Back at Darmo House

Debreban spun off nervous energy like a generator. After all the standing and playing fly on the wall in Filima's blue room he probably wanted to end our wait for Shankey and get going. I could tell by the way he buffed the floor with his boots. Watching people pace makes me dizzy. I blinked out of the hypnotic pattern. "If this Lord Cadmus is your boss, what are you doing over here?"

"Helping out Captain Shankey." He paused to look at a painting, a portrait of a Darmo ancestor, perhaps. Couldn't say much for the artist's skill or the subject's taste in clothes. Maybe that's why it was hanging in a drafty hall.

"You do that a lot? Helping Shankey?"

"First time, actually."

"Why now? Is it me?"

"Not that I know of. My lord Cadmus wanted me to . . . well, that's house business, nothing to do with you." He started up and down the hall again, but his rhythm was interrupted by the arrival of one of Filima's young pages, who came in carrying a purple-and-green cloak. Without a word he gave it over to Debreban, who thanked him and put it on. In full daylight the colors made my eyes hurt; in the shady indoors they weren't so bad.

"I gotta ask . . ." I began when the page was gone.

"Ask what?" He carefully adjusted the hang of the cloak. It looked a little threadbare around the hem.

"Is Lady Filima allergic to purple and green? I was wondering why you wanted to be incognito."

He frowned. "It's more like she's allergic to Lord Cadmus. Just the sight of these colors can put her in a bad mood, so it seemed best not to distract her with them."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Well, it's no secret that he admires her a great deal. If she'd give him even half a chance she might see what a fine man he is, but she's not interested in him."

"No accounting for a woman's taste, but if a lady says no, it's the smart thing to listen."

"More's the pity. They'd make a good match. A great match. Shankey and I were talking about it today." An idea visibly appeared on his face. "Mr. Myhr, with you being a wizard and all . . ."

Uh-oh.

" . . . perhaps you can help us out in this matter - after you're done helping Lady Filima, I mean."

"Help you out in what?"

"With the things you know you must have a really good love spell or potion or charm or something."

I shook my head. "Listen, if I knew of one that worked I wouldn't have to sing for my supper at Clem's inn. I'd have that money-machine patented in one minute, on the street in two, and retire a zillionaire about an hour later. Everyone wants love. But you can't get it that way. Sorry."

The poor guy looked pretty disappointed. "Don't you have anything that might get my lord and Lady Filima together? He already likes her a lot; it would only have to work on her."

"Nope. If they're supposed to fall in love it'll happen if and when it happens. Trying to bend the will of one person to match the desires of another is unethical. That goes on often enough without using magic. It never turns out well."

"Even if it would be for that person's own best good?"

"Lemme ask you this: when you were growing up, how many times did you hear 'I'm only doing this for your own good'?"

He shuddered. "Too many."

"How would you feel if you heard it now?"

"I see your point, but this is different. It really would be doing them both a favor."

Jeez, I'd get a dozen a day exactly like him in the magic shop, twice as many on weekends, ten times more girls than guys. They all seemed to have a killer crush on some geek, deciding that he was their soul mate, and they wanted him right then and there. They didn't want to hear their symptoms were hormones, not destiny. A few I was able to persuade to sense, but most didn't want to listen. They all thought they were the exception to the rule. I'd sell the really stubborn ones neutralized love charms to wear and off they'd go, happy.

Then there were the new Talents, most without a real teacher to guide them. They had the magic, which was what drew them to the shop, but some were getting into it because it was cool, it would freak their parents, or they'd watched The Craft one too many times and wanted the power trip.

They'd read - make that skim - one book about magic and decide they were ready to alter the whole Multiverse according to their desires. I was grateful about the Multiverse being mostly tolerant toward such neos until they learned better, but had seen a few mess themselves up by not thinking things through. You've heard the stories, someone wishing for a ton of wealth, and they get it via an insurance company paying off a claim on their broken leg or trashed car. Or a gal throwing a love spell on some guy and ending up with an obsessed stalker or an emotional leech. Or both.

You do have to be careful about what you wish for; it's true, true, true, true, true, true, true, true.

"Nope," I said again to Debreban. "Let nature take its course. Trust me on this, it's a lot safer." I went to look at the brass inscription of the portrait painting. Good grief. It was the late husband himself, Botello Darmo. What was he doing out in the house boonies this soon after his demise? Maybe Filima didn't want any reminders of him peering down from the walls at her. That or she just had good taste in art. This depiction of his kisser was on the gloomy side. There was also something familiar about him in a creep-out sort of way. . . .

Shankey came back just then. "I don't believe this," he announced. "Overduke Anton sent that whole lot over here to invite him" - he jerked a thumb at me - "to the palace."

"I always wanted to play the Palace," I said brightly. They gave me a blank look. Okay, for a joke that creaky I could forgive them for not getting it. "Is there a problem?"

Debreban made a kind of mournful growling sound. "Lord Perdle must have told him. I knew he would. But why would he want to see him?"

"You're talking about Anton wanting to see me or Perdle?" I knew what he meant, but they'd slipped back to referring to me in the third person and needed to be jogged out of it.

"He means Lord Anton wants to see you," Shankey answered.

"So this is a bad thing? Why would he want to see me?"

"Look in a mirror," he grumbled.

"I do, as often as possible, and the view gets better with every passing day."

"I better tell my lady about this. She might prefer you to avoid the invitation for now."

"She's got something against my making new friends?"

"It's not that, but if you go making side trips to Lord Anton's palace you won't be able to do what you need to do and get back here in time for the sunset curfew."

Yeah, and maybe Filima wanted to keep me for herself. Pleasant thought, if that was all there was to it. I came up with my own reservations, as well. This Lord Anton was also into magic; he could have been scrying around, asking the same questions she'd asked and getting my face in his mirror. I'd have to do the same song and dance with him, explaining myself and including a side trip to my life story. Once a day was more than enough, and anyway, I was still full from lunch.

"Okay, you won me over," I said. "You didn't tell them I was still here, did you?"

"No, but they're certain you're inside."

"Is this going to cause Filima any trouble?"

"I don't think so. They all seemed friendly enough, just another errand for their lord."

"If this is all so friendly, then why send so many men after little ol' me?"

"Good point. They wouldn't say. Maybe it's an honor guard."

Yeah, sure. "Well, they can't 'invite' me over until I come out, but I do need to get back to the inn. Is there a back door out of this pile?"

"They'll have it covered. I would."

"What about the secret passage?"

Shankey's eyes widened. "How'd you know about that?"

"I read a lot." Places like this always came equipped. I looked at Debreban. "You got a secret passage in your clan house, too?"

He went stone-faced. "I'm not at liberty to say."

"Thought so. Let's use it to get me out and back again. Filima can take me around to visit this Anton dude later when it's more convenient for everyone."

"That's duke. Overduke Anton," corrected Shankey. "And I can't take just anyone through the secret passage."

"Or it won't be a secret anymore, yeah, yeah, I've heard that one, but it's only the three of us. Unless these murky catacombs are guarded by hordes of rats and alligators flushed down the drain in centuries past - "

"There's no such things there!"

"Then let's get moving. If you're worried about security, just remember that Debreban's your good friend, and I'm a passing tourist. With any luck I'll be gone before too long, never to return."

"Maybe I should blindfold you . . ."

Debreban came in on my side. "Aw, Shank, let's just go. I don't want them seeing my leaving here, either."

Shankey grumbled and rumbled, but gave in, and led off back into the house. "Why are you so against Lord Anton?"

"I'm not, but he might ask Lady Filima why the captain of the guard for House Burkus was here, and she'll ask you, and it'll get back to my lord in some way, and he might not be pleased that you and I got to talking."

"He wants to keep things simple," I translated.

"Should have said so in the first place." Shankey shook his head.

We returned to the door leading to the basement facilities, but struck off in a different direction once downstairs. No windows, just a lot of dark, but a couple of lanterns stood ready on a table, along with candles and a tinderbox. Shankey struck some sparks, made a flame, and lighted things up. Debreban got a lantern, I didn't, but that was fine with me. Shankey raised his own lantern high and forged ahead through dusty storage areas, threading past old furniture, trunks, and what looked to be party decorations. Compared to the stuffy interior of the pavilion it was positively cheerful.

But the creeps began to sneak up on me, nonetheless.

They began when we left the flotsam and jetsam of the household and entered a real tunnel. About five or six feet wide, seven feet high with an arched ceiling carved, apparently, out of solid rock, its rough, dust-coated floor slanted down at a gentle slope. Everything was dead quiet except for the noise we made walking along. I couldn't see the end of it; the lantern light didn't reach that far. Facing the overduke's honor guard seemed the lesser of two evils right now.

The air was dank at first, then got drier.

"We walking away from the river?" I asked.

"River?" Shankey said, alarmed.

"The Rumpock, not that Hell-river."

"Oh. Yeah, we're moving away from it. Makes sense not to dig a tunnel through a river, you know."

Or even a river I didn't know. "Where does this one come out?"

"The Darmo stables across the grounds."

"Must be some big grounds."

"They are, but the stables have to be a distance from the house what with the smell and the horseflies."

I could agree with that. If I didn't keep myself squeaky clean all the time flies tended to buzz me mercilessly. They love the fur. And you thought having a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth was a social embarrassment.

"The tunnel's about eight hundred feet long," Shankey added. "Seems longer."

"Yeah," Debreban agreed. "Who built it and why?"

"About two centuries ago one of the Darmo House heads decided walking across to the stables in winter was a pain in the ass, so he started digging. Legend has it he began with a teaspoon, but I don't believe that because those kind of spoons hadn't been invented back then. Cook told me so. She collects them."

"She collects teaspoons?"

"Yeah. Has them all over her room in little display cases."

"Really?"

"Yeah, nice ones with glass covers. They're on the walls like paintings."

Debreban didn't seem the type to have much interest in the history of household utensils but it was something to get our minds off our surroundings. The farther we went down the tunnel the more the darkness piled up behind. Maybe this worked for moles, digging forward with the dirt closing in their wake, but not for me. I wanted out. I wanted air. I wanted more light than just two tiny little flames that could vanish at any given importune instant.

"Shankey . . . ?" said Debreban.

"Yeah?"

"Just how is it you know what the cook's room looks like?"

"Debreban?"

"Yeah?"

"Shut the hell up."

Debreban snickered. I felt a half-hearted grin come and go on my face. We needed more jokes. Okay, I needed more jokes. Cracking them was usually my job; it was first nature to me, but I just couldn't work into the mood. All the hilarious stuff I'd ever heard or invented wasn't the least bit hilarious down here. The only thing that kept popping into my head was some line Lon Chaney, Sr., once said about a clown not being funny in the moonlight. That clown would be a laugh-riot for me now, though; moonlight would mean we were in open air and free of this pit.

I'd been in dark, tight places before; this one shouldn't have bothered me so much, but there was something nervous-making about the atmosphere. When my whiskers started quivering on their own I recognized the feeling.

"Shankey? Did Lady Filima's husband do a lot of magic work?"

"I guess so. He kept quiet about it. Didn't want to scare people, I guess. Some don't like it much; I don't care one way or another so long as it doesn't hurt anyone."

"Just where did he set up shop? He had to have a workplace."

"In his private chambers. He had a room set aside for it. Nothing much to it, just a table, lots of books and papers, that kind of junk."

"Think he might have had more than one retreat?"

Shankey paused. "Why would you ask that?"

"Because all my back fur is up and to do that for a guy like me takes a humongous amount of magical energy."

"You can feel that stuff?"

"Like an itch you can't scratch. I think we're close to some source. Is this the only secret tunnel for the whole joint?"

"There might be one or two others," he reluctantly admitted. "But we don't have time for them."

"Um, we may not have a choice." My ears perked forward. "You hear that?"

They didn't, at first. The sound was too deep for human ears to pick up. It was like a subwoofer on a really good quadraphonic system; you don't hear it so much as feel it thrumming through your body. They suddenly flinched and drew their swords.

"What is it?" Shankey asked. "Sounds like a dragon breathing."

"You got dragons here?" It was an honest fear. I'd been on worlds that had them. They're not always fun.

"Figure of speech," he explained. "It's getting closer, isn't it?"

"Yup, I think it is, yup, yup."

"Let's go back to the house," Debreban suggested. "If we run like hell - "

"Sounds like a plan," I said, starting to back away.

Shankey hesitated. "If something's down here I have a duty to find out if it's a threat to my house."

"How about figuring it out with lots of well-armed reinforcements for company? If that noise has a magical source we're going to be out of our league, anyway."

"If it's magical, then you can handle it." Somehow Shankey had gotten behind me. He had to shout to be heard above the welling sound. "You're a wizard, aren't you?"

"Oh, hell," I said, my ears going flat.

The low sound intensified to an extended growling roar. The blast of it in the confining walls of the tunnel was too much. I put my hands over my head and dropped, doing a half-remembered duck-and-cover routine. Shankey and Debreban did the same, the three of us cowering against the walls as the sound grew in power, swelling like thunder.

"Iron!" I bellowed at them.

They looked up, scared, perplexed, way out of their league for sure. That or they couldn't hear me.

"Have. You. Got. Iron?"

Shankey missed it, but Debreban must have caught enough to understand. He gave me his lantern. I started to push it back, then realized it was metal. Iron or not, cold iron or not, it would have to do. I grabbed the ring handle, stood, and threw it down the tunnel like a grenade.

It had about the same effect. The hideous roar ceased so abruptly that you could hear the softer clang of the lantern rolling to a stop on the stone floor.

We were left with one pitiful little light. And eardrums. Functioning eardrums were good.

"What was that?" Shankey whispered in awe.

"A burglar alarm, I think."

"Will it come back?"

I shrugged, brushing off my knees. I wanted a good all-over combing-out to get my back hairs down, but knew it wouldn't hold. There was still something nasty hanging around. This time I could smell it. Nag Champa incense it was not.

"Hoo," said Debreban, his face screwing up in reaction. "What's that?"

"Lots of things," I said. "You don't want to know about them, either." I wished I didn't. My nose was into overtime picking out graveyard stench, rotting fish, rotting flesh, eau de Dumpster in hundred-degree weather, sewer stink, month-old armpit sweat. All the bad smells I'd ever experienced in my whole life seemed to be down here having a convention.

"Ugh." Shankey found a handkerchief, but had trouble pressing it to his face while juggling with his sword and lantern. I took the latter from him and held it out. The tiny flame still burned a normal yellow color, meaning that despite the stink there was plenty of oxygen for us.

"This is another kind of burglar alarm," I told them. "Revolting, but not life-threatening."

I hoped.

We hesitantly moved ahead, retrieving the lantern I'd thrown. It was a tough piece of workmanship, just a dent or three and the glass broken. Some of the oil had leaked out, but enough remained to re-light it, which we did.

"Faugh!" said Shankey. "Let's go. I can't take much more of this."

"It's an illusion," I said. "Ignore it and it'll fade."

"You sure?"

"No. But I think its presence means there might be a magic hideaway nearby. The noise and smell are supposed to discourage visitors. When was the last time anyone was down here?"

"A couple of years, maybe. It's not a popular place."

"Try a couple of weeks." I pointed down. The coat of dust on the floor showed signs of recent traffic. There was a thin path worn in it, and even the marks of something heavy having been dragged along.

"Huh." Shankey's attention shifted from the stink. "Wonder where that leads?"

"No one uses this to get to the stables anymore?"

"No need. When we want a horse or carriage we just send a page running across to have them brought to the house. The lord who made the tunnel should have thought that up instead of going to all this work."

"Maybe he was part-gopher."

Shankey stared at my cat's face and slowly nodded.

I went back to studying the tracks, then following them. They stopped in mid-tunnel on the right-hand side. "Who's wants to bet there's secret door here?"

No takers. They were both closely checking the wall.

"I'll bet it can only be opened by a spell," said Shankey, cautiously prodding with his sword tip. "I heard stories about these things. You have to have a certain magic word or you get turned into a frog."

Debreban hastily backed away. "We should let the expert deal with it."

I knew what he was thinking: with me already being part-cat a little frog in the mix wouldn't be noticed. To hell with that. "You're right. We'll talk to my partner; he's great at opening up all kinds of things." Besides, my whiskers were twitching so much they tickled. "We can bring him back this way. He loves scary places."

"Let's hurry, then." Shankey pushed himself from the wall. It responded with a grinding noise.

Uh-oh.

He stopped in mid-motion and poked at a long, vertical crack that had appeared. "This could be what we want."

I could argue against that assumption. A lot. Outside.

But he pushed again. The crack widened to a dark opening. The pivoting door was narrow, but sufficient for a man to use. There was a change in the air quality, shifting to a stifling chemical taint, like you find in the insecticide aisle at a store. Shankey held his lantern ahead. The flame remained reassuringly yellow.

"Look at the stuff in here!" he said.

We couldn't do that until he went in, which he did. I reluctantly followed. Debreban was content to hang back over the threshold.

"Watch where you step," Shankey cautioned.

Glass and crockery shards were all over the floor, crunching underfoot. The chemical stink seemed to come from them, or what had been in them, which was also on the floor, dried pools of multicolored whatever. The chamber was round, completely enclosed, and a good twenty feet across.

Shankey found some candles on a tall metal stand and lighted them, revealing more detail.

A few tables, lots of paper, lots of books, not a lot of fresh air. The walls and low ceiling were black, from soot or paint, I couldn't tell. Either one would be depressing. Was depressing. The latent magical power in the room pulsed at me like radiation. Oh, yeah, Terrin would love this.

"Looks like your lord was into some heavy shit here," I said. My voice fell flat between the thick walls. They were fuzzy, as though coated with sound-dampening material. I didn't check too closely in case it turned out to be some kind of disgusting super-mold.

"Uhn," agreed Shankey. "What's this?" He pointed to a scattering of polished stone fragments in the exact center of the place.

"Might have been a scrying mirror. Someone must have dropped it."

"Or smashed it." He indicated a wooden hammer with a metal head attached that lay nearby. It looked like an overgrown croquet mallet and was pretty battered.

I picked it up. Cold iron again. Solid. I felt better with it in hand and held it close. My muzzle whiskers calmed down a little.

"This is interesting." Shankey pointed to an oddity in a room full of weirdness.

At our feet was a vaguely man-shaped outline in the broken glass. I made out the trunk and out-flung arms as if someone had been lying on the floor while someone else smashed things around the body. I'd seen an identical setting in a Sherlock Holmes movie. From there I followed a dragging path in the debris that went straight to the door.

"Just how did your lord die?" I asked.

"His heart failed him. Best healers in the city said so. The overduke held an inquiry to make sure."

"Where did he die?"

"In his bedchamber. Happened while he slept. Lady Filima said he was gone and cold when she woke up that morning. She was in quite a state. You don't think that it was him who made those marks?"

I shrugged. "Who else knows about the secret tunnel?"

"A few in the household, myself, Lady Filima."

"Who else knows about this room?"

"Hell, I didn't know about it 'til we got here! I thought I knew every inch of the house and grounds. That's my job."

"It could have once been an old grain storage bin," suggested Debreban.

"Why hide it with a concealed door?" I asked.

"Famine. Times past weren't always so good in Rumpock. If food was short you'd want to keep your hoard safe but easy to get to. Or it could have been a weapons cache, or a place for the household to hide out during a siege."

"Then the lord of the house stumbles across it and turns it into a private den for spell work?"

"Why not? Especially if whatever he was up to had to be kept secret."

"You think he was up to something?"

Debreban nodded. "Nothing wholesome, either. A couple of my mum's relatives used to do small magic, healings and such. They told stories about the people who went in for the dark side of it. Secrecy was a necessity. They had to work in hidden, out-of-the-way places to keep from being detected by others who might stop them."

It made sense. If Filima's late hubby was up to no good, he'd want a shielded spot close to home to play. This sure filled the bill. Terrin would probably confirm everything once we got him here. While he did that I would have a private chat with Filima. Maybe Botello Darmo didn't mention his getaway to the head of his house guard, but sure as anything his wife would know. He might not have mentioned it to her, either, but she would know. Women are like that, so I do my best never to lie to them. It never pays.

"I think this is enough for now," I said. "Let's split."

The slang translated just fine. Debreban backed clear of the door. Shankey and I went through and pushed it into place. The balance was perfect; it swiveled easily.

"You can't see the seam at all," Shankey marveled, holding his lantern close. "I'd better mark it so we can find it again. He pushed on the door, wedged a handkerchief into the crack, and let it close again. The square of white cloth hung at shoulder height.

"Did you hear that?" I asked.

"Not again," Debreban groaned. "Hear what?"

"A voice. Someone calling my name. Quiet a second."

They obligingly went silent, listening.

"There it is again," I said, turning my head back up the tunnel. But that wasn't right. I looked down the tunnel, still hearing someone calling to me, but unable to fix a direction. As there were only two to choose from it was confusing.

"I don't hear anything," they said in unison.

"My ears are better, but . . . something's off here."

Myhr! Where the hell are you?!

I jumped. The volume was at conversation level, loud and clear, as though the speaker stood right next to me. Shankey and Debreban were still deaf to it and giving me funny looks.

Myhr! Come back to the inn. Now!

Terrin's voice? What the hell was he doing in my head? I asked him. Out loud. And I thought my escorts had given me funny looks before.

SOS, mayday, mayday, mayday. Get your ass back here! Myhr!

Okay, he could send, not receive, and something was seriously wrong. He'd never done this before.

"Come on, guys," I said, starting briskly down the tunnel, my fear of the dark shoved aside. "I got a situation. Wizard stuff. Let's move."

* * *

Outside Clem's Place

First the failed love spell, then Botello's needling and psychic assault, Debreban not reporting back, more orders and assaults from the imperious Botello, and finally the surprise invitation to dinner at the overduke's palace. Lord Cadmus hadn't had such a full day in ages.

At least the dinner and a comfortable sleepover in the palace would be a pleasant experience. Anton had a famous cook, and with Velma playing hostess Cadmus would have someone decorative to feast his eyes upon and practice complimenting.

Then there was the plumbing. Like Filima's house the ducal palace had the very latest in water pipes, with bathtubs that didn't require an army of servants to heat and carry water. Thus far only the rich could afford this, so Cadmus had yet to install any at his place. To repay his host for the luxury of such a bath, Cadmus would be cheerfully entertaining for the dinner conversation. Talk would probably be about that dreary Hell-river and how to get rid of it, but he was certain he could subtly shift things over to the topic of Filima. She and Velma were old friends from their show business travels. Old friends always knew useful things about each other. Cadmus welcomed this opportunity to press Velma for courtship advice, so he'd sent the overduke's patiently waiting pages back with an enthusiastic acceptance of the invitation.

Then he had to leave on Botello's errand. Drat the man. I have better things to do, like deciding what to wear tonight. That crucial decision would have to wait, though, until Cadmus found this wizard or mage or whoever it was Botello was in such a furious twist over.

During his tedious trudge through the city Cadmus concluded there was entirely too much red paint used on signs in Rumpock. He'd been all around the bell tower district, on the lookout for red letters, his other senses wide open to pick up the smallest whiff of magic. Too much lettering and no magic at all: Botello would throw another fit. Well and good if he wasted his power, but Cadmus wondered about surviving another outburst. Each one had gotten progressively stronger and more painful. Botello would be in an even nastier mood when the time came to deliver the awful news that the Talent had inconveniently died in a street brawl. I'll deal with Botello somehow or other, Cadmus decided.

And hopefully live another day.

He paused outside a structure that seemed to be half-tavern, half-inn, seeing then forgetting the name on the sign, just noting the ubiquitous red paint. He went inside. The place had a solid business going and the food smells were good. Tempting, but he didn't dare stop for a late lunch, though something cold to drink would not be unwelcome.

"Yes, your lordship," said a tall man behind the bar, apparently drawing conclusions from the new customer's fine clothes. "How may I serve you?"

"Have you cold cider?"

"Hard or soft?"

"Soft." Cadmus wanted a clear head. He could get drunk later tonight on excellent palace wine while the Hell-river flowed. Damned thing. Literally. It had certainly put a dent in the social season. If informal evenings out were ever allowed again he could go back to winning Filima over, and this time succeed. Since his love spell hadn't worked, he'd revert to personal charm. He had lots of that.

The barman gave him a hefty crockery mug; its chilled contents proved quite a restorative for all that hard walking. Cadmus had nothing against physical exertion, provided it showed his manly form off to good advantage. Simply walking around was so mundane, though he did cut a dashing figure, even in his less than best clothes. He'd dressed in dark colors, not those of his house, as he was desirous of anonymity and anticipated the need to hide bloodstains.

Anchored to his hip was an elderly small-sword with a black blade. The newer ones were of a more flexible alloy that made them less prone to breakage and able to hold a sharp edge for longer, but they wouldn't have suited his purpose. This antique had cold iron in it, and that's all that mattered to him. One of his ancestors must have had it made up special just for the job of killing magicians, though gawd knows why. Kill one and the others all knew about it, worse than stirring up a nest of hornets. That had changed, though, since there were no more with Talent left in the city. Botello had seen to it.

Cadmus drained his mug, dropped a coin on the counter, and turned to leave. He froze, staring through the open door to the street beyond. It was all wavery, like the air above a fire. What in hell was that?

None of the wavering people walking past seemed aware of the phenomenon. This was very interesting.

He caught the barman's eye and pointed toward the door. "Do you see anything odd out there?"

The tall, thin man squinted. "Can't say as I do unless you want to count old Marloe across the way being awake this early in the afternoon. He usually don't stir 'til supper hour."

"But you see nothing odd about the air?"

"Can't see air, your lordship," the man stated.

A sensible answer, unless one possessed a touch of Talent. "Very true. Then tell me, have you any interesting guests staying here? Anyone new? Perhaps from well out of town?"

"There's Mr. Myhr, very unusual-looking fellow, but friendly. Packs a good crowd in for lunch and supper with his show."

"Show? What, he does tricks?"

"Sings, mostly, tells stories, lots of jokes, and you should see how he gets the room laughing when he spots a pretty gal."

"But no magic tricks or illusions?" Cadmus had heard of some few Talents who went in for doing gaudy demonstrations of their craft, but there was no profit in it. Too exhausting and costly. The only ones who made a living at it were the fortune tellers, and it was rare you could find ones who had a true gift for it. The rest were frauds. Overduke Anton had regular checks made on those practicing in Rumpock to make certain they were real and not cheating the public. Of course, they were all gone, too, thanks to Botello.

"No magic, your lordship. I don't hold with magic in my place. Unpredictable stuff, scares off the customers. Mr. Myhr's friend was asking after that stuff; had to tell him the same. You can talk to him about it."

Oh, to hell with his friend. Probably some hanger-on. Cadmus wanted the real wizard. "Where is this Mr. Myhr?"

"Don't know. He got picked up and carried off by two fellers. One of 'em might be with Darmo House, Lady Filima's name was mentioned, the other was in a purple-and-green cloak, so I reckon he was with Burkus House."

Cadmus hid his utter surprise with a deep frown. "You're sure about those colors?"

"Hard to miss or forget. Anyway, these two fellers seemed to be looking for Mr. Myhr and carried him right out the door. I hope they bring him back soon, else I'll be stuck for a show for my early supper crowd. Popular he is, with his songs, stories, and 'specially that cat face he's got."

"Cat face?"

"I didn't believe it myself when I clapped eyes on him, but it ain't no mask, that's his real face. Looks just like a cat, ears, mane, eyes, and all. It don't half mystify everyone."

"Cat?" Cadmus worked hard to get his head around it. Perhaps if the wizard wanted an impressive disguise or to advertise his skills, he'd cast a glamour on himself. But why bother?

"Cat, your lordship." The barman spoke slowly. "Cat."

He had to be the creature that had disrupted Botello's manifestation attempt. Which meant he was very probably the wizard Cadmus needed to kill. Odd, though, that Botello didn't sense its magic and draw it off. Too busy with Filima, most likely. "When did you say he'd return?"

"I didn't. I said these two fellers took him away. Maybe he's singing at Darmo House, though how them up on the hill heard about him so quick is past me."

Filima and her scrying session this morning, that was how. Like all the other remaining Talents she was trying to understand the mystery of the Hell-river and discover a way to get rid of it. Cadmus didn't think she was aware of Botello's connection to its appearance, not for certain, not in a way that could be proved. Botello hadn't said anything on what she might know. Whenever Filima was mentioned all he usually did was seethe. Maybe there was something to the murder rumor, but how could she have killed him without leaving a mark? Not magically, she just wasn't powerful enough. Well, no matter, work that one out later.

Perhaps she'd stumbled upon something important about this Myhr fellow. If he was a wizard, the impossibly powerful one that Botello wanted so badly, there was a chance he could do something about the problem.

Hmm. If the wizard turned out to be up to the task, it might be better to not kill him. Let Filima charm him into helping. Or pay him. Not too much. If he found a way to send the Hell-river back and closed off the planar opening, then Botello would stay in Hell, leaving Cadmus free to console his grieving widow. If only she would grieve a little more openly. He was quite good at lending a shoulder to cry on, and what better way for him to get a set of well-muscled, comforting arms around her -

Another hmm. If that wizard had a halfway decent love spell . . .

All right, so be it.

Cadmus was set to leave when the sight of the wavering street again halted his first step. He thought he knew what caused the effect and why he'd not detected any magic while outside. A shielding spell or guardian wards around the inn would do that. Either would have to be terrifically strong to hold up against the Hell-river and Botello's daylight leeching. Also very advanced, so as to be unnoticeable to those within it.

Now that he was conscious of the possibility, Cadmus shut his eyes and reached out beyond himself. Yes, by concentrating he could feel the presence of a magical wall. Myhr must have set it up and let it run, definite indication of a powerful talent. Even Botello couldn't do it on that advanced a level. Not before his displacement. It might be a different story at present, but worry about it later.

Right, nothing for it but to go to Darmo House and inquire after the long-strayed Debreban. He'd been gone all day, and instead of following Filima's man as ordered he'd somehow teamed up with him. So they were gossiping, about gawd knows what. Everyone did in Rumpock. It was the town's second most popular pastime.

While there Cadmus could make inquiries about this Myhr fellow. Filima should have no reason to keep him to herself, not if she was sincere about getting rid of the Hell-river, which she was. Why else expose herself to those miserable headaches with all her scrying?

But he couldn't go up to Darmo House on foot and ring the bell like a common peddler. And he couldn't let Filima see him in these unsuitable rags. No, a trip home to change and have his horse saddled was in order. Her prince of hearts would arrive in style on a prancing, arch-necked charger. With flowers. But not a too-large bouquet, something small and friendly, tasteful . . . cheap . . .

He plunged into the whirl of the street. Now that he'd attuned himself to the magic, he felt the difference between the shielded indoors and the unprotected outside. Cadmus detected a very slight internal tug, easily mistaken for indigestion or the like; no wonder he'd overlooked it before.

He strode away from the inn, but missed a step, having caught a flash of green and purple in the corner of his eye. He halted in mid-stride, which resulted in a minor collision between himself and some house woman walking behind. She snorted disapproval and moved around him.

Cadmus searched the crowds narrowly, seeking another glimpse. Had that been the missing Debreban? If so, he was in for a good tongue-lashing. The nerve of him, running off all day to swill drink and gossip when he was supposed to report back about Filima's captain as ordered. Had he done as he was told, Cadmus was certain he'd have learned about this Myhr-the-cat-faced-mage a lot sooner; then Botello wouldn't have been so painfully unpleasant.

On the other hand, Cadmus now had an uncontrived excuse to drop in on Filima, so it hadn't turned out too badly. He must be off quickly though, or he wouldn't have much time to spend with her before leaving for the palace. Had to get there before the sunset curfew.

One last futile look, then he hurried away, grumbling.

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