Fantasy of Manners
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Murder Will Out: 4. Unnatural Causes
When they entered the building, Denethor was immediately lost. This was by no means an infrequent affliction; as it came to mountains, rivers, and all the other incidents of natural terrain, he needed only to look at a map once to know the lay of the land in full. As it came to buildings, however, no amount of map-reading sufficed for him to learn their geography. The disposition of the Citadel, with its doors that opened into nothing and stairs that wound sideways, he had learned through habit. This building, while somewhat less convoluted, defeated him utterly. He dealt with this annoyance as he always had: by knowing exactly where he was, and expecting the rest of the world to govern itself accordingly.
Lirniel was perversely lively. 'This building was given to us many generations ago, with precise instructions as to its construction and upkeep,' she said as they climbed a set of staircases that seemed to be going nowhere in particular. 'It has somehow acquired the name of Nimiphel's Folly.'
'Who can fathom the reasons for such things?' Denethor said. At his side, Finduilas bit her lower lip so she wouldn't laugh. Finally, they emerged into a corridor, smelling of wax and panelled in dark wood that was worn white with age in spots. At one end, dusty sun filtered in through a window and fell on a faded red carpet. At the other end, closer to them, there was a round mirror--or rather, an optical device that made objects appear smaller and upside down. This time, Lirniel refrained from comment.
'Is this the corridor?' Finduilas said, her tone a fraction subdued. No one needed to ask what she meant.
'Yes,' Lirniel said. 'Losslin's room is at the other end.'
'These baskets in the doors,' Denethor said, 'I assume they are for post?' He was looking at wooden boxes placed on the lower halves of the doors, each with a sloping lid. On some of them, an artistic hand had placed all manner of decorations; others were dented with years or ill-use.
'They have sprung lids, so nothing can be casually taken from outside,' Lirniel said, then glanced at Finduilas. 'And we opened Losslin's box and did not find a diminutive army hiding there. Here.' She produced a key from some inner pocket of her robes and opened the last door on the right.
They all stood still for a heartbeat as the door swung open. Then Lirniel went in with a proprietary stride, as if unwilling to let strangers in without the supervision of her gaze. Finduilas and Denethor followed. Inside, the room was just as Dame Azrabêth had described: it seemed a whirlwind had tore through it, leaving behind chaos and the coppery scent of old blood. Denethor's eyes turned instinctively towards the window; a few handspans below the sill thre was a dark stain, oozing down the wall and spreading into a dried puddle on the floor.
Lirniel stood board-stiff by the door, arms crossed, while Finduilas, skirts gathered in one hand, picked her way through the papers, books, and broken glass, her gaze sliding over the debris at her feet. Denethor stepped up to the wall closest to him and ran a hand over it, looking for hidden joints or hollows in the wood or the plaster. He knew the idea was improbable, but then so was much of reality. Satisfied that there was nothing untoward, he moved to the second wall. The narrow bed placed against it had not escaped the previous night's depredations: the coverlets and sheets had been torn off, and one of the pillows lay eviscerated on the floor in a pool of feathers.
'The door was locked from the inside,' he said, turning around. 'With the key still in the lock.'
'So I was told,' Lirniel said. 'I was not here last night.'
Diplomacy be blasted, he decided, and pressed onwards. 'Where were you?'
She frowned but answered, albeit with a sigh. 'In my own room, in the other side of the building. Asleep, until I was awakened.'
Finduilas spoke, her tone suggesting she had ignored the previous exchange entirely. 'It is all very strange. Vexingly so.' She looked at the upturned table and the papers and instruments scattered on the floor around her. 'Why did she not reach for the door? I would have, in her place. I would not have moved towards the window.'
'Perhaps the murderer dragged her towards it, then,' Lirniel said, not bothering to conceal her disinterest.
'No.' Denethor moved closer to his wife, his eyes turning to the debris at his feet. Two large sheets of vellum were indented by footprints, spotted with blood. 'There would be two sets of footprints here, or one set of footprints and signs of dragging. She was walking of her own accord when she moved through here.'
Finduilas made a small unhappy noise. 'As I said, vexing. It suggests she was stabbed, moved--or perhaps staggered--towards the window, and then the murderer walked around this mess and pushed her head through the glass.' She laid a hand on Denethor's wrist. 'What does this suggest to you?'
'Hatred. And someone who was not so preoccupied with escape he did not wish to stay and watch her final agony, but somehow managed to vanish nonetheless.'
'Yes,' she said, looking behind him. 'It is--wait.' She slipped past him, towards the set of shelves placed in an alcove in the wall. 'May I have those sheets of vellum?'
He swept them up in a single motion and brought them to Finduilas, who had taken out a lacy handkerchief from one of her pockets. She put it over her gloved hand before she took the sheets, holding them with her thumb and forefinger and with evident distaste. She moved closer to the shelves, leaning until she could align the vellum with the third shelf from the bottom. 'Well,' she said.
Denethor moved closer to her. On the edge of the shelf there was a thin layer of dust, and on it something that was unmistakably half a footprint. The imprint on the vellum was less clear, but even so the two prints coincided neatly in size and shape. He looked up to the highest shelf; it was a foot or more above his head, and there were several gaps between the books placed upon it. 'We are trying to grab smoke here,' he said. 'That footprint was made when she reached for books in the higher shelves.'
'Yes,' Finduilas said, laying the vellum sheets on the edge of the upturned table and pocketing the handkerchief again. 'But then why not use that small stool? It is, after all, its purpose.'
The stool in question was lying on its side near the shelves, as forlorn as a sunken ship. Denethor glanced at the book spines again, at the row of worn leather and faded gold lettering. 'Finduilas... Can you tell me which books are on the floor?'
There was a series of rustles behind him, and then she answered. 'There is a Grand Treatise on the Poetic Arts and Forms. Volume--'
'Five,' he said. They turned to look at each other, their eyes meeting in a flash of mutual understanding, like a lighthouse signalling a ship. In that moment they both knew, without needing to voice it, that Losslin had climbed the shelves to throw those books at someone--or something--last night. Why, it was yet unclear--there might be more ineffective means of self-defence, but Denethor was hard pressed to think of them--but one did not throw away one of the puzzle pieces simply because one did not it know where it fit. He stepped a little closer to the upturned table, his gaze falling down to the sheets of vellum hanging upon it, so fine they were nearly translucent. He touched the corner of one with the tip of his fingers.
'This is uterine vellum,' he said, lifting his eyes to Lirniel. The woman was now leaning slightly against one side of the doorframe, her face blank. 'Could Losslin afford this manner of thing?'
'On her own? I do not know, she was not given to talk at length about the state of her personal finance. But since she was the head Keeper of our archives, I think that even the Bursar might be persuaded to unfasten the purse strings on her behalf. Either that,' she added as an afterthought, 'or she could obtain such things from her patrons.'
Finduilas stilled and cocked her head to one side. 'Patrons?'
Lirniel answered as if the question were one of the most nonsensical she had ever heard. 'As I said, she was the head Keeper of the archives. As such, she sometimes undertook tasks for those outside our Houses that had necessity of her expertise. Locating some obscure treatise, for instance.' Her tone turned laconic. 'Or, more usually, assisting great lords and ladies with some point of their genealogies.'
'Did she perhaps bind books?' Finduilas asked.
'No, your ladyship, she did not. But I believe she would sometimes repair damaged books.'
'For outside patrons? And did she repair them in here?'
'I believe she took external commissions. But you shall have to ask the Bursar; she is the one who accounts such matters.' A small twist of the corner of her lips suggested that, unlike the Bursar, Lirniel would never soil herself with the vulgarity of money. 'I do not know if she undertook such tasks in here.'
'Who might know?' Denethor asked.
Lirniel shrugged one shoulder. 'Her assistants, I presume. But they are no doubt attending to their duties and hers at the moment.'
'They need not be summoned away from them,' Finduilas said, touching a broken pot of glue with the tip of her shoe. 'She was doing something to a book, or a scroll, last night. Why else would she need the glue, and the wooden rule, and that pair of scissors?'
Denethor looked at the floor. The scissors in question were stuck through a sheaf of papers; an upturned inkwell had speckled them black. He picked up the paper, scissors and all, taking care not to spill too much ink. Luckily, most of it had dried overnight. The sheaf of papers turned out to be an unbound book, its spine still stiff with glue. He peeled off the top of the first page. The one underneath bore a title in florid and half-faded script. In keeping with the rule of inverse proportionality between the bombast of the lettering and the importance of the contents, it read A Monograph of the Sub-classes of Barnacles in the mouth of the Lefnui, with Figures of all the varieties. He flipped through the book as much as he could, aware of Finduilas's gaze on his hands. Some of the pages were stuck together, perhaps with age or poor storage. Other still had only recently been pulled apart. He soon placed the book back where he had found it; whoever had killed Losslin was unlikely to have done it over depictions of shellfish.
'Who was outside this chamber last night?' he asked.
'I do not know. I--'
'You were not here,' he finished. 'So you have told us. I suggest you ascertain who was.'
She opened her mouth to speak, but Denethor stopped her with a look. Her arms uncrossed. Her eyes turned away.
'I can take you to the common room,' she said. 'Someone there might know.'
The steel in his veins and gaze softened. When he spoke again his tone was neutral. 'Do take us there; we would do well to speak with other scholars of your House.'
Lirniel stepped away from the doorway and fished out the key as Denethor offered his arm to Finduilas. She took it, her brow furrowing, then smoothing. 'Who was she?' she said as the three of them started to leave. Denethor could tell she was asking her question of no one in particular. When she spoke again, however, her eyes had turned to Lirniel. 'Who were her friends? More to the point, who were her enemies?'
'I did not know her well,' Lirniel said. 'Others may answer you better.'
'So may this room,' Finduilas said. 'Make sure it is left undisturbed until we find the author of the outrage.'
'When might that be?' Lirniel asked. Her tone was polite, but there was an unmistakable note of insolence in its edge. Finduilas and Denethor turned to face each other, her light eyes meeting his dark ones. By unspoken agreement, it was she who answered, her lips moving in a smile that was soft, and guarded, and knowing.
'Perhaps sooner than some might think.'
Notes: My ideas on the architecture of both the Citadel and Nimiphel's Folly owe quite a lot to descriptions of various folly buildings, particularly the Winchester Mystery House in California. Uterine vellum is made from the skin of unborn calves and is indeed the finest and most expensive kind of vellum. My fellow biologists may recognise the Real Word counterpart of the barnacles monograph and the irony inherent in Denethor's assessment of its importance. And to think some people say scientists don't have a sense of humour.
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