From the journal of Alec Jocelyn:
Foreign travel, they say, enlightens a man, bringing him a better understanding of the world as well as a deeper appreciation for his home. It was in this spirit that I had set out from my residence in Mordentshire with the intention of traveling the surrounding lands—a sort of Grand Tour, if you will.
To ease my going, I bore with me letters of introduction to a variety of my uncle's foreign correspondents and business associates. Owing to these, I found myself on my second night in Chateaufaux dining as a guest of Monsieur le Baron Stephane Debray. It was, I admit, a dry affair, consisting of merchants and their spouses, whether titled or not. All were more concerned with business than the enjoyment of a social occasion, and thus I said little while listening to much. This behavior apparently caught the eye of another young man, for he approached me once we had retired to the card room after dinner.
"I daresay," he said languidly, "that if one were possessed of a sufficient imagination, it might be possible to dream that this was a social gathering rather than a business conference, but I confess that it is beyond my powers."
I could not resist a faint smile.
"You are a harsh man, Monsieur...Renard, was it not?"
"Quite so. Etienne Renard."
"But surely you are no merchant." His pastel-blue coat, generously embroidered in gold, and buff knee-breeches were more suited to a Port-a-Lucine dandy than a sober man of finance, as did his youth—no more than my own twenty-eight and perhaps less, though in general the Dementlieuse seemed better-preserved than we Mordentish, perhaps due to their labors being entirely mental when they labored at all. Certainly, Etienne Renard appeared to have exerted himself only in riding to the hunt and in a fencer's gymnasium, and that not often.
He verified my assessment with a mocking laugh.
"Indeed not! I am the nephew of Sebastian Renard, one of our dear host's boon business rivals. My father, his brother, is the Marquis de Perigon. As my esteemed uncle was a third son, he went into trade to support himself in his preferred lifestyle. As I am known to be...visiting...him, I must make my presence felt here so as not to cast dishonor on his name before his peers." Renard's tone made it clear that he did not consider these men and women in any way his peers.
"How generous of you."
Renard laughed again, apparently amused by my sarcasm.
"Is it not! But perhaps the spirit of profit-making redolent through this evening has spread to me. After all, I have made your acquaintance, M. Jocelyn."
"We have met, so much is true."
"Cautious, aren't you—a Mordentish trait if ever I heard one. But for my own part I must bear up the honor of Dementlieu. You are a guest in this country, and must be given proper entertainment. In an hour's time, when this charming gala creaks and groans to a halt, I attend a salon at Mlle. Charest's. Say that you will join me."
I admit it was ironic. Etienne Renard represented much of what I was prepared to dislike in the nobles of this country: an attitude of superiority towards others supported only by boredom and indolence. Yet for some reason I was drawn to him, perhaps because I appreciated a man who could laugh at himself in a way many more worthy souls of both our lands could not.
Thus it was that as the evening settled in towards midnight, I found myself in a baroquely furnished apartment, in the company of a half-dozen young nobles. I was received with some curiosity, and occasional scorn—one perfumed and pomaded fop regarded me archly through a quizzing-glass as if I was some odd species of animal which had unaccountably appeared before him. Before I could take offense, an exquisitely beautiful girl offered me a glass of absinthe. I declined with as much courtesy as I could manage, but she still pouted prettily at me.
"Etienne, have you gone and brought us a puritan?" she said.
"M. Jocelyn is from Mordent, Victorine. He has not yet entered into all our little vices."
"A pity. I say it is not a party until the Green Fairy dances. But he is handsome, so I shall forgive him."
The glass of wine I was provided was of a rare vintage, fabulously old and, quite frankly, nearly as potent as the absinthe would have been.
"Mordent," said the dandy with the quizzing-glass. "Perhaps in that land of ghosts and witches he's used to having a decent set of eveningwear conjured upon him—"
"Don't be tiresome, Lucien," snapped another man, this one in hunter green. "It's not as if you could find Mordent on a map, even if you exerted yourself sufficiently to learn to read."
"Besides which," I added, "any sensible Mordentishman has nothing to do with magic. There's enough evil in the world without inviting it to dinner."
"Oh, please," chided the second female among the guests, a blonde whose superb figure and plunging decolletage somehow did not lend her half of the seductive force of Victorine Charest's manner. "Magic is a simple force of nature, nothing more, to be manipulated and used by rational minds."
"So speaks the loyal daughter!" Renard laughed. I glanced at him curiously, and he explained, "Claudine's father holds a chair in Arcane Studies at the University of Dementlieu. Professor Gerard is well-known for his dispassionate, mechanistic approach to his topic."
"Well...not precisely dispassionate," Victorine purred, making Renard laugh again.
"True enough; else he'd never have fought that duel last month with Henri de Guillard."
"The master of the local chapter of La Societe de Legerdemain," supplied the man in green. "As suits a leader of an order of stage magicians, he defended the mystical and sublime nature of arcane study. Words led to insults, and as both were gentlemen, there came the duel, with spells the weapon of choice. Professor Gerard won, of course. He's an expert in countermagic."
"It's too bad we didn't hear about it until it was all over. It would have made rare entertainment," drawled Lucien.
"You're all simply horrid!" exclaimed the professor's daughter.
"Yes," Renard agreed, "I suppose we are."
"I hope," Victorine said softly, "that our Mordentish guest does not find us so." I was suddenly struck by how close she was to me, aware of the supple form beneath the pearl-hued silk. The room seemed to grow uncomfortably warm.
"No, indeed I do not."
Someone chuckled—Renard? Lucien?—I could not say. Indeed, it became hard to concentrate on anything at all. Had the wine been that potent a vintage? I had only had two glasses, hadn't I?
I remember very little else of the night beyond images of velvet black hair and tawny skin shining in the light of a dozen candles. Then came the shock of cold night air, the roughness of cobbled streets, something slick and wet under my hands...
Rough hands laying hold of me...
And lastly, the clang of iron.
~X X X~
I awoke in a stinking oubliette, the stone floor slick with slime. The wan light of dawn filtered through a barred window ten feet above the floor., A wooden pallet was the only furnishing, the door of iron with a foot-square grillwork in its upper half. The metal was lightly brushed with rust, but I found that rather than holding any promise of weakness in my captivity it merely emphasized the sense of hopelessness and decay that pervaded all. My wrists were fettered tightly, the manacles biting into the flesh and connected to the wall by heavy chains. Fear and anger both swelled within me, dueling for command. Anger won out at first, and I shouted.
"Hey! Is anyone there?"
I shook my arms, making the chains rattle.
"What the hell is going on?"
"Be silent, you murdering lunatic!" a voice roared from outside my cell.
Lunatic? I thought. Murdering?
Another memory brushed against me, the sickly-sweet copper scent of fresh-spilled blood.
"Whom am I supposed to have murdered?"
"Whom?" The voice gave a sharp, barking laugh. "Didn't you even know their names?"
Their names? Not one person but several?
What had happened last night?
"But then, how could you? How could one know and hate so many people?"
My gorge rose, and fear with it, driving out the defiant anger.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" I pleaded.
"He doesn't know what I'm talking about! Eight people dead in two weeks, and he doesn't know what I'm talking about! Five women and three men!"
"I don't know! You have to believe me!"
"Perhaps you do not. Perhaps you are but one more madman fit for our asylum. But do not worry. We are humane in Dementlieu. You will not be condemned to live out your life in a lunatic's cell. Madman or not, the guillotine is keen and swift!"