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Chapter 1 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall

“You cannot possibly be serious,” John said, before recollecting that the fragile figure in the ornate canopied bed was not simply his patient but his King, making the words he had spoken technically, treason and (far from technically) death to him as a result.

Ambrosine XVII, Lord of Gondal and the Isles, laughed palely up at him from amid the massed pillows.

“A man in my position cannot eschew seriousness forever. Indeed, some days I feel one good hearty guffaw would blow me clean away… And if a king cannot be serious about the marriage of his only child, when may he cast levity aside?”

“The Princess Charis,” John persisted doggedly, with a strong sense that (having gone so far) he might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, “is fourteen years old.”

“And, therefore, by canon law — supported by the testimony of her attendant ladies — has been of marriageable age for quite two years. Some of my advisors have not been slow to draw that fact to my attention. Over the last six months, those advisors have become increasingly importunate.”

The stench of the sickroom seemed, somehow, unbearable. Which was, of course, ridiculous; who was he, John Watson, court physician, to be repulsed by the combined odour of human mortality and realpolitik?

With considerable effort, though waving away all attempts at assistance, the King raised himself onto one elbow.

“Tell me, John, were she before us now, what advice do you think the Queen would give?”

The room whirled. Never since the night when all that skill, knowledge — yes, together with love, gratitude and abject terror — could do had proved inadequate under his labouring hands had the King mentioned the Queen to him. And never in connection with Princess Charis.

Still, John had shaped his life for years around one profound truth. Whatever he might once have been, he was now the King’s man, until death. And, unlike others who classed themselves as such, he owed his King uncompromising honesty (on everything except the question the King had never asked, a nagging voice reminded him. Fifteen years ago. A rose tossed through a window, the soft breath of lilac in the twilight.)

“The Queen’s grace would say,” John stated, head back and feet placed with military precision, “that it would be far better for the Lady Charis to go to the bed of the Crown Prince of Gaaldine, now, with her father’s blessing and all the diplomatic protection his best counsellors may devise, than be dragged to the bed of the Crown Prince of Gondal in six months’ time, over her royal father’s still breathing but barely animate body.”

His king eyed him from amid the pillows. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “had you not been the man I know you to be — entirely prosaic, completely foreign to any breath of the uncanny — I could swear you had mediumistic talents. Felicia’s very words and trick of speech! So you give me six months, do you? For a modest man, John, I’d say you flattered yourself.”

John dipped his head. “Not a modest man, your grace. A betting man. Could you do your subject the inestimable favour of surviving until the summer solstice, your Captain of the Guard would find himself remarkably impoverished in consequence.”

The King had, John reflected, been fortunately pessimistic about the effects of a good guffaw on his weakened constitution. Still, his face grew serious again moments later.

“Tell me, John, which of your junior colleagues — of those whose talents you otherwise esteem — do you dislike most heartily?”

“Richardson.” The word came automatically, almost without thought.

“Richardson.” The King rolled the name round on his tongue, as in happier days he might have done with vintage port or fine oysters. “Quite so. Then I charge you with breaking the good news to him. From tonight, he is to be considered the King’s physician. For as long as he can make the post last.”

“But —”

“Don’t mistake me, John. This is not a dismissal. Consider it rather a reassignment.” The King’s teeth flashed yellow as he bared thin, blue lips in a smile which recalled the grimace of a fatally wounded wolf, at bay amid the snowdrifts. “You are now part of Princess Charis’s household; her confidential physician and senior advisor. You escort her to her wedding with Prince Sherlock of Gaaldine. Pack quickly; your party leaves within the hour.”