Chapter Fifteen

Up the Hill to Darmo House

"Are we there yet?" asked Velma. She sounded more irked than weary. "These boots were made for riding, not hiking."

"Not too much farther," Cadmus replied, sympathizing since he wore similar footgear. They worked much better on horseback than tramping over cobbled streets. Mostly cobbled streets. Their hasty jaunt toward Darmo House required detours into malodorous areas that made squelching sounds he did not care for at all. Normally he would have a lantern in hand to keep clear of them, but these were not normal times.

"You hear that?" she whispered.

Cadmus instantly froze in mid-step. He was taking to this sneaking around business rather well. They listened a moment. He picked up the commotion of several people trying to be quiet and not succeeding. "Next street over, I think," he murmured.

"Hoof it," she said. "Better to be a moving target."

He wholly concurred; they pressed forward with some speed.

Debreban had been the first to notice they were no longer the only people abroad after the curfew, spying in the distance marching men in black-and-silver cloaks. Concluding that Botello had discovered Cadmus's escape and sent forth the ducal guard to pursue and recapture, they were forced to take a more circuitous route to their goal. Debreban volunteered to lay a false trail and had cut away toward Burkus House, promising to catch up with them when he could.

Unfortunately, there were more than enough of the guard to cover the myriad byways of Rumpock. They were very efficient, too, and had obviously been informed of their quarry's potential destinations. When Cadmus and Velma reached the front gates of Darmo House, a group of men in black-and-silver livery were already there.

"If I had one of their helmets I might be able to bluff past them in this cloak," Cadmus mourned.

"Let's find another overhanging tree," Velma suggested. So they made a complete rounding of the estate, ducking onto narrow paths and behind hedges when necessary. No convenient foliage of a suitable height presented itself on their side of the tall boundary walls, though.

"That little gate has possibilities," Cadmus said, pointing. It served the stable yard and adjoining gardens. On informal visits to Botello, Cadmus had occasionally found it a useful entry.

"Except for those two left on watch."

True. A couple of exceptionally large specimens of ducal power paced alertly before the white-painted wrought iron gap in the wall. Cadmus, armed with Captain Rockbush's sword, had no doubt he could outfight them, but wasn't too terribly keen about killing the fellows. Not their fault they were following orders from the wrong overduke. A distraction was needed to remove them.

"I say," he said into Velma's ear. "I may have a cunning plan. . . ."

It was very gratifying when she readily agreed to his idea. They mapped out a quick strategy and separated, Cadmus placing himself just out of sight close by the gate, ready to dart forward when the time came.

Shortly afterward the two guards came even more alert, their attention drawn to a deeply shadowed patch of trees some yards away. On the still air, Cadmus heard what they were hearing, the wholly joyful, breathy giggling of a woman as she noisily made her way through the copse.

"This spot's good," she said in a loud whisper. Then came a rustle of branch and brush, then stifled laughter.

"That's it, nice an' comfy, ain't it, love?"

More thrashing. More giggles. Then deepening sighs.

"Gawds, you've done this before, haven't you?"

Cadmus had to remember to focus on the two guards. They nudged each other, grinning.

"Oh! Ahh!" went Velma. She sounded entirely convincing as she set up a strong rhythm that threatened to break branches. "Gawds, yes! Do me! Do me!"

The guards shifted restlessly, edging from their post, craning their necks in a futile effort to see the source of the excitement.

"Come on, big boy! Yeah! Yeah! That's good! Oh, gawd, ohhh, gawwwds . . . !" she caroled.

Velma's cries of pleasure gradually worked up to what promised to be a monumental peak.

Curiosity and lust finally overcame duty. The men bolted toward her. Cadmus bolted as well, reaching the gate. He tossed his sword through, then used the crosspieces like a ladder, going up and over, nimbly avoiding the spear-shaped points of the vertical bars. Once inside he felt along the wall for the long metal rod and catch mechanism that operated the interior lock. Releasing the catch, he gently swung the gate open, peering through the dark for Velma or the guards, whoever appeared first. He had the sword in hand again, just in case.

Happily, it was Velma. She emerged from the trees a short distance from where the men had gone in. Cadmus half-expected her to be in an advanced state of undress, but she was yet securely clad in her riding costume. She hurried across the way, dodged past him, and paused for breath as he quietly closed them in. He caught her hand, and they tiptoed fast over the grounds toward the house. No alarums erupted behind them.

"I say," he whispered. "That was brilliantly done!"

She huffed out a thank you. "Had to work from memory. I'm much better with a partner helping."

"Yrrgh!" He tripped, falling flat on his face. "Sorry. Foot caught on some ivy or something." They were on uncluttered open lawn. She did not point that out, for which he was profoundly grateful as he picked himself up. He was about to add a self-deprecating, but amusing remark concerning his odd lapse into clumsiness, but an authoritarian voice cut him off.

"Hold it right there! Move and you're dead!"

* * *

The Street Outside Cadmus House

Debreban was pleased with himself. Perhaps he wasn't all that good at following people, but he was exceptional at getting them to follow him.

He'd caught the attention of a whole pack of the overduke's guard, at least twenty, and was leading them a merry hide-and-seek chase through the immediate area around his master's estate. The fact that he did not plan to effect an entry there had not yet dawned on them. Many of their number were now posted at regular intervals outside the wall. As for the rest, all he had to do was make them think he was trying to get inside.

This made for a satisfying hue and cry, drawing more and more guards into the area, which meant fewer men would be available to hunt Lord Cadmus and Miss Velma.

Creeping silently up the exterior stairs of a neighboring building, Debreban crouched in the shadows, holding his sword close to keep it from rattling. Black-and-silver capes fluttered about below like a swarm of agitated moths. They'd grown very noisy and, with windows open to take advantage of the cool night air, people were waking to the disturbance. Lights showed and doors creaked and, despite the curfew, annoyed and curious citizens clad in sleep clothes began to trickle into the streets. The guards now had to talk them all back inside again. It was too funny. Debreban couldn't wait to tell Shankey what he'd missed.

Then a door behind him opened. He nearly tumbled backwards into the sudden space. An old lady with a rolling pin in one hand stood over him. " 'Ere! 'O'er you?"

"City watch," Debreban promptly whispered. He grinned ingenuously up at her. "There's a thief loose we're trying to catch. Lock yourself in, quick!"

"Wotch? My eye! Yer that feller what marches aroun' fer 'is lordship over there. I seen yer ever day, don't I?"

"Madam - "

"Wotcher fink yer doin' sneakin' up my steps an' callin' me maderm? I ain't one ar' them fancy ladies wot 'is lordship ennertains, so be orf wif ya, 'fore I calls the real Wotch!" Her voice got inconveniently loud.

"Who's up there?" Someone from the street was taking an interest.

"An' 'onest woman tryin' ter ged 'er rest, that's 'oo! You lot be orf an' leave lawful folk in peace. An' take this 'un wif yer!" She poked Debreban in the ribs with her rolling pin.

"There he is!" the someone crowed.

Debreban wasted no time making a quick exit, which required that he clamber to the top of the stair's framing, which led to the roof. He'd planned to go there anyway, just not be seen while he was about it. Too late now, dammit, thanks to Mother Muddle-up. Usually he got along fine with old ladies; why did this one have to be immune to his nice blond hair and charming smile?

He left her well behind - she shouted after him using language not befitting her dignity - and shot across the slanted roof, dodging chimney stacks and trying not to slip. His leather boots, so practical for the street, worked against him on slippery tiles, but he had good balance to compensate.

"Get him!" cried several men from the street.

He heard pursuit, but judged he had an excellent chance of a clean escape since he knew where he wanted to go and they didn't. And all he had to do to vanish was pick a dense shadow and hold very still within it. None were at hand, though, so he kept moving, using the chimneys for cover as he worked his way across the roofs. In this section of Rumpock the buildings were crowded close upon one another, but they didn't go on forever. He'd have to descend sooner or later.

"He's over this way!"

This from an unexpected quarter, the bell tower. The people there weren't Watch or guards, but some of the Talents keeping watch on the Hell-river. Why weren't they doing that instead of bothering him?

"He's heading south!"

"West, now. He's turned west!"

Bloody tattles. Time to leave the heights. He had a better chance in the street. But where? He was following the edge of a building a good thirty feet up. Over there . . . a narrowing alley between this one and the next. If he got a good run of speed, he could jump it. He hoped.

But people were already on the roofs with him, egged on by the bell tower babblers. He ran flat out as best he could over the uneven surface, then before he was quite ready the gap was under him and he was flying through space.

Too short!

He slammed hard on the perimeter wall of the next roof, arms grappling desperately for purchase on its raised lip, his legs dangling over an awful drop. Panic swelled in his chest for an instant, then he realized he wasn't falling just yet. His boots scraped bricks, found crevices, and he pushed for all he was worth. Not enough to put him over, but he gained a better hold. His scabbard banged against his ankles, threatening to complicate things until he kicked it clear. Panting and grunting, he hauled, pushed, pulled, and heaved. Somewhat dazed, he rolled onto a welcome horizontal surface.

That was close. He was still in one piece, not smashed on the cobbles like a rotten apple.

"Here! That ain't Lord Cadmus!" This from a man on the building he'd just leapt from. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"Watch!" Debreban shouted back, using a flat city accent. He kept down behind the lip to hide the distinctive colors of his cloak. "Free Armsman Vylow. Who are you?"

"Overduke's guard. Why are you running?"

"Thought you lot were some of them Hell-river demons."

"Hell-river demons? What are those?"

"You mean you ain't heard of them yet? It's all they're talking about, the Talents, that is. They seen 'em out in the night. There was a man tore to bits by the east wall, but they hushed it all up."

"Tore to bits?" This sparked some worried discussion with several cronies who had caught up.

"It's true, I saw with my own eyes. Thought it was butcher leavings. They told me to - "

"Arrh, he's lying his head off," put in a second man. "I ain't heard nothing about no demons."

"Well, of course not," Debreban said. "Them what's running things don't want it to get about. You ask any of the Talents on watch and they'll lie till they're blue, but I know what I saw."

"Then what are you doing up and about with demons all over an' a curfew on?"

"I reckon what business I had out was none of yours, 'cause it ain't polite for a man to talk about such things. I was on my way home when you lot started chasing me for no reason, and I'll be pleased to be on my way again if you'll allow it."

"We should take you in for wasting our time!"

A change in subject was in order. "Who are you after? Lord Cadmus you said?"

"That's right."

"Why didn't you say so? I passed him down by the river. Can't miss him in those dandy clothes."

"What part?"

"The docks. Seemed to want a boat but didn't know how to find an oarsman. Silly toffs don't know nothing."

"The docks. Hop it, boys!"

"What about him?" The first man pointed across the alley.

Debreban held his breath.

"Sod him. Shift yourselves!"

There was a general rout and Debreban was abandoned to his own devices. Perfect. He was thirty feet up and on the wrong end of town, but in no immediate danger. Half the guard would be on a north-bound chase to futility. All he had to do now was head for Darmo House and hope his lordship and the lady were having even better luck.

Debreban found a lower roof to drop to, then a lower one, until he felt confident of landing on the ground without breaking anything. This he managed; the jolt wasn't too bad. He straightened and dusted off, then set out once more, boldly striding forward like a man with a mission, which was somewhat true.

"Halt, there!"

Bloody hell. More of the overduke's minions. Hadn't they heard the news? A few carried dark lanterns and opened the metal shutters, bathing Debreban in watery yellow light.

"He's at the docks," he said to the figures closing on him. "Just got the report. Lord Cadmus is trying to hire a boat to escape by river."

"Then he will be caught. You are to halt, though." This came from a big man on horseback who seemed to be in charge. The backwash of the lanterns picked out the silver trim on his clothes, then the glint of his close-cropped pale hair. Debreban froze in his boots as the man's basilisk gaze fell on him.

"Overduke Anton?" he whispered. What was he doing out hunting with his men? But they weren't his men. If that face in the mirror was right, then this was Darmo Botello, wearing the overduke's body like a cloak. Debreban stared, trying to see any sign of the impostor beneath the shell.

"What an observant fellow you are. A bit more brainy than your master, though it wouldn't take much."

"M-my master?"

"Those are Burkus colors. You are going to tell me where Cadmus has taken himself."

"His lordship's at the docks."

"Where you would be were that so. He's gotten you to lead us away from him. Don't mistake me for the idiot he is. Where is he really headed? Darmo House? Does he think that bitch will be able to protect him from me?"

Debreban gulped. It was true. The man's manner of speaking, the way he pronounced "idiot," were identical to the name-calling from their first encounter on the carriage drive when he'd been in possession of Lord Cadmus's body. Didn't any of these others know the difference? Apparently not. Why should they? And it wasn't something Debreban could just blurt out. Not only would he be ignored as a lunatic, but Botello would shut him away in a dungeon cell. Or kill him.

Stiffly, as if unused to riding, Botello dismounted from the horse. It was a gentler animal than the sleek and restive Whitestone, and much less discerning; wouldn't know the real overduke from a tree. Rather like the guards. Debreban had never been comfortable about the overduke, so much power in one man who knew magic and had strange visions, but for all that he was known as a friendly sort. This impostor was a definite threat. To everyone.

Botello approached Debreban, squinting. The others took a pace closer, but were waved back. Debreban instinctively knew something more was up than a simple interrogation. Botello smiled as though he fully expected to get answers to his questions and would enjoy the process.

I won't talk, and he must know it. But what if he has some magical means to force me? Debreban felt in his bones the absolute certainty of that suspicion. He possessed no Talent himself, but held a deep, wary respect for those who did. Suddenly heavy on his hip, he felt the weight of the cold iron sword. But if I kill Botello, I'll kill the overduke, and even if he's not really Lord Anton, I'll be killed for raising a weapon against him. Times were peaceful, but treason was yet a capital crime.

The false overduke lifted his hand high toward Debreban, fingers spread wide. That couldn't be good. Debreban took his cue from the puzzled glances of the men around them. Apparently this wasn't typical custody procedure. He did not feel bound to discover what came next. Quick as thought he drew his sword, holding it in a defense position.

"This is made of cold iron, wizard. Do you want to risk it?" he asked.

Botello flinched back, his eyes wide. "You dare?"

"I have to."

Bafflement turned to malignant fury. "You know the penalty for treason?" he hissed.

"I think we both do. Sir." Mutual understanding flashed between them like lightning.

"Take him!" Botello ordered.

But before the men could act, Debreban swung the tip of his blade level with Botello's throat. "I'll split him! I mean it! Stand clear!"

They held their distance. Barely.

"Over there," he said, jerking his head to his right. "All of you face that wall and put your hands on it. Now!"

None of them wanted to cooperate. Debreban glared at Botello and applied enough pressure to dent his skin.

"Do what he says!" Botello snapped, then murmured, "I'll see you're gutted for this. You'll be days dying."

Debreban paid him no mind, urging the men to obey his instructions. When they were lined up with their hands in plain sight, he forced Botello backwards a few steps. "Your turn, the wall."

Botello seemed eager to remove himself from the range of the blade. While he was busy emulating the guards, Debreban seized the horse's dangling reins, jumped, and got a leg over its back. The quick move startled the animal, but Debreban clung tight. No time to find the stirrups; he dug in smartly with both heels, and they launched forward like the favorite at a racing meet.

Hands grabbed at him, but he beat them off, yelling his ride into a full-blown and dangerous gallop. He had to trust the horse knew how to run on cobblestones.

Behind him he heard a man's high shriek of rage. It was the overduke's voice, but such an unearthly sound could never before have passed his lips. Then a terrific flash of blue-white light bathed the alley. Debreban felt a scorching on his back and knew it meant death. He brought the flat of his sword down on the horse's rump, getting a burst of speed that nearly unseated him. The light grew stronger, the heat more intense; a loud roaring filled his ears like a rush of water at a cataract.

Heat, appalling heat. His cloak was on fire. He clawed at the knot under his chin. It tore loose, and the heavy fabric went flying off in his wake. Thank gawds for that, but he nearly lost the reins and his seat. He leaned low over the horse's neck, and kicked again.

Another gust of flaming white death swelled behind him, ironically lighting his way to the opening of the alley. It served a minor street, the opposite side blocked by a building. In scant yards he'd have to bring the horse sharp around without sending them spilling, but it was that or be roasted.

They burst from the alley, and he hauled on the reins, leaning into the turn. The horse's hooves skidded on the stones, but his legs kept moving. Probably panicked himself.

From the corner of his eye Debreban glimpsed a bright shimmering ball hurtling from the alley. He and the horse barely cleared from its path. The ball continued straight, slamming into the side of the building. Tongues of red shot out from it, taking hold of the old wood.

"Fire!" someone cried. Others chorused in.

"Fire!" he bellowed as well. It was the common enemy of the city. Everyone would converge on that spot to put it out, hindering pursuit. "Fire!" he called again and again. He continued long after leaving the immediate area. The more confusion, the better for his escape. Debreban felt fierce satisfaction knowing that Botello had brought the delay onto himself.

He would not be put off for long, though, and he already suspected Lord Cadmus would go to Darmo House.

Debreban had to get there, first and fast, to warn them.

"Fire!" he shouted to the night.

* * *

Darmo House

Amid the luxury confines of his suite, Terrin sat on the floor rooting around in his backpack, muttering crudities that would make a Marine blush. I paid no mind to him, being used to it and having other things to think about: such as nervously wondering what Hell would be like.

His reply, when I put the question to him, was less than satisfactory:

"About what you'd expect."

"But I don't have any expectations."

"Prolly better that way."

"What do you mean?"

Then he told me in no uncertain terms to chill out so he could work. Since my survival was likely dependent on whatever he was doing, I shut my mouth, paced aimlessly around his velvet-trimmed room, and chilled. And thought up other questions. And made myself not ask them. And chilled some more, which meant thinking up more questions. Hamsters stampeding to nowhere in their little wheels had nothing on me.

"Where's my frigging crystal ball?" Terrin snarled. "You can't go until I find it."

I perked my ears. "Oh, yeah?" I couldn't keep sudden cheeriness from my tone. "Why not?"

"I need it to watch you while you're there."

"Use Filima's scrying mirror."

"Can't. One of those Otherside critters might sleaze its way through."

"You can handle a demon."

"Yeah, but I don't need distractions that could break your astral thread. If that got snapped you'd be stuck."

"I'll help you look."

"Never mind. I remember where I left it." He looked disgusted.

"At the inn?"

"Naw, a circle of standing stones a couple worlds back. I was using it to scope out ley lines, see if they could lead me to an astral map home. Then some local deity showed up and it got ugly."

"You never told me that."

He shrugged. "Magic stuff bores you."

"What deity, what'd it look like?"

"Never got the name, but she was pretty pissed at me being on her turf, doubly pissed that I wasn't a virgin. We got into a slugging match."

"You hit a girl?" I didn't care for that.

"A deity who would have made Schwartzenegger look like Woody Allen with pneumonia. Metaphysically speaking, yeah. But she hit first. It all happened while I was in a trance, so there was nothing going on you'd have noticed. When I woke out of it my crystal ball was shattered. What a bitch."

"And you forgot all that?"

"Pretty much. Happens all the time. Go see if her ladyness has a spare. Real crystal. I don't want one of those glass rip-off jobs. I need a black candle, too."

"I still have that one in my pack."

"I'll get it. Meet you in the blue room that's got the tent."

Glad for something to do, I went downstairs, arriving in time for a patch of activity in the big reception foyer. The place was dark. The only lights burning in the house were still in the kitchen and a couple candles Terrin had taken with him. Not that I needed help seeing once my pupils were fully dilated.

Shankey walked in, just putting his sword in its scabbard. He fumbled at a table with a tinderbox, and I considered introducing the concept of strike matches to this world. They'd put up a statue to me for the idea alone.

He got a single flame going pretty fast though, which brought out the colors for me. He had company. With him was a total babe wearing something like a riding outfit and a guy resembling one of those overdone soap opera heroes: all shoulders, muscles, and chin. I paid more attention to the amazingly curvaceous babe where every part was a moving part, the whole of it beautifully synchronized. Wow. What a looker. She was sort of like Filima, but in vanilla instead of cinnamon. I loved the choice of flavors on this world.

The three of them, once the candle was burning, began talking at once. I skimmed bits and pieces off the top. Shankey had apparently found them lurking around outside; they were busy explaining the why behind their lurking and were pretty wound up about some major trouble that was on its way.

Filima walked in from another quarter and called out to the babe. "Velma! What's the matter?" She hurried toward them.

The soap opera guy said "Lady Filima" and executed a deep bow of greeting, but she just gave him a quick nod and passed him by. He seemed to want to say more, but zipped up.

Velma was bursting with six kinds of news, but rattling too fast for me to make much sense of it. Filima had the same problem.

"You're saying that Botello has taken over Anton?" she asked. "But Botello's dead."

"Just bodily displaced," said the guy helpfully. "He's been in Hell these past two weeks and when the chance came for him to possess someone he took it. Now he's out and about on this side of Reality."

"Botello's here?" She went green. Knowing what I now knew about how her marriage ended, I couldn't blame her reaction. "Alive?"

"He's using Anton's body. Everyone thinks he's Anton," Velma clarified.

Filima swayed. Not that she was anywhere close to keeling over, just a touch off balance. Soap-guy moved in, though, and swept her up in his arms.

"Cadmus, what are you doing?" she demanded. "Put me down."

He did so, but on a comfy settee. "I'm sorry. It's all my fault."

"What is?"

"He's sort of been helping Botello, honey," said Velma. "It's kinda complicated."

"Helping him?" Filima shrieked. She fought clear of his grasp. He fell away a few steps and hung his head low. If the word contrite hadn't already been invented he'd have inspired it just then.

"But he's trying to make up for it. Scream at him later; we gotta get Anton out of Hell and heard you have a wizard rooming on the premises."

"There he is!" said Cadmus, pointing at yours truly.

"Hah?" I said. "Not that again. Someone wanna bring them up to speed?"

"He's the one Botello wanted me to find," said Cadmus the soap king.

"You've talked to Botello?" Filima wanted to know.

"He kept coming through my scrying mirror. Always in a nasty humor. Told me to find a cat-faced man, that he was a wizard of great power."

I repeated the "hah?" and went the rest of the way down to join them. "This guy in Hell knows me?" That did not sound good.

Velma went "Oh!" She stared a second, then I got the kind of melting look I love to see on women. She came closer and touched my face. I flared my lip whiskers invitingly. "Oh! He's real! Lord Perdle was going on to everyone that it was a mask."

"Just lil ol' me, lady." I wondered how she was at belly rubs. She looked like my sort of gal, beautiful, friendly, and extremely fond of cats.

"You're so soooffft. . . ." she cooed.

Well, parts of me were. She ran her hand up over my ears, making them twitch, which was great. Much more and I'd be purring like a fine-tuned Mercedes.

"Velma," said Filima. "This is Myhr, but he's not a wizard. His friend Terrin is, and he's upstairs."

"Does he look like you?" Velma wanted to know.

"Not a bit. I'm much more handsome."

"Then you're his familiar?"

My whiskers drooped a bit. Not the first time I'd heard that one. "We just hang together."

"He isn't a wizard?" said Cadmus. "But Botello told me - "

"He was wrong then, wasn't he?" Filima's voice was full of mood-destroying venom. "What else was Botello doing?"

Cadmus dropped his gaze. "He had me helping a bit with his magical experiments, but I swear I didn't know he'd be up to this sort of harm, the Hell-river, that is."

Velma reluctantly tore herself away from me. Darn. "Yeah, lissen to the guy. He's on our side for this."

"When you hear what we've been through . . ."

Then they were all talking again except for Shankey. I went over to stand next to him and watch. Things got pretty intense for awhile until they sorted themselves out. It boiled down to Cadmus and Velma wanting help to do a seance so the dispossessed Overduke Anton could himself tell them how to get him out of Hell. Sounded kind of nuts to me, but maybe it would save me a trip to the Otherside. To avoid that I'd gladly hold hands around a table and wait for someone to start cracking their toe joints.

"We've not much time," said Cadmus. "Botello has people out trying to find me. He could come through the gates at any minute. He won't be stopped by clan protocols."

Then we all gave a big jump when someone banged on the front doors.

Shankey drew his sword, went to a side window, and peeked through. He relaxed a bit and unlocked things. Debreban, breathless, sweating, and a bit singed, staggered in and spotted Cadmus.

"My lord, he's on his way here!" he announced.

No one asked who "he" was. "How long have we got?" Cadmus asked.

"I last saw him in the bell tower area. I took his horse and escaped, but he'll likely find another. He'll be here soon!"

"How did you get past the gate guards?" Shankey wanted to know as he re-locked the doors.

"I didn't." Debreban abruptly grinned. "Stood on the horse's back and hoisted over the wall. No one saw me."

"They'll spot that horse if they haven't already. Did it have the ducal colors on the saddle or tack?"

Debreban spread his hands. "I was too busy trying to get out of the way. Lord Botello threw flames at me. Twice!"

Cadmus stepped in. "What? Flames? How?"

"I don't know, my lord, but it had to be some kind of magic."

"Of course it was, but he shouldn't be able to do that. The spontaneous generation of fire, much less projecting it . . . the magical power required is unimaginable!"

"Unless you have a big chunk of it stored away." This conclusion came from Terrin.

We all looked toward the shadow-bathed stairs. Nearly invisible in the dark, he was seated partway down, hands clasped loose between his knees, and had apparently been listening in for some time.

"That's Terrin," I said to the newcomers. "He's the wizard." And you're welcome to him, attitude and all.

They gave him a good look. Not what they expected.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Cadmus. "Stored away magic?"

"If this is the same asshole who's been screwing things around - "

"It is, and I must ask you to moderate your language. There are ladies present."

Terrin looked down his nose at him. "Bite me."

Cadmus took a step forward, eyes blazing. He began to draw his sword.

Filima put a quick, firm hand on his arm. "We need him. What he says is nothing I've not heard before and thought myself. Let him talk."

He looked surprised that she'd spoken to him and strangely grateful. Not as though he was glad to avoid a fight with Terrin, more like hearing her voice made things all right for his whole life. Oh, yeah, he had it bad for her, terminally baaad. Cadmus reluctantly subsided with a nod, but there was still tension in his frame. He'd want to bust holes in walls. That or kiss her.

Terrin cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "If it's Botello, and if he's on this side of Reality tossing magic around like that, then we have a change in plan to make."

I got hopeful. "So I don't have to go to Hell?"

"I didn't say that."

"What, then?"

"We just make sure he does what we want. Filima knows him best, she can help us figure out something."

"And just what is it we want?" she prompted.

"To delay him without getting everyone killed. If he's throwing fire around it might be a little tricky."

"He's after me," said Cadmus. "Except for Debreban, I'm the only other person he knows is aware of his possession of Lord Anton."

"And me," put in Velma.

"He can't know you've found out about him."

"Assume the worst, that he has. Go on."

"Well, if we make it look like I've not yet reached Darmo House he won't have any reason to come here. I'll leave and see to it he's led elsewhere."

Debreban shook his head. "My lord, protecting the Burkus clan is my duty. We need to hide you and the lady here while I lead him away. Lend me your clothes and sword and - "

"Blast you, you will not. I'm the one with a debt to pay - "

Filima got between them. "You're forgetting one thing: Botello is not an idiot. He'll search this place no matter how many fake trails you leave on the outside. He will come in regardless . . . because of me."

"I won't allow it," Cadmus stated, looking all manful.

"Yoo hoo?" said Terrin, waving. "He's a pissed-off jerk who can throw fire and who knows what else. Do you really want to get in the middle of a domestic disturbance with him? I don't think so. Filima, lemme ask you this: Botello's in Anton's bod, only you pretend you don't know it. He's gonna knock on your gate in the middle of the night. What would you normally do?"

"Let him in of course. He's the overduke, after all."

"That's right. Once in, what do you think he will do when he sees you? Especially if he thinks he's got you off-guard?"

Her eyes narrowed, her lips thinning to a smile. "I understand."

Cadmus went red in the face. "Filima, I absolutely forbid you go anywhere near him!"

"I handled him before, I can do it again," she said. "You don't know what's at stake."

"Lady . . ." Debreban spoke up. "Begging pardon, but from what I saw he's not in his right mind. He won't react the way he used to."

"Then I'll just have to be careful. I know he's changed, and certainly for the worst, he's been in Hell for two weeks for gawd's sake."

I sincerely hoped she wouldn't say "poor Botello" again. "Couldn't we just hide behind the door, lure him in, then knock him out?"

Terrin showed teeth. "I was wondering when someone would come to the next part of my master plan."

My ass, I thought. He was just getting us do his thinking for him.

"That won't take care of the guards he'll have along."

"Debreban and I can see to them," said Shankey.

"But it's treason to raise a weapon to the ducal guard," said Filima.

"No weapons will be necessary, my lady. Not as long as we have kegs of beer handy and a store of sleepers in the apothecaria."

I took that to mean they stocked some kind of Mickey Finns in the house. "Aren't there rules against drinking on duty?"

He shot me a funny look. "Huh?"

"Never mind, after tonight there will be."

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