"Yes," his companion cheerfully confirmed, quaffing the dregs in a pewter tankard. The inebriated grin leveled at Sir Anthony Shelby across the rough wooden table bordered on demonic. "The venison pasty was poisoned. You're a dead man, my friend."
Sir Anthony could not respond. His lips and tongue were already swollen to twice their normal size. Through pale blue eyes that bulged and blurred he saw his murderer calmly rise, don a warm cloak, and leave the private room they'd procured as a secret meeting place. No one else would come near until dawn.
The free city of Strasbourg, nestled on the Rhine between France and the German states, was a refuge for Protestant exiles from Mary Tudor's Catholic England. In this hour just past midnight on the tenth day of November in the year of our Lord 1553, only one of them was destined to die.
His wits scattered by the effect of the poison, Sir Anthony did not fully comprehend the enormity of his betrayal. An attempt to stand left him on his knees, control of both body and mind slipping rapidly away. Only a desperate effort of will gave him the wherewithal to vomit up a portion of the deadly mixture.
After the purging a small measure of sense returned. His enemy was gone, secure in the knowledge that no antidote could save Sir Anthony. The man who had once been a royal mapmaker to King Edward VI accepted that, but he had reason, good reason, to prolong his life for as many minutes as he could. Crawling, he reached the dark, windswept street.
Swirling dust, carried on the breeze, bit into his skin like a thousand points of steel. He blinked, and after a moment Strasbourg's towering cathedral gave him his direction. Stumbling over the cobbles, stopping to retch with uncontrolled violence, Sir Anthony set out, but for long moments grew confused and thought himself in London. He lost his footing as often as he lost his bearings. And then, his mind temporarily clear, he at last located Matthew Wood's heavily timbered house with its distinctive enclosed cylindrical stairwell crowding the street. Once inside the plain, substantial structure, Sir Anthony began his grim and painful climb toward the garret he shared with his daughter.
Not London. Strasbourg. Exile. He lurched stiff-limbed up narrow, uneven stairs. In the stinking, filth-clogged streets of London he'd have been robbed ere now, stripped of purse and doublet and the cloak off his back. He'd have died naked and alone, and still not understood his killer's motive.
Odd. His cloak was missing. Distracted, Sir Anthony stopped halfway up the stairwell, swaying, struggling to recall where he had left the warm woolen garment. Then the brief spell of cognizance continued and he remembered that his wits as well as his strength were being sapped by the poison. The cloak was unimportant. Ignoring a wave of near-intolerable pain he pressed on. He had to reach Cordell with warning of her danger.
Trembling fingers tugged a narrow ruff loose at his throat, one jagged nail scoring the puffy, rapidly reddening skin beneath. His lips and tongue felt big as tennis balls and even with his neck free he had to gasp for air. His hose seemed unbearably tight across rigid thighs, but he no longer had enough control over his hands to loosen the constricting clothing. His leather-booted feet grew clumsier with each step, tripping him when he crested the stairwell.
Cordell looked up from the book she had been reading while she waited for his return and caught sight of him just as he wedged himself upright in the doorframe. He saw color drain from her already pale face as completely as if she had been leeched; his vision blurred before she could reach him; he was staggering blindly by the time she tugged him close to the charcoal brazier that provided the chamber's only heat.
Tell her ... something he had to tell her, but what? His thoughts became disjointed and the words of warning were already fading from his mind as he toppled forward, catching himself with hands and knees by instinct before he rolled helplessly onto his back. From a great distance, he heard Cordell's voice, calling his name, anxiously asking what had befallen him.
Light blue eyes flickered open, pupils dilated. For just a moment he was able to focus again on the face of the daughter he loved as much as if she'd been a son. She'd inherited his stubborn, slightly squared jaw, his coloring, his height, even his quick mind, but silent woman's tears coursed freely down her cheeks.
"Cordell," he whispered, the name recognizable only because she expected to hear it from his lips.
"I'm here, Father. What has happened to you?"
Painful spasms racked his long, thin frame, preventing Sir Anthony from speaking.
Cordell blinked rapidly, trying to dispel both her tears and the fear growing in her heart. He could not be dying. Not her father. Not in the prime of his life. But she had seen death before: her mother, languishing with a wasting sickness; the yeoman farmer, Ned Crimson, gored by his own bull; the accidental victims of a dreadful poison as they were carried out of London's Blossom Inn.
Belatedly, the evidence in front of her broached all emotional defenses and her eyes widened in horror. Terrible as sudden death was, murder was far more devastating. She saw the clear signs now?-the swollen lips, the bulging eyes, the twisted features contorted by pain, the rigid way his limbs lay. The symptoms were the same.
Blessed?-or rather cursed to hear her older sister, Honor?-tell it, with an inquisitive nature, an excellent memory, and considerable skill as a herbalist, Cordell realized that nothing could save her father's life.
"No," she said, and again, "no," as if by making it an incantation she could somehow stop what was happening.
Just across the corridor servants slept, but she did not call out for help. They'd wake their master and he could do no more than she to aid Sir Anthony. Desperately Cordell tried to think. There was no time to decoct and age the only known antidote. It would avail her nothing to raise the alarm, and alerting others to her father's plight might do much harm.
In spite of waves of nausea and dozens of dagger-like thrusts that seemed to be attacking his innards, Sir Anthony struggled to speak. Emptying the contents of his stomach had bought him enough time to reach Cordell. Now it remained to make the best use of it he could.
The words were indistinct, muffled by the swelling and his continuing convulsions, but the name Tom came through.
"Tom is still in England," she said, choking back a sob. He was calling for Tom Glovering, his long-time friend and servant. She knelt beside him to smooth sweat-drenched hair away from his brow, brown locks that looked nearly black in the dim light. His skin felt icy, and she thought "cold" was the next word he said. Darting up and behind the pierced wooden screen that shielded her bed from the pallet Sir Anthony used for sleeping, Cordell seized a warm, quilted coverlet, but when she attempted to wrap it around his trembling shoulders he fought her.
Though blue veins bulged as his hands shook uncontrollably, the chill in the garret was not responsible for his tremors. He had little time left, and although each effort at speech left him weaker, he kept trying. The next word sounded like "cat" to Cordell but she thought she must have misunderstood again. There was no cat in this house, only an ugly-natured dog named Tölpel.
Gripping his shoulders, she tried to focus his attention on her question. She was shivering herself, in spite of her velvet bedgown, and wondered what had become of Sir Anthony's thick black cloak. "Father, who did this to you?"
He no longer heard. The pitiful thrashings suddenly stopped, and the only sound in the chamber was his ragged breathing. With his last reserve of strength he uttered three words, distinct and cryptic: "Die ... is ... cast." ~ ~ ~
Gusts of air as chill and damp as those sweeping Strasbourg's narrow streets caused the woman hidden in the garden behind Sir Anthony's London townhouse to shudder and wrap herself more snugly in a fur-lined, richly brocaded mantle. She was not accustomed to being cold, or alone, and she had been waiting for hours at one end of a high, clipped hedge planted in cypress. This late in the year only green plants were left. The roses laced into its branches had gone by, leaving dead and neglected stalks.
Like its Catte Street neighbors the house had a narrow gabled frontage and rose upward in tiers, each jutting slightly farther out than the one it rested upon. The plot of ground where Cordell Shelby had planted herbs and flowers was well hidden from the street, fenced in by a stone wall. Rosemary grew in among the rocks and the wide walk between low-growing hedges of lavender had been planted with wild thyme that gave off a pleasant aroma when trod upon. The open beds on either side were raised above the level of the path on oak boards. They, too, had gone untended for some time and had been left uncovered to face the coming winter.
A small, plump woman all in black, nearly invisible in the early morning darkness, let herself into the enclosed quadrangle and latched the gate behind her. Her eyes had long since adjusted to the lack of light. She'd walked all the way from Queenhithe unaided by torch or candle. Only the faint glimmerings from the lanterns householders hung at their doors had lit her way through the dark, dangerous streets. It was far safer that way. She could pass unnoticed.
"So, Bess," she said softly, "you obeyed my summons."
A muffled sniffle was her only answer.
Katherine Astley moved toward the sound. She was a plain, pragmatic woman of mature years who took no notice of her surroundings once she was safely hidden by the high garden walls. Neither smells nor sounds distracted her attention from the whimpering woman ahead, a woman whose help she needed to protect the future.
For her the future, as well as the past and the present, centered on a slip of a girl of twenty, Elizabeth Tudor, who'd been placed in Katherine Astley's care as a child of three. Elizabeth had been born a princess, heralded as the only true heir of King Henry VIII. Later she'd been branded a bastard, unfit ever to rule. Now that Elizabeth's older half sister sat on the throne of England, Elizabeth's position was precarious.
Mistress Astley had dedicated her life to protecting Elizabeth Tudor, and just now the woman in Sir Anthony Shelby's garden was a key player in the plan she'd devised to keep her royal mistress safe. There was no doubt in her mind about Bess's affection for Elizabeth. The question was her fortitude. Did she have the patience to work toward a distant goal when others proposed more immediate, more dangerous plots? Bess did not always act wisely, and she was prone to take her husband's opinions for her own. Fortunately, he was confined in the Tower of London and unable to communicate with her.
"How long have you been waiting here, Bess?" A pale sliver of moonlight escaping from behind a cloud showed her the sheen of rime on the brocaded cloak.
"I came just at dusk and hid myself in this safe corner. I was afraid to venture alone into the streets after dark. There are footpads. And the watch." Bess grasped the outstretched hand with shaking fingers and clung as the wind freshened, slapping icy material against her already chilled ankles.
"We'll talk within. Tom will be asleep above stairs by now, or in a drunken stupor. Either way, he will not hear us."
"No one will hear," Bess agreed as the older woman produced a key and unlocked the door to the kitchen. It was only marginally warmer inside. "I am not such a fool as to hide here with any within. The family has been at Shelby Hall since September and though Tom was in residence, he has been absent now more than a fortnight."
Mistress Astley's eyes narrowed as she searched the dark room for a candle. "How do you know that?"
"Servants' gossip. 'Tis said Tom got a wench with child and fled the city so he'd not be forced to marry her." A single candle's flickering beam revealed appalling changes. A few harrowing months had aged Bess by ten years. The vivacious yellow-haired beauty who'd captured the heart of a middle-aged nobleman at fifteen had become, at twenty-two, a haggard, fearful creature with deep circles under hollow, reddened eyes and a listless way of carrying herself. "I've much more time for gossiping with the maids now, Kat," she admitted ruefully. "In truth, few others care to speak with me at all."
"Self-pity serves no useful purpose, Bess."
The old Bess would have argued. This one said nothing.
"Your troublesome cousin Wyatt is up to something," Kat Astley told her bluntly. "Can you discover what he has planned?"
"I will not venture into the Kentish countryside. Father still blames his brief imprisonment on me and mine."
"It is not Lord Cobham I wish you to seek out but his sister. Your aunt, Lady Warner, has a house in London, in Carter Lane. She is Wyatt's mother. Learn from her what that hot-headed fool is about."
"My aunt will not welcome me, either." Bess began to pace and rubbed her gloved hands together not to warm them but as though she sought to scrub off some foul stain. "Warner was removed from his post as Lord Lieutenant of the Tower as soon as Mary Tudor came to the throne last July. He blames me, too, for Will's involvement with the Duke of Northumberland." Her voice grew petulant. "Will was so sure Northumberland's plan would work, but he has suffered more than anyone for that miscalculation. He lies in the Tower, convicted of treason, stripped of his titles, our marriage declared invalid."
"You knew the latter risk when you insisted on marrying a divorced man whose first wife still lived." The glare Kat received gave her hope Bess's old spirit only lay dormant. "Come, m'lady. Give purpose to your life again. Lord knows I have misjudgments of mine own to regret, but I have learned one truth. All plots to disrupt the natural order of things are dangerous. Will you not help me assure that the Queen's sister has warning of Wyatt's plans?"
"If he is planning rebellion and he succeeds?"
"In God's name, Bess! Have you learned nothing from recent events?" Kat seized her by the shoulder to stop the incessant clicking, over loud in the empty cavern of a room, of leather soles on stone tile. "They've no hope of success. Think you, Bess. What will happen if there is an uprising in the countryside? What will Queen Mary do first?"
"How should I?"
"She will order the executions of Lady Jane Grey and her young husband, Lord Guildford Dudley. Then she will imprison her sister Elizabeth, perhaps order her beheaded, too." Angry now, Bess twisted away, but she did not resume her restless walking. She stared at Kat in fascinated horror as the older woman went on with her list. "Then she will execute the conspirators her courts condemned for their part in the Duke of Northumberland's treasonous plan to put Lady Jane on the throne instead of Mary when Mary's brother, King Edward, died. Northumberland has already been beheaded. Lady Jane's father has been pardoned and restored as Duke of Suffolk. Your husband, Bess, will be one of the first to die. Stripped of the title that once protected him he might even be hanged, drawn, and quartered as a traitor, and his poor, severed head stuck up on a pole at London Bridge."
"Never doubt it. You have only one recourse. We must have warning of any new attempt against Mary. Only in protecting her can we keep Elizabeth safe."
"But Mary's death would mean Elizabeth's succession."
"Do you really think Wyatt wants any woman on the throne? Lady Jane would have been a mere puppet queen, married to Northumberland's son. Wyatt's first thought, if Elizabeth survives to succeed, will be of a husband, one to be king through her."
Kat watched Bess's face. Had her words made any impression? Was Bess capable of understanding how important it was to keep Elizabeth free of entanglements and to prevent more violence?
"I will do what I can to keep Elizabeth Tudor safe," Bess said at last, "so long as it also serves to protect my husband."
With a few terse sentences, Kat gave her the code words and conveyed enough information to ensure the security of any report Bess might make. Only Kat knew all the links in the chain. It was enough for Bess to have one name.
An hour later John Astley woke when his wife slipped into bed beside him. He reached for her in the darkness, fondling her plump, bare shoulder. "Kat? Did all go well?"
"Well enough," she whispered, and curled herself from long habit into his arms.
Everything had gone according to plan except for Bess's refusal to leave the relative safety of Sir Anthony's house before dawn. Kat closed her eyes and concentrated all her energies on prayer. She prayed no one would see Bess creeping forth with the sun and question her presence. Then she prayed that the assurance she'd just given her husband would prove true. Finally she prayed that Sir Anthony Shelby's mission to Strasbourg might be blessed with like success. ~ ~ ~
Cordell Shelby sat on the floor of their garret chamber, cradling her father's head in her lap as hoarse sobs racked her body. She mourned deeply, and had lost count of how many hours had passed. Only when the first sign of dawn light filtered through her window did she realize she must take control of her grief. Much depended upon her now that Sir Anthony was gone. She had no choice but to begin without delay.
He had not revealed who had poisoned him, but those last three words had provided a motive for the murder. Their enemies must have discovered that he was a spy.
Carefully, Cordell draped the discarded coverlet over her father's body, then dressed herself quickly. The kirtle was faced with silk but had long, close-fitting sleeves and had been made in padded pleats for warmth. She was glad of it, and the heavy fabric of her over-dress, for never had she felt so cold. The brazier had gone out, unnoticed, but it was deep-seated dread that chilled her blood so thoroughly.
Shoving icy feet into soft leather shoes, she prayed for patience. Finding proof of murder would take time, for no one in this house would willingly help her. They'd not even support her if she claimed her father had been murdered and went to the local authorities, and since she was a foreigner and a woman besides, she had no real hope of convincing any official in Strasbourg to listen. Her only recourse was to find proof against the guilty party and take it, together with her father's carefully gathered evidence of treason, back to England.
An hour later, when all was ready, she ran screaming from the room. Her loud lamentations produced the desired effect. Two men followed her back upstairs.
Taking a deep breath, Cordell ran ahead of them into the chamber to whip the coverlet off Sir Anthony's body and turn to study their faces as they got their first glimpse of his contorted face and limbs. "My father died of poison," Cordell cried out, narrowing her sharp-sighted blue eyes to catch every nuance of their reaction.
She'd hoped the sudden sight and smell of death would combine with her blunt statement to produce some recognizable sign of guilt, but these were men whose expressions rarely gave anything away, certainly not fear, nor pity, nor surprise. Matthew Wood, his hard, porcine eyes nearly hidden in fleshy pockets, returned her gaze with unnerving intensity, already suspicious because she was no longer dissolved in noisy grief.
Cordell meant to provide further histrionics, but not just yet. Instead she lowered both her lashes and her head and wished she'd thought to leave her hair unbound instead of anchoring it firmly under a white linen coif. Thick, unruly, dark brown tresses would have concealed her expression while still allowing her to see.
John Ponet, he who had been Bishop of Winchester before Mary Tudor took the throne of England, knelt to study the body more closely. "A seizure," he solemnly proclaimed, trying to account for the swelling and discoloration. Closing the dead eyes with one fastidious finger he rose quickly and began to brush dust from his long, black, clerical robe. A moon-faced, tousle-haired man of medium height, he was only slightly taller than Cordell. As he patted her shoulder in an affected effort at offering comfort, he looked both puzzled and mildly perturbed.
Disappointed in their reactions, Cordell realized she must now make clear that she had misspoke and counteract, for her own safety, any impression that she'd meant to imply her father's sudden death a murder. "He supped in the city," she whispered to Ponet, an artful catch in her voice. "Oh, m'lord, I fear some ignorant person did add poisonous greens into a salad, like that terrible tragedy in London last June. You must remember, m'lord. You were still in England then."
Leaves of wolfsbane had been plucked by mistake for parsley, chopped and mixed with lettuce, and served up to the innkeeper's guests with dire results. Cordell had no doubt that Sir Anthony had also been killed by this deadly plant. She was equally certain that the poison had not gotten into his food by accident, not at this time of year. Wolfsbane bloomed in summer. The error at the Blossom had been stupid but understandable. In November such leaves would be available only if they had been deliberately saved for the purpose?for murder.
"Alas, child," Ponet said in his slow, measured voice. "I had troubles of mine own last June and recall nothing of this tragedy, but 'tis possible such another mischance did occur."
Cordell buried her face in her hands and swayed a little. She'd babbled below stairs that she'd found her father, already dead, after rising and dressing for the day. They might allow some time for the shock of such a grisly discovery to wear off, but soon she'd have to pretend to give way to her grief and weep and wail convincingly.
"Just so, child," Ponet continued, warming to the theory and the sound of his own voice. "Salad greens, or bad mushrooms." Then he began to speak of God's will, and the assurance of Heaven for those who had found the one true religion, but Cordell was no longer listening.
Was he telling the truth? Had he known nothing of events at the Blossom? The end of June it had been, and the talk of London until a fall of blood-red hailstones on the sixth of July replaced it as a topic of conversation. Ponet had been at Court then, as her father had, and the young king had been dying. Court had been at Greenwich, not Whitehall, not so far from London but far enough that Cordell had never been there.
Confused, she continued to hide her face. Ponet could be lying. He could have heard all the details of the deaths at the Blossom, from his wife perhaps, and he could have been with Sir Anthony last night, putting poison in the food or the condiments. Still, if he had, why would he even consider her suggestion? He should be insisting that Sir Anthony's death was the result of a sudden paroxysm, as he'd first surmised.
As if he'd read her troubled thoughts, Matthew Wood interrupted Ponet's incipient sermon. "'Tis passing certain this was no accident."
"What mean you, Master Wood?" Cordell's heart pounded much faster. Was he about to confess to the crime, or implicate Ponet?
Her gaze traveled up a barrel-shaped chest covered by a shirt of finest lawn and a plain but expensive black doublet, past heavy jowls partially hidden by a thick brown beard, to a crafty expression which immediately squashed her fleeting hopes. Her suspicions increased tenfold, she looked quickly away, down at her own hands, only to discover that without realizing it she'd been tearing at her narrow white wrist-frills until they were nearly detached from her sleeves. Willing her short, blunt fingers to be still, she waited.
A well-to-do merchant, English by birth but long established in the continental trading city of Strasbourg, Matthew Wood had taken in first Ponet and his wife, who fled their homeland on the day the Duke of Northumberland was arrested, and then Cordell and her father, who arrived two months thereafter. He was motivated not by friendship or by kindness, but by a fanatic desire to restore the reformed church to Mary Tudor's England. His house and his fortune were at the heart of a plan for rebellion, the plot Sir Anthony had sworn to foil.
"Your grandfather was taken in a like manner," he said. "I have heard he was healthy at morning prayers and dead in the stable an hour after."
Cordell wanted to argue, but thought better of it. She did not know how her grandfather, Sir Hugh Shelby, had died, for it had been before she was born. Plainly Matthew Wood wished to put a quick end to speculations about poison. She took his convenient tale of a family weakness to be evidence pointing to his guilt. If he had killed her father, Cordell silently vowed, he'd pay with his own life.
Knowing that questions now could accomplish nothing, and that a direct accusation might prove fatal, Cordell set out to make them believe she accepted their verdict of a natural death. Grief still warred with her determination to seek justice and the tears she began to shed were real enough.
Ponet, his doubts lulled, bestowed a few more awkward pats on her shoulder while she wept, but Wood snorted and left the room. Moments later he returned to announce that he had sent his servant, Martin, a stolid, stupid lad who rarely spoke, to fetch Mistress Wood and Mistress Ponet.
Time was her enemy, too, Cordell realized, but she still had enough to try to trick the conspirators into betraying themselves. With a little gasp, she took two tottering steps toward her father's body and cried out, "I cannot bear it!" Then she rolled her eyes back into her head, tilted sideways, and crumpled to the floor.
"Poor child," Ponet said from somewhere above. "We must be responsible for her now that her father's gone." He'd made no effort to catch her or cushion her fall, and did not attempt to revive her.
"She is no child," Wood snapped, "but a very froward female of full age to inherit." He came closer, and Cordell felt the toe of his leather boot connect with her hip as he glowered down at her. It was not quite a kick, but it was no accidental contact, either. Then Wood's voice faded as he turned away. "She should have been married by her age, with a husband to take Shelby's place. Women have no ability to manage their own property."
Cordell could hear him searching Sir Anthony's possessions and was glad she'd already thought to go through them. He'd find nothing but the few books and clothes they'd brought with them into exile.
"Mayhap she will turn to you for guidance," Ponet suggested, "as Madame Paradis did in Boulogne when her husband died."
"I do much doubt it. Shelby was passing foolish. He had her educated as if she were a boy with the unfortunate result that Mistress Cordell has an over-high opinion of her own intelligence and takes advice ill. She'll bear watching."
"How foolish? I wonder." They were on the far side of the garret, speaking low, but Cordell's hearing was as sharp as her eyesight and her mind. Ponet sounded fretful. "Could he have confided our plans to her?"
"Confide in a woman?" Derisive laughter followed Wood's question. "No, not even Shelby would have been so misguided as to trust one of his daughters with our secrets."
"Three of them, are there not? And no sons?"
Still feigning unconsciousness, Cordell scarcely dared breathe. It was as cold on the floor as it was out of doors, and the chill of early November crept in through every crack. She tried not to shiver as she eavesdropped, for although she knew she'd have to come out of this false faint soon, she still hoped to hear more. She willed them to speak of murder, or say something more about their treasonous plot, but they seemed more concerned with her father's estate.
"Only two. She is co-heiress with a married sister." Wood paused in thought, then added, "If we find her a suitable husband, then half the income of Shelby Hall will be diverted to our glorious cause. Any one of our party will do, that is not already burdened with a wife."
Furious at Wood's mercenary suggestion, Cordell was hard put to stay quiet. She could well imagine the sort of man he'd consider suitable. Neither age nor habits would matter so long as he worshiped in the correct manner and supported the plans for rebellion. Only the knowledge that she could not be forced to marry anyone consoled Cordell. Her father had been careful to explain the law when she came of age. Now that he was dead, as long as she remained unmarried, she had complete control over both her person and her property. Only men and widows had like freedom under English law, for wives and daughters were mere chattel.
Cordell was about to stage her recovery when footsteps sounded outside the door. She heard the swish of taffeta skirts and caught a whiff of lilac just in time to brace herself for a stinging slap on each cheek. Willing her eyes to stay closed, knowing that if they flew open her tormentor would see all the hatred and frustration in her soul, she only groaned softly, and tried, eyes still squeezed tightly shut, to sit up. Without further ceremony she was jerked to her feet.
Ponet's wife, no wife at all under current English law, was a hard, embittered woman, thin and angular with a sharp, hawklike nose and lips that seemed permanently pursed in disapproval. "Come, Cordell," she said harshly. "You shirk your duty. We must prepare Sir Anthony for burial." ~ ~ ~
Later that same day Ponet's successor to the See of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, passed through the curtained door that led into Queen Mary's Presence Chamber. Full of his own importance, for he was also Lord Chancellor and high in the new monarch's favor, he barely noticed the female occupants of the outer room. If he had been asked to recall one in particular, a short, plump woman of indeterminate age, relentlessly average in general appearance, he'd doubtless have denied she was there.
So nondescript as to be almost invisible, the woman called Kat reminded Lady Clinton not so much of a feline as a little brown wren. Her presence caused not a ripple of interest, for no one in the room save Lady Clinton realized that her plain exterior concealed a complex and devious mind.
"I have brought the canvas you asked for, Lady Clinton," Kat said softly, bobbing in an acceptably subservient way that was negated by the glitter in her deep-set eyes. "'Tis but a poor thing of mine own design."
The pattern would become an embroidered cushion cover, its predominant feature a branching tree rising from a mound of flowers. "A pity I did not have it earlier, Mistress Astley," Lady Clinton said as she unfolded the heavy fabric. "It might have been a suitable gift for the christening of Lady Cavendish's baby. I served as proxy for Queen Mary, the child's godmother."
"A great honor, for both your ladyship and the babe. And the godfathers?"
"The Bishop of Winchester and the Duke of Suffolk." Unlike her companion, Lady Clinton had memorable features, including the green eyes, red hair, and pale, clear skin of her FitzGerald ancestors. As a girl she'd inspired love sonnets. As a woman of twenty-five she possessed a more mature but equally potent beauty. "You were right to be suspicious," she added softly, under cover of examining the intricate design. "M'Lord Suffolk tried to recruit Cavendish to his cause."
Kat lifted a brow. Suffolk's foolhardy behavior surprised her, for if Lady Clinton, who all believed a faithful servant to Queen Mary, had overheard that much of the conversation, then only luck had prevented Winchester from bearing witness to Suffolk's seditious suggestions. Suffolk had been spared trial for treason against Mary Tudor once, though his daughter was still under sentence of death. He'd not be forgiven a second time.
Dangerous men, she realized anew, driven by greed and religious fervor, soon became desperate. She'd known already that such as they placed little value on the lives of others, but the certainty that Suffolk would sacrifice his own child, having two more daughters to take her place, chilled Kat's blood.
"What success had he with Cavendish?"
"None at all."
Kat nodded, well pleased, as she scanned the faces of the velvet clad ladies and their waiting women to be sure none were eavesdropping. No one showed the least interest in their conversation. "The older child's godmother now lodges in a house on Newgate Street, just north of St. Paul's."
Lady Clinton kept her gaze on the new canvas, but for a moment she visualized Bess as she had been, and felt a twinge of pity. "One does not even know what to call her now," she murmured. Bess, who had been born Elizabeth Brooke, had been legally wed to Will Parr, Marquis of Northampton, at the last Cavendish christening. That had been two years ago, when Edward VI was still alive. Back then no one had suspected what the Duke of Northumberland was planning. No one had guessed how sick the boy-king was.
Shaking herself out of her melancholy, Lady Clinton signaled for her woman to bring silks while Kat nodded amiably and bobbed in her direction once more before scurrying away. An hour later the motto inscribed as part of Kat's design was complete. Although she had little Latin, Lady Clinton knew what the letters spelled. In English the words meant "the die is cast." ~ ~ ~
Roger Allington read Sir Anthony's letter with a mixture of amusement and frustration. He knew well enough which was the true message, but the words that concealed it served as an unwanted reminder of two things Roger wished he could forget, his own lack of success in Geneva, and Sir Anthony's irritating daughter Cordell.
He drew his coffer-seat chair closer to the hearth and propped leather-booted feet on an equally hard wooden stool. The pose was deceptively casual. He had the look of a pampered gentleman of leisure, carefree and unconcerned with the world's woes. Tall, almost lanky, Roger had a loose-limbed grace to his movements that disguised, at first, his exemplary coordination and the speed with which he could react. He was skilled in the use of sword and dagger, pistol and longbow, for at the English Court he'd honed such skills, training as a soldier as well as a courtier.
Reaching for a conveniently placed flagon, Roger refilled his cup with fine Rhenish. Their rotund, multi-lingual innkeeper kept a clean, vermin-free house and Roger had been most comfortable during the stay in Geneva. His only complaint was that the Swiss, like their French brothers, did much overcook the cabbage.
His thirst quenched, he reread the letter, then stared down the extreme length of lemon-yellow hose toward the cheerful blaze warming his booted feet.
Until four months ago he hadn't seen her in years, but he had never forgotten her. For a brief, traumatic period of his life she'd been the bane of his existence. He might have guessed she'd grow to womanhood with the same thorny nature.
Suddenly restless, Roger uncrossed his ankles and reversed their position. The fire seemed too hot now, even through the thick leather soles.
Cordell Shelby, he thought again, picturing her in his mind. Comely enough, he supposed, but no great beauty, and cursed with a sharp tongue that could cut a man to shreds. No, he had no intention of falling in with Sir Anthony's scheme. Cordell, he suspected, would have even less liking for the idea, and she had ever been able to cozen her father. Though he'd never say it to his old friend and mentor, Roger secretly thought it most unmanly the way Sir Anthony let a woman's wishes influence him.
Swift, heavy footfalls announced the imminent return of his traveling companion, Sir Francis Knollys. Abandoning profitless thoughts of Cordell Shelby, Roger turned his attention to the matter at hand. He anticipated no difficulty in convincing the older man to visit Strasbourg as an alternative to Geneva but before he could broach the subject, Knollys was waving a letter of his own and well-launched into a familiar lament.
"Lettice again," Sir Francis muttered, referring to his daughter Laetitia. "That girl will send me to an early grave yet. Her mother writes that she's twice given her governess the slip and disappeared for hours each time. I do much fear the outcome."
"You've instilled your own values in her," Roger reminded him. "Surely there is naught to fear."
Even as he spoke the comforting words, Roger could think of any number of reasons for concern. The least objectionable would bring about an unplanned marriage alliance with some neighboring landholder's son.
"There are unemployed soldiers roaming the countryside in England now," Sir Francis fretted, "adding to a vagabond population that has never been safe. Many would murder for the clothes a well-to-do young gentlewoman like my Lettice wears." He did not need to add that few would respect the innocence of any maiden who chose to steal away from home alone.
"'Tis that damned royal blood," Sir Francis grumbled. At Roger's startled look, he gave a short, embarrassed bark of laughter. "You did not know? My lady wife is the love child of old King Harry and Mary Boleyn, Queen Anne's sister. 'Tis said he had the mother, too. You're too young to have known much of Henry's Court, but in the early days the name they had for Greenwich, Pleasuance, was apt. 'Twas a palace of pleasures if ever there was one."
Roger had not been born yet when Henry VIII began to accumulate wives and mistresses, but he had been at Court in the last year of Henry's reign and he'd found it none too tame then. The scandal of the Marquis of Northampton's divorce and remarriage came immediately to mind.
"The girl needs to be married," Sir Francis was saying. "But who will take her now? Even if the royal blood is not acknowledged, she's undeniably a cousin to Elizabeth Tudor on the Boleyn side. Such connections are dangerous, as I can testify."
Sir Francis helped himself to the Rhenish, heaved a great sigh, then folded the letter away to be worried over later. From the same placket he removed a deck of cards. "A game of Pope July?" he suggested. "Or Gleek or Primero?"
Recalled to his purpose, Roger declined. "I have received word of a matter that has need of my personal attention," he said carefully. "In Strasbourg."
"Strasbourg? Excellent. I did hear that Ponet was there."
Cautiously, Roger nodded. "I believe he stops at the house of one Matthew Wood."
Sir Francis had long been a most zealous supporter of the New Religion. His business in Geneva, secretly scouting possibilities for a home for himself and his family in exile, had made him a useful cover for Roger's own covert activities, and yet that same religious fervor represented potential danger. Too many people in that faction had suspected the depth of Roger's disillusionment during the final days of King Edward's life, the disillusionment Sir Anthony Shelby shared.
After Knollys left him, Roger continued to stare at the dying fire. Could Ponet already suspect what they were about? Roger hoped that wasn't the meaning of the coded message Sir Anthony's letter had contained. He consoled himself with the knowledge that whatever the cause for his mentor's concern, he'd learn the details soon enough. Had he not been given ample reason to speak with Sir Anthony in private as soon as he did reach Strasbourg?
And then he'd face Cordell again.
To his considerable surprise, Roger realized that he was looking forward to the encounter.