Chapter 2 - The Bishop of the Northern Marches by A.J. Hall
Charis choked back her instinctive scream with an effort. She let the door fall shut behind her.
“What on earth have you done to your hair?”
Her husband raised his head a bare inch from her pillow, displaying an air of exhaustion which bordered on collapse. Not only did he still have the dust of the road in that unnatural auburn hair, but his shirt was so sodden with sweat it steamed, visibly. His leather jerkin had been discarded. It lay on the floor by the bed.
“I’m sure some of the tarts you minister to down at the Poor Persons’ Hospital have explained to you about hair dye.” There was a rasping edge to his sardonic tone.
“Usually they’ve got other things on their minds when I see them… ” Something clicked into place. “So it was you pretending to be this Lord Osric.”
He sat up abruptly. “Why did the Castellan come to you?”
“I couldn’t bear to sit next to the Bishop, at dinner, not after what he’d said from the pulpit this morning – what Sarai told me he’d said, anyway – so I had to arrange an audience with someone at short notice to have an excuse not to be there.”
He flopped back to the bed, and steepled his hands beneath his chin. “Not bad tactics. Still – why him?”
“Sarai chose. I did ask, afterwards, but all she’d say was, ‘You should have seen the others. Not being caught that way again.’”
“Ah! I think I know what she means.” There was a suspicion of laughter in his voice. “I once gave an ill-thought-out audience to avoid one of Mycroft’s dreary state banquets for the Angrian Ambassador and ended up spending the next three weeks down on the Southern border tracking an overgrown man-killing mastiff through the most mosquito-infested swamps the world has ever known. Ended up in a tertian fever. I don’t think Sarai’s ever forgiven me.”
Charis giggled and saw the tense line of the Crown Prince’s shoulders relax. Briefly she wondered if she ought to tell him he was forgiven, or leave him guessing. “Anyway, you’d obviously really upset that poor man. It was all I could do to assure him that he was one of the King’s most valued lieutenants –”
“That’ll come as a surprise to Mycroft.”
“And that while I hadn’t met Lord Osric personally, I understood he was one of your trusted advisors on matters of security. And that you’d judged it essential to carry out a survey of all the key strong-points of the border, given recent –” Despite herself, her voice choked to a halt. She swallowed determinedly. “Given recent events in Gondal. And that we both very much looked forward to making a personal visit to Castle Cavron in the near future. He went rather a funny colour at that part.”
Sherlock put his hands behind his neck and interlaced his fingers.
“What did he ask for?”
“The Castellan? Nothing.”
He sat up again. “Really? Either very clever or very stupid, then. Which, I wonder?” His eyes narrowed, as if the lamp-light pained him.
A discreet scratch came at the door. “My lady?”
The Crown Prince put his finger to his lips. He swung his legs to the ground, caught up the discarded jerkin and sidled soundlessly to the window. Charis coughed.
“Come in. I’m quite ready to retire.”
Her maid was deft and speedy. In a very short space of time Charis had been undressed and put to bed. The maid hovered for a moment, as if awaiting further commands. Charis shook her head. “That will be all.”
The maid nodded, and left. Seconds later Sherlock was back in the room. He thrust a bundle of clothes at her.
His mouth was set in a hard, tight line; his pupils were enormous, like those of a hunting cat, almost none of the iris visible. Spots of colour burned in his cheeks.
“What?” Almost despite herself, Charis had thrown back the coverlet. She picked up the bundle and shook it out. A man’s – boy’s, really – jerkin and leggings. “You can’t mean dress in these –”
“I most certainly do. And here’s a cap. Cover your hair.” He paused, breathing heavily. “I’m not having you spend the night here. It isn’t safe. We leave now. And not by the door.”
Charis’s first thought on donning the leggings was how peculiar it felt to wear cloth tight against one’s legs and not to be able to kick free of it. Her second was a half-horrified, half-gleeful thought. So much for the Bishop! And the third, as Sherlock gestured at the drainpipe which ran conveniently close to the balcony, was sheer delight. What freedom it was, being able to climb and run, without the encumbrance of long skirts and petticoats which weighed more than a brace of cannon-balls. Men had no idea how lucky they were.
She reached the roof. Sherlock flipped himself over the parapet after her, caught her hand and pulled her across the sloping leads, among the forest of chimney stacks. He seemed to know his way round this maze, even by moonlight. Quicker than she could have thought possible (far quicker than she could have paced the cool succession of tiled rooms below in her formal Court robes) they were at the far wall of the Governor’s palace, looking down into the knot garden and the silvery pool of the central fountain.
“Drainpipe again,” Sherlock whispered. “Stick to the shadows when you’re down. And avoid the gravel. You’ll not leave marks on grass.”
Formal garden gave way to kitchen gardens and then to a ramshackle mess of potting sheds, tool cupboards, and compost heaps. Finally, with the help of a water-butt they surmounted the weathered brick wall which marked the extreme edge of the provincial governor’s domains and dropped into the lane beyond, where they paused to catch breath.
“They sent me here for three months with my tutor, in my grandfather’s time, when they had plague in the capital,” Sherlock said abruptly. “God, it was tedious. I worked out twelve ways out of the governor’s palace and six back in again. Still, I shouldn’t have been able to get to your room. Not that easily. Not even me. And anyone could see that maid had been bought. Not your usual woman, was she? Mycroft’s man was right.”
He linked his arm with hers. She was glad of his support; the ground was uneven beneath the thin soles of the soft buskin boots he’d insisted she wear. The lane twisted and turned, but had no branches or divisions. Sooner or later, she supposed, they would reach habitation and, in any event, Sherlock clearly knew where he was going.
“We got here less than an hour ago. Mycroft’s man intercepted us just as we passed the city gates, said he had news for my ears only. John went on to see the horses settled – there’s a house our people use in the Friargate, opposite the Golden Ball, when we’re in town and don’t wish it to be known. I was to join him there. Only, Mycroft’s man convinced me I shouldn’t leave you alone in the governor’s palace. Something was planned for tonight.”
He shrugged. “Not enough information. Snatch or stabbing? Or something more subtle?”
It said something that a casual reference to assassination or abduction provoked no more than a dull, sick, “Not again.” And deep relief to have the Prince at her side. She slipped her hand into his.
“Anyway, the King’s people are looking after that end,” Sherlock said, after a moment’s pause. “A girl will have been in your bed since before we left the palace roof, playing you.”
Charis shivered. “That’s brave.”
“She volunteered. You didn’t.” His grip on her hand tightened; he pulled her closer to his side. It occurred to her that, though her reading and snippets overheard from the domestic staff suggested that this was how young men ought to behave when walking one down a moonlit lane, Sherlock had never shown previous signs of doing anything of the sort. Though, come to think of it, the extravagant panniers of the current fashion made getting close to a woman wearing formal Court attire practically impossible in any event.
Fireworks exploded above them in a riot of sparkling blooms.
“Oh! It’s the festival starting.”
Sherlock’s voice sounded oddly distant. “Yes. To celebrate an incursion by the armies of Gondal, repelled on this spot two centuries ago by the heroic people of Brendelhame.”
Charis nodded. “I know. They made a point of telling me as we went into church. That it was a Thanksgiving Mass for victory in the battle of Brendelhame, I mean.”
Sherlock came to a stop, spinning her round to face him, his hands grasping her upper arms. “And you said?”
Charis shrugged. “Oh, I said we had very similar festivals in a couple of towns in Gondal. Though much closer to the border, in Gondal’s case.”
Sherlock tipped back his head and laughed, but broke it off abruptly, going silent, and very still. His grip on her upper arms tightened; she caught her breath. And then he had pulled her tight against him, and was kissing her very thoroughly indeed, his tongue probing between her lips, his hands clutching hard into her flesh. She gave herself up to the blissful, terrifying moment, desperate not to make an ass of herself in her clumsy inexperience.
His lips were burning hot. When it came to kisses, the romances she’d read used “burning” as a petrified epithet. But she’d been helping Sarai in various hospitals for eight months now and Sarai had taught her to use language with surgical precision.
She recalled his eyes, when he had come back into her room from the balcony; the pupils so wide as almost to make the iris invisible. Like a girl who’d used belladonna to made her eyes deep and lustrous for a ball. Like a patient in fever.
She raised a hand, sliding it under the hair at the back of his neck, pulling him down harder still against her lips.
That settled it. The skin of his neck was clammy; his breathing came in harsh, ragged gasps. Even the smell which rose off him wasn’t just honest male sweat or the clean, slightly spicy scent he used. There was another smell beneath it, something which bypassed her conscious, reasoning brain altogether and took her straight back to the Poor Persons’ Lying In Hospital and the girls she’d watched die there.
“Sherlock, what’s wrong? Surely, you’re ill?” Even as she said it, she knew she could hardly have expressed it worse. He let his arms drop, took a step back.
“I only meant – “
“Charis, could you sound more like John if you actually tried?” Impossible to tell what he meant by that. He shook his head, like a water-spaniel trying to clear its ears. He took her into his arms again, but this time the kiss he dropped onto the top of her head was chaste, almost – she supposed – brotherly.
Except that she had never had a brother, and if her parents had given her one he would now be the King of Gondal and she would be anywhere but here.
She let out a small whimper of pain. His arms tightened round her.
“Ssh. I think I may be coming down with something, yes. John’s been nagging me about it since this morning. I’ll have Sarai check me when we get to the Friargate. But until then –”
“You filthy, shameless rats.”
Charis looked over her shoulder, to see a small, pugnacious man, standing in the lane, his hand on his sword-hilt. Behind him two bravos – wearing a livery Charis didn’t recognise – shouldered cudgels.
Sherlock’s dry lips brushed her ear. “Don’t argue, don’t hesitate. Run.”
He caught her round the waist and flung her up the wall. She grabbed for the coping stone, caught, pulled up, flopped for a second like a landed fish, swung her legs up with an enormous effort and dropped down on the other side. She heard Sherlock’s voice. “Well, gentlemen. Are we planning to fight or dance?”
Briars caught at her leggings; thin, whippy branches slashed at her face. She could hear noises behind; someone else climbing the wall. A heavy thud as he landed on her side, swearing and grunting, lumbering footsteps, fallen wood snapping underfoot.
One man after her; that would reduce the odds against Sherlock by a third, if only she could be sure of keeping out of her pursuer’s clutches.
“What?” John brought down his fist with a sharp thump on the table.
The nondescript little man shrugged. “That’s all we know so far. A well-known local demagogue leapt up on the plinth of King Victor’s statue in the Grand Square and urged his fellow citizens to – I quote – ‘turn the Gondal strumpet out into the streets where she belongs’. He’s now in our custody. No apparent connection to any known domestic or foreign subversives.”
The nondescript man was, John now knew, the King’s head of intelligence for the northern marches. He had not vouchsafed a name. If he had, John would have given odds it would not be found in any baptismal register.
“So what caused the riot?” Sarai demanded.
“Predictable, given a Festival crowd, most of whom had been drinking since noon.”
“Dawn,” Sarai interjected.
“Very like. Local patriotism, free municipal ale and a chance of loot. And a Gondal-born princess sleeping in the governor’s palace. Any fool could have guessed what was likely to happen. Yet, most of the palace guard were away from their posts or in their cups. We’ve pulled in the provincial governor. Too early to tell if he’s a plain idiot or a treasonous idiot. Anyway, the Crown Prince wanted to conduct that interrogation himself. Another reason his disappearance is inconvenient.”
“Inconvenient?” John echoed.
The King’s man nodded. “No reason to suspect worse at present. But you were asking how the riot turned out. A bunch of formidable harpies – most of whom earn their bread as yarn spinners and have the muscles to prove it – decided to improvise a defence force for the Crown Princess. She seems to have made an unexpectedly warm impression on the women of that class in these parts.”
“A tragic, fragile young figure in deep mourning, doggedly performing a tough job to the best of her ability, all the while bearing the twin burdens of her father’s loss and the insensitive boor fate seems to have landed her with by way of husband? No; can’t see why that would resonate with the women workers of Brendelhame at all,” Sarai observed.
“Sherlock – the Crown Prince – isn’t –” John protested.
“He doesn’t go to any lengths to correct the impression, either.” Sarai turned to the King’s man, and smiled. “Don’t mind us. Go on.”
To his credit, he took up his account seamlessly.
“By the time the mob – by this stage a great deal smaller and several degrees drunker –made it to the governor’s palace, there was an opposing force in place mostly commanded by the mob’s own mothers and grandmothers. Panic, obviously. Confusion, generally. In the midst of which, our men within the governor’s palace intercepted an incursion team – who were anything but impromptu. Nasty: I lost two good men. Also, three of the intruders killed, one escaped and the final one swallowed poison from a concealed phial before we could get anything useful out of him. No doubt, though: they were aiming for the Crown Princess.”
“What? And Charis?”
For the first time, the King’s man looked tetchy. “I told you. She left the palace long before then. The Crown Prince insisted on making himself personally responsible for his wife’s safety. Our perimeter man saw them shinning the wall of the governor’s palace moments before the firework display started. You can ask the master of the municipal fireworks yourself, but I’m told it started precisely to time. That being half-past nine of the evening. And that’s the last that’s been seen of them.”
John exhaled. “Charis shinned the back wall?”
“Having previously climbed two drainpipes and traversed the palace roof, yes.” For the first time, the King’s man permitted himself the ghost of a smile. “The Crown Princess was, I should mention for clarity, wearing male apparel at the time.”
“She what? And whose bright idea -?” John raised his hand. “No. I don’t want to know.”
“Brilliant, whoever thought it up.” Sarai’s eyes glittered maliciously. “If you want to give your crack troops the edge, try having them train in current Court fashions for women. Once a man’s run ten miles across country in hooped skirts and chopine heels, he’ll think training with rocks in knapsacks is strictly for boys.”
John glared at her. “That’s not the point I was trying to make. I’m the first to advocate more rational wear for women. Have I ever complained about what you wear for hospital work? But, given that – do you think it makes sense for the Queen of Gondal to be running around Brendelhame dressed as a boy, on the very day the Bishop has inflamed a drunken mob by preaching on the evils of one sex trespassing on the privileges of the other?”
“Good point.” Sarai turned to the King’s man. “Forget your local demagogue climbing up onto King Victor’s statute. I was in the governor’s chapel today. So far as I’m concerned the text the Bishop chose to preach on was, ‘Turn the Gondal strumpet out into the streets where she belongs’.”
The King’s man shook his head. “I’ll grant you, the Bishop preached a remarkably inflammatory sermon. A full transcript of which has been sent to the King. But I doubt a drunken mob was his intended audience. Not with an argument stolen wholesale from John Chrysotom. With the odd touch of Origen and a light sprinkling of St Augustine of Hippo.”
They gaped at him. He shrugged. “One has to have a pastime. The patrists are mine.”
John rose to his feet, took four impatient strides across the room and turned on his heel. “This is a waste of time. The Crown Prince and Princess are missing. We should be scouring the city for them, not bickering here.”
“We’ve not been idle. And my eyes in the city will have more chance of seeing something once dawn breaks. But you shouldn’t panic prematurely. As I said, the Princess Charis was last seen with the Crown Prince. Very little harm can have come to her in his company.”
There came a rustle from the doorway. “I bring information.”
No need to ask whether the information was good or bad. The dull, flat tone of the muscular young man who had just arrived said everything.
“What do you mean?” The King’s man’s voice was low. It made the hairs rise on the back of John’s neck.
The new arrival did not look at either John or Sarai. His attention was all for the King’s man. On more than one occasion John had had to bring bad news to men powerful enough to have had him torn apart between wild horses if the whim took them. He hoped, for the sake of his younger self’s pride, that he had managed to acquit himself so creditably.
“One of our analysts, from the capital, is in Brendelhame for a family wedding. Some time after ten last night – the firework display had not been over long – he stumbled out of a tavern’s back door to answer a call of nature.”
“He can’t say. He’d been with the groom and his friends, and gone with the flow. Anyway, he saw two men in strange livery go past, carrying a man between them. Again, not a surprise – leaving aside the rioters, half of Brendelhame was carrying the other half home last night. Except, as the three went past, he thought he recognised the man they were carrying. But he couldn’t place him. So he went back inside and continued drinking and found his way to bed a little shy of midnight. And then he woke up after his first deep sleep and said, out loud, ‘But why would the Prince be ginger?’ And came straight to find us.”
John gulped. “He’s sure?”
“Of course he isn’t sure. Half-cut, strange town, darkness. Plus, he’s an analyst. When do they ever commit to a definite opinion? But there’s no reason he could have known the Prince had dyed his hair. Or be in Brendelhame. He reported to our men before he’d heard the Prince was missing. I think we can assume the report’s solid.”
Sarai’s voice. John had never, in his life, struck a woman, but he could have punched her then for voicing a fear he dare not admit to the forefront of his mind, lest he run mad.
The young man shook his head. “All he saw was three men. No sign of the Crown Princess at all.”