Chapter 3 - The Bishop of the Northern Marches by A.J. Hall
Dawn was coming. Streaks of greenish light spread along the horizon. Early customers, proprietors of eating houses and provision stalls who would need to be offering breakfast soon, were already beginning to queue outside the bakery in the street below. From her vantage point on the tiled roof she had seen the bakery workers arrive, still fuddled from the festival, one or two supported by their fellows. They had fired up the ovens as the bell from the convent across the way sounded for Matins. Now Lauds had come and gone.
Charis had never been so cold in all her life. Or so alone. Or so hungry. The steaming scent of fresh bread was sheer torture in her nostrils.
She could not stay here; she would be horribly visible once it became light. But memories of last night still oppressed her, weighed down her chilled and trembling limbs. The stumbling, hectic scramble through the parkland on the wrong side of the wall, the heavy sounds of her pursuer close behind her, that failed feint back on her tracks, his strong, sweaty hand clamping over her wrist, his grunt of triumph.
Premature triumph. She’d been taught to fight dirty, by experts. Sherlock had drummed it in to her. “Everyone who goes for you will be stronger than you. Older than you. More experienced in combat than you. Have planned it, when you will be taken by surprise. You can have only one possible advantage. Be more ruthless than they can possibly imagine.”
Her straight-fingered jab into his eyes had taken him by surprise, revolted her even as she took advantage of his shock and pain to twitch her wrist from his grasp and run once more.
That escape had only been the beginning. The drunken crowds in the city streets were a nightmare – a stinking, heaving mass of humanity, unpredictably jovial or violent by turns. Men wearing the magpie livery of those who had stopped them in the lane roved, ceaselessly, among the throng. They moved as if invisible. Rudeness which should have merited drawn steel in other men was passed over as inconsequential by its victims. And, Charis noted as the night drew on, more than once they plucked a man from the crowd and he, too, vanished as if he’d never been.
Lacking money – one of the earliest resolutions of the night was that she would never again allow herself to wear an outfit which did not have, at the least, a gold thaler sewn into its hem – she had been debarred from seeking shelter in the taverns. It had rained, intermittently, during the night; not a heavy rain but a pervasive drizzle, which seemed to penetrate her very bones.
The streaks of green in the east had been replaced by a dull, pearl-grey light. Time to go. It might be that she would have better luck finding the Friargate and the house opposite the Golden Ball now the drunken crowds had dispersed.
Very cautiously, mindful of the bakery and its customers in the lane, she began to edge her way along the rooftop. The gold cupola of the Cathedral, shining dully in the cool light of dawn, helped her orient herself. Notwithstanding her ceaseless movement during the night – at least, until she had found her rooftop eyrie – she had travelled little more than a mile in a straight line from the governor’s palace.
This, though, was a different area, lacking the aristocratic detachment of the neighbourhood adjoining the palace. There were still townhouses, presumably superior merchants’ residences, with mews, stable-blocks and long strips of pleasure grounds running behind them to the river which bisected the city. Their frontages, though, were narrow, squeezed together and interspersed here and there with small businesses, like the bakery, or with wine-shops or provision merchants. Most of the latter bore discreet shields or tasselled pennants, signifying their possession of a warrant to supply the governor, the Bishop, or – vary rarely – the Royal Household. Charis toyed, fancifully, with the notion of hammering on the door of one of the latter, declaiming she was the Crown Princess of Gaaldine and if they wanted to keep their damn warrant, they’d better supply her with breakfast right now.
An absurd thought. In a city so hostile to her that her husband had to steal her out of the governor’s own palace by way of the roof, how big a fool would she be to trust to the kindness of tradesmen, simply because they opted to leverage the snob value of selling their pickles and preserves to the Royal House of Gaaldine?
She reached the end of the roof and eyed the gap between these buildings and the next group. Not wide – she’d jumped worse last night, from one bit of the governor’s palace to another, though that hadn’t counted, not properly, because Sherlock had more-or-less taken it in stride and then turned to look back at her with an exasperated expression on his face which had reminded her of her father, the first time she’d killed when out hunting with him and she’d held back, expecting one of the hunt servants to perform the gralloch for her. Which, of course, had made taking the leap inevitable.
Alone, chilled, hungry and now with enough daylight to see how far it was to the ground and exactly what she’d be landing on if she missed, she frankly didn’t fancy it. She cast back along the roof-top, until she found a drainpipe solid enough to trust. She grasped it firmly, swung one leg over the parapet and then the other, and started to descend.
The drainpipe ended just above a water-butt. Behind lay the main bulk of the house; in front, across a cobbled yard, was a stable block. Full, it seemed; there were occasional whickerings and the sound of beasts stirring in their stalls.
Charis glanced up at the sky again. Dawn was spreading fast; warm touches of colour starting to replace the grey. In a well-kept stable yard – and the neatly swept cobbles, tidy muck heap and general air of well-directed elbow-grease suggested this was a very well-kept stable yard – the lads would be out here with water-buckets and grooming kit any moment now.
Past the line of stalls was a gate. Beyond were market gardens and beyond them the shining line of the river. And over the river was the shining gold cupola of the Cathedral. Once in the vicinity of the Cathedral, someone would tell her the way to the Friargate. All she had to do was get out through the garden gate before the stable lads arrived.
Half way down the line of stalls she heard the harsh, quick breathing of a horse in distress. Before thinking about it, she unlatched the top half of the stable door. The great bay stallion was on its side; trapped there, unable to rise, its hooves wedged against the partition. As it caught her unfamiliar scent it craned its head round. Its ears went flat back. Its muscles bunched. Its lips curled, exposing vicious yellow teeth.
All of her short life had been spent around horses. The stallion was on the brink of going frantic, causing itself irreparable harm as it threshed and lashed out. No stranger could calm it – anyone who tried risked serious injury or worse. Only its own grooms would do.
She ran for the house, hammering on the back door and yelling as she ran. “You’ve a cast horse on your hands, you slumbering imbeciles! Get someone out here at once, damn you all to hell.” For a moment she thought no-one had heard; she glanced around for a rock to hurl through a window. Then the door opened and two figures shot through it, half-clad, unshod, running for the stalls.
Mother of God, and she’d been trying to leave the stable yard without being spotted. No chance now of taking the bold route to the gate. Dodging behind the muckheap and casting back round the stalls might –
She found her collar grabbed in a grip so firm that to shake it off would be like a leech trying to shake off the beast to whose flesh it cleaved.
“Not going anywhere, you.” The growling voice was somehow familiar but that firm grip precluded her craning her head to identify her captor. “Not till I find out what you’re doing in my stable yard at this godawful hour in the first place.”
“Trying to save your horse’s life and limbs,” Charis snapped, pushing her voice into its lowest register – which still sounded horribly squeaky.
“A fair point, but incomplete.” He thrust open the back door of the house. “You see, when I hear noises suggestive of someone shinning down the drainpipe past my bedroom, I don’t just roll over and go back to sleep. I’ve been following your antics with interest through various windows for some time. Mrs H.!”
A middle-aged woman popped out of a scullery.
“Here. Make sure this one doesn’t get away until I’ve sorted out whatever those imbeciles are doing in the stables. I’ve questions I need to ask and I want to make sure I’ve still got someone to ask them of when I get back. Which may be some time.”
“Sir, I’m your housekeeper, not your turnkey. How am I supposed to –”
“Use what passes for your brains.” The choking grip on Charis’s collar eased – he thrust her forward so firmly she almost went sprawling. She heard booted feet vanishing down the corridor and then the slam of the back door. She had hardly caught her breath before she heard it open again, and that voice bellowing down the passage.
“Your problem. But a word of advice. If I were you, Mrs H., and you want to see our prisoner stays put, you could do a lot worse than feed it.”
The slam of the door which followed had an air of finality about it.
Mrs H. sniffed. “Well, the guv’nor said it. You’d best come with me into the kitchen. I suppose bread, beer and bacon will do? Though yesterday’s cold duck could do with using up, in this warm weather, and I couldn’t get any of the officers to fancy it. Or I could fry you some eggs? And then there’s that nice spiced sausage the grocer two streets over sent in –”
“What do you mean, clear out?” John looked up in consternation. The nondescript man shrugged.
“Exactly what I said. This house is no longer a safe base for the King’s operations. We disperse. No returning to the governor’s palace, either, pending our interrogation of the governor.”
John set his jaw. “And what about the analyst who gave us the last news about Sherlock’s whereabouts? Where’s he? Because it’s high time we had a word. Perhaps he can remember the livery the men were wearing?”
“Perhaps he could have done,” the nondescript man said. “Until he was found floating face-down in the river half a turn ago. Couldn’t even have made it back to his lodgings. Might have been an accident, of course. He was none too sober, after all.”
Sarai gasped. “I see. In that case, we’d better take your advice.”
John stuck out his jaw. “But if we leave this house, it’s the only place Charis knows to come back to in the whole of Brendelhame. The Crown Princess is lost in a strange city, and you’re asking us to abandon the only point of reference she has.”
The nondescript man looked as if he’d swallowed verjuice. “The information that this was our safe house in Brendelhame was to be distributed on a strictly need-to-know basis. I hardly think the Crown Prince would have been so indiscreet –”
“As to consider his own wife needed to know where they were heading to while escaping an attempt on her life?” John’s voice reflected his seething anger.
Sarai rose to her feet. “Losing your temper won’t help. Time’s running out. If we’re going to find the Crown Princess, three heads are better than two. And the best head I know in Gaaldine is the Crown Prince’s. We start by finding him.”
The nondescript man eyed her narrowly. “I’m answerable to the King. What are you planning?”
Sarai smiled sweetly. “Need to know, I’m afraid. Come, John.”
“So, what were you doing in our stable yard, anyway?” From the way the grooms had deferred to him earlier, her questioner must be an officer. An officer who was a world removed from the members of the General Staff she’d met at the palace, though. His mop of hair was even more wayward than Sherlock’s and he sported an ill-trimmed moustache and an overall appearance suggesting that he’d slept in his clothes. Though she was hardly one to talk; her jerkin and leggings had been undistinguished to begin with and were now much the worse for the night’s experiences.
“I was – ” Charis gulped. Long experience with sceptical governesses had taught her that the key to a truly successful lie was to mix as much truth in with it as possible. However, at least until she knew who had her captive, none of the truth of last night’s experiences would bear scrutiny. Which made lying that much more difficult.
“Spit it out, lad. First time in the city?”
She nodded. “My – ” she paused. “My older brother knows Brendelhame, though. He took me out to see the festival – and then we ran into three bravos in a lane and they were spoiling for a fight, so he told me to run –”
“And you did?” A second officer, younger than the first, and, if anything, even worse turned-out, stared at her with disbelief. “Leaving your own brother outnumbered three to one?”
“I thought some of them might follow me,” Charis said, stung by his obvious contempt. “And one did – he grabbed me, look –”
She rolled up her sleeve. The bruises on her wrist had hardly had a chance to bloom; whatever they might look like by tonight, they were currently an unimpressive group of dull pink marks. The assembled party regarded them with scorn.
“Might be anything, them,” the moustachioed officer scoffed.
“Well, they’re not. He nearly had me, I had to jab my fingers in his eyes to get away –”
“Oh, yeah? You and whose army?”
“A fair question, Raimondo; a very fair question indeed. You and whose army, precisely?”
Her original captor came in, slamming the door to the stable yard behind him with a well-placed boot. He looked her straight in the eyes, and the grin on his face was like the expression on the lion in the palace menagerie, when someone had delivered it the carcase of a foundered mule.
She recognised him, of course. She’d seen him only yesterday – back in that long-ago life when her only problem had been avoiding awkward prelates at the dinner table.
More to the point, it was utterly apparent that recognition ran both ways. And that he had not the slightest inclination of being a gentleman about it.
“So,” said the Castellan, savouring every syllable as if it had been fine wine, “might this – brother of yours answer to the name of Lord Osric? At least, from time to time?”
“Lord Osric, guv? But isn’t that -?” The younger officer’s voice cut out, abruptly. In response to a fairly vicious kick from the man with the moustache, if Charis was any judge. Good. At least there seemed some remnants of justice in this increasingly arbitrary universe.
The Castellan sighed. “Dear God, Chris, there’s times I worry about you. And Raimondo – I’d not have expected this from a man of the world like you. Ma’am, I apologise for my officers. I admit, they’ve been up on the border a bit too long, and up our way in the dark winter months when the snow closes off the roads at either end the locals don’t play ‘Animal, Vegetable, Substance’ to pass the lonely hours, more like ‘Sister, Mother, Sheep’ and, frankly, it might have rubbed off on them. But, for the love of Mary, you two, take a look at the exceptionally fine pair of unquestionably female pins our visitor is sporting beneath her jerkin. To say nothing of the elegantly styled hair peeping out from that preposterous cap. Coupled with her not-in-the-least-convincing vocalisations.”
“And,” Charis said, from an obscure sense that even if she had been rumbled by this appalling man, at least she wasn’t proposing to surrender the flag without a shot being fired, “also coupled with the fact that you met me, face to face, in a formal audience yesterday where you kissed my hand. Admittedly, I’m impressed that you recall any salient points about my face, Castellan, from that encounter, since I didn’t believe your eyes had rested in that particular location for very long, if at all, but yes. I’m the Crown Princess of Gaaldine. And yes, I do possess an army. In-law. So what are you planning to do about it?”
The Castellan drew himself up to his full height – a difficult business, given the low beams in the kitchen – and then swept her the lowest of possible bows.
“Put myself and my officers unequivocally at your service, of course.” He must have caught her sceptical expression, because he added, “I’m the King’s man, me. And that extends to the King’s heir and the King’s heir’s wife – even if we have spent the last God-knows how many years trying to keep Gondal out of Castle Cavron, and now three bunches of orange-blossom, a nuptial mass and a bit of lace later we seem to be expected to open and spread ourselves like a brace of Big Gertie’s finest welcoming the Angrian fleet into port. But that’s politics for you.”
“Meaning?” Charis said acidly, acutely aware that both the officers’ entire attention had been riveted on her legs since the Castellan had mentioned them.
The Castellan beamed. “Meaning, love – that is, ma’am, your Princesship, whatever – that I’m a loyal servant of the Royal house of Gaaldine. To the death and beyond. Whatever I might think about a certain supercilious ginger tosser. Who, I gather, is fictional anyway. So, in those circumstance, how may I serve your grace?”
A huge bubble of laughter threatened to overwhelm her. “Might another leg of the cold duck and a couple of rashers of bacon be out of the question? If it wouldn’t put Mrs H. out.” She paused for a moment and let her face grow serious. “The Crown Prince feared for my safety, last night , in the governor’s palace. He suggested I should escape with him, in disguise. We fled over the palace roof, and made our way through the gardens and into the lane beyond. Where – I fear my husband had a fever on him, when he faced up to those bravos in the lane, there. Otherwise, I doubt not he would have overcome them at once. His lips felt very hot, just before they surprised us. I mean – that is when – I was – we were –”
A blush overcame her, recalling those brief, glorious, stolen moments. The Castellan’s eyebrows rose to his hairline.
“Well, well, well.”
“Nothing. Moonlit night – scent of lavender on the warm night breeze – the influence of a remarkably fetching pair of pins in skin-tight leggings. I can see exactly how it must have happened.”
“Can you?” she breathed venomously. Somewhat surprisingly, there seemed no hint of mockery about his expression.
“Yes. I can indeed. One of Slippery Jimmy’s purity patrols, that sounds like. No surprise they were sticking their beaks down there. That lane’s a known cake-walk for half the mollies in the Northern Marches. Has been for as long as I can remember.”
“You what, guv?” The younger officer – the one addressed as Chris, earlier – looked puzzled. The Castellan sighed with exaggerated exasperation.
“I mean, it’s got a longstanding reputation as a trysting ground for those of the uphill gardening persuasion. Savvy? Well, if not, tell Raimondo to enlighten you later, somewhere it’s not going to shock our lady guest.”
“Please remember, I am a married woman,” Charis said with frosty dignity. Then - “You mean – they saw us kissing and they thought – “
“Oh, finally someone gets it. Yes. Festival evening, ale flowing like water, and two indistinct figures in jerkins and leggings in a compromising position at the end of a dark lane. What’s the more likely conclusion a not-over-bright bravo is going to jump to? ‘Sodomy in progress’ or ‘Oh, that’s a high ranking member of the Royal Family breaking off for a bit of well earned slap and tickle with his missus’?”
Charis took a bite of bread, to buy time. “But if that’s so – do you know where will they have taken him?”
“Know? Of course I know. Just because they shunted me up to the border five years ago doesn’t stop this being my patch. I used to run public order and security for the old provincial governor. Christ, that man was a bastard.” The Castellan wagged his finger at her. “Bastard or not, though, he’d never have stood for what goes on in this city now. “
“What’s that?” Charis felt a little sick. Sherlock was out in the city, and, if he hadn’t found her yet, something must be seriously wrong.
“The old man didn’t stand any crap from the Cathedral. Anyone the Dean and Chapter pulled in on a morals charge had to be tried by the next consistory court. They held them regular as clockwork, third Tuesday of the month. So the punters were either found guilty or thrown back and told to be more careful. But Slippery Jimmy can’t bear to risk anyone his snoop squads picks up being found innocent. And the new governor hasn’t the gumption to stand up to him. There hasn’t been a consistory court for the best part of two years. And most of the men who go into the Bishop’s cells leave feet first.”
“And you think that’s where Sherlock will have been taken? To the Bishop’s cells?”
The Castellan glared at her impatiently. “Well? What’re you looking so surprised about? I said Slippery Jimmy, didn’t I?”
“The Bishop – is Slippery Jimmy?”
“You do well to look like that. If anyone ever wants proof that scum rises, he only needs to look at Slippery Jimmy. Back in my home village, we used to throw him in the pig-pens, any chance we got. Annoyed the pigs something chronic. We hoped they’d eat him. No such luck. Surprisingly high standards, pigs.”
“So how did he rise to a bishopric?” Charis asked.
“God knows. And I mean that literally, for once. Though I expect his mother had a lot to do with it. Slippery Jimmy’s, not God’s. Very well-connected, she was. Never let any of us forget it. Of course, back then her brother was just the second son of the junior branch of a noble family, so we didn’t pay much attention. But take twenty-five years and a series of tragic, completely unexpected and not-at-all suspicious deaths and her brother is one of the most powerful dukes in Gaaldine and Slippery Jimmy’s a bishop.”
“What Horatio told me he’d heard,” the moustachioed officer interjected, “is that the Duke informed the King his family were due a favour, the first appointments that came up were a bishopric or an admiralcy, and the King thought God could look after himself better than the poor bloody sailor boys. Sorry, miss – I mean, ma’am.”
From what Charis had seen of the King’s style, it seemed horribly plausible. The Castellan shrugged.
“Anyway, whatever the reason, we’re stuck with him. And Slippery Jimmy – as any of us could have told the King – is the absolute worst sort of bishop. Stupid, energetic, thinks God sits on his shoulder like that parrot Horatio used to have till I wrung its neck for taking a dump in my ale, and very against Sin. Which, in Slippery Jimmy’s case, means being against anything he’s not very interested in doing himself. Which is why he’s converted some of the finest wine cellars there used to be into these parts into a set of dungeons where his bravos throw every poor bugger they suspect of looking at them limp-wristed. Which is where your husband will be now, I daresay.”
“So will you help?”
“Let’s see. I’ve got a man who’s been thrown into gaol for kissing his own wife, which tells you all you need to know about Court morals. I’ve got a fifteen-year old princess with great legs begging me for help. I’ve got a chance to make both the King and the heir apparent to the throne grateful to me forever and rub the said heir’s nose in the fact that he tried to take me for a fool in my own castle. I get to make Slippery Jimmy eat dirt. Well, I suppose you could up the odds in favour of my taking the case by offering vast sums in coined silver or complicated and athletic sexual favours –”
“I’m sure Big Gertie can be prevailed upon to offer excellent discounts to all your garrison officers, should they chance to be in the capital,” Charis said. “Her establishment is just off Cathedral Square. I understand most citizens are able to direct strangers to it.”
The Castellan threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, I bet the Crown Prince didn’t know what he was getting, when he got you. Yes. We’re in. Deal done.”
“But how are we to spring a prisoner from the Bishop’s gaol?”
“Well, you could try not hiring a dog and barking yourself.” The Castellan tapped one thick forefinger on the table. “You don’t think we’re planning anything energetic, do you? Because you’ve got another think coming. To get someone out of a dungeon, there’s only two things you need. Bribery and brutality. The more bribery, the less brutality. And vice versa. Only one question, then. How generous are you feeling?”
Charis set her teeth. “Very parsimonious indeed.”
“I like a woman with a good grasp of domestic economy.” The Castellan paused. “Except when it comes to drinks for the men.”
She exhaled. “If you succeed, you and your officers can each have a bath-tub full of any liquor you care to name. My word on it.”
The Castellan grinned. “I like your style, kid. Raimondo, Chris. I hope you’ve been practising your clog dancing. Because we’re going to put on a show. And we’ll be using Slippery Jimmy’s snouts as the stage.”