Katherine sighed yet still stomped a foot, which rustled her best gown. She’d insisted on wearing it, though they were coming in by horseback from their Thames-side home at Mortlake, a good six miles distant. They had left shortly after daybreak, and he fully intended to head back to his work after he delivered his message to the queen. And now Her Majesty had suddenly summoned him for reasons of her own. Perhaps the queen’s news wouldn’t wait, but his was burning in his brain too.
“You’ll wait here, then, my dear?” he asked, patting her hand in the crook of his arm, then bending down to kiss the Cupid’s bow of her lips.
“If I must. But you must mention to her that she should meet me.”
“Ah, perhaps the best time to meet her might be later, when she is not so busy and you have had time to change your gown. That one looks a bit dirty. Perhaps you brushed against something in the little walk you took around the palace grounds while I was waiting for Secretary Cecil.”
“Really? Oh, no! Where?” she cried, pulling at her skirts and turning her head to peer at the back of them. All the while, the two stoic guards at the door didn’t budge, as if they were statues like those in the courtyard below. “Well,” she said, whispering now, “at least you must tell me everything she does and says, and I mean, every word!”
Sometimes, though John Dee usually had all the answers, he couldn’t help but wonder if his wife hadn’t married him merely to meet the queen.
Elizabeth’s keen ears picked up voices in the hall. She shifted in her chair and downed the rest of the sweet spearmint elixir Meg had left her. Voices or footsteps, even rustling garments or the creak of boot leather outside her door—she’d never be used to them, never escape the memory of how they used to frighten her. Before she was queen, such sounds had meant spies, trouble, danger. The only noise that used to scare her more was the jingle of keys or their grating in a lock from her terrible time in the Tower.
She had been certain then that her life could be forfeit because her sister, Mary Tudor, then queen, hated her and could not afford to let her Protestant sister inherit her throne. And now, the great cosmic wheel had turned, and Elizabeth feared the same of the Catholic Queen Mary of Scots.
And Elizabeth recalled, sitting up straighter, that the crackle of flames was the other sound that sometimes tormented her dreams. She had pushed a certain memory to the back of her brain, locked it tightly away, but it came back now and again in flashes of fear. Twice, she herself had been trapped in a burning building, once just last year with Cecil and Jenks, during the Yuletide holidays, when the royal boathouse somehow caught fire. Even when she’d discovered who was trying to harm her, the villain had never admitted he’d lit that nearly fatal fire. She supposed it could have been an accident, set by a vagabond trying to keep warm in the wintry weather, one who’d seen what he’d done and had scuttled off into the dark night.
But it was an earlier blaze that had haunted her since she was thirteen. Not only had she nearly burned alive, but her sister Mary and brother Edward too, the entire hope of the Tudor dynasty. How terribly it had marred such a happy period in their lives, one of the few when they actually felt like a family. But that time, she knew who was at fault, though it was not the one who took the blame, for—
A knock on a distant door shattered her agonizing. She rose and went from her bedroom into her council chamber and sat again behind the long table there. “Open to me!” she called.
Her favorite yeoman guard, Clifford, stepped in. “Your Majesty, Dr. John Dee awaits.”
“He may enter.”
The tall, bearded man came in and bowed. He looked exactly as he had over a year ago, before he had left on one of his trips to the Continent. The learned man seemed ageless, unchanging. No wonder that during her sister’s reign, some superstitious folk had imprisoned him for being a wizard. After all, Dr. Dee had done everything from appearing to make men fly during theatrical performances to claiming to aspire to universal knowledge, which was surely the realm of only God himself.
“I was surprised but pleased to hear you had come unbidden to Nonsuch,” she told him, indicating he could sit in the chair across the table from her. “Your letters from abroad have been informative and welcome, Doctor, and Cecil’s getting good at decoding them.”
“I know Your Majesty could easily do so yourself if you but had the time.”
“It is your cryptic signature that both baffles and amuses me,” she confided. John Dee signed each communication to her with only what looked to be a three-digit number, two zeros and then a seven, the top of which extended over two small circles to its left. Since Dee, like others in her or Cecil’s employ, was not only a traveler but an informant—“intelligencers,” Cecil termed them—she took the symbol of what Cecil always called “007” to be a furrowed brow over two wide eyes.
Dr. Dee smiled tightly, then went deadly serious again. “Anything I can do to serve you is never enough for me—ah, and my new wife, of course.”
“I am delighted you’ve found domestic happiness, and shall look forward to meeting her.”
“Oh, that will please her mightily, Your Majesty. Meanwhile, I keep my eyes open in your behalf—hence the 007 signature.”
“But to business. I can use your advice even now. You heard of the fatal fire this morning?” When he nodded solemnly, she went on. “One of my court artists, William Kendale—a man, by the way, who painted the frescoes in the lower hallway when my father built this fantastical place—was killed with his serving boy.”
“Was killed or died, Your Majesty?”
“That may be the question, you see. My man Jenks insists the tent flaps were—are yet—tied from the outside. Even without that possible damning piece of evidence, inquiries must be made.”
“Indeed, detailed observations and deductions aligned.”
“And so I’d count it a great favor if you would examine the burned ruins with Secretary Cecil, especially the bodies, though I know you’re not a medical man. I have a court physician here, a Dr. Forrest, whom I brought to tend Lady Ashley, but he’s been ailing since we arrived. I regret it, but I’ve had to move him to a tent outside lest he make his own patient ill.”
“I’d be pleased to help, Your Majesty. Is the inquiry proceeding now? I can hie myself down there. We rode in early this morn and saw no smoke then. But since they say where there is smoke there is fire, I must give you the news I’ve come bearing.”
She sat up straighter. “These dreadful deaths have so distracted me—of course, you came for some purpose, since you weren’t sent for.”
“I know you and my lord Cecil feel that, despite the dangers to England which could come from the Continent, perils lie much closer to these isles, especially with Queen Mary of Scots to the north.”
Her stomach cartwheeled. “Say on, Dr. Dee.”
“I have something portentous to share, Your Majesty, something which may be rumor, but, ah, I think not.”
“Tell me straight and now.”
The usually calm Dee cleared his throat nervously. He gripped his long-fingered hands on the arms of his chair. “She—the Queen of Scots—had been lately looking in mirrors, making a big ado of it.”
“Mirrors? They say she’s pretty.” Elizabeth shrugged. “The few portraits of her suggest that might be so, including one the Earl of Leicester has, the blackguard. But she is looking in mirrors for some other purpose, you mean?” She stood and leaned toward Dr. Dee with her palms flat on the table. “That she is fairer than I?”
“That would be a bald-faced lie, but it is far worse, Your Majesty. Each time, looking in a mirror, she laughs as if she has not a care in the world and says the same thing, which is being reported far and wide, especially on your northern boundaries, which could flare up. But even if this challenge is exaggerated, I have it on sound authority that last week at Holyrood Palace, Queen Mary playfully pushed Lord Darnley, whom she swears she will wed, out of the way when he peered in the looking glass too.”
“Yes, he would, the self-besotted popinjay. But each time, she says what?”
“Ah, with each glance in a mirror, I regret to inform you, Queen Mary publicly declares for all to hear, ‘Look, I see the true Queen of England there.’”
“ARE YOU CERTAIN NO ONE SAW YOU BRING ALL OF THIS into the palace?” Elizabeth asked Jenks and her yeoman guard Clifford as the two men huffed their way up the servants’ staircase of the privy apartments. The queen and Cecil had ordered them to take the burned tent, swathed in burlap, up onto the flat roof of the palace, so it could all be better examined without everyone staring. The canvas was so heavy that, however tall and strong the queen’s men, they half carried and half dragged it up the tight, twisting staircase toward the roof.
The queen led their way with a lantern. In her other hand, though she’d had no time to study it yet, she carried a sketch Cecil had asked Gil to make, a diagram of the placement of the items in the tent as he recalled them from the previous night, before the fire. Soon she would question her young artist on all that had occurred during his visit to the victims that night. Dr. Dee was with the bodies, which had been removed to a cool cellar until their burial in the graveyard in the little village of Cheam, a few miles away.
The queen had decided the roof would be the best site to examine the evidence for several reasons, besides removing the ghastly remains from prying eyes in the meadow. It was a sprawling space partly protected from wind by the teethlike crenellations around the outer edge, yet enough breeze came through to blow some of the heavy smell of death away. She wanted the good lighting of today’s strong sun. And though she had shared her last thought with no one, she hoped the open air would dispel her own desperate memories of another conflagration.
For, unlike from the boathouse fire this winter, the queen kept suffering strange flashes in her mind’s eye of that fire at Oakham, which had nearly trapped her and her half siblings years ago. They had been in a tent then too, so that was no doubt the connection which provoked these swift, sharp images and made her dread sleep tonight. Either this fire had set her off or Kat’s being so strange … so angry with her … .
Elizabeth shook her head to clear it as she opened the door to the roof. By the time the men had the tent laid out and then went back to fetch and spread out its burned contents, Cecil had joined them.
“A fine place for this,” he said, puffing from the steep climb. “I was thinking of arranging it in the back corner of the privy gardens, but then some could have seen it from their windows.”
“And there is another good reason I hadn’t even thought of to do this up here,” Elizabeth said as she stepped away to peer through a lower section of wall at the tents below. “From this bird’s-eye view, we can discern the relative positions of the tents and paths between them. Perhaps the arsonist darted into his—or her—tent nearby after igniting Kendale’s.”
Cecil only nodded, but Jenks said, “I could tell you who had tents nearby Master Kendale’s, Your Grace, and Ned Topside could too. It was your other artists, mostly. We were talking with Gil late last night and saw all your painters. Ned kept asking Gil all kinds of questions about whether he had seen any theatricals in Italy, but I was just trying to calm the lad after Kendale insulted him.”
Elizabeth’s wide gaze snagged Cecil’s. “Kendale insulted Gil about what?” she asked, trying to keep her tone of voice level when her heart was nearly beating out of her bodice. Surely, however abusive Kendale might have been to Gil, the lad would not have retaliated in some way that got out of hand.
“He said Gil was a climber far above his station,” Jenks went on, “and that Kendale bet he couldn’t paint worth a fig to rival himself or even the other two painters. That—”
“I plan to question Gil myself about all that soon,” Elizabeth interrupted, hoping Cecil wasn’t already suspecting poor Gil. “But first, let’s lay the groundwork for all else we must do to establish foul play and then to discovery by whom.”
With the blackened canvas tent positioned in the same direction it had been in the western meadow below, the queen saw indeed that the rope lacings at the flaps were tied tightly shut from the outside. Really, they were more than tied; rather, they were neatly laced.
“When we finish with all this, Jenks, cut out that section of the tent and save it,” she ordered. “Who knows but that pattern of laces and knots isn’t—pardon the pun—tied to some particular person through a hobby or avocation.”
“Like sailors’ knots?” Jenks asked, frowning. “It’s not what we use in the stables, and I’ve not seen their like.”
“Your Grace,” Cecil whispered, sidling closer to her, “I do not desire to speak ill of the dead, but rumors have been bandied about that Kendale’s interest in the boy Niles was not only to mix his paints, if you take my meaning.”
“In short, Kendale and Mary of Scots’ pretty and beloved Lord Darnley are of the same sexual persuasion,” she whispered back.
Cecil nodded. “So, you see, the tent flaps could have indeed been tied closed—for extra privacy—but—”
“Not from the inside,” she finished for him. “Yet these laced ropes could mean two things. First, since many people react violently toward those who practice sodomy—especially with boys—someone may have wanted to kill Kendale for that, and the fire snagged young Niles, too.”
“At any rate, we have murder, I warrant,” Cecil said as Jenks and Clifford finished arranging the tent’s charred items next to the remains of the tent itself.
“A double murder,” she corrected. “And lest we have a random murder by an arsonist among us while many of my people are housed in tents, we must move with great haste. I am immediately calling a meeting of my Privy Plot Council members who have helped me solve attacks and full-fledged plots before. Jenks, fetch both Mistress Milligrew and Ned Topside. Clifford, go out to the back cellars and see if Dr. Dee can join us with whatever he may have deduced by now. I hate even to contemplate it, but I may have to take a look at the bodies myself.”
“So, we are gathered yet again for the desperate task of unmasking a murderer,” the queen began when her group of covert detectors stood around the layout of the tent and the separate spread of items it had held but the day before. Meg, between Jenks and Ned, the queen’s handsome, mercurial master of revels, nodded solemnly. Cecil looked grim, as he did when anything hinting of violence came near his queen; John Dee, who had joined them for the first time in an investigation, stared at the evidence. Elizabeth could tell Dee’s mind was working at lightning speed, but so was hers.
“Ned and Jenks,” she went on, “I am going to have you lie down over here, assuming the position of the bodies, amid this arrangements of items as we believe they were in the tent when it collapsed. Dr. Dee? Doctor?” she repeated when he didn’t respond at first.
“Ah, yes, Your Majesty, I can testify to the corpses’ positions and placements. No one had disturbed the heavy, smoking canvas before we uncovered the—ah, remains. With your permission, I’ll show your men exactly …”
“Yes, go ahead.”
“The big body, Master Kendale,” Dee said, moving Jenks near where the tent flaps would have been, “was here, facedown, with both arms out toward the tent’s tightly closed opening—so.”
Watching Jenks get into that position, Cecil observed, “He might have been reaching for the tent flap.”
“My thought exactly, my lord Cecil,” Dee said. “Perhaps he had been clawing at the flaps, even desperately reaching through to untie them. The boy was not with him, nor helping him with that task,” Dee went on, positioning Ned on the opposite side of the tent, lying curled up, facing the very outer edge of the tent. Ned, who was used to taking the lead parts of dukes and kings, had played more than one corpse before, the queen thought.
“The boy could have been trying to get out under the canvas,” Cecil said, pointing. “See, they aren’t near their beds.”
“Not beds—bed,” Elizabeth said, handing him the sketch Gil had made. “I’d wager Kendale slept on this wide cot and the boy had a blanket or pallet—which Gil has not sketched in here.”
“Or he slept with Kendale,” Cecil whispered.
“Be that as it may,” she went on, “the most damning thing—along with the tent being laced from the outside—is that Gil sketched no place for food preparation, and no remnants of a cook fire are in the tent.”
“Then the fire came from without indeed,” Meg put in.
“I’d best go with Dr. Dee to view the bodies myself,” Elizabeth said while the others walked among the items laid out on the roof as if they stood in the death tent itself.
“I’d advise against it, Your Majesty,” Dee said. “To put it crudely, both corpses look like roasted game. And for another, ah, both are unclothed with no signs they wore garments when they died, which I’d deduce was from suffocation by smoke, and
they were burned. I surmise that from the fact that neither seemed to be in positions of agony that being burned—alive—would engender.”
“I hope it’s so, that they didn’t suffer, beyond the panic of knowing they were going to be burned or die,” Elizabeth said solemnly. “Hence those dreadful screams …” She shuddered involuntarily, not at the imagined screams but at the memory of her sister’s and brother’s shrieks from the lockbox of memory … .
“Maybe they even hesitated to rush directly out at first,” Dee went on. “Perhaps they were fumbling for clothes. The man may have been clutching his, including a large, charred leather vest. Here,” he said, pointing to an article that, unlike much else, was discernible as a tooled Spanish vest as big as a knight’s saddle. “As far as I can tell from examining the bodies, Your Majesty, there were no signs of man or boy being struck or cut, no noticeable blows to the head, if that is what you planned to look for.”
“Yes, it was in part.”
“Since it is proven that smoke, even in an enclosed area, rises,” Dee continued, gesturing with his long hands, “we can surmise that either they were on the ground because they dropped there to get better air, or the weight of the collapsing tent took them down. Before the time of the fire, I take it from my own observations when my wife and I rode in, many in the encampment were risen, but who is to say some could not still have been abed when it began? The victims may have been dazed—disoriented—when the smoke began. Although I warrant we’d need to actually, ah, cut into their lungs to see if they are blackened by inhaled smoke, I surmise that suffocation was the actual
“Since the evidence testifies to suffocation,” the queen pronounced, “I have no intentions of having anyone cut into those bodies which have already suffered so grievously. And, thanks to Dr. Dee, I shall forgo looking at them myself.”
She heard Cecil heave a sigh of relief she herself could feel, yet her tensions only twisted tighter. “But if many were up and about when the fire began,” she reasoned, “how could someone sneak unseen to the tent to start the conflagration? I don’t care if it was on the edge of the encampment. Ned, I’ll ask you to inquire if those nearby saw anything strange. And I shall ask Lord Arundel, since his apartments overlook the scene.”
They all stood silent for a moment. It was as if, Elizabeth thought, fire had struck from the very heavens. “Jenks,” she said, turning toward him, “are tent poles always pounded in the ground so strongly that they can’t easily be pulled out?”
Still holding his position on the floor as Kendale’s corpse, Jenks answered, “I know you haven’t pitched too many tents, Your Grace, but they got to be tight in, specially if a wind comes up. The weather turned good a week ago here, I heard, so’s the ground would have hardened up from the earlier spring rains.”
“Yet I shall ask you to see if other tent stakes are in the ground so hard that they can be pulled out only with difficulty.” She still stood by the blackened canvas, staring at the top, then the bottom of the tent. “Dr. Dee,” she said, bending to touch a corner of it, “is this the same sort of material used to make sails on ships?”
“It is indeed, Your Majesty. And, ironically, artists’ canvases, though those are washed over and over again, bleached and stretched over a frame in the sun, and then treated with several coats of solid paint as a base, though some artists use varnished boards, of course, and …”
His voice trailed off, evidently when he saw them all gaping at him. Few knew, the queen thought, as she did, what a compendium of universal knowledge was her Dr. Dee.
“Bleach and varnishes,” Elizabeth said. “That reminds me, could Kendale’s own artist’s concoctions in the tent have started the fire? There was a strange, acrid odor.”
“Remnants of paints were within, as well as burned brushes of all sizes and an easel, too,” Cecil put in, glancing from Gil’s sketch to the clutter of items laid out on the roof. “I suppose something like that could have started it.”
“And where are the remains of my portrait Kendale had begun?” the queen asked, glancing over at the contents of the tent. “I see remnants of an easel, paint jars, and brushes.”
“No portraits were within, Your Grace,” Jenks said, sitting up as if he’d decided it was time to resurrect himself. “There’s charred rolled canvas—see there? But none stretched on any frame or any board.”
“Then I must remember to ask the other artists if they know where he might have kept it. And yet,” she said, folding her arms, “I think Master Kendale’s artist’s supplies were not the cause of the fire. Not unless they flared up very high.”