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Chapter 8 - A Stoop to a Rake by A.J. Hall

She stood frozen in her position on the parapet, hardly daring to turn her head. On the very fringe of view, Sally emerged from the shadows.

“Of course,” Sally added, “if being scraped off the cobbles is your idea of fun, don’t let me stop you, but in your position I’d not be minded to give him the satisfaction, personally.”

Charis’s voice came out surprisingly steady. “What choice do I have?”

“Well, I dunno, but it’s got to be more choice than you’d have being dead, isn’t it?”

The courtyard below lurched, sickeningly. For a panicked moment Charis clutched at the parapet edge unsure if — irony beyond irony — she had not gone past the point of no return. Then firm hands gripped her waist and a second later she felt the warm leads of the roof through the thin soles of her evening slippers.

Her knees were oddly weak. She had to lean on Sally’s arm to get as far as the stone bench. She sank down, head in hands, and was conscious of Sally sitting down next to her, though the other woman, blessedly, remained silent.

After taking several deep breaths, Charis raised her head. “Why are you helping me?”

Sally shrugged. “Like I said, a girl’s got more choices if she’s not dead. Goes for me as well as you. And you’re not a safe person to be near, you. Dead or alive.” Her voice changed. “I take it, from being brought up in the palace, you’d have met him?”

“Him?” The question was the merest pretence. No other man in Gondal — doubtless no other man in the three kingdoms — commanded such an intonation.

Sally made a rough, impatient sound at the back of her throat. “Well? Have you?”

Charis dipped her head. “The Pretender? He who now styles himself King James of Gondal? Yes.” Her mouth was dry; she swallowed. “He is, you know, my uncle.”

Though by repute only, not blood. That sudden insight was too complicated to deal with yet. There was too much bitterness mixed with the relief. She continued onto less shaky ground.

“There is no deed so vile I could not believe him capable of it. My betrothal, you know, to Sherlock — that came about because my — because the late King feared that once he was no longer able to protect me, Prince James would drag me to his bed, whether he could find a priest to bless the match or not. Trusting more to Gondal’s ancient enemy than his own brother — think of that!”

Words ran out. She was left looking down at the leads, stirring the withered rose petals with one slippered foot.

“Ah.” Sally’s contemplative monosyllable carried unlooked-for ease. “So I was right. No —” her hand lifted, arresting any further words from Charis. “Listen to me, for once. We’ve not got much time. Rupert’s not going to listen to either of us — I take it you’ve noticed that about him by now? — but I’ve got my ears to the ground and I keep them there. From things I’ve heard, I don’t think the King — the Pretender, whatever — trusts anyone, and the closer they are to him, the less he trusts them.”

“Yes. That is most assuredly true.” What inexpressible relief, to be able to have a frank conversation. It was almost like talking to Sarai. Or even to — her thoughts skittered away. When she had at length collected them, Sally was in full flood.

“— so our factor in Exina said, ‘He’ll be turning his attention South, after that humiliation’ — can you imagine, actually pickled? — ‘and God help anyone who he decides to take out his temper on.’ I’ve heard Brenzaida’s people were buying in spices and spermaceti last week as if to corner the market, and Brenzaida’s seat isn’t more than a day’s ride north, as the crow flies —”

“Stop!” It seemed her heart were bent on bursting through her chest. Once again she cursed the new French stays. “You mean to tell me the Pretender’s on a progress through the Southern borders? That he’s coming here? And Lord Lestrade neither knows nor wishes to be told?”

The horror of that thought sent her eyes to the parapet again. Better dead than fall alive into the Pretender’s hands, yes, and be damned to pious doubts. -If the lives of the Saints told one anything, it was that self-slaughter in such circumstances came all-but adjacent to a sacrament.

Sally’s hand described an emphatic arc in the air.

“That’s about the size of it. And there’s no chance of you hiding behind that ‘gentlewoman of Gaaldine’ rubbish. Quite apart from anything else, there’s not a servant or arms-man in the place who wouldn’t sell you out if they saw a chance of Royal favour at the bottom of it.”

“Say, rather, of hoping to avert his disfavour.” Charis pursed her lips, struck by a sudden thought. “Though the time for that would have been before I entered the castle. Each turn since then will be accounted a further betrayal by the Pretender, when he learns of it.”

“Well, that’s one way of looking at it.” Sally put her head on one side. “Not the most cheerful, granted, but at least it’s honest. Anyway, our chances of getting away with it may not look good, but they’ll be a damn sight better if at least you aren’t here when he arrives. And if I have a chance to work on Rupert, without you to distract him.”

Even after all that had happened, that casual observation hurt. Ignoring the throbbing ache beneath her breastbone, Charis, after a moment, said, “But how am I to leave the castle? Surely the guards —?”

Sally grinned; it had a disturbing, berserker edge to it. “You missed dinner these four nights. Trust me, you had the best of it. But, as it is, you won’t know the guards are spread uncommonly thin at present. First, there’ve been raids on the farms up on the high pastures.”

“I know. Jean said. Not just any farms, either. Those under the protection of the Nixons, the Armstrongs and the Bells. Someone’s stirring trouble.”

“Are they, indeed?” Sally’s face was full of alert interest. “Well, whoever it is, count them your guardian angel. A couple of troop and their officers have been drawn off looking after that. Then, my lord’s assistant factor turned up yesterday in some ditch just off the high road. Head beaten in. No shortage of suspects, mind you; I doubt there’s a man in six villages who’s got a good word to say for him. In fact, if any did, they’d be the first I’d call in for interrogation. But anyway, that’s drawn off another half troop.”

She drew a deep breath. “Next, there was a skirmish down in the village between that bastard Lord Fernihurst’s men — I’ll be coming to him presently — and the castle’s. Two or three in the infirmary on either side and four or five more in irons. Not such a big deal, any other time of year. But — well. What with half the castle’s men off showing Rupert’s colours at the local festivals or going sick to help out on the family farm in the busy season —”

“Protecting their own holdings against Bell or Armstrong reprisals, you mean.” Charis might have been raised in a palace, but she remained a child of the Borders.

“That too, I daresay. Anyway, with one thing and another, I doubt there’s more than a dozen able-bodied men on guard duty tonight, if that. One good clamour, and the whole place will be like an ant-heap. No-one’s going to pay any mind to some scruff of a page-boy making himself scarce in the opposite direction.”

Silence hung between them for a second or so, after which Sally added, “There’s all that’s necessary made ready in my chamber. I mean — clothes and stuff. A dagger. Water. Pistols, power-flask and shot. Money. And I’ve taken saddle-bags and tack down to that paddock where they’ve put that horse of yours. By midnight tonight you could be off to the Border, and no-one the wiser ‘till midmorning tomorrow.”

The guards may be spread thin, but they are nonetheless present.

Fear struck sparks along Charis’s nerves. Surely this must be another trap? Some contrivance of the Pretender — it would be his style, surely, to make her feel she had gained her freedom only to close the trap around her at the last possible moment. Or perhaps it was all a wronged woman’s vengeance. Either could kill her, easily as blinking.

Once the initial terror had passed, her limbs felt limp. Even speaking seemed like lifting an enormous burden, at which every sinew trembled.

“You promise much. And, truly, if you can do this, my gratitude will be endless. But the guards may be thinly spread, but they are not non-existent. How do you propose I break free of the castle, let alone the whole estate?”

Sally nodded. “I told you I was coming to Lord Fernihurst, didn’t I? Well. That man’s rotten. All through rotten— there’s not a place you could poke a finger without letting daylight in from the other side. You could describe him fifty thousand ways, and forty-nine thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them would end in ‘-it’, know what I mean?”

Charis thought, but did not say, that Sally could profit from a week with the Castellan. It would vary her store of invective.

“Go on.”

“Well. Fernihurst’s taken care, a time or two lately, to draw attention to how he surmises matters stand between me and Rupert. Oh, he began even before the Pentecost Fair, but you can see how that would have gingered him up. And tonight at dinner — well, he was getting above himself but at least being amusing about it, for once, and Rupert wasn’t paying attention and I may — I just may — have said the odd thing I didn’t mean, in the hope of getting a reaction I didn’t get. A reaction from Rupert, I mean. As far as Fernihurst goes, he’s convinced if he shows up at my chambers tonight, it’ll be away to the races. He’s that sort. He’ll be up as soon as the drinking starts to die off. That’ll give you the clamour you need. You’d be surprised at the racket I can make, given sufficient provocation.”

Once again, Charis refrained from speaking her thoughts aloud. Instead, she said, “But what about you?”

Sally shrugged. “You don’t suppose I’d have lasted this long here if I hadn’t learned a few tricks for dealing with trouble? Also, it should give Rupert a chance to show if he does care, after all.”

The bleakness of Sally’s expression — even in the half-light — did not encourage further enquiry. Instead, Charis said, “I do not know how things stand in Gaaldine at present, and I prefer not to make promises I may not be able to keep. But, if I win through, I will owe you a great deal, and I was taught one should pay one’s debts.”

Sally snorted. “Not the same school Rupert went to, then.”

Tales of the wild young Lestrade, orphaned early and in consequence lacking a firm paternal hand to restrain him, had swirled round the court like the dust-devils of summer. Charis coughed.. “Doubtless not. Nevertheless.” She cleared her throat again, almost overcome with embarrassment. One gave gifts to one’s entourage and people one wished to favour, naturally, it was a matter of course, But how to handle the matter in such a case?

She swallowed. “If I can do anything, I wish to offer you a monopoly. In your own right, I mean, irrespective of any husband you may marry. Have you any suggestions? I do not know what may be coming up —”

“Antimony,” Sally said abruptly. “Or arsenic. I’m not particular. One of those metals or demi-metals everyone uses and no-one pays attention to. Something imported.You can make a lot out of those, and if local politics get too hot for you, you can always slope off seeing to the mines until the storm blows over.”

Charis nodded. Then, feeling awkward and inadequate, she opened her arms and gave Sally a stiff hug.

“God save us,” she breathed into the other girl’s ear, “and the Holy Virgin send us both a good deliverance.”