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Chapter 6 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

Unlike the formal apartments, the stables breathed peace, order and home. The clank of buckets, rhythmic swish of brooms and the overall air of honest, well-organised labour smoothed out the turmoil in her heart.

Even here, though, she felt herself an interloper. The stable-lads continued their tasks while watching her out of the corners of their eyes. The Creature’s affectionate greeting — he, at least, didn’t seem to cherish any resentment — caused a stir of muttering. Doubtless he had been up to his old tricks again.

One young man, from his bearing and the quality of his clothing the senior lad, led in a horse from early morning exercise. Charis recognised the black stallion with which Lord Lestrade had triumphed at the Cock o’ the North fair. She gave a little, two-fingered wave to attract the lad’s attention.

“A fine beast, that. He did your whole stable credit in the race in Gaaldine, at Pentecost.” She recalled that she had not, officially, seen the stallion perform and added, “Everyone was talking about it, after.”

The lad’s noncommittal expression changed instantly. “Aye, ma’am, he’s a good one and will be better yet, if the saints preserve us. Not five years old yet, he’s not. A gift of the King himself, ma’am, out of the Royal stables.”

Charis gasped. Odd how memory could do that to you: lie hidden for years and then spring out, clear as ever and sharp enough to cut. Three years ago, before Papa had fallen ill — or, no — had he not looked uncharacteristically tired at supper that very evening? Three years ago, anyway, the two of them standing against the rails of the parade ring at the summer palace, watching the one- and two-year colts being paraded so choices might be made: geld or keep entire; dispose of or retain.

She recalled the black colt, bolder and more assertive than the rest, giving his handlers trouble as he entered the ring, but switching to his most polished gait as soon as he saw the Kingly eye upon him. How Papa had laughed!

“A horse with a sense of occasion. Yes; we shall certainly keep him.” His eye dropped down to Charis. “When that horse reaches his prime, you should be about ripe to be wed. If he develops as he promises, he might do well as a bride-gift for your husband, hey?”

And now Papa was dead, she was a wife and yet no wife, and the man for whose sake she was gambling two kingdoms had received the horse already, from the hands of the Pretender.

After a moment she managed to say, “I recall him as a colt. He showed great promise then. The King my father remarked on it.”

The lad unbent yet further. “Ah, ma’am, and his late grace the King had the best eye for a horse in all Gondal, they said.” He nodded towards the Creature. “I doubt you had that beast off of him, ma’am.”

“Indeed not.” She let a trickle of amused reproof enter her voice. “Though, in the Border lands, maybe it is as well to ride a horse which does not proclaim its quality to any casual eye. And one which is likely to prove remarkably hard for any stranger to handle, still less extract from its stable without injury.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The lad’s tone somehow managed to convey both “I do see” and “I was coming to that”.

Charis decided to pre-empt the latter. “I was going to say — what is your name, by the way?”

“Sam, ma’am.”

“Well, Sam, once you have finished your current duties, perhaps I could put you in the way of knowing a few of his small peculiarities, and so ease your task of handling him?”

Sam nodded. “I’d be right grateful, ma’am.” He whistled. A fascinated gaggle of junior lads had been watching the exchange. Two of them ran up and led the black stallion away. “No time like the present — that is, if it suits your convenience, ma’am.”

Charis patted the Creature’s neck. He extended his neck, twitched his withers and looked, to her experienced eye, rather pleased to be the undivided centre of attention once more.

“My horse is not an animal who likes being confined. If he could be turned out, then I think you may find his care will be a great deal easier.”

“That can be done directly, ma’am. May I?”

He reached for the Creature’s head-collar. Charis quaked inwardly but the Creature merely nuzzled his jerkin.

“Lead on,” Charis said, gesturing towards the door of the stables. Sam clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. The Creature moved out of the stall. Charis, mindful that this show of co-operation might be a deception, dodged round his flank so she might be at his head if anything went wrong.

“Stop!” The shout came from the doorway. “What the devil do you think you are doing with that beast?”

“Sir — I — we weren’t meaning —” Sam’s words tailed off as the master of the castle horse strode into the stables. Charis looked from one to the other. The lad was tight-lipped, his shoulders hunched as if to ward off a blow. The master of the horse looked — as if only Charis’s presence was restraining him from delivering that blow.

She cleared her throat, trying to convey the kind of wordless rebuke Mycroft managed so effectively. Either the King possessed some knack Charis didn’t, or the master of the horse was made of sterner stuff than the courtiers of Gaaldine. His lip curled with contempt and his choleric features went an even deeper shade of purple.

She fell back on words, biting them off short to show her displeasure.

“Your groom was acting on my express request. There are some points with respect to the care of my horse, which —”

“I give the orders in these stables,” the horse master said, cutting her short with a brutality that felt like a punch to the gut. “And I take them only from his Lordship. Ma’am.” He spat out the customary courtesy as if it were gall on his tongue.

Charis drew herself up, and wished she were taller. Or a man. Or both.

“I cannot imagine Lord Lestrade could have intended —”

“His Lordship told me,” the horse master interrupted, “that you’re not to ride out without him or me being there to escort you, and, also, he’s not having a four-legged joke like that beast casting shame on his company, not in his own lands and before his own people. I’m to look you out a suitable palfrey. No doubt we’ll find some use for — that — out on the estates. It looks sturdy enough, at all events, and once it learns who’s master here, no doubt we can put it to use dragging hurdles up to the high pastures or the like.”

Red mist rose up in front of Charis’s eyes. She wanted to throw something, to call guards to have him dragged off and flogged, to —

Sam’s terrified expression was a jug of cold water in her face. She was not mistress here; at least, not yet, and she could neither order floggings nor protect others from them. Nor would displays of temper in front of underlings aid her cause. This outrage needed to be tackled properly, at its source.

She inclined her head with icy dignity.

“I need to find Lord Lestrade at once. Kindly have — Sam, is it not? — take me to him.”

They found Lord Lestrade pacing the North Terrace, before the grand façade of the new mansion, a most discomfited expression on his face.

“Lord Lestrade!”

He beckoned her towards him. As she stepped forward she heard something scrunch underfoot. She looked down to see the shattered china figurine of a musician lying on the flagged floor.

She raised her head to meet Lord Lestrade’s eyes but he flushed and turned his head away. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted a servant sweeping up a remarkable quantity of porcelain shards.

She glanced upwards. A swirl of fabric behind one of the open upper casements betrayed some observer’s retreat from the window into the room behind. Charis took note of the casement’s position. Knowing the position of Mistress Donovan’s suite might come in handy. One never knew.

She pasted a smile upon her face. “What a beautiful morning it is, Lord Lestrade.”

Tension leached from his frame. “Indeed it is, lady of my heart. And how are you? I trust you found all to your liking?”

She paused, as if trying to frame a judicious answer.

“I could not have had more comfortable lodging. And your people have been most attentive. But I am afraid there seems to have been some little misunderstanding, with respect to my horse.”

“Your horse?” Lord Lestrade’s tone was all concern but she saw his shoulders stiffen.

He anticipates an outburst. The master of the horse spoke true.

She cast her eyes down again, lest fury betray her. Another broken china figurine, a sage draped in exquisitely modelled pale green cloth, lay at her feet. Its eyes were filled with ageless wisdom, but offered no suggestions.

She picked her words with care. “Your head of the stables suggested that the horse I brought from Cavron would not to be my mount when we rode out. He told me your orders were to put him to haulage work. Surely, your man must be misinformed?”

He bit at his lip. “My lady, you are the rarest jewel of all the world. I would keep you throned in beauty; cut out all ugliness, age, deformity, dirt or disease that seeks to mar your perfect setting. Is that so unforgivable a fault?”

She thought of the master of the horse barring their exit from the stables, of Jean sleeping across the threshold of her room. Lord Lestrade’s perfect setting for his jewel seemed remarkably like a canary-bird’s golden cage. And if she had chosen her own lot, the Creature had not, and deserved not to suffer for her folly.

Charis put her head on one side, after the manner of Lady Caterina Fleming, the most annoyingly winsome of her fellow pupils at the convent.

“He may be an ugly beast, but he is very loyal. And the companion of my escape, the means by which I came to you. Please, can you let him be turned out in a paddock somewhere, where I may visit him sometimes, and perhaps we may think of suitable light duties for him by and by?”

Lord Lestrade laughed. “Oh, Charis, are you never going to grow up? You and your sentiment for useless beasts! Remember that smelly, half-blind coursing hound you dragged everywhere with you at court, when you were little?”

His name was Suleiman, she protested inwardly. He was Mama’s.

The last time Papa had left his rooms had been the day they buried Suleiman beneath the almond tree. John had had to steady him every step of the way. Holding the shrouded bulk of the old dog in her arms, she had fought to hold back weeping, before she noticed the tears of King and physician alike falling like rain.

Caterina Fleming. “Please,” she begged, making her eyes wide and pleading. “For my sake.”

He nodded, an indulgent smile on his face, like one who grants a favour to an importunate child.

“Ah, well, the estate’s not so pressed for horses that we can’t afford to let that one have a few days idleness.” He turned to Sam. “See to it, you.”

“Sir.” Sam bowed and withdrew.

Lord Lestrade extended his arm. “Will you take a turn with me along the terrace?”

Charis, heroically, resisted looking up at the mansion windows. No missiles descended.

They were half-way along the terrace, safely out of earshot of any of the attendant servitors, when he broached the subject she had been half-wanting, half-dreading.

“My lady — that topic of which we spoke earlier —?”

“Yes?” She tried to still the trembling inside her.

“There is much to be resolved. I have written for an canon law opinion on annulment. When that is received, I will be able to shape our plans better. In the meantime, my lady, you need to remain here, in quietness and — to the extent we are able to achieve it — incognito. That is —”

She saw his Adam’s apple bob convulsively as he swallowed.

“It will be far easier — far safer— if anyone who becomes aware of your presence here believes you to be simply a gentlewoman of Gaaldine, from the Northern Marches.”

Sheer fury took her by the throat. She could barely choke the next words out.

“And what about your own people, your servants and soldiers? They are hardly unaware of who I am and how I came here.”

Or with what fair show you brought me home.

Revelation hit her and she almost gagged.

The picnic on the chapel-garth, that idiotic green-and-silver riding dress, the leisurely promenade through his ancestral lands: they had all been planned, and not as a wedding journey, either. What libertine would not dream of having a king’s daughter and a prince’s wife make a common wanton of herself, and all for love of him?

Lord Lestrade, fortunately, was looking anywhere but at her face. His voice, too, was that of a man distracted.

“I have given orders to the staff. They know both the rewards of discretion and the perils of wagging tongues. They will not betray you.”

No. I know who has saved them the trouble of that task.

“But what of those within the walls who are not your staff?” With an effort, Charis checked her impulse to look up at Sally Donovan’s windows.

Lord Lestrade’s glance up at the mansion’s casements was less well-disguised. “I shall see to that. There’s no reason for you to concern yourself.”

“Look! Sir, look there! The falcon!”

The cry from the arms-men at the end of the terrace caused them both to spin round. Glad of the distraction — any distraction — Charis ran to the parapet.

Two black shapes arrowed towards them out of the sun, pursuer and pursued less than three thumbs’ lengths apart. The pigeon jinked and swerved; the falcon struck too soon — a single feather swirled gently down — and its reprieved prey soared.

“No! Don’t!” Charis shouted aloud, as she might have done at a creave-ball game.

Had the pigeon dived, it could have found safe haven in the time-worn hollows, the scars of long-forgotten wars, which pocked the older, lower masonry. The new mansion was a sheer cliff of glass and brick, not a needle’s breadth between any of them. No sanctuary here.

The pigeon fluttered, hopeless. The falcon’s taloned feet brought it down on the flagged stone of the terrace in a bloody, twitching mess of feathers and shattered bones.

Lord Lestrade’s arms-man was already running forwards. The falcon raised her head, gave an affronted “cr-rk!” and rose, flapping off lazily over the parapet.

The arms-man bent, and picked up the pigeon’s corpse, turning to face them as he did so. Some unspoken message passed between the two men.

Lord Lestrade’s face looked grey and somehow doughy, like that of a man in the grip of some night terror, uncertain whether he sleeps or wakes.

“Get rid of it.” His voice was a dry, unmusical croak. He turned to Charis.

“Dear my lady, the morning wears on and you have yet to break your fast. I have some small matters of business to attend to, but will hope to join you presently.”

There was no other way to take it but as a dismissal. She choked back the comment she had proposed to make, with respect to an odd detail she had noted about the falcon as it dived. Either Lord Lestrade or his armsman must also have noted that the falcon’s legs wore the jesses of a manned bird. If they had not, doubtless Lord Lestrade would be as unwilling to hear her on falconry as he had already shown himself on horsemanship.

She made a grave, formal curtsey, and retreated to her apartments.