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Chapter 4 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

The last of the wagons vanished round the corner in a cloud of dust. The party would dawdle here, a league from their destination, long enough to allow the baggage to reach tonight’s castle and for some poor devil of a house steward to juggle the competing demands of space and protocol to allocate accommodations and get all squared away. The party would ride up in the twilight to find hot water awaiting them and clean clothes laid out. Over the last few days it had become a settled pattern.

The King’s party had barely managed eighty miles progress north in almost a week. The lords along the route competed with each other to welcome them with extravagant entertainments and to throw open their own hunting preserves for their pleasure. 

So what was it about the Earl of Fountainhall’s carefully staged impromptu entertainment which set off faint but unmistakeable alarm bells?

John glanced across the sunlit glade at the banquet loaded on trestles; at the purple and silver pavilions glimpsed between the trees, at the chamber orchestra, sawing sweatily at their instruments. The fringed canopy protected them from the sun, but did nothing to relieve the airlessness of the forest clearing.

Ah. He had it. Sherlock hadn’t said a word for almost half a turn of the glass.

That was what he’d been missing. At each earlier event he’d been in an agony of fear lest someone overhear Sherlock analysing their current hosts in a scatter of bitten-off comments.

“Spent the last drops of his wife’s dowry on this masque – wasted, the King loathes it. Taps his middle finger on his thigh when he’s bored.”  

Or “That’s a boxed stag we’ve been hunting. Captured miles away and brought in to give the King sport. What happened to the herds that should be here?  Poachers – no, forest fires. Burnt patches on the opposite hill. Too regular to be lightning or woodcutters being careless with cooking fires. He’s at feud.”

The chamber orchestra paused; those players furthest from the dais ventured to push back wigs, loosen neck-cloths or wipe dripping brows. 

The Earl led a young woman wearing what appeared to be a court dressmaker’s idea of a wood nymph’s costume before the King. She sank into a deep curtsey. He smiled and said something which – even from here – caused a visible blush to rise to her cheek. The Earl smiled likewise. The King patted the arm of his chair. Someone thrust a stool forwards. The young woman sank down beside the King.

 The orchestra resumed playing.

A bitten-off snarl came from beside him. He turned to see Sherlock stalking out of the clearing. With an apologetic glance towards the party on the dais, John scuttled after him. 

He wasn’t, and never would be, the tracker Moran was (much as he disliked the aristocratic prick, John was scrupulous to give credit where it was due). Still, the prince was making no effort to cover his tracks.

He caught up with him about a quarter of a turn later, sitting at the edge of a little tarn, throwing stones into the water.

“Well?” he demanded.

“Well, what?  Did Napier tell you to follow me?”

“Napier? Why on earth should he?  He’s still with the King. And he doesn’t order me about, anyway. What’s going on?”  

Sherlock’s eyes were stormy, his expression evoking all kinds of unwelcome memories, that night on the Caitiffs’ Tower top of the heap. Hesitantly, John extended his hand and rested it on Sherlock’s arm. The prince allowed it to lie there for a moment. Then he rose in a swirl of movement, his hand going to the neck-lacings of his jerkin.

“I’m stifling. Let’s swim.”

He didn’t wait for John’s response, but stripped with brutal efficiency. After a moment John did the same.

“Race you to the other side,” Sherlock said, and dived straight from the rocks, reckless of depth or of possible underwater obstacles. 

The cool water washed away the choked confusion of earlier. They splashed, twisted and turned in the water and, at length, hauled themselves out of the water onto the flat slabs of rocks on the tarn’s edge to dry off in the sun.

Sherlock’s body was an impossibly angular composition of spiky, contorted limbs and tangled curls which would have had a classical sculptor weeping in frustration. John arranged himself very carefully on his front, and, by way of distraction, enquired, “So, what’s up?”

“Oh, John, really. You saw that girl – ” He waved an expressive arm. A shower of diamond drops arced from his skin and pattered into the water. The shiver that trembled down John’s back had nothing to do with the late afternoon breeze which had sprung up to vex the surface of the tarn.

“Who was she?”

Instantly he regretted it. Sherlock’s face became a drawn mask.

“The girl?  The Earl’s youngest daughter, of course. She doesn’t matter. Did you see the King?”

He pictured the scene on the dais: the laughter, the blushes, the Earl’s expression. “Sherlock, he’s the King. I imagine that sort of thing happens all the time. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

Sherlock pushed himself up onto one elbow. “It means something when it’s Grandfather.”

The King of Gaaldine’s amours had been a by-word throughout the three kingdoms for almost half a century. To the extent he’d thought about the matter, John had assumed custom had inured his family to whatever shame or fury it evoked. Not so in Sherlock’s case, evidently.

Once again, John wondered what the young prince had seen in his time, down in that hazily imagined southern palace. Someone should have looked after him.

“Aren’t you getting yourself a bit worked up?” His voice was a conscious echo of his father’s to nervous patients. “After all, even if the King – admires – her, what can possibly happen, given who she is?”

There. Calm and logical, like a proof in geometry. Whatever Sherlock might fear, he had to see that a King of Gondal would hardly put the safety of the realm at risk by violating a virgin of noble blood. Not under her father’s roof.

“General Napier.” Sherlock’s voice was a low, concentrated growl, his eyes fixed on the brown waters of the tarn as if he expected a rusalka to rise from it and drag them both down.


“Do concentrate, John. Napier’s recently widowed. And he’s wealthy but from no sort of family. And the King owes him, after that business with Moran and Prince James.”

For a moment, the prince’s words seemed to make no sort of sense. Then –

“You think the King’s going to manoeuvre the Earl into marrying his daughter to Napier so as to clear the way to making her his mistress? And that her father and the general will go along with it?”

For a moment Sherlock’s face bore a disbelieving, dismissive expression – Who can credit the ignorance of these unsophisticated peasants? Then he sighed and dragged his palm down over brow, nose and lips: a gesture of frustration John found unspeakably endearing.

“If it was home – if it was Grandfather – then I’d know. But here? You expect people to be the same, and mostly they are and then suddenly they’re not.”

The last word came out high and accusing, making John abruptly aware of how young the boy was. A salutary reminder, especially at the moment. 

“You must miss Gaaldine. Still, perhaps the peace will settle down soon, so you can go home.”

For a moment it was as if he’d inadvertently slipped into some foreign tongue – save that Sherlock spoke all those he knew. Then the prince blinked and, his voice utterly uninflected, said, “We’d best be getting back to the fête.”

They dressed in silence and in silence walked through the woods. Back in the glade, a certain raggedness had crept into the orchestra, denoting incipient collapse and/or mutiny.

Sherlock inhaled on seeing the Royal party. “Things not going entirely the King’s way. Interesting. See who has moved to flank the Earl?”

“The vulpine man in green?” John hazarded. “And the tall, fair man who stands uneasily, as if from an old wound?”

“His sons-in-law, John. The girl’s sisters’ husbands.”  Sherlock surveyed the scene. “Neither of their wives are here, of course. Too busy about their domestic duties. Did you know, the Earl has close on a dozen grandchildren already? No small achievement, for a man still in his forties.”

Leaping from one apparently inconsequential remark to another was typical of the prince’s conversational style. John ignored it.

“I suppose it’s a help for a man in his position. Being able to see a long succession.”

Sherlock’s expression showed he’d had some blinding insight, more infuriating because he showed no trace of any inclination to share it. “You are – at times – a prism. You know the girl’s first name, of course?”

John shook his head.

“Sarah. But – given her sisters – there’s little fear of her following her Biblical namesake when she weds. That’s it. The long game.”  He turned, as if to go.

“No – wait – what?”

He turned back. His smile was blinding, with no trace of mirth in it.

“I think Napier’s nuptials may have been postponed. Sine die.”

With which he swung off into the throng, and John’s chance to ask for further enlightenment was lost.