It is the crowning day of twenty-five-year-old Bess Tudor's life as she returns from exile to become England's queen. But even as her magnificent procession wends its way to Westminster Palace, a shot rings out, muffled by the jostling crowd. Within moments of becoming England's ruler, Elizabeth learns of the brutal murder of a highborn lady of the court, the sister of one of her dearest friends. Elizabeth cannot refuse her friend's request to find the killer — especially since the prime suspect is too close to the crown — and her friends — to overlook.
Elizabeth must be circumspect. Trust can be deadly. So she summons her small band of loyal retainers and plunges into a cauldron of conflicting loyalties and deadly intrigue. From the pomp, pageantry, and insidious gossip of the court to the lethal tidal pools swirling under London Bridge, the passionate young queen must seize the reins of her empire — and find a killer determined to destroy the crown itself....
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The main thoroughfare of London was awash with banners, pennants, and brocade bunting on the new queen's recognition day. Despite the cold, in a canopied, open litter borne by white mules, Elizabeth Tudor rode the adulation of her people through the swirls of their hurrahs. Down Fleet Street to where crowds poured into the Strand, she glittered in her gown and mantle of cloth of gold.
Like a great tide came her red-coated gentlemen pensioners with ceremonial battle-axes, then squires, footmen, and men mounted on a thousand prancing horses. Behind her rode Robert Dudley, her handsome Master of the Horse, mounted on a charger and leading her unmounted horse, which was covered with golden cloth. The members of her Privy Council, her governors, and her lieutenants seemed swept along in her broad wake.
The royal progress took all day, for the queen bade her cavalcade halt when someone in the crowd tendered an herbal nosegay or held up a baby. At certain sites proud citizens enacted play scenes, presented pageants and recitations, or sang madrigals. Despite the constant pealing of church bells, the Queen's Majesty stood to make impromptu speeches. The crowd would hush to hear, then blast the wintry air with roars louder than the river churning under London Bridge.
"Why did you bring me here, Meg?"
With all the noise Ned Topside had to put his mouth to Margaret Milligrew's ear so she could hear him. His warm breath made her shiver.
Looking for a good place to see their queen pass by for a third time, they had spent an hour elbowing their way ahead through crowds along the back entrances to the grand houses along the Strand. Part of Elizabeth's household, Meg and Ned had already seen her as she departed the Tower and again as she went by on Fleet Street.
"Don't exactly know why here," Meg shouted back. "But it seems a fine spot with that triumphal arch they built. She'll have to halt, we'll catch her eye, and she'll know we're with her all the way."
She saw Ned's green eyes narrow when he caught her darting glances overhead at a hanging apothecary sign of a painted Turk's head with a gilded pill on his extended tongue. She wasn't sure why that sign intrigued her so, but it did. She liked this area. Several people had smiled and greeted her, though most kept their eyes on the street.
"That apothecary's not going to be open today," Ned chided, shoving her along with a hand on her back, "so just forget dragging me in to see what herbs they sell." He took her elbow and pulled her along. "Since you've got me this far, we need to find a tree or windowsill to see in this stew of people. Ah, but what a fine crowd this would make for an audience if our queen would but let me make a speech and recite a scene along the way today."
Meg could barely hear his words when huzzahs swelled again. As ever, she felt Ned's mere touch, even an angry one, clear down in the pit of her belly. Of course, it could be caused by her melancholy since they all had to live in London now. Meg both mistrusted the place and felt its pull just like with Ned Topside.
"Can't see someone called Queen's Fool putting on such airs," she scolded.
"That's the pot calling the kettle black. Your face lit like a Yuletide candle when Her Grace said you are to have a stipend for being Strewing Herb Mistress of the Privy Chamber. Gads, you'd think she'd given you Cecil's lofty title."
"At least," she shouted back, "just like in the country, we're all still her Privy Plot Council. Her Grace promised."
Ned rolled his eyes. "You think a queen will have the time or cause to unravel plots or murder schemes like the one that almost got us poisoned? Besides, doesn't all this show she'll have smooth sailing?" he asked with a gesture so broad he knocked a blue-coated apprentice on the back of the head.
The burly lad turned, a grin on his broad face but fists up, evidently spoiling for a good fight. "Oh it's you, mistress," he blurted when he saw Meg.
"Oh, aye, it's her all right," Ned said, playing along. "Come on, then," he ordered, yanking her after him, this time by the wrist, through the press of people. "I guess I've got to save you from that stale come-hither line 'Haven't we met before, my fine lady?'"
Suddenly Meg decided, as Her Grace always put it, to show her mettle. She jerked free from Ned's grasp and stood erect with her chin thrust out when he rounded on her again.
"Just stick with me, my man, and I'll get us a good place up front to see. Follow me, if you please.
"Stand aside, clear the way for the Lord Banbury," she called out in her best imitation of Elizabeth's crisp, clear, ringing voice, with tone and enunciation Ned had taught her. "You there, churl, Lord Banbury's coming through." Gaping, people parted for them as if they had the plague.
"Who in the deuce is Lord Banbury?" Ned asked out of the side of his mouth when they were finally settled on the inner edge of the crowd. They had a prime place just down from Lord Arundel's three-storied gatehouse, which overlooked the street, facing the Ring and Crown Tavern across from it.
"Lord Banbury? Don't have a notion," Meg admitted. "Like you in a pinch, I made him up."
"Look, there's the first of her parade coming!" Ned cried, and threw an arm around Meg's shoulders.
She leaned lightly against him, not daring more, because she still could not remember who she really was. But if she could, she'd probably still want Edward Thompson, alias the queen's new fool and principal player, Ned Topside.