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The Element of Fire
by Martha Wells
Chapters One through Eight
Chapters Seventeen through Twenty
RENIER SPREAD THE gilt-edged map on the table and indicated a spot with one calloused finger. "The Cisternan Barracks were overwhelmed in the first few moments." He cast a worried glance at Commander Vivan, who was slumped in a chair by the fire.
"They came through St. Anne's Gate, then?" Thomas asked.
"No. Mind, the reports we have come from grooms and stableboys who were able to seal off the Mews to keep the creatures out of the Old Courts, but they said the attack seemed to come from the inner gate into the palace, not the outer gate. As to how that was managed..." Renier shook his head.
They were in the Queen's Guard House, in one of the small rooms adjacent to the practice hall. The walls were hung with leather and parchment maps and the door was open to the hum of talk from the hall. They knew the human, or once-human, members of the Host had been used as cannon fodder in the initial attack, and that the fay had come after, but Thomas felt they still did not have an accurate picture of how the invasion had taken place. He said, "We still don't know what that explosion was."
"It wasn't the city armories. You can see them from the top of the inner wall. But that's what everyone thought. The off-duty Queen's guards were heading that way to repel what they thought was an attack through St. Anne's Gate when they were stopped at the Old Hall. My men were right behind them."
Thomas saw Gideon drawing breath to make a comment, and cleared his throat. Their eyes met and the younger man subsided with disgruntled reluctance. Most of the guards felt that the main body of the Albon Knights should have followed them down into the Old Hall, instead of staying in the relative safety at the top of the stairs. Thomas was willing to concede that someone had to hold the siege doors; whether the task had required almost the entire Albon troop was another matter. But it had been an act of disorganization rather than cowardice, and he wanted to keep the trouble among the two troops to a minimum. Looking back to Renier, Thomas said, "In the cellars it sounded as if the explosion was almost directly overhead; it must have been somewhere in the Gallery Wing."
"But there's nothing there to explode, not with that sort of force, not unless they brought it with them," Renier protested.
"Maybe they did." Vivan's voice startled them.
Only an accident of history had placed the Queen's Guard House in the area protected by the ancient wards of the inner walls. They had lost far too many men as it was, but the Cisternan Guard, and their families living within the barracks and adjacent to it, had been nearly destroyed.
After a moment, Renier cleared his throat. "We should hear from the commanders of the city levies by morning."
Thomas shook his head. There were over six thousand city volunteers, half musketeers and half pikemen, organized into regiments based on their neighborhoods. Both the crown and the Ministry had the right to call them out, but in the chaos of this night that would be impossible. "The city levies won't be able to form; they'll be too busy defending their own homes and it will be suicide to go out into the streets tonight."
Renier regarded the map again. "The Host has never attacked in force before. It has harried travelers, solitary farmsteads, but never... Well, the gate garrisons will be trapped inside until daylight at least. The Host can't attack when the sun's out."
Thomas had been told by Kade that the main body of the Host was composed of powerful quarrelsome spirits from the Unseelie Court, who could agree on nothing but revelry and fighting the Seelie Court, their opposites in Fayre. In their wake would be fay predators: hags, bogles, spriggans, things that haunted lonely places or preyed on travelers. Thomas said, "They can't attack in the kind of organized force they used on us in the Old Palace, but there's a mob of dark fay following them like scavengers after an army. They aren't organized, but they can stand the daylight and they will attack at any opportunity."
Renier pursed his lips in disapproval. "You heard that from Kade Carrion, I assume. I'd prefer another source for that intelligence."
Thomas controlled an inexplicable surge of irritation, and without too much acid in his voice asked, "Who else did you have in mind to question?"
Frowning, Renier shook his head. "Still... There's no help for it, I suppose. Does she know if Grandier is aiding them?"
"No, but he must be involved somehow." Thomas considered a moment. "The Host was depending on surprise, and they had help. Someone knew to go down into that cellar and take the keystone, and whoever it was is probably still here with us." Dontane might have known who that traitor was, but he must have died with the other prisoners and the guards in the Cisternan Guard House.
Renier looked up. "Perhaps the man who killed Dr. Braun got the location of the keystone out of him before he died."
Thomas managed not to roll his eyes. "Braun was killed instantly; he wasn't tortured for information."
"If we could get the keystone back--"
"It could be hidden anywhere." Thomas shook his head, frustrated. "We can't count on that."
"Well, we can't beat our heads about it now." Renier leaned over the map. "The corridors in the outer walls have been sealed. The rooftops and the open areas of the Old Courts are protected by the wards, and the iron-shod siege doors are keeping them from coming through the King's Bastion to us. The only thing we can do now is wait it out."
If Renier wanted to "wait it out" with a traitor in their camp it was his business. But Thomas had no reason to argue the point while he still had a few more preparations to make.
Lord General Villon and the siege engine cavalry were posted at the Granges, a royal fortress about fifty-five miles to the south. It was the mobile force closest to the city, except for Denzil's small private garrison still in residence at Bel Garde. The fay might be able to take the city, but they couldn't hold it. They couldn't close the iron-hinged gates, use the cannon mounted on the walls, or the stockpiles of arms. Villon had proven troops and a populace that would rise to aid him as soon as they saw his flags.
Renier rolled up his map and went back out into the hall. Thomas caught Gideon's arm and said softly, "If anyone's going to offer to hold Renier's sword while he falls on it, it's going to be me; is that clear, Sir?"
Gideon smiled reluctantly. "Yes, Sir, it's clear."
As the others left, Thomas hesitated a moment over Vivan, but he had no idea what to say to him.
He walked out through the hall, where things were beginning to calm down as the night wore on without attack. The refugees in the house were mainly palace servants and retainers who didn't mind bedding down on a clear space of floor as long as there was a roof overhead and plenty of iron lying about. They were stretched out on blankets along the walls or huddled in groups telling each other their horror stories from the last few hours. Their children played on the second-floor balconies with nerveless unconcern, but no one apparently felt secure enough to put out any of the lanterns, despite the number of people trying to sleep. The only real disturbance was an old woman kneeling in the far corner praying at the top of her lungs, while a nervous young girl anxiously pleaded with her to stop.
Queen's guards and the few remaining Cisternans were prowling the house like caged cats, checking their weapons over and over again and alert for anything. The refugees of higher class were crowded in the Albon Tower and the Gate Bastion, with the King's Bastion being kept as a buffer area between the fay in the Old Palace and the fortified court. Thomas had preferred this arrangement, knowing that if he had to have a large group of civilians under his protection in a battle, it was better to have ones who were trained to take orders without question. Ravenna and Falaise and their entourages were safely ensconced on an upper floor.
In the entrance hall he found Phaistus, standing before the partly open doors and looking tentatively up at the cloudy night sky. "What are you doing?" Thomas asked him.
Phaistus jumped, then shifted the heavy coil of rope tucked under his arm. "Berham wanted this in the tower, Captain."
His reluctance was understandable. On the open roads of the country, the Host traditionally attacked from above, swooping down on men like hawks on mice. Except that hawks were unquestionably kinder in dispatching their mice quickly than the Host would be with human captives. The wards still clinging to this side of the palace were supposed to protect them while outside, but the wards had failed before.
"Well, come on then." Thomas hauled him out into the open court.
The night air was chill, the court lit only by light seeping through cracks in shutters and closed doors. The Albon Tower high above them was only a dim shape in the darkness, clouds streaming swiftly across the moon. Phaistus hurried along in Thomas's shadow, casting worried glances at the sky.
The first level of the tower had become an infirmary, and the sick familiar odor of cauterization hit Thomas as soon as he went in.
The wounded lay on pallets along the walls of the high-ceilinged hall. There were women and children among them, far too many. They had been hacked up by the bronze blades of the human servants of the Host, burned in the sporadic fires that had broken out from overturned lamps, or bitten and clawed by the fay. There were no victims of elf-shot. If someone was hit by one of those tiny harmless-looking stones he fell down and never moved or spoke again, no better than breathing dead, and was lucky if starvation or thirst killed him before the stone found his heart. Anyone struck by elf-shot had been left behind, or smothered by Dr. Lambe or one of the other apothecaries.
Fires had been lit in the two great hearths, and dozens of lamps and candles added their stains to the smoke-blackened rafters. The furniture had been pushed aside to make way for more pallets, and Thomas had to climb over a couple of tables to reach the other end of the room. It brought back less-than-pleasant memories of the Bisran War, of border villages overrun and taken before the inhabitants could scatter into the forest, and of the aftermath of battle.
Dr. Lambe stood near the long draw table where bags of instruments and jars of medicinal herbs were laid out. He looked exhausted and considerably the worse for wear. He looked up at Thomas's approach and said, "Captain, when can we leave?"
"As soon as it's daylight. The Host won't be able to form then." Thomas made himself sound sure despite his own doubts.
Lambe didn't look reassured. "And how sure are we of that?"
"I have it on fairly good authority." He had to admit, "What might be wandering the streets is another matter, but they won't be after just anyone."
Lambe glanced upward. The King was on one of the upper floors, guarded heavily. "You're right about that."
The palace was a trap, and they couldn't afford to be caught in it. Ravenna and Roland would have to be gotten to safety. Whether Ravenna likes it or not, Thomas thought. His first choice was to get them out of the city and to Villon at the Granges--and they would have to be together. Roland would be swept under by the chaos and lose his throne to the first opportunist with a troop. Ravenna could ride the storm.
Galen Dubell crossed the room toward them. Like Dr. Lambe, the hem and sleeves of his robe were stained with dried blood. "What sort of protections are we employing for the evacuation?" he asked.
Before Thomas could answer, an Albon knight stepped up to them and said, "His Majesty requires an audience, Captain Boniface."
Thomas looked at him, but the knight's face betrayed nothing. After a moment he said, "Very well," and turned to Dubell. "Doctor, could you send a message to my lady Ravenna and let her know I'll be unable to attend her for a short time?"
Startled, Dubell looked from Dr. Lambe's stricken expression to the other Albon knights who had suddenly appeared in the room. He said, "Yes, of course."
Thomas followed the knight to the bottom of the narrow stairwell that led up into the tower, where there were two more Albons waiting for them. He took in their appearance without comment and they started up the stair.
It was a long way up to the fifth level of the tower, the many lamps that illuminated the stone steps making the air smoky and close. There were knights standing guard at each level.
On the landing there were two more Albons at the wide oaken door. The knight who had come after Thomas smiled and said, "His Majesty has requested that you disarm before coming in to him."
Thomas met his eyes. As a member of the Queen's Guard and an appointed officer he had the right to go armed in the royal presence, and he also knew what any sort of protest to that effect would mean to Roland, and what would happen if they searched him inside and found a concealed weapon.
In silence he handed over both pistols, his main gauche, boot dagger, and unbuckled the rapier from his baldric.
One of the knights opened the door and they went inside.
The room was far too warm and too crowded. The gold threads in the red tapestries caught the candlelight and cast it back. There were more Albon knights, all showing signs of the past battle. Some of Roland's younger courtiers were playing cards at a table in a corner, and somewhere out of sight a musician played a soprano recorder. Renier wasn't present. Roland was seated in a tapestry-draped armchair, Denzil at his side.
As Thomas bowed, Roland said, "Kneel, Sir."
Even though he was hearing the latch of a trap snap shut, it was second nature to make it look like an easy gesture.
Denzil smiled lazily and said something inaudible to Roland that made the young King giggle and redden with embarrassment. Thomas realized Roland was not drunk yet, but he was definitely well on the way, and he would have bet anything it was Denzil's doing.
Roland fiddled with a torn piece of lace on his cuff, his eyes large and dark. "What is my mother doing now?"
"She's resting, Your Majesty." Thomas kept his expression even and his voice level. The room had quieted, and the courtiers were watching with a fascinated intensity that combined sly amusement at someone else's misfortune and fear for their own necks.
"And my Queen? My cousin has said she refuses to attend me here."
Thomas wondered if Falaise knew she had refused to attend Roland. Probably not. "She isn't well, Your Majesty, and your mother required her to stay in her rooms." This was a lie, but he wasn't going to throw the young Queen to the wolves to save his own skin. If the matter doesn't become academic in the next few moments.
Roland said, "Oh." Even at this time, he realized Falaise was not likely to ignore a direct order from Ravenna. But Denzil nudged him with an elbow, causing the knight standing guard behind their chairs to tighten his grip on his sword-hilt. Thus prompted, Roland said, "And my sister?"
"She's in the Guard House, Your Majesty."
Denzil idly twisted one of his rings. His hands were trembling slightly, probably from excitement. He said, "She was seen smearing blood on the lintels and cornerposts of the Guard House. Now why was she doing that, we wonder?"
How the hell should I know? "I don't know, Your Majesty." Thomas directed his answer to Roland, just to see Denzil's expression tighten with anger. It was hardly likely to be anything detrimental; even Kade wouldn't put a curse on a house and then settle down in it for the night. And she obviously hadn't made a secret of what she had done. It sounded more like a feast-day practice one of the foreign cults in the city performed.
Roland absently rubbed the carved arm of the chair, thinking over his next move. Denzil leaned toward him familiarly, watching Thomas out of the corner of his eye, and whispered something. Roland giggled and looked guilty.
Thomas allowed himself to look just slightly bored. Denzil's attempts to prey on his nerves were having more effect on the Albon who was standing behind him and could hear what he was saying.
Finally Roland said, "Perhaps you told her to do it."
"Why would I do that, Your Majesty?" Thomas had always known that if he had to die to please a royal ego, he wanted it to be as scandalous, messy, and politically inconvenient for as many persons as possible. Disappearing into the depths of the Albon Tower was not a scenario he preferred.
Roland didn't answer immediately. He bit his lower lip and looked at his cousin.
Denzil stood and strolled around the room, behind Thomas and out of his sight. He said, "We don't know what part she had in this attack."
Thomas kept his eyes on Roland. "She was almost killed in the retreat from the main hall." Defending her this way could be dangerous for both of them, but he wasn't sure what Denzil was after.
Roland looked surprised. "She was?"
Standing too near him, Denzil brushed Thomas's hair aside to reveal the pearl drop in his right ear. "That's a gift from the Dowager Queen, is it not?"
The door opened and a knight bowed his way in. "Pardon, Your Majesty."
Denzil stepped away from Thomas. Roland shifted in his chair nervously. "What is it?"
"The Queen... The Dowager Queen has sent a messenger requesting Captain Boniface's immediate presence."
All eyes in the room went to Roland as most of those present realized the implications of this. Thomas thought, Don't provoke her, boy, not now. Ravenna was exhausted and angry and sitting on top of the best-organized force left in the palace with an armory at her back. But if Roland pushed her into a civil war just because he could, then he didn't deserve to be King, let alone to live.
Roland stared at the knight. Denzil started to speak but abruptly Roland waved him to silence and said, "Fine, then, go on. I'm tired."
Thomas stood, bowed, and left the room. He collected his weapons in complete silence from the knights on the landing, then went down the stairs. Martin was pacing restlessly near the outside door.
Reaching him, Thomas said, "Tell her you saw me outside and I'll be there in a few moments."
Martin said, "Yes, Sir," and bolted back across the court. Thomas went the other way, along the tower's wall, until he came to a place in deep shadow but with a good view of the door.
He pulled his cloak around him and stood with folded arms, watching the cloud-strewn sky. The cool wind lifted the hair off the back of his neck, and he thought for a few moments about treason and murder.
But he had learned more from Denzil than the Duke had from him. He thought He had me. He was sure of it. He had tried to provoke Thomas to fight. He wanted Ravenna and Roland at each other's throats; he wanted the palace in chaos.
Denzil was confident. He had expected the attack.
He took the keystone, or he ordered it done. Never mind how he knew where it was; I'll work that out later. He may have killed Braun himself. And I don't have a shred of proof against him.
There was only one thing Denzil could want in return for treason of such a magnitude.
The young Duke of Alsene had so much already from Roland. Would he abandon a secure existence on a chancy bid for the throne, based on such infirm ground as the help of a foreign sorcerer? But is Denzil's existence secure? Thomas asked himself. Or more importantly, does he think his existence is secure? Roland was still Ravenna's son, and Fulstan's. He could have Denzil killed on a whim, at any time. And he was still a young man; he could become as changeable in later life as his father had.
As a patch of moonlight illuminated the court, a swift smooth shadow crossed it. Something large enough to be flying above the wards yet throw a man-sized shadow on the pearl gray paving stones.
Thomas leaned back against the wall, his dark clothing blending into the rough stonework. A reminder from the Host.
As it passed out of sight and the clouds crept back over the moon, the Albon knight he had suspected was following him stepped quietly out into the court from the door of the tower.
Thomas waited until the man gave up and disappeared back inside, then started back to the Guard House.
Denzil was in league with Grandier, and regardless of the consequences, he was going to have to die.
In the Guard House, Kade was sitting on the floor near the stairs. She turned over another card from the deck she had found, winced, swept the scattered cards together, and reshuffled them. Something was happening in the Albon Tower, something interesting, and no one would tell her about it. Who can I pry it out of, she wondered, looking speculatively around the quiet hall and laying out the cards again.
No one seemed to find her presence objectionable. The refugees had brought her everything from amulets to prayer books to bless for luck, and she had collected several apples, an egg, a few ribbons, and a battered daisy as propitiatory gifts. The guards were all nobles and so less superstitious, but treated her as a sort of mascot, which was better behavior than she had had from anyone connected with the crown in a long time. They knew who had been on the wrong side of the bastion's siege doors with them, and were acting accordingly.
Falaise had sent her a pair of boots. The woman who had brought them had said they were a boy-page's boots, made for a masque last month and brought along accidentally in the trunk the Queen's ladies had hastily packed before leaving the King's Bastion, but the Queen had "thought they would suit best." She meant they looked big enough, Kade thought. Falaise and her ladies had small perfect feet, not ugly long-toed things better suited for walking on tree branches. But the boots were soft, blue-stamped leather with gold stitching, and she liked them immensely.
She rubbed the bruised lump on her head thoughtfully. That is, no one objected to her presence openly. She still didn't know what she had been hit with in the retreat to the King's Bastion. An object that small of wood or stone would have certainly startled her, but not knocked her reeling and half-conscious against the banister. No, the object had been cold iron, and no fay had cast it at her.
And Thomas Boniface had carried her up the stairs.
That had triggered a memory, a tactile child's memory. She had been six or seven, playing on the warm dusty stones of a palace court with servants' children, and suddenly found herself among a forest of sharp hooves and tall equine legs, horses snorting and dancing around her. For a moment she had found it wonderful. But just as fear had time to set in, a strong arm had caught her around the waist and lifted her out of danger with a muttered "And what do you think you're doing." She had been deposited on the side of the court out of harm's way, and left with a memory of a deep voice and a masculine scent combined with the musky sweat of horses.
Her father had heard about it somehow. He heard about everything somehow. He had called her a whore. When she had told Galen about it, he had slammed things around his small study and muttered to himself for an hour, but he was not quite worldly enough to realize what was bothering her and explain it away. It wasn't until weeks later when a scrubwoman had explained to her what a whore was that she understood she couldn't possibly be one. A whore, she thought, old stale anger rising again. At that age and about as alluring as an awkward puppy. It's a wonder that I'm not mad as a wool-dyer. It was a wonder she wasn't as helplessly at sea in the world as Roland was.
"Excuse me, my lady?"
She looked up to see a nervous dark-haired gentlewoman on the stairs above, looking down at her hesitantly. Kade thought her one of Falaise's ladies, but she wasn't the one who had come before. Then the woman said, "My lady, the lady Ravenna would like to speak to you in her chamber."
"Oh," Kade said. She collected the cards and stood up.
She followed the woman up the lamplit stairs to the third floor. The rooms Ravenna and Falaise had taken were in a single suite. There was a group of Queen's guards and two Cisternans standing in the anteroom having a low-voiced, intense, and agitated conversation Kade was sure would have been quite interesting, but the gentlewoman opened the inner door to Ravenna's chamber for her, curtseyed, and fled.
Ravenna sat alone near the shuttered window, head turned to look down at the empty hearth. A few carved chests stood open, and richly embroidered robes and rugs were tumbled about and piled in the chairs. Kade fought a surge of anxiety that suddenly welled up in her gut; she was not a child anymore.
"I wanted to know your intentions." Ravenna turned to look at her, finally. "Why you are still here."
Kade looked down and noticed her feet again. She said, "Why shouldn't I be here?"
"'Why shouldn't I be,'" Ravenna mocked. "Your wit astonishes me. Of course, everything I've built with my life and my blood is tumbling down around my ears; why shouldn't you stay and watch?"
"If you already know then why are you asking?" Kade said it quietly, and looked up to deliberately meet Ravenna's eyes. That was good. I did that well.
"Oh, never mind." It was Ravenna who looked away. "I suppose if you actually had some sort of motive, you would give me an answer."
Kade sighed, then realized the old Queen's sharp eyes were on her again and felt a chill that didn't come from the air. Ravenna had set a trap for that telltale expression of relief. "Well," Ravenna said slowly. "Do you still want the throne?"
"No! I just said that; I didn't mean it." I should have known that would come back to haunt me. "Can't you just leave me out of your idiot power struggles?" But it was easy to talk about the throne. Ravenna couldn't understand how little it meant to her.
Ravenna's mouth hardened. "No, I cannot. I'm old, and frightened. I get angry when I'm frightened and your brother does not know when to stop pressing me. Or rather, he lets Denzil tell him that it is all some sort of game, and that his mother will forgive him anything, because she wants him on the throne. Well, I'm having second thoughts about that."
"Don't bother having first thoughts about me, because I won't do it."
Ravenna's hard eyes came back to her again, cynical and doubting. Kade said, "I'm serious. It's hard enough being a queen in Fayre, but this is...real."
"I wish Roland knew that. I tried to teach him to rule, but he doesn't understand. Our people aren't serf-slaves, like Bisran peasants. They'll riot in the cities and rebel over the vine-growers' excise in the country. The balances of power that must be maintained among the nobles of this city alone..." She tapped her fingers on the chair arm and shook her head. "I push Roland, to test him, to make him strong, but he backs away. Then he lets Denzil goad him into pushing me too far."
Kade looked at her curiously. Even in the soft candlelight Ravenna was all glinting sharp edges, her sharp profile, her jewels, her eyes. She wondered if her brother understood that someday his mother would be gone, and there would be nothing to cushion him from the battleground of the court. "If not Roland, and not me, then who?"
Ravenna seemed to ignore the question. She said, "I planned it so carefully. I let the Ministry gain power. The nobles," she invested the word with considerable contempt, "clung to each other in salons all over the city, alternately whining and shouting about it, but they couldn't stop me. I reduced the walls of their private strongholds, took away their private armies, so if the flower of nobility wanted to rebel against Roland they'd have a damned hard time doing it. And Aviler has some concept of how a state should function; he would have been able to keep Roland from making too bloody a fool of himself. I made an enemy of Aviler, even though his father was one of my closest friends, because if I had ever shown him favor Roland would never have listened to him. Of course, Roland never listened to him anyway. And now we don't know where Aviler is, or if he's alive." She stopped and looked away. "If not you, then no one."
Kade anchored her eyes on the floor. She is already speaking of Roland in the past tense.
After a long moment of silence Ravenna said, "I'm rather an all-or-nothing sort of person when it comes to violence. Roland doesn't understand that."
There was a returning quality of strength and calculation in her tone that made Kade look up at her.
The old Queen was watching her carefully again. "Thomas is rather an all-or-nothing sort of person when it comes to loyalty. I don't think anyone at court understands that, excepting myself and the Guardsmen. You could come to understand it."
Kade stared at her, feeling completely transparent under that gaze. A slow flush of heat reddened her cheeks.
Ravenna said, "Are you sure you won't reconsider my offer? The benefits are considerable."
She said, "Listen, you dried-up old bitch--"
Kade took a deep breath to give herself enough air to get the words out. "If you want my help in pulling your fat out of the fire, then you can damn well keep your offers and your speculations to yourself, because I don't want to hear them and I won't, do you understand?"
"Quite well, thank you, dear." Ravenna nodded pleasantly.
Kade stalked out the door and slammed it behind her.
The anteroom was empty. Why do I stay here? Kade raged at herself. I meant to cut off all these old ties, say what I wanted to say, and forget about all of it. To get some peace at last. But I've done nothing but get into stupid arguments with Roland and make Ravenna think she can put me under her thumb again. How dare she even imply... Imply what?
She paced a tight circle in the anteroom, remembering Ravenna's smile at her angry response. Did I just make a mistake?
The door to the hall opened and Thomas walked in. Kade jumped guiltily.
"Did you put blood on the lintels and the cornerposts of this house?" he asked her, keeping his voice low.
She held her hand out, to show him the fresh cut across the white skin of her palm, and thought, He has such dark eyes, like velvet. She was starting to blush again, for no accountable reason. To distract herself, she asked, "What happened while you were gone?"
He regarded her for a moment. "What is it for?"
God, can no one answer a direct question? She folded her arms and looked at the floor. "To keep fay out. To let them know I'm in here, and that I'm not receiving visitors."
"Will it work?"
She shook her head. "Not that well. The ones it will keep out wouldn't be that difficult to deal with anyway. But it's something."
"Why did you choose here, and not one of the other buildings?"
Not wanting to answer, she began to tap one foot in growing irritation. He waited. Finally she looked up and said, "I like it here. There, are you happy?"
He said, "Delighted," and went into Ravenna's room.
Well, I handled that brilliantly, Kade thought. A soft noise made her glance back and she saw Falaise standing in the doorway to her room. She was wearing a pale blue heavily embroidered mantua and her hair hung like a chestnut curtain. She looked like a startled fawn. "What is it?" Kade asked her, temporarily distracted.
Falaise made a noise like a strangled gasp and vanished back into her room.
Kade followed her. Inside was the tumbled splendor of a parlor attached to a small bedchamber, three ladies-in-waiting looking up at them in surprise. Falaise stopped in the middle of the room and shrieked, "Out! I want to be alone." It wasn't the full-throated bellow Ravenna was capable of but it worked well enough. As the gentlewomen scurried for the door, Kade stayed where she was, correctly surmising that the order had not been directed at her.
As soon as the door closed behind the last woman, Falaise seized a wine glass from the table and dashed its contents onto the polished floorboards. As Kade stared, the Queen shoved a chair away from the wall that adjoined the Dowager Queen's quarters and crawled under a table, placing the glass to the wall and her ear on the glass.
"What are you doing?" Kade asked, baffled.
"There's a weak board here. I can hear through to Ravenna's room."
"Brilliant!" Kade climbed onto the table and pressed her ear to the wall, but couldn't hear anything but muffled voices. "What are they saying?"
Short of dragging Falaise out from under the table by the ankles and taking her place, which would cause them to miss some of the conversation, there was nothing to do but wait. Kade paced, tangled her fingers in her hair, and tried to contain herself.
Finally, as doors slammed out in the anteroom, Falaise crawled out from under the table and sat back on the floor with a sigh.
Kade bounced with excitement. "Well?"
Falaise scrubbed wine out of her ear with the sleeve of her mantua. "It was a terrific fight."
"He has a plan for leaving the palace because we're going to be attacked by the fay again. He said they're just waiting, they have a traitor inside helping them, and that when they can come through cracks in the walls, we can't hope to keep them out forever."
Falaise sat back on the floor, hugging her knees, looking up at her quizzically. "Are the wards working?" The question was anxious, but not panicky.
Kade decided to tell her the truth. "They're working up above us. But most of them aren't touching the ground anymore. It's only the siege doors and the gates keeping the Host out."
"I see." The Queen bit her lip.
"But what did they fight about?" Kade demanded.
"We're going to be leaving in the morning. But Ravenna doesn't like some part of the plan, and it made her very angry. She yelled and threw things, and said she didn't intend to die alone."
"Yes, and he told her she was too mean to die at all, alone or in company, and if she thought he was fool enough to fall for these mock hysterics then she should think again and she was going anyway if he had to tie her to a horse." Falaise shook her head, an irritated kitten. "Something happened in the Albon Tower, something to do with Roland and Denzil. But she already seemed to know what it was, and they didn't discuss any details."
"Hell, that's not much." Maybe I can find out more downstairs. As Kade reached for the door Falaise said, "If you find out anything else, will you come and tell me?"
Leaving the room, Kade wondered if Falaise had heard her own conversation with Ravenna, and if it mattered. It might. She is full of surprises.
Thomas crossed the hall and went into the map room. The fire burned low behind the grate and Vivan was gone; he was unsure if that was a good sign or not. He stood for a moment contemplating a faded parchment map of the city on the table. He needed to go back up to Ravenna, but he didn't trust his temper quite yet.
He knew she would agree to his plan. She wouldn't let emotion get in the way of necessity for too long, and it was only his part in it that disturbed her.
And whatever she did, he didn't intend to give in to her this time.
"Captain! Captain, look!" someone shouted from outside the room. Stepping toward the door, he saw Gideon surrounded by a noisy group of guards and conducting another man across the hall in an apparently friendly headlock.
Thomas started forward as Gideon released his captive with an affectionate shake, and felt an idiot grin spreading over his face as he saw who it was.
Lucas and a younger guard named Gerard, whom they had also given up for dead, staggered into the room under the enthusiastic greetings of their comrades.
Lucas grinned back at him. "What are you gaping at?"
"Why aren't you dead?" Thomas caught the older man in an embrace. "And where the hell have you been?"
Lucas dropped onto a bench at the table. "I've been banging on a bloody gate, trying to get the idiot on the other side to let us in. Before that we were crawling through the streets on our bellies. Look, God bless that man for a saint!"
Anticipating the request, Phaistus was bringing in an armful of wine bottles and tankards.
As the wine was passed around, Lucas said, "It's a wonderful story; do you want to hear the version where I climbed the St. Anne's Gate in a hail of heathen arrows with my sword in my teeth and a fainting Gerard slung over one shoulder?"
"You lying bastard!" Gerard objected, slamming down the tankard that someone had just handed him, spraying everyone around him with the contents.
"We got out the Postern Gate, actually," Lucas admitted more soberly. "It's a ruin, no sign of anyone. We couldn't come along the outside wall; there's a lot of somethings-or-others congregated along it that we didn't want too close a look at. We had to go several streets over to get around and back to the Prince's Gate. There's a very large hole in the park side of the Gallery Wing. I couldn't get very close but it looked as though something erupted out of the floor in the Grand Gallery."
Thomas knew Lucas well enough to recognize the fear in his eyes. That fear was masked by bluff, as it was in most men, and the louder the bluff the greater the fear. It was very loud in that room right now. "Out of the floor?" he asked. "Are you certain?"
"Yes. Don't ask me what it was; I've no idea. If we hadn't been in the portico and halfway outside already when it happened, we'd be dead." Lucas turned his tankard around thoughtfully. "As it was we lost Arians, Brandon, and Lesard." He looked up. "That I know of."
Thomas told him. "Twenty-six altogether, not counting you two."
"That many." Lucas looked away.
"What's it like in the city?" Gideon asked softly.
"It was hard to tell. We saw some houses broken into and burned out, but others locked up tight. No one's out on the streets anymore that we could see. There was ten or so palace-folk that crept out after us, but they decided to chance it in the city. We thought we'd try to make it back here so we could die with our friends like gentlemen." He looked around at everyone. "So? How have you lot been keeping busy?"
THOMAS AWOKE KNOWING what it felt like to be a corpse--stiff and cold. The fire had burnt down to coals, and seemed to be emitting nothing but a dim red glow. Any heat produced was lost in the frigid air. He eased out of the chair and started pulling wood out of the stacked pile beside the hearth. His hands were numb.
The kindling he dumped on the coals caught and he started to add the logs. After a timeless wait the heavier wood started to burn and he began to feel alive, and only two or three times his age.
Sitting on the floor in front of the fire and still shivering, he heard the timber frame of the house creak protestingly against the onslaught of a harsh wind. It was an oddly sudden cold spell for this time of year.
They should be due for two to three more months of fall rain before winter set in. It nevergot this cold until after midwinter.
He climbed to his feet and found his cloak on the floor across the room and bundled up in it, then went out into the hall. Only two lanterns were lit there now, and it was as cold as a saint's bed. An old house with this many restless bodies crowded into it could never be entirely silent, but all the sounds--footsteps of patrolling guards creaking the boards on an upper story, the fitful stirring of sleepers on the hall floor, a child's frustrated crying--were oddly muted. Shadowy forms wrapped in blankets stumbled around the dark cavern of the hall's huge fireplace, building up a fire in the hearth that had been scraped clean and unused since last winter. Once they got the blaze going, warmth from the chimney would help heat the upper floors, though not nearly enough for comfort.
Thomas started upstairs, buttoning up the sleeves of his doublet.
There was a small window looking out into the court from the second-floor landing. Ice was starting to form on it already. Clouds still streamed across the sky, allowing the shrinking moon to briefly illuminate the court one moment, leaving it in pitch darkness the next. He could hear the wind howling, and the front wall protesting faintly in response.
He didn't hear Kade's footsteps but was somehow unsurprised when he noticed her standing beside him.
She said, "Grandier had to work on this for days."
He looked down at her but there wasn't quite enough light to see her expression. She looked like a fanciful drawing of a gypsy with her hair flying in all directions and a torn piece of petticoat dragging the ground. She wore a blanket over her shoulders and the night muted the red of her dress, making her look very human and solid. He asked, "How did he do it?"
"A shift in the wind one day, gather clouds from over the sea the next. Very slow work, and very subtle. Oh, it might have made it a little cooler than it should have been, or there was less rain or more rain. But who would notice?"
The slender moon peeping through a gap in the swift-moving darkness above revealed clouds like monoliths, black streaming giants crossing the sky.
Thomas watched the clouds. This was obviously meant to be the last nail in their coffin, trapping them within the city, forestalling aid. "Can you do anything?"
She shrugged. "The spells to do this were set and done months ago, when the forces were favorable. Now the planets aren't in the right houses for influencing the weather, and they won't begin to favor atmospheric magic for another month at least. His timing of its arrival is excellent, and there's no saying how long it will last. Galen might know of something to try, but I don't. I'm only the Queen of Air and Darkness by inheritance, and I don't have a degree in philosophy from Lodun."
They stood there quiet for a time. The wind's fury made the timber and stone wall of the house seem flimsy, as if they were separated from a vicious animal by only a thin layer of decorative fence. Thomas found himself watching Kade. He was no longer certain what to think about her, and that disturbed him far more than it should, considering everything else there was to worry about. I always try to understand my enemies, he thought, but it's time to admit that the one thing she is not is an enemy. Finally, he asked, "What does it mean to be the Queen of Air and Darkness?"
Her brow furrowed, she said, "I don't have a kingdom, except for the castles my mother kept. Some of them are in little pockets of the Otherworld, some are in this world, but protected by spells. But in a way... From knowing Titania, Oberon, the other rulers of Fayre, I have the sense that what I am somehow defines what they are. I might exist to balance them, the way they exist to balance the Unseelie Court. But it isn't good and evil, either. I'm not particularly evil most of the time, and they aren't particularly good hardly any of the time, at least not by human standards." She shivered, and the moonlight brought silver to her hair. "The Unseelie Court doesn't approve of balance, and they're always scheming to upset things. My mother Moire accepted a wager from them, that she could steal all the grain from Oberon's stables without missing a single seed. She got past the fay guarding the stables by changing herself into a beautiful white mare, and she made all the grain vanish--except for one flax seed. The Unseelie Court had suborned a flower sprite that lived in the stable, and it hid the seed in the bell of a flower, so Moire couldn't find it. So she lost the wager, and they sent her to Hell. They seemed to think I should be grateful for it. She wasn't a nice person and we didn't exactly live in a state of joy together, but she was my mother." After a moment she seemed to shake off the recollection and pulled her blanket more closely around her. "The weather will be worse tomorrow. Grandier wouldn't have spared us the snow."
Thomas hadn't missed the hurried change of subject. He wondered why she had told him so much. He asked, "Spared us?"
Kade looked up at him.
"When did it become 'us'?"
She turned from the window and started to walk away, but stopped after a few steps. "Do you remember me?" she asked.
Because of the intimacy of standing here in the shadows watching death come out of the north, or just that he was becoming used to her way of speaking, he knew what she meant. He said, "Not the way you looked, not really. Not very well."
"I remember you."
He didn't reply. The silence stretched, and Kade faded back into the shadows.
Thomas turned away from the window and went down the stairs and back to the map room. The weather was one more thing to worry about, one more factor to take into account. At least a freeze would put off the possibility of a plague brewing up among the unburied dead in the east quarter of the palace, and the rest of the city.
As he neared the open door of the map room, he saw an outline of a long cloak or robe silhouetted by the edge of the firelight. Someone was there. Thomas stopped in the doorway, feeling an inexplicable chill that had nothing to do with the cold.
But a flare-up from the fire showed him it was only Galen Dubell warming his hands near the hearth, his stooped shoulders shivering faintly underneath his heavy robe.
Stepping into the room, Thomas said, "You're awake early, Doctor."
The sorcerer looked up and smiled. "It's a trifle cold for my old bones." He shook his head. "I'll begin work on counter-measures against this weather as soon as it's light. You realize it is not natural."
"Kade told me." Thomas lit the candlelamps with a twig from the fire, and began to go through the maps stacked on the table, looking for the one of the city walls and the solid paths through the water meadows. Under the maps, he found the pile of translated Bisran court documents instead. They had been sent over the night of the attack, and he had never had the chance to look at them.
Dubell took the armchair near the hearth that Commander Vivan had occupied some hours ago. "I must admit, Kade is not the same girl I once tutored," he said.
Thomas sat down on the bench and began idly paging through the trial documents. He said, "I would hope not." The list of questions and answers was much the same as the monk's account had been. Grandier had refused to name accomplices, which must have cost him a great deal. Thomas also thought the Inquisition showed an unhealthy degree of interest in sexual relations with demons.
After a long silence Dubell said, "I find myself wondering at her motives."
Thomas looked up. The sorcerer's expression was vaguely troubled. "I don't think it's as complicated as it seems. She has unfinished business with Roland and Ravenna." Thomas had been younger than Kade was now when he had had the devastating and final confrontation with his father, when he had left to pursue the commission of Captain that would allow him to legally and permanently disown his entire family. The urge to try to settle old arguments and angers had been strong, and his attempts along those lines had turned out just as badly as Kade's seemed destined to.
"Perhaps you're right." But Dubell didn't seem convinced.
Thomas turned over the last page of the trial transcript and glanced over the next closely written document. A note at the top described it as a Bisran priest's description of Grandier's confession during his questioning.
Thomas skipped through most of a page of unconvincing preamble as to why this disclosure wasn't violating the sanctity of confession. The rest of it read:
...and he confessed to me quite freely. He had not dealt with the darkness, or at least the Evil One as we recognize it. He had been approached by the aspects of the Fay, who had offered him powers beyond the reach of mortal sorcery in exchange for mortal souls, which they must annually tithe to Hell to preserve their soulless immortality. He had refused these offers, but our ill treatment (I but repeat his words) had caused him to reconsider. They had offered him swift travel and flight, but what he would bargain for was the terrible ability to alter his physical form, that no wizard of human blood had been able to accomplish. This would cause great pain to him, and once done he would never be able to resume his own shape, nor any other shape that he would assume and abandon, and it required that he could not assume a shape in an image worn by a living man, he must destroy its original before he could assume it...
...before he could assume it. Thomas found himself wiping his hands off on his trouser legs. It had the ring of truth about it as nothing else in the Bisran documents had. It was far too realistic for a Bisran priest, who had been trained to find evil influence in every lung fever and to hate magic like a mortal enemy, to fabricate. This is true; this is what he told them after they drove him mad with torture and accusations. And if you were Grandier, which shape would you choose... He looked up at Galen Dubell.
The sorcerer was sitting absolutely still and watching him with an expression of thoughtful speculation. He was no longer shivering from the cold. "What are you reading, Captain, that has apparently been so revealing?"
"Nothing in particular. A dispatch from Portier." Thomas' rapier stood against the wall near the hearth perhaps four steps away. He started to stand.
"I don't think so."
The gentle contradiction held no anger, but Thomas stopped. He had betrayed himself somehow, but Dubell had always shown a talent for guessing at others' thoughts. I can't let him kill me now. If he burns these papers and walks out of here no one will ever know until it's far too late. It may already be too late.
The old sorcerer said, "Perhaps the time for the masquerade is over anyway. But I think I've been found out."
"It's a priest's report of Grandier's...of your confession during your trial." Thomas slid the document across the table, but the sorcerer didn't take the bait and reach for it. Thomas kept expecting the mask to drop but it didn't. It was still Dubell's face, Dubell's eyes. Dubell's look of regret.
"Indeed," Urbain Grandier said softly. "I didn't expect to have anyone take it seriously. Not in Bisra, at least. They all believed I was hand in glove with the Prince of Hell, you know. As to how the incriminating document followed me here, I suppose I can credit the Church's league of brotherly spies."
The fire popped loudly in the silence. Thomas felt the extreme danger that lay in carrying on this conversation but was unable to stop. Knowing and believing were two different things. If a weapon had been in reach, there was a good chance he would have hesitated with it, and that would have been fatal. And he looked up at me over Trevile's dead body and said, "I'm sorry." He said, "Did you do it when you kidnapped him from Lodun?"
Grandier looked mildly surprised. "Oh, no. It was long before that. I kidnapped myself, you see."
It would have had to be that way. Dr. Surete's death, and Milam's. It was simplicity itself, he told us, if one had the stomach for it. Grandier watched him with a dead man's eyes. Thomas said, "Why haven't you let the Host in yet? That's part of your bargain, isn't it? Your payment to them."
"The Unseelie Court did me a great service," Grandier agreed. "I owe them much. The first shape I took was that of the man who served as the secular judge at that farce the Inquisition deemed my trial. He was so cold, so forbidding even to his own family that aping his manner presented no challenge. He was powerful, and I took my revenge as I liked. I lived as him for nearly half a year, before I tired of it. Then it was a young servant in his house, for I needed to move about without drawing attention to myself..." Grandier gestured the memory away, his expression wry in the firelight. "But my plans do not always coincide with those of my associates, a fact they fail to understand."
A log shifted in the fire and as Grandier reflexively glanced toward it Thomas rolled backward off the bench, grabbed his sword from where it stood against the wall, and whipped off the scabbard. Grandier leapt out of the chair, his hand moving as if he were gathering something out of the air and tossing it. Thomas saw the sorcerer's quick motion and scrambled sideways, coming to his feet as a blue blaze of light struck the wall where he had been. It splashed on the bricks, sizzling and smoking like acid. Thomas threw himself at Grandier with a suicidal lack of caution. But Grandier dodged backward with surprising agility and the tip of the rapier only slashed a yard-long hole in the hanging fold of his sleeve.
They both saw Kade standing in the doorway at the same time.
Thomas's first thought was that faced with the situation the only reasonable conclusion she could come to was that he was attacking Galen Dubell. But it was Grandier she was staring at.
She looked at Grandier with a kind of growing incredulous fury, a combination of wounded pride at being fooled and all-too-human betrayal. The sorcerer looked back at her, and his eyes held all of Dubell's intelligence and wit and the gentle humor he employed on those who pleased him. He said, "No, it wasn't your fault."
The fury flared and ignited and she took a step toward him. But Grandier's hand came out of his robes and he tossed something at her. It wasn't a deadly flash of sorcerous light. It was a handful of iron filings.
Iron wouldn't harm Kade as much as it did other fay, but it would interfere with her ability to do magic. Even as Thomas started forward Kade leapt back to avoid the filings and Grandier pushed past her and out the door. As he crossed the threshold, the candles and the fire were extinguished with a hiss as if all had been doused with water, plunging the room into shadow.
Thomas banged into the heavy table that had somehow moved into his way, shoved it aside, and ran out into the hall.
Grandier was halfway to the outside door, Kade running after him. The few lamps that were lit extinguished as the sorcerer passed them. Thomas shouted for the guards in the hall to follow him, but in the confusion and darkness he couldn't tell if any heard.
Thomas caught up with Kade in the entry hall and together they slammed out the door and into the frozen mud and cold of the court. The clouds had opened up again and the moonlight was stark white, the wind a tearing force, and Grandier was nowhere to be seen.
Kade spun around, trying to look in every direction at once. Thomas did a quick circuit of the court, but found nothing.
"Damn it, where is he?" he muttered. Grandier, loose in the confusion of the palace...
As he reached Kade's side again, she looked up and said, "Oh, no."
Thomas followed her gaze. A shadow had appeared and now grew on the moon's narrow face, becoming larger and larger. It was a blot of greater darkness dropping toward them out of the night.
She said, "He's opened the wards."
Without having to discuss it they both went for the nearest shelter, the lee side of the wellhouse. They were too far from the Guard House, from the entrance of any building. The winged fay plunged toward the ground, then seemed to hover above the courtyard, as insubstantial as a shadow.
The wellhouse's door was on the far side, Thomas knew. They could edge around to it if they were lucky, if the fay beast was half-blind.
Thomas started to slide along the wall and Kade grabbed his arm and whispered, "Don't move." He hesitated, thinking, Does she know what she's doing? Then he noticed the quality of the light change as the moon's sparkle on the ground around them became almost palpable, and remembered Kade's ability to eavesdrop without being seen, and that one of her fay powers was supposed to be illusion.
The creature that touched ground lightly in the courtyard was a living shadow, the moonlight seeming to bend away from it. In the jumble of dark shapes that composed it, Thomas could see only a snakelike motion and the pointed delicate razor-outline of a claw held at an unlikely angle.
Kade was whispering, "Moonlight, shadow, moonlight, shadow..."
Thomas thought, Thank God we're downwind. Then he saw Grandier, walking toward the bizarre thing. A moment later the creature was aloft, soaring upward at an incredible speed.
Kade slid down the wall to sit in the mud.
The illusion around them dissipated into tiny sparkling droplets of light that fell to the ground like beads of dew and disappeared. Fayre glamour, Thomas realized. He said, "Very good," and gave Kade a hand up.
Kade swayed a bit as she stood, not bothering to brush the mud and dirt off her dress. She shook her head frustratedly and ran a hand through her hair. "He let the wards move back into place, after he was past them. Why did he do that?"
Thomas assumed it was a rhetorical question. At least, he had no idea how to answer. The door to the Guard House swung open and torchlight poured into the court. There were shouts from the direction of the Albon Tower. The timing was too good. He wondered if Grandier had cast another spell besides the one to extinguish the candles, a spell to create confusion and keep everyone else inside.
Then Kade demanded, "What did he do with Galen?"
She was looking up at him, those clear gray eyes angry and beginning to be afraid. Not having read the priest's document, she would not have understood that part of the conversation. He said, "Galen's dead."
"Mother, this seems like cowardice," Roland said. He stood huddled in a heavy fur cloak, attended by Renier and two servants, all dressed for hard riding in frigid weather. The other knights charged with guarding him paced about warily, a short distance away. It was barely dawn, and the sky was a solid gray roof, low and threatening. A half hour ago the wind had died and the snow had begun to fall.
Ravenna pulled her hood up over her tightly braided hair and adjusted her gloves. "No, dear, it seems like survival." She turned to Elaine, who stood quietly at her elbow. "Wrap your scarf more carefully, child; this cold could ruin your skin."
Thomas folded his arms and tried not to show his frustration; it was just like Roland to balk at the eleventh hour. Staying in the palace, at Grandier's mercy, was impossible.
They stood in the court below the Albon Tower, an island of relative calm amid the bustle of preparations for the evacuation. Under his cloak Renier wore a gold-embossed gorget and back- and breastplates as many of the Albon knights did. Thomas and most of the other guards preferred the heavy leather buff coats which offered almost as much protection as the awkward armor pieces and allowed more freedom of movement. In the dim morning light servants ran past, coaches and wagons were being loaded, horses saddled or harnessed, all in apprehensive haste. Nothing had been said about last night's confrontation in the Albon Tower, and nothing would be said, unless Roland was an utter fool. Which is not entirety out of the realm of possibility, Thomas thought.
"I'm not deserting my court," the King muttered stubbornly.
"Roland," Ravenna said with a sigh. "You are the court, the crown, and the throne. This place has only symbolic value; you can rule just as well from Portier or the Granges. But only if you're alive."
The King looked away, a little mollified. "I dislike having them say we ran, that's all." He hesitated a long moment, and Thomas silently contemplated the gray sky and braced himself to let Ravenna handle the next objection. But Roland said, "Is it really true about Dr. Dubell?"
Panic and rumor had spread through the crowded halls, and Thomas had spent most of the night trying to quell it. Ravenna's eyes went hard and she said, "Yes, it is true." The news had not sat easily with her; she had hated the thought that she could be deceived along with everyone else.
Roland bit his lip, not meeting her eyes, then nodded. "I see." He turned abruptly and went back toward the tower, the snow crunching under his boots, his servants and knights trailing him. Renier shook his head and followed.
Ravenna smiled ruefully. "A pretty speech I gave about symbolic value, don't you think? One might imagine I believed it." She eyed Thomas with mild annoyance. "I'm still angry with you. I didn't enjoy being coerced into this, but you've got your way, and I suppose that's the height of male ambition."
"That's amusing coming from you," Thomas said without rancor. They had been through this all last night, when he had finally persuaded her to accept his plan for the retreat.
"Perhaps." She watched him a moment, a flicker of something other than cool control in her eyes. "For all your faults, I trust you'll come out of this alive." She started across the court without waiting for a reply.
Though he needed to be elsewhere now, Thomas found himself pausing to watch her. Occasionally he was surprised anew by the idea that someone so frail could also be so strong.
He looked up. Denzil stood only a few steps away, dressed in heavy brocades and a fur-trimmed cloak, snow collecting in his hair. Ravenna and Roland's presence in this section of the court had for the moment cleared it, and the servants loading wagons near the Guard House were making enough noise to cover their voices. Though, undoubtedly, eyes watched them from most of the surrounding windows. Thomas said, "Are you sure you don't want to save this performance until you have a better audience?"
The Duke acknowledged that with a smile, but said, "At times your impatience with Roland is ill concealed. From your manner one would be tempted to think you despise your King."
"I don't despise him, I pity him. He actually loves you."
"Of course he does." Denzil's smile widened, and for the first time Thomas felt he was being allowed to see the man's real face, the truth behind the sham he put on for Roland, for the court. The petulance, the pretense of shallow vanity, were gone, replaced by intelligence and an amused contempt for those the mask had fooled. "And it was well done, wasn't it?"
"It furthers your purpose."
"Whatever that is." Denzil paced a few steps. "I can say anything I want to him, do anything I want to him, cause him to do whatever I want" -- he looked up, his blue eyes mocking -- "I can tell you about it with perfect impunity. And I have made him love me for it."
Thomas looked away, seeing and not seeing the wounded being helped into a wagon near the door of the tower. He felt stupidly, irrationally angry for Roland's sake. Why? You'd think I'd know better than to give a damn about the feelings of a boy-king who spits on me. He was as block-headed as Renier, who actually believed in his oath of knighthood. But he said, "And what a conquest it was. A boy whose father taught him to take abuse. Undoubtedly he believes he deserves you."
"Perhaps he does. Weakness is its own reward."
Denzil was just as crippled as Roland, but in his own way, with his hate turned outward instead of festering within. But Denzil's intelligent enough to see it. Probably he does see it. And probably revels in it. Thomas said slowly, "You are a piece of work."
"Yes, but it's my own work," Denzil answered easily, sounding pleased. "And I've gotten nearly everything I've ever wanted."
And now you're getting a reaction from me, something else you've always wanted. Thomas put a little bored doubt in his voice and said, "Have you?"
"Nearly everything. I wanted you, once, before I realized how much it would have harmed my cause with Roland."
Still watching the wagons, and inwardly a little amused, Thomas said dryly, "How flattering."
"My pride demanded it, because I could sense how you hated me."
A flurry of wind tore through the court, scattering snow around their boots.
Thomas searched for the words that would deal the deepest wound, and after a moment he said, "I know. I found your motives transparent." He looked back at Denzil, and was rewarded by the ill-concealed anger in those cold blue eyes.
"Words," the Duke said softly. "Ravenna is growing old, Thomas. Take care that when she falls, you don't fall with her."
"You take care. When I fall, I'm taking you with me," Thomas said, and walked away.
The Prince's Gate yard, the buffer area between the smaller inner gate and the towering bulk of the outer gate, was closed in by a wall and the south side of the Gate Bastion. Queen's guards and Albon knights manned the walls, last night's tensions forgotten among this morning's fears.
Thomas's horse danced sideways in the churned mud and snow, glad to be out of the stables, and he reined her in. Fifty of the Queen's guards, with Vivan and most of the surviving Cisternans, sat their horses with him, waiting for the lookouts on the walls to give the clear signal. Snowflakes caught like crystal in their hat brims, hair, and the fur of their cloaks. Renier waved from the top of the wall, then the main gate swung open and they rode out.
Many of the wealthy houses along the row had been caught by surprise. The doors and windows had been smashed through, revealing dark empty openings, snow blowing freely in. They would prove perfect daytime lurking places for the fay. A few houses across the way were still tightly shuttered and bore no outward sign of invasion, but nothing stirred as they rode out into the street.
There were a few bodies half-buried in the snow. Their horses, battlefield trained to ignore such things, would have walked right over the first had Thomas not guided them around. The Unseelie Court could not appear while the sun was visible, even when it was dimmed by the gray snow clouds. They would not be faced with the power that had driven them out of the Old Palace unless the clouds grew considerably darker, blocking out most of the light. But the dark fay that followed the Host were not so handicapped. There would be things that flew, that traveled beneath the snow, that would leap down at them from the rooftops and the broken windows of the houses around them. So Kade Carrion had told them.
Thomas wondered where Kade was, if she was watching or if she was back in Fayre. After Grandier's escape they had gone into the kitchens attached to the Guard House to talk. The servants had fired the ovens and it was almost warm. It was not deserted either; men and women were packing supplies for the journey. Along the side where the stores were kept, among barrels of apples, flour, and barley and shelves stacked with rounds of yellow and white cheeses covered with wax, they had stopped. Kade sat on an apple barrel, fixed her eyes on the rubies in his cloak pin, and said, "How do you know he's dead?"
He had brought the copy of Grandier's confession, and handed it to her.
She read it through twice, her eyes bleak. He said quietly, "He wanted us to be completely dependent on one sorcerer, and he chose Galen Dubell. He killed Dr. Surete and Milam after Surete had convinced Ravenna to let Dubell return. He told me how himself, after the golem attacked you in the Grand Gallery. He said it would have been simplicity itself to give either the Court Sorcerer or his assistant an enspelled object, especially if it seemed to come from a friend. So they died, like Dubell himself, his servants at Lodun, that clown in your acting troupe, a spy called Gambin, and Lord Lestrac, who knew too much of their plan and was prone to dangerous mistakes. Maybe there were others. We'll probably never know.
"I thought Denzil was Grandier's agent in the palace. That he'd taken the keystone. But Denzil didn't know where it was kept--only Dr. Braun and Dubell knew that. The night Braun was killed he must have thought of something or found something that he believed important, and he was afraid to tell me with Denzil so nearby. He was on his way back to the King's Bastion. Dubell was coming along the same way toward the gallery. They met, and Braun must have decided to tell Dubell what he had meant to tell me. They went into that salon and... Braun idolized the man and had no reason to be suspicious. He would never have thought twice about turning his back on him. Neither would I, for that matter, and I don't do that lightly. Grandier played his part very well."
Kade turned the paper over, and studied the blank back of it.
Thomas said, "You told him you were going to get into the palace with an acting troupe, didn't you?"
She nodded. "He said he never received the letter."
"But he did. You were right when you said the golem was after you. All Grandier had to do was find out which troupe was likely to get the invitation to court and plant the golem among them. You were the one who knew Galen Dubell the best; you were the one most likely to expose an imposter.
"I think it was Denzil who brought him here. Lestrac and Dontane were the contacts between them, so Denzil wouldn't know that Grandier had taken Dubell's place. That way Grandier could talk Roland out of leaving Bel Garde its walls, and we'd think of Dubell as his own man and no friend to Denzil. Denzil's antagonism would be real, and no one would suspect the link between them. It was the only way for him. Grandier was scarred and crippled by torture, and it would've been impossible to go unnoticed with his own appearance. He used this to move around undetected in Bisra and have his revenge on the priests in the Inquisition, to cause the plague and the crop failure."
For the first time Kade met his eyes. "Why did he let the wards close again? He could have held them apart and let the Host down on us. He could have done that at any time."
"I don't know. I don't know why the man does anything," Thomas confessed. He remembered the burning house in the River Quarter, and how the magical fire had considerately failed to spread to the other buildings on the crowded street. He had noted it at the time, the equal portions of viciousness and restraint, and he understood it no more now than he had then. "Why he would help Denzil of all people... I don't think it was malice against Galen Dubell. It was just that he was perfect for Grandier's purposes. He was trusted, well-known, but he'd been a recluse for ten years. He was living alone at Lodun, without family..."
She interrupted, "He stopped taking students last year. He said he was working on a treatise on..." She stopped, and buried her face in her hands.
He stepped close and pulled her hands away from her face. She wasn't crying. He might have expected grief and rage, but this wounded silence was pain itself. "I'm going to need your help."
Kade seemed to realize he was holding her hands and pulled free. Standing up, she moved away a few steps. Not turning to look at him, she said, "I'm leaving. That's what I was going to tell Galen when I heard you call him Grandier."
She looked back at him. This time there were tears streaking her face, but her expression was that familiar one of exasperation. "There is nothing for me here, especially now."
But he had still told her what the plan was, how he had intended for Dubell to cover the escape to Bel Garde, the closest defensible position that could be reached before nightfall. She had listened without comment. Before leaving he had said, "There's a difference between running away from your fears and walking away from your past. For your own sake, make sure you know which is which."
And that was a damn pompous thing to say to her, he thought now.
The first of the six wagons carrying the wounded who had survived the night left the shelter of the gate and trundled down the frozen mud of the street. They were guarded by about half the surviving Cisternans and a large party of servants and retainers--men, women, and children. Thomas would rather have kept the Cisternans together, but he knew they would obey his orders whereas there was no guarantee of that with Albon knights. Vivan and the other few remaining Cisternans would come with his group.
It was a relief to be outside, to be moving. Inside the walls, it seemed everything was held together by threads which were beginning to unravel.
Thomas looked back at his men grouped around the gate. Baserat was checking the set of his pistols in the holsters on the saddlebow. Thomas also had two long wheellock pistols in saddle holsters and was wearing a rapier with a wide cavalry blade. A dueling rapier was slung over his shoulder.
One large armed party, mounted with only one wagon for supplies, left the gate and headed down the street in the opposite direction. It was the Count of Duncanny, who had chosen to lead away his family, retainers, and some of the other nobility who could not be counted on to keep up in a hard ride. They had some Albons with them, and Thomas could only guess what their chances might be.
The count did not turn around as they rode away, but he lifted one hand to them in farewell.
Thomas noted the similarity to a funeral procession.
The men on the palace wall had vanished. He hoped the fay, and Grandier, didn't guess the significance of that for another few moments at least.
The last wagon passed out of the shadow of the Prince's Gate and Thomas nodded a signal to one of the guards waiting there.
Thomas spurred his horse and they were off. The crash of two coaches barreling through the gate signaled the eruption of the quiet street into pandemonium.
Surrounding the coaches were Lucas and about twenty Queen's guards, the other Cisternans, and a few volunteer Albon knights. Behind them rode the rest of the Queen's Guard and the Albon troop.
Grandier would anticipate their escape. He knew they would have to move now, before the snow choked the streets. Thomas hoped he hadn't anticipated any further.
The promenades and tall houses of the palace quarter flashed by. Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas saw a horse stumble and go down. He couldn't tell who its rider was.
The attack came. A large dark-winged creature struck the top of the first coach, leaping away immediately as its claws encountered the iron nails embedded in the roof. But the coach swayed under the weight and fell sideways, two of its wheels crushed beneath it. The driver tumbled free and the horses screamed, staggering and fighting their harness. The second coach shuddered to a halt beyond it as more fay leapt off rooftops and sprang up out of the mud and snow in the street.
Thomas wheeled his horse, leading the escort group of Queen's guards and Cisternans to surround the two coaches. They fetched up against the dressed stone wall of a fortified town house.
Thomas looked back toward the second company. If Renier didn't follow his instructions... No, the Albon troop and the rest of his men had split off with the wagons as the fay had attacked the coaches. They were heading up the Avenue of Flowers, riding pell-mell for the gate out of the city. But even as he saw them go, an illusion of a confused roiling mass of horsemen settled in their place.
She's here, she's done it. A moment later he saw Kade leap off the back of the coach that Berham had driven and disappear into the illusion she had created. He had intended for Dubell to cover the retreat of the second troop with illusion, the plan he had fortunately not had time to reveal to the old sorcerer. Kade could do it with fayre glamour, which neither the fay nor Grandier would be immune to. Until this moment he had not thought she would.
The coaches had been empty but for their drivers. Ravenna, Roland, and Falaise were on horseback in the midst of the Albon troop, the wagons carrying the supplies and the wounded, and the rest of the Queen's Guard. Ravenna had ridden under conditions almost as desperate during the war, it was one of the few things Roland did well on his own, and Gideon was under orders to keep Falaise on her mount if he had to tie her there. If Grandier was watching, Thomas knew his own presence with the coaches would add verisimilitude to the deception.
Then the fay were on them and there was no more time for worry about the others. Thomas emptied both pistols at the flying creature that had struck the first coach as it stooped on them again, then used the heavy cavalry rapier to slash down at the fay that clustered about his horse. A gunpowder blast erupted somewhere nearby, with the shriek of wounded men and horses--the barrel of a too hastily loaded wheellock exploding.
The horses were trained to kick in battle and their iron-shod hooves kept the fay back at first. Then Thomas saw Baserat go down and an instant later something struck the side of his own horse, knocking it sprawling. He managed to fall clear and the horse tore itself free, staggered up, and bolted. As Thomas struggled to get to his feet, a fay leapt on him from behind and slammed him to the ground. He twisted and shoved an elbow back into it, expecting a bronze blade in his vitals, then the hilt of the rapier that was still slung across his back touched the thing's head. He heard the creature's flesh sizzle and it yelped as it leapt away.
Thomas stood and cleared a path through the creatures with his cavalry blade and put his back to the wall of the house. Blood was slicking his swordhilt--his own possibly, though he couldn't remember being wounded. He saw the second coach collapse and the misshapen dark fay swarming over it, and grimly anticipated their disappointment at its empty interior. He wished Kade had not come with them after all. He hoped she was controlling the illusion from a distance, or had gotten herself away by now.
Above the screams and shouts of men, horses, and fay, he heard the crash of a door slamming open from further down the side of the house. He thought to work his way down there in case someone had found a way inside where they could retreat, but one of the humanlike servants of the Host came at him, swinging its sword wildly. He stepped forward and neatly speared its throat with the rapier's point, then something struck him in the leg just above his right knee. For a moment he felt only the slight pain of a bee sting. Then the ground was rushing up at him, then nothing.
As KADE TRIED to reach the partial shelter of the wall of the house, a clawed hand caught her hair and the back of her cloak, hauling her around. It was a bogle, a short squat ugly thing with muddy gray skin and harsh yellow eyes, and it was grinning at her. She pulled a handful of glamour out of the cold air and flung it into its eyes, giving it an all too temporary blindness, and it fled away shrieking. Damn things, she thought, dodging one of the coaches and its plunging horses. Why anyone allows them to exist is beyond me. If she ever got back to Fayre she would consider dedicating the rest of her life to removing its inhabitants from the face of the earth.
Kade fetched up against the wall of the house, just as the carriage doors slammed open and men poured out. Private troops... No, there were sprigs of white and red tucked into some of their hatbands, the colors of city service. A trained band.
She could feel the iron mixed into the mortar of the wall behind her as a distant heat. The proximity of so much iron made her wary, but she hadn't felt any real emotion she could identify since early this morning. She hadn't been able to leave. The idea of returning to Knockma and being alone with her thoughts was difficult enough to face, and the lump that had been in her throat for hours seemed to be keeping her from any decisive action.
Men came to the aid of the small group formed into a defensive knot between the two wrecked coaches and the house, and the fay began to disperse. The bulk of the house was probably what had saved many of the Guards. The flighted fay large enough to carry off humans had not been able to reach them. A thick haze of white smoke from pistols and muskets hung over the street now, but Kade could see that the glamour that formed her illusion was beginning to dissipate. The reflective quality of ice and snow had produced glamour in abundance. A trick on Grandier, that his foul weather produced material for her illusions.
Kade slipped inside the door with the others as the house troops withdrew. In the large stone-floored room within were half a dozen coaches, stabling for many horses, and the confusion of wounded and dying men.
She made her way across the chamber. Nearly to the bottom of the stair into the main house, she saw a dead man on the floor in Cisternan colors. She recognized him as their commander, Vivan, who had helped her in the palace hall battle. She hesitated, but there was nothing to be done, and in another moment the crowd pushed her on.
She couldn't see any of the Queen's guards, or Thomas, anywhere. With nothing else to do, she decided to look for them.
She made her way up the stairs and into the maze of rooms on the second floor. From outside, faced with only the one uncompromising gray wall, she hadn't realized the house was so large. The beautifully appointed rooms were crowded with refugees from the surrounding neighborhood, mostly shopkeepers or members of the more wealthy classes whose homes hadn't withstood the attacks. They were making an awful noise, yelling, screaming, complaining, children crying, though as far as Kade could tell the house had never been penetrated by fay. Surely they were only stirred up by the battle outside. Surely they hadn't been like this since last night.
She fought her way through crowded rooms until she saw a young servant bustling through, carrying an armload of rolled linen bandages. She caught his arm. "Whose house is this?"
He didn't even look at her oddly. It probably wasn't the most witless question he had answered today. "Lord Aviler's house, the High Minister."
Kade let him go. She remembered Aviler a little from the night of the Commedia, but mostly from the conversation between Thomas and Lucas she had eavesdropped on. His position in all this was obscure, at best. And why do I care?
She found another stairway and went up. The third floor would hold audience chambers and more private entertaining rooms and salons. It was unguarded, since custom and fear of irritating their patrons kept any of the refugees from venturing up there.
It was mercifully quiet. Then she heard voices raised in argument, and in a sudden silence one familiar voice. It can't be... She followed the sound to a carved double door that let her into a large state dining room with a long polished table and candelabra hung with colored glass drops. A group of battered Queen's guards and the lieutenant Gideon faced Denzil and a group of Albon knights while tall sallow Lord Aviler looked on. But seated nearby was Falaise.
Kade stood still a moment, trying to disbelieve her eyes. The Queen was sitting in an armchair, her head down and her hands knotted in her lap. She looked like a prisoner.
Kade started down the room toward them before they saw her. Denzil noticed her first, and Gideon stopped shouting to follow his gaze. She thought, If Denzil smiles at me there will be trouble. But the Duke's expression of angry contempt didn't change.
Kade focused on Falaise. "What are you doing here?"
The Queen looked up, her eyes locked on Kade's with desperate intensity. She was dressed for hard riding, in a man's breeches under a plain hunting habit, with a cloak wrapped around her. "We were attacked, and I was separated from my guards. Lord Denzil found me and brought me here." Falaise's voice held suppressed hysteria.
"He abducted her and brought her here," Gideon corrected Falaise, watching Aviler. "She would be safely out the city gates by now if--"
"If you had been competent to get her out the gates--" Denzil interrupted.
"Sorceress," Aviler said. His voice, used to addressing the loud and argumentative city assemblies, overrode theirs.
Kade looked at him. His expression was watchful and carefully wary. A part of her not concerned with death and the present had time to observe: I must look more than half mad.
Aviler said, "Lord Denzil told me you had left the city."
She said, "Ask him why he didn't take her after Roland and the others. Ask him why he didn't take advantage of the escape we bought for them." And when did it become "we," she asked herself.
Aviler's gaze went from Kade to Denzil. "He has already explained himself."
Gideon swore in exasperation. "You're in this with him, aren't you?" One of the other guards put a cautioning hand on his shoulder.
Denzil said, "We were separated from the main troop, and the Queen had to be gotten to safety." His expression reflected angry concern, and Kade thought, He's acting. He's doing it very well, but he's acting. Does Aviler know that? She couldn't tell. Aviler seemed to be mainly worried over what she was going to do. I'm not the danger here, you idiot.
To Falaise, she said, "Do you want to be here?"
As the Queen started to answer, Denzil interrupted smoothly, "Of course she doesn't. She would rather be with her king."
Aviler spared an unreadable glance for him, but kept his attention on Kade. He said, "The Queen must choose for herself whom she wishes to accompany. I offered to let her go with her guards, but--"
"My lady, please," Gideon begged Falaise, going to his knees beside her chair. "For your honor and your safety, you know we'll protect you."
Kade looked down at the Queen. "Or come with me."
Falaise's frightened eyes went to Denzil. She was afraid to accept help from another woman, Kade realized. With that thought came a cold fury, but it was a fury wrapped in cotton wool, like the rest of her reality. Falaise turned back to her and shook her head helplessly. Kade walked out of the room.
She went out into the maze of salons, seeing servants and a few battered soldiers, but no one she recognized. She could have asked for directions, she supposed, but she was not in the mood for questions. Then she saw Berham disappearing into one of the doorways carrying an armload of firewood. She hurried to catch up with him.
It was the antechamber to a suite. Inside were Queen's guards she recognized and two men in Cisternan colors. Several were wounded, and all looked up at her in surprise. Berham stopped as he saw her. He said, "Oh, I'm glad to see you. We thought you'd gone off."
"Where's Thomas?" The words were out before she quite realized it. It crossed her mind that this was the first time she had called him anything but "you bastard."
Berham eyed her a moment, then he opened the next door and stepped back to let her go in.
She stopped in the doorway.
It was a bedchamber, cold and musty despite a new fire in the hearth. Thomas lay unconscious on the bed, still wearing the doublet and bloodstained buff coat from the battle. It took her moments to recognize him. She had never thought to see him so still, so white. A thin elderly man in a velvet doctor's cope sat next to him on the bed. Lucas was standing over him. He was hatless, and looked as if he had been caught too near a pistol blast; his face and the side of his doublet were flecked with powder burns. Martin was standing at the foot of the bed, leaning on the bedpost, and the sleeves of his white shirt were blood soaked. The young servant Phaistus was backed into a corner, trying to stay out of the way.
Kade took a step into the room, Berham brushing past behind her.
She asked, "What is it?" Her voice was unsteady and she hated herself for it.
The doctor glanced back at her, but said nothing.
Lucas said, "Answer her."
The lieutenant's tone was even and reasonable but the doctor looked up at him and blanched. He said hastily, "I can't find a wound serious enough to cause this. It has to be elf-shot. There's nothing to be done."
Sensation returned and hit Kade with the force of a hammer. She stumbled and steadied herself against the wall. "Get him out of here," she said.
Martin consulted Lucas with a quick glance. He saw something in the other man's expression that constituted agreement, and caught the doctor by the thick collar of his cope and slung him toward the door.
The doctor had a highly developed sense of self-preservation. He scrambled to his feet and darted out without a threat or protest.
Kade went to sit on the bed. She touched Thomas's face. His skin was hot but his sweat was freezing. Distractedly she noticed that the striped wool of the bedclothes was faded, but the plumes topping the canopy were still pure white and the headboard had a design of twining laurel leaves. It spoke well for Aviler. She knew Denzil would have been too petty to provide his enemy a decent place in which to die.
She found the elf-shot by finding the hole it had burnt through his trouser leg. Elf-shot never appeared to leave a mark, and the tiny fragment was lodged just under the skin of his lower thigh. It must have glanced off the heavy leather of his boot top and entered his flesh at an angle. It was why he was still alive. The stone had not had time to work its way further into his body on its eventual track toward his heart.
She said, "I need a silver knife. It doesn't have to be pure, but it should have as little base metal as possible."
Martin said, "That's an alchemy tool. Where would--"
"Or a piece of family plate," Lucas interrupted. "Berham."
"No sooner said." Berham dropped the wood and hurried for the door. He was limping, Kade noticed. It's not too bad; he's walking. Worry about him later.
"Have you done this before?" Lucas asked her.
He didn't ask her if she thought she could do it, and she was so grateful she answered honestly. "No, but I've seen it done." Or at least attempted. Other doctors or sorcerer-healers had tried to cut out a fragment of elf-shot on the rare occasions when it was close enough to the surface of the skin to find, but most made the mistake of using iron rather than silver. And elf-shot didn't lose its power once it was embedded in a human body; if a sorcerer did manage to remove it he was just as likely to have it seek his own heart instead. The fay who cast the shot sometimes removed it for reasons of their own, but those instances were few and far between.
Victims of elf-shot were usually killed to keep them from suffering further, if they didn't die immediately. It was a perfect opportunity for Denzil, or High Minister Aviler. And Thomas Boniface was a disliked favorite whose patron and troop were out of the city by now, if they lived. The doctor might talk. Maybe we should have killed him. It was too late for that now. And why do I care?
Because from the moment you set foot in the palace, he did not treat you as a child, a fool, or worse, a court lady. He treated you as exactly what you are, whatever that is, and he knew what Galen's death did to you.
She paced the room with rabid impatience until Berham returned. He shut the door hastily behind him and brought a small delicate paring knife out of his doublet. "Will this do?"
Kade took it from him and felt the nearly pure silver resonate through her. "Perfect," she said. "Now all of you get the hell out of the way."
If she had spared enough notice, she would have been surprised to see that they did just that.
She passed the knife through a candle quickly, and that would have to do. It was a little too dull but Thomas would be in no position to notice.
She sat down on the bed and gently probed for the fragment. It wasn't there anymore. It had worked its way deeper already. She cursed, fighting a foolish surge of panic, and thought, Why can't anything ever be easy? She knew where it had to be. It hadn't had time to move more than an inch or so down into the muscle. She saw her hand was trembling, and she was glad Thomas was deeply unconscious because he would otherwise have surely said something infuriating at this point. Now, she thought, and carefully inserted the knife.
A little blood welled up, and after a long heartbeat she felt the knife vibrate as the elf-shot adhered to it. My God, it worked. Gently she withdrew the blade. As soon as the tiny fragment was free she closed her fist around it to keep it from flying at someone, stood, and started toward the fireplace. Then she felt it pushing at the skin of her palm.
She froze, staring at her closed hands. If she let it go, God knew who it would head for. But I'm fay, she thought against the rising dread. It can't hurt me.
There's no such thing as half human, Galen Dubell had told her once long ago, and she had typically ignored his words. One drop of red blood is enough. She whispered a fay charm of warding danger, and felt the elf-shot press at her hand, pushing through the skin. Fighting panic, she hoped the planet of influence was close enough and shouted the Lodun formula for the destruction of dangerous objects.
The sorcery worked where the fay magic had not. She felt the fragment catch fire and hastily scraped it off her hands onto the hearthstone. It burned bright blue for an instant, then disappeared.
She sank down and sat on the floor. All those years that elf-shot could have put her out of their misery and the Unseelie Court had never thought to make the experiment, to test to see if she had the same immunity to it as the other fay did.
Idiots, she thought. Her palm hurt like hell.
She turned back to the bed and saw Thomas move his head on the pillow. Feverishly, but he had moved.
She had forgotten anyone else was still in the room, and was startled to find Lucas standing next to her. He took her hand and turned it over. "God damn," he muttered when he saw the burn. "Hey, Ber--"
Berham appeared with a handful of snow scraped from a window ledge. He slapped it into her palm.
She snatched her hand away, then realized the cold had cut the intensity of the pain nearly in half. She watched Thomas while Berham fussily bandaged the burn, and was rewarded by seeing him move twice more.
Much later Kade sat on a stool by the fire and looked at the deep red mark on her hand. It didn't seem inclined to blister, so she supposed it couldn't be too bad. Unlike pure fay magic, the craft of mortal sorcery was a messy business and she was used to hurting herself occasionally. Messy, but more certain, she thought.
She had helped the other wounded as best she could, but without the philtres and salves that were so necessary to healing-sorcery, or the ingredients with which to mix them, there wasn't much she could do. She could have made a healing stone, but that only worked for disease, not torn flesh. A well-stocked apothecary box would have saved lives tonight. The charms to give strength and to hold the soul to the body had little efficacy without the herbal preparations that soothed the wounds. The effort had left her cold and dreadfully tired, and she would have traded all her fay ancestry for half of Galen Dubell's skill at healing-sorcery. And she knew that if she had devoted all her attention to study, she would have had that skill by now.
Kade was worried about the wound in Thomas's leg. The spell she had used to knit the flesh together had seemed to work, but the wound was deep and there was no telling how the elf-shot had affected it. By the firelight, his hair and beard were inky black against his fever-pale skin. She resisted the urge to get up and walk over to the bed again. You thought the world ended when you found out Galen was dead, but when you heard that fool of a doctor say elf-shot...
She took a deep breath and faced herself. It was idiocy to deny it. How could she not know? But looking back, she couldn't see when it had happened. She was not sure how her childhood passion figured into it, or when her carefully preserved distant appreciation of him had been intensified by intimacy. She was even less certain when the thought I want this man for a friend had become I want this man.
Simply because she had never felt it before didn't mean she couldn't recognize it, even though it wasn't very much like the poets and books had described it. Some had implied that the depth of the emotion would hurt; they had not said it would be like the blunt end of a poleax in the pit of the stomach.
She had wondered if being fay would make her unable to love; it had certainly made her unable to feel even the slightest fondness for any of her relations. She had thought she loved Roland once, but then had decided that if she really had, she would not have been able to leave him. She had thought herself as cold as her mother Moire and the rest of the fay, who put on a great show of grand passion but who, underneath their shallow surfaces, had hearts as empty as broken wine barrels. To find that she was capable of love, that it was happening now and under less than ideal circumstances, was more than a shock. It was horrific. And worse, like every other bubbleheaded court lady, she had fallen in love with the Captain of the Queen's Guard. When she was a child at court, someone had proclaimed undying passion for him every other week. Trying to guess who he was going to show interest in and who he was going to brush off had been a game with Ravenna's gentlewomen. Kade felt herself a fool, and she had seen too much bloodshed and horror in the last few days to seek the comfort of childishly wishing herself dead.
She would have to think about what to do at some point. Not right now, she told herself. Just not right now.
Thomas turned his head toward the light. It resolved into a glowing orange fire in an unfamiliar hearth. The room was dark, except for one candle that he could see as a dim glow through the curtain at the foot of the bed. He felt the sweat-drenched heat of a receding fever, and everything ached. Except the wound in his thigh that felt like a hot coal had been buried beneath the skin.
He sat up on one elbow and parted the bloody and burned (Burned? he wondered) fabric to examine what looked like an especially clean sword thrust. It was closed over with a new pink scab, a sign of sorcerous healing.
Then he saw Kade sitting on a footstool by the fire, where she had blended into the light and its reflection on the polished stone hearth, a creature of amber, rose, and old gold. One could never tire of looking at her, he decided. There was always something new to see, an effect made even more interesting because she produced it unintentionally and entirely without artifice. They stared at one another for a time, until Kade blinked and shook herself.
"Where are we?" he asked her.
"Lord Aviler's town house. You've been near dead most of the day, because you were hit by elf-shot."
It took a moment for the words to sink in. He said, "I couldn't have been."
"Very well, argue about it as if you weren't unconscious when it happened."
Thomas looked at the wound again. "Did you cut it out?"
"It couldn't have been easy." It was supposed to be impossible.
"I have had a hard day," she admitted with dignity, lifting a handful of sweat-soaked hair away from her forehead.
He saw the bandage wrapped around her hand and asked, "What happened there?"
"Nothing." After a moment of hesitation, she said, "Denzil's here, with Falaise."
Thomas closed his eyes. "No."
"Yes. He got her away from Gideon and the others when they were attacked. They followed him here, but she's too terrified of Denzil to take their help and Aviler stands about like a great idiot saying the Queen must decide who escorts her."
Thomas fell back on the bed and contemplated the underside of the tester for a moment. "You realize that a short while ago I was as good as dead and this was all someone else's problem."
"You're welcome. I think I know why Denzil's here."
He sat up again, taking a deep breath to steady himself as dizziness threatened. "I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me."
"Aviler. If he's in this plot with Denzil and Grandier, that's one thing, but if he's not...he isn't just going to stand there and watch."
The High Minister. A man who would support Roland despite personal differences, knowing he could increase the political power of the Ministry and it would never occur to the young King to stop him. A man with no patience for royal favorites. A man with nothing but suspicion for royal favorites. "You're right." With the help of the bedpost, Thomas hauled himself up and stood carefully, wincing at the tight pain of the wound. Limping around on it wasn't going to do it any good but he hardly had a choice.
Kade was fiddling with her hair again. She said, "Falaise knows something."
Thomas looked down at her. She was obviously reluctant. "Why do you think so?"
"She's afraid of Denzil."
"She should be." He limped to the foot of the bed and found his dueling rapier and main gauche. He drew the sword to check the blade and saw it was nicked and dented but still unbent.
"I know that," Kade said with asperity. "But she doesn't know that, not unless she knows more than she should."
Thomas hesitated, thinking it through. "How much do you think she knows?"
"She won't tell me. She doesn't think I can protect her. But I think she'll tell you."
"She may have tried to already, and I thought she was after something else. I should have listened to her but the woman never gave any sign she could think before." If they somehow escaped the current situation, that might save Falaise's neck. He could say she had confided to him early suspicions of Denzil but had been unable to give him anything definite. That would keep Roland or some ambitious courtier from charging her with treason along with Denzil. If they got out of this. Damned optimist. Then he realized the full implication of what Kade had said and looked down at her in surprise. "Doesn't think you could protect her? That's ridiculous. You're not a supporter of Ravenna, Roland, or Denzil; you're the only one who could protect her with impunity."
Kade considered that. "Maybe she just can't trust anyone anymore."
Slipping his baldric over his head, Thomas thought, That's an idea we could all have sympathy with.
The door opened and Lucas entered, then stopped abruptly as he saw Thomas. "You're alive," he said, smiling. "And I thought I was about to be promoted."
"Careful, I might take you up on that." Thomas gritted his teeth as he put his weight on his bad leg.
"Oh, I'd have to decline under these circumstances."
"Typical of you. How many are we?"
"Eighteen. Not as bad as I thought it would be for a moment there, but bad. Commander Vivan's dead, and Baserat..."
As he listed the familiar names Thomas shook his head. He would have to deal with it later. Worse that he didn't know if their sacrifice had accomplished anything, if Ravenna and Roland had been able to get out of the city. Lucas finished with, "...and hard as it is to believe, Denzil's here with..."
"I know. I'm about to go and give him the good news about my premature survival. Do you know where Falaise is?"
"Yes, Martin found where they're keeping her. Gideon and some of the others are hanging about outside her rooms, making sure no one makes off with her."
The Queen was ensconced in a suite in the opposite wing. Bloody and ragged, Thomas and Kade drew considerable attention passing through the house. Thomas limped, and resisted the urge to steady himself on the walls. They finally arrived at a suite guarded by five weary battered men with the badges of city service, who were in turn being watched by Gideon and six other Queen's Guards.
Gideon was pacing, and when Thomas and the others entered the anteroom where the guards were gathered, he looked like he was in agony. Stiffly he began, "Sir, I--"
Thomas said, "Shut up," and walked past him into the next room.
The city guards watched with great interest and made no attempt to stop him, but inside were several of Denzil's contingent of Albon Knights, given to him by Roland and sworn to his personal service. Thomas said, "Gentlemen, really."
The knights were well aware that denying a Queen's Guard lieutenant the right to see the Queen was irregular enough, but denying it to the Queen's Guard Captain was practically equivalent to abduction. One of the older knights looked uneasy. "We have our orders--" he began.
Falaise threw open the door and stood there, her eyes wide. She was still dressed for riding and her hair was coming down. She said, "Captain, thank God you're all right."
"I think your orders have just been countermanded." Thomas smiled.
Falaise tapped the knight who was blocking the door on the shoulder, saying in an irritated tone, "Get out of the way."
Thomas thought that if Kade were ever foolish enough to get herself into a similar situation, she would have probably punched the man in the kidney. The knights reluctantly moved aside.
Then from the anteroom Denzil pushed his way in through the city guards, Lord Aviler behind him. The High Minister looked mildly surprised to see them. Denzil stopped when he saw Thomas, and his eyes narrowed dangerously.
Yes, Thomas thought, how awful that it all doesn't go your way. He said, "I was looking for the Queen. It seems the King has temporarily misplaced her." He wondered if Denzil would challenge him now.
The air in the room was brittle enough to break.
"She is under my protection," Denzil said.
"Yes, I've heard all about that, but it isn't necessary anymore."
"I have men here--"
"You have twenty armed men sworn to your service, my lord," Aviler interrupted. "And you, Captain, have about an equal number of Guardsmen in any condition to fight. I have a hundred city troops in service to the Ministry, and I suggest we leave them all to their duty of keeping this house secure."
"A very diplomatic suggestion." Thomas inclined his head.
Abruptly Falaise said, "I...thank you for your help, Lord Denzil, but I do not...require it any longer."
Denzil stared down at her a long moment. "As you wish, Madame." He turned away and left the anteroom. Aviler bowed sardonically and followed him.
Thomas followed Falaise into the room and closed the door behind him. It was a perfect setting for her, with light sarsenet hangings and mirror-glass set in the paneling. There was no maid in evidence. He wondered briefly if Falaise had sent her female attendants away, or if she had even been offered any. Was Denzil on his way here just now because he heard I was, or because he knew Falaise was alone? And was that why Aviler was trailing after him? He leaned on the back of a tapestry-covered armchair to take the weight off his leg and said, "My lady, I think there are some things we need to discuss."
"Yes." Falaise sat down on the daybed and looked up at him anxiously. "About Denzil."
Kade had vanished somewhere along the way, though Thomas suspected she was nearby and within earshot. He wasn't worried about that. She already suspected most of what Falaise was about to tell him. "How much do you know about the Duke of Alsene's plans?"
"Nothing, not really. He..." Falaise looked away nervously. "Denzil suggested that if my husband were to have to leave the throne, I might consider marrying him."
Landlaw again. The oldest traditions held that by being the King's wife, Falaise took on part of the mystique of the crown, if not its authority. If Roland died without leaving children, and one of the possible heirs married Falaise, it would go far to strengthen his claim in the minds of a great many people. There were a considerable number of families with enough royal blood to pursue the throne, and many technically closer to it than Denzil's. But none of them had tried to suborn Falaise... It implies he's fairly sure she's soon to become a widow. "That's treason."
Her expression was earnest. "I know."
Thomas closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What did you tell him?"
"I didn't answer him." She made a helpless gesture. "I tried to put him off. I was afraid if I said no he would tell Roland lies about me, but if I said yes, even if I didn't mean it, he might go through with what he planned. I didn't know who to go to."
Yes, you did. You just couldn't get me to listen to you. Thomas noticed she had refrained from pointing that error out to him, but it would have been against Falaise's lifelong training to tell a man he had made a mistake. No, she would try to delicately manage him, which would make it all the more difficult to get the truth out of her. Yet that tactic had worked well with Denzil. She must have made a good job of stringing him along, if she had kept it up for several days without the young Duke losing his patience. Thomas could easily imagine Falaise swooning, gracefully weeping, and doing everything a woman about to give in did except actually give in. He looked up. "And he didn't give you any hint of how he was going to accomplish this?"
"No. If he had, would that make things any better?"
Falaise was knotting the ribbons on the sleeve of her coat. "It is very bad, isn't it?"
"Yes. If we ever get the evidence against him to bring a formal charge of treason, then he can take you to the gallows with him. You could bring the charge yourself, but I doubt Roland would take your word over Denzil's. There are plenty of others who know Denzil and probably would take your word before his, but their opinions won't count." Thomas shook his head wearily. "We'll just have to make sure it won't come to that."
It was just one more reason for Denzil to die a hero's death at the earliest opportunity. It might not stop Grandier now, but it would clear up a number of miscellaneous side issues and relieve the feelings of several people, among them Kade, Ravenna, Falaise, and himself. But it didn't make it any easier. They were not under Roland's nervous eye anymore, but with the knights and High Minister Aviler as biased witnesses, it was still a difficult problem. "The less you know now, the better," he told her.
"Wait." She hesitated. "I wanted to tell you that my patronage is yours, whatever happens. I know that Roland is against you, but if the Duke of Alsene is gone he would be so much easier to deal with and if things get back to the way they were... When Ravenna isn't here anymore, when I'm patron of the Queen's Guard, I want you to stay as Captain." Her eyes lifted to meet his for the first time. "My patronage, and my very sincere...regard."
Oh, fine, Thomas thought in annoyance. In the language of the court, her meaning was clear. Regard equaled favor, and favor meant access to her bed in return for his support. He looked at her a long moment, keeping his expression neutral. "I'll remember that, my lady."
Listening in the anteroom, Kade knocked her head ungently against the wall and thought, And that is the tale of my life. She slipped out, unnoticed.
When Thomas went out into the anteroom, Lucas was telling Gideon, "--and when he heard about it he went absolutely mad and you're lucky if you're not--"
They both looked up when he shut the door. Thomas said to Gideon, "When this is over we're going to have a talk, but until then we won't refer to it. Now stay here and make sure no one walks off with her."
The young lieutenant winced. "Yes, Sir."
Thomas went out, Martin and Lucas following him. A servant wearing a steward's chain approached them, somewhat warily. "Lord Aviler would like to see you, Captain."
Lucas raised an eyebrow and casually adjusted one of the pistols in his sash, but Thomas shook his head. He followed the man through a small gallery hung with family portraits and to a door at the far end, the others trailing along. As Aviler's man knocked on the door, Lucas dropped into one of the armchairs and Martin leaned on the wall. The servant eyed them nervously, but didn't voice any objections.
Inside was a study warmed by a fire in a pink marble hearth and lit by gray late-afternoon light from two windows in the far wall. The floor was covered with bright eastern carpets probably brought back from the trading voyages Aviler the Elder had made his fortune on. Through chance or careful planning, they managed not to clash with the striped red silk covering the walls. The High Minister was standing with his back to the fire as Thomas stepped in. He motioned for the steward to withdraw, then said, "Lord Denzil's preparing to leave. I thought you might be interested."
Thomas limped to one of the windows. The snow had stopped and the view gave onto the street below where they had fought that morning. The wrecked coaches were still there, though the city troop must have brought in the bodies. The carriage doors below were just opening. Night would fall in an hour or so; it was a nearly suicidal time to be venturing out.
Aviler said, "For a house under siege, there's a great number of people coming and going. I know what you're planning."
Thomas watched Denzil emerge on horseback with his men grouped behind him. They began to pick their way down the snow-choked street before he turned back to the High Minister. "Do you?"
"You're going to take the good Duke of Alsene down. If I hadn't been there, your lieutenant would have killed him in my dining room." Aviler crossed to a long draw table piled with books and papers and sat on one corner, watching him. "I don't mind what you do to each other, and he did put the Queen in unpardonable danger by keeping her from leaving the city." He leaned forward. "But don't do it here."
Thomas watched him thoughtfully. "I don't have that choice anymore, it seems. And he's done more than put the Queen in danger."
"I can hardly believe anything you tell me at this point."
Thomas started for the door. "Then I won't tell you. But if you think he's going to join Roland, you're laughably wrong. Send someone to follow him and you'll find he's taking the street back to the palace. Then ask yourself why."
He went out. Lucas looked up as he shut the door behind him and said, "Well?"
Thomas told him, "We're getting the Queen out of here tomorrow, whatever it takes."
The court had ridden into Bel Garde in the late afternoon, and now in the gateyard Ravenna sat her horse amid the turmoil of servants, courtiers, Albons, Cisternans, and her own men, watching as Renier ordered guard placements. The late Dr. Braun's apprentices already stood before the closed outer gates, working with books, incense burners, and other odd tools to temporarily ward those fragile barriers of metal and wood against the fay. They had been attacked again passing through the city gates, and several parties had been scattered or killed, but the fay had not followed them out. Satisfied with the arrangements being made here, Ravenna let her guards urge her further into the fortress.
Once through the inner gate and the portcullis, Bel Garde's celebrated interior court with its fountains and miniature gardens was visible, though smothered now under a heavy blanket of snow. The stonework on the newer bastion looming over them was as ornate as gilded filigree, with curves, curls, and the faces of classical luck sprites worked into the carving. A gem of a fortress, someone had called this place. Yes, Ravenna thought, but because a sword is jeweled does not mean the blade is no longer deadly. "Find Lieutenant Gideon and tell him to bring Falaise to me at once," she told the nearest guard.
As he rode off she looked down to see Elaine trotting beside her horse and tugging urgently on her riding skirt. "My lady, if you don't come out of this wind you'll get your sickness again."
Ravenna leaned down to remonstrate with her and found herself coughing helplessly into her sleeve.
Acknowledging physical weakness was not something she did gracefully. Once she could speak again, she cursed Elaine, the guards who came to help her down, and, rather unjustly, her horse, who stood rock steady with well-trained patience throughout the whole episode.
They led her through a wide door into a large, beautifully appointed entry hall. It was too cold to remove her cloak, but Ravenna had to admit the relief from the wind was welcome. She gestured Elaine away impatiently and paced, knotting her fingers together, noting the servants who worked to build up the fire were her own and not those of the fortress. "I want this place searched top to bottom."
"Yes, my lady."
The guard she had sent after Falaise came through the door, letting in a blast of cold air. His eyes were worried and Ravenna tensed. "My lady," he said, "Lieutenant Gideon and the other men who rode escort to the Queen aren't anywhere to be found."
Ravenna stopped, staring at the carved paneling in front of her. "And Falaise?"
"Not with the Albons or His Majesty's party."
Ravenna nodded to herself. "Denzil."
Later, Thomas sat in front of the fireplace in the parlor of the suite they had commandeered for a headquarters. Gideon and most of the others were guarding Falaise, and Lucas had led an expeditionary force consisting of himself, Martin, and the two Cisternans down into the kitchens after food. Berham and Phaistus were sitting at a table across the room making bullets, the older man holding the leather-wrapped bullet mold and the younger carefully pouring hot lead from the small crucible.
The most badly wounded guard had died a short while ago. With men Thomas had led and fought beside for years dying and in constant danger, it was foolish to grieve over the death of someone he had in actuality never really known, but he found his thoughts turning to Galen Dubell.
He had never been so completely taken in by anyone, Thomas decided, and that was what disturbed him the most. He had first come to court younger than Roland was now, and had made his way through all the traps and pitfalls alone. Never allowing himself to trust anyone, he had escaped machinations that had ruined others and had learned how to deceive with the best of them. Perhaps he had believed Grandier because the old sorcerer had never asked for anything.
Thomas wondered how Dubell had felt when he had realized the trusted friend or servant that Grandier must have pretended to be had been watching, learning, gathering information for an impersonation that would kill its victim. If the old man had even been allowed to realize that, if he hadn't died in complete ignorance of what was happening to him.
Kade wandered into the room with the air of someone waiting for a public coach and settled into the other chair, and he was glad of the distraction. Thomas had not asked her why she hadn't left the city. They had all assumed she had the means to do so, though they had never had any proof of it.
It had occurred to him that he was taking her for granted, like taking gunpowder for granted when one carried pistols much of the time.
And now she was staring at him. He said, "Yes?"
She said, "What do you think Roland will do when he finds out about Denzil and Falaise?"
He had the feeling this wasn't really what was on her mind, but he wasn't willing to pursue that suspicion. He said, "I don't know." At the moment he was too tired to care about a possible outburst from Roland, though he supposed later he would have to manage it. Interesting to think how it was possible to grow out of the need for power, and to desire freedom from the constant wrangling of those who still wanted it. "Roland, Denzil, and Falaise make an interesting triangle. It's a pity I can't confuse the issue any further by pursuing Falaise." The young Queen was beautiful, but so were most of the other women at court. She was also the kind of woman for whom men would continually ruin themselves, and he was past that stage. Did Denzil want Falaise, or was that the only way he knew to approach her? Falaise had evidently not wanted him. Thomas doubted she wanted anybody. Her offer to him had held no warmth. She offered her body because she thought it was part of the process of sealing an agreement.
Was I like that? Thomas wondered. Was that what I thought when Ravenna first approached me, all those years ago?
Kade interrupted his thoughts. "Why not?"
He had time to notice that he had spoken to her in the offhand way he might speak to a friend, without any regard for propriety or anything else. He also suspected he had just opened the way for her to ruthlessly question him about whatever subject occurred to her, but it was too late to stop at this point. "If I were going to raise a child, I'd have started before now."
Kade greeted this with another long moment of enigmatic silence, then she said, "Oh." She looked into the fire for a little while, then chuckled to herself.
He glanced at her suspiciously. "What?"
"Nothing." Another pause, then she asked, "How did Denzil get such a hold on Roland? That he can threaten the Queen, of all people, with her too afraid to ask for help?"
Thomas watched the fire for a moment, remembering. "Right before your father died, Roland tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists, but he bungled it. Denzil found him, bandaged him up, concocted a story to explain it. He also kept him from attempting it again."
Kade bit her lip, thinking, then shook her head. "But that almost seems like Denzil must care for him, and I may be odd, but I can't imagine that."
"You can care for someone and hate them at the same time. And Denzil was nothing without Roland's support then. He needed a live prince to attach himself to." He glanced over at her. "Don't look like that. Roland didn't have to fall into Denzil's clutches. Look at you. You haven't got a Denzil hanging about somewhere in Fayre, have you?"
"Of course not." She shuddered theatrically. "And I was not looking guilty, I was looking thoughtful."
Thomas hadn't said the word "guilty," but he didn't intend to point that out. If she could fall into such an obvious trap then she must be considerably distracted.
A log rolled to the edge of the hearth, and he stood, somewhat awkwardly, supporting himself on the arm of the chair, to push it back in with the poker.
Kade winced. "I'm sorry about that."
He dropped back into the chair. "About saving my life? There's a cheery sentiment."
She refused to be diverted. "What if it never heals?"
She was just as well aware as he was about what it would do to his speed in a fight. "Well, I'm getting old for a duelist. It probably won't make any difference in the long run."
"Don't say that; I have enough to worry about." Kade slumped further down in her chair. "How are we going to get rid of Denzil?"
Thomas wondered how she could sit like that without breaking her back. He answered, "I'm going to kill him, if I ever get the chance. But I'd like to do it without dooming Falaise, myself, or anyone else."
"I could do it. Roland hates me anyway, and he can't come after me where I live."
He snorted. "I'm hardly likely to ask you to do a thing like that."
"It's nothing I haven't done before."
The somewhat airy way she said this caused him to doubt that she was as indifferent as she pretended, but he answered, "I don't care if you go about murdering people every afternoon. You'd make me look a fool or a worse scoundrel than Denzil, and I'd think of some horrific way to retaliate."
She shrugged and rubbed the arm of the chair distractedly. "It shouldn't matter, even if I am related to him. I wished my father dead."
Thomas frowned. "What makes you say that?"
Her eyes on the fire, Kade said slowly, "I wished it, very hard, with everything I had, which I was beginning to realize might be quite a bit. And he died."
"He didn't just fall over dead."
"Yes, he did." She looked stubborn.
"No, he did not. Were you there?"
"No, of course not, but I know what happened because I caused it."
"I don't know why I bother to listen to you argue in circles."
Kade made an exasperated gesture. "Because you can't come up with anything better than 'No, he did not.' How do you know? My magic was wild then, I didn't know what I was doing, I could have caused any amount of harm."
He was silent for a long moment. He said finally, "Does it matter, as long as he's dead?"
"No, I suppose not." She sank further in her chair and stared at the fire.
Thomas glanced back at the two servants. Berham was deep into a story of one of the last battles of the Bisran War, and Phaistus was so engrossed in it he was getting hot lead all over the table. He turned back to the fire. "Fulstan was poisoned."
Her expression went blank. It was hard to tell if she was astonished or not. He said, "Ravenna did it. I got the poison for her. It was foxglove, as I recall."
Kade stood up and walked around the room in a circle. After a few moments she wandered back to the fire and sat down again as if she had just arrived.
Thomas added, "Believe it or not, Ravenna never quite realized what Fulstan was doing to you or to Roland. She's very single-minded. He knew he should be wary of her, but she couldn't touch him under court- or landlaw, and I suppose he thought his position was safe. After your little outburst in the cathedral, she began to wonder why you'd become such a terror. I discovered some of the details for her so she sent you out of the city to the convent. You'd been gone a week when Roland botched his attempt to bleed to death, and when she heard about that she made the decision." He shrugged. It all seemed a very long time ago. "There wasn't any dancing in the streets, but most of the mourning was insincere."
She was silent for a long time, and Thomas listened to the fire crackle and Bertram's voice in the background. Finally Kade said quietly, "I never thought anybody wanted to kill him but me. Even Roland thought it was something he did, like not riding well enough or playing games badly."
Thomas leaned forward and added another log to the fire. "Well, it was time you knew."
It was much later and most of the house was asleep when Kade made her way up to the highest attic and eased up the sash of a window there, mindful of the nails in it. It was cold, bitterly cold, with a patina of frost glittering over every surface and clouds hiding the stars. It was very dark and the moon was in its waning; in the Old Faith, it was the dark time, the death of white magic. The reigning time of the Host. The gray-black rooftops spread around her like an angular un-moving sea. She could just see the palace from here as an odd collection of shapes, some recognizable as towers, another as the dome of the Summer Residence. The faint glow of witch-light flickered over the walls.
She climbed out onto the slate-shingled roof of the gable just below and sat in front of the window, to keep anything from trying to enter the house behind her back. She shivered and hugged her knees, though she had augmented her clothing with a man's shirt Berham had found for her and Thomas's battered buff coat.
I did not kill my father. Her emotions were as tangled as a jumbled collection of beaded necklaces. She wished she could untangle the strands and run them through her fingers one by one. Disappointment, that she could understand. It was not an odd emotion for someone who had believed a lie was the truth, particularly as it was a lie she had told herself. Confusion, anger, remembered fear, all these were explicable, if hopelessly intertwined. It was the strange sensation of release, the sense of freedom that she couldn't understand, that made her face hot and her hands numb with the strength of it. As if something tightly coiled inside her chest had relaxed a trifle. It seemed to make other things possible as well. It seemed to imply that it might be possible to forget, eventually. Time to stop dreaming like a child, she told herself with an irritated toss of her head. Time to think and plan.
She closed her eyes and whispered, "Boliver, come here now; I need to talk to you." A gust of wind carried the words away.
Nothing happened. I hate it when he makes me do this. "As Queen of Air and Darkness, and on my sovereignty of Knockma, I call Boliver Fay."
For a long breathless moment there was no answer, then out of the cloud-covered sky a star fell. It plunged toward her and landed lightly at her feet, then resolved with a flash of light into Boliver, who said, "It's not bloody easy getting here, you know." He was about Kade's height, wizened and red bearded, and his vivid blue eyes were worried. He wore a high peaked hat and a somewhat tattered velvet doublet.
"No, I don't know. That's why I called you. How is Knockma?"
"Not so good. There are members of the Host drawn up on the border to Fayre, though not a sign of them on the mortal side, so far. They didn't like you much to begin with, and now with you taking the human part in this war--"
"Is everyone all right?" Kade had worried about her household. Some of them were human, and none terribly good at defending themselves.
Boliver was offended. "You know I wouldn't let anything happen to them. But why are you doin' this? Have you gone witless? You didn't make up with your brother by chance?"
"No, of course not." Kade doubted she ever would. Roland wouldn't welcome such an overture, and she wasn't certain she wanted to make it anymore. There was too much history between them, and they might only remind one another of things better forgotten. The news that he had tried to take his own life had been an unpleasant surprise, and her thoughts shied away from it. She looked out over the dark dead city again. "I've got a reason for it."
"'A reason,' she says. Oh, joy." Boliver rolled his eyes.
She rubbed her forehead. "I'll hold Knockma for us, don't worry."
"I'm not worried." He let his knees knock and his teeth chatter convincingly. "I'm petrified. I've no wish to vanish down Evadne's gullet. Or watch me bosom companions do likewise."
"Neither do I." She shifted impatiently. "I need your help."
He snorted. "As if I had a choice."
"Well you don't, so be quiet and listen. I need you to fly over the palace and tell me what you can see."
"Fly over the palace? What have I done to deserve it? With all those boglie-woglies everywhere?"
"Yes. I'd do it if I could, but I can't, and that's all there is to it!" Boliver was her oldest friend in Fayre, and she didn't want to risk him, but there was no other way to learn what she needed to know. If there was one thing Kade regretted, it was her lack of the fay ability to shape-change and to fly.
"Yes, yes. I know. You've got your head set on defeating the Unseelie Court and their minions one-handed, I suppose, and there's no dissuading you. Well, wish me luck."
She stood as he vanished into starlight and streaked away toward the shadowy bulk of the palace towers. "Luck," she whispered.
THOMAS WOKE BEFORE dawn, the wound in his leg stiff and sore. Despite the fire, the room was frosty and he sat on the bed and struggled into his doublet. He stood and limped around until he could walk without obviously hobbling, then tried to do a fencer's full extension. He got halfway down and needed the help of the bedpost to get back up.
Phaistus was sleeping in front of the doorway, rolled up in a rug and snoring. He hadn't stirred when Thomas was bumping around the room and didn't wake when he stepped over him and opened the door.
The anteroom was lit only by two candles on the mantel, their soft light making the blue wallpaper dissolve into shadow and hiding the disarray of the fine furnishings. Kade was sitting on the floor with the contents of an ebony trinket cabinet spread out around her. It was probably the silver-gilt curiosities and mother-of-pearl boxes that had attracted her attention, but it was the seashells, the baby's skull, and the ostrich egg that had undoubtedly kept it.
She looked up at him. "Are you going back to the palace today?"
It was too early for this. He dropped into an armchair. "Wouldn't that be an extraordinarily foolish thing to do?"
"I don't know. I don't think about things that way." She held up a seashell with her bandaged hand, passed the other hand in front of it, and the shell disappeared. "I suppose it would depend on why you were going. And who went with you." She pulled the shell out of her right ear. "Do you want to find the keystone?"
Thomas watched her for a moment. She was giving the shell the sort of concentration usually reserved for a deep philosophical problem. He was certain Denzil had returned to the palace yesterday, and he meant to discover why. He had thought the keystone was a lost cause. "Would that do any good?"
"The wards themselves are still there, drifting over the older parts of the palace, and the other wardstones are still in place. If we replace the keystone, it will pull the wards back down into their original courses, and the Host will have to leave or be trapped inside."
Thomas knew Grandier must have taken the stone, probably soon after he had arrived at the palace, but that still didn't leave them a clue of where to look for it. "He could have hidden the keystone anywhere inside the palace. Or more likely, he handed it to Dontane, that night at court when he was there, to hide somewhere in the city. It would be like looking for one certain rock in a quarry."
"But it's a very special sort of rock. If I could get to one of the plain wardstones, and take a chip from it," Kade said slowly, "I might be able to use it in a spell, to find the keystone."
Thomas frowned. "How?"
"Years and years ago when all the stones were placed in the warding spell, they became one. Even when the keystone has been removed, and the matrix isn't there anymore, the stones remember. It's like using a lock of hair to find a person." She stared at the shell in her hand, vexed. "I should have thought of this before we left the palace yesterday."
"There aren't warding stones in the Old Courts. It would have been just as dangerous to go into the other part of the palace then as it is now," he said. And you had other things to think about. "If you came with me, you could do this spell while we were in the palace, and discover if the keystone is still there?"
Kade considered this a moment, her eyes moving through the collection of curiosities on the floor. "No. Am I a fool for being honest?"
"No. Am I a fool for expecting you to be honest?" Even as he said it he realized it was true. He had been prepared to believe her answer, even if it had served her purpose.
Kade didn't look up at him, staring instead at the shell lying on her bandaged palm. "So, whatever are we going to do?" She closed her hand, and opened it again. The shell had vanished.
"Don't play coy; it ill becomes you."
She pulled the shell out of her ear again and for the first time looked at him directly. "All right, will you say I can come with you or do we have to have a loud fight about it and attract the attention and speculation of the entire house?"
Thomas sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I don't know, I could do with a loud fight. Gets the blood moving." He had seriously considered asking her to come already. She could escape any danger far more readily than he could and with her help his chances of accomplishing something increased to the point of the almost possible.
Kade made the shell vanish again, stood to lean on his chair arm, and apparently found it in his ear.
This time he saw it come out of her sleeve. "Get away from me," he told her cordially.
Kade smiled. "I'm going with you, am I not?"
He said, "Yes. We'll both be fools together."
Falaise did not complain when told she had another long ride ahead of her. She seemed just as anxious to go as they were to send her on her way.
The Queen's presence had assured them the loan of some of Aviler's horses, and the servants readied them in the large roofed court that held the house's stables. The large chamber was warmed somewhat by the presence of the animals and was probably one of the more comfortable areas of the house. This did not entirely account for the number of city guardsmen who had ostensibly shown up to see them off, probably on Aviler's orders.
Thomas was sending all the guards who had survived the flight from the palace, even the most badly wounded. Aviler would probably interpret this as the basest form of distrust, but at the moment the last thing Thomas cared about was the High Minister's opinion of him.
He drew Lucas aside while Gideon was helping Falaise to mount and said, "I'm not going with you. I'm going back to the palace."
He hadn't thought this would be well received and he wasn't mistaken. Lucas stared at him incredulously. "Why?"
They keep asking me that, Thomas thought. Do I seem bored, that I have to invent these things to keep myself busy? "Why do you think? That's where Denzil went. He must realize that we'll get the Queen out of here, and with her gone he's not likely to come back."
"What if he isn't there?"
"If he is, it's the best chance I'm likely to have at him. If he's not, I can at least have a look at what's happening there before I go on to Bel Garde." He didn't know if Aviler had sent someone to follow Denzil or not; probably not, and he didn't want to give his own plan away by asking. It seemed unlikely that Aviler was in the plot with Denzil, but it had seemed unlikely that Galen Dubell was anything other than what he had appeared.
Lucas said, "Send someone else, Thomas. Or I'll go."
"No, it's a fool's mission. I'm not Roland, to send someone off to die on an idiot whim." Thomas glanced around. The argument, though low voiced, was attracting the attention of the city guards who were loitering in the stable and of Lord Aviler himself, who was watching from the narrow second-floor balcony where an arched door led into the rest of the house.
Lucas noticed and made a concentrated effort to appear calm. "You're going alone?" he asked.
Thomas found himself curiously reluctant, as if he were admitting to something. "No, Kade is coming with me."
"She's a sorceress, and she can get me back in without a fight."
"I know, I know." Lucas hesitated. He looked toward the other men who were saddling the horses, or waiting half-nervously and half-impatiently for them to get on with it. "She could do it by herself. You don't need to go with her."
Thomas shook his head. "She's not invincible, she only thinks she is."
"So do you." Lucas looked back at him, saying deliberately, "In your condition, you'd probably slow her down."
"Then it's no loss to anyone if I don't come back."
Thomas had spoken with more heat than he had intended, but Lucas seemed to realize that line of argument was not going to get him anywhere. He said, "I'll wait for you here."
"I need you to go with Falaise."
"Gideon can do that. He's not a fool; he'll get her there."
They were both silent a moment. Thomas didn't want to force the issue, not here, not now, and not with an audience. He said, "All right, then, but keep a couple of the men with you. And don't wait too long. If it takes more than a day, we'll have to hole up somewhere for the night, and this place may not be safe much longer. If something starts to happen, get out and ride like hell for the gates."
Lucas nodded distractedly, then without looking at him said, "You know that girl's half in love with you."
"Falaise will keep." Thomas looked over at the Queen, who sat her horse with a kind of delicate ease, a few ringlets escaping from her hood. "If anything, it will make things easier in the long run--"
"I'm not talking about Falaise." He hesitated. "You didn't see her when she thought you were dying. I did."
There was only one other "her" he could mean. Thomas said slowly, "Well, she's the excitable type."
"It was more than just that."
"You're mad," Thomas told him, but couldn't help thinking about a woman who chuckled wickedly to herself at odd moments and offered to kill people for him.
"I'm only telling you to watch yourself, that's all," Lucas said, his expression serious. "She's not exactly an ordinary woman."
"I realize that," Thomas said. Believe me, I realize that.
"You think you do, but I've known you a long time and you've got a blind eye when it comes to this type of woman."
Thomas said, "Now I know you've gone mad," and turned and went back toward the others. Gideon was holding the bridle of Falaise's horse and looked up as he approached. Thomas said, "Do you think you can get her back to Roland without losing her somewhere along the way?"
The younger man's eyes lit up at the chance to redeem himself. "I'll get her there safely if I die for it."
"Don't die until she's out of the city."
Falaise leaned down and said, "Captain, remember what I said."
"I will, my lady," he answered, thinking, Let's all survive the day at least before we start plotting again.
Kade was waiting beside the sorrel gelding Thomas had chosen for their outing. He had managed to get his buff coat back from her, and she was wearing instead a thick wool doublet that Berham had scavenged for her over about a dozen other layers of assorted clothing. She asked, "What was all that about?"
He checked the girth, then swung up into the saddle. "None of your concern."
"I'll wager it was."
He looked down at her. "Would you like to be left behind?"
"Not particularly," she answered brightly, dropping the matter with an insight that shouldn't have surprised him. She held up a hand and after a moment he leaned down and helped her climb up behind him. Two grooms opened the carriage doors, allowing in a wave of frigid air, and she said, "What a nice day this is, except for the prospects of being killed and freezing to death and all that."
Thomas, feeling the light pressure of her weight at his back, tried to avoid thinking about what Lucas had said.
He guided the horse out onto the street and waited until Gideon, Falaise, and the others had started on their way to the city gates, then turned back toward the palace. The sky was gray, almost the same color as the dingy snow piled deep in the streets, and the wind played roughly over the tops of the houses. He was reluctant to take the direct route they had used to escape, but the first side street he picked was blocked halfway down by rubble and a pile of collapsed scaffolding, some noble's building project that had not withstood the shock of the attack, let alone the test of time.
They backtracked, then cut through an alley to the next street. It was slow going, the horse picking its way through the knee-deep drifts with some difficulty. The town houses towering up on either side gradually gave way to the more dilapidated structures of the trading classes. The shingled roofs became wood instead of slate, the brick facades showed signs of wear, and ramshackle balconies overhung the street. It was hard to tell how much damage had been done here; the windows were tightly shuttered as if for night, and there was no sign of life. Thomas was keeping an eye on the tops of the buildings, and spotted the fay before it saw them only because he noted the unevenness in the spacing of the ornamental gargoyles atop the roof of an aging church. Kade said, "Wait," and he reined in, the horse sidling uneasily. The quality of the light around them changed as Kade covered them with illusion. They moved slowly on beneath the waiting presence, unnoticed.
They had ridden a short distance down the deserted street when Kade said suddenly, "I wonder why they did it."
"The Unseelie Court." He felt her shrug. "The Bisran document said they wanted souls to trade to Hell for their immortality, but that's nonsense. Not even the Host trades with Hell. Besides, you can't just send someone there; they have to go on their own. So what did Grandier give them?"
Once Thomas had known who Grandier was, the plot had started to peel away like the layers of an onion, but there was still much they didn't know. Grandier's motivation for helping Denzil for one; Thomas refused to believe Grandier was acting simply out of madness. "Maybe it isn't what he gave them, but what he's promised them. What would they want?"
"The only thing that stands against them is the Seelie Court. And iron wielded by humans."
"Destroying us isn't going to do anything to the Seelie Court, is it?"
"No, they don't care about anyone."
"So... They can't destroy our ability to make iron. No matter how badly they ravage the countryside, they can't get every blacksmith." He paused as an errant gust of freezing wind whipped down into the street, momentarily making breathing difficult, then continued, "Bisra will invade long before they can get around to that, and they'll have another iron-wielding army to deal with."
Kade sounded thoughtful. "Will the Bisrans come here?"
"No, they'll strike at Lodun. It's closer to their border, and they have to eliminate the sorcerers there before they advance any further. If they move fast, if our crown troops are still trying to retake this city, they just might succeed." Lodun had been a small town before the founding of the university. It had since outgrown its confining and protective walls and depended on the strength of the border garrisons for its defense against possible attack from their longtime enemy. With the capital in chaos and unable to send provisions or fresh troops, those garrisons could be swept away. "There are some powerful sorcerers there, but without troops to back them they can't hold off a large assault. The Bisrans would have to cross a countryside where there would be a peasant in every bush with a matchlock; but of course that wouldn't do more than delay them. They would finish us, then tear through Adera and Umberwald." It would be a long bloody war.
"Human sorcerers," Kade said suddenly.
"I was wrong. The enemies of the Unseelie Court are the Seelie Court, iron, and human sorcerers."
"Which Lodun is well supplied with. Grandier could have told them that he would destroy Lodun. And he will. Bisra will do it for him." It was a neat bit of reasoning, but it didn't explain Denzil's position. Could he possibly be bargaining to be a puppet princeling under Bisra's domination? There wouldn't be anything left worth ruling; the Bisran Church would condemn as a heretic everyone from Lodun sorcerer-philosophers to the peasants who kept a sprig of rowan over their doorways. "Right now Grandier has us over a barrel. We're on the defensive, forced to react to whatever he chooses to do. If Bisra invaded again, we would have to forget an attempt to retake this city and use the troops to fortify Lodun and the border."
"But Grandier must hate Bisra, hate it worse than anything," Kade protested.
Thomas reined in. "There's something coming down the street."
Kade leaned around him. "I can't see it."
"It was near the ground."
The horse reared suddenly, and it took Thomas all his strength to wrestle it down. Kade slipped off and staggered in a high drift, and Thomas dismounted. He held onto the reins and tried to soothe the horse as the animal whinnied and jerked its head. Behind him Kade murmured a curse. He looked down and saw white mist rising out of the snow. It was no more than a foot or so above the ground, but it was becoming thick and solid with alarming speed.
The horse made a violent convulsive movement that nearly yanked Thomas off his feet; he let go of the reins to avoid being knocked down. The horse bolted awkwardly away, leaving a trail of blood in the snow. It was only able to make a short distance up the street before it staggered and collapsed, felled by whatever was rising out of the ground.
The nearest building, a three-story stone structure that seemed to be leaning slightly under the weight of the snow, had a staircase running up its side to the roof. Though it looked casually put together and was slippery with ice, it seemed a safe haven at the moment. Kade had already retired to a step above the rising mist, and Thomas quickly climbed after her.
"It's a boneless," Kade said. She was digging in the pockets in her smock and muttering to herself. Above her rough gloves, her wrists were dotted with blood where she had touched the ground to catch herself when she had stumbled. "This may be a problem. It doesn't have eyes to fool, and I don't have a spell that can hold it back, the way it oozes around obstacles."
Thomas said, "Go further up."
They climbed to the second floor and Thomas stopped to see what the creature would do. The mist had taken on a kind of half-solidity, becoming a white undulating form. On the step above him, Kade shifted impatiently.
It reached the stairway and hesitated. A white translucent tendril touched the bottom step, then it flowed onto it and began to climb after them. "I didn't know it could do that," Kade said, obviously taking the thing's action as a personal affront. Thomas gave her a push to get her started and they climbed up to the third floor.
The houses were so close together that the street might have been lined with one continuous structure. The garrets of one hung over the next roof, and the overhanging balconies were awkwardly shoved together. There was a slippery step down to a projection of ice-covered roof, then a brief scramble over the wooden rail to the next house's balcony. Kade climbed like a monkey.
They went that way down the street, balcony to balcony, taking to the icy roofs only when it was absolutely necessary. They were more exposed to the wind up here and the cold was intense. Thomas kept up a good pace, trying to ignore the aching wound in his leg.
They reached the end of the street, which opened into a square with the far side formed by the palace wall and the Postern Gate.
It was deadly quiet. Before the attack, this area had been a small marketplace, crowded with street vendors, musicians, pickpockets, and madmen proselytizing new cults. Now it looked as if it had been run over by a cavalry charge. The ramshackle stalls that had grown like spiderwebs between the pillars of the large countinghouse were smashed, and the statues atop the public fountain were broken off, their naked copper pipes leaking trails of ice.
The last house had partially collapsed, and the nearest stairway to the street level was blocked by wooden debris.
As Thomas wrested the heavy wooden boards aside, Kade said suddenly, "What are you going to do afterward?"
"After this is over."
He stopped and stared at her. She was holding onto the wooden railing and shivering with cold, and had put the question with the same puzzled intensity she had shown during their speculation over the Host's motives. He said, "Don't you think that question is a bit premature?"
"Would you accept Falaise's offer?" she persisted.
There was a smudge of dirt on her nose, which he decided not to mention to her. He said, "Do you have to know everything?"
"I wasn't asking about everything."
He turned back to clearing the stair. "I might have to accept it." It wasn't a decision he wanted to make at the moment.
"Only if you wanted things to go back to the way they were before."
Only if he wanted to hold onto that power he had sentimentally wished to be rid of last night. "Why would I want to change it?"
It wasn't a question but she answered it anyway. "Because there are things you don't like about it, like killing people who get tricked by Denzil or get in the way of someone powerful--"
"Do you mind?" he interrupted her. He shoved the last board aside and they climbed down to ground level.
The Postern was smaller than the huge edifices of Prince's and St. Anne's. It had no gate tower and was much narrower. One of the great doors stood open, the other lay in the plaza. Thomas hoped whatever had rammed into that yard-thick wood now dearly regretted it. "Lucas was right," he said. "The way that door's been flung, something broke out, not in."
They paused in the rubble-strewn shadow of the last house and Kade considered a moment, frowning. "They'll expect us through the Prince's Gate, since it was safe before."
"They'll be watching all the gates."
"They might not. They're not very quick thinkers, most of them, and they might not remember things like that. And Denzil didn't have too many knights with him."
"He may not have any knights with him now. He can't afford witnesses," Thomas said dryly.
They skirted the square, staying close to the buildings, finally reaching the shadow of the wall and slipping through the gate.
To the right of the snow-covered yard there was a high wall, part of the inner defenses designed to trap intruders, and to the left, the three-storied Gate House with gaping holes in its dressed stone wall. Directly ahead was the icy canal, which came in under the north wall and went out under the east, where it was covered over by stone for a mile or so before rejoining the main river that cut through the city. The drawbridge that had allowed access to the rest of the palace compound was a ruined heap, but the siege wall beyond it still stood, blocking the view of the park. Thomas stopped beside a hole in the Gate House wall and took a cautious look inside. "I want to see what's around the Gallery Wing before we rush over there. If I can get up to the second story here, I can see over that wall."
Kade followed him through the gap, saying, "Why do you think Denzil's in the Gallery Wing?"
"I don't know where he is, but that's where the Host seemed to hit the hardest, and that's where the explosion was. I'd like to see just what in hell they wanted there."
Light came down through the torn roof, and the shattered beams had buried many of the defenders. Only the cold kept the atmosphere from resembling a charnel house, and a dull patina of ice hid most of the unpleasant details. The interior staircase had come free of the wall and hung at a crazy angle, but a pile of smashed beams and rubble allowed Thomas to climb to a window on what had been the second floor.
"They might have any reason for doing that," Kade said.
Thomas winced as beams shifted underfoot. "Yes, well, I'd like to know what it was."
"It might have to do with the way they arrived here. However that was."
Something about the way she said it made Thomas wonder for a moment if she had some suspicion she wasn't ready to explain. He considered pressing her about it but he reached the window and found the shutters jammed shut. He had to brace himself and batter the hinges off with his swordhilt.
He pried the shutter away. On the other side of the canal, the park stretched out, an ice field marked by the occasional snow-covered tree. Beyond the park, the Gallery Wing stood, the inner wall and the bastions to the other side looming like monoliths, contrasting dramatically with its graceful outlines. Nearer to the Gate House was the dome of the Summer Residence, which doubled as an observatory for astrologically inclined nobles and scholars. A wall sprouted out of the circular building and met the side of the Old Palace, sheltering the Gallery Wing and the gardens from the public areas on the other side. There was a servants' passage in that wall, and in the thick outer wall of the Old Palace. They could make their way out the opposite side of the Gate House and along the curtain wall, cross the canal where the unused mill bridged it, then enter the Summer Residence and take the passages into the Gallery Wing.
He climbed awkwardly down again, trying to avoid putting weight on his weak leg. Kade, who had been prowling about the place on her own, met him with a worried expression. She said, "The stupid dark fay have used most of the glamour around here. If it's like that all through the inside, I won't be able to hide us from them."
Thomas considered that. He had come too far to go back at this point. "If you want to stay here and wait for me, or start back--"
"Do I look like a coward?" she asked, with an exasperated expression.
"No, you don't look like a coward."
For some reason this seemed to disconcert her considerably, and Thomas reminded himself again to be careful. She tapped one foot impatiently, then said, "Well, all right then. Let's go."
KADE FOUND HER warding stone along the passage into the Old Palace. It was cold and silent in the narrow little hall, and only the soft glow of a lamp they had appropriated from the Summer Residence held back the darkness. Thomas waited while Kade dug through the clay seal near the bottom of the wall to pull out the round water-smoothed stone.
He used his dagger to chip a piece off for her, and when he handed the stone back, she said, "That's odd. It's tingling, as if it's still part of the warding spell."
She was staring at the stone in perplexity, so he said, "Maybe it's something to do with the wards over the Old Courts?"
"Maybe. It's very odd." But she replaced the stone in its niche and they moved on.
When they reached the Gallery Wing, the narrow passage opened into a small bare room with a curtained doorway in the far wall. Thomas pushed it open a slit, seeing that they had come out about where he had thought they should. On the right wall was the wide sweep of stairs leading back into the lesser galleries, which would eventually lead to the Grand Gallery with its terrace giving onto the park. To the left was the arched entrance to the Old Palace and the main hall. This area at least was empty, bare of any intrusion except a fall of blown snow across the parquet floor.
They hadn't seen any fay, though twice in their trek across the palace, Kade had steered them around places where she seemed to sense some presence. Most of the creatures who could stand daylight were out hunting the streets. As for the others, and the main body of the Host, they might be hidden anywhere. It had been a cold trail marked by the dead, and the amount of damage was worse than Thomas had suspected. Now he waited until Kade put out the lamp, then he pushed the curtain aside and went cautiously to look into the entrance of the nearest gallery. At his side, Kade said, baffled, "What is this?"
Light fell through narrow windows high in the opposite wall to illuminate a formal gallery with a vaulted ceiling and delicately sculpted columns with blue and gold inlay. The floor was littered with refuse and debris, most of it looted from other portions of the palace. There were pallets made of tattered blankets, tapestry work pulled from walls, and the heavy damask of curtain material. Gold and silver plate, dented candleholders, and ornaments prized off statues formed glittering heaps. Thomas picked his way through it, thoughtful and wary of anything that might be lurking under one of those piles. Besides the loot, there were more prosaic items such as a scatter of gunflints, green glass shards from a shattered wine bottle, and more of the trash left by military camps. With the toe of his boot, he turned over an empty wooden powder flask and said, "It's a troops' billet."
Kade's nose wrinkled in disgust. "Troops? Denzil's troops?"
"Very likely. Bel Garde is a private estate, and he has the right to maintain a force to garrison it, even if it is within sight of the city." But where are they now? Thomas wondered. Plain to see why he had to have them. You can't take a throne without a private force whose loyalty you can trust, but why aren't they here? Jewelry that must have been stolen from the bodies of the slain had been left casually about. He picked up a pearl clasp and saw it still held strands of long dark hair from where it had been torn from its owner's head. He tossed it back onto the floor in disgust and looked around, entertaining the idea of torching the place. Broken furniture would provide plenty of kindling. But it would reveal their presence, and when the troopers returned they would only move to the next gallery.
He glanced back at Kade and saw she was staying on the edge of the encampment, looking around uneasily. "What is it?"
"There's a great lot of iron in here." She retreated to a marble bench along the wall and began to scrape the bottoms of her boots off on it.
Thomas knelt and brushed gloved fingers across the layer of dust and filth covering the warm butter color of the inlaid wood floor; he found small particles that glinted dully in the light. "Iron filings. They're everywhere." So these men did not quite trust their fay allies. He had wondered if they would find evidence of the human servants of the Host that had led the attack, but they wouldn't be here in the presence of all this iron. They might have been only shock troops, to be expended in the battle. If the siege lasted much longer, the Host would certainly be able to replenish their supplies, when starvation began to drive more people out into the streets.
He dusted his hands off and went back to where Kade waited at the edge of the camp.
"If they stayed here last night--" She swiped at her boot one last time, brushing the last of the dust off. "Where are they now?"
"If we knew that, we'd be a damn sight better off." Thomas considered a moment, weighing the danger against what else they might discover. "We have to go further in."
She gave a half-shrug. "Very well. But I think it's going to get worse."
They followed a lesser-used path toward the center of the Gallery Wing, through a connected row of state dining rooms and smaller pillared halls, and it was there they found most of the dead. Many had died running, caught alone by some creature of the Host with the walls shaking from the explosion and lamps going out in the foul wind that had followed. There were small groups of Cisternan guards and sometimes servants and courtiers who must have tried to band together to escape. Worst of all, they came upon a small room with the remains of a smashed barricade across the door, where a group had held out for a time.
Hours, at least, Thomas thought, leaning against the remains of the doorframe and feeling a rage as cold as the ice outside. Judging by the condition of the room. He recognized some of the men, and one of the women. She was Lady Anne Fhaolain, one of Ravenna's gentlewomen, and she clutched a fireplace poker in a delicate hand that had never held anything more dangerous than a sewing needle. He would have to tell Ravenna that Anne had died bravely, trying to swing a weapon. He would also have to convince himself that if he had been here the result would have been the same, only there would have been one more body in the cold little room.
He turned away to find Kade standing behind him. She was trembling in impotent fury. She said softly, "There's nothing that can make up for this. Not if I hunt him all the way to Hell itself."
Somehow he hadn't expected that it would make her as angry as it did him. He said, "You take this all very personally."
After a moment, Kade shook herself all over, like a cat coming out of the rain. "I take everything personally."
There was more evidence of the presence of the fay. Not far from the sad little room, they found a silken web stretched across the width of an arched doorway. Kade examined it cautiously, then detached it from the doorframe. It drifted gently to the floor, all in one piece like a fine section of lacework. So far they hadn't found any answers to their questions. The day was getting on and Thomas's bad leg was aching from walking, and he knew they didn't have much time left here before the danger became extreme. They would have to settle for seeing the Gallery Wing and then making their way out.
They reached the foyer of the Grand Gallery, where there was a heavy foul smell, reminiscent of bats in a deserted cathedral. Thomas whispered to Kade, "They could be in the walls all through here."
She nodded. "Spriggans. They're asleep. I hope." She flitted past him into the archway. He saw her pause there, and as he came up beside her he saw why.
Light from the steps that gave onto the loggia illuminated the foyer, and the arched entrances provided a panoramic view of the Grand Gallery. The floor had been blown up from below and the back wall of windows onto the terraces had been smashed outward. This had to be the source of the explosion the night of the attack. This was the center of it then, Thomas thought, and beside him Kade said grimly, "They did a job of work in here."
The orange trees between the pillars were frozen but still green, the cold had caught them so by surprise. Thomas sensed there was something alive here and looked up from the blasted ruin of the floor to the shadowy stillness of the vaults above. But nothing moved in the silence.
In the center of the room, the foundation stones had been pushed up from underneath by some powerful force and scattered on the bare twisted earth visible beneath. But not scattered randomly. Thomas took a few steps into the room, wondering at it, then climbed the dais so he could get a better view. As he had thought, the broken area of the floor was in the shape of a large circle, with an outline too perfect to be accidental. The shattered stones formed concentric circles within it. It couldn't be anything but a fayre ring.
Peasants found them occasionally in the deep country, circles of trampled grass, stones, or strange growth, and avoided them like the signs of a dangerous infestation that they were. Stories about humans who blundered or ventured into them were not pleasant; usually they were found on the edges of the rings as dried withered husks, as if they had aged a hundred years in a moment. Any attempts to recover the bodies caused them to dissolve into dust.
If they were all like this Thomas couldn't imagine someone foolish enough to wander into one accidentally. It felt dangerous, and it was as unmistakable as a sharp drop off a cliff.
Kade stood regarding the ring for a long moment, and now she followed Thomas up onto the dais. She said, "Fancy that." She sounded more satisfied than anything else, as if the sight confirmed some hypothesis of her own.
Looking down at her, Thomas felt the beginning of a new suspicion. He said, "They used that thing to get in somehow, didn't they?"
Still distracted, she nodded. "They came through it. With the wards confused and floating away, and no spells guarding it, it was the easiest way. I mean, not too easy, with the stones on top of it like that, but all of them together could do it."
"Yes." She glanced at him a little warily, then explained, "It's a doorway."
"A doorway to where?"
"To Fayre, maybe. To lots of places."
He looked back at the ring, its tumbled stones a silent presence in the shadowy room. Kade grabbed his elbow. "Listen."
After a heartbeat, he heard it too. Voices, echoing down through the long galleries locked in cold silence.
Thomas hurried back to the archway, trying to pinpoint the direction. Tracking the sound echoing off so much stone and marble wasn't easy. The men might be in any one of the several galleries and long halls that led up to the Grand Gallery. Neither he nor Kade had spoken in louder than a whisper, and it was doubtful that whoever was coming this way had heard them.
He motioned for Kade to follow and they crossed the spriggan-haunted foyer, and Thomas chose a smaller hall used for diplomatic processions, where the sound had for a moment seemed louder. They went down it, keeping to the partial shelter of its supporting pillars. The voices had ceased.
"I don't think this was it," Kade whispered.
"No, it must be another--"
They both heard the footsteps at the same time.
Kade looked around frantically. "There's not enough glamour in here."
Thomas searched hastily along the wall and found the unobtrusive servants' door that was designed to blend into the paneling. He went to it, sliding his hand down the crack that marked it until his fingers touched the catch. He pulled it open. Inside was a cramped stair leading up into the wall. Climbing it, they came to a landing with a damask-curtained doorway and another broader stair leading down and away from the hall. Thomas pulled the curtain back and saw that the door led to a small musicians' balcony, one of many spaced around the gallery.
He put his hat aside and crouched down, crawling out to look down through the balusters. Kade followed him.
Denzil and Dontane walked into the gallery from an archway below. So the bastard's alive, Thomas thought, brows lifted. Dontane had been imprisoned in the Cisternan Guard House during the attack, and Thomas had assumed he had been killed with the others. The two men were arguing animatedly; they were trailed by three men armed as common troopers. The Albon knights who had accompanied Denzil at Aviler's house were probably dead; they would not have betrayed Roland, and it must have been obvious at this point that the young Duke's game was more serious than a petty attempt to disgrace the Queen's Guard.
Denzil was dressed for battle, and Dontane still wore black court brocades. He made quick nervous gestures when he spoke, but it seemed to be more from intensity and anger than anything else.
The echoes were now a hindrance rather than a help. The two men were speaking more quietly after the first shouting that had revealed their presence, and Thomas couldn't make out what they were saying. He heard Denzil mention Bel Garde, and he thought he heard Roland's name, but the rest was inaudible.
He edged back and sat up on one elbow, pulling a pistol out of his sash and winding its mainspring. The faint click it made was disguised by the two men's voices.
Kade glanced back at him, raising her eyebrows inquiringly.
He motioned for her to go back through the doorway and she crawled backward out of the way.
The range was not the best; with a pistol, closer was better. Thomas steadied the weapon on his arm and squeezed the trigger. Both men reacted to the sound of the blast; Denzil staggered. Thomas scrambled back out the door, shoving the empty pistol back into his sash. There would be no confusion about where the shot had come from; the white smoke hanging over the little balcony would reveal his presence like a flag.
Kade was already on the landing, and he followed her down the wider stair. It came out through another servants' door in the foyer, and he could hear running footsteps and a man shouting. Drowning it out was a low humming sound that seemed to come from everywhere.
Looking around, Kade gasped, "Damn, but that woke them up."
A gray-skinned spriggan with a face like a melted wax mask dropped out of nowhere to land within arm's length of them; Thomas ran it through with his rapier almost before he realized it was there. It reeled away shrieking and more of the creatures appeared in the doorways, racing toward them down the halls. Something troll-like, squat, and hairy blocked a doorway, snarling at them.
If they could just get outside and out of the things' sight, Thomas knew Kade could hide them with illusion. He thought of the broken expanse of windows in the Grand Gallery. This idea must have occurred to Kade because she was already dragging him in that direction.
They ran under the archway and toward the broken windows that led out to the terrace and the park. Skirting the torn section of floor where the ring lay, they were almost there when one of the clawed demon-horses leapt up the terrace steps. Thomas swore, spun around, and drew his last loaded pistol.
The howling pack of spriggans rushed toward them in leaps and bounds; Thomas fired into the group to make them draw back. They scurried and scattered as the ball tore through them.
Something shoved him from the side and he stumbled, then felt his bad leg give way. Unable to catch himself, he fell over the edge of the broken floor...
...and felt a rush of warm air as he landed in soft verdant grass. He gasped and pushed himself up. He was in a wide open field under a sky of an odd crystalline blue. Nearby Kade rolled to her feet and shook out her hair, dislodging only a small amount of the greenery caught in it. Around them was a ring of stone menhirs, each nearly ten feet in height and weathered by great age. It was warm and the grass was the deep green of spring, touched with splashes of red from poppies.
Thomas stood up, stumbled a little, and looked around. About a hundred yards away the craggy face of a cliff towered above them, dotted with grassy clumps and hung with a thick growth of ivy. In the distance he could see that the ground rose gently up in a gradually increasing grade, as if they were in a deep bowl-shaped valley. "Where in hell are we?"
"Knockma," Kade said. She looked defensive.
He stared down at her. "Fayre?"
"No. Well, yes. In a way." At his expression she burst out, "If you don't trust me I really can't think why, because I haven't done anything deceptive for days."
But Thomas had looked up at the sky, and barely heard her. The deep blue was there, and far above floated drifts of puffy whiteness that were clouds, but there was a barrier that seemed to hang at about the level of the cliff top. It seemed solid and yet malleable, and was transparent, allowing the sunlight in but gently muting it. He felt a soft breeze, stirring the grass with a faint rushing sound, and the barrier shimmered with it as if it were made of the most delicate glass or... He managed to tear his eyes away and looked at Kade. "Is this...the bottom of a lake?"
She bit her lip. "Yes."
He was getting over the shock, and starting to realize exactly how angry he was. "You knew all along how the Host got into the palace."
Kade paced around in a circle, not looking at him. "I knew about the ring. It was how my mother got there in the first place years ago, but Galen and Surete and the others added a spell to the wards that blocked it. The ring could have faded away; sometimes they do." Though he hadn't had a chance to reply, she threw her arms up in exasperation and continued, "All right, and I sent Boliver to fly over the palace last night and he said they must be using the old ring because there weren't any new ones. I didn't say anything because I wasn't sure." She stopped and shook herself. "No, that's not true either. I don't know why I didn't tell you."
"You could have mentioned what you were about to do."
"There wasn't time."
"There was time when we were standing there staring at the ring before we heard Denzil and Dontane." He looked around for his rapier and found it buried in the high grass a few feet away. It and his pistols had come through the ring intact, and he wasn't sure whether to be surprised by that or not. He slipped the blade back into the scabbard and said, "Damn it, woman, I trusted you. I told you something I swore I'd take to my grave unsaid. I let you watch while I shot the goddamn King's buggering cousin. You know enough to get me drawn and quartered a dozen times over." He was shouting at her now. "You could have bothered to mention that you not only had a quick method of escape from the palace, but that it involved taking me into Fayre which I think you realize is not a place where I wanted to go!"
Kade shouted back, "I had to think about it and by the time I did there wasn't time anymore! And this is not exactly Oberon's Court. I mean, I live here and it's not the most dangerous place on the map for humans and you could credit me with some sense." Her smaller lungs gave out and she sat down hard on the grass. After a deep breath, she continued in a normal tone, "...and I'm not used to trusting people either and I find it very frightening, and sometimes I don't know what to think about you."
What she had said about trust being frightening had hit home with more force than she could have realized. More calmly, he said, "Neither do I."
Neither spoke for a few moments. Kade sat in the grass and looked tired. Thomas felt he could hardly argue with her for saving their lives, even if it had involved frightening him half to death. He said finally, "So you live here?"
"Actually, over there." She pointed.
He looked behind them and then up, and thought, foolishly, No, you haven't seen everything. More than half the length of the lake away, a small round island was suspended in the crystal surface of the illusory water. On top of the island, stretching high overhead, was a castle. It was ancient, its stones tinted green by moss, its three towers capped with round turrets in a style decades out of date, stairways curving up them like twining vines. What was amazing was that its reflection in the water that was not water was not a reflection.
A second castle grew downward from the island that was the base of the one on the lake's surface, like a stalactite growing from the roof of a cave. It was a mirror image of the castle above, and the sharply pointed top of its tallest, or lowest, turret was gently brushed by a willow tree.
"It's nice, isn't it," Kade said softly, standing at his side now.
Thomas felt he had to agree. "Did you make it?"
"No, it's been here forever. It's a Great Spell, like the palace wards, only more complicated and much older. The people from Merewatch, the village up on the shore, can fish in the lake and row boats on it, and drown in it if someone down here doesn't happen to be watching. But if you know it's a spell, you can walk into it without getting wet." She dragged a foot through the grass thoughtfully, then said, "I'm sorry I brought you here without saying anything first. It was rude."
He looked down at her, admitting, "I overreacted. I didn't know there would be places like this. I thought it was all blood and bogles, like the city is now."
"I hate bogles." She pointed back to the ring marked by the stone menhirs. "That's the Knockma Ring. I think it was here before the lake. With it I can make a ring anywhere there isn't iron or wards or something to prevent it. It's the only ring I know of that can do that, and both the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts want it. I can send us back to the street outside Aviler's house, to see if Lucas and the others have left yet." She hesitated. "Now that Denzil's dead..."
Thomas shook his head. "I don't know if he's dead. I'm sure I hit him, but he might be only wounded."
Kade frowned. "That would be very inconvenient."
"To say the least." Thomas couldn't get his mind off the castle. "When you're inside, are you upside down?"
"No, that would be silly. It's bad enough as it is, with the stairs all funny in some places. In the middle, between the castle on top and the one below, you have to climb a ladder for a bit and no one likes it."
They stood in silence for a time, until Thomas saw something oddly like a large red dog leaping over the grass toward them. "A friend of yours?" he asked.
Kade said with a sigh, "I suppose so. That's Boliver."
By the time Boliver arrived he had managed to become a wizened little man about Kade's height with red hair and an odd peaked hat, and the bluest eyes Thomas had ever seen.
When he had reached them, Kade asked, "How did you know I was back?"
"How could I help but know? They must have heard the yelling in the next century." He jerked his head back toward the castle. "The others are watching with a spyglass from the wind tower, and it fell to me to come out and ask just what was doing." He eyed Thomas speculatively.
Kade shaded her eyes and peered at the castle. "Don't they have anything better to do?" She shook her head in annoyance and turned back to Boliver. "Have the Host tried an attack yet?"
He said, "No, but I been to the village and they say they've seen a hag in the pond and there's been odd things setting the dogs to barking and the sheep to running."
Kade winced in genuine pain. "It's what I thought." She nodded to herself, resigned. "The Host will come here soon."
Thomas hated to see her so torn and desperate. "Look, you've done enough. Send me back to Aviler's house and stay here."
She shook her head. "No, that's what they want. If I let them chase me about, then they'll know they can make me do anything they please."
Thomas understood that only too well. It was a damnable trap, one he had been caught in most of his life. He watched her, knowing there was nothing he could do to help her, that his own involvement had made her decision all the more difficult.
She paced and tugged on her hair. "This place is very strong. It can hold itself against them without me for a time. The village... Damn it, the village." She stopped and told Boliver, "Go up and tell them there's going to be a battle; tell them to run."
"Very well, I will." The fay hesitated then and, with what had to be uncanny and devastating perception, said, "So here's your reason. Well he's got my heartfelt sympathy."
Thomas lifted a brow at Kade, though it was a struggle to keep his expression neutral. The look Kade directed at Boliver should have dissolved him into charred coal on the spot. She said quietly, "You're dead."
Boliver shifted uneasily, as though realizing he might have overstepped himself. He said, "I'll just go and have a word with the village, shall I?"
"Yes, why don't you do that."
"Have to be quick, you know. Wouldn't want to be caught by the Host."
"It wouldn't be nearly as terrible as some things I've just thought of."
"Ah. I see. Well, I'll be going now." Boliver whirled around rapidly, becoming a ball of heatless flames. He shot toward the lake surface above like a firework.
"Do me one favor," Thomas said.
"What?" She was blushing furiously and attempting to ignore the fact.
"Don't kill Boliver."
Kade sighed, managing a rueful smile. "I wasn't going to. I just wanted to think about it for a bit." She dug in the pocket of her smock and produced the chip taken from the wardstone. "I can do this now."
She started toward the castle, and still half-unwilling, he followed her.
As they reached the base of the hilly garden, the castle had begun to look almost ordinary, as if it were perfectly normal to hang upside down from an island suspended in glass with its top turret brushed by a tree. If he had ever thought about it at all, Thomas would have expected a place like this to be eerily perfect, without blemish, as if it were carved out of marble, all imperfections smoothed away. This fayre castle had cracked stones where heavy climbing vines had silently invaded, moss growing around its windows, and was crumbling around the edge of its parapet.
Below the lowermost turret, a stone stair curved up the hillside garden to meet one of the windows, and Thomas followed Kade up to the top. The garden itself was a little overgrown, as if it was only tended when someone had the time. The grass was tall, flowers hung out of their beds, and heavy rosebushes had all but taken over the low wall that circled it, but the fountain was running cheerfully.
The room inside the turret was round, taking up the entire top, or bottom, level. It was lined with book-filled shelves, and clay jars seemed to be crammed into every available space that wasn't occupied by the books. It smelled thickly of herbs and flowers, and sunlight from the wide window had faded the once-bright colors of the carpet and the chair covers.
Kade hopped down onto the wide stone window seat and then to the floor. She glanced back at Thomas as he was getting his first bemused look at the room. "Not what you were expecting?" she asked.
He stepped down from the window seat after her. "If I'd ever considered it, I wouldn't have expected to see the place and still be in any kind of condition to comment on it. You were a deadly enemy of the crown not so long ago, remember?"
"I'd forgotten." She crossed over to the shelves on the far wall. "Well, it doesn't look like the abode of a wicked fay sorceress, but this is where it's all done, all the plots, all the nasty little tricks." Kade ran a hand along the shelves, and selected a large dusty volume.
She flipped through the book until she found the page she wanted. He watched her as she stood on the lower shelves to take down several of the clay jars. He asked, "How did you find this place?"
"It belonged to my mother. She had others, but she lived here most of the time. After I left the convent, I looked for her. I looked so long and so hard she eventually had to let me find her."
Kade dumped the armful of jars on the draw table. "She wasn't a very nice person, not exactly what I was hoping for. But she was taken with the idea of having a daughter, for a while at least." She paused in dumping the herbs and powders out of their containers and smiled at some memory. "She gave me a fayre ointment to take the mortal scales off my eyes, so I could see through fayre glamour. She had more people here, fay and humans, allof them bound to her somehow." She went back to her task. "She had Boliver locked up inside a stone in the garden. He's a phooka, and he likes to change into horses and dogs and fool people, but he's mostly harmless, and he wasn't very happy inside a rock. I broke it and let him out, and Moire threw a terrible fit, but she didn't really do anything about it. That's when I realized that I didn't have to do what she said. I knew sorcery, and she was wary of it."
While she tossed ingredients into a bowl and muttered to herself, Thomas paced the room. After a time, she stopped to glare at him and he took the hint and settled into the window seat. He looked out into the bright air of Knockma and the realization of what Grandier and the Host had done to the city struck with renewed force. If Ravenna and the others hadn't reached Bel Garde safely...
It wasn't long before Kade said, "Now we wait until it works." She ran her hands through her hair. "If it does."
"If it does," Thomas said. "The keystone's place was in the largest undercellar of the Old Palace, in the base of the fourth pillar from the north side on the third row." At her look of surprise, he explained, "I wasn't comfortable being the only one alive besides Urbain Grandier who knew that."
Kade came to stand next to him at the window seat, looking out into the garden. She was blushing, and he wondered why. He said, "What happened after you released Boliver?"
She lifted a corner of the faded gold curtain and looked at it as if she had never seen it before. "I disobeyed her frequently. She pretended not to care. Then the Unseelie Court tricked her and she had to go to Hell, and I inherited everything. Most of her people ran away as soon as she was gone. Boliver stayed because he's feckless and hasn't anything better to do, and a few others stayed because they haven't anywhere better to go." She was quiet for a moment, looking out at the overgrown comfortable garden.
It was hard to believe that Boliver had ever been imprisoned out there, or that anyone but Kade had ever lived in the quiet dusty peace of this room. Thomas said, "Or maybe they liked it well enough where they were, once your mother was gone."
Kade looked down at him, her gray eyes serious. "I think you like me a little bit, even if it would half kill you to admit it."
"It would not half kill me to admit it." The sunlight, muted and changed by the layer of illusory water above, transformed the color of her hair to the same dusty gold as the drape. After a moment, he said, "I know what Ravenna told you, that night in the Guard House. She was oversimplifying the case. She does that when she's trying to get something she wants very badly."
Kade clapped a hand over her eyes, reeled around, and half fell into one of the wooden chairs. "Do you know everything?" she demanded.
"No. If I knew everything, we wouldn't be in this situation." He smiled. "But I suppose I should be flattered that she considers my presence an inducement. I'm old enough to be your father."
"But you're not." She slanted a deliberate look at him. "You're not?"
"No, I wasn't at court then. And I do keep careful track of those things, in the event they become important later." Thomas realized he could hardly be doing a worse job of putting her off if he had actually set out to seduce her.
Kade shifted uncomfortably. "I told her I didn't want the blasted throne."
"I know. If you'd accepted, it would have been a rare disaster. Exciting, but a disaster all the same."
"Well, that's what I thought." She hesitated a long moment, drawing a design with the toe of her boot on the floor. "Do you trust me?"
Tell her no, he thought, and whatever it is that's happening between us will end. But he didn't want it to end. He wanted to see what would happen next, to follow it to its conclusion. He wanted it more than anything else he had wanted in a long time. He said, "Yes, oddly enough, I do."
She bolted back across the room, stood for a moment in front of the shelves, then took down a white-and-blue banded jar. She wandered back, and not looking up at him, she said, "This is the fayre ointment my mother gave me. It will let you see through glamour. Not all the time, because fay can use glamour to fool each other, but if they don't know you're there, or that you can see them, they won't know to hide from you. I mean, if you want it."
There's more to this than just that, Thomas thought. It will make some kind of tie between us, and then what will happen? Anything or nothing. He pulled off his glove and held out his hand.
The room was cold and still, windowless, a single candle sparking color from the blood red fabric of the walls, leaving all else to fade into the gray-black of shadow. Urbain Grandier sat at the table, the polished wood chill under his hands, his face turned toward a framed parchment map of Ile-Rien. The southern border with Bisra was marked in red, Umberwald and Adera to the north and east in blue, and the compass rose and the faces of the four winds were rendered in precise and loving detail. Grandier could not possibly decipher the ornate script that described towns, rivers, and borders in the wan flicker of the single candle, but his eyes were as intent as if he treasured every faded brown scratch of the artist's pen.
There was noise outside, voices, then an alarmed shout. The door banged open, revealing Dontane and an Alsene trooper, half carrying, half supporting the young Duke of Alsene between them. Denzil's shoulder and left arm were soaked with blood, his doublet and buff coat torn aside to reveal lacerated flesh. There were more troopers out in the brightly lit anteroom, and one of the young lords of Alsene who had arrived with the duchy's troop that day was shouting at them. Grandier rubbed his eyes under Galen Dubell's gold spectacles and said mildly, "Put him on the daybed. And for heaven's sake, shut the door."
Grandier stood and winced. He still felt the old pain; his mind tracing the path of injuries that this body had never known. He lit the other candles in the room as the two men took Denzil to the couch and gently let him down on it. The Duke's face was bleached white, fierce with pain. One of his young pages had followed them in and now knelt anxiously beside the couch. "How did it happen?" Grandier asked, watching them.
"The Gallery Wing," Dontane replied. He stepped back from the couch, breathing hard from exertion, sweat gleaming on his forehead. "Someone was there, and fired at us from cover. It woke the fay sleeping in the walls, and they overran the place so quickly we didn't have a chance to pursue him."
Grandier tut-tutted under his breath, taking his leather-covered apothecary box out of a cabinet. "To be expected."
Dontane stared. "Expected...?"
"Of course. It would be a very great mistake to think our opponents are fools. They were bound to investigate at some time."
"Then they know the Alsene troop is here." Dontane's sharp features were fearful.
"I would imagine so, yes."
Dontane strode for the door, gesturing for the Alsene trooper to follow him. Denzil watched him go, perhaps knowing as Grandier did that Dontane would take this opportunity to order the Alsene troops and officers, using the Duke's authority. Denzil was in no position to object; his blond hair was soaked with sweat, and he was biting his lips until blood came from the effort to not cry out.
And bleeding like a slaughtered pig on good furniture, Grandier thought. After the poverty of his early life in Bisra, the abundance of first Lodun and then Vienne and the palace had astonished him. Ile-Rien had little understanding of its own wealth, of how valuable was the flow of goods from the foreign vessels flocking to its trading ports, of the surfeit of arable land that allowed any peasant with enough coins in his pocket to own it. Of how this wealth would affect those who did not possess it. His voice dry, he told the kneeling page, "You may go. This won't take long, and he can do without the necessity of adoration for a short while."
The boy was too afraid of Grandier to argue. He left without protest but with several longing backward glances. Denzil took a breath, brow furrowed with exertion, and whispered, "Jealous, sorcerer?"
It did not surprise Grandier that the Duke would make the effort to say something vicious despite his agony. Grandier examined the large wound in Denzil's shoulder where the pistol ball had penetrated and frowned at the visible bone splinters. "Oh, yes, terribly," he answered. "It affects my judgment, you see." He turned back to the apothecary box to select the necessary powders. Dontane had been the messenger in the forging of the alliance between Grandier and the Duke of Alsene in Ile-Rien, and that alliance had never been anything but uneasy. And Grandier did not like the accord he saw at times now between Dontane and Denzil.
"Your affectation of superiority is amusing." Denzil gasped, closed his eyes briefly, then continued, "I hardly think you can take the high moral ground in this situation."
"I, at least, am not a traitor. My homeland turned against me long before I returned the sentiment." Grandier came back to Denzil's side. On the panel supporting the daybed's canopy was a painted scene of nymphs, satyrs, and human shepherds enjoying each other's company in several ways that would have been displeasing to the Bisran Church. The casual displays of sensuality and the acceptance of it in Ile-Rien had also been a surprise. Like the acceptance of sorcery. Grandier had heard about it, about the university at Lodun, but he had not really credited the rumors until he had seen the reality. I wish I had come here as a young man, he thought. So much might have been different.
"And what excuse do you make for your betrayal?"
"Attempting to excuse the inexcusable is always a mistake," Grandier said. "Why not simply admit that greed overwhelms loyalty, affection, and common sense."
"I have no affection or loyalty for Roland," Denzil said, voice grating with pain. "He serves my purpose."
"I wasn't speaking about you," Grandier said. Denzil might have grown to hate the young King because of the power Roland held over him, even though as Denzil's friend and patron Roland had never exercised that power. Grandier understood this all too well. He knew the danger of allowing any individual, any state, any force of whatever kind, to hold one in its power, to control one's actions. "This is going to hurt, but I can't think why you should mind. You seem to enjoy the pain of others."
Denzil's chuckle was weak, but it held real amusement. "You mean that as a taunt, but even you would be shocked at how accurate your assessment is."
For an instant, Grandier hesitated. He knew Denzil to be a smiling killer, as excellent an actor as the hags who lured children to their deaths with their own mothers' voices. No, that was not quite the analogy he was searching for. He is not a monster, Grandier thought, but forces beyond his control have warped him past reason. Even as they have me. "Perhaps I would," he said, actually enjoying Denzil's presence for the first time in their short acquaintance. "We are both in good company."
"ROLAND, I WANT you to come with me." Ravenna stood in the doorway, her look of determination as grim as the faces of the Queen's guards accompanying her.
Her son looked up at her nervously. He sat in an armchair holding a small lapdesk, though the paper on it was still blank. The room would have been light and airy in the summer, but now the wooden winter shutters covered the large windows and the fire in the hearth could not dispel the cold. There was no one with him but his personal servants; Ravenna had made sure she would not have to do this under the eyes of any courtiers or hangers-on.
Roland turned the pen over in his hands and got ink on his fingers. "Why?"
She said, "I have something to show you."
Roland stood reluctantly. "Has something happened?"
Ravenna knew he wasn't interested in anything besides news of Denzil's whereabouts and that he would realize she would not be the one to bring such news to him. "Take your cloak; we'll be going out on the wall."
Immediately an impassive servant brought a thick fur-trimmed cloak from the bedchamber. Roland stood still for the man to arrange it around his shoulders. "Where's Renier?"
"Downstairs, attending to the guard placements."
"Oh." He followed her through the other rooms in the suite and out to a landing on the grand stairwell. Ravenna could tell Roland was uneasy, even though the four knights guarding the door to his chamber followed them and she was accompanied by her gentlewoman Elaine.
They went up the stairs to a lesser-used floor, then waited as one of the Queen's guards unbolted a door and forced it open against the wind's pressure. They walked out onto the wall, which was sheltered by a shoulder-high parapet, and the wind tore through the crenellations like a mad creature.
Ravenna and Elaine each held onto a guard's arm to steady themselves, and Roland forced himself to walk along unaided. Ravenna held her head down and tried to breathe the shockingly cold air, knowing she would pay for this ordeal later with coughing fits. In the face of everything else, it was a minor consideration.
The sun was making a brief appearance, though dark clouds were visibly building up in the distance. To the north, if one could have forced oneself close enough to the parapet to take in the view, were several miles of snow-covered fields and then the rise of the city, like a man-fashioned mountain range. The wind had torn away much of the haze of wood and coal smoke that normally hung over it, and the snow made it appear pristine and empty. The other side of the wall looked down on the inner court, where Denzil had hosted gatherings in the summer and displayed the little fortress's wealth and elegance. When they had arrived yesterday, they had found the usual garrison depleted, and the steward had said that the Duke of Alsene had ordered most of his men to one of his other estates to quell some tenant problems over taxes some weeks ago. Messengers had been sent on to the Granges, a day's ride to the south, to General Villon.
Ravenna wondered if Thomas was alive.
There was no other man she had ever felt closer to, or who had actually understood how her mind worked without condemning her for it. When he had first been accepted into the Queen's Guard it had not been his political astuteness or his wit that had attracted her, though from the occasional flashes of ironic humor she had witnessed, she had suspected that he might possess those qualities. No, most of that she had discovered later, and that discovery had added more meaning to what had been one of the most pleasurable times of her life.
You're getting old, my dear, Ravenna told herself. Old and frail and helpless. It was the constant underground war of intrigue that had beaten her down. She and Thomas had once found such subtle battles exhilarating, but now... Palace power struggles had always been intense, but since Roland's maturity, the battles had escalated into full-scale wars with no clear victors. Denzil had much to do with it, but it was also that the wolves sensed Roland's weakness. And her options to remedy that were severely limited.
She forced her mind back to the present. Grandier had rendered the court's tenuous balance of power a matter for future academics to consider. If Thomas was alive, he would come to her when he could. If he wasn't... That would be for her to face alone.
They were heading toward the old keep, a rough square tower more than seven stories high. It had been the center of the fortress before the bastion behind them had been built.
They reached the door into the side of the tower, and two of Ravenna's guards split off to post themselves at it. The others went inside, and Ravenna shivered gratefully. The keep felt warm after the wind. A guard stopped to light a candlelamp with flint and steel, and Ravenna saw that the Albon knights were standing stiffly together as if anticipating an attack they could do nothing to prevent. Roland saw it too and said, "What are we doing here, mother?"
Ravenna didn't answer immediately. She started up the stairs, the guard with the lamp going on ahead, and there was only room for Roland to walk beside her. Finally she said, "I've made allowances for you, where Denzil is concerned."
She could see he was slightly shocked that she brought this up in the presence of her guards, let alone Elaine. In an effort to outdo her effrontery, he said, "Allowances? You've been trying to turn me against him with lies for years."
Ravenna stopped and looked at her son for a moment. As always, it hurt that he found her eyes hard to meet. She said, "My dear child, I didn't think you had noticed."
Roland stared at her. "You admit it?"
"Of course. Recent developments have made it possible."
She continued on up the stairs, and Roland followed her, bewildered. He said, "I don't understand."
"That man has made a fool of you."
"He has been my only friend--"
"He has used you to accumulate power and wealth beyond his reach under ordinary circumstances."
"He's been the only one who cared for me; I gave him all those things--"
"Of course you gave it all to him, Roland; that's the way these people work."
Ravenna stopped on a landing and faced him. Roland was out of breath and must have forgotten that he was King and able to order her to be silent, if he could enforce it. He said, "You certainly never showed me any affection. You never gave a damn for me."
"Perhaps you are right," Ravenna said. "You look too much like your father, and God knows I never gave a damn for him." She took a key out of her sleeve and handed it to a guard, who unlocked the door and pushed it open.
"Go in there," Ravenna said.
Roland didn't move. He was trembling, and his eyes were dark with hatred. He isn't stupid, Ravenna thought; he must know his cousin's protestations of eternal love are not sincere. But perhaps he thinks he can earn his respect by doing everything Denzil asks. It made her feel sick at heart, though her expression betrayed nothing. The world doesn't work in that fashion, and Denzil is not interested in respecting you, my foolish son. The guard with the lamp stepped into the room but stayed close by the wall. After a moment Roland went through the doorway.
Inside was a large shadowy room, dark wood a rough veneer over the stone walls. The back half was filled with wine barrels and other boxes stacked to the high ceiling. "You wanted to show me this?"
"Why would anyone store wine here, Roland, away from the livable portions of the fortress, high up where the air is so very dry, in a place more fit for the storing of other things?" Ravenna nodded to one of her guards. "Open one."
He went forward and carefully knocked out the bunghole in a barrel at the bottom of a stack. Something dark flowed out. Roland started toward it, stopped when the odor reached him, but still went to kneel and touch the dark granular substance. "It's powder," he whispered.
Ravenna said, "The four floors above us are as well stocked as this one. The supply does not quite rival the city armory, but I'm told that it approaches it. More than enough to stage a palace coup."
Roland lifted his head, saw the pity on the face of the guard who had opened the barrel, then looked back at Ravenna. She knew her expression showed only weariness. She folded her arms. "Surely you are not going to say we brought it with us."
He shook his head mutely. He stood and walked the length of the row. The lid had already been pried off one of the long boxes, and he lifted the coarse wood to see matchlock muskets packed in heavy cloth.
Ravenna said, "There is another store of powder and shot, a small one, enough to supply the garrison for a few months, set where it should be near the gate. There is only one reason for all this."
Roland began to tremble. "He will have an explanation."
"I'm going back now." He strode past her and down the stairs.
His knights came to his side, Ravenna's party following. They reached the landing where the door led out onto the parapet, and Roland stopped, waiting. Ravenna reached him and regarded him quietly for a moment, then nodded for one of her guards to open the door.
As the door swung back she caught a glimpse of the sky and saw it seemed inexplicably dark. Then she saw the body of a man lying half in front of the threshold, before the guard slammed the door and braced his weight against it. "Run," he said breathlessly. "Something's out--"
A force struck the door half off its hinges.
Ravenna ran, pushing Elaine in front of her, all thought for the moment purged from her mind. She saw Roland dragged by one of his knights, half flung up the stairs, shoved on when he stumbled.
Below them, the door flew off its hinges and smashed into the wall. Someone fired a pistol and the noise seemed to galvanize Roland and he ran up the stairway with them to the landing. Ravenna grabbed the door there and flung it open, and Elaine stumbled inside. Then Ravenna stopped and looked back. She saw that the guards and knights were trying to hold the stairwell; there was already blood on the floor. There was screaming, and something roared, the sheer volume of sound making the ancient walls tremble.
Roland was standing and watching, blank faced, in shock. He stood there until Ravenna seized his arm and pulled him into the chamber.
Elaine was holding the candlelamp, trembling and wild-eyed with fear. Ravenna shut the door and bolted it, then stepped back, looking around the room and rubbing her hands together. Roland leaned against the wall, watching her helplessly.
There is a way out, Ravenna thought. There was always a way out. She had never been trapped yet, and by God, she wouldn't be now. "This is a corner room," she muttered to herself. "There must be..." She took the lamp from Elaine and set it carefully down near the wall, then went toward the back of the room, trying to make her way past the boxes and barrels of powder. "Roland, damn it, help me."
After a moment he joined her, wrestling a box out of her way but moving stiffly, as if terror had frozen his blood. "What are you looking for?" he gasped.
"This, perhaps." It was made to look like part of the roughly paneled wall, but Ravenna's fingers found the edges and Roland helped her lift it away in a shower of cobwebs and dust. It concealed a small wooden door set back into the stone wall. Roland tugged on the iron handle and it came open with a protesting squeak.
Dank freezing air flowed out. It was a well within the outer wall of the tower, and handholds had been carved out of the stone, leading down into darkness below.
"For sieges." Ravenna nodded to herself. "It will lead all the way down to the bottom floor, with an opening on each level."
Roland looked down and bit his lip. Ravenna knew what he was thinking: it would not be a pleasant climb for him, let alone the two women. He said, "Do you think you can make it?"
"Of course not," Ravenna said flatly. She knew someone would have to stay to close the door and draw the cover over it or the fay would have them within moments. "Go on. You'll have to help Elaine."
"But--" Roland automatically reached for the girl's arm as Ravenna pushed her toward him. "You can't--"
Elaine said, "No, I'm staying with you." She twined her arms around Ravenna with unsuspected ferocity. "I won't leave you."
Ravenna tried to pry her loose. "Damn you, you silly child, I--"
Roland protested, "Mother, you can't stay here, they'll kill you, at least try to--"
The door cracked as something heavy struck it. "Roland, go on!" Ravenna whispered furiously.
He stepped onto the little ledge, then cautiously felt for the handholds. He looked back and said, "I--"
"Climb," she ordered and swung the panel closed. Elaine helped her with the cover, and they wrestled it back in place, moving away from it just as the door gave way.
Ravenna put her arm around Elaine's shoulders and the girl clung to her as the fay poured into the room.
There were a dozen at least of varied shapes, bogles with distorted grinning faces, some hulking things with no faces at all, a delicate winged creature that looked something like both a demon and an angel. One of them had blood spattered on its mouth; Ravenna wondered if it was from one of her guards, and it was rage, not fear, that turned her to stone. They scampered or strode through the room, disarranging the boxes, searching, for the moment ignoring the two women. Ravenna wondered if they would casually toss a barrel onto the lamp; they did not seem to have any fear of the powder.
Another fay entered. This, Ravenna knew, was the leader. He was tall and slight, human in shape but blue skinned, with a face of childlike attractiveness and a horrible leering smile. He bowed mockingly to her. "Greetings, Queen of Nothing. I am Evadne, a prince of the Unseelie Court."
"What do you want?" she asked. She felt cold down to her bones, and it had nothing to do with the temperature of the room, but her voice was still hard.
"Your boy-king; why else would we go to this trouble?" He looked around the room. "You've hidden him, of course."
Ravenna felt Elaine quiver slightly beside her. She said, "He isn't here."
One of the troll-like creatures left off its search and grunted something at Evadne. He glared at it, then said to Ravenna, "We saw him come into this tower. You will tell us where he is."
"He did not come into the tower. You can see that for yourself. Whoever saw him must have been mistaken." She didn't look around at the other creatures but she could tell they had stopped searching. They would have looked harder, she knew, if they had really been positive that Roland had come into the tower. They must have observed from a distance, and Evadne had taken the chance.
Evadne paced across the room, glaring at the other creatures, who shrank back or snarled at him. He stopped and thought for some moments, his smooth brow wrinkling, then leaned down and spoke to the other fay. Ravenna could tell that some of them did not seem happy with his decision, whatever it was.
He turned and came back toward the two women. "You will tell your men to bring him to us, or we will kill you."
How daft, she thought. This thing doesn't understand us at all, does he? But it gave her an idea, and she thought she knew how to manage him now. She said, "I can't do that."
"You can. You will."
Ravenna pretended to falter. She thought she did it well; she raised a shaking hand to her brow, and said, "Please..."
Evadne leered at her. "A King or a Queen, what is it to be?"
"I..." She managed a fairly creditable sob. "I'll send the message."
Evadne sneered in triumph. He snapped his fingers and a small winged creature with a hideous face produced a gold-chased quill, inkpot, and a ragged piece of parchment out of the air. It set the things down on the box in front of her.
Ravenna gently disentangled Elaine's hands from her arm until the girl stood alone shivering, and sat down on the box. She picked up the pen and dipped it, then paused to frame her thought. She wrote, Accede to no demands and keep the men away from the tower. By my hand Ravenna Fontainon Regina.
She hesitated. The fay didn't ask to see the note and had made no attempt to watch her write. He couldn't read, then. It made sense. Why would a fay read?
Except for Kade, of course. Ravenna would have given quite a bit to have Kade at her side rather than Elaine, whom she had to protect.
But would Renier and the others obey the note? Without Thomas here, there was no way to be sure. How could she make sure they would do it? There wasn't a way.
Evadne snapped, "Hurry, old woman."
Ravenna knew the expected response and tried to compose her features into something like fear. She had spent so much of her life concealing her fear that she had forgotten how to show it. She felt she looked more confused than afraid, but it apparently satisfied the fay. She said, "I'll have to seal it, so they will know I wrote it."
"Go on, then."
She folded the note and Elaine took the candle out of the lamp and handed it to her without being told. Ravenna looked up and saw the girl's expression, and knew she had read the note over her shoulder. There were both fear and trust in her eyes. She thinks I have a way out of this.
Ravenna took the candle and dripped the wax onto the paper, then pressed her ring into it. Her personal seal, the crescent moon embossed by the family symbol of the salamander. It was not until then she realized she had signed herself Queen, not Dowager. Damn. Well, let them put that in their history books. Elaine reached for the candle but Ravenna set it down on the crate, grinding the base into the wood so it would stay upright. Now for the next part. She handed the note to Elaine and said, "Take this to Renier, dear."
With an awful childlike smile, Evadne said, "I'm not sure I want to part with so lovely a hostage."
The paper crackled a little in Elaine's grip. Ravenna said, "Perhaps you would take the message yourself, then. No doubt my men would like to meet you."
He looked amused, enjoying Elaine's fear. "I suppose you're hostage enough for their good behavior. The girl may go."
And you need no hostage for my good behavior? Ravenna thought. She resisted the urge to kiss Elaine good-bye and merely said, "Go on, dear."
Elaine looked down at her, bit her lip, then turned and hurried to the door. I taught her not to cry before enemies and she doesn't. Ravenna nodded to herself, satisfied. That one turned out well.
Evadne watched the girl go, but made no attempt to stop her. Ravenna waited until she heard Elaine's steps on the stairs, then relaxed a little. She settled herself more comfortably on the box and watched Evadne.
The fay said, "He told me you would be weak. I see he was right again."
It surprised her. "Who told you that?"
"Our pet sorcerer, Grandier. He had leisure to study you."
Your pet sorcerer! Your pet snake is more to the point. She said, "He doesn't like you very well, does he?"
"He is a human, and therefore a fool."
She inclined her head. "I see."
The time passed slowly. Ravenna counted her heartbeats and stared at the candle flame. It kept her mind off wanting something to do with her hands. She saw Evadne grow impatient. He began to pace again, snarling at the other creatures. To distract him, she said, "I thought your kind could not attack during the day, only your servants and the lesser members of your court."
He grinned at her implied insult. "Our sorcerer has made the sky darken for us, made the clouds turn black so the sun does not disturb us. Even now, one of our great ones perches on the outside of this tower, ready to destroy your men in the courtyard." He glared down at her. "Why don't they send out your king, old woman?"
"It will take them some time to persuade themselves that there is no alternative."
Evadne's stare turned curious, and she realized she had spoken with a smile. She thought of trying a fearful expression again, but it was too late for that. Oh, I'm leaving everything undone. Roland, learn from this if nothing else. Probably Elaine had unintentionally helped matters by telling Renier that Ravenna had some plan of escape. Roland had had more than enough time to climb to the bottom of the tower. Or fall to it, God help him, she thought.
"They take too long. I think I'll tell my friend outside to kill a few men down in the courtyard, to hurry the others along."
Ravenna said, "I think you won't."
She said, "I may be old, but not too old to deal with you." She stood, and before he could think to come at her, she tossed the lit candle into one of the broken barrels of powder.
The blast blew gaping holes in the outside wall, and brought the upper floors and the roof down on top of them. The flying creature perched on the side drifted to the ground in a ball of flame, keening most of the way.
When Roland's reaching foot touched solid stone he gasped in shock, then leaned against the rough wall and sobbed in relief. His arms were shaking and his fingers had begun to bleed. A hundred times he had seen himself falling to the bottom of the narrow well, bouncing off the walls, dying in filth and darkness. But the most painful thoughts did not concern his own death. He'll have an explanation. Powder and shot hidden in the tower, enough for a small army, and the fay have come and he isn't here, and wherever he is, he's taken Falaise with him... He will have an explanation. After a moment Roland rubbed his sleeve over his face and began to feel for the wooden door in the pitch darkness.
Roland found a catch but the door was stiff from disuse. He managed to push it open a crack, enough to let in a breath of air, but no further. He hesitated, afraid to make too much noise. If the fay had taken all of Bel Garde, if they had won past the gate Braun's apprentices had said was sealed against them... Then we'll all die, mother and Elaine in the tower, everyone down here, and when they catch me...
But then he heard voices, rough human voices, the familiar city accent. A woman asked some inaudible question, and a man's louder tone replied, "That's what I said, but they're looking for the King down here, and why he's down here I--"
"In here!" Roland yelled. "In here! I'm here!"
There was consternation outside, more voices, then lamplight fell through a crack in the top of the door, and Roland looked up into it gratefully. He saw a brown human eye gazing at him in astonishment. "I'm here," he said again.
The eye withdrew, to the accompaniment of profane cursing. Then the door was pried open, the wood bending at the center and cracking under the pressure. Roland saw why he had not been able to push it any further. A wooden floor had been built up to it at about waist-height, probably dividing an ancient high-ceilinged room into two usable compartments. The man outside had to break the wood to get it open, and Roland reached upward and was drawn out by strong arms in a rough homespun shirt.
The man, who was large enough to be a blacksmith, set him on his feet, then steadied him when his legs tried to give way. The room was a storeroom or pantry, shelves on the walls, piled with bags and barrels, and a group of servants and several wide-eyed children were staring at him in astonishment. "God," one woman shrieked, "it's the K--"
She was leapt upon by several of her companions, one ripping an apron off and shoving it against her mouth. "Those demons are in the tower overhead," another woman hissed. "Who d'you think they're looking for?"
"He's all over blood," someone else whispered. "They've tried to kill him."
"No." Roland looked down at his hands and winced. "I was climbing. I have to get to Renier. I have to tell him--"
"I'll go and fetch him, Your Majesty," the man who had pulled him out said. "Best you stay here; the beasts could be anywhere."
"Yes, you're right." Roland leaned against the wall and watched the man pick up a musket and hurry out. A voice in his head whispered, Denzil lied to you all along. His friendship ended the day they put the crown on your head. Roland thought, But he saved my life. He did save my life, that wasn't a lie. But he was a boy then, and he wasn't my heir. He needed a live prince. But a dead king is a different matter entirely. One of the older women came forward with a scarf and, without meeting his eyes, started to gently wipe the blood from his hands. "Thank you," he said automatically.
The woman who had tried to scream had been released and allowed to take the apron out of her mouth. She said in an audible whisper, "Now he seems a nice lad, not like what they say at all."
Roland started to laugh. He knew they thought he was being brave, or hysterical, but he was laughing at himself. I must have always known what Denzil was, but I didn't care, I didn't care, and now he's going to kill me.
Then the door opened again and two of his knights stood there gaping at him.
And Ravenna and Elaine were still in the tower. The memory jolted Roland back into his senses and he started toward the knights. "Where is Renier? We have to--"
The pure shock of the explosion knocked him to his knees. There was screaming, and Roland knew past his own fear that the others in the room were reliving the moment of the explosion in the palace, when the nightmare had started. One of his knights was standing over him, as if the man could shield him from falling stone and timber with his own body. Dust settled around them, but no stones fell.
After a moment Roland caught the knight's arm and pulled himself up. He felt pitifully weak from the long climb, from fear, from everything else. Many of the servants were still huddled on the floor, and he heard a woman weeping. "It's all right," he said, then repeated more loudly, "It's all right." He saw Renier then, standing in the doorway and staring at him. "What was that?" Roland asked. "What's happened?"
Renier came forward and led him out of the room to a narrow passage beyond, out of sight of the others. "What is it?" Roland asked again.
"Elaine said there was a gunpowder store in the tower." Renier's face was so pale he looked sick.
"Yes. Elaine's here, they escaped? Where's my mother?" Roland couldn't understand Renier's expression.
"She was up there with them."
And Roland knew. To the last he had fooled himself into believing he had been sent for help, not sent away from death.
But part of him still failed to comprehend, and that part said, "What was that noise?"
"That was the tower."
The cold was a shock.
Thomas shook his head and blinked hard. It was almost twilight in a gray world of muted color and dim light. They were in an open square in front of Aviler's house. The walls of other town houses rose up around them, and snow had buried the fountain in the center. Around him and Kade the new fayre ring appeared in the snow as a shallow trench in the shape of a perfect circle.
The corner of the house loomed above them, the shingled roof dusted with ice and thin gusts of smoke issuing from the chimneys. It was quiet, the dim glow of candlelight showing through the shutters on the upper floors. Thomas said, "I didn't realize it was this late."
"It takes time to travel through the rings. We've lost an hour or so out of the day," Kade said, but she was looking up and frowning. She folded her arms and shivered. "Though the sky is very dark."
Thomas started toward the house, thinking that one over, and Kade followed him. He supposed it made sense that time would be lost traveling from ring to ring, even if it didn't make sense that one was not aware of that time's passage.
The spell that Kade hoped would show her the location of the keystone had still been inert in its bowl when they had left. Once Thomas found out if Lucas was still here, Kade was returning to Knockma to see if there had been any result yet.
They moved around the side of the High Minister's house to the alley, and there Thomas stopped and loaded his pistols. In making the open attempt to kill Denzil, whether it had succeeded or not, he had crossed a line and there was no going back. As far as the rest of the world knew, he had committed treason, and he had to get to Ravenna and tell her what he had done before Roland learned of it.
There was a servants' door along the alley wall, and someone had taken the precaution of nailing iron cutlery to it to discourage fay. He listened at it for a moment, then tried the handle. It was locked, but the catch was not strong and he drew his dagger to pry at it. In the deep shadow of the alley the cold was far more intense, and Kade bounced up and down with her hands in her pockets in impatience. Thomas didn't comment; after the mild climate of Knockma, he was feeling the cold more as well.
The lock broke, and he slowly eased the door open.
Inside was a servants' passage with doors opening to either side. A candlelamp on the wall was still lit, but the tallow collected in the bottom showed it hadn't been attended to for some time. Kade slipped in behind him and he closed the door silently.
She whispered, "Something's wrong."
He nodded. The house was far too quiet. Aviler might have left the city, though Thomas thought the High Minister had meant to hold out here until the last possible moment. If Aviler had abandoned the place, he had had good reason.
He whispered, "Wait here."
She drew breath to protest and he put his hand over her mouth and said, "Please."
After a moment, she nodded. He removed his hand and she said, "Just this once."
He gave her a smile, then went down the dimly lit passage. He found a half-open door, taking a cautious look through it to see the small room on the other side was dark. There was a curtained doorway on the opposite wall, light flickering just past it. Then he heard the low mutter of voices.
He tried to ease the door open only to find it stuck against something that lay on the floor. He shoved it open enough to see in and stopped.
It was Lucas.
Thomas felt the wood of the doorframe crack under his hand.
Lucas lay on his back, and he had been shot in the chest, probably just as he had come through the door. He walked into a trap, Thomas thought, just as I have.
The hesitation undid him. Armed men burst through the curtained doorway, shouting.
Thomas ducked back out of the room and into the servants' passage, then halted when he saw more men coming out of another narrow hall, blocking his way. In the dim light all he could tell about them was that they were dressed in the ragged buff coats and mixed armor pieces of mercenaries or private troops. One drew a pistol and Thomas ran into a dark scullery and out the opposite door, momentarily losing them. He hadn't seen Kade at the end of the hall behind them; she must have slipped out the door.
They would expect him to stay on the ground level and look for an exit, not to head for the upper floors. He found a narrow servants' stair behind a curtained door and climbed it swiftly. He heard men pound through the passage below, but they didn't come up. He reached the second floor and made his way through a darkened salon and anteroom set, searching for a windowed room at the back of the house. Climbing down the icy stone would be a problem, but he would risk the drop.
There were more crumpled bodies on this floor, mainly city troops. Possibly the civilian refugees had been allowed to escape, though small chance that would be once night fell. Thomas was one room away from the family's private staircase and could see it through the open doorway. He heard voices and stepped back against the wall, half behind an arrangement of heavy drapes. It was shadowy and ill-lit here, where most of the candles had guttered.
The men at the stair paused as someone gave orders, then spread out to the surrounding rooms. The light from the lamp one carried clearly showed Thomas the badge of the Duke of Alsene on their brown soldiers' doublets. It was a troop from one of Denzil's manors.
There was a shout as someone saw him and Thomas turned and slipped back through the salon. The darkness and confusion worked for him, but they knew where he was now. He stopped in a darkened room to wind both his pistols. It would be dangerous to carry them like that but he was past that point now. He checked the doors as he went through and closed the bolts of the ones that had locks.
Thomas paused outside the door of the next chamber. The stairs down into the stable court were just beyond it.
A quick glance showed him two men waiting in the beautifully appointed room, both looking down toward the stairs. He pulled back as one started to turn toward him, and drew his pistol.
Thomas stepped into the doorway and fired as the first Alsene trooper started forward. The ball struck the man in the chest at a range of no more than ten feet, sending him staggering backward into a row of lacquered cabinets.
Thomas dropped the first pistol and drew the other just as the second man reached him. He deflected the thrust of the soldier's rapier by hitting the narrow blade with his forearm and batting it away, almost managing to grab the blade and pull it out of his opponent's grasp. As the man closed with him, Thomas's pistol was knocked upward. It went off, the blast deafening him and scattering burning grains of powder down onto his attacker. The soldier faltered at the pain, giving Thomas time to shove him away and draw his main gauche. As the man rushed him again, Thomas stabbed him under the ribs.
He stepped back as the soldier collapsed, and in the sudden quiet he could hear others breaking through the locked door into the room behind him. He grabbed up his other wheellock from the floor and tucked it into his sash with the second pistol. Drawing his own rapier, he took the dying man's discarded sword and went out onto the landing above the stables. There he shut the door and wedged the extra blade through the catch to keep it closed. It would not hold them for long.
He turned as the carriage doors below were flung open and a large group of Alsene troops burst in. Thomas judged the odds and knew this was it. He stayed where he was, to let the narrow landing guard his back for him.
The first one to the top of the stairs came at him like a madman with something to prove. Thomas parried the first flurry of blows, then took the offensive, driving the man back a step. The lack of room worked to his advantage; with his bad leg he would not have been able to fight as effective a running battle. There were more of them waiting on the stairs below, and he knew he wouldn't have a chance to run.
His opponent tried an unsuccessful feint and Thomas drove his blade deeply into the man's side. The soldier stumbled backward and the man on the step below lunged past him, only to be speared through the neck. He collapsed on the top step, choking and bleeding copiously, and temporarily blocking the landing.
There was a brief moment of respite as the others below tried to wrestle their fallen comrades out of the way and Thomas hung onto the railing, panting. He could hear them battering away at the other side of the door, and it looked as if the thick wood around the wedged blade was beginning to give. The man with the neck wound made a loud strangled cry and stopped moving.
Then Thomas saw a trooper on the stable floor below aiming a musket up at him. He flung himself back from the rail in pure reflex; this left room for another attacker to leap over the body blocking the stairs and come at him. Thomas parried the blows, letting himself be put on the defensive, trying to maneuver the man between himself and the musket. But moments passed and there was no impact or even the blast of a missed shot. They were trying to take him alive.
This realization energized him and he closed with his attacker, bringing their swords hilt to hilt and trapping the other blade in the quillions to hold it away from him. Pushed back, the man stumbled on the corpse behind him and Thomas shoved him down the stairs. He leapt after him into the momentary clear space, slashing at the men below who were struggling to disentangle themselves. He caught one in the face, the point tearing through the man's eye and cheek before glancing off bone. The soldier fell against the wall, screaming.
Another struck upward at him, and he felt a tug and sudden pain as the point punctured his leather sleeve and stabbed into his arm. He cursed and tore himself free, falling backward on the steps now slippery with blood. The idiots were still trying to incapacitate rather than kill him. No matter what their orders, I've given them enough provocation, he thought in disgust.
Another man fought past his two fallen comrades in time to be stabbed in the chest, but Thomas's grip on the hilt was weak now and the point slid away instead of going deeply into the trooper's flesh. But it was enough to send his opponent reeling backward into the railing and Thomas struggled to his feet again.
Then he was struck from behind, between the shoulder blades, knocking him into the wall with stunning impact. He slid down it, unable to catch himself, blackness flowing in at the edges of his vision.
Waiting beside the door in the darkened hall, Kade kept her freezing hands in her pockets and tried to calm her thoughts. Anything to keep her mind off the man who had driven her half-mad standing there on the green plain of Knockma being too much a gentleman to take any notice of what Boliver had said.
With effort she managed to drag her attention back to the immediate problem. She didn't think Grandier could really be helping Bisra. Why not lure us into invading them? She could shrug and say it didn't matter; she would kill him anyway for what he had done to Galen Dubell. He was so like...
The soldiers burst out of a door five short paces in front of her. Their backs were to her, and she instinctively searched for glamour to hide. There was hardly any in the dark hall, but the candlelight provided just enough for her to slip out the door unnoticed.
Outside she dropped the barely adequate illusion and ran down the alley to the front of the house. She would have to get in another way, use glamour from the snow outside...
The wall just in front of her exploded.
She hit the icy ground, more from surprise than any impulse to duck. When the building did not collapse on top of her she looked up. Several men crossed the square toward her, one of them carrying a musket, the glow from its slow match just visible in the dusk.
Shooting a poor little girl like me with something that large is hardly fair, she thought, dazed by the suddenness of it. At a distance and in bad light her red smock probably looked bloody. It wouldn't fool them at close range.
She dug in her pocket, hiding the movement in the snow, and managed to draw out a piece of guncotton stained with powder she had prepared earlier. She brought it up to where she could see it without having to turn her head and stared at it, trying to conjure a spark. Sympathetic magic, or unsympathetic magic as Galen had preferred to call it, was faulty and difficult to use. She might only burn her fingers. If she could call flame at all. Damn it, Kade thought, a spark, just a little spark. But she did her best work under pressure, and as the men came nearer, her mind stopped chattering and she reached the right level of concentration. The edge of the cotton began to glow.
Now. Just as the man with the musket suddenly shouted and raised his weapon, Kade sealed the concurrence spell. Every grain of powder within a ten-foot radius ignited.
The musket exploded almost over her head, there were screams and blasts as pistols went off, then a storm of little popping sounds as the scattered grains of powder from the musket's blast ignited.
Kade scrambled to her feet, her clothes dotted with someone else's blood. Three men lay dead or dying on the snow, two more running away around the corner of the house. She bolted after them, down the alley between Aviler's house and the next, into the street where they had fought the battle with the fay the day before.
Kade slid to an abrupt halt as she reached the street. She felt her heart hit the pit of her stomach. The carriage doors stood open and there were armed troops milling in front of them. She could tell by their dress only that they were not city or crown troops. It looked as though there were a hundred of them.
Someone saw her and shouted, she saw the slow match of a musket glow in the twilight; she darted back around the corner and ran.
"Where's the girl?" Dontane stood in the carriage doorway.
"Gone," Grandier said. He stood in the middle of the street, wrapped in his scholar's cope, thoughtfully studying the sky.
Dontane strode out and started around the corner of the house. "I sent five men after her. Damn it, she was running."
"Perhaps she wanted someone to chase her," Grandier said, and followed him.
On the other side of the house, they found the remains of the first group in the bloodstained snow. Dontane stared down at them a moment, then looked at the older sorcerer. Grandier was humming to himself and contemplating the sky again. Then Dontane saw what appeared to be a pile of rags on the snow further into the square. He went toward it.
It must be the men he had sent after the sorceress, though all were dead and none was recognizable. They looked like corpses that had been left to mummify in some desert, dry desiccated husks.
Dontane started forward but then stopped, his attention caught by Grandier, who was watching him with a speculative half-smile. Dontane took a step back and said, "There's a ring here?"
Grandier nodded to a faint circular trough in the snow. He said, "It doesn't do to walk uninvited into Fayre. Or run, for that matter."
Dontane looked down at the pitiful remains of the Alsene troopers and wondered if Grandier would have let him walk unknowing into the ring. But he only said, "Good, we're rid of her then."
"Oh, I think not." Grandier smiled and turned back toward the house. "We have something she wants, you see."
THOMAS WOKE WHAT must have been only a few moments later, lying on the steps in someone else's blood with one of the soldiers standing over him, slapping him awake. He had been disarmed and his head hurt incredibly, and he made a grab for the man's arm only to miss. They dragged him to his feet and he thought, It can't last too long.
He made them half drag, half wrestle him down the steps to the stable floor. Troopers wearing Alsene's badge moved around the enclosed court, stripping the weapons from the bodies of dead comrades as well as from those of the city troops who had tried to defend the house. The outside doors were open and cold air poured in as a smothering blast, temporarily lifting the thick odor of death that hung over the room.
Dontane waited at the bottom of the stairs. He had participated in the battle--the powder-stained buff coat and the pistols proved that--but the pallor of his face made him look half-dead and his eyes were red-rimmed and haunted. He smiled at Thomas and said, "It seems I can now offer you my hospitality."
Thomas looked past him but couldn't see Kade, not as a prisoner and not as a crumpled little body on the flagstones. The pain radiating through his skull made it impossible to concentrate. He managed to focus on Dontane. "Really? And I was given the distinct impression that your position in all this was a subordinate one."
Dontane's expression tightened into anger before returning to the studied look of amused contempt. He glanced toward the open carriage doors where the daylight was beginning to fail, where Grandier must be waiting somewhere out of sight. His self-control had slipped since he had been in Lestrac's house biding his time and waiting for that foolish young lord to die. He looked back at Thomas and said softly, "It was you who shot at us in the palace, wasn't it? How very foolish of you to go back there. The Duke of Alsene isn't dead, you see. He's very much alive. And you are going to regret that."
If they had caught or killed Kade outside, surely Dontane would brag of it. "I have regrets already. I regret you weren't on our side of the siege doors when the Host attacked, where after sufficient persuasion you would have accused Denzil and informed us of Grandier's disguise. I regret I didn't spare the time today to blow your head off--"
He didn't even sense the blow coming. It rocked his head back and for a moment he sagged in the grip of the troopers as everything went black. He had time to hope that it would stay that way before the world slowly but relentlessly reasserted itself. The stable roof swam into hazy focus, and he swallowed blood and managed to lift his head. He said, "Careful, you might bruise your knuckles."
"Grandier wants you alive." Dontane stepped closer. "What does he want with you?"
Thomas heard the underlying tension in that cool contemptuous tone and sensed a possibility opening up before him. If only he could pull his pain-scattered wits together enough to take advantage of it. "Ask him."
"It's easier to ask you."
"And I had the impression you two shared confidences." Thomas knew he was provoking the other man too much, losing what little control he had over the situation. He had the sudden impulse to goad Dontane further into rage, just because he could, just because it was so easy, no matter what the consequences to himself. It was astonishing how difficult he found it to suppress that urge.
Dontane struggled for calm and managed to lower his voice to say confidently, "Cooperate with me and it will go easier on you. Or do you really want to be handed over to that old madman?"
"If you've taken him as your master, you're far madder than he is."
Dontane snarled, "That's your last--" and Grandier's mild voice interrupted, "That's enough."
Grandier stepped into the circle of lamplight, appearing suddenly out of the dim cold twilight outside. From his tone he might have been encountering the younger man at a promenade or a market square, but Dontane whipped around to face him.
Grandier regarded him imperturbably. Dontane started to speak, thought better of it, and stepped back.
Moving forward, Grandier said, "An unexpected pleasure, Captain." He still wore the baggy black scholar's cope, still wore Galen Dubell's face.
That was the hardest part. Now that I know who he is, he should look like a monster, not like... Not like an old friend. Thomas tried to pull free of the troopers and was surprised when they allowed it. He stood on his own, swaying a little. "Are you getting what you want out of all this?" he asked Grandier. About ten of the Alsene troopers were grouped around him; he thought about fighting but his bad leg was trembling, threatening to give way, and the room kept swaying. He thought about attempting it anyway.
Grandier regarded him silently for a long moment, his gray eyes calm as ever. "Not yet. But soon."
At that moment it occurred to Thomas just why Grandier might want him alive.
Grandier turned away, and while the troopers' eyes were on him, Thomas dove sideways and slammed into one of the men, ripping the sword out of his surprised grip and slashing upward at him. But a hilt cracked down on Thomas's head from behind, and in the end they took him alive.
Roland walked along a colonnaded porch open to the interior court of Bel Garde, his knights surrounding him, feeling as if his mind were a rusty clockwork that hadn't been wound in far too long. Everything felt out of proportion, and time seemed to move in fits and starts. He said suddenly, "The steward of this place must have known about the powder store. Arrest him at once."
"Sir Renier has already done so, my lord."
"Oh. Good." God, he realized suddenly. My mother is gone and there's no one to think of these things. He looked up, seeing the confusion in the court for the first time, recognizing the figures in the center of the milling crowd of servants and guards. It was Falaise, sitting her horse in her riding clothes with Queen's guards around her, obviously just come through the gates.
Breaking free of his escort, Roland ran across the court to catch her bridle. He had never made the effort to get to know Falaise very well, but he was glad out of all proportion to see that she still lived. It seemed to promise that the world as it was had not been completely destroyed. "Falaise, we thought you were dead! Where were you?"
She looked down at him, startled. Her expression was frightened and there were dark circles of weariness under her eyes. Her horse stamped and tried to nibble Roland's sleeve. She said, "My lord, I must see Ravenna at once. There is something I must...something I must..."
"My lady," he said, not quite recognizing his own voice, "my mother is dead."
Falaise turned white, the blood draining out of her face as if she were dying in front of him. Shocked, Roland called for help. Guards came to help the Queen from her horse; her ladies and servants appeared in the court. An Albon knight urged Roland away, saying, "My lord, you must come inside. It's not safe out here." Numb, Roland let the man lead him into one of the rooms off the court, thinking, Something has happened. What is she so terrified of?
The room was long, with many windows to look out onto the garden court, their lace curtains woefully inadequate to stop the drafts. Roland paced tensely, rubbing his cold hands together, ignoring his knights and unsure of just what he was waiting for.
Falaise appeared in the doorway, half-supported by the Queen's Guard Lieutenant Gideon. Past them, Roland could see two of the Queen's gentlewomen waiting outside, huddled together like children expecting punishment. Holding tightly to the lieutenant's arm, Falaise managed to cross the room, then collapsed at Roland's feet. He looked at Gideon in bewilderment, and the lieutenant bent over the Queen, saying, "My lady, you must tell him."
"Tell me what?" Roland said. Sickness hit the pit of his stomach suddenly, and he groped for the table to steady himself. He remembered that Falaise had disappeared at the same time as Denzil.
Falaise looked up at him, her face tear-streaked and frightened, but something in his expression must have encouraged her because she said, "My lord, I should have spoken days ago."
Roland listened in agonized silence to Falaise's story of more treachery, of how Denzil had deliberately kept the Queen from leaving the city so that she would be in his power. "Before this, he had offered me marriage if you were to die, Your Majesty. I... I don't mean to accuse him but..."
"No." Roland had to stop her. He didn't want to hear how she had concealed treason out of fear of him. He understood her reaction to his mother's death now. She had been counting on telling this to Ravenna first, counting on Ravenna to protect her from him. More nails in my coffin, he thought. "It's all right, really. I don't blame you. There are... Other things have come to light which... Perhaps you should go to your ladies now."
The lieutenant led her away, and Roland stood at the table, staring at his own reflection in its polished surface. He had never loved Falaise, knew he never would, but this was the first time he had realized that he might have saved a great deal of trouble bysimply making a friend of her. When Denzil is with me it's as if I can't think. His fist struck the table and the face in the reflection twisted. Oh God, let him have an explanation.
Thomas didn't remember much of the trip back to the palace. They bound his wrists and got him on a horse, and he leaned over the saddlebow, unable to sit up. The cold grew intense as night took the city in a dark wave and the freezing air was raw on his throat and lungs. His stomach was cramping with nausea, and dizziness kept overwhelming him.
He came back to full consciousness only when they were passing through St. Anne's Gate. He lifted his head and shook back the hood of the cloak someone had thrown over him.
They were passing between the Cisternan Barracks and the Mews, as he had days earlier bringing Galen Dubell into the palace for the first time. I couldn't have been more helpful if I'd been in the plot with them, he thought. He hadn't even been able to get them to kill him.
The barracks were a gutted ruin. The wooden panels over the three arched doorways had been torn open, exposing the dark pit of the interior and the piles of snow that had drifted inside. With the outer gate closed and guarded, the assault from within the palace would have caught the Cisternans completely by surprise. In the narrow corridors of the ancient stone structure the attack by the fay must have had the devastating effect of a hunter blocking all the holes but one of a rabbit warren, and then releasing his ferrets.
The gates into the old siege wall stood open. As they rode through and toward the towering wall of the Old Palace, bogles dropped out of the eaves of the two long stone city armories across the court. Gray-skinned, ugly, distorted creatures, their yellow eyes gleamed in the gathering darkness. Each was short and squat, their arms hanging disproportionately long and their wide mouths grinning with rows of pointed teeth.
Sniggering in almost human voices, the bogles ambled toward them; the nervous horses shied away.
They stopped in the paved court beneath the bulk of the Old Palace, where lit sconces illuminated the high double doors of the westside entrance. Thomas managed to get off the horse on his own without falling. He held onto the saddle a moment while his head and legs became reconciled with the notion of standing. The troopers hung back from him now, watching him warily. He wondered if it was due to his unpredictability or his apparent familiarity with Grandier.
Inside the circular entrance hall the few lamps made hardly a dent in the shadows. This area of the Old Palace seemed remarkably undisturbed, the untouched rooms and short halls leading off into darkness and silence.
Grandier was standing beside him suddenly, and Thomas was too weary to be startled. Grandier said, "This way."
Both Dontane and the sergeant in charge of the Alsene troops turned to look at him, but Grandier ignored their unspoken questions. He said to Thomas, "I want to show you something."
Grandier led the way down a lesser-used series of rooms, lit only by the lamps the soldiers carried, and to a staircase leading down to the lower levels. At the third turn of the stairs Grandier led them into an old stone-walled corridor, and Thomas realized they were going toward the same cellar where the keystone had been concealed. He looked at Grandier walking beside him, but the older man's features betrayed nothing.
As they moved through the cold rooms the flickering light revealed the sheen of sweat on a soldier's face, a white-knuckled grip on a swordhilt or musket that told volumes about the troops' relationship with the fay invaders.
They reached a plain wooden stair leading down, and were now roughly backtracking the route they had taken away from the cellar the night of the attack, but heading toward the lower passageways they had been unable to reach because of the collapsed corridor. The strain of the fight had exacerbated the pain in Thomas's bad leg and it was protesting this treatment, but he managed not to limp too obviously.
The stairs led to an unblocked passage below the storerooms, and the stale air carried the fetid smell of death. Thomas' thoughts kept turning back to Grandier's shape-shifting ability. Not that way. I don't want to die that way. He had given up everything else--his honor, his right to say he had never killed a helpless opponent, his claim on his ancestral lands. Voluntarily or pushed to it by circumstance, bit by bit everything had gone to win a few years or a few months or a few days of political stability in a world where so few others seemed to care, and most of them were dead now. He was willing to die for duty's sake but the thought of giving up his identity turned his heart to ice.
There was light up ahead, from a place where there should be stygian darkness. Abruptly raucous noise, growling, and a high-pitched keening echoed off the stone walls. A few more uneasy troopers drew their swords.
The corridor turned, and the first thing Thomas saw was that a large chunk of the stone wall had been knocked out, allowing a view down into the cellar. Grandier moved to the edge, and after a moment Thomas followed him.
The Unseelie Court had found a home here. Fay with long emaciated bodies and huge leathery wings flew in lazy circles over the foul revelry below. There were hundreds of them, bogles, spriggans, formless creatures like the boneless that had attacked them in the street. The mockery and distortion of human and animal forms was endless and infinitely varied. Thomas could see them much more clearly this time, perhaps because they were not troubling to conceal themselves anymore. The light came from a mist that crept up the walls and wreathed around the giant columns supporting the ceiling.
This opening had been made at about the second level of the cellar, and the wide pillars met the ceiling another two levels above them. Below were the remains of two flights of stairs and the narrow well that had enclosed them, now a mound of broken stone and shattered wood. Corpse-lights flitted around the stairs and the tops of the columns.
The unnatural light was bright enough to let Thomas see the dark openings in the ceiling for the air shafts and the doors through which the larger siege engines had been lowered. Chains and frayed ropes hung down from some of those doors, the old system of block and tackle. Thomas said, "They fly up those shafts."
"Yes." Grandier's gaze was on the unholy revelry below. "It protects them from daylight, but gives them access to the surface." He turned back to the others and said, "Dontane, they seem disturbed. Go down and ask them what's wrong."
Dontane moved forward, threw an unreadable look at Grandier, then started the awkward climb to the bottom of the cellar.
"So he is a sorcerer," Thomas said.
Grandier glanced at him. "He's learning. He had been refused admittance to Lodun, and in anger he came across the border to Bisra, and to me for teaching before my arrest. I refused him, because I felt he lacked moral character." He smiled, amused, apparently, by this earlier self who had had the leisure to make such judgments. "Trust was a very important issue, among those of us who practiced sorcery in Bisra. The merest suspicion of necromancy, or anything else the Church could interpret as traffic with demons, was death. But after I escaped from the Inquisition, I sought him out. I had discovered I needed a man who lacked moral character. He was at Lodun with me after I was Galen Dubell, but one of the masters learned he had been across the border, and became suspicious of him. The rumors that I had come to Ile-Rien had already started, you see. So I sent him on to contact the Duke of Alsene for me, which he did through our unfortunate and foolish Lord Lestrac."
Dr. Braun had visited Lodun frequently, Thomas remembered. "You killed Braun because he recognized Dontane."
"I would have had to eventually, anyway."
Thomas watched Dontane pick his way down the remains of the steps and said, "Are you sure he's not the one who turned you in to the Inquisition?"
"Oh, good try." Grandier smiled. "No, that man is dead."
Dontane had climbed halfway to the bottom, and now one of the winged sidhe flew to meet him, cupping its wings to hold itself in midair, gesturing and shouting at him in a high-pitched shriek. Dontane turned and waved at Grandier, his posture betraying irritation. Grandier said, "It appears this needs my attention." He nodded to the Alsene sergeant, then looked back at Thomas. "I'll see you shortly, Captain."
Without Grandier's presence, the troopers muttered nervously as they made their way back, but Thomas was too preoccupied to notice. Why did he want me to see that? What did it accomplish? A will-o'-the-wisp followed them part of the way, playing in the unlit wall lanterns and taunting them silently.
Thomas felt each step of the various stairways as a short stabbing pain. By the time they reached the upper floors of the Old Palace he was limping badly. They entered one of the smaller halls that had been set up as temporary barracks, now occupied by a few sullen troopers gathered around the hearth fire, and they passed through it into an attached suite. The last room had been stripped of furniture and wall coverings, and it was dark except for what light flickered uncertainly in from the lamps in the anteroom.
Thomas watched tiredly as one of them pounded an iron spike with a set of manacles attached to it into the wall. With respect for his unpredictability, one held a pistol to his head when they untied him to put the manacles on.
The chains were short but he was able to sit down against the wall. The troopers withdrew into the anteroom to huddle in a nervous knot near the hearth.
He tested the set of the spike in the wall to see if it could be worked loose, but it held firm. Well and truly caught this time. He rested his pounding head back against the cold wood, and tried not to think.
"I didn't believe they would let you live." It was Aviler's voice. Between the dim light and the distraction of various injuries, Thomas hadn't seen the other man chained to the opposite wall. The High Minister's dark-colored doublet was torn and bloodied, and from the livid bruises on his temple it seemed he had not been taken easily.
Thomas closed his eyes a moment, damning the fate that had consigned him to be imprisoned with Aviler. Then he said, "Grandier wanted me alive, and if you imply I'm in league with him, I'll kill you."
At the moment it was a supremely empty threat, but Aviler answered, "Don't take me for a fool, Captain."
"I don't know what else to take you for." Thomas sat up and gingerly felt the back of his head. His hair was matted with blood, and there was a sizable lump composed of pure pain.
"You can take me for a man who did not acquire my power in a Queen's bed."
"Yes," Thomas agreed. "In her bed, on the daybed in the anteroom, on a couch in the west solar of the Summer Palace, and other locations too numerous to mention, and if you had the slightest understanding of Ravenna at all, you would know it never made one damn bit of difference as to whether she took my advice or not. And no, your father handed you your power wrapped in ribbon on his deathbed."
The High Minister looked away. After a long moment of silence, he said, "I expect it doesn't matter now."
Already feeling the bite of the manacles on his wrists, Thomas expected it didn't matter either.
Aviler rubbed his eyes, making his own chains jingle slightly. "Galen Dubell really is the sorcerer Grandier, then. Denzil told me something of it when he brought the Queen to me, but under the circumstances I don't place much confidence in his word."
"Dubell really is Grandier. He got a shape-changing magic from the fay, and he killed Dubell and took his place." The stab wound in Thomas's left arm was still bleeding sluggishly, though the pain of it hardly competed with that in his head. The thinner sleeve leather of his buff coat had absorbed some of the force but the blade had still penetrated a couple of inches at least. He tore a strip of material from the tail of his shirt to use as a crude bandage. "Why are you alive?"
"I don't know. No one's bothered to say. What's your opinion on the subject?"
"He wants to keep his options open. He can't stay Dubell forever."
As Aviler considered the unpleasant implication, Thomas tightened the rag around his arm, taking malicious satisfaction in letting the other man in on his private terror. He knew he had more to worry about on that score than the High Minister did. Grandier hardly knew Aviler.
With Lucas dead--he hesitated in tying off the makeshift bandage, wondering who had done it, Dontane or some nameless hireling trooper--there was no one but Ravenna who knew him well enough to realize the deception immediately. He didn't think anyone could find a way through the complexities of his relationship with Ravenna, but that would only mean Grandier would have to kill her, the way he had coldly eliminated anyone who might have noticed that Galen Dubell had changed more than time could account for.
Then there was Kade.
Kade had done well enough leading her own erratic and dangerous life before Thomas had dragged her into this, talked her into staying with them past the point at which she could have left safely. And made her vulnerable. The little idiot trusts me. Lucas had been right. And he remembered that the last conversation he had had with his friend had been an argument; stupid thing to do in a war, and he would regret it the rest of his no doubt short life.
Kade was her own woman, and he was too old to bother lying to himself anymore and too young not to want her. But any chance of anything between them was wasted, as pointlessly wasted as Lucas, Vivan, and all the other lives lost and destroyed by Denzil and Grandier.
There was a stirring among the men in the anteroom, and after a moment Urbain Grandier appeared in the doorway, carrying a candlelamp and a short stool.
He set the lamp down on the scuffed floorboards, and glanced once, thoughtfully, at Aviler. Then he looked back to Thomas and said, "I felt I owed you more of an explanation."
Thomas had a sudden impulse to delay whatever the sorcerer had come to say. He said, "You have Dontane fooled. He thinks you're mad."
Grandier shook his head, put the stool he had brought just inside the doorway, and sat down. "I give him what he expects." He sighed, and looked like a tired old man. "He imagines himself to be subtle and dangerous, and I suppose he is, but there are things he fails to understand. Denzil, on the other hand, is rather like an incompetent copyist's version of you."
As the clear gray eyes met his Thomas felt a stab of pure fear. Worry about it later, he thought. Grandier had probably noticed but there was no help for that. He said, "Do they know what you're planning? And there is a plan, isn't there?"
"Yes. I first conceived it in my cell in the Temple Prison at Bistrita. I had to think about something besides the torturers, and the death by fire that waited for me." He looked down at his hand and stretched the fingers, contemplating the unbroken skin as if he did not quite recognize it as his own.
And perhaps he doesn't, Thomas thought. He remembered the catalog of tortures the court documents had listed. Grandier was driven, dangerous, and intelligent, but not insane. It was almost as if he had passed into another phase of being that was not madness or sanity but some lawless ground in between.
Across the room, Aviler shifted a little, breaking the silence with a faint clink of chain, and Grandier said, "Then an emissary of the Unseelie Court appeared with their offer, which you know about already. Part of a scheme on their part to suborn a human sorcerer, to make the Host more powerful in our world. It's a contest they have with the Seelie Court, their opposites in Fayre. Having a sorcerer at their beck and call would be a coup of sorts." He shrugged. "They thought me a likely candidate."
Thomas realized he was trying to control the conversation out of panic, and that Grandier was allowing him to do it. Try to be a little less transparent, he told himself. You've helped the man enough already. Grandier seemed to expect a comment, so he said only, "The more fools they."
"I thought so." Grandier smiled a little. "It's not entirely their fault, the trusting creatures. They are accustomed to Fayre, which bends to their will. The mortal world has sharp edges, bends to no man's will, and events occur with fatal finality. Mistakes are not suffered. Evadne was pressing me to give up this game and go on to something more entertaining. He was one of their self-proclaimed leaders, a very annoying character. He's dead now, of course. I rather thought someone might kill him eventually. And I meant to tell you, Kade escaped through the ring and is presumably in Fayre, at the moment."
That's one mercy. Thomas fought not to show relief and asked, "Why are you helping Denzil?"
"The Duke has offered me what I want. A war with Bisra."
"We've had a war with Bisra. It didn't turn out that well for anyone." But things began to fall into place. Ravenna would never have agreed to another war. They had been the victors of the last long conflict with their mortal enemies to the south only by a bare margin. Even if Roland had supported such a suicidal course, Aviler and the other High Lords and advisors would have prevented it at any cost.
"There was a war," Grandier conceded. "But I was not involved. And I have the Host."
Thomas thought of the monstrous turmoil in the undercellars. He said, "If you want to turn them loose on Bisra, be my guest, but why do you have to destroy us in the process?"
"I have no intention of destroying Ile-Rien. But I will have to alter it somewhat. Denzil needs the war to cement his position as usurper. When word leaks out that Vienne is under a virtual state of siege by creatures of Fayre, Bisra will move to take advantage. They need Ile-Rien's wealth to maintain a balance of power with Parscia, on their southern border, and their Church fears any sorcery not under its control. Justifiably so.
"When the landed lords of Ile-Rien realize Bisra is marshalling its forces to attack, they will support any central authority that has a chance of marshalling a resistance. The Duke of Alsene will be that authority. Oh, that won't be all. There is to be some document of formal abdication, signed by Roland. Under what circumstances, I don't know." He looked over at Aviler, who had been listening in a kind of horrified fascination. "That explains your presence. Your position allows you to deputize the King's seal on state documents during an emergency when the King has been removed for his own safety. I doubt the originator of that particular tenet of courtlaw intended documents of abdication to be included in that category, and it would be laughed off if Roland's supporters took power again, but Denzil intends to keep all his options open."
Aviler looked away, his face grim. "I will not sign anything for Denzil, for you, or for the Prince of Hell himself."
"I know." Grandier nodded seriously. He turned back to Thomas. "Once the Bisran army crosses the border, and are no longer protected by their priests' defenses, the Host will help to harry them and they will be driven back. At that time, outrage against the Bisrans will be so high it will not be difficult to turn an army of defense into an army of offense."
Thomas shook his head in disbelief. "The Host participates in this out of the goodness of its collective heart? What did you offer them, the destruction of Lodun? What are they going to do when you don't keep up your end of the bargain?"
Grandier looked up, surprised and pleased. "Oh, very good. Go on."
"Denzil's motive is plain: he has to own everyone and everything around him. The Host wants the death of as many human sorcerers as possible. And you want Bisra. And I'd wager anything that you mean for no one to get what he wants except you."
"And how will I accomplish this?" Grandier asked softly, eyes alight.
"I don't know. But I don't think you'll let them destroy Lodun."
"No, I would not let them do that." For a moment his expression turned abstract. "Evadne was the one demanding I destroy Lodun. He is not a factor anymore."
Grandier hesitated, his face craggy and harsh in the candlelight. "I don't like Denzil; he is cunning and I will need help to manage him. But he will give me what I want, and so I must use him. Bisra will be struck by the might of your armies. Once their priests can no longer defend them from the fay, I can further the collapse. In time, there will be nothing left but to sow salt into the empty fields...and Bisra will cease to be. It will probably take many years, I know, but I have the time." He looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "I regret the necessity of a long war that will have ill effect on this land, but I really can't see any other way to start the process of collapse. You will agree that an all-out conflict can be particularly devastating."
Thomas just looked at him. There was nothing to be said. Grandier was setting forces in motion he couldn't possibly control. The old sorcerer might never see his goal accomplished, but he would see years of destruction.
Quietly, desperately, Aviler said, "What you are planning--dreaming--will never come to pass."
Grandier got slowly to his feet, as if the cold hurt his back. "I have ridden the tide of events for many years. I am quite capable of guiding it now."
Thomas looked up at him, and knew any argument was useless, but he said, "You are mad. You're handing the kingdom to Denzil, and he doesn't give a penny damn for you or your plans."
"That remains to be seen."
In a tone of quiet rage, Aviler said, "I hope you burn in Hell with your damned fay allies."
Grandier chuckled. "I have already burned in Hell. You see the result. Heaven help us all if it happens again."
Thomas said, "Has Denzil noticed that anyone who gets in your way dies?"
"I don't think so. Not yet, at any rate. But then, you're not dead, and you were certainly in my way."
Not nearly enough, Thomas thought. "That's only a matter of time, isn't it?"
"It's what I'm told." Grandier regarded him silently, then said seriously, "There is one more thing. The Queen... The Dowager Queen Ravenna is dead."
Thomas felt the silence stretch, felt Aviler staring at him. Calmly he said, "You're lying."
"Not about this. She was trying to protect Roland. She succeeded and destroyed several important members of the Host in the process."
"You're lying." Thomas tried to stand and the chains jerked him back to his knees. He didn't notice.
Grandier closed his eyes a moment. "No. There are some things I regret, but this isn't one of them. She was too dangerous."
And then he knew it was true. "You fucking bastard!" he shouted at him.
Grandier turned to go and Thomas said, "You are a coward. You didn't have to do this."
His back to Thomas, Grandier paused in the doorway, but then continued out.
Thomas sank back against the wall. Aviler said, "It is a lie, surely."
"No. No, it's not." It was the last thing he said for several hours.
KADE LANDED AWKWARDLY in the high velvet grass of the Knockma ring and rolled to her feet. She pressed her hands to her temples and tried to concentrate, feeling the lines of force radiating out from the ring around her. She reached out along them to open a ring in the maze court below the Old Palace. She opened her eyes and saw the green sward of Knockma, the menhirs standing around her in silent contemplation, and in the distance, the mist-shrouded column of the castle and its reflection.
She snarled, shrugged out of her coat, and tried again.
After four failures she knew it was no good; she couldn't form a ring inside the palace. What did Grandier do? He would have had to ward the palace against her, that would take... But traveling the rings from the palace to Knockma, to Aviler's house and back here, had distorted her sense of time's passage. By the sky, they had lost nearly an hour on coming to Knockma and returning to the city. Moving from the less powerful ring she had made at the High Minister's house and coming back, she could have lost more than that.
Grandier could have begun the spells against her when he was alerted to her and Thomas's presence in the palace. It would not have taken long if he used the wards already in place. No time at all if he had used another keystone prepared earlier when he had first known she was coming to court.
Kade knotted her hands in her hair until the pain stopped the rise of bile in her throat.
She opened her eyes. Boliver was standing at the edge of the ring, watching her and scratching his bearded chin. He said, "What happened?"
"They have him," she said simply.
His eyes widened a little. After a moment he shuffled his feet, then said, "What are we going to do, then?"
"Wait here." She scrambled to her feet, touched the power in the ring, and took that step that carried her away.
The cold embraced her first. Kade had left her coat in the forever-spring of Knockma. She was outside the palace wall, near the Postern Gate where she and Thomas had got in earlier that day. The square with its broken fountain was still empty of life in the gathering dusk, the buildings staring down at her with gaping dark windows.
Kade stepped out of the newly formed ring in the snow and moved to the gate, and the hair on the back of her neck rose. Cursing, she dug in a pocket for the last of the gascoign powder she had with her and rubbed it into the corners of her eyes.
The wards rose up from the ground in front of her in a corona of light, stretching up and curving over the wall. He has put the wards back.
High above, a razor-winged shadow dove out of the clouds, passed unharmed through the corona it could not see, and disappeared among the palace towers. That was a member of the Host. And it went through the wards. Kade raised a hand toward the light and saw the gooseflesh spring up on her arm. And I can't. He turned the wards against me, to let the Host in and keep me out.
Kade stepped back, and felt the awareness of the wards' hostile presence recede. There was one other way in. She could go through the ring that already existed in the shattered remains of the Grand Gallery. Yes, that way, the trap.
Kade went back to the snow ring and took the turn that brought her into the Grand Gallery.
The cold was no less bitter for the shelter of the walls. The huge hall was dark and silent and a wind flung snow through the broken terrace windows.
A winged fay with blue skin and an angelic human face was sitting in the middle of the floor, picking its toes. It glanced up, saw her, and screamed.
As it fled the room, Kade lifted a hand to touch the edge of the ring. Just above the surface, she felt the heat of hostile force. The old ward around the ring was tied to the same etheric structure as the wards around the palace. She could not step outside it.
The floor was piled with chunky broken stone from the foundation, shattered wooden flooring, and dirt. She began to trace the outer edge of the circle, stepping up onto one of the larger pieces of foundation, leaping to the next. It took concentration. A recently formed ring would have hardly any mark on it at all. The Knockma Ring was ancient and well used, but it was a still pool of power. This ring was a whirlpool of conflicting forces, stirred up like a hornet's nest by the Host's recent passage. It had originally been her mother Moire's work and had rested atop the polished wooden floor of the gallery. Dr. Surete had sealed it off with spells long ago, and the pressure of the wards had eventually pushed it down to this level, even with the foundation.
After some moments Kade heard footsteps. She looked up to see Dontane and Grandier standing in one of the archways. Dontane was leveling a pistol at her.
She smiled grimly. He fired, the blast reverberating through the room, echoing off the high sculpted ceiling. Kade didn't see the ball until it entered the ring's sphere of influence, where it veered abruptly from its straight course and began to travel the ring's outer circle, orbiting around her like the philosophers claimed the sun orbited the earth.
Grandier said, "Don't waste your shot." He crossed the room to stand within a few yards of the ring's outer edge, and after a moment Dontane joined him. Kade had already resumed her halting progress around the outer rim. The pistol ball whizzed past her again, starting a breeze that stirred her hair.
To Grandier, Dontane snapped, "What are you waiting for? Kill her."
"She isn't here," Grandier said. "She is a breath away from a thousand other places, aren't you?"
Without interrupting her progress, Kade glanced up at Dontane. "Come and get me."
He took an impulsive step forward, then hesitated, looking at Grandier.
Ignoring him, Grandier said seriously, "I don't have to ask what you want here, Kade."
She had found the ring's pattern now and hoped her slight hesitation at the cardinal point would be put down to reaction to his remark. She said, "I want you dead."
This time the hesitation was unplanned. She had not allowed herself to think Thomas might be dead, but from the sudden suffocating constriction in her chest, some part of her mind had recognized it as a very real possibility. She forced herself to step to the next rock. I shouldn't have come. This was what Grandier wanted, this was why he had not sealed this ring against her. Now he could ask her for anything he wanted, and she would have to give it to him. She thought about fleeing now, but it was too late. She took a deep breath, and continued her progress around the ring. Her head was buzzing, and she was going to have to leave soon to find somewhere private to be sick.
Dontane was watching his master carefully.
Grandier said, "I want you to stay out of this, Kade."
She took another deep breath, but did not look up at him.
"I know it won't be easy--"
All the fear and panic inside her crystallized into an icy knot of pure rage. Without betraying her intentions by the flicker of an eyelash, she tapped the fayre power in the ring and released the orbiting pistol ball. Grandier staggered against Dontane, and the ball struck the far wall with a loud crack and a shower of plaster and dust.
Grandier reached up and touched his right ear, smiling ruefully when his fingers came away lightly spotted with blood.
Dontane had drawn his second pistol. "She missed you by a hair's breadth," he hissed.
"On the contrary, she hit exactly what she aimed at," Grandier answered dryly, straightening up with an effort. "And I'll thank you not to toss her any more shot."
Kade was waiting for him to look at her. When he did, their eyes locked for a long moment. Then Grandier said, "Very well put. I will not patronize you again."
Dontane swore. "Are you going to let this mad creature get away with that?"
"Your appraisal wounds me to the heart," Kade said softly, before Grandier could answer. "Believe me, I shall fall down in agony at some more convenient time."
"She knows my death will not affect the wards that keep her out, or the presence of the Host, or any of the other plans I have set in motion." Grandier was speaking to Dontane, but his eyes went to Kade. "She has no choice but to cooperate."
There was a keening howl from outside the gallery, and a sudden eddy lifted a scatter of ice crystals from the floor.
"The Host is coming," Grandier said. "Perhaps you had better go. They will follow you."
"Will they?" Kade smiled. No choice, her thought echoed. But appearances are everything.
The Host streamed in through the doorways, the bogles, the grinning mock-human fay, the distorted animals, the hideous inhuman shapes, flying, crawling or running, bringing the stink of death. Dontane wheeled to face them, involuntarily moving closer to Grandier.
Kade waited until the first were almost to the edge of the ring, then stepped back into Knockma.
Thomas awoke leaning back against the wall, stiff and freezing. The candlelamp on the floor had burned low, a pool of tallow collecting in its base. An iron brazier had been placed in the center of the room and was putting out just enough heat to keep them from freezing to death. He was surprised that he was alive at all. He had remembered that lapsing into sleep with a head injury was often fatal.
"Are you all right?" Aviler asked, watching him closely.
His head hurt so badly he didn't think he could move it, but he said, "Whatever gave you the idea I wasn't?"
Aviler was not fooled by this sally at all. He said, "Do you know where you are? Forgive my persistence, but we've had this conversation before."
"Oh." Thomas watched the flicker of light over the sculpted ceiling for a moment. He remembered who was dead. "Yes, I know where I am. Unfortunately. How long was I out?"
Aviler tried to shift his own position and grimaced in discomfort. "Several hours. I believe it may be near morning, but it's difficult to say."
Near morning of the third day since the attack. Not much time for travelers or refugees to carry word of the disaster. And if Ravenna was dead, what had happened to the rest of the court? Thomas tried not to care, and was surprised to find it impossible. There were Falaise and Gideon, Berham, Phaistus, his other men. If Denzil realized Falaise had betrayed what little she knew of his plans to Thomas, even if she had done it too late to be of any help...
He saw that Aviler was trying to loosen the heavy iron spike that held his chains to the wall with an air that spoke of several hours' familiarity with the process. Thomas shifted over enough to reach the peg holding him and started to work on it, for all that it felt absolutely immovable.
Another Bisran War. All the heroes of the last terrible years of war were gone. All the famous names that had passed into folklegend and ballads were the names of the dead. Aviler the Elder had succumbed to illness or possibly poison; the Warrior-Bishop of Portier had been thrown from a horse; Thomas's old captain was killed at duty; Desero, who had been Renier's predecessor as Preceptor of the Albon Knights, retired and passed quietly away in the country; and all the others had been killed in later battles or by the weight of years. For the last year or so there had only been Ravenna, Lucas, and himself, and they had come into the legend only at its triumphant conclusion. Now there was only himself, who had been the youngest of the lot, and who would not live to be executed by Roland for some imagined offense, or to see his skill degenerate from time and old wounds. It was the end of an age.
Then Thomas heard someone come into the anteroom, heard one of the troopers reply to some question. He glanced at Aviler, who looked grim, and he remembered that Denzil had wanted the High Minister to sign a falsified document of abdication.
After a moment Dontane appeared in the doorway. He stood there, smiling down at them coldly. Thomas leaned back against the wall, relieved it wasn't Grandier. He couldn't find it in himself to feel anything but contempt for Dontane, for all that he was a sorcerer. After Grandier's example of how far one man could go for revenge, Dontane seemed nothing but a persistent gadfly of a schemer, not unlike the young nobles Denzil had used as cannon fodder in his plans.
"The Duke of Alsene has much to discuss with you," Dontane said then, and motioned to the soldiers outside. Two entered the room, one standing back with a drawn rapier and the other unlocking Thomas's manacles.
Thomas made no attempt to stand, letting the trooper jerk him to his feet. That was the only way he would've been able to get there; his leg had stiffened up again.
They led him out of the makeshift prison and down one flight of stairs into an area heavily guarded by more of the Alsene troops. Men were crowded into the disordered rooms, and every candle and lamp was lit to fight the darkness and the presence of the fay. The fear was palpable.
Dontane asked suddenly, "What did Grandier say to you?"
Thomas remembered Dontane's persistence in demanding why Grandier should want him alive when he had first been captured. He had suspected then that Dontane felt his position was insecure. Only a sane reaction, considering how many people Grandier had disposed of to further his goals. Thomas said, "He told us all his grand plans. Do you want to know if they included you?"
Dontane did not turn to look at him. Thomas sensed he was struggling to control a bitter anger, which was probably directed at Grandier almost as much as it was at him. After a moment Dontane replied, "If Denzil doesn't rid me of you, I'll just have to think of something myself, won't I?"
Dontane led the way through a suite piled with supplies, to where servants with the Alsene badge waited outside two large double doors.
Inside was a long low-ceilinged council room, decorated in blue and gold with a long draw table across the back wall. Three men stood with their backs to Thomas, consulting a map spread out on the table. Dontane went to lean against the wall, watching with folded arms, but the troopers stayed to either side of Thomas. The men wore the heavy velvet brocades of nobles, and two were blond. Alsene lords? he wondered. A couple of servants waited by the other door, with a dark-haired boy-page. Then Thomas saw that the man in the center of the group at the table had his left arm in a sling, and he forgot about Dontane and the others.
Denzil turned to face him, and Thomas said, "Pity I missed."
"Pity for you," the Duke of Alsene said, smiling as he came forward. "It was a good shot; it shattered the bone, but our fine sorcerer Grandier healed it." Thomas must have shown his disbelief because Denzil added, "Yes, I thought it impossible too, but it seems he's more skilled than most. Quite an advantage for me."
Quite an advantage. If not for Grandier, Denzil would have died, or lost his arm. One of the other nobles, watching from across the room, grinned and said, "So this is the one who gave you so much trouble, my lord; you didn't tell us--"
Denzil spun around and snarled, "Shut up!"
The silence became absolute. Thomas noted he was the only man in the room who hadn't started at the sudden transformation from urbane calm to nearly blind rage. He had always known Denzil was capable of that kind of anger, but that the young Duke had hidden it from his followers came as no surprise.
Denzil turned back to him, again the cool amused young noble. Smiling, he said, "Relatives are a necessary encumbrance."
"For now," Thomas agreed. He could see the family resemblance to Denzil in the other two men's features, the cold blue of their eyes. The one who had spoken looked resentful at being publicly chastened; the other was watching the scene with amusement, as if it were a play put on for his enjoyment. If Denzil succeeded, Thomas wouldn't have bet copper on the chances of either of them living out the year. He said, "Did you get Roland?"
"No." Denzil's eyes were very bright and he was flushed slightly from excitement. Excitement at the power. He was watching Thomas carefully. "Ravenna's dead."
"I know," Thomas said, able to keep his expression neutral and wondering if Grandier had told him first only to spoil his ally's fun.
Denzil was too good at this to betray even a flash of irritation. He only shook his head in mild regret. "Grandier again? And I was so looking forward to telling you myself."
At that moment Thomas knew for certain that Denzil had brought him up here to kill him. He had suspected it as soon as he had walked in, but now it was all there to be read in the younger man's face, the way he carried himself. He said, "You hide your disappointment well."
"Do you think so?" Denzil drew the main gauche from the sash at his back and touched the point thoughtfully. This wasn't the deadly toy with the serrated edge and extra rods for breaking blades. It was an elegant weapon with a long utilitarian blade and a gold-chased half-shell guard. Thomas watched Denzil's opaque eyes and tried to keep his mind blank.
Denzil said, "I don't suppose you're surprised by this," and stabbed him in the stomach.
For the first moment Thomas only felt the force of the blow. It doubled him over, and as the blade pulled free and air reached his sliced flesh, the pain began. A wave of icy cold rose around him, and his legs gave way. He didn't notice that the troopers had let him go until his knees struck the floor. For a moment he supported himself with one hand braced against the wooden planks, the other pressed to his stomach. The blood felt hot against the chill of his skin, and there was so astonishingly little of it at first. He was distantly aware of noise in the room, voices raised, but then his arm gave way and that was all.
Out of the warm darkness of fevered sleep, he heard voices.
Galen Dubell... No, Grandier said, "I don't have to justify my actions to you."
"Don't you? You're putting me on a throne, and I'm going to help you get your heart's desire, and you don't think you owe me a few words of explanation?" Denzil said, his tone soft and reasonable.
There was silence. Thomas managed to open his eyes. He lay curled on his side on a couch, and a large spot of the heavy damask upholstery was soaked with blood. He knew this because his left hand lay in it. His doublet had been unbuttoned and his shirt pulled aside. It was cold, though not as frigid as the room where he had been imprisoned. His limbs felt too heavy to move, and there was something about the absence of pain that was shocking.
Grandier's back was to him, and he could see Denzil across the room.
Denzil's brows had lifted in gentle inquiry, but when Grandier remained politely attentive, he said, "That man is my enemy."
"That isn't my concern."
Denzil was ominously still for a moment, though Grandier's reply had been in the same mild voice. He said, "Consider that you would do better not to antagonize me."
"Perhaps. But I have already antagonized you, it seems, so I see no point in not continuing on my chosen course."
"Very well. It means nothing then, but..." Denzil shrugged gracefully, only a slight tremor revealing his rage. "Do be more careful in the future."
Thomas closed his eyes, feeling darkness sweep up over him in a moment of dizziness, but he heard Denzil's steps cross the room and a door close.
He opened his eyes again and saw Grandier shake his head and turn around. The sorcerer smiled when he saw him awake and said, "Really, the man is driven mad by anyone who fails to succumb to his particular charm. But then, you are aware of this."
"Intimately." The sarcasm was automatic, and Thomas's voice slow and rusty. He winced at the sound of it.
Grandier turned away, and Thomas managed to lift himself a little on one elbow. Pain seized him for one sporadic moment, doubled him up, and let him go, leaving him breathless. His fingers found the small web of tight white scar tissue about five inches below his heart. That was all that was left of the puncture wound where the blade had entered, but his body remembered its presence all too well.
When he looked up, Grandier was watching him with a puzzled frown. "You are fortunate," Grandier said. "He could have injured you in a way less easily remedied."
Thomas took a deep breath, but the pain didn't return. The stab wound in his arm had stopped its insistent ache as well. He said, "You don't think he knew that?"
Grandier shook his head. "He was angry because I did not allow you to die."
"He was angry because you were so calm about it. Before he did it he was very careful to tell me how you healed his arm after I shot him."
Grandier hesitated a moment, eyes thoughtful, then he said, "A valuable insight."
He sent Dontane to contact Denzil for him, Thomas thought. That had undoubtedly gone well for Denzil. Might as well send sheep to bargain with wolves. Grandier had crossed the room to a round table that held a number of jars and bottles, probably apothecary powders. He was tightening the stoppers and putting them back into a leather case. Thomas wanted to ask why Grandier wanted him alive, but he suspected he would find that out anyway in a moment or two. He wished the damned Bisran priest who had heard Grandier's confession in prison had asked for more specifics about the shape-changing magic. How a potential victim could escape it, for example. But there was one thing he wanted to know regardless of what happened to him next, and he asked, "How did Ravenna die?"
Grandier paused, without turning, and said, "Evadne and a band of fay had trapped her in the tower at Bel Garde, and attempted to exchange her for Roland. She fired a powder magazine Denzil had hidden there, killing Evadne and the others. A few fay who had clung to the outside of the tower survived; I had the story from them."
Firing a powder magazine. God, woman, did you think about what you were doing to yourself? No, probably not, even if she could have considered it as anything other than a means to an end. She would have given her own life the same weight as anyone else's, done her best, and then proceeded on her course with style. Oh, but the bastards must have been surprised.
When he looked back, Grandier was watching him thoughtfully. "You wondered why I felt the need to show you the Dark Host."
"It was not intended as a threat. It was a test."
A test I failed, Thomas thought suddenly.
"There was no light in that cellar," Grandier continued. "Or no light visible to mortal eyes. The men with us heard strange cries and laughter, and caught brief glimpses of foul things darting out of a wall of darkness. I could see the Host, as could Dontane, because we have been touched by their power. How was it that you saw them?"
Coming out of a wall of darkness, like the attack in the Old Hall. Wary, Thomas answered, "If you knew enough to perform the test, then you must already have a theory."
"She took you to Knockma, didn't she?"
Thomas watched him, saying nothing. Kade's Fayre kingdom had been like an island of calm reality in the midst of a nightmare. It had been easy to forget that the pact he had made with her there would have an effect in the violent whirlwind of the present.
Grandier said, "The change is noticeable, to those who know what to look for. Perhaps even to those who don't. But she did more than take you there, I think. She has opened the Otherworld to you."
"And what does that mean to you?"
"I could use your help. With the Duke of Alsene, for one example. As you have pointed out, my understanding of the way his mind works is woefully incomplete." Grandier closed the leather case and leaned back against the table. "Ravenna is gone, and Roland is alone. Even if you could free yourself and reach him, he wouldn't listen to you, not about Denzil's involvement. Those who might have organized resistance to the Duke's bid for power are either dead, scattered, or will not learn of it in time." He shrugged. "I agree with you. Denzil is dangerous, unamenable to my influence, and too clever to control. It will be a battle to make him carry out my wishes, at least until I no longer need him. You could help me win that battle."
Thomas's first impulse was to play for time. He knew what a flat refusal to cooperate might get him, and he wasn't willing to give up yet. He asked, "What about Kade?"
"She can no longer enter the palace, as I have turned the wards against her, but I spoke to her some time ago through the ring in the Grand Gallery. She is somewhat angry with me."
"You've tried to kill her at least twice."
"And was unsuccessful. You helped her in the Old Hall, and she handled my golem herself without much trouble." Grandier smiled a little, almost in pride, as if he'd been the one to teach her and not Dubell.
And Thomas thought, I wonder if sometimes he thinks he is Galen Dubell...
But the smile faded and Grandier said slowly, "He would never talk about her. How much he had taught her, what fay powers she had, where she was likely to be... He kept all her secrets, even at the end, when he became confused and told me what I needed to know about the palace wards."
Thomas thought of Dubell, who had been so trusting despite his occasionally acerbic wit. He had known him only through the faulty mirror of Grandier's imposture. But that imposture had fooled Kade who had known the old man better than anyone, so much of it must have been accurate. He said, "Is that how you do it? Get someone's confidence, earn their trust, learn their secrets, and gradually draw every scrap of information out of them until there's nothing useful left?"
"Yes, in a way. It is a domination of the personality."
"You sound like Denzil."
"Perhaps I do."
"Don't pretend to delude yourself," Thomas said, too angry to stop the words, to play the game safely. "You're not like Denzil; you're not blinded by self-absorption or maddened by what the Bisran priests did to you, however much you'd like us to think so. You've calmly made the decision to take your revenge this way, and you're aware of exactly how much pain you're causing."
"Perhaps that is a sin of which we are all guilty. We sane men who participate in insanity for reasons of our own." Grandier was silent for a moment, then he said, "But you are wrong about my intentions. I do not mean to take you as I took Dubell. Your cooperation is more valuable to me than your body, for the moment. I don't suppose you will care to give me an answer yet. But I suggest you come to a decision soon."
Different troopers brought Thomas back to the makeshift cell and replaced his manacles. Aviler was still there, still relatively unhurt, except for the lines of strain and fatigue on his face, briefly visible in the light of the guard's lamp.
When they had gone, Aviler asked, "What happened?"
Thomas leaned back against the wall. On the walk back, he had discovered that the only wound that hadn't yielded to Grandier's unwanted healing had been the hole the elf-shot had left in his leg. He said, "I was offered a place in Grandier's glorious revolution."
Aviler considered that, then asked softly, "And where did all the blood come from?"
"Denzil stabbed me, and Grandier took care of the damage. Denzil intends to repeat the performance later. I could see him thinking it." Thomas looked away, glad of the darkness in the cold little room. He hadn't meant to say quite that much.
Aviler was silent for a time. Thomas wondered if he was thinking about the document he was supposed to sign. Then Aviler said, "An interesting demonstration of the consequences of refusal. What answer did you give Grandier?"
"I didn't give him any answer. It's called stalling for time."
Kade sat down hard on Knockma's thick grass. She hoped the entire Host had flung itself into the ring after her, but she knew better than that. She had connected one cardinal point of the ring to the other, and any of the fay who followed her into it would find themselves caught in the ring's maelstrom, flung around and around until the connection broke, which it would do fairly soon. Rings were difficult to tamper with at best, and always sought to return to their original state.
Boliver was still waiting for her. He had settled on the grass outside the circle of menhirs and was smoking a white clay pipe. "No more than an hour," he said, answering her unspoken question. "Did you discover anything useful?"
Kade stood and stepped out of the ring so she could think without it singing in her ears. "Yes, but I made a mistake. I shouldn't have gone." She sat beside him and put her head in her hands. "Grandier was waiting for me. He knows that I-- He told me Thomas is alive, and that I am to stay out of the way." She felt her mouth twist into a sneer. "He knows it will be difficult for me."
"Yes, you made a grand cock-up," Boliver agreed.
She rubbed her eyes and said sourly, "Your confidence in me is overwhelming."
Boliver sighed. "Is your Thomas that important to you, then? Has he said anything of the kind to you?"
She looked up and saw he was watching her gravely. She stilled the quick flare of anger. "Yes, he is important to me. And if he's dead I'll never know what he thinks about me." And I wouldn't care if he hated me as long as I knew he was alive somewhere...
"Then stop rushing about like a daft-headed chicken and do something," Boliver said suddenly, scattering her thoughts.
"I am not rushing about like a daft-headed anything," she said through gritted teeth.
He pointed the pipe at her. "Oh, you're not weeping or fainting, but you're running about in circles, letting this damned human wizard point you any way he wants you."
"I am not--"
"By Puck's pointed ears, woman, you're the Queen of Air and Darkness. Act like it!"
Kade was on her feet and Boliver was scrambling for cover when it occurred to her that Thomas had said much the same thing to her. He had said it on that cool rainy night on the loggia, when they had listened to Denzil twist Roland's friendship into slavery.
She supposed she should feel like dying. What she felt was a cold numbness centering around her heart, as if she were already dead. Kade turned away and started to cross the field toward the castle. Reaching the edge of the garden, she climbed the steps and entered her turret workroom. She stood for a moment in the quiet with the sweet smell of herbs and flowers. Then she saw that the bowl on the table was glowing softly. It was the spell she had tried to make to reveal the location of the keystone. She had forgotten it.
Holding her breath, Kade went to the table. The water at the bottom of the bowl had formed an image: a hazy translucent image of a room. And she recognized the room.
"Gods above and below take that canny old bastard," she whispered, almost reverently. "It was there all the time."
Then she had an idea.
Chapters One through Eight
Chapters Seventeen through Twenty
© 2006 by Martha Wells
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