• Michelle Raab

The mystery subplot: the riddle is in the painting





In my work in progress, I have a mystery subplot. Tessa, my main character, is in Curator training, which is like our equivalent of graduate school. She is under the impression that Curators just take care of books and file away reports and other papers. It hasn’t occurred to her yet that curation has other layers of meaning.


The first project in Curator training is intended to weed out students. On the first day of classes, the instructor tells them that half of the students will fail before the end of the semester. For some of the students, failure is not an option, because it would be utter ruin for their families. Status is everything for the upper families, the Housebound, in this world. If you lose status, you lose your livelihood and there are rumors of worse.


For Tessa being a Curator is the only thing she’s ever wanted for herself. Her escape from the cruelties of her family life was finding mysteries presented in books and trying to uncover the truth, like finding artifacts mentioned in journals of people long gone. Her family clearly favors her older sister and has let her know how much they disdain her. Her father is the Chief of the Watchhouse, the extension of the Tower in the outer corner the of Claim. He is the law that far out from the center of everything. Tessa’s only reason for being is as the spare to the heir, her sister, the heir to the Chief’s chair.


The mystery is, if not solved, will get you kicked out of Curator training, so beyond just being exactly the sort of thing that Tessa lives for. Tessa doesn’t want to fail and have to return home, humiliated.


Much of the Claim’s history is preserved in state paintings, like the First Curation an homage to the First Curator. No one really knows her or his or their name. In the painting, they are facing away from the viewer. Their long black hair is drifting in the wind. Hairstyles can change, so gender is uncertain. There are motifs depicted in the painting, peddler’s tales as it were. One of them is the Wailing Woman, a ghost story often told in the north-western outer ring of the Claim near the Lightening Sea.


Every Watchhouse in the Claim has a copy of the First Curation. Every Curator Guildhouse or Guilding (like an office suite within another state building). Every library. The painting is everywhere, so much so that no one ever really takes a look. For the Curator trainees, this is the first time they’ve ever really looked at the painting, ever really noticed.


Their assignment is simple: find the riddle in the painting. That assumes that there is a riddle, doesn’t it?

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