"Ghosts?" said the old woman. She raised her lantern and peered up into the dark. "Something bothering you tonight, Ghosts?"
Wind wailed in the high rafters and stirred the hems of the dust sheets shrouding the furniture. Casements rattled far off. The hall was very high, rising clear to the roof of the house. The faint glow of the lantern did not reach up there, but she needed no light to know of the staircases and balconies, the great fieldstone chimney at one end, the minstrels‘ gallery at the other, and all the grimy windows. She sensed something fretting, something intangible up there in the dark, listening amid the cobwebs and the beams.
"What ails you tonight. Ghosts?" She cackled.
Casements tapped in the darkness. Wind howled around a gable. Underfoot, little gray balls of dust rolled away out of sight.
The woman shivered, as the cold sank into her old bones. She tugged her shawls tighter with knotted fingers and began to hobble along the hall. The golden glow of her lantern reflected back from high windows and threw her shadow on the dust sheets. Often in ages past this hall had rung with the laughter of joyous parties, with music, and dancing, and feasting. No one but she had trodden these boards in many years.
Again she sensed the watchers, the listeners. She felt their hatred, their anger.
"No one coming tonight, Ghosts!" she cried. Her thin voice could barely raise an echo over the wind. "Snowing outside, Ghosts. Heavier than ever. Rare to see such snow, and three weeks yet till Winterfest! But he won‘t come tonight!"
Only the wind, others would have said, but she knew better.
Then she paused, head cocked, straining dull ears.
"Ah!" she said. "Bells?" She waited. Yes, again she heard that heavy note, carried on the wind. "So that‘s it? That‘s what disturbs your sleep, is it?" She cackled once more, reassured. "He‘s gone! The Evil has his black soul tonight, then? Small wonder you stir tonight, Ghosts!"
She paused, listening to the darkness. "The other one won‘t come tonight, Ghosts. Too snowy tonight." She felt resignation for an answer, overlying the triumph. Reassured, chortling to herself, she turned and hobbled away, back to her own nook in the basement.
Casements rattled, and the wind moaned.
* * * *
Winter and grief lay heavy as conquerors‘ boots on the great city. No lights showed in the deserted streets as the solitary coach rumbled slowly through the ever-deepening snow.
The continuous tolling of the temple bells was a jarring torment. For fifty-one years Emshandar IV had ruled the Impire. His passing had left a gaping wound in the lives of his subjects, a sorrow that only the imps themselves could comprehend.
The unseasonable snowstorm added to the misery of the bitter night. The wheels and the horses‘ hooves sounded strangely muffled. The carriage was traveling unaccompanied, although Ionfeu, being both a count and a proconsul, would normally rank an escort of Praetorian Hussars within the capital. But tonight secrecy was more important than protection against footpads and sorcery a much greater danger than any mundane violence.
From time to time Rap would rise from his seat and call directions through the hatch to the driver on his box, for darkness and whirling snow had reduced visibility to almost nothing. He could have managed without a coachman had he wished, controlling the horses directly, but any such blatant display of sorcery on this ill-omened night would be dangerous in the extreme. Even the farsight he was using to guide the carriage was perhaps a risk, although farsight was a very inconspicuous use of power, not easily detected.
The brief outbreak of sorcery he had sensed after the imperor‘s death had died away. The occult plane of the ambience had fallen silent again, just as mysteriously silent as it had been all through his bone-breaking forty-day ride in from Kinvale. Now he could perceive no magical activity except faint tremors from the minor sorcerous gadgetry so common in the capital--magic locks, trained dice, cloaks of invisibility, and other such fanciful devices. Those would mostly belong to mundanes. Of course occult shields had always been popular in Hub, and many buildings were wholly or partly shielded; he could not tell what sorcery might be in use within those. But the silence was ominous, in a city that normally seethed with sorcery.
He was exhausted by a long day on the back of too many other long days. He felt old and weary. Thirty-five was not old, he told himself sternly. It wasn‘t young, either, he retorted snappily. It was twice the age he‘d been the last time he‘d visited Hub.
Furthermore, his companions must be close to twice as old again, and they had both had a trying day also. Count Ionfeu was hiding his worry and weariness under a gracious concern for his royal guest‘s comfort, although his twisted back was tormenting him sorely in the jiggling carriage.
Even in darkness, Rap knew of the old aristocrat‘s pain. To ease that affliction, or even cure it, would be a fitting gratitude for hospitality so eagerly extended to an unexpected visitor. Still, he dared not use power that would reveal his presence to the inexplicable evil overhanging the world.
Countess Eigaze‘s efforts to appear cheerful would have fooled anyone but a sorcerer. She was a credit to the long-ago training she had received from Inos‘ Aunt Kade. To describe Eigaze as plump would be more charitable than realistic, but her bulk contained a large heart; she was motherly and vivacious, loving and widely loved. Having packed the remains of a snack back in the hamper, she had produced a large box of chocolate candies and was munching them with genuine enjoyment.
Conversation had dwindled as the carriage lumbered past one of the nerve-hammering temples. There was much to discuss, and yet little of it seemed worthy of discussion when the fate of the Impire was so shadowed. Rap had listened politely to news of his hosts‘ vast family, including not only children and grandchildren but also cousins to the farthest degree, as was the imps‘ wont. He had responded with tidings of Krasnegar, reporting that Inos was in excellent health, or had been six weeks before. He had answered innumerable questions about Kadie, Gath, Evi, and Holi.
Tomorrow was the twins‘ fourteenth birthday, and he would not be there.
"Not long now," he said, as the immediate clamor of bells began to fade mercifully into the background. "The one with the golden spires was the Temple of Prosperity, was it not?"
He knew it was, and the count confirmed it. Rap rose and directed the driver around a corner. He wished he could use a little calming magic on the poor man, who was almost out of his mind with the strain of driving through the dark and snow--not to mention the entirely normal terror of having a sorcerer on board. Under the circumstances, he was doing a magnificent job of controlling the horses, but then he was a faun, like Rap himself. Fauns and livestock went together like rolls and butter.
The journey was taking too long. The imperor did not know Rap was coming. If he left Sagorn‘s house before Rap arrived, then all kinds of disaster became possible. Patience!
"Tell me once more, my lord," Rap said, "what you saw in the Rotunda, if you can bear to. Perhaps another telling may spring some detail that has been missed so far." He had heard the story secondhand once and firsthand once. It still made no sense.
Despite his weariness, the old count nodded graciously. "Gladly. Just as if you were hearing it for the first time?"
"Very well. The imperor‘s failing health had persuaded Shandie that a regency would be necessary. We were rehearsing the enthronement ceremony. Shandie--his Majesty now, of course--was sitting on the Opal Throne and becoming very impatient at the time it was all taking. The princess ... impress ... was on the chair of state at his side. The Rotunda was almost dark, because of the snow collecting on the dome."
"It was also exceedingly chilly," Eigaze remarked between chocolates.
"Yes, it was. Then word arrived of the imperor‘s death."
"Who brought that word?" Rap inquired.
"Centurion Hardgraa," Eigaze added. "Shandie‘s chief of security."
"A trusted man, then," Rap said. He decided the point was irrelevant. Sorcerers need not rely on spies to learn secrets. The Four had probably known that Emshandar‘s heart had stopped beating before even the doctors at the old man‘s bedside.
"Trusted, certainly," Ionfeu agreed. "He spoke to young Ylo. A bit of a rascal, that one, but Shandie‘s personal signifer, so of course he must be completely trustworthy, also. I can‘t see why that ... Well, never mind. Ylo went up to the throne and told the new imperor. Of course everyone in the whole place had guessed what the news must be."
"You can always tell, can‘t you?" Eigaze murmured vaguely.
"I suppose there was about a minute," Ionfeu said. "The impress embraced her husband ... He said something to the lord herald ... Then the warlock appeared. A minute at the most."
"The Opal Throne was facing which way?"
"North. It was a north day. The four thrones of the wardens are arranged around the perimeter ... but of course you are familiar with the Rotunda."
Rap shivered. "Very! I almost died there once."
So Raspnex had been temporarily senior warden of the Four. It had been his right to invoke the council. Was that significant, or would he have intruded anyway? What in the name of Evil were the Four up to? What was really happening in the occult politics of the Impire? Rap ground his teeth in frustration. Midnight had passed, so technically the senior warden was now East--Warlock Olybino, pompous idiot. Did that matter?
"Everyone turned to see," the count said. "I told you how dark it had been getting, and the White Throne sort of blazed ... well, glowed, maybe. Like a lantern. All the jewels sparkled. And the warlock was standing in front of it, on the dais."
"I know Raspnex, too," Rap said. "Surly as any dwarf, but not a conspicuously evil person." How much could eighteen years change a man? "Just a year since he became warden?"
"A little less."
"He‘s a middling-powerful sorcerer, is all." When Bright Water had died, why had the remaining three wardens not found a stronger replacement to be warlock, or witch, of the north?
The count described Raspnex‘s dramatic demand that the new imperor have himself proclaimed immediately. He smiled as he described the ancient chief herald‘s paralysis and the fast action by Signifer Ylo, reciting the proclamation from memory.
"He sounds like a very quick-thinking man," Rap remarked, but the Shandie he had known had been a sharp, zealous boy. He would never have grown up to become the sort of ineffectual leader who surrounded himself with dullards.
"Ylo was always a scallywag." Eigaze sighed. "His mother was a close friend. He still calls me Aunt. He is an Yllipo, you know." In the dark, her face displayed a sorrow that she would have masked by day.
"The last of the Yllipos," her husband agreed.
"What is an Yllipo?" Rap inquired, puzzled by their sudden discomfort.
"They were a very rich family," Ionfeu said cautiously, "a large, long-established clan. Three or four years ago there was a scandal. Accusations of treason..." Even more warily he added, "Emshandar probably overreacted. He was very old, of course."
Imps did not lightly speak ill of their imperors, especially a newly dead one. Only one man left, out of a whole clan? Rap drew his own conclusions--and then wondered how that solitary survivor had turned up as close confidant of Emshandar‘s grandson and heir. Curious!
"So Shandie was proclaimed imperor by his signifer ... Emshandar V, of course?"
Eigaze chuckled. "The whole Impire calls him Shandie, though!"
"Long may it do so," her husband said.
With a muttered excuse, Rap rose to direct the coachman around the corner into Acacia Street. Sagorn‘s house had several entrances, but there was no reason not to go to the public one tonight.
"Almost there," he said as he sat down.
"Well, you know the rest," the count said. "Shandie took up the sword and buckler and tried to summon the other wardens. Only Witch Grunth answered the call."
"And very briefly!" Eigaze remarked disapprovingly.
"But her mere appearance was enough to show that the wardens acquiesce in his accession. Two wardens are enough. He‘s legally imperor now, until his dying day."
Rap knew Grunth, also, if only from afar. She was reasonably powerful, but indolent, like most trolls. With a painful sense of time passing, he realized that the big woman had reigned for eighteen years now. She had replaced the odious Zinixo.
And always he felt that nagging hunch that Zinixo was in some way responsible for the incorporate evil now looming over the world. Sorcerers‘ hunches tended to have sharp edges.
Neither Raspnex nor Grunth seemed the type of person to overthrow the Protocol and plunge the world into chaos. Olybino, now, was a dimwitted, posturing idiot. The warlock of the east might get himself involved in almost anything. And Lith‘rian of the south was an elf and therefore totally unpredictable by any normal logic. Why had those two not appeared in the Rotunda to hail the new imperor?
Peering along Acacia Street, Rap detected a group of three carriages standing in the snow, guarded by a score or so of Hussars. The horses whinnied greetings to one another. The coachman could probably make out the light of the lanterns now. What would the neighbors be thinking of this invasion? Sagorn and his associates would be furious at having their privacy disturbed.
"I wish I could remember the dwarf‘s final words exactly," Ionfeu said. "I may not have heard them correctly, even. The Rotunda echoes so much when it isn‘t crowded, and he has a very low-pitched voice."
"As I recall Raspnex," Rap said, "he sounds like a major rock slide at close quarters. Would you permit me to jog your memory?"
He saw the horrified expression that darkness was supposed to hide, but the old count‘s voice was quite steady as he said, "By all means do so, Sire."
The amount of power needed was infinitesimal, little more than the charm dispensed by a fairground hypnotist. Minds were easy to influence.
"Good Gods!" the count said. "I ... Bless my soul! Er ... Would you consider quoting me a price on reviving the rest of my memories, also, your Majesty?"
"I‘m not sure you‘d thank me. Everything might be a little too much."
"Yes ... I see the danger." Still blinking, Ionfeu chuckled uneasily and again tried to make himself more comfortable on the bench. "What Warlock Raspnex said before he vanished was, ‘Now flee, Emshandar! Take your wife and your child and begone, for the city is no longer safe for you. The Protocol is overthrown, and Chaos rules the world!‘ That‘s it exactly!"
His wife smiled uncertainly at him and fumbled for his hand to squeeze. "And then the four thrones all exploded as if they‘d been hit by thunderbolts," she said, "simultaneously! Whatever message that was supposed to convey, I do feel it was expressed with rather vulgar intensity."
"Thank you," Rap said grimly, although he had learned little new. Without the Protocol to control the political use of sorcery, the world would become a place of nightmare and horror.
The carriage rumbled to a halt alongside the others. A bronze-clad arm reached up to open the door.