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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.

Chapter Text

The king’s entourage rides up from Boulogne, with the French king and De Montmorency at the front. Norfolk and Suffolk trot along behind, their new ornaments gleaming in the sun. The links of the chains of office for the Order of St. Michel are little golden sea shells and he thinks, with a laugh to himself, that the Dukes look like boys who have been on an especially profitable holiday to the seashore. It was a pity he was called away at the last minute and missed the ceremony. But the Duchess De Montmorency needed to consult with him about the number of masks required in three days’ time. “You can never be too careful, your ladyship. Best bring the lot. They don’t weigh much.”

The road from Boulogne is built up out of marsh land on one side and stolen from the sea by dikes on the other, like the roads he knew so well in the Low Countries. It’s a fine day for so late in the year. He shudders to think what the road would be like in a storm. Less a road than a shallow stream bed. They must bury them above ground around here.

He is glad to bring up the rear, away from Norfolk’s insults and Suffolk’s affected chuckles. He prefers listening to the men at arms brag about their sweethearts. French is spoken on one side of the road, English on the other, but the gist is the same no matter the language: “When my ride is finished, hers will begin!”

They have been four days at Boulogne, with Anne and her ladies back in Calais. He had hoped they would all go down together, but, after Francis’s wife refused to meet with Anne, it seemed best to leave the ladies behind. In Anne’s absence the king has been at his cups more than usual. He, Cromwell, managed the king to bed the previous evening. Though Henry is lean, he is well-muscled and tall. His bones must weigh several tons, he thinks, remembering the ache in his own sturdy shoulder as he had wedged it under the king’s arm. He had steadied the sovereign with his hand on the king’s doublet, feeling the royal heartbeat beneath the silk velvet, the royal breath on his face as they swayed toward the king’s chambers. “Easy now, your majesty,” he had murmured every few steps as Henry tottered along, humming a vinous tune. Gentle Norris met him at the chamber door and, expertly after years of practice, helped him put the king to bed without incident.

This hard, bright light reflecting off the sea probably does his majesty no good, he thinks. Though he has remained vigilant and sober, for the King’s sake, he has missed the Lady Carey, who — until they left for Boulogne — brought him daily reports of the King’s nightly progress in Calais. Anne and Henry are lodged in adjoining rooms, a locked door between them. Lady Carey has promised to report to him the moment she hears the bolt slide away. So he has gotten used to picking Lady Carey out of the crowd of Anne’s train and motioning to her with his eyes to conspire with him in some dark corner. Thoughts of doing other things in dark corners with her are never far from his mind. What’s worse, he thinks, squinting into the light, is that she knows the effect she has on him. He remembers the way she had fingered his best gray velvet doublet, inquiring about the fabric as an excuse to touch him. He had wanted to accept her hinted-at proposal that day. What man wouldn’t have? God, how many months back was that episode? Johane was still a recent memory then.

He’s been so long in the shadow of death and its aftershock, he hardly knows any other way to frame events in his mind. That was before Liz died. That was after the Cardinal’s passing. That was during the time when he and Johane fumbled toward peace in the blackness of his bed chamber.

Here in France, things have been different. It’s been too long since he left England’s shores. It’s a relief to be away, even if just across the Channel. His boys sense it too. Richard and Rafe have been in almost holiday spirits, ending last evening with singing and draining their cups in toasts to the man in charge. He looks over at Rafe now, hunched into his doublet, his large hat pulled down to his eyes. There’s another one who would wish for an overcast day. He smiles. The gulls wheel endlessly overhead, shrieking in the bright blue sky.

Just before dinner they arrive at the little pretend England that is Calais, walled away from marshy France with its back to the narrow sea. In the three centuries since the French were pushed from the town, the place has done its best to resist occupation. The locals drift back, conforming in a minimal way to the requirements of English speech and English law while dipping their hands deep into the King’s trough. He came through Calais as a boy, was put up by wool merchants and treated as one of the family. He ate better, slept better his first night in France than ever he had in England. He had wondered when he had arrived on this trip if there were remnants in the town of those good people who had taken him in. He had checked the rolls in the exchequer for the names he could remember, but found nothing.
As they ride through the city walls he looks up at a gate, notices corrosion from the salt air and a weakened, pock-marked rampart overhead. He makes a mental note to ride out and check the fortifications when he gets the chance.

Back at the exchequer there is dinner to be seen to and then dispatches that came in while they were away. The familiar black pouches heave with letters bearing the official seal. The King’s council has not been idle though the King has been away.

When Henry complains to him, as he does now almost nightly, of being unmanned by his lust for Anne Boleyn, he thinks, Let Henry do a day’s work occasionally. See if his lust is still a problem after working through the contents of even one of those fat black pouches. Let him end the evening as he, Cromwell, does, six days out of seven, scribbling in a dim room till the small hours, and he will have forgotten what his cock is for. In a month he could have the King free of her spell entirely if he wished.

After his dispatches are finished he washes the ink off his hands. Rafe and Richard, recovering from the previous evening, have turned in early. He heads down to a common room much used by the King’s entourage. There is always a good fire, a side board stocked with food and wine, and usually a game of cards or chess to be had. This late in the evening the room is quiet. He finds the Duc de Montmorency at his leisure with a book and a glass of the good Spanish wine.

“Ah Cromwell, there you are. I have just been hearing from the Duke of Suffolk, just lately gone to bed, that you have beaten them all at chess. I was wondering if I might try you at a game?”

“My pleasure, your lordship.” Suffolk and Norfolk don’t offer much in the way of a challenge at the chess board, it’s true. Their minds are as creaking and obvious as their talk at the bargaining table.

The Duc plays a swift, silent game, moving his pieces into place with a decisive click. The Duc takes the first game; he, Cromwell, rallies, takes the second. The third is closing to a draw when he realizes that they haven’t spoken outside the game for many minutes. What blissful relaxation it is. No chit chat. No courtly gossip. Just a worthy opponent, a good fire, and bloody terrific wine.

“We are at an empasse, no?” the Duc says.

“I think so. Shall we have another, or save it for another evening?”

“I should think one more will not hurt.”

“One could say the same about the wine as well,” he says, topping up the Duc’s glass.

“To the good stuff,” the Duc says, and they clink a toast. The Duc has not adopted the English custom of draining the glass after a toast. That’s probably for the best and he follows suit, taking a sip and setting down his glass.

“You were saying the other day,” the Duc says, lowering his voice, “that the wine was from the Emperor of Spain. On what occasion was it sent to England?”

“I think your lordship knows very well the occasion. We prefer not to speak of it, but when pressed — like now, sir — we say it was the occasion of his majesty’s unfortunate alliance with his late brother’s wife.”

“Quite a mouthful. No wonder you prefer not to mention it.”

He laughs and finishes setting up the board. He waits for the Duc’s click-clack and then, almost without registering it, moves out his own pawn.

“How was the ceremony of the Order of St. Michel? I was sorry to miss it.”

“Ah yes, my wife told me how helpful you were. The ceremony went off smoothly.”

“The Dukes certainly seem pleased with their chains of office.”

“Yes, I noticed that they wore them on the ride home,” the Duc says, smiling.

He moves his knight into position, taking one of the Duc’s pawns.

“I think you talk now to distract me. I had better concentrate on the game,” the Duc says, moving his rook into place to protect his bishop.

He nods in agreement and continues working his little trap. They increase the pace. He picks up the Duc’s bishop, leaving a space for his pawn to move forward and be promoted. Meanwhile the Duc is busy at the other end of the board trying to pin down his queen. Click-clack. Click-clack. A flurry of moves and counter moves.

“I am promoted sir, if you will permit.”

“Of course. In my country we are all chess players. We must have invented the rules of promotion. Are there some English who do not use this rule?”

“My lords the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk refuse to admit that it’s proper for a pawn to gain the powers of a queen. They say, ‘Master Cromwell here will run the whole board with pawns if you let him’.”

The Duc laughs. “Those gentlemen, they resent you, I think.”

“On and off the board, I’m afraid.”

“This thing Norfolk says, to embarrass you. Is it true? That you were a mercenary in our army?”

“Yes, it is true. I fought with the French at Garigliano, in Italy.”

“My God. Garigliano? I lost a nephew there. Such a waste. But he was in the cavalry of course,” he says, indicating with his knight. “And you?”

“I was an archer. Short range. Though you wouldn’t know it that day. Wasn’t much need for short range archers when the day was called before the Spaniards were even in sight. Saw a lot of action with my sword, though, hacking a retreat. When the Spanish did come, they weren’t looking to take prisoners.”

The Duc nods in understanding. “We are comrades then, after all,” he says, raising his glass.

They drink and he drains the cup in the manner of his countrymen though he may wish some of them dead. Sod Uncle Norfolk. Thomas Bloody Howard can go to bloody hell with his jokes.

He moves his promoted pawn across the board, springing his trap. “Check.”

The Duc laughs, seeming truly delighted to lose.

“I am distracted again, you see. And I am done for this time.”

“I’m afraid so. It has been a real pleasure, my lord. I hope we’ll play again sometime,” he says as he rises to go.

“I hope so, Master Cromwell.”

“Good night, your lordship. Tell the Duchess that the masque tomorrow night should be worth the wait. The Lady Anne has some surprise in store.”

“She will be glad to hear it. My wife is mad for a masque.”

He makes his way back up to his room, using the broad main staircase. He clings to the banister. Catherine’s wedding wine has almost taken the legs off him.

The bed spins a bit as he lies there in the blackness, drifting off, dreaming of chess. He imagines an interlude, If Norfolk and Suffolk Were Chess Pieces. He sees them both as rooks, decaying battlements, pock-marked by time. Must remember to ride out tomorrow. Check the fortifications. “Protect us from the Danes,” the King commands. Norfolk moves forward and falls off the board. That didn’t work, even when it worked, he thinks. The rooks at the borders couldn’t keep back the Danes, the Saxons, the Normans. The queen changes color, white to black, takes the bishops. The bishops change black to white and cluster around the queen. The knights hop away to nowhere. A pawn is promoted and runs the board. He, Cromwell, has run it for some time already.

Chapter Text

He has spent the last three weeks planning the banquet menu, personally overseeing the preparation of most of the dishes. He has hand-picked the music and auditioned local lutenists to help fill out the orchestra. He has seen to the draperies, the tables, the settings, the servants. The supper is being cleared and the musicians warming up. He sits in his corner seat, nearest the arras, in case he is needed again. He has already been down to the kitchen to solve a crisis with the soup: one of the chef’s underlings mixed up chervil and coriander leaf. He comforted them both in French — for the chef was brought from England but was born in Provence — then gently broke the news that the soup had to be scrapped. “There, there, Vincent,” he had said, patting him on the back like an injured child. “The King will never miss it, anyway. He never takes soup. You know that.” The musicians end their caterwauling warm up. Dinner conversation dwindles at the change and there is time for a quiet breath before they begin the entrance march, a new tune written for the occasion. Anne Boleyn — newly-styled Marchioness of Pembroke — and her train of six masked ladies wait at the far end of the room. Clad in gold, crimson, silver, they dazzle in the candlelight. All eyes are on them and they know it. Henry is entranced. Francis is practically drooling.

He admires their step, perfectly in time to the music which is at once jaunty and melancholy. Despite the mask one can pick Anne out by her figure, so slim at the waist, and the way she carries herself. He can pick out Lady Carey as well, of course: the way her defiant chin juts out beneath her mask. She looks as though she has something saucy on the tip of her tongue. He would dearly love for her to say it to him, in some dim corner of the room.

Anne takes Francis by the hand and leads him to the dance floor. His eyes automatically seek out the king’s reaction. Placid. He knows the plan. Lady Carey takes the Duc’s hand and leads him to the floor. They move smoothly together down the line. The Duc is as agile a dancer as he is a chess player: a quick, light step. Clack, clack, clack. Damn him. He washes his hands and motions for a servant behind him to take away the finger bowl.

Just then: a feminine hand on his shoulder.

“Cremuel, this is a triumph for you. A celebration not soon forgotten,” the Duchess says. She is dressed in crimson, with gold lacing on the bodice and a gold mask. Someone has tipped her off on the color scheme. We all have our spies.

“I think it is more of a triumph for the Marchioness,” he says, nodding to Anne and Francis making a neat figure-eight in the center of the dance floor.

“She is so stylish! I confess I am entranced, almost as much as any of them. I did not think an English woman could carry a room in such a way.

“Ah, well, she was trained in France, so there you have it,” he says. The Duchess smiles at this. It was probably what she had expected him to say and he is happy to oblige.

“Will you dance later, Cremuel?” she asks.

“No. Sadly I’m far too busy.”

“You prefer life behind the scenes, I think,” she says. He notices her husband’s habit of speech, the same indirect manner of drawing him out.

“Yes. Or rather, I prefer small parties.”

“How small?”

“Oh miniscule,” he says, smiling. “Almost private, I think.” He can’t help but notice that she still has her hand on his shoulder. He stands and offers her his arm and they walk to the center of the room, behind Henry. The Duchess steps forward a half step to get a better view of the dancers and he has an opportunity to admire his companion. She is very young. Early twenties, he supposes, half her husband’s age. She is with child he should imagine: there is a tell-tale plumpness in the upper arms and breasts, and her gold lacings have been left rather loose at the waist. He wonders if the Duc is looking for a lover for the interim. The Duchess watches placidly as her husband dances with Mary. He can detect no trace of worry or jealousy in her round, fresh face. But then it’s so hard to tell with the French: she might greet her husband’s mistress like a trusted friend. The dance ends. The dancers scatter in controlled chaos. He scans the crowd for Mary, finds her at last in a cluster of gold dresses at the opposite end of the room. She is looking at him but looks away when she realizes he has seen her.

The Marchioness gathers her ladies in a squadron in front of her, like a queen at the rear of an advancing army. She looks to the orchestra with a nod and the entrance march plays again. Again they move forward, perfectly in time, but this time they approach Henry. One by one they dip in curtsy and rise. One by one the King gently removes their masques: Ladies Cary, Rochford, Fitzwater, Darby, Leslie, Wallop. They all lower their eyes when he touches them. All but Anne. Anne looks straight into his face, smiling, triumphant. Then she turns her face round the room, meeting the stares of the onlookers with a radiant glance so that each person feels specially singled out. There are audible gasps, and then the applause.

The Duc and Mary approach. The Duc takes his wife’s arm, now with a woman on each side.

“Have you ever seen so much gold cloth?” he asks the Duc.

“Not since Wolsey’s triumph. You do not have a wine fountain planned?”

He laughs at the Duc’s little joke. Though he was stuck in Parliament at the time, everyone knows about the wine fountain at the Field of Cloth of Gold. It is a notorious story. Holbein included it in his picture, much to the Cardinal’s annoyance. Half of France was made drunk by the wine fountain. The Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk had to be carried away from the field on litters like wounded gallants.

“No. Regrettably. We will have to make do with bottles.”

The Duc turns to Mary, who smiles.

“I am happily engaged for the next dance,” the Duc says, nodding to his wife. “But will you dance again later?”

Mary looks at the Duchess and then at the Duc, then turns to Cromwell. He looks away quickly, as if to say “Good lord, you don’t think I have an opinion in the matter?!”

“I’m feeling rather tired, I’m afraid. But I thank you.”

He turns away to hide his smile, pretending to study the arrangement of chairs near the tapestry. Why is his heart beating so fast?

The music starts and the Duc and Duchess leave for their dance. He bows to Mary. She curtseys. He smiles. She smiles back. He almost wishes he did dance, but this is enough for him.

“You have made a sensation. The Duchess was just bending my ear with your sister’s praises.”

“So I saw,” she says.

“Had you much to say to the Duc during your dance?” he asks, watching the Duc and Duchess make their way down the line of dancers. Seeing her in profile now confirms it. Definitely with child.

“He is not much for talking while dancing. I do notice that he seems to enjoy your company, Crumb.”

“Oh, we play chess. He is not much for talking during chess, either.”

“I suppose they have their similarities, chess and dancing.”

“Indeed. I could not help but think so while I watched you dance. He is all business in both activities.”

She laughs. “I wish I played chess. I never learned.”

He takes a moment to size her up as an opponent. She is sharper than one might guess. Mild, smiling blue eyes hide something: a kind of pragmatism. She is not clever with words like her sister, but she has schemes — and dalliances — that require calculation. Her traps would be obvious but effective. Once taught, she could be a lethal opponent.

“And I…” he says, leaning in with a conspiratorial whisper, “never learned to dance.”

“So that is why you are always so busy planning these masques and banquets: to avoid having to dance.”

“Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.” He has not pulled away and she is very close now. Her breath smells of wine and sweet meats. He is about to offer to teach her chess if she will teach him to dance when she is distracted by something behind him. He turns to look.

Francis is seated with Anne in the chairs reserved for the King and the Marchioness at the top of the room. They are deep in conversation, though occasionally Anne throws her head back and laughs loudly enough to be heard through the room. This was not part of the plan. Henry stands before them, looking miserable and alone, the gold and crimson ladies having deserted him.

He sighs, as if expressing Henry’s thoughts. He cannot bear to see the King unhappy like this. Oh, he has seen him moon over her a thousand times alone in his rooms, but this public display is something else entirely. It won’t do to have the king seem a love-starved puppy in front of the French.

“Lady Carey,” he says, turning back to her, touching her arm. A warm, soft arm, that. “I wonder if you couldn’t possibly intervene between your sister and Francis. I think the King would appreciate it if your sister could be convinced to go to him now.”

She nods. “The King would appreciate it. But what about you?”

“You will have my undying gratitude.”

“I wonder what favor I might command?”

He blushes crimson at the question. “I could teach you chess, perhaps,” he manages.

“Perhaps. And I could teach you to dance in return?”

He feels a ridiculous sense of joy that she has taken up his scheme so completely. “My thoughts exactly! I think you will be a keen pupil if you can read me so well.” Then lowering his voice, “Now, go. See how your king sighs. Go quickly.”

She obeys. He watches her, admires the way she crosses the room. She is efficient, yet you would not know she had a purpose. It is as if she floats to her destination on a current of air. He must be a little mad to send her away to another man when he had her an arm’s length away, smiling at him. Flirting even! She approaches Francis, curtseys and reaches out for his hand to kiss his ring. A bold move, one Francis can’t refuse. There is a flicker of recognition from Francis. They’ve all heard the rumors. Mary was his “English mare.” Anne glares daggers at her sister, but the spell is broken. Francis’ attention moves to Mary who remains bowed low, almost to the floor, aware — no doubt — that her breasts are best viewed from that angle. For all her style and wit the younger sister cannot compete in that arena. She knows when she is beaten. She musters her dignity, draws up her golden skirts, and pretends she hears someone calling her from across the room. Henry looks relieved as she glides past to be congratulated on her triumph by a crowd of well-wishers. He, Cromwell, looks back at Mary. He is suddenly miserable and has to fight the urge to sigh like the King. Francis looks down at Mary, licking his chops like a fox who has found a juicy little hen caught outside the coup.

+++
Put out the light, my love. The sheets hang down at odd angles. There is no place to put it where we might not knock it over. No angle at which it can rest where we don’t risk burning to death. Put out the light, my love. But first see this shadow puppet. Here comes the leviathan! Don’t laugh. Put out the light, my love.

Chapter Text

He steps into the cool garden, watching his breath steaming out. He can no longer stand the close heat of the common room with its enormous fire and warming wines. The chatter of the Seymour brothers and their leering implications chase him out the door. Suppose he does make idle conversation inquiring after their sister’s age. What of it? The gossip will no doubt be that he is after Jane for himself, and they will all titter and say “old fool and milksop, what a pair!” It was only a gambit to distract Seymour from the game.

Thomas Cromwell’s sleeves? What could she mean by that? Strange, puzzling little thing. He could marry her just to shut them up, just to know her secret phrases.

He is pacing the gravel, letting the crunch of his shoes and the cold, damp air soothe his heated brain. What could she mean, Lady Shelton, asking for a Bible? They’d all heard the shouts, the slamming doors. In quarters such as these one could not help but overhear things. Why a Bible? Why not a plate of cheese or a halberd?

His steps continue, off the gravel and onto the wet grass. He feels the damp seep into his thin shoes. At a loss, he looks up at the stars: that is what one does in a garden at night. Oh yes, he is the picture of a man in contemplation. But he is, in fact, far from contemplative. He is in torment. An image of Mary, bowed low before Francis, flashes into his mind again. It was what drove him from his nightly scribbling to the common room; it dogged his mind all through his game with Seymour, and it is still there now. She will be with him this hour. One does not refuse a king.

He walks a few steps further, into a knotted hedge. He must get one of these at Austin Friars. Frescobaldi once told him that the secret to making a small garden seem big, was to make sure you could get lost in it. He turns the first corner, leaving the torchlight behind him. He can suddenly hear the sea as if the blackness has improved his hearing. The sound of the waves is erratic: he can hear only the loudest of them crashing, spending their fury against the crumbling sea walls. He would like to run away to sea with her, someplace east. Freight her down with jewels and silks and fatten her on figs and olives. To be sure, Calais is not much of a port, but one always finds a boat ready to go somewhere. From the South of France, from Nice or Marseilles, they could get a boat East--

There is a noise behind, a light footstep on the gravel. A woman’s, surely. His heart stops. Could it be? He could not be so lucky. He moves instinctively toward it, creeping back on the wet grass, holding his breath in hope. They almost crash into one another in the dark.

“You!” she says, startled. Angry.

“Me?” he says, trying to sound innocent.

“You will want your report I suppose. Very well. I promised. She is in his arms, naked as she was born. She has done it, mostly to spite me because I took Francis away. And that business is all your doing, Master Cromwell.” Her voice is cold. She is not her usual, teasing self.

“You sound as if you regret it.”

“Of course I regret it! Her maidenhead has been our protection. As long as she refused the king, he stayed intrigued. Now he will put us both out when he tires of her. If she is lucky she will get a pension. And what will I get, but two of the king’s bastards?”

He doesn’t know what to say when she brings up her children. He thinks of all the broken pieces of families sheltering behind the walls of Austin Friars. They could always manage a few more. There is anger in her voice and something else, a sob, perhaps. He moves towards her in the dark, reaching out. She tumbles forward into his shoulder, her whole weight against him, the heat from her body flooding across his side. He had not realized he was quite so numb until he began to thaw. Henry once said he was like hugging a sea wall. He stands there now, supporting her, while her shoulders shake and she waters his velvet with her tears. Tentatively he places a hand on her head, feeling the soft hair under his fingers. He breathes onto her neck and his breath comes back to him, warming his face. He wraps his arms more tightly around her. She fits up against him so neatly, her soft curves sort of tuck into him. He thinks of the Cardinal’s dismissive “easy armful.” There are worse things to be.

“Lady Carey,” he says at length, pulling back gently, one hand lingering on her hair, the other on her naked shoulder, steaming in the dark. “What was the Bible for? Lady Shelton asked us for a Bible.”

“To swear him. She feels they are married now in the eyes of God.” Her voice is full of derision. “That is enough for her. And she has gone to him.”

“But that’s not enough for you?”

“Would it be for you, Crumb? You’re a lawyer. You tell me. Is that a binding promise?” He is silent. It is not an easy question. Henry is a religious man. He takes his Bible oaths seriously. But then one presumes he took his wedding vows to Catharine seriously. His oaths can change on a whim when it suits him.

“Difficult to say. But tell me. How do you come to be in the garden, and not—”

“With Francis? I told him that I was already spoken for this evening. He will respect another man’s prior claim, at least for a night or two.”

“Oh,” he says, worried. He had not thought to make an enemy of the King of France.

“You needn’t worry, Crumb. I told him I was meeting the Duc. I wouldn’t drop you in it. Though Lord knows why not. The way you practically ordered me into his bed.”

“I oughtn’t to have sent you. It just seemed like the easiest way given your past with the King--”

“The easiest way. Yes. That’s me, the easiest way. You imagine they just push me back onto the pillow and as long as it’s a king doing the pushing, I’m happy.”

“I didn’t think--”

“Do you know I was 15 when I was introduced to Francis?” There is an edge in her voice now. She is pulling away, angry. She pushes his hand from her shoulder. He wants to stop her, but hasn't the right.

“I should not have sent you. Those are not my methods. I’m not a bawd.”

“Not your methods! I suppose that is how you sleep at night. Keeping track of your methods,” she says, turning away. He’s lost her. He feels bereft. She is heading back toward the Exchequer. There is nothing for him to say. He’s let her down. Failed.

He hears her steps on the gravel and then she stops. He looks up to see her standing in the torchlight, radiant in her gold dress. “Where is that Montmorency anyway?” she says, exasperation in her tone.

“Montmorency? “ he asks, following her back on to the gravel, glad of any excuse to keep her talking. “You mean you arranged to meet him? Here?”

“Yes, of course. Francis is no fool. Though I’m aware that if the Duc had planned to meet you in the garden, he would not fail to show up.”

“We play chess?” he says, confused, by her implication.

“No one likes chess that much. I do not think the Duc is one for the ladies.” He stands there, his mouth agape, like a man who’s been brained with something heavy.

“I’ve shocked you at last. Well, that’s something at least,” she says with a hollow laugh. He takes a step forward, reaching out to her again. He takes her hand in his. She does not pull away.

“Oh Crumb, “ she says with a sigh, “you do not know what it is like, to be a woman, to have your fate dependent on men who never keep their promises.”

“There, there,” he says, patting her hand, recalling the way he had comforted Vincent about the soup. “Last night, I thought only of Henry when I sent you to Francis.”

“Yes, poor Henry. Hear how he sighs.” Her tone is mocking. “Well, he has gotten his way at last.”

“As soon as I had sent you I was sorry,” he manages quietly. She looks up at him. Her tears have dried. The fierceness is gone.

“I suppose we have earned our recreation, you and I,” she says with a wan smile. Her eyes are mild, inviting. She brings his hand to her lips and kisses it. His heart flies from despair to hope again.

He reaches up, puts his hand on her shoulder, stroking the bare skin, encountering a soft barrier. “What is this, fur?”

“Yes. We were prepared in case we needed to stay out the year in France.“

He pulls the stole up around her shoulders and, in the same motion, drags her tight against him. He can’t think of anything but the sea, and her warmth. She may be right. The king may put her on the road tomorrow. But tonight all things seem possible, if the Duke stays indoors.

Before he can talk himself out of it, he leans down and kisses her hard on the mouth. She is warm and soft and yielding, everything he’d imagined and hoped, and yet something more. She is eagerly returning his kiss. Christ, her tongue: against his teeth, plunging deeper into his mouth. His memory devices disappear behind curtains and beneath stacks of letters; his plans and his campaigns vanish. He breaks the kiss, breathes and thinks to himself: Thomas. Yes, I’m fairly certain my name is Thomas.

Something startles her. Is it Montmorency, bumbling in at the worst moment? No, there is no one there. He pulls her closer, wrapping his own cloak around them this time, his nose buried in her hair. His brain returns to him and he is wholly occupied with the next move. A bolt hole. A closet. A bench in the shrubbery. Where can they go? The town is so full, every hayloft, every boathouse occupied with the King’s army of hangers-on. He lays out the map of Calais in his mind, working round the streets methodically, to the Inn where he met the old Alchemists. The last place one should take someone like Lady Carey. The bed bugs alone…

She has been thinking as well and they start to speak at the same time. They stop, laugh.

“You go first,” he says.

“My accommodations are impossible. I’m sharing with my sister. She may yet return tonight. And my aunt lies in a cot wedged into the passage outside our door.”

“Too much to ask for Lady Shelton to be a sound sleeper?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“My situation is equally bad. My boys…” The thought of it is like a bucket of cold water on him. It’s hopeless, tonight at least. He has already begun to brace himself for the act of letting her go. They are quiet again and he hears the sound of the sea: steady, soothing like her breath. If they could just get a boat to Marseilles…

“What are you thinking?” she asks at length.

“If I were not the King’s most dutiful servant, we could run away together, leave on the next tide.”

“Where would we go?”

“East. Some place with sand and camels. Away from Europe. Away from your family.”

“You aren’t still afraid of my Uncle Norfolk?”

“Mary, I’m terrified of your Uncle Norfolk,” he says, smiling.

“Is that all you’re afraid of?”

“Oh I’m a mass of fears.” He strokes her chin idly with his forefinger. “Tomorrow the markets will crash, the banks will fail, and Henry -- and England — will fail with it. I worry about the harvest. I worry about parliament. I lose sleep over France and the Emperor and--”

“I meant, Master Cromwell, are you afraid of me?” She is studying his face; he tries to be inscrutable.

“I think… Yes, I think I am,” he admits at last. She smiles and kisses him gently: a calm, steady, reassuring kiss, as if they do this every day and her lips have always been there, and will be there warm and lovely forever.

“Right,” he says. “East it is then. The Silk Road. The Holy Places. Jerusalem.”

“Will it be warm?”

“Yes.”

“And no Boleyns?”

“I promise no Boleyns. No Howards. No Seymours.”

“Poor Jane, she’s going to be so disappointed. Your little field mouse, all alone.”

“Well, maybe I’ll send her my son to keep her warm. He’s not ambitious but he’s a steady boy with an affable manner. Make a good husband.”

“A wonder that you did not offer him to me.”

“You are too much trouble, my lady. I want the boy to live to be a ripe old age.”

“I wish we could do it,” she says wistfully. He blushes to the tips of his ears and splutters out a cough.

“No. Well, yes, but I wish we could really do it. Run away, I mean.” He pulls her in again, kisses her again. It is the only answer he can make.

Far away in the middle of the sea, the weather changes. The wind pushes away the clouds from the moon like a determined hand removing a veil. Waves from the opposite shore swell and make a crossing impossible, as if God himself were underscoring the fact that they can take this no further than the garden. The King’s most dutiful servants can only pretend to leave him.

Later that night, as he lies alone in his snug, small bed listening to Richard’s snores and Rafe’s sighs, he thinks of her and wonders about the risk. His original calculations were self-consistent but smug, as first assessments often are. They didn’t take into account the way he feels walking into a room full of sneering nobles, knowing she is on his side. He only saw the danger of her family, the danger of embarrassment, as if that mattered. She was right. He had been afraid of her. Not anymore. Well, maybe a little, but that is part of her, too: the way she makes you feel, like anything might happen. He lies there listening to the wind howling round the garden, wishing she was there, tucked up against him, radiating heat. He replays in his mind the moment when everything changed. From one heartbeat to the next, the world was one way and then another. He was always valued, but now he is desired and that, he finds, makes all the difference.

+++

Their cupboard is an interior room with no window, no candle. The hallway outside is dark. No strip of light finds its way under the door. No chink of light through the floorboards above. It is night and those around are sleeping or else they are doing secret things of which no one must learn. Blackness with no chance of adjustment, unremitting blackness like this, plays tricks on the mind. A voice seems closer than it really is. Fingers seek but do not find and when they have given up and move the other way, are surprised to encounter their quarry. In this dark, he might be young and handsome. She could be anyone he wanted her to be, except that he doesn’t want her to be anyone else. He has only to picture her face as it was in the garden before that first hard kiss.

Chapter Text

Damp breath hangs in the air. The lively skin, hidden beneath white fur. A warm fizzing somewhere at his center, behind his bullocks. A mouth, a mouth, a mouth. The wet soft lips, the urgent tongue, the —

Bells are ringing. He opens his eyes. The sun is up. He can hear the sea. Where is he? Calais. He remembers that much. There’s too much light in the room. And what is that? 8? … 9 bells. He sits up, rubbing his eyes. Chapel!

He’s out of bed, roaring “Rafe! Richard! Why didn’t you wake me??!” He grabs a jumble of hose from a pile in the wardrobe.

Rafe comes in first, looks stricken. “We thought you looked too peaceful to wake. You so rarely lie in.”

“Yes, I know. There’s a reason for that: I’m late for chapel. Where is my hat?! Richard!” he booms.

“Master, here sir.” Richard appears, tentatively, as if ready to turn on his heel and flee.

“Where the devil is my hat?”

Richard retrieves a black wool object from a table in the corner.

“Here, sir.”

“That’s my cap! Where’s my hat?!”

“Hat? Cap?” Richard stands there, blinking stupidly.

Rafe steps in with the hat.

“Cap first. Then Hat,” Rafe says. Richard holds the cap out numbly to no one.

He, Cromwell, has managed to get his hose twisted. He lets fly an oath worthy of Uncle Norfolk.

“Help him!” Rafe says to Richard. Richard stares back, tormented.

“Sod it!” he shouts and forces his leg into the upper hose. “I’ll fix it later.” God, that’s bloody awful, twisted hose.

Rafe is lacing up his doublet. He swats him away. “I’ll manage it on the way.”

“Richard! The cap! For the last time!”

Richard hands over the cap again. He snatches it and pulls it down over his ears. Rafe hands him his hat, following close behind as he strides away toward the head of the stairs.

“What’s got into him?” Richard mutters when he thinks he’s out of earshot.

Out in the wind: blast! He’s forgotten his gloves! He fumbles with his doublet laces. Will she be there? Pretend nothing happened? Or say it’s only recreation. Play the game till the end, then choose a new partner, pick a new game. He finishes the top lace, scraping a hand against his unshaven chin. What a state he must look, like Thomas More: unshaven, twisted hose and no gloves.

He pumps along as fast as he can with his little modified walk. Don’t call it a limp. It’s too studied for that. The little sway to favor the right leg, like a swagger. It works when one isn’t in a great hurry, but there are more efficient ways to cross the distance between two points. He gives up and lets the left leg drag behind for fifty yards. He returns to his more dignified gait when within site of the chapel. He’s breathing hard. Sweating a bit as well, though the morning is windy and cool.

The chapel is emptying. He is too late. He’s missed it. He must see the King. See his face, confirm Mary’s report. He pushes to the front of the crowd. “Coming through. Make way. Big sinner, here. Coming through.” People laugh but make way for him.

He sees the King and bows. Henry approaches, striding, no modified walk there. He is confidence personified. Anne is tucked up against him tight, her tiny fist, like a child’s almost, laid over his massive sleeve. The King is wearing a new hat with a new feather in it as he steps out into the high, bright, windy day and - seeing Cromwell - smiles at him. Mary was right. He is sure Mary was right.

Mary catches his eye, from behind her sister. She smiles at him and looks pointedly to her side, as if to say “Walk alongside me, Crumb.” She is not ignoring him, at least. There is hope yet.

The King passes and he bows low, heart still pounding from his exertions. He steps in next to Mary and she glances at him, smiling again, offering her arm. He takes it, enfolding her hand in his. Thank God he hadn’t time for his gloves. This way there’s only one layer of cloth between their hands. They slow their step to drop back from Henry and Anne, to gain a measure of privacy.

“You see. I told you. They unbolted the door. But you didn’t believe me. Had to see for yourself.”

He glances at her. “Ever the Doubting Thomas,” he says, and she smiles at his little joke. Not a trace of the anger of fear of last night. "For your sake," he adds, "I hope he keeps to his oath."

"Yes. So far so good, anyway."

He studies Anne. She walks along on the King's arm, gazing up at him at intervals. It is not just he and Mary. Everyone with eyes can see what's changed between them. The King's reputation as a lover is restored in the eyes of the court. Perhaps that what she counted on all along. If so, she was brave to tread that path. It could have just easily gone badly for her.

“Late for chapel, Master Cromwell,” she says after a few steps in silence. “That’s not like you.”

“Overslept,” he manages.

“Indeed? That’s not like you either. What were you doing last night, to leave you in such disarray this morning?” she asks brazenly.

He is blushing like a maid, but he doesn’t care. “One might ask the same of you.”

“Ah, but I wasn’t late for chapel. So it must have been something more than just our tete a tete in the garden.”

“I was dreaming so sweetly my boys feared to wake me.”

“Shall I call the King? He loves to talk of dreams. And so do you, from what I hear. Tell me, what do you make of this particular dream?”

“I should never eat cheese before bed.”

She laughs, an unladylike snort, which causes him to laugh. Anne turns and gives them a freezing glance; he can almost hear the implied, derisive “Cremuel.” They arrange their faces. They have almost managed to straighten them when the giggles come again. This time he is the first to snicker. She bursts out gasping with it, helpless, clutching his arm. Now the King swivels his head ever so slightly, giving him the eye.

He presses his lips between his teeth, painfully. He will draw blood soon. It has been a long time since he laughed this much with a woman. He once asked Liz if he ever made her cry and she had said, “Only with laughter.” He squeezes her hand, clad in a peacock blue kid glove, fine leather that makes a pleasing squeak when he presses it firmly in his red chaffed paw. He falls back into the draper’s habit to calm his nerves. He unpicks the expert double stitching, as tiny and precise as can be had. He prices the leather by the yard, remembering the season of peacock blue some two — no — three years back, remembering her complaint: “It’s been so long since I had new clothes.” Indeed, Lady Carey, but we will soon remedy that, and he is off in his imagination, touring the best drapers and the most discreet silk houses in London. Not just new sleeves and lacings, but whole new bodices, new shirts. He gets a bit distracted here. He was meant to be calming himself.

“When can I see you again? Alone,” he whispers, his throat constricting around the words. Christ, he could murder a pint of ale right now. Even Walter’s watered down slop would be a relief.

“That depends.”

“On?”

“On where you have found for us to be alone.”

“Ah. Well.” He is at a loss. Stall. Lie. Do something. Only don’t let her get away without a promise to meet you, you clod. They have just walked through the gates of the exchequer. He carries on up the steps with her in tow. They could just keep walking: to his rooms, close the door, and—

“I have a place in mind,” he says, with as much bravado as he can muster. “But the ink is not quite dry on the lease. I will send a note to you, if you walk in the garden before dinner.”

“I always like to take my three turns round the gravel before dinner. So yes. Send your note. But Thomas —”

His first “Thomas.” The fizzing begins, as in the dream.

“Yes, Mary?” he says gently, tentatively.

“Be discreet.”

He lets go her hand, reluctantly. Bows and departs through a servant’s door at the bottom of the stairs. He paces back and forth in the tiny hallway. He has, what? Three, at most four hours, to procure a love nest in a building with beds for twenty that has been pushed to hold fifty. He steadies himself on the facts: there are 2400 beds in Calais. Stabling for 2000 horses (the latter does him no good, but he tucks it away for later). In all that there has to be some place, he thinks, as he wanders up to his rooms, passing serving boys on their way down to the kitchen with dirty plates. He opens the door to his suite. He hears Richard and Rafe, talking. They stop suddenly.

“All’s well, master?” Rafe inquires, cautiously.

“All’s well. Sorry about my mood earlier. I don’t like to be late.”

“What mood, sir? I didn’t notice any mood, did you, Richard?”

“No,” Richard affirms, the picture of wide-eyed innocence.

All is forgiven. He opens the door to his own little closet. A maid is stripping out the sheets. He startles her.

“Sorry, Master Cromwell. Master Richard said you wouldn’t be back for a while, said to go ahead and do your bed as well.”

“It’s alright. Carry on about your business. Pretend I’m not here.”

“Very well,” she says, dipping into her basket for a fresh case for his bolster. He studies her surreptitiously from the corner as he pretends to examine his doublets in the wardrobe. She was, perhaps still is, someone’s easy armful. Plump, strong, not tall, but not round either. Well-formed, of thirty years or so but still fresh, free of the pinched, lined look of a woman with too much experience or too many children. Occasionally she pauses in her work to struggle with a hunk of unruly brown hair that won’t keep under her cap. If he was a different sort of man, Wolsey perhaps, he might take his recreation here, or someplace similar. Still, he thinks, if court ladies have their pitfalls, so do servants. He’d be better off with Mercy’s list. Perhaps sensing his gaze she fumbles the pillow case, makes a nervous glance at him. Not used to an audience. At this rate, he’ll never get those twisted hose put to rights.

She holds a sheet up, pinning it under her chin. He steps in and takes the other end.

“No, sir! You shouldn’t.”

“Nonsense, it’ll go faster this way.”

He carries the sheet to the bed and tucks it under.

“Is this right? Charity, is it?”

“Yes, that’s right, Charity. Oh, sir. Yes, that’s very good. Very well done. Only, I should just, tighten it up a bit,” she says, stepping in with her strong fingers, scooping the extra fabric under the mattress. She pulls it taut, leaving the surface perfectly smooth.

“There now, sir. You’ve made your own bed.” He laughs. He’s done nothing. One could learn something about diplomacy from her.

“If that’s all, Charity, I’d like the room to myself now.”

She bows and hoists her basket to her hip, hustling out the door. I wonder, he thinks, as he closes it behind her, where she stores all that linen?

+++

What if she does not come? What if the note went awry or she is meeting someone else, de Montmorency, at last. If he were a poet he would write a sonnet about the waiting. The way his stomach curdles as the doubts press in on his person. What was the point of wearing the gray velvet when she would not see it in the dark? It’s true she might touch it again and he would feel the thrill of her finger skimming over the fabric, the light pressure on his breast bone. There is a dim slash of light from under the door. The glow of a single candle passing by. He holds his breath, listening with all his soul for the sound of her tread which must be almost nothing. The light disappears. He breathes, continues to finger the velvet. What if she does not come? The light returns and, with it, the sound of the iron latch being moved a quarter inch. “Thomas,” she whispers. The dread feeling lifts, like a great awkward bird taking flight, and then it’s gone, not even a memory. In its place is her voice in the dark saying his name.

Chapter Text

A fine morning. He’s up early, humming a tune that got stuck in his head days ago: the processional march from the masque. He dresses, keeping warm in the patch of sunlight near his window. Humming and smiling, he pads through to boys’ room. Richard still snores but Rafe is a light sleeper, opening an eye when he hears someone in the room.

“Master?” Rafe sits up.

“I thought we might ride out beyond the walls, the three of us” he says, sitting on the foot of Rafe’s bed. “Take a look at the battlements. Make a more accurate survey. What do you think?”

“Of course.” Rafe cocks his head, seeming confused. Perhaps he doesn’t recognize the scene: a father proposing an outing on a fine morning.

Richard grumbles in his sleep and rolls over. They laugh.

“I leave it to you to wake him.” He stands and heads for the door. Perhaps, after all, it would be easier for Rafe to understand in the form of an order: “Get yourselves dressed and fed. I’ll be at breakfast.”

He hums down the stairs to the breakfasting room, his stomach driving him toward the sideboard. He is rarely without appetite, but today he feels he could down the proverbial horse. He seeks out a place to sit, his plate groaning with cold ham and spiced hard cooked eggs. There is a bright glare off the windows. Calais is either gray or painfully bright. He selects a chair with his back to the sun, feeling its warmth on his neck. It is early and he’s the first one down. A boy comes in and pours out a pewter mug of small beer for him.

“Bonjour, Jacques,” he says. The lad seems surprised, perhaps unfamiliar with masters who make it a habit to remember everyone’s name.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Cremuel,” the lad says, bowing himself out the door. Richard and Rafe are soon down, helping themselves to ham and eggs. They sit down next to him, eyeing him as he eats.

The Duke of Norfolk shuffles in, squints into the glare and shouts: “Couldn’t we have a breakfasting room that doesn’t face East!”

“Your lordship may recall,” he says with a smile, “that when we arrived we had several days without sun. We were glad of the East-facing room then.”

Norfolk holds his head and turns back to the sideboard. “What the devil do you call these eggs!” he demands loudly to the room.

Richard suppresses a laugh. Rafe hides his smile behind his hand and he, Cromwell, explains that the eggs are indeed called “deviled” because the yolks are taken out and mixed with hot paprika from Spain.

“Yes. Yes.” Norfolk shakes his head and finishes helping himself to his breakfast before the explanation is complete. The Duke chooses a seat, far enough away to seem independent, but close enough to hear the conversation of the others in case he is bored. The Duke is ever a master of keeping his options open.

Jacques pops back in, checks the dishes on the sideboard, sighs and leaves. French servants do not trust the English style of breakfasting: every man for himself. They know they must leave the room and not hover, but it goes against their principals.

He finishes his breakfast, washing it down with another glass of small beer.

“Good morning, your lordship,” he calls to Norfolk on his way out the door.

“What have you got to be so blasted cheerful about?!” the Duke shouts after him — too late — because he, Cromwell, is pumping along with his particular gait and is already half way to the foot of the stairs by the time the words reach his ears. When he is a safe distance away he says to himself, “Wouldn’t you like to know, Uncle Norfolk?”

“What are you saying about my uncle now?” a feminine voice calls from above.

He stops and looks up. There she is at the top of the stairs, the sun streaming in the window behind her. God’s blood she is beautiful. He puts his right hand to his heart, like a young man struck by cupid’s arrow. Like an old man whose heart has given out. She is amused. She smiles and motions for him to come up to her. He makes his way up the stairs as quickly and smoothly as his bad leg will allow, willing himself not to pant like a dog in front of her. Where is the ice water that supposedly flows through his veins now?

“Good morning,” he says in a low voice, barely audible.

“Good morning, Thomas,” she replies. Hearing his name, his heart flips over. It will take some time to get used to it.

“Sleep well, I trust?”

“Like a babe,” he says. He is conscious that he’s been staring stupidly into her face and he looks away, briefly, into the glare behind her, before saying, “You are up early.”

“Am I? I suppose I am. I could not help it. I’m utterly famished this morning.”

“I wonder why?” he says, stroking his lip. It is sore. He remembers in a flash why. Her nibbling kisses in the dark. The fizzing begins somewhere at his center.

“I have a goodly appetite myself, this morning,” he says, leaning in. What would a poet, a lover, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber say next? Oh blast it! He is no Thomas Wyatt. “But then I always have an appetite. My cook says he will never leave me because I’m so appreciative of his skills.”

She laughs and, reaching out, places a finger on his sore lip. “It is a true love match, then, you and your cook.” He is tempted to bite the finger, playfully. She withdraws it before he has a chance.

“No fair lady ever had a more devoted correspondent. Half my dispatches are to my cook. Orders for this spice or that. Cuttings for plants for the kitchen garden.”

She smirks at him, perhaps on the verge of saying some other teasing thing, when there is a commotion below. Richard and Rafe have finished their breakfast and are approaching. He can’t yet see them but he recognizes Rafe’s voice, doing a fair imitation of the Duke: “What the devil do you call those eggs?” Richard chokes on laughter.

He takes her hand and whispers, “Tonight? Same time?”

She nods. “And same place.” It’s her turn to blush. A pity he cannot stay and savor the triumph of it. He’s never managed it before, unless she blushed in the dark. He kisses her hand and drops it before the boys come in sight. She carries on down the stairs. He turns and walks on quickly to his room, arranging his face on the way.

In the struggle to boot himself for riding he manages to breathe again, letting out a long sigh, remembering the way she looked at the top of the stairs. Now he pictures her at Austin Friars. The arrangement of the stairs is similar. It’s one of the reasons he feels at home at the Exchequer.

+++

Difficult to proceed slowly. Difficult with the noises, her breath and little moans, and dear God the things she says. Think of the battlements in need of repair. Think of cold porridge. Think of the papal bull of excommunication. Just don’t think of going any faster. Moving rough, scarred thumbs in a slow circular motion, up her thighs. Slowly now, like a punter on the river, a gentle exploration followed by a tiny incursion. Careful not bruise her, though she leaves yellow and black marks in trails where her fingers have clutched. Listen to her breathing, like gasping with laughter, like running down the hall in green stockings. She wants it now. Says it plainly, as loud as she dares. And it is almost painful to delay, everything so swollen and aching under its own weight. Time breaks into fragments smaller than a second, longer than an hour. But it must go forward. Hands go forward, upward. Now lean across the table and lift her ever so gently and pull her down into position. Still — somehow — not quite there, though close now, very close.

Chapter Text

The day is fine, but perhaps not fair. The wind booms off the sea as he watches Richard and Rafe, attempting to scale a round tower to examine a pock-mark more closely. Richard gives up after advancing little, lets his massive body drop to the ground. He is all brute muscle, but that does no one good in climbing. Rafe’s light build and wiry strength is a much better match for the tower. He looks up fondly at his boys: as much his as Gregory. They are as different from one another as from himself. Rafe is half way up when Richard walks back to where his master is standing holding the horses with one hand, his hat with the other.

“This wind!” Richard shouts to be heard. He nods. There’s nothing more to add. They watch Rafe, who has topped the tower and is scraping away with a small knife at the pock mark.

“Any ordinance in there?!” he shouts, uselessly.

Rafe shrugs and holds his hand to his ear, to show that he can’t hear, then jumps down. Using hand signals, he, Cromwell, manages to guide the boys and the horses around to the lee of the outer wall where they can talk.

“I asked if there was any ordinance in there, or was it just sea air caused the hole?”

“No ordinance.”

They carry on, walking the horses. Rafe records the worst of the damage in his little book, but makes no more attempts on the battlements. If the King were not shut up with Anne, devising music for the harp, this is just the sort of outing he would enjoy. No detail is too trivial for Henry, especially if it involves an excursion in the sunshine and a chance to show off his athletic abilities.

“I was just thinking, the King would enjoy this.”

Richard laughs, nodding. “Yes. Though I can’t think why.”

Part of being a good father is knowing when to call it a day. “Let’s head back. We have a fair idea what recommendations to make, I think.” Rafe looks relieved. His ears are raw and red. They mount up and ride briskly back to the main gate of the city. They approach the Inn where he met with the old alchemists. He halts his horse and calls, “I’m thirsty. Let’s stop here a while.”

“There’s a better place down the street. There must be,” Richard says, looking doubtfully at the building which is as pock-marked and sad as the outer battlements.

“This suits me,” he says. “How about you, Rafe?”

“Anyplace out of the wind will do.”

Outvoted, Richard shrugs and they tie up the horses and go in. The boy, Christophe, approaches and he pulls him aside and whispers, “Any news yet?”

“No, sir.”

“You come and fetch me when there is.”

“Yes, sir. I fetch.”

He nods and walks toward a table.

“You are not staying to drink, are you?” Christophe asks, astonished.

“Just bring us a jug of whatever is best. Wine. Ale. Something to ward off the chill. I am not fussy.”

“Apparently not,” Richard says, dismayed. They brush off the filthy benches and seat themselves.

Christophe disappears into the back room. Rafe takes off his gloves, blows on his hands and holds them over his ears. They sit quietly, listening to the wind whistle through the gaps in the glazing. After a few minutes Rafe gets out his book and goes back over his notes with his pencil.

He tries to think of how to broach the subject. He builds an elaborate stratagem in his mind and then sweeps it away. Best to just out with it.

“Lads,” he starts. They eye him suspiciously. Something is approaching that is not cut and dried.

“What would you say, if I were to tell you that I plan to remarry? Someday. Soon.”

Just then Christophe comes through the swinging door, laden with a tray of steaming mugs.

“Wassail,” he says, plunking the tray down with a thud and departing just as unceremoniously, disappearing through the swinging door.
He brings one of the chipped wooden mugs cautiously to his nose and sniffs. Ale. Nutmeg. Egg. Wassail. He sips, feeling the warmth spread throughout his chest, an involuntary sigh leaving his lips.

“Ah, now that’s good wassail,” he says and the boys laugh. It’s an old joke. A Twelfth Night long past, before Liz died: Rafe had drunk too much at the bonfire and wandered in demanding a fresh cup. “Now that’s good wassail!” was the last thing he had said before collapsing on a pallet in the kitchen.

“This marriage,” Richard asks, “is it just theoretical or are congratulations in order?”

“A bit more than theory, but not quite time for congratulations. You’ll be the first to know. After the lady, of course,” he says, smiling. And of course, he thinks, after the King has given his blessing.

“Is it someone from Mercy’s list?” Rafe asks between gulps of his wassail.

“No.”

“Someone from the city? A widow?”

“No and yes. What is this, Rafe, twenty questions?”

“Why not?” Rafe says

“Why not, indeed. Proceed. That’s three questions. I will spare you two more. She is neither vegetable nor mineral.”

“Is it a foreign lady?” Richard asks, getting into the spirit of things.

“No. That’s four.”

“Is it Princess Mary?” Rafe asks. Richard nearly spits out his drink, laughing.

“Why not her mother? She’s a widow, at least,” Richard says with derision.

“It’s not Princess Mary. That’s five. And no, though she is a widow, it’s not her mother. That’s six.”

They carry on through the remaining Plantagenets and Tudors, the ladies of the Pole family, the Courtenays. Christophe brings them a refill, ladling drink from a small steaming cauldron.

“Alice More?” Richard says.

“Really, Richard. Mr. More lives still,” he says, sounding as offended as possible. “That’s fourteen.”

“Is it someone at court?”

“Yes. That’s fifteen.”

“Jane Seymour?” Richard asks.

“No. Not a widow.” He lifts his mug to hide his blush. A little close to the mark there. “Sixteen. Four to go. I fear you will not get there.”

“Anne Boleyn!” Rafe shouts. They all laugh heartily, holding their sides.

He wipes a tear from his eye. “No. Seventeen.”

“Mary Shelton.”

“Eighteen.” He can barely suppress his glee. They have hit on another Mary.

“Lady Rochford. You will kill her husband in a duel,” Rafe says, his words slurring, his boy’s face flushed with the wassail.

“You are drunk, lad. Nineteen.”

There is a long pause and then he sees that Richard has hit upon it.

“Mary Boleyn,” he whispers.

Rafe howls. He’s sprawling half under the table, laughing.

He nods back at Richard. They say nothing. Rafe flails, his elbow striking Richard’s side.

“Someone fetch him his pallet,” Richard says in mock disgust. Rafe closes his eyes and settles down on the bench, his head resting on his own shoulder.

He reaches over, takes the empty mug from Rafe’s hand, and sets it gently on the table.

“I knew there was something. These past few days, you’ve not been yourself. You seem —”

“Happy?”

“I was going to say unpredictable,” Richard says, sounding almost apologetic. He has been careless, and if it were anyone else — Call-me, for example — they would have pounced on it and teased the truth out long ago.

“I suppose it amounts to the same thing,” he says, leaning in toward Richard, gripping the lad’s strong forearm for effect. “I am telling you now because I will need your help.”

“I can’t fight Uncle Norfolk, if that’s what you are thinking. He is too old for the tiltyard.”

“Leave Nofolk to me,” he says, releasing Richard’s sleeve. Richard looks puzzled for a moment. “I need your help for a much more formidable task: informing the ladies of my household that they will have a new mistress.”

Richard whistles appreciatively at the prospect. “Mercy will have your hide.”

“Mercy has a fat pension, the best room in the house, and a better set of furs than the Queen of England. What more could she want?” he says, thinking of his mother-in-law enthroned at the head of the table at Austin Friars.

“She won’t give way easily. Not to a Boleyn. Now, if it was someone from the city, someone in trade-” Richard breaks off.

“Trade. There’s something we might use. Boleyn’s grandfather was a mercer. They are only two generations away from peddling thimbles and thread in the Kentish countryside.”

“A mercer! How did you learn of it?”

“Mary told me. In an unguarded moment,” he says, blushing.

“I will hear no more of your unguarded moments, sir. It will be enough for Mercy. She will claim to have known it all along.”

He smiles at the truth of it. He could not ask for a better mother-in-law than Mercy has been. She will not be put out of doors as long as she keeps a reasonably civil tongue in her head.

“I assume you have a plan for the Boleyns?”

“I thought I’d let them sit at the head table at the wedding. It only seems right.” Richard laughs at his boldness. “I will see the King sends them away on an errand.”

“And when they return?”

“It will be a fait accompli. Afterward, they will not dare oppose me, if the King has given his permission.”

“And will the King give his permission?”

“I believe so. His lady will see to it.”

“Anne wants rid of Mary, then?”

“For some weeks now. If the King denies his permission it will look as if he wants Mary for himself. But I do not think it will even occur to him to deny it. He is happy and all men want others to be happy in the same way. He cannot yet conceive that he will ever want another woman in his bed.”

“You know the King better than he knows himself,” Richard says. He looks worried as he swirls the last of the wassail in his mug.

“What troubles you?”

“Can you trust her? Forgive me, but will she not be a spy for the Boleyns?”

“Well, look how Call-me has turned out and he began a spy for Stephen Gardiner.”

“It is not quite the same thing.”

“Call-me is my trusted clerk. He is as familiar with the skeletons in my closets as my own self.” He smiles, but he knows Richard will not be put off by smiles and easy assurances. “I believe her character is unproven. She only wants a chance to show her quality.”

“Her reputation says otherwise.”

“And so does mine! Where would I be if the Cardinal had not ignored my obscure birth and my murky past and given me a chance?” he adds softly. “It is I who am hardly good enough for her.”

“That I will never believe, though the Boleyns will surely agree. What if they come for you?”

“Then we will be ready for them.”

“And the others? Your enemies will laugh and say she has duped you. That Thomas Cromwell is, at last, a fool.”

“Then we will prove them wrong.”

“I fear it will not be so easy. Every move will be scrutinized. If you marry in haste they will say she is with child, another of the King’s bastards. Or worse.”

“Have you heard rumors that I should be made aware of?”

“There are always rumors about Mary. It is one of the constants of life at court.”

“Be specific, boy. I can’t afford to be vague just now.”

“I have heard of her with another. With William Stafford, one of the King’s grooms.”

“And when was this?” he asks, doing his best to keep the jealousy out of his voice.

“Of late.”

“How of late? Since we’ve been in Calais?”

“No. Before. Before Calais,” Richard says hastily. He is trying to picture Stafford: young, handsome. He can think of nothing else. Imagines Mary can’t either.

“I’m grateful for the warning,” he says, trying to sound calm. He can trust his face to say nothing further.

“It may amount to nothing. I’m sure it does not.”

“Just so. At any rate, if she will have me, I intend to take her away from court.”

Richard nods. Rafe snores quietly. Richard reaches down and shakes him gently.

“Wake up! We are leaving soon. Our Master is to wed Mary Boleyn. We must drink a toast.”

As if on cue, Christophe appears with his cauldron. They fill their glasses one last time.

“To Mary Boleyn!” Richard says.

“Here, here,” he says, and they smack their mugs together, draining them.

“We’d best get him home,” he says, nodding toward Rafe.

“What? Fine! Never better,” Rafe says, wobbling in his seat. It would be a struggle to get the boy on his horse. Funny that horses always seem to know the way when their riders have had too much wine. Same in a storm. That first trip through the driving rain with tiny Rafe hidden under his cloak. “Is that a boy in there?” Liz had said when they’d unwrapped him. Sometimes your children come out of a womb and, other times, you find them under your clothes.

No one had mentioned Gregory. He might be the biggest challenge of all. Good that he had time to think about how to break it to him. But the boy was grown and he should be glad to see his father have some happiness. Was he happy? He supposed he was, though sometimes it was misery: the waiting, the not knowing. The jealousy. God damn this Stafford…

He leaves a handful of francs for Christophe and steps out into the booming wind, the blinding daylight. Richard has Rafe in the saddle, and is leading Rafe’s horse toward home. The boy hangs on, his eyes half shut, bobbing with the movement of the animal. He feels suddenly tired himself. It is not much past midday, but they could all use a lie down.

+++


“Why do you?” He stops. How to phrase it.
“Why do you come here with me?”
“For recreation.
“But, why do you…”
“Love you?” she asks. She has said the word first, but only because he passed it to her in the dark like a candle.
“Because,” she says, “you are like a black dog one finds in the street. I could take you home, clean you up, and you might look like anything. You might turn out to be a golden hound with curly yellow hair.”
“And if not?”
“I will still have a black dog. The most loyal in the world. The black dog will never leave me.”
“That’s a good answer,” he says. He is thinking that if she had asked him the same question his answer might be similar, though even he would never be so impolitic as to compare her to a dog.

Chapter Text

November is almost upon them. They will leave this place as soon as the weather breaks. In the snug houses of Calais this is the season of big, cheerful fires in the afternoon, of short days ending in black storms, of fairy stories told in the old tongue to fill the long evenings. In English houses, winter is resisted as long as possible, willed back to save on the winter stores. In France, including Calais, the wood is burned like there’s no tomorrow.

And no wonder. This damp cold penetrates the thickest clothes, creeps under the densest fur. He feels the old wound stiffen. He lifts his leg, standing in place like a horse waiting to be shod. He breathes, wills the muscle to relax. His nostrils flare wide in pain. He is sheltering in a corner near the knotted hedge. This spot. This is where he kissed her. Three nights gone now. What foolish maid’s fancy brings him back to this spot? Causes him to sigh, wondering if they will leave off their recreation when they leave this place? The wind whistles across a bare branch in answer.

“Master Cremuel,” a voice calls, snapping him from his reverie. It is the Duc. Prompt as ever. He remembers the failed meeting with Mary and her theories as to why de Montmorency never turned up. All women think that way, he supposes, if a man turns them down: he is unnatural. Still, they are better judges of the hearts of men than men themselves.

“Over here, Grand Master,” he replies, hobbling a few steps toward the voice. The wound relents at last and he manages his peculiar tread toward the door of the exchequer.

“When do you depart?”

“After the king returns from Sadyngfeld. We are waiting for word from the wharves. We can’t cross in this wind.”

“I will be glad to be back in Paris.”

“I can imagine. It’s many years since I was in Paris myself and I had hoped I might look upon Notre Dame this time,” he says. The Duc nods in understanding. They had all hoped their itinerary would have included Paris, but since the French court refused to receive the Lady Anne, the trip was confined to the north. Still, they’d made the best of it: a fine show of friendship and hospitality, with one more little flourish still to come.

“Is everything ready?”

“I rode out this morning at dawn. The tents are up and the meal is underway. Just a cold collation, but it will look well to the riders after a few hours in this wind.”

“You have been busy already today, sir. Are you to ride out with us?”

“Alas, no. I must take my leave of you now, Grand Master. There is too much to prepare here. My best men will be in attendance: my nephew Richard and my clerk, Rafe Stadler. You know them, I believe.”

“Of course. They are rarely away from your side. We are in good hands then.”

“Yes. And you will have a few extra mouths to feed. My lord Norfolk is to ride up to Guînes to meet with his son and Richmond, who are lately returned from their travels on the continent.”

“Richmond is the King’s child, no?” He, Cromwell, nods in reply. “I am curious to meet him. And young Howard as well.”

“They will add much to the party, I’m sure.”

The Duc smiles, a tight smile. They walk along in silence for a moment, toward the stables which are bustling with activity. The King is already mounted. Norfolk is being heaved into his saddle by a pair of unhappy-looking grooms. The smell of a coal fire —probably from the forge-- reaches his nose. The scent never fails to remind him of his youth, of Walter, transporting him helpless to those times he’d rather forget. The coal smoke permeated every fiber of their home and, like the taste of blood in his mouth, it’s never really left him.

“You will extend my good wishes to the Duchess. I notice she does not ride,” he says, surveying the stable yard.

“She went ahead this morning in a chair. A precaution, at my insistence. She is with child, you know.”

“No wonder you are anxious to be back in Paris. Congratulations, Grand Master. And my best to her.”

“I will convey your wishes to her. And you will convey my best wishes to the Lady Carey.”

“The Lady Carey?” he says with genuine surprise. have they been so very indiscreet?

“Forgive my presumption. She and I were much in conversation last evening at dinner.”

“Were you? I had not noticed,” he lies. “But then I’m often so preoccupied with various details.”

“You are too nice, I think. But I will let it stand. Indeed, we were much in conversation and, if I did not know better, Cremuel, I would say that lady is in love with you.”

He laughs, looking away from the Duc for a moment. “If I happen to see the Lady Mary, perhaps some time during the crossing, I will convey your wishes to her, though you’ll forgive me if I keep your observations to myself.”

The Duc laughs and shakes his head. “I hope we depart soon. I’m anxious the Duchess should not be kept waiting too long. Is it far to the meeting spot?”

“It is about seven miles out. Look for the tents after you leave the English road, a few miles past Guînes.”

“Ah, Guînes, I know it. The village near the Fields of the Cloth of Gold.”

“Yes. I had hoped to make a last allusion to it with our humble picnic.”

“I’ve come to understand your meaning of ‘humble’ Cremuel. In preparation, I had only a light breakfast.”

He smiles at the Duc’s good cheer, reaching out for a departing hand shake. The Duc takes his hand and pulls him close, kissing him on the cheeks in the French style. He is somewhat alarmed as it is the first time the Duc has made such an intimacy. They pull apart and Cromwell bows.
“I hope we will meet again one day, Grand Master.”

“Adieu, Cremuel. I feel certain of it.” The Duc turns away toward Francis, who is mounted and waiting near Henry. The Kings wear matching white velvet doublets that Francis had made for the occasion. What a glorious sight they will make as they leave the protection of the city walls. With the last of the local coin, he has made sure the streets will be lined with well-wishers.

The Duke of Norfolk rides past on his way out, taking a spot in line behind the Kings. No doubt in a hurry to meet his son. He, Cromwell, turns back to the stable yard, remembering the first conversation he ever had with Norfolk: the old Duke had wanted to know if he could shoe a horse.

+++

If he were a poet he would write a sonnet about her knees. They would make an interesting challenge for a painter as well. Her knees are round, almost weighty, but firm. Behind her knees are little valleys of tender flesh. His fingers fit perfectly there. Sometimes she lies with her head on his chest and places her balled fist into the depression at the base of his ribs. It is the sort of nonsense that leads people to say things like “we were made for each other.” They fit together in the obvious way as well. But these are things that confound him. He doesn’t know quite what to make of them.

Chapter Text

He is scribbling in the library, amendments to one of the bills necessary for the dissolution of the King’s marriage. He stands, stretches, looks out the window, observing the weak winterish sun setting on the horizon. He begins rolling up the work he’s already done and bundling it neatly into one of the black pouches. It’s a job for underlings, but one that calms his nerves.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s Lord Berners, Governor of Calais. He’s been gracious enough to loan his library out for the King’s purposes.

“Master Cromwell, did I show you my translation of Froissart?”

“Yes, I believe we went over it a few days back, but thank you. It is a fine effort. You will be pleased to see I’ve made a list of items in your library that I would like to purchase for myself, when I return to London,” he says, holding up a long, narrow scrap of paper to Berners, who looks past it out the window at the setting sun.

“And when will that be sir?”

“I can’t leave without His Majesty, now can I? He’s not yet returned from Guines. The party is several hours overdue. And then there’s the matter of the winds not being in our favor.”

“Of course, I entirely understand,” the old Governor says, in a voice that sounds not at all understanding.

There’s another knock at the door, a quick, timid rapping.

“Come in!” he, Cromwell, says brusquely. It’s Mary: she enters and curtseys. His pulse quickens at the unexpected sight of her. The Governor bows stiffly and removes his cap.

“Master Cromwell, the Marchioness would like to beg a word with you if you can spare the time.”

“For the Marchioness, always.” He says it with a quick wink to Mary who turns and departs, leaving him flustered, wondering if she was ever really there.

“I beg your pardon, your Lordship, but I must attend the Lady.”

“Of course, sir. If you will permit, I will just stay and peruse my Froissart.”

“It is I who am the trespasser here, sir. You needn’t ask my permission,” he says and follows Mary out of the room. A few quick steps and he catches up with her.

“Your timing couldn’t be better, my love,” he says in a whisper. “He was just about to drag out that damned Froissart again. Now — what is the trouble with the Marchioness, or could you not bare to go without seeing me?”

“Lord, Thomas, what an opinion you have of yourself. You imagine that I just sit all day sighing for you?”

“That is my condition, so why should it not be yours?”

She stops and draws him aside, giving his hand a little squeeze.

“The truth is she really does want to see you. She frets that the King is late. She frets that the bills will not pass parliament. She frets—”

“That is all?” he asks, searching her face for some sign of love. Why does every meeting necessitate an affirmation of her feelings?

“However,” she says with a smile, “I did volunteer for the errand. She was about to send my aunt, but I insisted.”

He kisses her hand quickly and drops it. She opens the door and they enter the room together. He can’t escape the feeling that they are a couple being presented to court. Anne sits in the largest chair in the center of the room, with her aunt beside her, crouched in obedient, silent sewing. Lady Rochford looks up and studies them with a sour expression. Mary breaks away and takes her seat at Anne’s right hand. He bows, removes his cap. Yes, the Marchioness is getting good practice in today.

“You sent for me, my Lady?”

“Yes, Cremuel, you know the hour. What could delay the King so? Is there some secret part of his itinerary to which I have not been privy?”

He looks at her, not knowing quite how to respond. There could be nothing that Anne does not know and, what’s more, she is aware of this. He catches Mary out of the corner of his eye. She shakes her head ever so slightly.

“Of course not, my Lady. You are, in all ways that matter, his true consort. No business has been kept from you.”

She is, at least for the moment, mollified by his answer. She picks up her sewing and looks at it distractedly.

“I have a look-out on the road. You will be informed the moment the King is within sight, my Lady. If that be all?”

“No Cremuel, that is not all. You appear very sanguine for one with so much to attend to. You have not been idle here, I hope?”

He wonders for a moment whether or not she is alluding to his dalliance with Mary. Again he flashes a glance at her and she blinks slowly back in answer to him. A signal, he supposes, to calm himself and answer with care.

“My lady refers to the bill?” he begins tentatively. Anne nods. “I have finished the main body of it and the amendments are well in hand. I am in need of my clerks, but I expect them with the King. All will be finished before we sail.”

“And just when will that be?”

“We may yet depart this evening, if the wind shifts. And as soon as the King returns, of course.”

“I am told we may have storms,” she says pettishly.

“This is Calais. There may always be storms. If so, we will weather them here. I trust you are comfortable? Your apartment convenient?” He looks at Mary again. He could swear he sees her hiding a smile down the neck of her dress.

“Yes, yes, very convenient,” she says, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair impatiently. The dismissive impatience reminds him of Norfolk. “I happen to know the King is anxious to return home to put this bill of yours to the test.”

“As am I, my Lady, I assure you,” he says. He hears, faintly, the massive door to the Exchequer slam downstairs in the hall. Anne sits up, alert, poised like a cat about to pounce on some unhappy prey. There is the pounding of feet on the stairs and muffled orders not quite heard through the thick oak panels of Anne’s chamber door. A moment more brings a resolute knock.

“Enter,” Anne says. She sounds as if she has been practicing her regal voice all day. Poor Mary. She must be ready to be out of it. Not too much longer, my love.

The master of the guard comes in, cautious about his boots on the fine rug. He bows, removing his hat in a sweeping gesture. His face is red and he sounds as if he’s run the whole way from his look-out.

“Master Cromwell, My Lady Marchioness, there is a group of riders approaching. Four in all. The King and his personal guard. It is not the whole party at this time.”

“But it is definitely the King?” Anne asks, rising from her chair.

“Yes, my lady. He wears the white doublet he went out in this morning. It is not likely to be mistaken.”

She is out the door, past them without another word, leaving the guard to sweat and mop his brow in relief. He, Cromwell, turns and follows her to the head of the stairs. She is nearly at the bottom of the steps when the massive portal swings open and a voice calls “Make way for his Majesty!”

Henry steps in, riding boots tracking mud, spurs clanking. Anne drops into a low curtsey and he reaches out with one hand, catching her chin, lifting it gently toward him. He, Cromwell, senses a presence at his side: Mary. Her hand just touches his where it lies on the banister.

“He does know how to make an entrance, I’ll give him that,” she whispers.

“So does she,” he says, remembering Anne’s triumph at the masque.

Henry hands Anne into a chair in the hallway and she sits slowly, great elegance in her long straight neck. It’s an awkward place, in full view of everyone and not much out of the wind. The King turns and looks up at his audience for a moment before he kneels in front of Anne. It is then that he notices the front of the white doublet is stained with blood. Mary gasps ever so slightly. He shifts his fingers over hers. The King speaks in a whisper to Anne. She draws her hand to her mouth in horror.

“I could not trust such news to a mere messenger, my darling,” he says, loud enough for the rest in the hall to hear. The King stands and catches his eye, motioning for him to approach. He, Cromwell, hurries down the stairs, removing his hat as he goes.

“Your Majesty? Pray, what has delayed you?” he asks.

The King pulls him aside and whispers, “Norfolk has had an accident. On the road near Guines. He lies at the castle now, his son by his side. They don’t expect him to live out the night.”

“I see, my lord, most unfortunate. You are well yourself?”

“Mmm? Me, oh yes, fine,” the King says, noticing his doublet as if for the first time. “I suppose we will need to delay the crossing. And Crumb, there is one other thing. Most important,” the King says gravely. His face is haggard. He looks tired and quite sad. No one can say the King of England does not have a feeling heart.

“I need you to look into the matter of this accident. His horse threw a shoe. You know about such things.”

“Does your Majesty suspect sabotage?” he asks.

“I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Does it feel right to you, Crumb?” the King asks, searching his face. Henry stands with his arm about his shoulders, looking into his eyes.

“It is a shock, to be sure,” he says steadily.

“Indeed. But there is something more. The roads are rutted like the devil out that way, but they were dry and Norfolk is a great rider. Once he gets up on the horse…” The King releases him as he begins to pace about the hallway.

“Of course, I will look into the matter right away. Do you want me to ride out to Guines?” he asks. Out of the corner of his eye he sees that Mary has slipped down the stairs to attend her sister. The pair now make their way slowly up the stairs, Mary supporting Anne. The King watches them a moment, his face a mixture of pity and affection, before turning back to him.

“No, I’ve left your boys there, they will look to the scene. In the meantime I want you to ask around here, anyone working in the area who is not one of our people. The blacksmith, for example, is local, I understand.”

“Yes he is. I will question the man myself. Make sure of the guard in the stable. Check that there was nothing irregular in the rotation last night and since… Well, since the Duke last rode. Rest assured, your Majesty, Richard and Rafe will not fail us. If there is something at the scene untoward they will find it out. And if there is something amiss here--”

“You will know what to do. No man so likely to catch out a rat. I’m putting my faith in you, Crumb.”

“Thank you, sir. I am sorry for Norfolk. I hope he does not suffer much.”

“He is too broken to feel it. There’s that comfort, at least. And his son is with him. That is a blessing as well.”

The King sits down in the same narrow chair that held Anne a few minutes earlier. He slumps down, extending his right leg, kicking absently at his spur with his left foot.

“Come, sir. I’ll call your grooms. We should get you cleaned up and out of this… gear.” Henry nods slowly as if he does not hear. He, Cromwell, disappears behind the door to the servant’s stair and calls for an attendant. When he returns the King is sitting up, looking brighter.

“Crumb, have a tray sent up as well. I’ve not eaten. We were just sitting down to your picnic when it… when we heard.”

###

Black squalls come in from the sea that night, flooding the roads, worrying the shipping. Richard and Rafe are trapped in Guines with whatever they managed to dig up on Uncle Norfolk’s accident. The Boleyns are trapped in Guines as well, a fact which makes Lady Rochford unusually alert at dinner. He scribbles on half-heartedly in his room, one candle and a meager fire for company. No rush now, no telling how long they’ll be stuck. He is not often on his own. At Austen Friars he rarely has a moment’s privacy, and even at Calais he has hardly been out of Richard’s and Rafe’s company. He sighs and stares out at his reflection in the wet window. He doubts she will make their usual rendezvous. Anne will need seeing to, and so will the aunt.

With most of the Privy Chamber in Guines it is up to him to visit the King before bed, but he dreads it. Seeing Henry is usually not unpleasant, but the King’s face, his blood-smeared doublet and his earnest Does it feel right to you, Crumb? unnerved him. The King’s fear is always unseemly, but this is no phantom, no nightmare to be talked away. It will not be easy to sooth him out of his paranoia about sabotage.

He is startled by that same quick, timid knock on his door. “Come in,” he says as dispassionately as he can manage, keeping his eyes trained on his paper. He hears her light step over the old floor boards, feels her warmth by his side, then her hand on her arm. His face flushes but he keeps a firm grip on his pen.

“I can’t stay long. I’m only come to tell you that I won’t make it tonight.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“All is confusion and scrutiny. Lady Rochford knows something. Did you see the way she looked at you at dinner?”

“Can’t say that I did,” he lies. He saw the furtive scrutinizing looks.

“Thomas!” she says insistently. “Will you not look at me?”

He hides a smile and keeps his gaze focused on his paper. She takes his head in her hands and forces him to turn round. He feels the firm, soft little hands on his ears. He is biting his lip now, trying to suppress a laugh. He puts his hands up to hers and at last looks her in the eye. Her voice may sound annoyed but there is something almost merry in her eyes, and at least they are not red-rimmed with grief. He smiles at her, relieved. In one deft movement he reaches round behind her, grabbing an armful and pulling her into his lap. She is a warm weight on him. Agreeable. He reaches up and kisses her gently, smoothing her soft hair with his hands.

“It’s no use,” she says sadly, touching his face. He closes his eyes like an animal being stroked. “I must return almost immediately. My sister is very upset.”

“And what about you?” he asks, opening one eye to study her face.

“I’ll be alright… Thomas?”

“Yes, love?”

“You don’t have to be afraid of my uncle anymore.”

“No, I suppose not. But I’m still afraid of you,” he says, pulling her into a kiss. She stirs in his lap and the fizzing begins. Jesus, Mary and Joseph —she will be the death of him.

“It’s too bad,” he murmurs. “I finally have the place to myself.”

“There’s no time. I really have to get back,” she says, but her hand searches his lap, finds the laces of his codpiece, tugging at them gently.

He groans softly. “What are you doing to me?”

“I really must leave,” she says, turning in his lap, pulling one leg up to straddle him. He catches a fleshy ankle in his hand and squeezes it.

“You really must,” he says, sliding his hand under her skirt up to her soft knee. The temptation to carry her to the bed, to keep her there all night — damn the consequences — is almost unbearable. The bed is a poor narrow thing but it would be a vast improvement over their bench. His brain is awash in possibilities. She pants in his ear, biting at the lobe insistently.

The codpiece gives way to her efforts. Her grip is strong and sure, pulling him up by the roots, pushing back the hood of his cock with a deft hand. He swears.

His hand carries along up her thigh. She pushes herself onto his hand. The sight of her almost undoes him.

Pull yourself together, he thinks and places a hand beneath each of her knees. God, they are adorable soft knees. He can’t resist squeezing them. He lifts her up onto him and there is a brief pause before she plunges down, followed by a moment where all he can do is sit there, holding his breath, gripping her for dear life. He manages to slide down in the chair to get leverage to thrust up into her. She tilts toward him, her breasts in his face. He nuzzles. “God’s blood, you feel so good,” she says in his ear. The things she says. He won’t last long against them. She’s riding him now. He won’t need long, anyway. At least he hopes so.

“I. Really. Have. To. Go!” she cries. A word to each thrust.

“Yes. Right away. Before you’re missed,” he manages. He is half laughing, half in groans. He thinks of a pun about coming and going. He can’t manage it though. Too breathless. Too addled to carry on the joke.

She adjusts herself, seeing to her own needs, pushing forward onto him until the last possible moment, then pulling up and off. He offers her his hand. She maneuvers it into place, no pride, no niceness. Something is different about her. Ah, yes, the candlelight. He can see her. She is more charming that he had imagined in the dark. It is all over for him the sight of her is more than he can bear. A few more businesslike thrusts and it’s over for her, too. She is laughing and pulling herself together already. He sits up on the chair holding her still for a moment. Breathing.

Chapter Text

All Hallow’s Eve. He wonders if the ghosts will find him here as well. Do ghosts wander across the sea or do they stick to one location? He is a man of reason, or at least he would like to think he is. And yet the fact remains that he sees ghosts on a regular basis. Ghosts don’t care whether or not you believe in them. And they don’t do you much good, though Wolsey helps him find lost pens like St. Jude--if he believed in St. Jude. Liz walks behind him just out of his sight line on bright mornings at Austin Friars, though, sadly — since things ended with Johanne — she doesn’t visit him as often. Maybe she just wanted to make sure of her patch. Grace and Anne come to him when he’s lonely or in a rare moment of quiet repose. At times, he can almost feel the weight of Grace upon him. There is one other shade that perhaps wanders, or soon will wander: Norfolk. Will he come to rattle his relics in triumph over him? Will the Duke be any more pleasant in death than in life?

He hopes they will not come this year, any of them. God help him, he wants to stay among the living for a change.

It has been a long day of interviews. He feels the loss of his boys especially, for he can only take scattered notes. He transcribes the scraps onto parchment now in his empty, chilly rooms: Stafford, William: King’s Groom and chief of watch. Reports no unusual activity, but was himself absent three nights prior to accident. Was part of a disturbance at Le Chien Noir Tavern. Held overnight by local constabulary. Released after fine paid by T.C.. See attached document describing incident and Stafford’s involvement, therein.

Bernardin, Francois: blacksmith., Reports Norfolk’s horse, Buttercup, was checked weekly, shoes sound. Bernardin’s forge personally inspected by T. C. All correct and in order. No short nails present which might be mistaken for long nails during shoeing. All equipment sound and in excellent order. Bernardin a sober man with great pride in his craft…

The light fades, a servant brings in candles. He has little need for them. Apart from the investigation, there is no new business and his bill is long since put to bed. The winds that trap them in Calais keep messengers from coming the other way as well. The King will not see him. He was turned away the night before, told by a servant that his majesty and Lady Anne were condoling together.

He has had mail by land from Cranmer, in Italy. The usual prosaic missive, but with a strange cipher up the side: “something has happened.” The phrase comes to mind now, as he stirs his paltry fire. (Some problem with the chimney, probably, the fire never wants to draw.)

Every day he wakes with a kind of sweetness in his mind: something has happened. Every day he wakes with new aches and pains: today his lower back, yesterday his knee. He is getting too old for assignations on benches and chairs. Christ, if he could just wake with her beside him, even one day. Hear the morning birds in the dim light of dawn and feel the household come to life outside his room, knowing he needn’t stir away from her warm flesh. To murmur her awake and, if she fancies, have her before his breakfast. Otherwise he might go on meeting her in airing cupboards in Calais, and at home, for the rest of his life. There are many advantages to being a bachelor, but waking up alone is not one of them.

He sits down to write a letter to Cranmer. He tells of storms and Norfolk’s accident, but he cannot say for sure whether the old Duke lives or dies. He will write again soon when he has word. At the end of the letter he plans to write in code and special blue ink: “Something has happened here, as well. The King swears before God to marry our lady Anne.” He leaves out the condoling for now. Cranmer would be shocked, he has such a high opinion of the lady. He searches his pocket for another pen. Where is Wolsey when you need him, eh? He finds instead a piece of a crude iron nail. He turns in his chair and casts it into the fire. He will write his secret message in black ink, instead.

+++

If he were a poet he would write a sonnet about what it is like after. Sinking down into the downy bolster to find the wooden railing of the bench instead. His arm going to sleep as she lies with her head on his chest. The ache of muscles, cooling too fast after exertion. The briny scent her turning fishy ere long. When it can be put off no longer, the parting: an ungluing, sometimes literal as he finds evidence of a white flakey paste when he washes himself next. Furniture reorients itself in the dark and he collides with a sharp corner or stubs a toe. Beetling around on the floor looking for the tinder and candle. The scramble for clothes in the dim light. “Your stocking?” “No, that’s mine.” All serve to reinforce a single fact: this was real. This actually happened.

Chapter Text

Charity’s candle feels solid in his hand in the dark. A fine pewter thing, with a built-in tinder box. A servant’s candle. Having reached the rank of Master of the Jewel House, no one gives him the means or opportunity to make fire any more. He had to borrow the candle, as part of the deal with the cupboard. What he wouldn’t have given for such an object as a boy, rising before dawn, working with the battered old flints and the greasy rush lights to start the forge for Walter.

He opens the box slowly, takes out the fragile charcloth, angling it to catch the spark. He sits up on the bench, leaning away from Mary. She sleeps -- he marvels at it again, both the fact that she can sleep on this bench and that she is there with him -- with her head on his cloak, which is wrapped in a bundle beneath her. It must be late, or early, rather; he can see a faint gray light under the door. The house will be waking soon. Somewhere a servant is perhaps sitting up in bed, tinder box in hand, ready to light the first candles of the day. He strikes the flint on the steel and a broad spark lurches out. He catches it with the match, which ignites instantly. What a time to be alive, he thinks, lighting the candle.

“Love, the sun will soon be up,” he says, shaking her gently with one hand while being careful to hold the candle away with the other. He rises stiffly from the bench and begins sifting through the pile of their entangled clothes on the floor. He holds up a stocking, one of hers: green. He wonders if she has multiple pairs of green stockings or if these are the very same ones she wore the day she proposed to him. He sets it aside reluctantly.

He should try harder to wake her, he thinks, as he stands there watching her sleep. It takes her much longer to dress. A few strands of matted straw-yellow hair hang down over her face, lifting gently with each breath. She lies on her side, one arm tucked under her bosom, the other across it. She had pulled down one of Charity’s sheets over them and now it covers her legs and backside. A challenge for a painter to capture the way candlelight softly penetrates linen, defusing and sweetly blurring what’s behind it. He should ask Master Holbein about it sometime.

He locates his hose and straightens them as well as is possible using only one hand. His shirt is not in the pile, though, and he casts his mind back, remembering that he had worn it for some time before she pulled it off him. He finds it at the head of the bench and bends down, close to her now, to retrieve it. He stops, kissing her bare shoulder on the way up. He rests for a moment, his cheek to her warm skin, the temptation to bite, to nibble, to start the whole business over, filling his mind. She stirs. He withdraws.

“How long have you been awake?”

“I was never really asleep, but I’ve only been up a minute. I think it will be light soon. We should go.”

She rolls onto her back with a yawn, exposing her breasts in the candlelight.

He turns away, busying himself with the hose. They’ll never get out of here at this rate.

“C’mon, get up,” he says over his shoulder. “I’ve got your things here.”

“You are a hard task master, Thomas.”

“That’s what they pay me for, love.”

“Thomas?” He turns round: she is sitting up, hugging the sheet to herself. Thank God. They may make the funeral on time, at least. “Will you say prayers for my uncle Norfolk?” she asks, taking one of her stockings from him. She sounds matter of fact, but he wonders what is at the heart of the question. He decides to prevaricate.

“Ah, well, there’s the rub. I don’t actually believe that prayers help the dead.” He says, looking under the pile of clothes. Where have his shoes got to?

“That’s what Anne says as well. And Cranmer.”

“But you feel differently?”

“When William died I could not pray for him. I felt that God wasn’t listening anymore. So I did not pray. Now I wish that I had.”

“Do you fear that William has been waiting in Purgatory this whole time and that one prayer from you would have sent him off like a shot to paradise?” He says, locating his shoes near the door.

“When you say it like that it sounds absurd.”

“Do you want to know what I really think?”

“I’m a little afraid of what you really think. You will argue me out of all my beliefs.”

“I never could do such a thing. It would be wrong to try. I think you should do what brings you comfort. If lighting a candle for your uncle or your husband—” He pauses. It sounds so very wrong to think of another man as her husband. He realizes that he has privately been filling the role himself, at least in his mind. “If that brings you comfort then that is what you should do.”

“It is not the same, of course. A husband is not an uncle.”

“But one death reminds us of another," he says leaning against the bench to pull one shoe over his heel. "When Liz died it brought me some comfort to keep her prayer book. I’d always tried to talk her out of it, full of saints and fairy stories about the Holy Mother. Not the thing for the wife of a Bible Reader, or so I thought. But she stubbornly clung to it and, after she died, so did I. I carried it everywhere with me.”

“And now?”

He turns and looks at her, she is rolling up one of her green stockings, holding it up to the light.

“I think it is in a box somewhere at home. Did you think I would pull it out of a secret pocket in my shirt?”

“No, I just. I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve heard of you speak of your wife before.” Again, the words “your wife” strike him as wrong. It is some time since he has ceased to think of Liz in that way.

“Anyway, you didn’t answer my question. I asked if you would light a candle for my uncle.”

“No, but I will stay behind while you do, if you like.”

“That would be agreeable.”

She is poking her toe into her rolled up stocking, pulling it over her calf, pausing at her knee: aware, perhaps, that his eye follows her progress. She looks up and smiles.

“Will you wear green stockings to your uncle’s funeral?”

“No. I must suffer with black for a while.”

“Will you do me a favor?” he asks, setting his shoe down on the bench for a moment. He takes her small, warm hand in his.

“Have I not done many favors for you already, sir?” she asks with a wicked grin.

He blushes. Still. He can’t help it. Every time. She gets him every time.

“When I die, promise not to light a candle for me. And wear green stockings to my funeral.”

“Don’t be silly. My father says you will outlive us all.”

“Men in my position rarely get the chance to grow old, my love. Just promise me to wear the green stockings.”

“I promise.” He takes her hand to his mouth and kisses it, leaving it warm against his cheek for a moment. “And while we’re swearing oaths, Thomas, will you swear one to me?”

“Mmm, what’s that?” he asks, turning her hand over and nibbling kisses on the inside of her wrist.

“Swear that you had nothing to do with my uncle’s death.”

He is shocked, though his face may not show it. It was the question he’d been waiting for ever since she’d come to him that evening in search of some kind of bodily comfort. It had been lurking behind every conversation they’d had since. He’d prepared for it, but as the week wore on he had begun to hope that he could avoid it.

“Your uncle was killed in a riding accident. I was seven miles away at the time,” he says, releasing her hand.

“You refuse to take an oath, then?”

“And what” he asks, taking a step back from the bench, “will you report back to your family?" He begins to pace around the room, as he does in court, working up to his final summation. "I should like them to know the conditions under which it was sworn.”

“Do not use your lawyer’s tongue on me!”

“My lawyer’s tongue was good enough last night, my lady.” She picks up his shoe and throws it at him. He laughs, ducking. He picks up the shoe, puts it on, and looks back at her. She still stares at him, waiting for an answer.

“Have you not heard the proverb, ‘for want of nail, the shoe was lost?’”

“My uncle’s death was an accident, then?”

“That is what my investigation concluded, yes” he says, bending down to tie the shoe.

“Ah, but did you investigate yourself, Thomas? Who will do the interrogation?”

“I should think you most fit for it, my love,” he says, approaching the bench, taking her hand in his again. “If you worked for Thomas More, he could get rid of his rack.”

“Come now, Master Cromwell,” she says, smiling and affecting a deeper voice, “we have it on good authority that you are a Lutheran.”

“I renounce my heresy,” he says, clutching her hand to his bosom. “In exchange for five minutes alone with my interlocutor.”

“I have failed in my interrogation, Master More, this Cromwell keeps his heart locked in a strong box in Austin Friars.” He laughs and drops her hand. Her smile fades and she studies him still. He busies himself tying the laces of his shirt. When he dares to look at her face again, she is still watching him.

“Love, we must hurry. Here, let me help you on with this,” he says, lifting her dress from the pile on the floor. She turns away with a sigh.

“The truth is,” he says, “I had no great love for your uncle. You know that. But he did his best for his country and his family in his way. I respect that. I respect that the king has lost one of his most faithful servants…” He is rambling.

“You should give a speech at the banquet tonight.”

“I’ll leave that to your father. It might be a bit much, coming from me.”

“Given the circumstances,” she says, taking the candle from him.

“What circumstances?” He lifts the dress again, holding the arm hole open for her. She puts in one bare arm and then the other. This is his favorite part, almost. Dressing in the candlelight. Their little conversations. The normalcy of it. Her closeness.

“That you hated and feared him when he was alive,” she says matter of factly.

“Do you think that I somehow sabotaged your uncle’s horse?” he asks, trying to sound light and playful. She turns around and he begins lacing her up. “For what reason? Because he insults me? Because I dislike him?”

“Because he stood in our way.” His heart stops like it did the first time she called him Thomas

“So I murder for love! It’s a crime of passion!” His voice is a little hysterical with the strain of staying jovial.

“When you put it like that it sounds absurd,” she says quietly. She sounds almost disappointed. He finishes lacing her up. She puts on her slippers. He watches her. She’s so beautiful it’s almost painful. There’s so much he wants to say, but he can’t. Not now, anyway. She hands the candle back to him. With his free hand he reaches up and tidies her hair, tucking the straw-yellow strands up under her hood.

+++

A reading from Wisdom at the funeral gets him thinking: “the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right. The whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind.” How long since either of their minds were innocent? Can innocence somehow be restored? Isn’t that the whole point of the Gospel? Solomon seems to think not and assures us that the good die young, whisked away to God before they are corrupted. That is the logic at least, though after his Anne and Grace died the oft-quoted passage plagued him. He could not escape the feeling that God was selfish and that the world could use more, not less, innocence. Wisdom is not even in Tynsdale’s Bible. It is some comfort to be able to leave out that with which he does not agree.

He studies the stained glass of the chapel. The main pieces are well done. It’s too bad, but they will have to go: the saints and the Holy Mother taken down and replaced with images of doves and crosses. He looks up at the Virgin with her peaceful expression, her beautiful face. Statues of the Virgin dot the countryside and shelter beneath the eves of half the houses. In the window, the Holy Mother seems unburdened by her unnaturally large child. The baby Jesus has the same wise eyes as the fully-grown savior in the next panel, his sacred heart aflame, his hands raised in blessing.

The service ends and the King files out, dabbing his eyes copiously with his handkerchief. Anne follows beneath her mantilla, a little black mound moving with unworldly quiet behind Henry. He hears her sniffling beneath the lace as she passes.

Mary stays behind, lighting candles for her uncle and for William Carey. He stands on the edge of the chapel, fighting the urge to light candles of his own. The priest walks past, followed by an altar boy swinging the incense in a less than pious manner. Near the confessional, the Boleyns are in conference with Lady Rochford who occasionally looks at him, that same furtive, searching glance. Mary kneels and begins the rosary. He walks forward and kneels beside her. If he is the subject of gossip than he might as well enjoy being with her. His arm touches hers on the railing in front of them. She looks over at him, lays her hand over his. He closes his eyes and listens. The chapel is silent but for her whispered “Hail Mary full of grace.”

+++

Long ago, Wolsey converted a laundry vat to a bathtub. He, Cromwell, tried it once after the king and the privy chamber had used up most of the hot water anyway. He never forgot that pleasant feeling of lying suspended, weightless and warm, letting his legs rise up from the bottom till his toes pierced the surface of the soapy water. He feels the same now. The only thing anchoring him to his spot on the cursed bench is the weight of her precious head on his chest.

Chapter Text

He has a brief audience with the king after the funeral, the first time they’ve been alone since the accident. Henry is sprawled across a couch reading his report. The king yawns and looks up at him.

“It is not completely conclusive, of course.”

“No,” says Henry, examining his thumbnail.

“Though it appears to be a straight-forward accident.”

“Yes.”

Henry reads aloud, skimming: “ ‘Multiple factors involved: bad roads, faulty nail.... never found at the scene.’ Presumably it came off at some point earlier?”

“That’s what I believe, yes.”

“But you haven’t completely ruled out sabotage? It says here that there was some negligence on the part of the captain of the guard, this Stafford fellow.”

“Yes, but I think we were sufficiently well covered that night that we can rule out any intruders in the stables.”

“Pay Stafford out when we get home. Can’t have things getting slack.”

“Yes, sir. I really think it was a combination of the roads and faulty equipment. Nails break. No matter how conscientious the smithy, nails break.”

“So you interviewed this man yourself and were satisfied?”

“Yes, Your Highness, he’s a very loyal fellow, even though he didn’t come over with us. And his work has always been first rate. I don’t think he’s to blame.”

“Well if you’re satisfied, I’m satisfied, Crumb.”

“Thank you, sir. I do think we should put the matter to rest, don’t you? Concentrate on putting your divorce through Parliament?”

“Of course, yes. We should crack on with that as soon as we get home.”

“There is one more matter pertaining to the Duke. I would like to propose that in the upcoming parliament, we put a bill for improvements of the roads at home and in Calais. The bill could be dedicated to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. How do you like the sound of that?”

“Highway bill, eh? We’ve tried highway bills in the past and failed.”

“Well, this one has the immediacy of his lordship’s death behind it. To vote against the bill is almost like voting against a good man’s memory.”

“That’s a clever tactic, Crumb, I like it,” Henry says pointing at him with the rolled-up report on Norfolk’s accident.

“I don’t think the actual road where he was killed was one of ours. It wasn’t a public road, just a path connecting Guines with the main highway. It wouldn’t be affected by the bill.”

“No, but it’s the thought, isn’t it? People will be thinking about the dangers of the roads because of the Duke and then you can introduce the topic. It’ll work this time, I’d wager.”

There are several documents to be signed and a few amendments to the divorce bill to be looked to before he and the king join the banquet in Norfolk’s honor.

“There’s one more thing, Your Majesty, if I might. It’s a personal matter.”

“Oh?” The king sits up at this, seems more alert.

“It’s a bit tricky. I don’t know exactly how to ask it.”

“Best just to come out with it, Crumb.”

“Yes. Well, I have been much thrown together with… with… a lady since we’ve been at Calais.”

“Yes?” Henry says, grinning.

“The Lady in question is…” His heart is pounding. He can’t go back now. He takes one last deep breath before: “Lady Carey.” Henry’s brow furrows at the mention of Mary’s name. He swallows back the fear, gets command of his voice before proceeding. “We have… Well, I believe we have an understanding, you could call it. And I would like to ask for your permission to ask for her hand in marriage.”

“Aren’t you confusing me with the Lady’s father?”

“No, Your Majesty, not at all. I just wanted to make sure that the plan was acceptable to you before I proceeded.”

“And why shouldn’t it be acceptable?” Henry challenges.

He has prepared for this question. He must be careful not to overtly mention Henry’s relationship with Mary, or his de facto engagement to Anne, both of which are meant to be secrets.

“If your majesty should have thoughts of marrying into her family, you would be connected with me and my humble origins.” He says cautiously, studying the king’s face for any sign of displeasure.

Henry stands, setting the report aside on the couch.

“Blast it all, Crumb, this will never do!” the King says, reaching forward for the shirt strings that hang round his neck. For a brief moment he wonders if the King is going to strangle him.

“It won’t?” he stalls, feeling all the strength drain out of him.

“No! We are to be brothers-in-law and you stand there with a face like a pudding.” Henry says, releasing his shirt strings and taking hold of his shoulder.

“Sorry, Your Majesty” he says smiling weakly.

“That’s better! Now tell me how you came to be in this situation?” Henry is beaming now, like a child.

“I’m not sure I quite understand. We were much together after the night of the masque, I think. That was when it started, I suppose.”

“Look, Crumb, you need not be coy. You are a gentlemen. Or, at least, you have a gentile way with a lady’s reputation, and I appreciate that.”

“Thank you. You understand my need to be discreet?”

“Of course. Wouldn’t do to spoil the surprise.”

He can feel the return of the blood which drained out of his face a moment earlier. Things have gone better than he could have hoped. He seizes the opening Henry has left him.

“Can I count on your support, Your Majesty, in getting the Lady’s family on side?”

“On side? Nonsense. There is only one side and that is mine. If I have no objection to the lowliness of the connection, than what objections can they possibly have?” Henry says with a dismissive wave.

“There is one other point on which I would like to consult with you. The Lady would very much like to leave court after our marriage. At least for a time.”

“How great a time?” the King asks, his face clouding.

“I’m not certain. A few months at least. I believe it is a very strong desire on her part.”

“I don’t think her sister will much like the idea.”

“On the contrary, sir, I believe the Lady Anne would benefit from some time apart from Mary. Even the closest of sisters must feel it a strain to be constantly together. Lady Anne, I am told, has often made mention to her sister that she would like to see her married and out from under foot.”

“Well, this is the first I’ve heard of it. Still, I can believe it if you say so,” the king says. Henry looks as though he is biting back questions. No doubt the king would like a blow-by-blow account of certain matters, for comparison to his own memories.

“This has cheered me greatly, Crumb. I was feeling quite low about old Norfolk, you know. Quite low. Good news was just what I needed,” he says, grinning.

“I’m glad I can be of service in any small way. Thank you for your gracious offer of help, Your Majesty,” he says, and begins to bow and take his leave.

“When will you announce it?” Henry asks, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder again.

“Well, I have to ask the Lady first.”

“Well, what are you waiting for, man? Get to it!” he says, thumping him on the back. The blow comes unexpectedly and he pitches forward a half step. He can’t help but smile at Henry’s enthusiasm. He begins his bow again, but the King is half-way across the room, presumably on his way to find Anne before the banquet and tell her the good news.

When the king has left the room he, Cromwell, sits down on the couch, collecting his report, carefully rolling it up and sliding a silver band around it. He sighs and mops his brow. How easy it seems afterward from the other side. The work of a moment, a matter of nerve more than anything, as are so many things in life.

###

The floor is hard as he kneels. She is soft. He finds her in the dark and that is the first impression of his finger tip: soft. When he touches her, the flesh gives way, easily. He finds her belly: soft and flat, with a ripple of flesh, the unmistakable reminder that the belly once stretched out big and has gone back, leaving only a trace, the way a receding tide leaves piles of sand on a smooth beach. The belly has stretched before. The belly could stretch again.

Chapter Text

He should kneel down. Yes, definitely kneel down. That’s the established custom, he thinks while making his way to Mary’s closet, his pulse racing. He has yet to plan what to say to her. He’s pulled God knows how many strings to get to this point and he hasn’t thought of the bloody words. He planned what to say about her Uncle’s death, what to say to the king, but no words of proposal have yet crossed his mind. Perhaps inspiration will strike still. He tiptoes past Lady Rochford’s closet. She mustn’t lay her prying eyes on his sweating face. The door to Mary’s closet opens and her lady’s maid, Adelle, comes out at a trot. There is nearly a collision.

“I’m sorry, Master Cromwell. I did not think anyone would be here,” she says with an air of suspicion. “They’ve all gone down to the banquet. “

“Yes, of course. Right. Thank you. Carry on,” he rambles before turning on his heel and fleeing below stairs to the kitchen.

The heat, the steam, and the smell of the soup all remind him of the earlier banquet, when the cooks were crying over the mix up of a few herbs. Was it tarragon and something else? He can’t remember. He never filed that bit of information into his system. How long ago and silly it all seems. The cooks are singing Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris. It is a bit early for carols, but people seem to start Christmas earlier every year.

“Am I the ox or the ass?” he asks, swooping in behind Vincent to taste the soup.

“Ah, Monsieur Cremuel!” he cries.

“Perfection. A triumph!” he, Cromwell, exclaims and Vincent’s look of surprise changes to a smile.

“Monsieur Cremuel, it is only soup. You must taste the main course, the Duke’s favorite dish, le sanglier rôti,” Vincent says, slicing off a piece of skin and flesh down low on the boar’s flank where it won’t be missed. The skin crunches nicely and the meat is indeed juicy and flavorful, if a bit gamey for his taste. He prefers meat from higher up the hog.

“Done to a turn,” he says. Vincent beams, looking as if he is going to cry with happiness.

Upstairs in the banquet hall, the Boleyns have already started on the triumphant soup. He has seated Mary next to her aunt. She looks miserable. He overhears a snatch of the Aunt’s conversation as he walks past them. Mary is being regaled with the latest developments in a needlepoint piece that will stitch together to form a larger paneled tapestry. Liz and Johanne could happily talk for hours about sewing projects: the children’s costumes for the Christmas pageant, for example. He tries to picture Mary at Austin Friars, sewing away with the other ladies, making dyes from Liz’s recipes.

He has seated himself between his Richard and the Duke of Suffolk, in view of the king at one end of the table and Mary at the other. Rafe has been placed near the Lady Anne who has always enjoyed his lively manner and youthful handsomeness. Rafe would never flirt, of course, but he can easily bare teasing, having been trained up in the Austin Friar way.

Suffolk is quiet this evening, morose almost, and answers attempts to draw him out with grunts, as Norfolk would have done. Perhaps this is Brandon’s way of commemorating his fallen fellow duke.

Throughout the meal he catches the king giving Mary knowing smiles and making meaningful glances at Anne. Henry probably thinks he’s being subtle but it must look very odd to anyone but the most unobservant viewer.

The boar is brought in and Henry rises to toast Thomas Howard. The king’s ebullient mood fades as Norfolk’s name passes his lips, which is perhaps for the best since it would be strange to have him winking and grinning through his tribute to the dead. The Duke’s son Henry Howard is sitting with George Boleyn. They look solemn and they drain their cups before offering more toasts. He keeps pace wondering if he should offer one himself. In the end the opportunity slides by while he’s thinking about other things. He never made a proposal per se to Liz. Their arrangement was based on a series of discussions, of mutual agreements, all very rational and business-like. Mary wouldn’t want that, would she? Decidedly not, he thinks, as he sees her eyelids droop imperceptibly lower at her aunt’s endless prattle.

After the fifth pouring of wine many at the banquet are looking worse for wear. The conversation rises in pitch and volume and he sinks within himself, surreptitiously glancing at Mary. They make eye contact once, briefly, with neither blush nor smile. There is an understanding in the glance though, and Mary gives a brief nod before returning to her meal. He knows he will see her soon in their airing cupboard.

###

Mary has arrived first which is unusual. He taps and opens the door quickly, casting the light of Charity’s candle into the tiny room. She sits fully clothed on the bench, her feet dangling over the side and her hands folded in her lap. She looks like a child at prayer. He should kneel down. The custom seems to demand it. He sets the candle on the bench and bids Mary to stand.

“Thomas, I am certain Lady Rochford knows and has told my whole family.”

“We must not trouble ourselves with Jane Rochford’s gossip. She is a bitter woman, not much attended to by her people. I am sorry for her sometimes.”

“This is not like you. I thought you’d have some scheme to silence her.”

“Schemes? Me? You must have me confused with someone else,” he says coyly. She smiles, briefly at his joke.

“And that is not the worst of it. I think the king knows as well. He was giving me some very strange looks at dinner.”

“He did seem a bit too cheerful for such a solemn occasion.”

“It is all very strange.”

“Not so strange. A man in love will do many unaccountable things. Suffer many inexplicable changes of mood.”

“You speak from experience?”

“Oh, indeed. Experience and observation,” he says, taking her hand in his and drawing it to his lips. He should take off his hat, he thinks. It’s disrespectful to propose in a hat. He takes it off and places it on the bench while Mary begins to unpin her hood. No, this will never do. He reaches up, touching her hand, and stops her.

“A moment. Just… I need a moment. I would like to speak to you.”

“Yes?”

He searches his mind for the perfect word, the perfect phrase. Nothing comes. He begins anyway.

“I am not a young man, Mary. I can’t go on meeting you like this. It will be the death of me,” he says with a weak smile. She does not smile or laugh but looks afraid. No, you clod, she thinks you are ending it! “And yet,” he says hurriedly, “I find that I can’t bare to stop seeing you. So, you see, I have a dilemma.”

She nods, beginning to understand. He takes her hands in his and cautiously lowers himself till he is kneeling before her.

“Thomas, what are you doing down there? You’ll hurt yourself, get up.”

“No, I will finish what I have to say first.”

“Suit yourself,” she says, smiling.

“The king was acting so strangely at dinner I think, because I went to see him today. I asked for his help with your family in arranging our marriage. Yours and mine, I mean.” He pauses, looking up. Her eyes are shining with tears in the candlelight.

“And, you see, he agreed to help us and was delighted, because we have one thing in common. We are both in love with Boleyn women.”
The tears are breaking loose and she wipes them away. He starts to stand up.

“Stop. You stay down there now and listen to me,” she says, placing a hand firmly on his shoulder. “I am not a young woman either. In years perhaps so, but in experience I think you must allow that I am at least as old as you,” she says with a sniffle. His eyes start to burn though he doesn’t know exactly why. He stares at her belly, ashamed to have her see his tears. She pulls his chin up with her hand, the way he has often seen Henry do with Anne when she avoids his gaze. “But tonight, my love, I need to hear the words.”

He closes his eyes, pulls her toward him, his face pressed against her belly, exhaling what is half sob, half sigh. He is thinking of a child. He wants another child with her. He pulls back from her and looks up at her and says: Please marry me and come live with me. Come away from court. I know we’ve not talked of it, but I didn’t dare to hope till now. I want you to come live with me and my herd at Austin Friars. Be my kin. I love you. Come away with me. Please?

She nods quickly, chasing more tears with her fingers, laughing. She leans down and kisses his head. “Now,” she says in her old familiar, playful tone, “can I help you up, old man?”

He laughs, rubbing his eyes. “Yes, I think that would be best, old lady.”

Chapter Text

November 8th
The weather has changed from filthy to merely terrible. They are walking in the garden, her--their-- three turns around the gravel, the Aunt in tow, five paces behind.

“They’re watching me more carefully now. I don’t think I’ll be able to get away tonight,” she whispers, leaning in. He can feel her warm breath on his ear.

“Never mind. It’s only for a week,” he says, squeezing her gloved hand with his, enjoying the sound of leather squeaking on leather.

“You’ve set the date, then?”

“Yes, here in the chapel this Friday.

“You work fast.”

“I have good incentive.”

She is learning to walk with him, keep to his peculiar rhythm: they sway together, pause, and step forward. Sway, pause, step.

“We should go in after this,” he says, wiping the drizzle from his face.

“One more turn,” she says, smiling. “You should dress more warmly tomorrow.”

He laughs. “I have a better idea. I will endeavor to grow gills and scales overnight.”

November 9th
“Dear Johanne,” he writes. He crosses it out. “Dearest Jo—“ Definitely not. “Johanne:” He crumples up the scrap of paper and tosses it in the fire. He takes up another piece, the backside of a discarded bill of easement.

“Thurston: I enclose Vincent’s excellent recipe for cassoulet. Use the largest beans you can find. Also enclosed are some cuttings from plum tree to be planted on the new south wall. Will be bringing additional member of household (wife) back from France. She will attend all meals with me. Please adjust upward accordingly though her appetite is but little compared to mine. (Whose isn’t?) I’ve enclosed a list of her favorite dishes. As you can see, she has lived in France and prefers a ragout to a roast dish.” He adds: “Please inform Mistress Williamson that my bedchamber is to be moved to second floor blue room. Yours, T. Cromwell.” He seals the letter and puts it in the black bag that is to be sent out with the first tide as soon as the weather breaks.

November 10th
Christophe, the lad with the wassail from the tavern, asks to see him. The old alchemists have disappeared with the money. The blacksmith has been drinking and talking: “None of my nails ever failed before.” He thanks the boy and gives him 75 francs.

November 11th
He hides in Berner’s library in a chair facing away from the door. They have visited every shop in Calais. He can’t look at another piece of lace, another silk coverlet. They have bedding enough for twelve couples and Mary has purchased miles of the local lace to be stitched onto all her new underthings.

He hears a creak of the floorboards behind him and peers out to see who is there. It is Henry Howard. He coughs to show Howard that he isn’t alone.

“I beg your pardon. Just returning Berner’s Chaucer,” Howard says.

“I think it lives over there,” he says, curtly, pointing to the far wall opposite the fire place.

“Thanks. I hear congratulations are in order, sir. You are to marry my cousin,” Howard says with the studied congeniality of a well-brought up young man addressing his elders. He is a handsome lad, though with rather a lazy eye that gives him a laconic look from certain angles. He is about Gregory’s age with a few soft, ginger hairs on his upper lip. Fresh from his excursions with young Richmond to the drapers’ houses in Paris, complete with a hat that is a smaller version of the one the King had worn to chapel the day after the Masque.

“News travels fast.”

“Indeed. I also hear that she has converted you back to the True Faith.”

“Oh? I had not heard that one myself,” he says, setting his book down.

“My uncle, Thomas Boleyn, says you were seen in chapel lighting candles for my father.”

“You are well-informed indeed. But I think my Bible reading friends may safely count me among their number at this time.”

“Bible reading? Oh yes, the belief that every cart driver and fishmonger in England has the right to God’s word. I had a tutor who was a Bible reader, as well,” he says, his voice filled with derision.

“I should think that as a poet you would be eager to have as many readers as possible, even cart drivers and fishmongers.”

“Now I see that you are the one who is well-informed,” Howard says, peering through narrowed eyes. “My poetry is not widely circulated.”

“Poetry is a secret passion of mine. And my friend Thomas Wyatt keeps me abreast of the latest talent.”

“You are a friend of Wyatt’s?” Howard says, eyes-widening, sounding impressed.

“I am close to Sir Henry Wyatt who wishes me to be a kind of …a kind of uncle to Tom,” he says. Always so hard to explain his family. “So I’ve taken an interest in his writing. But to own the truth, I would take an interest even if not charged to do so.”

“He is lucky to have such a friend. And such an understanding father,” Howard says, bitterness creeping into his voice. “I was not so lucky.”

“The late Duke was not fond of poetry, I gather?”

“You know well he was not.”

“Yes, I know it,” he admits. And, softening, he adds: “He was lucky to have such a scholar for a son. And he was proud of you too, in his way. The king said your father’s final words,his final thoughts, were in praise of you.”

“Yes,” the boy says, looking away. From this angle he, Cromwell, sees only the lazy eye which gives the boy an appearance of sadness. The dim light makes the eye appear liquid, on the verge of tears.

“I know it may not seem so now,” he carries on, “but one day you will be glad you were there to hear them.” He is speaking from some place inside himself, some place that would have liked to have had a similar reconciliation with Walter. He has given this much at least to old duke, for what it is worth.

“Perhaps,” Howard says, turning back to face him. The eyes are clear and no longer sad, but seem occupied with a new idea. He feels the boy’s gaze as he turns his attention back to his book. Perhaps he has gone too far in voicing his own rationalizations. His blood runs cold for a moment, remembering the weight of Buttercup’s hoof in his hand. The work of a moment: one nail comes out, is broken in two, and the short end put back. On the surface everything looks right.

When he looks up again, young Howard is gone.

November 12th:
The king has invited him for a drink in his privy chamber. It is to be a last “lone stag’s” evening. He arrives with Richard and Rafe who’ve been invited as well. Rafe is too in awe of the company to indulge much, which is for the best given his weak head for wine. Richard keeps pace out of boredom. Brandon has started reminiscing with Gentle Norris and the king. No one else speaks for a quarter of an hour together. He and Richard and Rafe exchange looks of private suffering. He, Cromwell, would rather be with Mary, choosing feather beds. He would rather eat three meals in a row at Thomas More’s. He invents a game to pass the time: he finishes his cup every time Brandon taps the king on the shoulder and says, “Oh and Henry, remember…” Had he not learned to drink with Germans he would be worried about his own head.

November 13th
They are walking back from church as husband and wife, her arm entwined round his. He remembers his mad dash to church in twisted hose with no gloves and, later, the excitement he felt at touching her through merely one layer of cloth. Those gloves, he thinks —looking at the sad peacock blue, faded and in need of restitching — why does she not attend to that herself? There is no reliable glove maker in Calais. Nothing to match English craftsmen anyway. They’ll look in Dover, perhaps.

The report from the docks is of a favorable wind. As soon as they are packed they can leave for England. As newlyweds, Henry has afforded them the honor of a cabin to themselves on the journey home.

The king and Anne walk in front of them now, having been the official witnesses of the short ceremony. Henry was so pleased with the arrangements that he has spoken of wanting to marry Anne in a similar ceremony as soon as they get home. The king has tasked him with the particulars.

George, Lady Rochford, and Sir Thomas walk behind Henry and Anne. This is perhaps not quite right, but if Mary feels any slight she does not show it. For himself, he is inclined to feel generous to his new in-laws. They have put away their claws for now and that is enough.

Rafe and Richard walk behind. Through the ceremony Richard looked as if he were in great pain behind a tight, polite smile. Over-indulgence the night before probably. When asked for the ring there was a panicked look in his eye before he procured it: a large blue sapphire the size and color of the iris of Mary’s eyes. The local goldsmith had done a wonderful job with the setting. A rush job at that. It had helped that the man had been in arrears in paying his taxes to the king.

“It’s too bad Cranmer couldn’t have performed the ceremony,” Mary says, leaning in. He catches the scent of her perfume: lilies. He remembers her scent in the garden that first night: wine and sweetmeats. She should always smell like wine and sweetmeats.

“Yes, he has been detained,” he says, thinking of his friend’s secret scrawl: Something has happened.

“In a way, he’s partly responsible.”

“Oh?”

“When you first started to come around, to see Anne, she used to tease me about ‘my blacksmith.’ Cranmer overheard one day and came to your defense.”

“He did?”

“Yes, he told me about going to your house for dinner. About the magnificent food. About the comfortable rooms. And then he told us a remarkable story, how in the middle of this elegant meal, a young woman came in and told you that Gregory was racing greyhounds in the hall.”

“Yes, I remember that. That was my Alice. A niece of sorts, I guess you would say—we haven’t spent much time on those distinctions at Austin Friars. She is my kin, that is enough. A saucebox at times. I think she shocked poor Cranmer with her impertinent interruptions.”

“Not at all. He was charmed by her. And he said that you don’t beat your children for racing greyhounds and that you sometimes take part in the races.”

“The races? Surely not!”

“Well, not the races,” she says, laughing. “But the betting on the races!”

“That is true. I often win, but it is because I bribe my dog keeper for information.”

“I think that is when I fell in love with you,” she says, lowering her voice and squeezing his arm. “When I heard about your dog races at Austin Friars.”

“What a thing to be loved for! Wait until I tell you about the festivities at Christmas. You will succumb to violent passion when you hear of the loveliest chicken contest.”

“The loveliest chicken?” she says incredulously.

He turns and looks at Richard who is trudging miserably behind, poor fellow. “Richard, I was just telling my wife”—how he relishes the word—“about the loveliest chicken contest.”

Richard perks up and smiles, striding forward. “Each person has to go into the chicken coop and catch a bird, my lady,” Richard says, scissoring his fingers in the air to indicate walking. “The birds are then judged on their appearance.”

“Who is the judge?” Mary asks.

“Our Lord of Misrule,” he, Cromwell, says. “Whomever it may be. We choose a new one every year.”

I'm surprised you go in for such a tradition. Anne does not approve, you know."

“Then we shan't ask her 'round," he whispers. She smiles.

They approach the steps of the Exchequer for the final time. He marvels at how much has happened in between his five visits to that little chapel. How it has made over his life.

“My dear, I must part from you now. When you have finished your packing, send Adelle to me in the library. I have work for her to do on board ship.”

Mary nods, blushing demurely. Aware, perhaps, of her audience she makes a formal little curtsey before departing.

###

They are packing his papers. Rafe is dragging a massive box of the king’s treasure toward the door.

“Leave that. I’ll send for the strong backs shortly,” he says. Rafe stops. Looks relieved.

“Well, sir. You’ve done it,” Richard says, stepping toward him. “I would not have thought it possible but you have. Congratulations. I wish you all the best.” Richard extends a hand. He, Cromwell, bypasses the hand and goes for a hug, pulling the younger man toward him in an embrace.

“All the best!” Rafe adds and they enfold him in the hug.

“Things will not change between us,” he says quietly, stepping back. “And — well, now, what do you think of your new mistress?”

“She is not as forbidding as I imagined,” Rafe says, blushing. “Almost like a normal person, not a grand lady.” He stops. Looks worried.

“What we mean to say, sir, is that she has an easy, pleasant manner that puts one at ease,” Richard says.

He laughs. “I’m inclined to agree. Now, I must get on with this lot,” he says, gesturing to a last pile of papers on one of the tables.
A tall servant arrives and waits by the door to be noticed, clearing his throat.

“Ah, come in Guy. Just the man for the job. Can you help us with this box?” he asks, pointing.

Guy nods. “Monsieur Cremuel, there is a boy, a local boy from a tavern. He wants to see you on some business. Shall I send him up? His feet are bare and very muddy.”

“These vile roads! I will go down to him. Where is he?”

“The kitchen, sir.”

He makes his way down to the kitchen by the back stairs. He can hear Vincent complaining about the state of his floors as he approaches. Christophe is standing, arms folded, looking unfazed by the tirade with a gray, foul-smelling mud up to his shins.

“Christophe, what is it? Any news about my vanishing alchemists?” he asks, trying to sound jovial.

“No, monsieur Cremuel, I tell you before you will not see them again. This is the other matter,” the boy says, whispering.

“Yes?”

“The blacksmith, he takes to his bed. Someone has given him some bad ale. Not enough to kill him, but enough to keep him away for a while until —”

“Till the wind shifts. Yes, I see. This is good news, I think. I should not have wanted the poor fellow to die, but his talk was becoming troublesome,” he says quietly, reaching in his pocket and handing Christophe 25 francs.

“No, sir, monsieur Cremuel. I do not want your money. I want to come with you to England.”

“I see. Any family?”

“No. Only my uncle who runs the tavern. He has given his blessing. I’m afraid I told him that you have already asked me to come and be your servant.”

“You did? Well, that is a problem for you, then. What if I don’t need another servant?”

“Monsieur Cremuel, one can always use a servant who knows how to take care of things quietly.”

He studies the lad’s face. It is a hard face, full of angles and sharp cheekbones leading to cold, blue eyes. There are equal parts threat and supplication in his manner. He is loath to take the boy in on a blackmail, but something about Christophe compels him. Perhaps he reminds him of himself at that age. Mind you he, Cromwell, would have sent the blacksmith to the bottom of the Thames for half such a sum as 75 francs. Still, restraint is not a bad trait either.

“Yes, you are right, lad. I can use another servant who knows how to keep his mouth shut. And who can make a decent bowl of wassail,” he says, putting his hand on the boy’s firm shoulder. “Vincent!” he calls. “Get Christophe here something to eat for the journey. He is coming home with us. We’ll worry about his shoes in England.”

Vincent shakes his head and grumbles.

“Do you have a bag or anything?” The lad shakes his head. He is smiling now, menace dissolved. If he has gotten this big on the miserable food at that tavern, imagine what Vincent and Thurston will do for him.

Back in the library, he takes out the letter to Thurston, breaks the seal, and pens an addendum. “We will be bringing a second new member of the household. His name is Christophe. He’ll take meals in the servants’ hall. Tell the Mistress Williamson he should be given livery and shoes. He shall sleep in the pallet bed in the kitchen until we find a better place for him.”

Adelle arrives, sliding past Guy and the last of the big boxes to be taken to the docks. “My lady said I was to come to you.” He’d almost forgotten with all the commotion surrounding Christophe.

“Yes, come in, I’d like a word with you, before I send you to the ship.” She follows him obediently to a group of chairs near the fireplace, but looks hesitant when he gestures for her to sit.

“Sit, please. This won’t take but a minute.” She lowers herself slowly onto the chair, perching on the edge of it as if afraid to claim the whole thing for herself.

“I just wanted to take the opportunity to welcome you to my household.”

“Thank you, Master Cromwell,” she says, her eyes firmly cast down at her feet. This will never do. She seems terrified.

“I have a task for you,” he says, and she looks up, ready to listen. “I have taken on a new servant, a local boy named Christophe. A bit rough, but house trained — mostly, I think. I’d like you to take him under your wing, introduce him to the other French speakers. See to it that he has a wash before we sail. Can I count on you for that, Adelle?”

“Certainly, sir. Is that all?” she says, returning his glance, clearly more at ease.

“No. There is one other thing. I’d like to remind you that you no longer work for Thomas Boleyn.”

“Sir?” she says, sounding surprised.

“I know you feel you were working for my lady and you were, but Thomas Boleyn paid your wages. Now I will be paying your wages. You work for me now. Do you understand?”

“I think so, sir.” She is studying him, suspiciously, as she did when he appeared too near Mary’s closet, out of breath on the evening of his proposal.

“Good. Now it follows that if you work for me, you should come to me first with any problems that you might have. I will do my best to protect you, always. You are part of my household, which I will defend with my last breath, down to the boy who keeps my dogs. As it happens I’m very fond of the boy who keeps my dogs because he lets me cheat at racing.”

She laughs, leaning back in the chair, making herself at home.

“And in return for my protection, I expect absolute loyalty from you. My instinct was to find a new lady’s maid for my wife, one who had not been in the service of her father. But since you have been with her since before she was in France, I think it would break her heart to be parted from you.”

“I am very fond of her as well.”

“That is good, I think. But I hope that, fond as you are, you do not forget that I am your master. And as such I will permit no secrets on your part.”

“Secrets?”

“Communications, for example. If your lady wishes a note to be sent in secret, for example, then you should come to me with it.”

“Are you asking me to spy on my mistress?”

“Spy? No, of course not. Nothing like that. Only I insist on being kept informed of anything untoward in my own house.” It is rather a nuanced distinction, but she seems to have grasped it and nods.

“Now, you can begin by telling me if there have been any communications between your mistress and anyone else at Calais. Myself excepted, of course.”

“You mean letters, notes, that sort of thing?”

“Yes, that sort of thing.”

“Well, there was lots of notes between my lady and you, of course,” she says, blushing. “And a letter to Stafford, one of the King’s guards. Only that was, well, I’m only guessing, but I think that was a letter asking him to go away. He had paid my lady many attentions. And after that he was seen drunk in the tavern and got himself arrested I hear.”

“And when was this letter?”

“Around the time she started sending notes to you, master,” she says with a saucy look he supposes is meant to unnerve him.

“Fine. You are correct. I was aware of Stafford already. But go on. Have there been any other secret communications, notes, anything?”

“One, sir, yes; a note,” she says and his stomach drops. He feels sick.

“Go on,” he says, quite testily.

“The night of the Masque she sent a note to that French Duke.”

“de Montmorency?” he asks, relieved.

“Yes. It was just a little note and there weren’t another, and no reply from him.”

“Good. Thank you. You see, that was not so bad,” he says, for his own benefit as much as hers.

“No, Master Cromwell,” she says, studying her feet again. She seems anxious to be away and he is ready for her to be gone. Got to get her to the ship, get her working on that bed chamber.

“And from time to time, you have no objections if we have another chat like this?”

“No, sir. Of course not.” She does not sound enthusiastic about the idea.

“Do you know Guy, the tall fellow that works for Berners?”

“Yes,” she says, perking up in her chair.

“I’d like you to follow him to the docks on his next trip. Have him help you with the new linens. They are in boxes in your lady’s closet, I believe. Have Guy show you our cabin. You will need to make the bed up. I know that is not your usual line, but you can take one of the housemaids as well if you need to. Charity knows all about beds. Take her if you can find her. Get some good bed warmers in there as well. I want it as cozy as can be. Understand?”

“Yes, master,” she says, blushing.

“I’m counting on you, Adelle. Your lady is too.”

“I won’t let you down, sir,” she says smiling, bowing, taking her leave.

###

“I think Adelle might have over done things,” she says, dabbing sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her gown. She is lying face down on the bed, steaming, on top of the covers in her new night dress. He’s wearing the new shirt she made him, one sleeve of which is longer than the other. He has rolled the long one up to make them even. He stands beside the bed, fussing with the pillows as a way to keep his hands from shaking.

It’s midnight and they have just set sail. The ship creaks softly, moving in a gentle, steady motion. He walks over to the porthole and examines it for an opening to let in some fresh air. He peers out, straining, but there’s too much light in the room to look out at the waves.

“Are you anxious to get back?” she asks.

“Yes and no.” he says, turning away from the porthole. The glass is solid and thick with no way to open it. “There is a lot of work, of course. But I’m looking forward to our home coming.”

“To own the truth I’m a bit nervous.”

“Oh?” he says, trying to sound nonchalant. He begins to pace the floor.

“All those new people to meet. Will they like me, I wonder?”

“They have to like you. You’re the new mistress of the house.”

“They have to pretend to like me. There’s a difference.”

“If they don’t like you I will have them beaten.”

“That will be a big help.”

“But you’ll have the children with you and they will act as a buffer.”

“Have you met my children?”

“No. Are they dreadful?”

“Not particularly. I just wouldn’t want to rely on them as my ambassadors.”

“Why not? It worked well enough for me with you, didn’t it?”

“True. Speaking of which, you never told me what the prize was for the loveliest chicken contest.”

“The winner gets to wear a bonnet made of brightly-dyed chicken feathers.”

Gets to wear? People actually compete for it?”

“It’s the Austin Friars’ way. A sense of the ridiculous is valued above all things.”

“Thomas?” she says, resting her chin on her hands

“Yes?”

“Are you going to walk all the way to Dover?”

He sits on the bed, one leg on the floor. Jesus, his palms are sweating. Why is he so nervous? It’s not exactly their first time. There’s too much light, he decides. He is up again, moving about the cabin, lowering lanterns and blowing out candles.

“Leave one,” she says. “I’d like to see you for a change.”

He stops; blushes. The things she says sometimes. She will be the death of him.

“You are like a cat, nervous near the water.”

“I thought I was a dog. A black dog.”

“Some kind of frightened animal, anyway.”

“Is it that obvious? My nerves?”

“I’m sorry to say, but yes.” She rolls over onto her side, resting her head on her arm. “Just come to bed. Listen to the waves against the ship. It’s very restful.”

He lies next to her on the bed, sinking into the down, feeling the heat radiating from her body and from the bedwarmers below.

“A comfortable bed, is it not?” she coos, marching her fingers across his chest, idly. “Not so big, but very soft.”

“Well, it is a bed.” He catches her fingers in his, brings them to his lips. His hands have steadied. “That in itself is an improvement.”

“We could pretend we are sailing for the East like you promised,” she says, slowly untying the strings of his shirt.

“Someplace with sand and camels,” he says, leaning in, breathing her scent: wine and sweetmeats.

“It’s hot enough. You could almost think we were in the Mediterranean already.”

He pulls her closer, kissing her for the first time since the chapel. It is a deep, slow, quiet kiss, a married kiss. There is no hurry behind it. They have all night and the sea before them.