Lady Solay's eyes met those of a hard-edged man. His implacable gaze sliched through her and, for an instant, she forgot everything else. A mistake. She had no time for emotion when so much depended on her finding favor at court.
Lord Justin Lamont couldn't look away from the late king's scandalous--illegitimate--daughter. Head held high, she walked as if the court adored her. No matter the pain in her eyes, Justin resolutely snuffed out a spark of sympathy. He must guard against her bewitching charms...
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Windsor Castle, Yuletide, 1386
The shameless doxy dragged the rings right off his fingers before the King's body was cold.
They used to whisper that and then look sideways at her, thinking that a ten-year-old was too young to understand they slandered her mother.
Joan had understood even then. It was all too clear the night the old King died and her mother, his mistress of thirteen years, gathered their two daughters and fled into the darkness.
Now, ten years after her father's death, Joan stood poised to be announced at the court of a new King. Her mother hoped Joan might find a place there, even a husband.
Foolish dreams of an ageing woman.
Waiting to be announced, she peeked into the Great Hall, surprised she did not look more outdated wearing her mother's made-over dress. It was the men's garb, colourful and garish, that looked unfamiliar. Decked in blues and reds, gold chains and furs, they looked gaudy as flapping tournament flags.
Except for one.
Standing to the left of the throne turned away from her, he wore a simple, deep blue tunic. She could not see his face fully, but the set of his jaw and the hollow edge of his cheek said one thing: unyielding.
For a moment, she envied that strength. This was a man whose daily bread did not depend on pleasing people.
Hers did. And so did her mother's and sister's.
She pulled her gaze away and smoothed her velvet skirt. Please the King she must, or there would be no food in the larder by Eastertide.
As the herald entered the Hall to announce her, she heard the rustling skirts of the ladies lining the room. They whispered still.
Here she comes. The harlot's daughter. No more shame than her mother had.
She lifted her head. It was time.
Amid the whispers, Lady Joan, twenty summers, illegitimate daughter of the late King and his notorious mistress and the most unmarriageable woman in England, stepped forward to be presented to King Richard II.
Lord Justin Lamont avoided Richard's court whenever possible. He had braved the crowded throne room only because he had urgent news for the Duke of Gloucester.
Last month, Parliament had compelled the reckless young King to accept the oversight of a Council headed by his uncle, Gloucester. Since then, Justin had been enmeshed in the business of government. He was only beginning to uncover the mess young Richard and his intimates had made of the Treasury.
Thrust upon the throne as a boy when his grandfather died, Richard had inherited the old King's good looks without his strength, judgement or sense. Instead of spending taxes to fight the French, he'd drained the royal purse with grants for his favourites.
When he demanded more tax money, Parliament had finally balked, installing the Council to gainsay the King's outrageous spending.
Now, the King had put forth another of his endless lists of favours for his friends, expecting the new Council's unquestioning approval.
He would not get it. 'Your Grace,'Justin said to Gloucester, 'the King has a new list of gifts he wants to announce on Christmas Day. The Council cannot possibly approve this.'
Distracted, the Duke motioned to the door. 'Here she comes. The doxy's daughter.'
Justin gritted his teeth, refusing to turn. The mother's meddling had near ruined the realm before Parliament had stepped in to save a senile King from his own foolishness. This new King needed no more misguidance. He was getting that aplenty from his current favourites. 'What do they call her?'
'Lady Joan ofWeston,'Gloucester answered. 'Joan the Elder.' Calling her a Weston was a pleasant fiction, though the old King's mistress had passed herself off as Sir William's wife while she bore the King's children. 'The Elder?'
Gloucester smirked. 'There were two daughters. Like bitch pups. Call "Joan" and one will come running.'
Wincing at the cruelty, Justin reluctantly turned, with the rest of the court, to see whether the daughter carried the stain of her mother's sin.
He looked, and then could not look away.
Her mother's carnality stamped a body that swayed as if it had no bones and sun-tinged glory. 'She looks nothing like him,' he murmured.
Gloucester whispered back, 'Maybe the whore simply whelped the children and called them the King's.'
Justin shook his head. 'She moves like royalty.'
Head high, she stared at a point above the King's crown, walking as if the crowd adored instead of loathed her.
But then, just for a moment, she glanced around the room. Her eyes, violet, brimming with pain, met his.
They stopped his breath.
Wide-eyed, still looking at him, she did not complete her step. Tangled in her gaze, he forgot to breathe.
Then she gathered herself, lifted her skirt and approached the throne.
She dipped of the lad on the King for half his instead of ever so slightly.
Justin took a a breath. Then another. Still the King did not say 'rise'. A smothered cough in the crowd breached the silence.
Her hands hung quietly at her sides, but her fingers twitched against the folds of her deep red skirt.
He squashed a spark of sympathy. The woman's glance had been enough to warn him. Her mother had bewitched a King.
He would be on guard.
He had been deceived by a woman's eyes oncelong ago.
* * *
Joan had known the King would test her. Kneel. So she did. Her mother had taught her well. Read his needs and satisfy them. That is our only salvation. This one needed deference, that was obvious. She would give him that and whatever else he asked if he would grant them a living from the royal purse.
At least there was one thing he would not ask. The blood of the old King flowed through both their veins. She would not have to please a King as her mother had.
She heard no whispers now. Silent, the court watched as the King left her on aching knees long enough that she could have said an extra Paternoster for her mother's sins.
Eyes lowered, she looked toward the edge of the wide-planked floor. The men's long-toed shoes curled like a finger crooked in invitation. She stifled a smile. Men and their vanities. Apparently, they thought the longer the toes, the longer the tool.
Yet when her eyes had met those of the hard-edged man at the fringes of the crowd, she had nearly stumbled. His severe dress and implacable gaze sliced through the peacocks around the throne sharply as a blade. For that instant, she forgot everything else. Even the King.
A thoughtless mistake. She had no time for emotion. Only for necessity.
Finally, the King's high-pitched voice called a reprieve. 'Lady Joan, daughter of Sir William of Weston, rise and bow.'
With no one's hand to lean on, she wobbled as she stood. Forcing her shaking knees to support her, she curtsied, then dared lift her eyes.
Tall, thin, and delicately blond, King Richard perched on the throne overlooking the hall. A golden crown graced his curls. An ermine-trimmed cloak shielded him from the draughts. She wondered whether his cheeks were clean shaven from choice or because the beard had not yet taken hold.
His slope-shouldered wife sat beside him. Her plaited brown hair hung down her back, a strange affectation for a married queen. Of course, Joan's mother had whispered, after six years of childless marriage, she wondered how much of a wife the Queen was.
'We hope you enjoy this festive time with us, Lady Joan,' she said. Her eyes held a gentleness that was missing from the King's.
Joan, silent, looked to the King for permission.
He waved his hand. 'You may speak.'
'Thank you, your Grace.'
He sat straighter and lifted his head. 'Address us as Your Majesty.'
'Forgive me, Your Majesty.' She bowed again. A new title, then. 'Your Grace' had served the old King, but that was no longer adequate. This King needed more than deference. He needed exaltation.
The Queen's soft voice soothed like that of a calm mother after a child's tantrum. 'I hope you will not miss Christmas at Weston Castle too much, Lady Joan.'
She suppressed a laugh. A Weston in name only, she had never even visited the family estate. It was her mother and sister she would be thinking of during the Cristes-maesse, but no word of them would be spoken aloud. 'Your invitation honours me, Your Majesty.'
Queen Anne said, 'Perhaps you might pen a short poem for our entertainment.'
'Poem, Your Majesty?'
'Not in French, only in English. If you feel capable.'
She swallowed the subtle insult. The Queen's words denigrated not only her mother, but Joan's ten years spent away from Windsor's glories. Still, as a daughter of the King, she had been taught both English and French. 'Your Majesty, if my humble verse might amuse, I would be honoured.'
The King spoke. 'Of course you would, Lady... What was your name?'
'Joan, Your Majesty.'
He frowned. 'I do not like that name. Have you another?'
'Another name, Your Majesty?' Odd, she thought, then she remembered. The King's mother had been called Joan. And his mother had been a bitter enemy of hers. Of course she could not be called by the name of his beloved mother. 'Yes, Your Majesty, I do.' It would not be the Mary or Elizabeth or Catherine he expected. 'My mother also calls me Solay.'
'Soleil?' he said, with the French inflection. 'The sun?'
'Why would she give you such a name?'
She hesitated, fearing to speak the truth and unable to think of a way to dissemble. 'She said I was the daughter of the sun.'
Whispers ricocheted around the floor. I was the Lady of the Sun once, her mother had said. The Sun who was King Edward.
The King dismissed her with a wave. 'Your name matters little. You will not be here long.'
Fear twisted her stomach. She must cajole him out of anger and gain time to win his favour.
'Your use of the name honours me,' she said quickly, 'as much as the honour of knowing I share the exalted day of your birth under the sign of Capricorn.' She knew no such thing, but no one cared when she had come into the world. Even her mother was not sure of the day.
He sat straighter and peered at her. 'You study the stars, Lady Solay?'
She knew little more of the stars than a candle maker, if the truth be told, but if the stars intrigued him, flattery and a few choice phrases should suffice. 'Although I am but a student, I hear they say great things of Your Majesty.'
He looked at her sharply. 'What do they say?' he said, leaning forward.
What did he want to hear? She must tread carefully. Too much knowledge would be dangerous. 'I have never read yours, of course, Your Majesty.' To do so without his consent could have meant death. She thought quickly. The King's birthday was on the twelfth day of Christmas. That should give her enough time. 'However, with your permission, I could present a reading in honour of your birthday.'
'It would take so long?'
She smiled and nodded. 'To prepare a reading worthy of a King, oh, yes, Your Majesty.'
The King smiled, settling back into the throne. 'A reading for my birthday, then.' He turned to the tall, dark-haired man on his right. 'Hibernia, see that she has what she needs.'
She released a breath. Now if she could only concoct a reading that would direct him to grant her mother an income for life. 'I will do my humble best and be honoured to serve Your Majesty in any way.'
A small smile touched his lips. 'I imprisoned the last astrologer for predicting ill omens. I shall be interested in what you say.'
She swallowed. This King was not as na ve as he looked. Done with her, he rose, took the Queen's hand and spoke to the Hall. 'Come. Let there be carolling before vespers.'
Solay curtsied, muttering, 'Thanks to Your Majesty', like a Hail Mary and backed away.
A hand, warm, touched her shoulder. She turned to see the same brown eyes that had made her stumble. Up close, they seemed to probe all she needed to hide.
The man was all hardness and power. A perpetual frown furrowed his brow. 'Lady Joan, or shall I say Lady Solay?'
She slapped on a smile to hide the trembling of her lips. 'A turn in the carolling ring? Of course.'
He did not return her smile. 'No. A private word.'
His eyes, large, heavy lidded, turned down at the corners, as if weighed with sorrow.