Outside Darmo House

Whatever Terrin had done about shielding himself worked, but he got very white during the trip. Even his freckles went pale. Shankey and I rode on either side of him in case he fell off. Terrin didn't say a word the whole time, very unusual for him, but his horse-riding skills were intact. He'd worked on a ranch as a kid, which came in handy with all these low-tech worlds between us and home. I was pretty good myself, and since I couldn't remember taking riding lessons, maybe it was an instinct thing.

Once clear of the more crowded streets we made good time to Filima's, opting to go to the front gate of the main house rather than use the stable tunnel. Shankey was unsure if the house protections extended that far. Of course we were seen by all those overduke guys in the black-and-silver cloaks who were still hanging around. They could hardly miss us, especially me.

"Hey! Shankey! How'd you get out?" one of them called.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Shankey called back.

"Come on, we been waiting here all day for that guy. The overduke wants to see him. If we don't show up, Lord Perdle will throw a fit."

Shankey muttered something about Lord Perdle throwing like a girl, even fits. Then, louder, "Sorry, we got an emergency. I'll tell Lady Filima."

We pushed past. None made to stop or follow us, though I got the usual curious looks. Maybe there was some kind of protocol rule at work; I didn't care so long as we kept moving.

Terrin's balance lasted until we reined up at the front door, then he began to sway.

"Ulps," said Shankey. He threw a leg over his horse's neck and slipped off to grab Terrin before he fell. I did the same and between us we kept him from hitting anything hard. He seemed strangely heavy as we hauled him up the steps and inside.

There was a long, padded bench in the entry hall, and that's where we eased him down. His eyes were shut, and he'd gone all limp.

"Oh, jeez," I said, not sure what to do. I tried his pulse, which was fast and strong, maybe too strong. A couple of veins in his forehead were throbbing big time.

Shankey bawled orders to the pages who had opened and shut the doors, and in a minute the hall teemed with more servants. It wasn't as crazy as when Filima fainted, but still a good crowd. They had cold cloths to put on Terrin's face, and a cute girl chafed his wrists. There was talk of fetching a local healer. What I wanted was a fully loaded Star Trek-style sickbay with a smug and smiling hologram doctor asking me to please state the nature of the magical emergency.

Instead, I got that matron-looking lady again. With a phlegmatic expression, she passed the ammonia-smelling vial under Terrin's nose.

"Argh! Agh! Foo!" he said, waving her off as he struggled awake. She nimbly avoided his thrashing arms and left, smiling grim triumph. I wondered if that was her only job.

"You okay?" I asked Terrin.

"Urgh!" he replied, dragging a cold compress from his forehead. He shook the wet cloth open and blew his nose in it. "Day-um, what is that stinky stuff? And why are you always shoving it in my face? What'd I ever do to you?"

"The day isn't long enough to answer. How are you?"

He paused wiping his nose to take stock. "I ain't dead, so that's something. You guys were right about the protections here. I don't feel anything sucking at me."

The kneeling servant girl who had chafed his wrists snickered. He threw her a big, showy grin.

"Later," I told him. All he ever needed with most women was to smile at them, but he probably wasn't in shape for anything strenuous. "You think you'll be safe here, then?"

"For the time being."

"What about tonight? That's when the river appears. Will you be safe?"

"If it's not come inside this house yet, then I should be fine. Stop fussing."

"I'm not fussing."

"You are so. I know fussing when I see it, and that's what you're doing, so stop it."

I looked at Shankey. "You got anything to eat? He gets like this when he's hungry."

"I do not!"

"What's going on?" This from Filima who had just swept in. She was the sort of woman who could do that sort of thing, sweep into a room and make it look good, both the sweeping and the room.

"Day-um," said Terrin, looking her up and down. "What a babe."

That got both her eyebrows up. "Is this . . . ?"

I nodded. "Lady Filima Botello Darmo, this is Terrin the Whiz. Wizard, I mean. Wizard."

He scowled at me, knowing exactly what I meant.

"You are welcome to my house," she said politely. "Are you all right?"

Terrin continued to loll on the padded bench, taking in the view. Filima was well worth the time. "I could do with a drink. Got any Captain Morgan Private Stock? Cold?"

How that translated, I couldn't guess, but Filima was spared from answering when Terrin tried to stand. He was sitting up with his feet on the floor, but that was his limit. "Houston, we have a problem," he said.

"Just stay there," I told him. "Don't rush things."

"I couldn't rush if you put a rocket up my ass." He lay back down again.

"Can we get you anything?"

"I could have done with a couple of gems a little bit ago. Too late now."

"What do you mean by that?"

"No travel spell power."

Uh-oh. "How do you feel?"

"Terrible."

Filima moved in close and held her hand out over him, fingers spread. A warping of the air, like a heat shimmer fluttered between them and Terrin's body. "You are weak."

"Magically weak?" I asked.

"On the nose, fur-face," said Terrin. He shut his eyes. "Feels like a migraine, but all over."

"What do you want us to do? How do we help?"

"A travel spell off this ren-fair reject world would be handy."

I looked at Filima. "You know anything about travel spells? The kind that bounces you from one world to another?" Her blank reaction was not unexpected, but, hey, I had to ask. "Okay. Option one is officially tossed. Let's try option two. How about getting my partner out of the hall? You got any magically shielded rooms, something like a vault where he can be safe?" I gave her the short version of Terrin's power drain crisis.

"There's my scrying area," she said. "But he probably shouldn't be there, not after what happened with the mirror."

Shankey put himself forward. "My lady, what about the late master's chamber in the tunnel?"

"Chamber?" She had the innocent tone nailed, but her eyes flickered. "What chamber?"

"Cut the act," I said. "We found where your hubby used to play hardball magic."

She cut the act, swapping the innocent tone for rising alarm. "You were in Botello's Black Room? How did you even find it?"

"He left the burglar alarms on." I looked at Shankey. "I told you she'd know about it. Wives always know what their husbands are up to." Which was probably why, among ten thousand other reasons, I'd never gotten married.

"You - ?" But she bit it off, going as white as Terrin.

"Was our being there a problem?" Boy, did she look like she had a tale to tell, but I didn't think she'd spill it here. Maybe Terrin could work on her. I'd be along to chaperon, of course. Couldn't let him have all the fun.

"N-no. Not at all, as long as you weren't hurt by anything."

"What d'ya mean?"

She recovered some lost poise. "Many who use their Talent tend to be secretive. They try to protect their works. It's like a cook with a favorite recipe, a practical necessity. Black Rooms can be dangerous unless you know what you're doing. Touch the wrong thing and . . ."

"Boom? Okay, no sweat. Nothing jumped out at us. Shankey, that's a brilliant suggestion, but the place smells pretty bad, and it's a long way to carry him."

"But wouldn't it be extra well shielded?" He appealed to Filima, really liking the idea.

"I don't know," she said with such absolute sincerity that I knew better than to trust it. "Botello had talent, but might not have been skilled enough to manage such precautions. Mr. Terrin will be more comfortable in one of the guest rooms, I think."

That said, she got four sturdy guys to lift Terrin, bench and all, and carry him upstairs like it was the last act for Hamlet. A short hike from her blue room was a fancy suite that would have done any five-star hotel proud. It even had indoor plumbing. I'd have been jealous, but one of her people led me to the next room over. It also had a bath. I could have a bath. In a gigantic tubby-tub. Oh joy, oh, rapture, oh, gawd, there was room for two, maybe three in that thing. I wondered what plans Filima had for the evening.

I broke off drooling at the prospect, dumped my pack, then returned to Terrin's room. They'd shifted him from the bench to a big red-velvet bed. The cute girl was trying to get his purple high-tops unlaced while Filima and Shankey had their heads together.

"Go tell them not tonight, Captain," she said, looking at me.

"Hah?" I asked, my ears perking forward.

"The overduke's invitation," she explained. "His men have been waiting for you for some time."

"Oh." I was too distracted to put on a show, anyway. "Maybe later."

"He also sent a message for all those with Talent left in the city to come to the palace early tomorrow morning. I got my summons just before you arrived. He's going to want a solution to this Hell-river problem; you'll have to be there to help."

Drat. Confession time, but I didn't think she'd toss us out just yet. "I can provide the entertainment. Terrin's the real wizard. The only wizard."

Her brows drew together. A frown. It was still adorable. "But I thought you - "

"I'm a patterman, remember?" Or cat, as the case happened to be.

"You've no skill in magic at all?"

"In a word, no."

"You misled me?" Her voice went up.

Shankey rounded on me to frown on behalf of his lady. In contrast, he didn't look at all adorable.

"You gave me to understand you could help!" she continued, voice still on the rise.

"And you'll get my best shot, just not in the magic department. Terrin's the wizard," I said, pointing at him. He waggled his fingers at her to show he was still alive. "A real good one."

"And in rather poor condition," she observed. "How can he help us put the Hell-river back? He can't even stand up."

"He'll get better, he always does." I hoped he'd get better. The grin he had for the servant girl working on his sneakers didn't have the usual evil spark that he could put into things. He was in bad shape.

"Why did you - ? How could you - ?" Filima was going kind of purple. Stress can do that to a person.

"Look, I got dragged away against my will, hauled up here to get the third degree with you making all kinds of assumptions about who I am and what I can do. You practically insisted that I be a wizard. It seemed like good healthy survival sense to just go with the flow. What would you have done in my place?"

That brought her up short, but she wasn't going to turn apologetic just yet. She made a growling sound, shifting mental gears. "Captain Shankey, will you go see to the overduke's men? Tell them something suitably polite, then make sure the house is locked before sunset."

He gave a kind of salute, then went off, but seemed to be grinding his teeth. Whether it was from my misdirecting the boss lady or because his fly-on-the-wall routine was ended, I couldn't tell.

Filima shooed people away to various errands and eventually had me and Terrin all to herself. I could have done without Terrin just then, but she didn't have amusement activities in mind.

"Master Wizard," she said, going all formal.

Terrin's grin got wider. "Wassup?"

She started to speak, then paused. This seemed to be the first time she got a real good look at him. The mind-bending color combinations of his clothes were enough to shut anyone up, but his Hawaiian shirt was off, revealing the T-shirt beneath. Its silk-screened front showed a cartoon of demon lesbian babes with fluorescent orange skin cavorting in a cartoon hell. They had long forked tongues and tails, both appendages being used toward pleasurable pursuits on one another. It was one of his favorites.

Filima just sort of gulped and put on a brave face. She started to speak again, but couldn't quite get into the swing of it. Instead, she cleared her throat and muttered something about hurrying the food along. Then she got out, shutting the door firmly behind her. Couldn't blame her; she had a lot to think about.

Terrin fell into one of his snickery fits, but with less energy than usual. Since he was under the weather I wasn't as stern as I might otherwise have been. "She's got gems," I reminded him.

"I know that." Terrin lay back on the velvet pillows with a long sigh. "A dump like this has to have plenty floating around. When I'm feeling better we can check the sofas for loose diamonds."

"And I got her to agree to pay for any magic work done to get rid of that black foggy thing no one wants around."

"You're sure she'll pay in gems?"

"If you don't scare her off with your taste in clothing. That gorgeous dream that just stampeded out of here at warp eight is a bona fide lady." So what if she'd been an oochie-coochie dancer once upon a time and had probably seen a lot of life. Still a lady. A smart guy can tell.

"Okay. I'll change."

I could assume he meant his shirt, not his manners, but knew he'd behave himself. The prospect of getting paid in jewels would inspire him to new heights of decorum. Well, his version of it.

"Myhr, gimme the dope again about this problem, with details. When she recovers her sensibilities and comes back I'll need to know what I'm doing."

It was a familiar drill, brief him so he could give the illusion of knowing all and seeing all like the Great and Powerful Oz, impressive to less sophisticated types. Filima would be more difficult to astonish, especially since she dabbled in magic herself. Terrin's problem, not mine.

I recounted what I learned wandering around town, the lunch conversation with Filima, her fainting fit with the mirror, the nasty noise, smells, and signs of recent traffic in the escape tunnel, and the magical energy permeating the late Botello Darmo's Black Room.

"It's strong?" he wanted to know. "How strong?"

"Got all my back fur on end, which is quite a feat. Felt like I was walking under a power line."

"Good, I might be able to use that to recharge."

"Just how bad off are you?"

He shook his head. "Tell me more about her husband."

"You'll have to ask her, I'm scraped out. She won't wanna talk about him, either."

"Now, I wonder why that is?"

"Maybe she's still dealing with the grief thing. Apparently his death was pretty sudden, must have been a shock."

He grunted, visibly thinking, then glared at me. "Hey! What's the idea of carrying her out of danger?"

"Hah?"

"When that mirror thing tried to come through and she fainted."

"And I say again, 'hah?' "

"Me you dragged downstairs butt last. My ass still hurts. Her you carried out."

I shrugged. "It's a guy thing."

Filima's mobile buffet corps came in just then, sparing me from listening to more about my shortcomings in the hero department. I was still digesting that big lunch, so Terrin had most of the feast to himself. He was disinclined to leave the bed; I couldn't tell if it had to do with his weakness or if he just enjoyed being waited on so thoroughly. I helped myself to a plate of odds and ends and lots of cold mint tea. There was booze available, but I was more interested in losing my thirst than gaining a buzz. Terrin had half a glass of something that might have been related to rum and paced himself, making it last through his meal. Very out of character. I'd seen him drain whole bottles of the stuff in one chug.

He wasn't all that hungry, either. Whenever magic was involved he tended to gorge to keep up with its physical demands. So as not to be accused of fussing again - I never fuss, I just show concern and make helpful suggestions - I didn't ask why his appetite was down, but signed to the servers to keep the plates coming. He nibbled lightly, flirting with the girls. A trickle of his usual ruddy color returned, but he wasn't back to his version of healthy yet. I couldn't specifically identify what was nagging me about him, only that my back fur was saluting and on the march again. This world was giving it one heck of a workout.

I asked after Filima, but her people couldn't say if she planned to return anytime soon. Terrin seemed to be all right for the moment, so I went to my room to decompress. My clothes and the body that held them up were grubby from running through secret escape tunnels and being squashed down behind radish carts. My favorite shirt was starting to look like one of Terrin's Salvation Army discards. I hoped Shankey had been serious about someone doing my laundry.

The bathtub was beyond wonderful, once I figured out how to work the plumbing controls. Hot and cold running water equals paradise. It seemed like pretty sophisticated stuff for this world, about level with the late nineteenth century where I'd come from, which still put it ages ahead of Clem's Place. Luxuries like this were rare, so I went all out and filled it up, planning to soak myself into an advanced state of pruney-ness.

I was up to my neck in steaming hot water, even dozing a little when the door to my suite opened. A ceiling-high tapestry that ran all around the tub to protect bathers from drafts and peeping toms also prevented me from glowering at the intruder. With my yellow eyes I had glower down to a fine art. It was probably one of the servants with towels or something. I'm not overly modest, but everyone has a limit, and when I'm in the tub I want to be alone. Unless it was Filima. She would get my best welcoming smile.

What a fantasy: Filima in her oochie-coochie outfit wafting in to gently draw aside the tapestry to smile down at me. Then she'd do a spin or three around the tub, shedding bits of silk until there was nothing left to shed, ending her dance by diving in with me. We had room for all kinds of possibilities in this thing.

She sure had a heavy walk, though. How could her little dancing slippers make such a clumping? Unless she was in some kind of military storm trooper get-up. Hmm, jackboots and black leather . . . ohhh, baby . . .

The tapestry wasn't gently drawn so much as yanked back.

By Captain Shankey.

We both gave yelps of horrified surprise.

"Hey! A little privacy!" I snapped.

"Ee-yuh! Get a towel for gawd's sake!" He retreated, letting the tapestry fall into place. Then he started laughing.

"What's so damn funny?" The water was opaque with soap. What the hell had he seen?

"Y-you look like a drowned cat!"

"No shit." If that was his idea of hilarity he needed to get out more. "Why are you here?"

"Came looking for you."

"Can't it wait? I'm kinda involved."

"Yeah, I noticed that."

I checked the water again. It wasn't as opaque as I thought. "What do you want?"

"To know why you told my lady you weren't a wizard."

"Because it's the truth."

"But you made that noise go away in the tunnel."

"Anyone can throw a lantern." I felt like throwing one now.

"You knew how to find the secret chamber."

"I'm sensitive to magic, doesn't mean I can do it."

"And you know about love spells."

"Learned that by osmosis."

"Huh?"

"Hanging around with Terrin. Back where we came from he had a nice little magical supply shop. I helped out and picked up a few of the basics. You want any magic done you gotta go to him. Just don't expect much. He's wrecked."

Shankey made a disappointed sound. "You can't do a choglat asdek love spell?"

What the hell was a - oh. "Ahhh . . . no. Don't have the ingredients or the skill." I started to launch into the reason why love spells are a bad idea with or without chocolate or Aztecs, then gave up as a waste of effort. I wanted some peace and quiet and maybe a nap on that huge guest bed. If I was lucky I would dream about Filima. Minus mood-destroying interruptions.

"Can your wizard friend do a love spell?" he asked.

"Maybe, when he's in shape, which he ain't. What's with the obsessing on romance? I thought you had a thing going with the cook."

"Not for me! I don't need help there!" He was insulted. "It's for my lady."

"Debreban mentioned he wanted to put his boss together with your boss."

"We need a plan. We planned to make a plan, and with you turning up like you did it struck me that the gawds really want those two together."

How he arrived at that conclusion was not my concern. "The main hitch being I don't do magic and the ones who can are low on power or have vanished. I think you should wait until this Hell-river mess is cleared up and then make a start on leisure-time activities."

A heavy, heartfelt sigh. It made the tapestry flutter. "Oh, okay. That might be awhile, though."

"Where'd Filima get to?" I asked, wanting a change of topic.

"My lady went to her suite. She dresses for dinner about this time, even when we don't have company."

"But you do have company. Me and Terrin."

"Oh. Yeah." He wasn't too committed to the idea.

"Or are we not company? Are we guests or hired hands?"

"Both, I think. Hard to tell with her these days. She's been a bit . . . eccentric ever since his lordship died, then everyone's gone crazy with this Hell-river thing. Everyone with Talent, that is."

"You ever see it? The Hell-river?"

He snorted. "No. Glad I can't; I got enough to worry about."

"How many people know about it?"

"Hard to say. The Talents know and probably their families and so on, but the ordinary folk in the city don't pay much attention to the rumors. Some don't like the curfew, of course, but most would be in bed by dark anyway."

"How can a curfew be enforced if everyone's in bed?"

"The overduke has his guard out on patrols, and some volunteers with Talent are on the watch through the night in protected areas to keep an eye on the river. They're scared, though. Don't need to see a Hell-river to notice that. When I first heard of it I thought it was a strange joke, but some of my friends in the other house guards tell me otherwise. They say it's real, and if that many people say it's real, then it must be. I just want it to go away so things get back to normal."

No argument there, even if I didn't know what normal was in this world. Probably the same as it was now, but with a lot more wizards and minus the Hell-river. Terrin and I would have to find out what the connection was between it and Filima's dead husband. I didn't believe in coincidence, especially where magic was concerned. Botello dies and the Hell-river changes its course. Could one man, all on his own in a basement workshop, swing so much power? It seemed a pretty steep order. Even Terrin didn't have that kind of magical clout. Or if he did, he'd not mentioned it.

"Did Filima love her husband very much?"

"What do you mean by that?" Shankey sounded like I'd touched a sore spot.

"Nothing bad, she just seemed to have adjusted pretty fast to his loss, and with you and Debreban trying to get her married off so soon after the funeral . . ."

"Oh. That's all Lord Cadmus's doings. He's the one who's anxious to snag her. He's got money problems and wants to put himself forward first before some other fellow pushes in. From what Debreban tells me Lord Cadmus really does like her, it just turns out to be a good thing for him that she's wealthy, too. She might learn to like him back if she gave him half a chance."

I grunted, not wanting to get involved in the local soap opera. "What was Lord Botello Darmo like?"

A long silence.

"Did I say something wrong?"

"Him being dead and all I suppose it's safe to say he wasn't that easy a man. Stern he was, short temper. He had a soft spot for my lady, though, seemed to treat her well. She could make him laugh, but in the last year he got more and more interested in magic. His last months he was always working on it. Didn't leave much room for her."

What an idiot. If I had a babe like Filima to myself I sure wouldn't be wasting time on magic. "How did they meet?"

"He went to a circus and saw her dancing. That was enough to decide him. His lordship was the sort to go after whatever he wanted and get it, and Lady Filima was no exception."

"Did she want him back?"

"It seemed so. She's very smart, studied up on how to be a proper lady so she'd do him proud. They got along as well as any and better than most. They had fights like any couple, drifted apart like any couple. I'd say it was his magic studies that displaced her in his heart. She has a bit of the Talent and tried to share the interest with him, but not being as single-minded she got left behind. Someone had to see to the running of the house, so she picked up the slack. The last few months they hardly saw each other, so her maid told the cook."

Who certainly told Shankey during their pillow-talk. "Months? Was he lurking in his Black Room all that time?"

"Probably. He'd be around at evening meals and for the parties. I thought he was shut away in his study, but after seeing that chamber below - "

"And nobody noticed him running up and back from the basement?"

"Well, if his lordship didn't want to be seen he could manage easy enough. The house is big and there's more than one way to get downstairs. Hardly anyone ever goes there. If he was up to something private, nobody would know about it."

Except Filima. Damn. It looked like I'd have to forgo a nap for a talk with her. With her going all ghosty every time her dead spouse was mentioned she had to be hiding something. If it was just me and Terrin in the room with her she might share. Shankey would have to be out of the loop, which was too bad, as he struck me as being a good guy to have in your corner, but sometimes you can confide to a stranger things you'd never dump on family or friends. Or house guards.

I boosted to my feet. Water sheeted from my body. Shankey had been right about the wet cat thing. "Hey," I said. "Hand me a towel, would ya?"

He pushed one through an opening in the tapestry.

"Thanks." I made a start on drying off. "Got any more?"

"Yeah. How many you need?"

I looked down. "All of them."

* * *

Terrin finally got rid of the flock of servants and lay out flat on the velvet bed, wiggling his bare toes. This was the life, what was left of it, anyway. The magical drain had slowed considerably, but he still felt its tug in the background. He had breathing space, but sooner or later the protections around this museum would give out and the last of him would be sucked away, probably into that black fog.

From Myhr's description of last night's event the stuff was attracted to magic. Was it intelligent or a mindless thing, like an amoeba in search of food? Or was it under intelligent direction? And if so, who was directing it and why? And how had it come to this world? The hot money was on Botello Darmo being at the bottom of things what with the timing of his death. Terrin didn't believe in coincidence, especially where magic was concerned.

Chances were the guy had been up to an oddball conjuring and released something way out of his league. No wonder his heart had given out. He'd probably opened up the wrong doorway and whammo-blammo, he's on a slab. Oh, well, and too bad, one less fool in the gene pool, but what a load of chaos for the remaining swimmers.

Where had Myhr gotten to? Terrin wanted to see the secret chamber. And talk to her nibs. Filima the babe had hotfooted out way too quick after a squint at the T-shirt. If she'd once been some kind of wiggle-waggle dancer she should be used to the rougher side of life, so something else about it had spooked her.

Terrin groaned as he levered himself up and after a minute decided he'd be able to get to his backpack across the room. It had taken some severe and sharp tones to convince the butler or valets or whatever they were not to unpack it for him. He had protections on the thing, and woe to anyone who dared to poke around in his stuff.

He padded slowly across a thick carpet to the pack, got it open, and rooted around. First, a fresh shirt. Not that Myhr's warning about respecting the lady of the house had anything to do with it; Terrin just wanted to put on something clean. The new T-shirt was just as loud with a card-playing maniacal clown gibbering from its cotton front. Each card in the deck was a joker. Yeah, that one would be suitably enigmatic for the masses.

Pulling it on, he went to the window for a check on the darkening sky.

Nearly sunset.

From this height and angle he had a good view of the city and the tall towers of what looked like a fancy church or palace not too far distant. Filima sure had ritzy neighbors. Trees obscured a lot of the goings on, but he glimpsed people hurrying along, trying to make it indoors before the curfew began. Some overdressed maniac on a big white charger caught his attention, simply for going too fast in a street crowded with pedestrians. He was having trouble keeping the horse in check. It moved forward quick enough, but was torn between bolting and bucking. The rider kept jerking the bit around, stressing the animal even more. Twit. They should have a driving test for would-be horse people.

Then Terrin saw a kind of dark shimmering around the duet. The horse settled down and proceeded forward at a sensible trot. It soon vanished between the low buildings.

"You son of a bitch," Terrin murmured at the rider. "What are you doing tossing control magic around like confetti when I'm up here starving?"

He wanted to have that jerk dragged in feetfirst so he could tap into his magical energy and then ask a few pointed questions. Like why the dude was apparently immune to being drained. And where could Terrin get a nice, loud purple-and-green cloak like that one.

Too late, the man was gone. Another time then. Very shortly, if Myhr's briefing had all the facts right, the black fog would be rolling in, hopefully bypassing this house. Terrin was not one to place too much trust in another wizard's protection spells. He'd have to find Myhr and get to that basement chamber, and see what sort of energy was lying around. There was likely to be one unholy mess down there waiting for a clean-up crew. Unpleasant, but to put it off might be fatal.

So far Terrin had camouflaged things with grins and flirting, but cutting him up inside was one hell of a sharp edge of fear and desperation. He hated that feeling. The prospect of dropping dead at any given second nearly always interfered with his fun.

He usually tried to avoid trouble - unless he was its instigator - but if it got in his way then he preferred to be in the middle of the problem, kicking its sorry ass. No way would he let some piss-ant magical drain keep him from getting home again; he liked his techno raves too much.

* * *

In the Street Leading to the Palace

Finally, he'd gotten this bloody beast under control. Leave it to that idiot Cadmus to buy himself more horse than anyone else could handle. For show, all for show, not a serious bone in his body, though it felt fit enough. It was good to have a body again, a real one. Botello worried that he'd not have full use of it, but Cadmus was either too cowed or catatonic to put up a fight. His feelings were there: abject terror mixed with outrage and fury. They gibbered in the background, nothing Botello couldn't ignore.

He found he was also privy to some of Cadmus's memories. From there Botello got the gratifying confirmation that Cadmus hadn't slept with Filima yet. Ha! She didn't want anything to do with him. Wise of her to still be faithful to her dead spouse. One less thing to deal with when next he saw her. He had quite enough to sort out with the treacherous bitch.

He kicked the horse to a trot, scattering the people on foot who were unwise enough to be in his path. The sun was nearly gone; he had to get to the palace and quick.

He passed some of the overduke's volunteers on the way to their posts. They'd spend the night keeping an eye on the Hell-river cowering behind their protective shields. Fat lot of good they were. Blind watchmen, unable to see what was really swimming in the fog. Some of them waved at him in a friendly manner, one Talent to another. Talent. Humph. Squandering their skills on parlor entertainments, healings, or trying to influence people. Love spells, even. Bloody amateurs.

The palace gate was a great cast iron thing that gave him a shiver even from a distance. He forced himself to smile at the gate guard. Smiles came easily to the likes of Cadmus. This one hurt. The guard nodded respectfully and passed him in, shutting the gate behind. As Botello crossed into the overduke's influence, he felt the smallest of tugs, indication of the layers of protective spells that had been woven into the fabric of the property over the years. They would keep out something as Otherside as the Hell-river, but not for long. Not after he'd finished with things.

At the palace entry someone hastened out to take his horse. He dismounted a little stiffly. The body was fit, but he'd never liked riding. Once off the horse the beast went into another panicked fit of stamping and snorting, nearly carrying away the stable lad. Other men rushed forward to help.

Botello indifferently left their hubbub behind, taking the steps up to the main door, which was already opening for him. One footman relieved him of his gaudy cape and another led the way to a receiving room. The overduke was already there with his latest fancy, Velma, enjoying a bit of sherry to judge by the shape of the stemmed glasses.

"Hallo, Cadmus," he said, nodding vaguely in his direction. "Good of you to come on such short notice."

"I was delighted to receive your invitation, my lord." He gave a formal bow, flashed a charming smile at Velma, and graciously accepted an offer of sherry from her.

Anton's piercing blue eyes raked him, but Botello continued to smile ingenuously back, well aware of the overduke's extreme nearsightedness. He was not liable to notice any changes in Cadmus, visible or otherwise. Anton had a good store of Talent, ironically for visions, but often forbore from using it. Had he truly focused on Cadmus he might have experienced a moment of doubt, then dismissed it as imagination.

There were dozens like him still left in the city, possessing Talent, yet never fully exploring or exploiting its limits.

So foolish of them.

But so ripe for the coming feast.

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