Chapter 3 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall
The absence of Annis and Marguerite hurt like a physical wound below Charis’s ribs, caught at the edge of her vision in every incautious movement of her head. The men-at-arms had been a grief; she had known some of them for as long as she could remember. She had been carried on their shoulders to watch military parades; picked up by them and comforted after falls from her pony in the Palace gardens. Though John had offered, she had insisted on writing the letters to their families herself, only checking the drafts through with him to ensure she was not making some horrific breach of military protocol.
Still, death in defence of his charge was, at least, part of the job a man-at-arms signed up for. Not a lady of the bedchamber. Guilt seared her, like a brand across bare flesh. She recalled Annis, pleading with her to find someone else to accompany her to Gaaldine; she had a new niece and a sickly sister, and apparently could hardly be spared at home. And yet Charis had still sobbed and pleaded and flattered and bribed, calling her indispensible, promising her that it would only be for three months or so, just long enough to see her settled in, assuring her she’d be home before Easter —
Now Annis’s body — the broken, almost unrecognisable thing that had once been her body - would be home for Christmas, but her spirit would wander forever lost in the high passes between Gondal and Gaaldine.
And it was all her fault. If only she hadn’t insisted.
Leaving grief aside (if such a thing could ever be managed) the loss of Marguerite and Annis had left Charis dangerously exposed. Take this morning, which had found her seated in a high withdrawing room amid a selection of ladies of the Gaaldine court who, Charis had no doubt, could be as lethal as mountain bandits where they chose, if more indirect in their tactics.
She bent over her embroidery frame (white-on-white work did not seem to have reached Gaaldine yet; she felt a feeble flicker of superiority as she plied her needle). Marguerite would have soon winkled out the actual pecking order within this room, as opposed to the hierarchy of formal ranks and roles which Charis had absorbed on introduction, dutifully attentive, and mentally filed using the tricks Papa had taught her from the earliest moment she had been allowed to venture out from the nursery wing into the wider Palace.
Marguerite, for example, would have been able to tell Charis if she’d guessed right about Lady Anthea, who sat in the window seat, barely pretending to work on the charcoal sketch of an alabaster vase on which she was ostensibly engaged. From the blend of deference and barely restrained bitchiness the senior-ranking ladies displayed to Lady Anthea, who met everything with a secret, superior smile, Charis thought she must be the acknowledged mistress of the King. Nothing else fitted the facts.
But Marguerite would have had everything sorted and ready for her by bedtime; length of the liaison, its stability, likely rivals, any children and their treatment. More to the point, she would have already have made inroads into compiling the same information about the Crown Prince’s own unofficial arrangements. Whatever form those took. Charis’s thoughts slid unhappily back towards the prospect of the night after next, and the vaguely imagined terrors it presented.
A blast of cold air from the doorway fortunately arrested that downward spiral. The new arrival was John, looking irritable and a little shorter than his real height, as he always did on the rare occasions when protocol forced him into formal court robes. She paused. John. He might well know who the Gaaldine King’s principal mistress was — Marguerite had told her men usually did know that sort of thing, even when they pretended contempt for gossip. If she asked him to find out about the Crown Prince, he might — no, certainly would — be shocked, but he had promised her honesty, the night before last, up in the mountain pass and the world knew that the stars would turn from their courses before John would betray his pledged word to any of the House of Ancona.
But then he was in front of her, and his face made her question die on her lips.
“Your grace,” he said, “we are bidden to an audience with the Lord Chamberlain of Gaaldine. I — do not believe it would be politic to delay.”
“This is a calculated insult to the Princess,” John said, doggedly. “I have attended her from her earliest years; I am able to satisfy all proper enquiries the King of Gaaldine requires. The idea of her being subjected to a formal examination —”
The gentle touch on his arm silenced him. Charis took a step forward, her chin lifted.
“We understand the constraints placed on the King in this matter. Where private persons are free to take such matters on trust, princes have to answer to their people. I have nothing to hide; therefore, objecting would be absurd.”
His gut clenched at her gallantry. The Lord Chamberlain — his pompous, jowly face almost too tempting a target for his punch — smiled his satisfaction.
“Then why delay matters? Dr Milverton is, fortunately, at leisure to attend the Princess.”
The Lord Chamberlain stepped back to allow the Gaaldine court physician to take centre stage. The words John had been about to utter, to the effect that, while he had enough professional pride as the next doctor, his still remained a world in which the convenience of princesses outweighed that of physicians, died on his lips. He felt Charis’s grip convulse on his arm, was close enough to hear her gasp of shock.
Dr Milverton’s skin was parchment-yellow, clinging to a form so spare of flesh he seemed like a mummified corpse. His lips bared in a smile which appeared to comprise equal parts lechery and contempt.
“It will be my pleasure,” he said, and left no-one in the chamber in the slightest doubt that he meant it.
A new voice — utterly familiar, wholly unexpected — cut in. “Dr Milverton’s condescension, as ever, overwhelms us all.”
John jerked his head up, towards the garishly dressed courtiers by the far door of the long audience chamber. They parted before the Prince, who was dressed with almost indecent simplicity for the occasion, in plain dark jerkin, breeches and high, huntsman’s boots. His smile glittered with an insincerity which matched the court physician’s own.
“Fortunately, we need not trespass on his valuable time. I have just left my brother’s chambers —”
“I had understood the King’s grace to be engaged this morning on a review of the Household Cavalry —” The Lord Chamberlain came to an abrupt stop as the Prince swivelled his head to favour him with the full blast of his attention. His eyes were splinters of ice. John found himself feeling for the sword which — in deference to protocol — he had left at the chamber door. Charis pressed close against his side. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her tighter yet.
“Your information is outdated.” The Prince paused for a moment, just long enough for that to sink in. “It appears the Deputy Comptroller of the Household received warning from some unknown quarter in the early hours of this morning of a likely investigation of rumoured scandals relating to the sale of promotions and appointments in the Cavalry and vacated his position at short notice by way of the window. The only reviews taking place this morning are those to be carried out by the confidential clerks of account. After all, who knows how far — or how high — the poison of corruption may have spread?”
The smile accompanying that remark cut like a naked blade. The Lord Chamberlain gulped, fish-like. The Prince turned his attention to John.
“My brother and I are in complete agreement on this.”
Somewhere in the crowded audience chamber someone — protected by the anonymity of the mass — gave a low whistle of scepticism. Part of John’s mind filed it away, essential orientation for the world in which he now found himself. The Prince continued as if no interruption had occurred.
“This was not part of the original marriage treaty. The only reason this suggestion has now been raised in Council is as a result of a failure on my part.”
The Lord Chamberlain opened his mouth to speak; without even looking in his direction the Prince cut him off with an uplifted gesture of his hand. Despite himself, John found himself transfixed by the sheer grace of the movement.
“Please, don’t try to spare my feelings.” He turned to face Charis, his stance that of a supplicant. “My lady. You and your party were subjected to an outrage the night before last. You lost -” He paused, and gulped, visibly. Sweat stood out on his pale brow. “In the desperate defence of your person, you lost seven gallant men and two of your closest lady companions. That should not have happened. The perpetrators were mountain bandits, but it occurred within Gaaldine’s borders.
Gaaldine’s protection failed you. I take that matter extremely personally.”
John blinked. By his own reckoning — he and the senior armsman had discussed the proposed position of the campsite over several hours and many miles of hard riding — they had been quite five miles inside Gondal when the bandits attacked. He had not been good at geography at school, but he knew the line of that border very well indeed. During his lifetime, the border had been re-drawn in blood many times. Some of that blood had been his.
And some had been Sherlock’s. In a war Gaaldine had never known he’d fought. Must never know he’d fought. Two nights ago, John’s words to Charis had been true, but incomplete. His last campaign had been in these hills, but so also his first campaign.
When he’d been twenty-one, and mad with love.
He lifted his eyes, to meet a steady, knowing, clear grey gaze.
“Accordingly,” the Prince said, unblinking, “the concerns expressed by members of our Council touch very much on my personal honour. As my brother has reminded me. So, while we are both grateful to Dr Milverton, it lies to me to make my personal physician available to assure Princess Charis she has taken no permanent hurt as a result. Sarai?”
Like a vision from another world she strode through the audience chamber; dull plaids and unpolished leathers folding around her slight, unimpressive form.
John turned to meet the mischief in those warm, dancing eyes. She stretched onto her tiptoes and planted a dry, chaste kiss just below his left cheekbone.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said.
“Me too,” John said, meaning it with all his heart. Over to the left Dr Milverton was looking daggers and the Lord Chamberlain like a man in a crowded tavern who suddenly realises his pocket-book has vanished from his person. He chose his next words with exquisite care and pitched his voice to carry. “But — why aren’t you still in Angria? We’ve hardly been able to keep a medical student in Gondal for three years; the best of them all trekked off to the University in Glasstown purely for the privilege of attending your lectures.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Angria, I’m afraid, is currently enmeshed in an outbreak of superstition which they choose to characterise as enlightenment. Oh, I was all for improving the quality of tuition at the University when the issue was first raised. But raising quality turned out to mean only allowing those to lecture at the University who are qualified to matriculate there. And then the University imposed a rule that only those eligible to take minor orders in the Church might matriculate. And then the Church - ”
She spread her hands eloquently. John filled in the gap.
“They quoted St Paul?”
“And the rest. So I was thrown back on old, bad habits, and forced to soldier once more.”
“Dear Sarai. Always so tactful.” The Prince’s amused face took the sting from his words. He took Charis’s hand and raised it to his lips. “Your grace. May I commend you to the care of my physician?”
Charis swept down to the floor in a curtsey whose grace and sophistication took John completely by surprise, so used was he to the puppyish, unselfconscious child and the gawky adolescent she had become.
“I am quite at leisure. Within the next hour best suits my convenience.”