Author's Note: I realised Irímé gets far too little characterisation inThe Power and the Glory.The last thing I want is another Kilan situation, where I don't develop a character enough then find it nearly impossible to write them, so I wrote this to fix it. Result: a murder mystery set several centuries before the main story, featuring an Irímé who isn't much like the one we've met. Er... put it down to him wearing another mask while he's working with Abi?
Warning for abusive parenting of the emotional/psychological kind and extremely vague references to attempted sexual assault (in the past, not in the story itself).
Do you not realise, Hastings, that each and everyone of us is a complete mystery with layers? We each try to judge each other, but nine times out of ten, we are wrong. – Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies
Like so many headaches for the Neleth Ancalen family, all the trouble was caused by Kumolnea-anfalen's blasted collection. If she hadn't wanted to buy a female basilisk she wouldn't have invited the owner of the Rothilion zoo to dinner. If she hadn't been running short of money she wouldn't have invited a motley assortment of millionaires as well. If she had never held that damn dinner there would never have been a murder. And if she hadn't invited twenty people there wouldn't have been nineteen suspects.
Twenty-six, if you counted Kumolnea and her children. Irímé didn't. He knew neither he nor his siblings had committed the murder. And he was sure his mother hadn't.
She's too stupid for anything that requires planning, he thought with more viciousness than his family believed him capable of.
All his life his mother expected only two things of him. To look pretty, and to marry well. He was less her son than a valuable commodity that would help her get into higher society than she was part of now. She never made any attempt to hide her view of him. Any ambitions, any wishes, any thoughts of his own were completely ignored. That was not the sort of attitude that would inspire much familial harmony. Irímé kept his mouth shut, locked all his thoughts up inside, and played the pretty empty-headed doll she wanted him to be.
Well, not this time. Irímé was not an idiot, he'd read many detective novels, and he was above all mad as hell. This sorry mess was entirely his mother's fault. He was strongly tempted to leave well enough alone and let her sort it out herself. But his name would inevitably be dragged into the papers along with the rest of his family's. The last thing he wanted was the slightest chance Abihira's parents might call off the marriage. After everything his betrothal to a princess had subjected him to, it would be intolerable if the marriage never even happened and all his misery was for nothing.
So he straightened his headpiece, made sure he looked suitably upset, and went out to talk to the guests.
Kumolnea's unique style of parenting had never given Irímé a chance to be a normal child or young man. It had however taught him how to make and put on a mask for every conceivable occasion. There were times when he feared he no longer knew where the masks ended and he himself began. It was a very unpleasant way to live most of the time. Yet it proved very useful for events like this.
The first guest he encountered was a man wearing coat in an eye-watering shade of brilliant orange. That abomination immediately put him on Irímé's list of suspects. Anyone with such dreadful fashion sense could not be trusted.
"It's outrageous," the man shouted at the top of his lungs. "People don't die at parties! Such a shocking breach of decorum."
Irímé said nothing and stayed close to the wall, where few people would pay any attention to him. Suspect one was either an imbecile, or he thought that acting like one would divert suspicion. Now for suspect two.
Suspect two, it turned out, was the zoo owner himself. Far from being upset by the murder committed not far away, he was busy arguing with a group of other suspects about who would have to notify the dead woman's family. Irímé took note of all the people talking to him. That was suspects two to eight accounted for. Suspects nine and ten were debating the possibility of poison. Suspect eleven sat in a chair on her own. She was the only one of the group who looked truly shaken. That was the very thing that made him pay especially close attention to her.
When you spent your entire life being treated like a child you learnt how to exploit expectations. He pulled on his mask of helpless naïveté and sat down on the chair opposite her.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he said in his most innocent, 'I'm lost and confused and need someone wiser to help me' voice. "No one will tell me what's happening here. Why is everyone so upset?"
Suspect eleven looked over at him. She saw exactly what he intended her to see: a young man who looked hopelessly bewildered by everything going on around him. Irímé consciously made his eyes appear as wide and doe-like as possible. People never shut up about how beautiful he was, so he might as well make the most of it on occasions when he knew no one would dare try to take advantage.
It worked as well as usual. The wariness melted from her expression and she gave him a warm, patronising smile. "You're one of Kumolnea's sons, aren't you? How lucky you weren't here earlier."
He hadn't been here earlier because he had locked himself in his own room after making his obligatory appearance at the start of the dinner. Frightening near-misses in the past had taught him that when there were both strangers and alcohol in the house it was wisest to stay out of sight as much as possible. He had been in the middle of writing a particularly stubborn chapter when the screams began. Naturally he came down to see what was happening. And now here he was, investigating a murder before someone called the police and dragged them all into the gossip columns.
"It's the most dreadful thing." Suspect eleven shook her head and wiped her eyes. "We'd just finished dessert. Everyone was just talking and laughing as we normally do. Then that poor woman collapsed right next to me!"
For once Irímé didn't have to pretend to be surprised. "She died at the dinner table?"
How in the world had the murderer managed that?
"Right there in front of us all! No one left the table. The servants had already taken her plate. A ghost must have murdered her!"
Utterly ridiculous. Irímé could believe in many things, but not in murderous ghosts. "What if she was–" He lowered his voice to a suitably dramatic whisper, "–poisoned?"
Suspect eleven shook her head. "We all ate exactly the same. It can only be a ghost."
None of the suspects had anything remotely helpful to say. Most were more perturbed by the possibility of being questioned by the police and associated with a scandal than by the murder itself.
What a self-centred bunch, Irímé thought, completely forgetting for a moment that he had the exact same motivation for starting his own investigation.
For lack of any better ideas he went to have a look at the corpse. His mother had locked it in one of the sitting rooms and was now engaged in arguing with the rest of the guests. Apparently she wanted to call the police at once. Everyone else wanted to leave as quickly as possible to avoid being questioned. Very suspicious. Irímé would have suspected them all of being involved in a conspiracy if he wasn't only too well-acquainted with how far too many of his mother's "friends" believed the universe and everyone in it existed solely for their personal enjoyment. Anything that upset them was to be avoided at all costs.
He unlocked the door and closed it quietly behind him. The body lay on the carpet, covered with an old curtain. Irímé knelt down beside it and took a minute to gather his courage. He'd never been so close to a corpse before. It made his skin crawl to think this had been a living person only a few hours ago.
It would be much easier if Abihira was here. Nothing was too disturbing for her. In her last letter she mentioned dissecting a werewolf. Where and how she had found a dead werewolf – at least he hoped it had been dead when she found it – were things he would rather not know.
Irímé pushed that thought away before his mind took him on a detour into even more disturbing ideas. He reached out gingerly and grasped the edge of the curtain. It was one of the older, more threadbare ones. No doubt that was the only reason his mother had ever agreed to let it be used for this. He held his breath as he pulled it back. The light fell on the corpse's face.
Her mouth was contorted into a bizarre grimace, half-laughter and half-agony. Irímé fought down his instinctive urge to recoil. He forced himself to think about the murder mysteries he'd seen performed in the theatres. Some sorts of poison caused quick but painful deaths. The victims were left with expressions of agony eternally frozen on their faces.
Poison again. No matter what anyone said, it was the only method of murder that made any sense.
Irímé scooted away from the corpse and leant back against the side of an armchair. His mother's parenting – otherwise known as refusing to let him form any normal friendships with people other than his fiancée and a few young nobles she thought were good connections to maintain – had given him very few experiences of real life. Almost everything he knew about the outside world was through the filter of novels and stage plays. Almost everything he knew about murders came from the mystery stories frequently serialised in newspapers. Poison was a remarkably common choice of murder weapon in them. Much more common than it was in reality. How thoughtful of the murderer to give him a case similar to the ones his favourite fictional detectives had already solved.
Now, what clues could he find from the body? Signs of violence? Bruises or hints of a struggle?
The thought of getting closer to the corpse made him shudder. He thought again of all the murder mysteries he'd read. This was just another investigation. If all those detectives had no trouble with dead bodies, then he had no reason to be upset.
Irímé pulled the curtain back further. He rolled up the corpse's sleeve, taking care to avoid touching her skin. No bruises. Slowly he lowered her arm again. His hand brushed against her trouser pocket. Something clinked inside it.
He stared at the pocket. The faint outline of some small object was only just visible under the fabric.
Putting his hand into a corpse's pocket was a much more nerve-wracking experience than he would ever have expected. When he touched something cold he let out a strangled screech. He only just repressed the urge to pull his hand away. At last he calmed down enough to realise that no, nothing had grabbed him, nor had he somehow touched the corpse's skin. Whatever he was holding was made of glass. It rattled as he pulled it out.
How strange. It was a glass bottle with tablets in it. He squinted at the badly-written label. The first sentence was completely incomprehensible. The next line was, 'For [scribble] aches and [scribble]'. The only part he could understand was the third line. 'DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL. CAN HAVE DEADLY SIDE-EFFECTS.'
A light-bulb went on in Irímé's head. Who was to say this was a murder after all? And not, say, an accidental death caused by a medical mishap?
Just suppose the victim suffered from an ache somewhere. Irímé got briefly distracted by conjecturing on whether a headache or stomachache was more likely. The tablets were small and oblong, like the most common headache tablet. Yet they also bore a resemblance to the medicine his grandmother took for her stomach pains. Never mind that now. She carried her medicine with her everywhere. If she was in pain she took a tablet. Now, imagine she feels unwell at the dinner table. Everyone has already had drinks. Perhaps she forgets the doctor's warning. Perhaps she doesn't think it's important. Whatever the reason she takes a tablet soon after drinking alcohol. She dies some time later. Everyone assumes she was murdered.
It was by far the most logical explanation he could think of. All he needed was to phone the police, show them the medicine, and let the coroner decide if he was right.
Irímé set the tablets down beside the corpse's head. He didn't cover her with the curtain again. Quietly he slipped out into the hall. Everyone was still in the dining room, arguing at the top of their lungs. By the sounds of things they were cross-examining the butler.
Poor man, Irímé thought with a grimace. I'd better phone quickly before they decide to find him guilty.
There were three telephones in the house. One in the downstairs sitting room, one opposite him in the main hall, and one in the library. Both the sitting room and the hall were right next to other rooms, and the walls were very thin. Anyone who made a phone call from either of them might as well broadcast their conversation over a loudspeaker. The library, on the other hand, had walls lined with books. Perhaps they acted as makeshift soundproofing. Perhaps the room itself simply wasn't built to make life easier for eavesdroppers. Either way he would have more privacy there.
He slipped into the library and shut the door behind him. Quickly he telephoned the police station and explained the situation. When he set the phone down he left the room and waited in the main hall for the police to arrive.
Odd. The door to the sitting room was ajar. He could have sworn he'd closed it behind him. Even stranger, the light was on. He was almost certain he'd switched it off.
Irímé pushed the door open further and peered in. The corpse was exactly where he'd left it. But there was one crucial thing missing. The medicine bottle had vanished.
Common sense said it was impossible for anything to disappear of its own accord. So after a thorough search of anywhere the bottle might by any chance have rolled under or behind, Irímé had only one possibility left. Someone had taken the bottle.
What had been a simple case suddenly became immeasurably more complicated. Who would steal medicine? Why would they steal it? No one would steal a stranger's tablets for their own use unless they wanted to die of side-effects, complications, or something equally horrid.
The thief must have something to hide, Irímé thought. Did they put different tablets in the bottle?
Perhaps it hadn't been an accidental death after all. But he couldn't prove anything now that he had no tablets to give the police. What a mess!
Baffled, he went back to rejoin the guests. They were now arguing about whether or not the butler was guilty. Irímé stood behind the door and studied all of them. Was there anyone who looked like they had recently left the room? Anyone with a guilty or furtive air?
There wasn't. But there was someone whose complete lack of expression was almost as suspicious. Suspect twelve sat on the opposite side of the room, apparently engrossed in listening to the raging argument. Her face was as blank as a doll's. Irímé was intimately acquainted with the sort of vacant expression that concealed a great deal. He had worn enough masks to be able to recognise one when he saw it.
One of the benefits of being betrothed to someone as eccentric as Abihira was that he had learnt many things most people never knew about. What temperature metal melted at, for instance. How to take a watch apart and put it back together. How to tell when someone was lying by the most minute tells. And how to pick a pocket without the victim ever knowing. More importantly, how to tell which pocket to pick. The most common version of formal wear had at least five pockets. Three or four were merely ornamental. The whole purpose of all those pockets was to confuse any would-be thief.
Abihira had told him all about how to determine which pockets were empty and which one had something important in it. He hadn't bothered to pay much attention at the time. Now that he thought about it he could barely remember what she said. Yet he remembered one thing clearly. If a person had their hand near or over a pocket, it was usually a subconscious attempt to protect whatever was in that pocket.
Suspect twelve had her arm pressed tightly against her side – and, incidentally, against the pocket on that side.
Life with Kumolnea had taught Irímé one foolproof way of getting away with anything. Cause chaos in one place, and take advantage of the distraction to do something somewhere else.
Suspect fifteen was standing perilously close to a lit candlestick. His coat came within an inch of the flame as he gesticulated. And from where he was standing Irímé could nudge the candlestick closer without being seen.
Contrary to popular belief some types of fabric did not immediately burst into flame upon contact with fire. The material used for Saoridhian formal wear was in fact almost impossible to burn. But it produced a thick cloud of choking, foul-smelling smoke. Within minutes the dining room was full of people coughing and waving their arms wildly.
Amidst the mayhem Irímé, with his hand over his nose and mouth, scurried over to suspect twelve. Like everyone else she was flapping her hands in front of her face in a futile effort to waft away the smoke. She didn't even notice when he slipped his hand into her pocket as he darted past.
He put the bottle into a pocket on the inside of his jacket. No use in stealing it from her only to have her steal it back. Then he opened the window behind her – partly because that would give him a good reason for being near her in the first place, and mostly because the smoke really was terrible. Even though the priests and fortune tellers said he was a dragon immortal, he couldn't bear the smell of smoke.
By now some of the other guests had the presence of mind to open the other windows. Everyone crowded around them, gasping for fresh air. No one even noticed Irímé slip out again.
He ran to the front door and peered through the window. A carriage had just pulled up outside the door. Its brilliant white lights immediately showed it was a police carriage. Irímé opened the door in time to see five policemen climb out of it. He quickly constructed another mask.
"Thank the gods you're here, officers," he exclaimed, doing his best to sound like a terrified young man who was thoroughly out of his depth. "Everyone's still in the house. I think these–" he held up the tablets, "–must be important; one of the guests tried to steal them."
The fire had given everyone something new to argue about. Some of the guests were utterly convinced it was an attempt to murder all of them. Others insisted some clumsy person had knocked the candle over by accident. They were in the middle of screaming at each other about it when the door flew open.
All eyes turned towards the group of policemen looming in the door. Silence fell as abruptly as if someone had turned a radio off.
"Now then," said the first policeman, "what's all this about?"
In Kumolnea's time as Anfalen she had held many eventful dinners. Fist-fights, duels, allergic reactions, escaped zoo animals... Irímé had no shortage of unpleasant memories associated with his mother's misguided hospitality. This one was only unusual because it was the first one that came with a body count. Really, by now his mother should have learnt her lesson and stopped hosting such events at all.
He waited on the main staircase while the police examined the body and the bottle of tablets. His mother and all of the guests crowded out into the hall to listen. From where he was sitting he was mostly out of sight. Even if someone did spot him they would assume he was just there out of curiosity.
In a way that was true. He certainly was there out of curiosity. Curiosity to find out why in the world anyone had bothered stealing the medicine.
"An unfortunate accident," one of the policewomen reported. "The victim suffered from chest pains. She has a list in her pocket of when to take a tablet. Obviously she took her evening dose as usual and forgot about the warning. There'll have to be a post-mortem but I doubt anything new will be found. It certainly wasn't a murder."
Yes, yes. That was all well and good. But what about the theft? How did it fit into this neat and tidy picture?
Irímé asked himself that as the police took the names and addresses of all the guests. Some of them were very insistent that their names should be kept out of the papers. In vain the police attempted to explain that it was just in case they were required to appear at the inquest. Kumolnea was of no help at all. She was bewailing how disastrous her dinner had turned out to be.
"I do declare it's enough to make me never go in for society again," she lamented.
Please don't, Irímé thought. Please, by all the gods and spirits, don't.
He tried to look at the situation from the thief's perspective. What did she have to gain from making an accident look like a murder? What did she think now that she discovered she'd been robbed of her ill-gotten gains? The second question was easy to answer. All he had to do was look down through the banisters at suspect twelve. Even from here he could see she was grinding her teeth.
It's as if she was trying to frame someone, he thought.
At once his mind screeched to a halt. It replayed that thought over and over. That had to be it!
He'd heard of people trying to make murder look like suicide. But whoever heard of someone making an accidental death look like murder?
Irímé stood up and walked down the stairs. No one gave him a second glance. He stopped at the bottom. The police were taking down suspect twelve's details.
Now he had a dilemma. Should he reveal his involvement in this investigation in front of everyone? Should he take off his masks just for a few minutes and let them all see the real Irímé? How could he when he didn't know who that was?
"You knew the deceased before today, didn't you?" he asked.
Suspect twelve stared at him. "Of course I did. We were both employees of the city museum. Who the devil are you?"
Kumolnea finally took note of what was happening. "For goodness' sake, Irímé! Go back to bed. This is no business for children."
Irímé ignored her. "And you knew about the medicine she took. You knew enough to guess it was what caused her death." He spoke slowly, more unravelling the strands of the mystery to himself than actually addressing the woman. "You stole it. Why? Why would you want everyone to think your acquaintance had been murdered? The truth is much less shocking and casts no suspicion on anyone. Did you not realise you would become a suspect yourself if it was considered a murder?"
All the blood drained from the woman's face. She stared at him as if he was some eldritch horror risen from the depths of the sea. Again she asked, "Who are you? What are you?"
Again Irímé ignored her. "Your actions make no sense unless you were trying to frame someone. Who and why?"
Suspect twelve's face crumpled. She seemed to collapse in on herself in front of everyone. "You must be a telepath, or else some lokthan from Gátagver sent to torment me. Yes, I wanted to frame poor Naohín's fiancé. He made her miserable! He broke her nose! Yet she refused to leave him, and now…"
She broke off. For several minutes her sobs were the only sounds audible. Everyone looked helplessly at everyone else. Irímé searched for something to say, and found that he was utterly unprepared to deal with the consequences of what he had uncovered.
At last one of the policewomen spoke. "I believe we've all heard quite enough. Ma'am, I'm afraid you'll have to come with us and answer some questions. If you'll be good enough to give us the fiancé's name and address we'll have a few words with him. The rest of you can go home now."
Irímé slunk upstairs amidst the bustle of the guests' departure. He felt less like a successful detective and more like a swimmer who found himself unexpectedly out of his depth.
"Really, Irímé, you must learn to keep your nose out of other people's business. It was disgraceful to see you barge into that horrible mess and question that poor woman as if you were a detective! I've never been so ashamed of you!"
"I was a detective," Irímé protested, even though he knew it would do no good. "I solved the mystery."
His mother patted his head as if he was a very small child. "Of course you did," she said in what his older sister had once called her 'aww how cute he's pretending to be all grown-up' tone. "But please, in future keep your flights of fancy to yourself. You made that disagreeable business much worse for everyone involved. I begin to despair of you ever behaving as befits your station."
Irímé glared after her as she wandered off. So much for his attempt at being a detective. He was so used to her patronising treatment that it no longer hurt. For a minute he let himself feel all the helpless, powerless rage she caused. The woman last night had suggested he was an evil spirit. At times like this he felt he could be every bit as vicious as one if his mother continued treating him in this way. Then he locked his rage up deep inside him and pretended it wasn't there at all.
It took only a few weeks for everyone to recover from the shock of the mysterious death. Afterwards everything went back to normal. Nothing changed. It was as if nothing had happened at all.
 lokthan = An evil spirit or supernatural being in Saoridhin folklore. In most stories it follows its chosen victim around, causing them irrational fear, then reveals all their misdeeds in public to feed on their misery and torment.
 Gátagver = Originally this meant any place believed to be inhabited by malicious spirits, but now it means specifically another realm where all sorts of monsters live.