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The Wizard Hunters
It was nine o'clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court when someone banged on the door.
"Dammit." A couple of books on poisons slid from her lap as she struggled out of the overstuffed armchair. She managed to hold on to the second volume of Medical Jurisprudence, closing it over her finger to mark her place. The search for the elusive untraceable poison was not going well; there were too many ways sorcerer-physicians could uncover such things and she didn't want it to look as if she had been murdered. Intracranial hemorrhage seemed a good possibility, if a little difficult to arrange on one's own. But I'm a Valiarde, I should be able to figure this out, she thought sourly. Dragging the blanket around her, she picked her way through the piles of books to the door. The library at Coldcourt was ideal for this, being large, eclectic, and packed with every book, treatise and monograph on murder and mayhem available to the civilized world.
The entry hall was dark except for a single electric bulb burning in the converted gas fixture above the sweep of the stairs. The light fell on yellowed plaster walls and rich old wood and a blue-and-gold-patterned carpet on polished stone tile. Coldcourt was aptly named and Tremaine's bare feet were half frozen by the time she made it to the front door. She had let the housekeeper have the night off and now she regretted it, but she had had no idea it would take this long to arrange things. At this rate she wouldn't be dead until next week.
The unwanted person was still banging. "Who is it?" she shouted, wondering if he could hear her. Coldcourt had been built as a country house and its walls were thick natural stone to withstand the Vienne winter. It was part of an aging neighborhood of small estates just outside the old city wall and sprawled in asymmetrical crenellated and embellished glory across its poorly kept grounds. The door was several inches thick, old oak plated with not entirely decorative embossed lead, proof against bullets and other less solid assaults. The windows above the door were heavy leaded glass threaded with silver, the blackout curtains fixed tightly. All buildings had the blackout curtains, stipulated by the Civilian Defense Board, but the other protections were peculiarly Coldcourt's. Though all its wards against sorcerous attack were no help in the current situation.
A muffled voice replied, "It's Gerard!"
"Oh, God." Tremaine leaned her forehead tiredly against the chill wood surface. As executor of her father's estate, Guilliame Gerard had been her guardian until she was twenty-one, but she had seen him only infrequently these past few years. Her first thought was that her supervisor in the Siege Aid group must have written to him.
Tremaine had joined the Aid Society because they worked in the bombed-out areas of the city searching for survivors or bringing supplies to the fire brigades and the War Department's rescue teams. It was hard, desperate work, and many of them, even experienced men like constables or fire brigade members or former soldiers, were killed by unexploded bombs or collapsing buildings. A small woman who had never been very good at games in school shouldn't have been able to last a week. Tremaine's life should have ended with no more fanfare than a line in the casualty columns of the newspapers. Anything else would surely lead to a Magistrates' investigation which might uncover even more unpleasant facts about her family's immediate past than had already been exposed; that was the last thing she needed. But Tremaine had been in the Aid Society for six months.
She probably still couldn't hit a lawn tennis ball properly, but she could climb, scramble over, under, and through rubble like a squirrel, dodge flying debris, and when a ghoul had leapt out at her from a half-collapsed cellar the instinct to beat it to pieces with a lead pipe had triumphed over the will to die.
But after six months of near-death-but-never-quite experiences, her supervisor had told her she was due a month's leave before she could enlist for another term. Tremaine had protested with a patriotic fervor that her old friends in the theater would have admired, those who were still alive anyway. But she had given in when she had seen the look in the woman's eye. The supervisor was the Duchess of Duncanny, used to managing estates on a grand scale, and she had been trained as a hospital nurse early in the war. She was too perceptive by far and Tremaine had looked into those old eyes and thought, She knows. She knows why I'm here. It was time to leave the Aid Society and find some other way.
She must have contacted Gerard. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit." Wincing, Tremaine turned the heavy key and drew the bolts.
Gerard slipped in, by habit pushing the heavy door shut quickly so a betraying light wouldn't escape. The outskirts of Vienne were considered an unlikely target area and Tremaine hadn't heard any bomb warnings on the wireless earlier.
He was a tall man, in his early forties, with dark hair just lightly touched with gray. His tie was askew and his tweed jacket stained with dark patches. His spectacles caught the light as he stared down at her in consternation. "Tremaine, I'm sorry to burst in on you like this, but something terrible has happened."
They broke the wards, she thought, staring at him blankly. The palace is destroyed. A bubble of hysterical laughter grew in her chest. It was over. There would be no messy inquests or embarrassing articles in the papers to avoid. The Gardier had won and she could bash her own head in with a rock and no one would think twice about it. "The palace was bombed."
"No." Gerard gave her an odd look. "Oh no, not that terrible." He took a sharp breath, gathering his thoughts. "I've just come from the project. The last test sphere was destroyed."
"Oh." Tremaine wet her lips, trying to catch up. He meant the Viller Institute's Defense project outside the city. She gathered the blanket around her and fumbled the large book into a more comfortable grip, trailing Gerard further into the hall. "Do you need me to write a bank draft?" she asked vaguely. There were people in the city who did that and handled the other business affairs of the Institute, but perhaps those offices had been hit or evacuated. "I thought the government requisitioned anything you needed now."
Gerard stopped to face her impatiently. "Tremaine, listen to me -- " He blinked as he took in her appearance. "Is that your nightdress?"
"It's a smock. An artist's smock." Most of Tremaine's clothes were worn-out; the couturier she had patronized had closed down and left the city and she hadn't had time or inclination to stand in the lines at the stores for months. "I -- Never mind. Now . . . what's happened?"
"The sphere we were using for the experiment was destroyed," Gerard explained. "The Riardin prototype of the Viller sphere, the last one we had."
That time she understood him. "Was destroyed?" Suddenly angry, Tremaine dumped Medical Jurisprudence on the marble console table. "What the hell do you mean ‘was destroyed'? By who?"
"By Riardin." His face grim, Gerard adjusted his spectacles. "It killed him and self-destructed."
Tremaine let out her breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Moron," she muttered. But it didn't surprise her. It was hardly the first time this project had killed someone.
"He was overzealous," Gerard admitted, "but he was the best we had. I'm now the highest-ranking sorcerer on the project." He took a deep breath, as if he was still trying to take stock of that himself.
Tremaine looked up at him, frowning. Lodun University had been sealed off by its own wards and lay under heavy sorcerous siege by the Gardier. It had been impenetrable for the past two years and no one had been able to get close enough to discover whether the sorcerers and townspeople trapped inside were still alive or not. Since then sorcerers who could be spared from the border and coastal defenses were in short supply. Gerard was more than competent, but he wasn't up to the flamboyant Riardin's level. One of the benefits of suicide was not having to watch while what was left of her friends went before her. "Gerard . . ."
"The other spheres were specifically keyed to Riardin. He built them, he worked with them. There's no time to build another for me." His expression was grave. "I need the Damal prototype."
"Oh." Arisilde Damal had been the greatest sorcerer in the history of Ile-Rien. Tremaine had called him Uncle Ari. She stared at Gerard for a moment, nonplussed, then realized he was asking for her permission. "Well, yes. Of course."
Gerard started for the stairs, halting in confusion when Tremaine veered back toward the library, still dragging her blanket. He demanded, "You don't keep it in the vaults upstairs?"
"It gets lonely. It's cold and dark up there. That's probably what made the two early spheres die, you know." There had been three original spheres constructed by Edouard Viller, Tremaine's foster grandfather, kept in the secret storerooms in Coldcourt's attics. Two had quietly died in their years of inactivity and the last had been destroyed by Arisilde Damal himself in the course of a powerful spell. When Tremaine's father, Nicholas Valiarde, had endowed the Viller Institute to continue Edouard Viller's work, Arisilde had worked with the natural philosophers employed by it to re-create Viller's original design.
Tremaine led the way into the library. The books had overflowed the floor-to-ceiling shelves long ago and invaded the parlor next door and several rooms on the second floor, but the main part of the collection was still housed here. Though it badly needed dusting it was still the coziest room in the house, with colorful antique Parscian carpets and overstuffed armchairs. It was also the only room without blank spots on its walls where paintings had been taken down, silent reminders of the imminent danger of invasion. Following the instructions her father had left behind, Tremaine had had his art collection removed to a sealed hidden vault below the Valiarde Importing offices in Vienne, along with some of the furniture, the older books, her mother's jewelry and other valuables. Since then Tremaine had had the feeling the house was an empty shell, nothing left behind, including herself. She went to the glass-fronted cabinet against the far wall and opened a drawer to search for the key.
"Sorry to burst in on you like this. I know you're on leave from the Aid Society." Gerard glanced at the meager fire in the grate and the pile of books surrounding her armchair. "Are you writing something again?"
"Uh huh." Tremaine gave up on the key buried amid the welter of pencil stubs, scraps of paper, and several decades' accumulation of unidentifiable odds and ends, and popped the lock on the cabinet doors with a hard jerk. The sphere rested on an upper shelf, crowded in with old yellowed notebooks and folios. It was a small, croquet ball–size device formed of copper-colored metal strips, filled with tiny wheels and gears. She lifted it off the shelf, her fingers going a little numb with the mild shock of the power shivering through the metal. She breathed on it and the sphere warmed to her touch.
She gathered it against her chest as she shut the cabinet door. "No magical locks? No secret devices?" Gerard said a little sadly as he stepped up behind her. "The Valiardes have come down in the world."
"No, really?" Gerard had been a trusted crony of her father, so he was entitled to the observation, but Tremaine still felt more than a twinge. "Just stab me in the gut while you're at it, why don't you?" she muttered.
"Sorry." He actually sounded sorry as he accepted the sphere from her. He added wistfully, "I was rather fond of the secret magical locks."
"So was I." Tremaine looked into the sphere, watching the blue and gold lights chase each other along the metal pathways. Alchemy and natural philosophy were powerfully mated in the design; she hadn't a clue how it did what it did. This particular sphere had never been part of the Institute's studies. Uncle Ari had given it to her when she was a little girl, the day her pet cat had died of old age. He had said it would be cruel to prolong the cat's life but that this could be her friend too. It won't catch mice but it can purr, he had told her. Uncle Ari hadn't always been playing with a full deck of cards, but he had been very sweet. He had been the first sorcerer to begin the Viller Institute's great project and one of the first to die of it. She said, "Give it a minute to warm up."
Gerard watched her gravely. "I handled this one when Arisilde first charged it, but that was years ago. Is it easy to work with?"
She shrugged. "I never had any trouble with it. But then I never used it for spells. Not real ones." You didn't have to be a sorcerer to make the sphere work, but you did need to have some latent magical talent. Tremaine's great-grandmother had been a powerful witch, and all her mother's family had had talent to one extent or another, though her mother had been an actress rather than a sorceress. As a child, Tremaine had had enough magic to make the sphere find lost toys and produce small illusions and colored light shows, but even that ability had faded with lack of practice. She supposed she would never see the device again. "Any progress?" she asked, not expecting an optimistic answer. "Besides Riardin blowing himself up. Not that that was progress but -- "
Gerard knew her too well to take offense. "I think we're close. The experiment Riardin was conducting -- He was approaching the spell from an entirely new angle." He shook his head, pulling his spectacles off to rub his eyes. "We're very close to deciphering Arisilde's architecture."
"So you'll know exactly what killed Uncle Ari and my father." Tremaine turned the sphere, watching the sparks travel deeper into its depths. It was active tonight, more so than she had ever seen it before. Perhaps because she hadn't had it out since last year. Last year? Maybe it's been longer than that.
"They wanted to save us from this, Tremaine," Gerard said quietly. He gestured at the blackout curtains tightly covering the library's narrow windows. "From this war."
"I know." Nicholas Valiarde and Arisilde Damal had been the first to discover the early traces of the Gardier, that faceless enemy that appeared out of nowhere, that attacked without reason with power that destroyed conventional weapons and magic alike. That had been years before the devastating attack on the city of Lodun, before the small country of Adera had been overrun and forced to serve as a Gardier staging area for attacks on Ile-Rien.
Tremaine didn't blame Nicholas and Arisilde for what had happened afterward. It had been an accident, a series of miscalculations on the part of two men who had been treading a fine line between life and death all their lives. With a sigh, Tremaine held the sphere out to Gerard. "Uncle Ari never wanted to make weapons."
He took the sphere from her, handling it carefully. "It may sound overdramatic, but this could be the salvation of -- " He stared into the sphere with consternation. "It's gone dead."
"No." Frowning, she took it back. She shook it a little, making Gerard wince, but then he was used to the more delicate and temperamental instruments constructed by Riardin and the others who were trying to duplicate Arisilde's work. "It's fine." She held it out, showing him the lights moving deep within the device.
Gerard took the sphere again and Tremaine leaned over it, frowning as the life faded out of it. She shook her head in annoyance, taking it back from him. "It worked for you before, didn't it?"
She shook the sphere again and he hurriedly stopped her. He said, "Perhaps . . . I haven't worked with it in more than ten years." He blinked, struck by the enormity of the possible disaster. "If that's the case . . . We have no working spheres to continue the experiment."
"You mean it's forgotten you?" Brows drawn together, Tremaine held it out to him again. "Try to use it while I'm holding it. Something simple."
Gerard rested his fingers lightly on the sphere, frowning in concentration. For a moment Tremaine thought nothing would happen. Then a swirl of illusory light drifted across the fine old carpet near the hearth, sparkling like fayre dust, making both the fire in the grate and the electric bulb in the lamp dim and shiver.
Gerard let out his breath and released the sphere. The light vanished. "It still knows me but it apparently wants contact with you also." He met her eyes, his face serious. "Tremaine, I hate to ask you this, but . . . it's vital for the continuation of the experiment. We're so close to success -- "
Tremaine looked around at the library, gesturing vaguely. She couldn't afford to get involved in anything right now. "I'm sort of in the middle of something -- "
" -- I know it's dangerous, but if you could -- "
Dangerous. Tremaine stared at him. That's perfect. She nodded. "Give me a few minutes to get dressed."
by Martha Wells
Excerpted from The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells .
Copyright © 2003 by Martha Wells . 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.