A locked room, a murder, and an unexpected kind of magic: the fifth of Michael Swanwick's "Mongolian Wizard" tales.
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About the Author
Michael Swanwick is the winner of five Hugo Awards for his short fiction. His several novels include the Nebula-winning Stations of the Tide, the time-travel novel Bones of the Earth, and the “industrial fantasy” novels The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel. He lives in Philadelphia.
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The Night of the Salamander
By Michael Swanwick, Gregory Manchess
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Michael Swanwick
All rights reserved.
The salamander was the centerpiece of the party. It had been brought from the Marquis de la Fontaine's menagerie with who-knew-what difficulty (but that, of course, was what servants were for) and contained at the center of a roaring fire in a walk-in stone fireplace of the sort that Ritter remembered fondly from his childhood. On those rare evenings when his parents weren't entertaining and didn't feel the need for display, they would sometimes dismiss all the cooks but one and have him prepare something simple enough to be heaped up on a single plate that he, Mother, Father, and his sister would carry inside the massive structure and, seated upon simple wooden stools, eat sitting around a fire such as might have been built upon a barren mountainside a million years ago.
Mercurial by nature, the salamander flickered from shape to shape, as uncertain of form as flame itself — of which she was, natural philosophers agreed, largely composed. Protean though she might be, the salamander's favored appearance was humanoid. Her hair lashed like pennants in a gale and her arms whipped and snapped among glimpses of thighs, hindquarters, and breasts tipped with hot white sparks, too quickly to be firmly grasped by the eye and thus, as the salamander twisted and writhed, doubly compelling. According to the Marquis, she had been captured by Westphalian miners who had driven a shaft into a vein of fire, and subsequently shipped to his chateau in what was now Unoccupied France just before the onset of the war.
Contemplating the creature, Ritter was almost able to ignore the thunderstorm outside. Each side was employing weather wizards to assail the other with torrential rain and bolts of lightning along an unsteady front that encompassed both forces. It was, in his opinion, an act of damn-foolery that achieved the objectives of each — degrading the opponent's readiness and morale — to the net benefit of neither. Not that anybody sought out his opinion on such matters.
"I see I have lost you to a rival," the Marquis's daughter, Lady Angélique, said, laughing. "You are mesmerized by our fire-maiden."
"I could hardly deny that I am," Ritter said, turning away from the creature. "Yet, at your word, I can nevertheless turn my back on her. Were you clad in as wanton a lack of clothing as she, I can assure you I would be unable to tear my eyes away." In order to avoid giving offense, he carefully modulated his voice to indicate that this was a happy state he dared not seriously aspire to.
Angélique de La Fontaine blushed and lowered her eyes. Then she reached out and instead of giving his hand a sharp admonitory rap, as he had expected, briefly squeezed his forearm. "You are so wicked."
Ritter's spirits soared, and he mentally readjusted his chances upward from imaginary to extremely unlikely. This was the sort of society he had been brought up in, where sorcerous talents were common and the company polite. Here, flirtation was no trivial entertainment. Among men of his class, it was understood that passionate, self-assured young women made confident and competent spouses who would put up with no nonsense from the servants and could be relied upon in a pinch to successfully run their husband's affairs for a few years while he was off at war. The pursuit of a wife was the one of the most serious occupations a man could employ, and it was proof of the existence of an involved and loving Deity that it was so enjoyable as well.
Unpracticed though his social skills were since the Mongolian Wizard had invaded Europe, Ritter knew better than to press his advantage. Only an oaf would do so — and no woman worth having would respond to his loutish overtures. Flirtation alternated advance with retreat, surging forward and back like the ocean tides in an elaborate dance of intention, always looking forward to that instant when those dance steps became virtually indistinguishable from the act of love. "I must say that delighted though I was to receive your father's invitation, I am astonished that he is holding an entertainment on what may well be the eve of battle."
"My father and I have complete confidence in our commander. As would you, had you ever encountered him."
"It is true I have not met Maréchal de camp Martel. But how can you be sure I would be favorably impressed?"
"It is something of a secret," Lady Angélique said. "But I suppose you are of sufficient rank to be trusted with it. The Field Marshal is a wizard, as so many of our class are, and he possesses a unique talent — that of inspiring loyalty in others. There is not a man in his forces who would not follow him into Hell, confident that he would lead them out again. Provided only that one picks one's battles carefully, it is very hard to lose with such an army."
A thunderclap struck just outside the chateau and, reflexively, Ritter cursed. Appalled at himself, he said, "Pray forgive me! I have been on bivouac too long, surrounded by mud and men who think the height of humor is" He broke off before he could make matters worse.
"I know what such men are like, Kapitänleutnant. During the day, I volunteer in the Tents of Healing."
"You are a nurse?"
"I am a surgeon." Lady Angélique's smile turned flinty. "It runs in my family."
"I should have guessed," Ritter said, flushing with embarrassment. Mentally, he estimated what the equivalent military rank for Lady Angélique's position would be and adjusted his chances downward again. His family was as good as hers. But an officer in the Werewolf Corps was essentially a scout — and thus scarcely of the same prestige as a woman who could reach with her mind into a broken body to repair internal ruptures, encourage cellular growth, and pull a soldier back from the precipice of death. "There is a residuum of sorcerous power about you and it and it is focused in your hands. That strongly implies one of the constructive talents. You are of the peerage and hence a patriot, which means you will do what you can for your country. You"
"Sir! Sir!" A soldier shouldered his way through the partiers, headed straight for Ritter.
With annoyance he was barely able to conceal, Ritter returned the soldier's salute and said, 'Well?"
"Sir Toby's compliments, sir." The soldier handed him an envelope.
Scowling, Ritter read the enclosed letter:
I invite you to enjoy a few hands of faro with Field Marshal Pierre-Louis Martel, our learned friend the doctor, and myself. Nothing urgent, I assure you. You must not consider this invitation in any way an order.
T. Gracchus Willoughby-Quirke
He thrust the letter into a jacket pocket. It was, of course, in code, though a simplistic one. Faro, or indeed a reference to a card game of any sort, meant an investigation. The learned doctor indicated an act of violence resulting in serious injury or death, presumably involving Maréchal de camp Martel. The last two sentences were meant to be read as their direct opposites. Acting on an impulse (but Ritter was learning to trust such impulses), he turned to Lady Angélique and said, "I know this is presumptive. But I am called away for an investigation where your skills might well prove useful."
Lady Angélique's face grew instantly serious. "Let me change into a riding skirt," she said. "Tell the ostler to saddle the bay mare for me, and I won't hold you up for even a minute."
Without further word, they strode away in opposite directions, creating swirls and eddies of gossip and speculation in their wakes.
* * *
The trees were thrashing and the rain was hard as pebbles when Ritter and Lady Angélique arrived at a gallop at the manor house that had been requisitioned for field headquarters. They pulled up by the front entrance and dismounted, their roquelaures glistening in the torchlight of the servants who came hurrying up to take their horses. A guard ran into the house to announce their arrival.
Sir Toby met them in the vestibule. "Terrible news, Ritter," he said. "I—" Then, seeing Lady Angélique, he asked, "Who is this?"
When Ritter had quickly explained, Sir Toby bent low over the lady's hand. "Enchanté, mademoiselle. I apologize for my impulsive young subordinate dragging you out here on such a night. But who knows? Perhaps for once in his life, he has made the correct decision. I dared not send for a coroner, but since you are here, you can take the place of one."
"I will do my best, sir," Lady Angélique said. "You imply that there has been a death. May I ask whose?"
Her face turned pale when Sir Toby replied, "Field Marshal Pierre-Louis Martel has been assassinated. His body is upstairs."
* * *
At they ascended the grand staircase, Sir Toby said, "This investigation will be entirely in your hands, Ritter. The marshal's staff is meeting downstairs to determine how to handle tomorrow's battle, and whether they know it or not, they desperately require my input. Here is all you need to know: The body was discovered little more than an hour ago in Marshal Martel's room. These stairs provide the only access to the second floor. When the manor house was taken over, all other stairways were dismantled and boarded up. Guards on the ground floor testify that in the time between when Martel last ascended those stairs and the discovery of the body, only his aide and his valet went up after him and nobody came down. Therefore, the murder was committed by one of three people: his valet, his mistress, or his aide." At the landing, a small, nattily dressed man awaited him. "This is Tomas, the valet. I leave you in his able care."
So concluding, Sir Toby turned and wallowed down the stairs again, in such a hurry that twice he missed the railing when he grabbed for it, and almost fell.
When he was gone, Ritter said, "Tell us what happened."
"There is little to tell. Early this evening, the maréchal de camp sent Kasimov and myself away for a few hours. This was a common practice of his whenever he wished to spend time alone with his mistress. We went our separate ways, then reunited on the ground floor at the scheduled time. I went directly to my room while Kasimov proceeded to the master's door and knocked. When there was no response, he went inside and —"
"He went into the marshal's room without invitation?"
"That was how the master insisted it be done. Had he wanted privacy, he would have cursed at his aide through the door."
"I had barely entered my room when I heard Kasimov shouting for me. This was unprecedented. I ran to his side and saw the maréchal — dead. I confess my shock was so great I did not know what to do. But Dmitri Nikitovich cried, "Mademoiselle de Rais!" and ran to her room, flinging open the door. I hastily flung a sheet over the body for modesty's sake and followed after him. The mademoiselle was in her room, clad only in a dressing gown, her face white and eyes staring. She sat in a chair, rocking back and forth, as if she had been traumatized. We could get no sensible response from her. So, we went downstairs and reported what had happened. There was a great deal of running around and being ordered about for a time. The mademoiselle was given a sedative and all three of us were told to keep to our rooms. Now, well, here we are."
"I see," Ritter said. "Let us begin by examining the corpse."
Tomas bowed slightly. "The maréchal de camp's room is this way." He led them down the hall and into a bedroom. There, lying face-up on the bed with a sheet thrown over him, was a naked man — puffed, reddened, and blistered as if he'd been broiled. The bed linens, however, were not in the least charred. Whatever had killed the marshal had not touched them.
"Dear Lord!" Lady Angélique exclaimed. "I have never seen anything like it!"
"I have," Ritter said quietly. He looked up at the ceiling, expecting to see a black oval of soot, mirroring that on the bed. Yet there was none. The flames, then, were largely internal rather than external, which ruled out spontaneous combustion. Nevertheless, he said, "Tell me, Tomas, did your master receive any packages or presents recently? New clothes? A dressing gown, perhaps."
"The master was not the sort of man people give gifts to."
"And you are absolutely sure this is the marshal's body?"
"The master is, as you can see, an uncommonly large man. And on the middle finger of his right hand, he wears his ancestral signet ring, an item he valued greatly and which I have never seen him without. Also ..." The valet shrugged. "Even in this condition, his face is unmistakable."
Lady Angélique, meanwhile, had stripped off the sheet and was bent low over the corpse. Her hands floated just above the body, forming triangles, squares, and the like, a series of gestures that Ritter understood were mnemonics for focusing her thoughts on the internal organs within. Doubtless by now, experienced as she was, they were as unnecessary as they were habitual.
"The body has been blasted twice," Lady Angélique said without looking up. "First internally and then externally. His organs are cooked. The first blast would have killed him instantly. The second suggests that anger was involved."
"Could he have been killed by a salamander?"
"No. A salamander would have left nothing of the house but burning coals." She straightened. "This is the work of a pyromancer, a fire wizard."
Ritter turned to the valet. "Who here is a fire wizard?"
"That we know of? No one."
"Give me a hand turning over the body," Lady Angélique commanded.
With all three working together (Tomas grimaced with distaste but uttered no complaint), the chore was soon done. There ensued a long silence.
"Mutilation atop murder," Ritter said quietly. "This is the strangest assassination I have ever seen in my life." Then, as Lady Angélique delicately draped the sheet she had earlier removed over the violated portion of the corpse, he addressed Tomas. "You may return to your room. We shall begin by interviewing the man's mistress."
* * *
Mademoiselle Jeanne de Rais raised a stricken and tear-stained face when Ritter entered her room. She was far younger than he had expected — no more than fourteen, by his best guess. Nevertheless, Ritter bowed and said, "My condolences on your loss, mademoiselle."
The girl nodded silently and looked down at her lap.
Gently, Lady Angélique said, "I am a doctor, dear. If you will permit me to lay my hands on your forehead, I can ease some of your suffering. You will still be unhappy, understand. But the extremes of horror and of despair that I can see you are experiencing will be reduced to manageable levels. Do you give me permission to do so?"
Again, the girl nodded.
Standing behind Mademoiselle de Rais, Lady Angélique touched her fingertips to the girl's brow, and the tip of each thumb to the sides of her head just below the ears. For several long minutes, neither of them moved. Then the mademoiselle shuddered and the older woman withdrew her hands.
"Is that better, dear?" Lady Angélique asked.
"Yes," Mademoiselle de Rais said in a small voice. "Thank you."
"I am glad to be of service. Now, I am fear this man is going to have to ask you some questions. But he will be careful not to alarm you." This last was said with a warning glare.
"Of course. Mademoiselle, may I ask how long you have been with Maréchal de camp Martel?"
"Almost two years. He was a guest at my father's estate and he ... he noticed me. My parents did not want to let me go with him, but the maréchal can be very persuasive. I did not want to go, either. But I said yes."
"Because of his talent?"
"I imagine so. Sometimes, I am very homesick. But I never leave, though I wish I could."
"You will be restored to your family very soon, I promise you," Ritter said. "What can you tell me of this evening's events?"
"I ..." Mademoiselle de Rais shook her head. "I remember nothing. I'm sorry."
"What was the last thing you do remember?"
"I remember lunch. There was a strawberry sorbet. That was nice."
The young woman looked so childish when she said that that Ritter almost couldn't bring himself to go on. But he knew his duty, so he said, "I am afraid, mademoiselle, that I must now ask you certain questions about the marshal's sexual practices. Did he —"
The terrified look on the girl's face stopped him in mid-question.
"Oh, you idiot!" Lady Angélique exclaimed. She put both hands on Ritter's chest and pushed him backward out of the room and into the hall. "You have all the tact of a water buffalo. Go interview someone else. I will speak with Mademoiselle Jeanne — alone."
She slammed the door in his face.
* * *
There were four doors in this hallway: Marshal Martel's at the end, Mademoiselle de Rais's across from his, the valet's nearest the staircase, and one more that could only be the aide-de-camp's room. A young man with a round, heavy, almost ursine face answered the door. He wore a French uniform with a gold aiguillette on the right shoulder.
"You are Capitaine Dmitri Nikitovich Kasimov?"
"Yes." Kasimov gestured toward a lone green leather chair. He himself sat on the edge of his bed. "You must be the investigator. I will answer all your questions to the best of my ability, Lieutenant —"
"Kapitänleutnant Franz-Karl Ritter." He took the offered seat, the cigar, and the light from a struck match that Kasimov offered him. "Of the Werewolf Corps."
"Ah. Then you are a stateless man like myself. You will understand me, then, when I say that having been driven from Russia by the Mongolian Wizard, I would never do anything to weaken the forces opposing him."
Excerpted from The Night of the Salamander by Michael Swanwick, Gregory Manchess. Copyright © 2015 Michael Swanwick. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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