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"I'm not cutting off my arm," Duke Orland said.

"I didn't think you would," Count Lumus replied.  He'd just summarized Plomacon's findings for his friend, and was going to let him decide the next move.  It was Orland's life, and his honour, that was at stake, after all.

"They haven't done more than the one scratch, though," Orland said.  Then he paused, lowering his gaze.  "Well, not much more, at least.  Nothing that shows."

"And what have they done that doesn't show?" Lumus asked.

"Somebody's been pounding that painting hard.  Not all the time, but once or twice an hour, I feel a blow on my legs, or my chest, come out of nowhere.  I wager that if I took a bath right now, I'd look like I fell down a flight of stone stairs."

"They don't want you to think they've forgotten about you," Lumus said.  "Either that, or they've given the painting to someone who likes to cause pain."

Orland grunted.  "Cheerful thought.  So, this building you say the painting is in.  Where is it, again?"

Lumus unrolled his map.  "There.  Near where Black Street meets up with Silversmith Lane."

"The small building just back from the corner?  I do know that one."  Orland chuckled briefly and humourlessly.  "It's an art gallery, and it's the one where Aluin and I first met Klymenis.  The one who painted my portrait in the first place."

There was a tap on Orland's door.  "What?" Orland growled.

The door opened a crack, and the herald timidly stuck his head through.  "My lord, a man is here.  He won't give his name, but he says you will want to see him.  I have been instructed to say that he wants to know...'if you will turn the other cheek'."  The herald's eyes flicked briefly to the wound on the Duke's face.

Orland glanced at Lumus, who nodded.  "Show him in, then.  Not here, though, I'll meet him in the small drawing room."  The herald bowed and retreated.  "So they're making their move," Orland said.  "This won't be one of them, though, will it."

"Likely one of the Guild," Lumus agreed.  "We'll see a face, but it won't be one that matters, and we'll hear a false name.  The man who speaks will know few details and have little leeway to negotiate, and will know he is protected from reprisal."

"I hate those guild bastards," Orland said.  "If I weren't on the Regency Council, I could go back to Ranmarco and if Elsilia wanted to cause trouble, she'd have to pit her armies against mine."

"And Therona's son would die young, or grow up hating you, and either way you'd end up with a king who was your enemy.  You have to stay.  And you have to talk to this messenger from the Guild.  Do you want me to join you?"

Orland shook his head and levered himself up from his chair, wincing at the bruises under his clothes.  "I can handle him.  I'd rather keep you as a surprise in case they haven't yet determined your level of involvement.  Head out the back way and find out all you can about this gallery."

#

Lumus spent an hour trying to find out something suspicious about the history or the ownership of the gallery, but came up with nothing.  No connections to Elsilia, or Hangel, or Aluin, or Akenin, or Vendesel, or anyone of any power that would have any interest in the fate of Duke Orland of Ranmarco.  The only connection seemed to be the fact that Aluin had met the artist there.  Lumus was puzzled.  Were those who stole the painting just trying to hide it in the open, in a public place, in the conviction that nobody would think to look for it there?  Considering that Duke Orland was known to have visited the gallery in the past, it was too risky for someone of Elsilia's level of canniness.  Did that mean that this was a plot by amateurs after all, or was there a deeper level?

They would have to investigate the gallery, to see if the painting was actually there, but they had to consider the possibility that there was some kind of trap, whether magical or mundane, on the canvas or the frame.  The frame...

Lumus took out Plomacon's modified borealocus, with its piece of wood pointing towards the gallery.  It was linked to the frame...but if whoever stole the painting knew about the possibility of locating the frame, might they not have separated the two of them?  It wasn't part of the original magic, so it wasn't essential to the spell binding it to Duke Orland.  If it had occurred to them...

Did he dare go to this gallery himself?  He had never been there before, and it wouldn't be too hard to connect him back to Duke Orland if he was seen there by someone who knew about the painting, and he could provoke some kind of reaction that his friend the Duke would not enjoy.  He could send Plomacon himself, but he didn't think the mage would be sufficiently reliable on his own.  For that matter, anyone he did send would be conspicuous walking around the gallery peering at a borealocus all the time.

But he had to know, so he had to risk it.  Maybe if there was some sort of distraction...

#

The keepers of the Argentus Gallery, an aging trio of jaded former bohemians with a staff of a few younger hopefuls, were caught off guard by the unheralded arrival of a class of young students.  Two classes, actually, one from the boys' school and one from the girls', and both groups mostly consisting of youths whose age made it more than usually important that the sexes be kept apart.  Both schools had been given a sudden, anonymous donation, on the condition that their students be given greater exposure to the arts, as soon as possible...

In the ensuing chaos--the students were largely children of nobles or rich merchants, but that didn't make them any better behaved in the unexpected situation--Lumus was able to make his way through the gallery largely unnoticed.  The borealocus quickly led him upstairs, where few of the students had yet ventured, though he moved quickly, since it was only a matter of time.  It didn't take long, either, for the sensitized wood pointer to direct him to a painting framed in, indeed, the very heartwood frame that Lumus had given to Duke Orland's portrait.  The painting in that frame, on the other hand, was not Duke Orland's portrait, but another picture that Count Lumus was unfamiliar with, of some ancient nobleman being slain on the steps of a pillared building that Lumus was, unfortunately, all too familiar with, since it was the hall where the Regency Council regularly met.

Glancing around to confirm that the room was still unoccupied, the younger staff members having gone downstairs to try to help restore order, Count Lumus stepped closer to peer more closely at the frame.  He was still careful in case there was some kind of trap, but he was optimistic that whoever had placed the frame here would stop short of endangering the lives of casual gallery patrons, even curious ones.  The Count was far from an art expert, but he eventually concluded that the Duke's portrait was not somehow concealed in the frame, nor overpainted with the new picture.  It was nothing more than a red herring.

Lumus made his way back down to the ground floor of the gallery building, passing groups of boys sniggering at the nudes, as well as mixed-sex couples trying to find secluded corners to satisfy their natural urges.  They paid him no mind, nor did the harried teachers, but as Lumus was heading into the corridor that led to the back entrance to the building, he felt eyes on his back.  Before he could stop himself, he turned and met the gaze of one of the gallery keepers, who had a sardonic smile on his face.  The keeper, whose name Lumus thought was Geban, flicked his eyes upward, grinned even wider, then turned away.  Lumus left, unsettled, wondering what to do next.

Still not quite finished, since I couldn't come up with a way to resolve it quickly that didn't strike me as intensely lame.  Hopefully the next installment will be the last.

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