The sun was streaming in through the delicate glass windows, highlighting the gowns and doublets of the elegantly dressed ladies and gentleman of the court. In one corner, a young lady blushed at the longed for attentions of an older gentleman – her mother scowled, but dared not interrupt. In the other, a man's wife was flicking her fan out in front of her face, her dark lashes lowered innocently as another man whispered lewd suggestions in her ear, under the pretense of discussing what lovely weather England had been blessed with. In the center of the court, a musician gently stroked his lute, filling the bustling court with beautiful music that swayed the crowd, serving a double purpose of entertaining the queen and adding cover for whatever whispers need be whispered.
For this was the court of Elizabeth; a court of secrets, a court of lies. It was a court of dancing, and music, and poetry and theater. It was a court of love, a court of seduction. It was all these things; it was the court of a woman. A Tudor woman, nonetheless, who knew the value of putting on a show, and put one on in her court everyday of her reign.
Elizabeth's normally shrewd smile was stretched with tension. She tried to look composed, and those who the queen did not count among her intimate friends would think she was. But there were telltale signs in the flickering of her black gaze, always towards the door; her fingers were clutched on the throne, her knuckles white.
Her long hair, red as her father's had been, was piled atop her head; her face was powdered white. She sat balanced in her throne, the very picture of elegance and poise. Inside, her heart was racing, and she longed to get up and pace the crowded hallways like an agitated cat. But she did not.
A sudden whisper in her ear, and Elizabeth raised her head slightly, a sidelong glance coolly taking in the man who would take such advances with the queen. She didn't have to look, really; there was only one man who was so bold with the queen, and that man Sir Robert Dudley.
"My queen," he whispered, his smooth voice tinged with merriment. "Do try to be patient. They will be here, soon."
Her black eyes flickered into his; she could see her reflection mirrored in the darkness of his gaze. "You said that yesterday," she reminded him lightly.
His eyes brimmed with laughter. "But today I mean it."
Elizabeth let out a gurgle of laughter she could not suppress. "Sir Robert," she said fondly, leaning back so she could get a better look at him. "Do not mock my anxiety."
"I would never dare, Your Grace. I understand your desire to see your cousin again."
"Yes," Elizabeth agreed, her eyes flickering towards the doorway once more. "Catherine Knollys is...well, the only family I have left."
Robert paused; even a skilled, experienced courtier such as he had to think carefully before replying to that statement, if only because there was so much truth in it. Her father, the glorious King Henry VIII, was dead and gone, his mountains of gold in the treasury spent. Her brother had died, ill and in pain, while Robert's own father shoved Elizabeth's doomed cousin on the throne. Mary, the queen's elder sister had died heartbroken and abandoned, her husband lured by Elizabeth's Boleyn charm and Howard appeal. Her Howard relatives, her mother's people, had disinherited her the moment the ax fell on her mother's neck. And he definitely could not bring up the queen's dead mother, Anne Boleyn, who had died with the names whore and witch attached to her. He could neither bring up her cousin, Catherine Howard, who had been another of Elizabeth's father's wives, and had been beheaded an adulteress.
Elizabeth glanced up at him, his uncharacteristic hesitation startling her. He flashed a comforting smile. "Ah, but you do have Catherine, and what a wonderful comfort and friend she will be to you." And you have me, he added silently, but said nothing.
She settled back in her chair, slightly appeased. "Yes…if she ever gets here."
The word were scarcely out of her mouth when suddenly there was a flurry of activity at the doorway; Elizabeth jumped up off her seat, as her cousin and her family appeared in the doorway.
There was a brief, awkward moment where Catherine could not decide whether or not to curtsey to Elizabeth or hug her; Elizabeth tossed that hesitation aside and threw herself into Catherine's arms.
Laughter mingled with tears as they hugged each other, finally together after such a long time. Catherine, a determined Protestant, had fled England during Elizabeth's sister's reign, and Elizabeth had not seen her since.
There were smiles and calls for wine and dancing as Elizabeth welcomed them to her court, but there was something strange in Catherine's eyes as she regarded her younger cousin. "Elizabeth," she whispered urgently as the queen ushered them further into her palace, Catherine's young daughter wide eyed as she took in the sights.
Elizabeth turned her black eyes to hers. "Yes, cousin?"
Catherine clutched her arm tightly, but smiled. "I have something for you."
Elizabeth retreated to her chambers; Catherine had to get something from her bags and then promised to meet her there.
Kat Ashley, her beloved nursemaid from childhood, waited with Elizabeth, her eyes narrowed anxiously on the bronze queen. Elizabeth paced like a stalked cat, chewing on her lip for a moment before she remembered it was undignified and stopped.
Finally, Catherine appeared. Her dark hair had lightened with time, but she still retained the delicate prettiness of her girlhood. She smiled at her cousin, gesturing to a box in her hands.
The box was made of ebony; black, polished wood that gleamed. On the top of the box, there was an etching of a crowned eagle, holding a scepter in one claw, flowers rising up beneath it. Beneath the emblem, in delicate, elegant script the words were written, 'the most happy.'
Elizabeth's eyes flew to the words. The most happy.
Her mother's motto. She took the box into her hands and studied the eagle more carefully; finally, she recognized it as her mother's badge.
Elizabeth raised haunted blank eyes, Anne Boleyn's eyes, to her cousin. "Catherine," she whispered. "How on earth did you get this?"
Catherine's eyes were latched on her cousin's face. "I don't mean to cause you anxiety, Your Grace," she whispered. "Forgive me for not giving it to you before, but it was your mother's wish I give it to you when you came into your own."
Elizabeth tried the lock, but it would not budge. "It's locked."
"I have the key," Catherine unfolded her hand; a tiny gold key lay there innocently. There was silence as Elizabeth reached out with trembling hands, and then Catherine began to speak. Her voice wavered slightly, heady with tears, and she watched Elizabeth's reactions carefully.
"Your mother was not a witch, nor a whore." Catherine began as Elizabeth gingerly slid the key in place; together, the cousins sank down onto one of the couches. "You know I was with her in the tower when she was arrested. The charges were adultery and incest, and neither was true."
Elizabeth had heard this before; throughout her life, Catherine had made sure Elizabeth had known the truth about her mother. And for a little girl, who was fancied the daughter of a witch, this had always been a great comfort.
"Your father had promised Aunt Anne that if she signed the divorce papers, she could go to a convent. My mother, Mary, was anxious for me to leave the tower – anyone in connection with the Queen was being arrested. Indeed, our Uncle George was beheaded on charges of incest with your mother. Such a waste, such life squandered! A lovelier man I had never know then our Uncle George. It was a trumped up charge, and I know you know this." Catherine exhaled slowly, her eyes flickering shut. Images tore past her minds eye, and she was in the tower again, watching with a pained gaze as Anne paced the room.
"But I could not leave her there, not like that. That place is a prison – as you know – and your mother was a woman full of passion and life and ambition. She was not someone to be locked up in a dark room."
Elizabeth traced her fingers over the words etched on the box, feeling the raised wood beneath her fingertips. 'The Most Happy'.
"She stalked the rooms like a cat, waiting for something, anything. It broke my heart to see her thus; I suggested perhaps she take up writing to take her mind off things. She started on a diary – she wanted me to eventually publish it so all of England would know of her innocence." Catherine's trembling lips forced themselves into a slight smile. "She knew that would never happen, of course. Such an outrageous idea I had seldom heard. But she wanted her story told to England…but more importantly, to you."
"Your mother knew how hard it would be for you – she knew you would be trained from your earliest memory to hate her, for your father hated her so at the end. In the days before he died, it is rumored, he cried out for her in his sleep. Her and Katherine of Aragon. 'I had to have a son,' he kept saying over and over again. 'You understand, don't you Anne? Don't you Katherine?' Even at the end he was haunted by her."
"Before they took her out to die—" Catherine's blunt words were contradicted by the tears sliding down her cheeks, and the way she clutched at Elizabeth's pale hand, "she handed me this box, and locked it. She wanted you to have it when you came into your own, for she always knew you would. How could you not? You are a Tudor and a Howard and a Boleyn. I am sorry I did not give it to you sooner…when she said, 'comes into her own,' I took it as she meant when you were crowned, when you were Queen. As she was."
Elizabeth found it hard to speak; Catherine took it as a sign of her anger, and inclined her head. "I'll go then and leave you to read them, it. I don't know how many letters there are."
Elizabeth still said nothing, and silently Catherine got up and left the room. Kat Ashley followed, and locked the door behind her. Elizabeth could hear Kat telling petitioners gathered outside the door that the Queen had taken ill and was resting.
Elizabeth had gotten herself back under control. She slid the pins out of her hair and let it fall loose around her shoulders. Falling into her favorite place besides the fire, the box clicked open.
At once, the chamber was filled with the scent of rose water and lavender. The box had not been opened for many years, and the scent of her mothers perfume lingered. Te papers inside were crinkled and yellowing. There were several letters, folded neatly and delicately, and Elizabeth's heart froze to think of her mother neatly folding them before going out to die.
Hesitantly, she reached for the first letter. It unfolded with a cackle, the firelight casting an orange glow over it and Elizabeth bit back the tears to see her mother's perfect script.
She had written in English, though Elizabeth knew her mother was fluent in French as well.
With eyes blurred with tears, Elizabeth focused in on the tiny black handwriting.
"My dearest Elizabeth,
I am so sorry I am not with you today, child. Your cousin Catherine has promised to give you this box many years from now, from this place. Take it in good faith, my child. Catherine would do you no wrong.
Ah, Elizabeth. How it hurts my mother's heart to think I shall never see you again – never touch yourbaby fingers – never hear you learn to sing. There are many who would say I am not a sentimental woman, and I would agree with them. But suddenly, everything is much clearer now.
My sister Mary will serve you should you ever need her too, but I doubt they'll allow her to contact you. Catherine shall be my only envoy to you then, my daughter.
My brother George died today. I wish you could have known your Uncle for what he was, Elizabeth. He was a charming, handsome man with his whole life ahead of him, a life he spent helping me and mine. I pray you never feel the sorrow I have felt in watching a loved one perish because of my deeds.
Elizabeth, by now, you are grown and surely beautiful. I wonder if your looksfavor me, or your father? I wish that something of me could continue to live on in you, but I must pray you resemble your father so he cannot deny you. Despite what you may hear or have heard, there is no doubt about who your father is, Elizabeth. Hear me now as I tell you, for there surely will be some who say different. Your father is King Henry VIII. You are not the daughter of a lute player, or a poet. You are a Princess, and a daughter of a King. Never forget it.
I was not born to such privilege as you, and I praise the Good Lord I was able to do better for my children then was done for me. I had to work my way to the throne, Elizabeth. It was a lengthy, arduous road and had I a second chance, I am not sure I would leap at it. No—yes, I would. I am Quene of England. Anne, the quene. And I will be until the day I die. Nothing anyone can say will change that. I was ordained and crowned by God and England.
There will be many who tell you I was a whore and a witch. I was no slut, Elizabeth but I shan't lie to you. I use the lure of sex to keep your father enamored with me. It is exhausting being the love of a king – like a never ending dance where you can't sit down or take a breath, not even for a moment because someone is ready and willing to take your place.
I have done many wrong things in my short life; I have treated your half-sister, Princess Mary, dreadfully. But I challenge any mother not to do what I had done; to put my child in the golden place, the place of heir. I was doing it for you, Elizabeth. A Boleyn on the throne. Vivat Boleyns!
I have such pride in my family, and yet where are they now? Catherine is here, of course. But my mother, my father? Both of them claim to have nothing to do with my upward rise towards the throne. They were not so noble when I was granting them titles and lands.
Ah, the fickleness of fidelity, Elizabeth. Take care of your own and that is all. Never risk your own neck for someone else if you are not sure they would do the same for you. Your family should be your haven; you should hide secrets for each other and serve one another. But outside the family is dangerous, especially in this world of men. They will say horrible things about me in the history books; but you should know that I was a woman in a world of men; I convinced them all that I was invincible and I could do everything, and I convinced myself the same. But when the truth came out and I was humbled – I could not make a son – they could not forgive my deceit.
I wish I could tell you never to fall in love, for that is where it all began to go wrong for me. God save me, but I never loved the King. I loved a boy named Henry Percy, and he was my world. It started as court infatuation; a game to me, to see how much I could get him to promise. Mary had been married already and George was engaged. I was the only Boleyn without prospects to further the family, and thus I decided to find them myself. Henry Percy controlled all of the north of England, yet I never expected to actually fall in love with him. Desire him, yes – as I will later get to, my darling, there is a difference between desire and love – but love him, no.
And yet I did. We were engaged and I was ecstatic, but I told no one lest the King or cardinal protest angrily that we had not asked permission. And yet, somehow we were discovered and the cardinal forced Henry to give me up and agree that the betrothal had never happened. But it did, and I would not deny it.
The cardinal told me I was reaching too far, and that I was an upstart.
I was no such thing; but at that moment, I became one. I became single minded; my heart was broken and to even think about Percy caused me to sob uncontrollably. I was sent away, back to Hever to hide my shame. My Uncle and Father could barely look at me. My heart turned to stone in the wake of my failed betrothal, and inside I became bitter and old, like an old woman. On the outside I was still young and witty, stylish and charming. But on the inside, I was dead.
I died a little more every day I was away from him, everyday I was at Hever. I couldn't bear to think of him, of what should have been, of the life we could have had. And so I thought about something else.
I thought about being Quene.
My daughter, I must end this letter of rambling thoughts; the Priest has arrived and I wish to pray with him. To pray for you, for myself, and for my brother, God keep him.
Anne the quene