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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“Go ahead.” He took a sip from his goblet. “I can see the doubt on your face. You’ll have to master that trait. At court, everyone is an expert at reading others.”

“Edward Courtenay,” I said, “Earl of Devon. Your informant mentions him several times, in association with the princess. Why?”

Cecil smiled. “You are indeed a born intelligencer.”

“It’s hardly proof of my skill. Anyone who read those reports would ask the same. So, who is he?”

“A last survivor of the royal Plantagenet bloodline. Old King Henry-who could smell a foe at a hundred paces-imprisoned Courtenay as a boy in the Tower. He also beheaded Courtenay’s father. Henry proclaimed it was because of the family’s refusal to accept him as head of the church, but in truth he feared Courtenay’s claim to the throne. One of Mary’s first official acts as queen was to order Courtenay’s release. She also gave him a title. In fact, she’s shown him significant favor.”

“Does that make him ally or threat?”

Cecil’s brow lifted. “Denied so long his royal privileges, or what he believes are his privileges, I should think that royal favor or no, our earl must nurse plans of his own. Indeed, if rumor is to be believed, he was offered as a possible spouse for Mary, but she rejected him due to his inexperience and youth.”

“Are you saying that he could be plotting against the Hapsburg marriage?”

“I’m saying he is one of the mysteries you need to investigate.” Cecil’s voice darkened. It was the first time he had let his frustration openly show that he was so removed from the undercurrents at court. Times past, he’d have put two or three agents on Courtenay’s trail, to report on his every move. “If Courtenay is plotting, it will not be overt. Remember, Mary has yet to make official announcement of her intent to marry. Whatever Courtenay intends, he’s planning it in secret.”

“But Renard must be watching him.” I had started to recline in my chair when I saw Cecil’s hand tighten about his goblet. The movement was fleet, almost indiscernible, but the moment I gleaned it, I understood. “God,” I breathed. “You’re still testing me. You’re sending me to court because you fear Renard’s suspicions about Elizabeth could be true.”

He let out a terse sigh. “The possibility has crossed my mind. I hope I’m wrong. In fact, I pray for it. But the fact that Elizabeth’s name is linked to Courtenay is not an auspicious sign. Of course, it could mean nothing. Their friendship could be the natural outcome of two persons of import who have found themselves thrown into court together. They’re not too far apart in age. He’s twenty-six, six years older than she. It could all be perfectly innocent.”

“Or it could not be,” I countered. I hesitated, regarding him. Sometimes I forgot that few of us knew Elizabeth as well as we supposed. It was part of her charm; she could make anyone feel like her intimate, when in fact she hid her true nature in enigma. “Do you actually believe she’s capable of plotting against her own sister?” I asked cautiously.

He gave a dry chuckle. “When it comes to Mary and Elizabeth, nothing would surprise me less. You’d be hard-pressed to find two women more disparate, let alone two who are sisters. I fear they’re fated to become mortal enemies. Battle lines are being drawn even as we speak, with Mary on the one side, determined to wrest the realm from heresy and bind us to a foreign power, while Elizabeth is on the other as her heir, the last hope for an independent land beholden to the Protestant faith. Which one shall win?”

His voice quickened, imbued with urgency. “If Elizabeth is involved in Courtenay’s plot, she must be stopped before it is too late. Like her, I’ve no wish for us to fall prey to Spain and the Inquisition, but unlike her, I’ve lost the impetuosity of youth. Elizabeth fails to realize that Mary nears her fortieth year. Even if Prince Philip manages to get her with child, she may never carry it to term. Without an heir of Mary’s body, Elizabeth can be queen. We can guide her to her destiny-you and I. But first, we must keep her alive.”

The echo of his words faded, until the crackling of the flames in the hearth was clearly heard. I stared into the fire, weighing his concerns in my mind.

I said quietly, “I will do it, then. I will go to court.”

His entire posture sagged. All of a sudden, he revealed the profound weariness lurking behind his imperturbable facade, the insidious toll that years of toil in the arena of power, extracting bribes and favors, instigating plots and schemes, had taken on his spirit.

“Thank you,” he said. “On the day she takes the throne, may it be sooner rather than later, God willing, I promise you’ll be well compensated for your service.”

I stood. “Don’t promise anything quite yet. I said I’d go to court to help her, but I go on my terms. Understood? I’ll brook no interference, no matter what course I take. If you have any men in London you’re thinking of putting on my tail, warn them off now. If you don’t, if I find out you’re misleading me in any way, you will regret it.”

His mouth twitched. “I believe we understand each other.” He reached into the satchel by his chair and took out a small leather purse. “For your expenses.”

“I do this for the princess. I don’t need payment from you.”

He set the purse on my chair. “Consider it a loan, then.” He came to his feet. I took satisfaction in it. I finally had gotten the upper hand when it came to William Cecil.

As he started to leave, I said, “What of this informant? Should I try to find him?”

“Absolutely not. If he wants to be found, he’ll let us know.”

* * *

It snowed in the next days-a light dusting that dissipated by the afternoon yet left a new and profound chill in the air. We were occupied from dawn till dusk, readying the animals and fields for the onslaught of winter, finishing the stocking of the larders and cellars, pruning the last of the fruit trees, and covering herb patches and other delicate plants to shelter them from the night’s frost.

I sent word to Cecil and received his instructions in return. While I prepared, Kate and I did our best to not compound our impending separation. She set herself to purchasing cloth and making me the court doublets and shirts I required, sewing by the fire at night while I pored over Cecil’s transcription of the warnings in the reports, seeking some other clue I might have missed. The heaviness between us thickened, so that even Mistress Ashley finally made comment of it on the morning of my departure as I packed my belongings.

The plump matron who’d overseen Elizabeth’s household for years had become a stalwart presence in my life as well. Energetic and devoted to the princess’s welfare, Kate Ashley had boundless optimism and an ability to make everyone around her feel at ease. I knew she’d not taken it well when Elizabeth refused to let her accompany her to London; they had quarreled, as was their wont, with Ash Kat, as Elizabeth dubbed her, wringing her hands as she watched the princess ride away.

“No good can come of it,” she had said at the time. “She and that sister of hers should never be in the same city, much less under the same roof. I told her to stay put, feign an illness, but would she listen to me? No. There she goes, into the very jaws of the wolf.”

Now Mistress Ashley bustled into my chamber to declare, “You’re going to bring her home, yes? No shenanigans this time, no sneaking into forbidden rooms or jumping off leads into the Thames? You’re going to pack her up and bring her here, where she belongs.”

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