Author Notes: My first attempt at a Fairplay-style murder mystery in the Type Moon universe. I planned this a long time ago, but for some reason, I never got around to it until now. It probably has a few loopholes that I missed here and there, and it took a surprisingly long time for ~6000 words.
Now back to all of my regular fics...
Clock Tower, December 24, 1996
The blonde girl at my desk peered over my parchment. Her quill was still scribbling furiously, as if her left hand had a life of its own. Every so often, she sniffed and adjusted her spectacles with an inky finger. The lenses glinted.
The girl looked up. I held my breath, and…
"Tripe, Mr. Velvet," she said. "Puerile, idiotic, unpublishable – nay, unreadable – tripe. Start over."
…Ladies and gentlemen, for your edification: Catherine Margaret Lucretia Archibald.
Catherine was the second cousin (or something) of my deceased professor of blessed memory: Kayneth Archibald, KG, D.D., Ph.D., L.L.M. (tax), ex-Senior Euryphis Lecturer, ex-Fellow of the Royal Society, and ex-First Lord El-freaking-Melloi.
Kayneth had been…a mentor. We'll go with that. Sure, he'd kinda torn up my dissertation and publicly humiliated me because of academic differences, ruining my chances of ever getting ahead in the Clock Tower. Fair enough. But he'd also taught me some valuable life lessons. Like survival skills. In a magical deathmatch. Wherein he'd tried to kill me.
I liked to think of my relationship with Catherine as a continuation of that tradition.
To be fair, she detested me. It had started back in Heaven's Feel – the aforementioned magical deathmatch, where each competitor had summoned an ancient spirit to fight for them. I'd called up Alexander the Great, who'd compensated for his tendency to walk around naked by being the most incredibly awesome person ever. Kayneth had gotten an Irish hero from Finn's cycle.
Several blood-soaked days later, I'd lost the tournament, but had managed to survive. Kayneth had just lost.
Unfortunately, that had left a little gap in the Archibald line. One that they were only too eager to fill with my newly-marriageable self, thanks to my surviving Heaven's Feel.
After I'd politely explained that sealing a marriage pact with a geis death curse signed in my choice of bodily fluids had not appealed to me, they'd offered a compromise: Catherine would act as my "mentor", while scoping me out as Kayneth's possible successor. Should the Archibalds find themselves dissatisfied with their choice, they were free to return their Waver Velvet within 90 days for a full refund.
I was beginning to wonder whether they'd take Catherine back if I just agreed to their deal. Which was probably what the bastards had planned all along.
And of course, the Umpteenth-Generation Magi Brigade chose that moment to burst into drunken song down the hall. Chemical accompaniment was provided courtesy of three winecasks, a puncheon of aqua vitae, and whatever harder stuff they'd been able to steal from the alchemy labs.
I heard a wineglass crash. The sound briefly interrupted a charming rendition of I was born to die in a tavern, sung offkey.
Yeah. That'd be Bartley.
See, Bartley was one of your true-blue magi. The kind who still called white bread "manchet", and could trace his inbred rosebush of a family tree for longer than you could keep awake. Half the guys on my floor had "taken his cloth" – in this case, a bit of gold filigree sewn in their right cuffs. Think of it like that "gang" you and your friends invented as kids. Only dumber.
Well, at least Bartley wasn't my roommate. That honor went to poor Edmund Stanton, who either had the patience of a saint or the boot-licking skills of a political genius. Nervous-looking little guy. Green eyes. Always seemed to be wincing. Edmund had put up with everything from Bartley's paranoia about people "stealing" his stuff, to Bartley's not-very-secret affair with Ralston Connor's fiancée (Irene, if you're wondering), to Bartley's general Bartley-ness.
At least Ed wouldn't have to deal with Bartley's latest party. Edmund was spending his nights at the library recently – ever since he'd walked in on Bartley and Irene Soon-To-Be-Connor in his dorm. Or maybe he just liked really old manuscripts.
I heard Irene's whinnying laugh. Followed by:
Succeeded in its turn by:
"KISS HER! KISS HER! KISS HER! KISS—YEAAAAAH!"
You really had to wonder whether Ralston Connor was paying much attention to his fiancée's social circle these days. He was out late again. Working on some kind of alchemical / spiritual invocation hybrid project.
"Say, Catherine?" I said.
"You know all those incredibly noisy guys down the hall—"
"You wrote most of this drivel in the library. Enough with your excuses."
"I was thinking more along the lines of you going over and asking them to shut up. Y'know, since they're more your type of people."
"Are you implying that I'm also a drunken idiot, Mr. Velvet? One who will undoubtedly get killed by her own experiments at some point in the not-too-distant future?"
"I just meant that you're more…um, magus-ey than I am. So they might listen to you—"
"Say 'magus-ey' again, and I'll brain you with a paperweight."
A door slammed in the hallway.
I heard paper rustling, a scuffle, and something that sounded suspiciously like "hit him again, Bartley!"
"…Excuse me," I said.
I peered out.
You know those times when something you thought was an issue turns out to be completely innocent? Yeah, no.
Benjamin VanCreveld was on his knees, fussing with a giant stack of parchment that had been scattered across the floor. I glanced at a couple of the visible papers. Plautus, Aristotelian humors theory, cosmography, alchemy…
"Say, Bartley," Irene Soon-To-Be-Connor said. "That smell. You recognize it? Like a decaying goat or something…"
Bartley smiled that perfectly-crowned smile of his.
"I believe, Irene dear, that it's a bejaunus."
Bartley muttered something, and a mask of ice formed in front of Benjamin VanCreveld's face. The mask grew an ox's horns, an owl's beak, and teeth.
"So it is," said Irene. "Shall I speak to it?"
"Might as well try."
Irene grinned, and then screamed at Benjamin to get on his feet in front of his social betters.
The kid's face was bright red. One of Bartley's goons was dragging a still-inky page along the floor with a boot, munching a honey-cake as he did so. Benjamin chased after it. The goon pushed it further away. When Benjamin tried to lunge for it, he got a quick kick for his troubles – and slammed headfirst into the oak-paneled wall.
"Poor bejaunus," Irene said. "All ready to stand up a moment ago, and now it's on its knees again. Like an old lady. Weak legs, I guess."
And I could guess exactly how the kid felt, too. I'd had to hand-copy manuscripts for richer students during my younger Clock Tower days. I'd also dealt with my fair share of hazing from older guys. Well, before the whole "won the murder sweepstakes" thing.
"Oi," I said.
I muttered by own aria. Bartley's conjured "mask" melted and splashed on the floor.
"What do you want, Velvet?"
Bartley's glower would have been a wee bit more intimidating if he hadn't been swaying from alcohol. That, and he saw Catherine behind me.
I ignored him, and helped Benjamin pick up his stuff. The kid glared at Bartley. Just for a second or two, but it was enough to catch Irene's attention. He'd probably regret it later. I hustled him away as soon as I could. Bartley & Co. glared for a while, but didn't do much else.
Benjamin toddled off like the good little first-year student that he was. Catherine grabbed me by the ear and dragged me back to my room.
With the excitement over, Bartley and his friends stumbled back into their room to do…well, whatever they were doing. Shouting and cheering lasted until about midnight. The next half hour was taken up with yodeling. (Yes.) One by one, the partygoers staggered out the door, until I overheard Bartley saying his sloppy goodbyes to Irene in the hall around 2:00 A.M.
And Catherine was still editing.
I must've drifted off around the time Irene left.
The next thing I remember was that fuzzy, chilled feeling you get when you wake up too early.
Somebody was shaking my shoulder. Hard.
"Mrprhphgrk?" I asked.
"It's Bartley," someone said.
I blinked. The blur sharpened enough to see my digital clock's "3:47 AM" in red letters.
"What about Bartley?" I mumbled.
That jolted me awake. I shot out of the chair, and realized that my door was open.
Catherine was standing at the threshold, speaking to a small crowd of people. Her blue silk dress was just the slightest bit rumpled. One hair-bun was askew. Judging by the red indentation on her cheek, she'd been sleeping at her desk.
"Where is he?" I said.
Catherine inclined her head toward Bartley's room. I took a deep breath and stepped inside. I'd seen death enough in Fuyuki and Alexander's dream cycle.
Bartley was sprawled across his desk. His eyes bulged as if they wanted to leap out of their sockets, and his face was ashen. Bluish, almost. Bartley's hands were frozen in the act of clawing at his chest, as if he'd been possessed by something that disagreed with him.
Yup. Dead. Very, very dead.
Relics of Bartley's Clock Tower politicking were still scattered around him. Fine wines from the Allardyce family. Rare books. Several jars of the fancy marmalade that magi loved giving each other for some reason or other – each tagged with a label in Bartley's curlicued longhand. Talbot. MacNair. Ua-Niall. The guy even had a bag of gingerbread pretzels.
I took a second look at rare books. Most were textbooks. One wasn't.
I peeled back its pages with a pencil. The book was vellum, with a red leather cover that had recently been rebound. It was also unreadable. The "letters" – or glyphs, or whatever they were – seemed a little like cuneiform. Lots of stalks and lines. It looked as if somebody had dropped a bunch of sticks on the ground, and then copied the result down in miniature.
The illustrations, though…
They're hard to describe, since they seemed to shift when you stared at them too long. You know how clouds morph? Like that, only with Renaissance woodcuts. I saw winged men, organs I couldn't identify, demons with clockwork contraptions growing out of their stomachs, carnivorous flowers, and lots of carefully drawn lines that obviously depicted something, but I couldn't figure out what.
I'm sure there was more. I just can't remember it all.
The others filed in. Catherine was considerate enough to stop them from trampling everything, thanks to throwing her death glare around. Benjamin's eyes widened into pale blue bowling balls when he saw the body. Irene screamed. I didn't cover my ears in time to avoid the seeds of a later migraine.
Albert Penbroke's contribution was a little more helpful.
"No! Not the Argenlek Manuscript!"
I dropped the pencil and backed as far away from the book as I could. While I'd never heard of the Argenlek Manuscript before, even I was bright enough to know that manuscripts with names are usually bad news. Especially when preceded by "No, not the…!", "AAAAH!", "Fly, you fools!", or their functional equivalents.
"I'll bite," I said. "What's the Argenlek Manusc—"
I stopped when I saw Catherine's disapproving look. Apparently, at least one person in the room thought that I should have known about the book in question. She pushed her glasses up along her nose and sniffed.
"Harbin James Argenlek's so-called manuscript," she said, "was an incunabulum – note that the glyphs are printed – possibly created before 1522. It allegedly contains formulae for either the first or fourth magic."
"Nobody has been able to translate it," she said. "Prevailing opinion says that it's a hoax, except –"
"—for the curse," said Ralston Connor.
Seven heads turned to see Irene's lukewarm fiancée leaning on the doorframe.
He was smirking, which was unusual for Ralston. The guy usually looked as if a rat had died up his nose. Cloth-of-gold threads woven into his robe glimmered in the lamplight.
…So, a cursed book. And I'd touched it.
Ralston strutted toward the body with his hands behind his back.
We must have made a good audience, too, since Ralston gave us the CliffNotes version of five centuries of mysterious deaths with surprising enthusiasm.
No – relish.
According to Ralston, the book had first surfaced in Bohemia in the late sixteenth century. It was probably older than that. Just how much older, nobody knew. The shifting words on some of the illustrations seemed like Latinate Italian (if you squinted just right), and the style of perspective drawing also suggested Italian Renaissance.
The woodcuts looked like dreamscapes executed in black and white. Dragons. Obese nymphs in Roman stolas. Sphyxes. Flower vines that twisted around each other like Celtic knotwork. Not to mention the disembodied arms, swords, skulls, trees with faces, sheaves of wheat, and snake-women holding what looked like thick wheels.
Some said Dee had brought the manuscript to the Continent from his library. Others insisted that De Tepenec had purchased the thing further east. Still others blamed Paracelsus a generation or two earlier.
However it had gotten there, though, Rudolf II had bought the manuscript for his wunderkammer like the rest of his alchemical weirdness.
A fortnight later, seven courtiers had been found stabbed to death in a locked room. Headless children were born in Prague. One of them danced a jig before dropping dead. Rudolf complained that an old woman with four feet was skittering along his ceiling, covered in blood.
And then, decades of silence. Most theories had it that the Burial Agency had confiscated the thing after covering everything up, since a high-ranking member – one Athanasius Kircher – had listed it in his library when he'd died in 1680. More silence had followed.
…Until the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had been unlucky enough to unearth it in 1897. First generation magi. Jonathan Barnslow Temple had never explained where he'd found the thing. Not that he'd been given much of a chance. They'd found his charred body in a river. Judging from the remains of his bathing trunks, he'd been swimming when…well, whatever it was had happened.
Fortunately for the rest of the membership, even Mathers hadn't been stupid enough to keep it.
He'd contacted his superior at the Mages' Association: a moderately important magus named Harbin James Argenlek. The Argenleks had managed to contain the curse, and had held onto the manuscript for over a century. Until somebody had placed an order a few months back.
…which brought us up to Bartley.
"So that's what you want to tell Lady Barthomeloi when she finds this mess in the morning?" I said. "That a manuscript did it?"
"Cursed manuscript," said Benjamin.
"Cursed incunabulum," said Catherine.
Edmund Stanton chose that moment to open the hall doors. He looked kinda bleary-eyed, as you'd expect at four in the morning. He nearly tripped over a spilled glass of spiced wine.
"Hi, everyone," Edmund said. "Just got back from the library. Why's everyone standing around the – ooookay, never mind."
He just stared at his dead roommate for a while.
"Catherine?" I said.
"Could you do us all a favor and examine the body before we get any more traffic?" I said.
She nodded, and walked over to the desk. Warily, though.
"Why does she get to examine the body?" Irene said.
"Because Catherine's the best magus we have, spiritual invocation or otherwise. That, and I'm pretty sure she didn't do it," I said.
"Well," Catherine said, "I appreciate the vote of confiden—"
"Pretty sure she didn't do it."
"…Sit on it, Mr. Velvet."
While she worked, I took a couple moments to inspect the rest of the room. It was cleaner than I would have expected – not just because Bartley came from a labor-averse culture that still employed "gentleman ushers" to help them at dinner, but also because he'd always seemed like the sort of person who'd be a slob.
Nope. The guy was freakishly neat. Every piece on his chessboard was exactly centered on its square. Every book had Bartley's signature written in precise, looping script in the top-left-inside-cover: "C.D.G. Bartley. Thieves Will Be Punished." He'd laid out his holland sheets, coverlet, woolen blankets, and pillows with almost military exactitude. The velvet curtains didn't have dust. At all. He must have either magecrafted it out of existence, or been a genius with a lint roller. Bartley must have even folded what looked like Edmund's spare parchments before tossing them into the wastebin, judging from the jagged handwriting.
I rifled through three person-sized chests, but couldn't find anything except clothes and more books. The ink-pot must have fallen when Bartley had died. It lay under the desk, oozing its contents onto the Turkish rug. His coffers had a few ominous-looking gold thingamabobs that I didn't want to inspect further without an all-clear verdict from Catherine.
"Catherine? Any thoughts on whether the book did Bartley in?"
Catherine looked up from the body. Her face relaxed slightly as the eyebrows unknitted.
"Possible," she said. "Bartley's soul was torn apart. Eviscerated. The sort of damage you'd see from failed high-level spiritual invocation – like summoning a spirit incorrectly, or getting your soul attacked by a wraith, or breaking a geis. You'd need something more elaborate than a wasting curse. And that incunabulum is loaded with centuries' worth of curses. It's impossible to pick each one out."
"So…" I said. "Raise your hand if you're good at spiritual invocation."
What do you know? Edmund, Ralston, and Irene. Incidentally, Benjamin's father was the number three guy in the Spiritual Invocation Division. So much for that.
"Right," I said. "Let's try this from another angle. Assuming that the book killed Bartley with some super-death-curse-on-steroids, who brought it here?"
"Bartley did," said Edmund.
Several "huh's?" followed. Edmund scratched the back of his head, and shrugged.
"He wanted to translate the thing," he said.
"Bartley," I said. "Bartley wanted to translate something. You're sure we're talking about the same guy?"
Edmund rolled his eyes.
"Oh, sorry Waver," he said. "I forgot we're not all geniuses who write subversive, poorly thought-out papers about first-generation magi pulling off crazy stuff without circuits."
"Oi," I said. "If Lord El-Melloi hadn't torn it up –"
"Because it was crap," Catherine added.
"—it would have been a milestone in the study of magecraft inheritance. And thanks for the support, Catherine."
"Don't mention it."
"Which brings me back to Edmund," I said.
"How on Earth does that segue back to Edmund?"
"…Ed, you just said that Bartley bought the book. How do you know?" I said.
"He sent me to pick it up for him whenever I could get around to it," Edmund said. "Warned me it was coming about a week ago. That rare book shop in the Clock Tower's basement. Remember?"
I massaged the bridge of my nose.
"So your roommate mysteriously keels over with a cursed book in his room, and you're saying that you delivered it?" I said.
"Hey, just a minute-!"
"No…wait," Irene said slowly. "He—he did ask for it. Bartley wanted to be the first man to translate it. I told him he wasn't much of a scholar, but…"
"Bartley," we all intoned.
"What about Benjamin?" somebody else said. "I dunno how he did it, but the guy's got the invocation pedigree and a grudge."
We all turned to the kid in question, who looked like he was seriously considering tunneling under the floor.
"Well?" I said.
"Um…I didn't do it?" he said.
While we all considered this point, Ralston raised another.
"There's a mark on Bartley's arm," he said. "Here – look."
He was right. It was small, but I saw a red puncture mark on his right arm. I tried to suppress a sigh, and turned to Catherine again.
"Okay, are there any poison-deliverable spiritual invocation curses?" I said.
"Don't you ever study?" Catherine said.
"Frequently. So that's a…?"
"Yes," she said.
Irene was raising her hand. A blush colored her face, and she was knocking her ankles together.
"That's…um…that's been there," she said. "For at least a couple days."
"How do you know?" Edmund said.
We all stared. Even Ralston rolled his eyes. Irene turned a brighter shade of red, if that was even possible.
"Seriously, Ed?" I said. "No wonder you lost your bid for research funding with Lady Barthemeloi."
"Oh, ha-ha," said Edmund.
"Speaking of the elephant in the room…" Catherine said.
Irene paled. She wheeled on Ralston, who was still wearing that smug grin.
"Problem, Irene?" he said.
"You," she said. "You killed Bartley."
"Nice try, dear, but no," Ralston said. "Although the bastard had it coming. I'm curious, though – now that it's out in the open that you've been publicly humiliating our respective families by coupling with that brainless sack of—"
"Don't you dare."
Irene's hands had balled into fists. Ralston's smirk only widened.
"Oh, dear," he said. "Strike a nerve, did I? So it turns out that my strumpet of a fiancee has feelings for her Lothario after all. Wouldn't have guessed it from that frigid act you try with me."
Nobody else spoke. They all wore queasy little smiles. Edmund was biting his lips. Sympathetic class embarrassment. It wasn't like Clock Tower students to air their dirty laundry - if there was one thing they usually learned from their parents, it was to keep their affairs quiet. And use birth control, natch. But I guess murder tends to dump this kind of stuff into the open.
Personally, I was just wondering why magi still used words like "strumpet" and "Lothario".
Irene laughed. It was high-pitched and more off-key than usual. Seemed sober enough, though.
"That's what you think?" she spat. "You're more pathetic than I thought. Honestly, Ralston. The idea that I'd be pining away for my dead lover like Helen of Troy or something."
"Actually," she said, "Helen seemed pretty level-headed about the whole thing, considering—"
"Bartley meant almost nothing to me," Irene said. "He just happened to mean the tiniest sliver more than you."
Ralston's smile tightened into a thinner line. His voice dropped.
"You just have no sense of decorum, do you, Irene?" he said. "You only had to be a proper wife while our parents arranged everything, but no—"
"Oh, dear," she said. "Sorry about that, Ralston, but I just don't fancy being married to a pudgy boy who spends more time slavering over old manuscripts than women. I've seen the way you rub your hands all over your rare book collection. And those cadavers you keep for experiments. Eugh! It's disgusting. At least Bartley was attracted to living, human females."
If Irene had been blushing before, Ralston's face was blood red. He recovered more quickly than I expected, though.
"Oh, Bartley was attracted to lots of 'human females'," Ralston said.
He'd caught Irene pre-rant. Her mouth hung open for a second.
"You didn't think you were the only one, did you?" Ralston said. "Bartley had others. Better ones. Mayhew heard him bragging about it over dinner—"
"He did not!"
Ralston's smirk had returned, with a vengeance. I just kinda sat back, wondering if I should be taking notes.
"I'll bet you knew about them, too," Ralston said. "Funny how you're quick to accuse me of the jealous husband act when Bartley was cheating on you with half the Clock Towe—"
Irene slapped him. Ralston actually hissed in pain, nursing his cheek.
"Don't you dare try to pin this on me!" Irene shrieked. "Who knows more about rare manuscripts than any five people in this room? Huh? I know about you and Wilfrid Argenlek, with your little bibliomaniac meetings in the winecellars."
"Bibliophile. Bibliomania is a disease—"
"I know what I said. Maybe Wilfrid let something slip? Or did you get him to con Bartley into buying that manuscript somehow-"
"Incunabulum," said Catherine.
"-since it would be just like you to let somebody else do your dirty work with curses while you sat back like a sneak-thief," Irene continued. "Oh, I can just picture it! Laughing about how you'd kill some illiterate cretin off with a book. Ha-ha."
"You know, when you put it like that, it is somewhat funny…" Ralston said.
She slapped him again.
"Give me one reason why we shouldn't take you off to Lady Barthomeloi right now," she said.
Ralston's cheek had already been sporting the beginnings of a nice bruise. Irene's second slap had caught Ralston trying to duck, and had landed on his meticulously combed, receding hairline. He rubbed that, too.
"Any other bibliophiles, -maniacs, or grimoire enthusiasts here?" I said, glancing at Catherine.
Catherine rolled her eyes.
"What do you want to know?" she said.
"Isn't there any kind of security when important families trade books?" I said. "I mean, if these things can kill you—"
"Correct," Catherine said. "They would have set up containment rings before the purchase. The seller creates a new one each time the book is transferred, keyed to the buyer's blood. It shuts down most accumulated curses. Something like the Argenlek Manuscript could have centuries of them, depending on its missing provenance. Still a risk, though."
"Could Wilfrid have sneaked another curse in?"
"Possible. Then again, the Argenleks trade on their reputation as rare book dealers. Customer deaths would destroy their reputation, and…huh…"
"Wilfrid probably couldn't have done it."
"The household head handles those matters. The book would have been heavily sealed. Wilfrid's still a student at the Clock Tower, and he's not even important by that family's standards. He never would have received access."
Ralston Connor was still glaring up at his fiancée.
"Clever how she pushed suspicion away from herself, isn't it?" he said. "She's been in Bartley's room every night for weeks. Who knows what she could have hidden in it?"
"We did check," Catherine said.
"Not very thoroughly," Ralston said.
That was true enough, so Catherine didn't reply. Ralston turned on Irene again.
"Wait until Lady Barthomeloi gets here," he said. "Her enforcers'll find what you've hidden. You know, Irene…it'll almost be worth the shame to our families when I watch you squirm in front of a full inquisitorial hearing—"
"I didn't hide anything," Irene said. "I know it's hard to believe, but we were pretty busy during those visits."
I could almost hear Ralston Connor's teeth grinding. He was game, though.
"Really? I suppose it's just totally irrelevant that you're a spiritual invocation expert," he said. "Which, come to think of it, is the only reason my family agreed to let you ooze your way into our bloodline in the first place. I wonder what you summoned to kill Bartley. Maybe you slipped one of those wraith-infused coins into his trinket box."
"Maybe I'll slip one into yours," Irene said sweetly. "Can't pollute a bloodline that's already died out."
"Or…I wonder," Ralston said. "From what I hear about your – how does one put it? – exercise, should I conclude that you killed him with tantric magic?"
"Too much prep time," she said. "It takes a special occasion to set that sort of thing up. Like a wedding night, for instance."
"That threat cuts both ways, dear."
"You couldn't even pull off non-magical sex, sweetkin."
They traded a few more rage-filled glances. Unfortunately, they also stopped talking.
Well, the information bonanza seemed to have dried up. Both were still breathing heavily – thrill of battle, I guess – but as time passed, Irene and Ralston seemed to notice the crowd of goggling onlookers. And avoided eye contact from that point forward.
"Somebody should get Lady Barthomeloi," said Benjamin.
"Wait," Catherine said.
She turned to me.
"Well, Waver?" she said. "You've kept us up trying to solve this thing. If this has been a waste of time, then I'm going to be very irritated."
Catherine stood with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her foot. The blue dress billowed in suitably dramatic fashion from a stray breeze. The window was open a crack.
"Now this," I said, "is a two-pipe problem."
"You don't smoke," Catherine said.
"I'm considering taking it up."
One by one, I considered the facts.
The book, with its creepy translation. Irene's nightly liaisons. The layers of curses attached to the vellum. People who'd had a motive to off Bartley (everyone). Methods of—
"Okay," I said. "I think I know who did it. Somebody hand me the Argenlek Manuscript."
"But the curse—"
I waggled my hand in a "gimme" motion until Benjamin nudged it a couple inches toward me with a pencil. With a little bit of effort, avoided rolling my eyes. Picked it up. Grabbed the vellum cover.
And then, I tore the cover off.
It revealed worm-eaten parchment, covering woodblocks, with rips and gouges from generations of accumulated abuse.
It also revealed an inscription in a sharp, scrawling hand.
I, undersigned, do avow and affirm that I shall unravel the Argenlek Manuscript's secrets within two days, at the peril of my soul.
The ink was fresh. Tiny bits of it still stuck to the cover I'd removed.
"What on earth-?" Catherine said.
"Congrats, Edmund," I said. "You almost pulled it off."
Edmund jerked away, eyes wide. More gasps all around.
"That's—That's ridiculous! Why would I—"
"Patronage," I said. "Technically, denied patronage. You tried to get research funding recently. Every Clock Tower researcher's dream. You'd expected Bartley's family's support after years of kissing up to him."
Edmund's eyes roved to each of the room's occupants in turn. Pleading, almost.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Velvet."
I dropped the book with a thud. Everyone flinched.
"I think you do," I said. "Bartley had connections. We all knew it. That's why you spent so long cozying up to the guy. Nobody else would have tolerated half the crap you did. And at the end of it…no support at all."
"I—Not that I'm admitting anything, but we all did that—"
"Yeah, that's true," I said. "But most of us didn't have access to the Argenlek Manuscript, did we? Not too many of us even knew about the book."
"It was cursed before Bartley got it!" he said. "You can't pin that on me! Everybody knows that the Argenlek Manuscript's been killing people forever."
"Yeah, the book was cursed," I said. "Obviously. But most of those curses probably weren't targeting Bartley, and according to Ralston's account, most of them only killed non-magi or amateurs. Right, Ralston?"
"All those curses' auras covered up the only curse that did matter," I said. "The inscription."
Edmund raised an eyebrow.
"What 'inscription'?" he said. "It's just a silly, wishful promise to translate-"
"It's a geis contract," I said.
Several students' hands brushed absentmindedly near their hearts – a empathic reaction. Irene moaned. Geis contracts are an incredibly painful way to die. Imagine giving birth through your chest.
"Somebody rebound the manuscript," I said. "New leather. So I asked myself: who would have had access?"
"Irene did!" Edmund said. "And why should the binding matter?"
"True," I said. "But Bartley would have noticed if a new cover had appeared on his book. Besides, Irene didn't have much of a time window between her nightly gymnastics with Bartley and—"
"Hey!" said Irene.
Catherine glared right back at Irene.
"You kept us awake for the last couple weeks until three in the morning," Catherine said. "If the shoe fits…"
"…Right," I said. "Anyway, you had much better access to the book, since you picked it up for Bartley. You planned to modify it before Bartley ever saw it. He never noticed that the cover was a little new, because, well…yeah."
Catherine's own eyes widened a fraction. Her head snapped from me to the desk.
"The needle mark!" she said. "Edmund needed Bartley's blood for the ink. He must have knocked him out somehow – or kept Bartley asleep while he drew it – and then put some in the inkpot before picking up the manuscript."
"Or just waited until Bartley was smashed from his nightly dose of partying before drawing it," I said.
"Or that," Catherine said.
…But Edmund had cocked his head to the side, smiling at me.
"As expected, Velvet," he said. "You missed one teensy detail. Figures, since you suck at spiritual invocation."
He pointed at the signature.
"That's Bartley's handwriting," he said. "Not mine. Forget all the other bullshit – Bartley would have needed to sign the thing himself. Great job, Velvet. You've just proved suicide."
Those eyes were glittering. Triumphant. For some reason, I caught myself suppressing a shudder.
"…Not quite," I said. "Bartley signs all of his books, since he's apparently really paranoid about somebody stealing them. I first noticed when I came in. But you must have known for a while, being his roommate and all."
"All you had to do was write your little geis pledge, hide it under a new cover, and wait for Bartley to sign his own death warrant," I said. "And the geis pledge isn't Bartley's handwriting, Ed. Too jagged. Kinda like yours. Not a smooth, looping curve-"
No warning whatsoever.
The room blazed white-hot. A wave of heat washed toward me. Stifling. Edmund had made his move - a thousand degrees of unpleasantness rocketing toward my face.
And something stopped it. Something frozen. Concentric walls of ice. And at their center, Catherine stood with a look of murder in her cold, blue eyes.
In a flash of irrelevant inspiration, it occurred to me that Edmund must have been chanting a ten-count aria under his breath.
The fire battered against Catherine's ice wall. Each time, steam hissed.
Edmund was sweating. Gasping. Fire lashed the ice once more.
Catherine barely flinched. Her face remained a mask as she fingered the topaz choker around her neck. With each assault, the fire weakened. Sputtered.
By the time Catherine knocked Edmund out of his wheezing, exhausted misery with a reinforced fist, it was almost a formality.
I just lay there awhile on my back, choking on soot and nursing the world's worst sunburn.
Lady Barthomeloi's enforcers arrived eventually.
Catherine's testimony did most of the work, thanks to that obsession with status that magi had. A couple lower-ranked enforcers listened to my evidence all the same, for politeness's sake.
It was seven o'clock before they all left. I tried to blink the blur out of my eyes. The blur didn't cooperate. Everyone else looked pretty squirrely as well.
"Welp," I said, "I've got a splitting headache, and I'm going to bed. If you guys plan on murdering anybody else before noon, do it without me."
I turned. Paused. Wheeled back around.
Ralston froze – probably wondering if I'd figured out some other creepy thing he'd been up to recently. Irene just stuck out her chin and gave a queenly, "What?"
"The marriage thing? Skip it."
Ralston snorted. Irene's eyes just narrowed.
"As if you'd know anything about marriages between ancient lines of—"
"Not. Worth. It," I said. "I was at Heaven's Feel, remember? Ninety percent of the misery in that crapshow came from…well, maybe half. A good, solid third of the misery in that crapshow came from stuff like this."
They didn't even respond. Just stood there glaring at me.
"Or not," I said. "Hey, your funeral. Just don't blame me when she NTRs you for a heroic spirit, and you strangle her to death in a church with bugs crawling all over you."
"...Huh?" said Ralston.
"Never mind. Makes more sense in context."
I staggered back to my room. A chorus of "g'nights" followed, until I shut the door. And flopped.
Sweet, wonderful bed.
So very soffffft-
Trying to restrain the urge to grumble, I looked up from the pillow I'd squashed against my face.
"You know, I haven't seen you like this before," Catherine said.
"Like what?" I said.
Catherine shrugged, and then sank into a chair. All pretense of rigidity evaporated.
"…Happy, I suppose," she said. "Well, aside from the part where you nearly got murdered. You haven't really smiled since you came back from Heaven's Feel."
"Since I lost Alex," I said.
Her nucleus of a smile evaporated.
"Stole Alexander the Great from Uncle Kayneth, more like it," she said.
"It was worth it," I said. "A thousand times over."
And it had been, too. If another Heaven's Feel had started the next day, I would have been on an overnight plane to Fuyuki, Megas Alexandros's mantle in hand. Never mind the deaths. Never mind that Alex wouldn't recognize me. I'd walked in Bucephalus's hoofprints across the sands of Parthia, and seen Alexander urging his men forward, caked in dust until his red hair looked brown. I'd watched him staring into the distance. Seen him in search of the Ocean at the World's End.
Nothing else would have mattered.
Catherine started to say something, but let her mouth close instead. She shrugged.
"I'll let it go in honor of the holiday season," she said.
"What do you mean holiday—oh," I said. "Huh. Almost forgot it was Christmas Eve."
Catherine stared out the window. Snowflakes swirled against the windowpanes, melting into glassy nodules when they touched her reflection. She smiled.
"Any hints about what you're getting me?" she said.
I raised an eyebrow. It seemed unlikely that she'd found out about the coal yet, but one could never be sure.
"What makes you think I got you something?"
Catherine's arms crossed behind her back. She swayed, first to her tip-toes, and then to her heels.
"It would only be fair," she said. "Since I've already picked out your gift."
"That's…um, uncharacteristically generous, actually—"
"It's a rare book."