Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

A river of courtiers flowed out of the chapel into the Great Court. That vast space dissipated the torrent into innumerable pools and eddies. From her hidden eyrie she saw everything. 

Great lords dispensed measured patronage; rivals peacocked in competitive display; sworn enemies passed each other in the throng, bearing poniard-sharp smiles and murder in their hearts.

The chaperones had allowed the de Samara heir and the eldest Moran girl almost a quarter of a turn’s awkward, intense conversation beside the great lead troughs planted with flowers. The families must favour the match. Not an alliance to be encouraged. Time to drop a suitable hint in the appropriate quarters.

That, though, was merely public business. Important, but secondary. She did not withdraw to her tower of shadows merely to observe what was plain to anyone who troubled to open their eyes.

Within sunlit, leisurely promenades like the one unrolling below a delicate game was in constant progress, its moves the lift of an eyebrow, the palming of a note, two men conspicuously leaving the courtyard by different exits.  

The trading of information, the only currency worth anything in the illusory, treacherous world of Court.

She clenched her teeth. Today one nugget would be trading at a premium.

“The Queen’s grace has sent her tiring maid for linens.”

Probably it had been whispered before even the girl had returned with the necessaries. Certainly Ambrosine had known. She had read it in his face as they met in the ante-chapel before Mass. Weariness, bone-aching disappointment and a deep-buried hint of roiling anger, sharpened by the hope it had begun to feed on.

Six weeks, this time.

Time was running out. Prince James would be a grown man soon. Already he was acquiring his own coterie: insecure youths loaded with ambition and inherited resentments. They strode through the court in twos and threes; loud-voiced, dressed in the extremes of the current fashions, expecting lesser beings to leap aside or be trampled underfoot.

Ambrosine would have to take decisive action. But how could he move against indiscipline and premature ambition, when outright betrayal lay within his own wife’s body?

“The Queen’s grace has sent her tiring maid for linens.”

The girl had returned with a suggestion.

“They talk in the laundries of a Dr Shlessinger, ma’am, who has helped others in like case. May I not contrive to send word to him? I could say I was enquiring on behalf of a married sister. No-one need know.”

Shlessinger. These days, that name was popping up everywhere. Not spoken aloud, but whispered in corners and chalked upon walls. He had, it was said, travelled to China, to the court of the Khan. In Vienna he had raised from the dead a child who had fallen in the river. And – always – came stories he had lifted the curse of barrenness from women who had sought his aid.

His methods had brought him into conflict with the Church. There were tales of unsanctioned doings in churchyards, cabalistic signs scribbled on gravestones. For such as she to have dealings with the Shlessingers of this world was perilous indeed.

But not so perilous as to do nothing. No-one need know. Should those dealings prove fruitful, no-one will dare to ask.

Down on the Great Court two strolling figures – one dark, one fair – paused. The dark one looked up into the wide, snarling mouth of Bel’s dragon on the massive carved frieze, as if his eyes could pierce the concealing stone and see into her hiding place, read her intentions and her thoughts.  

She swore.

His Serene Enigma, Sherlock, Prince of Gaaldine. Or, in language confined to the privacy of the kingly bed, “That impossible brat. He’s done what, now?”

The fair boy touched the prince’s arm, attracting his attention. That must be the physician’s boy, Hamish Watson’s son. Holy Virgin, if it hadn’t been for his clear head and courage last night, the court would have something to gossip about, those clots of blood in her chamber-pot overwhelmed by a rising flood of gore.

Prince Sherlock’s broken body, sprawled beneath the Caitiffs’ Tower. Troops despatched post-haste to strengthen the border. The old eagle of Gaaldine, raging north in fire and wrath and retribution.

Dear God, they owed the Watson boy a debt for getting the prince – the raging, intoxicated, wild-eyed, babbling prince – down from the heights without anyone being hurt. A hard debt to repay, if the boy had inherited half his father’s stoic, kindly integrity. (The only one of the dozens of physicians she had consulted who had made no attempt to link the state of her womb with the state of her devotions.)

Didn’t the boy have a sister? Doubtless a place could be found for her among the ladies of the bedchamber. The current crop were a vacuous, chattering crew; someone new would shake them up. It would bring the girl into contact with everyone who mattered, give her a gloss of court polish, make her noticed. An advantageous marriage for Hamish Watson’s daughter would benefit the whole family.

Down below, the fair boy and the dark strolled off, arm in arm. She had promised Ambrosine she would tackle the matter of last night. Especially today, she had no intention of opposing his will in the smallest particular. Dr Shlessinger and whatever he promised could await another season.

Felicia rose from her stool in the cramped cubby-hole behind the frieze. She despatched the first page she saw with a summons to the Prince of Gaaldine, to wait on the Queen’s grace within the hour.