The letter came in secret, with a pearl eardrop from an aunt long thought dead, resurrecting the forbidden past. Banished by her spiteful half sister, Queen Mary, to Hatfield House in the English countryside, 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth cannot refuse the summons. The Boleyns are in grave danger. And Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, is marked for death by a master poisoner whose reign of terror may have royal sanction.
With her few loyal retainers, Elizabeth escapes to Kent. Here, in her ancestral Hever Castle, now held by the Queen's loyalists, Elizabeth seeks to unravel the plot against her. And here, in the embrace of intrigue and betrayal, the princess must find a brilliant, powerfully connected killer—before the killer finds her....
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"The queen wishes to see you alone in her privy chamber, my lady."
So kindly, simply spoken, the twenty-year-old Princess Elizabeth thought, but not so kind or simple in fact. They always called her lady, not princess or even Your Grace, these swarming courtiers of the new queen, her half sister Mary Tudor.
Yet Elizabeth kept a set smile on her face as she sat across a small inlaid table for an afternoon repast with Her Majesty. The sweetmeats and tarts looked delicious, but under her stiff stomacher, Elizabeth's belly cramped with foreboding. She had always danced on sword points at court, but only in her sister's newborn reign did she fear she could stumble and impale herself.
"A beautiful day," the pale thirty-seven-year-old monarch said with a sigh and a sideways glance out the window. Set slightly ajar, the casement caught crisp October air blowing up from the Thames across the gardens and greens to Whitehall Palace. "And here I've done naught but read and sign bills, grants, and warrants todaywhen I was not hearing holy Mass, of course."
"Your Grace works far too hard," Elizabeth assured her, gripping her hands together in the pale blue silk folds of her gown. "Would you not have time for a walk in the knot garden or a ride in St. James's Park?"
"Dios sabe, duty calls," Mary intoned in her masculine voice that always surprised people when they first met her. She reached for her goblet of claret and cradled it in her beringed hands a moment before putting it back down with a thump. "I'll not have them say behind my back that a woman cannot rule."
"Remember our father king said once, Your Majesty, that like lunatics, we women are so governed by the phases of the moon we could never command his realm?"
"We?" Mary challenged with an audible gulp. "You, sister, will never bear these royal burdens, for I shall have a son and heiras our father also said!"
"God grant it, Your Grace, and I am ever grateful for your continued kindnesses to me."
Despite the queen's slow nod, Elizabeth's heart began to thud like horses' hooves. She fought down panic at her latest faux pas. Even an imagined affront could set the queen off. At least she was used to Mary's nearsighted squint always making one think she was frowning. Now those pewter eyes skewered her to her chair as the queen waited for her younger sister's next move.
But Elizabeth's one trueif necessarily covertadviser at court, the young secretary Master William Cecil, had always said, When in doubt, do or say nothing. So with a pleasant countenance she sat stock still. In the aching silence Mary leaned forward to select a berry tart. With her other small, blunt hand, so different from Elizabeth's tapered, elegant ones, the queen clutched the heavy gold crucifix that swayed from an ornate neck chain. To stall further, Elizabeth took a tart that appeared to match Mary's. It oozed rich, red juice.
"So," Mary murmured with a heavy sigh, "these weeks since I was crowned you publicly declare you support me but will not even hear the Mass with me in private."
Elizabeth stayed the tart halfway to her lips. There they loomed again, those upturned sword points to tread upon as if she were some spike-walker from distant Araby.
"Your Majesty, you yourself said one must hearken to one's own conscience, so I only follow your lead to"
"But my conscience is obedient to the true faith." She dropped her uneaten tart back on the table and seized her goblet again. "Eat, eat, sister," she ordered with a dismissive gesture. "Do not look as if I would devour you. We shall be more than family; we shall be allies forever in the holy church and in our daily"
The tart tasted bitter in Elizabeth's mouth. And she bit on a cherry pit. She tried to chew and swallow but gagged and spit out the mouthful into her lavender-scented handkerchief. The smell of that made her explode in a messy sneeze.
"Bitter," she muttered, sniffling. "And within, a hard stone I cannot"
She jumped as Mary's arm swept across the table to clatter goblets and dishes together. Tarts rolled and broke; the ewer tipped, spewing crimson wine, splattering Elizabeth's gown.
"Diversion and disobedience masked with pretty smiles, that has always been your game," the queen thundered, "for it is in your blood!"
"Iforgive me, Your Majesty, but the tart just tasted"
"Poison? Is that what you would dare to say?" she shrilled, rising. Elizabeth leapt to her feet too. "Despite my good graces to you," the queen went on, "is that what you will accuse me of next?" She paced to the window so the afternoon light slanted in to gild her stocky form but obscure her features.
"No, of course, not, and"
"In her own privy chamber the Catholic queen tries to poison her Protestant half sister, Elizabeth of England, beloved of the people. Is that what you and your tricky supporters will say next?"
"I have no supporters of my own, but all yours in loyalty."
"I'll hear no more lies. It would be justice indeed if someone did poison you, but not Inever I." As she paced, her skirts swished and her crucifix scraped her jewel-encrusted bodice. "I want only the best for you and your eternal soul, sister."
"But I spoke not of poison," Elizabeth whispered, yet her mind raced. She had swallowed nothing, but she still felt she choked down the sour taste of the tart. Surely it was more than that some pastry cook had simply left out the sweetening. With the back of her hand, she wiped her lips. "I never intended"
"You do know that woman poisoned my sainted mother," the queen said. She came closer. With both hands Elizabeth held hard to the tall back of a carved oak chair. "At Kimbolton Castle, where she died. It's true: poison."
Elizabeth knew that woman always referred to her own mother, Anne Boleyn, who had supplanted Mary's in the king's affections years ago. "No," Elizabeth protested quietly, "that cannot be true, since your mother was ill then, so she simply"
"I tell you it is God's truth, and you'll not gainsay me on it. Queen Catherine wrote of it to me, and years later I had it straight from her loyal Lady de Salinas, who was with her to the end. That woman bewitched our father to send his Catherine into exile, and your motherthe whore Boleynhad her poisoned there. The queen wrote me she was sore afraid. Her few ladies were reduced to cooking their meat over the fire in her bedchamber to guard against poison, but still that witch"
"That is a lie!" Elizabeth screamed, then, wide-eyed, clapped her hands over her mouth. Despite knowing she should hold her tongue or just withdraw, her fists shot to her waist. She shook her red head so hard her headdress rattled its pearls. "No, Your Grace, it cannot be," she said in more measured tones. "I cannot warrant that"
"Get outout! I cannot bear to have you here. I thought we could be sisters, allies, friends. But there is too much bad blood between us, and not of my making." She had come so close, Elizabeth could now see her own reflection in the haunted eyes.
Elizabeth's survival instincts rose to the fore. She bridled her temper, dipped a curtsy, and bent her head. "Whatever passed between our long-departed mothers, my queen, I love and honor Your Gracious Majesty. I am your loyal subject, and this talk of poison is painful to me, for God knows, I am innocent of any"
"No one, especially you, is innocent," Mary said, hissing the last word. "Like your dam, you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity. Go back to your country house and keep clear of plottings against your God-given queen!"
When Elizabeth left the chamber, she was so distraught she ignored the veiled woman who stepped swiftly back into the shadows.
Five Years Later
"I am bored to death with all this waiting," the tall, red-haired woman muttered to herself as she dismounted. "To death."
The sudden cloudburst wet Elizabeth Tudor clear through to her skin, but she turned her face up, reveling in the strength and sweep of it. No dangerous lightning or thunder with this, but it still suited her mood. And it pleased her that she managed to be out here nearly alone when the Popes had gone back with her Barbary falcon, the servants, and the remnants of the food.
She dismounted and leaned against the strength of the great oak for what cover it could give. Gazing into the distance toward her small rural realm, she sighed. The old palace of Hatfield House where she lived in exilewatched closely by the queen's man Sir Thomas Pope and his wife Beatricewould have to do since she could not be at court. She could yet be rotting in the Tower of London if her royal brother-in-law, Spanish King Philip, hadn't taken a fancy to her and asked Queen Mary to be kind while he was away.
"But that is as kind as it gets, Griffin," she told her favorite horse and stroked the black stallion's muzzle to quiet him. "Some of my people at least have been returned to me, and you, of course, my dear boy."
The horse whinnied as if he understood and cherished every word. "'S blood," she whispered and patted him again. "Sweet talk to horses, that's what has become of the most marriageable virgin in the kingdom."
"You say this place has you talking to horses now, Your Grace?" her faithful lady Blanche Parry teased as she pulled up under the tree and dismounted. Unlike her princess, Blanche huddled in her hooded wool cloak to avoid the wet.
"At least," Elizabeth said with a smile, "I know they are to be trusted."
They shared a little laugh that faded, drowned not by the downpour but by quick horse's hoofs. As with hearing someone running in a house, Elizabeth had learned to fear fast feet of any kind, for they had seldom boded well for her.
But it was her groom, Stephen Jenks, whom she jestingly called her Master of the Horse in Exile. He usually stuck to her skirts like a burr, her unofficial bodyguard and one she relied on, but she thought she'd lost him in the storm somewhere.
"Your Grace, beggin' your pardon, but you want to go back in now? You'll catch the ague out here," the young man blurted as he dismounted.
Jenks's wit was for horses. Elizabeth was quite sure that when he talked to them they truly listened. As for people, he was good at taking orders but not usually at giving them. Still, strangely, he looked as if he'd like to command she go inside right now.
"I'd only get wetter going back to the house," she told him and patted his slick shoulder. "And I'm in no hurry to return to the watchful eyes of Her Majesty's second-most favorite Pope."
But she startled when Jenks pulled one side of his leather jerkin open to flash a folded letter at her, then patted it to his body again as if to preserve it from the rain and prying eyes.
She studied his eager face. His blue eyes were alight with a message she, for once, could not read. His chestnut eyebrows lifted to touch his straight, sodden hair, cut low across his forehead. Though Blanche was one of her two trusted ladies, he had cleverly blocked even her from seeing what he had.
A secret letter for her. Pray God this did not mean a new attempt to snare her in another plot like the one that had cost her her reputation and Tom Seymour his head, or the aborted Wyatt Rebellion, which had put her in the Tower.
"You know, Blanche, I think Jenks has a point. The rain looks to be letting up. Let's ride back."
With his linked hands under her foot, Jenks gave her a quick boost up, then helped Blanche remount. Because of slippery grass and the warren of rabbit holes in this meadow, they went slowly toward the russet-brick Tudor palace, now gone shiny in the rain.
Eighteen miles north of London, Hatfield House had become her refuge, though the queen had seen to it that it was invaded by far too many spies. Yet Elizabeth loved its quadrangle overlooking the central courtyard. She admired the modest great hall, not that she ever dined or entertained there, but her parents had in their brief happy years together before the Boleyn downfall. On sunny days the solar was her favorite haunt, even for her studies, for it overlooked the fish pond and flower gardens. But today that letter loomed.
When they dismounted in the courtyard, Jenks thrust the letter quickly into her hand. She folded it once and shoved it up her sleeve just before Thomas Pope and his lady, Beatrice, called Bea, came out to greet her. Elizabeth saw that they had both dried off though not yet changed their riding garb.
"You mustn't go off by yourself like that when we are all out riding, my lady," Sir Thomas scolded by way of greeting. "It is our duty and honor to protect you."
"The storm and skittish horses separated us, my lord, not I," Elizabeth told him, brushing quickly past. "I'll change these sodden garments and see you a bit later for supper."
She could feel it now against her skin, the letter. She would read it once and burn it if it were anything to incriminate her. Didn't they realizethose most loyal to her who wanted to raise a rebellionthat only in this solitary waiting game in exile could she hope to survive?
"Oh, no, I knew it," Kat Ashley, her childhood governess and the closest thing Elizabeth had to a mother, cried when she met her at the door to her chambers. Kat's plump face framed by graying hair was its own raincloud. She threw her hands up, then smacked them on her skirts. "Oh, lovey. Look at you, soaked to the skin. Drenched hair despite the cloak and quite bedraggled."
"Yes, Kat, I know."
"I'll not have you catching your death of cold or anything else."
"Do not fret, my Kat. Just build up the fire, and I'll undress before it. And lock the door," she whispered as she swept in and went directly to the hearth. "Blanche is no doubt changing, but she'll be in here fussing over what I'm to wear soon enough."
"Just so she doesn't bring the Buzzard with her," Kat muttered. She closed and locked the door and hurried over to throw a new log on the others in the broad, open hearth, but she kept her eyes sharp on Elizabeth.
"The Buzzard" was Kat's name for Beatrice Pope, who she said was always hovering, watching, just waiting for bones to pick. Despite the fact Elizabeth knew Bea was sent with her husband to keep an eye on her, she appreciated Bea's quick wit and even temperand her beautiful handwork. She'd had far worse jailers, and she'd even overheard Bea sticking up for her privileges in private when the Pope had ranted on about keeping her more closely confined. Still, Kat at times seemed so put out by Bea that she looked as if she'd like to stab her with her own sewing needle.
While Kat hurried to the clothes press for a dry linen smock, Elizabeth put a foot up on the iron fender and pulled the now-damp letter from her sleeve. Though both Kat and Jenks would know she had a missive, unless she chose to tell them, they'd know nothing else of it.
But now she saw something caught in its tiny loop of red ribbon the sealing wax held. She recognized it instantly and sucked in a silent breath.
A three-tiered pearl eardrop, the mate to the other the Duchess of Norfolk had given her years ago during the Twelve Days of ChristmasCatherine Howard was queen then, briefly.
This was your mother's once, one she wore the day she was arrested, the duchess had whispered, so do not wear it openly. I meant to get the other of the pair for you, but I hear someone in your mother's family has it for a keepsake. Hide it, and do not speak of it, she had insisted as she thrust the dainty thing into Elizabeth's palm and fled back into the crowd of masked, laughing courtiers.
Now, as new flames at her feet caught and leapt, Elizabeth's eyes widened and her lower lip dropped in shock. She skimmed the letter in the delicate but shaky scrawl.
It could not be. This eardrop with a letter from a woman long dead. The forbidden past resurrected from its tomb. And a summons she was desperate to keep but one that could mean the utter end of her.