Chase: THREE MAIDS ON A CROWN
8 years old
Suffolk House, London
May 24, 1553
Spying on the devil was a dangerous prospect, but if the whispers were true, he had visited me before. I limped through Suffolk House like a gargoyle brought to life, clutching my dark bed gown under my chin so I might blend into shadow. At any moment the guards might demand to know why the youngest daughter of the Duke of Suffolk wandered alone past midnight. Yet I had learned early that people avoided looking at me if they could. They shrank away as if deformity could be catching, like sweating sickness or plague.
They were wise to be wary. I overheard more than anyone suspected, and I sensed what could not be seen, only felt in that ticklish place inside my head. Of late the voices in that secret spot shrilled that something wicked had come to steal my sister Jane away.
I peered around a corner, saw a guard stationed outside my destination. I ducked behind a heavy chest, but a moment later the man’s soft snore sounded. I slipped past. Most of Suffolk House slept—exhausted from the preparations for the greatest wedding England had seen since the dead king Henry took the last of his six wives. Or so my mother claimed. But I could not rest. From the nursery window I had seen the devil ride through the gates, the bear and ragged staff on his banner visible in the light of the torches his guards carried. I knew where he was bound. I had heard my father ordering servants to lay his dice upon the gaming table in his privy chamber. I would hide in the chamber. Tonight I would see the devil’s face.
I slipped through Father’s door, then stole into the space between the wall and the tapestry of blind Saint Lucy holding her eyeballs upon a plate. I could see the table clearly from there, though I hoped no one would be able to see me. What would happen if my father discovered me? He would beat me. But I had to help Jane if I could.
The tramp of boots sounded in the hall, and I caught my breath. The guard must have wakened. My father did not reprimand him before entering with his guest.
The stranger sank into Father’s best chair, his shoulders weighted with gold chains of office. Dark hair fell about a harsh face. His eyes seemed as if they could cut stone.
From the time I could remember, I heard people whispering that Satan had twisted me into a hunchbacked dwarf. Now he was coming to steal Jane away.
For two weeks my eldest sister wept into her bolster at night. Jane, only fifteen, who cried when her lessons were over and kind Dr. Ayl-mer sent her back to our parents. Jane, who loved me and never lied.
“They have sold me to the devil, Mary.” Her words scraped into my memory. I trembled to think how dark the wickedness must be to make Jane defy our parents’ will. I still winced every time I recalled the hiss of the willow branch as our mother cut bloody stripes into Jane’s back. The beating had gone on until I feared it would kill Jane, and Kat, who could not bear cruelty of any kind, had flung herself at our sister, pleading. “Give way! You will have to do what they command in the end.”
Mother boasted that her stern hand had bent Jane to her will. I knew better. Jane had given in because what Kat—at almost thirteen years old—said was true. Even the humblest of fathers had the right to beat a daughter until she followed his command. Our father, the great Duke of Suffolk, wished his eldest to marry the devil’s son come morning. The lord chancellor of England was determined on the match too. As chancellor, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, held the reins of government instead of the boy king. Dudley was the most hated man in England. The devil . . .
Father leaned across the table, his voice low. “Our plans may come to nothing, Northumberland. Even you—the most powerful man in England—cannot hold back death. The wedding must be accomplished, and you must have time to convince His Majesty to—”
“Bow to the will of God?” Northumberland smiled. “It should not be difficult to convince His Majesty to resolve the situation as we wish—not with eternal damnation hanging over the boy’s head. That is what he will face if he allows his Catholic sister to succeed him on the throne and lead England back to the evils of popery—the worshipping of saints’ bones that are really pigs’ knuckles and indulgences for sale by greedy priests, any sin forgiven if enough money is paid to the church. Worse still, servitude to Rome and a foreign pope who cares little for the welfare of this island. No. We cannot allow a return to that slavery. As to your fear that Edward will thwart our plans before all is prepared, do not underestimate my resourcefulness, Suffolk. I have certain assurances from the woman I have hired to see to His Majesty’s comfort.”
I chewed my lip. Edward . . . His Majesty . . . they were speaking of my cousin, the king. I had barely formed the thought when my father gave a snort of disgust.
“Comfort? Last we spoke, you said Edward coughs up blood. There is no telling how soon he may die.”
“Careful!” Northumberland looked around the room. I held my breath, fearing he might see me with his demon powers. “It is treason to predict the death of a king.”
“It may be, but I have seen enough consumption to know when the end is near.” Father lifted a gilt ewer and poured two goblets of wine. Never had I seen my father perform such a lowly task for himself. Strange, not even Father’s most trusted servant was near. “As for treason,” Father said, offering a goblet to his guest, “there are many in this kingdom who would call the business we do tomorrow the work of traitors.”
What business? I frowned. Tomorrow there could be no business at all. The day would be spent in celebration of two weddings. Jane’s to Guilford Dudley, Northumberland’s youngest son, and Kat’s to the Earl of Pembroke’s lad. My chest ached whenever I thought of it. Two sisters lost in one day. Me, left behind.
My musings were drowned out by Northumberland. “Ignorant crofters might object to what we do, but many Englishmen would say we pull the realm back from the brink of hell. If the Catholics regain power, what do you think will happen to those who took the chalices from their churches and turned abbeys into country manors? Men like you and me, Suffolk? It is our duty to protect England’s simple people from their own ignorance. Your daughters will give us the power to see it done. First Jane and Katherine, then Mary.”
At the sound of my name, I closed my hands into fists. My nails scraped the rough back of the tapestry. I held my breath in terror.
“Leave Mary out of it,” Father said. “No nobleman will wed someone like her—even if she does carry the blood of the royal Tudors in her veins.”
“I think you underestimate the power of ambition. We will gamble with her in addition to the others.” Northumberland’s smile chilled me. “So the game begins. What is your stake to be, Suffolk?”
Father grasped his ivory dice, then cast them upon the table. “I wager three maids for a crown.”
Excerpted from Three Maids for a Crown by Ella March Chase. Copyright © 2011 by Ella March Chase. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.