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The secret bride, p.10
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       The Secret Bride, p.10

           Diane Haeger
 

  “Respectfully, Your Highness needs the alliance that betrothal signifies.”

  “I need no one, Buckingham. I am King of England.”

  “And, if Your Gracious Highness shall permit the observation from a trusted friend of your father’s, you are a new player on the world stage, where alliances are absolutely key,”

  Thomas, the Earl of Surrey, intervened, risking everything the Howard family struggled to maintain in defense of a man who was his rival.

  Henry stopped, then shot them both a contemptuous stare in response. There was a moment of disquieting silence.

  The cadence of his words slowed, becoming lethal. “Yes . . . if I shall permit you. That is the question.”

  “My absolute loyalty to my king would force me to speak only the truth.”

  “Very well, Buckingham, go on then!” He swatted at the air very suddenly, as if there were a particularly bothersome insect between them, and the ruby on his finger glinted in the noonday light. “I shall permit you, but brevity, my man! Brevity!”

  Buckingham coughed, then moistened his suddenly dry throat. “Maintain the betrothal a while longer, Your Highness. But make no commitment on your own. You will need the alliance if you decide to strike out against France. Once Louis XII has surrendered, then reevaluate where best you can utilize the princess Mary.”

  The door opened with a click and a low squeal. Footsteps echoed in the tense silence. Suddenly, Wolsey was hovering over them, his face blanched. He was fingering the heavy silver pectoral cross at his chest, a nervous gesture.

  “It is the queen, sire. Her Highness has been delivered of a child this past hour.”

  “But I was sent no word that she was gone to childbed!”

  “It was sudden, Your Highness. It would be best if I accompany you to her chamber. We can speak of it as we walk,” Wolsey said.

  Later that afternoon, Charles followed Henry as he led his great white bay at a gallop past a little stream and through the lushly forested, shadow-dappled hunting park behind Richmond Palace, hunting stag. Like the king, Charles loved the thrill of the wind in his hair, the mossy, damp earth beneath him, and the freedom it brought. It was a particular freedom he had sought and found as a boy when the strangle-hold of courtly expectation and the need for ambition had threatened to choke the life out of him. Charles had needed that freedom to breathe then, just as Henry did. Charles understood the pressures of his friend as he sought to decide, not only about whether to invade France, but whether to break Mary’s betrothal once and for all. But mostly, he knew that Henry was trying to understand the death of his first child, and what that meant for him, and to the future of England as well.

  Henry had told him that he could not force himself to remain with Katherine more than a few moments at a time these past few days, driven away by her gut-wrenching sobs and the murmured Spanish prayers echoing from Dona Elvira, Maria de Salinas and Ambassador Fuensalida. The three of them sat hunched in the shadows of the corner near her bed, all holding tight to their rosaries and fingering the beads. It was all so intolerably somber, so dripping with a futility that he despised. This child—this dead child, meant to be a son—had been far more to him than an heir. To Henry, and to everyone, the child had meant the end of what many believed a curse on the house of Tudor for having married his brother’s widow. God must be angry, Henry had whispered to Charles so many times in moments of private trust. I am meant to be punished . . . Katherine as well. Henry had counted on this child, their son and heir, to prove everyone wrong. Instead, Katherine had delivered him a stillborn girl.

  Henry pulled the reins sharply. His horse reared then snorted as he leapt onto the ground and thundered into a stand of trees. As he knew he would, only Charles Brandon had confidence and concern enough to dismount as well, and follow behind him. Safely alone, Henry kicked the trunk of a tree, unleashing a pent-up fury that frightened Brandon but even more, he suspected, did it frighten Henry himself.

  Henry clearly could not accept this. . . . This was defeat! Your next shall be a fine son, Charles had heard Dona Elvira promise Henry through her tears. That wretched Spaniard, Charles thought, with her optimism!

  But no matter what strange circumstance had brought them together, or how angry he felt now, Charles knew Henry did truly love Katherine and, God willing, the queen would give him and England a living son to put an end to the gossip and innuendo. He could do it. He could do anything. He was, after all, king.

  They stood alone in a small clearing, Charles behind him, the other riders lingering, still on horseback, a few yards away. Henry kicked at the fallen pine needles and dried leaves around them. “What do I do now, Brandon? I am so angry . . . so full of rage!”

  “Of those given much, much is expected, Harry.”

  “You are quoting the Bible to me?”

  “Sorry. It was all I could think of at the moment.”

  One heartbeat, then two. Suddenly, Henry tipped back his head and began to laugh, a great sound up from his gut.

  He clipped Brandon across the shoulder with a muscular palm. “You always could make me laugh, Brandon. Well, let’s just make certain you never leave me. I find, quite surprisingly, that I cannot quite do without you around me.”

  Charles had never wanted anything more. Ambition was the thing. Power was the rest of it. How could there be anything better in all the world than staying at Henry VIII’s court, and making himself indispensable, forever?

  Chapter Seven

  If thou wouldst get a friend, prove him first.

  —Apocrypha 6:14

  May 1510, Greenwich Palace

  A month later, Mary stood in the courtyard wearing a man’s riding hose of dark blue velvet and matching doublet with silver slashing. Her hair was tucked under a boy’s velvet-trimmed hat, and she was holding smooth kid gloves as Knyvet, the Guildford brothers and Charles Brandon began to assemble, and their horses were brought up by grooms from the royal stables. Uncertain what to say when they realized who she was, no one spoke to her at first. An awkward silence descended upon the steadily growing group, which now included the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Surrey, Surrey’s son Edward, and the king.

  Mary watched Henry assessing the situation, and looking back and forth to each of them, then begin to chuckle as his own Spanish jennet was brought forward, a gift to him from the emperor. “What, gentlemen? You have never seen a lady before?”

  “Not in a man’s riding costume,” Knyvet quickly replied with an earnest smile.

  “She looks a far sight better in it than most men,” Brandon quipped in such a solid and certain tone that all of the others turned to look.

  Henry slapped his friend hard across the back. “That’s the spirit! You’re just the sort Mary needs in her corner. I shall have to remember that. My sister wished not just to ride and look beautiful, but to hunt as we do, and so she shall.”

  “I wished to be away from the endless embroidery and gossip, and the king is an accommodating brother,” she amended, smiling at him.

  “There is plenty of gossip on the hunt, my lady Mary, though not perhaps the sort to which you would be accustomed.”

  “Even better,” Mary laughed happily. “I wish to hear absolutely everything I am not meant to.”

  “We shall all see what we can do,” said Brandon, with a solicitous nod. “That is, if the king pleases.”

  “Whatever Mary desires. I have no secrets from her,” Henry replied firmly, with a nod of his own toward her.

  “Preposterous . . . ,” someone grumbled. But she no longer cared who said it. Her brother, her best friend, was King of England, she reminded herself. She was his favorite.

  And she would do precisely as she pleased from now on.

  Mary rode harder and faster than the others after that, challenging herself. Horses’ hooves thundered out across a meadow carpeted with tall grass and bluebells, Mary in the lead beside Henry, with Charles close behind them. The wind blew the length of her red-gold hair out from
her cap, and she gripped the horse’s flanks hard with her thighs in a sensation that was as exhilarating as it was cold. She wondered, as they rode toward the hunting forest behind Greenwich Palace, if the Prince of Castile would be as accommodating with her whims as Henry was. Would he laugh with her and sing with her, and include her in every aspect of his life if she wished?

  She knew from Wolsey that the emperor was still dragging his heels on the final approval of the marriage, and secretly Mary was glad of it. She had no desire at all to leave this new and exciting life for what was certain to be an existence of dreary obligation and subservience in the unknown world of Castile.

  But she was determined not to think of that as the group of royal horses thundered closely behind and Henry, in black velvet with shining silver studs on his doublet and gilded stirrups, smiled happily over at her. This life was perfection just as it was and she meant to keep it, and her power, until the very last day before she was given over to a man she did not want.

  After they had cornered the stag, seen it killed, then washed their hands in rose water, they ate a light meal of capon and pears in honey wine. It was served by a vast assemblage of footmen, attendants’ pages, carver, sewer, all of whom waited on them with silver dishes, ewers, gold saltcellars and glass goblets. Amid the sweet strains of the lute, Mary walked across the Flanders carpet and onto the leaves and pine needles among the mossy trees and low-lying ferns of the lush forest. Charles Brandon followed her.

  “So then is it all you hoped for, my lady?”

  Mary looked up into his face, dappled in light and shadows shining down through the heavy evergreen branches.

  “Would it surprise you if it were?”

  “May I say everything about you surprises me?” he replied in a voice that was suddenly and surprisingly seductive.

  “Good. I adore the hunt. And Henry always says that everything in life is more exciting when there is an element of surprise.”

  “Your brother is very young to be so wise.”

  “Perhaps that is why God saw fit to make him king. He is committed already to keeping people from expectation.”

  “Does his sister share his commitment?”

  She smiled. “The king and I share most everything, Master Brandon, including our taste in friends.”

  “I am very pleased to hear it, my lady.”

  “Mary!”

  The king’s booming voice cut between them at that moment, calling to her from the clearing. They walked the few feet back to where tapestry-draped tables and chairs were gathered near a fire. The king’s minstrels were playing softly to entertain them.

  “What do you think of the song?” Henry asked.

  “It’s a lovely tune.”

  “I wrote it for Katherine and my son. It shall be a boy this time, Mary, I know it. I have a good feeling about it.”

  The queen was newly pregnant again. Mary felt a shiver work its way up the length of her spine but Henry was distracted by a joke Thomas Knyvet was telling. She had, in fact, had a dream that the child was to be another girl, and that it was stillborn. In a fury of disappointment, Henry—in dream’s twisted reality—had his wife murdered because of it. Until this moment, she had entirely forgotten the gruesome scene her mind had conjured. Sensing her unease, Charles placed a hand very casually at the small of her back as he looked at her.

  “Are you all right? Suddenly you’ve gone very pale.”

  “It is just a dream I remembered suddenly.”

  “More of a nightmare, by the stricken expression on your face.”

  “It sits heavily within me, like a premonition,” she replied, not hearing the jokes and laughter being bandied back and forth between the king’s friends.

  “I find myself rather hoping it does not involve me.”

  There had actually been another dream. Two nights before, Mary’s mind had conjured a strangely erotic scene where Charles had kissed her passionately in a way she as yet could only imagine. Even so, that dream, how he had looked, felt . . . tasted . . . had seemed every bit as real as her nightmare of Katherine and Henry. But she could not tell Charles that.

  “No,” she said. “In the main, it was about the queen—about the child.”

  “I see.”

  “I am not certain why, but I am afraid this one is not meant to survive either, and Henry is so counting on a son.”

  “He is, at that,” Charles somberly agreed.

  “I just don’t know what it shall do to him if they are forced to bury this one as well.”

  “I’ve never told another person this,” he began in a tone that only she could hear, “but I dreamed something oddly similar not long ago. . . . I could see the child dead. . . . I could see Henry raging with anger . . . and the queen . . .” His words trailed off as Mary leaned nearer him. “You will need to be there for him if we are both right. He will need you more than anyone else.”

  How very odd, Mary thought, that two people connected by the same man, but not to one another, should have the same dream about him. She knew that Charles was right. Her relationship with Henry was like no other, and the king depended upon her even above his own wife. She tried not to take advantage, knowing that, but there was great power in his dependence upon her. As they stood together pretending to watch Edward Howard now try his hand at joke telling, a memory from that morning came to her.

  “I am going with you today,” she had said to Henry, speaking the declaration with all of the conviction of royalty and of a man.

  “I am going hunting, Mary,” he had chuckled at her indulgently.

  “I am well aware of that, and I wish to go along.”

  As he slipped on his long leather gloves, he smiled at her as if he were indulging a petulant child. “You know that while observing men at the hunt is one thing, hunting itself is not a woman’s pastime.”

  “And you know perfectly well I am not like most women.

  Another afternoon of gossip and embroidery hoops will surely do me in. I need some excitement, Henry, please, I bid you.”

  “Is there not enough of that for you in keeping Mistress Popincourt from Thomas Knyvet’s bed? I do think his poor wife has begun to suspect that little crime. Quite delicious to watch from my vantage point, but not at all pleasing for the two poor women involved, I am sure.”

  “You know about that?”

  “Of course I know.” Henry had laughed louder in that increasingly bold way that was his since becoming King of England.

  “Well, I wish it were enough entertainment but it is not. Remember, unlike you, I am making up for lost time. And I am not like most women,” she stubbornly declared in a voice that came out sounding more spoiled than defiant.

  “How well I do know that! And at the end of the day, you know perfectly well that I can refuse you nothing. See that my dresser finds you a suitable ensemble. We ride within the hour.”

  “Well,” said Charles, bringing her back to the moment, “are we to keep our dreams a secret?”

  Her heart missed a little beat, pulled by dreams and fantasy, but then she managed a reasonably confident smile.

  “What we speak about,” Mary said then, “shall go no further than the two of us, Master Brandon. You have my word.”

  His funds were low once again, and the cost of splendor—pageant finery, jewelry and jousting armor—on par with other courtiers was simply staggering. Not unlike the cost of supporting his two daughters, his sister and her children. It was a never-ending struggle no matter how much his various positions paid him. So, grudgingly, Charles had made another trip to Southwark to request a new loan from his very unsympathetic uncle—just enough to keep everything and everyone going.

  The vile truth of the matter was that he had little shame when it came to doing whatever it took to survive at court.

  He had just enough ambition to imagine that one day, if he waited long enough—if he was clever enough and a good enough friend to the king—Henry might actually bestow a title upon him. Ah, nobility .
. . respect. His own money, without conditions or strings . . . To walk with pride among men who had never known the despair of poverty. A dream, perhaps, yet he would continue to search for a way to make it a reality.

  He cantered his grand sorrel-colored stallion alone down Bankside, an area that, although not far from his uncle’s mansion, was a million miles from its manicured hedges, stone columns and stately surroundings. In the distance, the skyline of London was dotted with dozens of protruding church spires and chimneys, a gray haze above that. This area of Southwark, full of shadowy corners and dark alleyways, was lined with bawdy houses that were washed in white paint, to separate them from the more reputable businesses established along the same route. Charles pulled the collar of his cloak around his neck against the night chill rushing now up from the river as he glanced at the working girls in their mismatched creations of garishly bright taffeta, ribbons and bows. Obscenities echoed from the darkened alleyways around them as he stopped before the Unicorn. It was a place he had visited before, and likely would again.

  Thomas Knyvet and Edward Guildford waited in rough-hewn chairs, each with a girl on his lap, as they did on the first of every month they were in London. The low-ceilinged place was filled with smoke and the odor of spilled ale, and brightened by a glowing amber from the flames licking the inside of the mammoth stone hearth before which they sat.

  “Tonight we celebrate!” Knyvet declared, raising his hand in greeting to Charles.

  “Isn’t much for men like us to celebrate in a place like this.”

  “Ah, but that is where you are wrong, my friend! Low entertainment is not without a certain charm from time to time.”

  Thinking of Jane, Charles laughed. “I might have thought you would have had your hands full just now, Thomas.”

  Edward Guildford ran a hand through his dark curls, laughing too. “As our good king would say, there is always room for one more. Especially when it comes to women!”

 
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