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Chapter 1 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

In Gondal they called it the Trojan wind: an arid, unpredictable south-easterly, harbinger of stifling summer nights, of tossing on mattresses seemingly stuffed with thistles and praying for the elusive relief of dawn.

A gust laid low the potted rosebush, scattering dark petals over the roof walk. Charis stooped to pick one up, brushing its velvet across her lips, inhaling its scent. Long after nightfall, the leads still radiated the day’s stored heat. Between that and the wind’s desiccation the petals would have withered by dawn.

The Trojan wind. What had they called it in Troy? Had Helen stood on the leads of Priam’s palace, looking west, yearning for Sparta (and perhaps, just perhaps, for Menelaos, also) and felt it on her back?

She blinked back tears. There was grit in the wind, as well as two and and half thousand years of sorrow and exile.

The roaring of men in their cups came up from the banqueting chamber two floors below. A lush baritone rang out above the clamour, unmistakeable even amid chaos.

“A toast! Gentlemen — to other men’s wives!”

Charis’s mouth filled with ash. She gripped the balustrade and leaned over. The drop turned her stomach. Fifty feet, onto stone. But it would be quick. As for what came after, she had surrendered all hope of grace by coming here. What difference would the manner of her death make? They would bury her at a cross-roads, she would moulder into dust and even her name would be lost.

She hitched at her skirts with her left hand, cursing her petticoats and the new French stays. Despite their hindrance, she had managed to get her knee onto the parapet when, from out of the shadows, someone spoke.

“I told you what he’s like. You’re the one who didn’t listen. But if you want to get out of here without having to be scraped off the cobbles and carried away in buckets, I can show you how. If you aren’t still too proud to take help, that is.”

The end of the Cock o’ the North fair heralded a period of clear blue skies with light, cooling breezes. Phyllis, accordingly, decreed that all the world should be cleansed. Every scrap of fabric in the castle would be taken out, reviewed for moths, aired, cleaned, repaired and generally refettled, before the enervating heats and dusts of high summer rendered all such projects impracticable.

The Great Wash swept over Castle Cavron. The girls of the district were pressed into service as extra laundresses and every youth who could be spared from the fields set to work carrying bales and stirring pans of soap. All flat surfaces were given over to pressing, bleaching, stretching, crimping, pleating or goffering. Garments hung drying from every projection. The air hung with steam and the stink of lye, was loud with the methodical thud and slap of linens being beaten clean. The Castellan, with several casks of wine and as many of his officers as could wangle leave, bolted down the valley to “discuss strategy” with the officers of Sherlock’s regiments.

The last note fell out of a pile of freshly laundered linen, placed in her bedchamber during morning service. As she absorbed its contents Charis’s heart thumped erratically. All that had gone before had been a story, a make-believe, a game of hints and half-promises she could drop at will once it ceased to amuse. Not this. She knew this for the challenge it was.

Show cards or fold.

Unlike its predecessors the note was enciphered, using a simple letter substitution. She clutched at the bedpost to remain upright. When she’d been eight years old Lord Lestrade, newly appointed ensign in the Household Guard, had entranced her with messages in that very cipher.

Tomorrow. Noon. St Cecelia’s Well. Should aught hinder our meeting, leave word within the knot-hole below the fifth angel on the decani side of the church.

Charis bit her lip. The words from a remembered lecture rang in her mind:

Even without more, the presence of a cipher denotes a plot. Disguise your messages as something innocent or use a book code. Only an imbecile or a traitor uses an obvious cipher.

The very last voice she wanted to hear in her head at this moment.

She shook her head. None of that. It was charming Lord Lestrade had reminded her of shared memories. Only nerves had prompted her to take his use of the cipher awry. It would all be forgotten once they met again.

Tomorrow. Noon. St Cecelia’s Well.

Her lady of the bedchamber snuffled and snorted on her pallet, locked in a drugged stupor, fruit of her own greed and dishonesty. If only Charis had thought earlier of lacing her private store of spiced confits with powdered opium. She’d suspected the woman for weeks of pilfering her sweetmeats. Now she had incontrovertible proof, yet she’d have left the castle before she could present it to the Castellan.

The chamber was sweltering already, its casements barred against dangerous miasmas borne on the night breeze. Nevertheless, something must be done about the intolerable drone of those snores.

The bed-curtains were dusty affairs of heavy brocade in the style of thirty years back. Charis pulled them shut. The mattress was all lumps, the sheets tangled into ropes as her sweat soaked them. The fusty smell of the hangings poured over her palate, so she could not imagine smelling or tasting anything else, ever again. Sleep came hard and was broken when it came.

Time and again she woke from dreams of arriving at St Cecelia’s Well as dusk fell, finding it deserted, or of pounding though waist-deep grasses, never getting nearer, while the Abbey bell tolled the offices.

In the worst dream of all she reached the well to find Sherlock on the threshold. He smiled, his face a skull in the moonlight. “Go in, he is waiting for you.” Dread rose like mist about her feet. She stumbled past her husband to see Lord Lestrade sprawled supine across the plinth, the blood from his slashed throat oozing out in great viscous clots to pollute the water below.

She woke, shaking, and plucked the curtains aside. The barest hint of grey leaked through the casement. She spared a glance at the pallet. The woman had turned onto her back and was snorting worse than before. No danger there.

Yesterday Charis had purloined a jacket and breeches and hidden them beneath her mattress, gambling that their owner would assume them casualties of the Great Wash. She donned them, swept up her hair into a cap, and left down the servants’ stair, heading towards the stables at a purposeful trot.

The Creature whickered with pleasure at seeing her. She slid him one of the comfits which had not received the powdered opium treatment. He devoured it and nosed at the breast-pocket of her jacket for any traces of powdered sugar.

It was getting lighter by the moment. Made clumsy by haste, she retrieved the saddle-bags from the feed-store in which she’d hidden them. The buckles were stiff and the leather under-oiled. She framed a rebuke to the head groom, before recalling that, as with the lady of the bedchamber, she would be gone before she could deliver it.

The Creature craned his neck and attempted to nip her waist. She dodged, and gave his muzzle a firm tap.

“Yes. I know. Not a packhorse. Well, you know what, you stuck-up animal? Nor am I a groom. But if I’m prepared to put up with loading you, you can put up with carrying it.”

Whether it was the force of reason, or the Creature’s (perfectly accurate) suspicion that she had more of the comfits concealed about her person, he grudgingly allowed her to finish saddling him.

They rode out before anyone stirred. A fresh, clean, northerly breeze blew, carrying the scent of home.

The moment they found a flat piece of turf she let the Creature have his head. He caught her mood, changed stride and broke into a gallop. On the far horizon was a dark smudge: the grove of cypresses through which the path to the holy well wound. Lord Lestrade would be waiting there. Once she entered the grove she would cease to be a girl riding. She would become a woman riding to a secret assignation.

But until then —

She drummed her heels into the Creature’s flanks and shouted her exultation to the spring breeze.