Read an Excerpt
28 June 1553
I am seventeen today and have decided that, although I shall never be a scholar like Elizabeth, I can at least keep a diary. My history is quickly tolddaughter of a French mother and an English gentleman, no siblings, and no parents since I was eight. My full name is Genevieve Antoinette Wyatt. It was Elizabeth who first called me Minuette. I was born more than a month before I was expected, and the first time she saw me, Elizabeth thought me too little for the name my French mother had given me. She attempted to call me Mignonettemeaning dainty and darlingbut her three-year-old tongue did not pronounce it properly. I have been Minuette to my friends ever since.
The importance of this day goes beyond just my seventeenth birthdaytoday I return to Elizabeth’s household after an absence of two years. Queen Anne has been my guardian since my mother’s death nearly nine years ago, and I spent my childhood with Elizabeth. But when I turned fifteen, the queen took me into her own household in order to train me properly for Elizabeth’s service. I have learnt to stand quietly when necessary, so that I am almost forgotten. I have learnt to remember names and faces, to know the habits of noblemen and the idiosyncrasies of ambassadors. And I have learnt to lock away secrets, for a lady of the privy chamber must be able to keep her own counsel.
Elizabeth has come to Hampton Court not only to reclaim me but also to join in the weeklong celebrations for William’s birthday. There will be feasting and dancing tonight, and I will pretend, as I always have, that the celebrations are half for me. But today the only celebration I truly care about is seeing my friends. Although Queen Anne spends much of her time with her children, I have not seen either of them for a year. Last summer the queen decided I was too dependent on others, and so I was left behind every time she joined the court at Whitehall or Greenwich or Richmond. I spent six months at Hever and six months at Blickling Hall as her resident lady. A great privilege, to be surebut I would have given up any privilege to see my friends!
Dominic has come as well. A waiting woman told me that Master Courtenay rode in after dark last night and is even now with the king. I have not seen him for a full sixteen months, not since he was named Lieutenant of the March along the Welsh border. I am sure he could have managed to visit at least once in all that time, but his letters always pleaded duty, a virtue to which he is too much wed. I wonder what he has brought me for my birthday. I hope it is fabricvelvet or satin or shot silk. But it is probably only a book. Dominic has always thought it his calling to teach me to be wise.
Minuette closed the diary, pristine vellum pages bound by soft calfskin, and marked her place with a bit of burgundy velvet ribbon.
The sharp, familiar voice of Alyce de Clare came from the open doorway behind her. “Are you still here? I was looking forward to having the chamber to myself for once.”
Minuette swiveled on her stool and smiled. “You know you will miss me as much as I’m going to miss you.”
Alyce was nearly three years older, and she, like Minuette, came from a relatively unimportant family. Alyce had come to Queen Anne because her father had been a secretary in Lord Rochford’s household. The queen’s brother could be as difficult to please as Anne herself, but both of them were quick to reward loyalty. Alyce’s father had served Rochford long and well (and discreetly), and his daughter had been rewarded with a place at court where she might be expected to make a good marriage. She and Minuette had been steady chambermates for the last two years.
Alyce attempted a smile, but it didn’t touch more than the corners of her mouth. “You will be too busy being important in Princess Elizabeth’s household to remember to miss me.”
“Of course I’ll remember.” Minuette stood, which meant the shorter Alyce had to look up a little. “I just wish . . .”
Minuette hesitated, but she knew that this might be her last chance to speak her worries. “Alyce, I’m worried about you. I think . . . I think you are in trouble. I would help you if I could.”
Alyce’s brown eyes blankeda skill most women picked up rapidly in the queen’s household. On Alyce, it had the effect of sharpening her generous mouth and rounded cheeks, so she looked more like a statue of a woman rather than her usual vivacious, warm self. With distant courtesy, she said, “I can’t imagine what you mean.”
“You should speak to the queen,” Minuette said firmly, letting her eyes linger on Alyce’s waist. Though still tightly cinched beneath a yellow-and-black-patterned stomacher, it had been growing thicker over the last eight weeks. “Someone will tell her soon enough, and you know how she hates gossip.”
For a heartbeat Alyce seemed to teeter on complete denial, then with a rush of emotion she said, “And you know very well that the queen will be angry no matter who tells her.”
Minuette did know. But she put a hand on the stiffly embroidered sleeve of Alyce’s yellow dress and said gently, “You will have to act very soon. If I can help in any wayperhaps I could speak to Elizabeth”
“No!” Alyce jerked away, her waist-length brown hair swirling. “Don’t tell anyone. Certainly not the princess. She is the very last person who would help me.”
“Elizabeth is my dearest friend, she would”
“Princess Elizabeth is her mother’s daughter.” Alyce smiled fully this time, a bitter and twisted smile that broke Minuette’s heart. “The rising star and the setting sun . . . but both of them can burn.”
“Who is the father?” Minuette asked quietly. It was a question she had pondered often the last few weeks. One would think that, in the close quarters of the court, she would know whom Alyce had been dallying with. But her friend also knew how to keep secrets.
Alyce shook her head. “You are not meant for these sorts of games, Minuette. You are too trusting and too generous. Those qualities will hurt you one daybut not through any action of mine. Forget what you have guessed. I can take care of myself.”
She turned away with the grace of a sylph and vanished as suddenly as she’d come. Minuette sighed, knowing she would hold her tongue, as Alyce had asked. For now.
Dominic Courtenay fingered the necklace he had bought at the abbey fair in Shrewsbury: cabochon-cut sapphires and pearls to circle the neck, with a filigree star pendant. Neither exotic nor terribly expensive, but Minuette had little jewelry of her own and she delighted in impractical gifts.
He had just finished tying up the pendant in a square of fabric when William opened the door without knocking and shut it in the faces of those who followed him everywhere. He was dressed for sport, in a linen shirt and leather jerkin.
“Why is it,” William said accusingly, “that you are the only man in England who keeps me waiting?”
Dominic gave him a wry smile. “Because I’m the only man in England who still thinks of you as Will rather than as the king.”
William snorted and crossed the room. Picking up a sheet of heavy paper from the desk, he read a few words aloud. “ ‘Once there were four stars’ . . . you wrote down the star story for Minuette?”
Dominic pulled the letter away and said, “It’s not easy to share your birthday with a king, especially not one whose birth was attended by such signs as stars falling from the sky.”
“It’s a fair enough gift.”
“What did you get her?” Even as he asked, he wondered why it sounded like a challenge.
“It’s a surprise. And speaking of gifts . . .” William’s voice trailed off meaningfully.
Dominic shook his head. “I thought you were anxious for sparring practice.”
“Only to prove that my reach is longer than it was when you leftyou might find it harder to disarm me.”
Dominic cast a measuring eye over the boy he had known since birth. It was true that he had gone some way to matching his father’s height. Still, Dominic was five years older and a natural swordsman. He didn’t think William was his equal yet; they would find out soon enough in a fair sparring bout.
Only once had Dominic made the mistake of going easy. When William was ten and had been king just six months, he and Dominic had spent the morning fighting with wooden practice swords. But William grew impatient with the clumsy replicas and demanded real swords. The swordmaster hesitated, but a nod from Lord Rochford, who was watching their practice, sent him scurrying off.
William caught the implied permission from the Lord Protector. He said nothing, but Dominic saw the set of his still-childish jaw as they were laced into the bulky, padded jerkins that would be some measure of protection against blunted steel.
For the first time ever, Dominic allowed himself to make mistakes as they sparrednothing obvious, or so he thought. Just a misstep here and a delayed feint there, enough to give the younger boy the edge.
But he had miscalculated. Without warning, William threw his sword straight at Dominic’s head. Only a quick duck saved him from being hit squarely by the hilt. Too surprised to move further, Dominic stood silent as William marched up to him, the command in his voice making up for the fact that he was six inches shorter. “Don’t you ever do that again.”
“Do what?” Dominic asked.
William struck him once, hard on the cheek. “Don’t ever lower your guard. I will be the best because I’ve earned it. I don’t need you to hand me my victories.”
He turned and walked out of the practice arena. He had not raised his voice or lost control of his colour, but Dominic had felt the force of his anger whipping through the air.
If William’s skill had increased as much as his height, he might earn a victory today, and Dominic had just the weapon for him to use. He opened his trunk and removed a layer of neatly folded clothingplain tunics and jerkins, as befitted a soldier in the fieldto uncover the gift that lay beneath.
There was really no way to make a sword unrecognizable. With a grin of delight, William pulled it free from its scabbard and took a few enthusiastic swings before holding it horizontally in one hand to test the balance.
Dominic turned the sword so that William could see clearly the four star-shaped gems laid in the gold hilt. “Now there’s one place where the four of us are always together.”
William laughed. “You sound as though you’re dying. Or perhaps you’ve met an accommodating Welsh miss and wish to change allegiance?”
With a grin, Dominic shrugged off his sentimentality. “You’ll be the first to know.”
As she entered her mother’s outer chamber, Elizabeth straightened her shoulders, ensuring that the green and gold brocade of her dress did not ripple across the stomacher but flared perfectly from tiny waist to wide skirts. Elizabeth had heard her mother cut a lady to shreds with her tongue for an uneven hem or a slight stain, and she did not doubt that Anne would subject her own daughter to the same.
A dozen of her mother’s ladies were grouped in threes and fours around the ornate presence chamber. Several were working on a tapestry while others wrote letters or talked quietly amongst themselves. One lady, with a straight fall of rich brown hair, played lightly on a lute. As Elizabeth passed her, the young woman looked up and her fingers missed a chord.
She returned to playing almost at once, but not before giving Elizabeth a hostile glance. What was her name? One of the de Clares, she thought, but not from an important branch or Elizabeth would know her better. Almost she stopped to speak to the woman, but her mother was waiting.
Queen Anne sat in a gilded wooden chair placed next to a tall window, a Tyndale Bible open on her lap. As Elizabeth curtsied, she wondered how much longer her mother would be able to see the fine print of the books she loved so well. These days she could read only in brightest sunlight.
Rising with a seductive grace that was still the envy of every woman in England, her mother said, “Will you join me within, Elizabeth?” Despite the intonation, it was not a question.
She followed her mother to the door in the north wall that led to the intimate but no less elegant privy chamber. Only one lady of the privy chamber was insideone who flung herself at Elizabeth in a most inelegant manner.
Minuette hugged Elizabeth with unrestrained delight while the queen, who would have frozen any other woman with a stare of ice for such behaviour, smiled upon the pair. Beneath her own delight, Elizabeth felt a brief spasm of pain. Minuette had always had charmnot the studied, showy type, but natural as breath and as much a part of her as her honey-coloured hair. Elizabeth could clearly remember her father visiting the schoolroom in the year before his death. She had spent an hour translating Latin and Greek for him, doing mathematics, and discussing theology. Though he’d complimented Elizabeth’s mind, it was nine-year-old Minuette who had disarmed him. When the formidable, enormous King Henry had left, it had been Minuette whom he’d hugged goodbye.
Elizabeth might have hated her for that charm, if Minuette weren’t so utterly without guile.
Queen Anne’s beautiful voice broke into Elizabeth’s memory. “I take it that you are both pleased.”
Beneath the words lay a hint of perplexity, as though she could not imagine why. Truthfully, Elizabeth would have been hard-pressed to name a single woman whom her mother considered a friend. She had always preferred men.
Feeling almost sorry for her mother, Elizabeth said, “I could not be more pleased. It is generous of you to allow her to return to my household.”
Her mother might like flattery, but she was never stupid. “Considering that you have been pressing the king for months, you cannot be surprised. She is a trifle young stillas are you, Elizabeth.”
“I will be twenty in September,” Elizabeth said mildly.
As if she hadn’t heard, her mother went on, “But your brother is determined to allow you an unusual measure of independence.”
It was Minuette, naturally, who had something complimentary to say. “And how could he do otherwise, with the example of his great father before him? Did not King Henry give you the right of femme sole over the objections of his council?”