Chapter 7 - The Crown Princess of Gaaldine by A.J. Hall
“How could I have known she was going to take it that way? We’ve been awaiting the death of the King of Gondal for months. The Master of the King’s music has been driving the Abbey choir to distraction in case his new setting of the Requiem isn’t ready on time. It could hardly have come as a surprise to her; in fact, the only surprise is that he held out so long.”
“Your grace — Sherlock - I’m giving you advance warning now that the next time you say anything that suggests in the smallest degree that the Princess Charis overreacted to the way you and your brother informed her of King Ambrosine’s death I shall do my level best to punch your nose out through the back of your skull.”
“Which will do what, precisely?”
“Well, at the very least, it should clear up any lingering confusion you may have as to the difference between asurprise and a shock.”
The Crown Prince exhaled. His hand went up to finger the puffy, blackening lump above his left eye.
“Don’t fiddle with that,” John snapped automatically.
“Yes, thank you, you are not my physician, Sarai is.”
“I’m sure she said exactly the same thing.”
“Well, apart from an irrelevant observation about how useful the Princess would have been on something she called her “creeve-ball” team all summer, had she only known, yes. Look, I was actually trying to apologise at the moment she threw the vase —”
“In your own inimitable style, doubtless. Did you mention the Requiem, by any chance?”
“Possibly — in passing — but even that hardly justified her screaming that she’d annul our marriage and go home to Gondal —”
“Well, fortunately for you, however insensitive and boorish a husband may prove in a crisis, canon law doesn’t consider that valid grounds for annulment. And she must know the Pretender would have her assassinated as soon as she crossed the border, anyway.”
“I mentioned that. She said, ‘Better dead than married to you.’”
John, despite himself, giggled. Charis might be a married woman and, on one legal theory at least, the rightful Queen of Gondal, but part of her was still a teenage girl indulging in an epic sulk. And the Crown Prince — motherless from an early age, sisterless and without any close female relatives — seemed utterly at sea about how to cope. Even though — if John remembered rightly — his own capacity for sulking was second to none.
The Crown Prince glared at him, then permitted a slight, reluctant grin to lift the corner of his mouth.
“Look, John, you have to help me. The King is furious —”
“About the threat to his foreign policy, presumably. He was hardly behaving like a model of tact and sensitivity himself.”
“Well, obviously. But somehow it’s all my fault.”
“My sister tells me that’s what a husband’s for. Being blamed. And she’s very good at blaming. Clarence has my sympathies.”
“Did Clarence tell you anything useful about how a husband can dissipate blame once he’s incurred it?”
“Very expensive presents, I gather.”
Sherlock brightened. “Really? In that case, follow me.”
He scuttled in the wake of Sherlock’s long strides through the Palace, suppressing his irritation at the indignity imposed by his formal, mourning robes, so unsuitable for anything resembling haste. He found himself, gaping a little, in the squat, solid, heavily guarded tower which, together with its rumoured labyrinthine cellars, housed the Royal Treasury.
Sherlock nodded, curtly, at the guards. “Thank you. Bring the master of the treasury to wait upon me in an hour.”
The guards gaped but, clearly, lacked the hardihood to forestall the Crown Prince. They looked as if they would liked to have detained John, but he whisked through the tiny, iron-bound door in the ten-foot thick wall so hard on Sherlock’s heels they missed their chance.
Torches stood ready in iron brackets. Sherlock lit a couple and began stalking around, opening chests and cupboards with keys from the bunch he produced from some inner recess in his clothing. Some faint part of John’s mind clanged a warning bell; surely he’d last seen those particular keys in the hands of the King? But minor alarms faded into nothing under the absolute cacophony of outrage when Sherlock produced a tiara of rubies and diamonds from a casket and announced with an air of deep satisfaction that it looked like just the thing.
“Just what thing?” John demanded, even though he had a horrible sense he knew the answer.
For a moment John’s sense of outrage actually deprived him of the power of speech.
“That’s the Mezentian Coronet. You can’t go purloining the heirlooms of Gaaldine simply to paper over the problems caused by your complete absence of tact. Quite apart from anything else, the kingdom would be bankrupt in a week.”
“Thanks for your faith in me.”
“I’m being realistic. Anyway, you can’t possibly give Charis coloured stones. Not when she’s going to be in deep mourning for the next six months.”
“Oh, damn. I loathe mourning, and not only will I have to look at her wearing it, I suppose I’ll have to make the effort, too.”
“If you’d made the effort a bit earlier that might have helped with Charis, too. And caused less of a scandal in the Court this morning.” He looked pointedly at Sherlock’s wine-red doublet. “After all, by the same token as the Requiem, you can hardly claim the need for mourning took you by surprise. And King Ambrosine was, after all, your father-in-law.”
The clipped, single word hit him with unexpected force; almost, he felt the tower walls shifting and crumbling around him.
“What do you mean by that?”
“King Ambrosine and Queen Felicia had been married for ten years without issue by the time Charis came along. Shortly before the Crown Princess’s birth, you, John, left the court of Gondal to take up a position as surgeon-general in the Army of Gondal — a position for which you were eminently well-suited in everything but age, you being at least a decade younger than the next youngest candidate — and remained in the field for the next five years. You only returned to court once you were invalided out of the Army. Five months later the Queen died in the course of miscarrying a son. The inference is moderately obvious.”
“You never said anything.”
“And I wouldn’t be saying it now if we weren’t alone in the most heavily guarded tower in the Palace. Though, as we’ll all have to deal with the Pretender and his agents saying it from now on, you might try practising not looking like a guilty rabbit if you happen to overhear it.”
“And what about Charis?”
“What about Charis? Though even his worst enemy would hardly stoop to describing King Ambrosine as a genius —”
“He was a shrewd and competent occupant of the throne of Gondal —”
“He had a knack for choosing the right man for any given job and the sense to leave him to get on with it. Which, incidentally, probably explains Charis.”
“About the bit earlier, when I promised to punch your nose out through the back of your skull -?”
“Repented the urge, have you?”
“Rather the contrary, actually.”
“Oh.” Sherlock considered for a moment, and then knelt besides a chest. “There should be something here — ah, yes.”
A treble-stranded rope of pearls slithered between his fingers, like the white ribbons of water which tumbled ceaselessly down Gondal’s hill-sides, in snow-melt.
“This can certainly be worn in mourning. Would she like it, do you think?”
For a moment, he looked uncertain, lost. Ridiculous as it seemed, his expression caused a stutter of protectiveness to rise up in John’s chest.
He nodded. “Yes. She’ll like those. Especially — ” He hesitated. Sherlock rocked back on his heels and looked up at him. The fierce, erratic glow of the torches set his cheekbones into almost indecent relief. His eyes were deep, hungry pits.
“Oh, God,” John said, incoherently, and stumbled across the rough stone floor, dropping to his knees beside Sherlock. “Oh, God.”
Sherlock’s lips captured his; long hands reached up to burrow in his hair, down to cup his arse.
“We can’t — we mustn’t — “
“Alone in the most guarded tower in the Palace, remember?” The rough, breathy edge beneath the smooth purring tones sent spikes of fire along his nerves; for a moment he sniffed the clear frosty air of the Pass of the Eagles; the torches were those of half a lifetime ago.
“That’s not what I meant —”
“Please, John. Please. You have no idea how much I missed you.” He wrapped his arms tightly round John’s chest, as if anchoring himself.
“You think not?” he breathed. The chill of the stone floor set up a nagging, persistent ache in his old leg wound. Trivial, though, compared to the pain in his chest; an agonising wound which threatened to deprive him of the power to breathe. He breathed in Sherlock; hauntingly familiar even after so long, felt Sherlock’s heart thumping in rhythm with his own.
“You left me.” Petulant tone, not quite masking a well of hurt.
John sighed. “I was away barely three weeks. When I returned, you’d gone back to Gaaldine.”
“What option did I have? The head of palace security was convinced my grandfather had been assassinated at Gondal’s instigation — if he’d found a shred of evidence it would have been war. Everything moved so fast - leading the peace mission must have been the most exercise Mycroft’s ever taken in his entire life. The Palace to Castle Cavron in less than two days; four hours in Castle Cavron and then straight on to Gondal.” The fierce grip round his body tightened. “I didn’t even know he was in the country until the door to my dungeon opened five days later and he told me we were to ride for the border immediately. I had no chance of getting a message to you, even if I’d known where you were.”
John’s heart almost stopped, then raced. “I thought you’d thought better. That you’d —” Words failed him once more.
“Regretted? Repented? Believed the priests? What kind of fool do you take me for, John? I thought I had less than a week to live but I wouldn’t have traded that night for fifty more years. Have you any idea how long — ”
He broke off. John’s heart felt it might almost crack for the sheer pity of things. He reached out to stroke the Crown Prince’s dark tangle of hair.
“Charis,” he murmured. Whatever his own desires, things had changed irrevocably between them. There were some dangers no longer solely theirs to run; other hearts besides theirs to be broken.
“You were wrong, earlier. It wasn’t some — calculating piece of statecraft on King Ambrosine’s part. He didn’t know —”
He stumbled to a halt, caught, as ever in the old conundrum. Had the King known? The night before he’d left to join the armies he’d summoned the courage to ask Felicia but the Queen had laid one delicate forefinger across his lips, commanding his silence.
“You loved her.” Sherlock’s voice was very quiet, even in the intense hush of the treasury tower.
John nodded. “I loved her and in the end I killed her.”
“You can’t save everyone, John. Not even you.”
“Perhaps not. But, God willing, I’ll save Charis.”
“From what? No, on second thoughts, don’t answer that question. Not even in the most guarded tower in the Palace. Especially since we are, I believe, about to be no longer alone.”
He rose to his feet with his characteristic grace, leaving John cold and somehow bereft, still crouched awkwardly on the stone floor beside the chest. And then he saw who was entering the tower behind the flustered, scurrying figure of the master of the treasury. His leg had stiffened; he cursed under his breath as he struggled to his feet.
The King of Gondal barely acknowledged his flurried, awkward attempt at a bow. His eyes were fixed on his brother.
“Already?” Sherlock said.
The King nodded. “A string of farms along the borders raided and burnt out over the last four days. Attributable to bandit activity, of course.”
“Of course. Aiming to provoke a response against the mountain strongholds in the debateable lands. Which can be represented an act of aggression on Gaaldine’s part. Boring and predictable.”
“Also effective. We cannot decline to aid our subjects n the border marches. And there is also the matter of this morning’s assassination attempt on the Crown Princess.”
“Charis? Why the hell didn’t you tell me —”
Sherlock’s glare silenced John before he could commit any further breach of protocol.
“Assassination attempt is putting it too strongly. We caught one of the bedmakers with poison on her. But I’d been aware for some time she was in the pay of the Heir of Gondal, and she’s been pretty closely watched. Also, I did warn Charis. We do talk to each other.” He glanced down at the rope of pearls which was now wrapped around his forearm. “Well, mostly.”
The master of the treasury followed the direction of his glance and gulped.
“Ah, you’ve been choosing a gift to our sister the Queen of Gondal to mark her accession,” the King observed. “A surprisingly well-considered choice, all things considered. If erring, perhaps, towards the overly modest.”
He crooked his finger towards the master of the treasury. “Open that casket, please.”
At the reappearance of the Mezentian Coronet, John was hard pressed to stifle a fit of hysterical laughter. He dare not meet Sherlock’s eye.
“Coloured stones,” the Crown Prince observed, with an air of critical detachment. “However fine they are, aren’t you forgetting that Charis will be in deep mourning for the next six months?”
For a moment John thought he saw a flicker of annoyance flash across the King’s face, though perhaps that might be the torchlight.
“This, too, will pass. And, even if it happens within the next six months, even King Ambrosine himself would hardly object were the Queen of Gondal to wear it when she enters the citadel at the head of the army of liberation.”
Sherlock’s face was suddenly transformed. “You agree, then?”
The King gestured towards the coronet and the rope of pearls. “Not my agreement that’s needed. But you to leave for Castle Cavron in the morning.”
As they emerged into the sudden, unexpected sunlight, Sherlock thrust his clenched fist up into the air.
“Life at last.”
“War. At last.”
“That’s what I said. Let’s go and tell Charis the good news.”