Chapter Fourteen - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
With a dagger at your throat, there’s no percentage in arguing. Which is why your prime object is NOT TO LET THE OTHER BASTARD GET THE JUMP ON YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE. Do I make myself clear?
If he got out of this alive, the Crown Prince’s master-at-arms was going to kill him. Then the Crown Prince, whenever that slippery bastard showed up again, would treat the remains to his most polished sarcasm.
Jonathan stumbled along the brick path to the back door of the villa, a massive timber-and-iron structure propped helpfully ajar. The bravo thrust him through it into a big, shadowy space, smelling of beeswax, good soap and — yes — lavender. The scent took him back instantly to an abandoned bedchamber in a deserted manor house amidst the wooded uplands of northern Gaaldine.
Dried yarrow stalks.
His mouth dry, limbs weak and heavy as in nightmare, he hesitated, goggling at the small, white-clad figure sitting in an upright chair at the far end of the room. The only light came from a single thick candle mounted on a carved oak torchère, set a little to the left and behind her, making it hard to discern her features.
“Well, move it,” the bravo growled into his left ear. “Milady wants to hear what you’re up to from your own mouth, and you can’t expect her to strain her ears, or have you bellowing at her.”
Jonathan regained control over his voice with an effort. “I can walk by myself, thank you. No need of shoving.”
He halted a polite two swords-lengths away from the lady in the chair, bowed low, settled into an easy parade rest and prayed to all the saints neither she nor the bravo could hear his heart thumping.
“Ma’am. It seems we’ve been dancing around each other all day, with you down at the argosy and us looking for intelligence on the road to Hunsford. It’s past time you and me had a talk.”
“Visitors who wish to talk present their credentials at my porter’s lodge. Within daylight hours.”
Princess Charis would have delivered that line as a self-evident truth. This woman sounded as if the power to exclude or welcome visitors was one which had only recently come into her hands and she still feared it might be snatched away.
For the first time he dared look her in the face. Any last shreds of doubt that he was looking at the original of ‘Self-Portrait’ dissipated. So. He had allowed himself to be captured by the Pretender’s sister on Gondal’s soil.
A thousand potential disasters flicked through his mind. Frances, dragged from her bed by the Pretender’s men and taken to Gondal Town as a prize of war. King Mycroft, begged by his mistress to intervene. The Crown Prince drowned in disgrace beyond hope of rehabilitation. The rebel lords of Gaaldine in revolt, incursions from Gondal, war along the border, and no-one with sense to direct it. Vannstown after Vannstown shimmering in flame and smoke and through them the face of Queen Genia, crying, “Betrayal!”
He stiffened his back.
“Mine aren’t the credentials to pass current at Rosings, ma’am. And I’d lay odds that your brother would know I’d made the approach long before you was ever told of it. If you were. No, ma’am. Direct is best. I’ve information that’s to your advantage and it’s my job to see you hear it.”
“You talk big for a man with a blade at his neck.” The bravo’s sneer came from uncomfortably close to his left ear.
He did not allow himself to move a muscle. “It’s a lesson I learned on the road from Vannstown. Your excuse?”
Giulio moved in front of him, his dagger much to the fore. “I’ll see you —”
The lady made an emphatic, slicing gesture of dismissal.
“Enough. Giulio. Leave us.”
“Ma’am! I dare not expose you so.”
“You may remain within call.”
The bravo looked mulish. “If this man really is a veteran of Vannstown he wouldn’t let you call.”
To be perfectly honest, given the state of his shoulder and the shocks of the last month, Jonathan thought that put his ability on the high side. Still, the Crown Prince always maintained all battles were won or lost in the mind and Jonathan wasn’t the man to surrender any advantage the fates offered him. He assumed the sunniest of smiles.
“No, indeed, she wouldn’t. But I’m no fool, at least not so big a fool as to think you, signor, would let me leave here alive, were I to silence her. But trust me: I mean no harm.”
“Are you quite sure of that?” The lady’s tone, gentle as it was, held a sardonic note reminiscent of the Crown Prince’s.
He ducked his head. “Outcomes lie in the hands of God, my lady. I can only speak for intentions.”
“Is that so? Giulio. Rely on me. Stay within call, but not too near. I will have private speech with this man. And, should our guests wake, ensure they don’t disturb us.”
The way Giulio’s hand caressed the top of his poniard spoke volumes, but he obeyed. Jonathan watched with careful friendliness until he was on the other side of a closed door. The lady’s face changed the moment her servant was no longer there. Jonathan recognised her expression; he had seen its like plenty of times in green soldiers nerving themselves for a skirmish.
“I know your accent, soldier; I know what vessel brought you here, and I know from what port you embarked.”
Jonathan sighed. “Our garrulous Arthur, I take it.”
She neither confirmed nor denied his guess, but ploughed straight ahead, as if she feared her courage might fail at any moment.
“Tell me what they are saying in the Court of Gaaldine about the Reaching Beck Bridge.”
He was not to be had so easily.
“As to that, my lady, I’m not sure I can say. I’m no courtier.”
Her hands picked ceaselessly at a dangling thread on the edge of her sleeve.
Dried yarrow stalks. ‘David’: a round boy’s face stamped with the features of the old wolf of Gaaldine. An old walnut writing desk with a mended leg.
Whoever’s side this one’s on, I doubt it’s entirely her brother’s. And the tree that’s already leaning is the one easiest to topple.
“I can tell you what I saw with my own eyes, ma’am, if that would help.”
“You were there?” A flash of hope, as quickly shielded.
“I was, ma’am — at a distance. The arrangement was that the Prince and Hebron were to meet unaccompanied. Unarmed. We weren’t going to be the ones to break truce. Unchancy as well as being bad tactics. But prudence dictated we be out in the crowds, in disguise, in case of trouble.”
She nodded. “So. Tell me what you saw.”
“There was a fair; they’ll have told you as much. The Crown Prince was disguised as a travelling fiddler. The two of them met; they were close enough to touch. His grace took something from Hebron, flipped it over the parapet. It glinted as it fell. A knife or something of that sort, I reckon.”
Jonathan could have snapped his fingers in triumph. He had been right. Hers was the voice of a sister deploring the latest scrape in which an adored but feckless younger brother had entangled himself. The fish was hooked; now all he had to do was land it.
He took a charcoal stick from the kidskin pouch inside his jerkin.
“It’ll help if I sketch it on the flags here, ma’am.”
She nodded assent, and he dropped to one knee.
“This is the line of the river, and here are the bluffs either side of it. These two lines here are the bridge; there’s a ‘V’ built out at the midpoint on the downstream side, look. I was here.”
He scrawled in an ‘X’ on the southern approach to the bridge, on the upstream side.
She nodded. “Go on.”
“I’m persuaded the thing was planned. The two of them were standing in the “V” of the bridge and a carter lost control of his rig, about here. Next time I could see anything, his Grace was in the water — alive, I’ll go bail on that — and holding onto Hebron.”
“Was he alive?”
The desperate hope in her voice broke his heart. Very slowly, he shook his head.
“I’d give 500 thalers to be able to say different, my lady, but though I didn’t see either man go off the bridge, I spoke to those as did.”
He swallowed, hard.
“His grace dived. Must have. I saw him surface, swimming. What I’ve heard, though, from two good men with their eyes and wits about them, was that Hebron fell. A clean sheer plummet. No windmilling of arms. He made no attempt to break his fall. Ma’am, I’ve seen people go like that off battlements in a siege. But I’ve never known any living man do so.”
She exhaled, long and slow. “Could a shot have carried so far? The marksman would have had to be on one of the bluffs, yes?”
Having feared hysterics or sobbing, Jonathan found her cool assessment a blessed relief. “With one chance to make the shot, you’d not have been able to rely on a musket. A rifle-gun might have the range, but trust me, ma’am, if anyone on either side had heard a shot there’d have been all to pay. No, it was something silent: arrow or cross-bow bolt would be my guess. And the man who fired it must have the steadiest hand and nerve of any marksman in the three kingdoms.”
Over her face it was if dawn had broken: a red, bitter dawn with lowering clouds and a storm approaching fast from the East.
“The late Queen’s grace told me a strange story once, of a hunting party and an attempt on the life of King Ambrosine.” She paused. “The man her grace referred to in connection with that affair is an intimate of my brother’s and, by repute, the finest marksman in Gondal.”
He whistled through his front teeth. “Praise indeed, ma’am. I’ve learnt to my cost how well Gondal trains her sharp-shooters.” Memory quirked the corners of his mouth. “Not just on the field of battle, either. Word to the wise, ma’am; don’t bet against Doctor Watson in any contest of marksmanship.”
She smiled. “You’re over-late with your advice, sir. You forget: while I never attended court during the lifetime of King Ambrosine, my cousins did. But even the good doctor would give place to the man I speak of. Moreover, that man is away from Court at present. Indeed, he has been absent for over a month. In and of itself that would not be suspicious. He is the colonel of a regiment stationed in the Borders. But I have heard from an impeccable source that he has not been observed with his regiment, either.”
Something about that assertion caught at his mind, like a burr in a cloak. He teased at it, trying to dislodge it.
“But why isn’t he back now?” Miss Hooper pondered.
The very words he had been groping for. He seized upon them with relief.
“Aye, ma’am, why not? Speed and secrecy were the very essence of Hebron’s assassination. The man who did it assuredly would have displayed himself in his accustomed haunts as soon as humanly possible afterwards. That he has not —”
He came to a stop, but once again she was ahead of him.
“Suggests either that he is unable to do, through injury, imprisonment or some more permanent impediment —”
Jonathan, who knew just how permanent an impediment the Crown Prince could make himself when he so chose, cheered up immeasurably. Her next words dashed him.
“Or that his task is not yet done, and he is absent fulfilling it, ignoring whether that creates speculation or not. In which case, the task must be vital indeed.”
She paused, and then, very deliberately, added, “My own hope is that the answer is the former.”
The very air thickened in his nostrils, like the smoke of battle. The choice opening before him — that sort of decision was for the King’s Council, the Crown Prince, the King himself —
Only, you forgot to bring any of those with you, didn’t you? So it’s up to you.
He swallowed. So this was what it must be like to walk through the powder magazine of a capital ship. There was, though, one point to get clear first.
“Forgive my impertinence, ma’am. But is that a reflection on this gentleman’s personal qualities or — or a more general one, on the situation?”
Her eyes opened very wide.
“You have clear sight, soldier. Perhaps he whom you serve should have sent you into the navy, instead.”
Recalling his last voyage, Jonathan was hard put to it not to roll his eyes. The faintest tinge of amusement touched Miss Hooper’s lips.
“The answer, as it happens, is both. I trust I can rely on your discretion in this matter? Good. Well. The gentleman in question made an offer for my hand, shortly after Queen Felicia’s death. Situated as I was —- undowered, and still the object of the King’s disfavour —- it was an offer very much more advantageous than any I could have hoped to receive. My guardians —-”
She came to an uncertain halt.
“They put you under some pressure to accept, I take it, ma’am?”
That was safe. Whatever their rank in life, families were always keen to get surplus daughters off their hands.
Miss Hooper nodded gratefully.
“Indeed. My reluctance was painted in terms of the blackest ingratitude. Worse, I had nothing more than a vague feeling of unease and the recollection of the late Queen’s hints, which no-one but I had heard, and which I could so easily have misinterpreted. I was saved by unlooked for chivalry on the part of one of my cousins. Seeing my distress, he — ah — came to me and proposed a subterfuge. He pretended to his father and to my guardians that he had fallen most hopelessly in love with me. His father forbade the match as a matter of course. Indeed, since my cousin was then only 15, with his studies to finish and his mind as yet unformed by contact with the wider world, any prudent parent would have done the same thing.”
“You’d counted on that, I take it? If that’s your cousin the colonel, ma’am, he’s got a better tactical brain than many I’ve come across holding that rank.”
She forbore to comment on his guess. “My guardians, however, were forced to take stock. What my cousin thought at 15 he might still think when he inherited, at which point he would be a far more eligible suitor than Major Mo — than this gentleman. So I was permitted to decline the latter’s offer, though I did not think his hopes were completely extinguished. When, some few years later I discovered I had dower lands in Gaaldine, the notion of putting the border between me and any renewal of his addresses stood foremost among my reasons for deciding to reside there myself.”
He sucked his teeth, unable to say a word for sheer pity. The move to Gaaldine must have seemed like escape at last, but from what he knew that house in the woods had all been part of a long-devised trap by the Pretender, with his own sister the bait.
The pause threatened to become prolonged. It was Miss Hooper who broke it.
“Some months ago, he proposed again. This time, I went to my brother. He declined to give his consent and yet — when I should have felt blessed relief — I had no confidence it was the end of the matter.”
She tilted her head, considering. “My suitor did not seem as cast down as I’d expected. And I sometimes felt — no, I sometimes did catch him and my brother looking at each other, as if they shared a joke. As if my troubles with him had not been ended, but put off to a more convenient season.”
“A man who contrived that shot might ask for a very large favour as his reward,” Jonathan observed, irrelevantly.
“You know who I am and yet you accuse my brother of having connived with a faction within Gaaldine to unseat her King? And that David was sacrificed to that end?” There was an odd expression on her face: not surprise but a sick relief that someone else had reached a conclusion she had long worried over in secret.
He grinned. “That’s high politics for you, ma’am. But I’ll not dwell on it, ma’am, if it offends you. Still, what I think, so might others.”
There was a little lift about her lips, as if the message he had intended to convey had arrived safely at its proper address.
“Hebron’s assassination might be taken, perhaps, as a provocative act?” she enquired. “In Gaaldine, I mean?”
“There could scarcely be a greater, ma’am, if it were brought home to Gondal. No King’s Council would readily refuse to support a declaration of outright war in such a case. Most members would be urging the King onwards.”
Her voice was slow, her tone deliberate, as if she tasted each word before she spoke it.
“Especially, I daresay, if members of the Council were secretly members of that very rebel faction. Then they would have to urge the obvious upon the King, for fear of being marked.”
Time slowed yet further.
“Do you, perhaps, know of a spy within the inner councils of his grace of Gaaldine, ma’am?”
She looked at him as if he were a zany capering in the market square. Her voice, too, had the gentleness of one dealing with someone whose wits were astray.
“I do not know his name. And I think, from what little I do know, from what I have overheard, or pieced together from hints and snatches of conversation that have come my way, he is — how shall I put this? Could one be an inadvertent spy? Or a spy against one’s better judgment, or interest?”
Dear God. His stomach lurched. His hand was on a lever which would move nations.
“Can we stop pretending, ma’am? No — I’ll grant you don’t know who our high-placed traitor is, but you’ve given me first-class intelligence regarding them, nonetheless. And you must know, I’ll see it to the right home to follow up on it.”
But if you are telling the truth, you have just committed treason against your brother the Pretender.
The words did not need to be uttered; they hung between them.
“That is the intention behind casting one’s bread upon the waters, is it not, soldier?”
In another woman, her mocking expression might have been flirtatious. This one, he judged, was too complex. He knew only one man who could have decoded her.
And he’s not here. But you’ve stood in for him before now.
Memories pressed hard on him: fear, pain, the noise of battle and an odd, whirling exhilaration, never experienced before or since.
It’s not the quantity of powder that makes the blast; it’s where you place the cartridge.
If he guessed wrong, then one of the greatest secrets of Gaaldine would go straight to the Pretender. But he’d seen the Queen of Gaaldine setting out with cold glee to entrap the sea wolves of Gondal who had despoiled her land and he’d seen what the Crown Prince had left of the fleet which had sailed into Alwentport, all guns firing and pennons at the masthead. What he’d seen on both their faces had been mirrored in Miss Hooper’s a few moments before.
“Ma’am. You’ve got a young lady staying with you.”
“I have two young ladies staying with me. And?”
“One of them has kin in Gaaldine. In the highest circles in Gaaldine, at that. Not as safe as it could be, that, with war rumours running faster than the gossips’ tongues at a shotgun wedding. And however many pairs of ears listening for any wheat that might be flying amid the chaff.”
She went, for a moment, very still. “Are you accusing Miss Elizabeth Duplessis of being herself a spy?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Not the least in the world. But she’s in such a situation as to attract the wrong kind of interest, nonetheless. And being a nicely brought-up young lady and innocent in the ways of the world (and I’ve never heard anything to contradict that, ma’am) it could be that she might stand in some danger of being used by spies in her vicinity. We were talking of inadvertent spies earlier. And there’s one name which recurs in her letters.”
“Would that name be Wickham?”
He hoped he had kept his reaction to himself.
“Indeed, ma’am. But I sense the young lady maybe has started to wonder about him herself, judging by the tone of her last. But I’ve got a letter, not from her uncle, he’s away from Court at present and who knows when he’ll be back? We tried to have it delivered to Hunsford, but we were told she was not at home. But if you could see it into her hands our minds would be easier.”
“Might I enquire what this letter contains?”
“A warning that — painful as it may be to her — correspondence with Gaaldine had better cease until the times are more congruent. And she’s to burn it once she’s read it; that, most of all.”
She nodded. “I can certainly see that delivered to its proper address. And to its long home. We do not have house fires at this time of year, but we have the most admirable bread oven.” She paused and added, with a delicate note of interrogation in her voice, “You have undertaken a dangerous mission, soldier, merely to deliver a letter. Since I cannot imagine you expected to achieve this encounter from it, I wonder what your incentive might have been?”
Jonathan rested back on his heels. “Well, ma’am, Dr Watson is one of the best of men. I’ve cause enough to know it, and I’ve little doubt but I could bring a regiment of men, near enough, that he’d treated in the field, and they’d all say the same. They’d do anything for a niece of his.”
“Would they do the same for a daughter?”
That was unexpected. Very carefully, he said,
“The good doctor has no acknowledged daughter. But I think, ma’am, some return for your earlier intelligence is in order. I do not know if you are aware that your brother went to some lengths last year to acquire an opinion of canon law, touching on a certain subject relevant to the throne of Gondal—?”
Miss Hooper shook her head; her fine eyebrows rose interrogatively.
He took a deep breath, and told her everything, as he had heard it: the cardinal with the bee in his bonnet about illegitimacy, the opinion that mere propinquity of the reputed parents during the relevant time was not determinative of legitimacy in the offspring, the accident which had happened to that opinion aboard ship, up to and including the reconstitution — forgery, indeed — of the Papal seal, with a highly unorthodox addition to make up the bulk of the wax.
It’s not the quantity of powder that makes the blast; it’s where you place the cartridge.
Had he turned this greatest of coups into a damp squib or placed a petard below the throne of Gondal, with the slow match handed to her who might best ignite it?
Miss Hooper blinked.
“So it was not merely for the sake of his Moorish mistress Lord Lestrade crossed the Straits of Otranto in the off-season. What a pity; it made such a good story the other way. Miss Donovan is truly lovely. But your account tallies better with what I have seen of the Santa Gertrude and her crew. Oh, yes: his noble Lordship did vouchsafe the name of the vessel, albeit only by way of a warning given for the general safety of travellers. Nonetheless, it piqued my interest to see her moored in Elbe. You should pass word to the Crown Prince, or whoever is acting as his regent. What I have seen, so can others. From now on, he should change his courier of choice.”
Jonathan suppressed the urge to tell her precisely whose money was paying the charter fee for the Santa Gertrude. Indeed, there was no time for digressions. The candle on the torchère was beginning to gutter. The night was running on, and his freight delivered, for good or ill.
“Well, my lady, I’d best be going. Just one word, if I may, before I do. Miss Duplessis: it seems like she’s fallen into deep water. Those who sent me will be easier in their hearts to learn she’s found someone ready and willing to teach her to swim.”
Miss Hooper’s slight smile broadened. “And for what other reason, soldier, did I capture her away from her family, and steal her away to the seaside?”
Dawn light bathed the hills on the further side of the valley, though darkness still wrapped the sleeping village below. In the grove of pines just below the western crest of the ridge, a man rose to his feet. From the tree stump to which she had been tethered a mantled falcon rose likewise, agitated almost to baiting. He strode closer, letting her fly to his gauntleted wrist, gentling the feathers behind her head and chirping falconer’s nonsense at her in a soothing monotone.
Reluctantly, amidst the mess of blankets beneath the pines, a second man raised his dishevelled head.
“Not so soon?”
“There’s no time left, John. Look after Thetis for me, please. Adair is the most generous of men, but I can’t take his gift into the places I’m planning to go.”
“I could come with you?”
“As what? A wandering fiddler and his personal falconer could hardly hope to pass unremarked, even in the Borders. John; I’m a wanted man. Also, Adair needs someone to stand between him and his uncle for a week or two, while he mourns his dead, detects and distracts those sent by the Pretender to find out what’s become of Moran, and strengthens those weaknesses in the castle’s defences which we must suppose have been faithfully reported back to Gondal. Given the proclamation nailed to every church door in the land, can I be that man? You’re clean. You may have set out to find me — whether to plead with me to return to endure my brother’s chastisement or for any other purpose being left as an exercise for the King’s examiners and no-one else — but, since you failed, no blame can possibly smirch you. You can even go back to Court —”
“Sherlock, are you completely mad?” John cast off his blankets and stood in turn.
“Never said you’d want to. Just pointed out that you could. Or, alternatively, you can make pious noises to Maynooth to the effect that you are persuaded that the only reason you can think of why I would not have surrendered to my brother’s proclamation is that I must be dead, so that you are — following, I might remark, the example of thepickled Colonel Moran — continuing to look for my body in the vicinity of Sancta Maria inter Prata. You can even continue the close search drills. To which end, incidentally, since you knew the man and can describe him as well or better than I, you could consider finding who besides Theo the potman spotted a slight, dark man who moves his head from side to side like a weasel entering this village, how often and on what occasions. And whom he consorted with in the district.”
The falcon decided to throw a temper tantrum at being ignored. The tall man calmed her with strokings and titbits of dried meat.
“You aren’t making it easy, are you? Sherlock. Please. I can’t lose you now.”
“Lose me? Not after — Look. John. I’ll be back before Pentecost, and then things will really start to happen. You’d better have your salves and eye-charts packed. There’s going to be fairs and markets all along the borders as the days lengthen. Cattle raids galore, too, as they get sent up for spring pasture. One could hardly have a better time for stirring trouble.”
Sherlock’s eyes glinted in the rising dawn light. “Oh, indeed. The game, John, the greatest of games is afoot.”