“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, it does not require the same degree of proof that a criminal case does.”

“Degree of proof?” she questioned. “A thing is true or it is false. What degree of proof do I require?”

He resumed his own seat, leaning forward over the desk a trifle to explain.

“Scientific theory must be proved beyond all doubt at all, usually by demonstrating that all other theories are impossible. Criminal guilt must be proved beyond all reasonable doubt. This is a civil case, and will be judged on balance of probability. The jury will choose whichever argument it considers the most likely to be true.”

“Is that good for me?” she asked bluntly.

“No. It will not require a great deal for her to convince them that you have slandered her. She must prove that you did indeed say this thing and that it has damaged her reputation. The latter will hardly be difficult.”

“Neither will the former,” she said with a very slight smile. “I have said it repeatedly, and in public. My defense is that it is true.”

“But can you prove it?”

“Beyond reasonable doubt?” she asked, opening her eyes very wide. “That rather begs the question as to what is reasonable. I am quite convinced of it.”

He sat back in his chair, crossing his legs and smiling very courteously.

“Then convince me of it, ma’am.”

Quite suddenly she threw back her head and burst into laughter, a rich, throaty sound rippling with delight.

“I think I like you, Sir Oliver!” She caught her breath and composed herself with difficulty. “You are fearfully English, but I am sure that is all to the good.”

“Indeed,” he said guardedly.

“Of course. All Englishmen should be properly English. You want me to convince you that Gisela murdered Friedrich?”

“If you would be so good,” he said a little stiffly.

“And then you will take the case?”

“Possibly.” On the face of it, it was preposterous.

“How cautious of you,” she said with a shadow of amusement. “Very well. I shall begin at the beginning. I presume that is what you would like? I cannot imagine you beginning anywhere else. For myself, I would rather begin at the end; it is then all so much easier to understand.”

“Begin at the end, if it pleases you,” he said quickly.

“Bravo!” She made a gesture of approval with her hand. “Gisela realized the necessity of murdering him, and almost immediately was presented with the opportunity, as a calling card is on a silver tray. All she had to do was pick it up. He had been injured in a riding accident. He was lying helpless.” Her voice dropped; she leaned forward a little. “No one was certain how ill he was, or whether he would recover or not. She was alone with him. She killed him. There you are!” She spread her hands. “It is accomplished.” She shrugged. “No one suspected because no one thought of such a thing, nor did they know how badly he was hurt anyway. He died of his injuries.” She pursed her lips. “How natural. How sad.” She sighed. “She is desolate. She mourns and all the world mourns with her. What could be easier?”

Rathbone regarded the extraordinary woman sitting in front of him. She was certainly not beautiful, yet there was a vitality in her, even in repose, which drew the eye to her as if she were the natural center of thought and attention. And yet what she was saying was outrageous—and almost certainly criminally slanderous.

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