by David Duncan
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The White Sisters were rarely required to use their conjuration-detecting skills in the middle of the night. Nighttime security was normally a male sport--the Yeomen guarding the gates and the grounds, the Blades patrolling the inside of the palace--but now the King was entertaining an important guest and either he or someone in his train had been tactless enough to include conjurements in his baggage. Anyone else would have been reprimanded and made to turn them in, but a Grand Duke had to be humored. So the White Sisters' help was required, and Sister Gertrude was the most junior Sister in attendance at Court. Tonight Mother Celandine would supervise and instruct. Thereafter Trudy would have the night honors all to herself.
It was only a formality.
Two lights came into view and soon resolved themselves into torches set in sconces, on either side of an imposing doorway, the entrance to Quamast House. The Grand Duke had been lodged a long way from the main palace, and Sir Bernard had assured Trudy that this was the Blades' doing. Most visitors were bunked in the West Wing, but the Blades never took chances with unidentified spirituality.
Under each sconce stood a pike man in shiny breastplate and conical steel hat. The one on the right stamped his boots, advanced one of them a pace, lowered his halberd, and proclaimed, "Who goes there?"
That was a very stupid question when he knew the answer already. The Royal Guard scorned such folderol as passwords, Bernard had told her, because they all knew one another and because they tried to do nothing the Yeomen did, or at least never in the way the Yeomen did it.
"The nightingale sings a sad song!" Sergeant Bates proclaimed at Trudy's back. That was not true, because nightingales had finished singing back in Fifthmoon, and he said it loud enough for any skulking trespasser to overhear.
The man-at-arms resumed his former position, slamming the butt of his halberd on the stone. "Pass, friend."
One of the footmen opened the right-hand flap of the double door. As Trudy followed Mother Celandine through it, she caught a startling whiff of. . .of she was not sure what. She did not stop to investigate.
She found herself in a pillared hall that must take up most of the ground floor of the building. A very inadequate light was shed by a pair of enormous bronze candelabra standing at the foot of a showy marble staircase set in the center of the hall, which seemed an inefficient use of space. Much vague sculpture loitered in the shadows along the walls. The marble floor supported some random rugs and a few ugly sofas and chairs, poorly arranged.
A voice at her elbow said, "Good chance, Trudy."
She jumped and turned to meet his grin. "Bernard!" He had not told her he would be here!
He smirked. "A last-minute roster change."
Obviously he had arranged this so he could surprise her--and embarrass her! Mother Celandine was frowning and three other Blades had emerged from the darkness to leer. All Blades looked much alike--lean, athletic men of middle size, mostly in their twenties. The conjuration that bound them to absolute loyalty to the King showed to her senses as an ethereal metallic glow, which she found very becoming.
"He's a fast worker, our Bernie," one said.
"Gotta watch those rapier men."
Horrors! Her face was on fire.
"That will do!" The fourth Blade was a little older and wore a red sash to show that he was in charge. He tapped the cat's-eye pommel of his sword. "Good chance to you, Mother Celandine."
"And to you, Sir Valiant."
"Do you know Sir Richey? Sir Aragon? And our expert breaker of hearts, Sir Bernard?" The men saluted in turn.
Mother Celandine nodded crisply to each salute. "This blushing maiden is Sister Gertrude."
Jealous old hag!
"Known as Trudy to her friends," Aragon remarked in an audible aside.
"We asked for White Sisters, not red ones," Richey countered.
Mortified, Trudy caught Bernie's eye. He winked. She realized that he was showing off. The others' crude humor was a form of flattery. She winked back.
"Why don't you have more lights?" Celandine demanded, peering disapprovingly at the gloom.
"Blades see well in the dark," Sir Valiant said, "but the real reason is that the visitors took every candle and lamp they could find upstairs with them. The Baron said something about liking lots of light. We'll make sure we have more tomorrow."
The old lady sniffed. "Well, let's get it over with. Carry on, Sister."
Trudy led the way back to the door to begin. The lantern-bearing footmen followed and the Blades retreated to the staircase in the center, so their bindings would not distract the Sisters. Trudy closed her eyes and listened. She inhaled, licked the roof of her mouth, queried her skin for odd sensations. . .did all the curious things that promoted her sensitivity to the spirits, tricks she had been taught at Oakendown. She missed Oakendown and all her friends there, although it had been seriously deficient in boy-people, who were turning out to be just as much fun as she had dreamed.
"Nothing here, Mother." She began walking around the edge of the hall, stopped at the first corner. "There is something above here, though! Mostly air, some fire and water. And love." Except for trivia like good luck charms, conjurations were forbidden within the palace.
Celandine stifled a yawn. "Then we're under the Grand Duke's bedroom. He wears some sort of a translation device."
"It's a seeming, surely? I mean," Trudy added before the old harridan could take offense, "it's more like a seeming than anything else I've met."
Mother Celandine pursued thin lips, wrinkling them more than ever. "I do believe you're right! Yes. That's good. We missed that possibility. But it's harmless, you agree?"
Maybe, but the rules said. . . Trudy had been reprimanded twice already that day for talking back. The Prioress was threatening to post her to uttermost Wylderland if she did not learn proper respect for her seniors. "Yes, Mother." She hoped the King did not sign anything when he was near that enchantment.
With the footmen in attendance, Sister and Mother paraded around the ground floor, through deserted kitchens, a dining room, an office. Trudy detected nothing untoward until she was almost back where she had begun.
"There's something here! Upstairs, I mean." This one was much harder, and she struggled for several minutes, but the jangle of elementals defied analysis. "There's more than one conjuration. I can't make them out. A lot of them, all mixed up." Her skin crawled. "I think we should go up and have a close look at that!"
"It is Baron von Fader's medicine chest," Mother Celandine said. "Or, at least, that was what they were in when they arrived. He is His Grace's physician, as well as his Foreign Secretary and Treasurer and spirits know what else. We scanned it carefully. The Prioress decided not to ask for the chest to be opened."
"Why not? There's death in there!"
"Sister! There's death in almost anything, as you well know. Were you never taken to an apothecary's when you were at Oakendown? Many drugs and simples are dangerous in large amounts. And Grand Dukes are entitled to the benefit of small doubts. Now, have you done?"
"I am uneasy about this one, Mother," Trudy said stubbornly.
"It was approved only this morning. But remember it carefully. If you sense any change in it tomorrow, or any other night, then tell the Guard right away. Don't be afraid to ask for my help if you're in doubt. Come!"
She led the way back to the waiting Blades.
"You wish to go upstairs now?" Valiant asked.
"No, we are satisfied. Anything really dangerous we could detect from down here. Of course we located the Baron's medicine chest and the seeming His Grace wears, but we were already aware of those."
"Are they dangerous?" Valiant demanded.
"Not unless you swallow an overdose of purge or sleeping draft."
"His Nibs wears a seeming? What does that do?"
"Makes him attractive to blushing maidens," Trudy said. That was probably all it was for, but the medicine chest still bothered her. Any job half-done bothered her.
Mother Celandine was not amused. Mother Celandine wanted her beauty sleep. "You know where we are if you need us, Sir Valiant."
As they headed for the door, Bernard pulled another of his tricks. Right behind Trudy's ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, "Breakfast as usual, Trudy?"
"Of course," she shot back. "My place this time."
Sir Aragon said, "Oooooh, Trudy!"
"We will come and chaperone you, Trudy," Sir Richey added.
She had never had breakfast with Bernie. She had never been to bed with him, either, although tonight after dinner had been a very close call. If she had not had to go on duty, who knew what might have happened?
She did, of course.
But only by hearsay.
Before her face could even think about blushing, she followed Mother Celandine into the dark vestibule, then outside. She went down one step and stopped so suddenly that Sergeant Bates almost slammed into her. She looked inquiringly at the guard who had challenged them on their arrival. He was playing statue again, but. . .but. . .
"Something wrong, sister?" Bates asked.
"I'm not sure." She was sensing something. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"Answer her, Elson!" the sergeant said.
The sentry was very tall and had an untidy blond beard. He blinked down at her stupidly. "Right? Yes, mistress, I mean Sister."
Trudy shivered. She recalled noticing this same oddness on the way in, and now it was stronger. Very strange. Nothing familiar. Air? No fire. No love or chance. Time, no water. Death. Yes, definitely quite a lot of death.
"What is it?" Mother Celandine had returned. "Mm? Oh, that. Are you wearing an amulet, soldier?"
Elson shook his head vigorously, as if trying to dislodge his helmet. "No, Mother."
"How about a ring, mm?"
"Er, yes, Mother. . ."
Mother Celandine laughed harshly and took a firm hold of Trudy's arm to lead her down the steps. "He's a young male, Sister."
Trudy resisted the opportunity to say she had guessed that much because of the beard. "I don't understand, Mother."
Bates barked commands; the procession formed up as before and began moving along the path.
"Conjured rings are a common form of--ahem!--family planning, dear. Rings don't get in the way when you take everything else off. I admit that Man-at-arms Elson's is unusual, not a formula I recall ever meeting before, but you'll find such devices all over the palace."
"I'm sorry." She had made a fool of herself.
"I like your young Blade, Bernard."
Trudy gasped. "Er. . .Thank you."
"It must tax a girl to keep up with that sense of humor."
"I've managed so far."
"Bernie's fun. But you shouldn't refer to him as my Blade."
"He thinks he is." The Mother sighed. "I used to lust after Blades quite absurdly, but their bindings always gave me a headache at close quarters. Still do. Even tonight, just those few minutes with them."
If she had an aversion to Blades, why had she accepted a posting at Court? It was no excuse for skimping on the inspection.
"Bindings don't bother me," Trudy confessed, trying to imagine Mother Celandine forty years ago, a demure maiden fresh in from Oakendown. Lusting? The mind reeled. "I quite like it, in fact." It was sexy.
"Then you're lucky. You do understand that other young men will stay well clear of you if you date a Blade? And everyone will assume you're sleeping with him?"
"I do not sleep with Bernard! I mean I do not, er, lie with him!" Just sitting beside him was quite dangerous enough.
"Then you're about to," Mother Celandine said firmly. That was not a question. "Unless you drop him completely, right away." That was.
"I don't want to do that," Trudy said.
"Then let's talk about rings and things, dear."
When a stupid twigger asked you if you felt all right, the first thing that happened was that you started not feeling all right. Think about it for a while longer and you began to feel all wrong. As the night passed, Junior Pike Man Elson grew steadily more unhappy. He was cold. He was sweating. His eyes hurt. He had a flea, and fleas inside a breastplate were worse torture than the rack. He was really mad at his idiot wife for starting another baby so soon. Already he couldn't afford to feed all the gaping mouths that greeted him whenever he went home.
Every quarter hour or so, Corporal Nolly gave the signal that meant, count three, then stamp feet together, shoulder halberd, take one pace forward, turn inward, and so on. It ended with the two of them having changed sides. That was better than being reported for fainting on duty, but it hardly classed as an exciting evening.
It was the glare of the torchlight that made Elson's eyes hurt.
His new girl was probably balling that redhead in Blue Company right now.
Every hour or thereabouts, Nolly gave the other signal, so Elson shouldered his halberd and marched around to the back door to relieve Blaccalf. Then he was all alone and could shiver all he wanted. He could keep his eyes closed so that torchlight didn't pain him. He could run on the spot to try and warm up. He could scratch for the flea. At least the mosquitoes seemed to have taken pity on him. He decided it was no great honor to guard Grand Duke Whosit of Wherever, who was no doubt swiving some cute blonde in a featherbed upstairs. He was screamingly mad at Sergeant Bates.
Tramping boots announced the return of Blaccalf.
Elson went round to the front and took up his position. Just when had the spirits decreed that he must stand out here freezing in the dark to guard some rich foreign slob he had never met, a stuck-up slob who wouldn't ever give him as much as a nod of thanks? That same slob was upstairs right now swingeing some slutty twigger! Why didn't Nolly just tell him to go off home, or go off and find his girl, whatever bed she was in?
Nolly gave the signal again.
Count three. . .
For variety this time, as they were about to pass in the middle of the step, Elson pushed his dagger into Nolly's left eye. Nolly dropped his halberd. He didn't fall down. He just leaned forward and made little whimpering sounds as he watched the thin stream of blood trickling off the hilt of the dagger and splashing on his boots.
The overhead light was too bright for the next bit. Elson walked unsteadily down the steps. Then he swung his own halberd horizontal and held it with both hands so he could cut his throat. The process was not as painless as he had hoped. He should have kept the edge sharper.
Nolly stopped trickling and stopped complaining. He stumped down the steps and headed around to the back of the house, looking for Blaccalf.
Elson finished dying and walked back up, then in through the front door.
The Blades approved of Quamast House because they knew that any questionable guests billeted there would not go sneaking out any secret passages. No assassins were going to sneak in, either. When it had been built by King Ambrose, the Guard Commander had been the great Durendal, now Grand Master, and he had made sure that it was built right. With the outer doors and windows securely barred, as they were, Valiant and his little squad had nothing to do except stay awake at the bottom of the staircase. From there they had a clear view of the upstairs balcony and the doors to all the bedrooms.
It was an easy chore and tonight they even had a rookie with them, who must be introduced to some of the fiendish dice games the Blades employed to while away their stints. No charge for instruction. IOUs accepted without limit. Some recruits needed years to pay off their initiations.
Of course Cub Bernard first had to be baited about that slinky White Sister he had acquired. It was unseemly that a freckle-faced tyro, not two weeks into the Guard and barely through his orgying lessons, should collect something like that when better men hankered in vain. They quickly discovered that young Bernard was not the average run-of-the-mill Ironhall innocent. He could see that they were all as jealous as stags with glass antlers. He gave back as good as he got, inventing much lurid detail.
Abandoning that game as unwinnable, Valiant, Aragon, and Richey got serious. They found a massive oaken dining table and, with some difficulty, dragged it to the bottom of the stair. They tried to move the two colossal bronze candelabra closer to it--however exceptional a Blade's night vision, in monetary matters he liked his brothers' hands well lit. Finding the monsters immovable, they settled for the existing illumination and got down to concentrated instruction.
"You know Saving Seven, of course?" Valiant asked.
The kid said he didn't, so Richey demanded to see the color of his money and Aragon produced a bag of eight-sided dice. Each face represented one of the elements, he explained, and you rolled them four at a time. The object was to roll seven elements but not the eighth, death. Roll a death and you had to start collecting from the beginning.
"First player has a slight edge," he added, "so we'll give you the honor. After that the winner starts the next one. Put a farthing in the pot and roll four."
On his first try the kid rolled two airs, a water, and a chance, so he counted three. Sir Richey paid his farthing and rolled two deaths, which put him out of that game altogether. The other two scored four elements apiece.
"Just keep going," Richey said. "You can fold, pay the same price as the last man, or double it."
Nobody doubled on that round, which saw the kid roll love, time, and fire, while Valiant and Aragon added one element each. Being ahead with six, lacking only earth, Bernard doubled the price, but failed to improve his score. The others paid when their turns came, with the same lack of progress, so he doubled the price again. He had spirit. With the pot starting to look interesting, he rolled a triple death. Valiant and Aragon exchanged angry glances. Richey guffawed.
Bernard brightened. "What does that mean?"
"It means you win," Richey explained quickly, before the other two could invent a new rule for the occasion. "Roll a quadruple death and everyone who was in the game at the beginning has to pay you the final amount of the pot. That's called the 'massacre'. Another game, Freckles?"
"Why not?" Bernard raked in the coins.
It is regrettable that skill, virtue, and experience are no match for fickle chance. The brat won four games in a row, two of them with triple deaths. The next game turned out to be a never-ender, where everybody kept rolling single deaths and no one could reach the magic seven. With the pot growing enormous and three sharpies' reputations at stake, the betting grew desperate, until eventually they had the kid cornered. They were all sitting on winnable arrays and he was back down to two. All three of them in turn doubled the bet, expecting to price him out of the game. Perhaps he was too dumb to see that he could not win from there in a single roll. Or perhaps it was just that he was playing with their money and they were all writing IOUs. He not only stayed in, he doubled yet again.
Then he rolled a quadruple death.
The appalled silence was broken by a yell from Valiant, who had his back to the staircase and was facing the main door. He leaped to his feet, whipping out his sword. "Intruder! Richey get him. You two come with me." He ran seven or eight steps up and turned to survey the hall.
"You're seeing things!" Aragon said, but he went to join his leader, blocking the way to the guests above. So, to his credit, did Bernard, who might reasonably suspect a trick to cheat him out of half a year's pay.
Sir Richey strode forward to the main entrance carrying his saber, Pain, at high guard. The little vestibule was dark, but when he reached the line of pillars, he shouted, without turning his head, "The door's still barred!" He stopped. "I can smell blood! There's blood on the--" Something standing behind the nearest pillar lurched out at him. Possibly the stains on the floor had distracted him, but he parried the halberd thrust admirably, caught hold of its shaft in his left hand and swung Pain at his assailant's neck.
A Blade had little to fear in such a match and Valiant wisely did not sent him reinforcements. The staircase was still the key. He said, "Aragon, waken the Duke and the Baron and get back here." Aragon went racing up the stair.
Richey, having almost decapitated his assailant, let go of the halberd. That was a mistake, for the intruder did not drop. Instead he swung the halberd at Richey's midriff. Richey leaped back, parrying. His opponent shuffled after, repeatedly stabbing at him. As they came closer to the stair and the light, Bernard cried out in horror. Now it was clear that the intruder was a walking corpse, for its head hung at an odd angle and it was soaked in dried blood from cuirass to boots. The gaping wound Richey had made in its neck was almost bloodless, but there was another, a crusted black gash. Its throat had been cut twice, and it was still fighting.
Nearer still they came until, incredibly, Richey started to laugh, albeit shrilly. The apparition continued to thrust at him with the point of its halberd, which he parried effortlessly, as if it were made of stiff paper. He tried a few cuts of his own, knocking the apparition aside like straw. It kept coming back, but was obviously harmless.
"It's only a mirage!" he shouted.
Upstairs, Aragon was yelling and beating on doors.
Another Yeoman wraith came into view around the staircase, from the kitchen quarters. It moved with the same awkward walk and it had a dagger hilt protruding from his left eye. When it reached the table it dropped on all fours and crept underneath.
"Leave it alone," Valiant said. "Ghosts can't hurt us."
Richey had almost reached the stair and his opponent was transparent, barely visible at all. He was letting its clumsy strokes go, for they passed clean through him as if he were not there. Likewise, Pain whistled through the shadow without effect.
The table tilted, spilling dice and money. Valiant and Bernard watched in amazement, for all four Blades had barely managed to shift that monstrosity. For a moment it stood on edge, then tipped over, impacting one of the candelabra. They went down together with a crash that shook the hall. Most of the candles winked out. Darkness leaped inward.
Richey screamed as his opponent's halberd impaled him. Pain went skittering off across the marble floor. Richey fell; the corpse withdrew the halberd and stabbed him again. Then again. The second intruder clambered off the fallen table and went lurching toward the other candelabrum with both arms held across his eyes.
"Save the other candles!" Valiant yelled. He and Bernard went plunging back down the stairs.
Bernard got there first with a couple of giant, reckless, ankle-risking strides and made a spectacular lunge, thrusting his rapier into the armpit gap in the side of the dead man's cuirass. He did not stop there. Sword and Blade together went clean through the smoky figure. Bernard hit the floor in a belly-flop and slid past Sir Richey and the thing that kept stabbing at him. He lay as if stunned. His heroics had been unnecessary, for the corpse he had been attacking had faded to almost nothing beside the candelabrum.
Upstairs, doors were flying open. Unfortunately the light pouring out of them did little to brighten the deadly gloom below.
Valiant took station under the remaining candelabrum, parrying the efforts of the second shadow to throttle him until he realized that it could not harm him. A third intruder shuffled in from the kitchens, completely enveloped in a heavy carpet. Valiant waited until it was close and then charged it, ramming Quietus through the rug and feeling it jar against a steel cuirass inside. The occupant retaliated by tipping the carpet over him and body-checking him. He was thrown over backward by the weight of a big man in half armor, but by the time he hit the marble, the load on top of him was no more than that of the rug alone.
He struggled free of it. Now two of the wraiths flitted around him, struggling to injure him with no more success that he would have fighting mist.
Voices upstairs shouted that help was on the way. Out in the shadows Richey lay on his back, obviously dead. Bernard sat up. The first Yeoman corpse swung its halberd at him. Bernard rolled nimbly aside. Steel rang on stone where he had lain. His move put him within reach of his rapier, Lightning. He grabbed hold of her hilt, but was not quite fast enough getting back on his feet. Still off-balance, he parried the halberd aside with his left hand and drove Lightning through the corpse so that two-thirds of her stuck out of its back. That stroke would certainly have ended any living opponent, but the dead one ignored it and fell on top of him. They went down together, with the corpse clawing at his throat.
Valiant reached him, swinging Quietus like a broadsword. He chopped the thing's head off with one stroke, executioner style. The helmeted head hit the floor with a clang, but the decapitated corpse paid no heed and continued its two-handed throttling of the boy.
The third wraith was going up the stairs, at first flitting like flying ash, gradually slowing and growing solid as it reached the darkness. Aragon and the fat Baron were coming down to meet it, brandishing candlesticks and lanterns, and it faded back to harmless, flickering shadow.
Struggling to save Bernard from strangulation, Valiant went to work on the monster's arms. He had almost cut through one when he was hurled to the floor. He looked up to see the corpse with the dagger in its eye. It lashed out with its boot. He tried to roll away and it followed, kicking him with bone-breaking impacts. He couldn't breathe; he was as good as dead.
Then Aragon and Baron Fader brought their lights and it again faded to smoke.
"Quickly!" the Baron shouted. He was a gruesome apparition himself, with a voluminous white nightgown billowing around his great bulk and spikes of white hair and beard sticking out in all directions. "Before they escape! We must pen the shadowmen in here. Come, come!"
"Bernard!" Valiant croaked, gasping at the pain in his ribs.
"He is dead!" Aragon shouted. "Can you walk?" He had both hands full of lanterns, four of them.
"Hurry, hurry, hurry!" the Baron screamed in his squeaky voice. "They will escape. They will attack the palace! Hurry!"
Bernard was starting to rise, his throat in shreds and his eyes like blank white pebbles. Valiant struggled to his feet and recovered Quietus. He tottered back to the stair between the other two men. The shadowmen followed, five ominous, barely-visible shapes at the edge of the brightness, one of them headless.
Wrapped in a heavy red robe, the Grand Duke was struggling to overturn the candelabrum. His two menservants were coming down, half naked, but bringing more light.
"Stop!" Valiant shouted.
"No!" the Baron retorted. "This must go." He threw his great weight into the argument. The candelabrum shivered . Only when Aragon joined in did it rock and then topple, hitting the ground with a noise like a falling smithy and snuffing out most of the candles. The Baron stamped on the others, dancing grotesquely while waving his many-branched candlesticks, in danger of going up in flames himself. Then the six living men hurried up the stairs together, leaving the lower floor to darkness and the dead.
They piled into the ducal bedroom and slammed the door. The Baron slumped down on a chair, which creaked alarmingly. The Grand Duke fell on the bed and buried his face in the covers.
"We must warn the Palace!" Valiant whispered. His bruised chest was an agony.
"No, is all right!" Baron Fader proclaimed, wheezing after his exertions. "Schattenherren are deadly in darkness, but then they cannot pass through walls."
"Can't they just open the doors and walk out?" Aragon demanded.
The fat man shrugged. "Hope they won't. They want us and will stay close to us. Of course if someone else comes or goes by too near the house. . . Then they might. Daylight comes, they will die."
Richey had died. Bernard had died. Valiant wished he had.
Sister Trudy would breakfast alone.
Excerpted from Impossible Odds by Dave Duncan . Copyright © 2003 by Dave Duncan. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.