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Chapter 5 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall

Charis pressed herself down between the fine linen sheets, listening to the ragged and increasingly raucous singing from the banqueting hall below, and prayed for death.

She was not sure when the nervous, butterfly fluttering in her insides with which she had awakened that morning had turned into a sodden lump of dread. Perhaps during the ceremony in the Cathedral, when the minor changes from what she had expected from the liturgy had gradually amounted into a major sense of wrongness, even affront, while the Crown Prince stood beside her, cold-faced and unresponsive, intoning the responses with a bored sense of propriety and — as she had been taught to recognise — perfect pitch.

The masque and the wedding banquet following it were a sick blur. Being taken away from the meal by a posse of giggling, unfamiliar ladies — God, how she’d missed Marguerite, or even Sarai, who had made it clear, earlier in the day, she lacked the rank to play any part in the evening’s events — had felt like a relief. Until they had taken her to this cold, large, unfamiliar bed and left her here.

The ragged sound of drunken singing was getting closer. The Blessed Virgin was cutting her intervention very fine. If, indeed, she planned to intervene at all. She curled down around herself, tight and unmoving.

The door burst open. The blaze of torches spilled across the threshold. For a moment it seemed as if an entire raucous mob were about to spill into the room. Charis pressed back into the bed.

“Thank you, gentlemen. You have carried out your duties to the letter. From here, I accept; I am on my own. Good night.”

The mob on the threshold fell back before that commanding tone. The door shut. Only the dim light of the nightlight illuminated event.

The Crown Prince was here. Whatever was supposed to happen could not be postponed any longer. From amid the heavy brocaded bed-coverings she looked up at her — husband — she supposed she had to call him, and tried to assume an air of shy but welcoming acquiescence.

He flared sparks from his tinderbox, and stalked about the chamber until he had lit candles on every sconce in the room. The light from behind betrayed his essential nakedness beneath the fine linen of his nightshirt.

She had read romances — very (it occurred to her now) anodyne romances. The heroines of such romances no doubt had had to pass through this moment. After the end of the book, unfortunately; none of the authors of such romances ever provided any practical guidance. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears.

The Crown Prince went to a cupboard and produced a bottle of wine and two goblets. He raised an eyebrow by way of question. Dry mouthed, Charis nodded. He poured, and handed her a brimming goblet. The wine was harsh; stronger than she was used to, and very welcome. Her sense that she might disgrace herself by either bursting into tears or whimpering receded.

“Biscuits?” he enquired. “You didn’t eat anything to speak of at the banquet.”

“Nor did you.” They had been seated by side though she had been almost too overwhelmed to attempt conversation with either the Crown Prince or the King, and been unspeakably grateful that John had assumed the conversational burden for them both.

“I rarely do. My brother’s cooks cook to my brother’s tastes, few of which I share.” His smile made him look, suddenly, a great deal younger. “Also, the number of people at Court interested in poisoning me is even higher at present than usual.”

She did let out a small squeak at that. He raised his goblet in a faint gesture of salute.

“I wouldn’t worry too badly. Plenty of people have made similar pledges and here I still am…I hope you aren’t a great enthusiast for mushrooms?”

“I cannot bear them,” Charis said. Her world was spinning; whatever she had imagined happening on one’s wedding night had not included chatter about food tastes. Or the risk of poisoning.

“Lucky. I’m very partial to them myself. But not in the Palace. That really would be giving hostages to fortune. I have to wait until I go hunting and can see them picked before my eyes. Do you hunt?”

Her throat closed up. “Before — with my father —” and then her eyes filled, unstoppably, and the worst happened. She dropped her head into hands and howled.

“Oh, damn.” The Crown Prince’s voice was very close above her head. A square of fine linen was thrust into her hand. She heard the sound of an hour-glass being turned on the night-stand. “Less than a quarter of the sand run through. I owe John five thaler. He said I’d have you in tears before half a turn of the glass.” A pause. “That, by the way, was a bet about my character, not yours, in case you were wondering. You were bearing up commendably, all things considered.”

“‘M sorry.” Charis blew her nose on the linen square.

“Don’t apologise. I’d forgotten what an enthusiast King Ambrosine was for the chase. Hence your speed and skill with the knife, up in the mountains. He’d shown you how to finish a wounded beast.”

“I didn’t mean — ”

“Yes, you did, and quite right too. If you pull a knife on a man, he’s got to believe you mean to use it or he’ll certainly disarm you. You held the blade right against all the major blood vessels — which someone has obviously taught you to find — and had me convinced my last hour had come, barring a miracle. Then John spoke up and I knew I owed a load of incense to the Blessed Virgin.”

“You knew him?” On the one hand it was a relief if her husband and dearest friend and counsellor got along, but on the other — Her father the king had told her nothing of such a friendship, which meant he had known nothing. A secret alliance between John and the royal house of Gaaldine, then. The cold pit of despair flooded her once more. It was as her father had said. “Trust no-one.”

A wiry arm wrapped around her shoulders. “Don’t worry. There’s not gold enough in Gaaldine to buy him. Mycroft’s tried.”

She turned, blindly, pressing herself against the fine linen of his nightshirt, the odd, flat hardness of his chest. The grip round her shoulders tightened, his other hand came up to stroke her hair. The Prince’s soothing, conversational tone continued.

“They sent me to Gondal as a hostage in my grandfather’s time. Without John, I’d have died of sheer misery.”

“How — how old were you?”

“Fifteen when it started. Seventeen when it ended. My grandfather died — luckily, since he was about to cross the border under arms, which would have put both me and King Ambrosine in an exceptionally awkward spot — he certainly didn’t want to have me publically executed, but kings can’t always do what they want. My uncle assumed the throne, called back the armies, signed a peace treaty and I could go home. Except I was less sure where home was, by that time. I’d like to go back.”

That casual phrase unleashed her deepest fear, one she had dared hint to no-one.

“I think — I think when the Heir becomes king — I do not think he will allow me to pass Gondal’s borders again. Nor would it be safe to. When my father dies I will lose Gondal forever. I — oh, I wish I’d been born a boy!”

“Well, that would have put a very different complexion on tonight, certainly.” The Prince’s voice was a low, amused purr. “Which, by the way, is one of those jokes you no longer have to pretend not to understand, now you’re a married woman. Though if you are genuinely puzzled by anything of the sort you could do worse than ask John. He taught me all the filthiest ones I know. Well, apart from Sarai’s story about the regimental camel and the step-ladder.”

He paused; his light tone altered. “Another relevant point is that, had you been born a boy, one of us might have ended up having to kill the other. Which — barring accidents — has happily now been averted. As a woman and my wife the armies of Gaaldine are at your back, not at your throat.”

“I have an army?”

“Strictly speaking, my brother has an army. Think of it as an army-in-law. Anyway, Charis, about tonight.”

Her heart gave a sudden leap. She had allowed herself — not to forget, precisely, but to thrust it down below the surface of her mind. Now it came back with full force. His arm around her shoulder felt, suddenly, intimidating. It was thin but all muscle. He must be very strong.

He must have felt her tense. “Ssh. Truly, I’ve no intention of hurting you.”

She managed a small, acknowledging sniffle. He dropped his arm and sat back amid the bedclothes, looking steadily at her.

“Charis; I have been an exile at a foreign court. And I cannot, honestly, think of anything which would have made my first few weeks in Gondal more hellish. But, if I could have thought of something, it might well have included being required to go to bed with someone not of my own choosing, twice my age and with whom I had barely exchanged five sentences of conversation. This has — for reasons of State — to remain between the two of us. But I have no intention of doing anything more than talk to you tonight, and not in the future until we’ve had a chance to get to know one another. And that means as long as you want.”

The relief was so intense she thought she might faint. Scarcely as it had rippled through her, though, hard reality followed.

“We can’t. We won’t be able to get away with it. The servants — the bedmakers —”

She ground to a halt, bright scarlet.

The Prince grinned at her. “So Sarai did pass on some useful information, did she? I hoped she might. But really, Charis, I’d hate to start our married life with your underestimating my brains. I can assure you, I am more than capable of faking the sheets to convince the most sceptical bedmaker and whoever’s paying her for the information.”

His utter confidence was compelling. She smiled; her first real smile in ages. He smiled back; confiding, mischievous.

“So, now that’s settled, suppose you tell me something useful about yourself? All they sent me when the treaty was first proposed was a painting which seemed to have been assembled from a random selection of features from the House of Ancona. You do not, as a matter of observed fact, have King Ambrosine’s jaw and nose, but the painter clearly thought they were an important element of the composition.”

“Everyone says I take after my mother.”

“Always a safe thing for a courtier to say. That’s why they do it.”

That sounded like the kind of remark Marguerite used to make, but not explain. Since Marguerite had explained everything she hadn’t actually been forbidden to discuss on pain of incarceration that meant it must touch on something Charis really didn’t want to dig into. Not tonight. Not after everything. Especially since she strongly suspected even the direct threat of incarceration wouldn’t stop the Crown Prince from being indiscreet.

“There’s nothing very interesting about me. ” That came out sounding rather sulky, which she hadn’t intended, especially given how kind he’d been. She thought, belatedly, that he’d probably had rather higher hopes about enjoying his wedding night than she had.

“Well, there’s one thing I’ve found fascinating. And, frankly, baffling. According to Lady Anthea — who, as I’ve sure you’ve already spotted, observes all the ladies of the court and passes on her observations to my brother — you spend your time embroidering with white thread on white fabric. What can possibly be the point?”

“The point?” Her voice rose with outrage. “It’s white on white work. It’s the most complex form of embroidery there is. It takes forever to learn, even when you’re using silk on linen, or linen thread on silk, and when you move onto silk on silk or linen on linen that’s when it becomes really interesting.”

“Interesting?” In the candle-light his brow was furrowed, but he was, amazingly, listening to her with genuine attention.

“Yes. It’s so subtle. The only way you can tell what’s been worked is by the different lie of the nap of the thread, and so if you look at it from certain angles it’s actually invisible. Then you tilt it so’s the light’s hitting it from another place and it appears. I once — that is — a friend of mine and me, when we’d learned how to do it, we — um —”

She tailed off.

“And how long did it take your embroidery tutor to work out you were passing rude messages to each other in your samplers?”

“How did you - ?”

“Obvious application of the technique. Interesting, though. Definite possibilities. I need to think about this.”

He swung his long legs to the floor and strode over to the writing desk.

“This is going to take some time,” he tossed back over his shoulder. “I suggest you get some sleep. It would probably enhance my reputation at Court if you emerge looking dead on your feet in the morning, but I’d rather John didn’t kill me. Especially since, if he didn’t finish me off, I can’t guarantee Sarai would patch me up.”

She fell asleep to the sound of the scritch of the quill on paper and the Crown Prince’s half-audible comments to himself as he wrote.