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Chapter 5 - The Physician's Quest by A.J. Hall

The oculist lodged in a converted feed loft above the better of the town’s two livery stables. The thick stone walls struck chill as Sherlock climbed the narrow stair, but doubtless the place would be warmer at night, when the beasts were stabled below. 

He drew a deep breath and knocked on the door. 

The five steps he heard echoing across the floorboards on the far side of the flimsy door told him all he needed. Not a limp – more of a hesitation in his walk. Lingering traces of an honourable wound.

He drew down his hat still further. Verney.

The door opened. 

“Ah, Mr Verney? I had a message to expect your call.” 

The warm, familiar, concerned tones flooded his ears, paralysing, for a moment, all other senses. He could only nod by way of response. 

John’s unassuming, dear features crumpled in puzzlement – he was doubtless wondering if his patient combined dumbness or idiocy with his supposed eye problems. Still, the physician in him rallied.

“Well, then, by all means come in, and let me examine you.”

The room was even sparser than Sherlock had feared: a straw palliasse in the corner, blankets folded with military precision; a rough chest in the corner on which rested a jug and basin in battered pewter; a worn military satchel, presumably containing spare clothes. The only item out of the ordinary was a crystal globe filled with water, suspended from a stand on the window-ledge. John beckoned him to stand by it.

“Over here, sir. That’s right.” He turned aside, reaching into the chest. His voice came muffled from its depths. “A moment while I light candles. We need a good light and it’s a dreadful morning.”

Sherlock let hat and scarf fall to the ground.

“You think so? It’s the best morning I’ve had in weeks.”

John spun round. His mouth was open. Sherlock made three strides across the room and covered it with his own, acutely conscious of every last detail (Sweat on his brow, strong scent of oil of valerian – not used in eye treatment, must be sleeping badly – breathing erratic, colour elevated, heart thumping as if after a chase in armour –)

“Oh, God, you – ” John gasped, surfacing momentarily. His grip round Sherlock’s body was so tight that for a moment Sherlock wondered if he was seeking support against a threatened swoon. But his tongue – eager and agile in his mouth – and the hard pressure of his arousal against him belied any such suspicion. This was not the brotherly greeting of comrades in arms, united after divers perils. It was all he had hoped and longed for since John had emerged out of the melee in a star-hung pass above Gaaldine.

He reached up and tangled his fingers in John’s hair. “You came looking for me.” He had never uttered a more delightful sentence. All of poetry, natural philosophy, deduction paled into insignificance besides them. When asked to choose, you chose me. When everyone in the land had been commanded from the market-cross and the pulpit to shun me, you came looking for me.

“What else could I do?” John paused. Too long a pause. Something not quite right. The chill Sherlock felt had naught to do with the cold stone of the feed-loft.

What?” It came out needlessly harsh, almost accusing.  

John looked startled, as if at a blow. “I would have come in any event, but in fact I had no choice. It was my Queen’s command.”

“Go on.”

“Charis knew you were missing, before the King heard it. You’d sent her instructions in her name as Queen of Gondal. She – she inferred that you intended her to act as such. She did.”

John’s honest eyes were clouded; his brow furrowed. Sherlock dropped his hand.

Not good, not good at all. He’s in two minds; mustn’t let him feel compelled. No power on Earth or under it will shake him once he makes a stand on a moral question. Keep him from deciding. Keep talking. About anything, no matter what.

“I used that phrase for Mycroft’s benefit. One way or another, doubtless he’s seen the letter by now. I knew he would. I thought – well, as you know he doesn’t have a great regard for me, except occasionally, as a means to an end.”

Mercifully, John didn’t attempt to remonstrate. “So?”

“If he thinks of her as the Crown Princess of Gaaldine – that renders her merely an encumbrance to an irrelevance.”  

Was it imagination, or had John given a sharp, contradicting intake of breath? No matter: Mycroft’s opinion of him was a profound truth, and if John couldn’t see it –

He avoided taking that thought to its obvious conclusion – a technique that had served him well over the years. “‘The Queen of Gondal’, on the other hand – those are words of power. And Mycroft does so worship power.”  

Odd, how something which struck him now as blindingly obvious had eluded his notice for so many years. He had to swallow, twice, before he could continue. 

“It’s lucky our uncle died when he did. Five years was almost too long for Mycroft to be the power behind the throne. It’s a role that fits him too well. He needs to know what it feels like to look into the eyes of those whom he has destroyed. For him to appreciate that they know exactly whom to blame and will take that knowledge to their deaths.”  

He felt John’s hand reach up to cradle the nape of his neck, pulling his lips down to his own, brushing them in the gentlest of kisses.

“Don’t be afraid. You aren’t like that. That isn’t you. You’ve no plans to be the power behind the throne in Gondal. You want it for her. I trust you.”

He could hardly tell whether the touch or the words did more to warm him. Either way, they made speech possible.

“Tell me what Charis said?”

For a moment, John looked perplexed. “That I was a subject of Gondal, not Gaaldine, that I’d been appointed by the last legitimately anointed ruler of Gondal; King Ambrosine hadn’t revoked the appointment, she wouldn’trevoke the appointment and no-one recognised the Pretender anyway. So if Mycroft tried to obstruct me, he’d no authority to do so. But – didn’t you tell her what to say?”

“Of course not.” Joy burst on him, exploding across the night like shooting stars or fireworks. “All her own idea. But – I never expected her to have the wit.”  

He’d not had the wit himself, that was the truth of it. His overly analytical mind could never have conceived the brilliant simplicity by which Charis, Queen of Gondal ordered the only subject currently at her command, one John Watson, Queen’s Physician, to go and find her missing husband. And be hanged to any contrary instructions uttered by her good brother the King of Gaaldine.

Sherlock pictured Mycroft’s face when he realised he had been outmanoeuvred, and all but laughed out loud.  

Not, of course, that Charis’ protection could cover John where Sherlock intended to take them. On that point the law ran the same both sides of the border, and on neither kindly. Sometimes, in dreams, he found himself back in the Bishop’s dungeons, breathing the foetid stench of despair; he could almost smell it now. He bit down hard on his lower lip, bringing himself forcibly back to the present.

Whatever risks we run, it’s worth it.

“You’ve been away again.” Extraordinary how tender John’s voice could sound. “I could tell from your eyes. Now you’re back – you do realise how impossible this is? I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have done what I did when I saw you. But – I thought you were dead, Sherlock. I’d searched both banks of the river, down to two days ride from the bridge, on either bank, and found no traces of you.”

Only because you did not observe.Not the moment to say it. He held his breath, willing John to reach the obvious conclusion. Think how you felt when you thought I was dead. Feel it. Taste it. And then still have the nerve to make me dead to you.

Perhaps something of that was passing through John’s mind; he shifted his weight from foot to foot, perceptibly ill-at-ease.

“When you revealed yourself, it was so sudden that I – well. Let’s not talk about it. Better forgotten, eh? Tell me you understand.”

No.” Desperation gave the monosyllable all the authority at his command. John jerked away, his face showing naked shock and – something else. Something that Sherlock must remember, for when they got past this moment. If they got past this moment.

“Listen.” He pulled him down, so they were sitting side by side on the palliasse. His hands encircled John’s wrists. John grunted, but acquiesced. Sherlock summoned every last ounce of conviction into his voice and expression.

“I am pledged – mind, body and honour – to spend all I have and am to give Charis a kingdom. Two kingdoms, if Mycroft doesn’t get himself organised enough to produce legitimate heirs now he has the chance. But what I cannot give her – John, what I have never been able to give her – is an undivided heart. And that remains true no matter what happens here, between us.”

He tightened his grip as John stirred, restively. “No. Hear me out. I love you. I want you.” He hesitated for a moment, then forced himself to go on, though his throat swelled and almost choked him. “I need you. I cannot defeat the Pretender – I cannot win Gondal for its rightful Queen – without you. Deny me, and you risk denying Charis her birthright.”

“Oh, twisty.” Was it only Sherlock’s treacherous imagination that put a glint of humour into John’s expression? “You devious, underhand, unscrupulous bastard.”

He gulped. “Well, yes. Didn’t you ever read Plato? ‘The presence of the beloved does not change the lover; instead it allows both lover and beloved to become most truly himself.’”

John raised his eyebrows. “It seems I was wise to stick to Galen. Though I can’t say that sounds exactly like –”

“Paraphrase. Look, get this into your head. I have loved you for over half my life. I cannot imagine ceasing to do so until my life’s end.”

“However soon that comes. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that cough.”

Order me to strip so you can examine my chest for yourself, why don’t you?

His real desperation felt raw in his throat – odd, how like it sounded to the counterfeits he had used to such effect over the years.  

Sherlock ploughed on. “If you deny my body, it does not make my heart and mind any less yours. Or any more Charis’, for that matter. All you will succeed in is making us both unhappy.” He paused, considering. “No. Not both. All three of us.”

That seemed to get through. John half-turned away. “Time. I need time, damn it.”

His breath caught in his throat. Still a hope. He nodded. “All the time you need.”

“I should like to walk up and down outside and think it over.”

But it’s raining. A stupid response; he dismissed it unuttered.

“Of course.” He hesitated, in two minds about mentioning Moran. Be on your guard, my love.Before he could decide, a fusillade of knocks sounded from the street door, and then a stentorian shout.  

“Open up! We’re from the castle, we’ve urgent need of an oculist – is he within?”

John turned. “They mustn’t find you. Here.” He swept aside jug and basin, and lifted the lid of the chest. The sparse few items inside barely covered the chest bottom. Sherlock’s eye lingered for a second on Verney’s discarded trappings, but John caught him round the shoulders and pushed. “No time. In. Now.”

He folded himself into the tiny space, John dropped coat and scarf over him and lowered the lid. He heard the clink as jug and basin assumed their previous positions, and John’s raised voice. “Come in, sirs. I am at your disposal.” And then the tramp of booted feet – five, no, six pairs – on the staircase.

The chest, thankfully, was ill-constructed; air, though not much, leaked in. The valerian smelled far stronger here, mixed with a pungent gallimaufry of other essences, confused to the point of nausea. Something – a salve pot, judging by the shape – was digging into his left shoulder-blade. He could neither reach to remove it nor roll away.

“What’s happened?” John’s voice, muffled by the chest, addressing the visitors.

“Accident, sir.” The captain of the castle garrison, his gruff voice unmistakeable. A good enough soldier in his day, somewhat inclined to coast, not a man to make trouble – and hence work – by asking awkward questions. “Lord Francis Maynooth. Something splashed right into his eye. Looks bad.”

“Something?” John’s voice was fainter; he must be over by the door, doubtless reaching for his outer garments.

“From some sort of alchemical experiment, sir. You know how the gentry are.” 

An alchemical accident? To a man who, according to Mrs Hudson, couldn’t tell natural philosophy from a hole in the ground?

He choked back his instinctive urge to shout a warning. Six against two, and the six armed. Not even six against two. Folding his six foot frame from a space half that length was no joke; they’d have John pinioned before Sherlock could be out of his hiding place.  

 John’s voice, assured and decisive. “Well, let’s be going. No time to waste if I’m to have a chance saving that eye.”

Oh, John. A physician to the core. And the best man I have ever known.

The door slammed to. Very cautiously Sherlock pushed up the chest lid. Bowl and jug clanged on the floor; he let them lie. Pausing only long enough to reassume Verney’s outer clothes and to check the soldiers had left no sentry behind, he made his own exit from the feed loft, heart thumping, bile churning in his mouth.

Moran, be assured. You will pay for this. To your last drop of blood and twitching nerve end.