A Thousand Eyes: A Novel of Elizabeth I

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Chapter 8: Autumn 1559

Ever since I had been made Queen, contenders were falling over their feet as they stepped forward for my hand. I could not even remember them all, if you asked me to rattle them off my tongue in one try. But there was one--besides the Archduke, of course--that came to kind easily: Erik, the crown prince of Sweden. He had written love letters to me the first month of my reign, nearly swooning over a woman he had seen not even a portrait of. He had declared his love for me even though he didn’t know how articulate I was when I spoke or that on occasion even the slightest provocation would send me into raptures. It was amazing to me, this, but also a little frightening. What if he had only fallen in love with the sheer idea of me, what if he would turn on his heels and walk away if ever he was to actually see me? What if I was only a plausible wife on paper?

The thought was frightening. It was this, the whole idea, that had me trembling when there came a letter from Sweden detailing Erik’s determination to meet me. What if he saw me and his plans to marry me faded like the morning mist? It was a no-win for me, because I didn’t wish him to continue his pleas after he was gone--nine months was long enough--but if he did sever his requests, I was a failure, a woman who couldn’t hold a man to her even with an entire realm and hundreds of estates to her name. I hit some sort of realization after I discovered the contents of this letter that I could never win. I was Queen, and I had as many suitors as I had pearls on my fancier dresses, but for every battle I won there was another I was destined to lose.

So I escaped the only way I knew how: riding.

I was huffing when I reached the stables. It wasn’t from physical exhaustion or anger, no; I was breathless with guilt. I should not be here, I should be back figuring all this out, I thought. I cannot escape my problems every time.

But it felt so good to ride, I knew that. I wanted to get away from what it was like to govern a nation. If I couldn’t do that, I would go insane. I would be forever recalled as Elizabeth the Mad, the woman who had failed herself and her country when she got buried too deep in political dirt.

Kat had told me once that, as people, everyone needed the space to feel something. Everyone needed to be allowed emotions, to feel whatever they needed to feel. I hadn’t quite believed her then, even as I worshipped her feet, but I did now. After being the one that wasn’t allowed emotions, I realized they were the very thing I needed most. If I wasn’t allowed to be happy, to be free, to grieve at the small losses, dance at the big ones, or love whoever I wanted, then what? No one could be a puppet for long, and once I had felt the overwhelming suffocation, I realized it was what had taken my brother Edward. He had been a puppet.

I could not do that. I would sooner have my cousin Mary herself axe off my head than perish and wither like my brother, into nothing. It was this conclusion that kept me at the stables when I couldn’t breathe from all the talk of Prince Erik or the Archduke.

So I was falling, if you could call it that. And whose arms to fall into? My horse master’s, of course.

But the smooth-as-cream friendship we had wasn’t perfect for long.

It was a cold, crisp morning, but I wasn’t bothered when I had to slip on an extra coat before I headed out. I had evaded a breakfast filled with talk of Prince Erik’s latest endeavor to reach England, after all, and not only that: I had finished my translation of Medina. I was both prolific and stealthy in just one morning, and I felt myself glowing with exaggerated joy when I found myself facing Robin and the mounts.

When we were mounted, I relayed to my companion my latest accomplishment: “I finished the book this morning…”

I don’t know what I expected from him, but it was certainly more than a deadpan, “That’s wonderful, Your Majesty.” His eyes registered no emotion. His cheeks didn’t rise one bit.

“Are you all right?”

He was still stoic. “Yes. I’m fine.”

I was no expert at human emotion, but I knew a lie when I saw one. “You are not. What is it?”

“I suppose I’m just worried. I…well, the more time you spend avoiding your sovereignly duties, the more it is presumed that we are performing sinful acts with one another. It would be better for the both of us if…”

“Pardonnez-moi?” I spat, laughing for a moment at myself. It was odd that whenever I was aghast, my first thoughts were in French. “You want me to work so your ego can be blown up? I don’t work for you, I work for my people. You can manage your own reputation; there is no way I am going to do it for you.”

“I’m not asking you to do that,” he corrected quickly, and for a fleeting second I wondered if I had overreacted. “I merely wish for you to be a bit more mindful, and,” as if he were stepping over splintery wood, “pay more attention to your duties.”

My anger was like a tightly coiled ball of yarn when you’ve unwraveled it such that it falls apart, spreading itself over everything. “You wouldn’t know a thing about duty, though, would you?” The words stung him, I knew, and I could see him trying not to cringe. He was from a line of traitors, of men who threw “duty” to their dogs and did what they pleased.

His voice was cold when he said, “Fine. If that’s how you see me…”

I knew then that I wasn’t welcome in the stables anymore. My stables, actually, but Robin and the horses had been a package deal. If I wanted to ride, I would have to deal with Robin and his twisted sense of right and wrong.

So I ran. Theoretically. But it was running, oh, it was running. It felt exactly the same as the physical thing did: I was tired, I had trouble breathing, and there was always something behind me. Something that should not be behind me.

And yet, what could I do? From every direction there was someone telling me what to do, squeezing my emotions together until I couldn’t tell them apart. So, what I did was rational; when I pushed my way through and didn’t look back, I was not mad. I was not unreasonable.

I was human.

So for the next few weeks I did pay mind to my “sovereignly duties”. Prince Erik’s brother was coming to visit, since the crown prince himself was being pushed back to Sweden by God’s waters, and my cousin was stirring trouble. Again. This was the least tiresome of my secretary’s grumblings because I matched his passions when he was ranting. Mary had been using the English coat of arms and spreading the notion that she was the true Queen, and in this case I wanted to throttle her even more than Cecil did. I wanted her to pay.

I sometimes wondered if she would pay, someday; if God would look down upon her childish antics and thus the world could see His mercy for her deteriorating. One might pity her for never having been taught rules (she had been born onto the throne, almost literally), but when she left a path of destruction in her wake, mercy came with more difficulty. If it had been up to me—well, I was never one for lenience.

Mary’s mother was a pot-stirrer, too: Marie de Guise was in charge of Scotland while Mary was sipping ale on a throne in France, and few Scots had empathy for her. Maybe they wanted Mary back, or perhaps they didn’t. They might not have wanted her back at all. That was where the revenge began.

So, I ended the month with two new developments--Duke John, Erik’s younger brother was on a boat headed for our shores, and my cousin Mary was losing her grip on her realm--and yet I had a hard feeling in my gut that something was missing.

A door slamming. Footsteps. “Your Majesty.”

I glanced up at the man bowing before me. He was tall, I noticed when he stretched back up to his full height. The average man would be at his shoulders, but you couldn’t miss his face. His mouth was curved into a bow, and his narrow jaw lifted his eyes, piercing blue eyes that you could see no matter how many heads’ length above you they were. He was the sort of man everyone turned their heads to observe when he spoke, I could just see it.

So this is why Erik sent him, I thought. For if this duke was the lesser fruit of Sweden, then what sort of a fool would not want to marry Erik? He was supposed to be the greater prince, the more pleasing soul, and I knew from first glance that if I was the sort of woman to take a husband, I would snatch Duke John away before anyone else could have him. Even if he had but a weak kingdom to his name.

“Ah, my lord!” I grinned broadly and stretched out my hand. His lips were warm against my fist. After a few moments of small talk, I inquired about his realm--“You must tell me about Sweden! I have been to nay a place outside of England and I have little experience in regards to what any other part of the world is like.”

“I was the same before I came here, Your Majesty. It’s a humbling experience so far--now that I have seen what the world can be, I dread the day when I must return to my homeland.”

My eyebrows lifted. “Why? Is there something the matter there?”

He sighed softly, craning his long neck to stare out the window for a while before returning his gaze to me. “No, but that’s just the thing. Sweden is like a wooden dish amongst rows of silver plates; where there is supposed to be excitement and beauty, there is nothing. Nothing. I suppose it’s just my family--my father sat in bed all day instead of attending the drab court functions or organizing more exciting ones to be arranged. My brother, plausibly, learned this from him and was never able to break the habit. He may seem like a real stubborn man for being so persistent in his courtship, but it’s not that. He is just not used to having to fight for things. In Sweden, marriages are quiet and uneventful, without endless negotiations. No Swedish king has gone after a wife that could say ‘no’, and I’ve begun to think my brother just comes off as a fool for asking you, because of course you can say ‘no’.”

I sat in shock. So this, this was Sweden? At times I was not particularly fond of my kingdom, but it at least was lively and glittering. I tried to picture a castle with drab furnishings and a lack of silver. A lack of color.

The image didn’t form. Still I sat, agape at this relevation. Once upon a time, I had almost married this prince, this prince who didn’t dance at every supper or watch jousts on saints’ days. What kind of a world was that?

“I have never felt like I belonged there,” Duke John continued without emotion. “I am perhaps the only man from there that has ever needed excitement or entertainment. I came to England not because I am a slave of my brother, but because I knew that this was my chance to find--or at least see--something better. May I add that I am not disappointed.” He sighed, looking down solemnly.

“Are you all right, my lord?” I asked, observing his aghast expression.

He seemed to be stepping out of a trance when he shook his head and replied, “No, I’m fine. I just worry I have said too much. My brother wants everyone to think he is the master of the most enviable place, and I hate to think what would happen if he knew I’ve just shattered that little fantasy.”

I shuddered. I had almost done that to the Archduke Charles: molded a fantasy attractive enough that he would make a committment to me and not find out until it was too late. Thank God for my regret! And, thank God for the shattering of Erik’s fantasy.

“Excuse me?” The duke raised an eyebrow.

Had I said that last part aloud? “Thank you,” I amended. “Thank you for telling me this. I--I’ll make certain that Erik does not hear of what you have just told me. It may not seem possible, my lord, but I can keep a secret…”

He laughed, and his eyes twinkled. If only he was the elder prince! If I were to marry, I would want a husband with a twinkle in his eye when he smiled.

I closed my eyes at the memory that pushed its way through the depths of my brain until it was all I could see. Robin smiling, Robin’s eyes glistening. And, this one made me wince, Robin looking as if I had punched him in the gut.

Why had I hurt him? Why had he hurt me? Why was I averse to going for a ride? Our argument was such that I couldn’t remember it anymore; all I knew was that we had hurt each other, and I had in turn hurt myself.

“En Majeste?” the duke eyed me carefully. “Your Majesty, are you okay?”

I stood up straighter despite the unusual feeling in my stomach. “I’m sorry, my lord, but I’m afraid I’ll have to see you again some other time.” If he noticed I had avoided his question, he did not make it known. “There is something I must do.” The duke I brushed past on my way out the door must have been bewildered or upset, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anyone but my old friend, the one I had drawn back from and pushed away with my temper. Robin had been the only man I really, really trusted, and I needed him. Whatever the consequences.

I was almost at the stables within a few minutes, and I felt as if I were being filled with air (not that that would have been in any way possible, with the stomacher under my dress). I didn’t know what would come of me seeing him again. I didn’t know if one of us was going to get hurt, I didn’t know if our friendship would crumble or turn into something completely different.

I didn’t know.

It was a little frightening, but by God’s mercy I only had seconds to ponder it before I was there, in front of him. He’d grown more rugged in the few weeks since I’d associated with him, with a longer beard and rattier clothes. Yet he looked perfect, as always, as if he were chiseled out of stone; a statue of Apollo. I had never been ugly, but when I looked at Robin, it was as if someone were pointing out my imperfections and using Robin to demonstrate how one should look. But, it seemed everyone felt that way.

He stared intensely back at me, and I felt foolish. I didn’t belong here; I had left weeks ago, leaving the daggers that were my words. Maybe it was supposed to end; perhaps God had intended that we stay alart so we could continue to do our duties. Maybe I was intended for a life without my “bonny sweet Robyn”.

I clutched my side, feeling the purple linen of my dress fold underneath my fingers. That was too painful to consider.

He was still staring at me. I had no words, however much I tried to make some come out, so he spoke for the both of us when he said, “I’m sorry.”

Abandoning the notion that, being Queen, I had nothing to apologize for, I replied tersely, “Me too.” Dust coated the inside of my nostrils, eliciting a quiet sneeze, before I continued. “I was wrong. You know duty better than anyone I have ever known, and I am at fault for what happened.”

“Your Majesty, it was me! I was the one who made that stupid suggestion in the first place, I was the one who wrongfully doubted you. You were right to fight back, right to leave. I’m surprised you came back.”

I smiled, but I couldn’t even tell if it was a happy smile or not. It was just a motion, a motion I had been through too many times. “All those years? All those years, and you think I would just leave because of one argument? You obviously don’t know me as well as you might, my lord.”

He gave a soft glance. “I guess what I really meant is that I knew you would come back, but it would be safer if you didn’t.”

I saw something there, in that moment. The stolen glances--the very same ones I had passed off as natural because of my status--and the soft voice he used when he was mainly listening to me and not advising me. I saw the fierce protectiveness he had demonstrated when anyone came close in a way he didn’t like. “Robin?” I squeaked, weak like the mice under the beds, because that wasn’t all I could see.

There was his wife. Amy Dudley. A short, round face and sheek black hair that could make anyone jealous. I couldn’t see Robin’s reasoning. Why me, the plain redhead with the fragile stature, and not the pretty doll he had in the country? What did I have, theoretically, that she didn’t? Why me?

I knew Amy Dudley, and I felt a sharb stab in the gut for a moment, but it was gone. I knew I should feel guilty for some reason or another, but I didn’t. Amy Dudley was far, far away now, and in that moment, empathy only stretched as far as my fingertips.

I was an awful sort of woman for this, for wanting. I wanted what I knew Robin wanted, and didn’t I deserve it? After everything I’d been through, certainly God would grant me this.

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