Rain hammered at the door without any pretense of civility, then waited angrily in the downpour, mysteriously untouched by the element for which he was named. There was little risk of passersby to remark upon it in this deeply recessed alleyway on such an awful night—or on any other night, for that matter. When he received no answer, Rain pounded on the door again, hard enough to split the wood this time, had there been any actual wood there to split. Having knocked a few apparent flakes of peeling blue paint from the apparent service entrance before him, he waited again, half prepared to start blowing out upper story windows if he was further ignored.
Fortunately for the cause of diplomacy, the door was finally opened by a thin, remarkably short man of swarthy complexion, dressed as if to usher at a wedding—or a funeral, more likely, on these premises.
“I’m here to speak with Anselm,” Rain said brusquely.
“He has retired for the evening,” said the smaller man.
“We are informed otherwise,” Rain said, glancing pointedly at the sky.
“May I inquire regarding the nature of your business?” the short man asked.
“I’m on the Lady’s business, as you well know. Now let me in.”
“The Lady’s business?” the little man asked implacably. “Or her heir’s?”
Rain gazed at the doorman, scarcely able to credit his insolence. Yet another indication of just how confident Anselm must feel about the trial’s outcome.
“He will want to know,” said the little man, unperturbed by Rain’s obvious displeasure. “And it’ll be my skin if I can’t tell him.”
“If Anselm should ask such an ill-advised question,” Rain said quietly, “I suggest you offer him your best guess, and remind him that he is still the Lady’s subject—bound by every condition thereby implied.”
“Follow me then, sir.” With a comical, sweeping gesture, the doorman invited Rain to enter. “And do be careful of your footing. The water you track in will be slippery on our polished floors.”
Rain ignored the snide remark, there being no further need to acknowledge the insufferable creature now that he was through Anselm’s threshold. With studied indifference, Rain glanced around at opulence wholly incongruous with the moldering service entrance separating all this from the world. The doorman led him down a winding hallway of elaborately inlaid wood, artfully punctuated with airy silk draperies and accoutrements of crystal and leaded glass; the stylings of a would-be prince. Much of it was even real. Eventually, they turned a corner, and climbed a grandly carved if rather narrow oak staircase. On its second landing, Rain’s guide stopped before a richly appointed door depicting The Tree in ivory and mother-of-pearl inlay. Anselm’s hypocrisy was as boundless as his ambition.
“Please wait here,” the doorman said, then knocked twice and went in, closing the door behind him.
A moment later the small man pulled the door open again, and waved Rain inside.
Rain entered the ostentatious, high-ceilinged office where Anselm sat, a shadow among paler shadows, hunched over some kind of ledger at his expansive desk before a tall, narrow bay of stained glass windows. The room was unlit but for a tiny, pearlescent lamp on Anselm’s desk—barely a nightlight—and the sporadic flash of lightning through the colored panes behind him.
Anselm did not look up from his labors, nor did he speak. Rain had stood in this room far too many times by now, and received exactly this welcome on most of those occasions. Until tonight, he had always been polite about it. Manners and proper form were always of such grave importance in this den of outrageous iniquity. Tonight, however, Rain had no patience left for political theater. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded without preamble.
Anselm looked up languidly in wordless censure of Rain’s tone, then bent over his ledger again and said dourly, “Working. Late. As I am told you’ve been informed.”
“Trifle with me to your very real and immediate peril, Anselm,” Rain said acidly. “Explain this outrage—now!”
“Real and immediate peril?” Anselm looked up in mild surprise. “To me? … Is that your opinion or the Lady’s?” He glanced at the windows behind him, as if just noticing the weather. “It seems a rather remarkable assertion, either way, given her current legal difficulties.”
“After weeks of posturing, you have still proven nothing, Anselm,” Rain said with ominous restraint, “and proof is still required here. As your accusations are blatantly false, you have no hope of prevailing. In the meantime, the Lady has numerous holdings along the river which are endangered by this incomprehensible folly of yours.”
“Of mine?” Anselm looked even more startled. “What have I to do with this?” he protested, gesturing once more at the windows.
“Do you attempt to pretend that this storm is natural?” Rain asked, incredulous.
“Clearly not.” Anselm shrugged. “Someone is obviously expending a breathtaking amount of power out there. If I had any idea who it was, I’d want to speak with them as badly as you must, if for different reasons.” He turned to gaze again at the flickering illumination brightening his windows. “I would be extremely interested in knowing more about the source of such extravagant resource, wouldn’t you?” He turned back to stare at Rain. “If, by some chance, there were any opportunity for investment, I would explore that possibility very carefully.”
What outrageous arrogance! Rain thought. Anselm was practically bragging about it. Did he think himself that invulnerable?
“What is it for?” Rain had to ask. “What can you possibly hope to accomplish?”
“Well, clearly, you’d have to ask that of whoever is behind this. But if I were required to posit some wild guess…” Anselm looked away, as if pondering the possibilities. “I suppose it could be just a kind of demonstration.”
“Demonstration of what?” Rain demanded, barely able to master his own anger. “Mind-numbing waste amidst escalating scarcity? Reckless risk of visibility? Unlawful harm to everyone’s interests—including your own?” Wind and water beyond anyone’s capacity to control would certainly ravage as many of Anselm’s assets in this city as theirs before morning.
“A demonstration of what’s possible,” Anselm said shortly, rising from his chair to plant his fists on the desktop. “Of what we once were, and could be still, were it not for the lamentably backward leadership we’ve been subject to for so long now.” He stared hard into Rain’s eyes for a moment before resuming his seat behind the desk. “I merely speculate, of course. Anyone capable of this spectacle will doubtless have more practical results in mind than the frivolity I’ve just contrived.”
“So…” Rain shook his head in utter astonishment. “You’re trashing an entire city—including who knows how many of your own holdings—just to make some kind of political statement?”
“This city was trashed, as you put it, long ago—along with the entire continent on which it rests—and not by me. If anything, one might hope that tonight’s shower will wash away some of the real contagion that’s accumulated here. The river itself, at least, should be far cleaner than it’s been in years.” Anselm resumed the perusal of his ledger. “That should please the Lady’s heir. Her father is of the water clans, is he not?”
“Anselm,” Rain said grimly, “when your mockery of justice has failed, as it must, the penalties for this evening’s travesty alone will be more than sufficient to crush you. Have you considered that?”
“It’s distressing to hear such accusations reiterated despite my clear and repetitious denial of any involvement.” Anselm turned a heavy vellum page and continued reading. “Must I remind you now that proof is still required here?”
“Rest assured,” Rain said quietly, “such proof will be forthcoming. You can’t really believe it’s possible to do that,” he waved angrily at the windows, “and leave no trace of your hand in it.”
“Good hunting then,” Anselm said absently. “But don’t be so confident of your own escape.” He looked up again. “I will find him, Rain. I’m closer than you know.”
Rain rolled his eyes, and said wearily, “How many times must you be told? There is no ‘him’ to find. The boy you seek never possessed any of the proof you need, because there was never anything to prove. And, in any case, he’s not been seen for years. A waif barely scratching out survival on the streets. If even you cannot find him, then he is surely dead by now—or too far gone to matter either way.”
Anselm looked right at Rain and smiled for the first time that evening. “One of your letters strayed into my hands today, Councilor.”
Rain struggled to conceal his dismay. “My letters? You’re intercepting my correspondence now? And admitting it?”
“It seems odd to write so urgently to someone so surely not there,” said Anselm. “Odder still to deliver such a note without expectation of the boy’s proximity. I’m sure the arbiters will think so too.”
“What are you playing at?” Rain asked with what he hoped was convincing irritation. “I’ve made no attempts to write the boy. What does this supposed letter say?”
“Must we, really?” Anselm replied.
“Well, if you won’t discuss it, then why bring it up?” Rain said indifferently. “If this letter exists at all, it did not originate with me. Does it claim to have?”
“Of course not, but its content leaves no room for doubt that it originated with one of you.”
“With one of us,” Rain said flatly. “So my letter becomes our letter. … And which ‘us’ do you mean, precisely? Does this letter make even that much clear?”
“The ‘us’ who once made efforts to aid him,” Anselm said impatiently. “The ‘us’ who advised him to hide. The ‘us’ who have any idea where to begin looking. The ‘us’ who depend on him to save everything they’ve fought for!” Anselm no longer attempted to moderate his anger. “The ‘us’ racing to find that incontrovertible nail I seek, while his testimony can still be carefully schooled to serve your purposes instead! That ‘us,’ Councilor!” He fell silent, watching Rain as a cat might watch a cornered bird. “With this letter in my possession, I may no longer even need the boy. Perhaps I’ll let you have him, for all the good it’s likely to do you now.”
“I ask again,” Rain said, steeling himself to show Anselm nothing, “who is this letter from? Whose signature does it bear? How is its author specifically identified? If there has been some crime committed within our ranks, rest assured that I, the Lady, and her heir are all as determined as you are to address the fact. But I must know who, if you possess that information.”
The predatory expression on Anselm’s face flickered, suddenly conveying less of ‘cat’ and more of ‘migraine.’ Rain allowed himself to breathe more freely, knowing that, for now, he had achieved a stalemate.
“I am hardly alone among the Lady’s subjects in wanting her disentangled from this web you’ve contrived,” Rain said, careful to sound offended, not relieved. “If you will not let me see this letter, or even share its specific contents with me, I can hazard no opinion about its actual source or meaning. Perhaps you misinterpret. Or perhaps this letter is just a fabrication of your own. After what you’ve done tonight, who can rule out such a possibility? But I would point out that regardless of who wrote it, or what their purpose was, it clearly did not find the boy in question, or you would have him in your custody already. Thus, I do not see how any of this contradicts my original assertion that he is simply no longer there to be found.”
“Nonetheless,” Anselm replied stolidly, “the letter’s content will, at very least, buy me more time to search. The Avenue in question is crawling with my people now, and sooner or later, someone will wander into that laughable little shop who knows exactly where to find the lad we’re all so eager to produce.”
Rain unclenched another notch. He knew now which copy they’d intercepted, and it would not point Anselm toward any of the truly useful targets—the ones Matt was most likely to have real concern for. That salved his conscience some.
There was nothing in the letter to establish specific wrongdoing, or conclusively identify its author. They had been at least that careful. But it would certainly introduce a new degree of doubt. Someone had erred catastrophically to allow it into Anselm’s hands—or betrayed them outright—and Rain would not have the luxury of waiting for this obscene storm to abate before going to find out which it had been. They could afford no further mishaps before the remaining copies of that fruitless letter were retrieved.