The next morning, Alyn went back to lessons. There was a different lord teaching, a nervous man who spoke in a too-quiet monologue. The lesson was half an hour shorter, and she sensed that was both deliberate and a great relief to the teacher. Nobody showed much surprise at her presence or commented on her absence the day before, and she didn't think the teacher even noticed she was there.
She tailed Pyrrhus out of the hall and smiled innocently at him when he spotted her. He looked nervous and a bit defiant, but when she asked if he was going to the refectory, he didn't try to evade her. They walked down together in silence she hoped was friendly.
The refectory was still mostly empty, thanks to the lesson finishing so early. The counters were unmanned, although there was a bowl of fruit on the near one. Copying Pyrrhus' example, Alyn picked a pear and ate it, leaning against the wall. It was soft and sweet, much sweeter than the pears in Third Star Court. She licked her fingers thoughtfully, and put the stalk on the counter.
The far doors swung open, and several more pages headed in in a hurry, then seeing that there was no-one present to serve food, slowed right down and clustered together. Alyn was just considering how to start a conversation when someone else hurried in behind the gaggle of pages, and made straight for the counter.
"Lord Isidor," she murmured, recognising Lord Cassian's young heir. She felt Pyrrhus twitch. Lord Isidor came over at a half-walk, half-run. He was dressed for the outdoors; leather breeches, a half-coat and long boots. Probably going riding, she guessed. He nodded briefly to her, then smiled cheerfully at Pyrrhus as he reached past them both and grabbed a couple of apples from the bowl.
"Good morning, my lord," said Pyrrhus deferentially, also smiling. Alyn echoed the greeting.
"Morning," said Isidor, pocketing the apples. "I'll see you later, all right?" That was aimed at Pyrrhus, who bobbed his head, still smiling. The young lord headed away again, still moving fast. Watching him made Alyn feel slow and lazy.
"You know him?" she asked Pyrrhus.
"Yes, since I came here. That's Lord Isidor. But you knew his name too."
"We met him yesterday." She felt Pyrrhus tense, realising what the circumstances must have been. "He's Lord Cassian's heir, you know," she went on. "We had to talk to him."
"You don't think he did it?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"He wouldn't say much. He was out, that's all." Alyn realised belatedly that that may have been more information than she ought to impart, but she wanted to get Pyrrhus to talk, and since Isidor had told them nothing, she didn't think that telling someone else the same would matter. "I don't understand why, though," she continued. "I mean, it seems so stupid, in that situation."
Pyrrhus pushed up from the wall with a sudden flare of energy and rounded on her.
"He's not stupid! How can you say that? You've got no idea what's going on, what he has to deal with!" Wide-eyed, Alyn stared at him, inches from her face and transformed with anger. She hadn't expected that reaction.
"It is stupid," she responded, wanting to goad him into saying more, and suspecting that if she let him calm down and answer rationally, he would clam up again. "I mean, come on, he's a murder suspect! What's more important than that?"
Pyrrhus ducked his head, and the anger died abruptly. He mumbled something.
He looked up again, and she saw fear and anger in his eyes.
"Nothing!" he snapped, and then the server banged her ladle on the counter behind them, making both pages jump. Pyrrhus looked at the food, looked back at Alyn, then grabbed another pear and stalked out of the hall. Alyn watched him go, feeling guilty.
She ate her own food alone, then wandered out to hunt for Ythilda, but the maid was nowhere to be seen. Given the size of Fifth Star Court, that wasn't very surprising. Instead, she explored, expanding her mental map of the big court. She became quite engrossed in a set of small, winding passages leading from the second floor of the north tower into several small courtyards, forming an inadvertent maze; so much so that she almost forgot the second lesson. Pyrrhus wasn't there, and she felt a bit relieved, and then guilty for feeling relieved. The quiet lord muttered for another hour, then left as abruptly as he had in the morning, and Alyn filed out with the others, wondering what the lesson was supposed to have been about. She felt as though the day had gone too quickly and she hadn't found anything out, hadn't done anything. Except upset Pyrrhus, of course. Going to lessons didn't seem to be helping much.
When she got back to her room, Miervaldis was examining his clothes, which he had laid out roughly on his big bed. He turned to smile as she approached.
"I was told by your friend the apprentice cook that I should go to dinner in the hall," he said. Alyn was horrified.
"I'm so sorry, my lord! He did say so yesterday but I never thought..."
"I don't mind. There were reasons, but... you'll probably see why I prefer to eat separately. It's not very important, and he is right, you know. It would be polite to go. So I need to choose clothes, and so do you." He looked pointedly at her, and she realised she was wearing the same clothes she'd worn since the first day at Fifth Star Court, and they were a bit the worse for wear. Illiana always used to get angry when I did this at home.
She went to her own room, closing the door behind her, and dug through her chest for some fresh clothes. There was no need for her to put on anything particularly special; clean livery would be adequate. For her lord, it was a different matter, and she was surprised to find herself a little worried that he'd pick something suitable. It wasn't as if there was much choice.
In the end, when she went back out to the main room, he was wearing a dark red linen waistcoat over a puff-sleeved shirt. It was plain, but rich enough to be appropriate. He'd even tied his hair back again, and the little wispy curls that had bobbed around his ears had been ruthlessly yanked out of the way.
"Shall we go?"
"Yes, my lord." She fell in behind him at the appropriate distance, and tailed him to the Great Hall.
She'd been to the Great Hall before, during her travels around the court, and she'd taken the chance to poke her head in the one time it was open, but never got up the courage to step any further. Now, her entrance sanctioned walking behind her lord, she was too busy trying not to walk into people to look around properly. The Great Hall was enormous, big enough for three of Fourth Star Court's Main Hall, and the ceiling was vaulted, each arch individually decorated with animals, flowers, and abstract designs. She walked on black and white tiles, punctuated here and there by small dark green tiles edged with gold. The walls were dark wood carved in swirls that caught the eye, picked out with a beautiful inlaid pattern in pale wood. Tall windows were positioned above head height, and she was sorry it was late for each one bore a different stained glass pattern, and the effect during the day must be stunning. Ahead, past a knot of nobles and attendant pages, she saw long dark tables spread with dark green cloth down the centre. Light flickered from numerous candelabras and glinted from the impressive array of silverware. Freshly cut flowers adorned the tables, positioned around the wide range of food already laid out; fresh bread with butter, cheese, salted fish and cured meat, and of course, bowls of olives.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Pyrrhus, attendant upon a tall lord with a friendly smile and a shock of gold hair. Lord Lysandros, she remembered him saying. Miervaldis walked unhurriedly towards the tables, ignoring the groups of nobles talking together. Several other nobles were already seated; there didn't seem to be any specific order, or if there was, Alyn didn't know it. She worried; did her lord know where to sit? Should she have looked this up? But he appeared entirely unconcerned, moving up between the left hand side table and the wall until a plump lord in an overly loud crimson doublet looked up, beamed, and gestured.
"Lord Miervaldis, am I right? Please, do sit down." Alyn found herself an unobtrusive place by the wall, and waited. She'd never served before, not properly, although she knew what she was supposed to do, and probably more important, what not to do. She looked around. The plump lord's page was an older boy, not from her class. Other than Pyrrhus and two of the younger pages, she didn’t recognise anybody. Lord Cassian was not present, neither were Lord Isidor and Lady Reyhana.
"I'm Ivan Felthugh. It's good to meet you."
"Thank you." Alyn noticed Miervaldis did not give his own first name.
"Ah, Cathal, come and be seated." Alyn looked up and saw Lord Anstable, the friendly teacher of a few days ago. He seated himself opposite Miervaldis and Felthugh, facing her, but paid her no attention. The tables were filling up now, as lords and ladies left their conversations and drifted to their seats. To Alyn's left, at the top of the hall, she could see the head table, where the Lord of Fifth Star Court and his invited friends were sitting. To her surprise, she saw the quiet teacher there. While still subdued, he seemed much happier than when he had been teaching.
A gong rang; she jumped, and looked back to her right, to the doors. The Chamberlain was standing by it, along with the First Sage, who raised his arms as silence fell.
"The gods grant us nourishment, the gods grant us pleasure of conversation and of food. All praise to the gods!"
"All praise," said the assembled company in ragged chorus. Alyn joined in dutifully, feeling, as she always did, that it was a bit unfair not to thank the cooks who after all had laboured over the gods' bounty to make it into the feast it now was. The lords and ladies started helping themselves to the appetisers as the servers came into the hall bearing trays of soup, and small pastries which she later learned were cheese and sparrow pies. Although she knew the forms and her duties, it hadn't occurred to her until now that of course she wouldn't be eating.
Her stomach rumbled quietly, and she watched the food go by.
It wasn't as bad as all that, in the end. She copied the older boy, Lord Felthugh's page, who sneaked food from the servers as they came by on their way back to the kitchen. They were obviously used to this, holding the trays with appropriate food on low so the smaller pages could get to them. There was no chance to have soup, or the roast venison that smelled so good, or the stuffed partridges, but she managed a couple of tiny pies, a slice of peppered ham, and a chunk of bread that had found its way onto a tray of empty soup bowls. It kept her going, even as she mourned the delicious scents that were unavailable. However the food, tantalising as it was, turned out to be a distraction from what she could hear. Standing behind her lord, she could actually make out relatively little of what he said, but what the others said, in particular the jovial Lord Anstable and the loud-voiced Lord Felthugh, proved interesting. She also heard murmurs from the other tables in the infrequent pauses, and some of those proved more interesting still.
"... not here again. Just like last night."
"He's a young man, Minica. He's probably out on the town."
"Ah, poor Reyhana...." The name made Alyn prick up her ears. Did they mean Lord Isidor? Was he often out, then? But she caught no more of that because at that point Lord Felthugh plunked his mug down and addressed Miervaldis.
"So, my dear man, do tell me everything! I want to know all the details." Alyn winced, and saw people all around turning to look at her lord, some surreptitiously, some with open curiosity.
"... sent by the Sun Court, you know..." She looked round, but couldn't see who had murmured the phrase. Miervaldis cleared his throat.
"What can I say?" he said lightly. "What roles do you have marked out for me?" There was a general titter, and Lord Anstable leant forward.
"Come now, man, we know whose coach brought you here."
"Well, then, I came to visit this gracious Court at the behest of the Sun Emperor, that's true. But he gave me no orders, no instructions." There were more mutters, more murmuring.
"... in the Moon Court, they have a name for him..."
".... the Emperor's hound?"
"You're investigating quite thoroughly for someone who's not been ordered to." This carping comment came from an elegantly-dressed man; Alyn recognised him as Lord Ronoy, her first teacher, wearing an unpleasant smile. She must have missed him before. Miervaldis declined to comment, just sipped his water and smiled. Alyn noticed he had not touched the ale or the wine.
"What will you do when you find out who did it?" That came from a younger lady, eyes alight with curiosity and some malice, although not, Alyn thought, directed at her lord.
"My lady, it's not my job to capture criminals. It's not my duty to pronounce judgement; sadly, justice is not within my remit. That all belongs to the Emperor. I am here only as an interested observer, an outsider. I will be telling the Emperor what I learn, should he ask. I won't be doing anything else."
There was a general turning away at that, and some muttering. Alyn couldn't tell if any of them believed his words, or if they didn't want to hear more, or if they just lost interest. Miervaldis breathed a little easier, although Lords Felthugh and Anstable hadn't finished with him. Each had his own theory, both highly improbable to Alyn's mind. She did notice, though, that while he discussed their suggestions, voice grave and betraying no amusement or exasperation, he looked a lot more relaxed than he had during the earlier interrogation. She concentrated on other conversations as best she could, although Felthugh's loud voice kept putting her off.
"I don't believe it. They just don't want Cassian..."
"Nasty little man."
"... still, I don't approve, Evardo!"
"... one of the others. That's who did it. One of the other scribes." Alyn wondered how likely that was.
"He wasn't liked, for sure."
"Talk to Aethan about that! He's overjoyed...."
She only had to serve her lord once; he made the gesture and she slipped forwards and bowed.
"Water, please," he said, and handed her a jug, which was a breach of etiquette but no-one seemed to mind. She bobbed again and set off in search of a servitor, who filled the jug for her and sneaked her a bit of crumbed pork on the side. As she placed the jug in front of her lord, with some difficulty because it was heavy and unwieldy, she wondered what she'd missed hearing. The conversations from before nagged at her mind. Who was Aethan, and why would he be overjoyed, and at what? Or was she just grasping at straws?
Eventually the servers cleared up the last dishes, and people began to leave. Those at the top table, served first, had long gone. Miervaldis was also among the first to go, and she fell in behind him gratefully as he strode the length of the hall. A few whispers trailed them out.
"... his page?"
"... still don't like it..."
After all that, the corridor was blessedly quiet. Miervaldis stopped by the turn to the kitchens.
"You should go and get some food," he said. "Bring it back to the room."
"Oh - thank you!" Alyn was surprised. She hadn't expected him to be so thoughtful. He turned away and she hurried down to the kitchen, which was still emitting those lovely scents that had tantalised her during the meal.
Back at the room, the door was locked, so she knocked, balancing her tray on one arm. As Miervaldis opened the door for her, she noticed he'd shoved his carbon stick into his pocket again and mentally cringed at the damage to the rich red waistcoat. The heavy book that he'd been reading in the carriage lay on the little table in the main room; she put the tray down beside it.
"So what did you make of all that?"
"There were a lot of questions. Very open ones." He frowned, not at her.
"Yes, there were. And plenty of speculation. Did you hear anything specific?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. Except - someone said something about it being one of the other scribes, and then somebody else said Jaquan had not been well-liked - at least, I think it was all the same conversation. Someone else said that Aethan was overjoyed. I didn't hear anything else, I'm sorry." She thought it was better to keep the 'Emperor's hound" comment to herself.
"That's quite vague - well, perhaps we can find this Aethan. You never know." Alyn took a bite of the roast venison - only warm now, but still delicious, and chewed, and remembered the afternoon meal. She swallowed.
"Oh yes, and something happened at lunchtime with Lord Isidor and Pyrrhus."
"Your friend the page, yes. Go on."
"We were in the refectory, and Lord Isidor came in. He smiled and chatted a bit to Pyrrhus, and when he'd gone, Pyrrhus asked me if I knew him, so I said we spoke to him yesterday. Pyrrhus said was he a suspect, and I said we didn't know, that he wouldn't say anything."
Miervaldis turned on his heel and walked over to the window. Confused, Alyn stared after him, her story broken in the middle. He waved a hand at her, which she interpreted as permission to go on.
"Um, well, it was just that he got really angry. I said it was stupid, not defending himself, and he said I had no idea of what's going on. I just thought it was odd..." she tailed off. Miervaldis was still standing with his back to her, and he looked tense. After a long pause, he turned round, wearing an odd expression on his face.
"Alyn. Please don't talk about our enquiries any more than you have to." The mild rebuke stung, much more than she thought it should have.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't think it mattered if Pyrrhus knew Lord Isidor didn't say anything..."
Miervaldis looked away and sighed.
"It's not necessarily Pyrrhus knowing that Lord Isidor didn't tell us anything. It's people knowing that Lord Isidor isn't claiming an alibi. It's other people knowing that we have no leads at the moment. It's other people finding out how we're working, what we're working on."
"But I only told Pyrrhus," she protested weakly.
"And anyone else in earshot. You were in the refectory, right? Weren't there people around you?" Alyn said nothing, remembering the server banging her ladle. She'd certainly been close enough to hear, if she'd been there for the conversation. Miervaldis continued, "It's also people Pyrrhus might talk to. His lord. His friends. Information travels very fast, and somewhere in this court there's someone who committed murder, and who's trying to hide what they've done and why. That person will be desperate to know what's going on, how much we’ve discovered. I don't want them handed a helpful scapegoat."
"I'm sorry," Alyn said again, miserably. She hadn't thought about all that, hadn't realised how gossip about what she had said and done had had such potential for spreading and complicating everything. Miervaldis walked past her to the chair and sat down.
"Get some sleep," he said. "Tomorrow will be another day."
Alyn obeyed, not looking at him.
She woke to the soft touch of light through the curtains, and for a minute she stretched in peace before memory returned of what she'd done wrong the day before. She curled in on herself, miserable again. Outside she heard the gentle thud of the heavy breakfast tray being laid on the table, and the clink of glasses as the maid poured water for them both. Then she heard her lord's footsteps as he walked the maid to the door and turned the key in the lock after her. She shut her eyes and pushed her head into the pillow, wanting to return to the place where it didn't matter.
She tried to ignore the voice, and the gentle tapping at the door, but when he called again it felt worse to refuse to reply. Wishing she was genuinely asleep, she called back:
"Yes, my lord?"
"Breakfast is here. I want to talk to the scribes again, and I'd like you to come with me."
"Yes, my lord." She got up and dressed, resolving to keep her mouth shut from now on. It would be safer that way.
The scribes had resumed their work in a new room, the Chamberlain informed them. Lord Cassian had protested most strongly against the locking of his study, but when that had not regained his room for him, he had reluctantly agreed to let them work elsewhere. Alyn remembered the empty desks in the study when she had gone to make the catalogue; the move must have been shortly after the murder. Lord Cassian was clearly a hard taskmaster.
The room was halfway across the court from Lord Cassian's other rooms, and although Alyn decided it had to be her imagination, she did think the scribes looked happier and more relaxed, although the atmosphere remained one of hard work and intense concentration. The scribes looked up when they entered, and did not seem as nervous and jumpy as they had when they were last questioned.
"My apologies for interrupting your working day," Miervaldis said. The scribe nearest the door shook his head.
"It's no problem, my lord," he said. He'd been the one to speak at the funeral, Alyn remembered. He seemed to act as a spokesperson; the other scribes nodded in agreement with his words.
"Might I ask a few more questions?"
"Thank you. First, how are your duties divided up? Do you all share out the work, or do you have specific remits?"
"It's a mix, my lord. I work on the financial records of the estate, mainly, and Gryce works on the administration of Lord Cassian's affairs, for example. But we all share work as well, particularly the urgent work."
"And what about Jaquan? What were his duties?"
"Jaquan worked on the employment records, both for Lord Cassian's servants here and those at his estate. Roydon will be taking that on, when we get the records." The furthest scribe, who had black hair and a squint, ducked his head in agreement.
"I see. So you wouldn't be familiar with the servants' records?"
"Well, no, my lord. I'm sorry. If you have a specific query, it's possible one of us may be able to help, though."
Miervaldis nodded thoughtfully.
"Do you have much to do with Lord Cassian's servants here?"
"We see them regularly, although they don't usually talk much. Obviously now we see them much less."
"Did you know any servants who left about two years ago?"
The main scribe shook his head dubiously, but the other one, whose name was Gryce, Alyn thought, piped up.
"I think I remember one, my lord. A girl, one of the maids."
"Do you remember her name?"
"No, my lord. I never knew her well. She was only here a short time."
"Do you know why she left?"
"I don't, my lord. I'm sorry." But Alyn thought Gryce looked a bit shifty, as though that last was a lie.
"Is there a high rate of turnover in Lord Cassian's employment?"
"No, my lord. Well, not overly high." Alyn thought that was a lie too, judging from the way all three scribes suddenly found their pens of extreme interest and from the sheer number of employment and dismissal notices she remembered cataloguing.
"How are servants recruited?"
"We have a lot of people applying for employment at the court, my lord."
"Lord Cassian chooses from among them?"
"He does, as do the other lords."
"I see. And are the records copied anywhere?"
"No, my lord. There's just the one copy, but they're well looked after."
"Thank you for your time," he said formally. "I won't take up any more." Alyn followed him out of the door, thinking over what had been said, and what hadn't. She didn't pay any attention to their route, so when he came to a stop by a small door in a relatively unadorned corridor, she didn't realise at first where she was. He knocked, and a maid came to answer the door.
"Yes, my lord?"
"Is Ythilda here?"
"She is, my lord." The maid retreated into what Alyn realised must be the housekeeper's headquarters. A moment later Ythilda came out.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you again. I wanted to ask if you knew a girl called Liliya, who served Lord Cassian?"
"I did, my lord." Ythilda had a funny expression on her face.
"Did you know her well? Do you know her surname?"
"No, my lord, I don't remember. I knew her to talk to, but not well."
"The choice of employment is up to the lords, is that right?"
"It is, my lord. The Court employs many of those not specifically chosen." She smoothed her skirt; Alyn realised that included her. Was it considered a less good choice?
"Was Liliya happy working for Lord Cassian?"
Ythilda hesitated, then looked aside.
"She was not. She didn't want to work for him, right from the start."
"From the start?"
"She was very upset when he chose her, my lord. She kept saying it wasn't supposed to be him."
"What did she mean by that?"
"She never explained. I didn't speak to her much, like I said."
"How long did she serve?"
"Almost six months."
"Is that normal, that short a term of service?"
"No, my lord, not at all. Not even for him."
Miervaldis paused for a moment, and glanced up and down the corridor.
"This is possibly a personal question, Ythilda, but do you know why Liliya left?"
"She was ill, my lord." The maid's face, normally expressive and mobile, was quite blank. Alyn got the distinct impression that 'ill' for servants had a similar meaning to 'falling down stairs' for pages.
"You don't know anything about the illness?"
"No, my lord."
"Or where she went to recover?"
"No, my lord."
"Did she recover?"
"I don't know, my lord." Still the same carefully neutral expression. Miervaldis sighed, just audibly.
"Thank you, Ythilda."
"My lord." The girl bobbed a curtsey and retreated, closing the door behind her. He stared at it for a minute, then turned away. Alyn trotted along in his wake, judging from the way he walked that he was annoyed. Something had happened to Liliya, and from the questions she guessed he thought it was Lord Cassian's fault. Remembering what the unpleasant lord had said of her, Alyn repressed a shiver. She didn't blame Liliya one bit for not wanting to serve such a man. She must have heard about him from the other servants, the poor girl.
When they reached the room, it was too late for Alyn to go to lessons and too early for lunch. Miervaldis seated himself with his book and carbon stick, but made no notes, looking out of the window thoughtfully instead. Alyn tried to read the book she'd started a few days ago but didn't get anywhere with it. She had no idea what they were going to do, no idea who might have done the murder, no idea why it had been done. There was only the missing document, which seemed to be a very fragile thread to hang a theory on. Across from her, Miervaldis sighed and shut the book.
"Do you fancy a visit to Ellmore?"
"I think a change of scene would be good. It might help us think a bit more clearly. We can borrow a coach from the court stables and see the town, and have lunch there. You'd better change, though. Wear something that's not, ah, something that doesn't make you look like a page."
"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently and stood up, putting the book down. He watched her for a second, then turned to the door, a funny expression on his face.
The stablehands were happy to prepare a coach for her lord, although a bit disconcerted that he'd just turned up without sending his page on so they could have it ready for him. They didn't raise any eyebrows at her casual clothes. Miervaldis stood cheerfully by the stable block and chatted to one of the grooms not harnessing the chosen mare to the little carriage. A bay horse stuck his head out of the stall and nosed the groom in the back; he moved over to rub the smooth neck. Miervaldis stroked the long nose, and the horse drooled on him happily. Watching her lord, Alyn noticed that Isidor's chestnut was not in his stall. Was he out again? Or just in a different stall? The question was answered a moment later as the same bright chestnut came trotting into the stableyard, tossing his head and jinking sideways in pretend alarm at the carriage. The mare in the traces barely reacted, just flicked an ear at the showy antics. Lord Isidor swung down and caught the reins as his horse danced away. The groom who'd been talking to Miervaldis excused himself and came forwards.
"Shall I take him, Lord Isidor?"
"No, I'll do him, but thanks."
The groom retired, bobbing his head. Alyn got the distinct impression that it was quite normal for the young lord to look after his own horse, and remembered the groom saying before that Lord Isidor normally got his own mount ready. The chestnut sidled and played as he was led to his stall.
"Needs more exercise," said the groom. Isidor smiled over his shoulder.
"I'll take him to Cathecassa later, don't worry. He won't be kicking the door down in the middle of the night again." He led the horse inside and shut the door; a minute later there was a clang and a splash, and the groom winced.
"That was the bucket," he said. Miervaldis laughed.
"A spirited animal," he observed.
"Yes, my lord, the best in the stables, I reckon. Knows his horses, Lord Isidor does."
"Where does he normally take the horse? Cathecassa, was it?"
"Lord Cassian's holdings, my lord. Goes to visit the lady and her daughter. It's about ten miles away, so not too far, although a fair journey there and back."
“He goes often?”
“I don’t know, my lord. Once a week or so, maybe. He don’t always say.”
"He doesn't stay overnight?"
"He might do, my lord. I don't know."
Miervaldis fell silent. Bangs came from the chestnut's stall, coupled with a string of murmured endearments occasionally punctuated by curses. Isidor was clearly fond of his horse.
"Ready, my lord! Sorry for the wait."
Alyn followed Miervaldis to the carriage, but it was very small. The groom frowned at them.
"My lord, do you need a driver?"
"My page will drive," said Miervaldis cheerfully. Alyn stared at him in surprise. She had driven carts before, but never something like this and anyway, how could he know she'd done it? He winked at her, and gestured her to the driver's position; she climbed up and perched on the small seat. The groom handed her the reins and a long whip with a barely concealed look of disapproval.
"This is Cinnamon," he said. "She's a good mare, won't pull too hard and is obedient. You look after her, all right?"
"Yes sir," Alyn said, feeling cowed. Then, on impulse, she handed the reins back to him, scrambled down and went to the horse's head. The groom holding the mare's reins watched her as she stroked Cinnamon's nose and patted her neck. Feeling a little better, she went back to the driver's seat and clambered back up again. The other groom handed her the reins and whip with, she thought, a little more approval. The grooms stepped back, she gathered the reins in, and touched the whip to the mare's back. Cinnamon flicked her head up and stepped forward, pulling smoothly, and the carriage rumbled along after. They were already going in the right direction, so Alyn let the mare walk forwards through the archway and out of the court.
The road she remembered walking down in the late afternoon was a lot easier in a carriage. Like the road from Fourth Star Court, it was lined with tall, gracious trees, and the dappled sunlight made pretty patterns on the mare's back. After a few minutes, Miervaldis coughed.
"My apologies for jumping that on you," he said. "I didn't want a stranger along."
"What would you have done if I hadn't known how to drive?" Alyn asked, forgetting she had decided not to say anything unless directly asked.
"I can drive," he said. "And I thought you had the necessary intelligence to at least get us out of the court before I took the reins." Alyn blinked at the casual compliment.
"Would you like to drive, my lord? I mean, I have driven carts, but this is quite different..."
"I'd be happy to." The mare plodded onwards at a gentle pace. She flicked her ears as Miervaldis came forwards, altering the balance of the little carriage. He took the reins and Alyn retired to sit at the back as he encouraged the mare and the carriage sped up a little, swaying slightly at the increased pace. He held the mare to a trot, and she seemed quite happy to maintain that all the way to the town.
Just before Ellmore, Miervaldis relinquished the reins to Alyn again and Cinnamon immediately slowed down. She'd obviously worked out what she could get away with. Alyn guided her to the nearest horseyard, which appeared to be attached to a tavern; a groom came out and she gave him a coin from Miervaldis to pay for the mare's care until they returned. Her lord looked more cheerful by the minute as they walked into town, moving casually through the crowds. He didn't give the appearance of aiming for anywhere, but as they approached a market square Alyn got the distinct impression it was where he'd wanted to go.
"This looks good," he observed as they neared a stand selling sausages and rolls. "Will you buy one for me, and for yourself as well, of course."
"Yes, my lord," she said obediently, took the money and went to the stall. Waiting in the queue, she looked over her shoulder and saw that he blended in quite well - clearly a rich man, but not obviously noble. Had he planned that, or did he usually dress down? She hadn't thought the clothes anything unusual before. Well, not unusual for him, anyway. The queue moved forwards and she reached the front. The stall was quite large; at the back there was a bank of glowing coals with sausages on spits and also a joint. Nearer the front was an array of bread which one of the men was cutting into rough slabs. A board at the side held cheeses.
"What would you like?"
"Oh - two sausages and bread, please." The man turned and repeated the order to his colleague, although she hadn't spoken quietly.
"Anything to drink?"
"Yes please. Um, what do you have?"
"Water and ale."
"Then... one of each, please." He nodded and held out his hand, and she gave him the coins. The scent of the sausages made her stomach rumble, even though it could hardly be noon. The other man stopped carving bread and reached for one of the spits holding sausages.
"I think you have the wrong person," she heard from behind her. It was Miervaldis' voice, deliberately pitched loud. She turned, and saw him facing a short man with a shock of dark hair. The man had his back to her, so she couldn't see his face, but he didn't look familiar from behind. The man at the stall tapped her on the shoulder; she turned back to him and he presented her with two sausages wrapped in buns. Two earthenware mugs stood on the counter.
"Ah - " she started, unsure of what to do; even without the quarrel, she couldn't carry everything.
"You leave my sister out of this, you hear?"
"I have no idea who you are, nor who your sister is. Please leave." Miervaldis' voice was icy cold, and it made Alyn shiver. The crowds gathering around the impending fight shied back, and the man facing her lord shook his head like a dog shaking off water. Then a voice came from the crowd.
"Neirin, you have the wrong person." A small girl wriggled through the throng and jumped out to stand in front of the black-haired man. She put her hands on her hips and scowled up at him. "Don't be stupid. What would a lord be coming down here for?"
"Looks like him," Neirin muttered. To one side, Miervaldis visibly rolled his eyes and shrugged theatrically; a smatter of laughter trickled across the crowd. It disarmed the situation, and when the girl took Neirin's hand and tugged, he followed her away, casting a black look over his shoulder.
"You with him?" the stallholder asked. Alyn jumped.
"Oh, uh, yes. We're visiting for the day."
"Sorry about that. Neirin's very protective of his sisters, you see. Takes anything as an insult." Alyn smiled and nodded, and gathered the bread-and-sausages, not understanding how her lord could have offered insult to Neirin's sister.
"Here," she said, leaving off the salutation. Miervaldis smiled at her and took the food while she fetched the drinks; they found a place to sit by the fountain that stood in the centre of the court. For a while they just ate, not wanting to let the food get cold.
"Ah!" Miervaldis said suddenly.
"My - I mean, sorry, what is it?" Alyn swallowed the last of her sausage.
"I thought I recognised him. He's one of the porters at the Court."
"Really?" Alyn hadn't noticed him at all.
"Yes. So it's not surprising he knows what I look like. And did you see, that little girl who pulled him away?"
"She looked a lot like Brenna. I wonder, what insult have I offered his sister?" He chewed thoughtfully, but Alyn had nothing to suggest. She finished her drink and kicked the stones, wondering how it all fitted in.
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