Sword & Shield by J. L. Spohr

The first duke of Beaubourg, or so say the Beaubourgans, rose to the title by saving then King Reginald’s favorite son from a rain-swelled Orlea River. Or maybe it was Reginald’s favorite spaniel. No matter. The man, John Carver, received the village of Beaubourg with surrounding acreage and a dukedom. He was a stonemason, employed to decorate Piedmont Cathedral, and took leisurely lunches by the rushing river. And because of that one fateful day saving something the king cherished, he would never have to eat stale, puck-hard meat pies again.
Sword & Shield
Sword & Shield by J. L. Spohr
Having come from the people, the Carvers were largely benevolent rulers, save a handful of brutes and one depraved duchess whose adulterous and lewd ways got the Carvers banished from court. But none in Beaubourg seemed to mind the royal slight. Bordered by the sea to the west and the squat green Truss Mountains to the east, Beaubourg was peaceful and remote, as were its inhabitants. Overlooked during the previous century’s civil uprising, it continued to provide sanctuary from court politics and intrigue. Yet this seclusion had a deadly side: Beaubourg was prone to famine and disease. The last plague nearly wiped out the population, with crops lost in the Great Fire that followed nearly killing the rest. After Prince James’ birth in 1534, the Beaubourg Carvers were welcomed back to court after ninty-three years of banishment. Lord Stephen of Beaubourg and his parents, the duke and duchess, were summoned for Prince James’ baptism. There, in the grand Piedmont Cathedral beautified by his ancestor’s hands, Stephen first spied his future. Lady Julia, chief among the queen’s ladies, stood as James’ godmother, holding the mewling prince in her arms. She readied the babe while cooing sweet nothings, then handed him to the half-blind Archbishop of Bartmore. Her copper hair glowed in the candlelight, cheeks rosed, nose pert, lips parted in a wisp of a smile. When the prince was to be doused with holy water, Lady Julia glanced into the crowd, her brown eyes locking on Stephen’s gray ones, as if she’d felt his stare. Her eyes widened before she hastily returned her gaze to the babe, focusing on the proceedings as if she were a priest in training. The incantations became a dull buzz in Stephen’s ears. His eyes froze to her form, spellbound. At seventeen he’d had his fair share of flirtations and could craft a courtly love poem with the best, but never before had he been struck dumb. If his mother had not nudged his ribs, he would’ve missed his turn to pay homage to the heir. Without taking his eyes from the petite, porcelain lady, he mumbled his fealty and blessing in Latin. His father’s gloves thwacking his skull signaled him to take his leave. Stephen drifted through the rest of the day—nay, the rest of the month—at court in a daze. Everything he saw or heard about her increased his esteem. Screwing up his courage, he broached the subject of marriage to his father. “She certainly is a fine young lady, Stephen,” his father conceded, “but such a fine lady may have already captured the eye of others, the king amongst them.” Stephen’s face fell. “What have you heard, Father? Tell me at once!” “Tush tush, Son. I’ve heard nothing.” The duke waved off Stephen’s worry as if it were an errant fly. “’Tis only that I have eyes to see. Let us go now to the king and have it all out. But be prepared, Son. If he or another favorite prefers her, the king will refuse you.” The duke paused, snatching a shrimp croquet from the buffet table and eyeing it with delight before popping it into his mouth. Stephen wanted to scream. How could his father be so calm? “These shrimp puffs are exquisite. I must tell Cook to try and—” “Father!” Stephen nearly stamped his foot like a horse. The duke grinned at his son, mussing Stephen’s prematurely graying hair. “Of course, my lad, he could refuse you for no reason at all.” The duke led Stephen through the throng of courtiers outside the throne room, toasting the prince. “What I mean to say is, a royal denial doth not reflect upon the lady’s character, but it doth put an end to this quest of yours.” Stephen tucked his hair behind his ears, and tried to stay his trembling hands. Not for the first time in his life, he was glad he appeared much older than his years “And for God’s sake, boy,” whispered his father, “let me do all the talking, or we shall have no hope at all.” “Yes, Father. I’ll do whatever you or he bids.” “What His Highness bids,” the duke corrected. “Yes, yes, ’tis what I said.” “No, ’twas not, Stephen.” His father’s happy smile turned to a grim line. He squared Stephen’s shoulders to make proper eye contact. “The king is not a ‘he’. The king is, His Majesty, His Highness, or His Grace.” “Yes, Father.” “This is why you are not to speak, Stephen.” “Yes, Father.” “No matter how grim things appear, you must not speak unless directly addressed by His Majesty.” “Yes, Father.” “Well then,” the duke clasped his son’s shoulder, “God grant us grace. And a generous mood.” “But, Sire, I love her!” Stephen burst. “Oh ho!” King Claude chuckled, as Stephen’s father cringed, hissing at him to hush. “Our dear Lord Stephen, you doth give me great mirth!” “Perhaps as a replacement for Your Majesty’s fool,” smirked a nameless noble. “This lusty young lad has just the kind of zeal this court needs! True love, my friends! Indeed!” The king toasted Stephen with another great laugh, gulping at his ale, the foamy head clinging to his fulsome beard. Stephen’s father swallowed hard. “I apologize for my son’s behavior, Your Majesty,” the duke said, bowing low for the fifth time during the conversation. “Tush now, Beaubourg,” the king said. “The boy’s gumption pleases Us, and since the lady in question does not, he may have her.” Stephen fell to his knees. “Majesty, truly?” “You dare question the king?” King Claude’s fist pounded his throne, face red, eyes dulled with drink. Silence fell in the chamber as all eyes went anywhere but to the king avoiding his wrath. Stephen trembled. Now he’d done it. Damn his runaway mouth! A rumbling laugh broke forth. “I tease, dear lad!” The king smacked his thigh at his own joke. “Ha! We are in a right obliging mood.” “Thank you, Majesty,” Stephen’s father said, grabbing Stephen’s arm, urging him to rise, “and we bid you continue to keep it well and may God bless and save Prince James.” “Ho, ho! Bid us farewell will ye, Beaubourg? Gone so long from court and now away so swiftly? Will you not stay and sup once more? Surely your son hath been too hasty, as he hath not yet tasted all court has to offer.” The king cocked an eye at Stephen while the gathered nobles laughed with practiced humor. “We dare not provoke His Grace, Son,” the duke whispered. “We will accept, but take a care. No drink tonight.” Turning to the king, he said, “Your Majesty is most kind and generous. We would be the worse if we did not join in the feasting, to be sure.” “Then ’tis settled, ah-ha!” Claude clapped his paw-like hands. “We shall show poor, cooped up Stephen the world, and when we are done with him, we shall see if this Lady Julia is still to his liking, hey?” After his audience with the king, Stephen spent said feast glancing nervously across the room at Julia, blushing every time she caught his eye, raging every time she spoke to another man. As others broke from the long table to mingle, Stephen seized his chance. He had only spoken to her a handful of times, and of mundane topics like weather and food. He seemed to lose all sense of his tongue when in her presence, while she smiled sweetly, if not perplexedly, by his side. He smoothed his hair, letting it curl just under his earlobes, and crossed the great divide of the dance floor. Though he felt courtier’s mocking eyes upon him, he would not be deterred from claiming his wife. “Milady,” he said, bowing low. He heard a quiet giggle but couldn’t tell if it was her or one of the ladies crowded about. He rose, meeting her eyes. “Would you do me the honor of a walk in the gardens before the dancing begins?” Color bloomed on her cheeks. “But of course, milord.” He took her hand, feeling a shock of warmth, stirred and soothed in equal measure. The pair fled the smirks and titters, to Queen Matilda’s rose garden. “This flower is my favorite,” Julia said, touching a drooping rose the color of fresh lilacs. She bent her face to it, cupping the delicate petals and inhaling. When she lifted her face, an aroma filled Stephen’s nose, rose blended with grass after a storm. That was her scent. He’d been trying to place it for weeks. “Her Majesty brought it over with us as children. It reminds her of the lavender fields of our home.” “Perhaps Her Majesty will give you a cutting to take to your new home?” Stephen smiled, heart pounding. She laughed—a surprising laugh, from her gut. “Oh no, the queen likes to call me a plant mauler. She wouldn’t dare give me care of such a beauty as this.” He held her hand again, soft and smooth as the rose’s petals. “We have fine gardeners in Beaubourg. You could make sure our servants know of such things.” “Am I to have a many servants?” Her brown eyes danced. He laughed again. “Aye. When you are to be a duchess someday. And my mother … well, she knows nothing of plants either.” Julia looked to the high hedges marking the garden boundaries as the strolled. “My lady.” Stephen paused their slow progress, taking both her hands. A three-tiered fountain bubbled beside them, the bottom basin almost large enough to swim in. Stephen noticed Julia’s lovely reflection in the water’s surface, her backdrop of clouds dressed in their sunset pinks and purples. He sighed and stood face to face with her. No nerves, only the rightness of that moment. Of her. Of them together. “I know we have spoken few words, and that I tear you away from your beloved mistress, but ’tis my greatest wish that you would find happiness at my side in Beaubourg.” A dimple caved her left cheek. “’Tis true, milord, that I dearly love Her Majesty. And to be sure, I know nothing of your Beaubourg, save its distance. But,” she squeezed his hands, sending a thrill through him, “I admit I have been wary these past years, worried about whom the king would see fit to give me as husband. The men at court … they are not virtuous, milord. I would have a husband who fears God and honors his people. I have seen no such here.” Stephen swallowed, desperate to prove he was such a man. “Indeed, you and I have spoken little, but I have watched you these past weeks. You are polite and inquisitive, you are never drunk. You treat your parents with loyal deference and the servants with grace. While my heart breaks to lose the company of the queen, I feel my lot shall be the better at your side than with some scoundrel the king scrounges up.” His spirits dampened. He thought she would be overjoyed at their union, having fantasized that she too had fevered dreams of him, longed to be by his side, hindered only by decorum. Instead, she was resigned to him. Love matches were uncommon, but he’d hoped she felt the same spark, the same pull … “Besides,” she said, her lips curving up, “I like the look of you, milord.” He could have leapt into the fountain, but stayed his jubilance. “You like the look of me?” “Aye.” She lifted a hand to cup his face, stroking his close-cropped beard, sending fire to his gut. “Ye look noble. Like a knight from the storybooks. And your eyes, they are filled with a merriment, as if the very act of living brings you a secret pleasure.” He clasped her hand to his cheek. “My dear lady,” he said, bringing it to his lips, kissing her palm, “I will strive to fulfill your desires.” Her blush spread to her neck and bosom, and her pupils dilated, lips barely parted. Music, muffled by walls and chatting courtiers, floated through the open Great Hall windows. Julia’s head turned, quick as a hound catching the sound of a rabbit in the brush. “The dancing has begun.” “Would you do me the honor?” He bowed, tucking her hand in his. “Here?” An auburn brow raised. “In the garden?” “Since you hath deemed the men of court villainous, milady, I should think to keep you away from their leers.” “And what will they say when we return, out of breath and alone, milord?” His smile deepened. “Let them say what they will, for we too, have a saying in Beaubourg.” “Oh?” “Kings come and go, but Beaubourg remains the same.” “Then what are we waiting for?” She grasped his other hand, quickly kissed his knuckles, and curtsied to open the dance. Within the week they were married, in the queen’s own chambers no less, her majesty standing as the bride’s witness. Then they fled to Beaubourg, lest the king or queen change their mind. Julia Julia had hoped her move from court to country would be smooth. She cared more for books and music than gowns and flirtations, so surely she would feel barely a change, except in scenery. She’d failed to realize how some court comforts had become necessities rather than luxuries. As a senior lady-in-waiting, she’d had her own small fleet of ladies; in Beaubourg she had one. A plump, mouthy one who did not take to sloth or ease, and often appeared before Julia with dirt smeared across her cheeks. Her name was Mary, and she was the town midwife. Not bred for service, yet Julia’s mother-in-law was convinced Mary would be a perfect fit in the duke’s household. Neither Julia nor Mary was convinced of this. Julia had been in Beaubourg only a month when Mary strode into her chamber, hands on her hips, cheeks flushed from exertion. “’Tis time you got on with somethin’ to do ‘round here, me-lady.” Julia sat up, alarmed. For once in her life she had no one to serve but her husband, and he was content to gaze at her, read her sonnets, and take her to bed. The audacity of this woman to charge in and— “Mistress Kelley be birthin’, and I’ve a mind t’ teach you the trade.” Mary sniffed. “I won’t be ‘round here forever.” Julia paled. “But I—I’ve no skill in this matter, and certainly no desire.” Mary’s face was unchanged. “Why the very idea of woman of my rank—” “The duchess herself runs the autumn markets, even takes charge of the pigs.” Julia knew she could refuse. Knew she had a right as mistress to turn up her nose at this pushy, stout woman who didn’t know her place. But Julia was never one to back down from a challenge. She flipped off her sheets and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “And what, pray tell, shall I wear to such and occasion?” Julia swore she caught a smile tugging Mary’s mouth. “Didn’t they teach ye to sew at that fancy palace?” “Of course, but that can’t help me at the present moment, now can it?” She tried to sound regal as she stumbled out of bed, yet knew all she could sew were needlepoints and embellishments on shirt-sleeves. She’d never actually made a garment. One more thing she must learn in this rough, forsaken land. “We’ll use one of her grace’s today,” Mary said, sizing up Julia like a slab of venison. “And then get making some gowns for y’ to work in.” Gowns. Plural. Julia winced inwardly. In no time Mary had Julia trussed up in one of the duchess’ gray wools, and the two women hustled to Mistress Kelley’s house. As wife to a milkman, and a cheesemaker herself, she was fairly well-to-do and could afford a two-level home, with separate rooms for children and parents above their shop. As Julia crept up the stairs behind Mary, careful not to trip on her too-long skirts, the quiet struck her. She heard floorboards creaking, but not the screams she associated with birth. Was the woman still alive? The babe? She found herself impatient to be in the room. “We’re back, Kell,” Mary said, striding through the bedchamber door without ceremony, “and I brought the lady of the house with me.” She presented Julia with no small bit of triumph. “Wot ya doin’ bringin’ our lord’s lady inta this, Mary?” Kelley paced the room, hand to her back. A girl no more than age twelve stood sentinel, holding folded linens. A birthing chair sat ominously in the room’s center. “She’s to learn a trade, like her grace, as she’ll be her grace at some point.” “But why do ye take out her ill learnin’ on me?” “’Cause this be yer fifth child, Kell. You’ll be up doin’ a cheese press this afternoon.” At this the two women hooted ’til tears sprung from their eyes. The whole scene slightly offended, yet also entranced, Julia. The laughter subsided when Kelley let out hiss and a grunt a rutting boar would envy. “I keep tellin’ ya, the more you have the quicker they come.” Mary took her friend’s arm, but Kelley swatted her away. “I can still walk.” They traded mild insults until Kelley sat on the bed’s end. As one, they looked at Julia. “Well?” Mary said. “Don’t just stand there.” Julia balked. “But you haven’t told me what to do. “Ye can rub me feet,” Kelley suggested. Julia thought the woman was teasing, but her wince told Julia that all jokes and false propriety had ceased. They were just women, ready to do what women had done since Eve. Julia set the birthing chair to face Kelley. She then sat in it herself, placing one of Kelley’s feet on the chair arm, the other foot in her hands. Kelley’s eyes rolled back in her head, from the foot rub or the pain of birth Julia couldn’t tell. Then her eyes burst open and she screamed, right in Julia’s face. Mary got up behind on the bed and forcefully pressed her palms into Kelley’s lower back. “You’ve got this Kell. Easy as a cheddar.” “I’ll give you cheddarrrrr!” The woman balled up the sheets in her hand and made a sound Julia had never heard before, somewhere between a wounded hound and a charging bull. “Breathe. Breathe.” Julia did as she was told, belatedly realizing Mary was talking to Kelley. But no matter. The woman seemed to keep her breathing in time with Julia, so Julia kept on, focusing on the woman’s hazel eyes. She felt herself nodding, encouraging. Another scream. “Where’s George?” “Probably nursin’ a beer.” “He did this to me! Again! I’ll have his balls off!” Mary rolled her eyes while Julia bit the inside of her cheek to stifle a giggle. A gush of wet flowed down Kelley’s legs, covering the sheet and the hem of Julia’s skirts. “Now we’re in for it,” Mary said. “Bess!” The girl, who’d stood silent, snapped to attention, bringing Mary the sheet. “Let’s get her to the chair.” Julia jumped out of her seat and helped Bess spread the fresh sheet beneath. “I hate the damnable chair!” Despite this protest, Kelley scooted herself off the bed. Another contraction had her falling, but Julia caught her before the woman hit the floor. Mary scrambled off the bed, and they both hoisted Kelley into the birthing chair. “Me bowels are coming’ out!” Kelley lurched her head from side to side. “Oh mother a Jesus get it out!" Mary flung up the woman’s skirts and shoved her hand inside. “My kit,” she said to Julia, who stood staring at the woman’s distended vagina. “My kit, my kit!” Julia shook herself and leapt for Mary’s box of tinctures, ointments, and herbs. “Give me the salve, in the big jar,” Mary huffed, her shoulder disappearing between Kelley’s legs. Julia fumbled with the bottles, all mysterious. “Hurry!” Julia scuttled over with the whole kit. Mary pointed at a straight, tall glass filled with what looked like green butter. “That one.” Unscrewing the top and handing the jar to Mary, Julia caught a whiff of chamomile, cherries, and olive. Mary scooped out a glob of it with a bloodied hand and went back to work, Kelley yowling the whole time. “Come o’r here, git on some salve, and feel.” “Feel?” Julia gulped. “The time for queasiness be long past, yer ladyship.” All Julia could do was nod and do as bidden. While she was afraid, she also couldn’t deny a pull, a curiosity. She went to Mary’s side and peered at where Mary pointed. “Y’ see there? The head be at its widest.” “How can you tell?” Julia frowned, looking closer. “’Cause I done this hundreds a times.” Mary shook her head, but her tone was light. “Now get a finger in there. ’Tis alright—it stretches, but wait for a contraction.” “How will I know—” Kelley screamed to demolish the house. “That’s how.” Mary smiled. Julia slid her forefinger under the taut skin and next to the wet, bloodied head. “Feel ’round the rim.” She did as instructed. “Now, can y’ feel how there’s two bumps in a row at the top?” Julia pushed her finger in up to her first knuckle and sure enough, a ridge was followed by an indent, then another ridge. “That’s the babe’s brow. An’ he’s facin’ upward, which means a harder time for my Kell, and we’ve got t’ work fast.” Mary shouldered herself in. “Now Kell,” she called, “it be near time t’ push. Y’ gotta give it all, love.” Kelley moaned. “A woman’s fifth babe most the time slips out like a lake eel, but this one be stubborn, facing’ the sun.” Seeing Kelley stretched and pained, Julia didn’t believe any of the “slipping out” nonsense, but she nodded anyway. “We’re going t’ move her, so she’s leaning over the bed. You’ll need t’ take off her skirts. An’ then I want you t’ help push on her back while she’s bearing down.” Julia nodded again and helped the writhing woman to her unstable legs. As her trembling fingers unlaced Kelley’s skirts, propriety screamed somewhere in the back of her head. But she was caught in the rush. Kelley whimpered, leaning on her elbows. “I canna do it, I’m dyin’.” “Y’re not an’ y’ will not. Not on my watch.” Mary repositioned herself, a smaller sheet in one hand, the other hand spread over the baby’s skull. “Everyone ready t’ push?” Mary did not wait for an answer. “Go, Kell! Push ’m out.” Kelley released that animal wail again, and Julia braced herself against the woman’s lower back. She swore she could feel the child moving under her hands, but it was more likely Kelley’s strong muscles. “Ye can do better than that! Now push!” Julia didn’t know how long this pushing lasted. All she knew was that her arms burned, her hair stuck to her red face, and she couldn’t take much more. But then, hearing Kelley moan, feeling her writhe, Julia inhaled, squashed her self-pity, and helped push anew. There was a slurping, sucking sound, then Kelley gasped, soon followed by a piercing cry of new life. “He’s out! He’s here!” Mary cried, elation and blood splashed across her face. “You’ve got another wee boy, Kell!” Mary held up the wriggling, slick, and seemingly powder-covered, boy. “Bring a wet sheet and a dry one and wrap ’im.” The taciturn Bess handed Julia a damp, warmed sheet, which Julia spread out to hold the tiny babe. “That’s right,” Mary said, “clean ’im off nice and gentle now.” While Mary cut the cord and eased out the afterbirth, Julia fell in love with all those tiny toes and fingers, press-able nose, round belly, the thick strawberry red hair. Once clean, she reluctantly handed the bundle over to his mother, who immediately nursed her newest child with a glowing face rivaling any Madonna. That evening, Julia slipped into Stephen’s bed with a grin and ready arms. Arms she hoped to fill with a fleet of babes. The Court of King Claude Noble King Claude, named for the legendary hero of the previous century’s uprising, tried valiantly to live up to his namesake. Yet without the natural good humor or eloquent pontification of his namesake, he failed. Daily he sought worship, love, and obedience. His court, ever striving to curry and keep favor, excelled at the fine arts of manipulation and humiliation. An enticing game, but a dangerous one. Many in Claude’s court found one day, they were at the right hand of the seat of power, and the next literally stabbed in the back. Claude’s court dwelled in a steady state of carousing. Eager courtiers pranced pretty young things before the king, hoping to receive favors as the family of the king’s mistress. But Claude wasn’t an inspirational lover, as his queen, Matilda, could attest. Claude purportedly found the sexual act more of a bodily function and duty than something to relish. Therefore, his mistresses were rarely deflowered and instead served other purposes. What Claude did enjoy about his mistresses was their constant state of forced adulation. They would do anything he asked—dance nude for foreign dignitaries, sit stock still to keep watch over his sleep, pleasure frightened cupbearers in front of him while he laughed—anything Claude fancied that might grant him a sense of satisfaction and supremacy. Alas for these living sacrifices, the king was wont to be so satisfied. The more he sought to fill the hole in his soul, the more tyrannical he became. Queen Matilda’s king and court scandalized her. She was foreign born and brought to the realm at the tender age of six, already promised to the future King Claude. Even as a child she found him distant and cruel. She never saw him smile, even on their wedding night in the throes of his own passion. He merely grimaced, as if he had tasted a bad bit of beef, and then fell limply on top of her. The cruelty, the lies, the drunken licentiousness turned her stomach. As she grew in grace and age, she withdrew more, spending much of her time with her ladies and her children. There were three royal children: James, the eldest who would be king; William, born four years and many miscarriages later; and a year following, Catherine. Matilda tolerated her husband and loved all her children, but especially adored William and Cate. James had to be trained in the ways of wars and of men, so he was taken from his mother’s arms and delivered to those deemed more suitable for raising a monarch. The line secured with James, and he lost to her, Matilda vowed her next child would be hers alone. As she wept and prayed through year after year of an alternately barren and hostile womb, she thought perhaps it was wrong of her to want a child for her own. But finally, on a crisp and unseasonably snowy spring day, she birthed a hearty, brown-haired, bonny boy. When the midwife handed him to her, she swore she could see him contemplate her for a moment and then smile. From that moment on, she knew William was hers. Her gift from heaven. Her own boy to steward into an upstanding, inquisitive, and kind man. Let Claude and the realm have James. William would receive all the love and affection she had longed to shower on a child who wouldn’t disdain it. When Catherine came so soon after, with her long, black lashes and cherubic face, Matilda felt she had fulfilled her destiny. To show a smiling face at court and put up with Claude’s grunting grimaces—these were her duty. But she was destined, she felt, to be a mother. She took the children’s care and tutelage seriously, ensuring they were fluent not only in the ancient and many languages surrounding their land, but also in literature, history, religion, the arts, the sciences and above all, kindness. And the children learned. In their own ways. William, exuberant, happy, and headstrong, never took to religion, or Latin. But he tried, if only to please his mother. Other than the queen, his sister Cate was the dearest thing in the world to him. Catherine, with auburn hair and twinkling amber eyes that rounded to saucers when he described a joust or a dragon battle from a tall tale. Dear Cate, with those small, white hands, always seeking to hold William’s when she was nervous or scared. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he took solace in his sister and her admiration. In due course, his cousin Robert, and Daniel, bastard of his father and shunned by most, became part of his royal entourage. All were soon inseparable. Robert was boisterous, and charming. He always knew how to play the children off each other, or unite them as needed. His father was the highest-ranked noble at court, and Robert made sure everyone knew it—as if they didn’t already. Yet his devotion to his aunt and cousins was fiercer even than his temper. Daniel, whom courtiers whispered about in corners, was the quiet, studious, and reserved one. He listened intently to everything anyone had to say. And then, without fail, would say the exact thing a person wanted or needed to hear. Besides which, Daniel was kind to Catherine, and anyone who was kind to her was a friend to William. Thus, there were two courts in Noble King Claude’s time: his own and his wife’s. One powerful in law, the other in spirit. But a court couldn’t stay divided forever, especially when forces worked toward bitter ends. In early March, when Robert was almost eight, he traveled back to his family seat of Cheval with his father, Duke of Norwick, and his unctuous younger sister Margaux. His father, by anyone’s estimation save the king’s, ran the country as Master Secretary and Lord Privy Seal. It was said, though Robert was too young to truly understand the ramifications, that his father’s wealth was the only thing keeping the king in his crown and castle. No question his father was more terrible by half than the king, for Robert had the bruises to prove it. But to have more money than the king seemed impossible. Margaux sat across from Robert, her golden curls bouncing along with the carriage, playing pat-a-cake with her exotic doll. Out of boredom, he kicked her blue taffeta skirts. “Rob-ert!” Right on cue. “Robert Claude, leave your sister alone,” his father said by rote, not caring about the outcome. “It was just a bump in the road,” Robert said, squinting at his sister. She stuck out her pink tongue in reply. He rolled his eyes and looked out the window, spying the rolling, green hills that eventually led to his home. Or rather, his father’s property, which would one day be his property. Home was wherever his mother was. So for now, home was Cheval, for she had wintered there, away from court. “There it is! There it is!” Margaux bounced up from her seat, pressing her face against the window, stepping on Robert’s foot in the process. “Margaux!” Robert shoved her back to her place. Her mouth opened, eyes shut tight. This screech would be deafening. Sure enough, she let out a cry he was sure the hounds could hear. “What did I just say, Robert?” His father twisted Robert’s arm painfully behind his back. “Yes, Your Grace,” Robert managed. His father released him and went back to his papers. Margaux sniffed. “I was only trying to see home.” Robert sighed and returned his eyes to the scenery. Cheval’s tall, gray-spiked towers stabbed the sky above the tree line. Margaux wasn’t totally abominable. She was just always underfoot, always copying, always wanting to play with him and the boys. He didn’t mind when it was Catey, so why did he mind Margaux so much? As if in response to his unspoken question, she stuck her tongue out at him again. The carriage pulled through the pink-graveled path to their estate’s front courtyard. A second black, windowless carriage was parked by the main door. The door was flung open, and a handful of armed nobles stood about the wide steps speaking in hushed tones. Two cassocked churchmen, hands clasped behind their backs, spoke in earnest off to the side. One, in bishop’s vestments, was tall and thin, with a hooked nose. He set his face as if he something smelled foul. Robert’s father cursed, alighting from the carriage before it even halted. “You were supposed to be done with this by now!” His father said, swooping up to the men. One of the noble’s responded, but Robert couldn’t hear. “I’ve the children with me, you imbecile!” The men cowered, then all began talking. The churchmen hurried over, the bishop with simpering grin. He rested his hand on Norwick’s shoulder. The duke shrugged it off. Robert got out of the carriage, Margaux following. Normally, the two would have dodged these strange men and tore into house in search of sticky buns and their mother, but something about the scene made them pause. They huddled side by side in the carriage’s shade. Horses stamped and nickered. Robert was about to cluck his tongue and go inside when he heard sobbing. Heaving sobs, echoing along the hallway. His heart nearly froze. Mother. Had she taken ill? Had she … no. He wouldn’t think it. Surely it was one of her ladies, caught in some crime and being dragged to Stone Yard. Emerald green blazed as the sun caught the woman’s skirts. Two knights muscled her through the door, her hair disheveled, she raving, struggling. “Mama?” Margaux said, in a question only Robert could hear. But she was right—that writhing woman was his mother! He ran forward, calling for her. “My babies—my children!” The pleading in her voice was familiar, the same tone she used before her husband beat her. “Robert! Margaux! Where are you?” She tried to reach out her hands, twisting her head back and forth. When she turned toward Robert, he stopped in his tracks. Her beautiful face was red and blistered, her eyes swollen shut. A chunk of sun-kissed hair above her right brow was gone. She didn’t look ill. She looked as though she’d been doused with hot oil. “Mother!” “Keep them back!” His father growled. Robert managed to squeeze his way through to within inches of his mother, the smell of burned flesh gagging him. “Mother, I’m here!” He grabbed one of her free hands, only reaching her fingers, which were red and wrinkled. “I’m not a witch! Don’t believe what they say!” Another knight seized her about the waist, pulling her away. Robert held on. “No, mother, no!” “This woman is a servant of Satan!” The bishop grabbed Robert’s wrist, wrenching his hand from his mother’s. “She’ll contaminate you as well.” “Robert!” His mother’s voice was hoarse as she flailed for him. “I won’t believe them, Mother, never!” Robert tried to follow, but some noble restrained him. “I love you—tell your sister, I love you both.” They were shoving her into the windowless carriage. “’Til your dying breath, Robert—tell her!” “Be gone!” His father bellowed, face twisted in untempered rage. Robert could hear her wailing for her babies, as the carriage pounded away. Whomever held him let go, and Robert sprinted after the carriage, screaming her name. But it was past the turn, beyond his sight. He stumbled back to the courtyard to find Margaux still frozen in place, her face so pale she looked otherworldly. His father spoke to the last two remaining men, completely nonplussed. He even chuckled. Robert charged, intent on tackling him. He met his father’s back, causing the duke to stumble forward. His father turned, eyes ablaze. “How could you let them? How could—” Robert sputtered. His father backhanded his tear-stained cheek, jeweled ring of service scrapping a line of blood in its wake. “You know better than to speak to me thus.” He twisted Robert’s ear. “Get inside before I do worse, and take that sniveling sister of yours.” Margaux’s face was buried in her doll, as if to block out the living nightmare. Robert numbly guided her inside. They walked past silent servants, some weeping noiselessly behind kerchiefs. Halfway down the towering main hallway, Margaux stopped. She gasped and collapsed to the floor. This wasn’t her normal tantrum. She curled into a pool of burgundy silk, slowly rocking herself, shaking. Their governess and nursemaid materialized at the end of the hall, lifting their skirts, their puffy, red faces closing in quickly. Robert knelt beside his sister and leaned over her, as if he could shield her with his body. He lay his chest along her spine, feeling her trembling breath. “Shhh-shhh,” he whispered in her ear. “It’s surely all a mistake.” But his father stood there, presiding over the whole of it. “Shh-shh. We’ll find her and bring her back.” Margaux only cried more. Their nurse’s kind yet firm hands rested on his shoulders. “Come now, my boy. Let us get you both settled.” But Robert knew he would never be settled. He would hunt down these men who called themselves God’s servants. Even if it took a lifetime, he would make them pay. Chaos Reigns On a dreary, damp midwinter morning in 1549, Palace Havenside itself had adopted the same sluggish atmosphere as the weather. No matter how high the fires were built, hearths and torches throughout the cavernous rooms sputtered. It was a day for bundling up in bed and drinking mulled wine, putting the palace in a rare hush. But court was shaken from its quietude into chaos that would take years to subside. And it all started with a shrill scream from the king’s bedchamber. Margaux and Cate, both eight at the time, were first to wake. They had fallen into a blissful sleep among the silken sheets of the queen’s enormous feather bed. At the scream, they shot straight up, eyes blinking wide, mouths forming twin gaping holes of fear. It must be the dragon from Matilda’s story, broken into the castle and now come to find and eat them! While a multitude of armored and leather-bound feet pounded toward the king’s apartments, the girls dove under the covers, trying to make themselves as small and unappetizing as possible. The scream’s source was the king’s current young mistress, the Lady Carissa. She had dozed off in Claude’s bed, a well-deserved respite from his most recent form of entertainment: having her stand very still while drunken chambermen tried to shoot fruit off the top of her head. The privy guards burst open the royal chamber’s carved doors. Lady Carissa, her red curls raving like Medusa and her hands drenched in blood, was struck mute, as if that scream sucked the last sound out of her. Then she fainted. The guards had to roll her off the king to investigate. The young and newly promoted Archbishop of Bartmore hurried to the king, and found the source of blood. The king lay naked on his stomach, his right arm dangling from the bed. Blood trickled down and dripped steadily from his fingertip onto the lush rug. The Archbishop threw back the sheets, revealing Claude’s letter opener plunged at an angle into his kidneys and pointing toward his heart. “My God,” Bartmore stammered as he crossed himself and fell to his knees. Someone behind him yelled, “Get the physician! His Majesty requires the physician!” “No!” Bartmore barked, swiping a thin finger under his bent nose. “Fetch Prince James. The king is dead. Long live the king.” Meanwhile, back in Beaubourg, the days piled, one on top of the other, season upon season with little change. But the duke’s house was not free from heartbreak. Stephen’s parents died two years after his marriage, his mother first and his father soon after, from a broken heart, Mary said. That after many failed pregnancies for Julia. While she grieved those unborn babes, and those that lived not more than a few days, it brought renewed vigor to her work beside Mary and Beaubourg’s numerous birthing women. Ten long years of hopes raised and dashed. Ten years and three tiny graves under an oak behind the castle. Julia was now pregnant again, yet she couldn’t help but worry as she paced her small chambers, waited upon by four maids and Mary. The room itself seemed to hold its breath, flames in the hearth crossing their fingers for this babe to live, to be the desperately desired heir. Stephen was a doting, jovial husband, never hinting that Julia wasn’t fulfilling her duty as duchess. While he adored children—many from the village and those of kitchen servants often flitted through the castle, hot rolls in their stubby hands, their laughter cascading off the stones—he never mentioned his desire for a wild pack of offspring. No matter. Julia felt her failure keenly, and not simply because she wished to be surrounded by her own brood. She knew she alone could snuff out the Carver line with her ineffectual womb. Therefore, it was both a surprise and a relief when, on a bright spring morn in 1548, Annelore Matilda Carver came screaming into the world, plump, rosy, and already opinionated. While a boy would have been better, tradition held that Annelore could still inherent the title. So the village and her parents rejoiced, for a full fortnight. Annelore had brown eyes like rain soaked soil and a shock of dark brown hair, which lightened into a cedar-bark auburn as she grew. She loved to hang on her mother’s and Mary’s skirts as they went about their birthing and healing, often getting shooed out of the way to go root about in the gardens, animal pens, and stables. On one of those occasions she happened upon the oddest thing she’d beheld. A boy. Not just any boy, for her four-year-old mind concluded this boy was a wizard. His back faced her, and on the ground in front of him, intricate designs—surely some wizardly language—sank into the snow in glowing, steaming yellow. Fascinated, she tiptoed next to him and asked, “How do you make pictures in the snow?” The boy yelped, and in his distress turned to her, revealing his hidden instrument. Annelore screamed, sending the boy scrambling back into the house, tying up his trunks as he fled. She’d never seen what she assumed to be a large, leaking goiter. She pitied the boy-wizard his plight, and on the way home asked her mother about his condition. “Mama, will we be back to help the boy too? Julia sighed, “What boy, Anna?” “Why, the boy with the leaking protrusion.” “What the devil are you prattling about?” Julia was in no mood for this peculiar line of questioning. “The boy from that house. He was leaking on the snow making pictures.” Anna sniffed, sensing the rebuff in her mother’s tone. “Do ya mean wee Bryan, dearie?” Mary asked, tousling Anna’s hair. “He hasn’t ill health, ’twas his baby sister we were concerned with.” “But he looked so pained,” Anna said. “Anna, that is enough. Please, let us not tarry home.” Julia hoisted her kit, repositioning it across her shoulder. When Julia was in bed, recounting the day with Stephen, she realized what her daughter meant. Laughing, she said, “Oh, Stephen, hopefully this child within me now is a boy, for poor Anna has a lack in her education.” “Tush, tush,” he reproached, “I would rather our little Anna not be introduced to the male member until her marriage bed, and that at a ripe old age!” “My dear,” she managed, gasping for breath amid her laughter, “a leaking protrusion?” “Speaking of …” Stephen said, brows bouncing. Julia whacked him with a pillow as he reached for her arms and pulled her toward him. King Claude’s murder was never solved. Many were questioned. Some were jailed and tortured in the bowels of Stone Yard, adjacent to the palace, terrified stable hands hearing their screams well into the night. Lady Carissa, Claude’s mistress, wasn’t seriously considered a suspect and spent her remaining years silent, in a convent. The Archbishop of Bartmore had the unenviable duty of ferreting out the fiend and he was eager to impress. If he played his cards right, no matter who ruled as regent, he would be in the seat of power as chief advisor. To achieve that at such a young age would be singular. Surely something for the Pope to take note of. His hopes of unfettered authority fizzled daily, however, as the search for the king’s killer turned up nothing but frightened servants and patronizing courtiers. Someone’s hands were dirty, but he couldn’t discover whose. His hopes were snuffed entirely when Council Table capitulated and allowed Matilda to rule as regent in the boy king James’ stead. She would surely keep him in his place as a churchman and nothing else. Matilda’s rule hadn’t been a foregone conclusion. Naming a queen consort to the role was unprecedented, but the king had demanded it in his will, found among his private papers in his bedchamber. None on council had ever seen it, another strange fact, but its authenticity couldn’t be denied, for no one could forge the scribbling that passed for his late Highness’ penmanship. It was signed and sealed fourteen years prior, the day of James’ baptism, and hadn’t seen the light of day since. What on God’s grand, green earth could have moved Claude to write such a document? Perhaps it was his gift to Matilda for finally giving him a son. He’d been oddly jovial for that month of feasting and frivolity. Maybe it was one final, giddy act. One they would all have to live with for four long years. Maybe the Duke of Norwick had convinced the king to do it, supposing that he could influence the queen. But despite taking Norwick’s son into her fold, she’d never warmed to the duke, so what help would she ever be to him? The council would have none of it. First they tried to set a group of five to rule as a committee, with Matilda as the sixth member. The citizens of the capital city of Havenside rioted. They gathered outside the castle walls with torches and rotten vegetables, pelting the immovable stones and chanting, “God save the queen!” ad nauseum. After the fifth day of this onslaught, the council conceded defeat. Yet, much to council’s relief, Matilda didn’t make the sweeping changes they feared. She merely replaced two men whose moral character was most abhorrent to her—and with the makeup of Claude’s council, that was saying something. Whether or not she would let them sway her was another matter. The people, for their part, adored her. Absolutely and without question. They had adored her since she was a girl, taken from her home to make a new one in a strange land. They never blamed her for her husband’s dalliances and indignities. In their sight, she was second only to the Blessed Virgin. And under her short rule, Troixden slowly regained some of its long-forgotten prosperity. “Stop wailing, Bryan—you sound like your little sister.” Anna frowned at Bryan’s exposed calf in her lap, as a red welt swelled around a jet-black stinger. Anna had discovered Bryan was no wizard, but instead was an enjoyable playfellow, only a year her senior and always one for a game of hide-and-seek or a race, or to sit under their favorite willow tree and find shapes in the clouds. Anna had never thought her best friend would be a boy, but he was the only one bold enough—or stupid enough—to truly befriend the little lady of the castle. Anna peered at the wasp sting and bit her bottom lip. Even at the age of near six, she could heal some things, what with all the hours watching her mother and Mary. She’d even planted her own herb garden, crudely crushing her own medicines from the seedlings that managed to survive her aggressive horticulture. She examined her nails to see if she could pull the stinger out. The dirty stubs would gain no purchase on the angry bur. “Serves you right, whacking away at things pell-mell,” she said. She searched in her apron’s pockets and extracted a paring knife she’d stolen from the kitchens. “What’re you going to do with that?” Bryan tried to appear disinterested, but his tone betrayed his fear. “We have to get the stinger out, dummy.” Bryan stuck out his tongue in response. “Now hold still.” Anna’s own tongue jutted out the side of her mouth in concentration, she bent over his leg, and deftly dug, removing the stinger in one quick swipe of knife and thumb. “Stay here,” she said, brushing his leg off her lap. She dashed to the castle and returned, carrying her mortar and pestle, honey, lavender, flour, and a potato. Plopping beside Bryan, she again lifted his leg. She sliced the potato and handed a half to him. “Hold this on the sting,” she said, “and watch.” With her palms she crushed the lavender into the pestle, then added flour and a dollop of honey, the sticky golden liquid hanging in the air, catching the sun as it fell. “Just mush it all together.” She removed the potato and spread the sticky solution on his calf with two fingers. Grabbing her wrist, Bryan brought her fingers to his nose and sniffed. Then he licked her them. “Ew!” She yanked her hand away, wiping it on her skirts. “What? It tastes good.” He pouted and crossed his arms. “Now be good, or I shan’t give it a kiss like Mama does.” His eyes became sky-blue ducats at this, his mouth shut tight. She gave him a loud, smacking kiss on his honey-smothered calf. He giggled. Licking her lips, she smiled. “It does taste good.” She giggled with him. Suddenly he stood, towering over her. “I’ve got to go. Thanks Anna-fana.” He bent and hastily kissed her cheek. As he sprinted away, she clucked her tongue like Mary. “Silly boy.” Realm Review It was early June 1554, a month before King James’ triumphal coronation and Realm Review, and the castle was abuzz with preparations. New hangings to fashion, new initials to carve, old ones to chip away, exotic beasts to acquire, both for hunting and for feasting. Then there was the constant parade of visitors: ambassadors and royals from abroad, landed gentry wishing to be presented at court, men jostling for a seat on James’ Council Table, women angling to be made James’ queen. All needed food, lodging, and hospitality. Matilda sat in the midst of it all, worried only about her two younger children and what their brother would do to them once he reigned outright. “The Lord Daniel of Cecile to see Her Royal Majesty,” barked the guard outside her door. Daniel? He had never requested an audience. Even though he was her husband’s bastard, she was fond of the boy. His parentage wasn’t his fault, and luckily for the lad, he didn’t resemble his father in looks or demeanor. “Her Majesty bids my Lord enter,” she heard Lady Halforn say to the guards. Daniel entered the small hallway, and as he neared the end, he bowed low, not making eye contact. Matilda sat in an upholstered chair in front of the steps leading to her bed. Her ladies perched around her at varying heights, clouds of pink and white as if ready to carry her away at sunset back to her home in the stars, or so she wished. “Your Majesty,” Daniel said, face to the ground. “Why, Daniel dear,” Matilda said, “you’re so formal today.” Some of the ladies tittered. Daniel cleared his throat and reddened, as he was wont to do. “Majesty, I have something of the utmost importance to speak to you about. If I may be so bold as to ask for a private audience.” The words sounded overly practiced. “But of course.” She smiled, trying to conceal her mirth. “Ladies, will you please take your leave?” The women shuffled out, a whispering, smiling mass of silks, jasmine, and rose. Matilda sighed. If she could remain always in her chambers …“Come closer, my boy.” Rising, he approached her and again bowed his head. She motioned toward a tuffet for him to sit on. “Highness,” he started, glancing first at her, then at the flat cap in his lap, fidgeting. “I recognize this is rather irregular and extempore. However, I would like to speak to Your Highness frankly about the Princess Catherine.” “Oh?” Matilda frowned. This wasn’t a good turn. “Is something the matter with her Greek?” “Nay, rather, a topic of graver import.” Matilda looked at him, concerned. She couldn’t reconcile his tone with his ever-flush cheeks. “I recognize that she is young,” he said to his hands, “but even so, I have thought and prayed and am compelled to ask—” he paused, looking her full in the face, pale eyes shimmering. “Or rather, to speak to Your Grace about Princess Catherine’s hand.” Matilda’s frown transformed into a smile. She had noticed Daniel’s manner change with Cate, thinking at first it was the awkwardness of a boy hurtling toward manhood—he looked at Cate with more than brotherly affection. Daniel was an intelligent and earnest boy, but to marry his half-sister … it simply wasn’t done. At least not openly and by royalty. “Dear Daniel.” She took his hand, petting it like a mother. “It does my heart well to know you care for her so, but you know ’tis against all laws for you to marry.” Daniel’s face collapsed as if she’d stabbed him. “Majesty, you misunderstand. I do not come for my own desire—” “Then I am mistaken in believing that you care for her?” She peered at him. He glanced away, pulling his hand from hers. “I would give my life for her.” Gathering himself, he added, “I’d give my life for all of you, Madam.” “I see,” Matilda said. “Then, dear, why are you here? What is your request?” “I worry … I worry what will become of the princess once James takes the throne. I have sat up some nights and believe if you were to betroth her before the coronation, she may fare better.” “Why, Daniel,” she smiled, “you are a boon to my heart to take such pains to protect mine own. I pray it brings you blessing.” “Just being accepted in your presence has always been blessing enough, my lady queen.” “So, who then do you propose our princess marry?” She thought she caught a stab of pain in Daniel’s smooth features. He cleared his throat. “Majesty, I have made a list.” Matilda worked at speed, inquiring with a few Tuscan princes, per Daniel’s studied suggestions. She even made veiled inquiries in France and Spain on William’s behalf, though nothing less than a woman of royal blood would do. She was unsure any betrothals could be secured within the month, but she knew that instigating the proper diplomatic overtures would at least create some protection from James’ machinations. Though James refused to attend council, that didn’t mean he was ignorant of the goings-on at court, and before four days passed, he confronted his mother. “You have no authority to do such a thing!” Spittle flew across the broad, empty council table. Matilda sat, immovable and unflinching at its head, while James swirled around her like a squall. “’Tis my right, mine alone, to decide the fate of my sister and that bastard brother of mine.” He wasn’t speaking of Daniel, this she knew. At the insult, she rose to her full height, a good three inches above his own, eyes slits. “You are not ruling as king yet, my son. Take heed to remember that, for one word from me, and you will never hold power, birthday or no. Do not threaten your kin. They are all you have.” “All I have?” James let out his father’s cackle. “Why, mother, I have the whole world.” “And the world will leave you with nothing but pain and bring you to a quick end, if you push away the only people in that world who will love you despite yourself.” She spoke with a prophet’s authority, and it visibly shook him. “Ha, Mother, you sound like a witch. Get thee gone—I have much to prepare. As to this marriage of Catherine, I will merely rescind it when I am king in name and in fact. Certainly you know that.” “You may not find it so easily done, my son.” With that, she left. Against all reason, she hoped her words had caused him to think. “Mama! Mama!” Anna yanked her mother’s arm, outside Beaubourg castle’s keep. Her mother’s brow was furrowed as she spook with Mary and Emmaline, the eldest daughter of the town’s most prolific wool merchant. Emmaline’s mother was well into labor of her fourth child and hadn’t seen fit to call for Mary or Julia until now, when progress had stopped. But all Anna could think about was the royal parade, the grand Realm Review of their new king, James. It was due in town that afternoon, and she was trying to keep herself clean, despite Bryan’s attempts to thwart her. “Her pains simply stopped altogether?” Julia said. “Maaa-ma!” Anna said with another tug. “Anna, hush—can you not see I’m consulting?” “But the Review!” Anna shook her mother’s arm like Cook stretching out dough. “Kings will keep, but a stubborn babe will not.” She turned back to Emmaline. “Let me collect my things, and I’ll come with you. Mary, will you please see Anna to the parade? If I can speed things along, I may be there in time to see the queen mother pass.” She sighed, a distant look in her eyes. “I would dearly love to see her once more.” “Then let Mary attend the birth. She’s the servant.” Anna said, lower lip protruding. Mary blushed, while Julia’s face, so melancholically serene, became stern. “Mary is no such thing, and I will have no daughter of mine putting on such airs.” Julia grabbed Anna’s shoulders, squaring her. Anna couldn’t remember her mother ever using this tone. “Mary is our friend and a loyal member of our household. You will respect her as you respect me. More so, for while you may learn the languages of all the world, Mary has more knowledge of how to heal the body and the spirit, more knowledge of what our people need and desire than we, in our lofty place, will ever know.” Mary sniffed. “My lady, y’ needn’t—” “I do need, Mary. Anna shall learn that no matter how high she may climb in the world’s eyes, she is no better, no more worthy, than anyone else. For we are all one to the Lord.” Anna’s lip trembled, but she withheld her tears, knowing even in her childish mind that crying would prove her to be the snob her mother was scolding. Anna turned to Mary and curtsied, unable to meet the maid’s eyes. “Please excuse me, Mistress Mary. Would you do me the honor of coming to the parade?” Mary tousled Anna’s hair. “Tush now, child, let’s go get you presentable.” Julia kissed the crown of Anna’s head. “The queen mother loves lavender and wildflowers, like I do,” she whispered. Anna’s mood lifted, and now she tugged on Mary. “Come, Mary, let’s make lavender crowns to wear!” “I will send Emmaline if I need you, Mary,” Julia called as Anna dragged Mary away, intent only on the herb garden and the wildflower meadow behind it. A real, live king! And the queen and the princess too! Would they be as beautiful and gallant as in storybooks? Surely they would be, and more. Anna relinquished Mary’s hand, lifted her skirts and ran, a smile breaking her face. William could scarcely believe it, though he’d been living under its threat for years. His churlish, haughty, boil of a brother was king. And from what William could tell, James intended to outdo their father in all areas of pomp, greed, and lasciviousness. Since the crown was set upon his curly brown hair, James hadn’t removed it. No matter that the king’s crown was only to be worn for ceremony, high court, and other manners diplomatic. James apparently felt it should always shine forth from atop his dull head. Robert wagered that James slept in it, but neither William nor his cousin were willing to sneak into the king’s chambers and find out. But William had to grant his brother this: the man knew how to put on a show. They were near a fortnight into the Realm Review, and the crowds were massive, the celebrations sumptuous, the tone regal. Little did the jovial citizens know, this months-long stunt was bankrupting the royal coffers, obliterating the small gains Matilda had made as regent. The Realm Review started three centuries prior, when the line of royal succession was questioned. King Harold the First had died without legitimate issue, and a bloodbath ensued. Percival, eldest son of Harold’s only sibling, Princess Margaret, claimed the crown. But since he descended through a female, Anthony, the bastard son of King Harold through his long-time mistress, declared Percival’s claim illegitimate and took up arms against him. In the end, Percival won, and he decided to secure his triumph by forcing all of Troixden’s counties to pay him public homage. He ventured out on a twelve-week whirlwind tour of his country with his entire court, young wife, and infant son, who would be Harold the Second—or Harold the Horrible if one were his subject—in tow. These grand reviews ceased during the previous century’s Great Famine, it being unseemly to flaunt the crown’s wealth to people who were literally eating dirt to survive. But James, who’d lived under his father’s, then his mother’s, shadow, decreed the tradition be revived. Thus they caravanned, James at the helm, shining in his crown like God’s own Son descended, the people dousing him with flowers and cries of fealty. William was both disgusted and awed. Nearing sixteen, he’d never been farther than Foxhall Castle in Cecile, one smattering of the royal holdings. He’d never even been to Robert’s Cheval in Norwick, mainly because Robert disdained it. But they would travel there on the review, the Lord only knew how many weeks from now. They had passed Kilburn two days ago—a ride that, even at a leisurely pace, should only take three-quarters of the day from Havenside. Yet it had taken them an entire week. God forbid James bypass any opportunity to be worshiped or pretend to be magnanimous to the unsuspecting peasantry. At least they were heading away from July’s high heat, to a far-flung backwater of a duchy called Beaubourg. Pretty name, but if the outskirts were any indication, the people were hard-scrabble and wary. More than once William caught an elderly woman giving their retinue the evil eye. William rode alongside Robert, right in front of his mother’s litter. Daniel, as King Claude’s bastard, was declared unfit for a royal parade, and was probably holed up in a palace tower, contentedly studying. The two boys were too hot and bored to even banter. Every fifteen minutes or so, William circled back to his mother and sister to see if he could do anything for them. His mother always smiled and shook her head. This time her response was different. “I wonder if I shall see my old friend Julia,” his mother mused. “She married the duke here. He very generously offered us to stay, but your brother felt the castle was too small, the land not of enough import.” She sighed, eyeing James on his horse. “When will he ever learn?” William suppressed his annoyance. “Surely you and I and Catherine can pay a call? I daresay James wouldn’t notice if we went missing.” “Yes, Mother, can we?” Cate lifted her head from her mother’s lap. Matilda sighed, stroking Cate’s pale hands. “He needs us here to support him, even if he—and you—don’t see it. But perhaps … perhaps next spring we might see fit to pay a visit.” William nodded. “As you wish.” He rode back to Robert wondering what his mother’s cryptic words about support meant. They neared the main town, smatterings of farms and houses soon crowding along mud-cracked lanes. Children ran out of shacks, elder siblings and mothers following, waving chubby arms and throwing their hats in the air. James’ guards and lords dutifully flung coins. Predictably, the people cheered. William could see the medieval castle’s towering gray turrets on the hill to his left. The gates were open, blue and white livery flying gaily in the summer wind, flower garlands draping the walls. He wished he could break from this tedious train and gallop through those castle gates to make merry with the duke and his duchess—spirit his mother and sister away to this afterthought of a land, far from his boorish brother. Surely any friend of his mother’s would welcome them, keep them. Surely the duke could use sturdy, strong arms to help him about the place. Robert elbowed him in the ribs and out of his daydream. They were at the town’s crossroads. The people waved ribbons and flowers—it was like they descended from fairies, these people. His people. Not just his brother’s. William heard a horse whinnying and saw his brother’s steed rear into the air. He was too close to the gathered crowd, the horse would surely land on someone. But it ended in moments. James steadied his mount and leaned over to a person in the crowd, William couldn’t see who. His brother spat, then kicked his horse into a trot, nose in the air. “Wills!” It was his mother. He circled back to her. “Take these flowers to that little girl over there. I think she’s crying.” Matilda had a strange look on her face. “Quick, before we pass.” William took the bouquet—lavender, roses, and ivy—dismounted and walked his horse to the girl. She couldn’t have been more than six, and looked strikingly like Cate, with long brown hair, a crown of rosemary and lavender circling her petite head. Surely, princess of all the fairies. Her cheeks were plump, red, and wet with tears. She shook, afraid to meet his eyes. He bowed low, swinging out his arm in the most subservient courtly supplication. “My Lady,” he said, affecting his formal voice, “with Her Majesty’s compliments and mine.” The girl-fairy gaped at him, dark brown eyes bowls of wonder. He stiffly handed her the flowers, unaccustomed to such reactions. Maybe she thought him a fairy too. His duty dispatched, he remounted his horse, urging it on to catch up with James. He reigned to a trot alongside the king. “You don’t belong up here with me,” James said, not even turning to look at him. “And you don’t belong with a crown on your head,” William mumbled. “What was that, Wee-Willy?” William yet again swallowed his simmering anger. “So, is this how it is to be? Me cleaning up your messes for the rest of your miserable life?” “My miserable life?” James laughed, false, hollow, patronizing. “’Tis your life that will be miserable if you continue to pretend you’re anything but my chattel.” “I’m next in line.” “Not for long.” James leered. “I’m to marry Minerva at Christmastide. She’s a Medici. She’s gorgeous. Birthing hips, they say.” William winced. Poor woman. “Then I suppose congratulations are in order. May you have many, many sons.” James chuckled. “I know what you’re thinking, dear brother. You’re thinking you can live off the fat of my crown, protected by mother, flitting about with your friends and our dear, dear sister. But you’re wrong.” Panic erased all thought of the scene back in Beaubourg. What wickedness was James plotting? “You’ll be happy to be rid of Catherine to Minerva’s cousin then. As for me—” “Is that what you think?” James cackled. “Oh no, no, no. I have much more expedient plans for our princess.” Expedient? Before William could ask, James continued. “And as for you, surely we need some sort of ambassador in, say, Arabia.” While William longed to travel, he wasn’t eager to leave his mother and sister in his brother’s clutches. Nor did Arabia sound hospitable for a Catholic prince. “Getting rid of us so soon?” William said through gritted teeth. “Getting rid of us so soon, Your Highness,” James said. “And yes, as soon as I can be rid of my mealy-mouth siblings, the better.” He kicked his horse into a gallop, waving vainly at the Beaubourgian stragglers, William staring daggers after him. “Did you see? Did you see?” Bryan was breathless, bent, hands on his knobby knees, just inside the willow’s verdant drapes. Anna relaxed against the trunk, making an infinite daisy chain. “I saw.” She frowned up at him. “And that king was mean. I’m glad I’m not a princess.” Bryan snorted and sat next to her. “But he sure was grand. I wish I was a knight riding with them.” “I don’t want anything to do with any of them.” She crossed her arms and nodded, looking exactly like Mary during one of her scolds. “Good thing we live here then.” He flashed a crooked smile. “Yes. And may those people stay far away.” Towers Fall Five months later, the court returned from the grueling review. Cate was in bed, covers tucked up to her chin, as Matilda hushed her and stroked her sweat-beaded forehead. “What a taxing time, my darling,” the queen whispered, “sleep dear girl.” Parade after parade they had trod during an unseasonable heat wave, from the end of August until October, when the fall winds provided relief. Regardless of the weather, and Matilda’s pleadings, James wouldn’t turn back. How, he argued, could he disappoint his dear, dear people? Thus it was almost Advent when the bedraggled courtiers returned to Palace Havenside, dazed and exhausted. Cate was most tired of all. Even though she rode in her mother’s shaded litter, the barely fourteen-year-old became bleary eyed and uncharacteristically taciturn. When they arrived, she climbed into bed with her old woolen lamb, which she hadn’t slept with in years. Matilda again felt her daughter’s brow. She kissed Cate’s warm skin and turned to the gathered ladies and nurses. “I worry about her,” she said as she rose from the bed and guided the women away. “She shivers under all those covers, yet her skin is boiling to the touch. Call the king’s physician, and in the meantime, keep her brow cool. Lady Cariline, please send for some warm broth from the kitchens.” William, searching for his mother and finding her with Cate, made to enter his sister’s rooms, but Matilda sprang to him, took his arm, and hurried him out. “Wills, dear, Cate’s not feeling well. Let us not disturb her.” William saw past his mother’s smile to the fear lodged in her eyes. “Is she ill?” His brow scrunched. “Be forthright with me, Mother.” Matilda guided him to a nearby window nook. “William. Dear.” She couldn’t continue. Her hand shot to her mouth as she gulped for air. William caught her in his arms as she crumpled to the stone floor, purple skirts ballooning about her, as though she were melting inside them. In his presence, she’d never cried for anything other than happiness. “Oh, my boy,” she said, “I fear ’tis the sweating sickness.” “It cannot be,” William said, more shocked by his mother’s peculiar behavior than her words. “She’s merely worn out, as we all are.” His mother shook her head and frowned, gazing out the window as she wiped her tears. William was nearing sixteen, and he wasn’t sure whether it was age or the fact that his hateful brother was king, but something inside him had changed. He felt he’d aged five years, not one. Seeing the real lives of all of those people—his people—made him yearn to leave the palace, to see more. But it also broke his heart. Many were desperately poor, with missing teeth and dirty children. Many had clambered out of tilting wooden shambles to glimpse his family and their grandeur. He was both saddened and emboldened. He had sought his mother to speak with her about it all, and instead found himself cradling her in his arms, another oddity. His mother pulled back, dabbed her nose daintily with a lace kerchief, and said, “I know it sounds improbable, but I know in my heart she is very ill. Perhaps ’tis not the sweats, but ’tis also not merely tiredness.” William searched her face for any sign of hope. “You must promise me, William: do not go to her. Not until it’s determined what ails her.” “I’m not afraid, Mother,” he said, brimming with brotherly protection. “Besides, as you always say, I have the constitution of an ox.” “That may be so, but I cannot risk your health. You must promise me.” William ground his jaw, thinking. “I will write to her then, as I did when we were young and either of us were ill. Twice a day, to bring her cheer. And I shall have Robert and Daniel do the same. Heaven knows Daniel will join in.” She smiled. “Yes, Daniel is very keen. And quite concerned about her future.” “That’s better—you’re talking of her future.” He squeezed her shoulders. “She’ll be fine. You must know that in your heart as well.” “Whatever would I do without your joyful, sanguine heart?” She embraced him. “Now, I must return to your sister. You go. Go and write to her, write her a ballad, bring a smile to her face.” “Yes, Mum.” He bowed his head and retreated, off to find his faithful friends and the succor they could provide both him and his sister. Matilda returned to Cate and found the king’s physician consulting with the head nurse. The doctor was tall and thin with a wispy, pointed beard, dressed in his profession’s black robes. He always looked grim, but as he shook his bony head, the queen could tell he was more somber than usual. She motioned for the two to join her near the fire, away from prying ears. “What is it? Is it the sweating sickness?” “No, Highness, I am afraid ’tis not,” he spoke with a precise diction that chafed her nerves. “Worse?” “I would not say that either, Madam. It is, well, inexplicable.” “Speak plainly now, man, and tell me.” Damn his insufferable obtuseness. “Majesty, ’tis like nothing I have seen. The princess is definitely fevered, but it’s not the scarlatina, nor the sweats. ’Tis not a plague or pox.” Matilda sighed in relief. “I don’t know what it is. An infection of some sort, but I cannot find its source. I would like to observe her for the next twenty-four hours, if that suits. After which point, I shall reassess.” Matilda nodded, more hopeful. “Yes, I see. Then you think she will last the night? You think she will recover?” “One cannot be too hasty in these things, Majesty. As I said, I do not know what the princess is stricken with. It may pass, or it may be a long battle. I know this is an unusual request, but I would like to stay here in her rooms for the night so as to better observe and treat her condition.” “Yes, of course. I shall stay as well.” Matilda turned to the nurse. “Please see to it that the good physician is made comfortable and that you follow each of his instructions in detail.” Then, a bit louder to the room, “My ladies and the princess’s are excused. No one other than the nurses, the physician, and me should enter here unless under orders. Ladies, please see to it my night things are brought. I thank you for your service thus far and beg you light a candle and pray without ceasing for our dear princess.” The room cleared amid fluttered curtsies and gathering of soiled linens, leaving four nurses, the cryptic physician, the queen, and her feverish daughter, mumbling in her sleep. Year I, King James, 1554 To The Duchess of Beaubourg, Her Grace, Julia Carver, Many happy greetings in the name of King James, long may he reign. I heartily desired to see you on our recent Realm Review, my dear friend. Alas, our hurried itinerary did not allow us to tarry in your fine lands for more than the parade through town itself. I watched for you amid the crowds and was saddened not to see your face again after these many years. Every young girl I beheld, I wondered if she was your own dear Annelore. Even though you have been gone from court, stories of your grace, good humor, and love for your people still reach my ears. As well as tales of your skills as a healer. It is because of this I write to you now. Dearest Julia. I would never deem ask you to leave your hearth and home for a mere trifle, but there is none whom I would trust so much as you. It is my darling Catherine who has fallen ill, from some newfound fever that will not leave her. I am at a loss, and all the physicians ever seem to want to do is bleed her dry. I am convinced they have no better idea than the rest of us. Each day she is frailer, and each day my heart grows more desperate. Fly to us, Julia! I beg you, not as your Queen alone, but as your old friend. My own privy purse will cover your expenses and any medicinals you may require. I pray you make haste; return with the men who carry this letter. I fear she may not even survive until you arrive. I am lost if she be. I trust the Duke and your own dear daughter are the pictures of happiness I always imagine in my heart and pray for in my soul. Adieu, sweet Julia; make haste to your Princess’ side and mine own. Your humble and ever loving, Queen Mother, Matilda Julia dropped the letter on the table and met her husband’s eyes, which swam with heartache, pride, and fear. “You cannot refuse her.” Stephen’s arm fell as limply as the letter had. “She’s your queen, your friend.” “I never wish to set foot in that place again.” She looked down. “And what if …” she locked eyes with him, desperate to soak his strength into her own bones. “This is a strange sickness, and I’ve stopped treating those in the village with odd contagions.” “What does Mary think?” He rose and came to her side, his warm hand caressing her shoulder. “She’s dressed and ready to go, of course. Just like for all the others.” She leaned her cheek against his hand, feeling the soft hairs tickle, savoring its familiarity. “I will miss you every moment.” She glanced up at him, startled. “You cannot refuse your queen. Even if she’s only the queen mother.” He kissed the top of her head. “The whole duchy will pray for your journey, your safe and speedy return. Not the least I.” She kissed his hand, slowly, reverently. “Ready the carriage,” she said to Jeffrey, their master of horse. And with one last, all too fleeting an embrace, she and Mary left for Havenside. “Majesty, I made haste, and my heart has not stopped racing since.” Inside the threshold of Palace Havenside’s Great Hall, Lady Julia embraced her queen and oldest friend. The queen hadn’t changed a whit the past eighteen years, save a few silver hairs. Seeing her, being there, thrust Julia back to the tribulations of her time at court. The wide maw of her fox-lined traveling cloak fell from her head as the two women swayed back and forth, entwined. The queen, eyes wet from relief and joyful reunion, appraised her former maid of honor and childhood playmate. “Oh, Julia, darling, none of this ‘Majesty’—’tis to be Matilda or nothing at all.” They embraced again, laughing and crying. The queen released her and wiped away tears with the back of a bejeweled hand. “And you took the trip in such a condition!” The queen shook her head. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing if I knew you were with child—and so far along!” “And only labor itself would have kept me from you,” Julia said, more to convince herself than the queen. Her smile turned into a determined grimace. “Well then, where is the dear princess? I have brought my tinctures and my best nurse, Mary.” At this, Julia stepped back and presented Mary, cheeks as cheerful and nose as pink as a woodland gnome, to the queen. Mary stood a mere five feet and three-quarters of an inch tall, dressed in serviceable gray muslin with a fresh white apron tied under her sagging bosom. She bowed low before the queen, uncharacteristically mute. “Mistress Mary, if Lady Julia trusts thee, then I welcome you with all mine heart.” The queen squeezed Mary’s hand. “Thank y’, Majesty.” Mary said to the stone floor. “I will take you both straightaway to the princess’s rooms. I have sent refreshment to meet us there. You are so very noble and good to even expose yourselves to this potential danger. I will forever be in your debt.” The queen walked swiftly, Julia on her arm, and Mary following through the maze of passageways. Snaking their way around the public rooms and up the stairs to the royal wing, where the children and their caregivers lived, they reached Catherine’s chambers. Heavy tapestries draped over the windows, making the room humid and stagnant. The fire was stoked high, and every candle in the kingdom appeared to surround the princess’s bed, casting an ethereal glow. The air seemed dense with melancholy as it hovered over the sickly girl. Mary claimed that if one listened closely enough, one could hear the rustle of angel’s wings, waiting with the patience of eternity for ill children. If that were true, the room would be as full of those divine creatures as it was with candles. But there was no time to listen, only time to get to work and bring the girl, happy and rosy, back to her mother’s anxious arms. Julia crossed herself. Dear God, let it be so. Matilda informed them that she had banished the royal physician, and for the past three days, a week after Catherine took to her bed, Matilda and her nurses cared for the princess. The queen apprised Julia and Mary of the illness’s progression. Catherine had started out hot to the touch, but shivering, with delirious and restless sleep. Her fever seemed to break two days before Julia’s arrival, but she still soaked her sheets with sweat by midday. She now slept more and more. “Maybe she is coming out of it, and I have called you for naught,” the queen said, making a brushing movement with her hand as if to wipe it all away. “I am hoping by her sleep she regains her strength. But in my anxious moments, I fear she is worse rather than better.” She bit her lower lip, countenance changed, looking like the young girl Julia remembered. Julia approached the princess. She tilted her head to Catherine’s chest, listening to the girl’s steady, deep breaths. “Hello, dear princess,” she whispered. “All will be well.” The queen curiously watched her old friend. Julia lifted her head and smiled at the queen. “Her breathing sounds strong. No rattling or phlegm to be heard. But I do have a request.” Julia rose and fixed her friend with her dark eyes. “Majesty, you must go and rest. Not here, but in your own rooms. Take a long bath and sleep. And for goodness’s sake eat something—you look to waste away.” The queen shook her head. “I cannot leave her side. I feel my heart would break if I did.” “Highness—Matilda,” Julia went to the queen’s side, “the princess, for now, is safe. If anything happens for good or ill, do you not think I would send for you with all haste? But, my friend, for your sake and for the princess’s, you must take a good, long sleep, and eat more than this broth.” She gestured to the untouched bowls of now-cold soup cluttering the bedside table. The queen hesitated, gazed at her peaceful child, and then back to her summoned saviors. “I suppose,” she sighed, defeated, “I suppose you speak the truth.” “I always have.” Julia smiled and waved her friend out the door. Once the queen left, Julia returned to her charge. With Mary’s help, she examined Catherine, barely waking the drowsy girl. She did feel clammy, but no longer had the heat of a fever. She had no visible sores or other source of infection. Julia turned to Mary. “This is ever queer. It appears to be an infection, but of what, from where? What do you think, Mary?” “’Tis queer as ye say, Mum. Never seen the like.” Mary’s brows hadn’t unknit during the full hour she’d been at the castle. “I wonder though …” She tapped her lower lip with her thumb. “What?” Julia knew that tapping thumb all too well. Mary had solved a puzzle. “Well, she be a bit past the age when she may become a true lady, but some bloom later than others … maybe there be an infection inside? Maybe her womb’s been blocked?” “Mary!” Julia grabbed the nurse’s head and kissed the crown. “You brilliant and rare woman! Of course! Her symptoms still seem strange, but they do all point to some type of infection. We will have to check her. I feel I should ask the queen first. Such a delicate thing …” “Well, Mum, you just told Her Majesty to be running off. And if the princess has a blockage, best t’ be out with it now, and so much’s the better.” It was Julia’s turn to sigh. “You’re right. We need to treat her as we would any other soul and not fear for our heads if something goes awry. Matilda would protect us.” Mary frowned. “I didn’t think of that and now you’ve got me trembling.” Julia laughed. “I don’t think even King Claude would have beheaded a pregnant woman and her midwife. Surely his son, in his first months of rule, would be less inclined to do so.” “So you say,” Mary said, shaking her head. She whistled through her crooked teeth. “Best to it now.” Hours later, Catherine was wide-awake begging Julia to tell her a story. “Please, Your Grace,” Cate said, ever so sweet, even in her weakened state. “I cannot seem to refuse a royal request lately, can I?” Julia said to the air. “But Mary is much better at stories.” “They’re just fairy stories I tell wee Anna. Nothin’ a fine, grown lady like the princess would prefer.” “Wee Anna?” Catherine’s question was barely above a whisper. “Aye,” Julia said, smiling, reflexively resting a hand on her pregnant belly. “Annelore is my little girl. She is five now and the light of our world in Beaubourg. She has chestnut hair and big, brown eyes—just like you, princess.” Catherine smiled in return. “Annelore. Anna,” she whispered to herself. “I would have liked a little sister.” Catherine had been brave and unflinching when Julia explained who she was and how the examination would proceed. Mary’s hunch had been mostly correct. The princess had started to menstruate, but no blockage or signs of infection were found. Her flow had a faint ill scent, but whether due to her sickness or the room’s perpetual dankness, Julia couldn’t tell. Not satisfied that this solved things, as the fever had begun well before any menstruation, Julia had sent for the queen to apprise her of the situation and seek further counsel. “What if I read you one of these letters here whilst we wait for your mother? Will that do, Highness?” Catherine nodded and closed her eyes. Julia leaned over to the bedside table, maneuvering through stacks of cloth and half-sipped beverages, and selected the topmost letter, stuffed unceremoniously between a gold candlestick and horsehair brush. She smoothed it with her hands and cleared her throat. “My Dear, Sweetest Sister, Ever Beloved and Held the Most High, Princess Catherine the Brave,” she read aloud, but Catherine had dozed off. Julia read the rest of Prince William’s letter silently to herself. It was filled with the daily goings-on of the castle, private jokes, and greetings from castle inhabitants, everyone from stable hands to someone named Lord Robert. The letter was written so tenderly, with such intimacy, that Julia longed for her own daughter and unborn child to be as close and loving toward one another. She wiped away a wistful tear, returned the letter to its place, and waited for her queen. Two weeks had passed since their return from the Realm Review, and William was restless. His sister remained in a sickened stupor, and two strange women from that isolated duchy of Beaubourg were closeted away with her. His mother never left Cate’s rooms, other than to bathe. Robert bounded around William’s rooms like a jester, begging William to leave with him on a pheasant hunt, at the very least. “Or we could sneak out into the city and see what mischief we can cook up. Wills—we must do something other than sit around and be pensive.” “I can’t leave Cate. What if something were to happen while I was away?” “Sitting here looking morose does nothing to help her either. You aren’t allowed to even go near her rooms. Besides, the tale of our jaunt out would make fodder for a fabulous letter. Come now, would she want you to sit and stew?” William chuckled half-heartedly. “As a matter of fact, I believe she would want me to sit here and pull my hair and wring my heart, like those knights in her stories.” “But I doubt she would want you bald, which is what you will become if you stay here much longer.” “Fine, fine. I surrender,” William said, standing. He rubbed his head, causing his hair to stand on end. He smacked his cheeks and found, to his surprise, stubble. Taken by this discovery, he grinned. “I suppose I must be shaved first.” “Quite the man now, ay?” Robert smirked. “Why, I have been shaved for months now.” Robert dodged William’s smack. “Be useful, cuz, and send for a page so that I may make ready and send my mother word.” “Don’t send word—that will spoil all.” “I must let her know, for if she sent for me and I was simply gone, it would add to her worry. The least I can do is keep mother from that fright.” “I suppose you’re right, my liieeeggge,” Robert slurred. “Will you be serious for one moment? Unless you’re looking to join James’ court as fool.” William walked to his wardrobe and chucked various items on the floor, searching for his hunting leathers and a woolen tunic he kept for disguised forays into Havenside. Robert backed to the door, doffing his cap and bowing repeatedly in feigned fealty. “Meet me in the stable yard at half past the hour!” Then, pausing at the threshold, he said, “Wills, you know I mean it to help. Your mind needs diversion, even if your heart lingers here.” William turned from the wardrobe, holding a scuffed black leather boot in one hand and looking quizzical. “Yes, Robert. I know,” he said. Then William smiled wide, dimple showing in his chin, left brow soaring like a buttress. “You are the best man for distraction, that is certain, cuz.” The cousins, entirely exerted and mirthful, returned to the castle through the Great Hall, mumbling jests and sending each other into fresh peals of laughter that echoed above the court’s hushed tenor. Austere elder courtiers glared at them as the two sauntered toward the east wing. Upon reaching the top of the stairs that led to William’s rooms, they heard shouts. Two pages charged through them, heading toward the royal chambers. Robert and William looked at each other, then ran into the fray. William sprinted at his sister’s closing door, but it slammed before he could muscle through. “Catherine!” he hollered, pounding on the door with his gloved fist. “Cate! ’Tis Wills! I’m here!” The guards flanking her door moved to force him back, but Robert growled at them. The men hesitated, knowing their orders, but now faced with strong-arming the prince. “Catherine!” he yelled again, and then to the guards, “Open this door at once! I must see my sister. Your prince orders it, damn you!” A young nurse scurried up behind the group, laden with linens. The guards parted to allow her entry, but William grasped her arm. “Tell me, Madam, what of my sister?” “I—I cannot say, Your Highness,” the nurse said, blushing. “Cannot say because you do not know, or because you are not allowed?” His grip tightened. She glanced at the guards, then averted her eyes, making for the door. “I cannot say, sire.” She wrenched her arm free and darted through the slit in the door. William tried to squeeze past too, but a staff held at his chest blocked his way. Through the closing door, he glimpsed Matilda’s back. “Mother!” His voice cracked. He saw her turn, face drawn and white, no recognition in her hollow eyes as the door shut. Moments later, the peephole opened to reveal the reddened, plump face of a woman he’d never seen. Her eyes darted between the cousins. “Prince William?” “’Tis I,” he said, frowning. “Beggin’ your pardon,” she said, blinking eyes wide. “I’m to tell you to return to your rooms, Highness, for my lady the queen bids it.” Robert said, “And who might you be, Madam, who orders your prince around such?” “Beggin’ your pardon, milord. I be Mistress Mary of Beaubourg, sent here by personal request of Her Majesty the queen.” She blew her hair out of her eyes. “And ’tis Her Majesty who’s givin’ the order, not I.” “Why will the queen not come to the door, Mistress Mary?” William said. “You must tell me all. How fares my sister?” “I’m sorry my prince, but I’m only t’ say this: yer mother beseeches ye return to yer rooms with all haste. Her Majesty will come to ye when she be able.” William stared at this outsider. She gave him a piteous smile. He loathed her for it. Mary said, “I would add another request, if I may. Pray for them both, the princess and her highness. For the Lord is close at hand and close to your heart, to be sure.” With that, she closed the peephole. William and Robert retired to his rooms. They had barely reached his chamber threshold when they heard it: a guttural howl. Its dissonance echoed through the castle, sending the crows roosting in the walls to the sky, a murder of black calling, “She is dead! The princess is dead!” William stormed into the throne room, pushing past the guards and throwing open the doors. James sat, one leg tossed over the side of his new seat of power. His head tipped back as he cackled, surely for some bawdy joke of his own making. Courtiers surrounded him, basking in his reflected glory, hoping to grasp some for themselves. Everyone turned to the advancing prince, patronizing smiles on their faces. “You’ve killed her, you scoundrel!” William roared. “Are you happy now, Brother? Your vanity and your lust for power have killed your own sister!” James grinned down at his brother, his crown askew. “What are you prattling on about, Willy?” “Cate, damn you—Cate is dead! This very hour. Have none of your sycophants kept you informed of her welfare?” If he could breathe fire, he would have. “She cannot be dead.” James guffawed, surveying the room for support, only finding silent shock and slack jaws. “We heard she perhaps had the sniffles.” He flicked his wrist as if to brush off the whole incident. “You sniveling, lying, pompous, heartless …” William charged, making it up the throne dais and to his brother’s face before being seized. “Release me, you dogs!” William struggled against the palace guards’ fierce grip. “William,” James said, putting on an air of authority, “if what you say is true, then We are grieved, regardless of what you may think.” Then, still disallowing his brother’s release, he spoke to the room as a whole, clapping his hands for attention, as if all eyes weren’t already on him. “We are officially in mourning. We shall have a great requiem mass for the princess. Send for the queen mother so We may give her our grief and console the poor woman.” “You? Console our mother?” William flexed against the guards’ loosening hold. “You dare presume to give her any comfort, let alone deem yourself worthy of her presence?” “Brother dear,” James said through clenched teeth, “you forget yourself. And you forget to Whom you speak. Your King and your Master.” William spat in his brother’s face. A small bubble of spittle clung to the tip of James’ thin, trembling mustache. James’ demeanor contorted into one of boiling rage. “Take him to the dungeon until he learns to respect Us!” The courtiers gaped in startled horror as William was forcibly removed from the throne room. It took four guards to drag him from James’ presence, but once past the doors, the prince shook them off. “I will follow where thee lead, gentlemen. No need to pull me about like a pup.” Still in his Havenside disguise, he straightened his tunic and stared straight ahead, determined to beat James at his own game, whatever it was. Admittedly, it wasn’t the smartest idea to charge at his brother with murderous hatred in his heart, but James was insufferable. How he sat on his throne, snickering, like the world couldn’t touch him. Like he lived in one of Cate’s fantasy stories. And then to presume to comfort their mother! It couldn’t be borne. He wanted to spit at James again with the thought, but satisfied himself with doing so on the floor. It didn’t occur to William that the king feared the next in line. That James thought William might challenge him someday, and that the people, provided a more charismatic and attractive option, would side with the young prince against their sovereign. It had happened before. But if that were James’ motivation, it proved how little he understood his brother. William had no desire for the crown. All he had ever seen of kings was his cold, cruel, and deranged father. To William, being king meant he would have to become these things and worse. He would have to abandon his friends, his adventures, his hopes—his very soul. He would be left to a life of blood and wrath, like the tapestries hung around James’ throne. He was still pondering his lot when the silent guards escorted him into his cell. The castle dungeons served as a jail for those arrested on site. Sometimes, a king would incarcerate a courtier in the dungeon for a week or so, to teach him a lesson in humility, but most were locked in for a couple of days. After that, they were transferred to Stone Yard, a shear single block of crags flanking the palace’s east side. The Yard delved deep into the earth, where traitors were tortured, and soared higher than the castle’s own defensive wall. These heights housed the most regal inhabitants. Some said the rich were held high to see how far they would fall—and all the better to see the quarterings and beheadings of their fellow inmates on Traitor’s Hill. Few left Stone Yard alive. Some lived out their days within the damp and dreary walls, with only two slits of daylight, forgotten. This was especially the case if one didn’t have an advocate—and a powerful one at that—outside Stone Yard’s impenetrable walls. William, having done nothing to deserve a trip to the Yard, as far as he knew, sized up his cell. He’d envisioned being tossed into a tiny, stone room with thick iron bars and chains on the wall. That was the fate of some, but not the prince. Apparently, prisoners of his ilk had better accommodations. He had two rooms, a small entry chamber, and a larger sleeping quarter. Tapestries like those in the throne room—all gore—flanked the walls. He also had a writing desk with accouterments, a bed already made, and a leather sitting chair in front of a fireplace the jailer was setting ablaze. It was as if they’d expected him. “M’ Lord Prince,” the jailer said as he shuffled about, hunched on one side, white puffs of hair sticking out above his ears. “Be there anything else y’ be needin’, just knock on th’ door, and I be at y’r service presently.” “Thank you, sir. I am surprisingly comfortable at present. Perhaps some drink?” William sank into the chair in front of the fireplace. “Of course, M’ Lord Prince.” The man bowed repeatedly as he limped backward out the door. Within half an hour, William had visitors. Daniel, Robert, and Margaux, trailing behind. She was dressed head to toe in black silk, her blonde curls contrasting with the dark, making it more stark, more sad. She carried the requested tray of mead. “Thank you, Margaux,” William smiled wanly. “It was sweet of you to come. Cate would have wanted it, to be sure.” She curtsied and batted her eyelashes. “I am always at your service, Prince William.” Robert exhaled long and loud as he dropped into the desk chair. “Wills, this is all so absurd. What in the world is James going to do with you now?” “King James,” Margaux corrected. Robert crinkled his face and stuck out his tongue at his sister. “That will be all, Margaux.” His sister looked stricken, but William rescued her. “Let her stay. She cheers me—reminds me of better times.” He stared at her, trying to imagine Cate’s auburn curls in place of Margaux’s yellow ones. “Well,” Daniel said, “I am so heartily sorry. For all of this. I do not blame your outburst. I think …” His words caught in his throat. William went to him, put his hand on his shoulder. “Daniel, my dear friend and brother.” Daniel looked up, surprised. “Yes, brother. In my eyes, you are my brother, despite the rest of it.” Daniel smiled weakly and wiped away the beginnings of a tear. Robert spoke from a rare moment of awareness. “I think Margaux and I shall scout out any news in regard to your release, Wills.” William turned to his cousins, having almost forgotten their presence. “Yes, yes of course. Thank you again. Both of you.” He smiled at Margaux. “And please return the moment you can, for I fear being alone in my grief more than being in a cell.” After they left, William pulled the desk chair up to the leather one, seating himself in the former and forcing Daniel into the latter. “It does me good to hear you call me brother,” Daniel said softly. “For I don’t know what I would do if I had no one left to me in this world.” “Let it never be,” William said. “To hear you speak so, you who are so wise and my closest counsel. If you are without wits and friends, where does that leave me?” Daniel let out a small laugh. “We are a pair then. For I am without words, and you are without favor.” He frowned and stared at the fire for a long moment. Then he wept, quietly, his shoulders shaking. “How can we go on without her?” William, used to Daniel being the one with all the answers, shook his head as his own tears streamed down, wetting the stone floor with his pain. Later that evening, Matilda, swathed in black, visited William’s cell. They embraced for a long while, William sensing that if he let her go, they would both turn to dust. “My heedless boy.” She kissed his forehead, finally releasing him from her arms. “Cate gone and you in the dungeon. Can things be any more bitter?” “I am heartsick at making this day worse for you. But I couldn’t stand it. If he had not forced us at such a grueling pace! If he had let her rest and succor, this would not have happened. She would still be here.” “Wills dear, no. She simply caught some peculiar illness. It would have happened whether she had rested or not.” “But if we had stayed home? If we had not paraded about the land in the vain attempt to bolster his arrogance …” He slammed his fist into his palm. The queen sank into the leather chair by the sputtering fire. “William, ’tis fruitless, this blame, this anger. It will not bring her back.” “How can you sit there so calmly,” he flared, “when your own eldest son directly caused your daughter’s death?” “Calm?” Her voice rose. “You dare to tell me I am not rightly grieved? I spent every hour of day and night by her bed for two weeks, I held her in my arms as she looked up at me, frightened of death, pleading at me with her big brown eyes to protect her, and me, unable to do so. Holding her to my chest as she took her last wheezing breath! Do not dare to tell me I am too calm!” William fell to his knees at her feet. “I’m an ass, Mother, forgive me. All I seem to do is grieve you further! You know I would have given all I have to have been with her and you.” She deflated, exhausted from worry and tears. She cupped his fuzz-stubbled chin in her hand. “Oh, but you were with us, Wills. Whenever she was awake she insisted on listening to your letters and yours alone. How she loved you and looked up to you.” Her voice broke, and she covered her face with her hands. “Now then,” she said when this new bout of sorrow passed. “What shall we do about you? You cannot stay in the dungeon, and James won’t let you out without some sort of contrition on your part.” William scowled. Opening his mouth to speak his distaste, his mother stopped him. “You know as well as I James will never lower himself to accept you in his presence without your apology. He needs a way out of this. He knows he cannot leave you here, but he also needs a reason to let you go. It won’t come from his own heart, to be sure.” “I, apologize to him? When Catey’s bed is not yet cold, and he to blame?” Matilda groaned. “We have been through this! Maybe she would have lived, maybe not. Heaven knows, it could have been something one of the castle servants passed on to her. The Lord took her away, and while I struggle to make sense of it, we cannot, in place of our ignorance, accuse your brother—the king, mind you—of murder.” William had been pacing during his mother’s speech, regaining composure. “Well then, what will you have me do? If it brings even a glimmer of gladness to your heart, I shall do whatever you deem with all haste and contentedness in mine own. For I am always and ever at your service.” “That is dear and wise,” she said, standing to better appraise him. “It seems to me you have become quite a young man these past few months. ’Tis queer I didn’t notice until now. You are no longer my little boy, are you?” She smiled to herself and clucked her tongue. “Quite the young man indeed.” William blushed, sheepish under his mother’s tender gaze. “I am only trying to live up to what you have taught us.” She laughed and hugged him. “Oh-ho! Well, the bit of beard helps too I suppose.” She patted his cheek. “I will be back early in the morrow, bringing word of your release and its conditions, if you would be so gracious as to let me negotiate on your behalf.” “Of course, Mum. As much as I know James doesn’t warm to your counsel, ’tis assured he would loathe mine.” He bowed his head as she made to leave. “Mother,” he said, “about Cate. I … you know I would never … you know I always—” “Yes, dear heart. I know.” “You may approach Us,” James pronounced in his most official voice, waving his hand, as if this audience mattered little. A falsely contrite William obeyed, keeping his eyes on his brother, a wolf observing its prey. Various council members and flirtatious young ladies were scattered about in groups, gossiping, making alliances, and quietly taking bets on whether William would again charge the king. Three buxom girls perched on the throne steps, twittering and looking gleeful despite their mourning garb. William spent a full week in the dungeon, not that he’d minded the solitude. Save for the other prisoners’ pleading cries, which he could hear late into the night, and the lonely, vacant spaces of time, jail had been fairly tolerable. Rather, he took umbrage that James had kept him there a full six days after their mother had secured his release. And that he still blamed his brother for Catherine’s death. He bowed at the waist, removing his blue velvet cap and swinging it out in a dramatic arc. “My liege,” he said, cocking his left brow, burrowing his slate blue eyes into his brother’s skull. Each group of attendants had fallen silent, anticipating another scene. “I have come to thank Your Majesty for allowing me leave of your underground accommodations.” James sneered. “Frankly, the only reason you’re released, dear brother, is We felt you should be allowed to attend the princess’s mass. If it weren’t for this, you would rot down there for all We care.” William took a steadying breath. He’d promised their mother he’d be nothing but “if you please” and “why thank you, My King.” She said it would prove him the better man, knowing which battles to fight and which to concede with grace. No matter how grating and guilty the opponent. “Your Majesty is all benevolence.” “Yes. Yes we are.” James sighed, investigating his fingernails. Then he rose from his throne and clomped down each stair, as if the exertion were a bother. He stopped in front of his brother. James wasn’t a tall man, but he was strong. He had a fighter’s body—broad shouldered, thick and as solid as Stone Yard. William, just beginning a growth spurt, was already nose-to-nose with him, but nowhere near as muscular. James continued in a patronizing tone, speaking each consonant with exactitude. “We are, in fact, feeling so benevolent, that We have decided not to return you below. Instead, you shall be sent south to help secure our border, as the right arm of Captain Fitzronald. You will not be allowed to fight if a skirmish arises, for We could not risk Our dear prince’s scrawny neck. Fitzronald will find something to do with you, to be sure.” He raised his brows, mouth slightly ajar, awaiting William’s reaction. William didn’t flinch. He continued glaring at James, seething internally. James flicked the air with his hand as he turned to the throne, ascended slowly, then sat. “You shall leave tomorrow, immediately after mass. Your things have already been packed. There you will learn your place. And your place shall never again be at Palace Havenside.” “You’re banishing me, then?” William breathed heavily through his nose. From his mother’s report, he had known he’d be sent south. But banishment was unheard of. “You have banished yourself, by your continued outbursts and obvious disdain for Us. You are childish and ill-mannered and are of absolutely no use. Give Us a single reason why We should keep you here.” “What of the queen mother? Shall you break her heart yet again?” “Shall we break her heart again, Your Majesty.” James paused, whether waiting for William to correct his phrase or for misguided dramatic effect, William was unsure. “What heart? You seem to be under the delusion that Our queen mother cares for you. Why ’twas she who offered you up on a platter. ‘Send him away!’ she said. ‘Send him away, James—t’will better for us all!’” William knew exactly what their mother had arranged, but to hear it from James’ gloating mouth added pain to it. “And what of Daniel and Robert?” William stepped perilously close to the throne dias. “What of them?” James snapped. “We could care two wits about those dullards. In fact, the sooner We have them out the better!” James met the Duke of Norwick’s eyes, then reconsidered. “We suppose We must keep the Lord Robert as he is Our dear, devoted cousin, but Daniel shall be thrown out to make his way among the peasants like the bastard he is. Perhaps he can teach them all Latin!” He laughed at his own wit. “I shall take the Lord Daniel with me then, if Your Grace has no use for him.” William said. James stopped laughing and glowered down at his brother, “That is for Us to decide, not for you, Wee Willy.” William inched backward toward the double wooden doors leading to the Great Hall. To leave the palace on an adventure to the south, and possibly beyond, was the deepest desire of William’s heart. James thought to be cruel, yet the king was handing William freedom. Though he was banished, nothing was left for him at Havenside except his two friends, and he’d be damned if he left them behind. He would steal Daniel away when he departed, smuggling his half-brother into his entourage. No one would notice or care. As for Robert, it wouldn’t take long for the Duke of Norwick to tire of his son and send him south. And his mother? Matilda could hold her own, as she had against his father. If he spoke now, he would have to miss Catherine’s mass, but if he didn’t speak, he’d regret it all his days. “Your Highness,” he called out, loud enough for even those eavesdropping from the Great Hall to hear. “Since I shall not be in your presence again, I leave you with this: the fate of our people rests in your merciless and cold hands. I tremble with unquenchable rage for them. Take heed, lest one day they can take no more of you, as I certainly cannot. And for you, I would wish the spoils of the evil you have sown to rain down upon your head like a river of righteousness. Adieu. May you go to the devil and quick—and all your bootlickers with you!” William turned on his heel, stunned and silent stares following, never to set eyes on his brother again. Winter Hare Anna and Bryan, bundled against the cold, trudged through the forest behind Castle Beaubourg, searching for the first snow hare. Anna’s hands were numb, but she didn’t mind. Her father said it was tradition, and if you found it, you had luck all year long. Her mother had scoffed. “Put your trust in God’s faithfulness, Anna dear, not silly country stories.” Julia and Mary had returned from Havenside two weeks before, with the grim news of the princess’s death, and everyone needed cheering. “They’re not stories,” her father replied, a twinkle in his eye, “for I once found the first snow hare, and the next year I married you.” He grabbed her about her hugely pregnant waist and pulled her into his lap. “I’d say that was the luckiest year of my life.” He nuzzled her neck. Anna frowned at them. “Well, I shall find him and keep him.” “Oh no!” Her father raised a warning finger. “If you keep him, he smites you, and you have seven years of bad luck.” “I think that’s breaking a mirror,” her mother said, laughing. “Oh!” Her face twisted, and she pressed her side. “Is it the babe?” The delight etched in her father’s face was impossible to miss. Her mother winced, then grinned. “I think it is. Earlier than I expected but not too—ugh!” Stephen clapped his hands. “Even more reason to find that hare, my dear Anna! You shall bring us all good luck.” While her mother labored away in the castle, she and Bryan tromped in the muddy snow, crouching here, peering under fallen trees there, hushing themselves at random. “What if I find the hare first?” Bryan said, concerned. “I think we both get luck because we’re looking together,” Anna said, unsure. But it seemed fair. After all, she told him about the hare, so she should have some luck too. “I’m hungry,” Bryan said. “And tired.” “Don’t you want to have luck?” She put her hands on her hips and scowled. He grinned. “But I always have luck.” She rolled her eyes and reached for his hand to drag him along. His hand was surprisingly warm, and she wondered how he kept it so when hers were near blue. “If you’re lucky, why haven’t we found the hare?” He laughed. “Because I don’t need it.” “Well I do,” she muttered. But really, what did she need luck for? She lived in a castle like they wrote stories about, her mama and papa loved her, she had Mary and Bryan, and the whole town to play in. She probably was the luckiest girl in all of Troixden. She stopped. Bryan was right. She didn’t need luck. Without warning, she pulled Bryan all the way back to the castle, he whistling behind. When they reached the kitchens, he grabbed a thick, fresh slice of bread, waved at Anna, and left. Cook clucked her tongue and tsked, but Bryan knew Cook adored him. Anna also took a slice with a please and thank you, then asked if she could bring up any water or food for her mother. Cook frowned and shook her head. “You git along, dear,” was all she said, as she returned to her kneading. Anna took another slice, slathered it with butter and honey, and folded it in a cloth to present to her mother. She climbed the grand stairs up to the wraparound balcony, listening to the echo of her mother’s straining. She was used to tagging along after Mary and her mother for births, peeping in a window, listening at a door. The sounds she heard were frightening and fascinating—the moaning and grunting, the way Mary’s voice pitched low and stern when things took a bad turn. The way she whooped when the baby was born, cries of joy erupting, drowning out the helpless bawling of the newborn babes. That’s what Anna awaited: the whooping and bawling. Then she’d bring her mother the bread. She sat outside her parents’ chamber on a cushioned chaise, swinging her legs. She heard the grunting, moaning. Could hear Mary’s voice grow hoarse. She imagined her baby sister—that is what she wanted, despite the rest of them desperate for a boy—dressing her in pretty ribbons, taking her on pony rides. “Mary, help her!” It was Anna’s father. How strange for him to be there. Wouldn’t he somehow harm the baby? There was a keening, like the mares made when they were in labor. Anna imagined her mother’s eyes lolling back into her skull like the horses’ did. “You shouldn’t be here, Stephen. It’ll only make things worse!” Anna had never heard Mary speak to her father like that, let alone call him by his first name. “No!” That was her mother, but she sounded strange—strangled almost. “He stays with me.” Anna heard bustling. Something tipped over, and her mother coughed. “Push, dear, push!” Her mother wailed. “Yes, that’s right! He’s almost here!” Anna heard the strain again, louder this time, and then, an eerie silence. Mary gasped. “Julia!” her father yelled. “Julia! Mary, forget the child—help her!” More bustling. A castle servant opened the door, a bloodied sheet draped over her arm. Anna leapt off the chaise and stood in the open doorway. Her child’s eyes couldn’t process the scene. Her mother, arms splayed, head on her pillow, lips blue. Her father, rocking over her, his face red and wet. The bed blood-soaked, and in Mary’s arms, a baby, still and purple. “Oh God, Anna. Go!” was all she heard. She didn’t know from whom. And she ran. Down the stairs through the keep, through the woods. She ran and ran, her legs aching, underbrush slashing her tender calves, tears streaming down her cheeks. She ran, no heed to where, just away. Away from what she had seen, as if the further she got the less true the image would be. She tripped on a rock, slamming to the ground, muddying her dress beyond repair. She beat the ground, grunting as her fists gathered scrapes. It’s my fault. I didn’t find the hare. I gave up. It’s my fault. She stood, hiccupping, drawing a dirt smudge across her face as she wiped her nose. A meadow sprawled in front of her, one she’d never seen. It ended at a cliff and presented a full view of the sea, a mile away. The meadow was covered in a pristine layer of snow. She scuffed her way into its center. “It’s because I didn’t find the hare,” she said to the clouds, to God. A breeze caressed her cheek. Looking down, she saw animal prints in the snow. There, at the cliff’s edge, as if ready to hurl itself down to the cragged rocks below, crouched a white hare, bigger than average, with a black circle over its right eye. It raised itself on its hind legs and considered Anna, pink ears twitching. “Why didn’t you save my mama?” she asked. “Why didn’t you save the baby?” The rabbit bobbed its head, as if it were trying to answer. “Go away!” she shouted, suddenly enraged. “Go away and never come back!” It cocked its furry head, scratched its nose with a paw, and then did Anna’s bidding, its fluffy white tail disappearing into the trees. From Boys to Men June 30, 1559, was a day neither France, nor William, would soon forget. It started with the proxy marriage of King Philip II of Spain and France’s Princess Elisabeth at Notre-Dame. The city was drunk on ceremonial love and free-flowing wine. William, Daniel, and Robert, in their budding twenties, had left after the feasting, opting not to attend the lists. Instead, they dressed down and strolled along the Seine, each with a bottle of wine, and prowled for women. Rather, Robert and William prowled for women; Daniel appointed himself royal bodyguard. They’d been wandering for hours when they passed a man pissing under a bridge against the stone wall, mumbling to himself. “I piss in your eye, King Henry!” The man chuckled. “The Scotsman’s lance started it, and I’ll finish the job.” “I wonder what he’s on about.” Daniel frowned at the man. “Drunk Frenchmen, Daniel,” Robert said, swigging from his wine and belching, “completely uncivilized.” “But let’s leave the river,” William said. “The stench is vile.” They ascended the first set of stairs they encountered and happened upon a crowd, listening to a black-clad man who stood on a fountain’s ledge. “With the king upon his deathbed, we shall no longer bow under persecution!” The crowd cheered. “Now is the time! To delay is to give the enemies of God a greater chance.” More cheers. “Thus to arms, my brothers! To arms! For the glory of God and of France!” The crowd raised their fists, shouting support. The king on his deathbed? William had seen him drinking and gloating mere hours prior. William grabbed the arm of a young man, face glowing with anticipation of swords and blood and victory. “What’s this about the king?” The lad looked like William must have a mere five years ago, leaving James’ court with hope of glory, adventure, and revenge in his eyes. “Have you not heard?” The lad was eager to enlighten them. “The king took a lance to the face in the lists. He’s dying, the bastard.” “Surely not,” William said. Accidents in the lists weren’t rare, but having just seen the man alive, William couldn’t wrap his drink-blurred mind around this news. “Why we just saw the—” Robert elbowed him in the ribs. “We just saw the marriage announcement,” Robert said. “We’re stunned at this turn of events.” The boy gave them a queer look, blue eyes switching from William’s to the surrounding crowd. “And what of this call to arms,” Daniel said, shouldering himself between the boy and William. A crooked grin crossed the lad’s face. “Come with me, gents.” He weaved through the crowd into the innards of the Left Bank, toward the Sorbonne. William looked at Robert. They both shrugged and followed their impromptu tour guide. “But, William,” Daniel said, low. “This boy cheers treason and heresy—” “We know not where his loyalties lie,” William said, hastening his pace to keep up. “Let’s see what this is about.” “Come, Daniel,” Robert said, pushing his friend to move faster. “What’s a little heresy when intrigue is afoot?” Their escort led them down narrowing streets, ending at a corner bar crammed with students and a few gentlemen. The lad beckoned them to a small table at the back. “Jean Claude Demé, at your service,” he said with a bow. “Well met, Jean Claude. I’m William. This is Robert and Daniel. We’re visiting from Troixden.” Jean Claude gave William a wary look, but then smiled. “Welcome to the real heart of Paris, gentlemen.” Robert flagged down a bar wench with a bosom to bury one’s face in, and ordered a meat platter and more wine. William grabbed Jean Claud’s wrist, encouraging. “Enlighten us on this speech we just heard.” “The king’s hard hand has pushed down and punished the True Believers for years.” Jean Claude’s eyes darted about. “Indeed, there was yet another burning of three women—women!—this past week. There have been rumors the king would set up an inquisition in France.” Robert swallowed, face paling. Daniel looked sidelong at William, giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Jean Claude was a Huguenot and had assumed that if William was in Paris—obviously rich despite his attire, yet not at the list—William must then be a Huguenot sympathizer. Or else the boy, as many are wont to do, was caught in the rapture of promised victory. “And what is this call to arms?” Robert stared at Jean Claude, as if taking his measure. “We’ve been waiting for our chance to break free from this oppression. We don’t need the king to become reformed, but we must be left to follow our faith free from harm.” “Is not the king put in place by God?” Daniel asked, speaking William’s own troubled thoughts. “Do you not believe this?” Jean Claude finished his wine in one swallow, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and scoffed. “Calvin says when kings defy God, they are no longer worthy to be counted as princes. And when they raise themselves up against God, ’tis necessary that they in turn be laid low.” “This goes against St. Paul’s injunction in Romans,” Daniel said with the smile of a tutor, “to obey all earthly powers, for they are instituted by God.” “And is the burning of children a cross St. Paul means us to bear?” Jean Claude pounded his fist on the table, the empty bottles jumping and clattering. “Were the cries of my sister on the stake glory to Christ?” William felt like he’d been punched. The lad was more like him than he’d realized. But with righteous anger burning in the boy’s belly, William feared for him. William had the protection of royal blood in his veins; Jean Claude had nothing. Robert’s face was flush and stern, his jaw clenched. William couldn’t tell if his friend was angry with the boy or angry with the French king. Surely images of his mother flashed through his mind’s eye. “And what lions shall you tame, with such talk, lad?” Robert said. “I’m a man of peace.” Jean Claude jabbed a thumb at his chest. He sloshed his fresh glass at the throng. “But these men will indeed fight. At the first news of the king’s death, we shall take to the streets. The people will join, for they too are sick to death of the stench of burning flesh.” William squelched a smile at the boy’s bravado, but couldn’t help the feeling of doom that overcame him. Lord, protect this bluster of a boy. William and Daniel returned to their plush lodgings, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. It was well past midnight, and the day had tired him, more of mind than of body. Robert had stayed in the Left Bank, deftly courting the bar wench. A message, complete with napping messenger, waited outside their rooms. The man snapped to attention when he saw William. “Sire,” he said, extending the parchment with a bow, “I am to deliver your reply.” Opening the blue wax seal with his dagger, he glanced at the signature. It was from Catherine de’ Medici, France’s queen consort. William beckoned Daniel to follow him into his rooms, leaving the messenger in the hall. “The queen wants me to attend upon her—show Troixden’s support against the Huguenot plot.” William let the letter fall into Daniel’s hands. “She counts on my service as an ally in both faith and nation.” William’s head hurt from too much drink. He went to the windows, flung them open, and gulped in air. “We can’t get involved in this,” Daniel said, staring at the letter. “It was bad enough we spent the evening in a reformist bar. And Robert still there—” “I know we can’t.” William said, pressing his palms to his forehead. “But with her husband near death, and her son not at his majority, I understand her panic.” “You are not an official representative of Troixden. If your brother—” “That didn’t stop them from giving us a place of honor at the wedding feasts. My brother may not see us as official, but the French court obviously has another opinion.” “Nevertheless, we can’t get tangled in their politics. Especially in a skirmish.” William flopped on the bed, rubbing his head, sending his cowlicks spiking. “I don’t suppose we could just keep the messenger waiting ’til morning and see what happens?” “Sire.” Daniel frowned down at him. William opened one eye. “Well, what do you think we should do?” “Say we shall present ourselves to Her Majesty at court in the morning. Daniel smiled. “We shall hear her concerns in person—and hopefully in doing so miss any clashes, rendering the point moot.” “What would I do without your council?” William closed his eyes. “Let us not find out,” Daniel said and turned to tip the messenger. William groaned as he rolled over, curling into a ball. I don’t intend to. The next morning, the three friends left their lodging in their finest court attire, Robert none the worse for wear after returning at first light, wearing a devilish grin. Catherine de’ Medici had sent a small entourage to guide them on horseback, William having waved off the frilly carriage. As they made their way, William heard the unmistakable sound of a crowd growing riotous. Daniel must have heard the same thing, for he rode up to the lead guard, questioning him. The guard seemed as startled as William to hear the enflamed crowd so close. They came to an open square, a block from Notre Dame. A group of fifty armored men charged through, swords at the ready. “It’s happening!” Robert said, eyes lit. He dismounted and took off after the men, disregarding Daniel’s protestations. Robert was drawn to a fight like a knight to a distressed damsel. “Dammit, Robert.” William dismounted and ran after his friend. The swords he and Robert carried were merely ceremonial. They would cut, but weren’t made with the balance needed for fighting. Turning the corner, William stopped short. About a hundred men were engaged in full-fledged battle. Royal guards, shining in their armor, swords quickly finding their marks. Peasants, students, and robed Calvinist clerics alternately fighting with small arms or on their knees praying. Robert had stopped too, gaping at the sight. William grasped his arm, hoping to turn him away. “Robert, you know we can’t get involved in this. If my brother—” “We’re already involved, like it or not, cuz,” Robert said. “Be ye a coward, Willy?” A childhood taunt? Calm down, Wills. He’s just trying to rile you. But William couldn’t calm the dragon Robert’s words had unleashed within him. He grabbed Robert’s shoulders. “This is not our fight. Just because you’re aroused by blood and steel doesn’t mean we plunge—” “Over here” someone hollered, not thirty yards from them. “Men of court! Papists! Traitors of God!” A roar went up, as about fifteen men charged. At the same moment, the rest of William’s entourage ran in behind them. “Damn you, Robert,” William said, unsheathing his sword, “but God still keep ye.” William joined the fray. Most put up a paltry fight, retreating into the mob, well away from William’s lethal skill. He could thank his brother for that. Training with Fitzronald had made him a warrior few dared challenge. But one man, well clothed and helmeted, wouldn’t give up. The man lunged at William’s heart, a novice move. William shifted his weight back and to the right. The other man recovered, cutting through Williams puffed sleeve, drawing blood on his bicep. “I do not wish to fight you, good sir!” William said as the two shuffled around each other. “That’s because you know you’ll lose,” came the muffled reply. His voice tugged at William’s memory. “Nay, sir, the odds be against you, and your fellows. But I have no quarrel here. I’m not French.” He saw his opponent’s squinting eyes through the helmet. “I am here merely on a tour …” William was slowly backing the man against a wall. “Ah, milord,” the man shook his head, “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” The man swung his sword with both hands, aiming to behead William. That was his mistake. The weight of his swing sent him spinning, and William ducked. In one swift move, William dropped his sword, unsheathed his dagger, grabbed the man, and slit his throat. Blood spurt, coating William’s hand. He dropped the man’s body to the ground, blood pooling around his shoulders. The fighting had retreated to the far side of the square, melting into the streets beyond. William slouched against the wall, staring down at the dead man, head near off his body. William didn’t know what made him do it. Maybe a sense of duty, honoring the dead. He knelt and removed the man’s helmet. Then he vomited. It was young Jean Claude. William steadied himself against the wall. There the poor lad’s body lay, accusing William of every wrong, every sin. Why did he let Robert get him into this? The past five years crashed down upon him. Cate’s death, his shame at being banished, and now, a boy as full of life as he had been, lay dead by his hand. William wept. “I’m sorry, Jean Claude,” he said, as if the dead boy could absolve him. “I’m so, so sorry.” “William!” Robert called, running over. “The fighting goes hard in the square, we need—” William wiped his eyes, smearing more blood on his face. Robert gave him an indecipherable look, then saw Jean Claude. He thinks me a coward, weeping over a boy. He broke Robert’s stare and reached over to close the boy’s eyes. Robert clapped William on the shoulder and turned away, sword aloft. Anna tied up her skirts from front to back, coiled her hair into a loose knot, and pressed against a cool turret, struggling to still her breath, listening for his approach. Today she was sixteen, and surely too old for such games, if Mary were to be listened to. But she didn’t feel like being a proper lady, didn’t want to sit and sew and nod politely at visiting dignitaries, few though they were. Besides, Bryan excelled at stealth, and she would put him in his place. Sure enough, his shadow on the grass revealed him, and she fled with a yelp. “You haven’t been able to outrun me in three years!” He called after, speeding up. “But I can out-hide you!” She leapt over wild shrubs at the forest’s edge and jumped behind an ancient oak. Then she crouched low, snuck deeper into the forest, and headed back to the castle’s northern wing, biting her lip to keep from laughing. She had to duck under a moldering nurse log, but from there she could reach the moat house in five strides. Leaping free, she rounded the moat house to find Bryan leaning against the door, arms crossed, smile smug. “You forget I’ve learned all your hidey-holes.” He lunged for her, but she darted away. Her only hope of winning was to reach the willow and climb it. Her chest pounded along with her feet. Her hair loosed itself, billowing behind her like a sail. She swore, knowing it slowed her speed. Reaching the tree, she parted the cascading branches like curtains and threw herself against the trunk, wrapping her arms around. Before her foot could gain purchase on the lowest knot, Bryan jogged in, dimples winking at her, his bright hair caressing his ears. “I’m not afraid of heights anymore either.” He sauntered to her as she slumped against the tree. He raised his hands. “See? No mud.” She looked at her skirts, hopelessly wrinkled from the knot she’d made and dirtied from her skittering through the woods. “I suppose it makes no difference now.” She grimaced. Mary would not be pleased. “Come now, why would I mar such a bonny brow?” Something in his countenance changed, voice lowered, eyes penetrating. She blushed, her heart racing again for entirely different reasons. He stopped a hand’s breadth from her and tucked a tendril of her hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering at her nape. Her spine tingled. She’d felt this way for some time, while reading tales of knights errant and damsels distressed, but the faces she imagined when she drifted to sleep were vague, handsome, chiseled men. Not Bryan. Not the boy who scrambled about in the mud and the muck with her, the boy who stood in the stream trying to catch more fish than her, the boy who belched and picked his nose and peed his name in the snow. With the sun lighting his hair, the verdant leaves shadowing his face, accentuating his thick brow and square jaw, it was like she saw him for the first time. Without her noticing, Bryan had become a man. Well, not a man, but no longer a boy. Her skin prickled, itching the closer he came. His breath was cool and slow, caressing her clavicle. She unconsciously licked her lips. “May I give you another present?” His voice fell. Her fingers dug into the bark. She nodded, holding her breath, her chest swelling. He glanced at her cleavage, then roved his eyes over her mouth. “Oh, Anna.” He cupped her face and leaned in, lips brushing hers. She closed her eyes and waited. He exhaled across her throbbing, anxious lips, then pressed in. His mouth was wide and wet, as if a trout had jumped out of the creek and attached itself to her awaiting pucker. Surely this wasn’t what poets swooned about. The tingling she’d felt moments before snuffed out, and she stood there, unsure what to do, as Bryan worked his mouth around the outside of hers, his upper lip colliding with the bottom of her nose. She sighed reflexively. He pulled back, eyes dull, like a man in his cups. “Oh, Anna,” he repeated, then plunged at her with his tongue, darting it about in her mouth as if mining for jewels. This was no better. She gently pushed him away. He released her, sheepish, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. She desperately wanted to do the same, but instead produced a kerchief and dabbed her mouth, as befit a lady. “Thank you,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “’Twas my first.” “Truly?” Maybe that explained the disappointing encounter. He hadn’t had enough practice. “And what of all those flirtations at Mrs. Cleaves over your ale?” He grabbed her hand, kissed her knuckles. “Surely you know there are no other girls, have never been any other girls, but you.” “Me?” She wanted to laugh, but his expression was so earnest. But it was he who laughed. “Of course, Anna! All these years, spending every day together …” “I always thought you regarded me like a sister.” She cocked her head as his face reddened. “Not for some time.” He looked away. “Have you thought me a brother?” “Well, I—” He cut her off with a hurried, and thankfully less damp, kiss. “Marry me, Anna. Make my happiness complete.” “Marry you?” She couldn’t help but chortle. His forehead creased as he searched her face. “Surely you’ve known it, planned it as I have—” “I—marriage? Why, I haven’t given it the first thought!” “But you’re sixteen! Many women are mothers by this age.” “And I am a lady, heir to the duchy. My father has these things well in hand. If he were thinking of my marrying, he would discuss it with me. And, as he has given no indication, I’m perfectly content to wait upon his pleasure.” “You’ve never been content to wait for anything.” He scowled. “Content for things to stay as they are.” She walked to the drooping branches and swam her hands through. “Nothing would have to change. I would simply be with you and your father in the castle.” His hand clasped her elbow. “And we could live together as a man and wife should.” “That’s my point.” She ignored his implied meaning. “When a woman becomes a wife, she becomes property, ordered about, unable to do what she will when she will. She must do only her husband’s bidding, birth children, mend things—things, not people.” She swung around to face him. “I will not be any man’s chattel.” He laughed again, shaking his head in infuriating condescension. “As you say, you are to be duchess. Your father, and the king, will never allow you to remain unwed.” “I am confident my father wishes the king to forget my existence.” “All the more reason you should marry me.” He stepped forward, chest puffed out. “And just how do you think that will go? My father requests permission for us to marry, the king orders us both to court, he sees yet one more young maid he has not rutted with—” “Anna, your language—” “Would you call it any better? King James plucks young women like flowers from his garden, ruining them forever, then casts them aside to wilt and die.” “Neither I, nor your father, would let that happen to you.” “You think you could stop him?” Bryan glowered. “If that is all that’s keeping you—” “’Tis not all, though it be quite enough.” “Then you would have no marriage?” “Exactly.” She nodded with finality. “I would be mine own master, continue my studies with Mary, languages, theology, helping father run the duchy. ’Tis all the things I love best that would need be set aside with a husband.” He looked forlorn, like a spaniel whose promised bone had been handed to a hound. She rested a hand on his forearm. “Oh, Bryan, but of course if I were to marry, I should marry you. Who else would there be?” She knew that wasn’t the answer he wanted, but he accepted it with a begrudging grunt. “I shall speak to your father of the matter.” “I would have thought you’d already done so.” He grinned. “I was overcome.” She looped her arm through his, guiding him from under the branches and into the blazing afternoon sun. “No need to be overcome. For we’ve all the time in the world.” That evening, sitting at her birthday feast, even her favorite foods were tasteless. She’d had her first kiss. A thing she’d daydreamed about on multiple occasions. But her imaginings were nothing like the stark and sloppy reality. She’d felt all the right things—the gooseflesh, racing heart, a peculiar and simultaneously thrilling warmth. For mercy’s sake, the wind had even caressed them both, as songbirds nestled in the branches. The scene was right out of a love sonnet. So why did she feel dejected? The kiss itself, the trout-mouthed moistness of it all, didn’t make her head spin. With practice … maybe if he closed his mouth? And yet how could either of them practice, other than with each other—for she knew he wouldn’t stand for her practicing on someone else, nor did she relish the idea of him attacking some other girl with that crazed tongue of his. On the other hand, critiquing Bryan’s technique wouldn’t necessarily hasten a happier outcome. She poked at a pea with her knife. Her father leaned toward her, face concerned. She managed a smile. He took her hand, squeezed it, and winked. “Are you tired, my dearest?” She hated to lie to him, but she also hated to hurt his feelings. “I am feeling the length of the day,” she said, “but am determined to stay until the children perform their masque.” He squeezed her hand and continued conversing with his horse master. Anna continued pushing her food around her plate. The duke had never mentioned her marriage, and she was happy not to discuss it. Love marriages were only in stories; her parents had been lucky. A handful of husbands and wives grew to love each other, an affection borne from years of common toil and shared space, but most were matches made to better circumstances, to combine certain families or certain abilities—like a goatherd hitched to a cheesemaker. She didn’t want to be a cheesemaker. And she didn’t want a life with Bryan telling her what to do. If only her mother were here. Not that her father hadn’t done a splendid job raising her. She trusted him with her full heart—but some things one needed a mother for. She crept to bed that night as early as was polite, disappointed on what should have been a celebratory day, vowing that in the morn, she would put all these thoughts behind her and pretend everything was as before. The next day Anna woke early, ready to face whatever sixteen had in store for her. Well, as long as it didn’t involve Bryan’s face smashed against hers. Realistically, she’d have to get used to the idea, for truly, as she’d told him, if not Bryan, who? She wasn’t naïve enough to believe her father would allow her to remain unmarried. The duchy needed an heir or heiress, or it would revert back to the crown. She’d tolerate decades of sloppy kisses to prevent that. She smoothed her smock, cleared her throat, took one last glance in her mirror, and set out for a day of harvesting herbs. No one was seriously ill, and no one was about to give birth, so Mary and Anna could hopefully have a quiet day. She took a shortcut through the kitchens, snatching a quarter loaf on her way. An idea struck her: what if she made herself a love potion? Would that help her predicament? She laughed at herself. Those were nonsense. The village girls always wanted them, and Anna never saw any proof. Though Betsy, a mousy kitchen maid from the castle, snared Mrs. Cleaves’ nephew Thom, one of the town’s most eligible bachelors. And what about Rose Netter? She’d had five suitors, didn’t know which to choose, drank the potion, and was now happily wed to Ned the stable hand and had five children. Certainly there would be no harm … Attempting to shield her work from Mary, she gathered the necessary plants, spiriting away the most obvious ingredient—a dead, dried earthworm—in her apron pocket. She covered the marigolds with ubiquitous medicinal ingredients—rosemary, bay, sage, verbena, poppy pods. “You’re awfully twitchy t’day,” Mary said, peering at Anna. Anna shrugged, afraid that if she spoke she’d burst into girlish giggles. When they finished, Anna feigned exhaustion, telling Mary she could undress herself, then scampered to her chambers, ingredients in hand. The tricky part would be sneaking into Mary’s stash to steal a bottle of fermented dandelion root. Peeking out her door, she could hear her father’s voice floating up to her. She pushed the door, cringing when the hinges complained. Tiptoeing to Mary’s storage cabinet, she found the soaking roots and pulled out one marked with yellow. She made it back to her rooms, heart in her throat, sweat beading at her hairline. Taking another minute at the door to listen for approaching intruders and hearing none, she sat at her desk and got to work, squeezing poppy pods, macerating worm, sprinkling in marigold, rosemary, mincing willow leaves, slicing paper-thin wafers of ginger. Some advised spreading a paste on the soles of one’s feet or on the wrists, others said to sleep with it under one’s pillow. But the fastest way to potency of any medicine that Anna knew was ingestion. She popped the root tincture’s cork and sliced the dandelion as she had the ginger. She poured two thimbles full of the fermented liquid into her potion. “Anna?” Her startled hands spilled the entire contents of Mary’s jar into the precise mixture. She swore under her breath and stood, leaning against the desk to conceal her work. “Yes, Papa?” “Mary tells me you’re unwell.” He popped his head around the door frowning at her. “I—I just needed some time to think.” She shrugged, smile a smidge too broad. “Yes, well …” His eyes roved the room, narrowing as they met hers. “If you’re sure.” She let out a mangled giggle. He ducked out, hesitated, then closed the door. “Blast and damn,” she muttered, hands to her head. There was entirely too much fermented root water. She knew better than to imbibe a poorly crafted medicine, yet if love potions were superstition … She didn’t want to start over and hated to waste precious ingredients. Looking out the window, she saw Bryan striding to the willow. There was no stirring in her bosom. She considered the bowl in front of her. Then, in one swoop, she pinched her nose and lifted it to her mouth, squeezing her eyes closed. Again a knock! She swallowed, coughed, and dropped the bowl before her father poked his head in once more. She could feel some potion in the crook of her mouth, a dribble also on her chin. “Anna, I just—” he said in a rush, then stopped short, observing her again with his keen eyes. “I know ’tis hard as you grow older to not have a mother, and I just wanted you to know—” “I can speak to you of anything.” She again flashed that too-bright smile. He nodded, looking at the ground. “You’re sure?” She hiccuped. “I’m sure. I’m simply tired at present.” “Yes. I see,” he said over another of her hiccups. He either hadn’t heard or pretended not to notice. “I’ll let you rest.” When the door closed, Anna released her held breath. She was tired, and her stomach, which had only an egg and some cheese from breakfast and the quarter loaf inside it, wasn’t taking kindly to the concoction. She climbed into bed, curling herself around her pillow with a low moan. She didn’t know how long she slept, but if the shadow on her wall was any indication, it had been at least an hour, if not two. She pried her eyes open and rolled over to find Mary, arms crossed over her bosom, lips tight, staring at her. A glance at her desk told her that someone had cleaned up her mess. “Did ye have yerself a nice little nap, then?” Anna sat up, smoothing her hair, holding her head high, despite how woolen her mouth felt. “Why, yes indeed. I said I was tired.” “That you did.” Mary’s lips twitched. Anna couldn’t tell if her nurse was trying to stifle a laugh or a scold. “I believe I now desire some air.” She scooted herself to the end of her bed and slid off, Mary’s eyes following each movement. “Yer head feel t’ rights?” Anna laughed, though it rang false. “Of course it does!” No matter that it felt like a sword being pounded straight on an anvil. “I just need some breeze and sun to fully wake me to the rest of the day.” “Rest of the evening, ye mean.” Anna removed her apron, hanging it on a hook by her basin. She nodded to Mary with a fabricated smile and splashed cool water on her face. She wished to heaven she could drink the whole of it down, but she was determined to show a brave face. “I shall be back before supper,” Anna said, heading out the door, avoiding her nurse. She heard Mary mutter, but paid no heed. She needed quiet. She needed to think. She needed her meadow. She leaned against the open main gate, gazing down the grassy hill toward the creek, her favorite long-haired cat, Mae, lacing through her legs. Bending over, she picked the cat up, her head throbbing with even the minuscule altitude change, and sunk her neck into Mae’s thick fur. She scratched under the mouser’s chin, and the cat lifted her face to Anna’s with a purr. “Oh, that you would take such care of me.” Anna startled at Bryan’s appearance, as Mae jumped from her arms in umbrage. Her heart fluttered at his nearness, her throat dry. Were these the potion’s effects? So soon? Her fingers and toes tingled. She had taken a lot of it, so maybe… She rolled on the wall to face him, her right shoulder flush with the stone. She gazed at him, as she observed every reaction in her body and mind. Bryan reached out, repeating his motion of the previous day, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. He traced her jawline with a finger, resting it on her chin. “Your father won’t speak of marriage until you’re twenty-one.” He scanned her face. In that moment, twenty-one sounded interminably far away. Even eighteen was considered old for a bride… “He’s an iron-willed man behind his kind heart.” She swallowed and looked at him from under her eyelashes, breath quickening. “As am I.” Bryan slid his hand behind her neck, nudging her to him. “Assuredly I shall wear him down before that long.” His warm breath swept her chest. Her mouth went slack, and then his lips were on hers, pressing, sweet. Drier. This was more like what she’d imagined. She arched to him, and he thrust his tongue at hers, winching her mouth open with his enthusiasm. She gagged. She jerked away, hands to her mouth, focused on keeping her stomach’s contents in place. “Anna! Are you injured? Did I bite you?” Bryan’s face was stricken. And now she didn’t know if she would throw up or burst out laughing. Perhaps this wasn’t love yet, but she had more hope than yesterday. And So It Begins 1566, Year Thirteen, King James. Lord Robert was none too pleased to be taken from William’s side in Florence, back to King James’ court. His father’s health was failing, and while the two were never close, Robert knew he must return to ensure his seamless ascension to duke. And first and foremost on the agenda was his arranged marriage. After his mother was found guilty of witchcraft, Robert’s father scrambled to make the family appear as Catholic as possible. Therefore, a marriage was set by the time Robert was nine years old, to a babe barely out of her mother’s womb—Lady Mary-Terese, the then Archbishop’s niece no less. Mary-Terese was thankfully far from ugly and raised to be obliging, unthinking, and sweet. She bored Robert to tears. Since she was content to hole up in Norwick with their bouncing baby boy, he only had to tolerate her simpering on special occasions. He didn’t disdain or blame her, he pitied her. If he felt any prick of conscience at his freedom and philandering, it was because she didn’t deserve others’ spite, especially not his. He also couldn’t stand to displease the queen mother. After his own mother’s execution, Robert had been sent to court permanently to sit under Matilda’s famed tutelage. And now, more than a year after his return to court, the adopted mother of his heart lay sickly, shuttered away on the southwestern seashore, according to James, “for her health and happiness.” Damnable James. Had he no scruples? Everyone knew Castle Kimbolt was dank and dreary, beaten by sea and sky. If he could, William would stick James through for it, and Robert had half a mind to do so himself. He rode to see her, despite the snow, hoping to bring her some Christmastide cheer as she wasn’t invited to Havenside. Not that could she make such a trip anyway. He’d brought a handful of men and a miniature portrait of his infant son, Rob. His party was received with sparse, yet homey, hospitality. He settled into his rooms, warming himself with spiced mead and a crackling fire, waiting for the queen mother to bid him to her. He turned his mind to his position at court, wondering again what would become of him after his father died. Could he ingratiate himself without having to kiss James’ boots? He was third in line for the throne, and since James had no issue, legitimate or otherwise, Robert couldn’t be easily cast aside. Yet James wouldn’t forget the decade Robert had spent with William. James had every reason to fear Robert. And fear was a great motivator. A soft knock at the door interrupted his reverie. “Her Grace will see you now,” said a melodic, foreign voice. Robert cleared his throat. When he glanced up, he saw a curvy, lithe, olive-skinned woman standing at the threshold, firelight dancing off her ebony hair. She wore a sapphire-blue velvet gown, perfect globe-shaped breasts pressed up, rising and falling with her controlled breath. She smiled at him as though he were a passing amusement, a stumbling toddler, or some such trifle. Robert nodded and strode to her, picking up his cap as he went. Her black eyes watched him, her face unmoving. “Milady,” he said with a bow, “I am ever your servant.” A long eyebrow arched and her wide, crimson lips pursed. Who did this woman think she was? His hands throbbed. He wanted to whisk her around right there on the spot and … She turned for him to follow. Follow he did as she seemingly glided on air before him. Winding through gloomy corridors, they arrived at a large door, with one guard at attention. The woman inclined her head, and he opened the door. All thought of the mysterious and vexing woman vaporized when he stepped inside Matilda’s bedchamber. The air was heavy with candle wax. Someone had used too much clove in a failed attempt to camouflage the smell of bodily fluids and oily medicines. Underneath it all was the unmistakable scent of suffering, clinging to his nostrils—the stench of Death fast approaching on his ghostly steed. “Robert, my boy,” the queen said, extending a frail hand. She was nestled under heaps of comforters, fox and beaver skins, propped up by a surfeit of pillows. He wouldn’t have recognized her—her thick, brown locks gray and thin, her round cheeks sunken, her ever-pale skin nearly translucent and sallow. Could she have changed so in ten years? What happened to the celebrated and proud Queen Regent of his youth? James. James happened. James and disease. Bile rose in Robert’s mouth. He steadied his breath, forced a smile, took her hand, and kissed it, feeling the bird-like bones beneath his lips. “Majesty,” he said, tucking her hand in his, “it does my heart well to see you.” Matilda made a face and shook her head. “Oh tush, Robert, I’m a fright.” She smiled, blue eyes dancing. “But it does my heart well to see you, my child.” He leaned in so she could kiss him, holding his breath. He didn’t want this to be his final memory of her. If William were here to see this … She patted his cheek and smiled again. “Now sit. I want to hear all about your adventures. You must also tell me how William fares, for I know his letters to me leave out anything that might cause me pain. But you will do no such thing.” Robert made to protest. “Ah, don’t go trying to hide. ’Tis a dying woman’s last wish to hear of her child.” “Why, Majesty,” Robert said, “you have many more years—you will be robust in no time—” “Robert dear, there’s no need to feed me platitudes. Besides, that’s Daniel’s specialty, no?” She gave him another weak smile. “Has Daniel been to see you, Majesty?” Daniel had been recalled earlier that year, to assist James in his new marriage negotiations. Daniel was the only man James could begrudgingly think of that knew every language in Europe and then some. “Stop calling me ‘Majesty,’ Robert, for you’re very nearly my son.” Robert nodded and smiled. “But yes, Daniel has been to see me. He brings me books and salves and medicines we can’t obtain here.” She clicked her tongue. “But every time I see him, he looks more and more severe. This negotiating a bride for James is wearing on him.” “I’m so sorry I’ve not called earlier,” Robert said, grasping Matilda’s hand again. “If I’d known … if I had any notion you were so ill … if Daniel had told me—” “If you hadn’t been so busy making babies, chasing girls, and embroiled in court gossip, you mean.” She kissed his hand, then stroked it. Robert’s cheeks heated. “Ah, Robert, you never change, and I love you for it.” She started to cough, her whole body racking. The lady who’d led Robert came to Matilda’s side, holding a clean kerchief and steaming goblet. She flicked her eyes to him, sadness etched within them. When the coughing ceased, she traded kerchiefs with the queen and handed over the goblet. It smelled of cinnamon, wine, and something Robert couldn’t identify. “Thank you, Lady Yvette,” Matilda said. So that was her name. Yvette. He followed her with his eyes as she left the queen’s presence. “I don’t know what I would do without her care,” Matilda said, watching Robert watch Yvette. Robert blushed again and returned his attention to the queen. “She’s the widow of Lord Parker of Havenside, the head of the merchant’s guild. She came to court three years after he died, looking for a place with Minerva. The queen wouldn’t have her, but I would. Maybe James’ beautiful and stupid queen wouldn’t have lost her head if Yvette had been there to advise her.” She sighed. “And I so wanted a grandson.” “She has been with you that long?” Robert said, lowering his voice. “Eight years … she was just a girl when she came to me. But wise beyond her days that one.” The queen smiled wickedly. “Don’t be getting any ideas, Robert.” “I never have ideas, Mum,” he looked at her, all innocence. “You know that.” He reached into his pocket. “I almost forgot. Speaking of grandchildren—well, almost grandchildren.” He produced the miniature of Rob. Matilda reverently accepted the portrait, tears glinting in her eyes. “Oh, Robert,” she whispered, “he looks just like you did.” She let out a girlish giggle. “He is just adorable! How I would love to hold him …” She held the picture to her breast, squeezing it. She looked at Robert and sighed. “I wish a great many things. But now, I must rest. You will come to me in the morning, for I have something of urgency to ask of you.” “Whatever it is, you know I will oblige.” He rose and bowed to her, doffing his cap. “I hope so, Robert. I dearly hope so.” Robert tossed and turned all night, haunted not only by dreams of the queen mother in her frailty, but also of the elusive, enticing Yvette. He hadn’t been so smitten with a woman since his flirtations with the Medici girl. He woke with a dull ache in his groin. When he finished breakfast, he waited for his summons, pacing, picking up odds and ends in his room—a crucifix here, rosary beads there, a book on the virtues, a paperweight. The wait was interminable. At last the knock came, as did Yvette. She wore a dark gray gown trimmed with wolf, neck bare, giant pearls drooping from her ears. She looked like a painting. Again, her eyes were inscrutable. “My Lady Yvette,” he said as he met her at the door, “’tis a pleasure to see you again in the flesh.” She startled but soon regained her composure. “For you bewitched my dreams all night.” She narrowed her eyes, turned, and headed down the same corridors they’d taken the night prior. “Lord Robert, you disappoint me,” she said. “Is that really the best you can do?” Robert laughed to hide his umbrage. Cheeky wench. When he entered the queen’s rooms, he could hear her breath rattling. He hadn’t known it was this bad. He would extend his trip to stay with her, he’d write to Daniel to hasten to her side as well. If William and Cate couldn’t be here, her adopted children would be. There was no pretense today. She was in her nightgown, huddled under blankets, lying on the pillows, what was left of her hair in a neat plait over her shoulder. He knelt next to her bed, eschewing the chair. “My dearest Mum, what can I do to help you—do you need better wine? Meat? I hear James only lets you have fowl. You only need to ask. What little comfort can I give you?” She coughed and grimaced, swatting away the cup Yvette offered. She closed her eyes. Robert watched Yvette retreat to a table under a window, busying herself. “There are two things I ask of you,” the queen said. “Anything.” He waited for another coughing bout to cease. “I ask that you come back to the fold of the Holy Church.” Robert saw Yvette momentarily stop her work, then continue. “What makes you think I—” “Don’t play games with me. Not while I’m dying. I know you blame the church for your mother’s death.” “But I never—” “Let me finish,” she said, holding up a hand. She took two wheezy breaths. “No one ever believed your mother a witch—no one important anyway. It was all the doing of selfish, spurned, and grasping men. The church is not to blame.” Robert’s heart beat fast, his hands clenched the covers. “The church should’ve never been complicit. It may have been grasping men, as you say, who accused her, but it was the church who killed her, who took her away …” He was too angry, too bitter to go on. He feared his temper in front of the queen, in front of Yvette. “I’m not talking of men, of revenge. I’m talking about your soul, Robert.” “And I’m talking of my mother’s.” “Your mother’s soul is safely with God,” Matilda squinted at him. “Do you dare deny her the chance to be reunited with you in heaven? To be reunited with me?” She coughed, sighed in pain, and shut her eyes. “Please don’t ask this of me.” He rested his forehead on the bed, then felt the warm pressure of a hand on his back. He looked up and saw Yvette looking down at him. Their eyes held momentarily, then she closed hers and slowly nodded. She pressed his back again and stepped away. “’Tis not just your soul I worry of,” Matilda said. “You may one day be king. James may get his comeuppance. William may abdicate, or God forbid …” She turned her head and opened her eyes, struggled to sit up. Her mouth trembled. “As king you must keep our realm stable, you must adhere to the True Faith or chaos will reign—even more so than it does now.” “But I would be offering our people freedom—freedom from a foreign oppressor …” Yvette was back at her table, back turned to him. He saw the slightest shake of her head. Matilda’s eyes rolled back, and she slumped into the mattress. “If you cannot promise me that,” she whispered, “at least promise me this.” Robert cleared his throat. “Name it.” “Defend my son.” Robert’s head jerked up. He knew she wasn’t speaking of James. “Protect him,” she said, turning her still sharp eyes on him. “Serve him with all fealty.” “You know I—” “Hold him in your heart as you hold me. He will need his friends. He will need your love.” “Do not speak so, Mum. William will be—” She reached out, gripping his hand with a man’s strength. “Swear it to me, Robert.” Yvette had turned to face him, obscured by shadows. Robert swallowed, then met Matilda’s eyes. “With my whole life,” he said. King James had married Princess Minerva within six months of his coronation. She bore him three children, all of whom were sickly at birth and died before their respective first birthdays. In letters to his mother, William called it divine justice, but Matilda replied that the babes were at no fault for their father’s misdeeds. This put James, and the kingdom with him, in a fit about his successor. To the realm, William, the spare heir, was unreliable at best. He was the gallivanting bachelor who had abandoned his country, and, despite Matilda’s continued reminders to the country that he was banished, and her pleas to James, he wasn’t allowed back at court. All were relieved when Minerva bore a healthy baby boy. Until the baby sprouted a shock of red hair. Apparently, Minerva had invited the flame-haired and dashing Lord Nicholas—a knight of high standing and a favorite of the king—to her bed to surmount the stubborn obstacle of her unproductive womb. This slip of judgment would cost her and her lover their heads and cause the bastard, Eustace, to be sent from court and raised by landed gentry in the duchy of Halforn. A remarkably generous act of the cuckolded king. So the progeny problem continued plaguing James. Needing to secure yet another foreign alliance, as James had ostracized most of his allies, he set his sights on Spain. Daniel was so fluent in Castilian that he was often mistaken for a native Spaniard. He also possessed the much-needed skills of diplomacy and genuine regard for foreigners that James’ council lacked. Reluctantly, the king recalled Daniel to Havenside, and even more reluctantly made him a duke, the better to be received abroad. Daniel’s dukedom was thanks, in part, to Robert. After Robert’s father died, the king had to appoint Robert to council, because Robert had inherited the largest landmass in Troixden and sat upon the largest fortune in the kingdom to boot. But the title, lands, and money didn’t impart the same prestige that his father had worked his life entire to acquire. Some did fawn over Robert, but most were wary of the banished prince’s cohort, whispers abounding that Robert surely planned to challenge the throne. Robert, despite despising his father, managed to learn the art of royal politics—allies and truces, secrets and lies. And he knew, if he were going to survive at court, it must appear as though he supported the king. So he set about trying to find James a wife with breeding potential. He suggested Daniel as matchmaker, extolling his virtues and travels, weaving a tale of how generous of mind and spirit James would appear in employing his bastard brother. How it was an olive branch the king could extend to William, using his favorite for such a prized post, while keeping William tucked away on foreign soil. By the time Daniel was recalled and deployed on his mission, Robert was ready to join him, meeting up with William in Barcelona. The three hadn’t been together in two years. William had grown a bit paunchy in their absence, eating and drinking away his loneliness in his seaside rooms. “Find yourself a woman,” Robert said, sizing up his cousin. “She’ll get you back in fighting shape.” William swigged his wine and gazed out over the sea. “Why would I need to be in fighting shape?” His smile was wistful. “I’ve nothing to fight for—no home, no family—” “You’ve a realm to fight for.” Robert surprised himself with the force of his words. “Robert, we just got ba—” Daniel started. “No, Daniel,” Robert whipped around, jutting a finger in his chest. “He has to know, he has to understand what’s become of our country. He can’t just sit here being drunk and—” “Ha!” William slapped his thigh. “That’s the pot calling the kettle black, if I ever heard it.” Robert was on William again, grabbing fistfuls of his loosed, stained shirt. “Your mother died in a hovel, cuz.” The prince flinched. “In a cold, dark, windy hovel of a ruin, with none but me and a handful of ladies to watch.” William batted away Robert’s hands. “Your brother did that to her. He has the blood of your sister and your mother on his hands, and you’re content to sit here staring at the sea?” William leapt out of his chair, forcing Robert to stumble back. “Do not ever suggest that my love for my mother and sister is tarnished. James would slit my throat the moment I set foot on Troixden’s soil, and you know it.” William’s eyes were sober now, boring into Robert’s. “Or is that what you want, cuz—for him to slit my throat, so you’ll be next in line?” “Dammit, Wills, I want you to lead an invasion! Take the throne by force—not sit in some foreign city feeling sorry for yourself.” That was the first time it was even hinted that William should be king, and Robert’s emphatic pronouncement silenced them. Daniel cleared his throat. “The people languish in poverty, neighbors fight neighbors over the little each has. Your brother spirits away young virgins from the peasantry to add to his harem, returning them despoiled and unfit for marriage. He has had children—children, Wills—put in the stocks for playing games that mock him. The people, your people, are starving and afraid. Meanwhile, James spends money he doesn’t have on elaborate feasts and gifts, ships he doesn’t need, festival grounds, horses, anything but on the realm.” “My brother has always been the devil.” William shook his head. “But I cannot take by force what God has set in place upon my brother’s head.” “If God has set your brother in place, Wills,” Robert retorted, “God has since left the country.” “I would take up arms for my people, not for my own gain.” William looked from Robert to Daniel and back again. “My brother can be persuaded, if needed, by force.” “Persuaded?” Robert laughed without mirth. “Have you gone mad? Since when has he ever been persuaded of anything he didn’t already desire? If your mother, God rest her lovely soul, couldn’t do so, what makes you think you, at the head of an army, can do anything but antagonize him? No, Wills—you must return with the intent to reign.” Daniel interrupted. “Let us not be hasty in throwing ourselves to swords. Now that Robert and I have returned to court, we may be able to make some progress on behalf of our people, without bloodshed.” William smiled at his friend. “’Tis you should be king in all our steads.” Daniel blushed, an uncomfortable pause following. “Let’s not be extreme. I merely wish to see what may be done through intellect and strategy, before more people are harmed.” “And when all this intellect and strategy fails?” Robert said. “I will be ready,” William said. “You two do what you will, and in the meantime, I shall collect what support I can abroad.” “And mayhap you can take care of your gut along the way, my liege,” Robert said, a smile tugging at his lips. William laughed, smacking his belly with both hands. “I could still best you with my eyes closed, cuz.” “Now that I would like to see.” Robert strolled to him, clasped his shoulder. “But for now, shall we make haste into the city? For I’m parched, and nothing you have can quench me.” “You’re always the one for distraction, even still,” William said, changing into a fresh shirt. “At your service,” Robert said with an elaborate bow. Anna flinched as shards of bark flew off the willow trunk. She was months from turning twenty, and even she began to doubt her father’s intentions. As she watched Bryan carve a heart in the tree, their initials entwined within, she wondered again if she wanted to be married at all. She ached at the thought of being some man’s possession, even though she knew Bryan would acquiesce to most of her desires. Nevertheless, the amount of freedom she had as a woman now was unheard of, and any move to marry would leash her. Bryan turned around with a flourish, his face alight. “It’s finished.” She smiled at him then at his handiwork, though part of her winced at the noble tree’s desecration. She couldn’t help but see the parallel: with marriage, even to dear Bryan, she would be marked and weeping too. “It’s marvelous,” she said, rising to inspect the carving. She traced the A and B with her fingers. How pretty they looked together. The tree was raw, sap beading like blood on a wound. And like a wound, Anna knew the tree would heal itself, leaving black-scabbed remnants of this marring. But the tree would survive. As she felt the grooves of the scrapped out heart she reminded herself of her duty. To her father, to the duchy, to produce an heir. Not only so the title would continue in the family, but also so the duchy itself would survive, that it would be kept out of the maniacal king’s hands. She alone must guarantee a bright future for her people. She looked up at Bryan, his sky-blue eyes shining down at her. Marriage—at least to him—wouldn’t be so bad. Robert and Daniel’s constant letters kept William apprised of the goings on at court. William had returned to northern France, visiting with various lords, plying them with drink and trying to discern their thoughts on Troixden’s politics. None, he deduced, were ready to support any incursions. And, truth be told, Robert and Daniel weren’t advising an attack. Yet. So William had to sit and stew. And train. While he’d never admit to taking Robert’s ribbing to heart, a man trying to lead an army should probably look like he’s capable of fighting—and winning. Every spare moment William was swinging a sword, hoisting a shield, wrestling, riding, his reflexes ever quicker and his paunch a memory. After a particularly draining swordplay, William trudged back to the inn where he lodged, with no energy to entertain yet another haughty French lord. A page met him at the door with two letters, one from Daniel and one from Robert. He ordered ale and gratefully fell into a booth, eager for news of home. Cuz, It be as well as to be expected here. Your brother continues to complain of stomach upset and heartburn. I tell him ’tis no surprise with the way he feasts, but regardless, the pains slow him down, making for, on one hand, an even more irritable man, and on the other, one less involved in matters of state, as he takes to his bed more and more often. Daniel turns up in the most unusual places, trying to give your brother special herbs to ease his pain, trying to placate his temper with talk of the beautiful women of Spain who will jump at the chance to marry a king such as he. It turns mine own stomach to watch our friend have to subject himself so. For my own part, I try to time my audiences for when he’s in good spirits, for, as you know, I struggle to hold my tongue. Besides, he doesn’t trust me as he did my father. And I suppose with good cause. My boys continue to grow into fine lads, though I worry day and night what country we will leave them … I don’t mean to be melancholy. My sister asks after you and sends you her fair wishes. She would send you more than that if you were but to crook your little finger. And you? What more word from the French lords? Do they remain foppish cowards? I will try to come and see you by Michaelmas, though surely the king will wish me back by Christmastide. Be of stout heart, friend. Ever your servant, ~RN William polished off his ale and sighed, his impatience to be home intensified. It was good news that James was less inclined to involve himself in state affairs, but that meant council continued to act as they always had. Council had a smattering of intelligent men—Halforn, the Earl of Ridgeland, Robert. With the king otherwise engaged, surely they could bring about reason? And if not, when Robert came to him in autumn, perhaps they could mount a challenge to his brother. He ripped open Daniel’s letter. My Liege and Friend, Year XIV, King James, 1568 Good morrow to you. The summer proves hot, bringing to mind that dreadful summer when we lost our dear Catherine. I shudder to mention it, but find my mind turning again and again to the injustice done your family. Indeed, ’tis difficult for me to serve your brother when all my mind sees is poor Cate, your sickened mother, you in exile, and this brute on the throne. I do not wish to be indelicate and rouse you all the more, but I find there be no one else besides Robert to speak to, and even then we are always surrounded. I had hoped your brother would trust me by now, what with securing no less than three potential Spanish brides, all lovely, but he will not allow me in his chambers, even guarded, and I find it cumbersome to spin state craft when I do not have his ear. There are some on council who are sympathetic and similarly horrified by the state of our realm, but as I am not a member—even though as a duke, I should be—I don’t wield the sort of influence we three had hoped. Apologies, my friend, for I find myself wallowing whilst I should be sending you good cheer. I wish for a better future … for a better king. Alas, we must work with the one we have. Mayhap when he gets a wife and an heir he will see, if not reason, at least some relaxation of these unbearable taxations. Robert tells me he plans to visit at Michaelmas. I’m loathe to say I doubt I will be able to join him, for since I am still not completely in the king’s favor, he creates various drudgery for me to accomplish. Perhaps by then I shall have more happy news to report. In the meantime, my hope is that you remain in good humor, of head, heart, and spirit. Your humble and grateful servant, Daniel, Duke of Cecile William ordered another ale and some stew, holding on to those last lines as if they kept him breathing: perhaps by then, I shall have more happy news to report. Yes, perhaps by then his friends will have devised a way for his brother to abdicate. He shook his head as he ate. He was being ridiculous. But that was all he had at present. “He’s dead? What do you mean he’s dead?” A furrow in Margaux’s forehead marred her otherwise perfect face. Robert had ridden all night to Cheval to gather his family back to court. As second in line, he must be present, ready for any claims against William—or against himself—in the line of succession, surrounded by his now three boys, who followed him as heirs. A handful of men, those most loyal to—or rather, who’d been most rewarded by—James, argued that the exiled prince William was unfit to serve. But the last thing the realm needed was doubt. Robert cocked his head at his sister. “I mean, ‘The King is dead; long live the King.’” She rolled her eyes. “And I mean how—what happened to him? He was fit as a carousing fiddle at Christmastide.” Robert spoke as if of the weather. “A brawl broke out at the lists, too many drunken participants. The king was in the thick of it and passed out. He never woke. They say his heart was overtaxed.” “Does that mean I’m now sister to the king?” She raised a brow, barely hiding her thrill at being elevated to such high rank. “Have you, of all people, forgotten our dear cousin?” He smirked at her. “You know I would never forget sweet William.” She nearly cooed his name. “But with him in exile, surely the crown goes to you?” “Not at all. I merely move up in line.” Robert walked to the window, watching the wind bend his manicured hedges, rain lashing the glass. “He’s being escorted to Havenside even as we speak.” “Well, that is wonderful news.” She said with a tremor in her voice. “You do realize what this means?” He faced her. “For out family. For possibly you.” Her lips curved, a cat knowing it would catch its prey. “The king is in need of a queen. And here I am in need of a husband.”

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