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Chapter 7 - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

Bad news ran fast. The first intimation of trouble came by pigeon. General Napier, demanding extra troops to support him in an arrest. No details, but the numbers demanded told of an important detainee, someone who could muster a formidable resistance if not crushed instantly. The ring on the pigeon’s leg revealed it from the batch sent to one of the guard posts on the great North-East road in the spring.  

She despatched an order via the signal-tower network to release the troops required from the nearest garrison, cancelled all engagements and retreated to her own quarters to chew over the possibilities. 

The next day dawned blustery; the mountains surrounding the capital invisible under a thick blanket of low cloud. No more pigeons, and the signal network was useless in the conditions. She spent another sleepless night.

Sometime during the forenoon the clouds lifted enough for Napier’s latest message to get through, naming the arrestee and the charge for the first time.

Fountainhall. Suspicion of complicity in a treasonous plot, happily foiled.

She tried to suppress a welling sense of relief. 

The bull-reek of ambition hung thick around all the lords of the Court. She had developed a nose keen as a dairymaid’s for when that ambition turned rancid. The Earl had had the stink of it all through the spring. And, too, he had an unmarried daughter, just turned sixteen. Despite herself, her eyes turned to the handbill someone had thrust amid her papers that morning.

Shlessinger. Always Shlessinger.

The Earl’s daughter no longer represented a threat to her, but there would be others. Until she could present the kingdom with an heir, there would always be others. As her maid said, once she produced that heir, no-one would query how.

She reached for the handbill, just as a knock sounded at the door. She pushed it back and coughed, to indicate that whoever it was might enter.

The messenger who stumbled into the room, flanked by two of the Palace guards, had a face masked with the mud of the road, covered in scratches as if he’d ridden hard through woodland, low branches whipping his face. Her mouth went dry with fear. 

“A private audience, your grace,” the messenger croaked.

The accent of North-East Gondal – except for a slight sibilance, a fluting, familiar preciousness on the vowels. She turned to the guards.

“Leave us.”

They looked horrified. “But your grace - “

She summoned all of her father’s menace into her expression. “This man has news for my ears only. Leave us and post guards on the corridor. Let none approach till we are done.”

When the guards had left, she pulled him into the centre of the room, furthest from any points of eavesdropping.

“What in the name of the Holy Virgin do you think you’re playing at?  What has happened to Ambrosine? Is the King safe?”

“An interesting ranking of questions,” Prince Sherlock drawled. “The King, I judge, is less than a turn behind me on the road. He believes me to lie in a charcoal-burner’s cottage near our last rest stop. I feigned illness and John elected to drop out to tend to me. Once the King’s party was out of sight I staged a sudden recovery and cut across country; a single scout can almost invariably outrun a group of horsemen: at least, barring interception or injury to his horse.”

“And why?”  

Unexpectedly, he dropped to his knees, stretching his hands up in supplication.

“My lady – your grace. Before I left to go hunting, I warned you I believed my grandfather was looking to provoke an occasion of war between our lands.”

She nodded, tight lipped. “You also said that you thought he would not consummate his designs for some time to come.”

“That is true.” Prince Sherlock hesitated, and then added, very softly, “As you are aware, my brother is lately betrothed and is to be wed by Christmas. As soon as my grandfather sees heirs down that line, Gondal should look to her borders.”

“These things cannot be commanded,” she snapped. “Even by his grace the King of Gaaldine. He could be waiting long.”

The prince’s pale eyes showed no trace either of pity or surprise. “He could. Though my grandfather, when balked in one direction, will turn down another line, rather than keep trying endlessly that which has proved futile before. In any event, you are correct. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he intends the treaty to hold for at least another eighteen months. It gives you an avenue to exploit.”

“Your advice is noted. I remain baffled by your motives in conveying it.”

He remained on his knees – an awkward pose, it would have been, for one lacking his natural grace.  

“When the King’s grace arrives, ma’am, he will inform you that – but for the quick wits and superior aim of Lord Moran – he would have fallen victim to an assassin’s bullet, the assassin being concealed in a tree on the Earl of Fountainhall’s ground.”

Such a hair’s breadth escape. She might have been the barren widow of the late King, and what then would have become of her?  And who would have cared?

No reason for anyone else to have seen Prince James’ hooded-eyed, sidelong glances. She had only realised herself how much they had been troubling her since his banishment from court had lifted the burden.

A great gift, then. 

A prince of Gaaldine was kneeling before her in muddy messenger’s gear.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

“Oh, do get up. I cannot converse with you in that position. You advise me that this act of gallantry and quick thinking is not to be taken at face value?”

He scrambled to his feet.  

“Your grace, I speak this for your ears alone. Gondal’s agents will, of course, examine the Earl of Fountainhall and all his associates in exhaustive detail. That may have value; I suggest you pay particular attention to any communications he or his sons-in-law may have had with experts in the canon law. But it will not link him to the assassin in the tree.”  

Canon law. The Earl of Fountainhall’s sixteen-year old daughter and her insolently fecund older sisters.  She forced her eyes to look only at the prince, to avoid a betraying glance sideways to the handbill buried among her papers.

“No?  And where will that trail lead?”

The prince steepled his hands beneath his chin. “It will be long cold by the time they receive enough information to follow it.”

She glared at him. “So? I presume you came here for some reason other than play-acting?”

“I came here to postpone a war. Or, at worst, to change its nature. Tell me – for we are not overheard – would you raise your own flag, were a cruel Fate to snatch your husband from you?”

She gulped. How dare he raise the thought that had tormented so many sleepless nights, as if it were nothing?

“You speak treason.”

“Hardly. I owe Gondal no allegiance and, in any event, I speak purely in hypotheticals.”   He gestured with angry precision. “It seems to me the height of absurdity that you could not serve as monarch, since if the assassin’s bullet had found its mark you would doubtless have become regent for the heir, as your grandmother was during your father’s minority. Why allow a woman the substance of power, but deny her its shadow?”

“This is not my grandmother’s day. Arguments might be raised that different times required a different solution, were a regency to arise now. Prince James is not an infant, and could be expected to resent being subjected to the authority of a woman. Many would sympathise with him.”   She paused, and added, very precisely, “Especially if we were under threat of war at the time.”

Prince Sherlock closed his eyes and exhaled. 

“Of course. The missing piece.” He opened his eyes and looked directly at her. “King Ambrosine has had a great shock. Of course, he is inordinately grateful to Lord Moran; he will bring him into his inner circle. A circle in which he will have constant access to Prince James. Become the very man to have great influence on any Council of Regency, were one to arise in the next two years.”  

He paused for a moment, to underline his point.  

“Of course, Moran and the Prince are at odds. But the King loves to play peace-maker. What could be more proper than gracious reconciliation on the part of the heir – an acknowledgement, if not of fault, at least of error?  The friendship mended – more than mended; tested in the fire and reforged ten-fold stronger.”

She would have liked to call for wine, as she had last time. Time was slipping by, though, counted out in the hoofbeats of the King’s party on the road to the capital. 

“Why are you telling me this?”

His eyes opened very wide. “Because I want you to instruct your people to find the links between Prince James and the assassin, before time erodes them.”

Much later, it occurred to her she should have been a great deal more shocked than she was. She had, she realised belatedly, been waiting for this moment 

“Do you know who the assassin was?” 

Prince Sherlock hesitated, and then nodded.  

“I do. He was the son – once the heir – of a disgraced nobleman of Gaaldine. And I have no doubt that he had been led to believe that Gaaldine’s interests would be served by his – by his making that shot count. A murderer, a dupe, but not – in his heart – a traitor. Ma’am.”

“So your claim this is not a foreign plot rests on your bare word? When your life depends on Gaaldine not committing an act of aggression against Gondal?”

He drew himself up straight. “Quite. That is precisely how it has been contrived to look, to those of lesser intellects. So in this crisis I could come only to you.”

She almost laughed aloud at the outrageous flattery. Touching, though. And heartening. She had not realised how deep the chill between her and Ambrosine had penetrated, until she had noted that she was no longer enveloped in flattery.

He looked irritated and, somehow, flustered, in a way that the dirt and blood of his journey had not achieved.  

“I meant that. I also meant what I said when we met in this room earlier. My grandfather will not forgive someone who removes one of his pieces from the board prematurely. In this, at this time, he will aid you.”

“He is pledged by treaty to come to the aid of Gondal, if threatened.” Her voice came from somewhere remote.

Prince Sherlock made a side-edge chopping motion with his hand. “Not Gondal. You. Your grace, my grandfather is a man of many parts, but he cannot resist a woman of wit. Your reputation on that score stands high in our court.”

Wit. She supposed it was some consolation to be valued for a quality she actually possessed. No-one, after all, would ever have called her a beauty.

“What do you suggest?”

“Before the King’s party arrive, send to my grandfather privately via the Gaaldine ambassador. Tell him that it is bruited abroad that Viscount Hambledon’s son has crossed the border and entered into schemes with ambitious and disaffected men within your realm. Advise him that there are those within the inner councils of Gondal who will turn such offences, should they be proved, into occasions of war. Assure him you are persuaded the roots of this canker have a source inside Gondal. Offer him your support, if he do but share with you such intelligence as he has or may procure which might validate your suspicions.”

For the longest of moments she paused. Then she nodded. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Prince Sherlock’s expression seemed, for a moment, unutterably bleak. “My grandfather has no friends.” He thought for a moment. “Though he respects his allies at least there is while no reason for him to do otherwise.”

She made a quick shooing motion with her hands. “Go. Get yourself to whatever rendezvous you have planned with John Watson before my husband finds you here. I will act as you suggest. Though my authority is limited –” 

Her voice broke.

“Trust me. I will not hold it against you, should the Council of Gondal conclude that Gaaldine has forfeited its pledge.” His voice sounded unexpectedly gentle, though there was a tremor in it. “But I will, indeed, leave you now.”

He turned, towards the door. As he was passing the table his hand stretched out and slid Shlessinger’s  handbill from beneath the papers. She twitched involuntarily as he scrutinised it.  

No-one could suspect?  Idiot.

“Has Hamish Watson brought his concerns to you?” Prince Sherlock’s voice was no more than coolly interested. “A wise move. John tells me this man Shlessinger has troubled his father for some considerable time.”

Something caught at her throat. “Has he?”  

“Oh, indeed. As a physician, Watson is intensely sceptical of wonder-cures which do not appear to derive in any logical manner from the existing body of medical knowledge. As a rationalist, he is even more sceptical of the magical explanation. Having eliminated legitimate innovation and supernatural intervention, chicanery must be the answer.”

“Chicanery?  Has he proof?”

Prince Sherlock shook his head. “Hamish Watson is -  by virtue of his position – ill-placed to be consulted on the matter.   Yet he told us a story, before we left on the hunting trip, which plainly bothered him. He had to be oblique, so I am unsure if he was telling one woman’s story or a composite of several, or perhaps even extrapolating from a few known facts and foreshadowing a tragedy yet to occur.”

“Go on.” She assumed an expression of guileless concern, which she was persuaded fooled the prince not in the slightest. “My confidential maid has spoken of consulting this man for her married sister. I can hardly endorse such a plan if I do not know everything. But hurry.”

“Some years ago, it seems, a lady of great estate and high rank married a man of similar degree. When the union remained unblessed with offspring the lady turned to Shlessinger. She did so in the greatest secrecy, not even telling her husband of her intentions. That – proved unwise.”

Her palms began to prickle with sweat. 

“Go on.”

“Her intermediary brought a message for her to attend in a certain graveyard at moonrise. There, she met a robed and hooded man.   Without speaking, he motioned for her to stand within a pentagram he described on the ground.”

She shivered, as if she herself were standing in that graveyard.

“What then?”

The prince pursed his lips. “Guards set on by the Bishop of the diocese – clearly alerted of the assignation in advance – burst onto the scene. The man escaped; the lady was taken into custody. Among the paraphernalia seized in the graveyard were books and rods inscribed with runes. Experts in such matters pronounced them those used in a conjuring.”

It was an effort to stop her voice shaking. “What happened?”

“Shlessinger denied all knowledge of the lady. Further, he could establish he had spent the evening at home, on the far side of the city, with unimpeachable witnesses. The intermediary vanished. No-one supported her story – she had not, as you recall, discussed her plans with her husband.”

“And the outcome?” 

A question with only one likely answer. No prosecutor in any of the three kingdoms would overlook damning evidence of an attempt to raise the spirits of the dead.  

“She was convicted of witchcraft and necromancy. And burned.” 

Her hand went to her mouth. “Holy Mary.”  

“Quite so. The husband remarried – indecently quickly, some said, but there was, after all, the business of an heir to consider. Especially since her dower lands had fallen into her husband’s sole control on her execution.”

Her mouth was dry. She could see how it had been – how it might be. She could see something else, too.

“And did that hasty marriage prove fruitful?”

The prince shook his head. “No. That was the aspect Hamish Watson found most tragic about the whole business. The husband had not respected his marriage vows, yet none of his numerous liaisons had produced offspring. Most probably, the curse lay with him. On his death the estates passed to a collateral branch of the family.   His young widow remarried, to the new heir. I understand she is now the mother of a substantial family.”

“I see.” She did, clearly. The story must be, in large measure, a fabrication. The time frame was all wrong for it to be otherwise. A fable, but nonetheless important.

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

“Thank you for your frankness. I shall advise my maid to have nothing to do with Shlessinger. Tell Hamish Watson he will have my full support in any action he chooses to take to expose trickery on the man’s part. I shall advise the King accordingly. Now, for God’s sake, go!”

He bowed over her hand, brushed it with his lips, and was gone. Down in the Great Court she could hear the pounding of hoof-beats, followed by a roar of voices, welcoming the King.