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A Month in Calais

Chapter Text

October 16

The King and senior peers are to meet with the Grand Master of France, the Duc de Montmorency. It is to be a logistical meeting to decide the particulars of the King’s meeting with Francis. He has discovered that, in diplomacy, even the meeting before the meeting has some pomp and formality attached to it.

In anticipation, they lay out the great hall with a large round table. Whenever possible he makes reference to ancient Arthur, as Henry is still in thrall to those boyhood stories. The grandest chairs he can find are placed round it. He passes a critical hand over the upholstery on the king’s seat. It has seen better days. A swarm of men — carpenters, painters, drapers and an assortment of strong backs — follow him around the room. Half of Calais must be there attending to his orders, barked out in English and French. “Cut some new leather for this chair. Black will have to suffice. See to the padding as well while you’re in there. Reuse the tacks. They match those in the other chairs.”

He moves round the room, the head of a small army, already on to the next campaign: the mismatched plate. The collection at the exchequer is a mishmash of items skimmed off the top of exports that pass through the port. There are a few grand pieces, two hundred years old, but so different to the rest that they never come out of the great chest at the top of the hall. He holds up a silver goblet set with jewels. A few of the larger stones have been pried out and long since carried off. “Have this melted down for coin, the stones cataloged and locked in the King’s treasure box,” he says, handing the goblet to Rafe. In times past the item would have caused the young man a moment’s wonder, but since he, Cromwell was made Master of the Jewel House Rafe is so used to carting around ruby tiaras and golden trays encrusted with sapphires that he’s become a bit jaded. It could be Arthur’s sought after Grail, but Rafe stifles a yawn. After all, the hour is early, the sun only just up.

A second great chest holds the table cloths, a mismatched lot of feeble, small things. He shakes his head. There’s not a piece in Calais big enough to do the round table justice. He rummages through another chest, used to store old candlesticks. He finds a huge purple velvet thing, wrapped around a small chandelier. The cloth is dusty but free of holes. “Help me with this,” he says to two of the strong backs. “Get it out in the sun and have it beaten till no more dust rises from it.” The men disappear with the massive dirty cloth between them.

+++

By the time the King and the Duc sit down to talk he has put in a full day’s work, eaten two small meals, and taken a brief nap — a rare luxury — to refresh himself. Suffolk and Norfolk take their places, seated on either side of Henry. Cromwell is seated between the Grand Master’s chief ministers, one a bishop, the other a scholar. He might forget which is which but the hats, bless them, give it away. The Duc is opposite Henry. He is a handsome man with pleasant manners, about the King’s age, he guesses, judging by the touch of gray at his temples. De Montmorency carries off the particularly French trick of wearing a partial day’s growth of beard in a manner that highlights and improves the planes of his face. If only Thomas More could manage that, he thinks.

What a contrast this French Duc is to the English Dukes: Norfolk with his rattling charms, like some old witch, and Suffolk with the massive beard meant to hide his fat, sagging face. Where Suffolk is as thick as the planks in the massive round table, the French Duc shows a quiet, alert intelligence. Where Norfolk bellows out stripped-down French as if the Duc were deaf, staining the purple cloth with his spittle, the Duc nods genially and sips the sweet Spanish fortified wine.

When the King turns aside to chat with Suffolk, Cromwell leans toward the Duc. “Your lordship was, I believe, in charge of arranging, on the French side, The Fields of the Cloth of Gold?” The Duc nods. “My former master, the late Cardinal Wolsey, always spoke of the event as the highlight of his career.”

“Ah, so you were Wolsey’s man. I am pleased to meet you. Wolsey was ever a man fit to deal with and he was right to be proud of that meeting. It was a glorious time for both our countries.”

“I hope we can recreate, in some small way, a fraction of the splend—”

“Wolsey said that was the highlight, eh?” Norfolk interrupts. “It goes to show. He was too much a man for the bargaining table.”

“But surely,” the Duc says, “one needs to have men who are as skilled at making peace as others are at making war?”

Norfolk grunts. The Duc returns to his wine.

“You will have to tell me, Master Cromwell, where you have procured this excellent wine. Though my country has many excellent vintages, I don’t recognize this among them.”

He admires the Duc’s tact. He has not remarked, as the French sometimes do, that the English prefer wines that keep off the chill to all others. He likes French wine, but then it is suited to French cooking: a clean, sharp edge to cut through the deadening flavor of duck fat.

“No, Grand Master, it is some of the last of that which was brought over to England by the Emperor’s ambassador.” He pauses, wondering how to phrase it without giving offense. “In the time of the King’s marriage to Catherine…” Carefully now. “…In a time when our relations with that country were happier than they are now.”

The Duc nods. Henry has finished replying to Suffolk and has been watching this exchange. He sneaks a glance at the King, who appears pleased.

“Cromwell tells me,” Henry says, “that you are to present the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk with the Order of St. Michel. A great honor indeed.”

Upon hearing his name, Norfolk quirks an eyebrow. “Yes, great honor. Now we will both have served in the French army, eh, Crumb?”
He pales. Suffolk booms out a deliberate “ha ha ha.” The Duc looks confused.

“Cromwell here was a mercenary in your army,” Norfolk says, by way of elucidation.

The Duc looks away, embarrassed. Ever the gallant, Henry steps in. “I was about to say that, in turn, we should be pleased to present the Duc with the Order of the Garter, our highest military honor.”

The Duc bows graciously in thanks to the King.

God love the King. God preserve him. He’s never loved him so much as at this moment. What he couldn’t do with this gentle Prince and a couple of peers like De Montmorency. Instead he is stuck with Norfolk and Suffolk, each in their way as odious as the other and each as hostile to the King’s interest — his real interest — as they could be.

+++


The silent dark, her breath the only sound. He senses movement, the hanging sheets around him hustle up little currents of air. Suddenly she is there, a hand on his naked shoulder, another on his thigh. She reaches down and around, to the wound just above his knee on the back of his leg. He flinches, tries to pull away, but she steadies him, studies the ropey scar with her finger tips. “Does this hurt?” Just the opposite. Numb. It’s for the best that she doesn’t ask how it happened. This way the wound is just part of the landscape of his body, observed, painted over with her fingers in the dark.