Chapter 9

Miervaldis was quiet over dinner, which was served by Bensen who cast several inquiring glances Alyn's way. The interest was not missed, however. After eating, he pushed the plates aside and said without preamble:

"If you can talk to Bensen tomorrow, that would be good."

"My lord?"

"We're missing too much information. There's a lot going on that we can't see, and I can't even tell if it's relevant or not. Lady Ismene and her daughter were... intriguing. Please can you ask Bensen about the duel where Lord Idony died, and if anything's known about the children - you may as well ask how Pyrrhus ended up here. That should never have happened, and it's something you could be expected to know."

"Yes, my lord," Alyn said obediently. She wondered how easy it would be to start that kind of conversation. Surely Bensen would know she was fishing?

"In the meantime, I want to talk to Lord Cassian again, and also to Lord Isidor. Preferably without his mother present. Whatever he's hiding, I think it's linked to Cathecassa."


"Yes. It's not just Lady Aithne's reaction to his name. It's what she said about the Holy day."

"The Holy day?" Alyn thought back through the conversation as she remembered it. "Lady Aithne had said something about Lord Isidor finding it boring..."

"It's not very conclusive," Miervaldis said, "but it did strike me as unusual. Lady Aithne said she'd talked with Isidor about going to the First Emperor's birthday, and the way she spoke, it sounded to me like she was talking about this particular service, this year - the one just a week ago. But her mother said that he had not visited for some time before the First Emperor's birthday, so why would it have come up? It's probably nothing, but... well, I found it interesting. And the grooms did say he went to Cathecassa at least weekly. That doesn't fit with what Lady Ismene said either."

Alyn thought that was very tenuous, but she had to admit that there was something going on involving Lord Isidor and Cathecassa, even if Lady Ismene wasn't trying to cover up a visit.

"Are you going to ask about the money, my lord?" she asked, remembering what Bensen had said.

"I think that would be a good plan, yes. But only if his mother isn't present. She controls the conversation too well." He stretched back in his chair and yawned. "But that's for tomorrow, and we'll see how it goes when we get to it. It's been a long day. Go to bed."

To her annoyance, Alyn did not get out of the first lesson the next morning. Miervaldis said he wanted to preserve normality, and she'd be most likely to meet Bensen if she ate at the refectory as she had before. She took herself off to the lesson in a bad mood, but to her relief, it was jovial Lord Anstable teaching that morning. For all that, she still found it hard to concentrate. Were they nearer reaching a conclusion? They had eliminated suspects from the list, but she didn't like the people who were left. Rather, she didn't like the idea that any of them might be involved, except for Lord Cassian himself, of course. She hoped it was him, and that they found proof. But if it was Lord Isidor, or, worse, Pyrrhus' brother... she glanced over to where Pyrrhus sat, and he met her gaze and smiled slightly. Knowing what might be in store for his brother made her feel like a traitor, and she looked away hurriedly. At the end of the lesson, it was her turn to avoid him, hurrying down to the refectory to try and fulfil her commands.

That, thankfully, proved surprisingly easy. Bensen spotted her in the queue, and came out to join her shortly after she started eating.

"So what happened at Cathecassa?" he asked as he sat down, eyes alight with curiosity. "Everyone's talking about it, that you went. Well, that your lord did. You did go with him, didn't you?"

"Of course," Alyn said indignantly.

"Did you meet the lady? What's she like?"

"Yes, of course we did. She was very elegant, very polite. Why, hasn't she been to Court?"

"Not hardly, no." He took a bite of bread and chewed it while speaking. "They got married here, see, and then she went to the estate. He went too, but he came back three days later and since then they're never here together. He sometimes goes away, but... well, we all thought she had to be some kind of harpy, to keep Cassian away." Alyn didn't miss the casual disrespect implied in the lack of Lord Cassian's title. She shrugged.

"I think she is very strong," she said carefully. "But she was nice to us. It's a lovely house."

"It would be." There was a silence, and Alyn wondered how to get onto what her lord had asked about.

"You said Lord Cassian killed a man," she ventured. "Was that in a duel?"

"It was," Bensen said, showing no surprise at the change of topic. Heartened, Alyn continued.

"What happened? Who was it?"

"I don't know what the real reason was, but Cassian claimed this lord from Eighth Star Court insulted him and claimed satisfaction. There was a duel, oh, this was about five years ago or so. He killed him, straight off."

"Is he a good duellist?"

"I suppose. Or he cheated."

"You don't know who the man was?"

Bensen looked thoughtfully at his apple, held poised before his mouth.

"Berinhard," he said eventually. "And oh, you know how I know? Because your friend Pyrrhus is his son!" This last was said as though it was a great revelation; Alyn struggled to act as though surprised.

"Really? But - how come he's here, then? What happened?"

"Oh, at the time it was all a great fuss. There were two boys, you see, Pyrrhus and his older brother, who was friends with Lord Isidor."


"Yes, they were pages together. Well of course they couldn't be after that, could they? So Lord Isidor had to finish his service early, and he was furious with his uncle, and swore he would avenge his friend's father's death. We all heard him, the day he arrived back here, cursing and shouting at Cassian's door."

"Door?" Alyn mentally kicked herself for echoing, but Bensen didn't seem to notice.

"He wouldn't come out," he said briefly, and bit into the hitherto-ignored apple. After chewing, he went on. "Anyway, I think the brothers were adopted by their uncle or something, in the same court, but all the fuss died down. Then poor Pyrrhus got sent to serve here, and I don't think people realised at first, but now it's being talked about. What with the murder and all." He gave Alyn a long, thoughtful look, as though he realised she was probing.

"If Lord Isidor had to finish his service early, what about Pyrrhus' brother?" she asked, remembering in the nick of time not to use Kadir's name. Bensen shrugged.

"No idea," he said offhandedly. "I expect he had to finish early too. He's probably at Eighth Star Court now. He'll be Lord Berinhard now, after all."

Alyn stared at her plate. She couldn't see Pyrrhus as a murderer, but they knew nothing of Kadir. Was he like his brother?

"You think he did it?" Bensen echoed her thoughts.

"I don't know," she said, and sighed. It didn't take much effort to make it sound defeated.

"I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for Jaquan," Bensen remarked.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, he was a real stinker. But to be killed just to get revenge on the lord he served... seems a bit cold, to me. It could have been any of the scribes."

Alyn returned to the rooms after lunch feeling full of information. She unburdened it all to Miervaldis, and he listened, nodding thoughtfully.

"So Kadir and Isidor were friends as pages," he said finally. "That's very interesting. I wonder. Well, we'll be seeing Lord Isidor this afternoon - yes, that's right, you don't have to go to the second lesson today." Alyn grinned, and hurried off to wash and get ready.

They saw Lord Isidor in his chambers, since his mother was visiting a friend that day, something which Alyn realised must have been checked by Miervaldis before he made the appointment. He was welcomed in with careful courtesy and offered tea, served by a maid who then left them in private. Alyn, as befitted a page, stood attendance on her lord.

Miervaldis talks to Lord Isidor

"So, how may I help you?" Isidor said finally, after they had chatted about the weather, the tea, and horse breeding, something Alyn had not realised her lord knew so much about.

"We visited Cathecassa a couple of days ago," Miervaldis said. "Lady Ismene was very welcoming. I understand you visit there often?"

Alyn, watching Isidor from the side, wondered if he had tensed at the mention of the house or the lady. She thought he had, but couldn't be sure.

"I do, yes," the young lord said smoothly. "I like to visit my aunt and cousin, and the ride is a pleasant one."

"When were you last there?"

"A few days ago. Maybe a week."

"And before then?"

He reached down to pick up a cake. Was it a delaying tactic, Alyn wondered. His voice was still calm when he replied.

"Oh, a month or so. I don't go all that often." And that, she thought, had to be a lie. At least, unless he lied to the grooms about where he took his horse. Once a week, she remembered them saying.

"I understand you were friends with Lord Kadir Berinhard as pages?" Now Isidor did flinch, as though he hadn't expected that.

"I was," he said steadily. "We haven't communicated for some time, but we parted on good terms. Despite... despite what happened."

"And you know his brother is here as a page?"

"Of course I do. He's a good boy, Pyrrhus. I was sorry he had to come here, but he's serving a good lord."

"You don't talk to Pyrrhus about his brother?"

"Why would I?" The response was too fast, and Isidor had gone a little pale, Alyn thought.

"If you were good friends, I thought you might have wanted to know how he was."

"Oh, well, I didn't want to bring up bad memories for the boy... we don't really talk much." That, Alyn thought, remembering how familiar they had been in the refectory, was probably also a lie.

"I see," said Miervaldis, and left that line of conversation aside. "Might I ask a personal question?"

"Please do," said Isidor, sounding a bit relieved at the change in subject.

"I understand you had an argument with your uncle a few days before the murder?"

"I did?" Alyn thought there was real surprise in his tone.

"About money?" There was a pause, then Isidor laughed, although it sounded a little forced.

"I just wanted a horse," he said simply. "You have to understand, our estates - my mother's and mine - are quite modest. There was a horse I very much wanted to buy, and I asked my uncle for money for it. He said no. I was angry, but he wouldn't change his mind." He shrugged. "The horse is gone now."

"I see. And if I might continue asking personal questions...?"

"Please, my lord. I don't want to be considered a suspect, after all!"

"And yet you can't tell me where you were on the night of the murder?"

"Oh, that." Isidor looked embarrassed. "I couldn't answer that with my mother present, I'm afraid. I was out in the town... you understand?"

"I see." Miervaldis' tone was quite neutral. Alyn wondered if he believed the excuses. Neither was really verifiable - convenient, that. "Anyway," her lord went on, "I wanted to ask you about some connections I was informed you had with the Niethian group."

Isidor looked genuinely surprised.

"I haven't been with them for years," he said, and his voice was all unforced honesty. "I did go to a couple of their meetings once, but, well, to be honest with you, my lord, I found I didn't really have the taste for heresy."

"Why did you go in the first place?"

"I was curious. And, well, that was before my uncle named me as his heir. I, you see, I felt hard done by. I was young. And as I said, our estates are very small." He looked quite shamefaced as he confessed, but it did sound like he was telling the truth.

"I see. Well, thank you for your honesty, my lord."

"How do the investigations go, if I may ask?"

"I can't reveal secrets, I'm afraid," Miervaldis said drily. "We are making progress."

"That's good to know," said Isidor, and again, his voice sounded wholly honest. Miervaldis made the appropriate leavetaking formalities, and Alyn followed him out.

Their winding course through the court took them past several servants and then the chamberlain, who was proceeding at a leisurely pace along the lower East corridor. He looked surprised then slightly nervous, and hurried over to them.

"Lord Miervaldis," he said, his tone official. "May I ask how the enquiry proceeds?"

"You may," said Miervaldis. The chamberlain coughed, and looked annoyed. Miervaldis waited politely, one eyebrow raised, and Alyn tried hard to keep a straight face.

"How does the enquiry proceed?" the chamberlain asked eventually, his speech taut with irritation.

"We are approaching the truth."

"You don't think..." the chamberlain lowered his voice and glanced around. "You don't think it was Lord Cassian, then?"

"We are not yet satisfied by the evidence."

"I see, I see." He looked agitated, Alyn thought, bobbing his head and wringing his hands. "Well, thank you, my lord. Thank you. If there is anything I can do..."

"Actually, there might be. Tell me, you approve all the servants who work here, is that right?"

"Yes, my lord." He looked so pale, Alyn thought. But then, she remembered him as always being pale. Was he ill, or was it a natural colour?

"I've heard of a servant named Aethan Fedric's son who had a grudge against Jaquan. Do you know much of him?" Oddly, the chamberlain appeared to relax slightly. Alyn wondered at that, and at the question. Hadn't they ruled Aethan out?

"I know of him, my lord," he said. "He works for Lord Anstable. I don't know much about him, though, I'm afraid. You'd have to speak to Lord Anstable for that, but I'm sure he'd be happy to help in the enquiry."

"I see. And what of a maid named Brenna?"

"She's one of the Court staff. I'm afraid that I know very little about them, since although I approve their appointment, I don't come into direct contact with the servants. Except for those who attend me, of course."

"So you wouldn't remember a woman named Silvi Monar's daughter?"

The chamberlain flinched noticeably, almost taking a step back. Then he coughed, forcing the sounds out and cupping his hands over his mouth as though to hide his face. When he recovered, he wore a sickly smile.

"I think I remember her, yes, my lord. She served some time ago, though. Why?"

"Did she have a child?"

The chamberlain put on an expression of immense concentration.

"I believe she did, my lord," he said, after a few minutes had elapsed. "In fact, I think that was why she left. Ah... is this relevant, my lord?"

"It may be," Miervaldis said smoothly. "Do you know what happened to the child?"

"I've got no idea what became of her," the chamberlain said. "If you'll forgive me, my lord..." He bobbed his head, and scurried past. Miervaldis turned to watch him go, a thoughtful expression on his face.

Back in their rooms, he had Alyn order tea, since it was too early for dinner. After the tea had come, and he had had one cup and was halfway through a second, he finally asked her what she thought of their interview with Lord Isidor.

"I don't know, my lord," she said, sitting up in the comfortable seat and putting her cup down on its saucer. "I think some of it was true, but the bit about not knowing Pyrrhus well... that's got to be a lie. And about going to Cathecassa only once every few weeks, too. And even the horse and the money... I mean, I talked to the grooms and they said he really loved his horse. It just... doesn't quite fit."

"No, I agree. I'm also afraid that his alibi for the night of the murder, while quite believable, is utterly impossible to verify. At least, not without talking to all the sweet girls in Ellmore, which is not a task I care to undertake." He sighed. "I thought he seemed tense when we discussed Cathecassa, but I don't think we'll get anything out of him by questioning, unfortunately. You say he knows Pyrrhus?"

"I think so, my lord. I was there when he came into the refectory - I mean, Pyrrhus was with me and Lord Isidor came in - and they seemed familiar with each other. Then Pyrrhus got all defensive of Lord Isidor when I said I thought it was silly him not confessing where he'd been the night of the murder..." she broke off, remembering that she'd got into trouble over that conversation, but her lord only nodded.

"I remember," he said. "Hmmm." He looked thoughtful. "It is a shame we can't talk to Kadir. I don't really want to start involving the other Star Courts, but it would be good to know where he was that night. Just to be sure, to eliminate that possibility. Of course, accusing another lord is just as unsatisfactory as accusing Lord Cassian." He smiled wryly, drank the rest of the tea, and put his cup down. "And what of our little chat with the chamberlain?"

"He seemed very uneasy, my lord, especially when you mentioned Silvi."

"He did. But then, he was always uneasy when talking to me, I'm afraid. I rather suspect he lied about knowing Liliya, too. She bore - bears - her mother's name; he must have seen that when she came to the Court. It's possible he could have forgotten, of course; he must see plenty of those papers. But he referred to the child as 'her', right at the end. So he did at least know that Silvi had a daughter. None of that is suspicious, of course, except that he seemed so agitated over it all. I wonder..." He sighed, frustrated, and went to stare out of the window.

After a while, Alyn cleared up the tea things, and went to sit in the easy chair with her book. Apart from asking her to get the dinner, Miervaldis said nothing all evening. He wore a preoccupied look, shading to a frown every now and then, and glanced at Alyn from time to time. Eventually, she went to bed, frustrated at the lack of communication and feeling a little uneasy, for no good reason that she could see.

In the morning Miervaldis said very little over breakfast. Alyn went to the lesson, hoping it would be Lord Anstable again. If she had to sit through something like that, better it was someone amusing. She was in luck there, but she very nearly didn't notice who was teaching. From the very first, when she walked into the room, there were funny looks and whispers. The pages had mostly stopped bothering her after that first time, and had become used to seeing her around, although apart from Pyrrhus, none had been friendly. Now, however, the looks were outright hostile, worse than they had been at the beginning. Sitting on her cushion, Alyn felt prickles running down her spine, and imagined little darts from the eyes of those behind. She glanced sideways to where Pyrrhus was sitting, hoping for a friendly face, but he quickly looked away. There was anger in his posture. What had happened?

She had to wait for the end of the lesson to find that out. Pyrrhus tried to leave early, but she snagged his sleeve and hauled him back into the room as the other pages filed out. Several managed to sneak in a kick at her ankles or a jab in her side; gasping, she retreated into the room and away from the unfriendly contact. Pyrrhus followed, not resisting, but still obviously angry.

"What's wrong?" she demanded when the room was empty. He raised his eyes and glared at her.

"Don't pretend you don't know," he spat. "Everyone knows, so how can you not?"

"Knows what?"

"Knows who your lord thinks did the murder."

"They do?"

"Stop pretending. You want to accuse my brother, at least have the courage to tell me straight!"

Shocked, Alyn dropped his sleeve. He stepped back immediately, brushing his arm as though she had contaminated him. She wanted to say something, but what was to say? Kadir had to be a suspect, after all. The pause had gone on too long; Pyrrhus drew himself up, spat deliberately at her feet, and marched from the room.

She stared at the empty doorway for a while, then pulled herself together and left, looking round rather nervously for an ambush. She didn't feel like braving the refectory after that, so headed back to the rooms instead, feeling miserable. It had to have been her conversation with Bensen that had started the rumours. There was nothing else that could have done it, especially so fast. And she knew Bensen was a gossip. She should have expected this.

As she headed round the corner into the main corridor, she saw a familiar figure a little way down and froze. There in the middle of the hall stood the dark man, his back to her. He was talking to the chamberlain, who she thought had not yet seen her. She ducked back quickly, not wanting to come to either man's notice right now. Seeing the dark man brought back the worries that she had been ignoring, the memories of Byran's letter and the possibility that in all this, her lord was not the honest investigator he seemed but something much less noble. And that was made worse still because the Emperor clearly trusted him.

Should I talk to him? Maybe just mention my concerns? He might laugh and tell me it's nothing to worry about...

But although that was the outcome she would hope for, she knew she would never willingly speak to the dark man. He made her feel horribly uneasy, although he'd never said or done anything to make her feel threatened. The logical part of her mind insisted that he made her feel uneasy because she knew she ought to do something about what she'd witnessed. The rest of her mind didn't want to know.

Conflicted and confused, she turned to a different route back to the rooms.

Miervaldis gave her a new assignment over lunch, which was distinctly sparser and less appetising than usual. Presumably the kitchens had come down on Kadir's and Pyrrhus' side too. She picked at the old cheese and wilted lettuce morosely. He stood by the window looking out, drinking tea again; he hadn't touched his food at all. He spoke without turning round.

"Alyn, will you do something for me this afternoon?"

"Yes, my lord?"

"I want to know more about Silvi. It will probably take you a while, but please can you hunt through the Court records for anything mentioning her. All I found were her employment records, but anything else relating to her will be elsewhere - it's not very well organised." Alyn remembered that from her time poring over them. "We know when she started and when she left, so that will give you something to guide your search."

"Yes, my lord." It beat going to the lesson, especially with the pages in such a mood with her. Alyn swallowed the last of the bread, left the remains of the cheese and salad on her plate, and stood up. "I'll go now, my lord."

"Thank you." He still didn't turn round as she left, wondering what had him so preoccupied.

To her immense relief, the Chroniclers seemed blissfully unaware of the gossip racing around the Court. She actually found that quite funny, that the main record keepers of the Court seemed oblivious to the rumour mills that churned in the day to day life of the community. The head Chronicler appeared to recognise her, too; he squinted down at her for a long time, then actually smiled slightly and beckoned her in. The assistant Chronicler - she was beginning to think there was only one - came over and showed her to the comfy chair where her lord had sat when looking over the records four days earlier. The books were still piled where he had left them, which helped; she could guess which pile he'd been through. Feeling oddly cheerful in spite of the hours of probably fruitless work ahead of her, she started in.

It was very late by the time she'd finished, and she could feel herself nodding off over the last of the heavy record books. Her eyes felt gritty and tired, and the chair cushions were invitingly soft. Losing herself in the records had been weirdly satisfying, although she'd barely found anything. Silvi had, apparently, been a model servant, working first in the general Court staff and then being promoted, as much as a general Court servant could be, to serving the uppers, the more visible and honoured servants. Alyn didn't know much about how serving worked, and it differed from Court to Court in any case, but in her home in Third Star Court it was considered quite significant to serve the butler or chamberlain, a much more distinguished position than simply being a general maid. If Silvi had been an upper servant, she'd presumably been trusted and respected. Alyn wondered if that meant anything. It probably didn't, but maybe her lord would think differently. She was beginning to realise he did indeed think quite differently.

She thanked the Chroniclers, feeling a little guily about the enormous pile of books she and Miervaldis had left them to tidy up, and walked back to the rooms, hoping there would be dinner there. She briefly entertained the thought of going by the kitchens, but she didn't really want to stick her head into a hotbed of gossip, and she didn't want to see Bensen, either. The windows she passed were all dark, and the stars were out, so it was well past dinner time anyway.

She began to realise something was wrong when she rounded the corner of the corridor leading to their rooms and saw a knot of people crowding the door. There was a low rumble of noise coming from them, an angry sound, and someone was shouting, but she couldn't make out the words, only a panicked, high-pitched yell. Abruptly the crowd shifted and several guards emerged, marching a figure between them. A short, slim figure, dishevelled and shaking with either fear or anger, or both. To her horrified surprise, as the little knot drew near, she recognised Pyrrhus being marched away. He saw her, met her eyes and glared hotly at her, anger mostly masking apprehension. She flinched aside, horribly guilty, wondering what had happened. Was he the murderer? Had Miervaldis found something? Surely not!

Pyrrhus is marched away

As the guards and their prisoner left, she turned back to the door and the gauntlet of the crowd. It was mostly nobles with a few guards, and the chamberlain was there too, ineffectively trying to keep order as they shouted and bickered with each other and the closed door. They all turned to look at her, standing alone in the middle of the corridor, and for an instant she felt like a rabbit does when it sees a hawk, and knows its fate.

Then the door opened and Miervaldis stood there, dressed in stark black and wearing an expression she'd never seen on him before, one combining cold anger and absolute authority.

"Alyn," he said, and she scurried to obey on shaky legs. The crowd parted to let her through, and she didn't dare to say a word even though the questions had built up and built up in her head until it wanted to burst. You will be silent, she remembered him saying. And you will do as I say. Right now, any thought of disobedience was far, far away. She went into the room - which was thankfully empty - and waited, not even daring to turn round, while he stared down the crowd and then closed the door on them. Even that quiet click sounded icy cold.

"You're very late." He didn't sound so angry any more, but his tone was still very tense, very controlled.

"I'm sorry, my lord."

"That's all right. Did you find anything?"

"No, my lord." What had he done? Why had Pyrrhus been arrested? What was going on? Why were all those people there? What was going to happen?


"Yes, my lord?" The questions wouldn't come out; she clenched her teeth and shut her eyes. She heard him sigh quietly, and turn away.

"There's food on the table," he said, from across the room. "Get some sleep." And then he was gone, his bedroom door closing behind him. Alyn spun round, saw the dinner, and felt suddenly both hungry and ill at the same time. She hesitated, then sat down to eat, but despite her hunger she stopped partway through, not wanting any more. She went to her own bedroom and pulled out Byran's letter, but stopped before opening it. The words would make it all more real, and she didn't want that. Closing her eyes, she lay back on the bed and wished for sleep.

Her night was restless, half-sleep punctuated by hazy waking, waiting for and dreading the morning. When it actually came, she had finally dropped off properly, and the heavy banging on the main door jerked her out of her dream in a panic. She shook her head to clear it and it felt heavy, full of cotton wool, her thoughts slow to focus. The banging came again, and some shouting, words not audible through the door. She pushed the covers back and stood up, rubbing her eyes.

Over the banging, she heard the adjoining door open. She knelt by the door and looked through the keyhole, just as she had done when Brenna had visited. She saw Miervaldis, still dressed in black, walking slowly towards the door. He stopped before he reached it.

"My lord, you are welcome to come in, but I would prefer it if you lowered your voice somewhat. My page is still asleep, and she worked a long day yesterday." His voice was light, easy, as it usually was. A far cry from the cold, controlling tone he'd used the day before.

My lord? Who is it?

The banging died down, and the voice, still raised, became a little clearer. Miervaldis shook his head, then stepped forward, out of her line of sight, to open the door. She heard the click of the lock, then the hasty footsteps of the visitor. He barged into the room and spun round, and she recognised Lord Isidor.

Of course.

Miervaldis came back into her view, and half-bowed, a neutral expression on his face.

"Will you be seated?"

"I will not!" Isidor spat. His whole frame was vibrating with fury. He was standing with his face partly towards her, so she could see the anger in his expression, along with what she thought was worry. "I want to know why you had Pyrrhus arrested!"

"Pyrrhus was arrested because I believe he may have information pertaining to the events of two weeks ago," Miervaldis said smoothly. Alyn puzzled at the odd phrasing. Why not just say "the murder"?

"Don't be a fool, man! Look at him, there's no way he could have attacked someone like Jaquan!" Isidor stepped closer, and lowered his voice. "I don't trust you, Lord Miervaldis. I don't like the way you're investigating this, and I don't want you here."

Alyn held her breath. The way Isidor stood implied violence, as though he wanted very much to attack her lord. Miervaldis drew himself up, almost imperceptibly; she was reminded again of his height. Isidor was not short, but Miervaldis could look down on him with ease. He knew what he was doing, she thought; he knew how to manipulate the situation with both his body language and his voice. Whatever Isidor thought, Miervaldis was entirely in control. That didn't make her feel any better.

"I have been charged by the Emperor to investigate this crime," Miervaldis said, and his voice had changed, become cooler, less friendly. "Pyrrhus has not been and will not be harmed; he has not been accused of any crime."

"Then why are you holding him?!"

"I told you. I believe he can help me get information. Until I have that information, he will stay where he is."

Isidor spun about and stalked away a short distance, clearly very tense. Conveniently he was close to and facing Alyn's door, and she saw his face clearly. Anger was still present, but it warred with worry and guilt, and what she thought might be indecision. What did he have to decide? He turned back, away from her view.

"Pyrrhus can't have done it. And he won't know anything about it. He was with me."

"Visiting the girls in Ellmore?" Miervaldis' tone was derisive. "That's not what he said."

There was a pause. When Isidor spoke again, much of the heat was gone from his voice. He sounded cautious now, and his words came more slowly.

"If I said that Pyrrhus really was with me, but that we weren't in Ellmore, would you let him go?"

"That's useful to know, but it's not the information I need."

"Well, what do you need?" Isidor's voice rose again. "What will make you let him go?"

"Better information than that, and preferably verifiable. My lord, I need to know what was going on! You don't seem to realise the situation."

"The situation is that you have arrested my best friend's brother for something he couldn't possibly know anything about!"

"It's not his situation you should be concerned with," Miervaldis said softly. Isidor hissed, a frustrated, bitter sound.

"I can't tell you," he managed eventually. "I can't betray a confidence. Why won't you believe me?"

"It's not me you have to convince." Isidor tensed and lowered his head as though fighting with himself. Whatever battle it was, and Alyn couldn't see his face this time, it was over quickly. He looked up again.

"Let him go!" he demanded, "if you know he is innocent, let him go! This isn't right!"

Miervaldis said nothing to that. Indeed, if Alyn guessed right, and he was hard to see from her angle, he actually looked away for a moment, as though he agreed with Isidor.

"Pyrrhus will stay where he is until I have the information I need, my lord. If you will not share that, then I can't release him."

"You -" Isidor bit off the word he had been about to say, turned round explosively and stormed towards the door. Alyn heard it slamming behind him. Miervaldis let out a long sigh, but didn't turn to her door, or call for her to come out. He walked out of sight, and she heard him sit down. She hesitated, then went to her chest and ran a comb through her hair. She'd slept in her clothes, but didn't care about the rumpling right now. With some trepidation, she opened the door.

He didn't look round, didn't ask her if she'd overheard that or what she thought of it. She waited for a long moment, unwilling to break the silence, but all he eventually said when he did speak was:

"Please ring the servants for breakfast."

Breakfast was cold and silent. After she had finished picking over the bread and ham, Alyn sat where she was, unsure of what to do. Miervaldis got up and went to stand by the window. Without looking round, he said:

"You'd better not go to the lesson this morning. It might not be safe." His tone was normal, but too much had changed. Alyn didn't feel safe talking to him as she had done just the day before, so she sat tight and didn't look up. The thing she kept returning to, over and over again, was how easily he changed his manners, his character. His whole appearance, even. The man she thought she was serving, the careful, clever, trusted servant of the Emperor, the slightly odd, reclusive lord from Fourth Star Court - was he the real Lord Miervaldis? What about the scruffy scholar who had gone so carefree into Ellmore to spend an evening carousing with the locals? And what about the man she had seen just now and the night before, the cold, controlling authority one didn't dare cross? And finally, what about the man she'd been warned about - not once, but twice, by her brother and by the dark man who worked, he had implied, for the Emperor? Was that the real Lord Miervaldis?

She didn't know, so she stayed where she was and wondered what she was going to do, because sooner or later that would no longer be an option.

Presently the servants came and cleared away the breakfast. One of them was Ythilda, who made some remarks about the morning weather. When Alyn didn't respond, the maid came closer.

"Is everything all right?" Alyn shut her eyes tight, breathed out, and opened them again.

"It's fine," she said steadily. Miervaldis had gone into his bedroom and shut the door. She raised her gaze to meet Ythilda's, and smiled a little shakily. The maid looked concerned.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"I don't think so, but thank you."

Ythilda glanced down, and Alyn became aware of her own appearance.

"Do you need some laundry doing?"

"Probably," she admitted. "But I don't have anything ready right now."

"Why don't you change, and give me your clothes? I'll put them in with tonight's wash, and they'll be ready in just a few days. Do it now, go on." And she gave Alyn a little push towards her door. Alyn went obediently.

The change into fresh clothes made her feel much better, although the uncertainty was still present. She handed her bundle to Ythilda.

"Thank you so much."

"Does your lord need anything cleaning?"

Alyn glanced over at the door, still shut.

"He might, but I wouldn't know, and I don't want to ask right now."

Ythilda nodded understandingly.

"I'll get on with these, then. If you do have any more, just bring them down. You know where."

"Thank you," Alyn said again, and saw her out. Then she turned to survey the room, cleared of breakfast clutter and devoid of anything of interest. In the absence of a task, she went back to her bedroom and lay down, intending to nap and make up for some of the sleep she'd missed last night, but unsurprisingly, the nap quickly became full-blown sleep, and her worries were left behind. is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis