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TOWER OF LONDON, ENGLAND
They were intimate enemies, bound by blood. Here in the torchlit splendor of the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, they’d fought yet another of their battles. As always, there was no winner. They’d inflicted wounds that would be slow to heal, and that, too, was familiar. Nothing had changed, nothing had been resolved. But never had the stakes been so high. It shimmered in the shadows between them, the ultimate icon of power: England’s royal crown.
Few knew better than Eleanor of Aquitaine how seductive that power could be. In her youth, she’d wed the French king, then left him for the man who would become King of England. That passionate, turbulent marriage of love and hate was part of her distant, eventful past; if Henry’s unquiet ghost still stalked the realm of marital memory, she alone knew it. Now in her seventy-first year, she was England’s revered Dowager Queen, rising above the ruins of her life like a castle impervious to assault. If her fabled beauty had faded, her wit had not, and her will was as finely honed as the sword of her most celebrated son, Richard Lionheart, the crusader king languishing in a German prison. But she was much more than Richard’s mother, his invincible ally: She was his only hope.
The torches sputtered in their wall sconces, sending up wavering fingers of flame. The silence grew louder by the moment, thudding in her ears like an army’s drumbeat. She watched as he paced, this youngest of her eaglets. John, Count of Mortain and Earl of Gloucester, would-be king. He seethed with barely suppressed fury, giving off almost as much heat as those erratic torches. His spurs struck white sparks against the tiled floor, and the swirl of his mantle gave her a glimpse of the sword at his hip. This might be her last chance to reach him, to avert calamity. What could she say that he would heed? What threat was likely to work? What promise?
“I will not allow you to steal Richard’s crown,” she said tautly. “Understand that if you understand nothing else, John. As long as I have breath in my body, I will oppose you in this. As will the justiciars.”
“You think so?” he scoffed. “They held fast today, but who knows what may happen on the morrow? They might well decide that England would be better served by a living king than a dead one!”
“Richard is not dead.”
“How can you be so sure of that, Madame? Have you second-sight? Or is this merely a doting mother’s lapse into maudlin sentimentality?”
Beneath his savage sarcasm, she caught echoes of an emotion he would never acknowledge: a jealousy more bitter than gall. “Bring us back incontrovertible proof of Richard’s death,” she said, “and we will then consider your claim to the throne.”
John’s eyes showed sudden glints of green. “You mean you would weigh my claim against Arthur’s, do you not?”
“Richard named his nephew as his heir. I did not,” she said pointedly. “Must I remind you that you are my son, flesh of my flesh? Why would I not want the kingship for you?”
“That is a question I’ve often asked myself.”
“If you’d have me say it, listen, then. I want you to be king. Not Arthur—you.”
He could not hide a flicker of surprise. “You almost sound as if you mean that.”
“I do, John,” she said. “I swear by all the saints that I do.”
For a moment, he hesitated, and she thought she’d gotten to him.
“But not whilst Brother Richard lives?”
“No,” she said, very evenly, “not whilst Richard lives.”
The silence that followed seemed endless to her. She’d always found it difficult to read his thoughts, could never see into his soul. He was a stranger in so many ways, this son so unlike Richard. His eyes locked upon hers, with a hawk’s unblinking intensity. Whatever he’d been seeking, he did not find, though, for his mouth twisted into a sardonic, mirthless smile. “Alas,” he said, “I’ve never been one for waiting.”
Justin de Quincy paused in the doorway of the queen’s great hall. Never had he seen so many highborn lords at one time, barons of the realm and princes of the Church and all of the justiciars: Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen; William Marshal; Geoffrey Fitz Peter; William Brewer; and Hugh Bardolf. These were men of rank and privilege, milling about now like so many lost sheep, agitated and uneasy. What was amiss?
William Longsword was standing a few feet away and Justin headed in his direction. He felt an instinctive sense of kinship to the other man, for they were both outsiders. Will was a king’s bastard, half-brother to Richard and John, raised at court but never quite belonging . . . like Justin himself. He hadn’t been as lucky as Will, had grown up believing himself to be an orphan, the unwanted child of an unnamed wanton who’d died giving him birth. Only several months ago had he learned the truth. He was no foundling. The man who’d taken him in as a much-praised act of Christian charity was the man who’d sired him, Aubrey de Quincy, Bishop of Chester.
That stunning revelation had turned Justin’s world upside down, and he was still struggling to come to terms with it. He had no right to the name de Quincy, had claimed it at the whimsical suggestion of the woman who’d become his unlikely patroness. That act of prideful defiance had given him no satisfaction, for it was like paying a debt with counterfeit coin. He had a new identity, a new life. He was still haunted, though, by the life he’d left behind, by the father who’d refused to acknowledge him.
“Justin!” Will had an easy smile, an affable manner, and none of his half-brothers’ unsated hunger for lands, honours, and kingship. “When did you get back from Winchester? Come here, lad, there is someone I want you to meet.”
William Marshal, Lord of Striguil and Pembroke, was a very wealthy man, holding vast estates in South Wales by right of his wife, a great heiress. A justiciar, sheriff of Gloucestershire, a baron who cherished hopes of being invested with an earldom, Marshal was one of the most influential men in the kingdom, and Justin greeted him somewhat shyly, for he was not yet accustomed to breathing the rarefied air of the royal court. Just a few brief months ago, he’d been a nobody, a bastard of unknown parentage serving as a squire with no hopes of advancement, and now he was . . .
“The queen’s man,” Will said heartily, clapping Justin playfully on the shoulder. “De Quincy is the lad I told you about, William, the one who brought Queen Eleanor the news that Richard was captured on his way home from the crusade.”
It seemed strange to Justin to hear it spoken of so openly now, for the secret of that bloodstained letter had nearly cost him his life. He could only marvel at the random nature of fate, at the improbable series of events that had been set in motion by his decision to ride out of Winchester on a snowy Epiphany morn. Because he’d stumbled onto the ambush of the queen’s messenger, he’d found himself entangled in a conspiracy of kings, matching wits with the queen’s son John and a murderous outlaw known as Gilbert the Fleming, sharing his bed with a seductive temptress who’d broken his heart with her betrayal, and winning a prize greater than the Holy Grail—the queen’s favor.
Will was praising him so lavishly now that Justin flushed, both pleased and discomfited to be hailed as a hero. For most of his twenty years, compliments had been rarer than dragon’s teeth; he could remember nary a one ever coming out of his father’s mouth. “My lords, may I ask what has occurred here? I’ve been to wakes that were more cheerful than this assemblage.” He hesitated briefly then, but he’d earned the right to ask. “Has there been bad news about the king?”
“No—as far as we know, nothing has changed; Richard remains the prisoner of that whoreson emperor of the Romans. The trouble is closer to home.”
Will’s face had taken on so unhappy a cast that Justin realized the trouble must involve John, for he knew the man harbored a genuine fondness for his younger brother. It was William Marshal who confirmed his suspicions, saying brusquely, “John summoned the justiciars to meet him this morn here at the Tower. He then claimed that Richard is dead and demanded that we recognize him as the rightful king.”
Justin was startled; he hadn’t expected John to make so bold a move. “They did not agree?”
“Of course not. We told him that we have no proof of the king’s death and until we do, the only king we will recognize is Richard.”
Justin felt a surge of relief; he hadn’t been sure the other justiciars would be as resolute as Marshal and the Archbishop of Rouen. The bleak truth was that they could not be utterly sure that Richard still lived. If he had sickened and died in confinement, the crown would be John’s for the taking, for few were likely to support his rival claimant, a five-year-old boy dwelling in Brittany. So it was only to be expected that the justiciars would be loath to antagonize the man who might well be their next king, a man who forgot little, forgave even less.
“What happened then?”
“John flew into a rage,” Will said sadly, “and made some ugly threats. The queen then insisted that they speak in private, and they withdrew to her chapel. If anyone in Christendom can talk some sense into John, for certes it will be the queen.” Will did not sound very sanguine, though, and Marshal, a man known for speaking his mind plainly, gave a skeptical snort.
“Would you care to wager on that, Will? I could use some extra money.” He went on to express his opinion of John’s honour in far-from-flattering terms. By then Justin was no longer listening, for Claudine de Loudun was coming toward them.
The men welcomed her with enthusiasm—the young widow was a favorite with both Williams. All three engaged in some mildly flirtatious bantering, while Justin stood conspicuously silent, dreading what was to come.
Even as she teased the other men, Claudine’s dark eyes kept wandering toward Justin, her gaze at once caressing and questioning. Finally she cast propriety to the winds and linked her arm through his, murmuring throatily that she needed a private word with Master de Quincy. Both Wills grinned broadly and waved them on, for Claudine’s clandestine liaison with Justin de Quincy was a poorly kept secret in a court in which only Eleanor’s secrets seemed secure.
Steering Justin toward the comparative privacy of a window seat, Claudine began to scold him lovingly. “Why did you not let me know you were back from Winchester? If I’d had some warning, I could have coaxed the queen into giving me a free afternoon. But she’s not likely to be in any mood to grant favors now, for this latest exorcism of hers is bound to fail.”
Others might not have understood the joking reference to exorcism. Justin did, though, for she’d confided to him that her private name for John was the Prince of Darkness. As he looked upon the heart-shaped face upturned to his, the thought came to him, unbidden and ugly: What did she call John in bed? He drew a sharp breath, not wanting to go down that road. He knew that she was John’s spy. Was she John’s concubine, too? He pushed the suspicion away, to be dealt with later. Now he must concentrate upon the danger at hand. How could he conceal his knowledge of her treachery? Surely she must see it writ plain upon his face.
Apparently not, for her smile did not waver. Those brown eyes were bright with laughter and temptation. Justin was shaken to the depths of his soul as he realized how much power she still wielded over him. How could he still want this woman? She’d betrayed him without a qualm. Even worse, she’d betrayed her royal mistress and kinswoman, the queen. And she’d almost seduced him into betraying the queen, too. For more than a fortnight, he’d kept her guilty secret, at last unburdening himself to Eleanor in a surge of self-hatred, only to find that she already knew of Claudine’s perfidy. But Claudine must not know that she’d been exposed. If John learned that his spy was compromised, he’d look elsewhere. Eleanor had been able to act as if her trust was still intact, but his role was far more precarious, for he was Claudine’s lover.
Claudine beckoned to a wine bearer, claiming two cups for them. “Did all go as you hoped in Winchester, Justin? Was that outlaw hanged?”
He nodded. “I’ll tell you about it later. What has happened at the court whilst I was away? Will just told me that John is back from France.” He tensed then, for John’s name seemed to sink like a stone in the conversational waters, sure to stir up ripples of suspicion between them.
Claudine appeared to take his curiosity as natural. “Did Will tell you, too, that John has laid claim to the crown?” Lowering her voice, she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Do you think he found out what was in that bloodied letter? The one claiming that King Richard drowned when his ship was wrecked in a storm? We know now that it was not true, but mayhap John thinks he can make use of it somehow?”
This was the tale Justin had spun, entrapping her in her own web of lies. The memory was still so raw that he winced, reluctant to relive one of the worst moments of his life. Claudine saw his disquiet and squeezed his arm in puzzled sympathy. “Justin . . . is something wrong?”
“No,” he said swiftly. “I . . .” Groping for a plausible response, he found it in the sight of the knight just coming into his line of vision. Tall and swaggering, he moved with surprising grace for so big a man, impeccably garbed in an eye-catching scarlet tunic with a dramatic diagonal neckline and tight-fitting cuffed sleeves. But Justin knew that his fashionable courtier’s clothing hid the soul of a pirate. “I did not realize,” he said flatly, “that Durand de Curzon was here.”
“He came with John.” Seeing his surprise, she said quickly, “You did not hear, then? Rumor has it that he was John’s man all along . . . as you suspected. The queen dismissed him from her service.”
Justin did not have to feign his shock; it was very real. “When did this happen?”
“Within the last few days. He—”
Claudine got no further. The door to the queen’s chamber had swung open, and John paused for a moment in the doorway, for he had an actor’s innate sense of timing. The hall hushed, all eyes upon him. He let the suspense build, then gestured to his household knights and strode toward the stairwell, leaving a trail of conjecture and speculation in his wake.
Durand de Curzon started to follow his lord, then stopped abruptly at the sight of Justin. Swerving toward the younger man, he flashed a smile as sharply edged as any dagger. “Lady Claudine,” he murmured, reaching for her hand and bringing it to his mouth with ostentatious gallantry. Claudine snatched her hand away, scowling. Her distaste for Durand seemed genuine to Justin; she might conspire with Durand on John’s behalf, but she had consistently rebuffed his every overture. Durand appeared oblivious to her recoil. “For the life of me,” he said, “I cannot imagine why a woman like you bothers with this callow milksop. You could surely do better for yourself.”
Claudine was a distant kinswoman of the queen and it showed now in the mocking arch of her brow. “You? I’d sooner join a nunnery.”
“And you’d make a right handsome nun. But I believe, darling, that nuns are expected to take a vow of chastity.”
That was too much for Justin. “You need a lesson in manners,” he said angrily, taking a threatening step forward. Claudine thought so, too; her hand tightening around the stem of her wine cup, she flung its contents in Durand’s face. At least that was her intent. Durand not only anticipated her move, he thwarted it, reaching out and grabbing her wrist. Wine sloshed over the rim of her cup, splattering her gown and Durand’s stylish tunic. Unable to break free of the knight’s grip, she turned to Justin for aid. He was already in motion, slashing down upon Durand’s arm with the stiffened edge of his hand. Durand at once let go of Claudine and lunged for Justin’s throat. As Claudine screamed and heads swiveled in their direction, they crashed backward into the window seat.
Before either man could inflict any real damage, others intervened. Will Longsword and William Marshal pulled the combatants apart, and Justin and Durand were forced to stand, panting and flushed, as the Archbishop of Rouen rebuked them indignantly for daring to brawl in the queen’s chambers. Daubing at a cut lip with the back of his sleeve, Durand offered Claudine a laconic, highly suspect apology, shot Justin a look that should have been aimed from a bow, and stalked out. Finding himself the unwanted center of attention, Justin allowed Claudine to lead him into the queen’s chamber to escape the stares and whispers. There she ignored his protests and insisted upon bathing his scraped knuckles in a laver of scented water.
“The least I can do is tend to your wounds,” she chided. “After all, they were gotten on my behalf.” She tilted her face up toward his, her lips parted invitingly. Her breath was warm on his throat and the familiar fragrance of her perfume evoked involuntary erotic memories of their past lovemaking. Justin was never to be sure what would have happened next, for it was then that Eleanor emerged from the chapel.
The queen’s gaze was cool and unrevealing. “Claudine, would you find Peter for me?”
Eleanor’s chancellor was right outside, but Claudine was astute enough to recognize a pretext for privacy when she heard one. “Of course, Madame,” she said. “I’ll see to it straightaway.” Closing the door quietly behind her, she left them alone.
Eleanor moved to the window, beckoning for Justin to join her. Below in the bailey, John was waiting for his stallion to be brought. As they watched, he and his men mounted and rode off. “John will not back down,” Eleanor said at last. “We must find out what he means to do next. Can you get word to Durand?”
Justin rubbed his sore jaw ruefully. “It has been taken care of, my lady.”
“Do I need to know what you and Claudine were doing in here?”
“Yes, Madame, you do. I’d just gotten into a brawl with Durand. He baited me into it and I wish I could say that I realized what he was up to, but I did not. Not un- til we were grappling in the floor rushes and he muttered in my ear, ‘The alehouse on Gracechurch Street, after Compline.’ ”
“I see.” Her face remained impassive, but he thought he could detect a glint of faint humor in those slanting hazel eyes. “Could he not have found an easier way to get that message to you?”
“I was wondering that myself,” Justin said dryly.
“I did not get a chance to tell you that Durand would be joining John’s household knights. The closer he is to John, after all, the more useful he can be to me.” Eleanor’s eyes flicked toward the bloodied basin, then back toward him. “I have need of Durand,” she said. “John trusts him . . . at least a little. But you were right about him, Justin. Bear that in mind in your dealings with him.”
“I will, Madame,” he said somberly, remembering the night he’d learned the truth about Durand de Curzon. He’d called Durand “John’s tame wolf,” and she’d smiled grimly, claiming Durand as hers. In reminding him of that now, she was also warning him. But there was no need. He already knew how dangerous it was to hunt with wolves.
* * *
Justin had been living on Gracechurch Street for barely two months, but he was beginning to think of it as home. His neighbors were hardworking, good-hearted folk for the most part, unabashedly curious about the tall dark youth dwelling in their midst. Secrets did not fare any better on Gracechurch Street than at the royal court, and only the very old and the very young did not know by now that Justin de Quincy was the queen’s man. But he’d been befriended by two of their own—Gunter the smith and Nell, who ran the alehouse—and their friendship was Justin’s passport into their world.
Gunter was alone in the smithy, sharpening a file upon a whetstone. A lean, weathered man in his forties, he was taciturn both by inclination and by experience, and he greeted Justin with a nod, then went back to work. Justin led Copper, his chestnut stallion, into one of the stalls, set about unsaddling him. He would usually have gone on then to the cottage he rented from Gunter, but the wind now brought to him the muffled chiming of church bells; Compline was being rung. “Stop by the alehouse later,” Justin said, “and I’ll buy you a drink.” Getting one of Gunter’s quick, rare smiles in acknowledgment, he hastened out into the April night.
He crossed the street, then ducked under the sagging alepole, entering the alehouse. It reeked of smoke and sweat and other odors best not identified, and was deep in shadow even at midday, for Nell was sparing with her tallow candles and oil lamps; she had to account for every half-penny to the parsimonious, aged owner. As Justin paused to let his eyes adjust to the gloom, a dog erupted from under a bench, barking joyously.
Grinning, Justin bent to tussle playfully with the capering animal. “I should have known I’d find you over here,” he said, and Shadow wriggled happily at the sound of that familiar voice. He was the first dog Justin had ever had, a young stray he’d plucked from the River Fleet and taken in temporarily. Although Justin still talked occasionally of finding the pup a good home, Shadow knew he already had one.
“I ought to be charging you rent for that flea-bitten cur,” Nell grumbled, sidestepping Shadow as she carried a tray of drinks toward some corner customers. “He swiped a chunk of cheese when my back was turned, then nearly knocked over a flagon with his tail. And if he had, I’d have made a pelt out of the wretched beast!”
“I ought to be the one charging you,” Justin countered. “How many alehouses have the free use of such a superior watchdog? If not for Shadow, the place might be overrun with cutpurses, prowlers, and vagabonds.”
Nell cast a dubious eye upon the dog, sprawled belly-up in the floor rushes. “I think I’d take my chances with the prowlers.” Justin had found an empty table by the hearth and she came over, set an ale down, then took the seat opposite him. “How did that happen?” she asked, pointing toward the fresh bruise spreading along his cheekbone. “And do not tell me you ran into a door!”
Justin hid his grin in the depths of his ale-cup, amused as always by the contrast between Nell’s delicate appearance and her bold, forthright demeanor. She was barely five feet tall, with sapphire blue eyes, flaxen hair that invariably curled about her face in wispy disarray, and freckles she unsuccessfully tried to camouflage under a haphazard dusting of powder. With Nell, nothing was as it seemed. She looked as fragile as a child, but was tough-willed enough to run an alehouse—and to have helped Justin catch a killer. For all that she had a sailor’s command of invective, her bluntness was armor for a surprisingly soft heart. A young widow with a small daughter, she was of a life that had not been easy, but then she had not expected it to be. She had little patience with fools, no sentimentality at all, and no education to speak of, but she did have courage, common sense, and a pragmatic realism that made her a sister under the skin to England’s aging queen. Justin could well imagine Nell’s disbelief if ever he told her that she reminded him of the elegant, imperious Eleanor. But in truth, she did, for both women had a clear-eyed, unsparing view of their respective worlds, and neither one wasted time or energy on futile denials or self-delusion. Justin would that he could do likewise. He kept looking over his shoulder, though, unable to outrun either his memories or his regrets.
“Well?” Nell demanded when he didn’t answer. “Are you going to tell me how you got that bruise or not?”
“Not,” he said, smiling, and then tensed, for Durand was coming in the door. He had to stoop to enter, for he was taller than most men. Justin had always been proud of his own height, but Durand topped him by several inches. He wore a mantle of finely woven wool, fastened with an ornate gold pin. Spying was clearly a profitable profession, Justin thought sourly. Durand looked out of place in such shabby surroundings, but Justin doubted that he’d be a target for cutpurses or robbers; his eyes would chill even the most obtuse of felons.
Spotting Justin, he crossed the common room, dismissing Nell with a terse “Leave us.”
He’d misjudged his woman, though. Nell stayed put, looking up at him with an indifference that could not have been more insulting. “Justin?” she queried, and he nodded reluctantly.
“Will you excuse us, Nell?” He did not offer to buy Durand an ale, for he was damned if he’d drink with the man. “Sit,” he said, as soon as Nell had risen, switching from English—Nell’s tongue—to French, the language in which he would normally converse. Since most of the alehouse patrons were English-speakers like Nell, Justin could feel confident he’d foil would-be eavesdroppers; he strongly suspected that this was a conversation he’d not want overheard.
Durand seemed in no hurry to begin. He pulled up a bench, claimed a candle from a nearby table; the occupant was about to protest, then thought better of it. As the flame flared between them, Justin was pleased to see that the corner of Durand’s mouth was swollen. Rarely had he ever taken such an instantaneous dislike to another man, but he’d distrusted Durand de Curzon from the first moment they’d met. It was a hostility returned by Durand in full measure, for Justin had outwitted the other man in the past. And then there was Claudine, who’d spurned Durand and taken Justin into her bed. Add to the mix their rivalry for the queen’s favor and it was a very unstable brew, one likely to boil over at the least provocation.
“Jesú, what a pigsty.” Durand glanced around the alehouse with contempt. “I do not know what I was thinking to pick this hovel for our meeting.”
Justin knew exactly why he’d chosen the Gracechurch alehouse: to send a message—that he knew far more about Justin than Justin did about him. “You’re not here for the pleasure of my company. You have word for the queen?”
“Yes . . . I do.” Durand looked into Justin’s half-filled ale-cup, grimacing. “How can you drink that swill?”
“Do you have something of value to tell me or not? I’ve already played one of your tiresome games with you this day, and am in no mood for another.”
Durand laughed. “Are you complaining about our little joust in the hall? I had to get word to you, and that seemed the safest way to do it. All know we like each other not, after all. But if it eases your mind, next time I’ll take a gentler approach.”
Justin was determined that he’d not take the bait again. “Say what you came to tell me. I assume it involves John?”
Durand’s grin faded. “Be outside the priory of St Bartholomew’s by dawn. John is sending a messenger to France on the morrow. He leaves at first light.”
Justin leaned across the table. “What does this message contain?”
“If I knew that, would I not tell you?”
“I do not know. Would you?”
Durand’s smile was mocking. “All I know is that the message is meant for John’s allies in Normandy and bodes ill for the king. John does not confide utterly in me—no more than the queen does in you.”
Justin ignored the gibe. “How will I recognize this courier?”
“His name is Giles de Vitry. He is French-born, not as tall as you, with hair the color of wheat, a scar under his right eye. And he’ll be riding a rawboned bay stallion. Is that enough detail for you, lad? Should I come along and point him out as he passes by?”
“I’d manage better without you,” Justin said coolly. “At least then I’d not have to be watching my back.”
Durand had the bluest eyes Justin had ever seen, and the coldest; a blue-white flame flickered now in their depths, reminding Justin that ice could burn. Rising without haste, Durand smoothed the folds of his mantle, adjusted the tilt of his cap; his shoulder-length auburn hair gleamed where the candle’s light caught it, brushed to a bronzed sheen. “It is now up to you, de Quincy,” he said. “Try not to make a botch of this. The queen is depending upon us both.”
As soon as Durand pushed through the door and out into the street, Nell returned to Justin’s table. “Here,” she said, bringing him, unbidden, another ale. “If ever I’ve seen a man born to drink with the Devil, it was that one. Who is he, Justin?”
Justin smiled, wryly. “Would you believe me if I said he was an ally?”
“With an ally like that, what need have you of enemies?”
Justin shrugged, but he agreed with Nell. What, indeed?