Within the first ten minutes of the carriage ride, it became obvious to Anna that Tam was much more experienced with farm wagons in the open countryside than with a carriage in heavy traffic. His knuckles were white on the reins and he wore an expression of suppressed panic. “You’re doing fine,” she ventured, from the carriage window. “Watch out for that post!”
They made it at last, via Anna’s careful perusal of city maps, and stopping for directions twice, with Anna as translator. Tam’s hands were shaking a little by the time they pulled up in front of the Berdrach collection.
“It’s all right,” Anna soothed. “The cat got off clear. Really. And we didn’t even dent the post.”
“We’ve dented the hotel’s carriage,” Tam hissed quietly. “How am I to pay for it?”
“It isn’t real gilt, Tam, it’s just paint. I could fix it myself. I will. Maybe you should just take a couple turns about the grounds, to get a better feel for this thing.”
“Are you sure? Should you be alone?”
“I won’t do anything stupid,” Anna assured. “I promised Lady Blackfeather, didn’t I?”
Tam grudgingly agreed, and after a moment to regain his nerves, he took the carriage round the drive at a leisurely pace. Anna turned and walked up to the gates of the impressive manor house. A moment later, Varden Chauncellor’s carriage pulled up, swiftly and gracefully in the hands of an experienced driver. Varden left the carriage, and looked up at her with a slow, nervous smile. He won’t turn my head, no he won’t, Anna told herself. Who knew he could smile like that?
The sound of a frightened “Whoa!” brought her attention back to Tam, who had barely reined up in time to avoid another gaudy carriage pulling up with more passengers. She winced, and quickly greeted Varden, to pull his attention away from Tam.
“I apologize for my lateness. I hope I haven’t kept you long. You look, er, very well, Lady Anna,” Varden said.
I’m still as pale as a fish, Anna thought. “You are very polite. Thank you again for this kind opportunity. I haven’t been waiting long at all.”
Varden took her arm, and together they were admitted through the wrought iron gates. Anna spared one backward glance for Tam, carefully navigating the circle once more. He waved, a little helplessly. Anna smiled. Varden caught her smile and returned it, that same nervous smile he’d had upon first seeing her.
Oh, no, my head’s not turned at all. I’m supposed to be looking at art today. Remember the art.
Remembering the art proved no problem at all, once Anna was immersed in it. The paintings were wonderful, and everywhere, and much better in quality than the awful, stilted conversation being shared between the nobles viewing them. Anna spoke Germhacht quite well, and was pulled into more than one truly inane conversation while trying to admire paintings.
“My family owns a Vonfreir,” a girl in maroon ruffles said. “But Mother had the room redone in chartreuse and the colors clashed, so we had to put it away.”
“How, um, unfortunate,” Anna said.
“Not really,” the girl said. “We put up my aunt Greita’s still life of flowers and oranges. Or maybe they’re lemons. Anyway, the Vonfreir is some dreadful old historical piece. Isn’t that dull? Only now how is anyone to know we own a Vonfreir?”
Anna smiled tightly and moved away before she said anything inappropriate. She narrowly escaped another conversation on the travails of having a new ladies’ maid to train, and the rudeness of a particular seamstress who refused to make a sixteenth new alteration on a dress. If she were the seamstress, Anna was sure she’d have felt it was the wearer who needed the alteration. Varden was similarly harassed by an old school fellow he seemed not to remember fondly, and an elderly gentleman who had some business with Varden’s father that he wanted to pass along.
Anna knew that she should be listening for any important news about the elder Chauncellor, or the theft, or the Pumphrites, but all she really wanted to do was lose herself in the amazing panoply of brush strokes and colors before her, or the intricate old Germhacht pieces where every painted pearl looked like it could be plucked off the smooth board. Varden seemed to want the same, and he steered them into the quieter galleries, where they looked at the works in companionable silence.
While moving between salons it was impossible to avoid awkward introductions to people she would never meet again and was obliged to be polite and correct to. She dodged a few awkward questions about her family by being brief, and gritted her teeth and stayed silent when the fresh piece of scandal about the Blackfeather family’s possible involvement with thieves came up. How fast did news travel? Varden noticed her discomfort and led her away from the conversation into a room full of seascapes, where he spoke in a lowered voice. “I know you let the boy fetch paints for you, but I’d advise you not to encourage him. The Blackfeather family is less honest and upright than everyone supposed.”
“I haven’t heard a thing to back up that accusation,” Anna replied, carefully cool.
“Djaren was the last person seen in the library,” Varden said, “and then in the morning, an entire cabinet of antiquities from Narmos were found to be missing.”
“Second to last. The last person saw fit to spread the rumors of Djaren’s having been there. And to burst in with loud accusations the next morning.”
Varden’s lips thinned.
“Let’s not throw idle blame about,” Anna said, tired and miserable of it all. “I have a room near the Blackfeathers. I saw Djaren return from the library with only books.”
“There was a thief seen—”
“And anywhere you see a thief, all are thieves? I want more evidence than that.”
Varden paused. She could see him weighing his words, being careful not to offend her. “Who, then, do you suppose is behind the recent theft?” he asked, finally.
It seemed an honest question, so Anna took it as an opportunity. “What about Mister Pumphrey?”
“Ugh, that horrible little fraud.” Varden grimaced.
“He’s been trying to weasel into the Society, hasn’t he? The Blackfeathers have open access to the libraries, so why would they steal anything there? It’s Pumphrey who’s been mad to get inside.”
“It’s a theory,” Varden admitted. “He and his hangers-on have been nothing but a nuisance to reputable scholars. Narmos antiquities, though? That’s hardly his field, if such sentimental pseudo-science can even be called a field. ” He shook his head, changing the subject. “Shall we chance the hall, to get to the Brechthold woodcuts?”
In the hall, however, Anna heard the name Pumphrey tumble through the hum of conversation. She squeezed Varden’s arm, and they casually swung round to stand near the speakers.
“Those insufferable people of his,” a woman was saying. “My uncle Elbert has been forced to retreat to his country estate, just to be rid of them. Hunting, he says, but we all know the real reason. Thank heavens I’m not a member of the Society. Stars and virtues defend those poor beleaguered archeologists!”
“I don’t know,” a bald man with an expansive middle said. “Maybe Elbert doesn’t need the money, but I wouldn’t think some of the others would mind the interest of an eccentric millionaire. He’s a bit potty, to be sure, but he’s got good business sense. Even owns an island estate on the Western Rim, with gum trees and all.”
“He may have gum trees and half the islands of the rim,” an elderly man said, with an irritated quaver, “but what he doesn’t have is any real scholarship or business in archeology.”
Varden made a little snort of agreement and half-turned, as if to go, but Anna planted her feet and kept listening. Since Varden was attached to her arm, he stayed, too.
“Why, hasn’t he?” the bald man said. “I thought he’d something to do with antiquities. A collector, yes? Lots of great stone slabs and idols and such, from his travels. I’ve seen ‘em. Can’t recall where from. Namlos, or someplace.”
Anna glanced sideways at Varden. He was listening too, now, face suddenly intent.
“But that’s not my line of work,” the bald man said, with a deep laugh. “Wouldn’t know a real treasure from a fake. I’m a rail man, myself.”
“Pumphrey is well traveled,” a pretty young woman with pouting lips said. “But that’s all he is. New money, you know. Nobody had ever heard of him before he traveled to the near east and became enlightened or some such in a tiresome old dead empire. And now we only wish he’d go back to obscurity, and take his dull antiques with him.”
The elderly man’s eyes, surprisingly sharp, caught Varden out from the crowd. “Ah, Varden Chauncellor. Aren’t those dead empires your area of expertise? Lend us your professional opinion, here. And whatever happened with that lecture your father was going to host?”
Varden’s lips thinned. Anna decided it would be gentlemanly to rescue him. “It’s only postponed, isn’t it?” she said lightly. “I think old empires sound rather interesting. I didn’t know Pumphrey had an antiquities collection, or an interest in . . . Narmos, was it?” She smiled at the bald man. “I had the impression he wasn’t a very, um, grounded person.”
“He seemed solid enough to me, when I spoke to him a few weeks ago,” the man said. “He wanted to see about bringing some heavy pieces up from the coast. We talked business. He’s a canny man, Pumphrey. Might have come up from little, but he’ll be ruling a trade empire in a decade’s time if he keeps at it.”
The younger woman laughed. “Dear Lord Ferlezand, we really must be discussing different Pumphreys. The one I know couldn’t rule his own household. Have I told you about that dreary thing he called a party, last Wintereve?”
The conversation turned to parties, and Anna let herself be steered away into the woodcuts gallery. Varden smiled at her. “Thank you for that.”
“I say, a connection between Pumphrey and Narmos.” Anna smiled back. “That’s worth following up on, don’t you think?”
“Only if old Ferlezand is right. He was telling the truth when he said archeology wasn’t his line. He wouldn’t know Narmos from Alarna.”
“But we could find out if Pumphrey does. He has to be keeping those stone slabs somewhere. Does he have an estate here in Germhacht, do you know?” From his accent, Anna thought that Pumphrey, like Varden, was Arienish. But Varden’s father had a summer home in Germhacht. Pumphrey might, as well.
Varden shook his head. “No, his estates, if you can call them that, are home in Arien. His factories, too, right on the river in Logansburg. Unsightly monstrosities.”
“Then what is he doing here in Germhacht, do you suppose?”
“Other than collecting mindless followers?” Varden shrugged. “The Society headquarters and library may have attracted him. Or he might simply be here on business. Regardless, he’s publicly known to be staying at the Derdrien House, here in town.”
“Isn’t that where he’s giving his lecture?” The one the Pumphrites had interrupted Anna’s contemplation of DeAngellis to invite her and Varden to. “Let’s shock him and attend. Who knows what he might be hiding in that house?”
Varden frowned. “Awful parlor tricks, most likely. Aren’t those beastly people having a séance? It’ll be moving mirrors and steam shrieks, to startle his gullible guests.”
“You’ve seen that sort of thing before?” Varden didn’t strike her as the sort who visited spiritualists.
“All these charlatans have their strategies.” Varden shrugged. “We saw plenty of fortune tellers, wizards, and mediums while traveling through the Borghols. Mirrors, wires, and noise-makers, for the most part.” His arms were crossed, and he drummed his fingers. Irritation, or some deeper nervousness?
“We might arrive fashionably late, and miss that bit,” Anna suggested. “Surely we could survive the lecture.”
Varden stilled his fingers. “An expert eye can see through such tricks easily. It wouldn’t be difficult to unmask him.”
Did he want to go to the séance or not? He was fascinatingly difficult to read. “Whether or not Pumphrey is hiding stolen antiquities,” Anna said slowly, watching Varden’s face, “he is certainly misleading innocent people. Stopping such a fraud would be something worth doing.”
“You think so?” Varden met her eyes. Those intense darks were especially intense right now.
“I do.” She let out a breath. “As long as you’re sure you can tell pretend supernatural occurances from real ones.”
Varden laughed, sudden and surprising. “Lady Anna, don’t tell me you believe there are real ghosts and such?”
Anna considered for a long, careful moment before she spoke. The mountains of Shandor were wilder and higher than anything in the Borghol range, and even farther from what people here called civilization. Anna had seen her share of odd things. Her family’s people had stories they held sacred about ravens that spoke in men’s dreams, creatures that in older times had changed their shapes at will, wise kings who read their people’s hearts like books, and Amryns who could hear the Land’s memories and feel its heartbeat. There were things about her home that all Shandorians just knew not to mention to foreigners. Common fairy tale things that wouldn’t make someone like Tam blink, would sound ridiculous to Varden’s cultured ears.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” she said at last, truthfully. “But mightn’t there be something true, beyond our understanding of the ordinary?”
“I thought you were the one who wanted evidence,” he mocked gently.
“Mythology is in all our histories.” Anna shrugged, looking idly at a painting, and finding an unexpected mermaid amid the rocks on the shore. “It’s written in our cultures, deep to the roots, isn’t it? Something must have formed it, and fed it so that it’s not only in books, but told by families in the firelight.”
“Maybe your family.” Varden raised an eyebrow. “I think you’ve spent too much time near the Blackfeathers. Doctor Blackfeather wrote an entire paper, did you know, on a supernatural hero and some demon god, who were supposed to have battled in the Alarnan wastes. He finds a solid translation of the Sharnish language, and then proceeds to muddy that legitimate discovery with this fanciful gibberish about creatures that never existed. One could be surprised, but all his work is like that. Fairy tales posing as history.”
Anna remembered that paper. She’d done the sketches for that dig, and her illustrations had been published, along with Djaren’s and Jon’s translations of the precious Sharnish. It had mostly been Lady Blackfeather’s paper, really, though Anna had helped as well. The hero’s magic shield was now lodged in ten-year-old Jon’s palm. There were certain things she’d never be able to discuss with Varden, Anna realized. Art though, that was still something, she reassured herself.
“If we left now,” Varden said, “we could take the long drive round the old king’s court manor, and arrive at Pumphrey’s Derdrien gathering just at dusk. There shouldn’t be any traffic.”
No traffic, that would be good for Tam. Poor dear Tam. “I must bring my coachman,” she said.
“What, is he still here?” Varden looked round.
“He’s an odd sort of escort.”
“But I can trust him perfectly,” Anna said, finding the statement true.
“As you wish. Shall we go separately, or . . .”
“I should like to discuss that with Tam.”
Varden looked puzzled, but merely shrugged. “An odd name. Wherever did you find him?”
After polite thanks and goodbyes, they made their way outside, where Tam waited with the coachmen. He was evidently doing his best to talk with them.
“I know some words of Germhacht now,” he said, in greeting. “A couple of these fellows have been giving me the right of it about handling a carriage on cobblestones. Are we going back to the hotel?”
“If you don’t mind, Tam, we could go look in on what Pumphrey is up to.” Anna explained about what they’d heard inside, and the plan to go investigate.
Tam scratched at his head. “You sure this isn’t something stupid, that Lady Blackfeather might object to?”
“Varden is a perfect gentleman, Tam.”
“Nah, not him, I meant Pumphrey. What if he’s possessed or mad or somewhat?”
Anna smiled. “Did you pack along a mallet?”
Tam looked down at his feet, then up with a smile. “Maybe.”
* * * * *
“I don’t know,” Ellea said, “whether this is such a good idea.” She sulkily dropped the last of the salon pillows on the floor of the garden gazebo.
“We haven’t left the hotel grounds,” Djaren pointed out. “We are still technically within the hotel.” He made a few adjustments to his hurriedly constructed telescope, all cardboard and borrowed bits of whatnot and spyglass lenses. “If there are hails of blood or comets, we don’t want to miss them.”
“I doubt we would miss comets.” Ellea flopped down amid the pillows and nibbled at a cake. “Don’t they make a fearful racket? And flatten cities?
“Do you think there will really be comets?” Jon asked. “I hope not.”
“There’s really no telling,” Djaren said, rather cheerily.
“I shouldn’t like to see a rain of blood either,” Jon said. “Or lightning that falls like a torrent upon the earth, or a shaking of the world’s foundations, or any of those other things in the books.”
“We have umbrellas ready too,” Ellea pointed out. “So rains of blood are accounted for, anyway.”
“Gum suits would be just the thing to protect from lightning, I should think.” Djaren paused in adjusting some clamps. “That calls for some experimentation.”
“We haven’t gum suits,” Jon said, looking through the chest of supplies they had hauled out from their rooms.
“More’s the pity. Another day, then. We’d need a special generator too, for solid testing conditions, like they have in the silver plating factory.”
Ellea giggled suddenly. “Some demon hunter you would make, in a gumsuit, with an umbrella.”
Djaren made a face at her. “Not everyone can be Father, and be made of one thing or the next in a moment. Other people have to find other ways to be handy.” He consulted some of his notes, then smiled over at Jon. “You’ve something there in your hand, at any rate.”
“I don’t know how to use it,” Jon said, looking down ruefully into his palm. “I want to be helpful, but I haven’t the first idea what to do. I should hate to think that bad things might occur that I could have prevented if I’d only known how.”
“How did you save Uncle Eabrey, last summer?” Ellea asked him.
“I don’t know. I wanted him safe. I wanted something to protect us.”
“Then that will probably work again.” Djaren pulled out safety matches and some candles from the supply box.
“I don’t think though,” Jon said, “that I can stop comets.”
“Well, no one can hold that against you,” Djaren said. “I don’t know if even Father can do that.”
Ellea leaned out over the gazebo rail and looked up at the stars. The sky was clear at the moment of clouds and flying fathers. She wished briefly that Poppa was here, and not hundreds of miles past calling for. Even if he couldn’t stop comets, he was very reassuring to have near.