Fantasy of Manners
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Murder Will Out: 5. In the Senior Common Room
Chapter Five: In the Senior Common Room
The common room stood in the ground floor, at the end of a series of stairs, corridors and one room filled with unstrung, keyless or otherwise mutilated instruments, and which was inexplicably serving as a passageway. Upon reaching their destination, the first thing Finduilas noticed was the light: it was a hushed green, and at first she thought the widow panes, of which there were a considerable amount, had been tinted. Then, a second later, she realised the windows were covered in a sea of morning glories, ivy, traveller's joy, and bower willows. A scent of rosemary and peppermint tea permeated the room and, together with the wall of greenery, reminded Finduilas of the story of the sleeping palace in its cloak of briars. This place, however, had no footmen and scullery maids sleeping under a hundred years of dust; instead it contained several women very much awake, and the portraits lining one of the walls were the kind that made the smallest speck of dust unthinkable.
'My lord Denethor, son of Steward Ecthelion, and the Lady Finduilas of Dol Amroth,' Lirniel said to the room as Finduilas cursed her inwardly. Conversations slowed, then halted and, almost in unison, the scholars rose for a curtsy. To compound the awkwardness, a clock began chiming the hour. 'They have requested a--'
'Spare us, Lirniel,' one of the women said. 'We know full well why they are here.'
Lirniel's face hardened, along with her voice. 'If those are the standards of discretion in this House, better that I say nothing.'
Before anyone could reply, Finduilas moved towards a table on which there was a metal device bearing an unfortunate similarity to a mechanical cockroach. 'What an interesting object,' she said. The scholar on the other side of the table looked on in apprehension. The trim of her collar was peering over the neckline of her robes. 'What does it do?' Finduilas went on. 'And please do sit.'
'Yes, do sit yourselves again,' Denethor said, moving closer to a chair. 'We have some questions to ask you, if you will be so kind as to answer.'
A woman whose hair reminded Finduilas of a dandelion turned to her neighbour. 'What did he say?'
'He said he wanted to ask us some questions,' the other woman said, loudly.
'Do you still have need of me?' Lirniel asked. She had not moved from her spot since entering the room. Denethor sat down in one smooth motion, his expression both frosty and unreadable. Finduilas knew this meant he was ill-at-ease, but anyone who did not know him as intimately as she did--which was to say everyone else--saw it only as a display of coolness and power, as if he knew far more than anyone else and was disinclined to share.
'We shall, later, and know how to find you,' he said. 'For now, you may leave us if you wish.'
Lirniel lost no more time in complying than Denethor had lost in saying it, and in the space of two heartbeats she was gone from the room. Finduilas, settling down on a chair, skirts tucked carefully in one hand, felt the mood around her relax fractionally but unmistakably, though hardly enough to make her feel welcome. Her husband and she might be treated with the politeness due their rank, but she could tell they were intruders nonetheless, a pair of cuckoos in this well-ordered nest. She did not think it was personal, or caused solely by the unhappy circumstances; rather, she was certain the scholars would have closed ranks at all times, against all outsiders, which was to say against anyone and everyone who had not been admited into the bonds of their fellowship. Still, if one could not gain their trust, one might still achieve their cooperation. She shot Denethor a quick warning glance, asking him not to speak before she did, then resumed her one-sided conversation.
'Is this a counting device?' She ran her fingers close to a metal rim inscribed with numbers. 'That is the Eldalondë sequence, is it not?'
'Y-yes,' said the scholar across the table, glowing with sudden enthusiasm but not becoming any less flustered, which led Finduilas to assume the latter was a permanent characteristic, rather like freckles or a crooked nose. The woman's fingers moved over the device in sleight-of-hand quickness, as solid as her voice was shaky. Gears moved and spun with a series of clicks. 'It is a, umm, calculating engine. You use it for the more, ah, complex functions, and also to calculate the positions and motions of the stars.' A little of the spark leaked from her eyes at this, as though she thought that using the engine for mapping constellations was the first step down some dreadful slope.
'The stars are my speciality,' said a woman lounging in an armchair. She looked like an overgrown twelve-year-old from her razor-straight brown hair pulled back with a child's band to her one visible foot, dangling an inch off the ground. She had the confidence of youth, too, that period of certainty that lasts until the discovery of one's lack of omniscience.
'And you are?' Denethor asked.
'Mistress Leofwyn,' she drawled, settling both feet on the floor. 'Astronomer and star-charter and expert on navigation by celestial markers. Master Edamir and I wrote the definitive treatise on that subject. It is called Guide to Precision in Navigation, you may have heard of it--'
'I have,' Finduilas said, confident that her husband would not answer the question; Denethor objected to any body of water bigger than a full tub.
Leofwyn instantly turned her sleepy eyes towards her. 'How wonderful, your ladyship. Those who have not read it--' here she looked sideways at a woman sitting near a corner, who promptly put a hand over her mouth '--keep asking me to use the stars to discern who killed poor Losslin. I have told them that, if they wish for someone to scry upon the stars and make conjectures about the future, they shall have to look elsewhere.'
'But it is not conjectures about the future that shall give us the heart of the matter,' Denethor said, in a low tone that somehow managed to make everybody's eyes turn towards him. 'It is conjectures about the past.' For a few moments, the only sound in the room was the muffled ticking of the clock, then he resumed. 'Were any of you present at last night's...commotion?'
There was a timid cough from the corner. 'I was there.'
Finduilas turned her face towards the woman, and recognised the slippery brown eyes, the drooping lip. What was her name? Telpwen? Telerin?
'And you are...?' Denethor asked.
'Mistress Telerin, my lord. My room is adjacent to Mistress Losslin's, so I heard much of last night's events.'
Finduilas and Denethor exchanged a quick glance.
'Did you notice anything...unusual when you returned to your room?' Finduilas said softly.
She shook her head. 'Not at all.'
Denethor steepled his hands over his lap. 'Tell us everything.'
Telerin's hand curled around her chair arm. 'I think it must have been just after midnight. I was in bed, asleep, when a noise roused me. At first I thought I had dreamt, or that it had been nothing, because there was silence for a few moments. Then there was more noise.'
'What manner of noise?'
'Well, sounds of struggle, I would say. Large things falling on the floor. Broken glass.'
'And did you hear voices?' Finduilas asked.
She hesitated for a few seconds. 'Losslin's voice. Yes, certainly her voice.'
'But no others?'
'No. No, I believe not.'
'And at some point during the altercation, you left your room to see what was happening,' Denethor said.
'Yes, that is so. There were other scholars there already, doubtlessly having been also raised by the noise.'
'Doubtlessly,' Denethor repeated, managing to make his voice sound both sincere and sardonic. 'Who were they?'
Telerin blinked. 'Who?'
'The other scholars who were in the corridor; who were they?'
She pursed her lips in concentration. 'There were four of us at first, I believe. More scholars rose from their beds after the...incident,' she finished feebly. Denethor nodded and she went on. 'Mistress Nethiel. Mistress Ithilwen. Mistress Inzilphel. And myself, of course. And then Dame Azrabêth. I believe Mistress Nethiel had her summoned. Yes, I am almost certain it was Mistress Nethiel.'
'What did she say about Nethiel?' the dandelion-haired woman asked. Like others who were hard of hearing, she seemed to have made up for her loss by gaining vocal volume.
'She said it was Nethil who called Dame Azrabêth last night.'
The woman nodded in satisfaction. 'Twas so indeed. Her maid told mine this morning.'
'Are all scholars so served?' Finduilas asked, a little startled. Certainly there had been no maid in Losslin's bedroom last night.
Leofwyn let out a brief and mirthless laugh. 'I think you shall find such luxuries to be unsuited for our life here. No, we have but one maid for each corridor, to attend to the needs of all who reside there, and pressing needs, at that. As you may surmise, most of the time we attend to our requirements ourselves. Your ladyship.'
Finduilas made herself stare straight at Leofwyn despite the wave of hot blood threatening to ride up her neck and across her face. 'So Mistress Nethiel roused the maid who tends to the scholars in that corridor, and that maid then went to summon Dame Azrabêth: is that correct?'
Leofwyn shrugged in silence as Telerin answered. 'Yes. Yes, it must have been so.'
'I have too much experience of the world,' Denethor said, 'to know that there often many a slip twixt "must have been" and what truly was. These two chambermaids, can one talk to them?'
'I assume it can be arranged,' Telerin said.
Denethor leaned back in his chair, one hand rising to brush a lock of hair away from his forehead in a nonchalant gesture. Finduilas noticed his gaze had sharpened, but she doubted anyone else had spotted this. 'How about you?'
'I beg your pardon?'
'All of you,' he went on. 'I was wondering if you could indulge me, and tell me a little of the workings of your House. I doubt I shall come across more excellent guides.'
A few of the scholars glanced quickly at each other. Leofwyn did not, but it was she who answered nonetheless. 'May we know the reason for such interest?'
Finduilas's stare caught Denethor's, only for a moment; then he nodded, almost imperceptibly, before turning back to the assembled company. 'Call it an interest in scholarship, for I have such a thing myself. Or, if that is not enough, tell me how your House functions in health, and the reasons for the removal of one of its members may become more apparent. I am told that this, too, is how Healers find which maladies are affecting their patients, no matter how rare or subtle: by the careful study of their effects.'
'But there was no reason, was there?' the woman sitting next to Telerin said. 'It was just a senseless thing.'
Finduilas looked around furtively. All seven scholars in the room were focused on her husband, down to the mathematician who had placed an arm protectively next to her calculating engine. Finduilas whispered to her.
'Forgive my bluntness, but may I know where your dispensary is? A certain monthly occurrence is demanding my attention.'
'There are no things without reason, Mistress,' Denethor was saying, 'only reasons that are disliked by some, or by many.'
'There--there is a passage to the left of the common room,' the scholar whispered hurriedly, her face reddening a little. 'If you take it you should come to the main building; the dispensary is in the ground floor, just after the storage rooms.'
'Thank you,' Finduilas said, and slipped out of her chair, feigning the slight hesitancy of someone in pain. If someone noticed her leaving, no one saw fit to comment upon it. Denethor's voice sounded behind her as she opened the door and walked out.
'As for this death, I believe it is senseless only in appearance,' he said to the scholars. 'I believe someone took great care to make it look so.'
She shut the door soundlessly and resumed her normal gait as she walked down the corridor, looking for the passage mentioned by the scholar. Denethor had been right when he'd said the murder wasn't senseless at all, she told herself. At thirteen, she had read a book called Discovery of Conjuration, and though at the time she had seen little else in it other than the fact that her then gangly, clumsy body had none of the limber quickness needed to perform most of its long list of tricks, she had returned to it eventually, at a more sober age. What she had learned had little to do with palming cards or coins, and everything to do with misdirection. The real trick was to construct an elaborate shell to occult the simplicity of what one was in fact doing; she had no reason to think this did not apply to death as thoroughly as it applied to life.
Still, for now she could set this knowledge aside, to be looked at later. She had a library to find.
Notes: Do I really need to tell you where the sleeping palace in the cloak of briars comes from? The calculating engine is the bastard offspring of a pinwheel calculator, a tabulating machine, and a difference engine. That sort of technology is not so advanced that Third Age Gondor wouldn't be able to produce it, given that the Antikythera mechanism (a mechanical computer) clocks in at 2,000+ years, and the Book of Ingenious Devices (Kitab al-Hiyal), published in the mid 9th C, details all sorts of interesting machines; Gondorian scholars would have the added benefit of at least some of the knowledge from Atlantis, er, Númenor. In the here and now we'd know the Eldalondë sequence as the Fibonacci numbers, which can be expressed by the equation F(n) = F(n-1) + F(n-2) for values of n higher than 1. And now I realise that this is probably the only Arda-verse fanfic in the entire history of the world that contains references to equations, of all things, and I may never live down the embarrassment. *g* Discovery of Conjuration is a reference to Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), one of the classic texts on magic (stage magic, that is, not Witch-King of Angmar magic), though the book in this fic is an actual manual and has little in common with the contents of Scot's work. If you have a burning desire to read Discoverie, there's an electronic version here: http://www.conjuror.com/archives/discoverie/discoverie.html
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