Hmm. Didn’t quite make it to the expected cliffhanger … again.
I lost some of the afternoon with an emergency dental appointment for a cracked tooth, and I’m sitting here with my jaw still numb. The next chapter (the one with the cliffhanger that should have ended this episode) is difficult, and I don’t want to rush it.
Feedback of all kinds is welcome as ever.
Good intentions. I hardly seem to get a moment to investigate anything.
We’re so busy. In addition to half the academic lessons, I’m teaching Rhoswyn estate management and martial arts on alternate mornings. And two afternoons when the wind is right, I take her to the airfield and we fly in the glider. Hanna complains mildly that her dancing lessons will fall behind, but Rhoswyn prefers flying.
The second evening, under Gaude’s suspicious nose, Hanna and I check the wine cellars. The Cardu estate doesn’t produce wine, but Rhoswyn will need an educated palate in society. Stocking the cellar is Gaude’s responsibility and he’s prickly as a cactus when he sees me comparing the order history with the stocked bottles. He’s only distracted when Hanna picks a bottle for our evening meal and Rhoswyn’s first tasting lesson.
“An excellent choice,” he murmurs, unctuous as a wine trader, his fingers brushing the bottle and, totally accidentally, Hanna’s hand.
I smile tightly and close the old ledger. It seems the bottle found on the Low Lady didn’t come from this cellar. So where did the Duchess get it? Why didn’t she take one from her own cellar? If someone gave it to her, who was it? Shohwa-nia agrees with me: if I’m to solve this, it’s in the small details that others have overlooked. I believe the Duchess was drugged, and I want to find out who had access to the food and wine she had on board.
I’m becoming obsessed by finding out what happened to her. She’s invaded my sleep almost as if she’s haunting me. I dream of her, and of her last day. I dream of the Duke, looking out from his storm porch to the distant bay below, wondering why his wife is late. Or wondering when the body would be found.
Little surprise that I wake unrested.
I take no consolation from the fact that Hanna seems to not sleep well either. As much as she maintains her cheerful mask, her face looks thinner as the days go on, making her eyes seem larger. Now that’s a haunted look.
But it’s Hanna and Talan together who finally provide me with an opportunity to progress my investigation, on the afternoon of the fourth day.
Hanna’s claimed Rhoswyn for the afternoon. They’re driving to Bandry to select a ball gown for Rhoswyn and have it fitted. Hanna has a gown in her luggage. I haven’t of course, and I can’t afford one.
And Talan is held up in another part of the fort over some police business.
I’m supposed to wait for Talan. On the other hand, tomorrow the Duke is back.
I’m running out of time.
I can’t solve this murder in the next day, but maybe, just maybe, I can find something that eliminates him from the list of suspects. I’m going to tell him everything I know, for Rhoswyn’s sake, and I will feel so much better if I know I’m not helping a murderer.
I try to justify my plans to myself by noting that Talan doesn’t accompany Rhoswyn and me in the glider – there’s barely enough room as it is.
It’s not as if Talan is expected to be with me the entire time, I whisper to the empty room.
Doesn’t work; I feel a little sick at betraying her trust. I leave her a note that I’m out for fresh air and will be back in the evening. I tell myself that perhaps I’ll be back before she is.
The other problem, of course, is someone else might stop me. I am still under arrest.
I walk down to the stables, my heart hammering in my chest.
No one challenges me as I find the same placid mare Talan chose for me before and lead her out of her stable into the forecourt. A groom makes me jump by calling out a greeting as I fetch the saddle and bridle. I manage to return the greeting.
The stable is a busy place and the mare isn’t anyone’s prized cavalry mount. No one stops me. No one asks what I’m doing. And no one signs me out.
My heartrate is still sky-high as we canter gently down to the Coast Path. Every moment I’m expecting someone to yell and come after me.
It’s not till we’re hidden by a bend in the path that I slow the mare to a walk. My heartrate sinks, and her ears twitch as if she’s amused at my stress.
But I’m out on my own now, and getting back in will be even easier. As useful as it has been to me today, I add the stables to my list of security issues to discuss with the Duke when he gets back tomorrow.
I follow the Coast Path down to Stormhaven village below, and half an hour later, I hitch my mare to the post outside the Spyglass in the harbor.
Warwick greets me as I walk through the door.
“It’s our very own flying mermaid,” he greets me, and stands me an ale for having saved Lord Roscarrow’s life the night I’d arrived.
As I’d hoped, it’s a quiet time at the Spyglass, and Warwick is an easy man to get talking.
There’s little that happens in Stormhaven he doesn’t know something about. My problem is twofold: not making him wary, and knowing which half of what he tells me to discount.
He spins me the local tales of piskatellers, how they warn the fleets about storms, or rescue drowning men. How the fishing communities set an honorary place for them at table and fishing ships make offerings on leaving harbor.
I buy him an ale and a top-up for me.
He explains Feast Days on the Welarvor coast, and I finally understand what was going on when I met the troop of mounted police on the day I walked from Bandry.
Every summer three villages are chosen for a ‘raid’ on their Feast Day. The Welarvon Mounted Police turn up on horseback, dressed in ‘traditional’ costumes, which they never actually used, and round up all the townsfolk by blowing hunting horns and waving lances. A court is held in the town square and several miscreants are summarily punished by being thrown into the harbor. These usually include the mayor and any publicans. Then the police, including the Duke, serve the villagers their feast in the town hall, waiting on them hand and foot.
While he’s telling me that, I buy us another round of ales.
I tell him how Talan warned me against mutant pigs on the Coast Path, and when we’ve finished laughing, I slide in a casual question about the marriage of the Duke and Duchess.
“Sound as a new roof, it was,” he says and takes a quaff of ale. “I’m not saying it’s a good idea marrying for politics, not my place to comment, but it worked for them. Couldn’t believe what I read last year. Lot of people never been near the place saying those things about them. And that inquiry. Suicide? Nonsense. Don’t know what happened, but the Duchess wasn’t that kind of person.”
His eyes darken and he polishes the gleaming bartop with a cloth.
“Here, look at this.” He tosses the cloth aside and retrieves his infopad from behind the bar. What he shows me is a video of the last Stormhaven Feast Day. The Duke is strutting about in his cloak, his helmet tilted back. He’s sentencing Warwick and the mayor to their swim in the harbor. The Duchess is playing a part, kneeling and begging mercy for the ‘accused’. She’s dressed all in white with green seaweed wound around her.
“That’s an old tradition on the coast,” Warwick says, pointing at the dress.
“To symbolise Bounty?” One of the representations of the Goddess in the Shrine has a seaweed crown and sashes.
“Mmm,” Warwick says. “Bounty’s a city-folk name. Here on the coast we say morrohow—the gifts of the sea. What the sea gives, it may take back. The least of its gifts may be costly, or the greatest may be free. We’re all the same on the deeps.”
I’m not really listening—I’m looking at the Duke and Duchess. They fall out of character as judge and advocate when he haughtily refuses to listen to her pleas and passes judgment. They laugh, and as the villagers hurry Warwick and the mayor to their watery doom, she takes her husband’s arm. His hand comes to rest gently on hers, and the camera catches the exchange of looks.
I can feel it, with a stone-cold certainty. The Duke did not kill his wife.
There’s more on the Feast Day, but I close the video. It’s in a folder devoted to the Tremaynes. Warwick is an obvious supporter. There are pictures and videos of the pair and their involvment in the life of Stormhaven. The Duchess opening the new gardens at the Shrine. The Duke at a launch ceremony for a new fishing boat. Both of them at the election of a new mayor. A thanksgiving. A funeral. A wedding.
And a picture of the Duchess holding a bottle of wine outside the Spyglass.
The same wine I’d seen in the court report.
“Is that one of your wines?” I ask, peering at the image.
He squints. “Oh, no, that’s special that is. Only a few dozen made every year. The Duchess’ family makes it on their farm down near Port Eyren. They sent her a bottle every year. Was her favorite, you know.”
Unexpectedly, my eyes prickle and I cover it by blowing my nose.
That’s why I haven’t been able to find any mention of the wine on the InfoHub. It’s her family’s hobby wine.
I’ve taken a risk of alienating Talan, or getting us both into trouble, and I’ve barely made any progress. Aside from that I’ve settled in my mind that the Duke was not responsible. But am I being objective about that? I’m deciding that on the basis of seeing a video of him with his wife?
No. Not really objective.
Customers come in, and Warwick stops chatting to serve them. I realize I’ve spent too long. The light is fading and I wanted to be back before evening.
I leave with a wave and point my patient mare back up the winding path to the fort. The gentle rocking motion of her walk is relaxing. I sigh and close my eyes.
I’m not being objective about this investigation.
The fact is, I don’t want the Duke to be guilty.
Who do I think I am anyway?
I should drop this sleuthing. I have the Duke’s three month’s of ‘termination’ payment. That’s enough to get me a passage to the next world through a broker.
Anywhere beyond the reach of the conspirators on Newyan and Amethys. That’s the sensible course of action.
That rocking is making me sleepy.
And Warwick’s ale is stronger than I thought!
Stupid to match drinks with an innkeeper. I can’t afford to get drunk and let my guard slip. For all the arguments that Newyan will go for a legal attack against me rather than an assassin, I could easily have misread the situation. I’d be an easy target tonight.
I turn and look back down the path nervously. I can’t see anyone, but it is getting darker. Just my imagination spooking me, thinking there was someone behind me.
Yes, run away now. My grandfather would approve. Become nothing and nobody again. Offer no weakness, suffer no wound.
And yet, if I ran away now, I’d be letting Rhoswyn down. The Duke, too.
Not that letting him down is so important. He can look after himself.
But Rhoswyn’s begun to look up to me.
And I’m beginning to really love this place.
It’s bone-deep already.
Such a tangled web.
It’s a good thing the mare knows her way back, because I doze off, sitting right there on her back.
I’m kneeling at his feet, crowned and bound with the gifts off the sea. He lifts me up, then offers his arm.
I look up at his face, but the sun is shining in my eyes.
I wake up with a jerk as my mare snorts and tosses her head, happy to be home.
The stables are dark, the one light in the empty forecourt pointed at me and serving only to make the shadows on the sides deeper.
I dismount wearily, slipping down from the saddle.
“DOWN ON THE GROUND! NOW!”
I don’t even have time to react.
Hands grip my arms and force me, face-down, into the mud.
I’m handcuffed, lifted back to my feet, then thoroughly and professionally patted down for weapons.
Facing me is Pollard, the Duke’s security advisor. A couple of Mounted Police troopers did the searching. They’re holding my arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Pollard snarls at me.
“I was out for a ride,” I reply. “It was a pleasant evening, until you happened. What do you think you’re doing?”
“You’re under arrest!”
“Yeah. Old news, Pollard. I’m well aware of it. No one said I couldn’t go for a ride.”
I sense a hesitation from the troopers. One of them’s a guy I’ve been training with in the dojo. I don’t think they’re really happy with Pollard.
“You are supposed to be accompanied by Trooper Sandrey at all times—”
There’s an almighty clatter of hooves behind.
I twist around.
Talan, on her gelding, and she’s not happy.
We scatter and she leaps off, landing in front of Pollard, who backs away.
“Get those cuffs off,” Talan says over her shoulder before turning back. “What the nova do you think you’re doing, Pollard?”
“The prisoner was—”
“Escaping? Just how much do you not understand about horses? This is the front end.” She holds out her hand to the side, and her gelding immediate trots up to stand next to her. “That means the horse is moving towards you. If Miss Aguirre had been escaping you would have seen the horse’s ass. You’ll recognise what one looks like from your shaving mirror.”
“She’s supposed to be accomp—” Pollard tries.
“I was accompanying her,” Talan lies well.
She turns on the two troopers. They’ve freed me and they’re standing at parade rest and looking embarassed.
“You two! Saddles and bridles, then rub the horses down.”
She grabs my arm and pulls me past Pollard, slowing just enough to deliver one last comment.
“You don’t have authority over a single trooper in this fort, Mister Pollard, and you’d do well to remember that.”
We walk in icy silence for a couple of minutes.
I glance back. There’s no sign of Pollard.
“Thank you,” I say.
She doesn’t reply. Ominously, she says nothing at all while she hurries me through the fort until we’re standing outside the Duke’s office.
The Duke is back early.
And there’s a strange tension in the whole fort; a silence broken by the sound of troopers hurrying down passages.
My relief at being rescued evaporates, and is replaced by apprehension.
“Stay there,” Talan says curtly and slips inside.
I’m wearing the outdoor clothes that Danny gave me. They’re filthy with mud from the forecourt. I take the jacket off and use it to wipe my face and hands.
Talan must have known I’d gone down to the stables and shadowed me. That was why I’d felt there was someone behind me on the path.
I can hear her speaking and the Duke’s deep voice replying.
Was she spying on me, or just trying to protect me?
Then Talan is back out. Her nose wrinkles at the jacket but she motions me to give it to her.
She’s standing in front of me. We’d be face to face, but she’s too tall for that. I’m going to get a crick in my neck, but this is probably not a good time to make that sort of wisecrack.
She’s still angry, but I don’t think it’s all directed at me.
I whisper, “I’m sorry, Talan. I put you in an awful position. I owe you.”
“You do,” she says. “So do me this one thing in return. Tell nothing but the truth in there.”
She moves to aside to usher me in. The door closes behind me.
Duke Tremayne is standing looking out of his open window, hands behind his back. However he might try to disguise it, every line in his body tell me he’s furious.
I clear my throat. “Is Rhoswyn all right?”
He turns abruptly, perhaps surprised at my first words.
His eyes travel up and down me, taking in the mud on the front of my trousers, the smears on my hands and face. I seem to be making a habit of turning up in front of him worse for wear.
What does he see? What’s going on behind those eyes?
“Talk to me about Rhoswyn,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
This can’t be about my escapade today. What have I done?
“You’re part of the team teaching her. I’m her father. Report your findings so far.”
While I gather my thoughts, he takes one of his storm-capes and covers a chair for me to sit down without ruining the fabric.
“She’s an excellent pupil—”
“I seem to recall that you got close to implying I’m responsible for her poor results in some way. Explain. Why are her school grades so poor?”
He pulls a chair up and sits opposite me, tense as a bowstring.
I decide against speaking tactfully or evasively. He probably isn’t going to get any more angry.
“She’s deliberately failing,” I say.
“Because, in the past, when she had difficulties, you’d help her.”
“That’s what she’s trying to make happen again. She’s longing for you to spend time with her. You’ve given up teaching her gliding, you never really spent as much time as you should on the estate management, you’re away a lot, the only thing she has left is her academic work.”
He surges back to his feet, so I do too. It’s another neck-crick to lock eyes with him, because he’s even taller than Talan, but I’m not going to let him look down at me in the chair.
“You have no idea—”
“No, perhaps not,” I interrupt him, “but you asked my opinion based on what I’ve seen, and if there are things I haven’t seen, then you’ll have to tell me about them.”
He doesn’t respond to that, so I go straight on.
“As for what I’m working on with her, where she really shines is in estate management. She’s a perfect student. I’ve only spent a couple of mornings with her, but I already know by the end of the summer, there won’t be anything more for me to teach her.”
I don’t add if I’m still here, by the end of summer.
“She’s also a natural pilot,” I say. “She feels the air around that glider. Understands the ridge effect from the onshore winds.”
His eyes narrow. “You flew all the way down to Marazion and back, didn’t you?”
“She flew. I was just in the back seat. And we went to Bandry as well. I thought she needed those sort of flights to counter a comment she made about not being able to go anywhere in a glider.”
That gets a snort from him.
“Tell me, Miss Aguirre, how comfortable is that glider with the pair of you in it?”
That knocks me back on my righteous ass. Of course he can’t continue to teach Rhoswyn as she grows bigger. She and I are squeezed tightly in, so there’d be no chance for him to get in with her. I’ve been stupid on that point.
Fair enough, but as I’m on the topic, I might as well get in another item from my long list: “What she needs is a target to focus on. A challenge. So, I’ve put her down for the junior section of the gliding championships in Kensa.”
The Duke knows exactly which one I mean. There’s the small matter that he has a dozen trophies from that competition over the years, and it’s so important to Rhoswyn to excel at what her father’s good at.
“That may not be possible,” the Duke murmurs and returns to his seat. “What about martial arts?”
He obviously knows exactly how we’ve split the tasks between Hanna and me. And I’m really pleased he’s shown such an interest in his daughter’s education. But what does this have to do with whatever has happened to make him angry today? Is it me, or something Rhoswyn’s done?
“She’s a good student, but it will take time.” I sit back down too.
“And all the academic problems…you’re effectively saying that’s all my fault?”
“Not in so many words—”
I swallow and don’t contradict him.
“You also warned me there’s a conspiracy targetting me and my family,” he says. “Does that mean I should trust you?”
“Not necessarily,” I reply, and give him the same reasoning I gave his daughter. “It could be a bluff to put you off your guard.”
His mouth stretches. It can’t be called a real smile.
“Despite that, Rhoswyn tells me she trusts you.”
“I’ll thank her. What in the Goddess’ name has happened, sir?”
“I took your words to heart, Miss Aguirre, and started asking difficult questions about the ownership of media on Amethys. The result was an immediate push back. Rhoswyn and Miss Esterhauze were ambushed in Bandry by a dozen news agencies.”
He can’t sit in his seat, but this time he doesn’t try looming over me. He goes to the window and glares out into the night.
“They were asking my daughter questions about the state of my marriage at the time of my wife’s…death.”
“That’s disgusting.” But what I would have expected from the conspirators. And I notice he didn’t say suicide.
“Yes, it’s bad enough on its own, but there’s another problem.”
“How did they know to turn up in Bandry?” He swivels around to look at me. “Very few people knew that they were going. I knew. Sandrey and Moyle knew. Pollard knew. Gaude, Rhoswyn, Miss Esterhauze and you knew. The shop itself. Who told the media?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Then what were you doing in Stormhaven this afternoon?”