Catherine and her ladies clustered in small knots around her privy chamber on a fine Thursday afternoon. Some plucked gold threads from worn-out garments for use in other work, while others bent over a tapestry frame, their needles building a bright scene of a stag hunt. Beautiful and gruesome, Catherine thought.
She preferred her own project. A few days before, she had been abroad in the park with Charles, and she had taken along her sketchbook and chalks to capture the woodland plants and birds that were unfamiliar to her. Ordinarily, Charles was a vigorous walker, but on that morning, he’d slowed his pace to allow her an opportunity to sketch whatever caught her eye, and kindly took the time to name each one, spelling out the words in English, which she carefully wrote beneath the sketches.
This afternoon, she transferred her sketches to a length of linen, adding detail to bird wings and branches. Next to her, the Lady Suffolk’s fingers flew over her embroidery, and the helpful young maid Jenny repaired the lace on the sleeve of a gown. As Catherine transferred the drawings of birds to her fabric, she asked Lady Suffolk to repeat the words she had written.
“Robin,” the lady said of a plump bird with a rosy wash over its neck, and Catherine repeated it.
“This one?” Catherine said in English, pointing to a round little bird with a blue head and white cheeks.
“Blue tit,” Lady Suffolk said, and Catherine repeated it, taking pleasure in the crisp sounds.
Lady Suffolk laughed, and Catherine frowned. “I do wrong?”
“No, no. I beg your deepest pardon, Your Majesty!” The lady waved her hands and said something to Jenny.
“She only asks that I warn you, Your Majesty. Tit is another word for el pecho.” She patted her breast.
“Nice word? Or no?”
Catherine laughed merrily, realizing why Charles had delighted in her repetition of the word. Scoundrel!
Lady Suffolk pointed at the sketches. “You have a fine hand,”
“Sank you,” Catherine said in English. Lady Suffolk smiled at her.
The young page Samuel entered and, bowing deeply, presented a rolled parchment. Catherine put aside her handwork and glanced at it.
“These are the names proposed for Your Majesty’s Ladies of the Bedchamber,” Lady Suffolk said.
“Ah.” Catherine, eager to have more English ladies in her personal household, had been awaiting this list. She scanned it, recognizing few of the names. Except one.
There, written in a plain, fine hand, was Barbara Palmer, the Lady Castlemaine. Her husband’s mistress. Whom Catherine had strategically and methodically refused to acknowledge in name or at court.
A prickling of blackness edged around her vision, and she took in a breath to calm herself. She had gained a reputation for her even temper, but in truth she sometimes suffered from a surfeit of strong reactions—high and low, admirable and not—and under such influence, had been prone to fits of fainting. The nuns had trained her how to hide her emotions, but she’d never learned how to avoid feeling them.
As she held the list for the suggested Ladies of the Bedchamber, Catherine’s fingers trembled. Her ears roared, drowning the sound of the Italian musician bowing his viola da gamba along with Lady Chesterfield’s harp and the chatter of the ladies bent over their needlework.
Before her stood the young page, luminous eyes wide. Again the edges of her vision blackened, and she forced herself to focus on the golden, late afternoon sunlight that fell in bars to the floor. Again she took a breath. The threatening fit eased.
With a strong, sharp gesture, she struck the loathed name from the list.
The other names on the list blurred and she cast it from her. “Take it away,” she said in a voice that held no hint of her fury. “Relay to my husband that I will not tolerate the Lady Castlemaine in my bedchamber.”
“Your Majesty, perhaps it would be wise to listen to the king’s suggestion,” offered Lady Suffolk, her hand settling over Catherine’s forearm. “He has his reasons, I believe.”
“I will not.” She waved the page off and he scurried away. Catherine stared after him, unseeing, imagining Charles curled with his mistress, tenderly tucking her hair behind her ear, as he had tucked hers.
A wise wife is wary of mistresses, her mother had warned. A queen does not weep.
To hide her strong emotion, she strode toward the window, her skirts swirling with the fury of her steps. Her heels made sharp commentary against the floor. Behind her, Feliciana hurried along, all floppy ears and tufted paws.
Weaving her fingers together tightly over her roiling gut, she strove for a calm countenance and stood in the warm sunlight. It fell on her throat and shoulders, gentle as a...