The acclaimed author of Murder in the Queen’s Garden returns to Tudor England with amateur sleuth Kate Haywood embroiled in court intrigue and a devastating scandal.
1559. The Twelve Days of Christmas at Whitehall Palace will be celebrated as a grand affair. But there are those who wish to usher in the New Year by ending Queen Elizabeth’s reign....
Despite evenings of banquets and dancing, the European delegates attending Her Majesty’s holiday festivities are less interested in peace on earth than they are in fostering mistrust. Kate, the queen’s personal musician, hopes she can keep the royal guests entertained.
But then Queen Elizabeth receives a most unwanted gift—an anonymous letter that threatens to reveal untoward advances from her beloved Queen Catherine’s last husband, Thomas Seymour. Tasked with finding the extortionist, Kate has barely begun investigating when one of Spain’s visiting lords is found murdered. With two mysteries to unravel and an unsettling number of suspects to consider, Kate finds herself caught between an unscrupulous blackmailer and a cold-blooded killer....
|Publisher:||Sterling Mystery Series|
|Edition description:||Large Print|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Amanda Carmack is a pseudonym for a multipublished author. Her books have been nominated for many awards, including the RITA Award, the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, the Booksellers Best, the National Readers Choice Award, and the Holt Medallion. The Elizabethan Mysteries include Murder at Hatfield House, Murder at Westminster Abbey, and Murder in the Queen’s Garden. She lives in Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Amanda Carmack
Excerpt from Murder at Fontainebleau
“Oh, we shall all be killed! Your Grace, Your Grace, what should we do?”
Matthew Haywood heard the shouts and screams even as he climbed the stairs to Queen Catherine Parr’s chamber. The messenger who had summoned him to the queen’s side had vanished, and all he saw as he moved closer was a maidservant dashing past with something hidden in her apron, and a footman with an armload of firewood, despite the warm day outside the windows.
Rumors had swept around the palace corridors all day, but he had tried to dismiss them, tried to concentrate on the music lesson he was giving his little daughter, Kate. Rumors were always rife in King Henry’s palaces, especially when the king was ill, as he had been of late. When his ulcerous leg pained him, he roared with anger, and everyone around him ducked and cringed. Everyone except his wife, that is. Queen Catherine was the only one who could soothe him, with her sweet voice and intelligent conversation.
But not lately, they said. Lately the king had become tired of her increasing devotion to the new Protestant learning, impatient with her bookish ways, even envious of her success in writing. And the queen had many enemies, such as the king’s conservative Secretary Wriothesley and his Bishop Gardiner. Both were men who did not like to be crossed. Had the queen’s good fortune run out today?
Matthew glanced over his shoulder, thinking of his little girl, her dark head bent over her lute. He was devoted to the queen, but how could he protect his Kate if Queen Catherine fell? Her loyal household would certainly fall with her.
Another footman brushed past him, carrying more wood, and Matthew quickly followed him into the queen’s rooms. Her chamber, an elegant room draped with fine silks and scattered with soft cushions and carved chairs, was usually a peaceful spot. Normally the queen’s ladies read silently or quietly chatted as they sewed and played music. Today chaos reigned. A fire roared in the grate, and the queen’s chief lady, her sister, Lady Anne Herbert, fed papers to the flames, her pretty face streaked with tears. Other ladies huddled in the corner, sobbing.
Suddenly Matthew felt an insistent tug on the hem of his robe, and looking down he saw a small dog growling playfully at his feet. He’d been so caught up in the somber scene he hadn’t noticed. He fell back a step, then laughed once he realized it was only a lapdog.
“Gardiner, nay!” The Duchess of Suffolk, one of the queen’s best friends and another great scholar of the New Church, cried out as she snatched up her naughty dog. It had seemed so funny when she named the dog after the bishop, admonishing “Gardiner” for growling and making a mess on the queen’s fine carpets, but now the duchess’s face was grim under her jeweled headdress. “I am sorry, Master Haywood. He is full of agitation today, as are we all.”
“What has happened, duchess?” he asked quietly. “I was sent a message to come at once to the queen, but was not told why.”
The duchess glanced around at the chamber, her arms tight around her dog. “I fear the queen learned that the king issued a bill of articles against her. Her physician, Dr. Wendy, found a copy of the vile document and brought it to her. One of her ladies, Lady Tyrwhit, has already been arrested, and we all fear we’ll soon meet the same fate. The queen has ordered us to burn all her foreign books.”
Matthew was appalled. He remembered the other queens who had fallen from favor, Anne Boleyn and Cat Howard, imprisoned in the Tower, executed. How could such a fate befall Queen Catherine, a lady of such gentleness and great learning? “On what charges?”
The duchess shrugged in bewilderment. “Heresy, I would suppose, though we do not yet know. The king does have a changeable temper, as we all know too well, but his fondness for the queen has always seemed so genuine!”
But Matthew knew fondness with King Henry turned too swiftly to indifference and hatred. He glanced quickly around the room, and at last glimpsed the queen. Catherine sat by the window, sorting through a small box of papers. There were books piled beside her, some of which she handed to her sister to be fed to the fire while she put others in a separate box to be kept. She looked calm, quiet, but her heart-shaped face was pale, her eyes shadowed with purple, as if she had not slept. Her raiment was usually impeccable, bright velvets and satins trimmed with furs and jeweled embroidery, her dark red hair brushed to a silken gleam and swept back into stylish headdresses, but today she wore a loose robe, her hair in a braid over her shoulder. Her hand trembled as she handed Lady Anne another book.
“Ah, Matthew, I am glad to see you,” she called, and he hurried to her side. He gave her a low bow, but she shook her head at such formality. “I fear there is little good news today.”
“So the duchess told me,” he answered. He studied her face, and her eyes darted from lady to lady, as if she could read what was happening in their fearful expressions.
“Shall you desert me, Matthew?” she asked quietly.
“Never, Your Grace,” he answered fiercely. “You have brought elegance and learning to the kingdom. Anyone would be honored to serve you.”
She studied his face carefully, and nodded. “You must send your dear daughter away, though. If you are to stay by my side, she could be in danger. Those against us will do anything to harm someone loyal to me.” She closed the box next to her and held it up to him. “Perhaps you would look after these things for me. I have put a few of my most treasured books and papers in here, and I need someone to keep them safe for me, if—if I must go away.”
Matthew carefully took the box in his hand. It was small and rather light, but the weight of it felt strong in his grasp. He had come to work at the queen’s court because it was a great honor for a musician, but also because he believed in what Queen Catherine taught, what she wrote of in her Prayers or Meditations. He believed in studying and learning for oneself, and he wanted such a life for his daughter. If all that was snatched away now . . .
He had to help the queen however he could.
“I will keep them safe, Your Grace,” he said.
“I know you will, Matthew. I have great trust in you.” She reached into the sewing box at her feet and took out a folded parchment. “And if you could keep this particularly safe for me . . .”
Matthew carefully unfolded the paper and saw it was a piece of music, the queen’s own writings set into a song. Something about the notes did not look quite right, something strange about the arrangement of the bars, but he had no time to examine it closely now. The frantic atmosphere of the chamber had taken hold of him, and he knew as the queen did that time was growing short. He tucked the paper into his robe, and stepped back with a bow, the box in his hands.
“I will happily give these back into Your Grace’s hands very soon,” he said.
Queen Catherine shook her head with a sad smile. “Nay, Matthew, I think you must keep them safe for me for a long while to come. . . .”
The Christmas Season 1559
“Holly and ivy, box and bay, put in the house for Christmas Day! Fa la la la . . .”
Kate Haywood laughed at hearing the notes of the familiar old song, the tune always sung as the court bedecked the palace for Christmas. Queen Elizabeth’s gentlewomen of the privy and presence chambers, along with the young maids of honor, had been assigned to festoon the great hall of Whitehall Palace and its long corridors for the night’s feast, the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Long tables were set up along the privy gallery, covered with piles of holly, ivy, mistletoe, and evergreen boughs brought in from the countryside that morning, along with multicolored silk ribbons and spangles. Under the watchful eye of Kat Ashley, Queen Elizabeth’s Mistress of the Robes, they were meant to turn all those random bits into glorious holiday artistry.
Kate sat at the end of the table with her friend Lady Violet Green, who was expecting another child after the New Year. They twisted together loops of ivy and red ribbon as they watched two of the queen’s maids, Mary Howard and Mary Radcliffe, lay out long swags of greenery to measure them. The Marys sang as they worked, sometimes stopping to leap about with ribbons like two wild morris dancers, until Mistress Ashley sternly admonished them to “sit down again, and cease acting like children who have eaten too many sugary suckets.”
Kate laughed at their antics. Surely Christmas was the time for everyone to behave like children again? To dance and sing, to feast on delicacies until one was about to burst, to tell stories by the fire until the night was nearly gone. She had always loved this time of year the best of all, those twelve days when everyone set aside the gloomy darkness of winter and buried themselves in music, wine, and bright silk ribbons—and then more music again. Always music for Kate, as she was one of the queen’s principal musicians.
Kate snatched a ribbon from one of the twirling Marys and laughed. She might be missing her father, her only family, this Christmas, as she had last seen him two months ago in the autumn. But she was surrounded by such merriment that she scarcely had time to feel melancholy.
The queen’s court at Whitehall was full to bursting for the holiday. There were groups from Sweden and Vienna, pressing the marital suits of their various princes and archdukes, as well as the Spanish under Senor de Quadra and the French, insisting on friendship from the queen’s cousin Queen Mary of Scotland, now also the new queen consort of France. To make things even more complicated, a group of Scottish Protestant lords had also arrived, to ask the queen’s aid in their rebellion against Queen Mary’s mother and regent, Marie of Guise. It was enough to make every courtier’s head spin to decipher who was against whom. And all this during Christmas, the season of banquets and dances and fun.
Nay, Kate thought, she could only miss her dear father very late at night, in the darkest hours when the rest of the palace finally slept and she was working on new music for the queen’s revels. Then, in the silence as she bent over her mother’s lute, playing old songs her father had taught her when she was only a child, she could miss him.
Kate reached for two bent hoops and bound them into a sphere for the base of a kissing bough. She picked out the greenest, brightest loops of holly and ivy from the table, twining them around and tying them with a length of red satin ribbon.
“Are you making a kissing bough, Kate?” Violet asked teasingly. She tied together her own twists of greenery into a large wreath for one of the great hall’s fireplace mantels. She looked most plump and content in her new pregnancy, her blond curls bouncing and her eyes shining. “They say if you stand beneath it and close your eyes, you will have a vision of your future husband.”
Kate laughed. “I think I would be too nervous to do such a thing. What if I saw a vision of an ancient gouty knight with twenty children? We can’t all be as fortunate as you with your handsome Master Green.”
Violet blushed, and laid her hand over the swell of her belly. “We are wondrously happy now, it’s true, since my mother-in-law moved to her dower house. But that only makes me want to see my friends equally well matched! Have you had no suitors since I was last at court?”
“Nay, not a one. There is no one new at all. There is no more room at court for ambitious young lords. And if there were, they would all be in love with the queen herself.”
As Kate snipped off the end of a branch with her dagger, she thought about Queen Elizabeth in the past months, as they had moved from Windsor to Richmond to Whitehall. After the frivolity of the summer progress, the queen’s pale oval face had taken on a newly solemn expression, and she spent many more hours in meetings with her privy council and poring over her stacks of documents. Yet there were still days at the hunt and nights dancing, still suitors and sonnets.
And still Robert Dudley, richly arrayed and ready to pour lavish gifts at Elizabeth’s feet.
“What of the delegations visiting now?” Violet said as she tied off an elaborate bow. “There are so many here. The French are so charming, so well dressed, and they say the Swedes are most generous with their gifts to anyone who will help them in their prince’s suit. Or the Scots! Some of them are quite handsome indeed. Very tall, such good dancers. You could marry one of them!”
Kate laughed. Violet was right—some of the Scots lords visiting Elizabeth’s court, asking for aid against their Catholic regent, were rather exotic and dashing. But . . . “And be carried off to some drafty old castle beside an icy loch? I don’t think that would be enjoyable at all. They seem rather quarrelsome for my taste, as well. If they aren’t fighting a duel with a Frenchman, they’re glaring at the Spanish over the banquet table, or even arguing amongst themselves. I would prefer a more . . . harmonious household.”
“Very well, no Scotsman, then,” Violet said with a giggle. “What of that actor who was at court in the autumn? I vow he was the most handsome man I have ever seen, except for my own husband, and he did seem to like you very much.”
“Rob Cartman?” Kate frowned as she thought of Rob. He was indeed very handsome, with his golden hair and sky blue eyes, full of laughter and poetry. But also full of secrets. “I haven’t seen him for many weeks.” Though she had received a letter from him, telling her of how he and his theatrical troupe fared as they toured the country again under the patronage of the queen’s cousin Lord Hunsdon. She didn’t want to admit how her heart beat just a little faster whenever she saw his handwriting on a missive.
Or how she wore his gift, a tiny jeweled pendant in the shape of a lute, beneath her gowns.
“Oh, well. If you don’t fancy a cold Scottish castle, I daresay a traveling actor’s life wouldn’t be good, either. You should find someone who would keep you here at court. You would not want to live with a mother-in-law like mine, anyway,” Violet said with a dramatic shudder.
Kate laughed. “I told you, Vi—I don’t care to marry yet. I suppose I am like the queen in that way. And I am much too busy right now.”
Violet pursed her lips. “I know, Kate. It is just as I said—I want all my friends to be as happy as I am. And I owe you so very much. If you had not saved my life at Nonsuch last summer, I would not even be here. Nor would my little Catherine or this one, who will make his appearance next year.”
Kate swallowed hard at the terrible memory of what had happened to them at the fairy-tale Nonsuch Palace, the fire—and the murderer—that had almost ended both their lives. She reached for a branch, trying to banish the dark thought of those days beneath the brightness of Christmas. “Anyone would have done the very same as I did, Vi.”
“I do not think that’s true. Few would have been as brave as you. So, if you will not let me matchmake, you must at least be a good godmother to little Catherine.”
“That I am most honored to do,” Kate said with a smile, thinking of the gift she would get her goddaughter Catherine for Christmas—a child-sized lute.
“Good! Now, you should put mistletoe into your bough. It is the most important element, otherwise the magic won’t work.”
Kate laughed, tucking a thick branch of glossy green mistletoe dotted with lacy white berries into the center of her circlet. Surely there was some kind of magic floating in the icy winter air. She felt lighter already, with the holiday upon them. After months of worrying over the queen’s safety, it seemed the perfect time to have a bit of fun.
“Holly and ivy, box and bay,” she whispered. “Put in the house for Christmas Day . . .”
But her laughter turned to a rueful sigh when she returned to her room later that afternoon and saw the stack of books and papers waiting for her. As promised, the queen’s chief secretary, Sir William Cecil, had sent her volumes on codes and languages. She loved studying codes, especially the work on musical mysteries to be found in Plato’s Republic, symbols hidden in the twelve notes of Greek musical scales which Cecil believed had once been used in hidden letters for the Tudor court—and could be used again. Kate loved learning of the strange mysteries there, but sometimes a Christmas dance was just more alluring.
“Fa la la la la,” she whispered, and sat down to her studies.
“You shall all be the death of me! If I cannot leave these rooms soon, I shall—I shall . . .”
Queen Elizabeth’s furious words ended in an incoherent shout that sent ladies-in-waiting, lapdogs, and parrots fleeing to every corner of the royal bedchamber. She jerked her royal arms away from the ladies who were trying to tie on her silver-brocade-and-sable sleeves, and kicked her velvet shoe at a hapless footstool.
“Now, lovey,” murmured Kat Ashley, the only person who would dare to speak to Elizabeth that way. Kat shooed the younger maids away and stepped up to tie the sleeves herself, clucking over the slippery satin ribbons and the loops of pearls clicking over the queen’s shoulders. “You know it is far too cold today for you to go outside. They say it may even snow later. And you are supposed to meet with the Spanish ambassador.”
“Senor de Quadra can kick his heels about all day for all I care,” Elizabeth cried. Her pale face, with its high, sharp cheekbones and pointed chin, was flushed a bright pink. Despite the angry roses that bloomed in her cheeks and the sparkling anger in her dark Boleyn eyes, she stood still for Mistress Ashley to adjust the sleeves. “This palace begins to feel like an overheated mouse-hole, all of us scurrying to and fro to no good purpose. We have had no fun in weeks. It is much too quiet here.”
Kate had to agree with the queen about the feeling of being mice in a maze, even though she kept her head bent over the ivory keys of the virginals in the corner. She continued to play her song, as if she was oblivious to any storms that broke over the luxurious chamber.
After almost a year at Queen Elizabeth’s royal court and her whole life of nearly twenty years spent in palaces of one sort or another, she had certainly learned the value of standing firm, smiling, and staying inconspicuous in any tempest. One learned so much more while going unnoticed.
And when the queen had one of her Tudor fits of temper, the most outspoken ladies and gentlemen generally received the brunt of it and had shoes thrown at their heads.
But the queen was right. Whitehall Palace, that vast edifice of winding corridors, long galleries, hidden chambers, and sparkling treasures, began to feel very crowded in the cold, short, gray winter days. The groundsmen kept the windows firmly fastened against the icy winds that howled past off the river. Fires crackled all the time in the marble grates, struggling to send any warmth into the rooms, but always sending plenty of smoke. The press of people everywhere, in their fashionable glossy satins and furs, made the air humid and heavy.
And the queen’s bedchamber felt the most close-packed. It was not the largest chamber, but one with a view of the queen’s privy garden below. Elizabeth’s desk, piled high with documents that waited for her attention, was placed by the one window. The huge edifice of the bed, carved in fanciful patterns of vines and flowers, hung with red and gold brocade curtains and draped with velvet blankets, was set on a dais at the far end of the room, opposite the fireplace. Cushions were scattered across the inlaid floor for the ladies-in-waiting, amid workboxes, lutes, and baskets for their little dogs.
Kate glanced quickly out the window, near where the virginals sat behind the queen’s desk. She could see the queen’s garden, brown and gray under the winter frost. Beyond the high brick wall, she could see a small sliver of the river, a pale blue ribbon frozen at the edges. The meager daylight was fading, night closing in around them.
For just a moment, she let herself remember winters when she was a child. Her father had taught her to ice-skate when she was seven, and when he lived at Chelsea with Queen Catherine Parr, Queen Elizabeth’s stepmother and Matthew Haywood’s first royal patron, he would take her out on the ice whenever he had a moment from his duties.
She was not a graceful skater, always too afeared of falling on the hard, cold ice, but she loved the feel of her father’s hand holding hers, so strong and steady, always the greatest certainty in her life. But then she grew older, and found out he kept secrets from her—secrets about her mother, Eleanor, who had died in childbirth. Eleanor had been the illegitimate half sister of Anne Boleyn, and thus Queen Elizabeth’s aunt, but Matthew had not been the one to tell that to Kate.
Kate shook her head. She wondered what her father did now, in his country cottage next to his cozy fire. Now he finally had all the time he desired for working on his music, cooped up with all the little luxuries the queen sent him. In his letters to Kate, he told her of the music he was writing, of a friendly widow who brought him fresh butter and milk and fussed over his gout. But she hadn’t been able to see him for herself since the autumn.
What would it be like if Kate could sit with him there now, the two of them working on their music as they so often had when she was younger? Both of them lost in their own worlds, yet still so close. Always understanding.
She thought of what Violet had said about marriage, and for just an instant Kate wondered what it would be like to have her own cozy hearth with a husband. A husband who understood her . . .
“Nay, not that cap! The black one,” Elizabeth snapped, pulling Kate out of her memories and daydreams and into the present moment in the royal bedchamber. Kate glanced over the fine inlaid top of the virginals to see that the queen was pushing Mary Howard away as the lady tried to offer her a red velvet cap. But the queen’s tone had lost some of its fire, and she stood still while Mistress Ashley finished dressing her.
Elizabeth even bent her head to let Lady Catherine Grey carefully place a black satin pearl-trimmed cap on her coiled red hair. Relations between the queen and her cousin, the beautiful lady so many whispered should be named as Elizabeth’s heir, had certainly not always been cordial. Kate knew Elizabeth suspected that Lady Catherine was not entirely loyal. She had been friendly with the previous Spanish ambassador, the Count de Feria, and his English wife, who had been lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary. Lady Catherine was young, headstrong in the Tudor way, and Elizabeth had sometimes seemed to snub the Greys.
And Lady Catherine had not been seen so much with the handsome Lord Hertford since she returned to court after the death of her mother, Lady Frances, a few weeks before. Could she have finally learned some sense?
“What think you, Cousin Catherine?” Elizabeth said. “Is it too quiet at my court?”
Lady Catherine smiled, but it was not quite the bright, flashing, laughing smile she had before her mother’s death. She was still as pretty as ever, with a heart-shaped face, bright blue eyes, and golden hair, beauty that was set off even better by her black mourning gowns than by the scarlets and blues she usually seemed to love. “It is the Christmas season, Your Grace! Surely we should have a bit of merriment?”
A wave of murmured agreement moved over the ladies gathered around the fireplace. Excitement for the holiday had been building for weeks. Banquets and dancing, decking the halls, sleigh rides and spiced wine, and especially stolen embraces under those carefully made kissing boughs, would be a welcome distraction from the cold winds and the foreign embassies gathered around to press their suits on the queen.
Even Elizabeth smiled at her cousin. “So it is, Lady Catherine. I can smell the evergreen boughs from the ladies’ decorations even in here, and it is a most welcome bit of the fresh outdoors. What else of the season shall we have, ladies? A boar’s head feast? Sugarplums? Games of snapdragon?”
“Oh, all of that!” Mary Radcliffe cried. “It has been so cold and gray for so long.”
“I do well remember when I was young, and Christmas was the time for so much merriment,” Mistress Ashley said, her usually brisk tone wistful as she slid jeweled rings onto the queen’s long white fingers. “Mumming plays, Yule logs . . .”
“I remember those, as well,” Elizabeth said. “My stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr, always saw to it that Christmas in my father’s palaces was most grand. And we have so much to celebrate now. I proclaim this holiday we shall make merry as they did in the past! We must have a Lord of Misrule to oversee the Twelve Days, with theatricals, games, dances, everything.”
The ladies laughed and clapped their hands, twirling around happily at the prospect of a grand Christmas.
“It will be just like when you were a little girl, lovey,” Mistress Ashley said.
Elizabeth squeezed her hand and smiled. “Except when I was a child I did not have to meet with the Spanish ambassador, who will no doubt plague me with the Archduke Charles’s suit again. Go, all of you, and let me gather my thoughts for a moment.”
Immediately, all the ladies gathered up their little dogs and their embroidery, their books and lutes, and hurried out of the chamber, their silken skirts rustling like a sweep of dry autumn leaves blown into the sky. Mistress Ashley hovered behind them, but Elizabeth waved her away as well.
Kate quickly lowered the inlaid lid over the keys and rose to make her own curtsy.
“Nay, Kate, you stay for a moment,” Elizabeth said.
Kate watched as the queen hurried to the window, and, against the instructions of her physicians and of Mistress Ashley, unlatched it and pushed it open. An icy breeze swept into the velvet-lined stuffiness of the room and carried out some of the heavy scent of woodsmoke and floral perfumes. Elizabeth closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
The noise of London, the constant roar of voices, shouts, laughter, clattering cart wheels, carried on the wind over the slate roofs and chimneys of Whitehall. Kate peered past the queen’s shoulder to see night closing in quickly around the garden below. She wasn’t entirely sure what to do, or why Elizabeth had asked her to stay, so she just waited. She knew the queen always revealed her purpose eventually.
Elizabeth turned away from the window with a smile. There was no sign of her earlier burst of stormy temper. It had passed as swiftly as such fits usually did, and now she looked—excited. Her dark eyes sparkled.
“You have been working on new music for the Christmas season, have you not, Kate?” Elizabeth asked.
“Aye,” Kate answered. Indeed she had. Every night, after the queen’s feasts and dancing and the quiet banquets in her privy rooms were done, Kate would return to her own tiny chamber under the eaves of the vast palace roofs, and would write until she was so tired that the notes would not sound in her head any longer.
“That is good, for if we are to have an elaborate Christmas we shall need much new music,” the queen said with a laugh. “Our court is going to be busy this year, with all the foreign ambassadors closing in on us. We must impress them all.”
Kate couldn’t help but laugh, too, thinking of how busy every day was at Whitehall. Everyone was always running from one place to another. “Is it not always thus, Your Grace?”
Elizabeth laughed, and as always her laughter was as wondrously alive as her temper. “True enough, Kate. The life of a monarch is never an empty one. There is always someplace to be, someone who wants something. Yet it seems all my plague of suitors thinks Christmas is the time to press their cases for matrimony.”
Kate thought of the presents that piled up daily for the queen, portraits and jewels and bolts of fine cloth from Vienna, Sweden, Spain—not to mention the English-grown suitors. “The chance to outdo each other with the splendor of their gifts?”
“Exactly so. Not that I mind that . . .” Elizabeth held up her wrist to examine the pearl and ruby bracelet that shimmered there, and counted off her would-be fiancés on her beringed fingers. “Archduke Charles, Prince Eric, a French prince—take your pick of them. Then there are those closer to home, like Lord Arundel and Master Pickering.” A frown flickered over her face. “And then there are those who desire things more complicated.”
People such as Robert Dudley? Kate thought of the queen’s face when he was near, her radiant smiles—and the rumors that were spreading of the queen’s affection for her Master of the Horse. Or did she think of something else, something more political in nature? “Your Grace?”
Elizabeth shook her head, as if trying to clear her thoughts. “Can you organize a masque quickly, Kate? Perhaps with some of the music you have already written?”
Kate nodded eagerly. This sort of challenge was assuredly one she could meet. Music, even complicated pieces that kept her awake until the small hours, was never as confounding as the doings of courtiers. Not all of the queen’s requests were so easy to fulfill.
“What sort of theme, Your Grace?” she asked, her mind racing over sets and costumes in the Office of the Revels that could be easily used. “Something for the beginning of the Christmas season, like one of the old mummers’ plays?”
Elizabeth stared down at the frozen garden below, her gaze very far away. “I told you a few days ago we are expecting a new arrival very soon. Well, they are a party from Scotland, and they must have a proper welcome.”
“From Scotland?” Kate was wary. Everyone knew England’s northern neighbor had long been in upheaval, with Protestant lords rebelling against Queen Mary’s mother and regent, Queen Marie of Guise. “Queen Mary’s ambassador is surely already here.”
Elizabeth smiled, a small pursing of her lips as if she held a secret. “Monsieur de Castelnau. So he is, and always so insistent on his mistress’s great love and friendship for England. Though even he cannot properly explain why Queen Mary still insists on quartering the arms of England on her engraved plate. Nay, these new arrivals will be no Frenchmen, Kate, but real Scots who declare they have vital business here at Whitehall. We must show a friendly face to everyone in these most changeable days, don’t you agree?”
Friendly to everyone—and true friends with none, it seemed. “’Tis surely always better to have as many friends as possible, Your Grace,” she answered carefully. That was one lesson she had learned well in the last year.
“So, I am sure you will organize the perfect welcome for our new friends from the north, Kate.” Elizabeth returned to her Venetian looking glass, and smoothed the tendrils of red hair that had escaped from her cap, as slow and careless as if the Spanish ambassador was not waiting for her. As if she was not, as Kate feared, contemplating aiding rebels who sought to overthrow Mary, Queen of Scots, and her mother. It would mean war, which was something Elizabeth had been so carefully avoiding.
“I will do my best, Your Grace,” Kate said.
“Perhaps you could use some assistance,” Elizabeth said, with a new, brighter smile, a teasing smile. “What of that handsome Rob Cartman? His strutting upon the stage is always amusing—and most diverting. I could send for him to help you.”
Kate was startled. Did Elizabeth somehow know about her conversation with Violet, about the tiny lute pendant hidden under her bodice? The queen did seem to see everything at her crowded court. “Rob Cartman?”
“Aye.” Elizabeth spun around, her smile more open, teasing. She suddenly seemed younger, as she had last summer at Nonsuch, with Robert Dudley at her side for every hunt and every dance. “I know you do like him, Kate. Fain to deny it.”
“He is my friend,” Kate said carefully. “He understands my love of music, and is indeed a talented actor.”
“He rather reminds me of my own Robin,” Elizabeth said musingly.
Kate couldn’t help but laugh. “Of Sir Robert Dudley?” Rob Cartman was blond and blue-eyed, fair and golden as a summer’s day. Sir Robert was often called “the queen’s gypsy” for his darkness, his swarthy skin, and black, curling hair.
“Oh, aye. There is an adventurous spirit about them both, a bold attitude. Do you not agree?”
Kate did agree. Rob’s adventurous spirit was always intriguing—and sometimes trouble. “There is certainly much boldness about Master Cartman, Your Grace.”
“Too much so sometimes? Just like Robin—such men do sometimes need to be put in their proper places by women of equal adventurous spirit,” Elizabeth said, picking up her feathered fan and silver pomander. “So, it is settled. We shall send for Master Cartman to assist with these Christmas revels. I understand he is employed by my cousin Lord Hunsdon.”
Kate glanced over her shoulder, making sure they were alone. “Yes, Your Grace. Lord Hunsdon has asked him to form a troupe at his estate at Eastwick.”
“Henry does love a good play. A Boleyn trait, I think. He will not mind if we borrow his prize player for a time.”
And Kate would not mind seeing Rob again. Nay, not at all. “I will be glad of the help.”
“Just remember . . . ,” Elizabeth said, suddenly stern. She could go in an instant from playful intimate to distant monarch. “Now is not the time to be distracted by romance, Kate. I need people I can truly trust close around me, and those are so very few. I must not lose them, not now.”
“I will always be Your Grace’s most loyal servant,” Kate said. It was Elizabeth who had saved England from darkness, Elizabeth who promised a glorious, prosperous future. Elizabeth alone who stood between the battling claimants to be her heir. Kate would always do all she could to preserve that.
Elizabeth nodded, her eyes closing for an instant as if in weariness. “I know you are, as your father has always been. But right now there is work to be done that is far less pleasant than an old-fashioned Christmas for Mistress Ashley. Will you come with me to meet with the Spanish ambassador?”
“To meet with Bishop de Quadra?” Kate said, surprised.
“Aye. You knew the bishop’s predecessor, the Count de Feria. Perhaps you will have some opinions on their differences? Things I cannot see, things they will keep carefully hidden from me. You do have an actor’s eye.”
Kate did recall the count—and what happened to her in the cold halls of the Spanish embassy at Durham House. “I daresay you also have a fine actor’s eye, Your Grace. But I will do what I can.”
Elizabeth nodded. A knock sounded at the door, and she sighed impatiently. “Enter!”
It was the queen’s chief secretary, Sir William Cecil, who pushed open the door. Though Cecil was only in his thirties, he already seemed older, bowed by his long hours of work for the queen and for England, gray threaded through his brown beard, a walking stick in his hand. The silver trim on his black velvet garments glinted in the light. “The Spanish ambassador awaits, Your Grace,” he said, his tone so endlessly steady. “He is becoming rather impatient.”
“Does he press his master’s latest prospect for our hand in marriage?” Elizabeth said with a laugh. “Ha, but surely he must know how busy our court is this time of year. How many suitors we must answer. These things must be carefully considered. Look what happened when my father did not properly think over his matrimonial prospects.”
Cecil frowned. “It is never wise to antagonize the King of Spain, not when England needs allies. And the Archduke Charles would not be a poor choice as consort.”
Elizabeth waved off his words with her fan. “I do not intend to antagonize anyone, dearest Cecil. King Philip is, as ever, my dear brother-in-law—even though he certainly married his French princess with such haste after declaring undying love for me.”
“We must keep the Spanish and French balanced, Your Grace,” Cecil said. “With Queen Mary the queen of France now, Philip must stay our friend.”
“Quite right, my dear Cecil. We shall keep de Quadra waiting no longer. Kate, bring me that box on my desk. A small Christmas token for King Philip.”
Kate nodded, and hurried to fetch the small ivory-and-gold box atop a pile of papers on the queen’s desk. As she picked it up, she glanced out the window and noticed a lady in a black cloak rushing down the path, a gentleman in bright green behind her. She shook her head, and he held out his hand beseechingly.
“Kate,” the queen called, pulling her attention from the garden. Elizabeth took Sir William’s arm and swept out of the room, with Kate rushing to follow. The chambers outside the bedroom were crowded with courtiers waiting to catch the queen’s attention. They all bowed and curtsied, hoping for a royal nod, a word.
One of those was the queen’s cousin, Lady Margaret Lennox, who had once been given precedence over Elizabeth when Mary was queen. She hovered there with her tall, pale son, Lord Darnley, who merely looked bored to be dragged along by his mother to seek favor with the queen. Elizabeth sighed to see them, but gestured to Lady Margaret to follow her.
Kate fell into her place at the end of the queen’s train of courtiers, watching the faces around them carefully. Everyone smiled, laughing and making merry with the spirit of the festive season, but she had seen all too often how quickly the laughter turned to fury, and danger to Elizabeth lurked around every tapestry-draped corner.
The queen processed from her privy apartments and turned toward the great waterside gallery, where the Bishop de Quadra waited. As always, knots and crowds of people hovered just beyond the doorway, their smiles strained as they longed to catch the queen’s precious attention, their petitions held in trembling hands. Elizabeth just smiled and nodded, sailing forward on her way. There was not time to linger now.