It was the evening of December 20. Eva was just lighting the candles in Margeriteís chamber, the warm glow of the flames kindled by her taper spreading through the room like a draught of hot wine through a chilled manís body, and Margerite was taking out her embroidery to while away the time until the evening meal was served in the great hall, when Kobolt suddenly miaowed, standing on his hind legs to paw at Margeriteís thigh with his claws unsheathed just enough to prick lightly through the heavy wool and velvet of her clothes. By habit, she reached down to sweep him away; then she remembered what the cat truly was, and lifted his solid weight up in her arms instead, looking into his golden eyes.
"What is it, Kobolt?" Margerite whispered. "What are you warning me of?"
As with the eyes of any cat in candlelight, Koboltís pupils were huge, with the faintest reddish luminescence shining in their depths. Margerite struggled to clear her mind, not knowing whether he would speak to her in plain words, as beasts did in childrenís tales, or ... she felt faintly dizzy, as though she had drunk off one of Kundrieís draughts in a gulp. Then it seemed to her that the catís eyes brightened; though she heard no speech, not even as a whisper in her thoughts, his ears went back and his claws came out, his muscular body tightening in her grasp, and a chill rustled through Margeriteís flesh. He is warning me of danger, she thought, and then, though she did not know why, Graf Gunther is coming!
Even as that thought came to her, a soft knock sounded on the door. Eva left her task to answer it; Margerite heard her stifled gasp and Kriemhiltís sharp mew, and saw the light of a candle glowing through the dark crack of the door.
"Is the Grafin within?" Graf Guntherís light, cultured voice enquired politely. "I would speak with her."
Margerite set Kobolt down, rising to her feet and smoothing down her skirts. "As you will, Graf Gunther," she said, keeping her voice as calm as she could, although she was trembling within. She did not think Kobolt would have warned her if the Graf had been on an ordinary errand. She was sure that he would have Order business to speak of -- her eyes went to the silver ring on her finger, its inscription very black against the warm gleam of candlelight on its polished surface -- and she steeled herself for another round of deception. "Eva, you may leave us."
Evaís blue eyes were dark and wide with fear as she looked at her mistress, and the flame of her taper shook, but Gunther waved a long hand negligently. "She may stay here, and we shall go elsewhere; it is hardly proper for us to be closeted in your bedchamber. Come, Priestess."
Margerite was startled at his use of the Order title before Eva -- but of course, the Order had sent the girl to Ruprecht, and Gunther might well expect her to be using Eva as a ritual assistant now, for many rites, particularly those of divination, called for the help of a virgin. She followed him out, down the corridor to Ruprechtís room, and unlocked the door at his gesture. Graf Guntherís candle was the sole illumination in the chamber; its brightness played over the bones of his long face so that he seemed almost inhuman, a mask of light floating in the darkness, pierced by the two searing blue glints of his eyes. I am looking upon him as he truly is, Margerite thought -- she was still a little dizzy from her effort to understand Koboltís warning, and for a dreadful moment, she feared that her legs would fail beneath her. But the black cat arched his back, rubbing against her, and his touch steadied her so that she was able to meet the Light-Bearerís gaze.
"Show me the way to Ruprechtís sanctum, Priestess," Gunther ordered.
Every nerve in her body thrumming with tension, Margerite led the way down the stairs to the corridor behind the smithy. Kundrie had met them here -- but Kundrie and Klingschor were dead, she reminded herself, and Ruprechtís magic broken. Yet it seemed to her that, though the power that had oppressed her was gone, she could feel something lingering, like the faint stink of dung that always hung about a wall where a midden heap had been piled, no matter how often it was washed down.
The bodies of Ruprechtís two servants were no longer in the room where they had fallen, but there was a faint stink of sulphur and chemicals in the air. Graf Gunther sniffed suspiciously, his long nose wrinkling, but said nothing.
The smell grew stronger as they went downward into the lowest tower room. Here, the devastation had begun: books were scattered everywhere, their pages stained and scorched, and not one of the bottles that had neatly lined the shelves was left whole. Kobolt brushed past Margeriteís legs, walking daintily among the glass shards and sniffing, here and there, at the dark stains and oily puddles upon the stone floor. In the middle of the room was a large scorched mark, and Kobolt crouched upon it a moment, his spray hissing out onto the cracked stones.
"That is the familiar Ruprecht found for you?" Gunther enquired.
Gunther stroked his graying goatee, thoughtfully regarding Kobolt for a moment, then passed on. Ruprechtís alchemical laboratory was in worse state than his library: it looked as though everything there had exploded at once. Deep pits halfway up one wall suggested that whatever had sprayed there had actually eaten into the stone. Graf Gunther was shaking his head, his lips twisting in a snarling frown. "What did he do?" Gunther whispered. "How could he possibly have bungled it so badly?"
Margerite would not have recognised the chamber where Ruprecht had stood over Evaís body the night before if she had not known where it was. The walls were all coated with clinging black soot; the circle and triangle painted on the floor were almost completely obliterated, a deep crater of jagged stone and rubble in the middle of the wreckage. Gunther prowled about the room, kicking at the lumps of blackened stone. One crumbled beneath his foot, and he bent down to pick it up. Margeriteís gorge rose as she saw what he had in his hand: it was part of a calcined skull, eyesocket and nose-hole clogged with soot.
"Ruprecht?" he asked.
"I do not know, Prince. Kundrie and Klingschor were down here ...."
Gunther turned the blackened piece of bone over thoughtfully in his long knobbly fingers, staring at it with a peculiar intensity. "Klingschor," he said. "Priestess, look through this rubble to see if there are any larger pieces left. I may yet be able to draw an answer from one of my servants, or from Ruprecht, if enough remains of any of them."
Margerite gulped. If he did that ... there would be little choice for her. She had her eating dagger in her belt, and Gunther would not suspect an attack from her: she would wait until he was distracted with his magic, and then try to stick it between his ribs from behind.
She squatted, trying to keep her skirts clear of the soot with one hand as she gingerly prodded through the debris on the floor with the other. Most of the pieces lying about were, thank Maria, thank Christ, only lumps of rock blasted free from floor or walls by the force of the explosion. But once a greasy black lump crumbled in her hand to reveal a piece of dirty bone beneath, and she realized with a wave of nausea that it had been flesh. Kobolt nosed through the remains with her until he began to sneeze, at which point he retreated to the doorway and started to wash himself busily.
Margerite had circled the whole room three times before Gunther deigned to look at what she had uncovered. He grunted.
"Not enough," he said finally. "Now, Priestess, you shall tell me what you know. Since you are still living, it is obvious that you had no part in this ritual. What did Ruprecht tell you about it?"
"Only that it was something very important. He would not have me take part in most of his doings because of the child I carry," Margerite added swiftly. "I heard the disturbance from above, and when it was quiet, I came down to see -- this, and Ruprecht gone."
The slow grin coming over Graf Guntherís lean, pointed face as the steady regard of his blue eyes settled on her unnerved Margerite. What is he planning now? she asked herself. What does he know?
"Ruprecht told me of your child," Gunther said. "Be assured that all of us in the Order are eagerly awaiting his birth. I wonder," he added thoughtfully, "if you are fully aware of the honour which has been bestowed upon you, Priestess?"
Margerite straightened, holding her filthy hands away from her body lest she get more stains upon her dress. O, little Wolfram, she thought, what are you going to be born into? But, for Wolframís sake, she replied as haughtily as she could, "Prince, I know the value of the son I bear, and I trust that the Order will strive to its utmost to ensure his safety." The words coming out of her own mouth shocked her: she could hardly believe what she had just said. Would you call on the Powers of Hell to save your child? she thought. When you do not even know for sure who his father is? But she could not take back her own words, and Gunther inclined his narrow head towards her, as if he were speaking to an equal.
"You have my assurance of that. More: when he is born, I mean to be his godfather before Lucifer, and take him into my court as page and Knappe when he is old enough, that he may learn the full use of his nature and powers. Although Ruprechtís bungling last night may have proved a great setback to us, your child shall do far more to aid us than Ruprecht could ever have dreamed of achieving in a long life -- he shall be the means of Luciferís final mastery upon the plane of Earth."
A deep chill sank into Margeriteís bones as she listened to Gunther speak. She could not ask him what he meant without revealing her imposture, but she could feel her heart beginning to give way to despair, like the walls of a dyke bulging and beginning to crack under a great flooding weight of black water. I could cast myself from the top of the castle into the ravine. That would end the Orderís hopes. But suicide was a mortal sin, and to murder little Wolfram, whatever the Light-Bearers might have in mind for him -- that would be to leap into the mouth of Hell more surely than by any means that Graf Gunther might contrive.
"Now," he said at last, "you shall leave me here, for I mean to do my best to discover where Ruprecht failed. Let this be your nightís lesson, Priestess: the success of one often grows from the failure of another, as it is meet that the strong should feed on the weak. Give me the keys, and I shall return them to you tomorrow."