Chapter 8

The visit to Cathecassa warranted a proper coach with two horses and a driver. Miervaldis went ahead of Alyn to speak to the grooms, and when she finally made it to the stableyard, accompanied by two servants bearing the luggage, the carriage was waiting. It was an gleaming dark blue affair with gold trim and ornate curlicues. The horses harnessed to it were tall, elegant and black all over. The whole outfit looked terribly proper, not what she usually associated with her lord.

The servants put the chests into the carriage compartment and she thanked them and climbed into the coach. Miervaldis was not there, and she made herself comfortable on the pale leather of the seats. It was soft under her hands, almost velvety. This is a normal Fifth Star Court carriage? She shook her head, amazed at the luxury.

"Ah, Alyn," she heard and turned; her lord stood at the coach door, smiling at her. "Thank you for bringing the luggage. My word, what a coach this is!" He clambered in and sat down opposite her. Alyn felt slightly ridiculous in all the space; the coach could easily have seated six. Miervaldis stretched his legs out and grinned.

"We may as well enjoy it," he said cheerfully. "I just asked for a coach. This must be standard here."

"How long will it take to get there, my lord?"

"Several hours or so. It's a good road, but this is hardly built for speed."

"Are you ready, milord?" The coachman poked his head in through the door. He was dressed to match the carriage - better, Alyn thought, than her lord was, in his well-worn waistcoat and scruffy boots. The over-tunic he had brought with him, now slung over the seat beside him, was the reversable one. She shivered at the memory, and the suspicion that had only been fuelled by her brother's letter.

"Ready," said Miervaldis cheerfully, and the coachman bobbed his head.

"We'll be off then," he said, closing the door behind him. Alyn shook her head to banish the thoughts, and settled back to enjoy the ride.

Whether it was the well-kept road, the balanced gait of the horses or the well-sprung suspension of the coach, the journey was smooth and easy. Alyn, intrigued, watched the countryside unfold. Her home in the demesne of Third Star Court was largely moorland, which made for poor crop-farming country. Her father's tenant farmers kept sheep and pigs and the occasional cow; closer to the court there were more crop farms, although still limited to the hardier varieties. Fourth Star Court was in a gentler region, with lush fields producing all sorts of crops and cows grazing the rich grass. Here, where it was warmer still, the most common sight was trees; many different kinds of fruit trees, olive trees and several acres of woodland which she guessed must go towards providing the lovely wooden furniture that graced the rooms of Fifth Star Court. Here and there they passed fields with staked plants in, some of which she recognised as varieties of tomatoes, but most she did not. The peasants working the fields wore bright colours, reds and yellows, and scarves on their heads. They passed the occasional cart, but the road was mostly empty.

Eventually they left the farmlands surrounding Fifth Star Court, the road turning to wind through rolling hills where a few cows grazed. It didn't look like the best land for cows, and indeed there had only been a few goats around the fields they had been travelling through, but this herd looked healthy enough. On the other side of the hills, the land flattened again and the farmlands resumed.

"This is Lord Cassian's land," Miervaldis said from the other side of the carriage. Alyn looked over. He was wearing a slight frown, and watching the land closely. She looked back again, but didn't see anything different. There were the same orchards, the same small, neat houses, the same goats. There weren't any people, though, she realised. Were they afraid of the carriage? Did they guess - wrongly - who was riding in it?

Cathecassa was set back from the road, behind a high wall of ancient trees. There were footmen at the gate but the carriage was expected, and the tall gates swung back almost immediately. The house itself was enormous, a stately, elegant building formed mostly of grey bricks, cast in a warm light by the midday sun. The coachman brought the horses to a skilfull stop in front of the main entrance. Squinting through the sun that shone into her eyes, Alyn made out a woman standing at the door, and someone else behind her. Is that her? Lord Cassian's wife? She scrambled from the carriage behind her lord, still trying to see clearly against the glare.

"Lord Miervaldis," said the woman, stepping forwards into the light. She wore a dove-grey dress cut to fit her perfectly, and her dark hair was carefully arranged in a subtle style that spoke volumes of the skill of the hairdresser. The figure in the background, Alyn saw now, was a butler, dressed elegantly and staying politely several steps behind his lady.

"Lady Ismene. Thank you so much for your kind invitation."

"You're very welcome, my lord," and she smiled. She looked young, Alyn thought, with her smooth skin and her hair untouched by grey. Behind them, the coachman started walking the horses towards the stable entrance at the west wing. The lady gestured to the house, and Alyn followed behind.

Alyn and Miervaldis arrive at Cathecassa

Inside, the decor and furnishings were as elegant as the outside, and entirely complemented the subdued, tasteful dress of Lady Ismene. Alyn got the distinct impression that this house was the Lady's, and Lord Cassian had no say in how it was run or maintained. She wondered if he ever even visited, and if he had willingly given it up to his wife or if there had been a fight. The lady looked demure and quiet, but in her attitude Alyn could guess at strength of will and independence. They had been married long enough to have a child, so if there had been a clash of wills, it must have happened already and be in the past. She remembered Miervaldis saying Lord Cassian preferred to spend most of his time at court, and - given his tastes and attitude - she thought she understood why.

They walked through several halls, on rich carpets and polished wood, past suits of armour polished to brilliance and paintings of, presumably, Lord Cassian's ancestors, arranged to careful effect on the walls. Alyn felt small and scruffy, and just a little ashamed of her lord. But his clothes were his choice, and not her fault. He seemed unabashed, at any rate, looking around and making appreciative murmurs as the lady led them onwards.

The room they were eventually ushered into was relatively small and carpeted in white. Huge windows let in ample light, and also showed a wide view of a fine garden, beautifully maintained. Beside the window, a girl sat reading; at their entrance, she started and looked up.

"Aithne," said Lady Ismene, a slight reproof in her voice. "This is Lord Miervaldis, who has come to visit us." Aithne nodded and came forward. She was a tall girl, with dark hair and eyes and a slim figure. Like the lady, she wore a deceptively simple dress. Was she a cousin, perhaps, or a younger sister come to visit?

"My Lord," the lady went on, turning to face her visitors, "this is Aithne, my daughter."

Alyn jumped; she couldn't help herself. The girl was older than she was, and her mother looked barely any older than Illiana! She hastily revised her perception of Lady Ismene's age. How old had she been when she was married? And to stand up to Lord Cassian - for so she must have done, to have effectively banished him to the Court - she must be formidable. Alyn looked up, tentatively; Lord Miervaldis was bowing to Lady Aithne, and Lady Ismene was watching them both with a polite smile.

"Do come in," she said, "and sit down. And please, my lord, do introduce your page."

So Alyn had no choice but to step forward. She made the obeisance due a hosting Lady as Miervaldis introduced her.

"This is Alyn Vanyasdotter of Third Star Court, who is doing me the honour of serving as my page in her first year."

"Welcome, Alyn," said Lady Ismene. "It must have been quite a year for you so far." She was smiling still, and it seemed genuine. "Please, both of you, have a seat."

Seated on the fine white chairs, Alyn tried to relax, but felt constantly on guard. It was made worse when the butler brought in coffee, olives, tomatoes and goats' cheese, almost all of which were guaranteed to stain white carpets and white chairs. She nibbled on a piece of goats' cheese, enjoying the smoothness and tangy flavour, and listened quietly as her lord made small talk with Lady Ismene. Aithne also listened quietly, not saying anything, but clearly taking it in. The conversation drifted over the magnificent gardens, the lovely house, the farming prospects in Lord Cassian's lands and how things were at Court.

"So, how are the investigations proceeding, my lord?" Ismene asked after a little while. Alyn cringed.

"Investigations, my lady?"

"Come now, we may be some way away from Court, but we know what's going on. You were sent by the Sun Emperor to investigate the crime of which my husband is, ah, unofficially suspected, were you not?"

There was a pause. Alyn hadn't expected such a straightforward accusation. She wondered how gossip spread so fast, but they had been at Fifth Star Court for some time now, she supposed. She sneaked a look at the lady, who was watching Miervaldis with a steady gaze, then at Aithne. To her surprise, Aithne was watching her. Alyn lowered her eyes, avoiding her gaze.

"We are making progress," Miervaldis conceded.

"And you have come to see if we might be involved?"


"Hush, Aithne, Lord Miervaldis is a fair-minded man. He won't mind straight speech, and he won't consider us guilty for it."

"It is a pleasant change in many ways," Miervaldis said, straight-faced, but Alyn recognised well-hidden amusement in his voice.

"I'm glad to hear it. What questions do you have for us?"

"I should like to know what you were doing on the night the murder took place, please. That was the early morning of the fourth day before the first Emperor's birthday."

"Fifth spring star day, we call it here."

"It would be second spring moon day in Fourth Star Court," Miervaldis offered.

"You are further north, I suppose. Well..." she paused. "I don't think there was anything specific. I certainly don't remember any visitors, I'm afraid. You are the first we've had in weeks. With the exception of Lord Isidor, of course, but I think of him more as family." She was looking thoughtful and grave, but appeared honest, although Alyn had the feeling that if this formidable lady wanted to lie, she could do so without turning even one of her perfectly arranged hairs. Alyn looked away, not wanting to be seen staring at her as though waiting for a giveaway expression, although that was what she was doing. She glanced over to Aithne instead, and saw to her surprise that although the girl wore a carefree look on her face, her hands were gripping her cup so tightly that her knuckles were white. The coffee was rippling against the edge of the fine china.

"Aithne," said Lady Ismene, and the girl looked up abruptly.

"Yes, mother?"

"Please go and check that the maids have prepared rooms for Lord Miervaldis and for Alyn."

"Yes mother." Aithne put her cup down, banging it sharply and sloshing the coffee into the saucer, and hurried from the room. Alyn watched her go, wondering if she'd been sent out deliberately. Was something about to be said, or was Lady Ismene concerned that her daughter might give something away? If so, what might it be?

"When did Lord Isidor last visit?"

"Two days ago."

"Did he stay the night?"

"No, he doesn't usually. I believe he's concerned for his mother."

"And when did he visit before then?"

"At least three weeks ago. I'm afraid I don't remember when precisely."

"So you have no alibi for the night of the murder?" Alyn was a bit shocked at her lord's semi-accusation, but Lady Ismene just laughed. It was a pleasant, silvery laugh, not at all insulted.

"I do, my lord. As you can see, we are some way away from the Court. You may speak to any of my servants; they will all confirm that I was not out of sight long enough to travel to the Court and back again on that night or any before or since."

"I see. Thank you for your openness, my lady."

"You're very welcome, my lord." She still sounded entirely sincere, Alyn thought, and her gaze was steady. "I have no desire for my husband to be accused of murder, of course, but I'm afraid I can't help you clear his name."

Miervaldis looked down and there was a long pause before he raised his eyes again.

"I am not here to clear his name," he said quietly. "I am here to find the truth."

"I would also like the truth," the lady replied, "and the truth is that I am not involved, and neither is my daughter."

"I understand."

They returned to small talk after that, and then the lady took them on a walk around the beautiful gardens. She had imported several varieties of flowering plant from Seventh Star Court, the southern-most court, and showed them off with considerable pride. They lifted bright, exotic faces to the light and warmth of the afternoon. Miervaldis seemed fully engaged in the conversation, asking questions which Alyn would never have thought of, but Lady Ismene appeared to think very clever.

Aithne did not reappear until dinner, which was held in a long room walled and floored with rich wood. A chandelier raised multiple light reflections in the highly polished surfaces, and the setting sun shone through the tall windows at the end. Lady Ismene clearly liked to have plenty of light around her. She was seated at the head of the table, with Miervaldis to her right and Aithne to her left. To her immense discomfort, Alyn had a place set for her by her lord. She didn't protest, exactly, because that would have been rude, but she did hang back. Lady Ismene noticed, and smiled at her.

"This isn't a formal dinner, Alyn. Please, consider yourself our guest, and be seated."

Feeling awkward, Alyn sat down, keeping her eyes on the place set for her. The silverware to each side sparkled in the flickering light, glinting red where the sunset caught it. There were four glasses, two of glass and two of delicately cut crystal. There hadn't been that many at the Fifth Star Court banquet! What on earth would she need four glasses for?

The first course was brought in; goats' cheese again, arranged around roasted vegetables with a salty dark sauce on one side. The combination was delicious, although Alyn spent most of her time trying not to get the dark sauce on the fine white tablecloth, and listening to her lord and the lady exchange pleasantries and light conversation. The lady liked her wines, it seemed, and Miervaldis knew something of wine himself, which surprised her. His demesne, in the north of the Fourth Star Court lands, was hardly fit for producing wine.

"I do like the addition of honey," Lady Ismene was saying as the servants came round to remove the plates. "I like the edge it adds to the taste."

"I've never tried that," Miervaldis said in reply. A new plate was set in front of Alyn, with several varieties of fish - all fresh water - and greenery. More of the dark sauce was arranged around the leaves, and there was a lemon slice to the side. She watched Aithne covertly; the girl picked up the lemon and squeezed it over the fish. Cautiously, Alyn tried the same, and squirted her own tunic in the process. She glanced up guiltily, but no-one seemed to have noticed.

The conversation passed on to farming; Lady Ismene's closest farmers kept bees, and their honey was, she said, exquisite. Miervaldis asked after the wax, and they talked about candlemaking. He knew very little, but was keen to find out more; she knew only what the chandlers had told her. They were based in the local town, Discin, which was a mile away, and she visited frequently.

"I normally go on Holy days," Ismene said. "We have a chapel here, of course, but it's so much better to spend one's time in chapel around other people. It seems very... stand-offish to pray and contemplate here, where there is only Aithne to accompany me. All our servants go to Discin for Holy day services, and I find them very hospitable, and the local sage is excellent. Of course, after the service the town is full of people celebrating, and it's very pleasant to walk around."

"You were there for the first Emperor's birthday, then?"

"I was, yes." The servants came in and started removing plates again; Alyn hastily gobbled the last of the trout. It was very tasty, but she'd been listening closely to the conversation and had neglected the fish. It was replaced by tomato soup with a swirl of cream, which she had been expecting - there was a soup spoon in the array of cutlery to her right. Fresh bread accompanied it. How many courses are there going to be?

"You did not accompany your mother?" Miervaldis directed his question to Aithne, who was delicately sipping at the soup. She looked up, slightly shame-faced.

"I did not, my lord."

"My daughter does not appreciate the value of Holy day services," Ismene said a little icily. Alyn shivered.

"I normally go, mother!" Aithne sounded indignant. "It's just - the first Emperor's birthday is such a dull contemplation. Isidor said he wasn't going either-" She cut off hastily and lowered her head to her soup. Lady Ismene's eyes narrowed, although she did not outright glare at her daughter. Alyn, cowering over her own soup, thought that something had been said that was wrong, but what could it have been? She glanced to her left; her lord's eyes were focussed on his meal, his expression mild, apparently not noticing the anger and concern across the table.

"Well," he offered after a pause, "it's not, perhaps, the most engaging contemplation, I would agree."

Apparently he had not noticed the conflict. Alyn knew him better than that, and saw that Lady Ismene was not entirely convinced either. His oblivious facade allowed the conversation to continue along a different path, although Aithne did not participate again. She kept her head down, ate what was put in front of her, and kept quiet.

The meal took six more courses to complete; one sorbet, tangy and refreshing, one of a filled pasta, a dish Alyn had not been familiar with before coming to Fourth Star Court, and two meat dishes, one beef and one pork. There were also two desserts; a frothy concoction made of sugar and egg and decorated with cherries and almonds, and little flaky pastries accompanied by cream and a hot, sweet, minty tea. The pastry layers were interleaved with a sweet, honey-like, nutty filling which Alyn found irresistable. It wasn't like anything she'd ever tasted.

"Do you like the baklava, Alyn?" She looked up and met Lady Ismene's amused gaze. She swallowed.

"Yes, my lady. They're delicious. I've never eaten anything like them before."

"You must take some with you, then, when you go. They're quite a delicacy around here, and they do keep. Perhaps you could take some to your family."

"That would be very kind, my lady," she managed. The possibility that the baklava would survive as far as Third Star Court was pretty remote. They were just too nice.

"I suppose you are quite some way away from both your family court and your court of service, aren't you?"

"Yes, my lady."

"Still, you could share them with friends at Fifth Star Court. Have you made friends there?"

"Yes, my lady." Alyn thought of Pyrrhus, and Bensen. Did Bensen know how to make these? Then, conscious that she was being quite unhelpful in the conversation, she hurried to elaborate. "I've not been there long, of course, but I've made friends with Pyrrhus, who's a page in the same year as me."

There was a splash from across the table as Aithne spilt her mint tea.

"Oh, Aithne," said Lady Ismene reprovingly. It wasn't a big spill; she'd only jogged the little glass, not knocked it over, but there was a spreading stain on the pretty tablecloth. Aithne looked like she was about to cry. "Never mind," her mother went on, more gently. "We're about to leave the table anyway. Why don't you go and tell Felissa what's happened? I'm sure she can sort it out."

Aithne made a miserable noise of agreement and hurried out, head down. Ismene watched her go, then looked back to her guests, her face showing only motherly concern.

"It is a difficult time for her," she said, although Alyn didn't see why. Miervaldis made appropriate noises. The servants came to clean up the plates - Alyn had to fight the desire to hold on to hers so she could lick it clean in private - and they adjourned to the same room they'd sat in before. The sun had set fully, and the large windows were covered by rich curtains, illuminated by another chandelier. Clearly, Lord Cassian had enormous wealth, which went very well with his lady's impeccable taste. Small cups of thick black coffee were brought in, with tiny sugared biscuits. Alyn almost felt like crying; the biscuits looked delicious, but she was so full from the huge meal, even the idea of eating them was uncomfortable. She perched on the edge of her seat, ignoring the coffee which was begging to be spilt on the white furnishings, and watched her lord and the lady.

The conversation remained general, touching lightly on numerous topics, now mostly political ones. The problems with the tenancy laws in the south, the question of how self-governing individual Courts should be, the makeup of the current Advisors to the Sun Court. The Sun Emperor was a young man, Alyn knew, the second son of his father, who had died just six years ago. So far, he had held the reins of power well and his Court was running smoothly, but there was, apparently discontent. She remembered her lord's words; "There'll always be people who disagree, Alyn, even with the will of the gods on earth". She'd never heard two adults discussing the issues of power in the realm so... so frankly. It made her feel a little depressed about it all.

"Of course, people will disagree," Lady Ismene said thoughtfully. "But it has always been the choice of the reigning Emperor."

"The Emperor's younger brother supports the choice," Miervaldis said mildly.

"However, his older brother, the son of the First Empress, does not. That could cause problems."

"I believe the Emperor is dealing with that. Lord Ulrik must respect his father's choice." Lord Ulrik, Alyn knew, was the old Emperor's first son, the only child born to the First Empress. The Second Empress had had two sons and a daughter; the first son had been chosen to succeed his father and now reigned in the Sun Court. The Third Empress had borne two girls. Each Sun Emperor chose his successor, and that choice was considered inviolate, the will of the gods expressed through their voice on earth. Or so she had always thought.

"You've met the Sun Emperor, haven't you, my lord?" Alyn glanced up; Lady Ismene was watching her lord carefully.

"I had that honour, yes."

"What is he like?" She was waiting intently, but Alyn got the distinct impression that she wasn't so interested in the Sun Emperor himself, but in what Miervaldis said about him. It was the same feeling she'd had when Miervaldis had quizzed her in the coach on the way to Fifth Star Court.

"His Holiness, the will of the gods on earth, the Voice of the Divine... he is a remarkable young man," Miervaldis said slowly, putting his coffee down. He was weighing each word, it seemed to Alyn, being very careful in what he said. Lady Ismene watched him like a hawk. "I met him during a visit to the Sun Court," he went on. "I had been asked there by an old friend. I didn't speak to the Emperor for long, of course."

"I see." If she was disappointed by any aspect of the reply, it didn't show. There was a pause, then she led the conversation in a different direction, and they left politics behind. What had she got out of all this, Alyn wondered. Was it what she had wanted to find out?

They slept that night in rooms quite far apart from each other, unusual for a page and her lord, and there was no chance to talk. The bed allotted to Alyn was enormous and soft; she felt like it was going to swallow her whole, but after the huge meal, lying down felt heavenly and she slept well. The morning passed quickly; they set off after a leisurely breakfast and an inconsequential, upbeat conversation with Lady Ismene. Aithne was there, and appeared cheerful, but Alyn noticed she was careful not to say much. The butler brought them a parting gift of a large box of baklava, as promised.

The coach rolled over the miles as smoothly as it had the day before, and there was no conversation. Alyn was very aware of the driver, who sat so close to them and could probably hear everything they said. They reached Fifth Star Court in the early afternoon, and Miervaldis dispatched her to the kitchen to fetch lunch, which they had missed on the journey. Only when the lunch had arrived and the door locked behind the undercook who had brought it did he finally ask her what she had thought about Cathecassa, about the Lady Ismene, and about her nervous daughter.

Alyn swallowed the bread and cheese she'd been eating and put the cherry tomato down.

"I don't know about the lady," she said slowly. "She was watching you very carefully while you were talking about the Sun Emperor. I don't know why, but I don't think it was because she was interested in him."

"Indeed. Well done, yes, I noticed that too. And what of the lady Aithne?"

"She got very nervous over some things," Alyn said. "She jumped when I mentioned Pyrrhus at dinner, and she was very tense when we were talking beforehand - when Lady Ismene mentioned Lord Isidor's name."

"Was she now? I was surprised when her mother asked her to go out that time - I hadn't noticed she was nervous. That's interesting... Did you notice anything else?"

"Only that Lady Ismene got annoyed that Lady Aithne talked about Lord Isidor at dinner, but I don't understand why."

Miervaldis paused to chew a bit of bread, and nodded, swallowing.

"I noticed that. I don't know why, but it would seem there is some connection to Lord Isidor, and to Pyrrhus. I wonder if Kadir is involved somehow..."

He fell silent, musing, and they finished lunch in silence. Alyn wondered if they had got any closer to the truth. And how did this connect to Liliya, or did it?

After lunch, Miervaldis told Alyn to go to her lessons. He wanted, he said, to have a think, and he didn't have anything for her to do. Feeling a bit sulky, she did so. Pyrrhus was absent from the lesson, and she didn't listen to a word Lord Ronoy said, just stared out of the window and juggled suspects in her head.

Lord Kadir might want to frame Lord Cassian because of his father, and Pyrrhus his brother is worried he did it. Pyrrhus likes Lord Isidor who wants money and might be involved politically against the Emperor, and who visits Cathecassa where Lady Aithne jumped at their names. Liliya's paper was taken by someone, but why? She served Lord Cassian and left because she got ill. Brenna, her friend, lied to implicate Lord Cassian - why? Because she hates him, or because she's protecting someone? Who could she be protecting? Why does she hate him so very much?

She sighed. At least they could cross Aethan off the list. It still seemed like a very tangled knot.

Outside, the spring sky darkened with clouds, and rain began to fall as the lesson ended and Lord Ronoy dismissed the pages. Alyn stopped briefly on the ground floor to watch the raindrops patter over the Garden of Seven Streams. The streams were all artificial but for one, the prettiest of all, which wound through the carefully planted trees in a picturesque ramble. A small wooden bridge arched over it in the middle, although the stream was so narrow that the bridge had to be purely aesthetic. The rain drummed on the wood of the bridge and splashed into the streams, natural and artificial alike, making a hypnotic kind of percussion.

She kept to the indoors as she crossed the court, not wanting to get wet. As she came close to their rooms, reaching out to try the handle, she heard voices inside, and stopped.

"No, my lord! I didn't lie! I saw him, I tell you!" It was Brenna's voice, angry but with a shrill hint of fear.

"Brenna, what are you afraid of?" Miervaldis' voice, by contrast, was calm and quiet, unperturbed.

"I'm not afraid! What do you mean? Why, why would I be?"

"Do you know where your brother was eleven nights ago?" There was an indrawn breath from Brenna, then silence. Alyn listened, heart in her mouth, while a tiny voice in her head warned her that listening at her lord's door was going to look horribly suspicious to anyone passing by.

Brenna managed to respond, finally.

"My lord, I, he, he serves as porter. He would have been in court. But not, not anywhere near anything. I mean - " she stopped, her voice broken. It sounded like she was sniffling; Alyn wished she could see, wished she had been there for the start of the conversation.

"He was on the farm," Miervaldis said gently. "I asked the Head Porter. A couple of your father's hired hands got into a fight, and the farm was short-handed. He took those two days off to help with the planting. He was nowhere near Court that night."

Brenna started crying in earnest, although from the noises she was making Alyn guessed she was trying not to.

"Sit down," said her lord. "Have some tea." There was a little noise from the maid and a creak from the chair as she obeyed. "Now," he went on. "Tell me, did you truly see Lord Cassian at his study door that night?"

"No," said Brenna, in a very small voice.

"You were trying to protect your brother?"


"Why did you think he would want to murder Jaquan?"

There was another pause. Alyn bit her lip and glanced round, but the hall remained empty.

"What did Jaquan do to Neirin?"

"Wasn't Jaquan. Wasn't Neirin." Brenna's tone sounded clipped and reluctant, and still somewhat tearful.

"It was Lord Cassian?"

"Yes!" Her voice was loud now, and the response was accompanied by a bang. Angry footsteps hit the floor, but the maid did not make for the door. Alyn looked around again, wondering where she was going to hide when Brenna did finally leave.

"It was my fine lord, indeed, it was. And it wasn't Neirin who he wronged, no, not him. He's not interested in men! You ask his maidservants, you ask them, and then see if you think he should remain where he is! Such a fine lord, the bastard!"

The outburst shocked Alyn, but apparently not Miervaldis; at least, his voice remained calm and even.

"You haven't told Neirin, have you?"

"No! Because I don't want him doing something stupid! That's why, that's why I was so worried..." her voice trailed off, and she sniffed, a horrible snorting sound. Alyn heard a creak as she or Miervaldis sat down.

"Thank you for telling me the truth," he said.

"If he did it," Brenna asked, voice still a little choked but also still angry, "will you say he did?"

"If that's what the balance of the evidence is."

"You better." Her tone was both vengeful and doubting, as though it were inconceivable that Lord Cassian could really be accused of anything. Alyn remembered Miervaldis' words to the chamberlain; They couldn't possibly allow a lord to be accused of murder, now, could they? Lords didn't murder, but what if one did? Lord Cassian, in fact, may already have done so.

Poor Pyrrhus, she thought, distracted, and then heard footsteps making for the door. Quickly, she darted down the corridor and round a corner, down the stairs and into the little garden that was squeezed between two wings of the court. It was still raining, so she pressed against the wall. The apple trees in the garden seemed to reach out, towards the rain, towards the grey sky framed between the tall walls of the court.

She couldn't hear anything of what was happening one floor up and several walls away, so she waited what seemed like an age, then returned. The door was unlocked and her lord was alone, standing by the windows looking at the rainy sky. He looked up as she opened the door.

"Alyn. You're quite late. Did the lesson overrun?"

Alyn locked the door behind her and came through to the main room before answering.

"No, my lord, but when I came back, I heard... heard Brenna, and didn't want to interrupt, so I waited."

"Ah, I see. How much did you hear?"

"I heard her say she didn't see Lord Cassian after all. She was trying to protect her brother?"

"That's right. I wondered if that was the case, so I checked with his overseer, and the boy wasn't even at Court that night. The poor girl was so afraid of what he might say that she hadn't even asked him."

"She seemed very angry at Lord Cassian."

"She did. It would seem he is... not a good lord to serve, as a maidservant. Or even to be around; Brenna has always been on the general Court staff. I'm surprised this has gone on so long."

Alyn didn't ask him to elaborate. She could guess what he meant, and what Brenna had meant, and indeed what Ythilda had meant when she said of Liliya, she was ill. It made her feel cold, and sick, and angry, and a little afraid, for herself.

"So Brenna's lie is nothing, my lord?" she asked eventually.

"It looks that way." He sighed and sat down. "I think we will have to investigate Kadir... although that doesn't account for the paper being moved, and accusing a different lord hardly helps matters. I can't help thinking we're missing something."

"It wasn't Lord Cassian?"

"I can't see any reason for Lord Cassian to kill his scribe, especially not like that. There is Lord Isidor, of course. And the good folk at Cathecassa. There's definitely something going on that would explain all this."

He didn't sound at all frustrated, just intent and curious. Alyn, feeling sad for Brenna and angry at Lord Cassian, was beginning to find the whole affair hanging heavily on her. She sighed.

"Cheer up," Miervaldis said. "It's dinner time. Why don't you go and see what your friend can provide?" is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis