Jenny hurried up the back stairs as quickly as she could. Around her, the very walls of the palace seemed to pulse with the excitement of the diplomatic party arriving from Muscovy. Jenny herself had caught the mood, and knew her cheeks were flushed as she bumped the door open with her bottom. She bore a tray for Mavis, who’d been abed these many days with a fever.
“I’ve brought you broth direct from Cook,” Jenny said.
Even with a red nose and rattling cough, her dark hair disheveled under her cap, Mavis retained her beauty. “Have you seen them yet?” she asked, her voice raw. She sat up, pulling her shawl around her shoulders.
“Not yet, but every lip carries a tale of them. Peter in the garden spied them riding into the city and he said the train of men and horses was near a mile long!” She folded a quilt into a tidy rectangle, which she laid over Mavis’s lap, then set the tray atop it. “Go easy, now, sweet, but do see if you can down a bit more.”
“A mile!” Mavis echoed, and coughed suddenly, reaching out a hand rough with chilblains to steady the tray as her body shook. But it only lasted a moment. “And me weak as a kitten!”
“The Lord Steward will be dragging you to service again before you know it, so better to rest these days he gave.” Servants had died of the malaise the past weeks, starting with old Mrs. Needham in the laundry. Fully half the servants coughed and sniffled through their days. When a young maid and a stalwart stablehand were both carried off to their graves, the Lord Steward ordered the sickest to bed, Mavis among them. Jenny knocked wood—she had not felt ill at all.
Today, even less. Whatever the opposite of ill, that’s what she was. Musicians had been trailing through the courtyards, fiddling and blowing their flutes with lively abandon. Cook and all his minions had been chopping and rolling, baking and roasting in all the kitchens for days to prepare for a great feast to be held this evening in honor of the guests.
She watched as Mavis lifted the bowl to drink some broth. “I promise I’ll remember every detail and spin it out for you this very night,” she said. “Do not be tempted to get out of bed.”
“Mayhap I can see a little through the window.”
“Better to sleep, love,” Jenny said gently. “Think of poor Mrs. Needham, gone to her grave.”
Mavis closed her eyes. “Mrs. Needham.” Tears leaked from beneath her lashes. They had often worked together repairing gowns and ironing.
“Never mind,” Jenny said. “You must eat.”
Mavis steeled herself, a quality Jenny liked about her—the thing that had carried her from her bad life into a better one, the thing that would see her through this malady. “What gossip do you bring?” Mavis asked, taking another sip of broth.
“Hmm.” Jenny considered. “The queen is angry that her mother has been exiled to a convent.”
“Bah! Not that kind of gossip.”
Jenny chuckled. “Well, ’tis said the king still avoids his mistress in favor of his queen.”
“That’s better. Does the lady pout?”
“I have not seen it if she does. She’s all very gay and bright as ever.”
“What do the ladies wear today? To meet the wild men?”
“They’re lovely, all in their finery. Lady Castlemaine is in the red silk, you remember it.”
“Oh, yes.” Mavis settled, her gaze on the dress in her imagination. Worn from the small act of eating, she lay back.
Jenny conjured up descriptions of some of the other gowns, the slashed sleeves on Lady Buckingham’s velvet, the embroidered skirts of the queen.
“You’re a good friend, Jenny.”
“Come now. Let me tuck you in before I go.”
Mavis nodded, still weak enough not to mind the fuss. Jenny tucked her in, covered her with another quilt, and raced back down to the kitchen, where she dropped off the dishes and then slid out beneath the reigning chaos to find a spot to watch the great parade.
In Catherine’s apartments, a rolling flow of laughter and animated conversation filled the rooms, ladies and servants alight with the coming events. As her woman twisted Catherine’s curled dark locks into an arrangement of braids and ribbons, she smoothed her bodice, made of indigo velvet, a blue so rich it glowed. Her full sleeves were tied at intervals with gold ribbon, that same ribbon edging her overskirts, tied back to reveal elegantly embroidered flowers and vines on the white skirts below.
The room looked like a garden at midsummer, gowns of yellow and deep red and green, jewels winking, lace trailing from sleeves and hems. The Lady Buckingham looked particularly splendid in gold, but no one ever eclipsed the Lady Castlemaine, and no one did today. It was near impossible to avoid staring at the woman, Catherine thought without rancor. Like a bold sunset or the first wash of roses in the summer garden, her beauty was perfection, from round lips to tilted eyes to long, white hands.
To the Duchess of York, waiting nearby, Catherine said in Spanish, “They are like butterflies and flowers.”