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Authors: Karen Harper

Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #16th Century, #England/Great Britain, #Royalty

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BOOK: The Fyre Mirror
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“Gil, how is this alfresco studio for you?” she asked as she rose to take her first stretch of the morning. Hoping to lighten his mood, she was anxious to see how the lad was doing after all that talk of Italy, Titian, and live models. She handed her scepter and orb to Rosie and loosed the heavy ermine mantle from her shoulders to let it fall back on the large chair which the artists would transpose to a throne.
“I am barely begun,” Gil said as she strolled toward him, “but I much favor these conditions and this style.”
“Oh,” she said, peering at the vibrant multicolored sketch he had made of her on stretched canvas. “Despite how I’ve posed, you don’t have me looking straight ahead. But a foursquare gaze traditionally evokes an aura of royal power and vigilance.”
In her peripheral vision, she could see the smug look on Heatherley’s face, and Lavina elbowing him as if to say,
The upstart boy has gone too far already.
Floris and Kat had come closer with some others to gaze at Gil’s work too.
“I realize, Your Grace,” Gil said, still finishing the sketch, “that other English artists tend to turn the head a bit but not the eyes. Yet you sent me abroad to learn what I could. As I said, I admire Titian, and he often paints his royal and noble subjects not only turned to the side but looking to the side.”
“But our queen,” Heatherley put in, “cannot be compared to others. Turning the head with the eyes makes her seem uninterested, even reticent.”
“Never our queen!” Gil flared. “This position says she is so great and powerful that she need not watch us directly, and yet is in command of all things. Why, even now, she glanced aside to see her artists smile when she questioned me. What, exactly, is she thinking? people will wonder. How at ease in her power she is, how in control, and hardly stiff and still but living and so genuine and real!”
The queen could not help but smile. She and Cecil in their quest to promote her power through a portrait could not have said it better. Gil’s style was fresh and free, but solid, too. Yet she regretted that Heatherley looked livid, and she was sure Lavina would soon start spouting her
vill
s and
dat
s.
“I believe I like it,” the queen pronounced. “One of my mottoes is
Tutto vedo and molto mancha
—I see everything and much is lacking. I rather think it conveys that idea.”
“Vell,” Lavina put in, “his colors are goot. Brought pigments back from Italy, I guess.”
“Just this yellow and red to mix for Her Majesty’s unique and glorious hue of hair,” Gil answered, pointing to the outline he’d done of her coiffure under the crown. “Titian paints Venetian women with rich hues, especially red-gold hair, though theirs is bleached, then tinted with henna. Our queen has no such need of artifice. And these lines suggest movement, not a static figure needing to be copied by mere tracery as we do here in Eng—” Gil stopped in midword and looked around as if he’d just emerged from a dream—and perhaps stepped into a nightmare. “I don’t mean to sound as if I boast,” he said haltingly, almost as if another person spoke.
“So,” Heatherley said, stepping even closer and squinting at Gil’s canvas, “is there some other way the Italian artists reproduce a portrait? If yours cannot be copied with punching and tracing the outline, what good is your work, for our queen will order her official portrait reproduced time and again.”
“I didn’t mean it could not be copied,” Gil clipped out, looking suddenly stricken. “Your Majesty, may I take a moment away, if you please?”
“Of course,” she assured him, but she was greatly vexed that something was wrong. Each time her young artist spoke of Italian artists’ techniques, it seemed something frightened him, something he could not say. Gil had never been one to keep secrets, even when he and his mother made their living from climbing trees or crawling in upstairs windows to spy out what goods could later be stolen with their long-armed angling hooks.
“I wouldn’t doubt,” the queen overheard Henry Heatherley say as Gil walked rapidly toward his tent, “he simply copies paintings he’s seen in Italy. He told me the first day we met that he’s been working on reproducing his favorite Titian, called
Woman at the Mirror
. I glimpsed that canvas. And this one”—he gestured at Gil’s portrait of the queen—“may be just another version of that.”
Elizabeth’s insides cartwheeled, and not at Heatherley’s snide insult. She turned to him and Lavina. “Gil told me his favorite work by Maestro Titian was the
Venus of Urbino
and never mentioned painting someone with a mirror.”
“The mirror portrait is the one the boy’s been painting on the sly,” Heatherley replied, placing undue emphasis on those last three words.
Fretting over Gil’s behavior and realizing she must interrogate him about it, the queen sat to pose again. As if he’d been watching, Gil returned quickly and began to work. Most courtiers had gone back to their own pursuits, but Floris and Kat stood watching Gil, and Elizabeth let them stay. When the queen finally stood to stretch again, Floris came up to her with Kat close behind.
“Your Majesty,” Floris said, keeping her voice low and ignoring Kat, who insisted on putting a laced crown of daisies on her head, “I’ve been thinking about that fire, especially after Ned Topside asked everyone if they had seen anything suspicious that morning.”
“Yes, Floris?” Elizabeth said, holding up a hand to keep her ladies back a moment.
“The boy,” Floris said. “What about the boy being the cause?”
Elizabeth held her breath, for it seemed Floris had guessed her own fear, her need to question Gil further. “You mean my young artist?” she whispered.
“Oh, no, of course not. I can see how you favor him. I just mean that everyone assumes it was your artist Kendale the fire demon meant to harm. But what if everyone is barking up the wrong tree because the target was that poor dead boy Niles?”
“They say Gil Sharpe’s taken a walk in the woods, Your Grace,” Ned Topside reported to the queen when he returned to her privy chambers without the young man. She had just come inside; the three partially completed portraits were still sitting outside on their easels drying while her courtiers amused themselves.
“’S blood!” she muttered. “Best he be careful out there. Then I shall keep my eyes open for him, because I intend to walk into the hunt park too, to see how Dr. Dee’s sketch matches the trees there. Ned, since Jenks has not returned from Mortlake yet, come along with me, and fetch Clifford too, unless he’s out somewhere guarding Kat and Floris Minton.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” he said, starting for the door. She appreciated his immediate acquiescence to her wishes for once. Though Ned Topside was trusted and appreciated, the same bright talents which made his onstage dukes and kings leap to life sometimes made him more cocky than circumspect with her.
She began to pace but kept talking so that Ned turned back at the door. “I shall tell everyone that I mean to take a short constitutional walk without my ladies, that’s it,” she said. “And when I return, I’ve a good mind to ask Floris Minton to join our Privy Plot Council. How could I—all of us,” she added, hitting her forehead with an open palm, “have ignored that the boy Niles could indeed have been the target? It’s not as likely as that Kendale was, but I pride myself on following each lead to its possible end. Kat used to be a part of our council, but now she could be replaced by Floris. She’d be able to join us only when Kat was sleeping, of course, but we often meet at night.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Ned said, and hurried out, even as Meg came in.
“Are you feeling well, Your Grace?” Meg asked.
“Just vexed with myself,” the queen admitted, still pacing. Her heart had dropped when Floris had first said “the boy” could be the cause. Though she hated to admit it, even to herself, Niles aside, she must acknowledge that her dear Gil must now come under some suspicion.
The queen stood on a knoll as high as a man within the edge of the hunt park, with the encampment in view, including the charred grass where Kendale’s tent had been. Yes, the sketch of trees Dr. Dee had done clearly matched ones she could see here. And two of them, as he had noted, had big limbs or crotches where someone could have elevated himself slightly to catch the sun in a mirror. If she were in boy’s breeches, she’d climb the trees herself.
She peered up each of the two trees, then had Ned scale them to look for snags of cloth or hair. She had Clifford with her too, for Floris had taken Kat into the palace and didn’t need him just now, but Clifford was too big and bulky to climb well. Ned, just as agile as he had been when she’d taken him away from his life as a roving actor with the Queen’s Country Players six years ago, went smoothly up and peered down at her.
“Shall I recite something lovelorn as from a balcony or parapet, Your Grace? And Clifford can, of course, play the disapproving father.”
“Stow the ad-libbing for now, man,” she clipped out. “Do you see any signs someone has climbed that tree? Broken branches? Anything?”
“Nothing here, but I do see a brown deer yonder, standing as still as this investigation of ours is going.”
“Enough! Come down then.”
As she stepped back from the tree and nearly stumbled down the slope, it struck her that this treed knoll was similar to the grassy one on which Kat and Floris had sat stringing flowers the day of the fire. Did this area simply sprout random yet similar hillocks, or were these matching, man-made rises? Strangely, both of them had some remnants of weathered stones, perhaps the foundations of some sort of very small buildings, such as watchtowers. Perhaps that was what these hillocks had once held. The elevations had no use now, but had perhaps served some purpose, even before the long-lost village of Cuddington was built.
“Your Grace,” Ned interrupted her thoughts as he leaped lithely down, “I don’t think it was a deer after all, but Gil Sharpe I saw through the screen of trees. You said you wanted to speak with him.”
He pointed north; she didn’t see where he meant at first, then noted the flash of brown, which could well have been a deer. It
was
Gil, she realized as she squinted in the direction Ned indicated. He wasn’t walking but was staring at something.
“Shall I call or fetch him for you?” Clifford asked.
“Let’s go to him quietly, lest he bolt like a deer,” she said.
As they went closer, Gil saw them. He’d been leaning against a tree. Now he bent, evidently to brush leaves off his knees and shins, then hurried toward them.
“Is everything all right, Your Grace?”
“I might ask the same of you, Gilberto Sharpino. I want to continue our discussion of things you learned in Italy and how much you gleaned about Kendale’s boy Niles in your brief time you knew him.”
Gil’s ruddy complexion paled. “I observed him, of course, but didn’t really know him. Master Heatherley has tried to slander me again, has he not? It was he, I’ve learned, who was plying Master Kendale with wine the night before he died, Heatherley with his favorite Bordeaux who got Kendale so drunk he insulted me and mayhap Niles, too, for all I know.”
“I will look into your claim about Heatherley, as I must all accusations which might lead to—”
A woman’s shriek shredded the quiet of the forest. The buzz of voices from the encampment rose to a roar. Lifting her voluminous skirts, the queen rushed with her men toward the tumult.
They broke from the hunt park beyond the clusters of tents, near where some courtiers still lingered around the three easels with their drying canvases. And one—the partially completed royal portrait by Lavina Teerlinc—was in flames.
AS ELIZABETH RAN FROM THE HUNT PARK WITH CLIFFORD, Ned, and Gil, she saw that a crowd had gathered around the easels. Amid the hubbub of voices and people, she picked out separate voices.
“Smother the flames!”
“It’s too far gone!”
“How in the deuce did that get started?”
“But I was nearby. No one even approached it just now and certainly didn’t light it, so—”
Elizabeth saw no reason to douse the fire. It had quite consumed the portrait, and had burned most of the wooden easel on which the canvas rested. Lavina had appeared, panting and wringing her hands. She did not cry or speak, but gaped at the charred ruin. Henry Heatherley shoved past Gil, not to see Lavina’s work but to check his own, and cried out, “Hell’s gates, would you look at this!”
The queen rushed to Heatherley’s portrait. Two neat oval scorch marks marred her face, which he had begun to flesh out today.
When Cecil suddenly appeared in the crowd, Elizabeth pointed at the marks and asked, “My lord, do you recognize these shapes?”
“Recognize them from where?” Heatherley demanded. “Who ruined my work? I suppose it could be somewhat painted over, but who dared throw circles of filth on this work of Her Majesty’s fine face? And so now,” he cried, rounding on Gil, who stood at her side, “only your portrait of the queen remains untouched!”
“Enough!” Elizabeth cried, and held up her hands for silence. “Clifford,” she said in a clarion voice, “take other guards, hasten back into the forest, and question anyone you find therein. Ned, fetch more of my guards to join the search. Listen! Listen, everyone, to me.”
As the two men ran to their tasks, the crowd gathered around her even closer. “It is now obvious we are facing a threat of fire from some unhinged person who wishes my artists or their work harm. We believe these fires are being set from a distance, possibly by a fire mirror tilted to concentrate the rays of the sun to ignite canvas. I tell you this to make you aware and wary.”
Lavina looked puzzled and Heatherley shocked. Murmurs and mutterings followed from the crowd. Several craned their necks to look toward the hunt park or even the palace walls and roof.
“And so,” she went on, “I am ordering all of your tents to be pitched within the palace walls in the privy garden, where reflected rays from the forest will not find canvas for further fuel. I assure you we will not remain long at Nonsuch if my men cannot find the villain who would wish my portraits, my people, or possibly my person harm. But I will not flee, and want to remain until we can catch the fire demon. If not, soon after May Day, we will be heading back to London. I expect your compliance and assistance.”
“And if such a demented soul should follow us there,” Heatherley said, “what of the city with its wooden-framed houses cheek by jowl and its thatched roofs? Why, all of London could go up in flame.”
Elizabeth swung about to face him. That had sounded to her more like a threat than a question. Heatherley had a devouring ambition; she knew that. And if he had indeed gotten Kendale drunk the night before his death, and since he obviously resented her favoritism toward Gil …
But he was right: only Gil’s portrait had not been harmed.
As courtiers and their servants hastened to their tents, Elizabeth stepped around Gil’s easel to search his work for any signs of scorch marks. Nothing. Nothing but the fiery-hued sketch of her reddish hair and crimson cloak and the golden aura which seemed to come from her painted being. Dear Lord, she prayed, let it not be the boy behind this. Let it be someone else, let it be—
She nearly jumped out of her skin as a trumpet sounded down the lane before the castle. Turning, she peeked between Robin and Cecil, who had come to stand beside her like sentinels. Those five or six approaching had a banner flying, four horses and two carts. Not some official envoy then with bad news. Someone was waving, and that bold trumpet call sounded again.
“Who in the world?” Robin whispered.
Then the queen realized who it was. “It’s Ned Topside’s old troupe of actors, the Queen’s Country Players. What timing. But we can use some distraction this evening within the crowded castle walls.”
“Indeed,” Cecil murmured. “Anything to lighten this siege mentality the fire-mirror murderer has forced upon us.”
But even as the queen awaited their approach, she remembered her own silent prayer but a moment ago and wondered if the Lord High God had answered it so quickly. For well she remembered that Giles Chatam, now the leader of the troupe, had been under suspicion for murders in London last winter. He had been proved innocent, but she’d heard it was believed he’d begun a fire in his boyhood home which had trapped and killed both his parents. And actors always had mirrors about them. Last winter, Giles had sought attention from the queen, but, partly to protect Ned Topside, Chatam’s rival, she’d sent the troupe away after Yule. But was this timing propitious—and suspicious?
As if he’d recognized his old fellows merely by their trumpet call, Ned came running from his tent to join them. He looked more vexed than she’d seen him in months, standing by her, solemn and silent for once.
“Shall I go tell them you’ll hire them for one night?” Robin asked.
“Let them come on,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “I would talk with their leader myself, not Ned’s old uncle but their master player, the clever chameleon Chatam.”
“But, Your Grace,” Ned finally spoke up, “you know he was nothing but trouble last winter.”
“As you were too, and only fortune’s star—and my goodwill—kept you from being tossed out to ply your trade on the country roads with these men. Go inside, where you can speak with your former fellows later, for I would greet them without your sour looks and sharp words.”
As Ned frowned, bowed stiffly, and retreated, she regretted being so harsh, but she could not stomach Ned’s constant, jealous bickering with Chatam again. After all, she merely wanted one night’s good performance from the players. And, of course, to be certain Giles Chatam, who may or may not have burned his parents to death, hadn’t been hiding in the hunt park flashing a cosmetic or costume mirror to get everyone stirred up here, so she would take them on.
But one way or the other, she did intend to take them on, take on anyone who might be guilty of murder by mirror.
“So you’ll be heading back to Nonsuch now, Master Jenks?” John Dee called to the queen’s man as he sat ahorse, just watching Dee and his old friend Simon Garver preparing to oversee the erection of the tall Maypole on Mortlake’s green.
Dee wondered if Jenks was sweet on their maid Sarah, since he’d spent so much time in the kitchens, but he’d leave all that up to Katherine. Though she was still sulking over his explosion when he learned his Venetian mirror was stolen, she’d know about such things as someone being taken with another’s charms. That was her realm, while knowledge beyond bed and board was his.
“Yes,” Jenks said, “heading back, and grateful for your kindnesses, Dr. Dee. How tall is that pole, anyway?”
“One hundred and fifty feet, though nearly five of that goes in the ground each year to stabilize the top of it.”
“Aye,” the elderly Garver added, “can’t have it wobbling when the dancing ribbons are attached to it and men and maids start cavorting around it and tugging on them, specially with a precious mirror tied to its top.”
A longtime local friend of Dee’s, Simon Garver had been a woodcarver by trade, one who had specialized in felling, then chiseling, fine local oak so it resembled pleated fabric—linenfold paneling, it was called. Garver the Carver, some still called him. The Riverside Inn, which Simon and his wife owned, though they lived in a thatched house next to it, was full of his beautiful work, as was Nonsuch Palace, where he’d plied his trade years ago for King Henry VIII. The hoary-headed and hoary-bearded man was nearly three score and ten but still robust.
This sturdy Maypole had been donated by Simon years ago. But to Dee, this apparently frivolous extravagance was not only homage to his Celtic Welsh ancestry, but another experiment with signal mirrors and light. He had calculated the angles perfectly so that the celebratory bonfire set on Greenwich Hill several miles away could be picked up by his mirror mounted at the top of this pole and reflected here and there. The dancers might weave their ribbons, but Dee alone held the rope which turned the big mirror atop the pole to flash light signals back to Greenwich, a feat he would put to more practical purpose someday soon, especially now that he could convince the queen of its importance.
“How do you raise the pole then?” Jenks interrupted Dee’s thoughts again. “Do you not need many men? I could delay my return a bit to help.”
“All ropes, winches, and pulleys, my man,” Dee said.
“I should have known it would be sleight of hand with you, Doctor. I’ll be on my way then. And Master Garver, as I said, the queen’s entourage will be at your inn come the morning of May Day.”
“My goodwife and I are deeply honored,” Simon said with a nod, “and I’ll see the entire place is readied. Tell Her Majesty I worked for her father when I carved at Nonsuch.”
“Good day to you then,” Jenks said, doffing his cap, as he turned his horse away.
“Is your goodwife as thrilled as mine that the queen’s coming with her courtiers?” Dee asked as he unwrapped the big mirror and began to mount it atop the pole before it would be winched into place.
“Oh, aye, but sad she was to have to evict that players troupe with that handsome Chatam fellow, even though they’d just taken the garret they hardly paid a farthing for.” Dee’s friend gave a hearty laugh and shook his head.
“The garret of your inn, you say? I haven’t seen them about during the day.”
“They’re usually out and about, plying their trade. My old dame likes to hear them spouting their lines at night, and says they plan to be here to make a pretty penny at the May Day gathering. Wait till they hear they’ll be performing for the queen!”
They shared a laugh together as they bolted the mirror to its revolving arm atop the lofty pole.
“It seems you have tracked me down,” Elizabeth told the Queen’s Country Players as they bowed before her at the entrance to Nonsuch Palace. Besides her guards, a cluster of her courtiers stood with her. Gil was sticking tight too.
“Indeed,” Giles Chatam, their spokesman, declared as he dismounted and swept her a graceful, low bow. “At first we did not know you were here, Your Majesty, or we would have come sooner. We pray that the difficult events of last winter have vanished with the chill air of spring and that the desire to have a play for your people springs anew.”
“Prettily said, as ever. Yes, I believe we could use a performance, especially if you would let me choose the play.”
“But your wish is ever our command,” Wat Thompson, Ned’s uncle, put in. He had commanded the troupe when Ned was with them years ago. Randall Greene, once handsome but now fading, had also been a dominant player but had since been eclipsed by the clever, blond and blue-eyed Chatam. The players always had two boys with them to take the women’s parts, and the queen saw Clinton, one lad she recognized, and a new one she had not seen.
“And my nephew Ned?” Wat asked, scanning the group behind her. “Is he not among your people here?”
“He is and will greet you later. I am thinking of a particular play from your repertoire,” she went on, “one I saw years ago when I was princess and first met Ned Topside, so I am hoping you might let him again play his part in it—narrator, it was.”
“But of course,” Chatam said before Wat could answer. “I trust it’s one which is especially delightful and soothing—to cheer one and all, lest anything has gone amiss of late.”
She wondered how much the handsome man knew of what had taken place, but she did not enlighten him. At least, Elizabeth reasoned, Ned’s taking a central role in a play Chatam was once no part of would smooth things over. For it wasn’t Ned she was hoping to unsettle with this drama, but her poor Gil, who stood just a few feet away, watching her nervously. She would add a few lines to rattle him, then question him stringently about whatever he was hiding.
“What play would that be then?” Chatam was asking with a blinding smile that might be enough in itself to set something afire.
“If I recall aright,” Elizabeth said, “it was called
A Potion of Pleasure
and took place in sunny Italy.”
Her eyes met Gil’s; his widened before he looked away. She was relieved to see Jenks riding in from Mortlake, for she would have him stick tight to Gil until tonight. Cecil had been right to declare that she was going into a siege mentality, for she must flush out her faceless foe. And if it was someone she cared for, someone she trusted, even then, justice must be done.
“Yes, we were drinking together that night,” Henry Heatherley admitted when the queen summoned him to her council room. “Will and I were toasting our blessed fortune to be in such a lovely place and charged to paint such a lovely subject.”
“Flat answers will do, lest you be charged with flattery, Master Heatherley.”
“You—did not summon me to dismiss or—charge me?” he stammered. He stood across the table from her, turning his plumed cap in hands so tense his knuckles had turned white.
BOOK: The Fyre Mirror
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