Impossible odds, p.1

Impossible Odds, page 1

 

Impossible Odds
 



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Impossible Odds


  DAVE DUNCAN

  IMPOSSIBLE ODDS

  To the memory of Rudolf Rassendyll,

  who showed the way

  D’Ye Ken John Peel?

  D’ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay,

  D’ye ken John Peel at the break of day,

  D’ye ken John Peel when he’s far, far away,

  With his hounds and his horn in the morning?

  For the sound of his horn brought me from my bed

  And the cry of his hounds which he oft times led.

  Peel’s “View Halloo!” would awaken the dead

  Or the fox from his lair in the morning.

  Yes I ken John Peel and Ruby too,

  Ranter and Ringwood, Bellman and True,

  From a find to a check, from a check to a view

  From a view to a death in the morning.

  Then here’s to John Peel with my heart and soul

  Let’s drink to his health, let’s finish the bowl,

  We’ll follow John Peel through fair and through foul

  If we want a good hunt in the morning.

  —JOHN WOODCOCK GRAVES

  This is a stand-alone novel,

  set during the reign of King Athelgar,

  two years after the end of Paragon Lost.

  Contents

  D’ye ken John Peel…

  This is a stand alone novel…

  PROLOGUE

  Awaken the Dead

  I

  At the Break of Day

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  II

  From a Find to a Check

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  III

  From a Check to a View

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  IV

  From a View to a Death

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  EPILOGUE

  Far, Far Away

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  RESOUNDING PRAISE

  BOOKS BY DAVE DUNCAN

  COPYRIGHT

  ABOUT THE PUBLISHER

  PROLOGUE

  Awaken the Dead

  The night was unusually dark. The day had been hot and clear, but heavy clouds had rolled in after sunset to blot out the stars. There was no moon. In Chivial such nights were called catblinders.

  The guard changed at midnight. In pitch darkness Mother Celandine, Sister Gertrude, and their escort paraded through the grounds of Nocare Palace. Nocare’s gardens were deservedly famous and especially lovely now, at the start of Eighthmoon, except that they were totally invisible. Although Trudy was catching enough scents of night-flowering plants—stock, evening primrose, possibly moonflower—to tell her what she was missing, the lanterns carried by the two footmen leading the way illuminated only the paved path underfoot and mere hints of shrubbery.

  The four men-at-arms of the Household Yeomen marching noisily at the rear she considered an unnecessary precaution, because any evil-intentioned intruder who glimpsed her and the majestic Mother Celandine in their voluminous white robes and steeple hats was likely to run screaming off into the darkness, gibbering about ghosts. Besides, one of them was wearing a talisman that jangled her nerves like a tortured cat. In the few days since she had arrived at Court she had been appalled by the number of people who put their trust in such quackery. Good luck charms would attract bad luck as often as good, because chance was elemental. Educated people ought to know this. Other than that, midnight prowling was rather fun. Sour old Mother Celandine must not be finding it so, for she had barely spoken a word since they met.

  The White Sisters were rarely required to use their conjuration-detecting skills in the middle of the night. Nighttime security was normally a male sport—the Yeomen guarding the gates and the grounds, the Blades patrolling the inside of the palace—but now the King was entertaining an important guest and either he or someone in his train had been tactless enough to include conjurements in his baggage. Anyone else would have been reprimanded and made to turn them in, but a Grand Duke had to be humored. So the White Sisters’ help was required, and Sister Gertrude was the most junior Sister in attendance at Court. Tonight Mother Celandine would supervise and instruct. Thereafter Trudy would have the night honors all to herself.

  It was only a formality.

  Two lights came into view and soon resolved themselves into torches set in sconces on either side of an imposing doorway, the entrance to Quamast House. The Grand Duke had been lodged a long way from the main palace, and Sir Bernard had assured Trudy that this was the Blades’ doing. Most visitors were bunked in the West Wing, but the Blades never took chances with unidentified spirituality.

  Under each sconce stood a pike man in shiny breastplate and conical steel hat. The one on the right stamped his boots, advanced one of them a pace, lowered his halberd, and proclaimed, “Who goes there?”

  That was a very stupid question when he knew the answer already. The Royal Guard scorned such folderol as passwords, Bernard had told her, because they all knew one another and because they tried to do nothing the Yeomen did, or at least never in the way the Yeomen did it.

  “The nightingale sings a sad song!” Sergeant Bates proclaimed at Trudy’s back. That was not true, because nightingales had finished singing back in Fifthmoon, and he said it loud enough for any skulking trespasser to overhear.

  The man-at-arms resumed his former position, slamming the butt of his halberd on the stone. “Pass, friend.”

  One of the footmen opened the right-hand flap of the double door. As Trudy followed Mother Celandine through it, she caught a startling whiff of…of she was not sure what. She did not stop to investigate.

  She found herself in a pillared hall that must take up most of the ground floor of the building. A very inadequate light was shed by a pair of enormous bronze candelabra standing at the foot of a showy marble staircase set in the center of the hall, which seemed an inefficient use of space. Much vague sculpture loitered in the shadows along the walls. The marble floor supported some random rugs and a few ugly sofas and chairs, poorly arranged.

  A voice at her elbow said, “Good chance, Trudy.”

  She jumped and turned to meet his grin. “Bernard!” He had not told her he would be here!

  He smirked. “A last-minute roster change.”

  Obviously he had arranged this so he could surprise her—and embarrass her! Mother Celandine was frowning, and three other Blades had emerged from the darkness to leer. All Blades looked much alike—lean, athletic men of middle size, mostly in their twenties. The conjuration that bound them to absolute loyalty to the King showed to her senses as an ethereal metallic glow, which she found very becoming.

  “He’s a fast worker, our Bernie,” one said.

  “Gotta watch those rapier men.”

  Horrors! Her face was on fire.

  “That will do!” The fourth Blade was a little older and wore a red sash to show that he was in charge. He tapped the cat’s-eye pommel of his sword. “Good chance to you, Mother Celandine.”

  “And to you, Sir Valiant.”

  “Do you know Sir Richey? Sir Aragon? A
nd our expert breaker of hearts, Sir Bernard?” The men saluted in turn.

  Mother Celandine nodded crisply to each salute. “This blushing maiden is Sister Gertrude.”

  Jealous old hag!

  “Known as Trudy to her friends,” Aragon remarked in an audible aside.

  “We asked for White Sisters, not red ones,” Richey countered.

  Mortified, Trudy caught Bernie’s eye. He winked. She realized that he was showing off. The others’ crude humor was a form of flattery. She winked back.

  “Why don’t you have more lights?” Celandine demanded, peering disapprovingly at the gloom.

  “Blades see well in the dark,” Sir Valiant said, “but the real reason is that the visitors took every candle and lamp they could find upstairs with them. The Baron said something about liking lots of light. We’ll make sure we have more tomorrow.”

  The old lady sniffed. “Well, let’s get it over with. Carry on, Sister.”

  Trudy led the way back to the door to begin. The lantern-bearing footmen followed, and the Blades retreated to the staircase in the center, so their bindings would not distract the Sisters. Trudy closed her eyes and listened. She inhaled, licked the roof of her mouth, queried her skin for odd sensations…did all the curious things that promoted her sensitivity to the spirits, tricks she had been taught at Oakendown. She missed Oakendown and all her friends there, although it had been seriously deficient in boypeople, who were turning out to be just as much fun as she had dreamed.

  “Nothing here, Mother.” She began walking around the edge of the hall, stopped at the first corner. “There is something above here, though! Mostly air, some fire and water. And love.” Except for trivia like good luck charms, conjurations were forbidden within the palace.

  Celandine stifled a yawn. “Then we’re under the Grand Duke’s bedroom. He wears some sort of a translation device.”

  “It’s a seeming, surely? I mean,” Trudy added before the old harridan could take offense, “it’s more like a seeming than anything else I’ve met.”

  Mother Celandine pursued thin lips, wrinkling them more than ever. “I do believe you’re right! Yes. That’s good. We missed that possibility. But it’s harmless, you agree?”

  Maybe, but the rules said…Trudy had been reprimanded twice already that day for talking back. The Prioress was threatening to post her to uttermost Wylderland if she did not learn proper respect for her seniors. “Yes, Mother.” She hoped the King did not sign anything when he was near that enchantment.

  With the footmen in attendance, Sister and Mother paraded around the ground floor, through deserted kitchens, a dining room, an office. Trudy detected nothing untoward until she was almost back where she had begun.

  “There’s something here! Upstairs, I mean.” This one was much harder, and she struggled for several minutes, but the jangle of elementals defied analysis. “There’s more than one conjuration. I can’t make them out. A lot of them, all mixed up.” Her skin crawled. “I think we should go up and have a close look at that!”

  “It is Baron von Fader’s medicine chest,” Mother Celandine said. “Or, at least, that was what they were in when they arrived. He is His Grace’s physician, as well as his Foreign Secretary and Treasurer and spirits know what else. We scanned it carefully. The Prioress decided not to ask for the chest to be opened.”

  “Why not? There’s death in there!”

  “Sister! There’s death in almost anything, as you well know. Were you never taken to an apothecary’s when you were at Oakendown? Many drugs and simples are dangerous in large amounts. And Grand Dukes are entitled to the benefit of small doubts. Now, have you done?”

  “I am uneasy about this one, Mother,” Trudy said stubbornly.

  “It was approved only this morning. But remember it carefully. If you sense any change in it tomorrow, or any other night, then tell the Guard right away. Don’t be afraid to ask for my help if you’re in doubt. Come!”

  She led the way back to the waiting Blades.

  “You wish to go upstairs now?” Valiant asked.

  “No, we are satisfied. Anything really dangerous we could detect from down here. Of course we located the Baron’s medicine chest and the seeming His Grace wears, but we were already aware of those.”

  “Are they dangerous?” Valiant demanded.

  “Not unless you swallow an overdose of purge or sleeping draft.”

  “His Nibs wears a seeming? What does that do?”

  “Makes him attractive to blushing maidens,” Trudy said. That was probably all it was for, but the medicine chest still bothered her. Any job half-done bothered her.

  Mother Celandine was not amused. Mother Celandine wanted her beauty sleep. “You know where we are if you need us, Sir Valiant.”

  As they headed for the door, Bernard pulled another of his tricks. Right behind Trudy’s ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “Breakfast as usual, Trudy?”

  “Of course,” she shot back. “My place this time.”

  Sir Aragon said, “Oooooh, Trudy!”

  “We will come and chaperone you, Trudy,” Sir Richey added.

  She had never had breakfast with Bernie. She had never been to bed with him, either, although tonight after dinner had been a very close call. If she had not had to go on duty, who knew what might have happened?

  She did, of course.

  But only by hearsay.

  So far.

  Before her face could even think about blushing, she followed Mother Celandine into the dark vestibule, then outside. She went down one step and stopped so suddenly that Sergeant Bates almost slammed into her. She looked inquiringly at the guard who had challenged them on their arrival. He was playing statue again, but…but…

  “Something wrong, Sister?” Bates asked.

  “I’m not sure.” She was sensing something. “Are you all right?” she asked.

  “Answer her, Elson!” the sergeant said.

  The sentry was very tall and had an untidy blond beard. He blinked down at her stupidly. “Right? Yes, mistress, I mean, Sister.”

  Trudy shivered. She recalled noticing this same oddness on the way in, and now it was stronger. Very strange. Nothing familiar. Air? No fire. No love or chance. Time, no water. Death. Yes, definitely quite a lot of death.

  “What is it?” Mother Celandine had returned. “Mm? Oh, that. Are you wearing an amulet, soldier?”

  Elson shook his head vigorously, as if trying to dislodge his helmet. “No, Mother.”

  “How about a ring, mm?”

  “Er, yes, Mother…”

  Mother Celandine laughed harshly and took a firm hold of Trudy’s arm to lead her down the steps. “He’s a young male, Sister.”

  Trudy resisted the opportunity to say she had guessed that much because of the beard. “I don’t understand, Mother.”

  Bates barked commands; the procession formed up as before and began moving along the path.

  “Conjured rings are a common form of—ahem!—family planning, dear. Rings don’t get in the way when you take everything else off. I admit that Man-at-arms Elson’s is unusual, not a formula I recall ever meeting before, but you’ll find such devices all over the palace.”

  “I’m sorry.” She had made a fool of herself.

  “I like your young Blade, Bernard.”

  Trudy gasped. “Er…thank you.”

  “It must tax a girl to keep up with that sense of humor.”

  “I’ve managed so far.”

  “I noticed.”

  “Bernie’s fun. But you shouldn’t refer to him as my Blade.”

  “He thinks he is.” The Mother sighed. “I used to lust after Blades quite absurdly, but their bindings always gave me a headache at close quarters. Still do. Even tonight, just those few minutes with them.”

  If she had an aversion to Blades, why had she accepted a posting at Court? It was no excuse for skimping on the inspection.

  “Bindings don’t bother me,” Trudy confessed, trying to imagin
e Mother Celandine forty years ago, a demure maiden fresh in from Oakendown. Lusting? The mind reeled. “I quite like it, in fact.” It was sexy.

  “Then you’re lucky. You do understand that other young men will stay well clear of you if you date a Blade? And everyone will assume you’re sleeping with him?”

  “I do not sleep with Bernard! I mean I do not, er, lie with him!” Just sitting beside him was quite dangerous enough.

  “Then you’re about to,” Mother Celandine said firmly. That was not a question. “Unless you drop him completely, right away.” That was.

  “I don’t want to do that,” Trudy said.

  “Then let’s talk about rings and things, dear.”

  When a stupid twigger asked you if you felt all right, the first thing that happened was that you started not feeling all right. Think about it for a while longer and you began to feel all wrong. As the night passed, Junior Pike Man Elson grew steadily more unhappy. He was cold. He was sweating. His eyes hurt. He had a flea, and fleas inside a breastplate were worse torture than the rack. He was really mad at his idiot wife for starting another baby so soon. Already he couldn’t afford to feed all the gaping mouths that greeted him whenever he went home.

  Every quarter hour or so, Corporal Nolly gave the signal that meant, count three, then stamp feet together, shoulder halberd, take one pace forward, turn inward, and so on. It ended with the two of them having changed sides. That was better than being reported for fainting on duty, but it hardly classed as an exciting evening.

 
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