“Cut and thrust! To the left! No, to your left!”
Kate’s shout resounded within Hatfield’s vaulted gallery, punctuated by a metallic hiss as she lunged toward me on soft-shod feet, brandishing her sword.
Ignoring the sweat dripping down my brow, my shoulder-length hair escaping its tie and plastered to my nape, I gauged my position. I had the advantage of my weight and height, but Kate had years of training. Indeed, her experience had come as a complete surprise to me. Kate and I had only met five months before in the palace of Whitehall, during the time of peril when I served as a squire to Lord Robert Dudley, son of the powerful Duke of Northumberland, and she acted as an informant for our mistress, Princess Elizabeth Tudor. During our time at court, Kate had displayed rather unusual skills for a woman, but when she first offered to instruct me it never occurred to me that she’d be so adept with a blade. I’d thought to call her bluff, thinking at best all she could manage was a few thrusts and parries. She soon proved how wrong I was.
I now averted her lunge, her sword slicing the air. Twisting around, pivoting on my shoes’ soft leather soles, I watched her stalk to me. I let her approach, feigning weariness. Just as she prepared to strike, I leapt aside, slashing down with my blade.
The smack of steel against her gauntleted wrist clapped in the hush like thunder. She let out a startled gasp, dropping her sword to the floor with a clatter.
Taut silence fell.
I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. “My love—oh my God, are you hurt? Forgive me. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t … I didn’t realize…”
She shook her head, peeling back her gauntlet. I saw a slice in the red cloth lining where my sword had bit through. My stomach somersaulted. “But how…?” I gaped. I ran my finger over the keen edge of my blade. “My sword, it—it’s not blunted. The tip: It’s always supposed to be blunted. The nub must have fallen off!”
I started to check the floor, paused, in sudden understanding. I looked at the long-limbed youth standing as if petrified in a corner.
“Peregrine! Did you blunt my sword as I told you?”
“Of course he did,” said Kate. “Stop yelling. Look, I’m fine. It’s just a scratch.” She extended her wrist. That tender white skin I’d kissed countless times had begun to darken into what promised to be a magnificent bruise, but to my relief there was no visible wound.
“I’m a brute,” I muttered. “I shouldn’t have struck so hard.”
“No, that’s exactly what you should have done. Surprise and disarm your opponent.” She leveled her honey-colored eyes at me. “You’ll need a better instructor. I’ve taught you everything I know.”
Her praise gave me pause. Though it gratified me to hear, I found her compliment a little too opportune to take at her word. I leaned down to the sword at her feet. My jaw clenched. “I should have known. Your nub seems to have fallen off as well.” I paused, taking in her expression. “God’s teeth, Kate, are you mad? Why would you do such a thing?”
I felt her set a warning hand on my arm, but I ignored it as I swerved back to Peregrine. He didn’t shift a muscle. His green-blue eyes were wide, framed by the dark thicket of curls falling about his face. He didn’t know his day of birth but believed he neared his fourteenth year, and though he hadn’t grown much in height, his features were starting to lose their elfin childishness, revealing the handsome man he would become one day. The clean air and plentiful food here in Elizabeth’s manor of Hatfield had transformed him, erasing all trace of the malnourished stable hand who’d first befriended me at court.
“You should have checked,” I said to him. “That’s part of being a squire. Squires always double-check their master’s gear.”
Peregrine stuck out his lower lip. “I did check it. But—”
“You did?” Though I heard the sudden anger in my tone I couldn’t stop it. “Well, if you did check, you did a poor job of it. Maybe you’re not ready to be a squire. Maybe I should return you to the stables. At least there no one can get hurt.”
Kate let out a cry of exasperation. “Brendan, honestly! Now you are being a brute. Peregrine is not to blame. I took off the nubs before you got here. I’m also wearing enough quilting under my jerkin to weather a storm at sea. I wasn’t in any danger.”
“No danger?” I turned to her, incredulous. “I could have cut off your hand.”
“But you didn’t.” She sighed and raised herself on tiptoes to kiss me. “Please don’t make a fuss. We’ve been practicing every day for weeks. Those nubs had to come off sometime.”
I growled, though I knew I shouldn’t berate her. It had taken me some time, and many bruises, to recognize that while outwardly a vehicle to teach me the intricacies of swordplay, our practice sessions were, in truth, our way of directing our frustrations that we’d not had the opportunity to ask leave to wed before Princess Elizabeth departed for London to attend the coronation of her half sister, Queen Mary.
Given the circumstances, Kate and I had reluctantly decided not to burden Elizabeth with our request to marry. In the days leading up to her departure, the princess had kept a firm smile on her face, but I knew she was apprehensive over her reunion with her older sister, whom she had not seen in years. It wasn’t merely the seventeen-year difference in their ages. While Elizabeth had been raised in the Protestant faith, a result of her father King Henry’s break with Rome, Mary had cleaved to Catholicism—and it had almost cost her everything in the final days of their brother King Edward’s reign.
I knew all too well about the dangers the princesses had endured. Like Elizabeth, Mary had been targeted by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who ruled in Edward’s name. While the young king lay dying, Northumberland had schemed to capture the Tudor sisters and set his youngest son Guilford and daughter-in-law Jane Grey on the throne instead. He might have succeeded, too, had I not found myself thrust into the midst of his plans, unwittingly becoming one of the architects of his demise. It was how I’d first met Kate and come to serve Elizabeth; now, with Northumberland dead, his five sons imprisoned, and England celebrating Mary’s accession, Elizabeth had had no choice but to obey her sister’s summons, though, to my disconcertion, she insisted on returning to court without us.
“No, my friends,” she said. “This is hardly the time for me to appear with an entourage. I’ll attend the coronation as a loyal subject and be back here before you know it. It’s not as if Mary wants me to stay. She has enough on her platter. I’d only be a burden.”
Elizabeth had chosen only her trusted matron, Blanche Parry, to accompany her. I didn’t like it. The night before she left, I asked her again, in vain, to let me go with her, citing my fears for her safety in the cesspool of intrigue at court.
She laughed. “You forget I’ve breathed the airs of that cesspool my entire life! If I could survive Northumberland, surely there isn’t much to fear. However, I promise you that if I find need of protection, you’ll be the first person I send for.”
She left Hatfield as autumn gilded the land. With her gone, the household settled into a quiet routine. As I fought off my disquiet over her safety by dedicating myself to my studies, my sword practice, and other chores, I came to realize it wasn’t that Elizabeth had not wanted me with her, but rather that she’d known me better than I knew myself and acted in my best interests.
The truth was I wasn’t ready to return to court. I still needed time to heal.
Remembering this, I regretted my tone with Peregrine, who had helped me through so much. Keeping an arm about Kate’s waist, I motioned to him. “Come here,” I said.
He sidled forth. He had become my shadow, following me everywhere—“like an adoring pup,” Kate had remarked—as evidenced now by the appeal in his wide-eyed gaze.
“I ought to send you off to empty the bilge pit or something equally unappetizing,” I grumbled. “Haven’t you learned it’s never wise to trust a woman?”
Kate jabbed me in the rib.
“Yes,” said Peregrine. “I mean, no.”
“Well?” I arched a brow. “Which is it: yes or no?”
Kate let out a laugh. “You are impossible! Let the lad be. He has years yet to learn about the wiles of the fairer sex.” Stepping away from me, she undid the snood at her nape, releasing her auburn hair. I ruffled Peregrine’s curls. “I am indeed a brute,” I said to him. “Please, forgive me.”
Peregrine was opening his mouth to reply when Kate exclaimed, “Papa, what a surprise!” and I froze where I stood, staring toward the gallery entrance in disbelief.
Coming toward us was the last person I’d expected to see—a dapper figure in a black cloak, a satchel strapped to his shoulder. As he removed his flat black cap from his balding pate, I thought William Cecil looked younger than his thirty-three years and healthier than the last time I’d seen him. Even his russet-colored beard was free of any telltale white, and his bronzed face was a sure sign that, like me, he’d been spending much-needed time outdoors, tending to a garden or herb patch or whatever it was he did when not manipulating other people’s lives.
“I trust I do not intrude?” he said in his smooth tone. “Mistress Ashley told me I would find you here, taking your exercise.”
“You always intrude,” I heard Peregrine mutter, and I set a hand on his shoulder. Cecil’s light blue eyes glinted in amusement as he looked in the boy’s direction before he turned to Kate, who appeared uncharacteristically flustered. Though she feigned surprise, I had the distinct impression Cecil’s arrival here was not unexpected.
“My sweet Kate, it’s been too long.” Cecil embraced her. “My wife, Lady Mildred, was most concerned you might have taken ill. We were relieved to get your note.”
Note? I shot a sharp look at Kate as she hugged Cecil in return. She had every right to, after all. She had become his ward upon her mother’s death, raised in the Cecil household by him and his wife. Why shouldn’t she have written to him? Only, she had not mentioned it to me, though she knew how I felt about this man. She had not contended with him as I had, when he had served Northumberland as his private secretary and lured me to spy against the Dudley family. She had not learned that her beloved guardian had several faces, none of which could be fully trusted.
“I’m so sorry to have worried you and Lady Mildred,” Kate now said. “I’ve wanted to visit, but—” She turned to me, taking my hand in hers. Cecil glanced down with apparent indifference at our clasped fingers, though he could hardly have missed the inference. “Time just got away from us,” Kate went on. “Didn’t it, Brendan?” She smiled at me. “Lately it seems we haven’t enough hours in the day. The house always need so much work.”
“I can imagine it,” Cecil said. “And I don’t wish to be an imposition, though I was hoping to stay for supper. I brought a meat pie and jar of honey. I left them with Mistress Ashley.” He smiled warmly at Kate. “I remembered how you used to love honey from our hives when you were a girl.”
“Oh, how kind of you! Yes, I’ll see to it at once.” Kate glanced again at me; my stomach knotted. It took all I could muster to say dryly, “Indeed. How could we refuse?”
Cecil met my gaze. He hadn’t missed the undertone in my voice. I already knew there was more to his visit than mere worry over Kate’s health.
“A moment, if you will,” I said to him, and I guided Kate a short distance away, leaving Peregrine to glare at Cecil. In a taut voice, I asked her, “What is this about? Why is he here? And why didn’t you tell me he was coming?”
“Just heed him,” Kate said. “It’s important.”
I went still. “Is it about…?”
“Yes.” She put a finger to my lips, preempting my eruption. “You can berate me later, but for now I’ll leave you two alone so I can see to supper. Try not to hit him, yes?” She turned about with a bright smile, gesturing to Peregrine. As she herded him out, Peregrine glared over his shoulder at Cecil.
“Judging by the look on your face, and your little friend’s reaction, I assume you’d rather I wasn’t here,” he remarked.
“And I see you haven’t lost your acuity. What do you want?”
He smiled, moving to the window seat. “You’re looking fit,” he said. “You’ve put on weight. The air here at Hatfield suits you, it seems.”
“Better than the court,” I replied. I concentrated on keeping an impassive stance. Cecil was an expert dissimulator; he knew how to get under my skin. I could already sense him gauging me, assessing how this time of seclusion, of early mornings and earlier nights, had transformed me so that I no longer resembled the callow youth he’d lured into informing against the Dudleys. “You haven’t answered my question,” I said.
“I came to see you.” He sat. “Kate sent me a note, but I wrote to her first. I told her I had important news to impart. She returned word that I should present myself.”
“You could have written to me.”
“Yes, I could have. But would you have replied?”
“Depends.” I eyed him. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
To his credit, Cecil looked discomfited. “I would not have come were it not a matter of urgency, I assure you. I’ve no desire to cause you any more trouble than I already have.”
“Is that so?” I asked, and as we faced each other for the first time since the tumultuous events that had first brought us together, I reflected on the irony that two such antithetical men could hide such powerful secrets about each other. For only I knew how ruthlessly Cecil had acted to destroy his former master, Northumberland, and protect Elizabeth, just as only Cecil knew the truth of who I was.
I tensed as Cecil shifted aside the pile of books on the window seat and perched on the cushions. He picked up one of the volumes, perusing it. “I see that besides your swordsmanship, you’ve taken to studying Spanish and French. Quite a formidable endeavor, if I do say so myself. One might think you’re preparing for something.”
I had to school myself to meet the impact of his pale blue eyes. Enough had gone between us for me to know I’d always be on the short end of the mallet when it came to Cecil. Even now, as he stood poised against the window embrasure as if he were still holding audience in his London manor, his power and influence vast, though rarely exercised in public, I felt a shudder pass through me as I contemplated everything he was capable of.
I clenched my jaw. “Lest you forget, I now serve Princess Elizabeth. I am not your informant anymore, so get to the point. What is this urgent matter?”
He inclined his head. As usual, his matter-of-fact air didn’t do justice to the exigency that must have propelled him to Hatfield. Still, his opening volley took me off guard.
“Have you any word from Her Grace?”
I felt a chill that had nothing to do with my sweat-dampened chemise. “Not recently. We had a short letter from her a month or so ago, saying she was staying on at court through Twelfth Night. We assumed the queen had invited her to stay.”
Cecil arched his brow. “Oh, she is staying, but not because she was invited. Mary has ordered her to remain at court.” He paused. “Do I have your interest?” He reached into his satchel to remove a sheaf of papers. “These are reports I recently received from an informant. I assumed that under the circumstances, you wouldn’t take my word for it.”
I crossed my arms with deliberate nonchalance, hiding my disquiet.
“Elizabeth is in danger,” he said. “Grave danger, according to these reports.”
I took a moment to meet his gaze. I found no deception there, no conniving. He looked both troubled and sincere. Then again, he was a master at hiding his motives.
“In danger?” I repeated. “And you have an informant at court who told you this? Who is it?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.” He untied the leather cord binding the sheaf. “These reports started arriving a month or so ago—all anonymous, all in the same hand.” He extended one of the papers to me; as I took it, he added, “That’s the last one. It arrived about a week ago. You can see the paper is a common grain, like the others, but I believe the man who wrote these reports must be employed at court. His information indicates proximity to the events he describes. Look at the handwriting: It’s orderly but not overly literate; a secretary or notary, perhaps.”
I scanned the report. The writing reminded me with a jolt of the neat lettering I’d often seen in the castle account ledgers kept by Archie Shelton, the Dudley family steward. Shelton had trained me to be his apprentice. He also first brought me to court to serve as a squire to Lord Robert Dudley, plunging me into danger.
I tore myself away from the memory. “I don’t understand,” I said, looking up at Cecil. “This is an account of Queen Mary receiving a Spanish delegation to offer the Emperor Charles V’s congratulations on her coronation. Why is that unusual? The emperor is a fellow sovereign.”
“Turn it over,” he said. “The page. Turn it upside down, and hold it up to the light.”
I went to the windowpane and pressed the paper against it. I had to focus, but then I began to see them: translucent white lines, surfacing like ghosts between the inked ones.
There was another letter, hidden within the letter.
I squinted. “I can’t make it out. The words are too faded.”
“The special ink he used is activated by lemon juice,” Cecil explained. “It’s a familiar ploy, and I’m ashamed to admit it took me a while to figure it out. Clearly this is not the work of a trained spy. At first, I thought someone was playing a trick on me, in rather poor taste, sending me reports of seemingly innocuous events at court. But as they kept arriving, I started to get suspicious. Fortunately, Lady Mildred always keeps on hand the juice of preserved lemons from our orchard.” He met my stare. “I have transcribed everything for you here, on this paper. What that invisible letter says is that unofficially, the Spanish delegation brought Charles V’s secret offer of marriage to his son, Prince Philip.”
“Philip?” I started. “As in, the prince of Spain?”
“The same. And the emperor is more than a fellow sovereign: He is the queen’s first cousin, whom she’s always treated as a family confidant. She relies on his advice. Should she accept his offer of marriage to his son, one of the terms of the betrothal will be returning England to the Catholic faith. Charles V will tolerate nothing less. It also goes without saying that a rapprochement with Rome would be calamitous for every Protestant in this realm, and most of all for Elizabeth.”
He picked up the page on which he’d transcribed the invisible words from the reports. “See here. ‘Her Majesty heeds exclusively the imperial ambassador, Simon Renard, who deems Elizabeth a bastard and heretic, and menace to the queen.’” He glanced up at me. “They’re all in this vein: two or three secret lines per report, yet taken together they present an undeniable picture.”
My heart started to pound. Cecil might be a liar, but when it came to Elizabeth he was nothing if not thorough. She meant everything to him; she was the reason he persisted, the beacon that guided him through the shoals of his disgrace, as the fall of Northumberland had been his fall as well, for Queen Mary had exiled him from court.
“Her Majesty doesn’t strike me as someone who is easily swayed by others,” I said.
“Yes, she is like her father that way; she makes up her own mind. But she is also the daughter of Catherine of Aragon, a princess of Spain, and Simon Renard represents Spanish interests. He has served the Hapsburg emperor Charles V for many years, and she takes his advice seriously. If Renard is advising that Elizabeth poses a threat to her faith and her desire for a Hapsburg marriage, nothing could be more calculated to rouse her suspicions. After all, religion is the queen’s lodestone. She believes God himself guided her through her vicissitudes to the throne. Elizabeth is a Protestant; she stands in direct opposition to everything Mary hopes to achieve, including returning England to the Catholic fold.”
Alarm went through me. “Are you saying this man Renard seeks the princess’s arrest?”
“And her death,” replied Cecil. “It can mean nothing else. With Elizabeth out of the way, the succession is to Prince Philip and Mary’s future child. An heir of Hapsburg blood to rule England and unite us with the empire, thereby encircling the French—it is Charles V’s dream. Renard is a career civil servant; he knows whoever delivers that dream stands to gain a great deal.”
I stared at him, aghast. “But the queen would not harm her. Elizabeth is her sister and…” My protest faded as I took in Cecil’s expression. “Dear God, do you think he has any proof against her?”
“Besides accusations whispered in the queen’s ear? No, not yet. But that doesn’t mean he shan’t be long in obtaining it. Make no mistake: Simon Renard is a tenacious opponent. When he sets his mind to something, he will not stop until he achieves it.”
I clearly heard the soughing of the evening wind rising outside. I took a moment to collect my thoughts before I said quietly, “What is it you want from me?”
He smiled. “What else? I want you to go to court and stop Renard. You earned Queen Mary’s trust when you risked yourself to help her escape Northumberland’s coup. She would welcome you. Gain a post in her service and you can beat Renard at his own game.”
I let out a terse laugh. “Just like that? I return to court and the queen grants me hearth and board, and a post to boot?” My mirth faded. “Do you think me a complete fool?”
“On the contrary, I think you have a flair for this work, as previous events have shown.” He glanced at the pile of books by his side, now overlaid by his reports. “I do not believe this rural life can satisfy you for long, not with so much important work yet to do.”
His unexpected insight stung me, more than I cared to admit. I didn’t relish his knowing things he had no right to. I didn’t want him inside my head.
“The last time I accepted an assignment from you,” I said, “I almost perished.”
“Yes.” Cecil met my regard. “A spy does run that risk. But you prevailed, and rather well, I might add, all things considered. This time, at least you’ll be prepared and know who your foe is. You will also return to court under the alias I gave you when you first met Mary. You will be Daniel Beecham, and his return is unlikely to arouse much interest.”
He rose from the window seat, leaving the reports on my books. “You needn’t answer me now. Read the reports and consider whether you can afford to ignore them.”
I didn’t want to read his reports. I didn’t want to care. Nonetheless, he had already lured me to his bait. He stirred something in me that I could not evade—a restlessness that had plagued me ever since I had left court for this safe haven.
Cecil knew it. He knew this terrible craving in me because he also felt it.
“I still must talk to Kate about this—” I started to say. I stopped, noting his impatient frown. “She already knows, doesn’t she? She knows you want to send me back to court.”
“She’s no fool, and she cares for you—rather deeply, it would seem. But she also understands that in matters such as these, time is often the one commodity we lack.”
I clenched my jaw. I thought of Kate’s enthusiastic cajoling of me to master the sword, her determination for me to excel. She must have suspected a day would come when I’d be compelled to return to court in defense of Elizabeth.
“I should wash up before supper,” said Cecil. “I assume you’ll have more questions after you read these. I can stay the night, but tomorrow I must return to my manor.”
“I haven’t said I agree to anything.”
“No, not yet,” he replied. “But you will.”
Copyright © 2013 by C. W. Gortner