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Bai watched the expressions play across Ressa's face, wishing he knew how to decipher them. Had he said too much? He was still drunk from her kiss, and he knew that it was his only chance. She was right, saying they couldn't - the political and professional implications of a relationship between them weren't something there was paperwork enough to untangle. He wondered if there was some loophole they could find - it hadn't occurred to him before that night that she could possibly be interested in him.
He might have delayed leaving that room for longer, lingering as long as possible on the safe side of that doorway, knowing that stepping out meant returning to their careful relationship, to going back to pretending there was nothing more than friendly affection between them. But when Alikara screamed, he was moving before he realized, tromping down the staircase in alarm with Ressa at his heels.
"Alikara?" he said, heart thundering in his chest as he reached the bottom of the stairs. "Alikara?!"
His little sister was standing in the hallway by the washroom, hands over her mouth and eyes wide with horror. The few remaining guests and staff were clustered around, blocking the hall, and Bai had to push several of them aside to get to her. "What's wrong??"
He had a glimpse of a half-naked figure sprawled on the washroom floor, several members of the staff leaning over it, before turning to take his sister by the shoulders.
"He's dead," Alikara said, voice wavering. She looked up at him with big, terrified eyes, and Bai immediately put his arms around her and hugged her tight.
"It's all right," he assured her. The others people present were murmuring in an alarmed hum. Someone called for a monitor, and Bai was relieved to see one of the staff was possessed enough to go trotting for the front door to raise an alarm flag, and another was covering the body with a coat. He briefly caught Ressa's gaze - she was hanging back at the far edge of the crowd and had not pushed forward with him. "Is Urti still here?" he asked, looking about, but there was no reply from the milling people and Bai guessed that he'd already left.
Denel was one of the remaining guests, clutching at Jerumal's arm, and he wasn't sure which of them looked more shaken - he'd never seen the self-possessed Jerumal look so rattled, and Denel looked absolutely sick.
"Who is it?" he thought to ask.
"Counci- er- Science Leader Dramanar," Alikara said, sucking her breath in and pulling out of Bai's embrace. Dramanar had only recently retired from the Council, and had named Jerumal as his unexpected young successor. No wonder Jerumal looked like someone had just broken crockery over his head; the two were quite close.
Alikara pulled herself back into control with admirable swiftness, calming some of the more hysterical guests who remained, and directing the staff to cover the body with linen. The coat was returned to its owner, who looked at it with a certain amount of horror and declared it a casualty of the evening... a moment of grim humor that no one laughed at.
By the time the monitors arrived several tenticks later, with a medic and a legate in tow, chairs had been pulled into the main lobby for everyone, and everyone was talking in quiet little clusters. There was an air of numb delirium over the group - part exhaustion from the late hour and part horror at the unexpected tragedy of the night. The transportation that had been called for the last guests clustered outside on the streets; Alikara refused to let anyone leave until the monitors had completed their investigation.
The indignity of Dramanar's discovery was a topic of quiet speculation; half-naked in a washroom smacked of cheap pleasures, which didn't fit with the classy party and its highly respectable guests, or at all with Dramanar's repuation of dignity. Though there was no obvious signs of violence or struggle, more than one person whispered about the Railrage murders that were still on everyone's minds, and it was everything Bai could do to keep himself from glancing at Ressa every time the topic came up.
She was sitting quietly between an older woman who was wringing her hands and a young man who looked rather fish-slapped, looking pale, but serene. She offered to help Alikara with the refreshments the hostess had thought to serve, but Alikara shook her head. "The staff will handle that," she said brightly. "But thank you. Oh, Ressa, where are your gloves?"
Ressa looked down in surprise at her bare hands. "I must have left them on the harmonichron," she said, rising. "I'll go fetch them."
Bai made himself not watch her glide up the stairs, and bit back the urge to declare loudly that she'd been with him in the music room the whole time. An unrequested alibi would only look more suspicious. He tried not to fidget, and concentrated again on the more local conversation, which swirled around speculation about Dramanar, and who might have been with him in the washroom.
The monitors declared their investigation complete at the same time Ressa returned, and there was a flurry of conversation and interest as they announced the death as natural causes. They had no explanation for the circumstances around his ignoble discovery, but Dramanar was old, and the medic declared the death a heart failure.
"We'll do a further medical investigation at the medical guild," the monitors told Alikara. "But our preliminary findings are that there is no foul play involved. We'd very much like to talk to whomever was with him when he died, however."
No one came forward with any help, gazing around at each other curiously. Bai had to resist declaring that Ressa had been with him again when the monitors gave her, and her guild pin, an appraising look. Her hands were still bare, and when Alikara looked at them with questions in her eyes, she said evenly, "My gloves weren't there. Could one of your staff have picked them up?"
That led to another flurry of activity, nearly lost in the rush of the guests to leave as the monitors released them. Alikara played hostess again, juggling personal farewells and heartfelt apologies as she saw them out to the hired carriages and carts that had been waiting outside.
Ressa was the last one there, other than the staff and monitors who were looking over the pledge lists and the invitation log. "A pair of lost gloves is the least of your problems," she was trying to protest to Alikara. "It's not your fault." Anyone who didn't know her would think that she was completely unruffled by the events of the night, but Bai could see the strain around her eyes. It was harder not to look at her when they were the last ones left. Alikara, at least, seemed grateful to have such a mundane mystery to solve, and sent the staff trotting to anywhere that a pair of gloves might have gone.
Bai's sister admitted defeat at last - there was no sign of the missing gloves, and the last of the transportation was long gone.
"I can walk home," Ressa was trying to protest, when Alikara tried to call her another carriage. "I don't live that far away." She was finally allowed to leave with the escort of the last monitor, at his gracious insistence. Bai gave her a perfectly formal farewell, and was left alone with the rattled Alikara feeling like he'd just survived a windstorm.
He dropped into one of the chairs with a deep sigh and Alikara sat gingerly beside him and collapsed back.
"It was a marvelous party," Bai told her, hearing how ironic it was as he spoke.
"Except for the dead body," Alikara agreed with a hiccup of a laugh.
"All parties have their little flaws," Bai said wryly.