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Epilogue - Gambit Declined by A.J. Hall

The parade of post-chapel courtiers had dissipated from the Great Court, leaving only a handful of stragglers.  She turned from the window as the footman flung the door wide to admit Prince James.

His eyes were all pupil; black pits which yawned onto a well of emptiness that made her cold even to contemplate.  He stalked across the room without the barest pretence of courtesy.  

“This is an outrage.  How dare you drive me from Court?  Yes; you. I know who has worked against me, who has poisoned the King’s mind.”

She had rehearsed this moment over anxious days past, ever since she had – after half a day’s prayer and restless pacing in her private chambers – finally plucked up the courage to speak to Ambrosine.

“That does not lie in your mouth to say.  Trust me, this is an opportunity which comes to few, even in your rank in life.  You travel with Our countenance and with letters of introduction to every court and every university in Europe.  The doctors of Padua, Vienna, Leyden, Paris, Oxford and Rome will be clamouring for the opportunity to discourse with you and I know – from your tutors’ reports – that you will make best use of that chance.”

“You drive me into exile.”

She paused.  Took a deep breath.  And then smiled.  The prince was too well-disciplined to take a step backwards, but she saw the recoil in his eyes. 

“That choice you made for yourself.  Trust me, it is better than the alternatives.”  

There was a brown card folder on her desk. Its contents had come in dribs and drabs and been handed over by the Gaaldine Ambassador, piecemeal, over numerous tiny cups of chocolate.  She opened it, and felt rather than heard the prince’s gasp of shock as he took in the top item; a beautifully precise surgeon’s drawing of a hand, the little finger almost hanging by a thread.

“Don’t,” she said, her voice low and deadly.  “Do not say anything.  Yes; there is more.  Far more.  Were you of full age, it would be enough to take you to the block.”

“That would split the country.  A country that sees no clear succession lies uneasy beneath the King’s hand.”

“I said, do not say anything. We are minded to show leniency.”  Or, rather, Ambrosine was.  She had counselled against it - Kill the snake in the shell, lest it bite you later – but been overruled.  Had there been a babe in the royal nursery, Ambrosine would have heeded her advice, not the false logic of succession.

Would you raise your own flag, were a cruel Fate to widow you?

She knew the answer; it was staring at her across her private chamber with dark, empty eyes.

James of Gondal, whatever the price, I shall see this land never comes to you, while there is breath in my body.

“So far as the Court knows, you go abroad to pursue your studies.  I advise you to learn well.  Very well.”

“Oh, trust me, I shall.”  

When he had gone she sat in silence for a long time, the words resounding in her ears, dull and unforgiving, like earth on a coffin lid.