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Chapter 3 - The Alchemist’s Snare by A.J. Hall

Sir Giles was in his element.

A crowd of ill-dressed country-folk — doubtless his tenant farmers and their labourers — crowded the manor’s main hall to overflowing, thronged the doorways so thick the doors could not be closed and clung onto the outside windowsills for a glimpse of what might be passing within. The storm had blown itself out, and a hot sun blazed down outside, bringing the heat and stuffiness and smell of unwashed bodies in the hall almost to smothering point.

Sir Giles had commandeered Lemberger’s chair of state and counting house table and sat upon a dais hurriedly run up out of unseasoned timber. The tang of resin added to the other smells in the hall. Sherlock felt his head beginning to swim. The stupid, so much stupid concentrated here, while Lemberger’s body, locked out of sight in some remote pantry, confided any secrets it might hold to the empty air and watched them blow away on the wind.

He heard Jacopo call his name and looked up to see Sir Giles beckoning him towards the greasy square of stone floor immediately below the dais.

“So we here have a Master Altamount, hired traveller for a firm of wine merchants, of Glasstown.” The emphasis Sir Giles place on “hired” on “wine” and, perhaps most of all, on “Glasstown” gave the ill-dressed yokels their cue. They brayed contempt, pawing at Sherlock’s body as he passed through the crowd, prodding him the ribs and making loud and ribald speculations on his preferences in bed partners and what they chose to do to him. He endured it in silence, reached the appointed place and turned his face up towards Sir Giles with an air of puzzled, well-meaning enquiry.

“The matter is plain. Master Altamount, I have found you out. You did not come here by chance; you came as a welcome and invited guest.”

“Sir, you are mistaken.”

“Am I so?” A smile of low cunning crept across his interlocutor’s face. “My daughter is not the dolt at housekeeping Lemberger’s daughters would like to think her. Since her betrothal she has had an eye to that cook. Who knows what rituals she and the eldest of that brood cook up together on their so-called Holy Days, or what unclean bread passes their lips on those feasts?”

Prolonged contact with dull minds was like keeping steel wrapped in damp wool. Sherlock did not, for a crucial second, collect the significance of Sir Giles’s reference to the cook. Then he heard the word steak and saw — too late — his danger.

“Can we seriously believe that a domestic servant would prepare one of the finest cuts of meat for a chance-come stranger, of no rank or pedigree?”

The audience howled appreciation of this insight. Encouraged, Sir Giles pointed at Sarai, standing next to Naomi on the far side of the room.

“Admit it, harlot. This Altamount has long been your paramour and came here at your bidding. And we know why. We have all heard the attorney read Master Lemberger’s Will.”

Indeed they had. Sherlock had stood, his face an impassive mask, appreciating both the subtlety of Lemberger’s dispositions and their impact upon the widow, whose heavy black veil could not disguise the stiffening of her body as each measured legal phrase sank home.

Under the Will, Marie Lemberger was assured of the return of her dowry, intact and in full. From Marie’s barely contained jerk of anger Sherlock knew that bequest to be double-edged; Sir Giles had doubtless volunteered as little by way of dowry as would suffice to make the match. Furthermore, most of the dowry no doubt remained in Sir Giles’ coffers or, more probably, in the clutches of his creditors. Countless feuds in the wilder parts of the three kingdoms had their roots in dowry instalments remaining unpaid long after the blushing brides had become grey-haired grandmothers.

When it came to his own fortune (substantial, if the attorney’s hushed tone were anything to go by), Lemberger had preferred his children to his wife.

Should there be no living issue of the marriage, or should Marie bear only daughters, the manor was to be sold, with half to the widow and half divided between the girls. Lemberger’s personal property was to be split between all his daughters in equal shares, Naomi acting guardian for Catherine and Veronica until their marriages or majority and Marie for her own daughters, if any.

A son, though, would take the manor in its entirety on achieving his majority, his mother acting as his guardian and enjoying rights of usufruct over the estate in the interim. A son too, would take the lion’s share of Lemberger’s other wealth.

Had Marie or her father known of the Will’s terms, it would be strong proof of their innocence in the matter of Lemberger’s death. Sherlock, though, would have wagered substantial sums that Lemberger would have died rather than allow such personal information to be shared with his neighbours.

Would have died? Had he died for that reason? Sherlock was so wrapped up in speculation that Sir Giles had to slap his palm down on the table, hard, to attract his notice.

“Master Altamount, dumb insolence will not serve. As I said, I have found you out. You came here at the bidding of Sarai Benveniste. The pair of you planned to remove Master Lemberger and take possession of his money, through a sham marriage on your part to the principal heir. By her age, I daresay that horse-faced daughter of his would jump at any man who feigned suit to her, however mean his condition.”

“Sir, are you completely mad?” Out of the tail of his eye Sherlock caught Sarai’s look of mute horror, and Naomi making frantic gestures but it was too late. Altamount’s automatic championing of a lady in distress and the Crown Prince’s loathing of woolly-minded illogic had combined to bring forth a monster.

Sir Giles leant forward, his face purpling with rage. “Enough! You are condemned out of your own mouth. The pair of you will hang tomorrow.”

A host of protests rushed to Sherlock’s tongue — and stayed there. Had he not sat over endless thimbles of coffee, discussing in the dispassionate tones of gentlemen how well his brother’s institution of centralised criminal justice, applied by circulating tiers of King’s justices on the English model was succeeding north of the border? Yet the Old Man himself had replied, “It may answer in Gaaldine; the old wolf had fifty years breaking the ground before it was your brother’s turn to sow the seeds. Angria’s soil is very different. It has had no such prior husbandry. It is nourished by the blood spilt in feuds; its mandrakes thrive beneath the roadside gibbets erected by the lords of each petty domain as manifest of their authority. Such a people will not lightly surrender their power of life and death to any royal authority.”

A black-robed figure — Master Buccafusca, his skin looking waxier than ever in the thick air of the hall — took two steps up to the dais and bent to whisper in Sir Giles’s ear. The latter raised his head.

“I am reminded that tomorrow is the feast of St Quodvultdeus and the day after is Sunday. No matter. We will hold them confined until Monday, and hang them at dawn on that day. Have it proclaimed from the pulpits. Also, take note. I’ll hold no man nor women at fault for being late to their duties on Monday should they choose to witness how we requite those who abuse ties of hospitality and kinship in these parts. Case closed.”