Eltham Palace. Morning. A tall fair young man strides down the narrow corridor towards the sound of splashing water. Steam billows through the half-open door ahead.
He is wearing soft kidskin ankle boots that make no sound on the polished tiles. His brocade gown, wide sleeved, embroidered with silver harts and gold crowns, is swinging loosely open as he hurries towards his bathhouse.
The flickering fires of the cressets that line the corridor are not more bright than he is. He glitters, sheds light as he strides along, his red-gold hair, his lucent skin, his shimmering garments, brighter than fire. Tapestries on both sides sway with his urgent haste, their own gold thread bringing the scenes of the hunt to life, a falcon stooping to its prey, a stag among the trees with huntsmen closing for the kill. The embroidered leaves seem rustled by the wind as the tapestries billow from the wall.
A real wind from an open window tuckers underneath as he reaches the door and one of the tapestries bulges to meet him.
He catches a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye and gives a shout. A narrow-bladed knife appears in his hand. He launches himself at the unseen assassin. Stabs wildly into the swirling fabric. Stabs again and again. The gold and silver threads protect his assailant like thin armour. Then from within the folds a shape lurches forward and he raises the knife to finish them.
But a shout stops him. Knife raised.
'My Lord! No!'
Swivelling, he sees Robert.
White-faced, he is lunging forward, arms outstretched. 'Stop! Dickon! My Lord! Stop!'
The newcomer throws himself against the King regardless of the knife, yelling again, 'Stop! Stop!'
The tall young man, fair and pale anyway, blanches. Sky-blue eyes darken. He steps back in horror.
The bundle behind the tapestry struggles to free itself. Topples towards the two men. Robert tears the tapestry aside. 'Agnes?'
A figure resolves itself into a young woman with long pale hair and a gorgeous gown of yellow silk.
She falls into his arms.
The King steps forward, the knife useless in his hand. 'Is there blood?'
Agnes is sobbing with fear and relief. 'You missed me, Your Grace ...'
He slams the knife back into the jewelled sheath on a gilded belt under his gown.
Without another word he pushes on into the bathhouse and vanishes into the billowing steam.
Agnes is still sobbing in her saviour's arms, shaky with relief, furious with herself. 'I thought I was dead ...'
'Fool. You know he fears assassins.' He kisses her roughly, with relief, with lust. 'No harm, angel - you're safe. But what were you thinking?'
'I just wanted to jump out and surprise him,' she whispers, allowing herself to be kissed. 'I meant it as a joke.'
'My mad Bohemian,' he whispers. 'We have to look after him. This is the one place he feels safe and then you frighten him like that. Oh, sweeting ...' He holds her more tenderly and begins to laugh.
'I'll never ever do anything like that again.' She is still shaking.
'He'll never forgive you.'
When they enter the chamber with the wide tiled pool at its centre and a blonde-haired girl gravely swimming in the water, the King himself is already stepping down to join her. He smiles when he notices their expressions.
'What else can we expect when we surround ourselves with mad Bohemians?' he asks Robert. 'Anne is quite as crazy.'
He glances over to his wife where she floats serenely on her back, long hair flowing in elfin knots around her head making her look like a mermaid.
'You may leave us.' He dismisses them both, calling, 'Iforgive you, Agnes. I'm greatly at fault. I pray you forgive me.'
He is already planning to give his wife's madcap lady-in-waiting a balas ruby in recompense for the scare he gave her. For the scare he himself received, he will give thanks later in his private chapel to his protector, St Edmund.
He turns back to his wife. Then stares in horror.
Her face is deathly white.
She is floating in a pool of blood.
Copyright © 2012 by Cassandra Clark.