|A Rose Upon His Grave
Author: DezoPenguin PM
A student who walks the halls of the Silver Star Tower after curfew falls into the clutches of the ghost witch, Lujei Piche, and into her scheme of revenge against those responsible for her death.Rated: Fiction T - English - Supernatural/Fantasy - Lujei - Words: 6,222 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Published: 10-17-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6405539
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: This is something of a companion piece to "A Rose Forever Blighted," which introduces Chamberlain Vallancourt, although prior knowledge of that story isn't necessary to follow what's happening here. Long-time readers of my GrimGrimoire fiction will also recognize Victor's name; his nephew shows up in "At First Sight."
~X X X~
Moonlight bathed the outer walk in a pale glow, making the Silver Star Tower seem, for a moment, like its name was literally true, the white marble colonnade and floor painted in the shade of the lunar metal. The countryside stretching out outside was likewise bathed in silver light, but the beautiful vista and the romantic surroundings were ignored by the slim figure that marched along, fists clenched.
Stupid Margery! Victor Marassou thought. Throwing me out like I'm some gigolo she can use and toss aside.
It had been just as good as he'd imagined. Victor had finally got to hold Margery Lindeman in his arms, feel her slender waist in his hands, feel those long, sensual legs wrap around his waist as they spent themselves in pleasure. It was the fulfillment of a dream...right down to the harsh awakening into reality. Rather than curl up in his embrace following their shared bliss, Margery had been cold and stern.
"No, Victor, you can't stay here."
He'd clutched for her, but she pushed him away.
"This bed is too small for two people to sleep comfortably. We're going to be summoning unicorns in Glamour tomorrow and I need to be properly rested to learn the Rune properly."
"You...you're concerned about class? But...but I thought we loved each other!"
She'd looked at him like he'd grown a second head.
"Love? Victor, you're a handsome guy with a good sense of humor, but come on, a little fun in bed isn't love."
There hadn't been much point in arguing further; it would just end in him being more and more humiliated on the way to the same finish, so he'd pulled on his shirt, breeches, and shoes, tucked the rest of his clothes under his arm, and left Margery to her no doubt untroubled dreams.
"How could I have fallen for someone so heartless?" he asked the empty corridor. In time, maybe, he would come to realize that he hadn't been used, that it was just a case of two teenagers with different expectations and too little experience in communicating their feelings clearly. He'd see that she'd taken his passionate declarations as a Casanova's flattery, and that he'd seen her lighthearted answers as maidenly shyness because they'd both heard what they wanted to hear.
For now, he just felt hurt, furious, and betrayed.
He stopped in his tracks. Had he heard a voice?
The night didn't answer. Victor remained standing there for a couple of seconds before he started walking again.
"What have we here?" the voice purred.
He spun around. There was nothing—but he'd definitely heard someone; there was no mistake.
"Who's playing tricks?" he snapped. Victor was so not in the mood for this.
He whirled around again. Still there was nothing. He started to fumble through his clothing for his wand. It was probably some stupid illusion left as a joke. He'd break it, and then maybe find who'd been playing games. He'd had enough of being the butt of someone else's sense of humor.
The length of an iron-hard staff crossed his chest, pinning his arms. He dropped the bundle; the wand fell free and rattled across the floor. He felt a lush softness press against his back, voluptuous curves that made Margery Lindeman seem like a child by comparison. But rather than the warmth of a normal body, this touch was cold, almost painfully so; Victor shuddered at the chill and flinched away, but was held fast.
"Aren't you the one playing tricks, little mousey? Didn't Gammel tell you that students aren't supposed to be wandering the halls out after curfew?"
A shiver ran through Victor. He understood now who the voice belonged to. He turned his head, coming face-to-face with a beautiful blonde woman. The sensuous body pressed against him was clad in the flimsiest of dresses, but the revealed flesh was faintly translucent and seemed to glow with an inner light, and was marred by dark patches as if some corruption had taken hold beneath her skin. Green vines embraced her like a lover, anchored to her by thorns that pierced the skin, brilliant sapphire-blue roses sprouting here and there. Her face would have been lovely, even with the ruby-red eyes, were it not for the madness peering out of their depths.
"G-Grand Witch Lujei!" he stammered, gut clenching in terror.
"You've heard of me! How charming! Well, then, I must surely think of something very special for you. I'd hate for you to die thinking the reality fell short of the stories."
"Mistress, is this really necessary?" This voice was male and eerily hollow. Victor glanced in its direction but saw no one, not even another spirit.
"But of course. What kind of teacher would I be if I didn't properly discipline misbehaving students? You know all about misbehaving students, don't you?"
"I...I had to do it, Mistress! If you had taken the Philosopher's Stone, then the nation..."
It was a spirit, Victor realized, but not an apparition—rather, it was the skill mounted on the end of Lujei's staff. Despite not having lungs to breathe out air or a larynx to give it voice or lips and tongue to shape words, the jaw moved and sound came forth. Lujei's hand tightened on the staff and the skull's words turned to screams as pale fire wreathed it for fifteen seconds or so.
"Now, what shall we do with you?" Lujei said to Victor, as if she were genuinely pondering the question. "I don't want to be boring. So, maybe you can help, little mouse? Why did someone who knows of me go strolling about after curfew?"
The truth was, he'd all but forgotten about the ghost witch after Margery had turned him out of her room. He'd been so emotional that he hadn't even taken the basic precautions to sense her presence (even if those were by no means infallible) that any student out at night would be advised to take.
"She probably did it on purpose," he said bitterly and extremely unjustly. "I guess it was better than me making a nuisance of myself."
"Mmn? 'She'? Do I sense a lovers' quarrel?"
"It doesn't matter."
"But it does!" She wrapped her leg around his in a parody of an embrace. "Everyone knows how I feel about faithless lovers. Don't they, my beloved?" She said this last in a much harsher voice, directing an angry glare at the skull.
"I didn't want to do it, Mistress!" the skull protested.
"She...she wasn't faithless," Victor murmured. "It's just that...I loved her, and she didn't love me."
"Oh, a broken heart, wandering lost and alone. Now I truly must make your end memorable, to make it a properly tragic story. It would never, never do to have your death be tiresome and cliched. That would be an insult to love." Her free hand slid down his right arm, her icy caress raising gooseflesh on his skin, and she laced her fingers together with his. "Oh! But what's this?" She lifted his hand and peered at the signet ring. "I know this family. You're well-known in Court Society, are you not? Are you related to the Count?"
"He...he's my father."
"How interesting! I could use an ally at Court. You haven't been banished here, have you?"
"No, I'm a second son. Magic seemed as good a choice as the Church or the army, from Father's point of view."
Lujei laughed gaily.
"How marvelous. Though I must say, I have more respect for your belle dame sans merci who turned you out from her embrace to mine. If you love her, then she surely could have won a proposal from you. Passing up an excellent match, and a chance to become a countess, all because she didn't love you. But then, it's you men whose hearts grow frail, who balance your love against your other emotions."
She released his hand, touching his chest when she said "hearts." Victor hadn't thought of things in that way before. Was Lujei right? Was Margery's seeming callousness nothing worse than simple honesty about her feelings and a lack of artifice?
Lujei's fingertip idly traced circles over Victor's heart, leaving an icy trail over his skin through the thin material of his shirt. A shudder ran through him; ironically, as his mind began to accept that he had not been the victim of some cruel deception, the apprentice became more aware of his real situation, as if depression and resentment had acted as a shield to stave off terror.
"So, my naughty boy, what am I to do with you, hmmm? Would you be willing to do a favor for me?"
"An errand in the capital. My current shopping opportunities are rather limited. You could fetch something for me, couldn't you?"
"Mistress, what are you planning?" the skull asked nervously.
"And what is it to you?" Lujei snapped at him. "With all the whining you've been doing about our little mousey's cruel fate, I'd have thought you'd be pleased that I want to do something else with him."
"Yes, Mistress, but—"
The skull obeyed.
"Now, my little one, what shall it be? Will you grant me one little favor, or is your heart so shattered that you feel only the peace of the grave will soothe it?"
Victor shivered. The idea of becoming Lujei's servant in anything was terrifying, but the idea of turning her down was far worse.
"I...you don't seem like death was all that soothing or peaceful for you, so I'll do what you ask, Grand Witch."
"Good boy!" she caroled. "Why, who knows; I might not even have needed this!"
Blue light suddenly blazed from Victor's chest, and he realized in horror that Lujei's seemingly aimless caresses over his torso had in fact been her sketching a Rune.
"W-what did you do?"
"Oh, nothing much. It's just a Rune to bind your soul in my power. I don't trust ardent young men with words of love on their lips, you see, and I wouldn't be happy if you left the Tower, ignored my little favor, and never returned. This way, if you decide to disappoint me, well then at least my love here would get to have a new friend. And staves are so passe for wizards these days; everyone's using wands now and I wouldn't want to be behind the times."
She released Victor then, spinning away, curling around her staff in an almost loverlike embrace. He shrank back away from her the moment she let go, until his back was pressed against the wall.
"Oh, don't be like that. If you do as I say, then I'll be happy to remove the Rune," Lujei said. "And it's not so hard a thing, really. Just a little errand to the capital. I'd do it myself except that pesky Calvaros's toy seems to like having me around. All you have to do is fetch something from a man at the palace, and bring it back to me. Someone from your eminent family shouldn't have any trouble."
"My family? What does my family have to do with anything?"
"Well, you can't expect to bring me something from a man if you can't even get in to see him, can you? That isn't very reasonable to believe. Why, if you were a farmer or tradesman's son, you wouldn't get past the gate without some ingenuity."
Victor's heart sank. Somehow, he didn't think that this errand would be simple at all.
"This man...does he know that I'm going to be getting this thing from him for you?"
"Why, of course not!" Lujei laughed. "And you're not to tell him, either. That would go and spoil the surprise, and we can't have that, now, can we?"
"Mistress, what are you planning?" the skull-staff again asked, even more nervously than before.
"Why, my beloved, I've decided to take your words to heart. Aren't you happy?"
"My words, Mistress?"
"Yes, darling! You're forever telling me how it wasn't your fault, that you had no choice but to steal my life with your treacherous words and envenomed gift. I've decided that I should admit that I could be wrong in placing all the blame on you. So, I shall make certain that you no longer have to be the only one who suffers. What could be fairer than that?"
She threw back her head and laughed, the wild, pealing song of madness making Victor cringe even more from this creature who held his soul in her grasp.
~X X X~
Three Weeks Later...
Mazarin Vallancourt sat behind the scarred oak desk and broke the seal on the first envelope. He extracted two sheets of stiff, cream-colored paper covered in tiny but very precisely formed handwriting and began to read. He soon discovered that there was little to note; Vanaheim was at the far northeast corner of the continent, one of those nations that fringed the cold wastes, and its internal affairs were rarely relevant to anyone in the kingdom other than sea-traders, but one never knew.
More importantly, the correspondent allowed Vallancourt to double-check the report of the Royal Ambassador to the northern nation, to make certain that the man was taking note of all relevant developments and passing them on in adequate detail. In this way he checked and double-checked the skill and loyalty both of the appointee. As Chamberlain, it was his responsibility to oversee the ministerial functions of Her Majesty's government and make sure that each link in the administrative chain was sound.
Concluding the letter, he made a few notes in the margin and set it aside in the stack for which a reply was owed but not urgently so, then turned to the next item in his correspondence. The hours crept past as Vallancourt worked, the only sounds the crackle of the waning fire, the ticking of the cherrywood pendulum-clock on the wall, and the soft scratch of the Chamberlain's pen on paper. By that last, a careful listener could have discovered the nature of a given missive: the heavier sound of quill-tip on expensive, formal stationery suited to his office, or the barely audible whisper as he wrote on plain, cheap paper for very unofficial communications. These latter were usually the more important ones, but he treated them all with equal care and diligence.
It was past eleven when everything was at last done for the day. With a ring of keys attached to his watch-chain, he locked away certain items in two drawers of his desk, placed a single letter into a compartment that required a hidden catch to reveal, and sorted the rest into three stacks on the desk for his secretary's benefit. He then rose and strolled over to the fireplace, where he consigned the final sheaf of papers to the embers, watching them catch light, blackening and curling in the renewed flames before they collapsed into ash. The flickering light played across his face and cast it in brass before the papers flamed out and shadow swallowed his features anew.
When the light went out at last, leaving only the waning glow of the dying fire, a faint, scarcely perceptible shudder ran through Vallancourt. He felt the first stirrings, a serpent in his mind beginning to twist and uncoil itself after a year's slumber.
It was her birthday, after all.
Quick steps took the Chamberlain to the sideboard, where he poured two fingers of fine single-malt whiskey into a cut-glass tumbler. Light from the oil lamp on the desk awoke amber fire in the liquor's depths, and he drank off half of the whiskey in one swift gulp.
Emotion was all well and good in its place, he thought. Without it, one would not be human. One would be a statue come to life, an alchemic creation rather than a man. But that was not the same as saying that it should be given free reign. Emotions should be a guide, pointing the way. They should not be allowed to have control.
And just what was it he felt, anyway, he asked himself. Was it regret? Guilt?
Regrets he accepted. It was only human to wish that the past had not turned out as it had. That a different outcome had been possible. That happily-ever-after was not just a fairy tale. Yes, regrets were only reasonable.
No, there was no reason for guilt.
It had been necessary, as so much else had been necessary. One of the letters he had just completed contained instructions, coded within the language of an otherwise innocuous missive, to carry out another such necessary act. One could not afford to be a saint when the safety and security of an entire nation rested upon one's shoulders. Decisions had to be made and acted upon, decisions that were not always moral, but nonetheless right.
Decisions such as to discredit a claimant to an old and respected title when his alternative's case was weaker but political loyalty in a fractious region much stronger. To arrange for the assassination of a powerful witch intent on claiming the Philosopher's Stone when her untrustworthy whims made her too much of a risk for following in the Archmage's footsteps to trust with that power. To incite a war between two foreign principalities to keep the kingdom's larger but less unified neighbor from being able to turn its eyes outwards.
To murder his own wife.
It had been necessary, even vital.
It was only reasonable that Vallancourt regretted that necessity. He had loved her, after all, spent years together with her. Her absence even now left a gaping hole in his life, one that he had yet to fill with a new love or even a mistress. Perhaps he never would. Betrayal seemed to have killed his capacity for intimacy, without which all he was left with was the base animal urge of lust. Animal urges had never held much attraction for Vallancourt except as a weapon to use to manipulate others.
His conscience was clear.
He took a sip from the glass, holding the whiskey in his mouth a bit before swallowing.
He'd been the victim, not her. He'd been the betrayed one.
So why was he hesitating?
Vallancourt tossed back the last of the whiskey in a defiant, almost angry gesture. He was angry, upset with himself, with his slackening nerve. What kind of coward was he? He sat the glass down with a thump, opened the door before extinguishing the lamp, and went out into the hall. His steps were forceful, almost a march, as they carried him down the corridor and into the house's grand hall, still lit by the thick pillar candles in the wrought-iron chandelier high above. His lips set in a thin, determined line, he continued to stride up the stairs until he reached the first landing.
Where he stopped, as he knew he would.
Helene stared at him from out of her portrait. It was an exceptional work of art; the painter had captured her laughing eyes, the sly smile of a woman who was amused by life and everything she encountered in it. It had been painted the month after they returned from their wedding trip. "This way, there'll always be a memory of when I was young and pretty," she had told him, "and besides, in a few years I'll be too busy playing hostess for an important minister to have the time to sit for it."
Her causal confidence in him, that he'd one day rise to greatness, was something that he'd found charming then. Only now, after twenty years together and three children, did he see the twisted joke for what it was.
Three years ago today, he thought.
Three years now that he'd walked past this portrait several times each day. Three years that, if he should be seen to stop and look at it with an angry scowl, it would be taken as the act of a grieving husband cursing the cruel fate that had prematurely separated him from his life's companion.
They would never guess that he wanted to tear the portrait from the wall, rip it down from among the honored Vallancourt ancestors and consign it to the fire, to reduce her to nothing but a name in the family Bible. Yet he could not do that. He could not publicly admit that she was the betrayer, the liar that she was. To do that would be to admit his own crime—and to put at risk the channels for spreading disinformation to the kingdom's enemies that it had created.
That had been her betrayal.
Mazarin Vallancourt was not naïve. He knew the nature of Court Society, of its dalliances and amusements that were almost inherent in a social system where marriages were more often than not about wealth and property, bloodlines and position rather than feelings. Even a love-match might grow old and stale if care was not taken to nurture the feelings that had begun it.
He would have been prepared for an affair. He could have accepted it. It would have hurt him deeply, but he could have accepted it. He similarly could have understood the idea that his enemies, his political rivals or agents of foreign governments, could have tried to use her to get to him, through blackmail or other coercion. It would have been better for her not to submit, but he could have borne it. Vallancourt knew too well the art of bringing pressure to bear on a person to despise the one who gives in to it. He was not so much a hypocrite as that.
"But you went beyond those petty betrayals, didn't you?" he could not stop himself from asking the portrait out loud. "No, Helene, your treachery ran far deeper than infidelity or blackmail."
Because it had all been a lie.
From the beginning.
Irrefutable evidence had been discovered, a trail of espionage leading back to Helene. Evidence that she had not merely committed treason, no, but that she had been an enemy agent all along. That she had made her Season using the false identity of an orphaned child of country gentry, and that she had targeted young men of political ambitions. Unlike the wives or husbands of some of his compatriots, Helene had assiduously supported his ambitions at each step up, worked nearly as hard as he himself. And why not? The higher he rose, the more sensitive the information she had access to through him which she could then pass on to her foreign masters. For twenty years, Vallancourt's own household had been the weak link of the government.
He'd wanted to publicly accuse her. He'd wanted to have her subjected to all the humiliation of arrest, interrogation, and public execution. To visit upon her as much of the pain she'd caused him as he could manage.
But he hadn't. He couldn't. He had his duty. If she was taken, her masters would react by withdrawing their intelligence network. It was better to leave their spies in place, so they could be observed and fed false information. So Helene could not be exposed for what she was. Vallancourt had had to carry that knowledge within him, playing the grieving dupe. Only in one thing could he be permitted to have his way: the spy had to be removed. She had access to too much sensitive information to be left "in place"—and besides, Vallancourt was not enough of an actor to live with her day in, day out, without making some slip sometime. Love turned sour was too powerful an emotion to conceal.
The candles flickered, perhaps from a sudden draft, and the fall of shadows across Helene's face made it seem as if the portrait was glaring accusingly at him. With a snarl, Vallancourt wrenched himself away. What right did she have to accuse him of anything? Traitor! Spy! Surely a professional espionage agent such as herself knew what to expect when she was found out?
But then, perhaps she'd never known. Never realized why he was subtly keeping her wine-glass filled at her birthday party. Never realized that a careless bump at the opportune moment, when all eyes were averted, would send her tumbling over the rail of the landing above to break her neck on the marble floor below. A tragic accident in full view of several hundred guests.
"I had no choice," he muttered to himself as he began to climb the stairs once again.
And what did she have to complain of, anyway? It had been an easy, quick end. A moment of shock and terror, if that—and then nothing. No arrest, no brutal inquisition, no long, slow march to the headsman's block or the gallows with the relentless knowledge that this was the end. Political necessity hadn't condemned her, it had demanded mercy.
Vallancourt's footfalls were soft on the carpeted risers as he reached the landing, but his emotions continued to rage.
"Why?" he snapped suddenly, beating his fists on the rail in frustration. "Why will you not leave me alone?"
Because you condemned me.
He flinched. Had he—? Had there—?
Because you condemned me without reason.
Was it a voice? A whisper in the air? Or merely a shadow within his own mind?
Yet it sounded like her.
Because you condemned me without a hearing.
He whirled, looking around himself. He was alone, alone on the landing.
There was a glimmer in the great gilt mirror that hung opposite the head of the stairs. A flicker of candlelight, reflected, and yet...wasn't that Helene's face he saw there, just for an instant?
Because you believed a lie.
Weren't her eyes as accusing as those of the portrait had seemed?
Because you ignored the truth.
Her voice...did he truly hear it?
"Stop it!" he cried.
I had done nothing.
"Nothing? Nothing! When you deceived me? Manipulated me? When you made our whole life together a lie?"
The only lies were told about me, not by me.
"Ha! You claim innocence? Do you think I would act on rumor alone when the kingdom's welfare was at stake? I had proof of what you were doing!"
And did you think to show me this "proof"? To confront me with your accusations?
"Why would I? What would that have done, besides invited you to deceive me anew? Do you claim I should have accepted your bare word, all for love's sake?"
Was he whispering? Shouting? He did not know. Her voice came from everywhere and nowhere, ringing through the great hall, or perhaps just within his own thoughts.
You accepted theirs, for despair's sake.
He reeled from her. The accusation was ludicrous.
You believed their "proof" because you wanted to believe. Because your heart has grown hard and cold with distrust. It is easier for you to accept that a person is worthless than that they have virtue.
You sent the mother of your children to her death because you were willing, even eager to believe that I was betraying you, no, that my only face was false. That I was as selfish and cruel a schemer as you.
"No!" Vallancourt howled again.
Your enemies knew this. They offered you poisoned bait because they knew you would suspect a wholesome lure. They offered you a painful lie knowing you would gobble it up. You have become a crow, Mazarin, who has feasted for so long on carrion he believes that is all there is.
I am beyond lies and deception now, Mazarin. The cold truth of the grave is what you gave me. You were used. You thought you had penetrated a spy ring, so you could feed the enemy carefully crafted disinformation—just as they meant you to. They knew your lies for what they were the moment you uttered them, and spotted your agents by watching how the lies were given to them.
Vallancourt's brain reeled. Could it be true? No! She was a deceiver in death, as she had been in life!
But was she?
What evidence had he?
Documents could be forged. Spies would lie. In twenty long years of married life, had he, the hawk-eyed Chamberlain, awake to deception at every turn, seen even an single incident that raised his suspicions? Of course not. That was why he'd felt the betrayal so keenly. Because he'd had no inkling of it for twenty years.
Because it had not existed.
How they must have laughed. The voice was bitter, mocking. For three years now you have been their dupe.
Was it really his wife's voice at all that spoke to him, or something else? The voice of his own conscience?
Nothing but a pawn in their scheme, Mazarin. And so eager to become one were you that you murdered your wife for the sake of doing it.
It did not matter whether the voice was from the shadows of the grave or those of his own mind. Either way, it was right. He had broken faith, betrayed his country and his family both. And it was right, too, about the reason for it. For all that he prided himself on not letting emotion control him, he had been thoroughly corrupted by it, by that one relentless feeling at the heart of all distrust: fear.
What kind of man was so flawed that he would be so much more comfortable with being afraid that he would rather murder than hope? He had risen to the very heights, only to find that the only thing he could do at the summit was to fall from it.
He ran his hand along the polished balustrade.
It was just about here, and this time it was his own voice in his head. Just...like...this...
Did he see her face again, in the gleaming marble tiles like tiny mirrors that made up the floor below?
Three years too late, he went to her.
~X X X~
Unlike her husband, Helene, Lady Vallancourt, was an early riser. She would occasionally burn the midnight oil—Court Society entertainments often lasted into the small hours of the morning—but she very rarely slept past seven. It was why they had separate dressing rooms, so she could ring for her maid and prepare for the day without disturbing the man she'd been married to for over twenty years.
This morning, though, she came to consciousness even earlier than usual, while the bedroom was still dim and shadowy as its windows faced west. A nagging sense of disquiet ate at Lady Vallancourt, as if she'd been awakened from a bad dream. She had the pervasive impression that something was wrong.
"Mazarin?" she asked, before realizing that she was alone in bed. That was not a surprise; several times a month the Chamberlain would work so late that he'd find himself greeting the dawn while still busy, or if especially tired would simply fall asleep in his desk chair. Nonetheless, his absence added to her ill humor; she slept better beside him and his absence no doubt had contributed to her poor rest. She glanced at the rosewood-cased clock that sat atop the bureau and noted that it was not even half past six. She smiled indulgently; her husband was not getting any younger, and needed to take better care of himself.
Her smile was shattered by a scream echoing from somewhere in the house. This was the mystery solved of her early waking, then—an earlier scream had torn her from sleep. Wasting not a moment more, Lady Vallancourt leapt from bed and flung a dressing-gown on over her nightgown, thrust her feet into slippers, and dashed from her room, then out onto the landing in time to hear another, higher-pitched scream ring out from below. She looked over the balustrade and saw two maids standing below; apparently the second had responded to the first's cries and had the same reaction.
"My word! What is all this clamor about?" Lady Vallancourt called down. The two girls lifted ashen, wide-eyed faces towards her.
"M-milady," one managed to stammer out, and lifted a trembling hand to point. The bulk of the stairs blocked Lady Vallancourt's view of what the maid was indicating, so she descended rapidly to the lower landing in front of her own portrait, where she could see what was wrong. There was something there on the floor, something crumpled unnaturally. It looked like a man, but surely a human's neck should not bend at that angle?
Then Lady Vallancourt's will shook off the momentary haze of shock and confusion and she realized what it was she was seeing.
Her reaction to the sight of her husband's corpse was much the same as the maids'.
~X X X~
"Well, I do think that went perfectly, don't you?" Lujei Piche said smugly.
"But, Mistress, was it necessary to be so cruel?"
Lujei frowned at her staff. "Really, you can be such a stick-in-the-mud sometimes. Well, perhaps it's only natural. After all, you are a stick." She laughed at her own joke.
"It was bad enough that you murdered the Chamberlain, the highest official of our kingdom, but to do it in such a way..."
"Murder?" Lujei asked. She didn't do affronted innocence very believably, but she was playing to a captive audience so the reviews didn't really matter. "I didn't kill anyone. All I did was play around a bit with his memories. And they were so dull as they were, anyway. A man like that needed a few bitter tears among the sweet to explain how he could be such a conscienceless, self-righteous killer. Why, it was for the good of his soul. I actually made him feel some remorse."
"Those events didn't happen! You just made him think they did with your spell!"
"That's no reason to denigrate his feelings, my beloved. After all, he'd sent out orders to ruin or kill any number of people for his political purposes. How was I to know that one more would affect him so severely?"
"Mistress Lujei!" the staff protested this bald-faced lie.
"You're cross with me. And here I thought you would be happy for me. Oh! I know what's wrong! You're sorry that I let that boy go, aren't you? You were really looking forward to having a new friend, weren't you, darling?" She stroked translucent fingers over the bony cheekbone. "But I had to! He did such a good job, getting the Chamberlain to prick his thumb and then using a handkerchief to blot the blood and so take the sample for me that I needed so my Rune would work. I could never have cast the spell over such a distance without it. So I had to be nice and let little Victor go free, don't you see?"
"That isn't it at all, Mistress!"
"You know, you're right, my beloved." The laughter vanished from her face, and her eyes went hard and angry. "Chamberlain Vallancourt is dead and gone. He sent death to me, I sent death to him, and so we're even. But he didn't betray me. He didn't lie to me. He didn't whisper words of love in the night and hand me a flower as poisonous as his heart. That was all you, and all I can do in return is make you feel a fraction of the pain you caused me!"
More than one student in the Silver Star Tower shuddered in their sleep that night as the tormented wails echoed in their dreams.