Susan Dunster and Mary Zouche were already in the dining room when we arrived.
‘Are you hungry?’ I asked with an attempt to sound stern at the fact that they had entered before me.
‘Starving hungry,’ Susan said, not noticing my tone, or choosing not to. ‘This dreary weather leaves nothing to do except eat.’
‘You should take up a pastime,’ I said. ‘Like Mary or me.’
‘I have pastimes enough, thank you.’ She half closed her eyes, making her face look sly and deceitful. ‘I am quite content to think and plot.’
I laughed at the face she pulled. ‘Thinking and plotting may get you in trouble.’
‘It hasn’t so far,’ she said with a chuckle. ‘It’s all been rather good fun.’
I sat at the table and the servants glided over with the food. It was delicious as always. A hearty thick beef stew with little onions and pickled red cabbage. Fresh white bread with butter as rich as cream. A syllabub with a raspberry preserve on the side.The wine was even better, a light red from the Loire valley. The valley of kings Sir Thomas Cromwell called it, the loveliest place on earth. How appropriate for the mistress of a king to choose a wine from such a desirable place.
We talked lightly over dinner. The latest gossip, of course, concerned Anne, the sister of the Duke of Cleves. She had already set out from from Flanders, wondering no doubt if her fate would be as awful as those of his first three wives. Others had, from all report. One at least said that she did not have enough heads to run the risk.
My friends thought my nose would be put out of joint at the thought of him taking anew wife. Not a bit of it. I had long worried that he might ask me to sit upon the poison throne. Thank goodness his advisers would not countenance such favour to an orphan of a family that had only narrowly scrambled into gentry. I don’t think the King desired it over much either. Far better to keep me as his mistress, to take his pleasure and then put me aside until the itch in his loins reminded him of my existence.
I swear that I must have fairy blood in me. No sooner had I thought this than the door opened to reveal my Page Humphrey. ‘Henry wants you,’ he said. ‘He’s just come down from Hampton Court. Right hungry he is, so I’m told.’
‘I’ll box your ears if you talk in this fashion,’ I said. I caught a glimpse of Sissy looking distraught at my words. She was more and more moon-struck every day. The thought crossed my mind as it ever did, whether these two had consummated their love already.
Susan smiled at Humphrey’s words. ‘Right hungry,’ she repeated.
I could only just keep a similar smile from my face. It was no good; I could never manage my closest servants like a lady should. They could play the game right enough in front of visitors, and for that I was thankful. But when we were here all alone, they seemed to forget themselves. And so did I.
‘I’ve a good mind to make you run behind the carriage, Susan Dunster,’ I said.
‘And you know I’d be glad to do it,’ she said.
I pursed my lips. I would not be surprised if she did. Mary and her were the most loyal friends anybody could ask for. No small feat in a court as dangerous as King Henry’s.
The horses seemed lethargic as they made their way down the winding drive towards Greenwich Palace. It was only a mile distant but the horses could barely be encouraged into a trot. I forbade the drivers to use a whip. I hated whips. So we were at the mercy of the brutes and today, they seemed intent on moving slowly.
Perhaps I was as foolish a mistress of my horses as I was of my servants.
At length we reached the Palace and I made my way towards the King’s privy chambers. His groom, Nicolas Frost was waiting for me. ‘What the devil kept you?’ he demanded.
‘I haven’t got wings,’ I said with a smile.
‘Well you’re no angel, certainly.’ He smiled back at me. I don’t know when we had grown quite so familiar but there was no returning to the more formal situation of our first acquaintance.
‘What mood is he in?’ I asked.
‘A joyful one, heaven be praised.’ He gave me a knowing smile. ‘As always, of course.’
‘Of course. I just wished to know how rapturous was his joy.’
‘You’ll find out, Alice,’ Frost said. ‘He’s in his privy chamber.’
I followed Frost through the suite of rooms and into the King’s privy chamber. He was lounging in a chair with his hands behind his head, as if in the most lovely of summer day-dreams.
‘Ah, Alice,’ he said. ‘You’ve arrived.’
‘I came as soon as I heard your summons,’ I said.
He nodded and waved his hand for me to join him.
‘I have had a busy fortnight,’ he said. ‘Much coming and going of ambassadors. Many tedious meetings with Master Cromwell. He is like a nervous chicken at the moment, skittish as anything you could find on a farm.’
I smiled at his words. I could not imagine Sir Thomas Cromwell being either skittish or nervous.
‘I see the Baron as more of a goose,’ I said. ‘All inquisitiveness and righteous anger.’
The King slapped his thigh. ‘Oh I like that, Alice. I must tell him what you say.’
‘I’m not sure I should like that,’ I said quickly.
‘I don’t see why not. You can’t tell me you’re fearful of him. You’re a rarity in the kingdom because of it. You know you have him eating out of your hands.’
‘If you say so, Your Grace.’
‘I do say so. I witness it with my own eyes.’
‘I hope you’re not jealous, Majesty?’
He laughed. ‘What need do I have of being jealous? You are the two people who I trust most in all the world.’
I smiled despite the chill which such words caused in my heart. The more the King spoke of trust the more people thought of the scaffold.
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