London, 1558. Queen Mary is dead, and 25-year old Elizabeth ascends the throne. Summoned to court from exile abroad, Elizabeth's intimate spy, Brendan Prescott, is reunited with the young queen, as well as his beloved Kate, scheming William Cecil, and arch-rival, Robert Dudley. A poison attempt on Elizabeth soon overshadows her coronation, but before Brendan can investigate, Elizabeth summons him in private to dispatch him on a far more confidential mission: to find her favored lady in waiting, Lady Parry, who has disappeared during a visit to her family manor in Yorkshire.
Upon his arrival at the desolate sea-side manor where Lady Parry was last seen, he encounters a strange, impoverished family beset by grief, as well as mounting evidence that they hide a secret from him. The mystery surrounding Lady Parry deepens as Brendan begins to realize there is far more going on at the manor than meets the eye, but the closer he gets to the heart of the mystery in Vaughn Hall, the more he learns that in his zeal to uncover the truth, he could be precipitating Elizabeth's destruction.
From the intrigue-laden passages of Whitehall to a foreboding Catholic manor and the deadly underworld of London, Brendan must race against time to unravel a vendetta that will strike at the very core of his worlda vendetta that could expose a buried past and betray everything he has fought for, including his loyalty to his queen.
The Tudor Vendetta is the third volume in the Spymaster Chronicles series by C.W. Gortner.
About the Author
C.W. GORTNER is the author of the acclaimed historical novels The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. He holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis on Renaissance Studies from the New College of California. He travels extensively to research his books, and has experienced life in a medieval Spanish castle and danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall. A contributor to the Historical Novels Review and Solander and an advocate for animal rights and environmental issues, he currently lives in Northern California.
Read an Excerpt
The Tudor Vendetta
By C. W. Gortner
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 C. W. Gortner
All rights reserved.
She stood before me, clad in black velvet, her mane of blond hair tangled about her face. Shadows embraced her; as she moved toward the cot where I lay as if paralyzed, her long hands reached up to the lacings of her bodice and she began to undo them, one by one.
I could not move; I could barely breathe. Desire raged through me. I heard myself moan; that one, weak sound crumbled my resistance. She was so close, I already anticipated raveling my hands in her lush hair, feeling the warmth of her tongue in the whirlpool of our mouths and the current of her touch as she yanked at my clothes, pulling down my hose to grasp my hardness.
"I want to know something other than fear," I heard her whisper. "I want to feel desire, if only this once." Her gown was now unlaced. I watched with my heart in my throat, knowing in some dark part of my soul that if I did this, I would never forget or escape it. I must live with the remorse until the end of my days with the betrayal of the woman I truly loved, who waited for me even now, far away and unaware.
But as the dark velvet of her gown pooled at her feet and I beheld her flawless skin, her rose-tipped breasts, and ribs woven like lyre strings under her pallor, I couldn't think anymore. She lowered herself upon me and I pushed inside her roughly, in fury, feeling myself engorge even more as I coaxed pleasure from her, until she bucked her hips to meet my stride.
My seed gushed forth with breath-shattering suddenness. She clenched herself about me, making me cry out. And as I shuddered, our heat subsiding like smoke from a doused fire, I felt her cold hand pressed upon my chest and looked up to meet her eyes as she lifted her hidden knife swiftly, its edge gleaming, before she brought it down, plunging into my heart—
With my shout still on my lips, I bolted upright in my narrow bed. Gasping, struggling for reality as it opened around me in jagged pieces, I kicked my covers aside and pulled myself to the edge of the bed, lowering my face and cradling it for a moment in my hands.
"Breathe," I told myself. "It's not real. It was a dream. She is gone. Dead." Coming to my feet, the remnants of the nightmare sticking to me like cobwebs, I realized my nightshirt was drenched, soaked in sweat. I yanked it off and padded naked to the low table with its copper basin and pitcher, not feeling the pervasive cold until I tipped the pitcher over my mouth and drank, the icy water hitting my belly and making me tremble.
Turning to the bed, I pulled the scratchy wool blanket off it and wrapped it around me, hunching my shoulders as I gazed past the garret's narrow confines to the small, warped-glass window set like a lopsided eye in the wall. Outside, it was still dark, the spires and peaked rooftops of this foreign city a spiked silhouette against the night sky. As I sat there, huddled, the memory of my betrayal fading back into the depths where I had consigned it so I could keep on living, the indigo night began to lighten, a creeping pink-gold flush announcing dawn's arrival.
How long had it been? Sometimes, I almost forgot. Now, as I wrestled with the memory of what I had done, I forced myself to remember. Almost four years. Four long years since I had fled from my enemies, leaving everyone and everything I knew behind.
I had not left England willingly. Following my last harrowing assignment at court, where I had lost my cherished squire and nearly my own life, I managed to safeguard Elizabeth, but not enough to persuade her half sister Mary from sending her to the Tower. After two months of terrifying imprisonment, Elizabeth was released and sent under guard to a remote manor. My beloved Kate stayed by her side but I had not been able to get near them. The queen had ordered me from court and I'd taken refuge in the country home of my mentor, William Cecil, whose informants kept us apprised of Elizabeth's circumstances even as Mary embarked on a horrific persecution of her Protestant subjects in her zeal to please God and her husband, Philip of Spain. When word came that Mary believed herself with child, the noose tightened again around me. Her trusted adviser, the Imperial ambassador Simon Renard, whom I had previously outwitted, sent men on the hunt for me, and Cecil secretly arranged to send me here, to Calvinist-dominated Switzerland, where an agent of his, Francis Walsingham, resided after having fled England upon Mary's accession.
I let out a shivering breath, the knot in my chest starting to dissolve. Why now? Why, after all this time, had I once again dreamed of Sybilla Darrier? I had barely thought of her in so many months, even as I lived every hour of every day with the consequences of her actions.
Why did she haunt me still?
The minutes slipped past. I could not return to sleep. Once I heard our housekeeper, Gerthe, rattling about downstairs, stoking the fires and preparing the table for breakfast, I set aside the blanket to wash hastily with the water that remained in the pitcher. Freezing once more, I clambered into my nondescript uniform of black hose, breeches, and simple doublet—the garb of a Calvinist merchant-apprentice, my disguise.
"Up already?" asked Gerthe brightly in German, when she saw me enter the small chamber that served as our hall. She was a plump, industrious woman of indeterminate age, not remarkable in any way. I had seen a hundred like her every day in the streets, servants to a hundred households that appeared, at least on the surface, exactly like ours. Walsingham had chosen her because of it, I suspected, just as he no doubt ensured her loyalty by taking her occasionally to his bed. She had that warm, slept-in look about her this morning.
I gave her a smile, sitting on the stool at the table as she served me fresh goat cheese, brown bread, and a cup of mulled beer. "Is Master Thorsten awake?" I asked her, between mouthfuls, using Walsingham's alias.
She nodded, occupying herself at the hearth. "He went out early. He said you were to wait for him in his study." She glanced over her shoulder. "Go on. Eat more. You look pale, Master Johann. You must keep up your strength. Winter is here and I've a feeling it's going to be a hard one. It snowed a little last night already."
My alias was ridiculous, but Walsingham had insisted that John was such a common name, no one would doubt it. As my command of German and Swiss was poor at best, he had to pass me off as a cousin's son, obliged to leave my native land because of the Catholic persecution. Those who fled Rome's depredations were welcome in Basel and, for the most part, went unquestioned. By now, every Protestant in Europe was aware of the horrors perpetuated by Mary Tudor against their brethren in England.
"In his study" was Walsingham's code for the chamber where he had taken to teaching me the intricacies of our craft. Finishing my meal, I thanked Gerthe and climbed back upstairs, past my room and down the hall, to the last door. I took the key from the inner pocket of my doublet and unlocked it. When I stepped inside, I found Walsingham waiting.
"Gerthe said ..." I began, and he nodded. "I know. Close the door. I came back while she was fetching water from the well. Come and sit. It's time to begin."
His eyes, cold as onyx, stared at me. It never failed to unnerve me, that piercing look of his, like a coiled serpent about to strike. His spidery hands hung from the unlaced sleeves of his black doublet. Small-boned, with stark, angular features, permanently shadowed eyes, and a manicured beard, he appeared ageless, though he was not yet thirty. To those who did not know him, he would have seemed innocuous in his unrelieved black and skullcap perched upon his prematurely balding head—garb better suited to a Huguenot pastor than a man in secret service to Cecil, making me wonder why I had ever feared him. I first met Walsingham when I was still a callow squire to Robert Dudley, newly come to court. He had acted as go-between during my first assignment and I had found him a catlike and untrustworthy menace. Yet when I arrived after my voyage across the Channel and ride across the Low Countries, Walsingham had received me politely, if not with overt warmth.
I soon realized my mistake. He might not pose a threat to me, but he was dangerous, nonetheless. Once I had settled into his narrow gabled house, located in the merchant section of the city where international gossip was rife, he proceeded to impart a chilling mastery of death and survival. He had traveled extensively in the years since he had left England, into the courts of Italy and other, more distant lands, where intrigue was endemic and methods for disposing of one's foes both plentiful and imaginative.
He had no patience for error. I was there to learn, he said, and he challenged me almost at once with obscure texts and puzzles that required feats of calculation and memory. He taught me to write with both my left and right hands, including writing backward so that my message could be read only in a mirror. He set me to daily sessions to hone my skills with the sword and poniard, making me undergo grueling hours of practice that left my thighs and arms burning with exhaustion. Even more exacting was the mysterious art of how to empty myself of sensation through practices employed, according to him, by assassins in the Far East. He taught me to how to count each breath until I slowed my blood to a crawl in my veins, then had me sit naked and immobile before an open window exposed to winter's snowy blast, with only my breath to kindle heat in my limbs. He made me walk barefoot over strewn glass without acknowledging pain and conquer warrens of obstacles he prepared at night in the lanes outside to build my stamina. My body was his machine, which he set to stalking strangers and uncovering their secrets without them ever knowing I was there. I was astonished by how much I could learn about a person when they believed they weren't being watched, and appalled by the acts of cruelty and vice I witnessed—all of which, Walsingham assured me, were necessary fodder for blackmail.
Only once did I refuse him, when he ordered me to swim the width of the Rhine, insisting I overcome my aversion to water. Narrowing his eyes at me as I shook my head, he intoned: "Any weakness could be your undoing."
"I'll take my chances," I retorted. Because no matter how much he lectured on the importance of subduing our emotional frailties while conquering the inherent resistance of our bodies, I would never willingly brave another plunge into deep water.
Despite his lack of praise or encouragement, in time I began to realize he was impressed with me. I'd come to a land where the language gargled in my ears, a city where I knew nothing and no one; though only twenty-five, I was already a veteran of two missions in Elizabeth's defense and had relinquished any hope of having a normal existence. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I would excel no matter the cost. I had been at the mercy of those who would see me dead. When the time came, I must be ready.
As Cecil had told me, to be a spy was my fate.
Now, I saw on the table before Walsingham a plain wood casket, its lid open to reveal rows of identical cork-stoppered vials. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. This was his latest lesson in torment, which he had been subjecting me to for several weeks now. Taking my seat, I waited as he extracted a bottle, uncorked it, and set it before me.
I picked it up, brought it to my nostrils. Taking a deep inhale, but not so deep that anything could enter my lungs, I focused my entire being on what my sense of smell revealed.
"Lemon," I said at length. "And musk. ..." I hesitated, trying to decipher something murky within the other smells, tantalizing yet elusive. What was it? I knew this scent. I had smelled it before. Was it part of a perfume? Or was it the sign of something venomous?
Walsingham's voice broke into my thoughts. "Poison or perfume? You don't have all day to deduce its contents. In most cases, if it's poison, you'll have less than a minute before the intended victim dies."
I lifted my eyes, staring hard at him. I had experienced the horror of his statement all too vividly. I had held a boy, my friend and squire, Peregrine, in my arms as he perished because I had not acted fast enough. Walsingham knew it, of course. He used it to his advantage to prod me into an emotional reaction.
"You shove this at me and expect me to decipher it in—what? Five seconds?" I said, knowing as I spoke that I was doing precisely what he intended. "It's perfume."
"It is not. And you must decipher it in less than five seconds." His bony finger tapped the sample before me. "Almond," he stated and I sagged in my chair. "Yes," he went on, with that insufferable superiority I'd come to dislike even more than his blank slate of a face, "most common poisons will smell faintly of almond, if you train yourself sufficiently to detect it. Though, of course, there are exceptions."
"But this wasn't one of them," I said.
He pursed his lips, retrieving the sample and returning it to the wooden casket. His hand hovered over the rows in search of his next selection. Poison or perfume?
Abruptly, I pushed back from the table. "Enough. I can't do this. My nose is still clogged from all the smells you had me work on yesterday."
Though he had perfect control over his expression, so that he often appeared more stone than flesh, I discerned mordant amusement in his gaze. Finally, he said, "Will you feel thus, I wonder, on the day you're called upon to defend our queen? This is what we do, Prescott. We are intelligencers. We cannot concede defeat even when we are weary, because our life is nothing compared to the one we must protect. You almost failed her last time and she barely survived it. Now, you must sacrifice everything you feel and think, if you're to become her weapon."
I gritted my teeth. Loathe as I was to admit it, he was right. I had nearly failed, and in the process been obliged to shed the last illusion I had that I might retain any semblance of the man I had been. Too much had happened. I'd been the cause of too much loss. The memory of Sybilla naked in my chamber, a siren of deceit, returned to grip me in a vise.
If I had been better prepared, she would never have destroyed as much as she had.
Peregrine might still be alive.
Tugging at my doublet, I turned to the narrow window of this bare room where I'd spent so many hours in sweltering heat or frigid cold, with this man for whom I bore no affection. As I gazed out onto the city, a sudden pang overcame me. I missed England. I missed it with everything I had inside me, though my life there had been rife with lies and sorrow, though I was as much a stranger in my own country as I was here. I missed the green of the hills, the majestic oaks, and the silver rain. Most of all, I missed Kate, even if I knew I could hold no claim on her anymore, not after what I had done.
"We bring our regrets with us wherever we go," Walsingham said from behind me, with that uncanny ability he had of discerning my thoughts. When he first did it, I had thought it an eerie coincidence. By the fifth time, I began to think he was a seer. Now, I knew it was but another of his sleights of hand, a trick he had perfected after years of studying the unspoken turmoil in those around him, while he stayed aloof.
I chuckled. "Am I still so obvious? I must be such a disappointment."
"Only to me," he said dryly. I heard the rustling of paper. Drawing a breath, I turned around, bracing myself for another endless day of unintelligible inscriptions I'd be expected to unravel. Besides the detection of poison, it was my most persistent challenge, the decoding of ciphers, and he knew it. He told me that educated men like me had a much harder time training their eye to see past the haphazard randomness of a cipher to the inevitable structure underneath.
"Every code has a flaw," he said. "None is invincible. But we allow its chaos to confuse and overwhelm us, just as its creator intended. We forget that if one man devised it, so can another man undo it."
I found it hardly reassuring, not when I faced a page that looked as if a rat had scampered over it with ink-stained paws, but I had nothing else to do and resigned myself to this next task, at which I would labor all day until supper, followed by—
My heart leapt. Walsingham held a paper with a broken seal. "A letter," he said. "From my lord Cecil." When he saw my frozen stance, his lips twitched as if he found himself on the verge of a rare smile. "I thought to wait until we finished for the day. Evidently, we have."
He extended the paper. Snatching it from him, I devoured its contents with my eyes, then, realizing it was composed in Cecil's habitual cipher, made myself slow down and read again, carefully unpicking the code that I had by now committed to memory.
Excerpted from The Tudor Vendetta by C. W. Gortner. Copyright © 2014 C. W. Gortner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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