Anne of Cleves shuffled a deck of cards absentmindedly.
"Else?" she turned to her lady-in-waiting. "What do you think he will be like?"
"I suppose he must be quite handsome, my lady," Else curtsied.
Anne snorted. "A king, with all the culinary luxuries of England at his disposal and nothing to do but sit on his throne and rule all day? Hardly."
"Well, at the very least, you will be living in a grand castle, with a full army of servants at your disposal!" Else tucked a final handkerchief into a satchel. "And won't that be an improvement?"
Anne looked dismayed. "This is kingdom and castle enough for me. More than that, it is home. Had I a choice, I would not give it up for anything."
"A life-sized game of chess. And you, my lady, have just moved from pawn to queen."
"I am not queen until that crown is upon my head."
"It will shine like a beacon, I am sure."
Suddenly, a flourish of trumpets sounded from outside, the fanfare dulled by the stone walls. Anne's eyes widened.
"My future has arrived, I fear."
"Does it not set your heart all aflutter?" Else sighed, eyes misty with romantic ideals. A few years younger than Anne, she was a good friend, and often her naïveté proved both useful and entertaining.
"Something is aflutter, and I suspect it to be my stomach." Anne slipped the deck of cards into her voluminous sleeve. "Come. We shall have one last meal before departing. I hear the worst things about English food."
"Surely there must be one good cook in all the lot?"
"I worry, Else, dear. I worry."
Anne stood before the lavish carriage, swallowing down her apprehension. She turned towards her family. "William, I shall miss you."
Her brother stepped forward and hugged her quickly, before backing up to an appropriate distance in front of the assembled court. "I shall miss you, as well, dear sister. Be sure to write. I do not want to hear of your rule secondhand."
He stepped closer, lowering his voice until only Anne could hear it. "Be sure they treat you well, my sister. Do not forget that you are a jewel, and are to be handled as such."
Anne attempted a brave smile. "Thank you."
Her mother stepped forward, embracing her rigidly. To all who saw, it appeared that the mother was giving the daughter one last tender embrace, but in reality, she whispered harshly toned words into Anne's ear. "Do not make a mess of this. This is the most important alliance our house has ever had."
"It will not be ruined by my hand," Anne promised, patting her mother once before wrenching herself away and picking up her skirts. She beckoned to Else. "To the carriage, come."
Else curtsied and stepped into the transport, giving her lady a hand up. The maiden of Cleves took one last look around and gave a quick nod to the footman, who shut the door with a resounding click. Anne let out a shuddery breath.
"Be brave, my lady," Else soothed. "You will not miss them, so much, after awhile."
"It is not my family I will miss," Anne corrected. "The familiarity, that is what I suspect I will be yearning for. And you, Else? I feel aggrieved at having you leave your home, at such a young age."
"Twenty-two is not young." The carriage began bouncing slightly. "Besides, you are the closest I have to a family- if I may be so bold, my lady." Else's parents had died when she was a very young child.
"I think you may be so bold as to call me Anne, while we are alone. I daresay that will be the only time I will be hearing my given name for a long while."
"You do not wish to be addressed as her Majesty?"
"Well, they must call you that if you are to be Queen. And you look every bit the part, my la- Anne."
Anne snorted. "Queens are pale and flaxen-haired, delicate and petite, according to the stories. Queens must have soaring voices that quiet when their lord speaks. I am most aware that I do not fit the definition."
"You might write your own definition, then. Besides, your hands are quite delicate. Most handy when it comes to cards."
"You may have a point," Anne smiled, retrieving her deck of cards from her sleeve and shuffling through them. Else pulled back the curtain slightly and peered out the window at the countryside rolling by.
"To England!" she giggled, unable to restrain her girlish glee at seeing new lands.
"Indeed," Anne of Cleves sighed, looking ahead with no small agree of apprehension. "Westward ho."
"That was not an enjoyable journey."
"I agree. Most heartily." Else looked a little discolored.
"Stay strong, my dear. We are nearly at destiny's door."
Else perked up slightly. "I do wonder what the king will be like!"
"As do I," Anne muttered, nibbling her lower lip. "That curiosity was the only reason I made it through that cursed voyage. I swear, the good Lord threw every wave in his arsenal at us."
"You should not swear, Anne. They will think you crude."
"I care not what they think. I care what the king thinks."
"And the Lord."
"Most of all."
The carriage rattled to a stop, and the noise of the crowd was all too audible to the two young women. Else grinned hopefully. "It seems like half of all England has come to see you."
"Nonsense. The king, his advisors, his court. Our delegation. Perhaps some townspeople looking for the first glance of their newest queen. But half of England? I highly doubt it."
The stagecoach rocked slightly as the driver and guards jumped down. The horses stomped and armor clanked as the soldiers all around the carriage moved aside. Anne's eyes widened fractionally, betraying stark fear before she blinked rapidly, swallowed deeply, and shook her head. A calm expression settled over her features.
"Stay by my side, Else," she whispered, voice trembling slightly.
"Always, my lady," Else promised, and the door opened.
Else stepped out first and aided the footman in helping the royal passenger down. The line of trumpets and horns blew a great and dramatic fanfare, and Anne could see the hooves of a horse approaching. The rider- the king, she realized, it had to be- dismounted, and Anne held her breath as the musicians moved aside.
"Her ladyship, Anne of Cleves!" a herald shouted.
"His Majesty, King Henry VIII of England!" another cried.
Anne looked up at her husband, hopeful. She blinked at the sight in front of her.
"Are you sure this is him?" she whispered out of the corner of her mouth."
"It is him indeed, and I suggest you smile," Else replied, lips not moving as she grinned and curtseyed deep.
Anne dipped slightly and bowed her head, gratefully looking away from the hulk of a man in front of her. "Your Majesty. My Lord." She stood again.
King Henry looked absolutely shell-shocked. He opened his mouth and closed it a few times before turning to the man at his side, failing to acknowledge Anne.
"Cromwell!" he roared.
"Yes, my lord?" the man Anne knew had to be chancellor sniveled. "Perhaps you should greet your betrothed, before you speak with me?"
"I like her not!"
An audible gasp echoed throughout the crowd, and Anne's shoulders tightened. She glanced over at her lady-in-waiting, whose delicate hands were subtly clenched into fists, and took a deep breath.
"You honor me with your words, my lord!" she called, voice full of false cheer. "I see the sentiments of your country echoing in yours, and what a wonderful first impression. I could not have asked for more. I say, your Majesty, the same to you!"
King Henry stared, blinking slowly, rather like a cow. Fortunately, his chancellor gave him a quick elbow to the ribs. Shaking his read rapidly, he waddled forward and bent over Anne's hand.
"My lady, you honor me and all of England with your, ah, acquaintance," he covered.
Anne raised an eyebrow. "The honor is all mine."
"Your journey, I trust, was not too difficult?"
"You should be careful where you place your trust."
"I am. Every day."
Anne stood there for a moment, nodding awkwardly, before Henry looked about at the crowd. Slinging a crude shoulder over Anne, he cried in a carrying voice that spoke of the man he had once been.
"Good folk of England, I give you your Queen!"
"I like him not."
"Neither do I, my lady. You may be quite assured of that."
Anne flopped onto her overly large bed in a manner that failed to befit a queen-to-be. "Heavens, that journey was tiring. And you, Else? How do you feel?"
"Quite tired myself, my la- Anne. Perhaps a quick cup of tea before we retire?"
The former princess of Cleves sighed, sat up, and rubbed her temples. "That sounds absolutely delightful. Where does one acquire tea around here?"
"One of the maids told me to ring this bell," her lady-in-waiting said, pointing at a cord on the wall. At Anne's nod, she tugged it, and almost instantly a knock came at the door. Else left the bedroom quickly to answer it. She opened it to find a handsome young man.
"You rang, your highness?"
"Ah- yes-" Else blushed slightly. "Er, I'm not the highness."
"I know," the servant replied. He turned towards Anne, respectfully keeping his gaze low as she entered the room. "Your highness? How may we be of service?"
She briefly wondered who the 'we' referred to, but dismissed it as another strange English custom. "We will have tea, before we retire."
"Of course." A quick bow, and the servant was gone.
"If only he had been the king," Anne sighed. "I would not mind consummating a marriage with that one."
"My lady!" Else was indignant and giggling at the same time. "He must be a high-ranking servant, at that."
"Make it your task to find out."
"I shall investigate."
Anne stood and strode around the room, refreshed by the brief, new interaction. She glanced over the doors leading to smaller rooms- one of which was probably meant to be Else's- and the great carved door leading to her great carved bedroom. Tapestries hung on the wall, covering the windows and keeping out the cold. Finally, she came to the bookcase in the study, staring at the rows of embossed, leather-bound volumes. She pulled one off the shelf and opened it.
"What is it, my lady?" Else inquired.
"English," Anne sighed, shutting the book. "Just English."
Else stared up. "All of it?"
"It appears so."
Else frowned. Anne had been taught to read and write only in German. "Might I suggest something, my lady?"
"Perhaps you should consider…having someone tutor you in English? You speak it well enough, my lady, but that is only one part of it."
Anne nodded. "Yes. Yes, that sounds like a wonderful idea. But-"
"What, my lady?"
Anne frowned at her.
"I mean- what, Anne?"
"I…do not wish for the court to know that I am not knowledgeable of the visual portion of their language."
Else understood. Her betrothed informing half his court- loudly- that he did not "like" her was humiliating enough. She did not want anyone thinking she was stupid, as well as ugly.
"I shall endeavor to enlist someone who is…inconspicuous."
"Else, what would I do without you?"
"Not have tea, I suppose." Another knock came at the door. Else hustled through the chambers to answer the door. The young man was bowing and holding a tray of tea steady at the same time. She was duly impressed.
"What is your position?" Else took the tray and inhaled the steam.
"In the castle?" The young man winked, and Else blushed. Again. "Junior steward, madam."
"Have you been assigned to these chambers?"
"Yes. I hope to be of service."
Else looked him up and down. Clean, reasonably well-dressed. Mostly likely educated. "And your name…?"
"Jack, madam. Jack Dreskin."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is all mine."
"Else?" the call came from within the next room. Jack smiled and winked – again – and Else blushed – again.
"Best be seeing to your mistress, miss."
"Best to." With that, Else ducked away and strode into the study, where Anne was sitting. She smiled.
"Chatting up that handsome young man, were you?"
"Simply making sure he is suitable for servicing us."
Anne grinned widely. "I think he's quite suitable indeed. After all, we maidens are quite in need of servicing."
"Have I offended your delicate sensibilities?"
"You should not talk like that!"
Anne shrugged. "Let us see if the English tea is halfway decent."
Anne, formerly of Cleves, was due to be married in two weeks and she could not yet read a word of English.
"Something must be done, Else," she declared.
"Fear not, my lady, I have arranged for a…private tutor." Her companion straightened Anne's voluminous skirts.
Anne arched an eyebrow. "How private is private?"
"I promise that not a soul in the court will find out about it."
"The walls in these castle are thin indeed, Else."
"Perhaps, but the walls of your chambers are stone. Wonderfully solid stone."
Anne smiled. "Who have you arranged for?"
Else grinned back and flounced to the door. "He shall be meeting us here very shortly."
Anne arched an eyebrow. "He?"
A gentle knock rapped on the door. The two ladies looked up, alert.
"Else?" Anne prodded. "Might that be he?"
"That might very well be he." Else opened the door. "Ah, Master Dreskin. Right on time."
"Pride is a sin, but if I were a sinner I would be proud of my punctuality." The head servant bowed low. "Your Majesty."
"I am not a Majesty quite yet," Anne corrected, and Jack lifted his head. "I am still a lady. Just a lady."
"You will always be a lady, madam."
"Thank you." Anne glanced at her lady-in-waiting. "Else? Is this the one?"
"I was told that I was to help you along in learning to read English?" Jack's accent was clipped and cheerful.
Anne smiled graciously. "That would be wonderful."
Anne, formerly of Cleves, was due to be married in one week, and she had made an impressive amount of progress on reading the language of her soon-to-be-adopted country.
"Else – another candle." Anne turned the page quietly, night streaming through the window. With the advent of the extra light, Else could see the dark circles under her mistress's eyes. Out and about all day greeting English folk who had come from miles around to see the queen-to-be and up all night learning.
"My lady," Jack interrupted. "You look fatigued. Perhaps we have done enough for the night?"
Anne shook her head stubbornly. "I will be awake for another hour – two, perhaps. We will work until then."
Jack and Anne continued work quietly, Anne reading aloud softly and Jack correcting her occasionally. Else sat in the corner and sewed. Suddenly, a knock on the door interrupted their peace.
All three looked up in surprise. Anne motioned, and Else quickly walked out of the room and through Anne's quarters to the main entrance. Anne could hear the low murmur of voices. She was halfway to her feet when Else skittered in.
"The king, madam," she whispered frantically. "He says he has stopped by to greet you. He saw the candles – knows you're still awake. I said that you needed a moment to prepare to receive him properly."
The two women glanced at Jack, who looked very nervous indeed. Any man found in the bedchambers of the king's betrothed would face severe penalties – especially one of such low station, as Jack was.
"My lady?" Else prompted. "What should we do?"
"In the bedroom," Anne decided. "Get under the bed, Jack."
Without a moment's hesitation, the junior steward dashed into the most sacrosanct bedchamber in the kingdom of England and slid ungracefully under the enormous bed.
"Rumple my hair." Anne set her skirts slightly askew as her maid yanked out a few hairpins. "Do I look appropriate?"
"Of course, my lady."
Anne hustled out of the study, through the common room, and curtseyed before the open door. "My lord, you honor me with a visit."
Henry looked as thrilled as Anne felt. "Well, I had to, ah, see to me betrothed."
Anne dipped her head. "The preparations are proceeding as planned?"
"On my end, yes. And, ah, on yours?"
"Like clockwork, my lord."
Henry nodded. "Good. That is good. Er…how are you liking England?"
"Very well, my lord. The climate is chilly, but I am assured it warms more in the summer."
"Ah. Yes. Well, it is January, after all."
"Indeed, my lord."
Henry shifted his massive weight awkwardly. "Well. Ah. I must be on my way. Important meeting, and all that."
A meeting with a scullery maid, perhaps. "Of course, my lord."
"Good night, then."
The two stared at each other for a moment more before turning at the same time and walking in opposite directions. Anne re-entered her bedchamber gratefully and sat down on the bed, eliciting a cry of protest from underneath. She jumped up. "My apologies, Jack."
"There is nothing to apologize for, my lady," Jack said, wiggling out from the small space. "Not even any dust under there."
"I will say this for the English servants – they are dedicated indeed."
"We take pride in our work, madam."
"Perhaps it is time for us all to retire now," Else suggested gently.
Anne nodded. "Very good, then. Jack, take your leave discreetly, if you please. Thank you again for working with us."
"My pleasure, my lady." Jack gave a jaunty little bow before scampering out the servant's entrance. His footsteps echoed on the stone.
"I must commend you on finding him, Else."
"Thank you, Anne."
"I look like an avalanche of frippery."
"Nonsense, my lady!" Else pinned an extra fold of skirt. "You look like a….a radiant jewel."
The bride rolled her eyes, eliciting nervous giggles from the English-speaking maids. She slipped back to her native German. "I can't believe my mother is making me do this."
"It is an important alliance, madam. And your mother did ask you to try not to- what was the phrase she used…?"
"Do not worry, Else. I shall not make a mess of this. Someone has made a mess of this dress, however." The jewels and metallic threads shone up at her.
"At least you will be warm." Else glanced around and lowered her voice a little, although the other servants could not understand her. "Besides, think of how the king will look, dressed in all his fancy garments without your fine figure."
Anne snorted with laughter. "A point, and a particularly sharp one at that."
"I do try, my lady."
The queen-to-be adjusted her jewelry as much as she could and stood up straighter. "It is almost time." The procession was about to begin. "My last day of maidenhood."
Else clucked. "Shall I find some of those…strong spirits, for later? I have no doubt that our junior steward friend would be more than helpful in the process of procuring some."
"I would be forever grateful, my dear Else."
The trumpets sounded.
"Up, up," Anne ordered in English, the words harsh and clanking across her tongue. "Westward ho."
"I cannot bring myself to do this."
"Drink up, my lady. Heartily."
Anne – Queen Anne, now wasn't that something – took the offered goblet and chugged it quite ungracefully. It was bitter, but she could taste the strength. "Thank you."
"Anything I can do, my lady," Else sighed sympathetically. "Anything I can do."
Anne glanced around at her chambers – chambers which would soon be host to her new husband. She had been sent ahead to prepare for the conjugal night. "No more, Else. It is up to my own strength now. You go on and attend the celebrations." The wedding parties would be going on for several days. "Go out and get roaring drunk with Jack."
Else gasped. "My lady!"
"Ah, I meant, no more drunk than is befitting a lady of your station."
"Oh, of course."
Else gave her mistress one last hug before slipping out the servant's entrance just as the King – Anne's new husband – entered.
"My wife." He looked about as thrilled as Anne felt.
Henry clapped his hands. "I suppose we should get this over with."
Anne drained the goblet.
"You know," she began hastily as Henry took a tentative step towards her. "It is a possibility that we do not…ah…proceed with the nuptial vows to this extent."
The sovereign majesty of England blinked – rather like a dull-witted cow, Anne thought. "You know, my lord. We might simply…pretend."
Her husband deflated slightly in relief. "Are you certain?"
"I mean, it would be most ungentlemanly of me to rob a bride of her wedding night."
"No, no. I do not mind."
Henry sighed. "Well, then. I am glad we have gotten that take care of."
Anne was too.
"But I fear I will have to remain here for a few hours."
Anne nodded. "Ah. To pretend. Yes."
Henry shuffled from foot to foot. He jiggled. "The tapestries are lovely."
Anne sighed, rummaging in her sleeve and pulling out her faithful deck.
"How about a game of cards?"
Else was crying when Anne walked into her chambers.
"Else!" she gasped, running towards her. "Else, what has happened? Speak to me!"
Her lady-in-waiting shook her head and sniffled, swallowing deeply and trying to get herself under control. "Nothing, my lady. Nothing at all." A bruise was forming around her eye, and another on her wrist.
"Who has done this?" Anne growled, angry as a mother bear. "What has happened? Speak!"
"It was nothing, my lady." Else looked at the floor. "A man- a man tried to force himself upon me, and was rather angered when he discovered I was rather unwilling."
Anne clenched her fists. "Who?"
"The king's steward."
For a horrible moment, all Anne heard was 'steward,' and thought that no, Jack Dreskin would never do such a thing, until she remembered that Jack was her junior steward, not the king's. "That snidely little man? With the hideous mustache?"
"Yes, my lady." Anne stood up and walked purposefully towards the door. "Oh- my lady, no! Please! Do not go making trouble for yourself!"
Anne raised an eyebrow. "I outrank every man in this kingdom save for one. I shall take my chances." With that, she left her quarters.
Her stride was quick and harsh, her voluminous skirts billowing out behind her, making her appear as a force of nature, a rushing hurricane or a wave upon the sea. Formidable and unstoppable.
"My lord!" Her cry echoed through the courtroom as she flung open the great wooden doors. They clanged against the wall.
"My queen?" The king looked confused, and his courtiers settled in for the show. "What is the matter?"
"Your steward," Anne informed him, letting her voice carry. "He made a most vicious assault on my lady-in-waiting. I call for his immediate punishment."
Henry glanced to one of the corners of the room, where the steward in question was attempting to his behind a tapestry. It was not working. "My personal steward? Really?"
"And you are quite sure your maid is telling the truth?"
Anne's eyes flashed. "My lady-in-waiting has never lied to me before. She also bears bruises, on her face and her wrist."
"Bring her out, so we may see them!"
"I shall not subject her to yet more pain and degradation." The room was hushed, with an undercurrent of whispers. "I want the perpetrator removed from his position and I want him removed now. He will leave the castle, and he will not return."
The queen held the king's eye for one very long moment in a silent battle of wills. Henry blinked first. He caught the eye of someone and waved a stately hand. "It will be done."
Anne harrumphed, curtseyed, and swept out again.
There was a small group of well-dressed men in the king's chambers. Anne realized they were nobles – she recognized dukes, lords, and a particularly prosperous knight or two. They all stood upon her entrance.
"Gentlemen." She inclined her head.
"My lady, what brings you to my chambers?" her husband asked nervously.
"I wished to inquire into the matter with the treaty, but I see you are busy." Anne looked around and perked up. "Cards?"
"A betting game, your Majesty," one of the older nobles replied. "Not a suitable activity for proper ladies such as yourself, your Highness."
"I believe I am the one who decides what qualifies as a 'suitable activity,' sir." Anne sat down, to her husband's confusion and mild horror. "Deal me in, gentlemen."
She flipped through her cards quickly. Not the best hand she had ever been dealt, but she would make the best of it. "Raise two."
"In for four."
"Three hundred, then."
The voices chimed in quickly and she ran her fingers over the deck. Her own personal one was tucked in her sleeve, as usual, and she would have preferred to play with it. But she was not about to take it out for this crowd.
"I fear you are swimming above your head, your Majesty." The man put down a straight. Anne looked on emotionlessly.
"Try not to lose too large a portion of your allowance, my dear," Henry chided gently, voice gritting over the endearment. "After all, the payment would come from my coffers." His cronies laughed nastily.
Anne said nothing, placing two cards on the table and drawing one. "Five hundred."
The nobles' eyes widened ever-so-slightly. Anne shrugged. "Gentlemen?"
"Five hundred and ten."
Anne's eyebrows rose at that, and she drew another card. "Down two."
The game continued hurriedly for several minutes, Anne saying nothing unless completely necessary and Henry drinking steadily from his goblet. The noblemen, for their part, attempted stilted conversation while driving the betting up until the pot topped a thousand pounds. Anne smiled and lay down her final hand.
"Straight flush, gentlemen."
The King of England dropped his head to the table with a loud thump.
"My lady, I must speak with you."
Anne looked up from her book and closed the leather-bound volume. "Of course, my king."
Henry wobbled from foot to foot. "This…marriage of ours. I do not think it to be working out."
It had been six months. "Oh? Have I done something to displease you, my lord?"
"No, no, of course not. It is…well, the situation with your home estate has degenerated."
"I have been watching it."
"As you can plainly see, an alliance is no longer…valuable."
"My lord, are you throwing me out?"
"No! No, no, of course not! I was simply…looking out for your best interests."
"A German queen will no longer be so loved by the people. And, as King, I must make my people my priority."
Anne was relatively sure his priority was between his legs. "I assume you have an idea, my lord?"
"We might…annul the marriage. We avoid the sin of divorce that way."
"On what grounds?"
"Er. If you recall, we failed to…consummate our holy union."
"Oh. Yes, I remember. That is a suitable excuse." Anne paused, thinking quickly. "I expect to be receiving a goodly compensation."
"There are several properties in the countryside I would be more than happy to transfer to your ownership."
"Have they full households?"
"But of course."
"I wish to keep the jewels I received as queen."
"Not the crowns."
"No. But all else. And a yearly sum."
"A continuing place at court."
Anne raised an eyebrow and fixed him with a look. He recognized it. She could be as stubborn as a mule when she wanted to be. "Fine, then. A place at court."
"Then I shall consent to an annulment. I think I shall be quite happy."
Henry nodded, relieved. "I shall proceed with the papers straightaway." With that, he departed.
Anne sat quietly for a moment, breathing it all in. Then she leapt from her seat and sprinted out the hallway and down towards the kitchens, where she knew her companion was.
The rest of the servants looked at her as if she had sprouted an extra head.
"My lady?" Else rushed forward. "My lady, what is it? What's happened?"
Anne threw her arms around her in a joyous embrace.
"We are free of this place, Else! We are free!"
The day was cool and misty. The bottom of Anne's skirt was damp with dew, and she knew Else would be fretting about it later.
Anne looked up at the king, seeing her off with half the court. "Farewell, sir."
"I hope…." Henry hesitated. "I do wish you will come back. I…value your opinion in some matters."
Anne smiled gently. There was a little hope in this oaf of a man. "I shall, my lord. Perhaps we will be friends."
"I hope so."
A footman helped her into the large traveling carriage. The former queen of England situated herself and waited for the rest of her caravan to be ready to depart. Else climbed in a moment later.
"Will you miss it here, my lady? Being married to a king?"
Anne laughed. "Goodness, no. I think I will enjoy the quiet country life very much."
"We are not returning to Germany?"
"Would my mother have us?"
"A point, my lady." Else's eyes were downcast.
"Do you wish to stay?" Anne asked suddenly. "That can be arranged."
"Oh, no! No, my place is with you, my lady." Else hesitated. "I shall…I shall miss Jack, that is all."
Anne would miss him too. Before she could comfort her friend, the carriage door opened and a few footmen heaved a large trunk inside.
"What is this all about?" Anne inquired sharply.
"I am sorry, your highness," one apologized. "It would not fit into any of the other carts, and the king directed us here."
Anne pursed her lips. "Else? Have you enough room?"
"If you have enough, my lady."
Anne turned to the footman. "Yes, we will be all right with it here."
"Then we will be departing straightaway, madam."
Anne sighed and rearranged her skirts as orders were barked outside the secured door to her carriage. It lurched forward and began to bounce away, down the road.
After a few minutes, the two women heard a strange noise. At first they assumed it to be the carriage itself; perhaps being in need of repair, but the thumping quickly became a muffled cry.
"Help! Help! Let me out of here!"
Else shrieked and Anne jumped slightly. "There is someone in there, my lady!"
"Well, here. I will open it."
"No! You cannot! What if it should be a murderer, or an assassin?"
"Honestly, Else. Who would want to assassinate me?" She had a point. Anne reached over and flipped the hatch on the trunk, hefting it open.
Coughing, Jack Dreskin sat up. Else yelped again.
"Jack! What are you doing here?"
"I figured you ladies might be in need of a junior steward," he grinned, hair flopping every which way.
"But what are you doing in the trunk?"
"In principle, I am not allowed to leave the castle. Furthermore, I wanted to make my plea for employment to you personally." He turned to Anne and raised his eyebrows. "How about it, my lady? A position in your household?"
Anne grinned. "Consider yourself promoted to senior steward."
Jack sighed happily and ruffled his hair back into place. He looked up at Else. "May I have the honor of sitting beside you? This trunk is awfully uncomfortable."
Else patted the seat beside her. "You may have that honor."
Anne laughed as Jack contorted himself out of the trunk. As her two closest friends – one old, one new – chatted about what the country estates would be like, she pulled a deck of cards out of her sleeve and shuffled them absently.
The quiet country life might not be so quiet after all.