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Chapter 2 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

He stood on the far side of her desk, feet spaced in a comfortable parade rest, meeting her scrutiny with neither curiosity nor apprehension. She tried not to let that rankle.  

Even foreign princelings bear witness to my increasing irrelevance.

He had made an impressive recovery from last night’s excesses. His skin was pale as ever, but without any greenish tinge. The whites of his eyes were clear; his skin no sweatier than the heat of the day – unseasonably intense, for late September – might fairly account for.

Youth.   For the moment the ten years difference in age between them yawned as if it had been a hundred.

“I was angry, not drunk,” he said, the first words he had uttered since entering her presence. At her pointed lift of her brows, he amended, “At least, being drunk wasn’t the point.”

She made a mental note to rebuke the page. Letting the prince know why he’d been summoned was not merely indiscreet. It undermined her authority.

Such as remains to me.

“No-one said anything,” Prince Sherlock said, a hint of affront in his voice. “I’m not stupid. What else could you have wanted to see me about, today?  But it wasn’t simply a drunken stunt. I leave that sort of thing to imbeciles like Douglas.”

She let the reflection on Lord Douglas – one of the loudest and most dense of the heir presumptive’s set – slide. 

“That makes your fault the greater. You must be aware, your grace, that you are not just our guest and dear friend. You are a living pledge of the bond between our kingdoms. Your presence here is a trust laid on us. Your grandfather would have taken it as a sore breach had you fallen from the tower last night.”

Something like pain flickered in those extraordinary eyes. It was gone before she could be certain she had seen it. 

“Indeed, Grandfather would resent bitterly anyone who rendered one of his gaming pieces null before he was ready to discard it. I regret I caused you anxiety, ma’am.” His voice changed slightly; the courteous monotone acquired a sharp edge. “But not as much as I regret the trouble that will come when my grandfather’s game changes.”

The trading of information, the only currency worth anything at Court.

She leant forward across the table. Her eyes watered beneath a fresh onslaught of pain as she did so.

Not now, Holy Virgin. Not now.

She had awakened to a dragging ache in her back and belly. Before any tell-tale signs had appeared in her water, she had known it for what it was. That morning, before she had even sought energy to summon the girl, she had already lived in fancy through each stage of disappointment, threat, loss, supercession and death.

Couldn’t the pain do her the courtesy of holding off for the duration of this interview?

The prince looked down at her. With the same detached courtesy as before, he said, “There is a tisane my cousin Genia uses, for relief during the flowers. All the herbs used grow in Gondal as well as in Gaaldine. If I write down the recipe, the Palace herbalists will have no difficulty –”

The crystal ink-bottle shattered against the far wall. She had not been conscious of picking it up from the desk, barely conscious of throwing it. Only as the ink – viscous as blood – dripped down the wall and pooled on the polished floor did she realise what she had done. 

The door opened and a terrified head poked through. Her confidential maid, alerted by the crash.  

“Ma’am –”

“Are there no ratcatchers in this benighted country?”  Prince Sherlock’s voice had reverted to the ultra-finicky, lisping accent of Gaaldine, which had provoked so much mirth among the court bloods during his first few days in Gondal. He gestured, dramatically, towards the wreckage in the corner of the room.

“Sir?”  The maid’s voice trembled. Her gaze flickered from the prince to the Queen, as if, belatedly, she’d realised where her duty ought to lie.

The Queen favoured her with a tight-lipped, mirthless smile. “When I am finished here, ensure the appropriate people bring ferrets or terriers or light poisonous smokes to destroy any nest which may lie within the walls.” She paused. “And have someone fetch wine.”

The wine came in a graceful, swan-necked jug, its handle and lip of chased silver. Morbidly, she wondered if the servitor expected it, too, to end up in a shattered mess in the room’s corner. She gestured to the prince, indicating he should sit opposite her in the chairs either side of the low table beneath the window. When the wine had been poured, and the servitor had withdrawn, she let her feelings rip.

“Is there nothing for anyone to do in this palace but bribe my maids to divulge the secrets of my chamber?” 

“Oh, please. I didn’t need to ask anyone. Your expression gave you away. Pain, followed by anger, mixed with frustration. Pain might be anything; that combination, given your situation, had only one probable cause.”

Prince Sherlock’s accent was back to normal; that of a Gondalian from the capital, of good birth and education. It had not occurred to her before to appreciate the perfection of his mimicry.  

We are all of us players. And may the Holy Virgin protect us against the day the crowd ceases to applaud.

“My father once put out a clerk’s eye with a paperweight.” Once the words were out of her mouth, she didn’t know why she’d said them. Not as a boast: the whole affair had been a clotted mess. Growing up, she’d scarcely been able to think of it without shame. Not the violence, she realised belatedly. The meanness.

Papa had more in common with Uncle Gerald than I had thought.

“Fortunate, therefore, that Grandfather’s sergeant-at-arms ensured I became practised in the defensive arts.” The prince seemed rather pleased by the diversion. “And that your aim is not entirely precise,” he added, as if by way of afterthought.

She refused to be drawn. “Whatever the source of your information, it is not my affairs of which we were speaking. As to your grandfather-?”

All traces of humour vanished from the prince’s expression.

“He would indeed have resented it bitterly had I fallen from the tower last night.” He paused, as if trying to find the best way to phrase a delicate matter. Which, given his normal conversational style, chilled her more than she could express.

“Spit it out.”

“It would not have suited my grandfather’s plan for me to have died last night.” He raised his head, so he could look steadily into her eyes. “But he does not intend for me to leave this land alive, nonetheless.”

She did not for one moment consider asking him how he knew. “You are under our protection.”

“Yes.” His mouth twisted, wryly. “I assure you, I will not blame you, when that protection fails. Though, if it helps, I think it will not be tested for some little while to come.”

Later, she would wonder why it had not occurred to her to doubt that certainty.

For now, she was a Queen and the country was in her trust. And if she couldn’t secure its safety one way – the only way, some would have it, that a woman could – then by God and all his angels she’d do it another.

They were being manoeuvred into an occasion of provocation, were they? They needed to take steps to protect themselves. Her mind ran on fortresses, supply lines, water resources.

Moments later it struck her with a faint, dull ache that she had thought first of her borders, not of the boy who sat before her, coolly estimating the time within which his grandfather might best contrive his death.

Boys die all the time. Even princes. At fifteen, this one has had two years more than fate allowed Sebastian.

She dragged her thoughts away from her brother as she had last seen him, bled white from the wound, his flesh already waxy in death. Sebastian was gone, and with him all the possible futures where she lived out her life as the King’s sister and the safety of the realm did not depend on the quirks of her recalcitrant womb.

Sebastian was beyond her aid. Sherlock was not. She looked across at him.

“You do not, I take it, know how this threat will manifest itself.” She had not made it a question, nor did he take it as one; he merely lifted his chin slightly to acknowledge the point. “Well then, should you obtain more information, I request you bring it to me.” She felt his silence and added, although she had not intended to do so, “Yes, to me. I’ll not have Ambrosine troubled before he need.”

“You mean,” the prince said, “that his grace the King would not merely dismiss it as grandstanding on my part and womanish over-fearfulness on yours, but would forbid further involvement by you, to the detriment of all?  I believe you to be right on both counts.”

She forced herself to smile. “Your grace, I said what I said. Don’t go looking for meanings behind another’s words – or, if you do, keep them to yourself. This is a hot-tempered court.”

“And getting myself killed in a duel would serve neither my purposes, nor yours, nor even my grandfather’s?” 

“Quite so.” Her tone was dry. “Incidentally, Ambrosine will encounter you later today and propose that you accompany him on a hunting trip to the royal lodge in the Northern forests. That is not – however expressed – to be taken as a request.”

The prince’s brow creased. “He wishes me to go hunting with him?  Why?”

“Because he believes – on the evidence of last night – that you have suffered a disappointment.” 

She saw the prince’s mouth open and raised a hand to forestall whatever impolitic words he was on the point of uttering.

Your grace, if you cannot see the King’s belief for the piece of good fortune it is, then you deserve your grandfather’s wrath.

The Royal family of Gondal sprang from an archaic stock; border lords who could weep at the beauty of a harpist’s performance while, out of the corner of their mouths, ordering their enemy’s infant son to be kidnapped, castrated and sold in the Sultan’s slave marts. Those twin strands of savagery and sentimentality ran close to the surface in Ambrosine. For him, Prince Sherlock’s excessive response to the news of his brother’s betrothal could have only one cause. The lad must have been pining for the lady himself.

It had done the prince good in the King’s eyes; humanised him, rendered him less strange. And she was damned if she would let any inconvenient facts get in the way of that rapprochement

“Yes,” she repeated. “A disappointment. Ambrosine’s reaction to a disappointment is to seek something to kill. And he reasons that what works for him will work for all men.”

The prince’s eyes widened. He had understood. Good.  

Belated inspiration struck. She would, later that day, speak to the Mistress of the Robes and see whether a place could be contrived for Hamish Watson’s daughter among the ladies of her bedchamber. But for now –

The trading of information creates its own ledgers, and the imbalance in this one must not be allowed to continue.

“If you wish it, you may ask the King for leave to permit your friend, young Watson, the physician’s son, to accompany you.” 

The prince’s face blazed up in sheer joy; she felt something twist deep within her.   Perhaps, long ago, before Sebastian’s death, she had had access to such pure feeling. No longer. Nothing, these days came wholly unalloyed by pain, fear and cold prudence.

Not even the giving of a gift. She cleared her throat. “That is, provided you can vouch for his skill with a fowling-piece.” Ambrosine’s standards were notoriously strict; it would never do to burden his party with an incompetent.

“Of course I can vouch for it. John’s the second finest shot in Gondal.”

That qualification – the hint of a childish vanity in one who was in most respects so ahead of his years – amused her. She didn’t allow herself to smile until he had left the room, though. Appearances must be preserved.