Bartido saw Victoria as far as the other side of the bridge, where they were able to find a hired carriage still on the prowl for gentlemen and ladies who'd been out and about in search of one or more of drink, gambling, or sex, the usual pastimes of the well-to-do and bored.
It was on the tip of his tongue to invite her on to some more conventional entertainment for themselves; she was pretty, personable, and sharing the story of her past had helped bring them closer. He had a feeling that she, too, was on the verge of the same, of reversing their course to join her brother and their friends at Cafe Royal or the like. But if he was right, she let the moment pass, and so did he.
After all, this was work, and spending time out on the town with Victoria Laird wasn't exactly the kind of thing Carstairs was asking him to do.
So after dropping Victoria off at her home with a goodnight bow and kiss on the back of her hand which won a giggle from the lady, Bartido turned his course to somewhere that was not exactly in his usual style.
"Driver, St. Helena's church, in Eastbank."
"Pretty girl like that, whatever sins you've got to confess, I bet they were worth it," the driver joked.
"I only wish," Bartido laughed, "but worse the luck, I'm only going there to talk to a friend."
The jarvey, it seemed, was a philosophical man.
"Well, some days is like that."
"That they are."
Getting into the church wasn't a problem, as the sanctuary was kept open all hours for the benefit of the faithful in need. St. Helena's being a well-to-do parish, they even kept a watch in case material greed should outweigh the fear of spiritual retribution for some light-fingered supplicant.
Fetching Michael Carstairs out of bed was also one of the porter's duties.
"Is this absolutely necessary, Bartido? You don't particularly look like a man currently having some kind of spiritual crisis right now that desperately needs me in my official function."
Carstairs looked like a man who'd just been roused from bed ought to look: tousled hair, red-rimmed eyes still bleary with the last vestiges of sleep, his robe and collar slightly askew as if they'd been hastily thrown on over whatever he was sleeping in, which they probably were. Priestly vestments weren't only the appropriate garb for his official duties, but also faster to toss on than ordinary clothes.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, looking very much like a man longing for the old days, when warrior monks were sent out by the Church and encouraged to vent their righteous wrath on any magician they encountered.
"Still, I assume that whatever it is is important and can't wait until morning?"
"It's reasonably important and while it could wait until morning without hurting anyone it would be inconvenient and delay the next steps of my investigation until tomorrow afternoon."
"I suppose there's a point there."
"Really, Michael, it isn't that late. Even a priest shouldn't be keeping country hours in town."
"He should when his duties begin at eight in the morning. We can't all be magicians, poring over ancient grimoires until the dawn, then not rising until afternoon." Carstairs stopped suddenly, then blinked. "No, that doesn't work as a comeback; I literally cannot imagine you in that scene."
"I'll choose to take that as a compliment, though it probably wasn't one."
Carstairs gestured towards the nearest pew.
"Let's sit down, then, and you can tell me what you need."
"The first thing you need to know," Bartido said as he sat down, "is that there's definitely more going on than just carnival tricks and snake oil. I attended a séance tonight, held by one of the most popular of the mediums, Addeline Prosecco. There were real ghosts that appeared, not just some trick."
"So magic is involved, then. I'm glad that I asked for your help."
"Magic? Well, there's the question." He gave Carstairs a quick narration of what had happened at the séance, his friend looking thoughtful and a little worried.
"Nathan Dundee...I've heard of him. They say the Crown even calls on him now and again."
"Right, and he went a long way towards verifying that what we saw was really what it looked like. Frankly, he went farther than I would have; if he'd said any more it would have come out sounding like an official endorsement of the Proseccos and their methods, which I just don't get at all. Of course, the kid was just stupid, so maybe he was just slapping him down the way he would to an apprentice who'd embarrassed him in public or stepped on his toes some other way." He paused. "Victoria's right. There I go, calling Tobias Guinness a kid even though he's got to be about a decade older than me."
"That is interesting that he should strike you that way."
"Yeah, he just doesn't come off well. But even if he's not the most prepossessing guy—or even if he actually is just a greedy slug who doesn't want to have to work a day in his life—it doesn't mean that he's wrong. But Master Dundee wasn't wrong either. Those were real ghosts, and I have no idea how they were summoned."
"So what does that mean? If the spiritualists can do this kind of thing, it challenges our afterlife theology directly. The fact that they called the ghosts is one thing, but what the second one, the little girl's ghost actually said is another matter altogether. Only the will of God can let a soul return from Heaven—or be freed from Hell—while magic is capable of reaching just those souls in Purgatory."
Bartido drummed his fingers on the hard back of the pew.
"I'm more interested in the technical details than the spiritual, honestly. But then, I'm an alchemist by trade, and Alchemy deals with the rules that run this world, not the next."
"Bartido..." Carstairs chided.
"Sorry, Michael, I didn't mean to be flippant. Well, only a little bit flippant."
"Joke if you like, but this is a serious matter for me."
"I understand that. And I'll be frank, while I don't like everything that comes out of the mouths of your fellow churchmen, I think that replacing a sound spirituality with mindless groping doesn't work well for anyone."
"It's more than that. It's classic when you study the histories of the more notable heresies. It begins by spreading doubt, sometimes caused by natural chaos—war, famine, pestilence, whatever upheavals make people fear that God could never allow such a state of affairs if He actually existed, either at all or just in the way that the Church teaches. Or if that doubt does not already exist, they work to create it, as these Proseccos seem to be doing. Then, they sell their answer. The coin changes, be it money, power, or just the narcissist's pleasure at being bowed to, but it's all the same in the end. These Proseccos are just another example."
Privately, Bartido's sympathies weren't always against the heretics. Ongoing theological debates over various points, the Low Church/High Church split among the clergy of the kingdom he'd just left behind, scandals when the princes of the Church had gotten too involved playing princes of the earth, they all showed how human nature, human feelings, kept the purity of God's message clouded by cultural biases and personal interest.
He didn't mention any of that, though. Carstairs was obviously sincere, and his point wasn't the supremacy of the Church, but the opportunists and predators that attacked it.
Some spiritualists might be sincere, too. Certainly, the Guinnesses and Laird were genuine in their belief, and people like that might well do exactly what the Proseccos claimed, experiementing to see what they could learn of the world beyond death. Hell, more power to 'em. But the Proseccos themselves, no. He didn't trust them, didn't believe in their sincerity. To Bartido, it felt like an act. Their roles were too pat, their manner too unshakeable. They weren't devotees, not even fanatics. They were peddlers, selling their breed of theology.
"Well, one thing I do know is that if we can't figure out how they're doing it, they're just going to keep gaining adherents and draw people to the movement."
"It must be Necromancy," Carstairs declared. "If the ghosts are real, and between you and Master Dundee I can't see a mistake there, then there has to be some magic bringing them into the room."
"That's the point I keep getting stuck on. I have to figure out the mechanism." He paused, then skipped over a few links in his chain of thought to ask, "Are the Guinnesses members of your parish?"
"Yes, they are. Why do you ask?"
"They fit with the kind of people you described, and you'd mentioned that was how you'd found out about the spiritualists in the first place."
Carstairs shook his head. Obviously, he'd been brought fully awake, his mind functioning clearly now as his question showed.
"Sorry, I didn't mean it in the sense of 'how do you know?' but 'why is it important?'"
"I was hoping you might know some background about them, their son and this Sara."
"Is that important?"
"It might be. I keep coming around to the biggest problem I have with this scenario, the one thing that I can't follow."
"I can make a guess as to how they summon the ghosts, if they're using Necromancy. I mean, yeah, I didn't actually see anything, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Like...maybe there's a necromancer in the cellar under the séance room and he or she summons the ghosts there, then has them float up through the floor under the table, then up through the table." Even as he said it, though, he realized he was on the wrong track—the ghosts had materialized above the table, not up through it. "The point is, with a little creativity I can come up with possible scenarios that might be what happened. A cunning person could find a way.
"But what I can't get past is that they somehow were able to summon up specific spirits. That's Witch of Endor stuff." He grinned and added, "Ms. Opalneria said that a lot of priests think she actually summoned a demon in that story, not the prophet's spirit, and that it's the more likely explanation from a magical standpoint."
"I've heard something of that debate in the seminary. A number of commentators on those passages in the Scriptures believe the Witch of Endor was indeed a sorceress, though their arguments generally focus on the spiritual aspect, not the magical. Others suggest it truly was the prophet, and his appearance was a true miracle, not the witch's work."
"Good to see you put those years of study to good use. Though I suppose a seminary isn't much like a secular university as far as spending your days chasing wine, women, and song."
"Hence the reason you never attended?"
"A palpable hit! Seriously, though, I was hoping to solve that problem by seeing what I could learn of their story. One baby looks much like another, especially under the right circumstances, but the girl was different. And unlike in Scripture, she was definitely a ghost, not a devil in disguise, which is the value of having a couple of magicians as witnesses."
"I see what you mean."
"So...can you give me any help?"
"I'm not sure, but I'll try. The family is gentry, no title themselves but a branch family of House Exbridge. There have been a couple of knights, a minister or two in the family tree. Mrs. Guinness's father was in trade, a shipping nabob."
It was a typical combination, new money and old blood, although the pair of them had apparently built affection between each other to judge by their mannerisms.
"They had two children, a son, Tobias, and a daughter, Sara, who was a year younger than her brother. You'll note that their eldest is a bit young compared to his parents; it's rumored that they tried for a number of years to have a child and had almost come to believe that it would be impossible for them. Thus, they treated their children as treasures and were very doting parents."
"A bit too doting, to judge by the son."
"He has a reputation as a dilettante," Carstairs agreed. "Though that's hardly different from most eldest children of wealthy families, whose 'work' is to be the heir, to learn to manage the estates and holdings. Look at our own families."
"You have a point. Most eldest sons are judged by their hobbies: sportsman, scholar, artist, man-about-town, gamester, rake... So what's Tobias Guinness?"
"As I said, a dilettante. He is not known to excel in any particular area, nor overindulge in any particular vice. In a novel, he would be one of the hero's two or three friends that he spends time with between adventures."
Carstairs shook his head.
"I don't know many details. Apparently it was a tragic carriage accident over two decades ago."
"Before either of us were born. Were her legs crushed by the wheels?"
"What? I'm afraid that I haven't any idea, truly. What put that notion into your mind?"
"The ghost's appearance. Her legs sort of trailed off into nothing." He shrugged. "It probably isn't important. But that's all it was, then, just a tragic accident?"
"Isn't that enough?"
"Probably. The ghost didn't return on her own for revenge, after all. But getting back to Tobin—"
"Tobias," Carstairs corrected, then flashed Bartido a grin. "Which one of us was it that just got out of bed?"
"Well, you're better rested than I am, then, so you should have a clearer head. This time, though, I said it on purpose."
"The ghost called him 'Tobin' and it seemed to mean something to him. I didn't know if that was a well-known nickname or not. Apparently it isn't, if you don't get a casual reference to it."
Carstairs nodded firmly.
"I've certainly never heard it before when anyone's talking about him. And it isn't a natural nickname for Tobias. Toby, certainly, but not Tobin. Especially not with the change in how you pronounce it."
"I agree. It's starting to look like 'proof,' the kind you get with any good con—or any good reality, for that matter."
"How did you learn so much about con games anyway, Bartido?"
"You'd be surprised what a gentleman can pick up."
That was actually the plain truth—if one allowed for Bartido's work for the Foreign Ministry. The tactics of the confidence game and of the spy were not too different, even though in one case the end was money and the other information. It was all about winning the confidence—hence the name—of the mark, controlling their perception so that they did not know what was intended. It wasn't just about successfully hiding, but about making sure that they didn't know even to look.
Bartido wondered how that applied to what the Proseccos were doing. If the ghosts had been fake, then it would be their aim to keep people focused on the question of how can they conjure the spirits of the dead instead of the plain fact that they couldn't. But the ghosts were real; there was no getting around it.
So the question was, where did the con lay? Where was he not supposed to be looking? And was he smart enough to see through whatever traps had been laid? There was one type of con where the mark was expected to assume that he or she was being tricked, and the true scam lay in what trick was being played, like a thief getting the homeowner to post guards all around the strongbox while he was busy stealing a bottle of rare wine from the cellar. The Proseccos would have to know that they would be suspected by people like Carstairs, Tobias, and Dundee. It made sense that they'd want to control their perceptions as well, not just those of the credulous.
"Unfortunately," he said aloud, "it doesn't seem to be giving me any quick answers."
"But you think the backgrounds of these people matter?"
"At least, they'll help me figure out where to look. Does Tobias Guinness live with his family?"
"I don't think so. At least, he doesn't attend services with them. I've met the parents directly, but only seen him once or twice, and never talked with him. He's only a topic of rumors and gossip here because of his parents."
"So he's probably got his own rooms. It's too bad there's no public directory of addresses, but he shouldn't be too hard to run down. And in a worst case, I can ask Master Dundee. Him I can find easily enough."
"I do know where the Guinnesses live, if that's of any use: The Willows, in Rathen Court."
"Thanks; it might be useful." He had no immediate plan to talk with the older couple, but it never hurt to have the information ready to hand if he needed it.
"Now, then, while I appreciate the update and I'm glad that I could be of use, I'd like to point out that the hour is growing late even by Town standards, and I have duties in the morning...as, I believe, do you."
"That's true enough. I have a feeling that tomorrow is going to be a busy day." He let out a loud yawn, then was struck by where he was. "Funny; most of the time it's the sermon that makes me sleepy in church."
"If you want to keep making jokes about it, I could always have you listen to my draft of this week's."
"That's all right; I think I can fall asleep on my own tonight. I'd say that I'll probably sleep like the dead, except that lately that doesn't seem like that means very much."
~X X X~
A/N: Incidentally, the debates over the Biblical story of how Saul had the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel that Bartido and Michael discuss are actually ones raised by real-world Biblical commentators, though without the reality of magic that must be factored into the GrimGrimoire universe.