Fantasy of Manners
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Murder Will Out: 1. After the Burial
Bosola: Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.
Ferdinand: Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.
—John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
Chapter One: After the Burial
The Houses of Lore stood in the sixth circle of the White City, stretching from the Square of Stars to the Silent Street. Today, its many buildings had disgorged some of their scholars, who wound their way, black-clad and blinking in the sun, to the edge of the Houses of the Dead, where only Kings and Stewards rested aboveground.
Normally, the death of a scholar was far from a state occasion, but today Dame Auriel, the Mistress of Laurelin House, was being laid to rest, and when a House Master or Mistress died, the Steward or some close relative had always come to see them buried. It was not a matter of friendship; in the time of Steward Orodreth, the jest in the guesthouses of the lowest circle had been that the Lady Morwen had only gone to the burial of the Master of Telperion House to make sure he was dead. But, regardless of motive, it was the done thing, and though Denethor was still only the Heir, he had no intention of breaking with tradition. So today Finduilas and he had spent several hours in mourning-clad Laurelin House, being bowed to as they offered their condolences, and now sat in the great hall, waiting to test the theory that grief was easier to swallow after a five course meal. Dame Azrabêth, who was temporarily serving as the House Mistress while the matter of a permanent replacement was decided, had stood up to make the first speech of the day, and Finduilas, wedged between Denethor and his sister Meneleth, allowed both her mind and her gaze to wander over the hall after the first few sentences. On the black-trimmed tables, a few scholars had started to fidget. She began to study the fresco on the ceiling to prevent herself from doing the same, and gave up when she couldn't decide if the mist in the edges and cornices was distance or dust. She was about to start counting the number of people present when the noises of cutlery told her Dame Azrabêth's oratory had come to an end.
'Did Father get my message?' Meneleth asked Denethor as Finduilas tried a square of spiced bread.
'He did, and asked me to convey his regret at not being able to attend, but he is indisposed.'
Meneleth shrugged. 'Oh, well. Things fall where they will. How is your son, sister?'
'He is well. Toddling and babbling, and I suppose that it shan't be very long until he is running and talking. After that, I am told it gets worse.'
One of the scholars turned to them. Her hair was still only grey, but she had needed to be carried onto the dais, and a girl who had been introduced to Finduilas as her niece was cutting her food for her. 'My lord Denethor,' she said, in a voice too alive for her numb flesh, 'do you perhaps still remember me?'
He did not need to look at her for more than a few seconds. 'Dame Lindorien, Gondor never forgets those who have served her well.' The woman smiled wanly at that, and he spoke to Finduilas in a lower tone. 'She devised an antidote for one of the poisons of the Enemy, some fifteen years back.'
'I see,' said Finduilas.
Meneleth overheard them. 'Good times, those.'
'We have had better,' said the Bursar as she helped herself to one of the flagons of red wine.
'We have ceased to matter, Bursar,' said a woman with silk as white as her hair peering from under her the hem of her mourning robes. 'Who thinks of chemics or poetry when you have to think of battering rams?'
'A battering ram can knock down a wall,' pointed out a scholar with a drooping lower lip that gave her a permanently puzzled expression. Telerin, if Finduilas remembered correctly.
'So can chemics.'
'For that matter, so can poetry,' said another woman.
'She should know,' Meneleth said in a whisper. 'She instructs the apprentices in it, and has to listen to their production.'
'Yes, we have seen better times,' said Azrabêth. Her collar was pinned shut with a brooch, and above it her face was pale, and aged, and unyielding. 'Times when there was no higher honour than to be a scholar in the House of the Golden Tree--save that of the Stewardship, and that unreachable.' She paused, and Finduilas was certain she had added her last words only out of defference to her guests. 'Now there is more thought given to war than to philosophy, and we grow old and we grow fewer. The lights are dimming, and perhaps they shall fade altogether in our lifetimes.'
A pall of silence fell over the table at that. Finduilas looked at the hall again. It had been built for three times as many people, and the golden tree on the floor had faded with time, and had been left unrepaired. A small shiver ran down her spine into her stomach and settled there, and was only dislodged when a young boy in the livery of a servant came to the table and delivered a message to one of the scholars, who opened it, read it with a deepening frown, and finally crumpled it in her hands. The frown did not leave her face.
'What is the matter?'
'Nothing,' she said to her neighbour. 'A trifling affair.'
The other woman took a sip of glass. 'Well, you look like you have seen a ghost.'
'Why is that phrase so oft used?' said another scholar, setting down her cutlery and getting ready to tackle what was obviously a favourite bone of contention. 'Are ghosts so frequent their effects are well known?'
'Ghosts are merely the effect of magic upon a susceptible mind,' said someone on the other side of Dame Azrabêth.
'Come now, I am sure there is more to them than that--'
'I thought I saw a ghost once,' said Lindorien. She had paused to rest her stiff hands on the table. 'In the garden by the Western Courtyard. But then, it was twenty years ago. I may be misremembering in my dotage.'
Her niece whispered some protest.
'No, dear, I am not young enough to still believe myself immortal.' At that, the girl blushed and ducked her head low enough for her mousy hair to spill over her face.
'It might have been a mere matter of optics,' said the white-haired woman, and conversations continued all down the length of the table, punctuated by the clink of knives and forks and the sheen of the sunlight in glasses. But Finduilas couldn't help but noticing the woman who had received the message, the crumpled sheet carefully placed by her plate, as if she didn't want to leave it out of sight.
'Do you know who that woman is?' she asked her husband.
'The woman who received the message. No, do not look. She has a great deal of hair and does not quite know what to do with it.'
A flash of a smirk, and then he was serious again. 'No, I do not know her.'
'Losslin,' Meneleth said. 'Keeper of the archives. Do not mind her, they are all mad. Too much dust and too little sunlight.'
'Perhaps,' Finduilas said, noncommital, and stole another glance at the woman, who was now tackling a slice of pheasant breast. Then she turned her face away at the sound of a spoon drumming a goblet, announcing yet another speech.
* * *
Several hours later, when almost all the scholars were abed, Telerin was stirring out of light sleep when she heard it the first time. Her eyes opened before she could think, and when she did evertyhing was quiet again. She rolled back onto her side and kneaded the pillow with one hand, not bothering to stifle a yawn. The building always moaned during the night, and she had been living in it long enough not to notice, but three helpings of pudding thinned anyone's sleep.
A few moments later she heard it again. This time it was a sound of glass breaking, too loud to be mistaken for groaning beams. She sat up and reached for the tinderbox on her bedside table. When she'd lit her candle, the sound came again, half cry, half thump. She slid out of bed, slipped on a robe and ran into the corridor.
Others had heard the noise and were outside Mistress Losslin's bedroom, knocking on the door. The noises grew louder, shouts mixed with crashes and, finally, a wordless scream.
'Can't we knock the door down?'
'It's solid oak, we'll only bruise ourselves.'
'I sent for the key--'
'Mistress Losslin, can you hear us?'
Dame Azrabêth came into the corridor, keys jangling on one hand, a robe over her nightshirt, a chambermaid trailing her like a tugboat.
'What is all this nonsense about someone in Losslin's bedroom?'
There was another cry and the sound of something large breaking. Azrabêth strode over to the door and tried to slide one of the keys into the hole.
'The key is still inside, blast it.' She tried to ram the key home as she rattled the handle. 'Losslin. Losslin!'
Silence, and then a satisfying pling. She turned both key and handle, and the door swung inwards. The women huddled in the doorway.
Whatever candles had been lit, they had been put out when they'd been flung onto the floor, but coals were still burning in the fireplace, and that was enough for Telerin to see the upturned furniture, the books and papers scattered across the floor. Then, when her eyes turned towards the window, she saw the blood, and the body, half-slumped over the sill, head and shoulders shoved through the broken glass. Her hand rose to her throat, stopped halfway up. All of a sudden, she was inescapably aware of the smell, sticky and brackish. Dame Azrabêth was the first to move. She stepped into the room, picking her way carefully amidst the debris. She looked in the half-opened cupboard, peered behind the upturned table, but it was more for effect that out of need. They could all see plainly there was no one else in the room.
Notes: Denethor's sisters are mentioned in HoME XII. The book mentions two older sisters, but does not name them, so anything other than their existence is my own invention. Also according toHoME XII, Orodreth was the sixteenth Ruling Steward of Gondor (2655-2685); the Lady Morwen was his sister, and the grandmother of Egalmoth, the Eighteenth Ruling Steward. The scholars' Houses are my own creation, but I believe they are congruent with what we see of Gondorian culture in the canon.
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