Hi everyone! First of all, I'm so so sorry about the time it took me to update - I had a vicious case of writer's block :(
I'd like to thank most sincerely anyone who's still waiting for this chapter and especially thank Starlite1, k8ec, FireSenshi2, zed and yogurt for their awesome reviews.
This chapter is dedicated to OperaGoose and PrincessNala for their continuous support and awesomely-long reviews that always end up making me grin like an idiot - I love you guys 3
This story is technically complete, but if you have any request for an epilogue, something you'd like to see resolved, don't hesitate to ask, I might add a few snipets if anything inspires me! Or you know, write a sequel, if it inspires me a lot. I'm certainly not denying this possibility.
As always, this strange tension. It shivered through the room, curdled along his spine, whispered inaudibly of battlefields he had never seen and never thought he'd want to see.
"I trust you've found your quarters to be to your convenience?"
Except for the Princess's warning about the dangers she thought herself to be in, they hadn't talked alone since the delegation's arrival.
"Quite. I particularly appreciate the effort made in ensuring my tranquillity; those quarters are wonderfully isolated, I dare say I've rarely slept as peacefully at home as I have those last few nights."
Torches and candles had already been lit up for an hour in the castle, and in their vacillating light the circles that even the best-applied powder couldn't hide seemed deeper than ever under the Princess's eyes.
"This I am glad to hear. I hope the meals you've chosen to have here have been just as satisfactory and taken in the same quietude."
"Indeed. I think my maid, Lady Sarah, would join me in saying we've been spoilt with feasts every time we sent for even the simplest collation."
"Lady Sarah is settling in fine as well, then? I understand such a change in ventures can destabilise even the sturdiest soul."
"Oh, she has. Thank you for your concern, but truly as my companion and friend of many years she's certainly used to my shenanigans by now. I never had any doubt that she'd stay as calm and steadfast as always in the new and exciting circumstances of this union."
"I'm sorry that inflexible traditions will keep her from participating to the two main feasts from as close as you'd perhaps prefer, but I assure you she'll enjoy the table she'll be sat at. I've also noticed you haven't brought any secondary taster with you, so I've taken the liberty of assigning you one of ours for the two evenings of the ceremony."
A long blink was the only visible indication of what Mycroft was already aware of; Princess Adler hadn't known of every tradition surrounding a royal marriage in Baker Kingdom.
"I'm certain this will be just fine, King Mycroft. Thank you very much for your solicitude this evening. If you will excuse my rudeness, however, I believe it's getting late, and I have much to do before I can rest."
They both nodded as the King took his leave from his fiancée, acknowledging what they hadn't said and yet both perfectly heard. Usually impeccably observant, Mycroft didn't notice as he left that his hand had curled the slightest bit, as if holding an invisible chess pawn.
The wedding was to be held on the morrow, and John mostly felt relieved. For the past week, ever since he had woken up on Sherlock's bed to find the Prince at his bedside, Sherlock had behaved in a way John would have dubbed as overprotective if he had been describing anyone else. Sherlock certainly didn't hover or even asked about his health, but he rarely left his knight alone and never when anyone else visited, only leaving to further investigate the events that had led to John's poisoning – or at least John supposed that's what he was doing, having not been put in the confidence in spite of his many queries.
John had pretty much been confined to his rooms by Ella, barring a daily hour-long walk they generally used to visit Lestrade so Sherlock could torture the man a little, in spite of John's efforts to make him lay off the long-suffering Captain who seemed more and more strained as the wedding approached – John could only suppose securing the castle in those conditions was nearly impossible. The main consequence of his confinement was that the Prince Was Bored. John had quickly learnt, after finding all the too-soft pillows of the princely bed clinically hacked to pieces by a masterfully-wielded sword, that this was generally a bad thing.
He had tried to make Sherlock take interest in a game of chess; Sherlock had beaten him in five minutes and sighed a little in the way that meant he honestly pitied most of humanity for not having his brain because it had to be so boring. He had then made the Prince play without four of his main pieces; he had been checkmated in less than half-an-hour. He had finally forced Sherlock to sit with his back to the chessboard and announce aloud where his pieces should be set, which had amused him for about an afternoon as he beat John three more times.
Then the next morning he had taken four of the beautifully-carved white pawns and made them suffer a tragic demise in a truly horrific chemical experiment, and John had understood why the page he had asked for the board had been so hesitant about entrusting it to him.
He had even asked Lady Hudson to give them the pleasure of her company for a cup of tea, but while watching her interact with the boy she had almost raised and reminisce on a few childhood anecdotes about the two brothers had been fascinating, her well-meant cooing over his still-tired form and the disapproving glances she had shot at their untidy bedchambers had left him too exhausted to want to repeat the experience anytime soon.
Almost as a last resort he had tried to engage Sherlock in what had to be the main topic of conversation everywhere in the castle outside their rooms, wondering aloud which type of financial and military bond for the two Kingdoms would be announced by the new couple as they took their vows and rejoicing in the idea of eating the traditional rich fare at the feast. Sherlock had first raised a brow at his extensive knowledge about traditional bonds before enjoining him to stop "trying to fill his mind with useless information" and engaging in a truly bewildering explanation (somehow including attics) of why he certainly couldn't afford to remember just how many days a royal ceremony was supposed to last (five, although two were considered as the heart of the ritual) or the ingredients in the traditional soup that would be served on the day of the official bonding (even though he did raise his head when he heard John talking about Ellebora leaves, especially as the knight explained only the royal table was served the soup containing the potentially poisonous plant, laying it back down when he heard the recipe included no more than a single symbolic leaf).
It would have probably been better for the two of them if John had made Sherlock admit that the danger John was in was pretty minor and that he could leave their chambers without risking finding his knight a corpse when he returned – he was pretty sure that he could have convinced Sherlock, had he really tried. He had been held back, however, by the truly distressed look Sherlock sported every time he even brought up the idea; somehow John suspected that there was more to this than a need to make sure he was safe, but he couldn't think of anything that'd make the other man feel insecure and desirous to spend all his spare time in his company.
He had finally, a last resort, suggested Sherlock read to him – the Prince had few books in his room but they were well-thumbed, showing that he did have some interest in literature. Sherlock had shot him an unreadable look before agreeing, seizing a large opus and starting to read aloud. John was honest enough to admit that the experience was pleasant, to say the least – Sherlock's voice was compelling at any time, and hearing him slowly enunciate words he couldn't understand was definitively…invigorating.
"Si on me presse de dire pourquoi je l'aimais, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer qu'en répondant: «Parce que c'était lui, parce que c'était moi.»"
It also made him curious.
"This is not Latin. Nor Greek."
Sherlock sent the quicksilver of his smile in John's direction.
"One of the modern written languages. The philosophers' latest works reflect our societies' change, John. The written word finally transcribes what our languages have become and the frontier between the analphabetic crowd and the man of letter is slowly but surely thinning. We're heading towards a new world – and soon enough every child will be taught how to read."
John was more than a little surprised – Sherlock had always seemed totally apolitical and for him to show this amount of interest for anything else than his chemical experiments was unusual to say the least.
"What does it mean, then? What you just read?"
Sherlock absently let his fingers run on the yellowed page before him, obviously searching for an exact-enough translation.
"If I am to tell why I loved him, I feel it could only be expressed by answering "Because it was him, because it was me." The…friendship between Montaigne and La Boétie is said by many to have been legendary." Sherlock looked right at him then and John had to turn away from the piercing gaze; when he finally found it in himself to look back at the Prince, Sherlock had turned his attention back to the large opus in his hands and started reading aloud once more.
Surprisingly this latest activity seemed to interest the Prince enough to make sure that he'd stay still for the rest of the afternoon and John soon relaxed in the armchair he had dragged by the fire, the unknown words forming a strange melody as Sherlock kept reading. He never saw the Prince's brow unwillingly relax from the concentrated frown it had settled in as he raised his head from his book to find John fast asleep, never heard him quietly lay the tome aside and cross the room to leave, never felt the touch of the three fingertips Sherlock had let brush his forehead for a mere second.
Three hours later, when John woke up, the Prince was nowhere to be seen; nonetheless, inexplicably, he felt better-rested than he had in almost a week.
Sherlock certainly didn't share his brother's disdain for what Mycroft called "leg-work" with a particularly regal twist of his lips; the thrill of the chase was one of the headiest sensations he knew of, just after the extremely satisfying moment when all the clues just clicked into place to reveal the solution to a case. He had nonetheless refused to resort to such measures until now, certain his skills would allow him to shed light on the matter of John's poisoning without leaving their rooms, something he found himself inexplicably reluctant to do since his knight had been attacked and Mycroft hat "reminded" him the two months they had been allowed were coming to an end.
It was ungracefully that he had finally admitted to himself that the answer to this particular mystery eluded him, but admit it he had – and that's why he was now very carefully following the traces of Colonel Moran in the forest outside the south side of the castle, aware even as he cautiously made his way on the well-trodden path the man had created in the last two weeks that he might well be – oh, the indignity – walking into a trap.
Sherlock had acknowledged that the results of this risky endeavour would probably be disappointing; the forest wasn't sufficiently thick to allow him to follow Moran from close enough to be able to distinctly see the man receive his instructions through a message carried by man or bird or to listen to any eventual conversations. Yet when his prey turned around and went back to the castle without having made any effort to contact anyway he felt his fingers curl themselves slightly in frustration. He was reasonably certain Moran hadn't known he was being tailed, and the familiarity the Colonel had with the path showed that this was indeed where he had been going every morning and every evening in the past two weeks. It may very well have been that Sherlock was merely unlucky – Moriarty only contacted his agent occasionally and Moran went everyday to avoid suspicion or because he ignored when he'd need to be in the forest.
Nonetheless a half-formed thought niggled at him, the feeling that there was something he had forgotten, a precious detail he had ignored; every time he sought to seize the illusive idea, it escaped him once more, until he was filled with the kind of vague frustration he usually let escape through sword-training. His training partner being unavailable – and here Sherlock carefully disregarded the fact he had managed to train for 21 years before meeting John – he headed to their rooms once more. Certainly watching his knight trying to find a way to entertain him and thus curb his most destructive tendencies was amusing enough to help him unwind.
As a knight, even a temporary one, John was supposed to be allowed to sit down and enjoy his meal. As Sherlock's recently-poisoned knight, however, he had to stand very near his Master, basically once more assuring the duties of a manservant and sending wry little glances to Sarah, who had actually been allowed to seat for the main feasts – someone else was apparently in charge of serving and testing the food of Princess Adler. He couldn't feel too resentful, however, mainly because he knew the Prince had tried to make King Mycroft let him join the royal table and because he had feared for a moment the King would accommodate his brother's latest fancy; having to stand for a few hours was much less unpleasant than actually sitting at the aforementioned table and having everyone staring at you.
Standing where he was, slightly in the shadows, let him observe the festivities, the complex tension that seemed to emanate from the newly-bound couple, Captain Lestrade's apparently involuntary glances towards their King as he stood a few feet away from the table on guard duty (perhaps John had been hasty in assuming it was the weight of his duty that had preoccupied him those past days) and Sherlock's ostensibly-bored face or, when the Prince forgot himself, inquisitive looks thrown at any element that could appear to be out-of-place.
It also meant that he was one of the first to reach Princess Adler's side when she turned extremely pale and softly slumped over the side of her throne, her knife clattering harmlessly on the floor.
The sound was a growl rather than a word as the Regent of Bohemia surged to his feet, standing protectively over the body of the fallen Princess, drawing up his sword and pointing it at King Mycroft, Prince Sherlock The Freak and the Prince's knight in a smooth movement that belied his age.
Sally, who had spent most of the feast hoping for it to be over soon so that she could rest her feet a little and eat her share of the food, discretely stepped in sudden interest towards the royal table in order to see the scene better.
"Please, Lord Astair." The King's voice immediately resonated. "I understand your panic, but please consider that on the eve of an alliance that would have strengthened both our Kingdoms, neither my brother nor I would have had any reason to harm the Princess. Please stay back, so that my Physician may examine Princess Irene."
Lord Astair reluctantly stepped back as the Royal Physician quickly knelt near the Princess but didn't draw back his sword, throwing wild accusing glances to anyone who'd meet his eyes and not ceasing in his vituperations.
"The only thing I know is that her taster is fine and you're the only two who had access to her plate! Logic has nothing to do with poisoning, and while I may believe you wouldn't do such a thing, I'm afraid I can't say the same of your brother! Rumours of his singularity have reached even the Kingdom of Bohemia, and his behaviour as we stayed there hasn't caused me to trust him much – his conspicuous absence in much of the wedding preparations led me to think he begrudges our Kingdoms this ceremony, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised to discover his resentment had finally made him abandon the little sanity he had!"
"He has a point there." Was murmured in her ear, and Sally startled a little before turning to see Anderson had apparently abandoned his post by the main door to see what the commotion was about. If the poisoner's goal was to throw the castle into chaos, she reflected wryly, their methods were certainly efficient.
"Keep your trap shut and let me listen – this is getting interesting." She ordered, shivering just the slightest as that made him chuckle against her neck.
Sherlock showed no outward reaction whatsoever, even as he almost heard the last part of the trap that had been slowly enclosing on them click into place, when Lord Astair gave voice to the suspicions his confident had patiently nurtured in him in the last weeks, or perhaps months. Their opponent had finally showed his hand, and his move was a bold one – a poisoning that ignored her taster to touch the Princess only, a poison which had found its way to a plate resting between Mycroft's and his without them noticing anything.
He only emerged from his thoughts in order to hear his brother proclaiming he was certain Sherlock was innocent and encouraging Lord Astair to let them study the circumstances of the attack. The chaos that reigned supreme in the heavily-decorated room allowed for nothing that could be called an investigation but he could hear the main cook, immediately sought by an astute guard – Atkins? Hopkins? – whose face Sherlock memorized simply because anything other than total incompetence among the Guards deserved a notice, wailing about the quality of the ingredients and especially of the symbolic Ellebora leaf John had mentioned the soup contained – a dry leaf would have indeed been slightly more potent than a fresh one, but anyway even then it would have done no damage. The Princess's taster had been brought forward as well and he attested to his perfect health, sounding more than a little frightened.
There was simply too much noise, too many things to pay attention to, and surely Sherlock couldn't be expected to think in such a maelstrom? He would have liked to scream at them to shut up, to turn away, but even he was aware of the impossibility of such a demand. John was stepping closer, though, and at this moment the shorter man seemed a broad-enough barrier to keep the rest on the world at bay; so closing his eyes, Sherlock concentrated on his knight's solid, reassuring presence, on the light grip John had on his shoulder, on the calm rhythm of the man's breathing and started thinking.
Moran's forays into the woods, twice a day. John, on the floor, pale and barely breathing. The only thing I know is that her taster is fine and you're the only two who had access to her plate! Lady Sarah's presence in the kitchen. Only the freshest ingredients, and I picked the Ellebora leaf for the soup myself Sire, I swear! Lady Sarah, at John's bedside after his poisoning. The brew was under constant surveillance! Irene's disguise. The Princess looks tired, Sherlock, don't you think? John had asked as they waited for her to make her way through the hall to reach her future husband. Moriarty. The table where Lady Sarah and Moran had both been eating, a respectful twenty-five feet away from the royal table - none of them had gotten up during the feast. I only regret traditions keep me from having Lady Sarah next to me on this fine day, Irene had murmured when Mycroft had asked her if all was well. The only thing I know is that her taster is fine! His own unsuccessful following of Moran in the woods the day before. John's rueful look as Sherlock dismissed his explanations of the royal wedding's ceremonial rituals as irrelevant.
And then he felt it – this exquisite rush of pure triumph as the disjointed parts of the puzzle joined to form a clear picture where there had only been a disorientating jumble of voices, colours, events and facts. And then he talked for the first time since Irene had fallen, knowing – feeling, with a small shiver of excitement John would have reprimanded him for had he known, that time itself was against them.
"Lady Sarah, would you answer a few of my questions?"
He hadn't spoken loudly, especially when compared to Lord Astair's increasingly belligerent declamations, and yet a hush seemed to fall on the room as the young woman, who had earlier been stopped by a guard on her frantic way to the royal table, finally got to the table where Ella had made guards put down the Princess and was now desperately administering the most common antidotes to her, reaching a trembling hand towards her Lady's hair.
"Of course, Sire." Her voice was almost steady, and Sherlock almost admired her for it.
"You've been Princess Irene's taster for a few years now?"
"Her confident, maid and tester, yes Sire." She was defensive now.
"And you exercised those functions for the past two weeks as well, is that correct?"
"Did the Princess know it was tradition for another taster to be appointed to each member of the royal families in such a wedding?"
"Indeed she did not, Sire. I believe she was told this by the King a few days ago – he also graciously offered her the use of one of the royal tasters."
John had to admit he was intrigued – his heart had clenched as Sherlock had snapped out of his thoughts with a familiar look of triumph on his face only to turn to Lady Sarah, but the direction the questioning had taken was unexpected to say the least.
"So it would be correct to assume that if you had both been led to consume a little of a certain ingredient every morning and every evening during your entire stay here, an ingredient that would interact negatively with a dish only served at the royal table, she'd be the only guest to suffer from such an interaction?"
Understanding the question wasn't truly meant for her, Lady Sarah remained silent even as the room, which had become almost quiet, erupted once more in indistinct chattering. Lord Astair seemed ready to start protesting once more, but fell silent as Sherlock asked the guards to escort Colonel Moran to the royal table.
"I have many witnesses ready to explain how you love to take a walk at a very precise hour every morning and evening, Colonel Moran, going through the kitchen to reach the forest shortly before the meals are served to the guests' rooms. Do you confirm those are your habits?"
The imposing man was very careful not to struggle in the guards' grip, but his eyes skipped rapidly from side to side.
"I do – I've asked as we arrived what the shortest way to the forest was and the kitchen staff was kind enough to let me use their door to the outside every day. Those walks have been a habit for a long while now, you see."
"Certainly. But see, Colonel Moran, I do believe those walks weren't as innocent as they may seem. I understand that you have a bit of a reputation as a Physician yourself, explaining the bundle of herbs we'll find if we search your quarters, as I've sent Billy to do a little while ago – ah, there he is. Good work, Billy; please hand me this small brown leather bag."
All seemed to stand still once more as the Prince sifted through the herbs contained in the Regent's advisor's bag only to hold up a few small violet flowers with long stems and dark leaves.
"May I ask our Royal Physician to identify this plant, as well as the effects of its roots – which have been in this case carefully cut - when combined with even the smallest amount of an Ellebora leaf?"
Physician Thompson cautiously took hold of the small plant, studying it quickly und probably unnecessarily as any child who had already been in the forest could have identified the common flower.
"The amethy flower – taken alone and in small quantities, the roots are a common excitant. Lady Sarah, did you and the Princess have any trouble sleeping in the past two weeks?" She barely waited for the Lady's nod before she whirled back to look at the Princess. "And its interaction with the Ellebora leaf – oh, we don't have much time!"
Before the Physician - and therefore Lord Astair and a good part of the onlookers - could start to panic, John saw the King raise a calm hand and, bewilderingly, turn to him. And even though he couldn't fathom what this latest development meant, he knew what he had to do – and thus, ignoring Sherlock's unreadable look, he offered Physician Thompson the small bottle he had found on his pillow three days sooner, accompanied with an enigmatic note – "Just in case".
The sheer impossibility of John knowing which remedy would be needed made Sherlock feel almost light-headed as he saw his brother nod reassuringly to the unsure Physician and heard her relieved announcement shortly after – the Princess's heartbeat had gone back to normal and her skin wasn't as pale anymore. This shock, this second where he couldn't help but wonder if John had had anything to do with Moriarty's intrigue – the thought feeling very much like someone had firmly seized his heart so as to viciously squeeze it – meant he understood an instant too late what was at stake. Already Lord Astair was reaching to the man he had earlier ignored in order to thank him for saving his niece's life, and already Mycroft was overruling John's dazed protests.
"I doubt this young man will accept any of your rewards, Lord Astair. I do hope, however, that he will allow me to make him Assistant to the Court Physician – I hear you have always cultivated hope of following this noble profession, Sir Watson, and as I understand it your role as a Knight was a non-official trial that was to be over on the morrow."
John's eyes flew to meet his at that, clearly uncertain, but for once Sherlock didn't want to meet them as Mycroft's total victory was made totally clear. Sherlock may have seemed to direct the events this evening, but his brother had obviously known about the poison, and sufficiently in advance to make sure he'd be able to make good on his threat to steal John from him even as he cured his fiancé.
Suddenly wishing to be nowhere near the vicinity of the King, Sherlock turned to leave, throwing a last, vicious parting shot.
"I only have one question left. Why did you poison my knight?"
And as the eyes of the Lady in question glistened with tears for the very first time this evening, as John whirled to look at her, more hurt and confused than ever, Sherlock finally made his exit.
John had rarely felt as exhausted. Princess Adler, still to be monitored closely, had been put to bed, the Colonel had been thrown in a cell, men had been sent out on a search for an eventual accomplice awaiting for Moran's signal in what even John could recognize as a frankly ridiculous tentative. He had had a long and painful conversation with Lady Sarah, who explained with a firm voice but without meeting his eyes that her Mistress had wanted Sherlock to be on the qui vive and to be aware of a Moriarty's existence (apparently this was a name he was supposed to know so he didn't interrupt her, carefully memorising it) and had decided a direct threat to what he hold dear was the best way to make sure he felt implicated.
His discussion with the King had been even longer and much more confusing. He had learnt - something Sherlock had apparently forgotten to tell him - that he had never been officially dubbed or recognised as a knight; that his salary as Assistant Royal Physician would be even higher than it had been those two months; and finally that he was free to choose his own sleeping quarters. King Mycroft looked at him very intently as he explained this last part and for the first time John, as a brother himself, thought he understood this man's motives just a little bit better.
It was then, and only then, that John went off in search of his Prince.
Sherlock was standing as he entered, facing the unlit hearth, a subtle tension playing across his wiry shoulders – John wondered, as his heart twisted just a bit, how long he had been waiting like this, and he felt the last of his annoyance with the Prince fade away. Sherlock turned to face him and spoke before John could.
"You're not my knight anymore."
It could have been a rejection; Sherlock's voice was unreadable, but his hands gave him away, instinctively flexing as if desiring to reach out for John.
"Apparently, I never was." John answered, smiling a bit as he crossed the room in three steps and seized the Prince's wrists to try and calm them. "But then it seems my new functions will allow for quite a bit of free time, so I guess if you need some help on your cases I will probably be available."
Sherlock gave what John had a long time ago named his shock-induced blink and for the first time he admitted to himself that one of the reasons he liked surprising Sherlock was because seeing the shadows those long lashes struck on the man's high cheekbones was terribly enticing. And then he didn't have any time to reflect on hands or eyelashes anymore because they were kissing, and though a small part of him couldn't help reflecting on the most surprising parts of this (he had never kissed anyone so tall before, nor so thin, and Sherlock's lips were somehow warmer than any his had ever touched) most of his attention was caught by the ways Sherlock was inevitably familiar. Because the Prince had freed his right hand, which was now possessively gripping John's neck and pressing him closer to Sherlock, but his left wrist stayed in John's firm grip, a gesture of trust rather than submission. And though there was certainly passion in their embrace, Sherlock's tongue inquisitively seeking his out and exploring the roof of his mouth was clearly him studying John, trying to understand and comprehend his friend in yet another way.
It was a totally novel experience, and yet a ridiculously recognizable one. It also seemed to him to have been what he had been searching for his whole life, he whispered between kisses as they tumbled into bed, guessing rather than seeing Sherlock's raised eyebrow at this absurd notion in the darkened room, feeling against his neck the smile the Prince couldn't contain.
Much later – for once, the Prince hadn't jumped from his bed at dawn, and not so much as a page had come to knock at their door – John awoke to find his nose engulfed in a warm and tickling nest of raven-black hair and a stupid smile already stuck on his lips.
Even later, as they finally roused themselves, Sherlock received a missive he immediately held out to John: impossibly, Moran had escaped from his cell. Sherlock looked at his lover and smiled a slow, dangerous smile at him; Moriarty, he whispered, and John's heart unaccountably skipped a beat. But then the smile directed at him turned a bit brighter, and Sherlock tugged uncharacteristically on both of his hands:
"Come on then, John; the Game is On!"