Seeing my dilemma, Valii came to my rescue. “You can have as many as you want. We usually keep a bowl around.”
I snatched up a pile of seeds and shoved them in my mouth, relishing the juicy explosion. One of the dancers, a young woman, prepared a rice dish for us with meat and vegetables while Valli cut up some fruit. The table in the recreational area was larger than the others in order to accommodate six instead of four. Besides Valli and Ellora, three women and a man were sitting with us. Two actors and two dancers.
“If you keep feeding me so well I may never leave,” I joked, wanting to compliment the cook. They were an amiable group, flashing smiles and exchanging idle chatter.
My mind drifted back to the murder. Now that we knew the actual target was Ellora I needed to find new suspects. I hadn’t heard of Asean having a grudge against Ellora. Then again, Valli and Ellora were friends, and I had no doubt Ellora would confront him if he was picking on Valli.
I had one advantage. Most people didn’t know about the letter.
“Is there another show today?” I asked.
“Yes. We’ll have two this afternoon,” Valli answered.
My gaze wandered down the hall. The other tables each had four people around them, except for one which only had three.
After breakfast Valli and I played cards in his bedroom. I closed the door to block our view. If I didn’t I knew our gazes would continuously wander to the spot marked off right outside.
He flipped a card from the top of the deck onto the carpet. A card in my hand matched it. I slapped my hand down but Valli was a split second quicker.
I tried to cheat, batting at his hand to move it away so I could put my card down.
“No, I put mine down first!” he laughed, holding his firmly in place.
Giving up my cheating ways, I checked what else I could put down.
We had time before the staff would begin coming to the theater. I wanted to find new suspects, but the only people around were the people who lived there. Still, they could know something and not even realize it, just like Valli had. I took the opportunity to start gathering information.
“Hey, has Ellora gotten into an argument with anyone lately?”
“Ellora?” He placed a hand to his cheek, eyes on the ceiling. “I guess she and Seolian had a fight the other day.”
“Really? What about?”
“Well, we were rehearsing and Ellora was telling her what to do, and Seolian said she’s been here longer than her and doesn’t need her to give her orders.”
“And that was recent?”
“Yes, but, why?”
“I’m just trying to figure out who might have a quarrel to pick with Ellora.”
“Oh.” At first he answered dryly, but then he pepped up. “Oh! But I’m sure she’d never hurt anyone.”
I forced a smile. He’d say that about everyone.
“You’re probably right, but I have to start somewhere.”
I made a mental note to talk to Seolian. We put the cards away and he decided to show me around the dressing rooms.
On the way we walked by the table that had only sat three diners instead of four. One of the bedroom doors was ajar, and I peeked in to see who the missing person was.
The room had a desk like the others, along with a table. Both were covered with metal, glass and plastic parts. Tenore was sitting at the table, bent over what looked like the parts for a large light. A tiny screwdriver sat next to her, and she was using a pair of pliers to replace a small bulb in a line of bulbs.
“Shouldn’t you get breakfast?” I asked.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” she called back, not turning her head.
I snickered. Seemed like this was normal for her.
I went to the dressing room and took a seat in order to be Valli’s test subject. He had an assortment of powders and cream-like substances that were dyed all shades of the rainbow, and a set of brushes. It reminded me of painting again.
The soft bristles swept against my skin. I squinted my right eye when the brush got too close to it. It felt like mud sticking to my face, but being fussed over was nice.
My eyes darted towards the mirror while Valli worked. He was drawing a vine of blue flowers on the side of my face.
“There!” He lifted the brush. The blue buds of the flowers shimmered.
I smirked. “I’ll have to see what my dad makes of this later.” Valli held in a chuckle.
The door squealed behind me. I slung an arm over the back of the chair and twisted around.
Ellora stood in the doorway with a bundle of papers in her hand. “Valli, can you go over these lines with me?”
“Oh.” His eyes moved from her to me. “Do you mind?”
I smiled to ease his concern. “It’s fine. There’s something I wanted to do, anyway.”
When I vacated the room I barely glimpsed Ellora stealing my seat. As long as Valli was with her he’d be safe.
The sound of knifes clicking against wood filled the air from the kitchen. The back was oddly empty compared to the night before. With how big the theater was, it made it seem all that more empty when it wasn’t filled with people.
I hunted around for Seolian. She wasn’t in the living quarters anymore. Several of the people had already strayed to the theater side, so I checked the other dressing room, but she wasn’t there.
Finally I pushed through the door to the stage. Fast, zealous words echoed through the empty room. “…to do our duty to the kingdom and the king we must be ever vigilant, always press forward, take the thrust of the spear if we must, a hundred spears, no, a thousand! We cannot rest if the king’s shoes are cold or if a draft threatens his health…”
It was a speech from one of their previous plays. She continued with undying enthusiasm, each sentence gaining in energy as the soldier proclaimed her loyalty to the king. It was meant to be a commentary about blind devotion, but she had such vigor and charm that I was ready to lay my life down for the king myself.
Without pausing for a breath, she yelled, “…to bring glory to Nagdecht and the king!” Seolian threw her arm towards the sky.
I clapped. She spun to face the side of the stage.
“I’m surprised you can say that whole thing. I was waiting for you to faint from lack of air.” I emerged from the curtains.
“I had to practice it about a million times.” She placed a hand on her hip and relaxed. “What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you. I heard you were, ah, mad at Ellora.”
“Mad at Ellora?” she repeated, her voice high and an eyebrow raised. “Why would I be mad at her?”
“I heard you two had a fight.”
“That?” She waved a hand dismissively. “I’m over that.”
“But wasn’t she trying to tell you what to do or something?”
“I can speak up for myself if I need to.” She shrugged. “I’m not worried about something stupid like that.”
I looked down, mulling it over.
“Has anyone else been mad at Ellora?”
“Has she talked to anyone yet today?” She sniggered with a smirk.
“Does she get in a lot of fights?”
“Not really. But she certainly doesn’t back down from one.”
“Did she have any recently?”
“I can’t think of much. About a week ago one of the caterers got in her way during a show. Sometimes she gets into arguments with people from auditions. You know the type. The one’s who insist they’re the best. She’s more than willing to correct them.”
“It sounds like things get pretty volatile around her.”
“It’s a high stress business with a lot of big egos. If you can’t handle the heat,” she pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, “get out. We have little tiffs all the time. Nothing major, though.”
“So do you have any idea who would want to kill someone?”
“None. I doubt it had anything to do with any of the arguments around here, but Tenore might know more about that. She gets a good overhead view of a lot of the action on stage.”
“Tenore? I could ask her. Thanks.”
I headed back to Tenore’s room. She was still at the table. The light was almost back together.
I sighed and browsed their kitchen for a knife and a fruit, cutting it into slices. Loading up a plate, I carried it to Tenore’s room and set it down on the table beside her.
She looked at it. Her eyebrows went up before she responded, “Now that I think of it, I am kind of hungry.” She shoved a piece in her mouth.
“I was wondering if I could talk to you.” I insisted on having her attention.
She turned to look back at me.
“What do you need?”
“You’re around everyone a lot, right? Do you know if anyone is mad at Ellora?”
“You mean if she’s been in any fights or something?”
“Anyone who’s mad at her for any reason.”
“Hmm.” She scratched the back of her head, turning fully around in her chair and taking the bulb with her. Her eyes fixated on it while she screwed the outer pieces back together. “Seolian and her had an argument, but I don’t think they’re mad at each other.”
“Yeah, I heard about that.”
“About a week or so ago she berated one of the newer actors. Tanikaye.”
I winced. I could imagine it.
“She and Asean have exchanged words a few times.”
I pursed my lips. This confirmed my belief that he should still be a suspect.
Tenore continued, “She got into a scuffle when she and one of the dancers bumped shoulders. Luleeno.”
My ears sagged.
“Hmm, and about a month ago she got into a fight with one of the actors. Erona.”
My expression sunk. “Thanks…” With all of them in mind I turned to go.
“Oh , and…”
“There was a dancer who was missing her cues the other day that she gave an earful to. Tiamy.”
Stop picking fights with people, I screamed at Ellora in my head. It had been rough finding any suspects with Valli. With Ellora I was finding too many.
“You sure know a lot about what’s going on.”
She smirked, eyes down as she screwed the final piece back on and finished her light. She finally turned her gaze to me. “People tend to forget I’m there.”
I smiled back at her. I could see people gossiping around her while she quietly worked.
With all the names engraved in my mind I set off. I still wanted to speak to the cook, too. It was possible he knew what Visrial was doing that day.
I plodded through the back, ignoring everyone else and focusing on my next target.
How to bring the subject up? I didn’t want to traumatize an innocent lover. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea for me to even talk to him… But it was important to see if he knew anything. I could stay vague.
Cooks were engrossed in their work, chopping vegetables and washing food. No walls separated the kitchen from the rest of the back area. It had its own nook where the carpeting switched to tile floor and a lengthy counter acted as a barrier. Tons of carts were lined up by the wall.
“Is it all right if I get a glass of water?” I asked.
“Sure. Just over there.” One pointed with the knife. She had a long and stern looking face. “Donsaye, clean up those dishes over there.”
There was one caterer in the kitchen. His uniform’s deep fuchsia color stuck out among a sea of white uniforms as he moved passed the others to pick up the dishes. I slipped in, grabbing a glass and lingering after I filled it up.
“I heard,” I started softly, “someone in here was close to Visrial. My condolences.”
“Derian? He’s not here yet. I wonder if he’ll even come in today,” one of the cooks answered. Her hair was pulled back so tight that it looked painful.
“I think they held him for questioning yesterday.”
“They can’t still be holding him now. Not if they haven’t found anything.”
I knew he was probably held because he was close to Visrial, but it was an opportunity to pry more. “Why was he held so long? Did he see her around the time it happened or something?”
“I’m not sure. He wasn’t here the other day, so we won’t know unless he comes in.”
“You guys were here, right? Was he in the kitchen during the whole show?”
“Besides a bathroom break? Yeah.”
“We can vouch for him,” the one with the tight hair said. Her firm declaration warmed my heart. He had people here willing to defend him.
I made mental notes and considered how to approach my next questions. The target was Ellora, but they wouldn’t know about the letter. They’d probably only know about the robbery. It would be better to lead in with a question about that.
“Do you guys know why someone would rob Valli? Is anyone mad at him?”
“At Valli?” one responded with shock. “Not likely. He doesn’t attract much attention.”
“Some of the other performers, maybe, but probably not him.”
I perked an ear. “Did anything happen recently?”
“Two of them got into it just last week.”
It was a perfect segue to what I wanted to get to. “Really? Who?”
“Ellora and Seolian, I believe. Had a fight on stage. At least that’s what I heard.”
“Do they get into fights often?”
“Once in awhile. I’d say Ellora gets into more than Seolian.”
Perfect. “Why? Do people hate her?”
“I wouldn’t say that. A lot of the new people look up to her, but when she starts getting bossy it tends to ruffle the pros.”
The caterer spoke up. His hair was tied in a bun at the base of his neck. “It’s not surprising. She’s an incompetent know-it-all.”
The harsh words surprised me. Though I had my quibbles with Ellora, I had to admit she had talent.
“Is there anyone in particular she has problems with?”
They threw some glances around the room, brows knit. Finally, one spoke up, “I think she’s had some issues with that one dancer.”
“Asean?” I asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know all of their names.”
“Oh, here comes Derian now.”
A jolt shot through me. I whipped around. A young cook with a somber face jogged in. He was slender and his hair was slicked back with two strands of bangs hanging down on each side of his head. He had the same floppy hat as the other cooks, and a sturdy white jacket.
I tensed. How would I approach him?
“Derian?” I asked when he neared.
He narrowed his eyes at me.
“…I’m sorry about what happened,” I said.
He walked by the pass into the kitchen, murmuring a “Thank you”.
My stomach knotted. Any thoughts of questioning him were quickly being buried under thoughts of how to speak to him at all. I didn’t want to cause any distress.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked. I knew there wasn’t. We didn’t even know each other.
“I just want to get to work right now,” he answered. He took up his station, his movements mechanical. A hand gripped my arm.
“You should go.” The caterer pulled me away.
I didn’t fight.
When we were a few feet from the kitchen he leaned in and whispered, “If you ask me, Luleeno seems pretty suspicious.”
My ears were at full alert. “Really? Why?”
“She had one of those flower hair pieces the other day, like the ones Valli wears.”
His grip on my arm loosened. I nodded before taking my leave. Robbery hadn’t been the motive and Valli hadn’t mentioned any hair sticks missing besides the one. I needed to clear my head until the performers showed up.
I sat on the floor and pulled out my v-phone, calling up my dad.
He answered with a smile, “Hello.” He stopped, his expression blank. “You have something on your face.”
I grinned. “Valli put some make-up on me.”
“Ah, I see. That’s certainly different.” He left it at that. Seemed he didn’t have a lot to say about it. “How have things been?”
“It’s been okay. We’re still looking for the killer,” I answered.
“We?” he repeated.
I gulped. “Yeah, we’ve just been trying to figure out who did it…”
“You’re not a police officer, Leander. I don’t want you getting involved with that. Just stay with your friend and keep safe.”
I lowered my ears. “I’m not getting into any danger…”
“Leander,” he chastised.
“I’m staying safe!” I surrendered. “I promise!”
He paused, raising an eyebrow, before giving in. “You best be,” he warned.
We talked for a bit and the crowd flourished. Show time was nearing.
We ended our conversation with some parting words.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
I put the v-phone away and fumbled to my feet.
What better way to stay safe than have the killer in jail? Tenore had given me a list of suspects to go through and I intended to look into each of them.