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Chapter 11 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

The aromatic steam of the bath lulled her into a semblance of peace. Her eyelids drooped. She heard the servants’ door creak open, the noise of a bottle being uncorked. The pungency of clove soap filled the room. She leant back and motioned with one finger, giving permission for the maid to touch her.

The hands massaging her temples were far larger than any hands had any right to be. She twisted her head, and looked up into her husband’s uncompromising eyes.

Her bones turned to powder, her sinews to mush, her guts to a roiling cauldron of acid. Once she had decided to return, she had known the moment would come when she must face Sherlock and confess what she had done. She had not imagined it would come so soon.

They were alone in the room. Annie, no doubt, had kept the servants below. If Sherlock killed her, now, no-one would even hear her cry for help. Worse, she would die a forsworn wife and a virgin, forever bearing the disgrace of unchastity while never having managed to find out what the fuss was all about.

She let out a whimper of misery.

“Don’t. You are in no danger, not now.” Sherlock’s voice held neither the fury she had feared nor the cold detachment she had expected.

She twisted her body in the bath, slopping water onto the floor — odd, to notice that, in such a crisis. She had to get the words out before her last shred of courage failed.

“You are entitled to annul our marriage. You were most grievously deceived on entering into it. I am not the woman you thought I was.”

His eye travelled up and down her naked form. She dismissed as absurd the idea of snatching up a towel. What good did the pretence of modesty do now? Anyway, the towels were all out of reach, behind Sherlock.

“I can see no evidence for that proposition. Elucidate.”

“Lord Lestrade —” Somehow, pronouncing his name aloud made the situation unendurable. She dissolved into tears and found them being mopped away with a flannel.

“That fuckwitted beef-brain.” Sherlock held out one of the larger towels. She stood while he dried her — she was too apathetic to do more — and then wrapped her in a robe. “Come. Whatever my brother’s builders can do, no-one could ever take the draughts out of Castle Cavron. I’m not having you die of an affliction of the lungs after watching you safe all the way back from Gondal.”

Safe. Not In no danger as he had said at first, but safe.

Her knees buckled. Since riding out ten days ago — even earlier, since she had seen the rose on her pillow and first contemplated the fine adventure which had turned into such a small, squalid thing — she had never felt safe. At first, she had ridden on an exquisite knife-edge, between terror and exhilaration. But then the knife had turned blunt, the endless onslaught of petty alarms and insults deadened her nerves, and she had seen no end to fear.

And yet Sherlock had watched over her. All through that nightmare journey — the ever-present terror of discovery by suspicious villagers taking a second look at a strange boy riding late, the cold nights snatching sleep up trees, the alarms of bear or wolf, the fear that the Creature might be going lame, that time they had only just got off the road and into a thicket as a troop of cattle-raiders had stormed past, hooves muffled — all that time she had had a protector.

Safe.

Sherlock stooped and caught her up in his arms. She rested her cheek against his shirt’s fine linen, breathed in his citrus-and-civet scent, heard the deep thud of his heartbeat, felt his muscles cord as he shouldered her weight.

She had dreamt of Lord Lestrade doing this. What a fool she had been.

“I thought I was being followed. Even after — after.”

“After you killed Lestrade’s groom?”

“Oh. I did kill him, then?” Sam’s clotted, cut-off words would echo in her ears for years to come, but it seemed important, somehow, to emulate Sherlock’s dispassionate tone.

“Indeed. Not quite a clean shot — though creditable, given the light. It would have done its work, in an hour or so. I finished him off and tumbled the body into a dry ditch, before his cries attracted all the carrion-scenters of the Borders.”

Sherlock kicked open the bedroom door. The scent of roses drifted up from the night-blanketed garden below. Moonlight streamed in, defining everything with the sharp-edged clarity of fretwork. The bed-curtains moved gently in the draught from the window. They were a light summer muslin, printed with storks and bulrushes, not the heavy brocade she had found so oppressive on the last night she had lain here. Phyllis must have ordered them changed, trusting — despite everything — to her return.

Sherlock set her down on the bed and swung himself up besides her, stretching out full length, not quite touching her. The moonlight turned his skin to alabaster. It brought Charis in mind of the carved figures on the tombs of her ancestors, in the Cathedral of SS Augusta and Geraldine, back home.

Safe. One would be safe inside one of those marble sepulchres. Cool. Quiet. Enclosed. Protected.

Except at the last judgement, when all the dead, even those lying in the royal tombs, must rise at the trumpet’s sound. Adultery, even if only in her heart, was most surely a mortal sin. She had known that on Lord Lestrade’s roof walk.

All the dead. Mama. Whose adultery had not remained in her heart. Charis was her mother’s sin made flesh.

“Don’t.” Sherlock’s voice rang out in the silence of the moonlit room. “I can hear you think, and it pains me.”

She might have spoken, but his clipped, elegant hand movement commanded silence.

“I spent days camped below that preposterous folly of Lestrade’s. The young lord of Sancta Maria inter Prata loaned me a falcon. Bless her and the master who trained her, she picked off every pigeon Lestrade tried to send.”

“Pigeons? From Lord Lestrade to whom?”

“Who’d you think?” Her husband’s voice mingled equal parts ferocity and contempt. “Lestrade’s lord and master. The Pretender.”

The last shred of hope dropped away. What a child she had been. And it hurt.

Sherlock pushed himself up onto one elbow. The moonlight cast odd shadows, deepening his eye sockets, turning his face into that of a man who had starved for months.

“I’ve read the messages they carried. I know you return to Cavron as virgin as you left it. I expect Lestrade enjoyed a hearty laugh at my expense when he learned of your maiden state?”

She ducked her head, bright crimson, avoiding his gaze.

Amusement rippled in her husband’s voice. “Don’t look so stricken. The laugh’s on Lestrade. Doubtless he’d promised you the moon and stars, if — that little ‘if’ so dear to the practised seducer of married women — if only your inconvenient husband were not in the way. And then you turned round and told him all you needed to achieve that was an examination by a jury of pious matrons and a modicum of self-restraint in the mean-time.”

“Don’t mock me.”

He reached out to clasp her wrist. The ball of his thumb played over the pulse-point there. Her blood leapt erratically in response.

“Mock you? I admire you. Beset with enemies, deceived by someone who played on the affection you’d cherished for him as a child, you still tried to steer the most honourable course for all parties concerned. I’d not have done nearly so well. Indeed, I freely admit I have not done so well. You have far more right to complain of my behaviour to you than the converse.”

His voice dropped to its lowest register.

“It’s long past time we spoke honestly. If, at the end of everything I have to say, you feel the right thing for us both — and for Gondal — is an application to that jury of pious matrons, then I shall not oppose you. But trust me, Charis, I do not wish for such an outcome. I most truly do not wish it.”

Her throat closed up. She managed a nod, giving him leave to continue. Rather than do so immediately, he drew her to her feet, and arranged her robe about her shoulders.

“Come with me to the window. I want to show you something.”

He settled her on the window seat but did not sit himself; rather, he stood close behind her, so his warm breath tickled the back of her neck.

“Look, over to the left. That tower, there.”

Its monumental scale blocked the sky. Chill dread, even at this remove, breathed from its very stones.

“The tower where the King your grandfather died?” Even now, two decades later, that great spectre hung over its turrets.

“Yes.” Sherlock drew a deep breath. “And in dying gave me life. And to think he always accused me of counterfeiting a woman’s part.”

The words came like a blow, touching upon her deepest and most private fear: a death such as Mama’s. Her husband’s hand grasped her shoulder, ungentle but curiously reassuring.

“Your pardon. I only meant that though Castle Cavron may wear a grim aspect, for me it is a place of hope unlooked for, coming out of the blackest despair. And a place of second chances.”

Hope flickered; she tamped it down. “Second chances? In such a case? You know what my intentions were on riding forth from here. In my heart I committed the sin; that I did not complete it was happenstance.”

He made a chopped, dismissive gesture.

“Princes attract the ambitious like raw meat attracts flies. Flatterers and deceivers fasten on us. Not one in a thousand — ten thousand — of those who pledge their love is truly disinterested. Yet it is so lonely here on the heights, and some of the counterfeits pass very like true coin.”

“Lord Lestrade was always a favourite with Papa —” The unlucky word reminded her of other miseries. “Sherlock, I must tell you. There is another basis on which you must annul our marriage.”

The formal routine of challenge, password and countersign sounded from the garden below: the castle guard changing watch. It was a framework which had defined her life, differing only in detail between Gaaldine and Gondal, between palace and castle. Tonight it seemed calculated to mock her.

Tears welled up again. “The Pretender holds a cardinal’s opinion which states my b-bastardy can be ruled certain. He has named John as my natural father. Even had I been legitimate, I would not have had noble rank, let alone royal. I am no fit wife for the heir of Gaaldine.”

The grip on her shoulder tightened.

“Sssh. The opinion’s an absurdity; the maunderings of an old man with a known bee in his bonnet. It will not bear close examination. Doubtless the Pretender intended to hold it in terrorem, not publish it to the four winds. I told you Lestrade was a blabbering lackwit.”

“You knew of it?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Big Gertie’s reach puts the King’s own intelligencers to shame. But you should not have worried. Kingdoms would fall if the acknowledged children of a marriage could be declared bastard after their parents’ deaths. So the Archbishop said. Mycroft consulted him, when our marriage was first mooted. He consulted him a second time, after news of the Cardinal’s opinion reached us.”

Her stomach took an unpleasant lurch downwards. “The King sought the Archbishop’s view on my legitimacy? He perceived a risk?”

The guards had passed on, the gardens returned to their accustomed quiet, broken only by the natural sounds of the night: the breeze among the bushes, the dripping of water from the fountain, a cut-off, dying squeal from a rabbit taken by a predator.

“Of course he perceived a risk. The whole treaty was a risk. Attacking your legitimacy was an obvious step. Obvious to the Pretender’s advisors, at least. James of Gondal never makes the obvious move, at least, never for the obvious reason. It’s what makes him dangerous.”

“So I’m not a bastard?”

“No.” Sherlock sounded very assured. “Not in the eyes of the Church and in the eyes — more to the point — of the C ourt of Gondal. To whom King Ambrosine never, ever, behaved for the smallest instant as if you were not his child.”

“Suppose he were — misled.” Even such an oblique reference to Mama’s deceit made her tongue swell in her mouth.

“Charis!”

Her own name, rapped out like a parade ground order, shocked her into turning her head. Sherlock leant in, his lips a bare inch from her face.

“Give King Ambrosine the credit he deserves. No-one could expect to deceive him on an question of breeding, be it dog, horse or human. Nor did he lack pride, or the spirit to avenge an insult. The whole of the three kingdoms knows these things.”

One of Sherlock’s wedding gifts to her had been an armillary sphere, imported from Damascus: an artefact of concentric, independently mobile circles in shining bronze, showing all the movements of the spheres. One flick of a thumb turned the constellations of summer into those of winter.

He was doing the same thing now, inverting her world with a fierce, ruthless precision.

“Use your reason, Charis. King Ambrosine esteemed your mother throughout her life and afterwards. He held John close about his person, loaded him with honours, until the final months of his life. Then he entrusted your safety to John over the claims of a hundred — two hundred — men of higher lineage. Does any of that look like the behaviour of an unwitting cuckold?”

“But if the rumours were strong enough to provoke the King your brother to consult the Archbishop —”

Sherlock’s lips curled. “I don’t doubt, at least in part, that Mycroft went through that charade in order to stymie any counter move on my part. I — ah — I confess I have sabotaged more than one proposed marriage treaty by drawing pointed conclusions about the lady’s parentage at some well-chosen moment.”

“Sherlock!” She could see it with horrible clarity.

He exhaled. “The truth is, I feared being tied down. In part from selfishness, but more because I have long sensed a struggle coming for the soul of the three kingdoms. Children are hostages given to fortune in war.”

In a jagged flash of horror, Charis saw a baby, its head dashed open on the stone flags of the castle courtyard. Her hand went to her mouth, and she retched.

Sherlock extended his hand. “Come.”

He led her back to the bed. She curled between the lavender-scented sheets. He paced about the room, speaking half to himself, half to her.

“I could not make that choice — not just for myself, but for any wife of mine — if she did not have at least so great a stake in the three kingdoms as I. Charis, I would see you rule in Gondal — a ruler in your own right, as your mother Felicia should have been. Nothing less would make the game worth the candle.”

She had known Sherlock too long; he did not choose words without care, as other men did. And it profited to listen to that which he did not say.

“As my mother should have been? Not as Papa was?”

“I told you tonight was for honesty.”

There was something febrile in his ceaseless pacing. It fed the building tension within her, so that her nerves jangled and she wanted to scream.

“Then in the name of the Virgin, give me that!”

He sat down on the edge of the bed and took her left hand between his. Her heart started to thud with dread of what was coming.

“Charis, you are not in law a bastard, but when I look at you, I see nothing of King Ambrosine. Your mother, yes, in certain lights and from certain angles. As for the rest: your dominant hand, when you’re not forced to pretend otherwise, is your left. Your eye is as true and your nerve as steady in the hospital as in the hunting field. And otherwise there are a myriad hints and signs which suggest your true parentage. At least, to anyone who does not merely see, but observes.”

She could not help it. She let out a gasp of pure pain.

As he had done on their wedding night, he wrapped his arms around her, drawing her close against his chest. His deep voice purred, inches above her head, barely audible above her erratic breathing.

“Don’t fear what you are. On your mother’s side, you come of the true, senior line of Gondal. Raise your banner in her name, and see how many men of the Borders flock to it. As for King Ambrosine: think, Charis, think. It is near impossible he could have had a cuckoo child palmed off on him. It is — between these four walls — almost as inconceivable that you are of his getting. Yet, you were raised, loved and dowered by him as his own. What other conclusion remains but that he knew all, and was content with it?”

“How could a man —” Charis faltered, but he did not interrupt. “How could a man of honour overlook such a thing?”

“How could any man of honour — or woman, for that matter — rank trivialities about who chooses to share a sweaty bed above keeping James Moriarty off the throne of Gondal?” Sherlock’s voice was watchfires and war trumpets. “A dark devil lurks within the cadet line of the house of Ancona. Gondal was ten times blessed that Crown Prince Gerald never reached the throne. The Pretender is all Prince Gerald threatened to be, and worse. In contriving to promote his wife’s line at the expense of his brother’s, Ambrosine never acted more like a true King.”

Charis’s heart pounded. “Do you truly believe that?”

“Yes.” Unhesitating, uncompromising. “If unchecked, that hydra will not merely spread his poison over every square foot of Gondal. He will unite the three kingdoms and remake them in his own image. Angria is riddled by factions: its King a phthistic figurehead, his heir as yet unbreeched, his brother a dolt, his wife a tool of the Emperor, his sister intriguing with the Palatinate. If Gaaldine did not stand between the Pretender and her, Angria would be over-ripe for his picking. And in Gaaldine, few except Mycroft and I appreciate the risk he presents. And we are but two, and have no heirs.”

That stabbed at the heart. “But I — you said — we agreed —”

Sherlock captured her hand, and pressed it briefly against his lips. “My pardon, my lady. That reflection was not directed at you. I had been of full age for a decade and a half when we married. Had I agreed to the first marriage treaty the King and his Council proposed, I could by now be a grandfather.”

She raised her head from the pillow, turning on her side so that she could see his face. She had never, despite Lord Lestrade’s sly hints and less subtle jibes, thought much about Sherlock’s age. Now she looked, there was, indeed, a network of fine lines around his eyes and across his brow, the marks of too many years scanning horizons, eyes screwed up against the sun’s glare. They showed more plainly now the sun and wind of the last days had tanned his face to a deep brown.

For a moment she wondered what experiences had scarred those long years of his youth and early manhood, before she had even been born, which had led him to pronounce with such bleak austerity on the loneliness of royalty, and counterfeits who passed so very like true coin.

His eyes met hers. She had the uncanny sense once again of his reading her thoughts. This time he ducked his head as if he could not hold her gaze.

“On the topic of marriage, there is another thing. I, of all men, cannot condemn Queen Felicia for being led by her heart in this.”

His voice sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. “I would not put this on you now, after the shocks you have already borne, but you must know it before we go any further. I have loved John for more than half my life. He is the best man of this age — pure unalloyed gold, all through — and his bloodline would grace any throne.”

A thousand hints and portents coalesced on the instant, like the resolution of a problem in algebra. Known to use boys after the manner of the Bulgars. John was not a boy, nor was her husband. But they had been boys together, long ago, in Gondal, in the hostage time.

She shook off his embrace, sat up in bed, and chose her next words with extreme care. “You love John — as Achilles loved Patroclus?”

Sherlock gave a brief, bitten-off “huff” of laughter. “Well. That’s the politest way I’ve ever heard it described.”

That towering spectre again. Counterfeiting a woman’s part. All the fear and frustration of the last few days came to a head at once.

“God and all his saints in glory! Stop talking about your f—” She caught herself just in time. “About your royal grandfather. Hell’s teeth, it’s me you’re married to, not Mycroft the First.”

One heart-beat of silence. Then Sherlock laughed out loud.

“Idiot. Not you, my lady, me. I’ve been a complete fool and never realised it until this moment.” An odd exhilaration thrummed through his voice. “Well, then, leaving my fucking grandfather entirely out of it, I fell in love with John when I was in exile in Gondal, and believed, on what appeared to be compelling grounds, that when circumstances forced me to leave I would never see him again. I felt — well, I rather suspect you know how I felt.”

Charis hardly paused. “No. No I bloody don’t. This is John we’re talking about. John would never do anything for a base reason. Not like —”

She could not pronounce Lord Lestrade’s name. Not in the same sentence as she spoke of John. My true father. My oldest friend. Sherlock’s —what?

Her husband assumed a most peculiar expression. “No more he could, though I cannot think one woman in ten thousand would have the generosity to admit it. Nor is it misplaced. Please, Charis, whatever I have done, hold John guiltless of everything save excess of love.”

She tried to digest that, but Sherlock resumed, speaking even more rapidly than normal, as if to deter any attempt at interruption.

“Anyway, having — as I believed — lost the only person who made life worth living, I left the three kingdoms altogether and travelled around Europe. I argued with bishops in Italy, I heard music in Paris, I dissected corpses in Leiden, I attended lectures on optics in London, I fought — well, no matter. If I’d had my wish, I’d not have returned. Only my uncle entered a decline and Mycroft, disappointed in hopes of heirs down his own line, summoned me home to secure his back when the inevitable happened. Politics I could deny; he bolstered them by reference to the safety and happiness of the Queen, our cousin, whose claims I could not. As Mycroft knew.”

Charis wondered, yet again, what had truly gone wrong between the brothers. The mad Queen, Iphigenia, lay close to the heart of it, but the grave had sealed her lips, more surely even than her malady.

“And then?”

“Then? A decade and a half of limbo, sitting on the lip of a volcano and waiting for wisps of smoke to turn to flame. Unravelling tedious intrigues among even more tedious noble families — occasionally being trusted with minor diplomatic missions — watching the Heir of Gondal start to move his pieces into position, being permitted to make only the most ineffectual moves in response.”

Charis shivered. “After my mother died, Papa was persuaded to recall the Pretender to court. He said, once, if there was any act of his reign he could wish undone, it would be that.”

Wide sleeves and skirts of stiff black taffeta: she must still have been in mourning for Mama. The small West audience chamber: a semi-formal, forenoon reception. She on her stool next to Papa’s tall, gilded chair, head bent over her needlework, acutely conscious of being on show, of having to prove to Papa that she was old enough.

Something caused her to look up. The Pretender was scrutinising her, like one of the Palace cats watching a finch whose wing it had broken, waiting until the bird’s agony grew too boring before delivering the killing strike.

Her recoil — slight though it was — told him she had marked his attention. He raised a finger to his lips and gave a small, secret smile, as if to seal some private pact between the two of them.

Sherlock nodded, as though reading her thoughts. “The threat of the Pretender made it clear this was the one marriage treaty I could assuredly not refuse. I did not expect it would cause me to be reunited with John, after so many years.”

That — was not a easy sentence to deal with. She set her teeth and looked straight ahead. A hint of pleading entered Sherlock’s voice.

“But nor did I expect to find in you what I have. Charis, I said earlier that disinterested affection is the rarest prize princes can find. Forgetting Gondal for a moment, if you decide to end this tonight, my greatest sorrow — save one — would be that I only recognised what I had within my grasp at the moment it slipped away.”

“And your greatest sorrow, in such a case?” Her voice seemed to come from very far away.

“Do you have any doubt? That I would no longer have the right or power to stand between you and greedy dolts like Lestrade, who weigh your worth in lands and gold alone.”

The last few days had left her bruised and wary. She could manage only a weary detachment where perhaps he had hoped for warmth.

“Go on with your tale.”

“Some months after you’d both arrived in Gaaldine I confronted John with the past. You know he is incapable of untruth. Forced to answer a direct question, he told me I’d been mistaken, that his feelings for me were at least as strong as mine for him.”

She had been wrong. Detachment was an illusion; sick misery crawled in the pit of her stomach. “So you and he — all this time —”

Sherlock shook his head. “No. I spoke of feelings. Until a few weeks ago, wherever my heart may have been, my body remained true to our marriage vows.”

Charis’ breath came out in a long, ragged gasp. Sherlock reached out and took her chin in his hand, tipping back her head so she had no choice but look into his eyes. They were wide and sincere, but she had early learned her husband could be a master of the players’ art. He saw that thought, too.

“You doubt me? Don’t be misled; there’s more necessity than virtue about it. My nature has always been peculiar. I find it difficult to summon up passion where neither mind nor heart is engaged. Since John would not and the two of us should not, that was an end of that.”

“Until?” He had said “a few weeks ago”; something had changed. She suspected what it must have been, but wanted to hear it from Sherlock’s own lips.

He nodded, gravely.

“Until the Reaching Beck Bridge. John feared me dead. By the time he found me I was a hunted fugitive, stripped of power, position — all that has ever made me a honeypot to flatterers. John can resist every temptation except those born of excess nobility of spirit.”

Tears did well up, then. How typical. How completely, damnably typical.

Sherlock’s brows drew down. “Charis, look. Whatever you decide to do about our marriage, John and I and whatever resources either of us can command will always stand between you and the Pretender. I will not have fear of James of Gondal determine your actions.”

She saw in an instant’s perfect clarity the honourable intent behind Sherlock’s promise and its complete futility.

“Not an army,” she murmured. “An army-in-law.”

“What?”

“You told me on our wedding night that I now had an army-in-law. Were our bond to be dissolved, would the King of Gaaldine deploy his armies against the Pretender of Gondal on my behalf?”

He did, for a moment, have the grace to look ashamed. “Not unless it was in his own self-interest. And not, therefore on your behalf. Unless, of course, you were his Queen.”

Charis drew in a sharp breath. Sherlock nodded.

“I’m afraid so. He loves Elizabeth with a passion more sincere than anything I have ever seen in him. Nonetheless, were you to be rendered suddenly single, he would head the queue to marry you. He would conceive his duty to Gaaldine demanded it.”

Charis closed her eyes. She stood in some high place; the three kingdoms unrolled before her. Forts, bridges, strong points, ports, passes, trading centres. A woman’s hands — she did not recognise them, the fingers were slender and white, unlike Mama’s stubby, comforting fingers — offered her a chatelaine, its ring heavy with keys. But the woman’s finger ends were dipped in blood. It had dried black underneath her nails. On her wrist was a fetter of wrought gold, from which led a chain of adamant, off into the mists beyond her vision.

Her eyes snapped open.

“No.”

“What?”

“Tell me, Sherlock, even if I did raise Mama’s banner, who would join me unless I had a general capable of meeting the Pretender in open battle? And can you think of a single such general who would not expect marriage as his price?”

His pause told her all she needed to know. Anger lent heat to her words.

“Then what does dissolving our marriage do, but put Gondal up for auction, with my body thrown in for makeweight?”

He blinked. “An — unnervingly — accurate summary of the position.”

“Well, why didn’t you say?”

He sounded aggrieved. “John told me not to. He wanted to ensure you had a free choice, not one constrained by fear. He also told me to make clear that if your choice was to retire into private life — to marry where you chose, political considerations quite irrelevant — that I would do nothing to dissuade you.”

Her voice came out with the force of a whip-crack. “So the mothers of bastard sons press them towards the throne, but the fathers of bastard daughters thrust them away?”

Her hand went to her mouth, as though she could call the words back.

Sherlock’s eyes blazed with fierce joy. “Ah! I knew I should have smuggled you into Corbisdale Castle. It would have been instructive for you to meet David. And vice versa.”

Something eased, like the release of a too-tight stay. “You truly think I can rule Gondal.” It was not a question.

“Yes. As David could never have ruled Gaaldine.” Sherlock’s lips curved sardonically. “Even if Mycroft or I had been stupid enough to give him the chance. Not that the Pretender will be an easy man to unseat, either, though the mess you left at Castle Lestrade may help. The Pretender will never forgive that idiot for having had you in his power and then losing you.”

“Oh, God. Sally —”

Sherlock nodded. “Though her family have fast ships and trading posts from here to Cathay. He’d be wise to marry her at once, and run. Exile with his merchant adventuress in the Spice Islands would be a far kinder fate than whatever the Pretender plans for him. In the next day or two — at the latest — Castle Lestrade will be in James of Gondal’s hands. The saints help that mountebank if he lets his master find him there.”

“Oh!” Inspiration struck. “Wait a moment.”

She rose from the bed and ran to the outer room. Phyllis must have sent someone down the The Mariner’s Rest to collect her saddle-bags. There they lay against the wall, still laced and buckled. She knelt beside them.

“Here,” she said, a trifle breathlessly on her return. Sherlock was leaning against the casement, looking across at the ancient tower again, an unreadable expression on his face.

“I don’t know why I brought them, but — well, they took hours, and it seemed a shame to leave them there. Anyway, here.”

She thrust a tight roll of papers into his hand. He started to skim them in the moonlight, then went to the writing desk in the corner, and lit the reading candles, using a taper kindled from the night-lamp.

After a few moments he lifted his head, and laughed. “Oh, the lackwit, the lackwit. He really didn’t know what he was getting, did he? As I said earlier, you are the only woman I could bear to be married to.”

“Actually, you didn’t. Say that, I mean.”

Sherlock looked, obscurely, ruffled. “Well, I certainly meant to.”

Which, of course, was Sherlock all over.

Abruptly Charis realised what it would have cost her to give him up.

“I do not wish to dissolve our marriage,” she said, very formally. “I would very much hope we might have a better understanding from now forward.”

“And John? Have you a message for him?”

This was harder than she had hoped. Was she doubly betrayed by John, or doubly protected? He could not have told her of her true birth without betraying Mama’s trust. Nor could she blame him for setting out to find Sherlock, when she herself had ordered him to do so.

As for the rest — had she ever, truly, hoped to come first with Sherlock? Even the nuns had — obliquely — warned her of this sort of thing. Whatever rules applied to women, fidelity was not a quality much prized among princes.

“Tell John — he has been my support and protector for as long as I have known him. Tell him it would grieve me more than I could say were anything to change that.”

The delight in Sherlock’s face tore a jagged-edged wound in her chest. She sealed the pain away. Jealousy was not a luxury Gondal could afford. What was needed now was to move forward, to rebuild — no, to build anew, on foundations which, for the first time, had been rooted into the living rock.

She reached up to her hair, removing the pins which had secured it for the bath, letting it fall down about her shoulders.

“Jonathan said he saw you raise your head in the flood below the bridge, but it’s been hard having no sure word of you. How have you managed?”

She ran her fingers over the back of Sherlock’s right hand, where it lay carelessly on the desk. He had always been spare of flesh, and perhaps the constant sight of Lord Lestrade’s sleek, well-fed face had heightened the contrast. Nevertheless, her earlier thought of him as a man who had emerged from prolonged privations lingered.

He tilted his head, as though surprised at her asking. “Not badly, I assure you. Of course, it’s summer and there are fairs and festivals up and down the Borders. Between us we have enough skills to earn a disreputable thaler or two. I draw teeth — I have a remarkable knack for it, you should see me — and John treats sore eyes. And I play the fiddle for country weddings and the like.”

The candles caught a glint of white as he smiled, though his voice stung with underlying bitterness.

“Doubtless, when he cut me loose, my brother the King calculated I’d spent long enough playing the mountebank for fun that I’d not starve if called upon to do so for a living.” He looked down at the papers resting on the desk. “Oh, damn! I shall have to come to life again. These must be in Mycroft’s hands as soon as maybe, and that means using the Royal messenger service. He’ll know it has to be me.”

“Me,” Charis said indignantly, pointing at the acanthus, and then, “Oh, God. My reputation.”

Sherlock coughed, drily. “My esteemed brother is nothing if not practical. If he thought it would win him intelligence as good as this, he’d have you elope with every Gondalian lord in turn.”

She glared at him. If he dared to treat it as a joke —

He had the grace to look contrite, if by the barest fraction. “Did you not wonder why half a hundred of Mycroft’s men weren’t in Cavron already, demanding to know what’d become of you? You’ve Phyllis and Annie to thank. They’ve told everyone you’ve been on a pilgrimage to St Cecilia’s Well and various shrines of a similar nature, under the care of a widowed gentlewoman of unimpeachable reputation. I adore widowed gentlewomen of unimpeachable reputation; they’re all such thunderingly good liars.”

She retreated back to the bed, and pulled the sheet around her. “What? You can’t expect Mycroft to believe a taradiddle like that!”

Her husband blew out the candles on the writing desk; the scent of warm beeswax filled her nostrils. “No more he won’t. No more will the Castellan, for that matter, once he gets back. No more will Colonel Wardlaw, with whom, by the way, I shall have to have words. No, better: I’ll tell Mycroft to do it. Wardlaw has no business stripping the defences of Cavron without your knowledge or direct orders.”

Charis gasped. “And me? What about my reputation? You’re not going to fight a duel with Lord Lestrade, surely?”

“Why on earth should I? I can out-think the buffoon in any area he chooses to name, but he’s a good ten years younger, and has the reputation of being more than handy with a blade. Besides, nothing harms a lady’s reputation as much as some fool man putting his neck on the line to defend it. Phyllis and Annie have done us both a favour beyond price. No, let’s leave Lestrade out of this altogether.”

He walked across the bedroom, to the music stand against which her mandolin was propped.

“What is that saying Horace is so fond of? All can be taken in stride, if you just sing it to the right tune. For the moment, until I make my peace with Mycroft, you are an outlaw’s lady. Which means I’ve only an outlaw’s portion to offer you: my hawk, my hound and my good right arm. Oh, and my fiddle, to charm the birds from the trees and sing you to sleep by the rushing brook.”

He strummed a chord or two on the mandolin. “The song almost writes itself, doesn’t it? Actually, Phyllis let me up through the servants’ stair, but I rather think I’ll scale the fortress wall. In the song, I mean. Unless you’d prefer to let down your long fair hair, to help me along a bit?”

“Ouch,” Charis said. Then, getting into the spirit of the thing, “I don’t mind dangling a rope from the frame of my casement, if that would do?”

“The very thing. She wove him a rope of the finest silk/Its strands more white than any milk. I apologise for the rhyme, but if the ballad of how the fair lady defied the King and ran to the greenwood with her exiled husband is going to be picked up through the length and breadth of the Borders, there’s no point in giving them Agathon. I’ll put a dying fall on any, perhaps. That should get the tears flowing.”

“A silk rope sounds terribly expensive. And impracticable.”

“Oh, quite. You’d get hardly any grip at all. Still, the silk bit allows me to make favourable comparisons with the lady’s hair.”

“I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if my hair had turned milk-white,” Charis said feelingly. “I’ve had shocks enough for it.”

He changed key. “Actually, it’s been bleached in pale gold streaks by the sun. It rather suits you.”

There was nothing, really, she could say to that. She lay back on the bed, luxuriating in its peace after so many shocks, eyes half-closed, listening to Sherlock picking out the tune, going back and forward, trying out rhymes and broken phrases.

Safe.

“When you perform a piece of music, it’s always new,” Sherlock observed at length. “You know the notes, but each time the piece brings out something different in you, something there’s never been in it before, informed by all the times you’ve played that piece before, or heard it played.”

He left the mandolin against the music stand, and swung himself up on the bed beside her. “Charis. May I come to you this night as your husband in truth?”

There was an odd, husky note in his voice which struck deep inside of her. Like the night the Bishop’s bravos jumped us, in the lane in Brendelhame.

A few breadths of finest lawn were all that stood between her hot skin and his. Whatever she had felt when watching Lord Lestrade in the lists or being kissed by him on the summit of the pass into Gondal was a pale, cold echo compared to the flare inside her now.

“Oh. Oh God.” A half-stifled gasp of assent: she could manage nothing more.

Sherlock sat up, pulling his half-fastened shirt off over his head, leaving him naked to the waist. Details of his body struck her as they never had before: the sharp planes of his muscles outlined in the moonlight of the bedroom, the light dusting of dark hair over chest and abdomen, trailing down beneath the waistline of his breeches, drawing her thoughts shamefully, inescapably with it.

She had dreamt of a moment like this.

She was not dreaming now.

“Please — yes — oh — yes.”

His lips covered hers, his tongue teasing its way into her mouth, his hands drifting down her body, tracing and cupping her breasts.

It became, suddenly, impossible to breathe. Her thoughts shattered into splinters.

His hand reached lower and found the secret place between her legs. With his thumb, he did something deft: utterly shameful and yet utterly blissful. Pleasure pierced her, almost as intense as pain. She bit her lip. How could anyone stand this? How could anyone stand for it to stop?

“Charis —”

The break in his voice did for her entirely. All was changed, not merely inside her but in the whole world. It must be, if Sherlock could sound so.

“Yes —?”

He did not answer, but rolled out of her grasp. Disappointment sliced through her like a blade. Then she saw his hands were at the lacings of his breeches. A moment later he lay naked on the bed.

So that was a cockstand. Her face flamed. Sneaked glances into the armarium prohibitum, when the Palace librarian was elsewhere, had supplemented the bawdy hints of the hospital tarts and the franker comments of the Palace ladies. Still, the thing in the flesh was both so like and so utterly alien to how she had imagined — also, how on earth was it supposed to fit?

A trifle queasily, she recalled Beatrice’s dark hints, on Charis’s visit of state the morning after Beatrice’s wedding — of course, Beatrice had always been the sort to treat a thorn in her hand like the loss of an arm —

“Straddle me.” The command curled off her husband’s tongue: challenging, lazy and sensuous.

“What —?”

“Straddle me.” Laughter threaded his voice. “Charis. Don’t look so shocked. You’re a woman — we’re married — to each other. The situation is extraordinary as it is. A scruple added on the side of convention might unman me entirely. Humour me.”

“But — the nuns told us we were on no account to fall into the sin of Lilith.”

An instruction which would have been as baffling as it was disquieting, had Agnes not visited a married, indiscreet sister and returned with enlightenment.

Sherlock curled his lip in disgust. “I’ve mentioned before, if there’s one place your nuns have absolutely no business, it’s our marriage bed.”

A fleeting image of Mother Superior, perched vulture-like on the bedpost, crossed Charis’s mind.

“Why take something meant for pleasure and turn all to pain and duty?” Sherlock’s fingertip circled her right nipple; she let out a half-stifled gasp.

“But —”

But pleasure is for men. That, too, had been the tenor of the nuns’ instructions. Sherlock, as ever, decoded the unspoken thought.

“Big Gertie said once, if it weren’t for wives being convinced they had to take it flat on their backs, in silence, her income wouldn’t be a tithe of what it is.” He eyed her, and added, a little stiffly, “She told me, also, many girls find it much easier, the first time, to be on top.”

“You asked Big Gertie that?”

“Why muddle through with improvisation, when there’s expertise close at hand?”

There were no words to tell him how absurd he was. How absurd and yet so dear. No other man in all the three kingdoms — not in all the world, for all she knew, nor in all the worlds now and to come — could come anywhere close.

It had, almost certainly, never occurred to Sherlock that there was anything at all odd in asking the advice of Gaaldine’s most notorious madam on the best way to deflower virgins to ensure maximum comfort and convenience for both parties. Or, for that matter, in telling the virgin in question he had done so.

And now he was lying there, looking put out, like a cat who had had its fur rubbed up the wrong way, and yet, catlike again, maintaining a bone-deep air of complacency.

If only something could shake his assurance!

That way he was lying, leaving himself utterly exposed — and she’d always suspected he was ticklish —

She dived across the bed before the impulse could leave her. In the course of the next few seconds she discovered the following: Sherlock was very ticklish, if you caught him in the right spot; he was far stronger than she had expected; and he had absolutely no scruples about fighting fair.

She landed, winded on her back. For a moment Sherlock was on top of her, his big hands pinning her shoulders to the mattress, the weight of his cockstand pressing into her thigh. For a second her spirit quailed.

Then he hooked her behind the knee with one foot and flipped them both over. She landed on top of him, their faces mere inches apart.

He lay back, utterly silent, staring up at her, challenging her to make the next move. Only the barest rim of iris showed round his dilated pupils. His lips were parted, inviting her kiss. It struck Charis, not for the first time, how unfair it was that a man should have been gifted by nature with such perfectly shaped and tinted lips —

“Well?” she said breathlessly, a few moments later, “I’m straddling you. So, what next?”

His eyes widened even further. He reached down, between their bodies. There was that piercing pleasure again, but this time she felt something else, like an itch that desperately needed relief.

“Go on. Now. Please.”


She woke. She was alone in the bed. Sunlight slanted in through the open casement. Outside, the rhythms of the daytime castle continued as they always had, as if she had never been away.

She turned and stretched, savouring a delicious lassitude in her limbs, the satiated ache of exercise — and, she thought with a small, secret smile, rather more than exercise. Her out-flung hand hit something on the pillow which crackled beneath the light pressure.

She rolled over and secured the paper, holding it up to the sunlight.

On the paper, written in black ink in her husband’s characteristic spidery hand, were the words, “Hold Cavron until I come here again.”