Chapter 2 - Queen’s Gambit by A.J. Hall
Ripley looked at the cloud of dust – no bigger than a baby’s head – advancing along the road towards the Residence. He turned in consternation to the guard captain.
The captain shook his head. “I’ve little doubt of it, sir. The road leads only to the Residence and that’s an armed escort of a dozen or so. An important man’s escort. We’re in for a visitation.” His face had a grim good humour which belied his words.
Ripley’s skin crawled. “But – I had no warning –”
The captain’s smile deepened. “Not been in the service of the Family long, sir, I take it? Warnings aren’t their style. Take all the fun out of it, I s’pose.”
“Is that my brother approaching?”
The sudden manifestation of a black-clad presence by his left elbow took Ripley – as ever – by surprise. Bare feet made no sound on stone. Her hair hung in elf-locks down her back; the tattered edges of her black silk gown whispered along the ramparts.
The back of the captain’s hand brushed the smooth flags as he bowed. “Very like, your grace. We will know in less than a turn of the glass.”
She nodded, clutching the small grey cat close below her chin. Ripley had almost broken his neck tripping over it on the stair yesterday and suspected, from the baleful look in its yellow eyes, that it still held a grudge.
“I shall be in my chambers. Tell my brother I shall be pleased to receive him when he has refreshed himself after the fatigues of his journey.” At Ripley’s discreet signal the two attendants, who had been hovering a few yards away, eying the drop to the river below, came up to flank the Queen, all deferential curtseys and soothing words. She smiled, distantly, like an intelligent child who hears adult dissimulation and is not fooled by it, and suffered herself to be led below.
“Her brother? But –” Ripley came to a halt. A letter from the Earl had arrived only that morning. It lay among the papers in his study; its words were engraved on his heart.
My sister, out in the hayfields, doing a labourer’s task? Insupportable. Her condition is degradation enough – let me hear of no further parade of it before the common folk.
But she laughed, Riley protested to the unseen Earl. Swinging a pitchfork, helping to bring in a load of hay before the oncoming thunder wrecked it, vivid and alive against the racing edge of storm-clouds, one among a line of villagers, her bare feet unremarkable in that ragged company.
Until she had come across the half-rotten corpse of a leveret, its throat ripped out by fox or weasel, and Ripley had found her crouched over it, her knuckles crammed into her mouth, immobile and unseeing.
“The Earl gave me no warning in his latest letter,” Ripley protested.
The captain favoured him with a look which was almost pitying. “Her grace referred to her brother. Had she meant the Earl, I – ah – daresay she’d have used a different expression.”
“She uses barrack language, sir. To describe the Earl. Always. I don’t think that’s her condition, if you’re wondering, sir. Though maybe it frees her tongue a little.”
If one wishes to understand the overthrow of reason, always look to the family. That is where most imbalances in the humours have their root.
No point in recalling old medical manuscripts now. Not with a crisis on his hands. Any visitation from the families of his patients always spelt trouble, enhanced distress for the patients, a distress which persisted long after the relative in question had departed again. But with this patient –
Routine and a firmly constrained admixture of physical labour were the key planks in Ripley’s treatment plan. He held to them or he abandoned the case. No exceptions, no matter how eminent the patient. The Earl’s letter, unwelcome as it was, was no more than he had come to expect from his patients’ kin.
But if this was not the Earl –
“By the Queen’s brother – you mean her husband’s brother, the Crown Prince?”
The guard captain nodded. “He makes a point of visiting three or four times a year. We expected him weeks ago but I daresay the King of Gondal dying put a crimp in his plans.”
However much Ripley prided himself on cultivating stoicism, his stomach cramped. A personal visit from the Crown Prince, a man who rumour claimed was detested in court circles, his private life food for scurrilous gossip, his arrogance legendary, his vengeance against those who crossed his will terrifying and inevitable – a man would be an idiot not to find an implicit threat in that.
And yet the guard captain’s demeanour – respectful, a little on edge, but no more than any conscientious officer might be at a surprise inspection from headquarters – told a rather different story.
A little over a turn of the glass later, Ripley remained baffled. The Crown Prince was a far cry from the foppish, haughty lord he had expected. He moved like a hunting wild-cat, wearing his unadorned trooper’s gear like a second skin. His hair was cut startlingly short, emphasising the sharp planes of his head. And those extraordinary eyes – pale, changeable, missing nothing. In shape, colour, setting so like another pair of eyes Ripley knew well; so different as to the spirit which moved behind them.
“Our grandmothers were sisters,” the Crown Prince said, the first words he had spoken.
Ripley shivered. He had seen villagers make the sign against ill-luck behind the Queen’s back and shaken his head over the superstitious folly of the ignorant, who conflated magic with madness; who took the overthrow of the seat of reason as the evidence of demonic possession. In his pride he had overlooked the possibility that those simple folk might know more than he did.
“Only accurate observation of your reactions, not necromancy.” The Crown Prince’s eyes glittered with amusement. “Though it’s a suggestion I have heard before….I am charged to give you this.”
He produced a letter sealed with the King’s personal cipher, a courtesy Ripley had not expected (the Earl always used his formal seal, that appropriate for stewards and other underlings senior enough to require his personal attention, but only as if distanced by tongs).
“Well,” Ripley said, having perused it, “may I take you to her grace?”
“Once I have washed and changed. She is, after all, the Queen of Gaaldine. I would not insult her by coming into her presence still filthy from the road.”
He flashed a mercurial smile and was gone.
When one of the prince’s men tapped at Ripley’s study door to intimate that the Crown Prince was ready to see the Queen, Ripley found the Crown Prince in an icily perfect black velvet doublet with starched lace collar. The freshwater pearls stitched around its edge echoed the single lustrous earring that he wore.
Ripley found his thoughts running once more to sorcery. He had no idea how otherwise the Crown Prince could have contrived such an effect from the contents of his saddlebags in the time available.
“Come,” the Crown Prince said. He led the way to the Queen’s suite at a pace that forced Ripley to scurry to keep up, making him feel flustered and faintly ridiculous in consequence. Somehow, Ripley rather suspected that was the point.
The Crown Prince knocked, precisely, on the Queen’s door; two sharp raps, a pause, and then three more. After a second or so a terrified little figure whom Ripley recognised as the newest and youngest of the attendants opened the door.
As ever, Ripley’s breath caught in his throat as the cold, close air of the room – a mixture of dust and candlewax, incense and decay – drifted out onto the passageway. He had known other visitors turn faint on that threshold, put scented handkerchiefs to their lips, make faltering excuses not to pass through.
The Crown Prince entered unhesitatingly, turning slightly to his left as he did so. There was a niche there, partly curtained behind a tapestry, a superb piece of work but one of which few details could be discerned in the dim light. As he passed, the Crown Prince dropped a graceful, crook-kneed bow, something between a genuflexion and a nobleman’s greeting to close kin of higher rank. Sweat prickled on the back of Ripley’s neck.
The attendant lady retreated to her seat in the single shaft of daylight, and picked up her needlework again. Ahead of him, the Crown Prince side-stepped; even alerted by his movement Ripley almost tripped over the cat. The skinny black one with the torn ear, he noted resentfully as it snarled at him. It was almost invisible in the gloom, so how the hell had the Crown Prince spotted it?
A shift amid the shadows betrayed the presence of the Queen. The Crown Prince bowed low, raising her hand to his lips and kissing it.
“What have you done to your hair?” Her voice was thin and fluting, almost that of a child.
“I had a fever. They shaved it off. And you?”
Before Ripley could cry a warning, the Crown Prince reached his hand out to stroke the Queen’s pale cheek, winding one of her tangled black curls around his forefinger as he did so. His voice was very gentle.
“You’ve been neglecting yourself again. Let me?”
She gave a tiny, tense grunt of acquiescence, almost as if against her will.
The Crown Prince raised his head and looked at the attendant, who looked smaller than ever, cowered on her low stool, white linen strewn all around her.
“Bring my sister’s combs. And sweet almond oil.”
The attendant looked up in sheer horror. “But – your grace – my lord – sir –”
“For princes of the blood, ‘your grace’ on the first time of addressing them, ‘sir’ thereafter, ‘your grace’ or ‘his grace’ if you have to refer to them in speech; for nobles of lesser rank ‘my lord’, ‘sir’ and ‘your’ or ‘his lordship’ respectively.” The Crown Prince’s expression sharpened with malicious amusement. “Assume that the privilege of addressing the Earl of Alwent as ‘shitface’ is reserved to the Family alone.”
The attendant flushed, struggled to her feet and managed a formal curtsey. She turned to the Queen. “Ma’am, am I -?”
“Do as my brother says, Lisbet,” the Queen said, her tone weighed down with lassitude.
Neither the Crown Prince nor the Queen chose to break the silence which settled on the room following Lisbet’s departure, meaning protocol fettered Ripley’s tongue, also. Not protocol alone, though; the pervasive, whispering sense of unnumbered unseen cats stalking the chamber’s shadows and, above all, those two tiny, silent, overwhelming presences in the curtained niche – the bright hopes of Gaaldine, snuffed out almost before they were kindled – combined to produce a sense of oppression so deep that Ripley could almost have kissed Lisbet when her return broke their tableau.
Ripley watched out of the corner of his eye as the Crown Prince captured another low stool and dropped to sit by the Queen’s left side, drawing a tangled mass of hair across his lap, and started to tease out the knots, humming slightly as he did so. The Queen’s eyelids drooped; she relaxed into the touch.
The awkwardness of the Crown Prince’s off-centred position – so different from that adopted by tiring maid or barber – caught and held Ripley’s attention. There was something of importance there, surely; something which might allow him to unlock the dark, entwined morass of pain which lay as close beneath the Queen’s skin as the web of blood vessels and nerves which an anatomist might expose.
Something of importance, there, if only he could decode it.
“They tell me you are married,” the Queen said abruptly.
“Genia, I was married last time I came.” The Crown Prince scrutinised a matted clump, pursed his lips and dipped the comb in oil. “I told you about the wedding.”
“Did you? I don’t recall.”
“Not a surprise. I can hardly blame you for being less than inclined to take note of Court gossip, given your own – situation – at the time.”
Ripley’s heart accelerated. No-one here mentioned the name of the previous physician, a man famed throughout the three kingdoms for pioneering the Heroic Method of treatment of the melancholic and deranged. He was rumoured to be now in Angria, though Ripley had heard whispered hints of darker fates. At the hard, dangerous note in the Crown Prince’s voice those rumours became startlingly easy to believe.
The Queen shrugged; a gesture of infinite resignation. “So, is your princess beautiful?”
“Charis? Not in the slightest.”
Ripley heard a faint gasp of outrage from Lisbet. The Queen opened her eyes and turned her head towards the Crown Prince, an unholy, joyous light in her eyes.
“Oh, that’s good. That’s very good.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” The same mischievous gleam illuminated the Crown Prince’s features. “I’m done here. Hold still a moment, while I move round to your other side. And tell those two tabbies crouched under your chair to keep their damned tails to themselves, or I’ll tread on them without compunction.”
He passed before the Queen’s face, carrying his stool, and before he had taken up his position on the Queen’s right side Ripley had it; the solution to a mystery which had not only baffled his predecessors (the great sheaf of notes in five or six different handwritings which he had inherited posited a score of theories for the Queen’s violent aversion to having anyone touch her hair, head or neck) but which, now he knew the solution, seemed hardly a mystery at all. A child could have seen it.
He looked up straight into the eyes of the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince held his gaze for a moment, gave a small, satisfied, “Hah!” and then bent to his task once more.