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Nonsuch Palace rang with merriment and music on this long winter night, for 21 February 1580 marked the birth of Anne Isabella, Princess of Wales and Queen Elizabeth’s sole heir to the English throne. This year was a particularly grand celebration, for Anabel, as she was known to her intimates, had reached the age of eighteen. The courtyards, ballrooms, and corridors of Henry VIII’s delicately wrought Nonsuch Palace bubbled with not only celebration, but speculation. Elizabeth had always kept her daughter closely guarded and at one remove from her court. But now that Anabel was eighteen, surely the queen must begin to give serious thought to her daughter’s future consort.
Lucette Courtenay had wished Anabel well earlier in the day and did not feel compelled to fight her way through tonight’s flatterers simply to lay particular claim to her childhood friend. Anyway, Pippa and Kit were both at her side. Lucette’s twin siblings would be eighteen themselves within the week and they had always taken Anabel as one of their own, a trio adept at going their own way and charming themselves out of trouble when necessary. At twenty-two, Lucette felt herself much more than four years their elder.
Her brother Stephen caught her eye as she turned away. “Leaving already?” he asked, his deep voice so much like Dominic’s that it always startled her.
“You know I’m not interested in festivities as such. Besides, I’ve been summoned.”
“A private assignation?” He might have been teasing. “Should I follow at a discreet distance to guard your honour?”
“I’m quite capable of guarding my own honour,” she retorted. “Not that Dr. Dee is likely to threaten it.”
He laughed softly as she left.
Slipping through palace corridors that became decreasingly populated the farther she moved away from England’s royals, Lucette did not bother to wonder why Dr. Dee had sent for her. John Dee had been her tutor and mentor since she was fourteen, and Lucette was accustomed to his unusual demands. He might have anything to say to her tonight: from a debate on whether “algeber” or “algebar” was the correct term for that field of mathematics to a request to sight the stars with him. She hoped it wasn’t the latter. It was really very cold outdoors, and not that much warmer in the tower room up the four flights of spiral stairs that she climbed now. She was resigned to nearly anything.
But when Lucette knocked and was told to come in, she found herself very surprised indeed. Dr. Dee awaited her, as expected, but so did another man, one who stood with his back to the fire so that his figure was outlined in hazy light. She knew that figure, as did everyone at England’s court and many outside it: Francis Walsingham. Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary and intelligencer.
Severe in his black clothing and somewhat devilish with his pointed beard, Walsingham said, “Welcome, Lady Lucette. And thank you for coming.”
“I didn’t come for you,” she replied, only realizing her rudeness as she spoke. She pressed her lips tightly together, determined not to be shaken.
Amusement ghosted through Walsingham’s eyes as John Dee said mildly, “Don’t let’s stand on ceremony, my dear. Be seated, and hear Sir Francis out.”
What else could she do? One did not flout the requests of Francis Walsingham. Besides, she trusted Dr. Dee, as much as she trusted anyone, and knew he would not be involved in subterfuge if he did not think it necessary.
Lucette let her amber-coloured skirts bell around her as she sat. She was accustomed to simpler gowns and adornments, but one could not grow up Minuette Courtenay’s daughter without learning how to use even fabric to one’s advantage. Not that she had ever acquired her mother’s instinctive grace.
“What may I do for you, Master Secretary?” she asked coolly.
“You do not consider that perhaps I may be interested in doing something for you?”
She tilted her head thoughtfully. “You do not engage with those who cannot be useful to you in some way. And as I have never yet done you any favours of which I am aware, then there is nothing that you could owe me.”
Walsingham inclined his head, again with that faint air of amusement that managed to highlight his intensity rather than diminish it. “You are your mother’s daughter,” he murmured.
There had been a time when that would have been the highest praise Lucette craved. But now she heard only the unspoken corollary: Your father’s daughter, on the other hand . . .
Before she had to ask again, Walsingham sat across from her and proceeded to business. “You have been invited to France by Charlotte Bertran. I would very much like you to accept her invitation.”
Now doubly surprised, Lucette said, “I have not even spoken of that at home yet. How did you know?” But the answer was evident. “Ah, because you have read my letters. Is that a long habit of yours?”
“No. But Charlotte Bertran is the daughter of Renaud LeClerc. And I am, shall we say, interested in anything from that quarter just now.”
“Why? Surely you do not expect to turn anyone in the LeClerc household to your service.”
“It is your service that interests me.”
Lucette’s gasp was half laugh, half shock. She looked from Walsingham to John Dee, inscrutable as always in the candlelight, then back. “You want me to turn intelligencer? I am a woman.”
John Dee interjected in his quiet, thoughtful manner. “If that is your sole objection, then you should hear Sir Francis out.”
She was quick enough to grasp why, and the further shock of it drove her to her feet. “You view the LeClercs as enemies, and think that they will not expect a woman to unearth their secrets.”
Walsingham rose more slowly, regarding her with an air of disinterest she did not believe. “Nicolas LeClerc is a widower, and Julien has never married. Charlotte made it clear in her letter that she would like to match you with one of her brothers. Why would they suspect a young woman with such long ties to their family—a woman actually born in their household—of spying?”
“They would not, because I will not do it.”
“Even if it were a matter of life and death?”
“I do not trifle in other than matters of life and death, my lady. I have cause for concern in the LeClerc household and would be as happy to have those concerns dismissed as confirmed. I could approach it in another manner, but it would take longer and be less certain.”
“No,” Lucette said decisively. “As you called me my mother’s daughter, then you know that my family does not meddle in politics.”
“Not even at the queen’s command?”
“Her Majesty would never command this.”
“Are you certain?”
Drawing herself up to her full five and a half feet, Lucette said firmly, and daringly, “If Queen Elizabeth has a request for me, she can ask me herself.”
She left without being dismissed, fury at Walsingham’s impertinence mixed with a less laudable and less comfortable emotion: curiosity.
It had always been her besetting sin, and as Lucette swept through the freezing corridors of Nonsuch Palace she admitted to herself that her interest had been engaged and she would be a little disappointed if nothing more came of it.
“She declined?” Elizabeth asked, before Walsingham had even finished bowing.
“She did. She has something of her mother’s tongue about her, but her temper—”
“I know all about Lucette’s temper,” Elizabeth interrupted drily. It was Will’s temper, which meant it would cool as swiftly as it flared.
“The lady more or less dared you to ask her yourself.”
“I told you it would come to that.” The queen waved away an attendant offering an array of sweets and gestured to Walsingham to sit. “Are you certain involving her is the best course?”
“Absolutely.” Walsingham was accustomed to the queen revisiting decisions already made, and he listed his arguments succinctly once more. “No one will think twice about Lucette Courtenay visiting her family’s longtime friends in France, especially considering that she was born there. Charlotte is clearly anxious to match the girl with one of her brothers, so Lucette will have every reason and opportunity to get close to both of them.”
“You have not told her why, or that you have a particular interest in Julien LeClerc?”
“I will not tell her why until she agrees—and about Julien, I will tell her nothing at all. I need her to make up her own mind.”
Elizabeth drummed her fingers on the tabletop, tempted to delay but knowing that another opportunity so perfect might never present itself. “Then I suppose it’s time to exercise my royal prerogative and see how far Lucette will allow herself to be commanded.”
“Your Majesty will keep in mind the delicacy of the situation.”
“A French plot to assassinate me? I am every day aware of the delicacy of the situation, Walsingham. It is why the Princess of Wales will leave court within the week. It would not do to keep her too accessible.”
“The princess is not, I take it, in agreement with that plan?” Walsingham asked disingenuously, for those at court who had not heard Anne’s outrage for themselves had quickly been apprised by those who had. Elizabeth knew her daughter to have been named well, for she had every single bit of her Boleyn grandmother’s temper and quickness to take offense.
“Princess Anne will do as she must, as she was born to do. She may blame me for her position, but I do not think she is in a hurry to give up its privileges. Until Philip accepts the inevitable and divorces me, there is no chance of him having another heir and Anne will continue to be a pawn in Spanish politics.”
Walsingham eyed her narrowly, and Elizabeth stared him down, daring him to accuse her of delaying the divorce herself. But he merely cleared his throat and said, “The sooner we have eyes in the LeClerc household, the better.”
“Consider it accomplished,” Elizabeth said. “I know how to bring Lucette to heel.”
But there was a slight hollow inside when she pondered the girl’s features in memory—though not really a girl any longer, she mused. Twenty-two. Bright and stubborn and wary and innately generous . . . and with those wide blue eyes that had the power to unsettle the Queen of England more than she had ever allowed anyone to know.
Though Lucette had known Her Majesty, Elizabeth, Queen of England, Ireland, and France as long as she could remember, to be in her presence was to be intimately aware of power. Who had it, and who didn’t.
Lucette had been waiting in the queen’s privy chamber for a quarter hour when the queen swept in, snapping her fingers at her attendants to leave them. Lucette curtsied, eyes lowered so that all she could see was the bottom few inches of the queen’s sapphire and gold gown, intricately wrought with embroidered scallops and whirls.
“Rise,” Elizabeth said, “and join me.”
Lucette perched on the edge of a seat and waited warily. The queen rested her expressive hands on the gilded chair arms, and pondered Lucette with a remote expression that might have concealed anything from curiosity to disdain.
Tall and slender, the pale-skinned, red-haired queen never seemed to age. Save for the fine lines around her eyes and mouth, Elizabeth looked much younger than her forty-six years. Even if the paleness of her skin owed something to art, and even though her glorious hair was more often a wig these days than not, the Queen of England seemed almost a mythical figure: a fairy queen of boundless youth and wisdom.
Elizabeth’s tone was all exaggerated patience. “Walsingham tells me you are disinclined to aid the crown. Might your monarch know why?”
“I am disinclined to repay friendship with betrayal, Your Majesty. To pretend that I am angling for a husband while following the path of mere rumors—”
“It is not rumor,” Elizabeth said flatly. “Not this time. Three men were arrested last week in Calais, attempting to cross to England. They carried coded letters that my government deciphered. A most definite plot is under way, aimed not merely at my throne but at my life.”
Lucette hesitated. “Might I ask why the government suspects the LeClerc household? I can think of no more honourable man than Renaud LeClerc, or one less likely to be embroiled in secret plots.”
“Except perhaps the Duke of Exeter?” Elizabeth asked with a touch of humour. “I agree. It is not Renaud himself we suspect.”
“Surely if one of his boys were involved in anything so dangerous, their father would know it.”
“His sons are not boys, Lucette, as you are no longer a child yourself. They are men, full-grown and tested in the service of a Catholic government. Give over any childish romantic fantasies you have and consider the matter logically!”
“Is that why you want me, for my logic? Or is it not simply because I am a woman who will not be suspected and can . . . what? Seduce the brothers into spilling their secrets?” She asked it plainly enough, but wondered briefly how exactly one went about seducing secrets.
Elizabeth stood up and, from a coffer on a side table, took a sheet of parchment that she handed over. “Look at this list, Lucette. Take your time. Study each word and phrase, and when you are ready, tell me what you see.”
Reluctantly, Lucette accepted the parchment, densely scrawled with distinctive handwriting that she recognized as Walsingham’s, and did as she’d been bidden. It was not an especially coherent document, nothing so useful as a complete sentence, just names and phrases and dates compiled without apparent rhyme or reason.
Despite her reluctance, Lucette’s mind began to work. She was incapable of refusing a puzzle, and John Dee had used just such apparently chaotic collections in order to teach her how to order information. How to separate the important from the useless and the critical from the merely important. Patterns were instinctive to her way of viewing the world, as natural to her as breathing, and so her eyes skimmed lightly over the sheet, hardly knowing that her breathing slowed and her attention became so inward that she appeared almost to be in a trance. In that manner, the words and phrases rearranged themselves.
“Oh, yes,” she murmured, hardly aware of speaking aloud. “There it is.”
The queen’s voice pulled her forcefully back into the physical world. “There what is?”
“The pattern that has Your Majesty and Walsingham so worried. The flashpoint of trouble that you set me looking for although you have already discerned it.”
The queen did not dispute that this had been a test of some sort, but merely raised a cool eyebrow in that smooth, white face. “And?”
“Mary Stuart and Princess Anne. France and Spain. Two foreign interests dangerous enough in themselves, but exponentially more devastating if combined in one threat. It looks very much as though a narrow web is being woven between those two interests.”