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Chapter 3 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

John blinked. At a little before dawn, the courtyard at the rear of the palace would normally have been deserted, save perhaps for sentries and an occasional chambermaid.

Instead it buzzed with life. Two wagons, loaded with gear and provisions, were already trundling off under the archway. A third was being loaded up, amid much swearing.

He noticed he was the only man of any rank present. The other members of the party must have had better intelligence as to what the real time of departure was. Either that, or they were more afraid of displaying naiveté by arriving early than of risking the gross error of arriving later than the King.

The King. The very thought made him shiver.

A hunting trip with the King. The King and a picked band of companions.

And Sherlock.

Dear God. Holy Virgin. Any saint who might happen to be keeping his or her sanctified ears open.

How many candles do you want me to light?  Because, believe me, you’ve earned them.

Servants sprang for safety before a storm of approaching hoof-beats, jingling harness and furious snorting. Sherlock swept in through the archway on a vast black horse. They came to a rearing stop, his mount’s enormous hooves crashing down inches from John’s boots.

John looked up into Sherlock’s face.

“Glad to see you abandoned the plan to make an ostentatious entrance.”

Sherlock slid to the ground and patted the horse’s neck.

“I didn’t know how this one would react to a crowd. He’s not had long to get to know me. He was a present. From home.”

Home.  A pang stabbed him. 

Sooner or later Sherlock would be recalled to Gaaldine, and then not merely a hostile mountain range and half a thousand years’ cantankerous history would lie between them. The gulf in rank between a physician’s son and a prince of the blood might be narrowed – though never entirely forgotten – while the latter was a boy held hostage at a foreign court, dependent on an erratic and meagre allowance. Not so when he put on his royal duties in earnest. Probably this gift, the first conspicuous notice Sherlock’s family had paid to him, denoted a change in status  from a boy pawn to a youth on the edge of manhood, scion of a powerful house.

And so someone who could never be anything more than a distant patron to the likes of you. Whatever – else – you might desire.

Sherlock looked at him sidelong. He gulped, reminding himself that the prince was not, after all, a mind-reader. Which was just as well. For his last three confessions John had counted himself lucky fate had given him the nervous younger priest, who regarded an admission of “lustful thoughts” as both self-explanatory and something about which he preferred not to hear further details.

“Anyway, I was planning to send him back – Mycroft needn’t think he can buy me off that easily – but it then occurred to me that if I kept Ajax, it would leave Hector for you.”

On cue, a groom led Sherlock’s usual mount through the archway. John’s jaw dropped.  

“You mean, me, borrow Hector?”

Sherlock frowned. “Well, what were you planning to ride?”

There was a great deal John could have said to that, but it would have entailed revealing the last few days’ desperate scurrying around in an attempt to borrow some animal other than his elderly mare Vila. Notwithstanding her sweet disposition and sure-footedness, her feathery forelocks and ugly, beloved, plebeian head put her out of place in the most exalted circles.

“Oh, really, John.”  Sherlock’s sigh could probably have wakened anyone still sleeping in the palace. “You only had to ask. Even if I hadn’t been given Ajax, I’d have found you a –”

He froze, his eyes fixed on a point over John’s shoulder. “Oh. He did invite him.”

John turned. Swaggering in through the archway came a courtier in yellow satin, glossy black waves of hair sweeping his shoulders, fleshy lips curled in a sneer.

“But isn’t that –” 

Sherlock’s hand clamped down on his arm. “Since you’ll be riding Hector, he has a few quirks I should warn you about.”  He drew John over into the angle of a buttress, part-turning so his face was concealed from the new arrival. “Yes. That is Sebastian Moran. Don’t look so surprised to see him.”

“But I thought he clove fast to Prince James.” 

“Until the night before last, so did we all.”  

That casual use of “we” – to signify those, presumably, at the centre of court gossip – summoned up that impassable gulf once more. John tried to keep the pain from his face. Sherlock glared at him.

“I’ll tell you once we’re on the road, out of earshot of anyone. But for now – you know Moran’s a famous gamester?”

John nodded. Since the Royal invitation had arrived his father had been full of advice. “Don’t get into games of chance with anyone,” had featured extensively. When he’d protested that he knew enough not to get into games he didn’t expect to win, his father had said darkly that, in court circles, grasping the art of when to lose was far more important. The name “Sebastian Moran” had come up often, despite John’s protestations that Moran would not make one of the party.  

John’s grudge against his father for having been right after all transferring itself effortlessly to Sherlock, for whom being right was a permanent (and irritating) state of being.

“So what?” he demanded.

Sherlock made a sweep of those long pale fingers which sent John’s thoughts off down a different path. By the time he’d recovered them Sherlock was saying, “…and of course, he couldn’t challenge the heir presumptive, whatever he’d said.”

“Awk?” 

“I said,” Sherlock repeated, “that the prince had accused him of using a marked deck – in front of General Napier and Count Cavan, as if either of them wouldn’t have spotted foul play at the outset and said so – but Moran couldn’t issue a challenge. Well, he issued one, of course, but the general told him to stop his nonsense and sent someone to rouse the King.”

John nodded, suddenly seeing exactly what his father had meant about the art of losing. “And the King?”

“Banished Prince James from court for a couple of weeks, to teach him to take his defeats like a man. But of course, the King still had to make amends, given the slur had been uttered, and not avenged the traditional way.” Sherlock sounded as if he were a natural philosopher who regarded the Gondalian court lords as exotic specimens. “Anyway, any more is for the road. See how the servants have stopped flapping around and started to look as if they mean business?  The King’s on his way.”