This is the fourth part of a novelette. If you haven’t already, please start at the beginning or go back to the previous part. If you’ve “solved” the “mystery,” for which possibly-telling clues existed from the beginning of the first chapter, feel free to contact me privately, but please don’t give it away!
CHAPTER THE SIXTH
“There is only one man,” he cried.
An hour later, I was at the Palace, questioning the guards who had been responsible for protecting Prince Narcissus and were just coming off duty. Most of them had seen nothing, and some did not even know that an assassination attempt had taken place. None had heard a gunshot, and Imperial Guardsmen are, among other things, trained to hear even supposedly-silent gunshots. A few thought they had seen a bullet flying through the air, but in a city with thousands of mages, from infants to teenagers to the centuries-old and from apprentices to Masters, breeds the usually accurate assumption that anything that flickers by without sound is an illusion. One of the guards (who had been transferred from a rural reserve unit for the occasion) remembered where he was standing and its approximate trajectory as he saw it.
I obtained some sturdy scaffolding from the Palace stores, set it up, and climbed to the rafters in the chapel ceiling. The bullet was buried in a thick rafter, but not difficult to find. From the direction of the deep hole I approximated a trajectory that matched what the witness had told me.
At my request, Hildegarde ran some metaphysical tests for me. It denied all the standard suspects for insoluble crimes: The bullet had not been transported or imputed velocity by supernatural or metaphysical means, moved through three spatial dimensions without moving through the fourth, but it was not in the room from which it was fired. That confirmed the absence of a gunshot. Another test showed that there had been no gunpowder in the room simultaneously with lead, though it confirmed that the bullet was initially propelled by gunpowder. My own tests showed that the bullet was completely ordinary, so far as matter was concerned, and had been fired from a similarly completely ordinary gun. All of these results, except those confirming that the bullet had come from outside the room, were exactly contrary to what I had expected.
After scouring the floor, walls, ceiling, and rafters for footprints and fingerprints, and finding none, I took down the scaffolding and replaced it in the Palace stores. I then requested and received permission from the Palace marshal to have a standing disruption placed in the room, to last until the wedding began. Unfortunately, certain parts of the ceremony could not function under such a disruption, so it would have to end at the beginning of the wedding. Hildegarde placed the disruption with care, adding another module to disrupt the functioning of Power-enhanced items that had only passive Power usage.
As I walked out of the Palace on my way to my rooms, I inspected the ground carefully for footprints. Most were innocuous, but I found one set leading onto the Palace grounds and disappearing there and another matching set appearing outside the grounds and going away. I made a copy of those footprints for my files.
When I reached my rooms, I read a dissertation on the nature of reality, from the Academy’s advanced-study philosophy programme, that I had picked up in the Imperial Library. What caught my interest was that the major instance under study was the use of metaphors in the Department of Intelligence. The dissertation said that known metaphors covered nearly every facet of existence, but many metaphors had probably not been discovered.
After all that weighty thinking, I slept fitfully, turning over all the facts of the case in my head. I dreamed of metaphors and mysteries.
CHAPTER THE SEVENTH
“Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive?”
The next morning, I went to the Department of Intelligence with one specific aim in mind. I went to the top floor of my chosen metaphor and looked carefully at every inch of the ceiling. As I had remembered, there was an unmistakable patch in one place, distinct from the rest of the ceiling in pattern and lack of wear. I examined it carefully for fingerprints. The only prints I found matched those that I had found on the shelf below.
After leaving the building, I went to the Palace and searched for Hildegarde. She was not there, so I went back to my office and found her waiting outside my rooms.
“So this is where you were,” I said. “I’d been looking for you. Is there any way to look into a metaphor, or, better yet, all metaphors, without entering? In any case, I need one of those metaphor-change chains, like the one you used to look at the fingerprints. I shouldn’t need to hear inside the metaphor, though.”
“The best I can do for the first is to rig up a metaphor-change chain divided into infinitely many parts, and put it over your spectacles. Actually, just one eye might be better, so you can still see reality.”
“What is reality?” I asked, only half joking.
“Now is not the time to discuss philosophy, sir,” she said, in complete seriousness. “We have a murder to prevent.
“For the second request, of course I can provide you with a metaphor-change chain.” She drew two of them out of a pocket, handing one to me. “Here’s one. I’ll rig up an infinity on the other.” After stretching it out to get rid of all the folds, she set it spinning and said a word in some language I didn’t understand. The chain flashed blue. She moulded it into a circle. “May I see your spectacles, sir?” I drew them off and handed them to her. She set the circle of chain on the left lens and said another word. The chain melted into the glass. “There,” she said, handing the spectacles back to me. “After about a week, you won’t need that. Your eyes will adjust.”
“Thank you,” I said. Handing her a cast of the footprints I had taken, I said, “Would you look at who these belong to?”
“The shoes were produced in Earth, I think, but the only materials that produce that kind of texture were invented in the last ten years,” she said, “and no self-respecting Imperial citizen would wear something like that.” Her first observation was one I had made myself, but the second was a detail I had not thought of checking for, and the third was an example of why I valued her different perspective so highly.
“My sincere thanks,” I said. “If you are done here, I need to visit the marshal again, for a warrant.”
This continues in Part Five.