The girls must compete against worldly and cunning opponents, among them mean-girl Avis and her entourage of back-stabbing co-horts, tipping the balance in their already-tenuous friendship.
Soon, the grand hall is more like the hallway of a prestigious finishing school, with girls fighting for the attention of a dashing, young earl, amid parties fueled by drinking and indiscriminate dalliances.
As the tension between Sybille and Avis heats up, the focus on Rose wanes, allowing her to turn her attention to more important matters – like getting close enough to the Queen to learn her secrets.
But being close to the Queen is not without its challenges. And when rumors of Rose’s influence make their way around the castle, no one, not even the Queen, will be safe.
About the Author
W.H. Doyle has been writing best-selling books for younger readers with major publishers under the name Bill Doyle. His has written for Rolling Stone, edited several magazines, created interactive experiences for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and developed critically-acclaimed digital storybooks. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
In her growing panic, Rose Castletown stumbled up the front steps of the low, one-story house and reached for the latch. The door flew open before she touched it, and Rose jerked back, half expecting an enraged Sybille to fly out. But it was Sybille's aunt who appeared instead, her wild silver hair and immense figure filling the doorway as she squinted into the morning light.
"Welcome to the purity inquiry!" Aunt Clemence sang out gaily before her eyes adjusted and her face darkened. "Oh, it's only you," she muttered at Rose and swept her cane through the air as if to shoo a bothersome alley cat.
"Sorry!" Rose stammered, sidestepping the cane and squeezing past Aunt Clemence. Once inside the house, Rose knocked the snow from her shoes and ducked into the crowded parlour. To show off her connections in this small corner of England, Sybille's aunt had turned today's inquiry into a banquet of sorts. Forty or so of Gordonsrod's finest had arrived in their Sunday best, enticed by the promise of free wine — even if it was among the cheapest swill ever bottled. Most of the villagers crowded around a lopsided table where two servants had strewn week-old sweetmeats and pigeon pies.
Rose spotted her friend immediately. Sybille Maydestone, the girl who would soon be prodded to determine the status of her purity, stood in the back of the parlour near the kitchen door, her fury evident. As if hoping for a dramatic explosion, the guests watched Rose as she grabbed two cups of beer and joined Sybille.
"Easy does it," Rose whispered, handing her a cup of the warm ale. She leaned close until the puffy shoulders of their white gowns touched.
"Don't say you didn't find him," Sybille hissed through a clenched, angelic smile. In her eighteen years, she had perfected many smiles. This, Rose knew, was her most dangerous.
"I searched everywhere," Rose soothed. "No sign of Hughie, but he'll be here. I know it," she added even though the words sounded hollow, even to her.
Hughie Mowfurth was the village's seventeen-year-old drunkard. Since his parents had died of the sweating sickness last year, he'd been busily spending his once-sizeable inheritance on drink and women. A week ago, Sybille had agreed to a quick tumble on a straw mattress in his family's barn. In return, he would provide the coins needed to fix the purity examination in her favor.
Without the bribe, no man — or at least not one she wanted — would marry her. She would be stuck with little future prospects, doomed to grow into her Aunt Clemence: old, wretched, and used by others only for her limited status and funds.
Where is Hughie? Rose wondered. And, more importantly, his bribe? The house didn't have a clock. Aunt Clemence was too tight with money to own such a rare item. Still, Rose knew it must be nearly noon — when according to the contract between Sybille's family and the Scarcliffs, the examination of Sybille would take place and the girls' futures would be sealed.
Trying to keep calm, Rose gulped down her beer, something even the ten-year-olds in Gordonsrod were permitted to do, and cast her eyes about as if expecting to spot Hughie hiding under the dusty washstand or the pianoforte with its chipped paint and snapped wires.
Every young person in the village but Hughie was here. Those over twenty were scattered around the parlor in defensive clumps, as if protecting themselves from Aunt Clemence's barrage of nosy questions and annoying witticisms. The fifteen or so younger people, mostly in their mid to late teens, gathered in front of the cold fireplace, like an excited mob at an execution. They knew the truth about Sybille, and were drinking and loudly guessing about what would happen when she was inspected. Words no young woman liked to hear drifted across the room toward Sybille and Rose.
Her spine straight, Sybille met their words and gazes head-on but moved closer to Rose as if for support. Sybille — and Rose to a lesser degree — were used to stares, but of a more lustful variety. While Sybille's tall frame, full bosom, and dainty backside were rather in vogue, Rose had a small birthmark below her bottom lip, which she frequently covered with two fingers when faced with someone she hoped to impress. Both eighteen-year-olds had rich reddish-brown hair they tied up in braids and studded with bits of silver.
Now, Sybille's nose quivered at the sight of their peers. "These filthy bacons," she said, her voice rising with each word. "We'll never escape them."
"Shhh," Rose warned nervously. "If you and Hughie struck a deal, he'll be here with the money."
"Ah, no he won't," a voice trilled happily. Rose turned to find Joane Town and Aunt Clemence's mousy maid, Rebecca, clutching at each other and giggling. They'd come through the nearby kitchen door unnoticed. Seventeen, with scraggly blond hair and a patched red gown, Joane had the odd habit of pulling on her braids when she got excited.
"You are talking about Hughie Mowfurth, aren't you?" Joane chirped with glee, one dirty hand tugging at a greasy strand of hair. "On my way to today's hanging —" Another gale of giggles erupted from Joane and the maid. "So sorry. Not hanging. On my way to this examination, I spotted Hughie outside the tavern facedown in a puddle of vomit." Joane laughed again before adding, "Probably not his own."
So that's where he is, Rose thought. She still had time to drag him here! Before she could take a step toward the door, though, Joane stopped her.
"Can you carry six times your weight in drunken Howie flesh, dear Rose?" she asked. "I would love to see that! That boy won't wake up for days!"
Without losing her sweet smile, Sybille said, "I'll cut out your tongue with broken glass, Joane, unless you disappear. And take that disgusting floor scrubber with you."
Joane snorted. "Poor, pathetic Sybille," she said to the maid. "When her father finds out the truth, he'll kill her."
Something dangerous in Sybille's eyes made Joane and the maid scurry off to join the others at the fireplace. Once she was gone, Sybille whispered to Rose. "She's right, you know. Father will kill me."
Rose knew this was no exaggeration. Sybille's father, Mervin Maydestone, had risen from peasant to the town's wealthiest, most influential landowner and farmer. He'd done it so ruthlessly, many said he'd left a few bodies, including Sybille's mother, in his wake. Still, he was a righteous man. When Sybille's brother Robert had been caught stealing a pear from the Saturday market, Mr. Maydestone had determined burning his son's thumb was not harsh enough a punishment and volunteered to cut off part of Robert's ear instead.
After months of negotiating and having spent a considerable fortune, Mr. Maydestone managed to arrange a marriage between Sybille and Valentyne Scarcliff, brother to one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting. If declared a virgin, Sybille would move to London, marry Valentyne Scarcliff, and become a lady-in-waiting to a lady-in-waiting. Even with that seemingly tenuous position, Mr. Maydestone would become more powerful than all the citizens of Gordonsrod combined.
What would he do when he discovered that the carefully-laid marriage plans had crumbled because his sweet little girl wasn't as innocent as she wanted him to believe?
Sybille had amassed her own kind of wealth and influence. Nearly all the young men in Gordonsrod, and even a few in neighboring villages, owed her favors, but the only favor she so desperately needed — the bribe — wasn't materializing. Rose shivered at the possible punishments Sybille's father might dream up and was glad that a fire at one of his hog barns had kept Mr. Maydestone away today.
Touching Rose's elbow, Sybille whispered, "Look!" Rose followed her gaze. Across the table, a tall, angular man with a heavily powdered face and pinched expression stood uncomfortably, as if afraid he might catch a disease if his skin touched anything.
He was Dr. John Dee, uncle of Sybille's potential groom. The Scarcliffs, not wanting to dirty themselves with the thirty-mile journey from London to Gordonsrod, had sent him to the examination as their witness. Shoving a handkerchief drenched in musk against his nose, Dr. Dee was attempting to evade the cloying attentions of Aunt Clemence.
Rose tried to catch his eye, but he made a point of completely ignoring her.
They had met yesterday afternoon while he was lurking outside the Maydestones' gate in the rain, pretending to be lost. When Rose emerged from the house on an errand to the chemist, he had called her name in a surprisingly deep voice and stepped in her path, blocking her way.
"Excuse me?" Rose asked, startled.
"This meeting must be kept a secret. Your next breath cannot be guaranteed if all becomes known. Do you understand me?" His eyes stared at her face intently, studying it, almost as if he wanted to dissect it.
Rose felt a trickle of fear and glanced up the empty road. If she called for help how long would it take for someone to reach her? She took a breath and said, "May I ask who you are?"
"I'm Dr. John Dee," he answered, as if the world excepting Rose were aware of that fact. "Do you know what it's like to hold the universe itself?" Without waiting for a response, he pushed a small leather-bound book, the size of a personal diary, in her hands.
Without thinking, she flipped through the handwritten pages. Bizarre symbols and diagrams surrounded by strange letters popped out at her. "These aren't real words," she said, trying to return the book.
"True, the language is not of this earth," Dr. Dee answered cryptically. When she started to ask more, he had held up a single finger to silence her. "Your life begins in London. The answers to all your questions — and ours — await you there. Guard that book, protect it with all your cunning. Once you have learned its language, find me. But not before." Then he walked away, leaving Rose rather stunned.
Rose rushed to tell Sybille about the unsettling encounter, but Sybille interrupted her with her own worries about the upcoming purity inquiry. As the day passed, Rose had time to consider Dr. Dee's words and probing eyes. After sneaking a look at the intriguing symbols and words, she decided to keep their meeting to herself.
"A watch!" Sybille cooed at her side, jolting Rose from her memories. "Dr. Dee has a watch!" Rose glanced again at Dr. Dee and could make out a large silver object strapped to his wrist, something she hadn't noticed yesterday. Is that a watch? she wondered. She had never seen one so she couldn't be sure.
Rose looked at Sybille and was amazed that, even in her panic, her friend was salivating at the sight like a starving child peering into a butcher shop.
That life. Sybille wanted that life, Rose knew, with watches — and new wigs and gowns and jewels and servants and royal intrigue and parties and galas and progresses. She wanted it so desperately. When they were girls, Sybille had always played the part of the princess. Now her chance to actually live in a palace was about to disappear.
As if sensing their focus on it, Dr. Dee glanced at his watch and nodded with relief. He motioned to Mrs. Scroggs, a gnarled hag whose back was bent as if God had mistaken her spine for a pig's tail. The old woman muttered something in reply and, still chewing a hunk of mutton, began making her way around the table and toward the girls.
Panic sparked in Sybille's eyes. "It's noon. She's coming for me. Do something, Rose."
In this part of the kingdom, Mrs. Scroggs was the final authority on purity. The finest families hired her to examine prospective brides, seeking assurance that they were getting an unsoiled maiden for their boys. If Mrs. Scroggs said the young lady was anything but pure, then the wedding would be off.
Fortunately for many brides-to-be and their families, Mrs. Scroggs could be bought to say the opposite. This was acceptable to all, even to the families who hired her. After all, if the girl could afford to pay so much, she was a good catch.
This was where Hughie Mowfurth's bribe should have played a part. But, of course, he wasn't here.
"What can I do?" Rose asked desperately as Mrs. Scroggs clumped toward them.
"You're the clever one," Sybille breathed. "Think of something." Her fingers wrapped around Rose's wrist as if she were drowning. "Or we'll both be trapped in this hell hole forever."
Rose's mind raced. Her own marriage two years ago to Sybille's older brother had ended before it could be consummated when he was killed by the kick of a horse. Now at eighteen, with her parents dead and no siblings, she was devoid of power and money, and lived off the charity afforded by Sybille's family. Her fortune was tied to that of Sybille's forever.
If Sybille married and moved to London to join the queen's entourage, Rose would accompany as her attendant. But if Sybille stayed in Gordonsrod, they'd rot here together. Rose couldn't let that happen. Your life begins in London. Even if everything else Dr. Dee had said to her was rubbish, something about those words rang true.
Flustered, Rose considered acting as if she were Sybille. She was, after all, untouched and would pass Mrs. Scroggs's examination. That was a ridiculous idea, of course, though it did make her think of her body. It was the only thing she owned. Time to put it to use.
Rose pulled her arm free of Sybille's death grip, stepped away ... and fainted. Or pretended to. To make it convincing, she had to force herself not to reach back to cushion her fall. It was going to hurt like the devil. But, before her head could smack the wooden floor, hands shot out of nowhere to catch her, and she found herself cradled in strong arms that slowly lowered her body to the ground. Soon her head was resting on the rough fabric of a warm lap.
She peeped through slitted lids to discover the identity of her savior.
The sensuous jaw. Tarblack curly hair. Blue eyes that could tear away a girl's slammerkin with just one glance.
"Howell Digby ..." she breathed, and couldn't stop herself from putting two fingers to her chin. He was in a crouch, supporting her body on his meaty thighs. No one else in the room seemed to care about Rose's fall. Sybille had stepped back into the kitchen doorway to hide her from Mrs. Scroggs.
"Where'd you come from, Howell?" Rose whispered, astounded. "You should be at school, in London."
"I snuck away to witness the miraculous remaking of a virgin." With that usual combination of lust and longing, he gazed up at Sybille — who gave him a curt nod in greeting. She knew Howell didn't have the funds she needed and therefore wasn't really worth her interest. Instead, Sybille's eyes darted about the room, her mind churning, thinking of ways she could gain more time.
Luckily, while coming around the table, Mrs. Scroggs had stopped to gnaw on a grisly bone. Dr. Dee cleared his throat impatiently at the delay. The short reprieve wouldn't last. They'd need another distraction.
Howell turned part of his attention back to Rose, whose head still lay on his lap. "Are you all right, pretty Petal?" he asked, using the nickname he'd given her years ago. They had all known each other forever, growing up in Gordonsrod and playing knights and dragons down by the river. Sybille was always the damsel he rescued. Never Rose. Last year, at seventeen, he had gone off to a monastery school near London.
Now, against her cheek, she could feel Howell's muscles moving under his robe, and she felt a thrill go through her. "Do you think you can stand?" he asked, red in the face.
In her flustered state, she nodded and shook her head at the same time. He must think she was having a fit.
Howell smiled wistfully and pushed aside the pendant he wore around his neck so it wouldn't jab into her skin. That gold pendant was the most valuable treasure in Gordonsrod. It had been handed down to the oldest male Digby heir for centuries, and Howell had always guarded it fiercely.
"Sybille is about to be discovered, Howell," Rose murmured, pushing her face deeper into his robes. Who needed a musk-scented cloth when you had the masculine smell of Howell?
"She'll bribe the old witch, I'm sure." Howell chuckled bitterly. "And she'll have her precious seal of approval. Hymen intactum."
"Shut up, Howell, there isn't time," Rose blurted. He knew a lot about books, but not always about real life. "Sybille struck a bargain with Hughie. He was to bring the money. But he's not here —" A shadow fell over Rose, and her mouth clamped shut.
It was Mrs. Scroggs. "Another silly country girl on her back with a boy?" One of her eyes permanently bulged as if stuck there by a lifetime of peering into girls' nether regions. "Not to worry, I'll bleed her in a moment."
Everyone knew doctors killed more patients than they cured. Rose couldn't help it. At the thought of a bleeding, her eyes flew all the way open and she leapt to her feet.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tudor Rose"
Copyright © 2019 W. H. Doyle.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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