Hampton Court Palace, 1540
Katharine Ashley found her young charge in one of the furthest corners of the palace garden, flung down on a bench with her flaming red hair in wild disarray. The girl's usually ivory complexion was closer to rose red, a warning flag that any who dared speak to her must tread carefully.
"My lady?" Katharine ventured, after sufficient time without an acknowledgement.
The response was a muffled, unintelligible noise that sounded vaguely like "Go."
"Lady…" Katharine swallowed the usual nursemaid-blandishments about catching cold if she stayed out too long. Instead, she sat carefully on the stone bench, wrapping her arms around her ten-year-old mistress.
"Oh, Kat!" Lady Elizabeth flung her arms around her governess and began to sob. Kat knew this mood only too well: these were tears of vexation and rage rather than sorrow. Royal-born though she was, Elizabeth had yet to completely master her temper. Suddenly, she exploded. "I hate her!" the girl screamed, her shoulders heaving with each word. "Hate, hate, hate, hate!"
Though her ears rang, Katharine held her hard. Sometimes in the past the child had lashed out with fists when in such a state. "Hush, my lady. You mustn't speak so."
"And why not? Why shouldn't the whole palace hear that I hate Mary?" Raising her voice, Elizabeth shouted, "I hate my sister!"
"Have you gone mad, child?" Katharine demanded, pressing a hand over Elizabeth's mouth. "Your father will banish you again if he hears you speaking so unwisely!" She waited until her charge had stopped struggling before removing her hand.
Too soon. "What care I for banishment? At least I'll be away from her!" Elizabeth snarled.
"What did she say to you this time?"
"S-she told me…" Elizabeth choked on another sob. Drawing a deep breath, she burst out, "Mary told me my mother was a witch, a servant of the devil!"
Katharine drew a deep breath. "Come," she coaxed, attempting to reason Elizabeth out of her rage. "This is bitter bile, born of old grievances. Your sister despises your mother's memory; now that your mother is long dead Lady Mary vents her spite the only way she can."
"I am not my mother!"
"You are all that's left of her."
At that, Elizabeth sagged as if she were a marionette puppet whose strings had been slashed. Katharine was forced to change her grip or risk dropping the sudden dead weight in her arms. She knew this mood as well: exhaustion after a rage, which might well turn into a true illness from being overwrought.
"My lady, we should get you inside. Do you think you can stand?"
"Kat?" This voice, meek and small, was almost unrecognizable from the roar of a few moments before.
"Yes, my lady?"
"What was she like?"
Katharine did not need to ask whom she meant. "What do you remember about her?"
Elizabeth sat up slowly, her dark red-rimmed eyes far away. "I remember her hair. It was black, not at all like mine, or my father's, or Mary's. I liked to play with it. And with the pendant she wore around her neck." Elizabeth touched her own neck at the base of the throat. "It was in this shape." She drew a rough letter 'B' on the dirt path. "Kat?" she asked, still in that small voice. "What would she think of me?"
"She would be proud of you."
"How can you be sure?"
"She believed you would be great someday." Katharine put a hand under Elizabeth's elbow. "Here, come inside out of the cold. I'll have the maid bring us something warm, and then I will tell you a story. I think you're old enough to hear it now."
The Tower of London, 1533
"Majesty?" Lady Mary Kingston, wife of the constable of the Tower, tapped lightly on the door. When there was no answer, she pushed it open, stepping between the two guards posted there.
The Queen sat at her dressing-table, head down on her arms. Her waves of shining black hair hid her face, but when she looked up Lady Kingston could see that she was milk white, with staring dark eyes. She looked so pale in the light of a single candle that Mary swallowed back a superstitious oath. It was a face that already half belonged to a dead woman.
Mary curtsied. Treason or not, Anne was still Queen of England. Until tomorrow. "Will there be anything else, Majesty? The priest comes at dawn to hear your confession."
"No, Lady Kingston, nothing else." Pause. "Thank you."
Mary turned to go.
"Wait." Mary turned back to find Queen Anne on her feet. Her chin was level, though it was wobbling. "My daughter, Elizabeth. What has become of her?"
Mary faltered for a moment. "She…is declared illegitimate, your Majesty."
"No!" Mary watched in astonishment as the Queen seized the water pitcher from her desk and hurled it to the floor, where it shattered. "How can Henry do this to her? To us? If only I had told him…" Suddenly she flung forward and seized Mary's arms in a frantic grip. Mary felt her nails digging in and nearly cried out in pain. "Promise me you will see that she is educated! Trained as the daughter of a King ought!"
"I cannot…" Mary whimpered. "I have no influence at court, I am only a knight's wife!"
"See to it! I cannot rest unless I know she is looked after!"
Those dark, burning eyes. Mary could almost believe the stories. "I'll do my best…"
"I promise," said Mary, half in tears herself at her fear of enduring a witch's curse if she did not agree.
The frantic look in the Queen's eyes faded. She relaxed her grip and backed away. "I'm sorry, Lady Kingston. It isn't fair of me to place such a burden on you. But I have no one else to turn to." She sank back into her seat, putting her hands in her lap as if unsure what to do with them. "No doubt you wonder why I think my daughter so important. She is only a female." She spat the word out as though quoting someone.
"Yes, Majesty," agreed Mary. The sooner she was told, the sooner she could escape that haunted gaze.
"I have seen the future." At Mary's involuntary gesture to ward off the Evil Eye, the Queen gave a soft laugh. "Oh, no, Lady Kingston, I have not seen it myself. Put your mind at ease. But I must cling to what I once heard or I could never calmly face the executioner tomorrow."
Greenwich Palace, 1530
George was uneasy as he led the cloaked figure down the echoing hallways of the palace. He had been a member of the Queen's Guard less than two months, and in that time had been on this same errand at least thrice: conduct some self-proclaimed witch or seer to the Queen's apartments.
King Henry and his new Queen had been tirelessly seeking out people who were purported to tell the future since before Anne's coronation in June. Anne had been heavily pregnant even then. Now in the last hot days of August, the quest to discover the sex of the child soon to be born had become more urgent than ever.
Unusually, this consultation would be made without the King, who had gone hunting. King Henry had never been a particularly patient man, and rumor said the wait had begun to tell on his nerves.
George nearly staggered back when the doors to the Queen's apartments opened. The Queen had taken formal leave of the court the previous week to be shut into her rooms; she would not emerge again until after the baby was born. The heat coming from the muffled rooms was incredible. They continued on nonetheless.
The cloaked figure and her two escorts made their bows. Queen Anne, dressed in dark red velvet, did not rise from her chair; she simply waved her hand lazily for the guards to withdraw. George and his partner did so, but watched at the keyhole. These consultations were always a spectacle, though uninteresting in themselves. The prediction was always the same: a strong, healthy boy.
The woman drew back her cloak. George was surprised; she was a young woman and rather ordinary-looking, not at all like her ancient, wild-haired predecessors.
"Doubtless you know already why you have been summoned from Kent," the Queen said, stroking the rounded swell of her belly. "You claim to have the power to see what will be."
"Yes, your Majesty," the girl replied. Her voice was calm, commanding for one so young. "If I may be so bold—" She stepped forward and seized the Queen's left hand in both of hers, staring at the white palm as though transfixed. George reached for the handle of the door, waiting for a summons: no one was allowed to touch the Queen without her permission. When nothing happened, he looked back inside.
The girl was still looking at the Queen's palm, tracing the lines etched there. Anne did not resist; she appeared fascinated at this young woman's boldness.
Abruptly, the woman stepped back. She seemed exhausted; at least, her shoulders were shaking.
"Well?" Anne snapped when the silence stretched too long.
"I—" At the catch in her voice, George realized with a start the young seer was laughing. Flinging back her head, she gave a shriek of mirth that sent the two guards stumbling away from their posts. They could still hear her, however: "You will never bear a son, Majesty! The child within you is a girl!"
Anne's shriek matched the woman's own. "How dare you! Guards!"
George recollected himself and burst into the room, his partner at his heels. The Queen had risen ponderously to her feet, tilted back slightly at the weight of her belly. She pointed a trembling finger at the still-laughing girl. "Remove her from my sight at once!"
They moved to obey. As they touched her, the girl became rigid. They were forced to drag her backwards towards the door, still laughing, and babbling between gasps: "Your daughter shall be born with her father's hair and her mother's eyes…she will have the unbiddable will of you both. She will be remembered and honored forever on this isle, but you, Queen Anne, will never live to see it." Whatever else she might have said was lost into gales of laughter again. The two guards accordingly threw her into the street, but George never forgot the look on the Queen's face as they dragged the seer from the room: white, and shaken, and above all, frightened.
"But is it true?" asked Lady Kingston before she could stop herself.
"Things have come to pass as she said," the Anne replied. Her voice was dull, her eyes glazed. "Elizabeth was born with red hair, and dark eyes. Here I am, condemned to die long before she comes of age. Make of it what you will. I know what I believe." She turned her face to the wall. "Leave me now. I must prepare myself for the priest."
"Yes, your Majesty." Mary never knew what made her turn back at the door. "I'll do my best to see that she is well. You have my word."
Anne turned back. Her face was still white, but some of the desperation had gone from her eyes. "I can ask for no more."
"Lady Mary Kingston was my aunt. She told me this story just before her own untimely death in childbirth, when she knew I was to be the one to look after you," Katharine concluded. She and Elizabeth were back in Elizabeth's comfortable room before a warm fire. The girl was wrapped up in a woolen blanket, and they were both just coming to the end of their heated spiced ale.
"Does my father know of this prophecy?" Elizabeth asked.
"I doubt it very much. And you might also take care that your sister does not learn of it either."
"No indeed!" Elizabeth scowled into her wooden mug. Then she smiled somewhat cunningly. "Yet I wonder what she would make of it?"
"You wouldn't!" Katharine exclaimed.
"Of course not, Kat," said Elizabeth with some impatience. "I was only imagining the look on her face if I were to eclipse her at anything."
Alarmed at her expression, Katherine said, "Now I regret telling you of this at all."
"Look at you. Already you are scheming on how to use this knowledge against your sister. May I remind you, my Lady, that there are many ways to be remembered, and not all of them good."
The determined scowl was back, and Katharine knew that it was far too late for caution. The gauntlet had been thrown down.
"We shall see," Elizabeth said.