Chapter 2

Alyn stared from the chamberlain to her lord and back again. Otakar looked miserable and pressured; his hands twisted together under Miervaldis' scrutiny, and he looked anywhere but at his guests. Miervaldis looked calm, with just a hint of a frown. Alyn kept very still, not wanting to draw attention to herself. A murder? And a lord was accused?

After a short silence, the chamberlain carried on haltingly. "I - he, he was found this morning. Early this morning, by the maid. He was in his room..."

"Who was?"

"The scribe. Jaquan. I, he was Lord Cassian's scribe, you see, and he was in Lord Cassian's rooms, and no-one else could have been there..."

"I see," said Miervaldis, looking thoughtful.

"Thank you for coming, my lord!" said the chamberlain in a rush. "I didn't know what to do, but the Sun Court were very quick to respond.."

"Well, of course," said Miervaldis drily. "They couldn't possibly allow a lord to be accused of murder, now, could they?" He stood up. "I know it's late, but I would like to see the victim, please. Has he been moved?"

"N - no, my lord. Well... he's been moved a bit, but he's still mostly where he was found." The chamberlain had gone pasty pale, Alyn noticed. She got up to stand unobtrusively behind her lord. He glanced at her once, and nodded slightly.

The chamberlain led them from the room and through another bewildering maze of corridors, stairs, doors and halls. The opulence of Fifth Star Court never diminished, no matter how small and unimportant the location. Alyn, gazing around her as they walked, felt a bit overwhelmed by it all. She saw few other people, but it was quite late by now. One had to be a page, darting away on an errand somewhere, and there were several servants carrying various things, but the halls seemed very quiet. The chamberlain walked quickly, unevenly, and Miervaldis' legs were long; she had to keep scurrying after them to keep up. If she didn't, she thought, she would be lost for ever in this luxurious maze.

Eventually they climbed a short staircase and came to a hall with several doors leading from it.

"These are Lord Cassian's rooms," said the chamberlain, a bit out of breath. "On the left is his personal suite, on the right are the receiving rooms. Straight ahead are the servants' rooms, including the study where the scribe was..."

"Who found the scribe?"

"The maid, my lord. This morning."

Miervaldis nodded, and the chamberlain produced a key and unlocked the middle door, then stood aside to allow him to enter. Alyn followed close on his heels, and the chamberlain brought up the rear, locking the door behind them. There was a short corridor which opened up after a few paces to a large, square room with several desks. There was no doubt which was Lord Cassian's; it stood on a raised dais, and was adorned with gold leaf. It also looked quite unused. In contrast, the other desks were undecorated but covered with piles of paper and books, old quills and stumps of pencil. The desk furthest from the door was messier than the rest; its papers weren't piled but scattered, with several on the floor. Alyn didn't see those, however; she was looking at the man slumped on the chair with his head on the desk. There was something horribly wrong with his head; she looked away, not wanting to see any more.

Miervaldis had also paused, but he was looking around alertly, surveying the room. Alyn made herself do the same, taking in the door to the left, away from the desk and its encumbent, and the tall windows, all closed. The chamberlain fidgeted behind them, making small shushing noises with his feet in the heavy carpet. Eventually, Miervaldis moved towards the corpse and she followed him, unwillingly curious and not wanting to be derelict in her duty.

Jaquan the scribe's most obvious feature was a large, very visible dent in the back of his head. Alyn found her eyes drawn to it even as she tried not to look, and her gorge rose. It looked like he had been clubbed down from behind with something hard. Blood was matted in his hair, and his face, turned towards the desk, was slack and empty. A sheaf of crumpled papers lay partly under his cheek. He had had a weaselly face, and death did him no favours. Alyn looked away at the floor, which like the desk was covered with papers, but made no move to pick them up. Miervaldis bent close over the corpse but did not touch it, muttering quietly to himself. The chamberlain was still fidgeting.

Eventually, her lord stood up and turned round.

"Might I have some gloves, please," he said, and his voice was a surprise in the silence surrounding the dead man. "And a bowl of hot water and soap." The chamberlain started, nodded, and hurried off, looking like he was all too glad to be out of that room. The key clicked in the door behind him, and Alyn tried not to think about how that meant she was locked in a room with a corpse. Miervaldis looked down at her.

"That got rid of him, at least," he said cheerfully. "What can you see?"

Alyn gaped at him. Surely he could see too? But he was waiting for her, so she gathered her wits and responded.

"There's a dead man on a desk, my lord," she said, feeling a bit stupid. "And there are papers all over the desk and the floor."

"What of the papers?"

"They're just loose bits of paper," Alyn felt confused. "Stuff he was working on. The other desks have paper all over."

Miervaldis shrugged, nodded, and bent down to pick up one of the papers, which lay crumpled in the middle of a scattered sheaf. He smoothed it out on the desk, frowned, then looked at the corpse again.

"What do you think happened here?"

"Um, he was working on something, then someone came in and, um, hit him?"

"He was working on something?"

"Well, there's the papers crumpled under his cheek." She pointed. "And his hand has ink spots on it." Jaquan had fallen with his right hand out on the desk, and the black smudges were clearly visible. Lord Miervaldis nodded, his expression approving.

"Good," he said. "So what's missing?"

Alyn frowned at the desk, not seeing the dead man any more. He had been working on the papers he had fallen on. He must have been writing, because his hand had ink spots on it. But the well-used ink stone's deep cavity was dry, and the water jar beside it was capped. And...

"There's no pen," she said. "Nothing to write with."

"Exactly," said her lord. "What else is missing?"

She looked around, but couldn't see anything obvious.

"Somebody bludgeoned this man," Miervaldis said, and his voice had a harsh edge to it. "And yet, there is nothing that could have been used to do it. So whoever it was took their weapon with them."

Alyn felt cold at the reminder that this was the scene of a murder, and simultaneously felt stupid that she had to be reminded of that. The scraping sound of the key in the lock echoed in the big room as the chamberlain re-entered, and Miervaldis turned to face him, to receive the gloves and the bowl. The man looked dreadful, she thought, white and shaky, and he refused to look at the corpse directly, turning to one side as he approached Lord Miervaldis.

Alyn watching as the chamberlain brings water, a towel and gloves to Miervaldis for the investigation of Jaquan's corpse

Alyn stepped to one side, watching her lord as he pulled on the white gloves and bent over Jaquan's body. Miervaldis first examined the head, probing gently around the wound and fingering the matted strands of hair. He then eased the body from the desk, and worked over it thoroughly, as though the wound on the man's head could not account for his death. He made no noise as he worked, gave no indication as to what he might find, although the chamberlain turned away and made several choking noises when Miervaldis turned the body over. He finished with the hands, running his gloved fingers through Jaquan's, although they were obviously stiff.

"What sort of man was Jaquan?" The chamberlain jumped at the question. Miervaldis pulled off the gloves and washed his hands thoroughly in the bowl of water.

"Well, I don't really know, my lord," Otakar said feebly. "I didn't speak to him that much. He never seemed to have any friends - but of course, I wouldn't know." Miervaldis nodded, and set the bowl aside.

"I'm finished here," he said. "It's very late; thank you for taking the trouble to show us what happened. I would like to speak to Lord Cassian tomorrow, please."

"Of course, my lord. Ah, he rises late..."

"Please let me know when he is ready to receive us."

"Of course," Otakar said again, and led them from the chamber. He seemed much happier away from the gruesome scene. "Is there anyone else you would like to speak to, my lord?"

"The maid who found the body. Other than that, no-one. Not yet."

"Very well. I'll make sure she sees you tomorrow morning."

"Thank you."

The chamberlain led the way back to their rooms - another bewildering trip through hallways and corridors, up and down staircases. By the time he stopped in front of her chamber door, Alyn felt like she was about to fall asleep on her feet.

"I'll make arrangements for your page, my lord," Otakar said, almost cheerfully. "I'm sure she can join in with the other pages."

"Thank you," said Miervaldis, and led the way inside before Alyn could say anything. The door shut behind them, and he locked it, then turned to face her.

"You may ask questions now, if you wish," he said. "Thank you for your patience."

"Why do I have to go to lessons?" Alyn burst out, indignant. "I'm supposed to be serving you!"

Miervaldis raised an amused eyebrow. "And that's bound to be more fun than lessons?"

"Well... yes," she admitted. "But really -"

"I need you to go to the lessons," Miervaldis said. "I know nobody here, and nothing of the situation, and nobody is going to talk to a lord who's clearly here to accuse someone of murder. You - well, they may not talk to you either, but you have a much greater chance of overhearing something."

"What sort of thing?" Alyn couldn't imagine overhearing a conversation with the murderer.

"Oh, anything about Lord Cassian, or his scribe. What sort of people they were, what sort of things they did. As well as missing the murder weapon, I can't see a motive for Jaquan's death, and that's probably more important. Do you see?"

"I do," said Alyn reluctantly. Miervaldis smiled at her.

"Good girl. I'll try and make sure you are with me for as much of the investigation as possible. You are supposed to be attending me, after all. Is there anything else?"

"Um, well..." she hesitated.

"Go on."

"Why are we here? I mean, why are you here? If you know no-one, then..."

Miervaldis sighed.

"Some time ago, I happened to be in the Sun Court when a situation arose. I helped work out the problem, and the Emperor was grateful. However, it means that he remembers me."

"But why is this so important?"

"Because at the moment, the only suspect is Lord Cassian. I expect that he has no alibi, nothing to exonerate him. And it is abhorrent that a Lord should be accused of murder. It goes against all custom."

"But... what if he did it?"

"Then that's what I will tell the Emperor. But it is good to be sure, with such a crime, and the Emperor thinks I can find out the truth." He grinned ruefully. "We should sleep; we've got a full day tomorrow. Or at least, a full morning."

Still full of questions, most of which she could not articulate, Alyn dragged her chest into her tiny room, sat down on the bed to undress, and fell asleep before even managing to take off her socks.

In the morning, she woke in time to hear the maid knock at the door, and her lord's quiet response to come in, please. She sat up hurriedly, heart thumping, but heard the tray being put down and realised it was just breakfast, not the girl who had found Jaquan. The maid left and closed the door behind her, and Alyn heard the click of the lock as Miervaldis turned the key, then his footsteps as he approached her door. There was a knock.

"Breakfast is here," he said through the door.

"Coming, my lord!" She hopped out of bed, fumbled for fresh clothes and pulled a brush through her hair. When she went through to the main room, Miervaldis had already started on the food; he raised an eyebrow at her and jerked his head towards the wash room. Obediently, she went to wash.

There was plenty left when she came back; bread, cheese, tomatoes and olives, with some ham on the side. The olives were different from the ones at Fourth Star Court, but of course every Court was served by the lands around, which meant every Court had its own specialities. The tomatoes were different too, a bit smaller but tart and juicy. There was an orange, something Alyn had only had rarely at home and never at Court. Trying to get into the peel, she dug her nails too far and squirted orange juice across the table, only just missing Miervaldis, who was drinking his coffee and reading his book. He looked up, curious, and she flushed.

The maid came to collect the tray a little later, followed by the Chamberlain, who waited until she had gone before starting.

"My Lord Miervaldis, I hope you slept well," he said pompously. In the morning, he was looking a lot better than he had last night. His colour had returned, and he no longer sounded ill.

"Yes, thank you," Alyn's lord said. "I would like to speak with the maid, please, the girl who found the body."

"Of course, my lord. I will make sure she is sent here. And, ah, your page -"

"Alyn will stay with me for the present," Miervaldis said smoothly. "Where do the pages have their lessons normally?"

"Um," the chamberlain started, taken aback by the interruption, then recovered himself. "In the Upper Chamber by the Garden of Seven Streams. They will be at lessons from ten in the morning until lunchtime, then again from about two until four. Will you need your page -"

"I will, for the present," Miervaldis interrupted again. "I will make sure she comes to as many of the lessons as possible. I am ready for the maid now."

Thus dismissed, the chamberlain stuttered a bit, then bobbed perfunctorily and left, looking indignant from behind.

"You're going to have to learn your way around fast, you know," Miervaldis said, turning to face Alyn.

"I will," she said cheerfully. It sounded like fun, exploring, and she had enjoyed learning her way around the maze that made up Fourth Star Court. Better than lessons, anyway. Miervaldis moved around the room, picking things up and putting them down; he poked his head into the study and opened the curtains there to let in the light. Then there came a tentative knock at the door, and he nodded at Alyn to open it.

Outside stood a short, stocky girl with curly black hair badly confined under a white cap. She was twisting her hands together nervously, and looking anywhere except at Alyn.

"Milord said to come here," she muttered, and Alyn, unsure of what to say, just held the door open wider. The girl didn't budge, and for a moment they stood there in silent tableau. Then Miervaldis' voice came from within.

"Come in, please."

The maid jumped, and scurried in. Alyn shut the door, locked it, and followed her through the living room to the study, where her lord sat behind the small desk. There was a chair in front of the desk, and after a bit of persuasion, the maid sat down there. Alyn stood quietly by the door.

"What's your name?"

"Ythilda, m'lord."

"You found the body, am I right?"

"Yes, m'lord." She spoke very quietly, and there was a tremor in her voice.

"You're not in trouble," Miervaldis said gently. "No-one is blaming you for anything. But I do need to know what you found, please. Will you tell me?"

There was a pause, then the girl looked up again, and although from behind Alyn couldn't see her expression, her voice sounded a lot calmer.

"Yes, m'lord."

"Go on then, please."

"Well, I was doing the rounds, you see, m'lord. I always come by the rooms, to clean the grates, lay the fireplace and take the rubbish out. So I went in as usual, and there he was on the table. I could tell - I could tell he was, I mean, he wasn't -" she stopped, swallowing noisily.

"All right," Miervaldis said. "I understand. Did you go near him?"

"A bit, m'lord. I mean, I wanted to check, see, that it really was what I thought..."

"Of course. And then?"

"Then I went for help. I never, never went close, I didn't touch him, m'lord!"

"Who did you go to?"

"The chamberlain."

"And what did he say?"

"He said to run to the stables and tell a messenger to make ready, and to get the physicker to come to Lord Cassian's room."

"So you went to the stables?"

"No, I went to get the physicker, but his room's on the way to the stables. Then I went to find a messenger, then.. I went back to the rooms, but there were people inside, so I figured I should get on with my rounds."

"Of course." There was a pause. "What time did you come to the room, Ythilda?"

"It would be a bit past dawn - I start at dawn but it's not the first room I do."

"And did you have to unlock the door?"

"Yes, m'lord. I have a key, all the housekeeping maids do."

"Of course, of course." He frowned absently. Alyn remembered there had only been one other exit from the study, presumably leading to Lord Cassian's chambers.

"Well, that's nearly everything," he said finally, and Alyn saw Ythilda relax. "Just a couple more questions, if you don't mind. Could you tell me, what was Jaquan the scribe like?"

The maid was silent for a bit, head down, as if thoughtful. Then, "I didn't like him," she said frankly. "I'm sorry, m'lord, but it's the truth. He was always nasty in his ways, although he was never so to me myself. But some of my friends..."

"I see. Did you know it was him when you found him?"

"No, m'lord, I couldn't tell..." she tailed off uneasily.

"And Lord Cassian?"


"Did you see him? Talk to him?"

"Oh no!" It came out strongly, and she shook her head. "I don't - well, I never saw him around that morning anyway."

"You don't what?"

"Oh, um, nothing, m'lord."

Miervaldis eyed the girl, but she stayed silent.

"Well, thank you for coming, and for being so forthright," he said. "You can go now. If you do remember anything that you think I should know - anything at all - please come and tell me. You can come at any time, whenever you want, and if you can't find me, please tell my page." He gestured to Alyn, and Ythilda started, as though she hadn't realised the other girl was there. She relaxed a little when she saw her, perhaps realising Alyn was younger, and nodded.

"I will, m'lord."

Miervaldis waited until she had let herself out, then went to the door and locked it. He turned round.

"What do you think?"

Alyn had been expecting the question. "I think she's telling the truth," she said. "Probably. But I don't think she liked Lord Cassian."

Miervaldis raised an eyebrow, then smiled. "No, I don't think she does. Anything else strike you?"

Alyn thought over the conversation. "She came on her rounds, she found the body, she didn't investigate -" remembering the sight, she shuddered in sympathy - "then she went for help. It seemed quite logical, I think. She didn't scream, at least."

"No, she seemed quite calm, given everything. What about the locked door?"

"It depends where the other door to the chamber leads. Is it to Lord Cassian's rooms?"

"I expect so. That will make it harder, of course."


"Harder to prove his innocence. If it exists. Hmmm." He frowned, deep in thought. "Alyn, could you get some tea, please? You'll have to work out where the kitchen is, I'm afraid. I want to think a bit before we see Lord Cassian."

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said cheerfully, and hurried out. She heard him lock the door behind her.

Their rooms were towards one end of a long corridor, richly carpeted, of course. Alyn scurried down to the other end, where it opened up onto a long, gracious hall with a staircase. Guessing that the kitchen was further down, she bounced down the stairs and set off at random, doing her best to remember where she'd come from. There were plenty of servants along the corridors and the occasional noble, but she didn't stop to ask directions. She wanted to explore a bit, find her own way around, and so she ventured through halls and down corridors, down staircases and once or twice into ornamental gardens where the sun lit bright streams of water splashing elegantly into stone bowls. Eventually, she became aware of a rich meaty scent, and followed her nose through three more hallways until she reached the enormous main kitchen.

She was stopped on the threshold by an officious-looking under-cook who crossed his arms and glared down his nose at her.

"What do you want?"

"My lord wants tea, please," she said politely. Alienating cooks was always a bad idea.

"Your lord? You're a page? Why aren't you in lessons?"

"I'm serving my lord," Alyn said a bit indignantly. Since when did pages have to be in lessons? Serving was the default, wasn't it?

"I don't know you. Who's your lord?" He still looked belligerent, but he did turn and call over his shoulder, "tea on a tray, Bensen!"

"Lord Miervaldis. We just arrived," and struck by an idea, Alyn edged closer and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "He's here about the murder, you know."

"Really?" There was still suspicion in his tone, but he sounded more convinced. Alyn nodded importantly, hoping she hadn't made a mistake.

"We saw it all last night," she said, trying to sound like she was confiding hidden truths. Interest gleamed in the under-cook's eyes.

"S'true," piped a voice from behind the under-cook, and a pair of bright blue eyes gleamed cheek at her from beneath badly cut blond hair. "I saw them coming in, I did."

"What do you know, Bensen?" The under-cook took the tray, which had a pot of tea and two cups on, with a set of neatly-arranged, elaborately-decorated biscuits and a jug of milk.

"Like I said. I saw them coming in. And I saw them going in."

"To Lord Cassian's chambers?"

"That's right! Did you find anything?" Bensen addressed Alyn directly.

"The body," she said, receiving the tray from the under-cook. "It was really horrible."

"Do you think Lord Cassian did it?"

"I don't know. It's too soon to tell, really."

"I bet he did," said Bensen. "Just the sort of thing he'd do. He killed a man in a duel once, you know -"

"Shut up," interrupted the under-cook. "You shouldn't be talking so, you know that. Not here, anyway." He cast a glance up the corridor where a pair of servants were carrying boxes. Alyn wondered if he wanted to know more too.

"I should go," she said. "I have to get this back."

"Do you know where you're going?" Bensen asked.

"Not really," she admitted.

"Where're your lord's chambers?" said the under-cook.

"I don't know. Um, a few floors up, and a bit away from here..." The under-cook glared at her, but Bensen ducked under his arm and popped through the doorway to stand with Alyn.

"I know where to go," he said cheerfully. "Follow me," and he was off up the corridor. Alyn turned to follow, and swung back, steadying the tray as the cups rattled.

"Thank you very much," she said, bobbed politely, then set off after Bensen's retreating back, balancing the heavy tray.

Alyn meets Bensen while collecting a tray of tea and biscuits.

It took a good ten minutes to get back to the rooms, and Alyn was a little worried that Miervaldis might have gone off to interview someone without her. When she knocked, however, she heard him come over and unlock the door. She nudged it open and sidled through, then noticed Bensen staring unabashedly at her lord. She turned, to block his view as best she could.

"Thanks very much," she said cheerfully, then kicked the door shut with her foot, almost in his face. Turning back, she saw Miervaldis hiding a smile.

"Who was that?"

"One of the cooks," she said, putting the tray down carefully on the little table between the chairs. "Or maybe an assistant. His name's Bensen, he showed me the way back. Oh, he and an under-cook were talking about Lord Cassian -" she cut off as her lord waved a hand at her.

"Thank you for listening, but I'd prefer to interview him first, if you don't mind," he said. "I know I asked Ythilda, but it's probably better if I kept as open a mind as possible."

Alyn poured the tea and kept silent. Miervaldis paced to the tall windows and peered out. They overlooked a perfectly-cut circular expanse of lawn with a fountain at the centre, and roses around the edges.

"The physicker will be here shortly," he said suddenly, turning round. "Oh, have some tea yourself if you want some. Thank you." He came over to the table, picked up his cup - without the saucer - and wandered into the study to look out of the windows some more. Alyn perched on the edge of the seat and sipped her own tea, thinking about what Bensen had said. She was very curious about Lord Cassian.

After a short while, there was a knock at the door, and she put down her cup and went to open it. The physicker was a short man with thinning grey hair and a harried expression. He had an apprentice with him; a gangly boy who hung back and eyed Alyn warily from beneath a floppy fringe of dark hair. Alyn immediately took a dislike to him.

"I'm Evan Hughes, here to see Lord Miervaldis," the physicker said. "Is he in? I hope this won't take long."

"This way please, sir," said Alyn politely. He may be only middle class, but her father had always expressed respect for the learned, be they philosophers, physickers or even mages. The physicker nodded and followed her in, his apprentice behind.

"In the study," Alyn said, and gestured; Evan Hughes went through, followed by his apprentice, but Miervaldis spoke from the study.

"If we could speak in private, I would appreciate it." Hughes looked a bit surprised, but gestured to his apprentice to remain in the main room. Alyn glanced hesitantly to the study, and Miervaldis winked slightly at her, from which she judged she was supposed to gently quiz the apprentice. Annoyed, she flopped down in one of the luxurious chairs and eyed the unprepossessing prospect as the study doors closed.

"So you're apprenticed to the physicker then?" she began, not sure how to do an unofficial questioning. The boy shrugged, and nodded. "Is it hard?"

"Not really." There was a long, awkward silence.

"Were you there when he saw the dead man?" Clumsy, she berated herself, but she had no idea how to do it. Strangely, the boy started talking, as though it was something to be proud of. Maybe it was, for him.

"I was! We were called out early, but not so early we weren't up. I've never seen a murder before."

"Me neither," Alyn said with feeling. "What happened?" She meant, what had the physicker done, but the apprentice took it differently.

"He got bashed with something, that's plain. He never did that himself. I don't know what, though - there was nothing in the room that could've done that."

"He was really dead then?"

The boy gave her a scornful look. "'Course he was. Deader than dead. Whoever did it really hated him."

"Do you know who did it?"

"No. Not for us to guess and chatter. That's for your lord, right?" And he gave her a very odd look, and refused to say anything more. Perhaps, she thought, he guessed she had been trying to get information out of him.

Soon after that, the physicker emerged, smiling, and he and the boy made their way out. Miervaldis watched as Alyn locked the door carefully behind him, then poured himself another cup of tea.

"Did the apprentice say anything?"

"No, my lord, not really - I'm sorry. He said they had been called out early, and that whoever did it must have really hated the scribe."

"Hmm." Miervaldis looked thoughtful.

"Did - um, did the physicker say anything?" she asked tentatively. He didn't seem to mind answering.

"He had a wonderful level of knowledge, in particular of poisons, of all things. But no, not as such. He confirmed what Ythilda said."

"He - was the scribe poisoned?"

"Oh no, sorry. We got a bit side-tracked." He laughed, and drank his tea. "We should get moving; it's nearly time to see Lord Cassian himself." Alyn jumped, and ran to the wash room to make sure her hair was neat. For some reason, it mattered.

Lord Cassian's rooms were familiar, of course, although they got lost twice on the way and ended up being guided by a surly servant who clearly thought his errand much more important than helping a strange lord. Miervaldis knocked twice at the left-hand door, the door to the personal suite of rooms, and it was opened immediately by a skinny maidservant. She stared at the floor and bobbed a curtsey.

"We're here to see Lord Cassian," Miervaldis told her, and she nodded and scurried away. They waited by the door.

"Oh, come in already!" came a loud, irritable voice. The maidservant came scuttling back and bobbed frantically, motioning them inside while still staring fixedly at the floor. "It's only the Emperor's trained dog come to check up on my doings last night." His voice echoed across the hallway, and through the open door behind them Alyn saw several heads turning to watch them go in. She winced. Miervaldis' back was rigid with what she thought was distaste. The room around them was rich, like the rest of Fifth Star Court, filled with plump sofas and chairs where a lazy lord might lie to watch the world go by through his windows - although at the moment the windows were hidden by velvet curtains. A tray lay on a small table, with crumbs on the plates. Had it been a late breakfast?

The maid led them on to a second room, much like the first but a bit smaller. Lord Cassian sat on a comfortable chair by a table, with a bottle and a glass by his hand. He was a tall, thin man with a deeply lined face and dark eyes, wearing clothes almost too rich for him. They made him look pasty and unhealthy, although perhaps, she thought, that was just him. He looked down his not-inconsiderable nose at them.

"Lord Merfaldis, right?" He went on without waiting for correction. "And you're here from the Emperor to clear my name? Or to accuse me, is that it?" He laughed rustily, then gestured to the little maidservant by the door. "Get out, Milly, this is none of your business." The maid bobbed hastily and withdrew, shutting the door behind her. Miervaldis moved slightly to position himself in front of Alyn.

"Lord Cassian," he said, and his voice was measured and quiet, in contrast to the bullying spite of the other man's, "I'm Lord Miervaldis of the Fourth Star Court, and I have come here at the behest of the Sun Court, concerning the death of your scribe, Jaquan. I'd like to ask you some questions, if I may."

"And if I say no?"

"Then I will withdraw, of course," said Miervaldis. He left unsaid what that would mean for Cassian. There was a pause, then Cassian made a loud, grumpy noise.

"Ask your questions, man, but be quick," he said, and took a long drink from the glass, then refilled it. He offered neither drink nor seat to Alyn's lord.

"What was the first you knew of the crime?"

"I was told about it by one of the maids. Screaming fit to burst, she was." He sneered.

"One of your maids, or one of the maids serving the Court?"

"Does it matter? One of mine, I think."

"And what time was this?"

"Early morning. Too early. I was hardly awake, and a damn fool girl came yelling than Jaquan had been murdered. Set them all off, it did."

"What did you do then?"

"I told them all to shut up, of course. But it was too late. I went to see, and there he was, with his head stove in and blood all over my desk and papers. I saw him as that little physicker was examining him."

"Did you know Jaquan well?"

"No. Why would I? He did his work, that's what matters. I don't care about the rest of it, that's his business."

"And where were you the night he was murdered?"

"That's none of your business," Cassian began, then hesitated. "Well, if you must know, I was in town. Then I came back and went to bed."

"What time did you return?"

"Midnight. Maybe. I went straight to bed, I didn't look next door. Slept until the screaming began."

"And with whom were you in town?"

"That's for me to know," Cassian snapped. "None of your business. I was out, and I didn't do it."

Lord Miervaldis regarded the unpleasant lord for a time, then nodded. "Thank you for your answers," he said. "I may have some more questions later."

"I may answer them," Cassian said, then he leered. "Send your pretty page to ask me, and I'll definitely answer."

Miervaldis turned, and Alyn saw on his face an expression of anger and revulsion. He pushed her towards the door and she went. Cassian's laughter followed them out.

Miervaldis and Alyn leaving Lord Cassian.

Back in their own rooms, which they found without help but with some wandering, Miervaldis relaxed into a chair.

"Goodness, what an unpleasant man! I'm sorry to have pushed you out so suddenly, Alyn. I was a bit worried what might happen if we didn't get out of there."

"You thought he might have done something?"

"Not quite," but he didn't elaborate. Instead, he asked her about the gossip she'd overheard.

"Oh well, it wasn't much, really. Just, Bensen, you know, the cook's assistant, he reckoned it was something Lord Cassian might have done." It sounded pretty thin now she said it, but Miervaldis nodded, his expression thoughtful.

"Good," he said. "Tell me if you hear any more. We'll see the other scribes soon, and we should probably talk to the Court mage too. After that, well, we'll see. And you'll be at lessons." He grinned at her, and she pulled a grumpy face. Remembering Lord Cassian's manners, she was abruptly very glad of her easygoing lord. It could, she knew, have been much, much worse. is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis