It had been a horribly dreary week. We were staying with the Yorks and there was literally nothing to do. Pole was around, but Henry kept sending him off on stupid errands, and I was expected to spend every day with the Duchess and her ladies. Sometimes I wonder whether my husband knows more than he lets on.
It was not until the fourth night, towards the end of dinner that he finally sat next to me.
"Wotcha," he said. I gave him a look. "Most fair majesty," he continued, "the days we have been apart have been as centuries to me, and there has been no joy but the memory of your beauteous face, and anticipation of experiencing once more the delights of your company. Better?"
"At least you had something to do," I said. "I've been stuck in the solar all week, sewing shirts for paupers. Me! Sewing shirts! For paupers! And the York women are all so dull."
Pole grinned, "I didn't think so," he said. "I tell you, there's a lot more to them than meets the eye."
"What have you been up to?"
"Two waiting gentlewomen, the steward's daughter, a housemaid, a dairymaid and a nun."
I rolled my eyes.
"I tell you," he said, "they're all gagging for it. There's not one of them I couldn't have if I set my mind to it."
"You're on," I said quickly. "The Duchess."
We both turned our eyes to Cecily Neville. Poker-backed, disapproving, old before her time, a prayerbook clutched in one had even at the table, it was hard to imagine the events that presumably brought about the births of her children, let alone anything more adventurous. But Pole seldom refuses a bet...
He only looked horrified for a moment. "No problem," he said. "But what will you give me when I succeed?"
"What do you want?"
"Cleopatra." Cleopatra was my new falcon. Pole had been envious of her for weeks.
"Very well," I said. "And what will you give me if you fail?"
"Nothing. It wouldn't be fair. I need to set you a challenge too."
"And what will that be?"
He raised an eyebrow. "All right," I said, "who will that be?"
"York, I guess."
"Too dangerous. I don't trust him not to use it against us."
"Edward or George then."
"Still dangerous," I said. I looked at George, who had passed out into a dish of carrots, and Edward, who had his hand up a serving maid's skirt. "Also, too easy."
Then he got this evil smile. "The third son."
"Edmund? He can't be older than six!"
"No, Edmund's the fourth. He's got another older brother, Richard."
"What do you mean?"
"I found him yesterday morning when I was on the way back from the chapel just before dawn..."
I interrupted him. "The chapel?"
"Did I mention Sister Agnes? She was... imposing some penances on me. Anyway, he was in the stableyard, practicing with a sword, and we got talking..."
"How old is he?"
"Sixteen maybe? It's hard to tell."
"Why isn't he ever at dinner or anything? Why hasn't the Duchess mentioned him?"
He grinned. "Wait and see."
I wouldn't want you to think I'll sleep with anyone just because Pole dares me to, but I needed something to spice up the week...
"All right, but these are my terms. If I sleep with this mysterious youth or it turns out he doesn't exist or that he's not really York's son, you have to give me Antony." We name all our birds and dogs and horses like that. It's a bit sickening, really. And sometimes I wonder why Henry hasn't had us both executed for high treason.
I got up about an hour before sunrise the next morning, slipped on a kirtle and crept out past my ladies, who assiduously pretended to be asleep. It was cold, but not unpleasantly so. I realised that I'd wasted almost a week of May – my favourite time of year – sitting indoors stitching away with sweaty hands at shirts made out of horrible cheap linen to give to stinking beggars. It was lovely to feel the air on my face again, and looked as though it was going to be a beautiful day. I wondered whether I would be able to go for a ride later without offending anyone.
The stableyard was empty. I wondered whether Pole was playing some kind of trick. I do not like being fooled, but it seemed likely that if it were a trick it would be the kind of trick that would end with us rolling naked in the hay, and being a little bit fooled seemed like a fair enough price to pay. I sat down on a bench, enjoying the solitude, and sounds of early morning.
I'm not sure how long it was before I started feeling I was being watched, but the feeling grew and grew.
"Who's there?" I whispered at last. There was no reply. It began to feel uncomfortable, so I got up and started to go back in. It was then I noticed the youth standing by the stable door, no more than four feet away from me.
I say 'youth', but I could see at once why Pole had problems ascertaining his age. His arm was shrunk up like a withered shrub; there was an envious mountain on his back where sat deformity to mock his body; his legs were shaped of an equal size; and he was disproportioned in every part, like to a chaos or an unlicked bear-whelp that carries no impression like the dam. He had nice eyes though.
"Didn't anybody ever teach you it's rude to stare?" he said.
"You started it," I replied.
"What are you doing here?"
"Nothing," I said. "Enjoying the fresh air. What are you doing here?"
He ignored my question. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"I had been going to ask you the same question." I replied. I had, but didn't know how to phrase it in a way that didn't make me sound like a bit of an arse.
"You're Margaret, Queen of England, wife to King Henry, the sixth of that name."
"And you're Richard Plantagenet, mysterious third son of the Duke of York."
He nodded. "My mother would kill me if she knew I was talking to you."
"It can be dangerous to talk to strangers," I said.
He studied my face with his big, brown eyes, then started laughing, not altogether pleasantly.
"What is it?" I said.
"Nothing." He stared at the ground, suddenly solemn.
"That's a big sword you've got," I said. In the pre-dawn half-light I had taken it for some kind of crutch, but it was, indeed, a big sword, heavy and slightly notched, the metal of the blade dull and the hilt devoid of decoration, or even a strip of leather to make it more comfortable to hold.
"I come out here to practise," he said. "Before everyone's up."
"Don't let me stop you."
He glared at me and then down at the sword, and then, with surprising speed and grace, limped into another corner of the courtyard and started practising moves, hacking at a stuffed sack hanging from a porch. It was fascinating to watch. His right arm was immensely strong for someone so young, and he had this intense focus that added force as well as accuracy to every blow he struck.
He continued for longer than I would have thought possible, only stopping when his legs started to give way beneath him. Then he staggered back to the bench. I sat beside him and he glared at me.
"Are you still here?" he said, gasping in great mouthfuls of air.
"That was impressive," I said. He grunted. "Shall I get you some water?"
I got out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the sweat running down his face, but before I could, he grabbed my wrist and pushed it away, squeezing it tight, pushing it against the wall.
"Don't touch me."
"Sorry," I said.
I had been trying to decide whether or not I would sleep with him. On the one hand, hideously ugly and deformed; on the other, young and strong and very, very male. And his eyes. And anyway, once the lights were out, I wouldn't have to look. And a bet is a bet... It was not until he pushed my hand against the wall that I considered the possibility that he might not want to fuck me.
Of course, that made up my mind at once. Come what may, I would have him. But clearly I needed to change tack...
"So, how are you supposed to hold a sword? Can I try? I never have before."
Five minutes later, he had fetched a lighter spare from somewhere, and I was standing in front of the sack.
"No. You need to curl your fingers round like this."
"Good. Now what about my left hand? Can I..."
He glared at me. "I don't know about left hands," he said.
Five more minutes, I was out of breath and ready to go back to bed.
"No. You're slashing like a peasant. You need more control."
"I don't understand," I said.
He sighed, then moved behind me, holding the back of my right hand and moving it and the sword together. "Like this," he said.
Now we were getting somewhere. I felt his body against my back, and his breath hot on my neck. Slowly, he guided me through the moves. At one point he wound his misshapen left arm around my midriff, demonstrating some point about how I should bend or not bend, I don't remember, and he kept it there, the awkwardly bent wrist joint and malformed fingers taut against my belly.
He broke off very suddenly, for no reason that I could discern, and stumbled back several feet from me.
"Sorry," he said. But before I could ask him what he meant, we heard a door slam shut, and I noticed it was past dawn.
"I must go," he said.
"Perhaps we could meet again tomorrow," I said. And then, recklessly, "perhaps it's my turn to teach you something..." He didn't answer.
A week later, back in London...
"Wotcha!" I started massaging Pole's back.
"That's nice," he said.
"You have very boring shoulders."
"What do you mean, I have..." Then he twisted round to look at me. "You didn't...?"
I grinned. "You owe me a falcon," I said.
"No!?" He sniggered. "That's the funniest thing I've ever heard."
"He was good, Pole. It's younger men all the way with me now." The first part of this was in fact true. I had had a delightful few days with Richard. He was so desperate and eager to please, and once I got used to it, his shape didn't bother me at all.
"If you like, I could give you a detailed description of his naked body: I promise you it's quite distinctive. Then all you'd need to do is..."
Pole threw up his hands. "It's quite all right, my dear. Just give me your word of honour as a lady and as a queen..."
"I swear. But how did you fare with her Grace?"
He rolled his eyes. "If only we'd had another week, I'd have been in there. I tried telling her that her husband's family were infamous for producing freaks of nature once they reached a certain age, and that she'd been lucky with little Edmund, and that if she wanted more, her best bet would be to look elsewhere for a father, and that really it was her pious duty..."
"So you failed?"
"In the sense that I avoided the withered embraces of a frigid old witch, and tricked you into submitting to being pawed by a slobbering cripple, then yes, I failed."
I stopped his mouth with a kiss, hastily broken off when one of my ladies arrived, bobbed a curtsy, handed me an envelope, and left. I only got half way through reading the letter before I started laughing out loud.
"What? What is it? Share the joke, my love."
"Oh really, it's just too..." But I couldn't speak. It was literally too hilarious for words.
"Give it here!"
"No!" He made a grab for it. I wriggled out of his grasp and made a run for the bed. He leapt on top of me.
"Give it here!" he said.
"Stop tickling me!"
"Well give me the paper, or tell me what it says."
"All right, all right. It's from him. He says he's in love with me. He's written me a sonnet. It goes..." But then Pole started laughing, and that set me off again.
When we had... done what was necessary to calm us down, we started making plans: how to lead him on further, how to do the reveal. This is going to be the best summer ever!