After spending the better part of the morning coming up with aliases and a list of questions to ask, the quartet checked out of the hotel and set their things up in a new one, closer to Lady Amirelsa’s home. It was more expensive, but they were willing to settle after two hotels refused the group based on Raulin’s presence.
Al and Anla changed into respectable clothing, both of them wearing the nicer outfits that had been given by the Duke of Sharka, and followed Raulin to the estate. “This is real, right?” Al asked along the way.
“Yes. This is a real contract. I’ve been honest with you about this.”
“If this is another ‘busy work’ situation, I promise I won’t speak to you ever again, no matter how much you need my help.”
Raulin was sorely tempted to pretend it was a fake contract after that. Instead, he pulled out his notebook, opened it to the page of the contract, and handed it to Anla. “If you could, mezzem, I’d appreciate it.”
She scanned the page and handed it back. “It’s everything he told us. Lady Amirelsa Brautivard, being stalked by an unknown man. Need to discover who he is and catch him in the act. I can also tell he’s been honest with us by how I hear him speak.”
Al said nothing for a few minutes, then, “Brautivard…is her family the same one associated with the printing company called Brautivard?”
“Not sure,” Raulin said, “though I remember a few people saying that family did a few things, one of them being printing.”
“Brautivard is the company that distributes the alley novels in Gheny.”
“Interesting,” he said, checking his notebook again. “Just two more blocks.”
Two more residential blocks amounted to only four houses. Here, the buildings were relatively ancient, since the southeast was one of the first places settled when Aroukeans came to Gheny four hundred years prior. The streets were lined with old silver outoaks, the branches heavy with age and dripping with silvery-green moss the swayed in the light breeze. The houses themselves used plaster and stucco, small corners and chunks crumbled and as yet unpatched. Brick walls ten feet tall or higher surrounded the houses, with only gates as breaks in the line.
Raulin stopped kitty-corner to a mansion with an extensive amount of ivy and vegetation covering its outer walls. “That’s it right there,” he said, pointing. “Are you two ready?”
“Yes,” Anla said, pulling the board and paper that had been purchased earlier today.
“I mean, sure, but how are you going to get over the wall and in…oh,” Al said, turning to see that Raulin was gone. “He could have finished the conversation.”
Anla set across the street with Al trailing after a moment later. He did manage to scramble ahead of her to open the gate, to which she nodded her head politely.
The courtyard was mossy and lush, thin octagonal pavers pushed deep into the ground from years of use. To the right was an old building that once might have been a stable, but now held dozens of wooden crates under its eaves. Anla walked under the pergola with hanging wisteria and was about to climb the two half-flights of stairs to the front door when a noise startled both her and Al.
“Oy! What do you think you’re doing?” a man said from the stable.
They turned and Anla spoke. “We’re here to interview Lady Amirelsa about her…ongoing case.”
“I haven’t heard anything about letting people in today,” he said, moving towards them. “You’ll have to leave.”
“Are you the Brautivard’s majordomo?” Al asked, taking over.
“No, I’m just the shipping clerk for their company.”
“We’d be happy to wait while you fetch him, then. I was told to mention ‘Arvarikor’ as proof of our integrity.”
He gave them an odd look. “If anything comes through, tell them to wait before dropping it off. You two wait here and don’t wander. I’ll have your hands if you touch anything under this roof.”
“Understood,” Anla said when she noticed Al was going to retort to his attitude. The man took off inside and they sat on a wrought iron bench under the pergola.
“He was rude,” Al said.
She moved her board to her lap and made a note. “Don’t get emotional about it, just do the part you came her to do.”
He took her advice and wrote “Shipping clerk: rude” on his paper.
The day was overcast and foggy, but thankfully warm and dry. They noticed two different men walk by with rapiers at their sides. After about ten minutes, the clerk and another man in a uniform stepped down into the courtyard from the house, the clerk moving back towards the stable. They rose as the man approached. “I’m Attark, the Brautivard’s majordomo. You’re here to interview Lady Amirelsa?”
“Yes,” Anla said. “We’ve been hired by a man to do some investigative work while he attends to his business. I’m Layess Kayiz and this is my co-worker, Disteni Soudrar. We were told we’d be given access to the household and Lady Amirelsa to conduct our interview.”
“We hadn’t heard about this before hand. If you’re familiar with her situation, you can understand why we’re hesitant to allow two people without credentials into the estates unannounced.”
“Absolutely. We were given little time to prepare ourselves. However, I can assure you that we’re committed to finding out who has been harassing the don-countess and to put this issue to rest for her and her family.”
“Who were you hired by?”
“A trirec by the name of Raulin Kemor.”
He paused at this. “I’d heard that they worked alone.”
“We are only here to conduct the interview and give him our impressions, therefore we are working for him, not with him. I can’t comment any further on trirec matters.”
“I understand. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t make the situation any worse. The press is already aware and I don’t see why the stalker would hire two people to interview us.” He thought about this for a moment and frowned, but turned to escort them inside.
They were brought to a waiting room and served tea and cookies. The floors were wood instead of marble or tile and gave the room a cheery warmth. The wing-back chairs they sat in sent up a dust cloud when Al slapped his hand on his arm rest. There was a little fraying on some of the quitra-style rugs on the ground, which also appeared faded.
“Traditionalists,” Al said, waving his hand in front of his face.
“I like it. It feels comfortable.”
The majordomo walked into the room accompanied by a young woman wearing a gray dress in a cut a working woman would wear, but of higher quality material and make. Her hair was half swept up and the rest in sausage curls, the spirals cascading down past her shoulders. She was petite and with a young appearance, her wide blue eyes and small nose making her seem like a doll.
They stood and gave the appropriate bow for their genders and class. In return she gave them a nod at the neck. “My majordomo tells me you’re helping with the investigation surrounding my pursuer. If there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be only happy to oblige.”
“We’d like to conduct an interview with you or whomever was in charge of arranging any other investigations,” Anla said as the four of them sat. “We understand that some work may have already been done.”
“Yes, miss,” the majordomo said. “I handled that part. We tried the police, the Cumber, and five private investigators before contacting your employer. They all came up empty-handed.”
“We assume that everyone who has access to the grounds has been investigated?”
“Several times. All our employees have been long-term employees. All had alibis during the times the, um, items were left. No one has any justification for those actions.”
“Any family members of your employees?” Al asked. “Perhaps any young men?”
“Only a few were allowed to bring their children in during work, and we cut the age off at eight.”
Al jotted a note down. “How about temporary workers?”
“We don’t have any that have stayed less than five years.”
“I apologize. I meant, anyone that you hired for a specific time for some purpose, then dismissed them when they were no longer needed. Construction people, caterers, maybe someone to deal with pests?”
“All investigated and cleared, though our last project here was plumbing and that was several years ago. I do have that list here,” he said, handing them a paper with several business names.
“What of your businesses? We ran into your shipping clerk outside. Any deliverers? Partners in the industry?”
“They were all investigated as well. Every one of the delivery men, anyone who’d ever met with the lady personally.”
“Friends? Family members?”
Amirelsa spoke up. “I gave the investigators the name of all my close male friends, anyone who might have possibly been interested in courting me or were in talks of marriage. I know hundreds of men through social gatherings, so I wouldn’t be able to give all their names. Everyone who investigated this approached this as an infatuation gone awry, so I never gave any family members’ names.”
“May I ask which businesses your family is involved with and which you’re personally involved with?” Anla had to hide a smirk at Al’s eager question.
“My family is mainly in publishing and printing, though we own a few shops in New Wextif. Those are more a ghost partnership and we’re not involved with the day-to-day functions. We do occasionally offer loans, invest in new businesses, and front money for shipping cargo from Noh Amair.”
Anla softened her tone a little. “May I ask what happened about a year ago?”
Amirelsa took a breath and nodded. “We overextended ourselves; too many loans, too many investments, too little cash flowing in. One of the ships with a large shipment of books was lost at sea. It appeared bleak and there were the beginning talks of marriage arrangements, to help recover our losses through a partnership. I believe this may have angered my pursuer, since it was after then his attitude towards me soured.”
“Ah, so that’s why last year’s August edition of the Arvonnese alley novels was late,” Al said.
“Yes,” she said. “You read those books?”
“Love them,” he said.
“If you secure my safety again, I will give you my copy of this August’s edition. I help my parents secure quality, so we always get a crate of the shipment to look through.”
“It’s a deal,” he said, smiling broadly, then looked down at his next question. “How about neighbors?”
“They were all questioned as well.”
“So, everyone that has access to your house has been cleared, then? None drew any suspicion?”
“Not entirely,” she said, drawing her hands into her lap. “When you hire people, you never know everyone’s past. A few had criminal records, one specifically breaking-and-entering.”
Another hand-written list was passed to Anla from the majordomo. “I take it these men must have passed the same checks everyone else did?”
“They all had alibis for the next few times the letters and things were left.”
“Was this before or after the fact?” Al asked. “I mean, were they watched during the time or did they give alibis after the fact?”
Amirelsa looked to her majordomo. “After, I believe.”
“That’s not strong enough. It’s easy to bribe or coerce someone into providing an alibi after the fact.”
“I suppose that could be true,” he admitted, “but we did ask for three separate occasions.”
Al quickly wrote a paragraph’s worth of words down. “I don’t suppose you kept any of the leavings?”
“We gave the items to the police or the investigators,” the majordomo said, his nose wrinkling. “The letters…”
“I did keep those,” she said, “but I have them locked away downstairs.”
“I’d like to see them,” he said.
She brought them up, about eight in all, the pages warped and curling. She set them down in front of Anla and Al, then retreated to the other end of the room, deciding to get some work done by examining some of those books. What they saw was a brutal attack not on Amirelsa’s current qualities, but on how those would change after he did what he wanted to in this situation. His threats were calculated, cruel, and utterly demeaning. And all the words were splotched and a deep, dark red, some eerily creeping off the page.
“Disgusting,” Al said.
“Of course, but also written by someone learned and intelligent. What do you think the ink is?”
“It’s…Ugh, I think it’s blood.”
“That’s what I thought. So, it’s someone with access to a lot of blood. A hospital worker, perhaps?”
After they finished, they put the letter aside and Amirelsa rejoined them. “Do you have any ideas?” she asked.
“Some,” Anla said. “We were going to ask if you had any.”
She thinned her lips. “I’ve been over the possibilities for the last year. Who do I know would do this to me? What did I do?”
“For what it’s worth, he didn’t blame you. In his letters, he points out that he knows you have no say in your betrothal. It seems to be your father’s fault and not something you did to anger him.”
“I know. Still…”
Anla looked past her and saw Raulin standing in the doorway. “Sir,” she said.
Amirelsa and the majordomo turned, rising from their seats when they saw him. “Sit,” he said, using his flat hand to put them at ease. “I’ve just finished examining the grounds.”
“Anything to report?” the majordomo asked.
“Your security is lacking. I passed by your guards several times and they didn’t notice me.”
“Sir, you are a trirec,” he pointed out.
“That is very true. I was going to ask you not hold it against them. It doesn’t appear that your bedroom gives easy access, lady. No trellises to climb, no passages connecting to the main part of the house. I’d venture your man isn’t just breaking in whenever he feels like he needs to leave something for you.”
“Do you mean…we know him?” Amirelsa said, paling a little.
“I’m saying he has access to your house. Those two almost always go hand-in-hand, but not necessarily. What I’d like someone on your staff to do is have every person who walks through your gates sign in, just until the next letter or item is left. If they refuse to sign their names, I want you to note that.”
“Yes, sir,” the majordomo said. “Anything else?”
“I will likely be here daily, so if you need to contact me, just set a scarf on one of the benches out front. Otherwise, no. I’ll be conducting this investigation in waves. Once I’m certain those close to you have been cleared, we’ll move on to other circles.”
“Do you think you can solve this?” the lady asked.
“I’ve done so before. I’m confident that I can again.”
She smiled and relaxed a little. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll be collecting my interviewers and leaving to discuss what they learned. If they return, please grant them access to any information they ask.”
“Yes, sir,” the majordomo said, rising. He led the three of them to the gate and thanked him again for taking the case.
As they began walking to the hotel, Raulin asked, “I don’t want to discuss details just yet, but overall what are your impressions?”
“I’m baffled,” Anla said. “It seems like every rock was turned over before your contract. It seems hopeless.”
Al tented his hands in front of his lips. “I actually don’t think so. I have a few theories that seem plausible.”