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Brandon / THE WANDERERS
The Magnifico Aureste knelt staring down at the Magnifico Vinz, who stared blindly back. The fixed eyes and still, bloodstained chest clearly proclaimed their owner’s lifeless state. Less clear, however, were cause and circumstances.
He had killed Vinz Corvestri, so much was certain. His hand still recalled the blade sliding neatly between the other’s ribs. He had done it, yes, but why? He had hated the man for decades, but never had enmity found physical outlet; at least, not directly. Why here, and why now? What had happened?
Aureste raised an icy hand to a hot brow. His recollections of the past few minutes swirled in chaos, and he could not sort them out. Surely he had been asleep and dreaming. But when did a sleeping man, even one caught up in the wildest of nightmares, ever commit homicide?
The Magnifico Aureste thrust that thought from him. It had been no murder, but an act of legitimate self-defense. Corvestri had attacked him.
But Corvestri’s lax hands were empty of weapons.
No matter. He had been attacked, he was sure of it. There had been ghostly figures, faces that he knew from the past, voices that he knew, stabbing at him with their words. The images were confused, but vivid. Corvestri had been there among them, his voice among theirs, master and leader of the crowd—
There was no crowd. No ghosts, no voices. He and the corpse were alone in a quiet moonlit space. Perhaps that was all that had ever been.
No. They had been present, assaulting him in their own incorporeal but effective way. They had very nearly mastered him. And if they had not been real, then they must have been arcane manifestations, created by a treacherous enemy. Corvestri could have done it—must have done it. Weak and fearful though he was, there could be no denying the man’s arcane skill.
His highly trained, experienced, absolutely essential skill.
He realized then what he had done. He had killed Vinz Corvestri, a magnifico of the Six, and incidentally one of the precious talents upon whom the success of the entire venture depended. It was a catastrophe.
Or perhaps not entirely. Aureste’s mind was swiftly resuming its wonted agility. Innesq believed that the cleansing of the Source might be accomplished by five arcanists, in a pinch—he had said so—and five remained.
One of them a youth of thirteen years, untried, unproven, scarcely qualified to take a place among his elders.
Well, young Vinzille Corvestri would have to serve; there was no alternative. And it shouldn’t be impossible. Innesq had lavishly praised the lad’s natural ability.
Innesq. The name struck mental sparks. He would be shocked, grieved, and generally appalled to learn of Corvestri’s death at Aureste’s hand. He was likely to remonstrate; he might even blame his brother. No doubt they all would, even Sonnetia—or especially Sonnetia. She did not appear particularly attached to her lord, but some misplaced sense of duty might oblige her to protest his removal.
But then, she did not have to know who had done it.
Innesq had never learned the truth of the Sishmindri Zirriz’s disappearance. He did not need to learn the truth about Vinz Corvestri, either. Nobody did.
They would wake within a few hours and note their companion’s absence at once. Perhaps a few well-crafted lies would convince them that Corvestri had decamped voluntarily during the night—that he had lost his nerve, and, like the servants, had bolted for home . . .
No, that nestful of arcanists would immediately attempt communication. They would cast forth one of their accursed sendings, and then, receiving no reply, they would initiate a search. They would locate the body within minutes; its whereabouts could never be concealed from such hunters. No good, no good . . .
Well, then—they would discover their loss, but not its author. The Magnifico Aureste would be with them when they woke at daybreak. He would appear to share in their puzzlement and growing uneasiness. He would likewise share in their consternation upon discovery of Vinz Corvestri’s corpse, and he would share in the general discussion. He would offer up his own theory of events—that the Magnifico Vinz had wandered away from the camp during the night, perhaps to answer a call of nature, and there, alone and unprotected in the depths of the woods, he had been set upon by murderous footpads.
It was not implausible. In these troubled times, desperate bands roamed the starving countryside. The Magnifico Vinz, abstracted and taken unawares, might easily have fallen prey to violence.
And if certain members of the group doubted this explanation, suspecting something even darker—well, where was their proof? The weapon employed, identifiable as Aureste’s own, would never be seen. Where was it now?
It lay on the ground beside him, where he had let it fall. He snatched it up, wiped the dark stains off on the grasses, and stowed it away out of sight. Who could reasonably raise a voice against him in the absence of evidence or compelling motive? He himself hardly knew why he had done what he had done. There was no clear reason. He knew only that he had been attacked, and that he had defended himself.
Who could contradict him? There had been no witnesses.
Some instinct lifted his eyes then from the dead man on the ground and turned them to the left, where a small figure stood poised, almost as motionless as the corpse. She stood but a few feet from him, and he could see her quite clearly; slight form wrapped in a drab cloak, white face and bare white feet, pale hair silvery in the moonlight, enormous eyes wider than ever before, and filled with—horror? Grief? Incomprehension? He could not read those uncanny eyes.
He had no idea how long Nissi had stood there watching; whether she had followed him by design, or stumbled upon him by chance; whether she had witnessed all, or only part. Whatever she had seen, the potential damage had to be contained. Aureste sprang to his feet. The expression in his eyes evidently terrified Nissi. She turned and fled.
Aureste gave chase. He had not decided exactly what he would do when he caught her, but she had to be controlled, one way or another.
But laying hands upon young Nissi proved no easy matter. Through the midnight woods she led him, through pools of pearlescent moonlight and wells of deepest shadow, her step so light and fleet that she seemed to flow over the land like rushing water. Aureste, unequivocally solid, stumbled over roots in the darkness, cursed, and failed to gain on her. The branches whipped his face, the brambles clutched at him, while his quarry flitted weightlessly ahead.
Presently she reached the campsite, with its recumbent cocooned figures ranged about the remnants of the cook- fire. Without hesitation, she sped straight to Innesq Belandor, who slumbered beside his wheeled chair. Dropping to her knees, she let one finger lightly touch the sleeping man’s brow. Innesq’s eyes opened at once and he sat up, whereupon Aureste abruptly checked. He stood still, his black gaze fixed on Nissi and mutely threatening to burn her alive.
“Magnifico Corvestri. Oh, help!” She spoke in a breathless whisper, tiny but all too audible.
Aureste’s hands itched for her throat, but she was beyond his reach and could not be silenced now.
“What is it, child?” asked Innesq. “What about Corvestri?”
Innesq’s eyes shifted for an instant to Vinz Corvestri’s untenanted spread of blankets. “Perhaps he will return.”
“No. The last thread was cut, and he is gone.”
He understood her, and his face changed, but his voice remained calm and gentle as he urged, “Tell me what you have seen.”
She could scarcely be permitted to do so; at least not before the Magnifico Aureste had presented his own suitably shaded version of the facts. Aureste advanced.
As he drew near, Nissi began to shake. Seizing one of Innesq’s hands in both her own, she clung.
“My dear one,” Innesq attempted reassurance, “I promise you, there is no need to fear my brother.”
“His knife,” Nissi whispered. “His knife, dark with the Magnifico Corvestri’s blood . . .”
“No, that is impossible. You have had a nightmare.”
She shook her head, cobweb hair drifting.
Aureste could no longer maintain silence. “The girl has witnessed—an incident,” he confessed. “I daresay she has misinterpreted.”
Innesq fixed a searching gaze upon him.
“I’ll tell you all that happened, as well as I’m able,” Aureste promised. “But come, let me help you into your chair. We’ll withdraw a distance and speak in private.”
Already it was too late. The three voices had pitched themselves very low, but they had fallen upon the ears of sundry light sleepers. Aureste felt the pressure of new observation, and turned to confront the mournful, questioning regard of Littri Zovaccio, who sat bolt upright, bony hands clasped tightly before bony chest. Not so much to worry about there—Zovaccio never spoke, he would disturb nobody—but now another was awakening, this one always malevolent.
Yvenza Belandor opened her eyes and sat up, instantly and fully alert. For a moment she studied her wakeful companions, and then asked, “What is this?”
No answer, and her imperative glance pinned the trembling Nissi. She repeated the query.
The lifelong habit of obedience was not easily broken, and Nissi did not resist.
“Magnifico Corvestri. Gone, in blood.”
“His own, you mean? Do you tell me he is dead, by violence?”
“You’re certain? You’ve seen this with your own eyes?”
“He died by his own hand?” Yvenza waited a moment for confirmation. It did not follow, and her eyes kindled. “Another hand? Whose?”
Nissi’s eyes shifted for an instant to Aureste Belandor’s face, and then away again.
“Ah, I see. But how dreadful. You mean that the murderer”—Yvenza’s voice lingered pleasurably upon the word—“the murderer is here, hiding his evil among us? Name him, child. Come, we’ll protect you, name him aloud.”
The situation was deteriorating by the second. Aureste burned to seize control. A confidential discussion with Innesq would furnish the best means. His brother’s arcane powers, suitably directed, would surely serve to mend matters. Perhaps Innesq could bring Vinz Corvestri back to life. Or maybe he could turn time back upon itself, and the entire unfortunate episode could be avoided. At the very least, he could offer a truly thorough removal of the corpse. Perhaps it could be whisked off to the depths of some ocean on the far side of the world, and then it could be given out that Vinz Corvestri had simply elected to depart in solitude during the night. And certainly Innesq would be willing to oblige, once the true facts had been properly explained to him. The true facts were murky, but no matter. The Magnifico Aureste possessed powers of improvisation.
But there was little opportunity to use them. A discreet exchange between his brother and himself was now impossible. No chance of slipping away unnoticed; the hag Yvenza had seen to that, with her deliberately clarion tones that had roused the last of the company from slumber. They were all stirring now, sitting up, rubbing their eyes, murmuring. Sonnetia Corvestri, unaware of her widowed state, but visibly uneasy; her son, Vinzille, fired with youthful energy, wide awake and already on his feet, his quick glance traveling everywhere; and Ojem Pridisso, frowning, drawing in his breath preparatory to the issuance of some reproof or command.