Chapter Twenty-Seven - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall
The King looked neither to left nor right as the courtiers bowed or curtseyed at his passing. He stalked straight to where Molly was sitting amid a gaggle of court ladies around a low table. He was not a tall man, but he loomed over her nonetheless.
“What have you contrived now, with your reckless gaming? Have you stooped even to arranging a counterfeit robbery to mask your losses at cards?”
His eyes were black pits with no light at the bottom; his concentration absolute; his voice a breathy, sibilant hiss. She clenched her fists around palms sticky with sweat, and strove to keep her voice level.
“Losses at cards? Brother — your grace — what are you saying?”
He snapped out his words as if he were a terrier and each word a rat’s neck.
“Did you not send your confidential manservant to pawn the diamond ear-bobs from our mother’s betrothal parure, to cover the monies you lost playing high at Lady Traquair’s?”
Her hand went to her lips.
“Who dares slander me so?”
“You call it slander?” His lips curved in a sneer. “How, then, do you explain these?”
He reached inside his jacket, extracted a small black velvet pouch, and tipped its contents onto the low table in front of her. The ear-bobs rolled and sparkled in the sunlight that slanted through the high windows. The courtiers ‘oohed’ and gasped.
Molly’s hand went to her lips. “You recovered them? Did you get back the necklace? Who were the masked thieves?”
At that last question she got what she had been looking for; the slightest sideways movement of his head. She had played chess with him for years. Only after their return from Gaaldine, when she had come to know him better, had she been careful to lose a fraction more frequently than she won.
Everything else you planned, or at least planned a response to. The masked thieves surprised you.
“Leave that question aside for now. I have had these ear-bobs in my possession for weeks — ever since my agent found you had pawned them.”
“Pawned them?” Her voice was high and breathless, filled with an indignation that was wholly unfeigned. “Brother, you wrong me. You wrong me profoundly. I sent those ear-bobs, together with other items from my casket which I had little expectation of using during the dying remnants of the season in Gondal Town to the jewellers, in the first place to be cleaned, and secondly because I feared keeping too many valuables in the house makes one a target for robbers. Can you say that fear was misplaced, given last night?
“When you announced the ball and requested I wear the betrothal parure for it, I sent orders and received them back from the jewellers on the day of the ball. I saw them myself and handed them to my maid for safekeeping until I changed. I would have put them into my ears had they not been stolen from me. What possible grounds have you for making this accusation?”
The King’s face contorted in fury; the courtiers around were trying to make themselves inconspicuous, for fear of being caught in the cross-fire.
“What grounds? Are you claiming you were not profoundly indebted as a result of gambling losses to Lady Abruzzi?”
Molly recalled her dog Tybalt: a small, indomitable creature, into whose soft fur she had wept so many bitter tears as an orphaned child. Tybalt had never backed down from a challenge, no matter what the size of the other dog. Were it her last act on earth, she would not fall short of Tybalt’s standards.
She rose to her feet.
“What losses, brother? Yes: in one night’s gaming I lost heavily to Lady Abruzzi. That I admit. Yes, in a moment of madness, in an effort to preserve my credit in your eyes, brother, rather than turning to my man of business to extend funds to cover my losses, I had my personal man pawn a few of my personal adornments. I admit all that. But not those ornaments. I would never have treated any element of the betrothal parure so, whatever the need. Those gems were our mother’s.”
She exhaled. “But — as it transpired - I did not have need. Your point is moot.”
He scanned her minutely, head to toe. Holding herself steady was the hardest thing she had ever done. She fancied she heard a note of hesitation in his voice when he spoke again.
“But when you lost —”
She raised her hand again. “Your grace. I fear that interested parties may have practised upon us both, in order to drive a wedge between those whom blood should make the closest of allies. Please. Believe me. I have two witnesses to my innocence. Neither — I see — is present. May I ask your grace to have them brought before you and hear their testimony?”
“Who are these witnesses?”
His tone was cold but his tic had subsided. Still, she dare not relax.
“Your grace. I beg you. Please ask Lady Agnes Traquair to come into your presence. And, also, the Bishop of Zalona.”
If she had not been in such immediate peril, the bafflement on the face of the agog courtiers at the ill-assorted pair she named would have made her laugh out loud.
The King uttered his orders: the two to be brought to him at once, severally, no hint dropped as to why; held separate in different rooms until he called them before him; treated with all honour, but left in no doubt as to the serious nature of what was afoot.
He chose to examine Lady Agnes Traquair first. The terror of being brought into the royal presence had almost overwhelmed her; she trembled at the knees and had to be discreetly held upright by one of the Palace maids. Terror had blanched her face to a greyish-chalk; no-one would have believed her not yet twenty.
James of Gondal struck straight to the point.
“So. You run a private gaming hell for the ladies of my court, do you?”
Lady Agnes cowered; the maid’s grasp on her arm almost slipped. “I am sorry if I have displeased you, your grace. No-one said — that is, I did not think anyone — your grace — averse to high play — that is, my husband told me that in your father the Crown Prince’s day —”
“Enough!” The King’s balled fist hit the wall behind her left ear. “Answer my questions, only. Did my sister, Lady Molly Hooper, attend your gambling parties or not?”
Lady Agnes was white to the lips but her voice did not falter. “Yes, your grace. Twice.”
She nodded, her eyes shifting from side to side, trying (Molly judged) to gauge what answers would please her royal master.
“On which dates?”
As she named them the King visibly relaxed. She uttered a small gasp of relief.
“And who were her principal opponents on those days?”
Lady Agnes’ tongue flicked out and swept across her lips. “Lady Abruzzi, your grace. Both times.”
The King assumed a now-we’re-getting-there expression. “And was my sister successful in her play?”
As if by way of apology, Lady Agnes glanced down at Molly, who had resumed her seat. Molly made a get-on-with-it gesture.
She gulped. “Not the first night, your grace. Miss Hooper was unlucky in her cards —”
Molly smiled. “Be truthful, Agnes. My cards were merely average. I underestimated my opponent, and paid the price. You yourself told me Lady Abruzzi was a formidable card-player. I was a lamb walking clear-eyed to the slaughter.”
That brought a glimmer of a smile to Lady Agnes’ lips. “I daren’t comment. Yes, your grace, Miss Hooper lost heavily on the first night. She lost all the ready money she had on her, continued playing in an effort to win it back, continued losing and then gave Lady Abruzzi her promissory note for the remainder of her debt. Given — given who she is, your grace. Lady Abruzzi had no hesitation in accepting.”
His brows narrowed. “My sister is the richest heiress in Gondal. She is also my sister. Who would be fool enough not to accept her promissory note?”
The words came stumbling out of Lady Agnes’ mouth. “N-nobody, your grace. Anyway, the second time Miss Hooper returned, she asked if Lady Abruzzi would give her the chance to take revenge and she agreed —”
“I’ll wager she did! And what happened then?”
Lady Agnes gulped.
“Miss Hooper started to win; not spectacularly, but steadily. When we broke for supper, I think she must have won back half of what she had lost on the previous occasion —”
“Nearer a third,” Molly said. “I did the calculation over supper. Like yours, my initial estimates were rather optimistic. That was why —”
Her brother raised his hand. “Please. Sister. Lady Agnes has the floor. What happened after supper?”
“I had expected the game to resume. Miss Hooper had gone out of the room to — to refresh herself, and Lady Abruzzi was already seated at the table. Then Miss Hooper came back in, went straight over to Lady Abruzzi and said, ‘My apologies, but I fear we must leave it there. I have lost my taste for play.’ And then, your grace, she called for her carriage.”
“Like that? And what then?”
Lady Agnes spread her hands in a gesture of bafflement. “What else? Lady Abruzzi, though she was losing, protested. She would clearly have liked to continue. But your— but Miss Hooper held firm and when her carriage arrived she walked out with her evening’s winnings. Lady Abruzzi stayed on, though.”
Abruptly, Lady Agnes dimpled, let out a giggle and for the first time looked her true age.
“Whoever else lost that night, it was not Lady Abruzzi. Not by the end. The cards were running with her like Black Sea trout swimming upriver in spring. I think — your grace — your sister was wise to leave when she did. And I doubt I’m alone in thinking so.”
“Not wise.” Molly rose to her feet in a flowing gesture her aunt had long urged her to practise, but for the first time achieved successfully. She reached out and, in the face of all the goggling courtiers, took Lady Agnes’ hands in both of hers.
“Lady Agnes, I did not give up that evening for any other reason but this. When I left the salon I happened by chance to encounter an old woman, clad in black. I had never seen her before, though I believe she must have been staying in the house. Her dress was neat and precise enough, but it was not what someone would wear to go out. She looked at me and said, ‘Child, Lady Elaine was like my own daughter to me. What would your mother think, could she see you now?’ It brought me to my senses. That is why I left.”
Lady Agnes was white to the lips. “You are describing my husband’s aunt. She was one of the ladies of the Court in the old King — that is, his grace’s grandfather’s day. She lives - lived with us.”
“Lived?” The King’s attention sharpened. “You mean, she no longer does?”
Lady Agnes’ pallor increased. “Your grace, when her maid went to wake her the next morning, we found she had died in her sleep. It would seem — I believe save for her maid, your sister may have the last person she spoke to on this earth.”
Low gasps broke out among the assembled courtiers. Molly crossed herself.
“Then I am trebly glad I heeded her warning. And that — on her suggestion — I gave my winnings from that evening to alleviate the sufferings of the poor of Gondal Town.”
“You did? Can you tell me how you dispensed this largesse?”
Molly rose to her feet and signalled to one of the Palace footmen.
“Call the Bishop of Zalona.”
It was, the tabbies of Gondal concluded, an utterly satisfactory scandal.
Though the promised Royal engagement had not transpired, the making and breaking of marriages was the quotidian fare of the Season: arson at an Earl’s townhouse, the sensational theft of one of the greatest treasures of Gondal and the villainous conduct of the King’s sister’s confidential man in contriving the entire coup were morsels rare enough to tempt the most jaded palate.
Quite apart from anything else, it confirmed all the suspicions they had been voicing for years: however long they had been in one’s household, all servants were snakes in the grass waiting to turn.
The tarnishing of Miss Hooper’s reputation by the news that she had been playing high and forced to pawn some less important jewels was all that was needed to put the capstone on the scandal, since it enabled everyone to concur imprimis that she had brought the disaster upon herself; secundo that those prim, decorous girls were always the worst when they got the opportunity and tertio there had been something much amiss in her guardian’s rearing of her.
These matters being settled, the quality of Gondal retired to their country estates or, at least, any to which they could, by hook or by crook procure an invitation, for the start of the shooting season.
“So: this man who arrived over the passes in the night with a story about being told to find The Mariners’ Rest. Would he by any chance be a black-browed sneering bravo with a hell of a lip on him, bearing the scars of what must have been a nasty bout of smallpox, mainly on the left-hand side of his ugly face?”
Horatio nodded. “You must have observed him at close quarters, my friend.”
Jonathan’s face was grim. “From the wrong end of his poniard, to be accurate. You’ve stripped him of his weapons, I take it?”
Horatio looked faintly affronted. “My friend, who do you take me for?”
He gestured towards the table, which bore a sword (plain, but with a first-class blade) a clumsy pistol, and a wicked little Italian-made poniard.
“Then, suppose you let me and the Quarter-Mistress in to see him.”
Frances repressed her urge to snarl. “I do wish you people would stop calling me that.”
Horace’s eyes twinkled. “Little one, if you live among warriors, you will earn nicknames. And there are worse things to be called. How would anyone provision a garrison without its quarter-masters?”
She sighed. “The ones I’ve come across so far all seem to be bent on provisioning their own pockets.”
“And so they are. Rogues and plunderers to a man. But if rumour says true, we’ve got the greatest thief all in the next room. So if you want to learn a few tricks to beat their shenanigans, after you, Quarter-Mistress, ma’am.”
Giulio had travelled here from Gondal Town: through the Debatable Lands, over the Skogull passes, fear his constant companion. Two months ago, Frances would not have known the tell-tales to look for. Two years ago, she would not have known they existed. Today she was executive officer to a Queen-in-waiting and who knew how many lives depended on her reading him right and, having read him, using him where he could be placed most effectively?
He was exhausted, of course, but there was something more in his twitchiness, his pallor, his air of being on edge. He wore the air of a man who had run from his enemies, as hard and fast and long as he could and who now, all his strength and will exhausted, had realised that his true enemy was still as close to him as he had been at the outset.
She sat back, and gave her sunniest smile. “Horatio. Please bring us a flask of the finest Angrian. Nothing less will do for the man who stole the necklace from Crown Princess Elaine’s betrothal parure right under the nose of the Pretender of Gondal.”
“But I —”
“At once, Horatio.”
The landlord of The Mariners Rest nodded, and whisked through the part-open door.
Frances leant forward across the table. “Please don’t disappoint me. They sold you to me as the most sophisticated thief in the three kingdoms.”
The Gondalian accent shifts were tricky, but from Giulio’s fish-slapped expression she thought she had managed to bring off the pun on “sold” as in “exaggerating the best points of a dubious horse” and “sold” as in “slave.”
“But I — ma’am —”
The door opened again. Through it came Horatio, bearing the Angrian wine as a wife previously thought barren might have carried her first-born, and a hulking serving man with a tray-load of the best snacks The Mariners Rest could provide: smoked fish-roe paste, mashed black olives with capers, garlicky cucumber in thickened sheep’s milk yoghurt, chick-peas pounded with garlic and sesame.
As they entered, Frances raised her voice in exasperation.
“How can you expect us to give you asylum unless you tell us how you did it? Do you not suppose the Queen has jewels of her own, and plenty of designing eyes upon them? They have a saying in my country: Set a thief to catch a thief. The Betrothal Necklace wasn’t stolen by brute force or dexterous picking of locks. It was taken by manipulating those who had it in their charge to bring it to a particular place at a particular time, all the while believing each step on the road had been made of their own free will. How such a schemer operates, how to protect oneself against their machinations — that is what we need of you.”
“My friend, we are not wanted here,” Horatio said, divesting the serving man of his tray, clasping him by the shoulder, and propelling them both smartly back through the door, back-heeling the door shut as he went.
Frances summoned up a hardness she had not previously known she possessed.
“We are quite alone here. And that is a thick door. So are the walls. Screams would not penetrate those barriers.”
He flinched. At, Frances adjudged, the precise moment when he was at his most demoralised, she leant forward.
“So. That is how the Pretender of Gondal does it, does he?”
She leant back in her chair and snapped her fingers. “Jonathan. Pray pour the wine.”
“At once, ma’am.” He poured three cups. “Take whichever you fancy: we don’t deal in poisons here but I know it won’t be what you’re used to.”
Tentatively, Giulio selected the middle cup of the three. Either from good manners or because Jonathan’s barb had landed true, he did not venture to raise it before he had seen Frances take a sip from her own cup.
“I don’t understand.” It was the first complete sentence he had managed.
“Isn’t it obvious?” She put down her cup and raised her left hand, fingers and thumb extended.
“First, the betrothal necklace was indeed stolen. In consequence, the Pretender of Gondal is, reportedly, livid. He will stop at nothing to track down and punish anyone who may have been responsible for his humiliation in this regard.”
She looked very steadily at him. “And, if you will forgive me, you have just given a most telling illustration of what someone can expect, should they be the object of his wrath and within his reach.”
She tucked her thumb into her palm, leaving four fingers extended.
“Second: you know, we know and the Pretender knows so great a coup could not have been executed by one person acting alone.”
Her forefinger went down to rest on top of her thumb.
“Thirdly, yours were the last pair of hands through which the ear-bobs passed before they came into his possession. Whoever else was involved in the plot, you must have been.”
Middle finger down.
“Fourthly, whoever the Pretender may suspect, the one closest to him and therefore most vulnerable to his wrath is Miss Molly Hooper. On this, the Queen’s order is absolute. Her kinswoman must be protected.”
Giulio gave a strangled sob. Her third finger went down.
“And, finally, here we have you. A man who betrayed Miss Hooper, whom he had served since she was a child. A man who then — it appears to all the world — also betrayed his new patron, the Pretender. A man who then has run from the consequences to reach the only person whose detestation of the Pretender might cause her to take him in, rather than shun him as a double-traitor, a scorpion who cannot but sting whoever comes within reach.”
Her little finger down, she balled her hand into a fist and brought it down on the table so hard the cups and dishes rattled. “And that is the belief we have to foster. You have to be seen as a man without any lingering shred of reputation, for you to have the smallest chance to redeem your honour.”
He blinked, and stammered, “So the priest told me.”
“The priest?” Frances leant forward across the table. “What priest?”
“A little, round-faced, blinking priest. I never knew his name. Knew all about me, though. Caught me in the church where Miss Hooper’s parents married. Knew what I’d done. Knew I was a Judas. Knew I was bound for Hell.”
“Priests always say that. It’s a pretty safe bet, especially if you was kneeling before a statue of the Virgin with guilt written all over you, like what you’ve got written now.”
“Jonathan!” Frances threw up her hands in carefully dissimulated exasperation. “That’s not helping.”
“Ma’am. Quarter-Mistress. I speak as I find.”
“Well, for the moment, don’tspeak. Whatever you find.”
Jonathan fell into abashed silence. She caught a fleeting blink of “Women. Who’d have ‘em?” travelling above her head between him and Giulio and fought to repress authentic anger, no matter that she had devised the strategy herself.
“So. This little, round-faced, blinking priest. The person of whom we have known nothing until now. The most interesting person, therefore, in this whole tale. Strictly between these four walls, pray tell me how this little, round-faced, blinking priest could have masterminded the theft of one of the greatest Royal treasures of Gondal?”
“I cannot say,” Giulio observed, after a pause for thought.
“Well, stands to reason you’d pick up a sight of queer trades, hearing confession day in day out,” Jonathan observed. “So tell us about your part in it.”
Thus primed, Giulio let it all come out, from the moment in the morning when he had received the jewels into his possession in full view of Miss Hooper’s morning visitors, all of whom she had cheerfully encouraged to point and mock at the ugliness of the ear-bobs she was sending to her jewellers for cleaning.
The jewellers in question were precisely the kind of long-established, exclusive establishment to whom the adopted daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourgh might be expected to entrust her jewellery. Since such an establishment shunned the very idea of promoting their services, the fact they had a small team of skilled craftsmen who could, in a surprisingly short time, replicate most items of jewellery in paste with phenomenal fidelity to the original was information known to a select few. There were numerous reasons why such a service might be called upon, but since most were discreditable to the owners, absolute secrecy was the norm.
Giulio had explained Miss Hooper’s instructions, and the assistant had bowed, and said that if he would leave the ornaments for three or four hours, their craftsmen could take all the drawings and measurements which would be necessary, and he could collect them in the evening.
And then, having collected them, he had taken them to the house with the walnut tree and handed them over and received in return more money than he had ever seen in one place before.
“Ah,” Frances said, taking a sip of her wine. “I begin to see. There are witnesses showing that Miss Hooper sent them to be cleaned; she would not expect to see them for weeks. The jewellers will attest that Miss Hooper’s instructions, as relayed by you, were to have them copied, and that save for a four hour period during which they were preparing detailed drawings of them, the originals were not in their possession and were returned to you within the day. The Pretender heard your story that Miss Hooper had sent you to pawn the jewels to pay her gambling debts and took them into his own custody. What happened to the money, by the way?”
“Gave it to the priest,” Giulio mumbled. “I stopped at the church on my way home, to make confession, and I passed it over in the confession box. T’other way round when I went to collect the counterfeits. He gave me the money I needed to pay and the jewellers accepted it without question.”
“They would,” Jonathan interjected. “Not the kind of business any of their customers would want to see being put on the regular account. And I daresay their account for cleaning and refurbishment would be duly tendered to Miss Hooper in the ordinary course.”
His tongue swirled across cracked lips. Frances recalled from their own passage across the border — good heavens, it had been almost twelve months ago to the day, but felt as if it had been decades ago — how desiccating the winds in those high passages had been, and with her own hand poured a cup of cucumber water from the flask on the table and passed it to him. He gulped, gratefully.
“Thank you, ma’am. They told me that it was the usual procedure. Kind of a service charge, like.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Usual procedure? It leads one to wonder how many of the famous jewels of Gondalian high society cannot bear daylight and have to be brought out, if at all, by candlelight.”
(How thoroughly useful to a new Queen hypothetically seating herself into uneasy power amid the aristocracy of Gondal access to the ledgers of jewellers who offered such a discreet service would be.)
“It seems like a profitable line of business.”
“Being paid off the books for the service you actually provided and on the books for the one you didn’t? I’ll say. And as for the theft itself?”
Giulio shook his head. “I can tell you nothing about that.”
With enormous effort, Frances and Jonathan avoided looking at each other. Neither of them doubted that the Crown Prince could do anything he set his mind to and he was no doubt making his way through the Borders with the loot, even now. But they would each have preferred certainty on the point.
“So: his grace declared the State Ball would be in the dress of forty years back, and Miss Hooper’s aunt arranged for the necklace to be sent up to town?” Frances prompted. “But instead of sending it directly to Miss Hooper, she arranged to send it to her brother, the Earl of Ula. Doubtless also at the King’s instigation?”
Giulio nodded. “For all I can say different. That same day, the day before the ball, I collected and delivered the counterfeits to Miss Hooper. That done, I left town. The Earl was due to leave for his country estates the morning after the State Ball. Miss Hooper was invited but detests shooting parties, so she asked me to go down to Elbe and ensure the seaside villa was able to receive her. I reached Elbe late on the night of the Ball, and having put all in hand there, left it by midday the day after. I was to stay overnight at Charlescut Halt.”
“And did you?”
Giulio shook his head. “But you already knew that, didn’t you? Just off the main route to Gondal Town there’s a little shrine, no more than half a league off the direct route. I made a diversion there — and the man who proceeded on to Charlescut Halt was about my build, wore my clothes and rode my horse. But he was not me. He did not tell me who he was. But I’ll pray for him, to the end of my days.”
News travelled fast through the borders. Castle Cavron had learnt a week ago that the man thought to have masterminded the necklace coup had been set upon by brigands in a ravine in the south of Gondal. In due course, a battered and disfigured corpse, identifiable only by its gear, had been found washed up below the great rapids of the Gonn River. Two other bodies, bled dry from their wounds, had been picked up along the hillside. The murdered man had taken an escort with him to Hades.
Jonathan ducked his head. “And so shall we all. Though doubtless your little, round-eyed, blinking priest will know how to pray for him by name. And her grace the Queen; she’ll pray for him, but mostly, she’ll pray for the Pretender. Still and loud, in that one’s case.”
That was a dialect expression Frances’ Gondalian was not entirely capable of parsing. Giulio, however, flicked up his hands in some archaic warding gesture and then, accepting, nodded. “Still and loud.”