word with the marquis before the affair become scandal worthy?

(By the end of it, Madeleine was having serious difficulty keeping a straight face, mostly because her invisible companion was quietly having hysterics.)

Eventually, the other noblewoman wandered off to go find someone else to grouse with (or at, or about), and Madeleine returned her attentions to the task at hand.

Or, most of her attentions, anyway.

“Tell me again, Olgun, why I ever wanted to be one of them?”

Olgun, the invisible presence to whom she'd been speaking throughout the evening, shook a nonexistent head. And then, perhaps troubled by the tone of Madeleine's thoughts, willed a gentle question across her psyche.

“Hmm? No, I'm fine. I just…” She stopped, realizing that she was chewing on a loose lock of hair from her wig-a very unaristocratic mannerism. She swiftly spit it out, patted it back into place, and sighed softly. “Olgun, that was twice in two minutes something caught me by surprise. The drink, and then that- that woman…I'm supposed to be more alert than that, yes?”

A moment more to interpret Olgun's unspoken response, and then, “I am not out of practice!” she practically hissed, drawing herself up and glaring around arrogantly in response to a few peculiar looks cast her way by those who almost overheard her. “I am not out of practice,” she repeated, far more softly. “I just-haven't done this in a while.”

And again, after a brief pause, “There is so a difference! It's a subtle distinction, but an important one! Vital, even! No, I'm not going to explain it to you. You're the god; you figure it out!”

Nose held high (making her look rather like half the other folk in attendance), Madeleine lifted her skirts and swept gracefully toward the exit. She passed through pockets of conversation about the general ungainliness and lack of competence among the serving staff-apparently, her own near miss was far from the evening's only unfortunate incident-and muttered a number of polite farewells on her way out.

Only a few even noticed her passing. Not that they were deliberately slighting her at all, no; rather because their attentions were focused elsewhere. In the room's far corner, occupying a bubble all to himself as though his mere presence repelled the spinning dancers or even efforts at conversation, was a middle-aged fellow in the simple brown cassock of a monk. Perhaps as a peace offering to an angry Church, the Marquis de Ducarte had invited Ancel Sicard, Davillon's newly appointed bishop, to his gathering. The fact that Sicard had chosen not to attend, but had sent his assistant instead, was cause for even more gossip throughout the party than the lackadaisical efforts of the servants. The monk, Brother Ferrand, stood, and smiled, and engaged in what conversation came his way, and if he noted the puzzled or hostile glowers, or the angry mutters directed toward him, he certainly gave no sign. Madeleine threw him a final, curious glance-recalling another monk of the same order whom she'd known only briefly but liked to think of as a friend-and then slipped out into the moonlight.

A path of cobblestones wound through garden and orchard, an inebriated earthworm twisting through the grounds of the Ducarte estate as it made its way toward the gates and, from there, the main road. Thick grasses and rich flowers perfumed the night, enjoying the last moments of a fruitful spring before the oncoming summer began to pummel them with fists of heat and sun. Again, Madeleine couldn't help but think of her last visit here…of the breaking glass, the quick plummet, and a desperate escape across this same meandering pathway…

She couldn't remember what the gardens or the trees might have smelled like, then. She'd been too wrapped up in the scent of her own sweat and blood.

“Okay, Olgun,” she announced with a headshake that threatened to send her carefully coifed wig toppling into the dirt. “Enough with the reminiscing.” (As though it'd been he who'd been doing it.) “Let's get on with it.”

Madeleine Valois had done her part; it was time for the noblewoman to take her leave, and the street-thief Widdershins to take the stage.

It was one of her standard techniques, a methodology that had served her well time and time again: use one identity to scout and study the target; the other to relieve said target of just a small portion of excess wealth. Charity was a civic duty and a religious obligation, after all; one could even argue that, as one of the poor who needed said charity, she was actually doing them a favor.

(In fact, not only could one argue it, but she had done so, in her time. Oddly, few of the city's wealthy-or the Guard-ever found her logic particularly convincing.)

Her name had once been Adrienne Satti, and though not born into high society, she'd found her way into the aristocracy thanks to the efforts and kindness of the noble Alexandre Delacroix. The apparent fairy tale had not, alas, brought about a fairy tale ending; Alexandre was dead, now, and Adrienne wanted by the city's elite for a series of horrific crimes that she'd never committed. Today she was mostly Widdershins-thief and, far more recently, tavern owner-but she still kept up her presence within the aristocracy under the name Madeleine Valois. It all might have been confusing enough to make her head spin, if she hadn't had the misfortune to live all of it firsthand.

But at least she wasn't alone. No, Adrienne Satti hadn't been the only survivor of those crimes for which she herself had been blamed. There was one other.

Olgun. A foreigner. A god.

A god few had ever heard of, and only one now worshipped.

A god who now kept careful watch, alert for any interruptions as his disciple and partner disappeared into a shadowed alleyway, gown and wig and other signs of Madeleine Valois sliding into the maw of a black canvas sack. Dark leathers, precision tools, and a blackened rapier emerged from that same hiding place. The young lady-slender and fine-featured, brunette-who scrambled up the nearest wall to perch, staring carefully at the Rittier estate, really didn't much resemble the absent noblewoman at all.

“All righty, Olgun, now it's time for the fun part, yes? You know, the waiting. What? Well of course the waiting's fun! Why else would we do so bloody much of it? For a god, you're really not all that good at logic.”

And then, “I can tell when you're making those kinds of faces at me, you know.”

After that, Olgun lapsed again into an amused silence, and Widdershins really had nothing to do but wait (which was not, despite her efforts at convincing the god or herself, the “fun part” at all) and watch for the activity at Clarence Rittier's manor to slowly taper off.

Windows of stained glass, worth more than Davillon's average laborer would make in years, cast the sanctuary in a soft rainbow glow. The steady gleam of the moon and stars, augmented by the flickering of a dozen streetlights, threw reflected images of countless holy symbols and scenes across row upon row of pews and kneeling cushions. The most oft-repeated symbol was, of course, Vercoule's crown-and-sun, but here was the golden pyramid of Geurron, the silver face of Demas, the white cross of Banin, the bleeding hand of Tevelaire, and more. Those gods most prevalent in Davillon boasted the largest and most frequent icons, but every single deity of the Hallowed Pact-all 147-were represented somewhere.

Here in the Basilica of the Sublime Tenet, the heart of worship in Davillon, it would have been improper to do any less.

Perfumed censers and waxy candles breathed a pungent, greasy smoke that left a sweet aroma in its wake as it swirled toward the domed ceiling. From the raised dais at the front of the sanctuary, a priest's melodious voice rose and fell through a litany as familiar as his own name.

It was a litany few heard. That the sanctuary should be sparsely populated was no surprise; the midnight mass was never a well-attended function, even at the best of times. But this night-and, for that matter, the past two seasons-could not, for either Davillon or the Church, qualify as the “best of times.” Tonight, the priest and his assistants outnumbered the parishioners.

Nor had it been that much better during the day.

From a shaded balcony above the sanctuary proper, all but invisible to the smattering of parishioners below, an old man watched, his eyes red with unshed tears. Ancel Sicard had always loved his Church, and the many gods whom he had the honor and privilege to represent. But in his past six months as bishop of this conflicted city, he'd

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