At the King's Command, by Wiggs, Susan
- ISBN: 9780778327387 | 0778327388
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 7/28/2009
Stephen de Lacey, baron of Wimberleigh, walked into the Royal Bedchamber to find his betrothed in bed with the king.
His face as cold and unflinching as a Holbein portrait, Stephen stared at the dark-eyed Welsh beauty all but hidden beneath the quilted silk counterpane. A hissing tide of resentment roiled deep inside him, threatening to drown him. Clenching his fists at his sides, Stephen conquered the turmoil within. Through deliberately blank eyes, he looked at King Henry VIII.
"My liege," he said, blowing stiffly, inhaling the scent of dried lavender and bergamot from the sachets in the bed hangings. By the time he straightened up, the king's attendants had arrived to groom their sovereign for the day.
"Ah, Wimberleigh." The king put out his arms as an attendant scurried forward and helped him don a loose silk jacket. Henry smiled. In that smile there lingered yet a hint of the old charm, the derring-do of a golden young prince. A prince whom Stephen, as a boy, had idolized as the second Arthur.
The legendary Arthur had died young, in a blaze of glory. Henry had made the mistake of living on into the corrupt mediocrity of middle age.
"Come, come," said Henry, beckoning. He swung his swollen legs over the side of the bed and pushed his pale feet into a pair of brocade slippers held by a kneeling servant. "You may approach the royal bed. See what I've found you."
As he crossed the huge room, Stephen felt the searing curiosity of the sovereign's attendants. By now the chamber was crowded with titled gentlemen, all engaged to supervise the most intimate bodily functions of the king—and also to influence the policies of the realm.
Sir Lambert Wilmeth, groom of the stool, took His Majesty's bowel movements as seriously as Scottish border disputes. Lord Harold Blodsmoor, surveyor of the wardrobe, regarded the king's collection of shoes as highly as the crown jewels. Yet at the moment, the attention of these great gentlemen burned into Stephen de Lacey.
The girl smiled shyly and even managed to summon an artful blush. She stretched with catlike grace, a bare shoulder emerging from the bedclothes. Like most of the king's mistresses, she took a perverse pride in sharing the bed of the sovereign.
After so many betrayals, Stephen should have known better than to trust the king. Should have known that the summons could only mean more petty cruelty.
"I was feeling frisky today." Henry's grin held both mischief and subtle rancor. Limping slightly, he went to the royal stool, speaking over his shoulder as he relieved himself. "I decided to exercise the droit du seigneur— again. An antiquated notion, to be sure, but one that has its merits and deserves to be revived from time to time. Now, make a gracious greeting to your lady Gwenyth, and then we'll—"
"Sire," Stephen broke in, heedless of the gasps from the noblemen present. No one interrupted the king. In the thirty years of his reign, Henry VIII had put men to death for lesser offenses.
Instantly Stephen regretted the risk he had taken. With that one blurted word he might have jeopardized everything.
"Yes?" The king seemed only mildly annoyed as his gentlemen helped him into doublet and hose. "What is it, Wimberleigh?"
Stephen couldn't help himself. A killing rage rose like a fountain of fire inside him. "To hell with your droit du seigneur."
He turned on his heel and strode from the Royal Bedchamber. Though well aware of the infraction he was committing, he could not be a willing player in the familiar, vicious diversion that so delighted Henry.
The red-and-white livery of the king's Welsh yeomen passed in a blur as Stephen strode out into the paved central court. Seeking a place to cool his temper in private, he stalked into a walled garden. A pebbled path led him through tortured little plots of whitethorn and sweetbriar. The flower beds had been arranged geometrically, so that they resembled rather coarse mosaics.
Stephen wished for the hundredth time that he had ignored the king's annual summons and stayed in Wiltshire.
But to refuse the command was to risk the one thing Stephen would kill to safeguard. If the price of keeping his secret was to have his heart ripped out and his pride publicly shredded, then so be it.
His conviction that the king hadn't finished with him proved correct, for an hour later, a haughty majordomo summoned him to the Presence Chamber.
An open-timbered ceiling arched high over the hall. The watery sunlight of early spring streamed in through twin banks of mullioned windows. Colored glass made a shifting, jeweled pattern on the walls and floor. Somewhere, an unseen lute player strummed softly, the shimmering music a sweet undercurrent to the murmur of voices.
Members of the Privy Council stood by, sharp eyed, their shoulders hunched beneath heavy, long robes.
Stephen paced over the smooth flagstones to the gold-and-scarlet-draped dais. There he stopped, swept his satin-lined cloak back over one shoulder, and sank into a formal obeisance. Even without looking at the king, he knew Henry relished the submissive pose of a man of Stephen's height. Henry took pleasure in anything that made Stephen feel smaller.
He rose with hatred and defiance clear in his eyes, and a gift in his extended hands.
Henry sat upon his massive carved chair, looking like Bacchus clad in silver and gold. In recent years, his face had grown as large as a haunch of beef.
"What's this?" he asked, nodding to a page. The lad took the small wooden coffer from Stephen and offered it to the king. With childlike haste, Henry opened it and extracted a tiny watch on a golden chain. "Marry, my lord, you never fail to amaze me."
"A trinket, no more," Stephen said in a flat, dead voice. Henry had many appetites, most of them insatiable. Satisfying his craving for unique gifts was no challenge.
Henry slipped the chain through the baldric that encircled his ample girth. "I assume the design is original."
"You've a rare talent for inventions of all sorts, Wim-berleigh. A pity you are so lacking in plain manners." The breadth of his cheeks made his eyes look beady, his mouth thin lipped and tight. "You left the Royal Bedchamber without begging leave, my lord."
"So I did, sire."
Henry's hand, pudgy and sparkling with rings, smacked down on the arm of his chair. His fingers strangled a carved gargoyle. "Damn your eyes, Wimberleigh. Must you always breach the limits of propriety and decorum?"
"Only when provoked, sire."
The king's expression did not change, yet his small bright eyes took fire. "Has it never occurred to you," he asked in a soft, deadly voice, "that you might do better to dance with your betrothed rather than with my patience? Lady Gwenyth is beautiful. She's well-bred and reasonably wealthy."
"She is also ruined, sire."
"I did honor to the wench," Henry snapped. "There is only one king of England, just as there is only one sun. My favor is not for one alone."
Stephen bit his tongue to stop himself from responding. It was useless to quarrel with a man who likened himself to a heavenly body. He could satisfy his every whim all too easily, for what sane man or woman would dare refuse him?
"For God's sake, Stephen," Henry thundered, "your evasiveness bedevils me. I've found you four eligible ladies in the past year, and you've refused them all. What is it that makes you so much better than any other noble?"
"I do not wish to marry again," Stephen stated. He could not resist adding, "My favor is for no one, not even that silly Welsh comfit I found in your bed."
"Comfits are sweet and agreeable to the palate," Henry pointed out.
"Aye, but when handled by too many fingers, they lose their savor. And when left long enough to themselves, they rot."
Without taking his eyes off Stephen, the king held out his hand. A servitor stepped forward and placed in it a silver cup of sack. Henry drank deeply of the Canary wine, then said, "Ah. Still you pine for your Margaret, now seven years cold."
With all that he was, Stephen resisted the urge to bury his fist in his sovereign's face. How blithely Henry spoke of Meg—as if he had never even known her at all.
"Was she so very dear to you, then," the king went on, twisting the knife, "that you cannot love another?"
Stephen held himself motionless as his mind filled with memories of Meg. Peeking at him timidly from behind her veil on their wedding day. Weeping in pain and fear in their marriage bed. Hiding her secrets from the husband who adored her. Dying in a sea of blood and bitter curses.
"Margaret was—" Stephen cleared his throat"—a child. Gullible. Easily impressed." With terrible, blade-sharp guilt, he knew he had forced her into womanhood and then into motherhood. And finally and most unforgivably, into death.
"I know well what it is to mourn a wife," Henry said, an unexpected note of sympathy in his voice. Stephen knew he was thinking of quiet, dutiful Jane Seymour, who had died giving the king the one gift he craved above all others: a male heir to the throne.
"However," Henry continued, imperious again, "a wife is a necessary ornament to a man's station, and old memories should not make you balk at duty. Now. As to the Welsh lady—"
"Sire, I humbly beg your pardon." He dropped his voice so only the king could hear. "I will not take any man's leavings—not even those of the king of England. I'll not be a salve to your conscience."
"My conscience?" Henry's mouth curved into a cold sickle of amusement. His voice was a whisper meant for Stephen alone. "My dear lord of Wimberleigh, where on earth did you get the notion that I had one?"
Stephen's neck tingled. He reminded himself that Henry VIII had put aside his first wife and brought about the execution of the second. He had appropriated the authority of the church, taken possession of monasteries, driven the poor from their lands. The mere ruining of a young virgin would hardly trouble a man like Henry Tudor.
"My mistake," Stephen replied softly. "But never mind, the Lady Gwenyth would not want me anyway."
"Ah, your tarnished reputation," Henry said, waving his now-empty cup. "Wild revels, gambling and rapine. The gossip does find its way to court. Marry, sir, every maiden in the realm quails in fright at the very thought of you."
Stephen preferred it that way. He had worked hard to hide his few good qualities beneath a patina of ill repute. "I am a man of low morals. An unfortunate flaw in my character. And now if it please Your Majesty, I must withdraw from court."
With a swiftness that belied his age and bulk, the king came out of his chair. His thick-fingered hand closed in the front of Stephen's quilted doublet. "By God, it does not please me." He put his face very close to Stephen's, so close that Stephen could smell the warm sweetness of sack on his breath. "Get you a wife, Wimberleigh, and then get you a proper heir, else all of England will know what you hide at your Wiltshire estate."
An animal roar of denial surged to Stephen's throat. With an effort born of years of iron control, he forced himself to keep from tearing into the royal face. How Henry had come to know Stephen's terrible secret was a mystery; how he intended to use the knowledge was becoming painfully obvious.
With a will, Stephen expelled his breath slowly and stepped back. The king no longer gripped him, yet the hold lingered invisibly—would linger until Stephen shed himself once and for all of the king's ire.
"To your knees, Wimberleigh."
His cheeks on fire with rage, Stephen sank down.
"Now swear it. Let me hear you vow that you will obey me." The king's voice rang loud. "Let me hear that you will wed—if not Lady Gwenyth, then another."
The command hung, suspended, in the deafening silence that followed. From his low perspective, Stephen caught details with uncommon clarity: the ancient dust clinging to the hem of the king's cloak, the faint, septic smell of the ulcer on Henry's leg, the soft chink of the sovereign's chain of office as his massive chest rose and fell, and the dying echo of a plucked lute string.
All the court waited in a state of breath-held anticipation. The king had flung down the gauntlet, had challenged one of the few men in the realm who dared defy him.
Stephen de Lacey was no fool, and he valued his neck. The years, at least, had taught him to equivocate. "Your will be done, sire." He spoke clearly so all could hear, for he knew if he mumbled the pledge, the king would make him repeat it.
A collective sigh came from the Privy Councillors. How they loved seeing one of their own humiliated.
Henry lowered his vast bulk onto the throne. "I trust you'll obey this time."
Stephen stood. The king dismissed him with a curt nod. Almost immediately, Henry began to bellow for his attendants. "Saddle my horse, I wish to go riding."
Stephen left the Presence Chamber and passed through the antechamber. The air of corruption lingered even here, in the heavy scent of sandalwood burning in a corner brazier, in the stale mats of rushes that had not been changed in months.
Prior to his audience, Stephen had requested that his horse be brought out, for he wanted to be away swiftly. The grooms of the royal stables had promised to have the tall Neapolitan mare ready outside the west gate.
Stephen strode across the courtyard and passed between the octagonal-shaped twin towers. He paused beneath the ornate portcullis, the pointed wrought-iron bars aimed straight down at his head.
As promised, his mare stood ready in saddle and trappings, tethered to an iron loop in the shade of a spreading oak some distance beyond the gatehouse.
He frowned at the negligence of the grooms. Didn't they know better than to leave a valuable animal unattended? And where the devil was Kit, his squire?
Cocking his head, Stephen saw a movement beside the mare. A wraithlike shadow, secretive as an uncon-fessed sin.
A filthy gypsy woman was stealing his horse.
Juliana could not believe her luck. So desperately had she needed a horse for the fair in Runnymede tomorrow, she had been prepared to enter the very walls of the riverside palace and boldly steal an animal.
Instead, as she crouched in a stand of copper beeches and regarded the glistening walls and gilt turrets of Richmond Palace, a groom had emerged with one of the most magnificent beasts she had ever seen. The horse was fitted out with trappings of silver and Morocco leather that would, if traded, feed the gypsy tribe for a decade.
Pavlo, her windhound, had scared the lad off. By now it was a common ploy. No Englishman had ever seen a borzoya, and most thought the huge white dog some sort of mythical beast.