"Well, this is fucking nostalgic," Dale Shadowsblade said.
The trail of smoke from the steam engine was a dun-colored plume in the distance, and the snow glittered in the moonlight.
"What?" Kai said.
"My granddad saw trains robbed sometimes," Dale said. "As a little kid. His granddad took him along the last couple of times as a treat just before the old bastard bit it."
"Oh." She searched her memory; he could feel it like pages being flipped. "Like Butch and Sundance and that Westerns shit?"
"Yeah, though granddad said when they caught someone his graddad used to tie 'em to a tree and then cut open their bellies and pull out the guts a couple of yards, real careful not to kill 'em. So they could watch the coyotes having dinner."
Kai giggled. "Hey, that sounds like fun!"
"It does, doesn't it? I've never got around to it, always meant to, but he used to laugh himself sick when he told about the way they'd wiggle. Anyway, those trains would have looked like that one, all steam and smoke."
He took a deep breath; the smell of the countryside was different, wetter even with the cold, greener...
"OK, you keep an eye on the body," he said, turning back to the Mercedez Sprinter van. "Bossbitch wants someone killed. Roll me in clover said the pig."
There was still a slight smell of blood from the previous owners, but the back had a comfortable foam padding. He lay down and crossed his arms on his chest. Kai closed the doors and squatted outside, smoking and cradling a little Austrian machine pistol.
A twist of agony and ecstasy and a great snowy owl beat its wings, up and through the metal ceiling of the van. The night turned bright as he circled, full of rustlings and movement, the scurry of a field-mouse insanely distracting. He rose, banked, dove, then turned, exulting in the way his wingfeathers grasped the air like fingers in water. That left him flying at exactly the same speed as the train; there was a curve here that made it slow down a little. Another twist, and a chacma baboon fell to the top of the train.
Fingers and toes gripped, and the wind whipped at his grey-brown fur as the motion of the passenger-car jolted him. This was one of his favorite forms for climbing work; they were nearly as agile as squirrels and with a hundred-pound weight and two-inch canines they were bad news in a fight too. There was more brain to them, too, which made things like maintaining purpose easier. A mutter of Mhabrogast...
Shit, he thought.
When you looked at it this way, the whole train lit up like a Christmas tree. With Wreakings, wards, and the personal patterns of adepts, like a chorus of flavors and smells, all of them bad to really bad. There was serious monster mojo here. He twisted again into his own base-form and began to pull not-see around himself. Tease out the threads... they were like a skein blurring the whole substance of the world around him...
The wind was cold on his naked skin. He shivered and sweated at the same time. Now for the most difficult part of all, one most Shadowspawn never tried. He checked his location again; not all that far from the bossbitch herself, her aura was unmistakable... and right, she'd be able to claim she wasn't thinking about anything but fucking her brains out and feeding while this went down.
And who's the smart one here? he thought sardonically. Who's freezing his aetheric dick off, about to risk his life, and who's in a nice warm bed spanking the hell out of a really first-rate piece of ass?
Feel the roof of the railway car. Feel the quiver, the way the matter existed not as a solid thing, but instead as a grainy foamy presence more like a note plucked on a guitar. Don't let the process become just instinct like walking through a wall, where it was easy to turn the bottom of your feet a bit more palpable as they came down. Control. Then sink into it, letting yourself match it—
—and fall through, a flash of darkness—
—and turn palpable again in a split second.
—and land in a crouch. He panted for a moment, the sound harsh in his ears. Dropping through a floor was insanely risky. If your timing was even a fraction off you ended up dropping right into the earth, or trying to go palpable again halfway through something. Both would kill you.
No sense in waiting. His don't-see-me was better than any Shadowspawn he'd ever met; that was why the Council had used him as an executioner, and that was how he'd met Adrienne. The downside was that you couldn't do much else but listen with the Power when you were hiding that hard, anything active showed right up and blew your cover.
On the other hand, hiding wasn't the only reason he'd been named Shadowsblade.
OK, there's Adrienne, making happy with lots of sound effects. Adrian, likewise, quieter, but a good time being had by all. And Arnaud on the other side... a trifecta of Brézés. I've never killed a Brézé before. It could get addictive.
His hand touched the door to the compartment. Not locked. Then there was a sudden unexpected wave of agony from within, as if someone had been dipped in liquid fire.
Dale Shadowsblade grinned like a shark as he flicked the door aside and lunged.
There were screams coming through the thin wall of the compartment. Mixed with moans, and a smacking sound.
"Whose idea was it to put your sister next to us?" Ellen asked, jamming her thumbs into her ears and trying not to think of a series of memories that were unpleasant in a whole galaxy of ways, many less than straightforward.
Adrian grinned at her. "Any of my family who wish to do us harm, which is to say, any of them," he said. "Starting with her, and working on out to Great-Uncle Arnaud, who I think did some of the scheduling for this trip."
Then he concentrated and began to mutter. Ellen felt a sensation like a fierce itch inside her skull. The sounds from next door dulled, until they were fainter than the droning whine of steel on steel from the wheels and the distant chuffing of the engine.
"You know," Ellen said, with a slow smile, "I was telling the truth about your hands and my bottom."
Hours later a scream of an entirely different nature woke her from a drowsing sleep, so loud she couldn't tell if it was psychic or physical or both. The muffling feel of the Wreakings clanging shut in her head was nearly as startling. She sat up in the comfortable but slightly narrow bunk. Across the compartment Adrian was crouched on his, alert and tensile as a great cat, the yellow flecks in his eyes glittering in the dim light.
"What was that?" Ellen said quietly.
"Death, I think," he said. "The Final Death. A nightwalker, a postcorporeal perhaps, in sudden agony and great fear. And close, close."
A fist thumped at the door. "Open!"
The rolling shutters were down over the lounge's windows, and the postcorporeals were there despite the fact that the sun was up outside and the train still in motion. They were also all within arm's length of the armored boxes held by their most trusted renfields, and they were snarling-angry.
"Arnaud Brézé was under my protection," Étienne-Maurice said. "It was made clear before we left Paris that all feuds were in abeyance until we arrived in Tbilisi, and we are not yet even in Istanbul!"
Ellen was uneasily conscious that they were snarling-angry at her, as well as at Adrian, as well as simply pissed off at having to be active in daytime away from their carefully arranged and usually underground home lairs. The renfields were coldly furious as well; Arnaud's valet had been found dead face-down on the floor of the compartment too.
"Am I supposed to have killed my Great-Uncle Arnaud?" Adrian said, reclining gracefully and lighting a thin brown cigarette. "And if I did... what objection would any of you have?"
He blew smoke towards the ceiling in that offensively arrogant way that only someone who'd spent a lot of time in France in the twentieth century could master.
Étienne-Maurice crossed his arms. "Because this train is under my protection," he said with deadly calm. "I would take any such action as... how shall I express it... a personal affront. Even a challenge."
He didn't have to add how many challenges he'd faced in over a century of existence, and how few of those challengers had survived.
"Then we should determine who did commit such a solecism, sire," Adrian said. "For it was not me."
One of the Tōkairin clan surged to his feet, hand going to the katana thrust through his sash. "You are a Brotherhood terrorist!"
"Well, yes," Adrian said with a slight smile. "But that is not relevant to the issue. Your motivation is obvious. Your cousin invaded my home territory and I—my wife, actually—killed her. Would anyone here have done differently?"
That brought unwilling nods. Ellen shivered a little inwardly, behind the shields that made it difficult to read her emotions. To Shadowspawn, that argument made perfect sense, which was an illustration of why hanging out with them was like swimming with sharks. The Brotherhood operatives who had a large share of that with blood made her nervous; these...
"Is this supposed to be a motivation for me to have killed your great-uncle?" the Tōkairin said.
Adrian shrugged expressively. "It is if you persist in trying to pin the blame on me. In any case, I have no motivation... well, I would have killed him if I had an opportunity in the normal course of events, he tried to kill me last year in Paris... but I have no motivation to do so now and here. Unlike my late great-uncle, I am not an impulsive or reckless man. I am attending the meeting in Tbilisi to make an argument; this would not have increased my credibility. And I fear my great-grandfather's anger... as who does not?"
There were nods, and a few smiles and laughs. Ellen became conscious of how sweat was trickling down her flanks as the ratcheting tension eased back a notch.
"Ach, so," the man in the SS uniform said. "But you might have had other motives... concealing a secret, perhaps?"
Adrienne spoke. "Arnaud was scarcely likely to confide in my brother. Insofar as he had a political position, he was aligned with me. Does anyone suggest that I killed him?"
"It is not impossible," von Trupp said thoughtfully.
"Well, any one of us could have killed him," she pointed out cheerfully, nibbling on a biscuit. "Is there anyone here who doesn't enjoy the process, other things being equal? Apart from you, Ellen."
Ellen shivered invisibly again. Yeah, Adrian apart, who? And when he gets his blood up... How do you figure out a murder when everyone around cheerfully owns up to being a murderer?
"Let us examine the... site," Adrian said.
No point in saying body because there isn't one, Ellen thought.
"Oh, I don't really think that's necessary—" Adrienne said.
The conversation became harder to follow after that, partly because some of it was telepathic, and more because the Shadowspawn started dropping into and out of languages she didn't speak. One of the many vile unfairnesses of their genetic heritage was that they could pick up languages with full fluency in a week or two simply by interacting with native speakers. The enlarged language centers of their brain, the part that handled telepathy, just absorbed it. Adrian spoke dozens. He claimed that he had the same faint accent in all of them...
When the dialogue started to include hissing snarls she slipped out unnoticed. Whenever she started getting too envious, she reflected that were advantages to not having the Power.
Nobody was guarding the compartment that had been Arnaud Brézé's.
"Why am I not surprised? These people... sorta-kinda people... couldn't organize an orgy in a whorehouse," she muttered. "Well, maybe that, but only because of natural talent in that direction, not organizational skills. If it weren't for their renfields they wouldn't have clean socks in the mornings and they'd always be running out of toilet paper and toothpaste.
It wasn't that Shadowspawn were stupid, though some were, about the same percentage as with normals. Adrian was brilliant...
And Adrienne is too, in that utterly skanky sneaky heh-heh-heh of evil laughter sort of way.
It was just that a lot of them acted stupid in this sort of situation. Stalking around each other with their fur bristling rather than getting on with things. Which was fortunate, in its way; if it hadn't been that way humans would all be in pens.
She slid in and closed the door behind her. The layout was identical to the compartment she and Adrian shared; a couch on either side that folded down into a bed, with an armoire-table between. Just as fancy, too, in a subtly different way. These wagon-lits cars were individual works of art, or at least craftsmanship of the highest order, put together like fine cabinetry.
All right, she told herself. You've had years of doing Janette Bond stuff in Adrian's head and some real-world too, and you're good at seeing patterns anyway, you always were. What do you see here? Where are the details that don't fit? Pretend it's a painting and you're checking to see if it's a fake or not—you did that at the gallery in Santa Fe often enough. What doesn't fit? What's wrong?
There was a sharp unpleasant scent in the air. Not blood; an aetheric body dissolved when it died, and evidently the valet had been killed in some non-leakish way. This would be the stomach contents, since the nightwalking body did oxidize food to create energy. Sure enough, there was a stained and damp patch on the sheets beneath the tumbled blanket. Ellen crossed to the window and flipped up the pull-down screen; the glass was sufficiently tinted to let a nightwalker enter the compartment, but most of them would hesitate anyway because you could see the sun outside, albeit a pale washed-out variety.
Black leafless trees were passing by, with glimpses of snowy fields and the occasional farmhouse beyond, like Bruegel's The Return of the Hunters. You forgot how north Northern Europe was until you were here in winter; because of the Gulf Stream it wasn't any colder than the mid-Atlantic states she'd grown up in, but it sure as hell was darker in this season.
The cause of death seemed obvious; a long double-edged silvered dagger was rammed through the bedding and into the mattress beneath.
And that's his monogram on the hilt. Someone killed him with his own knife.
She hesitated, then wrapped her hand in a corner of the sheet before she pulled at it—probably nobody was going to take fingerprints, but there was no point in taking chances. At least it was just silver, and not the alternative way of killing a nightwalking Shadowspawn, which was a knife with pre-activated glyphs commanding a Wreaking. Those were a lot more dangerous to the user. Especially a human, because if the nightwalker was strong enough and fast enough he could reverse it, which would be like the blade were running a couple of thousand volts ready to right through you.
Then she frowned. There was more than one rent in the bedclothes. More than half a dozen, in fact, as if there had been multiple stabs. And why was the blade plunged deep into the mattress; until the nightwalker died or went impalpable the body would have kept it from going in that deep. And—
She ran a finger through a dry part of the sheet and rubbed thumb and forefingers together. There was some sort of dust or powder on the sheet, well away from what had been the edge, and it glittered. A quick glance aside showed a stack of envelopes, antique things with heavy cream-colored paper, but they'd do well enough. She took one, and used a sheet of the watermarked notepaper beside them to scrape as much of the powder as she could into the envelope and tucked the flap closed.
A first glance around showed only what a rather foppish, wealthy European born in the 1880's would have, with the unexpected addition of a modern Indian-made tablet. She tapped the screen, and found it had been playing Debussy through a set of wireless earphones as an accompaniment to a video file...
She shuddered and turned it off; on second thoughts she slipped it into her pocket, feeling as if her hands were dirty. There were the usual weapons, including a '92 Lebel revolver with silver bullets in the chambers within reach of both the bed and the table, but no indication that any of them had been used. Something pricked at her attention. The pad of notepaper on the little table was sewn at the top, with a row of perforations below—just as useable as the adhesive type she was familiar with, but different, and it made it immediately obvious a sheet had been used. There was an elegant Montblank fountain pen beside it, but no writing.
And exactly one sheet is missing from the top of the otherwise-virgin pad.
"Now, what are the reasons to kill someone? Kicks, with this crowd. Or fear. To stop someone from doing something... did Arnaud know something? Was he going to tell someone? It's right next to our compartment and one over from Adrienne's."
She picked up the pad and slipped that into her pocket as well. Another round of the compartment didn't show any sign of the missing sheet of paper, even when she went through the pockets of all the clothes outside the trunks. At last—reluctantly, and using the fountain pen—she began to lift the sheets. A corner of paper, yellowed from the equivalent of stomach acids—
"What are you doing here, puta?"
The words were in a woman's voice, flat neutral Californian-American, but accompanied by short metallic click. Ellen's recent education filled in the rest, and she turned very slowly.
She recognized the figure in the doorway; Theresa Villegas, Adrienne's household manager. A renfield, but a very trusted one, from a family that had served the Brézés for nearly two centuries, since that branch arrived in California not long after the Gold Rush... Back on Rancho Sangre, the Brézé country seat on the central Californian coast not far from Paso Robles, there was an old story that a rattlesnake had bitten Theresa once.
The story said the snake had died.
"Looking around," Ellen said coolly, keeping her hands in view.
Theresa was a prim-looking middle-aged woman in a conservative business suit, with graying black hair and an olive complexion; in her hand was a small businesslike revolver, with the tips of the bullets shining a dull silver where the cylinder exposed them. The click had been her thumb pulling back the hammer of the simple single-action weapon. Ironically enough, Ellen was in more danger now that she would be with a Shadowspawn adept. The defenses Adrian had Wrought would keep the Power at bay long enough for her to run or get help.
None of it would help a damn with a nine-millimeter bullet travelling at over a thousand feet per second, and she couldn't Wreak to sabotage the weapon. The silver wouldn't do her any extra harm... but it wouldn't be any less effective than simple jacketed lead, either.
And Theresa had just exactly as much compunction about killing as Adrienne. Less, in fact, since Ellen was fairly certain Adrienne badly wanted to keep Ellen unwillingly alive for some time, possibly millennia. Whereas the renfield would be perfectly content to just kill her, for purely practical reasons and because she'd always disliked Ellen, who hadn't had what she considered the proper (abject) attitude for a lucy during her time at Rancho Sangre. Neither she nor Adrienne had read the Evil Overlord List, but the human was much more attuned to its pragmatic spirit.
"Returning to the scene of the crime, like a dog to its vomit?"
Said the bitch, Ellen thought but did not say. Damn, I'm not nearly as scared as I used to be. Which is good... and a bit scary in itself... but just as grossed out.
Instead she went on: "What exactly do you think Adrian will do if—"
"If I kill his lucy?" Theresa said.
"Wife," Ellen said with a friendly smile. "Kill his wife."
Theresa's finger tightened on the trigger, and for a moment Ellen thought she'd been overindulgent by giving herself the pleasure of puncturing Villegas' self-image; prodding the tiger, or in this case hyena, through the bars was only safe if there were good solid bars. Then it relaxed: the steel of self-interest proved strong enough for the flash of murderous hate. At some level someone like Theresa Villegas had to hate themselves most of all, but human beings projected that outward more often than not.
"And of course what Adrienne would do to you," she finished cheerfully.
That didn't intimidate Theresa as much as she'd hoped. "Yes, she has plans for you." A gesture with the gun. "This would be a mercy, which is why I'm not going to shoot you... as long as you leave. Immediately."
Ellen turned her back on the renfield and continued to lift the sheet. There was a corner of paper there, and it was the same type as the notepad, as near as she could tell after the pseudo-body's pseudo-stomach acids had been at work on it for a few moments.
Why would a desperate postcorporeal eat a piece of paper? It would show up as soon as... oh. You'd have to root around. And postcorporeals start out as corporeals. The habits persist... look at this compartment, there's all the proof you need they really really persist!
"I will shoot you on the count of three... the Doña is usually rational given a little time to think... one... two... "
"All right, all right," Ellen said, straightening and tucking the pen away after wiping it on the blanket. "Have a nice day once she gets back."
She was still smiling when she closed the door of their compartment behind them. Then she sat and shuddered with her hands knotted together and pressed to her forehead.
I do not, not, not want to live this way! I'm spending most of my time around people who are like something out of a fucking horror movie! They all deserve to die! I hate these people! I hate the fact that I hate people and want to kill them!
A year ago she couldn't have imagined killing someone even in self-defense, much less enjoying the thought. She still had her derringer in her hand when the handle of the compartment door clicked. If it was the train staff, they simply wouldn't notice it—another thing she didn't like was manipulating people all the time, even if it was for their own good or just to stay out of their sight.
"It's me," Adrian said softly, probably sensing her emotions. "They have calmed down, for the present."
Ellen gave a shivering sigh of relief and gripped him fiercely as he came through.
"I adore you too, darling," he said, putting an arm around her. "But put the gun away first, hein?"
She took a deep breath and did. When she let them the reflexes she'd acquired about firearms operated automatically; and she hadn't actually pointed it at the back of his neck, anyway.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I'm... not sure," she said. "But here's what I found—"
When she finished they were on the sofa, her head against his shoulder. She could feel the puzzled frown in his voice.
"Theresa would not have threatened you unless she truly wanted you out of Arnaud's compartment." Then something quiet. "And some day... we will have to have a little talk about that with her."
Ellen shivered slightly. Most of that sound in Adrian's voice was outrage that anyone should threaten her, which was heart-warming. A slice of it was sheer cold aristo arrogance, though. Even that was slightly heartwarming—his subconscious was indignant that a servant should threaten a Brézé, meaning her.
"I think... Arnaud was about to do something that Adrienne didn't want. Either she killed him or she had someone else do it."
"But what? Even by Shadowspawn standards, Arnaud was... whimsical. And as far as he had any politics at all, he backed Adrienne's faction."
"That's just it," Ellen said slowly. "Maybe he learned something."
"And then there is the means," Adrian said.
He took the envelope and rubbed a little of the powder between thumb and forefinger.
"This is powdered silver, prepared in a rather arcane and complex fashion. The Brotherhood use it sometimes, but it requires careful camouflage. If you can conceal it until a nightwalker shall we say slides into bed... the agony would be indescribable. Not fatal, but enough to thoroughly distract."
She brought out the tablet, notepad and pen. "Maybe if we held this paper up against the light, or scattered shavings... "
"Ah," Adrian said with satisfaction, laying them out. "I would not have seen this pattern."
He turned until they were facing each other and inclined his forehead against hers. "May I?"
She nodded, and made herself relax. Most importantly, she made her mind relax, concentrating on the warmth of his skin and the slight clean scent of his cologne and thinking of nothing in particular. A shiver went down her spine, and the whole sequence from the moment she opened Arnaud's compartment door flooded into the forefront of her consciousness. All at once, with everything she had thought/felt/seen/smelled/touched.
It ended, and his hand stroked her hair. "You were very brave," he said. "And very intelligent. That was dangerous, and you handled it perfectly. But now that you have, let me see if I can make a contribution."
He sat back, turned, and put his hands on either side of the notepad and closed his eyes. After a moment she could feel him humming; then he began to murmur—in Mhabrogast.
That always gave her a feeling like tinfoil between the teeth. It was illogical to think of an arbitrary collection of syllables as evil, but somehow you did feel that way when you heard it. Adrian had told her he had to ration of his use of it because of the way it affected you if you thought in it for too long. He wasn't sure why; possibly it was the nature of the outlook the Power gave you, or possibly it was because the Brézé savants who'd reconstructed it in the Victorian period had colored their work with their own personalities.
After a moment he reached out, took the fountain pen and twisted it open with a single motion of his strong slender fingers. The ink in the reservoir dribbled down... and then began to sort itself, rolling in tiny beads across the surface of the paper without sinking in. When they did there were words on the surface, a single sentence written in an antique looping copperplate:
She knows, and she has—
Adrian sat back and sighed, rubbing at his temples. The last few letters in 'another' trailed away, a scrawl that turned into a squiggle.
"A little more efficient than pencil shavings. Though probably a forensic laboratory could have done as much... possibly not, and in any event we do not have a laboratory."
"It's not exactly... straightforward."
"No, and that is exactly like Great-uncle Arnaud; even in his death he is exasperating!"
"What could it mean?" Ellen said.
"Obviously she refers to my sister. Though with Arnaud, one can... could... never be absolutely sure. But what is it that she knows? And what does she have? A plot, a plan, a weapon, a spy? It would be easy to go mad trying to figure that out."
They went through the files on the tablet; mostly those were classical music, ebooks—few of them dating much past 1930—and amateur video which she couldn't look at for long. Surprisingly enough Shadowspawn rarely abused children—humans didn't taste right before puberty—but Arnaud had pushed the envelope that way, to just barely adolescent victims. One section did have maps, including Adrienne's distribution plans for Trimback Two, the plague. It wasn't labeled, but she recognized it from things she'd overheard while she was Adrienne's prisoner.
"Arnaud wouldn't have crossed Adrienne for just anything, would he?" Ellen said.
Adrian shook his head. "Nobody not completely insane crosses her without good reason. Granted, though, if one is insane... I was being truthful in what I said to the others. He was always impulsive. And he became more so as time went on. His precognition was always very strong for one of so early a generation, but he relied on it rather than schooling or disciplining it, doing things simply because the idea welled up into his mind. Sometimes true prescience, sometimes simply whims. But whatever it was she knew, it was something we do not want her to know, and whatever she has, it will be regrettable."
"When could Adrienne have killed him?" Ellen said. "If we can pin it on her... "
"We cannot. Not directly. She brought in Monica and opened her mind to show that she was... ah... strenuously occupied at the time and completely preoccupied."
Ellen winced. "Poor Monica."
Adrian's mouth quirked. "She was actually quite proud."
"Like I said, poor Monica. So Adrienne didn't do it with her own hands... or mind. She had someone else do it."
"We may be jumping to conclusions ourselves," Adrian said thoughtfully. "But... yes, that feels correct. I cannot be more specific, not with an adept of her power muddying the waters."
"God, Shadowspawn playing cards with each other must be a joy," Ellen said.
"Chess is better. Though few have the patience for it."
"I thought predators were supposed to be patient?" Ellen said sardonically.
"More like spoiled housecats," Adrian replied dryly. His finger traced the paper. "I will show this to Great-grandfather. It would not be admissible evidence in a court, but the Council of Shadows does not... "
"Work that way, yeah. More like on moods, personal grudges, cabals, sheer desire to stick it to someone, that sort of thing."
"How well you know... them. It will be enough to divert suspicion from me, or at least muddy the waters. Still, I wonder who Adrienne brought in."
Copyright © 2012-2013 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>