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Smitten with spring fever, Elizabeth Tudor escapes London for fantastical Nonsuch Palace in the sweet Surrey countryside. There she hopes to relax and pose for the official royal portrait for which she is holding a competition. But one of her artists is burned to death, and portraits of the queen are going up in flames.
When she hears that her rival, the dangerous Mary, Queen of Scots, has been peering in mirrors and announcing, "I see the next queen of England!" Elizabeth summons her Privy Plot Council. Has the arsonist been sent by foreign foes or is it someone in her own court? Or is the "running boy" apparition really a ghost out to avenge a terrible past tragedy caused by the Tudors?
Time is running out, because the enemy who stalks the queen means to destroy not only her portraits and artists, but her very life.
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About the Author
KAREN HARPER is the author of six previous Elizabeth I mysteries: The Poyson Garden, The Tidal Poole, The Twylight Tower, The Queene's Cure, The Thorne Maze, and The Queene's Christmas. She also writes contemporary suspense novels, including the bestselling The Falls. Karen Harper lives in Columbus, Ohio, and Naples, Florida.
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CHAOS COMMANDED THE COURT THE NEXT DAY AS THE royal household packed for Nonsuch Palace a day's journey away. When the queen's retinue went from place to place, it was like moving, not a mere visit.
Linens, tapestries, tableware, favorite furnishings, and trusted servants made a long cavalcade of horses, litters, and nearly three hundred carts. Ordinarily, Elizabeth traveled with over a thousand, but not to the petite Palace of Nonsuch.
She heard running footsteps in the halls, the banging of goods, shouted orders. Lord Arundel, who had bought the former royal estate from the previous Tudor queen, had gone ahead to prepare for the arrival of two hundred guests. Most of them must reside in tents in the meadow because the apartments of the charmingly sized palace would be taken by the queen's closest courtiers and staff.
"What is that sweet-smelling stuff?" Elizabeth asked Meg Milligrew, her strewing-herb mistress of the privy chamber. On her knees, the girl had her red head bent over a chest of the queen's clothing she was scenting. Elizabeth halted as she entered the chamber from the inner sanctum of her bedroom.
"Fresh potpourri from the first apothecary roses, Your Grace. I was wearying of the dry dust of the wintry sachets. Gracious, this journey to Nonsuch will be like a breath of fresh air."
Meg Milligrew had always been that for the queen. They'd gone through some difficult times these last seven years Meg had served her. Because the young woman somewhat resembled Elizabeth Tudor and was one of her most trusted servants of the privy household, Meg sometimes became more than a mere herbalist, especially when some mystery or crime needed to be secretly solved.
"You'll soon be fetching in all sorts of green and growing things again," Elizabeth told her jauntily, though the queen's heart was heavy as she went out into the corridor. She headed two doors down to a small chamber where her dear old friend Lady Katherine Ashley was living out the winter of her life in a state the royal physicians deemed "second childhood."
As the queen had been only three when she lost her mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, Kat had been her nursemaid, her early governess, and later first lady of the bedchamber and mistress of the royal wardrobe. Above all, Kat had been the nearest thing she'd had to a mother these thirty-two years.
Elizabeth halted in the doorway. Kat, in a carved armchair by the window, was slumped in sleep with the sun on her robed knees. Floris Minton, the nursemaid who had been hired with highest commendations in January, looked up from her embroidery frame and jumped to her feet to curtsy.
The queen gestured for Floris to join her in the hall, and the sprightly woman obeyed instantly. Floris was a real find, a gem, as Lady Rosie and Meg, who had previously helped tend the failing Kat, always said. Floris's face might be plain and pale, her nut-brown hair and eyes unremarkable, but she was clever and always radiated care and concern for Kat.
"How do you think Lady Ashley will abide the trip?" the queen whispered to Floris with a nod in Kat's direction.
"In the padded litter you propose, well, I think, Your Majesty. The sweet country breezes of Surrey will do her good."
"Tend her well on the journey and send word to me if aught is amiss. Of course, both of you will be lodged near the royal chambers. Mistess Minton, I trust your opinion in all this."
The short woman gave a pert nod. "I note well the love you bear her. You suffer to see her so much as buffeted or discomfitted."
"Has she addressed you as her daughter of late?" Elizabeth asked, for Kat sometimes had hallucinations that Floris was her own progeny she must tend to.
"Off and on, Your Majesty. She —"
"Who is that come calling?" Kat's tremulous voice cried out.
"It's me, Elizabeth," the queen said, stepping into the chamber and slowly going closer. "Remember me?"
"Of course I do. And I see you've borne your child, flat as a board you are again."
"I — Kat," Elizabeth said as her hands fluttered to her stiff satin stomacher, "I told you I am not wed nor have had a child."
"Pity," Kat clipped out, frowning. "My Floris needs friends."
As queen she could not tend Kat for hours, as she'd like, but it cut Elizabeth to the quick that it was Floris whom Kat held to now. "We all need friends," Elizabeth whispered, and merely touched Kat's shoulder, though she wanted to hurl herself against the old woman's breast and weep for her losses, as she had so many times in her childhood. But the queen blinked back tears and fled before she made a fool of herself, crying before Floris and further upsetting Kat. Each time Kat was with Elizabeth lately, she seemed not only agitated but angry.
As the queen stepped into the corridor, she saw William Cecil, with several others in his wake, bearing down on her, waving a parchment. Cecil always had queen's business on his person, sometimes literally up his sleeve. But this paper was crushed in his fist, and that meant a show of temper her brilliant chief secretary of state seldom demonstrated.
"Bad news, my lord?" she threw over her shoulder as she proceeded him into her privy chamber. Meg was still on the floor, doling out rose petals.
"Hell's teeth! Queen Mary of Scots' envoy Lord Maitland is in Berwick and will be here in a day or so," Cecil said so loudly that Elizabeth knew he meant his words for others. He took care not to close the door completely. "But, Your Grace," he raged on, "this paper from a well-placed informant says she's determined to wed Lord Darnley, no matter how much you promote the Earl of Leicester! Ah, Mistress Milligrew, I didn't see you," he went on in a more subdued tone. "Could you step out?"
"Oh, of course, my lord." Meg darted out and closed the door behind herself.
"Did I look vexed enough?" Cecil asked the minute they were alone.
The queen smiled grimly. Cecil had said he might put on a show for any Scottish informants who had infiltrated the court. This winter they'd had a bellyful of them lurking about and reporting every word and move to Mary, Queen of Scots.
"'S blood, it was a fine performance, Cecil, one I warrant even my clever master of revels Ned Topside and his former Queen's Country Players would cheer. I've been feeling low, but this perks me up indeed. Of course, we must still publicly 'promote' the Earl of Leicester with the Scots queen so that the defiant, headstrong schemer will be sure to wed that sot Darnley and be weakened from within, so to speak."
"But from without, we must yet fear her Scots lords and what they and our own northern Catholics could do. Those damned English papists near the Scottish border have been hoarding arms and conducting masses in secret for years."
"And in secret they champion my cousin Mary, who covets my country and my crown. At any cost, I cannot allow her that victory."
"Your plan to refuse her Darnley to make her want him all the more is brilliant, my queen. And now, your removal to the country will mean Ambassador Maitland must come to seek you there, only to be told you still will not sanction her wedding the man. The only risk in all this, of course, is that we may soon have not only Mary to fear as a magnet for Catholic rebellion, but a legal child of her body."
"Yes," Elizabeth said, and turned away to the window to gaze out over the privy gardens. She pressed her flat belly hard into the jutting windowsill. "But pray do not preach to me about my own need to wed and bear a child, my lord. England," she whispered to herself, "shall ever be both my husband and my child."
"What's that about a child, Your Grace?" Cecil asked, stepping closer.
"I said," she added as she spun back to face him, "Gil Sharpe is no longer a child, and I'm including him with the three other artists going to Nonsuch. I cannot wait to hear his report of all things Italian."
"Which reminds me, the artists have asked to see you, though I put them off."
She heaved a sigh. "I am in need of a walk outside, so send to them that they may join me in the privy garden forthwith."
As Cecil bowed and left her, Elizabeth gazed out again at the greening grass and tiny buds popping on the bare limbs of trees. This winter had been a bitter one, but now that spring was here — and Gil had come home early — better times were surely soon to come.
"Is there some concern about accompanying me to Nonsuch, or painting there al fresco?" the queen asked her three artists as they joined her in the privy gardens. "The background of the portraits must, of course, be a rich interior with my throne, but I trust you have the skills to manage that while painting out of doors."
"Oh, indeed, and we are deeply honored to be included in the royal retinue," blonde, big-boned Lavina Teerlinc said, gripping her hands together. Though tall, the queen's only female artist had to stretch her strides to keep up with the queen's quick pace on the geometrically laid out garden paths.
"Ah, yes, back to Nonsuch," Will Kendale, fat as a woolsack and already puffing, put in from her other side. "You may recall, Your Gracious Majesty, that I myself was one of the artists your royal father chose to bestow the fantastical beauty that is Nonsuch. I lived there nearly six months, painting several scenes on interior walls when the building was going up. It will be, in a way, a home going for me, though my great successes were also achieved here in London after I studied with great painters who —"
"Master Kendale," Henry Heatherley said as his highly polished boots spit gravel, "we do not need a recital of your well-known list of good fortune. You are hardly being attentive to Her Majesty's expressly voiced concerns. I have studied my craft under Master Hans Holbein himself, but I'll not flaunt that here. Yes, Your Majesty, a slight concern exists about the conditions under which we go to Nonsuch in your retinue."
"But not," Lavina added, "about the conditions of painting outside or living there in a tent. I am sure dat vill be quite pleasant."
Lavina had been reared in the Netherlands with Dutch as her first language; dats and vills crept back into her speech when she was excited or upset, which, Elizabeth noted well, she must be now.
"Are we correct to assume, Your Majesty," Heatherley said, "that the work of at least one of us three will be the final, officially approved portrait? Odds then are one-third for each of us that it will be a marvelous opportunity — that is unless ..."
"'S blood, unless what?" Elizabeth finally got a word in as she halted and faced them near the marble fountain.
"Unless dat lad vill be included," Lavina blurted, but so quietly that the queen almost had to read her lips.
"Ah, yes," Kendale said with a sharp sniff, "or Gilberto Sharpino as he styles himself now."
"It was my suggestion and my support," the queen explained, "that sent Gilbert Sharpe to the ducal court of Urbino to study portraiture. And yes, I intend to see what he can do, though God knows, he is so greatly gifted — as I'm sure all of you were in your youth before someone taught and gave you opportunities — that he almost didn't need the help. Why, Lavina, you were reared in a painter's household, so how could you begrudge the boy some teachers? And Masters Kendale and Heatherley, both of you have just emphasized to me that you studied in the schools of masters."
She stared down the disgruntled Lavina, who was trying hard to hide how annoyed she'd been the other day at the queen's critique of her style. At last, looking abashed, Lavina dropped her sharp blue gaze and unfolded her arms from across her broad breasts to clasp her hands together as if in petition.
"Of course, Your Majesty," Heatherley put in, "I'd be willing to help the lad in any way I can." Elizabeth turned her gaze on him. He was as compact and dark-haired as Kendale was fat and silver-haired. Heatherley's olive complexion made him look Mediterranean, quite swarthy in a land of fairer folk.
"That is kind of you, Master Heatherley."
Though she'd heard the man drank too much expensive Bordeaux, his hand was still steady with a brush, and his work was as polished as his deportment. Yet, today, for the first time, Elizabeth sensed burning ambition beneath that suave exterior, the like of which she'd seen only in her own dear Robin, Earl of Leicester.
In this day of unsigned portraiture, Henry Heatherley liked to sign his paintings with a grandly flourished HH. It was not only his initials, she thought, but his way of reminding everyone he had studied with Hans Holbein, her father's genius of mirrorlike portraits. Heatherley's movements — mouth, gestures, steps, everything about the man — were quicksilver fast, like a fine Barbary horse straining at the bit.
Finally, the queen regarded Will Kendale, still apparently seething. She supposed that despite his impressive credentials, she should have listened to Lord Arundel when he called the man "a flap-mouthed magpie as full of bombast as he was of any sweets he could get his hands on."
"Then," Kendale said, "is the boy to be included among those of us you will consider, Your Majesty?"
Elizabeth's temper nearly broke at his baiting tone. "I haven't yet decided," she informed them, "but this audience has been most enlightening, and I look forward to viewing more completed portraits at Nonsuch — four of them."
She smiled stiffly. Lavina, having been at court off and on for years, evidently recognized the tone and look of her royal mistress, for she dropped a quick curtsy and, linking her arm through Heatherley's, who looked as if he'd like to dig his heels in, urged her fellow artists away.
In the late afternoon of the next day, as she approached Nonsuch Palace, set like a jewel in the rolling green hills of Surrey, Elizabeth summoned Gil Sharpe to her open coach from his place far back in the royal retinue. Again, as he approached, he reminded her of her half brother, though the boy rode awkwardly, while Edward had been a fine horseman. But then Gil had been reared poor in the city. What was important was his gift from God to paint. She recalled the first sketch the boy had done of her, scribbled on crumpled paper, but so skilled that she thought at first her master of revels, the wily Ned Topside, had done it.
"Such a beautiful sight, Your Majesty," Gil called to her as, at her cue, the entourage halted behind, overlooking the palace and its hunt park. Elizabeth alighted from the carriage in which her people had cheered her on her way, and waited for her mount.
"I am going to ride ahorse the rest of the way," she explained to Gil, "and I want you to approach Nonsuch without everyone else in your way for the first time. Though faces may be your forte, mark my words, someday you will paint this vista, and I shall keep it with me all winter long."
When the queen was mounted sidesaddle and had led her entourage into the gentle slope of rolling meadow before the walls, she rode slowly to savor the moment and allow Gil to keep up.
"However did your royal sire find such a perfect site?" the boy marveled. "I heard he built this place in his old age for a hunt lodge, but ended up making it his most wonderful building project."
"This site is the single sad thing about fabulous Nonsuch," she told him. "A village stood here with a Catholic church and manor house — Cuddington, it was called. But when Great Henry wanted his palace here, the townsfolk were moved, the entire village was razed, and this was built — plain on the outside, but wait until you see within! It is the ultimate blend of the English with the Italian."
"If your father loved it and you do too, Your Grace, then why is it Lord Arundel's possession now?"
"It was too fancy for my sister, Queen Mary, and she hated the place. She sold it to Lord Arundel for a pittance," she said, her voice not betraying her anger at her sister for that and so much more.
"But I heard Lord Arundel favors you and if you but asked for it back ..."
"Gil, you must learn not to blurt your thoughts, though to me in private you may say all. Yes, Lord Arundel, Catholic that he is, has hopes of being my suitor to save my Protestant soul and bring his own great name into the ruling family. As for keeping this palace myself, isn't it better to have a wealthy, devoted host to care for it?"
"Of course, Your Grace, like dining at someone else's table. And my lord Cecil has lectured me more than once to keep my ears open and my mouth closed. I swear I was quiet as a mouse in Italy, though that was partly because the place overwhelmed me and it took a while to learn that singsong language."
Excerpted from "The Fyre Mirror"
Copyright © 2005 Karen Harper.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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