Old Anton was tired of power, tired of the responsibility of leading his fractious following, but he dared not relinquish it. He had taken this scepter by midnight murder and now he could not let it go if he wished to remain alive. If only sister Angi lived to give him comfort, or her husband, Lucien, dead these several months of the tuberculosis that ate at him so many years. If only . . .
Young Anton stared at the ceiling in indecision. He suspected that his grandfather’s death had been at his father’s hand. It was common gossip, softly spoken. He should get up, go quietly to his father’s apartment knife in hand and end this foolishness about succession. But he would not. He seethed in impotent fury.
He would not because young Anton had not inherited his father’s intelligence or his cunning and he knew it. Whatever he did to end his father’s reign would be countered by some unexpected move. Try an assassination and he would find some unseen safeguard. Even if it were not so, the expectation of it was enough to deter him.
But let this hunt pass and he would be able to take his father’s place. Already he was leading the hunt; that was a victory.
Or was it? Had his father planned it all; did he know that his son would not return from the hunt alive? It had happened before.
Cold sweat stood upon young Anton’s face as he remembered the wild moments, the instant decision, the withholding of fire that had destroyed Jean Dubois two years ago. Jean Dubois, his rival for Chloe – Chloe the slut, whose soft womanhood had gone to fat and whose affection had gone to hatred.
He had made an instant decision then, one of the few he had ever had the nerve to make. And it had been right, but Dubois lived. If only he had had the nerve to finish what he had started. If only . . .
Again he thought of the day he stood face to face with the crippled Dubois and let him take the antler. It seemed such a small thing then, but in his mind it had grown, had unmanned him. If he had stood his ground then, he could stand his ground now. But he had not.
There was a disturbance in the air which he would not have noticed had he not been upwrought. There was a stirring of breeze and an excess of light where there should have been only darkness. Softly in the night, Marcel, his son (Dubois’s son!), whimpered. Dumezil slipped out of the bed, careful not to waken the shrew that lay beside him, and took up his blade.
He drew back the hide curtain that screened their sleeping area. The shutters were gone from his window and wan moonlight stole in. Someone was in the room!
Some assassin sent by his father?
There was – something – near the door. With his left hand Anton struck a light and touched the wick of a candle.
It was the antler, remade into a cane. It was the very one that had torn Dubois, that Dubois had taken, had carried as a visible goad. It stood against the door, taunting.
No, it could not be! It was a forgery, made and placed at his father’s command. It had to be. Something stood behind him. He tried to turn his head, but could not. He swallowed. He leaped sideways, bringing up his blade.
“Anton, you have something of mine. I have come for it. Stand aside and I will let you live.”
Anton’s face was sweaty white in the moonlight. He shook his head, but the ghosts would not go away. “No!”
“Yes, Anton. A question, out of curiosity. Did the primer actually fail?”
Dumbly, Anton shook his head. more tomorrow