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Chapter Fifteen - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall

Dawn broke over Zalona in a cacophony of chiming bells. When he had first come to the University Julian had wondered how anyone managed to sleep here. By the end of his first term it was the deep peace of his father’s estate at Castle Malham which kept him awake at nights.

Last night, though, it had been neither bells nor silence which had kept him wakeful, but gnawing dread. The courier from Gondal Town, weekly bearer of at least two and more often four pages of fatherly advice and admonitions, had failed to arrive. Nothing from Crispian, either, and that was even worse, since Crispian’s last had been so short as to be almost evasive. One of the hardest things to come to terms with on arriving at Zalona (apart, of course, from the pestilential bells) had been realising that it was far from common for the younger sons of great estates to be on the closest and best of terms with the heir apparent. For himself Julian could no more resent Crispian’s place in the sun as he could the sun’s own place in the heavens. It had been so for as long as he could remember. Indeed, the very thought of doing Crispian’s job assisting Papa to manage the estates, let alone Papa’s job if, when —

His thoughts skittered. Suppose that were the reason no courier had come. But no, the death of a Duke of Malham was like a great tree falling, whose wreck brings half the hillside down in ruin. Some intimation of so great a disaster must have reached Zalona, courier or no courier. Crispian would have seen Julian received the first news of any faltering in Papa’s health, not allow catastrophe to sweep over him unannounced.

No. All was well — or would be, after his breakfast. Beer, bread and cold bacon did much to calm affrighted nerves, or so McAllister, Papa’s sergeant-at-arms (who had been at Vannstown, and therefore Knew) always asserted.

“Boots!” he yelled at the full force of his lungs, throwing off the bedclothes. His bare feet hit the cold boards of the floor with a thud that doubtless rattled the elegant chandelier of Percy, Viscount Exina, in the set below his.

No-one came.

Another grievance. His body servant had been absent on his return to his lodgings last night and he had been forced not merely to contrive his own supper from an unlovely mess of victuals extricated from the corner cupboard, but to extricate himself from his ultra-fashionable, tight-cut riding boots, with the help of a door jamb, a stout chair and infinite quantities of bad language.

“Boots, damn your eyes!”

Crispian would never have had to put up with this. The meanest churl on the estate fell over himself to do Crispian’s bidding. It was only Julian who had to work at enforcing his authority; only Julian who had to face his private humiliations when that authority was disrespected.

“He’s not coming.”

The voice was flat, arrogant — and utterly unfamiliar.

Julian’s head whipped round so fast it hurt.

“Who the devil are you?”

The tall stranger uncoiled himself from the corner between the wall and the clothes-press. He had extraordinary eyes, Julian noticed with a shiver: of a sea-agate opalescence, focussed, at this precise moment, upon his night-shirted, flustered self.

“I’m your last hope of salvation — in this world, at any rate. I can’t speak for the next.”

He cocked his head on one side, as if listening.

“I think your porter’s still arguing with them about college privileges at the front gate. Consider that quite a testament to your character. And pay for masses for the repose of his soul when you are next in a position to command them. Well, man, what are you waiting for? Grab any money you have and wear shoes you can run in. Not boots. They’ll have all the gates covered. It’ll have to be the roofs. The mist hasn’t burnt off yet, thank the saints, so with luck they won’t spot us climbing the drainpipe. People never look up until they’ve looked in every other direction first. That’s because they’re idiots.”

“I — but — I.”

“No time, man. Shoes, cloak, sword, cash. Don’t worry about your jewels: I’ve already secured those, it’s a wonder you’ve not been robbed blind before now, the way you leave things lying about. Pity about the books, but all but the Boccaccio are replaceable. Take it, if you must. But we have minutes, Malham: less, even, so grab what you need, and go.”

He had been stumbling automatically into his clothes while the stranger spoke; anything seemed better than being at the mercy of that piercing gaze while practically naked. That, though, brought him up short: one leg in and one leg out of his breeches.

Malham? Sir, you mistake me. I am Julian d’Ancona —”

“The last in the male line of the dukes of Malham. So if you are not his grace, then you are no-one. And you will be no-one, snuffed out like your father and brother before you, if you don’t move. Now.”

The air of his chamber stifled him, thick as sugar syrup. His ears were muffled as if he had stood too close to a 12-gun salute. Underneath it all beat a strong, sure note of truth. That was why no courier had been sent. That was why his body-servant had gone missing. That explained Crispian’s odd silences on his last visit.

It had come at last: the thing long-feared, never spoken. James of Gondal had destroyed them all. He sank onto the bed and put his head in his hands.

The stranger grasped his shoulder with a brusque hand. “Tears are for Hecuba, friend, and for the women of Troy; tears are the hand the Fates dealt them. Later. Now, we run.”

Jagged thoughts of betrayal flashed through his mind. They said the new King was a subtle man; the very sort to let his prey think he had escaped, only to find at the last that he had been herded into the trap all along. But if that were the case, what hope had he in resisting?

“Come on!”

The stranger was kneeling on the window seat, wrestling with the fastenings of the casement. Julian’s mind flooded with incongruous memories. How often in the months since he entered this set had he had to advise visitors who failed to grasp the trick of it? He was across the room, his hand on the latch almost before he knew it.

“Let me: it opens like this —”

The window swung suddenly wide, bringing gouts of Zalona’s notorious morning mist swirling into the chamber. Through it, for the first time, another noise became audible above the sound of bells: the jangle and clang of armoured men running fast across cobbles.

Tears are for Hecuba.

It might be a trap, but even so this room was a greater one. He uttered a quick prayer to the Virgin, reached for the drainpipe to the right of the window, and swung himself out.

Many hours later, in a tumbled bothy somewhere out of his reckoning, Julian collapsed exhausted into a heap of foul-smelling straw and tried to make sense of the thing his life seemed to have become.

Their flight from Zalona, the stranger leading the way at a pace which made Julian wonder if his heart would crack (but no, not yet; when he had leisure to think of Papa and Crispian, yes, then) faded to a blur. Odd images shimmered up out of the whole confused mess. The chimney stacks rising like sea-cliffs out of the murk. Crossing the crowded market-place: the heart-stopping moment a member of the city watch had turned his head, apparently taking a second look at them, and that overwhelming, knees-sagging relief when Julian realised it was a coquettish farm-girl, clearly in town to offer more than pullets, who had arrested the watchman’s attention. Lying for what seemed like hours on the chill, damp ground under the overhang of a willow-shadowed river bank. Dodging through copses and spinneys, wading along culverts in case their pursuers elected to use scent-hounds. Paddling a half-rotten, semi-waterlogged punt across the River Zalon leagues below the city where it flowed, wide and sluggish, through dense banks of reeds, alive with ducks and even more alive with mosquitos.

The stranger — barely affected, it seemed, by the hardships of the day — tended a carefully banked fire, and contrived something between a stew and a soup from strips of dried meat, green onions and river water, with hard bread crumbled in. When passed a mug, Julian shook his head but, under the stranger’s glare, he assayed a sip and, after the first mouthful, found he was ravenous and finished it.

With a kind of dull hilarity it occurred to him that tonight would be Viscount Exina’s birthday feast and Viscount Exina was rumoured to have engaged two or three French cooks at least, to ensure the victuals met his exacting standards. That was where he should have been, not sipping a meagre soup from a battered pewter mug. He would have been there, but for —

“But for James of Gondal,” his companion concluded. Aloud.

“But I —”

“It’s no sorcery. Merely observation. Here.”

The stranger reached inside his miscellaneous garments and pulled out a flask.

“Try a little of this. It will help your digestion.”

Wonder of wonders, the contents of the flask proved to be a brandy so smooth and sophisticated that Julian could have served it to Viscount Exina with no more comment than, perhaps, a discreet enquiry as to the name of his victualler.

Over the flask’s mouth he looked at his rescuer; looked at him properly for the first time. He saw a tousled mop of black curls; those wide-set, extraordinary eyes; a mobile, expressive mouth, and cheekbones high and sharp as the ridged cliffs of the moors above Castle Malham. On that thought he crumpled, tears flowing unstoppable.

The stranger waited, courteously silent, until at length Julian raised his head from his hands.

“I’m sorry —” The words felt inadequate, pitiable even, on his tongue.

“Why should you be? You do right to mourn, not just as a son but as a citizen of Gondal. The Duke was a great statesman, a shrewd and just magistrate, and a most uncommonly accurate judge of character. I still recall his calling me ‘a capering mountebank’ on one memorable occasion. It stung at the time, but, with the benefit of some years hindsight, I am forced to conclude he may have had the right of it. On that specific occasion, at least.”

His throat swelled up. It was hard forcing the words out. “I do not recall ever seeing you in Castle Malham, sir.”

“You would not have done. You would still have been in the nursery, and in any event it was not at Castle Malham I met your father. I met him at Court, in Gondal Town. Queen Felicia wished most particularly that we be made known to one another.”

A wave of something akin to relief washed over him.

“So, sir, you are of Gondal?”

The stranger paused for a moment, considering him. Under the cool scrutiny of those peculiar eyes, Julian felt suddenly young and unfinished, like a boy who had burst into a formal dinner at the castle, still with the muck of the midden on his boots.

“I was not born here, and my first allegiance was — some would say, still is — to Gaaldine. But Gondal shaped me; there is much of which I might have been forever ignorant had I never crossed her borders. Most importantly, for your purposes, I am the consort of your rightful Queen, and on that ground alone my last allegiance is to Gondal. I would see Charis enthroned in state, spend the rest of my life ensuring the peace and prosperity of her land and find my final resting place beneath this land’s rocky moors.”

The world tilted, whirled, and came, abruptly, right side up once more. Julian exhaled. He brought his clenched fist down on his knee with a thump so violent he was hard pressed to suppress a yelp of pain.

“You are the Crown Prince of Gaaldine? So by my being here with you, whatever lies the King has told about my family, whatever accusations of treason he has levied against our name, are now rendered truth.”

“Not all of them, I assure you. The Pretender of Gondal has a most vivid and foetid imagination.”

The Crown Prince took a swig from the flask.

“But think, man. To what do you propose to stand loyal? To a symbol, to a Gondal in the grip of a madman who will requite not one iota of the loyalty any one of his subjects gives him? If so, it will be in your family’s best tradition. We sent out messages to your father, you know, when we learnt the Pretender was moving against him, information we had courtesy of a merchant who is far shrewder than the common run, by way of his niece, who sees, recounts, but does not observe: of all creatures, the most valued to an intelligencer. We offered him Gaaldine’s support, but he refused. Are you going to make the same choice and let your line be extinguished? Or are you going to avenge your father and brother?”

“Revenge? Against the King? How? When I have nothing?”

One of those fine-drawn brows arched. “Nothing? The signet ring on your little finger would feed a peasant family for a year.”

It was difficult to keep from punching him. How dare the heir-presumptive to the throne of Gaaldine lecture him on what a Gondalian peasant needed to survive?

A ragged thought restrained his fist. The Prince, insufferable as he was, had saved his life ten times over that day. And (he glimpsed a tell-tale corner of binding) also saved his Boccaccio incunabulum. And his jewels. Holy Virgin, what a weight of obligation to a man he could barely tolerate.

With an effort, he made his voice steady.

“That may be so. But it would not, my lord, pay a garrison, let alone an army. Nor would all the valuables you and I have managed to bear away with us. To say nothing of the point that attempting to liquidate my possessions — my extremely identifiablepossessions — would also expose me to the gravest risk of discovery.”

He caught a flicker of surprise cross the Prince’s face. He sounded a shade less arrogant when he responded.

“All that, of course, is true. And we cannot, I regret, at this present moment purchase an army on your behalf. But the Pretender’s principal motive in impeaching your father is likely to have been to secure his estates as a reward for one of his loyal supporters. Now comes the hour when that person must realise what a poisoned chalice they have been given. They say the people of your family lands are dour, silent to a fault, close-handed and unforgiving.”

Certain memories crossed his mind. Unwillingly, his lips quirked upwards.

“I would say, to that extent, your informers speak truth.”

“And would you also say they speak truth if I said I had heard they also hate those of southern Gondal, those of the Court most of all; that their loyalty, hard won as it is, is equally hard lost and that they detest change?”

Julian paused for a second. Then he nodded again. “That, too, is true.”

“So. You have no doubt learnt, in your studies of Quintus Fabius Maximus, nicknamed the Cunctator?”

“Of course I have. Indeed, I took the Vice-Chancellor’s prize for my essay describing his strategies against Hannibal —”

His voice wobbled, as he recalled how irrelevant the University of Zalona’s prizes were to his now-destroyed life. The stranger nodded, imperturbed.

“Better than I could have hoped. We cannot afford to furnish you with an army, indeed. But we can give you some gold, and, more valuable by far, trusted contacts among the men and the women whom the Pretender has also expropriated. Never overlook the women, they can be most especially vicious in warfare of this kind. I learnt that in Alwentdale. With that help, you can cut supply lines, gather allies, organise ambushes, make your estates a hell on earth for whomever the Pretender awards them to. Your family motto is What I have, I hold. I invite you to live up to it. Are you in, or out?”

Julian drew a deep breath. The task outlined was mountainous; it would have daunted even Crispian, but nonetheless he felt his veins run with liquid fire.

“What option do I have? Pass me that flask. To Charis, Queen of Gondal!”

“To Julian d’Ancona, twelfth duke of Malham.”

The rain clouds gathered before they were a league from Hunsford. By the time two turns had passed, the rain was thick and relentless. It persisted throughout their journey to Gondal Town and turned the two hours break at Charlescut Halt, where her uncle had arranged to meet her, into a chilly misery.

As they drove under the massive South Gate, Elizabeth noted the heads of traitors on pikes, and suppressed nausea. So many. When she had passed through that gate a bare three months earlier, on her outward journey, there had not been half — not a quarter — of those grisly relics. What was her country coming to?

The weather did nothing to cheer her depressed spirits. She tried not to think of the palms over Elbe waterfront. She tried not to contrast the city’s ordure, running in brown streams down the cobbles, with the sun-warmed sand along which she had walked only two days ago.

Nor were her thoughts of a nature likely to give any relief from the gloomy prospect. How great was the contrast between her anticipation three weeks ago of the joy of being homeward bound and her current feelings. She almost dreaded the reunion with Jane, burdened as she was with secrets that she must not share. In one respect only did reality improve on imagination: the speed and comfort of her journey. The smallest of Lady Catherine’s carriages had brought her to Charlescut Halt, over half-way, a convenience which Elizabeth now acknowledged at its true worth.

Charlotte had intended to travel with her up to that point, so they could say their farewells at the last possible moment, but she had woken with a megrim. At the sight of her greenish face and drawn brow her friend and her husband were, for once, unanimous in their desire that she return to her bed. Their parting under such circumstances was perfunctory. Though Elizabeth formed the distinct impression that Charlotte had something she wished to confide, all that was possible was a quick pressure of the hand and a fervent, albeit low-voiced, wish that she might be safe, both on her travels and on her coming home.

Safety, indeed, appeared to be the watchword for her journey. Giulio rode on the box of the carriage and he and the coachman bore both pistols and daggers. Long guns rested along the coach roof. Her uncle, too, arrived accompanied by two well-armed servants.

Despite these precautions, they encountered no trouble on the road. Indeed, there was less traffic than Elizabeth had expected, even in Gondal Town itself. Those people whom they saw kept their heads down and walked with hurried, unswerving steps. Even when a young blade in a gig careered down the street, splashing everyone he passed, people did little more than glare.

Her uncle, too, seemed subdued. He spoke little, and that only commonplaces regarding the weather or the state of his horses. Only when they were inside her uncle’s house and Aunt Gardner had come downstairs to greet them, trailed by a troop of shy children, Jane — dear Jane — had hugged her and all the ladies were sitting down to coffee and muffins did Elizabeth start to feel at ease.

“You will find changes when you return to Meryton,” her aunt said, after the maid had left the room. “You know what we spoke of at Christmas? Well, the blow has fallen. The Duke of Malham and his elder son were taken into the Catiff’s Tower three days ago, and word is give out this morning that they have confessed all; sedition, talking against the King, and, it seems, treasonous correspondence with Gaaldine, carried out over many months.”

A cold shiver went down Elizabeth’s spine. What else had she herself been doing these last months, since that unlucky suggestion of Wickham’s at Christmas? It had hardly needed that badly-spelled note she had received at Elbe, from someone with an odd, foreign-sounding name, to know that she had better cease the correspondence, or, rather, that it would have been better had she never started it. The letters she had received from Gaaldine she had (not without regret, and some tears) consigned to the bread-oven at the villa and pounded their ashes into powder. Still, anyone could have intercepted them, and her outbound letters, too. Take Charlotte’s servants, for instance. Charlotte had all-but confessed they had been selected for her by Lady Catherine, and doubtless their true allegiance would lie with she who had most to give.

“Could not there be some hope of reconciliation, even now?” Jane asked. “The fact of correspondence may be shown, but who is to say the Duke and his son had bad intentions behind it? At times such as this, is it not a Christian duty to reach out to one’s enemies? Perhaps the King may be brought to see this.”

“My dear, you mistake matters. Things do not happen like that, not in Gondal, not in these times. Very probably sentence has been carried out already on the two of them, within the confines of the Tower. One of the King’s earliest proclamations was to the effect that persons of rank found guilty of capital crimes would no longer suffer the indignity of public execution.”

Nothing in Aunt Gardiner’s words or tone could raise the slightest question about her sympathy for the policy. Her face, though — Elizabeth shuddered once more. This time she could not avoid her aunt’s sharp eyes.

“My dear, you must be chilled quite through from your journey; I hope you have not taken cold. Let me have warmed bricks put into your bed. I recommend you retire as soon as maybe. We shall have plenty of time to catch up on news in the morning.”

Elizabeth would have remonstrated, but a massive sneezing fit overcame her. That, of course, decided the matter. Jane stood over her while she downed a cup of spiced wine, laden with nose-streaming quantities of pepper and ginger. Then, the sheets on the bed in the tiny room above the portico being pronounced both aired and warm, she made the most perfunctory of toilettes and slid between them, her aching limbs and pounding headache easing beneath the caress of the fragrant linen.

Aunt Gardiner, usually the most sensitive of women, came into Elizabeth’s room when she was almost on the point of dozing off, bearing a carafe of water sweetened by the addition of cucumber slices and a plate of caraway biscuits, in case Elizabeth felt hungry in the night. Further, she did not merely leave her offerings and steal away, leaving the invalid in peace, but hovered, so that eventually Elizabeth could not but call out, “Is there something wrong?”

Apparently taking that for invitation, Aunt Gardiner sat down on the bedside stool.

“Not wrong, precisely, my dear, but you recall what we spoke of at Christmas? This business of the Duke’s — you will understand that the downfall of a man such as that affects the lives of hundreds, tens of hundreds, of other people?”

Her head, swimming with incipient fever, fastened onto that phrase and clung, as if it could pluck her from the whirlpool. “You spoke of changes at Meryton? Did you mean, concerning Mr Wickham?”

“Indeed, my dear. The regiment will be moved from Meryton, most certainly.
The King, or one of his close advisors, will wish to bring them close under the Royal eye, to test the regiment’s loyalty, and see if the Duke’s sedition has spread to his officers. It may end with the regiment being broken up. No, don’t be afraid, my dear. It may work to Mr Wickham’s advantage in the long run, since doubtless he will be able to demonstrate to any questioner where his true loyalties lie, and preferment may well come of that.”

“I do not doubt for a second where Mr Wickham’s true loyalties lie,” Elizabeth observed.

Her aunt either did not hear, or chose to ignore the subtlety.

“Then let that be a comfort, my dear. Anyway, I shall leave you to sleep, and trust that you feel better in the morning.”

Giulio saw the horses put up and expertly rubbed down by the head farrier of the best inn at Charlescut Halt. Having paid for their care and left instructions to have the carriage prepared for the return journey to Rosings in four turns, he wrapped himself in a cloak against the gathering mizzle and slipped unobtrusively through the back door of the inn yard. A few minutes down the twisting streets found him at an unpretending hostelry, which afforded him space to change from his crisp livery into the nondescript breeches and jerkin he had brought with him. For a small consideration, the inn also hired him a hairy-fetlocked, balky piebald.

The horse’s steady, jogging gait brought Giulio to Gondal Town within the hour. He swathed his hood across his face, a move which the growing rain made blessedly innocuous, and made his way by unobtrusive degrees through the crowds who, despite the weather, thronged the streets.

He nudged the piebald forwards with his knees, his rein slack on its neck.

North, north, you fool. Up out of this reek. Away. North. Up. Away. Away from Elbe. Away from Hunsford. Away. North.

By gradual degrees they won free of the crowds and into the airy reaches of Belmont, the fashionable district which sprawled across the southern slopes of the hills which bounded Gondal Town. Without trouble, he found the garden gate he had heard described. The great walnut tree which overshadowed it must be two hundred years old or more. He gave the bell-pull three hard pulls, counted fifteen, and gave it three more. Silent, efficient servants admitted him, took his horse and his cloak and led him to the study of the master of the house.

He found him standing at the window, on the far side of the desk, looking out into the murky garden. He did not turn round when Giulio was announced, merely said, “Did you leave your lady well?”

“Much improved, your —”

The other man made a slight, silencing gesture with his hand. Giulio swallowed, hard.

“My pardons. My lord, I am happy to report a great improvement in my lady’s health. Her state of nervous prostration on her arrival troubled her aunt and the household greatly.”

“It risked troubling the Court. It was wise for her to seek refuge in the country immediately after news came of Reaching Beck, rather than stay to let rumours start. Such a deplorable sink of gossip, the palace. One has to contrive an escape from it, however one can. How went her stay at Rosings?”

“We were not at Rosings the whole time, my lord. My lady spent some time at the villa in Elbe, accompanied by two ladies from her home town of Meryton, whom chance — I enquired, my lord, but could find no evidence of contrivance behind it — had brought to Hunsford. One of them was the niece of John Watson, a Miss Elizabeth Duplessis.”

“Oh. Her. Another correspondent has spent much ink on the topic of Miss Duplessis. I rather think he cherishes a tendresse. Tell me more about her. Is it true that she bears a striking resemblance to my own unfortunate niece?”

“Their eyes and expressions are very like, my lord. Miss Duplessis is darker, however — hair and complexion, both — and I think she has the advantage in height over the — over your niece.”

“Still, a likeness worth remarking on. See that you do, and that it spreads. It will be taken as mere flattery of Miss Duplessis, of course, but every little helps an idea take root. Did she correspond with her uncle during the time she spent with your lady? Elbe is a convenient base from which to dispatch letters abroad.”

“No. I believe she may have had some such intention, but a man came, I believe bearing a warning for her to walk warily. She burnt papers in the bread oven, the day after.”

For a second, Giulio let resentment swirl up into his mind. Why had Miss Hooper allowed that grizzled veteran an audience? More to the point, what had they discussed, in that long convocation from which he had been excluded? What of it dare he mention in the current discussion — and, assuming there could have been other eyes at the villa (one could never rule that out; he had wondered even about Jeanette, from time to time) what dare he leave out?

“Where is that man now?” The other’s voice was silky smooth, but Giulio saw the pit opening beneath him, nonetheless.

“My lord, I had no orders —”

“A lack of initiative can be as much to be reprobated as an excess. Had he been secured, he could have told us much. He might not have wanted to, but they all do. In the end.”

And what would the mistress have thought of that? Giulio hoped no hint of his thoughts showed. “A thousand pardons, my lord. I will not make such a mistake again.”

“Assuredly, you will not.” The hint of amusement in the other’s voice might have been intended to reassure. If so, it failed signally. His heart thumping loud enough to be heard, Giulio swallowed again.

“He may yet be traced. He and a companion, a youth called Francisco, who, judging by his accent, was not from any of the three kingdoms, arrived in Elbe from Gaaldine aboard an argosy, the Santa Gertrude of Ragusa, and, I believe, departed the same way: certainly she slipped her moorings before dawn on the day after she docked. She neither took on nor discharged cargo in the port.”

“The Santa Gertrude? You interest me. But tell me, Giulio, what this man said and did? No, first, describe him. He may be one who has interfered in our affairs before.”

Before he had time to do no more than gather his thoughts, a sharp series of raps sounded on the study door. For the first time his interlocutor turned to face him. His whole body held the frozen concentration of a hunting stoat.

“I recognise that knock. He knows me to be engaged and would not trouble me for any small matter. Open it.”

Giulio’s haste to obey caused him to trip on a rug; he saved himself from going flying but felt cold eyes boring into his back, nonetheless. He stammered out an apology, and opened the door.

The tall, fair man who walked in did not even acknowledge Giulio’s presence. He strode straight to the desk, bowed very low, then lent over the desk so he could whisper into the other man’s ear.

What? Say that again.”

His malice and fury were towering presences of their own: great invisible ogres dominating the room. The fair man’s voice trembled, as well it might, but he held himself upright and did not take a backwards step.

“Your grace, it is true. I saw the device on the underside of the barrel myself. And I saw the — the head. There can be no possible doubt.”

“I will burn him.”

Without a second glance, he stalked from the room. The fair man made a quick, shooing gesture towards Giulio, then followed his master.

How he found his cloak and horse, how he got himself off the premises, that he never knew. Giulio was on the road, head down riding into driving rain before he emerged from the dark fog of nightmare even enough to perceive his surroundings.

Devils populated his dreams that night. An infinity of devils, the great Last Judgement from the East wall of the Cathedral of SS Geraldine and Augusta given life and descended in ranks of hellish degree to persecute him: devils horned, hoofed, finned, feathered, skeletal or gross. As the dream wore on he realised each devil had the same eyes: wide-spaced black pits, deeper and darker than the chasm in which they had spawned. He woke, shaking, and reached for his rosary. But the beads eluded his fumbling fingers, his Aves came out awry, and the words of the Paternoster froze on his tongue, as they said happened to witches once they had accepted Satan’s mark.