The queen spun her back to Giles and mouthed to Cecil, “Katherine Dee! She was a chatterbox before and is again.”
“Am I under arrest, Your Most Gracious Majesty?” Giles dared.
“Do you own ropes, Master Chatam?” she countered, turning back to face him.
“Half a dozen at least,” he said with a slight shrug. “We tie boxes shut with them and secure them to our carts. We use them in certain plays.”
“Hammond, detain this clever actor in the guards’ quarters, then take torches and ride to find his fellows at their encampment. After inquiring first from Wat Thompson exactly how many ropes they have, search through their things and bring me every one—and whatever mirrors you find too.”
“Your Majesty,” Giles said, his usually stentorian voice now shaky, “you don’t mean this has something to do with the mirror that caused the fire in a tent? Surely that cannot be linked to the Mortlake fire—or was there another fire here?”
“That is all for now,” she told Hammond, ignoring Giles. And then another ploy struck her. “Wait!” she said, and walked toward Giles as her guard began to pull him away. “Do you know why I think you could be tied to a fatal fire, man?” she demanded, her face close to his.
“No idea in the universe, Your Majesty.”
“Because last winter when you were at court, I heard that when you were a boy, your parents died in a strange fire which you conveniently escaped. Is that right?”
For the first time under such scrutiny and duress, he seemed to crumble. “I—yes. I try to carry on, but it was the most horrendous thing ever in my life,” he said, his voice a mere whisper. His blue eyes were wide as if he saw the conflagration even now. He seemed to look past her, through her. He began to tremble. “It’s why I would rather be anyone else—to play anyone else’s part in life—for I lived and they did not. But it was not my fault, only that I fled without going back into the house for them, and that has—haunted me.”
His tearful gaze locked with hers. She read terror there—and truth, or so she thought. And she felt a bond with him because of the fire of her youth, which was not half as horrendous as his. The clever player might be guilty of consorting with the flighty Katherine Dee, but Elizabeth had more important things to solve than that possibility.
“Take him away for now, but keep him comfortable,” she said, still frustrated and furious with everyone and everything.
It was late that night before her guards delivered to her six short ropes, none of which was of the same length or composition as the ones which had hung from the palace drainpipe. And they reported that Wat Thompson had claimed six ropes were all they had. Her guards also brought her two steel mirrors from the players’ trunks. Though the metal was polished, reflections in them were quite dull.
“’S blood,” she said to her Privy Plot Council members as they examined the collection of ropes and mirrors she had laid out on the council table, “nothing matches, not mirrors, ropes, clues, nothing.”
Meg sat between Jenks and Ned; Cecil was directly across from the queen, who had the center chair. Lady Rosie sat to her left. The queen had asked Clifford to join them, though he stood just inside the doors to the hall. She had been undecided about whether to invite Floris again, but decided that the nursemaid should stay with Kat, and so did not tell her of the meeting. She did not want Floris to think she didn’t trust her. If she hadn’t, she would not have left Kat in her care for one moment more. As for Gil, he was being watched by one of her guards, as was Giles.
“When we return to London, we can test whether these steel mirrors of the players’ troupe will ignite a fire,” Cecil said, putting down the one he had minutely examined. “I’m sure we can replicate Dr. Dee’s experiment without him.”
“Good,” Elizabeth said, feeling alert again, as though she had fought her way through exhaustion to get a second wind. “By the way, since we have not one real shred of evidence to hold Giles, I’m going to release him.”
Ned’s head jerked up from his perusal of the ropes. “But he’s a traveling player, Your Grace. He could disguise himself, pass as nearly anyone, and just disappear.”
“I swear, I wish this whole thing would just disappear. No, Ned, I think not. He wants above all my good favor, and I just pray he did not seek to obtain that by causing chaos he and his company could calm with their plays—or that he is not a habitual fire demon. I intend to tell him he must stay in this general area until further notice, and that he should stop by Dr. Dee’s from time to time to discover if I have further need of him here or in London.”
“Yes, he might bite on that, ambitious as he is,” Ned agreed, making faces at himself in Dr. Dee’s magnifying mirror.
Meg said, with a side glance at Ned, “Giles is stuck on his comely face too, I wager. Probably looks at mirrors in the middle of a meeting.”
“Enough,” Elizabeth insisted. “Though I like to conduct our meetings at a roundtable, where everyone may freely give and take, I’ve actually asked you here this late at night to tell you what I plan to do.”
“Here or in London?” asked Rosie, who seldom said a word in these meetings.
“Both. And I want no Katherine Dees among us, that is, no one who cannot keep something I say in private kept private.”
She stared them down individually until each acquiesced or nodded. Cecil looked upset, but then, he knew what was coming. They had argued it out already, but she had prevailed. The others looked merely curious; Ned, perhaps, expectant.
“I am returning to London with everyone on the morrow,” she announced, “but I am staying only a day or two to accomplish some business and make some public appearances, including posing for my artists again—inside. Then, with Clifford, Jenks, and Rosie, I am coming back here incognito to look further into this fire-mirror matter. I don’t want to leave Kat, but I will make the trip in less than a day, spend, hopefully, just one or two days away, and so return to London in a total of two or three.”
Rosie’s mouth gaped in an O. Ned fumed, no doubt because he hadn’t been included. Cecil looked grim, but he’d already argued himself out. It was Meg who spoke first.
“Disguised as me, Your Grace? We haven’t traded places for ages, but I suppose I’ll have to be ill and stuck in my bed again if I’m to be queen.”
“Well,” Ned exploded, “do you think she’d have you giving speeches at Parliament or dining with the court?”
“I said earlier, enough!” Elizabeth cracked out, and smacked the table with the palm of her hand. “Yes, I will be garbed as you, Meg, and you will keep to your bedchamber at Whitehall, with a severe head cold—and with Secretary Cecil’s help. Rosie, as soon as we return, you will supposedly leave for your home for a few days.”
“Does Dr. Dee know all this?” Jenks asked.
“No, and he is not to,” the queen clipped out.
“Will Floris Minton know?” Meg asked. “Why is she not here, since Kat’s probably sound asleep?”
“That is the sticky part. Because I see her and Kat so often at close range, Meg as me would never fool either of them. I will probably take Floris into my confidence. Still, I could send orders to them that I do not want them near, lest Kat catch my cold. Yet I fear Kat would want to tend me as she often used to, and she’d drag Floris along, and then they’d know I was gone anyway.”
“And what will we be doing,” Rosie asked, “if we come back to Nonsuch?”
“We will not stay at Nonsuch or at Mortlake,” Elizabeth explained, “but find a place at Cheam and hope no one there saw me on May Day.”
“Your Grace,” Cecil spoke at last, “I must again counsel that I deem this a rash and dangerous plan.”
“I cannot let all of this simply pass, my lord.” She turned to him and tried to keep her voice reined in. “I fear that my portraits, my people, and my person are not safe until there is a stop to it. I’ve passed as Meg before, and she as me, and I’ll have Rosie as companion, let alone the two best guards in my kingdom, if not all of Christendom. I am just praying that this fire-mirror plot does not have my cousin Mary Stuart behind it.”
“Or Dr. Dee,” Cecil muttered. “We need him, both here and abroad.”
“You know, Your Grace,” Ned said, calmer now, “Giles Chatam could have been in the woods not to practice his lines, but to await a tryst with Mistress Dee. That part of the hunt park stretches within a few miles of Mortlake.”
“I know, Ned. It’s one of the many threads of this … this twisted rope,” she said, picking up the end of the long, knotted length which had hung from the roof to the ground. “But I am hoping that if we pick away at frayed ends like this, the entire thick thing will unravel.”
“But can’t we just stay here and you can sneak out dressed as Meg?” Ned questioned.
“The element of surprise will be in play if our arsonist thinks we are back in London.”
“What if he follows you there?” Ned asked.
“Ned, all of you will be much better protected at Whitehall. Before Kat was nearly burned, I wanted to stay here longer. Indeed, the fire demon may have believed he was trying to burn me. I must do this before I have no one left to trust—but all of you, of course. I regret the inward working of my suspicious mind, for that can grow as ugly and deformed as … as reflections in that mirror of Dr. Dee’s.”
“Sadly, Your Grace,” Cecil put in, “a suspicious mind must go with being monarch—if one wishes both to thrive and to survive.”
“As I do and shall!”
THOUGH THE QUEEN KEPT HERSELF BUSY, THE WEEK’S end loomed long. Saturday she spent time amid her courtiers and worked diligently with Cecil and her other advisers. On Sunday, she went to church in a great procession to Westminster by river, nodding and smiling to all—and feigning to cough and sneeze and blow her nose from time to time. That afternoon, she put out word that she had a severe spring cold and would take to her bed for a few days. Meanwhile, preparations went on apace for her secret return to Surrey.
“I still have to cinch in your garments,” Elizabeth teased Meg after she’d donned her walnut brown traveling attire early Monday morning. “I guess I’d better begin to eat more.” She carried a cloak with a hood which she could use to her advantage, should they be in a crowd of people. She and Meg waited in the queen’s council chamber for word from Clifford that Jenks had the horses ready. They would be meeting Rosie Radcliffe at the Ring and Crown just outside the palace walls.
“If you wear those fine kid boots of yours,” Meg countered, “someone will spot you sure.”
“I still can’t mimic your speech the way Ned taught you to do mine,” Elizabeth said. “And the boots stay. All I need is blisters on my feet to match the ones on my heart from this fire-mirror plot—for I’m convinced we are in search of more than one conspirator. And I must find out the
because then, I vow, I will have the
“Your Majesty,” Cecil said the moment he came in, “I’m afraid Kat Ashley and her maid Floris are insisting on tending your cold. They’re just outside in the hall.”
“Tell them my physicians and herbalist will see to me,” she said, frowning as she tugged down the too-short sleeves. “No, never mind. I’ve been fretting over what to do about them. I was going to just hope you could hold them off from Meg, but I must see Kat again. Send Floris in alone first, if you can manage it.”
After Cecil stepped back out, she heard his voice through the door. Clifford opened it and whispered, “Horses ready,” just as Floris popped in under his arm. Her jaw dropped when she saw how the queen was dressed.
“Your Grace,” she managed, and dipped a quick curtsy.
“Floris, I am trusting you with more than Kat’s comfort the next few days. I am riding back to Surrey to pursue this matter of the murderous fires.”
For once the unflappable Floris looked stunned.
“I will be back soon, and you are not to tell Kat.”
“No—of course not. I was simply surprised at the garments—and that you would take the risk. You go with guards, I pray.”
“Do not fret. As for Kat, I don’t want her alarmed. Indeed, I don’t want anyone alarmed or suspicious. Will you vow to keep my secret, Floris?”
“I swear it. And I shall guard Kat doubly well, lest the fire demon has come back here in your entourage. I will keep her from sitting in sunny windows, and—”
“I have the roof and main corridors well guarded. Things are much safer here for all of you. No one shall be a prisoner of fear in my palace in my capital city.”
“I ask but one thing then, if I may.”
“That you will let us know the moment you return, so that we may greet you and know you are well.”
“Meg,” the queen said, turning to her, “you will tell Secretary Cecil he is to let Floris and Kat know the moment I return.”
“Then shall I take Kat away?” Floris said as she curtsied and backed toward the door.
“No, send her in. I am always glad to see her, and will say a fast—but not a last—farewell.”
Floris almost said something else, but nodded and went out.
“Oh my, you’re going hunting,” Kat declared the moment she saw her. She did not curtsy, so Elizabeth assumed she didn’t recognize her, at least as queen.
“Yes, my Kat, as a matter of fact I am.”
“And taking that girl with you?” she asked, nodding toward Meg, who stood a ways apart.
“She will remain here, as you must. I bid you farewell until later.”
“Is your father going too?” Kat asked as Elizabeth went slowly closer. “I wish we could get you back in his good graces, my girl.”
Kat has scrambled years and crowns again, Elizabeth thought. She had to leave now. Her people and their mounts were waiting.
“Kat, will you give me a hug good-bye then—just for now?”
“Of course, lovey.”
At that familiar childhood endearment, tears stung Elizabeth’s eyes. They embraced; the old woman felt so frail and fragile.
“I shall see you soon, my Kat,” she said, stepping back. She gathered her cape, whip, and riding gloves from the table and nodded to Meg, who must now retreat to the royal bedchamber until her return.
“Let’s just not worry anymore about that fire they blamed you for,” Kat whispered as the queen reached the door.
“All right,” Elizabeth said, turning back with a forced, bright smile despite the tears still matting her eyelashes. “Let’s not worry about a thing except having a good hunt.”
Gil had heard the queen was sick in bed. He didn’t doubt it, as little as she’d slept lately, as tautly strung as she had been. But since he had not worked the day before on the Sabbath, he needed to stop worrying about Elizabeth Tudor and get back to painting. He opened the pane of his slitted single window, the type they used to shoot arrows through, though decorative now. The chamber he’d been allotted here at Whitehall was much like a tiny cellar. It was damp instead of sunny and airy; the smell of his paints and oils disturbed him. Damn, but this window gave no good light to work by either, as dreary as the section of palace was, hard by the smelly kitchen block.
He stomped out into the narrow, dark corridor, took two lanterns from their wall hooks, and brought them back in. He lit them with his flint; their glow helped some. Leaning Dorothea’s portrait against his low bed where he could see it best, he went back to work on his painting of the queen.
The royal portrait was going well, despite the chaos of his life—the entire court—of late. The painted version of his adored queen seemed to breathe, to move as she turned slightly beneath those sumptuous robes of state. The ladies of Italy—all but one—could eat their hearts out, but they’d never match this queen in the fabulous fire which emanated from her.
He shook his head; best not to think of it that way, linking queen and fire. But energy and emotion did blaze from her, and he could not ignore it in his art.
He worked intently until his stomach growled and cramped. Maybe that’s why he was feeling weak, for sometimes he forgot to eat. And it was nearly midday, so he could go downstairs to the great hall and get something. He’d been placed on the bouche, the list of people allowed to eat there, though those of rank could have their allotted drink and meat delivered to their chambers. Yes, he’d just go get something quick and come back to paint.
He stopped to clean his hands on a rag. “‘Complain not to me, O woman,’” he recited the words from Dorothea’s mirror, which the queen still kept, “‘for I return to you only what you gave me.’ And that goes for both of you, the loves of my life,” he added as he bowed to the queen and stroked Dorothea’s painted cheek before he turned away.
He shook his head again. What he’d just declared sounded rather grand, as if it should be something Ned Topside or Giles Chatam recited from the stage. But it was true.
He went out and hurried down the corridor to find food to fill the hole in his belly, though he knew that nothing could help fill the one in his heart.
Riding fast without the royal entourage, the queen’s party made it to Surrey in four hours. They went straight into the little village of Cheam on the eastern side of Nonsuch Park. The town, which she’d glimpsed through the years on hunts, was a bit bigger than Mortlake. It sat not on the river but amid fields the people worked, most coming in to town at night as if it were a walled medieval village with dangers lurking outside. The four of them reined in at the only hostelry in town, the Black Swan, which looked newer but dowdier than the inn at Mortlake.
“Jenks, I shall have you settle the horses, then bring the saddle packs inside. Clifford, Rosie has some coins to get us two rooms, so take her inside with you while I wait out here.”
Her three companions froze, darting looks at each other.
“Go on then,” she urged. “I’ll not wander off, even if I see the running boy. Rosie, fetch me when you have the rooms.”
Elizabeth stood back under the hanging eaves of the three-story inn—its roof was tile, not thatch, she noted with relief—and watched the sporadic passage of carts or hay wains. Driving a flock of geese with a long stick, a girl went by, so intent upon her task that she did not look up. What is her life like? Elizabeth mused. As much as she loved being queen among her people, she was always awestruck by going anonymously among them. How different her life, and her desires and dangers, would have been had she not been born Elizabeth of all England but simply Bess of Cheam.
Half-timbered houses both small and large stared at each other across the town green, on which grazed black-faced sheep. A small church, but one sporting a spire and well-tended graveyard, stood across the way. How far from danger this rural setting seemed, but she would not let herself be lulled into complacency. Somewhere here were answers to her questions, and she meant to find them.
She turned back to discover what was keeping her fellows and saw Rosie peering at her through the thick-paned window of the inn, as if Elizabeth were a child out at play who must be watched. Jenks soon scurried around the front of the building, and Clifford popped out the door to announce they had the rooms. Such good people, she thought proudly, so vigilant for her safety and well-being.
“Are the horses being fed and watered?” she asked Jenks, who nodded. “Now that we are established, I plan to chat with the innkeeper about where we can find someone who lived through the demise of Cuddington and recalls the building of Nonsuch.”
“I already found out one person who was at both, Your Grace,” Jenks told her. “An old man named Beeson, at the blacksmith shop out back. It’s his son what runs the stables.”
“’S blood, I knew it,” she muttered, slapping her gloves on her palm. “I should have come to Cheam the first time Dr. Dee mentioned that some who’d worked at Cuddington might still live here. And did this Beeson work on the art or decorations at Cuddington?”
“Seems Beeson was only a groom for the Mooring family there, Your Grace,” Jenks said, shuffling his big feet, “so I’m not sure how much he’ll know.”
“If he knows half as much as my trusted friend Stephen Jenks, who began as
groom,” she said, patting the big man’s arm, “he may know a great deal.”
Gil had laid into a good joint of mutton when he heard the hue and cry: “Fire! Fire in the kitchen wing!”
Since such an event was not uncommon, a few kept eating, but those who had been to Surrey with the queen jumped up and ran, either away from or toward the kitchens which adjoined this banquet hall. Because Gil’s chamber was in that direction, he ran with those going to help or to gawk.
He scented smoke before he saw it. Damn, but it looked as if the men rushing with buckets were heading down his very hall! He made his way farther, through a makeshift bucket brigade composed mostly of kitchen staff. He tried to dart around the bystanders, then pushed his way through.
It was his chamber! And they were heaving bucket after bucket of water into it.
“Stop!” he shouted. “You’ll ruin everything!”
“Too late for that,” a voice cracked out. Cecil. Secretary Cecil himself stood here, watching, maybe organizing things. It was Cecil all right, even though he was holding a handkerchief over his nose and mouth.
“My lord, that’s my chamber!”
“With your portrait of the queen, which has gone up in flames, the last of the bunch!” Cecil said, then started hacking.
Gil gaped in the door and beheld devastation. But he’d been gone only a quarter of an hour. Granted, he’d left the lanterns burning, but they had been on the table—nowhere near the bed, where they lay now. They had hardly leaped across the room!
He was desperate to explain to Cecil, but he went as mute as he had been as a boy. Someone had come here to burn him out. The bedclothes had caught. It looked as if both the queen’s and Dorothea’s portraits had been thrown on the bed to be incinerated, and water damage had completed that destruction. He was not sure if his tears were for his loss or from the smoke.
“I—is the fire setter here?” Gil choked out. “My work—the queen.”
“Arrest him,” Cecil said to someone, and two big guards—the queen’s yeomen—seized his arms. “You figured you’d best sacrifice your things to save yourself, didn’t you, lad, but left the chamber first?” Cecil demanded as other guards cleared onlookers from the hallway.
“No—I—no! I swear it!”
“You were seen bringing the lanterns in here, and that’s what started the blaze. You’ve been holding things back all along, and that’s the same as lying to Her Majesty. Now you can cool your heels under lock and key until she can question and deal with you later. Take him upstairs to one of those little rooms high above Sermon Court and keep him locked in and guarded.”