For a long moment nothing happened, then Alyn heard Miervaldis sit up so she did the same, keeping her eyes fixed on the floor. The wooden panels were highly polished and glowed in the morning sun. Someone entered from a door to one side of the room and Alyn looked sideways to see an older man with downcast eyes, wearing a veil and carrying a tray. He placed the tray on the low table before them and made full obeisance, then rose and left, walking backwards all the way, still looking down.
The tray carried pots of sweetly-scented tea, plates of warm bread and two jars of conserve. There was also fruit, raisins, and baklava; her mouth watered at the sight. Then there were several things she didn't recognise but thought came from the far south, where she'd never been; rings of pastry with conserve over them, small dark solid squares and crumbly slices of something with a grainy texture. The tray sat between them, steaming invitingly in the silence. Then she heard the Emperor rise and half-saw, half-heard him pouring the tea. He placed the cups before them and she started. The Emperor was serving her tea?
"You can look up, Alyn," said Miervaldis quietly, and she raised her eyes nervously. The Emperor was just sitting back down behind the table, on a pile of cushions on a slightly-raised dais. He was a tall, slim man with long dark hair styled neatly to fall down his back. He wore immaculately clean white robes which had intricate gold and purple embroidery around the hems. Alyn immediately thought irreverently that he must have special clothes for gardening. Over the top of the robes he wore a decorative tunic with more of the delicate embroidery. His eyes were dark and looked tired, despite the early hour.
"Please, help yourselves," he said and gestured to the tray. Alyn didn't dare move until her lord did and then she lost herself for a short time in the food. They'd breakfasted already, of course, which had sated her appetite, but the food brought to the Sun Emperor was better than anything she'd had before and she very much wanted to taste just a little of everything on the tray. Even the tea was delicious, with a subtle flowery flavour which complemented the food perfectly, especially the little squares which were densely sweet.
"Do you like the baklava, Alyn?" the Emperor asked after a little while, and she froze, the second piece of baklava halfway to her mouth.
"Ah, yes, my lord Emperor," she managed, after a moment of silence.
"It's one of my favourites," he said cheerfully. "Have you tried the halfa?"
"This one," and he handed her a slice of the grainy crumbly stuff. She bit into it tentatively, and was rewarded with a rush of sweet-savoury, almondy flavour.
"Yes, my lord Emperor!" she said fervently when she'd swallowed, and he chuckled, though not mockingly. It made her feel more at home.
After they had eaten and Miervaldis and the Emperor had carried on a gentle, meandering conversation about exotic plants, the veiled servant took the tray away and brought in fresh pots of tea. This time the Emperor ignored them, settling back on his cushions and taking a long breath.
"I wanted to thank you, Alyn," he said, and Alyn jumped, not ready for this.
"My lord Emperor?"
"For your honesty and your commitment to your conscience." She looked up at him and his face was grave. "There are people who would have given much to see your lord imprisoned or executed and you stopped that from happening. I am very grateful to you, because he is important to me."
Alyn glanced sideways involuntarily and saw Miervaldis look uncomfortable.
"My lord Emperor, surely -" he protested, but the Emperor waved his hand.
"You know it's true, Iarlaith," he said. "And I am deeply sorry for putting you in such a situation, but I will never regret asking for your help." Alyn looked from one man to the other, not really understanding what was being said. She thought that "asking for your help" probably didn't mean the most recent request that Miervaldis uncover the murderer in Fifth Star Court. She remembered him saying that he'd met the Emperor before, when "a situation arose" in the Sun Court. Was that what he was referring to?
"My lord Emperor," she said timidly, when no-one had spoken for a while, "may I ask a question?"
"Why would anyone want to see my lord imprisoned?"
"Because he is important to me," the Emperor repeated, and Alyn sensed she wasn't going to get any more out of him. She certainly didn't feel brave enough to ask anything further, although she itched to know if anything was going to be done about the nameless conspirators. After a while Miervaldis asked after the Emperor's family and the conversation became light once more. She felt relieved to be out of it, just left to enjoy the tea and the experience of sitting with the Sun Emperor in his personal rooms.
Presently the Emperor brought the conversation to a natural close and rose. Alyn and Miervaldis rose with him, then Miervaldis made obeisance and Alyn copied him, realising that this personal conversation was coming to an end.
"I must thank you both again," the Emperor said formally. "Please accept my deepest gratitude, and also my regrets."
"Regrets, my lord Emperor?" asked Miervaldis from his kneeling position.
"I must ask you to return to Fifth Star Court. The situation there is... delicate."
"Of course, my lord," said Miervaldis, sounding somewhat surprised to be asked. Alyn guessed he had been expecting to go back.
"Alyn. What is your wish?"
It was her turn to be surprised. She had expected to be sent back with Miervaldis - after all, if he was declared innocent, surely she was his page once more? But if she had the choice, what would she choose?
"I will go back with my lord," she said.
"Are you sure, Alyn?" It was Miervaldis who spoke, not the Emperor, somewhat of a breach of protocol.
"Yes, my lord!" she said, a little put-out at his questioning her. Didn't he want her service? The Emperor chuckled again quietly.
"You can't control loyalty, Iarlaith. You should know that."
Miervaldis sighed, relaxing slightly as though he had come to a decision or accepted one made for him. The Emperor turned his attention back to Alyn.
"I'm glad to hear that. Very well then. Please continue serving as you have done."
"Yes, my lord Emperor."
The conversation was at an end. She heard the Emperor retreating, although he didn't leave the room. She and Miervaldis backed out, eyes down, to rejoin the herald and his boy who were waiting outside the building. Had they been there the entire time? They started off down the path through the little garden. At the end she turned to look back, but could barely see the building through the exuberant plant growth. She thought that was probably deliberate.
They were led back to their rooms, which turned out to be quite a way away from each other in the sprawling complex assigned for visitor's accommodation. Alyn packed her few clothes, all clean and folded, and followed the boy to the little courtyard where she'd first been searched. Miervaldis was there donning his shoes, and Alyn followed his example. It felt odd to be wearing her boots again after two days of the soft Sun Court slippers. Then they were led through the building and across the big courtyard to a familiar small dark coach. Alyn climbed in after her lord, hoping that Cloud had been well looked after, wherever she was.
The coach set off, going south. Apparently they weren't going back to Fourth Star Court. Alyn had a spare set of clothes but she did wonder about her lord. But then, he didn't seem to care much about his clothes anyway. It would have been nice to have been able to pack some things but perhaps the journey would have taken too long if they had gone via Fourth Star Court. She sighed.
The first hour of the coach ride was silent. Miervaldis said nothing and Alyn didn't want to start a conversation. Instead she looked at the scenery going by, first the outer boundaries of the Sun Court lands - smooth, green, rolling hills with stands of trees here and there - and then the lands along the banks of the Voront, which ran south past Sun Court lands until it was crossed by the orbital road on its mighty seven-arched bridge. She watched the big river rolling on, noticing barges both horse-drawn and sail-powered and numerous small boats where there were towns. The river provided a livelihood for a huge number of people and the road ran past the outskirts of the little towns that crowded its banks.
She also pondered, on that long, silent journey, the unspoken conversation that had taken place between her lord and the Emperor, beneath the talk she'd heard. The Emperor had said that her lord was important to him. Was that because Miervaldis had helped him in the past? What had he done? Why would that put him in danger - who would want to hurt someone important to the Sun Emperor? She drew in her breath, realising the question held a deeper, more relevant one. Who would want to hurt the Emperor himself? She remembered Miervaldis saying "There'll always be people who disagree, Alyn, even with the will of the gods on earth," and she remembered the worrying conversation in Cathecassa with Lady Ismene. People disagreed with the decrees of the Sun Emperor. Did that mean some people were willing to go further than just disagreement? She shivered, not wanting to think about that any more.
"You can ask questions," said Miervaldis suddenly, and she looked over in surprise. He appeared tense and she wondered if he'd spent the past hour thinking of how to start a conversation. She racked her brains for an innocuous question but couldn't think of one at all, so she asked the one that had most needled at her since the news had come through that she wasn't required at the trial.
"Why didn't you want me at the Sun Court, my lord?"
He started, then ducked his head with what looked like a rueful smile. Had he been expecting something else?
"Because I knew they would want to examine you," he said.
"But surely that's a good thing?" Alyn was confused. The examination had cleared him faster and more conclusively than anything she or anyone else could have said.
"For me, yes." He was looking straight at her now, eyes serious. "But was it a good thing for you?"
Remembered pain made Alyn flinch. She turned away, struggling with the unwanted recall. Esarten's hands, gentle on her shoulders and his skill, digging relentlessly in her head, lacerating her mind as it tried hopelessly to resist. She screwed her eyes shut and shook her head as though she could dislodge the memories.
"It wasn't a good thing for you," Miervaldis said, speaking very quietly. "I know what it feels like, you see. I didn't want that for you. After all, it was only chance that brought you to serve as my page."
Miervaldis had been through an examination as well? Shocked, she looked up, but it was his turn to be looking away. When had that happened? But she remembered the trial - the lords muttering about what had happened before, what he'd been accused of before. An examination would make sense, she supposed. It made her feel much better to know that her initial supposition, that he was protecting her, was right.
A long silence fell but it was more comfortable now. Alyn found her perceptions of Miervaldis revised again, closer to the lord she had thought she'd known. She wanted to ask about the way he'd behaved when he arrested Pyrrhus but didn't quite dare, afraid, perhaps, of bringing that persona back. But her brother's concerns and her own worries about her lord were gone, and it was such a relief. She hadn't realised how much the suspicions and warnings had preyed on her mind, hadn't understood how worried it had made her. Everything was all right now. She was serving the right person, doing the right thing.
Then again, they were on their way to continue a murder investigation. That she wasn't so keen on. Fleetingly she wished she was going back to Fourth Star Court but that wouldn't have been right either. They could only go forwards. There was never a going back.
"Do you know what has happened at Fifth Star Court?" Miervaldis asked, breaking the silence with the same topic she'd been considering.
"No, my lord, I didn't hear much of the gossip."
"Hmm." He fell silent, thinking. Then: "Do you know what happened to Lord Kadir after I was arrested?"
"No, my lord. We were separated shortly after that and I didn't see him again." Miervaldis looked frustrated.
"I was so close," he said. "I was so near to understanding what was going on and then those guards wrecked everything!"
"The ones who arrested you, my lord?"
"No, although they didn't help." He smiled ruefully. "Being arrested never helps an enquiry. No, the guards who dragged poor Pyrrhus from his lesson and then kept him for ages before bringing him to me. I barely got a chance to speak to the poor lad and he was both angry and terrified. It's not going to make our job any easier."
"My lord, I was wondering..." She broke off but he nodded at her.
"I was wondering, was it Lord Cassian who accused you? Because you said you were going to visit him two days before we got arrested and, well, it seemed like a very rushed accusation."
"A rushed accusation?" Miervaldis broke in. He looked curious. "Why?"
"Well, it was silly." She spread her hands helplessly. "It was something that could so easily be disproved, it was like, um, like they were in a desperate hurry to get you away, my lord."
"It could only have been easily disproved if you had come to testify as you did," Miervaldis pointed out. "They may have counted on you not being willing or... not being alive."
That made Alyn jump. She'd almost forgotten the worries that had partly caused her flight from Fourth Star Court.
"Did something happen?" He'd noticed her surprise.
"Yes, my lord," she confessed. "There was an arrow shot while I was collecting mine from the targets at the big meadow - it could have been an accident. But then someone searched my room one night when I wasn't there too, so I got worried. That's partly why I came."
"You see. Yes, it did seem a desperate tactic, but it would have worked if you could be dealt with and it was backed up by enough force to do that. I'm so sorry for putting you in such danger..." He looked genuinely upset.
"That's why I thought it might be the murderer who did it," she carried on, not sure what else to say. "Because they'd be desperate. But the Emperor said there were other people..."
"I wouldn't be surprised if there was a... collaboration," Miervaldis said. "The people the Emperor spoke of are... well, at present they don't have much say in the Sun Court. It's too big a risk to be associated with heresy - any lords who sympathise would be unwilling to stand up and be counted, at least at present. But someone unconnected, who'd have an entirely different motive for the accusation, would be very helpful to them, of course."
"My lord, why doesn't the Emperor just arrest them?"
"That's... complicated." He paused, and Alyn thought he wasn't going to say any more. She remembered the political conversation in Cathecassa and the mention of the Emperor's older brother. She wondered how to bring that up without actually naming him but before she could speak, Miervaldis continued. "The people in charge are, well, not confirmed. There's plenty of suspicion but no proof. And to be honest, if everyone who is suspected of being involved actually is, then the Sun Emperor himself is the only person not involved, if you get my meaning." He actually laughed, and Alyn wondered how he could take it so lightly. "In fact," he went on, "almost nobody is known. The only time people are actually identified, they're invariably small fry who know nothing about the ringleaders. Or they're dead. Usually both."
"I don't understand, my lord. If it's the Niethians... don't they know who they are?"
"The Niethians aren't worth arresting," Miervaldis said bluntly. "They're a harmless group of discontented commoners and petty nobles. Just a recruiting ground, if that. Anyone who's really involved wouldn't be seen dead at one of their meetings. No, this runs far deeper than that. It exists, but that's all that's known. It can't even be investigated properly for fear of upsetting people. Lords." He fell silent again, brooding. Alyn fidgeted on her seat. The coach jolted as it passed over a rut in the road.
"But might it still have been the murderer who brought the accusation, my lord?" she asked eventually. Miervaldis looked up.
"It's a good theory, but I'm afraid it's unlikely to be Lord Cassian."
"Because I didn't see him that day. I tried, but he refused to open his door. I suppose it's possible that he was approached and agreed to make the accusation, but that's true of anyone - it doesn't really make him stand out as a suspect. Any more than he already does anyway."
Alyn fell silent, discouraged. She wanted it to be Lord Cassian. Did that make her a bad person?
At the end of the radial road they changed horses, then set off round the orbital road once again. It wasn't far to the turn to Fifth Star Court and they rolled into the stableyard in mid-afternoon. Miervaldis unfolded himself from the coach seats and clambered out; Alyn hopped after him.
The sky was grey now, after what had been a promising start. Or maybe it was only grey in Fifth Star Court, Alyn thought. She couldn't quite imagine rain falling on the beautiful Sun Court, although the lushness of the plants surely meant it did, and frequently. Maybe it only fell during the night. But here in Fifth Star Court it was grey and gloomy, and the grooms who came out moved slowly and looked grumpy. Were they grumpy because it was her lord returning?
They didn't say anything, just took the horses' heads and led them away. She saw them conferring with the driver in a small huddle by the stable doors. Miervaldis shrugged and turned for the archway to the main Court. There was nobody there to meet them but he went straight into the building and headed for the suite of rooms they'd had before. Several people stared at them en route but most ignored them. Allyn guessed that the news of Miervaldis' acquittal had arrived the day before by morning courier. They were probably expecting him back.
The rooms were open and clean. Miervaldis' things were still inside, although she guessed they must have been searched. He didn't say anything about it but did ask her to go and sort out some tea, and dinner for them both in the evening, and to get replacements for some of the things she'd left behind in Fourth Star Court.
The walk down to the kitchens was nerve-racking to say the least. She kept expecting to get jumped on by pages - they'd be out of their lesson by now - or for someone to shout at her or accuse her of treachery. Nothing happened, but she was aware of being watched almost the entire way. She thought Miervaldis was probably hoping for gossip but that was unlikely to happen, not with the way things were now. As she'd expected, the cooks at the kitchen were cold and formal and although they agreed to send up dinner later, she rather suspected it would be cold and unappetising. The only reason the tea she was given was hot was because she'd asked for it right then and there.
She carried the tray away feeling gloomy. It wasn't pleasant to bear the brunt of an entire Court's dislike. Up the first flight of stairs, though, she ran into Ythilda carrying a pile of sheets and the maid's smile came as such a shock that she nearly dropped the tray.
"Are you all right?" the maid asked, concern in her voice.
"Yes - I'm sorry." She balanced the tray again and smiled. "I just didn't expect to see you here. Just here, I mean... I knew you'd be here somewhere..."
"Your rooms should be ready for you - is there anything else you need?"
"They're fine, thanks, but actually, there is. I came without luggage, only a change of clothes. Is there any way..."
"I can arrange for some wash things and some underclothes for you." Ythilda's tone of voice was sympathetic.
"Oh, thank you!"
"Is your lord all right?"
"Yes, fine. We're both fine." Alyn wondered why the maid was so concerned or if she was simply being pleasant. But if she was willing to talk, perhaps the tea could wait a little longer....
"Can you tell me what's happened here? Over the past few days I mean, since we left."
"It's been a week, actually. More than. What do you want to know?"
"Really, what happened to Pyrrhus... and Lord Kadir, uh, Berinhard and Lord Isidor." Ythilda glanced aside and hesitated before speaking.
"Lord Isidor's being kept apart from Court," she said finally. "Word is it's his mother who wants him away from here. I think she's worried of what he might do, because Lord Berinhard and Pyrrhus have been imprisoned for the crime of murder." Alyn nearly dropped the tray again. She hadn't thought it would be so bad.
"Steady on." Ythilda moved to her elbow but she had it under control.
"They've been accused of the murder?"
"I'm afraid so. On account of what Lord Cassian did to their father, you know." Alyn felt sick. Miervaldis had ordered Pyrrhus' imprisonment. It was because of her lord that he and his brother were now accused of murder and that felt dreadful. A little voice in her head kept insisting that it might have happened anyway, that they might really be guilty, but she ignored it, not wanting to accept its truth.
"Thank you," she said carefully, and tried to smile. "That's good to know."
"You're welcome," said Ythilda, and smiled again, but Alyn understood now that although the maid might be friendly and willing to answer questions, she thought the same as the rest of the Court. She thought that it was all Miervaldis' fault. She was right too, that was the worst thing.
When she got back to the room with the tea, she told Miervaldis everything Ythilda had said. Her lord just nodded thoughtfully, although he did frown when she said Pyrrhus and Kadir were accused of murder.
"That's not what I meant," he muttered, but didn't elaborate. Instead, after drinking tea he left the room to make what he called ‘arrangements'. After that they stayed in the rooms all that evening, mostly in silence. Alyn tried to read but didn't get very far. The fire was unlit, and nobody came to light it, although the weather was warm so it didn't matter much. The dinner was late and cold, as she'd expected, and neither of them ate much. They went to bed early and she wondered what was going to happen in the morning. How could they conduct an investigation if nobody would speak to them?
In the morning Miervaldis told her over breakfast - served late and rather sparse - that they were going to Cathecassa that day. Alyn felt both relieved and nervous; relieved because Fifth Star Court was so unpleasant for them to be around and nervous because Lady Ismene was a formidable lady, and she got the distinct impression that her lord didn't intend this to be a social call.
The grooms were surprised when they showed up and more still when Miervaldis announced his intention to ride. It was a fair way to Cathecassa but it would be quicker riding and they could get back the same day, Alyn realised. Two horses were led out for them; Miervaldis inspected them both carefully before nodding. They were not attractive beasts, one small dun mare with a heavy head and shaggy mane, and one leggy dull brown gelding with an oversized white blaze covering half his face. Miervaldis mounted the brown horse with reasonable skill, leaving Alyn the dun mare, who whuffled in a friendly fashion when she introduced herself. They left the courtyard with no more words, and the grooms watched them go in silence.
Outside Fifth Star Court the air felt cleaner and easier to breathe. There was no conversation but Alyn sensed her lord felt the same. The horses moved well despite their unattractive appearance; it would seem that the grooms had only given them ugly mounts, and not unfit ones. The road unrolled beneath their hooves and the fields passed by on either side, brown and gold with the growing crops, much as she had remembered from their earlier visit.
They arrived before lunchtime, the horses breathing hard but not lathered. They clattered past the tall guardian trees and pulled up at the gate, where Miervaldis spoke to the footmen. They nodded and bowed, and one left his post to run to the house. Shortly he came back, the gate was opened and the visitors bowed through to the yard where they dismounted. Grooms came for the horses, leaving Alyn and her lord to brush themselves down and compose themselves for Lady Ismene.
Unlike the last visit, she did not come out to greet them. The butler arrived and welcomed them in, with a touch of chill to his manner. Alyn followed her lord, subdued and this time not looking at the beautiful décor of the house. Her stomach was knotting with dread and a little hunger. The butler led them to the same receiving room as before, the small white room with the big windows overlooking the gardens. Alyn stood behind Miervaldis but neither sat.
After about ten minutes of absolute silence, Lady Ismene arrived. She smiled, but it was a cold smile, one which didn't touch the rest of her face. It made Alyn shiver even as she made courtesy to the lady.
"Lord Miervaldis, what can I do for you?" Lady Ismene enquired politely.
"I would like a cup of tea, please," Miervaldis said mildly. His easy manner fell awkwardly into the elegant, frozen atmosphere of the room, but he didn't seem to notice. "I expect my page would like one too."
Lady Ismene recovered her composure smoothly.
"Of course. Please, have a seat."
Miervaldis sat down and Alyn went to stand behind him, hoping fervently that she'd be allowed to stay there this time. Nobody seemed to object. She rather thought they might have forgotten she existed, they were watching each other so carefully. The butler brought in tea in a delicate white teapot with gold swirls on its spout, but it was left untouched.
"So what brings you here, my lord? Don't tell me you were passing and thought you might drop in for tea?" The lady's words were playful but the tone was careful. Miervaldis beamed at her, which she found worrying or annoying, Alyn couldn't tell which.
"I wanted to talk, actually," he said cheerfully. "I think I may have found something that will help with your husband's, ah, problem."
"My husband's problem?"
"Yes, you know. The problem of his being suspected of murdering his scribe."
"Ah. Of course." Lady Ismene glanced away.
"May I continue?"
"Please, my lord." She waved a hand wearily, the gesture still elegant.
"I think your daughter's friend Lord Isidor was abroad that night on his own doings. I think his friend Lord Berinhard and his brother Pyrrhus, a page in Fifth Star Court, were involved. I think both have a lot to explain and that is why they are under arrest in the Court right now." He was leaning forwards, his easy tone now firm, and the lady was leaning back, off balance. Alyn had seen her flinch and catch her breath at the names mentioned. Your daughter's friend Lord Isidor. What did that mean?
"You think they are the murderers?" Lady Ismene managed, her voice high with tension and stress.
"No! They're not! I won't have this!" The sudden shout from the doorway made them all jump. Alyn spun round, heart hammering in her chest. Lady Aithne stood in the doorway, hair round her face in disarray, her eyes wide and angry, her stance aggressive.
"My lady," Miervaldis said, his voice mild again. "Do you have something to say?"
Aithne hesitated, looking over to her mother. Alyn looked too and saw Lady Ismene turn away from it all, shoulders hunched. She turned back to Aithne, and saw the girl set her jaw.
"I do," she declared. "Lord Isidor was visiting me on the night of the murder."
Miervaldis raised an eyebrow.
"Alone? Surely not." Aithne flushed, and scowled.
"He is a kinsman," she said defiantly.
"Well, that hardly answers my question. I know Lord Isidor visited you that night, my lady. That's partly why he is not also under lock and key right now." And that was dissembling, Alyn thought to herself. Lady Reyhana was why Lord Isidor hadn't been arrested. Well, maybe.
"Kadir -" began Aithne, and her voice broke. She covered her mouth with her hands and turned away but not before Alyn had heard a sob.
"Lord Berinhard visited you as well, didn't he?" asked Miervaldis gently. "I think I understand what's been happening. You met him, didn't you, while Lord Isidor and he were serving together, and then after the duel you found ways to continue seeing each other?"
"It wasn't quite like that." Alyn jumped, surprised. The voice was Lady Ismene's; she had turned back on the chair and was watching Miervaldis with tired, wary eyes. "It wasn't until Pyrrhus came to Fifth Star Court that Aithne saw Kadir again. They have been meeting ever since, with Isidor's and Pyrrhus' help and with my blessing."
"But not your husband's. Am I right?" The lady lowered her eyes.
"Yes," she admitted, and Alyn understood at last. Without Lord Cassian's consent, there was no way Kadir could marry Aithne. If indeed Cassian ever caught wind of their meetings, she rather thought he'd put an end to them out of pure spite. The families were officially in enmity since the duel and a marriage between them would be difficult to arrange even with the best will in the world. And Kadir - well, Kadir now had two reasons for wanting to get Lord Cassian out of the way. So now their silence made sense, and Isidor's too. If Aithne had admitted to seeing him on the night of the murder, she would have not only have provided a motive, but also acknowledged he was in the right place at the right time. And she would almost certainly have destroyed any hope she had of marrying her Kadir. Alyn felt sick with pity for them both. She looked over to where Aithne stood against the door, face still hidden, then back to Lady Ismene. The lady was sitting upright again, her expression fixed and proud but now completely open. There was nothing left to hide.
"What will you do now?" Aithne asked, her voice steady although her face, now turned towards them, was tearstained.
"That depends on what you can tell me," Miervaldis said gently. "At what time did Lord Isidor come to you?"
"He came just after darkness."
"And was Lord Berinhard with him?"
"No, he always waited to be sure. Isidor checked with me and then rode off again. He came back less than an hour later with Kadir."
"And what did he do then?" Aithne glanced guiltily at her mother.
"Ah, he left," she said.
"But Kadir stayed?"
"Yes." There was defiance in that syllable. Alyn guessed that although Lady Ismene had known of the lovers' meetings, she hadn't known of the disappearance of their erstwhile chaperone.
"Do you know where Lord Isidor went?"
"I don't. But he can't have gone far. He came back before dawn, and when he left he took Kadir with him."
"When did he leave? Was it dawn by then?"
"No, it was still dark but beginning to get light. It was cloudy so we couldn't see the moon, but I don't think it was long until dawn. Otherwise... he'd have stayed longer."
"I see." Miervaldis looked thoughtful. Alyn remembered the groom saying, "His horse was back by the morning shift", which fitted. And that meant that Kadir couldn't possibly be the murderer, didn't it?
"Will you need me to testify?" Aithne's voice was steady. Her testament would provide an alibi but it carried the same consequence they had been trying so hard to avoid. Miervaldis sighed, and lowered his head.
"I will try my best to find the murderer without needing your word," he said. "It was important that I know, but at the moment I have no need to tell anybody else." Aithne's face lit up with hope, but Miervaldis went on. "If I need to, though, I will ask you. I know what it will do, but if you are both alive and free then there is still hope. There will be none if Lord Berinhard is judged guilty of murder."
"I know that!"
"Aithne..." interjected Lady Ismene, reprovingly.
"It's all right," said Miervaldis. "Thank you for your honesty, Lady Ismene, Lady Aithne." He stood up and Alyn moved behind him. Lady Ismene looked surprised.
"Won't you stay?" she asked. "It's lunchtime. I'm sure we can accommodate another two mouths."
"You haven't finished your tea either." Her voice was stern but she was smiling slightly. Miervaldis gave in with good grace.
"Thank you, my lady, we will."
Lunch was served in the same dining room they'd eaten in before, although it was simpler fare. The servants brought in soup, bread, cold meat and a selection of vegetables, and the conversation was light and cheerful. Nothing was said about murder, Lord Cassian or the Emperor. Aithne joined them a little late, having taken the time to change and wash her face, and she seemed much more open than she had been before. They discussed plants again and then, bizarrely, the finer points of calligraphy and the differences in writing between the various Star Courts. Alyn thought she ought to be used to her lord and his chameleonic conversation skills by now, but they always caught her out. Why on earth did he know so much about calligraphy?
The time passed quickly and after the long-awaited tea to finish off the meal they returned to the courtyard. The grooms led out the same horses they'd ridden in on, looking refreshed and ready. Lady Ismene and her daughter came out to bid them farewell, standing together by the door as Alyn and her lord mounted.
"Thank you for your hospitality," Miervaldis said, and bowed from the waist to Lady Ismene.
"No, thank you," she returned gravely. "Thank you for your honesty."
"And thank you for your promise," said Aithne. Her voice was full of hope and she was smiling as though it had all been arranged already. Alyn just hoped they weren't going to let her down. Miervaldis turned his mount to go but as he did so, the butler emerged from the house and came to Alyn's mare.
"From the kitchen," he said, and handed her up a little box.
"Thank you!" said Alyn, realising instantly what it was. Her mouth watered despite the meal they'd just eaten and Lady Ismene laughed as they rode away.
When they were a good distance down the road, she urged her horse closer to Miervaldis'. They weren't riding at speed any more, which made it easier to have a conversation.
"My lord, can I ask a question?"
He glanced around at the countryside but there was no-one visible for miles around.
"Yes, go on."
"This means it wasn't Lord Berinhard and it wasn't Lord Isidor?"
"And it can't have been Pyrrhus?" She felt nervous, although the idea of the little page doing anything violent was ridiculous.
"Theoretically it could have been but no, I don't think it was. I rather think Pyrrhus went down to town to lead Isidor to Kadir and then stayed there until his brother came back. That's why Isidor said Pyrrhus had been with him."
"So was Lord Isidor really arguing about a horse?"
Miervaldis laughed. "He may have been but I think not. I suspect, whatever the actual debate was, he was arguing on behalf of Kadir and Aithne, although without actually mentioning them, of course. He seems to be very loyal."
"So... so who's left?"
Miervaldis shifted position in the saddle and sighed. "I don't know. We seem to have done a remarkable job of eliminating just about everyone who was in the running..."
Brenna, Alyn thought, remembering the list they'd gone over before. Aethan. Lord Isidor. Kadir and Pyrrhus. Who were the other two suspects?
"There's Lord Cassian, my lord," she said.
"There is, although I'm still not happy about accusing him in the absence of any evidence and motive. If he won't talk to me and we can't find anything else, though, we may have to offer the inadequacy of what we have to the Sun Court. Well, we'll do what we can. But there is one other avenue we haven't pursued all the way to its end."
"Do you mean Liliya, my lord?"
"That's right. Liliya and her mother, Silvi. I want to find out more about them, although I don't know how. Perhaps..." He glanced at the sky. "If we hurry back we'll have time to head into Ellmore this afternoon. I... may be able to talk to some people who might know."
Alyn looked sideways; he was staring straight ahead with a noncommittal expression on his face, but she guessed who he meant. Did that mean he would take her into town too? Was he going to trust her with his secrets? The thought was an oddly flattering one.
She urged the dun mare onwards after the brown gelding, hoping they'd be in time.
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