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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C. W. Gortner

The Tudor Conspiracy

She has a spirit of enchantment.

— SIMON RENARD, referring to Elizabeth Tudor


There comes an inevitable time in every life when we must cross a threshold and encounter that invisible divider between who we are and who we must become. Sometimes, the passage is evident-a sudden catastrophe that tests our mettle, a tragic loss that opens our eyes to the bane of our mortality, or a personal triumph that instills in us the confidence we need to cast aside our fears. Other times, our passage is obscured by the minutiae of an overcrowded life until we catch it in a glimpse of forbidden desire; in an inexplicable sense of melancholic emptiness or a craving for more, always more, than what we already possess.

Sometimes we embrace the chance to embark on our passage, welcoming it as a chance to finally shed the adolescent skin and prove our worth against the incessant vagaries of fate. Other times, we rail against its unexpected cruelty, against the sharp thrust into a world we’re not ready to explore, one we do not know or trust. For us, the past is a haven that we are loath to depart, lest the future corrupt our soul.

Better not to change at all, rather than become someone we will not recognize.

I know all about this fear. I know what it is to hide a secret and pretend that I can be like any other man-ordinary, commonplace, unremarkable; my days regimented between dawn and dusk, my heart given to one alone. I craved to be anyone but who I was. I felt I had seen all I had to see of vicissitudes and broken innocence, of the savageries perpetuated in the name of faith, power, and lust. I believed that in denying the truth, I would be safe.

I am Brendan Prescott, former squire to Lord Robert Dudley and now in service to Princess Elizabeth Tudor of England.

In that winter of 1554, my deception found me.


Chapter One

“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.

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