Young Lord Isidor did not resemble his uncle very much, in looks or in manner. Alyn privately considered both a great relief, and, as much as they were his doing, to his credit. He was young, perhaps five years older than she was, slim with long dark hair pulled back into a fashionable queue. He looked much like his mother, Lady Reyhana, who accompanied them with an air of deep suspicion; she also had long dark hair, and they shared fine features and dark eyes.
"Thank you for agreeing to speak with me," Miervaldis began after he had been ushered in and offered a seat and refreshment in the brightly lit living room. Alyn quietly took up her position to one side, to wait upon her lord. The room was a picture of artistic elegance, with pale walls and delicate, intricate little sculptures lending to its airy grace. Lord Isidor was not sitting; although he had been polite and good-natured, he was clearly itching to be doing something else, pacing the room and fidgeting with his goblet. His mother, the picture of demure propriety, occasionally cast him irritated glances which he completely ignored. Against her better judgement, Alyn found herself liking him.
"You're welcome, my lord," Lady Reyhana replied, placing her glass carefully and precisely on the glass tabletop. "What is it you wish to know?"
"I'd like to ask you about the night Lord Cassian's scribe was murdered."
Lady Reyhana made a very small moue of distaste, as though the topic was not one appropriate for proper discussion. It made Alyn, already feeling small and scruffy, feel belligerent on behalf of her lord, but he carried on as though she had given her full consent.
"My Lord Isidor, where were you that night?" Isidor checked his pacing and turned to face the group by the table.
"I was out," he said bluntly. He looked just a little defiant.
"Isidor -" his mother started, but Miervaldis held up a hand.
"Where were you, if you were out, my lord?"
"I can't say."
"My lady, please don't worry. Perhaps you would prefer to -"
"I'm staying here, thank you!" Alyn flinched at the lady's tone. Miervaldis shrugged minutely.
"Very well, my lady. Lord Isidor, if you were out, at what time did you return?"
"It was around dawn."
"And you didn't see anything at any time during the night?"
"I told you, I wasn't here." He looked uneasy. "My lord, I'm sorry I can't help, but really, I wasn't here and I didn't see anything. I don't know who killed Jaquan."
"Thank you, my lord." Alyn thought Miervaldis was going to ask about the Niethians, the money, the argument Isidor was said to have had. Instead, he turned to face Isidor's mother. "My lady, where were you that night?"
"I was here," Lady Reyhana said icily. "I was working on my embroidery. You can ask my maid, Shira; she attended me. I heard nothing. Our rooms are too far away from Lord Cassian's, after all, and I did not leave here."
"You ate here?"
"That's right." She looked so composed, Alyn thought. Very proper. She couldn't tell if the lady was lying or not. Could she have killed Jaquan? But why would she want to?
They left after that short and unsatisfactory interview. Mindful of her lord's instructions, Alyn said nothing until they were in their room again and the door was locked behind them.
"My lord," she said, as soon as she could, "why didn't you ask about the money? About the Niethians?"
Miervaldis sat down in one of the chairs and tipped his head back, looking suddenly tired.
"I didn't think Lord Isidor would appreciate a question about his finances in front of his mother," he said drily. "Or the other, in fact, although I don't believe he is a member of that or any other group."
Alyn stared at him, but he had closed his eyes and didn't notice. How could he know that Isidor wasn't in with such a group? She squashed the little voice that piped up inside to say if he was in the group, he'd know if Isidor wasn't, and went to sit down herself. Miervaldis lifted his head and smiled ruefully at her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't sleep much last night," he said. "Would you mind looking through the funeral records of this court, as you suggested? It would only be since your friend joined, so just a year, yes? Tell the Chamberlain you're asking on my behalf."
"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently, and went to collect her pens and paper. She looked back when she reached the door, but he'd closed his eyes again and looked like he was asleep. Still feeling uneasy, she slipped out of the door and closed it quietly behind her, then set off in search of the Chamberlain.
Twenty minutes and two circuits of the Court later, she realised she had no idea how to find him. Frustrated, she went to the front gate, hoping the gate guards would know. In Fourth Star Court, they seemed able to effortlessly keep tabs on everyone, although thinking about it, she realised they'd never known where Miervaldis was.
The guards at Fifth Star Court proved just as knowledgeable, telling her that at this hour of the morning the Chamberlain was likely to be found taking tea with several of the Court ladies, either in the Swan Garden or in the upper chamber next to it. Alyn thanked them, then asked on the offchance if Lord Isidor had gone out. They looked dubiously at each other.
"I don't think so," said the bearded one. "I'm sure we'd have seen him. He normally heads out on his flashy chestnut, so maybe you should check the stables."
"Thanks," Alyn said, and hurried off. The stables were more or less on the way to the Swan Garden so she took the slight detour, telling herself she wasn't going to be long and that Miervaldis wouldn't mind. The archway leading to the stables was cool and dark, feeling almost like a doorway to another world.
The stables were situated along one side of a long courtyard, a double row of horseboxes with a wide, roofed passage in between. A few stray bits of straw blew across the wide paving stones, but on the whole they were clean and well-swept. Two carriages waited at the other end, one with a pair of horses harnessed to it and one without; the horses were being held by a groom. No-one else was visible, although as she hurried along the length of the courtyard, a few horses in the outer stalls poked their noses out inquisitively, and she could hear noises from within the stable block. The groom watched her incuriously.
"Hey," she said, a little breathlessly as she arrived.
"Hey," he responded, in kind. She bit her lip, suddenly unsure of how to proceed and feeling like an idiot. The nearer horse whuffled and stretched out his nose to lip at her hair. The groom tugged his head down gently.
"Big daft creature," he said to the horse. "She's not brought her hair for you to eat."
Alyn giggled. "I wanted to ask you something, actually," she said, feeling a bit bolder.
"Oh aye? Something about Lord Cassian's scribe?" Clearly everyone in the entire Court knew. She supposed she wasn't very surprised.
"Sort of," she said. "It was actually about Lord Isidor. He's got a horse here, right?"
"That's him over there, the chestnut." The groom gestured and Alyn turned to look. Indeed, halfway down the stalls was a bright copper head, looking interestedly in their direction.
"Do you get the horse ready for him if he goes out?"
"Not usually. He likes to do that himself. Very fond of that horse, he is, see."
"So you wouldn't know if he was out at any time?"
"Happen I might. Depends on when, see. You thinking of the night the scribe was murdered?"
"I was," Alyn admitted, wondering why she'd even tried to be discreet.
"He went out that evening before the lords normally eat," the groom confirmed. "His horse was back by the morning shift, so he must have brought it in overnight, but I don't know when."
"Who was on the night shift?"
"I was. That's the thing, see, I was asleep. That's normal, because the night shift is usually quiet. But Lord Isidor's horse isn't near the groom's end, so he could've brought him in any time and stabled him and I wouldn't've noticed, if he was quiet about it."
"Thank you," Alyn said. There wasn't really much else to say, but the groom grinned at her.
"Your lord's a right one, he is," he said, almost conspiratorially. "Heard him talking to th' stablemaster a couple of nights ago. All interested in the horses, he was."
"Really?" He had said he'd spoken to the stablemaster, she remembered, but he hadn't shown any interest in horses before. He didn't even have any, at least, not that she knew. How much do I really know about him, anyway? Was he just asking because it was something to do with the murder? What could it be?
"That's right," the groom confirmed. "Tell him if he wants to come down again, Stablemaster says he's welcome."
"I will. Thank you." Alyn left him there still holding his charges and hurried to the Swan Garden, wondering if she'd left it too late to catch the Chamberlain.
She found him at the entrance to the Swan Garden, talking to one of the housekeepers, and waited for him to finish as she had before. When he had dismissed the woman, he turned to face her with an odd half-harried, half-polite look on his face. He must be sick of us, she thought, as she dipped in the respectful obeisance.
"My Lord Chamberlain, could I please see the funeral records for the last year?"
Now he just looked surprised. It was an odd request, she supposed.
"I don't see why not... but hang on, is this to do with the, er..."
"It is, my lord," Alyn confirmed. "Lord Miervaldis sent me."
"Er, ah, well, fine, then. Please see the Chroniclers, and tell them I've given you permission. You'll find them north of the refectory."
"Thank you," said Alyn, and he hurried away, sweating slightly. I could have just said that anyway, she thought, a bit disgruntled.
The Chroniclers were easy to find, one door down from the library and, as specified, north of the refectory. The head Chronicler himself was a tall, spindly man who used a monocle on a stick to look at everything, including her. He peered down at her from what seemed like a great height, and blinked bemusedly when she presented her request.
"Well, well, yes, the funeral records," he mused. "I expect we can find them for you, no problem at all." He turned round slowly, as though afraid he might break, and shuffled back into the room, which was long and thin and walled with bookshelves. Alyn watched his retreating back; halfway across the floor, he remembered she was there and waved at her to come in.
The assistant Chronicler he introduced her to was a good deal younger, and thankfully had much better eyesight and hearing. He was also very interested in the murder of the scribe, and Alyn had to answer several of his questions before getting to state her own. She supposed it was a fair trade.
"Oh, right, of course," he said eventually, remembering she had come with a request. "Funerals over the past year?"
He led the way to the end of the room where the stacks were, past a row of desks where bookbinders and book menders worked. The fumes from the glue made Alyn feel lightheaded, although her guide didn't seem to notice; she supposed he was used to it. He stopped in front of a vast bookshelf reaching two storeys high, and pulled out a book from one of the lower shelves. He examined its title, frowned, put it back and took the one next to it.
"This is it," he said. "Ah, if you wouldn't mind reading it here? We can't let the records out of our keeping, you see."
"That's all right," Alyn said. He guided her to a chair - thankfully, some way away from the glue fumes - and left her to read. The format was a little strange, but it didn't take her long to work out how to read it. She made brief notes; there had been five funerals on Holy days, none of them noble, none of them obviously connected with Pyrrhus or his brother Kadir. Thanking the assistant and the head Chronicler, although the latter didn't seem to remember who she was, she went back to her rooms deep in thought.
Miervaldis was awake when she got back, sitting in the chair nearest the tall windows and writing something in his neat hand on a piece of paper resting on a book on his knees. Alyn wondered briefly why he wasn't in the study where there was a proper desk. He looked up when she came in.
"Ah, Alyn. Did you find anything?"
"Nothing very obvious, my lord." She put her pens down on the small table and brought her papers to him. He scanned down the list.
"Indeed. Well, it was a long shot anyway. Perhaps your brother will be able to cast some light on all this." Alyn could not imagine Byran casting light on anything.
"My lord, I spoke to the groom who was on watch during the night Jaquan was murdered."
"He said Lord Isidor's horse was back by the morning shift but he doesn't know when. He was asleep for the overnight shift and didn't wake."
"And Isidor said around dawn, didn't he. Well... it could still tally." He looked thoughtful, but didn't say any more. Outside, footsteps thudded in the corridor as someone ran past, a page in a hurry perhaps. A flock of birds flew past the window, casting little brief shadows on the paper Miervaldis held.
"My lord, what's happening?" It came out before she could stop herself; Alyn bit her tongue. He looked up, apparently surprised.
"I mean, with all this. We don't know anything! Who do we talk to next? What do we do? How can we work anything out -"
"Calm down," Miervaldis said gently, and Alyn shut up, realising she had been babbling. He put the carbon stick in his pocket. "I'm sorry. I haven't been doing much explaining, have I? Probably we should have talked before.
"Anyway, I've been writing down what we know and what we might conclude. If you would go and ask for our lunch, please, I'll finish the notes and we can go over it properly." He smiled at her. "It's not as bad as it looks, really."
Alyn pushed up from the wall and nodded, still feeling a little dubious. She went to request the food, almost expecting him to have left by the time she came back, but he was still in the same chair, still staring out of the window, although the paper had more notes on it now.
"I'm ready, my lord."
"Good. Well, the way I see it, there are two questions we need to ask. First, who could have killed Jaquan. Second, who would have wanted to.
"In answer to the first, there are too many options. Lord Cassian could have done it, of course. So could any of the household staff, or probably anyone who knew them. Lord Isidor, possibly even his mother. The other scribes. That's far too long a list.
"The second question is harder, because although Jaquan doesn't seem to have been well-liked, there's no immediately obvious motive for killing him. He hadn't suddenly gained a lot of money, he hadn't angered anyone just before he died. Or if he did, no-one's told us. But it could be that Lord Cassian is being clumsily framed. No-one likes him either, but there are motives there. Lord Isidor, his heir, apparently needed money."
He paused and looked over at her. "Make sense so far?"
"There's what Brenna saw -"
He nodded. "I'm coming to that. So then, there are the witnesses. We only have one, really, and that's Brenna, the maid, who was on late duty that night and saw Lord Cassian by the study door. She said he looked angry -"
"Ah!" Alyn hadn't meant to interrupt, but that niggling feeling had clarified. Instead of being angry, her lord looked quite excited.
"What is it, Alyn? You remembered something?"
"Yes, my lord - Brenna must have been lying!" She expected him to be shocked, but instead Miervaldis just looked thoughtful.
"Really? Why do you think that?"
"You can't see anything in that alcove. I was there in the evenings after working on the papers, and even when all the lamps are freshly lit, that corner's in shadow. Unless she'd been close enough to touch him, I don't think she could have seen his expression, and didn't she say he looked angry?"
"You're right, she did. I thought that was a bit odd, that she'd notice that. Although it's possible she did see him and just projected the emotion onto the memory. But no, I think you may be right. So." He made a note on the paper.
"Our one witness may not be a witness after all. If she's deliberately lying, though, why would she do that? Is it just that she really hates Lord Cassian, or is there someone she's trying to protect?" He fell silent for a while, fiddling with the carbon stick. His hands were already black with carbon, Alyn noticed. The knock on the door that announced their lunch seemed very loud.
It wasn't Bensen who'd brought the food, but there was a little pot of raisins, which made Alyn smile. She locked the door behind the maid and went to sit down by the tray. Miervaldis had already poured water for them both, and had taken bread and cheese, although he hadn't eaten anything. He was staring thoughtfully at the paper he held in his hand.
"I'm still not happy with the idea that this is a plot to frame Lord Cassian," he said eventually. He stood up, dropping the paper on the chair behind him and took a bite from the bread, chewing and speaking at the same time, as though if he stopped talking, he'd lose his train of thought. "If it is, it's a pretty bad one. And we just don't know enough. We have lots of little titbits - that Brenna said she saw him and probably lied, that nobody likes him, or liked Jaquan for that matter, that your pageboy friend is worried about us being here, that Lord Isidor won't say what he was doing that night, but was out somewhere unspecified. There's his argument with his uncle, too. And Jaquan was working on something, but we don't know what... There's a truth somewhere, but I don't know how to uncover it." He looked frustrated, then amused. "It's like a big knot, and somewhere there's a trailing string which, if we pull it, will make the whole thing unravel. What do you think the string is, hmm?"
"I, um..." The summary had made Alyn's head spin. It all seemed very confusing, but the one thing that stuck with her was what Jaquan had been working on. Hesitantly, she said so. "It's just... if the document he was writing wasn't important, why was it gone when we looked there? Maybe it really wasn't to frame Lord Cassian after all."
Miervaldis gave her a thoughtful look, and nodded.
"You are probably right," he said, "although I can't help being curious about Lord Isidor. What on earth could be more important than evading a murder charge? Now, I seem to remember there were a few papers in Jaquan's big pile that were quite crumpled. I don't suppose you noted which ones?"
"No my lord, I'm sorry..."
"Well, perhaps it would be worth checking. I think it's likely that what he was copying will be crumpled, and some of them were more crumpled than others. But finish your lunch first," he added, as Alyn stood up, swallowing hastily. She sat down again, trying not to cough. He poured more water into her glass and held it out for her. "I think I'll come too."
After all the time Alyn had spent running errands, fetching lunches and teas and going to lessons, it felt quite odd to be following her lord around like a page should. A few steps behind and on the alert for his command, said the ancient rulebook that every page was supposed to read. She didn't expect Miervaldis to issue peremptory commands, but she kept to the regulation distance as they made their way towards Lord Cassian's study. It was early in the afternoon, and there were plenty of people about; several stopped and stared quite openly. Alyn supposed they hadn't seen her lord very often. He hadn't been out that much, after all. She scurried to keep up with his long-legged stride, trying her best not to look too undignified.
She still had the key from the time she had been working on the records, so they were able to go straight to the study without needing to consult the Chamberlain, although they did run across him at the east end staircase. He was on his way up the stairs, and stopped when he saw them, looking surprised. Miervaldis passed him with a nod and a greeting; the Chamberlain responded politely, but looking back, Alyn saw him staring after them. Were they upsetting him somehow, she wondered. As Miervaldis neared the bottom of the staircase, a door opened across the corridor, and a slim man stepped out, dressed unobtrusively in dark colours that weren't quite black. Alyn barely noticed him at first, but as he drew nearer, she realised with a shock that it was the dark man who had spoken to her before leaving Fourth Star Court. Miervaldis didn't appear to notice him, and the dark man paid her lord no more courtesy than a deferential head-bob, but as she passed him, he nodded soberly at her. Alyn felt her breath catch; she forced her eyes to look ahead, at her lord's back, but as she hurried after him, she knew the dark man understood she had acknowledged him, however involuntary that had been.
She was still feeling shaken when they reached Lord Cassian's study. Questions beat through her mind; what was he doing here? Had something happened? Was he here to watch over them, or for something completely different? Would he talk to her later, expect her to betray her lord? Was it betrayal, if Miervaldis truly was... but she stopped the thought there, as though putting it into words, however silent, might bring it to truth. Ahead of her, unaware of the turmoil in his page's head, Miervaldis reached Lord Cassian's rooms and stopped.
"You have the key, Alyn?"
"Uh, ah, yes, my lord." She fumbled in her pocket and handed it to him. She felt like her hands should be shaking, but they stayed quite steady, and thankfully, her normally perceptive lord didn't seem to notice her distress. He unlocked the door and strode across to Jaquan's desk, where she'd left the papers in one big pile on the floor. Alyn stayed outside the door for a few seconds more, trying to get her balance; when she felt under control again, she went inside and locked the door behind her. And then she stopped.
"My lord –"
Miervaldis was on his knees by the desk, flipping quickly through the papers that lay scattered around the desk in a heap. He looked up at the alarm in her voice.
"What is it?"
"My lord, the papers have been moved."
"I left them in a big pile by the wall. But they've fallen over... they're all messed up."
He frowned, looking down at the heap. "You're sure? This is a pile, after all, just a somewhat disorganised one."
"Yes, my lord. I'm sure. They were as neat as I could leave them."
"Indeed. Well, we'd better have a hunt through, see if there's anything missing. We can compare what's here with what you catalogued. And see if I can find the paper I remember."
"What paper, my lord?"
"Ah, there was a piece of paper I noticed from before, some sort of administrative order on behalf of a maidservant. It was quite badly crumpled, and I noticed it because it was in a pile of papers that were completely undamaged."
"You mean - someone had tried to hide it there?" Alyn guessed.
"I thought that might be the case, but it could have been chance. And why would someone hide it so badly and not bother to remove it? Surely it would have made more sense to remove it earlier, if it was that important."
"But it's been removed now?"
"I don't know if it's gone or not - we don't know if anything's gone yet, but someone has been looking through this pile for something. Maybe... maybe someone is more worried now."
"That means that it's someone who's keeping up with what we're doing."
Miervaldis gave her a long, thoughtful look.
"Yes," he said eventually. "Although... that could be many people." Alyn supposed that was true. For all she knew, it could be Bensen, or the physicker Evan Hughes. They probably knew as much as anyone else.
"It also means that the papers are important, of course," her lord went on. "You put the catalogue you made somewhere safe, didn't you?"
"Yes," Alyn said. She'd picked up the papers when she had returned from the town that night and stowed them in her case.
"Would you mind fetching them, please?"
"Yes, my lord," Alyn said, and hurried from the room, leaving him to stand guard over the papers. She chose a long, circuitous route back to their rooms in an effort to avoid seeing the dark man, but ran across nobody more frightening than a tired, angry-looking servant wielding a broom to remove spiderwebs from the tall ceilings above the back staircase.
When she returned, Miervaldis had gone to the windows to look out. Alyn brought the catalogue over to the desk, and he jumped at the sound of the chair bumping against wood.
"Are the papers still in order, do you think?"
"They might be, my lord." She looked at the top paper, a grant of leave to a maidservant named Tillia. On her catalogue, in the neatest writing she could muster, she had noted: Grant of leave to maid: 6 weeks, summer of 1304, fourth year after Golden Year. "I think they are."
"Let's see." He sat down opposite her, folding his long legs and wincing slightly. He put Tillia's grant of leave to one side, and took the second paper down. "This is a record of recompense to a steward for... ah, for an unspecified injury." He looked disapproving. "These are all Lord Cassian's records, I believe, since they were being administered by Lord Cassian's scribes. References to 'unspecified injuries' are... indicative." He pursed his lips, and set the document down. "Does that fit the catalogue?"
"Yes, my lord." It said: Recompense steward for injury, spring of 1310, tenth year after Golden Year. They were not in chronological order, of course, having been scattered all over the floor when she had started the catalogue. Miervaldis nodded, and picked up the third one.
They carried on in teamwork for over an hour. Alyn found it both tedious and absorbing by turns; each paper might be the one that had been stolen, and she realised she was waiting for each reading avidly, hoping it wouldn't match her catalogue entry. A few times there were false alarms, where the papers had become mixed up, either by her or by the putative thief, but in each case the missing entry was found to be next in the pile, or a few papers down. The sunlight slanting through the tall windows angled round to light on the diminishing pile as Miervaldis read on, light voice measured and steady reciting page after page. Most were grants of some kind; grants of leave, recompense for injury (and there were a few of the unspecified kind as well as a fair share of falls, horse kicks and illness), contracts of employment and notices of dismissal. Alyn almost missed the important entry; in a kind of trance, she heard her lord say, "contract of employment for Timmis Deasson, coach driver," and she was about to confirm it when her brain caught up with her eyes and she stopped, mouth open. The catalogue entry read: Grant of leave for illness to maidservant, third year before Orchid Year, 1321.
"No, my lord," she said instead, "this says a grant of leave for illness to a maidservant. Ah, the coach driver employment's the next on the list, though." Miervaldis nodded and picked up the next piece of paper, but that was also not a grant made to a maidservant in 1321. The excitement quickened as they went through the remaining pages, each one catalogued in an increasingly untidy hand, none of them a grant made to the right person in the right season of the right year. When they finally reached the end, Miervaldis looked up with a smile.
"So there was something missing," he said, sounding very pleased with himself. "And you've got it written down, so it must have been stolen - well, you finished last night, right? So it could even have been stolen some time today!"
"If I wrote it down right," Alyn said, perversely pessimistic.
"I'm sure you did. What was it again?"
"Grant of leave to maidservant, for illness. I think that means time and maybe money that she needed to recover. And it was in 1321."
"Two years ago. Hmm. It's a shame there's no name."
"No, no, thank you for making the catalogue. Now we know that whatever happened, it must be something to do with what Jaquan was writing, and the grant to the maidservant."
"Could it have been Brenna?"
"I suppose it might have been, but probably not. If I understand it right, Brenna is employed by the Chamberlain on behalf of the court, while the servants in these orders would have been Lord Cassian's, hired personally by him to serve here or in his own court. Unfortunately, that means this would probably have been the only record. However..." he paused, looking thoughtful. "I suspect the servants will know who she was. That's something we can ask Ythilda."
He heaved himself to his feet with a groan; Alyn started to get up and collapsed as her right leg came to tingling, agonising life. She bent over with a groan.
"Are you all right?" He sounded concerned.
"Pins and needles, lord," she gasped through clenched teeth. She felt silly, but it was such a strong feeling it took her breath away. He waited until she managed to get to her feet, and they made their way back through the court as the maidservants ran around lighting the lamps for the onset of evening.
Upon their return to their rooms, Miervaldis sent Alyn out, ostensibly to fetch him dinner but primarily to find Ythilda. Unfortunately, she was nowhere to be seen that evening, and when Alyn finally ran across a maidservant who didn't look hopelessly busy, she was told that today was Ythilda's day off.
"She'll be back tomorrow," the girl said cheerfully, and hefted the bucket she was carrying. Alyn took the point, and stood aside to let the maid past, wondering what to do, other than fetch her lord his dinner. Eventually, she began making her way down towards the kitchen, which was quite a way; in her search for Ythilda she'd ventured into some of the most far-flung corridors of the Court. She realised she was all alone, and that if the dark man came upon her now, she'd have no way to avoid speaking to him. She walked as fast as she could, repressing the desire to run, but had to stop on rounding the corner to avoid bumping into a maid dusting one of the numerous sculptures that decorated Fifth Star Court.
"I'm sorry," she said to the startled girl, then realised it was Brenna. The maid didn't recognise her, of course. She looked disgruntled and then wary, features dark. Impulsively, Alyn decided to try her luck.
"I don't suppose you knew a girl who served Lord Cassian a couple of yours ago, do you? One who had to take leave to recover from something?"
Brenna jumped, and her face darkened further.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Alyn, serving as page to Lord Miervaldis." Far from finding that reassuring, Brenna looked even more tense.
"Why do you want to know?"
Alyn realised too late that she hadn't thought this through at all. She tried improvising.
"We just wanted a list of servants, that's all. People who served him, who know him. We want to talk to them. Do you know her?"
"You been talking to the scribes?"
Alyn blinked; the question seemed out of place.
"You should. Liliya's long gone and away, and a good thing too."
"Never you mind that, it's none o' your business." And she pointedly turned her back on Alyn and went on dusting the statue, although the ferocity of her brushing made the little figurine wobble dangerously. Alyn backed away carefully, and went on her way to the kitchen, wondering what had caused the outburst.
To her delight, she ran into Bensen at the kitchen side entrance. He was standing outside in the relative cool, drinking, and seemed preoccupied.
"Thank you for the raisins," she said on approach, and he jumped.
"I didn't see you there! You're welcome. Come for dinner, have you?"
"What is it you'd like? We have rabbit stew, and a pork joint." Miervaldis had never shown any preference, or at least had never told her what he liked, and had always eaten whatever she brought up.
"One of each, please," she said, thinking that she'd be happy with either.
"You should eat with the others some time, you know," Bensen said, showing no signs of going to fetch the food.
"It'd be... well, more polite, you know." He flushed a little.
"I suppose. Um..."
"What is it?"
"You've been here a while, right?"
"Five years since I apprenticed."
"Did you know Liliya, who served Lord Cassian?"
"Brenna's friend? Only a bit."
"Brenna's friend?" Alyn was startled. She'd assumed Brenna had hated the other girl.
"That's right. They were very close, but Liliya was sent away two, maybe three years ago."
"Do you know why?"
Bensen gave her a long, careful look.
"This to do with... Jaquan?"
"Well, I don't know for sure, but you know what they say about Lord Cassian, right?"
"No," said Alyn, a little annoyed by all the hedging. Bensen raised an eyebrow.
"I suppose you're new here," he allowed. "But you must have seen the way he behaves."
"We only met him once."
"You're lucky. He, well, he has a bad record with servants. Especially female ones." And he nodded significantly to her, then turned to the kitchen. Alyn stared after him, remembering Lord Cassian's remarks about her, and how angry Miervaldis had been. Had Cassian done something to Liliya? Was that why she had been sent away to recover? Was that why Brenna hated him so much? Was that why she was trying to frame him?
Did that mean Brenna was responsible for the murder, though, or was she just taking advantage of it? Frustrated, Alyn hopped from one foot to another, wanting to get back to her lord and tell him what she had learned. Eventually, Bensen returned, sweating from the heat in the kitchen and bearing a laden tray.
"Sorry, I can't help you carry it," he said as she struggled to hold it level. "I'm back on duty now and it's time to serve in the Main Hall."
"That's fine, thank you," said Alyn, leaning back. "I'll manage."
"Tell your lord to come down tomorrow," Bensen called after her as she made her way back down the corridor.
Miervaldis listened thoughtfully as she related Brenna's comments and Bensen's answers. After she had finished, he stared at the dark fireplace for a while.
"It could be that she's simply taking advantage," he said eventually. "It doesn't seem likely that she'd murder another servant just to frame Lord Cassian... and surely if she were that angry she'd have done it two years ago, when Liliya had to leave. If that's the right girl. Or she'd have tried doing something to Lord Cassian directly. But yes, taking advantage of this does seem to fit what we know of her character. Well done, Alyn." He took a long drink of the light ale they'd been given with the food, and grimaced slightly. "We can't assume that's the case, though. She may really have seen Lord Cassian that night. That's the problem; there's nothing definite. Only endless redirections."
He fell silent again, and Alyn, having nothing to say, poured more ale for them both and carried on eating.
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