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Chapter 4 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall

He had been on edge for over two turns of the hour-glass when the summons finally came. An uncommunicative man of arms led him to the Prince’s quarters.

“Well?” he said, as soon as he was sure they were alone. “Where is the Princess?”

Sherlock looked up from the mess of papers and mechanical contrivances on his desk. “Sarai told her about the work she’s been doing at the Poor Persons’ Lying In Hospital, so Princess Charis asked to be taken on a tour. As the Crown Princess, naturally she’ll be expected to take a keen interest in the city’s charities. The most censorious of the court ladies could hardly raise objection to such an outing, and since the Princess has not set a foot outside the palace in three days, I can quite see why the prospect of a change of scene might appeal to her.”

Frankly, John could think of few things less appealing to any young girl, especially two days before her wedding night, than witnessing first-hand the frequently fatal and always bloody outcomes of child-bearing and miscarriage. On the other hand, perhaps that was rather the point. Charis perhaps had fears about the physical side of things. Perhaps the chance of meeting a woman who was also a trained physician had struck her as a golden opportunity. And Sarai, thank God, would have the tact and persistence to draw it out, if that were truly the case.

He prayed it might be so. In the absence of her ladies in waiting — in the absence, God, of her mother — the only other candidate to whom she might address such questions would be him. And for all sorts of reasons, he devoutly hoped that particularly cup might pass from him.

“I think, by the way,” Sherlock drawled, “she really wanted to find out whether Sarai is my maîtresse-en-titre and, if not, who is.” He tapped a bundle of papers on his desk impatiently. “Honestly. I cannot imagine what my brother’s intelligence gatherers at the Court of Gondal can possibly expect we’re paying them for, judging from this. The woman Annis was one of ours, by the way. But also in the pay of the Heir of Gondal. If the Princess grieves too badly, feel free to tell her Annis was no friend of hers, however much she may have played the part.”

John nodded. King Ambrosine had known of the Gaaldine link — one of the reasons he’d insisted Lady Annis be of the party. Not that she’d also been bought by the Heir. For one sick moment he wondered whether it had been Annis who’d sent word of their route to those who had ambushed them, and whether she’d known before the end that she’d sealed her own death warrant in doing so.

“I’ll guarantee your reports — if they come from honest spies, at least — will show the Princess to be anything a prince might want in his consort,” he said doggedly.

Sherlock snorted. He rose, went to a nearby table, and poured wine for them into the goblets which stood ready there before John could demur. The harsh, tannic red from the dry Northern slopes of Angria, of course. No doubt his memory of John’s other preferences remained equally acute.

“Actually, these reports impugn the Princess’s honour in that regard most profoundly.”

“Then they lie!”

“Quite so. To my own certain knowledge.” He turned, his eyes glittering. “Our agents told us volumes about the Princess’s skill at embroidery, her talents on the lute, and her ability to sing in three languages. Nowhere do they mention that she could finger Lady Anthea as the head of my brother’s Palace intelligence network within two hours — details are irrelevant, the essential relationships she had down pat — or that, taken by surprise, at night, by torchlight, untrained and during her first experience of combat, she identified the commander of the attacking force and took decisive action to swing the encounter in her side’s favour. In short, that she’s level-headed, courageous and ruthlessly competent. And our agents ignored every sign of that talent in favour of embroidery.

He pushed the stack of paper onto the floor. “Great as my respect is for King Ambrosine and, especially, for the late lamented Queen Felicia, I’d never have credited the house of Ancona could sprout such a bud. And for all our agents’ help, I’d have been in ignorance of her abilities to this day. We should have been negotiating for this marriage two years ago.”

John blenched, but held his voice steady. “Two years ago, his grace King Ambrosine was in excellent health. And engaged to be married to her lady the Princess Dowager of Angria. Also in excellent health, in her early thirties, of proven fecundity.”

“Arsenic,” the Crown Prince drawled. “Undermines the strongest constitution. King Ambrosine, though — I take it his decline is natural?”

John nodded. A patient’s confidence, be he beggarman or king, must be kept sacrosanct at all cost; that he’d learned from his father, before even he’d started his medical apprenticeship. But the King had given him leave to use his judgement, do whatever he needed to keep Charis safe. “A malignant growth. Slow, but inevitable. Six months — perhaps more. Not less, unless the Heir becomes impatient.”

“It might be enough. Will have to be enough.”

“And the Princess?” John had almost forgotten how infuriating he had always found Sherlock’s ability to find priorities which were quite different to those which normal people concentrated on.

“What about her?”

“I take it Sarai’s examination showed these infamous rumours about the Princess’s chastity to be baseless? And the King of Gaaldine has been so informed?”

Sherlock looked faintly puzzled. “Well, I expect she didn’t find anything untoward. The whole business was whipped up by a faction within the court in the pay of the Heir of Gondal. Quite ridiculous. It forced me to spring a trap I’d been preparing for months, before I could be sure half the targets were inside it. My brother is equally annoyed; I cannot imagine the Lord Chamberlain had a comforting audience with him this morning. Anyway, I daresay Sarai would have mentioned it if there’d been anything amiss. Probably.”

“You mean you don’t actually care if the Princess Charis is a virgin or not?” John gulped, and added, “Which, of course, she is.”

Sherlock shrugged. “Well, whatever the state of her hymen, it isn’t going to change the position of the land border between Gondal and Gaaldine, is it?”

For a moment he sat, mouth open. Sherlock topped up his goblet and smiled; the old, hauntingly familiar, sidelong smile.

“Did you not read that treaty you brought with you?”

“Of course I read it!”

“In that case, what did you understand by clause seven?”

“Gaaldine’s pledge not to cross the borders of Gondal under arms, save where their aid be invoked in defence of King Ambrosine and the lawful heirs of the house of Ancona? How difficult is that to understand?”

“The traditional wording of such clauses adds the words ‘as recognised by the laws and traditions of the realm of Gondal’. But not this one. Remind me, John, how I came to the court of Gondal as a young man?”

“As a hostage for the good behaviour of your grandfather, before he was succeeded by your uncle, the — oh.”

“You see now, don’t you? My uncle the late king, you were going to say. My mother’s brother. Who was in turn succeeded — quite properly and in full accordance with the laws of Gaaldine — by my brother Mycroft. This land does not and has never had any restriction on inheritance down the female line. Which means that by clause seven of the treaty signed by his grace the King of Gondal, I and my brother are pledged — should our aid be invoked — to lend “such strength and valour as may conveniently be afforded” to the support of King Ambrosine’s lawful heir. Who, by our law — none other being specified in the treaty — is Princess Charis. Who will, in less than forty-eight hours, be my wife. Now, John, do you understand what the game really is? And are you in or out?”

“In,” he muttered, dry-mouthed. There could be no other answer. He recalled his memories of the Heir of Gondal; lascivious, rapacious, utterly without conscience. He had said goodbye to all the life he’d known on less than an hour’s notice simply to save Charis from that hooded-eyed, malignant presence. It had not occurred to him that in saving Charis he could save Gondal, too.

“We’ll drink to that, then.” The Prince had refilled their goblets before he could stop him. He raised his high, tossing back the wine, and wiping his mouth on the fine linen napkin the Prince handed to him.

It occurred to him, afterwards, that the wine stains on the linen had looked dusk-dark, as if they had been blood.