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Facing white cliffs in a strait of ocean separating two kingdoms, a fleet of ships lay at anchor. It was the fleet of the kingdom of England, sent to escort precious cargo: a princess of England and France, the most famous princess in Christendom, in fact. A yacht with a rakish bow slashed through the water toward the best and greatest of these anchored ships; the king on board liked fast yachts, fast horses, fast women. The princess was his sister, and he and those with him could not wait to see her.
"Monmouth's on the yacht!" said a young woman leaning over the side of the princess's ship. She had stepped atop a huge coil of rope for this view, and a sailor, eyeing her satins and the single strand of fat pearls at her neck, had warned her to be careful, but she'd sent him off with a withering comment to mind his own business. She wasn't one to suffer fools--or even those who weren't fools--telling her what to do. The sight of King Charles's yacht racing toward them was thrilling. She could see the crowd waiting on shore. The queen and her father and her best friend were among them. She was so glad to see England again, she wasn't certain she'd be able to keep herself from kneeling on the beach and kissing the sand of it when she landed.
"And who else is there?" asked the friend with her, like her a maid of honor to the princess, and like her, excited to be witnesses to this, King Charles and his sister meeting again after so many years--ten if it was a day. Flags were flying from all the topmasts, whipping smartly in the breeze. The day was bright and clear. Everyone was dressed in their finest, felt high-spirited, mettlesome as horses, stirred and thrilled by this reunion.
"Climb up here and see for yourself!" Alice said.
"Don't tease, Alice, and don't fall--" Her friend, Louise Renee, grabbed Alice's gown, for by now Alice was leaning over the edge at a dangerous angle, the feet in her dainty satin shoes on tiptoe.
"The Duke of York is with His Majesty and Prince Rupert--oh, they're close enough to hear me--Rupert! Prince Rupert! Monmouth!" Shrieking the names, Alice waved a gauzy scarf back and forth with wild abandon and was rewarded with a hearty wave from the king's cousin, a smile from the king's son, and a startled glance and then a grin from King Charles himself. Loud cheers had come up from hundreds of throats, the throats of the sailors manning the ships, the throats of the crowd on shore. They, too, were waving and clapping, cheering the king. Gulls, who'd idly settled among the rigging, rose like winged blessings into the sky.
"He hasn't changed a whit," Alice said.
"The king. I wonder who he'll be flirting with by midnight--"
"Mademoiselle Verney, get down from there at once! Mademoiselle de Keroualle! You will join the other maids immediately! The king is boarding--"
It was the keeper of the maids, Madame Dragon, Alice called her.
Alice and Renee ran across the deck to join the elite circle of young women around the princess, all in satin gowns, in dainty shoes with stiff gauze bows, their hair coaxed by servants into curling orderly disorder, fat strands of pearls around their slender necks, drops at their delectable ears. As young women, unmarried, their very youth was beautiful. As part of the household of the foremost princess in France, they were everything that was fashionable. There wasn't a woman on shore who wouldn't be biting her lip with vexation and determining to buy new gowns once theirs were seen. They couldn't wait.
Princesse Henriette--her formal title at the French court was Madame--glanced toward Alice and Renee as they slipped in among the other women, a slight arch in her brow, both questioning and condemning.
"Pretty behavior," sneered a lithe young man to Alice, one of a group of restless and handsome noblemen, but then the orchestra that had been sent to accompany the princess struck up a lively tune, and all about them another cheer began from sailors in the rigging, from those standing in order on the deck as the sardonic face of the king of England, Charles, the second of that name, appeared just above the brass of the ship's railing. In another moment he had leaped to the deck.
"Minette." He held out his arms, his face made handsome by joy, and his sister ran to him, and he hugged her close and then swung her around, her skirt swelling out like a bell. Men had followed him over the side, appearing one after the other, dressed almost as sumptuously as any woman, laces, blue ribbons, diamond pins, long, curling hair, false, a wig but magnificent nonetheless. The princess was immediately surrounded by them. Her other brother, the Duke of York, hugged and kissed her, and their cousin Prince Rupert elbowed York out of the way unceremoniously and said, "Little beauty. I thought we'd never pry you from the Frenchies' grasp." Unfortunately, he spoke in French and loudly, so everyone near heard him.
The Duke of Monmouth, King Charles's son, insisted on his hug, and the princess danced from one male relative to another, kissing their faces and wiping at tears running down her face.
"She's ruining her rouge." It was the same young man who spoke before, with the same sneering, spiteful tone.
"We're in England now, d'Effiat. You'd best watch your tongue," Alice told him.
"Oh, I am afraid," he mocked her, and the others with him laughed maliciously, even Beuvron, who was her friend.
Alice turned her back on the group of them. The day was too happy to spoil with quarreling. There had been enough of that in France. This was adventure, huge adventure, and she was home at long last, about to see her best friend in the world, and the queen she so loved, and her father, and there was nothing d'Effiat or Beuvron or any of them could say to ruin a single moment.
Her eyes met Prince Rupert's, and he winked, then made her a bow.
Renee pointed to the king's son Monmouth. "He's handsome." She wasn't the only woman who'd noticed Monmouth.
"Yes, and he knows it, so beware."
Protocol, dear to French hearts, was being ignored. Everything was becoming very confused. The maids of honor had broken rank in spite of the Dragon's frowns, lured by Monmouth's smiles, by Rupert's twinkling boisterousness, by King Charles's laughter, by the sense of froth and frivolity that seemed to have climbed right on board with him.
Those who accompanied the princess from France, a duc here, a vicomte there, a priest or two, the captain of her household guard, tried to push past the clustered maids of honor, past the princess's tall brother and cousin, to introduce themselves over the noise of the orchestra and the bellows of that cousin, who seemed to be ordering something from above in the rigging.
He was. A great willow basket was being lowered from a pulley. Squeals from the maids of honor added to the growing melee as they rushed here and there to be out of its way. Once the basket was on deck, Prince Rupert patted it fondly, fell on one knee before his princess cousin, and made a motion for her to climb in, using his knee as step.
"I'm not to go overboard in this?" Princesse Henriette cried, delighted and horrified. She spoke in French because she'd lived in France all her life, and her English was small. "I haven't introduced--"
King Charles swept her up in his arms. "Introductions aren't necessary. We'll do what's proper on shore. But for now, I claim my sister as a prize of the sea. She's in English waters, and she's mine." With that, he placed her into the basket, giving one and all a glimpse of her stockings--vivid green--the princess laughing so hard, she couldn't speak.
"This is highly irregular--" began the French ambassador.
"Pay me a formal call to complain," said King Charles. His eyes, a rogue's eyes, swept over the maids of honor. "One beautiful woman isn't enough. My sister must have escort."
Young women everywhere held their breath, dropped into giggling, graceful curtsies as his eyes touched, considered, and admired each of them. The captain of the household guard cleared his throat. The Dragon hovered, fluttering, not certain what to do. No one knew at this point.
King Charles's eyes found Louise Renee de Keroualle, the most beautiful among them.
"Why am I not surprised?" Rupert said to his cousin York.
In a heartbeat, Renee stepped up on Rupert's knee and over into the basket. For a moment, her stockings showed, and they were the same green as the princess's. It was shocking and exciting.
King Charles's eyes found Alice. She had dropped as gracefully as a flower drooping. A gliding, natural grace of movement was one of her beauties. He walked over and stood before her, looking down at her bent head, the riot of curls there.
"My dear Verney."
"Her Majesty has missed you dreadfully."
"And I her." Her heart was beating very fast. He was her liege, her lord, her king. She'd known him since she was a child and he a penniless, beggar sovereign without a kingdom. This was a great and powerful moment.
"Did you behave yourself in France?"
"No, sir. And I am happy to say I have acquired the most beautiful gowns in the world."
"The better to finally find a husband with?"
A child of court, her skills polished to high gloss by going to France, she met his eyes. "That was my plan, sir."
"Lord Colefax was a fool. I do believe we've missed you." He held out his hand to help her rise, a signal honor. Enormously proud, Alice walked to the basket, cutting her eyes in a deliberate, provocative challenge to the group of sneering, fashionable young Frenchmen, impressed in spite of themselves. She stepped up onto Rupert's knee.
"Are your stockings green, also?" asked Prince Rupert.
It was all she could do not to kiss him on the cheek and add to the complete breakdown of decorum. She could see how shocked the French around her were. She bunched her skirts to climb into the basket, and the answer was evident. Sailors began to cheer, but whether it was for the glimpse of stocking or the jerking rise of the basket was unclear. There was an immediate bustle as the king, his brother, his cousin, and his son climbed over the side of the ship and down the rope ladder to the yacht, as nimble, as quick as any man in the rigging.
People from the French court ran to the ship's side. Everything was happening so fast! No one had been properly introduced! Nothing was going as planned! Other boats, yachts, wherries, rowboats, bobbed like corks some distance away--clearly those boats would bring them to shore, but they'd thought to have a reception on board, a long dinner. Speeches were planned!
Suspended over the water, Alice felt her heart rise like a lark. The sun was high and bright, the wind strong. The crowd on shore waved hats and large handkerchiefs, calling, hurrahing. The sea near the shore sent in wave after wave of little white frills, as if hundreds of serving maids had dropped caps in the water to celebrate this day. At the top of the sheer cliffs, the huge fortress of Dover Castle awaited them. She could see people standing on the parapets. Flags flapped at the corner turrets. The basket lurched toward one side. Princesse Henriette and Renee screamed. Alice took her scarf, held it over the side, where the wind clutched at it. The scarf was long, gauzy, made of spiderweb and forbidden Dutch lace by nimble nuns' fingers. Good-bye to quarreling, good-bye to meanness, and here's to my good fortune in England, she thought, and she let it go and screamed herself as the basket lurched straight downward, to the sound of a high, shrill trill of laughter from the princess.
On board the yacht, the king's Life Guards settled the basket, and one of them stepped forward to help the women out. Alice had the sensation of falling as she met his eyes.
"I know you," she said in English. "You're Robin Saylor, aren't you?"
"Richard, Lieutenant Richard Saylor, at your service."
He signaled for the basket to rise, led Princesse Henriette to a bench covered with cushions as the rest of royal family stepped one by one from the ladder. Another Life Guard quickly pulled up the anchor, the Duke of York took the tiller, Monmouth unfurled the sails, and the yacht was moving away from the ship.
"Mission performed admirably," said King Charles. "I didn't have to listen to a single speech. Rupert, you owe me twenty guineas." He smiled upon his sister. "As you can see, we are not as formal as King Louis."
Princesse Henriette leaned back against cushions, raised her face to the sun. "I don't know when I've laughed so much." She still spoke in French, but half the English court knew the language. So many had lived abroad during England's civil war.
"Are all your ladies wearing green stockings?"
"Only the pretty ones." Roses and lilies, mint and balm, lay on the floor of the deck like a carpet. She picked up a rose. "Is all this for me?"
"Everything is for you. By the by, Buckingham has tried to fast himself into the shape you last saw him wearing, but in truth, he resembles nothing so much as a pregnant sheep these days, doesn't he, Lieutenant Saylor? Tell her."
The Life Guard King Charles addressed smiled but was silent.
"Lieutenant Saylor has the gift of diplomacy."
The yacht had come in very fast to the shore, but it was large enough that it had to stop yards out. There was a harbor built, but it was dangerously silted with sand and shingle from the cliffs.
"I see my father. I'm certain of it," Alice said to Renee. She pointed to the group standing under a canopy with the queen. Alice felt as if her heart were going to fly out of her chest. "And there's Barbara." She stood to wave her arms. "Barbara!"
Efficiently, expertly, the Life Guards dropped the sails and the anchor, and the yacht stopped as obediently as a docile mare. The water was choppy and deep. Other young officers from the king's Life Guards standing on the shore walked into the water, then swam to the yacht. A rowboat was clumsily maneuvered close to its side.
"Your carriage awaits," said King Charles to his sister. "The harbor is silted up. This is the only way I can land you without wetting you."
From the Hardcover edition.