Read an Excerpt
London, December 1552
“What I propose is a matter of some refinement, my dear sir. A scheme of some complexity.” Antoine de Noailles paused to lift a silver chalice to his lips. He drank with an assessing frown, then nodded his satisfaction and gestured to his companion to drink from his own chalice. He waited to see if the wine found favor with his guest before he continued speaking. “Yes, a complex scheme, a two-pronged scheme. Very neat.” Noailles smiled happily. “One perfectly suited to your own particularly delicate methods, Owen.”
Owen d’Arcy contented himself with a raised eyebrow. Antoine de Noailles, the French ambassador to the English court of the young king Edward VI, delighted in taking his time when revealing to his master spy an intrigue that he considered especially ingenious.
Owen d’Arcy was a tall man, lithe and slender, and when necessary as deadly as the rapier in the chased silver scabbard at his waist. His black eyes were never still, they missed nothing, and the fertile brain behind them ceaselessly absorbed, sorted, and acted upon the information they transmitted. He knew now without being told that the ambassador was about to drop a choice plum in his lap. He sipped his wine and waited.
“I believe that the king is dying,” Noailles said calmly. “His Privy Council think to keep the truth of the young man’s health a state secret, but . . .” He shrugged and smiled at the absurdity. “The issue, of course, is what happens on the boy’s death.”
“The crown goes to Mary,” Owen said, his voice surprisingly dark and rich with a musical lilt to it.
“It certainly should,” the ambassador agreed. “King Henry so decreed it. After Edward, if the boy has no issue, Mary is next in line, Elizabeth is second.” He paused, and again Owen waited with no sign of impatience.
“I fear, however, that our friend Northumberland, the Grand Master of the Realm, has some other plans,” the ambassador said in a musing tone.
The two men were standing before the fire in a small paneled chamber in the ambassador’s residence at Whitehall. Outside, snow was falling softly, dulling the ceaseless sound of traffic along Whitehall, the clop of hooves, the clang of iron wheels on the cobbles, the shouts of barrow boys.
The chamber was lit only by the fire, and a many-branched candelabrum on the long table that stood against the wall opposite the clerestory window. In the shadowy gloom the ambassador’s scarlet gown glowed in vivid contrast to his companion’s black velvet, and when he moved his plump hands the firelight caught the jeweled rings on his fingers in flashes of green and red and turquoise.
Owen left the fire and refilled his chalice from the flagon on the table. “Do we know what Northumberland is planning?”
Noailles extended his chalice to be filled. “That, my dear Owen, brings us to the crux of the matter.”
“Ah.” Owen tipped the flagon and watched the red stream of wine arc into the silver vessel. “This is where I come in?”
“Precisely.” Noailles turned back to the fire. “There’s a certain woman who attends Princess Mary who is particularly well placed to provide us with the most intimate information about what goes on in the princess’s household. She is a trusted confidante and a party to Mary’s thoughts and intentions.”
Noailles glanced over his shoulder at Owen, who still stood beside the table in the flickering candlelight, his black eyes sharp and alert, belying the impassivity of his countenance.
“You could perhaps become . . . shall we say, acquainted . . . with the lady,” Noailles suggested. “It’s a task most suited to your talents, I believe.” He chuckled, his round face shining.
Owen did not respond to the ambassador’s amusement. “And the other prong to this attack?” He took a sip of wine, regarding the ambassador thoughtfully over the lip of the chalice.
Noailles beamed. “Ah, yes. Here lies the beauty of it. The lady is closely connected to a man, her stepbrother in fact, who is a trusted friend of the Duke of Suffolk and his family. I hardly need tell you that Suffolk is an intimate of Northumberland’s. Their interests lie closely bound, and whatever Northumberland is planning, Suffolk will be a part of it. ‘Tis not unreasonable to assume that Robin of Beaucaire is privy to some of their secrets.”
“And we assume that the lady in question exchanges confidences with her stepbrother,” Owen stated, setting down his chalice. He walked to the window, his short black velvet gown swinging from his shoulders.
“They are very intimate and they spend a great deal of time together when they’re both in London.”
“As happens to be the case now, I presume.” Owen looked down at the street below. The snow was falling heavily.
“Yes, both Princess Mary and Suffolk are in their London residences for the Christmas festivities. I understand that Edward ordered his sister’s presence. She’ll find it hard to celebrate a Christmas mass under the king’s eye.”
Owen drummed a finger on the glass. The religious differences between the fanatically Protestant King Edward and his equally fanatical Catholic half sister Mary were of little interest to him except where they impinged upon his work. He was much more concerned with the lady who was to be his quarry.
“Exactly how intimate are the lady and her stepbrother?” He turned back to his companion.
Noailles offered a very Gallic shrug. “I’ve heard no whispers of scandal, but they are very close. And Lord Robin at the ripe age of twenty-eight has never married.”
“And the lady. What’s her situation?”
“The Lady Pen has been a widow close to three years now. Her marriage to Philip, the Earl of Bryanston, was promoted by the king and Princess Mary, and to all intents and purposes seemed happy. But Philip died and she gave birth some months later to a stillborn child. Her brother-in-law inherited the earldom and is ruled, it’s generally believed, by his mother. He’s something of a dolt.” The ambassador’s lip curled. “Like most inhabitants of this nasty island.”
Owen smiled slightly. The Frenchman was not happy in his present diplomatic position and made no secret of it to his intimates.
Noailles drank wine and then continued. “The Bryanstons have little or nothing to do with Philip’s widow. She lays no claim to any part of her late husband’s estate. She doesn’t even take the title of dowager countess, leaving that to the sole use of her mother-in-law. ‘Tis clear there’s no love lost there.”
Owen nodded. He ran a hand over his clean-shaven chin. “Is the lady ripe for plucking?”
“When have you ever failed to persuade the fruit to fall from the tree?” Noailles smiled.
Owen did not return the smile. “In the interests of business,” he said somewhat curtly.
“Oh, of course, only in the interests of business,” the ambassador agreed hastily. Owen d’Arcy’s private life was a closed book, or had been since that unfortunate business with his wife. As far as Noailles knew, the man lived the life of a monk except when seduction suited his purposes. And then he was a true artist.
“Is she pleasing, this Lady Pen?” A frown crossed Owen’s black eyes. “A strange name. Is that truly how she’s called?”
“Penelope . . . but I’ve never heard her called anything but Pen, even by the princess. ‘Tis a family name and she’s very close to her family. I think you’ll find her pleasing. She’s not strikingly beautiful but has a certain sweetness of countenance. She’s of middle height, neither fat nor thin.”
“She sounds singularly unexciting,” Owen observed aridly. “Do you have any views on her temperament?”
Noailles pulled at his neat dark beard. “She is somewhat reserved,” he said finally.
Owen gave a sharp crack of laughter. “I had hoped at the very least that you would tell me this nondescript creature would exhibit some passion once in a while.”
The ambassador opened his hands in a gesture of resignation. “ ‘Tis said she took the deaths of her husband and child very hard.”
Owen shook his head and picked up his gloves from the table. He drew them on and strode to the door where his thick hooded cloak hung. He slung it around his shoulders, observing, “It seems you’ve set me quite a task, Noailles. I hope I’ll be equal to it.” The door banged shut on his departure.
Oh, you’ll be equal to it, my friend. The ambassador took up his chalice again. He went to the window, peering down through the driving snow at the street below.
After a minute the black-clad figure of Owen d’Arcy emerged from the house, a page at his heels. He paused for a second, casting a quick glance up and down the street in a manner quite familiar to the watcher above. The master of intrigue never took a step without first assessing his surroundings. Then he walked off quickly in the direction of the Savoy Palace and was immediately lost in the swirling white.
Antoine de Noailles smiled to himself at the absurd idea that Owen d’Arcy would not succeed in bedding Pen Bryanston. Her confidences behind the bedcurtains would keep the French ambassador informed not only of Princess Mary’s schemes with her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but also of whatever intrigue was plotted in the two great ducal houses of Northumberland and Suffolk.
The great hall of the Bryanstons’ London residence on the banks of the Thames at Westminster was thronged. Pen stood in the gallery looking down on the hall, where jewels glittered and sparkled against rich velvets, damasks, and satins under the great wheels of candles suspended from the ceiling. From above, the mass of people resembled a gigantic, brilliantly colored wave that ebbed and swelled. Voices were indistinguishable, the sound was a featureless rumble that occasionally became a roar which drowned the sweetness emanating from the minstrels’ gallery.
It was hot in the gallery. The heat from the massive fireplaces, the many candles flaring in sconces high on the walls, and the press of heavily clad bodies rose to envelop Pen, and she dabbed at her forehead with an embroidered handkerchief.
It was hot but it was also secluded and afforded her the best view of her mother-in-law. The Dowager Countess of Bryanston was at the far side of the hall among the ladies surrounding Princess Mary. She was unlikely to leave that circle and her royal guest for some time, but even if she did she would have no reason to come up to the gallery. And even if she did have a reason, it would take her at least fifteen minutes to push her way through the throng and make for the stairs to the place where Pen stood.
She had at least fifteen minutes, Pen decided. Her eyes searched the throng for the Earl of Bryanston and his lady. They shouldn’t pose a threat but Pen knew she would feel safer if she located them. She leaned forward slightly to get a better look and was suddenly blinded as a pair of hands came over her shoulders to cover her eyes.
Even as she started she knew to whom they belonged, and a delighted cry broke from her as she wrenched the hands away and spun around. “Robin! You scared me!”
“No, I didn’t. Of course you knew it was me.” Her stepbrother grinned at her, his brilliant blue eyes alight with pleasure at seeing her. He was a stocky man, square built, with a shock of springy nut-brown curls on which his velvet cap perched somewhat insecurely. His dress was rich and yet somehow awry. Pen automatically reached to brush a piece of fluff from his doublet, and while she was about it resituated the jeweled brooch he wore in the lace at his throat.
“Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in weeks,” she asked, kissing him soundly.
“Oh, out and about,” he responded. “Out of town, anyway.”
Pen regarded him shrewdly. Robin would never disclose whatever it was that took him away for these long absences but she had a fair idea. Her own years in the devious world of the court had taught her that very little was as it seemed. “On the duke’s business?” she asked in a neutral tone.
He shrugged and changed the subject. “What are you doing all alone up here?” He peered over the gallery rail.
Pen’s eyes followed his. Her mother-in-law was still at the princess’s side, and now she saw Miles Bryanston and his wife at a card table at the far side of the hall, their large faces glistening in the heat. They would be occupied all evening.
“I felt the need for some quiet,” she said. “It’s so noisy down there and so hot.”
“It’s hot up here,” Robin pointed out, looking at her closely.
Pen shrugged. “I’ll go down again in a minute. I have need of a privy and, as I recall, there’s a commode behind the arras in the passage behind the gallery. You go down and I’ll find you. I want to hear all your news.”
She smiled, hoping to convince him, trying not to think about precious time wasting, trying not to look down to check on her mother-in-law’s whereabouts. Robin, in company with the rest of her family, worried about her obsession, and if he thought she was following its impulses again he would certainly try to prevent her.
Robin hesitated. They had known each other for sixteen years. When they had first met they had been smitten with each other, caught in the pangs of first love. Then their parents had married and in the hurly-burly of family life, that first love had become a deep, abiding, loving friendship. Robin thought he knew his stepsister better than anyone, better even than her mother or her younger sister Pippa.