A single candle burned at the center of the table, leaving most of the upper room at the Rose and Bell Tavern in shadows. Four men sat at the table, the outlines of their bodies and their undoubtedly rich clothing muffled by hooded cloaks. It was all so very melodramatic, Mazarin Vallancourt thought, but he supposed that even gray eminences could have a taste for such things.
"This is dangerous," one man said. Rich was growing cautious, even hesitant, in his old age.
"Bah!" Talley snapped. "More dangerous to sit by and do nothing." He was the opposite, always inclined to act rather than await events though well aware that acting sometimes created more trouble than it solved.
"We've just escaped the threat of the Archmage Calvaros," contributed the third man. "Can we really afford to risk there being another?"
"But Gammel Dore--"
"Is but one man. Nor has he been able to deliver the Philosopher's Stone. Perhaps he does not wish to?"
"Do you believe he, too, is a threat?" Vallancourt asked. Fouche's exuberance could be troubling; he had a fundamental distrust of power in the hands of anyone other than himself and often advocated a permanent removal of that power.
"The Philosopher's Stone is the ultimate magical treasure," said Talley. "I would not trust it in the hands of any one person, even Gammel Dore. Though I do not say he seeks it for himself, I would ask how serious he has been in his attempts to find it. Leave it hidden, and no one has to resist its temptation."
"Except that it has been found, or near enough," Fouche remarked. "Worse, found by one that I daresay none of us would trust with godlike power."
"In that I certainly concur."
"Then we are all agreed?" Vallancourt asked. "We must act to preserve the kingdom?"
The other three men assented.
"How are we to proceed?" Talley asked. "That place is still a fortress, almost as much as when Calvaros reigned there."
"Do not worry," Vallancourt said with a faint smile. "I had already...anticipated this possibility."
-X X X-
"Mmm, I have to say that Gammel was right," a woman's voice purred from the other side of the door. It was a low, rich alto, throaty and sensual. Hearing it, regardless of the words spoken or the fact that she wasn't talking to him, sent needles of fire along the listener's nerves. Her siren's call set up a dull ache in his groin, his body reacting to her even while his mind was reeling with terror at what he intended. At least lust keeps my teeth from chattering, he thought ruefully.
Wondering to whom his siren was talking, he bent his head to the keyhole. She was there, seated on her huge, circular bed, long strawberry-blonde hair swirling in a cloud around her shoulders. She wore a gown of the finest silk that plunged at the neckline and clung to the voluptuous curves they covered, the pristine white fabric so near transparency as to be a mockery of the purity its color suggested. It was a gown, despite its decorative frills and ruffles, to be worn for one person's eyes only. She's expecting me, thought the watcher, and felt himself pulse with need. It took an act of will to make himself focus his mind, to notice other details such as the elaborate silver coffer she held in her lap.
"I was just going to kill you," Grand Witch Lujei Piche said, "but dear old Gammel didn't think I should. He said that we needed you to find the Philosopher's Stone."
The Philosopher's Stone! A surge of another, very different emotion pulsed through the watcher at its mention. It was true, the hints that she'd dropped before. She was working to find the Philosopher's Stone! But with whom?
"Of course, he couldn't have done it without me," she went on. "He's talented with his elves and fairies, but when it comes to the magic of the next world, that's a different matter. Without me, your soul would be flying off to the afterlife, where I'm sure a warm reception is waiting for a bad little boy like you."
She ran her fingertip in a teasing caress over the engraved patterns on the box, and the watcher suddenly realized who she was talking to. There was no one else in the room! She was talking to the silver coffer, only if he understood her right, it wasn't a box but a soul container holding the spirit of a dead man.
Mistress Lujei, he thought, what are you doing? The identity of the trapped soul was clear to him as well. It could only be the Archmage himself! Calvaros, Lujei Piche, and Gammel Dore had combined their powers to make the Philosopher's Stone, but Calvaros had seized the ultimate expression of magic for himself and established a reign of terror, a fledgling empire that engulfed several of the kingdom's provinces. In the end Lujei and Gammel had been able to somehow defeat the Archmage, but the Philosopher's Stone lay hidden, secreted away somewhere in Calvaros's fortress, the Silver Star Tower--this tower, where Gammel had opened his new Magic Academy.
"Of course, Gammel thought that you'd eventually tell us where you hid it. He's funny like that. I think some part of him genuinely believes it was all Grimlet's doing that you got your sudden urge to dabble in politics. He didn't expect you to be bait in a trap. So faithful they are, these minions of yours. I hope I won't have to break the one too much to get him to tell. He's kind of cute, and I hate to waste a pretty man on principle even if I have one of my own. Which reminds me," she added, putting the soul container down and turning the door, "why don't you come in, my love? I know men like to watch, but it's so much more fun to join in."
The watcher jerked upright, nearly bashing his head on the door in surprise. How did she know I was here? She always knows! God in Heaven, what if she finds out...?
There was no point in delaying. It would just make her the more suspicious. He opened the door and went inside; she rose from the bed to greet him. Ice water seemed to be warring with molten gold in his veins as she approached, opposite and overwhelming emotions preying on him. It had always been like this since the first moment he'd entered Lujei's classes in necromancy; she demanded emotion by her very presence, banishing pure reason from her sight.
"There you are." She moved towards him as he shut the door. "So, how does it feel to be a Prince Consort?"
"What...what are you talking about?"
She pressed herself against him, the heat of her body instantly transmitting itself to his skin as if his wizard's robes were as thin as her nightdress.
"One of Calvaros's silly followers wanted to fetch back the Philosopher's Stone to save his dead master. Once he tells me where the Archmage stashed it away, I can fetch it for myself." She smiled winsomely and said, "I think that it would be fun to be queen, don't you?"
Her hand slid down his chest and belly, then dipped lower.
"Mmm, I see that you do." She kissed him warmly and deeply. "Come and show me how much." Lujei drew him back towards the bed and he sank into an embrace of musk and roses.
Later, he lay on his back, her hair spilling across his bare chest while she purred pleasantly like a satiated cat.
"Are you really going to do this, Mistress Lujei?" he asked her.
Her tongue flicked lazily against a nipple.
"Again? I guess it's true what they stay about the stamina of youth. But don't worry; your teacher has much, much more to show you."
"No?" She dug her nails into the skin over his ribs. "Do you doubt me?"
"I don't! I...I just meant that I wasn't talking about lovemaking."
She smiled lazily and wriggled against him.
"No? I bet we could change that."
He shuddered in arousal. She was right, of course. Sometimes his body was little more than her plaything, it responded to her so easily, with whatever reaction she desired from it. Indeed, it wasn't merely his physical self that was under her spell. From the moment he'd become her student he'd been enchanted by Lujei. She might not have put him under a literal spell, but she hadn't needed to. Her face and body had demanded his attention at once, but her fiercely intelligent mind and her emotional honesty--not in the sense of truth-telling but in always knowing her own feelings and following them instead of being shackled by anyone's expectations--had captured him. When she'd taken him as her lover he'd felt exalted, burned with a joy he'd never felt before. That this wonderful, compelling woman wanted to be with him (and despite her capricious nature, only him since they'd been together!) never failed to amaze and thrill him.
That was personal, though, between the two of them. It was her other ambitions that terrified him.
Lujei rolled away and folded her arms behind her head.
"But if you insist," she said, "we'll talk instead." Her eyes flicked downwards to the visual evidence of at least part of him to go along with her plan rather than his, and it almost made him smile in return.
"The Philosopher's Stone," he managed to say. "Why take it for yourself?"
"Why...because Professor Gammel agreed to turn it over to the government. That's why he was able to open this academy, why there's a Royal House of Magic, why magicians are protected by law instead of hunted and feared."
Lujei laughed, a rich and melodious sound.
"And because of that I should give up my desires? Gammel, Calvaros, and I made the Philosopher's Stone. Calvaros wanted it all for himself...well, you know what became of him. Why should I let Gammel do the exact same thing?"
"The same thing?"
"Oh, Calvaros wanted to rule the world with it while Gammel wants to just give it away to insure the general welfare and so on, but they're both trying to exercise absolute dominion over the Philosopher's Stone. Do you really think I should allow that without a quarrel? I didn't agree to give it up. I don't even recall being asked. So why should I go along with Gammel's plan? At least Calvaros I can understand, but Gammel wants to trust third parties to do the right thing with the ultimate expression of magic. He has a soft spot for Her Majesty, but she's not a little girl any more. And that's not even counting all those ministers and nobles at Court. Backbiting weasels, one and all."
Lujei's lover tried not to flinch at that.
"But to pit yourself against the government...They'll fight you, you know."
"So?" She stretched lazily, arching her back as she worked the kinks out of her muscles. "Gammel and I had to work together to defeat Calvaros, and we had you and Chartreuse and dear little Opalneria in support. Even that devil helped a bit, in exchange for Calvaros's grimoire. Do you think they'll stand a chance without us?"
"There's still Professor Gammel, and Advocat--"
"Gammel was always the weakest of us three, and the Philosopher's Stone will more than make up for any edge that his glamour magic may have over my necromancy. As for the devil, if he wants to involve himself, then I have a bit of a surprise for him, a new Rune that I've been working on. Don't think that I haven't been planning things through."
"There's still the government and the Church--"
Lujei dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
"Do you expect me to care about them? Power-hungry snakes and self-righteous witch-burners? If they want to throw away their lives, who am I to deny them?"
Her student sighed.
Lujei chuckled at him.
"You worry far too much, my dear beloved. Trust me, it's all going to go perfectly."
He sighed again, then forced a smile onto his face.
"I'm sure it will." There was no hiding from it now. His task was clear. "Mistress...I have a gift for you."
"Oh?" Her interest was piqued; Lujei always enjoyed gifts.
He slipped from the bed and crossed to his discarded robe. From an inside pocket he took an octagonal, black-enameled box about five inches across.
He brought it back to the bed. His heart seemed to be lodged in his throat--yet how could it be, when it was hammering like a snare-drum beat?
"For you, my love."
She took the box and eagerly raised the lid to reveal a single, perfect blue rose, its petals so full and lustrous they almost seemed brushed with dew. Lujei let out a gasp of pleasure.
"Oh, darling, it's magnificent." She brushed her fingers over its petals. "I can sense magic in it."
"A bit of glamour," he admitted. "It won't ever wilt or die, so long as the spell holds. And," he added, a bit shyly, "it was originally a red rose, since that's the only color in Professor Gammel's garden, but I wanted it to match your eyes."
She let out a deep sigh of pleasure as she lifted the rose from the box and inhaled its perfume, then tucked the bud into the neckline of her gown just over her heart.
In the next instant she arched her back in pain as the point of the clipped stem bit into her flesh. Lujei clawed at the rose, but already vines were sprouting from it, snaking around her limbs and torso, thorns biting into her skin like the fangs they were. Lujei collapsed onto the bed, the enameled box clattering across the floor. The witch thrashed and convulsed as the rose's venom pulsed through her system. She screamed in torment, the sound all but reducing her killer to tears before it, and she, mercifully came to a quick end.
With a trembling, shuddering hand he felt her throat for a pulse; there was none. Dark blue patches like blossoms of decay were already forming under her skin, marks left by the enchanted toxin, and he pulled his hand away as if it would taint him as well.
It would serve me right, he thought, then added defensively, but I had no choice! You wouldn't stop this insane plan!
The student took one last look at the face of his dead lover, then shuddered horribly and fled. The irises of her eyes, which had indeed been the same color as her killer, were now the same deep crimson as the rose had been in life.
NOTE: The names of the eminences grises who appear in the first scene are taken from four historical powers-behind-the-throne in French history: Richelieu, Mazarin, Talleyrand, and Fouche.