Lady Eleanor Plumstead lay wakeful in the milky dawn light. On the other side of the bed, the queen slept, her breathing soft and even.
Eleanor had scarcely closed her eyes all night. “My mind is full of scorpions,” she had once heard some courtier quote, a line from one of the old plays these idle folk so admired. She scorned the immorality of playacting—despite having been forced to play a false role herself, all this time at court—but the words had lingered with her. She was tormented by scorpions in her own mind, scuttling and prickling and keeping her from comfort or ease.
Two days since she had sent her message to Lord Russell and still she had heard nothing from him. Why did he not answer? Would not the information of the king and queen’s secret wedding be enough to satisfy him? When would she be free to go home? She’d had a letter this past week from her mother, the usual jumble of pride in her daughter’s high position, hope that their family fortunes had turned, anxiety for Eleanor’s soul amid the temptations of court—and, simply, that she missed her. Her brother had added an ill-spelled scrawl of a postscript, saying all was well and asking when would she return. His nose was to the grindstone; they couldn’t afford a steward and he must oversee the home farm himself. He didn’t like it, but Eleanor thought hard work—and a great deal of it—was the best way to keep him from getting into more trouble. Young men, she thought, like young dogs, needed to be run to exhaustion.
The thought of her brother brought her back to Lord Russell, and the scorpions stung once more. She couldn’t bear to lie still another moment. Slipping carefully out of the bed, she went into the closet, where her clothes lay draped across a chair. She dressed quickly and gave her hair enough attention in the looking glass to be presentable. Shoes in hand, she moved silently past the woman asleep at the foot of the bed and out of the queen’s bedchamber. There was a little time yet before the arrival of more ladies and maids, the business of dressing and breakfasting and starting the day, time enough for a rare few minutes of solitude. She would slip out to the garden, hear the birds, pretend she was home, and pray.
She put on her shoes and went out into the hall, where she was surprised to see a young page yawning against the wall.
He straightened and said, running the words together, “Good morrow my lady are you my Lady Eleanor?”
She nodded, and he sketched a bow. “I am sent to bid you follow me.”
Eleanor raised her eyebrows. “Follow you where? Who sent you?”
“I was not to say, my lady.”
Lord Russell. It must be. He must have chosen to meet her elsewhere than his Westminster offices, and sent this boy to bring her, rather than risk putting anything in writing. It was like him. She nodded curtly, and followed the boy as he set off through the maze-like palace. They walked on and on, up and down stairs, outside and in again, until finally, he stopped before a door, opened it for her, and let her go through. The room was empty. She turned, but the boy had closed the door, leaving her alone.
She looked about her. The room was far from the royal suites, in one of the most ancient parts of the palace; perhaps from old King Edward’s time. A musty smell spoke of centuries of flooding and drying. The plaster was patchy and discolored, the embroidered drapes threadbare, the only furnishings a clean table flanked by two fine leather-upholstered straight chairs. She sat in one of them, trying to calm her uneasiness. She prayed for Russell to appear and say, “You’ve done well, my lady; you may go home, and fear nothing the rest of your days.” Yes, he would release her, and she would go home, please God, and never stir a foot abroad again.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, a man’s heavy tread. She stood, her heart juddering in her breast.
The door opened. And through it came not Lord Russell, but the king.
He saw her there, turned back and murmured to the boy behind him, “Good. Wait here, Ned.” The door closed, and they were alone together.
Eleanor sank into a profound curtsy. The king said, “Rise, my lady,” and she rose, and stared at him in a kind of blank despair. He had not moved, and his gaze upon her was both interested and repelled, as though he were attempting to categorize a new species of insect. “My lady,” he said, “I must ask you to satisfy my curiosity in the matter of a note written in, I believe, your hand.”
He held out a paper. Even from this distance, she recognized her message to Lord Russell. Her hands clung together, trembling. The king was waiting for her to come forward and take it from him. He was waiting for her to speak. He was toying with her, hoping to prove her a traitor, like her father, so that she might be hanged and drawn—no, not that, she would be burned, that was the sentence for high treason for women. Her father had found no mercy, no more should she . . .