It was nigh on half-past-four in the morning before the constables from the local magistrate's court arrived to take Dundee and his associates into custody, witness statements were given, and the miscreants were led off in shackles. The law tended to take magically-talented prisoners very seriously, indeed. The head of the constables gave stern warnings to Bartido and Carstairs that they should be at the court at nine sharp to give a full account of the case to Sir Patrick Harp, the sitting magistrate.
"An' don't be late, mind. His Nibs don't like waitin', an' it sours his belly somethin' awful as he has to do it for somethin' that might come back an' bite his arse."
With that, the four prisoners were dragged away, leaving the remainder of the seance party behind, together with the two elderly servants, whom as far as any inquiry had turned up were no more than they appeared. Before they took their leave, Bartido turned to the Guinnesses.
"I want to apologize to you both for putting you through all of that. I admit, I wanted to make sure that you could see the evidence with your own eyes and hear any confessions for yourself, but having you stand by as a magical battle took place in front of you...I'm sorry for that."
Both of them had been badly shaken by the events, as was only natural; the combination of shattered illusions and direct physical danger would have upset anyone.
"You should apologize," Mrs. Guinness told him flatly. "It was the most terrifying experience of my life."
"But we also want to thank you," her husband softened the blow. "It wasn't easy, but it had to be done. Painful as it was, throwing our time, our care, and our wealth away on frauds and charlatans was not to be borne."
"I wish it hadn't been necessary."
"As do we. But at least now we can seek out an honest medium, a genuine seeker after truth."
"You mean, you're going to keep on with spiritualism?"
"Of course," Mrs, Guinness told him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Maybe to her, it was. "Just because one apple is sour doesn't mean one gives up eating fruit, young man."
"The knowledge of the next plane, the peace and wisdom to be found there, it is the most important goal we can strive for," Mr. Guinness added. "We will find a way to communicate with Sara again."
Surprised as he was, Bartido had no desire to make an issue of it. Maybe Carstairs might be ready for a philosophical debate, but he had no taste for them at any hour, let alone the edge of dawn.
"Then I'll just wish you good fortune in your search."
He watched their carriage vanish off into the fog.
"I can't believe it," Bartido said. "The whole thing was shown up right in front of them. How can they still believe?"
"It doesn't make sense," Will Laird agreed.
Carstairs looked solemnly at his friend.
"If someone claimed to be performing miracles by a saint's relic and it turned out to be a fraud, would you stop believing in God?" Bartido's shock must have showed, to which the priest went on went on, "Whatever they're looking for, they've got faith in it, not in the Proseccos. They were tricked because of their belief; they weren't tricked into it."
"I feel sorry for them," Victoria said. Bartido supposed that meant he'd been right about her that night they'd walked together. Whatever she'd been after at the seance, it wasn't the same thing as the Guinnesses were seeking.
He couldn't help but think of his own mentor, Dr. Chartreuse, and how the leonine alchemist had called upon an angel's spirit and incarnated it in a mortal body in pursuit of holy wisdom. Or how Nathan Dundee had been so driven to plumb the secrets of the true magic of the dead that he'd lowered himself to concoct a scheme to bilk innocent dupes to get his hands on more funding. Were they really any different than the Guinnesses? Three different paths, but all to the same end—the hidden truths of what lay beyond this life.
He broke the silence with a sudden laugh.
"And I just told myself I didn't care about philosophical debates!"
"Sorry, just thinking out loud."
"Well, it's not philosophical, but I've got a question," Laird interjected.
"As I follow it, Master Dundee made a magical Rune for them that let Madame summon up any old ghost, point it at a person, and it would look and act like whomever that person was thinking of."
"That's it exactly."
"So the Guinnesses saw Sara because they were trying to see her, right?"
"And that fellow who showed up tonight, he was a friend of yours?"
"Is a friend, Will. Hiram isn't really a ghost."
"But he acts like you expect him to act, isn't that right? You can't make him read lines off a script?"
"That's also right," Bartido said, a little surprised that Laird had grasped the complexities. The surprise obviously showed, to judge by what Laird said next.
"You did go over it with the runners, and I'd like to think I've at least got a better grasp of all that than some undereducated thief-taker. Anyway, my question is, if you couldn't tell the ghost what to say, how did you get him to explain what was going on?"
"Actually, I'm curious about that, myself," Carstairs put in.
"It is a good question," Victoria said.
"Now you're ganging up on me? But really, it wasn't a big problem. Michael, you especially ought to know the answer."
"Yes, well, I'm sure you'll be more than happy to tell me why I'm being an idiot."
"I need to work on being less predictable. But anyway, I'm an alchemist. I knew that the Rune was responsible for the ghosts and I was pretty sure that it wasn't calling up specific people." Not only were there all the logistical problems but once he'd had a chance to think it over clearly his experiences with the pseudo-Lujei made it fairly obvious. Even if the Rune had made it possible to summon Lujei, it was absurd to believe it could do so at no more cost in mana than summoning a random spirit without magical ability. Nor could it have bound her to his will so that he could dismiss her, not without a ferocious struggle. If it were even possible to bind her at all, which it probably wasn't. "But there was no way that I was going to figure out exactly what it did do unless you gave me a year and a library."
"But you did figure it out," Laird said.
"No, I asked someone who actually had a clue to do it for me."
It was a good thing he'd burgled Argyle's offices on the same night as he'd searched the Proseccos' house. Without seeing the name Petri on the trust document, he probably wouldn't have come to suspect Dundee's involvement and would have brought the Rune right to its creator for analysis.
"You're right, I should have known."
"Exactly. Since I sent it to Hiram—hopefully my Foreign Office contacts will forgive me using the diplomatic courier system to get it there by dragonflight—of course the Hiram in my own mind would know everything I know about the Rune." He was fairly sure it had been Ms. Opalneria who'd done the heavy lifting as far as the research went, but Hiram was Bartido's actual correspondent.
"Well, then, I suppose that finishes matters."
"Except for whether Argyle will turn rabbit, and if he doesn't run if he'll be able to brazen it out in front of a court. But even if he does escape justice, it won't hurt anything so far as the spiritualism con is concerned."
"I appreciate all this work you've done for me, Bartido."
"I was glad to do it. Most of it was actually fun. Though, while I may have put a few fakers out of business, so long as there are people like the Guinnesses, spiritualism doesn't seem to be going away."
"Helping people being tricked by others, that's your purview. Helping those who are tricking themselves..." Carstairs made an airy little gesture. "Well, that falls to my own calling, to try and shepherd people who have wandered astray back onto the sure path."
Carstairs chuckled, a self-deprecating little sound.
"But after what you've been through tonight, I don't think you need to be subjected to spiritual ruminations."
"Oh, I don't know. Only a priest would consider a sermon of any length to be repayment for a favor instead of reason to incur another one."
"In light of the hour, I'm not even going to hold that against you."
"Where's the fun in that?"
"If the priests are going to be that tricky, then devils are in for a rough go of it."
"Exactly the point, I think."
Carstairs's grin almost qualified as a smirk.
"But in all seriousness, the least I can do is offer to stand a friend for an early breakfast. The parish housekeeper makes excellent ham and eggs, and her coffee is good enough that the rector and I are likely being dragged down into the vice of gluttony from indulging in it."
Bartido perked up.
"Well, now—" he began, but he was interrupted.
"Leading an innocent magician down a sinful path? You're slipping, Father," Victoria teased. "But don't worry, Bartido will remain steadfast in the face of your temptation."
"I will? I'm usually fairly weak where good coffee is concerned."
She linked her arm with his.
"Well," she said, eyes sparkling in the pre-dawn light, "it helps that you have a better offer."
~X X X~
A/N: Thank you for reading, everyone! I wrote the first chapter of this story back in 2010, then set it aside until the middle of 2013, when I was searching for some idea for something I could write to help me with my "every Sunday a GG chapter" project. This story caught my eye as I was flipping through my folder of notes and unfinished drafts, and just took off. It was fun getting to write about Bartido, who's a very different protagonist than Lillet, not just in his attitudes but also in his power level. I hope people won't hold it against me that I broke my general rule against canon/OC romance pairings...I just figured that Bartido being something of a James Bond in-universe, that if he was going to get a big solo adventure then there had to be a Bond girl too!