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A Lack of Stability | Morning, Thursday 22nd (Open)

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The Crimson Drawing Room


This spacious room lies in the heart of the Upper Ward, and serves as a much-needed refuge from the sometimes inclement weather. The floor is laid with sumptuous carpets of taupe, cream, and gold, while the walls are papered in deep crimson and trimmed with gilded cornice. Several large mirrors, dressed artfully with heavy velvet drapes, are hung about the room to reflect and maximize the candlelight, since there are no windows. There is also an intricate tapestry depicting the four seasons. The ceiling is painted with an assembly of gods and goddesses, intermixed with delightfully cherubic Cupids. Throughout the room there are small groupings of comfortable chairs, all luxuriously upholstered in crimson, often surrounding elegant little tables. There is also a marble fireplace, flanked by Grecian columns, in which a fire may be laid to bring light and warmth to the room.



Charles frowned in fierce concentration, his focus absolute. He hardly seemed to breath, so absorbed was he in his task, as he reached out with one impeccably steady hand and placed the last piece.

The whole world paused, silent, as his grand design accepted this final addition without complaint. He sat back into his chair and brushed imaginary lint from the silver-embroidered navy silk of his justacorps, the triumphant smile he should have been too well bred to wear openly beginning to curl his lips at the corners.

With a silence that was almost mocking, his house of cards collapsed like Marlowe's topless towers of Ilium.

One could almost think it could sense my hubris.

Charles suppressed a twitch of annoyance, swallowed a sigh, and reached out to gather up the scattered cards and begin again. This would be his fourth attempt of the morning – his usual knack appeared to have deserted him, and the card houses were about as stable as an Audley temper. (The first effort might even have displaced Pembroke as the least stable thing to have appeared at court in the last decade.) Frustrating, for there was usually a certain meditative quality to building card houses, but today the effect was somewhat spoiled by his signal failure to build one that would remain standing. Still, the cards were plainly challenging him now, and he would be damned before he let them win.

Surely pig-headed stubbornness will succeed where skill and dexterity have repeatedly failed... 

"I am normally much better at this," he said aloud to assure himself.

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“As you served under Turenne, it was probably a whisp of wind. The Marshal did not readily suffer fools or shaky hands”. The sadness-tinged voice came from a chair placed near the marble fireplace. Beside it was a small table, and across from it, another chair. A brandy decanter and a half-empty glass could be seen close to a left hand that rested on the table. A silver mourning ring with a central garnet and carved scrollwork was clearly visible on the little finger if the hand.

The voice was not unknown to Lord Chatham. They had met during the previous year’s Christmas Party at the Spanish embassy. There, they had established each other’s military credentials while serving under the French flag. “A pleasure to see you again, Lord Chatham. I hope life has treated you kindly”.

Duncan looked thin and gaunt. He was dressed in well-fitting black velvet breeches, waistcoat and justaucorps with silver thread detailing, white shirt, black silk cravat, and black leather shoes with silver buckles. A tricorn decorated in the same fashion and pattern as the suit rested on top of the nearby chair. The only pieces of jewellery that could be seen were the silver mourning ring, and a huge, mazarin-cut white diamond on his cravat. His shoulder-length hair had been tied back in a queue with a black silk ribbon, and his ebony walking stick rested on the small and elegant table. The Lowlander did not seem to be carrying any weapons.

“Are you up for a friendly game of cards, Lord Chatham?” the viscount asked. “That is unless you would prefer to continue your building efforts. If it were so, would you mind if I approach and watch? You have my word I will make no sound”. I am just in need of a distraction.

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Charles had not realised that he was not alone, that side of the room being in his blind spot, and he was vaguely irritated with himself for the lapse. He was falling into bad habits, evidently. It was worse, somehow, because the speaker evidently knew who he was, given the reference to Turenne and the familiarity of the voice.

"He most certainly did not," Charles agreed, turning in his seat to face his new interlocutor. He just managed to place the voice before he saw its owner.

"Likewise Melville," he greeted, inclining his head and frowning internally. The Scot was even more gaunt than Charles himself, and coupled with the ring and Melville's mourning dress it seemed obvious that the man had suffered a bereavement of some sort, and one that had struck close to the heart at that.

"Life has treated me as kindly as it does anyone," he continued, shrugging.

Which is to say, not very.

"I would ask the same of you, but from your attire..." Charles trailed off, giving Melville as sympathetic a look as a man with his features could manage.

Which is once again to say, not very.

"Given how they are progressing, or rather not progressing, I am grateful of any excuse to abandon my building efforts, if the truth be known," he said, smiling thinly in rueful self-mockery. "A friendly game of cards sounds an excellent change of pace. Piquet, or have you some other preference?"

Charles himself favoured Ombre, but they would need a third for that.

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“If life has been treating you as kindly as it has been treating me, Lord Chatham, you have my most sincere condolences”, the Scot said. After a painful pause, he added with a sad and tired voice “my wife died. Nothing the doctors could do”. Nothing I could do, which was the worst part of ithelplessness is a sorry state.

The viscount rose up from his chair, took the decanter and glass, and walked toward the earl, his hat and walking stick left behind for the moment. “I hoped that court convening in Windsor would prove a distraction from my thoughts, but it has not proven as useful as I would have liked it to be”. He took a seat opposing the one-eyed nobleman, placing the decanter on the table, and taking a sip from his glass. “Still, here I am, and here shall I remain, at His Grace Charles good pleasure”. As he usually did, the Lowlander used the Scottish form of addressing the king.

With that eye patch, he looks as incomplete as I feel. With my Book Mouse gone, my soul feels one eyed too…

“Piquet? Yes, that is a good choice. Many nights I spent playing Piquet when on the Continent. A good choice of game for two”. Soldiers learned to be patient during sieges. Storming a city not ripe for the plucking meant more of your own men died. Games of chance, whether dice or cards, helped in that regard. They fostered camaraderie too… and a few knife fights among the common soldiers or duels among the officers. Such games were forbidden most of the time, but higher ups knew to turn a blind eye when necessary.

Duncan was not a card shark. He mostly played cards as a means to an end. That day, the end would be to not think about his loss, perhaps not to think at all. That it was going to be a friendly game meant the stakes, if any, would be low, so he would not feel pressured to win. He was thankful, as his mental faculties were not at their sharpest.

“So, my lord, what have you been up to of late, if I may ask? It has been months since we met at the Spanish Christmas festivities”.

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Charles suppressed a wince at Melville's reply. The man had obviously cared for his wife, and Charles knew well what such a blow could do to a man. Melville was a man of his hands too, like Charles, which always made losing those close to you to illness burn all the worse.

"You have my condolences Melville, little though that must mean," he said softly, and paused a moment, unsure whether he should go on and then deciding to press forward.

"My stepmother passed at the start of recess," he said. "We were not close but..."

He shrugged helplessly.

"I too had hoped court would provide a distraction. It has, in parts, to be wholly truthful, but the darkness creeps back in quiet moments."

Charles saw no reason not to indulge if Melville was going to, and fished out his hip flask and snuffbox, wordlessly offering the latter to the Scot before taking a pinch himself.

They settled on Piquet as their game, and Charles quickly divested the deck of all the twos, threes, fours, fives and sixes, leaving the thirty-two cards that comprised a Piquet deck. He took a draught of brandy from his flask and started to shuffle. He was looking forward to a nice, low stakes game he realised. Charles was no great card player himself, though the simple expedient of never gambling anything he was not willing to lose had seen him do well enough when coupled with a steady nerve. He had mostly used cards as a social tool, anyway.

"Little enough, if I am honest," he replied to Melville. "There is an enterprise or two brewing in my mind that I hope to progress this season, but mostly I have spent my efforts socialising. Which is much of the business of court, admittedly. And you my lord?"

He held the deck out to Melville so the other man could cut it to decide which of them would deal first.

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“Men like us do not take kindly to bed-ridden death. The field of battle is one thing, but withering away from ailment is not something we look forward to... in ourselves or in others”. A pause. “So, your condolences are accepted in the spirit in which they were offered. You have mine too”.

As Charles produced his flask, Duncan raised his glass. “To your health, Lord Chatham, and to Marshal Turenne. I learned much form the man. If soldiers are allowed in heaven, he is bound to be there. And, if we are not… if we are not… I Am certain he has whipped hell into shape by now”. The Lowlander then raised his right hand in a halting gesture, passing on the snuff, producing his tobacco pouch and pipe instead.

“Back in Scotland I immersed myself in everything I could think of. My estate has a good steward, but some decisions are too important to delegate, so I spent some time there. I also made it a point to travel to Edinburgh often to attend the Parliament of Scotland. Although most legislature work is carried out by the Lords of the Articles, everything they propose must be confirmed by the body, so there was reason for me to attend…” besides making sure Lauderdale did not have an unopposed free hand through his proxies. “My father was Secretary of State for Scotland, and the Melville name still carries some weight north of the Wall, so I feel responsible to at least be present and make sure I am heard”. Another pause. “I even considered seeking appointment as a Lord of the Articles, but eventually decided against it. I think I can do more good for Scotland attending His Grace Charles’ English court instead of our Parliament”.

A sad truth. If the viscount wanted to foster the king’s goodwill towards Scotland, London and Windsor were far better places to be. Besides, I would like to replace Lauderdale one day. That will not happen unless I get some powerful English allies.

Duncan cut the deck and the King of Hearts came up. At the sight of the card, he winced visibly. That is definitely not how I feel at this point in time, he thought. Perhaps the card speaks of Lord Chatham’s future? Although the viscount knew that he would eventually have to remarry if he wanted his line to continue, that seemed far, far in the future at that point in time.

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  • 2 weeks later...

"As Caesar put it, the best end is one that is sudden and unexpected," Charles agreed, a thin smile curving his lips. He raised a hand to acknowledge Melville's offer of condolences and let the moment pass in silent fellowship.

He felt a bit of a fraud, of course, for Melville's situation was infinitely more deserving of sympathy than his own, and was thus very glad of Melville's offered toast breaking the moment. He raised his hip flask to match the Scot's glass.

"Your health Melville, and to Marshal Turenne, the greatest captain of our age," Charles said, smiling with wry amusement at the image of the marshal imposing order on Hell. He took an invigorating pinch of snuff as he listened to Melville detail what he had gotten up to during recess.

"How are matters in the north?" he asked curiously. "I fear my focus, such as it is, lies mainly on the Continent, and on London and its surrounds."

Charles politely ignored Melville's wince at turning up the King of Hearts, though he would agree that it was a singularly inappropriate card for their mood. He cut the deck himself, revealing the Nine of Clubs. 

"Your deal Melville," he said, offering the other man the deck.

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The Scot sipped from his glass. He had been drinking far too much of late, and he knew it, so he had been making a conscious effort not to depend on drink to take the edge off the pain. It had made for a miserable past few days, but things seemed to be improving. I do not want to end up the slave of the milk of the poppy seed, he thought as a sad smile appeared on his lips.

Packing and lighting his pipe, he took a few puffs from it before replying to the earl's question. The smoke filled the room with the smell of cherries. "His grace Lauderdale keeps things tidy..." even though he treats everyone like slaves. "I think he could be a bit more even-handed, but so far his methods have worked". Lauderdale had excluded from power some who not only resented him, but also would make sure Lauderdale had no lasting legacy north of the wall. Which reminds me... I need to write to Lord Arran, I had an appointment with him that I did not keep.

Duncan took the cards and shuffled them. Not that he was a card shark, but he had had some practice. After three shuffles, he dealt twelve cards to each player, and set the talon two piles in the middle of the table. The first pile had five cards, and the second three. Then the Lowlander picked his cards up one by one, slowly, placing them in his hand according to suit.

Satisfied that each card was in its proper place, he lifted his eyes. "Your turn to exchange, elder hand".

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Charles nodded thoughtfully. It was a potentially awkward question he had asked Melville but the other man had given as frank and enlightening an answer as he could have.

"I do not know Lauderdale," he said, "but by reputation he seems to be one of those men who have read Machiavelli and remember well that it is better to be feared than loved, but forget that the Florentine also said to at all costs avoid being hated."

Charles shrugged.

"Still, there is something to be said for stability, if it is in fact stability, and not simply a lid held down on a pot growing ever closer to boiling."

He waited patiently as Melville shuffled and dealt, taking a sip of brandy from his flask before examining the twelve cards making up his hand. Not the worst he had ever been dealt, he supposed, and at least it made choosing what to discard relatively easy.

Charles slid five cards from his hand, set aside face-down, and drew five fresh cards from the talon.

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"Aye", Duncan said with a distinct Scots accent. "Fear works. Hate is nothing but a powder keg with a long fuse". A pause, before adding, "His Grace used to be a Covenanter. He then betrayed the Covenant. It would not surprise me if there are more than a few Scots Lords that would like to see him pushing up daisies from six feet under". The lord of Melville Castle being one of them, but I will not voice that. A sip from his glass. I must not say anything that might incriminate me...

After Chatham discarded five cards and took another five, the Lowlander took a long, hard look at his hand. It is not that good. I think I have lost this one. He then proceeded to discard three cards, the maximum number the situation allowed him, and drew the remaining three cards from the talon. Things did not improve much.

"May I ask what transpired at court in my absence? I am afraid I have not kept informed of important events, with the exception of the birth of His Highness". A Protestant heir to the throne was great news for everyone, Catholics included. Or so Duncan thought.

"Your turn to declare point, elder hand".

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Charles grinned bleakly, a thin, sharp thing.

"It seems his Grace should read Tacitus — 'traitors are hated, even by those whom they prefer.' Or Aeschylus, perhaps — 'I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery.'"

Cicero had quotes on the subject, too, as he did on most everything, but Charles had shown off his erudition enough, he thought.

"As for court, hmm. The usual inconsequential gossip, mostly. Dorset is no longer engaged to Newcastle's daughter, and was beaten badly by the Earl of Pembroke, which is why the latter is not at court. Kingston is being traduced by the small-minded and the envious for his elevation, and that might be consequential, for it could perhaps be an oblique attack on Buckingham.  Oh, and Danby remains officially missing, though for my money the man is already dead or secretly imprisoned," Charles shook his head. "On the... grander scale we had some success in securing funding for the fleet in Lords last season, only to end up with rapprochement with the French. Relations with the Dutch are rather less good, of course."

Charles paused for a moment, wondering if he should say what he was going to say next. Yes, he decided. Melville seemed a solid, dependable sort, and the Scot had been forthcoming with him, which was no small thing given the topic. It was not as though Charles would be betraying a confidence, either.

"There was a body found in the gardens of Whitehall last season," he said, voice lower and more serious. "A garden where the King was due to be but hours later. I know no more than that, but there can be nothing good extrapolated from it."

There was a card game to be played too, of course, and Charles returned his attention to his hand.

"Point of five," he said, and awaited Melville's response.

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That Chatham was well-versed in the political classics was evident. Duncan, on the other hand, had chosen to study —or perhaps to remember— only militarily-inclined authors. He could recall from memory the composition of Julius Caesar's forces at the siege of Alessia or the forces of Titus for the destruction of Jerusalem, but a mention of the proverbs of Aeschylus of Alexandria would draw a blank look from the Lowlander.

Pembroke... a dangerous man to cross, that one. Not that I could not best him, but it would be best to not get to that point... Duncan was not a flowery duelist, but the fields of battle turned him into a deadly force. But... Newcastle's daughter was slighted? He has quite a few daughters, if I recall. Perhaps His Grace would consider a Scottish viscount for a son-on-law? Hmm...

As for Kingston, "I have read the broadsheets too, my lord. I pray that they help toughen Lord Kingston's hide. As a protégé of His Grace Buckingham, he is bound to be considered the weaker link of the chain far too often for it to be fair". Danby was another matter entirely. If the man was alive, and he got back into the King's good graces, Duncan could be in trouble. If the man was dead, it only proved to Duncan that he had done the right thing. Why do I feel like a tadpole in a large pond?

"The French and the Dutch... heh..." the tone of that heh, plus the emptying of his glass, said so many things on so many levels. Almost two hundred years in the future, Lord Tennyson would sum up the feeling expertly: Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. A soldier's lot was to obey, and fight whoever his superiors told him to fight, dying if need be. Chatham understood that. He had lived through it. Most at court did not. Most at court are fools.

As for the body... "the discovery of that body tells me two things, Chatham. First, that the Royal Family is being stalked. Second, that a non-English party knows this, and they are trying to protect them from the shadows". Those were gloom news. "Did you discover the body? I wonder which is the smoke screen and which is the main attack..." the Scot wondered out loud regarding the attacks on Buckingham and at Whitehall.

Duncan's brow furrowed. He then turned his attention to his cards. "Making?"*

* This note is for the benefit of those readers who do not know the rules of Piquet. Making means that the dealer, the younger hand, has as many cards of the same suit as those declared by the elder hand, in this case Chatham. When the Earl declared point of five, he stated he had at least five cards of the same suit. By his making declaration, Duncan stated he did too. Chatham now may declare a point of six or higher, if he has the cards for it, or both players may count the points in the suit they have chosen.

Edited by Henry Grey
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Charles nodded at Melville's conclusions, having devoted a great deal of thought to the matter himself.

"A foreign party, or perhaps an English one that is not an official organ of state," he agreed. "There are those with little or no love for the Crown who nevertheless might have reason to want the current status quo maintained for now. Or there is no other party, and the body was the result of whoever is 'stalking' — a very apt word, I like it — the Royals tidying up loose ends as it were. Finally, the body might be unrelated to the Royals at all: Lady Toledo was also due in that garden. I do not think that likely, mind, but mention it out of a sense of completeness."

He sipped at his flask, and shook his head.

"I did not find the body, no. I was another of those due to meet his Majesty in the garden, only for the meeting to be moved to within the palace, and the Life Guard and his Majesty's gentlemen to be... on edge. It smelled like powder to me, as it doubtless would have to you, and so I made discreet inquiries. That was when I learned of the corpse, and I have been pondering the implications since."

He smiled a strange little smile, expressing a feeling that Melville might recognise — the work is hard, and dangerous, and shit besides, but damned if  I don't enjoy the challenge.

"A thorny little problem, I'm sure you'll agree, and nothing to be done but think, and keep our eyes and ears open." The smile grew thinner and sharper, becoming his killing grin. "And our blades at the ready, of course."

He frowned in thought as Melville seemed to suggest a link between the body and the mudslinging attacks on Kingston and thus Buckingham.

"You think the corpse and the slander might be connected?" he asked, and hummed thoughtfully. "Perhaps. I had been considering the slander solely through the lights of his Grace's domestic rivals aiming to lessen him to their own benefit. Hmm. Of course, the slanderers and the stalkers could have no link to each other at all, and still each find that the other's actions are to their benefit, even if only, as you say, as a smokescreen. If they are in concert, though... that is dangerous in the extreme."

Fascinating and important as this speculation and theory-crafting was, they were at least pretending to play cards, and Melville's (entirely expected) challenge returned Charles' focus to his cards.

"Making forty-eight," he replied.

Melville can't better that, I think, only equal it, but I fear sequences and sets are going to go very poorly for me...


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“A non-official English party is a possibility. I would have mentioned it too if Williamson was still Northern Secretary or at least not in the Tower. He was much more capable than Sutherland from what I hear. But His Grace Charles has many agents, so it could be, it could be…” perhaps he had discarded English agents too precipitously. “Aye, we must keep our eyes and ears open… our minds too. Too many unknowns…” Perhaps the two lords playing cards could form another such party, an English & Scot party.

“If I may be of use in any capacity, please count on me. I am not elegant with word or blade, but I can be… efficient”. The last word did not allow for any doubt as to what the Lowlander meant. He had not survived the many battles that he had, nor had he risen through the ranks as quickly, by sipping tea and eating dainties.

Were the murder and the plot to slander Buckingham through Kingston related? The viscount was not certain, yet… “His Grace Buckingham is the King’s greatest defender. You take him down, you make a chink in His Grace Charles’ armour. There have been far too many plots against him to believe that there are not more right now. The King needs as many dutiful subjects around him as he can muster”.

Time for a puff of the pipe, a refill of his glass, and to return his attention to the game.

Forty eight… that means an Ace, three Faces and a Seven; three Faces, a Ten, and an Eight; or an Ace, two Faces, a Ten, and an Eight… those were the only card combinations that would give forty eight, or so Duncan thought. His mind was a bit clouded because of his drinking. After looking at his cards, Duncan believed that Chatham would play either Hearts or Diamonds.

He has me beaten on Sequence, the viscount thought, I can at best tie him on Sets and he will hammer me on Play. The question is not if I will lose, but rather how badly I will lose. I exchanged cards really badly.

“Equal” the Scot replied. There would be no score for Point. “What is your Sequence?”

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Charles frowned as a thought struck him.

"Was Danby involved in Williamson's fall?" he asked quietly. He was now envisioning a subtle, long-term scheme to blind England before striking more directly, the sort of plot he normally scorned as far too complicated and elaborate to be real. 

But everything about this has provoked the same reaction in me...

Melville's explicit offer of support merited a nod of the head and a widening of his smile. The Scot was a veteran, obviously intelligent, and moved like a swordsman. If it did come to direct action, then Charles could do considerably worse for allies.

"I have found, Melville, that efficiency has an elegance all its own," he replied, raising his hip flask in salute.

Focusing back on the cards, Charles frowned internally. Melville had matched his declaration, which meant the Scot had to be strong in Spades, and had to have tierce in Sequence in the same suit, along with possibly the same in Diamonds. The other man had a possible quatorzes and trios for Set as well, which meant in the worst case scenario he could have twenty-three points before Play, only a little short of repique. That would leave Charles needing to play very well in the trick-taking to have any hope of winning.

Of course if Melville has discarded a ten, then matters become much simpler.

"No Sequence," Charles said.


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If Duncan had known what Chatham thought about his hand, he would have had a good laugh, one such as he had not had in a long while. Perhaps after the game was over, they would talk about things, and chuckle over it. The Scot was certain he would lose that hand by many, many points.

“Danby? Good question. I do not know. But he could have. It would not have been beneath the man, that is for sure…” Careful, Dunc. You were ordered by the King to forget what you know. “It would not have been beneath him to devise an attack against His Grace Buckingham. So, I think that if whoever is behind the rumours against Kingston is identified, an accomplice of Damby’s may very well be found”. That was a safe answer that contained a new thought.

The Lowlander raised his glass in reply. For a moment, his face turned hard as flint, and his tone became steel. “Yes, it does, Chatham. Yes, it does”. It soon passed, but for a non-soldier it would have been sobering to hear his words. There was a deadly finality to them.

“Tierce” the viscount said. “Not much, but at least it is something”. And my misery is about to begin. That he probably has low cards in his main suit will avail me nothing.

“I dare venture say that it is not only us playing games here at Windsor, Chatham, but some of those other games are not as tame as Piquet…”

He took a sip from his glass.

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Charles chuckled in bitter amusement.

"It would be very convenient if all the enemies of Crown and country were all of one party," he mused. "But a man might hold himself loyal to the King and yet still seek to bring down Buckingham, and another might oppose Royal policy and still never dream of bringing harm to the Royal person. A man might hold no thoughts of greater things at all, and slander Kingston simply to alleviate his own ennui, even. Men such as Danby, entirely bereft of any principle save ambition, are thankfully rare."

Charles had once, not all that long ago, been (almost) such a man himself. Hilariously, it was only the fact that he was now even more cynical that had 'redeemed' him, for want of a better word. The thing about being such a man, after all, was that you had to win all the time or the knives came out, and the world was altogether too fucked a place for any man to win all the time.

"All of which is to say," he continued, shaking off those thoughts, "that I do not think we can count on all these plots being linked... though of course our foreign conspirators would have to be very incompetent or uncommonly sportsmanlike not to take advantage of any disruption caused by their domestic counterparts, so the point is moot."

Melville only announced the one tierce, which was something. Charles considered his own cards, thinking. 

Queen-King-Ace in Spades or Ten-Jack-Queen in Diamonds he decided. He could not think of any other sequence the other man could be holding. Coupled with the points declaration Melville had made it had to be the former, and that would mean that he was holding the Seven and the Ten of Spades as well.

"Oh most certainly. I would frankly be shocked if there were not other games underway. But wild play makes noise, if you'll permit me to extend the metaphor, and my ears are pricked, as I'm sure are yours."

He sipped at his own drink.

"But for now, our more sedate game has my attention. Trio of Jacks," he said, making his declaration for Set.

Let us hope Melville does not have all four tens in hand.

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Duncan listened attentively. It was true that not everything needed to be —or even could be— related. Yet sometimes things simply were related in non-obvious ways. To discount that possibility was as dangerous as to think everything had but one source. “As you say, Lord Chatham, our ears are pricked. And something is bound to attract our attention in the next few days. Of that, I am certain. Then this pair of Irish wolfhounds will seek their quarry”. A puff of the pipe spread the pleasant cherry aroma across the room.

“Windsor makes me nervous, for some odd reason”, the Lowlander confided. “Perhaps because of the densely packed quarters. Much easier to hide things in plain sight with so many people coming and going”. Duncan had an ill feeling that he could not quite put into words. The Scot was not overly superstitious, but occasionally his instincts told him that things could go very wrong very quickly. Perhaps my Book Mouse’s death has me this uneasy. God willing, it is only that.

Chatham opened Sets with a trio of Valets. That was somewhat expected but, although the viscount had a counter, it was not much greater. “Not good”, he replied frowning. The dreaded Play was approaching. He was bound to lose that.

“As for foreign players of Le Jeu, I wonder who else is at it here in Windsor, besides the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish?” It was more a private thought that got voiced. “I have heard there is a Russian ambassador at court, Also I wonder what Lord Shaftesbury is up to nowadays. I do not think he is plotting against the King, but I would love to know what he is thinking…”

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"I've always thought of myself as more of a mastiff," Charles said idly, and then laughed coldly. "Though I'm sure the difference is academic, to those on the wrong side of the fangs of either."

He frowned thoughtfully as Melville continued.

"Windsor makes me nervous simply because it has been penetrated before," he said, then continued after a moment's hesitation. "And I will confess that I am in the main uncertain of the Life Guard in a professional sense."

The Scot's counter to his own trio of Jacks was not unexpected — Melville almost certainly had a trio of Queens, and possibly a trio or even a quatorzes of tens to go with it.

"I thought as much," he said with a rueful smile, "and you have?"

He considered the Scot's question.

"The Imperials, perhaps, and possibly some of the Italian states. The former certainly has an interest in seeking to sour our relations with France," he offered after a moment's thought.

The mention of Shaftesbury had his sword hand clenching involuntarily, his knuckles whitening momentarily around his hip flask before he mastered himself.

"Were I Shaftesbury," Charles mused, somehow keeping the venom from his voice, "I would be keeping my head down. I have a Protestant succession now, and no wish to be linked to the Dutch. No, I would lie low, and carefully examine my party for any who might be mad, ambitious or fanatical enough to involve themselves with these intrigues."

A sudden thought struck.

"And I would discreetly pass on any information I did have or came across to Buckingham," he said slowly.

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“You do seem to be the mastiff type, Lord Chatham”, Duncan attempted to lighten the mood a tad. “As for me, I am but a Scot, so I think the shaggy wolfhound is most appropriate”. The beginning of a smile had formed as he imagined being a leaping hound and ripping Lauderdale’s throat with his teeth.

“Aye, you have it tight. Most of the Life Guard are political appointments, not military ones, especially the commander. The King’s Gentlemen are a different thing, though. Several of them can be said to be elegantly efficient…” a play of words on one of the Earl’s previous remarks. “Add to that some of the Kings friends, like His Grace Buckingham, and a few unknowns like us, and the Royal persons are well-guarded against a frontal attack. Subterfuge worries me, though. The person of the Prince must be guarded at all costs. Right now, His Highness Charles Henry is more important than his Royal Father, as strange as it may sound”. It was in Duncan’s way of thinking, at least. Continuation of the royal line through a protestant heir solved many problems and created but a few.

“I have a trio of Dames”, the Lowlander said using the French term out of custom. That was enough to win three points, but the bulk of the points had not been scored yet, and Duncan knew he had discarded badly. Too distracted to play well, but the game is helping me focus on the here and now. I will not mind losing.

“The English heir having German blood is something the Imperials were not counting on five years ago. This can either bring stability or chaos. We will see”. It could go either way, depending on who had the ear of the English King. “Which makes me wonder… could the foreign actor you speculated about in the killing at Whitehall have been a German operative? Have you seen Germans at court who displayed proficiency at arms or military bearing?” Of course, the best operatives would not display weapon proficiency openly, but it had been a spur of the moment thought.

Ah, the Cabal rearing its head even post-mortem…

“His Grace Buckingham seems to be the man of the hour, yes. Which stands to reason, since the King can count on his oldest friend’s loyalty in times of need…” Duncan was cautious by nature, but not as paranoic as to think that Buckingham would betray the King. In a perverted ironic sense, The Duke was the King’s older brother.

“Time to Play

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"I was thinking more that the Imperials would like the French as isolated and impeded as possible. I genuinely had not considered how the Prince having German blood might be viewed in the Empire," Charles admitted, "But we are both making the error of thinking that the Empire has a single policy. They have more princes than I care to count, each with their own ends. Doubtless there are some that would like to see the French ascendant, even if only because it would discomfit the Emperor." He paused to think.

"In answer to your question, there is only one German I can think of. One of the Queen's entourage, I think. Freiherr von... something. Von Brahl? Von Brohl? Something like that. I had thought him completely unremarkable save for his nationality, and being one of the Queen's makes him a less likely suspect anyway, but perhaps he was simply a very good spy, and in the employ of someone other than his homeland."

Charles swirled his hip flask.

"Still my thoughts keep returning to two prospects: the Dutch, and militant Catholics."

He paused again.

"I have a theory, actually, that the Dutch might have been encouraging and aiding the Catholics, quite possibly without the latter knowing who their benefactor was. If the King or the Queen or both had been struck down before the birth of the Prince... York would have been prominent in the succession again. I have a great deal of respect for his Highness, but he lacks a certain... flexibility. That, and his faith, would make him vulnerable to dissent. If it were then to be shown that the Catholics had been behind the tragedy... well, that would give Dutch William quite the opportunity, would it not? In that scenario, I think the body in the garden was either the Dutch cutting links, or the Catholics realising that they were being played."

He refocused on his cards. Melville had declared only a trio of Queens, which was interesting. Had the man really discarded two tens, or had he sunk the declaration of an additional trio? 

"One," Charles said, announcing his first point as he led the Ace of Diamonds to the first trick.

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Duncan listened attentively. It was true that the non-Holy, even less Roman, and definitely not Empire was more a patchwork of competing city states and principalities than a unified nation. “Touché”, the Lowlander admitted. “Three of the seven Electors are princes… of Rome!” Duncan meant the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier. “Those are bound to prefer a Catholic king over a Protestant prince every time”. The Scot’s brow furrowed. International politics were so complicated. “I better leave such matters to my betters. I am a simple wolfhound”. His smile was feral, but genuine.

“Changing topics, Lord Chatham. I have been thinking long and hard about His Grace Charles’ armies. Whether English, Scot, or Irish, I think there is something we can do for them”. For a moment, Duncan’s cards were forgotten, face down on the table. “As you know, His Majesty’s armies are recruited just before or right when a war starts, due to Parliament’s fear of another civil war. That may be fine for line troops, less so for seamen, but for specialists it is terrible. It takes too long to train them so that they are effective on the battlefield. That lead me to think: what if a professional core of officers were to be trained in peacetime, so that they would be ready if and when war comes?”

For a moment, Duncan felt silent. Then he realized that he had not told Chatham what he was specifically talking about. “I am talking about forming independent artillery companies under a unified command, dependent on the Board of Ordnance. During peacetime they would consist of officers constantly training and learning siege craft, mathematics, and other skills useful to a commissioned officer, and when war starts, they would be ready, willing, and able to lead raw recruits and turn them into able artillerists in a much shorter time. They would also be independent of the line regiments. A strategic asset instead of a tactical one. Would you like to help me see this become a reality? I would really appreciate your help”.

The viscount had considered going at it alone, but he had come to realize that he was a mere Scottish viscount without enough influence to see it come into reality. Of all his acquaintances at court, Chatham was the one that both had battlefield experience and access to the House of Lords. The Commons would be a much harder bone to grind, but Lords was a good place to start.

Duncan played the ten of Diamonds as he winced inwardly. His slow but definitely demise had begun. “Trick is yours”.

Edited by Duncan Melville
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Posted (edited)

Charles cocked his head, considering Melville's words. He smiled.

"I must confess, Melville, that thoughts of army reform occupy a great deal of my idle time. You are right of course — the science of modern war demands skilled artillerists and engineers, and such cannot simply be whistled up on short notice. It is a craft, and like any other craft it takes time and training to become competent. I like your solution, and I should like to see it implemented, and will bend what energy and influence I have to that end."

He hummed thoughtfully.

"The problem, aside from funding of course, is that those gentlemen of a martial bent will in the main prefer by far to be officers of cavalry or infantry." And most of them would resent any implication that they needed any education or training. "Perhaps there could be a school established, at Woolwich, maybe, or the Tower, where more middle-class candidates could be taught to be Master Gunners and engineers. The best of them could then be commissioned as officers. It would cement artillery as the lowest status arm of our forces, certainly, and it would be necessary to pay a respectable, competitive wage to these new artillerists and sappers in order to draw any in at all, but it would be useful, no doubt. If it can be done."

Charles sipped from his flask and continued.

"There are other things that could be done, too. You will have noticed, Melville, as I have, how often a musketman, rushing to load as swiftly as possible in the heat of combat, will break his ramrod and thereby become largely useless? What if it were to be mandated that henceforth ramrods must be made of iron? Additionally, a standardised manual of drill would be very useful. Or we could modernise those regiments already in service — Dumbarton's, I know, still uses matchlocks. More ambitiously, the thought has occurred to me that an Ordnance regiment could be very useful. Decentralise it into companies scattered around the three Kingdoms, guarding various royal arsenals and fortresses, which would help mitigate Parliament's concerns about another standing regiment and provide a skeleton of officers and trained men that a larger army could be built around if one should be required."

Charles hesitated for a moment, for to continue would reveal a little of his grand plan, which he was instinctively loathe to do. But he would need backers and allies if that project were to come to fruition at all, and he had already taken enough risks in this conversation that another would make little difference. Besides, Melville had shipping ties, Charles seemed to remember, which meant the Scot could be a great ally in the matter.

"Most ambitiously of all, I have been giving thought to how we might secure and expand the production of gunpowder within our own borders, which seems to me to be the single greatest potential good that could be delivered for army and navy both. I have... a possible solution that I have been considering, but I am not yet certain that it is practical and I am reluctant to waste your time with what might be merely drivel. I mean to approach Cumberland to ask his assessment. Should his Highness approve of the idea, then I will be looking for support to implement it, and you shall be one of, if not the first I call on."

Charles claimed the first trick and laid it face-down in front of him. A moment to consider, and he led the King of Diamonds to the second trick.

"Two," he announced.

Edited by Charles Audley
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Although Duncan had been thinking about a sapper regiment being as necessary as the artillery regiment, and perhaps even a school for both, he had not voiced his thoughts. That Chatham had, meant that both lords had been thinking about the same problem, namely that of minimizing friendly casualties during sieges. That was where artillery and sapper training really paid off. That the earl offered his help made Duncan smile. “Thank you”, the Lowlander said, lifting his glass. “It is true that the artillery would not bring the glory the cavalry or dragoons would bring, but it is somewhat safer, if only a bit, and gentlemen of lesser physical and more mental ability would be well suited for commission. If we start small, there is bound to be enough candidates, or so I hope. I was thinking about two marching companies to start with”.

A school…

“The idea of setting up a school for officer candidates has merit. Besides learning the craft of the artillery, other gentlemanly topics like the Classics, dissertation, and even dancing could be considered for the curriculum. Officers need to be, after all, well-rounded gentlemen”. The viscount’s brow furrowed. There were so many details to consider. “That Artillery becomes the junior arm in His Majesty’s Armed Forces does not give me pause. I am not in it for personal glory. If I can save the lives of English, Scottish and Irish men in the battlefields of the continent because our artillery was on time and on target, I will be well-served”.

Then Lord Chatham steered the conversation from the highly strategic to the utterly tactical. “Yes, the basic kit of the footman needs to be both improved and standardised. The socket bayonette used by some English dragoons, for example, should be issued to all troops in His Majesty’s armies in lieu of the plug bayonette”.1 There were so many seemingly unimportant things that could make King Charles’ armies a force more potent than their size would make others believe. “Musket calibres should be standardized too. Each trooper casting his own bullets is not my view of efficiency”.

The viscount’s face drew a blank look.

“There is already an Office of Ordnance, and they not only supply the armies with what they need, but also oversee forts, both at home and abroad. Port governors report to that office. I do not doubt that expanding it to a full Board would be good, though. With colonies and trade endeavours expanding, it might soon be needed. Which leads me to think…” an idea had just surfaced. “Perhaps the Royal Artillery could train EIC, WIC, and other trading companies’ armed merchantmen gunners for a fee? I do not think Parliament would disagree with that, as it would certainly increase their profits. It would not increase the size of the armies at all!” It was a thought worth pursuing.

“Are you going to import a few score Catholic monks whose only duties would be to drink claret and piss on the saltpetre, coal, and sulphur while they are ground and mixed?” Duncan half-jested.2 “Or have you discovered a new method of making powder?” If Chatham had thought of something new, it could be worth royal recognition. “As for Prince Rupert, I also need to speak with him regarding the artillery. Do you think it would be best if we approach him together, or separately?” The Lowlander was unsure.

Getting back to the almost forgotten cards, the viscount let out a sigh as he placed the Dame of Diamonds on the table. “Trick is yours”.

The plug bayonette covered the muzzle of the musket, while the socket bayonette did not. Socket bayonettes could thus be fitted before firing, if commanders though the unit would assault or be assaulted. An English dragoon regiment started using socket types in 1672.
It was a widespread Medieval belief that the practice made for powder of the best quality. Monks never spoke against the practice.

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"A single standard calibre, yes," Charles agreed, his mind crowded with so many ideas and plans for improvement that his tongue could not keep up. "And standard designs for wagons and carts too, to simplify logistics, and large-scale breeding farms to ensure we always have sufficient draught animals..."

And a road building programme so that every highway, turnpike and thoroughfare in all three kingdoms can accommodate those new carts and wagons and...

With an effort Charles reigned himself in. The possible reforms to be made in the army were all but limitless, but the time, money and other resources required to carry out those reforms were far more finite. There was no point in getting carried away.

"I am unsure," he said of Melville's thought that the army could train gunners for the trading companies. "Naval gunnery, as I understand it, is a more demanding science than its land-based cousin, and I am not qualified to say whether or not the companies would think it any economical for them in any case. An armed merchantman simply does not carry enough guns to fight even a corvette or frigate, no matter how skilled its gunners. Of course pirates are more lightly armed..." Charles paused for a moment, thinking. "I simply do not know enough to reach any useful conclusion on the matter, I fear," he admitted with a shrug, "but that is a very good point about the idea's appeal to Parliament."

He smiled thinly at Melville's guess at the details of Charles' grand project. The Scotsman, amusingly, was not all that far off.

"Not quite, no," he said lightly, "but you are thinking along the right lines, certainly."

The amusement passed as he began to consider the logistics of approaching Cumberland.

"That is a good question," he said slowly. "As I said, I am not certain that my grand scheme is practical, and I should hate to taint your own proposals by association should it prove that it is not. You may be better served presenting your ideas separately, that their sober practicality shine all the more by comparison. That said, whether we present separately or together, we should first approach Cumberland's aide, Lord Beverley, to make sure that our ground is as good as possible. With court here at Windsor, his Highness is likely even more besieged than usual by favour-seekers and the like, and he may lack both the time and energy to consider our proposals. It would be a very great shame to let impatience queer our pitch."

Charles laid the second trick alongside the first, looked at his cards, and decided to play it safe.

"Three," he declared, leading the Ace of Hearts to the third trick. 

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“Standardization would have the advantage of economies of scale in production costs, but there is also the advantage of being able to cannibalize a fallen comrade’s kit if and when you need to”. The question was, could the Ordnance Office enforce such standardization? Duncan hoped they could. It would avoid many a headache.

“I have been to the Carib on an armed merchantman”, Duncan replied. “I trained the crew in the proper use of the musket. Shipboard things are so much different. You must take the roll of the waves into account, and weather can be even more difficult than on land. Still, if you drill the basics long enough, the master gunners will have an easier time getting their new recruits to an acceptable level. I think the proposal should be floated and see what comes of it”. Time would tell.

That Lord Chatham did not elaborate on his plans was not lost on the Lowlander. He did not push, thinking that the English earl would tell when he was ready to. He wants to better the Army Royal. Let him do it according to his conscience.

“Approaching Lord Beverley is a very good idea, Lord Chatham. Perhaps doing it separately would be best, so that each meeting is focused on only one thing. I also intend to approach Lord Gerard. He is a very experienced soldier, and I am certain his thoughts would be very revealing”. This last had been a thought that had come during their conversation. “It will be slow going, but I think it would benefit the army greatly. I do not worry about the soldiering, but the politics of it all I shudder at”.

As the Ace of Hearts was placed on the table, Duncan winced visibly. The pain has begun. With a sigh, he placed the Seven of Clubs on the table. “The trick is yours, Lord Chatham”.

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Charles shrugged again.

"I have only been in one sea fight, at Sole Bay with the Lord Admiral's, and that is not an experience relevant to the question," he said. "I'll bow to your greater knowledge of the matter. If you think the idea merits consideration, then it merits consideration."

(Charles had in fact been in two sea fights, but the second was a secret and a shame that he fully intended to take to his grave.)

"Focus and clarity could only help our arguments," he agreed with Melville. "Your notion of consulting Lord Gerard is a good one, too."

He paused as a thought struck him.

"In fact, why not expand on it? Lord Feversham is an experienced soldier, as are a number of York's gentlemen. Many of the latter are not peers, either, and thus could spearhead efforts in the Commons, when and if it comes to that."

He sipped at his hip flask, warming to the idea.

"Even beyond that, there is currently at court a wealth of military talent and experience. If we were to hold... let us call them military salons, for lack of a better term, that could be very useful, and would not require funding from Parliament."

Melville's wince at the sight of the Ace of Hearts was interesting. The man had to be poor in Hearts, Charles knew, but not that poor, surely? But the wince was explained and justified by the Scot playing the seven of Clubs — one had to follow suit if possible, so it followed that the viscount had to have no Hearts at all.

"Four," Charles said, leading the Queen of Hearts.

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“I can only speak from my experience training men to defend themselves aboard a ship. All my battles have been on land, but I think some of the experience translates well”. Time would tell if he was right or wrong. Then Lord Chatham agreed that separate visits to Prince Rupert would be in their favour. “What I do propose is that the first one of us who speaks to Prince Rupert, Lord Gerard, or others, lets them know that the other is also working for the benefit of the Army Royal. That should hopefully spark their interest and generate positive expectation…” or so Duncan hoped. "What do you think?"

That is a very good way to state the idea…

“I tried to do something similar once but, when I talked to Lord Beverley about it, he shot the idea down because I presented it as work, and princes do not work, of course. Your way of stating it is much, much better. You should run with this. I am certain you will succeed where my Scottishness miserably failed”. It was said in a light tone, but Duncan believed it to be true. “I would definitely attend, of course”. That was a given.

“As for military-minded gentry yes, they should be approached. His Highness York would probably look on the consultations with his gentlemen with approval, too. Now that His Grace Monmouth is not in charge of any military units, and that Prince Charles Henry has been born, His Highness York will probably have more influence in military matters than before. The Commons should have much less problem with what we are trying to achieve with a Protestant heir to the throne, may he live to be a hundred, and his father too!”

It was a monumental task they were embarking on, but one both lords believed on, it seemed.

“I am of a mind to seek election to the Commons, just to fight for this on the front lines”. It would be more of a military endeavour than a political one, or so the Lowlander innocently believed. “Do you happen to have enough clout to see me elected in Kent, Lord Chatham? If not, I will have to see who can help me in that regard…” perhaps His Grace Buckingham. The man can accomplish anything His Majesty does not forbid him, and some things His Grace Charles forbids him too!

With a rueful smile, Duncan placed the Seven of Picks on the table. “Your trick, Lord Chatcham”.

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Charles nodded in agreement.

"Certainly we should, at least if the meeting is going well. Anything that could smooth our paths is worth trying, particularly something that requires so little effort."

The idea of 'military salons' was apparently not an original one, though it had not previously met with success. Presentation was important, it was an undeniable fact.

"Something quite like this —" he made a gesture indicating himself, Melville, their drinks, and the cards, " — on a larger scale, would do handsomely to start, wouldn't it? A selection of experienced soldiers and sailors, a few rounds of cards or chess, drinks... and good-natured conversation and debate on the military art and science. Not this season, I think, but the next perhaps, when we are back in London, I shall see about arranging one."

If nothing else it would give the men who would command the regiments, brigades and armies of England in the next war (and there was always a next war) the chance to learn of one another's character, and that was all to the good.

He frowned in thought at Melville's question. He genuinely had to think about it, which was in its own way answer enough.

"I shall look into it, certainly. We will need a vanguard in Commons if we are to accomplish anything, and you are certainly sensible and well-spoken enough to be an important part of it, if we can manage to get you in. I carry no small weight in such things in Kent, but there are other landholders who, while not Peers, are my peers in local matters, if you follow me. I am perhaps not as well-known in Kent as I should be. Too much travelling."

The piquet game was growing ever less important to Charles, but he managed to focus on his cards for a moment as he claimed the fourth trick, laying it face down beside the others.

"Five," he said, playing the Jack of Hearts.

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What had started as a simple way of passing time had become something far greater. If half of what they had shared came to fruition, they would be remembered in the annals of English military history for at least a generation. Scottish military history too, Duncan corrected himself.

“I think you will have resounding success with your military salons, Lord Chatham. At the very least they will be packed because no soldier will say no to free alcohol!” Although said in jest, it was basically true. “I wonder if we could source some exotic strategy game from the Orient. I am certain it would become a matter of pride to beat other officers at it”. The Scot paused to ponder the idea, and the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. “Winning or losing a hundred pounds at cards can be attributed to chance, but doing the same playing a more militarily styled game could be something entirely different”.

“I will approach others regarding the Commons”, Duncan replied. “I will keep you updated. Like your salons, it is a matter probably best left for next season at London, but I will look into it. I understand there is a property requirement to be able to stand for election, but that should not pose much of a problem”. Up to that point, the Lowlander had been content with involving himself in Scottish politics only, but he had come to realize that if he wanted to effect changes north of Hadrian’s Wall, they would have to happen in London.

I have been too proud and too hardheaded to accept this until now, but now that I have, I will do my utmost not to make a fool of myself.

The game was not only lost, but compared to the conversation it had no importance whatsoever. “Your trick, Lord Chatham”, Duncan said as he placed the Ten of Picks on the table. “And although I cannot predict the final score, I can truthfully say that you have me beaten!”

Edited by Duncan Melville
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