A 1998 Nebula nominee.
Nicholas Valiarde is the greatest thief in all of Ile-Rien. Under cover of darkness on the streets of the gaslit city, with the help of his companions Madeline Denare and Reynard Morane, he assumes the guise of a master criminal, stealing jewels from wealthy nobles to finance his quest for vengeance: the murder of Count Montesq. But now Nicholas's murderous mission is being interrupted by a series of eerie, unexplainable, fatal events. Someone with tremendous magical powers is opposing him, and traces of a necromantic power that hasn't been used for centuries appear.
Ile-Rien exists nowhere in our world, but its capital of Vienne is so clearly a city descended from the great 19th-century European cities that I felt justified in including it here. And you don't want to miss this one. Vienne is steeped in history and magic; its past tangles Nicholas Valliarde and Madeline Denare in a web neither can escape. It's an intricate tale of thievery and revenge, magic and theater — and the things the live in Vienne's sewers are no more deadly than the residents of its palaces. – Melissa Scott
"The vivid setting of a gas-lit city, equal parts decadence and elegance, would eclipse lesser characters than these. Character construction and setting are so deftly interwoven with the swiftly moving plot that the prose literally swept me away. The reader should be warned in advance, it is difficult to close the covers of this book."– Robin Hobb
The setting echoes with the lively sounds and sights of turn-of-the-18th-century France, with a mesh of dark magic woven throughout. ...Wells continues to demonstrate an impressive gift for creating finely detailed fantasy worlds rife with many-layered intrigues and immensely personable characters.– Publishers Weekly
A chillingly convincing fantasy that will entrap genre readers.– Young Adult Review
Magic and mystery in a luxuriously detailed tale for older readers.– Booklist
"There's nothing here," Mother Hebra whispered. She crouched in the brick rubble at the base of the barred gate, hands outstretched. She smiled and nodded to herself. "Aye, not a peep of a nasty old sorcerer's ward. She must've done it."
"She's somewhat early," Nicholas muttered, tucking away his pocketwatch. "But better that than late." Tools clanked as the others scrambled forward and he reached down to help the old woman up and out of the way.
The oil lamps flickered in the damp cold air, the only light in the brick-lined tunnel. They had removed the layer of bricks blocking the old passage into Mondollot House's cellars, but Mother Hebra had stopped them before they could touch the rusted iron of the gate, wanting to test to see if it was within the outer perimeter of the ward that protected the house. Nicholas could sense nothing unusual about the gate, but he wasn't willing to ignore the old witch's advice. Some household wards were designed to frighten potential intruders, others to trap them, and he was no sorcerer to know the difference.
The tunnel was surprisingly clean and for all its dampness the stale air was free of any stench. Most inhabitants of Vienne, if they thought of the tunnels beneath the city at all, thought of them as filthy adjuncts to the sewers, fit for nothing human. Few knew of the access passages to the new underground rail system, which had to be kept clear and relatively dry for the train workmen.
Crack and Cusard attacked the bars with hacksaws and Nicholas winced at the first high-pitched scrape. They were too far below street level to draw the attention of anyone passing above; he hoped the sound wasn't echoing up through the house's cellars, alerting the watchmen posted on the upper levels.
Mother Hebra tugged at his coat sleeve. She was half Nicholas's height, a walking bundle of dirty rags with only a tuft of gray hair and a pair of bright brown eyes to prove there was anything within. "So you don't forget later...."
"Oh, I wouldn't forget you, my dear." He produced two silver coins and put them in the withered little hand she extended. As a witch, she wasn't much, but it was really her discretion he was paying for. The hand disappeared back into her rags and the whole bundle shook, apparently with joy at being paid.
Cusard had cut through several bars already and Crack was almost finished with his side. "Rusted through, mostly," Cusard commented, and Crack grunted agreement.
"Not surprising; it's much older than this tunnel," Nicholas said. The passage had once led to another Great House, torn down years past to make way for Ducal Court Street, which stretched not too many feet above their heads.
The last bar gave way, and Cusard and Crack straightened to lift the gate out of the way. Nicholas said, "You can go now, Mother."
The prompt payment had won her loyalty. "Nay, I'll wait." The bundle of rags settled against the wall.
Crack set his end of the gate down and turned to regard Mother Hebra critically. He was a lean, predatory figure, his shoulders permanently stooped from a term at hard labor at the city prison. His eyes were colorless and opaque. The magistrates had called him a born killer, an animal entirely without human feeling. Nicholas had found that to be somewhat of an exaggeration, but knew that if Crack thought Hebra meant to betray them he would act without hesitation. The little witch hissed at him, and Crack turned away.
Nicholas stepped over the rubble and into the lowest cellar of Mondollot House.
There was no new red brick here. Their lamps revealed walls of rough-cut stone, the ceiling arched with thick pillars to support the weight of the structure above. A patina of dust covered everything and the air was dank and stale.
Nicholas led the way toward the far wall, the lamp held high. Obtaining the plans for this house, stored in a chest of moldering family papers at the Mondollot estate in Upper Bannot, had been the hardest part of this particular scheme so far. They were not the original plans, which would have long since turned to dust, but a builder's copy made only fifty years ago. Nicholas only hoped the good Duchess hadn't seen fit to renovate her upper cellars since then.
They reached a narrow stair that curved up the wall, vanishing into darkness at the edge of their lamplight. Crack shouldered past Nicholas to take the lead and Nicholas didn't protest. Whether Crack had sensed something wrong or was merely being cautious, he had learned not to ignore the man's instincts.
The stairs climbed about thirty feet up the wall, to a narrow landing with a wooden ironbound door. A small portal in the center revealed that it would open into a dark empty space of indeterminate size, lit only by the ghost of reflected light coming from a door or another stairwell on the far wall. Nicholas held the lamp steady so Cusard could work at the lock with his picks. As the door groaned and swung open, Crack stepped forward to take the lead again. Nicholas stopped him. "Is something wrong?"
Crack hesitated. The flicker of lamplight made it even harder than usual to read his expression. His face was sallow and the harsh lines around his mouth and eyes had been drawn there by pain and circumstance rather than age. He wasn't much older than Nicholas's thirty years, but he could have easily passed for twice that. "Maybe," he said finally. "Don't feel right."
And that's the most we'll have out of him, Nicholas thought. He said, "Go on then, but remember, don't kill anyone."
Crack acknowledged that with an annoyed wave and slipped through the door.
"Him and his feelings," Cusard said, glancing around the shadowed cellar and shivering theatrically. He was an older man, thin and with a roguish cast of feature that was misleading—he was the nicest thief that Nicholas had ever met. He was a confidence man by vocation and far more used to plying his trade in the busy streets than to practicing his cracksman's skills underground. "It don't half worry you, especially when he don't have the words he needs to tell what he does think is wrong."
Nicholas absentmindedly agreed. He was wondering if Madeline and Reynard had managed to leave the house yet. If Madeline had been discovered interfering with the ward.... If Madeline had been discovered, we would surely know by now. He pushed the worry to the back of his mind; Madeline was quite capable of taking care of herself.
Crack appeared at the gap in the doorway, whispering, "All clear. Come on."
Nicholas turned his lamp down to a bare flicker of flame, handed it to Cusard, and slipped through the door.
Hesitating a moment for his eyes to adjust, he could see the room was vast and high-ceilinged, lined by huge rotund shapes. Old wooden tuns for wine, or possibly water, if the house had no well. Probably empty now. He moved forward, following the almost weightless scrape of Crack's boots on the dusty stone. The faint light from the opposite end of the chamber came from a partly open door. He saw Crack's shadow pass through the door without hesitating and hurried after him.
Reaching it, he stopped, frowning. The heavy lock on the thick plank door had been ripped out and hung by a few distended screws. What in blazes.... Nicholas wondered. It was certainly beyond Crack's strength. Then he saw that the lock had been torn out from the other side, by someone or something already within the cellar room. The angle of the distended metal allowed no other conclusion. That is hardly encouraging.
Nicholas stepped through the door and found himself at their goal. A long low cellar, modernized with brick-lined walls and gas sconces. One sconce was still lit, revealing man-high vaults in the walls, each crammed with stacked crates, metal chests, or barrels. Except for the one only ten paces away, which was filled with the bulk of a heavy safe.
The single lamp also revealed Crack, standing and watching Nicholas thoughtfully, and the dead man stretched at his feet.
Nicholas raised an eyebrow and came further into the room. There were two other bodies sprawled on the stone flags just past the safe.
Crack said, "I didn't do it."
"I know you didn't." Engineering Crack's escape from the Vienne prison had been one of the first acts of Nicholas's adult criminal career; he knew Crack wouldn't lie to him. Nicholas sat on his heels for a closer look at the first corpse. Startled, he realized the red effusion around the man's head wasn't merely blood but brain matter. The skull had been smashed in by a powerful blow. Behind him, Cusard swore in a low voice.
Exonerated, Crack crouched down to examine his find. The dead man's suit was plain and dark, probably the uniform of a hired watchman, and the coat was streaked with blood and the filthy muck from the floor of the cellar. Crack pointed to the pistol still tucked into the man's waistband and Nicholas asked, "Are they all like this?"
Crack nodded. "Except one's had his throat torn out."
"Someone's been before us!" Cusard whispered.
"Safe ain't touched," Crack disagreed. "No sign of anyone. Got something else to show you, though."
Nicholas pulled off his glove to touch the back of the dead man's neck, then wiped his hand on his trousers. The body was cold, but the cellar air was damp and chill, so it really meant little. He didn't hesitate. "Cusard, begin on the safe, if you please. And don't disturb the bodies." He got to his feet to follow Crack.
Cusard stared. "We going on with it then?"
"We didn't come all this way for naught," Nicholas said, and followed Crack to the other end of the cellar.
Nicholas took one of the lamps, though he didn't turn the flame up; Crack didn't seem to need the light. Finding his way unerringly, he went to the end of the long cellar, passing all the boxes and bales that contained the stored wealth of the Mondollot family, and rounded a corner.
Nicholas's eyes were well-adjusted to the dark and he saw the faint light ahead. Not pure yellow firelight, or greasy gaslight, but a dim white radiance, almost like moonglow. It came from an arched doorway, cut into a wall that was formed of old cut stone. There had been a door barring it once, a heavy wooden door of oak that had hardened over time to the strength of iron, that was now torn off its hinges. Nicholas tried to shift it; it was as heavy as stone. "In here," Crack said, and Nicholas stepped through the arch.
The radiance came from ghost-lichen growing in the groined ceiling. There was just enough of it to illuminate a small chamber, empty except for a long stone slab. Nicholas turned the flame of the lamp up slowly, exposing more of the room. The walls were slick with moisture and the air stale. He moved to the slab and ran his hand across the top, examining the result on his gloved fingers. The stone there was relatively free of dust and the oily moisture, yet the sides of the slab were as dirty as the walls and floor.
He lifted the lamp and bent down, trying to get a better angle. Yes, there was something here. Its outline was roughly square. Oblong. A box, perhaps, he thought. Coffin-sized, at least.
He glanced up at Crack, who was watching intently. Nicholas said, "Someone entered the cellar, by a route yet undetermined, stumbled on the guards, or was stumbled on by them, possibly when he broke the lock on the older cellar to search it. Our intruder killed to prevent discovery, which is usually the act of a desperate and foolish person." It was Nicholas's belief that murder was almost always the result of poor planning. There were so many ways of making people do what you wanted other than killing them. "Then he found this room, broke down the door with a rather disturbing degree of strength, removed something that had lain here undisturbed for years, and retired, probably the same way he entered."
Crack nodded, satisfied. "He ain't here no more. I'll go bank on that."
"It's a pity." And now it was doubly important to leave no trace of their presence. If I'm going to be hanged for murder, I'd prefer it to be a murder I actually committed. Nicholas consulted his watch in the lamplight, then tucked it away again. "Cusard should be almost finished with the safe. You go back for the others and start moving the goods out. I want to look around here a little more." There were six other men waiting up in the tunnel, whose help was necessary if they were to transport the gold quickly. Crack, Cusard, and Lamane, who was Cusard's second in command, were the only ones who knew him as Nicholas Valiarde. To Mother Hebra and the others hired only for this job, he was Donatien, a shadowy figure of the Vienne underworld who paid well for this sort of work and punished indiscretion just as thoroughly.
Crack nodded and stepped to the door. Hesitating, he said again, "I'll go bank he's not here no more...."
"But you would appreciate it if I exercised the strictest caution," Nicholas finished for him. "Thank you."
Crack vanished into the darkness and Nicholas stooped to examine the floor. The filth and moisture on the pitted stone revealed footmarks nicely. He found the tracks of his own boots, and Crack's, noting that the first time his henchman had approached the room he had come only to the threshold. In the distance he could hear the others, muted exclamations as the new arrivals saw the dead men, the rumble of Crack's voice, a restrained expression of triumph from everyone as Cusard opened the safe. But there were no footmarks left by their hypothetical intruder.
Kneeling to make a more careful survey, and ruining the rough fabric of his workman's coat and breeches against the slimy stone in the process, Nicholas found three scuffles he couldn't positively attribute to either Crack or himself, but that was all. He sat up on his heels, annoyed. He was willing to swear his analysis of the room was correct. There was no mistaking that some object had been removed from the plinth, and recently.
Something that had lain in this room for years, in silence, with the ethereal glow of the ghost-lichen gently illuminating it.
He got to his feet, meaning to go back to the guards' corpses and examine the floor around them more thoroughly, if the others hadn't already obliterated any traces when carrying out the Duchess's stock of gold.
He stepped past the ruined door and something caught his eye. He turned his head sharply toward the opposite end of the corridor, where it curved away from the vaults and into the older wine-cellars. Something white fluttered at the end of that corridor, distinct against the shadows. Nicholas turned up the lamp, drawing breath to shout for Crack—an instant later the breath was knocked out of him.
It moved toward him faster than thought and between the first glimpse of it and his next heartbeat it was on him.
A tremendous blow struck him flat on his back and the creature was on top of him. Eyes, bulging because the flesh around them had withered away, stared at him in black hate out of a face gray as dead meat. It bared teeth like an animal's, long and curving. It was wrapped in a once-white shroud, now filthy and tattered. Nicholas jammed his forearm up into its face, felt the teeth tearing through his sleeve. He had kept his grip on the lantern, though the glass had broken and the oil was burning his hand. He swung it toward the thing's head with terror-inspired strength.
Whether it was the blow or the touch of burning oil, it shrieked and tore itself away. The oil had set the sleeve of Nicholas's coat afire; he rolled over, crushing the flames out against the damp stone.
Crack, Cusard, and Lamane were suddenly clustered around him. Nicholas tried to speak, choked on the lungful of smoke he had inhaled, and finally gasped, "After him."
Crack bolted immediately down the dark corridor. Cusard and Lamane stared at Nicholas, then at each other. "Not you," Nicholas said to Cusard. "Take charge of the others. Get them out of here with the gold."
"Aye," Cusard said in relief and scrambled up to run back to the others. Lamane swore but helped Nicholas to his feet.
Cradling his burned left hand, Nicholas stumbled after Crack. Lamane had a lamp and a pistol; Crack had gone after the thing empty-handed and in the dark.
"Why are we following it?" Lamane whispered.
"We have to find out what it is."
"It's a ghoul."
"It's not a ghoul," Nicholas insisted. "It wasn't human."
"Then it's fay," Lamane muttered. "We need a sorcerer."
Vienne had been overrun by the Unseelie Court over a hundred years ago, in the time of Queen Ravenna, but as far as the superstitious minds of most city people were concerned, it might as well have happened yesterday. "If it's a fay, you have iron," Nicholas said, indicating the pistol.
"That's true," Lamane agreed, encouraged. "Fast as it was, though, it's miles away by now."
Perhaps, Nicholas thought. Whether it had actually moved that quickly, or it had afflicted him with some sort of paralysis he couldn't tell; his mind's eye seemed to have captured an image of it careening off the corridor wall as it charged him, which might indicate that its movement toward him hadn't been as instantaneous as it had seemed.
This was the lowest level of the Mondollot wine-cellars. The lamplight revealed cask after cask of old vintages, some covered by dust and cobwebs, others obviously newly tapped. Nicholas remembered that there was one of the largest balls of the fashionable season going on not too many feet above their heads, and while a large supply had undoubtedly already been hauled upstairs, servants could be sent for more casks at any moment. He could not afford to pursue this.
They found Crack waiting for them at the far wall, near a pile of broken bricks and stone. Nicholas took the lamp from Lamane and lifted it high. Something had torn its way through the wall, pushing out the older foundation stone and the brick veneer. The passage beyond was narrow, choked by dust and filth. Nicholas grimaced. From the smell it led straight to the sewer.
"That's where he came in." Crack offered his opinion. "And that's where he went out."
"Ghouls in the sewers," Nicholas muttered. "Perhaps I should complain to the aldermen." He shook his head. He had wasted enough time on this already. "Come, gentlemen, we have a small fortune waiting for us."