“Of course not, but you should have told me Kendale was possibly still besotted the next day. It could partly explain why he was so slow to move when smoke and flames spread.”
“I—did not wish to besmirch his memory. Forgive me, Your Grace, but it was your young Gilberto Sharpino who tried to implicate me in this way, was it not?”
“I am asking the questions here. But I also sent to ask you if your portrait can be repaired or if you must begin again.”
“I—thank you for allowing that, Your Majesty—for I believe I can salvage it. Holbein often painted over errors or problems, one of the many lessons I took from him.”
“And I shall give Lavina time to begin again, hoping she can do some of it from memory. Master Heatherley, you do not truly believe that Gil Sharpe—for he is sharp in wit and skill—would be so stupid as to slash Kendale’s work, burn Lavina’s, and try to ruin yours, do you? It would be all too obvious then that he wanted to be the winner, and he would not risk all that.”
“Point well taken, of course,” he said. “But perhaps someone else who knows how much you favor him wants to help him by ruining your other artists. Though there is a renaissance of interest in classical things in our land, Italian things, as it were, you have oft said you are pure English, so I am certain your official portrait will be too.”
“You’re quite a speechmaker, Master Heatherley. Perhaps there will be a part for you in the drama tonight.”
Again, she wished she hadn’t been so testy with him, as she’d been with Ned earlier. All this was getting to her, when she had thought this sojourn at Nonsuch would be the perfect escape from London and its winter woes.
That evening, as the court assembled in the torch-lit inner courtyard of Nonsuch, surrounded by the panels of Roman deities and looked down upon by the enthroned figure of her father, the queen saw that Ned was in his element. He had apologized to her for ever so much as gainsaying her wishes and was grateful that she had stipulated he must be a central part of this drama.
Indeed, Ned’s elevation relegated Chatam to a very minor role. It was a shot probably wide of the mark, she thought; but since Chatam no doubt resented being so used, then perhaps, if he was the fire demon, he would act again. At any rate, Ned was not only playing the main part in this play tonight, but had accepted the role of keeping a covert eye on Giles Chatam.
But now the queen’s own eyes filled with tears as she heard the words from this play she had watched so long ago in the difficult days before she became queen. Then she had despaired for her own life and safety. Yet now, six years crowned, was she any safer? Or was the mirror murderer hoping to attack more than her portraits and her artists?
“We hope to amuse and amaze,” Ned pronounced from the makeshift stage of planks in the center of the crowd. “We shall sweep you away from this place to other sites in this world, though none so grand as our fair England.”
Elizabeth shifted slightly in her chair. Only she and Kat were seated; Floris stood behind them. Yes, she could see Gil’s face from here. He was with Jenks, positioned just as she’d wanted so she could see the lad; then Jenks would bring him forthwith to her apartments for further questioning. Perhaps this nostalgic view of Italy would shake something loose from the stubborn boy.
“And now,” Ned went on, “we shall present a few speeches and scenes from the new and fashionable Italian comedy
A Potion of Pleasure
. Drink up and dream you are in sunny Italy and have found such a magic liquor there as to make anyone who drinks it fall in love with you …”
Gil started visibly at that. Because of the mention of sun or liquor or falling in love? the queen wondered. It was a charming, lighthearted play, but the stricken Gil looked as if he hardly heard another word.
Feeling sick as he faced the queen in her council chamber after the evening’s entertainment, Gil stood as mute as he used to when he was dumb.
“You’d best answer each question Lord Cecil and I put to you,” Elizabeth ordered. “After all, I’m the one who sent you to Italy, I’m the one who paid your passage!”
Gil knew the queen had been watching him during the play. Now he was so scared his knees were knocking. He dared not tell her he had a mirror. Or that it had gotten him not only into romantic trouble but deadly trouble, too.
“You’d best talk, lad,” Cecil put in. They were the only two with him; the room echoed slightly when they raised their voices. “What Her Grace didn’t put up for your purse, I did.”
“I—yes, there were things I didn’t tell you,” Gil stammered, staring at his feet. “Things of the heart.”
“Do you mean you came to love someone, or that you shifted your allegiance elsewhere?” the queen demanded. Her words frightened him further. Surely she did not think he would ever be part of some sort of spying against her. Was that why she and Cecil had questioned him about Catholics and Spaniards in Urbino? Maybe Dr. Dee, after his brief visit there, had reported to them that Gil had been working
her when he had merely tried to find out things
He decided to tell part of the truth, hoping it would be enough. “You see, I came to adore Maestro Giorgio Scarletti’s mistress, though I didn’t know she was at first. Just one of his models, I thought. He was married, of course, though that doesn’t seem to stop Italians from—”
“Or men in general,” the queen clipped out. “Say on, Gil.”
“She let me paint her … let me fall in love with her—I didn’t know about her and the maestro.”
“And when he learned you adored her, he cast you out in disgrace? Is that why you came home two years early?” she pursued.
“What exactly, then?”
“I am not certain I can say.”
“Gil, we are not just playing at guessing games of secret trysts here,” Elizabeth explained. “Because of the attacks on my artists and their works of me and because the Scottish queen has been making remarks to her mirrors which hint she intends soon to be the next English queen—”
“No!” Gil cried.
“There are numerous reasons,” Cecil put in, “that you must come forward with all you know, and now.”
“But I know nothing of that, of—women and mirrors,” he got out before he lifted both hands to his head. “Except I did a painting—of Dorothea with a mirror … . Has Heatherley told you of it? Pure happenstance, Your Grace.”
“Yes, I have heard about the painting—your favorite, he said, when you told me quite another thing. Jenks!” she cried over her shoulder. “Bring in the work in question!”
Gil gaped as Jenks appeared through the door to the queen’s rooms, holding the painting of Dorothea which he’d had secreted in his tent. In the work, she looked to the side toward a young man—a vague, idealized rendition of himself. And that poor, demented lover was holding an exquisite framed mirror behind her.
Gil start to shake even harder, from within. “It’s more or less a copy of a Titian,” he said. “See, Your Grace? As I told you, she looks to the side and has blond-red hair. But I put in Dorothea’s face and her mirror. We were allowed—encouraged—to copy favorite paintings, to use the same models the masters used to learn their techniques. If the works were good enough, they belonged to our master to sell.”
“But you left hastily with this favorite work—and without your master’s favorite Dorothea, I take it?” Cecil asked, his voice quiet now.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Is this technique of copying what you alluded to before?” the queen asked, her voice also kind now. “You became distraught each time you mentioned the Italian master’s techniques, especially of copying, because it reminded you of Dorothea?”
Gil nodded, not looking into her sharp gaze again, but at the filigreed pomander of sweet herbs she kept fingering at her waist. He held his breath, praying that his clever queen would not ferret out the lies from his half-truths.
“’S blood, but first loves are hard,” she muttered. “And to have to leave before you wanted to, fearing you’d disappoint me …”
He nodded again. Thank God, she had not asked him if he had the mirror. If her goodwill toward him got him off scot-free from what she might have caught him on, he vowed silently, fervently, he would never commit another sin in his entire life. Besides, he tried to convince himself, his silence might protect her as well as him.
Elizabeth slept fitfully that night. In her dreams, her face exploded in fierce flames, then the tent around her whooshed red-gold in the conflagration. They were trapped in it, trapped, all three of them.
It had been a cloudy, chill day at Oakham Manor, and they had thought to make a little fire to warm themselves in the gay tent in the back gardens. Her father’s sixth queen, Elizabeth’s fourth stepmother, was regent while their royal father fought in France, and so was busy with her council, signing documents, writing letters. Elizabeth’s loyal Kat Ashley was the only adult with them when she and Edward scampered away that day, and their older half sister Mary Tudor tagged along. They had thought a fire would feel good on their hands, so at Edward’s bidding, Elizabeth had lit his gathered sticks with a lantern she’d snatched from the gardeners’ shed.
She had been so grateful to be with her sister and brother again, though Mary did not care for her, and she seldom saw Edward. More than once under her father’s different queens, “Young Bess” had been sent to the country for asking about her mother. Or worse, off and on, she’d been declared a bastard. This queen, the strictly Protestant Katherine Parr, was kind, but she had not approved of the surprise Elizabeth had given her for a gift.
It was a translation from the French—in her dreams, Elizabeth could see it yet—a book bound in blue cloth and adorned with silver thread, a twenty-five-page poem,
The Mirror of the Sinful Soul,
written by Marguerite of Navarre, sister of King Francis I of France. Queen Katherine had said it was unseemly reading matter for a young girl, for it talked of false lovers sharing beds and torment and pain.
A false lover, her poor Gil had suffered that, Elizabeth thought as she thrashed in her bed, half awake. She had wanted to protect him as she had once tried to protect her dear brother Edward that day of the pavilion fire. But the flames caught the light material and the tent went whoosh … .
They barely escaped, and it was not her fault, but she took the blame, when she so wanted to please the queen, but she had to protect Kat, the only real mother she’d ever known … .
Drenched with sweat, Elizabeth sat up in a cocoon of twisted covers. Across the way on a pallet, Rosie Radcliffe breathed regularly. Elizabeth was grateful she had not cried out in that dreadful dream.
She shoved her hair back into her nightcap and thought again of Gil’s portrait of his Dorothea and of his vibrant painted outline of his queen. She could not bear to believe that Gil had anything to do with the fires or scorch marks, any more than she really believed that the boy Niles had been the target of the tent fire. But she was appalled that neither she nor the members of her Privy Plot Council had so much as thought of that—and Flora Minton had.
She slid to the edge of the high bed and dangled her feet until she found her woolen mules. Thrusting her feet into them, she wrapped herself in a coverlet over her night rail and went out into the hall, thoroughly startling her half-dozing yeoman night guard there. She wished it were Clifford, but the man had to sleep when she did.
“Nothing,” she murmured and waved him back. She padded down the hall to Kat’s door. Lifting the latch slowly, silently, she peeked in.
A single fat candle lit the room in what seemed brightness after the dim chamber and hall. Kat lay, breathing heavily, in the big bed, but Floris was not in her trundle one. She sat at the dressing table, combing her long, loose brown hair, apparently staring out the black window—which may have acted as her mirror—into the tent-packed privy garden. The wan candle flame threw the shadow of her moving silhouette upon the walls and ceiling.
“Floris.” Elizabeth barely breathed her name.
The woman gasped to see the queen and came quickly toward the door. In her long white night trail, she looked pale as a ghost.
“Your Majesty, is all well?” she asked with a curtsy.
“I couldn’t sleep, that’s all. How is she?”
“Resting well, as you can see. The sweet Surrey air does us all good. It’s—inspiring.”
“Floris, a favor.”
“I am yours to command. Anything, of course, for you or Kat.”
“I valued your suggestion this morning about looking into the boy Niles, though he seems a bit of a cipher.”
“Some servants seems such, but you never know.”
Elizabeth pondered that a moment. Floris was deeper than she seemed, and the queen was certain she could use her services, not only to protect Kat, but to help them ferret out the fire demon—a term Floris herself had first used and Elizabeth had now adopted.
“With Lord Cecil and some close servants, hardly ciphers, as you say,” the queen went on, “I am personally looking into the attack on my artists and their art. And hence on me.”
Floris clasped her hands between her breasts. “You believe it is truly a threat to your own person? But I cannot think how.”