Fantasy of Manners
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Murder Will Out: 2. Dame Azrabêth's Request
A few hours later, Denethor and Finduilas were being roused by an insistent knock on their bedchamber door. Since both were firm believers in the benefits of the occasional bout of solitude, they would spend some nights in separate bedchambers. This, however, was not one of those nights, and so Denethor woke not only to the hammering on his door, but also to Finduilas's elbow beating its own rhythm against his ribs while she pretended to sleep. At last he capitulated and got up and, quickly donning a chamber robe, went to open the door. His valet was waiting on the other side.
'My lord, your father requests your presence in his private chamber,' the man said, stiffening to attention.
Whatever remnants of sleep were still clinging to Denethor, that swept them away in full. It was not one of his father's habits to demand audiences in the middle of the night; there were usually few matters that Ecthelion considered too urgent to wait for the morning. His blood ice-cool, he brushed the valet's mind with his own, too light for the man to notice, and allowed himself to relax a little. Whatever it was, the servant had not found the Steward to be alarmed, which at least ruled out action by the Enemy.
'Did he give you a reason for his request?' he asked.
'No, my lord,' he said, and then, as if something in Denethor's voice had told him his master wouldn't be satisfied with that alone, he added, 'Your eldest sister is there, my lord, and another lady.'
Finduilas materialised at Denethor's side, a shawl wrapped around her nightgown. 'Did you recognise the lady in question, my good man?'
'No, your ladyship, I saw only her back.'
'Tell the Steward I shall join him presently,' Denethor said, then shut the door as the man went on his way.
'I suppose it's Dame Azrabêth,' Finduilas said, taking the shawl off while she stepped into the middle of the room. 'The other lady, I mean.'
'What makes you think that?'
'If it were a personal matter, Meneleth would be here alone. Since she is not, her profession must be involved, which means that the other lady can only be her House Mistress. I wonder what they want,' she added as she began undressing, her nightgown pooling on the floor like a discarded cloud. Denethor swept past her, picked it up and put it on the bed.
'That, I can tell you,' he said. 'They want Father's help. At this hour, the only other possibilities are death and war. Do you wish to come?' The fact that she had begun to wash was answer enough, but he thought it best to ask.
She lifted her head from the wash basin, rivulets of water dripping down her face. 'When a husband is summoned in the middle of the night, a prudent wife takes an interest. Will you help me do my laces up?'
A short while later, they were both washed, dressed, combed and entering the Steward's private chamber. Ecthelion was in shirtsleeves, cradling a cup, his guests sitting with their backs to the door, speaking in hushed tones. Despite the season, the fireplace was unlit, the only warmth coming from the large quantity of oil-lamps scattered over the mantel, desk, shelves. The room smelled like it always did to Denethor, of honeyed tea and old parchment and power.
'Denethor,' Ecthelion said, then raised his eyes. If he was surprised at seeing Finduilas, he did not show it. 'And my dear daughter-in-law. I believe you have both met Dame Azrabêth.' A quick glance passed between Finduilas and Denethor.
Azrabêth rose from her chair in a single motion, her hands arranged neatly over her waist, her lips pressed shut. Despite the lateness of the hour, her hair was impeccably coiffed. She was the sort of person who always woke to a sharply focused world, Denethor thought. He still only managed to do that about half the time.
'My lords,' she said with a curt nod.
'Brother. Sister,' Meneleth said, not bothering to leave her chair.
'Tea?' asked Ecthelion, ushering Denethor and Finduilas to their seats with a wave of his hand.
'I would rather attend to business directly,' Denethor said, siting down. His eyes were still on Dame Azrabêth. Being a man who paid as much attention to women's clothes as he did to almost everything else, he noticed she wore the same black gown with the embroidered golden tree she had worn to the funeral, the brooch at her throat slick with lamp-light. It told him something about her opinion of her own rank, but not enough.
'Yes, I thought you might,' Ecthelion said, pouring some tea for Finduilas. 'There has been another death in Laurelin House.'
'An unnatural one, I take it.'
'It was more than unnatural, it was impossible,' said Meneleth. Azrabêth raised a hand in warning, but she ignored it. Denethor deduced the other woman did not know his sister very well; once Meneleth got going, the safest course of action was to stay out of her way entirely. 'And I saw it myself, so tell me naught of stories growing in the telling! I heard a woman struggling with her murderer in a locked room, and when we opened the door, there was nobody else there.'
There was a polite cough, followed by the clink of a spoon on the side of a cup. 'There are ways of doing that,' Finduilas said softly, then took a sip of tea, as cool as if all the eyes in the room hadn't turned to her. 'For instance, the murderer could be hiding behind the door, and slipped into the crowd that entered the room when its...contents were discovered.'
'Impossible,' said Azrabêth. 'I was the only one to enter the room. There was no one else there, I assure you.'
'I take it there are no secret passageways or hideaways of any kind?'
'Hardly. The room has outer wall on two sides. On the remaining ones, it neighbours another room, and the corridor where we were all gathered. So even if there were a passage between the two rooms, the murderer would risk being surprised whilst escaping.' Despite what had happened, she set out the facts dispassionately, which made her rise a few notches in Denethor's estimation.
'Yes, I do suppose it would be too much to ask for,' Finduilas said, settling back in her chair. 'As would a large mirror.'
'What would we be doing with that sort of thing?' Meneleth asked. Azrabêth said nothing.
Denethor drummed his fingers on his chair arm. 'You said you heard the--deceased--struggle. Did you hear two voices?'
The question hung in the air for a moment, the only sounds the soft rustle of burning oil. Then a glance passed between Meneleth and Azrabêth, and the latter answered by some unspoken agreement.
'When I arrived, the noises had ceased, or as near to that as makes no difference. But there is no question of an accident. Our fellow scholar was stabbed, then pushed through a window pane,' she said flatly. Meneleth clutched the sides of her chair, her eyes burning.
'Goodness,' Finduilas said. 'It sounds rather excessive. But--forgive me--how did you know she was stabbed first?'
Azrabêth's expression was unchanged. 'She was stabbed in her stomach, and was lying face down against the window sill. The window, incidentally, is sixty feet above-ground, halfway up a sheer wall.'
'Dame Azrabêth has come to us for assistance,' Ecthelion said, setting his cup on the small table at his side. 'I am certain we can put the very best inquirers at her service--'
'No,' Azrabêth said. Ecthelion gave her a quizzical look. 'My lord, forgive me, I forget myself.' Denethor was certain she had not forgotten herself at all, but let it pass. 'I am certain the inquirers are thorough and discreet. But word has a way of getting out. And if it did, the consequences for the Houses could very well be disastrous.'
Meneleth's hand balled into a fist and thumped her chair arm. 'What does that matter? Losslin is dead, and while we sit here talking her murderer flees.'
Finduilas spoke again. 'Losslin? Was she the woman who received the message while we ate?'
Meneleth cooled a little, but not entirely. 'Yes. Yes, I believe you are right.'
A look passed between Denethor and Finduilas; a moment only, but enough for her to make plain that she was inviting him into her mind. It was an act more intimate than shared nudity, and as such he preferred to perform it in private. Still she held his gaze, insistent with the hardness of steel under the softness of velvet, and, blood threatening to rush to his skin, he touched the edge of her mind with his, enough for him to taste her thoughts, and she his. For an instant, the room and its occupants froze in place, and all he knew was the clarity behind her eyes, a lightning-bright mixture of the duty that came from receiving hospitality, and the blind face of justice, and above all a curiosity that was too young to know what duty and justice were. In that moment the dead scholar and her living murderer might as well be in another country entirely; it was all a chess problem, an unsolved puzzle, and it would be a pebble in her--their--shoe until the question was answered. Then she turned her eyes away and the bond tore with a slight pain and a jangle of nerves. Like always, he could feel her smell when he took a breath.
'My lord,' he said, turning to his father, 'I believe I can propose an adequate solution.'
Ecthelion's face did not lose its habitual expression of mild disinterest, but there was a spark in his eyes, and his mind was carefully shut. 'What do you propose?'
'I believe Lady Finduilas and I could go to House Laurelin in the morrow, and try to ascertain the true nature of tonight's events. I, because few doors are barred to the Steward's Heir, and the Lady Finduilas because--'
'Because Laurelin House is a house of women, and a woman may tell another woman something she might not tell a man,' Finduilas finished smoothly. 'Particularly things of an intimate nature.'
'Well, brother, I have to say I never took you for an inquirer,' said Meneleth.
'Rest assured that I have no wish to take up a new profession,' he said coolly. 'I merely believe that, since Dame Azrabêth wished for the discreet handling of a delicate situation, she might have more need of the skills of the councillor than those of the coroner. Perhaps I was mistaken.'
'I would be...well pleased if the Lord Denethor--and the Lady Finduilas, of course--were to handle this matter,' Azrabêth said. Her voice was not particularly loud, but somehow it reached all the corners of the room. Denethor stared at her; she managed to hold his gaze without losing her composure, which impressed him a little. 'That is,' she went on, 'if the lord Steward can see fit to dispense his son from his habitual duties.'
'I am certain the lord Denethor will manage to attend to both his duties and your problem,' Ecthelion said. 'I do not object to this proposal. But neither does the need for discretion overrule the laws of the land. If my son and his wife are unsuccessful, I shall have the case dealt with in the usual fashion, and sooner rather than later. Let none say that in Gondor, justice goes unserved. No matter where its hand may fall,' he added. Azrabêth's face was still as a plaster mask.
'My lord's proposal is most suitable,' she said, folding her hands on her lap.
Notes: The ideas on mind-reading and mind-bonding are extrapolations from canon references to these skills (both in LotR and UT); I have also incorporated some elements of mesmerism, since there are significant similarities between the two. 'Coroner' refers to the British Crown officials of the same name dating back to at least the Middle Ages, not to, you know, CSI:Minas Tirith or something like that. *g*
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