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Chapter 6 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall

“I confess, I find it indescribably refreshing to know that actually is the sound of a fifteen-year-old girl having a temper tantrum in the Crown Prince’s quarters.”

John said nothing. Happening upon the King parading along the Long Gallery amid a gaggle of courtiers had been unfortunate but, at least, something from which he had expected to escape at the cost of a duty obeisance and the murmur of pressing business elsewhere (and, indeed, not a lie; Sarai’s numerous projects in the city had fascinated him since his arrival, even though — despite his tentative advances on that front — Sarai had shown no inclination towards renewing the comforting, undemanding intimacies of their past). Having the King of Gaaldine dismiss all his courtiers and insist on their carrying on the walk à deux had formed no part of his morning’s plans.

“What can they be studying today, do you think?”

A crystal ink-pot soared through a gap in the fragile stone-work and shattered on the stone flags just in front of where we were standing. King Mycroft flicked back the hem of his beaver-fur trimmed robe an instant before the ink would have splashed it.

“Well?” His tone changed not an iota. John choked, momentarily, his throat dry.

“Ballistics, I understand, your grace. And trajectories.”

“Oh.” Two measured paces down the Gallery. “Tell me — John, is it not? — is the Crown Princess considered to be making progress on those subjects?”

Plenty of dutiful, courtier-like responses were ready at his disposal. John had never been a courtier, not really, not at heart.

“Perhaps your grace might venture to form his own judgement as to the Crown Princess’s progress, from recent events?”

He glanced over his shoulder, pointedly, at the mess of broken glass and ink on the flagstones.

For a moment he thought he saw the line of the King’s upper body stiffen. Then the imperturbable urbanity flowed back.

“I still have a brother. Her grasp of trajectories may not be all you claim.”

John smiled. “Or the Crown Prince is, perhaps, very expert at dodging?”

That he knew to be true, to a certainty. The King’s face became coldly formal.

“And the other lessons?”

“Your grace?”

John had spent sufficient time in the army to have the requisite tone polished to an adamantine brilliance. As all C/Os did at this particular juncture, the King sighed and started to explain.

“Over the last eight months the Crown Prince has required his bride to commence the serious study of the art of fence; accompany him on ever more perilous hunting trips (my compliments, by the way on your surgical skill; most strong men suffering that tusking from a wounded boar would not have survived, let alone a young girl) and has, relentlessly, had her taught and tutored her personally in tactics, strategy, pharmacology, trigonometry, cartography and, for all I know, crystallography. As you can imagine, my Court is not short of supplying explanations for my brother’s enthusiasm.”

“Your grace?” John repeated, with exactly the same inflection.

King Mycroft’s expression barely wavered; John’s exposed nerve endings knew he might yet come to the dungeons and the glowing irons, even so. Still, he heard the King’s welcome, human, unexpectedly exasperated jerk of breath.

“My brother may not care for gossip, but his — ah —unexpected enthusiasm for sharing his bed with the Crown Princess has drawn a certain level of attention. In Court circles.”

John tried to tamp down his instinctive reaction. Unexpected. So — that night so long ago had not ended something, as it had for him, but started it. And how much blame did he carry, for that? And then, Oh Charis, oh my darling dear.

“There are, you should know,” the King continued obliviously, “factions in the Court who hold his educational efforts are aimed at attempting to convert his bride to the preferred gender to — ah — keep him amused. Any thoughts on that, Doctor?”

“It seems unlikely. I have never known the Crown Prince undertake any task at which he did not expect to succeed. But, your grace, have you tried asking him yourself?”

The King eyed him. “As you are no doubt aware, ‘Lord of the Marches’ is traditionally one of the Crown Prince of Gaaldine’s minor honorifics. A sinecure, in most cases, usually discharged by a token progress around four or five border castles and an extended stay in the spring and autumn at the palace on the southern lakes. Renowned waterfowling.”

“An ague pit in summer,” John murmured, feelingly. The King shot him a very telling glance.

“You have the advantage on me there, evidently. In any event, some months ago my brother came to me with a proposal. In — ah — anticipation of likely increased border tensions in the foreseeable future —”

When the Heir assumes the Throne of Gondal and repudiates the peace treaty.

”- he thought it advisable that the position of Lord of the Marches should become more than honorary. In fact, he suggested taking up more-or-less full-time residence in the Castle of Cavron.”

Commanding the narrow defile of the Cavron Gorge and the approach to the Pass of the Eagles. Or, as John had heard it described in innumerable military briefings, Gondal’s back door.

“Castle Cavron,” John said woodenly.

“Yes,” the King said. “A Crown estate. It’s too close to the border to offer to a vassal. Of recent years, though, it’s been managed by stewards. Do you know, I rather think none of my House has spent a night beneath its roof since my grandfather died there? I do hope the drains have been thoroughly overhauled since his day… .Even seasoned campaign veterans still talk about the speed with which the enteric fever took hold. And left his face so swollen and blackened his own physician could only recognise him by his signet ring. But you’ll know all about that, of course, John.”

“About what?”

“Oh, I had understood it was one of those notable cases about which every physician has his own pet diagnosis. I’ve certainly been treated to Sarai’s and Milverton’s. I look forward to hearing yours one of these days. But — be that as it may — the Crown Prince takes the view that if Princess Charis is to be chatelaine of the Castle of Cavron in the turbulent times ahead, she needs the skills necessary to sustain the place through a siege. Even should he chance to be absent.”

Half of him recoiled at the thought of Charis commanding a castle under siege; the other half gloried at the Prince’s blazing faith in the girl. King Ambrosine had always been fond of her, in his own vague, amiable way, but had never got over his disappointment at her sex. Charis could hardly have missed realising as much. For the Crown Prince, who notoriously suffered fools not at all, and classed ninety per cent of the human race thus, even to think of training her for command of one of Gaaldine’s great strategic fortresses — that alone would have been worth leaving Gondal for.

But — the Cavron Gorge and the Pass of the Eagles -

His heart lurched, recalling a reconnaissance expedition from almost half-a-lifetime ago; two young, highly irregular reconnaissance scouts, perched up among the rocks above the pass, reading amid the scattered torches assembling far below them in the shadow of the Castle an unmistakeable message.

Gaaldine marches on Gondal.

And another message, too. He recalled Sherlock’s voice, in the dark, utterly calm and uninflected.

“I gave my parole. Whatever my grandfather chooses to do, I must return to King Ambrosine and redeem Gaaldine’s honour, whatever the cost.”

So young, so gallant and the shadow of death upon him; how could any moralist consider what followed a sin — the urgent, frantic tangle of limbs, hot kisses and hotter need, two years of aching restraint, secretive glances, guilty, stolen touches and bitter-sweet longing melting into liquid desire amid the cold rocks.

It was odd, he had thought many times since, that Sherlock, who had slept so little and so uneasily on all their previous scouting and hunting expeditions, should have dropped into so deep a sleep when they were done, even while the columns of spiralling torches advancing up the road to the rendezvous were weaving a rope for his throat. He had not even stirred when John had dropped a final kiss on his brow, rolled out from beneath their shared cloaks in the darkest hour before the dawn, and stolen down across the border into Gaaldine to perform a miracle.

The door to the Crown Prince’s apartments burst open. The Crown Prince strode out. He showed no surprise at seeing either John or the King.

“There’s a skewbald horse ridden by a man clad all in green coming hard down the road from the north. “

“A skewbald with two white forefeet. You said that was important.” Charis emerged from behind the Crown Prince. He caught her by both hands and spun her round, laughing.

“Indeed it is. If you really saw it.”

“The Princess has always had excellent eyesight,” John said.

“How fortunate she missed the nearsightedness which has troubled the house of Ancona in recent generations,” the King said, silkily.

The Crown Prince turned to face his brother. John tensed as he saw the glee drain from Sherlock’s face.

“You know,” he said flatly.

The King shrugged. “Pigeons. So much less melodramatic than — circus horses. Suppose the designated skewbald with the two white forefeet had thrown a strain in the stable overnight?”

Sherlock’s eyes were unnaturally bright, his teeth chewing arrhythmically at his lower lip. “And suppose the pigeons had been snatched by the pair of peregrine falcons which roost on the West Tower top? Anyway, you do know. Don’t you?”

Charis looked from the Crown Prince to the King; shoulders tense.

“Know what?” she enquired.

The Crown Prince’s face changed; as if, John thought wryly, he had only just been made aware of some crucial fact and was furious with himself for not having accounted for the possibility of its existence.

“King Ambrosine is dead,” he said flatly, and then, abruptly, without any pretence at warning dropped to his knees before Charis and forced his large hands between her smaller ones. “I now do formally renew the treaty pledges of offence and defence to Gondal, and to its lawful monarch.”

She held his hands for the briefest time, then dropped them to look up and across his tousled head at John, her eyes wide and desperate. As if there were only the two of them in the Long Gallery, he strode across to her, dropped to one knee and raised her right hand to his lips.

“Your grace,” he murmured. “My queen. To the death.”

Then, in one smooth movement, he rose to his feet, and favoured the King and the Crown Prince with one cold glance.

“Her grace the Queen of Gondal has had bad news. As her physician, I advise her to retire and compose herself in solitude. Once she has done so, she will be able to confer with your graces on the question of the Pretender. Until then -“

He put his arm around Charis and led her to her quarters.