pinch of the gascoign powder and rubbed it into her eyes. Looking toward the palace's towers, she could now see the corona of shifting light that played over them, colors touching and fading into one another. There should still be gaps between the wards high in the air above the palace; there hadn't been time for them to draw all the way together, and the higher they were in the air, the slower they would move. Here I go, she thought, and flung herself into the sky.
Kade had wings, and for a moment only, an unfamiliar instinct told her to use them. Colors changed; blurred outlines in the distance became sharp and clear. Her vision was incredible. Shadows had edges like razors, and her eyes found movement--the flutter of a curtain's edge through a broken window, the slight rustle of a frost-covered tree's branches in a garden court--that she would never detect with human sight.
Kade realized she was gliding in a circle over the High Minister's house, then she realized she was flying. For a moment human thought and hawk instinct clashed, and her wings flapped frantically. She dropped like a stone. Kade forced herself to let go, to let the unfamiliar senses guide her, and her wings made the correct angle and she caught the wind again.
She thought she had the trick of it now. One had to exercise enough control to keep one's memory and purpose, but had to give the hawk enough rein to control the body. She made a slow circle to face toward the palace, watching the ground rush by below in impossibly fine detail and trying not to think about what her wings were doing.
Kade had not taken this form lightly. She knew that hawks, who could dive from hundreds of feet in the air and pluck a mouse off a forest floor, would have good eyesight and that with the gascoign powder she would have a chance of finding the gap in the wards. The smaller body would make slipping through easier as well. Also, if she failed, this wasn't a bad way to spend one's last hour. But she had chosen better than she could have guessed. She could see the wards as fine shadings of gray mist moving almost imperceptibly above the walls.
And just a moment ago I thought gray a dull color, she thought, amazed. Who had known that one bland color would have so many distinctions?
A few powerful strokes of her wings took her higher and she flew toward the palace, astonished again at the power and strength of such a small body. She had risen above the wards and almost overshot the palace before she caught herself and turned back. It was no wonder human sorcerers lost themselves when they changed shape. If her sense of urgency hadn't been so strong, it would have been easy to play on these wind currents until she forgot who she was. Is that what happened to all the human sorcerers who tried the shape-changing experiment? Did they keep saying, "I'll just stay out a little longer," until all the words faded from their minds? If only she could afford that kind of self-indulgence.
Kade found the gap close to the high point where the edges of the wards met above the palace. It was an irregularly shaped hole, a bare four feet wide at its largest... And closing fast. Hawk instinct seized her and pushed on by her fear she dove for the gap. She had forgotten how fast she could move if she tried, and found herself safely through and frantically cupping her wings to slow herself as the sloped roof of the Queen's Tower rushed upward at her.
Elated, Kade controlled her dive and slipped sideways, catching the wind current around the tower and letting it steer her toward the North Bastion. She hadn't felt a thing when she had rushed past the wards, and now she knew she was going to beat that Bisran bastard at his own game.
Kade made one slow circle above the King's Bastion for curiosity's sake. Along the top level, she could see the staining on the stones above the windows where smoke had poured out from the sporadic fires there the night of the attack. Then a play of light over the dark tiles of the multipitched roof caught her attention. It looked almost like a ward.
Yes, it is a ward. She didn't think it was a new one of Grandier's design; it lay on the roof like a discarded scarf. Kade circled again, losing altitude in her effort to see it more clearly. It could be Ableon-Indis, the ward she had called to route the Host in the Old Hall. Her spell might have pulled it out of the etheric structure entirely, and that was why it was still here instead of with the other wards above. It might not have been affected by Grandier's conversion of the other wards at all.
Kade saw the black shape out of the corner of her eye, and her hawk's body twisted away, reacting before her human mind had grasped the danger.
It was a black spraggat, its leathery wings stretched above her, claws raking. She dove again, slipping in and out of the currents, but it followed her, its stronger wings overpowering the wind and forcing itself closer to her.
Kade slipped sideways and it overshot with a scream of rage. She flapped her wings frantically, trying to gain height and take advantage of its mistake, then she heard its screaming turn from anger to pain. She risked a look and saw it was rolling and scrabbling across the roof of the King's Bastion, its leathery wings smoking and bursts of flame appearing over its dark body. It had fallen into Ableon-Indis. I'm right, she thought with great satisfaction. But it's much weaker than it was without its keystone, or it would have burnt that thing up at once. She had one ward on her side, and she would have to think carefully about the best way to use it.
She turned, making for the North Bastion. Then claws raked her back, and the force of the blow sent her tumbling, her wings frantically beating the air. The second black spraggat dove toward her again and struck at her. She wheeled and turned desperately to escape. The wall of the North Bastion seemed to spin, all the while rushing closer and closer.
The instincts Kade had fought off earlier took over in force, letting her right herself and fight her way toward the flat mountain looming in front of her. Her claws grasped stone, and there was a rush of air behind her as the spraggat stooped for the kill. She felt herself fumbling, trying to remember what she had to do now, her thoughts overwhelmed by the hawk's fear and its terrible desire to turn and throw itself at the spraggat in a hopeless attack. With the last bit of herself, she stretched out with her mind and touched the spark of light within her feathers that in another existence was a fayre queen's glass ball. She shattered it.
Then her fingers were digging into the chinks in the stone face, her boots slipping on the ledge. The spraggat screamed its confusion, suddenly confronted with a human larger than itself and the bright painful backwash of a powerful spell. It swung away in fright, and half sobbing with exhaustion, Kade clung to the stone and kicked at the catch of the window. Once, twice, then it sprang open and she fell through.
She lay on the wooden floor of a cold empty room, gasping, then reached into her pocket. Titania's glass ball was in shards, still faintly warm with the force of the contained spell. Well, I'm not doing that again soon, she thought, sitting up awkwardly. The fay's claws had torn through her coat, leaving two long tears in her back that sluggishly leaked blood. Her shirt and smock hadn't been torn, only snagged aside, and distractedly she searched her pockets for a pin to pull the fabric of the coat back together. Then Kade saw where she was: the walls covered with gilt-trimmed bookshelves, the large windows, the beautifully carved partners desk still piled with paper, more books, and an upset inkwell.
In her confusion Kade had all but forgotten which room she was making for. She had meant to approach cautiously and make sure the rooms were empty first. She climbed to her feet, inwardly cursing herself and listening hard for any sign of occupation. Stupid, stupid, have you ruined it all now? Is he still using these rooms? Did you go through all that just to be caught?
She steadied herself against the wall because her legs were still trembling, and crept to the door. But the next room, a small parlor with furniture buried under more books, was cold and unoccupied as well. She ventured through the rest of the suite, feeling her heartbeat begin to steady. She could hear nothing but the wind against the windows, and the rooms were cold, the candles and hearths unlit. Grandier had not come back here, then.
Kade returned to the study and started her frantic search. The simplest hiding places were the best. It seemed like a year ago, but the morning that she had stood on the windows and spoken to him, he had been planning to let the Host in that very night. It wasn't Galen who betrayed you, she reminded herself. It was Urbain Grandier the murderer.
She went to the desk and opened all the drawers and looked through the first layer of papers. They were covered with crabbed half-completed calculations, none of which she could follow for more than a few steps. The books on the desk were Theater of Terrestrial Alchemy and The Black Keys; nothing illuminating there.
She moved around the room, scanning the shelves, shifting books, looking under chair cushions, then turned to the leatherbound chest on the floor. It had books stacked atop it but not much dust compared with the rest of the room, and she remembered that he had just finished putting something in it when she had come to the window the first time.
Kade kneeled beside the chest and lifted the books from the top. It wasn't even locked. She opened it and was disappointed by the sight of perfectly ordinary folded linens and fustian blankets.
Then she moved the top layer aside. It lay on a bed of cloth, a stone from the bottom of some streambed, rounded and smoothed by water, small enough to fit comfortably in her two cupped hands. The keystone was inert and silent now.
She picked it up, marveling at the symbols, letters, and equations incised into its surface. They started out blocky and large enough to read, then shrank as they wound around the stone, some obviously formed by different hands, becoming so tiny they might have been carved with a jeweler's knife, ultimately shrinking until they disappeared from sight. Kade blinked and shook her head, dizzied. She could follow the sense of it for no more than a few turns of the stone, if that.
Well, Kade thought, rolling it from one hand to the other. So I've got it. Now find Thomas, and take this down to its place in the cellar.
She bundled the keystone up in the bag she had brought in a pocket and tied it securely around her waist, then started out of the suite.
Kade listened at the heavy wooden door a moment, hearing no betraying sounds, then opened it cautiously. The next room was dark, but she had expected that. There was the smell of must and dampness and, far away and barely detectable in the frozen air, of death.
Kade hesitated, one hand on the doorframe. The hackles on the back of her neck lifted.
If the black spraggat outside had been a guard, there would be a guard inside, as well.
She crossed the anteroom in three light-footed leaps and reached the opposite door. Let whatever it was come for her then; she had found the keystone. She could do anything.
Stretching before her was a suite of rooms, filled with silent shapes, distorted by shadows.
Kade slipped through the first room, sweat freezing on her back, the heavy lump of the keystone bumping her familiarly in the leg. In the second room she stopped. The cold had changed consistency. She felt it moving over her like a mist, clinging to her face and hair, her clothes.
There is something here. She touched the wall to keep her orientation, straining her eyes in the darkness and slipping the bronze knife out of the scabbard at her belt. Then something moved. She couldn't tell if she was seeing it with her eyes or inside her head.
Kade eased back against the wall, her heart pounding. Whatever it was would attack her in a moment. She didn't want to give it an advantage by bolting out of the room screaming.
The whisper almost made her jump out of her skin. It came from across the room, and she tightened her grip on her knife. The voice was low and harsh, and she couldn't make out the words.
Kade hesitated, aware of precious time passing. Sweat was freezing on her forehead and she didn't know whether to be afraid or angry, to try to push her way past the thing or retreat. Maybe that was its purpose, to keep her here while something else--
The voice was getting louder, and though she still couldn't make out the words. It trembled on the edge of her memory, recognition barely a breath away.
Then she remembered that The Black Keys contained spells for necromancy.
Her father's voice said, "Little bastard, why did your bitch of a mother bother to drop you? She didn't have to leave you to devil me."
Kade didn't remember running; she wasn't aware of anything until she was slamming the door of Grandier's study behind her and leaning against it, shuddering. Her knees hurt and one of her gloves was ripped, and the burn in her palm had torn open. She must have gone over or through a piece of furniture, though she didn't remember it.
Kade went to the desk, picked up the book on necromancy, and slung it through the window. It hit the open casement and smashed the glass, then tumbled out of sight. It was the first time in her life she had ever mishandled a book.
She paced the room because the liquid fire of fear and anger was in her veins and it hurt to stand still. She smashed an astrolabe and turned over the globe, and dug her fingernails into the open wound on her hand until she stopped sobbing. Then she asked all the old pagan spirits to visit their curses on Grandier, and the Church God to strike him down.
Kade stopped in the middle of the room finally, pressed her hands together, and thought. It was a test, a trick, a challenge. Grandier meant her to fail. Had he set the ghost here outside these rooms, or had it wandered the palace, to be drawn to her presence if she won a way inside?
The latter made more sense. But then... But then it could come in here. Kade was at the window in a moment.
She climbed out onto the sill, then stepped to the broad ledge. The black spraggat was no longer in sight though it might come back at any moment. She was in a poor position to defend herself.
The frigid wind tore at her, tearing the air out of her lungs. Kade edged her way along, fingers clinging tightly to the chinks in the stone. She hadn't pinned her coat together again and the cold air poured down her back. She would have to cross the siege wall to get to the Old Palace anyway. Can I do it from the outside? Another laborious ten feet and Kade saw that she couldn't, not without falling to her death. She would have to enter the North Bastion to reach the walkway along the top of the wall.
Finally Kade could stand the cold no more. She reached a set of windows she could push open, then almost fell through them onto the floor of a small bedchamber. Sitting up on the rug that was stiff with frost, she realized she had not even bothered to glance in first to see if the room was unoccupied. She could have landed headfirst among a whole tribe of spriggans, or a troop of Alsene soldiers.
She buried her head in her hands. He has you on the run. You're playing into his hands again.
Kade pushed to her feet and went through the doorway to the next room. It was a beautifully arranged parlor, the wallpaper and upholstery of rose and gold. She didn't know who this suite had belonged to or where she was, except that she was near the corner and would have to find the stairs that let out onto the siege wall. The light from the window in the bedchamber made no inroads on the shadows in the corners. The next room would be dark as pitch.
Kade dug in her pockets and finally came up with a tinder-box. She would light one of the candles in here and take it with her. She would have to do that anyway if she didn't want to be running into walls and stepping on bogles. Coward, she thought as she fumbled with the flint. Bloody coward.
It refused to catch, and she pried the candle out of the lamp, sat down on the floor with it, and tried to light it with a spell. Her heart was pounding too fast, distracting her, but finally the wick began to glow gently with spell light. It was beginning to yellow to real flame when it went out, as if invisible fingers had snuffed it. "What?" she said aloud, and looked up.
It was there, in the darkest corner, looking at her. She could feel its gaze with the inner eye of her own sorcery. Her skin turned to ice and sweat dropped into her eyes. Then it whispered, "I could have you killed tomorrow and no one would notice. Perhaps I will--"
Kade was through the bedchamber, slamming the door behind her, and poised on the windowsill like a bird about to take flight before her wits caught up to her. She made herself stop, grinding her injured hand against the frozen metal of the casement, forcing herself to think. She could climb out and enter through another window, go around it. But it had taken so little time to find her. It would just follow her again. How could she find Thomas with the damn thing following her and freezing her blood--
Had it gone after Thomas too? He had helped Ravenna kill Fulstan. But Thomas had never been particularly impressed with Fulstan when the old king was alive; Kade thought it unlikely that he would be concerned about him now that Fulstan was dead.
It was coming after her because it could make her afraid.
Kade hesitated, considering the idea. Fulstan had been nothing in life and was even less in death. Thomas and Ravenna had disposed of him with less regret than a peasant would feel when putting down a mad dog. Kade nodded to herself.
That was the key to it.
She had not let the old bastard stop her from living her life. She was not going to let him stop her from finding Thomas.
Kade pushed away from the windowsill and crossed the cold room to the door. Her legs were trembling; her hand on the doorknob trembled. That was all right. She could shake, cry, scream, as long as she didn't break and run. There was no one who mattered here to see her.
Outside the door she could hear the muttering of the voice. She opened it and stood on the threshold.
Light from the room behind her fell only a short distance, then seemed to hit a wall of blackness and stop. The voice rose, ranting at her, words of darkness forming all the old terrible nightmares she remembered. "Little lying bitch, my punishment from God for my sins."
Anything to stop that. She said, "You're nothing."
It had no effect. The voice rose in volume. "Do you think your pathetic little brother could help you? He'd kill you himself if I ordered it--"
Roland do something you ordered? Kade found herself thinking. "Who's the liar now?" she said. "He hates you more than I do." And suddenly the words were just words. They hurt, but not with the sting of truth. They were the same words Fulstan had always flung at her, but she was not a child now. Perhaps she had not needed to return to the city of her birth to face her brother. Perhaps she had needed to return to face this. Her voice gaining strength, she shouted, "You're nothing! Galen Dubell was more a father to me than you ever were. Thomas is more a husband to Ravenna than you ever were." The voice went on, louder, and Kade's voice rose to a shriek, drowning it out, all thought of concealment forgotten. "You were nothing to her, you're nothing to me! She killed you because you got in her way and she wouldn't put up with your stupidity anymore. Roland's King now and he curses your memory whether he admits it or not. You're nothing and you always were!"
On the last word she stalked forward--not running, not blundering in the dark--until she barked her shin on a chair. Cursing the pain, she fell against the other door, opened it, and stumbled through into the next room.
It had an open door leading into the stairwell, and wan yellow candlelight came down through it from somewhere above. The silence was complete.
She looked back and could see the gray daylight from windows of the bedchamber through the open door of the salon. It was just a room, cloaked in shadow, no colder than the stairwell.
"And don't come back," Kade muttered, leaning against the doorframe. Then she heard heavy footsteps from the floor above, and she started hastily down the stairs. If there had been anyone or anything in the bastion, her idiot screaming would bring it running.
In the next hour Grandier or the Host or Denzil could kill her. But Kade had never felt more free in her life.
THERE WAS A CLANK somewhere in the passage below, as if hollow metal struck stone. Thomas paused on the edge of the gap in the floor and thoughtfully fingered the hilt of his rapier. He had seen Dontane come down the stairs from the council rooms, and he had taken the chance on going ahead into the lower passages and catching him here.
This was the large passage Grandier had shown him yesterday, the only unblocked way to the cellar where the Unseelie Court had established itself. Thomas had found a spot where a weak place in its ceiling had partly given way, spilling some debris down onto the floor and creating a hole into the space above. Climbing up through the gap, he had found another narrow corridor which was blocked on one end by a collapse of its own. It led only to more disused rooms and a now-rickety stairway up to the floor above.
A dim light fell down the stairs, slightly alleviating the darkness. Moving silently, Thomas poised on the edge of the gap, listening as the faint noise below became the footsteps of at least two men. Then Dontane passed below, with two Alsene troopers trailing reluctantly behind him. Thomas felt a rush of both relief and tension; he hadn't been certain until now that he would have his chance. Dontane could have brought twenty troopers with him, but the need to conceal his activities from Grandier must have won out over caution.
Thomas quietly stepped down to a fallen rafter half blocking the gap, then leapt onto the back of the second trooper.
His weight slammed the man into the hard stone floor. He rolled off the inert form and came to his feet against the opposite wall, ducking the flailing sword of the other trooper. Thomas parried the second wild blow, feinted, and put his point through the man's neck. The trooper sunk back against the wall, clawing at the wound and gasping, then slid to the floor.
Dontane had turned, whipping his sword free of the scabbard. He recognized Thomas and stopped, eyes widening in disbelief. "You still here--"
Thomas moved toward him, making it look like a casual stroll. He doubted he could catch Dontane if the sorcerer bolted toward the cellar. "Afraid of Villon? Things not going quite according to plan?"
He saw the realization of where those things had been said pass over Dontane's frozen expression, and an awareness of just what else had been said. "So that was you. I thought the boy dreaming when he said something had moved in the floor."
Dontane rushed forward. Thomas started to bring up his sword to parry but saw the blue flame of spell fire flickering down Dontane's blade. Instead of locking their weapons together he swept his sword around, deflecting the deadly blade and disengaging. Even then the shock of contact with that power was enough to send a jolt down his arm.
Dontane laughed, but sweat was running down his face and he held his sword en garde, not pressing the attack immediately. Thomas steadied himself against the wall. He thought, Damn, this could finish me. It had taken a moment or so for the blast of power to travel down the long rapier blade to his hand, long enough for him to parry and break contact. If he had connected with the shorter blade of a main gauche he would have a useless arm now. Stupid not to realize that the young sorcerer would have an arcane defense against attack. But Dontane had seen the battle at Aviler's house and knew he was outclassed in swordplay; Thomas could almost smell the fear on him.
Thomas eased away from the wall. "I hope that isn't all you've got," he said softly. "It's not going to be enough." He circled to the side, trying to get between Dontane and the cellar.
Dontane backed away, preventing him from blocking the passage. Thomas lunged, pulling the tip of his sword up and over Dontane's parry, nicking him in the opposite shoulder. Dontane cried out and his blade swung wide, the flat of it catching Thomas's sword arm. The force of the spell fire on the blade sent Thomas staggering. Dontane stumbled back and lost his grip on his sword. Pressing a hand to his wounded shoulder, he turned and bolted down the passage.
Cursing at the pain and forcing his almost-numb fingers to hold onto his swordhilt, Thomas ran after him.
Around the corner he could see the gap in the wall. The unearthly light of the Host had faded, leaving a well of darkness in the old cellar. With the waning daylight outside, the Host must still be quiescent. But Dontane was just disappearing down the stairway and would have every intention of waking them.
Thomas plunged down after him. Dontane was moving more slowly, still holding one hand pressed to his bleeding, shoulder. He turned as Thomas reached the landing and swung a fist at him. They grappled, struggling across the narrow landing. His sword arm pinned, Thomas forced Dontane toward the edge, then felt the stone give way under his boot; the next instant they were both falling.
Kade had found enough glamour to make it difficult for human eyes to focus on her and had made her way silently through the cold dark rooms to the Old Palace. Now she crouched in the concealing shadows beneath one of the grand staircases, watching the Alsene troops rush about. Most carried lamps and all seemed to be shouting at each other. They had sprinkled more of the cursed iron filings around the areas on the third and fourth floors where they seemed to have made their main encampment. It was the place where Thomas was most likely being held, but Kade's glamour wouldn't last there, not in such close quarters with the lights and so many wary men.
Kade was torn between staying here to look for Thomas and continuing on her way to replace the keystone. Frustrated, she gnawed on her thumbnail and tried to consider her options rationally.
Spells might alert Grandier or some member of the Host. The ether was disturbed enough as it was; Kade didn't want to stir it up further and give them the idea that she was about somewhere. She couldn't afford to be caught until she had at least replaced the keystone and driven the Host out of the palace to the waiting Seelie Court.
A page boy in a slashed doublet and heavy fur cloak came down the stairs and stopped a few feet from her hiding place. He rested one small hand on the newel post and watched the frantic activity of the other men.
Kade's ears pricked. She needed information. Here was someone to get it from who was small enough for her to overpower.
For a moment the landing was almost empty. She waited for the last trooper to step through an arch into the next room and then darted forward.
Kade wrapped her wiry forearm around the page's throat and dragged him back into the shelter of the darkened stairwell. His choked cry broke off as she put the tip of her bronze knife below his jaw. She hissed, "Be quiet."
She pulled him further into the shadow and whispered, "Quietly now. Grandier has a prisoner, the Captain of the Queen's Guard. Where is he?"
She eased the pressure off the boy's windpipe enough to allow him to talk. He drew breath to scream and she pressed the knife down just enough to draw a bead of blood. After a moment the boy whispered, "The prisoners escaped."
Well, that's just fine, Kade thought in irritation. How am I going to find him now? "When?"
"Earlier today, sometime, I don't know exactly--" His voice was rising, and she prodded him with the knife again to remind him to be quiet.
There was no way to tell if Thomas had left the palace yet or was still trapped inside. Kade decided she would just have to replace the keystone and improvise the rest.
The page was trembling under her arm, but Kade sensed he was angry enough to try to come at her when she released him, instead of the far more sensible act of running away and shouting for help. She shoved him away. As he turned back to lunge at her, she threw a handful of glamour into his eyes. He gasped and stumbled to a halt, staring at her, his eyes widening until they were almost all pupil. She said, "You had a dream. A confusing dream. A jumble of images."
He was still staring straight ahead when Kade slipped around him and started down the stairs. That should confuse his story long enough for her to accomplish her goal. It would only take a few moments to replace the keystone.
Thomas lay facedown, cold gritty stone against his cheek. He levered himself up a little and shook his head, too stunned to think. He caught his breath at the unexpected pain of a hundred new bruises. Then memory returned. He was on the flagstone floor of the cellar. He had fallen down the last flight of stairs.
Thomas rolled over and sat up. His sword was near his hand; he must have held onto it in instinctive reflex until he struck the pavement. Dontane lay sprawled perhaps twenty paces away.
And the Host was stirring around them.
Thomas looked back to the stairs. A dark winged fay with a sleek narrow dog's head had settled on the landing. It was looking down at them with brilliant red eyes. The cellar's soft light grew brighter as corpse-lights climbed the walls. Creatures slunk from under the piles of discarded wood and trash, or seemed to rise out of the floor. All were uniformly hideous but no two were alike, with grotesquely distorted heads, jagged teeth, long clawed hands, ratlike tails, or bat's wings. One of the columns looked as if it had grown fur; Thomas realized it was covered with a troop of brown and dun-colored spriggans. The smell of the place was as foul as the bottom of a bog, and the creatures were still coming out of hiding.
Three misshapen bogles leapt to the ground between him and Dontane, drawn by the smell of blood. Thomas looked for cover, or something else to use as a weapon. To his right he saw a long heap of broken wood, an old scaling tower lying on its side. While its supports and platforms had been made of wooden beams, the pulleys and chains that extended them and the plates that had protected the troops manning it were of iron, and there were no fay near it. While their attention was on Dontane, Thomas snatched up his sword and ran to the broken tower. He crouched next to it, his back against a large rusted iron plate propped up by the rotting wood.
As more fay gathered, the growling mutter of their talk growing louder, Thomas scraped up the bolts and metal scraps scattered nearby into a handy pile. Most of the creatures were moving toward Dontane, drawn by the blood and possibly by the young sorcerer's magic. But one small fay covered with fiery red scales and straggling hair crept toward Thomas. He waited until it was close enough, then used the tip of his sword to flip it back and away.
Incredibly light, the creature sailed back a good twenty feet before bouncing against the flagstones. It leapt up and yelled, "Hey, 'e saw me!"
Hell, now they know, Thomas thought. The Host could conceal themselves from him now that they knew he could see through glamour. Idiot. It was the second time he had betrayed himself that way.
But the fay were distracted again as Dontane stirred. The sorcerer rolled over, moaning, and the Host began to draw around him. A chorus of hags, their emaciated bodies barely recognizable as female, strands of grizzled hair clinging to their skulls, gathered around, laughing at Dontane's efforts to stand.
Dontane staggered to his feet and looked around, realizing he was trapped. He had lost his sword in the corridor above, and Thomas could tell from the way the blood drained from his face that he knew his danger. But with more bravery than Thomas would have given him credit for, Dontane said hoarsely, "Listen to me! We have more mortals for you."
The stubborn bastard still means to send them after Villon. Thomas knew his chances of reaching Dontane now were poor at best. Still he had to try. He gathered himself to move.
The assembled fay seemed to be listening, or at least they hadn't attacked Dontane yet. Dontane pivoted, watching them warily. He licked his lips and said, "An army is outside the city gates--"
Screeching from up in the ceiling drowned out Dontane's voice. Thomas looked up as with a clatter and bang several fay tumbled out of one of the air shafts. They drifted or cartwheeled to the floor, one landing on the far side of the cellar with a fatal-sounding splat. The odor of burning meat and peat moss descended with them.
One of the drifting forms reached the floor, landed lightly, and strode toward Dontane. Its tall body had a human shape but that was where the resemblance ended. Its skin was black and rough, and as it moved closer Thomas could see that it had been burned. It still carried raw red wounds in its flesh.
As it neared Dontane, a smaller fay with a flattened head and limbs with too many joints hopped out of the watching crowd to greet it. The little creature danced around the large wounded fay, singing in a piping, clearly audible voice, "He's here, we told! The human wizard! He's here!"
The tall fay watched this performance, then leaned down and slapped the little creature out of the way.
Dontane took a few stumbling steps backward as the fay came toward him. It looked down and said in a harsh croak, "You don't know me? Surely you must. I'm Evadne."
"But--" Dontane stared up at it, growing fear in his eyes. "The others said you didn't come back, there was an explosion in the tower--"
"Yes, I saw the explosion. I saw it from the inside. I have only just returned with these few, for it took us this long to drag our poor selves back." The hissing voice rose to a shriek. "Your master sent me to my death, you lying human fool!"
"No, he couldn't have, he knew Denzil wanted to take the King prisoner--" Dontane said, taking another step back. He halted in confusion when he realized the other dark fay were creeping closer to him.
He sees it now, Thomas thought. Grandier hadn't trusted Dontane and Denzil either.
Evadne moved nearer to the sorcerer, and Dontane begged, "Wait--"
The fay prince paused, staring down at Dontane with burning eyes in a ruined face. The others had gone silent in anticipation.
Dontane hesitated, then with fatal desperation in his voice, said, "I didn't know--"
"You admit it," Evadne snarled. Dontane clapped his hands together, shouting something. A blue glow of sorcery grew over his head just as Evadne lunged forward.
One long clawed hand caught the front of Dontane's doublet, jerking him up off the floor. The sorcery evaporated harmlessly as Dontane panicked, struggling to break Evadne's grip.
Evadne threw Dontane down, slamming him into the hard stone floor. Thomas started at the dearly audible crack of breaking bone.
Dontane twitched once, then lay like an unstrung puppet.
Evadne stared down in satisfaction at the silent form, then slowly lifted his head. My turn, Thomas thought, and shifted his grip on his swordhilt. Evadne's hot eyes found him and the fay grinned. "You are human as well, but you see through glamour. What are you?"
"Does it matter?" Thomas answered. He heard something move behind the heap of wreckage and gathered the bare handful of iron scraps he had collected.
"Perhaps not." Evadne shrugged, strolling toward him.
The dark fay were gathering again, drawn by this new promise of entertainment. This is not going to be pretty, Thomas thought. Then something slammed into the rotten wood of the tower behind him. Before the heavy mass could come down on top of him he rolled forward, then he was in the midst of them. Thomas flung the handful of bolts at the closest, momentarily clearing himself a path. He made it almost ten paces toward the stairway before a pack of bogles blocked his way. The others closed around him again and he swept his sword around, scattering them back.
A squat troll creature leapt at him wildly and he lunged at it without thinking. It fell on his sword, ripping the weapon out of his grip. He was struck from behind and he staggered forward, caught himself, and turned around, waiting to die.
Kade had arrived at the top of the stairway down into the cellar in time to watch the burned fay kill Dontane. She hadn't recognized Evadne until he spoke and his appearance shocked her. What happened to him? I hope it hurts as terribly as it looks. Then she saw Thomas trapped against the broken siege tower and panic sent every other thought out of her head.
She started forward to the steps, about to plunge down into the cellar. She caught herself, one hand on the wall, and forced herself to be rational. This is no time to be an idiot. The Host was in force here and it would be a fight to the death she could not win.
Kade knelt on the cold stone of the passage floor, ripped a piece of fabric from her skirt, and shook out the handful of ash she had collected from one of the fireplaces, thinking, I only need a little time, just a little time; don't get yourself killed. She had already gotten the candle lit before coming down here, thinking the cellar would be dark, and that saved precious moments. Dripping the wax onto the fabric and ash, she whispered the powerful words and begged Ableon-Indis to listen.
She completed the spell and hesitated. If Ableon-Indis had drifted farther away or dissipated... There was no time for that. Kade leapt to her feet and stepped out onto the stairs, shouting "Evadne!" at the top of her lungs.
All eyes turned to her and the various voices of the Host stopped their singing and howling. They had forced Thomas away from cover and surrounded him, but he was still on his feet. He looked toward her, but she bit her lip and didn't betray any sign that she had seen him. If Evadne had any idea she meant to help him, then they were both dead and that was that. She reached the first landing, and the large flighted fay that squatted there edged away from her, angling its narrow head to watch her surreptitiously. From below Evadne called out, "What are you doing here, sister? Have you come to join us?"
"I..." She spoke slowly, and wondered if it was as obvious as it seemed that she had no idea what to say. Inspiration struck and she finished, "I lost Knockma to Titania, and I want your help to get it back." She started down the last flight of steps, holding the scrap of spell-patterned fabric behind her back. The creature on the landing could see it, but it would have no idea that it was anything but a rag.
Evadne turned suddenly to look down at Thomas. "It wouldn't be because of this human, would it?"
"No." Kade sounded shocked that he would even think such a thing. Her heart wasn't pounding quite so hard now, and it was a little easier to think.
"That isn't what I was told," Evadne said slyly.
"Told by whom?" Kade pounced on the admission. "By Grandier? By Dontane?"
Evadne hesitated, his eyes bright in the dusky cellar, contemptuous of her but growing doubtful.
"Do you think that was the only lie they told you?" Kade persisted.
"I don't think it is the only lie you told me."
She was almost to the bottom of the steps. Where is the
damn thing? she thought desperately. The sweat from her hands was soaking into the scrap of fabric. Why is it taking so long? She had to get closer to Evadne. "But you expect that from me. I never pretended anything else. I never sent you off to your death with a false promise." I am, however, about to destroy you now if I can just get this damned ward to--
Behind her the fay who had guarded the stairs shrieked in agony. Kade turned as if she were as surprised as the others. The creature staggered and tried to leap into the air, its flesh melting away like hot wax.
Ableon-Indis had finally arrived.
The ward had grown weak, and Kade thought her spell would only hold it for a few moments before it drifted back up from the cellar. More of the Host screamed and fled as the ward fell among them. A burst of hot air from the motion of their wings struck her and Kade stumbled and sat down hard on the bottom step. As the nearest gang of bogles burst into flame, a roar of mingled disbelief and fear from the assembled creatures deafened her. Kade clapped her hands over her ears. The fay remembered the battle in the Old Hall too, and now they realized what she had done. Evadne charged toward her, his mouth open in a silent scream, but he was swept away by the rush of his fleeing companions.
Kade got to her feet and ran into the chaos.
Thomas took advantage of the confusion to recover the rapier from the body of the troll that had taken it. He turned around as Kade reached him. She shouted, "Are you all right?"
"I'm better," he told her. One of the flighted creatures flew low over their heads, howling, and Thomas caught Kade around the waist and pulled her to him.
She had never stopped talking. "I found it! The keystone. Look." She struggled to unwrap a round stone covered with delicate carving. "It was right there in his rooms."
By God, now me have a chance, Thomas thought. He saw that Evadne was fighting his way free of the milling fay, coming toward them. He said, "I'll distract him, and you put it back in its place."
Kade shook her head, adamant. "No, you have to do it. You couldn't hold him off long enough and I can."
He stared down at her. Other fay were joining Evadne, and there was no knowing whether the fay prince realized that they had the crucial keystone, or was only coming after them in a blind rage. Kade shrieked, "There's no time! Go on. I'd do it for you!"
She was right. He said "Damn you," took the keystone out of her hand, kissed her hard on the mouth, and ran.
Thomas ducked around the milling creatures still panicked by the ward, forcing himself not to look back. He found the right pillar in moments and saw that the clay seal a foot or so above its base had been recently replaced. He reached down just as something struck him from behind. Claws dug into his back, parting the leather of his buff coat. He spun and slammed the creature and his full weight into the stone pillar. Its hold loosened and Thomas wrenched away. Turning, he stabbed the dazed spriggan and shoved it out of the way.
Dropping to his knees, Thomas broke the clay seal with the heel of his hand. He dug into the soft dirt and his fingers found the stone buried within, but it seemed to slip away as he tried to get a grip on it. He swore, and shifted against the pillar to reach deeper into the niche. Finally he caught the stone and pulled it out. Flinging it away, he shoved the old keystone into the niche, wondering if it was going to struggle to escape too. But it seemed to slide out of his hand and into the proper spot of its own volition. Thomas sat back, breathing hard. Then he realized that the entire room had gone silent.
He looked up. In that whole great chamber it seemed that not a single fay moved. All were arrested in midaction by a sound or a sight only they could hear. All except one.
Evadne was coming toward him, shoving his motionless companions out of the way.
Thomas picked up his rapier and stood.
Kade had led Evadne and the others in a chase toward the opposite end of the cellar, stopping only when she could put one of the pillars at her back. She had felt Ableon-Indis's withdrawal and knew she hadn't much time. She threw a handful of glamour at the nearest snarling bogle to give herself room, then whispered a spell of blinding. The sorcery had greater effect on the creatures of Fayre than it did on humans, and the nearest of the Host screeched and stumbled away as the mist of sightlessness settled over them. The mist dispersed rapidly. As a large and hideous water-fay bore down on her, Kade thought frantically for another spell.
Then her ears popped and she felt the ether tremble around her. The nearest fay were staring at her, the others gazing about in astonishment. He did it, she thought in relief. The old keystone was taking control of the wards, and the Host could feel the enmity in the etheric structure re-forming around the palace. To those nearest her, Kade said, "You'd better leave, before you're trapped here forever. If you aren't already."
The dark fay erupted into sound and motion as one, plunging away from her, taking to the air, running screaming across the floor toward the steps. Kade leaned against one of the pillars, weak from relief, then realized Evadne was nowhere to be seen.
The Host was dispersing in panic. Some charged up the stairs while the flighted fay rose into the air, running into the pillars and each other in their confusion.
Thomas couldn't see Kade. He put his back against the pillar. If Evadne tore the keystone out this would all be undone.
Evadne broke through the milling fay, charging at him, his long arms reaching. Thomas ducked and swept his sword up. Evadne was too quick and dodged back, aiming a fist at him.
The blow caught Thomas in the shoulder and knocked him sprawling into the pavement. He rolled over, tasting blood, dazed for a moment. Evadne was standing over him. The fay's burned flesh hung in ribbons and the death's-head grimace of his mouth below the childishly petulant eyes was terrible. Evadne hesitated, obviously torn between the desire to kill Thomas immediately and the need to rip the keystone out of its niche. Thomas struggled to stand and got no further than his knees.
Something distracted Evadne. He cocked his ruined head, then turned in a crouch. Urbain Grandier stood at the bottom of the steps. Thomas had not seen him come down either; the old man might have materialized out of the air.
Evadne straightened his tall frame slowly. "You betrayed me, sorcerer."
Grandier started toward them, his steps unhurried. "Did I?"
"But I betrayed you."
Grandier stopped. His expression had not changed, but something in the very stillness in which he stood there was daunting.
Evadne's grin was terrible. "I bargained with your creature Dontane to destroy you. The human prince you sought to put on the throne would have given me everything I wanted."
Grandier sighed. "That hardly surprises me."
Evadne's look of disappointment would have been comical on any creature less maimed and ruined. Thomas crawled back to the pillar and leaned against the niche concealing the keystone. Grandier would have no difficulty in killing him and taking it away, but he meant to keep it in place as long as he could. If Kade hadn't managed to kill herself for him, it would give her more time to escape. The fay wheeling around in the air overhead were moving with purpose now. At the far end of the great cellar they were whipping themselves into some kind of frenzy, flying in a great circle around one of the pillars. A wind was rising out of nowhere in the chamber.
Grandier shook his head, his features twisting for a moment in disgust. He said, "And what has your scheming gotten you?" His voice rose. "There is an army at the gates! A human army with iron and sorcerers to destroy you, and an army of the Seelie Court waits for you in the air."
Thomas realized it was the first time he had ever seen Grandier show anger. Evadne snarled, "They cannot destroy--" The pillar the fay were circling on the far side of the chamber suddenly shattered into dust. More fay were joining the circle and others on the floor below were swept up into it. And disappearing. The Host was forming a ring, Thomas realized, and remembered the broken foundation in the Grand Gallery. They're going to bring the ceiling down.
"Command your Host then; gather your court!" Grandier gestured contemptuously at the fleeing creatures, at the ring forming in the air. "Could you not control your greed for a few days? Could you not have waited until we won to betray me?" He turned his back, as if he were unable to look at the product of his own folly anymore.
He's speaking to Denzil, Thomas thought. Denzil, who was very good at causing chaos but not so practiced at bringing order out of it. Grandier had betrayed Evadne as well, or tried to; he must know he had no right to expect loyalty from a prince of the Unseelie Court. It was the defection of his human allies that maddened him. And if Thomas was correctly interpreting the expression on the fay's ruined face, Evadne didn't understand one word in three.
Evadne shook his head, "Lies again. I made you, sorcerer." His voice dripped contempt. "And I'll destroy you."
Evadne started forward. Grandier turned, his hand moving suddenly. Evadne started back in surprised anger, raising his arms to protect his face. Yes, Grandier still kept his pocket of iron filings.
Then Grandier raised his hands, speaking softly.
Evadne shook his head and raked a hand across his face, leaving bloody streaks where the filings had touched him. He sneered, "And what do you intend to do to me, old man?"
This creature has no sense of self-preservation, Thomas thought in wonder.
"I'm going to turn your blood to iron," Grandier told him, and his voice held no anger. "It's a spell I prepared for just such an occasion as this, a derivative of a common alchemical process, which you would know if you studied sorcery."
"I gave you your power," Evadne said. He smiled at the old man. "Destroy me and you will lose it. You will be trapped in this shape forever."
Grandier hesitated. Then just as Evadne made to move forward, Grandier gestured sharply. Evadne froze. Grandier walked toward him, and as he moved past the silent fay, he pushed Evadne's arm. The corpse toppled and fell, breaking into dust as it struck the floor.
The Host was disappearing rapidly now, the ring a wild circle of airborne stones, splintered wood, mangled fay bodies, and other debris. Thomas leaned back against the pillar and looked up as Grandier reached him. "Well," Thomas said, "What now?"
"I still have no regrets." Grandier smiled. His seamed face showed all the weight of his own years as well as Galen Dubell's. "Except perhaps my choice of allies."
"And your choice of enemies?" Kade was leaning next to the pillar at Thomas's side. He hadn't seen her approach and felt a surge of relief so intense it was painful.
Grandier watched her a moment, then said gravely, "Yes, that as well."
"So Villon's troop is here," Thomas said. Trying to keep his attention on Grandier, he didn't look up at Kade.
Grandier nodded. "Denzil thought the General would hold Bel Garde and attack from there. He did not. He entered the city late this afternoon and is now attempting to force St. Anne's Gate."
Aviler got through, and Villon decided to risk an assault rather than be trapped in Bel Garde, Thomas thought. And you think he's forcing St. Anne's Gate, but Aviler can tell him that with the Gate House unmanned, the Postern is indefensible. Raising his voice to be heard over the howling wind, he said, "Why aren't you trying to stop him?"
"I came to stop Kade from replacing the keystone, and to summon the Host." Grandier could still take the keystone, but he made no move to do so. The wind was tearing at their hair, taking their breath away. Grandier squinted into it, then shook his head regretfully. "I fear you and the High Minister were correct. Despite all my experience with violence and treachery, I am still politically naive."
Thomas couldn't see Galen Dubell in that lined and weary face anymore, as if it were no longer a disguise. As if Grandier himself was actually completely present in that shell for the first time.
Kade eyed him, unimpressed. "You killed one of my only friends, and I'll never forgive you."
Grandier's calm gaze went to her. "I cannot argue with that sentiment."
Still wary, Thomas asked, "What will you do now?"
Grandier looked startled. Then his knees buckled and he started to collapse, his thin form giving way like an empty sack. Thomas caught him as the old man sagged against the flagstones. As Grandier slumped over forward he saw the bloody gaping hole in his back.
He looked up, automatically tracing the line of fire. Denzil stood on the second tier of steps, handing a smoking musket to an Alsene trooper. They had heard nothing; the musket's blast had been carried away in the wind caused by the ring and the Host's departure.
Kade crouched beside Thomas, her face white and drawn in the rapidly shifting light. The trooper handed Denzil another loaded musket. Thomas pushed Grandier's body aside and stood, dragging Kade with him, putting the pillar between them and Denzil's line of fire. "They'll come after us. We have to--"
Kade shook her head. "It's too late." He could barely hear her over the growing roar of the wind.
There was a crash that reverberated through the stone beneath them. The swirling mass of the ring seemed to lose its structure as the last of the Host winked out of existence. It flung out a deadly hail of rocks and splintered wood, then it drifted crazily, moving sideways toward them across the large chamber. The troopers on the stairway panicked, bolting back up to the entrance. Looking back around the pillar, Thomas saw Denzil hesitate, cradling the fresh musket, before the rain of debris moved nearer and he too retreated up the stairs.
They couldn't escape that way without being felled by the flying rubble. Even the keystone pillar was no longer providing decent cover. Thomas winced as a stinging deluge of splinters struck them. He pulled Kade closer and felt her arm go around his waist.
A section of the ceiling collapsed almost above them, and fell into the ring, pulverized into dust instantly. The pillars shuddered as the ring brushed against them, the forces that drove it pressing outward at the stone, and chunks began to fall out of the far wall. The ring tilted on its axis, falling toward the cellar floor, directly over their heads.
Then they were in the empty cold silence of the Grand Gallery. Thomas stumbled and caught himself on one of the broken boulders. He would never get used to this form of travel. He let Kade steady him, and they made their way to the edge of the ring and climbed out onto the cold dirty tiles.
Kade sat down abruptly, as if her legs had suddenly given out, and after a moment Thomas sank to the ground beside her. Out the broken windows of the terrace they could see Alsene troops running awkwardly in the deep snow across the park. There was a burst of pistol fire and two of the men spun and fell, roses of blood growing around them in the snow.
Thomas looked at Kade, sitting so close, with her hair in wild disarray, and wondered what it would be like to kiss her when he didn't think he was going to die. So he took her chin gently and turned her face toward him and did.
He had started to draw back when her hand in his hair stopped him. Her mouth stopped his chuckle.
There were shouts and musket fire from somewhere inside the Gallery Wing now.
Kade jumped to her feet. "Come with me."
Thomas looked involuntarily toward the silent fayre ring in the Grand Gallery's floor. He decided that with sufficient motivation he could grow used to anything. Then he noticed that his hands were still speckled with Grandier's blood and thought of Denzil, and Ravenna. Not now, he thought. For a moment the words stuck in his throat, then he said, "I can't."
He hadn't expected her to react like anyone else, and she didn't disappoint him. She smiled. "It's not that easy." And she stepped back into the ring and disappeared.
THE WIND HAD changed direction and emptied the night sky of clouds; stars were visible for the first time in days.
Lord General Villon had set up a command post on the siege wall of St. Anne's Gate, under the light of lamps and torches placed all along the high crenellated battlement. Thomas leaned on an embrasure and watched as the old General paced up and down, consulting with his officers through the couriers continuously reporting in. The snow and ice were melting rapidly and it was warmer now than it had been at twilight.
Villon had wanted to bring Roland back into the city as soon as possible. His men were clearing the palace of any remaining fay and Alsene troops, with the help of the sorcerers from Lodun who had arrived at nightfall just after Villon. It was Grandier's manipulation of the weather that had drawn their attention and brought them to investigate. Lodun had never received any of the messages Ravenna had sent out before the attack.
Thomas didn't know where Roland was and hadn't asked. He knew the young King had been taken to some secured place inside the city wall. Falaise was at the Bishop's Palace; he had approved Gideon's suggestion that she be taken there a few hours ago. Some of the court at least had returned, and the rest of his own men and the Albon Knights were here helping to hunt down the last of the Alsene troops.
Fire occasionally blossomed in the dark canyons that were the streets of the city below: the lamps and torches of patrols or of townspeople hesitantly venturing out. They expected reinforcement in the form of the royal garrison at Portier to arrive sometime in the morning. Villon had learned that frantic messengers from the mayor of a village on the trade road had been sent there and to the Granges, bearing confused tidings of a massive attack.
Thomas had deliberately removed himself from the action. He had been with Villon for the past few hours, answering questions and directing him to the areas where Denzil's men might be concealed. Now he was merely waiting.
Recently he had noticed that time seemed to be passing in short stretches bordered by periods of less-than-coherent thought, and that his only support was the rough stone of the battlement. At one point he noticed that Berham was standing next to him, and had apparently been there for some time.
There was a new flurry of activity along the wall as Villon's cornet officer arrived with Dr. Conadine, one of the Lodun sorcerers. After a long consultation with them, Villon turned and came toward Thomas. The General was a small man, half a head shorter than Thomas, with graying dark hair. He had been one of Ravenna's oldest friends, having grown up with her on her father's country residence. Villon said, "They've taken our good Duke of Alsene. He's confessed to Aviler."
Thomas was not so far gone that he misinterpreted the General's expression. "And?"
"He's embellished somewhat, trying to make it look as though it were a misunderstanding." Villon's expression became deeply ironic. "That's to be expected. But he also says he killed the sorcerer Urbain Grandier. Conadine truth-tested him, and he's not lying."
Thomas looked at the night-shrouded city that was slowly creeping out of hiding. "I know."
Villon nodded, letting out his breath in resignation. "Of course, we look at it and say he's cutting his losses. It's only sense for a man to dispose of his confederates when a plot like this goes wrong. But the boy won't see it that way."
Roland had always been "the boy" to Villon. Still looking out at the city, Thomas said, "Denzil sent the Unseelie Court to take Roland prisoner and kill Ravenna."
"No, Grandier did." Villon was not arguing the point, but stating the facts as Roland would see them. "But he made a mistake in not killing Aviler. There's no getting around the point that Denzil brought a private troop into Vienne for the purpose of forcibly removing a High Minister from his home, killing a number of city guardsmen engaged in their rightful duty, not to mention a great lot of folk who were driven out into the street and killed by those demon creatures. And he didn't put that troop at the King's disposal, but used it for his own business which involved imprisoning warranted officers of the crown." Villon shook his head. "If Ravenna were alive I'd order the scaffold built. As it is... There was only one hope, but too many people saw us take him alive. He made sure of that."
Thomas felt Villon expected a response, so he said, "He would."
Villon's gaze went to the city. "You can't help us anymore tonight. Go back to the Guard House."
After a moment, Thomas smiled. "You're bringing Roland back to the palace and you want me out of the way."
"She taught you everything she ever knew, didn't she? Everything the boy should have learned." Villon sighed. "Do you think you can control your desire for martyrdom and let me manage this?"
Desire for martyrdom? Thomas thought. "I don't have to be here, you know. I had two better offers."
"That's not an answer."
"Of course it is." Thomas pushed away from the wall and turned to leave.
"The boy won't think so," Villon called after him.
Thomas decided to walk along the wall as far as he could before going down to the courts below. The sky was beautiful. Berham was following him, and Thomas noted the servant still had the two pistols he had given him the night of the first attack. When they had walked awhile Thomas said, "I'm going to send you and Phaistus over to Renier."
"Respectfully, Sir, I'm a forgetful man, and I don't think I could remember that I was Lord Renier's servant after all the years of being yours, so if I were asked--" Berham shrugged. "I would just have to speak my mind."
"That was a very gentle threat." Thomas smiled to himself.
"I don't know what you mean, Captain."
The wind picked up, cool but without the frozen edge that took the breath away. They walked along in silence for a time, then Thomas suggested, "You could get yourself up as a highwayman and terrorize the trade road."
Berham chuckled. "There's a thought; there's a thought indeed."
Even though the Old Courts had been taken over by the Host shortly after the evacuation, the Queen's Guard House had not been much disturbed. Thomas wondered if the sigils Kade had put on the cornerposts had been more effective than she had realized. As he came into the entryway, he could see that the lamps were lit in the practice hall, and there were Queen's and a few of the remaining Cisternan guards there. Out of the original hundred and twenty men in the Queen's Guard, over seventy had survived, and that was more than he had expected. Deciding to avoid the occupied areas of the house, Thomas trudged wearily up the side stairs.
Phaistus was in the anteroom, building up a fire in the hearth. The bedchamber beyond was musty and cold. Thomas stripped off his buff coat and what was left of the doublet beneath, left them in a ragged bloodstained pile, and sat down on the bed. After a moment he fell over backward and stared at the underside of the tester.
He fell into a kind of half-conscious doze, only dimly aware of Berham and Phaistus rustling familiarly around the room and laying a fire in the hearth.
He said "ouch" quite distinctly when Berham pulled his boots off. The servant leaned over him a moment, then said, "Is there something you want us to see to?"
Thomas shook his head. He heard the door shut as the two servants left, and in moments he was asleep.
It must have been hours later when he opened his eyes and Kade was kneeling on the bed, leaning over him. She grinned. "Surprise."
Eventually Thomas brushed a tendril of hair back from her forehead and said, "It's a long time since I've been with a woman who giggles."
Despite the awkwardness of mutual bruises, cuts, and claw-marks, they were good together. There wasn't any other woman he would have felt comfortable making love to in this condition, but there wasn't any other woman who would have pounced on him like that either. He had been trying to decide what would be worse: a taste of what the next twenty years could have been like, or never knowing at all. He was glad she had taken the decision out of his hands.
"Don't brag," Kade said, smiling. "I know there have been hundreds of others."
"Not quite hundreds."
There was a scratch at the door and Berham's voice whispered harshly, "Captain, there's a couple of Albons downstairs. They were sent to tell you the King's giving an audience and he wants you there."
Couldn't he have waited one damn day? was Thomas's first thought. Reluctantly, he rolled off the bed, found his clothes, and started to dress.
Kade sat up and pulled her smock on over her head, then watched him quietly. When he sat down on the bed to get his boots on she said, "Leave with me."
One boot halfway on, Thomas stopped. The words "all right" were on the tip of his tongue. "I can't."
"Ravenna's gone. There's nothing left for you here."
"I have that lovely offer from Falaise."
She grimaced. "Listen to yourself. You know she's afraid of you."
He finished pulling his boots on. "That makes the situation perfect then, doesn't it."
"That's not what you want."
He couldn't ask her how she knew what he wanted, when it was all too obvious that she did know.
After a moment, Kade said, "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, after giving up Knockma. I have other places and my household--well, you met Boliver; they're all mostly like that, except some of them are human. We argue sometimes but we never try to kill each other and no one's terribly ambitious, which is why they live with me, I suppose. What I'm trying to say is it wouldn't be like here at all, if you're as sick of this place as I think you are, and I hope you are, because I think I'm going to have some difficulty living without you."
"I'm not going to make any promises I can't keep." There was a muffled crash from the next room. Thomas grabbed the scabbarded rapier hanging over the bedpost and went to the door. He opened it a crack and saw Berham and Phaistus looking out the far door onto the landing. Thomas stepped out. "What is it?"
"Nothing, nothing." Berham looked back. "One of the Albons thought he should deliver his message in person, Sir, but some of the men pointed out that he was mistaken."
"Did they throw him down the stairs?"
"A little, yes."
Thomas shook his head, stepping back into the bedroom. Kade was gone, and one of the high windows was open, the morning breeze stirring the curtains.
The court was held in a hall on the ground floor of the King's Bastion. It was relatively undamaged, except for marks of smoke and water where the walls joined the high sculpted ceiling. Massive paneled paintings hung on the walls, views of the canal city of Chaire. Standing in the center of the room was like standing on the Mont Chappelle and looking down at the beautiful ancient city.
The audience was small: Villon's officers, and men from the city troops that had come out of hiding, the courtiers who had returned from Bel Garde with Roland. Thomas was glad to see the Count of Duncanny in attendance. His party had not been able to make it out of the city, but had taken refuge in one of the fortresslike great houses and survived almost intact.
Albon knights lined the walls and were posted next to the doors. Thomas went to join Villon. Without looking at him, the old General said, "Don't expect much."
A worn and haggard Aviler was pacing in front of the chair prepared for Roland. Falaise was already present, seated in an armchair near the front of the room but to one side, so the focus was on the tapestry-draped chair waiting for the King. That was Aviler's touch, Thomas was sure. Renier would not have thought of it.
Gideon and Martin and several other Queen's guards stood around the Queen's chair. Thomas knew from the way Gideon kept trying to catch his eye that they were wondering why he didn't join them, but he was not going to unless Falaise ordered it.
The door at the front of the room opened and Roland and Renier entered, followed by more Albons. Thomas was surprised to see Ravenna's gentlewoman Elaine in the King's entourage, but only for a moment. She had learned survival from the best.
As Roland took his seat Aviler stepped back to the side, waiting with folded arms. At the King's nod, he motioned to one of the knights.
Roland's eyes were dark hollows in his drawn face. He held his cloak pulled around him tightly, though the hall was almost warm.
There was a stirring at the back of the room, then the crowd parted for a group of Albons. Thomas felt his nerves go taut.
The knights were escorting Denzil, of course.
They crossed the room in silence except for the click of their boots on the parquet floor, stopping before Roland's chair. The Duke of Alsene wore a court doublet in somber colors, and his arm was no longer in a sling. He looked less weary than Roland, but then, after his capture, Denzil had probably been able to sleep through the night.
Surprisingly, Roland spoke first. He said, "It was all true." His voice was soft, but clearly audible in the room so silent a loud heartbeat could have been heard.
Denzil said, "My lord--"
"I did not give you permission to speak."
Denzil waited, watching Roland.
"You plotted with the sorcerer Urbain Grandier." Roland closed his eyes. "Against me."
The gesture might have looked theatrical, to someone who didn't know the actors. Roland was in real pain. He looked up suddenly. "My mother was killed."
For the first time there was a response from the crowd, a low whisper of comment that was hardly more audible than a wind stirring summer leaves. Thomas knew they were thinking that it had broken Roland. Aviler swayed as if to move forward, then stopped himself. It was a curiously moving gesture of restraint; the High Minister was going to trust that Roland hadn't gone mad, and would not attempt to control what the King said in an open audience.
Roland fingered the carved chair arm, and his eyes went to Denzil. "Many people were killed. Someone should die for that."
Thomas realized he was holding his breath.
Denzil was as still as a statue, and almost as pale, but he didn't look away from Roland's hollow eyes. Thomas knew that people were remembering the two had grown up together, though Denzil was older.
Roland shifted in his chair suddenly, looking away. "The sorcerer Grandier is dead. Most of the traitors are dead. The charter of the troop of the Duchy of Alsene is to be torn up, the survivors disbanded, their arms taken, and they will not be allowed to form again under those colors on pain of death. The men who hold Officers' commissions in the Troop of Alsene will be ordered executed as traitors, for the act of treason against the crown and the Ministry. Any of the lords of Alsene found in the palace taking part in the conspiracy will be ordered executed as traitors, on the same charge. Denzil Fontainon Alsene, Duke of Alsene, is...is ordered..." Roland did not look at Denzil, or anyone else. His gaze was locked on the pastel haze in a painting of a harbor skyline. The silence stretched, but no one in the crowd made the slightest sound of inattention. Roland closed his eyes to shut out some vision other than the painting. "Is ordered banished from our borders--" He hesitated again, as if he heard himself speaking and wondered at it. Then he continued, "Forever. On pain of death."
Thomas realized that Villon had moved to his other side and was now companionably holding his sword arm. It wasn't necessary. He didn't move.
Roland stood and left the room in a flurry of robes, his attendants closing in around him. The crowd began to talk and mill around, speaking softly at first and then more loudly as tension began to ease. Villon said, "For a moment I thought--" He shook his head, wry bitterness in his eyes. "My days of service won't last much longer, and I can't say that I'm sorry."
Villon had released of Thomas's arm, so he started making his way up toward the front of the hall. Halfway there Aviler met him. The High Minister looked haggard but also energized. He had probably done more of his life's work in the past day than he ever had since first taking office. He said quietly, "Denzil has three days to leave the city. That's not much time. We need to talk."
"No," Thomas said.
Aviler looked blank. "You mean, not here?"
"I mean, not at all." Before he could move on, he saw Renier coming toward them, using his bulk to part the milling crowd.
He reached them and said, "The King wants a private audience with you, Thomas."
"Good." He followed Renier to the front of the room, conscious of Aviler and Villon watching him.
The door at the back of the hall led to a short maze of old council rooms, all crowded with Albon knights, servants, and court functionaries. Thomas recognized no one, conscious of them only as blurs of color and noise. Eventually they reached a chamber with wide double-panel doors standing open and another contingent of knights guarding it.
Thomas followed Renier inside. It was a large parlor with arabesque wallpapers, thick carpets, and heavy brocaded furniture. There was a fire in a hearth with a mantel supported by two carved-marble nymphs, and all the candles were lit. Roland sat in one of the armchairs, staring unseeing at the far wall.
Renier said, "My lord."
Roland looked up, his eyes focusing. "Thank you. Everyone else go."
Some of the knights stepped out immediately, but the others lingered, looking to Renier for direction. Thomas knew they were not easy with the idea of leaving him alone with Roland, and was almost amused to see that Renier apparently shared their opinion. What surprised him was that Roland realized it as well.
As Renier started to speak, Roland stood suddenly and shouted, "Get out!"
The other men moved reluctantly, and Roland crossed the room and flung the heavy carved doors shut after them. The sudden movement seemed to almost exhaust him, and he dropped into the nearest chair and buried his face in his hands.
Thomas simply stood there, not discomfited by the display, and waited for Roland to recover himself. He looked around the room and was startled to notice a portrait of Fulstan in the far corner. It was a good likeness of Roland's father in his early middle age, and it had probably been moved from some other more prominent location and buried away here, as all the portraits of Fulstan were eventually buried away somewhere.
Roland looked up and noticed what had caught Thomas' attention. He stared at the portrait for a long moment himself, then said, "He hated you."
"He hated everyone," Thomas answered.
Roland sat very still for a time, then looked away. He said, "My Queen has given me to know that she wishes you to remain as Captain of her guard. I agree."
Roland would allow Denzil to return. Not today, or this month, but perhaps before the year was out. If Denzil had killed Ravenna with his own hands, if Roland had actually seen him casually ordering the destruction of Villon's troops, then it might have been different. But the ties between them were too strong, Denzil was too seasoned a manipulator, and Roland was still too enmeshed in self-hatred to break the link for good. The boy had proved that to himself and everyone else in the audience hall. But now he knew what his lifelong friend was capable of, and in time he might manage to break free.
But Roland was a King, and could not be allowed the time.
"That won't be necessary, Your Majesty," Thomas said. "I'm resigning my commission."
Roland's head jerked up. His hands trembling on the arms of the chair, he asked sharply, "Why?"
Thomas needed to get away now, before Roland changed his mind. He said, "Your mother would have wanted it this way," bowed, and went out, closing the door behind him. Roland made no attempt to call him back.
Thomas passed Renier without speaking and made his way back through the passages. Roland already knew what was going to happen. The only one who thankfully hadn't realized it was Kade. She had been away from court too long and must have believed that Denzil would die for his crimes. And so he will, Thomas thought. So he will.
Denzil was still in the hall. The knights were grouped loosely around him, and he was watching the crowd with folded arms, smiling faintly.
Thomas went up to him, ignoring the knights who tensed watchfully and the stares from the others in the room. He said, "We have a long-delayed appointment." All Denzil had to do was refuse. Refuse and walk away alive, free to use all the persuasive powers at his command on an oversensitive boy-king who had lost his only companion and his mother in one blow, to trade on old love and loyalty to work his way back into Roland's trust. But he has always been greedy, Thomas thought, and he wants me badly.
Denzil hesitated, watching Thomas, weighing chances, opportunities, desires. If Roland could have seen that look in the eyes of a man who should be nearly broken by the sentence of banishment from a childhood friend... But that was something Denzil would be far too clever to allow. He nodded. "Is that how it is?" he asked lightly. "Do you want to challenge me or should I challenge you?"
The room was silent now. "It doesn't matter," Thomas said, and thought, Now I've either gotten what I wanted or handed him the pleasure of killing me on top of all his other victories.
"Very well then. Now, no seconds, and out in the court."
Thomas started for the double doors at the end of the room without waiting to see what Denzil did. There was a rising murmur of comment among the people still in the hall. Gideon caught up with him on the steps and said, "Captain, what's--"
Thomas interrupted, "The Queen will give you the appointment. You know as much as I can teach you now; the rest you'll do on your own. Just be careful and don't trust anyone, especially Falaise."
He went out into the wide paved court between the bastion and the Mews. The clouds had drawn over the sky again and it was raining a light drizzle. It slicked the paving stones and covered everything with a fine coating of moisture.
Denzil and his escort came out into the court, but they still had to wait while Denzil's swords were sent for. Thomas paced to keep bruised and strained muscles loose and felt a tense excitement building in him.
He thought of Roland sitting alone in that beautiful unused room, waiting for the news. The young King would not stop the duel. But if Thomas won, and that outcome was much in doubt, he would not forgive him for it either. Burn the bridges after you cross them, not before, Ravenna would say. He had lied to Roland; he didn't know if Ravenna would have wanted it this way or not. To the end, she had always been capable of surprising him. But with Kade or without her, he couldn't live with himself if Denzil survived this.
A crowd was gathering of Albons, Villon's men, Queen's guards, the servants and courtiers who had returned with Roland and Falaise. A servant brought Denzil's weapons finally, a swept-hilt rapier and main gauche. Both were utilitarian dueling weapons, with silver-chased hilts and no ornamentation.
Thomas waited while Denzil examined the blades, then drew his own weapons and moved out into the open area of the court. Denzil wore a tight smile; he had nothing to lose by this and he knew it.
They circled each other. The first exchange of blows was light, testing. Denzil was strong and quick, and he had excellent instincts.
And excellent training. Thomas countered a feint and lunge that should have punctured his shoulder and left his sword arm useless. Wanting to see if something unorthodox would rattle the younger man, Thomas parried the next thrust with a broad sweep of his rapier and stepped in to attack with his main gauche. It surprised Denzil but he recovered in time to parry with his own offhand weapon.
They were both more careful after that, and in the steady exchange of blows that followed, Thomas felt the duel taking on a rhythm. They were evenly matched, but he was feeling the fatigue of the past four days, and the knot of scar tissue the elf-shot had left behind in his leg was starting its persistent ache. If Denzil felt any lingering effects from the pistol wound in his shoulder that Grandier had healed, he didn't reveal it.
Denzil made a hard lunge and Thomas struck the blade away. He realized an instant later that the parry had not been strong enough as he felt the steel slip past his right side. Denzil whipped the forte of the blade against Thomas's ribs and pulled sharply back. Thomas felt the cut opening in his side even as he stepped away and brought his sword up in a thrust.
In his eagerness Denzil had overbalanced himself and stumbled, his parry turning into a desperate block with the hilt. The tip of Thomas's rapier caught in the bars of the swept hilt and was trapped for an instant. Thomas slipped on the wet cobblestones and fell as Denzil wrenched the hilt free. Denzil recovered first and lunged at Thomas's chest as he was trying to stand. Thomas twisted away and the point struck the ground behind his back. He rolled back onto the blade, jerking it out of Denzil's grip, his weight snapping it.
Thomas rolled to his feet. Denzil backed away, wiping his face with his sleeve, then he looked at the watching crowd and yelled, "Another sword!" His glove was torn and his hand bled from where the point had caught him.
Thomas picked up his own rapier and saw that the tip was broken off. He walked back toward the crowd, shaking the rain-soaked hair out of his face, trying not to press a hand to his side where he could feel the blood soaking through his shirt. The blade hadn't bitten too deeply, but it was more than enough to slow him down.
He handed the broken weapon to Berham and took the cup-hilted rapier Gideon was holding out to him. Their stricken expressions said it all.
There was some movement in the crowd, someone pushing through the group of anxiously watching guards. Then suddenly Kade was standing in front of him. She was barefoot again, and with her ragged dress and disarrayed hair, she could have been some wilder variety of nymph. Except her gray eyes were too human, angry and afraid at the same time. Thomas said, "I thought you'd gone."
She said, "I'm half fay, but I'm not a fool. I've been up on the roof of the Guard House. I was going to wait you out, but Phaistus came and told me."
Thomas glanced up in time to see the young servant quickly retreating behind Gideon. He looked back down at Kade.
Almost pleading, she said, "Can't you just let me kill him, or have someone shoot him, and then we could go?"
"No. I have to do this."
"But I could--"
He put a finger over her lips. "No. It has to be this way. You said you'd do it for me, remember?"
She shook her head, anger temporarily winning out. "Fine. If I'd known you were going to do something like this, I'd have let you stand there and take on all the Unseelie Court and be killed."
"Fine. But if he wins, I want you to hurt him very badly before you kill him."
"I will. Very badly."
He turned and walked back to the center of the open area. Denzil was waiting for him with an unguarded expression of grim rage. Good, Thomas thought. He's angry; that'll help. Thomas was only exhausted and bleeding. Denzil had probably never faced an opponent in a serious duel who was as good or better than he was, and the young Duke was responding to it with anger. Falaise had come out onto the steps of the bastion and was watching with her ladies, her guards around her. She lifted a hand to him, and Thomas saluted her with his sword, then turned back to Denzil.
Denzil came at him furiously, but was not foolish enough to leave himself open. For a time Thomas was aware of nothing but his screaming muscles, of the flickering danger of the blades, of the blood pounding in his ears. He could see that Denzil's face was white and strained, that he was tiring too. The rain was coming down harder now and they were both slipping on the wet stones; Thomas knew another fall would finish him.
Then they both lunged at the same moment. Thomas disengaged and circled his rapier around Denzil's blade, twisting his wrist as he sent the point home with his remaining strength. He felt the point of the other rapier graze his arm even as he moved, felt it open a line of fire across his biceps as it went toward his chest; then it dropped away. It wasn't until he stumbled back and felt the resistance on his own blade before it came free that he realized what had happened.
Denzil was on his knees, one hand pressed to his chest with blood spreading between his fingers. Thomas stepped back, waiting.
It had been a clean blow, right to the heart. Denzil tried once to take a breath, his cold eyes fixed on nothing and already going blank, then he slumped forward onto the wet pavement.
Thomas dropped his sword and walked back to where Kade and the others waited. He stopped in front of her, trembling with exhaustion and feeling cold and empty. She shook her head, ran a hand through her tangled hair, and looked up at him. Meeting her eyes, the feeling of emptiness fled.
Impatient, her voice weak with relief, Kade said, "Now can we go?"
"Yes, now we can go."
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