A Thousand Eyes: A Novel of Elizabeth I

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Chapter 10: January 1560

While Christmas had passed with little event, the last day of Christmastide broke through those barriers. When the feast on the sixth of January commenced, it seemed as though the wine-pourers ignored their orders to refrain from serving anyone who looked too drunk, because an unimportant baron of sorts, among many others, was acting inebriated enough to turn violent.

And he quite nearly did. He stormed right up to the Duke of Norfolk, laughing unstably, and grabbed his vest.

“John, get your hands off me,” the only duke in England roared terrifyingly, and even from about fifty feet away, shivers shot through my blood.

The drunk man laughed deeply. “Tom, Tom, Tom,” he mocked. “Angry, eh? You expect too much, you expect the Queen will pass her platter to you after she eats. But you are a spoiled man, Tom!” the baron retreated, laughing brazenly.

This all had come about unexpectedly, and I sat in wonder at what had brought it about, but Norfolk was in raptures. That was never very good. Especially—especially with Robin in plain sight.

Thomas Howard had taken an instant dislike to Robin, like tasting pepper for the first time and just knowing you would never eat anything peppered again, and I presumed it was because the duke had not been showered with land and favor as he expected. He was my cousin, after all—but when it came to deciding whether to give something to my jovial, handsome horse master or the bitter representative of a family I preferred not to associate myself with, the choice became clear. Now the two men, the duke and Robin, were pitted against each other in a battle whose winner was determined by me. It was, in fact, a hopeless battle (like jousting when only one player has a mount) because Robin had been the winner before it even begun.

Now Robin had an amused grin on his face, and I knew upon seeing Norfolk catch sight of it that this night was going to be anything but calm.

The duke stormed up to my horse master and waved his hands as he spoke, shouting with words that were somehow inaudible. I watched in awe, and with a tingle of guilt, because what came next I knew I could predict, and I was just watching. The two were arguing, escalating, until Robin took a swing at Norfolk and they were tumbling to the ground like children in a barn.

I felt a roll of nausea, that the two greatest men in England were fighting like they were in a pub and far too drunk, but it took a magnitude of seconds to call for the brawl to be broken up. Snapping my fingers, I demanded in a trance, “Pull them apart.”

The boy pouring my wine looked at me with marble eyes. “Now!” I ordered harshly, and he tentatively walked over.

Once everything was settled, the hall went deathly quiet. Not a drop more ale was served, and people moved with the quiet, unsure intensity that could be expected for a funeral. I stayed on my glittering throne in an attempt to evade the exhaustion that overwhelmed me, and the night dragged on like a raven that could not fly; there was a feeling of excitement that was dauntingly absent. We retired early, and when I finally reached my chambers, I was overcome with the sort of feeling I hated the most, because I was faced with it so often: every bone in me was tired, but I could not sleep.

Robin had fought with the duke. It was inevitable that it would happen at some point, with the bottled-up rage they shared for each other, and it was far from unusual for there to be such fights, but this struck a chord I was unfamiliar with. I felt as if I had been taught a song such that, even though I had never played it on the lute, I could pick up the latter instrument and play it flawlessly, except when I did finally play it, it came out wrong. I had expected Robin and Norfolk to fight, just as would have expected the song to sound as it did, but it was vastly different than what I had predicted it to be when it did at last occur.

I hardly slept that night. The image of the two nobles, enveloped in a hatred I had created but could not control, was too much for me.

The next morning I found Robin where he always was—at the stables, amid the musty scent of horses and recently-cleaned leather. He had a cracked lip, and his eyes looked rattled. I’d never seen him like this before, because no matter what happened to him, Robin’s eyes had that sparkle they always possessed. Now, it was gone.

“What happened?” I asked carefully. “What did the duke say?”

“Nothing,” he said roughly, shaking his head. “Do you want a horse? Your mare is colicky, but I can bring out the roan you were looking at.”

I shook my head. “No. No, I don’t need a horse. I need you to tell me why you fought with the duke and why you look like a frightened colt.”

Robin recoiled slightly, but he rolled back onto his feet quickly. “It was nothing. You know how he is: greedy, ambitious, rude. It angered me, so I hit him.”

I rubbed my heel into the dirt in frustration. What had the duke said that Robin wouldn’t tell me? “Look, I want answers. You’re in my court, you fought before me, so you tell me why.” I fixed him with the unforgiving stare that cracked everyone.

Robin shook his head, eyes closed, as if he were trying to wipe away the memory. “He told me I was a fool to smile at the scene that drunk man had caused. I told him he had so much pride, he deserved it.”

“The rest, please.”

He hesitated, but continued. “He told me I had too much pride, too. ‘You just can’t keep your hands off the Queen, can you?’ he laughed. I was so angry, Your Majesty, and I’m sorry. But at every chance, he insults us and implies we are sinning. He needed to pay, even if it was very small compared to what he’s done.”

I wasn’t sure what to do. There seemed to be no adequate response for this, so every time I opened my mouth, I was forced to close it again.

“I can get that roan if you wish, Your Majesty,” he offered quietly after a while.

“That would be great.” My voice was a hollow monotone. “Thanks.”

Your Majesty,

We have won. Thanks to the extra troops you sent, we were able to conquer the French here at Leith, and we have come up with a treaty, the Treaty of Edinburgh, that the French were eager to sign. The terms are simple: we will withdraw our troops, and she will make a withdrawal of her own—she will sign away her rights to your throne.

It is effectively agreed upon. Now all she has to do is sign it.

Ah, there is the problem, I thought. She will never sign it.

It didn’t take a vast knowledge of the Queen of Scotland to predict some of the things she would do: it only took a mind that knew exactly what the product of ambition was. Everything about Mary could be written on a single piece of paper: her motivations, her life story. She was so simple, yet so complex.

Another letter came, too.

Your Majesty,

I would say that France is a wonderful place, but I don’t know if I can. You see, the French are very proper, but their mouths! They have the quickest, nastiest tongues. I dare not repeat the things that are said about King Philip (who is married to their princess, my God!) or the Emperor, or you.

Except there is one thing I cannot ignore. They say that the Italians are sending a man named Stefan to poison you—so beware. Anyone, anything, could be the end.

Cecil, upon reading this, formed a list of precautions. Just because of some silly rumor my ambassador reported, no meat from outside palace grounds was to be admitted inside, and no perfumes or scented gloves were to be accepted as gifts from outside the building, either. All this and more, because of a rumor.

But if you put it in perspective, many a reputation had been ruined because of citizens with angry or mislead mouths. Words, as it was often said, were as mighty as the sword sometimes.

That didn’t justify the new rules that had been set in place like a tightly-stitched stomacher, strung carefully like a lute string. Rules were not for me, but now that had changed because of a rumor. Because of words.

If air had a taste, the winds of February would be marchpane cakes: thick and undeniably sweet, with an occasional balance—an almond or, in the case of the wind, a softer breeze that tickled my skin.

“Your Majesty?” Robin’s eyes were that dazzling shine that they always were, as if they were sparkling with water. “I swear, sometimes you go into these trances, and I could stare at you for an hour without you noticing me. What is it that always captivated you?”

Did I appear captivated? I would have described it as daydreaming myself, but not in a way of fascination. It was the rules and the foreign queens as well as the crisp air that ruled my thoughts: I was not “captivated”. I was frustrated. Had it been like this for my father, and Edward Seymour, and Mary, too? Had it seemed like the whole world was out to get them, and just a lavender-scented glove away from it, too?

Or was it just me?

“There are a whole lot of things,” I replied. “A whole lot of things.”

“Maybe a new horse would do the trick,” Robin suggested.

I thought of my wardrobe, still swelling with presents from Christmas, and declined. “No material thing can help.” I sounded like a Buddhist, I realized without regret. But God would help me with the things piling up on my chest like rocks, as if I were being tortured to death in the Tower. God would help, not a dead Chinese prince who had spent half his life under trees.

“I understand.” His voice was deep, thoughtful, and I knew too well that he did understand. Robin was the son of a duke and, being a male, about as well educated as I was. He understood most things with undisputed comprehension.

“Let us ride, shall we?” I suggested, and we rocked with the steady canter of our horses through the thick of the white landscape.

As it turned out, Mary would not sign the Treaty of Edinburgh. I had anticipated this and found a small condolence in being right, but I felt rage in my blood—my Tudor blood, that I shared with the selfish brat.

“Cecil, you cannot allow this! There must be something we can do! I won’t let her take my crown, with all her French armies!” I turned my face to the ground, almost spitting on it.

I was glad there was no mirror in my audience chamber, because I would have been embarrassed at how beet-red my face was. I glared at Cecil, who was in the state he usually ended up in when I was angry—his mouth was a straight line and his eyes stared right into mine with no defiance, but a lack of empathy as well. They were missing helpfulness, too—just a never-ending sea of chocolate brown.

“She won’t come close to your crown,” he assured me. “But you must be careful—I assume she will strike if you put your guard down. I’ve never known Queen Mary, but I think she is like a snake: she will prey on your weaknesses, if you decide to let them show.”

“Oh, I won’t,” I replied with a humorless laugh. “I won’t.” I felt my eyes shrink into slits as I gazed out the window, at the cloudy sky. I shivered and continued, “You know you will end up being the one to fix this?” As if he didn’t know already. “If you have to go to France and sweet-talk the woman into signing the treaty, then God’s blood, you will go!”

“This isn’t as life-threatening as,” I knew he wanted to say, “as you think it is” but instead he finished, “it seems. Look, if you believed you had a more legitimate right to Mary’s throne than she did and she asked you to sign it away, would you agree immediately?”

I thought about how it would feel to have one throne and a claim to another. I thought about how powerful that would make me—I would feel so grand, so large in the scheme of things. I thought about how I would feel about signing away the rights to my cousin’s throne if I were young, naïve, and not so partial towards her, and I didn’t respond.

“She just needs some convincing, Your Majesty.” My secretary’s words cut into my thoughts; crisp, clear, and perfect. They were without flaw, as if it were just that easy.

“But she is—” I tried to think how to finish that sentence. She is a queen. She is a Tudor. She is a child born a queen, bound for reckless ambition. “It won’t be that easy. What does she want, exactly, anyway? She thinks that there is some comfort in knowing that if someone murders me or poisons me at supper, she will get my crown? A bloody crown? Or that if I contract smallpox or some other horrid disease, she will be the one to benefit if I stop fighting? Or maybe she wants to be the Virgin Mary, the woman savior of Catholics?” I knew it was foolish to ramble on. Mary was not wise enough to have these justifications for her transparent actions. She wanted my crown, plain and simple, even if her hands were bloodied.

“I think she wants to know that if you both die after a long fight, of old age, she will get your crown. You see—even if it is only three months—if you by chance pass before she does, she will get your crown and she will have won.”

I almost interjected that I could have children, before seeing that it was pointless. You had to have a husband to have children, so I would be without both. There was one solution.

“That means she must die before I do.”

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