Chapter 3

Alyn did go to the lesson that afternoon, but first there were four more interviews with the other scribes who worked for Lord Cassian and with the Court mage. The scribes were, to a man, thin, unprepossessing, and cowed. They hadn't liked Jaquan, although it took some questioning to get each to admit it. They acted as though an admission of dislike was a confession to the murder, but Miervaldis was gentle and patient with them. Alyn, remembering Lord Cassian's attitude and manners, couldn't blame them for being nervous. The Court mage was an entirely different matter; a tall, burly man with an arrogant manner, he answered Miervaldis' questions with a barely concealed look of condescending disdain. He seemed to be trying to make the questions, and by extension Miervaldis, sound stupid. Alyn disliked him intensely. He didn't even have anything useful to say; Evan Hughes had asked him to check, but there was no trace of magery in the study.

"Just a common brutal crime," the mage said loftily, as though it would be more important or more tragic if it had been carried out by magic. Miervaldis nodded, the same bland expression on his face that had been there since the start of the interview, not showing anything he might be feeling.

When the mage had finally gone, Miervaldis came back into the room and sat down. He glanced at the ornate clock on the mantelpiece.

"We've got an hour before your afternoon lessons start," he said. "I think lunch is in order," and he rang the bell. Another maid appeared, took his request, bobbed and disappeared down the corridor. Lunch was brought up by Bensen, who was quite clearly curious about Alyn's lord; he peered unabashedly through the door as she took the tray from him.

"Have you found who it is yet?"

"Of course not," Alyn scoffed. "We've hardly started." His eyes were dancing with interest. She turned round, manoeuvering the tray with some difficulty, then looked back over her shoulder. "Thanks for bringing lunch." He didn't take the hint, hanging around by the door and looking around the guest rooms which, she thought, he must have seen before. She put the tray down on the table, returned to the door and closed it gently, trying not to make it look like she was shutting him out.

The tray bore cold meat, smoked salmon, fruit, bread, cheese and more olives, as well as a pale, clear wine. Miervaldis helped himself to the food, then nodded at Alyn to do so. They ate in silence, which he broke towards the end of the meal.

"You've heard what I have, pretty much. What do you think?"

"I think... I think there are too many possibilities to say right now. I mean, the door was locked, but all the housekeeping maids had a key. The scribes had keys. Lord Cassian could have done it, which means any of his family might have too..." she broke off, wondering where his family were. She hadn't seen them in his chambers.

"His family," said Miervaldis drily, "are not kept at Court. He has a wife and daughter in his country estate, but he prefers to spend most of his time here."

"I bet his family prefer it too!" Alyn winced, and put a hand over her mouth. She hadn't meant it to come out so rudely, but Miervaldis just chuckled quietly.

"Right," he said. "There are plenty of potential murderers as it stands." Alyn wished he hadn't said it like that. "So," he went on, "what about a motive?"

There was a pause. Alyn considered the question, but she already knew she had no idea. Why kill a scribe? What could he do? Miervaldis had put his plate down and stood up; now he moved to the window and gazed out thoughtfully.

"What was he doing when he was killed?"

"He was writing," said Alyn, who was beginning to realise that her lord's habit of talking to her was another form of talking to himself, of working through possibilities in his mind.

"We know that, because he had ink blotches on his hands and the other scribes said he kept his hands clean when not working. Yes. But there was no pen. Nor was there any sign of a document he was actually working on. Only some blank papers." Alyn hadn't noticed that at the time. Miervaldis frowned to himself. "Of course, it could have been hidden in the mess. We haven't had a look through those papers. Perhaps that would be a good idea. Alyn!"

"Yes, my lord?"

"Your next job is to go through the papers Jaquan was working on, all the ones on his desk. I want to know what they are, what he might have been copying."

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said, not especially thrilled at the prospect. He smiled at her.

"You can start after your lessons," he said. "You've got twenty minutes before they start, so hopefully you can get there in time." Alyn stared at him in horror; suddenly, the idea of reading through Jaquan's pile of legal documents seemed much more attractive. "In the Upper Chamber by the Garden of Seven Streams," he prompted her, with a grin.

Grumpily, Alyn picked up her writing things and left the room to venture out through the winding ways of the Fifth Star Court. Not having a food scent to guide her, she succeeded in getting herself hopelessly lost in short order. Eventually, she stopped in a wide hall and looked around, hoping for a garden of some kind, but instead, she saw Ythilda, the maid who had found the body.

Alyn asking Ythilda for directions to the lesson

"Um, hello," she said, and Ythilda looked round with a smile.

"Can I help you?" she said. "Oh, it's you, isn't it, the page of the lord from Fourth Star Court?"

"Yes, that's right. I'm looking for, uh, the Garden of Seven Streams?" Ythilda looked sympathetic.

"This must be a maze for you right now," she said. "You need to go back the way you came, as far as the long hall with the golden curtains - you remember that? Good, then turn left and follow the corridor round. It opens onto the Garden of Seven Streams; the Upper Chamber will be across the garden from you."

"Thank you!" Alyn said gratefully, and hurried off. As she turned from the hall into the corridor Ythilda had mentioned, she heard the clock chiming and started to run. She didn't want to be late; it was bad enough being new. But time and the size of Fifth Star Court were against her, and it was a full five minutes after the bells had finished chiming by the time she climbed the stairs and reached the door to the Upper Chamber. She paused to catch her breath. The door was open, revealing a large room with several somewhat faded embroidered silk hangings decorating the walls. A thin, ascetic-looking man stood at the front, holding forth in a reedy voice about the principles of the law. A large group of boys - no girls, she realised - sat on the floor on cushions; a couple towards the back of the room were clearly lounging. Some of those near the door noticed her standing there, and a murmur ran round the room. The teaching lord stopped.

"Have we a visitor?" His tone wasn't very pleasant. Alyn gulped, and stepped inside, dropping into the obeisance prescribed for the page of a lord visiting another court to a lord of that court.

"Well well," the lord said. "Someone who knows her manners, what a pleasant surprise." His voice implied otherwise. "So, where did you spring from?"

"My lord, I'm serving Lord Miervaldis of the Fourth Star Court, who is visiting this Court."

"Oh, of course. Well, I suppose he had to get rid of you so he can play the sneak. Is he here to accuse or clear Lord Cassian?" Alyn couldn't work out which was the desired outcome, and in any case the question was too loaded to answer. She kept her head bent, and said nothing.

"Oh, get up. Find a bit of floor, and next time don't be late." He sounded irritable and angry, and Alyn wished briefly for someone like oblivious Lord Fitzhugh of the Fourth Star Court. He had barely even realised when a page came in late, and boring was far preferable to antagonistic.

"Yes, my lord," she said, and went to sit down near the door, putting her quills and papers in front of her. The teacher - whose name she still did not know - glanced at her once, then continued the interrupted lesson as though she had never come in.

"You may, of course, be advised on these matters but it is always worth being aware of previous cases in your Court..."

The lesson lasted two hours without a break, and all Alyn gained was a sore behind from sitting on the floor without a cushion. Teaching pages was always a bit erratic; pages were the next generation of lords and nobles, and knowledge that would be useful for, say, a physicker or an architect, was not considered appropriate for young nobles in case they became interested. Paid work, for a noble, was impious and improper. Nobles were supposed to serve the Sun Court and the people of their lands; that was why they came to their respective Star Courts, as representatives for their people. In days past, pages learned the ways of the Courts from their patrons while serving, in a kind of apprenticeship. Being told what happened was very different to actually doing it and watching it be done, and Alyn found the repetitive, dry recitations difficult to take in. As she gathered her pages of scratched notes, she wondered how Miervaldis had spent the afternoon, and wished she could have spent it with him. Even if he was just napping, she thought, it would be more interesting than this!

She followed the other pages out of the door and down the stairs, through the corridor and back to the big hall with the golden curtains. From there, she didn't know the way, and she lingered, confused. She wasn't even sure where Ythilda had been when she had given the directions earlier.


She jumped, looking round. One of the pages from the lesson, a smaller, roundish boy with limp brown hair, was waving at her from another doorway. Alyn went over, hoping for directions or even, if she was lucky, a chance to gossip. The boy stood aside to allow her through the door, so she went in to a small room with panelled wooden walls and not much by way of furniture. Several of the other pages lurked around the room, looking variously grumpy, amused and unfriendly. Surprised, she turned round, to see the small round page close the door and stand in front of it. Alyn felt her heart thump, realising too late that she had fallen for their trick, and whatever they wanted to do, she couldn't stop them.

The largest of the pages stopped slouching by the far wall and walked over to her.

"You're Miervaldis' page." It wasn't a question.

"Lord Miervaldis," Alyn said, unable to stop herself correcting him. He scowled, and then he hit her casually, across the mouth. Alyn spun, not ready for the violence although she realised she should have been. She fell to her knees, and had the absurd presence of mind to push her papers and quills to one side before they started in on her. But there was no more violence - at least, not for the minute. The tall page boy crouched down and pulled her head up by the hair.

"He's here to spy on Lord Cassian. That means you're here to spy on us. We don't want him here. We don't want you here. This is none of your business," and he spat, quite deliberately, at her face. Alyn made a strangled noise of outrage, then, ignoring his grasp on her hair, she surged towards him and headbutted him on the chin. He fell backwards to sprawl on the floor and hold his chin; she had heard his teeth click and thought he might have bitten his tongue. Her own head hurt sharply where it had hit his chin, more than she had thought it would, and she had left several tangles of hair in his hand. She staggered to her feet as the other pages converged on her, and managed to land several kicks and punches as they came in, throwing attacks wildly around in an attempt to keep the pages at bay. She had the advantage that whatever she hit was a target, where they had to be careful not to hit each other, and did not always succeed. But there were still too many of them, and eventually she subsided, sat upon by two of them, bruised and battered but feeling a glow of vindication upon realising how many of them would also be bruised the next day. The tall boy came over, looking thunderous.

Alyn fighting the pages

"You keep out of this, you hear?" As warnings went, it wasn't very scary, Alyn thought, but she hurt too much to argue, so she just nodded. He glared at her for a moment more, then signalled to the others and they got off her. She writhed on the floor for a moment, catching her breath. The pages left her there, and she didn't see them go.

After a few moments, she sat up, wincing at the pain in her side. It had been, she reckoned, an amateur punch-up. Not that she had much experience, but she had tussled with her older brother for years, and although there had been seven of them, these pages were all her age. They didn't know, she thought, feeling superior, how to land a punch properly. Although that didn't mean it didn't hurt. She eased herself to her feet, picked up her papers - a bit battered now - and limped out of the door, hoping it wouldn't take too long to find her way back to her lord.

In the end, she found her way to the kitchen instead, and ran across Bensen again. He took one look at her, and scowled.

"The other pages, was it?"

"I fell down the stairs," Alyn said, straight-faced. She knew the rules. Bensen gave her a long, unconvinced look, and shrugged.

"If you want it that way," he said. "Did you come for ice, or food, or are you lost?"

"I - actually, ice would be good, please," she admitted. "But I'm a bit lost too..." He gave her a quick grin, and went to fetch ice for her, then led her back to her rooms. By the time they reached the guest suite, she was staggering. He knocked on the door, and Miervaldis opened it with a smile, which vanished when he saw her state.

"What happened?" There was an undercurrent of anger in his voice. Bensen helped Alyn into the room and made her sit down in the nearest chair. She held the ice pack to her cheek, where she thought the worst swelling was.

"She says she fell down the stairs, my lord," Bensen said in reply. He put her papers and quills down on the table. She hadn't remembered him taking them from her.

"Did she now. Well, thank you for the ice pack, and for bringing her back. You are Bensen?"

"That's right." He sounded impressed, Alyn thought fuzzily. So he should.

"I'll look after her. Will you please ask Evan Hughes to step up here when he can?"

"Yes, my lord," said Bensen, sounding a little disappointed at the dismissal, and she heard his footsteps as he went out. Miervaldis followed, and she heard the door lock. He came back to kneel by her chair.

"I take it the lessons went badly?"

"They weren't very interesting, my lord."

"This happened later, then? Don't bother with the stairs, Alyn, I was a page once too. I know what that means. How many were there?"

"Seven," said Alyn, giving up the pretence. He raised an eyebrow.

"That's quite impressive. Well, my apologies for being the cause of this." There was a knock at the door, and he stood up to answer it. The physicker came in and knelt down by Alyn; there was a murmured conversation while he examined her bruises.

"You'll mend," Evan Hughes said, when he had finished. He sounded quite cheerful. "I've seen worse from, ah, falling down stairs. Don't drink any wine tonight, and don't eat too much, all right?"

"Yes sir," Alyn whispered. She felt shaky now, much worse than just after the fight. The physicker turned his attention to her lord.

"Keep an eye on her, and if she gets sick, call me again. Don't let her drink wine until tomorrow evening. There's some ointment here for the bruising, let her put it on after bathing."

"Thank you," said Miervaldis. "What's in the ointment?"

There was a pause. Alyn glanced up, to see the physicker giving her lord a very odd look.

"Arnica," he said eventually, "and witch hazel. It will help relieve the inflammation and bring the swelling down."

"Thank you," said Miervaldis again, and didn't ask any more question. Evan Hughes left, and she heard the door lock, then Miervaldis came back to her chair.

"You should lie down," he said, and it wasn't a suggestion. Alyn tried to stand up but her legs weren't working properly; she clung on to him and he half-guided, half-carried her to her bed, where she either fell asleep or passed out. She was never sure which it was.

She woke up late that evening, feeling much better and very hungry. She was still fully clothed. She sat up, and the bruises made their presence felt; she hissed at the pain.

"Are you awake, Alyn?" He must have sharp ears.

"Yes, my lord." She stood up gingerly and came to the front room. He was writing something by the fire. He looked over, assessing her stance.

"You're still hurting? I'll get some hot water and food brought up. You can bathe, and Evan gave me some ointment for your bruises." He sounded quite concerned.

"I'm all right, my lord," she said, not wanting him to be so upset for her sake. But he pulled the bell anyway, and when the maid came, he requested the food and the hot water. Alyn bathed as instructed and put the ointment on; it stung a little, but that soon faded. By then she was hungry, and the food was there, so she ate, and after that, she realised the whole afternoon had gone while she had been sleeping.

"Has anything else happened, my lord?" Miervaldis looked up from his own dinner.

"You mean, with respect to the investigation? No, nothing. I've been thinking, that's all." He put his plate down and stood up, went to pace by the window. It was open, allowing a cool draught in, which brought with it a faint scent of unfamiliar blossom. "Will you be up to having a look through those papers tomorrow?"

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently. "But -" she hesitated.

"What is it?"

"I think maybe... I should go back to the lessons."

"Even now?"

"It wasn't all of them, my lord."

"What, all of the stairs?" He sounded dry.

"I just, well, I don't want to run away. And mightn't those pages have been... involved?"

He came back from the window to sit by the fire, but didn't pick up his food.

"It's possible," he said. "I did think of that, but there were a lot of them - I find it hard to believe that seven lords are involved. I think it's more likely just resentment of an outsider interfering in this court's affairs, I'm afraid."

"Doesn't Lord Cassian have a page?"

"No. I did check that. Given his, ah, temperament, I'm not that surprised. But there may be a link. It could be useful, but I won't have you falling down any more stairs."

"I won't, my lord," she said, wondering what she'd let herself in for. But she didn't want to run away, and she did want to see the look on the big page's face when she came back the next morning. Miervaldis nodded.

"Be careful then," he said.

Alyn made sure to be up early the next morning, and she spent the hours she had free between breakfast and the start of lessons exploring the enormous court. There were too many tiny side corridors for her to know it properly, but by ten o'clock, the appointed hour, she was in the Upper Chamber, seated neatly on the plumpest cushion in the place and wearing the blandest expression she could muster. The first page through the door actually did a double-take when he saw her and was shoved through the door by the page behind. She deliberately did not acknowledge them.

Lord Ronoy was two minutes late to the lesson; she thought it might be deliberate. He sneered at her, but gave her no other specific attention, much to her relief. The lesson this time was on inheritance; a subject almost entirely separate from the lesson of the day before; she wondered if he just talked about whatever was on his mind, or whether there was a plan of some kind. She found it hard to concentrate for the whole two hours; his reedy, thin voice was like a mosquito's whine, capturing attention with its sound rather than its content. It didn't help that he sounded bored too.

At the end of the lesson she left in the middle of the crowd of pages, hoping that they were not all in on it, and departed the crowd when they passed near the kitchen. Bensen found her there, crouching behind an abandoned water butt in a side corridor.

"What on earth are you doing?"

"Avoiding stairs," she grinned at him. He was carrying a tray of unbaked buns balanced on one hand. There was flour all over his apron and in his hair.

"Are you feeling better? No ice today?" And he winked at her.

"Yes, thanks," she said, thinking how nice it was that someone was glad to see her. He bent towards her; she eyed the tray with trepidation, but he had it under control.

"There's someone I think you should talk to, if you know what I mean."

"Who?" Her heart beat faster. Surely, he had to mean something connected to Jaquan's murder...

He started to reply, but someone shouted something down the corridor.

"Sorry," he said instead, looking rueful. "I've got to go. Some other time, all right?"

"Yes!" Alyn said, standing up from her hidey hole. He hurried off down the corridor, the tray still perfectly balanced. What does he know?

She started back to the rooms after that, thinking that she'd probably waited long enough, and didn't run into anyone on the way. Miervaldis had ordered in lunch, but hadn't eaten much of it. He was staring moodily at the tray and sipping the pale wine they sent up with everything. As she was eating, something Lord Ronoy had said in the lesson came back to her.

"My lord?"

He blinked and sat up, looking a bit dazed, as though she'd woken him up.

"Yes, what is it?"

"In Fifth Star Court, they don't allow women to inherit, do they?" The rules often differed from Court to Court, reflecting the long-ago time when they were nine separate countries.

"I believe that's the case, yes."

"Then who is Lord Cassian's heir? If he only has a daughter?" Miervaldis focussed properly on her for the first time since she'd come in.

"That's a very good point. I had forgotten about that... inheritance is pleasantly lax at home." He wore a funny expression, almost a smile, as though he was thinking of something else.

"I had better go, my lord," she said, after the silence had lapsed for a minute. "I've got lessons again in ten minutes."

"Be careful on the stairs."

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently, and rolled her eyes when she had turned away. If he was going to harp on about that for the rest of their time here, it was going to get annoying.

"I need you fit to look through papers, after all."

She had forgotten about that. Disgruntled, she went to the lesson, unsure whether she wanted to spend the afternoon sitting with a bunch of boys who hated her listening to a boring lord who resented her, or sitting with a pile of boring papers next to a corpse, who presumably at least held no opinion of her at all.

In the end, of course, she found that Jaquan had been moved. She came across the Chamberlain while on her way back to her room, waited until he had finished his quiet conversation with a minor noble, and asked him for the key to the study, which was being kept locked in the present circumstances. She thought he looked uneasy about granting her access, but he didn't say anything, just gave her the key. When she reached the suite she hesitated, remembering the unpleasant comments made by Lord Cassian, but then realised that once she was inside, she could lock the door and be safe.

The desk was as she had seen it before, just with no body, which was a huge relief. The room was well lit by the tall windows, uncleaned for several days, and dust motes danced in the evening sunlight. It was very quiet, the quiet of a working room, of books and studying, although it was of course deserted. She wondered briefly where Lord Cassian's remaining scribes were working now. The other desks were clear of their stacks of papers, so the scribes must have gone somewhere. The door through to his rooms was locked, she knew, but she tested it, just in case.

Around the further desk, the papers still lay across the floor, some in crumpled piles and some still pristine. The desk, also paper-covered, still bore dark stains where Jaquan's blood had not been cleaned. Alyn walked over, a little gingerly, and started gathering up the papers. She had her quill and pages from the lesson, so once she had made a big pile, she sat down - on the carpet, away from the stool Jaquan had been sitting on when he was killed - and began to write down what there was.

The pile was bigger than she had thought it would be, and some of the papers required so much description to identify them that it was dark before she was halfway through the pile. She stood up to stretch, and noticed with a shock that the view through the windows was of a garden at twilight, all subtle blue shades and dark clouds, with a star twinkling where the sky was clear. She looked at the pile, where most of the papers were still waiting for her to catalogue them, and wondered about taking them to the suite for cataloguing. But the pile was very big, and somehow it felt a bit wrong to carry important legal documents away from the scene of a murder without even asking someone. They'd be safe here, anyway. She gathered up her writing things and let herself out into the brightly-lit hallway, locking the door carefully behind her. She only relaxed when there were two corridors and one flight of stairs between her and Lord Cassian's suite.

When she got back to their suite, it was locked as usual, but nobody answered the door. Annoyed, she bent to peer through the keyhole; it was dark inside, much like Lord Cassian's study had been. Where was Lord Miervaldis? She straightened up and stared around, and from the other end of the corridor, the maid Ythilda came hurrying up.

"I'm sorry," she said hastily. "Milord went out and asked me to keep an eye out for you, but I was attending to Milady..."

"Oh - do you have the key, then?" Miervaldis had gone out? Without her?

"I do," and she produced it from some hidden pocket as if by magic.

"Thank you," said Alyn, and stood while Ythilda hurried away, feeling a bit shocked.

Inside, she lit the lamp and stared round the room. The folded piece of paper on the table caught her eye, as of course it was supposed to. She opened it. In neat, tight characters like those of a professional scribe or scholar, it said:


I apologise for leaving you so abruptly, but the chamberlain told me you were working on Jaquan's papers. I am going to do some further investigation, and will be back too late to dine. If you ask the kitchen staff, they will give you dinner. Please don't wait up for me. I will see you in the morning.


She put the letter down, feeling rather abandoned. Whatever he was doing, she wanted to be in on it. But what was he doing? With a sudden shiver, she remembered the words of the dark man who had come to Miervaldis' rooms in Fourth Star Court when she had been packing his clothes. When you go with your patron, please be alert to what he may do. A report will be required in the event of anything.. untoward. Was this untoward? She didn't know. She hadn't thought about that incident since leaving Fourth Star Court, and to remember it now made her feel uneasy.

In any case, it was time and past time for food, so she put her worries and the letter aside and went out to find the kitchen, hoping there would be some food left. In the corridors there were plenty of servants rushing to and fro, carrying trays both laden and empty, which gave her hope. When she reached the kitchen it was in absolute chaos, far worse than the one in Fourth Star Court even when there was a big banquet on. Fifth Star Court was that much bigger, but it still seemed a bit excessive. She was hovering outside the side door, wondering if there would be a chance to ask for dinner, when Bensen emerged from the chaos with a large bag in his arms.

"Hey! Why aren't you with your lord?"

"He's busy and he didn't need me," Alyn replied, terse because she didn't like it herself.

"He's in town alone?"


"I saw him," and Bensen put the bag down and leaned against the wall, as though settling in for a long talk.

"Aren't you, um, busy?" Alyn interrupted, not wanting to get him into trouble.

"No, not really. It's always like this but it's just his style. The head cook, I mean," he grinned. "They won't miss me for a bit. I saw your lord, see, on his way to town. I thought it was a bit odd, 'cause he had no escort, but I thought you might be with him and I just missed seeing you. But you're not."

Alyn didn't want to admit she hadn't known Miervaldis was heading into the town. She had assumed he was somewhere in the Court, and he hadn't said anything. It made her feel more grumpy, and, at the back of her mind, a little voice was asking her if this counted as 'untoward'. But Bensen was looking at her expectantly. She racked her brains for something to say.

"Oh, didn't you have something to tell me?" she managed after too long a pause. He raised one eyebrow at the change of subject, then nodded and grinned.

"It's about the murder, see. Look, I can't be too long. Did you come down for dinner?"


"I'll bring it to you, then I can talk to you. They won't mind me bringing food. I'll see you in a bit, all right?"

"Yes... thank you." She watched him toss the bag casually to one side where it slumped against a pile of similar bags and dive back into the smoky chaos, and stood for a moment thinking about Miervaldis' trip to the little township associated with Fifth Star Court. Lord Cassian had been in town the night Jaquan was murdered. Was that what her lord was investigating? That would make perfect sense; feeling relieved, if still miffed at being left out, she hurried back to their suite to wait for Bensen.

"A bit" turned out to be nearly an hour, but when Bensen arrived, by way of apology for the long wait he had brought not just the stew and bread the Court had eaten, but a soft sweet dumpling and a bowl of raisins as well. He had given her a generous helping of the stew; Alyn fell on it, only then realising how hungry she was. He didn't wait for her to finish, but started talking almost immediately.

"Sorry to take so long, but they needed help with one of the ovens. Are you ready to listen?" She nodded, mouth full of stew. "Right. So Lord Cassian's heir is Lord Isidor, the son of Lord Vitalis." At Alyn's blank look, he hurried to explain. "That's Lord Cassian's younger brother, who died five years ago of the flux. Anyway, Lord Isidor's in with the Niethian crowd, if you know what I mean?" Alyn didn't, but didn't say so, partly because her mouth was full again. "I don't know much about it, although Fifth Star Court's always been loyal, of course! But he needed money, and I heard him shouting at Lord Cassian just five days ago." He paused, looking important.

"What was he shouting about?" Alyn prompted him, between mouthfuls.

"He said he needed money, and Lord Cassian said he wouldn't give him any. Isn't that a motive?"

"I suppose so," Alyn said dubiously. "Why did he need the money?"

"I told you, I don't know."

"Oh yes, sorry. Um, but if he needed the money and Lord Cassian had it, why wouldn't he just kill him instead?"

"I thought about that," Bensen sounded excited. "See, it's a terrible crime to kill a lord and it'd be really obvious if he did that anyway. But if he murdered the scribe and tried to make it look like Lord Cassian did it - well, Lord Cassian'd be disgraced, wouldn't he? And Lord Isidor would inherit right away!"

Alyn thought it was a bit far-fetched, but didn't want to say that, so she tried to look thoughtful and impressed while she finished the sweet dumpling. Bensen reached for the raisins he had brought her, and she shoved the bowl away with one arm.

"You brought them for me," she said indignantly.

"Oh come on, I just gave you a really good lead!"

"You can get raisins any time!" But he looked mournfully at her and she relented. When he had gone, she finished the raisins he had left her and turned the idea over in her head. Could Isidor have framed Cassian in order to get the money? It hadn't been very good framing, but then, maybe he wasn't very intelligent. And as Cassian's heir, he would have the keys to the room. Probably. Maybe it was worth looking into. She made notes on what Bensen had said, trying and failing to be as neat as Miervaldis had been. He had large hands, too, she thought resentfully. It wasn't fair.

Alyn and Bensen talking over dinner

There was nothing else to do that night, and she certainly didn't want to go back to the dark room where Jaquan had been killed to go through the papers again. Instead, she wandered round their suite looking for a bookshelf, and found one in the study. It had a scattering of popular romances on it, most of which she'd read, but she picked up one that she remembered liking and took it back to the main room to read by the fire. She was curled up, lost in the adventures of a bold but poor warrior and his lady love, when she was yanked abruptly from the story by the clicking of the lock. Her heart pounded, but of course it was Miervaldis, looking a bit the worse for wear. She stood up hastily; he looked surprised to see her.

"Alyn," he said, and his voice was hoarse. "I didn't expect you to wait up..."

"I was reading, my lord," she waved the book, as proof.

"Ah, they provided books. How thoughtful." He locked the door behind him and limped wearily to the main room.

"My lord - are you hurt?" He waved the suggestion away.

"No, no, just tired. It's quite a way to the town, you know."

"You didn't take a coach?" Bensen had not said anything about a coach, but she had just assumed...

"No, that wouldn't have fitted in."

"Fitted in with what? My lord," she added hastily, realising she was interrogating him as though he was her ward, not her patron.

"I wanted to ask questions, and people don't speak to nobles and rich men with carriages. How were the papers?" He slung his coat onto one of the overstuffed chairs and sank into another.

"Oh... boring. They were mostly details of servants' contracts, and amendments to them. They have a really weird filing system. I haven't finished, I'm afraid."

"That's all right, there were a lot of them. And your lessons?"

"Fine. My lord, Bensen told me something interesting."

"Did he?" Miervaldis looked up, alert despite the obvious tiredness.

"Yes. He says Lord Isidor, Lord Cassian's heir, was in need of money."

"Lord Cassian's heir, hmmm?"

"Yes, his nephew, I think. The son of his younger brother, who's dead."

"I see, I see. Well done." He stared into the fire, thoughtful. "Anything else?"

"Yes; Bensen said he heard them having a row just before the murder."

"Just before?"

Alyn hurried to the notes she'd made and scanned them.

"Five days before, he said. Lord Isidor wanted money, and Lord Cassian refused him."

"I see."

"Bensen said he thought it might have been a plan to frame Lord Cassian, and to get him disgraced so Lord Isidor would inherit."

Miervaldis looked up, slightly surprised.

"Wouldn't it be easier just to kill Lord Cassian?" Although she'd thought the same thing, Alyn shivered.

"I did ask him that, but he said it was terrible to kill a lord and this was a safer way."

"Hmmm. Speaking to this Lord Isidor would be good, I think. Well done, Alyn, that's more than I managed."

"There was one other thing, my lord."

"Go on."

"Bensen said Lord Isidor was in with the Niethian crowd. I don't know what that means, but..." she tailed off. Miervaldis had tensed at the name. At her silence, he relaxed, but it looked like an effort to do so.

"The Niethians are... a faction in the Sun Court," he said carefully. "They are... not always in accordance with the decrees of the Emperor."

Alyn felt shocked. Surely the Emperor's word was law? Miervaldis shook his head tiredly at her expression.

"There'll always be people who disagree, Alyn, even with the will of the gods on earth. The Niethians sometimes try to garner support for their ideas, but don't usually get far. Lord Isidor sounds like their kind of recruit; a young, headstrong lord who doesn't yet have the power he thinks he ought to." He broke off, shaking his head. "I'm prejudging him, and that's bad. Look, it's past time for bed, we've got lots to do tomorrow. Well, you have. I think I may indulge myself and lie in." He smiled and stood up, clearly tired, and Alyn wondered if he'd done more than simply walk to and from town. Surely it wasn't that far? But she said nothing and did as he suggested, although she lay awake a long time in the dark, with too many questions passing through her head and no answers in sight. is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis