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Chapter 4 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

Dinner was not a restful meal. By the time merciful dessert arrived Charis was on the point of screaming.

Sally Donovan (that was the interloper’s name, Charis’s tiring maid told her, along with other details, namely that she had arrived with Lord Lestrade following a trip by him to the Kingdom of Naples last November and been in residence ever since) seemed to have acquired a new vivacity while dressing. She had, of course, home advantage, including an outfit which had not spent two days crammed into saddlebags.

Throughout the endless procession of over-spiced, over-rich, not overly warm dishes offered for their consideration, she kept up a witty, unsparing commentary: on her travels, on the latest fashions in Gondal, and how far they lagged behind those of Naples, even though she had not seen her home for almost eight months, and no doubt style would have advanced even further in her absence…

Charis tried, unsuccessfully, not to feel provincial.

No wonder Mycroft always looked to King Louis’ court at Versailles as a pattern of impossible perfection. No wonder that appalling, stuck-up English girl who’d got herself murdered last year had sneered at her behind her fan. If even the merchants’ daughters of Naples appeared so sophisticated, what must the aristocrats be like?

Sally leant across Lestrade. “Will you take a turn with me on the roof garden, your grace? The men become very stupid at this hour, and it is an age since we have had a lady guest. Do me the honour of walking with me.”

Roof terrace, In an instant, Charis saw the edge, felt the quick sharp push in the small of her back. Such an obvious trap. She opened her mouth to refuse, but something forestalled her.

In hostile territory, the biggest danger is inadequate intelligence.

She rose to her feet. “I look forward to tasting the fresh air.” She extended her arm. “Come. Walk with me.”

They had barely reached the roof-walk (protected, Charis noted, by a substantial parapet) when Sally, disregarding protocol, said, “Did he do the rose thing on you, too?”

“What —?”

Sally jabbed downwards with her right hand, forefinger outstretched. “Rose. On your pillow. Plus, I expect, a note promising his eternal devotion, but a bit woolly when it came to specifics.”

It might have been the overly-rich banquet, or the Canary wine, which she had tossed back at dinner with a freedom born of nerves, but Charis tasted acid vomit at the back of her throat.

Even though the half-moon was yet to rise, Sally appeared to read her face without difficulty.

“You and me both, then. To say nothing of the others.”

Others?” It came out as a squeak.

“Well, I expect you’ve heard his nickname? Must have, mustn’t you, being as you’re here?”

That observation touched on areas she had no intention of sharing. Still, no point in pretending ignorance. “The Widow-maker?”

Sally’s nod was an angry jerk of the chin. “Widow-maker. Not widow-keeper, you’ll notice. No weeping ladies in black veils hanging round the place. Trust me, once I discovered what I’d let myself in for, I checked. Every room. Twice.”

They reached the end of the walk. Before turning to promenade back in the other direction Charis paused, looking over the parapet. Fifty feet down to the courtyard, the first line of casements ten feet below the parapet, the servitor who had followed them up to the roof hovering at the far end of the walk, too intimidated to approach further. This was as near privacy as she could expect.

“Might I enquire, Mistress Donovan, why you continue here, given it would appear your stay has not promised what you hoped?”

Sally caught her by both shoulders — mindful of the drop, Charis stifled her shriek of outrage, just — and swung her round so she could stare her straight in the eye. Charis kept her head up and stared back. After a second Sally released her and took a step back, raising her palms as if in surrender.

“You’re not what I expected, you.” She gave a short, harsh laugh. “Mind you, I’m not sure what I did expect. Haven’t had any experience of princesses. And I can’t say my experience of aristocrats in general has been extensive. Intensive, maybe.”

She cast a dirty look in the direction of the stairs. The sounds of ragged, drunken singing were making themselves heard from the dining chamber below.

“So, why do you stay?” Charis had meant to sound stiff and dignified, but instead it came out genuinely curious. Sally’s entire outline relaxed.

“What choice do I have? You can’t imagine I’d be any too welcome back home, if I crawl back without a ring, do you? My family are merchants; they’ve got a short way with damaged stock. Get rid of it as fast as they can, for whatever it’ll fetch. No questions asked or answered.”

Revelation struck like vertigo. Charis stumbled back from the parapet, and sank onto a stone bench. “If I go back, the King will have me killed.”

Sally sat down beside her and, again without asking permission, stretched out and took her hands in both her own. Charis made no protest. Even the semblance of comfort in this alien place came as a relief.

“You sure about that? From what I heard, your husband’s an outlaw. Why would his brother care?”

“I — ” Charis baulked at any attempt to explain the relationship between the King and her husband to Sally. “You wouldn’t understand. It’s complicated.”

Sally spread her skirts on the bench. “You don’t have to be royal to have a complicated family, trust me. Let me tell you about my uncles. Fell out at Grandma’s funeral. After that, Uncle Alberto only had to hear Uncle Rodrigo was in the market for something and he’d move heaven and earth to get it instead, no matter what it cost. And vice versa, of course. Looked like they’d wipe each other out before they were done.”

Sally chopped down with the edge of her hand.

“So, when it’d been going on a year or two, there’s this antiquities dealer who has to sell up in a hurry. Uncle Rodrigo puts in the low-ball bid, gets the ball rolling. Prompt as clockwork, next day Uncle Alberto doubles it. Everyone else stays the hell out. Been burnt before, see? Only this time — this time — Uncle Rodrigo doesn’t come back with a better offer. And, since the dealer’s creditors are banging on the doors by this point, he has to accept whatever Uncle Alberto is offering,”

“And?”

Sally grinned. “Oh, this bit is good. It turned out that among the old junk in the dealer’s stockroom there was a set of intaglios which’d been done as a companion piece for a set of cameos on the same theme — light and dark, see? And the guy who owned the cameos was pretty much prepared to offer whatever anyone wanted for the intaglios, so he could have the complete set.”

“And could he afford them?”

The grin got deeper, showing Sally’s teeth very white and even. “Oh yes. Being as he was only His Holiness the Bleeding Pope.”

Reflexively, Charis gasped and crossed herself. Sally leant forward.

“But that’s my family all over. We’re not the sort to let personal feelings stand in the way of the main chance. Something you might want to bear in mind, in your situation.”

A message, of course, and not what it seemed on its face. Still, the day had been too long, the fact of betrayal too overwhelming, her sense of isolation too intense for her to interpret it.

As she had been taught since her earliest years, she took refuge in the fortress of her rank.

“What a fascinating story. You do seem to have a most interesting family. But for now, I’m afraid the fatigues of the day have been all too much for me. Please call my maid, so I may retire.”

She rose from the bench and, without looking back, paced towards the stair down. Behind her, she heard Sally Donovan breathe out, “bitch!”

Amid the overpowering scent of the potted roses, Charis caught the whiff of burnt bridges.