The Death of the Necromancer
Hardback: Avon Eos, July 1998.
1998 Nebula Nominee
Design by Patricia Barrow, cover by Liz Kenyon.
Paperback: Avon Eos, July 1999.
Nicholas Valiarde is a passionate, embittered nobleman with an enigmatic past. Consumed by thoughts of vengeance, he is consoled only by thoughts of the beautiful, dangerous Madeline. He is also the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien. Under cover of darkness on the streets of the gaslit city, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance: the murder of Count Montesq. Montesq orchestrated the wrongful execution of Nicholas's beloved godfather Edouard on false charges of necromancy, the art of divination through communion with spirits of the dead, a practice long outlawed in the kingdom of Ile-Rien.
But now Nicholas's murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him, and traces of a necromantic power that hasn't been used for centuries appear. And when a spiritualist unwittingly leads Nicholas to a decrepit old house, the truly monstrous nature of his peril finally emerges.
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Audiobook: Tantor Audio narrated by Derek Perkins
eBook and audiobook available on iTunes
The most nerve-racking commissions, Madeline
thought, were the ones that required going in through
the front door. This front door was simply more
imposing than most.
Lit by gray moonlight, the monumental facade of
Mondollot House loomed over her, studded with lighted
windows. High above the street the pediment was one
large stone canvas for a passionately carved relief
of the hosts of Heaven and Hell locked in battle, the
shrouds of doomed saints and the veils of the angels
flying like banners or hanging down to drape
gracefully over the stone canopies of the upper
windows. A quartet of musicians played from an open
balcony somewhere above, entertaining the guests as
they arrived. Glass sconces around the doorway had
been an unfortunate modern addition; the flicker and
peculiar color of gas light made it look as if the
door was meant to be the mouth of Hell itself. Not
a serendipitous choice, but the Duchess of Mondollot
has never been singled out for restraint or taste,
Madeline thought, but kept an ironic smile to
Despite the frosty night air and the chill wind
off the river, there were other guests milling around
on the wide marble portico, admiring the famous
pediment. Madeline tucked her hands more firmly into
her muff and shivered, partly from the cold, partly
from anticipation. Her coachman received his
instructions and urged the horses away, and her
escort Captain Reynard Morane strolled back to her.
She saw the flakes of snow on the shoulders of his
caped greatcoat, and hoped the weather held until
later tonight, at least. One disaster at a time,
she thought, with an impatient shake of her head.
Let's just get inside the place first.
Reynard extended an arm to her. "Ready,
She took his arm with a faint smile. "Very
They joined the crowd of other guests milling
towards the entrance.
The tall doors stood open, light and warmth
spilling out onto the scuffed paving stones. Two
servants stood to either side, wearing the knee
breeches and silver braided coats of old style
livery. The man taking the invitations wore the dark
swallowtail coat of fashionable evening dress. I
don't imagine this is the butler, Madeline thought
grimly. Reynard handed over their invitation and she
held her breath as the man opened the linen-paper
She had come by it honestly, though if she had
needed to she could have gone to the finest forger in
the city: an old man nearly blind, who worked in a
dank cellar off the Philosopher's Cross. But she
could sense something stirring in the eaves overhead,
in the dimness high above the reach of the gas lamps.
Madeline did not look up, and if Reynard was aware of
it he betrayed no reaction. Their informant had said
a familiar of the sorcerer who protected the house
would guard the door, an old and powerful familiar to
spy out any magical devices brought in by the guests.
Madeline clutched her reticule more tightly, though
none of the objects in it were magical. If it were
searched, there was no way a sorcerer of any repute
whatsoever could fail to recognize what they were
"Captain Morane and Madam Denare," the man said,
"Welcome." He handed the invitation off to one of
the footmen and bowed them in.
They were ushered into the vestibule where
servants appeared to collect Madeline's fur-trimmed
paletot and muff and Reynard's greatcoat, cane and
top hat. A demure maid was suddenly kneeling at
Madeline's feet, brushing away a few traces of gravel
that had adhered to the hem of her satin skirts,
using a little silver brush and pan specially
designed for the purpose. Madeline took Reynard's
arm again and they passed through the entryway into
the noisy crush of the main reception area.
Even with the carpets covered by linen drapers
and the more delicate furniture removed, the hall was
opulent. Gilded cherubs peered down at the milling
guests from the heavy carved molding, and the
ceilings were frescoed with ships sailing along the
western coast. They joined the crowd ascending the
double staircases and passed through the doors at the
top and into the ballroom.
Beeswax, Madeline thought. They must have
been at the floors all night. Beeswax, and
sandalwood and patchouli, and sweat, heavy in the
air. Sweat from the warm presence of so many finely-
clothed bodies, and sweat from fear. It was all so
familiar. She realized she was digging her gloved
nails into Reynard's arm in a death grip, and forced
her fingers to unclench. He patted her hand
distractedly, surveying the room.
The first dance had already started and couples
swirled across the floor. The ballroom was large
even for a house this size, with draped windows
leading out onto balconies along the righthand side,
doors allowing access to card rooms, refreshment and
retiring rooms along the left. Across the back was a
clever arrangement of potted winter roses, screening
four musicians already hard at work on the cornet,
piano, violin, and cello. It was lit by a multitude
of chandeliers burning expensive beeswax candles,
because the vapors from gas were thought to ruin fine
Madeline saw the Duchess of Mondollot herself,
leading out the Earl of... Of something, she
thought, distractedly. I can't keep them straight
anymore. It wasn't the nobility they had to be wary
of, but the sorcerers. There were three of them
standing against the far wall, older gentlemen in
dark swallowtail coats, wearing jeweled presentation
medals from Lodun. One of them wore a ruby broach
and sash of the Order of Fontainon, but even without
that indication Madeline would have known him. He
was Rahene Fallier, the court sorcerer. There would
be women sorcerers here too, more dangerous and
difficult to spot because they would not be wearing
presentation medals or orders with their ball gowns.
And the university at Lodun had only allowed women
students for the past ten years. Any female
sorcerers present would be only a little older than
Madeline's thirty years.
She nodded to a few acquaintances in the crowd,
and she knew others recognized her; she had played
the Madwoman in Isle of Stars to packed houses all
last season. That wouldn't affect their plans, since
everyone of any wealth or repute whatsoever in Vienne
and the surrounding countryside would be in this
house at some time tonight. And of course, someone
was bound to recognize Reynard...
"Morane." The unpleasantly sharp voice was
almost at Madeline's left ear. She snapped her fan
at the speaker and lifted an eyebrow in annoyance.
He took the hint and stepped back from her, still
glowering at Reynard, and said, "I didn't think you
showed yourself in polite society, Morane." The
speaker was about her own age, wearing dress
regimentals of one of the cavalry brigades, a
lieutenant from his rank insignia. The Queen's
Eighth, Madeline realized. Ah. Reynard's old
"Is this polite society?" Reynard asked. He
stroked his mustache and eyed the speaker with some
amusement. "By God man, it can't be. You re here."
There was a contemptuous edge to the younger
man s smile. "Yes, I'm here. I suppose you have
an invitation." It was too brittle for good-natured
banter. There were two other men behind the
lieutenant, one in regimentals, the other in civilian
dress, both watching intently. "But you always were
good at wiggling in where you weren't wanted."
Easily, Reynard said, "You should know, my boy."
They hadn't drawn the eye of anyone else in the
noisy crowd yet, but it was only a matter of time.
Madeline hesitated for a heartbeat--she hadn't meant
them to become conspicuous in this way, but it was a
ready-made diversion--and said, "You'll excuse me a
moment, my dear."
"All for the best, my dear. This would probably
bore you." Reynard gave her all his attention,
turning toward her, kissing her hand, acting the
perfect escort. The young lieutenant nodded to her,
somewhat uncomfortably, and as Madeline turned away
without acknowledging him, she heard Reynard ask
casually, "Run away from any battles lately?"
Once away she moved along the periphery of the
dancers, heading for the doors in the left hand wall.
A lady alone in the ballroom, without a male escort
or other ladies as companions, would be remarked on.
A lady moving briskly toward the retiring rooms would
be assumed to require a maid's assistance in some
delicate matter and be politely ignored. Once past
the retiring rooms, a lady alone would be assumed to
be on her way to a private tryst, and also be
She passed through one of the doorways leading
off the ballroom and down the hall. It was quiet and
the lamps had been turned low, the light sparking off
the mirrors, the polished surfaces of the spindly-
legged console tables and the porcelain vases stuffed
with out-of-season flowers. For such a luxury the
Duchess had her own forcing-houses; the gold flowers
Madeline wore in her aigrette and on her corsage were
fabric, in deference to the season. She passed a
room with a partly open door, catching a glimpse of a
young maid kneeling to pin up the torn hem of an even
younger girl's gown, heard a woman speak sharply in
frustration. Past another door where she could hear
male voices in conversation, and a woman's low laugh.
Madeline's evening slippers were noiseless on the
polished wood floor and no one came out.
She was in the old wing of the house now. The
long hall became a bridge over cold silent rooms
thirty feet down, and the heavy stone walls were
covered by tapestry or thin veneers of exotic wood
instead of lathe and plaster. There were banners and
weapons from long ago wars, still stained with rust
and blood, and ancient family portraits dark with the
accumulation of years of smoke and dust. Other halls
branched off, some leading to even older sections of
the house, others to odd little cul-de-sacs lit by
windows with an unexpected view of the street or the
surrounding houses. Music and voices from the
ballroom grew further and further away, as if she was
at the bottom of a great cavern, hearing echoes from
the living world on the surface.
She chose the third staircase she passed,
knowing the servants would still be busy toward the
front of the house. She caught up her skirts--black
gauze with dull gold stripes over black satin and
ideal for melding into shadows--and quietly ascended.
She gained the third floor without trouble but going
up to the fourth passed a footman on his way down.
He stepped to the wall to let her have the railing,
his head bowed in respect and an effort not to see
who she was, ghosting about Mondollot House and
obviously on her way to an indiscreet meeting. He
would remember her later, but there was no help for
The hall at the landing was high and narrower
than the others, barely ten feet across. There were
more twists and turns to find her way through,
stairways that only went up half a floor, and dead
ends, but she had committed a map of the house to
memory in preparation for this, and so far it seemed
Madeline found the door she wanted and carefully
tested the handle. It was unlocked. She frowned.
One of Nicholas Valiarde's rules was that if one was
handed good fortune one should first stop to ask the
price, because there usually was a price. She eased
the door open, saw the room beyond lit only by
reflected moonlight from undraped windows. With a
cautious glance up and down the corridor, she pushed
it open enough to see the whole room. Book-filled
cases, chimney piece of carved marble with a
caryatid-supported mantle, tapestry-back chairs, pier
glasses, and old sideboard heavy with family plate.
A deal table supporting a metal strongbox. Now
we'll see, she thought. She took a candle from the
holder on the nearest table, lit it from the gas
sconce in the hall, then slipped inside and closed
the door behind her.
The undraped windows worried her. This side of
the house faced Ducal Court street and anyone below
could see the room was occupied. Madeline hoped none
of the duchess's more alert servants stepped outside
for a pipe or a breath of air and happened to look
up. She went to the deal table and upended her
reticule next to the solid square shape of the
strongbox. Selecting the items she needed out of the
litter of scent vials, jewelry she had decided not to
wear, and a faded string of Aderassi luck-beads, she
set aside snippets of chicory and thistle, a
toadstone, and a paper screw containing salt.
Their sorcerer-advisor had said that the ward
that protected Mondollot House from theft or
intrusion was an old and powerful one indeed.
Destroying it would take much effort, and be a waste
of a good spell. Circumventing it temporarily would
be easier and far less likely to attract notice,
since wards were invisible to anyone except a
sorcerer using gascoign powder in his eyes or the new
Aether-Glasses invented by the Parscian Wizard
Negretti. The toadstone itself held the necessary
spell, dormant and harmless, and in its current state
invisible to the familiar who guarded the main doors.
The salt sprinkled on it would act as a catalyst and
the special properties of the herbs would fuel it.
Once all were placed in the influence of the ward's
key object, the ward would withdraw to the very top
of the house. When the potency of the salt wore off,
it would simply slip back into place, probably before
their night's work had been discovered. Madeline
took her lock picks out of their silken case and
turned to the strongbox.
It was unlocked. She felt the scratches on the
hasp, and knew there had been a lock here recently, a
heavy one, but it was nowhere to be seen. Damn. I
have a not-so-good feeling about this. She lifted
the flat metal lid.
Inside there should be the object that tied the
incorporeal ward to the corporeal bulk of Mondollot
House. Careful spying and a few bribes had led them
to expect not a stone as was more common, but a
ceramic object, perhaps a ball, of great delicacy and
On a velvet cushion in the bottom of the
strongbox were the crushed remnants of something once
delicate and beautiful as well as powerful, nothing
left now but fine white powder and fragments of
cerulean blue. Madeline gave vent to an unladylike
curse and slammed the lid down. Some bastard's been
here before us.
* * *
"There's nothing here." Mother Hebra whispered.
She crouched in the brick rubble at the base of the
barred gate, hands outstretched. She smiled and
nodded to herself. "Aye, not a peep of a nasty old
sorcerer's ward. She must've done it."
"She's somewhat early." Nicholas muttered,
tucking away his pocketwatch. "But better that than
late." Tools clanked as the others scrambled forward
and he reached down to help the old woman up and out
of the way.
The flame from the single lamp flickered in the
damp cold air, the only light in the brick-lined
tunnel. They had removed the layer of bricks
blocking the old passage into Mondollot House's
cellars, but Mother Hebra had stopped them before
they could touch the rusted iron of the gate, wanting
to test to see if it was within the outer perimeter
of the ward that protected the house. Nicholas could
sense nothing unusual about the gate, but he wasn't
willing to ignore the old witch's advice. Some
household wards were designed to frighten potential
intruders, others to trap them, and he was no
sorcerer to know the difference.
The tunnel was surprisingly clean, and for all
its dampness the stale air was free of any stench.
Most inhabitants of Vienne, if they thought of the
tunnels beneath the city at all, thought of them as
filthy adjuncts to the sewers, fit for nothing human.
Few knew of the access passages to the new
underground rail system, which had to be kept clear
and relatively dry for the train workmen.
Crack and Cusard attacked the bars with
hacksaws, and Nicholas winced at the first high-
pitched scrape. They were too far below street level
to draw the attention of anyone passing above; he
merely hoped the sound wasn't echoing up through the
house's cellars, alerting the watchmen posted on the
Mother Hebra tugged at his coat sleeve. She was
half Nicholas's height, a walking bundle of dirty
rags with only a tuft of gray hair and a pair of
bright brown eyes to prove there was anything within.
"So you don't forget later..."
"Oh, I wouldn't forget you, my dear." He
produced two silver coins, and put them in the
withered little hand she extended. As a witch, she
wasn't much, but it was really her discretion he was
paying for. The hand disappeared back into her rags
and the whole bundle shook, apparently with joy at
Cusard had cut through several bars already, and
Crack was almost finished with his side. "Rusted
through, mostly," Cusard commented, and Crack grunted
"Not surprising; it's much older than this
tunnel," Nicholas said. The passage had once led to
another Great House, torn down years past to make way
for Ducal Court Street, which stretched not too many
feet above their heads.
The last bar gave way, and Cusard and Crack
straightened to lift the gate out of the way.
Nicholas said, "You can go now, Mother."
The prompt payment had won her loyalty. "Nay,
I'll wait case you need me." The bundle of rags
settled against the wall.
Crack straightened from moving the gate and
turned to regard Mother Hebra critically. Crack was
a lean, predatory figure, his shoulders permanently
stooped from a term at hard labor at the city prison.
His eyes were colorless and opaque. The magistrates
had called him a born killer, an animal entirely
without human feeling. Nicholas had found that to be
somewhat of an exaggeration, but knew that if Crack
thought Hebra meant to betray them he would act
without hesitation. The little witch hissed at him,
and Crack shrugged and turned away.
Nicholas stepped over the rubble and into the
lowest cellar of Mondollot House.
There was no new red brick here. Their lamps
revealed walls of rough-cut stone, the ceiling arched
with thick pillars to support the weight of the
structure above. A patina of dust covered everything
and the air was dank and stale.
Nicholas led the way toward the far wall, the
lamp held high. Obtaining the plans for this house,
stored in a chest of moldering family papers at the
Mondollot estate in Upper Bannot, had been the
hardest part of this particular scheme so far. They
were not the original plans, which would have long
since turned to dust, but a builder's copy made only
fifty years ago. Nicholas only hoped the good
Duchess hadn't seen fit to renovate her upper cellars
They reached a narrow stair that curved up the
far wall, vanishing into darkness at the edge of
their lamplight. Crack shouldered past Nicholas to
take the lead, and Nicholas didn't protest. Whether
Crack had sensed something wrong or was merely being
cautious, he had learned not to ignore the man's
The stairs climbed about thirty feet up the
wall, to a narrow landing with a wooden ironbound
door. A small portal in the center revealed that it
would open into a dark empty space of indeterminate
size, lit only by the ghost of reflected light coming
from a door or another stairwell on the far wall.
Nicholas held the lamp steady so Cusard could work at
the lock with his picks. As the door groaned and
swung open, Crack stepped forward to take the lead
again. Nicholas stopped him. "Is something wrong?"
Crack hesitated. The flicker of lamplight made
it even harder than usual to read his expression.
His face was sallow and the harsh lines around his
mouth and eyes had been drawn there by pain and
circumstance rather than age. He wasn't much older
than Nicholas's thirty years, but he could have
easily passed for twice that. "Maybe," he said
finally. "Don't feel right."
And that's the most we'll have out of him,
Nicholas thought. He said, "Go on then, but
remember, don't kill anyone."
Crack acknowledged that with an annoyed wave and
slipped through the door.
"Him and his feelings," Cusard said, glancing
around the shadowed cellar and shivering
theatrically. He was an older man, lean and with a
predatory cast of feature that was misleading -- he
was the nicest thief that Nicholas had ever met. He
was a confidence man by vocation, and far more used
to plying his trade in the busy streets than to
practicing his cracksman's skills underground. "It
don't half worry you, especially when he don't have
the words he needs to tell what he does think is
Nicholas absentmindedly agreed. He was
wondering if Madeline and Reynard had managed to
leave the house yet.
Crack appeared at the gap in the doorway,
whispering, "All clear. Come on."
Nicholas turned his lamp down to a bare flicker
of flame, handed it to Cusard, and slipped through
Hesitating a moment for his eyes to adjust, he
could see the room was vast and high-ceilinged, lined
by huge rotund shapes. Old wooden tuns for wine, or
possibly water, if the house had no well. Probably
empty now. He moved forward, following the almost
weightless scrape of Crack's boots on the dusty
stone. The faint light from the opposite end of the
chamber came from a partly open door. He saw Crack's
shadow slip through the door without hesitating and
hurried after him.
Reaching it, he stopped, frowning. The heavy
lock on the thick plank door had been ripped out, and
hung by a few distended screws. What in blazes...
Nicholas wondered. It was certainly beyond Crack's
He stepped through the door, and found himself
at their goal. A long low cellar, modernized with
brick-lined walls and gas sconces. Only one was
still lit, revealing man-high vaults in the walls,
each crammed with stacked crates, metal chests, or
barrels. Except for the one only ten paces away,
which was filled with the bulk of a heavy safe.
It also revealed Crack, standing and watching
Nicholas thoughtfully, and the dead man stretched at
Nicholas raised an eyebrow, and came further
into the room. There were two other bodies sprawled
on the stone flags just past the safe.
Crack said, "I didn't do it."
"I know you didn't." Engineering Crack's escape
from the Vienne prison had been one of the first acts
of Nicholas's adult criminal career; he knew Crack
wouldn't lie to him. Nicholas sat on his heels for a
closer look at the first corpse. Startled, he
realized the red debris around the man's head wasn't
merely blood but brain matter. The skull had been
smashed in by a powerful blow. Behind him, Cusard
swore in a low voice.
Exonerated, Crack crouched down to examine his
find as well. The dead man's suit was plain and
dark, probably the uniform of a hired watchman, and
the coat was streaked with blood and the filthy muck
from the floor of the cellar. Crack pointed to the
pistol still tucked into the man's waistband and
Nicholas asked, "Are they all like this?"
Crack nodded. "Except one's had his throat torn
"Someone's been before us!" Cusard whispered.
"Safe ain't touched," Crack disagreed. "No sign
of anyone. Got something else to show you, though."
Nicholas pulled off his glove to touch the back
of the dead man's neck, then wiped his hand on his
trousers. The body was cold, but the cellar air was
damp and chill, so it really meant little. He didn't
hesitate. "Cusard, begin on the safe, if you please.
And don't disturb the bodies." He got to his feet to
Cusard stared. "We going on with it then?"
"We didn't come all this way for naught,"
Nicholas said, and followed Crack to the other end of
Nicholas took one of the lamps, though he didn't
turn the flame up; Crack didn't seem to need the
light. Finding his way unerringly, he led the way to
the end of the long cellar, passing all the boxes and
bales that contained the stored wealth of the
Mondollot family, and rounded a corner.
Nicholas's eyes were well-adjusted to the dark,
and he saw the faint light ahead. Not pure yellow
firelight, or greasy gaslight, but a dim white
radiance, as if it were moonglow. It came from an
arched doorway, cut into a wall that was formed of
cut stone and not modern brick. There had been a
door barring it once, a heavy wooden door of oak that
had hardened over time to the strength of iron, that
was now torn off its hinges. Nicholas tried to shift
it; it was as heavy as stone. "In here," Crack said,
and Nicholas stepped through the arch.
The radiance came from ghost-lichen growing in
the groined ceiling. There was just enough of it to
illuminate a small chamber, apparently empty except
for a stone slab in its center. Nicholas turned the
flame of the lamp up slowly, exposing more of the
room. The walls were slick with moisture, and the
air stale. He moved to the stone slab and ran his
hand across the top, examining the result on his
gloved fingers. The stone was relatively free of
dust and the oily moisture, yet the edges of the slab
were as dirty as the rest of the surfaces.
He lifted the lamp and bent down, trying to get
a better angle. Yes, there was something here.
Its outline was roughly square. Oblong. A box,
perhaps, he thought. Coffin-sized, at least.
He glanced up at Crack, who was watching
intently. Nicholas said, "Someone entered the
cellar, by a route yet undetermined, stumbled on the
guards, or was stumbled on by them, possibly when he
broke the lock on the older cellar to search it. Our
intruder killed to prevent discovery, which is
usually the act of a desperate and foolish person."
It was Nicholas's belief that murder was almost
always the result of poor planning. There were so
many ways of making people do what you wanted other
than killing them. "Then he found this room, broke
down the door with a rather disturbing degree of
strength, removed something that had lain here
undisturbed for years, and retired, probably the same
way he entered."
Crack nodded, satisfied. "He ain't here no
more. I'll go bank on that."
"It's a pity." And now it was doubly important
to leave no trace of their presence. If I'm going
to be hanged for murder, I'd prefer it to be a murder
I actually committed. Nicholas consulted his watch
in the lamplight, then tucked it away again. "Cusard
should be almost finished with the safe. You go back
for the others and start moving the goods out. I
want to look around here a little more." There were
six other men waiting up in the tunnel, whose help
was necessary if they were to transport the gold
quickly. Crack, Cusard, and Lamane, who was Cusard's
second in command, were the only ones who knew him as
Nicholas Valiarde. To Mother Hebra and the others
hired only for this job, he was Donatien, a shadowy
figure of the Vienne underworld who paid well for
this sort of work and punished indiscretion just as
Crack nodded and stepped to the door.
Hesitating, he said again, "I'll go bank he's not
here no more..."
"But you would appreciate it if I exercised the
strictest caution," Nicholas finished for him.
Crack vanished into the darkness and Nicholas
stooped to examine the floor. The filth and moisture
on the pitted stone revealed footmarks nicely. He
found the tracks of his own boots, and Crack's,
noting that the first time his henchman had
approached the room he had come only to the
threshold. In the distance he could hear the others,
muted exclamations as the new arrivals saw the dead
men, the rumble of Crack's voice, a restrained
expression of triumph as Cusard opened the safe. But
there were no footmarks left by their hypothetical
intruder. Kneeling to make a more careful survey,
and ruining the rough fabric of his workman's coat
and breeches against the slimy stone in the process,
Nicholas found three scuffles he couldn't positively
attribute to either Crack or himself, but that was
all. He sat up on his heels, annoyed. He was
willing to swear his analysis of the room was
correct. There was no mistaking that some object had
been removed from the plinth, and recently.
Something that had lain in this room for years,
in silence, with the ethereal glow of the ghost-
lichen gently illuminating it.
He got to his feet, meaning to go back to the
guards' corpses and examine the floor around them
more thoroughly, if the others hadn't already
obliterated any traces when carrying out the
Duchess's stock of gold.
He stepped past the ruined door, and something
caught his eye. He turned his head sharply, toward
the opposite end of the corridor, where it curved
away from the vaults and into the older wine-cellars.
Something white fluttered at the end of that
corridor, distinct against the shadows. Nicholas
turned up the lamp, drawing breath to shout for
Crack--an instant later the breath was knocked out of
It moved toward him faster than thought and
between the first glimpse of it and his next
heartbeat it was on him. A tremendous blow struck
him flat on his back and the creature was on top of
him. Eyes, bulging because the flesh around them had
withered away, stared at him in black hate out of a
face gray as dead meat. It barred teeth like an
animal's, long and curving. It was wrapped in a
once-white shroud, filthy and tattered. Nicholas
jammed his forearm up into its face, felt the teeth
tearing through his sleeve. He had kept his grip on
the lantern, though the glass had broken and the oil
was burning his hand. He swung it toward the thing's
head with terror-inspired strength.
Whether it was the blow or the touch of burning
oil, it shrieked and tore itself away. The oil had
set the sleeve of Nicholas's coat afire; he rolled
over, crushing the flames out against the damp stone.
Crack, Cusard, and Lamane were suddenly
clustered around him. Nicholas tried to speak,
choked on the lungful of smoke he had inhaled, and
finally gasped, "After him."
Crack bolted immediately down the dark corridor.
Cusard and Lamane stared at Nicholas, then at each
other. "Not you," Nicholas said to Cusard. "Take
charge of the others. Get them out of here with the
"Aye," Cusard said in relief, and scrambled up
to run back to the others. Lamane swore but helped
Nicholas to his feet anyway.
Cradling his burned left hand, Nicholas stumbled
after Crack. Lamane had a lamp and a pistol; Crack
had gone after the thing empty-handed and in the
"Why are we following it?" Lamane whispered.
"We have to find out what it is."
"It's a ghoul."
"It's not a ghoul," Nicholas insisted. "It
"Then it's fay," Lamane muttered. "We need a
Vienne had been overrun by the Unseelie Court
over a hundred years ago, in the time of Queen
Ravenna, but as far as the superstitious minds of
most city people were concerned, it might as well
have happened yesterday. "If it's a fay, you have
iron," Nicholas said, indicating the pistol.
"That's true," Lamane agreed, encouraged. "Fast
as it was, though, it's miles away by now."
Perhaps, Nicholas thought. Whether it had
actually moved that quickly, or it had afflicted him
with some sort of paralysis he couldn't tell; his
mind's eye seemed to have captured an image of it
careening off the corridor wall as it charged him,
which might indicate that its movement toward him
hadn't been as instantaneous as it had seemed.
This was the lowest level of the Mondollot wine-cellars. The
lamplight revealed cask after cask of
old vintages, some covered by dust and cobwebs,
others obviously newly tapped. Nicholas remembered
that there was one of the largest balls of the
fashionable season going on not too many feet above
their heads, and while a large supply had undoubtedly
already been hauled upstairs, servants could be sent
for more casks at any moment. He could not afford to
They found Crack waiting for them at the far
wall, near a pile of broken bricks and stone.
Nicholas took the lamp from Lamane and lifted it
high. Something had torn its way through the wall,
pushing out the older foundation stone and the brick
veneer. The passage beyond was narrow, choked by
dust and filth. Nicholas grimaced. From the smell
it led straight to the sewer.
"That's where he came in." Crack offered his
opinion. "And that's where he went out."
"Ghouls in the sewers," Nicholas muttered.
"Perhaps I should complain to the aldermen." He
shook his head. He had wasted enough time on this
already. "Come, gentlemen, we have a small fortune
waiting for us."
* * *
Still inwardly cursing, Madeline took a
different stairway down to the second floor. They
had planned this for months; it was incredible that
someone else would scheme to enter Mondollot House on
the same night. No, she thought suddenly. Not
incredible. On every other night this place was
guarded like the fortress it was. But tonight
hundreds of people would be allowed in, and she
couldn't be the only one who knew of a good forger.
This was an ideal time for a robbery and someone else
had seized the opportunity.
She reached the ballroom and forced herself to
calmly stroll along the periphery, scanning the
dancers and the men gathered along the walls for
Reynard. He would expect her back by now, and be
where she could easily find him. He wouldn't have
joined a card game or... Left, she thought, with a
wry twist of her mouth. Unless he had to. Unless
he got into a fistfight with a certain young
lieutenant and was asked to leave. He would not be
able to insist on waiting for her, not knowing where
she was in the house or if she had finished with the
ward. Damn. But with the ward gone, it would be
possible to slip out unnoticed, if she could get down
to the first floor...
Madeline saw the Duchess of Mondollot then, a
distinguished and lovely matron in pearls and a gown
of cream satin, heading directly toward her. She
stepped behind the inadequate shelter of a tall
flower-filled vase and in desperation shielded her
face with her fan, pretending to be screening herself
from the lecherous view of an innocent group of older
gentlemen standing across from her.
But the Duchess passed Madeline without a
glance, and in her relief she found herself closely
studying the man trailing in the older woman's wake.
He was odd enough to catch anyone's attention in
this company. His dark beard was unkempt and though
his evening dress was of fine quality it was
disarrayed, as if he cared nothing for appearances.
And why come to the Duchess of Mondollot's ball, if
one cared nothing for appearances? He was shorter
than Madeline, and his skin appeared pale and
unhealthy even for late winter. His eyes glanced
over her as he hurried after the Duchess, and they
were wild, and perhaps a little mad.
There was something about him that clearly said
"underworld," though in the criminal, not the
mythological sense, and Madeline found herself
turning to follow him without closely considering her
The Duchess strode down the hall, accompanied
also, Madeline now had leisure to notice, by a
younger woman whom Madeline knew was a niece, and by
a tall footman. The Duchess turned into one of the
salons and the others followed; Madeline moved past,
careful not to glance in after them, her eyes fixed
further down the hall as if she were expecting to
meet someone. She reached the next closed door,
grasped the handle and swung it opened confidently,
ready to be apologetic and flustered if it was
It was empty, though a fire burned on the hearth
and a firescreen was in place, shielding the couches
and chairs gathered near it in readiness for ball
guests who desired private conversation or other
amusements. Madeline closed the door behind her
carefully and locked it. All these rooms on this
side of the corridor were part of a long suite of
salons, and there were connecting panel doors to the
room the duchess had entered.
The doors were of light wood, meant to swing
open wide and interconnect the rooms for large
evening gatherings. Madeline knelt beside them, her
satin and gauze skirts whispering, and with utmost
care, eased the latch open.
She was careful not to push the door, and the
air in the room swung it open just enough to give her
a view of the other room's carpet, and a slice of the
tulip-bordered wallpaper and carved wainscotting.
The Duchess was saying, "It's an unusual
"Mine is an unusual profession." That must be
the odd man. His voice made Madeline grimace in
distaste; it was insinuating and suggestive somehow,
and reminded her of a barker at a thousand-veils peep
show. No wonder the Duchess had called her niece and
a footman to accompany her.
"I've dealt with spiritualists before," the
Duchess continued, "though you seem to think I have
not. None required a lock of the departed one's hair
to seek contact."
Madeline felt a flicker of disappointment.
Spiritualism and speaking to the dead were all the
rage among the nobility and the monied classes now,
though in years past it would have been feared as
necromancy. It certainly explained the man's strange
She started to ease away from the door, but with
fury in his voice the spiritualist said, "I am no
ordinary medium, your grace. What I offer is a
contact of a more intimate, lasting nature. But to
establish that contact I require something from the
body of the deceased. A lock of hair is merely the
most common item."
Necromancy indeed, Madeline thought. She had
studied magic in her youth, when her family had still
hoped she might demonstrate some talent for it. She
hadn't been the best student, but something about
this pricked her memory.
"You require a lock of hair, and your fee," the
Duchess said, and her voice held contempt.
"Of course," the man said, but the fee was
clearly an afterthought.
"Aunt, this is ridiculous. Send him away." The
niece, bored and faintly disgusted with the subject.
"No," the Duchess said slowly. Her voice
changed, quickened with real interest. "If you can
do as you say...there seems no harm in trying..."
I wouldn't be too sure of that, Madeline
thought, though she couldn't explain her unease with
the whole idea, even to herself.
"I have a lock of my son's hair. He was killed
in the Parscian colony of Sambra. If you could
"Your son, not your husband?" the spiritualist
"What does it matter to you whom I wish to
contact, as long as your fee is paid?" The Duchess
sounded startled. "I would double it if I was
pleased; I'm not counted stingy," she added, and must
be thinking he was trying to bargain.
"But your husband would be the more proper one
to contact first, surely?" the man's tone was meant
to be wheedling, but he couldn't disguise his
"I don't wish to speak to my husband again,
alive or dead or in any state between," the Duchess
snapped. "And I don't understand what it could
possibly matter to you who--"
"Enough," the man said, sounding disgusted
himself. "Consider my offer withdrawn, your grace.
And the consequences are your own concern." Madeline
clearly heard the hall door slam.
The Duchess was silent a moment, probably
stunned. "I suppose I'll never know what that was
about. Bonsard, make sure that man is conducted
"Yes, my lady."
I'd do more than that, Madeline thought. I'd
summon my sorcerer, and make sure my wards were
properly set, and lock away any relics of my dead
relatives. That man was mad, and he wanted
something. But it wasn't her concern. She eased
away from the door, waited a moment, then slipped out
into the hall.
* * *
The safe had yielded to Cusard's ministrations,
and proved to hold nearly sixty small gold bars, each
stamped with the Royal seal of Bisra. Nicholas's men
had already packed them on the sledges they had
brought, and started back down the tunnel under
Cusard's direction when Nicholas, Crack and Lamane
caught up to them.
Nicholas motioned them to keep moving, lifting
one of the heavy bars with his good hand to examine
the crest. The Duchess of Mondollot maintained a
trading business with one of the old merchant
families of Bisra, Ile-Rien's long time enemy to the
south. This fact was little known and in the
interest of keeping it that way, the Duchess did not
store her gold in the Bank Royal of Vienne, which
Nicholas knew from experience was much harder to
break into. The Bank would also have expected the
great lady to pay taxes, something her aristocratic
mind couldn't countenance.
Mother Hebra clucked at his burns, and made him
wrap his scarf around his injured hand. Lamane was
telling the others something about the sewers being
infested with ghouls and in such a nice part of the
"What do you make of it?" Cusard asked
Nicholas, when they had reached the street access of
the maintenance tunnel, which opened up into an alley
across Ducal Court Street from Mondollot House and
behind a public stable. The other men were handing
up bars of gold to be stored in the compartment under
the empty bed of the waiting cart. The street boys
posted as lookouts worked for Cusard and thus for
Nicholas too, as did the man who ran the stables.
"I don't know." Nicholas waited for the men to
finish, then climbed up the bent metal ladder. The
cold wind hit him as he climbed out of the manhole,
the chill biting into his burns, and he gasped. The
night was quiet. The horses stamped, restless in the
cold. The men's hushed voices, distant music from
Mondollot House, and the clank of soft metal against
wood, as the gold was packed away in the special
compartments under the wagon bed, seemed oddly loud.
"I really don't," he said again as Cusard emerged.
"I'll swear it removed something from that room Crack
Cusard said, "Well, I don't much like it. It
was such a sweet little job of work, otherwise."
Someone brought him his greatcoat from the cart
and Nicholas shrugged into it gratefully. "I don't
either, that you can be sure of." The wagon had been
loaded and he wanted to look for Reynard and
Madeline. He told Cusard, "Take the others and get
home; we'll draw attention standing here."
The driver snapped the reins and the wagon moved
off. Nicholas walked back down the alley toward
Ducal Court Street. A layer of dirty ice and a light
dusting of snow made the streets and alleys passable;
usually they were so choked with mud and waste water
that pedestrians had to stay on the promenades or use
the stepping stones provided for street crossings.
He realized Crack was following him. He smiled to
himself, and said aloud, "All right. It didn't go at
all well the last time I sent you away, did it? But
no more ghoul-hunting tonight."
At the mouth of the alley, Nicholas paused to
remove the small hairpieces that lengthened his
sideburns and changed the shape of his mustache and
short beard, and rubbed the traces of glue off his
cheeks. That and the gray tint added to his dark
hair had given anyone who cared to look closely the
impression of a man much older than his own thirty
years. He never appeared as Donatien except in
disguise: if any of the men who had participated on
one of these jobs recognized him as Nicholas Valiarde
it could be ruinous.
He buttoned and belted his greatcoat, took the
collapsible tophat and cane from one of the pockets,
and tugged a doeskin glove onto his uninjured hand.
With the other hand in his pocket and the coat
concealing everything but his boots and gaiters, he
was only a gentleman out for a stroll, a somewhat
disreputable servant in tow.
He paused across the wide expanse of street from
Mondollot House, as if admiring the lighted facade.
Footmen stood ready at the door, waiting to hand down
late arrivals or assist those making an early night
of it. Nicholas moved on, passing down the length of
the large house. Then he spotted their coach,
standing at the corner under a gas street lamp, and
then Reynard Morane waiting near it. Nicholas
crossed to him, Crack a few paces behind.
"Nicholas..." Reynard stepped down from the
promenade to meet them. He took a close look at
"Things became somewhat rough. Where's
"That's the problem. I had the opportunity to
provide a diversion for her, but it went too well, so
to speak, and I found myself asked to leave with no
chance to retrieve her."
"Hmm." Hands on hips, Nicholas considered the
facade of the Great House. A lady leaving alone
would be remarked. Madeline would be even more aware
of that than he was. "Let's go around the side.
That's her best chance of getting out unnoticed."
Mondollot House was flanked by shopping
promenades and smaller courts leading to other Great
Houses, and it was possible to circle the place
entirely. The shops were closed, except for one busy
cabaret set far back under the arcade, and all was
quiet. There were no entrances on the first floor of
the house except for an occasional heavily barred
carriage or servants' door. The terraces and
balconies of the upper floors were all later
additions: originally these houses had been
impenetrable fortresses, frivolous decoration
confined to the rooftops and gables.
They made one circuit, almost back to Ducal
Court Street, then retraced their steps. Reaching
the far side, Nicholas saw the panel doors on a
second floor terrace fly open, emitting light, music,
"You're late, my dear," Reynard called softly to
her, "We've been looking everywhere for you."
"Oh, be quiet." Madeline shut the doors behind
her. "I've had to leave my best paletot behind
because of you."
"We can afford to buy you another, believe me."
Nicholas told her, smiling. "And it's well earned,
Madeline gathered her delicate skirts and swung
over the low balustrade, using the scrollwork as a
ladder, and dropped to land in a low snowdrift just
as Nicholas and Reynard scrambled forward to catch
her. She straightened and shook her skirts out, and
Nicholas hastened to wrap his coat around her. She
said, "Not so well earned. I didn't have a chance to
distract the ward because someone had beaten me to
"Ah." Nicholas nodded, thoughtful. "Of course.
I'm not surprised."
"He never is," Reynard complained. "Let's
discuss it somewhere else."
end chapter 1
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| Standalone Novels
| The Element of Fire
| Death of the Necromancer
| Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy
| The Wizard Hunters
| The Ships of Air
| The Gate of Gods
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| The Potter's Daughter
| Holy Places
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