Chapter Sixteen - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
“Tell her. Mama, tell Mrs Foster that it simply isn’t fair to take Lydia with her to Lake Elderno, and leave me behind.”
Not for the first time, Harriet wished Kitty had spent some time on the study of human nature. From the outset Clarence had handicapped her in educating the girls in that direction. He laughed at her in front of them, making words trip awkwardly off her tongue, rendering the products of hard-won experience “Mama’s absurdities.”
Had years of Clarence not weighted down her tongue she might have told Kitty this: Mrs Forster is your own age, near enough. Less than six months ago she accepted the hand of a career soldier with a handsome private fortune. Any girl of sense would have done the same. Now her husband’s regiment has lost its commander-in-chief to high politics and dark accusations. On whom may blame settle next? Women in Mrs Forster’s case cling to any familiar spars they spot drifting past on the current. She may have known your sister less than three months and each of them may have no sense worth two cents, but if they come through this season together nothing can sever the bond between them. Who knows where that will lead? For the moment Mrs Forster remains the wife of a career soldier with a handsome private fortune.
Harriet poured from the decanter with a careless hand. “Kitty, my dear, for the moment you need to resign yourself. But if Lydia does well at Lake Elderno, who knows how wide our circle will be opened? But I know, love, I know how disappointment feels. Trust me. I know. I cried for two days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away.”
Back then most of her grief had been, in truth, for the Colonel’s daughter, Ruth. Dear heavens, Ruth: pale, willowy, grey-eyed and silent. Harriet had been so very much taken with Ruth during that summer the Watsons had spent at Aspin Castle, where her father had been sent as resident physician to an elderly dowager.
What a brilliant summer it had been, too. Once the Royal engagement lifted the shadow of civil war from the land a collective outpouring of relief had manifested itself in balls, water-parties, treasure hunts, steeple-chases, pic-nics and festivities galore. Thanks to the dowager’s gratitude, the Watsons had had the entrée to every fête in the district. For the first time in Harriet’s life she found herself mingling on equal terms with the officers of the regiment encamped in summer quarters on the river meadows below the castle and with their families.
And so Harriet Watson met Ruth Miller on the shores of Aspin water, and found her world, her very sense of self, forever changed in consequence.
Colonel Miller, Ruth’s father, had been a fervent traditionalist though he and her father managed their political differences with the honed tact developed over decades of professional experience. It was not her father who had precipitated the disaster but John; John, who with all the blundering partisanship of fifteen had declared in passionate accents that the Royal wedding was no more moral than the sale of a Circassian slave into the harem of the Sultan. Declared it, moreover, in front of officers who had spent the winter wondering which of their comrades they would find themselves firing upon if tension over the Succession broke into outright conflict.
A puzzle piece dropped into place: an assignation planned twenty years ago on the shores of Aspin water. Ruth had come to their usual meeting place even more silent than usual. Towards the end of the evening she had murmured, apologetically (what could Ruth possibly have to apologise for?) that the Regiment had orders for the Borders, and would be leaving in two days, but Harriet would write, please? She would write, would she not?
But Harriet had written, and written again, but no answer came, though she had wept for two whole days together when Colonel Miller’s regiment went away.
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth found herself equally unhappy with both parents. Bound by ties of honour to reveal nothing of what Mr Darcy had vouchsafed concerning his sister Georgiana, she could only point to Lydia’s general boisterousness and the shame it reflected on the family as reasons to prevent the Lake Elderno expedition. She marshalled her best arguments to this effect and her father laughed down all of them.
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Lake Elderno. Let her go, then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.”
As for attempting to persuade her mother, the matter was hopeless. From the moment Lydia had rushed into the drawing room in raptures, holding out Mrs Forster’s invitation like a diplomat holding out a peace treaty negotiated after decades of war, Mama had been all aglow, talking (particularly in the evenings, after dinner) of the conquests she expected Lydia to make and how greatly the consequence of the Duplessis family would be enhanced thereby.
Worse yet, Mama had elected to mark the departure of the regiment by a round of dinners and pic-nics, so Elizabeth was constantly forced into company with Mr Wickham. Lydia and Kitty had gleefully informed Jane and Elizabeth that, during their absence, Mary King’s stepfather had packed her off to his married sister in Gondal Town, arguing that it was more than time she was introduced to wider society and given a proper season. In Miss King’s absence, Wickham seemed disposed to resume his attentions to Elizabeth. Did he consider her to be deficient in understanding or in self-respect or both, to assume her willing to resume their former terms, when they had been interrupted for such a reason?
The more they were forced into company, the more the warnings she had received weighed on Elizabeth’s mind. Every time Wickham addressed a conventional gallantry to her, she wondered if it was one he had used to Georgiana Darcy. When, with flattering deference to his host, he invited her father to opine upon the chances of peace or war with Gaaldine, she imagined crabbed reports in cipher travelling up to some spymaster in Gondal Town. Each enquiry as to how she had found her sojourn with her cousin Collins, she suspected to be a sally designed to elicit intelligence about the doings of Miss Hooper or of her formidable guardian.
Strain sent Elizabeth into a desperate mood. Her shafts of wit were fired high and with a fevered brilliance that almost frightened her. Her efforts stimulated all around her to equivalent indiscretions. Wickham, indeed, went so far as to hint of Court rumours to the effect Mr Darcy was understood to be waiting only for the expiry of the King’s mourning year to pay his addresses in form to his cousin, Miss Hooper.
“For,” he added with a hint of his old confidential air, as they walked in the garden at Longbourn, “I have it on the most excellent authority that his Grace the King intends the forfeit estates of the Duke of Malham to be the dower lands of his half-sister. That will make her the richest heiress in the three kingdoms, which I imagine will pique even Mr Darcy’s interest.”
Elizabeth shook her head, as if to deter the attentions of a buzzing fly.
“I should have thought Mr Darcy of Pemberley would find chasing after another fortune an exertion quite beneath him.”
Wickham tapped the side of his nose. “Were it just the fortune, perhaps, though I never set store by any man’s protestations that they do not wish for more money. But the King will most surely ennoble anyone who marries his sister, it being impossible, of course, for him to confer a title on Miss Hooper directly.”
“Impossible, indeed. For if ladies were to hold titles in their own right, might that not shake the very foundations of King James’s throne?”
She saw a quick flash of calculation in Wickham’s eye: the look, perhaps, of a man making a mental note on some unseen ledger. Elizabeth rushed on, to cover her slip.
“What rank awaits Miss Hooper’s intended husband, do you suppose? No mere barony, surely. To conquer Mr Darcy’s pride surely only a marquisate or a dukedom would suffice. But can we imagine Miss Hooper as a duchess, or even a marchioness?”
He pursed his lips. “You find the thought incongruous? Why?”
“Well, her aunt Lady Catherine would surely wear such honours with far more befitting pomp. Such a shy, mousy creature —” Belatedly, Elizabeth realised she was on the brink of a precipice of indiscretion. “At least, so my mother always told me. Miss Hooper lived at Netherfield as a child, did you know? Her harpsichord playing made a considerable impression on Mama: not, I’m afraid, a favourable one. You know how my sister Mary plays? Well, I cannot tell you how often I have heard, ‘La, child, you give me the head-ache. You remind me of little mousy Miss Hooper, before your sister Jane was born. How we all suffered through ‘tinkly-tink, plonkety-plonk’ — aye, accurate to the note, but with less spirit than a Mohammedan doctor’s teething water.’”
Her imitation of Mama’s querulous tones brought a welcome laugh from Wickham, but as it died away she caught another sound: the swish of a lady’s skirts and petticoats. But when she looked across at the doorway, there was no-one there.
“But a Bishop—” the unhappy young man said again.
Julian brought his closed fist down on the table of rough-hewn planks that was the cave’s principal concession to comfort.
“Enough. I must take that convoy, if it contains the entire college of cardinals and his Holiness the Pope at their head.”
The young man backed further into the cave’s shadows uttering whimpers that would have shamed Julian’s best spaniel bitch (who had her now, back at Castle Malham, was she being cared for properly, did she still miss him and look for his return?)
Julian permitted himself a grim smile.
“Go down to the road. I shall be with you shortly. And rest easy, man: there’s to be no killing of priests, no plundering of holy relics or communion vessels and, as for the Bishop, let us handle him as gently as a babe in arms. Tell the men so.”
The other man gave a quick, awkward bow, and vanished. Julian raised the crudely wrought goblet to his lips, and took a swallow of thin red wine. He was back in the library at home, long ago, on that day when Papa had steered his pudgy infant finger across the great map unrolled across the table.
“See the crags here, where they overhang the road. See how the opposing fell thrusts out its own spur, narrowing the road to a gorge between rock faces quite sixty cubits high, and sheer for better than half a league. Then that precipitous descent, a league along. We hold treasure here, little one. Oh, not gold. But golden, nonetheless. In years of good harvests no-one notices. But in poor years we have all Gondal at our feet. Our hands are about the throat of the supplemental corn supply from the plains of the Russ down into the three kingdoms. They cannot take the grain by the western roads: fell and marsh, bog, and swamp and awful biting insects bar that route for mass transport. The ports on the western coast are shallow and prone to silting; those on the East are overlooked by the Sultan. He who holds the Great North Road holds Gondal. We are the House of Ancona, and what we have, we hold. Remember it, little one.”
The pock-marked Gaaldinian, whose name he had not been vouchsafed, loomed unexpectedly at the cave’s mouth.
“It’s done, my lord. All in position. A rider came in a quarter of a turn ago. The convoy has left Egremont.”
Destiny, then, was little more than three leagues away, rolling down the road to meet him on cumbrous, iron-tyred wheels. He nodded, dry-mouthed.
The Gaaldinian contorted his face into a devil-grimace like those one saw carved on rood-screens in back-country churches. Belatedly, Julian decoded it as a smile.
“McAllister’s party are securing the rear. I pity the Bishop, if his party elects to retreat. That’s a good man, and a steady one, but his women-folk —”
He spat, eloquently. Truth to tell, the McAllister women were, indeed, something to shudder at: granite-faced farming women, who could butcher a sheep or pig in less than half a turn and whose desire for revenge for their murdered sister burnt like molten copper in their veins.
Julian nodded. “Thank you. Give me a quarter of a turn, and I shall address the men. Please tell them so.”
The Gaaldinian nodded and with an almost unconscious courtesy refilled the goblet from the wineskin lying, flaccid and mouth-knotted, at the far end of the table. He handed it to Julian.
“A blessing on this venture, my lord. The Queen will know of your valour.”
Julian recalled Princess Charis, aged eight or so, accompanying the King her father on a hunting party at Malham Castle: a small, doll-like figure in a velvet three-cornered hat and a miniature riding habit, sitting self-contained on a long-lashed grey pony with a plaited mane and the most perfect dapples.
Could that doll have grown into someone who could credibly topple James of Gondal from his throne? At any rate the Gaaldinian thought so. He had arrived out of the mist, as the Prince had told him his counsellors in these ventures would: without name, without rank, without anything save for a rectangle of cloth, tightly stitched in whitework, by way of passport.
Not sure if he could trust his voice, Julian nodded, The Gaaldinian saluted, and went. Julian downed the wine and turned to face the small, makeshift shrine, before which candles guttered in the draught from the cave mouth, flicking the rosary between his fingers, telling the beads and the decades with the words he had learnt to lisp in the nursery. But at the end of it, as at the start, his real prayer remained the same.
Holy Mary, how did my life come to this?
Two hours later, lying amid the dry rocks on the thin, friable soil of the hillside, the sharp scent of sage and thyme rising to his nostrils, a shutered dark lantern at his left hand, his heart thudding loud enough to be heard in the night, Julian had still had no word of an answer.
The moon rose over the shoulder of the fell at his back. It was not the yellow circle it would be later in the year, pregnant with harvest and promise. Now it shone red for Pentecost. Wisps of cloud scudded across its face, portents of stormy weather ahead.
(And the devil took him up to some high place, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.)
By the red moon’s malignant light the winding panorama of the road below was laid out clearly as Papa’s map. From this height it was as if one could see in time as well as in distance: the trap unfolding as he watched, each part of its intricate workmanship rendered transparent. On the northern end of the gorge a party of coaches, shrunk to the size of beetles by distance, emerged from round a fold of the hills.
Lantern lights danced like fireflies as the Bishop’s party passed slowly into the mouth of the gorge and vanished. Julian, who had walked the route yesterday evening, knew how dark it would be beneath the shadow of those overhanging crags, how every slight sound — water dropping, stones dislodged by carriage wheels or by goats on the crags above — would be magnified, stretching each man’s nerves to snapping point.
Once the last of the lanterns had passed into darkness Julian stood up, grinding his nails into the palms of his hands, counting. Directly below him an overturned wagon and barrels, artistically arranged to look as if they had spilled from it, blocked the whole of the roadway.
An age passed in less than a quarter of a turn.
Fireflies re-appeared in the throat of the gorge’s southern end.
Julian turned and lifted and dropped the shutter on the dark lantern; once, twice, thrice. Dark, silent shapes poured past, downslope.
The scattered fireflies became a swarm as, with stately slowness, the Bishop’s wagon train emerged round the spur. From his eyrie, Julian waited and watched, every nerve thrumming, an arrow nocked to a bow but not yet loosed.
The first coach slowed as it approached the barricade. In a visible ripple the convoy came to a halt. Dark figures leapt off and assumed a defensive formation.
Something ached in Julian’s chest. He raised his hand to his cheek, to find it come away wet. This was the first raid where his place sent him away from the action. The jangling bite of a sword thrust, the white-hot agony of arrow wounds, the bewildering burn of gunshot — all those horrors threatened his men below, yet he was safe up here. Blood spilt tonight would not be his blood, nor would his hands do the spilling.
Two ant-like figures moved cautiously forwards from the leading carriage to the stricken wagon. They had almost reached it when each jerked backwards, and fell, kicking legs and struggling to rise. Julian reminded himself to commend his archers. Inflicting disabling but non-fatal wounds by moonlight at that distance was no mean achievement.
The Bishop’s guard turned, visibly in two minds about whether to send a party to retrieve the injured men or to muster a counter-attack. No foes being visible or further arrows forthcoming, four of them scurried forward under cover of a hastily-improvised truce flag and assisted the two injured men back into the shadows of the coaches.
A great shout went up from the rear of the convoy. Tillotson and Greene, the most accomplished poachers for five leagues around, must have managed to sneak up on the last two coaches, wedge their wheels and slash the traces while all eyes were turned to the barrier ahead.
Recklessly, the guards broke formation and ran towards the shout. Two more went down to arrows shot out of the dark.
Charges hidden in the mouth of the gorge exploded. The night broke apart in fire and storm. All the horses tried to bolt at once. One wagon toppled on its side. A horse’s scream, like a soul in torment, rent the night. The horses freed by the poachers broke free and stampeded into the dark.
Ambushers rose up like a wave and overwhelmed the trapped convoy. Bewildered, bedevilled, the Bishop’s guard put up little better than token resistance. Sooner than Julian could have dared hope, all active fighting ceased, leaving only the moans of men and horses to pollute the silence of the night.
He rose to his feet, checked sword and dagger in their respective scabbards and then pulled from the sack at his feet a hat with a fine plume of ostrich and a cloak with a high, wired collar, captured two weeks ago from a bewildered and indignant troupe of wandering players.
Suitable clothing for a mountebank and a faker a mocking voice breathed in his ear. Ignoring his queasy conscience, he descended to the road where six of his men were standing, armed, around the largest of the coaches, the only one still standing.
Their leader nodded. “In there.”
Julian stepped forward but before he could reach it the carriage door swung open.
A deep voice rang out. “Do not trouble my attendants within; they are elderly men, worn out from decades of devotions. Do with me as you will, but spare them. They have nothing worth your taking: their riches lie in heaven, and are stored up there beyond the reach of thieves.”
A massive form stood outlined in the opening to the carriage for a moment. Then he jumped down to the valley floor with unexpected agility.
“I am he whom you seek. I am the Bishop of Zalona.”
Several of the more impressionable among Julian’s men dropped to their knees. The tall man crossed himself, then raised his hand in blessing.
Julian cleared his throat.
“My pardons for correcting you, sir. You are a brave man, a loyal friend and, I doubt not, a devout priest. But you are not the Bishop of Zalona.”
“Impious boy! How dare you say such a thing?” The rich-timbred voice perfectly blended outrage and a kind of cosmic sorrow.He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
Julian walked forwards, very erect, conscious of how his cloak fell about him and how his men whispered. He did not speak until he was no more than a handspan away from the other man’s face.
“I dare because I am the Duke of Malham. By his grace of Zalona was I baptised, from him I received my first communion and many times I spoke with him at my father’s table. You are, I repeat, a gallant man and I esteem you for your efforts to shield my lord Bishop, but you cannot deceive me.”
A new voice broke in, querulous and old. “So the rumours are true, after all. I would they were not: it grieves me deeply to see you in such company.”
With nothing of the panache of his counterfeit the real Bishop emerged arthritically from the carriage. Before Julian could collect his wits enough to take his arm, the Bishop was standing beside him, blinking up at him from rheumy, familiar, old eyes.
Exasperation lent an edge to Julian’s voice.
“Would I be in better company if my mutilated corpse were resting now in quicklime beneath the Catiff’s Tower? I suppose so, for then I would have my father and brother beside me: better men by far than I am or ever will be. But is that the end you desire for the house of d’Ancona?”
Even by the uncertain light he could see in the Bishop’s face the wound had gone deeper than he had intended. He extended his hand.
“Sir. We have a mule prepared for you, one with an easy gait. My southern hunting lodge lies little more than an hour’s ride away. I invite you to sup with me tonight. Your entourage will not be molested, I assure you. See, the wounded are already receiving the best care we can render them.”
The Bishop’s cherubic features creased into well-worn lines which, nevertheless, Julian did not remember. How could the Bishop have aged so much since he had visited Malham Castle to say a requiem for King Ambrosine and stay to a funeral dinner in the Great Hall?
“You invite me? To sup with you? You invite me, in such circumstances?”
Julian made his voice very gentle. “Come, sir. The dew is rising, and we have contributed not a little to the discomforts of what can have been no easy journey. Come with me. We can talk later.”
His pressure beneath the Bishop’s shoulders directed his steps towards the mule, away from the chaos behind. One of his most trusted men took the mule’s leading rein and swathed a (surely unnecessary) scarf around the Bishop’s eyes. Then he left them to it, mounted his own horse and sped down diverse country tracks to ensure that, when the Bishop arrived, he would have a fitting welcome.
His people had made heroic efforts to turn the old, semi-derelict hunting lodge into a place where a Bishop might be welcomed. Julian’s own chamber saw evidence of solid, if crude, recent carpentry to repair rotten floorboards, and a similar smell of new sawdust and varnish breathed from the larger chamber reserved for the Bishop.
In his own chamber a basin and an ewer of steaming water offered him welcome. Laid out on the bed were fresh linen and a frock coat and breeches in damascened black velvet in the latest Court style. He mentally saluted the Gaaldinian prince and his envoy who had brought them. They fitted to a nicety. Wearing them, Julian felt more himself than he had for weeks, armoured against the tense interview ahead.
He ignored the sounds of the Bishop’s arrival and went down the backstairs to the securely barred cellars, where Vernon, the clerk, and McAllister were methodically sorting through the loot from the convoy and making notes in a ledger: gold, silver, a fifteenth century bronze Triton, packages of pepper, cinnamon, civet and a waxy lump of ambergris. To one side, as Julian had ordered, were set communion vessels, a monstrance like a great gold sunburst set with rock crystal, and two elaborately bejewelled and enamelled reliquaries, ready to be returned to their owner.
“This should keep us going for a few months, sir,” Vernon reported, though Julian caught him casting a wistful look at the reserved objects.
“It’ll have to,” McAllister commented grimly. “I can’t see many merchants sending their goods up and down the Great North Road once the news we’ve bagged a Bishop reaches Gondal Town.”
“Not for some while, perhaps.” Julian stroked his chin, hoping the gesture made him look older. “But the marshes along the western road bog down heavy wagons in all but the driest parts of the summer, and the flies make that way a torment in all seasons when it’s passable. And there is not shipping enough in the three kingdoms to send all Gondal’s freight by sea. Provided we make our toll rates known, I daresay there’ll be some willing to pay them, even on top of the King’s.”
“Blackrent, on Malham lands?” McAllister turned his head, and spat, accurately, into the corner of the cellar.
“It was no choices of d’Ancona that brought matters to this pass. Thank you, gentlemen. Secure the valuables and tell the wounded men I commend their sacrifice and will visit them before long.”
He found the Bishop sitting in a low chair in the corner of the hall, a glass in front of him from which he was pointedly not drinking. His glance was thunderous as he looked up to see Julian approach.
“So now it comes, does it, boy? You’ve softened me up, now you wish to break me? Doubtless your couriers are already on the way to Gondal Town, bearing your demands for ransom. Is that your game, hey?”
Julian sat in the opposite chair, and waved away the servitor proffering wine.
“Let us indeed talk of ransom. But I am afraid that you have mistaken the direction of the transaction. It is I who must be redeemed, and in a coin which does not tarnish, and, while infinitely precious, is also infinitely renewable. In short, I desire that you will hear my confession.”
The Bishop inhaled, sharply.
“You are, I confide, in sore need of that sacrament.”
Moths as big as pipistrelles hurled themselves into the swinging oil-lamp above their heads, falling stunned to the table only to blunder back aloft and join the lunatic dance around the lamp once more. The silence threatened to drag itself to infinity. At length the Bishop roused himself.
“I am truly glad to hear your wish and more relieved than words can tell.”
“As am I, that you have accepted. But you should be aware, before we proceed, that there is peril in it for you.” He leant forward and whispered in the Bishop’s ear.
The churchman recoiled. “That suggestion is an abomination. I do not accept it for a moment. I cannot accept it.”
Heads turned all through the room. Though Julian made ferocious gestures at his inquisitive people, he was not displeased. This would be remembered. When a moor fire catches, nothing can stand before it, and the peat below ground smoulders and breaks out unexpectedly, even when the flames seem to have been thoroughly extinguished. So, too, runs gossip, and so it flares.
“I can offer you no proof.” This time he made no effort to whisper. “Furthermore, the sources of my information will doubtless confirm your suspicions that I am indeed — that you suspect. Let that be so. But it would be wrong of you to ask you to hear my confession if I did not first warn you that it may not be safe for you.”
The Bishop’s face was incredulous. “Safe for me?”
So, Julian thought with a small twist of pain, might he himself have sounded three months ago. He put the slightest shading of that thought into his voice. “Even for you. What I may confess — that, I daresay, is something the King’s intelligencers would be agog to learn.”
“It is confession. It is a sacrament.” The fine white brows were drawn down, the rubicund face perplexed.
Julian rose to his feet. “Sir, will you do me the honour of walking with me a while outside? No —” He raised his hand to forestall a hesitance that might, after all, have been imaginary. “I shall not ask you to receive my confession in a pine grove on a mountainside.”
“It would make a most excellent story for the Episcopal Palace if you did,” the Bishop observed drily. “Though, to say truth, my arthritic bones might never recover.”
“The night is as warm as you can expect, so late in the evening.”
The Bishop emitted a quick huff of amusement. “Nevertheless, in tribute to those same old bones, I need my cloak. Ah, thank you, my dear boy. Now. I have always thought there are things easier to say beneath the stars. And to hear.”
The moon had only just started to decline. Julian had expected more time to have passed. They were almost at the edge of the bluff above the river before either of them spoke.
“I take it you will have heard of the affair at the Reaching Beck Bridge?” Julian said.
It was too dark to see if the Bishop rolled his eyes but the studied restraint in his voice spoke volumes.
“It would hardly do the Church credit were I to be unaware of an event of such moment.”
“And do you know the identity of the two men concerned?”
“I know who report has them be.” The Bishop paused. “The Crown Prince of Gaaldine, and a pretender to his brother’s throne, a bastard begot by Mycroft I.”
Somewhere over to Julian’s right an owl called: a single sharp, sweet, note, repeated endlessly. His father had hated that call, he recalled with a sharp stab of unexpected pain.
“Report, then, has it almost right. The boy — David Hebron — was raised quietly, in the countryside, ignorant of his connections. However, it appears he made regular visits to the Abbey of Norburyness.”
The monosyllable was enough. The Abbess of Norburyness was hailed throughout Europe as the greatest female theologian of the age. Her pellucid theological essays and biting pamphlets had earned her the title ‘the second Heloise’, though that name had more than one significance.
At seventeen she had been presented at Gaaldine’s Palace, possessing the face and figure of the goddess Diana and a wit capable of sparking a bonfire in a blizzard. Queen Ismenia of Gaaldine was whispered to be fading: her only son, the Crown Prince Rollo, a childless bachelor, prematurely old. The ultimate prize was on offer for someone sufficiently bold to step up and take it.
But, at the very moment when her triumph was at its height, she had laid aside her gorgeous brocades, legendary silks and tottering chopines, sold her jewels to make her nun’s dowry and retreated to the cloister. From then she had ceased to be a sensation. Instead, she had become a legend — almost, some said, a saint.
“I met her once, you know,” the Bishop mused. “There was a treaty or some such in train — there always seemed to be, in those years, not they ever came to much, not until the last one, when King Ambrosine demanded that boy as a hostage. Well, it would have been Queen Felicia’s notion, of course, but we all praised his Grace the King for his genius. One did, back then — Where was I? Ah. Yes. Even with all one thought one knew, there was a stillness about her. A depth. But the boy could not have been her own. The King of Gaaldine would not have suffered him to grow up in obscurity. It must have been her sister’s. They spoke of a sister, I collect.”
“Indeed, sir, the younger girl slipped into the King’s bed when the elder quitted the world for the cloister. Further, the boy was born some months after King Mycroft’s death at Castle Cavron, and his mother died bearing him.
“The boy — David Hebron — believed that the King secretly married his mother on his way to his final campaign. No, sir, pray hear me out. That information he had from the Abbess herself, who had attended her sister’s deathbed. Had it rested there, doubtless nothing more would have been heard of him. But then he received confirmation from another source, indeed from Prince James of Gondal, as he then was.”
Julian paused, the next words heavy in his mouth. He had carried them for weeks, since they had been vouchsafed to him in a stinking bothy on the far side of the River Zalon.
“The Prince had that confirmation from King Mycroft’s former confessor. Under torture. My informant felt very sure that the Prince had himself been present while the priest was put to the torment. That if he had not performed the deed, he had lent it his authority. And that his intent from the outset had been to extort the secrets of the confessional.”
The light breeze sighing in the trees was the only sound for what felt like an eternity.
The Bishop’s voice was very low when he finally spoke.
“You speak the purest infamy. A man who would countenance such an act would not be God’s anointed. The whole of Christendom would set their face against the realm he ruled. But that makes spreading such a lie of the greatest advantage to Gaaldine. Either way, one has a gross falsehood, a damnable falsehood and between the King and the Prince of Gaaldine but so much of truth as to make one honest man. But with which of them does it lie?”
Only the owl’s monotonous note broke the silence that followed. When the Bishop spoke again, it seemed to Julian half an age had gone by and they were only now awakening out of a trance. The Bishop’s voice, too, had a lilting quality, like a man who tells over a dream he wonders might be a revelation.
“I recall, now, there was a priest in Egremont, just a short, round-faced parish priest, like a thousand others up and down the land. He came up as we were setting out and asked my blessing and then, when I had given it, looked up at me and said, ‘But you are more in need of God’s blessing than I, for I labour among friends, whereas your path encompasses the Paradise of Thieves.’ And when I asked him what he meant and whether he had fears for my wagon train going through the gorge (for you should know, my dear boy, that rumours of bandits have been running rife for weeks) he shook his head, and said, ‘No; the real Paradise of Thieves lies at your journey’s end. The other is just a distraction on the way. But don’t be too hard on the boy when you meet him. If a man knows his father foully murdered and is too impatient to wait for the judgment seat, he may turn his feet to strange paths and at least we can be thankful he’s not chosen the broad, broad road.’ He said it quite quietly, but I wondered if he were not a little touched, all the same, so made my leave quite abrupt. But perhaps his simplicity sees more into these matters than those of us who have grown sophisticated. I shall have him sent for; my secretary will have noted his name. I heard it but have forgot — something quite commonplace, Smith or Brown, or something of that sort.”
“Be assured of his safe passage through Malham lands, my lord.”
The Bishop tutted. “As I said, it grieves me to see you in such company. But, since it concerns you, it is indeed a warm night, and I shall take my chance on rheumatism. So, my child, let me hear your confession, here, now, where none will mark it and then let us return to the hall.”
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned —”
My dear Elizabeth
First, let me assure you that we are all in the best of health and prosperity, since I know a letter from me less than ten days before we are due to see you will have set the most alarming thoughts running in your head. However, I have unfortunate news to convey, nonetheless. The Lakes are quite out of the question for the moment. The news may not have reached Meryton as yet but the Bishop of Zalona arrived in the capital late yesterday, in very sorry case — his convoy ambushed on the Great North Road, some few miles south of Egremont, in a very bad place, and it is rumoured by no ordinary bandit leader, but by the dispossessed heir of the late Duke of Malham or, at any rate, someone claiming to be that heir. Whatever the truth in that, it will have a profound effect on trade with Northern Gondal and with the world beyond.
Indeed, your uncle has been forced to arrange sea transport for certain goods to Trieste which were supposed to have gone up by the Great North Road to Vienna. With all the other exporters vying for sea transport for the same reasons, cargo space is trading at a premium. He thinks he has secured a ship, departing ten days from now, but needs to see his consignment safely on board himself, in case he finds himself outbid and his wares left on the dockside at the last minute.
We must be back in Gondal Town within the month following this later departure, so even were the road safe, we would have no time for the Lake Country. So, we have determined on making a leisurely journey to Lambton, where I grew up. There are many remarkable things within a short drive — including, of course, Pemberley, where Mr Wickham spent his early life, and I confide that we will find a great deal there to amuse us.
I know this news is excessively disappointing, but I trust this will soon pass. You have a disposition to be happy, and I know that will come to your aid now.
My best love to your Mama, Papa and sisters.
Yr most affectionate aunt.