Night of Madness
Lord Hanner was panting slightly as he hurried across the plaza toward the red stone bridge that led into the Palace. He’d had a long, busy day and had been moving at a constant fast walk for over a mile, his bones carrying more weight than they should, so it was no surprise that his breathing was a bit heavy as he trotted across the brick pavement.
Perhaps that was why the stench of decay rising from the Grand Canal, which he had scarcely noticed when he set out that morning, hit him so strongly. That the tide was now out, so that the water level in the sea-fed canal was a foot or two lower than it had been when he left, might also have contributed.
Whatever the cause, his steps slowed, and he swallowed hard. The reek of dead fish and rotting vegetation was overpowering— and hardly appropriate for the immediate environs of the seat of the city’s government and the official residence of the overlord of Ethshar of the Spices. The golden marble of the palace walls glowed beautifully in the light of the setting sun; the dark red brick of the plaza complemented it nicely; the sky above was a lovely blue streaked with pink and white wisps of cloud-and the whole scene stank like an ill-kept fishmarket. The city’s usual smells of smoke, spices, and people were completely smothered.
The guards on the bridge and the well-dressed strollers in the square did not appear troubled by the smell, but there were not quite as many strollers as Manner would have expected at this hour on a beautiful summer day.
This lovely afternoon was the fourth day of Summerheat; so far this year the month had not lived up to its name, and the weather was mild. Hanner was sweating, his tunic sticking to his back, but from exertion, not the day’s heat.
Hanner waved a hand in front of his nose, trying unsuccessfully to dispel the odor, as he kept walking, more slowly now, toward the bridge. “Confound it,” he muttered to himself. “Someone’s not doing his job here.”
He tried to remember who was in charge of seeing that the canal was cleaned regularly; wouldn’t that be the responsibility of Clurim, Lord of the Household-and, not incidentally, one of the overlord’s younger brothers? Or was there some other, lesser official whose job description specifically included handling such things as seeing that the canal was cleaned?
Hanner couldn’t remember. He was a resident of the Palace and a hereditary noble, so he was acquainted with most of the city’s officials and functionaries, but right now he could not think who was responsible for the regular purification of the Grand Canal.
Uncle Faran would know, of course; the simplest thing for Hanner to do would be to mention it to him. In fact, the chances were good that Lord Faran had already noticed the stench, and that the magicians who would perform the purification spells were already on their way. After all, Faran’s windows, like all the windows in the Palace, overlooked the canal.
That did assume, of course, that Lord Faran hadn’t allowed himself to be so distracted by other matters that he was ignoring his surroundings and leaving such minor mundane details unattended. Hanner certainlyhoped his uncle wasn’t shirking his duties while he once again pursued his obsession-or rather while he waited for Hanner to pursue it.
Ethshar could ill afford to have Lord Faran, chief advisor to Lord Azrad the Sedentary, neglecting his duties, since the overlord had long since turned most of the city’s day-to-day administration over to his chief advisor.
Hanner picked up his pace again, trotting across the bridge without a glance at the stonework, barely nodding at the guards on either side.
“Who comes...” one began, lifting his ceremonial spear; then he recognized Lord Hanner and let the spear fall back into place. In the palace entryway Hanner had to stop and wait impatiently while the additional guards there went through their rigmarole of signs and countersigns before opening the door. The captain watched his men, but remarked, “A pleasure to see you, Lord Hanner.”
Hanner did not deign to reply, though he did wave an acknowledgment. He had spent the entire day roaming the city and talking to strangers, at his uncle’s orders, and he really did not want to talk to anyone else just now-not that the captain, a man named Vengar, was another stranger; he was the commander of the guard detachment inside the Palace, and Hanner had known him slightly when Vengar was still a lieutenant, since before Hanner himself was old enough for breeches.
At last the soldiers inside acknowledged that the person requesting admission wasn’t an invader and swung open the heavy, iron-bound doors. “Thank you,” Hanner said as he hurried past them into the central hallway.
That passage was twenty feet wide and twenty-five feet high, floored with tessellated marble and hung with rich tapestries, and it led directly to the ornately worked golden doors of the overlord’s main audience chamber. Hanner barely even glanced at that display of grandeur; instead he immediately turned right and stepped through a small wooden door into one of Lord Clurim’s offices. There he merely waved to the clerk at the desk before proceeding on through, emerging into a narrow corridor and heading for his own family’s quarters.
Had Lord Clurim been present Hanner would have mentioned the smell, but he knew from unhappy experience that telling the clerk would result not in a prompt cleaning, but in assorted messages wandering about the building, accomplishing nothing but the annoyance of other clerks.
Hanner wound his way through a maze of passages and antechambers and two flights of stairs before arriving, finally, at Lord Faran’s apartments-the apartments Hanner and his two sisters had shared with their uncle since their mother’s death two years before. He paused at the door to catch his breath, then straightened his silk- trimmed tunic, opened the door, and stepped into Lord Faran’s sitting room.
His uncle was standing there, resplendent in a fine cloak of dark green velvet that hardly seemed appropriate to the season, while Hanner’s sister Lady Alris, wearing a faded blue tunic and dark-patterned skirt, sat in the window seat, ignoring the beautiful weather beyond the glass as she glowered at Hanner and Faran. Their other sister, Lady Nerra, was not in sight.
Lord Faran’s cloak was clearly for appearance, not warmth. Faran was, as always, elegant and graceful; and as always, Hanner was reminded of his own shorter stature and heavier build. He was not, he frequently told himself, actuallyfat, but he was definitely well rounded-quite unlike his trim, handsome uncle. Hanner had taken after his long-vanished father’s side of the family.
Lord Faran spoke before Hanner could. “Ah, Hanner,” he said. “I have a dinner engagement, so I can’t spare more than a moment just now, but I must know if you learned anything important.”
“I noticed that the canal stinks,” Hanner blurted.
Faran smiled wryly. “I’ll see to it before I leave,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Not really,” Hanner admitted. “I interviewed almost a dozen magicians, and none of them reported any threats or abuse from the Wizards’ Guild.”
“You asked Mother Perrea?” “I spoke to her and her partner,” Hanner said. “She insisted that it was her own decision to limit herself to witchcraft and not accept her father’s post as magistrate. The Guild’s rules had nothing to do with it.”
“Either that or she was sufficiently terrified that even now she won’t speak of it,” Faran said, frowning.
“She didn’t appear at all nervous,” Hanner said.
“You’ll have to tell me more later,” Faran said. “If I’m to chastise Lord Clurim for the state of the canal and still reach my destination in time, I can’t spare another second here.”
“What’s her name?” Hanner asked, smiling as he stepped aside.
“Isia, I think,” Faran replied, his frown vanishing. Then he swirled past Hanner and was gone.
Hanner listened to the footsteps retreating down the hallway for a moment before closing the door. Then he turned to Alris.
“He’s off again,” Alris said before Hanner could speak. “As usual. He spends more nights away than he