"The best writer of medieval fiction currently around."Historical Novels Review
Sometimes Keeping Your Honor Means Breaking Your Word
In England, the Middle Ages are a time for ambitious men to prosper. Before he becomes the father of William Marshal, John FitzGilbert is a man of honor and loyalty, sworn to royal service. When the old king dies, his successor rewards the handsome and ambitious John with castles and lands. But King Stephen has a tenuous hold on his reign over medieval England.
In these unstable times, John's loyalty to the British king comes at great cost. So, when jealous rivals at court seek to destroy John, he takes matters into his own hands. He backs a woman's claim to the crown, sacrifices his marriage, and eventually makes a final gamble that is perhaps one step too far.
Rich with detail, masterful in its storytelling, A Place Beyond Courage is historical fiction full of impossible choices and the real meaning of honor, perfect for fans of The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.
An incredible prequel to the William Marshal series!
More Novels of Elizabeth Chadwick's William Marshal:
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
For the King's Favor
To Defy a King
Praise for Elizabeth Chadwick:
"Picking up an Elizabeth Chadwick novel is like having a Bentley draw up at your door: you know you are in for a sumptuous ride."Daily Telegraph
"A star back in Britain, Elizabeth Chadwick is finally getting the attention she deserves here."USA Today
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Vernon-sur-Seine, Normandy, Autumn 1130
"Why," John FitzGilbert asked with icy displeasure, "does the list say palfreys when the beasts I've just seen in the stables are common nags?" He cast his deputy a penetrating look from eyes the hue of shadowed water.
"My lord?" A muscle ticked in the fleshy pouch beneath the man's left eye.
Tresses of autumn sunlight swept across the rushes carpeting the great hall of King Henry's hunting lodge and trailed the edge of a trestle table, illuminating the lower third of a parchment covered in a scribe's swift scrawl. A strand of gold touched the back of John's hand and twinkled on the braid cuffing his tunic. "One's spavined, another's got mange, and the chestnut's old enough to have carried Moses out of Egypt!" He stabbed a forefinger at the offending entry on the exchequer roll. "It says here that Walter Picot renders five palfreys in payment of his debt to the King. If those creatures out there are palfreys, I'll salt my boots and eat them."
"My lord, I-"
"No excuses, Ralph. Return these sorry beasts to Picot and make him replace them with others fit to the description. If he refuses, report to me and I will deal with him. I'm not in the habit of giving house room to other men's leavings." Leaning back from the table, he laid his hand to his sword hilt in deliberate emphasis. As King Henry's marshal, he was responsible for discipline in the hall and a sword was part of his daily apparel rather than an accoutrement of ceremony and war. "Of course," he added, rubbing a reflective thumb over the smooth curve of the pommel, "if I find out that Walter supplied five good palfreys and someone has been using my absence from court to line his own purse by switching them for nags..." He let the sentence hang unfinished.
Ralph licked his lips. "I am sure it is not the case, my lord."
John raised a skeptical eyebrow. Leaning forward again, he placed his hand upon the parchment, arching long fingers over the words. "I expect absolute loyalty and competence from my men and I reward it generously. Play me false or let me down and I will find out-and if you live to regret it, you will be unfortunate. Understood?" John was barely five and twenty, but had won the right to be the King's marshal by more than heredity. Three years ago, he had defended a challenge to his position in trial by combat and settled the matter so convincingly that no one had questioned his abilities to fight or administrate since.
"My lord, I will attend to the matter," Ralph answered, pale and set-lipped.
"See that you do." John picked up the parchment and studied the next entry concerning quantities of bread for feeding the royal hounds. Usually he would have delegated the scrutiny of such lists to a subordinate but having been absent from court dealing with personal matters of estate in the wake of his father's death, he needed to stamp his authority on his office like a seal impressing warm wax.
"Christ, how much bread does a dog-?" He stopped and looked up as a shadow blocked his light. "Sire?"
"Never mind that," said Robert FitzRoy, Earl of Gloucester, standing over the trestle, arms folded, the sun streak now warming his blood-red tunic. "Come outside. There's something you need to see."
John mentally sighed. It was pointless telling Gloucester he wanted to finish assessing these accounts before he went anywhere. As the King's eldest son, albeit bastard born, Gloucester wielded a powerful influence at court. It was in John's interests to be accommodating; besides, the man was a friend, ally, and sponsor.
He pushed to his feet. Gloucester was tall, but John topped him by the length of an index finger, although the Earl's broader frame made them look much of a size. John picked his hat off the board and tucked it through his belt, thereby conceding he was unlikely to return to his accounts this side of the dinner hour.
"My cousin Stephen has a new horse."
Pinning his cloak, John stepped around the trestle. "Take those tallies to my chamber," he commanded over his shoulder to Ralph, "and I want to see the military service receipts for the months I've been gone. I'll expect a report on what's been done about that walking dog meat in the stables before noon tomorrow."
"Yes, my lord." His deputy bowed, sweat beading his brow.
John quickened his pace to catch up with Robert, his stride long and confident.
"They know you're back," the latter remarked with amusement.
Mordant humor curved John's lips. "They had better do."
"You've found foul deeds hidden in the murk?"
John's smile deepened, putting creases in his cheeks, showing where one day harder lines would develop. "Not as yet. Some questionable horses and dogs that appear to be eating best wheaten bread in suspicious quantities, but nothing I cannot handle."
"And the women?"
"Nothing I cannot handle there either."
Robert laughed aloud and set his arm across John's shoulders. "I should hope not. Ah, it's good to have you back!"
The courtyard was a churn of noisy, organized chaos, signaling the imminent departure of the hunt. Amid misty clouds of breath and pungent aromas of horse and stable, men were mounting up or conversing in groups as they waited for their grooms. Dogs snuffled underfoot, or, quivering with anticipation, strained on taut leashes. John observed the rib-serrated flanks of a white gazehound and thought about the accounts he had just been reading.
A crowd had gathered to watch a ruddy fair-haired man putting a powerful roan stallion through its paces. Robert and John joined the group and stood with arms folded to watch the performance.
"Spanish," John said with an appreciative eye and felt a twinge of envy. As the King's marshal, he owned fine horses himself but a beast of this caliber was too rich for his purse. However, it was standard fare for Stephen, Count of Mortain, King Henry's nephew and so high in favor that he was flying above most other folk at court. Not that Stephen was haughty with other men because of it. John had heard Henry's daughter, the Empress Matilda, remark with contempt that Stephen would drink water with the horses like a common groom rather than quaff wine out of a precious goblet as a man of his rank ought to do.
Stephen made the horse rear and paw the air. A broad grin lit up his face and his eyes sparkled with pleasure. He brought the roan down to all fours and dismounted but only to spring back into the saddle facing backward. Then he scissored round to the fore and swept a flourish to his appreciative audience. He was so exuberant that it was impossible not to be caught up in his high spirits and John began to laugh and then applaud with the rest of the crowd.
Gloucester cupped his hands to shout at Stephen, "Have you ever thought of performing such tricks for a living?"
John glanced at the Earl, noting that his mirth was tinged with asperity. There was an edge of rivalry between Gloucester and his cousin Stephen. Both were magnates; both were close kin to the King. All the time they were slapping each other's backs and drinking together in the hall they were jostling for position and favor.
"Many times!" Stephen called back cheerfully. He gathered the reins and settled the horse, patting its neck, tugging its ears. "But then I would lose the joy."
"John has to earn his crust keeping the court concubines in order. I haven't seen any diminishing in his enthusiasm for the task, and it involves just as much sleight in the saddle as yours!" Robert retorted.
Stephen gave a knowing grin. "I wouldn't dare to compete with the anvils and hammers of a royal marshal on that score!" he quipped, to the laughter of all, for everyone knew these were the time-honored symbols of a marshal as well as a euphemism for the male reproductive equipment. John's reputation in the latter department was somewhat notorious and he did nothing to play it down. Now he merely flourished a sardonic bow.
Stephen's attention focused on a point beyond his audience. "The King is here," he said. "Best mount up or you'll be left behind." He nudged the roan toward a stocky, grizzle-haired man who had emerged from one of the lodging halls and was setting his foot to the stirrup of a handsome bay. A heavy gold clasp pinned his short hunting cloak at his shoulder. Two swaggering young men-Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, and his twin brother Waleran, Count of Meulan-accompanied him. They were Stephen's cronies and treated with suspicion by Robert of Gloucester because of their intimacy with his father the King. Meulan had proved a traitor in the past, but the King had forgiven him his transgressions and welcomed him back at court. Beaumont, the more circumspect of the two, cast an observant glance around as he took his courser's reins from a groom. John thoughtfully assessed their proximity to Henry. This was another area where he needed to focus following his absence. Every subtle change and nuance had to be taken into account in order to survive and advance at court.
Stephen greeted them all with natural bonhomie. John thought-with further admiration for the Count of Mortain-that such ebullience was also a way of opening doors and disarming men of their caution.
"You're riding out with us," Robert told John as he called up his mount and set his foot to the stirrup. "I've had your horse saddled." He snapped his fingers to a groom who led forward John's freckled gray courser.
John tugged his hat from his belt and pulled it down over his blond-brown hair. "Thank you, my lord," he said with muted enthusiasm.
Robert chuckled. "You don't mean it now." He tossed John a boar spear, which the latter caught mid-haft with a lightning reflex, "but you will in a while."
Cantering along a forest trail, the first autumn leaves glimmering from the trees in flakes of sunlit amber, the ground firm but springy under the gray's hooves, John realized Robert had been right. The powerful surge of his horse was exhilarating and the rich colors and deciduous scents of the autumn woods filled him with sensual pleasure.
The King was hunting hard, pushing his horse and the dogs to their limit, his cloak bannering out behind him and his body curled over his mount's neck like a wave. The beaters flushed a boar from a thicket and Henry was after it like the devil in pursuit of a soul, one hand to the reins, the other hefting a spear. John spurred after him with the rest of the hunt, ducking under tree branches, forcing his way through thorny bramble thickets. The thud of hooves upon forest mulch, the belling of hounds, and the hard breath of his horse were a joy to his ears. Count Stephen pushed past him on his new roan, the Beaumont twins charging behind accompanied by the King's cup-bearer William Martel. Robert of Gloucester scoured their heels, his mouth set in grim determination. Prudently, John reined back and gave room to Henry's constable, Brian FitzCount, lord of Wallingford. John was his deputy in the household and careful to keep on his good side. FitzCount acknowledged John's courtesy with a fisted wave as he spurred on amid a flurry of dogs.
The hunting horn sounded to John's left, but veered with the wind. He pivoted the gray toward it, but hastily drew on the rein and adjusted his grip on his spear as the undergrowth before him rustled with vigorous motion. An instant later three wild pigs broke from a deep thicket of bramble and ivy and charged past him so closely that his horse plunged and shied. He saw earth-smeared tushes, coarse rusty hair, and the moist gleam of snouts. Controlling his mount with the grip of his knees, he grasped the spear like a javelin and cast it with all his strength, piercing one of the boars behind the left shoulder to the full depth of the iron blade. The pig leaped and fell in a thresh of limbs and deafening squeals. The spear haft snapped off, leaving a bloody stump in the wound. John drew his sword and maneuvered the gray cautiously toward his victim. Even mortally injured, a wild boar was capable of eviscerating a dog and slashing a horse's leg to the bone. The boar struggled to rise, failed, shuddered, and was still.
As John dismounted, the forest around him filled with running dogs, beaters, and huntsmen on foot. In the distance, a horn was blowing for another kill-probably acknowledging the King's success. He gazed at his own prize and, as a dog-keeper whipped the hounds to heel and his heartbeat slowed, he suddenly grinned like a youth.
By the time the main hunt had turned back to investigate the second blowing of the mort, John was watching two beaters heave his prize across a pony's back.
"You outdo us all," King Henry told him, his smile exposing a crowd of chipped, life-worn teeth. His own trophy dangled limply over a pack saddle.
"Sire, I was fortunate and I had little choice."
"Perhaps not, but it won't harm your reputation for being a dangerous man to cross. Anyone who tackles a boar on his own deserves whatever fate deals to him-in your case, John FitzGilbert, an accolade."
"Thank you, sire," John replied with a grave bow. "Indeed, it was three," he added as he straightened, "but I am sorry to say that two escaped my spear and ran off in that direction."
Henry laughed and his eyes shone with a huntsman's relish. "Then you have a grain of prudence and it leaves more for the chase." He gestured to his attendants and spurred off in the direction John had indicated, the hunting horn blowing the away.
Stephen started to follow his uncle, but paused to lean down and slap John's shoulder. "Well done!" Genuine admiration gleamed in his blue eyes.
"It was the heat of the moment," John said with modest dismissal.
"Proves you don't need a Spanish horse to make an impression," Gloucester remarked acidly as he turned his own horse.
Another boar and two roebuck later, the hunters stopped at a pre-arranged clearing to replenish their energy with the victuals the King's attendants had gone ahead to prepare.
The hunting party fêted and teased John for bringing down a boar single-handed. He shrugged off the praise because open boasting was not in his nature; nevertheless, he was quietly pleased.
He was crouching by the fire pit, toasting a chunk of bread on a pointed stick, when Gloucester sauntered over to join him. "You know my sister is still in Rouen," he said casually after a moment.
John turned the stick, drawing the bread a little away from the heat. "No sign of reconciliation between her and Geoffrey then?" Shortly before he had left court to attend to his dying father and the affairs of his estate, the King's daughter Matilda had quarreled with her new husband, the adolescent Geoffrey of Anjou. The youth had sent her home to Normandy, saying he refused to live with such a termagant, let alone bed with her and beget an heir.
Robert turned his mouth down at the corners. "She's still saying that hell will freeze over before she'll go back to him and he's saying the same about having her back."
"And your father?"
"Gnashing his teeth in private but still striving for diplomacy. There's not a lot he can do without agreement from either side, is there?"
John removed the toasted bread from the stick. He had had some dealings with Matilda, who liked to style herself "Empress" and remind everyone that her first marriage had been to the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, by implication a real man of dignity and standing, not some spotty count's son more than ten years younger than herself. That the youth's father was now King of Jerusalem had not mellowed her attitude one whit. "No, but there are certain pressures he can bring to bear." John glanced eloquently toward the King, who was deep in conversation with Stephen of Mortain. The two stood close together in relaxed camaraderie, mirroring each other's body movements as they ate and drank. "He needs to." John bit into the crisp, brown crust. "He has no direct male heir from his marriages and even if he is hale for the moment, he is not young."
Robert rubbed the back of his neck and scowled. "Everyone swore to uphold my sister's right to the throne. We've all taken oaths of homage to her."
"With your father watching every move of every man, who would dare to refuse? Without him, it might be different." John had been in Rouen for the oath-taking in the great cathedral. His father had been alive then and had sworn allegiance, but the lands they had of the Marshalsea were insignificant and it was the pledges of the magnates that had mattered to Henry.
"What are you saying?"
"That if your father wants Matilda to sit in his place, it would be useful if there were a well-grown grandson or two by the time he starts to feel his years. Like it or not, my lord, men look to be ruled by another man, not a woman."
Robert made an impatient sound, but his gaze flickered toward his father and Stephen.
John speared another piece of bread and held it to the flames. "He's using Stephen to exert pressure on her, but sometimes you can't tell who's hunting whom. Every creature preys on something weaker than itself or aligns itself to take advantage."
John gestured around. "Look at the trees. Winter strips them bare. You can see every knot and crevice, every rotten branch and strong limb. But clad them in green and it is harder to tell. Depending on the season, they are the same but changed."
"What kind of answer is that?" Robert snapped. "You talk in foolish riddles."
John watched the bread begin to turn brown and said quietly, "Your grandsire was bastard begotten, but he wore a crown. Some say that-"
Robert stepped back as if John had struck him, color flooding his face. "I know what ‘some say' and if you are one of them I have misjudged your friendship. I will never take that road. Never!"
John pulled his stick away from the fire. "You misjudge me no more than you misjudge yourself, my lord."
Robert looked away. Adjusting the set of his cloak like a cat grooming ruffled fur, he stalked off without another word. John attended to his toasted bread and thought that Robert was vehement because the notion of reaching for the crown appealed to him at some deep level where he would never admit to it. Since childhood, it had been instilled in him that his father's heirs were those born of legitimate marriage. The world had changed since his grandfather, William the Bastard, had ruled Normandy and seized the English throne. Robert had lands, titles, and great wealth. His mother's relatives were all welcome at court. His father loved him dearly and kept him deep in his counsels. Even without a crown, the rewards were great and Robert's moral code would keep him walking that straight path, a willing servant to his father's will. Nevertheless, John supposed it was a great temptation to eye the gilded road running parallel and think that, but for the grace of God and the words of a priest, one might have been treading the miles of one's life shod in the purple of kingship. John knew which road he would have taken, but then it was easy to imagine from a distance and a different perspective.
John had been nineteen years old when a crone at the September fair in Salisbury had studied his hands and told him he would beget greatness-that one day a son of his would rule England. John had laughed in her wizened face. He was the son of a minor household serjeant who had thrust his way by cleverness, diligence, and loyalty into the position of royal marshal. John had the ambition and ability to build on such foundations, but he was certain they didn't come with a crown attached. The memory of that prediction brought an arid smile to his lips. Dusting crumbs from his hands, he rose from his crouch by the fire and went to question the kennel-keepers about the eating habits of the hounds.
The feast that followed the King's return from the hunt continued deep into the night and John was kept busy in his role of marshal of the court, maintaining order with his mace of authority. Men who desired audience with the King had first to pass him and his ushers. If Henry made a request to talk with a particular person, it was John's duty to see it done. Conversely, if the King wished to avoid someone, John and his men were responsible for making sure Henry was not troubled. Sometimes there were objections, which was why John wore his sword and cultivated a dangerous air. People didn't notice how young the King's marshal was. What they saw was the speed of his reactions and his ability to anticipate trouble and nip it in the bud.
By the time Henry retired to his chamber with a few select members of the court, including Robert of Gloucester, Stephen of Mortain, and the Beaumont brothers, the moon was a high white sliver in a star-spun sky. John's ushers had dealt with several drunkards, quelled a brawl between two young hotheads, disarming them of knives in the process, and escorted a bishop back to his lodging after he tripped over Waleran de Beaumont's dog and cracked his head on a trestle.
Satisfied that all was under control, John left the hall and walked to his one-roomed lodging near the stables. A glance as he strolled revealed that the lamps were still burning in the whores' domicile, but that was nothing unusual. Business would continue late into the night. He contemplated stopping by for a word, but decided it could wait until the morrow. He had a pile of tallies and parchments waiting his attention without adding the concerns of the court concubines to the workload.
Like the horses, the dogs, and the hawks, the royal prostitutes came within the marshal's remit. John had to see the women fed, clothed, housed, and paid for out of the exchequer. Many of the women were looking to become permanent mistresses and there was always fierce competition to join the royal household and seek such an opportunity. John was never short of applicants, although few won past his exacting standards. He well knew the tastes of the King and his magnates-his own come to that. A court prostitute had to have more than fine looks and the ability to give a man the ride of his life. She had to be socially adept and adaptable, and utterly, entirely discreet. John sometimes thought it would have been easier to collect a bucket of hens' teeth than find women of sufficient caliber.
Arriving at his lodging, John dismissed his chamberlain and squire. Most of his waking hours were spent in company, but he enjoyed moments to himself when he could snatch them. They gave him time to recoup and reflect; to be still and think at leisure. He draped his cloak across his coffer and hung his sword belt and scabbard on a wall hook. A flagon and a cup stood on a trestle under the shuttered window together with the pile of tallies and parchments from this morning. He poured wine, moved the lamp until he was satisfied with the fall of light upon his work area, and sat down with the sigh of a man letting go of one thing and preparing to tackle another.
He reached for a document lying to the side of the others, its lower edge tagged with Henry's seal. This one was personal business, not a routine matter of palfreys or bread for the hounds. His inner vision filled with the memory of the blushing girl he had seen at mass in the cathedral at Salisbury when he had been home attending to his father's affairs. Aline Pipard's father was recently deceased too, and John had bought her guardianship, which gave him the right to administer her estates and eventually sell her marriage to whomsoever he chose.
Sipping his wine, he contemplated the document, wondering if she was going to be worth the fee he had paid for her. He hadn't decided what he was going to do about the guardianship-sell the marriage on, or take the girl to wife himself. His father and hers had long been acquainted. He had known Aline from a distance since she was a little girl, but his association with her amounted to no more than a few casual meetings and glances in passing. His purchase was less concerned with family ties than with the available revenues from the Pipard lands and the knowledge that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. His acquisition was something to fall back upon should lean times arise. Thoughtfully, he rolled up the document, tied it with a length of silk cord, and having set it aside, commenced work on the routine lists and tallies waiting his attention.
John was on his second cup of wine and had just trimmed a fresh quill when a soft tap at the door interrupted him. He considered ignoring it, but the work was boring and he was in a mood for distraction-probably a female one to judge from the sound of the knock. Leaving his work, he went to open the door and was pleased to discover his assumptions correct. Without a word, he stood aside to let the woman enter the room. She moved to the hearth with fluid grace and turned to wait for him.
He dropped the latch, fetched another cup and poured her wine. "Mistress Damette," he said courteously. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" He addressed her by her working name. Her real one was Bertha and she was the youngest of six daughters belonging to an impoverished knight from the Avranchin. It was three years since she had left the enclave of court whores to become the concubine of an Angevin baron.
She responded with a throaty laugh and a knowing look as she accepted the wine. "You owe it to the fact that you are the King's marshal and I am in need of employment."
"I gathered as much." He picked up his own half-finished cup and leaned with feigned nonchalance against the trestle. "What happened?"
She pursed her lips at him. "Crusade. He took the Cross and forswore women. He was selling everything he could to raise the money to go and fight for Christ, so I grabbed my silks and furs and left before he had a chance to sell them too." Her voice developed a sultry edge. "Otherwise, I'd be here in naught but my shift." She put the wine down, unfastened her cloak, and draped it across the coffer on top of his own. The tight lacing of her gown accentuated every line and curve of her figure.
John looked her up and down. She had burnished dark hair and eyes to match. Lamp and firelight glanced upon orbit and satin cheekbone. His father had originally been responsible for admitting Damette to the court enclave and she had occasionally shared the senior marshal's bed, but never his. He had been a youth learning his trade back then, and even if she was of his years, she had been a deal less innocent. "An interesting notion," he said, "but you know the ways of the court and I'm afraid that ‘naked under the cloak' is one of the less original ploys these days."
Her eyes gleamed. "I think you'll find I have more to offer than that, my lord."
She stepped up to him, dipped her forefinger in his wine, and slowly rimmed his lips. "Experience." She trailed her hand languidly down his body from breastbone to groin, her touch lighter than a breath. "Skill."
Lust surged through him, hot and heavy as molten lead. "You know the rules; the dues owing." He set his arms to her waist and pulled her against him. The supple pressure of her body was exquisite.
"Oh yes, I know them...my lord marshal," Damette breathed. "You will have no cause for complaint on any score...I promise you."
Languorous in the aftermath of twice-taken release, feeling as if all sharp edges and discontents had been smoothed out, John folded his hands behind his head and studied the rafters. "How did you know to call me ‘my lord'?" he asked curiously
"Because your deputy told me your father was dead...I am sorry for that." Damette raised herself on one elbow. A rosy flush darkened her breasts and throat, revealing that the pleasure had not been his alone.
He said nothing. She hesitated, then leaned over and cupped his face on the side of her hand. "I am not sorry you have his position though."
The haze of satisfaction cleared from his eyes. "It's no use casting your line in my direction, sweetheart; I'm not a man for taking mistresses. I know too much to be snared by such bait."
She laughed and bent to kiss the corner of his mouth. "You may have the face of a sinning angel and a way between the sheets, but I'm not angling beyond mutual interest. You would demand too much-and so would I."
"That's about the measure of it-especially the last part." He stroked her hair to keep the moment light, then sat up and reached for his clothes.
"You shield yourself from people, don't you?"
John donned his shirt, rapidly followed by braies and hose. "Show me a courtier who doesn't." Padding from the bed, he returned to the trestle and the pile of work still waiting. He was tired, but he had learned to cope without sleep long ago. His father had been wont to say that the time to slumber was in the grave, and John had embraced the philosophy with a whole heart. He looked across at her. "I don't have to shield myself," he said. "The face I wear is the face beneath."
She rolled on to her stomach and turned toward him, slender ankles raised and crossed, dark hair spilling around her shoulders. "You'd be surprised."
"At what?" He sat down and began work.
"At what does lie beneath when you are put to the test. Can I stay until morning?"
"As long as you're quiet."
"I promise not to snore."
"That's not what I meant."
She made a face at him and John almost laughed, but managed to preserve an offhand demeanor.
Borrowing his comb from the coffer, she began to tidy and braid her hair, completely unselfconscious in her nudity. John occasionally glanced and admired. Firm, full breasts; long legs. Damette wouldn't stay long among the whores. She would attract another patron soon enough.
She worked at a tangle. "I know you do not want me to interrupt you," she said, "but you might be interested to know I spent two nights with Geoffrey of Anjou."
John lowered his quill and eyed her sharply.
"He's a handsome youth, the Empress's husband," she said. "Fast to the finish as you'd expect of his years, but a fresh bolt in the bow as soon as his first one's spent." She gave him a knowing smile before contemplating the ends of her gathered hair. "He says he's thinking of going on pilgrimage to Compostela and that he won't have his wife back for all the gold in England."
"You're certain he said that?"
"Of course I am. He's still too young to have learned discretion. If a man has finished futtering and does not wish to sleep, then often he wants to talk...and I am a very willing listener."
John shook his head. "Henry won't let him go to Compostela, at least not until this impasse over the marriage has been resolved. He needs his daughter and Geoffrey to beget heirs."
"Then perhaps Geoffrey is forcing the King's hand, or perhaps he is teasing. I gained the impression he's the kind who likes to throw sticks in the fire for the pleasure of watching them burn." She secured her braid with a red silk ribbon.
John gave her a speculative look. "You didn't want to make a bid to become Geoffrey's mistress then?"
She wrinkled her nose and laughed. "Oh no, he's far too fickle. For the moment he's a prickly youth who needs stroking and reassurance-although when he grows up, he might be worth it."
John continued with his work for a while, although his mind was split between the parchments and tallies of the marshal's accounts and what Damette had told him.
"I could be very useful to you," she offered, as if sensing the periphery of his thoughts. "Your father always considered that the things I heard and saw were a great asset to him."
John studied a tally without focusing on it. He realized now how much his father had protected him in keeping him away from Damette when he was Geoffrey of Anjou's age. "Then I too will be happy to consider."
"And the fee?"
"Negotiable." He put his head down over his work. She plainly knew just how far to push, for she lay down with her back to him and, pulling the coverlet high over her shoulder, at least feigned sleep.
John poured more wine and toasted her huddled form, his eyes lighting with dour humor. If nothing else, tonight's interlude had informed him that he was most certainly back at court.