Ursula Blanchard, loyal lady of the Queen's Presence Chamber and gifted sleuth, is at home amid the glittering complexities of the royal court. Now, Ursula has a new part to play in the service of her Queen -- a role that exposes her to hidden dangers in the famed university town of Cambridge.
Assigned as a harbinger for the Queen's upcoming Summer Progress to Cambridge, Ursula is placed in charge of not only Her Majesty's comfort, but also her safety. For Ursula, that means undertaking menial employment in a pie shop to investigate rumored political perils behind a swashbuckling student playlet conceived at the University to entertain the Queen.
Even in such a bastion of Protestant power and scholarly pursuits as Cambridge, protecting the Queen is not purely academic. When a handsome young student's all-too-conveniently timed death rouses her suspicions, Ursula applies her superior powers of observation to untangling a mystifying jumble of oddities, coincidences, secrets, and ciphers that surround her...and discovers ominous signs of treason.
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June 14, 2010
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Excerpt from Queen of Ambition by Fiona Buckley
Chapter 1: Untimely Accident
He looked so young.
He was nineteen, so Edward Hawford, vice chancellor of Cambridge, had said, in hushed tones as he led the way to where Thomas Shawe, student at King's College in Cambridge, had been laid, on a trestle table in one of the side chapels of the lofty College Chapel.
Death had smoothed out the marks of growing maturity, and as I stood gazing down on his face, I thought that he looked no more than fifteen. But nineteen was young enough, too young. His whole life had been before him and it had been cut off because a horse had shied or stumbled and thrown him headfirst into a tree. There were bits of tree bark still in the bloodied dent between his right temple and the crown of his head, mixed with the splinters of bone where his skull had cracked as an egg cracks when struck with the back of a spoon. Around the injury, his hair, which was a striking shade of reddish blond, almost metallic in color, like brass, was matted with dry blood.
My eyes stung and I brushed a hand across them, and beside me, Rob Henderson, my good friend and the queen's good servant, in whose company I had traveled to Cambridge, noticed. "I know," he said quietly. "This is a terrible thing."
When the news of Thomas's accident reached me, I had sought Rob out as soon as I could. He was not at the lodging but my maid, Fran Dale, and my manservant, Roger Brockley, were there and were able to tell me that Rob was at Christ's College, conferring with Hawford, who was master of Christ's, as well as being vice chancellor of the university. Dale was much occupied with some stitchery and she was no brisk walker anyway, but I took Brockley with me, so that I would appear properly escorted, and set out, hotfoot, for Christ's. On arrival, I insisted, somewhat arbitrarily, on speaking to Rob at once. When, after some argument, I was taken to him, I found that Hawford already knew of the death and that they were actually discussing it. When he understood who I was, Hawford had personally brought us to see the body.
"I understand," Hawford said, "that his horse came back to its stable without a rider and the groom went out to look for him. He was found lying dead among the trees in King's Grove. He must have been killed instantly. It's very sad, very sad. He's an only son, you know. As it happens, the family live only ten miles away. His tutor went at once, in person, and has returned to say that the poor young man's father will be here tomorrow, bringing a cart. Someone will keep vigil with him overnight and the inquest will take place tomorrow morning. It will only be a formality. It's quite clear what happened. He had permission to exercise his horse on college land and he was riding through King's Grove on the other side of the river, when something upset the animal and this is the result."
He paused and then added: "And very disconcerting it is, under present circumstances. I want to show respect for the family's sake -- in fact, his father is a connection of mine, albeit a distant one -- and I don't want to sound heartless, but, well..."
I could see his point. In normal circumstances, King's College Chapel would have been a place of calm repose, where Thomas could have lain discreetly and his fellow students could have come quietly to say farewell to him. The vice chancellor of the university would not have been much involved, except to pay brief respects of his own, if he so wished, to a promising young life and perhaps an academic career, thus cut short.
Circumstances, however, were not normal. A royal visit was imminent, elevating what would otherwise have been a private tragedy into a public awkwardness worthy of Hawford's anxious and personal attention and destroying the serenity to which the dead are entitled.
In a week's time, Her Gracious Majesty Queen Elizabeth, reaching the main objective of her Summer Progress 1564, would arrive in Cambridge and for five successive evenings she would be entertained by dramas enacted here in King's Chapel. Workmen were building a dais for her to sit upon, a stage, and a retiring room.
The chapel just now was full of workmen and racket and a sense of urgency, the sound of hammering echoing from the fan-vaulted roof and the richly carved rood screen. According to the vice chancellor, King Henry VI, who had founded King's, had wanted an austere design, but he died long before the work was finished and subsequent rulers had had other ideas. The whole place, stonework and woodwork alike, was glorious with Tudor roses, portcullises, heraldic hinds and griffins and ornate crowns, all dappled with the rainbow tints of sunlight through the stained-glass windows -- and all, just now, slightly dimmed by a layer of wood dust, which had also attached itself to our clothes, and drifted, on hidden air currents, even into the seclusion of the side chapels.
The one where Thomas lay was a step down from the main chapel's floor, and the trestle had been carefully placed away from the door, out of sight of the workmen. But although it was only a few minutes since the chaplain who was watching over Thomas had drawn back the sheet to reveal his face and the upper part of his body, dust was already settling on the boy's pale features and on the brown velvet doublet in which he had ridden out that morning. It was a heavy doublet for July, but he had gone out early, when the air was still cool.
"We thought of putting him on his bed in his lodging," said the vice chancellor unhappily, "but he shares the room with two others and where are they to go? Everywhere is full up now that people have started arriving from court ahead of the queen, and bringing their valets and maids and what have you. There are three manservants sleeping on the floor in the kitchen of my own lodgings! The university is having to accommodate ladies and their tiring maids. We are not accustomed to seeing women in the colleges."
Brockley, who was standing quietly back in a corner of the little chapel, beside the chaplain, caught my eye and, despite the solemn circumstances, permitted himself a flicker of amusement. Hawford gazed at me in a pained fashion, as though my female sex had somehow polluted his university. By the sound of his voice, he considered himself hard done by.
"It is a great honor for King's to entertain the queen," said Rob rebukingly. Hawford gave an exasperated sigh.
"I know, I was not referring to Her Majesty; of course not. But so many other women...and now this!" He turned to me. "Master Henderson asked me to bring you here, Mistress Blanchard, but may I know what the connection is between you and this young man? I understand that you are a lady of the queen's court, although I must say I can't recall having seen you hitherto and..."
He did not actually say and despite your manservant, you don't look much like a court lady either but that disparaging glance of his said clearly enough that he saw before him a young woman in a dull brown gown with no farthingale, a plain linen cap, and a plain linen collar instead of a ruff, whereas Master Henderson was the epitome of elegance in russet satin slashed with yellow, his ruff trimly pleated, and his neatly barbered fair hair adorned by a russet velvet cap complete with a sparkling jeweled brooch.
"My tasks for the queen have taken me outside the college," I said. "I have been concerned, for one thing, with this little playlet which is being arranged to amuse the queen when first she rides into Cambridge. We all wish to make sure that it is performed perfectly and doesn't take up too much time. Her Majesty may be tired from the journey. As for Thomas Shawe -- I have met him in the course of my duties. He was involved in the playlet. It seemed only right to -- pay my respects."
"And if an unexpected death occurs in a place which Her Majesty is soon to visit, her servants have a duty to inquire into it," added Master Henderson smoothly.
"But what is there to inquire into?" said the vice chancellor, still sounding querulous. "This was just an unfortunate accident. The inquest will declare as much and that will be that."
"Of course," Rob said. "Please give our condolences to Master Shawe's family. If you are ready, Ursula..."
"Yes." I was so very, very sorry for Thomas and his family, and also for the girl who had been in love with him. Leaning down, I kissed Thomas's brow on Ambrosia's behalf, as I had promised I would. It was as cool and hard as marble. Brockley came forward too, to look at Thomas for a moment. Then we turned away and together we all went out, leaving the chaplain to draw the sheet up once more over the still face, and resume his vigil. Returning to the main chapel, we paced through it to the south door.
Out in the courtyard, we paused. "Our discussion was concluded, I think," Hawford said to Rob. "There is no need for you to come back to Christ's with me. I have many things to attend to. I must be sure that the inquest is properly set up and that the boy's family will be accommodated as is fitting. This is so distressing."
"Come, come." Rob Henderson was bracing. "Accidents do sometimes befall lively young men on lively horses."
"I suppose so," said the vice chancellor gloomily.
He took himself off, walking briskly and brushing the dust off his gown as he went. Rob and I looked at each other. "Thomas's mare," I said, "is a placid, elderly nag, not lively at all. Thomas told me so himself."
"Horses can stumble," Rob said mildly.
I shook my head. "You and I haven't spoken together for some time, Rob. There is something you don't know. I was going to meet Thomas at three o'clock this afternoon; about now, in fact. He couldn't get away from his tutor and I couldn't get away from the pie shop any sooner. Thomas was worried and he wanted to talk to me about it. And now he never will."
My voice was grim. From the beginning, Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, had sensed that there was something amiss in Cambridge. He had known it in the marrow of his bones and now I knew that he was right.
"For someone," I said, "though I'm not sure who -- I think this was a long way from being an untimely accident. For someone, it may have been very timely indeed."