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Aureste Belandor's eyes moved from the still body on the bed to the still body on the floor, and back again. His brother Innesq lay white- faced, blue-lipped, and apparently dead of exhaustion. Newly awakened from his coma, weakened and drained, Innesq had been unfit for arcane endeavor. The intense exertion required to halt the plague-crazed guard's rampage had cost dearly. Rigid on the floor sprawled the corpse of the young guard Drocco, bones shattered and skull fractured by the blows of the poker wielded by his master-his loss negligible in itself, yet threatening enormous inconvenience. For an instant the Magnifico Aureste stood paralyzed, prey to uncharacteristic indecision. The moment passed, and he was himself again.
Applying two fingers to his brother's neck, he discovered an erratic and dangerously weak pulse. No matter. Innesq was not about to die; Aureste Belandor would not permit it. He yanked the bellpull beside the bed, and a Sishmindri answered the summons at once. The amphibian's air sacs fluttered at sight of the dead guard.
"You are called Zirriz, are you not?" Aureste demanded, business-like as if he conducted ordinary household affairs.
The hairless greenish head bobbed.
"And you frequently assist Master Innesq in his workroom?"
"I obey," the Sishmindri reported.
"Well, Zirriz, Master Innesq has overexerted himself and suffered a relapse. It is your task to restore him."
"You will find a way. Do not pretend ignorance, as you value your green hide. His illness is arcane in nature. As his assistant, you must have received instruction, learned what to do in the event of an accident or emergency. You will use that knowledge now."
There was no immediate reply. Zirriz advanced to the bedside, studied Innesq's blue-white face, then took up one lax hand to examine the fingertips at some length.
"Need leech-man." The Sishmindri laid Innesq's hand down.
"No. The doctors are charlatans, they know nothing. The responsibility is yours. Save Master Innesq's life and you'll be rewarded. Fail, and I will lock you in a small iron cage where you will starve to death at leisure. Now get to work."
Zirriz stared, his thoughts-if any-unknowable. At last he replied, "Need dust."
"Then get it. There is plenty to be had."
"Cure. For sickness. Magic."
"An arcane restorative? Good. Where is this to be purchased? I'll pay any price."
"Made. In workroom."
"Did any of this dust survive the fire?"
Zirriz's brow ridges flexed. Clearly he did not know.
"Go and see." Aureste controlled his impatience with difficulty.
Zirriz made for the exit.
"Halt." The command was obeyed, and Aureste's hand sketched a gesture encompassing the corpse on the floor. "You will remove this carrion." He felt the weight of unspoken questions, and his mind sped. Drocco carried the plague, whose discovery consigned Belandor House and its inhabitants to the deadly limbo of the quarantine. And yet-a quick glance served to confirm-nothing in the victim's outward appearance revealed contagion. His death wounds were gapingly apparent, their red testimony sufficient unto itself. Prompt disposal of the corpse should guard the potentially catastrophic truth.
The amphibian was staring, his comprehension open to question.
"The fool was roaring drunk," Aureste found himself explaining. "He drew his weapon and suffered the consequences. Now get him out of here. Cart his carcass to the nearest dunghill, or to the Allwights if you prefer, and leave him there. In any case, get rid of him. Do it now."
"Cannot," the Sishmindri replied, unbelievably.
"What do you say to me?" Aureste's gaze roved in search of a whip.
"General Order Fourteen."
Of course. Governor Uffrigo's infamous decree, with which Aureste had reluctantly familiarized himself in recent days. General Order Fourteen, which imposed an early curfew upon Faerlonnish nationals and their Sishmindri chattel alike. General Order Fourteen, which mandated the confiscation of any Faerlonnish-owned Sishmindri found out upon the streets after the hour of ten. In the event of discovery, the dead guard-a person of no importance-could be explained away with relative ease. But the Taerleezi authorities would immediately seize the amphibian, a commodity too valuable to sacrifice.
"Very well." He released the concession grudgingly. "Carry him hence at dawn, then. In the meantime, summon such assistance as required and have that thing removed from my brother's chamber."
Zirriz stooped to inspect the corpse and reported, "Not dead."
"You are lying or dreaming." Mastering vast repugnance, Aureste approached to stare down into the dead man's face. Drocco's eyes were wide open, and the lids twitched perceptibly. Apart from that minuscule motion, he was rigid and motionless, held fast in Innesq's arcane toils. Could such bonds ever break? Did the-he groped for the term his brother had used-did the Overmind look upon him through those staring eyes?
He suppressed a thrill of almost superstitious horror. There was no cause for fear. Innesq's intangible restraints would hold firm until the guard's body turned to dust.
"It is a final spasm of the muscles, nothing more," he decreed. "He's finished." He paused, daring contradiction, of which there was none. "Now do as you are bid, and keep me informed of your progress." Averting his eyes from the embarrassment on the floor, Aureste departed, making his way through the smoke-blighted corridors of the north wing to the chamber now serving as his makeshift study. As he went, the signs of the recent fire were everywhere about him: blackened frescoes and hangings, cracked and wounded stained-glass windows, empty mirror frames, moldering waterlogged carpets, gilt- peeling furniture, broken porcelains-and all of that was here in the north wing, whose damage was minor compared with the devastation of the central section and the south wing. Belandor House, site of privilege and grandeur, his own house, had suffered a blow from which it would be slow to recover, if it ever recovered at all. But the building and its contents were feathers weighed in the balance against the attack upon Innesq-an attack that might yet prove fatal.
Aureste repelled the thought, expertly substituting tastier objects of contemplation, chiefest of which was vengeance. The author of the outrage, or at least its principal perpetrator, presently languished in prison-a circumstance offering boundless opportunity to the creative enemy.
Mere minutes earlier, Innesq Belandor had explained the urgent necessity of establishing a truce with Vinz Corvestri. The cleansing of the Source, whose imminent reversal threatened the Veiled Isles-and perhaps the lands beyond-with uncanny catastrophe, demanded the combined talents of some half-dozen arcanists. Corvestri was an indispensable member of this group, his contribution essential. And Aureste had accepted the truth of this, even at the cost of unusual remorse. For once he had genuinely repented his own actions. The rush of guilt and shame was still fresh in his mind, but already it was beginning to recede. Perhaps Innesq had exaggerated. Perhaps sickness and exhaustion had clouded his intellect, or maybe he had simply been mistaken.
Reaching his study, Aureste shut himself therein and commenced a tigerish pacing. His eyes, shadowed with sleeplessness and heavily bloodshot, reflected reddish glints. The accumulated fury, fear, and frustration of recent days burned along every nerve. A leisurely vivisection of Vinz Corvestri offered some hope of relief, but this solace was denied him. For now.
For now, he would seek distraction in labor. Seating himself at the plain, small table that now served as his desk, he attempted to fix his attention upon the catalog of domestic damages compiled by his brother Nalio.
Nalio had been so proud of his precious lists, and not without reason. Beyond doubt, the youngest Belandor brother displayed a true talent for minutely detailed clerical work. Such painstaking skills were needed in the world and deserved their credit. Accordingly, Aureste strove to apply himself, but the endless review of ruination failed to hold his attention.
Two faces filled his mind's eye-the only two that mattered. Innesq's, lately so alive with purpose, but now blue-white and empty-perhaps forever. Beside it Jianna's, so nearly found, but now lost again- perhaps forever. The rage with which he habitually deflected fear and grief threatened eruption then, and he focused it all where it belonged-upon the soft-bellied form of Vinz Corvestri. With whom he was now required to cobble some sort of truce.
It was absurd. Corvestri was marked for death by slow torture. No truce was possible, now or ever.
But Innesq had insisted. Make peace . . . Or all is lost, he had declared, leaving little room for argument. Well, should he ever emerge, faculties intact, from this latest coma, then his wishes would be granted. Until that time Vinz Corvestri remained imprisoned, preferably in the darkest, coldest, rankest dungeon that the Witch had to offer. His miserable life was safe for the present. In the event of Innesq Belandor's death, however, Vinz Corvestri's stay of execution lapsed. Nor would his arcane skills save him, precious though they might be to the world and everyone in it. There would be no trial, no judicial delays and nonsense. Corvestri would die at length, in the manner of Onartino Belandor. And this time, Aureste would relish the spectacle.
The prospect was less consoling than he expected. Innesq's gasping whisper haunted him. Adepts must gather. Work together as one . . . We need them. The voice was not to be excluded, but might be disregarded, superseded by other matters. Aureste bent a blind gaze on the paperwork before him. In his imagination, he walked the Alzira Hills in search of Jianna. She was alive. He forced himself to believe it. He could see her face, he could almost hear her voice. She was out there. Somewhere.
"We must put an end to the Governor Anzi Uffrigo," observed Celisse Rione calmly, as if stating the obvious, and her listeners eyed her in silence. "The Viper should have been removed years ago. We've been remiss, and it's time to correct our error."
Jianna wondered if the others shared her own amazement. Her gaze swept the circle of individuals seated on the logs positioned about one of the various small cookfires dotting the Ghostly encampment. Beside her sat Falaste Rione, his face visible to her in profile, his expression, if any, impossible to gauge. Next to him, was Trox Venezzu-youthful, scruffy, with a bowl of stew in his lap, his spoon suddenly stilled on its way to his mouth. Similarly motionless and watchful sat all of the others, with the exception of Poli Orso, leader of this rustic branch of the Faerlonnish resistance force, and master of the camp. Orso, an elder of the group at age thirty-two, was short and stocky of build, with a broad face, blunt features, unhurried countrified speech, and an expression of bovine serenity suggesting untroubled digestion. Anyone meeting him for the first time might have taken him for a slow- witted yokel. It had taken Jianna but a very brief term of residence, however, to recognize the respect that Poli Orso commanded among his followers, and to note the sharp intelligence lurking behind the dull façade.
Orso swallowed a mouthful of stew without haste, then replied tranquilly, "Not real, my girl. Fancies. Just like it was the last time you pushed for it."
"Things have changed," Celisse returned.
"Have they, now?"
"You know it. You know what the Taers did at Ironheart. The guilt lies with Uffrigo. His crimes can't go unpunished forever. It will destroy Faerlonnish spirit."
"So now you're talking for the whole population, eh?"
"Our friends, the allies of the resistance, were slaughtered without mercy." Celisse ignored the other's barb. "Torture was employed. The stronghouse was destroyed, and I'm told that the Magnifica Yvenza was forced to witness the murder of her two sons, then driven out of doors to shift for herself in the wild. The magnifica is one of the greatest and most generous allies that we have ever known. She's true to our cause, she has shared all her resources and offered our wounded the protection of her stronghouse for years. Now she's been violated and despoiled. Our debt to her is great, and it's time to pay. The magnifica must be avenged and supported; she's owed no less. I suggest that we send word to her, offering her refuge and a home among us." Turning confidently to her sibling, she observed, "Brother, I know you will agree. And surely you must serve as emissary to Yvenza Belandor. She'll listen to you."
Jianna's amazement sharpened to alarm. Potential disaster had materialized out of nowhere. One moment she had been peaceably spooning her stew, imagining herself secure; the next, she confronted utter ruin. Yvenza Belandor's arrival would instantaneously blast the persona of "Noro Penzia" out of existence. Falaste Rione's female assistant of vague origins would stand revealed as Jianna Belandor, daughter of the notorious Magnifico Aureste. Perhaps she would be lucky and they would only hold her for ransom. More likely they would kill her, and ship her remains home to Vitrisi in a bucket. Beyond question, Yvenza would urge them to it. She'd demand Falaste's blood as well; certainly she hated him now. She would see to it that every Ghost within sound of her voice learned that Falaste Rione had chosen to betray his great benefactress for the sake of Aureste Belandor's daughter. She would contrive to suggest that he had conspired with the Taerleezis, somehow personally engineering the downfall of Ironheart. She would limn him as a traitor in league with the enemies of Faerlonne, and by the time she finished, the Ghosts would be ready to rend their erstwhile beloved physician limb from limb.
Jianna felt the color drain from her cheeks-an alteration camouflaged by the shade of early evening, and the ruddy glow of the cookfire. She kept her face and hands still, but could not control the instinctive jump of her eyes back to Rione's profile.
Nothing revealing there; not the slightest hint of discomfort or guilt. His manner was easy, the soothing quality of his voice particularly apparent as he replied, "It's a generous thought that does you credit, sister, but the magnifica will never consent. She'd view the offer as charity, which she'd die rather than accept. She might even take offense. You know this. You know her."
"I do." Celisse reflected briefly, then replied, "I'll grant your point. She won't live with us, now or ever. But the other thing's a different matter. She'll want justice, in pursuit of which she'll accept our support gladly. And this you know."
"Ironheart is gone, along with the Taerleezi force that destroyed it. For the moment at least, the true culprits stand beyond reach of justice."
"The true culprit is the Taerleezi governor," Celisse informed him. "Not the easiest target in the world, but scarcely beyond reach. It is simply a matter of planning and preparation."
The words and sentiments were so much at variance with her girlish appearance that Jianna's wonder deepened.
"You hold one man personally responsible for all Taerleezi crimes?" Rione inquired politely.
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