It is May 1560. As sinister storm clouds gather overhead, 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth dispatches William Cecil, her most trusted adviser, to Scotland for crucial negotiations. Handsome, ambitious Lord Robert Dudley is at her side. But their leisurely midsummer idyll is cut short when the courts master lutenist plunges to his death from a parapet beneath the queen's window. The loyal retainers of Elizabeth's privy council do not accept the official verdict of accidental death. Their fears are borne out when another tragedy rocks the realm, and points the way to a conspiracy to bring down Elizabeth and seize the throne. As ill winds of treachery swirl around the court, and suspicion falls on those within Elizabeth's intimate circle, a vengeful enemy slips from the shadows...a traitorous usurper who would be sovereign.
With The Twylight Tower, Karen Harper brings a legendary era to life, drawing us into an intoxicating world of majesty and mayhem, political intrigue and adventure...where danger is everywhere...and where a young queen journeys to greatness in the long shadow of her bloodstained past.
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Pastime with good company
I love and shall until I die.
Grudge who will but none deny
May God be pleased, thus live will I
For my pastance, hunt, sing, and dance
My heart is set on goodly sport
For my comfort, who shall me let?
--King Henry VIII
July 28, 1560
William Cecil strode rapidly from his hired barge through the edge of town to Richmond Palace. Though but forty years old, the pounding ride from Edinburgh had made mincemeat of his muscles, so he'd managed to come the last few miles on the Thames. Usually he was glad to see the tower-topped silhouette of Richmond, the queen's favorite summer home, but today he wasn't so sure.
Rumors the queen was besotted with Robert Dudley were rampant, even in the northern shires, and he could tell from afar she was letting her royal duties slide. Did she think the business of her kingdom could go on a holiday at her whim? He'd been away from court two months, and that was two months too long.
Cecil stopped and stared at the looming palace. Situated eight miles outside London with thick orchards and a game-filled park embracing it, Richmond offered all sorts of pleasant diversions and escapes, though this visit promised neither. As he gripped the leather satchel with his important papers close to his chest, hoping something would calm him, his eyes skimmed the balanced beauty of the place.
Unlike jumbled Whitehall, the queen's principal palace in London, the main structure here had been laid out in a planned and orderly fashion. It was a place after his own heart, he thought as he trudged across the outer quadrangle. The first Tudor ruler, the queen's grandfather, King Henry VII, a sternand disciplined man, had overseen Richmond's construction. Ironic, Cecil mused, that his heir, Henry VIII, was of the opposite disposition, all passion, appetites, and swagger. And their heir Elizabeth? Somehow she was both personalities at war with each other.
"Good for you, Lord Secretary, settling the Scots war with profit for our England!" someone called to him from a cluster of courtiers as he entered the gate to the middle court. He lifted his free arm in reply, but kept going toward the entrance to the state apartments, a series of rooms with the finest views in the vast place. Out one set of windows was the great hall in all its Gothic splendor, and in the opposite direction, the stunning chapel royal. Glancing up, one saw various of the fourteen towers of the palace proper with their bright banners and gilded weather vanes, not to mention the eastward river view over lush gardens and orchards.
Human traffic thickened the closer Cecil got to the queen through the presence chamber, then the gallery to the privy chamber. He recognized most courtiers; a few gave him good day, but he kept going at a swift clip so as not to be drawn into conversations. Still, more than once he was sure he heard the sibilant whispers of the words Scots and Cecil, interspersed with the duller, drumlike thud of Dudley, Dudley.
Beyond the next closed set of double doors lay the royal withdrawing room, bedroom, bathroom, and library, among other privy chambers, but still he saw no queen to greet him. With each step he became more annoyed. He'd specifically instructed the two messengers he'd sent ahead yesterday to request that he see Her Majesty privily before they faced her council together about this treaty he'd sweated and nitpicked over to get her the most advantageous terms from the rough Scots and prideful French. Not only was no one prepared to welcome him, but not even to receive him.
So as not to seem as frustrated as he felt, Cecil slowed his steps through the privy chamber. The queen's ladies of the bedchamber and maids of honor sat about on cushions, chatting and embroidering, playing with lapdogs and an azure parrot that kept squawking, "Yes, Your Grace! Yes, Your Grace!'' Why had these women not been sent out? And where was the queen herself in this giggling coterie? He'd insist the First Lady of the Bedchamber, Katherine Ashley, whom he saw looking out the open oriel window, dispatch these women forthwith.
As if he'd called her name, the dignified, silver-haired Lady Kat Ashley turned to him. Looking relieved, she smiled and picked her way toward him through the puddles of brocade and taffeta skirts. Kat had been Elizabeth's governess years ago and had stuck with her through tough times before Queen Mary died and Elizabeth finally inherited her throne. In fact, Kat was the closest Her Majesty had ever known to a mother, as her own, Queen Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded when Elizabeth was but three.
"My Lady Ashley," Cecil intoned as he swept off his cap and inclined his head. "Would you please request Her Majesty see me--in private?"
"I've been keeping an eye out for you, my Lord Secretary. Thank God you're back safely, as you know my steadying hand on Her Grace has not been heeded of late, and it's been worse since you left."
"What's amiss?" he demanded as they huddled closer. The chatter and giggles muted and, without looking, he knew everyone was watching them. "Will you bid Her Majesty come out to see me now and clear this . . . gaggle of pretty geese?" he went on, keeping his voice low.
"She's not here," Kat whispered, lifting her gray eyebrows conspiratorially. "That is, not within, though everyone out here believes so. You'll have to go to her, I fear."
I fear. Those words snagged in Cecil's mind. What was Kat not telling him? What had he not sniffed out from his allies at court who should have kept him better informed?
"You don't mean," he said, nearly mouthing his words, his back to the women, "she's covertly gone off on her own somewhere on secret business when she promised us she would not? I repeat, what is amiss?"
Twice Elizabeth Tudor had probed and solved crimes that threatened her person, enlisting the aid of several of her most loyal servants as well as Kat, Cecil, and her cousin Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon. But, praise God, there had been no such threat since her coronation one and a half years ago. Cecil had been hoping that Her Majesty would not so endanger herself again.
"No, not solving some dire crime again," Kat clipped out, forgetting to whisper. "Come in with me, and I'll explain."
She nodded to the liveried yeomen guards who swept open the doors, then shut them in everyone's faces when she and Cecil were inside. The elegantly appointed withdrawing room was empty too.
"The only mystery afoot," Kat muttered with a shake of her head, "is how the queen can carry on as she has." She kept nervously twisting the cord to the hanging scented pomander that dangled from her ample waist.
"Aha. Dudley still?" Cecil asked.
"Still and more than ever," Kat declared, a frown furrowing her high brow. "She's gone out with him now, walking in the orchards, but she said you might come out and find them by the Turtle Cage. Obviously they didn't want everyone with them this time."
Cecil felt deflated, angry, and alarmed. I fear, his own thoughts echoed Kat's words. Once, it had not been like Elizabeth of England to evade the business of her realm. Once, she had relied on his judgments and advice. And was he expected to brief her on a treaty that ended a bloody war with archenemies France and Scotland amidst cooing turtledoves in an orchard?
"Are the two of them out there unescorted?" Cecil demanded, forgoing sotto voce now.
"But for three servants, none of whom will say a peep to her courtiers, who think she's in here. Her Grace has Ned Topside with her, reciting love sonnets, I warrant. Meg Milligrew is supposedly picking posies for garlands, and Her Majesty's favorite lutenist, Geoffrey Hammet, playing pretty tunes." Kat's voice, usually sweet and conciliatory, was bitter and mocking.
"Hell's gates," Cecil said. "Not one proper companion? Has she taken leave of her senses?"
Kat snorted and edged toward the window to look out toward the orchards again, her fingers now tying knots in her pomander cord. "Her Grace tells me," Kat said, shaking her head, "that her senses are more alive than they've ever been. But her cheeks are a hectic hue, and she hasn't been sleeping worth a fig. She makes no bones about boasting of her care for her Robin and he for her. Devil take that jackanapes popinjay!" she cried, turning back to Cecil.
"We must keep calm," Cecil urged, still holding his distance from the window as if that would help him stay objective about this mess.
"I cannot. I only hope and pray, my lord, that Her Grace will listen to you about the Scots war--about something sobering. She and her Robin even go to each other's bedchambers for visits, though if I try to scold her for that, she insists they are never really alone, with courtiers, servants, or me about. She's always been willful, of course, but she's just not herself!"
He went over to pat Kat's shoulder as his own anger grew. He still held his leather satchel with the treaty and other papers of international import for the queen to sign. Dudley was not to be trusted; his family had twice turned traitor to the crown. And he'd been ten years married, for heaven's sake, so how dare he play the gallant lover?
"Will you come out with me to find and face her down, Kat?" he asked, keeping his temper and voice on a tight rein.
"That I will," she said, squaring her plump shoulders. "Though she told me to stay here, you do need a guide to find the Turtle Cage in all those trees, don't you?"
"Yes, let's go together," he said, though he knew full well where to find the secluded place.
"No, not that way, my lord," Kat cried, gesturing as he made for the double doors. "Let's take the privy staircase down and walk the covered passageways, just as she and Lord Robert did to ditch them all."
Meg Milligrew had never been happier. She was working with her beloved herbs and flowers, fashioning blossom necklaces for her dear queen and, better yet, for handsome Lord Robin. She was with the queen's principal player and sometimes fool, Ned Topside. Since she'd known him, she had secretly adored Ned, though the handsome actor was so stuck on himself he hadn't the slightest notion she felt that way. While he flirted with many a household maid, the wretch treated Meg only as a companion or pupil, since he'd taught her to talk and walk to resemble Her Majesty--and urged her to be her bumpkin self for contrast the rest of the time. But what Meg liked best about the day was that she was still out of London, where her husband no one knew about could not find and claim her and make her leave the queen.
A little distance off, Meg's royal mistress strolled hand-in-hand with Lord Robin around the large, wide-netted dovecote. Meg and Ned's friend Geoffrey Hammet sat in the low crotch of a pear tree and played one ballad or madrigal after another on his lute, including ones the queen's own father and courtiers had written. Unfortunately, Geoffrey did like his sack and got Ned to drink too much, but both looked sober enough right now. They sounded good too, sometimes singing sweet duets while Meg kept plaiting strands of gillyflowers and sweet william.
Her heart began to thud when Ned ambled over and sat down on the turf where she worked. A pox on the man, she thought as she nervously spilled the flower chain off her lap. Ned's black curly hair and green eyes, not to mention his rugged face and well-turned legs, always affected her like that.
"You look as smitten by him as our queen," Ned observed.
"Mm," she said, trying not to look into his eyes. She was relieved he thought it was Lord Robin who turned her into a clumsy, stuttering dolt. "What woman wouldn't, breathing Lord Robin's air, even a mere lass dubbed Strewing Herb Mistress of the Privy Chamber?"
"Though our queen mislikes to hear it, just remember the man is married," Ned said, aping exactly the way Lord Robin talked, "though neither of them acts it sometimes."
"Acts it? You would say that," Meg muttered, gathering her scattered flowers from the ground. "But you were wonderful as the king of Rome in that play scene last night," she admitted with a sigh.
"As Caesar, Meg," he corrected her, resettling his cap as if he still wore the laurel wreath she'd sewed for him of bay leaves. "Yes, I believe my forte is depicting great leaders--"
"God save us," Meg interrupted. "Here comes my Lord Cecil with Kat, and neither looking happy."
Ned craned his neck. "I haven't the vaguest notion why," he said wryly, back to his own voice now. "Cecil and Robert Dudley always get on about as well as the English and the Frenchies."
Geoffrey saw them coming too and left off the plaintive song he had just begun. But he strummed three quick chords, which Meg figured would have to do for trumpet fanfare out here.
The reunion of the queen and her chief minister started well enough, Meg noted, with proper greetings and a thanks to Cecil for what he'd done. But things didn't stay so nice and quiet.
"I would like to speak with you alone, Your Majesty," Secretary Cecil said with a pointed glance at Lord Robin, "about the treaty and the unfortunately still-defiant French attitude, even in defeat."
"Say on, my Lord Cecil," the queen urged, starting to walk around the large, dome-topped cage of cooing birds with Lord Robin still at her side.
"For your ears only, Your Gracious Majesty, until we present this to the Privy Council, of which, of course, Lord Robert is a part," Cecil prompted, standing his ground in more ways than one.
The queen swung back to face him so fast, her bright blue skirts belled out. Meg knew that look on her face. It was usually her sign to find a way quickly out of Her Majesty's presence.
"Lord Robert is privy to my business and to be fully trusted," Elizabeth informed Cecil, her voice cold and clear. Cecil stared her down one moment, then wisely complied.
"The treaty terms were the best I could get and mean we now have a triple blessing in the French defeat, Your Grace. The French are out of our northern neighbor's lands for good. Better yet, Scotland will be Protestant now, and thirdly, the Papist French have realized what a power you and England can be, so--"