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Chapter 1 - Queen’s Gambit by A.J. Hall

You are only pretty if you disappear
And you must be beautiful for them my dear
Whatever before you wanted to achieve
Is lost to this love to turn to fallen leaves
The fallen leaves that cover everything
Must lie together all in your eyes
Then you can live among the privileged
Oh but don’t appear to be more than mine

Eliza Carthy, Fallen Leaves

“No.” Sherlock spun on one booted heel. “That is profoundly – unfair.”

The King-his-brother raised a predictably sardonic eyebrow. “You think so?”

Sherlock bit back his instinctive challenge. “Eight months – is hardly any time at all.”

“Eight months is far longer than any court can be expected to restrain itself from gossip. Well? Is there any hope I can offer my interlocutors concerning the imminence of an heir for the combined kingdoms of Gondal and Gaaldine?’

“Gondal is currently adjusting to the rule of the Pretender. Many of its people , if not happy about that fact, at least accept it for the moment. We may – with great good luck on our part and some misjudgement on his – be able to dislodge him in the next few months. This is no time to be indulging in – distractions.”

“Distractions? An odd way for a prince to consider the dynastic demands of his House.”

“An area in which you are so notoriously expert,” Sherlock snapped.

Mycroft’s face went an ashy mud shade. Before he could speak, Sherlock raised a hand. “No. Consider that unsaid. In fact – if you wish me to lead another mission to the Pope –”

“Delicate diplomatic negotiations with churchmen being so conspicuously your forte.” The King was ascendant once more; Mycroft’s momentary lapse into showing his feelings gone as if it had never been. “I am already mired in complications as a result of your summary actions in Brendelhame. The Duke of Corbisdale is on the point of breaking openly with the Crown over the treatment of his kinsman the Bishop..”

“The Duke’s been a hair’s breadth from treason for the last five years. If your agent in Brendelhame had had a modicum of competence we might have been able to link him to the team who tried to snatch Charis.”

“That agent has been removed from his post and returned to the capital for questioning.” Mycroft pursed his lips. “Contrary to popular belief, I, too, do not take kindly to direct threats to my close kin.”

“And if your man turns out to have been bought by the Duke? An open breach might be in all our interests. At least we would know where we stood.”

“Between the Northern Marches in flame, and the Pretender’s troops pouring across the Gaaldine border? It may yet come to that. But I would prefer to defer the moment if we could.”

Sherlock nodded, little caring if Mycroft took the gesture for agreement or mere acquiescence. “Since you are clearly weighed down by matters of state, I’ll take my leave. If the hordes of Gondal are set to descend down the Pass of the Eagles then Castle Cavron needs to be in a fit state to withstand them.” He bowed, formally, and withdrew.

He ordered his guard to accompany him north at once. With a couple of exceptions, all were men who had been with him for years. Accordingly, when two miles along the road he gave the order to turn east down narrow tracks through the forest, they responded with resignation but no surprise.

The old tracks had become overgrown and the foresters had cut different ones since last he’d come that way. Still, his sense of direction never deserted him. They emerged onto the great eastern road little more than half a mile from where he’d intended. The party rode on, into the little town where the locals looked part-fearful, part-resigned at this incursion of armed men. They would have passed through unstopping but Sherlock saw the hooded figure leaning against the angle of the wall just before the bridge and held his hand up, calling his troop to a halt.

“Sir?” his captain enquired.

“Tell the men they may take a short break at the inn, provided they hold themselves ready to ride at a moment’s notice. I need to talk to that man.”

“Sir!” The captain glanced sideways, towards the immobile, shabby-cloaked figure. “I’m responsible for your safety.”

“I know him. He’s no threat to me.” Not true at all, but nothing the captain could protect him from, to a certainty. “Go with the men. I’ll join you shortly.”

“Sir.” Plainly unhappy, the captain rounded up the men and withdrew. Sherlock approached the hooded figure.

“I rode north,” he began, without preamble.

“You always do.” Mycroft pushed his hood up a little. “You took longer to get here than I’d expected.”

“Your royal foresters have changed the tracks. You know, my captain was horrified at leaving me alone with you. God alone knows what the head of Palace security would think of you, out here, without any guard at all.”

“I’m not planning to tell him. Are you?”

“Not if you stop pushing about Charis.”

There was a pause. Mycroft sighed. “Believe me, if I didn’t stand between you and those who push me –” His voice changed. “When you reach your destination, give her this. Please.”

He reached inside his robe and produced a small velvet bag. The scent of crushed gorse flowers rose from it. Sherlock took it, slid it inside his jerkin, and nodded.

“Any message?”

“What on earth would be the point?” His brother’s face creased into the familiar lines of an old pain. Sherlock acknowledged it with a careful jerk of his chin. Mycroft felt inside his robe again, producing a letter sealed with his personal cipher.

“Give this to Ripley.”

“The new physician? What’s he like?”

“Like all of them. He has theories.”

“As you said, then. Like them all.”

“Still, notwithstanding his theories, he is conscientious. And there’s a rich vein of compassion in there, if one digs deep enough. Given what I’ve seen, I’ll settle for that.”
Almost unconsciously, Sherlock’s hand went to grip his brother’s arm. The King moved, so the gesture fell between them, uncompleted. “Go. “

The troop had taken his warning to heart; their beer had been poured into their own leather tankards, the ones from their packs, for speed of departure. One or two were still brushing foam from their lips when he gathered them round him once more.

“Gentlemen. As you will have gathered by now, we are not heading directly to Castle Cavron. Our destination is the Residence at Alwentdale.”

An armsmen at the back – one of the new ones – let out an insufficiently stifled gasp of shock. Sherlock singled out the man in question with his eye.

“Yes, I ride to visit my sister the Queen. You have a view to express?”

The armsman almost choked. With the faintest possible inclination of his head, he indicated that no, nothing could be further than his thoughts than to question his Prince’s decision.

“To horse, then.”