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I was a child of eight in April of the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and ninety-eight. I lived in a pretty, rural town on the south bank of the Loire River, where a fortified château faced with white stone graced the hill above. This castle had been much restored by France's King Charles VIII, and his court spent a good part of every year in residence there. Both the town and the château were called Amboise.
My mother, Jeanne Popyncourt, for whom I was named, served as a lady-in-waiting to the queen of France. My father, until his death six months earlier, followed the court from place to place, taking lodgings in nearby towns so that Maman could visit us whenever she was not in attendance on Queen Anne. We had a modest house in Amboise and several servants to see to our needs. After Papa died, Maman added a governess to the household to look after me.
I was so often in Amboise that I had become friends with some of the neighborhood children. I spent a great deal of time with one in particular, a boy of my own years named Guy Dunois. Guy taught me how to play card games and climb trees, and he made me laugh by crossing his eyes. They were a bright blue-green and always full of mischief.
Then everything changed when King Charles died. When word of it spread throughout Amboise, people went out into the street just to stare up at the château. Some had tears in their eyes. Madame Andrée, my governess, told me to stay in my bedchamber, but from my window I could see that she and everyone else in the household was outside. Guy and his mother were out there, too. I was just about to disobey Madame's orders and join them when a cloaked and hooded figure burst into the room. I let out a yelp. Then I recognized my mother.
"We must leave at once on a long journey," Maman announced.
Surprised by my mother's disguise, I was nonetheless elated by the prospect of a great adventure, I clapped my hands in delight. I treasured the hours I spent in my mother's company, the more so since the loss of my father. For the most part, Maman and I could only be together when she did not have duties at court. As she was one of Queen Anne's favorite ladies, she was rarely free.
"Where are we going? When do we leave? What shall I pack?"
"No questions, Jeanne, I beg you."
"But I must say farewell to Guy and my other friends, else they will wonder what became of me."
"There is no time." She had already stuffed my newest, finest garments into the leather pannier she'd brought. "Don your cloak, and change those shoes for your sturdiest pair of boots."
When I'd done as she asked, I held out a poppet I treasured, a cloth baby with yarn for hair and a bright red dress. Maman looked sad, but she shook her head. "There is no room."
She left behind my comb and brush and my slate and my prayer book, too. With one last look around the chamber to assure that she'd packed everything she thought necessary, she grasped my hand and towed me after her to the stable.
A horse waited there, already saddled and carrying a second bulging pannier. I looked around for a groom, but no one was in sight, nor had Maman hired any guards to escort and protect us.
Many people were leaving Amboise in the wake of the king's death. "Where are they all going in such a hurry?" I asked as I rode on a pillion behind Maman, clinging tightly to her waist.
"To Blois, to the new king."
"Is that where we are going?"
"No, my darling. Please be silent, Jeanne."
She was my mother, and she sounded as if she might be about to cry, so I obeyed her.
Once free of the town, she avoided the main roads. When I'd made journeys with my father in the past, we'd spend our nights in private houses, mostly the country manors belonging to his friends. But Maman chose to take rooms in obscure inns, or lodge in the guest quarters of religious houses. It was not as pleasant a way to travel. The beds were often lumpy and sometimes full of fleas.
Maman said I must not speak to anyone, and she rarely did so herself. We both wore plain wool cloaks with the hoods pulled up to hide our faces. It was almost as if she feared being recognized as a lady of the French court.
Our journey took two months, but at last we reached the Pale of Calais, on the north coast of France. Maman reined in our horse and breathed an audible sigh. "We are on English soil now, Jeanne. This land belongs to King Henry the Seventh of England." I was puzzled by her obvious relief at having left our country, but I dared not ask why.
A few days later, we had a rough sail across the treacherous body of water the English called the Narrow Seas, finally arriving in the town of Dover. It was the twelfth day of June, two days after Trinity Sunday, and the English port was in an uproar. The authorities were searching for an escaped prisoner who had been held under light guard at the English king's palace of Westminster. His name was Perkin Warbeck and he was a pretender to the throne.
My mother was much troubled by this news. She had met Perkin Warbeck years before when he visited the French court of King Charles. At the time he claimed to be the true king of England and had been seeking help from our king to overthrow England's Henry VII.
Although I was by nature a curious child, I had little interest in the furious search for Warbeck. I was too caught up in the novel sights and sounds of our trip as we traveled overland to London. Everything was new and different the language, the clothes, even the crops. We traveled for the better part of three days through the English countryside before we reached the city.
In London, we took a room at the King's Head, an inn in Cheapside, and Maman sent word of our arrival to her twin brother, Rowland Velville, whom she had not seen in many years, not since he had left home to serve as a page for an English exile named Henry Tudor. That done, we settled in to wait for him.
Our chamber looked out upon the innyard. To pass the time, I watched the arrivals and departures of guests and the ostlers at work. Servants crisscrossed the open space dozens of times a day on errands. Deliveries were made. Horses were led to stabling. Once I saw a young woman, cloaked and hooded, creep stealthily from her room to another. It was a noisy, busy place, but all that activity provided a welcome distraction. We had no idea how long we would have to remain where we were.
On the third morning of our stay, the eighteenth day of June, I was awakened by the sound of hammering. I slipped out of bed, shivering a little in my shift, and went to the window. From that vantage point I had a clear view of a half dozen men constructing the oddest bit of scaffolding I had ever seen. It was made entirely of empty wine pipes and hogsheads of wine.
When it was completed, the men secured a heavy wooden object to the top. I blinked, bemused, but I was certain I was not mistaken. I had seen stocks before. Even in France, those who committed certain crimes were made to sit in them while passersby threw refuse and insults their way.
"Jeanne, come away from there!"
I turned to find my mother sitting up in bed, her face all flushed from sleep. I thought her surpassing beautiful and ran to her, clambering up beside her to give her a hug and a kiss. I loved the feel of Maman's skin, which was soft as flower petals and smelled of rose water.
"What is all that hammering?" she asked.
"Some men built a scaffold out of wine pipes and hogsheads and put stocks on top of it. Is the innyard like a marketplace? Do you think it is the custom to punish criminals at the King's Head?"
"I think only very special prisoners would merit such treatment. We must dress, and quickly." Her face, always pale, had turned white as the finest parchment. I did not understand what was wrong, but I was afraid.
We had to play tiring maid to each other, having brought no servants with us from France. I laced Maman into a pale gold bodice and kirtle and helped her don the long rose-colored gown that went over it. We did have fine clothing, and Maman had taken special pains to pack our best. The fabrics were still new and smelled sweet and the colors were rich and vibrant.
By the time we dressed and broke our fast with bread and ale, a great to-do had arisen in the innyard. Together, as the bell in a nearby church tower rang out the hour of ten, we stepped out onto the low-railed gallery beyond the window and looked down.
A man had been placed in the stocks. His long yellow hair was dirty, and his fine clothing rumpled and soiled, but he still had the look of someone important. It was difficult to tell his age. He slumped like an old man and, since I was only eight, almost everyone seemed ancient to me. In fact, he was no older than my mother, and she was just twenty-four.
The crowd, noisy and jostling, swelled as we watched. They jeered at the prisoner and called him names. He had been put on public display as punishment for some crime. I understood that much. What continued to puzzle me was the strangeness of the scaffold.
"Who is he?" I asked. "What did he do?"
I spoke in French, in the high, ringing voice of childhood. A man in a lawyer's robe looked up, suspicion writ large upon his swarthy, ill-favored countenance. Those few words had drawn attention to us. Worse, they had marked us as foreigners. Maman hastily retreated into the chamber, pulling me after her, and closed the shutters.
"Who is he?" I asked again.
"Perkin Warbeck," she answered. "The pretender the soldiers were looking for in Dover."
The noise outside our window increased as the day wore on until finally, at just past three of the clock, Warbeck was taken away under heavy guard. A scant quarter of an hour afterward, my uncle arrived.
"You have grown up, Rowland," my mother said as she hugged her twin hard. "But I would have known you anywhere. You have the look of our father."
She had not seen her brother since they were nine. Within three years Rowland's leaving home, Henry Tudor had become King Henry VII of England.
"And you, my dear sister," Rowland Velville said courteously, "have a most pleasing countenance."
"Jeanne," she said, turning to me, "this is your uncle, Master Rowland Velville."
"Sir Rowland," he corrected her, sparing one hard stare for me.
I studied the two of them while they talked quietly together, fascinated by their similarities. Both were blessed with thick brown hair and large, deep-set brown eyes. I shared their coloring, but my eyes have golden flecks. I was extraordinarily pleased with that small difference. I did not want to be just like anyone else, not even my beloved mother.
My uncle's nose was large, long, and thin. My mother's, too, was thin, but much smaller. Mine was the smallest of all a "button," Maman called it. Uncle was of above-average height. Maman came up to his shoulder. Both of them were slender, as was I.
Having given her brother a brief account of our journey, Maman described the scene we had witnessed in the innyard. "Poor man," she said, meaning Perkin Warbeck.
"Do not waste your sympathy!" Uncle sounded so angry that I took a quick step away from him. "He is naught but an imposter, a commoner's son impersonating royalty."
Maman's brow furrowed. "I know that, Rowland. What I do not understand is why he would try to escape. The rebellion ended months ago. We heard about it at the French court, including how King Henry forgave Warbeck for leading it."
"Your information is remarkably accurate."
"Any tale of the English court soon reaches the ears of the king of France. No doubt the English king has similar sources who report on every rumor that comes out of the court of France."
"If he does, I am not privy to what they tell him. He has never confided in me."
Maman looked relieved to hear it.
"King Henry does not always reward those who deserve it."
"He has been generous to you. You have been made a knight."
"An honor long overdue." He sounded bitter. "And there were no lands to go with it. He takes more care for the future of this fellow Warbeck! As soon as the pretender admitted that he was an imposter, the king gave him leave to remain at court. He was under light guard but was treated like a guest. Warbeck's wife fared even better. She has been appointed as one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies and is accorded her full dignity as the daughter of a Scottish nobleman."
"Lady Catherine Gordon," Maman murmured. "Poor girl. She thought she'd married a king and ended up with a mere commoner."
"Warbeck will be lodged in the Tower of London from now on. He'll not find life so easy in that fortress, nor will he have any further opportunity to escape."
"The Tower of London? It is a prison?" Maman sounded confused. "I thought it was a royal palace."
"It is both, often at the same time. Prisoners accused of treason and those of noble birth are held there. And kings have kept lodgings within the precincts from the earliest days of the realm."
I tugged on my uncle's dark blue sleeve until he glanced down with the liquid brown eyes so like my mother's. "How could a commoner be mistaken for a prince?" I asked.
"He was well coached by King Henry's enemies." My uncle went down on one knee so that we were face-to-face and caught me by the shoulders. "You are a clever girl, Jane, to ask me this. It is important that you know who people are. The court much resembles a small village. If you do not know that the butcher's wife is related by marriage to the blacksmith, you may do yourself much harm by speaking against him within her hearing. So, too, with plots and schemes. A family's enmity can "
"Rowland!" My mother spoke sharply, cutting him off. "Do not continue, I beg of you. She is too young to understand."
He gave a curt nod, but kept hold of my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye.
"Listen well, Jane. I will tell you a cautionary tale now and save the other story for another day. Many years ago, the two sons of the English king Edward the Fourth were declared illegitimate upon King Edward's death by Edward's brother, Richard the Third. Richard then took the throne for himself. Thereafter the princes disappeared. No one knows what happened to them, although most men believe that Richard the Third, now king, had them murdered. Henry Tudor then defeated King Richard in battle at a place called Bosworth and became King Henry the Seventh in his stead. To end civil war, Henry Tudor married Elizabeth of York, Edward's eldest daughter, even though she, too, had been declared illegitimate by Richard's decree."
My uncle glanced at my mother. "King Henry the Seventh is especially sensitive just now on the subject of the royal bastards."
"That is understandable," Maman replied. Her expression was serene, her voice calm, but sadness shone in her eyes.
My uncle turned back to me to continue his history lesson. "But King Henry's throne is not yet secure. He has been plagued by imposters claiming to be one of the missing princes. So far, his grace has always been able to discover their true identities and expose them, taking the heart out of the traitors who support them. But many rebellious souls still exist in England, men all too ready to rise up again, even in the cause of a royal bastard."
My brow puckered in confusion. "I know what a bastard is, Uncle. It means you are born outside of marriage. My friend Guy Dunois is one. But if these two boys who may or may not be dead are bastards, why would anyone try to impersonate them? They cannot claim the throne even if they are alive."
Uncle gave me an approving look. "I would not be so certain of that. Before marrying their sister, King Henry the Seventh reversed the royal decree that made her and her brothers illegitimate. So, dead they are and dead they must remain for the good of the realm."
My curiosity led me quickly to another question. "Why was Warbeck's scaffold made of wine pipes and hogsheads?" I asked.
The briefest hint of a smile came over my uncle's face. "Because the popular belief is that the king's navy came close to capturing Warbeck before he ever landed on these shores. He eluded them, it is said, by hiding inside an empty wine barrel stowed in the prow of his ship."
My mother's fingers moved from her rosary to the silk sash at her waist. Her voice remained level, but the way she twisted the fine fabric around one hand betrayed her agitation. "With so much unrest in his land," Maman said, "it is good of the king to take an interest in us."
"Your future is not yet secure, Joan."
"She is Jeanne," I protested. "Jeanne Popyncourt. As I am."
"No longer. You are in England now, my dear niece. Your mother will be known as Joan and you will be Jane, to distinguish between the two of you."
"I do not understand," I said.
"I will explain everything in good time, Jeanne," Maman said.
"Jane," Uncle insisted.
"Jane, then," she continued. "Be patient, my child, and all will be revealed. But for the present it is best that you do not know too much."
"And in the meantime," my uncle interrupted, "you will both be provided for. Come. I am to take you to the king."
"Now?" The word came out as a hoarse croak. Maman's eyes widened in alarm. "Now," he insisted.
At my uncle's urging, we gathered up our possessions and soon were aboard a wherry and headed upriver on an incoming tide. I sat between him and my mother in the pair-oared rowing boat.
The vessel's awning kept the sun out of our faces, but it did not obscure my view. Attempting to see everything at once, I twisted from side to side on the cushioned bench. We had boarded the wherry just to the west of London Bridge and so had a good distance to travel before we passed beyond the sprawling city of London with its tall houses and multitude of church steeples. When at last we rounded the curve of the Thames, the river broadened to reveal green meadows, riverside gardens, and a dazzling array of magnificent buildings that far outshone anything the city had to offer.
"That is Westminster Abbey," my uncle said, pointing. "And there is the great palace of Westminster, where the king is waiting for us."
Once we disembarked my uncle escorted us to the king's privy chamber. I caught only a glimpse of bright tapestries and grand furnishings before a liveried servant conducted us into the small complex of inner chambers beyond.
"Why is it so much darker here?" I whispered, catching hold of my mother's sleeve.
"Hush, my darling."
"Show some respect," my uncle snapped. "Do you not realize what a great honor it is to be allowed to enter the king's 'secret' lodgings?"
We moved briskly through one small chamber and into another. There the servant stopped before a curtained door.
"Make a deep obeisance," my uncle instructed in a harsh whisper. "Do not speak unless spoken to. Address the king as 'Sire' or 'Your Grace' when you do speak to him. And do not forget that you must back out of the room when you are dismissed."
My eyes wide, my lips pressed tightly closed, I crept farther into the room. Like a little mouse, I felt awed and terrified by the prospect that lay before me my first meeting with my new liege lord.
In those days, King Henry did not stoop, as he would toward the end of his life. He was as tall as my uncle, a thin man but one who gave the impression of strength. His nose was long and thin, too. He was dressed most grandly in cloth-of-gold and crimson velvet. His black velvet bonnet, sporting a jeweled brooch and pendant pearl, sat atop reddish brown hair. It was just starting to go gray. Beneath was a clean-shaven face so exceedingly pale that the red wart on his right cheek stood out in stark contrast.
I stared at him, my mouth dropping open, as fascinated as I was awestruck. King Henry regarded us steadily in return. For a considerable time, he said nothing. Then he dismissed his servants and sent my uncle away, too.
"You have your mother's eyes," he said to Maman, speaking in French.
"Thank you, Sire," she said. "I wish I could remember her more clearly, but I have always been told that she was a most beautiful woman."
This was the first that I had heard of my grandmother's beauty. Maman rarely spoke of her parents. I knew only that her mother had died when she was a very young girl and that afterward her father had sent her to the ducal court of Brittany to enter the service of the duke's daughter, Anne.
"I was sorry to hear of the death of your husband," the king said.
"Johannes was a good man, Your Grace."
"A Fleming, was he not?"
"He was. A merchant."
There was a small, awkward silence. Maman was of gentle birth. She had married beneath her. I knew a little of the story. Maman had wed at fifteen and given birth to me the following January. Then she had returned to the Breton court. The following year, when Duchess Anne married King Charles, she had become part of the new French queen's entourage. Papa had often shared the houses she found for me near the court, but sometimes he had to go away to attend to business. He imported fine fabrics to clothe courtiers and kings.
"Plague?" the king asked, suggesting a likely cause for my father's death.
Maman shook her head. "He had purchased a new ship for a trading venture. It proved unseaworthy and sank when he was aboard. He drowned."
"A great pity. Did he leave you sufficient to live upon?"
Maman's reply was too low for me to hear. When they continued their conversation in quiet voices, I heard their words only as a gentle whisper in the background.
My gaze wandered around the room. The chamber boasted no tapestries and had no gilded chests or chairs, but it did contain a free-standing steel looking glass. I longed to peer at my own face, but I did not dare move from where I stood. On a table next to the looking glass, a coffer overflowed with jewels. I also noticed books. I had never seen so many of them in one place before.
The restless movements of King Henry's fingers, continually twisting the fabric of the narrow silk scarf he wore knotted around his waist, brought my attention back to the king. I strained to hear what he and my mother were saying, but I could only catch a word or two. The king said, "my wife" and then, "my protection."
King Henry glanced my way and deliberately raised his voice. "It is well that you are here. I give you my word that you will have a place at court as long as you both shall live." A slow smile overspread his features. For some reason, he seemed mightily pleased that my mother and I had come to England.
"On the morrow," the king said, addressing me directly, "you will be taken to the royal nursery at Eltham Palace. Henceforth you will be one of the children of honor. Your duties will be both simple and agreeable you are to engage my two young daughters, the Lady Margaret and the Lady Mary, in daily conversation in French so that they will become fluent in that language. Margaret is only a few weeks older than you are, Jane," the king added. "Mary is just three."
"I will do my best to serve them, Your Grace," I promised.
"I am certain that you will," he said, and with that the audience was over.
We spent that night in the great palace of Westminster, sharing a bed in a tiny, out-of-the-way chamber. I was certain good fortune had smiled upon us. I believed Maman and I would be together, serving in the same royal household. It was not until the next day, when I was about to board one of the royal barges for the trip downriver, that I learned the truth. Maman could not accompany me to Eltham. King Henry had made arrangements for her to remain at Westminster Palace. Like Lady Catherine Gordon, she was to be a lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Elizabeth of York.
"We will see each other often," Maman promised as she kissed me farewell. "Queen Elizabeth is said to be devoted to her children. I am told she pays many visits to Eltham and that her sons and daughters regularly come to court."
I clung to this reassurance as I was sent off on my own, speaking no English and knowing no one. My uncle, who had his own lodgings at court, escorted me to my new home, but he did not tarry. As quickly as he could, he scurried back to Westminster Palace.
At the time I entered royal service at Eltham Palace, the king had four children. Arthur, the Prince of Wales and the heir to the throne, lived elsewhere. He was not quite twelve years old. Shortly before I arrived, King Henry's second son, also Henry, who was seven and held the title Duke of York, had been given his own household staff within the larger establishment at Eltham. Nurses and governess had been dismissed. Male tutors had taken charge of the young prince's education.
The two princesses, Margaret and Mary, shared a household staff. They also shared some of Prince Henry's tutors, so that all the children of honor, boys and girls, came in daily contact with each other. That was why, within a few days of joining their ranks, I was one of a dozen students being taught how to dance the pavane.
"Is all your dress fastened in place?" the Italian dancing master asked.
For my benefit, he repeated the question in French.
Most of the boys in Prince Henry's entourage had been taught French and spoke it fairly well, if with a peculiar accent. I turned to a boy named Harry Guildford, who had been assigned as my partner, and whispered, "Why is he so concerned about our clothing?"
Harry Guildford was an affable lad a year my senior. His round face was remarkable for its large nose, the cleft in his chin, and his ready smile. The twinkle in his eyes reminded me of my friend in Amboise, Guy Dunois, except that Harry's eyes were gray instead of blue-green.
"All manner of clothing can drop onto the floor in the course of a dance, if the movements are too energetic. That is why we must always check our points before we begin."
By points, he meant the laces that tied sleeves to bodices, breeches to doublets, and various other garments to each other. I could not imagine why anyone would be careless in fastening them in the first place, but I tugged at my sleeves and skirt to make sure all was secure. I had been given a white damask gown with crimson velvet sleeves, as well as gold chains and a circlet a sort of livery.
"It is particularly vulgar for a lady to drop a glove while dancing," our tutor continued, "as it causes gentlemen to bestir themselves and run like a flock of starlings to pick it up."
"Do starlings run?" I whispered to Harry. "I should have thought they flew."
He thought my remark amusing and translated it for those who did not understand the French language. I had begun to pick up a little English, but I only realized that I'd said something clever when Prince Henry smiled at me.
At seven he was a chubby child with small, blue-gray eyes and bright golden curls. He had a very fair complexion, almost girlish, and he already knew how to be charming. I smiled back.
The dancing master clapped his hands to signal the musicians to play. Then he watched with hawklike intensity as we went through our paces. Most of his attention was on Prince Henry and Princess Margaret, but as soon as I began to dance backward, he shrieked my name.
"Mademoiselle Jane! It is bad manners for a lady to lift her train with her hands. You must sway in such a way as to shift the train out of the way before you step back."
Frowning in concentration, I tried to follow his instructions, but there was so much to remember. What if I tripped on my own gown and tumbled to the floor? Everyone would laugh at me.
My heart was in my throat as Harry and I continued to execute the gliding, swaying steps of the pavane. I felt a little more confident after he squeezed my hand and gave me a reassuring smile. Somehow, I managed to finish the dance without calling further attention to myself.
"Merci," I said when the music ceased. "I am most grateful for your help."
Harry executed a courtly bow. "My pleasure, mademoiselle."
By August, when I had been at Eltham for some six weeks, I could converse much more easily in English, although I still had trouble with some words. I spent several hours every morning in the nursery, playing with the Lady Mary and speaking with her in French. She was an exceptionally pretty child with blue eyes and delicate features. Slender, she gave promise of being tall when she grew to womanhood. Her hair was golden, with a reddish tinge.
In the afternoons, I attended the Lady Margaret, conversing with her in both French and English. Unlike her little sister, Margaret was dark eyed, with a round face and a thick, sturdy body. Her best features were her fresh complexion and her auburn hair.
Both royal princesses seemed to like me, although the other girls among the children of honor regarded me with suspicion because I did not speak their language. Margaret was sometimes temperamental and had a tendency to pout, and Mary was prone to tantrums. But I quickly learned how to avoid being the object of their wrath. The other girls resented me for that, too.
I also learned to play the lute and the virginals and to ride. One day we rode as far as another of King Henry's palaces on the Thames. It was only a few miles from Eltham.
"What is this place?" I asked, looking across an expanse of overgrown gardens to a huge complex of buildings. Scaffolding rose up in several places. Busy workmen swarmed like bees over one tower.
"It is called Pleasance," the Lady Margaret said.
My innocent mistake in translation produced immoderate laughter, especially from the two oldest children of honor, Ned Neville and Will Compton, and from Goose, Prince Henry's fool.
"It was named Pleasance because of its pleasing prospect," Will said, "but there is pleasure to be had within those walls, too, no doubt of that."
"I was born here," Prince Henry said. "It is my favorite palace. I wish Father and Mother had not gone on progress. If they had come here, we could visit them."
"They cannot stay at Pleasance until the renovations are finished," Margaret said.
Translating this exchange, I frowned. I had not seen my mother since we parted at Westminster on the morning after our meeting with the king. "What does going on progress mean?" I asked, unfamiliar with the English word.
"The entire court moves from manor house to castle to palace, visiting different parts of the realm," Harry Guildford explained.
"Sometimes they take us with them." The Lady Margaret sounded wistful.
"Not this year," Prince Henry said. "And they will not be back at Westminster Palace until the end of October."
That meant I would not see Maman again for some time. Resigned, I dedicated myself to perfecting my English and mastering music, dance, and horseback riding. In September we all moved to Hatfield House, a palatial brick manor house in Hertfordshire, so that Eltham Palace could be cleaned and aired.
On a crisp, cloudless day a week later, when I had been one of the children of honor for nearly three months, the Lady Margaret and I strolled in the garden while we held our daily conversation.
"I was frightened for my life," she confided, speaking of her reaction to the great fire at Sheen, another of her father's palaces, the previous Yuletide. The entire royal family had been in residence at the time. They had been fortunate to escape unhurt.
"Fire is terrifying," I agreed. "A house burned down in Amboise once when I was living there. Everyone was afraid that the sparks would ignite the entire town. All the men formed a line and passed buckets of water along to douse the flames. My friend Guy helped, too, for all that he was only a very little boy at the time."
It had been weeks since I had thought of Guy, or any of my other friends in France. A little ripple of guilt flowed over me. Had they forgotten me, as well?
Deep in thought, I rounded a bit of topiary work trimmed to resemble a dragon, one of King Henry's emblems. A few steps ahead of me, the princess stopped in her tracks. "What man is that?" She squinted at a figure just emerging from a doorway, her vision hampered by the distance.
My eyesight being more acute, I immediately recognized my uncle, Sir Rowland Velville. He strode rapidly toward us along the graveled path.
"Your Grace," he greeted the Lady Margaret, bowing so low that his nose nearly touched the toe of her shoe. "I beg your leave for a word in private with my niece."
"You may speak with her, but in our hearing," Margaret said in an autocratic voice.
My uncle bowed a second time. "As you wish, Your Grace." He turned to me, still as formal as he had been with the Lady Margaret. "Your mother, my beloved sister, has died, dear Jane." He showed not a trace of emotion as he delivered his devastating news. "It happened suddenly, while she was on progress with the court."
Stunned, I gaped at him, at first unable to form words, almost unable to think. The enormity of what he'd said was too much for me to grasp.
As if from a great distance, I heard the Lady Margaret speak. "Of what did she die, Sir Rowland?"
"A fever of some sort. I cannot say for certain. I had gone on to Drayton, in Leicestershire, with the king, while the women remained where they were for a few days longer."
Fighting a great blackness that threatened to swallow me, I sank down onto a nearby stone bench. I suppose that the sun shone as brightly as ever, but for me its light had dimmed. "No," I whispered. "No. She cannot be dead. You must be mistaken."
"I assure you, I am not. I was present when she was buried at Collyweston."
Tears flowed unchecked down my cheeks, but I scarcely felt them. I was only dimly aware that the Lady Margaret had left us. "No," I said again.
"The king himself bade me bring this news to you, Jane." I could hear a slight impatience in his voice. "Why would I lie to you?"
"You...you would not." I accepted the handkerchief he proffered.
"I brought you this." He gave me the small, enameled pendant that had been Maman's favorite piece of jewelry. Like the topiary work, it was in the shape of a dragon. I sobbed harder.
"She had little else. She sold most of her jewels to pay for the journey to England. But you need not be concerned about your future. You are one of the king's wards now. He'll look out for you." I suppose Uncle meant to be comforting, but his words did nothing to lessen my sense of loss.
Having discharged his duty, my uncle left me sitting alone on a stone bench in the garden at Hatfield House. I do not know how much time passed as I cried my heart out. But when I had no more tears to shed, I looked up to find Will Compton leaning against a nearby tree.
At sixteen, Will was the oldest of Prince Henry's children of honor. He had been sent to the royal nursery at Eltham when the prince was still a baby. He was a tall, lanky lad with friendly hazel eyes. They were dark with concern.
"I am sorry for your loss, Jane. I know what it is to be orphaned."
"My mother's mother died when she was younger than I am now." I do not know why I told him that, and I realized as I spoke that I had no idea when my mother's father had died. I'd never known any of my grandparents and, except for my uncle, had never met another Velville. If the rest of them, unlike Maman, were as unfeeling as he was, I did not want to.
"My father died when I was eleven." Will sat down beside me on the bench and took my hand in his. "After that I became one of the king's wards."
"One of the king's wards," I repeated. "That is what my uncle said I am to be. What does that mean?"
"That the king will look after you, manage your estates if you have any and, one day, arrange your marriage. You need never worry about having a roof over your head or food in your belly. You will always have a home at court and a place in the royal household."
"With the Lady Margaret?"
"Or with the Lady Mary. In a year or two each of them will have her own household and you will have to choose."
A terrible thought came to me. "What if they should die?"
His grip tightened painfully on my fingers. "Why would you think such a thing?"
"Anyone can die. Even princesses.
"He nodded, his expression solemn. "You are right. King Henry and Queen Elizabeth had another daughter, born between Prince Henry and Princess Mary. She died when she was the same age the Lady Mary is now."
Fresh tears made my vision blur.
"But the Prince of Wales lives and is healthy, as is Prince Henry. There is nothing sickly about the Lady Margaret or the Lady Mary or anyone in this household."
Sniffling into my uncle's handkerchief, I tried to embrace Will's optimism, but it was no easy task.
Maman is dead. I will never see her again.
As if he sensed my thoughts, Will stood and pulled me to my feet. "Come, Jane. No one can take the place of a mother, but here you have brothers and sisters, in spirit if not in blood. The children of honor look out for each other."
His words did make me feel a little better. "Are the prince and princesses our brother and sisters, too?"
Will slung an arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the palace. "Indeed they are, Sister Jane...except that they must be catered to at all costs." Copyright © 2009 by Kathy Lynn Emerson