Part 4 of my work in progress, Beguiled.
I stumbled along the corridor until I had turned again into the gallery. I could barely see where I was going. My head was whirling, my eyes overcast.
My mind went back to the recent conversation. Had I been right to argue against the King, even for the little while I did? My head said that I was right for I had to prove to him that I could think for myself and would not fall down in some cowardly swoon at his merest frown of displeasure.
And then to talk so foolishly of dead lovers. At best it would have reminded him of Boleyn. At worst the thought I had implanted in his mind might prove father to a future child. I shuddered. Could a girl such as me tend a furnace like the King without being consumed?
I walked back to my chamber and spent a sleepless night, my mind ridden by hags and demons.
The next morning I breakfasted early for the sleepless night had made me unusually hungry. It was a cold, damp morning. The storm of last night had come and gone but it left behind a dank, drizzly day which gloomed over the Palace. I had wanted to go for a walk to clear my head but it looked all together too wretched to venture forth.
I repaired to the Queen’s Ladies’ Chamber at eight. Normally it was fairly quiet at this hour with only one or two of my companions here at most. But today there were half a dozen of them.
I bade them good morning and wondered at the lack of reply. I soon realised why. The ladies were grouped in a crescent watching the entrance to the room. Margaret Wicks was at the centre of the half-circle, her bodkin stabbing though her needle-work with force and spite.
As soon as she saw me she put down her work and stared at me with with wondering eyes.
‘Well look who has deigned to show herself this morning,’ she said.
I smiled as if not aware of what she meant.
‘And look,’ Wicks continued, ‘she smiles, content and smug, like a cat that has eaten its fill of rich cream.’
‘I do not smile so,’ I said. ‘I smile only with pleasure at seeing you, Margaret.’
Her eyes narrowed. And she had the gall to call me a cat.
‘How is His Majesty this morning?’ she asked. ‘We hope he has risen up with joy and vigour.’
I placed my hand against my breast and looked bemused. ‘I cannot say, in truth.’
I glanced around. ‘Has the King been somewhere in our quarters this morning? Have you seen him at this early hour, Margaret Wicks?’
One or two of the other ladies giggled at my Mary but Wicks silenced them with a look.
‘You know of what I speak, Alice Petherton,’ she continued. ‘The last we saw of you was when you raced away in summons to the King’s Chamber. And with the Queen close to her time. A common harlot would have more consideration of her mistress.’ She paused. ‘But I am mistook. A common harlot would have most regard for her master.’
My heart grew icy at her words. I felt the warmth flee from my lips which clenched as if I was holding back the spit from striking at her face.
‘I know nothing of common harlots,’ I said. ‘I bow to your superior knowledge and acquaintance with them.’
I pointedly looked from her face to her lap.
Her face grew hard and pale. When she spoke again it was in a voice like a saw made blunt from over-use.
‘I know you, Alice Petherton. I know well young girls like you.’
‘I protest,’ I interrupted. ‘I like not ladies in that manner. I am not schooled in it.’
One of the girls, Mary Zouche, held her work up to her face at that, trying her best to smother her laughter. Wicks hissed for her to be silent but never took her eyes from me.
‘A pert miss you have become, Alice Petherton. You think, no doubt, that when the sun shines full upon your form you can frolic and flaunt yourself with impunity. But you are watched, Mistress Petherton, and you are not the first of your ilk to be watched by me.’
‘Indeed,’ I answered. ‘And who have you watched before you began to trouble your mind with me.’
‘Bigger and grander fish than you, little girl. Aye one that believed herself untouchable until she was filleted on the fishmonger’s block.’
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