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

The deck above rang with pounding footsteps and barked, contradictory orders. Jonathan knelt by his trunk, trying by force of will to blot out the pain in his shoulder, which last night’s rough voyage had aggravated to screaming pitch. Saints alive, surely the wit of man could discover some less penitential mode of sleeping at sea than swinging in a net?

He bit his lip, discerning the voice of Frances amid the clamour above. At least now she was mangling the tongue of Gaaldine, avoiding her native English. The dressing-down he’d delivered on the quayside must have had some effect.

Frances! To think of him, son of the village drunkard, butt of the village jokes since he could first remember, being on scolding terms with the daughter of the King’s mistress. Of course, no-one back in that pestilential, flea-ridden hole would have believed he would become one of the Crown Prince’s chosen men, either, but the Crown Prince’s penchant for hiring irregulars was notorious, and, in any event, however unconventionally he interpreted the role, the Crown Prince was his commanding officer, now and forever. Whereas Frances —

He stood towards Frances as a sergeant-major stood towards the the most shivering-shy junior officer ever arriving at barracks with the ink on his commission barely dry and an entire peck of plums in his stammering mouth. Nonetheless, King’s Regulations and the time-honoured customs of the Army governed every last breath of the relationship between sergeant and officer, however wet behind the ears the latter might be. Nothing in either of them had anything to say about a problem like Frances.

He shook his head and put off the problem to a more convenient season. His groping hand closed around the roll of drawings and he grunted in satisfaction. Enough sunlight streaked down the companionway for him to decipher the drawings, just. He set aside Jim, sleeping and David and shuffled through the pile until he came to the one he had overlooked before.


He sucked in his breath. Even allowing for the passage of years and natural vanity on the artist’s part, the subject of Self-portrait could be none other than the elder of the two ladies who’d been hanging about the Santa Gertrude at the very moment Frances had let slip her thrice-cursed exclamation in English.

Instantly, he was back in an improvised camp on the edge of the Great Gaaldine Mire: throat and nose seared with woodsmoke, skin alive with insect bites, the rough local spirit burning his gullet, ears strained to catch the howl of hunting dogs and to catch one specific dog’s howl above the rest.

On that long-ago night, the Crown Prince had elected to deliver a sermon, his text taken from the first book of coincidences.

The Great Architect of the universe is rarely so lazy as to permit coincidence.

Should a wild boar appear when you set out to hunt here, in autumn, when the sport is at its finest, you would hardly put that down to coincidence. But should you them come across someone from your home district, the country’s breadth away from this benighted spot, would you not then cry, ‘coincidence’? And yet all that has happened is that your desires and his have aligned. But aligned how? Is he simply hunting the same game as you, in the best place to find it? Has he come here in the hope of encountering some other sportsman? Or is it you, yourself, who are the quarry? All these questions and more should you ask, and see answered, before you load yet another burden onto that tired old workhorse, ‘coincidence’.

A woman whom the Pretender of Gondal would allow to sketch him as he slept was not, surely, a woman whom mere coincidence had brought to Elbe. Not at such a time.

Jonathan exhaled, bit his lip against the renewed pain in the shoulder, now joined by a chorus of complaint from his cramped hams, and cleared his throat.

“Francisco! Below, at the double. Come and read your blasted writing; I can’t make out if we’ve got a discrepancy on the manifest or not.”

Their hostess had been wrapped in thought throughout luncheon, responding but slightly to Elizabeth’s attempts at conversation. It was only once the servants had cleared away that she bestirred herself.

“I find myself enthused with a passion for sketching. There was a curious ship down in the harbour which would, I believe, make an excellent study. Charlotte was, I believe, a little done up by our walk, so I would advise her to take an afternoon nap, but would you, Elizabeth, care to join me? One never sketches with so much enthusiasm without a companion to whom one may enquire, ‘Does this look lop-sided, or no?’”

There could be no demurral to a request phrased so close to an order, not from a ‘Mary Arba’. As they made their preparations, Charlotte hovered by Elizabeth’s shoulder, her face pinched and wan. Charlotte’s air was that of one who teeters on the edge of a confidence. However, the ruthless urgency with which Molly manoeuvred her little expedition into position, commandeering Giulio into carrying the sketching equipment, water bottles &c, left no space for private conversation. Almost before Elizabeth knew what was afoot they were in motion to the harbour.

Not, in truth, that she was minded to object. The beauties she had glimpsed from the road proved even more enchanting as they approached the sea. The argosy itself, once they reached the quayside, was an imposing, towering beast, the port itself a bustling delight, full of exotic smells and sights. She found a convenient palm to give shade, and with Giulio’s help arranged Molly’s stool, stand and parasol to that lady’s satisfaction.

On this being accomplished, Molly gestured gracefully.

“I shall be some time planning my sketch and nothing is more tedious for the observer. Pray feel free to take your time to explore. I am sure, having been in the confined neighbourhood of Hunsford for so long, you must have purchases to make. Pray do not let concerns of time affect you: with Giulio with us, we need not think of turning for home much before Vespers. I only advise you to avoid the narrowest lanes between these buildings, and do not suffer yourself to embark on any vessel, on whatever pretext.”

Gently as it might be expressed, it was a dismissal, albeit a very welcome one. As Elizabeth wandered along the quays and across the sunlit squares of the little town, she amused herself by reflecting on the capriciousness rank lent its possessors: first for Molly to insist on having a companion for her sketching expedition, secondly that the companion must be Elizabeth rather than Charlotte and then finally to pack Elizabeth off to her own devices as soon as they arrived. A thought struck her and she laughed out loud.

A ward of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a cousin of Mr Darcy shows herself capricious and autocratic. Who could ever have suspected it?

With the memory of Mr Darcy her thoughts turned in a different direction, to Gondal Town and Jane, now staying with Uncle and Aunt Gardiner. A handful of days remained before they must meet again, and over that reunion, which two weeks ago Elizabeth had anticipated with such keen excitement, now hung the shadow of Mr Darcy’s proposal and, more, the contents of his letter describing the role he had played in destroying the happiness of Jane and his friend.

So much she had to tell, and so much to conceal, and so little time for her to sort out in her own mind which was which, and to order her thoughts accordingly.

She was passing a little church. She stepped into the cool, incense-hung dark, lit a candle and stood before the altar in the Lady Chapel, asking for guidance.

“But why do I have to pretend I’m eloping with myself?”

Even double-timing up the steep hill with the sun at its zenith, Frances had enough breath to spare for idiotic questions. Inwardly, Jonathan commended her energy and deplored her timing. He jerked his head in the direction of their objective, the discreet gates some fifty paces ahead.

“Explanations later. Inside.”

At the gates, he reached inside his jerkin for the letter of introduction he’d prayed he’d never have to use. At least, not in the presence of Frances. Thank all the saints, the broken-nosed ex-soldier in the gate-warden’s kiosk kept his expression immobile as he inspected both them and the seal on the letter with meticulous attention, at length waving them through without words.

Once inside the villa’s extensive gardens, Jonathan pulled Frances off the path into the shade of a cedar tree.

“When we get inside, leave me to do the talking. And whatever you hear or see, try not to look surprised.”

A misjudgment, that: Frances’ face lit up with interest.

“What’s in there for me to be surprised about?”

He coughed, repressively. “Never mind that for the moment. Here’s the plan — ”

The inn’s capacious first-floor parlour commanded an excellent view of the harbour, including the Santa Gertrude and the slight, industrious figure sketching on the quayside.

Mais, c’est charmante! Frances threw the casement wide and leaned extravagantly out. Behind her back, she could almost hear Jonathan and the chambermaid jointly rolling their eyes.

“French!” Jonathan whispered, at a perfectly audible volume. “What can you expect? Oh, don’t worry. I don’t think she understands a word. It’s a miracle to me how she and the young master managed to fall in love at all, with him so tongue-tied he can barely get a syllable out in company and her jabbering away in foreign. But, however it was, they did and now here we are. If you can make my lady comfortable, I’d best be away to see after the horses and see whether the young master’s found the priest yet.”

The chambermaid managed, with a great deal of dumb show, and a few essays into very slow, very loud Gondalian, to bring Frances hot water and towels and unlace her bodice. Frances, using gesture and excitable exclamations in French and Italian, managed in turn to explain that she required no further attention for now and that after she had washed away the dust of her non-existent journey, she proposed to lie on the bed with slices of cucumber over her eyes, awaiting her lover’s return.

Encouraged, doubtless, by the gold thaler Frances pressed into her hand, the chambermaid departed, wreathed in smiles. Nonetheless, she lay still on the bed, cucumber slices in place, for a good half turn before she could be sure the maid would not return.

When she rose the convent bell was ringing Nones. She stole to the window, and saw with a pang of alarm that the little figure seated under the palm was no longer alone. Arthur, son of the Santa Gertrude’s owner, was standing beside the artist: judging from the excitable hand swoops, not in silence, either.

Frances cursed under her breath. Over their three-day voyage from Gaaldine, she had concluded that Arthur’s facility for grasping the wrong end of the stick was equalled only by the enthusiasm with which he shared his conclusions with all and sundry. Nevertheless, the artist could learn a lot from his flood of conversation, if she only had skill and patience to sift out the flotsam it had gathered in the kinks and bends of Arthur’s understanding.

She rose and changed into the wide-sleeved linen shirt, full-skirted coat and fine broadcloth breeches which were concealed in her portmanteau. The smooth feel of the breeches against her legs felt at once odd and curiously familiar, like coming home after long absence.

The people at the villa on the hill had expressed neither surprise nor objection at Jonathan’s requests. No word had been spoken of payment for the two sets of clothing with which she had been supplied, or for the services of the expert seamstress who had altered them to fit. Nor had any question been raised as to why Frances found it necessary to dress both as a sober scion of a mercantile house and a frivolous French mademoiselle. Big Gertie’s signature on their letter of introduction entitled them to infinite discretion in addition to limitless credit.

She donned the wide-brimmed hat which had been rolled up at the bottom of the portmanteau, straightened the plume, which was looking the worse for its confinement and, having taken a precautionary glance to ensure the landing was deserted, stole down the back stairs and outside, blinking, to find Jonathan in conclave with the ostler. At her appearance, Jonathan concluded his business with a wink and a piece of sleight of hand suggestive of the passing of coins.

“You saw your lady well, sir?”

“Sl-sleeping.” Her voice, husky with nervousness, could barely choke out a whisper. With shock, she noted Jonathan’s covert nod of approval.

“That’s as well, sir; we’ve a long journey tomorrow, once you’re married; it’s a good step to Gondal Town from here, and let us pray your aunt and uncle have yet to leave town for the summer, or it’ll be a longer journey yet. But I have the horses all in hand” — a nod to the ostler — ”and a dinner prepared for you at your lodging, for as you know, sir, it would be terrible bad luck for you and your lady to dine together or stay under the same roof on your wedding eve.”

“And what of the lady herself?” the ostler asked. “Should I send word to the kitchen to send something up?”

Frances dare not meet Jonathan’s eyes. He remained unperturbed.

“Not unless my lady rings. I saw to it there was fruit and sweet cakes and Madeira wine in her chamber myself, and I doubt she’ll ask for more; no more appetite than a bird at the best of times and with a journey behind, another before and a wedding in the middle, she’ll be hard put to keep anything down. I’ve travelled with her long enough to know. No; let the lass have her sleep out. With me, sir.”

After the shocks of the noontide, she was prepared for Jonathan to lead her anywhere and into any thing. It came as a relief when their walk ended at a little inn on the main road, just outside the town boundary marker. It might not have had the elegance of the waterfront establishment in which her alter ego was, at this moment, supposed to be at rest, but Frances, who had not eaten since hard biscuits at dawn, approved the good smells arising from its kitchens.

The smells did not lie. The landlady presented a soup of early sorrel, sharp and fragrant; oysters on a bed of seaweed; young lamb spiced with cumin, garlic and pepper; small flat fish grilled over charcoal and bubbling with butter; roasted peppers and baby leeks stewed with olives.

Frances spared a passing thought for her alter ego, the shy young bridegroom who no doubt would be too nervous to eat, shamelessly broke character and reached for the fish platter. A wonderful meal it would have been, if Jonathan had not been so patently on edge: head on one side, listening to every sound which drifted in from the road to their place in the inn’s walled garden.

What distinguished the step of that particular animal from all the other beasts of burden he had let pass, Frances never knew. Still, Jonathan leapt to his feet, and a moment later the ship’s boy from the Santa Gertrude, white with the dust of the road, stood before the table. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a drooping, exhausted mule being led off by the inn’s ostler.

“Go and put your head under the pump in the stable yard,” Jonathan commanded. “And drag a comb through your hair. We’ll have an extra place set by the time you get back, provided you’re fit to eat at a decent table.”

In less time than Frances could have believed possible, a damp ship’s boy had appeared at their side. Jonathan gestured, grandly, towards a stool at the table’s end. The boy reached out for the food; it was some minutes before he resurfaced.

When at last he raised his head, his eyes were troubled.

“Looks like a wasted journey, sir. I did just as you said, sir: went ashore at dawn, hung about the fish market and kept my eyes peeled for anyone as looked to be taking a load inland. There were three of ‘em set out together, as it turned out. I let ‘em get a bit of a lead, and then I followed with the mule. I feared they would divide when the roads split, and I’d not know which on ‘em to follow.

“As luck would have it, I came across them not five hundred strides up the road, ‘cause one of them had to stop to fix his creel. A strap had split, and a sorry job he were making of it, too. Naturally, being as how I’d learnt my knots before I learnt to scratch my name, I hopped off my mule and asked if I could help any. I got the creel fixed — in truth, I could have done it in half the time, but I wanted to hear what they had to say, and very much to the purpose it was. He was on his way to Hunsford, too. The other two turned off on their different ways, and we went on together.”

He paused, and Frances pushed the ale jar across to him. He refilled his mug, took a deep, grateful swallow, and recommenced.

“I trotted out my story of a letter to be delivered and it was like leaning on a pump handle. Seems he’d met Miss Duplessis at her cousin’s house in Hunsford, and been much struck with her. She’d asked him to see a letter safely put on a boat to Gaaldine, and paid him handsomely for it, too, so it was no surprise to him to hear an answer was on its way. That was a bit of luck, to begin with.”

Frances exhaled: a sharp-edged, jagged sound of relief. In her appeal to Lady Anthea, foremost in Frances’ mind had been the fear that if a spy had read her most recent letter, Elizabeth Duplessis must stand in sore danger of being taken up for treason. That it had gone directly from Miss Duplessis’ own hand via an intermediary not in the service of Lady Catherine took a load off her mind.

Jonathan nodded.

“Did you learn much about the household where she’s been staying?”

“Aye. He’s her cousin: a clerk or somesuch to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the lady of Rosings, and a prosy sort of gent he seems to be, to say nothing of penny-pinching. His wife’s a different matter, though. The fishmonger spoke highly of her. Not a handsome lady: kind, but shrewd with it. You’d not pass pollock off as cod on her, but then, with that one, you’d be ashamed to try.

“Did he say that, indeed? He seems a man whose opinion is worth having. So what did he think about Miss Duplessis?”

Meditatively, the boy reached across the table and helped himself to a honey-and-almond cake. He munched it slowly, and spoke only once it had been devoured.

“Prettier than her cousin’s wife by a long chalk, and a good seven years younger, at a guess, though from what he said, living with this Mr Collins would age any woman beyond their years. But they were good friends, better than a lot of women. The women had grown up together, he said: the cousin’s wife had been a Miss Lucas before she married, and she and this Miss Duplessis had been neighbours in some place called Meryton, about thirty leagues north of here, t’other side of Gondal Town.”

Frances sat bolt upright. The night they left Gaaldine Lady Anthea had vouchsafed some disquieting intelligence. Only the two of them had been left in Big Gertie’s parlour by then, the owner of the house having vanished to write letters and issue commands and Jonathan busying himself about their baggage.

Once we learnt of Hebron’s existence, the King set out to discover what influences might have been brought to bear on him growing up. Too late, of course. Nonetheless, our man discovered that a derelict manor in the neighbourhood where Hebron spent his boyhood had, some five years earlier, been renovated at considerable expense for a Gondalian lady of quality, who then occupied it for a mere eighteen months. During her time in the district, Hebron escorted her everywhere.

What brought her there? our man asked. A most intriguing and pathetic tale emerged. This Gondalian gentlewoman was rumoured to be the poor relation of a family ranked high in their nobility. Orphaned young, plain and overlooked, she had, all unexpectedly, inherited the derelict manor through her Gaaldinian grandmother and she had determined to cross the border and enter into her inheritance. It had the stuff of fairy tale about it.

Frances vividly recalled the dying firelight casting hollows and shadows across Lady Anthea’s face, and her restless hands twisting a big ruby ring round and round on her finger.

And a fairy tale it proved, once Fullerton’s men worked through all the records of land transfers in the district. The manor was no inheritance: it had been sold cheap by a foreclosing mortgagor to an undisclosed purchaser some years before.

This plot has been long in the making, and whether the lady in question has a Gaaldinian grandmama or not, the manor never formed part of her dower lands. Also, a matter of concern, the lady was surnamed ‘Hooper.’ It is a common enough name in Gondal, but the fact is disquieting, nonetheless. After the death of Prince Gerald, the Pretender’s mother married a country gentleman of that name and was exiled from court as a result. She died in childbirth about a year later, at her husband’s country seat. The child, a girl, survived.

Lady Anthea’s eyes were black and compelling under their heavy lids.

The Crown Prince is not generous with information, even with those whom he makes allies in his schemes. I suspect he will not have vouchsafed the name of the country seat at which the Pretender’s mother died, nor its location. It was Netherfield Park, not three miles removed from Meryton. Sir Vernon Hooper, Lady Elaine’s second husband, was not merely a neighbour of the Duplessis family. He was, like them, a firm adherent to Queen Felicia’s cause. No wonder the place attracted spies. The seeds of this intrigue were sown before Elizabeth Duplessis was even born.

“Did your fishmonger friend have news of who has been frequenting Lady Catherine’s house?” Frances enquired, with a casualness she did not feel.

The cabin boy snorted with laughter; ale sprayed from his nose.

“Did he not! Why, that was how he said his creel strap come to be worn through. Lady Catherine was entertaining her nephews for weeks together and nothing but the freshest for them, day in, day out. Not the King, of course, but two other nephews. One of them was a colonel in the Army and the younger son of an Earl, and the other a great landowner from the north parts of Gondal.”

Jonathan nodded. “That would be Mr Darcy of Pemberley. We’ve heard tell of him. Aye: I don’t expect he’s the sort to put up with stale mackerel. A fine thing for the fishmonger, indeed. When did that come to an end?”

The cabin boy started to reckon on his fingers. “The gentlemen went away — it will have been a fortnight ago come Monday, I reckon.”

Frances and Jonathan exchanged glances. King Mycroft’s sentence of exile on the Crown Prince had been proclaimed on 13 April. News of it would have reached the palace in Gondal Town within a day at the latest; it was the kind of intelligence worth foundering horses over. Elizabeth’s last letter had been dated 16 April, two days before the gentlemen’s departure. Both men were powers in the land; one a commander of men, the other the possessor of a legendary fortune. What more likely than that one or both of them had received a Royal summons and somehow let something slip to Elizabeth? So, an explanation for the urgency and her letter’s indiscretion, both.

Jonathan managed to sound bored. “What then?”

“I thought it as well to change the subject, sir. I didn’t fancy him wondering why I was so interested. So we continued our way, and a tedious long journey it was, too. We came to Hunsford, and there we parted ways, me to the clerk’s house, and him to Rosings. But when I called round at the clerk’s house with the letter, doesn’t his housekeeper tell me the lady of the house and her friend have gone to visit an old neighbour of theirs who’s taken a villa in Elbe for the sake of her health. Seems like these Meryton ladies stick together, sir, doesn’t it? But that makes it a wasted trip, after all. All you needed to do was ask around the port.”

Frances could have said a great deal on that subject, and when the boy, with his bright eyes and precocious intelligence, was out of earshot she planned to do so. She signalled with her eyebrows to Jonathan and he reached inside his jerkin.

“Now, here’s the two thalers we promised to give you for delivering the letter. Since we were overheard I don’t think you’ve got much hope of hiding them, though good luck to you if you bring it off. So this here’s your real reward. Make sure that you keep that hidden: as an old soldier, I can tell you, you could do worse than sew it into your jerkin, but whatever works for you.”

From the way the boy’s eyes widened, the reward amounted to far more money than he had ever seen in his life before. He kept a protective hand over it, even as he stuttered, “But I didn’t find the lady. She’s been in Elbe all along.”

“And without you, how’d we have known that, eh? Let alone how we’d have guessed it’s three ladies we’re looking for, not one. No; you’ve earned it, but don’t let ‘em know you’ve got it, eh? Now, cut along. What’s that? Oh, yes, take what you like: we’ve finished.”

Once the cabin boy had gone, Jonathan lent across the (by now much barer) table.

“Well? What do you make of that?”

“If there are four ladies of Meryton in the case I’ll eat my hat,” she said promptly. “The Pretender’s sister has brought Miss Duplessis and Mrs Collins to Elbe. But for what purpose?”

“We’ll only find that out by finding them. Back to the villa it is, then. They know all the houses that are let to summer visitors, the value of each one of them to a one-cent piece and who’s rented them from day to day. Stands to reason they do. It’s their business, after all. So, if a carriageful of ladies arrived within the last fortnight, they’ll know it and where they’re lodged.”

“But surely — a lot of women — why would the people at the villa —?” Sudden embarrassment about the whole business overwhelmed her, and she stuttered to a stop. Jonathan eyed her sidelong.

“For a man who’s to be married on the morrow, you should be more worldly wise. Come to think of it, were you be married on the morrow, we’d most like be up at the villa already, making sure you was worldly wise enough.”

The implications of that hardly bore thinking of. Jonathan looked at her sidelong and tipped the last of the wine into her glass.

“Here’s the thing. A carriage-load of men arriving in Elbe, that’s news to them at the villa, because they might be customers. But a carriage-load of women arriving, that’s bigger news or could be. Depend on it, they’ll have someone checking that, for fear it might be competition.”

That made sense, when one came to think about it, but she struggled to cope with the quick facility with which Jonathan understood brothel economics. What had he done for a living before being swept up by the Crown Prince? What had the Crown Prince asked him to do afterwards, for that matter?

With her last gulp of wine, she swallowed any desire to ask those questions. Any answers Jonathan might give would be ones for which she was by no means prepared.

“Right, then. Back to the villa.”

“So, Elizabeth, you can see how it comes on. Indeed it comes on.”

The artist gestured towards her easel and Elizabeth, who had a goodly store of pre-prepared phrases honed over the years to soothe the vanity of women whose self-worth outran their talent, found herself for once at a loss.

The technical skill of the drawing was outstanding, beyond that even of the few drawing masters who had, in their day, come to Meryton and left dispirited at the almost uniform lack of artistic talent possessed by the ladies of the district. True, the quality of instructor available even to a poor relation of the House of Moriarty would be far beyond that to which even the Gouldings or Laceys had a claim, but all the instruction in the world could not compensate for the want of genius in a pupil. Such genius Miss Hooper had indeed, albeit of a peculiar cast.

By whatever tricks of technique and perspective, Miss Hooper had rendered the sun-drenched harbour of Elbe a place of menace. The argosy loomed over the quay, casting all beneath it into impenetrable gloom. The few caiques which bobbed at their moorings out in the bay had been drawn with a delicacy of line which showed them as heartbreakingly fragile, such that a breath of wind could destroy them. The ornate carving on the argosy’s hull had been elided into the shadows; the only points of contrast were the muzzle of the foredeck gun, which shone as if it had been gilded, and the bleached figurehead at the prow: less a benevolent saint than an Athene come armed and vengeful to the plains of Troy.

Elizabeth looked from the work to the artist, and back again. Her skill at drawing was no better than average, even for Meryton, but she had always loved looking at paintings, teasing out inner meanings behind their composition or letting them inspire wild flights of fancy to amuse Jane. The meaning behind this one unrolled as plainly as if written in red, in letters a foot high.

“So you think war with Gaaldine must come?”

“I fear it must. We should all prepare.” Molly’s eyes narrowed. “You have family there, I collect.”

For a moment Elizabeth’s thoughts whirled towards Wickham and the dark suspicions Mr Darcy’s letter had raised in her mind. Then they cleared. Of course the King’s half sister would know the royal physician had accompanied Princess Charis to Gaaldine. Further, as a neighbour at Netherfield, back in the old days, perhaps she had even seen Uncle John as he really was: the tired, lovable family man Elizabeth had missed so much over recent years.

Before she could raise the question, Molly spoke again.

“I lived in Gaaldine for a year and a half, some time ago. A magical experience. I think of it daily, especially of late. I grieve that, as nations, we are edging closer to catastrophe.”

“But with this news from Gaaldine — the Crown Prince estranged from his brother — surely the threat to Gondal is much lessened?”

Molly put her head on one side. It occurred to Elizabeth that, from a distance, an observer might assume she was merely sizing up the work on the easel.

“You think so? For my own part, I believe it is a link — perhaps the last link — in the chain which drags us to war.”

It was like being in Papa’s study; Elizabeth felt that same sense of being set a puzzle to work out, with the fear of disappointing her hearer ever present. That last conversation with Colonel Fitzwilliam, mingled with recollections of Meryton dinner-tables with the officers present, floated into her mind.

“I suppose,” she said hesitantly, “there are those at the Court of Gondal who see the estrangement between King Mycroft and his heir as a weakness to be exploited? Or who, perhaps, see Princess Charis as a victim to be rescued, given how the marriage seems to have turned out?”

“Young hotheads, for the most part.” Molly frowned. “Though we do seem to be over-supplied with those, at present. But think more deeply. Strategically. What else has changed in Gaaldine since this time last year?”

Curious: it seemed Molly was not striving to catch her out but to tease out a better understanding of the situation for both of them. Odd, how almost the same words could convey so different a sense of the mind behind them. On that realisation, she had it.

“The King! The King of Gaaldine is now a widower, and not so old a man, comparatively speaking. Will he be looking for a bride?”

The expression on Molly’s face was like sunrise through spring trees. “It would be extraordinary were he not. While Queen Iphigenia lived, one might almost forget the Crown Prince of Gaaldine was his brother’s heir presumptive, not heir apparent. Her death in that sea wolf raid changed everything. Another year could see Mycroft of Gaaldine married with a son of his own and the Crown Prince one step removed from the succession. Such an event would give signal encouragement to the disaffected within Gondal.”

Does she consider the Modernist party ‘disaffected’? What would she make of Papa and Uncle John?

“Would it? But why?”

One of the paint brushes had been resting on the easel. Molly picked it up, reversing it so its end formed a pointer. With it she drew rapid lines in the dust.

“See, here, the three kingdoms. See how we are caught between the Emperor to our North, the Sultan to our East and South and, to the West, across a short expanse of sea, the Papal states and the Italian princedoms. How do you think we have avoided being swallowed up by one or the other of these Powers?”

She did not allow Elizabeth a chance to interject. She sketched another quick set of lines.

“Our separateness is also our strength; a three-legged stool is not easily overset. But should two of the legs combine, whether by conquest or by the merging of two lines of descent, it matters not for these purposes, then the kingdoms as a whole would be weakened. Marrying Charis to the Crown Prince of Gaaldine may have seemed a prudent course to King Ambrosine at the time, but it proved a most signal set-back to the Modernist party. Many who would have supported Charis on her own merits could not countenance Gondal becoming a mere province of Gaaldine should Prince Sherlock succeed his brother. King Mycroft married with a child of his own would bring many back to the Modernist fold. Provided, that is, his new bride came from neither Gondal nor Angria.”

Her voice sounded dispassionate, but her knuckles, white from the ferocity with which she gripped the brush-handle, told a different story. But why should she conceal her emotions? If Jane ruled a kingdom and someone, anyone, however good their claim, threatened her throne, Elizabeth would not be so restrained.

She could not ask why, nor would she receive an answer if she did. Instead: “And this leads us closer to war —?”

Molly’s mouth was a set line. “Because the proponents of prudence and of recklessness are both in alignment on this one point: if war with Gaaldine must come, then it were as well it came sooner rather than later. Yes, what is it, Giulio? Of course we shall. The best of the light has gone, in any event. Come, Elizabeth.”

The night was black; the moon two turns shy of rising, and would be a thin crescent when it did. Jonathan trailed his hand along the outer wall, feeling for the place he had noted earlier, before the sun set.

Ah! There they were, the two missing bricks.

His foot was in the lower one, and his stronger arm reaching for the wall’s coping stone when he heard the dog howl. He froze. The howl came again; faint, far-away and from the opposite direction. He breathed again and blessed his decision to veto Frances’ participation in this expedition.

He scrabbled for the higher foothold, found it, shifted his weight, and pulled himself up and over the wall in one smooth movement. He landed on the balls of his feet and paused for a moment, letting his senses adjust to the changed atmosphere inside the wall.

There was a faint light glowing over to the left of the house. He concentrated on it until he could make out that it was the dying embers of a brazier on the terrace. There were no other lights; the house must be shuttered, locked up for the night.

He took one step towards the light — and froze, the cold bite of steel at his neck.

“Not one word, not one squeak, if you want to keep your gizzard whole,” breathed a voice in his ear. “Now, march. My lady will learn who you are and what you’re doing here.”