Chapter 1 - Dispatches from Alwentport by A.J. Hall
To the King’s grace, from his most loyal lieutenant and brother, greeting.
Due form required him to list out both his own titles and Mycroft’s, in full, but he’d taken a sabre-cut to his right arm in the dying stages of the battle for the ships and writing hurt. And the last thing anyone wanted in a situation like this, with rumour running rife on all sides, would be for a dispatch to be received in the capital purporting to be from the Crown Prince but written in a hand demonstrably not his own.
I first report that the incursion into Alwentdale by a force of sea-wolves numbering some five ships and eight hundred men has been decisively crushed; three ships burnt, one scuttled, one captured. Full list of enemy dead, wounded, prisoners and missing to follow; likewise our own. I took the ship of the sea-wolf commodore, the renegade Lord Douglas, intact and secured his privy papers. These establish conclusively that the Pretender of Gondal had full advance knowledge of the raid and afforded the same at the least tacit support and assistance. They further demonstrate that the projected abduction of her grace the Queen and the consequent invasion of Alwentdale and wanton slaying of your grace’s subjects and the destruction of their homes and property was planned by the renegade Douglas with the objective of winning a reprieve for the numerous high crimes and misdemeanours of which he was found guilty in his conduct of the Gondal Royal dockyards.
And, if there’d been anything left of the idiot Douglas in the smoking ruins of the Residence beyond charred lumps he’d have had great pleasure in repatriating him himself to Gondal. It would be interesting to see precisely how the Pretender chose to welcome someone who’d left correspondence that incriminating anywhere except pounded to ashes in a fire grate or on his own person at all times.
Because the dispatch was for the Council’s eyes as well as Mycroft’s, and therefore the obvious needed to be spelled out for idiots, he added,
Such proofs, in addition to the numerous clear and cogent arguments of right I have made over recent months, on behalf of the Queen-my-wife, afford the clearest evidence of the direct threat made to this our realm by the bloody-handed traitor James Moriarty now falsely styling himself James VI of Gondal and I beg your grace to reconsider the case for immediate decisive action.
He could have added more on that topic but his arm was hurting; he needed to move on to the important stuff.
Our successful counter-strike against the sea-wolves was rendered possible and an disaster of unparalleled proportions for the realm averted by the clear-hearted courage of the defenders of the Residence, who inflicted a devastating blow on the main attack. A small garrison was deployed with maximum effectiveness against a numerically superior enemy force; the non-combatants and wounded were evacuated and dispersed into the woods, saving numerous lives.
Though not, conspicuously, those of the enemy. It was as well someone had ordered the collection of ears to be packed in preserving salt; the accounting clerks were bound to challenge the level of bounty they would have to pay out.
I commend in particular the actions of the defence commander and it is a source of great personal grief that such commendation must needs be posthumous.
He chewed his quill a moment, thinking of the idiots within the Council, their biases and preconceptions, and added,
Having embroiled the enemy force within the Residence perimeters, the commander remained at the point of maximum danger and, acting in Gaaldine’s highest traditions of heroism and self-sacrifice, there triggered three dispersed explosions which killed the renegade Douglas and caused numerous other fatalities among the sea-wolf forces, thus forcing them into retreat.
His upper arm broke out in sharp hot points of agony. It was as much as he could do to grip the quill long enough to add, in a code only he and Mycroft, now, knew,
I could not save her but she saved me. And Gaaldine. I wish things could have been different. I am sorry. S.
He looked up to see Jonathan, pale from blood loss, standing on the far side of the merchant’s desk Sherlock had ruthlessly commandeered, along with his counting house.
“Have you anything for me to take back to the capital, sir? They’re loading up the wagons with the wounded now.”
He sealed the dispatch with wax, pressed his signet into it and handed it over. “Here. King’s own hands. He’ll want to question you, too. Don’t tell him Genia wore her wedding dress to blow herself up unless he asks.”
Jonathan grimaced. “He’ll ask, won’t he, sir?”
“Oh, well, you know what they say, sir. If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.” The soldier’s expression changed. “Trouble is, if you’ll forgive my saying so, sir, they don’t seem to ask anyone if they want to join your lot. The Queen, may she rest in glory, what a master of ordnance she’d have made, given the choice, sir.”
“Yes, well. The wagons will be leaving. Go.”
It was all he could do to fend off the pain until he was alone once more. Then he dropped his head onto the desk and let the swirling dark misery take him.
He opened his eyes, groggily, at the sound of the door-bolts being shot home and firm steps crossing the wooden floor.
“John. What are you doing here?”
“Looking after you.” There was a couch in the corner; with John’s help he staggered that far and collapsed onto it. John sat down next to him and put his arm around his shoulders, avoiding the sabre cut with a delicacy of touch which seemed almost miraculous. Sherlock buried his face in John’s chest, clinging on like a drowning man to a spar (each flood tide was still bringing in corpses from the scuttled galley, he remembered).
“How did you know I needed you?”
John laughed; an odd sort of laugh with a break in it. “After Master Ripley reached the palace with his news? Not much room for doubt. Remember, I was with you in Gondal when you heard your brother was betrothed to the Lady Genia. God alone knows what you managed to mix up from my father’s dispensary stores and pour down your throttle that night. Certainly wasn’t just brandy.”
“Never did remember the recipe.” Nor much of the aftermath, for that matter. Except John. John had been there. As he was now.
“Thank God. We’re both too old to go through that again.”
“It was bad?”
“Depends on how you consider pulling you down from the topmost battlements with you scratching and biting like a wildcat till I thought you’d send both of us over onto the courtyard cobbles, and swearing by every saint and devil you could think of that you’d break your parole and ride to Gaaldine and prevent the wedding if it meant killing your brother and the King of Gaaldine and the Earl of Alwent and half a dozen assorted male relatives of lesser degree.”
John’s arms tightened around him. “Those who live by the medicine chest, perish by the medicine chest. It knocked you off your feet pretty quickly, thank God. After the first outbreak.” He paused, awkwardly. “I’m sorry.”
“About what? Preventing me from attempting an ill-thought out mass-murder of the entire male half of my family? My grandfather, at least, deserved it.”
John tensed; he could feel it through their bodies. Sherlock turned his head inquisitively towards him, but his expression was shuttered.
“I meant, I made a mistake about Lady Genia. About how you felt. It – well. Let’s say there are things I might have done differently if I’d known.”
“And you think you know now?”
“I think I know more.” He paused, and then, very slowly, as if the words were being dragged out of him, said, “When I left, it was so early none of the servants were stirring. I’d left a note for Charis, but I hadn’t told anyone what I’d intended. But when I went to take my horse from the stable, the King was waiting there for me.”
Involuntarily, his fingers clenched. John made a small sound of protest; Sherlock glanced down to find his hand gripping hard into John’s thigh. “Mycroft tried to stop you?”
“On the contrary. My horse was saddled and bridled already.” His voice had a hint of a grin in it. “Never had a King act as my groom before.”
“I hope you checked your girth. And your stirrup leathers. Even the Palace can’t get decent staff these days. So what did my brother have to say?”
“That no blame can be attributed to a captain who fails to break out of an unbreakable trap. And that he hoped you’d find sufficient charity to acknowledge that, in time.”
“I don’t need his forgiveness. Or his pity.”
“Oh, love.” The endearment seemed to have slipped out unconsciously; John’s tone didn’t alter as he continued, a blend of exasperation, fondness and reproof. “For the cleverest man in three kingdoms, you can’t half be an imbecile at times. He was asking, not offering.”
Something else had been said; he could tell. There was the dark, familiar shape of things unspoken behind John’s words. He’d not be told, though; not if John were pledged to silence. And that sparked another thought.
“They were so much older than me. They saw things and they knew things and they made connections. It’s difficult not to mistake that for omniscience.”
“You do surprise me.” John’s voice had a teasing edge, but the deep, welling affection underlying it could not be concealed. Sherlock stretched along the couch, feeling his skin ease, looking up at the sky through the clear Venetian glass of the merchant’s skylights.
The dark clouds which had cloaked the night march down Ulvastdale had dissipated; the harsh on-shore wind which had penned the sea-wolf ships in port swung round in the last stages of the battle, blowing the sparks from the burning ships harmlessly out to sea. Above him, a single tern danced on the wind, its white breast tinted rose by the setting sun; fragile, delicate, impossibly beautiful and free forever in the infinite blue of the sky.