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Ressa struggled to awareness, conscious of an unnatural sluggishness in her limbs, and a hazy, drugged lassitude to her mind. Bits and pieces of the night before were out of focus and unconnected; she tried to put them in any kind of order to make sense, and failed, even as she finally succeeded in dragging her eyelids open.
Her mouth tasted awful, and the dim-lit room spun for a moment. Only dogged concentration stilled it, and after a few careful breaths, she could sit up, nearly knocking over a tilted pile of books near the couch. It looked like a hurricane had hit the well-appointed library, and a smile tugged at Ressa's mouth as she recognized the haphazard organization method that Bai employed when re-ordering his office. A few blocks of memory slotted into place, and the smile faded to confusion. She was in Bai's library, somehow; she vaguely remembered his worried face, and... disapproval? Even the idea of it stung. She remembered him helping her to the couch, and the gentle way he had covered her with the crocheted blanket. She fingered the soft yarn thoughtfully, and then pulled her hand away to look at her palm curiously.
There was a burn across her palm, scabbed over in a few places so freshly it was still bright red, and when she stretched her fingers, it split at one edge and sluggishly oozed the barest touch of blood.
The other hand revealed the same injury, and Ressa curled them both into loose fists and released them before carefully standing and making her unsteady way to the open door.
The foyer was bright, after the dimness of the library, and she blinked in the opulence for a long moment while her eyes adjusted. The tasteful, richly decorated entry was in every way what she expected Bai's house to look like, from the grand front staircase to the scrolled furniture and high, arched doorways. She could hear voices, and though she had no intention of eavesdropping, they escalated in volume to the point where she could make out the words very clearly.
"I refuse to believe it!" Bai's voice - the roar he used for heated arguments and battles he knew he could lose.
"I'm not saying it's true," a voice answered, and for a moment, it confused Ressa. "I'm saying she's going to have to be questioned. She has to be, by policy, you know."
Urti, she recognized, finally. That was Monitor Urti's voice, and he sounded as dismayed as Bai did.
A third voice, more carefully musical than either of the others, but still masculine, suggested, "You wouldn't interfere with an investigation, Bai." Rai, Ressa recognized, Bai's twin brother. The foyer was intimidatingly wide to her unsteady steps, but she took the chance of letting go of the library door frame and making her faltering way towards the open door the discussion was coming from.
"I wouldn't," Bai growled back. Of course he wouldn't; Bai was as lawful as they came. Ressa creased her brow as she made it to the dining room entrance. Investigation of what? Her odd arrival at Bai's door? Memory of the man she had bumped into was hazy and disjointed, but she tried to compose a report of the event in her mind.
"Another railcar driver was murdered last night," Urti said, almost apologetically. "There are going to be a lot of questions."
Murdered? Ressa touched the arch of the entrance to the dining room and paused, while Urti continued: "Especially since he had just broken things off with her."
She could see them now, sitting at one end of the long table, and she saw Rai turn to look sightlessly towards her at the tiny sound of her arrival, then the echo of the others as they swiveled to look, just as Urti's words settled into her fuzzy mind. A railcar driver... murdered...
"Yeff?" she said in horror. "Yeff was -" she choked, unable to say the word murdered, and clung to the molding as if she would fall without it.
Urti and Bai greeted her in a flustered fashion, rising, and she couldn't make out their words over the roaring of shock in her ears. Rai remained seated, frowning thoughtfully in her direction. Ressa made her way to a seat and sat down without grace. A glass of wine appeared at her elbow, though she wasn't sure which one of them had brought it to her. She ignored it as the others settled into their chairs - she already felt dizzy and partly inebriated, and hated it.
"It had the earmarks of one of the railrage murders," Urti said reluctantly, and he didn't have to elaborate. Two people had already died under the dubious gray rag title - railcar drivers strangled with fancy rail pullcords. Yeff had been a railcar driver. Ressa's hands made little fists of tension and it pulled unexpectedly on the burns across her palms. Burns that might be made by the friction of a rope... or a pullcord.
"You don't think I did it?" she asked in astonishment as the pieces dropped into place.
"Of course not," Urti said, a beat behind Bai, who insisted, "Not for a moment!" Rai made a wordless noise of disbelief, and there was a short, awkward silence until Urti finally said, almost apologetically, "But it is awfully suspicious that he just broke off your... ah... business relationship, you realize."
"He didn't break things off with me," Ressa protested, staring at the monitor in disbelief. "I broke..." she stumbled. "I broke things off with him," she ended with a whisper. The terrifying reality of the situation was beginning to break over her, and it paled besides the realization that her drug-addled mind refused to let her ignore any longer: she had broken up with Yeff because she was in love with someone else... with Bai, the one person she most had no business feeling such things for. She couldn't look straight at the license master, choosing, after a guilty glance at Rai's thoughtful face, to look at Urti. "This is... crazy."
"It's all circumstantial," Bai said fiercely. "The family knows some good legisters..."
"The guild provides me with the services of a fine legister," Ressa said, knowing how much he hated to use the connections that his wealthy merchant family brought him. "I didn't do anything wrong." Except fall in love with the wrong person... It was ironic, considering how much she had pitied him for feeling things that he shouldn't.
"There's something not at all right going on," Bai agreed firmly, and Ressa was at once warmed by his support and frozen by the enormity of her revelation. "Nothing about this is coincidence."
She furrowed her brow, still looking at Urti rather than Bai. "The seats at the theatre," she hazarded.
"The elevator," Bai said, nodding. "Olarali's perfume."
"It doesn't make any sense," Ressa said, hazarding a glance at him. "Wait... Olarali's perfume?"
"You were wearing it..." Bai stumbled charmingly, an uncharacteristic blush on his pale skin. "In the elevator, and again at the play."
Ressa blinked. "Yeff gave me that perfume," she said slowly. She didn't think it was only the drugs that was making her feel so confused. She remembered the shy, guilty way that Yeff had given her the gift, fidgeting as if she'd caught him doing something naughty. She had wondered, briefly, if it had been stolen, or bought on the black market, he'd been so twitchy about it. Poor Yeff... A memory flashed into her mind. "Drugged," she said, reaching for her neck. "I was walking, and someone injected me with something."
Her neck became the focus of the room, save for Rai, whose vision was too poor to make out the tiny puncture mark that Urti and Bai peered at. Bai carefully would not touch her, but Ressa had to keep herself from flinching at Urti's rough hands on the skin of her neck as she held her hair out of the way.
"Not dreamer's liquor, then," Urti said with authority as he sat back down in his chair.
"Why would you think dreamer's liquor?" Ressa asked, hoping she didn't sound as helpless as she felt.
Bai showed her a small flask that smelled over-sweet and tangy, both at once. Ressa pushed it away with disgust. "I would never-"
"I know," Bai agreed, and she was grateful again for his unhesitating support.
"I should get back to the Monitor's Station before they come looking for me," Urti said. "I was only passing by as part of a sweep of the streets for... more evidence."
Ressa looked at him in despair. "This looks bad," she said quietly. "But, I didn't kill Yeff. I couldn't! I..." she stumbled. "I was very fond of him." Barely cushioned by the effects of the drugs addling her mind, she was struck with a sudden wave of grief, and she had to concentrate very hard on not crumbling apart entirely. She stared down at her hands... her marred hands... and was dizzy with confusion and mistrust.
"I can get your statement tomorrow," Urti said with pity. "We've got 20 hours to file it legally."
"Thank you," she said gratefully, flashing him a strained smile. A flask of dreamer's liquor! Her bloodied hands! The timing of her breakup! She was still trying to force back tears and draw herself together while Bai made polite noises and went to show Urti to the door.
"You didn't have to walk me to the door," Urti said slyly to Bai. "I know where it is."
Bai looked at him blankly, still seeing Ressa's devastated face, tears pooling in her brown eyes. Even disheveled, trying not to cry, and still smelling faintly of vomit and sweat, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Adding that layer of vulnerability and grief was more than he could handle; he'd lost track of how to deal with her before that, and with it, he was hopelessly lost. It made him furious, and he glowered at Urti, not appreciating the hint of humor in his voice. "I'm a puppet in this," he said tightly, spitting every word. "And she's just a pawn. I don't know which one makes me more angry, but I won't rest until I've seen the bottom of this mess and held the throat of the person who's put it in play."
Urti stepped back, looking genuinely alarmed by his outburst. "We'll figure this out," he said, placating. "I'll use every tool I've got. I'll find out what else the investigation brings up and let you know anything I find out. I'll help," he promised.
Bai deflated, his anger spent as quickly as it had come. "It's not your fault," he assured Urti. "You're a good friend to have, and I'm beyond lucky that it was you that showed up tonight, and not someone else." He opened the door for the Monitor, and a chilly breeze blew in with the smell of wet snow.
Urti paused, and closed the door with a quick look at the open dining room entry before stepping closer to Bai and saying, very quietly, "You know, there's a way to keep her out of this."
Bai blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Say she was here with you all night. Give her an alibi and there'd be no investigation."
Bai stared, not comprehending at first what Urti was suggesting.
"We both know she didn't kill that poor man. But someone's gone out of their way to frame her, and Bai... it looks bad. They still hang serial murderers in this part of the Empire."
Bai's ears roared at the idea of it.
Urti continued. "People are already linking you two together in the gray rags, and a little professional indiscretion beats a murder rap any day. It's practically expected, with your job. I'll just... forget the rest of what I saw and heard here, and you can give me your statement that she was with you all night."
Lie? Plaintively, quietly, Bai protested. "But we didn't... she wouldn't... I'd never..." He had worked hard to mitigate the corruption that had been synonymous with his position at the regional licensing office, and he wasn't sure which was worse - the idea of lying on an official report, or the idea of fraternizing with a subordinate. Worst of all was the fact that he dearly wanted to fraternize with Ressa.
"Wouldn't that throw a wrench into the gears of whatever crazy plot this is?" Urti said it off-handedly, almost as if it was amusing, and Bai had to remind himself that it wasn't his friend that he was angry with. Amusement was just Urti's method of coping. "They go to that much work to try to frame her, and she's got a witness to her whereabouts for the whole time? I can't think of a better way..."
"I'll do it." Even as he said it, Bai felt something cold settle into his stomach.
Back in the dining room, Ressa used the end of her scarf to wipe stray tears from her eyes, keenly aware of the presence of Bai's brother, who was looking thoughtfully in her direction, though she knew he could not see her.
"An ill-papered situation," he said quietly.
Ressa tried to laugh, but it came out twisted and dry. "You could say that," she agreed.
"So... you're Ressa. Bai's told me a lot about you." He said her name carefully again. "Ressa. That's the modern version of Resesa, isn't it?"
Ressa bit her lip, but had to smile anyway, and nod, before remembering that he couldn't see either expression. "Yes," she said quietly, and she was agreeing to more than the origins of her name.
"I'm guessing you never told Bai about the two of us, then..."