copyright © 2009 Stephen Leigh
A MAGIC OF DAWN
(Book 3 of the Nessantico Cycle)
If a city can have a gender, Nessantico was female...
She had experienced the flowering of all her promise and her beauty during the long reign of Kraljica Marguerite. In that magnificent half-century, Nessantico's long childhood and even longer adolescence culminated in mingled elegance and power, unmatched anywhere in the known world. For fifty years, she brooked no peer. For fifty years, she believed that this glorious present would be eternal, that her ascent would -- no, must -- continue.
Her superiority was ordained. It was destined. It would last forever.
It would not.
Kraljica Marguerite, like all those who ruled within Nessantico's confines, was human and mortal; Marguerite's son Justi and then Justi's son Audric, both of whom inherited the Sun Throne, didn't possess Marguerite's gifts. Without Marguerite's strong guidance, without her guile and her wisdom, Nessantico's flowering was sadly short-lived. The blossom of Marguerite's promise withered and died in far less time than it had taken it to bloom.
Worse, rivals rose to challenge Nessantico. Firenzcia betrayed her: Firenzcia, the brother-city who had always envied her; Firenzcia, who had always been her companion, her strength, her shield and her sword. Firenzcia left her to form its own empire.
And from the unknown west strode a new, harsher challenge: an alien, unguessed empire as strong as Nessantico herself. Stronger, perhaps; for the Tehuantin -- as they were called -- not only ripped away Nessantico's hold on their shores, but sent an army over the sea to plunder and rape and destroy the cities of the Holdings and to shatter the walls of Nessantico herself.
The assault left Nessantico shaken and afraid. She was stained by the soot of magical fire and twice-trampled by the boots of foreign soldiers: first the Tehuantin, then the Firenzcians. The architectural beauty of her buildings morphed into toppled columns. broken domes and roofless husks. The A'Sele was clogged with bodies and refuse.
Nessantico... she was a woman exhausted by her struggles, worn by her cares, and clothed in the shredded tatters of her old supremacy. Her sense of security and inevitability was lost, perhaps -- she feared -- forever. The smell still lingered in her streets: a malodorous stench of rotting flesh, blood, and ash.
A lesser entity would have collapsed. A lesser entity might have looked at her sad reflection in the fouled waters of the River A'Sele and seen a skeletal death-mask staring back. A lesser entity would have given up and ceded her supremacy to Firenzcia or to the unglimpsed cities of the Tehuantin.
She gathered the tatters around herself. She drew herself up and cleansed herself as best she could. She cloaked herself in pride and memories and belief, and vowed that one day, one day, the rest of the world would again bow to her.
But not yet today.
Gschnas -- the False World Ball -- swirled below Allesandra in the Great Hall of the Kraljica's Palais. The hall was still partially under construction, but that only lent depth to the ambience.
After all, the False World Ball was where reality was turned on its head. Costumes -- the stranger and more creative, the better -- were required of all attendees. The cracks in the walls had been filled with sculptures of demons or miniature pastoral landscapes, as if the foundations of reality itself had broken, the cracks providing glimpses of entire new worlds set at odd angles to their own. A flock of flightless birds had been brought in from Far Namarro: as tall as a man, with tufts of grandly-colored plumage rising from their rumps. They wandered among the revelers. Several téni from the A'Téni's Temple had been set to keeping a river of crystalline water flowing in a sweeping curve above the dancers' heads, with large goldfish swimming placidly in the magic-driven currents. The musicians sat on chairs perched within a huge gilded frame hung on the wall at one end of the room, their backdrop a beautifully-painted landscape, so it appeared that a painting of musicians had magically sprung to life.
Gschnas: a fantasy created for the entertainment of the ca'-and-cu' -- the wealthy and important people of the city and of the greater Holdings. They had come bearing the Kraljica's gilded invitations: they packed the floor below Allesandra bedecked in their glittering costumes: A'Téni ca'Paim, the highest ranking téni of the city; Commandant Telo cu'Ingres of the Garde Kralji; Commandant Eleric ca'Talin of the Garde Civile; Sergei ca'Rudka, once Regent and now Ambassador to Firenzcia; all of the members of the Council of Ca' except the Numetodo Varina ca'Pallo, who was home with her desperately ill husband...
"Kraljica, you look stunning." Talbot ci'Noel, her aide, came up alongside her as she peered over the balcony at the gathering. He was dressed as a monkey, an ironic costume for a man who was always exceedingly proper and elegant, and who ruled the palais staff with a fist of iron and a voice of fire. Behind the furred snout of the mask, his lips smiled. "Are you ready for your entrance?" Already, the dozen or so téni had begun their chanting. Talbot tested -- for what seemed the hundredth time -- the ropes attached to the harness concealed in Allesandra's gown: a flowing, billowing fantasy of chiffon and lace ribbons, so that when she moved, trails of shimmering color rippled in vain pursuit.
"I'm ready," she told Talbot. Two servants came forward, each with a glass ball enchanted with Numetodo spells -- Talbot was a Numetodo himself, and Varina, the A'Morce of the Numetodo, had herself placed the spells in the glass balls. Allesandra took one in each hand. Talbot gestured to another of the servants on the floor below, who in turn signaled the musicians. The gavotte they had been playing abruptly ended, followed by an ominous, low roll of the drums like thunder. The chanting of the téni increased, and the ceiling of the palais was suddenly obscured by dark, roiling clouds from which lightning hissed and arced. Allesandra spoke the spell-word Varina had given her, and the globes in Allesandra's hands blossomed with pure, white light -- so bright that Allesandra, wearing glasses with smoked lenses as protection, could barely see for the coruscating brilliance. Anyone looking up at these sudden twin suns was momentarily blinded. Allesandra felt the ropes pull and lift her: she was gliding up and over the balcony rail, then descending slowly toward the floor. The glass globes were cold in her hand with the Numetodo magic. and the globes now flared brilliant trails of sparks, as if two slow meteors were descending from the heavens to earth, a human figure trapped in their intense radiance. Allesandra heard the applause and cheers welling up to greet her. Her feet touched the marble floor (she was certain she could almost hear Talbot's sigh of relief), and the light within the globes blossomed -- an iridescent and almost painful blue, followed by pure, aching gold: the colors of the Holdings. At the same time, servants hurried from the sides of the hall to remove the ropes from the harness catches and take her glasses. The ropes were hastily pulled up as the globes maintained their brilliance, then finally went dark.
And there, as eyesight slowly returned to the onlookers, was the Kraljica, her crown on her head. The ovation was pleasingly deafening. "Thank you all," she said as they bowed and cheered. "Thank you. Now, please -- enjoy the ball!" She gestured, and the music began once more, and the couples on the dance floor bowed to each other and resumed the dance. The ca'-and-cu' pressed around her in their costumes, bowing and murmuring their appreciation, and she smiled to them as she passed among them.
She saw Sergei among them, and gestured for him to join her. He bowed -- awkwardly, his arthritic body no longer as supple and flexible as it had been when she'd first known him -- and he came over to her, leaning heavily on his cane. He smiled at her, the reflective silver paint on his face cracking slightly as he did so. Sergei's silver nose -- the false one he always wore to replace the one of flesh he'd lost in his youth -- seemed almost to be part of him tonight. A patchwork of small mirrors covered the bashta he wore. Crazed, broken reflections of herself and the dancers and crowd behind her moved madly around him. The lights of the hall flared and shimmered in the tiny mirrors, dancing from the nearest walls.
"That was quite an entrance," Sergei said. Allesandra slowed her pace to his as they moved through the crowds.
"Thank you for suggesting the method, though you had poor Talbot terrified that something would go wrong. I must say, however, that I'll need to retire for a bit soon to have my attendants get rid of the harness; it's rubbing my poor skin raw."
He smiled. "The Kraljiki's entrance should always be dramatic," he said, smiling. "A little discomfort is fair payment for a stunning appearance. You should know that."
"That's easy for you to say, Sergei, when you don't have to endure it."
"I've always loved the Gschnas," Sergei told her. "I'm glad you've brought back the tradition. Kraljica. Nessantico needs her traditions, especially after the last few years."
Especially after the last few years. The comment tightened her lips and narrowed her eyes. "You needn't bring that up now, Ambassador," she told him. The history was never far from anyone's mind in Nessantico: the horrible cost of recovery after the Westlanders nearly destroyed the city, the continued separation of the Holdings and the Coalition nations, and most recently, the political and military disaster in West Magyaria..
"Then I won't," he answered. "Though I do need to talk with you about the Firenzcian spy that Talbot believes he's discovered..." As Sergei talked, she looked away from the images of herself on his clothing to the crowd that pressed in around them. She saw a man staring at her. He was handsome, his skin somewhat darker than most of those in the hall, his head entirely shaved, though his beard full and midnight-black. His clothing was loose and wildly-colored, and feathers sprouted from the shoulders as if he were some exotic bird. His eyes -- behind a beaked demi-mask -- were strangely blue and light, his gaze piercing and keen. He saw her attention and he nodded slightly toward her.
Sergei was still talking. "...already has the traitorous servant in the Bastida, so he'll be no more trouble. But there are still the Morellis-" He stopped as she raised her hand.
"Who is that man?" she whispered to Sergei, glancing again at him. "He looks Magyarian."
Sergei followed her gaze. "Indeed, Kraljica. That is Erik ca'Vikej. He's just come to Nessantico yesterday. There's undoubtedly a note on your desk from him requesting an audience. I haven't had the chance to speak to him myself yet."
"Stor ca'Vikej's son?" The man had truly wonderful eyes. He continued to regard her, though he made no move to approach.
"I will see him," she told Sergei. "In the south alcove, a mark of the glass from now. Tell him."
Sergei might have frowned, but he bowed his head. "As you wish, Kraljica," he said. His cane tapped on the marble floor as he left her side, his costume sending motes of light fluttering. Allesandra turned away, nodding and conversing with others as she moved slowly around the hall. Talbot came to her side, having paid and dismissed the téni who had helped with her descent, and she told him to clear the south alcove. She continued on her procession around the room. A'Téni ca'Paim, the head of the Faith in Nessantico, dressed tonight as one of the Red Moitidi, was approaching. "Ah, A'Téni ca'Paim, so good of you to attend, and your téni have done a wonderful job this evening..."
A mark of the glass later, Allesandra had made a circuit of the hall and moved past the line of servants Talbot had set around the alcove to keep away the crowd. She took a seat there, listening to the music. A few moments later, Sergei approached, with ca'Vikej just behind him. "Kraljica, may I present Erik ca'Vikej..."
The man stepped forward and performed a deep, elaborate bow. She remembered that bow: a Magyarian form of courtesy. The ca'-and-cu' of West Magyaria had bowed the same way for her late husband Pauli, who had become Gyula of West Magyaria after their rancorous separation, only to be assassinated by his own people eight years later. Two years ago, Eric's vatarh, Stor, had tried to step into the vacuum left by Pauli's death.
Allesandra had made the decision to back him. That choice had turned out to be one poor, the full extent of which was still be determined. She'd made the choice to send only a small part of the Holdings army to support Stor ca'Vijek's own troops. That had doomed them, and the effort had ended in a military defeat for the Holdings at the hands of Allesandra's son, Hďrzg Jan.
"Especially after the last few years..." Sergei's comment still rankled.
"Kraljica Allesandra, it is my pleasure to meet you at last." The man's voice was as stunning as his eyes: low and mellifluous, yet he didn't seem to notice its power. He kept his head down. "I wanted to thank you for your support of my vatarh. He was always grateful to you for your championing of our cause, and he always spoke well of you."
Allesandra searched his voice for a hint of sarcasm or irony; there was none. He seemed entirely sincere. Sergei was looking carefully to one side, hiding whatever he was thinking. Close, she could see the gray flecks in ca'Vikej's beard and the lines around his eyes and mouth: he was not much younger than she was herself -- not surprisingly, since Stor ca'Vikej had been elderly when he'd tried to take the Gyula's throne. "I wish events had gone differently," she told him. "But it wasn't Cénzi's will."
The man made the sign of Cénzi at that statement -- he was of the Faith, then. "Perhaps less Cénzi than circumstances, Kraljica," he answered. "My vatarh was... impatient. I'd counseled him to wait for a time when the Kraljica and the Holdings could have supported us more openly. I told him then that the two battalions you sent were the most he could expect unless he waited, but..." He shrugged; the motion was as graceful as his manner. "I warned him that Hďrzg Jan would come down with the full fury of the Firenzcian army."
Yes, and Sergei told me the same thing, and I didn't believe him. She nodded, but she didn't say that. Handsome, modest, polite, but there was ambition in Erik ca'Vikej as well. Allesandra could see it. And there was anger toward the Coalition for his vatarh's death. "You are more patient than your vatarh, perhaps, Vajiki ca'Vikej, but yet you want the same thing. And you're going to tell me that there are still many Magyarians who support you in this."
He smiled at that: graceful, yes. "Evidently my head is entirely transparent to the Kraljica." He swept a hand over his bald skull. He managed to look almost comically bemused. "Next time, I should perhaps wear a hat."
She laughed softly at that; she saw Sergei glance at her oddly. "Supporting your vatarh as much as I did nearly brought me to war with my own son," she told him.
"Family relationships too often resemble those between countries," he answered, still smiling. "There are some borders that must not be crossed." He cocked his head slightly as the musicians started a new song out in the hall. He held his hand out toward Allesandra. "Would the Kraljica be willing to dance with me -- for the sake of what she meant to my vatarh?"
Allesandra could see the slight shake of Sergei's head. She knew what he was thinking as well: You don't want reports to get back to Brezno that you are entertaining Stor ca'Vikej's son... But there was something about him, something that drew her. "I thought you were a patient man."
"My vatarh also taught me that an opportunity missed is one forever lost." His eyes laughed, held in fine, dark lines.
Allesandra rose from her chair. She took his hand.
"Then, for the sake of your vatarh, we should dance," she said, and led him from the alcove.
It was difficult to be stoic, even though she knew that was what Karl would have wanted of her.
Karl had been failing for the last month. Looking at him now, Varina sometimes found it hard to find in the drawn, haggard face the lines of the man she had loved, to whom she'd been married for nearly fourteen years now, who had taken her name and her heart.
Because he was so much older than her, she had feared that their time together must end this way, with him dying before her.
It seemed that would be the case.
"Are you in pain, love?" she asked, stroking his balding head, a few strands of gray-white hair clinging stubbornly to the crown. He shook his head without speaking -- talking seemed to exhaust him. His breath was too fast and too shallow, almost a panting, as if clinging to life required all the effort he could muster. "No? That's good. I have the healer's brew right here if that changes. She said that a few sips would take away any pain and let you sleep. Just let me know if you need it -- and don't you dare try to be brave and ignore it."
Varina smiled at him, stroking his sunken, stubbled cheek. She turned away because the tears threatened her again. She sniffed, taking in a long breath that shuddered with the ghost of the sobs that wracked her when she was away from him, when she allowed the grief and emotions to take her. She brushed at her eyes with the sleeve of her tashta and turned back to him, the smile fixed again on her face. "The Kraljica sent over a letter, saying how much she missed us at the Gschnas last night. She said that her entrance went better than she could have wished, and that the globes I enchanted for her worked perfectly. And oh, I forgot to tell you -- a letter also came today from your son Colin. He says that your great-daughter Katerina is getting married next month, and that he wishes... he wishes you..." She stopped. Karl would not be going to the wedding. "Anyway, I've written back to him, and told him that you're not... you're not well enough to travel to Paeti right now."
Karl stared at her. That was all he could do now. Stare. His skin was stretched tautly over the skull of his face, the eyes sunken into deep, black hollows; Varina wondered if he even saw her, if he noticed how old she'd become as well, how her studies of the Tehunatin magic had taken a terrible physical toll on her. Karl ate almost nothing -- it was all she could do to get warm broth down his throat. He had difficulty swallowing even that. The healer only shook her head on her daily visits. "I'm sorry, Councilor ca'Pallo," she said to Varina. "But the Ambassador is beyond any skill I have. He's lived a good life, he has, and it's been longer than most. You have to be ready to let him go."
But she wasn't ready. She wasn't certain she would ever be, could ever be. After all the years she'd wanted to be with him, after all those years when his love for Ana ca'Seranta had blinded him to her, she was to be with him only for so short a time? Less than two decades? When he was gone, there'd be nothing left of him. Karl and Varina had no children of their own; despite being twelve years younger than Karl, she'd been unable to conceive with him. There'd been a miscarriage in their first year, then nothing, and her own monthly bleeding had ended five years ago now. There were times, in the last several weeks, when she'd envied those who could pray to Cénzi for a boon, a gift, a miracle. As a Numetodo, as a non-believer, she had no such solace herself; her world was bereft of gods who could grant favors. She could only hold Karl's hand and gaze at him and hope.
You have to be ready to let him go...
She took his hand, pressed it in her fingers. It was like holding a skeleton's hand; there was no returning pressure, his flesh was cold, and his skin felt as dry as brown parchment. "I love you," she told him. "I always loved you; I will always love you."
He didn't answer, though she thought she saw his dry, cracked lips open slightly and then close again. Perhaps he thought he was responding. She reached for the cloth in the basin alongside his bed, dipped it in the water, and dabbed at his lips.
"I've been working with a device to use the black sand again. Look-" She showed him a long cut along her left arm, still scabbed with dried blood. "I wasn't as careful as I should have been. But I think I may have really stumbled upon something this time. I've made changes to the design and I'm having Pierre make the modifications for me from my drawings..."
She could imagine how he might answer. "There's a price to pay for knowledge," he'd told her, often enough. "But you can't stop knowledge: it wants to be born, and it will force its way into the world no matter what you do. You can't hold back knowledge, no matter what those of the Faith might say..."
Downstairs, she could hear the kitchen staff beginning to prepare dinner: a laugh, a clattering of pans, the faint chatter of conversation, but here in the sickroom the air was hot and still. She talked to Karl mostly because the quiet seemed so depressing. She talked mostly because she was afraid of silence.
"I spoke to Sergei this morning, too. He said that he'll stop by tomorrow night, before he goes off to Brezno," she said in a falsely cheery voice. "He insists that if you won't join him at the table for dinner, he's going to come up here and bring you down himself. 'What good is Numetodo magic if you can't get rid of a little minor illness?' he said. He also suggested that the sea air in Karnmor might do you some good. I might see if we could take a villa there next month. He said that the Gschnas was ever so nice, though he mentioned that Stor ca'Vikej's son has come to the city, and he didn't like the way that Kraljica Allesandra paid attention to him..."
She realized that the room was too still, that she hadn't heard Karl take a breath for some time. He was still staring at her, but his gaze had gone empty and dull. She felt her stomach muscles clench. She took in a breath that was half-sob. "Karl...?" She watched his chest, willing it to move, listening for the sound of air moving through his nostrils. Was his hand colder? She felt for his pulse, searching for the fluttering underneath her fingertips and imagining she felt it.
The room was silent except for the distant clamor of the servants and the chirping of birds in the trees outside and the faint sounds of the city beyond the walls of their villa. She felt pressure rising in her chest, a wave that broke free from her and turned into a wail that sounded as if it were ripped from someone else's throat.
She heard the servants running up the stairs, heard them stop at the door. The sound of her grief echoed in her ears. She was still holding Karl's hand. Now she let it drop lifeless back to the sheet. She reached out and brushed his eyelids closed, her fingertips trembling.
"He's gone," she said: to the servants, to the world, to herself.
The words seemed impossible. Unbelievable. She wanted to take them back and smash them so they could never be spoken again.
But she had said them, and they could not be revoked.
The Bastida a'Drago stank of ancient molds and mildew, of piss and black fecal matter, of fear and pain and terror. Sergei loved that scent. The odors soothed him, caressed him, and he inhaled deeply through the nostrils of his cold, silver nose.
"Good morning, Ambassador ca'Rudka." Ari ce'Denis, Capitaine of the Bastida, greeted Sergei from the open doorway of his office as Sergei shuffled through the gates. He moved slowly, as he always did now, his knees aching with every step, wishing he hadn't decided to leave his cane in the carriage. Sergei held up a piece of paper in his right hand toward ce'Denis. Under his left arm was tucked a long roll of leather.
"Good?" Sergei asked. "Not so much, I'm afraid." He could hear his age in his voice, also: that unstoppable tremor and quaver.
"Ah, yes," the Capitaine said. "Ambassador ca'Pallo's death. I'm sorry; I know he was a good friend of yours."
Sergei grimaced. His head ached with the worries that assailed him: the deteriorating relationship between the Holdings and the Firenzcian Coalition over the last few years; the Kraljica's cold reception to his suggestion to repair that rift finally and completely; the rising presence of Nico Morel and his followers in the city; even the way that Erik ca'Vikej had dominated the Kraljica's attention during the Gschnas...
Poor Karl's death had merely been a final blow. That had been a reminder of his own mortality, that soon enough Sergei would have to face the soul-weighers and see what his own life had come to. He was afraid of that day. He was afraid he knew how heavy his soul would be with his sins.
"It's Ambassador ca'Pallo's death, yes," Sergei answered, holding up the paper again as he approached the Capitaine. "Certainly. But it's also this. Have you seen it?"
Ce'Denis peered myopically at the paper. "I noticed some of these posted around the Avi on my way in this morning, yes. But I'm afraid I'm a plain man of battle, Ambassador. I don't have the skills of letters, as you undoubtedly remember."
"Ah." Sergei scowled. He had forgotten -- ce'Denis' illiteracy had been one of the reasons that he was only the Capitaine of the Bastida and not an a'offizier in the Garde Kralji or Garde Civile; it was also the reason he wasn't a chevaritt and why his rank was only ce'. Sergei's hand fisted around the parchment, crumpling it with a sound like brief fire, and tossing it on the ground. Deliberately, he stepped on it. "It's a repulsive piece of trash, Capitaine. Vile. A proclamation from that damned Nico Morel, railing against the Numetodo and insulting the memory of Ambassador ca'Pallo. Gloating at my good friend's death..."
Sergei grimaced. Memories of Nico Morel came back unbidden even as he railed. The boy he'd known a decade and a half ago during the great battle for Nessantico had little resemblance to the charismatic, raving firebrand who had surfaced recently. Still, those had been awful times, and Nico had been lost during them -- who knew what the boy had experienced? Who knew how life might have twisted him?
Life twisted you, didn't it? Sergei's headache pounded at his temples. "Nico Morel believes he's the incarnation of Cénzi himself," he said, rubbing his brow with one hand. "I swear, Capitaine, I will have Morel here in the Bastida one day, and I will take great delight in his interrogation."
Ce'Denis pressed his thin lips together. He looked up at the skull of the dragon, mounted on the wall and glaring down at the courtyard in which they stood. "I'm sure you will, Ambassador ca'Rudka."
Sergei glanced at the man sharply. He wasn't sure he liked ce'Denis' tone. "I want you to take any of your gardai not on duty and send them out along the Avi," he told the Capitaine. He nudged the paper on the ground with his foot. "Have them tear down any of these proclamations that they find. That will be the request of Commandant cu'Ingres when I return to the palais, but if you could start before the order comes, I would appreciate it. The fewer people who see this filth, the better."
"Certainly, Ambassador," ce'Denis said, saluting. "Will you be with us long this morning?" He glanced at what Sergei carried under his left arm.
"Not long," Sergei answered. "My day is busy, I'm afraid. And ci'Bella?"
"He is two levels down of the tower, Ambassador, as you requested." Ce'Denis inclined his head to Sergei and went back into his office, calling for his aide. Sergei shuffled toward the main tower of the Bastida, saluting the gardai who opened the barred door for him. He moved slowly down the stairs that spiraled into the lower chambers, bracing himself with a hand on the stone walls and groaning at the strain on his knees, wishing again that he'd brought his cane. At the landing, he reached into the pocket of his overcloak to pull out a small ring of keys; they jingled dully in his hand.
Two levels down he stopped, allowing the pain in his head and his knees to subside. When it had, he thrust the key into a lock -- there were flakes of rust around the keyhole; he made a mental note to mention that to Capitaine ce'Denis when he left -- there was no excuse for that type of sloppiness here. As he turned the key in the lock, he heard chains rustling and scraping the floor inside. He could see the image in his head: the prisoner cowering away from the door, pressing his spine to the old, damp stone walls as if they might somehow magically open and swallow him.
Suffocation in the embrace of stone might have been a more pleasant fate than the one that awaited the man, he had to admit.
Sergei glanced around before he opened the cell door. A garda was approaching from the lower levels. He nodded to Sergei without saying anything. The capitaine and the gardai of the Bastida knew that Sergei usually required an 'assistant' when he visited the prison; those who had the same predilections as Sergei often helped. They understood, and so they said nothing and pretended to see nothing, simply doing whatever Sergei asked of them.
He pushed open the cell door.
"Good morning, Vajiki ci'Bella," he said pleasantly to the man as the garda slid into the cell behind him. The prisoner stared at the two of them: Aaros ci'Bella, one of the many minor aides in the Kraljica's Palais. The man still wore the uniform of the palais, now soiled and torn. Sergei set the ring of keys on the hook just inside the cell door, leaving it open. Ci'Bella stood against the rear wall, the chains that bound his hands and feet loose -- the chains, looped through thick staples on the back wall, had just enough slack to allow him to come within a single stride of the door but no more. If the man charged at Sergei, all Sergei had to do was step back and he could not be reached -- though the garda would undoubtedly stop the man if he dared make such a foolish move. The prisoner who would do that was rare. 'Old Silvernose,' as Sergei was known derogatorily, had his reputation among the enemies of Nessantico and those in the lowest strata of Holdings society. He could already sniff the apprehension rising in the man. "May I call you Aaros?"
The man didn't even nod. His gaze traveled from Sergei's nose to the thick roll of black leather under his arm to the silent garda. Sergei set the roll down near the cell door, untied the loop holding it closed, and laid it out flat it with a flick of his hand, grunting with the motion. Inside, snared in loops, were instruments of steel and wood, their satin patina showing much use.
Looking at the display, ci'Bella moaned. Sergei saw a wetness darken the front of his pants and spread down his leg, followed by the astringent scent of urine. Sergei shook his head, tsking softly. The garda chuckled. "Ambassador," ci'Bella wailed. "Please. I have a family. A wife and three children. I've done nothing to you. Nothing."
"No?" Sergei cocked his head. He removed the overcloak from his shoulders, brushed at the soft fabric, and placed it carefully on the peg with the keys. He grimaced again as he knelt down, his knees cracking audibly and his leg muscles protesting. Once, this would have taken no effort at all... His fingers -- knobbed and bent with age, the skin loose and wrinkled over the bones and ligaments -- stroked the displayed instruments. He could feel the silken coolness of the metal through his fingertips, and it caused him to inhale deeply, sensually. "Tell me, Aaros. What would you do if a man harmed your wife, if he raped her or disfigured her? Wouldn't you want to hurt that man in return? Wouldn't you feel justified in taking revenge on that man?"
Ci'Bella seemed confused. "Ambassador, you're not married, and I did nothing to your wife or to anyone's..."
Sergei raised a white, heavy eyebrow. "No?" he said again. He allowed himself a gap-toothed smile. "But you see, I am married, Aaros. I'm married to Nessantico. She is my wife, my mistress, my very reason for living. And you, Aaros, you have assaulted and betrayed her. Talbot told me what he'd discovered. You spoke to an agent of the Firenzcian Coalition. Certainly you remember him? Garos ci'Merin? I had the... pleasure of talking to him yesterday, here in the Bastida." Sergei smiled at ci'Bella; the garda snorted with amusement. "He told me how kind you were to him. How helpful."
"But I didn't know the man was a Firenzcian, Ambassador," ci'Bella protested. "I swear it by Cénzi. He seemed lost, and I only escorted him through the palais..."
"You showed him through the corridors for the palais staff, the corridors that only authorized staff are permitted to access."
"It was the quickest way..."
"And it was also a way that someone wishing to harm the Kraljica or to prowl about the palais would desire to know and use."
"But I didn't know..."
Sergei smiled. He rubbed at the carved nostrils of his false nose, where the glue holding it to his face itched. "I believe you, Aaros," he said gently, smiling. "But I don't know if that's the truth. Perhaps you're a skilled liar. Perhaps you've helped other people find their way through the palais corridors. Perhaps you're an agent of Firenzcia yourself. I don't know." He plucked a set of clawed pincers from their loop and stood with an effort, his knees cracking once more. The garda pushed himself off the wall, moving forward to Aaros.
"But I will know," Sergei told the man. "Very soon..."