Fantasy of Manners
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Murder Will Out: 3. The Houses of Lore
Finduilas of Dol Amroth was the kind of woman who always took care when selecting her clothes. She knew this was a skill that many ignored, even more so in these days of iron and vigilance, but she was also aware that one's manner of dress was as much a language as Westron or Rohirric, and one in which true meaning was far more difficult to hide. Like with any other skill, one ignored it at one's own peril. Today, despite the tiredness of her interrupted sleep, she was still alert enough to pick a faded-blue dress with few ornaments and little sartorial fanfare. She had her maid arrange her hair in a simple and clean style, and eschewed face paints altogether. All in all, she was quite certain it gave her an air of studied cleverness without much in the way of cunning. A good thing if she were going to speak to those who weren't sly, and a better thing if she were going to speak to those who thought they were. As for her husband, he dressed as he always did, in modest attire that somehow came across as a declaration of pride and authority. The carrot and the stick, then; it all seemed most suitable.
After breakfast, a short visit to the nursery, and a shorter trip to the sixth circle, they were back in the Houses of Lore, in the domed building where the outside world was received and contained. In the high-vaulted halls, heavy with age and silence, there were rocks and rolls of parchment and embalmed animals preserved in glass cases, and beyond them a room full of reading desks, and bookshelves stretching all the way to the ceiling. A small stone intrigued Finduilas; it had a being of some description embedded into it, akin to an oversized snail. She tapped very lightly on the glass protecting it.
'I wonder what this is,' she said.
'I have seen them before,' Denethor said, 'though I can scarce remember what they are. I am certain Dame Azrabêth shall be able to elucidate it, since she's almost behind us. Feign a little surprise.'
A heartbeat, then, like Denethor had predicted, Dame Azrabêth's voice sounded at their back. 'I see the spiral conchs have captured your interest.'
Finduilas turned around, schooling her face in the manner suggested by her husband. Dame Azrabêth had changed into a sober grey. A slight swelling under her eyes was the only sign she had spent a mostly sleepless night. At her side stood another woman, this one hawk-nosed and swathed in dark blue. Her sleeves, Finduilas noted, were stained with chalk.
'My lords,' they said, Azrabêth louder than her companion, and curtsied. The formalities thus dealt with, the House Mistress picked up the threads of her words again. 'Your ladyship, the mollusc you were admiring was dug in the shale hills by the White Mountains. There are large quantities of them there, as akin to the rock they're in most cannot tell they were once living beings, like you or me. There a great many deal of such petrified beings in the region, and all evidently marine, even though the area is dozes of miles away from the ocean. Some scholars believe they were deposited there during the great upheavals that occurred in the early days of Arda, and that it is their incalculable age that has made them acquire the hardness and consistency of stone. I know a little of age, and am thus inclined to find this theory correct. This is the Provost of Laurelin House. To her, I have no secrets.'
The other woman did not change her rather sullen expression.
'Who is outside our exalted circle, then?' Denethor asked.
The corners of Azrabêth's moved upwards a little. 'Almost everyone at the moment, although I do not expect that to hold true for very long.'
'Might we walk whilst we talk?' Finduilas said. 'I should like to see the place where it happened.'
If either woman found the request ghoulish, they gave no signs of it. 'This way,' Azrabêth said. The floor smothered the sound of their steps to barely a rustle. 'I have said nothing to the Master of Telperion House, nor to any of his scholars. Those scholars of mine who were in that corridor last night know, of course, and though I have asked for their discretion, I am certain it was a fairly futile request.' Here her tone grew defiant, as if she were inviting censure only for the purpose of tearing it down. 'Scholars talk. It is what we do. As such, I do not expect it will be long before the entire House knows, if they don't already, and even less time until Telperion House knows of it. As for the apprentices, I would wish this to be kept from them for as long as possible. They have their own separate quarters, and so are unlikely to have heard it.'
'They are so feather-brained nowadays,' the Provost said, 'that I doubt they would have noticed it even if it had happened before their very eyes.'
'Whereas of course one belonged to the finest generation of apprentices in living memory and would have noticed everything immediately,' Azrabêth said without malice. 'My dear Provost, I daresay that our teachers' complaints about us were much the same as the complaints our apprentices will have about their own pupils, and that each generation of apprentices rates its own wit and learning as the best of all. I believe they noticed what we would have, which is to say a little, and have set out to gossip as much as we would have, which is to say a lot.'
'What of the servants?' Denethor asked. They were leaving the main building now, the cool shadow giving way to a winter sun that was sharp but not warm.
'My chambermaid was present,' said Azrabêth. 'Among other qualities, she was chosen for her discretion. However, the nature of secrets is such that they have a way of getting out when they are kept by more than one person. And even then, there is doubt. Still, any talk amidst the servants is not my worry. Nor is that of the apprentices; as long they know nothing for certain, we may manage to retain the goodwill of their families.'
They walked without speaking for a few moments, the only noises the crunch of the gravel in the footpath. If it weren't for the mass of stone buildings visible here and there, their surroundings suggested the tranquil valleys of Lossarnach far more than the streets of Minas Tirith. The freshly-cut lawns were spotted with tree copses, birdbaths, sundials, even statues and remnants of old buildings. A ragged flock of people clad in the brown robes of apprentices sat around a cluster of ruined pillars, so artistically arrayed that Finduilas was certain the effect owed little to the hand of nature. A man in deep green robes was directing his charges' efforts at drawing the ruin with charcoal pencils. The youngsters were few in number, Finduilas couldn't help but notice, and the boys numbered much fewer than the girls. She turned her face away.
'Have you summoned the embalmers yet, Mistress?' she asked.
'No, they will not attend to a death of violence without the permission of a coroner from the Houses of Healing. Fortunately, we have our own Healers here, and they have examined the body. It is being kept in one of our ice houses.'
How quickly, Finduilas considered, the sum total of one's being was reduced to "the body" after death. A few ducks flew over the greenhouses at the edge of the lawn, utterly indifferent to the fleetingness of all human passions. 'So the room is...empty, then?'
'Yes, you needn't worry about coming across the gruesome sight we found last night,' said Azrabêth. Finduilas wasn't particularly worried about last night's sight, gruesome or no, but she said nothing. 'Bar that, we have left the place exactly as we found it.'
They were approaching the buildings of Laurelin House proper, a haphazardly placed mass of stone walls, marble porticoes, columns with carved lintels; over the doorway of the main building, there was a bass-relief depicting an open book, a compass rose and a few other representatives of the equipment of learning. A few people were coming or going, some in the robes of scholars, others in ordinary clothes or the livery of couriers or servants. Azrabêth slowed down. 'We must part here, as I am afraid my duties make no concessions to grief. Lirniel will take you to our living quarters and show you all may need to see.'
'What of those who were present at last night's commotion?' Denethor asked. 'When may we speak to them?'
'The Provost will take you to those who are not otherwise engaged. The others may have to wait a little.' There was a trace of anxiety to her tone. 'I hope you do understand that we have to carry on as though nothing untoward has happened. If those who are lecturing or have similar obligations were to fail to attend to them--'
'We understand,' said Denethor curtly.
Relief seeped into Azrabêth's face and was gone in an instant. 'Then we may all set down to our tasks. If you will excuse me, my lords,' she added with a bow of her head, then walked over to the main building.
'This way,' Lirniel said, making a brusque gesture towards a squat building to the left of the main entrance.
'Are you an artist?' Finduilas asked. 'I noticed the chalk in your sleeves.'
The woman looked at her clothes, but did not bother to pat away the dust. 'I was an artist. Now I merely teach others, on occasion. The chalk was left over from one such occasion, a few days ago. The laundry here is perhaps not carried out with the same frequency as in other, more exalted circles.'
A muscle was tightening on Denethor's cheek, but when we spoke his tone was no sharper than usual. 'Are you named after the Lirniel who painted Mardil Voronwë Takes His Oath of Office?'
'No; I am the one who painted it.'
Finduilas knew the work they were referring to: a massive mural in the main Chambers of Remembrance, in the House of the Stewards. When she had first seen it, she had mistaken its painted light for the real thing.
'Truly? You must have started soon after toddling, then, since it was finished fifty years ago.'
Lirniel's look of sullen indifference did not change. 'I started it when I was nineteen; I finished it five years later. I am now seventy-three. Does that answer all your questions on my work, my lord?'
Finduilas suppressed an urge to smile at the prospect of this woman trying to intimidate her husband. Denethor looked at Lirniel much like a cat contemplating a new and interesting species of mouse. 'All save one,' he said, pinning her with his gaze. 'In that work, you achieved perfection. Was it that which made you stop?'
She turned her face away. 'Perfection does not abide in Arda marred.'
'Where is Losslin's window?' Finduilas asked, ending the awkward moment, then looked up at the nearest wall of the hall of residence. On the lower levels there were large bay and oriel windows, some made of stained glass. Those on the upper levels were plain diamond paned. She drew down her gaze. It was clear that Lirniel found her question foolish, but while she did not bother to disguise her opinion, she was clearly not going to voice it.
'On this side,' she said, turning around the corner, then pointing to the third floor. 'That one.'
Finduilas stepped a little closer to the wall. The building was surrounded by a strip of rose bushes and ivy, but even though she could not get within touching distance of the wall, she had no trouble in spotting the broken window, reminding her of a blinded eye. She looked down at the ground for a few moments.
'May I take you up to the room?' Lirniel asked.
'You may when the Lady Finduilas is done,' Denethor said, in a tone that brooked neither opposition nor disobedience.
'I am done,' Finduilas said, drawing back. She had seen no footprins or other signs of disturbance in the soil or the plants; that possibility closed, it was time to look for answers in the room itself.
Notes: The being 'akin to an oversized snail' is, as I'm sure you've all deduced, a fossilised ammonite; as for the upheavals in the history of Arda, see The Silmarillion, page 1, passim, ad nauseam. The function of an ice house is pretty self-explanatory, but I think you may find it interesting to know that these structures were being built as early as 1700BCE, with very little difference in basic layout from the ice houses in British manor houses in the early 20th C. The ducks and their non-opinions on human passions are a reference to one of the most wonderful sentences in the English language, 'How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks.' It comes from Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, which, given the context of the fic is rather...appropriate. *g* Mardil Voronwë was the first Ruling Steward of Gondor.
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