/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: The Dragon brigade

Shadow Raiders

Margaret Weis


Shadow Raiders

Margaret Weis

Robert Krammes

Prologue

Sir Henry Wallace sat at his ease in his favorite chair-carved wood with a straight, rigid back and a worn rose-colored cushioned seat-in front of the fireplace in his bedroom. The servants had closed the heavy curtains that covered the mullioned windows and snuffed the candles and then quietly withdrawn, dismissed for the night. The fire provided the room’s only light. The flames glowed warmly on the burled walnut of the headboard of the bed in which his young wife lay sleeping. She was seven months pregnant with their first child.

His gaze lingered on her fondly. She lay on her side, her hand resting on her swollen belly. Her brown hair strayed out from the lace nightcap. She was small, and was almost lost in the bed with its huge, ornately carved headboard and heavy, fringed tapestry curtains. She was faintly smiling; her dreams were pleasant. Lady Anne was no great beauty. With her brown hair and large brown eyes, small form, shy demeanor, and thin, winsome face, she was considered dull and mousy. And, indeed, “Mouse,” was Henry’s pet name for her.

Sir Henry had never planned to fall in love with his wife. He had married her because she was the queen’s niece. The marriage had brought him prestige and this fine manor house on an estate located in the countryside outside Haever, the capital city of Freya. The marriage was ostensibly a reward for years of service to Crown and country. In truth, the estate, the wife, and now the child made Henry the Earl of Staffordshire and solidified his ties to the Crown. Queen Mary Chessington wanted to ensure that her Master of Secrets (Sir Henry’s unofficial and not particularly complimentary title) never let those secrets pass his lips.

Henry was grateful to Her Majesty, but he required none of these royal favors. Henry Wallace was a patriot to the core of his being. He was loyal to his queen. He considered her a strong and intelligent ruler (unlike her counterpart, that arbitrary egoist King Alaric of Rosia). Henry had been pleased and even moved to think that Her Majesty thought well enough of him to give him her niece’s hand in marriage.

Lady Anne was seventeen. Henry was forty-two. Lady Anne was retiring and not particularly intelligent, but she was sweet-tempered. He was brusque, acerbic, and the smartest man in the kingdom. Some in court termed him cold-blooded and calculating, particularly when it came to Freyan politics. No one had been more surprised than Sir Henry Wallace to discover he loved his Lady Anne, his Mouse. Given his tall, athletic frame, thin face, hooded eyes, and long, crooked nose, he had been surprised to discover that she adored him.

Unfortunately, his love for his wife and his unborn child made him vulnerable, could make him weak.

Sir Henry sighed and frowned slightly at himself for having strayed into sentimentality and turned back to business. In one hand, he held a cut-crystal goblet in which a swallow of rare, fine brandy still remained. In the other hand, he held a plain metal tankard, such as one might find in any number of city taverns. As the Earl of Staffordshire, Sir Henry was accustomed to the finest things money and station could provide. Yet it was this ordinary tankard that kept him up past midnight, hoping for a better future for his child and, God willing, the other children to come.

The steadily burning fire wavered with a change in the movement of the air in the room. Sir Henry turned to see the arrival of his adjutant and trusted secretary, Mr. Sloan. Sloan entered the room quietly, without knocking, shielding the light of his candle with his hand so as not to disturb Lady Anne. Closing the door behind him, he walked across the thick carpet without making a sound. His given name was Franklin, but few knew that. He was known to everyone from Her Majesty on down as Mr. Sloan.

“All is in readiness, my lord.”

Sir Henry did not turn around. He seemed fixated on the tankard in his hand.

“It doesn’t look like much, does it, Mr. Sloan?”

“No, my lord,” Sloan said softly.

Sloan was a large man, over six feet tall, with a developing paunch. He was bald, with a neatly trimmed goatee. Years of service in the Freyan army were still visible in his stance and bearing. He had been a sergeant in the Royal Marines prior to taking service with Sir Henry.

“Your instructions were fairly vague, my lord, but I believe I have fulfilled all your requirements,” said Mr. Sloan, adding, hinting, “If I knew what you intended…”

“Assuming this tankard is all it claims to be, we are looking at the future, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. He finished off the brandy, set down the crystal goblet, and rose to his feet. “We need to test these claims.”

“We are going to test the future, my lord?” Mr. Sloan asked with a faint smile.

“No, Mr. Sloan, we are going to blow it up,” said Sir Henry.

He lit his own candle to find the way through the dark house, left the bedroom silently and, with one final fond glance at his wife, gently and softly shut the door. The two men traversed the sitting room, walked past the many other bedrooms, drawing rooms, dressing rooms and the nursery, all of which were located on the third floor of the manor house. A grand staircase of red-and-black marble and oak led from the third floor to the second where there was a dining room, a ballroom, a long gallery, the enormous library, and Sir Henry’s study.

A smaller, more cramped back staircase took them from the second floor to the ground floor. The two men walked down a stone corridor and came to the kitchen. Mr. Sloan opened the door and stood back for Sir Henry to enter.

Henry gazed about with interest. He had never been in the kitchen, which was the province of Cook and her servants, and he was surprised by the remarkable view that could be seen from out the tall, narrow windows. Haever, Freya’s capital, lay in the distance-a sea of glittering lights on a black backdrop.

When originally built, the kitchen had been separate from the main building. Kitchen fires were commonplace-given the fact that fires were burning daily in the two large fireplaces. With the two buildings kept apart, a fire in the kitchen would not spread to the main house. The kitchen walls and floor were made of stone to prevent sparks from setting them aflame.

Unfortunately, this meant that the servants had been forced to carry the food to the house through all sorts of inclement weather. So, fifty years ago, for the sake of convenience, the kitchen and manor house had been connected by a stone-walled corridor. The kitchen consisted of one large room used for general cooking and several smaller rooms designed for more specific purposes: the cold storage room, the pantry, the wine cellar, and so forth.

A fire in one of the fireplaces, usually allowed to die down during the night, had been built up by Mr. Sloan and filled the room with light. Sir Henry gazed around curiously. Tables, cabinets, and washstands occupied the central room. Large pots hung on hooks set in the timber beams that ran overhead. Other utensils stood in rows on the inner wall. Everything was neat, clean, and well organized, reminding Sir Henry of a military camp.

“My lord, I have everything arranged over here,” said Mr. Sloan.

“Allow me a moment, please, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. “I have never been in this kitchen or even gave it much thought.” He walked over to study with interest a copper-bottomed kettle. “Copper, you see, to better disseminate the heat.”

Henry regarded the kitchen with approval. “Simple order, Mr. Sloan, designed to prepare for the coming chaos. You look amused, Mr. Sloan.”

“I was merely wondering what your enemies would say if they could see you now, my lord.”

Henry gave a dry chuckle. “Henry Wallace, the most dangerous man in Freya, master spy, deceiver, liar, thief, and assassin with his nose in a stewpot. Was that what you were thinking, Mr. Sloan?”

“Something like that, my lord. Although I confess to being lost at your reference to chaos.”

“Breakfast,” said Henry. “Picture what will happen early this morning before the sun rises, with Cook and her army rushing furiously about: baking, frying, hauling water, washing, scrubbing, kneading, mixing, pouring. From chaos comes breakfast.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan politely.

“When what you really mean is, ‘Let’s get on with this, my lord.’ And so we shall, Mr. Sloan.”

Henry turned to look at the table where all of the items he had requested were arranged: a horn of gunpowder; three pistols and a large caliber musket, each with several rounds of lead shot; ten feet of fuse; a stoppered glass vial filled with a dark liquid, and pieces of paper impregnated with wax.

“The servants?” Sir Henry asked.

The servants’ quarters were located nearby on the ground floor of the main house. He had told Sloan he did not want the servants to be alarmed or to start talking about any strange noises they might hear in the night.

“I gave Cook a message to let her know you were going to be engaged in a scientific experiment tonight, my lord. She informed the staff and then expressed her hope that the experiment did not cause the milk to sour as happened last time, in the kitchen of the city house.”

“Well, then, let’s get started.”

“What exactly would you like me to do, my lord?” Mr. Sloan asked.

“You will observe.”

Sir Henry walked over to the second of the two fireplaces, which was cold. The hearth had been swept and wood stacked preparatory for lighting in the morning.

“I have carried this tankard everywhere with me since its arrival yesterday. I slept last night with my hand upon it, to the bemusement of my lady wife.”

Sir Henry stood the tankard in the middle of the fireplace. He then returned to the table, picked up one of the pistols and, sighting down the gun’s barrel, fired a shot at the tankard. The force of the shot sent the tankard bouncing around the stone interior of the fireplace with a most ungodly clanging. Henry picked up the other pistol and shot the tankard again, with the same result. He fired a third time with the musket, almost sending the tankard up the chimney.

“Very well, Mr. Sloan, let us see what damage the tankard has sustained.”

Sloan picked it up and stared at it.

“Good God, my lord!” said Mr. Sloan, shocked into blasphemy. He looked in amazement at Sir Henry. “There’s not a scratch on it!”

He brought the tankard to Sir Henry for inspection. The metal sides were smooth and unblemished, not a dent, not a mark. Yet both men had seen the bullets strike it, seen it ricocheting about the walls of the fireplace, not once, but three times.

“Now for the ultimate test.”

Sir Henry picked up the powder horn and poured gunpowder into the tankard, filling it about halfway. He carried it to the fireplace and set it, once more, in the center. He thrust six feet of fuse into the powder in the tankard and used a piece of waxed paper to pack the powder tight. He finished by placing a log on top.

“I do love science,” said Sir Henry.

Mr. Sloan appeared dubious. “Before we bring the ceiling down on us, perhaps you could explain what you are trying to do, my lord.”

Sir Henry did not immediately answer. He walked over to one of the windows to gaze out at the lights of Haever. Lights of the country he loved.

“We know Rosia has been raiding the treasury to build up its navy, Mr. Sloan. Our Rosian enemies will attack us some time in the not-so-distant future and when they do, we will lose.”

Mr. Sloan ventured to protest. Sir Henry shook his head.

“I know our capabilities and those of our enemy. Barring a miracle, their superior ships and the vast number of troops they can hurl at us are greatly against us. Force of will and courage can stand only so long against round shot and musket fire. In the end, Freya will lose.

“Some in the government would have us sue for peace, a treaty between our two nations.” Sir Henry glanced back toward the fireplace, the tankard. “You and I are realists, Mr. Sloan. We both know that as long as Rosia exists, Freya will always be in danger. No piece of paper can overcome centuries of hatred. No, Mr. Sloan, there can be no peace.”

Sir Henry walked to the other fireplace where the fire was starting to die down. He took a punk from the mantel and lit it, then walked back to his makeshift bomb.

“I said, ‘barring a miracle.’ You are a religious man, I believe, Mr. Sloan. You may be looking at our miracle.”

Sir Henry lit the fuse and then stepped quickly back.

“Might I suggest we should retreat behind that large cupboard, my lord?” Mr. Sloan said, and he had presence of mind enough to take the horn of powder with him as he accompanied his master.

Concealed behind their shield, they watched the sparks progress as the fuse burned. There was a bright light and then the explosion.

The blast echoed off the walls, shaking loose a century of dust, and sent pots and pans crashing to the floor. The two men waited a moment for the dust to dissipate, then-ears ringing-they ventured out from behind the cabinet to inspect the damage.

The log which Sir Henry had placed on the tankard was blown to splinters, some of which were now stuck in the timber beams above their heads. Utensils littered the room, along with chunks of the stone fireplace. The kitchen was in shambles.

“Cook will not be happy with me, I fear,” observed Sir Henry.

The two men waded through the debris, searching for the tankard. At last, Mr. Sloan pulled it from the wreckage.

“My lord,” he said, awed.

Sir Henry examined the tankard. The two men stared at each other.

The sides were slightly dented, and the bottom of the handle had come off, but the tankard itself was still intact.

“Play devil’s advocate, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry.

“This is simple magic, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan. “Some crafter has strengthened this tankard with magical constructs.”

“Do you see any constructs on the vessel, Mr. Sloan? As I recall, you have some talent for magic.”

“I am not a crafter, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan. “I lack the power to create magical constructs. I do, however, have some small abilities as a channeler, which means I can use existing constructs to cause the desired magical effect.”

Sir Henry smiled. “You are a humble man, Mr. Sloan.”

“As God requires us all to be, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan gravely.

“Which is your humble way of saying that if there were any magical constructs hidden on this tankard, you would see them.”

“The sigils that cause the magic would be visible to me, yes, my lord.” Mr. Sloan studied the tankard with narrowed eyes. He peered inside it and turned it upside down.

“No sigils, my lord.” He looked at Sir Henry with astonishment. “And yet, this must be magic, my lord.”

“Either magic or a miracle sent to us by Our Heavenly Father, Mr. Sloan. And I doubt if Our Heavenly Father is taking an unusual interest in tankards these days,” said Sir Henry dryly.

He was trying to appear calm, but he heard the slight tremor of excitement in his voice and he knew Sloan could hear it, too, by his next question.

“My lord,” said Mr. Sloan, after a moment’s hesitation, “if this is magic and yet we see no magic what are we looking at?”

“The future of warfare, Mr. Sloan,” said Sir Henry. “We have tested it and found it worthy. This simple tankard does not hold ale. It holds victory.”

Mr. Sloan did not understand, but he was not there to understand. He was there to follow orders, and Sir Henry was now proceeding to issue them.

“We have much to do and very little time to do it. I am going to set in motion Operation ‘Braffa,’ as we discussed. A trifle earlier than I had intended to move, but I need the eyes of Rosia to be looking in a different direction, and destabilizing the government of one of her allies should do that nicely. Meanwhile I need you to ride with all speed to my good friend, Admiral Baker. He will be in bed, but you will wake him and give him a note.”

Mr. Sloan was supplied, as always, with a writing kit, consisting of a pen, a small bottle of ink, sealing wax, and several blank sheets of note paper, all of which he carried in a compact wooden box tucked into the pocket of his long, black coat. He produced these and handed them to Sir Henry, who wrote swiftly, with large, bold strokes.

I require immediately a fast ship with an experienced crew and a captain who knows how to keep his mouth shut.

“Give this into the admiral’s hands.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan.

Sir Henry gazed long at the tankard, then he frowned at the letter. Taking up the pen, he crossed out the words: a captain who knows how to keep his mouth shut and scribbled something else. Sir Henry folded the letter. Mr. Sloan dripped the sealing wax on the fold. Sir Henry pressed a signet ring he wore in the wax. He did not sign the letter.

“The admiral will know my seal,” said Sir Henry.

“Yes, my lord,” said Mr. Sloan.

“When he has read the letter, you will take the usual precautions.”

“Of course, my lord. The letter will be magically burned to ashes, the ashes stirred, and then mixed with wine and tossed into the slop jar.”

Henry nodded and the two men parted.

As Mr. Sloan left upon his errand, he reflected that he had seen much in his thirty-five years, twenty-two of which had been spent in the service of his country. He was noted for his extraordinary calm. He was never rattled, rarely impressed. Yet now, as he hurried to the stables, he noted that his hand, which was holding the letter, was shaking with excitement.

Sir Henry had written, beneath the slashed-out words, this sentence: I need a captain and crew who are expendable.

Chapter One

Scripture tells us the Breath of God is the echo of God’s voice. The magic in the Breath is the Word of God. The Breath of God upholds the seven continents and the thousands of small islands that make up the world of Aeronne. The Breath contains a gas that gives lift to the ships that carried the Four Saints in their blessed efforts to spread the Word of God across Aeronne and establish the Church of the Breath. The Breath separates the world above from the Hell below where dwells the Fiend and Foe of God, Aertheum.

Praise God in his Greatness.

– From the writings of Father Osric Eihnhardt,

Church Historian

THE EVENTS THAT WOULD EVENTUALLY SHAKE the foundations of the Church of the Breath of God, threaten to topple two monarchies, and plunge the world of Aeronne into war began simply enough in a modest house on the Boulevard of Saints, city of Evreux, continent of Rosia, year of Our Lord, 516 DT (abbreviation for Dark Tide) at six of the clock in the evening and began with the words, “We are broke.”

The words were spoken by one Monsieur Rodrigo de Villeneuve to his friend, Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen, formerly of the Dragon Brigade, and they would never be recorded in any history book.

Rodrigo placed an iron-banded heavy wooden box on the table where the members of the Cadre of the Lost were finishing supper. He touched the box and a magical sigil flared into light, warning anyone trying to tamper with the box that he was about to meet a most unpleasant fate. Rodrigo removed the sigil by tracing another sigil over it, then thrust an iron key into the lock, turned it, and opened the lid. He removed three small cloth bags, and placed a bag in front of Dag Thorgrimson, another bag in front of Miri McPike, and a third in front of Miri’s younger sister, Gythe. He then brought out a slim leather-bound ledger and thumped it down on the table.

“That doesn’t bode well,” said Dag, eyeing the ledger gloomily.

“Nor does the heft of this,” said Miri. “So much smaller than the job we did for that bastard, Le Marc.”

She measured the weight of the coins in the cloth bag with her hand, then opened it and poured the contents into her palm. The small pile was comprised mostly of large copper ten-pennies with a few small silver coins thrown in.

Rodrigo opened the ledger. “That’s because we had bills to pay. I paid for the repairs on the Cloud Hopper and for a crafter to fix Dag’s stowaway pistol and I compensated the Han brothers for their services. You know the Han brothers-payment at once for services rendered, or they break your kneecaps.”

He cast a severe glance at Dag. “That gunsmith crafter friend of yours was extremely expensive.”

“Better to be safe than sorry,” said Dag imperturbably. “Especially with a weapon that can blow off my hand.”

“I notice you and Stephano didn’t take a share of the money,” said Miri, frowning

“I told you,” said Rodrigo, “we’re broke. For the moment, Stephano and I can survive. I have my allowance. Our esteemed captain has his military pension-such as it is.”

He looked at Stephano and added, with an exasperated sigh, “Would someone wake him up?”

Stephano heard Rodrigo’s voice, but he wasn’t attending to the words. He had taken a sip of the Duke of Bourlet’s favorite red wine and was holding the liquid in his mouth as he had been taught, detecting the various flavors: black fruit, chocolate, leather, and violets. The taste brought back memories: the smell of the herbs and spices used to marinate the roasted beef, the sound of his father’s ringing laughter, the sparkle of the crystal goblets in the candlelight, the sense of warmth and camaraderie, the sense of family.

Stephano swallowed the wine, the last dregs left in the glass. He kept his eyes closed. Beneath his hand was fine linen, silver knives and forks and spoons, porcelain plates painted with dragons. Cut roses in crystal vases added their own scent to the air. He was fifteen and the fifteen-year-old Stephano looked around the table at his family and friends and knew that he was blessed…

“Stephano,” said Miri, giving his arm a shake.

“I’m here,” said Stephano.

He held a cracked crockery mug filled with beer, not wine, and not very good beer at that. Beneath his hand was the wood of the kitchen table, a tin plate, a knife that didn’t match the spoon, and a fork with a bent prong. The smell of a stewed chicken, boiled greens, and warm bread filled the small kitchen. The raspberry jam and butter had ended up, once again, in front of Dag.

Miri had noted its movement and was whispering something, with a giggle, to Gythe. Her sister smiled and caught hold of Doctor Ellington just as he jumped onto the table in the fond but vain hope that no one would notice a twenty-pound, orange-striped tabby cat licking the butter. Gythe bumped heads with the cat, whose rumbling purr resonated around the small kitchen, then handed the bag of coins back to Rodrigo. She made a sign with her hand.

Miri translated, “We will contribute our share to the cause.”

She tossed her bag back to Rodrigo.

“What the Hell,” said Dag. “Who needs to eat?” He handed over his bag.

Thirty-four-year-old Stephano de Guichen looked around the table at this family, at those who had become his family, and knew that he was blessed.

“I heard you,” said Stephano, sighing. He kicked out a chair and propped his booted feet up onto it and leaned back. “You said we were broke.”

“Perhaps I overstated the case a bit to catch your attention,” said Rodrigo. “Let me put it this way-we are in less crushing debt than we were before the job.”

“In other words, they’re not going to throw me in debtor’s prison today,” said Stephano.

“Today,” Rodrigo emphasized. “I make no guarantee for the morrow. If you would like to see the bills, we have them from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker-”

“Very funny,” said Stephano, growling. He glanced over his shoulder at an elderly man seated in a rocking chair in a cozy corner by the kitchen fire. “We are finished, Benoit. You may clear. And I’d like another mug of beer.”

“Very good, sir,” said Benoit, and, reaching for his cane, he made a feeble attempt to rise from the chair.

He sank back down with a groan.

“What’s wrong now?” Stephano asked testily.

“Touch of gout, sir,” said Benoit. “The old complaint. But, you notice, sir, that I don’t complain. If you’ll give me a moment, sir. ..”

Benoit placed his gnarled hands on the arms of the rocking chair and tried again, pitifully, to heave himself to his feet. He glanced at them out of the corner of his eye. They sat at the table, waiting. Benoit gave another groan.

Miri bit her twitching lip. Exchanging laughing glances with her sister, she rose briskly to her feet, walked over to the old man, and rested her hands on his shoulders.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mr. Benoit,” she said solicitously, giving him a soothing pat. “Gythe and I will do the clearing and the washing.”

“Ah, thank you, my dears,” said Benoit gratefully.

Stephano glared at the old man, who pretended not to see as he settled himself comfortably back in his chair. Grabbing his mug, Stephano followed Miri into the cold storage room, where Gythe was placing the butter on a high shelf, out of the reach of Doctor Ellington.

Miri turned to face Stephano and, winking, said loudly, “I think it’s a disgrace, the way you make that poor sick old man wait on you hand and foot.”

“He’s the family retainer! It’s his job!” said Stephano, pitching his voice so that Benoit could hear. “And poor sick old man, my ass! Only this afternoon I saw Benoit running down the street in hot pursuit of one of the local lads who had snatched his wig off his head. The lad outdistanced him, but not by much.”

“He’d have been sorry if I’d have caught him!” Benoit stated, shaking his cane.

Stephano and Miri looked at each other and laughed.

“And, by the way,” said Stephano, grinning, “when did you ever see Benoit wait on me or anyone else?”

Stephano reached for the beer pitcher and saw that it was empty. He gave the barrel an experimental kick. The barrel rang hollow. The beer, too, was almost depleted and there wasn’t money for more. His grin vanished. He heaved a sigh and handed Miri the mug for washing.

“Benoit has free room and board, and I never knew one old man could eat so much. As for drink, he always has such a pleasant beery smell about him.” Stephano kicked the barrel again and muttered, “I should chuck him out into the street.”

“Then why don’t you?” Miri asked pertly.

She left the cold room and returned to the kitchen, where she took out the washtub and filled it with hot water from the kettle. Gythe, escorted by Doctor Ellington, returned to the table and picked up the plates and mugs and flatware.

“I’ll tell you why,” Miri said, answering her own question. She plunged the plates into the water and began vigorously scrubbing. “He is the old family retainer. The only family you have.”

Stephano reached into the washtub, took hold of Miri’s red, sudsy hands, and brought them to his lips. “Not the only family. I was thinking that this evening.”

He smiled down into Miri’s green eyes and brushed a lock of flame-red hair back from her pretty, sun-freckled face. The two had met five years ago; the night Stephano had resigned his commission as an officer in the Dragon Brigade. All he had ever aspired to do in his life was to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and be a Dragon Knight. He had served proudly in the Dragon Brigade for almost ten years. But King Alaric had disbanded the Dragon Brigade, claiming his “modern” navy had no need for dragons. Stephano had resigned in furious protest, and the admiralty had been only too happy to accept his resignation.

That night, Stephano had put on his full dress uniform with the dragons embroidered on the leather flight coat and then thrown his commission into the fire. Then he sat, watching his past burn to ashes, drinking to his own misery. He was alone; his friend Rodrigo having traveled to visit his parents in the Duchy of Argonne, where they had been exiled.

Stephano had gone out for a walk, taking a bottle of wine with him for company. He had wandered the streets of Evreux, paying no heed to where he was going. He found himself near the dockyards, where a host of Trundler houseboats, notable for their brightly colored balloons and sails, and short, stubby wings, had taken up residence. In a field nearby, the Trundlers were having some sort of celebration, perhaps a wedding or a funeral. With them, it was hard to distinguish which.

The Trundlers were rovers, belonging to no country, paying allegiance to no king or queen. They were loyal only to their own people. Governments down through the years had given up attempting to impose any sort of regulation over them, perhaps out of some sort of sense of world-encompassing guilt; these nations having come together to defeat and sink Glasearrach, the island the Trundlers had once called home, with heavy, though unintentional (so the governments claimed) loss of life.

Trundlers had their own laws. They tried those who broke them in their own courts. Trundler laws differed somewhat from the laws imposed by kings and princes. Smuggling and thieving were viewed with a tolerant eye since one had to earn a living, whereas murderers could be executed on the spot.

Sometimes such small differences in the legal system did tend to cause friction between Trundlers and the local authorities, who occasionally tried to raid Trundler gatherings. Thus, the sight of Stephano, wearing his full dress uniform, with his sword at this side, had roused intense and immediate suspicion among the young men of the Trundler community.

Six young toughs, strong and muscular, armed with clubs and flaming torches, had confronted Stephano. He could have apologized and talked his way out, but he was in a mood for a fight. The next thing he knew, he had been lying on the ground, his skull cracked, pain everywhere, looking up into the flashing green eyes and freckled face of a lovely young woman.

She had examined him, then had risen to her feet and immediately began to lay into the young men, hitting and slapping them and kicking them in the shins.

“Can’t you see the dragon he’s wearing, you daft buggers?” she had cried.

The young toughs had crumbled beneath her fury, mumbling in their defense that: “it was dark;” “a king’s man is a king’s man;” “he should’ve said something;” and the like until the woman had grown weary and they had been able to escape her wrath.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” the woman had said to him, rubbing her stinging palms. “The young fools didn’t know who you were.”

Stephano had smiled at her blissfully and then thrown up on her shoes.

He had regained consciousness in a houseboat belonging to the woman’s uncle, where he was a guest for the next week until the young woman deemed he was healthy enough to leave. Her name was Miri, she had told him, and she was a Trundler Lore Master. Since most Trundlers could neither read nor write, Miri and those like her were responsible for keeping the Trundler history, the old tales and legends, alive.

Miri had realized that simply handing down histories from one generation to another had resulted in inaccuracies and contradictions. Most Trundlers didn’t care, but Miri wanted to know the truth behind the myths, and she had decided the only way to find out was to seek the facts in books and that involved learning to read. She had taught herself, with the help of a priest, and had learned the fascinating fact that the history of the Trundlers and those of the great dragon families were entwined, though just exactly how was lost in the mists of time. Miri had longed to talk to the dragons about this and had sought an invitation into the households of the noble dragon families. They had looked down their long and elegant snouts at a Trundler and never even bothered to respond. Then Stephano, a former Dragon Knight, had come into her camp, and her cousins had beaten him senseless.

Miri had healed his wounds, and he had gained her access into the houses of some of the dragons with whom he had served. She and Stephano were close in age; both having been around thirty at the time, and it was inevitable that they became lovers.

Any number of beautiful ladies of the court would have been happy to invite the dashing young former captain of the Dragon Brigade to their salons or even their beds to listen to his troubles. For reasons of his own, Stephano did not trust beautiful ladies of the court.

He trusted Miri, who was always honest-brutally so. Their relationship had been complicated over the years. Once he had thought he was in love with her and once she had thought she was in love with him. If these periods had coincided, the relationship might have worked. As it was, there had been confusion, hurt feelings, tears, and recriminations. Then, one night, as they lay in bed talking, they came to the realization they were friends.

“So much more comfortable than being lovers, my dear,” Miri told him. That night, she ended the affair.

“I want you to meet my sister,” she said. “And I only invite friends to my home. Never my lovers.”

Home was the sisters’ houseboat, the Cloud Hopper.

Stephano might have smiled at this notion of Miri’s that only those she considered friends were allowed to visit, but when he met Gythe, he realized that Miri had honored him with a special trust, one he would forever cherish.

Gythe was twenty-one-fourteen years younger than her sister. But she seemed more like a child of fourteen. She was beautiful, with hazel eyes and hair the color of champagne. Where Miri’s eyes glinted with green flashes of laughter and merriment and her legendary temper, Gythe’s eyes were wandering, searching, shadowed. She never spoke a word. She was not mute, for though she would not talk, she could sing, accompanying herself on the harp.

“Gythe’s never been quite right since ‘Then,’ ” Miri would always say of her sister. Miri never told Stephano what happened “Then…” When he once hinted that he would like to know, Miri said brusquely, “No good will come of talking of it.” By the glint in her green eyes, he knew to let it drop.

Stephano guessed “Then” had something to do with the deaths of their parents and the fact that the two girls were on their own, but beyond that, nothing more.

He was thinking all this, remembering. Miri’s laughter brought him back to the kitchen.

“If we’re a family, we’re the bloodiest, messed-up family there ever was, my dear,” Miri told him.

“You’re right there,” said Stephano.

When the dishes were done and Miri had returned from dumping the water out of the wash bin, Dag placed his large hands on the table and levered himself slowly to his feet. The table, which was made out of a butcher’s block and was heavy and solid, groaned a bit beneath the big man’s weight. Dag Thorgrimson was six-foot-two, a Guundaran mercenary, and he was also part of the “bloodiest, messed-up” family. He and Stephano had met on opposing sides of a battle eight years ago-a battle Stephano had always considered both sides lost.

“We should be starting for home, girls,” said Dag in his deep, grave voice.

He was invariably grave, serious, and earnest; he rarely smiled. He dressed in plain black clothing. His hair was cut short in the military style, and he had the straight and upright bearing of the soldier he had been for many years. He would speak of his past only to say proudly that he had served in the army since he was eight years old, his sergeant father having made his son a drummer. Dag had fought in his first battle at the age of twelve.

Dag and Stephano would often talk of battles in which Stephano had fought. Dag would share his opinion on the strategy or the tactics involved, but he had only once spoken of his own experience, and that had been when Stephano had wanted to hire him to help with a small job.

Dag told Stephano his story, saying that it was only right “the captain” should know what had happened before Stephano put his trust in him. Dag told a horror tale of flame and blood, men dying all around him, men dying because he had ordered them to their deaths. Dag had been the sole survivor. Stephano had listened and, at the end of the recitation, which Dag had made in a low voice, never lifting his head, Stephano had taken the man’s hand and shaken it and said in a husky voice that he would be honored to serve with him.

Dag had looked up, perplexed. “Perhaps you didn’t understand me, Captain. I ordered those men to die!”

“I understand better than you do, seemingly,” Stephano had answered. “And don’t call me ‘captain.’ We’re neither of us in the service of any king. Neither of us will ever order any man into any king’s battle again. Let Their Majesties look after themselves.”

Miri took down her cloak from the hook on the wall. Gythe picked up the cat.

“If you will settle Doctor Ellington, child,” said Dag, turning his back to Gythe, who, with great care, placed the cat on Dag’s shoulder.

Doctor Ellington dug his claws into the quilted shoulder padding Dag had added to his coat and purred loudly. Wherever Dag went, the Doctor went with him, riding proudly on the man’s shoulder, boldly challenging the world with golden eyes, his striped tail waving like a flag.

“I’ll walk with you,” said Stephano, taking up his hat.

Miri was fussily wrapping a cloak around Gythe’s slender shoulders, Dag was putting on his hat, and Stephano was starting to open the door when Rodrigo, who had been out of the room, visiting the chamber pot, returned. He saw them preparing to leave and came to an abrupt stop.

“Where do you all think you are going?”

“Home,” said Miri, adding teasingly, “to revel in our riches.”

“Oh, no, you’re not,” said Rodrigo severely. He pulled out a chair and pointed to it. “We are all of us going to stay here until we figure out how to solve our deplorable financial insolvency.”

The four looked at each other, sighed, and came trailing back. Stephano took off his hat and tossed it onto a marble bust of His Majesty, King Alaric, which graced a table. The marble bust had been a gift from a grateful nation to Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen of the Dragon Brigade for meritorious action. Rodrigo had once asked Stephano why he kept the bust. Stephano had replied that on days when he woke feeling a brotherhood with all the world, the sight of the king’s face reminded him that there was still one man on this world he hated.

Dag removed his own hat and sat with it in his lap. Miri and Gythe took off their cloaks and sat down at the table. They stared at each other blankly. The only sound was Doctor Ellington’s throaty purr. The cat perched on Dag’s shoulder, his eyes golden slits, kneading his claws into the padding.

“Come now,” said Rodrigo at last. “Someone must know somebody who is trying to smuggle jewels to his exiled family or wants to avoid paying the king’s tax on a shipment of brandy. You, Miri, have you talked to your Trundler uncle and myriad Trundler cousins? Do they have any jobs for us? Dag, what about your underworld connections?”

Dag’s face darkened. His brow came together. His hand, resting on his knee, clenched to a fist.

“Now, now, my friend,” said Rodrigo soothingly, “it’s no use pretending you did not once break legs for a living…”

Dag scowled. Stephano saw Rodrigo’s life flash before his eyes and he was about to intervene when the meeting was interrupted by the sound of wyvern wings and the clatter of a carriage coming to rest on the cobblestones outside the house. The wyverns’ raucous croaks were followed by the voice of the driver shouting at the beasts to settle.

Stephano and his friends all looked at one another. Judging by the sounds of the jingling harness, the scraping of claws on stone, and the wyverns hissing and snorting, the carriage had stopped right outside the front door. Someone arriving in a carriage-a large, airborne carriage-at this hour…

“I smell money,” said Rodrigo, his nose twitching.

There was a clatter and a scraping noise. The driver was lowering a step for the convenience of the carriage’s passenger. Then came the bang of the door knocker.

Stephano turned to Benoit, who was pretending to be asleep in his chair. The knock was repeated with a bit more force. Stephano cleared his throat.

Benoit blinked and opened his eyes, looked about blearily, and said, “Someone at the door, sir.”

“I know,” said Stephano.

He sat stubbornly in his chair.

Benoit sat in his. After a moment, the old man said wonderingly, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “Would you like me to answer that, sir?”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” said Stephano bitingly.

Groaning, Benoit rose to his feet and began to shuffle across the floor. “If I might suggest, sir, you and Master Rodrigo should remove yourselves to the sitting room. Unless you want your visitor to find you sitting in the kitchen. He might mistake you for the cook.”

“By God, he’s right,” said Rodrigo. “Stephano-sitting room! Run for it!”

The kitchen was on the ground floor at the rear of the two-story house. A back door opened out into a small patch of ground that was meant to be used as a kitchen garden, but which had been turned into an exercise yard. Benoit’s rooms were on this level, as well. On the upper floor were a sitting room, two bedrooms, and two dressing rooms for Rodrigo and Stephano, a library, and study.

“We’ll stay here in the kitchen,” said Miri. She and Gythe and Dag remained seated. “I don’t mind being mistaken for the cook.”

Stephano flushed. “You know it’s not that-”

“I know,” said Miri, smiling.

She meant that she and Gythe and Dag weren’t “hiding” in the kitchen because Stephano was ashamed of his “low-born” friends. The three kept out of sight because the Cadre of the Lost often found it advantageous for people to assume there could be no connection between the son of a noble family (albeit a noble family in disgrace), the son of an ambassador, and a mercenary and two Trundlers.

Dag reached into the sleeve of his coat and drew from a hidden pocket a small pistol known as a “stowaway gun.” The cheaper models of these guns relied on a flint to strike a spark to fire the weapon. Dag’s pistol used magical constructs-a fire sigil carved into the metal-to accomplish the same purpose. Such pistols were expensive because they required the regular services of a crafter to maintain the magic, but Stephano saw to it that his people had only the best. Dag inspected the gun, made certain it was loaded. He nodded at Stephano to indicate readiness.

The cat, Doctor Ellington, seeing the pistol, leaped off Dag’s shoulder onto the table and from the table to the floor. Tail bristling with indignation, the Doctor stalked off to the cold room. He disliked loud noises.

“Move! Move!” Rodrigo yelled, grabbing his coat and hustling the reluctant Stephano from behind.

Once in the sitting room, Rodrigo put on his coat and smoothed his brocade vest. Careless of his own appearance, Stephano walked over to the window that looked down into the street. He saw the coat of arms on the door of the carriage and said, “Son of a bitch.”

Crossing the room, he flung open the door, and shouted down, “I’m not at home!”

“Very good, sir,” said Benoit.

Rodrigo looked out the window and quirked an eyebrow. He remained standing by the window, a smile on his lips, humming a dance tune.

Stephano walked over to the fireplace, where a small fire burned in the grate. Though the days were warm in late spring, the evenings were still chill. He listened to the sound of voices and heard the door bang shut. He smiled in relief and was on his way out the door to rejoin his friends when Benoit came in.

“May I present Monsieur Dargent,” Benoit said in a loud voice. “Confidential valet-de-chambre to the Countess de Marjolaine.”

Stephano’s face flushed in anger. “Damn it, Benoit, I told you I wasn’t home-”

Benoit, who had now gone conveniently deaf in addition to his other infirmities, stepped aside to allow the gentleman to enter.

“Thank you, Benoit,” said Dargent, smiling at the elderly retainer. “Good to see you again.”

“Thank you, monsieur,” said Benoit, bowing. “Always a pleasure.” Stephano caught the flash of silver in the old man’s hand.

“Traitor!” Stephano yelled after him as Benoit descended the stairs.

“Perhaps next time, Master, you will answer the door yourself,” Benoit returned, pocketing the coin.

Stephano, pointedly leaving the sitting room door open, turned back to glare at Dargent, who smiled at him pleasantly.

“Stephano, you are looking well,” said Dargent. “And you, Master Rodrigo. You seem fit. How are your father and mother?”

“In good health, monsieur, thank you,” said Rodrigo.

“Your father is ambassador to Estara now, I believe,” said Dargent.

Rodrigo bowed. “He was so fortunate to be called out of exile and given that assignment.”

“The king’s way of making amends,” said Dargent.

Rodrigo bowed again in acknowledgment. “His Majesty is the soul of generosity.”

Stephano snorted and went to stand by the fireplace. He rested his arm on the mantel and stared moodily into the flames.

“I’d invite you to sit down, Dargent, but you won’t be staying that long. What do you want?”

“I have a letter from the countess, Captain,” said Dargent. “She asked me to deliver it into your hands.”

Though a creature of a court known for its elegant and extravagant dress, Dargent wore tailored clothes in somber colors, as became a man of business. His stockings were snowy white, his buckled shoes polished, and they made no sound as he walked across the carpet. He was even-tempered, quiet of manner, discreet. He handed Stephano a missive that was folded like a cocked hat and sealed with lavender wax bearing the countess’ insignia-a bumblebee.

Stephano took the letter from Dargent’s hand and tossed it into the fire.

Dargent reached into the pocket of his vest and drew out another letter. “Her Excellency said to give you the second after you destroyed the first.”

Stephano’s angry flush deepened. He was about to seize the letter and cast it to the same fate as the other one, when Rodrigo, moving with uncustomary speed, plucked the letter from Dargent’s hand and withdrew to the window to read it in the failing light. He gave a long, low whistle.

“What does she want?” Stephano asked, glowering.

“You are summoned to attend Her Excellency, the Countess de Marjolaine, in her quarters at the royal palace tomorrow morning at the hour of nine of the clock,” said Rodrigo.

Stephano glowered. “I’ll see her in-”

“-in the palace, my friend. There’s more,” said Rodrigo. “It seems the countess has bought up all your debt. Either you favor her with your presence in the morning, or she will demand that the debt be paid in full.”

Rodrigo handed Stephano the letter. He glanced over it, then turned to Dargent.

“And, knowing the countess, she’ll send me to debtor’s prison if my bill is not paid. What’s this about?” Stephano asked.

“I am sorry, Captain,” Dargent murmured. “I was not apprised.”

“Like Hell you weren’t,” Stephano said, sneering. “You know all the countess’ dirty little secrets.”

“Perhaps it’s a job,” Rodrigo suggested in a low voice. “We could use the work. The countess pays well and on time.”

“She might say it’s a job for her, but we would really be working for the king,” said Stephano bitterly, not bothering to lower his voice.

“Pays well,” Rodrigo repeated. “On time.”

Stephano watched the first letter dwindle to ashes, then said abruptly, “Tell the countess I will attend her at nine. I’ll hear what she has to offer. I can always say no.”

“And if you say no, we can always move to Estara,” said Rodrigo. “Our creditors might not find us there.”

Dargent bowed. “I will show myself out, Captain.”

“You do that,” said Stephano.

He waited until he heard the front door close, then he picked up his hat and cloak and said shortly, “I’m going for a walk.”

“Want company?” Rodrigo asked.

“No,” said Stephano.

“What do I tell the others?”

“What you like,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo returned to the kitchen alone. Miri, Gythe, Dag, and the cat all looked at him expectantly. Benoit was again pretending to be asleep, but he had his head cocked to hear.

“Benoit told us the man was from the countess,” said Miri. “Is it a job? Will Stephano take a job from her?”

“God knows,” said Rodrigo, throwing up his hands. “Most of the time, Stephano de Guichen is a rational man. But he loses his head completely when it comes to his mother.”

Chapter Two

If one wishes to survive in the Rosian royal court, one must first understand the external politics that drive events in the world of Aeronne. The kingdoms of Bruond and Bheldem both lack internal cohesion and ambition and are currently no threat to anyone. Guundar produces the finest soldiers in Aeronne, willing to work for anyone with the correct amount of gold, mainly because there is no gold for them at home. Travia, home of the Trade Cartel, is an economic powerhouse, yet her small size makes her dependent on others for defense. Estara, birthplace of the Church of the Breath, could be a power in her own right, but has always been overshadowed by Freya and Rosia and sulks over her lowly status. Freya, the second most powerful nation in the world, has fostered an ancient hatred for Rosia, the first most powerful; a hatred that, as one can see from the bloodstained history of these two nations, is most happily and cheerfully returned.

- Idle Musings on Rosian Politics by Rodrigo de Villeneuve

THE NEXT DAY, STEPHANO ROSE AT HIS USUAL TIME. He ate breakfast, ran through his daily fencing practice, washed, and dressed. Hearing the sound of the carriage arriving at the door, he shouted to Benoit that he was leaving and descended the stairs that led to the main entryway. Stephano cast an uncaring glance at himself in the mirror, put on his hat (which he noted had been brushed, the brown plume fluffed up a bit) and was almost ready to go out the front door when Rodrigo opened it and walked inside.

“I was just on my way to join you at the palace,” said Stephano. “I thought you were ‘visiting a friend.’ ”

Rodrigo regarded Stephano’s green breeches, which were tied below the knee, his dark green stockings, light green waistcoat, and dark green coat, lacking adornment, with frowning disapproval.

“I thought I might find you in this state. One reason I returned early. We are attending court, not storming the battlements at Vertin. Benoit!”

“I wash my hands of him, sir!” came the querulous response from the kitchen.

“Back to the dressing room,” said Rodrigo, placing his hand on Stephano’s shoulder and shoving him toward the stairs.

Seeing Stephano’s rebellious look, Rodrigo added briskly, “Pays well, on time.”

“You’ll find his court clothes laid out on the bed, sir!” Benoit called from below.

Stephano heaved a sigh and allowed himself to be propelled up to his dressing room. “I’m only doing this for Miri and the others, Rigo. If it were up to me, I’d starve before I went groveling to my mother.”

Once Stephano was properly attired, Rodrigo inspected him. “The sleeves are frayed at the cuffs. The coat is at least two years out of fashion, but the material is of the finest quality and the style is classic, so I am not completely ashamed to be seen at court with you. Let me tie your cravat.”

With a suffering air, Stephano let his friend tie the white cravat, edged with a hint of lace, around his throat, and regarded himself in the mirror. He privately conceded that he did look good. The knee-length silver-trimmed coat was fitted at the waist, and powder blue in color with turned back cuffs that showed the lace-edged sleeves of his white shirt. His waistcoat was of blue-and-green brocade. He wore breeches of the same blue color tied with ribbons below the knee, white stockings, and black shoes. His rapier hung from an embroidered baldric draped over his shoulder.

Stephano steadfastly refused to wear the powdered wigs then fashionable in the royal court. His sandy-blond, shoulder-length hair was tied at the back of his neck with a blue ribbon. He was clean-shaven, a task he performed himself, given that Benoit’s hands were too shaky these days to be trusted with a razor. Stephano’s blue eyes were changeable, becoming gray with anger or determination. He was of medium height with the light-muscled, fine-boned build of a Dragon Knight and an upright military bearing. His face tended to be stern and unsmiling, except when he was around his friends, at which time he would relax and lower his guard.

Rodrigo draped his arm around his friend’s shoulder and regarded the two of them in the mirror.

Unlike Stephano, Rodrigo was dressed in the latest fashion. His long, fitted coat was mauve, decorated with gold buttons and golden embroidery. His deep cuffs were a darker mulberry. His shirt was dripping with lace, and he wore a lace collar. His stockings were white. He also did not wear a wig, preferring to show off the brown curls that framed his face. Women termed his brown eyes “melting.” His face was long, his chin slightly pointed. His mouth quirked with fun and good humor. He was hopeless with a rapier and terrifying to his friends with firearms. His tongue was his weapon, he liked to say.

Rigo-as he was known-was thirty-three, and he and Stephano had been firm friends from childhood, despite their contrasting natures. Stephano was energetic, resolute, disciplined (except when it came to money). Rodrigo was indolent, vacillating, with not an ounce of self-discipline (except when it came to money).

Rodrigo was also a brilliant crafter and could have risen to the top of that profession, but he had studied magic only sporadically, dabbling in what interested him and forgoing the rest. Consequently, he had been thrown out of the University, to the dismay of his parents, who, however, continued to dote on him. He was the spoiled third son, with no income other than what he earned with the Cadre of the Lost and a modest stipend from his parents. Rodrigo was most at home in drawing rooms and salons. He knew everyone in court, knew the gossip about all of them, and he acquired most of the Cadre’s jobs.

Rodrigo smiled. “You would never know I was forced to pawn your dress sword to pay for the carriage.”

“You did what?” Stephano demanded, rounding on his friend. “My sword with the gold basket hilt? That was a gift-”

“And we will get it back from the pawn shop,” said Rodrigo soothingly. “Just mention to the countess that you could use an advance on payment, will you?”

“I haven’t agreed to take this job yet,” said Stephano angrily. He snatched his best tricorn hat, which was the current fashion, since it could be folded and tucked under the arm, and stomped down the stairs.

Benoit was there to see them off. The old man smiled to see Stephano and a wistful look came into the weak eyes. “I wish your father could see you, sir. You do him proud.”

“He wouldn’t be proud of the fact that I’m selling my soul to the king,” Stephano muttered.

“He would, sir,” said Benoit stoutly. “Your father, Lord Julian, God rest him, was a practical man.”

“My father wasn’t practical at all, you know,” said Stephano somberly to Rodrigo, as they entered the carriage. “Julian de Guichen was a man who sacrificed his wealth, his lands, and eventually his life for a hopeless cause, all in the name of honor and loyalty and friendship.”

“The apple did not fall far from the tree,” observed Rodrigo.

“Don’t try flattering me,” said Stephano, glowering. “It won’t work.”

“Take the rest of the day off, Benoit,” Rodrigo called out the carriage window before shutting it. “We will dine out.”

Rodrigo told the driver their destination and shut the carriage door. The driver nodded his head at his boy, who released the mooring line that secured the carriage to the ground, then took his place at the rear. The wyvern was harnessed to the carriage by long tethers attached to breast and shoulders. Magic used in the construction of the carriage added strength to the thin wooden walls while keeping the weight as low as possible. Internal reservoirs or “lift tanks” held the refined and purified “Breath of God” that provided much of the vehicle’s buoyancy, with a balloon for additional lift.

The balloon was red in color, the carriage blue. One could always tell a rented carriage by the red balloons. The driver, mounted on the seat in front of the carriage, began channeling the magical energy that existed naturally in the world into a brass control panel. A series of constructs, set into the brass itself, allowed the driver control over the levels of buoyancy in the two primary lift tanks located on either side of the carriage, and the forward and rear stabilizing tanks. From the brass panel, the driver could also control the large multichambered red balloon tethered to the top of carriage.

The carriage’s passenger compartment could seat four comfortably. The leaded glass windows were covered with lace curtains to provide the occupants a degree of privacy. The blue-lacquered exterior was waxed till it shone and was set off by polished brass fixtures and lanterns.

When the carriage was clear of the ground, the driver gave three short tweets from a whistle, letting anyone nearby know that they were preparing to leave. Next, he clucked at the wyvern and poked the creature in the back with a prod.

The wyvern angrily whipped around its head and snapped at the prod. Wyverns are temperamental and stupid, but the driver was used to such behavior from his steed. He poked the wyvern again, and the beast sullenly flapped its wings and took off.

Stephano threw himself into a corner of the conveyance and sat there, brooding. As always, when he was forced to pay a visit to his mother, he was in a foul mood. His thoughts carried him back to the past. He blamed Benoit for having brought up his father, but it wasn’t the old man’s fault. Stephano would have thought about his father in any case. He could not help thinking about his father whenever he was forced to visit his mother.

Cecile de Marjolaine, daughter of the wealthy and powerful Count de Marjolaine, was introduced at court when she was sixteen, having the honor to become one of the ladies-in-waiting to the queen. Cecile was an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, as well as being the only heir to her father’s vast fortune. Both wealthy and lovely, she was the jewel of the court. Nobles and princes cast their hearts at her feet. Even King Alaric, newly ascended to the throne on the sudden death of his father, was said to be enamored of her.

Cecile was flattered by the attention, but her own heart remained untouched until she met the handsome and dashing young Dragon Knight, Sir Julian de Guichen. The two fell deeply, hopelessly in love-hopeless because the count had determined that his only child, his beautiful daughter, would marry well. De Guichen was merely the son of a knight and not a particularly wealthy knight at that. To make matters worse, the de Guichens were loyal friends with the king’s avowed enemy, the Duke de Bourlet.

The two young people knew only that they adored each other. None of the rest mattered. And then Cecile discovered she was pregnant. She was frightened, but was also ecstatic. She and Julian would run away to be married and live happily ever after. Before she could tell Julian the wonderful news, however, the Dragon Brigade was summoned to duty and he had to leave. The two had only a few fleeting moments together before he was gone.

Cecile had no mother in whom to confide; her mother having died when she was young, and she continued to dream her pretty dreams until the day she was confronted by Lady Adele, an older woman, who was also one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The sharp-eyed Adele had noted Cecile’s swelling breasts, expanding waistline, and her unfortunate tendency to vomit on a daily basis. Lady Adele spoke to the girl in private and in a few stark words shattered the pretty dreams by making Cecile face cold, ugly reality.

Did Cecile honestly think the Count de Marjolaine would allow his only daughter, who stood to inherit one of the largest fortunes in the kingdom, to marry a penniless knight?

“Your noble father would have Julian killed first,” said Lady Adele pitilessly. “And don’t think he could not do it and get away with it. If you truly love Julian, you will cast him off and never speak to him again.”

Cecile was forced to admit the lady was right. Her father was known by everyone to be a cold-blooded, ruthless, calculating man. She cried herself to sleep every night, Julian’s letters in her hand.

Cecile was fast reaching the point where she could no longer hide her pregnancy. She had planned to travel to Lady Adele’s country estate to have the child in secret, when she received an abrupt summons to return home. The count did not ask her if the rumors he had heard about her were true. One look at her swollen belly provided the answer.

He demanded to know the name of the father. Cecile steadfastly refused to tell him. He called her a whore and struck her across the face, knocking her to the floor. His large emerald ring split her lip, leaving a small, white scar visible to this day. He sent his daughter to a nunnery, where she remained in seclusion until her baby, a son, was born.

Cecile had not written to tell Julian of her pregnancy, for she knew he would come to her and that would place his life in danger. She had determined to keep the name of the baby’s father a secret. But her labor was long and difficult and at one point Cecile was in such agony and was so exhausted that she feared she would die. In her despair, she confided the name of the baby’s father to the Mother Superior.

Cecile gave birth to a son. The nuns allowed her to spend a day-one glorious day-with her baby. Then, on the count’s orders, the child was taken away to be placed in the Church orphanage.

The Mother Superior was a woman of strong convictions. She came from a noble family herself and did not think it proper that the child of a knight should be raised in an orphanage, never knowing his father. The Mother Superior wrote to Sir Julian, telling him he had a son.

Julian was astounded and confused. He could not help but wonder why Cecile had not told him. He traveled with the family retainer, Benoit, to the nunnery and demanded to see Cecile, but was told she had returned home. She had left no message for him. All he could think was that she no longer loved him. The Mother Superior brought the baby to him. Heartbroken and bewildered, Julian took his son home.

Several months later, after she had recovered from her ordeal, Cecile returned to court. She was more beautiful than before, if that were possible, but her beauty, which had been warm and vibrant, seemed now cold and glittering. She became the open and avowed lover of King Alaric, a calculated move, meant to ward off the men her father would have forced her to marry. Whenever she received an offer, she was able to manipulate the jealous and grasping Alaric into refusing to give his consent.

Julian had secretly dreamed his own pretty dream. He nursed the fond belief that Cecile still loved him and that someday they would be together. Then he heard about the affair. Not only was she openly involved with another man, that man was the enemy of Julian’s liege lord, the Duke de Bourlet. If Cecile had stabbed Julian in the heart with a dagger, she could have caused no greater pain.

Sir Julian was a chivalrous and honorable knight. He would not say a word against Cecile to anyone. Her name never crossed his lips. There were those in his household who knew the truth-or thought they did-and they were free in venting their rage against the woman who had hurt their beloved friend and master.

Only one man, Julian’s friend, Sir Ander Martel, the baby’s godfather, knew Cecile, knew her father, and knew or was able to guess both sides of the tragic tale. He tried at one point to tell Julian that Cecile had done this for his sake, because she feared for his life. The moment Sir Ander mentioned her name, Julian told him coldly that if he wanted to continue to be friends, he would never speak of her again. Julian de Guichen would eventually learn the truth, but, sadly, only on the night before his execution. Too late to tell his son.

Stephano, growing up, knew he was different from other children in that he did not have a mother. He was not particularly bothered by this lack. He and his father were extremely close. Sir Julian always refused to speak ill of Cecile, but Stephano’s grandfather felt no such compunction. When Stephano was twelve, his embittered grandfather summoned the boy to his study and told Stephano the truth-his side of it, which had been further tainted over the years by a hatred of King Alaric and his mistress, who, on the death of her father, was now the wealthy and powerful Countess Cecile de Marjolaine.

Sir Ander, as Stephano’s godfather, could have told the boy what he knew, but that was the time Julian’s friend and patron, the Duke de Bourlet, had openly split from the king. The seeds of rebellion were being sown. Sir Ander did not like King Alaric, but he believed a man should be loyal to the Crown and, although he knew the duke was in the right, in that he had been goaded past endurance into fighting, Sir Ander did not join in the rebellion. He and Julian remained friends, though they were on opposing sides of the terrible conflict.

As Stephano sat in the carriage, his hat on his knee, he heard again his grandfather’s bitter, hate-filled tirade against his mother, words forever seared in the boy’s memory. He was jolted from his dark reverie when Rodrigo got into a heated argument with the carriage driver, claiming that the man was deliberately taking them out of their way in order to charge them more money.

“Look, Stephano!” Rodrigo cried, pointing out the carriage’s glass window, “Look where this son of a goat has taken us! Out past the Rim!”

The continent of Rosia was surrounded by an ocean of air, as were all the continents-the Seven Sisters-of the world of Aeronne. The air, the Breath of God, with its magical properties, was the “sea” on which floated the continents and islands that made up the world of Aeronne.

Similar to the water in the greater inland seas and lakes, the Breath had currents and moods. The wispy, peach-colored mist of a calm day could quickly darken to the deep reddish orange of a coming water storm with winds that would whip the surface of the Breath to a froth, lifting the heavier clouds from below to wreak havoc with the controls on an airship.

The mists that were wispy and thin as silken scarves grew thicker as one sank deeper into the Breath, becoming almost liquid at the bottom, or so learned men theorized. No one knew for certain what lay at the bottom because no one had ever been able to penetrate that deep and survive.

Where the Breath met the shoreline of the continents was called the Rim. To sail beyond the Rim meant leaving land behind and venturing into the mists of the Breath.

The view out the carriage window was spectacular and, as always, caused Stephano’s heart to contract with both pain and pleasure. When he had been a Dragon Knight, riding the thermals of the Breath, flying among the tendrillike mists, he would always take a moment to view the continent from this angle: the jagged edges of distant mountains, the green of hills, the smoky haze rising from the multitude of chimneys, the airships of all sizes and types sailing in and out of the bustling port of Evreux, the capital city of Rosia and one of the largest and busiest ports in the world.

He and his dragon mount, Lady Cam, would always share this moment. He would laughingly point out his family’s former small estate, tucked somewhere in those green hills, and she would, with more gravity, mention her family’s estate in the Montagnes Imperiale, the mountain range which the dragons called home. The two would ride the mists, knowing themselves-in the dragon’s grace and beauty and Stephano’s skills as a rider-superior to those who were forced to rely on wood and magic and silk balloons to sail the Breath.

Lady Cam was dead now. She had died in battle eight years ago, struck down by friendly cannon fire from a ship of their own fleet. She had died and so had the Dragon Brigade. And so had Stephano, in a way.

Stephano looked at the clouds and took note of the wind speed and the direction the wind was blowing, and then endeavored to make Rodrigo understand that the carriage driver knew what he was doing. Given the conditions, he was taking the best route to the palace.

“Otherwise, the ride would be bumpy. We would be blown all over the sky, and you would be air sick and complain about that,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo gave way with such good grace that Stephano suspected his friend had started this row simply to shake Stephano out of his gloomy mood. By that time, they were once more over land and the palace was in view.

The Sunset Palace was a breathtaking sight, whether seen by day, suspended in the air above the lake, mirrored in the waters below, or at night, when its lighted windows, shining in the darkness, rivaled the stars. The palace was, as its name implied, most beautiful in the twilight, when magical constructs set in the walls reflected the colors of the sky, causing the walls to change color from pink to orange, purple, and blue.

Simple in design, the palace was a square with a tower at each of the four corners. The entrance consisted of another, smaller square constructed inside the first, with a smaller tower at each of those four corners. The palace’s beauty lay in the graceful magnificence of the towers and the fanciful construction of the one hundred chimneys, each of which was of a different design, so that the palace, from a distance, resembled the skyline of a city.

The Sunset Palace was the largest floating structure in the known world. The construction of the palace had started during the reign of King Alaric’s grandfather. He had died while the building was still on the ground. Alaric’s father, the late king, had brought crafters from all over to place the magical constructs that had at last lifted the palace up to the heavens, elevating the King of Rosia to a somewhat equal footing with God.

Stephano noted that several of those fancy new warships drifted in the air near the palace, keeping constant vigil. The ships used the liquid form of the Breath, known as the Blood of God, to stay afloat. The liquid was stored in lift tanks in the hull near the base of the wings and ballast tanks on the mast, which meant the ships had no balloons, only sails. Faster and lighter, these were the ships that had replaced the Dragon Brigade. The navy stood guard because the palace had minimal defenses. Though the towers and walls were strengthened by magical constructs, they were mainly for decoration. Most of the magic went into keeping the palace up in the air. The warships and the palace guards, mounted on wyverns, patrolled the perimeter, turning away those who did not have business with the royal court.

A series of buoys, marked with different colored flags, floated in the sky, forming lanes through which carriages were funneled. The large and splendid carriages of the nobility, sometimes drawn by as many as four wyverns, entered one lane. Delivery vehicles entered another. Hired hacks traveled yet another. Stephano’s carriage took its place in line with those.

When they reached the arrival point, a palace guard looked inside the carriage and, recognizing Rodrigo, exchanged a few pleasantries and waved them on. The carriage flew to the entrance and dropped down onto the open-air paved courtyard. The wyvern rested, tucking its head beneath its wing. The driver dismounted and lowered the steps. Rodrigo and Stephano descended. Rodrigo paid the driver, who touched his hand to his hat and, prodding the wyvern into flight, sailed off.

A line of footmen stood waiting at the entrance to greet visitors and escort them into the palace, taking them where they were supposed to go, prohibiting them (politely) from going where they weren’t wanted, and generally keeping people from getting lost. The palace had over four hundred rooms and a confusing number of hallways and staircases and corridors, and even Rodrigo, who visited the palace two or three days a week, found the footmen helpful.

Stephano mentioned the name of the Countess de Marjolaine and showed the footman her letter with her seal. The footman nodded and started out.

“I’ll come with you,” said Rodrigo.

“To make sure I go through with this?” Stephano growled.

“Yes. And I have nothing better to do until the royal levee, which is later this morning,” said Rodrigo.

The halls of the palace were wide and spacious with wood-beam ceilings and parquet floors. Paintings, colorful tapestries, and deer with immense racks of antlers adorned the walls. Suits of armor from bygone days stood in niches in the walls.

“Hollow knights with no heads,” remarked Stephano. “How fitting.”

“Do keep your voice down,” said Rodrigo.

Three young ladies of the court, dressed in colorful satin gowns, with the hems pinned up to reveal their decorated petticoats; long, pointed bodices and dropped shoulders entered the gallery from one of the staircases. At the sight of Rodrigo and Stephano, the young women raised their fans and drew together, laughing and whispering to each other.

Rodrigo “made a leg” as the saying went, placing one foot before the other and giving a graceful bow. The young women curtsied. Rodrigo offered to introduce them to his friend, “Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen.” The young women curtsied again, clearly in admiration of the handsome captain. Stephano removed his hat and gave a stiff bow and then stood fuming with impatience while Rodrigo exchanged flirtatious banter.

“I have an appointment,” said Stephano abruptly, interrupting one of the women. “If you will excuse me-”

He bowed again, turned on his heel and walked off. Behind him, he could hear Rodrigo apologizing and the low voices of the women talking behind their fluttering fans.

“That was the wife of the Count of Galiar you just insulted,” said Rodrigo, catching up with his friend. “I smoothed things over. Told her you were perishing of a broken heart. I fancy from the way she looked at you that she would like to help you mend it.”

“She seems much more your type,” said Stephano.

“I was in love with her once,” said Rodrigo in the sorrowful tones he always used when speaking of his past amours. “I was on the verge of proposing, but then she married the count.”

Rodrigo was always falling in love and always on the verge of marrying, but the women with whom he was always falling in love always ended up marrying counts or barons or dukes or earls-anyone besides Rodrigo. He maintained that he was unlucky at love. Stephano wondered, not for the first time, if his friend was unlucky or remarkably adroit.

The Countess de Marjolaine had a suite of rooms in one wing of the palace. Although she was no longer the king’s mistress, the countess remained King Alaric’s most trusted adviser and confidante. She wielded great power and was respected and flattered, hated and feared.

The countess’ suite was furnished with exquisite taste and every luxury, all paid for by herself. She was one of the wealthiest landowners in the kingdom and made it a point of pride to never accept money from His Majesty or anyone else. Stephano and Rodrigo were admitted to the countess’ antechamber by a footman wearing a royal blue velvet coat, lace, satin, and silk stockings. Petitioners and favor-seekers sat on curved divans and chairs, decorated with the countess’ bumblebee, waiting their turn to be ushered into her presence. Two noblemen, whom Stephano did not recognize, lounged in a corner, exchanging idle gossip. They stopped their talk long enough to stare in a haughty, challenging manner at Stephano, who stared back at them just as haughtily.

Stephano gave his name and presented the countess’ note to the footman, who bowed and took it to a young man seated at a desk before the door to the countess’ audience room. The young man-the countess’ secretary-looked at the note, looked at Stephano, and said crisply, “Lord Captain de Guichen, please be seated. I will let you know when the countess is at liberty to receive you.”

With a gesture, the young man indicated one of the divans. Stephano noticed that, at the sound of his name, the two lordlings in the corner inclined their heads together and started whispering. Stephano guessed that the countess’ bastard son was the subject of their conversation, and his face burned. He put his hand on the hilt of his rapier and took a step toward them. Rodrigo plucked his sleeve.

“They’re nobodies, my friend,” he said. “Hoping for a favorable glance from your mother, which they won’t get, no matter how many hours they wait here. Don’t waste your time.”

Stephano was annoyed. “I will not wait here with my mother’s flunkies and ass-lickers for hours until she deigns to receive me. She stated our appointment was for nine. It is now nine. I’m going inside.”

“If you try to barge through the door, the secretary will summon the footmen, who will throw you out. You see that one footman-the big brute with the shoulders whose velvet coat is starting to split at the seams? He was once a professional bear-wrestler. We can’t afford to make your mother angry by starting a row in her chambers.”

“Then I won’t stay-”

“Yes, you will. Leave it to Rigo. I deal with the secretary. You slip inside.”

Rodrigo walked up to the secretary’s desk and perched his rump familiarly on one corner. The secretary had been writing down numbers in a ledger. Shocked at such rude behavior, he looked up.

“Do you want something, sir?” the secretary said in a frozen tone.

“I have a wager I’m hoping you can settle, sir,” said Rodrigo in loud and affable tones.

He had by now attracted the attention of everyone in the room, footmen included. Stephano sidled closer to the door and rested his hand, covered by the lace on his sleeves, on the door handle and jiggled it. The handle gave slightly. The door was not locked.

“I have wagered that you are a fourth son,” Rodrigo went on. He shook his head. “Not even a church appointment for you, eh? Not worth the family spending the money on, I suppose. The most you can hope for is to do menial work for a great lord or lady.”

The young man flushed and rose irately to his feet.

“I will have you know I am the son of Viscount Telorind-”

“Fourth son?”

“Well, yes,” the young man admitted.

“And you’re new to court?”

“I have been here a month-”

“Ah!” said Rodrigo with a knowing look. “That explains a lot. You think you were sent here to learn the ways of court. In truth, you are here as a guarantee for your father’s good behavior, so that His Majesty can keep his eye on him.”

Rodrigo leaned forward, as if in confidence. “I’ll make another wager. All your correspondence to and from home is being intercepted and read-”

The young man gasped and began to sputter. Everyone in the antechamber was chuckling. No one was paying attention to Stephano, who pressed on the handle, opened the door, and slid inside. He shut the door on the rising voices behind him and advanced into his mother’s audience room, which was like her: quiet, refined, cool, and elegant.

A woman sat behind a desk containing a number of leather-bound ledgers and other papers. She was holding a lorgnette in front of her eyes to peruse one of the papers, a slight frown creasing her forehead. Opposite her, on the other side of the desk, Dargent sat, taking notes in a small book. The countess must have heard the door, but she did not look up. Dargent glanced around and, seeing Stephano, said something to her in a low voice.

The countess continued to read a moment longer, then she lowered the paper and the lorgnette and, without a glance at Stephano, proceeded to give instructions to Dargent, who noted them down in his book. Unlike many women in her position, who gave over control of their wealth to male relatives or trusted advisers, the countess managed her estate and business concerns. The instructions she was giving Dargent had something to do with the felling and sale of timber on her land. Stephano was angry and embarrassed at being ignored and he had difficulty hearing what she said through the blood pounding in his ears.

At last, her business concluded, the countess handed Dargent the paper and nodded her head in dismissal. Dargent rose to his feet, bowed to the countess and inclined his head to Stephano, then exited the room through another doorway. The countess turned her gaze upon Stephano.

“You were not summoned,” she said in mild reproof. “What have you done to my secretary? Sliced him into bits?”

The door flew open and the flustered young man burst inside. “Madame, I am sorry! I did not see the captain enter. Here, you, sir-”

The secretary reached out his hand to grab hold of the interloper and drag him out. Stephano stopped the man with a look.

The countess glanced past the secretary’s shoulder and saw Rodrigo smiling from the antechamber. He placed his hand on his heart, bowed low. The countess gave a deep sigh.

“Thank you, Emil,” she said to her secretary. “Remind me to teach you how not to be an idiot. That will be all.”

Blushing, the young man cast a furious glance at Stephano, then withdrew. Rodrigo gave a wave to Stephano and mouthed the words, “Pays well!” Emil shut the door and Stephano and his mother were alone.

Stephano gave a mocking, servile bow. “I am here, Madame, your indentured servant, come to work off my debt.”

“Don’t be more of an ass than you can help, my son,” said the countess. “I find it so tiresome.”

She made a commanding gesture. “Fetch my scarf. We are going to take a turn about the garden.”

“Fetch your own damn scarf. I am not your lady’s maid,” said Stephano angrily. “And we will talk about this here and now-”

The countess fixed her lustrous blue-gray eyes upon her son. “I said we will take a turn in the garden. Now hand me my scarf.”

Stephano swallowed his wrath. He snatched up the lace scarf-made of lamb’s wool, delicate as cobweb-and flung it over his mother’s shoulders.

“If I refuse to undertake this job, will you really send me to debtor’s prison, Mother?”

The countess raised a delicate eyebrow, gave a delicate shrug, and said coolly, “Don’t ask stupid questions, my son.”

Chapter Three

The king is the absolute authority in the land, but he requires the support of the great families and they require him. They feed off each other. He sees to it that they are constantly vying for his favor. Alliances and ties between the Peers of the Realm run together like the notes in a symphony. The person conducting the orchestra is not the king, but the Countess de Marjolaine.

Only the noble and ancient Dragon families of Rosia remain aloof from the politics of the royal court. Since the disbanding of the Dragon Brigade, the offended dragons have shunned court altogether. His Majesty does not appear much bothered by their absence. Perhaps because he no longer requires the dragons in his new, modern navy.

- Musings on Rosian Politics by Rodrigo de Villeneuve

COUNTESS CECILE RAPHAEL DE MARJOLAINE was fifty years old and the poets of the age still wrote songs to her beauty. They spoke of luxuriant silver hair, with curls falling on alabaster shoulders. Her blue eyes were likened to sapphires, her cheeks to the damask rose. Her figure was superb. Tall and slender, she moved with a languorous grace that suited her height.

Her complexion remained smooth, perhaps because no strong emotion was ever allowed to touch her. She had never been heard to laugh. No lines of joy creased her lips or crinkled the corners of her eyes. No lines of worry or care marred her forehead. The only two flaws on her lovely face were a single deep furrow slanting between her brows that deepened when she was absorbed in thought and a small, white scar on the right corner of her lip. The only sign of her age was the skin on the back of her hands. Once white and delicate, the skin was now stretched taut and crisscrossed beneath with blue veins.

The countess did not follow fashion. She set fashion. Her gown was simply and elegantly made of sky-blue satin, the skirt falling in sumptuous folds from a pointed bodice, the sleeves tight to the elbow, then flowing and lined with lace. She wore a necklace of blue sapphires and several very fine jewels on her fingers. Among these rings, lost and unremarked amidst the rubies and diamonds and sapphires, was a plain golden band, which she never took off. When she was preoccupied, she would often absentmindedly twist this little golden ring.

The countess led Stephano from her study into a library filled with books, whose leather bindings gave off a pleasant scent. The books were not merely decorative, as were books in the homes of much of the nobility, many of whom were practically illiterate. The countess had always been fond of reading and whereas the other fashionable women of the time invited the rich and the powerful to their salons, the countess preferred to invite poets and artists, philosophers, musicians, and scientists.

She and Stephano passed through the library and entered a small and cozy sitting room. Glass-paned doors opened out onto a charming patio enclosed by a waist-high stone wall. Trees of all varieties, many of them rare species imported from other countries, had been planted in tubs made of wood and stone. The trees formed a miniature forest that effectively screened the garden from view of prying eyes peering out nearby windows.

Looking through the trees in one direction, the observer could see blue sky and the deeper blue-purple of the mountains, green woods, and the sun shining off the crystalline surface of a distant lake. In the other direction rose the spires of a magnificent cathedral, surrounded by a large complex of buildings, all protected by a wall, all stuck far below on solid ground. The bottom level of the floating palace were about even with the cathedral’s bell tower.

How the grand bishop must hate that, thought Stephano, amused.

“Shut the doors,” said the countess.

Stephano complied. The countess rearranged her scarf around her shoulders, then walked over to the wall and gazed out into the cloudless blue sky. She began, unconsciously, to twist the small golden ring.

Stephano remained near the door, silent, waiting for her to speak. He had never been in her garden and he was entranced by the beauty of the view. He was also, truth be told, always a little awed and uncomfortable in the presence of his mother, though he would have knocked out the teeth of any man who said so.

“What do you know of the Royal Armory?” the countess asked abruptly, turning to face her son.

Stephano was accustomed to his mother’s manner of doing business; no pleasant niceties or idle talk. She went immediately to the heart of matter at hand. This was the last subject he would have expected his mother to bring up and he had to take a moment to think.

“The Royal Armory makes the weapons and armor for the king and the Royal Regiment, the king’s guards. When I was Commander of the Dragon Brigade”-his voice took on a tinge of bitterness-“the Royal Armory outfitted me and my company with magically enhanced riding armor and our muskets. The Royal Armory made some of the finest armor and weapons I’ve ever owned.”

“The Armory also looks for ways to improve those weapons and armor,” said the countess.

“That’s a given,” said Stephano.

The countess eyed him. The small furrow dug into her brow. “Don’t stand there hovering by the door as though you are ready to bolt any moment. Come closer, so that I don’t have to shout.”

She was hardly shouting, and Stephano realized suddenly that there was a reason she had brought him to this garden, when usually their business was conducted in her audience chamber. Here, amid the thick foliage and trailing vines with nothing except blue sky above and the ground far below, was privacy-as much privacy as one could have in a palace populated by many hundreds of people.

Stephano felt a prickling at the back of his neck. This job was starting to sound more interesting. He joined his mother at the wall, where she stood gazing down upon the cathedral and the large, squat, towered structures that clustered around it.

“The Bishop’s Palace,” said the countess in reflective tones, her thoughts echoing her son’s. “Fixed firmly on the ground. His Grace moved his office, you know, to the other end of the building, so that he wouldn’t have to look out his window to see His Majesty floating above him.”

First the Armory, now the Grand Bishop Montagne-King Alaric’s longtime friend, longer time enemy. Where was this conversation leading? Stephano kept quiet and waited to find out.

The countess turned to Stephano; as she did so, a shaft of sunlight, filtering through the green leaves of a flowering crab tree, illuminated the scar on her lip. He had never really noticed the scar before now. The scar appeared to be an old one and he wondered how she had come by it. Some childhood accident, perhaps? Oddly, the scar made her seem more human. Perhaps that was why she always tried to conceal it by touching her lips with carnelian, the only cosmetic she deigned to wear.

“By law, the Church of the Breath of God oversees all development of technology involving magical constructs, even at the Royal Armory,” said the countess. “Any research into new uses of magic must be approved by the grand bishop. The law has stood for centuries.”

“I suppose such a law makes sense,” said Stephano. “Scripture says ‘from the Breath of God comes His voice and the quiet whispers of his words’ and that is magic.”

His gaze shifted from the cathedral to the Breath as it lapped at the Rim of the bay. “The truth is, magical energy flows in the Breath. We harness the Breath with constructs and use it to lift our airships. The Breath powers our technology and augments our machines. The Breath is magic and magic is power.”

Stephano turned to his mother. “And power without the divine teachings of the church for guidance is an ‘open door for the darkness that lies in wait for the heathen.’ ”

“Your tutor taught you well,” said the countess dryly.

“Actually, it was Rodrigo,” said Stephano.

“In fact, your friend, Monsieur de Villeneuve, is one of the reasons I thought of asking you to undertake this job.”

“If it involves the seduction of women, you’ll find Rodrigo outstanding,” said Stephano, grinning.

“Actually I was thinking more of his outstanding skills as a crafter. At least, I am told he has such skills,” said the countess.

“And, as usual, your spies are correct, Mother. But what have crafters and Rodrigo to do with the bishop and the Breath of God and the Royal Armory-By Heaven!” Stephano answered his own question. “His Majesty has been conducting research into new weapons technology involving magic. And he has not shared it with the bishop.”

“You always were a smart boy,” the countess murmured.

“What would happen if the bishop were to discover this little indiscretion?”

“The king would be embarrassed-”

“My heart bleeds,” said Stephano, his lip curling in a sneer.

The countess smiled faintly. “There would be other ramifications, as I am certain you are aware.”

The sun drifted behind a tower, throwing the garden into shadow. The countess drew her scarf more closely around her shoulders. “Sit here. The air is chill in the shade.”

The countess took her seat on a wicker divan, surrounded by plump cushions. There was room for Stephano, and she made a polite gesture for him to sit beside her. He chose, instead, a seat on a marble bench opposite her. His rapier rang against the stone wall as he settled himself.

Now we’re coming to it, he thought.

“I had a visit yesterday morning from Douver, Master of the Royal Armory. Master Douver was quite agitated. It seems one of his journeyman, Pietro Alcazar, did not come to work the day before.”

“Hardly an event likely to sink the continent,” said Stephano.

“So one would think,” said the countess imperturbably. “Douver assures me, however, that this journeyman is completely reliable. Alcazar has not missed a day’s work since he came to the Armory six years ago. He does not chase women. He does not indulge in strong drink. He is known to be a dedicated and brilliant crafter who lives solely for his work. He is so brilliant, in fact, that he recently made an amazing discovery. He found a way to manufacture steel utilizing the Breath of God-”

Stephano laughed. “And I can turn lead into gold. Crafters have been trying to mix metal and magic for years, Mother! It can’t be done.”

“I am aware of this,” said the countess sharply, annoyed at the interruption. “Hear me out. Douver was so excited by Alcazar’s discovery he reported it to His Majesty.”

“But not to the bishop,” Stephano inserted. “As required by law.”

“He went to the king first, as was proper,” said the countess. “The king was thrilled, naturally, but also, like you, my clever son, he was skeptical. He demanded proof. Douver promised to bring a sample of this Breath-enhanced steel to His Majesty.”

“What sort of sample?” Stephano asked.

“Something that would appear quite ordinary-a tankard, I believe. Douver was to meet with His Majesty yesterday. When Alcazar failed to come to work, Douver was concerned that his journeyman might have been taken ill or-”

“-he was, in fact, a charlatan who knew his fraud was about to be revealed,” said Stephano.

“That was Douver’s fear, especially as he had allowed the king to labor under the mistaken belief that he-Douver-had developed this new metal.”

Stephano smiled and shook his head.

“Douver hastened to Alcazar’s rooms,” the countess continued. “He found the front door had been forced open. Furniture was upended. There were signs of a struggle. Alcazar was gone and so was the tankard he had been going to show to the king. Seeing this, Douver came to me at once.”

“Why you?” Stephano asked, frowning.

The countess was exasperated. “You could hardly expect Douver to go to the king! What would the fool man say? That he had lied about the fact that he had created this new metal? That he had allowed the journeyman who did create it to be snatched out from under his nose? The king would think Douver had been lying all this time. He would lose his job, if not his head.”

“So he hoped you could get him back into the king’s good graces. Well, that should be easy for you, Mother. Just slip into His Majesty’s bed…”

The countess sat quite still. Her eyes were gray as a winter sky, her face expressionless. When she spoke, her tone was smooth and cold.

“There is a far more important consideration here, Stephano, as you would realize if you were not constantly occupied in hating me.”

Stephano realized he had gone too far. What she said was true. He was allowing his feelings to cloud his judgment. Beyond that, his remark had been unworthy of a knight and a gentleman.

“I beg your pardon, Mother,” he said quietly. “I should not have said that.”

The countess stood up and took a turn or two around the garden. She twisted the little golden ring on her finger. Stephano waited in silence, still feeling the sting of her rebuke. Her next question surprised him.

“Tell me, Stephano, if Alcazar had succeeded in producing steel that could be enhanced by the Breath of God, what would be the ramifications of such a discovery?”

“Astounding,” Stephano answered. “Cannonballs would bounce off our warships like hailstones. Armor could withstand bullets or, conversely, bullets could punch through ordinary steel. Such a discovery would make our military invincible. But that is assuming this Alcazar actually succeeded, and I don’t believe-”

“Someone does,” said the countess flatly.

Stephano was brought up short. He thought this over and now understood her concern. Alcazar had disappeared, perhaps not of his own free will. Someone had snatched him. The idea of such magically enhanced steel in the wrong hands was appalling.

“I need you to discover the truth, Stephano. Go to Alcazar’s lodging, search it, see what you can learn. You will be discreet, quiet, circumspect. No hint of what has happened must leak out.”

“Which is why you came to me,” said Stephano.

“I dare not trust any of my local agents,” said the countess, nodding agreement. “Not with something this important. Here is the address.”

She reached into her bosom and drew out a piece of paper and handed it to Stephano. The address was in his mother’s own hand, bold and firm: 127 Street of the Half Moon. He thrust the paper into an inner pocket in his coat.

“How flattering to know you actually trust me, Mother,” he remarked.

“I do trust you, Stephano,” said the countess gravely. “Do not let me down.”

She moved to the door and stood beside it, waiting for him to open it for her. The interview was at an end.

Stephano stood up, pressing his hand against his rapier to keep it from striking the bench. “One question. You mentioned Grand Bishop Montagne. Is it possible that he could have found out about Alcazar?”

“I thought of that,” said the countess. “I have made inquiries and am convinced that the bishop knows nothing. If his creature, Dubois, were in Rosia, it would be a different matter. Dubois knows, sees, hears everything. But Dubois is in Freya, attending the royal court. And now I really must go. I am late for a meeting with the Travian ambassador.”

Stephano opened the door, and the countess swept past him with a rustle of satin and the faint fragrance of honeysuckle.

“I hear Travia and Estara are hurling cannonballs at one another over which of the two nations owns mineral-rich Braffa,” said Stephano. “Rodrigo’s father is ambassador to Estara. He writes that the situation is grim.”

“They are both trying to draw us into the fight,” said the countess. “I won’t allow that to happen.”

“Shouldn’t King Alaric be handling this matter, along with his officially appointed ministers?” Stephano asked, grinning.

“His Majesty has far more important matters to concern him,” said the countess.

Stephano leaned near to say, “There’s not a twitch of your cobweb that you don’t feel, is there, Mother?”

“You’ve fought the Estarans. Do you want to do so again?” the countess asked, as they passed through the sitting room and into the library.

“I would not be given the chance, as you well know,” said Stephano caustically.

“May I remind you, my son, that you were the one who resigned the commission which I had managed to obtain for you,” the countess returned.

“And may I remind you, Mother, that I resigned after the king disbanded the Dragon Brigade and took away my command,” said Stephano heatedly.

“His Majesty offered you a post-”

“-as a lowly lieutenant on one of his new-fangled floating frigates. I am a Dragon Knight. If you think I would stoop-”

Stephano stopped to draw in a deep breath. He was not going to quarrel with her. Not that they ever quarreled. She was Breath-enhanced steel. Words, like bullets, could never penetrate her. He came back to business.

“If I find out what you need to know about this Alcazar, you will clear all my debts?”

The countess glanced at him. “I said I would. I keep my word.”

Stephano flushed. He hated to mention this next, but he had no choice. He did so with what dignity he could muster. “Rodrigo tells me that I am… er… rather short of funds right now. If you could advance me-”

“I have given instructions for you to receive the paperwork clearing you of your debt and I have provided money for expenses,” said the countess.

They had returned to the audience chamber. She remained standing. Business concluded, she was ready to be done with him.

Stephano bowed. “I will take my leave, then, Madame. I will be in touch. Who do I see about the money?”

The countess extended her hand for him to kiss.

“My secretary, Emil,” she said, adding, with a hint of a smile, “The young man you insulted.”

While Stephano was back in the antechamber, forced to endure Emil’s sneers while waiting for his mother’s money, one of the men he and the countess had been discussing was also being forced to wait. Only this man was waiting to clear customs, not waiting for an insufferable secretary.

For once, the countess’ spies were wrong. Dubois, the bishop’s “creature,” as the countess had termed him, was not in Freya attending the royal court. His ship had docked at the Rosian port at about the same time the wyvern-drawn carriage containing Stephano and Rodrigo had flown over the dockyards. If Stephano had looked down and Dubois had looked up, the two men would have seen each other.

Seeing Dubois would not have done Stephano any good, for he did not know the man. They had never met. Dubois knew Stephano, however. Dubois made it his business to know everyone who had anything to do with the politics of any of the royal courts.

Once he was through customs, Dubois-known by everyone simply as Dubois-did not waste time. He met with several men who were waiting on the dock for him. He heard their reports and gave them instructions. These meetings with agents concluded, he hastened to a nearby inn where he always kept a horse in readiness, mounted, and rode swiftly through the crowded streets, paying no heed to the curses of those he nearly ran down.

Upon reaching the vicinity of the Bishop’s Palace, Dubois left the horse at the stables of another inn in which he had taken up lodgings, then walked the rest of the way. He did not enter by the main gate. Instead, he went to a small gate located in the wall directly behind the bishop’s private residence. The gate was hidden in some shrubbery, and Dubois had the only key.

The gate led into a small walled-off terrace, still filled with last autumn’s dead leaves, located at the rear of the house. A door with a lock to which Dubois also had the key opened into a long, narrow hallway.

The hall was dark, but Dubois had walked it many times and did not need a light to find his way. At the end of the hall was another door with yet another lock. He opened this door with yet another key and entered a small closet, big enough for him and a single chair.

Dubois walked over to the wall and pressed his ear to it. He could hear voices: the deep, resonant voice of the grand bishop and other voices he did not recognize. He could hear the bishop quite clearly for his chair was near the closet door, which was concealed by a thick, velvet curtain hanging behind the bishop’s chair. The other voices were agitated, less distinct, but Dubois was a master at eavesdropping.

The Abbey of Saint Agnes had been attacked during the night. Many of the one hundred nuns living there had been slaughtered, the abbey burned.

Dubois was shocked at the terrible news and was surprised he had not heard of the attack from his agents, but then he reminded himself that he had only just landed. A devout man, Dubois said a prayer for the dead. He took a seat on the chair and waited with some impatience for the visitors to leave.

In his mid-forties, Dubois was hard to describe. Plain and ordinary to look at, Dubois fostered the appearance of being plain and ordinary. His dress and demeanor were that of a lowly clerk (and a poorly paid lowly clerk at that). What lifted Dubois out of the ordinary was his extraordinary mind. He had only to look at a face and he would remember that person for the rest of his life. He had merely to peruse a document once and he could later copy it word for word, comma for comma. He could repeat a conversation verbatim, though it might have lasted hours. These amazing talents had been noticed many years ago when he was a young man by his parish priest, who had brought Dubois to the attention of the grand bishop.

Ferdinand Montagne was grand bishop of a church that had been struggling with various problems for these past twenty years. Once a power in the world, as the world’s only true religion, the Church of the Breath of Rosia had seen that power wane. The Church of the Breath of Freya had split off and begun calling itself the Church of the Reformation. Its ministers preached that the Church of the Breath of Rosia was rife with corruption, had lost its way, and should no longer be responsible for the salvation of men’s souls.

As if this were not trouble enough, King Alaric, who had once been a devoted follower of church doctrine and friend to the bishop (who had sacrificed a great deal for His Majesty), had started to rebel, to go off on his own. Now he was looking for a reason to end the Church’s control over the magic and take it (and the revenue it provided) for the Crown.

Such a reason existed in the form of a terrible secret. The bishop possessed certain knowledge about the Church, about the Breath of God, about the magic-“the quiet whispers of his words” that was so dreadful, so awful, that should the king find out, he would have the excuse he needed.

Beset by enemies without, wrestling with danger within, the bishop had needed help. He needed to know what his enemies in Freya were thinking, plotting. He needed to know what the King of Rosia was plotting, if not necessarily thinking. His Majesty left his thinking to the Countess de Marjolaine.

The grand bishop required spies. He had a few, but they were not nearly of the caliber of the spies in the employ of the Countess de Marjolaine. Montagne had been impressed with Dubois and had given him one or two small jobs, which Dubois had handled with skill. The grand bishop had provided him with funds to set up an intelligence network. Dubois had handled the task with such success that for the last few years, the bishop had been able to breathe freer and sleep somewhat more soundly at night.

The visitors departed. Dubois heard the door close. He waited another moment to make certain the bishop was alone. The only sounds were the rustle of the bishop’s cassock and the creaking of the chair as he sat down; Montagne was a large man. Over six feet tall, he was massively built. At sixty years old, he was in excellent physical condition, looking more like a wrestler than a clergyman. He wore his gray hair short, his whitish-gray beard and mustache neatly trimmed.

Ferdinand Montagne was ambitious, political, and a true and devoted believer in God-a dangerous combination. He believed that his voice was God’s voice, his will was God’s will, and that everything the bishop did or ordered to be done was for God’s glory.

Dubois silently opened the door of the closet, silently drew aside the folds of the heavy curtain, and silently glided out.

“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” said Dubois in his deferential clerk’s voice.

Grand Bishop Montagne gave a great gasp and a start that caused his pointed, gold-decorated miter to slip from his head and fall to the floor. The bishop twisted around in his chair and fixed his man with a baleful look.

“By all the Saints, Dubois, some day you are going to sneak up on me like that and cause my heart to stop beating. Damn it, you could at least cough or bump into something.”

Dubois smiled slightly as he bent to pick up the miter, brush off any dust, and hand it back to the bishop. Montagne motioned Dubois to set the miter on the desk, then directed him with an irritated gesture to take a seat.

Dubois did not immediately sit down. “I might suggest it would be well, Your Grace, if you were to send the monsignor, your secretary, and his assistants on an errand.”

“And what would that errand be, Dubois?”

“I need to know who has been meeting with the Countess de Marjolaine during the past few days. I need the list of visitors to date, including all her meetings scheduled for today.”

The bishop’s face stiffened, as always when the countess’ name was mentioned. He rose to his feet, his blue, gold-trimmed cassock swishing about his ankles, and went out to speak to the secretary.

Dubois looked about the prelate’s study, taking note of any changes that had been made in his absence. The room was lit by narrow windows, two stories high. Each window was set with beveled, leaded glass. The interior walls were lined with bookcases and rich paneling carved of cherry inlaid with rosewood and precious metals. Two andirons, each taking the form of an angel with sword raised and feet on the heads of writhing demons, stood before the gold-veined, white marble fireplace.

Seeing nothing of interest, Dubois flipped through the papers on the bishop’s desk, his retentive memory absorbing their contents. He resumed his seat as the bishop came back into the room, closing the door behind him and turning the key in the lock.

“I assume you were eavesdropping? You heard the news about the abbey?” the bishop asked grimly.

“I could not help but overhear, Your Grace,” said Dubois. “I cannot imagine who would perpetrate such an outrage.”

“I have contacted the Arcanum to investigate. Father Jacob Northrup is coming to meet with me. He would have been here by now, but he and his team were in Capione, investigating reports of that Warlock and his coven.”

“The Warlock? What has that evil young man done now?” Dubois asked.

“It seems he seduced the daughter of a nobleman. She ran away from home to join him and his followers. Several bodies of his young followers have been found, drained of blood, which the Warlock uses in his heinous rites. He gives the deluded children opium and lures them into orgies, then murders them.”

“I ask myself, ‘Why?’ ” said Dubois, frowning.

“What do you mean ‘why?’ Because he takes pleasure in killing people,” said the bishop. “He’s insane.”

“I doubt that,” said Dubois. “He does this for a reason.”

“Well, whatever that reason is, pray God this time Father Jacob has managed to find him and stop him.”

“If anyone can do so, it is Father Jacob Northrup,” said Dubois.

The grand bishop was silent, frowning. “So what are you doing here, Dubois? Your orders were to remain in Freya until the end of the summer court.”

“Might I have a glass of wine and something to eat, Your Grace?” asked Dubois. “I am famished. I have spent the last two days traveling. I came here immediately on my arrival.”

The bishop indicated the sideboard on which stood a crystal decanter of wine and a collation of cold meats and bread. Dubois forked beef onto a slice of bread, devoured it in a few bites, then poured himself a glass of wine and returned to his chair.

“I fear I have more bad news, Your Grace. Sir Henry Wallace has left Freya.”

Bishop Montagne’s eyes opened wide. His frown deepened, his face grew dark. He said a word suited more to a dockyard worker than a bishop, then added, “Where is the bastard?”

“I have no idea, Your Grace.”

The bishop gave a heavy sigh. “Tell me everything, Dubois.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Ever since his marriage, Sir Henry has been seen at court on an almost daily basis. His movements have been unremarkable.” Dubois shrugged. “People say he dotes upon his young wife, who is in the last few months of her pregnancy. A short time ago, however, there was a break in his routine. I was informed by my spy, a maidservant, in his household, that a wooden box had been delivered to Sir Henry by a man who had the appearance of a sailor.

“The maid got a good look at the box, on the pretext of dusting Sir Henry’s study, and reported that the box was plain, with no writing on it, nothing to indicate its origins or what was inside. She assumed it was some gift for his wife and thought nothing of it. He did not give his wife a gift, however, and yet, oddly, the box vanished. The maid asked some of the other members of the staff, but no one knew what had become of it. Several days after Wallace received this box, he suddenly, without advance notice, moved his wife and household to his estate outside Haever. He stated as his reason his wife’s impending lying-in.”

“What happened to this mysterious box?”

“I do not know, Your Grace, but a most curious incident occurred after Wallace arrived at his estate. The staff was told that Sir Henry was going to be conducting scientific experiments in the kitchen and they were not to be alarmed if they heard any odd sounds. Such experiments are, apparently, not unusual for Sir Henry.

“That night, the maid was awakened by what she swears were gunshots, followed by a loud explosion. The next morning the kitchen smelled strongly of gunpowder and was in such a mess, with pots and pans lying on the floor, that the cook threatened to give notice. The maid found several bullets, flattened, in the fireplace. Wallace left immediately afterward, telling his wife he was bound for Haever. He never arrived there. It took me two days to learn that he was no longer in Freya.”

“You think…”

“I think something important was in that box, Your Grace.”

Montagne grunted in agreement. “Did you find out where the box came from, anything about it? You said the man who delivered it was a sailor.”

Dubois paused for a sip of wine. He drank sparingly, preferring to have all his mental faculties unclouded by the fumes of the grape.

“All I could find out was that two merchant vessels had docked immediately before the box was delivered. One was from Travia and the second a free trader from the Aligoes Islands.”

“Which do you suspect?” the bishop asked.

“Free traders smuggle Estaran wine into Freya, along with other contraband. Given the fact that Estara and Travia are on the brink of war on the eastern frontier over Braffa-”

“But Freya is neutral in this conflict,” the bishop interjected.

“It is well known in Freya that you, Your Grace, support Estara in its claim of Braffa and that His Majesty, King Alaric, supports Travia in its claim-”

“Say, rather, that fiendish woman, the Countess de Marjolaine, supports Travia,” said the bishop.

Dubois nodded. “I noted the last time I was in the Travian court that it is crawling with her operatives. But, as I was going to say, this war between Travia and Estara over Braffa has resulted in a serious rift between Church and Crown here in Rosia. It might be very tempting to Wallace to heat up the fire under this cauldron, see perhaps if he can’t make it boil over.”

“To what purpose?” the bishop asked.

“Ah, who knows with Sir Henry,” said Dubois.

The bishop glowered. “Do I detect a note of admiration in your voice, Dubois?”

“One should never underestimate one’s enemy, Your Grace. I also have the highest regard for the Countess de Marjolaine.”

A rumbling sound came from the region of the bishop’s stomach. He placed his hand on his belly. “Bah! This news has made me bilious. Pour me a glass of wine.”

Dubois did as he was told, returning to set the goblet at the bishop’s hand. As he did so, there was a knock upon the door. The bishop gestured and Dubois crossed over to the door, opened it a crack, and received a book bound in red leather. He closed the door and once more turned the key. The bishop eyed the red leather book in Dubois’ hand.

“Where the devil is Wallace? I don’t like it when that fiend is on the loose.” Montagne gazed moodily into his wine goblet.

“That is what I am endeavoring to ascertain, Your Grace. That is why I asked to see who has been meeting with the countess.”

Dubois opened the red leather book somewhere around the middle and began to read. At the top of each page was a date. Below the date was a list of names. Dubois scanned several pages. The bishop watched hopefully, but his hopes were dashed when Dubois shook his head and closed the book.

“Nothing?”

“The usual: favor-seekers, courtiers. Only three are in any way remarkable. Yesterday, the countess met with the Master of the Royal Armory. This morning, she met with her son, Captain de Guichen-”

“What is so remarkable about that?” asked the bishop. He was in an ill humor and inclined to be petty. “She is his mother.”

“The two are not on speaking terms, Your Grace, though the countess does occasionally employ her son on sensitive business. And he did fight the Estarans prior to the Dragon Brigade being decommissioned. After he left, the countess was closeted for a long time with Lord Hoalfhausen, the Travian ambassador.”

“There, you see!” said the bishop in angry triumph. “That woman is meddling in this war, consorting with my enemies.”

“So it would seem, Your Grace,” replied Dubois. Disappointed, he tossed the book onto the desk. “Unfortunately, this tells us nothing regarding the whereabouts of Sir Henry.”

He rose to his feet and prepared to take his leave.

“Keep me informed, Dubois,” said the bishop. “May God speed your endeavors.”

“May He, indeed, Your Grace. And may He aid the labors of Father Jacob as he confounds the Warlock and discovers who murdered our Sisters in God.”

Dubois bowed, circled around behind the bishop’s chair, parted the curtain, and entered the closet. A glance over his shoulder showed Montagne sitting with his shoulders hunched, his head bowed. He picked up the goblet, drank off the wine in a gulp, then rang a bell to summon the monsignor.

Dubois left the palace the way he had come, passing through the small patio, out the hidden gate, and onto the street. Returning to his lodgings for a long overdue meal, he found an agent waiting for him.

Dubois eyed him. “You’re the one who has been shadowing Wallace’s agent, right? You sent me word that Harrington had arrived in the city a fortnight ago and has been keeping to himself.”

“Yes, sir. There has been a development. I dispatched news of this to you yesterday, but then I heard you had left Freya, so I feared you might not have received it.”

“I did not. What has happened?”

“Yesterday, Harrington, dressed as a common laborer, pretending to be a drunkard, spent the day in the neighborhood of the Church of Saint Michelle. He is back there again today, sir.”

“The devil he is!” said Dubois, startled.

“He was still there when I left. Sleeping on a bench with a wine jug in front of a statue of the blessed saint.”

“How very strange,” Dubois murmured, frowning. “Where is it?”

“Street of the Half Moon, sir. The church is at the southern end, near the bridge.”

Dubois sent his agent to keep an eye on the inn where Harrington was staying. Dubois ate his meal standing and ordered a fresh horse to be saddled. While dining, he wondered what to make of this news.

The Street of the Half Moon ran through a bustling neighborhood of shops, boarding houses, and private dwellings, most of them occupied by middle-class families. What could James Harrington, one of Sir Henry’s top agents, be doing lounging about Half Moon Street?

Mounting his horse, Dubois rode off to find out.

Chapter Four

Constructs are man’s way of safely controlling and harnessing magical energy. Formed of sigils connected by lines of magical energy, constructs supplement the natural properties of matter. For example, a strengthening construct set in a piece of leather armor can render the leather resistant to a sword strike.

It would seem that the same process should work using strengthening constructs in metal. But placing constructs in the metal during the forging process makes the metal unworkable. It becomes brittle and breaks. Armorers have always had to wait until the metal object is finished and then set the magical construct onto the metal’s surface. This process reduces the strengthening power of the magic and causes the constructs to become susceptible to damage and wear, which means crafters must constantly repair the sigils, glyphs, and lines of connection.

Armorers down through the centuries have long sought a means to combine magic and metal. Like turning lead into gold, most believe it to be impossible.

- An excerpt from “Constructs and Their Use in the Production of Weapons and Armor” by Gaston Bondrea Grand Master, Rosian Armorers Guild

STEPHANO HAD MANAGED BY A GREAT DEAL of self-control to avoid running his rapier through the insufferable little twit of a secretary and been provided with funds for the work ahead. He was now free to leave the palace and he would have done so immediately, except he couldn’t find Rodrigo. After an hour’s searching, he and a footman discovered his friend in the music room, playing the clavichord in his usual whimsical manner for numerous laughing silk-and-satined, perfumed-and-rouged female admirers.

Rodrigo was a very talented musician and he could have won fame as a performer and composer if he’d worked at it. As with his crafting of magic, he couldn’t be bothered. Running his fingers over the keys, he played snippets of popular compositions, adding some of his own, interspersing his playing with lively tidbits of scandal and gossip.

Stephano did not want to enter the room, for he knew if he did, he’d be trapped into socializing. He stood in the doorway, making emphatic gestures until Rodrigo caught sight of him and ceased playing, much to the disappointment of the ladies. Rodrigo paid charming compliments, kissed all the bejeweled hands, made promises to dine with at least half of them, and at last escaped.

Rodrigo’s first question, the moment he and Stephano were alone, was, “Did you get the money?”

“I had to wait in my mother’s antechamber and hold my tongue while that bastard Emil informed me and everyone else in the room that my mother was paying my debts,” said Stephano, still fuming. “Then he made a grand show of counting out the silver! Even the footmen were snickering. And I wasn’t the one who insulted him! You were the one who sneered at him for being a fourth son!”

“True, but that’s not important. I am a third son and look how well I turned out. What is important is-did you get the money?” Rodrigo asked again.

“After I was thoroughly humiliated,” said Stephano grimly. “I have the letters of mark from our debtors, which are now all paid off in my pocket and fifty silver rosuns for our expenses.”

“Excellent,” said Rodrigo, with a sigh of relief. He ushered his friend through the long gallery of gleaming rosewood and black-and-white marble, decorated with landscape paintings by famous artists. At the end, a staircase led them toward an exit. “Now that we are in funds, I suggest we celebrate with a bottle of claret at some small, but elegant cafe, and you can tell me about the job.”

“I’ll tell you about the job on the way home so that I can take off this bloody cravat. I feel like I’m being strangled,” Stephano grumbled, tugging at the offending object.

A footman summoned one of the wyvern-drawn carriages. Once inside, Stephano explained the situation regarding the mysterious disappearance of Pietro Alcazar. Stephano kept his voice low, despite the fact that with the wind rushing in his ears, the driver was unlikely to hear anything short of a shout. The information was sensitive enough that Stephano did not want to take any chances. Rodrigo had to lean close to hear him.

At the conclusion, Stephano added, with a shrug, “The job seems simple enough. We search Alcazar’s rooms, report back to my mother, and no more debts.”

“The simplicity is what worries me,” said Rodrigo. “The countess is paying us a large sum for doing nothing more than instituting a search for some wayward journeyman? Doesn’t make sense. Your mother, unlike her son, is an astute businesswoman.”

“My mother is not paying us for the search,” said Stephano dryly. “She’s paying us for our silence.”

“Ah, of course. Well, as you say, a simple little job.” Rodrigo settled back in his seat.

“A simple little job,” Stephano echoed, as he thankfully pulled off the cravat.

Stephano and Rodrigo dismissed the carriage, changed into more comfortable (and less ostentatious) clothing and then walked to their destination-the lodgings of Pietro Alcazar, which turned out to be only a few miles from their dwelling. The Street of the Half Moon was located in the central part of the city of Evreux in a neighborhood that had once been fashionable, its large homes formerly occupied by wealthy merchants and minor nobility. As the city expanded and its population grew, the wealthy abandoned the city center, removing to the outskirts, away from the crime and noise and press of people. Since nature abhors a vacuum, less well-to-do people moved to Half Moon Street, taking over the large dwellings and turning them into boarding houses. Homes that had once housed a single family were now occupied by ten.

The residents of the Street of the Half Moon liked to pride themselves on their genteel roots. A worthy matron married to a greengrocer would tell friends she lived in “Lord So-and-So’s” mansion in a tone that implied she was His Lordship’s invited guest, staying a month or two for the hunting season.

A major thoroughfare, the Street of the Half Moon was crowded with horse-drawn carriages, cabs, wagons and riders. Wyvern-drawn carriages sailed in the air above the chimney tops and airships, with their colorful balloons, floated up among the clouds. People thronged the sidewalks, going in and out of the shops that occupied the lower floors of most of the buildings. Women sat gossiping on the steps. Children and dogs were everywhere. Cats curled up in windows, blinking sleepily in the midday sun.

The people of Half Moon Street were generally in a good mood, Stephano noted. The children were loud and boisterous and appeared well fed and as clean as could be expected of twelve year olds playing at stickball in the alleys.

If Stephano and Rodrigo had appeared on the Street of the Half Moon dressed in their court clothes, they would have attracted notice and received a cool reception. Stephano was once more in his comfortable coat of dragon green with its tailored military cut, and Rodrigo, dressed in an open-collared, flowing sleeved shirt and loose-fitting coat of a soft fawn color, looked like either an artist or a poet.

The two encountered some difficulty finding the address, 127 Half Moon Street, not because people were reluctant to speak to them, but because everyone they asked had a different idea of where it was located. They received a wide variety of answers and wandered up and down the street to no avail, until Rodrigo stopped to visit with an elderly woman, dressed all in black, who stated firmly that the house was located in a court across from the Church of Saint Michelle. The elderly woman knew this because she attended services at the church twice a day, morning and evening, and she passed the address on her way.

Stephano and Rodrigo walked toward the small neighborhood church. Passing a tavern, they thought they might find out information about Alcazar from the locals and entered. The patrons, gathered inside for a midday “wet,” greeted the two affably enough. Stephano bought a pint for himself and Rodrigo and one for the bartender as was customary.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine,” said Stephano, speaking to the bartender. “He and I were in the king’s service together. A man named Pietro Alcazar. I thought perhaps he might do his drinking here.”

The bartender shook his head. He had never heard of Alcazar; neither had any of the other patrons. Stephano thanked the bartender. Finishing their pints, he and Rodrigo went back out onto the street.

“Apparently he isn’t a tippler,” said Rodrigo.

“Douver claimed Alcazar didn’t overindulge, but it never hurts to check.” Stephano looked up and down the street. “This is the most likely tavern for him to frequent. There’s the Church of Saint Michelle, complete with statue. If your widow is right, the address is somewhere around here.”

“She said it was located in an inner court and that the building was a neighborhood disgrace,” Rodrigo stated, peering about. “Ah! I believe that is it! No wonder we missed it.”

The four-story brick boarding house was set so far back from the street as to almost completely escape notice. Constructed in the shape of a “U,” the building featured a courtyard protected by a wrought-iron fence with a gate in front. The dwelling had probably once belonged to a wealthy man who had liked his privacy.

Whoever owned the building now had not kept it up. The courtyard was dark and filled with dead leaves and trash. The wrought-iron gate had no lock, and several children were taking turns swinging on it. The rusted hinges gave off a shrill screeching sound that seemed to go right through Stephano’s teeth.

“I thought journeymen smiths in the Royal Armory were paid well,” Rodrigo said, eyeing the building with disgust.

“They’re paid very well,” said Stephano. “Alcazar would have been paid better than most, since he was a valued employee. He wasn’t married. He didn’t have twelve children to feed or an aged mother to support. He could have afforded to live some place better than this.”

The two waited until a wagon loaded with barrels had rumbled past, then crossed the street. Stephano took careful note of the surroundings, observing who was coming and going. Three women carrying empty baskets emerged from the building. One of the women stopped to speak to the gate-swinging children, then the three matrons, chattering loudly, continued on their way. Four boys in their teens were kicking a ball against the wall at the corner of the building.

Across the street was the church. A priest stood on the church steps, chatting with an ordinary-looking fellow, dressed like a clerk. A drunk in filthy clothes with a slouch hat pulled over his face was either asleep or had passed out on a bench beneath a statue of Saint Michelle. Several young blades rode past on horseback, talking loudly and ogling a young woman walking toward the church. A man in an apron pushing a handcart loaded with vegetables headed in the opposite direction.

While Stephano kept watch on the street, Rodrigo went to speak to the children. He pulled a copper coin out of his purse and tossed it into the air, so that it flashed in the sunlight, then deftly caught it with a snap and held it up. The children immediately clustered around him.

“I’m looking for someone, and I’ll give this bright penny to the smart lad or lass who can help me find him. I’ve been told he lives here.”

“Who you lookin’ for, Mister?” asked a boy, the tallest and probably the oldest.

“His name is Pietro Alcazar,” said Rodrigo.

Stephano glanced around at the people within earshot, to see if the name had any effect. The boys playing ball paid no attention. Neither did the young woman or the priest or the clerk. The drunk lying on the bench stirred, however. The man moved his arm, which had been over his head, lowering it to his chest. Stephano watched him closely, but it seemed the drunk was merely shifting to a more comfortable position. He settled the slouch hat over his face and folded his arms and did not move again.

“What do you want with Monsieur Alcazar?” the boy was asking. “Does he owe you money?”

Rodrigo and Stephano exchanged glances.

“Does he owe a lot of people money?” Rodrigo asked.

“My papa says he owes the wrong people money,” stated the boy with a worldly-wise air.

“Monsieur Alcazar plays with rats,” added a little girl, her eyes huge.

“He does what?” Rodrigo asked, startled.

“He plays baccarat,” said Stephano, translating.

“Ah, yes, that would make sense,” said Rodrigo, relieved. “Thank you, my friends.” He handed the boy a coin and another for the little girl. “Now, which is his lodging.”

“I’ll show you!” said another boy, hoping for a copper of his own. “It’s up the stairs.”

The children began to pull Rodrigo into the dark and dismal courtyard.

“He’s not there, though,” added the older boy. “The door’s busted. Someone took him away in the night.”

“He was carried off by demons,” said the little girl. “Demons took him to the Bad Place because playing with rats is wicked.”

“What an astonishing imagination that child has,” Rodrigo said in a low voice to Stephano. “She quite frightens me.”

The children eagerly related the story, which was apparently the talk of the neighborhood. None of the children had actually seen the demons, much to their disappointment. The interesting event had happened well past their bedtimes. But the children all agreed there had been a “terrible fight.” According to the oldest boy, a neighbor down the hall from Monsieur Alcazar had actually seen the demons in the act of carrying off the poor journeyman.

“I think we should have a talk with this neighbor,” said Rodrigo quietly, and Stephano nodded.

The courtyard was dark, the stairs were darker. Accompanied by the children, Rodrigo began to grope his way up the stairs. Stephano lingered in the courtyard a moment, seeing if anyone was interested. At first he saw no one and was ready to join his friend. He had set his foot on the lower stair, when he saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye. He glanced over his shoulder back out into the street. The drunk with the slouch hat, who had been asleep on the bench, was now very much awake, standing in front of the iron gate and peering intently inside the courtyard.

The drunk caught sight of Stephano, tugged on his hat, slurred, “ ‘Afternoon, Guvnor,” and lounged off.

“Go on, Rigo! I’ll catch up with you,” Stephano called and ran back through the wrought-iron gate in pursuit of the drunk.

Stephano reached Half Moon Street in time to see the drunk in the slouch hat running down the street with a marked and fluid grace that reminded Stephano of a jongleur or an acrobat. Slouch Hat was no longer drunk either, apparently, for he motioned to a hackney cab that might have been waiting for him and hopped into it quite nimbly. The driver whipped the horses, and the cab drove off in haste.

“Now that’s odd,” muttered Stephano. “Damn odd.”

He looked up and down the street and saw lots of people, but no one else who appeared to have a particular interest in 127 Street of the Half Moon. He went back through the gate, entered the courtyard, and was proceeding up the stairs, when he was almost swept away by a flood of children coming down. Rodrigo had been generous with his coppers and the children were running off in high glee to the local baker to buy penny buns.

Alcazar’s lodging consisted of a bedroom and a sitting room. Stephano found Rodrigo examining the lock to the door that had, according to the children, been “busted.” The strike plate, which was lying on the floor, was still affixed to a portion of the wall that had broken off when the door had been violently kicked in. Rodrigo crouched down to examine the plate, regarding it intently.

“Someone was keeping an eye on us,” said Stephano “That drunk in the slouch hat asleep on the bench. He woke up in a hurry, seemingly. As you were going up the stairs, I caught him nosing around outside the gate.”

“Did you get a good look at him?”

Stephano shook his head. “He had a hat pulled over his face. He ran off when he saw me. I went after him, thinking I’d ask him what he found so damn fascinating about this place. But before I could catch him, he hailed a cab and drove away. Looked to me like the cab was waiting for him. So what do you find so interesting about this lock? Looks ordinary to me.”

“It is an ordinary lock,” said Rodrigo. “Or it would be, if it had not been imbued with magic.”

God breathed magic into everything in the world, “from mountains to molehills, men to mice” as the catechism states. Some people have the ability to see the magic, control it, guide it, construct it. These people are known as crafters, and Rodrigo was one of the best. Completely lacking in any magical talent, Stephano had always been fascinated and a little envious of Rodrigo’s skill as a crafter and had never been able to understand his friend’s lighthearted, flippant attitude toward his magic.

“You waste your time on frivolous pursuits,” Stephano had said in exasperation after Rodrigo had been thrown out of the University for innumerable sins, among which were smuggling women into his room at night; advancing the theory that the Breath did not come from God’s mouth, but could be produced by mixing together the right chemicals; and, the coup-de-grace, using his magic to cause the bishop’s miter to float off his head during a service to celebrate All Saints’ Day. The miter had gone sailing about the sanctuary, much to the glee of the assembly, and Rodrigo had been expelled.

“There are men who would kill to have your power,” Stephano had told his friend.

“That’s just the point, Stephano,” Rodrigo had replied with unusual gravity. “Men would kill.”

He had refused to elaborate, and had gone on to make some jest of it. But Stephano had remained convinced that for once in his life, his friend had been in earnest.

Rodrigo passed his hand several times over the strike plate, taking care not to touch it.

“As you will observe,” he said to Stephano, “the locking apparatus is quite simple, consisting of a metal strike plate affixed to the doorjamb with a hole for the bolt, which is attached to the door. Shut the door, slide the bolt, the door is locked. But Alcazar did not put much trust in his neighbors. See that?”

Beneath Rodrigo’s hand, the strike plate began to glow faintly.

“I see light,” said Stephano.

“You see light. I see sigils,” said Rodrigo. “Burning with the magic. One sigil here and one here and one here, forming a construct, with lines of magical energy connecting them. The magic strengthens the metal. Ah, and look at this.”

He murmured a word and the glow grew brighter.

“Another layer of protection underneath,” said Rodrigo with satisfaction. “You could hit this lock with a hammer, my friend, and it would only dent it.”

“Too bad Alcazar didn’t think to strengthen the wall with magic,” said Stephano, noting the splintered wood on the floor. “A lock is only as strong as the surface to which it is attached. People tend to forget that. A couple of good, hard kicks to the door, and you rip the strike plate right off the wall.”

The two of them entered the sitting room. Stephano glanced at the peeling paint and the cracks in the walls and shook his head.

“Alcazar must not be a very good baccarat player. I’ll take the bedroom. You search this room.”

“What are we looking for?” asked Rodrigo.

“Some clue as to what Alcazar was working on in the Armory and who snatched him and why-”

“The children claim it was demons. I see no cloven hoofprints,” said Rodrigo. He sniffed the air. “Though perhaps I detect the faintest whiff of brimstone… Or is it boiled cabbage?”

“Be serious,” Stephano said irritably.

He was suddenly sorry he’d taken on this job. He didn’t like prying into the life of another man, especially when it appeared the life of this man had been a sordid and unhappy one.

“The little girl was right about him being carried off by demons,” Stephano said to himself as he entered the shabby bedroom. “Demons of his own making.”

The only article of furniture was a bed and a portmanteau on top of which stood a broken porcelain bowl and a water pitcher missing its handle. Alcazar had been smart not to trust his neighbors, who had apparently ransacked the place in his absence. The bed had been stripped of bed linens and blankets. The portmanteau was empty. If there had been a rug, it was gone.

Stephano stomped his foot on the floorboards, but heard no hollow sound. No loose boards suggesting a secret hiding place. He upended the portmanteau, found no false bottom. Nothing had been hidden under the bed or stuffed inside the straw mattress.

“No luck,” he said, returning to the sitting room. “Strange that there’s no blood.”

“Why is that strange?” Rodrigo asked. His voice was muffled. He was on his hands and knees and had his head in the fireplace.

“Well, let’s say that Alcazar is overly fond of playing baccarat. Unfortunately, he loses more than he wins and ends up owing money to the wrong men, as that astute little boy suggested. These bad men come to the collect the debt or at least to impress upon Alcazar that he should pay up quickly.”

“The sort of work our friend, Dag, used to do for a living,” said Rodrigo, craning his neck to peer up the flue.

“They would have beat him up, bloodied his nose, punched him in the gut a few times, maybe cracked a couple of ribs. That’s what these sort of debt collectors do.”

Rodrigo sat back on his heels. “But instead of collecting a debt, they collected Alcazar. Maybe they’re holding him for ransom.”

“Not likely. According to my mother, who heard it from Douver, Alcazar has no relations except a brother who is a merchant sailor in Westfirth.”

Stephano shook his head. “I hate to admit it, but it seems my mother is right. Alcazar was snatched because someone thinks he devised a way to use magic to strengthen metal. What was so fascinating about the fireplace?”

Rodrigo rose to his feet, brushed off his breeches, and pointed to the grate. “You’ll note that piece of paper. It seems either Alcazar or someone else tried to burn it, but was in too much haste to do the job well.”

Stephano bent over to take a closer look.

“The person tossed the letter onto the fire in the grate thinking it would go up in flames,” Rodrigo continued. “But it was nighttime. Alcazar had gone to bed and allowed the fire to die down. The paper landed on coals that were hot enough to sear the center of the sheet, but not hot enough to destroy the paper completely. The person burning the letter either fled or was dragged off before making certain that the fire had done its work.”

“I don’t see how this helps,” said Stephano. “All that’s left of the paper are the corners and they’re blank. The rest is nothing but ash.”

“Never underestimate my incredible ability to snoop about where I’m not wanted,” said Rodrigo cheerfully. “I need pen and ink and paper.”

“If Alcazar ever had such things, they’re not here now,” said Stephano, glancing about.

“Oh, he had them,” Rodrigo stated. “Note the ink splotches on the table. He was a learned man, our Alcazar. You can see traces in the dust on those shelves where he kept books. And he played baccarat, albeit poorly, since he appears to have lost more than he won. I played baccarat myself in University, as do many students. My guess is that he attended University himself, at least for a short time.”

Rodrigo took one final look around. “Nothing more here. I think it is time we paid a visit to the neighbor. Are you armed? It might be well to take precautions.”

Stephano drew a short-barreled pistol from inside his coat. The gun had been a gift from his godfather, Sir Ander Martel, and was one of Stephano’s most prized possessions. The gun was unique in design and had been a present on the occasion of his twelfth birthday. The barrel was cast in the form of a dragon; wings swept back, as though the creature was diving. The clawed hands and feet wrapped around the silver inlaid stock. The dragon’s tail created the spine of the handle. The gun was one of a matched pair; the other belonging to Sir Ander.

Stephano and Rodrigo walked down the dismal hall, heading toward a door at the far end. The door was opened a crack, allowing a shaft of dusty sunlight to creep out of the room and into the hall. Whoever was inside was watching them. At their approach, the door shut, the sunlight vanished.

Rodrigo glanced at Stephano, who nodded to indicate he was ready. Rodrigo rapped smartly on the door.

Silence. Rodrigo rapped again.

“What do you want?” came a woman’s voice.

“Just a friendly chat about my poor friend, Pietro Alcazar. He seems to have gone missing,” said Rodrigo in plaintive tones. “I have some questions. Nothing alarming, I assure you, Madame. I will make it worth your while.”

The door opened an inch. The woman peered out. Rodrigo held up a coin, this one of silver. Her eyes widened. She drew back the door, revealing a broom, which she was clutching in a threatening manner.

“You can put down the weapon, Madame,” said Rodrigo.

Stephano looked past her. A little girl, a baby in her arms, crouched under a table. He didn’t see anyone else.

“Is your good man at home?”

“He’s my man, but there ain’t nothin’ good about him,” said the woman, sniffing. She lowered the broom. “If you want him, you’ll find him in the tavern, drinking with his layabout friends.”

Stephano returned his gun to his pocket.

The woman’s eyes were on the silver coin. “He don’t know nothin’ anyway. I was the one who saw ’em.”

“Saw who?” Rodrigo asked.

“Them as took your friend away.”

“If you could tell me about that night…”

The woman snatched the coin, stuffed it into her bosom, and told her story.

She had been awakened by a loud bang and a splintering crash, sounds of a scuffle, thumps and bumpings, and what she thought was a muffled cry for help. She had tried to wake her husband, but he had been dead drunk and had only grunted and rolled over.

Fearing for the safety of her children, the woman had grabbed up the broom in order to fight off whatever villains she might encounter. She opened the door a crack, and saw two men, clad all in black, descending the stairs at a rapid pace. She heard more thumps and bangs from the apartment, and then two more men emerged. One of the men carried a dark lantern and, by its light, she saw him holding another man by the arm, forcing him down the stairs.

She had waited a moment longer, but, seeing nothing more to alarm her, she had gone back to her bed. Early the next morning, broom in hand, she had ventured down to Alcazar’s apartment “to find out what had become of the poor man.” She had discovered the door open and a scene of destruction.

“Furniture tipped over, books scattered about, clothes strewn all over the floor…”

She was relating all this with relish when a thought suddenly occurred to her. She clamped her mouth shut and started to slam the door. Rodrigo blocked it with his foot.

“You’ve been extremely helpful, Madame,” he said. “I was wondering if I could borrow a sheet of paper, a pen, and some ink.”

“As if I would have the like!” returned the woman, trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Rodrigo’s foot by poking him with the broom handle. “For one, I can’t read nor write. For two, paper and ink is dear-”

“But Pietro Alcazar had such things,” said Rodrigo, keeping his foot in the door. “You were the first in his apartment. I was thinking that perhaps you might have taken his books and his clothes and linens-”

“I never!” cried the woman angrily.

“-for safekeeping,” Rodrigo finished in soothing tones. “So that no unscrupulous person would steal them, perhaps sell them at the pawn shop…”

“They would be worth a lot of money,” said the woman, her eyes on Rigo’s purse.

Rodrigo produced another silver coin and held it just out of her reach. “Paper, pen, and ink. You can keep the rest.”

The woman wavered a moment. Rodrigo removed his foot from the door. She shut it and they heard her walk off.

“We’re not made of silver, you know,” said Stephano testily.

“Something tells me this will be worth it,” said Rodrigo.

The door opened. The woman handed out several pieces of paper, a pen, and a pewter inkwell. Rodrigo gave her the silver coin. She took it and slammed the door shut.

Rodrigo and Stephano returned to Alcazar’s lodgings.

“It does look as if he was snatched,” said Stephano. “By professionals, at that.”

“Let us see what this letter has to tell us,” said Rodrigo. “If you could shut the door-or what’s left of it. And we will shove the table up against it to prevent any intrusion by broom-wielding neighbors.”

Rodrigo sat down cross-legged on the floor. He placed one of the blank pieces of paper the woman had supplied on the floor in front of him. Dipping the pen in the ink, he drew four sigils on the page: one at the top, one on either side, and one at the bottom. He then drew a line connecting each sigil, one to the other.

“What exactly is this going to do?” Stephano asked.

Rodrigo picked up the page and scooted closer to the fireplace. “The partially destroyed letter has two separate components: the ink and the paper on which the ink resides. If this spell works as planned, the magical construct I have crafted on my piece of paper should gently pull the ink from the burnt paper and transfer it to my sheet.”

“Do you think it will work?” Stephano asked.

“I have no idea. Wind coming down the flue broke up the burnt paper, but we might still be able to read something. The one major problem is that the spell will destroy what’s left of the original.”

“So we have only one shot,” Stephano said. “Just out of curiosity, where did you learn to cast a spell like this? I don’t suppose reading burnt letters was part of the University curriculum.”

Rodrigo smiled. “We both have the weapons we need to fight our battles, my friend. In the circles I frequent, information can be more explosive than gunpowder. Now, please be silent and let me concentrate.”

Rodrigo held the page with the construct above the remains of the letter and focused his thoughts on the magic. His eyes closed to slits. His breathing slowed. He touched each of the sigils he had drawn on the paper, tracing them with his finger. After he had gone over all four of them, the constructs began to glow. The black ink shone with a golden light.

Rodrigo placed the glowing paper directly over the burnt paper in the grate. The two merged, the glowing paper seeming to absorb the burnt letter-ashes and all. The glow faded away. His paper rested on the cold stone of the hearth. The burnt letter was gone.

“Let us see what we have.” Rodrigo gingerly picked up the piece of paper and turned it over. “Damn. I was afraid of this.” He sighed in disappointment.

Stephano leaned over his shoulder. Very little had been salvaged. The missive had been brief. He saw a part of a word that began with “au” and another fragment that might have been “eet.” Only two words in the body of the letter were clearly visible: the word “when” and a second word “Westfirth.”

“The letter was signed,” said Rodrigo, holding the paper close to his eyes.

“Can you read it?” Stephano asked.

Rodrigo shook his head. “All that is left are the bottom swoops of the characters. Maybe “ce” or “ca”… I can’t be sure.

“So all we have is ‘when’ and ‘Westfirth,” said Stephano.

“A Rosian city with an unsavory reputation,” said Rodrigo. He struggled unsuccessfully to rise out of his cross-legged position and finally reached out his hand. “Help me, will you? I seem to have lost all the feeling in my right foot.”

Stephano hoisted up his friend, who groaned and hobbled about the room, trying to restore the flow of blood.

“Magic always takes a toll on me,” Rodrigo complained.

“It wasn’t the magic,” said Stephano, unsympathetic. “Your foot went to sleep.”

He stood gazing about the ransacked sitting room, turning things over in his mind.

“Well, that is that,” said Rodrigo. “We’ve learned all we can learn here. Our simple little job is ended. You can report back to your mother, and then we can-”

“No,” said Stephano.

“No, what? You’re not going to report to your mother?”

“Report what?” Stephano said. “That Alcazar was a bad baccarat player? That three men broke into his rooms in the dead of night and took him away? That we found a burnt letter?”

“A letter containing the name of a city known to be a haven for criminals. And you saw someone keeping an eye on this place,” said Rodrigo.

“I saw a man with a slouch hat,” said Stephano. “There are a thousand men with slouch hats in this city, any one of whom might simply have been a drunken gawker who came to view the scene of the crime. I’m sure my mother will be agog with wonder at my investigative skills.”

“So much for the simple job,” Rodrigo said with a sigh. He folded the paper and thrust it into an inner pocket of his coat. “I gather we’re going to be taking a trip to Westfirth.”

“Miri and Gythe can talk to their Trundler friends there, find out if they know anything about Alcazar. And Dag still has some of his old underworld contacts in Westfirth. I believe it would be worth a trip.”

The two left the lodging. As Stephano started to close the door, he paused, gazed thoughtfully back inside.

“You don’t think that man with the hat was a gawker, do you?” Rodrigo asked.

“Drunks in slouch hats who sleep on benches don’t have hackney cabs waiting to whisk them away,” said Stephano.

He shut the door. Once out on the Street of the Half Moon, they turned their steps toward home.

“I’ll send Benoit to court with a letter for my mother,” Stephano said. “I’ll tell her about what we found and where we’re going.”

“Admit it,” said Rodrigo. “The real reason we’re going to Westfirth is because you don’t want to put on a cravat.”

“Damn right,” said Stephano, smiling.

His smile faded. He came to a sudden stop in the middle of the sidewalk and looked over his shoulder. The time was midafternoon and the street was even busier than when they had first arrived. The tavern’s customers overflowed the bar and spilled out the door. Wagons and carriages rolled past. An airship floated overhead, casting a shadow that glided over the sidewalk.

“What are you doing besides impeding the flow of traffic?” Rodrigo asked, apologizing to an irate pedestrian, who had nearly run into him. “You’ve been as jumpy as a frog on a gridiron since we left that apartment.

“I have the feeling we’re being followed.”

“We are-by about several hundred Rosians. I beg your pardon, Madame. It was my fault entirely that you trod on my foot,” said Rodrigo, doffing his hat. He seized hold of Stephano and tugged him along. “You’ll never spot a tail in this crowd.”

Stephano acknowledged this with a mutter and continued walking.

“Why should anyone be following us?” Rodrigo asked. “I don’t owe any gambling debts.”

Stephano glanced at him.

“I paid the duke last month,” said Rodrigo with affronted dignity.

“And you know I don’t gamble,” said Stephano.

“At least not with money,” said Rodrigo. “Your life is a different matter.”

Stephano glanced once more over his shoulder. “I don’t see anyone, but, as you say, in all this crowd spotting a tail is nigh impossible. I’m thinking we should celebrate our good fortune this evening by arranging a picnic in the park. Let’s see who’s keeping an eye on us.”

“An excellent idea,” said Rodrigo. He stopped to bow to a woman driving past in a carriage adorned with a baron’s coat of arms. The woman leaned out to wave at him and blow him a kiss. “Intrigue. I love it. Who’s watching who’s watching who’s watching whom.”

“Only in this case,” said Stephano, “it will be us watching them watching us.”

Chapter Five

Constructs are the combination of various sigils connected by lines of power or magical conduits to direct and control magical energy into a pattern in order to achieve a specific and desired purpose.

– The Art of Crafting

Church School Primer

RETURNING HOME, RODRIGO WENT TO HIS ROOM for an afternoon nap to recover from the fatigues of the day. Stephano sent Benoit to find Beppe, a sharp lad of about twelve.

Stephano had first met Beppe when his mother, who took in laundry, came to collect the clothes to be washed while Beppe tagged along to steal whatever he could lay his hands on. Benoit had caught the boy raiding the larder and was teaching him a lesson with a cane applied to his backside when Stephano, hearing ungodly howling from the kitchen, came to the boy’s rescue.

Foreseeing that Beppe’s current career was likely to land him in prison, Stephano had offered to pay him to run errands. Beppe had proved invaluable. The boy could go anywhere, talk to anyone, eavesdrop, ask questions: all without attracting notice. The boy was friends with Dag and Miri and Gythe (Beppe was desperately in love with Miri) and often did small jobs for them.

Stephano sent Beppe with a message to the sisters who lived on their houseboat, the Cloud Hopper, and another message to Dag in his rooming house near the docks. Stephano gave his instructions to the boy verbally and made him repeat them back.

After Beppe left, Stephano wrote his mother a brief and concise account of everything they had discovered at Alcazar’s apartment. He ended by saying he and the Cadre of the Lost were traveling to the city of Westfirth to follow up on the matter, then rang the bell for Benoit.

The old man came slowly up the stairs, groaning loudly with each step, and leaning heavily on his cane. He limped into the room.

“I have a letter I want you to deliver,” said Stephano. Folding the letter, he dropped melted wax on the page and dipped his signet ring with its symbol of a tiny dragon into the melted wax.

Benoit gave another groan. “I’m sure I would be happy to do your bidding, sir, if I weren’t in such constant misery that I can scarcely move a step-”

“You’re to take the letter to the Countess de Marjolaine in the Royal Palace,” said Stephano.

Benoit stopped groaning. His eyes gleamed. He stood up straight, smoothed back his long gray hair, and straightened his jacket.

“It will be hard on me, but I will undertake to make the sacrifice, sir.”

“I thought you might,” said Stephano wryly.

Benoit loved visiting the royal court. A trip to the palace brought back fond memories of times gone by. He would find time to dine with his friends in the servants’ quarters, hear the latest below-stairs gossip. He stood his cane in the corner and reached for the letter.

Stephano eyed the old man. “What about your constant misery? I can send someone else-”

“Do not give my suffering a second thought, sir,” said Benoit. “I would never dream of permitting my failing health to stand in the way of my duty to you.”

Stephano hid his smile and handed the old man the letter. “Here’s money for a carriage. Give the letter into the hands of the Countess de Marjolaine, not that popinjay of a secretary.”

Stephano had no fear Benoit would give the letter to anyone except the countess, who always rewarded him most handsomely.

“The countess’ hands, as you say, sir,” Benoit said, unusually dutiful. He dashed down the stairs.

“You move damn fast for an old cripple!” Stephano called, leaning over the stair rail. “You forgot your cane!”

His answer was the door slam. Grinning, Stephano walked over to the window and drew back the curtain in time to see Benoit hurrying down the street, waving his arm to gain the attention of one of the wyvern-drawn carriages drifting by overhead. Stephano chuckled and then cast an idle glance up and down the street. His neighborhood was residential, home to men and women of the lower upper class, minor nobility like Stephano, and those of the upper middle class, such as the wine merchant who lived in the fine house across the street. Stephano saw the young and pretty nursemaid, who made eyes at Rodrigo whenever he walked past, taking the wine merchant’s young son out for an airing. While the little boy played, the young woman was happily flirting with a young man paying her admiring attention.

Stephano shut the curtain. Removing his jacket, he picked up his rapier and went downstairs and out into the small yard at the back of the house where he had set up a target, which looked rather like a scarecrow. He began his daily fencing practice, performing over and over again the nine classic parries and their intricate footwork.

Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen had a reputation as an expert swordsman, a reputation he had earned. On the urging of the grand bishop, the king had made dueling illegal, mainly because too many promising young officers were being felled fighting affairs of honor. Unfortunately, the only effect this law had was to force gentlemen to settle their quarrels in the privacy of some cemetery or farmer’s field, away from the notice of the watchful police, who took great delight in hauling the sons of noblemen off to jail.

Stephano disliked dueling. His father had taught him that if you lived the life of a man of honor, you did not need to be constantly proving you were an honorable man. But Stephano also followed his father’s dictum that while a man of honor never sought a quarrel, he never backed down from one either. Stephano had fought three duels in his life, two of them over the unfortunate circumstances of his birth, where the men had presumed to refer to him as a bastard, and one duel when he accused Lord Captain William Hastind of being the cause of the death of Lady Cam, Stephano’s dragon and comrade-inarms in the Dragon Brigade.

Stephano had won all three duels. He had disarmed two of his opponents and severely wounded Hastind, who had, however, survived and returned to duty. He was now captain of the king’s pride and joy, the man-of-war, Royal Lion. Hastind was a favorite of His Majesty. The king had been furious when he had heard about this last duel and only the entreaties of the countess had kept Stephano out of prison.

Stephano had been aware of the danger when he had challenged Hastind, but he would never, as long as he lived, forget what he owed to Lady Cam. Though dying and in terrible pain, the dragon had fought to the end to keep Stephano safe. He had expected to be arrested and was astonished when nothing had happened. He thought perhaps that Hastind, feeling guilty, had not pressed charges. Stephano never knew of his mother’s involvement. If he had, he would have been furious.

Stephano practiced his fencing exercises daily, generally in the morning. He took his practice seriously; the exercise helped him keep fit and physical activity freed his mind. The blade of his rapier was a little heavier than most; the ornate basket hilt balanced that weight. While he lunged and recovered, he considered all that had happened this day. He went over every word of his mother’s conversation, every detail of the visit to Alcazar’s apartment. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that his mother was right. Someone believed Alcazar had made a world-changing discovery. Stephano wondered what this person would do to the poor wretch if they found out his “discovery” was so much hot air.

“Ah, there you are.” Rodrigo opened the window to his bedroom and was leaning his head out. “Put away your toys. Nearly time for our picnic.”

Stephano saluted his friend with the rapier and went inside to wash off the sweat and change his clothes. As he did so, he glanced out his bedroom window onto the street. The nursemaid and little boy were no longer visible. But the young man who had been flirting with her was still hanging around, lounging at his ease on a stone bench in a niche in a wall.

Stephano felt a tingle at the bottom of his spine. This man might be the nursemaid’s lover, hoping for another glimpse of her, but Stephano doubted it. He dressed quickly, putting on a murrey-colored coat, white shirt, murrey breeches, and boots that came up over the knee. Going to Rodrigo’s room, Stephano found his friend in hunting attire, with a long, belted red coat that extended below his knees, red breeches, black vest, and tall black boots.

Stephano stopped to stare.

“Was I mistaken, Rigo? Are we riding to the hounds? I thought we were going for a stroll in the park.”

“You mock me, but this is the latest fashion,” said Rodrigo, smoothing his white silk cravat. “I am told the Earl of Monte Claire dressed like this for an evening fete last week at the palace and was the object of considerable admiration. The queen was said to be in raptures. Besides, you want to ‘flush’ the ‘bird’ who is taking an unusual interest in us. Note the clever use of hunting terminology.”

Rodrigo added a black hat to his ensemble and regarded himself with satisfaction in the mirror.

“I assure you, all eyes will be on me.”

Stephano thought this would be quite likely, unfortunately, but, knowing his friend and knowing that further argument would probably make matters worse, he drew Rodrigo to the window and parted the curtain.

“See that man sitting on the bench in the corner? He’s been hanging around ever since we returned. I’m going to leave first. You wait behind, see what he does. I’ll meet you in the park. Did you find a suitable prop?”

“Not yet. I’ve been dressing. But I will,” added Rodrigo, seeing Stephano’s brows draw together. “Don’t worry, my friend. I always come through for you, don’t I? Go along. I’ll be there shortly. You won’t have any trouble finding me in the crowd.”

“That’s true enough,” Stephano said gloomily.

Rodrigo laughed and took up his post at the window.

Stephano smiled to himself once he was out of the room. What Rodrigo said was true. He always came through. If it hadn’t been for Rodrigo’s courage and tenacity, sixteen-year-old Stephano de Guichen would have died on the field after the battle of Saint Bernadette in the Lost Rebellion. Rodrigo had risked imprisonment and execution by flouting the king’s command that dead rebels should be left to the vultures and rats. Rodrigo, then fifteen, had searched the battlefield until he found Stephano, badly wounded. With Benoit’s help, Rodrigo had carried Stephano away in the dark of night, hidden him, and had spent a month nursing Stephano in secret back to health. Rodrigo had been with Stephano, standing at his side, as Stephano witnessed his father being executed as a traitor.

No one took Rodrigo seriously. Their friends considered him a dandy, a fop, charming, witty, delightful to have around. The serious-minded Dag disapproved of Rodrigo’s cavalier lifestyle. Miri and Gythe laughed at his airs and his clothes and his romances. Stephano alone knew and appreciated the depths of his friend’s courage and resourcefulness. Neither of them ever talked about that terrible time-for good reason.

Rodrigo’s family had not taken part in the rebellion, but they were friends with those who had, and that had been enough to damn them in the eyes of King Alaric. Rodrigo’s father and mother had been exiled. His father had won his way back into His Majesty’s good graces by the payment of a considerable sum of money and had been granted an ambassadorship. Even a hint that their youngest son had been involved in saving the life of a member of the de Guichen family would ruin them. Stephano had no choice but to keep his friend’s valor a secret.

Sauntering out onto the street, Stephano turned his steps in the direction of the park. He walked at a leisurely pace, pausing to admire the early blooming roses and breathing deeply the late afternoon air. As he strolled along the tree-lined boulevard, he doffed his hat and bowed in polite greeting to passing ladies, who smiled and nodded in return. All the while, he felt eyes on him. The back of his neck prickled uncomfortably and he was tempted more than once to turn his head for a quick glance behind. He gritted his teeth and fought off the impulse, which might let the follower know he had been spotted. Rodrigo would see whatever there was to see.

The Park of the Four Oaks, named after the four ancient oak trees that grew in the center, was a popular place for the citizens of Rosia to visit at day’s end. Here, the common folk mingled with the quality. Riders cantered along the bridle paths, exhibiting their equestrian skills. Young unmarried women walked in company with their chaperones or proud mamas, smiling at the young unmarried men. Boys sailed boats on the ponds. Girls rolled hoops and tossed coins into the fountains. Old women fed crumbs to the birds. Old men basked in the sun that warmed arthritic bones. The city police strolled about in pairs; due to the crowds, the park was also popular with pickpockets and thieves.

All this activity made the park an ideal setting for the sharing of secrets and intrigue. True privacy was difficult to come by in the city of Evreux, whether one lived in a hovel or a palace. Walls were thin. Rooms harbored closets to hide in, beds to hide under, curtains to hide behind. Neighbors eavesdropped on their neighbors. Servants were paid to betray their masters. Two people walking in the park, out in the open air, could carry on a confidential conversation and be certain that only the sparrows in the trees heard them.

Arriving at the park, Stephano went straight to the location where the Cadre generally met-a bench near the four gigantic oak trees that gave the park its name. He saw, without seeming to see, Dag wearing his mercenary uniform, in his usual place, sitting with his back up against one of the oak trees, teasing the cat, Doctor Ellington, with a piece of string. Knowing the string game amused his master, Doctor Ellington would play for a short time. When he grew bored, he would sit with his paws tucked under his chest and stare with enmity at his mortal enemy, the squirrels, daring them to come within range of his claws.

Miri and Gythe were established beneath another oak tree some distance from Dag. Gythe sat on a stool, playing a lap harp. Miri sang and collected coins in a basket from those who stopped to listen. Miri was dressed in colorful Trundler garb that she never wore except when she was performing: long, full skirt of bright red silk, with a black fringed shawl tied around her waist, a ruffled white blouse worn low to reveal her freckled shoulders. Her hair flamed in the sunlight, her golden earrings sparkled. She sang a bawdy song that had the gentlemen laughing and caused the chaperones to look scandalized as they hustled their young women out of earshot. Gythe wore a sky-blue skirt and plain blouse, her beautiful hair bound up in a scarf. As Stephano passed, he dropped a coin in the basket and Miri winked at him.

Stephano sat down on the bench and began to act the part of someone waiting impatiently for a meeting. He crossed his legs and uncrossed them. He looked at his pocket watch, rose to his feet, paced about, looked at his watch again, and sat down. He kept this up for half an hour, by which time he was no longer acting. He was truly impatient and growing annoyed and wondering what had become of Rodrigo. The sun was starting to slide into the mists of the Breath. The sky was glowing with oranges and purples. It would be dark within the hour, and the Cadre would lose their chance to get a good look at whoever was tailing them. When Rodrigo finally appeared, Stephano jumped to his feet and waved and shouted testily.

“Rigo! Over here! Where have you been?”

“There you are. I’ve searched all over. I found it,” Rodrigo called, waving a book he held in his hand. “The Crafter’s Guide to Metallurgy. One of my University texts. And there is something in here I think you will find very interesting.”

Rodrigo pointed to a page in the book. Stephano affected to read it.

“Well?” he asked softly.

“You were right,” Rodrigo said in a low voice. “After you left, the man waited a short time, then he followed you. I waited a short time, then I followed him.”

Stephano glanced around. “I don’t see him.”

“He watched you until you sat down on the bench, then he took off at a run. I’ve been waiting and waiting to see if he came back, but he hasn’t returned.”

“He probably went to report that I was in the park.”

“Report to whom? And why would anyone care where you are?”

“I don’t know. None of this makes sense.”

“So what do we do now?”

Stephano shrugged. “I will watch the crowds, and you will read this enlightening piece of literature.”

“Must I? This book brings back unpleasant memories of the lecture hall.”

“I’m surprised you have any memories of lectures,” said Stephano, resuming his seat on the bench.

“I attended lectures,” said Rodrigo, sitting down beside him. “It was the only place a fellow could get any sleep.”

Rodrigo handed Stephano the book. “You read. I will study the view.”

He leaned back, crossed his leg over his knee, and fixed his admiring gaze on a young woman, who was out with her chaperone. She blushed and raised her fan and turned away, and then peeped back at him from beneath the hood of her cloak.

Stephano tried to read, but he found the discussion of sigils and lines of magical energy every bit as confusing as he had when he was a boy with his tutor. Besides, it was growing too dark to read. With the sun setting, the crowds were starting to thin out, people going home to their suppers or to dress for the evening’s festivities. Stephano had not noticed anyone who remotely resembled the man in the slouch hat or the young man who had followed him to the park. Dag and Miri and Gythe had not had any luck either, apparently, for none of them had given him a signal.

Their “hunting expedition” appeared to be a wasted effort.

While Stephano sat on the bench pretending to read and Rodrigo flirted with pretty women and Doctor Ellington dreamed of chasing squirrels, the bishop’s agent, Dubois, was entering the Park of the Four Oaks himself. His day had been an eventful one.

Hearing news that James Harrington, one of Sir Henry’s agents, was on Half Moon Street, Dubois rode swiftly to that location. He arrived in time to find Harrington asleep on a bench beneath the statue of Saint Michelle. Harrington had covered his face with a slouch hat, but Dubois had no difficulty in recognizing him.

Dubois was fortunate to encounter a talkative priest and he established himself on the steps of the church, from which location he could keep watch on Harrington while pretending to listen to the priest discuss everything from aphids in his rose garden to the lamentable lack of funds in the poor box.

Nothing interesting happened on the Street of the Half Moon for a full hour, and Dubois was racking his brain, trying to figure out why Harrington was wasting his time here, when two men, dressed like gentlemen, stopped in front of number 127. The two men spoke to several children who were swinging on a gate, and one of the gentlemen offered the children a copper for information.

Dubois searched his mental files for the faces and pulled out two names: Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen, bastard son of the Countess Cecile de Marjolaine. The other was Monsieur Rodrigo de Villeneuve, son of Claude de Villeneuve, ambassador to Estara.

Dubois had excellent hearing, though he really didn’t need to strain his ears, for the two gentlemen did not bother to lower their voices. They were asking about a resident of this run-down boarding house, a man named Pietro Alcazar. Dubois searched his file for the name, but came up with nothing. He stored it away for future reference.

Dubois gave the chatty priest a coin for his poor box and strolled over to the statue of the saint, taking up a position behind it. He noted, as he did so, that Harrington was also taking an interest in the two gentlemen, adjusting the slouch hat over his eyes so that he had a better view.

Captain de Guichen and Monsieur de Villeneuve entered the courtyard in company with the children. The moment they went inside, Harrington rose from his bench and, keeping the hat pulled low, strolled over to the iron gate and stared intently into the dark courtyard.

Harrington suddenly tugged on his cap, then wheeled and ran down the street. At the same moment, Captain de Guichen emerged from the courtyard, his gaze following Harrington, who signaled to a cab that he had apparently kept in waiting.

“Dearie me, James, you are slipping,” said Dubois. “You let yourself be spotted. That was careless.”

Dubois briefly considered mounting his horse and trying to follow Harrington’s cab, but rejected that idea. His agents were in position outside Harrington’s lodgings, and they would pick up the trail. Dubois was intrigued by the fact that Captain de Guichen was taking an interest in this Alcazar fellow.

Several boys were playing ball outside. Dubois strolled over to question them and heard the story of the mysterious disappearance of Pietro Alcazar, journeyman at the Royal Armory. Dubois waited until Captain de Guichen and his friend left the house, then entered the boarding house himself. Dubois mounted the stairs, and took a look around Alcazar’s apartment. He found the open inkwell and a pen lying on the table. The ink on the pen’s nib was still moist.

“Well, well, well,” Dubois murmured.

He had a habit of talking to himself. As he was accustomed to saying, he liked talking to the most intelligent person in the room.

Finding nothing more to pique his interest, Dubois left the building, returned to his horse, and rode back to his own lodgings.

As he was riding, Dubois sorted through all the various bits of information he had acquired. Two nights ago, Pietro Alcazar, journeyman at the Royal Armory disappears from his dwelling on Half Moon Street. The next day, the Master of the Royal Armory is listed as a visitor to the Countess de Marjolaine. This morning, the countess’ son is listed as a visitor to the countess. Also this morning, James Harrington, premier Freyan agent, is found lurking outside the residence of Pietro Alcazar. This midday, Captain de Guichen is seen entering the apartment of Pietro Alcazar. James Harrington leaves his post, rides off in a hurry.

Dubois did not waste his time trying to figure out what was going on. He had long ago learned that it was a mistake to theorize without information. He ordered in a late dinner and was finally able eat a decent meal.

A short time after, one of his agents came to report that Harrington had returned to his lodgings, where he had remained until a man arrived in a great rush. They held a brief conversation, then the man left and Harrington, dressed quite elegantly now, hailed a cab, and ordered it to drive rapidly to the Park of the Four Oaks.

Dubois went to the park, sauntered about for a short while, until he found Harrington, standing beneath an oak tree in company with another man.

Gone was the drunken Harrington in the slouch hat. In his place was a noble lord dressed in the latest style of the Freyan court. His hair was combed and powdered. He wore a sword on a finely embroidered baldric. His coat was dark wine with velvet collar and cuffs. He was talking animatedly to a young man of about twenty, who was red in the face and appeared beside himself with fury.

Dubois put a name to the young man. Escudero Juan Diego Ruiz Valazquez, son of Baron Valazquez, Estaran ambassador to Rosia.

“That is the man,” Harrington was saying. “I recognized him the moment I saw him, and I dispatched my servant posthaste to fetch you.”

“I will kill him!” said the young man in a strong accent, seizing the hilt of his sword. “I will slice off his-”

“You will do no such thing, my friend,” said Harrington, placing a restraining hand on the young man’s arm. “You will note the presence of two policeman over by the fountain. Besides, you do not want to make a scene before all these people. Consider your sister’s reputation. The fewer who know about this sad affair, the better.”

Valazquez contained himself with an effort. “Then what can I do? I will not allow the bastard to go unpunished!”

“You will handle this in the way most gentlemen handle such affairs,” said Harrington coolly.

Valazquez glanced at him, uncertain. “But dueling is illegal.”

“Only if the police find out about it. Ah, look. The policemen are walking off. Now is your chance. Remember, hold yourself in restraint.”

“I will try,” said Valazquez, breathing hard. “But it will be difficult. I long to rip out his lungs!”

The two men advanced. Dubois came out from around the back of the oak to observe the object of their conversation and Valazquez’s wrath.

“Well, well, well,” said Dubois and he raised his eyebrows-a rare display of emotion.

Harrington and Valazquez were walking over to speak to Captain de Guichen and his friend, Rodrigo de Villeneuve.

A beautiful afterglow spread over the sky. In the distance, drifting among the clouds, the Royal Palace was putting on a magnificent show. The base of the walls was a mixture of orange and pink drifting up through lavender. The tops of the palace’s towers had faded to black, and the first twinkles of starlight were just starting to glimmer along the roofline.

“It’s obvious we’ve failed. Can we leave now?” Rodrigo asked. “I’m hungry.”

Stephano cast an interrogative glance over his shoulder at the other members of the Cadre. Miri, seeing him, gave a very slight shrug. Dag shook his head.

“You’re right. This was a waste of time,” said Stephano.

The bench was hard, and he’d been sitting there for almost an hour. Stephano stood and stretched and rubbed his lower back. Rodrigo rose with him and brushed off his red hunting coat. They were about to walk away when they saw Dag jump to his feet, spilling Doctor Ellington, who had been asleep in his lap. The cat gave an indignant yowl. Dag jerked his thumb.

Stephano turned just in time to see two gentlemen approaching. The eyes of both men were fixed on Stephano and his companion, and there was no doubt that they were coming to speak to them. Judging by their grim expressions, the subject of the talk was going to be unpleasant. Stephano elbowed Rodrigo.

“Company,” he said.

Rodrigo glanced around. “Do we know these gentlemen?”

“I don’t,” said Stephano. “Do you?”

“Yes,” said Rodrigo. “The young one is what you might call my opposite. I am the son of the Rosian ambassador to Estara, and he is the son of the Estaran ambassador to Rosia.”

The younger man, dressed in the flamboyant style of satin coat and breeches that marked him as an Estaran, was apparently in the grip of some powerful emotion, for he tried to speak, choked on his words, and failed utterly. The second man, who was some ten years his senior, made a cold and formal bow.

Stephano looked closely at the older man, thinking something about him was familiar. The man had short-cut fair hair, flat blue eyes, high cheekbones, a square jaw, and the pale complexion of those who live in rainy climes. He was of medium height and moved with a languid kind of grace. The two made an odd-looking pair. His young companion had long black hair that fell in waves over his shoulders, a sleek black mustache, flashing black eyes, and the brown skin of those who live much of their lives in the sun.

“Captain de Guichen,” the older man said. “Monsieur de Villeneuve.”

“You have the advantage of us, sir,” replied Stephano, with a bow equally cold and formal.

“I am Sir Richard Piefer of Dought Crossing, Freya. May I present His Excellency, Escudero Juan Diego Ruiz Valazquez, son of Baron Valazquez, ambassador from Estara.”

Rodrigo was about to bow when Valazquez stepped forward, drew off his leather glove, and slapped Rodrigo across the face.

Rodrigo put his hand to his stinging cheek and stared at the man in astonishment. “What the devil did you do that for?”

“Because you, sir,” said Valazquez in passionate tones, “are a most consummate villain and a scoundrel! I accuse you of having besmirched the honor of my sister and insulting my family. What have you to say for yourself, sir?”

“‘Besmirched,’” said Rodrigo, opening his eyes wide. “Who talks like that these days?” He gave a light laugh. “Admit it, young sir. This is a practical joke. Lady Rosalinda put you up to this, didn’t she?” He turned to Stephano. “She has never forgiven me for the time I hid the frog in her glove box-”

Stephano had been watching the faces of the two men, and he said in an undertone, “They’re not joking.”

“Oh, come now,” said Rodrigo, turning back to Valazquez. “You can’t be serious.”

“Sir Richard was a witness!” cried Valazquez in anger, indicating his friend, who bowed again in acknowledgment. “He saw you leaving my sister’s bedroom in the middle of the night a fortnight ago.”

“And I would ask one question of Sir Richard,” said Rodrigo. “What the devil were you doing watching this man’s sister’s bedroom in the middle of the night?”

“Do you doubt the word of a gentleman?” Valazquez demanded vehemently.

“I beg your pardon,” said Rodrigo, bowing. “I thought Sir Richard said he was a Freyan.”

It took Piefer a moment to realize he had been insulted. When he did, his face darkened. Valazquez was incoherent with rage, reduced to sputtering.

“Perhaps I can settle this,” Rodrigo continued smoothly. “My lord Valazquez, I recall spending a most enchanting evening a fortnight ago with a young woman who read poems to me as I rested my head on her white thighs-”

“Rodrigo!” Stephano exclaimed, scandalized.

“You lie! My sister, sir, cannot speak your language,” said Valazquez.

Rodrigo frowned thoughtfully. “Her sumptuous curves, her large, round breasts-”

“My sister is slender and petite!”

“Ah, you see?” said Rodrigo, smiling. “This proves it. We are talking about two completely different young women. I bid you a good evening.”

He started to turn away, as though the matter was concluded.

“All this proves is that you are a rogue and a coward!” said Valazquez, trembling with rage. “What of this?” He took from his doublet a packet of letters, tied with a red ribbon, and thrust them at Rodrigo. “Do you deny you sent these to my sister? Her duenna found them tucked under her pillow.”

“Of course, I deny it,” said Rodrigo. “That’s not my handwriting. But even if I had written them, a letter beneath her pillow doesn’t prove that I was beneath the sheets.”

Valazquez flushed in fury and reached for the hilt of his sword. But before he had his sword out of the scabbard, Stephano was holding his rapier’s tip at the young man’s chest. Piefer hurriedly intervened.

“Gentlemen, this is neither the time nor the place,” he said urgently. “The police might return at any moment!”

Stephano held his rapier on Valazquez until the young man slammed his sword back down into the scabbard, then Stephano returned his blade to its scabbard, though he kept his hand on the hilt. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dag standing alert, his hand beneath his jacket where he kept his stowaway pistol.

“You should not interfere, Captain,” Piefer was saying. “The quarrel of Lord Juan Diego is not with you, but with your friend. There is only one way to settle this matter and that is on the field of honor.”

“You make the arrangements, Sir Richard,” said Valazquez. “If I stay here any longer, I will gut this wretch like a pig.”

Casting a glance of utter contempt at Rodrigo, Valazquez stalked off, walking over to stand beneath one of the oak trees.

Rodrigo looked utterly bewildered. “Arrangements. But this is a jest…

“I’m afraid not, my friend,” said Stephano gravely. “Your sins have caught up with you.”

“I didn’t write to the girl!” Rodrigo protested.

“Stand over there and be quiet,” Stephano ordered in exasperation.

Rodrigo did as he was told, though he continued to listen anxiously.

“I will act as second for Lord Juan Diego,” said Piefer.

“And I will act as second for Monsieur de Villeneuve,” said Stephano. “As the challenged party, we have the choice of weapons.”

“That is true,” said Piefer. “What do you propose?”

“Pistols,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo bounded forward and plucked at Stephano’s sleeve. “Pistols! What are you doing? You remember what happened the last time I fired a gun-”

“You stand a better chance with pistols than you do with a sword,” said Stephano. He turned back to Piefer. “Where shall we meet, my lord?”

“Are you familiar with the cemetery of the Church of Saint Charles, Captain?” Piefer asked politely.

“I am, my lord,” said Stephano.

“The cemetery is quiet, out of the way, suitable to such affairs as this-”

“And you can just bury me while we’re there!” Rodrigo groaned. “Save time, trouble-”

“I propose we meet at the cemetery at the hour of six of the clock in the morning if that is agreeable to you, Captain,” Piefer concluded.

“It is most agreeable,” said Stephano. He bowed. “Your servant, my lord.”

“Your servant, Captain.” Piefer bowed to Stephano.

Piefer did not bow to Rodrigo, but cast him a cold glance and then turned on his heel and walked away to join Valazquez.

Watching Piefer, Stephano experienced again the feeling that something about this man was familiar. Stephano had not met Piefer at court. Stephano had not been to court in months. He watched the Freyan with the disquieting feeling that the answer was important and that it was teetering on the tip of his brain.

Stephano gave up. Whatever it was, he couldn’t take time to concentrate. He had to think of Rodrigo who was facing certain death.

The afterglow lit the sky, but the shadows were dark beneath the oak trees and the park was almost deserted when Stephano gave the private signal to Dag, Miri, and Gythe that he would be in touch with them later. There was nothing they could do.

The three had all witnessed the incident, and they had heard enough of Valazquez’s ravings to figure out what had transpired. Stephano could tell at a glance what they were thinking.

Dag had never approved of Rodrigo, and he obviously believed in his guilt. Miri rolled her eyes and shook her head. She could never understand men and their need to settle such matters with bloodshed. Gythe was troubled and unhappy. He saw her try to come comfort Rodrigo, but her sister stopped her. The Cadre had to keep up the pretense that none of them knew each other.

Dag gathered up Doctor Ellington, put the cat on his shoulder, and waited for Gythe to pack up the harp. Always protective of the two women, he would see to it they reached the Cloud Hopper safely. Dag cast Rodrigo a final stern and dour glance before he left.

“Stephano,” said Rodrigo when they were alone. “You have to get me out of this duel. I don’t know one end of a pistol from another.”

“I’m not certain I can, Rigo,” said Stephano with a sigh. “I always told you something dire was bound to happen. The way you carry on-”

“But I swear to you I never touched that wretched girl! Well, perhaps I did touch her, but nothing more than a kiss on the hand.”

“They have the letters you were imprudent enough to write to the girl.”

“I didn’t write those letters.”

“No one will believe you-”

“Meaning you don’t believe me,” said Rodrigo with a faint smile. He added wistfully, “We could sail off on the Cloud Hopper tonight. We were going to Westfirth in the morning anyhow. Just make an early start?”

“Rigo,” said Stephano, laying his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “this is an affair of honor. Think what would happen if you ran. You would be branded a coward. You would no longer be admitted to court or to any of the elegant parlors or salons you love to frequent. Besides, this affair doesn’t affect you alone. Your father may be an ambassador, but his favor with the king is tenuous at best. Think of the disgrace that would fall on him and your mother and your older brothers if the story circulates that you basely fled-”

“Enough, enough,” said Rodrigo. He had been standing with his head lowered. He gave a thin smile. “Can you make me an expert marksman in one night?”

Stephano thought back to the one time he’d tried to teach his friend to handle a gun and he shuddered.

“It’s late to be practicing with a pistol,” he said evasively. “The neighbors would call the police.”

“I suppose you’re right. I doubt practicing would do me any good anyway. Perhaps this foul Valazquez is as poor as shot as I am,” Rodrigo said hopefully.

“Perhaps he is,” said Stephano, striving to be cheerful, though he gave an inward sigh. He had heard of Valazquez. The young man had fought any number of duels. He was a good swordsman and had a reputation as a crack shot.

“I tell you, Stephano, I am innocent,” said Rodrigo, as they turned their steps toward home.

“I know, my friend, I know,” said Stephano, glad for the darkness that hid the sorrow on his face.

There had been one other witness to the encounter in the park besides Miri and Gythe and Dag. Dubois watched Valazquez and Harrington, in the guise of “Sir Richard Piefer” depart. Dubois had observed the signals between Captain de Guichen and the Guundaran mercenary (as Dubois judged from Dag’s clothes and military manner). Dubois had watched the mercenary gather up his cat and leave in company with the two young Trundler women. Dubois saw Captain de Guichen and his unfortunate friend leave the park.

After all of them had gone, Dubois walked over to the bench where Captain de Guichen and Rodrigo de Villeneuve had been sitting. He found the book they had left behind, forgotten in the turmoil. The title was embossed on the cover and he could just barely read the imprint of the letters in the sun’s dying glow: The Crafter’s Guide to Metallurgy.

Night’s shadows closed around Dubois, both figuratively and literally. He had the feeling something of immense importance was about to happen and he was groping about in the darkness, unable to see the danger that was perhaps right in front of him.

What game was Harrington playing? Why was he now disguised as a titled Freyan noble in company with the impressionable and not very bright youth, Valazquez, the son of the Estaran ambassador to Rosia? Why had Harrington, the instigator of the challenge, seen to it that the charge was made against Rodrigo de Villeneuve? Captain de Guichen was the threat.

Dubois could not figure any of this out, but he knew one fact for certain. Sir Henry Wallace was the thread that ran through all these seemingly disparate incidents and tied them together. Harrington was Sir Henry’s agent. Find Sir Henry. Find answers.

Arriving at his lodgings, Dubois collected the reports from his agents that were waiting for him. He glanced through them and tossed them irately in the fire. None were any help. He ate a quick supper, then went to his bed. He had to be up early.

Dubois had a duel to fight.

Chapter Six

Since the invention of the pistol, crafter armorers have been exploring magical means to make weapons more durable and accurate. Constructs are placed on the barrel to strengthen the steel in order to produce lighter weapons. Targeting constructs carefully set inside the barrel aid a pistol’s accuracy. These constructs are melded with others to provide basic protection from the elements, keep the barrel from rusting, etc. Because of the heat and energy generated during use, weapons that are enhanced by magic require yearly examination and repair of the constructs.

- An excerpt from “Constructs and Their Use in the production of Weapons and Armor” by Master Gaston Bondrea Grand Master, Rosian Armorers Guild

RODRIGO SAID NOTHING DURING THEIR WALK back to the house that evening. When they arrived, Stephano suggested they have a glass of wine.

“Since we’re once more in funds,” he added, trying to seem cheerful.

Rodrigo shook his head. “I’m going to my room.”

“Do you want company?” Stephano asked.

Rodrigo hesitated, his hand on the balustrade, then said quietly, “I have to write a letter to my father and mother.”

He walked slowly up the stairs. Stephano felt a choking sensation in his throat and turned away quickly. This letter would be a difficult one to write. Rodrigo was the youngest child, the spoiled child, the mischievous imp whose antics had delighted his fond parents who could never see a fault in their brilliant, talented son. And now he was telling them good-bye-forever. Stephano could not imagine how the terrible news of Rodrigo’s death would affect his loving parents.

He cursed stupid sons of barons and their equally stupid and gullible sisters and hung up his baldric, flung off his coat, and threw his hat at the bust of King Alaric. The hat fell on the floor and Stephano left it there. He entered the kitchen to find Benoit and young Beppe seated at the table, finishing up the remnants of a cassoulet of white beans and chicken.

Beppe leaped to his feet at the sight of Stephano and gave a salute. His dearest wish, since he had met Stephano, was to be a Dragon Knight. Benoit cast a glance at the hat on the floor and groaned and began to rub his leg.

“Don’t disturb yourself,” said Stephano caustically. “I’ll pick it up later. Beppe, I’m glad you’re here. I need you to run an errand.”

“Of course, Captain,” said Beppe, pleased.

Stephano dashed off a note to Miri and Gythe and one to Dag, telling them that he both hoped and expected that he and Rodrigo would meet them the next day at the Cloud Hopper and that the ship should be ready for travel. He warned them not to come to the house, as it was likely under surveillance, though he had no idea who was watching or why.

“Deliver these letters,” said Stephano, “and then go home. Here’s some money.”

“That’s a lot, Captain,” said Beppe, his eyes wide.

“I’m sure we owe you back pay,” said Stephano dispiritedly.

“Yes, Captain, thank you, sir.” Beppe started to leave, then turned back. “Is anything wrong, Captain?”

“No more than usual,” said Stephano, with an attempt at a smile. “Now run along.”

Beppe gave another salute and dashed off.

Stephano, knowing it would be useless to ask Benoit, went to the storeroom fetch his own beer. The barrel was once more full.

“How was court, Benoit?” he asked. “Any message from my mother?”

“Your honored mother the countess has heard nothing more about the matter at hand, sir,” said Benoit. “She bids you a safe journey.”

Stephano sighed and sat down. If Rodrigo survived, the Cadre would go to Westfirth to continue the search for Alcazar. The chance of Rodrigo surviving being highly unlikely, Stephano guessed he would spend tomorrow planning his friend’s funeral. He drank the beer, stared into the empty mug, then suddenly swearing viciously, he flung it at the fireplace. The crockery mug shattered.

Benoit eyed the remains. “I’m not cleaning that up.”

“Like I give a damn!” Stephano said savagely.

“What is wrong, sir?” Benoit asked. He rose to his feet without a trace of infirmity to face Stephano. “I have a right to know.”

Benoit had ridden with his master, Sir Julian, to the convent to bring home his newborn child. Sir Julian had placed the baby in Benoit’s arms and said, “Benoit, meet my son. Care for him as you do me.”

Stephano rested his elbows on the table and dropped his head in his hands and dragged his fingers through his long hair. His face was pale, haggard.

“Sir,” said Benoit, sounding fearful, “tell me-”

“Rodrigo’s very likely going to die tomorrow,” said Stephano.

“Oh, my God, sir!” Benoit grabbed hold of the edge of the table for support. “The king didn’t find out about-Master Rodrigo’s not going to be executed-”

“No, no, nothing like that,” said Stephano wearily. “A duel. A bloody, stupid duel.”

He described what had happened in the park.

“Master Rodrigo claims he’s innocent, sir,” said Benoit.

Stephano gave a wan smile. “Master Rodrigo always claims he’s innocent.”

“That’s true, sir,” the old man admitted. He set to work with unusual energy, filling the teakettle with water and placing it on the hob, stirring up the coals, adding wood to the fire.

“What are you doing?” Stephano asked.

“Fixing a honey posset for Master Rodrigo, sir. It will help him sleep. He will need all his faculties for the morning.”

“I doubt if his ‘faculties’ are going to be that much help,” Stephano muttered.

Benoit disappeared into the storeroom. He was gone several moments, then returned carrying a crock of honey and a small, dust-covered jug.

“I don’t suppose I could have a tumbler full of whatever is in that jug?” Stephano asked.

“For illness only, sir,” said Benoit. He cast Stephano a sharp glance. “You need to be sober. It’s up to you to find a way to save him.”

“There’s nothing I can do this time, Benoit,” said Stephano.

“You’ll find a way, sir,” said Benoit stoutly.

Stephano only shook his head. He watched while Benoit concocted the posset, mixing the contents of the mysterious jug with honey and boiling water.

“I’ll take that to him,” Stephano offered. “Save you a trip up the stairs.”

“I will take it, sir,” said Benoit with dignity. “It’s the least I can do.”

Stephano followed the old man as he hobbled up the stairs. He heard Benoit’s gentle knock, saw him open the door softly and carry the steaming mug inside. Stephano sighed deeply and went to his own room.

Benoit’s posset contained rum laced with opium, with the result that Rodrigo slept quite soundly, while Stephano passed a wretched night, trying in vain to think of some way to save his friend’s life. He was so desperate he even considered traveling to the palace to appeal to his mother. On sober reflection Stephano realized there was nothing even the powerful countess could do. Rodrigo had made his bed, so to speak.

In the small hours of the morning, Stephano went to his bookshelf and found a small, thin volume given to all officers in the navy. It was called the Codes Duello and laid down the rules of dueling. Stephano was familiar with the guide, but he read it over again, hoping to find some way for Rodrigo to honorably withdraw. Unfortunately, the book only confirmed what Stephano had known from the beginning-there was nothing to be done.

According to the Codes Duello, Rodrigo might have been able to offer an apology to Valazquez and his sister without loss of honor except that a blow had been struck-an insult no gentleman could tolerate. The Codes offered only one hope and it was faint: as a second, Stephano had the right and the duty to attempt to reconcile the parties before blood was shed. Considering the hot-headed Valazquez, Stephano didn’t think reconciliation likely.

The night passed slowly for Stephano and yet far too quickly. When the clock struck four, he dressed by candlelight, putting on his military-style dragon green coat and breeches with high boots and a plain waistcoat. Beneath the waistcoat he wore a lightweight, chain mail vest made of tiny riveted links of steel, each set with its own magical construct. The vest had been a gift from his Dragon Wing when he had been named commander of the Dragon Brigade. The vest weighed only ten pounds and provided better protection than a steel breastplate. A craftsman in the Royal Armory had worked three months to make it.

How ironic would it be, Stephano thought, if that craftsman had been Pietro Alcazar.

Wearing armor to a duel wasn’t exactly proper etiquette, but protecting himself was good, common sense. Stephano didn’t know either of these gentlemen and while he assumed they were gentlemen and wouldn’t resort to any dirty tricks, he considered it wise to take precautions.

When he was dressed, he went to summon Rodrigo. Having expected his friend to be lying awake, a prey to anxiety, Stephano was surprised to find Rodrigo sleeping as soundly as a babe in arms. Stephano had to shake him to rouse him. Rodrigo woke groggy and disoriented, at which point Stephano sniffed at the mug containing the honey posset, smelled the opium, and yelled angrily for Benoit.

Between the two of them, they managed to get Rodrigo out of bed, sobered up, and dressed. The laws of dueling forbade the wearing of any clothing set with magical constructs. The duel’s adjudicator-a person brought in from outside to see to it that the proceedings were handled fairly-was required to check to make certain neither opponent took such an unfair advantage. The Codes did not say anything about the style of clothing the combatants wore. Stephano insisted that Rodrigo put on a loose-fitting white shirt with overlarge, flowing sleeves. In any sort of breeze, the sleeves would flap in the wind, making aiming at a vital organ difficult.

Rodrigo protested against the shirt, which was old and completely out of fashion.

“He’ll probably just shoot me in the head,” said Rodrigo. “At least let me die in style.”

“A head shot is unlikely,” said Stephano briskly, determined to be matter-of-fact. “You both will stand back-to-back with your guns in the air. At the signal, you will each walk ten paces, turn, and fire. Because Valazquez has to turn, he will be forced to fire quickly, hoping to hit you before you can get off a shot at him. He won’t have time to aim at your head. He’ll likely try to hit you in the chest, which provides a larger target and is easier to hit.”

“So I should do the same?” asked Rodrigo. “Aim for his chest?”

Stephano thought back to the first, last, and only time he and Dag had tried to teach Rodrigo to shoot. They had all three been extremely fortunate to escape with their lives. Rodrigo had a most lamentable habit of closing his eyes whenever the gun went off.

“Just keep your eyes open,” said Stephano.

“I can’t help it,” Rodrigo protested. “It’s like sneezing. Absolutely impossible to keep your eyes open when you sneeze.”

“You will have only one shot, Rigo,” said Stephano quietly. “You have to make it count.”

Rodrigo looked down at his trembling hands and smiled wanly. “I’m not sure it will matter whether my eyes are open or closed, my friend.”

Stephano tried to say something reassuring, but the words wouldn’t come past the burning sensation in his throat. Down below, a clock struck five. Stephano put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“Is it time?” Rodrigo asked with terrible calm.

“It is time,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo picked up a sealed letter and handed it to Stephano.

“For my father,” Rodrigo said. “You will take it to him if… if…” He couldn’t go on.

Stephano took the letter and tucked it inside his waistcoat. “A sacred trust.”

Rodrigo nodded gratefully and the two went downstairs together. Benoit stood waiting for them at the bottom of the staircase. His eyes were red-rimmed.

“I summoned the cab, sir,” he said in a shaking voice. “It’s waiting.”

Benoit handed them their cloaks and hats. Stephano draped his baldric with his rapier over his shoulder. Sometimes the seconds ended up in a duel themselves. Stephano hoped that happened. He found the prospect of fighting the cold and supercilious Freyan, Sir Richard Piefer, extremely appealing.

Benoit held a tray containing two crystal goblets filled with a goldenbrown liquid. Stephano sniffed at it and wondered how Benoit had managed to come by brandywine, which was very expensive. He did not ask.

“To calm the nerves,” said Benoit.

“Thank you, Benoit,” said Rodrigo, and he downed the brandy gratefully.

He impulsively embraced the old man. Stephano felt tears sting his eyes, and he hurriedly blinked them away. Benoit wiped his nose with a large handkerchief and then bravely stood at the door to see them off.

Stephano remembered Benoit standing in the door like that, looking brave like that, on the day his father had gone to his execution. Stephano’s stomach clenched. Bile filled his mouth. He reminded himself sternly that his friend needed him to be strong, and he drank the brandy. The liquid bit into his throat and warmed his blood. He handed the glass back to Benoit, who said softly and pleadingly, as he took it, “Keep him safe, sir.”

Stephano gave a sorrowful shake of his head and turned away.

The two men entered the hansom cab. Neither had shaved; neither felt his hand to be steady enough, and asking Benoit to shave them was out of the question. Stephano gave the driver directions to the Church of Saint Charles, mumbling something about attending early mass.

The hansom driver, who was about thirty, and had the jaunty air of a racecourse tout, gave them a knowing smile and a wink. He took his seat up top and whistled to the horse.

Stephano, glancing back, saw Benoit standing on the door stoop, a candlestick in his hand, tears running down his dried-up, leathery cheeks. The cab was pulling away when movement on the sidewalk caught his attention.

The sun had not yet risen. The street was dark, except for Benoit’s candle, and that gave only a feeble light. Yet Stephano was convinced he saw a shadow detaching itself from darker shadows. Stephano leaned out of the open-air compartment to try to get a better view. The shadow melded with the darkness. Stephano sat back, frowning.

“What are you doing?” asked Rodrigo listlessly.

“I saw a man in the alley,” said Stephano. “Someone is still watching us.”

“Probably to make certain I don’t run off,” said Rodrigo.

“Possibly,” said Stephano, but he was not convinced.

Rodrigo wrapped his cloak closely about him and sat back against the cushions, staring at the world he might shortly be about to leave. Stephano tried to think of something to say that would bring his friend some comfort, but everything he thought of sounded stupid and maudlin. Rodrigo’s hand, fist clenched, rested on the seat. Stephano placed his hand over his friend’s. Rodrigo responded with a pallid smile. They rode in silence to the church. Once there, Stephano asked the driver of the hansom cab to wait for them until mass was over.

The driver gave a chuckle and another knowing wink. Sitting back in the seat, he tipped his hat over his face and settled himself comfortably. The horse began to graze on the dew-wet grass.

“At least, you’ll save money, my friend,” Rodrigo said, as they were walking toward the site of the duel. “Going back, you’ll only have to pay for one fare.”

Chapter Seven

Magic, according to the church, is the echo of God’s voice. Magic is of God and therefore under the dominion of the church in order to make certain that crafters use their talents for God’s glory. What this means is that the church oversees the use and development of all magical constructs. The church is the final authority on the creation of new constructs.

“Magic is from God and so should glorify God and serve God and his people in their work to do God’s will.”

I say-bullshit.

Magic is of men.

- Introduction to treatise written by Rodrigo de Villeneuve prior to his expulsion from the University

THE CHURCH OF SAINT CHARLES WAS ANCIENT, one of the first churches built in Evreux when the city was established as Rosia’s capital five hundred years ago. The church stood on a low bluff at a bend of the River Counce. According to ancient records, the original structure had been simple in design. The records listed the amount of stone and wood required, the number of crafters and laborers and masons who had worked on the church, careful notations of the money the people were paid, and a faded plan of the structure drawn up by the unknown architect. The records and the plan were all that was left of the first church. It had been burned to the ground by Freyan invaders during the Blackfire War.

The Church of Saint Charles, patron saint of Evreux, had been rebuilt on a grander scale-a defiant gesture on the part of the Rosians after driving out the Freyans. With its delicate spires and stained glass windows, the church was now a beautiful edifice overlooking the meandering river.

A cemetery had been established on the grounds adjacent to the church. A quiet and private place, the cemetery with its ancient mausoleums and marble monuments, sheltering trees, trimmed hedgerows, and long stretches of green grass was a favored place for clandestine meetings, whether for love or for those of a more violent nature.

At this early hour, the pale sun was barely visible through the thick mists rising from the river. The orb looked shrunken and gave no warmth, shining with a gray-tinged light. Rodrigo and Stephano were the first to arrive, which allowed Stephano the chance to view the ground. He had not fought any of his own duels here, but he had acted as second to a fellow officer in the Dragon Brigade who had. That duel had ended as well as these things can. The two men had fought with swords. One had been grazed in the arm, the other in the chest. Since blood had been drawn, both gentlemen had pronounced themselves satisfied and had departed with honor.

Stephano had a grim feeling today’s duel was not going to end as well. He walked the long, broad sward that formed a border between the old, graying tombstones and the low stone wall that stood between the cemetery and the river. A grove of oak, walnut, and maple trees stood outside the cemetery wall at the south end. Willow trees lined the bank of the sleepy river. The church itself was at the north end, some distance from this part of the cemetery. The duelers would face north and south, so that neither one would be blinded by the rising sun which, given the mists, was not likely to be a problem.

The cemetery was very old. Few people were buried here anymore; only those with family vaults, and most of the ancient families had died out. The tombstones were worn and faded; the dead slept quietly. Any restless ghosts had long since let go their tenuous grasp on the world and drifted off to a final rest. An air of peaceful melancholy pervaded the cemetery. A statue of Guardian Saint Simone, Acceptor of the Dead, stood in the center with her arms spread in welcome, her face loving and forgiving.

The mists crept among the tombstones and rolled off the river between the trunks of the trees. Rodrigo stood quietly staring at one of the tombstones as though he could imagine himself lying beneath it. Stephano pulled out his pocket watch. They lacked fifteen minutes until the designated time. Just as he was thinking that Valazquez was going to be late or might not come at all, a black coach arrived. The elegant coach with its team of four horses and two footmen riding behind rolled to a stop next to the hired hansom cab with its driver snoring in his seat.

Sir Richard Piefer descended, followed by two men, and then Valazquez. All of them wore black cloaks and looked rather like ghosts themselves as they walked through the mists. Stephano focused on the two gentlemen who accompanied Piefer and Valazquez. One of them was portly, slightly stoopshouldered, and walked with the aid of a silver-headed cane. He wore a shoulder-length, curled periwig beneath a black, tricornered hat. His black waistcoat barely met across his broad middle. His face was fleshy, his eyes dark and flat.

Formal introductions followed. For the first time, Stephano met the notorious Oudell Chaunquler, unofficial official adjudicator of duels in the capital city of Evreux. Chaunquler was perhaps fifty years of age. His passion was dueling, and he was often invited to officiate. He always brusquely refused payment, though he would accept a gratuity pressed into his palm after the affair was over.

Chaunquler was reputed to know the Codes Duello by heart, upside down and backward, and was here to settle any dispute or question that might arise. Since dueling was illegal and such matters could not be taken to court, Chaunquler’s judgment was considered final. Stephano had been feeling the weight of his responsibilities as second lying heavy on his shoulders, as his fear lay heavy on his heart. He was relieved that he could turn over the procedures of the duel to a man who understood what he was doing and would see that all was handled fairly.

The other man was introduced as Doctor Alabarca. A surgeon was always present at a duel, for obvious reasons. Doctor Alabarca was so bundled up in his cloak that Stephano could not get a look at him. The surgeon had brought a camp stool with him. He set it down, sat on it, rested his bag of instruments on the grass, and did not move. He said nothing to anyone, responded to no greetings, and gave the impression he was annoyed at having to be up this early.

Chaunquler walked over to a tall, broad marble tombstone that made a perfect table. He drew a black cloth from his waistcoat pocket, shook it with a loud snap that caused Rodrigo to flinch, and spread the cloth on the tombstone. Valazquez and Piefer removed their cloaks and handed them to a servant, who took them back to the carriage. The two men advanced onto the lawn.

Valazquez wore a shirt with long sleeves and a fancifully embroidered waistcoat decorated with peacocks and flowers trimmed in golden thread, gray breeches, and black boots. He stood aloof from the proceedings, as was proper. Rodrigo mechanically took off his coat and draped it over the head of a marble angel. He stood shivering in the chill mist, his face exceedingly pale. He watched the proceedings with a detached air, as though this was happening to someone else and he was merely a confused observer.

Stephano noted with interest that Piefer was openly wearing a lightweight leather breastplate inlaid with sigils-magical constructs made of thin brass. Stephano had been feeling guilty for having put on his own magically enhanced chain mail beneath his waistcoat; the implication was that he did not trust his honored second. Stephano guessed that Piefer’s long coat also had various magical constructs sewn into it. Since both he and Sir Richard were acting as seconds, nothing in the rules prohibited them from wearing such protection. Apparently, Piefer did not trust his opponents any more than they trusted him.

“Bring the pistols forward for examination,” said Chaunquler in cold, dispassionate tones.

Piefer motioned to one of his servants, who brought forth a beautiful case made of ebony. He placed it on the tombstone that was serving as a table and then withdrew.

“Are these your pistols, my lord?” Chaunquler asked Piefer

“They are, sir,” said Piefer.

“Have you any objection to the use of pistols provided by your opponent, Captain?” Chaunquler asked Stephano.

“None in the least, sir,” said Stephano. “I assume I will be permitted to examine them.”

“Certainly! I do know the rules, Captain,” said Chaunquler sharply, annoyed.

“I meant no offense, sir,” said Stephano.

Mollified, Chaunquler grunted and reached out his large, puffy hands to open the ebony box, revealing a pair of matched dueling pistols, a brass powder horn, lead balls, and small patches of oiled cloth nestling beside the guns.

Stephano picked up one of the pistols and took several moments to thoroughly examine it, looking for any signs of magical constructs that might either interfere with the pistol’s firing mechanism or enhance it. Rodrigo would have been better suited to the task, but permitting one of the duelists to examine the weapons was very much against the rules.

Satisfied, Stephano loaded the gun, pointed it at the ground, and pulled the trigger. Rodrigo shuddered visibly at the sound. Piefer gave a faint, disdainful smile that made Stephano long to knock it off the Freyan’s face. He kept himself in firm control. He had to, for Rodrigo’s sake. But Stephano resolved privately that no matter what happened today, he and the Freyan would meet again. Piefer picked up the second weapon, examined it, and fired.

Chaunquler then examined the two pistols. Satisfied that both guns were smooth bore, as the rules required; that both were in good working order; and that neither had been magically enhanced, he returned them to the seconds. Each man reloaded his pistol and placed it back in the case. Both men turned to Chaunquler, who had been watching with a critical eye.

“You are both satisfied?” he asked.

Piefer and Stephano nodded and Chaunquler continued.

“The seconds will now determine the distance,” said Chaunquler.

“Ten paces,” said Piefer.

“Twenty,” said Stephano, thinking that the farther Rodrigo was from Valazquez the better the odds he might come out of this alive.

Piefer was not pleased. He argued that ten paces was the rule, but Chaunquler stated that such was not the case. He decreed that twenty paces was acceptable. Piefer glanced at Valazquez, who shrugged. Piefer agreed with an ill grace.

Once this matter was settled, Chaunquler motioned. “The two participants will please come forward. I will check to make sure neither is using magic to gain any advantage. Are we agreed that I may proceed?”

“Of course, sir,” Piefer answered.

“We are, sir,” said Stephano.

Valazquez walked to the table and began to unbutton his waistcoat. Rodrigo made no motion to walk over, and Stephano had to call his name in a low undertone. Rodrigo looked at him pleadingly, begging him to tell him this was some sort of strange mischance and they could all go home to a good breakfast. Stephano’s heart ached, but he could do nothing. The duel had to proceed. He motioned to the table and Rodrigo, gently sighing, began to try to unbutton his waistcoat. His trembling fingers fumbled.

Valazquez laid his waistcoat on the table and, as he did so, he cast Rodrigo an odd glance, as though he seemed to want to say something, but couldn’t make up his mind. Stephano noticed the glance and so did Piefer. The Freyan frowned and walked up to Valazquez and said something to him in such a low voice that Stephano could not hear. Stephano watched Valazquez closely and saw the young man shake his head. He continued to appear to be undecided and Stephano had a sudden wild hope that Valazquez wanted to call off the duel. Perhaps he was afraid or perhaps he had discovered he’d accused the wrong man. Piefer appeared to be attempting to bolster the young man’s resolve.

Stephano tried frantically to think of some way of speaking to Valazquez, but the rules of dueling strictly prohibited either second from talking to the opposing combatant. As for Rodrigo, he was completely oblivious to anything. He took off his waistcoat and went to lay it on the tombstone and missed. The waistcoat fell to the ground. He stared at it as though trying to figure out what it was doing there. Stephano picked it up for him and rested it on the black cloth.

Chaunquler went about his job briskly and efficiently. He turned both waistcoats inside-out, searching for magical constructs that might deflect a bullet. Finding nothing, he then asked each man to hold out his arms. Chaunquler examined the shirts each man was wearing. This done, he asked if there was a possibility that either man could be dissuaded from this course of action.

A slight breeze had risen, enough to cause the mists to swirl about the boles of the trees. The breeze ruffled a few loose strands of Rodrigo’s hair, that he wore tied back. He was deathly pale, no color in his face. His brown eyes appeared unusually large. He made some movement with his lips that might have been a “no.” Chaunquler turned to Valazquez, who cleared his throat.

“Before we commence, I have a sentiment I wish to express to Monsieur de Villeneuve,” he said.

Stephano’s heart beat fast. Rodrigo’s cheek stained with a faint flush of hope. Piefer looked angry and disapproving.

Valazquez made a slight bow. “It would be unseemly of me if I did not express my sympathy to Monsieur de Villeneuve on the death of his father.”

Rodrigo stared at the man. He looked dazedly at Stephano.

“What did he say?”

“That your father is dead,” said Stephano, shocked. He wondered if this was some ploy by Valazquez to attempt to rattle Rodrigo.

“That can’t be!” said Rodrigo, shaken.

“We are both amazed by this terrible news, Monsieur,” said Stephano sternly. “My friend has heard nothing of this. Please explain yourself.”

Valazquez looked startled. “Truly? He has heard nothing? Then I fear I am the bearer of ill tidings. My father, as the Estaran ambassador, received the news last night. Monsieur de Villeneuve was the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The murderer escaped, unfortunately, but the authorities are doing all they can to find him. They have evidence that he was a Travian. Probably having to do with this lamentable dispute over Braffa.”

Stephano had no reason to doubt Valazquez, but he knew that this information, having traveled a great distance and passed through many hands, was open to question. The news of the death of the ambassador would have to be verified. The countess would know the facts. Meanwhile, he saw a way to save Rodrigo, who was staring in wordless confusion at Valazquez. Stephano turned to Chaunquler.

“Monsieur, as you can see, my poor friend is overcome by grief and amazement. He is in no condition to fight this day. I ask for a postponement.”

Once the duel was postponed, he could take Rodrigo off to Westfirth and then try to negotiate a settlement with the Valazquez family.

Stephano was not pleased to see Chaunquler cast a swift glance at Sir Richard Piefer, as though asking what he should do. Chaunquler was here supposedly as an independent judge and observer. What business did he have looking at Piefer for the answer?

“Well, sir?” Stephano demanded tersely.

Piefer stepped forward. “I see no reason to postpone this meeting. Lord Valazquez has acted as a gentleman in giving his condolences. He still requires satisfaction for the insult to his sister.”

Stephano saw Valazquez frown at the Freyan lord’s intervention.

“I would like to hear Monsieur Valazquez speak for himself in this matter,” Stephano insisted.

“Of course,” said Piefer. He turned to the young lord. “I would remind his lordship that the name of Valazquez is untarnished. Should his lordship agree to postpone this meeting, there are those who will put his delay down to cowardice.”

Valazquez flushed in anger at the imputation.

“There will be no delay,” he said shortly.

“I received a letter from my father only three days ago, Stephano,” Rodrigo said, bewildered. “How can he be dead?”

“It’s just a rumor. We’ll find out the truth from my mother. But right now,” Stephano added gently, “I fear you have to go through with this.”

“I know.” Rodrigo gave a faint smile. “I may not be overly burdened with courage, but I am not a coward.”

His unshaven cheeks pale, his mouth tight, he walked over to the box holding the dueling pistols and picked up one of the guns. Valazquez took the other pistol.

“Very well, gentlemen,” Chaunquler said. “Since you will not be dissuaded, I ask you to take your positions. You will stand back-to-back, the guns pointed in the air. Your seconds have determined that you will walk twenty paces and then turn and fire. I will commence the count.”

Rodrigo and Valazquez stood with their backs touching. Valazquez pulled back the hammer. Rodrigo, hearing a sound, cast Stephano a panicked glance, asking him wordlessly what he was supposed to be doing.

“Cock the hammer!” Stephano mouthed, going through the motion.

Rodrigo lowered the gun. He was forced to use both thumbs to drawback the hammer and nearly dropped the gun in the process. Stephano was cold and sick with dread. Piefer was impassive, unconcerned. Doctor Alabarca, the surgeon, opened his bag of instruments. Rodrigo resumed his position, standing back-to-back with Valazquez.

Chaunquler began to count out the paces. “One.”

Each man took a step forward, moving away from his opponent. Chaunquler continued the count. The two men walked off the paces. Stephano noted that Rodrigo was taking unusually large steps. He also saw, to his dismay, that his friend had his eyes squinched tightly shut.

“Ten,” said Chaunquler.

He was about to say “eleven” when he was interrupted by a bang. Rodrigo stood enveloped in a cloud of acrid smoke staring in blank astonishment at the pistol he had been carrying, which was now lying on the ground.

“It went off!” Rodrigo gasped. “I didn’t pull the trigger. I swear! It just went off!”

“ ‘A misfire is equivalent to a shot,’ “ stated Chaunquler, quoting from the Codes Duello. “The duel will proceed.”

Rodrigo looked wildly at Stephano. “The gun went off. I didn’t fire the blasted thing! What am I supposed to do now?”

“You have to keep going,” said Stephano grimly.

Valazquez heard the shot and stopped walking. He remained in position, his gun raised, though he did cast a glance over his shoulder to see what had happened. The pistol’s misfire meant that Valazquez could now take his aim at his leisure without the fear that Rodrigo might shoot him first. Valazquez was known to be an excellent marksman. He would not miss. Rodrigo was a dead man and he knew it.

Stephano pressed his hand against his breast pocket, against the letter he had promised to deliver to Rodrigo’s family. Rodrigo saw the gesture and understood. He smiled sadly, swallowed and, lifting his chin, continued to walk steadily to his death. Stephano knew the courage this simple act cost his friend and even in his despair and grief, he was proud of him.

“Twenty!” said Chaunquler.

Rodrigo turned and stood unflinching. Valazquez pivoted, aimed, pointed, and fired. Rodrigo shuddered involuntarily at the crack of the shot and closed his eyes.

The bullet whistled by his head, so close the bullet grazed his cheek. Valazquez lowered his gun. He cast a cool glance at Piefer.

“I would not want it said that I killed an unarmed man,” Valazquez stated with dignity.

Stephano gave the young man a look of gratitude, then hurried over to Rodrigo, who was still standing stiffly, his eyes closed tight, waiting.

“It’s over, my friend,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo didn’t comprehend. Opening one eye, he whispered, “What’s taking the bullet so long?”

Stephano began to laugh, and then he suddenly noticed that both Chaunquler and Doctor Alabarca were running rapidly down the road, running as though in fear of their lives.

A pistol fired. The shot half-deafened Stephano. and he turned to glare angrily at Valazquez.

“Why the devil did you shoot-”

The words stuck in Stephano’s throat.

Valazquez no longer had a face. His head was a mushy pulp of blood and brains and shattered bone. His body jerked spasmodically, then plopped wetly onto the ground.

Stephano stared at the murdered man, then looked in blank astonishment at Piefer, who was thrusting one smoking pistol into his belt and coolly drawing a second. The Freyan turned from Valazquez to face Rodrigo and raised the gun, taking aim. Stephano had no idea what was going on, and he didn’t have time to sort it out. He hurled himself at Rodrigo, knocked him to the ground, and flung himself on top of him.

Another bang. A sharp blow hit Stephano between his shoulder blades. The bullet knocked the breath from his body, but his chain mail and its magical constructs deflected the bullet that otherwise would have torn through his back.

“What’s going on?” Rodrigo demanded in muffled tones, his face in the dirt. “Why is he shooting at us?”

“I wish I knew!” said Stephano fervently.

Piefer thrust the useless pistol into his belt and reached into his breast pocket where he had another gun, probably what had come to be known as a “corset gun,” a type of short-barreled pistol small enough for a lady to tuck into her bosom.

Stephano leaped to his feet and drew his sword in the same motion. He calculated he could reach the Freyan before he had time to fire. Stephano took a step, heard another shot. A bullet struck the dirt at his feet, kicking up dust. The flash of muzzle fire came from beyond the stone wall. Another bullet whistled over his head. At least two more men were firing at them from the shadows of the trees.

Piefer had drawn his corset gun and was taking direct aim. He cocked the hammer and was about to pull the trigger when another gunshot sounded. The small pistol went spinning out of the Freyan’s hand. Piefer cursed and whipped around to glare in anger and astonishment into the woods.

Stephano did not take time to wonder if someone in the forest was on his side or one of Piefer’s friends was a bad shot. He grabbed hold of Rodrigo, who was staring in shock at the bloody remains of Valazquez. Stephano dragged his friend to his feet.

“We’ve got to make a run for the cab!”

“Wait!” Rodrigo cried and he darted forward to pick up the dueling pistol he had used. A bullet struck the ground. He snatched his hand back, then made a grab for the pistol, and ran, hunched-over, to Stephano, who glared at him.

“That thing’s useless!”

“I know!” Rodrigo gasped. He thrust the pistol into his belt.

Stephano gripped his friend’s arm. “Keep your head down! Use the tombstones for cover!”

Crouching low, they tried to blend in with the mists that were, unfortunately, starting to burn off, and dashed from one tombstone to the next. The bullets hit close, striking the tombstones, chipping off pieces of marble and sending the shards flying through the air. They took refuge behind a monument of a marble angel and stopped to catch their breath. A bullet struck one of the angel’s wings, knocking it off. Both ducked.

Rodrigo asked in altered tones, “Do you think what Valazquez said about my father being dead is true?”

“We’ll soon find out,” said Stephano. “The countess will know.”

Another bullet took off the angel’s nose.

Rodrigo was suddenly angry. “Why is he trying to kill us?”

“Damned if I know,” said Stephano, wiping the sweat from his face. He’d lost his hat to a bullet. “His friends are extremely good shots, though. They must be using those new weapons with the rifled bores. I’ve heard about them, but never seen one. They’re supposed to be more accurate than barrels that use targeting constructs. I’d really like to get a look at one-”

“I’ve seen quite enough, thank you!” Rodrigo flattened himself on the ground as a bullet slammed into the angel’s foot.

Stephano risked raising his head, hoping to see what had become of Piefer. The Freyan lord was nowhere in sight. Stephano didn’t know if his disappearance was good or bad. He shifted about to see if the hansom cab was still there or if the driver had fled. Surprisingly the hansom cab was still there. The horse didn’t like the gunfire, however. The animal was rolling its eyes and shifting nervously in the traces. Stephano was amazed the driver had not run off at the first sign of trouble. Or maybe he had fled and left the carriage behind.

“One last dash!” Stephano said.

Rodrigo nodded. The two jumped out from behind the angel and ran headlong for the cab. They were tense, expecting more bullets, but all was suddenly quiet.

“They’ve gone!” Rodrigo cried, elated.

Stephano shook his head. Men armed with such expensive weapons were most likely professionals. They weren’t about to give up this easily. Reaching the hansom cab, he found out why the driver had not taken off. He was crouched on the floor of the cab, his eyes closed and his fingers stuffed in his ears. Stephano grabbed hold of him.

“Don’t shoot me!” the driver wailed, flinging his hands in the air.

Stephano eyed the man, who was shaking all over. “He’s worthless. Get inside with him. I’ll drive.”

“Do you know how?” asked Rodrigo dubiously.

“I’ve flown dragons,” said Stephano. “How hard can driving a cab be?”

The hansom cab was a small two-wheeler, with room for only two passengers, both of whom sat directly behind the horse. The driver’s seat was on top of the cab, in the rear. The reins ran through two supports located at the front of the roof. Stephano climbed up onto the seat and took hold of the reins. Not certain what to do, he slapped the reins and shouted, “Giddy up!”

The horse was only too glad to leave and plunged forward with a jolt that almost sent Stephano flying off the seat and flattened Rodrigo and the howling driver against the cushions. The hansom cab careened madly down the road, swaying from side to side, rattling and shaking as Stephano grappled with the reins and tried desperately to gain some sort of control over the terrified animal.

Rodrigo, who was clinging to whatever he could find to cling to, leaned his head out to yell at Stephano.

“Where are we going?”

“The Cloud Hopper!” Stephano shouted back.

A bullet smashed into roof of the cab. Swearing with what breath he had left, Stephano glanced over his shoulder to see the black carriage racing after them in pursuit. Piefer was seated next to the driver.

Stephano had an excellent look at one of the new rifled guns. He stared straight down the barrel.

Chapter Eight

I am saddened to find the leaders of the Church focusing more on secular politics than on the worship of God. The grand bishop must now have his own personal army, his fleet of warships, his networks of spies… Young crafters do not practice their art for the glory of God, but for the glory of the grand bishop. It was with a heavy heart that I counseled His Majesty the King to break with the Church of the Breath.

- Fifty-year-old Journal entry by Archbishop Samuel Winton, Church of the Restaration, Freya

DUBOIS WAS IN THE VICINITY OF THE CEMETERY well before dawn, in time to see Rodrigo de Villeneuve and Captain de Guichen arrive for the duel. Dubois was not on the grounds. He had taken up his position in a tree.

To look at Dubois, one might not think he was someone adept at treeclimbing. He had developed this skill over time, finding it useful to ascend to such perches where he could hide among the leaves, see without being seen. Dubois was also adept at climbing up trellises to sneak onto balconies or peep into windows, and he had become an expert at walking over rooftops.

Ensconced in his tree, shielded from view, Dubois settled himself comfortably. He straddled a broad limb with his legs and rested his back against the trunk.

His perch provided him an excellent view of the field of combat and the woods surrounding the cemetery. He was vastly interested to note the stealthy arrival of two other men in the woods. Both were strangers to Dubois. He watched the two slip through the mists and take up positions directly behind the cemetery wall. Both were dressed in long coats and tall boots and carried long-barreled muskets. Anyone seeing them would mistake them for two gentlemen hunting grouse.

Dubois reached into a pocket, drew out a collapsible spyglass and, extending it, put it to his eye to observe the two men more closely.

“Well, well, well,” said Dubois.

One man carried a large bore musket, while the other was armed with the new weapon known as a “rifle” for its rifled bore, which gave the shooter far better accuracy than smooth bore guns, even those with magical targeting constructs. An expensive weapon for shooting grouse. In addition, each man carried several pistols.

Obviously paid assassins, but who was paying them and who were they there to assassinate? Dubois could make an excellent guess. He reached beneath his coat to draw his own pistol, which he carried in a pistol sheath he had designed himself. Much like a sheath for a sword, the pistol sheath was made of leather attached to a strap that looped around his right shoulder. The pistol sheath allowed him to wear the weapon on his body, concealed beneath his coat, providing swift and easy access.

His pistol was double-barreled, operated by magic rather than flint. The two barrels were stacked one above the other with a single firing mechanism. The hammer and the strike plate each had deeply set sigils that sparked when they came into contact, separated by a small brass shield when the weapon was not in use. A lever near the strike plate allowed him to choose which barrel to fire. On top was a longer, lower caliber barrel, set with interlocking layers of magical targeting constructs, designed for better range and accuracy. Beneath it was a large bore barrel designed for stopping power.

The gun had been given to Dubois by the grand bishop. The weapon had been made especially in the bishop’s own armory, according to Dubois’ instructions. He checked the pistol, particularly the magical constructs, and found all was well. Not that there was ever any doubt. He invariably checked the gun before strapping on the belt.

Dubois rested the pistol on the tree limb, placed his hand on the grip, and settled himself to watch the proceedings. The sun’s rays were burning off the mists and he had a good view. His tree was only about one hundred feet away from the dueling ground. In the still morning air, he could hear most of what was being said.

Dubois smiled to see Chaunquler arrive. The old reprobate was undoubtedly in the pay of Harrington. Chaunquler was here to ensure the duel went Harrington’s way, whatever way that was.

Dubois watched and listened attentively, hoping for clues that would lead him to Sir Henry Wallace. He observed the firing of the dueling pistols and Chaunquler’s investigation of the clothing for magical constructs. Nothing noteworthy there. The duel was just about to commence when Valazquez said something that Dubois found to be of considerable interest.

The young man’s voice, heavily accented, carried well on the still air. “I would like to express my sympathy to Monsieur de Villeneuve on the death of his father.”

Rodrigo de Villeneuve had not been apprised of this news, apparently. He looked as though he’d been run over by an ox-cart.

“I regret to be the bearer of ill tidings. My father, as the Estaran ambassador, received the news yesterday. Ambassador de Villeneuve was the victim of an assassin’s bullet. The murderer escaped, unfortunately, but the authorities are doing all they can to find him. They believe that he was a Travian.”

Dubois was equally surprised to hear that the Rosian ambassador had been murdered. Dubois did not like surprises. His agent in Estara should have informed him immediately. Dubois made a mental note to replace his agent, even as he reflected on Valazquez’s explanation of the events.

The Rosian ambassador shot by a Travian. How very convenient for Sir Henry Wallace, who was suspected of fomenting the feud between Estara and Travia over Braffa. That island nation refined a substance known as the Blood of God-a concentrated, liquid form of the Breath used to power the airships of both the Estaran and Rosian fleets.

The island and its resources had long been the subject of a dispute between Estara and Travia. The two nations had nearly gone to war over Braffa, but the Church had stepped in to conduct negotiations and brought about an uneasy truce-a truce that seemed likely now to be broken, for King Alaric could not allow the assassination of his ambassador to go unpunished.

As this young man, Valazquez, was upholding the honor of his sister, King Alaric must uphold the honor of his nation. But Alaric was now in an awkward situation. The whole world knew that the king sided with Travia, and it appeared that a Travian had assassinated the Rosian ambassador. What would Alaric do? Or rather, what would the Countess de Marjolaine tell the king to do? Dubois filed the information in one of his mind’s cubbyholes and concentrated on the duel.

Captain de Guichen was attempting to use the death of his friend’s father to bring about a postponement of the duel. It seemed he might succeed. Young Valazquez was a dolt, but he was an honorable dolt. But Harrington, in his guise as Piefer, goaded Valazquez into fighting. Why was Harrington aka Piefer so keen on having Valazquez kill the wretched Rodrigo de Villeneuve? There was no doubt Monsieur de Villeneuve would die. Valazquez was known to be a superior marksman and from what Dubois had observed, Villeneuve barely knew one end of a gun from another.

Dubois watched the two combatants stand back-to-back, raise their guns, and begin to walk off the twenty paces. Chaunquler was counting. He and the others were focused on the two combatants. Dubois was watching Harrington. Just as Chaunquler was counting “ten,” Harrington lifted his hand to his face, an innocent-seeming gesture.

Dubois clapped the spyglass to his eye.

Harrington kept his hand near his face, as though scratching his jaw. Dubois could see Harrington swiftly drawing a magical sigil in the air. His lips moved, speaking the incantation. At that instant, Villenueve’s gun fired.

“It went off!” he cried in dismay. “I didn’t pull the trigger. I swear! It just went off!”

Villeneuve was right. He had not pulled the trigger. The gun had been set off by Harrington’s magical spell. But no one, not even his friend, the captain, would believe him. Chaunquler judged the shot a misfire. Valazquez would now face an unarmed opponent and, by the laws of dueling, he had the right to kill him. Harrington was smiling with satisfaction. Apparently everything was proceeding according to plan.

The two men walked out the twenty paces. Rodrigo de Villeneuve turned to face certain death. Harrington stood with his arms folded, coolly awaiting the bloody outcome.

Valazquez fired. The bullet grazed his opponent’s cheek. Valazquez lowered his pistol. The young man had abided by the rules laid down by the Codes Duello. He had satisfied his honor by drawing blood. He cast a defiant glance at Harrington.

“I would not want it said that I killed an unarmed man.”

Rodrigo de Villeneuve remained in a petrified state of terror, his eyes closed, still waiting to die. Captain Stephano de Guichen ran to his friend. Neither of them saw Harrington’s face flush in frustration and anger. Neither saw him reach into his coat and pull a pistol from his belt. Chaunquler saw everything, however, and alerted the surgeon. Both took to their heels.

Young Valazquez died instantly from a bullet between the eyes. Dubois kept his gaze on Harrington, who drew a second pistol and aimed at Villeneuve. Captain de Guichen threw himself on his friend, knocking him down and shielding him with his own body. The shot hit Captain de Guichen in the back. The bullet did no damage; undoubtedly the captain was wearing magically protected armor.

Harrington threw down this pistol and drew his corset gun from the inside pocket of his coat. Captain de Guichen was on his feet, reaching for his sword, when the two assassins opened fire. Bullets kicked up the dirt around the captain. Harrington’s men were hampered in their shooting because they did not want to accidentally hit Harrington, who was leveling the small, but deadly little gun at the captain.

Dubois swore softly. He had not wanted to reveal himself, but he could not permit Harrington to kill Captain de Guichen. Son of the Countess de Marjolaine, the captain was a factor in this complex situation of the missing journeyman.

Dubois could not kill Harrington, who was going to lead him to Wallace. He sighted down the top barrel of his pistol, fired, and shot the corset gun out of Harrington’s hand. Harrington spun around to glare at his men, thinking that one of them had shot him. The two assassins knew better. They had heard Dubois’ shot coming from somewhere off to their right and they were momentarily distracted, looking about fearfully for the unknown assailant who might shoot them next.

Captain de Guichen and de Villeneuve were wisely taking advantage of the momentary lull to run for their lives. As for Harrington, he was running, too; racing for his carriage. Dubois could not lose track of him. The two assassins were firing, reloading, and firing again. With the reverberations of the gun blasts ringing in their ears, they would not hear a thunderclap, much less the sound of Dubois hastily slithering out of his tree.

Dubois had tied his horse nearby. He had mounted and was ready to ride by the time Harrington reached the carriage and was giving instructions to the driver to follow Captain de Guichen and Villeneuve, who were haring off in a stolen hansom cab. Harrington grabbed a musket and climbed up onto the driver’s seat of the carriage as it was rolling off. Looking back, he shouted urgently for his two men to join him. Dubois waited patiently in the woods until these two had mounted their own horses and ridden past him, then he urged his horse to a trot.

Captain de Guichen was in the lead in his hansom cab. Harrington, in his carriage, raced after the captain. The two assassins galloped on their horses to catch up with Harrington. Dubois brought up the end of the line.

“Like a string of baby ducks,” remarked Dubois, chuckling.

Chapter Nine

The most important part of any operation is a well thought out plan. I have sent you additional funds and several of the newly developed weapons known as “rifles” to assist you. You will notice that the rifles have slow curving grooves cut into the interior of their barrels. This “rifling” provides greater accuracy than targeting constructs, but does require some practice in order to use effectively.

– Excerpt from a letter from Sir Henry Wallace to his agent, James Harrington

GRABBING THE BUGGY WHIP, STEPHANO SNAPPED IT over the horse’s head, urging the beast on. The cab went careening down the road with Stephano rocking from side to side and bouncing up and down on the sprung seat. Glancing back, he saw Piefer still in pursuit, again taking aim with his rifle.

Stephano had nowhere to go. He lowered his head and hunched his shoulders, trying to make himself as small a target as possible. Then suddenly he had more to worry about than being hit by a bullet.

The road made a sharp curve to the right up ahead. The cab was heading into the turn at a frightening speed. The driver yelled that they were going to crash and hurled himself out of the side of the cab. The last Stephano saw of him, the driver was tumbling head over heels into a weed patch.

Stephano tried to slow the horse, but the creature was out of control. He had his ears laid back, his eyes swiveled wildly, and spittle flew from his mouth. He plunged on as Stephano braced himself. The cab took the corner on one wheel, teetered perilously for a moment, then righted itself, landing on both wheels with a bone-jarring jounce.

Stephano slapped the reins and snapped the whip, and they went rolling on. He looked back to see that Piefer’s driver, fighting to maintain control of a far larger carriage, sensibly slowed to make the turn. Piefer had fallen behind, but the two assassins mounted on horseback were catching up. These were the two who had been firing at him from the woods. Each brandished a pistol.

Stephano hoped they would shoot. He was a moving target, the odds were likely that they would miss, and once they had fired their weapons, they would have to reload. They would have a hard time pouring in powder and thrusting home a bullet while riding a horse at a full gallop.

Unfortunately, these men were too professional to make such a mistake. Holding their pistols in readiness, they spurred on their horses. They planned to catch up with the cab and simply shoot their victims once they were close.

Stephano faced to the front, keeping his eyes on the road. The horse was starting to tire, showing signs of being winded. The two men on relatively fresh horses would easily manage to catch the cab.

Stephano considered his options. They were grimly few. When his assailants arrived, he could jump from his seat onto one of them and knock the man off his horse. But that still left the other man and Piefer free to kill them.

The cab was heading into another curve, but this time Stephano didn’t have to worry about overturning. The weary horse had slowed his pace and they took the corner decorously. Rounding the curve, Stephano was startled to see that they had reached the outskirts of the city.

The road that led to the Church of Saint Charles was not much traveled. But the cab and those pursuing it were now going to be running into a stream of carts, wagons, horses, and pedestrians. The two assassins on horseback could weave their way through traffic faster than he could maneuver a cab.

Stephano looked over his shoulder again. Thinking the two assassins would increase their pace, he was surprised to see them dropping behind, apparently in response to some order from Piefer. They were conferring with him as he leaned down from the driver’s seat.

By Heaven, Stephano thought with elation, we might get out of this alive after all!

He arrived at an intersection. Several roads branched out from a single lane, all heading into the city. He needed to reach Canal Street, where the Cloud Hopper was docked. Stephano guided the horse onto the Street of Kings, a narrow thoroughfare that led into the heart of the city, as Rodrigo thrust open the trapdoor through which passengers communicated with the driver and shouted up at him.

“What are you doing? This street will be crowded at this time of day. You should take Cattle Market Road.”

“We like crowded streets,” Stephano shouted back. “The more people the better. Look behind us.”

“And get my head blown off?” Rodrigo asked, horrified.

“Just look,” Stephano yelled.

Rodrigo poked his head cautiously out of the carriage.

“They’re still there,” he reported. “They’re still chasing us.”

“Yes, but they’re not still shooting at us,” Stephano said. “They won’t risk firing into a crowd.”

At least, he hoped they wouldn’t risk it.

Rodrigo held up the pistol he’d recovered from the site of the duel and waved it in the air. “I found a hidden magical sigil on the firing mechanism! That’s what caused the gun to misfire! I told you I didn’t shoot it!”

Stephano thought the matter over as he continued to try to negotiate the cab through the traffic. Rodrigo had been meant to die in that duel. Valazquez had been supposed to kill him.

“Why in the name of all the saints and all the angels and God Himself would anyone go to this much trouble and expense to kill Rodrigo!” Stephano asked himself.

The Street of Kings was of one of the most heavily traveled roads in Evreux. Stephano was doing a fair job of driving the cab, and hoped he might actually be able to reach Canal Street when the horse decided enough was enough. Exhausted, in a bad mood, wanting only its stable and oats, the animal came to a dead stop in the middle of a busy intersection.

Stephano yelled and cajoled and plied the whip-to no avail. The horse stood with his head down, stubbornly refusing to budge. Traffic in all directions rolled to a standstill. Drovers with loads to deliver swore at Stephano and shook their fists. They were joined in their ire by the drivers of cabs and coaches and by their irate passengers. One drover even jumped off his wagon and came running toward Stephano with the idea of throttling him. Several pedestrians clustered about, attempting to deal with the horse, which added to the gridlock.

Stephano had no idea what to do. The carriage belonging to Piefer was caught in the snarl. But the two assassins on horseback were steadily pushing their way toward him.

Stephano flung the whip aside, dropped the reins, jumped out of the seat, and ran to the front of the cab.

“Get out!” he yelled at Rodrigo. “We’re walking!”

His friend stared at him in astonishment, wondering if he’d lost his mind, then he climbed out of the cab. Ignoring the swearing and irate shouts, Stephano and Rodrigo bolted for the sidewalk, which was now filled with interested spectators. The two elbowed and shoved and began to dodge and weave and push their way through the crowd.

Stephano looked back to see chaos had broken out in the intersection. The drover who had been going to fight Stephano was now taking on a fellow drover. Passengers were leaning out of the carriages. People were tugging on the horse. Traffic was backing up as far as he could see. Unless Piefer abandoned his carriage, he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. The two assassins on horseback were trying their best to edge their way through the confusion, but without much better success.

Stephano paused a moment to go over a mental map of the city of Evreux in his head, trying to figure out the quickest route to the Cloud Hopper, which was docked along one of the canals that ran through the city.

He noticed people stopping to stare at him, but he assumed this was because he was filthy from running through graveyards and driving a cab with a crazed horse, so he did not give it much thought. He was about to say, “We can continue down this street to reach Canal,” when Rodrigo suddenly seized hold of him and dragged him into a dark alley.

“Why did you do that? We can’t stop, they’ll catch us!” Stephano said, annoyed.

“You’re bleeding,” said Rodrigo, pointing to Stephano’s left shoulder. “You’ve been shot.”

Stephano looked down to see a large amount of blood had soaked through both his shirt and his coat. That was why people had been staring at him.

“I’ll be damned,” he said.

“You didn’t know you’d been shot?” Rodrigo asked, amazed.

“I was trying to control that demonic horse,” said Stephano. “And thank you so much for telling me. I didn’t feel anything until you said something. Now it hurts like Hell!”

“Let me look.”

Rodrigo gingerly pulled aside the bloodstained coat. Stephano winced and gasped at the pain.

“I can’t see anything except blood,” Rodrigo told him. “Your shirt is plastered against the wound.”

“That’s probably stopped the bleeding,” said Stephano, gritting his teeth. “Don’t pull it off, or it will start again.”

“How bad is it?”

“The bullet didn’t hit a major artery, or I’d be dead by now,” said Stephano. “I don’t think it broke any bones. But, damn, it hurts! Do you see an exit wound?”

Rodrigo looked behind him and shook his head.

“Then the bullet must still be lodged in my shoulder.”

“Can you keep going?” Rodrigo asked worriedly.

“I don’t have much choice,” said Stephano, grimacing. “Take a look into the street. See what our friends are doing.”

Rodrigo peered around the corner of the building. “The two killers are now on foot, looking for us. I see Piefer’s carriage, but I can’t see him.”

“He’s probably on foot, as well. We have to reach Canal Street. I don’t suppose this alley cuts through to the next street over?”

Rodrigo ran down the alley and returned to report. “It’s a dead end. But I did find this.” He exhibited a woman’s linen underskirt and a man’s wool coat. “Found these on a clothesline. Don’t worry. I left a silver piece in the woman’s stocking as payment.”

Rodrigo tore up the underskirt to use as a sling, which he wrapped around Stephano’s arm. He eased off Stephano’s bloodstained coat and draped the wool coat over his shoulder.

“Now you won’t draw so much attention.”

“We can’t stay here,” said Stephano, once his arm was bandaged. “Piefer’s men will assume we’re hiding, and alleys will be the first place they’ll look. Our best chance is out there, mixing with the people.”

Rodrigo took one more look into the street. He reported that Piefer’s men had split up, one taking the north side of the road and the other the south. He and Stephano plunged into the crowd. Traffic was moving on the street again, under the direction of a policeman.

Rodrigo stopped. “The police! We should report Piefer to the police!”

“And you’d be the one they’d arrest,” said Stephano grimly. “Dueling is against the law, which makes the death of Valazquez murder. The honorable Sir Richard Piefer would tell them you shot Valazquez, and we can’t prove that you didn’t.”

“My God!” Rodrigo cried, horrified. “I’m a wanted man!”

“I’ll talk to my mother,” said Stephano. “The countess will see to it that the right people are bribed and paid off and the murder is hushed up. She’s good at that sort of thing. We’ll add the cost in as a business expense related to Alcazar.”

“So you think this has something to do with Alcazar? But why do they want to kill me?” Rodrigo demanded.

Stephano’s mind had been grappling with this question; suddenly he had an answer.

“Because you are a crafter; a highly skilled crafter,” Stephano said. “And because someone knows you are investigating the disappearance of Alcazar, also a crafter. Someone knows this because they had a man watching Alcazar’s apartment…”

And then Stephano knew where he had seen Sir Richard Piefer.

“Piefer is Slouch Hat!” he said to Rodrigo. “That is why he had looked familiar to me! I remember thinking Slouch Hat looked like a jongleur, like a man who has been on the stage, an actor.”

“But then who is he and why was he trying to kill us?” Rodrigo asked, bewildered.

Stephano’s mind, once it got going, was now racing along. “Because Slouch Hat/Piefer was afraid you had discovered something related to Alcazar.”

“But I didn’t, except the possibility that Alcazar has ties to Westfirth…”

“Piefer couldn’t know that. He tried to kill you just on the possibility that you had learned something!”

“And poor Valazquez?” Rodrigo asked.

“He was just a cat’s-paw; a hotheaded young man who could be easily lured into fighting a duel. You were telling the truth, weren’t you?” Stephano said remorsefully. “You said you didn’t write those letters. I should have believed you.”

“I can understand why you wouldn’t,” said Rodrigo with a faint smile. “You are right. My life as a reprobate was bound to catch up with me.”

“As for the wretched Valazquez, he was supposed to kill you and, when he didn’t, Piefer killed him so that there would be no witnesses.”

“If Alcazar found a way to fully meld magic and metal, such a discovery would definitely be worth killing a few people,” said Rodrigo. He regarded his friend in concern. “You don’t look good. How are you doing?”

Stephano shivered. He was starting to grow feverish. “I’m all right,” he lied.

Rodrigo glanced behind. “We’ve been spotted. Piefer’s assassins are catching up. I believe that lane cuts through.”

The entrance of a small, narrow street was on the opposite side. They darted recklessly in front of a cab, forcing the driver to rein in his horse to avoid hitting them. He lashed at them angrily with his whip as they dashed past. They ran down the lane, not stopping to look, hoping that their sudden movement had caught the two assassins off guard.

At the end of the lane, Stephano had to stop. He could feel himself weakening. He leaned against a wall, shaking with chills.

“Not much farther,” said Rodrigo. “We’re on Canal Street. I can see the Cloud Hopper from here.”

“Just… give me a moment to rest,” Stephano said.

Rodrigo looked back down the lane.

“We don’t have a moment, my friend.”

Stephano sucked in his breath. “All right. Let’s go.”

He tried to take a step, staggered, and nearly fell. Rodrigo put his arm around his friend and half-dragged, half-carried Stephano toward the Cloud Hopper.

As the name implied, Canal Street bordered the largest, longest, and oldest of the canals. Originally natural formations-deep ravines that cut inland-the canals had been magically extended by crafters, who had used their magic to blast through the rock. Although the canals resembled waterbearing canals, these canals were filled with the Breath, not water, and were used by smaller craft to enter the city. Larger craft, such as the naval ships, were not permitted into the city at all, and had to dock at the wharf, which was some distance away.

Floating wherries and barges sailed up and down the canals, delivering passengers and goods to various parts of the city. Trundler houseboats, such as the Cloud Hopper, docked in the stalls, paying a fee for the privilege. The Royal Barge was there, ready for use. The grand bishop and many other nobles had their own private yachts, as these luxurious vessels were known. The yachts and the Royal Barge cruised the canals on fine nights.

Canal Street was lined with warehouses, taverns, and market stalls that sold goods fresh off the barges. Stevedores loaded and unloaded cargo. Vendors in the stalls shouted out their wares. Buyers went from stall to stall, examining the vegetables, the slabs of beef, and the fish fresh-caught in the lakes in the mountains.

Stephano and Rodrigo mingled with the buyers, going from stall to stall, making their way down the street to where the Cloud Hopper was docked.

“My poor friend can’t hold his ale,” Rodrigo remarked to those who stared as they stumbled past.

Canal Street was not as crowded as the other city streets, and Piefer’s assassins were closing in. Stephano kept going by sheer will alone; moving in a kind of pain-tinged daze.

He was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, when Rodrigo steered him to a halt. They had left the market area of Canal Street behind without Stephano even knowing it and were in a quieter area, surrounded by large warehouses.

“We’re here,” Rodrigo said, holding onto Stephano. “We made it. Well, almost.”

Stephano could see the Cloud Hopper tethered to the dock. The houseboat measured close to sixty feet in length, with a raised sterncastle and forecastle and a full lower deck. She had an upper and lower mast, along with an upper boom. Short wings extended out from the hull from just behind the curve of the bow and ending in front of the sterncastle. Airscrews, used for maneuvering, were mounted into the rear edge of each wing.

A refined and concentrated form of the Breath was stored in the balloons that were tethered to the mainmast and boom. The Breath in the balloons could be magically charged to create a much greater amount of lift than was present in the Breath naturally. The Breath was also trapped inside the lift tanks built into the hull at the base of the Cloud Hopper’s stubby wings. The lift tanks were wooden barrels with a thin iron lining set with protective magical constructs that allowed the tank to be pressurized, thus providing even greater lift capability. Cables connected both the balloons and the tanks to the helm-a brass panel inscribed with magical constructs. The helmsman could control the amount of lift in the balloons and the tanks, as well as the magical energy that powered the airscrews from this panel. Spare tanks built into the hull contained additional quantities of the gas, should the balloons tear or the tanks rupture.

To reach the boat, Stephano and Rodrigo would have to cross the boardwalk-a promenade made of wooden planks that ran the length of Canal Street. The boardwalk was a popular place for people to take a stroll on a fine Breadun afternoon. A fence running along the boardwalk protected pedestrians from tumbling (or jumping) into the canal. Piers led from the boardwalk to the stalls where the barges and houseboats were moored.

Today being a weekday, the promenade was empty. The Cloud Hopper was the only houseboat currently docked in this part of the canal. The entire broad expanse of boardwalk lay between Stephano and Rodrigo and the houseboat. They would be easy targets for Piefer’s assassins, who had drawn their pistols and were coming toward them.

Dag paced anxiously back and forth on the prow of the Cloud Hopper. Miri stood beside him, both of them worried. They had not yet caught sight of Rodrigo and Stephano, who were keeping to the shadows. And waiting on the promenade for news was Benoit.

“Dag!” Rodrigo risked a shout and waved. “We need help!” He pointed at the two assassins.

Dag heard, looked, and understood. He had obviously been expecting trouble, because he had his blunderbuss ready, propped against the ship’s rail. He picked it up and swiftly loaded it with shot and powder.

“There’s going to be gunfire,” he told Miri, his words booming through the quiet. “Tell Gythe to stay below with Doctor Ellington. You do whatever it is you do to get this boat airborne.”

“Do you need help?” Miri yelled back. She was a fair shot with a pistol, and Dag said she was the fastest person at reloading he’d ever known.

“No,” said Dag coolly. “There’s only two of them. I can handle it. You get ready to take us out into the Breath.”

“Mr. Benoit,” he shouted to the old man on the pier, who had been gesticulating wildly with his cane at the sight of Rodrigo. “I suggest you seek cover!”

Benoit hobbled over to crouch behind a large barrel of creosote that had been left on the pier. He drew an ancient pistol.

“Who am I shooting at?” he asked, squinting his eyes to see.

“No one!” Dag shouted, more frightened of the old man’s shaking hand than he was of the assassins.

Dag raised the blunderbuss to his shoulder and yelled at Rodrigo and Stephano. “Run for it! I’ll cover you!”

“One last effort,” said Rodrigo. “Can you make it?”

Stephano nodded. Dag took aim.

“Now!” Rodrigo said. He ran, and Stephano stumbled across the boardwalk.

A gate in the fence permitted access to the pier. The two assassins fired their pistols and Dag fired off the blunderbuss simultaneously. Rodrigo reached out his hand to open the gate. A bullet grazed it. Splinters flew. Rodrigo swore and snatched back his bleeding hand. He kicked open the gate and ran through it and onto the pier. Stephano stumbled and fell to the ground.

A peppering shot from the blunderbuss forced the two assassins to seek cover. Rodrigo ran back to grab hold of Stephano, who had managed to regain his feet. Miri lowered the gangplank. Rodrigo helped Stephano to cross to the Cloud Hopper.

“You’re bleeding!” said Miri to Stephano, and she put her arm around him.

“I’m bleeding, too,” Rodrigo said, holding out his hand.

Miri snorted. “Make yourself useful. Go cast off the line!”

Dag dropped the blunderbuss and drew a long-barreled pistol. The two assassins raised their heads. Dag fired, and they ducked back down.

“Cast off!” he yelled to Rodrigo.

Miri lowered Stephano to the deck, then ran over to the helm, which was located on the upper part of the forecastle. She stopped when she saw Gythe was already there, handling the controls.

“I told you to stay below deck!” Miri told her sister.

Gythe pointed at Stephano and then turned away. Miri regarded her in frustration, then decided that arguing would waste too much time. She went back to tend to Stephano.

Rodrigo ran along the pier to where a thick rope held the boat tethered to the dock. As he leaned down to take hold of the line, a bullet tore through the air where his head had been. Rodrigo dropped to the pier with a panicked howl.

“That was a damn fine shot,” said Dag, impressed. He looked around, puzzled. “Where did it come from?”

“Piefer!” Stephano gasped. “Everyone take cover!”

He grabbed hold of Miri and dragged her down beside him on the deck. Gythe crouched behind the protective shielding surrounding the boat’s controls. Rodrigo remained on the pier, hugging the wooden planks. Dag picked up another pistol.

“Dag, get down!” Stephano yelled. “Piefer’s using one of those new-fangled rifles!”

“Is he?” said Dag, adding wistfully, “I’d dearly love to get my hands on one of those!”

A bullet went zinging past his head. Dag had been keeping watch for the muzzle flash and, seeing it, he aimed his pistol and fired. Realizing he’d been spotted, Piefer ran out of the shadows.

“He’s on the move,” Dag called. “Cast off!”

“Are you sure he’s gone?” Rodrigo asked fearfully.

“Cast off!” Dag roared.

Rodrigo crawled on his hands and knees to reach the line, wrestled with it a moment, then managed to get it free. The Cloud Hopper started to drift away. Gythe steered the houseboat, keeping it close to the pier, and Miri yelled for Rodrigo to jump for it.

Rodrigo had just begun to run toward the gangplank, when one of Piefer’s men leaped up suddenly from behind the fence line and brought his pistol to bear, aiming for Rodrigo. Dag saw the danger, but he was reloading and there was nothing he could do except shout a warning.

A shot fired, coming from the vicinity of the creosote barrel. The assassin spun around from the force of the bullet and fell onto the boardwalk.

Benoit stood up, waving the smoking pistol and shouting defiantly, “Did you see that, sir?”

“You old fool, get out of here!” Stephano yelled. “Help me to my feet, Miri! He’s going to get himself killed!”

“He’s taking your advice, Captain,” Dag reported, keeping an eye on Benoit, who had left his creosote barrel and was making a dash for one of the warehouses. Dag added in admiring tones, “He can move damn fast for a cripple.”

Rodrigo raced across the gangplank. Dag heaved it in while Gythe sent power into the helm. According to the Church, channelers could touch God’s Hand as He sent magic flowing through the world and open themselves up to act as a conduit. Gythe could hear God’s voice like a song and draw His strength into herself and then direct the magical energy into the control panel’s constructs. The magical energy arced through the gas and caused the boat to begin to rise.

The Cloud Hopper’s two airscrews began to whirl; the sails billowed. Gythe turned the starboard airscrew to full ahead and the larboard screws to full reverse, swinging the bow of the boat toward the harbor. A strong breeze filled the Cloud Hopper’s sails and the boat drifted down the canal toward the harbor. Beyond was the vast expanse and pink-tinged mists of the Breath.

Piefer fired again as the Cloud Hopper began to put distance between them. Stephano was leaning against the rail, ignoring Miri’s scolding and her urgent attempts to make him go below. He saw the flash and heard the report and looked around anxiously. Piefer had missed apparently; everyone was safe.

The sail billowed and the houseboat gained speed. The gap between the ship and pier widened. As Stephano watched the Freyan lower his gun, he was back in the cemetery watching Piefer lower his pistol as Valazquez’s corpse, with its shattered bloody pulp of a head, sagged to the ground.

Sir Richard Piefer. Slouch Hat. Which was he? Who was he? A noble lord who could act the part of a drunken idler or an idler who could take the part of a noble lord? Whoever he was, he had the means and connections to hire spies and assassins and arm them and himself with rare and expensive rifles. Stephano stared at the Freyan, fixing his face in his mind.

“I don’t know who the Hell you are,” Stephano shouted. “But you and I will meet again. That’s a promise.”

The Freyan smiled at Stephano and shrugged with his languid grace. He thrust his pistol in his belt, tucked his rifle in the crook of his arm, and strolled off into the shadows.

Stephano’s strength gave out. He felt himself falling and had the horrible idea he was falling into the emptiness of the Breath, but Dag caught hold of him and lowered him down. He saw Miri’s frightened face, and he smiled to reassure her, and then he sank into a dark dream in which he was driving a hansom cab through the halls of the palace, trying to find his father…

Dubois had followed Harrington and the assassins as they were following Stephano and Rodrigo. Dubois had not taken part in the fight, for the crew of the Cloud Hopper seemed to have that matter in hand. He stood on the pier and watched the Trundler boat sail safely away. He recognized the big man, Dag, from the episode in the park, as well as the two pretty female Trundlers who manned and probably owned the boat. Dubois watched Harrington and his remaining assassin toss the body of their compatriot into the canal and then separate.

Dubois tailed Harrington back to his inn. Finding his own agent still on duty in a tavern across the street, Dubois gave him the sign that he was to continue to keep an eye on Harrington, and returned to his lodgings.

An eventful morning, Dubois thought, as he dined on roasted fowl and suet pudding.

While he ate, he read over a report, just delivered from the bishop, further detailing the incident at the Abbey of Saint Agnes where a hundred women of God had been murdered in a most horrible and gruesome manner. A lone survivor told a very strange story. Dubois didn’t know what to make of it. The thought occurred to him that the massacre at the abbey might have something to do with Sir Henry Wallace. Dubois couldn’t see for the life of him how a missing journeyman could be connected to this terrible tragedy, but he resolved to keep an open mind. Dubois considered paying the abbey a visit.

His meal finished, Dubois picked up the volume, A Crafter’s Guide to Metallurgy, poured himself a glass of port, and began to leaf idly through the pages. He had just finished drinking his wine when his agent arrived with news that Harrington had booked passage on a coach bound for Westfirth, leaving that afternoon.

“He is going to report to Sir Henry,” Dubois guessed, rubbing his hands.

He hastily packed a bag and made ready to travel. Before he left, he dashed off a letter and gave it to his agent with orders to deliver it immediately to the bishop.

The letter consisted of one sentence: Find out what happened at the Royal Armory!

Chapter Ten

The unknown frightens us. So we employ spies to learn what our neighbors are doing, as they send their spies to watch us. We want to feel safe, but by our own actions we help continue the paranoia. We sign treaties offriendship and deliver copies to our allies in the hands of our spies.

– Journal entry,

Lady Cecile, Countess De Marjolaine

THE COUNTESS DE MARJOLAINE WAS NOT HOLDING audience this day. She instructed her secretary to tell all who came to her salon that the countess was indisposed. She did admit one visitor, though not by way of the salon. Benoit obtained entry to the countess’ salon via the palace kitchen, where he was well known and well liked by the staff. Word of Benoit’s arrival and his urgent need to speak to the countess passed from the cook to the scullery maid to one of the footmen to a seamstress to Maria, the countess’ trusted lady’s maid, who brought the message to the countess.

Maria Tutolla was sixty years old. She had been in the service of the countess for forty of those sixty years, having accompanied the countess on her return to court following Stephano’s birth. The countess treated Maria and all her servants well. She insisted that everyone in her personal staff learn to read and write and she employed a tutor to teach them. Her servants were wellpaid; their living quarters were comfortable. Contented servants do not betray their masters. This said, the countess never permitted the slightest hint of familiarity from any of her servants. Though Maria had attended the countess for forty years, she still went in awe of her mistress.

Maria went to the kitchen, retrieved Benoit, and led him through the palace’s “servant” passages-dark, narrow, hidden hallways that led to the various dining rooms and salons of the palace’s inhabitants and guests. The myriad passages were intended for the use of the palace’s household staff, who were expected to appear the instant the mistress’ bell rang as though they had materialized out of thin air and to disappear in the same manner. Servants were not the only people who made use of these passages, however. Noble lovers found them convenient when slipping out of one bedroom and into another. The passages were often quite crowded during the night.

A plain wooden door led from the dark hallway used by the servants into the countess’ wardrobe. Maria opened the door with a key and a touch on a magical sigil entwined around the lock. She led Benoit into a large closet smelling of perfume, rosewood, and cedar. Maria lit a filigree lamp that stood on one of the innumerable chests containing overskirts and underskirts, cloaks and dressing gowns, negligees, petticoats, stockings, and shawls. Dainty and elegant shoes stood in a neat and orderly row along one wall. Maria pointed to a chair and indicated in a whisper that Benoit was to have a seat. The old retainer was well-accustomed to these proceedings and he settled himself comfortably. Maria passed through another door that led into the countess’ bedchamber and went to find her mistress.

The countess was in her library sorting through a stack of letters, dispatches, and reports from her agents, separating them into three piles: those of no importance which she would give to the viscount to answer, those which required further reading, and those which demanded her immediate attention.

Occasionally, the countess left off her sorting to look with fondness at a young girl of fifteen seated cross-legged on the floor, much to the detriment of her voluminous blue silk skirt and white lace petticoat that spilled around her in layers of folds and frills. The girl rested her elbows on the floor with the easy elasticity of youth. Her chin in her hands, she was studying a large and colorful map of the world of Aeronne. The girl’s rich chestnut hair had begun the day beautifully curled and coifed by her maids, but a romp in the hall with her spaniel had brought the curls tumbling around her face. The spaniel, a small version of the breed, with long ears and big brown melting eyes, was named Bandit, because he was fond of stealing petit fours. The dog now lay curled up asleep on the hem of the girl’s blue dress.

Her Royal Highness Princess Amelia Louisa Sophia, known as Sophia, was the third child and only daughter of King Alaric and Queen Annmarie. The king’s two sons, both in their twenties, were now serving in the military. The king was pleased to have produced two male heirs to the throne and thus began and ended the extent of his interest in them. He had shipped them off to seminary school when they were little. After that, they had attended University and then gone into the military. The elder, Prince Alaric II, was now Admiral of the Royal Navy’s fleet in the north. The younger, Alessandro, was captain of his own airship. Neither was exceptional, though the elder had a bad reputation among the sailors for being something of a martinet.

Sophia, the unexpected child, the late child, was the child the king adored. Alaric doted on her, gave her everything she wanted and much that she didn’t. The queen, her mother, a vain and vapid woman, cared nothing for the girl herself, but only for the wealthy and prestigious match she would make for her daughter. With this end in mind, the queen was always trying to improve her daughter’s looks. Her Majesty primped, curled, and fussed over Sophia’s hair, rouged her cheeks and painted her lips, and laced her into corsets in an effort to plump up her small breasts.

Sophia was required to take dancing lessons and etiquette lessons. She learned to paint and to do fancy embroidery. She was not taught to read or to write for these were skills considered by her illiterate mother to be of no importance to a woman. The queen scolded Sophia when she caught her wasting time with a book, telling her daughter that men did not want clever wives.

Between the king and queen, they might have utterly ruined their daughter. Sophia’s naturally sweet nature, a passion for music, an extraordinary talent as a magical crafter, and the countess’ tutelage saved the princess from turning out to be a spoiled and empty-headed porcelain doll.

Early in life, Sophia had developed an attachment to the Countess de Marjolaine. No one in court could understand the attraction. The cold, cunning, devious countess and the sensitive, shy Sophia seemed an unlikely match. Their relationship had begun the day when the countess entered her music room to find the little girl of five teaching herself to play the pianoforte. The countess had recognized the child’s talent and had given her lessons. Discovering that Sophia could neither read nor write, the countess had expanded those lessons to include these skills.

The countess did not relax her cold, dispassionate demeanor around the girl, never exhibited any affection toward her. On the contrary, the countess was often a stern and difficult taskmaster. Sophia knew the value of what she was learning and enjoyed her studies. She came to love the countess, though she was wise enough to keep her affection a secret. Sophia had learned at an early age that her mother, the queen, hated the Countess de Marjolaine, though it would be many more years before Sophia would come to understand the jealousy that prompted this hatred. All Sophia knew was that when she was with the countess, she was free to be Sophia, not Papa’s “pet” or Mama’s “darling.”

As for the countess, she found that teaching the girl brought her a deep satisfaction she had never before experienced. She felt something akin to happiness when Sophia was with her, a feeling she had once thought she would never know again. The countess would not admit her affection for the girl. She told herself it was her duty to see to it that a princess of Rosia should be an educated and well-informed woman. The child would certainly not learn anything from her mother, who had all the intellect of an eggplant, or her father, a man of low cunning, but no particular intelligence.

The countess was attempting to concentrate on sorting her correspondence, but her gaze often left the letters and reports to fix upon Sophia, admiring her delicate beauty and wondering irritably, not for the first time, how the queen could ever refer to her daughter as “homely and plain.”

Sophia felt the countess’ eyes upon her and lifted her head to smile at her. Sophia’s face-minus the rouge, which she invariably rubbed off when she was out of her mother’s sight-was sweet and winsome and pale, too pale; the pallor of illness, not of fashion.

Sophia had long suffered from severe headaches. The headaches had been mild when she was young, but they were growing more frequent and more severe. The king had brought in physicians and healers from around the world to treat her. She had been examined by the best, but no one could find a cause for her ailment. Sophia did not have poor eyesight. Her vision was perfect. She had never suffered a head injury. She did not exhibit symptoms of a brain disease; no seizures, no bleeding from the nose or ears.

The physicians and healers had tried numerous remedies, everything from bleeding to leeches to potions that made her throw up. None helped. When the attacks came, her screams could be heard in distant halls and corridors. The pain was so bad the servants often had to lash her arms and feet to her bedposts to keep her from thrashing about and hurting herself.

Both parents suffered almost as much as Sophia; the king because he truly cared about his daughter and the queen because she did not know how she was ever going to find a husband for her afflicted child.

“I am glad you are feeling better today, Your Highness,” the countess said with her customary cool politeness, as she continued to glance through her correspondence. “I heard you were ill last night. Was the pain very bad this time?”

Sophia flushed, pleased that the countess was taking an interest in her. She spoke somberly, yet rapidly, as though glad to talk about it. “The pain was horrible. It felt like someone had stabbed a hot, burning knife into my skull. When it comes, I can’t think about anything except the pain and trying to make it stop. Mama wanted me to take that bitter medicine the latest physician gave me, but I hate the way it makes me feel, as though I’m wrapped in a thick woolly blanket, and, anyway, medicine doesn’t help. I know the pain is still there, beneath the blanket, and that makes it worse. I drank the medicine to please Mama, but I spit it out after she left the room.”

Sophia started to say something, then bit her lip and fell silent.

“Yes, Your Highness, what it is?” prompted the countess.

“The medicine makes me sleep, but it doesn’t stop the bad dreams. I think sometimes the dreams are worse than the pain.”

The countess stopped sorting to look with concern at her young friend.

“Was it the same dream, Your Highness?”

“Yes, my lady. I am in a cave lit by torches. The cave is cold. I can see my breath and I’m not wearing anything except my shift. Something is chasing me and I’m running away and the cold air makes my chest hurt. I stop because I can’t breathe and hide behind a boulder, but I keep hearing the booming footsteps coming after me. I can sense its hunger. It wants me. I start running again, and the footsteps keep coming: boom, boom, boom.”

Sophia’s voice dropped. “What is most horrible is that it knows my name. It calls out to me, and when it does, I wake up.”

Her brow furrowed. “Even when I’m awake, I can hear the footsteps sometimes: boom, boom, boom. I can even feel them coming up through the floor.”

The countess was troubled. Sophia had told her about the dream before. The dream was always the same, with little variation, as if the girl were describing something real, something that had actually happened to her. Cecile was wondering whether or not to mention this to the king, thinking it might be a new symptom, when her thoughts were interrupted by her servant, Maria, coming to whisper that Benoit was waiting in the wardrobe and that he appeared agitated.

The countess rose languidly with a rustle of silk, her skirts falling in graceful folds around her.

“I must leave you for a moment, Your Highness. While I am gone, I want you to locate Travia and Estara and the island of Braffa on your map.”

“I already know where they are, my lady,” said Sophia, shyly proud. She pointed out the two small continents on the map.

“Then be ready to discuss the deteriorating political situation between these two nations and how it relates to Braffa and to Rosia when I return,” said the countess.

“Yes, my lady,” said Sophia.

She picked up the spaniel and held him poised over the map.

“Now, Bandit, you must find Braffa…”

The countess, not expecting formal visitations, was dressed for comfort in a voluminous and exquisite white cambric chemise. Maria fetched a green moire dressing gown, which the countess put on over the chemise, then entered her wardrobe.

Benoit rose respectfully and made an attempt to bow, staggered, and nearly fell. The countess ordered Maria to fetch brandywine. Benoit drank it, and some color returned to his wrinkled cheeks.

“Please, sit down,” said the countess.

She herself remained standing, an indication that Benoit should not expect to linger.

“You’ve come about Stephano.”

“Yes, my lady,” said Benoit, seating himself.

“The last I heard my son and his ‘Cadre’ were planning to travel to Westfirth.”

“They are on their way there now, my lady,” said Benoit. “They were somewhat delayed.”

He went on to tell her about the challenge in the park, how Stephano and Rodrigo had gone to the duel, how both had been certain Rodrigo would be killed, but that Stephano had hoped to be able to find a way out of it and had ordered the Cloud Hopper to be ready to sail, how Benoit, fearing the worst, had gone to the houseboat to await the dire news.

“I do not know what happened at the duel, my lady,” said Benoit. “Master Stephano was not at leisure to tell me, what with the men shooting at us. Did I mention to your ladyship that I shot one of the assassins?”

“Twice,” said the countess coolly.

She listened with her usual calm languor, evincing no emotion. “My son was wounded, you said.”

“Yes, my lady. Shot in the shoulder,” said Benoit, adding with a certain pride, “He was shot up worse than that during the war. He’ll survive this one. The Trundler woman, Miri, is an herbalist like most of her kind. She will see to it that he pulls through.”

The countess did not evince much interest and shifted to another topic. “Tell me more about this man with the gun with the rifled bore.”

“Monsieur Rodrigo called him ‘Sir Richard Piefer.’ According to the master, he laid claim to be a Freyan nobleman. He spoke with a Freyan accent.”

“Can you describe this Piefer?”

“The master would be able to do so. I regret to say that I only saw him from a distance, my lady, and he was trying to kill me at the time.”

The countess’ lips twitched slightly. “Is that all you have to report, Benoit?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Do you know if Monsieur Rodrigo has been apprised of the death of his father?”

“Is his lordship dead, my lady?” Benoit asked, astonished.

“I fear so, Benoit. The ambassador was gunned down as he was leaving the office of the Estaran Minister of the Exchequer. The Estarans have arrested a Travian revolutionary, who happened-most conveniently-to be in the vicinity. His Majesty King Alaric has sent a strongly worded letter expressing his outrage at the death of his ambassador and demanding a full investigation.”

“I see,” said Benoit. The old man’s eyes moistened. “Monsieur Rodrigo will be most affected by this tragic news. I will write to him immediately.”

“You may also write to Monsieur Rodrigo that he should avoid returning home. He is wanted for the murder of young Valazquez. I was wondering what this ridiculous charge was all about. Now I know. The matter will be resolved, but the negotiations may take some time. I will send you word when it is safe for Monsieur Rodrigo to return.”

“Yes, my lady. Thank you, my lady.”

“Is there anything else?”

“No, my lady.”

Benoit finished off the brandywine, set the snifter on the table, and rose to his feet. The countess summoned Maria, who came to escort Benoit back through the servants’ passage. As the two were about to leave, the countess stopped them.

“Benoit, you said you have some means of communicating with my son? You know where he is lodging while in Westfirth?”

Benoit looked wary. “I might, my lady.”

“Relax, Benoit. I will not demand that you tell me. But I would appreciate knowing when you hear from him.”

“I will, my lady,” said Benoit, bowing once again, then exiting the closet in company with Maria.

Left alone, the countess blew out the lamp and stood in the darkness for long moments, twisting the ring on her finger, before leaving the wardrobe and going to her sitting room. Summoning her valet-de-chambre, Dargent, the countess told him to dispatch one of her agents to find out information regarding the mysterious Sir Richard Piefer.

Dargent left swiftly upon his errand, and the countess returned to the library. Sophia tried to rise as the countess entered, but the princess was hampered in this effort by the spaniel, which had once more planted himself on the hem of her skirt and refused to budge.

“Bandit, you are a bad dog,” said Sophia, scolding him by kissing him on the top of his head.

The countess languidly resumed her seat. “I am sorry I was absent so long, Your Highness. Now, tell me about the situation in Braffa.”

Sophia shooed away the spaniel, rose to her feet, and came over to stand before the countess to recite her lesson.

“Estara and Travia both claim the island nation of Braffa because of its valuable resource known as the Blood of God, which is a form of the Breath that has been transformed into a liquid and can be used to power airships. The grand bishop favors the claim of Estara over Braffa because the Church has more influence in that country. The king, my father, says that we have stronger ties to Travia and he favors their claim.”

“What about the city-state of Braffa?”

“The Braffan council wants to refuse both claims and remain independent.”

Sophia went on to describe how a city-state differed from a monarchy. As she was talking, the countess happened to glance down at the letter she had been about to read when she had been obliged to leave to speak to Benoit. The letter was from her principal agent in Freya. A name in the letter caught her attention. A chill came over the countess. She longed to read the letter, but she did not want to hurt Sophia’s feelings by dismissing her. Too often the girl had been told to “run along and play.”

“And what about our longtime enemy, Freya?” the countess asked. “Which side do they support and what role does the Blood of God and the Freyan Navy play in this dispute?”

Sophia’s eyes widened in dismay at the question. She bit her lip. Her cheeks flushed.

“The Freyan Navy? I’m not certain, my lady…”

“We talked about the Freyan Navy during our last lesson,” said the countess, and she added with a slight smile, “Perhaps some cakes and hot chocolate would help your thought process.”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure they would!” Sophia cried, laughing and clapping her hands.

The countess rang a small silver bell and Maria appeared. The countess gave her order. Maria returned bearing a tray on which gold-rimmed plates of the finest porcelain bore small cakes decorated with sugared violets, bonbons, and spiced nuts. The tantalizing smell of coffee mingled with the aroma of hot chocolate.

“May I be hostess, my lady?” Sophia asked eagerly. “Mama never lets me pour. She fears I will spill on my gown.”

The countess said she would be honored if the princess would serve her. Sophia was delighted. She took her duties as hostess quite seriously, her first task being to remove Bandit from the chair on which he had jumped with the intent of helping himself to cake. Sophia laughingly asked him which he wanted and made him choose by holding his small nose over each cake. Once Bandit had made his decision, which he did by licking a cake before Sophia could stop him, the princess hovered over the cake tray, selecting the very best delicacies for the countess and arranging them attractively on the plate. After that, Sophia had to make a decision on which cakes she wanted. All this took a considerable amount of time.

While Sophia was thus happily engaged, the countess was at liberty to read her letter, which was written in code, made to appear as nothing more than two ladies exchanging the latest gossip in case the missive should be intercepted.

Our dear friend, Honoria, has not been in attendance at the royal Freyan court recently.

“Honoria” was her code name for Sir Henry Wallace.

Honoria’s unexpected absence is of great concern to her friends and has become the cause of much speculation. I have asked around, but no one knows where she is or what has become of her. I confess that I am quite worried and I know that you will be concerned, as well.

I will tell you what I know. Rumor has it that a short while ago Honoria received a mysterious package delivered to her by a merchant sailor. No one knows what was in the package, but after she received it, she departed at once for her estate. I have heard nothing of her since.

Now you know, my dear, that my curiosity is enough to kill any number of cats, and I decided to find out more about this mysterious package. I have a friend who is in the custom office and he was obliging enough to provide me with a manifest for the two merchant vessels that were in port at the time. A package recorded on the manifest was addressed to Honoria. The contents were described as: one pewter tankard! An odd gift for our elegant friend!

But here is a most strange coincidence that will amuse you. As I was reading the manifest, I came across the name of one of your friends. You happened to mention the name to me in your last correspondence: Manuel Alcazar, that merchant sailor from the city of Westfirth. Or was your friend Pietro Alcazar? I can’t recall. Perhaps they are relatives. Isn’t it funny that I should happen to run across his name on this manifest? A small world, as they say!

The following was added in a postscript, obviously written in haste.

I have just received news that is most shocking. It seems a small boat bound for Rosia has disappeared into the Breath in a dead calm. All hands are feared lost. This happened about the same time our dear Honoria vanished. You don’t suppose she was aboard? Ah, it is too dreadful to contemplate! Still, she has as many lives as the aforesaid cat. I will let you know the instant I hear more about our missing friend.

The countess allowed the letter to slip from her hands. She sat staring at a porcelain figurine of a shepherdess on the desk. She did not see the shepherdess, she did not see the room around her, she did not hear Sophia’s gentle voice.

“My lady, are you ill?”

The countess blinked and hurriedly left the dark streets and cul-de-sacs in which her mind was wandering. She had the impression this was the third time Sophia had spoken. The countess put her hand to her temple and gave a wan smile.

“I am sorry, Your Highness, but I fear that I am not feeling quite well.”

“Is there anything I can do for you, my lady?” asked Sophia in alarm, setting down the cup of chocolate she had been holding. “Can I fetch your smelling salts? Some wine?”

“If you could ring for Maria, Your Highness,” said the countess faintly. “I fear we will have to postpone our lesson for the day. Besides, Her Majesty the Queen will be wondering where you are. I would not have her angry at me.”

Sophia rang the silver bell. “I hope you feel better, my lady,” she said anxiously. “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”

“I will be fine, Your Highness,” said the countess. “It is but a sudden indisposition.”

Sophia nodded, her eyes soft with concern. She gathered up Bandit and, with a fond look, left the countess’ chambers. When the countess could no longer hear the sound of the girl’s rustling petticoats, she turned to Maria.

“Find Dargent,” the countess said. “The matter is urgent.”

Maria obeyed with alacrity. When she was gone, the countess picked up the letter and, lighting a candle on her desk, held the paper to the flame. Once the letter had caught fire, the countess dropped the burning paper onto a plate and waited until it was consumed, then ground up the ashes with a coffee spoon and dumped them into the silver coffeepot.

Dargent entered her room. “You sent for me, Your Grace.”

“I must speak with Stephano’s retainer, Benoit. He was here a short while ago. He may still be in the servants’ hall. If not, go to my son’s home and bring Benoit back here immediately. It is of the greatest importance that I communicate with him.”

Dargent bowed and departed.

The countess rose to her feet and began to pace back and forth, clasping and unclasping her hands and twisting the little ring.

Dargent traveled swiftly to Stephano’s house in the wyvern-drawn carriage kept by the countess for his exclusive use. Dargent was out the carriage door almost before the wyvern’s claws had scraped the pavement. He knew the countess. He had heard the quaver of fear in her voice.

He ran to the door and raised his hand to knock, then he froze on the door stoop. He had no need to knock. The door was open, ajar. Dargent had been to Stephano’s house many times, and he knew Benoit would not be so careless as to leave the entrance unlocked. Dargent drew his pistol. Cocking the hammer, he gave the door a shove.

He entered slowly and cautiously. He looked behind the door, saw no one there.

“Benoit?” he called.

No answer.

Dargent went to the kitchen, where he knew Benoit liked to reside, and found a scene of destruction. Cabinet doors gaped wide, their contents strewn all over the floor. A marble bust of King Alaric lay smashed on the floor. Sacks of flour had been slit open and dumped out. Barrels were split apart and chairs upended.

Dargent hastened through the kitchen to look out the rear door, but found no one there. He returned through the kitchen and went across the hall to Benoit’s room. The bed had been overturned, clothes pulled out of the wardrobe. Still holding the pistol, Dargent made his way stealthily up the stairs. He was fairly certain the searchers had completed their work and were gone, but he was not taking any chances.

The searchers had been thorough; he had to give them credit for that. They had taken the paintings from the wall to look behind them. They had broken into locked chests, removed papers and letters from the bureau. They had even gone through all the books, taking them down from the shelves, flipping through the leaves, and throwing them down on the floor when they were finished.

Now certain that he was alone, Dargent lowered his pistol and released the hammer. He wondered what the searchers had been looking for, wondered if they had found it.

Shaking his head, he called out again, “Benoit! Are you here? It’s Dargent! The countess sent me!”

There was always a chance the old man might be hiding in a closet, but, again, no answer. Dargent had not truly expected one. He went back into the kitchen and knelt down to examine the splatters he’d seen on the floor. He dipped his fingers in them.

Blood. Fresh blood.

Dargent sighed deeply. He guessed that the old man had returned from the palace to catch the searchers in the act. They had beaten him, then had either kidnapped him to see what he knew or they’d taken away the corpse. Leaving the house, Dargent told his carriage driver not to spare his whip.

The countess received the disturbing news regarding the ransacking of Stephano’s house and the disappearance of Benoit with a raised eyebrow and a deepening of the frown line on her forehead.

“Thank you for trying,” she said to Dargent. “You may go now.”

When he was gone and she was alone, the countess sank down in her chair. She tried to think what to do, how to warn Stephano that he was about to unwittingly cross swords with Sir Henry Wallace, spymaster, assassin, a man she considered the most dangerous man in all the world.

The countess had agents in Westfirth. She could alert them, tell them to find Stephano. She ruled that out. Sir Henry had his own agents in Westfirth and his agents knew her agents, just as her agents knew his. In using any agent to warn Stephano to keep away from Sir Henry, she might inadvertently lead Sir Henry right to him.

Yet, if she did not warn Stephano…

Night was falling. The servants came to light the candles. The countess sent them away. She preferred to sit alone in the darkness, her head resting on her hand. She would have to apprise His Majesty of the situation regarding Sir Henry Wallace or at least some part of the situation, the part she chose to tell. Alaric would be upset, but she knew how to handle him. He was not the problem that concerned her, deeply concerned her.

Closing her eyes, the countess brought Stephano’s face to mind; the face so like his father’s that her heart constricted with pain every time her son smiled.

“Julian, my love, my own dear love,” Cecile de Marjolaine whispered softly, “Be with our boy!”

Chapter Eleven

Man is imperfect and thus our understanding of God is imperfect. This lack is most evident in the understanding of God’s gift, Magic. We have learned to use magic for His glory, but I fear there are those who seek to use magic for His downfall. Beware the quiet night, when the dark voice whispers in your ear, for the magic in his voice is corruption.

– Writings of Saint Dennis

SIR ANDER MARTEL WAS KNIGHT PROTECTOR to Father Jacob Northrop, a priest representing that most mysterious and greatly feared order of the Church known as the Arcanum. As Knight Protector, Sir Ander had pledged before God to hold the life of this priest as a sacred trust, to lay down his own life in defense of the priest, to protect and shield him from all harm.

Far easier pledged than done, Sir Ander gloomily reflected as he removed the cuirass, marked with the emblem of the Knight Protectors, and enhanced with magical constructs, his helm and other accouterments before placing them in the yacht’s built-in storage locker. He kept his armor and his weapons close to hand. One never knew, when traveling with Father Jacob, when they would be needed.

Sir Ander flung himself down in a chair and tried to sleep, without success. Whenever he started to drift off into slumber, lulled by the gentle swaying of the airborne yacht, he saw again the horrific scenes of last night’s bloody debacle in the town of Capione and was jolted back into unpleasant wakefulness.

Sir Ander looked with envy and some bitterness at his companion, Father Jacob, who was sleeping quite soundly. The priest slept in the same position always, lying on his back, his hands resting on his chest, fingers clasped, his body completely relaxed.

Never mind that eleven soldiers had lost their lives last night, half a city block had been destroyed, and months of careful planning had literally gone up in flames. Never mind that the yacht, specially designed for a priest of the Arcanum, was now speeding through the night in reply to an urgent summons from the grand bishop. Father Jacob could still sleep soundly and even, to add insult to injury, snore.

“The mind is the ruler, the body is the subject,” Father Jacob often said. “When the mind tells the body it is time for sleep, the body should obey. The inability to fall asleep when and where you desire means your body is tyrannizing your mind; something I never permit.”

Sir Ander shifted about on the chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. He could have made up the yacht’s other bed, which was now a bench, but Sir Ander disliked lying down when the yacht was airborne. The swaying motion always made him feel slightly queasy.

He thrust out his long legs and settled himself in the chair, chin on his chest, and gave up the fight for sleep. He was once more in the flames and smoke of the battle last night, a battle they thought they had won, only to discover that even with all their careful plans, their quarry, a man known to his deluded followers as the Warlock, had managed to escape…

The soldiers who had survived the assault and finally fought their way into the coven’s hideout searched among the dead on orders of Father Jacob. They found a body in the wreckage that matched the description of the Warlock: a young man of about seventeen or eighteen years of age with blond hair, blond beard and mustache, and intense blue eyes. Those blue eyes were now wide open and staring in death. They could not tell how he had died. There was no blood on the corpse, no sign of a wound.

The soldiers set a guard over the room and sent word to Sir Ander and Father Jacob that they had found the Warlock and that he was dead. No one went near the corpse. Father Jacob had warned the soldiers that if they found their way into the Warlock’s inner sanctum, they were to be careful not to touch anything-an order the soldiers were happy to obey.

The room was below ground level; the walls and floor lined with stone. Two rows of thick wooden pillars supported a vaulted stone ceiling. On the pillars were sigils of warding and protection. Brass lamps shed a dim light throughout the room. Small cells had been built in the middle of each wall. Iron bars enclosed each cell, leaving just room enough for a person to stand. Each contained the body of one of the coven’s many victims. All of them had died horribly, in some depraved manner.

Sir Ander was not a crafter. He did not have a magical bone in his body, as the saying went. Yet he was able to feel the dark magic in that room hiss and sputter like the fuse of a bomb. Bodies of the Warlock’s allies lay on the floor, some torn apart by bullets, others burned to death, victims of their own black magic gone awry. All the victims were young, none of them above twenty years of age. Sir Ander had seen death in many gruesome forms on the field of battle, but the horror of this sight, as he entered the room, made his stomach roil.

“God save us!” whispered a voice at his elbow.

The knight turned to find Brother Barnaby standing at his side. Sir Ander was startled. He had not realized Brother Barnaby had tagged along after them. The young monk was always so quiet and self-effacing, one tended to forget he was around.

Barely in his twenties himself, Brother Barnaby was slight of build, with intelligent brown eyes and a fine-boned face. His skin was the onyx color of those who dwell in the Galiar region, east of Argonne. His hair was blue-black, shaved in the tonsure. Despite his appearance, he was strong and capable, far stronger than he looked.

Sir Ander regarded the young monk with concern.

“Brother Barnaby, you should not be a witness to this sad scene. Go wait for us back at our lodgings.”

“I have a letter for Father Jacob, sir,” said Brother Barnaby, clutching a folded and sealed document. “It just arrived, forwarded to the Father from the Arcanum. And I have a message from one of the Bishop’s Own, who flew to Capione on griffin-back and needs to speak to Father Jacob most urgently.”

“The letter and the Bishop’s Own can both wait until we have finished here,” said Sir Ander, trying to find a way to keep Brother Barnaby from entering the horror-filled room. “Go tell the guardsman that Father Jacob will attend him shortly.”

“I already told him, sir,” said Brother Barnaby, sticking doggedly to Sir Ander. The monk smiled faintly. “You should know by now, sir, that you can’t get rid of me that easily. Father Jacob might need me.”

Sir Ander opened his mouth and shut it again. He knew he would be wasting his breath. Brother Barnaby was dedicated, body and soul, to Father Jacob. Sir Ander would not be able to remove the young monk, short of picking him up and carrying him out the door.

“Very well,” said Sir Ander testily. “But keep close to me and don’t touch anything!”

Brother Barnaby nodded and silently accompanied Sir Ander as the knight entered the bloodstained room. The cavernous chamber had no windows and was as shadowed as the hearts of those who had once inhabited it, or so Sir Ander thought. The soldiers ordered to guard the room were carrying torches, but even their flaring light could not lift the darkness that seemed to settle on the soul.

The soldiers pointed the way to the corpse. Sir Ander had brought a lantern fueled by a glowing magical sigil and by its light they located Father Jacob, on his knees on the floor of a small antechamber off the main room. Brother Barnaby stood gazing on the awful scene, his brown eyes moist with sorrow and wide with shock. Sir Ander looked very grim.

Father Jacob held his own lantern, magically enhanced to give off an extremely bright glow. He had placed the lantern on the floor near the corpse and was kneeling in the blood, studying the corpse with such intensity that he did not hear the footsteps of his comrades.

He sniffed at the cold lips and studied with minute care the victim’s robes. He peered at the soles of the boots and the hands clenched to fists in the agony of the death throes. He was careful not to touch the body, Sir Ander noted.

The knight looked down sternly at the corpse of the young man.

It is a sin to be pleased at the death of any man, Sir Ander thought, particularly one so young. He could not help but feel intensely relieved that this evil young man was dead, his reign of terror ended.

Sir Ander squatted down beside the body. “No trace of blood. How did he die? Poison?”

Father Jacob did not answer. He was frowning, lost in his reflections. Sir Ander, accustomed to the priest’s ways, patiently repeated the question.

Father Jacob roused himself and said abruptly, “Something damn odd about this.” His voice was deep and resonating and although Father Jacob had lived in Rosia twenty-five years, his Freyan accent was still pronounced.

Sir Ander repeated his question a third time, and, since he finally had the priest’s attention, he added in rebuking tones, “Brother Barnaby is here. He came to see you.”

“I have a letter for you from Master Albert Savoraun, Father,” said Brother Barnaby. “And the grand bishop sent a messenger saying he has urgent need of you.”

Father Jacob snorted and with that snort dismissed the letter and the grand bishop. The priest continued to study the corpse.

Father Jacob Northrup was in his early forties. His brownish hair, shaved in the traditional tonsure, was starting to go gray. He was clean-shaven, of medium height, though he seemed taller to most people, perhaps because he was muscular and well built. He had been a prize-winning pugilist in his youth and was still fond of the sport. He wore the black cassock that marked a member of the Arcanum and a black, stiff hat made of felt. He would have been termed handsome, for he had a strong jawline and fine nose, but for his eyes, which were gray-green in color and glittered with an intensity most people found disturbing.

“When Father Jacob looks at you, he sees you-sees all of you, whether you want him to or not,” Sir Ander often said.

Father Jacob’s face was marked with the trials of his life; deep lines marred his brow, wrinkles webbed his eyes. He was thin-lipped, and when he smiled, the smile could be either charming or a prelude to doom.

“Father, you should send Brother Barnaby away,” said Sir Andrew.

“And why should I do that?” Father Jacob asked irritably.

“Because there is no need for this young monk to have to witness such carnage. Bad enough we should have to see it ourselves. I’ll have nightmares for a week and I’ve seen men blown apart by cannonballs and never flinched. But this… They were so young…”

Father Jacob glanced about the room, then returned his frowning gaze to the corpse. Sir Ander sighed and gave up. He knew from long experience that when Father Jacob looked at this room, he did not see the tragic ruin of young lives or think of the terror and pain these young ones must have endured. To Father Jacob’s analytical mind, the dead youths were nothing more than factors in an equation he had been given the task of solving. And right now, judging by his furrowed brow and tight lips, he was not having much success.

“I’m missing something,” Father Jacob said, frowning in perplexity and frustration. “Missing something…”

He pushed himself to his feet and stood with his head lowered, deep in thought. When a soldier came up and seemed about to interrupt the priest in this work, both Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby hurriedly intervened.

“ ‘How did he die?’ ” Father Jacob muttered. “You have a knack, Sir Ander, for hitting the very center of the target. ‘How did he die?’ A most intriguing question.”

He bent back to examine the corpse and Sir Ander, who was growing stiff from squatting, stood up. His knees made popping sounds and he grimaced. He was fifty years old and though he was in excellent condition physically, he was at the age where his bones were starting to creak.

“So very young. So very sad,” said Brother Barnaby. Murmuring the prayer for the dead, he reached down his hand to shut the staring eyes.

“Don’t touch!” Father Jacob cried, striking the monk’s hand with such force that Brother Barnaby stumbled and nearly fell. The young monk shrank back in dismay.

“Really, Father, there was no need to hit him!” Sir Ander began angrily.

Father Jacob looked up at the soldier who had arrived with a question.

“Get your men out of here,” Father Jacob ordered. “And take Brother Barnaby with you!”

“Sir, our captain’s dead,” the soldier began. “I’m not sure-”

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn who’s dead!” Father Jacob shouted. “Get your men out of here! Set a guard on the door. Don’t let anyone in.”

The alarmed soldier hastened off to convey the priest’s command. The troops obeyed with alacrity, all of them thankful to leave that chamber of horrors. Since the door had been blown apart and battered down, the soldiers took up their positions in the hallway outside. In his haste, the soldier had forgotten about Brother Barnaby, who had retreated to the shadows, hoping Father Jacob would not notice he was still around.

The monk’s efforts failed.

Father Jacob glowered. “Brother Barnaby, I said you were to leave.”

“I will leave when you leave, Father,” Brother Barnaby said quietly.

Father Jacob muttered something, then motioned with his hand. “If you insist on staying, Brother, walk over to that wall and stand there and do not move! Sir Ander, remain near. I may need your services.”

Father Jacob knelt on the floor beside the corpse, being careful not to touch it. He passed his hand over the young man’s chest and spoke words that were harsh and ugly, the language of dark magic, sounding like a screeching bat, a cawing crow. His face, mild and benign, twisted and contorted. Brother Barnaby shuddered and looked away. Sir Ander felt the hair prickle the back of his neck. His gut tightened. He placed his hand on his sword’s hilt, ready for whatever might come.

Father Jacob continued to pass his hand back and forth over the dead man’s chest and then he stopped. He made a gesture of summoning and spoke a word of command.

A viper reared up from where it had been lying coiled beneath the robes on the corpse’s chest. The snake’s hooded head faced Father Jacob. The viper’s tongue flicked out of its mouth. The snake hissed at Father Jacob and seemed to want to strike, but the priest held it in thrall with his magic. The viper’s head swayed back and forth, its slit eyes fixed on Father Jacob.

“You must cut off the head, Sir Ander,” said Father Jacob coolly. “Quickly, man! I cannot hold sway over it much longer.”

Sir Ander swallowed his inborn revulsion of all things that slithered on the ground and drew his broadsword from the scabbard slowly, trying not to make a sound that might cause the viper to attack. He held his sword in his hand, estimating the stroke.

“You’re too close to the snake. I don’t want to cut off two heads instead of one,” said Sir Ander softly.

“I don’t dare move,” said Father Jacob. “If I do, I will break the spell that is holding the viper in thrall.”

Sir Ander drew in a deep breath. “Then when I swing, you must pull your head back. Are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Father Jacob.

Brother Barnaby was softly praying.

“Put a prayer in God’s ear for me, Brother,” said Sir Ander and, using a backhanded stroke, he swept the blade through the air.

Father Jacob lunged sideways. The blade whistled past him and sliced through the viper, severing the snake’s head from the body. The head flew off onto the floor. The snake’s body fell, twitching, on top of the corpse.

“A Tissius viper,” said Father Jacob, eyeing the snake with interest. “Comes from the Kharun Dir Desert. Highly poisonous. Brother Barnaby, could you find me a sack? I should like to take the corpse back to the yacht to study-”

Sir Ander coughed and jerked his head.

Father Jacob looked up at Brother Barnaby. The young man leaned against the wall, shivering. Father Jacob’s expression softened.

“I am sorry you had to witness this, Brother Barnaby,” said Father Jacob with a sigh. “And I am sorry I struck you. But if you had touched the corpse, the viper would have bitten you. Death would have been inevitable and most painful.”

“I understand, Father.” Brother Barnaby gulped. He looked ill, but he stood steadfast. “Please do not apologize. I will find a sack-”

“Thank you, Brother, but never mind,” said Father Jacob in regretful tones. “I wouldn’t have time to dissect it anyway.”

Sir Ander drew his handkerchief and carefully wiped his blade. He thrust his broadsword back into the scabbard and tossed the handkerchief in disgust onto the floor.

“Why did the Warlock plant the snake on himself?” asked Sir Ander. “Just to have the sadistic pleasure of knowing that he could still kill after death?”

Father Jacob was staring with perplexity at the corpse. “I’m not certain that was the reason. From what I know of him, the Warlock, though young, is highly intelligent. His actions are always purposeful. Reason and logic guide him.”

He looked more closely at the corpse, then he said urgently, “Tell the soldiers to start searching the area.”

“What are they searching for?” Sir Ander asked, puzzled.

“For the Warlock, of course,” Father Jacob snapped impatiently.

Sir Ander had no idea what the priest was talking about-the Warlock was dead on the floor. But Sir Ander had been with Father Jacob for ten years and he knew that questioning him now would only further aggravate him. He trusted the priest implicitly and although the Warlock was most certainly dead, he went to tell the soldiers to conduct a thorough search of the building and the surrounding area for the Warlock.

The soldiers looked at Sir Ander as though he was crazy, but he was a Knight Protector and they were bound to obey. They walked off slowly, muttering among themselves. They wanted to leave this place, go back to pick up their dead. Sir Ander didn’t blame them. A mug of cold ale in some noisy tavern where people were carefree and laughing seemed like Heaven to him about now.

“They’re searching for him,” Sir Ander said on his return. “Though they have no idea why.”

“They won’t find him,” Father Jacob remarked, talking to himself more than his companions. “He had his escape route all planned. A brilliant young man. He could have done great things in this world. For such a mind to be corrupted…”

Brother Barnaby was bewildered. “I don’t understand, Father,” he said hesitantly. “Isn’t this dead man the Warlock?”

In answer, Father Jacob placed his hand on the young man’s cheek and, with a sudden jerk, ripped off the blond mustache. Brother Barnaby flinched and gasped in shock.

“It’s not real, Brother. Spirit gum,” Father Jacob said succinctly, holding up the mustache. “The sort used by actors.”

He tore off the blond beard, then twitched aside the collar of the red robes to reveal the breasts, bound in strips of flannel, of a young woman.

Brother Barnaby hurriedly averted his eyes. The young monk took his vow of celibacy seriously. Sir Ander drew closer to get a better look, then he remembered the snake and kept his distance.

“Oh, it’s quite safe now,” Father Jacob said. “The poor child will not hurt anyone anymore.”

“She can’t be more than fifteen!” Sir Ander knelt down to gaze with pity at the youthful face. He sighed and said quietly, “Elaina Devroux.”

“Yes,” said Father Jacob. “Sad news for the viscount and his lady wife.”

“He murdered her and then disguised the body so that we would think it was him,” Sir Ander said grimly.

“He did not murder the girl, though one might say Elaina Devroux perished the day she fell victim to him and his cult,” said Father Jacob. “Note the expression on her face. The young woman died in a drug-induced state. The juice of the poppy, if I’m not mistaken. She dressed with care, even to binding her breasts to make herself appear flat-chested. She put on men’s boots, which are too big for her.”

He looked at the rigid, pale face with its strange and terrible smile. “The beard and mustache are made of real human hair and were applied by someone who knew his business. Such a disguise required careful planning and forethought. She must have agreed at the outset to sacrifice herself for the Warlock should that become necessary. The Warlock was her lover. She ran away from home, to go to him and to the opium he fed her.”

“How do you know she was taking opium?” Sir Ander asked.

“When her parents first found her, wandering aimlessly about the city, they thought her ravings were the result of ‘demonic possession.’ In truth, the seizures were brought about by the removal of the drug to which she had become addicted. I have seen the same behavior among patients in the infirmary who were given opium in honey for the pain of broken limbs. In some instances, when the opium is taken away, these patients appear to have been seized by demons.”

The priest drew back Elaina’s robes and pointed to two small marks on the young girl’s neck.

“That is how she died. When the Warlock placed the viper on her chest and covered it with her robes, she knew that it must eventually bite her.”

“But why would she do such thing?” Brother Barnaby asked, his voice soft with dismay.

“To give the man she adored the opportunity to escape, of course,” said Father Jacob. “He needed time to evade our pursuit and this poor child provided it.”

“He escapes, leaving her and everyone else in his cult to die. I hope he rots in Hell!” Sir Ander said savagely. “He was warned in advance of our coming.”

“Yes,” Father Jacob said and he added bitterly, in sudden anger, “As if we needed more proof than the fact that I walked into his trap and now eleven men are dead!”

“But who could have warned him? No one knew except you and me and the viscount…”

Sir Ander saw the grim look on the priest’s face. “The viscount? You can’t be serious! Why warn the very person he wanted us to catch? His soldiers were the ones who died in the assault.”

“I doubt that he meant to,” said Father Jacob. “We will probably find he has a servant in the pay of the Warlock.”

The priest rose to his feet and dusted off his hands. “We are not dealing with a lunatic, Sir Ander. We are dealing with a young man who is operating with a purpose, a young man with someone even more intelligent behind him.”

“You are talking about the Sorceress. But what purpose can there possibly be in torturing and murdering people? Other than”-Sir Ander glanced askance at Brother Barnaby and lowered his voice-“for sadistic sexual pleasure…”

“That is part of it, certainly,” said Father Jacob. He glanced about at the room, at the corpses in the alcoves. “But I believe it has more to do with the terror these gruesome crimes generate among the populace. Unlike most criminals, who seek to hide their crimes, this young man performs his openly. He wants people to know what he is doing. This entire part of the country has been in a state of panic for weeks, what with the discovery of mutilated bodies in farmers’ fields and a missing viscount’s daughter. All designed to awaken public interest and outrage and draw attention to the Warlock. Even my arrival feeds into this frenzy.”

“But why?” Sir Ander asked, bewildered. “To what end?”

“I very much fear, my friend, that the Warlock wants me to look at him because he does not want me looking at something else.”

Father Jacob stood for long moments lost in thought, then he roused himself.

“Well, we have done all we can here.” Father Jacob glanced at Brother Barnaby and his voice softened. “I believe you should say the prayer for the dead, Brother.”

Sir Ander and Father Jacob bowed their heads and folded their hands as Brother Barnaby, his face soft with sorrow and compassion, knelt down to close the staring eyes and say a prayer for all the souls lost and wandering in darkness…

Sir Ander gave up trying to sleep. He felt the need to talk, yet he knew better than to wake Father Jacob. Sir Ander opened the hatch, located in the front of the Retribution, and peered out.

“Would you mind if I join you, Brother?” he asked the monk.

“I would like the company, sir,” said Brother Barnaby, pleased.

The driver’s station on the Retribution was located in the front of the yacht and, of necessity, was partially open to the elements. The black-lacquered hull enclosed the cabin and storage rooms and supported a small mast and a ballast balloon. Wings swept back from the curve of the prow, running the length of the twenty-foot hull. Small airscrews were mounted at the rear of each wing, close to the hull. Polished brass rails ran along the roof of the cabin. Brass lanterns, mounted every four feet, and brass hardware for the doors and windows completed the yacht’s regal look. The symbol of the Arcanum: a crossed sword and a staff over which burns a flame set on a quartered black-and-gold shield, was painted on both sides of the hull.

Brother Barnaby took pride in the yacht. He saw to it that the brass was always polished to a high sheen, though Father Jacob maintained caustically that polishing the brass every day was a waste of time.

Sir Ander joined the monk at the driver’s seat and settled himself on the bench behind the windscreen.

Brother Barnaby glanced at him. “Do you mind if we talk of what happened this night, sir?”

The night air was refreshing, and Sir Ander breathed deeply. The two wyverns, barely seen in the darkness, moved their wings in tandem. Brother Barnaby held the reins loosely. The gentle monk had a way with animals. He had picked and trained the wyverns himself. Wyverns were notoriously illtempered and recalcitrant, but these wyverns, guided by Brother Barnaby, were submissive and eager to please.

Sir Ander watched as the monk reached out to touch a small brass helm located to his right. The helm was set with magical constructs that glowed with a golden radiance. As his fingers touched a sigil within one particular construct, correcting a list to starboard, the color shifted red.

“What would you like to talk about, Brother?” Sir Ander asked, though he already knew.

“I do not like to talk so much as I feel the need,” said Brother Barnaby. He looked at the ballast balloon above them and frowned slightly. His fingers slid across the control panel and touched several sigils that adjusted the yacht’s trim to compensate for the slight cross breeze.

Sir Ander regarded the young monk with concern. “I feared what you witnessed tonight would upset you, Brother. Father Jacob was remiss in allowing you to come with us.”

“I needed to see, sir,” said Brother Barnaby. “As Father Jacob says, ‘if we are to fight evil, we must look it in the face, no matter how dreadful the aspect.’ ”

Sir Ander shook his head. He knew he would see the mutilated corpses in his nightmares for the rest of his life. He would have spared any man that sight, but particularly Brother Barnaby.

The young monk was a foundling. The monks of the Order of Saint Anton had discovered the babe wrapped in a blanket, left on the doorstep on a warm summer’s night. They had taken in the child and raised him.

Brother Barnaby had grown up believing himself to be a child of God. He had been nurtured and loved by the monks, who had soon discovered the child had a talent for magical healing and a way with animals. They had taught him to read and write and cipher and how to use the magic that was God’s gift. When Barnaby was older, he had studied the lore of herbs and medicines and had become adept at tending to the ills and hurts of beasts and men.

Then one day when he was sixteen years old, as he had been placing his offering of candles on the altar, Brother Barnaby’s patron saint-Saint Castigan, guardian of children and animals-had appeared to him in a vision.

“Serve this man,” said the saint. He had held his hand over the head of a man dressed in a black cassock denoting him to be a member of the Order of the Arcanum.

Brother Barnaby had never doubted that vision. He had told the abbot he was leaving to find the man revealed to him by Saint Castigan. The monks of the abbey had been upset and disturbed. The abbot had tried to dissuade the young man. He could hardly argue against Saint Castigan, however, and he had at last given Brother Barnaby permission to leave. The abbot had perhaps been well aware that if he had not given his permission, the determined young monk would have left anyway.

Brother Barnaby had walked the three hundred miles to the Citadel of the Voice, where the select few priests admitted into the Arcanum lived and worked. He had arrived at the gates barefoot and in rags, half-starved, thin and weary, but joyful. He had said simply he was here on orders from Saint Castigan to serve a man whose name he did not know. The young monk then provided them with the description of the man in his vision.

The Provost of the Arcanum had immediately recognized Father Jacob Northrup and summoned him at once. When Father Jacob had entered the office, Brother Barnaby smiled in recognition, though they had never before met.

“Saint Castigan sent me to serve you, Father. He said you needed me.”

“Why would the saint say that?” Father Jacob had asked, regarding the young man with interest.

“I have no idea, Father,” Brother Barnaby had replied humbly. “All I know is that I am here and I will serve you and the saint most faithfully.”

The Provost had been dubious about accepting this obviously cloistered and naive young man into the Arcanum and would have sent the young monk back to his abbey, but Father Jacob had found Brother Barnaby “fascinating” and insisted on keeping him, much to the dismay of Sir Ander.

“I need a scribe, after all,” Father Jacob had argued. “This Barnaby is a true innocent.”

“He is, indeed,” Sir Ander had said sternly. “You cannot take on this young man because you want to study his brain, Jacob. Such an innocent young person should not be exposed to the evil you and I see on a daily basis.”

“Brother Barnaby is stronger than you think, my friend,” Father Jacob had said. “And he has a mission to fulfill in this life. I do not know what that mission is, nor does he. But Saint Castigan knows and the saint and I both believe Barnaby will find his purpose traveling with us, not sheltered behind the walls of some reclusive monastery.”

And so, here was Brother Barnaby, driving the wyverns and trying to make sense of the senseless.

“This young man led his followers to their deaths. He drove them to commit terrible acts and then urged them to sacrifice themselves, while he himself escaped. What horrible force drives him, Sir Ander? Why did he do it?”

“That is not an easy question to answer,” said Sir Ander. “I’m not sure I want to try to understand. Father Jacob believes the Warlock obeys a master, or rather a mistress, an older woman who schooled him.”

“The one known as the Sorceress.”

“Yes. We know very little about her or this so-called Warlock except that he preys on young people. He lures sons and daughters of peasants and of nobles to his cult. Any youth who is lonely, unhappy, and desperate falls easy victim to the Warlock’s charms and blandishments. Once he has them in his clutches, he uses opiates and the lusts of the body (I beg your pardon for speaking of such things, Brother) to keep them.”

“I find myself at odds…” Brother Barnaby gazed into the darkness, fumbling for the right words. “If you and Father Jacob had found this young man, Sir Ander, you would have killed him, wouldn’t you?”

“As God is my witness, yes,” said Sir Ander in grim tones. “I would have put a bullet in his skull without hesitation.”

“But he is only seventeen. Just a boy!”

“He stopped being a boy when he stabbed his first victim,” said Sir Ander. “This ‘boy’ deliberately placed that viper on the breast of a young girl, knowing she would die.”

“He has turned to evil,” said Brother Barnaby sadly. “But perhaps that was not his fault. Perhaps he is also a victim of this sorceress. He might be counseled, reclaimed…”

“You feel pangs of conscience when I swat a fly, Brother,” said Sir Ander, placing his hand on the monk’s arm. “Take comfort in the fact that we are not likely to confront him again, either him or his dark mistress. We now have more important matters to consider it seems.”

“The summons from the grand bishop about the poor nuns of Saint Agnes,” said Brother Barnaby somberly. “I have prayed for them this night.”

The guardsman on griffin-back had delivered a letter from the grand bishop that told of the massacre at the Abbey of Saint Agnes, ordering Father Jacob to drop whatever he was doing and report to the Bishop’s Palace at once.

Father Jacob had planned to spend the next day searching for clues, hoping to pick up the trail of the young Warlock. A man of single-minded purpose, Father Jacob was not happy to receive the bishop’s summons.

“Some other member of my Order must go,” Father Jacob had said brusquely.

“The bishop asked for you specifically, Father,” the rider had said. “He said you were the best.”

Sir Ander had waited confidently for Father Jacob to say no, he wasn’t leaving his investigation until it was finished. Father Jacob never had difficulty saying “no” to anyone, be it king or commoner or grand bishop.

Father Jacob had startled his friend. “Tell the bishop we will make all haste.”

Father Jacob was, in Sir Ander’s opinion, the wisest, most intelligent man the knight had ever known. Among all the priests of the Order of the Arcanum, Father Jacob was the best. The trouble was-he knew it, which often made him very difficult to live with.

Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby were startled by a sudden shout coming from inside the yacht.

“What a fool I have been! What a bloody, stupid fool! Where is that letter?” Father Jacob yelled.

“What is the matter, Father?” Brother Barnaby called out anxiously, trying to divide his attention between the control panel and the wyverns and the priest. “Do you need me?”

“He’s fine,” Sir Ander said irritably. “After all, he had a good night’s sleep.”

“Where is that letter?” Father Jacob demanded again.

“On the table,” Sir Ander returned, opening the hatch and pointing. “You’re looking straight at it!”

“You moved it,” Father Jacob said, grumbling. He dragged out a chair, sat down, and picked up the letter.

“Must be an odd sort of letter,” said Sir Ander to Brother Barnaby. “He’s casting a magical spell on it.”

As Rodrigo had cast a spell on the ashes of the letter in Alcazar’s fireplace, Father Jacob was casting a similar spell on this letter. But whereas Rodrigo had drawn sigils and lines connecting them and then physically connected the sigils and lines, using the magical energy within his own body to produce the magic, Father Jacob merely passed his hand over the letter. A shimmering light began to shine from the page.

Father Jacob Northrop was a savant: one of those rare persons who, as the saying went, “was born of magic.” As there are some people who can arrive at the answer of a complicated mathematical equation without going through the steps of adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing, Father Jacob could work magic without the need for all the intervening steps leading to the end result.

Father Jacob looked up from the letter.

“What was the name of that abbey where all those nuns were killed?”

“Saint Agnes, Father.”

“That’s what I thought. Come in here for a moment. I need to speak to you.”

Sir Ander left Brother Barnaby and climbed back through the hatch, inside the yacht. Father Jacob was sitting at the table, the letter in his hand. The magic he had cast on it still glowed faintly.

“This letter is from our friend, Master Albert Savoraun. You remember him? He worked with us on the affair of the naval cutter, Defiant. Master Albert has recently been made head of the Maritime Guild chapter in Westfirth.”

“Good for him,” said Ander heartily.

“That is not what is important,” Father Jacob said impatiently. “What is important is that he needed to review the records of the guild and discovered that they were not in the guildhall. Following a great fire that had destroyed parts of the city, the records were moved for safekeeping to a nearby abbey. The Abbey of Saint Agnes.. .”

“I’ll be damned!” said Sir Ander, startled into alertness. “That’s a strange coincidence.”

“You know I do not believe in coincidence,” said Father Jacob. He referred again to the letter. “Master Albert writes: ‘I found the information in the abbey to be of the utmost importance. I cannot stress its value. So important I dare not write it.’ ”

“Not even in a letter that requires a knowledge of magic to read?” Sir Ander asked with a smile.

The letter was seven pages long and, on the surface, contained mostly news of the antics of Master Albert’s ten children. The true contents of the letter had been written with a magical cipher that required a magical counter cipher to read.

“Apparently not,” said Father Jacob. He indicated the date on the top of the letter. “Master Albert wrote this letter a fortnight ago. The letter was addressed to the Arcanum, the Citadel of the Voice where we normally reside. The Provost received it there and forwarded it to me in Capione, which is why it took so long to reach me. And now we hear from the grand bishop that this very abbey has been attacked and the nuns who lived there murdered.”

Father Jacob sat pondering. “How far are we from the Bishop’s Palace in Evreux?”

Sir Ander consulted his pocket watch. “We have been flying for about ten hours now. I would say we were within an hour of arrival.”

“You and Brother Barnaby have been awake all night. You should both try to get some sleep,” said Father Jacob. He stood up, walked to the hatch, and flung it open. “I will drive, Brother Barnaby.”

Brother Barnaby looked at the priest in alarm.

“Uh, no, Father, that’s not necessary. I’m not at all tired.”

The monk cast a pleading gaze at Sir Ander, begging him not to let Father Jacob drive. The wyverns did not like Father Jacob. There was no telling what the beasts might do if the priest took the reins.

“I’m not sleepy,” said Sir Ander, stifling another yawn. “Come, Father Jacob. I will let you beat me in a game of dominoes.”

Father Jacob’s eyes brightened. His one weakness was an avid passion for dominoes. He drew a magical sigil on the letter from Master Albert, spoke a word and the letter was instantly consumed in a flash of blue fire. Not a trace of the letter remained, not even the ashes.

Sir Ander sneezed and irritably waved away the smoke. Father Jacob brought out his cherished set of ivory dominoes in their hand-carved rosewood case. The two sat down to their game. On the driver’s seat, Brother Barnaby closed the hatch and sighed in relief.

Sir Ander dumped out the dominoes. Father Jacob turned them upside down to hide the pips. Sir Ander began to stir them around.

“Too bad you didn’t receive this letter earlier,” said Sir Ander.

“I was meant not to receive it,” said Father Jacob.

Sir Ander stopped stirring to stare. “What?”

“As I suspected, the Warlock was a diversion, my friend,” said Father Jacob. He picked up a domino, but he did not play it. He tapped it on the table. “Poor Lady Elaina. The viscount was frantic to recover his child. Of course, he would insist on having me investigate. I went. Master Albert’s letter missed me. And now the nuns of Saint Agnes are dead.”

“But why?” Sir Ander asked. “What has one to do with the other?”

He turned over the domino.

“You’ve drawn a blank. How very fitting,” said Father Jacob. “Until I know more, that is your answer.”

Chapter Twelve

The laws of kings exist to judge and punish those who sin against man. The priests of the Arcanum, God’s warriors on Aeronne, are responsible for protecting the faith from those who would corrupt or destroy it. We carry the light into the dark places, ever vigilant, searching out Aertheum and his foul servants.

– Mandate of the Arcanum

Saint Marie Elizabeth

First Provost of the Arcanum

BROTHER BARNABY CAREFULLY GUIDED THE WYVERNS into the mists that drifted serenely above the extensive grounds of the Conclave of the Divine-the official residence of the grand bishop and the administrative center of the Church of the Breath in Rosia. Although his majesty’s palace was far more beautiful, floating high above the Conclave, the grand bishop could take comfort in the fact that the Church owned more buildings and took up considerably more land. The Conclave of the Divine was larger than many small cities.

The grounds housed three cathedrals, each dedicated to a different saint; motherhouses for four orders of monks, two orders of nuns, and three military orders; an elementary school for children skilled in magic, and a University with dormitories to house the students.

The Grand Bishop’s Palace was the largest structure and the oldest in the Conclave. All the other buildings had been erected down through the centuries, radiating out from the Grand Bishop’s Palace, which stood in the center as the sun of the small world-as was right and proper in the eyes of God and the grand bishop.

The cathedrals and other structures had been built at different periods of time with each architect attempting to outdo his predecessors and thus there was no consistency of style. One cathedral had graceful spires. Another featured a vast dome. The third was adorned with minarets, while the University had tried to outdo them all by erecting spires and minarets above a vast dome.

The Conclave’s sacred grounds were always busy. By day, the gates were thrown open so that people could attend services in one of the grand cathedrals. University students played croquet on the green lawns or studied in the gardens. Monks and nuns and priests, abbots and abbesses, answered the bells that called them to their prayers. At night, the common people were shooed out, the gates closed. Those who required admittance had to enter through a single gate where they came under the scrutiny of a porter and the Grand Bishop’s Own, as his soldiers were called.

The skies above the Conclave of the Divine were also patrolled by the Grand Bishop’s Own. Flying on the backs of griffins, the soldiers guarded the walls and the Breath, permitting only those who could prove they had business in the Conclave to enter.

The glistening black yacht, Retribution, with its striking, ornamental brass work was met by three of the Bishop’s Own, who flew to meet it. Upon speaking to Brother Barnaby and noting the symbols of the Arcanum painted in gold on the side, the soldiers immediately escorted the yacht to the main courtyard.

Brother Barnaby decreased the magical energy flowing into the Retribution’s lift tanks, a process called “cooling,” and landed the vessel. Once on the ground, the wyverns hissed and snapped at the griffins, which were well trained and held themselves aloof from such inferior animals, though the griffins did take care to keep clear of the wyvern’s sharp fangs and claws. Brother Barnaby soothed his wyverns and praised them and made certain they were given space in the stables and fed and watered. Once settled, the wyverns tucked their heads under their wings to rest.

“If it is agreeable to you, Father,” said Sir Ander, while they were waiting for Brother Barnaby to return from the stables, “I will forgo meeting with His Excellency.”

“A wise move,” said Father Jacob.

Grand Bishop Montagne disliked Sir Ander Martel and the feeling was mutual, an animosity that dated back to the Lost Rebellion, the name given to the fight waged against the king by the Duke de Bourlet. Sir Ander had remained true to the Crown, but he had made no secret of the fact that he thought King Alaric and Bishop Montagne had both conspired to drive the Duke de Bourlet to rebel. The grand bishop had attempted to block Sir Ander’s acceptance into the Knight Protectors, but Sir Ander had an influential friend at court-the Countess de Marjolaine. She had seen to it that Sir Ander was made a Knight Protector. The grand bishop had taken his revenge by assigning Sir Ander to protect a member of the Arcanum, one of the most dangerous assignments for members of the Order.

“I will pay my respects to my commander and see if those pistols I ordered from the Royal Armory have been delivered,” said Sir Ander. “Shall we meet at noon for dinner in the dining hall of the Knight Protectors? Will you be finished with your meeting with the grand bishop by then?”

“Dear God, I hope so!” said Father Jacob. “Ah, and here is Brother Barnaby, armed for battle with his lap desk, pen and ink, and other mighty weapons.”

Brother Barnaby looked slightly startled at this and glanced down at the lap desk, a hinged wooden box containing the tools he needed for recording notes of the meeting. He had no idea what Father Jacob meant, but Brother Barnaby had grown accustomed to the priest’s odd way of speaking, so he only smiled in response and fell into step beside him. The priest and the monk followed the path leading to the Bishop’s Palace, bidding good-bye to Sir Ander, who trod another path that would take him to the motherhouse of the Knight Protectors.

Although the day was early and the gates had not yet been opened to the public, people were coming and going through the courtyard surrounding the Bishop’s Palace. Morning prayers, a light meal to break the night’s fast, and then off to do the Lord’s work.

Father Jacob walked among the crowd with a well-measured pace, his hands behind his back, his keen eyes taking in each and every person he encountered, much to that person’s consternation. The black cassock of the Arcanum struck guilty fear into even the most innocent hearts, causing each individual to secretly run over his or her catalog of sins.

Nuns in their white habits and wimples saw the black cassock and made graceful reverence to Father Jacob, then glanced at each other with round eyes as they hurried past him. Monks in their plain brown robes, priests in their more colorful garb, eyed Father Jacob askance and kept their heads averted and stayed out of his way, fearing lest his eye fall on them.

Brother Barnaby was always offended by this rude treatment of the priest. Father Jacob did not mind. Instead, he even toyed with people by suddenly stopping and fixing his gray-green eyes on them. His victims would grow pale and shrink, some would even break into a sweat. Father Jacob would then give them a cheery greeting and go on his way, chuckling to himself. Brother Barnaby thought he would never completely understand Father Jacob.

They passed through several gates, were questioned (briefly) by the gate guards, and finally gained entry to the palace. A young priest who acted as escort led them through the echoing halls of the palace, down corridors adorned with tapestries and paintings and life-sized marble statues depicting the saints and various episodes in their lives. Brother Barnaby had been to the Conclave of the Divine before, but never to the palace. He was awed by the magnificence and enthralled by the works of art. His steps lagged. He gazed about in wonder and sometimes, forgetting himself, he would come to a halt to gaze in rapture at a mural on the wall.

Father Jacob did not chide the monk or try to hasten him. The priest would stop, rocking on his heels, patiently waiting. Their escort, however, was extremely annoyed. He would hasten back to speak sternly to Father Jacob, reminding him that the grand bishop’s time was valuable.

“God works in wondrous ways, Father,” said Brother Barnaby in a low voice to Father Jacob as they walked the corridors of white marble, surrounded by saints and angels. “Yesterday, seeing the terrible work evil men do, I was cast down in despair. Today I see the work created by men blessed of God and I am filled with hope.”

Father Jacob smiled. Sir Ander had feared that Brother Barnaby would be wounded, his serenity disturbed, his gentle and kindly disposition destroyed by his exposure to the dark caverns, cruel wastelands and stinking swamps of the human mind. But as Sir Ander wore a cuirass enhanced with magical constructs when going into a potentially dangerous situation, Brother Barnaby went into battle accoutered in armor far stronger than the strongest, magically enhanced steel. He was armed with his faith.

Father Jacob had accepted Brother Barnaby as scribe and assistant for one reason-he was intrigued by the young man’s claim to have been led to him by the command of Saint Castigan. Father Jacob was intensely interested in the study of mankind and while he did not quite add Brother Barnaby to his collection of specimens, as he might have added a rare sort of beetle, he did look forward to studying a young man driven by such intense faith.

To Father Jacob’s credit, he would have immediately returned Brother Barnaby to his monastery if he had thought any harm could come to the young man. But as Father Jacob had told Sir Ander, “Brother Barnaby’s faith in God is not like water in a glass that will spill if the glass is broken. His faith will not evaporate or leak out through a crack. Brother Barnaby’s faith is the air he draws into his lungs and the blood that pulses in his veins and the quiet beating of his heart. His soul does not exist separate and apart from his body. His soul is his body and his body is his soul. You need have no fear for Brother Barnaby.”

The young monk did not blame God for the evil in the world. Nor did he rail against God or demand accountability. He often asked questions of Father Jacob, not because he doubted God, but for help in understanding.

“We imperfect creatures are constantly striving for perfection,” Brother Barnaby said, as they traversed the hall. “I’ve been thinking, Father. Perhaps men and women succumb to evil because they seek to achieve perfection too easily, without having to work to attain it. They give up the struggle and thus fall into the pit.”

“And how do we help such people?” Father Jacob asked.

Brother Barnaby considered this question. “Some priests would say we should stand on the rim of the pit and preach to those who have fallen. But I believe the only way to help them is to climb down into the pit and put our arms around them and lift them out.”

“You are a wise man, Brother,” said Father Jacob gravely.

Brother Barnaby was quite startled by this compliment and retreated into shy, if pleased, silence.

When Father Jacob and Brother Barnaby reached the offices of the grand bishop, they were ushered into the antechamber-a large room, beautifully decorated with more famous works of art. The ceiling was high and had been painted to depict the Breath with its twilight-orange-and-pink mists and white clouds, the sun, moon, and stars. The parquet wooden floor was covered with a sumptuous carpet into which the foot sank most pleasantly. Although the large room was occupied by many priests, seated at desks or busy at various tasks, the antechamber was so intensely quiet that Brother Barnaby tried to hush the sound of his breathing.

“Is that the grand bishop?” he whispered to Father Jacob.

Brother Barnaby was referring to a man dressed in a scarlet cassock bound with a broad golden sash and a white stole about his shoulders.

“That is the monsignor,” said Father Jacob, speaking loudly. The sudden intrusive sound caused all the priests to snap their heads up and glare at him in rebuke. “The monsignor serves His Eminence in much the same capacity as you serve me, Brother Barnaby.”

Having seen all he cared to see, Father Jacob strode rapidly forward, his black cassock swishing about his ankles. The priests followed his progression through the room with their eyes. The monsignor, seeing and hearing him, rose hurriedly from his desk.

“Father Jacob Northrop,” Father Jacob boomed and he added, unnecessarily, since the black cassock proclaimed him, “of the Arcanum.”

“His Eminence left instructions for you to be immediately admitted upon your arrival,” said the monsignor. “If you would accompany me.. .”

The monsignor placed his hands on the handles of a pair of double doors, beautifully and intricately carved of wood, and was about to open them when he saw Brother Barnaby.

The monsignor gave a delicate cough. “Your servant may wait for you here, Father Jacob,” he said. “He will be well cared for, of that you may be certain.”

“Brother Barnaby is not my servant,” said Father Jacob, his brows coming together in a frown. He latched onto Brother Barnaby’s arm. “He is my amanuensis and, as such, he goes everywhere with me.”

Brother Barnaby clasped the lap desk in both hands and lowered his eyes in embarrassment. “I don’t mind, Father.”

“I do,” said Father Jacob sternly, keeping fast hold of the monk.

The monsignor took a moment to consider, then said, “Very well.” He opened the doors and announced, “Father Jacob Northrop and… er

… Brother Barnaby.”

Grand Bishop Ferdinand Montagne motioned for them both to enter. He was seated at his desk, frowning over a small piece of paper which had been delivered last evening, but which the bishop had only received this morning.

“Please be seated, Father Jacob and Brother…”

The grand bishop had not caught Barnaby’s name. He dispensed with formalities by waving his hand at two chairs placed directly opposite his desk.

“If you will both excuse me one moment.”

The grand bishop motioned the monsignor to approach the desk and handed him a note. They both spoke in low tones, their voices soft. Father Jacob watched and listened with interest.

“Dubois sent this last night,” said the grand bishop softly. “He wrote it in haste. Can you make out what it says?”

The monsignor read the note. “‘ Find out what happened at the Royal Armory.’ ”

“That’s what I thought it said. Do you know what he means?”

“No, Your Eminence, I am afraid I have no idea.”

“Then do what it says. Find out.”

The monsignor nodded, bowed and, taking the note, left the room.

The bishop gave a sigh and ran his hand over his head. “Affairs of state,” he said by way of apology. “We always seem to find ourselves entangled in such matters, though most unwillingly.”

He sat down in his chair and looked directly at Father Jacob.

“How are you, Father Jacob? It has been some time since we last met.”

“I am well, Your Eminence. And you?”

“Not good, Father. Not good.” The grand bishop placed his hand on his stomach. “Dyspepsia. It seems that nothing I eat agrees with me. The pain and discomfort I experience is most debilitating.”

“If I might presume to suggest something, Your Eminence…” Brother Barnaby spoke up meekly.

The bishop looked at him, startled.

“Brother Barnaby is known for his healing skills,” said Father Jacob. “You would do well to listen to him, Your Eminence.”

“If your Eminence would mix ground gentian root with hot tea, drink this three times daily, eat only the blandest foods, and abstain from wine for at least a week, I believe you will show improvement.”

The grand bishop raised an eyebrow. “And you say this gentian root works, Brother?”

“I have had much success with it in the past, Your Eminence.”

The grand bishop rang a bell and a priest appeared in the doorway. “Bring me hot tea mixed with ground gentian root,” the bishop ordered.

The priest appeared slightly startled at the request, but he hastened to fill it.

“Now,” said the grand bishop with a heavy sigh, “we must discuss this terrible business.”

“At the Abbey of Saint Agnes,” said Father Jacob.

“The abbey and elsewhere,” said the grand bishop.

Father Jacob raised an eyebrow, then he glanced at Brother Barnaby and nodded. The young monk placed the lap desk he had been carrying on his knees, opened it, and drew out pen and paper and a small bottle of ink. He set the ink in a hole in the desk that kept the bottle stable, dipped his pen in the inkwell, and made ready to write.

The grand bishop frowned. “Is this man intending to take notes on what we say?”

“With the permission of Your Eminence, of course,” said Father Jacob. “I find-”

“You do not have my permission! What I am about to tell you is of a highly volatile nature! If anyone were to find out-”

“Your Eminence can rest easy,” said Father Jacob in soothing tones. “Brother Barnaby writes the notes in a special code I devised. He and I are the only ones who can read it. I will show Your Eminence what he has written before we leave and if you can decipher a word of it, I will destroy the notes immediately.

He added gravely, “These notes are critical to my work, Your Eminence. I would be laboring at an extreme disadvantage without them.”

“Why even bother to seek my permission,” the bishop grumbled. “Oh, very well. But I will look at these notes before you leave.”

Montagne wasn’t happy, but he was desperate. He rose to his feet and began to pace restlessly back and forth behind the desk as he talked.

“You know my secret, Father Jacob. The secret that keeps me awake at night and eats holes in my stomach.”

“The secret that magic in the world, the Breath of God, is being destroyed,” said Father Jacob.

Brother Barnaby looked up, astonished. Father Jacob glanced at him and nodded slightly. Brother Barnaby’s pen scratched across the paper.

“Recently, the situation has grown more dire,” said the bishop. “Magical constructs have begun breaking down at an alarming rate. I am hearing reports from crafters that they require more and more time to maintain the existing constructs.”

The bishop stopped in his pacing, stood frowning down at the carpet, then suddenly lifted his head and turned to face Father Jacob directly.

“To put it bluntly, Jacob, magic is failing! It is failing in all parts of Rosia, and now I have received a report of the same occurring in Freya. Magical sigils are weakening at an alarming rate. The Church has managed to stave off panic by telling people that the magic is cyclical, that every few hundred years the magic wanes as the moon wanes and waxes. We maintain that we are in a part of the cycle where the magic is weak and that it will eventually come back.”

“You do realize that what you are saying is bullshit, Your Eminence,” said Father Jacob crudely.

Brother Barnaby raised his head and blinked his eyes.

“Pardon my language, Eminence,” Father Jacob continued, “but magic is not ‘cyclical.’”

“I know that,” the grand bishop said irritably. He extended his hands in pleading. “But what else can we say? That the magic is dying? That the Breath is being sucked out of our world? That God is gasping for air? Do we tell the populace that some day soon their houses will collapse? Their airships will drop out of the skies? Do we tell them that some of the continents are starting to sink and that doomsday may not be long in coming? Do we tell them this?”

Father Jacob was silent, grave. The only sound in the room was Barnaby’s pen crawling across the paper and, occasionally, the tinkling sound of the nib touching the rim of the inkwell as he refreshed his ink.

“Well?” said the bishop shortly. “What do you have to say, Father?”

“That what I predicted eight years ago is now come to pass,” said Father Jacob.

“Damn it, Jacob!” the grand bishop swore angrily and struck the desk with his clenched fist. “How can you be so goddamn cool about this? I know that I blaspheme, but if the blessed Saint Dennis himself were standing here, I have no doubt he would say the same!”

“I assume this has something to do with the massacre at the Abbey of Saint Agnes,” said Father Jacob. “Since that is why you sent for me.”

The bishop sighed deeply, ran his hand through his hair, belched, grimaced, and lowered himself back down in his chair.

“It does, but there is more you must know before I tell you. A few weeks ago, a watchtower collapsed. The tower was old, but the crafter mason who maintained the magical constructs that strengthened the stonework has sworn on the sacred writings of the Four Saints that the constructs were in perfect condition. Twenty soldiers were inside the structure when it fell. All of them were killed.”

Brother Barnaby said a prayer for the dead beneath his breath as he made the notation.

“Was this reported to the Arcanum?” asked Father Jacob.

“Of course,” said the bishop. “I asked for you, but I was told you were working to put an end to this evil young man who calls himself the Warlock. A most inconvenient time for you to be away!”

Father Jacob’s lips tightened. “Yes, wasn’t it,” he said grimly. “I trust you sent Church crafters to investigate.”

“My personal secretary, the monsignor, led the group,” said the bishop. “He is a very talented crafter. The tower had been reduced to a heap of rubble. Much of the stonework on the ground was still intact. The monsignor was going to study the magical sigils on the stones, but he found that there were no magical sigils. The magic had been utterly destroyed.”

Brother Barnaby gasped. “No sigils! But that is not possible!”

Catching Father Jacob’s stern glance, the young monk ducked his head and went back to his recording.

“Not a single magical sigil left in the whole damn tower,” said the grand bishop. “The monsignor and our crafters went over every single, solitary stone they could find. One would expect to see weakened sigils, broken sigils. The monsignor said, and I quote his words, ‘It was as if someone had taken a rag and wiped away the magic.’”

“As happened with the cutter Defiant,” said Father Jacob.

“I reread your report-” the bishop began.

“Did you, Your Eminence?” Father Jacob said with a glint in his eye. “I was told my report had been burned as heresy, expunged from the records.”

“We always keep copies, Father Jacob,” said the bishop and he added sourly, “As you know perfectly well. So don’t be so damn sanctimonious.”

Montagne jumped to his feet with such suddenness that he knocked over the chair. His choleric face was red with anger. “I was wrong, Jacob, and you were right! Does that make you happy? Do you take pleasure in that?”

“No, Your Eminence,” said Father Jacob quietly. “Given the terrible consequences of my predictions that magic throughout the world would fail, I have been praying that I was the one who would be in the wrong.”

He reached out his hand to stop Brother Barnaby’s pen. “You needn’t record any of that.”

Brother Barnaby nodded and scratched out what he had been writing. The bishop started to sit down, only to realize he didn’t have a chair. Brother Barnaby laid down his desk, jumped to his feet, walked over to the chair, and picked it up. The grand bishop muttered his thanks and resumed his seat. Brother Barnaby went back to his note-taking.

The bishop resumed. “I reread your report, Father Jacob, as I said, but I would like to hear from you directly about the incidents related to the Defiant.”

Father Jacob was silent a moment, collecting his thoughts, then began to relate the story. “Eight years ago, several merchant ships sailing the Breath near the Bay of Faighn outside Westfirth reported that they had come under attack by pirates. The pirates would pose as a merchant vessel lost in the Breath seeking directions. The pirates would sail their ship over to the other merchant ship to exchange information. Once close by, the pirates would use canister rounds to sweep the deck and then board the helpless victim, rob the merchant of anything of value, then leave the survivors adrift in the Breath. The navy was alerted to this threat and sent the cutter RNS Defiant to the area.

“The Defiant arrived to find a merchant ship under attack. The Defiant sailed in to stop the attack and capture the pirates. The Defiant was a twomasted floating warship with sixteen twelve-pound cannons and a crew of one hundred men. The pirate vessel was a modified merchant vessel with eight six pounders. The pirates were outgunned and outmanned. I later spoke to the captain of the Defiant, who told me he assumed the pirates would attempt to flee.

“To the captain’s immense surprise, the pirate vessel turned to attack the cutter. The captain said he and his officers actually laughed, for the pirate vessel was taking aim at them with what appeared to be a small cannon mounted on the ship’s forecastle. The captain told me it ‘looked like a child’s popgun.’

“The pirates fired. A beam of eerie-looking green light shot from the small cannon aimed directly at the brass panel on which the Defiant’s starboard control constructs were inscribed. The green light disrupted the magic, causing the helmsman to lose control of the ship. The Defiant still managed to go about, when a second blast of green light hit the ship, this one aimed at her larboard cannons. Several of the cannons exploded, killing their gun crews and blasting holes in the hull.

“Fortunately, the Defiant was close to shore when the attack occurred, or she would have undoubtedly sunk into the Breath with all hands lost. As it was, the cutter managed to limp to shore, where a land-based army patrol came aboard to help protect the wounded vessel.

“Then something unusual happened. Or perhaps I should say, something more unusual. The pirate ship sailed close to the Defiant, but did not attack. The pirates had their spyglasses trained on the disabled ship. The captain told me: ‘It was damn strange. Looked to me as if they wanted to see close-up the destruction they had caused.’ The army patrol started firing at them and the pirate ship sailed off, vanishing into the mists.

“Word of the attack reached a nearby garrison. They sent an urgent message to the Westfirth Crafters’ Guild saying they needed a Master Crafter to restore the magical constructs and make the Defiant airworthy as quickly as possible. The crafter, Master Albert Savoraun, boarded the cutter to inspect the damage. He was astounded by what he found and, as required by law, Master Albert immediately reported his findings to the Arcanum. Your Eminence sent me to investigate.”

They were interrupted by a priest, who returned with the stomachic recommended by Brother Barnaby. He made up the concoction. The grand bishop drank the tea, grimacing at the bitter taste. Suddenly the bishop’s stomach rumbled mightily and he gave a great belch. An expression of relief crossed his face. He cast Brother Barnaby a look of gratitude and told Father Jacob to continue.

“The captain of the Defiant and her crew had already been transported back to their base. Shocked by his discovery, Master Savoraun asked the garrison to place a guard on the cutter. He was waiting for me when I arrived, in company with Sir Ander Martel.”

Father Jacob paused, then said, “Before I go into detail about what I found, I need to know how much Your Eminence knows about ships of the air.”

“I know that through the blessing of God, my yacht sails the Breath,” said the bishop. “I leave the workings of the vessel to the captain.”

“Then, Your Eminence, I will digress a moment to explain that when an airship is built, crafters spend months putting the magical constructs into place. Magic embedded in an airship ranges from complex constructs that strengthen the wooden hull to the smaller, more delicate interlaced magical constructs on the brass helm that allow the helmsman to steer the ship through the Breath.

“Magic is in every part of the ship: the wooden planks of the hull, the metal of the cannons, the lines and pulleys of the rigging. Once set, the magical constructs will slowly degrade over time, which is why, when an airship is in dry dock, naval crafters come on board to maintain them.

“Now, Your Eminence, here is what is important to understand. Even if the constructs, which are made up of sigils, degrade to the point where they break down completely, the magic leaves behind what are known as ‘burn marks.’ Since the sigils have been burned into the wood or onto the metal, a crafter reading these burn marks can detect the imprint of the sigils and restore them.

“On the Defiant, wherever the green light struck the ship, the magic had been obliterated. Nothing was left of it. No burn marks. No sigils. No constructs. Nothing.”

Father Jacob lowered his voice and said softly, “It was as if the magic had never been.”

“As the good monk here says, that is impossible,” said the bishop. “God’s work cannot be destroyed.”

“In this case God’s work was wiped out. And apparently also in the case of the watchtower and the Abbey of Saint Agnes or you would not have sent for me.”

The grand bishop muttered something that was unintelligible and motioned irritably for Father Jacob to continue. He did so, with a sigh.

“When I returned to the Arcanum, I spoke to the priest who is the foremost authority on constructs in the world. As you may recall, Your Eminence, Father Antonius was the person responsible for sinking an Estaran floating fortress during the war. He did so by manipulating the hundreds of constructs set into its stonework. I asked Father Antonius to try to replicate what we found on the Defiant. He said what you said, Your Eminence, no crafter-not even the blessed Saints themselves-could destroy God’s work. ‘It is impossible,’ he said, ‘to obliterate a magical construct.’ Yet, Your Eminence, the impossible was done. I saw it for myself.”

Father Jacob ceased talking so that Brother Barnaby could catch up. He wrote, then laid down his pen to indicate he was finished. The room was so silent that the ticking of the clock was quite loud, reminding them all that time was slipping past.

At length the bishop stirred. “Which was, unfortunately, precisely what the monsignor found in the tower. The impossible had come to pass. The magic had been obliterated. Witnesses to the collapse described a bright green glow that illuminated the building and then the tower fell down.”

“Whoever is behind this has made their weapons more powerful,” said Father Jacob. His voice hardened. “Not surprising. They’ve had eight years to work undeterred.”

The bishop heard the note of rebuke and glowered. “Meaning we should have massed a force and sent our armies to attack Freya. You know why I didn’t recommend that, and His Majesty, for once, agreed with me. An unprovoked attack on Freya would have meant war and we are not prepared for war. We…” The grand bishop shook his head and then clamped his lips together.

“The real reason was that you didn’t believe me when I told you that this green beam was capable of destroying magic,” said Father Jacob.

The bishop didn’t respond.

Father Jacob regarded the man for a moment, then said quietly, “I take that back. You believed me, but you didn’t trust me. Because I am Freyan.”

The bishop rose to his feet again. He strode over to the sideboard and was about to pour himself some wine. Brother Barnaby gave a gentle cough and shook his head. The bishop, sighing, resorted to water.

“His Majesty and I thought Freya was behind these attacks,” the bishop said gravely. “We are being forced to reconsider that position. You see, Jacob, the tower that collapsed was in Freya.”

“Good God!” Father Jacob exclaimed, caught by surprise.

“The Archbishop of Kerringdon of the Freyan Church has not communicated with us in years, but he was concerned enough by what his crafters discovered that he asked for our help-not directly, of course, but through discreet channels.”

“The inimitable Dubois?” Father Jacob asked.

The grand bishop glared. “Do you know all my secrets?”

He walked back to the desk, but he did not sit down. He stood frowning at it. “I know now I owe you an apology, Father Jacob. But since you are a man of logic, I am sure you can agree that I did have some reason to doubt your loyalty. That said, I prove my faith in you by entrusting you with this secret which, if it leaked out, could bring down the Church.”

“I concede that you owe me an apology,” said Father Jacob coolly. “However, let us move on. If the Freyans are not the ones who have developed this weapon, then who? No other nation has the capability or the resources to develop such destructive power. You are certain it is not Freya?”

“I wasn’t. Until now.”

“The attack on the abbey,” Father Jacob said.

The bishop laid his hand on a slender document that was rolled, bound, and sealed. “I have here the report of the attack written by the monk who was assigned as the nuns’ confessor. Brother Paul was absent the night of the attack. He did not live at the abbey, but in a small hermitage some miles away. He wrote an account of what he found on his return.”

Father Jacob interrupted. “I trust I will be able to speak to this Brother Paul?”

“Of course. He has been told to prepare for your arrival. The abbey-or what is left of it-is under guard. Nothing has been disturbed.”

The bishop handed over the document. He glanced at the clock. “I have another appointment, Father. If you have any questions…” He paused, then said with some bitterness, “I don’t have the answers. God be with you.”

Father Jacob understood that this discussion was at an end. He said a word to Brother Barnaby, who scribbled a final note and then began to pack up his writing desk.

“Your Eminence asked to see my notes.” Brother Barnaby handed over what he had written.

The bishop glanced at the page. “It looks like a chicken with inky feet has walked across the paper.”

“Precisely,” said Father Jacob.

The bishop shrugged and handed back the notes. Brother Barnaby carefully placed the sheets in the writing desk, along with the pen and the ink. Closing the desk, he indicated he was ready. Father Jacob rose to his feet.

“I would very much like to speak to the monsignor about the Freyan tower collapse.”

“That will not be necessary,” said the bishop curtly. “I told you everything. Please send a detailed report on the abbey as soon as you have concluded your investigation.”

Father Jacob was not pleased. He could do nothing, however, except bow and leave the room. Once in the antechamber, he cast a swift glance about, hoping to be able to talk to the monsignor.

“I could look for him, Father,” said Brother Barnaby.

“Useless. The bishop will see to it that the man is stashed away someplace where I cannot lay my hands on him,” said Father Jacob irately. He rounded on their escort. “Leave us! I know the way perfectly well.”

Father Jacob strode off. Brother Barnaby cast the escort a glance of apology for the father’s rude behavior, then hurried after him. Father Jacob stalked rapidly through the Bishop’s Palace, anger trailing in his wake like the flaming tail of a comet.

Brother Barnaby clutched his lap desk to his chest and, being shorter than Father Jacob, was forced to run to keep up.

Chapter Thirteen

It is difficult when walking in darkness, carrying a lantern, to see beyond the circle of your own light. So it is that when a member of the Arcanum carries God’s light into the darkness, we walk with them, the Knight Protectors. We are sworn to defend our charges with our weapons, our courage, our faith and, ultimately, our lives.

– The Journal of

Sir Edward Beauchamp

Order of the Knight Protectors

SIR ANDER WALKED SWIFTLY ACROSS THE EXTENSIVE grounds of the Conclave of the Divine, taking the shortcut that led around the University, thereby saving at least half a mile. He eyed the students as he entered the quadrangle and thought, as usual, that they looked younger every year. Their faces made him recall those in Capione who had died so young and so needlessly. He shook his head, to shake them out of his thoughts, and continued on his way.

The sight of the stolid, plain, unadorned motherhouse of the Knight Protectors was comforting, reassuring. Some things in this world never changed. He remembered coming here after being forced to witness the execution of his friend, Sir Julian de Guichen. He remembered going to the private chapel and sinking to his knees and giving way to raw rage and anger and grief, emotions he’d been forced to hold inside or risk losing his own life. He remembered the feeling of peace and calm that had come over him.

“Your friend is in my care now,” God seemed to say. “His pain and suffering are ended. He has come home.”

And so had Sir Ander.

The seventh son of a Travian merchant, Ander Martel had no property to call his own. His oldest brother had inherited the family fortune and the modest house in Travia, a house Sir Ander remembered only vaguely. He had not been back to see his family since he had left them to join the Travian Military Academy at the age of twelve.

At the age of twenty, he had been granted a knighthood by the Travian king for valor in action by leading the force that had rescued a Travian frigate captured by the Freyans during one of the many minor skirmishes between the two countries. Sir Ander had been invited by Sir Edward Beauchamp, a friend of his father’s, to the Rosian court. There, Ander had met the man who would come to be his best friend, Julian de Guichen. Both young men had fallen deeply in love with the young and beautiful Cecile de Marjolaine, but she had eyes and heart only for Julian.

Sir Ander had accepted his defeat with good grace. Finding it too painful to be around Cecile, he had sought a way to leave the court. Sir Edward Beauchamp was a member of the Order of Knight Protectors. He had taken a keen interest in the young knight. He helped Sir Ander find direction in his life and solace for his lost love through faith. Sir Ander had applied to join the Knight Protectors and had been accepted.

As he walked through the doors that stood open and seemingly unguarded, he remembered the youngster who had first walked through that gate over thirty years ago. Sir Ander looked back at that unhappy young man with sympathy and compassion and he said again a quiet thank you to Sir Edward Beauchamp, who had long ago gone to a well-deserved rest.

The gates led into a narrow corridor paved with stone surrounded by stone walls. Shafts of sunlight shining through slit windows lit his way. At night, glowing sigils set in the walls lit the corridor. No guards were posted at the gate, no guards patrolled the corridor.

Sir Ander smiled to himself. Anyone who was not supposed to be here would not have taken six steps through those gates before he was challenged at gunpoint. Ander nodded to the guards concealed in “watch holes” as they termed the closetlike rooms from which the knights observed all who entered their compound.

The narrow corridor led to a large inner courtyard, open to the air, used for practicing all forms of martial arts from swordsmanship to archery (a skill in which Sir Ander had never excelled) to hand-to-hand combat. He crossed the courtyard and entered the double doors that led into a building housing the central offices of the motherhouse.

Inside the small, shadowy foyer, a knight sat at a desk, sorting through paperwork. The knight looked up on hearing the doors open. Sir Ander smiled to see him.

“Sir Conal!”

“By Heaven! Ander Martel,” exclaimed Sir Conal, rising from his chair. “You’re still alive? I thought those black magicks you fight would have claimed you at last.”

“Ah, that’s nothing to jest about, my friend,” said Sir Ander, clasping his friend’s hand and shaking it heartily. “And what about you? I consider black magic to be good wholesome fun compared to the politics of the grand bishop’s court.”

“You speak a true word there,” said Sir Conal with a grimace. “Give me a moment and I will order a room made ready-”

“I can’t stay, I’m afraid,” said Sir Ander. “Father Jacob is being dispatched to Saint Agnes.”

“I heard about that,” said Sir Conal, his face darkening. “A sad business.” He raised an eyebrow. “So the Arcanum is involved. That’s interesting.”

“Too damn interesting, if you ask me,” Sir Ander grunted. “Anyway, while my charge is conversing with the grand bishop, I’m here on the chance those new pistols I ordered from the Royal Armory were delivered. And to pick up my mail.”

“Ah, yes, those pistols,” said Sir Conal.

The two men were the same age and had fought and studied together. Sir Conal was a short, pugnacious man with grizzled hair and the neck of a bull. He had always been a rough-and-tumble kind of fellow, never happier than when he was knocking sense into the heads of young squires. Sir Conal had been in charge of teaching hand-to-hand combat. Sir Ander had been about to ask why his friend had been relegated to desk duty and then he saw Sir Conal pick up a cane and was thankful he had kept quiet.

Sir Conal limped painfully from out behind the desk. Seeing Sir Ander’s look, Sir Conal gave his right leg an irritated slap.

“Damn knee keeps going out on me. Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch sometimes. Fool healers can’t do anything to fix it. Just old age, they say.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Sir Ander said. “The knighthood must miss your expertise on the drill field. Or maybe they don’t.” He rubbed his jaw and smiled ruefully. “I can still feel a punch or two you landed on me.”

“As I recall, you had an unfortunate tendency to keep dropping your right fist. Left you wide open,” said Sir Conal. Seeing a squire coming down the hall, he raised his voice in a shout, “Master Arthen, watch the desk.”

The squire made his obeisance to the two older knights and hastened to obey. Sir Conal and Sir Ander walked the familiar passages leading to a spiral staircase that wound down below ground level.

Once on the lower floor, they passed the iron-banded and magically protected steel doors of the treasury and those of the wine cellar, whose doors were almost as well guarded. Sir Ander looked forward to drinking one of the knighthood’s fine wines with his supper. Conal halted when they came to a large chamber known simply as the “Storage House.”

The large chamber was divided into numerous stalls, each with its own gate. Every active member of the Order based out of the motherhouse had his own stall. Above each was a small plate with the knight’s personal arms painted on it. When a knight died, his personal effects were returned to his family, his stall was given to another knight. His arms remained on the gate.

Sir Ander picked up the key ring which hung from the wall and, sorting through the numerous keys, found the one that opened his gate. Inside was a small table and an oak chest with his name carved on the top, a gift from his mother. The chest contained all his personal items. He glanced at it, but did not open it. Too many memories: some good, more not so good. All precious, too precious to be disturbed. A few pieces of armor that he’d worn when he was young lay rusting in a corner, along with his ceremonial armor. The last time he’d worn that armor had been at the funeral of his friend and mentor, Sir Edward.

A leather pouch rested on the table along with a large wooden box stamped with the seal of the Armory. Sir Ander opened the pouch and took out his letters. Four were from his second brother’s third wife and would provide him with news of his family back in Travia. Seven were written on expensive paper, sealed with lavender wax. The insignia on the seals was a bumblebee. He smiled and slid the letters into the breast pocket of his coat. He would read them in the privacy of the Retribution.

He looked at the box from the Royal Armory. “So the pistols are here,” he said. “I didn’t really expect them so soon. I only ordered them a short time ago.”

He was wondering uneasily if he had the funds to pay for them. The Knighthood provided him a stipend to be used for his expenses when he was attending Father Jacob. The money was intended for food and lodging and clothes and Sir Ander had to account for every penny. The funds were not intended to be spent on such luxuries as specially designed pistols. He lifted the lid.

Six pistols lay nestled in a velvet-lined tray.

“Beautiful weapons,” said Sir Conal.

“They truly are,” Sir Ander agreed.

He lifted one of the pistols from the velvet-lined case. The stock was carved of burled red wood. The mechanism was polished steel. Silver-andbrass inlays swirled about the trigger lock.

“How well do they work?” Sir Ander asked his friend with a smile.

“How should I know?” Sir Conal wore an expression of innocence, belied by a gleam of amusement in his eye.

“Because this pistol has been fired,” said Sir Ander, grinning. “And because you were the only person who knew I had ordered them and since you are now on desk duty, you would have been the one to receive them when they were delivered.”

“You’ve been with that puzzle-solving priest of yours too long,” said Sir Conal, snorting. “You’re even starting to sound like him. I knew you’d want someone to test them, to make sure they worked and send them back to be fixed if they didn’t.”

“So I ask again, did the pistol work well?”

“Considering that there is not a single magical construct anywhere on it, yes, it worked very well. I have to say I was amazed. I was able to hit the target nine times out of ten and the last was my fault. Damn knee went all wobbly on me, threw off my aim.”

“Excellent. But I see you didn’t test all of them,” said Sir Ander.

He looked over the weapons, then lifted another out of the box. On the side of one of the pistols, opposite the hammer, was a silver plate engraved with a winged wolf holding a sword-Sir Conal’s device.

“For you my friend,” said Sir Ander, handing over the pistol and a matching powder flask.

Sir Conal stared. “You’re not serious!”

“Unfortunately, I am,” said Sir Ander. “Deadly serious.”

“Pistols that don’t rely on magic,” said Sir Conal, studying his gun with obvious pleasure, but also with a look of puzzlement. “Can I ask why?”

“You can ask, but I’m not going to answer,” said Sir Ander. “And you can’t tell a soul that you own one.”

“You know me, my friend. I keep my mouth shut. What did you say to Master Gaston at the Armory when you put in the order for pistols that are purely mechanical? He must have been curious.”

“I told him that Father Jacob tends to be irresponsible in tossing about magical spells and that I feared that if his magic went awry around the weaponry, he’d blow himself up and the rest of us along with him. Which is not exactly a lie,” Sir Ander added dryly.

“I see. I’ve heard rumors…” Sir Conal paused, then said, “I sometimes wonder what would happen to weapons imbued with magic if for some reason the magic ceased to work. Pistols wouldn’t fire-”

“Or they would blow off your hand,” said Sir Ander. He fixed Sir Conal with an intense gaze. “That’s what they are, you know. Just rumors.” He paused, frowning down at the guns, and then said impulsively, “I wish-” He stopped and sighed.

“Wish what?” asked Sir Conal.

Sir Ander forced a smile. “I wish I was drinking some of that remarkable old port I know you have stashed away in the wine cellar.”

He took two pistols and powder horns from the box and then closed the lid, leaving three pistols inside. “I’ll leave these here. In case.”

He didn’t say in case of what, but Sir Conal nodded gravely. Sir Ander shut the gate to his storage cell and locked it and returned the keys to the ring on the wall.

“We’ll pick up a bottle of port on our way past the wine cellar,” said Sir Conal.

“I’ll meet you in the dining hall,” said Sir Ander. “First I want to stop by the chapel and pay my respects to God. Then I need to go to the Bursar’s to make arrangements to pay for these pistols.” He gave a shrug. “Good-bye military pension.”

“I am certain God will be glad to hear from you,” said Sir Conal, “but you need not bother the Bursar. The pistols are a gift, it seems. Someone else has paid for them.”

“A gift?” Sir Ander repeated, astonished.

“The bill came in from the Armory marked ‘Paid.’ ”

“But who?” Sir Ander asked, puzzled. “Not Father Jacob. He doesn’t know anything about them.”

“You must have a secret admirer,” said Sir Conal.

Sir Ander remembered the letters with the lavender seal, and he flushed. He knew who had paid for the pistols and was pleased, at first, to think that Cecile de Marjolaine was thinking of him. On reflection, he was not so pleased. He was glad he did not have to impoverish himself in order to pay for the pistols, but he didn’t like the thought that the countess was spying on him.

Sir Ander had not seen Cecile de Marjolaine in years, although they did frequently correspond. Sir Ander had been to court. He knew the ways of the court and he knew Cecile de Marjolaine. Thinking of her, he remembered the desperate battle she waged all alone and regretted his twinge of resentment. He thought he knew why she was watching him, why she had given him the pistols.

Sir Conal had been observing his friend’s face and said with a grin and a wink, “Ah, these pistols came from some lady.”

“A very great lady,” said Sir Ander gravely, and he and Sir Conal left to pursue their reunion over a bottle of port, which was every bit as good as Sir Ander had remembered.

Father Jacob arrived at the motherhouse of the Knight Protectors in a foul mood. He barked at the startled young squire on desk duty, demanding where to find Sir Ander. The squire said politely that he didn’t know, but he would go look. Father Jacob told the squire he was a blithering idiot and began shouting Sir Ander’s name in a thunderous voice that echoed off the rafters.

Confronted by the fearsome black cassock of the Arcanum and a priest who appeared to be more than a little insane, the squire bolted from the desk and ran in search of Sir Ander. He had already heard the commotion and, sighing, drank the last of his port. He hurried down the stairs to find Father Jacob pacing back and forth impatiently.

“There you are!” Father Jacob snapped in a tone that implied that he’d been waiting for Sir Ander for weeks.

“Here I am,” said Sir Ander imperturbably. “I was thinking we might take supper-”

“The devil with supper! We are leaving now. I have sent Brother Barnaby to ready Retribution. I will meet you at the landing site. And don’t dawdle!”

The priest glared at him, turned on his heel, and stalked out.

Sir Ander heaved a deep sigh, then shrugged and gave a rueful smile.

“Something’s up, seemingly,” he said to Sir Conal, who had limped after him. “So much for supper and another glass of that wonderful port. Farewell, Conal. Use the gift in good health.”

“Farewell, my friend,” said Sir Conal. He cast an apprehensive glance after Father Jacob. “And good luck!”

The two friends shook hands and then embraced. With the taste of the port, like drinking honeyed chocolate, warming his mouth, Sir Ander departed the motherhouse, new pistols tucked into his belt, the letters in his inner coat pocket.

Arriving at the landing site, he found Brother Barnaby fussing over the wyverns. Father Jacob was nowhere to be found.

“He’s inside the yacht,” said Brother Barnaby in a low voice, “writing a dispatch to be sent to Master Savoraun by swift courier. He’s in a terrible state!” he added in a whisper.

“What happened with the bishop? Why the rush?” Sir Ander asked, glancing askance at the yacht and keeping his voice down.

“I will let Father Jacob tell you himself,” said Brother Barnaby circumspectly. “You know that I sometimes misspeak.”

“I know that you strictly observe your vow of secrecy,” said Sir Ander with a smile. “Even when it comes to me. And I honor you for it.”

Brother Barnaby’s dark skin darkened further with pleasure and embarrassment. The young monk scratched one of the wyverns on its head between its eyes. The wyvern gave a rumbling sigh of pleasure, while its partner attempted to shove its head under Brother’s Barnaby’s soothing hand. Sir Ander reflected that if he tried petting a wyvern, he would end up missing an arm.

“The wyverns haven’t had nearly enough rest,” said Brother Barnaby with a fond and worried look for his beasts. “They can travel only a couple of hours before we will be forced to stop. I tried telling Father Jacob…”

“Useless,” said Sir Ander. “When he’s in this sort of mood, a sixty-four-gun ship of the line couldn’t stop him. Don’t worry. Once he’s stomped around the yacht for an hour and aired his frustrations, he’ll calm down. Of course, we’ll have to listen to him-”

The hatch banged open and Father Jacob came bounding out. He looked around, then glowered.

“Where’s that godforsaken courier!” he demanded, waving his letter. “Why isn’t he here by now?”

“You only just sent for him-” Brother Barnaby began.

“The man is on the way,” said Sir Ander, seeing the wyverns bristle at the priest’s strident tones. “I’ll take charge of your letter, see that the courier gets it.”

“Complete incompetence!” said Father Jacob, scowling. “I’ll be inside the yacht. Let me know when he comes.”

He disappeared. The hatch banged shut.

“Perhaps I should go look for the courier,” Brother Barnaby said worriedly

“No, you won’t, because then he’d be in an uproar as to where you’d gone,” said Sir Ander. “Just keep pampering your wyverns. I’ll take this opportunity to read my mail. Let me know when the courier arrives.”

Brother Barnaby nodded and continued fussing over his charges. Sir Ander walked over to a bench beneath a shady maple tree and sat down. He quickly scanned the letters from a family he scarcely knew (he could never keep track of the various nieces and nephews) and then, with a feeling of pain mixed with pleasure, he drew out the letters with the lavender seals.

He was aware of a faint scent of jasmine as he broke the first seal. The scent evoked memories. He could envision Cecile quite clearly; even hear her voice speak from the firm, feminine handwriting on the pages.

She wrote to him often, at least once a month and sometimes more. He wrote to her sporadically. Sir Ander disliked writing letters. He wasn’t any good at it. He never knew what to say. Most of his work for the Arcanum he was forbidden to talk about, and the rest of his life was mundane. He was aware that his lapse in responding to her letters did not bother Cecile. She wrote to him for one reason and that was to keep him informed about his godson, Stephano.

Always mindful that letters could be intercepted, Cecile buried any information of true importance in a mire of the trivial. Indeed, examining the seven letters, Sir Ander noted signs that the latest one, dated only two days ago, had been opened. Someone had passed a hot knife under the wax seal, leaving the seal intact but permitting the snoop to read the letter’s contents. The snoop had been careless, however, having allowed the seal to partially melt.

The snoop had wasted his time. Cecile’s letter to Sir Ander was that of one old friend to another, filled with news of the court, talk of the latest fashion, a witty description of a party given aboard the royal barge, expressing admiration for a young musical prodigy who was taking the court by storm, and discussion of her problems managing her estate. He enjoyed her writing; he would take time to savor the letter later, in the lonely hours of the evening. For now, he was curious as to why someone had gone to so much trouble to intercept this particular letter. He read it before reading the others.

Sir Ander found nothing in it that would mean anything to anyone else and he decided the letter had probably been opened at random: just someone checking on the countess. The last sentence meant a great deal, but only to him.

When all else fails, know that you can still rely on my friendship and this small token of my esteem.

“When all else fails,” Sir Ander softly repeated the words.

All else-including magic. She was letting him know she was aware of Father Jacob’s investigations. But then, of course she would know. Probably the king himself had told her.

And Cecile had told Sir Ander. She trusted him; perhaps he was the only person in the world beside Stephano she could trust. Her friend and her son.

The thought warmed him.

Sir Ander was tall and well-built with an upright, military bearing. Years ago, when he had courted the young and beautiful Cecile de Marjolaine, he had been considered handsome. Over the years, his strong-jawed face, that had once exuded rakish confidence, had softened, becoming graver, more serious. His smile was generous and lit his eyes. Father Jacob was volatile, a bomb liable to go off at any moment, leaving debris and destruction in his wake. By contrast, Sir Ander was reliable, steady. Women were drawn to him. He was fifty years old and he knew many women who would have happily and proudly called him “husband.” He had never married. He would never marry. He would always remain faithful to his own true love.

Sir Ander carefully folded Cecile’s letter (more valuable to him than the pistols) and placed it along with the other unread letters in the inner pocket of his coat. He then rose to his feet to greet the courier.

The Abbey of Saint Agnes, located about four hundred miles north and west of Evreux, near the Bay of Faighn, and one hundred miles east of the city of Westfirth, would require a good twelve days to reach traveling by land. Sailing the skies, the Retribution could make the journey in two days. Even this was too slow for the impatient Father Jacob and much too slow for Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby, who had to put up with him.

Sir Ander spent his time performing routine maintenance on the yacht’s arsenal of weapons, a task made difficult by Father Jacob’s restless stompings about the yacht and his attempts to point out to Sir Ander that he was doing everything wrong. Sir Ander had learned early in their relationship that it was far easier to agree with Father Jacob than be drawn into an argument. Sir Ander, who was an expert on firearms, as well as being an excellent shot, nodded when Father Jacob attempted to tell him how to load the canisters that were fed into the swivel gun, and chuckled to himself when Father Jacob stalked off to instruct poor Brother Barnaby how to manage wyverns in flight.

As Barnaby had predicted, Father Jacob was incensed when the monk insisted that his wyverns had to be rested and fed after only four hours of flight. The monk suggested they spend the night in the coastal town of Predeau.

“We will waste eight hours!” Father Jacob stated angrily. “I insist we keep going. We can hire wyverns from one of the inns-”

“Fly with hired wyverns!” Brother Barnaby repeated, appalled.

His wyverns were his love, his pride and joy. They were like children to him, and the thought of abandoning his wyverns, leaving them behind in a strange place to be cared for by strangers, was too much to bear. He cast a desperate glance at Sir Ander.

“I thought you might use this time to question the sailors in some of the local taverns, Father,” said Sir Ander. “Find out if they saw anything odd or unusual in the Breath the night of the attack on the abbey.”

Father Jacob glowered and appeared about to make some caustic comment, then he relaxed and gave a wry smile.

“I do believe you are trying to get rid of me, Sir Ander.”

“All I’m trying to do is get a good night’s sleep,” replied Sir Ander. “And I can’t do that with you stomping about.”

“Talking to the sailors is a good idea,” said Father Jacob. “Brother Barnaby, land some distance from town. I don’t want anyone to see us. I will change clothes,” he added, opening one of the chests built into the bulwarks. “Can’t go roaming about the docks looking like the Angel of Death. Scare people half out of their wits.”

Brother Barnaby cast Sir Ander a grateful glance.

They camped by the Rim, close to where the Rhouse River emptied into the Bay of Faighn, a magnificent sight-water roaring over the edge of the continent, cascading into the Breath in a cloud of mist and rainbows. The river was swollen, for now was the rainy season, the time of year when rains fell incessantly in the continent’s interior for days on end, replenishing the water in the rivers and lakes and in land seas. The water fell off the continents into the Breath, creating the mists and the clouds that would then rise up and cause the rains. God’s everlasting miracle.

Just as the magic is his everlasting miracle, thought Sir Ander. Except now not so everlasting.

Brother Barnaby released the wyverns to hunt. Father Jacob, dressed in a disreputable shirt and trousers topped by a shabby jacket, headed off for the docks. On these occasions he refused to take Sir Ander, saying he would be a hindrance. The knight had no gift for acting and always looked and sounded exactly like what he was, no matter how much he tried to disguise himself.

Sir Ander did not overly worry about Father Jacob going off on his own without a Knight Protector. Dressed in shabby clothes, the priest would not be a target for thieves. The worst that might happen was that he would end up in a barroom brawl, which, knowing Father Jacob, he would actually enjoy.

Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby both slept soundly; neither of them awoke when Father Jacob returned in the wee hours with bruised knuckles and a wide grin. He had, indeed, enjoyed himself, which made up for the fact that the sailors he questioned had not seen or heard anything untoward in the Breath. He did hear rumors about Trundler houseboats coming under mysterious attack, but such tales had been circulating for years, and were generally held to be nautical ghost stories.

The next day, with the wyverns well-fed and well-rested, Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby well-rested, and Father Jacob once more in a good mood, Retribution set sail for the Abbey of Saint Agnes.

Chapter Fourteen

People term us thieves and vagabonds. Their Church would see us banned from Heaven. Their communion with God is not our way. We are the Trundlers, children of a world gone by.

Ours is a culture of two halves, the half we show the world and the half we hold in our hearts and in our words. Our people remember the old ways, the old songs and lore and the true pathway to God, long since corrupted by their church.

I am a Trundler and I am a Guardian of the Past, a Keeper of the Word.

– The Story of the Trundlers by Miri McPike, Mistress of Lore,

Never Published

THE RETRIBUTION, DRAWN BY WYVERNS, sailed the skies above Rosia, heading for the ill-fated Abbey of Saint Agnes. Lost in the Breath, the Cloud Hopper wasn’t going anywhere. Or rather, it was going somewhere, just not where anyone on board wanted to go.

It was Stephano who made the discovery that the last shot fired by Sir Richard Piefer had not missed. Piefer had not been aiming his new gun with the rifled bore at the people on board the Cloud Hopper. He had aimed at the boat, and Piefer was a good shot. Stephano, recovering from the bullet wound in his shoulder, could attest to that fact.

Piefer’s shot had struck the starboard airscrew’s propeller. Undoubtedly, he had been hoping the bullet would cause the propeller to shatter, immediately disabling the Cloud Hopper and forcing the boat to return to the docks, where he and his men could finish them off. Piefer’s plan had been foiled by the myriad powerful magic constructs set into the metal propeller. According to Rodrigo, the magic held the propeller together, kept it from breaking when the bullet struck it.

“Fortunately, the magic allowed us to escape into the Breath,” Rodrigo stated. “Unfortunately, the magic allowed us to escape into the Breath.”

“What does that even mean?” Stephano demanded.

“What it means is that we are in a good deal of trouble,” said Rodrigo. “We have drifted off course. We’ve lost sight of land. And we have no way to steer the ship.”

“But you said the bullet only dinged the propeller blade,” Dag pointed out.

Rodrigo pointed to the propeller. “Please observe. There is the ‘ding’ left by the bullet. The dent appears harmless, right?”

“Right,” said Dag warily. He knew from past experience with Rodrigo he was being led into a trap.

“Wrong!” Rodrigo said triumphantly. “The dent is not only in the metal. The dent is also in the magical constructs that strengthen the metal and keep the propeller turning. And that’s why we’re adrift.”

“A dent in the magic caused us to break down?” Stephano asked, baffled. He started to rub his aching shoulder, caught Miri’s eye, and pretended instead to scratch. “Damn bandages itch.”

He’d been lucky. The bullet had lodged in the muscle, and had not broken any bones. Miri had taken advantage of the fact that he’d been unconscious to dig out the bullet. Then she’d applied her famous poultice, a noxious yellow in color, bound the shoulder with bandages, trussed up his arm in a sling, dosed him with some sort of foul-tasting liquid, and told him to stay below and keep to his hammock.

Miri had learned her healing skills from her mother, who had learned them from her mother and so on back through generations of Trundler women. Miri was knowledgeable in herb lore and grew many of her own herbs in small containers that had their own special place either on the deck or below deck and must not be moved, no matter how many times people tripped over them.

She used some of the herbs fresh, particularly for cooking, and cut and dried others. Lavender and rosemary hung in fragrant bunches upside down below deck. She stored the rest in crockery containers in the large pantry Dag had built for her near the galley.

One jar was filled with catnip for Doctor Ellington. The cat was of two minds regarding catnip. He was extremely fond of it, but he was well aware that the herb robbed him of his dignity. Within seconds of sniffing a pinch, he would be rolling about the floor with his four large paws in the air, cavorting like a kitten. After the effect wore off, Doctor Ellington would glare at everyone in the vicinity, daring them to suggest he had made himself look foolish, and stalk off with his tail bristling.

Some people claimed the Trundlers used magic in the brews and concoctions and regarded them with suspicion. Rodrigo, in particular, was convinced Miri laced her concoctions with a pinch of magical sigil and he badgered her constantly to teach him the rituals.

Miri always refused, not so much because she was determined to keep her secrets, it was because to her what she did wasn’t magic. It was a part of being a Trundler. The little rhymes Miri whispered as she mixed the potions were rhymes she had heard her mother recite, as were the little songs she sang. Each concoction had its own rhyme, its own song. Perhaps they were magical, as Rodrigo claimed. Perhaps the rhyme caused the poultice to stop the wound from putrefying. Perhaps her song caused the beef tea to strengthen the blood. If that was magic, she didn’t know how it worked and she didn’t care.

Stephano had rested in his hammock only a few hours before he was once more up on deck.

“How can I get any sleep when the lot of you are clomping back and forth above my head,” he said fretfully. “I’ll just doze here in the sun.”

Dag and Rodrigo and Miri looked at each and rolled their eyes and grinned. The reason Stephano was up on deck had nothing to do with clomping. He was their captain. He was in charge. He was responsible. He could no more lie in his hammock and let the world go by than Doctor Ellington could ignore the lure of catnip.

“You owe me five copper rosuns,” Dag told Rodrigo. “I said he’d keep to his bed for four hours. You said six.”

“You should have given him a larger dose of that funny smelling stuff,” Rodrigo grumbled at Miri.

They had docked for the night at a site regularly used by Trundlers, who were called “Trundlers” because their little boats were said to “trundle” through the air. Several other Trundler houseboats, of similar make and design, were docked, tucking in for the night. Trundlers did not sail after dark, believing this was the time demons and other evil beings roamed the Breath.

Trundlers were rovers with their own close-knit society, made up of clans. Each clan was loosely governed by the eldest member of the clan, be that person male or female. Trundlers had their own laws, which sometimes did not accord with the laws laid down by governments. Trundler laws tended to be more easygoing, taking into account human nature and human foibles.

The Trundler’s tragic history had taught them to be wary of outsiders, known as “chumps.” Rodrigo, Dag, and Stephano had been admitted into Trundler society only because Miri, a Lore Master and much respected, had vouched for them. They had spent a pleasant time last night exchanging tales and stories, food and drink with the Trundlers, and had set sail when the morning sun turned the mists of the Breath pinkish orange.

All had gone well until catastrophe struck. Miri had been steering the boat when suddenly sparks of blue fire had danced over the brass helm, followed by a horrible grinding sound and a wild flapping of sails. Miri had thought at first they’d been struck by lightning, though no storm was in the Breath. She had used some colorful Trundler swear words and frantically tried to reestablish control, but the boat was unresponsive. Nothing like this had ever happened before on any boat she had ever sailed. She had no idea what had gone wrong.

“Think of this dent in the magic as a large boulder dropped into a small stream of water,” Rodrigo said, explaining. “The water tries to find a way around the boulder and a small amount of the water will manage to slip past. Thus we had a small amount of magic to keep us going all day yesterday.

“The dent acts like a dam. Some magic flows past, but more magic begins to back up behind it. The constructs in the propeller were not able to handle the buildup of the magical energy and began to fail. That set off a chain reaction throughout the boat. Like tipping over a line of dominoes, more and more constructs failed and then everything failed and now here we are, adrift in the Breath without any way to steer the ship.”

“So fix it,” said Dag. “You’re a crafter. You must be good for something besides causing men with guns to shoot at us.”

“I would love to fix it, I assure you,” said Rodrigo earnestly. “I don’t want to be marooned in the Breath any more than the rest of you. The problem is-the magical constructs are in such a tangle I can’t figure out where one begins and another leaves off. It’s the odd way the constructs are interwoven that allowed the chain reaction failure in the first place.”

He turned to Miri. “Who laid these constructs on the boat for you? I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Miri said uneasily. “The boat belonged to my parents…”

“Whoever laid the constructs is highly skilled in magic. Highly skilled,” Rodrigo emphasized. “I’m impressed. But the crafter was an amateur, untrained. No idea what he or she was doing. If you like, I can draw you a diagram.”

“Oh, God!” Stephano groaned. “If he’s reduced to drawing diagrams, we’re really in trouble.”

Miri glanced around for Gythe and couldn’t find her. She thought for a moment her sister had gone below, then she saw Gythe huddled underneath a table. She sat hunched there, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms around her legs.

Stephano followed Miri’s gaze. “Oh, no,” he said softly. “Not again.”

Gythe was pale, her face strained. She stared fearfully into the swirling mists.

“She’s always like this out of sight of land,” said Miri, regarding her sister with concern. “Leave her there. She feels safe.”

“Why does she do this?” Stephano asked, as he’d asked before when this happened.

Miri looked into the mists closing thickly around the houseboat and shook her head and frowned. “Now’s not the time to talk about it.”

Doctor Ellington jumped from Dag’s shoulder onto the table and then from the table to the deck. The cat rubbed his head underneath Gythe’s arm. She picked him up and buried her face in his striped fur.

Rodrigo had gone below for pen and ink. Returning, he spread the paper on the brass helm and began to draw. Miri left her sister in the care of the Doctor and joined the others to look curiously over Rodrigo’s shoulder.

“Let us say I am a crafter wanting to imbue this paper with magic. I lay down sigil A.” Rodrigo drew an A on the paper and drew a circle around it. “I next lay down sigil B.” He drew another sigil across from A and labeled it B. “In order to cause the magic to work, I draw a line from A to B. I now have a construct. Magic flows from A to B.

“But let us say that I drop water in the middle of the line. Like this. The ink smears, leaving a large blot on the paper. The construct is broken. No more magic. Ordinarily, a crafter would repair the break by redrawing the line, or a channeler would bridge the line. With the magic on board the Cloud Hopper, the crafter did not repair the break. The crafter bypassed the break altogether by adding more lines and sigils. So that now we have not only A and B, but also C, D, E, and F.”

Rodrigo drew sigils all over the page and lines that ran every which-way. “All very original. I’ve never seen these types of sigils before. Some of them actually elevate the magic to the level of genius,” said Rodrigo in admiring tones. “But the crafter who laid down the magic was not trained in the art, and now our boat is burdened with such a mishmash of magical sigils and constructs that I have no idea how to untangle them. If the crafter who did this was on board, I might possibly-”

“The crafter is on board,” said Miri flatly.

They all stared at her.

“Not me,” she said, raising her hands. “Heaven forefend! I’m a fair channeler. I can channel the magic through my hands from one construct to another. But I cannot create a sigil.”

She glanced at Gythe, crouched beneath table. “My sister is a crafter and she has a rare gift for the magic, or so I’ve been told.”

“But she’s never been trained,” said Rodrigo.

“She was trained,” said Miri. “By our parents. By my uncle.”

“Drop it,” said Stephano beneath his breath.

Rodrigo ignored him. “Trundler magic…”

Miri rounded on him angrily, her fist clenched. “And what do you mean by that remark, sir?”

“Told you to drop it,” said Stephano.

Rodrigo tried to reason with her. “All I meant was that Gythe never went to school-”

“And who needs bloody schooling!” Miri cried, seething.

“Judging by the confused mess I’ve found on board this boat…”

Miri seized a belaying pin.

Stephano grabbed hold of Rodrigo. “Apologize!”

“What? Why?”

“Before she cracks open your skull! Apologize!”

“Ah, yes, well, I apologize, Miri,” said Rodrigo. He gave her his best charming smile. “I meant no offense. Truly. Tell me about Gythe and the Trundler magic. I need to understand so that I can fix this.”

Miri grew calmer. She lowered the belaying pin, much to Rodrigo’s relief, and glanced anxiously at her sister, who was still hiding beneath the table.

“Gythe loves to work the magic. Nothing makes her happier, except maybe playing the harp. She sings to herself while she works. She has such few pleasures. I encourage her. The magic soothes her, like the music.”

“Do you know what she is doing with the magic?” Rodrigo asked.

Miri shrugged. “I assumed she repairs broken constructs. I couldn’t see that she was doing any harm. Like I said, I’m no crafter.”

The mists of the Breath were gray, shifting and whirling around them. The damp clung to their clothes, made them feel cold and clammy.

Rodrigo wiped his face.

“She was not doing any harm,” said Rodrigo. “Far from it. These magical constructs are meant for protection. Over and over, she laid down constructs designed to protect this boat and those in it. From stem to stern and back and again, the Cloud Hopper is festooned with webs of magical protection constructs.”

Miri’s eyes shimmered with tears. Her lips trembled. “My poor sister.”

“But protection magic is good, isn’t it?” Stephano argued.

“Yes and no,” said Rodrigo. “Yes, because the protection magic is what kept the propeller from being shot to bits. No, because there are so many layers of spells I can’t figure out how to unravel them in order to repair the damage. Our situation is this: we have no way to operate the sails or the rudder or energize the gas that keeps the balloons inflated and the lift tanks working. Soon the gas will start to cool and lose its magical energy. The balloon will deflate and the lift tanks will fail and we will sink into the Breath. The mists of the Breath grow thicker as one descends, the temperature drops. It is theorized that eventually the Breath at the lowest altitudes turns to a liquid form, which means we will all drown. Though by that time it won’t matter, since we will have already frozen to death.”

Stephano regarded his friend grimly. “There must be some way you can get this boat up and running!”

“I might be able to repair the constructs enough to get us as far as Westfirth, but only if Gythe helps me,” said Rodrigo. “A lot of these sigils are new to me and, trust me, I know my sigils. This is Trundler magic”-he glanced apprehensively at Miri-“no offense, Miri.”

She shook her head, too alarmed at the terrible prospect they were facing to angry.

“We have always kept our magic a secret,” she said.

Stephano glanced over at Gythe. “This goes back to what happened to her, doesn’t it? The reason she won’t speak. Miri, you need to tell us what happened. Maybe we could help her. I know you don’t like to talk about it-”

“I vowed I would never talk of it,” said Miri fiercely. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, staring stubbornly down at the deck. “My uncle made me take an oath. He said if we talked about it, it would only make things worse for us. People call us thieves and swindlers. If they knew that something out there in the Breath was killing our kind, they’d say the horror came because of us and they’d set fire to our boats and drive us out…”

Miri began to cry. She tried to stop, but she couldn’t help it. Stephano put his arm around her and drew her close.

“We won’t tell anyone, Miri,” he said. “We’ll keep your secret. We’ll take any oath you ask of us.”

She smiled bleakly and hurriedly dashed away the tears. Dag fished out his handkerchief and handed it to her. His big, ugly face was soft with concern. She blew her nose and cast Dag a grateful glance and, slightly flushing, squirmed out of Stephano’s grasp.

“Swear by our friendship,” she said. “That will be good enough for me.”

Each of them made the promise. Miri gazed around at them and swallowed. “There’s not much to tell. My sister and I were away visiting my uncle and his family. He has children our age and all of us cousins grew up together. We lived as much on his boat as we did on ours. When it was time to join up with our parents’ houseboat, we knew immediately something was wrong.

“Our boat wasn’t at the meeting place. We waited, but our parents never came. My uncle, thinking there might be a problem with the boat, sailed out to search for it. We came across our boat not far off, adrift in the Breath, like we are now.

“Our father and mother should have both been on deck, working to fix whatever was wrong. But they weren’t. There was no one. The deck was empty…”

She was shivering. It was cold out here on deck, with the mists of the Breath closing in. Dag draped a coat about her shoulders, and she drew it around her. The coat was huge on her and the shoulder yellow with cat fur. She nestled into it and found the courage to finish her tale.

“My uncle guessed that something terrible had happened, and he tried to stop us from going aboard. But we were kids and didn’t know anything. The world was all sunshine to us then. Before he could catch her, Gythe had jumped from his boat onto ours. She was light as a bird and seemed to almost float through the air. She landed on the deck and shouting, “Mam” and “Pap,” she ran down into the hold.”

Miri paused, then said in a low voice, “I will hear her scream until the day I die. She only screamed once and then she never spoke a word after. My uncle tried to make me stay on board his ship, but I would have fought a bigger man than him to reach Gythe, and at last he let me go with him.

“Our snug cabin, where we all had lived so happily, was awash in blood. The blood was so deep it sloshed back and forth with the movement of the boat. Gythe was standing in it, staring. Just staring. We never found the bodies. Not whole bodies. Only… pieces…”

“I guess we know the reason for the protection spells,” said Rodrigo somberly.

Dag awkwardly patted Miri’s shoulder. She gave him a wan smile of thanks. “Pirates,” he said.

Stephano shook his head. “Why would pirates attack a Trundler houseboat? It’s not like they’re stuffed with gold…”

“It wasn’t pirates,” said Miri. “I told you before. It was something terrible that came out of the Breath. There were marks on the walls-like giant claws. The bodies had been ripped apart. And the magic was gone.”

“What do you mean, the magic was gone?” Rodrigo asked.

“The magic on the boat. It was just gone,” said Miri.

Rodrigo shook his head. “But that’s not-”

Stephano elbowed him in the ribs. “Let it go.”

Her story had unnerved them. They looked into the thick mists and then back at Gythe, shivering under the table. They thought about the protection constructs she had laid down, layer upon layer upon layer.

“You swore you wouldn’t tell,” Miri reminded them.

“I won’t,” Stephano said. “But someone should. The navy could help

…”

Miri snorted her disbelief. “Help Trundlers?”

“There have been rumors,” said Dag. “I’ve heard them. The sailors talk about ghosts in the Breath.”

“We now know why Gythe worked her magic,” said Rodrigo. “She can’t help me while she is still under the table.”

“I think Dag should talk to her,” said Miri.

“Me?” Dag looked astonished.

“Gythe loves you. She trusts you,” said Miri simply.

Dag’s face went red. He shook his head, embarrassed, and mumbled, “Don’t leave it up to me.”

“We’re starting to sink,” Rodrigo warned, looking up at the balloon. “We don’t have much time.”

“Dag,” said Stephano. “Miri’s right.”

“But what do I say?” Dag asked helplessly.

“Whatever is in that big heart of yours,” said Miri softly.

Dag’s face went redder than ever. He stood for a moment, looking uncomfortably at Gythe. Her head was buried in Doctor Ellington’s fur. She was shivering with fear. Dag’s expression softened. He managed, with considerable effort, to sit down awkwardly on the deck and, by means of scooting and scrunching, squeezed his way beneath the table.

The Breath dampened sound. All was eerily silent.

“Girl dear, I want you to look at me.”

Gythe very slightly raised her head to peep at him over the Doctor. Her fair hair straggled wetly around her face.

“I was born ugly,” Dag said cheerfully. “Came by it naturally. Neither my pa nor ma were anything to look at. But God made up for my ugly face by making me big and strong. I’ve been shot at by every conceivable type of gun. I’ve had cannonballs thrown at me. I’ve been stabbed with swords and cut with knives and struck with fists. I’ve even been attacked by our captain and his dragon.” Dag glanced at Stephano, who smiled at the memory of their first encounter.

“And I’m still here, Girl dear,” Dag said simply. “Nothing’s been found that can kill me yet.”

He rested his hand on her hand and said quietly, “Anything out there that wants to do you harm will have to go through me first. You know that, don’t you?”

Gythe nodded and lifted her head to smile at him. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Miri, turning away, wiped her eyes. Stephano looked at her. He looked at Dag, and something seemed to strike him.

“Miri loves him! I’ll be damned,” he said to himself, and he didn’t know if he liked that or not.

“It seems that Master Rigo is having trouble sorting out what you’ve done with the magic. He needs your help to fix it, or the boat won’t sail. Let me take the Doctor.” Dag reached for the cat, who was loath to leave and, with much yowling, had to be pried loose. “While you go help Master Rigo. He’s not very bright, you know.”

Gythe smiled tremulously at that. She hesitated only a moment, then slid out from beneath the table and stood up, smoothing her skirt. She indicated with a little nod that she was ready to assist. Miri went to her sister and hugged her.

“I am in awe of your work, Gythe.” said Rodrigo. “Truly in awe. What you’ve done is quite marvelous. But your magic is causing a bit of a problem. If you could just show me what you did, we might be able to fix it.”

He steered Gythe to the helm. The two bent over it, Rodrigo explaining and Gythe listening with grave attention. Miri hurried over to assist Dag, who was floundering about on the deck, unable to stand up.

“Damn leg went to sleep on me,” he grumbled.

“Let me help,” said Miri.

She managed to hoist Dag, grimacing, onto his feet. She stood a moment with her arm around his broad back. She smiled at him. “Thank you, Dag.”

He blushed and lowered his eyes and mumbled something, then he hobbled off, trying to get the feeling back into his leg. Doctor Ellington flounced across the deck, tail flicking angrily. He turned up his nose at a piece of smoked fish Stephano held out as a peace-offering, and ran down the stairs into the hold, determined to punish them by depriving them of his company.

Stephano ate the smoked fish himself. Miri was gazing after Dag with a fond, exasperated look.

“So it’s that way with you, is it?” said Stephano.

“What way?” she asked, startled.

“You’re in love with Dag.”

“I suppose I should blush, but I’m too old. Yes, I love the big lummox.” She paused, then faltered, “Do you mind?”

“A little,” Stephano admitted.

“You know we always said we would just be friends.”

“I know what we said,” Stephano replied. “But saying and feeling are two different things. Face it,” he added in teasing tones, “you’d be mad if I wasn’t jealous.”

Miri laughed. “I guess I would.” She sighed and cast a rueful glance at Dag, who was pacing the deck as though he was walking guard duty on the top of a redoubt. “Though there’s no need for you to be jealous. He won’t give me the time of day.”

“He’s been wounded, Miri,” said Stephano quietly. “And unlike a bullet wound or a sword slash, this wound is deep in his soul. It won’t be easy to heal.”

“Something happened to him. Tell me what,” said Miri.

Stephano gazed out into the swirling mists. “Dag will tell you himself when he’s ready.” He turned to smile at her. “And when he does, you’ll know he loves you.”

“And if he doesn’t…”

Stephano shook his head. “Dag hates himself for something that happened long ago, Miri. Right now, that hatred is so big it’s squeezing out every other feeling. You have to be patient. Loving and patient.”

“If that’s what I have to do, then I guess I’ll do it,” said Miri.

She looked over at the helm. Gythe was making rapid gestures with one hand and jabbing her finger at the helm with the other. Rodrigo was staring at her in helpless bewilderment.

“I guess I had better go translate,” Miri said. She started to leave, then looked back at Stephano. “Thank you.”

“For what?” he asked.

“For being jealous.”

She gave him a pert smile, then went to the helm, where she was immediately confronted by Gythe and Rodrigo, both talking at once; Gythe with hands flying and Rodrigo saying plaintively, “I think I upset her…”

Miri explained to Rodrigo what Gythe meant with her gestures and tried at the same time, to explain to Gythe that Rodrigo didn’t mean what he’d said with his mouth. The three of them began to laboriously try to untangle the overlapping strands of magic.

They had a difficult time of it. Gythe was at first adamantly opposed to removing any of the magical constructs she’d laid down to protect the Cloud Hopper. Rodrigo tried to tell her that one of her magical constructs was so powerful she did not need twenty more on top of it.

“In fact, the others have weakened the entire construct. Think of your first construct as a mighty river, with the water all flowing in a one direction. When you added additional constructs, you essentially siphoned off the water, sending it flowing into ditches and creeks and streams, with the result that your river is down to a trickle. If you remove all these other constructs, the magic will flow strong again.”

Stephano listened and watched and tried to imagine what it must be like to see the glow of sigils and the lines of energy connecting them and to know you had the power to manipulate such a miraculous force. Perhaps the feeling was akin to flying through the air on the back of a dragon, with the wind in your face, knowing the freedom that comes when you leave the world and all its problems far behind.

There were those like Hastind who claimed they felt the same striding the deck of one of the large ships of the air, but Stephano knew better. On board ship, he was one of many junior officers, all vying for the attention of the godlike captain, who rarely, if ever, deigned to listen to a lowly lieutenant. Being a ship’s captain meant you had to deal with the politics of the Royal Navy, suck up to some dunderhead of an admiral who didn’t know his starboard from his port. When you were a Dragon Knight, you only had to talk to your dragon, and Stephano had often found dragons far more sensible and intelligent than people.

The Cloud Hopper was now starting to sink deeper into the Breath. The lift tanks were cold; the magical sparks that energized them were flickering, ready to die. The mists were so thick that now Stephano could barely make out the balloon, which was starting to deflate, as were their spirits. Stephano’s wound had begun to throb painfully, but he kept quiet, not wanting to take Miri away from her work.

Night wrapped around the boat. Dag gave up keeping watch. He apologized to Doctor Ellington, which apology, accompanied by smoked fish, was graciously accepted. Stephano tried to light a lantern, but the wick was too damp to catch. He and Dag and the Doctor sat in the deck chairs and watched Gythe and Rodrigo and Miri work. Stephano felt helpless. All he could do was listen to the dismal flapping of the sails and feel the cold water drip off the ratlines onto his head. Every so often, flashes of magic arcing from one sigil to another flared in the night and gave them hope. But then the light would fail, Rigo would sigh and shake his head. Gythe looked like she was going to cry. Miri drooped from exhaustion.

They had to keep working. The Cloud Hopper was sinking fast.

Chapter Fifteen

Most of us have no true understanding of just how little of Rosia we inhabit. We fly from city to city, over vast stretches of unexplored wilderness and rarely look down to marvel at the deep green forests, jagged shorelines, and tall snow-covered mountains. A few have sought to live in these places, untouched by man, so as to be closer to God.

– Unknown priest in a letter to his family describing his pilgrimage into the wilderness

AS THE DISABLED CLOUD HOPPER SANK SLOWLY into the Breath and her crew struggled desperately to rekindle her magic, the Retribution continued flying through the night, planning to reach the Abbey of Saint Agnes by dawn.

After finally obtaining a good night’s sleep, Sir Ander wakened in a somber state of mind, thinking sorrowfully of the murder of a hundred innocent souls and wondering about the evil that had committed such a heinous crime. He should have been relieved to find Father Jacob in a cheerful mood, for life with the priest when he was in a good humor was far more comfortable than when Father Jacob was on a rampage. But the priest’s good mood clashed with Sir Ander’s, who found himself resenting the Father’s smile and hearty “good morning.”

Ander dipped the shaving razor in the water basin and then held it poised, waiting for the rocking motion of the yacht to steady enough that he didn’t have to worry about cutting his own throat.

“Whose nose did you bloody last night?”

Father Jacob looked up, startled. Then, glancing at his split knuckles, he began to laugh-loud, booming laughter that apparently startled the wyverns, for the yacht took a sudden lurch. Sir Ander braced his leg against his foot locker.

“You will be pleased to know that I did not take out my frustrations on some poor innocent fisherman,” said Father Jacob, slicing cold roast beef and eating it off the edge of the knife. “Quite the contrary, I was almost swept up in a press gang.”

The yacht was relatively steady, and Sir Ander scraped at his jaw quickly.

Father Jacob looked quite pleased with himself. “Some naval vessel must have come up short-handed. A lieutenant was rounding up the local fishermen to ‘offer’ them a life in the navy, which meant that he was sending them back to his ship in legs irons and handcuffs.”

“Didn’t you tell him who you were?”

“And miss out on a grand brawl?” Father Jacob grinned and ate beef with enthusiasm. “Instead of bloodying a fisherman’s nose, I bloodied the lieutenant’s and then took to my heels.”

Sir Ander grunted and, when the swaying eased again, he swiftly completed his shaving. He mopped his face with a towel.

“Well, I’m glad the fight has improved your mood.”

Father Jacob was indignant. “What do you mean, improved my mood? I am always in the best of humors, despite the fact that my patience is constantly tried to the limit by dunderheads like the grand bishop, who insists on trying to keep political plates spinning in the air while his world is literally crashing down around his ears.”

“His Eminence doesn’t have much choice,” said Sir Ander. He put on his dress uniform, consisting of a long coat in the dark red of the Knight Protectors, white trousers, white stockings, and polished black knee-high boots.

Father Jacob only grunted. His gaze grew abstracted. He chewed thoughtfully on a hunk of beef and said suddenly, “Do you know what strikes me as odd about this atrocity we’ve been sent to investigate?”

“I have no idea,” said Sir Ander, finally sitting down to breakfast. “Has Brother Barnaby eaten anything?”

“I offered to drive while he ate, but he said he wasn’t hungry.”

“God forgive the good monk the sin of lying,” Sir Ander said to himself, inwardly smiling. Aloud he remarked, “What do you find odd?”

“Dubois,” said Father Jacob.

“Dubois? Who is Dubois?” Sir Ander asked, startled.

“A remarkable man. One might say, a very remarkable man. He has a mind like a rat terrier. Once he sinks his teeth into the meat of a problem, he never lets go. Dubois is the bishop’s most valued agent. Dubois is to the bishop what the Countess de Marjolaine is to His Majesty.”

Sir Ander felt his face grow warm at the mention of the countess, warmth radiating perhaps from the letters in his breast pocket. He hoped Father Jacob wouldn’t notice. Fortunately, Father Jacob was engaged in holding a loaf of bread on the table in an attempt to slice it without slicing his fingers.

“The bishop mentioned Dubois’ name as Brother Barnaby and I were in his office.”

“He mentioned it to you?”

“Well, no,” said Father Jacob. “He was talking to the monsignor-”

“-and you were eavesdropping.”

Father Jacob smiled slightly and shrugged. “Dubois and I worked together many years ago, before your time. He was low in the ranks then, but he has since advanced to become the bishop’s right hand, his ears and, in some cases, his brain. Dubois sent a note to the bishop wanting to know about something happening in the Royal Armory. And it has something to do with Henry Wallace.”

“Wallace?” Sir Ander was alarmed. “He’s not still after you, is he?”

“I’m sure Sir Henry would be extremely pleased to hear of my demise,” said Father Jacob cheerfully. “But, no, I don’t think the man is pursuing me. Not after all these years. He has moved on to more important matters.”

“Something happening at the Royal Armory?” Sir Ander looked exasperated. “We’re investigating the tragic murder of one hundred nuns. What could the Royal Armory possibly have to do with that?”

“Nothing that I can fathom,” said Father Jacob. “And that’s what I find odd.”

“You’ve lost me,” said Sir Ander.

“The grand bishop calls upon Dubois to deal with matters which are of the utmost importance,” said Father Jacob. “One would think a hundred murdered nuns would fall into that category. And, yet, Dubois is poking about the Royal Armory. Although if Wallace is involved.. .”

Father Jacob fell into a musing silence.

Sir Ander eyed the priest, saw he was drifting off course. Sir Ander forked cold beef on a slice of bread and said sternly, “What could be more important than this terrible attack on the abbey?”

“Something happening at the Royal Armory apparently,” said Father Jacob in thoughtful tones. “I can’t help but wonder what. Ah, well.” He shrugged. “No sense wasting time worrying about it.”

He says that, Sir Ander thought, but I know better. This Dubois fellow isn’t the only terrier who doesn’t know when to let go. Though Father Jacob might be considered more like a bulldog in that respect.

“I read through this report the bishop gave me on the abbey. The report from the unknown Brother Paul.” Father Jacob shoved over a sheet of paper covered with close, jagged handwriting. “Read that. I want your opinion.”

Sir Ander smoothed out the paper. Whoever Brother Paul was, he had obviously written the report in a state of great agitation-portions were scratched out, notes had been scrawled in the margins. Sir Ander had considerable difficulty deciphering the brother’s hysterical penmanship. Fortunately, the report wasn’t long.

“I pray to God we find the bastards responsible for these atrocities!” Sir Ander said grimly when he had finished reading. “One survivor, and that poor young woman driven out of her wits by the horror.”

“Out of her wits.” Father Jacob raised an eyebrow. “You believe she is crazy?”

“Don’t you?” Sir Ander gestured to the report with a bit of bread. “She talks about demons riding on the backs of gigantic bats with glowing eyes of fire…”

“Brother Paul doesn’t think she is crazy. I quote: ‘Demonic legions of Aertheum the Fallen attacked the nuns in response to their godly work.’ Demons ‘hurling balls of glowing green flame’…”

Father Jacob tapped his knife on the table. “Does that put you in mind of something? A certain cutter, maybe?”

Sir Ander stopped with the bread halfway to his mouth. “The Defiant? The cutter was attacked by a ship armed with a weapon that fired a green flame, but those were pirates, not fiends riding giant bats.”

“His Eminence noted the connection. That’s why he sent for me to investigate.”

“But, still, giant bats?” Sir Ander appealed to reason.

“The nun said one thing that I found particularly instructive. See if you come to the same conclusion.”

Sir Ander read back through the report and shook his head. “I don’t know what-”

“‘The demon yelped…’” Father Jacob repeated the words with relish, seeming to savor them.

Sir Ander looked blank. “I don’t understand. What is so important about that?”

“You don’t find it interesting? Ah, well, perhaps I’m jumping at shadows,” said Father Jacob. “No use speculating. I look forward to talking with our sole witness. According to Brother Paul, the nun’s injuries were not severe.”

“Injuries to her body, maybe,” said Sir Ander gravely.

“We are coming up on the abbey, Father,” Brother Barnaby relayed from the driver’s seat. “You can see the two spires of the cathedral. And”-Brother Barnaby caught his breath-“there’s a dragon, Father! Flying over the abbey!”

Sir Ander bolted a last bite of bread and beef and hastened to join Father Jacob, who had gone out the hatch to sit with Brother Barnaby.

Below the yacht the land was wild and untamed-jagged hills covered with brush and scrub trees from which rose strange and grotesque rock formations. The sun sparkled on streams and glinted off a river winding back and forth upon itself through hollows and ravines.

The abbey had been constructed centuries ago on a large promontory that jutted out into the Breath. The twin spires of the cathedral stood in lonely, haughty isolation, dominating and defying the wilderness.

The Abbey of Saint Agnes was ancient; its history murky. The decision to build their abbey in this remote part of Rosia had been made by an order of monks who had vowed to shun the world, spend their days and nights in worship. The early buildings had consisted of a single large, crude wooden structure where the monks slept and a small and humble church. The monks built a high stone wall around their compound and lived their lives behind it.

The monks did not venture into the world, but they could not escape it. The world came to them. King Alfonso the Third, who ruled over eight hundred years ago, was involved in secret and delicate negotiations with the foreign minister of Travia. Surrounded by spies in the royal court, the king contacted the Prince-Abbot of the Abbey of Saint Castigan, as it was known then, to ask if he could meet the minister at the abbey. The prince-abbot reluctantly agreed. The meeting was successful, and both His Majesty and the minister gave substantial donations to the order by way of thanks.

Word went round among the princes of all nations that if they wanted a secure place for any type of secret liaison or assignation, they could find safe haven in the Abbey of Saint Castigan. Kings and nobles who visited the abbey made donations to the abbey’s coffers. The order spent their wealth on building a beautiful cathedral, a dortoir, a comfortable guesthouse with stables for wyverns, griffins, and horses and carriages, and docks for airships.

When the Dark Time fell, bringing catastrophic upheaval to the seven continents, princes, kings, and nobles were caught up in the daily struggle to keep their people alive from one day to the next. The Breath churned and boiled and was far too dangerous to travel. All trade between nations and continents ceased. The Abbey of Saint Castigan was forgotten.

When the world finally emerged from darkness, Rosia basked in the sunshine of wealth and power. The grand bishop came across old records from the Abbey of Saint Castigan and wondered why nothing had been heard from the monks for many long years. He sent representatives to the abbey and found it empty, abandoned. They could find no trace of the monks, no records left behind to indicate what had happened. There did not appear to have been any sort of catastrophe. All had been left in order: beds made, dishes washed, treasure coffers-still full-safely locked.

No one ever learned the fate of the monks, though there were many theories. The most logical of these was that the monks, near starvation, had been forced to take to their airships and sail into the stormy Breath, where they had perished. The Abbey of Saint Castigan was given to an order of nuns, who rededicated it to Saint Agnes. The nuns lived quietly in far more reduced circumstances than the monks. No more wealthy nobles came to the abbey. The nuns’ visitors tended to be of a humbler nature.

Every night, the nuns would climb the spiraling stairs to hang lights in the twin spires to guide ships sailing the Breath. Oftentimes occupants of these ships and boats-sailors and Trundlers-sought shelter at the abbey’s docks, which were located in an inlet several miles distant from the abbey’s walls. The nuns would give the sailors food and water and tend to any illnesses or injuries they suffered. In addition, scholars would sometimes come to the abbey to do research in the famed library. Among these was Master Albert Savoraun, who lived in the nearby city of Westfirth.

Master Albert Savoraun had traveled to the abbey to track down old records of the Maritime Guild. Some guildmaster had decided the records would be safer behind the abbey walls than in the guildhall in Westfirth. Given that the guildhall had twice in its history been destroyed by fire, this decision had undoubtedly been a wise one.

The guild owned a ship and several yachts, all of which were used to conduct guild business. Albert had sailed himself in one of the small yachts to the abbey. While going through the library, he had found something there that had astonished him greatly. Thinking Father Jacob Northrop would find this discovery interesting, Albert had sent a letter to the Arcanum.

Albert had been in the vicinity of the abbey the night the attack took place. Sleeping aboard his yacht, he had been awakened by what he had thought was lightning. He believed a storm was coming, and he had gone out to make certain his yacht was securely tied down. Once he was outside, he realized that the eerie green light did not emanate from a storm, but was flaring around the abbey. He could smell smoke in the air and he saw, to his consternation, that the lights in the cathedral’s spires had gone dark.

Alarmed, Albert dressed swiftly and, taking up his lantern, hastened to the abbey to see if he could help. During his walk, which took him about half an hour, he watched the green flashes of fire diminish and then cease altogether. The smoke grew thicker; he could see plumes roiling above the abbey walls, blotting out the stars. He could not hear any sounds, no screams or voices calling or shouting as one would expect to hear if the nuns were battling the fires.

The odd silence struck fear into Albert’s heart, and he began to wish he’d brought his musket. His fears were realized. He found the abbey’s gates shattered. He entered cautiously, only to come upon a scene of such nightmarish destruction that the veteran sailor who had witnessed ship battles-blood running from the scuppers-was overwhelmed with horror and blacked out.

He was roused by the priest who had been the nuns’ confessor. Brother Paul was a hermit who resided in a rude shack in the wilderness about five miles from the abbey. He had seen the green fire and come to see what was going on. Together, the two men entered the compound and began to search for survivors.

They had found one-a young nun who had escaped detection by hiding beneath a pew.

Brother Paul had insisted, quite rightly, that word of the attack should be immediately sent to the grand bishop. He had urged Master Albert to carry the message to the abbot in Westfirth to be dispatched to Evreux by swift courier. Albert agreed the message needed to be sent, but he was loath to go himself. He had seen much to trouble him about this attack. Trusting that Father Jacob was already on his way, Albert did not want to leave the abbey unguarded.

He had been trying to figure some way out of this dilemma when he was startled to hear a loud voice, coming down from the sky. Albert looked up to see two dragons circling overhead. His nerves were raw, his mind unsettled and the thought came to him that the dragons had committed this atrocity. Then one of the dragons, landing ponderously among the scrub trees, had introduced himself as Sergeant Hroalfrig, formerly of the Dragon Brigade.

“Now retired,” Hroalfrig said.

He and the other dragon, his brother Droalfrig, also a former soldier, raised sheep and goats on a wretched piece of land provided to them by the Crown in return for their military service. They had seen the smoke and had come to find out what had happened. The nuns, it appeared, had been good to the dragons and the brothers were both appalled and angered by what had occurred.

Albert had enlisted the aid of the dragons to keep watch over the abbey. The dragons had sailed to Westfirth, carrying Brother Paul’s account, and had then returned to the abbey to await the arrival of Father Jacob.

One of the dragon brothers was now flying in large, slow, dignified circles above the abbey, keeping watch.

The sight of the dragon, who weighed six thousand pounds and measured seventy feet from nose to tail, with a wingspan of over one hundred and forty feet, alarmed the Retribution’s wyverns. They began to shriek and flail about in their traces, giving Brother Barnaby all he could do to try to soothe them and maintain control.

The sight of the black yacht likewise alarmed the other dragon, who came flying over ponderously to take a look. The Church emblem on the yacht reassured the dragon, who dipped his wings in salute. Seeing that he was upsetting the wyverns, the dragon flew off to resume his patrol.

“There are the docks. Should we land there, Father?” Brother Barnaby asked.

“Too far away from the abbey. I need to be close by.”

“We need to put down quickly somewhere,” said Brother Barnaby, who was continuing to have a difficult time with the wyverns.

Sir Ander pointed to a small patch of grassland outside the abbey walls. He handled the helm, adjusting the yacht’s buoyancy and trim, as Brother Barnaby continued to assure the wyverns that the dragon was not going to harm them. He brought the yacht down safely. Master Savoraun, who had been watching for their arrival, hurried to meet them.

“Albert Savoraun! It’s good to see you, my friend,” said Father Jacob, reaching out his hand to his longtime friend.

Sir Ander gripped Master Albert’s hand. “I suppose I should call you Guildmaster Albert now. Congratulations. You have done well for yourself.”

“Thank you, Father. It’s good to see you, though I wish it were under better circumstances,” said Albert. He was haggard and pale, his eyes bloodshot. He turned to Sir Ander. “You are looking well, sir.”

“A little grayer than the last time we met, but otherwise in good health, thanks be to God,” said Sir Ander.

“We’re all grayer, sir,” said Albert and he ran his hand over his thinning hair. “I’ve added a good many gray hairs over this, I can assure you.”

Albert Savoraun was in his mid-thirties, with the weather-beaten face of a lifelong sailor. He was short, with a stocky build and a take-charge attitude. Born into a family of seafaring crafters in Rosia, he had been brought up in his trade and served on board his first ship as apprentice to his father at the age of thirteen.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Father,” said Albert. “And I hope I never do again.”

Father Jacob introduced Brother Barnaby, who was still concerned for his wyverns.

“Is there a place where I can stable them?” he asked anxiously. “The dragon makes them nervous. So long as they can’t see him, they’ll feel safe.”

“The stables are still standing,” said Albert. “I have no idea why the fiends didn’t burn them, too. Maybe they were spared because they were far from the main compound. You can’t see them from here. They’re on the west side of the abbey, outside the walls-three large stone buildings. You can house your wyverns there, Brother.”

Brother Barnaby refused all offers of assistance, saying apologetically that the wyverns were in such a state he did not trust them around anyone. Sir Ander maneuvered the yacht into position, placing the back of the yacht against the abbey’s walls, with the front facing west, looking out across a flat expanse of windswept granite into the swirling mists of the Breath beyond. A low wall had been built at the cliff’s edge, serving to keep people from falling over the precipice.

“I’ve never seen any place so lonely and forgotten,” Sir Ander remarked, shaking his head.

Brother Barnaby unharnessed the wyverns and led them to the stables, leaving Father Jacob and Sir Ander to talk to Master Albert. Their desolate surroundings and the sad nature of their business oppressed their spirits and made idle conversation difficult. Father Jacob did not want to discuss the tragedy until he had seen the site for himself. He asked Albert about his numerous children back in Westfirth. Albert cheered at the thought and began to talk about his brood. His oldest son, age fourteen, was already serving with the navy as an Apprentice Craftsman.

When the wyverns had been housed and calmed, fed and watered, Brother Barnaby came to join them, carrying his portable writing desk which he had brought from the yacht.

“Would you like to rest after your journey, Father?” Albert asked.

Father Jacob shook his head. “We should view the site while there is still plenty of daylight.”

“In that case, you will need these.” Albert produced several handkerchiefs.

“Ah, yes,” said Father Jacob.

He took one of the handkerchiefs for himself and offered the others to Sir Ander and Brother Barnaby. The young monk looked confused.

“The stench,” said Father Jacob gently.

Brother Barnaby accepted the handkerchief and tucked it into the belt of his plain brown monk’s robes. Sir Ander, looking grim, signaled that he didn’t need one.

They walked around the outside of the abbey, the wind whipping them and blowing sand in their eyes. They could not see anything beyond the abbey’s high stone wall except the twin spires of the cathedral soaring to Heaven.

As they walked, the dragon’s shadow flowed over them. The dragon dipped his wings, gave a wheezing cough. The dragon’s advanced age was apparent in the color of his scales. Once shining blue-green in his youth, the scales were now a dull greenish gray. His beard was hoary, but his eyes were still fierce and proud.

“That’s Sergeant Hroalfrig,” said Albert, seeing Father Jacob’s interested gaze closely observing the dragon. “Formerly of the Dragon Brigade. He and his twin brother, who was also a member of the Brigade, live on a small farm some twenty miles inland. When they heard of the tragedy, they flew here to offer their help.”

Master Albert gave a wry smile. “Neither of the old boys can stay up in the air too long, so they take turns flying patrol.”

He was silent a moment, brooding, then said abruptly,

“I’m glad you were able to come with such speed, Father. Brother Paul has been insisting on burying the dead. After what I saw, I knew I had to keep everything just as it was until you could see for yourself.”

“You mean, the dead have not been given proper burial, sir?” Brother Barnaby was shocked.

“I’m sorry to say, Brother, that there is not that much left to bury,” said Albert.

Brother Barnaby’s dark complexion paled and he murmured a prayer beneath his breath.

“Please relate your story, Albert,” said Father Jacob briskly. “I’d like to hear it before we enter the walls.”

“The night of the attack,” Albert began. “I was asleep-”

Father Jacob interrupted. “Everything in the proper order, please. A fortnight before the attack, you sent me a letter coded in magic saying you had found something of interest in the abbey. What was it?”

Albert was impatient. “That’s of little consequence in view of this tragedy, Father.”

“I will be the judge of that,” said Father Jacob mildly.

Albert paused to mop his forehead with his coat sleeve. The sun shone brightly. No clouds drifted in the sky, save the misty haze of the Breath on the horizon. The day was going to be a hot one.

“Guild members have long complained that they couldn’t get access to guild records, which had been stored in the abbey for safekeeping. That included the guild charter and bylaws, membership rolls and legal documents and such like. I proposed that we have the records brought back to the guildhall and have copies made.

“When I arrived at the abbey, I asked the nuns where the guild records were kept. They weren’t much help. Poor women. They lived in poverty. It was all they could do to keep body and soul together. When they weren’t praying, they were tending to their crops and their livestock. They told me the records were likely in the library, which was in the cathedral. Brother Paul had the key. He used the library as his office when he was visiting the abbey.”

“He was the nuns’ confessor and priest, but he would not reside at the abbey, of course,” said Father Jacob. “That would not be seemly.”

“He’s a strange one, is Brother Paul. He wouldn’t reside at the abbey, seemly or not. He’s a hermit, lives in the wilderness somewhere.”

“Where was he when the abbey was attacked?”

“He was in his dwelling, asleep. The attack happened long after he’d left for the night.”

Father Jacob nodded. “Well, for the moment, we can dispense with Brother Paul. What did you discover in the abbey library that you thought I would find interesting?”

Master Albert paused to look around, which Sir Ander thought an odd precaution, considering the fact that they, Brother Barnaby, and Brother Paul were likely the only in a hundred-mile radius.

“Brother Paul’s office consisted of little more than a stool and a desk where he did his writing. He paid scant attention to the books in the library. He has weak eyes and finds it difficult to read for long periods of time. He had no idea where the guild records were located. He told me I could ‘rummage around.’

“As it turns out there was no need to ‘rummage.’ The library is well-ordered, with church records in one place, theological texts in another, books on crafting in yet another and so on. I found the guild records easily enough, and I put them aside. Since no one minded my being there, I poked around some more and ended up in the section where there were books on crafting.”

Albert gave a rueful smile. “As you know, Father, I’ve always regretted that I was never able to study the art properly. My father didn’t hold with reading about magic in school. He taught me crafting as he had learned it from his father who had it from his father and so on. I’ve always been interested in finding out more on the subject and here I was, surrounded by books on crafting. I was like a kid in a bakery.

“I roved among the stacks and came across an entire section given to seafaring magic. The books were on the very top shelf. I had to fetch a ladder to reach them. I was taking out one of the books when I noticed a wooden chest on top of the bookcase. The chest was tucked well back from the edge, so it hadn’t been visible from below.

“The chest was heavy, covered with dirt and cobwebs. I managed to haul it down, though I nearly fell off the ladder in the process. I set it on the floor and dusted it off as best I could. The chest was magic-locked and cost me considerable effort to open it.

“Inside were five slim volumes, all bound in leather with no title on the covers. I opened the first one to a frontispiece, very elaborate art, which appeared to be have been drawn by the author, consisting of his name and title all done in fancy lettering. The name was: Cividae. The year was 721 GF (Grand Founding).”

“Interesting,” said Father Jacob.

“Why? Who was this Cividae?” asked Sir Ander.

“Prince-Abbot of this abbey during the war with the Pirate King and the subsequent descent into the Dark Time,” said Father Jacob. “The Abbey of Saint Agnes was then known as the Abbey of Saint Castigan-Brother Barnaby’s patron saint.”

Brother Barnaby smiled and shifted the writing desk he was carrying to a more comfortable position. They had rounded the north corner of the wall. The front gate faced south, so they had a considerable way to walk before they reached it.

“The reason you sent for me was something you found in the prince-abbot’s journals, or so I’m guessing,” said Father Jacob.

“Yes, Father. The journals were written in the old Church language, Rosaelig. I couldn’t read a lot of it. But one word kept appearing over and over-a name, as if this prince-abbot were writing about this person.”

“And this name was-”

“Dennis, Father.”

“Dennis!” Sir Ander exclaimed, taken aback. “You don’t mean… Saint Dennis?”

“Of course, he does,” said Father Jacob. His tone was cool, but his eyes gleamed with suppressed excitement. “We have long known that after Saint Dennis left his home in Travis, he traveled to Rosia. We always wondered where he went. It makes sense that he would have come here to this reclusive place to pursue his studies of magic in solitude.”

“I found another word I could read, Father. A word that wasn’t written in Rosaelig and was easy to spot, because the writer consistently underlined it. I was rocked back on my heels so to speak when I saw this word, Father. I went all over gooseflesh. Here.” Albert reached into his coat and brought out a small piece of paper. “I was so struck by it that I used my magic to lift the word off the paper and set it down on another sheet. I dared not write it in the letter.”

He opened the paper and held it out. Sir Ander and Father Jacob and Brother Barnaby gathered around, gazing down at the word that was written in a neat and precise hand and, as Albert had said, had been underlined.

Contramagic

Sir Ander looked at the word, then looked at Father Jacob. The knight’s expression was dark. Brother Barnaby looked at the word and involuntarily moved back a step and raised his hand to ward off evil.

“ ‘Contramagic.’ ” Father Jacob read the word in a murmur, scarcely heard. “Yes, it was wise you did not write this down, Master Albert. You could be tried for heresy.”

He drew in a deep breath, then let it slowly sigh out. “I must see this journal, Albert.”

“I wish you could, Father,” said Albert in an unhappy tone. “At the moment that’s not possible. The journal disappeared.”

“What do you mean ‘disappeared?’ ” Father Jacob asked sharply. “Was it lost in the attack? Destroyed?”

“No, Father. The journal wasn’t in the abbey when it was attacked. The theft occurred long before the attack, the day after I sent the letter to you. I was alarmed by what I had found. If anyone knew I was reading about such forbidden knowledge I would be arrested. I removed the journal from the library to my yacht. I asked permission of the abbess first, of course. I told her and I told Brother Paul that I was interested in the abbey’s history, about Saint Dennis and the fact that he’d spent time here…”

Father Jacob frowned and shook his head. “That was a mistake, Albert.”

“I did not tell anyone about this… word, Father!” Albert looked haggard. “I’ve been terrified to even think it, much less speak it!”

“You mentioned nothing about contramagic,” Father Jacob said, thoughtful. “Only Saint Dennis. What did the abbess say?”

“She had worries enough of her own and wasn’t the least bit interested in Saint Dennis. She readily gave me permission to study the journal, provided that I returned the volume when I was finished.”

“Brother Paul?”

“He said only that my time in this world would be better spent in doing good works than in reading about them. I translated part of the journal that day, then my eyes gave out and I needed a break. I had found a trout stream not far from here and I decided to go catch my dinner. I left the door to my room key-locked and magic-locked and magic-sealed and a protective spell on the journals. When I came back, the lock on the door had not been tampered with. The magic-lock had not been broken. The magic seal remained intact. The journal was gone.”

Father Jacob frowned. “If it were any other crafter, I would say you had been careless in your spell-casting. But I know your work, Albert, and I know you. You are one of the best. Obviously it was stolen.”

Albert gave a sigh of relief. “I am glad you trust me, Father. I was afraid you would think I had been negligent.”

“But who would steal it?” Sir Ander demanded. “The nuns? This Brother Paul? They were the only people around. Why would they steal a book that had been in their own library for centuries?”

“Because they didn’t know it was there,” said Father Jacob. “Because someone knew or suspected that the blessed Saint Dennis was here seeking forbidden knowledge.”

Brother Barnaby was distressed. “You cannot believe Saint Dennis was a heretic, Father.”

“Of course, not. He was seeking the truth. And knowledge should not be forbidden, Brother,” said Father Jacob, his brows coming together, his fist clenching. “No grand bishop, no king, no authority in the world has the right to dictate what we think, to prevent us from studying, from learning, from discovering!”

Brother Barnaby shrank back, dismayed by the priest’s passion. Sir Ander drew him to one side.

“You touched a sore spot, Brother. I’m sorry. I should have warned you.”

“He’s very angry with me, I fear,” said Brother Barnaby unhappily.

“Not with you, Brother,” Sir Ander sighed and repeated quietly, “Not with you.”

Father Jacob had lapsed into deep thought, his brow furrowed, his head bowed, his hands clasped behind his back. When Albert started to speak to him, Sir Ander shook his head, warning him to keep silent. Father Jacob walked on, preoccupied, absorbed, until at last they arrived at the broken remains of the gates of the Abbey of Saint Agnes.

Father Jacob raised his eyes at last. He looked at the twin spires, pointing to Heaven.

“God, grant us courage. What happened here at the Abbey of Saint Agnes could forever change our world.”

Chapter Sixteen

In the places where God’s voice cannot be heard, his fallen children, cast from Heaven, have found refuge. They seek forever to destroy that which God has created. Beware the quiet. Beware more the terrible voices.

– Anonymous

THE GATES THAT PIERCED THE TALL GRAY GRANITE WALL encircling the abbey compound were made of oak studded with bronze rosettes and banded with iron. The gates were extremely heavy, their hinges rusted. The nuns would not have been able to open them and, fondly believing themselves safe from any enemy, they had never closed them.

“Not that the gates would have stopped the assault,” Albert added bitterly. “Their attackers came out of the Breath, flew over the walls.”

“Demons on giant bats,” Sir Ander said, shaking his head. “We read the account of that poor girl.”

“Yes,” said Albert in subdued tones, “Brother Paul told me what she said.”

“You did not see her?”

“I helped carry her to the infirmary, but she was unconscious. I have not spoken to her since she woke up. Brother Paul says she needs rest and quiet.”

“I would like to interview her,” said Father Jacob. “I want to hear her account in her own words.”

“She is in the infirmary, Father,” said Albert. “One of the few buildings that was not extensively damaged. Brother Paul has been nursing her. She’s only sixteen. As for demons attacking the abbey.. . After you’ve seen the horror for yourself…” Albert sighed and shrugged. “I believe it. No human could be so depraved.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Father Jacob, exchanging glances with Sir Ander.

“The writings of the Saints speak of angels and their evil counterparts,” said Brother Barnaby and he added quietly, almost to himself, “I saw paintings depicting demons on the walls of the Grand Bishop’s Palace.”

“I will hear her and judge for myself,” said Father Jacob brusquely.

The shadow of the dragon, still circling overhead, had been expanding as the dragon flew lower and lower. The dragon was so low now that he had to be careful not to brush one of the cathedral’s spires with his wing tips.

“I believe Master of the Flight, Sergeant Hroalfrig, would like a chance to meet you, Father,” said Albert, as the dragon’s scaled belly passed overhead.

“Of course,” said Father Jacob. He rubbed his hands. “I would like nothing better.”

Sir Ander shot Brother Barnaby a warning glance. The monk gave a slight nod in response. When Father Jacob had been a University student in Freya, his area of study was dragon magic, with particular emphasis on a dragon’s innate ability to deconstruct human-crafted magical constructs. This ability was the reason dragons had once been highly valued by the militaries of all the major powers. A dragon attacking a ship could use his breath to cause the magic of the constructs in the hull to break apart. A dragon could not erase the magic, but he could do serious damage.

Father Jacob had become so interested in his studies, he had expanded them to include dragon lore, dragon culture, and dragon history. If his life had not taken the near-disastrous turn that had caused him to flee Freya, he might have become one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject.

Thus, whenever Father Jacob encountered a dragon, he had a most unfortunate tendency to completely forget the task at hand. He would engage the dragon in endless conversation, delving into the dragon’s family history, find out where and how the dragon lived, and so forth. One of Brother Barnaby’s tasks was to remind Father Jacob of his duty without hurting the feelings of the dragon.

This was the first dragon Father Jacob had met in some time. The great dragon families of Rosia had served proudly in the Dragon Brigade for over two centuries and they had been deeply angered and offended when King Alaric had disbanded the Dragon Brigade. Relations between the noble dragon families and the Crown had grown strained. Dragons no longer attended the royal court, but kept to their estates in the mountains.

Hroalfrig made a lopsided and decidedly ungraceful touchdown. The elderly dragon shook himself, lifted his head, folded his wings against his flanks, and advanced, with a slight limp in his right leg, to greet the newcomers.

“Master of the Flight, Sergeant Hroalfrig,” said Albert, introducing them. “Father Jacob Northrop, Sir Ander Martel, and Brother Barnaby.”

The dragon’s head reared high over the abbey walls. The towers were about one hundred fifty feet in height. The dragon could have looked into the windows about a third of the way up with ease. He had landed on his heavier and more muscular rear legs, but he walked on all four. Father Jacob noted the beast’s stubby mane, his short snout, and thick neck and knew him to be a dragon of the lower class. Dragons of the noble families had long manes, slender and graceful necks, and elongated, elegant snouts.

Hroalfrig took care to keep a polite distance from the humans, not wanting to risk accidentally stepping on them. He gravely inclined his head in greeting to each in turn.

“Honored, Father, honored, Sir Knight,” said Hroalfrig in a deep voice. “Honored, Brother.”

Dragons had long ago learned human speech, though it came more easily to some than to others. Humans had never been able to speak the language of dragons. The human throat and tongue were not capable of forming the words. Some, such as Father Jacob, had learned to understand it.

“Master of the Flight Hroalfrig served with the Dragon Brigade, Quartermaster Corp,” said Albert.

“Retired,” said Hroalfrig, adding in gruff tones with a growl, “Forcibly.”

Hroalfrig was apparently a dragon of few words.

“I heard about the disbanding of the Brigade,” said Father Jacob. “A serious mistake. I wrote most strongly to His Majesty to protest.”

“Thankee, Father,” said Hroalfrig, obviously pleased. “Call me Hroal and my brother Droal.”

Brother Barnaby attempted at this moment to draw Father Jacob away from the conversation, but the monk’s attempt was foiled by his own ally. Sir Ander was now regarding the dragon with interest.

“You served in the Dragon Brigade. Perhaps you knew my godson, Lord Captain Stephano de Guichen.”

“My commander, m’lord. Good man,” said Hroal. The dragon flicked a wing in salute.

“How were you wounded?” Sir Ander asked.

“Siege of Royal Sail,” Hroal replied. “Barrel gunpowder. Explosion. Too close.”

“Did you fly in that battle?”

“Never flew, m’lord. Would have liked to. Not my job. Hunting. Meat. Lots of it. Keep ’em fed.”

“An army of dragons flies on its belly,” said Sir Ander. “So you were at the Siege of the Royal Sail. Captain de Guichen lost his dragon in that battle. I have often wondered-”

Brother Barnaby was now forced to enter the fray. He fixed Sir Ander with a reproachful gaze, indicative of his disappointment. “I am sorry to interrupt, Sir Ander, but I fear you and Father Jacob are keeping Master of the Flight Hroalfrig from his duties.”

“That is true. Forgive me, Sergeant,” said Sir Ander. “I forgot myself in the pleasure of our talk. I will let you return to the skies. I hope we have a chance to speak again.”

“And I would very much like to speak to you, Sergeant Hroal,” Father Jacob said. “To you and your brother. Later this afternoon, if that is convenient. I would like to hear your account of this tragic event.”

The dragon’s eyes flickered. He gazed at the priest a moment, then gave a brief nod of his head.

“Honored, gentlemen, all,” said the dragon, and he again flicked his wing in salute.

Mindful of his bulky body and long tail, Hroal politely waited until the humans had moved a safe distance away, then he turned ponderously and hobbled back across the field. He lifted his wings and leaped off his back legs to “gain air” as the dragons put it. Everyone on the ground could hear the dragon’s grunt of pain and see him wince before Hroal was once more airborne.

“He’s tough, that one,” said Albert. “He’s been on duty all night, but he’d fall out of the sky before he’d admit he was tired. His brother, Droal, will be along soon to relieve him. You won’t be able to tell them apart.”

Albert cast a worried glance at Father Jacob. “As I said, Father, the two dragons are doing an excellent job. They came when they saw the smoke-”

“Don’t be concerned, Albert,” said Father Jacob. “I won’t offend them. I just want to ask them a few questions.”

The morning sun was bright, too bright, making the shadows seem sharpedged, deep and dark. The chill winds blowing out of the Breath glanced off the surrounding cliffs and struck at them from unexpected directions. Sir Ander, in his dress uniform, wished he’d thought to add his fur-lined cape. Brother Barnaby stood with his back and shoulders hunched against the wind. Master Albert had to hold onto his hat. These three stood in front of the gates, watching Father Jacob, whose black cassock billowed and flapped, as he made an inspection of the gate and the ground surrounding the entrance.

“Too rocky to tell much, but, as Albert says, the attackers did not come this way. We will proceed inside.”

He clasped his hands behind his back and strode through the gates, his sharp-eyed gaze going from the posts to the hinges to the walls, to the grounds. The others followed more slowly, reluctant to enter.

“It’s like walking through the gates of Hell,” Albert said, his voice muffled by the handkerchief he was holding over his nose and mouth.

Father Jacob turned back to regard them with impatience. “You’re dawdling. Albert, please go tell Brother Paul we are here and ask him when would be a good time to interview his patient. Sir Ander, Brother Barnaby, I need you both with me.”

The great cathedral with its twin spires, each topped by an ornate cupola, towered above them. The spires were known for their red-orange stained glass windows. When lit from behind, the windows glowed with flame that could be seen even through the thick mists of the Breath. The stained glass windows were gone, the leaded glass panes smashed. Father Jacob stared at the destruction for a long time, then turned away, his expression thoughtful, somber.

The towers framed a central bell tower, smaller than the other two, topped by a dome. The church bell might have summoned help if there had been any ships passing in the night, but, according to Albert, the bell had been silent. Death had come upon the nuns too swiftly for them to call for help.

The bell tower also featured an enormous clock, said to be the largest in the world. The clock chimed the hour and the half hour; its distinctive music, known as the Chimes of Saint Castigan, was mimicked by other clocks throughout the world. According to Albert, the clock had been silent since that night.

Albert hurried off to find Brother Paul, heading for the infirmary, which was about a half mile from the cathedral, close to the dortoir where the nuns had lived.

Father Jacob and his companions crossed a paved courtyard that surrounded the cathedral. Beyond the courtyard lay ornamental gardens that once must have been beautiful; with marble fountains, statues of saints, clipped hedges, shade trees, and broad swards of green grass. These gardens had been a marvel, astonishing all who saw them, completely out of place with the abbey’s wild surroundings.

The monks of Saint Castigan had discovered early in their occupation of this rugged land that little would grow in the rocky soil. What did grow was stunted by the wind. The monks shipped in immense quantities of rich, black dirt, hauling it to the abbey by the barge load. They worked for years developing and designing their gardens. The high walls had protected the roses and flowering trees and grass from the wind, and the plants had flourished. Father Jacob did not go immediately to the cathedral. He turned his steps toward the gardens.

Brother Barnaby cast Sir Ander an interrogative glance. Sir Ander shook his head in reply. Who knew why Father Jacob did anything? Sir Ander began to think he should have accepted that handkerchief. He had smelled the stench of death on the fields of battle, but this was far worse. Brother Barnaby held his handkerchief over his face. Father Jacob had forgotten his entirely. Brother Barnaby later found it lying on the ground.

The practical nuns had taken over the gardens, digging up the rosebushes and planting vegetables and herbs. Much of the vast gardens had been left unattended and were now overgrown by grass and weeds.

The gardens had been destroyed, the dirt churned up, new plants and seedlings trampled. Large divots of sod had been gouged out of the ground. All of the statues had been pulled down, smashed, and lay in ruins.

“Senseless, wanton destruction,” said Sir Ander.

“On the contrary, the destruction was far from wanton,” said Father Jacob. He was down on his hands and knees on the ground, studying what looked and smelled like a pile of manure. He rose to his feet, dusting his hands, and glanced around. “This was deliberate savagery.”

“Please take a sample, Brother Barnaby.” Father Jacob added, indicating the manure. “I want to study it further. Be careful not to touch it.”

Brother Barnaby had been gazing around in grief-stricken awe. He looked startled at the request, but he hastened to obey. Placing the writing desk on the ground, he opened it, removed one of several small glass vials and, using a wooden spatula, gingerly scooped a small portion of the manure into the vial and stopped it up with cork, then put it back into the writing desk.

Father Jacob’s next request was for a measuring tape such as tailors used. Brother Barnaby supplied the tape, retrieving it from the desk. The priest measured the pile of manure, taking care to keep from soiling his hands. Sir Ander watched with rising impatience until he could contain himself no longer.

“A hundred women are dead! Why are you wasting time on a pile of sheep droppings!” he said angrily.

“No sheep dropped that,” said Father Jacob. “Unless I am much mistaken, it is bat guano.”

Sir Ander stared. His jaw sagged. “Bat guano! You’re not serious!”

“I am, I assure you, my friend,” said Father Jacob. “Deadly serious. Look around. You will see more of these piles. And where are the sheep? Here, I’ll show you.”

Father Jacob walked off a short distance and picked up a hunk of wool stained with blood. The skin and flesh were still attached. “The sheep were torn apart, probably devoured.”

“But how is that possible?” Sir Ander demanded. “To carry off a fullgrown sheep, a bat would have to be the size of a horse…” His voice trailed away.

“‘Demons with glowing eyes of fire riding gigantic bats,’” said Father Jacob, repeating what he had read in Brother Paul’s report. “This proves the young nun is not crazy. She reported exactly what she saw.”

“‘And the Gates of Hell will open and Aertheum the Fallen will send forth his evil legions,’” Brother Barnaby quoted.

“Evil legions…” Father Jacob shook his head. “I need to interview that young woman. What can be keeping Albert? Well, we have learned all we can here. Let us move on to the cathedral and the grounds.”

They left the gardens and walked across the courtyard. Sir Ander had a great many questions, but he dared not ask them. He had been with Father Jacob so long he knew the signs. When the priest walked slowly, his head bowed and his hands clasped behind him, he was a fox hound running round and round, trying to find the scent. When, as now, he walked briskly, his head up, his cassock flapping about his ankles, his eyes glinting, he had picked up the scent and was on the trail.

As they approached the cathedral, Sir Ander looked curiously at the paved area immediately in front of the entrance. He wondered why the paving stones here were black, when the rest of the courtyard was white. And then he realized, the hair prickling on the back of his neck, that the stones were not black in color. They were stained black. Black with blood. And as he drew nearer, he saw lumps lying scattered about.

Not much left to bury, Albert had said.

Lumps of flesh, parts of bodies.

Sir Ander was shocked to feel himself grow queasy. He sought the shelter of the shaded portico and leaned against a column until he felt better. He had seen the grass of battlefields red with blood, seen men disemboweled, heads severed. This was worse. Men went to war for a reason. Maybe not a good reason, but still a reason. This was butchery-horrible, senseless.

If he had been so affected, he wondered suddenly what Brother Barnaby must be feeling. Sir Ander went in search of the young monk and found him seated on one of the stairs leading into the cathedral, the writing desk on his lap, his pen in his hand, hard at work. He’d managed to sit on a portion of the stairs that was not stained with blood. Father Jacob was off on his own, walking slowly around the north side of the cathedral, his gaze fixed intently on the ground.

Sir Ander sat down beside him. “Are you all right?”

Brother Barnaby sighed softly and kept writing.

“Well, I’m not,” said Sir Ander. “I want to run out that gate and keep running.”

Brother Barnaby looked up. “Father Jacob requires me to make notes. I don’t mind, sir. Really. I’d rather be busy.”

He went back to his work.

Sir Ander stood up and walked off. He met the priest coming around the corner of the cathedral.

“A ghastly scene,” Father Jacob said.

Sir Ander nodded. He did not feel himself capable of speaking.

“The attack occurred at the conclusion of Midnight Prayers. You noticed, of course, the time on the clock when it stopped working.”

Sir Ander had not noticed, but he nodded again anyway.

“The nuns were just coming out of the sanctuary after prayer service when they were attacked. The assailants knew what they were doing,” Father Jacob added, his tone grim. “They waited to strike until most of the nuns were in the open. The yard is trampled, churned, soaked in blood. Death came at them from the sky. They looked up to see gigantic bats swooping down on them. I doubt if they knew what was happening. The bats were merciless. They tore their victims apart with sharp, rending claws, ripping their flesh from their bones while the poor women were still alive, and then devouring them.”

“For God’s sake, why?” Sir Ander asked angrily. “Why kill with such cruelty? I thought at first the foes might be Freyan soldiers, but why would Freyans attack an isolated abbey and slaughter every living being inside it? And riding giant bats? Doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense!”

“This atrocity was not committed by Freyans or the soldiers of any other nation,” said Father Jacob with finality. “The assault on the women was an act of hatred, a hatred so deep we cannot even comprehend it.”

“The fiends came simply to murder these nuns?”

“Interestingly enough, they did not come to kill. They came for something else. The murders were an afterthought, a crime of opportunity. I want you to look at something.”

Father Jacob squatted down. Sir Ander ran a trembling hand over his face, wiping the chill sweat from his brow. Drawing in a deep breath, he knelt down beside the priest.

“See this. And this.”

Sir Ander bent closer. “Footprints!”

“Not footprints,” said Father Jacob.

“No, you’re right. Paw prints!” Sir Ander stared, amazed. “Like the paws of a bear!”

“Similar,” said Father Jacob. “But a bear walks on all fours. Whoever made these walked upright on two legs like a man. And a bear has five toes ending in claws. Note this has four toes ending in claws in front and one larger claw in back. See how deeply that back claw gouged into the ground. Remind you of something?”

“A spur on a riding boot…” said Sir Ander doubtfully.

“Exactly what I was thinking,” said Father Jacob. “These prints were left by the attackers. They are all over the ground. All heading in that direction.” Father Jacob gestured to the cathedral. “The bats had riders.”

“Men with clawed feet. You mean… demons…” Sir Ander was aghast.

“Just like the paintings by the old masters that so impressed Brother Barnaby. Judging from the evidence, it would seem the riders turned their bats loose to feed, while they entered the cathedral.”

“The inhuman savage beasts killed the nuns and then went to the cathedral to destroy it like they destroyed everything else.” Sir Ander paused, then said in a low voice. “These were demons, Father. Bent on the destruction of all things holy!”

“Except they didn’t destroy the cathedral,” Father Jacob pointed out.

Sir Ander considered this. “That’s true. They set fire to the dortoir and some of the outbuildings. Why leave the cathedral standing?”

Father Jacob rose to his feet, absent-mindedly wiping his dirty and bloody hands on his cassock.

“Isn’t the reason obvious?”

“Not to me,” said Sir Ander irritably.

Father Jacob smiled and walked off, shouting for Brother Barnaby to draw a diagram of the paw print.

Sir Ander removed his helm, let the wind cool the sweat running down his face. None of this made sense to him. He was glad it made some kind of sense to Father Jacob. The knight took a moment before entering the cathedral to silently pray, asking God for strength and for wisdom, then he joined Father Jacob in the sanctuary.

The scene was gruesome. The floors and walls were covered in blood. The same paw prints that they had seen outside were all over the floor, only these were outlined in the blood. Statues of saints had been destroyed, the altar hacked to pieces, tapestries shredded, stained glass windows broken. Yet, as Father Jacob had said, the demons had left the cathedral standing.

Brother Barnaby entered some time later. He looked about the sanctuary in mute grief and dismay, then sat down in a pew to take notes as Father Jacob dictated.

“The fact that the bodies were consumed accounts for the absence of corpses,” Father Jacob was saying. “From the smears of blood on the floor, it appears that the nuns who had remained inside the sanctuary were attacked by the riders, probably tortured for information. The riders then dragged the women outside and fed them to the bats.”

Brother Barnaby blinked his eyes rapidly to try to stop the flow of tears, but to no avail. A drop fell onto the page, smearing the ink. He hastily wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Father Jacob was not paying attention. He was staring intently at a marble column, running his hand up and down the marble, still dictating.

“-burned the dortoir, but did not set fire to the cathedral-”

Sir Ander rested his hand on Brother Barnaby’s shoulder, offering quiet comfort. Brother Barnaby sat still for a moment, then he put away his pen, laid down the writing desk, rose to his feet and left the sanctuary.

Father Jacob stood with his head tilted back, staring up at the marble column, following its graceful lines to the high, vaulted ceiling.

“Brother Barnaby,” said Father Jacob, “come over here. I want you to make a diagram-”

“Brother Barnaby left,” said Sir Ander.

“Oh?” Father Jacob glanced vaguely around. “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know.” Sir Ander snapped the words. “He’s upset, Father. This has been terrible for him.”

Father Jacob was too absorbed in his work to take notice. “You come look at this.”

Sir Ander heaved a sigh and stalked over.

Father Jacob pointed to the column. “What do you make of that?”

The column with its fluted shaft was typical of churches of that period. What wasn’t typical was that in places, the ridges and grooves of the fluting had been destroyed. He could see blast marks on the column, like a castle wall struck by cannon fire.

Father Jacob passed his hand over the column. “Let us take a look at the magical constructs embedded in the stone. See what they tell us. A castle wall hit by cannon fire would still retain traces of the magic that had strengthened the walls.”

Sir Ander hoped he would see the faint blue glow of magic. He hoped Father Jacob was wrong. Unfortunately, the priest was right.

“No blue light. No magic. This is why the grand bishop sent for you,” said Sir Ander. “The magical constructs have been erased.”

“Remember the nun who survived said that ‘the demons threw balls of green fire and cast beams of green light.’ ”

Sir Ander looked down the long double rows of columns, probably twenty-five or more on each side.

“Without the magic, the columns will be too weak to support the roof. The cathedral is liable to fall down around our ears. So why are we standing here discussing it?” Sir Ander demanded. “Why aren’t we standing outside discussing it? Where it’s safe?”

“We’re in no danger,” said Father Jacob complacently. “At least not for the moment. Only a few of the columns I’ve studied were hit with the green fire. The assailants did not want to destroy the cathedral until they had found what they came for. Instead, they weakened the columns. The magic will continue to fail and, in a month or two, the cathedral will come crashing down.”

“When it would be filled with masons and crafters and priests and others working to repair it,” said Sir Ander grimly. “They would all be killed.”

“I fear so,” said Father Jacob and he added in an undertone, “Demonically clever.”

Sir Ander grunted. “So turning the cathedral into a death trap was the reason they didn’t destroy it during the attack.”

“No, I believe that was an afterthought,” said Father Jacob. “Another crime of opportunity. They left the cathedral standing because of the library.”

Sir Ander blinked. “The library?”

“Well, of course,” said Father Jacob. “That was the real reason they came. The library is inside the cathedral. The attackers could not destroy the cathedral because they needed to search the library.”

“Demons came for the library? But why?”

“Ah, that is the question. I need to ask Albert-” Father Jacob looked around impatiently. “Where is Albert? He has been gone far too long. You better go search for him. I will investigate the library-”

They were both stopped by the sight of Brother Barnaby entering the sanctuary. The monk carried a large wooden bucket filled with water and a bundle of rags.

“Are you finished with your work here, Father?” Brother Barnaby asked.

“Yes, Brother,” said Father Jacob. “I am finished. What are you doing?”

“The sanctuary has been defiled, Father. With your permission, I will clean it.”

He set the bucket on the floor, kilted up his robes, and knelt down on his hands and knees and began to mop up the blood. Father Jacob watched a moment, then he walked over to where the young monk was scrubbing the blood off the floor and wringing the soiled cloth in the bucket. The water was already stained red.

“You are my conscience, Brother Barnaby,” Father Jacob said, rolling up the sleeves of his cassock. “I think that is why the blessed Saint Castigan sent you to me.”

Brother Barnaby looked astonished at the thought that he could be anyone’s conscience, much less Father Jacob’s. He gave a self-deprecating smile and shook his head as he continued his sorrowful task.

“Sir Ander, return to the Retribution and fetch my sacred vestments,” Father Jacob continued. “When we have finished the cleansing, I will say a mass for the dead.”

He hiked up his cassock, got down on his hands and knees, and began scrubbing.

Sir Ander stood watching the priest and the monk working together to cleanse God’s House, and he reflected on the fact that there were times-many times-when Father Jacob could be arrogant and insufferable, insensitive and demanding, stubborn and infuriating and so on and so forth. More than once, far from protecting Father Jacob, Sir Ander could have cheerfully throttled him.

And then there were times like this when Sir Ander saw the Father Jacob he had come to revere and admire, the brilliant, gifted Freyan crafter who had been offered fame and fortune if he would only renounce his faith; the priest who had risked his life and fled the land of his birth to remain true to his beliefs.

As Sir Ander left to fetch the vestments and see if he could find Albert, he again affirmed the vow he had taken when he had become the priest’s Knight Protector.

“ ‘If Death reaches out for Father Jacob,’ “ said Sir Ander, “ ‘I will step in between.’”

He added quietly, “And the same holds true for Brother Barnaby!”

Chapter Seventeen

There are many paths to Heaven. The Martyr walks a dark path holding her faith like a candle that lights her way but also attracts those that hunt in the darkness. Some on that path would hide their candles until the evil has walked by, but the Martyr holds her faith dear, her candle bright, no matter the outcome.

– The writings of Saint Marie who was martyred three years later

“WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE WATER we used for cleaning, Father?” asked Brother Barnaby somberly, wringing a bloody cloth into a bucket. “We cannot simply dump it in the yard, as if it were waste.”

“You are right, Brother. This water contains the blood of martyrs,” said Father Jacob and he sat back on his heels to give the matter serious thought.

They had worked for over two hours, and the sanctuary was finally almost clean. Brother Barnaby had found additional buckets in the stable. He had placed the buckets filled with water red-tinged with the blood of the murdered nuns before the altar. Another bucket, this one covered with a white cloth, contained the gruesome remains recovered from the ground outside the cathedral. Father Jacob had attended to this heartbreaking task. As for the blood on the ground, the tears of the angels and the saints falling from Heaven would eventually wash it away.

“The first abbess is buried in the cathedral, Brother Barnaby,” said Father Jacob. “Her tomb is in the catacombs beneath the cathedral. We will pour the water around the tomb. We will bury the remains in the abbey cemetery.”

Brother Barnaby was content and went back to washing away the last vestige of blood. Father Jacob spent a few moments quietly observing the young monk. His expression was solemn, sorrowful, troubled.

“You must have questions for God, Brother,” said Father Jacob abruptly. “Perhaps you find yourself doubting in His love and mercy?”

Brother Barnaby looked up from his task. “I do have questions, Father. With God’s help, you and Sir Ander will find the answers.”

“And with your help, Brother Barnaby,” said Father Jacob. “Our triangle is equilateral.”

Brother Barnaby smiled. “All I do is drive the wyverns, Father.”

“There, you see? That’s more than I can do,” said Father Jacob. He rose to his feet, grimacing at the pain in his knees and back. He reflected that he had not scrubbed floors since he was a novice, some twenty years ago.

He remembered that time. He remembered that person-the man he had been. A young man with a dazzling gift for magic, Jacob had been proud and arrogant-a real bastard, he could now admit. He had always felt God’s calling, but he had tried to ignore it. He had harangued and questioned, fought and bullied, tested God’s patience every step of the way. He had turned his back on God, run to the edge of the precipice, stared into the blackness and had been ready to leap when he had felt God’s hand gently drawing him back. He had been guided by the touch of God’s hand ever since.

Father Jacob glanced about the sanctuary. “I will hold the service when Sir Ander returns. See if you can find some candles, Brother, though I have no idea where we will place them.”

The beautiful golden-and-silver candlesticks that had graced the altar had been hit by the same ruinous green fire that had melted the stone. Father Jacob recalled what he had said to Sir Ander about the hatred that had driven these attackers to destroy what they could have stolen for gain. The candlesticks alone were easily worth fifty gold rosuns. Whoever attacked the abbey did not raid it out of greed. They came for something far more important than gold.

“I am going to the library,” said Father Jacob. “Let me know if anyone finds Master Albert-Ah, speak of the man and here he is! Albert, where have you been? You have been gone for hours. I was growing worried. Now that you are here, when will I be able to speak to this nun who survived? I have a great many questions. It is more important now than ever that I talk to her…”

Albert stood in the door that led into the sanctuary. His face was flushed and he was breathing hard, so hard he had to wait a moment to catch his breath before he could respond.

“As to that, Father, I fear you will never be able to talk to her this side of Heaven. The woman is dead.”

The echoes of his voice reverberated off the walls, sounding hollow in the empty chamber.

“Dead?” said Father Jacob, regarding Albert intently. “You said her injuries were not severe.”

“The injuries to her body were not serious,” said Master Albert with a sigh. “But those of the mind could not be cured, seemingly. She took her own life, Father. She threw herself off the cliff.”

Brother Barnaby gave an exclamation of pity and grief.

Father Jacob was very thoughtful. With an abrupt gesture he motioned Albert to accompany him into a hallway.

“Tell me what happened,” he said when he and Albert were alone.

“I went to find Brother Paul. When I reached the infirmary, the monk was in a terrible state. He said that his patient had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Weary himself from watching over her, he dozed off. When he woke, she was gone. He asked me to help him find her.

“Her trail was easy enough to follow. She had taken no care to hide it. We came across her tracks on the path leading up the cliff. They led to the edge of the cliff. No footprints led back. Brother Paul and I searched for her body on the rocks below-” He shook his head.

“Damn and blast it to Hell and back!” Father Jacob swore, causing Albert to stare at him in astonishment. “Poor child. May God grant her ease.”

He sighed deeply, his brow furrowed. Whatever he was thinking, he did not share. “Show me the way to the library.”

Albert escorted the priest through a door that opened into a narrow corridor leading to the other areas of the cathedral. They passed schoolrooms, the office of the abbess, a communal room where the nuns ate their meals, the kitchen, and eventually arrived at the library.

They had no need to open the door. It lay splintered on the floor. Father Jacob stepped over the shambles and paused to survey the damage. Shelves had been knocked down, their contents strewn about. The floor was covered, ankle-deep in some places, with papers and parchments and books.

“A real mess,” Albert said unhappily. He started to right a bookshelf.

“Please, Albert, have I taught you nothing?” Father Jacob said sharply. “Don’t touch anything. Go stand by the door and don’t move. You told me that the library was well-organized. Church records in one place-”

“Over there, Father,” said Albert, pointing.

Father Jacob waded through the piles of books and papers, careful to disturb as little as possible.

“To your right were the books on theology,” Albert continued. “That bookcase, the one on the floor, held hymnals and sheet music.”

“I see, yes.”

Father Jacob took note of some of the titles of the books, then roamed on. One of the shelves was still standing, though all its contents had been pulled down and scattered about. He happened to come upon one of the few spots on the floor not carpeted with books or paper and saw what he had expected to see: bloody paw prints, the same that had left marks on the ground outside and tracked blood through the sanctuary.

Father Jacob carefully shifted a pile of books and found more paw prints. He straightened and looked around, but he was not looking at his surroundings. He was seeing, in his mind, the attack.

“The demons-we will call them that, for the time being-flew over the walls as the nuns were leaving the sanctuary. Probably they had been lying in ambush. They left the bats they were riding to kill the women outside and entered the sanctuary, where they tortured and murdered the women they found inside. Some of the demons remained behind to defile the cathedral and drag away the bodies, which they fed to their bats. The rest came here, to the library. The true reason for the attack. They spent their time searching…”

“Searching for what, Father?” Albert asked.

“The writings of the blessed Saint Dennis,” Father Jacob said, sitting down on a toppled bookcase and gazing about. “The books mentioned in the prince-abbot’s journal.”

Albert gave a horrified gasp. “Are you saying, Father, that this. .. this terrible tragedy happened because of me? Because I found that journal? But I don’t understand! If all the demons wanted was to search the library, why murder the nuns?”

“Hatred and rage, for one reason. But there is another. Picture this: two men stage a fight on a busy city street. A crowd gathers. While people are watching the fake fight, a third man picks their pockets.”

Albert was bewildered. “I’m sorry, Father, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The term is ‘misdirection.’ We are meant to focus our attention on the murder of the nuns and not on the fact that the demons were truly here to search for the books written by the saint. Fortunately, the demons made two mistakes that led me to look in the right direction.”

“Mistakes…” said Albert weakly.

“The first was the theft of the journal,” Father Jacob went on. “The demons had to steal it, you see, because they needed clues as to where the prince-abbot might have hidden the work of the saint.”

“But who stole it, Father? There were only the nuns and Brother Paul and myself-”

Father Jacob gave a wry smile. “Think about it. That makes one hundred and two people, not counting you, Alfred, and maybe more. The abbess might have mentioned the information in a report to the grand bishop, for example. Or she could have told any number of sisters over dinner, perhaps. They could have told any Trundlers who had stopped to seek refuge with the nuns. Brother Paul might have mentioned it to any sailors whose ships docked here. And so on.”

“I don’t think the nuns would have talked about it-”

“Ah, but you don’t know for certain! As for the theft, you were gone from your yacht at least an hour, probably longer. Trout fishing is a leisurely sport. There are unscrupulous crafters who make their living by thieving. A talented thief could have entered the yacht, removed the magical spells, stolen the journal, replaced the spells. ..”

“It’s all my fault, then.” Albert stood with his arms crossed, leaning back dejectedly against the wall. Father Jacob stood up and made his way back through the mess, stepping carefully over the piles of books, trying not to dislodge anything.

“Do not take the blame upon yourself, my friend,” said Father Jacob gently. “All you did was find a journal.”

“I know what you say makes sense, Father,” said Albert. “Still, I can’t help but wish my eyes had been gouged out before I ever saw that thing. What do demons want with writings of the saints?”

“ ‘Know thy enemy,’ says the wise man,” said Father Jacob. “You mentioned Saint Dennis and that was enough to pique someone’s interest. The thieves broke in, read the journal, and found that one single word: contramagic. That was why they stole it.”

“I know it is forbidden by the Church to even speak that word, Father, but can you tell me why demons would be interested in it?”

“Because they are using contra magic, Albert. The green light that destroys magic.” Father Jacob cast Albert a rueful glance. “You are aware, my friend, that no hint of this must get out. I may have to place you under Seal.”

“Meaning you take me to the Arcanum and hold me there so I won’t tell anyone else what I’ve seen.” Albert gave the ghost of a smile. “I might enjoy the rest. I need to know the truth, Father. I know you say I shouldn’t, but I do feel responsible-”

“If it will ease your mind, I will tell you what I know. Especially,” Father Jacob added with a sigh, “since there may soon come a time when the Church can no longer hide it. After much study, I reached the conclusion that contramagic had been used to disable the cutter. The sailors spoke of seeing green light, you remember.”

“My God!” Albert exclaimed, staggered.

“The bishop refused to believe me or even admit such magic existed. He very nearly had me arrested for even thinking such an idea. Montagne believes me now. He has no choice. And now here we have the abbey’s lone survivor talking of the demons hurling balls of green fire-”

“But she was mad,” Albert protested feebly.

“She was not mad,” said Father Jacob sternly. “She was their second mistake. They let her live. They wanted a survivor to talk about demons and giant bats, to make us so terrified of Hell’s legions that their raid on the library would go unnoticed. But she said something that gave them away. When I arrived and asked to talk to her, they feared what she might tell me. She had to die.”

“But she killed herself!”

“We are meant to think she killed herself.”

“But what about Brother Paul? He was with her?”

“He had fallen asleep. They waited for their chance.”

Albert grew pale. “That means they are out there, watching us.. .”

“I think it likely. Especially since they did not find what they came for.”

“How do you know, Father?”

“They would have burned the cathedral, destroyed all the evidence. As it is, they need to come back to continue the search. The prince-abbot risked his life to save these books. He would have hidden them with care. The books of Saint Dennis will not be easy to find.”

“You don’t believe the attackers were demons from Hell, do you, Father,” said Albert.

“I think it highly unlikely Aertheum the Fallen would be interested in the writings of a saint,” said Father Jacob.

“I saw the paw prints,” said Albert. “The claw marks left by the fiends that ripped those poor women apart. I think you are wrong, Father.”

Father Jacob gazed somberly out a broken window. He didn’t see bloodstained grass or fire-torched trees or the shadow of the dragon, passing over the bleak land. He saw the future, and he sighed deeply.

“I almost hope I am wrong, my friend. I think I would rather face the immortal hordes of Aertheum the Fallen than the terrible foes who flew over these walls that tragic night…”

Sir Ander did not hurry his errand to the Retribution. He walked slowly, taking his time, trying to come to grips with the tragic sights he had witnessed. In the skies above, the faithful Hroal was still on patrol. Or perhaps that dragon was Droal, his brother. Sir Ander waved, and the dragon dipped a wing in return.

When Sir Ander finally reached the yacht, he looked out into the Breath and saw the balloon and sails of a naval cutter. Had the navy been sent to assist in the investigation? If so, Father Jacob would be furious.

The cutter drifted slowly among the light mists, sailing close enough to be able to keep watch on the shoreline, but apparently not intending to dock.

The cutter must be on routine patrol duty, searching for pirates who liked to hide in secluded coves and inlets. The grand bishop might have hinted that the navy pay more attention to this section of coastline, but he would not have told them to start looking for demons riding giant bats! No one is more superstitious than a sailor and no one more talkative when they go ashore. The grand bishop would keep the details of this attack secret as long as possible.

Father Jacob had both key-locked and magic-locked the yacht door. The key Sir Ander used to unlock the door was inscribed with a magical sigil that broke the spell. He entered the yacht and first checked to make certain all his weapons were cleaned and loaded. He then unlocked and opened a cabinet hidden beneath one of the beds, took out a swivel gun, and, climbing up to the yacht’s roof, mounted it on top.

He then went to the chest where Father Jacob kept his vestments. Drawing out the alb, the stole, and the chasuble, Sir Ander held the sacred garments, smoothing the fine fabric with his hand and thinking of the battle that he, like Father Jacob, saw coming.

On his way back to the cathedral, Sir Ander paused to scan the gray cliffs and jagged rock formations. A grim landscape, bleak and desolate. The demons could hide an entire army among those crags, he thought, and he was thankful the dragons were keeping watch from the skies. Hroal and Droal might be well past their prime, but dragon eyesight was still much keener than that of humans-even the eyesight of elderly dragons. The brothers would have been quick to notice any sign of enemy movement.

Sir Ander shifted his head to look once more into the vastness of the Breath with its swirling mists. Nothing much to be done to stop an enemy that came from the mists. He was glad to have the cutter with its cannons out there. He hoped it stayed around.

He returned to the cathedral and found the sanctuary cleansed of blood. Candles glowed on the altar. Brother Barnaby was carrying the last few buckets containing the blood of the martyrs. Another monk was assisting him in this sorrowful task.

Brother Barnaby smiled to see Sir Ander, took the priestly vestments, and went to find Father Jacob. Barnaby made introductions before he left.

“Sir Ander, this is Brother Paul of the Holy Order of Saint Ignatius.”

“I am pleased to meet a Knight Protector,” said Brother Paul, straightening from stooping over the buckets and turning to face Sir Ander. “God honors your selfless service.”

“Thank you, Father-” Sir Ander began.

“I prefer to be known simply as ‘Brother Paul,’” said the monk, with a grave smile. “I joined the Order of Saint Ignatius several years ago and have since dedicated my life to his service.”

Brother Paul was not ill-favored, but he was certainly unusual in appearance. So much so that Sir Ander found himself staring. Brother Paul was slim, of about average height with a wiry build. What struck Sir Ander was the monk’s excessively pale skin, almost alabaster. His hair, cut in the tonsure, was dark black and curly. His face was smooth. He had no facial hair. He was not too young to grow a beard. He looked to be at least thirty-five. Sir Ander could not tell the color of the monk’s eyes; they were hidden behind spectacles made of dark glass.

“You find these curious,” Brother Paul said, touching his spectacles.

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” said Sir Ander, flustered. “I’ve seen spectacles before, but never ones made of dark glass.”

“No need to apologize. They are specially made for me. My eyesight is weak. I am subject to headaches, and I find these help.”

Sir Ander muttered something about that being good, then asked, “Can I do anything to assist you?”

“Our sad task is finished,” said Brother Paul. His voice was deep, with a musical tone that had a pleasant, soothing quality. He staggered at that moment, and almost fell.

“Sit down, Brother,” said Sir Ander. “You seem weary to the point of dropping.”

“I have slept little in all the nights since the attack,” said Brother Paul in an apologetic tone.

“No one could blame you,” said Sir Ander, assisting the monk to a pew.

He sat beside the monk, noting as he did so that the hem of his robes was covered in mud and stained with blood.

“You were nursing that young woman who survived,” said Sir Ander. “I heard she died.”

“Thanks be to God, she is at peace,” said Brother Paul somberly. “The demons did not rend her flesh, but they sank their claws into her soul and dragged her down into Hell’s pit. I pray for God’s love and mercy for her tormented soul.”

“Then you believe Hell’s legions were responsible for this attack?” Sir Ander asked.

“I do not have the slightest doubt, sir!” Brother Paul seemed astonished at the idea that anyone could think otherwise. He regarded Sir Ander sternly. “You do believe in Hell, Sir Knight.”

Sir Ander didn’t know quite how to answer. He and Father Jacob had often held discussions regarding the nature of Hell and Heaven. Sir Ander didn’t like the thought of a wrathful God who doomed souls to eternal torment.

“We are commanded to believe in Hell, sir,” Brother Paul added in rebuking tones.

Sir Ander saw the road ahead littered with theological caltrops and wisely reined in the conversation and switched subjects, asking questions about the grand organ whose pipes gleamed in the afternoon sunshine. Did it still work, did anyone play?

Brother Paul answered readily, and the uncomfortable moment passed. Astonished by the monk’s fervor, Sir Ander made a mental note to tell Father Jacob.

There was no more talk of Hell, for Father Jacob, robed in his vestments, entered the sanctuary, accompanied by Brother Barnaby. Both made a reverence to the altar, then Father Jacob took his place before it. Master Albert joined Brother Paul in a pew in the front. Sir Ander retreated, finding a pew by himself in the back. He felt in need of solitude.

Father Jacob’s voice resonated through the sanctuary.

“Eternal rest grant to them…”

The sun shone through the broken glass. Sir Ander felt its warmth ease the chill that seemed to have struck to his heart. Outside, he could hear birdsong, making up for the lack of music, for the sister who had played the organ was dead. The song of the birds, accompanying the words of the mass, comforted Sir Ander. Simple souls, the birds gave no thought to Heaven or Hell. They sang for joy because the sun shone.

He brought his mind back to the service and was kneeling to pray when, to his immense astonishment, he caught sight of a man also seated at the very back, in a pew a few rows over. The man was short and nondescript. Dressed in a plainly made traveling cloak well-splashed with mud, he looked like a clerk on holiday. He was on his knees, his hands clasped, as Father Jacob prayed for the souls of the dead.

Sir Ander dared not interrupt the sacred sermon by calling attention to this stranger who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He cast a glance at Father Jacob, to see if he was aware of the stranger. If so, the priest gave no sign. Sir Ander wondered how the man had slipped past the dragon, who was apparently keeping such careful watch. The Knight Protector clapped his hand on his dragon pistol and kept his gaze fixed on the interloper. If the man noticed, he gave no indication. He sat listening to the service reverently.

The moment the service ended, Sir Ander bounded to his feet, crossed over to the pew, and seized hold of the man by the arm. He searched him for weapons and pulled an odd-looking gun from a leather holster. The man offered no resistance, but smiled placidly at the knight.

“Who are you, sir?” Sir Ander demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“Sir Ander Martel,” said the man. “I am glad to see the Knight Protectors take their vows seriously. My commendations.”

“I take my duty seriously, sir, as you will find out to your sorrow if you do not answer my questions,” Sir Ander said grimly.

“His name is Dubois,” said Father Jacob, walking down the aisle. “He is the bishop’s agent, Sir Ander. One might say we are on the same side.” He regarded Dubois with a slight smile and added, “Or one might not.”

Sir Ander released Dubois reluctantly and handed back his weapon. Dubois tucked the gun into its holster.

“All of us are on the side of the angels,” Dubois said gravely. He cast Father Jacob a keen glance. “I would very much appreciate a moment of your time, Father.”

“I rather suspected you might,” said Father Jacob wryly.

The two walked off toward a shadowy alcove. Seeing Sir Ander moving to accompany them, Dubois stopped and said politely, “You are not needed for the moment, Sir Ander. Your charge is safe with me.”

“I am here to ensure the safety of you both,” said Sir Ander gravely. “We have reason to believe that whoever committed these atrocities may still be in the area.”

Dubois appeared rather disconcerted by this statement. He looked around uneasily, as though suspecting murderers hiding beneath the pews.

“My time is short,” said Father Jacob irascibly. “As I am certain your time is as well, Dubois.” He glanced at the mud-stained cloak. “My guess is that you are hot on the trail of someone. Sir Henry Wallace, perhaps?”

Dubois gave a great start of astonishment. Then he smiled and twirled his hat in his hands. “You do like to have your little jests, don’t you, Father? But since you bring up the topic yourself, you won’t mind my asking if you have seen any signs that might lead you to think Henry Wallace had anything to do with this terrible tragedy?”

Father Jacob regarded Dubois with narrowed eyes. He did not immediately answer, but asked his own question.

“Do you have reason to think he does?”

Dubois gave a little cough. The two stood staring intently at one another.

Like a pair of duelists, Sir Ander thought.

“No,” Father Jacob said at last. “I have not.”

“Do you have any idea where Sir Henry Wallace might be?” Dubois asked.

“The last time I saw Henry Wallace was some twenty years ago. He was firing a gun at me at the time in an attempt to kill me. Needless to say, we do not keep in touch,” Father Jacob answered gravely.

Dubois inclined his head, then put on his hat. “That is all I needed to know. I should warn you, Father, and you, Sir Ander, that I have reason to believe Sir Henry Wallace is in Rosia. You should be on your guard.”

“Thank you for your concern, Dubois, but since I have nothing to do with the Royal Armory, I doubt if Wallace would be much interested in me.”

Dubois again looked startled, then he wagged his finger. “Ah, Father Jacob, you are a caution. You will have your little jest. And now, I must be going. God be with you, gentlemen, and speed your holy work to find those who committed this unholy crime.”

Dubois gave a bobbing bow and took his leave, looking more like a clerk than ever, Sir Ander thought, as he escorted him out of the cathedral. Sir Ander kept an eye on Dubois until he exited the gate, where a wyvern-drawn carriage was waiting for him. The shadow of wings passed overhead. Hroal was also keeping an eye on Dubois.

He waited until the carriage had taken to the skies, then walked back inside the cathedral. He found Father Jacob standing with his head bent, deep in thought.

“You think Wallace is behind this, Father?” Sir Ander asked.

Father Jacob shook his head. “Henry Wallace may be many things and most of them bad, but he is first, last, and always a Freyan patriot. He has worked all his life to one end and that is for Freya to rule the seven continents. He has no motive. The slaughter of these poor women has nothing to do with politics.”

Sir Ander shook his head. “Still, I don’t like the fact that Wallace is in Rosia.”

“The man is up to some mischief, you may be certain,” said Father Jacob. “But let us leave Wallace to Dubois. We must lay to rest the blood of the martyrs.”

Master Albert, Brother Barnaby, Father Jacob, and Sir Ander each picked up the buckets of bloodstained water and carried them to the back of the cathedral. Brother Paul led them to the entrance to the catacombs-a long row of stone stairs that had been cut into the ground, leading down to a wrought-iron gate.

Beyond the gate, the dead slept in silent darkness.

The gate was not locked and, though the hinges were rusted, it opened easily enough. Brother Paul brought two lanterns. Guided by their light, they entered the catacombs.

Dating back hundreds of years, the catacombs had likely been constructed at the same time as the abbey, built far below ground level. The men entered a long corridor with an arched ceiling made entirely of bricks. Magical constructs would have been placed on the bricks to keep the catacombs dry and preserve the structural integrity. When the magic constructs started to fade, crafter priests would have renewed them.

Many bodies, shrouded in white linen, had been placed in niches in the walls. Due to space considerations, only high-ranking members of the Church had been buried in tombs. During the Dark Time, the abbey had been abandoned and there had been no more burials. When the world emerged from the Dark Time, burial customs and practices had changed. The idea of placing bodies out in the open covered only by a shroud was considered distasteful. The Abbey of Saint Agnes, like many other churches, established a cemetery where the sisters were laid to rest. The abbesses were entombed in the cemetery’s mausoleum.

The catacombs were not forgotten. Once a year, the abbess and the sisters entered to pay their respects to the dead in a reverent ceremony, saying prayers and placing flowers on the tomb of the first abbess.

The men walked single file in respectful silence through the narrow corridors. They found the abbess’ tomb-a large and elaborately carved marble sarcophagus-in a large niche covered with dust and remnants of dead flowers. The effigy of a woman graced the top of the sarcophagus; her stone face seemed grave, sorrowful.

“She grieves,” said Brother Barnaby softly.

Beyond, the corridor grew narrower. Dimly seen in the lantern light were the tombs that dated back to the time of the prince-abbot. The men placed the buckets on the floor, gathered around the tomb, and bowed their heads.

Father Jacob led them in prayer, then Brother Barnaby slowly and reverently lifted a bucket and poured the water stained with the blood of the martyrs onto the stone floor around the tomb. The red-stained water slid over the bricks that had been worn smooth by time and seeped down through the cracks. One by one, each man said a soft prayer, then poured the water around the tomb. Brother Barnaby placed the bucket carrying the remains on the altar.

Their sad task accomplished, the men stood a moment in silence, broken by Brother Paul saying softly, “The martyrs shine with glory, safe in the arms of God.”

Brother Paul turned to leave. Albert, carrying one of the lanterns, accompanied him. Sir Ander was about to go with the other two, when Father Jacob softly called his name. Turning, Sir Ander saw the priest standing beside the tomb, his head bowed, his hands clasped behind his back.

“I feel the need to remain here a moment,” said Father Jacob. He shot Sir Ander a glittering glance from out of the corner of his eye.

Sir Ander tensed and slipped his hand inside his coat, to the pocket where he kept his stowaway pistol.

“Leave the lantern with Sir Ander and go with the others, Brother Barnaby,” said Father Jacob. “I know your wyverns will be hungry.”

Brother Barnaby’s face brightened at the mention of his beloved wyverns, then constricted with concern. “You are right, Father. Poor things. They must be starving. I have neglected them. I will go to them at once.”

Brother Barnaby handed over the lantern, then hurried off.

Sir Ander played the light on the stone walls, sending it jabbing into dark niches. “He is safely gone. What is wrong?”

“I hear something,” Father Jacob said, cocking his head.

Sir Ander cocked the pistol’s hammer and listened.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said after a moment.

“You must!” said Father Jacob testily. “Unless you’ve gone deaf.”

“Nothing but dripping water…”

“That’s it!” Father Jacob exclaimed. “The sound of dripping water!”

Sir Ander sighed wearily, let down the hammer and slid the pistol back into his pocket. “Is that all?”

“Why do we hear the sound of dripping?” Father Jacob stood staring at the bricks. “Don’t you find that curious?”

“It’s late, Father. We still have work to do. You need to interview Brother Paul and the dragon brothers.”

Father Jacob shook his head turned away. They walked back down the narrow corridor and emerged into the bright sunlight, blinking their eyes. Sir Ander checked his pocket watch and was surprised to see that it was almost four of the clock in the afternoon. The day had been long in some respects and passed by far too swiftly in others.

“I have decided on second thought that you should go talk to the two dragons,” said Father Jacob. “They are more likely to be open with you-a fellow soldier-than with me.”

“What do you want me to ask them?”

“I want to know the truth about what they saw the night of the attack.”

“But they weren’t even here at the time,” Sir Ander said, puzzled. “They live twenty miles away. They couldn’t have seen anything.”

“I think they were here. I think they did see something,” said Father Jacob. “Something that scared them enough to volunteer for patrol duty.”

“If you say so,” said Sir Ander. “I’ll go speak to them now.”

“And I will talk to Brother Paul.”

Father Jacob started to walk away, then paused and turned to stare, frowning, into the darkness of the catacombs.

“Why is the water dripping?” he muttered.

Father Jacob spent the next two hours in a most unsatisfactory interview with Brother Paul. He came out of the meeting thinking he might as well have spent ten minutes. Brother Paul was of little help. He knew that Albert had found a journal and had taken it back to his yacht. That was apparently all he knew or even cared about. Brother Paul had not read the journal.

“Reading is very difficult for me, due to my poor eyesight, Father,” he said.

Brother Paul wasn’t the least bit interested in the writing of a prince-abbot or the fact that Saint Dennis had spent time here.

“The words of God are the only words that have meaning,” said Brother Paul.

As for the person who could have stolen the journal, “I have prayed for the thief’s soul,” said Brother Paul.

Father Jacob asked the monk about the night of the attack. Brother Paul had been sequestered in his dwelling in the wilderness. Weary from his day’s work helping the nuns by working in the fields, he had fallen into a sound sleep. The first he knew of the attack was when he had been awakened by flashes of green fire in the sky.

Regarding the young woman, the sole survivor, he said he had found her in a pitiful state. She had been in the sanctuary when the demons entered. One of them struck her. She fell to the floor, stunned, and waited to die. The demons surged past her and she realized they assumed she was already dead. He had recorded in his report to the grand bishop everything she had said to him. He had nothing to add.

“According to what you wrote,” said Father Jacob, referring to the report, “the nun said that when the demons were smashing the windows, one of the demons was hit by shards of glass and ‘the demon yelped.’ Do you remember that?”

“I am afraid I don’t, Father,” said Brother Paul. “I was shaken by the terrible events of that night as you might expect.”

“Yet you were able to write this report…”

“It was my duty, Father,” said Brother Paul simply. “God guided my hand.”

He blamed himself for the young woman’s death. “I had not slept in many nights and I dozed off. When I woke up, she was gone.”

Father Jacob continued probing and prodding, but Brother Paul never wavered in his account. He did not grow confused, frustrated, or angry. He answered every question readily, patiently. At the end of the interview, he thanked Father Jacob.

“I want to do everything I can to help,” said Brother Paul.

He declined an offer to partake of their evening meal and spend the night with them.

“You realize, Brother, that you could be in danger,” Father Jacob warned. “It would be safer for you to remain here with us.”

“God is my sword and my shield, Father,” said Brother Paul as he departed. “He protects me.”

Twilight tinged the mists of the Breath pinkish red, reminding Father Jacob of the bloodstained water in the buckets. He clasped his hands behind his back and walked slowly through the fading light, leaving the abbey compound, heading for the yacht and an early bedtime. He planned to spend tomorrow sorting through the mess in the library.

One of the dragons was back on patrol in the skies. In the distance, Father Jacob could see the sails and ballast balloons painted with the Rosian flag of the naval cutter as she took up a station out in the Breath.

“Father!” Sir Ander called. “Wait for me!”

Father Jacob turned to see his friend coming around the corner of the wall. He waited for him to join him and noted that he was alone.

“What did you do with Master Albert and Brother Barnaby?”

“Albert went back to his yacht. He was falling asleep on his feet. Brother Barnaby is with his wyverns. He says something is still bothering them. He thinks it’s the presence of the dragons. He asked if he could spend the night in the stables. I gave him permission. I hope that’s all right. It means I’ll have to do the cooking.”

“Fortunately, I have little appetite,” said Father Jacob. “How did your talk with the dragons go?”

“You were right, Father. The brothers had been flying close to the abbey that night. They usually eat the goats they raise themselves, but every so often they develop a taste for venison. In essence, they were poaching. The deer they were hunting happened to be on the abbey’s land. That’s why they didn’t want to say anything.”

“I am certain the grand bishop can spare a few,” said Father Jacob dryly. “I hope they know we will not turn them in.”

“I assured them we would keep quiet. And you were also right. They did see the attackers,” said Sir Ander.

“Excellent news!” Father Jacob exclaimed, excited. “Dragons are creatures of good common sense and practical turn of mind. They do not believe in our God or in our Heaven or our Hell. No demons or giant bats for them. What did they see?”

“Demons,” said Sir Ander. “Riding giant bats.”

Father Jacob heaved a sigh.

Chapter Eighteen

God’s voice pours forth the Song of Magic. Man has learned to create constructs some liken to a symphony. But what if that symphony were written in a minor key? What dread voice would sing the c