Reynard Morane was at his usual table in the Cafe Baudy, a somewhat risqué establishment built on a barge in the Deval Forest pleasure garden’s lake, when a beautiful man approached his table. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence, especially in this cafe, but this beautiful man was a stranger. He said, “Captain Morane?”
From his features and dark skin, the man was Parscian, a little younger than Reynard but not by much, tall and well-built, and dressed in an elegant but understated way which suggested some level of the upper class. The coat was too expensive for the man to be from a university. For some reason, Reynard attracted a high percentage of men of academic persuasions. “Yes.” Reynard smiled warmly. “Please join me.”
The man hesitated, then drew out the opposite chair. “A friend told me about you.”
“And which friend is this?” Reynard caught the waiter’s attention and lifted his brows. The waiter sized up the situation professionally, then went to the bar for a fresh bottle of wine and glasses.
“A man named Biendare.” The man lowered his voice. “I believe he is known in some circles as ‘Binny.’“
“Binny?” Reynard frowned. This was not encouraging. Binny was not someone who would have recommended Reynard for an assignation. At least not the kind of assignation Reynard had hoped for. Just to make certain, he said, “At the roasted nut kiosk on the Street of Flowers?”
“No, it was in March Street, at a wine bar that also sells fried fish.”
“Right.” Reynard sat up, adjusting his attitude from invitingly indolent to business-like and alert.
The waiter arrived at the table with the bottle and glasses. Reynard sighed and told him, “No.”
“No?” The waiter looked startled, then disappointed. “Oh. Coffee, perhaps?”
“Coffee,” Reynard agreed.
The man cast a puzzled look at the retreating waiter’s back, and Reynard admitted, “I was hoping it was an assignation.” He waved a hand. “It’s the Cafe Baudy, you know. There are often assignations.”
“Oh, yes, I…” The man obviously decided to drop that subject and pursue his objective. “My name is Amadel. I am the confidential secretary for the Lady Shankir-Clare. She needs assistance of a…particular sort.”
Reynard held up a hand for silence as the waiter approached. He waited until the coffee service had been arranged and the waiter departed, then said, “She’s being troubled by someone but feels unable to confide the details to the Prefecture?”
“Yes, exactly.” Amadel added cream to his cup with the relief of a man who had been searching everywhere for help and was finally in the right place.
This was odd. The Shankir-Clares were a family of rather famous diplomats, wealthy and well-respected in both Parscia and Ile-Rien, where the different branches of the family had originated. Reynard had never met any of them because they were the sort of people who were invited to the palace, not the sort who traveled in demi monde circles. No wonder Amadel hadn’t been familiar with the Cafe Baudy. “How did you ever run across Binny?”
“Lady Shankir-Clare’s hairdresser knew him,” Amadel said. “She said he was the best way to contact people who could help with…sensitive problems.”
“Is it blackmail?” Reynard asked. If one of the Shankir-Clare ladies had trusted her affections to the wrong man, and it wasn’t someone associated with the infamous Count Montesq, Reynard could probably have it taken care of before dinner. “I quite like dealing with blackmailers. I have some experience at it.”
“It isn’t an ordinary blackmailer. It’s a sorcerer.” Amadel’s brow furrowed as if he was trying to control a wince of anticipation. He thought Reynard would refuse the commission now. Most of the people who did this sort of thing wouldn’t tangle with a sorcerer.
Reynard smiled. “Then Binny sent you to the right place.” He signaled the waiter to bring the bill.
An hour later, having exchanged cards with Amadel and made an appointment for a meeting at the Shankir-Clare townhouse, Reynard ran Nicholas down in the southern river docks, in a cafe that was normally used by shipping and warehouse workers.
Nicholas was in his disguise as Donatien, and so was dressed in the work clothing of a minor clerk. The disguise changed the shape of his mustache and short beard, and made him look distinctly older. He was not currently working on following anyone or spying on anyone or waiting to meet someone to spy or follow at some point in the future. Reynard knew this because Nicholas was reading a book in the binding of the lending library up on Crossriver Street, which did not mesh with his persona of Donatien, but wasn’t out of bounds for the clerk costume he was currently wearing. Also, Cusard had directed him here and said Nicholas had just stepped out for coffee.
Reynard took a seat at the table and Nicholas frowned at him in affront, as if he had been joined by a stranger. Having worked with Nicholas for some time now, Reynard found nothing unusual in this. Nicholas maintained two major personas: Donatien, the criminal mastermind of Vienne, hunted by the Prefecture, and Nicholas Valiarde, art importer and gentleman of minor note. There were dozens of others, but Reynard didn’t usually bother to sort them out. He said, “I have an appointment this afternoon.” He placed Amadel’s card on the table.
Nicholas hesitated, possibly shedding whatever persona he had found necessary to employ to sit here in the quiet cafe and read. He picked up the card and examined it front and back, then tucked it away in his coat. “I can’t give you much time. I have to go to the theater tonight.”
There was an actress that Nicholas had been watching. One would call it “courting” except for the fact that Nicholas had made no attempt to contact her or draw her attention to himself in any way. Reynard considered it a step in the right direction that Nicholas was admitting that he was looking at her. Whether he would at some point actually speak to her was anyone’s guess. Reynard said, “From what I understand it’s a sorcerer involved in blackmail.”
Nicholas lifted his brows. “Someone is blackmailing the Shankir-Clares? And is still alive? That’s intriguing.”
Reynard heard the undercurrent in those words, though he doubted anyone else would have detected it. Nicholas hated blackmailers, with a passion that made Reynard’s feelings toward them pale. Count Montesg, the man who had caused Nicholas’ foster father’s death, made much of his living by blackmail. “Yes, for some reason they can’t go to the magistrates or just have tea with the queen and ask her to tell the court sorcerer to go and crush the idiot,” Reynard said. Criminal acts of sorcery toward the nobility fell under the court sorcerer’s purview, and would be reported to him even if the Shankir-Clares took it to the Prefecture. “His name is Antoine Idilane. Have you heard of him?”
Nicholas concentrated for a moment, obviously consulting a mental file of names. “No. He’s not known in my circles.”
Criminal circles, Nicholas meant. That didn’t mean Idilane wasn’t a criminal, it just meant he wasn’t one who Nicholas had ever encountered. “He’s a student at Lodun.”
Nicholas said, “If he’s a student at Lodun, why is he in Vienne in the middle of term?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Reynard agreed. “He might be traveling back and forth; it’s not that long by express train.”
Nicholas frowned. “It’s not very convenient. He might not be attending lectures. Or the university might have requested that he make himself scarce.”
Reynard nodded. “Will you ask around for me this afternoon?”
“Of course.” Nicholas eyed him. “If you find you need assistance, you know you can call on me.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Reynard smiled. “I’ll even give you half the fee.”
Nicholas gestured that away. “Unnecessary.” Despite having spent his early life in great poverty, Nicholas was indifferent to money. He had enough for his purposes and greed was never his motivation for doing anything.
For Reynard, interfering with a blackmailer was payment enough. He had lost a young lover to suicide because of one, and the blame had been all his since Reynard had not taken better care to keep the young man’s letters safe. Reynard had had many lovers, both before and after the incident. But since then he put a great deal of effort into making sure none of them suffered from their association with him, no matter how brief. He also eliminated blackmailers, sometimes by frightening them off, sometimes by hiding what was left of the bodies. “People, especially people like the Shankir-Clares, like to pay for services rendered. It’s difficult for them to understand that we do it for amusement.”
Nicholas’ expression was annoyed. “We don’t do it for amusement.”
“Keep telling yourself that,” Reynard said, and took his leave.
Shankir-Clare House was on Ducal Court Street, a four-story edifice that still managed to look elegant and reserved despite the massive classical columns lining the pediment. When a footman opened the door, Reynard handed over his visiting card.
The servants must have been told to expect him because he was whisked into the large foyer and up the stairs, past the public second floor and up to the third, where the family would have their private rooms. The parlor he was taken to was occupied by Amadel, who looked as if he had been pacing the entire time, and two ladies, one of whom Reynard recognized immediately.
Lady Shankir-Clare was a lovely woman in her early 50s, with the dark skin and the hawkish features of the Parscian side of the family. She wore an elegant blue afternoon visiting gown, with a Parscian-style silk patterned scarf wrapped around her hair. The young girl who sat beside her on the lounge was not so elegant or so lovely, but then she didn’t look as if she was old enough to be introduced into formal society. There was a suggestion of lanky knees and elbows under her perfectly acceptable gown, and she wore a pair of spectacles. They made her look bookish, but then she probably was bookish. Reynard thought she might be a young relative, brought to the city for a visit. Surely Lady Shankir-Clare would send her away before they got down to business.
Amadel said, “My lady, this is Captain Reynard Morane. Captain Morane, this is the Lady Shankir-Clare and her daughter, Miss Belina Shankir-Clare.”
Reynard bowed. He would never have taken that young girl as the daughter of this elegant house. And if she was here, she had to be involved in the blackmail, if not the principal victim. It almost shocked him; this girl was still a child, surely.
“Please sit down.” Lady Shankir-Clare gestured to a chair. “Amadel has told you a little of our problem.”
Reynard took a seat, as did Amadel. Reynard said, “Yes, he said that you’re having difficulty with a certain sorcerer.”
“Yes.” She glanced at Belina. “My daughter has fallen victim to a…” Her jaw tightened and she clearly considered and discarded several terms. “A predator.” Belina looked glum.
Reynard nodded. “I also know that you feel you can’t go to the Prefecture or the palace for help. I was curious as to why. This seems like something that could be put before the court sorcerer.”
“It seems like it.” Lady Shankir-Clare’s voice was dry. “But we would prefer to keep it away from the court.”
“Tell him,” Belina said, flatly. “If you’re asking him to help, then you have to trust him.”
Reynard decided he liked Belina a good deal. He waited, and after a moment, Lady Shankir-Clare said, “The court sorcerer is not our friend.”
“I’ve heard he isn’t a friendly man, in general.” Reynard had heard he was a right bastard, actually.
Lady Shankir-Clare explained reluctantly, “Members of my family have doubted his loyalty to the queen and suggested to her that she might replace him. Word of this was carried to him.”
“Ah.” Yes, that meshed with the rumors circulating among the demi monde. “And you don’t trust him to deal with your daughter’s situation with the delicacy it requires.”
“I’m not in a delicate situation,” Belina said, with some heat. “I may be a fool, but I didn’t sleep with him.”
Her mother glared. Reynard assured Belina, “I was using ‘delicate’ as a metaphor, not a euphemism.” But it was refreshing to deal with someone who spoke plainly. He had thought it would take another half hour before Lady Shankir-Clare got around to admitting what the problem was. Belina seemed sensible, and he had trouble imagining how she could have ended up in this situation, unless someone had set a deliberate trap for her. “What exactly did he do to you? Or you to him?”
“He propositioned me, at a ball. I laughed at him.” Belina grimaced in a very unlady-like fashion. “I didn’t mean to be cruel. I was nervous and it startled me. No one ever did that before!” Resigned, she gestured helplessly. “I apologized, but it didn’t do any good.” She leaned forward. “Is that normal for men?”
“Sadly, yes,” Reynard told her.
“But the worst is—” Belina glanced at her mother. “He has images. I didn’t pose for them. I don’t know how he got them.”
“Disgusting images.” Lady Shankir-Clare’s grip tightened on her fan until it cracked.
“Photographs?” Oh, hell, Reynard thought. That was going to be tricky.
“Yes.” Belina’s composure didn’t slip, but he could tell it was taking her a great effort. “Of me. With no clothes. Only it isn’t my body. He said he made them with magic, that there’s no way to prove they aren’t real. I mean, I can tell it isn’t my body, and my maid can tell, and my sisters, but—”
“I understand.” Reynard stopped her. Amadel was obviously trying not to writhe with embarrassment and looked on the verge of jumping up and leaving the room. Lady Shankir-Clare was gritting her teeth. “The photographs are fake, but you have no way to prove that.” It could be done by the relatively simple method of cutting apart two different images, combining the pieces, and then taking another photograph. One could penetrate the deception by a close examination with a magnifying glass. But Nicholas had shown him images that had been magically manipulated, and they were much harder to prove false. The method didn’t matter; the humiliation and distress the images would create if displayed publicly were very real. Bad enough for it to happen to anyone with a reputation to risk, but that it should happen to a sheltered child was just that much worse. I’ll just have to kill him, Reynard thought. Well, I was probably going to do that anyway. The problem would be in getting the photographs away from the bastard so they couldn’t fall into any worse hands.
He kept his expression mild. “Did he know who you were? A Shankir-Clare?”
Belina frowned. Reynard felt the implications of the question hadn’t eluded her. She said, slowly, “He called me by name, but I had never met him before. Someone told me who he was later.”
Just to make it plain, Reynard said, “Somehow he knew he could insult you without consequences?”
Lady Shankir-Clare’s expression turned thoughtful, then even more angry. Belina appeared to be biting back a curse. Lady Shankir-Clare said, “So he knew about our quarrel with the court sorcerer.”
“Or someone else put him up to it.” Reynard glanced at Belina. “He’s asked for a meeting? The photographs in exchange for money?”
She nodded grimly. “Two nights from now, at the opera.”
It was always dangerous to deal with a criminal sorcerer, especially one who asked for private meetings. The opera was warded, but only for the general protection of the building. Unless the man intended to use magic to blow it up or set it on fire, the wards wouldn’t interfere. “I can’t escort you—my reputation would draw stares, and we don’t want to be noticed.” The opera drew as many noble and upper-class patrons as it did demi monde and every other class who could afford the tickets. Too many people might recognize Belina and wonder why she was with Captain Reynard Morane. There was just no story to explain why the Shankir-Clares would ask him to escort their daughter to the opera, even if there had been some family connection. “I’ll be there, nearby, and I have a friend—a suitable, unobjectionable friend—to escort you.”
“You can protect her?” Lady Shankir-Clare’s voice was tight.
Reynard stood. “My lady, no one will touch her. And this man will not trouble you again.”
Lady Shankir-Clare smiled grimly. Then Belina ruined it by demanding, “Are you going to kill him?”
Amadel winced. Lady Shankir-Clare said, forbiddingly, “Belina.”
Reynard found it more politic to withdraw than answer. He bowed, and followed Amadel out.
On the afternoon of the next day, Reynard stood on the landing of Idilane’s flat, while Nicholas worked the lock. The building was on a relatively quiet street with flats too small for families, and so inhabited mostly by young office workers who were absent during the day. Nicholas had discovered that Idilane did indeed travel between Vienne and Lodun on the express, and wouldn’t return until tomorrow morning. With the concierge currently out doing her shopping, they shouldn’t be disturbed.
“Will your sorcerer friend be of any use?” Reynard asked.
Nicholas, still occupied by the lock, winced. “He’s not well right now.” The tumblers clicked and Nicholas stood and turned the handle.
Reynard didn’t move. It was never a good idea to shove one’s way into a sorcerer’s domain, even a student sorcerer. But Nicholas stepped inside, explaining, “The flats have a general cleaning woman. He can’t have warded the place.”
“Then let’s get started.” The flat held only one room, but it was large enough for a bed, a desk, dresser, and comfortable seating area.
After some time, Reynard stood in the middle of the room, dissatisfied. He had mainly been hoping to find the photographs, which would simplify any decisions about their next course of action, but they weren’t here. The search had been exhaustive, including Nicholas using various devices to uncover sorcerous hiding places.
“He’s got them on him,” Nicholas said finally, circling the room like a prowling cat. “I didn’t think he would be that clever.”
“Something’s wrong,” Reynard said. Nicholas lifted his brows, and Reynard sighed. “I don’t know what it is, I just have an odd feeling.” He looked around again. “Bit of a stage set, do you think?”
“No, I’m certain he lives here.” But Nicholas paced the room, frowning. He moved to the desk again. “The books, the notes he’s taken, I’m certain he’s a student of sorcery from Lodun. There are things here no one would know to fake.” Nicholas spoke from experience, having attended Lodun himself, and closely associating with the sorcery students.
Reynard had to admit the disheveled appearance of the furnishings certainly seemed authentic. Then that elusive sense of wrongness solidified. He said, “There are no love letters, no dirty postcards, no prophylactics, none of that sort of thing. Not even a salacious novel.” There were other letters, from other students, from distant relatives, from tailors and so forth. But nothing from a woman, not even a cousin or aunt. And none of the letters from male students indicated any romantic or erotic relationship.
Nicholas didn’t appear to find this particularly enlightening. “I never had that sort of thing as a student.”
“Of course you didn’t. But this young man, as far as we can tell, is a slimy little ass. So why doesn’t he have any of the things even nice young men have? From his behavior toward our employer, you’d think he would have left a trail of betrayed young women in his wake. Is Miss Shankir-Clare the first he’s accosted? That seems unlikely.”
“I think The Lady’s Letters is salacious.” Nicholas poked through the drawers, looking for hidden compartments again.
Reynard turned to the bookshelves. “Does he have a copy? I didn’t see it.”
“No, I had a copy.” Nicholas straightened up. “I see what you mean. If we didn’t already have an account of his character, I would think we were looking at the room of a young monk. Someone could posit that his behavior was an aberration, the act of a spoiled silly young man thwarted for the first time in his short life, except—”
“For the photographs, and the criminal demand for money,” Reynard finished. “And the knowledge that her highly-placed family will not be able to go to the court sorcerer for help.”
“Yes.” Nicholas made another circuit of the room. “Perhaps he has so many letters from discarded lovers he keeps them somewhere else.”
“The meeting is tomorrow. There’s no time to uncover any other hiding places.”
Nicolas smiled. “Then it seems we’re all going to the opera.”
Reynard called for Belina two days later at half past seven, which would have her arriving at the opera far earlier in the evening than he ever had before. The demi monde didn’t usually roll in until close to the interval, but people of Belina’s set would arrive well in time for the beginning of the performance.
The coach he had brought was unmarked, though the driver was well known to Reynard and would be happy to step in if anyone needed to be beaten unconscious. Reynard separated Belina from her mother, Amadel, and an anxious maid, escorted her outside, and handed her into the coach.
Once they were settled and clopping down the street, he explained, “My friend will join us on the way. If anyone asks, tell them he’s been commissioned by your family to acquire a painting, and he’s escorting you tonight as a favor to them.” Reynard took in her lack of expression, and somewhat tight grip on her reticule. Her gown was a wine-colored silk, and looked lovely on her, though the lack of décolletage suggested it had been chosen by her mother or a sensible maid. “He isn’t going to proposition you.”
The set of Belina’s shoulders relaxed a little. She asked, a little mulish and a little plaintive, “Why not?”
“You’re too young for him, for one thing. For the other…” Reynard tried to think of a succinct way to explain Nicholas and gave up. “He just isn’t going to proposition you.”
Belina nodded understanding. “He doesn’t like women?”
“He doesn’t like anyone.”
“Why are you helping us? Helping me. Amadel said he had the impression you really didn’t care about the money, or if you were paid or not.”
Amadel was perceptive. It was really too bad he wasn’t interested in an assignation. Reynard explained, “A friend of mine was targeted by a blackmailer. It didn’t end well for him. Reducing the number of blackmailers in the city provides me with some comfort.”
Belina leaned forward. “So you are going to kill him.”
“Belina.” Reynard regarded her patiently. “In the circle in which you are traveling tonight, we don’t ask that sort of question.”
She thumped back against the seat. “But what if it was my fault? What if I caused him to do this—”
“To make sorcerously-created obscene photographs? He didn’t come up with that because he was so stricken by the awkward rebuff of, forgive me, a schoolgirl who then apologized for her actions. He’s done this before.” Even if it was the first time, even if there was no plan or ulterior motive, a sorcerer who would do this was plainly a menace. It was Idilane’s misfortune that he had chosen the wrong victim.
Belina still frowned, but clearly decided to table the argument for another time.
Ten blocks from the opera, as the coach paused to wait for a cabriolet to clear the way, the door opened. Nicholas swung inside and dropped into the seat opposite Belina. He was dressed impeccably for the opera, in a dark suit with a light-colored waistcoat, and a hat and cane.
Reynard said hastily, “Miss Belina Shankir-Clare, this is Nicholas Valiarde.”
Nicholas frowned. “How old are you? Should you even be out without a chaperone?”
Belina shared a glance with Reynard, her expression eloquent. “I think I’ve got a chaperone,” she muttered.
Reynard asked Nicholas, “Do you have it?”
Nicholas produced a glass ball, small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. “Of course.”
Belina leaned forward. “What is it?”
Reynard told Belina, “It’s a spell that will distract and confuse a sorcerer for a few moments, and prevent him from using his powers.” It wouldn’t trouble any serious practitioner, but from what Nicholas had said, the things were designed to work on Lodun sorcery students and used by them to bedevil each other at parties. It would provide an instant of distraction at the right moment, which was all they might need.
Nicholas lifted the shade over the window to check the street. “It’s clear.”
Reynard just hoped Arisilde Damal had been relatively sober when he had provided it. He shifted over and put a hand on the doorlatch. “I’ll see you later, Miss Shankir-Clare.”
Belina nodded anxiously, and Reynard swung the door open and stepped out onto the walk. The coach clattered away, and Reynard adjusted his coat, and started to walk toward the theater district.
Reynard arrived just at twilight, taking up a position across the street where he had a good view of the the opera’s grand main entrance. Classical statues were carved into the façade and gilded figures danced above the pediment, and the fountains with ornamental lamps that stood in front of the building provided a shadow-show of moving light and water. The area was already noisy with early arrivals and the flower and sweet sellers and drink vendors were setting up along the opposite promenade. Reynard strolled over to one and ordered a coffee.
Coaches arrived sporadically and deposited minor nobility or wealthy patrons, dressed in their formal fashionable best. A number of people of the less fashionable sets were walking in, it being easier to have a cabriolet drop you off at the corner than fight its way into the line of personal coaches. Though it wasn’t quite as crowded as usual tonight. Reynard attributed that to the fact that the performance was the old standby Life of the Good Duke, put on to keep the company warm and up to scratch before the real opening of the season next month. Nicholas had pointed out that it made an excellent cover, since it was an opera that people often took young relatives to, because they were the only ones who weren’t sick to death of it. It was just not the sort of opera that the Gamethon Club attended to be rowdy at.
Not long later, the coach pulled into the carriage circle, and Nicholas stepped down and handed Belina out. As the coach drove away, Reynard watched carefully, but saw no one give them a second glance. Well, one woman, but Reynard suspected she was only admiring Belina’s dress. Belina herself was trying to look at ease while stealing glances at the other arriving patrons. Reynard waited until they were through the front doors, then handed his cup back to the coffee-vendor, crossed the street and made his own way in.
The big double doors opened into a three-story pillared gallery, lit by crystal and gilt gas lamps and lined with different colors of marble, all the way up to the paintings covering the arched ceiling. The subjects were all classical, sex, death, and warfare, very appropriate to the usual preoccupations of opera. He navigated through the crowd and across the marble-floored entryway and went up the right side of the staircase. He didn’t note any acquaintance, which was fortunate. More new arrivals were milling around the grand foyer on the second floor.
After a moment, he spotted Nicholas and Belina. Nicholas had secured a glass of soda negus for Belina and was radiating “friend of the family escorting young lady in an entirely paternal manner.” Then a young man in cavalry officer’s uniform approached Belina. Reynard saw her shoulders stiffen and her chin lift and knew this was no friendly acquaintance. He strolled close enough to listen, pretending to be waiting in the outer circle of Lady Villechasse’s admirers.
The young man was saying, “This isn’t a palace ball, my dear, we don’t need to be acquainted to speak.”
Belina said, “Sir, I don’t know you, and you need to leave me alone.” Her voice was quaking with what Reynard read as a combination of nerves and rage.
“Of course you’d have to say that here. I’ll join you in your box, shall I—” It wasn’t a question.
Sounding a little bored, Nicholas said, “Leave, and do not attempt to speak to her again.”
“And who are you?” The young man eyed Nicholas with contempt. “Too old to be a suitor, I think. If her family has hired you to escort her—”
“I won’t tell you again.” Nicholas didn’t move but his weight shifted.
The young man was stubborn. “You’re unarmed.”
Reynard rolled his eyes. If this young idiot challenged Nicholas to a duel, he wasn’t going to be able to keep his countenance.
Nicholas’s smile implied physical violence would be a terrible mistake. He said, “Draw your sword and find out.”
The young man hesitated a long moment, became flustered under Nicholas’ steady regard, then withdrew. Reynard tracked his progress across the crowd, but he didn’t appear to be signaling anyone, or going to make a report. Still, it was an odd incident. He glanced idly back at Nicholas and Belina.
Belina caught his eye briefly but didn’t make the mistake of acknowledging him. She sipped her drink and said, “You can’t kill someone in the grand foyer of the opera and get away with it.”
Nicholas raised a brow. “If it comforts you to believe that.”
“How would you—” Belina frowned. “Do you have poison darts?”
Nicholas’ failure to answer was pointed. “Why did that creature think he could approach you that way?”
Belina bit her lip, controlled herself, and said, “I think Idilane’s spread rumors. Well, I know he has. My friends have told me.”
“Mmm,” Nicholas commented, and flicked a glance at Reynard.
Yes, Reynard thought, this little bastard has a great deal to answer for.
“You should have told us earlier,” Nicholas told Belina, offering her his arm for the obligatory stroll around the grand foyer. “I would have brought more poison darts.”
After Nicholas and Belina had started for the stairs to the boxes, Reynard strolled around the crowd for a while, but couldn’t spot anyone who matched the description of Idilane. The man could be magically disguising his appearance; the opera’s wards wouldn’t interfere with such a mild spell. He spotted one acquaintance, a young man called Dissonet who was the despair of his family and proving it by already being drunk before the performance had even started. Few people attended the opera unaccompanied, so Reynard contrived to run into him. Dissonet greeted him with somewhat bleary delight. “Morane! What are you doing here?”
“I was meeting someone for an assignation, but he didn’t show,” Reynard made his tone mildly regretful. “And you?”
“I forgot it was Life of the Good Duke tonight,” Dissonet said sadly. He wavered and Reynard took his arm to steady him.
“Yes, it’s unfortunate,” Reynard said, “Come along, let’s find your seat.”
Before the first interval, Reynard left Dissonet snoring in his box and made his way around to the Shankir-Clare box. He listened through the door long enough to hear Nicholas and Belina having a spirited conversation about the merits of Voyagers of the Fire Islands which was playing at the High Follies. Belina had of course not been allowed to go to the scandalous production but had read her maid’s copy of the playbook. Reynard slipped inside.
He crouched just inside the doorway, having an expert knowledge of just where one could stand or sit in an opera box and still not be visible from the floor or the other boxes. Though Nicholas and Belina had evidently done such a good job of being boring and conventional that he doubted anyone was watching. He had been waiting quite a while to air his principal grievance and now whispered, “I can’t believe this bastard forced us to sit through the first two hours of Life of the Good Duke.”
“It’s insupportable,” Nicholas agreed.
“Why does everyone think it’s a comic opera?” Belina said. “It’s not funny.”
“It’s apparently hilarious for individuals who have no sense of humor—” Nicholas began.
Reynard had kept one hand on the floor, and felt the telltale vibration of someone approaching the box. “Someone’s coming.” He stood and slipped behind the curtain.
Nicholas twisted to face the doorway. Belina knotted her hands together, then deliberately forced them apart.
The polite knock was unexpected. Nicholas told Belina, low-voiced, “It’ll be a steward.” Louder, he said, “Come in.”
It was a steward, a young boy in the opera’s black and white livery. He said, “A note for Miss Shankir-Clare,” and held out a folded piece of stationery on a silver tray.
Nicholas stood, took the note, and tipped the boy. The boy bowed his way out of the box, and Reynard toed the door shut behind him. Reynard said, “There’s no spell on that?” Some sorcerers could attach spells to objects, which would then attach to the person who received them. Though it was supposedly difficult to attach anything but a mild charm to paper.
Nicholas shook his head. “The note trays are solid silver, and warded. The opera takes precautions. They don’t want idiots trying to send love charms.” He handed the note to Belina and checked his pocket watch. “We’re to meet him twenty minutes after the beginning of the fourth act, in the west underpassage.”
Reynard checked his own watch. They had a good two hours to go. “I haven’t been down there. It doesn’t sound salubrious.”
“It leads to the archives, where all the old sheet music and so forth is stored. Probably years’ worth of attendance tallies and accounts as well. There’s no reason for anyone to visit it during a performance, so the corridor will be empty.” Nicholas looked down at Belina. “Will you go?”
Belina folded the note and handed it back to Nicholas. “I said I’d do whatever it takes to make him leave me alone.” She lifted her chin. “I haven’t changed my mind.”
“Good.” Nicholas exchanged a look with Reynard. “Now we know where his trap is.”
Reynard smiled. “So it’s time to set ours.”
Reynard used the confusion of the next interval to slip out and make his way down to the west wing.
As Nicholas had explained, “It’s called the west underpassage because it runs under the west side wing of the stage. There are a number of trap doors in that section for dramatic appearances and disappearances. They aren’t used now except during the more elaborate midwinter shows. The trap doors lead to the mechanical areas under the stage, the way the ones on the main stage do, but there is also provision made to allow chorus members to exit below that level, so they can use the underpassage to go back toward the audience end of the building and up to the dressing areas on the level above—”
Reynard had cut to the point. “So there are trap doors from the space below the stage down into that corridor.”
“How do you know that?” Belina asked. “More importantly, why do you know that?”
“Because one day I might have to catch a blackmailer in the opera,” Nicholas had told her.
Reynard took the precaution of buying a small posy of violets from the flower-seller in the grand foyer and then made his way down and into the dressing areas on the main stage level. There was a guard at the door, but Reynard tipped him and was allowed in without comment; he was a familiar figure here and knew he was considered a “safe” regular: one of the many people who might come backstage during the performance to meet a lover or just to visit with friends in the cast.
Reynard wandered down the dim hall of whitewashed plaster, Life of the Good Duke thundering away overhead, to the rooms where the chorus waited to go on. He chatted for a while with the bored young men cooling their heels until it was time to go up and sing through the fourth act. Finally he moved on, handed his bouquet to the older woman who helped with the costume changes, and then turned left and took a narrow set of stairs down, deeper into the space under the stage.
Here it was nearly dark and smelled strongly of sawdust and the paints used on the scenery and backdrops. Life of the Good Duke had no trapdoor entrances or exits, and all the stagehands were up in the flyover. He located the set of trapdoors in the unused west wing, finding his way from the light that came down through the gaps between the floorboards. He quickly located a trapdoor in the understage floor by its outline and the folding steps that could be dropped down to allow chorus members to climb down into the west underpassage. He lifted the door just enough to be able to see down without letting the stairs drop. Below was a corridor, lit by a few wall sconces. Carpets lined the marble floor and the walls were covered with anaglypta paper, but it was clearly not meant for as much public use as the foyers and stairwells.
Reynard closed the trapdoor again and explored this part of the understage further, finding two more trapdoors with drop stairs, spaced out along the length of the west wing. The one in the middle seemed the best point to watch from. He dropped the stairs and they creaked and swayed and bent under his weight as he went down for a brief exploration. He made certain that there were no cross passages past this point, and that the far end of the corridor ended in the securely locked door of the archives. Then he took the fold of paper out of his pocket and began to sprinkle the contents on the carpet. It was a combination of salt, various powders, and silver dust, given to Nicholas by his sorcerer friend, and meant to reveal illusions and temporarily dispel wards.
When Reynard finished, he returned to the folding stairs and creaked his way up. As he reached the top and started to climb up into the understage, a figure loomed before him suddenly. He jerked back and swore, then realized he was looking at a support post framed by the dim light leaking through the boards overhead. Idiot, he told himself, and climbed the rest of the way up. He propped the trapdoor open a careful inch and settled in to wait.
It seemed an interminable time later when the fourth act finally rumbled into its opening salvos. Not long after that, Reynard saw Nicholas and Belina make their way down the corridor, Nicholas a pace or so in front. Then Nicholas stopped abruptly.
What? Reynard twisted to see the far end of the corridor. A figure stood there.
It was a tall, gaunt man, dark-haired and pale, dressed in dark evening clothes a few years out of date. It was hard to tell his age. The skeletal leanness of his body suggested age, but Reynard couldn’t see any lines on his face.
This could be a problem. Reynard was certain no one had walked past, and he thought he would have heard the heavy door to the archives open if someone had come out that way.
“Is that him?” Nicholas’ voice was quiet.
“No,” Belina whispered. “I don’t know who that is.”
The man moved forward, and circled around one of the spots Reynard had sprinkled with silver dust.
Reynard felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. They had thought Idilane an unsophisticated amateur blackmailer. He had certainly behaved like one. This seemed neither unsophisticated nor amateur.
Nicholas raised his voice a little. “What do you want?”
The man said, “I am sent by Master Idilane.”
“Then we’re in the right place. I was afraid we had stumbled into the wrong assignation.” Nicholas made a slight gesture behind his back, telling Belina to stay where she was. Then he stepped forward. “What are you?”
“He wants the payment.”
Nicholas stepped forward again. Belina didn’t move, watching with frowning anxiety. Nicholas said, “Are you capable of answering questions? Or has he enslaved you with magic? If you’re here against your will, we can help you.”
Reynard thought he detected a minute hesitation before the response, “He wants the payment.”
Nicholas was silent a moment, studying the man—creature—whatever it was. “We will need some guarantees, of course. Did he trap you?”
Something brushed past Reynard’s legs and he jerked away, barely suppressing a curse. He twisted around and found himself staring at a young woman. His first thought was that she was a member of the chorus, and he started to whisper, “Ah, you must be wondering what we’re—” And then realized he could see light through her.
Below, the creature repeated, “Guarantees,” as if it had no notion what the word meant. As if Idilane had given it no instructions beyond obtaining the money.
Reynard stared. It was an apparition, obviously. The faded red gown he had taken for a costume was wispy and insubstantial, but he could see tears and stains. The girl was young, Belina’s age, and her hair had once been carefully arranged but now hung disheveled and ragged. Not a prostitute, Reynard thought, noticing the cameo broach and the lack of décolletage. Not a chorus member or an actress but not a young noble lady, either. A girl of some respectable circumstances, if not wealth, dressed up for the opera. He whispered, “What happened?”
Below, Nicholas was stalling, explaining the etymology of the word “guarantees.” The girl moved around the trapdoor, silently, stirring no dust. From this angle there was better light and Reynard saw her hollow eyes, sunken cheeks, and darkly bruised throat. Her expression was anxious, her gaze fixed on him as if willing him to understand. Apparitions didn’t appear at random, for no reason. If she was appearing now, it was because some event had triggered it. Reynard was betting it wasn’t the millionth pat performance of Life of the Good Duke.
The creature below said, “The girl will deliver the payment.” Reynard turned back to the trap door and said, “Nic, it’s not blackmail, it’s murder!”
The apparition’s expression transformed into fierce joy, and then she winked out of existence. Reynard threw himself down through the trap door.
The creature surged forward and Nicholas slapped its face. It jerked back, staggering, and red fire blossomed from its cheek. “It’s a fay,” Nicholas reported, clinically. He must have had an iron needle in his hand. Yes, Reynard had known he hadn’t been joking about the poison darts.
Reynard swung off the drop stairs and landed on the floor. He drew his dress sword. The fay fell back a few steps. It grew taller, its skin turning a scaly gray, white clumps of hair sprouting from a head that was suddenly bulbous and distorted. This thing couldn’t be here; fay of this size had been dying out in Ile-Rien for generations, driven away by the railroads. They were seen in rural areas occasionally, but never in the city. Idilane must be far stronger than he seemed to have control over this thing. Reynard said, “I think Idilane’s done this before, but took the money and killed the victim.”
“And how did you form this theory?” Nicholas stepped sideways, bracketing the creature. It darted at Reynard, then at Nicholas, testing them.
Reynard didn’t move, refusing to be tested. “Because her ghost just appeared to me in the understage.”
“Not conclusive, but one must admit the circumstantial evidence is compelling,” Nicholas admitted.
Behind them, an admirably calm Belina said, “Should I throw the glass ball?”
“No,” Nicholas told her. “It will only work on human sorcerers.”
“Then should I go for help?” The creature had fixed its yellow gaze on her. She was clearly its real target.
“There won’t be time.” Reynard stepped closer. Fay couldn’t touch iron or steel without great pain. The fact that this creature hadn’t fled from his sword meant it had something up its sleeve. But Reynard doubted those darts were the only weapon Nicholas had on him, and all he needed to do was distract the creature long enough.
Its head tilted toward Reynard, the pale eyes empty of emotion. Then it flicked a long wooden club out of its coat and lunged for him. Reynard ducked the first blow and smashed his hilt into the creature’s hand. He was reluctant to engage with his blade; he suspected the club had been designed to break human-forged swords. The creature fell back and he slashed it across the chest. It snarled and lurched toward him, just as Nicholas leapt on it from behind and whipped a chain around its throat.
It clawed at the links burning into its skin, and Reynard stabbed it in the chest. The creature tore away, sending Nicholas staggering, but then collapsed onto the carpet.
Reynard stepped forward, then cautiously kicked it over onto its back. It lay there, gasping, the gray color leaching out of its skin. Its whole body seemed to be shrinking, turning in on itself.
Nicholas crouched over it. “We can kill you or free you. Did Idilane send you to kill Belina Shankir-Clare?”
It choked and managed, “Yes. Do not ask me why, I don’t know. He kills human women who displease him.”
“He has you under his control? With spells?”
“I was given to him as a familiar, as payment by a more powerful sorcerer.”
Belina, who had edged forward to stand by Reynard’s elbow, demanded, “As payment for what? More blackmail? Who was the sorcerer?”
The fay said, “I only know it was payment.”
“It was probably blackmail.” Nicholas nodded to himself. “If we could find out who…”
“How many women?” Reynard said. He had the terrible feeling that Idilane was not new to this game, that the apparition above hadn’t been the first, either.
The fay said, “Seven.”
Reynard swore. Belina made a noise of dismay.
Ever practical, Nicholas asked, “What do you do with the bodies?”
It bared its teeth. “I eat them.”
“Shit,” Belina muttered.
“Always at the opera?” Nicholas asked.
“No, other places as well as here.”
“Nicholas,” Reynard interrupted. For someone as obsessed as he was, Nicholas could be easily sidetracked. “You’re not writing a monograph on it, do we really need to know?”
“Very well.” Nicholas asked the fay, “How do we free you?”
It said, “You cannot free me, his spells are woven through the substance of my body. I beg you to kill me.”
Nicholas frowned, then looked up at Reynard. Reynard said, “I don’t have a problem with that,” and stabbed the creature in the heart.
Its body collapsed in on itself, and turned to dust, leaving only the clothing and club behind. Nicholas whipped a small bag and a brush out of his pocket, and began to sweep up the dust.
Belina stared. “Does this happen a lot? To you, I mean?”
“Off and on,” Reynard admitted.
Nicholas tucked the bag of dust away, stood, and took Belina’s arm. “Let’s go to the restaurant and talk this over. I think after that we deserve to miss the fifth and sixth acts of Life of the Good Duke.”
“At the very least,” Reynard agreed, taking out his handkerchief to wipe his sword.
The restaurant was in a pavilion built on the east side of the opera, and was more than half empty. Reynard was a friend of the host and so was able to secure a booth that was isolated enough for a private conversation but still in full view of the few other diners and the waiters, for propriety’s sake. There they ordered wine and a cream and berry tart for Belina.
Once they were served and the waiter withdrawn, Reynard told Belina, “There’s a decision to be made.”
Her brows drawn down in serious thought, she ate a couple of forkfuls of the tart. “About the photographs. And whether to tell the magistrates.”
“Obviously—” Nicholas began.
Reynard cleared his throat and gazed significantly at him. He knew more than he cared to about being pilloried by the opinions of both acquaintances and strangers. If Belina wanted to take that risk, it was a choice she should make herself.
Nicholas sighed and poured another glass of wine.
Belina stirred the cream on her tart. “If he has the photographs with him, we can take them.”
“He may have other copies,” Reynard said. He wanted to make certain she saw every aspect of the situation. “He won’t have the chance to make more, if the magistrates take him, but we found nothing in his flat and can make no guarantees.”
“But if we don’t turn him in, no one will learn what happened to those other girls. If the magistrates take him and the story is in the penny sheets, the missing girls’ families will realize what happened and come forward and perhaps there’s even more evidence against him.” She looked up, worried. “But how will we prove that he was using a fay to…get rid of the bodies?”
Nicholas smiled. “That’s why I took the dust.”
Belina narrowed her eyes at him. “You already have a plan, don’t you.”
Reynard sighed. “He always has a plan. That’s why we have him.”
Belina considered a moment more, then nodded firmly. “Let’s get Idilane.”
When the opera was nearly over and the restaurant would shortly be flooded with weary patrons, they took up their posts in a private room. Belina was seated at the room’s dining table, with Reynard and Nicholas behind the curtains on the balcony, which looked out on the promenade that led around the side of the building back to the carriage circle in front. A steward was sent to summon Idilane from the box he was sharing with a Captain Benre and companions, who were presumably meant to be Idilane’s alibi.
Belina waited, tapping her fingers impatiently against the table, more angry than nervous. Reynard approved. Her mother would undoubtedly not be happy about a public trial, but it would have to be done. Belina was both young and noble enough to be treated gently by the magistrates with regard to her testimony. If enough evidence was assembled from other sources, she might not have to appear in court.
Nicholas twitched his curtain aside to whisper, “Remember to let him get close, but not too close.”
“I know,” Belina said, annoyed. “You’ve told me three times already.”
“She knows, Nic.” Reynard reached around and pulled Nicholas’ curtain back into place.
A few moments later, the door opened and Idilane stepped in.
Idilane was what Reynard would have considered a fairly unassuming specimen. He was of middling height with dark hair, and features that were unobjectionable. It was obvious he could look affable and probably used that quality with the unwary. He would have little difficulty blending into crowds, being unmemorable. He did not look pleased to see Belina. The message from her would have alerted him that she had failed to fall into the trap, and he must have been considering the situation the entire time.
He opened his mouth to speak and Belina seized the moment. “Surprised to see me?” she said dryly.
Idilane rallied, obviously assuming Belina had never encountered his familiar. “Yes, I wondered why you didn’t meet me as arranged—”
“I did go to your meeting. But you weren’t there.”
Idilane hesitated. “You’re lying.”
“Because if I went, I’d be dead?” Belina’s gaze was direct. “Tell me, why do you do it? What benefit do you get? Do you do something disgusting with the dead bodies before your familiar eats them? We can discuss it, before the magistrates arrive.”
Reynard controlled the urge to sigh, Nicholas rolled his eyes. Yes, Belina was off the script. They had felt there was no point in ascertaining Idilane’s motives, as the magistrates would take care of that, but Belina obviously felt differently. The girl did have a passion for asking questions, Reynard thought.
Idilane’s face worked. Then he smiled in a predatory fashion and took a step closer, almost within arm’s reach of Belina. “You wouldn’t call a magistrate. You can’t risk them hearing about your exploits.”
Belina was unmoved. “I don’t have any exploits. And the magistrates and the penny sheets will be too distracted by all your murders to listen to your lies.”
Idilane leaned closer and lifted a hand. Reynard thought he meant to touch Belina’s face, but spell light flickered from his fingers. He said, “You’re very confident. But I don’t believe you’ve already summoned the magistrates.”
Belina lifted her chin. “I’m not alone.”
Idilane sneered. “Then what are your companions waiting for?”
Belina whipped up her hand and slammed the glass ball into his forehead. “For me to do that!”
Idlilane staggered back, then dropped like a stone, the spell crackling and dissipating around him.
Reynard lunged out from behind the curtain, lifted Idilane by the lapel of his coat, and slammed a punch into his jaw. Idilane’s head snapped back and the sorcerer was unconscious. Reynard dropped him, and started to search his pockets. He found a folder containing the photographs almost immediately, and rapidly flipped through them to make sure they were what he thought they were. Then he hesitated. “Some of these are not Belina.”
Nicholas and Belina both leaned over his shoulder to see. Belina gasped, “The other girls! The murdered girls!”
Nicholas said in disgust, “He’s an idiot. Look again, he may have included an image of himself actually committing the murders.”
“Not everyone is up to your standards,” Reynard told him. He handed the folder to Belina and she hastily looked through it, removing all the images of herself, as Reynard finished searching Idilane’s clothes. Belina handed the folder back and Reynard put it into Idilane’s coat. Reynard took the bag of dead fay dust and shook it out over the body as Belina folded the photographs of herself and retired to a corner to stuff them into some undergarment under her skirt.
Reynard stood. “Ready.”
Nicholas was already at the door. He nodded to Belina.
She let out an ear-piercing scream. Nicholas flung the door open and shouted, “Who are you? Take your hands off that young lady!”
Reynard turned back to the window, slung himself over the balcony, and dropped down to the grassy verge at the edge of the walk. There was no streetlight nearby and he was observed only by some street urchins and a few peddlers waiting for the opera to let out. They were accustomed to seeing people exit the restaurant’s private rooms precipitously and didn’t pay much attention.
The story would be that Miss Shankir-Clare’s escort had left her in the restaurant while he went to find a porter to summon their coach. Idilane had appeared and accosted her, and dragged her into a private room. Reynard’s confederate, the restaurant’s host, had seen this and sent a waiter to summon a magistrate from the street in case there was trouble. Belina would claim Idilane had threatened her and bragged of past victims that his captive fay had dispatched. Since all that was true, Reynard didn’t have any doubt she would be able to carry it off.
A couple of streets over, Reynard found a telegraph office still open and sent a message to be delivered to the Shankir-Clare house. Then he retreated to the vicinity of the coffee-seller across the street from the opera’s main entrance. Over the course of the next hour, as the audience left the opera, he saw more magistrates arrive, then a coach with more high-ranking magistrates and one of their sorcerers, then finally the Shankir-Clare coach with Lady Shankir-Clare, a maid, and Amadel. Amadel paused, spotted Reynard across the street, and they exchanged a nod before he went inside. Not long after that, Nicholas appeared.
Reynard purchased another cup of coffee as Nicholas sauntered casually across the street, and handed it to him as he joined him on the promenade. They waited until the Shankir-Clares reappeared with Belina. As Amadel handed Lady Shankir-Clare into their coach, Reynard saw Belina studying the street. She spotted them, but was too canny to wave.
The coach departed, and Reynard and Nicholas started down the promenade.
“So do we still believe Belina was targeted by Idilane?” Reynard asked. “I doubt it myself.”
“Yes, the queen might have to look away from a scandal involving a Shankir-Clare daughter, but a Shankir-Clare daughter who is missing would be cause for turning the city upside down.”
“Idilane may not have realized that. The family is discreet, not known in the lower circles he travels in.” Reynard lifted his brows. “I think he was the target.”
“It makes more sense. Perhaps the sorcerer who was forced to give him the fay familiar nudged him toward Belina, knowing that if she was a victim, Idilane would not escape.” Nicholas looked preoccupied. “The other young women probably told no one where they were going or why. It shouldn’t be too hard to discover at least some of their identities, if their families have reported them missing. I’ll do some preliminary work on it, and give it to you, to be passed on to the Shankir-Clare family.”
It would give the magistrates another push in the right direction. And Reynard would enjoy a chance to see Belina again and bid her a more formal farewell. “This was a good day’s work.”
“It was adequate,” Nicholas agreed. “Miss Shankir-Clare was helpful.”
“She was.” Reynard had been thinking it over while he waited, and he said, “It would be good to have a woman available for this sort of job. Fools like Idilane don’t expect it. Someone who has a public reputation of some sort would be even better, less likely to be suspected.”
“You’re considering asking Miss Shankir-Clare?” Nicholas sounded dubious. “She has the nerve for it but she’s still a little young—”
“No, of course not.” Belina was too young. And more importantly if her mother found out, the reaction would not be salubrious. “We need someone who isn’t under the eye of a concerned family.” Thinking of Nicholas’ theatrical infatuation, Reynard added, just to tease, “An actress, for instance.”
The look Nicholas gave him was unreadable. “That might be possible.”