The lovely early-afternoon ride toward the tiny Thames-side enclave of Mortlake calmed the queen. The river glittered in the sun as they rode the rutted path which followed its south bankside contours. She usually took her royal barge up and down this, the greatest waterway of her realm, but today it felt good to ride. It reminded her that she had hoped to go hunting at Nonsuch—though for deer, not for a double murderer.
Her entourage consisted of Robin, who had been tutored years ago by John Dee and who had originally introduced Elizabeth to the learned man; Cecil, who hardly had the time or the inclination for a ride, but wanted to see Dee’s latest experiments; one of her ladies, Rosie Radcliffe; and four guards, including Jenks and Clifford. She had been to visit Dr. Dee’s home and laboratories only once five years ago, for her 007 usually came to court or was abroad in her secret service. When he was home in Mortlake, Dee still lived with his elderly mother, who doted on him and his genius, but now he had to contend with a young wife the queen had only briefly glimpsed from afar.
As the royal retinue approached Mortlake, it was apparent that someone had spread the word she was coming. Men with children on their shoulders lined the river path; women waved tablecloths from front yards or upstairs windows. Two lads had climbed one of the cottages and sat waving from its thatched roof. On the fine old Riverside Inn, which the queen had often noted from her barge, bunting made from skirts and cloaks was draped from sills, while makeshift flags flapped in the breeze.
“I can’t believe Dr. Dee told people,” Elizabeth said to Robin as she smiled, nodded, and waved amid the cheers. “He’s usually so secretive.”
“I’d wager an entire week’s primero winnings,” Robin said, “it wasn’t him but his new little bride.”
Dee, looking as surprised at the noise and fuss as the queen felt, came out with his stooped mother, walking with a cane, and Katherine to greet them. The pretty blonde wore a forest green damask gown and curtsied so low and grandly that she almost sat down on the grass. After pleasantries, introductions, and a few more waves to the lingering crowd of several score, the queen’s party went inside.
“I regret the swarm outside, Your Majesty,” Dee whispered to her. “It seems Katherine only told one person, and then—”
“I understand. It is ever my joy to greet my people, but it will make your mirror demonstration difficult, will it not?”
“Though we have an enclosed garden, I set it up in the larger courtyard away from prying eyes,” he told her as Katherine came in with plates of food and a serving girl with a ewer of wash water. Dame Dee, whose age must have been near Kat’s, retired to a chair by the hearth, so Mistress Dee was obviously overseeing things here. She looked quite nervous, Elizabeth thought, and her heart went out to her. To calm her, the queen remarked, “You are a fortunate woman, Katherine, to have wed a man with so many mirrors, are you not?”
To everyone’s dismay, the young woman started and spilled the meat pastries at the queen’s feet.
Gil sat alone in the still dimness of the small tent he shared with Jenks, Ned Topside, and two grooms. He kept hearing the queen ask him,
What techniques have you learned, Gil?
He’d so wanted to tell her, to seek her help and make her understand his fears and why he had acted as he had.
He’d been sitting right here, alone too, when he’d heard the queen outside with Cecil and Dr. Dee decide that someone might have lit Kendale’s tent with a mirror reflecting the sun. He knew mirrors could do amazing things, things that could get people killed if they knew about them—and told. He raked his fingers through his hair, as if he could pull it out by its very roots in his frenzy.
He moved aside the easel he had brought from London and his canvases from Urbino. Beneath lay his pack, quite flat now since he’d taken most things out of it. But within lay his two work shirts and paint rags, all wrapped around the mirror.
He uncovered it and stared down into its fine surface. He stroked the inscription etched into its steel back and whispered its words aloud, first in the Italian in which it was written and then in English: “
‘Lamentare non a me, O la donna, per gli ritorno soltanto che lei me ha dato’
—‘Complain not to me, O woman, for I return to you only what you gave me.’”
A beautiful woman had, more or less, given this mirror to him. How he wished her fabulous face were still reflected in it, peering yet over his shoulder and laughing and telling him that his painting had made her look so beautiful. He cherished the mirror for its memories as well as for its beauty. Dorothea had been a model of Maestro Scarletti’s, and Gil had borrowed her. And then she’d borrowed his heart and as good as pierced it when she told him to stay away and he’d realized she was bedding with Scarletti. Anyhow, he’d kept the mirror she’d accidentally left behind, in exchange, he figured, for the portrait Gil had done of her—one the maestro had locked up. He’d painted another one of her since. But now Gil wanted to experiment with the mirror again.
Pushing it up under his shirt, he peeked outside. No one was watching. The three tents of the artists were gone from this spot, and the entrances to the nearby tents all turned away from the western edge of the forest, where he was going.
He sauntered a ways into the trees, then looked around again. He prayed that even if he had been followed from Italy to France and then to London, no one would risk tracking him here. Surely what he had discovered in Urbino watching Maestro Scarletti was not something he could be killed for.
He situated himself in a patch of afternoon sun that pierced the leaves of the new-fledged trees. He played the sharp beam of reflected light up, down, around. Then, wishing his once-broken and still weak leg were as hale as it had once been when he’d climbed trees and even buildings at will, he approached a tree with a girth about as fat as Kendale’s. Taking great care not to drop the mirror, he hoisted himself into the crotch of the tree. How good it felt to climb again. It didn’t hurt his leg at all. From here, he shot the beam of light toward Lavina Teerlinc’s tent roof.
Yes, it was possible. Entirely possible.
The queen quickly surveyed Dee’s workshops. The two rooms at the back of his house, which in this fine weather opened onto an enclosed courtyard, were cluttered with glassware, measuring devices, prisms, alchemy jars, and burners. Books on shelves lined the walls between the windows, an amazing collection in an age when large libraries might contain twenty titles. Elizabeth noted several volumes she herself had given him. Only she and Cecil stood with Dee in his realm of rapacious knowledge now, though his wife kept flitting in and out.
“Ah, I quite forgot I have a book here on the lore and power of mirrors, Your Majesty,” he told her, reaching for a leather-bound volume. Turning away, he blew the dust off it and opened it to skim its index. “Oh, yes, I remember this now. It seems the ancients were quite superstitious about them. The Chinese used to mount polished brass concave mirrors on doors so that marauding spirits would frighten themselves away.”
“That’s a good one,” Cecil said, chuckling. “I may have some of those put on my work-chamber doors.”
“And the Japanese,” Dee went on as if Cecil had not spoken, “held them before the faces of prisoners being questioned to detect guilt.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Elizabeth said. Cecil reacted to her pun by lifting his eyebrows, but Dee read on.
“The Roman god of fire, Vulcan, supposedly had a mirror which could reveal the present, past, and future. And Merlin, King Arthur’s magician, presented someone named King Ryence with a mirror capable of exposing secret plots, treasons, and projected invasions.”
“And that,” Elizabeth declared, “figuratively speaking, is what I’m hoping your mirror demonstration helps us to expose today. At least, Doctor, in this new age of knowledge, we are a far cry from those days when the Catholic Church forbade people from having them because they led to pride and lust. Let’s see your experiment, then, if you please.”
“Here, outside, as the sun should be exactly right for it just now,” Dee said. Reluctantly he put the book down and motioned them into the sunny courtyard. He had set up a primitive tent—some old canvas stretched over two tall poles—and a small platform with two small boxes on it.
“Herein, Your Majesty and Secretary Cecil,” Dee said, seeming suddenly more formal, “are two from my collection of mirrors, which some still call ‘looking glasses.’ I will demonstrate that any of these could have not only left that round scorch mark on your lady artist’s tent but turned Kendale’s into a fiery death trap.”
Elizabeth and Cecil stepped up onto the plank platform with him.
“Why this elevated height?” she asked. “Because the scorch mark was on the tent roof and the fire evidently began high and moved low?”
“Exactly, Your Majesty. And because of the nearby hunt park. If we could have staged this outside, as I had originally hoped before all the gawkers descended on us, I would have climbed a tree for this. Experimentation and proofs demand authenticity. There is a slight rise of elevation just inside the hunt park, but I’m betting the arsonist scaled a tree.”
“If so,” Cecil said, “it’s a man—someone who could climb.”
“Don’t you think that if I wanted to, I could not climb a tree?” Elizabeth demanded, and Cecil merely nodded. “Which means,” she went on, “when we return, we shall examine trees in the line of—of fire—to see if we can discern a possible perch or perhaps even find a snag of clothing or hair.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” Dee said, “though I’m no artist, I walked the edge of the hunt park and made a sketch of what I theorize happened.” He pulled from inside his robe and carefully opened a folded piece of parchment. On it he had crudely drawn the edge of the hunt park near Kendale’s tent and noted the slight rise of ground within. He had drawn only four trees, and had put a star next to the two that had—according to his drawing—elevated limbs on which one could perch, and in which sat stick figures holding up mirrors to catch the sun’s rays. He’d also sketched dotted lines from the sun in the sky to the mirrors, and two more dotted lines to both the roof of Lavina’s tent—so labeled—and then to Kendale’s. He’d added flames and smoke engulfing the latter.
“So, if this is valid,” Cecil said, “the arsonist evidently tried to light Mistress Teerlinc’s tent after igniting Kendale’s—or before—and it didn’t catch. But when the first fire drew attention, he decided to run or hide.”
“Or merely return to his—or her—nearby tent,” Elizabeth added.
“There are, of course, other options,” Dee said, handing the paper to the queen. “Mayhap he had the wrong tent at first and realized it. Or he was just randomly targeting tents. Fire is fascinating, is it not? I fear some have a sort of cerebral sickness which makes them revel in the fear and awe flames cause.”
Elizabeth studied the strange look on Dee’s face as she folded the sketch and put it up her sleeve. “Let us go back to your experiment, Doctor,” she urged.
They watched intently as Dee unpacked his smallest mirror, tilted it toward the sun, and placed a perfect scorch mark on the roof of the mock tent. Then he held the mirror steady while the canvas at that spot began to smoke, then flame.
Both Elizabeth and Cecil nearly jumped off the platform when Dee shouted, “Ready, my dear!” and Katherine rushed out from the kitchen and beat the fire out with a flat, long-handled wooden paddle before it could spread.
“What she uses to get bread out of the oven,” Dee explained somewhat sheepishly.
“I hope you won’t mind if I borrow one of these mirrors, whichever you think may be most like the one the murderer used,” Elizabeth whispered to Dee as Katherine hung about with her paddle, watching them. “And who knows,” she added, “but I won’t have to hold it before the face of someone I suspect while I question him or her. Perhaps, like Merlin’s mirror, it will lead me to discover a secret plot or treason.”
“You may borrow whatever you wish,” John Dee told her, and made a shooing motion to his wife to go back inside. With a stomp and flounce of her green skirt, she obeyed. “This flat mirror could be the culprit, but a concave one is more likely.” He repeated the demonstration with the second, larger flat mirror, then called out “Kath-er-ine!” again. She rushed in and smacked the fire out.
This was, the queen thought, stifling a smile despite the serious purpose of this endeavor, rather like a raucous comedy Ned Topside had performed for the court once. Each time the old, cuckolded husband in Ned’s play had called for his wife to wait upon his table, she had rushed in and hit him with a meat pie. And since Elizabeth still had the remnants of such on her feet from Katherine Dee’s dropping meat pastries, this effort did smack a bit of a domestic farce. The only thing was, well she knew that comic relief often came before the worst part of tragedies.
When Katherine went back in again, Dee said, his voice still soft, “Your Majesty, after the grievous news I brought you about Queen Mary’s gazing in mirrors and suggesting treason, you don’t mean to imply you think the tent fire could suggest an attack on you? Or some secret plot or treason against you as well as your artist?”
“I didn’t tell you, Doctor, but the portrait of me that Kendale had begun was evidently stolen from his tent, slashed to bits, and then taken and perhaps placed in Lavina Teerlinc’s tent. Yes, I fear there may be more afoot than a single fire meant to kill one of my artists. The fire and the events surrounding it may be symbolic at best, and a deadly threat to me at worst. Besides, when anyone attacks my staff and my citizens, it is an attack on me.”