Weighed in the balance Online


Chapter 1

Sir Oliver Rathbone sat in his chambers in Vere Street, just off Lincoln's Inn Fields, and surveyed the room with eminent satisfaction. He was at the pinnacle of his career, possibly the most highly respected barrister in England, and the Prime Minister had recently recommended him to Her Majesty, who had seen fit to honor him with a knighthood in recognition of his services to criminal justice.

The room was elegant but not ostentatious. Intellect and purpose were served before the desire to impress a client. Comfort was necessary. Beyond the door was the outer office, full of clerks writing, calculating, looking up references, being courteous to those who came and went in the course of business.

Rathbone was almost at the conclusion of a case in which he had defended a distinguished gentleman accused of misappropriating funds. He had every confidence in a satisfactory outcome. He had enjoyed an excellent luncheon in the company of a bishop, a judge and a senior member of Parliament. It was time he directed his attention towards the afternoon's work.

He had just picked up a sheaf of papers when his clerk knocked at the door and opened it. There was a look of surprise on the clerk's usually imperturbable face.

"Sir Oliver, there is a Countess Zorah Rostova desiring to see you on a matter she says is of great importance - and some urgency."

"Then show her in, Simms," Rathbone directed. There was no need for him to be surprised that a countess should call. She was not the first titled lady to seek counsel in these chambers, nor would she be the last. He rose to his feet.

"Very good, Sir Oliver." Simms backed away, turned to speak to someone out of sight, then a moment later a woman swept in wearing a black-and-green crinoline dress, except that the hoop was so small it hardly deserved the name, and her stride was such that one might have supposed her to have only a moment since dismounted from a horse. She had no hat. Her hair was held back in a loose bun with a black chenille net over it. She did not wear her gloves but carried them absent-mindedly in one hand. She was of average height, square-shouldered and leaner than is becoming in a woman. But it was her face which startled and held attention. Her nose was a little too large and too long, her mouth was sensitive without being beautiful, her cheekbones were very high and her eyes were wide-set and heavy lidded. When she spoke, her voice was low with a slight catch in it, and her diction was remarkably beautiful.

"Good afternoon, Sir Oliver." She stood quite still in the center of the room. She did not even glance around but stared at him with a vivid, curious gaze. "I am sued for slander. I need you to defend me."

Rathbone had never been approached so boldly and so simply before. If she had spoken to Simms like that, no wonder the man was surprised.

"Indeed, ma'am," he said smoothly. "Would you care to sit down and tell me the circumstances?" He indicated the handsome green-leather-covered chair opposite his desk.

She remained where she was.

"It is quite simple. Princess Gisela ... you are aware who she is?" Her brows rose. Rathbone could see now that her remarkable eyes were green. "Yes, of course you are. She has accused me of slandering her. I have not."

Rathbone also remained standing. "I see. What has she accused you of saying?"

"That she murdered her husband, Prince Friedrich, the crown prince of my country, who abdicated in order to marry her. He died this spring, after a riding accident, here in England."

"But of course you did not say so?"

She lifted her chin a little. "Most certainly I said so! But in English law if a thing is true it is not a slander to say so, is it?"

Rathbone stared at her. She seemed perfectly calm and in control of herself, and yet what she said was outrageous. Simms should not have allowed her in. She was obviously unbalanced.

"Madam, if..."

She moved over to the green chair and sat down, flicking her skirts absently to put them into a satisfactory position. She did not take her eyes from Rathbone's face.

"Is truth a defense in English law, Sir Oliver?" she repeated.

"Yes, it is," he conceded. "But one is obliged to prove truth. If you have no facts to demonstrate your case, simply to state it is to repeat the slander. Of course,