Chapter 1 - The Guardsman's Defence by A.J. Hall
All the air in the small conference chamber vanished; he felt he might collapse any minute.
The other four men watched for his reaction. Mycroft openly, real curiosity flickering in his eyes. Alwent arrogantly, a sneer on those cruel, sensuous lips. Holderness fussily, blinking above the new eyeglasses Mycroft had had imported from Bohemia to mark his twenty-fifth year as Lord Chamberlain. Fullerton covertly, peeping from behind his papers, as befitted one not present in his own right, but only as amanuensis to the King.
Predictably, only Alwent had both the nerve and stupidity to break the silence.
“Although your grace has successfully evaded matrimony to date, I assure you - with the benefit of many years experience - that it takes very little effort to make its yoke lie remarkably light.”
Words sprang to his lips without the intervention of his conscious mind.
“So I would surmise, given the remarkable frequency with which one encounters little counterfeits of the Alwent coin around the kingdom. Do you know, I took ship a few months ago on a battered old coastal trader, more caulk than planking, and found myself at a loss whether to call the captain ‘coz’ or ‘you imbecile’.”
Alwent’s hand went to where his sword-hilt would have been, were this not - however small - a session of the King’s Council.
“Really?” Mycroft’s detached tone cut through the tension in the room. “It’s hardly as if you’ve found it necessary to choose between those alternatives before, little brother.”
Fullerton let out a nervous giggle, almost a neigh.
Mycroft put his elbow on the conference room table and propped his chin on his hand. His grey-blue eyes held nothing but bottomless sincerity - something he had doubtless learnt to counterfeit before he could walk.
“Trust me, Sherlock; I know what I ask of you. I have not, personally, found marriage a light undertaking.”
He leaned forward; his face was only inches from Sherlock’s own. “Nevertheless, you know how we stand. With this stroke, we offer hope to the Modernist party in Gondal, destabilise Prince James before ever he ascends the throne and - given the fairest of fair winds, granted - grab a chance to end forever the wars that have cost so many lives on both sides of the border since time immemorial.”
Sherlock’s head was swimming; what had happened to the air in here? He could barely force his throat to form words. “And what of the girl herself?”
“The girl, sir?” Holderness sounded bewildered. He groped, visibly, for answers, shuffling the papers in front of him. “I hear - that is - our agents tell us we have no reason for concern that there is anything untoward about the girl.”
“A glowing recommendation indeed. How could any man resist?” The acid in his voice almost corroded his tongue.
Holderness raised his head to mop his brow, knocked his eyeglasses off his nose into his papers, and groped for them.
“His grace the King of Gondal commends her most highly,” Fullerton piped up.
“Touching, but scarcely unexpected. Given the circumstances.”
Fullerton refused to be stared down. “Indeed, sir. Still, he enclosed a personal note in his own hand with the draft treaty. He asked your grace to recall your time in Gondal, and assured us that he remembered your grace with the greatest affection.”
Alwent’s raised eyebrows were an insult in themselves. Sherlock addressed himself pointedly to the secretary.
“Whatever our reply on the substantive point, Fullerton, ensure that the King of Gondal is assured of the warmth with which I regard both his country and himself. And my gratitude for his family’s hospitality in my youth.”
Fullerton cleared his throat. “Sir, there is more. He also added that his late Queen would have joined with him in his hope that your grace became the husband of their only child; indeed, that she would have entrusted the Princess Charis to no other man with so good a will.”
The air in the room began to flow again, as if someone had opened a window, one that gave onto the high, free uplands of northern Gondal, fragrant with heather, gorse and bog myrtle.
“Oh, spare us.” Alwent yawned. “All the three kingdoms know King Ambrosine barely considered his wife’s opinion in life. For him to claim to know, nine years after her death, what she would have thought of this treaty beggars belief.”
Sherlock stretched out his hand. “Give me a pen.”
Fullerton’s head snapped up. “Your grace?”
“A pen. Now.”
A collection of quills had been prepared and lay ready sharpened on the table. The ink pot, too, had been filled before the meeting began.
Sherlock pulled the treaty towards him, glanced up, saw his brother’s face impassive and dipped his pen in the ink.
“There.” He pushed the treaty back across the table towards Mycroft. “I consent. Have it sent to Gondal. And now, gentlemen, if you will excuse me I shall retire to my chambers. It has been rather a long day.”
He approached his suite by one of the numerous indirect routes he had worked out over the years. Not only did it make life more sporting, he loved to catch his guards napping. If, he had often reasoned with Dimmock and his predecessors as Head of Palace Security, they were unable to catch their charge creeping up on them then what hope did anyone have that they would stop an assassin?
The last few yards of this one required him to traverse along the raised moulding of the upper passage wall. As he rounded the corner, the guard stood outlined (poor technique) in a patch of lamplight by his door, gazing the other way down the corridor with an air of frank fascination.
New man. New to the Palace altogether.
The guard turned, still unconscious of his presence. It took all Sherlock’s self-control to repress a gasp.
The boy was, quite simply, the most beautiful human being he had ever seen.
The library held portfolios of drawings by all the great Italian masters of the last century. This boy could have posed for one of Raphael’s angels. Stripped to a loin-cloth, that perfectly defined torso pierced by countless arrow-shafts, his image in Parian marble could have formed a Michelangelo altar-piece for some Duomo di San Sebastiano. Leonardo - what would Leonardo have made of him?
He was abruptly and shamefully conscious of what he, personally, wanted to make of him; a sated, sweaty tangle of limbs in his bed. Dear God, what had possessed the fates to thrust such a one into his path, today of all days, when he was so desperately in need of oblivion?
Today of all days.
Only the tiniest group within the Council knew of the King of Gondal’s offer.
This incomparable boy could have arrived in his chambers this evening by sheer chance.
Possible, yes, but likely?
Sheer fury - more powerful even than lust - rose up in him; he had to fight to keep his head clear.
Observe - analyse - and only then conclude.
Observation the first: the incomparable, overwhelming beauty of the boy. Put that on one side. It would have its place, undoubtedly, but not now.
Observation the second: his youth. Not unrelated to the first, but also relevant to his presence here.
Observation the third: his curiously unpolished air. Not as a guard: he moved and held his weapon with the air of one who had years of weapons training, from someone who knew his trade. But, so far as the Palace went, the boy’s manner made him stand out like a mountain goat amid a flock of pedigree sheep. Awe at his surroundings rose off him like steam off a hard-driven horse. And that before he’d met any of those he was here to guard.
Dimmock demanded that his staff have polish and breeding in keeping with their surroundings. However much Sherlock trusted his troopers - hard-bitten men who had, for the most part, clawed their way up from the stews and back-alleys of Gaaldine by their wits, reflexes and the strength of their sword arms - they had never been allowed to guard him in his Palace suite.
Mycroft - damn him - had always backed Dimmock on the point.
If Sherlock was to be forced to bring a wife into the Palace - if (heaven forfend) he was expected to sire an heir here - then by God and the Holy Virgin that would have to change.
But, if Dimmock was overly impressed by patronage and sophistication, self-important and not nearly as observant as he thought he was, he remained no fool.
Furthermore, no-one who’d held his role for five years would have allowed an impostor past him.
Sherlock dropped to the tiled floor and moved forward into the light.
“Hello,” he said. “You’re new, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
His tone - a hairsbreadth on the wrong side of the line between courtesy and familiarity - found its mark. The guard flinched and then responded with a smile that looked as if it had been painted across a canvas made from the skin of a flayed corpse.
The anger he’d been tamping down roared up like flame, like a torch thrown into a brandy vat. How had anyone dared?
A gift, yet not just a gift. The boy wasn’t a professional - that unsuppressed flinching told Sherlock as much, clearly as shouting. A virgin, at least as far as men went. Probably men and women both, judging by that collection of brightly polished religious medals winking at his throat, and the sleeve knot of one of the Marian lay-brotherhoods on his right wrist.
Some powerful coercion bringing him here, then.
The boy became abruptly conscious that he’d been asked a question by a member of the Family and had yet to return an answer. He blushed bright scarlet, a tint which the clear alabaster of his skin rendered exceptionally fetching.
Sherlock dropped his fake smile, letting a hint of his real feelings show in his face.
“I asked you a question, I do believe.”
“T - Theodore.” The boy swallowed. “Theodore Delahaye.”
Delahaye. An ambitious, multi-branched mercantile family, interest ranging from linen to salt fish, with banking connections by marriage. Aspirations to make the leap into the nobility by any means necessary. No proven murders. The usual peculation and intimidation, nothing of interest save for a series of warehouse fires, falling too pat to be truly random.
No clues in the Delahaye connection as to who had procured the boy’s presence here. Their business interests spanned all three kingdoms. Nor would the boy himself know; he would be a scion of some cadet branch of the family, bound to do whatever the head of the family commended, without asking questions.
We are all of us the prisoners of our birth.
“Well, come in.” Against protocol - further confirmation of the boy’s inexperience - Sherlock pushed the door to his suite open and invited Theodore to follow him through. Looking not so much as if he had no idea what was going on, but as if it was all too clear, the boy did so.
Sherlock paused for a moment and contemplated himself in the long looking-glass. His clothes had been selected with careful attention; they were just on the border between careless and disrespectful for a Council session. Alwent, of course, had taken the point at once.
Of course, that now made him somewhat overdressed for what he planned, but time was passing and he could hardly spare the time to change. Theodore, however -
“Take your clothes off,” he ordered.
“Your grace - sir.” Theodore’s voice sank to a dull whisper. Sherlock ignored him, and strode to the nearest clothes closet, the one where he kept a selection of the clothes he used for passing incognito through the city. Theodore was, fortunately, approximately the same height, and if his shoulders were a degree or so broader - well, some of those coats were intended to be worn with padding to disguise his outline, and it should be the work of a moment to remove it.
“Pray feel at liberty to retain your under-drawers,” he said, without turning round. Theodore gave a small, suppressed gasp of relief. Thattold him a great deal. He repressed a faint twinge of queasiness, found what he was looking for, and turned round.
Practically naked, Theodore looked even more the perfect marble sculpture than he had done clothed. Except - what could have possessed someone to send the boy out on what was quite obviously a mission of seduction wearing those under-drawers?
One of his original suspects vanished, decisively, off his mental list.
“Put these on.” He tossed the bundle of clothes over to Theodore, who, despite being taken by surprise, caught them with creditable agility. “We’re going out.”
“Out - sir?”
“You’re my bodyguard. That does, does it not, rather imply accompanying me wherever I may need guarding?”
Not, as it happened, in the least true; the Palace had a complicated web of rules about who was entitled, required, supposed and forbidden to guard him when, where and how. Exactly the rules, in fact, that one of Dimmock’s chosen few should have been drilled in until he could recite them in his sleep.
“Yes, sir,” Theodore said.
They took Sherlock’s favourite unobtrusive route out of the Palace, the one that used the private passageway between his suite and a set of rooms which had been empty throughout his entire lifetime, and which had, for all that time, been referred to as “the Crown Princess’s apartments”.
It occurred to him - one more blow falling upon a back deadened by the beating it had already taken today - that once there was an actual Crown Princess installed in the suite it would be necessary to find an alternate means of escape.
He led the way through the streets of the capital, taking a few unnecessary detours in case they were being followed. At length they came to the elaborately carved and polished door of an elegant building hard by the Cathedral. Sherlock ignored the bell-pull, whose wire, he knew, had been disconnected years ago, and tapped out a brisk routine with the brass elephant’s head knocker.
Judging by Theodore’s barely suppressed shaking and tight-pressed lips, he plainly expected the door to open on some scene of wild decadence straight from the Satyricon. His change of expression at being ushered into the decorous precincts of the capital’s Premier Salon for the Study and Practice of the Art of Shāh Māt (Members and Invited Guests Only) almost made Sherlock laugh out loud.
The salon-meister hastened to attend on them himself. Sherlock gave him a cursory nod of the head. “Is Fullerton here?”
“Why, yes, your grace. It is his invariable habit of an evening - that is, when the demands of his grace your brother’s business permit - “
“Good. Take me to him.” He turned to Theodore. “Do you play chess?”
“Yes, sir. My mother taught - that is - her mother - that is -“
“I’m uninterested in whose knee you learnt to play at, provided you can acquit yourself creditably in company. Danican, find him an opponent. Theodore, I’ll cover your losses - within reason. Don’t go mad. Now, to Fullerton.”
He found Fullerton in the upper salon, locked in combat with Gaaldine’s foremost kosher butcher, who by a polite fiction passed as a Wallachian count within the chess club’s walls.
Without any regard for decorum, he strode up to the table.
“Fullerton, I need a private conversation with you. Now. It won’t wait.”
Fullerton’s helpless gesture encompassed the unfinished game, his opponent and the piles of golden thalers on each side of the table.
Sherlock shrugged. “So? I’m only anticipating the inevitable. Black mates in three moves, against any defence.”
Fullerton rose to his feet, laid the white king daintily on its side and extended his hand to his opponent.
“My apologies, but duty calls. Same time next week?”
Sherlock took Fullerton into an empty side-room. He rapped out his next words without giving Fullerton time to regain his balance.
“Not Alwent, because he’d never have been able to conceal his gloating at the meeting. Not Holderness; he’s been successfully pretending that sort of thing doesn’t go on in this Palace for the last half-century, why change now? Mycroft? In principle, my brother’s entirely capable of it, but in detail - no, not his style. And he’d never have overlooked the under-drawers. Which leaves you, Fullerton. Tell me, how did Theodore Delahaye come to be assigned to my guard?”
Fullerton cleared his throat. His lips set in a prim line.
“I trust that your grace is assured that this was not my idea.”
“Dear God, man, what do you take me for? Anyway, it’s not your job to have ideas. Mycroft wouldn’t thank you for them.”
“I can assure your grace that his grace the King was particularly appreciative of the novel lines along which I and the chief archivist rearranged the privy papers for ease of his grace’s reference last year.” The hint of a twinkle sparkled in Fullerton’s eyes. “But on a matter such as this - no, I would not have presumed.”
He paused. “There was another note from the King of Gondal. In addition to that of which I told you, sir. Addressed - addressed to my personal eyes, sir.”
“Was there indeed? May I see it?”
Fullerton looked dubiously at Sherlock. Then he nodded. “Please, sir, come with me.”
As they passed through the lower rooms of the salon Sherlock glimpsed Theodore, hunched over a board, a small heap of ivory gaming chips by his right hand. He was oblivious to their passing.
Once they were out in the street and had fended off offers of a link-boy - the moon was full, and this was no conversation for an unknown third party to overhear - Sherlock turned to Fullerton.
“Not one of the world’s natural bodyguards, that one.”
Fullerton sighed. “True. Though, to be fair, Dimmock assured me he would be given an intensive course of training, should he - “
He broke off; even by moonlight Sherlock could make out the struggle of conflicting emotions in the secretary’s face.
“Should he find favour in his primary duties?”
With wholly uncharacteristic vulgarity, Fullerton turned and spat into the street drain. When he spoke, it was as if through gritted teeth.
“Sir. Can I assure your grace, that act was one I undertook only with the greatest reluctance. Sir, I’m a confidential secretary. I never signed up to be a procurer.”
“No? And yet what else were we discussing, all through that oh-so-secret session of the Council this afternoon?”
Fullerton came to a complete stop. “We were discussing a dynastic marriage of the utmost strategic importance. It’s a completely different thing!”
“Is it, indeed?” He nodded towards the north, towards the unseen line of mountains which marked the borders of Gaaldine. “I wonder, Fullerton, if that fourteen-year old girl on the far side of the Skogull Ranges sees it that way? Assuming, of course, that they’ve bothered to tell her about it at all, yet.”
“Ah.” A note of dawning enlightenment. “So that was why - I apologise, sir. I had perceived your grace’s reluctance, but fear I misunderstood its source.”
“Anyway. Onwards. I wish to see this interesting note from my future father-in-law. Both notes. Yes, and assuming you can find them in your admirably novel arrangement of the privy papers, I want every other sample of King Ambrosine’s hand you can find in - say a quarter of a turn. Bring them to me in my chambers.”
He didn’t bother with a stealthy approach to his suite this time. He strode down the corridor and startled the guard, one of Dimmock’s regulars, who plainly had assumed Sherlock to have been within, amusing himself with Theodore, throughout his whole shift.
He ignored the guard’s stammered apologies, while mentally composing a note to the head of Palace Security - Is it, one wonders, too much to expect bodyguards selected by your - as you have repeatedly assured me - rigorous methods at least to attempt to ascertain the whereabouts of the body they are purportedly guarding?
Fullerton joined him within the allotted time, bearing a modest collection of documents. Sherlock moved to his desk, lit beeswax candles, filled the amplification glass with clean water and began a minute examination of the papers. Fullerton, blessedly, possessed the gift of undistracting silence.
After about half a turn Sherlock raised his head. “Did it not strike you as surprising that this note - sent, purportedly by King Ambrosine at the very same time as one urging the claims of his daughter for my hand - effectively recommends that you acquire and install a catamite for my benefit within the Palace, and even goes so far as to recommend a suitable candidate?”
Fullerton coughed. “Um - I - sir, may I speak frankly?”
“Given the subject matter, I hardly imagine how we could do otherwise.”
“Sir, the King of Gondal has - particularly since the untimely death of his Queen - enjoyed the pleasures of a string of known mistresses.”
“And about twice as many by common gossip. Which is for the most part uncommonly accurate. What of it?”
“Have you not noticed, sir, what every woman with whom King Ambrosine’s name has been irregularly associated has had in common?”
“Apart from legendary beauty?” Sherlock frowned. “No; apart from that he does not have a type. Blonde, dark, auburn; Gondalian, Circassian, Moorish, Maltese -“
“Every last one of them, sir, comes from a particular narrow rank in life; rich and cultivated enough to have acquired all the genteel accomplishments; not highly placed enough for their families to pose any challenge to the established grandees of his court. And another consideration, sir: all have been ladies of repute, not wantons.”
“Leaving aside the matter of gender, you would appear to have described Theodore Delahaye.” Sherlock nodded. “I quite see why the letter would have convinced. A worldly-wise father, assuming faithfulness to his daughter is quite out of the question in her intended husband, might well seek to ensure what protection from rivals for her he could.”
Fullerton looked pained. “Not merely the content, sir. I did take the precaution of comparing it to all the existing examples of King Ambrosine’s hand I could acquire. And, as you yourself can see, they are identical.”
“Apart from this one.” Sherlock’s forefinger tapped, decisively, on the note which had come with the treaty. “You see, of course?”
Fullerton leant over the pages, scanning from one to the other. His lips pursed, “The downstrokes differ; minutely but perceptibly, from those in the remainder of the collection. And of course, his grace the Earl of Alwent did allude to the unlikelihood of the King referring to his late Queen’s wishes in such terms. Yes, sir, I do.”
“Oh. You think this is the forgery?” Sherlock shook his head. “Fullerton, King Ambrosine is dying. Do you seriously think it wouldn’t have affected his handwriting? No, it’s the one which looks identical to letters written ten years earlier we should doubt. Fullerton, warn the King that the Heir knows of this marriage treaty. We need to take extra precautions in our communications with Gondal. After we’ve finished tonight’s business I need to ready my guard captains, so that I’m ready to ride for the border at a moment’s notice.”
“You suspect the Heir, sir?”
“Fullerton, where were you schooled? Cui bono. Of course I suspect the Heir. Delahaye, once in post, would have been a petard he could detonate at his leisure. Your belief that he was here at the King of Gondal’s express suggestion would have been intended as the secondary explosion. And all done without the slightest breath of suspicion as to the real culprit. Now. Burn that forgery - sometimes, drastic filing practices are the best - and let’s get back to the chess club and tell Delahaye that, regretfully, I have to decline his application to join the Palace guard.”
The heap of ivory gaming counters by the side of Theodore’s board had trebled in size. Sherlock, this time, waited for the game to take its natural course (another victory for Theodore) before coughing, pointedly, behind his left ear.
The boy scrambled to his feet, crimsoning. The salon-meister was already advancing with a weighed-out pouch, representing the gold equivalent of the ivory tokens.
“No hurry,” Sherlock said, in a tone which implied quite the reverse. “But I have arranged to meet someone for a drink. Come with me.”
Apart from its other conveniences, the chess club was but two doors down from Big Gertie’s establishment, and, as Sherlock had had reason to know, when one asked Big Gertie to rent one a private supper room, privacy was the operative word. better food than the Palace, too.
Theodore, once he got over his embarrassment at the interior decor, and Sherlock and Fullerton had managed to convince him they were not proposing to have him as the main course, naked and garnished with parsley, made a hearty supper. Only when it became apparent the boy could not consume another stuffed date, did Sherlock raise the question which had been on his mind throughout supper.
“So, what is it that you would actually prefer to do with your life? That is, if you had a free choice?”
Theodore’s face lit up, taking his already transcendent beauty into a wholly other sphere - really, it was infuriating that the whole situation had conspired against Sherlock’s doing anything about that.
“Art, your grace. I long to learn to paint - to go to Italy and study in the studios there.”
Sherlock’s eyes met Fullerton’s. Nowhere better to bury an incipient scandal than among the raffish artists of Rome or Florence, where the most sensational gossip would be superceded by twenty or thirty even more salacious titbits before the paint dried.
Fullerton cleared his throat.
“I - I rather think that can be arranged. I can write letters of introduction, and - ” He looked pointedly at Sherlock, who yawned.
“Well, Theodore’s winnings at chess tonight should have formed the makings of a travelling fund, anyway. But since you ask, Fullerton, make sure he has adequate credit to set him up with a suitable master and to buy art materials. Now, go - what’s wrong now?”
Theodore’s face, which had appeared overjoyed seconds before, had now become clouded.
“I - that is, my family - they sent me here to - I shall have to answer - that is, suppose they ask -“
Possessing the beauty of a marble statue was all very well; when the marble extended to the inside of the skull it made affairs unutterably tedious. Sherlock set his teeth.
“A suggestion, if I may?”
Theodore looked as if the mere thought of taking Sherlock’s advice might consume him from the inside out. After a moment, though, he nodded cautious acquiescence.
“Understand this. I cannot imagine for one instant anyone having the nerve to ask me about this. Nor would I discuss it if they did. Accordingly, the solution to your difficulties lies entirely in your own mouth. Let’s not, and, if need be, tell people we did.”