Table of Contents

Chapter 5 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

She woke with dawn, stirring restlessly in the unfamiliar bed. At the first sound of her bare feet on the bedroom floor the door opened and a maid came in: a new woman, not one she had seen before. She was tall, raw-boned, with an air of coarse strength and those blank, unsmiling Borders features behind which any thoughts, or none, might be stirring.

Something about the woman — her silence, her promptness (had she slept on the threshold? And, if so, did that made her guard or gaoler?) put Charis even more on edge.

“Bring me a morning gown. Something serviceable, rather than fine. I have to go down to the stables, to see how my horse has spent the night.”

Impossibly, the maid hesitated, almost as if she might query the instruction. Then she nodded.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Charis forced a light smile. “Pray, tell me your name.”

“Jean, ma’am.”

“A good Borders name. Look, Jean, it is of small consequence, especially as between ourselves, but the correct etiquette is to address me as ‘your grace’ first, and only use ‘ma’am’ later. Then, use ‘her grace’ if you should have to refer to me to others.”

“Ma’am.” Jean flushed an unbecoming red. “Forgive me, ma’am; I intended no discourtesy, but…”

Her voice tailed off. It occurred to Charis that here might be a moment to unbend a little. Only a fool put herself at odds with her tiring maid.

“Pray, feel at liberty to speak freely.” She hesitated, and then added, “Honesty, without insolence, can never be blameworthy, you know.”

Jean’s expression suggested she put as much credence in this assertion as, when she came to think about it, Charis did herself. Nevertheless, after a moment or so, Jean cast her eyes down to the floor and began.

“I’d not want you to think me discourteous or lacking a sense of what’s proper, ma’am, but my Da fell fighting Gaaldine, in the last war, and they were saying you married their Crown Prince. Who’s to say, ma’am, maybe your husband even led those —”

Belatedly, she swallowed a word which Charis, primed by the last weeks in the Castellan’s company, had no difficulty in supplying for herself.

“He did not.” The assurance came out before she could stop it.

Jean looked up, tear-tracks silvering her cheeks like snails’ trails. “How do you know, ma’am? You’d have been a babe in the nursery, back then.”

Charis hesitated. Mycroft’s “surrender or be banished” ultimatum had been read from every pulpit in Gaaldine. The news the brothers had not always seen eye to eye was hardly intelligence worth anyone’s purchase.

“I understand that Sher- — that the Crown Prince was away from the kingdom at the time. That it occurred at all was a matter of some reproach. Had he been in Gaaldine —”

No. That would not do. Sherlock had set her to study the conflict, telling her it could stand as an ideal pattern of hubris and futility in military affairs. Aspiring officers, he asserted, could always learn more from disasters than triumphs. But one could not tell an orphaned daughter that her father and thousands of others had died because of bungled, self-serving intelligence reports; a fractious Council, dominated by a war party in need of a bone; a hasty, ambiguously worded despatch to the frontier, strategically misinterpreted by an ambitious general, promoted beyond his talents.

She cast her eyes up at the sun-dappled plaster of the room’s ceiling, hoping for inspiration. She found it where she had always found it, in John.

“My personal physician — my oldest and dearest friend — suffered a grievous wound in Gondal’s service in that campaign. He may have known your father. Tell me, what is your family name?”

“Murray, ma’am. My father was Jack Murray of Ridgehouses.”

“Well, Jean, I shall ask John, when next we speak, if he recalls anything of him.”

Even as she spoke sick dread twisted inside her. When next we speak. When would she meet John again? More to the point, what would he have to say to her when they did?

It had not occurred to her to think — she corrected herself, she had not allowed herself to think — how John would react to her actions. His loyalty had been so assured, such a constant factor in her life, that she could barely conceive of an existence in which she had tested it to the breaking point.

Or beyond a voice said at the back of her mind. The voice spoke on, tone and words familiar: spoken once and never forgotten. “They sent me to Gondal as a hostage in my grandfather’s time. Without John, I’d have died of sheer misery.”

Jean, uncomprehending but sympathetic, looked at her.

“Should I fetch you your chocolate here, ma’am, in your room, before I dress you?”

She nodded, dumbly, unable to trust her voice. On the threshold, Jean turned.

“Ma’am, if you’ll forgive me — and heaven knows, a lady doesn’t get much say in such things — but it must have come hard to you, too, then, being given in marriage to Gaaldine.”

Charis chose her next words with extreme care. “It was my father, King Ambrosine’s, dearest wish that my marriage would help unite the kingdoms, so that fewer women would be left to mourn fathers, husbands and sons lost to the wars between the kingdoms.”

“Ah! Well, that goes to show, doesn’t it, ma’am?”

“Show?”

Jean paused. Then, “That even kings don’t always get what they want. The men were saying, last night, there’ll be war with Gaaldine this summer for certain, now. I should be getting your chocolate, ma’am.”

After she had gone Charis stared at the closed door of the room, murmuring to herself, over and over, “Holy Virgin. What have I done?”