THE SECRETS OF THE TUDOR COURT SERIES IS
"RICH AND LUSHLY DETAILED, TEEMING WITH PASSION
AND INTRIGUE," SAID ROMANTIC TIMES. NOW TALENTED
KATE EMERSON CONTINUES A SAGA AS DRAMATIC
AND SEDUCTIVE AS THE COURT ITSELF.
Pretty, flirtatious, and ambitious. Nan Bassett hopes that an appointment at the court of King Henry VIII will bring her a grand marriage. But soon after she becomes a maid of honor to Queen Jane, the queen dies in childbirth. As the court plunges into mourning, Nan sets her sights on the greatest match in the land...for the king has noticed her. After all, it wouldn't be the first time King Henry has chosen to wed a maid of honor. And in newly Protestant England, where plots to restore the old religion abound, Nan may be the only one who can reassure a suspicious king of her family's loyalty. But the favor of a king can be dangerous and chancy, not just for Nan, but for her family as well...and passionate Nan is guarding a secret, one that could put her future -- and her life -- in grave jeopardy should anyone discover the truth.
Based on the life of the real Anne Bassett and her family, and drawing extensively from letters and diaries of the time, Between Two Queens is an enthralling picture of the dangers and delights of England's most passionate era.
Emerson's second in her Tudor court series (following Secrets of the Tudor Court: The Pleasure Palace) begins with Jane Seymour's death after giving birth to a son, Edward, and follows the fortunes of one of her maids of honor, Nan Bassett. Concerned about her position now that her queen is dead, Nan catches Henry VIII's eye almost at once, a dangerous position for a young maid. When her family becomes embroiled in treason and scandal, it is all she can do to stay alive and must balance the desires of a king with the desires of her heart. As in her first Tudor novel, Emerson skillfully crafts a strong heroine who maintains careful command of her sexuality and her independence. Nan's behavior is as brave as it is scandalous for the time, and Emerson makes readers appreciate the consequences of Nan's choices. An in-depth view into the later years of Henry's court with the charismatic king gone to seed, makes him a character, in Emerson's capable hands, to be feared and in some ways pitied. (Jan.)
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January 04, 2010
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Excerpt from Secrets of the Tudor Court: Between Two Queens by Kate Emerson
Her Grace made grant to have one of your daughters; and the matter is thus concluded that your ladyship shall send them both over, for Her Grace will first see them and know their manners, fashions and conditions, and take which of them shall like Her Grace best; and they must be sent over about six weeks hence, and your ladyship shall not need too much cost on them till time you know which of them Her Grace will have. But two honest changes they must have, the one of satin, the other of damask. And at their coming the one shall be in my Lady of Rutland's chamber and the other in my Lady Sussex's chamber; and once known which the Queen will have, the other to be with the Duchess of Suffolk, and then to be apparelled according to their degrees. But madam, the Queen will be at no more cost with her but wages and livery, and so I am commanded to write unto your ladyship.
-- John Husee to Lady Lisle, 17 July 1537
The distance across the Narrow Seas between Calais, the last English outpost on the coast of France, and the town of Dover, in Kent, was less than twenty-five miles. On a clear day, with the wind in the right direction, the journey could be made in a matter of hours. If a storm came up, the crossing could take days. On this particular morning in early September 1537, a cold wind gusted and ominously dark clouds scudded across a bleak sky. The three people huddled together on the deck of the fishing boat regarded the choppy water that surrounded them with varying degrees of dismay.
Edward Corbett, known to his friends as Ned, was in charge of the party. He was a young man, just turned twenty-two, and one of the gentlemen servitors in the household of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, lord Deputy of Calais, and uncle to King Henry VIII. Dogsbody would be a better name for what he was. He served at the beck and call of his master, performing whatever menial task Lord Lisle set for him. But the post was not all bad, and it would sustain him until there was an opening in the elite guard known as the Calais Spears. In the interim, his main duty was to take letters back and forth between Calais and England and deliver gifts -- or more accurately, bribes -- to those with influence at the court of King Henry VIII. On this journey he had been put in charge of the most precious gift of all. He was to escort two of the lord deputy's stepdaughters to be interviewed by Queen Jane, Henry's third wife. Her Majesty had a vacancy among the maids of honor.
The older sister, Catherine Bassett, called Cat by her family, was twenty and prodigiously plain in appearance. Her face was as pale as newfallen snow, and her eyes, a blue so washed out as to look gray, had dark shadows beneath them. Even tightly wrapped in her heavy wool cloak, she shivered violently. "We will sink," Cat whispered in a voice that trembled. "I know it. We will not live long enough to see England again."
Her younger sister, Anne Bassett, whom everyone called Nan, was just sixteen and the acknowledged beauty of the family. Nan shot a contemptuous look in Cat's direction. She showed no fear and no sign of succumbing to seasickness. A lass after his own heart, Ned thought, bold and perhaps just a trifle foolhardy.
"Do stop whining, Cat," Nan said. "Master Nele's boat has made this trip across the Narrow Seas hundreds of times. We are perfectly safe."
"If the sight of the waves disturbs you, Mistress Bassett, there is a cabin in the stern," Ned suggested. "You might feel better out of the wind and weather." Salt spray coated their clothing, making everything feel damp and clammy.
Cat sent him a look of such gratitude that Ned felt guilty for not thinking to send her indoors earlier. But Nan's glare took him aback.
"If she goes in, I will have to go with her," Nan announced, "and I wish to remain where I am."
Ned frowned, torn between sending Cat off alone and leaving Nan by herself at the rail. In good conscience he could abandon neither of the sisters. They were his responsibility until he delivered them to the London house of John Husee, the lord deputy's man of business.
Cat heaved a great sigh. "The stink will be worse inside," she said, "and Nan is much affected by strong smells."
On a vessel of only thirteen tons, nowhere was free of the stench of tar and the strong odor of brine. But until Cat brought it to his attention, Ned had barely noticed. Master Nele's fishing boat was sweet smelling compared to most, used as often to carry passengers and cargoes of wine as it was for its original purpose.
Nan looked pleased by her easy victory, but Cat cast a wary glance at the sky. "Do you think we will reach Dover ahead of the storm?"
"Let us consult the frog." Ned led the way to a barrel secured near the beakhead. A frog was kept in a wooden cage nearby. Ned extracted it and dropped it into the barrel, which was filled with water. "Frogs always swim toward land," he explained, ignoring the fact that at this point the vessel was probably equidistant from France and England. "If a storm is coming, the frog will swim near the bottom of the barrel. If good weather is on the way, it will swim near the top." Ned grinned as the two sisters leaned closer to stare at the frog. The peaks of their French hoods nearly touched midway over the barrel. At the front of each headdress a narrow strip of hair showed. Nan's was light brown dusted with gold, while Cat's more closely resembled the color of spring mud.
Nan turned her head, fixing eyes of a vivid popinjay blue on Ned's face. She pouted. "This frog is swimming in the middle of the water in the barrel."
"Then our fate is in God's hands. If the winds favor us, we will arrive before the weather worsens."
A bit of color had come back into Cat's cheeks. "Do you believe in signs and portents, Master Corbett? Nan and I are undecided on the subject."
He laughed. "Only when it suits me. Some superstitions are merely foolish. Do you know why most mariners refuse to learn to swim?"
Both sisters shook their heads. Cat looked genuinely curious. Nan's pretty face was a study in skepticism.
"They believe that once the sea gets a taste of you, it will come back for more. Those who willingly go into the water to swim are therefore more likely to drown."
"But ships do sink and men do drown, whether they can swim or not," Cat said, her expression solemn.
Ned herded the two young women back to the rail. The sky overhead had grown lighter in the last few moments. "Look there," he said, pointing. "If you squint, you can just see the cliffs at Dover."
"Look there," Nan shot back, as a wave broke against the side of the boat and cold mist sprayed over the rail. "We are not out of danger yet."
"I vow I will rescue you both if we sink," he promised. "I will turn myself into a dolphin and, like the old legend, carry you on my back to safety on the nearest shore."
"You can swim, then?" Nan asked.
"Could you teach me how to stay afloat on my own?"
Wicked thoughts coursed through his mind as his admiring gaze slid over her. He could see very little of her shape beneath her cloak, but he had caught glimpses of her often enough in Calais to know she had a trim figure. He lowered his voice. "You would have to take lessons wearing nothing but your shift. Otherwise the weight of your clothing would pull you under the sea."
She turned a pretty shade of pink, but he saw in her eyes that she was not truly offended. "And you, sir? What would you wear?"
"That, mistress, I leave to your imagination."
"You are wicked, sir." More embarrassed than her sister, Cat avoided meeting his eyes. After a moment, she turned away, ostensibly to go back to the barrel for another look at the frog.
Nan's gaze remained fixed on Ned. "I would like to learn to swim, but I suppose I will have no time for such things when I become a maid of honor."
"Are you so certain you will be chosen? The queen sent for both of you."
"I should already have had a place among the maids." Nan could not hide her frustration. Her words tumbled out in a rush. "It was all arranged. More than a year ago, when I was fifteen, all the appropriate bribes had been paid, all the courtiers courted. My stepfather had sufficient rank as Viscount Lisle to entitle me to the position. Under Queen Catherine of Aragon, or even Queen Anne Boleyn, my age would not have been a drawback, but Queen Jane Seymour decided that I was too young. Only then did anyone suggest that Cat apply to enter royal service."
Ned made sympathetic noises and waited, leaning casually against the rail. His manner invited further confidences.
"It is most unfair that I should have to compete with my own sister for the single opening in the ranks of the queen's damsels, but I have one advantage." She lowered her voice and leaned a little closer. "I have been trained in a noble French household. I understand the ways of powerful and wealthy people. My sister was educated solely by our mother and has never left Calais once in the four years our stepfather has been in charge there."
Cat Bassett had stayed well in the background even in Lord Lisle's household. Ned had rarely been aware of her presence. Then again, it was hard to notice anyone else when Lady Lisle was in the vicinity. She was an altogether formidable woman.
Born plain Honor Grenville, a gentleman's daughter, Lady Lisle had been wed first to a simple West Country knight named Bassett, who'd died when her children were very young. Only by her second marriage had she become a viscountess and the wife of the lord deputy of Calais. She'd done well by the match. Not only had she pushed her new spouse into seeking advancement, but she had vastly improved her first family's fortunes. She took full advantage of the fact that her husband was King Henry's uncle.
Ned smiled to himself. That sounded much grander than it was. It was true that Arthur Plantagenet had been sired by King Edward IV, but he'd been born on the wrong side of the blanket. For decades he'd lived at court and been virtually ignored, just another royal bastard. Only during the last few years had he achieved any rank or position worth noting, and that had doubtless been due to the machinations of his ambitious second wife.
"Cat is shown favor simply because she is older." Nan's comment and the heartfelt sigh that accompanied it instantly reclaimed Ned's attention. "What sort of favor?" he asked.
"While we wait for the queen to summon us, she is to be in the keeping of Eleanor, Countess of Rutland. I must stay with the Countess of Sussex."
"As they are both countesses, where is the difference?"
"Lady Rutland is more experienced. She has more influence at court. Lady Sussex is our cousin and only a few years older than I am. She was plain Mary Arundell less than a year ago, one of the maids of honor herself."
"Then perhaps she is the best person you could find to teach you how to succeed at court."
Nan considered that for a moment before nodding slowly. "Mayhap you have the right of it. I do hope so. A place at court has been my dream from the moment I was old enough to realize that royal service could open the gates to even greater things."
"Greater?" Ned already knew the answer, but he was enjoying this conversation with Nan. Even when she complained, her voice had a pleasant, musical lilt.
"Maids of honor are on display to make a colorful background for the queen. Sooner or later every maid of honor comes to the attention of all the important and wealthy noblemen in the land." Nan had a dreamy look in her eyes, clearly imagining herself being showered with gifts and proposals of marriage.
Ned grinned. He could find no fault with her goal. He'd be at the royal court himself if he had anyone to sponsor him. A courtier's advancement was limited only by his or her ambition. Win the queen's affection -- or, better yet, the king's -- and a word in the royal ear became a marketable commodity. The maids of honor were wont to make good marriages. Indeed, two previous members of that elite group -- Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour -- had gone on to marry the king himself.
Nan Bassett's combination of beauty and ambition would take her far, Ned thought. A pity the position of queen was already filled.
ON SATURDAY, THE fifteenth day of September, Queen Jane summoned the Bassett sisters to her privy chamber at Hampton Court, the grandest of King Henry's palaces. She kept them before her on their knees for what seemed like hours. It took every ounce of self-control Nan possessed not to fidget.
I am blessed with a pretty face, she thought. Everyone who meets me says so. But will that be enough?
Her knees throbbed. In spite of the thick layers of fine linen and soft damask that separated them from the tiled floor, she could feel that hard and unyielding surface press against her flesh with bruising force.
Holding herself otherwise perfectly still, Nan glanced sideways at her sister. Cat's eyes were demurely lowered. Her demeanor was all that was calm and composed. True, her face was pale, but then it always was.
Nan's gaze dropped to Cat's hands. Clasped together just at her waist, they trembled slightly. At once Nan felt better, but it still rankled that she had been forced into a competition with her sister for the single opening in the ranks of the royal maids of honor.
Why has the queen not yet decided? Can she not see that I am the one she should choose? Nan could not bear to contemplate her own future if Her Grace selected Cat.
Time stretched toward the breaking point. Nan was skilled at controlling her facial expression, but there was not enough willpower in the world to prevent the sheen of sweat that now appeared upon her brow. The queen's presence chamber was overly warm...and it smelled faintly of cooking meat. Nan had always been sensitive to smells. The sweet scent of strewn herbs could not quite mask the stronger odors wafting up from the privy kitchens located directly below Her Grace's apartments.
The queen shifted in her gilded chair and her satin skirt rustled against the cloth-of-gold cushion. The faint sound seemed abnormally loud in the subdued quiet. Nan risked a glance at the woman who had been naught but Mistress Seymour before she supplanted Queen Anne in the king's affections. Although she sat beneath a canopy, just one of many symbols of her exalted position, and was surrounded by a bevy of attractive maids of honor and ladies-in-waiting, the queen herself was exceedingly plain. Her sumptuous clothing only emphasized her lack of physical beauty.
Everything Her Grace wore was heavily embroidered and sparkled with jewels. Pearls studded her old-fashioned gable headdress, their luminescent paleness emphasizing the lack of color in Queen Jane's skin. Pearls were supposed to have a slimming effect on plump features, but they did nothing to diminish the dimensions of the queen's large, round face, especially now that she was with child.
What on earth could it have been about Jane Seymour that had so appealed to the king? In Nan's experience, men responded to beauty. Pink-and-white complexions and delicate features like her own were thefashion, not a ghostlike pallor and a long nose such as the queen's, which became thicker near the point. The queen had high cheekbones, thin lips, and a roll of flesh beneath her chin, presumably the result of being hugely pregnant.
Nan was about to lower her gaze to the tiles once more when the edge of the tapestry directly behind the queen suddenly moved. A bluegray eye peered out from the narrow gap between one section of the hangings and the next. Startled, Nan forgot it was not her place to stare. The eye fixed on her in return.
At once, a laugh rang out. A loud, booming guffaw echoed off the high, painted ceiling. The sound made the queen grimace, but only for an instant.
Cat gasped as the king emerged from his hiding place and stepped out into the sunlight. But Nan did not. She had already guessed whose eye it must be. Who else would dare conceal himself in the queen's lodgings?
Queen Jane's maids of honor and waiting gentlewomen hastily made an obeisance. Already on their knees, Nan and Cat should have bowed their heads. Cat did. But Nan, smiling, continued to stare at His Majesty.
Her admiration was genuine. King Henry was the tallest man she'd ever seen, taller even than her stepfather, and massively built. His doublet, gloriously decorated with roses embroidered in gold thread and rubies that caught the light, covered an impressively firm, barrel-shaped chest. His lower limbs were shapely and encased in the finest hose.
The king was no longer young, already in his forty-sixth year, but he was still a magnificent and awe-inspiring sight. Nan knew she should lower her eyes, and her head. It was only proper in the presence of royalty. But she found she could not tear her gaze away from the man striding across the chamber toward her.
His square-cut beard was a golden red, just as it appeared in the portraits Nan had seen. She could not help but notice that it contained a few stray flecks of gray, but that did not seem to matter. His Majesty was ageless. His skin was fair and still as smooth as a much younger man's. Her breath caught at the expression in his eyes. Her bold stare had apparently given no offense. On the contrary. His gaze was both amused and admiring.
"Rise, mistress." The king thrust out a large hand adorned with an assortment of glittering rings. His touch was gentle but firm, and Nan's fingers quite disappeared in his.
Her senses reeled. An exotic blend of perfumes wafted out from his person. She recognized musk and rose water and ambergris, but there was another ingredient as well that rendered the combination unusually heady and potent. It produced in Nan a disconcerting swell of desire and she nearly lost her balance as she came upright.
"Mistress Bassett," the king murmured. He kept hold of Nan's hand and drew her close, as if to inspect her face for flaws. "But which Mistress Bassett are you?"
Her fingertips burned from his heat. Suddenly, she ached to feel the brush of his soft beard against her skin. By some miracle she found her voice, although it emerged as a throaty whisper. "I am called Anne, if it please Your Grace."
The king frowned.
Utter stillness filled the presence chamber.
Nan instantly realized what the trouble must be. She had the same Christian name as the queen King Henry had so recently cast off and had executed. She told herself that it should not matter, would not make a difference in her fate. Anne was as common a name as Catherine -- and half the girls in England had been named after Catherine of Aragon, the king's first wife, the woman he had divorced in order to marry Anne Boleyn.
"Do you enjoy dancing, Mistress Anne?"
The mundane question had Nan fighting not to laugh aloud with relief. The king was not displeased with her after all. She sent him her most brilliant smile. "I do, Your Grace."
"And music? Are you adept with lute or virginals?" Sliding one hand beneath her elbow, he steered her toward Queen Jane.
"I play both, Your Grace." Modesty had no place at court.
"Excellent. I will depend upon you to provide soothing songs for my queen while she awaits the birth of my son and heir."
"Have you chosen, then, Your Grace?" The queen's voice was low and carefully modulated so as to reveal nothing of her personal opinion.
The king's admiring gaze never left Nan's face. "She will do nicely, my heart."
With that, Nan's own heart beat so fast and loud that she feared she might swoon. His Grace had the most penetrating eyes, and at the moment they revealed the full extent of his interest in her. The king of England wanted her, and not just as a maid of honor for his wife.
The queen spoke again. This time her voice was stronger and brooked no disobedience. "Come forward, Mistress Anne Bassett."
As Nan approached the gilded chair, she saw that Queen Jane had blue eyes, too -- but they had narrowed to slits. Nan felt heat creep into her cheeks. Along with it came the certainty that, if the decision had been left up to Queen Jane, she'd have chosen Cat to join her household.
Schooling her features to present a picture of demure obedience, Nan knelt before the queen.
"Do you swear to serve me faithfully, Mistress Bassett?"
"I do, Your Grace."
"Then you may kiss my hand as a pledge of your fealty." Queen Jane extended her fingers, which were almost as heavily laden with rings as the king's, toward Nan.
By this act, Nan was sworn in as one of the maids of honor. But when her lips actually brushed the queen's skin, as dry and cracked as old leather, she had her first good look at what lay beyond the glitter. Queen Jane had bitten her fingernails down to the quick.
"YOU NEED NOT put on airs," Cat said the moment they left the queen's presence chamber. "I know why you were chosen."
In spite of her sister's critical tone, Nan preened a bit. She was a maid of honor. Every time Queen Jane appeared in public, Nan would be one of the six richly dressed young women accompanying her, petals to her flower. In private she would be at the center of a whirl of activity -- disguisings, dances, tournaments. The king himself would partner her. He was known to participate with great enthusiasm in all the entertainments at court.
"Neither one of us would have been considered for the post," Cat added, "if Her Grace did not have a fondness for quails."
Irritated, Nan turned on her sister, heedless of the stares this sudden movement attracted. They were in the queen's watching chamber, a large, ornately furnished room crowded with guards, courtiers, and servants. Recent rebuilding had left behind the faint scent of newly hewn wood and burnt brick.
"It is of no importance why the queen sent for us. All that matters is that one of us was chosen."
Still, Cat's reminder stung. The pregnant queen had developed a craving for quails. Providing a constant supply of the birds from Calais had given their mother a convenient means by which to remind Her Grace, over and over again, that she had four Bassett daughters, any one of whom would be delighted to accept a post at court. Honor Lisle's largesse -- she sent tokens to influential courtiers, as well -- had led directly to the summons to be interviewed by the queen.
Small gifts, Mother called them, but some were not so small. Tokens could be anything from a personal offering, such as a ring, given out of friendship, to a present that acknowledged a similar gift received, to an offering made in the hope that the recipient would do the sender a favor. Sometimes this favor was specified; sometimes the note that went with the token only hinted at what the sender really wanted, especially if the gift was sent directly to the king.
Nan told herself that, in the end, her looks were what had won her the post. And it would be her appearance and her manners that would attract a suitable husband. That was, after all, why most mothers wanted their daughters to be maids of honor. The queen's damsels enjoyed superior opportunities to entice wealthy, titled gentlemen into marriage. A faint smile curved her lips.
"I do not see anything funny about those quails!" Cat's sharp tone abruptly made Nan once again aware of her surroundings.
"The quails assured our welcome. My beauty won the queen's favor."
"The king's favor, you mean!"
As soon as the hasty words were out, Cat's eyes widened with regret and alarm. They had both forgotten how easy it was to be overheard. Seizing Nan's arm, Cat towed her out of the watching chamber and down a flight of stairs. She did not speak again until they reached the relative privacy of the open air. They were not alone out of doors, either, but at least no one was paying close attention to them.
"Have a care, Nan. Do not be too brazen in His Grace's presence."
Nan frowned at her, puzzled by Cat's marked shift from resentment to concern. She stopped midway across the courtyard. Her hands, curled into fists, rested lightly at her hips and she turned a fulminating glare on her sister. "Speak plain if you must speak at all. I have no time for riddles."
"Lady Rutland says the king always strays when one of his queens is great with child. He began the practice in Queen Catherine of Aragon's time and was just as quick to take a mistress when Queen Anne Boleyn was increasing. It is most unusual that he has not done so this time, but mayhap that is about to change. He chose you, the pretty one, to replace Mistress Mewtas, Anne." Bitterness returned to Cat's voice.
"The queen's damsels are supposed to be attractive!" While waiting on her knees for the queen's decision, Nan had caught a glimpse of the other five and seen them watching her with speculative looks. None was as pretty as she was, Nan thought, but they were all comely enough, as was Jane Mewtas, the woman whose marriage had created a vacancy. Jane was a small, slender, fine-boned beauty.
"Should you not ask yourself why?" Cat demanded.
"The maids are ornamental. Decorative. There is nothing wrong with that."
Her sister's sniff spoke volumes. "Lady Rutland says -- "
"A fig for what Lady Rutland says and less for what she thinks!"
Stalking off ahead of Cat, Nan reentered the palace by another door and began to thread her way through the maze of connecting rooms toward her temporary lodgings.
With her longer stride, Cat easily overtook her sister. She kept her voice low. "Lady Rutland has been at court for years. She knows how things are done."
Nan increased her speed. She was anxious to return to Cousin Mary's chambers and collect her belongings. Tonight she would lodge in the maids' dormitory.
"She says another maid of honor will marry soon. Anne Parr."
"And you think you will be chosen to replace this Mistress Parr?"
"I no longer wish to be chosen! I would rather remain with Lady Rutland. She has already told me that I would be a welcome addition to her household."
"Well, if you are satisfied with that..." Nan shrugged to express her indifference and walked even faster.
"Lady Rutland says -- "
"Do you intend to parrot every word Lady Rutland speaks or have you a mind of your own?" Nan found it most annoying that Cat had no trouble keeping pace with her.
"If you do not wish to have the benefit of her wisdom, that is your loss. I intend to learn all I can from her. And I will have the advantage of my freedom during the next month."
Confused by this last comment, Nan faltered in her steps. She debated only a moment before she gave in to her need to know what Cat meant. "Explain yourself, sister."
"Did you not realize?" Cat smirked. "On the morrow, Queen Jane goes into seclusion in her chambers until the babe is born. No men will be admitted there, not even the king."
"I know expectant mothers sequester themselves." Nan had experience with the custom from her days in the household of the sieur de Riou. She frowned, remembering what the last weeks of Madame de Riou's pregnancy had entailed.
"There will be a most impressive ceremony to mark the queen's withdrawal," Cat continued. "Lady Rutland says that first Her Grace will hear Mass. Then she will be escorted to her presence chamber by all the lords and ladies of her household and led to her chair of estate. She will sit there and be served spices and wine, after which her two highest-ranking lords will lead her to the door of her bedchamber and take formal leave of her. Only Her Grace's ladies and gentlewomen will be permitted to follow her inside. After that, no men will be admitted except, I suppose, for the royal physicians. Anything Her Grace needs will be brought to the chamber door, where her women will receive it and take it inside. Even the humblest male servants must stay away for the duration. I am told there is a narrow spiral staircase leading from the queen's apartments to the ground floor where the privy kitchens and the royal wardrobe are located. It permits waiters to bring food and yeomen to deliver clothing without ever entering Her Grace's private rooms."
During her sister's recitation, Nan came to an abrupt halt. In an instant, all her joy, all her triumph, fled. The sour taste of disappointment filled her mouth. "I will be no better off than a cloistered nun," she whispered. That was not how she had hoped to spend her first weeks as a maid of honor! "How long? When will the child be born?"
"Lady Rutland thinks Her Grace's time is three or four weeks hence, but who can say? Babies come when they will."
Nearly a month? That was a very long time to be locked away from the world of men. Longer than Nan had ever gone without male company before. There had been a goodly assortment of personable young men in the de Riou household in France, including young Gabriel de Montmorency, the heir to the de Bours title. More recently, in Calais, all the young, personable gentlemen her stepfather kept on petty wages had vied with one another to pay her pretty compliments.
"Ah, well," Cat said as they resumed walking. "I am certain you will be so busy that the time will fly by. I will try not to envy you as I spend my time with the courtiers who attend upon the king."
"Much good that will do you!" As far as Nan had been able to observe, Cat had little aptitude for flirtation.
They had nearly reached the Countess of Sussex's lodgings. With each step Cat looked more smugly pleased with herself. "I did not manage too badly with Master Corbett on the journey from Calais," she said.
Nan gave a disdainful sniff. "He spent more time talking with me than with you. Not that it matters. Ned Corbett is naught but a country gentleman's younger son."
And yet, even before he'd escorted them across the Narrow Seas, Nan had taken notice of him. In appearance Ned was most appealing -- a head taller than she was and well proportioned, with thick, dark hair; a fine, thick beard; and laugh lines around his eyes. Nan liked his irreverent sense of humor, too. She had noticed he was careful to repress that side of himself when he was in the presence of Nan's mother or stepfather or their man in London, John Husee. That fact alone intrigued her.
Ned's devil-may-care attitude had been much in evidence during the trip from Calais to London. Nan had appreciated the wicked and admiring glint in his eyes when he'd talked of teaching her to swim, she in her shift and Ned -- or so she imagined -- wearing nothing at all. She liked his natural smell, too. Unlike the king, who, she noticed, doused himself in heavy perfumes, Ned's scent consisted of his own body's musk underscored by a hint of leather and augmented by the herbs he used to wash his face and beard. The combination was most pleasing.
Nan's thoughts abruptly returned to the present when Cat embraced her. "Enjoy your prize," she whispered. "I know how much it meant to you to win it."
Realizing that she would be locked away from Cat, too, Nan hugged her sister tightly in return. When she stepped back, she held Cat at arm's length for one last, long look before they parted. Unexpected tears sprang into Nan's eyes.
"Lady Rutland says each maid of honor is allowed a spaniel." Cat injected laughter into her voice, striving to lighten the mood. "And a maid, so you'll no longer have to share a servant with me."
"I would rather have a linnet or a monkey than a dog," Nan said, forcing a smile of her own. Their mother kept both in the household at Calais, together with several hounds and a one-eared cat.
"Lady Rutland says that although maids of honor are paid ten pounds per annum and provided with meals and livery, you must supply your own bedding. And you will likely need to amend your clothing," she added as she moved away.
Amend her clothing? Before Nan could ask her sister what she meant by that, Cat had scurried off in the direction of Lady Rutland's lodgings.
Nothing needs amending, Nan told herself. Everything she had was new and in the latest fashion. Mother had taken particular care in acquiring it. Or rather, John Husee, carrying out his employer's orders to the letter, had done so. And he had sought advice from both countesses -- Sussex and Rutland -- before making his purchases.
Nan's cousin Mary, the Countess of Sussex, was waiting for her. She had already heard of Nan's appointment and enveloped her in a warm embrace and a cloud of her distinctive rose-water scent when she arrived. The top of Mary's head came just level with Nan's nose.
"Well deserved, coz," Mary said. "I was certain you would be the one the queen chose."
"Is there something wrong with my clothing?" Nan blurted out.
"Ah, well, that may present a small problem." Cousin Mary lifted a hand to her cumbersome gable headdress, a wistful look in her coal black eyes. "The queen does not care for French hoods. No doubt her aversion has something to do with Anne Boleyn's fondness for the style."
"But...but I have no other bonnets." Nan's spirits plunged again. She felt as if she could not get her footing. Every time she took a step in confidence, some new obstacle appeared in her path.
"I will provide you with one of velvet, and a frontlet of the same, such as the other maids wear," Cousin Mary said, "but you will need to acquire a second and it should have an edge of pearl."
"I thank you, cousin. You are most kind."
Looking amused by Nan's obvious lack of enthusiasm, Cousin Mary drew her into the inner chamber and closed the curtain behind them. The Sussex servants, including two waiting gentlewomen, remained in the outer room. "What do you have against gable headdresses?" Mary asked.
"Aside from the unflattering shape and awkward construction?" Nan said.
Mary chuckled and opened the wardrobe chest that held the garments she wore at court.
"What good is it to have beautiful hair," Nan asked, "if no one can see it?" A gable headdress had two pieces of fabric at the front to cover every strand.
"It is a great pity, I agree," Mary offered.
Nan knew Mary meant what she said. Her cousin's hair was long and luxuriant and as black as her eyes. Nan sighed. "What else will I have to give up to conform to royal whims?"
"The queen has sent word that she will allow you to wear out the remainder of your French apparel, but it is possible she may change her mind. Indeed, it is likely she will. Her moods of late have been as unpredictable as the weather. You are fortunate she did not take a dislike to your looks, out of fear you might capture the king's interest while she is indisposed."
This remark, following so closely upon Cat's observations, sent heat rushing into Nan's face. "I did not come to court to become anyone's mistress, not even the king's. I am seeking a rich, titled, future husband, such as the one you yourself found." Only younger and better looking, Nan added to herself. Cousin Mary was the earl's third wife, and he was some thirty years older than she was.
"His Majesty admires pretty things," Mary mused as she held up a pair of sleeves heavily embroidered with flowers in a rainbow of colors.
"I am certain the king intended no more than an avuncular interest in my well-being," Nan said stiffly. She did not like being forced to defend herself this way.
Mary laughed. "I would not be so sure of that, but the matter will not arise for the immediate future. As for your wardrobe..." She produced a kirtle of crimson damask and sleeves of the same. "You may have these, as my gift. And I have already sent for Master Husee, so that he may send word to your mother that you have been chosen. Do you wish to write to her yourself?"
"I cannot." At her cousin's look of surprise, Nan felt obliged to explain. "I read both French and English, but in the de Riou household I was only taught to write in French. Since Mother does not understand that language in either its written or spoken form, it would be far better if Master Husee wrote to her in English on my behalf."
Lips pursed, Mary shook her head in a disapproving manner. Nan was not surprised by the reaction. Cousin Mary was very clever with languages. She had learned to read and write in Greek and Latin as well as English and French. "Amend the oversight if you can, Nan," she advised. "A knowledge of French is all very well, but you are in England now."
"Indeed I am!" The smile Nan flashed was wide with triumph and delight. "Not only am I in England, but I am at the English court. And from this day forward, I am one of the queen of England's maids of honor!"
JANE MEWTAS CAME to Lady Sussex's chamber to escort Nan to her new quarters. At Hampton Court, the queen's suite of rooms stretched along the entire south end of the east front of an inner court and extended into a long gallery that faced out upon the park. There were many interconnected chambers, including a maid's dormitory that contained three large beds and a scattering of other furniture. Two mullioned windows let in light and air, but shutters on the outside and heavy curtains within were already in place, ready to be closed tight. During the queen's confinement, every room in her lodgings would be kept dark and airless.
After two men in Sussex livery delivered Nan's wardrobe trunk, Jane led Nan back to the queen's privy chamber. The maids of honor Nan had glimpsed earlier, together with several other waiting gentlewomen, were still there, but the queen herself had gone to lie down.
Mistress Mewtas began introductions with a stern-faced, unfriendly looking woman who appeared to be at least thirty years old and regarded Nan with deep suspicion in her light gray eyes. "This is Mistress Jane Arundell," she said. "She and Lady Sussex are half sisters."
Nan found it difficult to conceal her surprise. The two women were nothing alike. Where Cousin Mary had been warm and welcoming, Mistress Arundell held herself stiffly and acknowledged Nan with naught but a curt nod.
"Kinswoman," Nan said, inclining her head.
"We are only very distantly related." With those few clipped words, Jane Arundell went back to hemming a cambric shirt.
Linking her arm through Nan's, Jane Mewtas steered her toward three considerably younger women seated on cushions on the floor. They looked up from their embroidery with equal parts curiosity and wariness.
"This is Anne Parr, who will be your bedfellow," Jane Mewtas said, indicating a young woman who would have been beautiful if not for an off-center nose and a profusion of freckles across her cheeks. She was older than Nan by only a few years.
"Welcome, Mistress Bassett," said Mistress Parr. "Now we will have two Annes in our number, as well as two Janes and two Marys."
"Until recently there were three Janes," Jane Mewtas interjected. "At times it is very confusing."
"My friends call me Nan," Nan said.
"Well, Nan it shall be then." Anne Parr looked pleased. "This is Bess Jerningham." She indicated the young woman sitting beside her. "Our only Elizabeth. She came to us when Mary Arundell left to wed the Earl of Sussex."
"And I am Mary Norris," said the third young woman. Even seated, her height was apparent. So was her antipathy. She regarded Nan with an owlish gaze and did not smile.
"I am pleased to meet all of you," Nan said.
"The other Mary," Jane Mewtas said as she led Nan toward a flattopped chest beneath a window, "is Mary Zouche, who has been a maid of honor longer than any of the rest. She is the daughter of Lord Zouche of Harringworth. Back when Catherine of Aragon was queen, Mary begged to be taken into royal service because she had a new stepmother who was cruel to her."
Mistress Zouche was busily embroidering roses on a handkerchief. She appeared to be no more than twenty-five and had been blessed with a clear complexion and good features, although Nan thought her chin a trifle too square for true beauty.
She greeted Nan with a haughty sniff and looked her up and down before speaking. "You will need to alter your clothing. Your garments are cut in the French fashion. That will not suit the queen."
"The matter is already in hand." Although Nan hid her resentment, the criticism stung.
"And that accent!" Mary Zouche exclaimed. "You scarcely sound English."
"I am as English as you are, Mistress Zouche."
"Where were you raised?"
"In France, but -- "
"You see!" The other woman gave an airy wave of the hand holding her needle. "French. It makes one wonder if you have foreign sympathies, as well. Or worse, papist leanings." This speculation provoked nervous titters from the maids of honor and other gentlewomen in the queen's privy chamber.
Nan bit back an angry response. It was scarcely her fault that she'd been sent from Calais into France at the age of twelve. At the time, her mother had thought a French upbringing would be an advantage for her. After all, Queen Anne Boleyn had been trained in France.
"Mary," Jane Mewtas said sternly. "Enough. You have no cause to question Mistress Bassett's loyalty."
"And is her moral character also beyond reproach? We all saw how she flaunted herself before the king, and how he responded."
Nan glared at her accuser, but she knew better than to lose her temper. "I should think it most unwise to question His Majesty's intentions," she murmured with feigned shock and innocence. "I am certain King Henry can do no wrong, being God's anointed one on earth as he is."
Mary Zouche said nothing, apparently unable to think of a reply that would not be taken for criticism of the king. So Nan smiled sweetly and walked away. On the surface, Nan knew she appeared confident and selfassured, but inside she had gone cold with dread.
Yes, she was one of the maids of honor, but all of a sudden she realized that this could be cause for concern. The maids lived in each other's pockets, day and night. How would she manage if, as it now seemed, they all disliked her?
Nan's steps faltered. She felt she had nowhere to go save back to the little group of embroiderers who sat on their cushions. Uncertain of her reception, she braced herself for more barbed comments.
Anne Parr looked up, a twinkle in her gray eyes. "If you have other matters to tend to, Jane," she said to Mistress Mewtas, who had trailed along after Nan, a look of concern on her face, "I will be happy to acquaint Nan with her duties."
Her overt friendliness eased Nan's mind, and her suggestion that they retire to the privacy of the maids' dormitory was even more welcome. As they entered, Anne plucked a handful of sugar-coated nuts from a bowl. Carrying them with her, she scrambled atop one of the high beds, tucked her legs beneath her, and patted the coverlet at her side.
"Come and be comfortable," she invited, and tossed one of the nuts to Nan.
Nan caught it and popped it into her mouth, relishing the burst of sweetness. "You were going to tell me about my duties."
"They are simple enough. We present ourselves in the queen's privy chamber every morning by eight of the clock and remain close at hand until we are dismissed for the night. We are at the queen's beck and call."
Nan climbed up to sit beside her mentor on a quilted, yellow sarcenet counterpane. "I expect to be asked to perform all manner of services for Her Grace."
Anne made a little snorting sound. "You will be surprised, then. Menial tasks such as lighting fires and bringing in torches and lights are done by underlings. On occasion, you may be permitted to supervise them."
"What about helping the queen dress and undress?"
"The chamberers do that."
"We are not important enough to undertake that task. The queen is waited upon by noblewomen -- countesses at the least. You might be allowed to set mats on the table when the queen's board is laid or bring in water for her to wash with before she eats. But as a mere maid of honor, you will not even be permitted to hand the basin directly to Her Grace."
Anne polished off the last of the sugared nuts and licked her fingers. "After you take the water away again, you may occasionally have the honor of fetching bread, ale, and wine for the queen's ladies."
"That sounds simple enough."
Anne slanted a look Nan's way. "For the most part, we have a pleasant life. You must not let what Mary Zouche said trouble you."
"I did not try to entice the king." Nan grew weary of denial.
"It would not matter if you did." Anne sounded matter-of-fact. "By the time the queen gives birth, King Henry will have forgotten all about you."
Nan did not know whether to be relieved by this prediction, or insulted.