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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part Five

The Hounds at the Gate

Bryn's search took her through several rooms of the manor. A glance was enough for her to tell that each was not the one she was looking for. Once she encountered the taciturn servant, Saul, searching through a guest bedroom. He did not speak to her, but merely glanced up, acknowledged her presence with a nod, and went back to his work. Bryn had moved on, as the room was not the one she had been seeking.

Eventually, she came to a sort of L-shaped gallery in a corner of the second floor which was partially above the dining room if her sense of direction had not deserted her. The floor was a chessboard of black and white marble tiles and the walls paneled with the same dark wood Bryn had seen in several other rooms of the manor. Gilt-edged portraits were mounted on the walls, while wooden cases with glass doors stood in ranks throughout the gallery. Bryn had entered from the short end of the room, and as she turned the corner she could hear the crackling of a fire and saw the dark-haired form of Laura Rostoke lifting one of the paintings away from the wall. The woman gave a cry of surprise at the sound of Bryn's bootheels echoing off the tiles; the portrait slipped from her hands and clattered against the paneling as it swung back into place.

"Oh! You startled me!"

"I'm sorry, Laura."

The younger woman turned, the lamplight causing the glossy highlights in her shining dark hair to gleam.

"It's all right. I'm just so on edge because of the murder. Do you know, sometimes I don't even think I understand that it is real? I found myself wondering why Duncan was late when we were in the dining room."

Bryn nodded.

"Death is like that sometimes. It hides away in some corner of the mind, and then some little thing brings it back into full view."

Laura looked at Bryn curiously.

"You sound like you've lost someone yourself."

Bryn nodded.

"I have. Not a husband, but someone whom I thought could have been someday."

She looked away, suddenly uncomfortable. Her speculations of a few minutes ago had been from Rostoke's point of view, yes, but they still had implied a lack of faithfulness and true devotion on Laura's part. Now, here she was discussing the loss of a loved one with the wife herself. Was she being hypocritical? There was nothing that said that a husband nearing middle age couldn't be suspicious of a young wife even if that wife was utterly blameless, but Bryn still felt somehow guilty, as if she were prying into matters that did not concern her with a prurient eye.

And yet, this was a matter of murder.

Or worse.

Bryn found herself looking at the picture Laura had been examining. It was a full-length portrait of a man in old-fashioned hunting garb, with his lime-green hair pulled back in a queue. He wore a short sword at his belt and was flanked by two large dogs. The animals looked to be a variant or precursor to the modern Dezolian Owlhound, and while their muscular bodies and sharp teeth showed power and ferocity the artist had simultaneously managed to give their faces a friendly, almost puppyish look.

"I thought it might have some connection to what Cole said in the trance," Laura explained. "The 'faithful hounds,' you see."

"Yes, I do see what you mean," Bryn noted, although she had reached her own interpretation that put things in a different light.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything--no loose panels behind the portrait or secret compartments in the frame itself."

Bryn turned away from the wall and glanced over the cases that filled the room. They appeared to be a display of weapons and pieces of armor, and from what Bryn had seen, they were kept in pristine condition.

"This room is a veritable armory," she said, surprised. That was not precisely the truth, as in fact the wide variety of weapons made it more of an armorial museum than a room for outfitting a body of soldiers, but this made little difference. "These can't be Rostoke's, can they? I've never known him to show any particular interest in weaponry."

"It's a family collection, begun four generations ago. You're right; Duncan neglected it in favor of more esoteric items."

"These weapons look remarkably well-maintained, though," Bryn pointed out. The steel blade of an antique Dezolian sword shone in the lamplight, free of rust.

A faint blush showed in Laura's golden complexion.

"Since the wedding I've taken over the upkeep and organizing of the collection," she said. "Of course, Josiah had been vital. He knows every item in this room by heart and what must be done for their maintenance. He's been taking care of them since Duncan was a child and since Duncan's parents died has been keeping things in order. Still, I thought that one of the family should take an interest in the collection. Josiah is a servant; he wouldn't consider rearranging things for a better display, adding reference information, and certainly not adding to it, because those things aren't his place."

They walked along between the cases as they talked, Bryn's bootheels still clicking on the marble floor while Laura's soft slippers made her steps silent except for the quiet rustle of her heavy skirts.

"So in fact, you act as a kind of museum curator."

She stopped to look at an ornately carved bowgun. The weapon was not only a work of art but in fact more powerful than Bryn's own; it was a heavy arbalest meant for war. A hand-calligraphed card identified it as being the ceremonial weapon of a Dezolian temple guard from AW 1034. A second, larger card made note of the fact that as technology had declined sharply following the destruction of Mother Brain in 1284, these weapons were again coming into use as a practical fighting tool among their bearers as more advanced firearms were difficult if not impossible to obtain or find ammunition for.

"Yes, I suppose that's true. I've tried to make the collection an active, living part of the household."

The heat from the fireplace washed over them. No doubt the fire had been lit because without it, the gallery would have been close to freezing due to its size and the drafts.

Something in another case caught Bryn's eye.

"Does Josiah take the weapons to his quarters to clean them?" she asked.

"No; he does that here in the gallery. Why?"

"There's one missing."

Bryn pointed to two empty hooks where, according to its card, a laconia dagger that had once been owned by Shir Gold hung. Laconia was the most priceless substance in the Algo solar system, a metal harder than diamond yet sufficiently flexible as not to be brittle. Moreover, it was extraordinarily sensitive to magical energies, making it easy to imbue it with offensive or defensive enchantments or to use against magical creatures. The monetary value of the weapon alone, regardless of any historical considerations, would range into tens of thousands of meseta. Bryn's own belt knife, which was made of the low-grade variation known as 'silver,' had cost her two thousand.

"You don't think..."

"That it was the weapon that killed Rostoke?"

Bryn shrugged.

"It seems possible, judging from the type of wound. Plus, someone could kill using a stolen dagger, dispose of the bloodstained weapon, and still have a personal, identifiable weapon on hand whose absence might be noticed." She tapped the glass lightly. "I presume these cases are not kept locked?"

"Oh, no. A house like this, some distance from town, hardly has to worry about burglars. Any criminals who would strike here would likely be a band of outlaw raiders, and locks would not trouble them. They'd simply smash the glass, as stealth would not be important."

"Meaning that anyone could have taken it. The field is still wide open."

"I'm going to check with Josiah. Perhaps he knows when the dagger was last here."

"That's a good idea. It might at least narrow down the field. Or there could be an entirely innocent explanation for its disappearance."

Bryn smiled wryly.

"This business is troubling and mysterious enough without any added complications. Any clue that can be explained would be immensely valuable."

"I can't disagree. Good luck with your own search."

Laura turned and walked towards the door at the far end of the gallery, her skirts swirling around her. The velvet dress was no doubt the only sensible sort of clothing for a house the manor's size in Dezolis' chill climate, more so than Bryn's practical garb. Despite the fact that it covered everything but her head and hands and was made of heavy material, though, the gown did nothing to conceal the air of sensuality that hung about the woman.

Laura Rostoke did not have a girl's beauty, but a woman's, despite her relative youth. There was nothing in it to make a man feel fatherly about her in the slightest, and Bryn was surprised to feel a spark of faint jealousy inside herself. The realization made her chuckle softly; she'd done quite well with what she'd been given, thank you, and hardly needed to be envying other women. Not even young, stunning, rich widows.

Quickly, Bryn strode back down the gallery to the fireplace they'd passed. It had been the firedogs in the study that had given her the idea, and sure enough, here were two more of the beasts. They were owlhounds, similar to the ones in the portrait, and one was depicted snarling in a threatening manner while the other, in a macabre touch, had its forepaw resting upon a skull. A Dezolian skull, Bryn noted; the outline was too tall and narrow to be Parmanian. Somehow, though, amid this gallery of family portraits and weapons of violence, the sculpted beasts seemed at home in a way they did not in the otherwise cozy confines of the study.

What had excited Bryn so much about the hearth, though, was the cagelike screen across it, no doubt to keep objects from being accidentally dropped into the flames or logs and flying sparks from falling out. Fire was of course a constant threat in any household on Dezolis, but in a room such as this one it was even more dangerous due to the value of the items. There had been a similar screen mounted on the library fireplace, only it had been drawn back in the fashion of curtains to allow freer passage of heat on the stormy evening. The library hearth, though, had no firedogs.

Bryn stood in front of the fire, letting its blazing heat wash over her. As she'd expected, the screen was made of bronze.

Where do you look for this truth?

It is hidden...sealed away, kept safe by faithful hounds who guard the bronze gates.

She stepped up on the hearth and began to examine the mantel for loose bricks. Perspiration stood out on Bryn's face from the fire's heat, and after a few moments she stepped down away from the roaring flames.

The thought occurred to her that perhaps the hiding place was inside the fireplace itself, accessible only when the fire was unlit, but she dismissed the idea. A book was too easily flammable to risk putting so close to a heat source that would be in use regularly. In addition, as the fire would be lit in most weather, it would have to be extinguished every time Rostoke needed to get to his notes. That would be a suspicious event, hinting that something was wrong with the fireplace. He had not been that kind of a careless man.

Besides which, the clue had not actually referred to the fireplace. It had suggested that the notes were hidden with the "hounds" themselves, one reason Laura had been examining the portrait. Bryn therefore turned her attention to the firedogs, running her hands over them in search of hinges, panels, seams, or other indications that one could reach inside. After a minute or so's careful exploration, she found one.

Bryn inserted her fingers into the eyes of the skull. Inside each was a hidden catch, and when she exerted pressure on both at the same time, there was an audible click, and the front of the skull swung open to reveal a hidden compartment. It was cleverly done, she had to admit; the hinge was covered by the dog's body so it could not be seen, and the fit of the two parts had been all but seamless.

Inside the compartment was a leather-bound book. Its cover was unmarked, typical of blank-paged books sold for use as journals or diaries, but the first page bore an inscription in a sweeping hand: "Research Journal, Analysis of Samples from the Nahar Expedition of Spring, AW 1797." In the lower right-hand corner of the page, in normal-sized script, Duncan Rostoke had written his own name.

So, Duncan, Bryn thought, looking at the book, let's see if you really did know what was going to happen to you.

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