“Ah, yes,” Dee said, following her gaze as she fixed it again on the ruined tent canvas. “A most unusual burn pattern.”
“What do you mean?” Cecil asked as Ned jumped up from playing a corpse. Meg came closer, peering down at the blackened canvas where the queen now pointed.
“You see,” Elizabeth said as Dr. Dee nodded his approval of what he must have guessed she would say, “the tent is burned more heavily toward the top than the bottom, hence, from the top toward the bottom.”
“But the fire did flare high,” Cecil said. “Everyone said they saw that.”
“But no arsonist would or could start a fire on the roof of a tent,” she argued. “Even if it was laced shut from without, a fire set high would give those inside more time to escape and would be more quickly visible to others, who could put out the flames earlier. It would be highly unusual to start a fire on the roof instead of on the ground, where it would move upward to engulf the entire thing.”
“You’re thinking someone heaved a torch atop the roof?” Cecil asked. “They would hardly climb a ladder to set a fire where they could be spotted. But, Your Grace, the other artists’ tents were near this one. You
rather fostered a competition among them, but I can’t imagine …”
“I don’t like the sound of that, Cecil!” she exploded before she realized she would sound so angry. Pictures of that other fire so long ago streaked through her brain. “In this realm, contests and competition are healthy, not harmful,” she said, her voice controlled again.
“I didn’t mean you could be to blame, Your Grace,” Cecil said.
Frowning, Elizabeth walked away and leaned on her elbows against a shoulder-high section of the wall around the roof. Standing on her tiptoes, she squinted into the bright sun at the blackened oval below among the scattered white circles of tent roofs. Soon the others came to look down from other notches in the wall, with only Cecil sharing her spot.
“I want to speak with Gil Sharpe first and then with my other two artists and Lord Arundel,” Elizabeth told him as he looked over the edge with her. “The rest of you, be ready for further tasks, for I’ll not have someone loose who likes to set fires on tents or elsewhere in my court or kingdom. Dr. Dee, we shall see that you are allotted a tent for the next few days, so that we might further use your service in the examination of the fire and the other matter you brought to my attention. We can provide an escort back to Mortlake for your wife if you like.”
“I shall be honored to remain to be of assistance, Your Majesty, but I am certain my wife would like to stay.”
“Your Grace,” Cecil said, “since no storm clouds threaten today—not the skyward kind, anyway—shall we leave these things laid out on the roof for a while longer?”
“Yes,” she said, and leaned farther out, trying to fix every detail in her mind. Like the area around the pretty pavilion she and her half siblings had been playing in so long ago, the death site was not far from the fringe of the forest. Though the foliage was not full, she could look a ways into the deer park where she had often led the hunt.
But now she had on her hands another chase, one in which she could see only partway. It was a hunt in which she must corner and capture a villain before he—or she—killed more prey.
A quarter hour later, trying to calm herself, Elizabeth gazed out a window into the privy garden while she waited for Gil to be brought to her. To her surprise, Kat and Floris were just slipping out toward the forest through the garden’s postern gate, which the queen knew was kept locked from the inside. Any palace her father had built or renovated had privy entrances. Perhaps Kat needed a breath of fresh air. Elizabeth dared to hope that her old friend had recalled that the key was kept in the crotch of the corner pear tree.
Let Gil wait for her, the queen thought, for she needed to see how Kat was doing. She told her yeomen guards at the door that the boy should wait in the hall until she returned, then, on second thought, took Clifford with her. With the big man keeping a bit back as she had ordered, she hurried down the privy staircase and ran across the garden beneath the first blossoms of the pear and plum trees. The postern gate was closed but unlocked. Glancing in both directions and seeing no one but the two women, the queen stepped outside.
Elizabeth followed them along the strip of grass between the fringe of the hunt park and the palace walls. They strolled toward the wildflower meadow near the south gate, at the opposite side of the palace from the encampment. Before she could catch up, they had crested a knoll and settled themselves in the tall blowing grass, which bobbed with spring flowers. On the hillock stood a few bricks atop some sort of cornerstone, perhaps some rustic remnant of the village or manor of Cuddington.
The sunstruck sight made such a lovely pastoral scene that Elizabeth stopped and stared. Kat looked so content, Floris so perfectly at ease, that she felt closed out, as if she were staring at a painting of them she could not enter. She did not want to risk upsetting Kat, yet she needed to be with her for a moment, to talk to her, and not only to see if she was well. She needed Kat to help her dispel the terrible waking dreams she was having of that childhood fire, because Kat had been there too.
Glancing behind herself once to be certain Clifford was waiting, the queen strode toward the grassy knoll. Obviously startled, Floris saw her first and dropped whatever she was doing in her lap.
“Look, Kat, the queen has come to visit,” Elizabeth heard her say, for the wind carried perfectly in her direction.
“I suppose we have to stand and curtsy, then,” Kat said, shading her eyes, “but I don’t think my old bones will abide it.”
“No—do not rise,” Elizabeth called to them, hoping her voice sounded brighter than her mood. But whenever she saw Kat hardly heed her but look to Floris, it swamped her spirits. She climbed their hill and plopped down in the grass on Kat’s other side. Both women had been lacing flower stems to make necklaces.
“I heard about the … the sad event,” Floris said.
“Yes, but I am heartened to see you two enjoying the lovely day. How are you feeling, my Kat?”
“Very well. I always did like it here at Hampton Court. Floris has been telling me all about it, you know, where she used to live.”
On Kat’s other side, the queen saw Floris dramatically shake her head, then point to it, as if Elizabeth needed to be reminded that Kat had lost her faculty of logic.
“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth said, and patted Kat’s hand. “Hampton Court always was your favorite place.”
“Floris’s, too,” Kat confided, squeezing Elizabeth’s hand. And in that fleet, passing moment, she smiled at Elizabeth. The sun lit that dear face, now webbed with wrinkles, and the sky blue gaze, now cloudy. But it was as if she had her Kat back again, and they were younger and would protect each other at any cost.
The queen almost burst into tears. She rose quickly. “Floris, I appreciate your friendship with Lady Ashley. I must inform you that the incident from this morning you mentioned may not have been an accident. So when you leave the walls of the palace, always take that guard there”—she pointed to Clifford waiting patiently at the edge of the hunt park—“as an escort.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. You mean, I—we must be wary out here? But there’s another woman even farther out from the palace, that way,” she added, pointing toward the meadow. “See, by the old apple copse. It’s your lady artist, I think, painting.”
Elizabeth looked over her shoulder. From this gently sloping height, she could see Lavina Teerlinc sitting with her back to them and a blank canvas before her. Elizabeth wanted to get back to Gil, waiting for her inside, but she didn’t like Lavina wandering off by herself. Hadn’t Cecil told her artists to keep close until they could be summoned for questioning?
Kat was humming an old dance tune while she went back to lacing flower stems. Elizabeth summoned Clifford with a flick of her hand and walked down the far side of the rise toward Lavina.
The shadows of the hunt park seemed to reach for her artist as she sat motionless but for the breeze slightly shifting her skirts and cloak. Strangely, as sturdy as she was, Lavina looked frail and fragile out here. She sat motionless, hands in her lap, staring either at the blank canvas or beyond. She wore a big-brimmed straw garden hat which sat askew but shadowed her shoulders. As the queen came closer, she could see Lavina had no paint or brushes with her, unless they were hidden in her lap or in the tall grass.
Again, Elizabeth turned back to Clifford and motioned for him to keep his distance. On the hill behind him, she could see Floris watching and Kat bent to her task.
“Lavina?” Elizabeth called before she came too close, so as not to startle the woman.
The hatted head turned. She jumped up, hitting the small camp stool with her skirts so that it collapsed against the easel and toppled it. Lavina curtsied hastily, shakily.
“Your Majesty, whatever is it brings you out here?”
To the woman’s obvious dismay, Elizabeth retrieved the canvas for her and placed it on the easel Lavina righted.
“I hadn’t started even to sketch yet,” Lavina said, stating the obvious.
“Because you forgot your charcoals and paints?”
“I—yes. I was so distraught about Will’s death that I just wanted to get away—into fresh air. I planned to do his portrait—in remembrance, though he never married, and I have no idea whom to give it to. Would you like to sit on the stool, Your Majesty?”
“I’ll stand. Lavina, where were you when you learned Master Kendale’s tent was afire?”
“In my tent, shared with several of your women’s lady’s maids. You can ask them, of course.”
“Why would I not believe you?”
“I did step out earlier to … to relieve myself at the forest’s edge. There’s a sort of women’s place there, well hidden from the camp. When so many of us are living together without jakes and clothes stools …”
“They say—I saw it too—that Will’s tent was laced shut from the outside. It’s dreadful. I—I don’t know if I can get his face out of my mind to paint yours again, Your Majesty.”
“Perhaps going on with normal things after the memorial service for him and the boy will be the best help for us all. Lavina, it may indeed have not been an accident, and everything is being looked into.”
“By Dr. Dee and Cecil, I take it? We all saw them hanging about.”
“More or less, yes. Lavina, were all the artists getting on? I realize you were discomfited by my bringing Gilbert Sharpe into the competition, but was there rivalry among the group of you beyond that?”
The artist flinched. “You’re not implying—that Henry Heatherley or I—”
“I’m implying nothing, but asking a flat question.”
“No, then. We were all getting on, colleagues in the same endeavor, though each wanted his or her portrait chosen, of course.”
“Then can you tell me where Master Kendale was storing the portrait of me he had begun, as it seems not to have been in his tent? Had the three of you placed them somewhere for safety?”
“What they’ve done with theirs I know not. I have mine in my care and am extremely pleased with the way it is begun. The whey-colored face you alluded to can be altered, Your Majesty,” she said, her voice rising, and her usually stiff gestures becoming more expansive. “A bit of rose hue and your complexion will appear to be country cream gilded by the sun.”
Elizabeth regretted questioning Lavina, for she was obviously distraught over Kendale’s death; yet, was that not the best time to press for the truth? But that subtle insult of her complexion
to be country cream gilded by the sun—that would be curdled cream indeed. Had that criticism the queen made to Lavina in London made her so resentful she’d turned reckless and tried to eliminate a competitor?
“Have you summoned Master Heatherley to question him, too?” Lavina asked, pointing. Not only Floris, Kat, and Clifford were in view but Henry Heatherley, striding toward them from the south gate of the palace. In his hands, he too had a canvas, a draped one, as if he and Lavina had made some pact to meet out here to paint.
“Your Majesty,” he said, bowing but ten feet from them, “I had no notion you would be out here too. I came to ask Lavina about this before I showed it to you.”
“And what is that?” Elizabeth asked, though suddenly she thought she knew.
“The portrait of you Will Kendale had begun,” Heatherley said. “One of the lady’s maids in Lavina’s tent just brought it to me and said it was hidden there among her own can—”
“No! That’s not true!” Lavina cried, striding toward him with her arms straight down at her sides and her fists tightly balled. “I never put it there. Let me see it!”
“Yes, let me see it too,” Elizabeth said. Lavina halted and stepped aside, as if shocked she’d turned her back on the queen.
“But there is another surprise to come,” Heatherley warned, “one I swear I had naught to do with. Brace yourself, Your Majesty.”
He removed the cover from the canvas almost reluctantly. It was indeed Kendale’s sketched portrait he had planned to embellish later. But now, only the edges of the portrait were intact, for the queen’s face and form had been slashed to pieces.