Chapter 1 - The Alchemist’s Snare by A.J. Hall
“He was again seized with the most violent colliquative pains, headach, shiverings, and great pain over the whole body. His apothecary becoming suspicious that the wine he had drunk might be the cause of the disease, ordered the bottle from which the wine had been decanted, to be brought to him, with a view that he might examine the dregs, if any were left.”
Excerpt from Accum, Friedrich Christian, 1769-1838: “A treatise on adulteration of food, and culinary poisons, exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy. And methods of detecting them.”
The bridge at Primontel was down; yes, and took two good men with it when it went, and one of them just married at Michaelmas, the pity on it. No telling when it might be rebuilt, either, with things as they were; in the old squire’s day they’d have had a gang on it the moment the weather eased, and no quibbling over cents, but those days were gone and regretting wouldn’t bring them back, would it? The next bridge? A good two leagues downstream, and no-one with any mind to his soul would give oath as to the state of the road there, with the weather since the equinox and the scour from the new channel they’d cut to drain the fields at Santa Caterina having undercut the riverbank nigh on collapse in three or four places. An inn? Not one he’d advise a stranger to trust his purse or his throat to, not since old Mario had sold up and gone to live with his grown-up daughter in town.
Sherlock nodded thanks to the old man, swathed his sodden cloak more firmly around his neck and shoulders and turned his horse’s head back upslope. It would have to be the manor house he had spotted half a league back, its lights twinkling amid the streaming trees. Hard as it was to gauge anything in this god-cursed murk (it would be full dark in less than an hour), it seemed to be a modern-built, squared-off kind of building, aiming for “creditable” rather than “ostentatious”.
So, probably a retired merchant or minor country squire who farmed his own land and minded his own business and barely had the entrée to aristocratic circles, let alone royal ones. Not someone it was likely would recognise the Crown Prince of Gaaldine. Likely though — could he risk so much on a likely?
Another great white-violet flash above the mountain! He counted barely three coronets before the thunder rumbled. The storm was moving closer. The horse, which had borne him so gallantly despite its ewe-neck and goose-rump (he certainly would have to sell it before he dropped his current alias) started at the noise, and slipped on the uneven ground, almost unseating him and jarring his arm and shoulder. His collar-bone, barely healed following that brutal encounter with Melchisdec Hofburg and his deaf-mute bear-keeper, set up a grinding chorus of pain.
His mount’s head had been down, its step plodding, long before the disappointment anent the Primontel bridge. Now it was all Sherlock could do to urge it onwards. Any attempt on the second bridge would be sheer cruelty. The manor it would have to be.
It had put up its shutters against the storm. Hammering at the front door produced nothing; he turned to the old staple of country districts, and tried round the back. Here he managed at least to rouse a dog, which came bounding out, barking ferociously — a performance undercut by the sheer exuberance of its tail-wagging and the affectionate way in which it decided Sherlock was not nearly wet enough, and needed to be licked, forcibly, into shape.
“Barnard! Barnard!” A female voice, and, a moment or so later a female form outlined against a doorway. “What ails you, you silly beast?”
“Far from silly, madam.”
Sherlock unswathed his head and tried to look pathetic, which proved unexpectedly easy. A north-east wind had sprung up as the storm worsened, and his rain-sodden garments offered almost no protection from it. The dull ache in his shoulder acquired a ragged, jabbing edge.
“He has found a benighted traveller in very sore distress. My name is Altamount; I represent one of the oldest and most respectable wine merchants in Glasstown. I am sent to visit a number of our suppliers in the district, but the Primontel bridge is down, the storm is worsening and I fear my horse is becoming lame. I cannot reach the winery where I hoped to spend tonight. Might I, as the greatest of possible favours, in the name of St Christopher and our Lady, beg hospitality for the night for me and my beast?”
“Oh, but of course —” The woman broke off, and then in a curiously flattened voice continued. “That is — I’m sure my stepmother will be most happy to offer the hospitality of her house. Look, lead your beast in under the canopy and wait a moment while I go and explain —”
There followed a pause of perhaps a quarter of a turn, which Sherlock occupied by loosening the horse’s girths, rubbing it down as best he could with straw, and speculating. A recent remarriage by the manor’s owner, displacing a grown-up daughter who had had long enough for her role as mistress of the house to have worn to a close-fitting garment, not easy to put off. A stepmother, it seemed of some uncertainty of temper and paucity of charity. Hospitality was a sacred duty throughout the three kingdoms; there must be very grave doubts about the stepmother’s character — or, perhaps, the daughter of the house wished to instil such doubts — for her to have answered as she had.
He whistled through his front teeth and, when the horse turned to nuzzle at his chest, found a couple of pieces of dried apple and fed them to it. A bed for the night — or a hay-loft, if the stepmother chose to banish him to the outbuildings — was good enough, but something of a mystery to enliven the hours in prospect would be better yet.
He heard the back door open once more and looked up to see the glow of a lantern. The woman he had seen before emerged from the house, this time accompanied by a grey-haired, limping man in the solid, weathered garments of a respectable outdoor servant. In the lantern light he could see that his saviour was older than he had guessed from her voice. She must be in her thirties, with the kind of strong, bony face which only looked good on a woman when she reached late middle life, by which time few were paying attention.
“Jacopo will take care of your horse,” she said. “Come with me.”
The servant took his horse with an assured calm that told Sherlock all he needed. His pitying glance at the ewe neck confirmed it. A man used to better stables. From some trick of erectness in his bearing and the precision with which he wore his unassuming clothes, Sherlock guessed Jacopo might even have seen service with one of the Angrian cavalry regiments which had been the pride of the three kingdoms, not so very long ago.
Duke Julius, Sherlock’s father, had been colonel-in-chief of one such regiment. Sherlock would have to be careful round Jacopo. No-one had ever said he much resembled his father, but there were tricks of gait, peculiarities in the formation of ears, quirks of lips and so forth which might start a train of thought. At all costs, no such train must be provoked. His dealings with the Old Man — the one man left in Angria’s Inner Council who perceived where the true danger to the southernmost kingdom lay — would be deemed black treason by the vultures who clustered about the throne of Angria.
“Come through here,” the woman said, indicating the back door. “We have finished dinner already — we keep early hours in the country — but there is soup, bread and cold meat in the kitchen —”
He said all that was proper. Apart from the need for discretion, he knew these country manors. Especially if the owner were too penurious or miserly to spend out on firewood, the sort who took not after the first of May or before the first of November for Holy Writ, the kitchen would be by far the warmest room in the house. The still-unseen stepmother might have intended it as an insult to a lowly wine merchant’s agent; the sodden Crown Prince took warmth where he found it and was grateful.
The cook was a tall, badger-haired woman, with rather remarkable cheek-bones and an air of the most exquisite resignation. There was nothing in life, her manner proclaimed, which could surprise or shock, but there remained much which could disappoint her. Chief among such was the presence of a dripping and unheralded traveller in her kitchen.
His best attempts at charm broke on her granite exterior; he opted, instead, for honesty — or, at least, as much as he felt the three kingdoms might withstand.
“Ma’am, I realise this is a sore imposition for you. Trust me, when the storm stops, and my horse is recovered, I shall be away out of your kitchen and you should never see me again. Take comfort in that, at least.”
She did, at least, in so far as to vouchsafe him the ghost of a smile and, a little later, a plate of steaming soup with a large hunk of bread balanced on its edge.
The soup was indeed something to be grateful for; a fine chicken broth, well-seasoned and fragrant with herbs. Reviving somewhat — had it been two days, or three since he’d eaten last? — Sherlock bowed towards the cook. Her expression softened still further on seeing the sparkling emptiness he had left of his bowl and she moved decisively to the pantry, emerging moments later bearing a plate on which was a well-marbled beefsteak, the size of one of his hands and rather thicker than his thumb.
“Hot meat’s better than cold, on a night like this,” she said. As if on cue, another great gust rattled the kitchen shutters.
“Indeed, ma’am, and I am greatly in your debt. But — ” Sherlock hesitated, with precisely calculated delicacy. “I would not wish to cause you trouble in your place.”
The cook snorted. “Mistress Naomi won’t mind me giving you this, and her upstairs, the new mistress, won’t be any the wiser and besides, if she is, why should I care anyway, now?”
She pulled an iron skillet down from where it was hanging in the fire alcove, sprinkled it with salt and balanced it on the rack above the coals. She took tongs to render down the steak’s broad rim of rich, yellow fat so she might broil it in its own dripping. Sherlock watched her movements as a fine, abstract display, counterpoint to his thoughts.
Unwanted, unasked extravagance in the kitchen: a storm glass by which to gauge the climate of a household. He had learned that before he was seven years old. He could still hear Genia cry out, on their return from a stay with distant relations, “Summer ortolans, at breakfast! For me and Sherlock, too!” and Grandmama’s sly, inward smile. Their hostess had been found dead in her chambers not three weeks later, leaving her lord free to enjoy her vulgar fortune unencumbered by her vulgar person. He had risen high at Court, not despite the ugly rumours attaching to his name, but because of them. The stars of the aristocratic firmament blazed at the King’s pleasure, and Lord de Rothesay was not the first nor the last to know what it was to have given the King matter to eclipse him in an instant, should Royal favour wane.
“Master Altamount!” The high, breathless voice close by his ear jolted him from his thoughts; for one disoriented moment he thought he had summoned Genia herself, from across two kingdoms and a gulf deeper than oceans. “Master Altamount!”
He felt a firm hand shake his shoulder. He raised his head from the table on which his plate rested, empty of anything save a thin film of cooled dripping to show where his beefsteak had been.
The woman who had let him in — Naomi, the cook had called her — was standing by his side, holding a bundle of clothes. Another woman hovered a few feet away, closer to the door. He tensed, watching her. Something familiar there, surely. Only he recalled that firm-jawed, uncompromising face, lightened by a wide, generous mouth and winged with laughter lines, as being a man’s. A brother, perhaps?
“Jacopo said he thought you were moving awkwardly, and that maybe you’d pulled your shoulder and it could do with looking at?”
So he had been right to be wary of Jacopo. An old cavalry groom for certain, alert to any injury which might affect a trooper’s ability to hold a horse in a charge and so threaten the unit as a whole.
He nodded, stiffly, and then thought Altamount the wine merchant would have been more gracious. “Thank you. I injured my shoulder in a fall from my horse, two months ago. The wet weather, I fear, has aggravated it.”
“Ah!” The other woman strode forward. “In that case, I may be able to assist.”
“Oh, don’t be alarmed. I know exactly what I am about. My name is Sarai Benveniste.”
She said it with the confidence of one without doubt that the name would be recognised. Nor was her confidence misplaced. Even Altamount — especially Altamount, a resident of Glasstown — would have heard of that notorious prodigy, the Female Physician of Salonika. One lord of Angria was rumoured to have offered a farm by way of bribe to the orderly, merely to secure seats for him and his cronies at Sarai Benveniste’s dissections. Subsequently, rumour added, he had offered his whole estate to the lady herself.
Sherlock wondered, briefly, if Altamount were the conventional sort, who would shrink away in horror at the thought of having a female doctor attend him. Another stabbing pain jolted through his shoulder. No, Altamount would brook being tended by the Devil himself if it promised him an iota of relief from this.
“It is troubling you, isn’t it?” Sarai said, dispassionately, and then, “Ruth, might I ask you to draw the screen across the corner of the kitchen and set a stool?”
The cook obeyed without a breath of affront. Whatever Sarai Benveniste was to this household, she had been it a very long time. Sherlock chewed on that thought while Sarai stripped off his jacket and shirt, tossing them over the screen with instructions to the cook to take them and dry them.
“I daresay sitting in damp things didn’t help your shoulder.” Her hands were surprisingly warm and assured.
“It wasn’t for want of telling, Mistress Sarai,” the cook observed, her voice barely muffled by the carved wooden screen. “But he was away with the fairies. I couldn’t get a word through to him.”
“Pain and exhaustion will do that,” Sarai said. “And chill also. Naomi, that was a good thought of yours about clothes. Ruth, can you heat me oatmeal, and find me some dried lavender?”
With calm competence she made up a hot poultice with the oatmeal and lavender, tied it into a coarse linen bag, and strapped it against Sherlock’s collar-bone. He felt the benefit immediately.
“Ah, good,” Sarai commented, though he had said nothing. Presumably his expression had spoken volumes to the trained eye. “Now, take off those ludicrously wet things, and get changed properly.”
Privacy hardly figured much, for any of the things he was. As Crown Prince, he was surrounded by bodyguards and valets; as commander of his regiments their place was taken by batmen and aides-de-camp and where — as here — he travelled incognito, he took the shocks of the road, inns and scrambled lodgings in stride. Nonetheless, he was not used to a woman telling him to strip, particularly not in a manner as disinterested as it was brisk.
He pictured Mycroft’s reaction and grinned, inwardly. What a pity reasons of state made it imperative no-one link Altamount with Gaaldine. Contriving a meeting between the King of Gaaldine and the Female Physician might be possible, but he could not afford to be seen by Sarai Benveniste at Gaaldine’s court. If he could not witness the meeting, there would be scant point.
He stepped out from behind the screen wearing the meticulously mended cast-offs of a careful, but prosperous, member of the Angrian merchant classes. The breeches were a little loose in the waist and short on the leg, but the overall impression was very passable indeed. And dry.
It was not a moment too soon. The door to the kitchen was flung open and two girls aged about ten or eleven tumbled through it, ringlets flying in wild disarray.
“Catherine! Veronica!” Naomi managed to sound both exasperated and unsurprised at the invasion. “What are you doing here? Mind your manners, we have a guest.”
They eyed Sherlock with shy appraisal, but were far too abashed actually to direct any words in his direction.
“She sent us out,” the taller girl — Veronica? — stated.
“For giggling,” her sister confirmed.
Both looked so thoroughly chastened as to make it impossible to believe they’d ever had a giggle in them. Sherlock recalled Naomi’s wariness whether her stepmother would extend charity to a traveller caught in a storm. The woman, it seemed, took the same unwelcoming approach to her new family. And such a new family, at that. Fresh beef in the pantry at this time of year bespoke a wedding feast mere days ago. That, or habits of extravagance far beyond anything suggested by the rest of the manor.
His fingers passed over a darned patch on the side of his breeches. Yarn matched to a nicety; stitches neat and even as weaving, perceptible only to touch, not the eye. Care, love, skill, and thrift combined. Naomi, presumably. She was already applying balm to the spirits of her chastened sisters (no: half-sisters, almost certainly) helped out with dried cherries.
Another thunderclap shook the shutters; the little girls jumped at the noise.
“The storm is moving away from us,” Sherlock said. They turned at the sound of his voice. “When you see the lightning flash, count slowly until you hear the thunder. Like this - ‘One co- cormorant, two cormorants’ and so on. The longer the interval, the further away the storm.”
As if on cue the lightning flashed again. The little girls began counting, aloud, and not quite in time with each other. Sarai moved a little closer to him, just as the thunder sounded again. Under cover of its rumble, she murmured, “What a thing it is, to be a stranger, and thus a prophet. We have had the stormiest of autumns, and every storm Naomi has tried to explain that principle of natural philosophy to her sisters, with no discernible success.”
The glint in her eye suggested to Sherlock that the phenomenon of a man’s casual words being taken as gospel, when he was only saying what the woman on the spot had been saying for months, was familiar to the Female Physician of Salonika. He ducked his head in acknowledgement.
“If the opportunity arises, perhaps I may mention to the little girls that their sister is wiser than they give her credit for.”
Sarai looked sardonic. “Someone in this household has to be.”
He raised an eyebrow by way of invitation, but whether she could or would have said more, she was forestalled. The door opened and Jacopo entered.
“My pardons, all,” he said, “but I am to tell you that the mistress has retired upstairs, and the master would take wine with our guest.”
The glance that passed between Sarai and Naomi told Sherlock all he needed. The master had asserted his authority and the lady, rather than graciously acquiescing, had challenged him, lost, and retired in dudgeon from the field.
“I should be most honoured,” Sherlock said, and permitted himself to be led away.
The chamber into which he was shown was a heavy, panelled parlour, in the style of a quarter of a century ago, lit by a great hanging brass lamp of Ottoman workmanship in the centre of the ceiling and a few lesser lights set low around the room. The air was heavy with fumes from the burning oil and tinged with a faint, sour odour, like an unaired sickroom.
There were three men present; two seated upon a divan and the third swaddled in rugs, in a padded chair set close to the great masonry stove in the room’s corner. He, unlike the other two, did not rise to greet Sherlock’s arrival.
The seated man, of course, was the master of the house; there could be no doubt of that; Sherlock had met his daughters and was currently wearing his breeches. Both the men who had risen were younger; the first, apparently in his mid-twenties, garbed as a priest and the other a red-faced country squire in his forties.
“Not a night to be travelling,” the man in the chair wheezed.
“Indeed not — but I travel not for pleasure, but from duty. My name is Altamount, of Glasstown. I am engaged to visit several vintners in the district, on behalf of the wine house I have the honour to represent.”
A slow smile of satisfaction spread across the master of the house’s face. “Then you are come most opportunely. You see before you Andre Lemberger, once of Salonika but these many years a resident of Angria.”
“I am honoured to make your acquaintance.” Sherlock bowed once more, and then looked up, enquiringly, at the other two men. Lemberger waved a hand towards the red-faced man.
“Sir Giles Vernon, whose daughter I have lately taken to wed. And this whey-faced fellow in black is my chaplain, Master Buccafusca.”
The cleric was indeed pale, with a waxy sheen to his skin. That, together with his high-bridged Roman nose gave him something of the air of a Medici in an old portrait. Nevertheless, the flash in his dark, arrogant eyes — likewise those of a Florentine noble from the great years — suggested he did not care to have the subject remarked on, even by his employer.
Those eyes lingered just a little too long on Sherlock’s face, then flicked away self-consciously.
Altamount the agent of a Glasstown wine-merchant might have been too inexperienced to interpret the signs. The Crown Prince had no such excuse. What was this household? A convert affecting his own chaplain was odd enough, but to engage such a one? He was too bold, too indiscreet not to have attracted adverse notice within the Church. Lemberger, surely, must have known it. Was Master Buccafusca’s appointment intended as a challenge, and, if so, to whom?
Lemberger was watching them both, a curious smile on those thin lips. More going on here than met the eye, and Lemberger was evidently no fool. Best to root out suspicion before it had chance to grow.
Sherlock smiled ingenuously at his host.
“You said, ‘Most opportunely’, sir. For me, most certainly — I doubt my horse could have managed another mile. But for you? Are your cellars perchance in need of restocking? I am authorised to offer most advantageous discounts — I am given wide discretion by my principals —”
Lemberger’s manner relaxed, subtly. “Rather the reverse, Master Altamount. Did I not mention I am lately married? My wife’s dowry included a vineyard. Sir Giles gave us a tertian of its best vintage to celebrate the feast, and we have much of it still to drink. All wine tastes like vinegar to me, these days, but I would welcome the views of an expert.”
He raised his own lead-crystal goblet — the finest Bohemian work, if Sherlock were any judge — and twirled it around so that the great Ottoman lantern caused the liquid in the glass to glow a sumptuous ruby.
Asking a professional about the quality of wine given as a bride gift, in the presence of the giver? Sherlock allowed a slightly questioning note into his voice as he made the expected response, that he would be happy to lend his poor skills to his host’s advantage. Lemberger, as he had half expected, answered the tone, rather than his words.
“I feel in justice I should mention these late years have been lean ones in these parts. Between war, pestilence and the lure of the towns we have few labourers left, and those few command a high price for their hire. Sir Giles — I am sure so near a kinsman as he now is will forgive my mentioning it — inherited a much reduced patrimony and is ill-placed to bid for the services of a skilled workforce. I collect there is much to do with pruning and grafting and the like before the vineyard yields as it used in its glory days.”
Sir Giles reddened. “We should do as they do in the lands of the Emperor.”
Bind the labourers in perpetual servitude to the estate on which they were born, he meant. Years ago, now, in Russia Sherlock had witnessed the aftermath of a serf revolt which had seen an estate owner torn apart by those who — having been treated like animals for generations — had turned wolfish indeed. He would have wagered half the royal treasury Sir Giles had not.
Fortunately, before he was called upon to make any comment, the servitor appeared at his elbow with a full glass of wine: plain, thick, green glass with a tiny bowl, twin to those held by Master Buccafusca and Sir Giles. Crystal, it seemed, was a privilege reserved to the master of the house.
He raised his glass first to his host, then to his lips.
It took every breath of self-restraint he possessed not to spit it straight out again.
In his travels, Sherlock had drunk sour wine, watered wine, rough wine: wine contaminated by filthy vessels or whose colour or clarity had been “improved” by everything from dried bilberries to the husks of hazelnuts.
He had not to his knowledge ever tasted a drink so noxious. Worse: a drink so many of whose noxious qualities were pre-meditated.
Left to the crude ministrations of the estate’s winemakers, the beverage would still have been thin and acidic, product of poor soil which had had neither science nor attention directed to its improvement. Doubtless, it would still have been stored in barrels clumsily made from green staves. Those barrels might still have been crammed into unwholesome warehouses, ill-protected from extremes of heat, cold or damp.
It could never have been good wine, or even passable wine. Left to itself, it might have succeeded in being honestly bad.
The makers of this brew had eschewed honesty.
Sherlock recalled Master Lemberger’s crystal glass shining ruby in the light. Adulterated with logwood bark from the Americas, the tree the Indians called ‘bloodwood’. As for the source of its exceptional clarity — the wine possessed a unholy sweetness, coupled with a metallic aftertaste. Sugar of lead for a certainty, along with what other toxic matter Sherlock, deprived of his experimental bench and his reagents, could only guess.
He swirled his glass gently, watching the ardent spirit run down its side in sluggish trails. Again, not a strength achieved by nature or even honest artifice.
He raised his head to find Lemberger looking at him.
“Well, Master Altamount? Your verdict?”
“I have cannot recall when I have ever tasted a wine like it,” Sherlock said, with careful precision. There was a flicker — no more than that — across the face of the old man.
“So would you recommend I invest my store in improving the vineyard?”
Sherlock had seen too much of man’s ingenuity when it came to evil to lend credence to omens, presentiments or the like. The words which sprang to mind — “No. Burn the vines where they stand. Plough their ashes into the soil. Let it lie fallow forever, and throw it open to all who choose to pasture their beasts there. That is a potter’s field: ill-omened land” — must be the product of his own wearied mind, acting on the tensions he’d already detected within this house.
Nevertheless, he must say something. What, though? While he was under Lemberger’s protection within the manor, when he travelled next day he would doubtless be crossing Sir Giles Vernon’s land. A man who praised serfdom would have few if any qualms in striking down a humble wine-merchant’s agent if he fancied he had received insult.
“These are poor times for small vineyards, even those with an already established reputation,” he said, after a pause which might do for thought. “Consolidation is everything and the large growers do all they can to drive the smaller to the wall. Many have sold up, or turned distillers of rakia instead.”
Lemberger leaned forwards. “Distilling rakia, eh? An outlet for your talents, Master Buccafusca. You were once, they tell me, a master of the alchemical arts.”
Sherlock’s attention sharpened. Beer, wine and even brandy-making were perfectly consistent with a religious vocation, but Lemberger had hinted at more than that.
The cleric’s face clouded. “Sir, I know not how you came by your information, but I can assure you that you refer to a period of youthful foolishness, before I, by the grace of God, turned to a better path. Let us speak no more of it. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, is there not?”
Lemberger seemed sunk in thought, shrunken back amid the rugs. After a short while he muttered, as if to himself, “Repentance? It goes to weak heads like kif. I met a man once who claimed he was the Messiah. Got half Europe believing him. I wager, Master Buccafusca, you’d have overfilled your belly on repentance had you lived through those times.”
The chaplain tensed in his seat and Lemberger smiled; the jab had been intended, then.
Sherlock’s senses quickened. This household, with its undercurrents and unspoken resentments, was beginning to intrigue him, his host most of all.
Lemberger’s eldest daughter bore a Jewish name, the two younger those of Christian saints. And between the birth of Naomi and those of Catherine and Veronica had come the Shabtai Zvi affair.
It had touched very near on the three kingdoms. There had been riots, Sherlock recalled, and women prophesying in the streets, their hair unbound and streaming. Grandfather himself had tried to summon the so-called Messiah to Court, only to find himself outbid by the Sultan. Eleven-year old Sherlock had been in two minds whether to enjoy Grandfather’s unfamiliar defeat or regret losing the chance to see, face to face, a man capable of perpetrating so bare-faced and extravagant a blasphemy.
Two decades later, Sherlock knew his own mind better. “Ah? And how did you find him?”
“Very good for business.” Lemberger’s guffaw at his own joke ended in a fit of great rasping coughs. Unbidden, the servant strode forwards from his corner in the shadows, linen cloth in hand, screening his master’s face from the other men.
Sherlock risked a sidelong glance at Sir Giles. The lamp burnt low; in the dim light it was possible to discern little. Still, he did not think concern uppermost on his face. The chaplain’s prim, narrow lips moved, possibly in prayer.
Lemberger wheezed himself to a standstill. The servant stepped aside with a practised ease which told Sherlock this scene had happened numerous times before.
“Sir?” Sherlock enquired.
Lemberger’s eyes streamed; his face was mottled purple. “Eh? Men with their sights set on the world to come don’t pay attention to the bargain they’re driving in the one they live in.” He spat, accurately, into the fireplace and wiped his lips on the cloth. “And when they’ve lost all hope they’re even less likely to pay attention.”
“Unless, perhaps, sir, they come to believe that the world is all, and that though things of the spirit fail them, gold does not die or tarnish?” A gage thrown down onto the playing board, but Sherlock thought he had read his man aright.
“A man of perception. Tell me, which house is it in Glasstown you represent, Master Altamount?”
Five years work had gone into Altamount. In the unlikely event anyone chose to cross-check, his identity could be verified down to salary entries in ledgers and a long and rather petulant correspondence about a lame mule. He named FratresFerdinand & Ferdinand as his employer, and was amused to see Lemberger lift an eyebrow. Sir Giles remained oblivious; given the wine he had presented as a wedding gift, it would have been more surprising had he recognised Angria’s premier wine house.
“And I doubt not you do them credit, and are in good case to rise?” Lemberger enquired.
Spoken like a true father of three unmarried daughters. How truly absurd, when Sherlock had volunteered for this task expressly to avoid more matrimonial manoeuvrings on the Council’s part!
Before Sherlock could answer, another coughing fit overtook Lemberger. When he was somewhat recovered, he waved a hand. “Enough. I am weary and would to bed. You too, if I read you right. We will speak more in the morning. But you come most happily. Of late, my sight grows dim. It’s hard making ledgers balance if you can’t see to add the columns, and all my household see Pacioli’s principles as the darkest of dark arts. Your counsel would be greatly valued.”
“Nothing would give me more pleasure, sir,” Sherlock said, and almost meant it. Absurd, how profound was his relief at realising that Lemberger viewed him as a source of trained commercial expertise, rather than as a potential son-in law.
“Until tomorrow, then.” Helped by the servitor, Lemberger rose to his feet.
The sallow-faced cleric had also risen from his place on the divan. “Sir, if you would be so good, please could you convey this book of devotions to your lady? She left it in the chapel, and I have only just now remembered it.”
Lemberger took the book, nodded to the assembled company, and — despite his visible frailty — swept from the room, leaving them with a sense of something lacking, as if a light had gone out.
A servant with a taper led Sherlock to his chamber in a remote wing of the manor. Every room through which they passed was ornately furnished, albeit in a curiously mismatched style, as if Lemberger had simply accrued possessions over the years, perhaps as unclaimed pledges or out of foreclosed estates.
With the grateful sigh of the profoundly weary, Sherlock extinguished his light and clambered into bed, sparing a charitable thought to whoever had had the forethought to slide a warming pan between his sheets.