Chapter 1 - The Choices of the King by A.J. Hall
Trooper. Son of a barber. Captain; outstanding field officer. Prevented from rising higher by a combination of humble origins and his own blunt tongue. Recent upturn in his fortunes after a long period of eclipse. Last deployment, covert operation in wet, mountainous region. Accent and mannerisms of North-East Gaaldine. The lake region. Selected for local knowledge. At least in part.
Flecks of blood and foam on his gear. Ridden at least one horse near to foundering on his journey. Only the most cursory of clean-ups before being brought here. Operation a catastrophe. Not the obvious man to select to bring bad news to a king. Last man standing? First to get here? No; cut end of straw protruding from the chest pocket of his jerkin. Chosen by lot.
Not bad news, then. The worst.
“Tell me – soldier. What has befallen the Crown Prince? What has happened to my brother?”
The soldier’s knees buckled under him. He crumpled to the tiled floor of the reception chamber. Mycroft heard the sounds of men offering stimulants, threats, exhortations as if through a sheet of thick glass, saw nothing except shadows of the past.
The Head of Palace Security - dead man walking - forcing his way through the audience chamber, turning to face the throne, behind which he stood. “Your Grace, they’ve been found.” Relief so sharp it felt like fear at seeing Genia, hair matted with blood, carrying Sherlock in arms that all-too-evidently shook with exhaustion, baring her teeth at any of the guards who attempted to relieve her of her burden.
The harsh clank of the dungeon door swinging open, scraping over the stone floor. The tall, gaunt figure on the bed opposite raising his head to confront him – how could anyone have grown so tall in so short a time? Bottomless contempt in those moss-agate eyes. “Here for the show? Ask King Ambrosine to find you a seat in the Royal Pavilion. Grandfather will be sure to ask how the murder went, and I know how you hate to disappoint him.”
“Are there no more?”
The Royal Librarian almost, but not quite, suppressed his exasperated cough.
“Your grace has had everything the library, the Royal Archives and every private collection within a day’s ride can supply. If there is a description, drawing, woodcut of the Reaching Beck Bridge, if there is an account in any volume of anyone who has fallen, leapt, dived or been pushed from it then, your grace, you have seen it. But I doubt they tell you more than the trooper who brought the news.” The Librarian paused. “The bridge is a single-span structure, dating from before the fall of Constantinople. At its highest point it is almost five fathoms above the water. The local lads, it seems, make a sport of diving from it in the summer.”
“And it claims one of them almost every year.” Idiotically, he had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, notwithstanding the fire blazing in the hearth at the far end of the room.
“In the hottest days there is only one spot, just below the bridge, where there’s sufficient water. Easy to misjudge. Not like now, with the river in spate.”
“Snowmelt. How long can a man exist in water so cold it burns like fire on the skin and chokes the breath in his lungs?”
The Librarian smiled, sparsely. “Your grace, if there is one thing my service under you and under your grandfather has taught me, it is that books are incomplete, when it comes to measuring the capacity of a man. Any man. And that is ten times truer when it comes to the Crown Prince. In any event, your grace, if we are finished here, you have a Council meeting to attend.”
For a moment, it was all he could do to repress the impulse to swear at the man. Tight-lipped, Mycroft nodded, swept up the best of the paintings, and left the room.
“My lord of Alwent, you presume.” How had things come to this pass? Who in this Council meeting could he trust? He had held the reins of power for so long and now, like ill-trained horses they were breaking away, scenting new chances on the wind.
“I presume, your grace?” Alwent glared back from the other end of the table, the far side of two adjacent empty seats that hurt like a wound.
Second cousin but only sixteenth in the succession (not fifteenth, never, never, never). Nothing to gain by throwing his lot in with the rebels. Controls the approaches to the second and – at a stretch – third most important passes into Gondal. Not a man to anger lightly.
Mycroft inclined his head a fraction. “I spoke in haste. These times are – turbulent. Turbulence – is not conducive to rational discourse. Continue.”
“I have nothing but the greatest sympathy for your grace in this current crisis. Both as my liege and my – brother.”
I have only ever had one brother. And, whatever we may have ever said to one another, if anything would provoke his rise from the Reaching Beck, dead or alive, it would be your usurping that kinship on the strength of my marriage to Genia.
“Your sympathy is noted.”
“Your grace, it is imperative that you face facts, whatever your personal feelings. The unanimous opinion of this Council – which you yourself endorsed – was that no-one should initiate contact with the pretender Hebron, until we had identified all those who sought to profit from his – presumption. And yet, as testified by members of his own guard, not only did the Crown Prince arrange a meeting in flat disregard of that command, but that meeting ended with his appearing to catch Hebron by the arm and flip them both over the parapet into the river below. No trace has been found of either of them since. What conclusion can any member of this Council possibly draw?”
What, indeed? Use what passes for your brains, Alwent.
“That we are self-evidently missing crucial information which was available to the Crown Prince?”
“Your grace, with the greatest of all possible respect, that will not answer. No man, no matter how high his rank, can be suffered to defy the King in Council without consequence. Already I hear stories of placards being posted in some of the Northern cities. Those posting them assert that to provoke such an extreme reaction from the Crown Prince – bloody-handed murder is the term they use – there must have been substance to Hebron’s claim.”
Mycroft flicked a glance down the table to the third empty place.
“Doubtless, had Corbisdale found it convenient to attend today we would learn what he proposes to do about this outbreak of treason and seditious libel in Brendelhame – it was Brendelhame you meant, was it not, Alwent?”
“If Brendelhame today, then who knows where, tomorrow? In any event, your grace, the point stands. The Crown Prince has defied a direct order of Council, he may have killed Hebron, with his own hands – what do you propose to do about him?”
Miss him. Rage at him. Only in the last resort, only after unimpeachable evidence, only after seeing and clutching his cold corpse – only then, mourn him.
“Are you not, my lord of Alwent, overlooking another possibility?” De Merville was standing up, wearing his habitual expression of faint disgust, which had only deepened since the collapse of his daughter’s proposed marriage to the Earl of Greengarth.
Since Sherlock killed that marriage proposal and, with it, the Earl. In John’s absence, is there a single man in this chamber whose designs Sherlock has not foiled, whose intelligence he has not insulted, whose pretensions he has not pricked like an inflated bladder?
“That possibility being?” Alwent, always too quick to speak, when reflection would serve better. Would not have afforded the other man an opening.
De Merville smiled, a slow, reptilian smile. “Hebron is barely 18, by all accounts a sturdy, well-muscled youth, trained by a competent arms-master. The Crown Prince’s athleticism is legendary. The dive from the bridge, while risky, was well within the capacity of both men. Especially if it had been meditated in advance.”
Every man in the Council chamber was on his feet, shouting. Some had moved a fraction too early; de Merville’s carefully oblique hint of the Crown Prince’s complicity in treason had come as no surprise to a good half-dozen of the men in the room.
Mycroft brought his fist down on the table. “Silence.” When he had their attention he nodded to Alwent.
“I accept the point you made. Like Caesar’s wife, members of the Family must be seen to be above reproach. While I hold by my opinion that the explanation of this matter will lie in information available to the Crown Prince which justified his actions, I agree such an explanation must be sought. Accordingly –”
He drew a deep breath. “Let this be proclaimed throughout every market-place in the land, read from every pulpit, posted on every church door. Sherlock, Crown Prince of Gaaldine, is required at his King’s command to surrender to his King’s authority within twenty-one days of the date of this proclamation. Let him fail not to answer to his King’s command, on pain of exile. Let it be known that when the time allotted has elapsed, should the Crown Prince not have answered to his King’s summons, anyone knowingly giving him help, aid and succour shall face the like penalty, that being exile beyond the realm and outlawry within its borders.”
His secretary, taking the minutes, looked up. “Sir, may I –”
“Read it back, Fullerton.”
For a man whose mouth was plainly dry with fear, the secretary made a creditable job of reading it aloud. One might have heard a feather fall in the Council chamber. He permitted himself a curt nod when Fullerton had finished.
“Yes. That will suffice. Have the heralds proclaim it.”
He rose, looking neither to left nor right as the assembled nobles bent their knees at his passing.
His voice was barely a whisper. “I shall have Corbisdale flayed alive in the marketplace of Brendelhame and make a gift to the Pretender of my Manutius folio of the Discourses on Livy, rebound in his skin.” Elizabeth set aside her whitework. “My dear, I have every sympathy with the sentiment, you know I do. But do you not fear that the gesture may be misconstrued, once news of it reaches Versailles?”
“Oh, Elizabeth.” His voice broke. “Without you, I fear I would run mad.”
She said nothing, just opened her arms. He was there, pressing his head hard against her breast. Her hand went up to stroke his hair.
“My dear,” she murmured. “My very dear. Trust me. It will come right in the end.”
Things do not just ‘come right’ for kings. Kings have to take the burden of the land upon themselves. Even when it comes to cutting off their own right hand to prevent a poison spreading.
Her hand moved, promise of infinite comfort. Comfort from which he was forever excluded. Excluded by his own choices, his own acts, his own betrayal.
“What am I to tell Charis?” He had not, consciously, considered the Crown Princess earlier. Dully, he thought it was probably the kindness of his brain to make him do so now, directing him away from images of Sherlock, washing away down the stream, empty blue-grey eyes staring up at the weeping sky.
“What can you tell her, except that everything that can be done to find Sherlock, is being done? I’ll try to make sure she remains with Frances, out on the country estate, until there’s solid news. This poisonous buzz of rumour and speculation around the Palace is enough to unbalance the strongest mind.”
“We can hardly contain rumour within the Palace. She will shortly know – if she does not already – of the order I pronounced in Council today. What then?”
“My dear, she isn’t a child, however young she may seem to you. She was born in a palace, just like this one.”
“That draughty, over-crenellated monstrosity in Gondal town can hardly be compared to –” The sense of what he was saying caught in his throat. He fell silent.
“Nevertheless. My point stands. She will know her own father must have had to make harsh decisions all the time.”
The lump rose in his throat. “He’d have done it, you know. King Ambrosine. Executed Sherlock. If my grandfather hadn’t died in time. I recall his very words. ‘One Gaaldine boot on the soil of Gondal and I’d have had no choice. Not once the idiot boy elected not to run when he had the chance. Pray you never stand in my shoes, lad.’”
“So far, it’s not come to that. I pray it never shall, my love. Take heart. And trust to Charis’ good sense. If not unaided, then at least after John’s had the chance to talk some into her.”
“What is it, love? What haven’t you told me?”
Surely it was impossible to breathe, let alone speak.
“John,” he choked out. “Not at the Council. It seems – he had the news before I did. Hours before. He was last seen riding hard on the north-eastern road, a little after dawn this morning.”
And – speaking of poisonous speculation –there’s no shortage of explanations for what his intentions must have been.
Treason. Rebellion. Two heads, side by side, on spikes above the city gates.
Empty, dulling eyes, food for the kites and corbies.
“No.” Elizabeth said firmly, above his head, as if answering his thoughts. “It was not so and is not so and God forbid it should be so. That’s what my nurse always said, after she’d been telling goblin stories and left us afraid to go to bed. That made everything all right again.”
“It sounds a curiously circular mode of proceeding.” Somehow, the blockage in his throat had eased, so that his voice came out sounding almost normal.
“So is life circular. Come, love. Bed. You need to rest. However bad things look now, as our Lord told us, hope cometh with the morning.”
Actually, it was Anthea who came with the morning.
He slipped from bed in the dark of the night. (Mostly he found Elizabeth’s little hedgehog-like snortings almost unspeakably endearing, but his nerves, since the news of the disaster, had been strung up to an intolerable pitch. Rising and walking was, truly, the only option short of murder.)
She found him pacing the gravel paths of the knot garden, rising out of the green-grey blur of the Palace grounds like a spectre, like a warning, like Fate.
“There is a man you must see,” she said without preamble, her voice breathy, urgent. “There is news. Not that news. But news, nonetheless.”
He suffered her to lead him through the ilex groves, to where she had concealed her protégé. He had not expected the fleshy, rough-hewn man who, defying all protocol, spoke first, in the flat, emphatic accent of the Northern Marches.
“Your grace. Don’t expect me to manage the polite bollocks. I’ve a problem. Give me what I need.”
News, Anthea had said. Anything else – including the curbing of insubordination – could wait.
The fleshy man whipped a paper out of his jerkin top.
“Well, to be completely explicit, sir, an army wouldn’t half come in handy. Musketeers, pikemen, infantry, cannon, all as set out here. Trouble’s coming, sir, and of course, we can always use more good men than that says, should you be minded to offer.”
For the first moment since the Reaching Beck Bridge news had come to Court, Mycroft trembled on the brink of laughter.
The stranger shrugged. “The Crown Princess told me you control her ‘army in law’. True or false? Sir.”
He had not felt so exposed in a decade and a half. Dear God and the Blessed Virgin, had he missed a trick? He could hear Genia’s deep, amused purr in his ear – how old was he getting, to hear the voices of the dead?
We are not icons, you know, nor dolls to dress up. We women of the court have eyes and ears and brains too. Especially brains. Never forget.
Still, it took little to summon up the correct dismissive tone.
“The Crown Princess? They tell me she has gone to the country, that she is staying quietly with friends during these anxious times.”
“If that mossy-faced spavined brute her husband gave her managed to get so far, she’ll be in Castle Cavron by now.”
“I said I had news, your grace. I hoped you’d be interested in hearing it. Am I wrong?”
He was – he had said so often – never truly alone. In the midst of the knot garden, as dawn was breaking he stood up and bellowed, “By God and all his angels, bring us some breakfast!”
They ate in the belvedere, in a position from which they could see anyone approaching. The Castellan ate ravenously, but never allowed his watch to drop. That, more than anything else, convinced Mycroft of the sincerity of his belief that trouble was on its way. Most people assumed that the heart of the Palace grounds was a place of safety.
Those people, self-evidently, did not include the Castellan of Castle Cavron.
Sealed orders. Sherlock. “Anything happens, get Charis out of the Palace.” A second messenger, arriving ahead of the first. Alerting John, giving him orders.
The fear which had lurked even before that snake de Merville had voiced it at the Council meeting dissipated. Whatever had happened on the Reaching Beck Bridge must have been to scotch a plot, not foment one. He glanced down at the paper. Sherlock’s spiky hand in every line of it.
“So,” Mycroft said, “Castle Cavron. Why?”
“Anyone else you fancy having there, at the moment, sir? Your two main threats at present are Corbisdale and the Pretender. The Crown Princess will never surrender to James of Gondal and you can take my guts and knit them into a skipping rope before I’ll give up the keys to any of Slippery Jimmy’s kin.”
“An assurance I value.”
If the Castellan detected any irony in his voice he did not betray it.
“A fact you may have overlooked, with all that’s been on your mind, sir; the far side of the border is Moriarty family lands – not Crown lands, but the family estates. And your grace has no doubt come across the Gaaldine border lords, and a right bloody-minded treacherous bunch of reiving buggers they can be, but they’re sweetness and kittens compared to their opposite numbers on the Northern side of the border, trust me, your grace.”
Fascinated, Mycroft nodded. Where had this man come from? No-one had spoken to him like this in as long as he could remember.
Is this how it is for Sherlock all the time?
“You put any other lieutenant in the Castle – assuming he can winkle the Princess out first, which is a task in itself, and one I don’t envy any man who tries – and the road to the Pass of the Eagles is clear for the Pretender. But –” He stabbed emphatically with his thumb. “Once you have a Moriarty of the senior branch of the family sitting at the throat of the pass – even if she’s a kid who weighs about half as much as my mastiff, dripping wet - you’ve as good as forced the border twenty miles further North, to say nothing of laying down a challenge which the Pretender won’t be able to refuse unless he fancies featuring as James the Craven in half the songs of the border for the next hundred years. He’ll have to send his men down through the Eagles or they’ll never respect him again. And when he does, I could do with having an army there to meet them. Your grace.”
Mycroft thought. Then he nodded. “My head of security tells me men of the regiments of which my brother is colonel-in-chief have been involved in disturbances in the capital since yesterday’s proclamation. It seems they’ve found it necessary to defend his honour – in fact, my head of security suspects some of them of going out deliberately to look for people they can defend it from… It will be a load off his mind to have them sent to the border on manoeuvres. With the snows melting and the passes opening there is always a risk of increased bandit activity in the regions, and our people there must be protected. I shall call Fullerton and have him cut orders to give you all you require.”
“Thank you, your grace. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you. One last thing. The commander of the regiments — ?”
Mycroft made his face as bland as only he knew how. “My brother, as you know, is unavoidably absent. As a dutiful wife, Charis knows she must protect and cherish all his possessions against his safe return. I would have thought his regiments came under that overall duty, wouldn’t you?”
And the grin which spread across the Castellan’s face at that was – for the moment – brighter and more full of promise than the rising sun.