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

Molly read the letter once, then read it again. Aunt Catherine raised her eyebrows, and motioned, slightly, with one hand. Let me see.

Since Molly had arrived at the age of ten, all letters which entered or left Rosings were open to her aunt’s scrutiny. To Aunt Catherine’s mind, her niece’s very thoughts were not her own.

Not this time.

Molly made her voice gentle, but very firm.

“My brother states he writes only for my eyes. I must think on what he says. I shall walk in the grounds for a little.”

The mention of the King blunted even Aunt Catherine’s intrusiveness. She confined herself to a sniff. “Then be sure you do not catch a chill or overtire yourself. I shall see you later. If you are to return to Court, there will be much planning to be done.”

Ignoring the hint, Molly whisked upstairs to change into her walking dress. Then, she dismissed her tiring maid. Having made sure no-one marked her movements, she took a swift route to the attics. Long ago, a lonely and overlooked little girl had made herself a private den in a far corner of those gloomy lumber-rooms. The trunk she had brought from Netherfield, deemed too shabby for the grand apartments below, served as seat and table and treasure chest, tucked behind a rampart of old-fashioned, broken furniture. The dust on the trunk’s lid showed that no-one had ventured up here in years, perhaps not since that little girl had grown up and set aside childish things.

Suppressing a sneezing fit, Molly knelt, unlocked the trunk and groped down through multiple layers of childhood. Her fingers closed at last over the talisman. She exhaled, fingering its familiar shape. The woman to whom she might have brought it was dead these nine years: no help from that quarter this side of the Judgement. And were she now to be caught with it in her possession —

Her hand strayed to her bodice. Since shortly after her return from Gaaldine, she had had Jeannette sew secret pockets into all her clothes, big enough to hold a handful of precious stones or a number of gold pieces.

Odd, how even so far back she had been thinking of escape. Yet, on the quayside in Elbe, when it had been close enough to touch, she had ducked her chance. Had she only asked, she could have been away on the Santa Gertrude that very day.

But away where? The old objections surfaced with redoubled force. Had the Crown Prince been in favour she might have thrown herself on his mercy, but Mycroft II was an unknown quantity and she had no illusions as to how valuable a hostage he might think her.

She rose to her feet, tucking the talisman inside her bodice. Time was running out and with it her power to make choices. Before the end, her brother would have mastery over the thoughts of every being in Gondal. A dry laugh, almost a sob, broke out of her. He was the cleverest man in the whole kingdom, subtle as the serpent and far deadlier, but she saw their Aunt Catherine in him, even if no-one else did.

She took the backstairs down to the ground floor, and evaded the servants with practised ease. Then she was out in the grounds, walking swiftly while under the gaze of the great, silent windows and then, when she reached the cover of the woods, running.

Not for long. Before she had gone too many steps she pulled up short, a hand to her side, the sharp pain of a stitch blossoming beneath her breast-bone. Dark clouds gathered about her vision; she stumbled towards a fallen tree and sat, face in hands, waiting for the dizzy sensation to pass.

“You would benefit from the attentions of a physician.” The voice from above her head was so faint that, for the moment, she thought it a dream or perhaps a ghost. It seemed too much effort to open her eyes. If she were speaking to a ghost or a dream, the discourtesy might, perhaps, be overlooked.

“My brother sent the cream of the capital’s crop to my bedside earlier this year. They muttered in Latin, bled me and made me drink foul draughts. I felt worse when they had finished than when they had started.”

The ghost laughed.

“My own physician has done the same to me before now. But I’ll wager she knows her craft better than any who would answer your brother’s summons.”

The casual lèse-majesté caused her eyelids to flick up. The man standing before her wore huntsman’s garb in an odd, particoloured selection of dyes, so that the fractured light breaking through the trees danced across his body to create the illusion that he was himself disembodied, almost invisible. His eyes were still changeable as water over pebbles but frost had touched that mop of dark curls and the once-translucent skin had weathered and tanned. There were faint lines around the eyes and mouth.

He was no longer the Prince of Elfland, but even after twenty years she recognised him instantly.

“You are running a grave risk, sir. From all one hears, it has become your habit of late.”

The Crown Prince of Gaaldine lifted his brows.

“From all one hears? When in this particular case I am doing nothing more dangerous than visiting one of my wife’s relations?”

“You flatter me, sir. One of your wife’s connexions. Distant, at that. And in any event —” She sighed. “Surely you, of all men, know that the greatest dangers can come from within one’s own family?”

His gaze followed hers to the letter lying part-folded on her lap. His eyes narrowed as he recognised the handwriting.

“It is a lesson I learnt before I was nine years old, ma’am. It grieves me to know you have learnt it too. And, I suspect, in yet greater measure, and with worse yet to come.”

The expression in those eyes seemed relentless and yet pitying, again giving her the sense of dealing with a power not of this earth.


He bowed, slightly. “By the grace of — God — my grandfather is dead. Regrettably, your brother yet lives.”

The emphasis on regrettably made up her mind for her. She turned aside, fumbled for a moment inside her bodice, then swung back to face the Crown Prince of Gaaldine, holding out the talisman.

“Do you recall this?”

The Crown Prince inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I do. I gave it away, many years ago, to a little girl so fiercely loyal to her own that she was willing to go into Hell to protect her pet dog. Given the passage of time, I imagine the dog is no longer with us but I have no doubt the loyalty remains. Towards whom, though, is it extended now?”

“David.” Molly’s voice was flat and final. “He, like Tybalt, is dead. But you are wrong, sir. Loyalty does not end with death.”

“Hebron? So he was your protégé: I had inferred as much. But in what way can I aid you with respect to him? I could have eased any doubts you might have been suffering as to the fact and manner of his passing, but Jonathan met me some days ago, and told me he had been beforehand with that news. What, then?”

“I would know that he received seemly burial, and was not left for the carrion birds and beasts. And I would see his death requited. But first, tell me more exactly how he died. Everyone agrees you were there, though their accounts coincide on no other particular.”

“You keep yourself well informed.”

She regarded him. “When my brother is in the room, all eyes are on him. When he leaves, people relax their guard. It is then they say things they had better not. So. How did David die?”

The Crown Prince steepled his hands beneath his chin. “He died because I failed.”

How like a man. Cold fury overwhelmed her. “Sir, I did not invite you to share your guilt — justified or otherwise. Details, if you please.”

“As you wish.” He paused. “He died by a cross-bow bolt. Fired by the best marksman in the three kingdoms. Given the distance and the impossibility of a second chance, no-one else would have dared. I chose the location to make such an attempt impossible. I misjudged. David paid the price.”

“And his killer? What became of him? Tell me the truth.”

“James Moran is dead. I did not kill him, though if it protects the one who did I am happy to be blamed.” He paused. “I can, however, take the credit of returning him to his native land. And to his King. In a manner befitting both men.”

She gulped, but that news, also, had already reached her, and from a source no-one could accuse of gossip.

No quarter but quartering,” she murmured and was gratified to see a puzzled expression on the Crown Prince’s face. She tapped the paper on her lap.

“It’s what my brother says here, concerning what Gondal might expect from Gaaldine, when war comes. No quarter but quartering. Doubtless he has used the phrase to more than me.”

“I don’t doubt it either. James Moriarty adores his neatly turned aphorisms. That one has his stamp all over it. Inaccurate, of course. We could hardly have got Moran into the herring barrel in only four pieces.”

Her stomach heaved; she clapped her handkerchief over her mouth and smothered a dry retch.

The Crown Prince’s tone lacked the assurance of a moment earlier.

“Forgive me. But I needed to send a message.”

She kept her own voice very level.

“I assure you, a message was received. And by more than the King. But I have not finished my brother’s news. As you may gather, first he writes to condole with me on the death of Colonel Moran.”

“Belated, those condolences. He must have had that news a month.”

Eerie as her companion was, he was not, in fact, omniscient. Molly smiled.

“More like six weeks. Neither my cousin the colonel nor my cousin Darcy are foolish enough to put anything of moment in writing, but one can tell much from the things they choose to withhold, nonetheless. Shortly after I returned to Rosings from Elbe I received letters from them: not from Lake Elderno, as I had expected, but dated from Gondal Town. It can only have been an emergency session of the Council which broke up my uncle’s party, and such a session cannot have been occasioned by the raid on Castle Lestrade; news of that did not spread until a fortnight later.”

The Crown Prince looked as if he were doing mental arithmetic, and then nodded. “The wagon must made excellent time, but it was dry about then, so they will have had the best of the roads. And the rest of your brother’s news?”

Odd, how much he sounded like an ordinary connexion enquiring about family gossip. Molly tried to emulate his tone.

“He notes that although I refused the Colonel’s suit, he confides that I cannot be unmoved at so barbaric a treatment of so loyal and long-standing a petitioner for my affections: the more so since he further confides that only my diffidence as to not having a fortune equal to the match caused me to refuse his addresses last time he made them.”

The snort emitted by the Crown Prince at that was so loud, Molly feared it could have been heard in the house.

“Bollocks — as my late sister the Queen used to say when Alwent came out with something more than commonly asinine. Any woman possessing a modicum of horse-sense would have refused the suit of James Moran. Quite apart from his preferring men in bed, he was a brute, a bully and a boor.”

She looked down demurely. “I am delighted our opinions coincide so nicely, sir. It is rare in my experience. A decade ago, when Colonel Moran first paid his addresses, my aunt was puzzled — and not a little angered — when I refused him. But now it hardly matters. To avoid such issues in future, my brother proposes to settle the lands sequestrated from the Duke of Malham upon me as my dower lands. He summons me to Court so he may endow them with all speed. What, sir, am I to do?”

“Besides asking your cook to pack a hamper for the road?”

Her jaw dropped.

“Sir, I do not understand you. These are stolen lands; they came into my brother’s hands through a cold-blooded act of judicial murder.”

The Crown Prince nodded. “I’m delighted we continue in such perfect agreement. Carry on.”

She glared at him, but he seemed impervious. Doubtless he had had a lifetime’s practice.

“My ‘ownership’ would be the merest sham: my brother intends to manage the old Duke’s lands through me as a figurehead and through them buy the loyalty of whomsoever his glance falls upon as my husband.”

“Again, correct in every particular. You have inherited no small measure of the family brains.”

At that, she finally lost patience. “And you recommend I go along with this scheme? Walk defenceless into the Palace in Gondal Town, like a lamb to the slaughter, with no more precaution than what? A hamper for the road?”

“Never go into battle without being as well fed and rested as you can contrive,” the Crown Prince said, in a sententious tone which suggested he was quoting someone, no doubt some long-dead carpet warrior of the court of Mycroft I.

Exactly as if she had spoken aloud, the Crown Prince added, “My uncle the late King Rollo, as a matter of fact. Who, to do him justice, had more practical experience of warfare than you might imagine.”

A shadow crossed the sun. He shivered: not, Molly thought, at a merely physical chill. His tone changed. There was something faint and fugitive in it, like a child crying alone in a high nursery for comfort that did not come.

Civil warfare at that. I never considered this before, but when I collect how far he went to join the slaughter of brother against brother in a far land, might it have been so he might better witness and so later resist the temptation to fight son against father in his own —?”

She reached out a hand, and grasped his wrist.

“Those wars, sir, were problems for the last generation. We are in the here and now. I am to send back my answer within the turn. If I do not —”

Her companion interrupted. “If you do not, the Pretender will read it as defiance. And you know in your heart you have to agree to go to Gondal Town, because — forgive me — you are equally aware that if you do not enter the Palace on your own two feet you will be brought there anyway and by a different entrance.”

The whole plan unrolled, like a chess problem coming out. “He will gather all his close relatives together. We must be my brother’s hostages lest we become those of his rivals: Gaaldine’s, or some faction within Gondal itself. I wish I could warn Georgiana.”

The Crown Prince’s expression lightened, as if a burden had been lifted.

“Georgiana Darcy has protection neither you nor — I strongly suspect — your brother imagines. As for yourself —”

He eyed her speculatively, but she did not mistake it for a different kind of interest. This was high politics, nothing more, except that within this jungle lay her chance to avenge David and see his body given due reverence.

“As for me?”

“I could kidnap you, of course.” His voice was meditative. “There is a troop of your brother’s men on the road here from Gondal Town, to take you if you do not volunteer and to form an honour guard if you do, but they are a league or more away. With me to guide you we certainly could make it across the Border before they caught up with us. There would be little danger to you, even if we failed. You would be the victim of a dastardly crime, and they your gallant rescuers.”

But the Crown Prince would die: slowly, cruelly and publicly, and with him Charis’ hopes. And even if they evaded the troops and succeeded in crossing the border unscathed —

Molly’s mind had never felt clearer.

“Your kidnapping me would precipitate war. War on my brother’s timetable, not yours. Whereas if I were in Gondal Town —”

“What could you do?” His tone was interested, not dismissive.

Elizabeth’s story of Mary King crossed her mind. Even at this desperate junction Molly could not repress a smile. “My brother is vain; it is his most profound weakness. Had he been raised in obscurity and suddenly endowed with the greatest estate in the whole kingdom he would ensure all those who had snubbed him over the years paid back every last arrear of civility.”

The Crown Prince stretched, with the slow, languorous movements of a well-fed cat. “With interest, I take it?”

“At the most usurious rate. So. It will not surprise him if I do what he might do in my position. Gondal Town it is. I shall embrace my great fortune and with it buy you time. How long do you need?”

He did not waste words. “Six weeks would be good. Two months better.”

She looked up at the full canopy of leaves above her, and across at the grass on the meadow, already the parched tawny of high summer. Six to eight weeks to see the harvest in and the store-rooms filled. So it was siege warfare he contemplated and on the soil of Gaaldine, not that of Gondal. James Moriarty was to be enticed to invade and, once there —

She blinked that thought away, and rose to her feet. “I should be about my packing. I need to be well on with it when my brother’s honour guard arrives.”

The Crown Prince extended his hand. “For the moment, then, I should take that.” He gestured, and Molly realised she was still holding the belt buckle.
“Your belongings will be searched; even your closest and most personal servants cannot be trusted. The Pretender knows everyone’s levers — at least, so he likes to think. You cannot afford to be found with my token on you.”

The thing had lain hidden up in the Rosings attics for years; why should it feel like tearing off part of herself to hand it over? It had been given her to use, and now, at the most dangerous moment of her life, it had fulfilled its purpose.

And sent you into more danger a traitorous voice at the back of her mind asserted. She dismissed it, and handed over the buckle.

The Crown Prince eyed her for a moment. “May I trespass on your time a little longer?”

Molly nodded, impatient to be off and about packing — but then, surely a woman suddenly come into the possession of a massive dowry must be in want of an entire new wardrobe? How many fields could be reaped while a fashionable lady hummed and hawed about this or that trimming on a mantua? A slow smile began to spread across her face; she dropped a formal curtsey to the Crown Prince.

“My time is at your disposal, sir. As it will be when I reach the capital.”

He took a pencil, the expensive English sort, and a notebook from inside his jerkin. He drew as he spoke, swift sure lines filling the page.

“Within the next year or so, I plan to commission a memorial chapel at the Abbey of Norburyness. It will be for a young relative of mine cut off before he even touched his prime.”

Molly caught her breath. “And?”

“Your reputation as an artist precedes you, ma’am. An artist as much in silks as in paints, my wife tells me, and I have the greatest faith in her judgment. So. I would be honoured if you could work a panel for the altar cloth. I note the dimensions here. I have conceived a design for a Vision of St Eustace: a place I saw on my travels gave me the clearest conception. A moment, while I capture it. There. Like that.”

Without a line wasted, his sketch vividly showed the curve of a river, running fast through a mountainous landscape. A great thorn tree, white with may-blossoms, dominated the right-hand side of the drawing, while a heap of tumbled stones on the bottom left corner, perhaps part of a ruined barn or sheep-fold, gave the delicate blossoms counterbalance and weight.

From across the water, a rising or setting sun (impossible to tell which) sent low shafts of light, striking the figure of the crucified Christ suspended between the wide-spread antlers of a great stag standing at bay against the wrecked wall.

She took it wordlessly, tucked it into the place in her bodice where the talisman had been and looked up to find her companion gone, faded into the woods as if he had never been. Along the dappled path back to the edge of the lawn, she walked, mind turned inwards upon a river-shore on which David lay, face-up, blossom drifting down to cover his sightless eyes.

“We are not going to Aunt Gardiner’s?”

Toiling up the steep slopes of Belmont took it out of one: it always had, even when she’d been younger than Lizzie and at least as much in the habit of exercise.

“As you can see, we are not. Not yet, anyway.” Harriet came to a puffing halt at the corner of a lane, which snaked away behind the grand, faceless mansions which lined the road. “Now, is it this turning or the next?”

“How can I say, if I don’t know where we’re going?”

Lizzie should have a care. The window in a woman’s life in which men saw such remarks as pert rather than shrewish was narrower than any woman imagined, at least until she discovered the hard way that window had shut behind her. But, halfway up Belmont, Harriet had no spare breath with which to impart lessons in life.

“You’ll know when we get there,” she snapped, and, at Lizzie’s slapped expression, instantly regretted it.

To cover up, she turned abruptly down the lane only to realise before they had walked four dozen yards that she should indeed have proceeded up Belmont a little further and taken the next turn. That was when she saw the walnut tree.

Her stomach lurched. Dear God, how old had she been? And why, why, why hadn’t it been John to accompany their father that night?

Rumours of the Ogre of Belmont had swirled about Gondal Town for decades. Nursemaids quieted rambunctious children by telling them the Ogre was coming for them and only absolute silence could prevent his stealing them away, never to be seen again.

Her mother, normally the gentlest of women (how often she saw Mama in Jane!) had made it known that no servant of hers would use such methods on pain of summary dismissal. Her gentleness had told against her: no-one believed a word of it. Until the day came when Mama walked in upon Molly giving such an admonition to David and Julia (who would taken by typhoid before the year was out, aetat 2 & 4, as their memorial plaque bore witness.) Molly and her belongings had found themselves out on the street that very day, no appeal permitted. That, not the whispered stories passed around by Harriet’s school-mates, had convinced her the Ogre was real.

More, it had convinced her that the other rumours were equally true. Papa was already a Court Physician, if not yet admitted to the inner circles who attended upon the King. Rumour said the Ogre moved in Court circles and had protectors who ranked higher still, so high their names dare not even be whispered. Save for the necessary secrets of his profession, Papa never kept anything from Mama; anything learnt at Court would assuredly have been shared.

Harriet had never expected to have both rumours proved; still less that she and Papa would be the ones to witness the end of the Ogre’s terror. Nor that the walnut tree would yet be standing, not after all these years. Nor that she would see again the gate beside it, leading to the high walled garden from which those little bundles had been carried out in the cool grey of the morning.

“Mama! Mama!”

Her body felt ridiculous: heavy, clammy and not hers at at all. What on earth —?

She clawed her way up to wakefulness and found Lizzie bending over her with concern naked in her face. What could possibly have happened to make Lizzie look like that? Surely she couldn’t have swooned? What an absurd, impossible thing to have happened —

“Mama! Not so quickly! Or you’ll go off again. Oh, I thought we were going up Belmont too fast, but you would do it. If only we could get some help. Oh! What luck! Giulio! Giulio! Over here!”

Her eyes snapped open, to see Lizzie signalling to a man in sober servant’s garb, a cloak wrapped round head and shoulders (in this weather?) who, more than reasonably, was ignoring her undignified flailings and hurrying about his proper business. She reached up and caught her daughter’s flapping hand.

No Lizzie. I shall be quite restored in a moment. Do not make an exhibition of yourself. Or of me, either.”

A little subdued, Lizzie sat back on her heels, allowing Harriet to struggle up into a sitting position, from which she could observe the man retreating (in truth, almost scuttling) down the hill. Behind her head, she heard a gate click shut: the gate besides the walnut tree. Horror slithered greasily along newly irritated nerves.

“Let us go. No, thank you Lizzie. I collect where we are, now, and it is but a short distance to Maria’s house. I can sit quietly there to recover myself, in the shade, not out on this horrible hot lane. Give me your arm. Thank you. Now. Let us go back to the main street.”

Mrs Younge had intelligence to give him, Darcy knew, but how to persuade her? She was not desperate for money: the careful but not in the least pinched appearance of her boarding house told him so. Also, she knew to a quarter-cent the market value of discretion and of a reputation for possessing it. No personal regard for him or hope of further advantage from the connexion could weight the scales in his favour. Both knew that when — if — this particular matter was resolved there would be no further dealings between them. If she had what he sought, he would have to think of another way to unlock it.

Fuming, he returned home to find a strange footman in the hall. Darcy recognised the livery at once: Moriarty family colours. He also took the point the livery was intended to send. James of Gondal was not approaching Fitzwilliam Darcy as his King and liege lord, but as a relative. The dissemblance made him queasy, a sensation which only increased when, ceremoniously, the footman handed him a note bearing his own name written in his cousin’s crabbed, unmistakeable hand.

He took it, broke the seal (that, too, was his cousin’s personal device) and read it through once, then again, striving to keep his face impassive. Of course, the footman would have been told to remark his demeanour and describe it.

“Now? His grace wishes me to wait on him without delay?”

“Sir, yes.”

His valet, credit to him, had anticipated the summons. The clothes he had selected for Darcy were judged to a nicety for a gentleman of the first rank paying a call upon the senior branch of his family. That is, they were of self-embroidered silk brocade in the soberest colours and the most impeccable cut. All the proper accoutrements were to hand, including a plumed hat with fresh feathers and an ebony stick with a silver top. Darcy let it slide through his gloved hand so its ferrule thumped on the hall floor: he hoped the footman decoded the message.

Solid all through; no concealed blade here.

His stately progress across the Great Court echoed, in his own ears, the sound of a man walking to the gallows foot. Not that a man of his rank would ever see a gallows, however James Moriarty’s humour took him. To save those of quality the final humiliation of being degraded in the eyes of the mob had been the official justification for granting the privilege of private execution to the nobility and gentry. Darcy felt momentarily ashamed that the first time he truly feared the rule might have personal application was also the first time it had occurred to him that it prevented the world at large from knowing whether the condemned went to their deaths able to walk or not.

That thought haunted him through all the corridors and ante-rooms of the palace, until at last the footmen threw wide the doors into the smaller of the two Royal writing rooms, the one preferred by the King for his most intimate audiences.

Only a fool would be at ease in his cousin’s presence, but this room in particular seemed chosen to intimidate under the guise of putting visitors at their ease. Despite numerous little touches aimed at giving an air of charming informality, the great oil painting hanging over the fireplace dominated the space: the King’s parents, Crown Prince Gerald and Lady Elaine Butler, on the occasion of their betrothal forty years ago. Who knew what remote cubby-hole it had languished in during the reign of King Ambrosine XVII, whose estrangement from his father had been legendary? One of James Moriarty’s first acts on ascending the throne had been to have it hauled out and hung in his inner Palace sanctum, and Darcy had little doubt as to the message his cousin had intended to send by it.

For all the waterfall of diamonds about the bride’s neck and the swing and glitter of the matching ear-bobs beneath her coronet of chestnut hair; for all her ermine and silk brocade, she was as much a virgin sacrificed to a monster as Andromeda and without hope of a Perseus to save her at the last.

Nor had the artist attempted to soften the message. True, at the time of his betrothal the Crown Prince had been over fifty and not even the most obsequious of Court portraitists could have erased the marks of a life given over to the darkest of debaucheries. But this Prince Gerald sneered openly out of the portrait with an air of cold sensuality and Lady Elaine shrank back beneath his gaze into her court robes, drowning in swathes of fabric, like a child playing dress-up in an adult’s clothes.

His back to the portrait, James Moriarty reclined in a comfortable low chair by the window, a scatter of papers across the even lower table besides him. He cut off Darcy’s ceremonious bow with a sharp, charming gesture.

“Nonsense, coz. None of that stuff. Sit down here and we can be quite cosy together. How few family get-togethers I have the time to indulge in these days and what a luxury they are when I may. Wine, Geoffrey, of course; cooled white wine, and some of those delightful little orange-water biscuits.”

Mindful of his valet’s strictures against wanton creasing, Darcy swept up the skirts of his coat and sank into the chair opposite his monarch. His height told against him; he was abruptly conscious the low seat thrust his knees up closer to his ears than decorum warranted. His cousin, six inches shorter, smiled across with a sunny nonchalance more terrifying than a naked blade. When the servitor brought out a tray holding an elegant, chased-silver swan-necked jug and glasses, his cousin dismissed him and served them both himself, twisting the blade in the wound.

And then he sat back, his damnable eyes dark and impenetrable above the rim of his wine glass, and let silence stretch out.

One was not, of course, supposed to introduce a topic of conversation to the King. With family, however, perhaps some leniency might be permitted. After some stiff moments, Darcy hazarded,

“I trust, sir, you have no ill news of our cousin the colonel?”

For a moment, James Moriarty looked as if ‘Colonel Fitzwilliam’ were the name of some ancestor, a great-grand-uncle lost to Faerie centuries ago from a greenwood dell. Then he collected himself.

“Our gallant cousin? I am happy to say report has him well, and pushing back strongly against the Gaaldinian incursion.”

All knew the Borders to be a debatable land: the riding families owned no law but that of necessity. Characterising a reiver raid in the Border Lands as an incursion in force by the Gaaldinians was a cheap tactic, one which any Council member in good standing ought to protest.

Darcy gave a spare nod. “The Virgin be praised. I feared, when I received your message, that you might have distressing family news to convey.”

Was that a momentary flicker of surprise on the King’s face? If so, it was instantly subsumed beneath the sunniest of smiles.

“Quite the reverse, my dear coz! And I wished you to be the very first to know of the good fortune to befall my very favourite relative. After all, you spotted her quality, first of all the family but me. Oh, Aunt Catherine told us all about your youthful passion, and how cruelly your father and the Earl pronounced it must not be. I was travelling myself, of course, and no hint of the news was permitted to reach me, or there might have been a different outcome.”

There was some lies even the King could not tell with conviction. Also, Darcy knew his family. He had known them even at fifteen, when he had concocted that bold gamble to save his stammering, terrifyingly withdrawn cousin from the loathsome prospect of being sold in marriage to Moran.

Despite himself, Darcy found his eyes drawn to the portrait, to meet the melancholy eyes of his Aunt Elaine, Molly’s mother as well as the King’s.

Yes, that painted gaze seemed to say, I learned the horrors of an unwelcome marriage the hard way. Thank you for saving my daughter from a like fate.

His upwards glance had not been lost on his cousin. He swivelled round on his chair and gestured towards the portrait. “Mother and daughter; such a speaking resemblance, would you not say?”

Darcy dipped his head again. “Your disinterested generosity — given that my success at that date must have inflicted a grave disappointment upon Lord Moran, who all know to have been one of your dearest friends — is as unexpected as it is welcome. But sir, let us forget the past. Pray, tell me of Molly’s good fortune. For, even if it comes by way of a great marriage, provided her husband truly loves and esteems her, and she reciprocates, I will stand up at the wedding breakfast and wish them both happy to the depths of my heart.”

The King smiled.

“So you wish to allow my sister her season in the sun, soaring above Court in her new position and breaking hearts right and left? A wise move, coz. A true falconer’s cast. Nothing wins a wife’s loyalty more than the illusion she made her own choice from a wide field. Or so they tell me. But indulge me. Do not wait too many weeks before you petition me to allow you to pay your addresses to my sister — the Marchioness of Malham, in her own right, as she will be by then. I do so love a wedding, and I fear we may have a very crowded autumn. I cannot count on having my whole family about me for that season, what with one thing and another, and I could not bear to think of any of them missing your wedding.”

Whole family? Darcy’s stomach gave a sick lurch. The whole damnable scheme swung dizzily his eyes. So that was what the King planned? He and Molly to be squeezed into a forced marriage within a matter of weeks, compelled by threats to his sister. Dear God, why had he not insisted on Georgiana being sent to Rome or Vienna when he had the chance?

He dropped his eyes to conceal his thoughts and almost gasped aloud. On top of the mess of papers strewn across the low table was one in a handwriting he recognised; had, in fact, seen far too often.

“Ah. The tedium of the importunate.” The King had not missed his reaction. “Tell me, coz, have you not found there is a type of person who, by all reason, should be overflowing with gratitude for the opportunities one has afforded to him, but who takes the smallest indulgence on one’s part as simply the excuse for endless further demands on one’s generosity?”

“I have indeed,” Darcy said grimly. His cousin must surely mean to allude to his father’s partiality for George Wickham and how that had turned out, which he would know from Aunt Catherine. He could only pray that the King was unaware of his own current preoccupation with the man and his whereabouts. But for the King to speak so personally and — insofar as one could ever be sure of that — with such genuine exasperation bespoke something new.

Wickham has at last succeeded in losing the favour of the one man in all the three kingdoms it is most perilous to offend.

“You have? I suppose such creatures batten on all of rank and fortune. I must remind my confidential secretary to return any further missives which arrive in that hand. Unopened.”

Darcy’s mind raced. “A man would have to be most truly obtuse to deserve such a rebuke in the first place. To ignore it — unthinkable.”

“It would be, would it not? How reassuring to know that someone understands one’s position in such matters. Anyway, this has been the most charming little chat but Our diary is so crowded these days, that I am going to have to shoo you away. One last thing, before you go. There is to be a ball at the Palace this day week. I hope you will open it with my sister.”

Darcy’s eyebrows went up, unstoppable. “Sir! You ask me to open a State ball with Molly this day week?”

And so all-but proclaim themselves affianced in the face of all the Court? Oh, my lovely Elizabeth —

The cold blaze in the King’s eyes made his very bones shiver. “You find something incongruous about that idea?”

For the first time in this interview, he could found himself able to speak unconstrained. “Indeed, your grace, with your pardon, I do. A State ball — the first since Court mourning has ended, a se’nnight from now — Molly to appear as the first lady there, when both of us know our Aunt Catherine’s views on the requisite modesty of dress and adornment for —” He paused, abruptly.

“For a poor relation?” The King’s tone was thoughtful. “You surprise me, Fitzwilliam. A most valid point indeed. My cousin should arrive in Gondal Town by dinner time today. Perhaps I should consult her on how long she feels it may take before she can be properly attired for so auspicious an occasion. I shall order the ball postponed, to a date to suit. But — you will open it with her, whenever it is?”

“Sir, as you well know I dislike dancing in general.” Darcy gulped. “In this instance, though, it will be my greatest pleasure.”

He rose to his feet. His bow, this time, was to the King, not to the family connexion. James Moriarty waved a lazy hand in acknowledgement and dismissal.

“May your courtship of my sister prosper. And be brief. Good day, coz.”