The Daniel Hood Bookshelf








A sample chapter from my third book, "Beggar's Banquet." originally published by Ace in 1997. Pointless literary fact: The inspiration for the whole Priscian Jewel theft came from the Anthony Trollope novel "The Eustace Diamonds," one of his Palliser series.

The cover art, once again, is by Bob Eggleton.



BEGGAR'S BANQUET



Chapter One



On the first day of the holiday week called Beggars' Banquet, Liam Rhenford woke to an illusory contentment which was quickly dispelled.

The room in which he slept was a library, and the only windows were in the cupola directly above the divan on which he lay; when he first opened his eyes he saw by the diffused quality of the light in the room that there must be a layer of snow on the glass. In the Midlands, where he had grown up, Beggars' Banquet was called the Feast of Fools, and for there to be snow on the first day of the holiday was considered a good sign.

Smiling sleepily to himself, he rolled over onto his back, stretching a little beneath his blanket, and peered up at the cupola. A light dusting of snow, new since he had gone to bed, concealed the sky but allowed light to filter through, and his smile widened in the pale glow.

Good morning, master. Mage Grantaire is already awake.

The firm thought intruded on his own muddled ones, like a brick dropped through a cloud of feathers, and he started, hauling himself up on his elbows and staring down at his familiar. The dragon standing in the doorway of the library was the size of a small dog, but the intelligent gleam in its slit-pupilled eyes - and the thought it had just sent into his head - reminded him that it was considerably more than just a pet. And the name the creature mentioned quickly overrode his childish contentment at seeing snow on the first day of Beggars' Banquet: he had an uninvited guest to attend to.

"Good morning, Fanuilh," he said; then, before it could object to his speaking aloud, closed his eyes and projected his own thought.

What is she doing?

She is walking on the beach.

Is she far away?

She is some ways down the beach, Fanuilh answered, settling down onto its haunches and flaring its leathery wings before folding them neatly across its back.

Can she hear us?

We are not speaking.

You know what I mean, Liam thought, trying to load the thought with his irritation at the dragon's obtuseness.

I have told you, Master, Fanuilh replied impassively. No one but us can understand our projections. A wizard such as Mage Grantaire may be aware that we are communicating, but she would not know what we thought. The dragon had told him that several times, both before and after Grantaire had arrived, but the fear of being 'overheard' nagged at him.

With a sigh and a small groan, he lay back down on the divan, drew the blanket over his head, and thought about his guest.


* * *



Grantaire was a wizard, apparently an old friend of the wizard in whose house Liam now lived. She had arrived at his door only the night before as he was getting ready for bed; his first impression of her, seen through the glass panes of his front door, was that she was some helpless, well-to-do lady caught out late on the coast road to the nearby city of Southwark, and that the lights of his house on the beach had led her to hope for a safe place to spend the night. He had also thought that, with her cheeks stung to redness by the cold and her hair mussed by the wind, she was very pretty.

His first impression of helplessness was as quickly dispelled as his later happiness on waking: she pushed brusquely past him into the entrance hall and shuddered once, dropping a heavy travelling bundle to the floor.

"Gods, it's cold," she said, then unlaced her fur-trimmed cloak and let it drop to the floor, revealing a fairly short, plain shift that revealed a disturbing length of leg between the hem and the top of her boots. "But of course you can count on Tanaquil's house to be too warm," she went on, rubbing her neck with both hands and sniffing judiciously, as if the warmth of the house had a smell. Then she had turned to him, frank appraisal in her glance. "Or should I say, your house? You are Liam Rhenford?"

"Yes," he had confessed, at a complete loss for words in the face of the woman's self-confident entrance. Tarquin Tanaquil was the wizard from whom he had inherited the house, and its warmth - along with a number of other things - was an example of the magic with which the wizard had filled it.

"My name is Grantaire. I was a friend of Tanaquil. He told me I could expect to find you here."

"You saw him?" He did not know why he had been surprised: he knew that Tarquin had for a brief time returned from the grave. He had seen the wizard himself, and talked with him - but he had not known that Tarquin had talked to anyone else during his return.

A sudden hissing from the dropped bundle made him jump, and then a cat poked its rumpled grey head out and directed its hiss at Grantaire.

"I'm sorry," she told the cat, "but if you insist on being carried, you must sometimes be dropped." As if seeing the cat made her remember, she turned to Liam: "Where is Fanuilh?"

Things had moved very quickly from there, allowing no time for Liam to formulate the proper suspicion, let alone give voice to it. Fanuilh had entered the room and, displaying a complete lack of surprise, had ambled over to Grantaire and allowed her to scratch under its chin.

You know her? Liam had asked, barely maintaining the presence of mind to project the thought, instead of speaking. She is who she says she is?

Of course, the dragon replied, turning its head a little to redirect her scratching.

Reassured, Liam had prepared Tarquin's old bedroom for her - he would not sleep there, because it was where he had found the wizard's body, but she had no objections.

"I am tired from travelling," was all she had said before closing the bedroom door. "We shall speak in the morning." It had sounded almost like an order.


* * *



Now the morning was upon him, and he knew nothing more about her; Fanuilh had only been able to tell him that she really was an old friend of Tarquin's, and that she could not understand the thoughts they sent back and forth.

With another groan, Liam sat up, put his feet on the floor, and scrubbed briefly at his eyes.

Will you have coffee, master?

"Yes," he grumbled and, forcing himself to his feet, shuffled into the kitchen. He concentrated briefly in the direction of the large oven, closing his eyes; then he opened the oven's metal door and pulled out a bowl and a mug, both steaming. The mug he sipped from himself; the bowl he placed on the other side of the kitchen table.

Fanuilh leapt lightly onto the tabletop and crouched over the bowl, inhaling deeply. It had only drunk coffee once, and hated it, but it enjoyed the smell immensely.

"So," Liam said after a few cautious sips, the coffee warming his stomach and driving the sleep from his head, "you really know nothing more about her?"

She is a great wizard, the dragon answered, without raising its snout from the coffee. Not as great as Master Tanaquil, but great enough.

"Yes, but where is she from? Where does she live? Why is she here?"

I imagine she is here to take some of Master Tanaquil's things. The ones you cannot use.

"Because I am not a wizard?"

Yes.

Though he had a familiar, Liam was by no means a wizard. That he was bound to Fanuilh was an accident - one he had at first thought extremely unlucky, but which he had grudgingly come to accept had its benefits.

Tarquin Tanaquil had been murdered, and on the night of his death Liam had happened to come by the house. He had found Fanuilh dying, the part of Tarquin's soul that kept it alive rapidly departing; it bit him, taking part of his soul to keep itself alive, and incidentally binding them as master and familiar.

Strange, he thought to himself, careful not to project, that I don't notice that part of my soul is missing. It was not technically missing, he knew, merely residing in Fanuilh, but he found the idea difficult to grasp. Shouldn't I notice that half of my soul is halfway across the room?

Another sip of coffee and the sound of footsteps distracted him from this train of thought, and he stood up as Grantaire entered the room.

Her hair was just as disordered as it had been the night before, her cheeks as flushed, and her shift as short; he blushed heavily when he realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of breeches.

"The house is warm, isn't it?" she said, without a trace of embarrassment, as if going half-naked in front of a strange woman was merely practical. "But I think you should put on some clothes - there's something on the beach you should see."

"What?" he said, crossing his arms, sticking his hands in his armpits and feeling foolish.

She frowned. "I think you should see it. Get a cloak." She turned and left the kitchen.

"What is it?" he asked Fanuilh, but the dragon only shook its head, then leapt off the table and padded out of the kitchen after the wizard.

Liam followed, stopping only to jump into a pair of boots and throw on a tunic. He did not imagine it could be anything important, or that it would take very long.


* * *



Tarquin Tanaquil's villa was long and low in the southern style, with white plaster walls and a red tile roof; it sat on a beach in a sheltered cove, protected by a short breakwater that touched the patio in front and still allowed the cold waves to strike the sand to the west of the house.

They gathered at the edge of the beach, clustered around the dead man, Liam and Fanuilh standing to one side, Grantaire to the other, the grey cat in her arms. Liam shuffled his boots in the sand, beating his arms and blowing on his hands, already wishing he had brought a cloak. It was winter, and the early morning air was cold.

The sea must have been colder. The body sprawled in the sand was white and bloated, the skin heavily pruned. There was seaweed laced in the fingers.

"Well," Liam said at last. "Some ship is short a sailor. He must have gone overboard." He was aware of a strange intimacy between them, a set of tacit expectations arising from the dead man at their feet. He doubted she understood it, but he had seen it more than once in his life - a sort of embarrassment around the dead that drew strangers together through the knowledge that something must be done.

Grantaire pushed a wayward strand of red hair out her eyes and gave him a somewhat contemptuous glance. "Thrown overboard is more likely, don't you think? Look at his neck."

He would rather have looked at her at that moment, not because she was pretty, but because the glance she directed his way intrigued him; it seemed to him that she had weighed him, and found him wanting, simply because he had not examined the corpse's neck. Still, he squatted in the sand by the dead man and reached out to brush away some sodden hair.

"Don't touch him," Grantaire commanded.

He frowned and looked up, suddenly feeling more sure of himself with her than he had since she arrived. "Why? He's beyond hurt, don't you think?"

She was not listening to him, however; her eyes were closed and she suddenly opened her arms, the cat dropping with a startled squawk. Her lips moved soundlessly for a moment, her fingers twining in strange patterns - small hands with large knuckles, he saw, the skin much-creased - and then she opened her eyes again and pressed her lips tight.

"Too long in the water," she muttered. "Very well - you can move him."

"Thank you," Liam said, with a slight sarcastic nod, and reached out again, this time taking the man's shoulder and pushing up, trying to roll him over. Touching the corpse did not bother him, though the skin was cold, but his eyes widened and he gave a low whistle when he saw the thin purple line stretching across the man's throat. Time in the sea had puckered and thinned the wound, but it was clear that the cut had been deep and wide.

A sharp breeze off the sea swept over them, snapping Grantaire's cloak around her heels. Liam gently let the man return to his former position, then stood up and dusted his hands on his breeches.

"Well," he said lamely. "I suppose I will have to take him into town."

"Now?" Grantaire asked, as if it were an inconvenience to her. "I need to speak a bit with you - there are things I must do here."

Liam was silent for a long moment, considering her face, which was set in a businesslike expression. There was something hard about her that set him wondering; though he had touched it without reluctance, the corpse washed out of the sea made him sad and uneasy - but she seemed oblivious to it.

How old is she? he wondered, thinking that she could not be much older than thirty, his own age. Perhaps less.

"We can't just leave him here," he said, gesturing at the body. "It wouldn't be right."

"Then drag him up the beach," she suggested. "As you said, he's beyond hurt - and I am pressed for time. Take him into the city later."

Master, Fanuilh thought, you are forgetting your appointment.

"What appointment?" he said out loud, and then, remembering: "Mistress Priscian!"

At noon, the dragon prompted.

"What is it?" Grantaire demanded.

"I have to go into Southwark anyway - I have some business."

With the slight arching of an eyebrow, she indicated what she thought of his business. "Can't it wait?"

He found himself compelled to make excuses. "Unfortunately not. It has been set for a long time, and it is fairly important." To me, he added silently. Gesturing to the corpse, he went on: "Besides, with him...I really should take him into Southwark. I have a friend in the Guard who will know what to do."

Grantaire's lips thinned and she crossed her arms. "Very well. When will you return?"

"I'm not sure," he confessed. "I'm supposed to meet Mistress Priscian at noon, and it may take about an hour or so."

"Mistress Priscian," she repeated, and the skepticism in her tone annoyed him.

"A merchant - an elderly merchant," he said, irritation slipping into his tone. "I should be back by midafternoon, if that will suit you."

The sarcasm was lost on her, but at least her eyebrows relaxed. "It will have to do," she said, and then spun on her heel and walked off towards the house. Her cat sprang after her.

For a long moment Liam stood in the cold, angry at her and at his own lapse in manners. Despite her rudeness, she was his guest. Uninvited guest, he told himself, but still....

Was she always this...certain of herself? he asked Fanuilh, once she had entered the house.

She cannot hear our thoughts, the dragon pointed out again, and then sent another thought quickly. And yes, Master Tanaquil often spoke of her as very self-confident.

Liam remembered that Tarquin himself had never been much given to politeness or social niceties, but in the old wizard it had seemed an old man's eccentricity. In Grantaire, it seemed like rudeness.

Shaking his head, he set himself to moving the corpse further up the beach, away from the grasping fingers of the sea. A wave soaked his boots in the process, but they were solidly made; he cursed and jumped away from the cold water more from reflex than from a fear of wet feet. When the wave retreated, he grabbed the corpse under the arms and dragged it back from the water's edge, the dead man's feet leaving two parallel swathes in the damp sand. Fanuilh watched the whole process impassively.

Liam was sweating by the time he reached the patio, and he was happy to lay the corpse on the stone there and go back into the house. His hands were cold and clammy, covered with salt and sand that had stuck to the dead man's tattered clothing, and he held them out in front of him, eager to wash. He stopped in the entrance hall.

I will have to pick him up again, he thought with a grimace, to get him on the horse.

Turning on his heel, he went back out, the sweat cooling in the chill morning air and making him shiver a little bit. There was a shed on the far side of the house where he stabled his horse, and he opened the door.

"Easy, Diamond," he said, though the horse was perfectly calm, brushing a warm greeting past his ear with its lips.

Fanuilh appeared at the door of the shed as he saddled the horse. You will take the man to Aedile Coeccias?

"Yes," Liam said, concentrating on cinching the saddle tight with his fingertips, trying not to get too much sand on the leather. Coeccias was the friend he had mentioned to Grantaire; Aedile was his title, and he was actually in charge of Southwark's Guard, the city's chief constable and representative of the Duke of the Southern Tier. "What else?"

His throat has been cut. He has been murdered. You know what the Aedile will say.

Liam paused, Diamond's bridle hanging in his hands. "I hadn't thought of that," he said after a moment. "But that's ridiculous. He washed up on my beach, that's all. Besides, I have too much to do right now."

Nonetheless, he made no move to bridle his roan. Since coming to Southwark half a year before, he had helped the Aedile solve two crimes, and though he thought their success had been mostly dumb luck, Coeccias had developed an exaggerated idea of Liam's skills as an investigator.

In fact, the Aedile thought so much of Liam's skills that he had offered him a special position with the Guard. Liam had accepted, but only on the condition that it be completely unofficial: he could choose which crimes he would investigate. Thus far it had amounted to little more than occasionally discussing crimes with the Aedile, offering his opinions; he had enjoyed it as a sort of academic exercise - an ongoing conversation whose subject was always crime.

This, though, would be different. He will ask me to figure this out. Liam could easily imagine Coeccias shrugging his heavy shoulders, scratching his beard and saying, "Truth, Rhenford, why else would the man wash himself up on your beach, if not in the faith that you'd con out his murderer?"

Liam had come to Southwark by accident six months before, rescued from a deserted island by a passing ship that happened to call the port home, and in that time he had helped the Aedile solve two mysteries. Both investigations had been successful, and both had provided moments of undeniable excitement, but they had also taught him to be cautious. There were crimes he could profitably look into, and ones that he could not - a distinction it had taken him some time to impress upon Coeccias. His arrangement of unofficial consultation had only been in place for a month, and he guessed that his friend would try to make the dead man's appearance on his beach a reason for making the position more official.

" 'Truth, Rhenford'," Liam muttered to himself. "He's probably a pirate, and his ship a dozen leagues off by now. I couldn't catch them even if I wanted to. And that," he finished, levelling a finger at Fanuilh, "is exactly what I will tell Coeccias if he gets any ideas about my looking into this."

The dragon merely blinked at him, and after a determined pause, Liam finished preparing the roan and led it out onto the patio. It was surprisingly calm about the corpse, allowing Liam to hoist the dead man across its withers and lash him in place with only a whicker and a nervous sidestep or two. When it was done, he set Fanuilh to watching Diamond and went back inside to wash up.

Grantaire was sitting in the kitchen, her hands folded neatly on the tabletop, which was bare except for the cold coffee. Liam felt a quick pang of guilt at his poor hospitality.

"I'm sorry - would you like some breakfast? I forgot the oven only works for me."

"Some bread," she said, but she clearly had other things on her mind. "I do need to talk to you today."

"So you said." He went to the oven and imagined fresh bread baking; in a moment the smell filled the kitchen. She had said she needed to talk to him, but he could not imagine what about, and he did not want to miss his meeting with the merchant. "I will be back later in the afternoon, but I have to be in the city soon, and with our visitor, a quick trip now makes all the more sense."

He opened the oven and pulled out two fresh loaves, juggling them for a moment, then put one in front of her. She snorted.

"I tell you, he will keep."

"Yes," he agreed, determined not to let his manners lapse again. "Yes, he will - but unfortunately, Mistress Priscian will not."

"Priscian," the wizard repeated, her eyes narrowing and her face growing thoughtful. "I've heard that name before."

"I mentioned it earlier," Liam supplied, taking a bite of the hot bread to mask his growing sense that Grantaire was both far more eccentric and far less sociable than Tarquin had ever been.

She waved his comment away, carefully breaking her loaf in two and nibbling a corner of one piece. "No, before you said it. I heard the name before you said it."

"In that case, you've probably heard of their jewel - the Priscian Jewel. It's a little famous, though I have to admit that I never heard of it before coming here."

"A jewel?" Grantaire said doubtfully.

"Yes. It is something of a legend in Southwark. There are all sorts of stories about its provenance, but apparently no one has seen it for hundreds and hundreds of years - until it was rediscovered a week or so ago. A niece of the Mistress Priscian I know has been making quite a stir by wearing it around town."

"I don't recall any jewel," Grantaire decided. "It was something else. The name is definitely familiar. Perhaps I'll look it up in Tanaquil's library while you're busy in town." She gave a sarcastic twist to the word 'busy' which he chose to ignore. "Is that what your business with her is about? Are you trying to buy this jewel?"

"No," Liam laughed. "It's supposed to be beyond price. And if a thing is beyond price, it's also below price, useless in a way."

She frowned, digesting this and picking at her bread. "How long will you be?"

"I don't know," he said honestly. "If I leave now, I should be able to be back before sunset. But I have to clean up, first," he hinted, pointing at a big copper basin just behind her. "Wash."

Grantaire considered the basin, and for a minute he was afraid she would suggest they talk while he washed, but then she gave a resigned sigh and stood up.

"I will leave you to it," she said, as if it were a serious inconvenience. "I would appreciate it if you would come back as soon as you can."

"But of course," he returned, sketching her a quick bow and restraining an inhospitable urge to tell her not to wait up. When she was gone, he frowned down at the loaf in his hand for a full minute, wondering at her rudeness and at the strange impulse he had to be agreeable.

Why do I feel bad that I cannot stay here all day to talk to a woman who can't take the time to be pleasant? he asked himself. She's not even that pretty.


* * *



Liam was still trying to answer that question when he left the house half an hour later, having hastily scrubbed himself with hot water and put on his best clothes - a matching dark green tunic and breeches with white piping. Grantaire had been true to her word, and when he went to the door of the library to say goodbye, she hardly looked up from the book she was reading.

Grabbing his cloak and settling it around his shoulders, he left the house.

Fanuilh was perched on Diamond's neck, apparently oblivious to the cold; the roan waited patiently under its double burden of corpse and familiar, only snorting a little at the cold wind off the sea.

You should put something over the body, the dragon told him. It will look strange if you carry a body into the city.

Liam nodded and quickly gathered a tarp from the shed, which he tucked around his second uninvited visitor.

At least this one I can get rid of, he thought, then climbed into Diamond's saddle with a little grin. Fanuilh rose off the horse's neck and flew on ahead as Liam slapped the reins.

There was a cliff behind the house, and Liam rode up the narrow path that led to its top with his head sunk down in thought, his long chin resting almost on his chest. At the top of the cliff the wind was stronger, and he pulled his cloak close and kicked Diamond into a trot, still thinking, ignoring the beauty of the fresh mantle of snow that covered the bare fields. The roan located the road that led to the city on its own, and Liam let it have its head.

The red-haired wizard filled his thoughts. What could she want from me? I'm not a wizard. And why am I worried that my meeting with Mistress Priscian will take too long? Why am I trying to accommodate her? She is pretty, but not that pretty, and I hope I am not fool enough to have my head turned that easily.

Diamond trotted along smartly, happy to be out of its cramped shed and enjoying the brisk wind; they were halfway to Southwark before Liam came up with an answer: he felt guilty about living in Tarquin's house. From what Fanuilh had told him, Grantaire had known the old wizard for a very long time, and would have made a far more appropriate heir than Liam. And even if she did not care about the wizard's bequest, he could not help but feel it would make him uncomfortable to find a stranger living in the house of a friend who had recently died.

Tarquin died three months ago, which isn't that recent, he told himself, and she certainly isn't making much of her mourning. And anyway, he came back from the Gray Lands less than a month ago and told her to expect me, so she couldn't have been that surprised - or hurt.

It was not a long ride to Southwark, but he arrived quicker than he had expected, the few spires of Temple Street and the merchants' mansions high on the Point coming into view just as he decided to stop thinking about the wizard and concentrate on his own affairs.

Since I came here, he noted, I have done exactly nothing, except for helping to find Tarquin's murderer, and getting involved in that mess in Temple Street.

Those had been short incidents, each lasting hardly more than a week, and in the long, cold winter he had begun to feel more and more that he was idling away his time. The days had weighed heavily on him, and the short hours of daylight had come to seem far too long and empty. His unofficial position with the Guard made him little more than the Aedile's sounding board, listening to evidence and offering suggestions, and he had been careful not to let it get beyond that. There was no point in taking on an investigation just because Coeccias thought he was some kind of human bloodhound; it would have to be something he felt he could handle. The dead man behind him was a perfect example of the sort of thing he did not want to look into: the Aedile was far better suited to investigating that than he was. And that is what I will tell him, Liam decided.

The few things Southwark offered that he felt truly qualified for - posts on a sailing ship, as captain, navigator or even surgeon - required introductions and connections which, until recently, he had not had. Until the Aedile, realizing that Liam was unlikely to take a full-time position with the Guard, grudgingly introduced him to Mistress Priscian.

She was an elderly merchant, with a fleet of seven ships that were rumored to be in poor shape; rumor, in the form of Coeccias, said that was the result of bad management on the part of the captains and factors she hired. Liam had experience as both captain and factor, and what was more, he had a collection of valuable maps that could turn even seven shoddy ships into a treasure fleet. Gathered in the course of long voyages in distant lands, they were the key to rich cities of which Southwark had never heard. He even had proof: he had sold a few of the maps to two different local merchants, and both had visibly prospered in just the few months since. The Aedile arranged an introduction, portraying Mistress Priscian to Liam as a poor old woman sadly in need of guidance.

Liam had liked Mistress Priscian from the start; within minutes of ushering him into her home on the Point, she explained that she was not a poor old woman sadly in need of guidance, "as the good Coeccias has no doubt told you. And I doubt y'are a poor scholar, sadly in need of a position. So, how shall we treat?"

They had come to a very simple agreement in only two meetings: with his maps and his practical experience as his investment, they would become partners. He would see to the equipping and manning of the ships, as well as the choosing of routes, and she would handle the accounts and provide the money and the ships.

This third meeting was to be the last of their negotiations; a week before Liam had given her a proposal for the upcoming trading season, and they were to come to a final agreement on it and their partnership.

And even if she does not like the specifics of the plan, I'm sure we will still have a deal, he told himself, smiling slightly at the idea. At last he would have something to do.

Distant bells began to toll ten as he left the fields, and Diamond's hooves clattered as they passed from the frozen ruts of the coast road to the cobbles of Southwark proper. As always when he entered the city, his familiar left him, rising high into the sky. Liam had made it plain that he did not want its company in Southwark; people had too many reasons to think him a wizard as it was.

Fanuilh! Beaming to himself, he formed the thought into a block and projected it at the diminishing dragon, a small form high in the sky overhead. We are going to be rich and prosperous merchants!

Yes, master, came his familiar's reply, as soon as you give the Aedile the corpse.

"Spoiler," Liam muttered, but the dragon's laconic thought only made him reduce his smile to a grin. "Corpse or no corpse," he went on under his breath, "I'm going to have something to do at last."

And the excitement continues in the following chapters!




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