Chapter 1 - The Bishop of the Northern Marches by A.J. Hall
Sherlock suppressed a gasp as the boot slid over the raw patch on his shin. Not effectively enough; John glanced up from the cup of small beer into which he had been staring with barely concealed loathing.
“You should have let me take a look at that.”
“No-one dies of falling over a boot-scraper.”
“You’d be surprised what I’ve seen men die of, in my time.” He contemplated the beer mug. “Lucky sods.”
“Time’s running short. We need to be on the road to Brendelhame. Either drink that or pour it down the drain.”
“They might not be alternatives.” He grimaced and tipped the contents of the cup down his throat in one long swallow. “What the hell was she putting in those drinks last night, anyway?”
“Phyllis? Apple brandy. Her own distillate, I think. Superior still-room technique, if so.”
“You might have warned me.”
“I did. Twice. Anyway, make up whatever’s left of your mind. The boy’s already at the door with the Creature. They’ll be bringing our horses out any minute.”
“Could you stop calling it the Creature? You specified your requirements for a horse. I carried them out to the letter.”
“And so you did.” Sherlock rubbed the bruise on his upper arm. “Including the ‘biting lumps out of anyone who approaches’ part of the specification. Charis will be so pleased. An animal after her own heart.”
“Oh, for the love of Mary, ditch the self-pity. Haven’t sympathy to spare. Not this morning.”
“Ah. I knew you’d crack, eventually.” Laughter bubbled deep inside him. “If you’d any idea how much I’ve missed having someone telling me I’m being a pillock, these last few weeks.”
John snorted. “Consider it added to my formal court duties on a permanent basis. ” He cocked his head on one side. “Damn! Those are the horses.”
“Come on, then. It’s a splendid morning for a gallop. Calculated to settle a delicate digestion.” He let a smile curl across his face, slow and malicious. “One way or the other.”
Away in the provincial capital, Charis was engaged in complex geometrical calculations. It would have been an advantage to have had a table, paper and instruments to hand, rather than having to calculate purely in her head. Still, she’d had extensive practice at concealing her true thoughts behind a demure façade. Also, plotting out the new altar-cloth for St Cecelia’s Chapel was infinitely more interesting than the homily the provincial Bishop had decided to spring on the congregation this morning. Could one really design a border of twenty different musical instruments, all duly proportionate with each other, and have the thing work artistically?
She felt, rather than heard, a sudden ripple of shock run through the ladies besides her. Their eyes slid sideways, trying to assess her reaction. The Bishop paused for a moment in his address, waiting for the susurration to die down. Something about his carefully controlled pose struck a chord of memory.
Milking it, like a player.
That shaft must have been aimed at her. The fashionable congregation were plainly agog for her response.
Mortal insult or mere glancing barb? She hadn’t taken in a word of the sermon for almost a full turn of the glass. Not for the first time in the last few days, she directed a brief, exasperated thought towards the absent Crown Prince. It would have been nice to have had someone by her side who was, legally and by sacrament, bound to defend her honour. Especially someone who was the heir presumptive to the throne of Gaaldine and the possessor of a Look which left hardened men-at-arms quivering in their boots.
Though Sherlock, had he been here, no doubt wouldn’t have heard whatever the Bishop had said, either.
She allowed a small, tight smile to decorate her lips and nodded in the direction of the pulpit, as if to convey that the Bishop had her leave to continue. The congregation inhaled, collectively. The mellifluous tones of the preacher filled the church once more.
Charis resumed her calculation of stitches to the square inch. If the Bishop chose to direct another comment in her direction, he would find her genuinely unresponsive.
The sermon over, the blessing pronounced and the congregation freed to scatter to the four winds, she shook off the twittering maids of honour and stalked, blessedly alone, down the cloisters and up the shallow flight of stairs at the end, towards the suite of rooms which had been put at her disposal during her stay in the provincial governor’s palace.
Someone, it occurred to her belatedly, must have been displaced from that suite; it had no doubt been exceedingly inconvenient for them. Had John been here, he would have found out who it was and sent some suitable gift, accompanied by a note of regret and appreciation, both nicely judged to the recipient. She ought – she supposed – do something about it.
Being left to her own devices was a test on more levels than she had anticipated. Including, of course, that of how to deal with the Bishop, for which she could hardly have been more ill-prepared.
Her personal maid – the new girl – was awaiting her in her suite, as expected. Sarai ‘s presence was anything but. Especially given Sarai’s black watered silk gown with panniers, fichu, headdress, and sleeve-trim of starched white lace; a world away from her customary russet homespuns and leather jerkin.
As Charis lifted her arms to allow the maid to unhook her from the multiple layers of her formal mourning, Sarai said, “You grace looks pale. Has your grace’s earlier headache been worsened by the close air of the chapel?”
For a moment Charis floundered – she had complained of no headache, earlier. Then she understood.
A way out. A life-line.
She nodded, raising a hand to her temple for the benefit of the maid. “A little, perhaps. I shall lie down for a half turn of the glass.” She looked the maid full in the face. “You - consider yourself dismissed until then. I shall wear the silk brocade for dinner. Sarai, in John’s absence, might I ask your medical advice?”
The door whispered shut behind the departing maid. Sarai raised her eyebrows.
“If you need to get out of dinner, just say the word. You look pale enough as it is –just off the flowers, on top of everything? Thought so. But if you need to gild the lily, I’ve learnt a few tricks over the years for making an otherwise healthy body look at death’s door. I’ve a nice line in simulated fevers, but that takes belladonna to distend the pupils, so don’t try it if you’re planning on embroidery or archery afterwards.”
Despite herself, Charis giggled. “I thought doctors were vowed to save lives.”
“And you think my fakes haven’t, over the years? Actually, as you will be seated next to the Bishop at dinner, perhaps even his? Given what he said today, I’d quite understand a desire to poison him. Though, as a doctor, I’d reluctantly have to concede that would be an unethical use of belladonna.”
That gave Charis the opening she had been wishing for.
“But what did he say?”
“But you –” Sarai broke off and regarded Charis intently. “You weren’t listening at all?”
“I hardly ever do. Everyone pesters for my attention every moment they can. I’d never get any time to myself if it weren’t for church.”
Sarai looked as if she were forcibly restraining herself from passing comment on someone’s practice of a faith which was not her own. After a moment she said, “He concentrated on what he asserted to be the Church’s teachings on the proper spheres allocated by the Divine to men and women. And on what awaits those who transgress the boundaries between the two.”
“Oh,” Charis said blankly.
Her whole life through, she could hardly remember a sermon which hadn’t dwelt on that topic, whether it be “Wives, be in subjection to your husbands” or “May you bring forth children in labour and sorrow.” That had been why she’d stopped listening in the first place. A God who could snatch away Mama to pay off his old score against Adam and Eve seemed to her very poor stuff indeed. Thank goodness the Blessed Virgin – and Cecilia, her patron saint – seemed above such masculine pettiness.
“Not the usual stuff,” Sarai snapped. “Though he wrapped it up in obscure references. The homily was three parts over before the congregation grasped what he was talking about. And I’ll wager half of them still aren’t sure if he was attacking descent down the female line per se – which should make for some interesting conversations when the news reaches the Palace, which will be before nightfall, if I’m any judge – or simply the notion of a Queen regnant. And, no doubt, a few assume him to be taking a swing at the Crown Prince, though the Bishop would be trebly a fool to swim in those waters.”
Charis’s knees gave way and she sank onto the bed, eyes closed. Malice, whispered rumours and backbiting – they were the staples of court life, whichever side of the border the court might be. But an attack from the pulpit on the very legitimacy of her position – and, perhaps, that of her husband and even the King of Gaaldine – she felt as if she had been stripped naked and flogged in the market place.
Something hard and cold nudged against her fingers. She opened her eyes and took the glass Sarai offered her. The tincture tasted faintly of fennel and had a surprisingly restorative effect. She sat upright and sought to gather her scattered wits.
“The King –”
Sarai smiled. It put Charis in mind of a hawk about to bate. “The King will undoubtedly do something. Though whether any of us will see what is done is quite another question. The Bishop is his appointee. We’re in a volatile region. I would not put it past the King to have sent the Bishop here as a catalyst. If that’s so, he will apparently do nothing. At least, not until he can analyse whatever that sermon precipitates.”
Before her marriage, Charis had been wholly unfamiliar with natural philosophy; her father had considered it beyond the scope of the female brain. Sherlock had insisted on her being tutored in it. After eight months’ study she had little difficulty in following Sarai’s metaphor. Its implications chilled her.
“So, not the King, And the Crown Prince remains absent –”
Sarai snorted. “A blessing in disguise, that.” At Charis’s questioning look, she amplified, “Not the sort of crisis in which he shows to advantage. Where he can’t ignore a direct insult, he behaves as if aiming to prove the insulter didn’t grasp the half of it.”
“Oh.” Charis digested that. Then, “Not illness.”
“You can’t get me out of dinner with a headache. Not even a fake fever. It’s too convenient. My governesses always guessed if I – but that’s not important. I have to be there. I mustn’t let the Bishop know he’s found a weak spot. But – “
Misery overwhelmed her. The Bishop’s face was horribly vivid in her memory; dark hair, sallow skin, thin, chiselled features. His face bore a slight sheen, almost as if oiled. She had coped with him in the chapel, but that had been on instinct, bolstered by ignorance of the insult levelled at her. Over dinner – at close quarters – she couldn’t sustain any sort of façade. If John had been at her side – as he should have been, if he hadn’t selfishly run off horse-buying with Sherlock – she might have been able to stand the meal without cracking. Or he would have thought of something to help her escape, more subtle than a faked headache.
“It’s only in church that people can’t get at me,” she wailed in despair, and then paused.
Only in church.
“Yes, you grace?” Sarai dropped to sit next to her on the bed, all bright-eyed interest.
“Do one thing for me, please? Find out who has been petitioning me for an audience this morning. There are always hundreds – whether because they truly wish to see me or because the Crown Prince is away. Find me someone whose petition I cannot help but listen to. Even if the audience has to take the place of dinner. Send word of it to me in the ante-chamber, before we are called to dine. Send a page-boy. The sort who peacocks his message to all and sundry, so anyone listening will know it’s true.”
“Your grace –” Sarai leant forward, a warning growl beneath the surface formality of her address. “You cannot simply pick up and use your subjects – your brother the King’s subjects – as it suits you.”
“Why not? He does. And Sherlock. And they’re not my subjects, anyway. Half of them still call me ‘that Gondal piece’ behind their hands.” She regretted the words as soon as they left her lips; more when she saw Sarai’s reaction.
Ugly. Petulant. Childish
Charis stretched out a tentative hand and rested it on Sarai’s arm. The older woman’s skin was dry, withered by innumerable suns. A ragged white scar trailed up the brown flesh until it vanished under the deep lace border of Sarai’s sleeve.
“I’m sorry. I did not mean that. Any petition you choose for me to hear, I undertake to give my best attention. Consider it an offering to my patron saint.”
“Be sure, then, I’ll do my best to find a suitor you can do justice to.”
With a swirl of her unprecedentedly demure skirts Sarai rose from the bed and swept from the room. Charis lay back and let the rare, cool bliss of solitude sweep over her.
Sherlock staggered out of the privy, pressed his forehead against one of the cool slate pillars which supported the lean-to behind the tavern, and swore wordlessly. Cold sweat trickled down his spine; dark grey specks pricked at the edges of his vision. Given the chance, his most fervent wish in the world was to curl up against the pile of aromatic, half-cured pine logs the tavern-keeper had had piled beneath the lean-to in anticipation of convivial autumn fires and expire there, without fuss or delay.
Alternate flurries of heat and cold racked his body; the heat arid, the cold forming clammy tendrils which extended into every extremity of his body. Compared to this, death itself could offer few terrors. Without conscious thought, his hand extended inside the half-laced neck of his jerkin, to draw the walrus-ivory rosary from the concealed pocket there. Charis’s gift – though surely she had not had the wit to choose it unaided – to mark his birthday and the Feast of the Epiphany, both.
No-one who had known him for two turns of the glass would count him a religious man. But the thing itself had been so unexpectedly lovely – the beads carved with precise artistry, each decade marked by a larger bead fashioned as a fiddle or hautboy or lute, betokening a special devotion to St Cecilia as well as the Virgin or – much less conventionally – a sly allusion to his own musical preferences. But the best part of the gift had been John’s face, beaming with delight at Sherlock’s pleasure in it.
He clutched it. The beads bit into flesh which momentarily felt cold as the Arctic seas from which those walrus ivory beads had been torn.
”- And at the hour of our death,” he finished, aware for the first time he had in fact been praying – though to whom, or what, he could not say.
“Sherlock!” John leaned round the corner of the tavern wall. ‘Do we ride now or – you aren’t ill, are you?”
There was – something – in John’s expression; Sherlock’s insides clenched as he recognised a hint of barbed amusement. He’d waxed too merry at John’s expense, earlier. Presumed he could tease him about last night’s over-indulgence – and, God, who could deny he’d earned it, these last few months? Not Sherlock, for sure.
Last night, he had dared to believe himself not – for once – a prince, with courtiers, but a man, among friends. Laid himself open, in short. And now he was paying the price.
He’d learnt, too young – as the sickly, nightmare-prone grandchild of a King who prided “manliness” above all other conceivable virtues, as a fastidious, over-educated Prince held hostage at a rambunctious, unsophisticated foreign court – not to let anyone get below his defences. John had been an aberration; someone for whom he had broken every rule he knew and then gone looking for more to break.
He wondered how much John despised him for that abject weakness.
Still – there was no time to worry about things for which there was no help. And, for a surety, he would die before confessing to it.
“No,” he said coldly. “Never felt better. The horses are rested, I presume? We ride for Brendelhame.”