C. Gortner: The Tudor Conspiracy

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C. Gortner The Tudor Conspiracy
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    The Tudor Conspiracy
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    St. Martin’s Press
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    Исторические приключения / на английском языке
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“He does have a way with words, doesn’t he?” She managed a faint smile. “If you’re going to leave, however, then I think it’s time for you to do something important for me.”

Around us, without warning, the unspoken stirred. She reached under the neckline of her bodice and withdrew an object strung on a leather cord-a fragmented golden artichoke leaf, tipped by a tiny chipped ruby.

“Will you tell me what this is?”

My mouth went dry. “I–I did tell you. It is my troth, a pledge of my love for you.”

“Yes, but what does it mean? I know you acquired it during that awful time when we were fighting to save the princess from the Dudleys. That woman who raised you, Mistress Alice, gave it to you. Why? What is its significance?” Kate paused, her voice softening as she took in my silence. “It has to do with your past, doesn’t it? Cecil knows, too. If you can trust him with it, why not me?” She reached out to caress my face, the jewel dangling at her breast. “Whatever it is, I promise I will never betray you. I’d die first. But if you must return to court to risk God knows what dangers, you can’t expect to leave me behind with this secret between us. I must know the truth.”

I couldn’t draw enough air into my lungs. I looked into her eyes, so steady, so determined, and was overcome by my secret, which I’d vowed to never tell another soul.

“You cannot understand what you ask,” I said quietly. “But I do trust you, with my very life.” I guided her to the window seat. “You must swear that you’ll not tell anyone,” I said, taking her hand in mine, “especially not Elizabeth. She must never know.”

“Brendan, I already said I’d not betray your confidence-”

I gripped her hand. “Just swear it, Kate. Please, for me.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I do. I swear it.”

I nodded. “I’ve never told Cecil about that jewel. The only other man who knows about it is Archie Shelton.”

“Shelton? The Dudley steward who brought you to court? He knows?”

“He knew. He’s dead now. He must be. He couldn’t have survived that night we were trapped in the Tower after London declared for Mary. It was chaos. The gates closed on us. Northumberland’s supporters were clawing at each other to get out. I saw Shelton disappear in the crowd, trampled underfoot. He died, and the secret of the jewel died with him. Cecil knows who I am, but he doesn’t know I have evidence to prove it.”

I paused, faltering. I saw myself again as a lost child, scrambling to hide as the Dudley brood hunted me, walloping for the foundling without a name. I remembered my beloved Mistress Alice, bathing my bruises, murmuring that something special set me apart. That something had set loose a chain of life-shattering events, and as I thought of everything that had happened to me, everything I had discovered, I realized I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. I had to share this terrible burden.

In a low voice, I told Kate my story, starting with how I’d been brought as a babe to the Dudley household and raised to be their servant, neglected and disdained until I was summoned to serve Lord Robert, the most dangerous Dudley of all.

“When he came to the castle to escort me to court, Shelton warned me to do as I was told, to be a faithful servant and never betray the family on whom I depended for my survival. He said my fealty would be rewarded. But then I met Elizabeth. Then I was hired by Cecil to spy on Lord Robert and help her, and everything changed. I unraveled the mystery of my birth. After twenty-one years of believing I was nobody, I discovered that I had royal blood in my veins.” I went silent for a moment. Then I said haltingly, as Kate drew in an incredulous gasp, “My mother was Mary of Suffolk, Elizabeth’s aunt. I am a Tudor.”

I had never said these words aloud, and I saw the impact of my revelation spread across Kate’s face. She raised a trembling hand to her chest, touching the jewel. “How-how did Shelton find out?” she finally uttered. “How is this jewel connected to it?”

“Shelton delivered the jewel to Mistress Alice.” I came to my feet. I couldn’t stay seated anymore. “He had served the Suffolk household long before he entered the Dudleys’ service. That leaf is part of a larger jewel, which was broken apart after my mother’s death; she bequeathed its leaves to those she thought she could trust. But Mistress Alice had already fled with me to the Dudley castle and let it be known I was a foundling. Shelton must have spent years searching for her. And when he found her, she told him about me.”

“But why would she have told him?”

I forced myself to shrug, though her question pierced my soul. “My mother had concealed her pregnancy from everyone save Alice; when she died, Alice took me away to hide me. I believe she did it to protect me and my mother, to keep secret that a Tudor princess had given birth to a bastard.”

“Dear God. And you’ve known this, all this time. You’ve kept it all to yourself.”

“I had no choice. Don’t you see, Kate? That jewel may prove my birthright, but it’s too dangerous to reveal-for all of us. A bastard is of no account, but if anyone thought I was legitimate…” I shuddered, turning away from her.

“Do you think Shelton knew who your father was?” she asked softly.

“If he did, I’ll never know now.” I cleared my throat. “I never wanted any of this. If I could, I’d undo it all. I’d rather be a foundling than this … this creature of shadow.”

“You are not a creature.” I heard her skirts rustle as she stood. I felt her hand on my shoulder. Desolation filled me.

“I do not ask you to live with this,” I whispered. “It is too great a burden, I know. The children we might have together … they will never be able to claim a family from me. Even my name is a lie. It means nothing.”

“Let me decide what I can and cannot bear. Brendan, look at me.” I turned about to face her. “Never let me hear you say that again,” she said. “You are the man I have chosen to spend my life with. You are strong, good, and honest. You are all a child needs in a father.”

Tears burned in my eyes. I drew her close, and as I held her against me and breathed in her lavender scent, desire for her overwhelmed me. I longed to ravel my hands in her hair, uncoil it from the net at her nape to let it flow like dark honey over her naked shoulders. I longed to strip her of her clothes, to see her arch beneath me with breathless abandon, taking me deep inside her. I wanted none of the sordid intrigues and terrors of my past or the court to ever touch her again.

“I love you, Kate Stafford,” I said. “I love you with all my heart. I only want to be yours, forever. If you ever find reason to doubt me, remember that.”

She kissed me. “And I love you, Brendan Prescott, even if you hide too much.”

* * *

After supper, Cecil and I retired to sit together before the fire.

Nursing a goblet of hot cider, his pale eyes turned strangely opaque in the flickering interplay of light and shadow, he said, “Will you do as I ask?”

In response, I extended the sheaf of reports, rebound with the cord.

“No questions?” he asked, with a hint of surprise.

“There isn’t much to ask, is there? The bulk of those reports details events at court, as you said. They might be entries from the ledger of any master of ceremonies or clerk; there’s nothing to question, at least not visibly. However, there is one thing I noticed besides the secret warnings.” I took a moment, watching him. He was fully capable of omitting important details. He had done it before. I didn’t want to consider that he might be engaged in one of his double ploys, not in this case, but my suspicion of him could not be quelled so easily. I had to be certain.

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