He turned back to face her. His heart began to pound again.
“Why did you return from Italy two years earlier than expected? I suggested five years of study, and you agreed to that.”
He almost blurted out the truth—all of it, painful and terrible. But instead what came out was, “Because I yearned for England and to serve you.”
The corners of her mouth tilted into a hint of a smile. “And I am glad you are back.” She stared at him strangely, with misty eyes. “In a few days,” she said, “I shall pose for you and the two others, and then we shall see what you have learned.”
He bowed again, turned, and went out, but his hair prickled along the nape of his neck as if he’d been out in a field when lightning struck. She had stared at him so eerily, as if she’d seen a ghost. In his mind’s eye, he could almost see one himself, which haunted him. It was Kendale, screaming and burning as if he were trapped in hell itself, and Gil regretted that.
After the memorial in the chapel, in which the queen had the minister give a little speech for calm among her courtiers, she was escorted out by both the Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Leicester. During the short service she’d been agonizing about who the arsonist-murderer could be. But it was only when Arundel began to comment about the large size of Kendale’s coffin that she recalled something else: Arundel had once called Master Kendale a “flap-mouthed magpie full of bombast” and urged her not to include him among her official painters at court. And so their host himself, who surely knew each stride of the Nonsuch park and grounds, must have held some sort of grudge against Kendale.
“My lord Arundel,” she said as they walked across the half-shadowed courtyard toward her apartments, “though none of us like to speak ill of the dead, pray tell why you advised against my employing Master Kendale for my official portrait.”
“The man turned out to be trouble, did he not? Rumors are flying about his relationship to the dead boy, he argued with your other artists, was full of braggadocio, I hear, and then did something to get himself killed.”
Frowning at that cruel assessment, she merely inclined her head, biting back the urge to rebuke him. Had he just revealed more about himself than about Kendale?
“The reason I advised against Kendale, Your Grace,” Arundel went on, “was that, quite simply, the man was a baseborn braggart, just trading on his talent.”
Elizabeth bit her lower lip and let him talk, however much she wanted to tell him that she fully intended to encourage such men who traded on their talent to serve queen and kingdom, no matter what their social rank. But if what Arundel was saying of Kendale’s birth was true, it flew in the face of Kendale’s rejection of Gil for being baseborn and trading on his talent. Evidently, Kendale not only had hidden his own humble beginnings but dared to lord it over those who reminded him of his past.
“You see,” Arundel continued with a sharp sniff, “Kendale did a portrait of me about ten years ago that was passable but not inspired. He made me look dour, actually, stuffy and old-fashioned.”
“Imagine that,” Robin said, his face stoic despite its rising color.
Elizabeth bit her lip harder. Robin was getting red in the face, and she feared he’d burst out with one of his guffaws. Arundel not only did not have a sense of humor, but usually failed to recognize it in others.
“The wretch charged me a pretty penny for it too,” Arundel plunged on, “and told everyone I adored his work, which I’d never said. That was as good—as bad, I mean—as lying, if you ask me. Not to mention the man paid too much heed to my page boy, of all people, while he was around, and the lad was too young to know better. This was before Kendale turned as corpulent as your fath—” He stopped talking midword.
“As corpulent as my father,” she finished for him. “I do see the picture you paint, my lord.”
Robin stifled a snicker, which, fortunately, Arundel did not hear. “Of course, you have every right
to heed what I advise,” Arundel said, tugging his ruffled satin cuffs down over his beringed hands. “God knows, your royal sire did not. When he saw the site for Nonsuch—I was with him, you know, on a boar hunt—I suggested he build the palace at the far end of the meadow and use the little village of Cuddington as a place where courtiers and servants could live. But no, he would have it exactly here on the rise of ground and said leaving Cuddington would ruin the view, so out the village folk and the family of the manor went and down came the buildings.”
But Elizabeth was only half listening now. She could see through the ornate gate into the outer courtyard, where three riders were dismounting from lathered horses, and she was suddenly certain who had arrived.
“Well, my lords,” she said, looking back over her shoulder to catch Cecil’s eye, “it seems Queen Mary’s Lord Maitland has arrived from Scotland—via London, if he went there first. I’ll see him forthwith. Despite who his royal mistress is, I have found him a forthright man with only his country’s best interest at heart, and who can ask more of a man than that? Cecil, with me, if you will.”
Just as the chimes rang four of the afternoon, the queen and her secretary of state walked together to greet Maitland under the tall clock-tower gate. He had been the Scottish secretary of state for years, appointed before Mary was queen. Though Mary had not officially demoted him, she’d used him lately more as an envoy or liaison to the English court, partly because he was a staunch Protestant and frowned on her increasingly reckless behavior. But Mary could not argue with the man’s wily ways or the fact that he and Cecil had lately managed to keep peace between the two countries.
“My lord Maitland,” Elizabeth called in greeting, and the man swept off his hat and shaded his eyes before a low bow. “You are welcome here at Nonsuch.”
“I take it the court’s movement was a sudden decision, Your Most Gracious Majesty,” he replied, “for when I crossed the border, I heard you were still in London.”
Sir William Maitland of Lethington was tall and sturdily built, a jouster in appearance but, like Cecil, a lawyer at heart. Bearded, approaching age forty, he seemed bluffly honest and had the brains
to favor Lord Darnley as his mistress did, so Elizabeth liked the man despite her aversion to his Catholic queen.
“Who can resist this country air after such a winter, my lord,” she said. “Come inside, and I’ll see you and your men are well cared for. And what is the message from my cousin, dear Queen Mary?” she added as they walked toward the royal apartments.
Maitland’s clear blue gaze met hers, then Cecil’s. “I regret to inform both of you,” Maitland said, his voice so low and rough that it sounded as if he were grinding out his words, “she is yet besotted with Lord Darnley and, I fear, will have him.”
Elizabeth tried to convey both surprise and concern. “I feared so too, and in defiance of my counsel.”
“And mine. God’s truth, Your Majesty, this is something upon which you and I agree. I know young Darnley’s your second cousin, but he’s a preening milksop and he galls me sore. She’s beyond listening to either me or the Earl of Murray on it.”
The shadows of the arched entryway leaped over them as they entered the building, and for a moment, the three of them blinked like owls to see better. A lad appeared with three goblets of wine on a silver tray, and Maitland took his readily.
“I wish we could drink to better news,” the queen told the men solemnly, though she could hardly contain her excitement. Mary had not only bit on the bait, but was going to be quite caught in the net. Darnley would surely drag her down. Maitland might call the pompous lad a milksop, but indeed he was a sodomist, who must be playing Mary for all she was worth. The man’s passion must surely be only for her power, not for her person, so there might not even be an heir from their marriage that Cecil so feared.
They emptied their goblets silently. Let the pretty Queen of Scotland gaze in mirrors and jest about taking England from its rightful queen, Elizabeth thought grimly. Just let her try.
While Maitland and his men refreshed themselves and rested, and two tents were pitched for them, Elizabeth, pretending she was merely going for a stroll, went out with Cecil and Dr. Dee to look through Lavina Teerlinc’s and Henry Heatherley’s tents. The servants who lived here were being kept busy in the palace, so although others walked or rode the grounds, no one was nearby now.
“Even if we disturb the order of their things,” Elizabeth assured her companions, “they’ll think it just happened when their domiciles were moved.”
Dee and Cecil took Heatherley’s tent while Elizabeth looked through Lavina’s more carefully than she had before. She peered into and sniffed at pots of paints, bottles of what smelled like linseed oil, and something more acrid in which a single, short brush sat, so perhaps it was some sort of cleansing liquid. Lavina had bouquets of brushes, from squat and short to lean and long, all made with various animal hairs, soft sable to stiff boar. There were, of course, lanterns in the tent, three of them with fat, halfburned candles. Could a candle have begun the blaze by being thrown up on the roof?
“Dr. Dee,” she said, going to stand in the opening of Heatherley’s tent as the two men searched his things, “could a candle heaved on one of the slanted tent roofs catch and start a fire?”
“Canvas doesn’t catch easily, Your Grace,” John Dee told her, straightening from his own perusal of paint supplies. “Granted, tallow could have melted and the wick burned in the blaze, so we’d find no evidence. But I’d say a candle is as likely to gut itself out as catch an entire tent afire. Now a torch might be a different thing.”
The queen suddenly broke out into a sweat. It had been flames larger than a candle which had caught afire that gay, brightly hued pavilion when she was thirteen. That had not been sturdy canvas, but mere material in pretty colors with fluttering flags and pennants … .
To get away from the warmth of the late-afternoon sun, she went to stand in the shade on the eastern side of Lavina’s tent. As she gazed up at it from this angle, her eyes widened. What appeared to be a scorch mark, walnut brown, perfectly round, was on the sloped roof just below where the tent pole emerged.
Elizabeth circled the tent. She saw only that one strange spot. As she circled Heatherley’s, peering up at his roof but seeing nothing amiss, Cecil and Dee came out to inquire what she was doing.
“Look!” she told them, motioning them to her earlier vantage point. “That mark up there. What is it? Could a candle or flame have been thrown on this tent roof, too, but failed to ignite? Strange that it seems so perfectly round.”
“But for your keen eye, it would have been a perfect crime, Your Majesty,” Dee said, so quietly that it was if he spoke to himself. “With the bright morning sun and the angles of refraction, I should have thought of it myself.”
“Thought of what?” Cecil said. “You don’t mean something like a—a spot of sunlight started that fire?”
“Have you ever heard the story of how Archimedes burned the Roman ships that were going to attack Syracuse?” Dee asked, folding his hands across his chest and tapping an index finger over his mouth. “Your Majesty, if you will come to visit me at Mortlake, I can demonstrate for you how that mark—and perhaps the deadly conflagration of the nearby tent—could have happened.”
“Wait,” she commanded, pressing her hands to her temples. “As I recall, Archimedes used a huge concave mirror to catch the sun’s rays and burn the canvas sails and ignite the ships. But here?”
“Even a small mirror would do,” Dee said, nodding as he bent his knees slightly and lifted his hands to peer through them at the circular stain. “A small mirror, that is, in the hands of a very daring and determined killer.”
“MY DEAREST! KATH-ER-INE!” JOHN DEE SANG OUT AS HE hurried into their hastily pitched tent on the other side of the encampment from the scene of the fire. He saw she’d been scrubbing at the dirt spot on her skirt, for her ministrations had turned a circle of the dark green damask black. Besides her wash bucket, around her lay scattered items from their four saddle packs, so she must have been unpacking.
“What is it?” she cried, looking up. “I’m hungry. We are to be allotted some fine fare while we’re here, aren’t we, I mean, considering your status? Why, you seem at her beck and call every bit as much as her secretary Cecil.”
“Good news!” he told her, chortling. “Your wish has come true, my dearest.”
“To meet her? Now—with my best gown all blotched up?”
“Ah, better than that. The queen and a small retinue are coming to visit us at Mortlake on the morrow.”
“Tomorrow?” she cried, and leaped up from the single stool in the tent. “But—but—I’m here, and Sarah won’t know to clean and to prepare food and to—I can’t leave here without meeting her, why, coming all this way and not so much as laying eyes on her. Surely we’ll go ahead of her to Mortlake, so she won’t be walking in with us when I haven’t been there, didn’t know … .”
Dee sighed and sank into the stool she had just vacated. He was aching from the ride to Nonsuch, then from running hither and yon to examine corpses, tents, and scorch marks. But he was honored to be in the thick of things with Elizabeth Tudor and William Cecil, the two brightest and most powerful people in the kingdom. Though, God as his judge, he couldn’t see why Katherine had to fuss at him when she was being given the desire of her heart. All he’d heard was queen, queen, queen, and now …
“Let me explain it to you clearly, my dear,” he said, tugging Katherine down on his knees. “It’s actually an important trip for Her Majesty as well as for us. She wishes to see some things in my laboratory which tie into the investigation here of that fatal fire.”
“In other words, she is coming to work with you,” she said, sitting stiffly, almost warily, in his lap. “Whatever is she thinking caused that fire?”
“Never mind all that, my love. We must send for our horses and set out so we can be home before sunset tonight. You see, that will give you all evening and part of the morrow to prepare things for the royal arrival.”
“But just one night? Well, I shall do what I must, of course.”
“There, you see, and you can talk mirrors with Her Majesty, as you favor them, and she is very interested in them now, especially my concave looking glass. Ah, I think we shall set up the demonstration in our garden in full sun. Now what?” he asked, seeing her stricken expression. “Don’t be vexed, for everything will go well.”
“Mirrors?” Katherine demanded, seizing his sleeve as he headed out to send for their mounts. “What about mirrors? I mean, you’ve many mirrors, so why that special one?”
“Ah, it is your favorite, is it not? She may wish to take it with her for a while,” he said ruefully, for it was his favorite too. The mirror was fearfully expensive. He’d bought it in Venice, where glassmaking guilds on the islands of Murano guarded the secrets of their craft, he’d heard, on pain of death. The Italians were that way, apparently effusive but actually as defensive as their city-states.
As for his precious mirror, he’d spent hours studying its angles, its ground surface, its silver backing, its pinpoint focusing power, and especially its distortions. He cherished it because it had taken him a long time to discern its mysteries. But not, he feared, as long as it was going to take him to understand his wife.
“What’s keeping that boy?” Elizabeth muttered as she and Cecil awaited Gil in her audience chamber.
“Perhaps Clifford couldn’t find him,” Cecil said, stacking the bills and grants she had just signed.
“Which reminds me, how did you find Lord Maitland in your meeting this morning?” She rose and went to stand in the splash of sun through the window, resting one arm on the deep ledge and soaking in the warmth. “You know, my lord, he’s the only Scot I trust in this subtle struggle with Queen Mary. I truly believes he fears her wildfire actions as much as we do.”
“Agreed. He says Darnley’s already throwing his weight around, acting arrogant and insulting her longtime counselors right and left. With that sort of help from her betrothed, the queen may soon alienate all who have been loyal to her, the Protestant lords of Congregation like Maitland and Murray anyway.”
“She’s been content to let them advise and nearly rule, but will Darnley allow that, especially as her husband?” She hit her fist on the windowsill. “This covert policy of ours to plant him in her life has been a gamble, my lord. Yet I still believe their marriage will weaken both of them, just the opposite of what they are expecting. Dr. Dee’s report on her mania for mirrors shows she is rash enough to make public that she covets my throne.’S blood, we don’t need
northern Catholic subjects joining
in a rebellion to topple me.”
“Your Grace?” a voice called from behind them.
She started when she saw the boy simply standing in the door, for she hadn’t heard it open. “Oh, Gil! Enter, then. I did say they should send you straight in. Ignore what we were saying if you overheard, or I shall have to have you put under lock and key.”
When the lad’s eyes widened, she smiled to assure him she was jesting. “My lord Cecil is going to take a few notes,” she said as Gil dipped a bow to her. “We are most anxious to hear everything Italian you have to share.” She sat at the table again. “Will you sit or stand, Gilberto Sharpino?”
“May I walk a bit, the way you do when you’re thinking, Your Grace? It will help me remember. I dared write nothing down.”
“Of course. My lord Cecil, do you have a particular thing you would ask Gil first?”
“How tight is the court of Urbino to Rome and to Spain?” he asked as he poised pen over a fresh sheet of paper.
“Very close ties, my lord, to Rome especially. And correspondence is exchanged—ambassadors are too—with King Philip of Spain. He buys artwork and, I don’t doubt, information too from Italy. They think our queen’s father and she herself are heretics of the worst order, of course.”
“Of course,” the queen clipped out, “and I’ve no doubt I’ll be excommunicated by the so-called His Holiness someday. But my people will rally behind me—that is, the ones who don’t take that as their battle cry to rebel or try to kill me.”
Cecil and Gil both gaped at her. “’S blood,” she cried, “I am not some innocent ninny lost in the woods!”
“Hardly that, Your Grace,” Cecil said. “To carry on your conceit, I just want to be certain we always see the forest for the trees, that is all.”
“Meaning not to let our enemies like Mary of Scots, King Philip of Spain, and the pope himself cause us to react instinctively instead of calmly, without viewing the broader picture? I can’t help it, Cecil. After all, politics and history hang greatly on the personalities of the participants.”
“I cannot argue with that, Your Grace, for you are England.”
“But I meant not to digress. Gil, tell us about the art school there, about people—you see, there we are again—people making policy. Who is the most interesting person you met?”
She and Cecil listened raptly while Gil painted word pictures for them of the Italian painter Titian’s genius, especially of Gil’s favorite masterpiece, the
Venus of Urbino
“Naked?” the queen said when he described it. “He painted his Venus quite naked, but she looks to be a real woman, not the goddess?”
“Oh, she’s real, all right,” Gil vowed. “And I’ve met a woman, Dorothea, who looks a great deal like Titian’s model. Dorothea’s a model too. I’ll sketch her for you sometime, Dorothea that is, as I’ve drawn her before—with clothes on.”
“This Dorothea is Titian’s model?” Cecil asked, frowning as he looked up from taking notes.
“No, my lord, she poses for my maestro, Giorgio Scarletti.”
“But were we not speaking of Titian? Forget this Dorothea unless she is of import here.”
The queen noted that Gil looked crestfallen. Because of Cecil’s scolding tone or because this woman evoked sadness in the boy? His face had lit like a Yuletide candle but a moment ago. But she’d broach that subject later.
“Anything else of import about Titian?” Cecil asked.
“He’s painted for King Philip of Spain,” Gil said, his voice quiet now. “Religious paintings, mostly of saints.”
“And who knows what else Titian sends him.”
“I doubt that, my lord,” Gil said, seeming to perk up again. “He’s obsessed with his art. He doesn’t even sell his own works, because a patron manages it all for him, keeping him in the eye of the nobles who would commission him. And so his fine reputation is spread far and wide on the Continent.”
“Who is this patron promoter?” the queen asked.
“One Pietro Aretino, a big bully of a man, but he keeps Titian’s name and reputation and work disseminated everywhere.”
“Hm,” Cecil mused, “a genius of another sort, to make and sway public opinion.”
“As I mean to do through my portraits and appearances over the years. Tell us more of Italy, Gil.”
He described Terra del Duca, the town of Urbino with its massive fort and ancient palace on the tops of two hills. “In truth,” Gil confided, glancing out the sunstruck window as he passed it in his pacing, “the landscape of Urbino reminds me of this area with its gentle hills and mix of meadows and forests. Both places have scattered remnants of stones or bricks, a few foundations hidden in the grass from buildings which came before, places where other people lived and died.”
“You’ve become a poet as well as a painter, Gil,” the queen pronounced, and then they fell silent for a moment. She watched Gil’s eyes glaze over as if he saw Italy even now, built upon the ruins of its past. She’d never given much thought to the demise of little Cuddington on this site, but she’d seen the few surviving stones. In a way, it was sad that her father had built his fantastical Nonsuch on someone else’s beloved manor and town.
“And, Your Grace,” Gil’s eager voice interrupted her thoughts, “women are important in the Italian city-states, for the men are oft gone to war, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes for their own or the pope’s cause. Dukes’ wives rule when they’re away and even make laws, receive ambassadors, and oversee the education of their daughters as well as their sons.”
“We educate women with their brothers here,” Cecil proclaimed a bit too loudly, as if he’d had enough of Gil’s extolling another country. He tossed his pen on the paper, flecking ink spots across the page.
“Those Italian women are not comparable to me,” the queen said. “I don’t rule in the place of a duke or king—a man—and never shall. Though I do recall when my father went to war in France late in his life, he named my stepmother Katherine Parr as regent in his stead. And she took all of us—his three children—to await his triumphant return home at Oakham Manor in Rutland.”
“Times,” Cecil said, “were different then.”
“I meant not to reminisce,” Elizabeth whispered, turning away from both of them as she, like Gil, gazed outside into the blaze of sunlight. Curse it, she fumed, but the tent fire here kept resurrecting her terrible memories of that fire at Oakham. It was there, the very day she so proudly presented her stepmother with her gift, that she got in trouble, not only for her choice of a gift but for the nearly fatal fire itself.
Cecil cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “Gil,” he said in the stretch of silence, “pray tell who else you saw in Italy of import to us.”
“Well, Dr. Dee, of course, when he passed through. He told me some of the latest news of home and made me yearn to be back all the more.”
“Cecil, did you know John Dee passed through Urbino? Why did he not tell us?”
“Hm, perhaps he did and I forgot to say.”
“Too many things churning in that brain of yours,” she agreed.
“Dr. Dee didn’t stay long, then went to Venice,” Gil put in, “though not when I was there observing techniques in Titian’s studio to compare them with those of my own maestro Scarletti’s.”
“What techniques have you learned, Gil?” she asked, though her mind was still on Dee. He should have reported, written at least, about how the boy was doing in Italy. “Gil, what techniques?” she demanded when Gil, after being so talkative, said nothing.
“Just brushstrokes, that’s all, the vibrant use of color, perspective and the depth of shadowing—things like that.”
But the boy had stumbled through that answer; she could sense he wanted to say more. He looked as if he’d been caught at something, just the way her brother used to, like that time he brought a pregnant dog into his bed and could hardly hide the mess—or six new puppies in the morning.
“After my lord Cecil and I return from Mortlake late this afternoon,” Elizabeth told Gil, “perhaps we shall use the warm glow of the sinking sun for our first portrait session here—outside. And then we shall see what techniques you learned in Italy, Master Gilberto Sharpino. You just be certain, my young man, you paint your queen fully clothed.”