Main Doctor Who: Royal Blood
Due to the technical work on the site downloading books (as well as file conversion and sending books to email/kindle) may be unstable from May, 27 to May, 28 Also, for users who have an active donation now, we will extend the donation period.

Doctor Who: Royal Blood

Year:
2015
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
978-1-101-90579-1
File:
EPUB, 244 KB
Download (epub, 244 KB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Dr Who: Doctor Who Silhouette (12th Doctor novel)

Year:
2014
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 297 KB

Dr Who: Doctor Who The Blood Cell (12th Doctor novel)

Year:
2014
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 307 KB

Most frequently terms

 
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Royal Blood

Year:
2015
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 501 KB
2

Doctor Who: Royal Blood

Year:
2015
Language:
english
File:
MOBI , 644 KB
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Una McCormack

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

www.crownpublishing.com

BROADWAY BOOKS and its logo, B \ D \W \ Y, are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

This edition published by arrangement with BBC Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, a division of the Random House Group Ltd.

Doctor Who is a BBC Wales production for BBC One. Executive producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin.

BBC, DOCTOR WHO, AND TARDIS (word marks, logos and devices) are trademarks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under license.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request

ISBN 9781101905838

eBook ISBN 9781101905845

Editorial director: Albert DePetrillo

Series consultant: Justin Richards

Project editor: Steve Tribe

Cover design: Lee Binding © Woodlands Books Ltd 2015

Production: Alex Goddard

v4.1_r1

a





Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Acknowledgements





To Matthew and Verity





Chapter

1




Varuz is lost now. Even the name has gone. The maps have been overwritten; the books burned or locked away in some forgotten library; the children taught different stories in a different tongue. Perhaps high up in the mountains some old goatherd remains, muttering away, his accent thick and impenetrable, with only his charges and the silent peaks to hear him.

We spoke the old language, of course, my wife and I, but only when we were alone together. We told the old tales and sang the old songs, and we took some comfort from them; . When the world that you have loved is lost, you hold whatever fragments remain to you, and they are more precious and dear to you than all the riches of the new world. We grieved our loss, and we remembered our past, but in all our long years together, we never spoke of returning. Why would we? In the early days, a return would have brought Conrad’s men down upon us and, later, when the long years had made those old struggles meaningless, we knew that the land we had loved was gone for good. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that it was only in leaving our home that we were able to become husband and wife. Time changes all things; all love ends in one way or another. Only memory remains.

Even my name is different now. To the woman who washes and cleans for me, I am the old man, to be fussed over and reprimanded. To the children who come every other day, I am Grandfather, to be teased and hugged, and have treats coaxed from me. And to those people who come to hear my counsel – the lost and the lonely, the man who can find no love, the woman who can find no rest – I am Father, the holy man, the man of wisdom, the man of peace. To my wife, I was beloved, but those days too are now behind me. And once upon a time, my name was Bernhardt – Lord Bernhardt of Varuz, the land between the mountains and the sea. The lost land. The land that has gone…

—

Once, they dreamt of glory. Once they dreamt that their names would go down in song and story, appear in lights, that they and their quest would never be forgotten…

They have been travelling for a long time now. When they first set out, they rode on horseback. Now they fly between the stars. Aeons have passed since they set out, and they have been travelling for so long now that they have forgotten their names and their histories. Over the years they have taken on new names and histories, again and again, and forgotten these in turn, again and again…Now they are too old to care about names, or histories. They are too old even to care for glory. All that matters is the quest, whatever that might mean. For they have forgotten even that. There is only the chase, the never-ending chase…

—

‘Are we lost?’ Clara peered down into the deep narrow valley. It was very beautiful, she had to admit, with the bright green grass and light dusting of mountain flowers. A touch Heidi. But it wasn’t the quasi-mediaeval city she had been promised. It was nothing like a city at all.

‘Lost?’ The Doctor waved the sonic screwdriver around in an apparently random fashion. ‘Of course we’re not lost. Lost is a state of mind. Lost is an attitude towards one’s circumstances—’

‘We are lost.’

‘Maybe a little.’

‘But all we really need is a change of attitude.’

‘That,’ said the Doctor, ‘would be a start.’

Clara smiled to herself. ‘There’s a path over there,’ she said. ‘Looks, um, muddy. But it’s definitely a path. Why don’t we bring some attitude to that?’

The Doctor shrugged. ‘As long as it’s going down.’

It was indeed going down, and precipitously, but they met the challenge with equanimity and, even, Clara thought, with attitude. When they were back on more level ground, the sun was beginning to set. ‘What would happen,’ Clara said, asking a question which had been troubling her ever since they had arrived on this world, ‘if the TARDIS fell off its perch?’ They’d materialised on a very steep slope. There had been some considerable manoeuvring to get out. ‘Would it break?’

‘Break?’ The Doctor stopped mid-step. ‘The TARDIS is a highly sophisticated machine. It’s practically alive. Do you think it would just let itself fall off a hill?’

Clara reached out a hand to stop the Doctor from taking a tumble himself. ‘In fairness, I think we can call this a mountain,’ said Clara. ‘And there’s a thing we call gravity.’

‘It wouldn’t do too much damage,’ said the Doctor, putting both feet firmly down again. ‘It never has in the past.’

‘Oh good,’ said Clara. ‘That’s encouraging. Next question – and you don’t know how I’ve longed to ask this ever since I took up teaching and got stuck with daytrip duty – are we there yet?’

‘Nearly.’

‘Nearly. I’ll hold you to that. I mean, I’m enjoying the quiet and everything – don’t get me wrong – you don’t ever really hear quiet, do you? There’s always music playing, or someone trying to talk to you, or else the hum of an ancient and precariously balanced time machine. So some silence is nice. But I’m nearly up to my limit. Nearly.’

The Doctor smiled and walked on. Clara followed. The path curved round the mountainside, and, reaching the other side, Clara stopped in her tracks and gasped.

There was a city in the valley – small but grand, with strong square buildings made of a fine yellow stone. A river ran through the city, crossed by – Clara counted – seven iron bridges. Beyond the city lay the sea, over which the sun was setting in a great red ball of flame, glittering orange on the sea and the river, and setting the stone of the city’s buildings ablaze.

‘Wow,’ said Clara.

‘Yes,’ said the Doctor.

They stood together, in silence, and watched the darkness gather. The sun slid down the sky, more quickly than one would have expected, until at last it slipped down below the horizon. And then, to Clara’s surprise, the city came alight again: bright pricks of yellow light coming from the buildings; strings of light like beads marking out the river.

‘Hang on a minute,’ said Clara, ‘That’s electric light! Doctor, I thought we were somewhere olde worlde. Should there be electric lights?’

‘Why not?’ said the Doctor. ‘History can be complicated.’

They admired the pretty cityscape for a while until, suddenly, half the city was plunged into darkness, as if a great blanket had fallen from the sky, smothering out the lights. ‘What was that?’ said Clara. ‘Power cut?’

‘Could be,’ the Doctor said. His sonic screwdriver was back out, Clara noticed.

She narrowed her eyes. ‘Is there something going on here, Doctor?’

‘Going on?’

‘I don’t really believe that you ever go anywhere by chance.’

He gave her a hurt look. ‘Now, Clara, that’s not entirely fair.’

‘No?’

‘I’ll admit the TARDIS has a knack of finding places experiencing…how shall we put it? A little local difficulty.’

‘Oh, and you love a little local difficulty, don’t you, Doctor?’

He gave a mirthless grin. ‘Well, it wouldn’t be polite to walk on by.’

‘Polite?’ Clara laughed, as they went on down the slope into the valley. ‘When did you get concerned with manners? Anyway, that’s not what’s I’m really interested in. How come there’s electric light down there and nothing proper?’

‘Proper?’ The Doctor snorted. ‘You mean cars, don’t you?’

‘Not necessarily,’ said Clara, although right now she would quite happily have called a local taxi firm to pick them up and take them into town. It was getting chilly.

‘You do mean cars,’ he said. ‘And digital watches.’

‘Cars I’ll grant you,’ said Clara, ‘but I really don’t mean digital watches.’

But the Doctor was already under way. ‘Some civilisations, Clara,’ he said, ‘understand that technology doesn’t have to be about conspicuous consumption. Some civilisations understand that technology is there for no better reason than to make life easier. Technology should serve its makers, not make them its servants. Technology isn’t something you have to have. It isn’t something to chase.’

‘I swear to you,’ Clara said, ‘that I have never, in my life, chased after a digital watch. I may once or twice have run for a bus—’

‘Some civilisations – naming no names – get obsessed with having the latest gadget, the latest app. But other civilisations have more sense. Their technology doesn’t control them in the same way. They make,’ he concluded, ‘only what they need.’

‘Really?’ Clara looked down at the city, where the dark quarter remained unlit. ‘I bet there’s something else they want. Something they’d chase, given the chance.’

—

In the vast empty reaches of space, there are many places where a person can hide, and many places where objects of great desire can be hidden. Distance and time can make everything disappear – that, and a little cunning. Some things can remain lost for ever, until all memory of them has gone.

But the universe is busy too, busy with curious people who like to find things out, and some people make it their quest to discover what is lost. The traveller aboard this particular ship was exactly that kind of person. He was a collector – a finder of things. He was not a fortune hunter – no, he did not like being described that way; he was not interested in wealth, he said. He was interested in knowledge. What he hated most of all was a hole – a gap in his knowledge. What he hated most of all was that something might exist beyond his ability to see it, to touch it, and to learn from it. He had the best of motives or, at least, his motives were not harmful, which sometimes is as good as it gets.

He has been travelling for a long time, this traveller-collector, and he has visited many different worlds and cultures. While these are not his particular area of interest he has, by necessity, become good at making first contact in a way that does not alarm the locals. When his lead brings him to a new world, he does not hurry down. He takes his time to do his research. He makes sure about the basics, of course – whether he can breathe the air and drink the water (if either of these things exist). He checks for life signs. He checks for intelligent life signs. He checks whether their intelligence has been perverted into belligerence. And, most of all, he tries to find out what these intelligences can do: what they make, what they build, what they craft. He checks for communications technologies. If they are advanced enough, he watches their news and their sports and their entertainments. He may take a little peek into their private communications. (He has blushed, sometimes, at this stage.)

The world he has come to now interests him. There are communications, but they are few and far between, and very irregular. A civilisation on the verge of technological explosion? He studies a little more, and finds the traces of ancient messages in the ether, and comes to a different conclusion. This is a world that was busier, once upon a time, but has now become quiet. That makes his life a little trickier, since now he must find different ways to learn about their culture, but his resources are good, and he is a committed researcher. He is on the trail of something special, something remarkable, and he is working very hard to achieve the object of his desire.

And when he is satisfied that he has done all that he can, his small ship slips quietly down from orbit to land upon a world unfamiliar to the traveller, but which is known now to us. The traveller has followed a trail, and extrapolated a destination, and this leads him to land somewhere between the mountains and the sea…

—

By the time Clara and the Doctor reached the city it was fully dark, but the road leading towards the gates was lined with great lampposts, ornate and beautifully wrought, and the light from these was enough to make the journey clear. Still, every third or fourth one was not working, and, close up, Clara could see that the iron of the lampposts was flaking away. She saw that the city walls, when she looked closely, were crumbling too, with much loose mortar and worn stone. The gates stood open and were unguarded, and they passed into a great court, cobbled underfoot, and busy with townspeople. Some of these stopped to look at them.

‘Aren’t city gates usually locked after dark?’ said Clara.

‘Only if the residents are expecting enemies any moment,’ said the Doctor. ‘Do we look like enemies?’

‘I think we must look like something,’ Clara said, as more and more of the townspeople turned to look at them, nudging each other, whispering, sending the news on ahead. ‘They probably think we’ve come to nick the Crown Jewels or something.’

‘I have a feeling the Crown Jewels have been sold off some time ago,’ muttered the Doctor, running his hand along the old bricks of a wall.

They walked on across the courtyard, a small crowd following them at a slight distance, buzzing with gossip. A narrow street opened before them. ‘Up here?’ said Clara.

‘Why not?’ said the Doctor,

He led the way, but they did not get very far. The breadth of the street was blocked by a group of six soldiers, smartly if garishly uniformed, and heading their way.

‘Well,’ said the Doctor, ‘news of our arrival has certainly been passed upstairs quickly. What does that tell us, Clara?’

‘That…electric lights might not be the only gizmos they have around here?’

‘Spot on. So –’ the Doctor turned to face the soldiers and smiled – ‘let’s find out what I’m supposed to have done now.’

The leader of the group stepped forwards. He was a young man wearing a grand uniform covered in brass buttons and various other pieces of paraphernalia, none of which seemed to be making him feel particularly comfortable. ‘In the name of the Most Noble Aurelian, Duke of Varuz, I welcome you to our city.’

‘A welcome,’ said Clara. ‘That’s good, isn’t it? Doctor, isn’t that good?’

‘Certainly makes for a pleasant change,’ the Doctor said, considerably more cautiously. He moved closer to the young man, and tapped one of the brass buttons. ‘Do these do anything?’

‘I don’t think they do anything, Doctor,’ Clara said. ‘I think they’re decoration.’

‘Decoration?’ The Doctor peered at the button more closely. ‘Why? What for?’ He tugged at the button which, mercifully, remained in place. Had Clara been in the officer’s place, she might have lost her patience, but the young man was staring at the Doctor keenly, almost earnestly. Clara found herself rather taken by him.

‘Hope against hope,’ the young man said, softly. ‘Could this be the change we have been waiting for? Could this be the moment when the tide turns?’

His ruminations got no further. Another of the guard, an older man, grey-haired and with slightly less in the way of decoration, stepped forwards. ‘Enough of a delay, eh, my lord? His highness is waiting to receive our visitors.’

The young man stiffened, as if caught out in an indiscretion. ‘We’re hardly delaying—’

‘You know how your uncle doesn’t like to be kept waiting.’

The young man flushed scarlet. He turned on his heel and called out to the rest of the company to follow. The older man, smiling, gestured to the Doctor and Clara to follow, and took up position behind them.

‘Phew,’ said Clara, under her breath. ‘How not to win over your boss…’

They passed on further into the city, through streets made narrow by the high square buildings and made only slightly less shadowy under the intermittent glare of lamp-light. They crossed three of the bridges, the river black and slow-moving beneath and, after a good fifteen minutes’ walk, came at last to a sturdy palace. Its walls, high and solid, gave it the guarded air of a citadel, although the arched windows and gold and blue mosaics above the great doors made clear that display was at least as important as defence, or had been once upon a time. Now the stonework was as chipped and worn as it was throughout the rest of the city, and the colours of the mosaics had almost faded away.

The great palace doors were guarded by four men in heavy armour. The young officer went ahead to speak to them and Clara, thinking over the young man’s words, said suddenly, ‘Doctor, have you been here before and forgotten to mention it?’

‘What?’ The Doctor, who had been playing with some kind of device or other, palming it around in his hand, stopped and put the thing away. ‘Not that I remember. Why?’

Clara nodded to the young man, now in quiet conversation with the palace guards. ‘I thought that maybe he had recognised you.’

The Doctor shrugged. ‘I suppose I might come here next.’

Clara sighed. ‘What does that even mean?’

‘It’s perfectly straightforward—’

‘It’s all right. Really. I get it.’ She nodded at the guards. ‘Look, they’ve got swords. That’s not very high-tech.’

‘Look again, Clara,’ the Doctor said softly.

She peered at them. ‘I am looking again. Long thin things, presumably pointy and sharp inside those jackets.’

‘Those “jackets” are actually “scabbards”.’

‘Mm, I think I prefer “jackets”. Keeps them cosy. What am I missing?’

‘Plenty, I should think.’ The Doctor smiled. ‘But those swords? They aren’t metal, for one thing.’

‘No?’ Clara stared at them more closely. Long, thin, pointy…

‘No,’ said the Doctor. ‘I think they’re lasers.’

‘Really? Like light sabres?’ Clara was impressed. ‘That could actually be quite brilliant.’

‘Not if you’re on the receiving end. We’ll try not to test them, yes?’

‘You’re the boss.’

The young man, finishing his conversation with the guards, gestured to them to follow. As they walked towards the palace doors, the guards fell back, saluting them as they passed through.

Clara said, ‘You’re quite sure you haven’t been here?’

‘Yes!’

‘It’s just everyone seems to be showing you a great deal of respect…’ Clara laughed. ‘Oh, hang on, now I do believe you haven’t been here before.’

Inside, the building had the same air of faded glamour; the great arched windows had cracks and chips in the small panes of glass; many of the tiles underfoot were broken; and the gold worked into the walls was peeling away or completely gone. They came to another guarded doorway, and the young lord went ahead to speak to the guards. The older officer followed him, much to the young man’s clear irritation.

‘Is it me,’ said Clara, ‘or does everything look like it’s falling down? I don’t mean in a Michael Douglas way—’

Suddenly, the young man lost his temper. He banged the flat of his hand against the wall.

‘Or perhaps I do,’ said Clara thoughtfully. The older officer came back towards them, but Clara watched as the young man got himself under control. When the older man reached them again, Clara said, ‘Your boss doesn’t seem happy.’

The soldier smiled. ‘The young lord? Oh, Lord Mikhail’s not happy about anything.’

‘Probably doesn’t like you muscling in all the time.’

‘Clara,’ said the Doctor, ‘let’s leave this for the moment.’ He turned to the officer. ‘I assume you’re taking us to the Duke?’

‘Where else? You’re expected. Have been for some time.’

The young man, now fully under control again – in fact, if anything, a little too stiff, led them through the doors into the hall.

‘ “Expected for some time?” ’ Clara frowned. ‘Doctor, you’re absolutely sure this place is new to you and you’re new to them?’

The Doctor looked uncomfortable. ‘I think so…There’ve been a lot of places.’

Clara sighed. ‘I bet you my digital watch we’ll be seeing the inside of the dungeons within the hour.’

As they passed into the hall, they were announced. ‘The ambassador and his servant!’

‘ “Ambassador”?’ said Clara. ‘Give me a break!’

But the Doctor had the trump card. He burst out laughing. ‘ “Servant”?’

—

For months at a time they can exist in silence, doing no more than what is necessary to keep them going. To keep them searching, searching…for something they can barely remember. They have forgotten what. They have forgotten why. There is only a single word…

And then, suddenly, the instrumentation springs into life. Lights flash. Alarms sound. A sighting! A reading! A trace! A tiny chance that here, in this new place that they have never visited before, they will find some answers. They will discover the object of their quest…

The universe is vast, and holds many secrets. They could search for ever, and they will. But today, they have come to this particular world, and on that world they have a particular destination. They are coming to the land that lies between the mountains and the sea…

—

I have thought many times, over the years, of writing down what happened in those last days. At first, I would not have dared – it would have given us away, if found, but, later, I always came back to the same difficulty: who would read such a history? Who would care to read about the end of a lost and unlamented land, written in a lost unspoken tongue?

I am old. There is nobody in this world to whom I could speak who would understand. Conrad is long dead; the young lord is gone. I am the last, unless those strange wanderers who passed through Varuz in those last days remember something of us yet. But when I think of them, and reflect upon them, it seems to me that they were cloaked in a kind of deliberate forgetfulness, as if their pasts were not to be admitted, keeping them mindful of nothing more than the present…Do they remember? No, I am not convinced that they remember. I am not convinced that they remember us at all, or, if they do, we are only part of a succession of adventures and rapidly passing events, that merge like ripples on a stream. Only I remain constant, it seems, with my memories, which are now fading. The days pass, and I feel my strength slipping away from me. And I find that I must write down what happened – for myself, so that I can leave this world knowing that some record survives me of those days. Perhaps one day, somebody will find it. Perhaps the secrets of an unknown script will intrigue them, and they will seek to decipher what I have written. Perhaps my story will move them. Perhaps, for the brief time that they give me their attention, Varuz will live again, as it was once; or as it could have been. As my memory has made it.

I take heart from this. So I will write down all that happened, in those strange last days that followed after the holy man came to Varuz…





Chapter

2




The hall into which they had been brought was high-ceilinged and many-pillared, and, at the far end, was a slightly raised dais upon which two plain black seats had been placed. A man sat on one of these, and a woman on the other. Both of them were richly dressed. Slightly to one side, and a step or two down from them, was another man, dressed all in black. The young officer, Lord Mikhail, gestured to Clara and the Doctor to follow him down the hall towards the trio.

Their footsteps echoed on the stone flags, and Clara was very conscious of the eyes of the three people upon them. ‘Nice digs,’ she said to Mikhail.

‘The Great Hall,’ the Doctor said, grandly.

‘You’re still absolutely sure that you’ve not been here before?’

‘Well, what else is it going to be called?’ said the Doctor. ‘It’s never the Mediocre Hall or the In Urgent Need of Renovation Hall. It’s always the Great Hall. Although looking round this one…’

‘A lick of paint wouldn’t do any harm,’ Clara agreed.

When they reached the dais, Mikhail bowed and said, ‘My lord Duke; my lady Duchess. Your guests.’

Clara glanced between Mikhail and the woman. Up close, the similarity between him and the woman was clear: his dark hair was military-short and hers was long and held in place beneath a jewelled cap, but both had golden tints that glinted in the light. His long fingers were curled around the hilt of his sword; hers, ring-encrusted, sat twined upon her lap. They were obviously related – but how? Clara wasn’t exactly getting parental vibes.

Mikhail, turning to the Duke, said, ‘My lord—’

But the Duke lifted his hand to stop the young man from speaking. ‘We thank you for your service in bringing our guests, Lord Mikhail,’ he said. ‘You may leave us now.’

The young man hesitated. He clearly wanted to be present throughout the following encounter, and he glanced over at the Duchess, as if looking for support. Almost imperceptibly, she shook her head. The scarlet flush passed over Mikhail’s face again, but he bowed, turned, and left.

‘Families, huh?’ said Clara, to nobody in particular.

The Duke, frostily, replied, ‘Lord Mikhail has a strong will. A flaw in many young men.’

‘It’s not really any of my business,’ Clara said. ‘But he seems to mean well.’

The Duke, however, had turned his attention to the Doctor. ‘I am Aurelian,’ he said, ‘Duke of the Most Ancient, Serene, and Noble State of Varuz.’ He reached out to rest his left hand upon the arm of the woman next to him. ‘My wife, the Duchess Guena.’ He nodded to the man standing beside him. ‘And the Lord Bernhardt.’

In the silence that followed, Clara studied each them in turn. The Duke was fortyish, square and strong and obvious. His wife was about the same age, all the more beautiful for the small lines around her mouth and eyes, which were sharp and intelligent. Bernhardt was so undistinguished as to be practically part of the shadows. Clara was impressed. She imagined he must put a lot of effort into doing that.

The pause continued. ‘What are they waiting for?’ whispered Clara.

‘Search me,’ the Doctor whispered back, then, clearing his throat, he said, ‘Sorry, was I meant to be saying something at this point?’ He waved at them. ‘Hello yourselves!’ Then he frowned. ‘Was that meant to be more formal?’

Bernhardt stepped forward and studied them both closely. Then he turned back to the Duke. ‘My lord,’ he said quietly, ‘this is not the ambassador.’

‘No,’ said the Doctor, ‘I’m not an ambassador. Well…No, let’s not complicate things. I’m not any ambassador you’re expecting. Probably. No, not probably. Not at all.’

Bernhardt glanced behind them and Clara became conscious that there were people moving in softly. ‘Doctor,’ she murmured, ‘light sabres at seven o’clock.’

Quietly, Bernhardt said, ‘So who are you?’

‘Doctor,’ Clara said, more urgently, ‘they’re getting closer—’

‘All right—’

‘If you’ve been here before and insulted people, I’ll take a laser to you myself—’

‘Calm down, Clara—’

‘So start apologising, or something. Anything. Now!’

‘I come in peace!’ cried the Doctor.

Aurelian lifted his hand. The guards – and their lasers – got no closer. Slowly, Aurelian rose from his chair. In wonder, he said, ‘I know you. I know who you are.’ Stepping down from the dais, he walked towards the Doctor and then knelt before him. The Doctor gave an embarrassed laugh.

‘You’re loving this, aren’t you?’ said Clara.

The Doctor patted Aurelian awkwardly on the shoulder. ‘You know, I don’t think this is entirely necessary…’

But the Duke’s head was bowed. ‘We are honoured by your arrival,’ he said. ‘Honoured that you have made the long and difficult journey in such dark times to come to us. Please,’ he said, standing, and clasping the Doctor’s hand in his own, ‘take my seat. You are most welcome here. All I ask for – if I may – is your counsel.’

The Doctor made himself comfortable in the chair. ‘Well, for starters, I think you should keep an eye on that young man. Who is he? He’s not your son, is he?’ He looked from Duke to Duchess. ‘A nephew, I bet. You didn’t pinch his throne did you? That never turns out well. Before you know it everyone’s been poisoned—’

‘Doctor,’ said Clara. ‘We’re doing so well.’

Bernhardt stepped forwards. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘you have the advantage. Who is this man?’

Aurelian, rising from his feet, turned to Bernhardt. His eyes were shining. ‘Don’t you see, Bernhardt? He is a wanderer, a pilgrim.’

‘He’s got you down,’ said Clara.

Guena look down at her husband. ‘A holy man?’

‘Or perhaps not,’ Clara concluded.

The Doctor shrugged. ‘A holy man?’ he said to himself. ‘I can run with that.’

Aurelian reached out to clasp the Doctor’s hand. ‘I cannot think when one of your kind last came to us here beyond the mountains!’

‘Not in my father’s time,’ said Guena. She was looking at the Doctor with what Clara could only call ‘suspicion’, and Bernhardt, too, seemed less than convinced. ‘The last duke was my father. He would have told me if a holy man had come our way, before my birth.’

‘The path through the mountains is not easily taken these days,’ Bernhardt said. ‘How did you find your way across?’

The Doctor tapped his forehead. ‘Oh, you know. Excellent sense of direction.’

Clara watched Guena and Bernhardt exchange a look. But Aurelian was completely enamoured. ‘We must speak,’ he said. ‘Dark days are upon us—’

Suddenly, in a rustle of silks, the Duchess stood. Turning to Clara, she said, ‘Come. Let us leave the men to their talk.’

Clara frowned. ‘I think I’ll stay, if it’s all the same to you.’

Guena held out her hand, heavy with numerous spectacularly ornate rings that looked like they weren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. ‘Come.’

Clara turned to the Doctor, who jerked his head. Go on, do your thing.

‘Oh, for pity’s sake,’ muttered Clara. With a deep sense of grievance, she followed the Duchess away from the Great Hall, and the discussion that was about to happen.

—

A holy man? I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now. In my wanderings since we left Varuz I have met men that could indeed be called ‘holy’; men with such capacity for serenity that simply to be with them was to wash one’s spirit clean. This was not such a man. This man burned like fire. Yes, fire might purify, but that was not the kind of peace that we desired. I did not doubt that this was a remarkable man; no, not for one moment did I doubt that. But holy? No. Was he a man of wisdom? Certainly, for long life and rich experience and a sharp mind upon which to reflect upon these experiences constitute wisdom. Certainly this was such a man. But this man was a maelstrom. And Aurelian, of course, wished above all for him to give his blessing to whatever ventures he might divine.

Poor Aurelian…

I should speak, perhaps, of Aurelian, the last Duke of Varuz, since there is no one else who remembers him now, and I shall try to be fair, for he was not an evil man – no, not by any means, but a desperate man, and one who set himself upon a course of action that could not succeed. In a different time, perhaps, or without the burden of rule, he would surely have been remembered as fearless and strong, a great hero. He was all these things throughout his life. But the times were not his. The times required compromise, humility, sacrifice – and these were by no means Aurelian’s gifts. I do not mean to say that I possessed these qualities, for all of us were proud during those times, and desired more than we could ever have. No, it was not all Aurelian’s fault. Guena was too proud, and I was insufficiently wise. We all of us were the wrong people, at the wrong time, and it seemed to us – to my wife and me – that all we could do was choose between the lesser of two defeats.

When the women departed to talk about their own business, we too left the Great Hall. Aurelian, leading, took us to an antechamber beside the Hall where he kept his maps and made his plans and dreamed his dreams of a country brought back to glory. Here, he showed our visitor – the Doctor, he called himself – the land between the mountains and the sea. Here were the high passes, which Conrad’s scouts now controlled; and here the waterways, which Conrad’s ships now controlled. And here was all that remained under our jurisdiction: the rough wild country to the north; the empty plains, which had once been rich farmland, to the south. The few small towns and villages. And the river and the city, our last stronghold.

‘This must have been a beautiful country once,’ the Doctor said. ‘But even from my short time here I can see that all is not well.’

Aurelian was grieved; indeed, we were all grieved to see our land crumbling in our care.

‘We struggle,’ I said. ‘All across the land the people struggle. Once, we were rich, yes. But these days we are poor.’

Aurelian’s eyes were flashing. ‘Aye, and we all know who to blame!’ He pointed on the map to the land beyond the mountains. ‘We are besieged!’

‘Besieged?’ The Doctor thick eyebrows rose for a moment; then he turned his attention back to the map, where Aurelian had pointed. ‘So what’s over there?’ he said. ‘Beyond the mountains? Who’s besieging you?’

‘Conrad,’ Aurelian said. ‘That is Conrad’s country. From there, he rules almost the whole world.’

‘Almost?’ said the Doctor.

Aurelian smiled. ‘Except for Varuz. He does not rule the land between the mountains and the sea. But he seeks to conquer us.’

‘Conrad has a great strength in arms,’ I explained, pointing to the mountain passes. ‘His men patrol the borders. They prevent entrance, and exit, into Varuz.’

The Doctor stared at the map. ‘And he’s hoping…What? To starve you out?’

‘The winter is over again without him succeeding in that aim,’ I said. ‘Summer is coming, and we may feed ourselves from the land a little longer. My thinking is that Conrad will not wait for another winter. He will enter Varuz with the good weather.’

The Doctor gave me a very sharp look. ‘You know this for sure?’

‘I conjecture,’ I said.

‘Conjecture, eh?’ He stared back down at the map. ‘So what do you want from a holy man? What do you want from me?’

Aurelian gave his broad and handsome smile. ‘What do I want? I want your blessing, of course!’

The Doctor looked at him uneasily. ‘My blessing?’

‘On my endeavours.’

‘Your endeavours.’ Slowly, the Doctor walked round the map, as if taking in every pebble on the mountain paths, every blade of green grass in the valleys, every ruined villa and every lost village. ‘Endeavours. You mean war, don’t you?’

‘Is that so terrible a thing?’ said Aurelian.

‘Yes,’ said the Doctor.

‘Even in the name of peace?’

The Doctor almost spat. ‘That’s nonsense. Double speak. Lies—’

For a moment I thought Aurelian might become angry, but then I saw a glistening of water in his eyes. To see a proud man weep and to be unable to help it is a dreadful thing. Softly, Aurelian said, ‘Good father, we are beleaguered. Conrad’s ambition is without limit. He wants to push us into the sea – drown us, obliterate us. He wants Varuz for his own. He wants the world for his own.’

I was watching our visitor very carefully now, and, for a while, I must admit that I was afraid. He did not seem to me the kind of man to bow down to tyrants, to submit to superior force, and it seemed that Aurelian’s words had stirred something within him, some great deep anger.

‘My people waver,’ Aurelian said. ‘My knights and my lords – they waver too.’ He turned to me and, with a smile, clasped my hand. ‘Not you, Bernhardt. Never you. But the others? I know they are afraid.’ He turned back to the Doctor. ‘With your blessing, good father, we might find our resolve once more. We might pull together and make one more stand in the mountains. Conrad is coming, so Bernhardt says – but we can deny him! We can show him that Varuz can never be taken. Perhaps –’ his face was shining now – ‘this might be the start of a new age for Varuz. With Conrad dismissed, we could begin to heal ourselves – become whole again. Restore the glamour and glory that we had here, once upon a time…’

Dreams and delusions. Castles in the air. The wrong man, at the wrong time. I saw the Doctor watching me, and I had to turn away – in shame? In shame. It is a cruel thing to know that one’s home is on its knees.

When the Doctor spoke again, he spoke firmly, but with compassion. ‘War is a terrible thing,’ he said. ‘I know. You talk about a stand, Aurelian, but it would be a massacre. There’s no honour in self-sacrifice, and no honour in sacrificing others with you, throwing away lives in a battle that can’t be won…’

He hesitated here, and I wondered what this man’s experience of war had been. What a warrior he would have made, it seemed to me, had war ever been his business.

‘A holy man,’ the Doctor said, ‘a truly holy man – would try to make peace. Conrad’s ambassador is on his way still, I assume. So my advice is – accept the embassy. Talk to Conrad’s representative. See if there’s still a chance to make peace. See on what terms he might allow you to continue in peace here, beyond the mountains.’

Poor Aurelian. That was not what he wanted to hear. But it was the truth. It was what I had been trying to tell him since he had taken upon the dukedom all those years ago, after I had seen at first-hand Conrad’s country, his knights and his weaponry. Our poor horses, even our laser-swords, were nothing to what Conrad had at his disposal. There could be no glorious victory, but neither could we be allowed to remain as we were, on the edge, proof of the limits of Conrad’s rule. We were old, and proud, and, yes, crafty in many ways, but these would never be enough. Our task was to carry what we could through these times, and to hope that not everything was destroyed. Or so I understood at the time.

‘If the ambassador is coming,’ said the Doctor, ‘you should meet him. Hear what he has to say. Don’t underestimate peace, my lord. You’ll miss it, when it’s gone. When the buildings are burning and the soldiers dying, and the children are ripped from their parents’ arms – you’ll regret the day you ever went to war.’

I saw then that the Doctor’s eye was as much on me as it was on Aurelian. But if he thought I was in need of persuasion, he had misjudged me. I already agreed. But I was willing to put whatever weight I could behind this attempt to sway Aurelian.

‘He speaks wisely, my lord,’ I said, quietly. ‘Let us wait for the ambassador. Let us welcome him. Let us try to make peace.’

‘Peace?’ said Aurelian. ‘Or surrender?’ But he clasped my hand again, and I knew that, for the sake of our long friendship, he was still listening.

—

Clara followed Guena out of the great hall, and along a narrow corridor to a little sitting room. Here, comfortable chairs were arranged around a low table, and small lamps were lit, giving the room a warm, cosy atmosphere. Even the bare patches on the carpets and tapestries added to the effect, making the space feel lived-in and well-loved.

At Guena’s invitation, Clara sat in one of the seats, sinking back into the comfortable cushions. Guena rang a little bell and, shortly afterwards, a servant appeared through a side door, carrying a tray laid out with a silver jug and tiny silver cups. When the servant left, Guena poured out the drink, and Clara sipped it. It was thick and hot and sweet, a little like hot chocolate. She watched as, one by one, Guena took off her rings, as if she was a knight stripping herself of her armour. She kept her eyes on Clara throughout, and Clara had the distinct impression of being scrutinised thoroughly – and judged.

She seemed to have no intention of making the first conversational move, however, so Clara decided she might as well be the one to start talking. ‘Don’t you hate being sent away?’

‘Sent away?’ Guena looked around. ‘You mean in here? Why would I hate that?’

‘While the men talk business, I mean.’

‘What is to stop us from talking? About whatever we choose?’

Clara laughed. ‘Well, nothing, I suppose.’

Guena smiled back. ‘Nothing.’ The smile disappeared as she gave Clara a very sharp look. ‘Your master—’

‘He’s really not that,’ said Clara. ‘Absolutely not that.’

‘Father? Lover?’

‘Er, none of the above!’ Clara struggled for a word to describe the Doctor, eventually settling on: ‘Friend.’

Guena looked surprised, but accepted the explanation. ‘Your friend, then. He’s not an ambassador, for sure, but he’s not a pilgrim either, is he? He’s not a holy man.’

‘No, he’s not, at least, not in the way you mean,’ said Clara. ‘But he’s a traveller, all right. He’s seen a lot, he’s done a lot. He’s got more experience than I think either of us can imagine. If your husband—’

Guena stiffened slightly. ‘The Duke,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Clara at once. ‘I don’t mean to be rude. I’m not used to this kind of thing.’

Guena gave a quick nod to indicate that she accepted the apology.

‘What I mean is that if the Duke wants advice, he could definitely do worse than ask the Doctor.’ She leaned forwards in her chair. ‘So what’s going on? You were expecting an ambassador, weren’t you? Who from? And why is everything so…’ She stopped, unsure how to word her question without seeming rude. How did you say to someone: ‘Have you noticed that your city is falling down?’ Chances were that Guena had noticed, and that it was causing her some distress.

It was clear that Guena understood. ‘Ah, if you could have seen us at our height, Clara! Five hundred years ago, six hundred – what a place this was then! What a country this must have been!’ Her eyes shone. ‘The whole city, so they say, was bright as daylight, even at night. Great ships sped across the water; great ships flew amongst the clouds. We could speak to each other at great distance – and could be with each in the twinkling of an eye. And we were not a little people trapped in a little land. Our influence stretched far beyond here. Far beyond the mountains, far beyond the seas.’

Clara looked around the faded room and thought of the crumbling city outside. ‘Five hundred years is a long time ago.’

‘And Varuz is very different now,’ said Guena. ‘Here we are, trapped behind our mountains, sitting in the gloom behind crumbling walls, and our enemies wait for their moment to come.’

‘Your enemies?’

Quickly, Guena explained what Aurelian was, in the next room, explaining to the Doctor: that across the mountains a powerful country, led by Conrad, was poised to invade. ‘The passes are closely watched,’ Guena said, ‘and very few get through. But we have received news to expect an ambassador from Conrad. That is why – when you arrived – we thought that you must be from him. Very few come through the mountains now.’

‘But you received news of this ambassador? Who from?’

‘Even in Conrad’s country there are people who sympathise with our plight,’ Guena said, and gave a crafty smile.

‘People,’ said Clara. ‘You mean spies.’

‘If you prefer.’

Not much, thought Clara. ‘Spies. That young man who brought us here…’

‘Lord Mikhail.’

‘He doesn’t seem very happy. What’s going on there?’

Guena contemplated the question for a while. ‘Mikhail is ambitious for Varuz. My husband –’ so it was OK for Guena to call him that – ‘is afraid that this ambition extends as far as the dukedom.’

Clara frowned. ‘Your husband sounds paranoid. Sorry, I mean the Duke. The Duke sounds paranoid.’ She frowned. ‘You know, on reflection, that doesn’t sound any less rude.’

But Guena was not angry. ‘Not paranoid,’ she said. ‘No, that is not fair. But it is fair to say that Aurelian is fearful for Varuz, and also fair to say that he is overburdened by his charge. Change is coming to Varuz. We all know that – even Aurelian, in his heart. None of us can stop that.’

‘I get the impression the Duke would like to,’ said Clara. ‘I get the impression he would turn the clock back, if he could.’

‘All of us,’ said Guena softly, ‘would be glad to see Varuz as it was once. Instead…’ She looked around them. ‘Instead, we have inherited what you see.’

‘Something’s going to give,’ said Clara.

‘Change does not have to mean devastation,’ said Guena. ‘But the people are tired. They are afraid. They want peace, Clara. We all want peace. We don’t want to suffer any longer.’

Clara studied the Duchess thoughtfully. ‘Why are you telling me all this?’

Guena leaned in and spoke more softly. ‘Conrad’s ambassador is coming. I am sure of it.’

‘And?’

‘And,’ said the Duchess, ‘I may need someone to speak for me.’

Not speak for Aurelian, Clara thought, and then she remembered something Guena had said: The last duke was my father. Guena had wasted no time in taking her away to talk in private. Who, Clara wondered, was really running the show here? Who, really, was in charge? Aurelian was the warrior, yes, but was Guena the schemer? And what did that make Bernhardt?

‘We are not strong,’ said Guena. ‘These days we are a quiet country, on the very edge of the world. Our glory days are long behind us, and we cannot defend ourselves, not against the army that Conrad commands. The question now is whether anything of Varuz will survive the coming days. Clara,’ she urged, ‘open war will destroy us completely. If the ambassador comes – will you help me? Will you help Varuz?’

Slowly, Clara said, ‘I can’t make any promises.’

Guena smiled. ‘I don’t want promises. I want help. When the time comes.’

‘Then let’s see,’ said Clara. ‘When the time comes.’





Chapter

3




The guest quarters that were assigned to them had the same threadbare cosiness as Guena’s sitting room. There was a big shared room, set off from which Clara found two bedchambers, each one plain but clean, with a huge bed and many soft pillows and coverings.

Clara set herself to exploring all the chests and cupboards, and was delighted to find that one was full of fine dresses. She spent a happy half-hour choosing one to wear, trying them for size and fit and colour, settling at last on a deep red gown with a full skirt and much rich brocade worked into the bodice. It had wide sleeves, cut from a dark orange cloth and covered in golden embroidery and small jewels. She stretched out her arms, admiring the butterfly wing effect, and luxuriated in the fine, heavy cloth.

‘Good idea to have such thick clothes,’ she said. ‘I imagine it could get cold here. The wind from the mountains in one direction. The wind from the sea in the other. And whatever else is working round here, I’m not sure the central heating is switched on.’

The Doctor too had been prowling the room, stopping here and there to pick up objects and examine them: a vase; a picture; a cup. Clara, spreading out the skirts of her dress, arranged herself on a chaise longue and made herself comfortable. He looked like he would be keeping himself busy like this for a while yet.

‘So I talked with the Duke’s wife,’ she said.

Reaching the window, the Doctor came to a halt.

‘It was interesting,’ said Clara. ‘Really interesting.’

The Doctor grunted and touched one of the curtains. It too was made from thick cloth, not as fine as her dress, but it was covered in small jewels and crystals. It was very beautiful, but not what Clara wanted the Doctor to be concentrating on right now. He should be concentrating on what she was saying.

‘So about the Duchess,’ Clara said. ‘I think she wants to overthrow the government.’

The Doctor gave another grunt.

‘And I’ve decided I’m going to make my fortune by selling her guns. Do you know any arms dealers?’ This time there was no response at all. Clara was starting to miss the grunting. ‘Doctor, are you listening?’

‘These jewels!’ he said.

Clara stared at them. True, they were sparkling nicely in the lamplight, but sparkling nicely in the lamplight was par for the course for jewels. It was what you had jewels for. ‘What about them?’

‘They’re driving me crazy!’

‘In what way, Doctor?’ Clara said, patiently.

‘It’s not the sparkling. I can put up with that, even though it’s annoying. But they don’t seem to have a function. Things can’t just go around sparkling. Nothing round here is wasted! These jewels wouldn’t just be,’ he spat the word out, ‘decoration.’

‘Why not?’ Clara lifted up the beautiful sleeves and let them spread out. ‘What’s wrong with a little decoration?’

‘It’s frippery.’

‘ “Frippery’? Who in the world uses a word like that? Who in the universe? Anyway, what’s the harm in some occasional frippery?’

‘It’s pointless.’

Clara ran her finger along the beads sewn into her sleeves. ‘It’s pretty.’

‘It’s a waste of the finite resources of the universe.’

‘Says the man with sparkles on his jumper.’

The Doctor stared down at his jumper as if noticing it for the first time. ‘These help me to see in the dark.’

Clara lifted up her arm. ‘And these make my right hook extra weighty. Look, Doctor, do you want to hear about the conversation I had with the Duchess or not? We didn’t just talk about frocks in there, you know. In fact, we didn’t talk about frocks at all.’

The Doctor had turned back to his curtains. ‘Go on. If you must.’

‘Doctor – I think she’s plotting against the Duke.’

The Doctor wasn’t particularly perturbed by this news. ‘I assumed somebody would be. Where there’s a throne, there’s a plot.’

‘But his own wife?’

‘I’m not seeing any contradictions there.’

‘Perhaps plot is too strong a word,’ Clara said thoughtfully. ‘But she wants me to talk to Conrad’s ambassador, if he ever arrives.’

‘Well,’ the Doctor said with a sigh, ‘somebody has to speak to him, and it’s not going to be me—’

‘Doctor, stop measuring for curtains and listen! She doesn’t want me to talk to him officially! She wants me to talk to him in private. Without anyone else knowing. Behind the Duke’s back.’

The Doctor dropped the curtains and turned to look at her. ‘She wants you to spy for her?’

‘Oh, now you’re listening!’ Clara said, with some exasperation. ‘No, she didn’t ask me to spy for her. What do you think I am? She asked me to carry a message for her.’

‘Behind the Duke’s back. To the representative of his mortal enemy. What do you call that? Because I know what I call it—’

‘Doctor,’ Clara said seriously, ‘I don’t know what to do.’

He turned back to the curtains.

‘Doctor!’

And then he turned back to her. He looked puzzled, as if he’d thought the conversation had been closed. ‘Well, of course you have to do it!’

Clara was startled. ‘What? But, isn’t that…’ She trailed off.

‘Isn’t it what?’

‘Well, treason?’

The Doctor gave her a very tricky smile. ‘Not technically.’

‘Doctor. There are swords. Which are also lasers. And there may be other things. Deathly curtains. I need more than technicalities. Wouldn’t spying for the Duchess be treason?’

‘Only if you were one of Aurelian’s knights or vassals. Which you’re not.’ He gave her a worried look. ‘You’re not, are you?

‘Let me think,’ said Clara. ‘What does it say on my passport? Er, no, I think that’s something to do with the Queen, or possibly Brussels—’

‘You’ve not gone and accidentally sworn an oath to anyone or anything since we got here, have you?’

‘I certainly hope not! Er, how would I know?’

‘There’s usually a book involved. Sometimes blood.’ He gave her a sly look. ‘You haven’t accepted any drinks, have you?’

‘What?’ She thought of the nice chocolatey thing she had drunk with Guena.

‘I’m joking,’ he said.

‘Well, don’t!’

‘So if you’re not Aurelian’s subject, and you’ve not sworn an oath, how can it be treachery?’

‘You’re confusing me!’ Clara said, plaintively.

‘It’s very simple,’ said the Doctor. ‘You’re not from Varuz. Aurelian doesn’t own you. You can do what you like. Do you want to be Guena’s messenger girl?’

‘You’re not making it sound an attractive career choice.’

‘Then let me put it this way,’ said the Doctor. ‘Do you want to help stop a war?’

‘What? Of course!’

The Doctor turned back to his inspection of the curtains. ‘If what you’ve told me about her is true, so does Guena. Aurelian – well, that’s less clear.’

Clara frowned. ‘The Duke can’t really want war. He might want the idea of war – but not actual war.’

‘I’m not so sure. Some people start worrying about their legend far too early,’ said the Doctor. ‘Worrying about legacy. They want to make sure that they’re remembered – but for the right reasons. Aurelian knows as well as anyone else that he can’t hold Conrad back. Either he can surrender or he can go down in a blaze of glory. And who wants to be remembered for a surrender?’

Clara shivered, and wrapped the great sleeves of the dress around her. ‘That’s madness.’

‘Yes it is,’ said the Doctor. ‘But it’s popular madness. This ambassador, though – if he ever turns up – he might be someone with real power to stop a pointless war happening. And if someone who has connections to people close to the Duke, but no vested interest in the politics of Varuz, passed on a message that Varuz was interested in a peaceful settlement…’ He peered at Clara. ‘I mean you, by the way, is that clear?’

‘As crystal,’ said Clara.

‘Clara,’ he said, ‘I want to stop this war. The ambassador might be exactly the person we need, and you might be exactly the person to speak to him.’ He waved his hand about. ‘But of course, if you’re suddenly getting scruples about high treason and whatnot…We can’t be seen to get our hands dirty, now, can we?’

‘All right, all right, you’ve made your point!’

‘A little chat with a visiting dignitary won’t do anyone any harm,’ the Doctor said firmly.

‘I hope not,’ said Clara. ‘Those lasers look burny.’

‘It’s the right choice.’

‘I’m not sure it feels right.’

‘Cheer up,’ said the Doctor. ‘It might never happen. We’ve no idea if this ambassador is really coming.’

He didn’t, that night, and Clara slept well in her deep and comfortable bed, despite the thought of lasers. But the morning brought the sound of silver trumpets, and a messenger to their room came to inform them that the Duke requested the presence of his learned friend the holy man, in an audience with the ambassador from Conrad.

‘Come along,’ the Doctor said to Clara. ‘You’re bound to find out something useful.’

‘Hmm,’ said Clara.

‘Not convinced?’

‘I’m not convinced it’ll be the real ambassador this time either,’ Clara replied.

‘That would be ridiculous,’ the Doctor said.

—

The Doctor and his companion were already with the Duke in his map room when I arrived. Aurelian, I could see, was plainly nervous, pacing around the small space, stopping now and then to examine his maps, as if to remind himself of some minor detail or other. He saw me and smiled, and I nodded and bowed, and took my place in one quiet corner of the room, to remain there until my lord or lady needed me.

At length, Aurelian ceased his prowling, coming to a halt before the Doctor. ‘Holy man,’ he said, and reached out his hands. ‘I am grateful for your presence here today. Is there any wisdom that you would convey to me?’

The Doctor hesitated, but, to my amusement, his young friend nudged him forwards with her elbow, and, with ill grace, he took the Duke’s hands and patted them, rather awkwardly. ‘Don’t go looking for war,’ he said. ‘But if you look for peace, you will have the gratitude of all your people. And that, Duke, should be your heart’s desire.’

Aurelian was soothed by this. He nodded his thanks and released the Doctor’s hands. But his quieter, steadier mood was disturbed by the arrival of Mikhail here in his private chamber. I cannot blame the young lord, but his timing could surely not have been worse.

‘My lord Duke,’ he said, bowing as he made his approach. ‘I beg you – no, I must insist – I should be present when the ambassador meets you.’

Aurelian turned to him, eyes sparking with anger. ‘Insist, do you?’ He looked at me. ‘Do you hear that, Bernhardt? The young lord insists.’

‘My lord,’ I said, and stepped forwards. ‘Ask yourself – would it do any harm?’

‘Any harm?’ He frowned at me, but we had been friends for many years, and I did not fear his anger on my own account. I was conscious, too, of the Doctor, watching this whole scene unfold, and while I still knew little about him, I did not want to give too much away. ‘Aurelian,’ I said, gently. I hardly ever used his name, so he knew that it was one of those rare occasions when I presumed to call upon our long friendship, and he paid me the courtesy of listening to me. ‘Mikhail would learn a great deal from being present. There is much to be gained and nothing to be lost.’

Aurelian gave a great sigh, but I could see his anger had passed. ‘Very well. The boy can stay.’ Mikhail was clearly not pleased to be called such a name, but I gestured to him to be quiet, and to accept that he had what he wanted, and he had the good sense to obey.

Then a messenger came to say that the ambassador was approaching the Hall, and Aurelian prepared himself for the meeting. ‘Holy man,’ he said, appealing to the Doctor, ‘will you give me your blessing?’

‘Look for peace, my lord,’ the Doctor urged again.

‘I will not surrender,’ said Aurelian.

The Doctor did not reply, but I could see in his face his thoughts: You might not have a choice. And I had not failed to notice that any blessing that could have been given had been withheld.

Leaving the antechamber, we entered the hall, where Aurelian took his seat, and we – the Doctor, Mikhail and I – stood on the steps down from him, with myself closest to him, the Doctor beside me, and Mikhail and the Lady Clara on the lowest step. Guena was already there. Heralds announced the arrival of Conrad’s ambassador, and the Doctor leaned over to whisper in my ear. ‘Hope you’ve got the right guy this time. Be embarrassing to get it wrong again.’

The ambassador was alone, which surprised me, for I had expected at least one servant, if not a whole party, to impress upon us Conrad’s strength, and his ability to send whomever he chose across the mountains into our lands. I wondered, watching this man, whether he was the very best that Conrad could send, for he seemed very nervous. Perhaps the weight of the occasion was heavy upon him. ‘Your thoughts, Doctor?’ I whispered. ‘Is this our man?’

‘He certainly looks more the part than I do,’ he replied. ‘Although…’

I was on the alert at once. ‘Although what?’

‘I was expecting more of an entourage.’

‘It’s not an easy journey these days,’ I said. ‘Even with Conrad’s aid, our own land can be lawless in places.’

‘All the better to bring your guards with you,’ he said.

We stopped our whispering then, as Aurelian had risen from his chair to give his formal greetings. ‘I am Aurelian,’ he said, ‘Duke of the Most Ancient, Serene, and Noble State of Varuz. My wife, the Duchess Guena. The Lord Bernhardt. My nephew, the Lord Mikhail. And our guest, the holy man, the Doctor, and his companion, the Lady Clara. We welcome you to our most ancient and noble state, and we wait to hear the messages you bring from your master, Conrad.’

Throughout this speech, the ambassador had been listening politely, but it seemed to me that his attention was not wholly on my lord; indeed, he seemed much distracted by the hall in which we stood, and by his surroundings in general. But when Aurelian had finished, he stepped forwards and gave a pretty speech in turn. ‘My lord Duke,’ he said. ‘The distance between our lands has been too wide in recent years. I hope to get to know your country well. I hope to get to know your city well. And I thank you for your gracious welcome and for the hospitality of your hall. It is,’ he said, looking around again, ‘a most fine place.’

The Doctor leaned forwards. ‘You hope to avoid war?’ he said.

‘War?’ The man sounded horrified. ‘I most certainly hope so!’

A few more formalities followed, and then Guena, in her capacity as Duchess and hostess, invited the ambassador to enjoy the hospitality of her home. He looked puzzled at this, and the Doctor interpreted. ‘You’ve had a long journey,’ he said. ‘She wants to know if you’d like to rest before starting on business.’

‘Rest? Rest? Er, yes, that would be very nice, thank you.’

Servants appeared then, and, with courtesy, led the ambassador away. Aurelian withdrew to his map room, but I lingered to speak to the Doctor privately before joining him. ‘Your impressions?’ I asked, quietly.

He didn’t reply at once. ‘I thought…’ he said. ‘Well, I thought he looked like he was measuring for curtains.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘He looked like he was trying to work out where his furniture could go, when he and his boss move in.’ He must have seen me shivering and nodded ahead. ‘Best not say anything to the Duke, eh? Let’s keep our eyes set on terms for a peaceful settlement.’

I nodded, and went to join my lord.

—

There was a feast that evening, to welcome the ambassador, and, while the rations were on the short side, the wine was from old and copious stores, and Clara soon found that she was enjoying herself very much. The Doctor had encouraged her to observe the ambassador, but it was Aurelian that she found herself watching, and admiring. As lord of this hall, and as host to an honoured guest, Aurelian was in his element – convivial, good-tempered, and attentive to his guests. Even Mikhail, sitting a few seats away from his uncle, seemed able to smile when looking at him.

Clara tried to give some attention to her task, engaging the ambassador in small talk, but he was oblique when she quizzed him about his home, and instead wanted to ask questions about the hall, the lights, the décor, the fashions…Only sensible, Clara supposed. He was here on a mission, and if he hadn’t visited Varuz before, he would naturally want to know more about the place. Still, she rapidly hit the limits of her knowledge. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m new here too.’

Aurelian, however, was more than happy to talk about his ducal possessions, and the ambassador wanted to know about everything. What were the trends in architecture? What were the fashions in clothes? Were precious stones still mined in Varuz, or was what he saw of ancient stock? Did the lights illuminate the whole country? How did the lights work? Did they make new laser-swords? How was this done?

Suddenly, the Duchess spoke, interrupting her husband as he tried his best to answer all these questions. ‘My lords,’ she said, rising from her chair. The men around the table jumped to their feet; the ambassador slightly behind them, as he realised that to remain sitting would be discourteous. ‘It is time for me to retire,’ Guena said. She nodded at Clara. ‘Will you accompany me?’

Clara, who, despite the wine, had been paying attention to the way people addressed each other, found an appropriate reply. ‘It would be my honour, my lady.’

She followed Guena back to the sitting room where they had had their previous conversation. The room was once again snug and comfortable, and at the ring of the bell, a servant brought in the hot drink they had enjoyed before. With the ambassador now here, Clara was entirely ready to engage in more intrigue, but Guena seemed content to keep their conversation to pleasantries, admiring Clara’s dress, or else in providing an interesting if arcane account of the sights one might see in the city, if one had the time. ‘Alas,’ the Duchess said and sighed. ‘Varuz is not what it once was.’

They sat in silence for a while after this statement, as Clara tried to work out what was going on and whether the Duchess was ever going to open up again, and how she might persuade her to do so. Eventually, she took the straightforward route. ‘Why am I here?’

‘Are you not enjoying our conversation?’ said Guena, almost gaily, Clara thought, and with a sly look in her eye. ‘I know I certainly am.’

But last time, Clara thought, they hadn’t talked about…well, fripperies. Had she imagined the intent of their previous conversation? Had she imagined that the Duchess had wanted her to be a conduit to the ambassador? As the Duchess embarked upon an account of hunting with her father as a child, Clara was starting to feel that way…

A little door at the far end of the chamber opened, and – quietly, unobtrusively – Lord Bernhardt slipped in.

‘Oh,’ said Clara. ‘I see.’

Guena smiled, and turned to her table where, Clara saw now, a third cup had been brought and set ready. As Bernhardt drew up a chair to join them, Guena poured him a drink, which he accepted gratefully. And now, it seemed, Guena was ready to talk business. ‘The last time we spoke, Clara,’ she said, ‘I asked whether you might help us.’

‘ “Us”, is it?’ Clara looked at Bernhardt. ‘You’re in this too?’

‘I am the servant of my Duchess,’ Bernhardt said quietly. ‘If that is what you are asking.’

Clara watched them look at each other. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I see. Us.’

Guena smiled. Bernhardt did not. In fact, he looked troubled. As well he might, thought Clara. She wasn’t sure what Aurelian would think if he discovered his chief confidant in here with his wife, but she doubted he would be pleased.

‘I’m going to be frank with you,’ said Clara, ‘because I think if we’re going to trust each other like this we need to be frank. But doesn’t it bother you that you’re betraying the Duke? Betraying your country? I mean, I’m not judging – it’s up to you and everything – but isn’t this a sort of treachery?’

Bernhardt, she saw, had gone very pale. But Guena was looking at her sharply. ‘I believe I have mentioned that the last duke was my father.’

Clara considered this significance of this for a moment. ‘Oh, I see,’ she said, as understanding came. ‘Stupid, isn’t it? If they’d put you in charge back then, it would probably have saved a whole lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?’

Softly, Bernhardt said, ‘We are in complete agreement, Clara.’ He looked at his Duchess with great love and admiration. ‘There is nobody better suited to the rule of his land than my lady. There is nobody who takes the fate of its people more to their heart. I serve the Duke, yes, but my heart is Guena’s, and she is the last hope of Varuz.’

‘Wow,’ breathed Clara at this encomium, and at the look that the two were giving each other, of equal parts great love and trust. ‘I hope someone talks like that about me one day. But explain something to me. Mikhail. Why didn’t he become Duke?’

Guena sighed. ‘He is the son of my younger sister. She, too, is long gone, taken from us much too early, as so many are these days. He was very young when my father died, barely walking. There was a chance of chaos at the death of my father, and this seemed the best arrangement until Mikhail was older.’ She looked troubled. ‘Perhaps on reflection we might have made better choices.’

‘Aurelian’s getting a bit above himself, isn’t he?’ said Clara. ‘Inheritance. It’s no way to run a government.’

Guena looked at her sternly, but Bernhardt, she saw, was amused.

‘Will you help us, Clara?’ he said. ‘You are someone who can pass unnoticed – but also you are someone who can speak to the ambassador independently. You have seen the straits we are in. Will you approach him on our behalf?’

Clara laughed. ‘Approach the representative of a foreign power, who is almost certainly being watched, in order to make overtures of peace that are arguably treasonous? What could possibly go wrong?’

Bernhardt reached for Guena’s hand. ‘The secrecy is abominable,’ he agreed, seriously. ‘It is corrosive. You have my sympathy.’

Clara felt ashamed about joking. These two people were living with this situation every day of their lives, and it was no laughing matter. She felt honoured that they were prepared to trust her. ‘I’ll speak to him,’ she said. ‘Of course I will.’

They were both palpably relieved. ‘You have our thanks – and, I hope, the thanks of the people of Varuz, if war can be prevented,’ said Guena. She turned to the table beside her and reached for a small box. Opening it, she took out a small pendant – a red jewel in an exquisite golden setting. ‘Here,’ she said and, reaching out, she fastened the pendant around Clara’s neck. ‘A token of our friendship.’

The light glinted off the facets of the red jewel. ‘It’s beautiful!’

‘It was made a long time ago,’ said Guena, ‘by a craftsman whose skills are long lost to us. The ancient powers of the royal and noble house are secrets that are now long gone. I wish I could give you something of my own making. But we only have what they left us.’

‘I’ll look after it,’ said Clara. ‘Thank you. And I’ll do all I can. I don’t know what that is – but I’ll do all I can.’

Guena and Bernhardt smiled at her, and then at each other. And Bernhardt rested his hand upon his lady’s, very lightly, and only for a moment.





Chapter

4




Bernhardt arranged for Clara to have access to the part of the palace where the ambassador had been quartered. ‘I can call the guards away quite easily,’ he said. ‘They will obey me. I will not be able to give you much time without arousing suspicion, however, so slip in, make your case quickly, and leave as soon as you can with whatever answer you get. If the ambassador seems willing to speak, we can arrange another meeting on another day. Speed is essential, and so is secrecy.’

He was as good as his word. When Clara went down to that wing of palace at the agreed hour, she found the way clear. She hurried down the corridor, and tapped lightly on the ambassador’s door. He took his time answering, and she found her herself drumming her fingers on the wood, whispering, ‘Come on…Come on…’

At last he opened the door. ‘Lady, um, Clara,’ he said in surprise. He looked past her, over her shoulder. ‘Are you here alone?’

‘Yes.’ Clara frowned. ‘What’s the problem?’

The ambassador pulled the belt on his dressing gown a little tighter. ‘I’m not sure that it’s…Well, you’re a young lady, and I’m not a young…Not in the least young when it comes to that…So what I mean is, is this entirely…What I suppose I mean to say is, there’s appropriate, and there’s, well, other, and I’m not sure I know which…Well!’

Clara was tempted to let him flail a while longer, but cruelty wasn’t in her nature, and time was of the essence. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, as she slipped past him into his room, and closed the door behind her. ‘You’re not my type.’ She nearly laughed when she saw his faintly indignant expression. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘we could probably keep going on like this, but I’ve not got much time. I’m here on behalf of…Well, let’s not go into details—’

‘That jewel you’re wearing,’ the ambassador said. ‘It’s very unusual.’

Clara, knocked slightly off her stride by this unexpected interruption, lifted up the pendant that Guena had given her. ‘What, this?’

‘Where did you, er…If you don’t mind me asking?’

‘It was a gift.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘From the Duchess.’

‘Ah,’ said the ambassador. ‘The Duchess. Very generous of her.’

‘They’re not really short of material possessions here, you know,’ Clara said. ‘Not when it comes to this kind of thing. Jewellery, and silver cups, and wall hangings – they’re getting a bit frayed, but there are plenty of them. But you can’t eat that kind of thing, can you, or mend clothes and wall hangings without new cloth, and so on and so on. They’re starting to suffer here. And that’s what I’m here about. To find out whether Conrad could lay off at all. Perhaps let a few merchants in over the mountains, or let some boats sail this way, every so often.’

She looked at the ambassador. He was still staring at her necklace.

‘Are you listening?’

‘Does it have any, er, special properties?’ said the ambassador.

‘Does it have any what?’

‘It’s hard to explain…Um. How can I explain…?’

‘It’s a necklace,’ said Clara, starting to lose patience. ‘Mostly it just hangs around my neck and looks pretty.’

‘Mostly?’ He was interested in that.

‘Figure of speech,’ said Clara. ‘Mostly as in “entirely”.’

‘Ah.’ The ambassador looked disappointed. ‘Never mind. Well, yes, thank you for coming, Lady, er, yes…Yes, thank you for coming…’

‘We’ve not talked yet!’ Clara exclaimed, but the ambassador was already manoeuvring her back towards the door. ‘I’ve got a whole speech to give you yet! There are people who want to reach out to you!’

‘No need, no need for any more…Yes, I understand. The usual business. People here want change. Asked you to ask me to speak to the, er…yes, Conrad…asked you to ask me to speak to Conrad on their behalf. And of course I will – absolutely I will! What else am I here for?’ He opened the door and all but shoved Clara out into the corridor. ‘No, no!’ he said loudly, for the benefit of anyone passing. ‘You want the next corridor, I believe! Yes, the next one!’

And the door was shut firmly in Clara’s face. ‘All right then,’ she said to the door. ‘I suppose that’s the job done.’ She looked quickly around her, but the corridor was clear, so she took advantage of her opportunity, and slipped back to her own rooms, where the Doctor was waiting.

‘And?’ he said, when she came in.

‘And he’s an odd one,’ Clara said. ‘Didn’t let me stay longer than a few minutes. I know I only intended to stay for a few minutes, but I’d rather it had been on my terms.’

‘It’s quite understandable,’ said the Doctor. ‘He’d be concerned for his mission if he was found talking behind Aurelian’s back. It might get him chucked out. So what did you say to him? What did he have to say?’

‘Not much on either side,’ Clara admitted. ‘Mostly what he wanted to talk about was this.’ She held up her pendant and the Doctor, seeming to notice it for the first time, ran his sonic screwdriver over the jewel, frowning as he did so. ‘It was like he was expecting it to shoot death rays at him. I’m not saying I’d turn down a necklace like that – that would be a real fashion statement, wouldn’t it? – but…’ She laughed. ‘Not very likely, is it?’

The Doctor was staring down at his sonic. ‘No?’

Clara touched the pendant carefully. ‘It won’t, will it?’

‘What, shoot death rays?’ He shook his head. ‘I shouldn’t think so.’

‘Good!’

The Doctor twisted the sonic round in his hand. ‘Although it might give you the odd electric shock.’

‘What!’ Clara grabbed the jewel and held it in the palm of her hand, looking at it suspiciously.

He tapped the sonic. ‘There’s some kind of energy emitting from it. Haven’t a clue what. Probably innocuous.’

‘Probably innocuous?’ Clara started to unclasp the thing. ‘That’s the kind of phrase which pops up in obituaries. “The rays, which had been thought probably innocuous, turned out to be flipping lethal.” ’

‘I’ll write you a better obituary than that, Clara, I promise. Hey!’ He reached out his hand. ‘Don’t take it off!’

‘I’m not wearing this! Energy emissions! Death rays!’

‘Death rays unproven,’ he said. ‘Besides, if the Duchess sees you’re not wearing it, she’ll be offended.’

‘If it’s so innocuous, you can wear it!’

The Doctor shook his head. ‘Oh, no. I’m not really one for—’

‘Yes,’ said Clara, ‘I know. Fripperies.’ She ran her finger along the jewel’s golden setting. Suddenly the pendant felt very heavy.

‘It’s safe, Clara,’ the Doctor said. ‘I promise. But we’ve learned one thing – the ambassador is as interested in the technology of Varuz as I am. I wonder why. You know, there’s a lot that doesn’t add up there…’ He frowned. ‘You noticed earlier that Guena stopped Aurelian before he talked too much about the objects around the palace.’

‘Yes, I noticed that.’ Clara frowned. ‘What? Do you think Guena is double-crossing us?’

‘No,’ said the Doctor. ‘I believe she wants peace – or, rather, that she doesn’t want war. But I don’t think she’s told us everything. The Duchess has a great deal more up her sleeve, I’m sure of that. Perhaps that’s part of what the ambassador has been sent to find out – exactly what’s left over here from their glory days. What the people of Varuz have tucked up their sleeves beyond electric light and fancy swords.’

And necklaces that came with built-in death rays. Clara went to bed (the necklace lay on a table beside her) thinking over what the Doctor had said. She slept well, despite their discussion, which was fortunate, as it was the last night’s sleep she was to have in a comfortable bed for quite some time. The next morning, she and the Doctor were woken early by a hammering on the door to their chambers. The palace guard was there, summoning them to come before the Duke – and they didn’t look very friendly.

—

I came to the Great Hall as quickly as I could, running through the palace, but slowing to a walk before entering the hall itself. Nothing would be served by allowing the court to see the Duke’s chief adviser in a state of panic. When I reached the hall I beheld a sight that I had long dreaded that I might witness: Lord Mikhail, between armed guards, standing before my lord. I saw the Doctor too, off to one side, with Lady Clara beside him. He gestured to me to join them, and I slipped quietly around the hall, my eyes on Mikhail all the while. ‘Use your sense, lad,’ I murmured to myself. ‘Use those wits you have inherited from your grandsire. And do not lie to him. He will know – and it will only make him angry…’ So thinking, I reached the Doctor.

But Mikhail, it seemed, still believed that he could conceal whatever plans he had made. ‘This is a dreadful accusation, sir, and I deny it. Have I not served you loyally? Have I not obeyed you in all things, as a child growing up within your court, and now, as a man, as one of your knights? My Lord Duke, how could you believe me capable of a treachery such as this?’

‘Hold your tongue, lad,’ I muttered, for I could see upon his face, and in his closing fists, the signals that my lord Duke was about to lose his temper.

‘Do you think I am a fool?’ Aurelian said. ‘You were seen! People saw you in that part of the palace!’

Mikhail drew a breath. ‘Then it seems that they misunderstood, sir,’ he said and, for a moment, I wondered whether he was telling the truth. His strategy was, otherwise, going to be ruinous, should Aurelian have proof of his disloyalty. ‘Yes, I was in that part of that palace, but no meeting happened—’

‘Liar!’ Aurelian said. ‘You were seen leaving his rooms!’

Ah, so he was caught then, the young lord. Poor lad; his face went deathly white. My instinct, as ever, was to protect him – but before I could step forwards to speak my piece, the Doctor, who must have seen me move, put his hand upon my arm to restrain me. ‘Wait,’ he murmured. ‘Mikhail has made his decision, and must be allowed to take his own course. It’s long past time he was allowed to be his own man.’

And indeed the young lord was gathering himself together, and I could see that he was no longer cowed. To Aurelian, he said, ‘You have been spying on me.’

‘With justification,’ said the Duke.

‘A dishonourable act, sir.’

‘To deal with a dishonourable man.’ Aurelian shook his head. ‘After all that I have done for you!’

Mikhail’s eyes blazed. Now, truly, I saw his ancestry. How much he looked like his grandsire then! ‘Done for me? How dare you! You dispossessed me! You took my seat – this seat, the ancient dukedom of Varuz! You took it for your own, and then you blamed me for mistrusting you! Ever since I was a boy, you have watched me as if I was a viper in the nest—’

‘With reason, boy!’ Aurelian snapped back. ‘I knew you would prove faithless – and so it has turned out.’

‘You’re a fool, sir,’ Mikhail said, coldly. ‘And if it were only your own ruin you were causing, I would not care. But you have brought Varuz to the brink of destruction, and you do not listen when your knights try to tell you that your strategies are madness! I have nothing to lose, for you have stolen it all from me, so I will have my say now! We cannot defeat Conrad in open war! But even at this late hour we can still make a peace that will let something of Varuz survive—’

Suddenly, Aurelian drew his sword. The light that was contained within blazed forth. ‘Mikhail,’ he said. ‘I strip you of your titles. I strip you of your rank. And I banish you henceforth from all lands under my rule. Leave Varuz.’

There were gasps from around the hall. Clara, watching the young man blanch, stepped forwards and said, ‘You can’t do that! That’s not fair! He’s trying to stop you from getting everyone killed!’

But Aurelian had barely begun his day’s work. He turned on Clara. ‘I know you’re in league,’ he said. ‘You, him, and the other one.’ He pointed towards the ambassador, who was standing by the wall, trying to make himself invisible. Yes, I recognise that strategy when I see it, for I have used it often myself. ‘Conrad’s vassal,’ Aurelian said. ‘Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think I am not lord of this hall? Your meetings have not gone unnoticed.’ He turned to the ambassador. ‘There isn’t a dungeon deep enough in which to imprison you.’ He looked back at Clara. ‘Nor you, lady.’

‘Er, Doctor,’ muttered Clara, ‘I’m not liking the sound of this…’

Aurelian, eyes flashing, turned upon the Doctor. ‘Yes, and you – I trusted you, above all! Did you know about all this?’

The Doctor was looking at him with unveiled contempt. ‘Oh, for the love of…Will you sit down, man! Don’t be such a fool!’

‘A fool!’

I thought that things were about to take a very evil turn, but then the Duchess rose from her seat. Now I knew I must step forwards, and even as I did so, I felt the Doctor’s hand upon my arm, trying to restrain me. ‘Guena!’ I cried out. ‘No—!’ But too late.

‘Enough,’ she said. ‘This must stop.’ She turned to her husband. ‘Aurelian, if you banish these people, you must banish me. For I am the architect of this conspiracy.’

—

It felt to Clara as if the Duchess of Varuz had suddenly revealed all her power. Yes, she had known that Guena was intelligent, and shrewd, and that the woman commanded great respect from the people around her but, watching her now, Clara thought that so far she had been allowed to see only a little of Guena’s strength. Her admiration for the Duchess only increased when Guena spoke. She could have left them all to cover for her, Clara thought – and they would have done. She, and Bernhardt, and Mikhail – they would not have revealed who had asked them to approach the ambassador. But she had not let them take the fall.

‘Yes, Aurelian,’ she said. ‘The young woman, Clara, went to speak to the ambassador at my request. If you are to imprison anyone, sir, then you must imprison me.’

Aurelian stared at her, utterly wrong-footed. His anger had completely dissipated and now he looked devastated. Clara had to feel sorry for him. ‘Guena?’ he said. ‘What do you mean?’

The Duchess rested one hand, heavy with rings, upon his arm. ‘Aurelian,’ she said. ‘Listen to me, now. There has been no battle, but already we are all but defeated. We are all but lost. You want to take us to war – but if there is war, that will be the end. There will be no more Varuz. If you bring war to Conrad, he will not hold back. He will make an example of us that will never be forgotten upon this green world.’ She looked at the ambassador, cowering against the wall. ‘If you kill this man, if you harm him or even, I think, if you shame him – you will bring that anger down upon us. You will bring about our end. Send him home, if you must, but let him go unmolested. And, sir,’ she said, lifting her voice and addressing the ambassador directly, ‘tell your master that the Duchess of Varuz remembers herself to him, and that she asks him to remember her, and believe her when she says that she hopes that they will meet again upon this green world in happier days, as friends, and not as enemies.’

Aurelian was standing in thought, head bowed. He turned to the ambassador and, in quieter tones, said, ‘Leave. Go back to your master. Take my lady’s message to him. And…take the girl.’

At a nod from Aurelian, guards began to move towards Clara. ‘Doctor,’ she said, uneasily, ‘what’s going on? “The girl”? Does he mean me? Go where?’

The Doctor, however, she could see, was thinking – quickly, and hard. He put his hand upon Clara’s shoulder, and pushed her towards the ambassador. ‘Go with him,’ he said. ‘Go with him now.’

‘What?’

‘War’s coming, Clara, whatever the Duchess thinks her message might do. But you’ll be safe with the ambassador.’

‘I don’t want to be safe!’

‘Don’t underestimate it—’

‘Doctor!’

‘Clara…’ He leaned in, grasping her arm, firmly but kindly, and he spoke very quietly. ‘Listen to me. Yes, I want you to be safe. Don’t blame me for that. But there’s something else. You’ve got a job to do now – don’t you see? An important job, perhaps the most important one there is right now. Go with the ambassador. Go with him to Conrad…’

‘Oh,’ Clara breathed. ‘Yes, I see.’

‘Yes, yes, I knew you would!’ The Doctor smiled, and pressed her shoulder. ‘Get yourself to Conrad. Explain that you’re not from Varuz, that you’re a visitor, but in the time you’ve been here you’ve got to know the place and its people, and you know they want peace. And,’ he nodded towards the ambassador, ‘stick with him. There’s something else going on there and I want to know what. Find out for me.’

The guards were drawing closer, hands upon the hilts of their swords.

‘Is that enough to be getting on with, Clara? Unsafe enough for you?’

‘Doctor,’ she said, ‘how do I contact you? I could end up miles away—’

‘Don’t worry!’ he said. ‘We’ll find a way!’

The nearest of the guards gestured to Clara that she should follow. ‘All right! All right!’ she said. ‘I’m coming!’

The Doctor gave her one last encouraging squeeze on the arm, and then she and the ambassador were led away. As she left the hall, she looked back over her shoulder, to see Aurelian turn to Bernhardt.

‘And you, sir,’ Aurelian said. ‘I believe you are more caught up in this than I would like.’ Suddenly, Aurelian looked crushed, and old. ‘Bernhardt,’ he said, ‘you too? My old friend. My brother. How could you?’

—

I realised, as I stood before Aurelian, that I had always expected it to come to this. I had long feared that my duplicity would at some point be brought into the open, and that I would be called upon to account for my betrayal. For myself, I cared little, and my chief concern now was to protect the honour of my lady. If I was to be thrown to the wolves, Guena was not to be ruined with me. Varuz would need her fearlessness when the end came. I, meanwhile, was dispensable. So, yes, I had imagined this scene many times in the dark watches of the night; I had prepared myself, and I had believed, after such long practice, that I could face it with equanimity. What I had not prepared myself for was what would happen next. How could I? None of us could have guessed what was to happen next, not even the Doctor.

To understand why the next events had such great impact, you must understand the extent to which we were in disarray. News had passed swiftly around the city of Mikhail’s exposure, of the ambassador’s shaming, of Lady Clara’s banishment. Those lords and knights who had not already been at the palace had hurried to see what turn these events would take next. Almost the whole court was there to see me stand before Aurelian and try to justify myself to him.

‘Lord,’ I said, and opened out my hands in supplication. ‘I will deny nothing. The Duchess came to me, it is true, to ask for advice – but she found me a keen listener, and one who urged her forward in her attempts to contact the ambassador and try for peace.’ Behind me, I could hear the assembled court, holding its collective breath, waiting to see what Aurelian would do in the face of this frank confession. ‘I will not lie to you, Aurelian,’ I said, and I saw him flinch at the use of his name. ‘We are falling apart. We must do something, or else this city and its people will be gone before the end of this year. I could not see that anything was being done. So I took it upon myself to act—’

‘You took it upon yourself,’ Aurelian said, very quietly, and for one brief second I feared for my life. Behind me, too, I heard the court murmur and whisper, as if certain that the order for my execution was close at hand.

And then everything changed.

No herald announced their arrival. No silver trumpets sounded to accompany their way through the streets to our palace. No sign had been given or message conveyed to the Duke to say that they approached. No, it was as if they were not there – and then they were there.

A company of thirty knights, and their captain. Grave knights, and grim, heavily armoured, their tabards richly coloured with strange devices. Their faces were hidden behind the great masks of their helmets, the flesh of their hands was hidden behind great gloves. For the merest moment, I did not believe that anything alive inhabited those suits of armour – and then the knights moved, and marched through the hall.

They came forwards in complete silence other than the pounding of their boots, and that silence spread. All our quarrels ceased. Reaching Aurelian, they came to a halt, lining up, five rows of six, and their captain towards the front. He wore the same armour and the same devices as the others, but his helmet bore a red crest.

Beside me, I heard the Doctor muttering to himself. I saw him slip his hand into his pocket, and he drew forth a short, thin piece of metal, as long as a dagger, perhaps, but not sharpened to a blade. This he cupped to hide within his hand. I heard a low humming sound, like bees might make on a summer’s day, and the Doctor continued talking to himself. ‘Mechanical?’ he said. ‘Not mechanical? No, no, hard to tell…What are they?’

Their captain stepped forward. I saw the palace guards move to protect their Duke, but Aurelian halted them with one quick movement of his hand. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘you bring a strange company into our midst. Who are you, sir?’

The captain of the company removed his helmet.

That face…

Never have I seen the like in all my long years upon this green world. Great beauty, mixed with great age, and, above all, an almost overwhelming weariness.

‘Good lord of this hall,’ he said, with courtesy. ‘And the brave knights gathered here. My name is Lancelot. I come here from a city named Ravenna.’

‘Sir,’ said Aurelian. ‘You and your company are welcome to my hall.’ He looked upon the knight in wonder. ‘But what brings you here? What is your mission amongst us?’

‘Sir,’ said Lancelot, ‘In the name of Arthur the King, the Duke of Britain, I seek the Holy Grail.’

I saw the Doctor’s face, and I heard his muttered oath, and I knew that he was utterly taken by surprise. And that – more than the fear of exposure, more than the presence of these grim and terrible knights – that above all was what made me afraid.





Chapter

5




In the days that followed, I found myself travelling with this captain, Lord Lancelot, and his company of knights on a journey that took us into the wild. When men travel together, and particularly in a time of war, they learn much about each other: they learn what makes others laugh and weep; they learn the farthest reaches of their courage; they see the very worst and the very best of each other. But I learned little of Lancelot and his men beyond what I saw then. They did not laugh. They did not weep. They sought the Grail, whatever that might be, and, when it came to that quest, their tenacity was boundless. Beyond that, however, there was nothing. They might have been empty suits of armour for all that they felt the sorrow of life, aye, and its joy.

For now, however, they were a mystery, even to the one amongst us who seemed to know something of them. ‘Who is this knight, Doctor?’ I whispered. ‘Do you know him?’

‘Know him?’ he hissed back. ‘How can I know him? Lancelot and the Grail are a story!’

‘They appear in no story that I know, Doctor,’ I said, with confidence, for although I was no scholar, I was as learned as a man can be in such a time, when the trials and perils of border war leave little time for study or reflection.

‘Not from here,’ he said. ‘They’re from Clara’s world – but the point is that they didn’t exist. Yes, parts of that story were true, but not Lancelot of the Lake and the Grail Quest. They were invented centuries later. In fact, the last time I met anyone claiming to be the Knights of King Arthur they turned out to be from another dimension.’

‘And Ravenna?’

‘A city. Quite a beautiful one too. A capital, at one point.’

‘On Clara’s world,’ I said, for I had not failed to notice this, and I had marked too that he had not claimed Clara’s world as his own.

He gave me a steady look. ‘That’s right,’ he said, offering no more.

We studied each other for a moment or two, and then I turned the matter aside, for there was enough to consider beyond what this might imply. ‘Invention or not these knights are assuredly here now,’ I said.

‘I can see that!’ the Doctor snapped. ‘I bet they’re conmen,’ he muttered. ‘Yes, that’ll be it. There are a lot of conmen out there, trying to pinch people’s Crown Jewels.’

I looked at Aurelian. A light seemed to be shining from him as he stood before Lancelot. ‘My lord Duke is much impressed.’

And indeed it was hard to think of a welcome as lavish as the one Aurelian gave to this company then. I wonder if perhaps this, in part, is what caused the Doctor’s dismay. Barely two days had passed since Aurelian had been greeting him with smiles and full honour. And now he was forgotten. Yet I could see why Aurelian’s affections had transferred. For while the Doctor was compelling – and indeed he remained so to me, as strong and fierce as metal – yet against these knights something of his allure was diminished. His austerity and directness were nothing beside their mystery and glamour, and these were qualities that appealed to Aurelian. For myself, I would always take the strength of steel above the glitter of gold.

‘Come now,’ said Aurelian to Lancelot. ‘Sit upon my chair. Tell me about your journeys, and this Grail which you seek.’

‘Go on,’ said the Doctor. ‘Tell him all about it. I dare you.’

Lancelot turned his head to look at the Doctor, barely registering his presence before turning away again to Aurelian. ‘It is a long story, and much of it is lost in the mists of time.’

Again, Aurelian gestured to his seat. ‘Sit, sir,’ he said. ‘I would hear all about it.’

And Lancelot sat, slowly, as if his old bones had forgotten how to be at rest, and he remained upright in the seat, as if he might depart at a moment’s notice, should his quest demand. Resting his gloved hands upon his knees, he opened his mouth to speak.

‘Oh,’ muttered the Doctor, ‘this should be worth hearing.’

And indeed we heard a great tale then, a tale of marvels, of the man who had been king and would be king once again; of that king’s battles against his invaders; of his fair court and his circle of knights, and their great quest. And there they were, this company, and they stood silent and helmeted throughout all this long tale.

‘And here we are,’ said Lancelot, at last. ‘Here we are. We seek the greatest treasure, lord. We seek the Holy Grail.’

Aurelian was looking at him with great wonder and love upon his face. ‘I have never heard these tales before. How could that be? What strange world fashioned you, wanderer? Where could you come from?’

‘Yes,’ said the Doctor. ‘I think I’d like to know that too.’

‘I have come,’ said Lancelot, ‘from a land beyond the black of night. I have come from a land more distant than all the stars that you can see in your heavens.’

Aurelian gave a deep sigh of loss and longing. ‘A land beyond the stars,’ he said. ‘They say our forefathers, at their high point, walked amongst the stars.’

Guena, sitting beside Lancelot, started. ‘They say many things about our forefathers, my lord. Only some are true. Many are fantasies – or desires.’

‘And much has been concealed,’ said Aurelian, sharply, before turning back to Lancelot. ‘But this Grail,’ he said. ‘I have not heard enough about this. Tell me about it.’

‘An object of great beauty and power,’ Lancelot replied. ‘The vessel which contained the blood of the redeemer. A symbol of perfection and of life beyond death.’

‘Yes, yes…!’ Aurelian was rapt. ‘Such a symbol would be a great gift to the finder…’

The Doctor stepped forwards. ‘Except this is all made up, isn’t it?’ Even to me, who was his greatest ally in this court, his voice sounded harsh and unwelcome. ‘None of it’s true. Oh yes, there was a King Arthur,’ he said, ‘or someone close enough. King would be pushing it. He was a warlord, in a time of failure and collapse.’ He looked pointedly at Aurelian. ‘They called him a Duke, too. He was someone who took the job because there was no one else left to do it. But there wasn’t a Grail. There wasn’t a Lancelot. All that was made up. No, it’s worse than that. It was all made up by the French.’

‘Doctor,’ I said, softly.

He span round to look at me. ‘What?’

‘Look to the court,’ I said, for there was much anger and muttering at this speech. ‘This does not help your cause.’

‘Then it should,’ he said. ‘This is the help you need. All of this,’ he gestured round, taking in Lancelot and the company, ‘isn’t what it seems. There is something else going on, I’ll bet you every single jewel in this palace.’ He turned to Lancelot. ‘So what’s the con? You can’t really believe the Grail is here?’

‘This is where the quest has brought us,’ Lancelot replied, and I was struck at how uncaring he was at the Doctor’s assault upon him. It was not that he was being patient, or attempting to curry his favour. He simply did not care.

‘How?’ said the Doctor. ‘What’s made you believe that? Was there a story? A map? Did you talk to a Sphinx or an Oracle? Or did you pull the idea out of your own addled brains, because I am telling you – you will not find the Holy Grail here. You’ll not find it anywhere. Because it doesn’t exist.’

Aurelian stepped forwards. ‘Be silent, Doctor! Your part in the conspiracy against me is not yet clear.’ Turning to Lancelot, he said, ‘I believe you, sir. You are clearly a knight of great lineage and honour. And I am the Duke here. I command.’ Then he turned to face the hall, addressed his own knights, filling the space with his loud clear voice. ‘Hear me now, noble lords of Varuz. At the very moment of our defeat, we have been offered a second chance. This Grail is an object of great power. It could be our salvation. Therefore I ask you now, who amongst you loves his lord and his land enough to seek this Grail? Who will join this company on their quest?’

If I have given thus far the impression of weakness on Aurelian’s part, this is only because I have been speaking of his latter days. There was a reason we had chosen him for the Dukedom, however. At the height of his powers he had the gift of rallying people, of bringing them to him, of giving them heart.

Alas, those days were long gone for Aurelian. Now a dreadful silence met his call to action. All of us, his knights, I saw, were looking elsewhere, at anything or anyone but him.

‘What?’ he cried. ‘Is there nobody here who will meet this challenge?’

And it seemed that there was not. We were at odds with one another, unless something could be found to unite us…

—

The guards allowed Clara to detour briefly past her rooms to change from her gown into something more suitable for travelling, and to pack some items for the journey. Then she was hurried to the palace gates. The ambassador was already there, with the same grey-haired knight, who, with Lord Mikhail, had taken Clara and the Doctor to the palace on their first day. When Clara arrived, the knight addressed her and the ambassador in formal terms.

‘By the order of Aurelian, Duke of the Most Ancient, Serene, and Noble State of Varuz, you are required to leave the lands beneath his rule by sunrise, under penalty of death—’

‘All right, all right,’ said Clara, ‘we’ve got the idea. And banishing us is all very well, and I’ve every intention of doing what I’m told, but I’m a stranger to these parts. Which way do we go? And how do we get past Conrad’s men? Aren’t they guarding all the routes out?’

The knight took pity on her. ‘The road runs along the river, and will take you to the foothills of the mountains. When the river bends away from the road, follow its course. You will find the mountain path. This is the quickest way to the border. As for Conrad’s men…’ He shook his head. ‘There I cannot help you, and you must throw yourself upon the mercy of your travelling companion, should he travel the whole way with you. And to both of you, I would say – beware of bandits in the mountains. This land is not as lawful as it was.’

‘Bandits,’ said Clara. ‘Great. Any chance we could borrow one of those laser-swords? No,’ she said, when the man smiled and shook his head. ‘I didn’t think there was.’

And then it was time to go. The guards led them through the city gates, and watched them as they went on their way. The journey was smooth at first, the road so near the city being in relatively good repair, although as the morning went on, more cracks appeared in the great flat upper stones, revealing the gravel beneath. In places, the road was no better than a muddy path.

The ambassador proved not much of a conversationalist, which made the walk rather dreary. Still, Clara didn’t blame him; he must not be looking forward to returning home to report the complete failure of his mission. He seemed to want to delay their journey too: stopping all of a sudden to stray off the path to examine some old building as they passed – an abandoned cottage, or a tumbledown wall, or some other piece of broken stone that grabbed his attention.

As the day wore on, civilisation, such it was, fell completely away from them. The river ran on beside them, rushing back towards the city, and ahead the mountains began to loom large. At last they reached the place where the roa