Chapter 3 - Queen's Gambit by A.J. Hall
Ripley and the Crown Prince had made five circuits of the river terrace in their after-dinner promenade, the evening dusk closing in, bats flitting in and out, feasting on the clouds of insects hovering about the water. Intent on his pipe, the Crown Prince had so far said nothing. After steeling himself for the last circuit and a half, Ripley finally broke the silence.
“Who was it, sir?”
“Not bad.” A faint, malicious smile touched the Crown Prince’s lips. “I once had a man walk beside me for fifteen turns before he plucked up the courage to tell me he’d had a stone in his shoe for the last ten of them. But you should frame your questions more precisely. I’m not a salmon to rise to a lure of feathers and artifice. Who was what?”
“Who tried to cut the Queen’s throat?”
The Crown Prince paused, resting his hand on the low wall which divided the terrace from the river. He seemed intent on the other bank.
“Not the Queen’s. The Princess Royal’s.” Ripley’s face must have betrayed his bafflement because the Crown Prince frowned and added, “My mother’s. And not tried. Succeeded.”
Ripley just retrained himself from uttering a squeak of pure terror. He cast his mind frantically back. The Princess Royal had died when he’d been a mere boy, living far from the capital on the edge of a dusty little town in the southern provinces. He recalled rumour and counter-rumour swirling around the market-place, the servants by the laundry tubs whispering to each other, the shrill note in his mother’s voice as she ssh-ed them. The old King’s reign had been a golden age for spies and informers of all sorts; no man could be sure his household was free of them.
“I had heard, sir,” he said hesitantly, “that a – a Palace servant succumbed to a sudden fit of frenzy and that – the Princess Royal – your gracious mother – died as a result of the injuries he inflicted.”
The Crown Prince blew a smoke-ring. His eyes were still fixed on the far bank.
“Not a servant, though that fact has never been widely known. A head of Palace Security who fails to protect his charges is apt – for whatever time is left to him – to be somewhat reticent about the details. And his successor, also, was keen to discourage imitators. And there were – other good and sufficient considerations urging discretion.”
Ripley held his breath. He had been as good as told he was on the very brink of stumbling upon a State secret and any prudent man would do his damndest to ensure he came no closer. But if a chance of unlocking the Queen’s melancholia had come to hand, who was he to turn down the chance simply for considerations of his own safety?
“Sir?” he ventured.
“You wish to hear more?” The Crown Prince turned his head, scrutinising Ripley as though he had for the first time become a matter of interest to him.
Mouth dry, Ripley nodded.
“You will – of course – have noted the old scar running along obliquely across the veins of my sister’s left wrist.”
There were numerous scars on the Queen’s body. As her confidential physician Ripley could have drawn a topological map of them all. A story must lie behind each; he had been a fool to dismiss that on her wrist as something he knew without being told.
“Yes. All her previous physicians and several father confessors made that mistake, too.” The Crown Prince seemed to be reading his thoughts again. “She told me once she’d endured so many penances for succumbing to the sin of despair that she’d earned any number of livelier sins gratis, could she only summon up the energy to commit them.”
“Would your grace be good enough to tell me more?”
The Crown Prince turned back to the river. “My mother was the ranking lady at court and barely thirty. Declaring oneself to be madly in love with her was the fashion of the day. No-one noticed that a certain young nobleman wasn’t playing the same game as the rest. In fact, he wasn’t playing at all.”
“And he –”
“Bribed my mother’s friseur to take his place for an appointment in her chambers. Easy enough; courtiers were always filling her rooms with flowers or sending chamber orchestras to serenade beneath her windows or ambushing her with masques in intervals in progresses – God, it must have been so boring for her. Doubtless, when he dropped his combs and pomades to reveal himself, she started to trot out one of the pretty speeches she’d have made ready for such occasions.”
He made something of a business of relighting his pipe, which had gone out.
“Only this time she wasn’t dealing with a play-acting courtier after advancement, but a man convinced that the fates had decreed they should be together for all eternity. When he pulled out a razor, Genia was the only who reacted quickly enough to attempt to stop him. But she was only eight, and untrained. Never had a hope of disarming him – lucky he didn’t sever the tendons of her wrist. My mother yelled at her to take me and run –”
“Holy Mary! You were there?” Belatedly Ripley added, “Sir.”
The Crown Prince looked down at the two halves of the pipe-stem, broken by a sudden convulsion of those long fingers. “Damn. And that was a favourite, too. Yes. Though I can’t recall – all I really recall is Genia making us hide in a privy. It took forever till the armsmen found us and it stank.” His voice changed, “I’d tried to hide beneath my mother’s skirts; Genia had to dive under the murderer’s arm to pull me out. She must have been right below the main blood vessels when he slashed them. Her hair was matted solid with my mother’s blood. I remember trying to comb it through, with my fingers, in the privy, in the afternoon heat and the stink, because I’d some confused idea that if I could only sort her hair out, everything would go back to how it had been before.”
Ripley gulped. “I’m sorry, sir.” It sounded wholly inadequate. He amplified. “Sorry, too, that those set to guard you failed you and your family so profoundly.”
“Dove è da notare che queste simili morti, le quali seguando per deliberazione d’uno animo ostinato, sono da’ principi inevitabili, perché ciascuno che non si curi di moriri lo può offendere,” the Crown Prince murmured – a quotation, doubtless, but from no author Ripley had read, his Italian studies having been strictly confined to medical texts.
“Some risks can’t be avoided, for all the care one takes. But don’t go scampering after rabbits and forsake the true line.”
He blinked. “Your grace?”
“I mean, because you’ve worked something out which your predecessors never thought to consider, doesn’t mean you have solved everything. Or that you’re on the brink of a miracle cure.” His face looked bleak. “After all, the idea of a cure carries within it a certain set of assumptions, wouldn’t you say? Though having come so far is – commendable.”
The bands of fear which had constricted Ripley’s chest ever since the guard captain had warned him of the Crown Prince’s impending arrival slackened. The Crown Prince signalled a servitor and spoke a few low words. The servitor nodded and bustled off, returning a few minutes later with a crystal decanter full of brandy, a new pipe for the Crown Prince and two glasses. He gestured deferentially towards a lichened stone table and its attendant benches with lion-claw feet at the end of the terrace.
“So,” the Crown Prince said, when they were seated and the brandy poured, “how does a physician of the mind set about his work? It’s not as if you had rashes or inflammations upon which to base your diagnosis.”
Explaining his specialism was fraught with peril. Madness was the great unknown; a great ball of speculation, myth, superstition and fear enclosing the tiniest fragment of empirical knowledge. That fragment was itself the subject of endless controversy among his professional brethren; a layman could have little hope of grasping anything of the matter’s complexity. Still, the chance of gaining a sympathetic, intelligent supporter among the Queen’s family should not be lightly forgone.
“There are common features in frenzy or melancholia, just as there are in plague or phthisis. For example, women patients will in frenzy speak openly of – matters – which in a cool and reasoned state would never pass their lips.”
“Your experience with women appears vastly different from my own.” The Crown Prince sounded amused. “Tell me more.”
Ripley swallowed, repressing an annoyance it would be more than impolitic to express. He tried to think himself into the cool detachment of the lecture hall, recalling – as best he could – the words of Master Aelius, heard at the University in Glasstown many years ago, words which had shaped his path from that day forward.
“The divided mind rejects the possibility of madness even when acutely conscious of its pain. Accordingly, it is a curious, constant feature of such cases that the deluded woman creates for herself an external antagonist, clothing it in the name of father, brother, lord, priest – some embodiment of authority from within her immediate circle. That antagonist symbolises the dominance of unreason over her intellect, cloaking the woman’s inner malady in an identifiable corporeal form. Typically, the patient breaks out into accusations of seduction and ravishment, supported with the most lurid and intimate details, the more convincing to others because she believe them so implicitly herself.”
“And what about those women who have, in fact, been raped by their father, brother, lord, priest or whatever?” the Crown Prince enquired.
Ripley’s brow creased. “Sir, what do you mean?”
“The question’s simple enough. I wondered how you distinguished between women who are suffering distress following an actual rape and those whose delusions happen to take that form. Surely your treatment would be very different in each case?”
“I think, sir,” Ripley said cautiously, “you may have mistaken my meaning. Criminal conduct is not an issue here. I’m simply describing a symptom – a delusion pervasive – almost universal – in such cases –”
The Crown Prince smiled, but something about his cold, pale eyes struck chill to the depths of Ripley’s soul. The Queen had looked at him so, once, back in the first few days of treatment, when she was still agitated by his predecessor’s regime of whippings and surprise icy-water drenchings. The next thing Ripley had known, he’d been struggling to break the grip of long-taloned fingers round his windpipe.
“Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate. Why not start from the principle that the woman might be telling the truth, rather than assuming she must be lying and so being forced to construct your elaborate theories of the - divided mind – to account for it? Damn! Another pipe gone.”
He looked down at the broken pieces with an almost comical air of affront. The servitor, whom Ripley had almost forgotten, must have been keeping a close eye on them. Bare moments later another pipe was being held out to the Crown Prince on a silver salver. He took it with an acknowledging quirk of his lips, lit it and leant back against the river wall.
Ripley’s heart hammered. In his desperation, he blurted out the first thing that came into his head. “But, sir, how can such allegations be true? As I said, they are an almost universal feature of such cases. And there are so many cases!”
The Crown Prince sighed; the unmistakeable sound of a man losing patience with slower-witted folk around him.
“Everyone knows I and the King-my-brother have had our differences. The reasons for those – well. No matter.” He gave a fleeting glance upwards, towards the windows of the Queen’s suite, unmistakeable because of the bars across them. “Nevertheless, one thing we agree about – if not always for the same reasons – is that neither wealth, power nor sheer ingenuity must be permitted to impede the workings of the King’s justice or challenge the rule of his law. As a result, I have acquired a remarkably detailed knowledge of crime. At least, as it is practised among the aristocracy of Gaaldine.”
He paused for a moment, his smile grim. “Based on that knowledge, I’d wager that many of the women of whom you speak were telling the truth. Certainly the majority. Not inconceivably, all.”
“But that’s absurd! I know my patients. I’d have known –”
“Are you sure? Take, for example, Lady Louisa Elphinstone.”
“What?” Ripley found himself leaning across the table, his weight supported on the palms of his hands. “Who betrayed her secret, sir? The family were adamant that no-one should know I had been consulted -“
“I’m not surprised. Some maladies do nothing for a young woman’s prospects. Or those of the rest of their family.”
Ripley gasped, but before he could say anything the Crown Prince extended a forefinger to brush the collar of chased gold links Ripley wore about his neck.
“That is by some distance the most valuable item you are wearing – I would guess, the most valuable item you possess.”
His mouth grown suddenly dry, Ripley swallowed. “What of it, sir?”
“The style is a modern copy of the ancient gold-work found in the chambered tombs on the edge of the endless sea of grass that lies beyond the furthest borders of Gondal. The craftsmen in the city below Castle Elphinstone are famed for such work. It’s wrought in gold of a distinctive red tint, which comes from a mine on Elphinstone land. The mine’s output is limited and, therefore, reserved to the Elphinstone family and those whom they wish to honour. You could not have bought such a piece, even could you have afforded it. A gift from the family then; a very generous gift. A reward for a successful cure – or something else? The price of silence, perhaps?”
“Sir, I am an oath-sworn physician,” Ripley said stiffly. “My silence cannot be bought. It comes as part of my calling.”
“I suppose I asked for that.” Ripley felt he detected a shade more warmth in the Crown Prince’s tone. “A barrier, but we’ll work round it. That is, I shall tell you what I surmise happened, and, if I appear about to slander someone too gratuitously, you may tell me I am mistaken. Other than that, I shall speak and you may remain silent. Does that chime with your physician’s honour? Good.”
He swung his booted feet up onto the stone table, leaned back against the river-wall, half-shuttered his eyes and took a long pull on his pipe. The evening had advanced; even at this short distance Ripley was barely able to make out the Crown Prince’s face. He hoped the merciful dusk would veil his own expression, lest it make him unwittingly forsworn.
“Lady Louisa Elphinstone made her debut the season before last.” The Crown Prince’s voice was almost expressionless. “Very young – the dowagers tut-tutted, but acknowledged that since the Earl of Greengarth had four younger daughters waiting in line it made sense for him to bring the filly to the starting tape early – a direct quotation, by the way.”
“I take your point, sir, about our different experiences of women,” Ripley murmured.
“Yes. Her debut was not a success. She was, and I presume still is, a mousy little thing with very little conversation and the air of always looking over her shoulder, as if afraid of being watched. Which, of course, she was. No-one escapes scrutiny at Court.”
Ripley bit his lip, remembering a girlish voice screaming on and on. Get out of my presence. Get out. Don’t stare at me. Why does everyone stare at me? Leave me alone.
“She left Court not half-way through the season, because, it was said, the family physician feared she was developing a congestion of the lungs and needed country air and complete rest to recover. Tongues wagged. The dowagers said they’d heard that one before.”
“And you, sir?” Ripley ventured.
“I had no opinion on the matter. Not my sphere of influence; not unless it threatens the King’s peace. Anthea would have let Mycroft know soon enough if she’d thought there was any risk of that. But I presume she went to some secluded manor on the Elphinstone estates, bore the child, that it was born dead, or became dead, or – in the happiest and least likely outcome – was handed over to foster parents ignorant of its true parentage.”
My child is dead and I only want to die, too. That frantic, remembered voice again.
“Became dead” had an ominous ring; it raised all sorts of possibilities which Ripley would prefer not to contemplate. Possibilities which chimed all too closely with the girl – scarcely more than a child herself – cowering on the bed, uttering animal-like whimpers.
“It died,” Ripley said, the words passing his lips almost without his conscious will.
The Crown Prince nodded. “Always the most likely outcome. However, the Elphinstone family found themselves in a difficulty. Lady Louisa fell into a profound melancholia, interspersed with periods of frenzy in which she raved, her tongue unguarded. The dangers of some rumour leaking out – bearing in mind her four sisters still to make suitable matches – would have been at the forefront of their minds. So they called for you.”
He paused, interrogatively. Ripley said nothing. After a moment, the Crown Prince resumed.
“You would have to be told about the child, of course; it would instantly be clear to you on any physical examination that Lady Louisa had recently given birth, to say nothing of what she might let slip in her fits of frenzy. The father – let’s see. You were told that a member of the household – Lady Louisa’s music tutor, let’s say, or – no – drawing master (her sketching was marginally less execrable than her playing) – had abused his position of trust, seduced her affections and violated her innocence. They told you he had been confronted with the evidence of his guilt and, overwhelmed by the enormity of his conduct, committed suicide. You did not believe the suicide story.”
“I didn’t?” Ripley enquired, trying to infuse his voice with a sardonic note, his mind running once more on sorcery. It had been the dancing master, as a matter of fact, but in every other respect the Crown Prince’s account was as accurate as if he had been there.
The Crown Prince shook his head. “No. But my brother’s edicts against duelling are strict and enforced with an impartial hand. As a physician, you deplored the senseless waste of human life; as a compassionate man, you felt for a father driven to avenge his daughter’s virtue on the field of honour.”
Uncle, actually. He was younger and the better swordsman. But how does he do this?
“As I said, my knowledge of Gaaldine’s aristocracy is enormous. And, for the most part, they could not be accused of taxing anyone’s imagination when it comes to either their crimes or their cover stories.” Once again, the Crown Prince read his thoughts with ease.
His voice changed. “You heard a different story from Lady Louisa’s lips – at least, when the paroxysm was on her. When calmer, she said nothing at all of the matter which had brought her to this pass. But in frenzy – she fell into the classic pattern you described so eloquently a few moments ago. And the man she named as her violator was not a music tutor or a drawing master. Nor could what happened be dignified by the title of ‘seduction’. And – very much more to the point – whether by his own hand or on the field of honour, the man in question was not dead. He was, in fact, paying your substantial fees.”
Ripley found his breath catch in his throat, almost as if he was battling through a smoke-filled room. He could not have spoken even if he would. The Crown Prince pressed inexorably on.
“That scandal had long since died down – out of sight, out of mind is never more true than at Court – when the King-my-brother summoned me in March of this year to a private conference. A marriage alliance was being proposed which gave him considerable unease. The de Mervilles had lands, political patronage and influence; the Elphinstones possessed mining and mineral interests second to none in the realm, to say nothing of controlling an important port city. Neither house had shown itself especially loyal to the Crown. An alliance between the two of them should be discouraged at all costs.”
“Your task was to prevent the match, sir?”
“If humanly possible. All the King had tried through conventional means had failed, but there remained one tiny glimmer of hope – no brighter than a candle-flame in a storm. The intended bride’s mother was vehemently opposed to her daughter marrying the Earl of Greengarth – she was an age to remember him from her own court debut – and petitioned the King to use all his influence to ensure the match did not take place.”
“Petitioned the King? But what of her husband – the girl herself –?”
“Her husband was prepared to overlook a great deal for the chance of obtaining a familial interest in Gaaldine’s principal deep-water port. The girl, dazzled by the prospect of becoming a Countess in her own right, was deaf to the dangers of entering into a marriage with a widower thirty years her senior and acquiring, in the process, a large family of step-children, the eldest, Lady Louisa, less than two years younger than herself. You said something?”
Ripley shook his head vigorously. “Proceed, sir. What did the King hope you might do?”
“Well, initially, that I might be able deter the girl by proving to her that the Earl had murdered his first wife. Hopeless.”
“The Earl was innocent?”
The Crown Prince snorted. “Of course not. But all the evidence that he’d contrived that landslip in the Spungen Pass was buried beneath tons of rock and earth, along with his late Countess, her personal escort and a quite extraordinary quantity of mules. I presented Miss de Merville with all the facts – I argued, I pleaded, and I got nowhere. Compared to the prospect of a Countess’s coronet, the fact that she’d most probably be wearing a shroud if she didn’t produce a male heir in the next five years made no impression on her at all. It was if I was speaking Hebrew.”
“So what did you do, sir?”
“I learned – the means don’t matter here – that the Earl kept a journal – heavily guarded and written in code. There was, my informant assured me, no deed too vile for the Earl not to have confided it to his private diary. Working only with a single confidant – a man of unexampled courage – I used a subterfuge to gain access to the Earl’s private apartments. I found the diary, though the search took longer than I had hoped, and the Earl’s armsmen found me there before I could make good my escape. If Jo- if my friend hadn’t become alarmed and – against my express orders – returned to find me, they’d have killed me on the spot. Which would, of course, have seen the entire Elphinstone family arraigned for treason and their estates forfeit to the Crown, but wouldn’t have done me much good. But we fought our way out, somehow, and I managed to keep hold of the journal.”
“So you took it to Miss de Merville?”
“Oh, no. Once I’d decoded it – a relatively trivial exercise – I waited until the Earl next attended on my brother, and intercepted him as he was leaving the audience chamber. I made him privy to certain facts that I could only have known had I read his diary. I told him that I expected him to go into voluntary exile that night, leaving behind a letter confessing to his involvement in the continuing peculation scandal, or it would be the block or, quite possibly, the stake and that his name would live as a fireside bogey for centuries to come. He realised he had no choice.” A grim humour infused the Crown Prince’s voice. “Unfortunately for the Earl, the lady who’d put me onto the existence of the Earl’s diary was less prepared than I to allow him such a light escape. She’d witnessed him arrive at Court and, as he left, sprang out and flung oil of vitriol in his face.”
Ripley had seen the results of vitriol-throwing before, years ago, when he’d been starting out as a physician. Jealous rows between whores, family feuds gone inconceivably bitter, jilted lovers – vitriol was too easy to obtain and its effects so horrific, he often thought they corroded the thrower internally as much as they disfigured the victim externally.
In most cases. But now his mind went back to that hunched, withdrawn figure in a room in a remote farmhouse in the distant reaches of the Elphinstone estates and, just for a moment, Ripley thought he could have flung the acid himself.
“The Earl, as you know, was a heavy man, out of training. The shock and the pain brought on an apoplectic seizure and, though he lingered a week or so, he died without regaining consciousness and without, therefore, making a final confession.”
Let him rot in Hell. “I take it the diary vindicated Lady Louisa’s account?”
“Oh, most clearly. Her honesty and her courage, both. She had, you see, threatened her father that if he turned his unnatural lusts onto her sisters – as she feared (with good reason) he might, she would lay the whole story before the King. Hence his anxiety to ensure that any such story would be pre-emptively disbelieved. You’ve made no secret, Master Ripley, of your adherence to the teachings of Master Aelius. His theory of the divided mind no doubt seemed to the Earl the very thing to cloak his villainy.”
The blessed darkness – the glow of the Crown Prince’s pipe the only light – cloaked Ripley’s burning features. “Holy Mary, he duped me.”
“He intended so. But in the process, he would seem to have inadvertently employed an honest man. And a good physician, I judge – you’re not the first or the last to have made a diagnosis in advance of a crucial piece of data. And, whether your theory was right or not, your practice seems to have been sound. I understand Lady Louisa has recently been admitted as a postulant at the Abbey of Norburyness. The Abbess tells me she is doing well; that she has a particular affinity with Infirmary work. And that she rarely has nightmares these days. I’d not give in to that impulse to throw your chain in the river, Master Ripley. It was fairly earned.”
Ripley inhaled; he fancied the air had the tang of smoke, as if from burnt boats. Whatever happened now, he was no longer the physician who had stepped onto the river terrace, condescending to share a little of the mystery of his calling with a distinguished guest.
“So, now,” the Crown Prince said, “having established that I ask this question as the King’s lieutenant, charged with a roving commission to investigate crime, specifically any constituting threats to our House and to the safety of this realm, whom did my sister Genia name as her attacker?”
“I –ah – “
“Don’t think I’m not prepared to ask Genia herself, should the need arise. But I hope I’ve shown you I am not asking you about a symptom of my sister’s malady – which you would, quite properly, as her physician refuse to discuss with me – but a crime committed against my sister’s person, such crime being – given she is Queen consort of Gaaldine – treason in the highest degree. And I am sure I need not warn you what happens to those who wilfully conceal their knowledge of treason, or who refuse to answer when a direct question about treasonous acts is put to them.”
Ripley grasped the edge of the table, fighting the urge to laugh, hysterically. For all the Crown Prince’s demonstrated acuity there was one thing, it seemed, he did not know and could not deduce.
“Not treason, sir,” he said, when he had brought his voice under a semblance of control. “For, after all, there is one man in all the realm against whom a charge of treason may never be brought. The King himself.”
He had fancied the Crown Prince a hunting wildcat before, when he’d first seen him in trooper’s gear and the dust of the road. Now he was a black, whirling, velvet blur against the charcoal background of the dusk-shrouded riverbank, his pipe flung down to shatter into shards on the terrace floor as he reached inside his doublet for a dagger (and, dear God, what did it say about the man that he wore concealed weaponry even to an after-dinner pipe or three on the terrace?), spitting out “Mycroft!” as if it was the worst obscenity in all the tongues the Earth knew or ever had known.
On the edge of his vision Ripley glimpsed the servitor pressing himself back into the lighted archway of the Residence, looking anywhere but at them, no doubt rehearsing his story in his head already: “I saw nothing; I had gone to fetch more brandy; by the time I returned it was all over.”
But Ripley was – if he said so himself (and none of his jealous professional brethren would be likely to do him the favour) – the best physician in the three kingdoms when it came to frenzy. He had faced down the Queen when she’d been swinging a kitchen cleaver, to say nothing of countless lesser threats over the years. He had no trouble in summoning the right note of authority into his voice.
“Sir, hear me out. You mistake my meaning. I made no reference to the King your brother. When I mentioned the King, it was your late grandfather I meant, sir.”
The Crown Prince flopped back onto the bench like a puppet whose handler has dropped the strings. “Dear God,” he murmured, barely louder than a breath. “Then. When I was away in Gondal.”
“You say my grandfather forced my sister?” The Crown Prince’s voice had a wild edge, a note Ripley was used to hearing, but not from the relatives of his patients. He maintained the same tone of controlled authority.
“So she told me, sir, in a moment of extreme distress. For the reasons I mentioned, I was disinclined to take her claim literally at the time.”
“You should have done. Genia almost never softens the stark truth. You can imagine how popular it made her at Court. But why – oh. Of course. The boys. That’s why the old bastard did it. And why Genia didn’t tell anyone in the family.”
“The King-my-grandfather –” the Crown Prince almost spat the words, “forced my brother to marry Genia at a time when he had sent me to Gondal as a hostage under a peace treaty which he was already making active preparations to break. No wonder he felt the need to secure the succession, given that he knew – if no-one else did – that he had almost certainly sent me to my death. Once the twins were born, nothing stood between him and the invasion of Gondal.”
Ripley reeled. No-one, he remembered, had grieved much for the death of the old King, though his lacklustre, middle-aged son, the Crown Prince’s uncle, grey and apparently overburdened by his coronation robes, had seemed less like the harbinger of a new era than an inexplicable leftover from the last. But the weight of evil which the last few minutes had revealed – Holy Mary, he was less surprised by the Queen’s malady than by the puzzle of how any of the family had survived with their reason intact.
He almost asked the question, throwing aside all questions of royal protocol. At that moment the Crown Prince threw his head back, as if sniffing the wind. He sprang to his feet.
“Bring torches.” Servitors rushed to obey. By the flickering light Ripley saw the man the Crown Prince had spotted, weaving erratically along the river-bank, spent with exhaustion. The Crown Prince placed both palms on the wall, vaulted over and dropped lightly down on the far side. He caught the man just as his stumble would have sent him into the river and looked up at Ripley.
“It’s my perimeter guard from the eastward approaches. He’s taken an arrow to his shoulder. Make yourself ready to extract it. And tell the Queen’s guard captain and my own to attend us at once, so they hear him can tell us how he got it. Come on, man. I’ve got you. Bear up. Only a few steps more.”
Unlike some of his contemporaries at the University, Ripley had never found himself having to dabble in surgery to make ends meet; in accordance with his Hippocratic Oath he’d been able to leave all that sort of thing to those who specialised in it. Now he looked at the well-worn arrow-extraction pliers from the guard captain’s field-chest and mentally ran through a hastily revised page from a textbook (“Dilate the entrance wound; crush the blades of the arrow-head or shield it with a split reed in situ; withdraw with a swift but steady hand.”)
The door opened to admit the Queen, her braided hair piled in a coronet on top of her head.
“Ma’am,” Ripley protested.
Her face was pale but her tone composed. “What? You’ll need an orderly, the guard captains can’t be spared, it would be unwise to admit anyone else to the Council and I’m better than Sherlock at doing two things at once.”
Whether at the realisation he was about to be ministered to by his Queen or that the next few minutes were likely to entail considerable pain, the soldier squeaked. The Queen glanced down to where he lay on the couch.
“Bear up, man. Would you prefer me to administer brandy or tincture of opium, Master Ripley, to dull the pain?”
All poisons must be locked securely away from the Queen’s grace lest she misuse them, a note from that sheaf of papers reminded him.
“Opium,” he said decisively, and passed her the dropper and the phial. She mixed a stiff dose with water, and administered it.
The door swung open again. The Crown Prince entered, flanked by the two guard captains. He showed no surprise at the Queen’s presence, merely moving round to the other side of the couch, picking up the soldier’s good hand and holding it in his.
“So, repeat what you told me a few minutes ago, so the commanders can hear. How long until the sea-wolves reach here?”
The soldier gaped, then muttered, “Two turns of the glass. Three, at a stretch. Depends how long it takes ‘em to reduce the lower dale. Burning and killing all in their path. Didn’ want anyone to raise alarm or bar retreat to their ships.”
“The main road’s cut and held in both directions? You suppose them to have burnt the nearest semaphore station?”
“Sawt smoke,” the soldier said hoarsely. “Caught poor buggers at their evening meal, most like. Treacherous fucking sea-scum. My pardon, m’lady.”
The Queen snorted. “Don’t spare my sensibilities. I shared a nursery with your commander; I’ve heard worse than that. Master Ripley. Start the extraction, or my brother will exhaust your patient with questioning.”
Thus exhorted, Ripley sighted down the arrow shaft in an effort to gauge the lie of the head, and widened the entry wound a little. The soldier gasped and turned his head away, towards the Crown Prince, his eyes dulled with the opium and with pain. The Crown Prince’s voice stayed as level as if he were taking a routine report from a watch captain.
“This is no casual sea-wolf raid. There’s a mind behind it, subtle and malicious. My presence here is by the merest happenstance; this is directed at the Queen’s person. So, captain, how may we defend the Queen?”
Ripley knew the answer before he saw the garrison commander shake his head. The Residence was a dower property on the furthest fringes of the Alwent estates; a suitable resting place for dowager Countesses or, as here, a sister of the Earl estranged both from her husband and her right mind. No-one had ever intended it as a defensible stronghold; it had no strategic advantages. Beyond the Residence the riverside road dwindled to a goat-path, the dale turned to rock and moorland and ended in the blind wall of Alwentfell’s impassable crags.
“We cannot hold the Residence,” the captain said. “Though, if it be your orders, your grace, we will expend our last drop of blood in attempting it.”
“The point of that being?” the Queen enquired. “Master Ripley, if we are all to die in the next three hours, could we at least ensure that your patient dies from enemy action rather than his friends’ inaction? The pliers, swiftly.”
Ripley swallowed the retort that he expected his orderlies to carry out his instructions, not vice versa. In one swift, assured move, he inserted the pliers into the dilated wound, probing for the arrowhead as if the pliers truly were the extensions of his finger ends. The soldier emitted a sharp, keening gasp and gripped the Crown Prince’s hand so tightly Ripley wondered if he might end up with two patients rather than one.
There, he had it. Ripley cradled the arrow head between the hollowed out jaws of the pliers, and squeezed the handles hard, feeling the blades fold beneath the pressure. With a brief stab of almost unbearable triumph he drew the arrow smoothly out down the same path along which it had entered. Dark blood followed, but slowed to a trickle as the Queen staunched it with sea-sponges and sphagnum moss. He had missed, thank the Holy Virgin, any of the major blood vessels.
Almost before the arrow was out of the wound the Crown Prince was reaching for it.
“Gondalian broad-head. Royal armoury stamp. Style of thirty years ago but near mint condition. Some master of the armouries with an itchy palm and a sea-wolf captain with some very unexpected connections.” He broke off the shaft close to the head and tucked the arrowhead inside his doublet. “Mycroft’s people would be interested in this, if I can contrive some way of it reaching them.”
The Queen caught at his arm. “Take it with you. Whatever it takes, the raiders must not find you here. At all costs, Sherlock. All costs.”
“Finish the bandaging, Ripley,” the Crown Prince said. “I need to talk with my sister.”
Ripley’s face flamed at the casual dismissal before common-sense reasserted itself. If the crisis at hand had, for the moment, drawn the Queen out of the dark shadows that clouded her wits and made a horror of her waking hours, then it was a medical miracle. It might, at least, allow her to make her peace with God and with her family before the raiders arrived and they all had to die.
The two of them withdrew into a corner of the room where, judging by their gestures and the high spots of colour on their cheek-bones, they were having a furious argument, though the few words which were audible sounded like nonsense syllables.
A nursery code, so the grown-ups can’t understand.
Another piece of the puzzle, slotting into place when it could do no conceivable good.
Across the room, the two garrison commanders were having their own, low-voiced conversation, of which Ripley heard snatches as he stitched and bandaged the wound. “Seventy souls in the Residence. Less than half of those fighting men. What? No. Ceremonial only. Scarce able to send a ball fifty yards. The scullery lads might get through, but will the adjoining dales rise on their say-so? The raiders may strike their farmsteads next; they’ll be looking to protect their own livestock and women. And what about the Crown Prince?”
“What about me?” The argument between the Queen and the Crown Prince had ended; from their equally tight, tense expressions it was impossible to tell who had won it.
The two guard captains looked at each other; neither seemed anxious to be the first to speak.
“Sherlock.” The characteristic weariness had returned to the Queen’s voice. “Put the poor men out of their misery. We all know that every single person in the Residence is more expendable than you. Don’t make them say it.”
“You are not expendable, Genia.”
She snorted. “Don’t be absurd. Most aristocrats in Gaaldine with marriageable daughters would put money on my expendability. Two of my guard captains have vanished, suddenly, during the time I’ve been here. No-one mentioned their names again. They failed one of your tests, I take it.”
The Crown Prince made a small, exasperated noise in his throat. “That is hardly the point. I cannot stand here and let you –”
“Sherlock, you have no authority over me, and – to the extent you borrow any from your brother – the King surrendered any right to compel my allegiance long ago. If I acknowledge any liege, it’s the Princess Royal. And your mother told me to protect you. Have you heard her tell me the job is finished? Because I haven’t.”
Dead silence fell on the room. The Crown Prince was white to the lips. He turned, savagely, towards the garrison commander.
“So, how much powder and shot do we have, anyway?”
The garrison commander pulled out a clay tablet. “Three barrels of powder for hunting and target practice. And a couple more that were earmarked for fireworks, for the King’s birthday.”
“You celebrate Mycroft’s birthday?” The Crown Prince’s brows almost reached his hairline.
“I cause things to be blown up on Mycroft’s birthday. The local people seem to enjoy it.”
The garrison commander coughed. “Irrespective of the reason we have the powder, sir, we can do little with it. The only piece of ordnance we have is for ceremonial purposes. We can do what we can to hold for a short time, but there is no readily defensible position here.”
The Crown Prince’s captain nodded. `’Sir, if I may speak frankly, once it comes to close quarters – which it will do – I hold out very little hope we will prevail. You must take the Queen and go up the dale-side. “
“No.” The Queen’s eyes were wide silver fires blazing beneath her thick black brows. “I do not leave the Residence. I stay with my children.”
Ripley raised his hand to rest on the Queen’s arm. “Ma’am, you must recall that the Princes are –”
He paused, the eyes of the captains on him, warning him not to utter the unutterable.
“Dead?” she snapped. “A distinction of very little merit. But, dead or not, my boys and I are Gaaldine’s past. The Crown Prince and his Charis are the future – of Gondal as much as Gaaldine. This raid, my brother says, has a mind of subtle malice behind it. Do any of us doubt whose mind that is? What’s the name of the garden boy with the chipped front tooth and the off-key whistle?”
The garrison commander’s eyes flickered desperately towards the Crown Prince, who was leaning against the wall, his arms folded, clearly not in the least minded to intervene.
“Bring him here at once.”
“Your grace –”
“Obey your Queen’s command.” The Crown Prince’s tone sharpened. “And let her waiting woman in, while you’re at it. It’s more comfortable for her than listening through the keyhole. Stone floors are very chilling. She doesn’t want cramp in legs she’ll shortly need to run for her life.”
The garrison commander took two strides to the door and flung it wide. Lisbet fell sprawling across the threshold. As he bent to pluck her to her feet she twisted to look straight at the Crown Prince.
“I don’t run. Where my lady goes, I go.”
“And where she dies, you will die, and there you will be buried?” the Crown Prince enquired. Lisbet gave a sharp, defiant nod.
“Yes. Your grace.” She crossed the room to stand a little behind the Queen’s left shoulder.
The Queen’s hand reached out to grasp hers. “Thank you.”
The door swung open again and a young lout – Ripley supposed he must have seen him about the place, but had absolutely no recollection of his face – was thrust in by the garrison commander.
“Albert, ma’am,” he announced.
“Ah, good.” The Queen fixed the young man with an intense gaze; he took an involuntary half-step backwards. “No, don’t be alarmed, young man. You’re seeing a girl in Ulvastdale. Secretly. Her family don’t approve; she’s married or pledged to another.”
Albert turned beetroot-red. “Who snitched on me?”
“Who snitched on me your grace,” Lisbet corrected. “And you address the Queen as ‘ma’am’ after that.” Ripley thought he saw a flicker of malicious amusement cross the Crown Prince’s face.
“No-one – snitched. I rarely sleep and I have exceptionally acute hearing. On the night of the last full moon I heard someone walking along the terrace below my window whistling ‘The lay of Ulvast’s maid.’ Off-key. I looked out of my window to see this young man, with a coil of rope around his body, heading towards the back of the Residence. I didn’t suppose the guards would have let someone through just like that, but I did wonder how long it would take them to notice if they had – “
“Why didn’t you raise the alarm, ma’am?” The garrison commander had white showing all around his eyes.
The Queen shrugged. “I get so bored when I can’t sleep. It seemed more interesting to let things happen.”
A small bubbling sound came from the corner of the room. The Crown Prince seemed to be finding the situation strangely funny.
“What’s my girl got to do with you – ma’am?” Both the garrison commanders and Lisbet glared at Albert, but the Queen smiled.
“There’s a secret way over Alwentfell, isn’t there? You couldn’t have been there and back the long way round before moonset, and there was the rope, too.”
“And if there is? Ma’am.”
“Go now. Take my brother. There are sea-wolves coming up the valley. They must not find the Crown Prince. Everyone knows the valley ends in a blind wall. Lead my brother by your secret way into Ulvastdale, and let him raise a force to cut off the sea-wolves from their ships.”
The garrison commander nodded. “Yes. That might work. But, can’t Albert take you too, ma’am?”
She snorted. “We have already dealt with that. No. Albert, take Sherlock. And Master Ripley. “
The words hit him like a blow. “What? But my duty lies with you!”
“I release you from it.”
“Your grace, you cannot do that. I am appointed by your husband –”
“And, as the Queen pointed out a few moments ago, I am the King’s lieutenant.” The Crown Prince’s smile was as sharp and threatening as a poignard. “Between the Queen and I, there’s sufficient authority in this room to decree an invasion of Gondal, should we so choose. Certainly to – reassign you to different duties.”
“It’s madness for her to remain here.”
If the Crown Prince’s smile was a dagger, the Queen’s was a ravening wolf. “I note, Master Ripley, that you are not raising that allegation against any of my guard. Or the Crown Prince’s.”
“That’s different –”
“In this particular case, it is not. We are each of us called to stand in the place to which duty bids us. My duty to the Royal House of Gaaldine has taken me into far darker places than this, Master Ripley.”
He thought of the old King, and the words choked in his throat.
“The sea-wolves are not going to pass up such an excellent ransom opportunity as that afforded by the Queen’s person. However, a kidnapping requires far more intensive resources than an assassination,” the Crown Prince observed. “For as long as the sea-wolves believe the Queen to be within the Residence, the more time the non-combatants have to scatter into the woods. On which point –”
He turned to the wounded soldier, who had struggled into a sitting position on the couch, and looked as if he was deeply regretting it.
“Take this.” The Crown Prince handed him a small leather pouch. “Chew the leaves slowly. They’re shipped from the Americas and gold leaf’s less costly, weight for weight. That should buy you another day on your feet. But you’ll drop like a stone at the end.”
“Sir!” A howl of sheer outrage stormed out of Ripley’s throat. “That’s a severely injured man!”
“Which is why I’m assigning him to the light duties of supervising the evacuation of the non-combatants.” He turned back to the soldier. “You were in the retreat from Vannstown, weren’t you?”
The soldier groaned. “You know I was, sir. And – permission to speak freely – a right royal bloody fuck-up that were, too. Sir.”
The Crown Prince dropped to his haunches besides the couch. “I’m relying on you to do better this time. There’s clean water running down the dale-side but people should take skins to gather it in. Decent footwear, warm clothes and food. And weapons. Plenty of cleavers in the kitchens. Let it be known the Crown will pay a fifty thaler bonus on every confirmed sea-wolf kill. Best to take ears. And warn ‘em I’m more than capable of identifying a matched pair.”
“Understood, sir.” The soldier managed a shaky salute, and an even shakier grin. “I’d best be off. Good luck, sir.”
“And you, Jonathan.”
The soldier saluted – awkwardly, using the wrong hand – and left.
“What now, sir?” Ripley asked.
“Watch, and listen. “
The Crown Prince dropped to his knees before the Queen, placing his large hands between her much smaller ones.
“By the authority vested in me as the King’s lieutenant of Gaaldine and in right of the true Queen of Gondal, being her consort and de iure champion, by this my act, word and solemn pledge, being in – we’d better leave that bit out to be on the safe side – being of full age and acting of my own free will, I do vest in you command of all troops at my immediate disposal together with the power to impress into your service all such citizens and residents of the realm as you deem expedient, in the defence of Alwentdale and in such offensive stratagems and devices as to you seem fit in your sole discretion, you being answerable to none for your actions save God alone.”
He rose and kissed the Queen on her cheek. “Get as many of them out as you can, Genia.” He paused, then reached inside his doublet. “I had almost forgot. I was to give you this.”
A small velvet bag. Hard to tell with the other smells in the room, but Ripley thought a faint, clean, floral scent came from it.
The Queen took it. Her expression changed; for a moment Ripley almost thought the eerie composure of the last minutes might crack at last. She went up on tiptoe to whisper in the Crown Prince’s ear.
He nodded. “Genia, trust me. If I can contrive it, I will. Ripley, Albert. At the guardhouse within a quarter turn of the glass, equipped and provisioned for a tough march. Lisbet, gentlemen. God speed you all.”