Imperial Free City of Augsburg
Muttering invective, Eleanor Pendennis stormed out of the bedchamber. Sir Walter watched her go with a mixture of irritation and regret. Ill temper would build into a towering rage before the day was out. The fury in his wife's wide hazel eyes already flashed brighter than the gold clasp fastening her new velvet cloak.
The scent of sweet marjoram lingered after her departure. Once upon a time, he would have said it was his favorite perfume. Now he found it cloying, and Eleanor more so.
She was a strong-minded woman. In the general way of things, he admired the quality, especially when it was combined with feminine grace and fierce passion, but during the last four months Eleanor's willfulness had tried his patience. When she recovered from this latest heat, he'd have to remind her, in a calm and reasonable way, of the vow she had taken to obey her husband in all things.
Now that he'd succeeded in negotiating a secret loan from the bankers of Augsburg to Elizabeth of England, Walter meant to return home. He would not go to London, where he'd lodged for many years, but to his estate in Cornwall, there to rusticate and renew relations with his brothers?it had been years since he'd seen any of them?and sire sons of his own to raise up into country gentlemen.
Eleanor had not been happy with his plan when she'd first heard of it. She'd wanted him to accept another ambassadorship. When he'd refused to consider that alternative, she'd reviled him, complaining that he no longer loved her. He wondered if she had the right of it. Of late it seemed as if they could not be in the same room together without quarreling.
Walter donned his warm, dark green wool cloak, resigned to the fact that the interior of the church was always damnably cold. As he'd expected, Eleanor had left the house without waiting for him to escort her to the small stone edifice used by Augsburg's English congregation. She was well ahead of him, striding along the cobbled street at a rapid pace and paying no attention to her surroundings. He suspected she was still mumbling epithets under her breath.
Out of habit, Walter paused a moment longer before he left cover. Most passersby were on their way to divine worship, dressed in their somber best, but he did spot a pickpocket in the crowd, and a whore making her way home after a long night's work. There was no one who presented any threat to him, but he could not help but be glad he'd soon be able to leave crowded cities and their dangers behind.
Walter had always intended his present assignment to be his last. Eleanor would have to accept that he had lost his desire to fight dragons for the queen. After years of service to the Crown, first as an intelligence gatherer and then as a diplomat, he was ready to retire.
Thinking of the clean, bracing air of home, he inhaled deeply, then choked on the reek of offal from a nearby butcher's stall. Only a bit less powerful was the rich aroma of a pile of horse dung so fresh it was still steaming. Shaking his head, he set out after his wife.
The babble of churchgoers calling out greetings to one another vied with the clatter of hooves and the rattle of wheels on cobblestones. A cheerful cacophony, Walter thought, just as a farm wagon hurtled past him at breakneck speed, scattering the crowd in its wake. It had seemed to appear out of nowhere, and pedestrians up ahead were still oblivious to the danger bearing down on them.
"Eleanor!" Walter shouted. "To me!"
If she heard him at all, she mistook his warning for another attempt to dictate her actions. Stubborn to the last, she continued on.
Time slowed to a crawl. Walter began to run, but he was too far away to avert disaster.
At the last instant, Eleanor glanced over her shoulder and saw her doom approaching. Her terrified scream drowned out all other sound until it broke off with horrifying abruptness. There was no room for the draft horse to veer around her in the narrow thoroughfare. As Walter watched in disbelief and horror, his wife was knocked down and trampled by the runaway. Flashing hooves struck her. Then the wagon's heavy load passed over her prostrate form with a sickening series of thumps.
Stunned, Walter skidded to a halt. The wildly careening wagon continued on, leaving Eleanor behind. Unmoving, she lay face down on the cobbles. Her once bright crimson cloak was mud stained and blood streaked, the lace trim torn. Her limbs splayed at unnatural angles beneath the folds of her finery.
Walter's legs refused to function. His mind struggled to deny what his eyes saw. The landmarks around him faded, buildings and people alike becoming a blur. He tasted bile.
On the heels of his own anguished whisper, Walter began to run again, frantic now to reach her. Already fearing the worst, his stomach twisted as he flung himself to his knees by her side. He reached out, intending to turn her over, to gather her into his arms. He stopped himself just in time.
He had been in battle, seen men injured, seen them hurt more terribly still by rough handling afterward. If Eleanor, by some chance, was still alive ...
Many hours later, Walter sat by his wife's bedside. He wanted to pray for her recovery. Instead his thoughts churned restlessly, struggling to come to terms with a bleak future.
Eleanor's injuries were dreadful. One hip had been broken, and the opposite leg. She had sustained horrible bruises and a number of deep cuts. Bandages swathed one side of her face. One shoulder had been dislocated. The physician, a man well respected in Augsburg for his knowledge of medicine, did not expect her to survive. He warned that if by some miracle she did recover, she would never walk again. She'd spend the rest of her life crippled and disfigured.
Could she live with that?
Could he stand to see her suffer?
He had no answers. He did not even know which outcome to pray for. A short, bitter laugh escaped him as he recalled that they'd been on their way to church when the accident occurred.
Eleanor's voice was so faint that he thought at first he'd imagined the sound. Her eyes remained closed. Her breathing was still ragged and shallow.
"There's naught to forgive."
A little sob escaped her. Although it obviously pained her to do so, she raised her eyelids sufficient to peer up at him. He leaned closer, taking her cold hand in his. His heart ached for her ... and for himself.
"Rest, Eleanor. You have grave injuries."
"Am I nigh unto death?"
He could not bring himself to choke out an answer, but she must have read the seriousness of her condition in his expression.
"I have done a terrible thing," she whispered.
"No!" Her voice grew stronger. Determination gleamed in the hazel depths of her slitted, agony-filled eyes. "Hear me out. You must."
"As you wish."
He expected to be told she'd spent the household money on fine fabric, or, at most, that she'd gone behind his back and written to someone at the English court to inquire about his prospects for employment there.
"I have betrayed you, Walter. And England. The proof of it is in my little cypress box, beneath the false bottom."
Although every word of her confession was painful to them both, she soldiered on, unfolding a story that first hurt, then shocked, then angered him. He could scarce fail to believe her. Not only was this a deathbed declaration, but she offered evidence of her perfidy.
Eleanor had lapsed into unconsciousness by the time he'd deciphered the damning document he found in her hiding place. With grim precision, he slid it back into its oilskin pouch, replaced the packet in the cypress box, and snapped the false bottom into place.
Did he know his wife at all? Had he ever? He'd never guessed that she would go to such lengths to avoid retiring to Cornwall.
With the clarity of hindsight, he realized Eleanor had been the one who'd urged him to request that first appointment as an ambassador. Newly married, they'd been sent to the court of Sigismund Augustus of Poland. Later he'd been appointed an envoy to Sweden's king Erik. Apparently, Eleanor loved the excitement of life at court so much that she'd been unable to give it up. Instead, she'd involved herself in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth of England, gambling that the queen's successor would reward her with a place in the royal household.
She had turned traitor.
Hands curled into fists, Walter avoided looking at her still form on the bed. He could not bear to go near her, knowing that she had betrayed him and all he stood for.
Hardening his heart against Eleanor, resolved to waste no more pity on someone who had so foully abused his trust, Walter examined the letters she'd kept in the top compartment of her cypress box. He found nothing in any of them to alarm him, but the most recent communication from their mutual friend Lady Appleton, which Eleanor had not seen fit to show him, did contain surprising news.
By the time Walter left his wife's chamber, his thoughts had turned to how he could best use the information she had given him. Before their marriage, he had devoted himself to ferreting out and thwarting plots against the Crown. This was familiar territory. He'd send a warning to the queen first, but there was also much more he could do to protect the realm.
He called the servants together and gave terse instructions in a voice that brooked no disobedience. That done, he extracted enough Hungarian ducats, Rhenish gulder, rose nobles, and crona from his money chest to fill a substantial pouch, sufficient to ensure that the physician who'd treated Eleanor would swear to any who inquired that her injuries had been minor, her recovery imminent.
On the morrow, Walter intended to take his wife, dead or alive, out of the city in a covered carriage. Her tiring maid had been hired during their sojourn in Cracow. He'd send the woman home from the first city they passed through on their way north. Then, with the help of his manservant, Jacob, who had been with him for years and was unquestionably loyal, he'd be able to bury Eleanor in secret.
Conspirators in England expected her to deliver a packet to them when she returned home. Walter did not mean to disappoint them. A substitution would be made, not only of its contents but of its messenger.
He permitted himself a small, grim smile as he contemplated the single stroke of good luck in all this. The person most ideally suited to take Eleanor's place was also on the Continent, in Hamburg. He'd appeal first, he decided, to Susanna Appleton's loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, but if that did not work, he'd not hesitate to compel her cooperation by reminding her that she owed him her life.