KINGS AND PAWNS
Chapter XVI

December 25th, 1555
GREENWICH PALACE, ENGLAND

The smell of her was everywhere. As Paul slowly woke he smiled, the cold December sunshine spilling into the window above them. He pulled her close, his hands feeling the smooth texture of her shoulders and back. She wiggled beside him, her lithe figure exciting him beneath the quilts.

"Good day Sir."

The voice snapped him out of his revelry. In a moment, his perfect vision came crashing down around him. He was in the servant's quarters, lying on a limp straw mattress, and he could hear the Palace waking up all around him. In his arms was not the woman he loved. The girl, Joan, had been a regular in his bed for the last two years; one of the few who'd made repeat appearances.

Lately, he'd seen none of them. His head had been so full of Margaret that he hadn't had time to go wenching, even during Yuletide, the most celebratory time of the year. But after a night of Christmas festivities in the heart of London, Joan's offer to accompany him had seemed especially tempting. A man had needs after all.

But even as he repeated that to himself he couldn't help but cringe. The pleasure he'd taken in Joan now stained him and made him feel sick to his stomach. After another moment entangled in the girls arms he began to stir. As he moved towards the edge of the bed and reached for his clothes he felt Joan's fingers tracing the curves of his spine. He felt gooseflesh crop up where she touched him and he moved away slightly. She giggled.

"Are you cold my love? Come back under the covers and share my warmth."

She was a pretty girl with golden hair like his and bright green eyes. She had a shape that had his fellow stable hands gawking and was a lively wench that knew how to have a good time. Her family, the Rowleys, had been close to his for years as their Mothers had been laundresses together in the late Queen Catherine Parr's household together and his own Mother had entertained hopes of Joan as a daughter-in-law in recent years.

Paul could do worse, he knew. She was dainty, pretty, and could even read. She was a good girl with a kind heart and had been a friend to Paul for most of his life. But she was not Margaret, he did not love her and for the first time in their history, he regretted sharing her bed. He vowed to never be here again, to never feel the gnawing guilt that ate at him now.

"I must take leave. My Mother will have expected me at her hearth already. Tis Christmas girl, have you no traditions to keep?"

Joan laughed and stretched her long shapely legs out in front of her. She was naked, the coverlet thrown back from her body and her clothes still strewn across the room.

"My mother will be laundering the court Ladies clothes, as always, and my Father will have succumbed to the sleep of whatever Christmas spirits he was able to find last night."

Paul finished dressing and gave her a look. She was watching him, languid and seductive. She nodded to him and slightly parted her lips.

"Tell your dear Mother you were in the Chapel, I'll tell her you escorted me this morning. Mistress Bingham will applaud you for your chivalry."

She sat up, reaching for him but he shook his head and began to put his shoes on. She pouted and threw her hands up.

"You would leave me then? As if we had not shared a bed last night? As if you cared for me not at all?"

"Joan-"

"No, I haven't seen you for weeks and now that I do I can't keep you in my bed for more than a few hours. You treat me like some common slattern and it is ungentlemanly!"

"Ah. Because you're such a great Lady yourself Joan?"

For a moment she looked truly hurt and he decided to recant, but before he could make amends she was up, throwing her clothes on in a fury. Her pride had been touched and she looked ready to breathe fire. He reached out a hand to grab her but she pulled away from him with a little hiss of protest.

"It is her isn't it? That wretched Madge Sidney! You're a fool if you think you'll have her! Here you are, shaming me this way when all I have done is loved you. She will have naught to do with you Paul; she is for the King, not his stable hands!"

"Be still!" he roared, his own temper suddenly flaring.

She stood there, unblinking. Joan was a strong girl. Paul stood fuming, but she did not fear him. After a moment her face began to change. Sadness replaced the anger that had been there before. She took a step forward, one hand reached out to him. He did not take it.

"Do not fool yourself into thinking you love her. It is like a Knight and a Queen in a fairy story. What do you know of her? Is she a woman of flesh and blood like me, or would you worship her from afar?"

He didn't speak, only watched her speak. Her words cut him to the quick.

"Do you know her secret places? Do you know of her family or she of yours? What is her favorite dish for dinner? What are her humors? Is she devout? What do you know of her Bingham? Think. Think before you ruin yourself and her."

She walked towards the door and took one last look at him, her eyes misting over with tears that made him hate himself.

"Or I. You will be my ruin too Paul."

With that she was gone. Her warning rang in his head along with his Father's. She would be his ruin and his downfall. She would be his and he would be hers. Madge had assured him that she would deny the King for him and he believed she planned to do it if it came to a betrothal. But what would happen to them? If Edward truly loved her he would not stand for it. His pride and his Council would not stand for it.

He was the King, and Paul knew firsthand how the boy Edward had handled betrayal. Now he was a man and coming into his full power. At his right hand Dudley was poised to strike, ruthless in his pursuit of authority over the King. Both were deadly enemies that he could not protect her from if she did indeed choose him.

If they were to be together, to truly be wed, they would have to leave court and London all together. Maybe even the country. Where could they hide where Edward Tudor could not find them? That thought weighed heavily on him as he made his way back to his home. He knew what his Father would say, were he to ask for advice. Need he suffer all of this chaos and strife for one silly girl?

He smiled at the thought. He could not fool himself. Margaret Sidney was much, much more than a mere girl. He may not have known everything about her, as Joan had been so quick to point out, but from the moment he had laid eyes on her something in him had fundamentally changed. He thought of Joan and thought of all the other girls he had bed sport with and none of them held the same sway over his imagination that Madge did and they had never even coupled.

As he neared his Father's door he spotted the familiar Sidney livery in the corner of his eye. It was Madge's page boy. Paul hurried towards him, his cold hands stretched out and his face taut with expectation.

"A message?" he asked breathlessly. The nameless youth smiled and placed something in his palm. It was a small bit of mistletoe, and nothing more.

"A Merry Christmas to you Master Bingham."

He was gone quickly and stealthily, Madge had been smart to choose him. Paul couldn't help but grin. As he turned the mistletoe to inspect it a small slip of parchment fell out into his palm. Very slowly he opened it, and her familiar scrawl greeted him.

"In our Garden, at dawn."

He gripped the little plant tightly and headed inside, his spirits high. A Merry Christmas indeed.

"I'm to be titled."

Margaret looked up quickly as her brother spoke. She was handing young Phillip back to his nurse as Henry walked into the room and she noticed he was dressed rather smartly. She cocked her head to the side and raised an eyebrow.

"Titled?"

He nodded and stepped up, kissing Phillip on his cheek as Miranda lifted him and made her exit. Madge was dressed herself for the nights revels but didn't look half as elegant as her own brother. He gave her a familiar half smile and her eyes widened. Titled, Henry who was a simple Knight, as his Father had been a simple Knight.

"His Majesty has made me Viscount Humber and Baron Folkstone. He's finally given me the titles to Penshurst and Myton and has given me Cooling and Tonbridge Castles as well."

Margaret was speechless. She watched as he walked towards his desk and grabbed a few parchments with the Great Seal on them. Their family crest was beside it. Standing their open mouthed she felt her head spin.

"Henry! Oh Henry you are a Viscount! And a Baron!"

"And he has given into my keeping the Lordship of Kinston-Upon-Hull."

"Father would be so proud!"

She threw herself forward, embracing her brother tightly. He let out a loud barking laugh and then lifted her up off the ground. Their strife was forgotten, their quarrels pushed to the wayside. He spun her in the air as if she were a little girl again. She kissed the top of his forehead.

"Would he indeed Madge Pie?" he asked using Sir William's pet name for her "Would he not be proud of you as well?"

He set her down and moved back towards the desk and placed his papers in a lock box. She stared at him, confusion coloring her features.

"Me? Whatever for Henry?"

He paused and gave that same half smile.

"Margaret why do you think these favors have been bestowed upon me?"

"You are a good and true servant to His Majesty; you have been his friend since childhood. He values your advice and have pleased him much since becoming a member of his Privy Council."

"And why, pray tell, was I given a position on that Council?"

Suddenly she felt her stomach drop.

"Henry I have had nothing to do with your star rising at court! I have asked nothing of His Majesty."

"Haven't you now? You are the future bride of a King and I am your brother. He is preparing you for the days and weeks to come."

"Preparing me?"

"Yes. Now you are the sister of a Viscount and I now have the means to provide you with a more acceptable dowry. By God's grace and the King's favor there will be more honors to come."

She didn't want to talk about this. She didn't want to hear him praising her for these new titles, for these new riches. He was so happy, and he claimed she was the source of this happiness. She turned towards the window, crossing her arms in front of her.

"When will you tell Mary she is to be a Viscountess and a Baroness to boot?"

"I have written to her just this morning. I am sure she will be overjoyed. Northumberland seemed rather pleased. If only he could get his youngest boys some titles so easily."

He spoke of Robert and Guildford. Madge was sure he'd procure something. The King was in his back pocket again after all and it seemed Dudley could do no wrong in Edward's eyes. And at any rate, once Jane's Mother and Father died, dear little Guilly would be the next Duke of Suffolk. As they left Henry's apartments arm in arm, Margaret pondered her brother's announcement.

"The King has spoken to me of his desire to wed."

Henry nodded, as if he had been expecting this.

"Has he spoken to you of these things?"

"On more than one occasion. Today, for the first time, he made himself very clear. You are to be his bride."

There is was. The plain truth. She said nothing more as they made their way to the Great Hall where the rest of the court had gathered. The Christmas revels were to begin this night and Margaret, who should have been bursting at the seams, felt only a heavy dread encircle her heart.

"Henry, I-"

"Margaret please, you know that you cannot deny him. What frightens you so? You are to be Queen! You must stop this foolish doubt and worry."

"It is not doubt and worry Henry! I cannot marry when-"

When I love another…

The words melted on her tongue. She was unable to speak them. She was almost afraid he would strike her down if she did. There he stood, in all his newly minted glory and those words would only cause to anger him. She was trapped, like an animal in a snare and her whole being cried out that she should run. But she could not. The herald was calling out their introductions.

He gave her one last puzzled look and the entered. Once inside Margaret quickly separated herself from Henry. He was suspicious now; she could see it in his eyes. He would sense her unease and as much as she knew she needed to be truthful about her love for Paul, she could not bring herself to tell him. Not on her own, and not yet. She needed strength, she needed help. At dawn she would speak to him and they would face this together. He would lend her all the might she needed.

"Madge!"

Eleanor's familiar voice rang out and Margaret turned, filled with excitement. She hadn't seen her since the night she'd gone with Elizabeth to the Tower. Her Father had whisked her away and she had been wed at his estates in the North. Her husband, Sir Brian stood beside her. His short brown hair and large green eyes were charming and he had a protective hand placed on his wife's back.

"Oh Margaret! I've missed you so!"

"And I you Eleanor; you and you Lord look as happy as I had prayed you would be. Marriage has suited you well."

She beamed and turned to give Brian a look that spoke volumes. He smiled back at her and then took his leave, talking with Eleanor's eldest brother Henry who had just recently become the Earl of Westmoreland after his Father's death. Brian was now in his service.

"Yes. It had suited Jane well, and will soon suit Catherine." She paused giving Madge a knowing look "And the whole Court is abuzz that soon you'll know the many joys of matrimony yourself!"

Margaret did not smile or rejoice as Eleanor had expected. She put a hand on her shoulder and spoke softly.

"Dear, whatever is the matter? You should be preening like a peacock. What ails you?"

Behind them a woman stepped up to stand beside Eleanor, getting Madge's attention.

"Cold feet I assume? Marriage, especially marriage to a King, can be a risky endeavor."

Margaret nearly hissed. Standing there, bold as brass, was the girl who had cornered her on the night of the banquet in honor of Prince Eric of Sweden. She had said horrible things and Margaret had only thought her a meddling stranger. She had not seen her at court before or since.

"Oh Katherine, please." Eleanor said rolling her eyes "What would you know of marriage?"

The pretty girl shrugged, her hair hanging in glossy red ringlets around her face. She smiled smugly at Margaret. She wondered how she and Eleanor knew of each other.

"Margaret this is my niece the Lady Katherine De Vere." Eleanor's eyes raised "Katherine this is Mistress Margaret Sidney, sister to-"

"I know who she is, of course." Katherine gave her a little nod "Who at Court does not?"

"A pleasure to meet you Lady Katherine. You are the daughter of Lord John I assume?"

"Yes and the Lady Dorothy Neville, May God rest her soul."

Her pedigree was obvious, two old and Noble names in England. What Margaret couldn't figure out was why she had never seen the girl out in the open at Court before but only in that secluded little corridor, dressed like some merchant's daughter. She was dressed much more appropriately now, in a silver and yellow gown with diamonds at her throat.

"It is a pleasure to meet you Lady Katherine."

She gave a slight nod of her head and then said her swift goodbyes before disappearing into the crowd. Eleanor put a hand on Margaret's elbow and they made their way around the massive display of special Christmas sweets and pastries. Margaret reached out and grabbed a candied peach.

"Tell me of the Lady Katherine." She tried to sound as if she was only casually enquiring and Eleanor gave her an unsavory look.

"The poor child has been inconsolable since my sister Dorothy's death. Her Father had been lapse in finding her a good match and she got tangled up in a scandal with one of his young Valets. Quite the debacle, she miscarried and John has only recently allowed her back at Court."

Margaret's eyes widened. An Earl's daughter being bedded by one of his own servants and getting with child! Eleanor nodded, and took a bit of her own pastry. She nodded towards the crowds of people and pointed to the Earl of Oxford. He looked rather lavishly dressed and was holding a conversation with his second wife, the Countess Margery. She looked less than pleased.

"Only recently? Are you quite certain?"

"She lost the babe five months ago and he had her installed at one of their homes in London. I imagine he let her out as a Christmas consideration. She's a rather rotten thing; she and her step mother have been at war the whole evening. Not that the Countess is any less horrid."

She waved a hand and rolled her pretty brown eyes.

"Henry says we must help her, make her feel comfortable, as Dorothy would have wanted of us. I know it is our familial duty but I do so tire of it."

Margaret wondered just how the little baggage had managed to get in the castle, so close to court life, if her Father had been keeping her away. She hadn't been dressed like an Earl's daughter but Margaret could remember how hateful her face had been the one time they had met. She shook the thoughts out of her head.

"Ah, there are Jane and Catherine and that handsome Henry Hastings!"

Eleanor embraced Catherine as she approached and covered her mouth as she turned to Jane.

"My, my Lady Dudley you are positively glowing, I must say."

"Eleanor!" Jane giggled and pressed her hands into the skirts of her gown "How I've missed you!"

Margaret still marveled at the change in little Jane. She was lit from within. She was still the same smart, pious, quiet Jane but she was a woman wedded and bedded now. She adored Guildford and he her. Her parents were pleased, her in laws were pleased, and surely she thought God was pleased. Margaret was happy. She was happy for all her friends who were set to be wives or who had already married. She felt a little of the weight lift from her as she relished in her place among these women. They were, as always, the bright spot in the unrelenting whirl of court life.

"Henry, you're looking rather fetching this evening." Margaret said as they settled in at a small table near one of the roaring fireplaces.

People were still filing in, finding friends and family, exchanging gifts, nibbling on the delicacies set out. There would be a Nativity play, in which some of the Court had parts to perform and afterwards a feast would be held in the great hall. Of course some of the older Courtiers recalled a time when Christmas celebrations had been much grander, much more decadent, a season of pure frivolous joy. Many of the Catholic traditions and pastimes had died away under King Edward's Protestant rule and the new celebrations were more muted, less indulgent. The Reformation had done its job well in England.

For the younger members of the Court, this was nothing new. They had grown up without the old splendor of the Roman Church, and these celebrations were enough to bring them joy. Henry Hastings joy was palpable as he settled in next to his soon-to-be bride. They complimented each other, wearing red velvet with white and silver trimming. The bodice of her gown was crossed with real silver thread as was the trimming of his doublet and breeches. They made a handsome couple.

"It was Catherine's idea. She oversaw the design and the tailoring. Such a woman!"

Catherine laughed and he winked. Turning around, he waved to the young Lords Thomas and Henry Howard. They were Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Northampton respectively. He took his leave and left the women to chatter. At once they all leaned in towards Margaret.

"We are to be your Ladies at your wedding Margaret. Mary too, if the King waits that long. I say once we get settled in Richmond we begin on your trousseau, you've been so helpful with mine-"

"And mine!" Jane said.

"None of you lazy bones helped me with mine." Eleanor laughed and took a sip of the cider that had been brought in pewter cups. They laughed with her, but Catherine went straight back to business.

"I think, with your coloring, a pale rose gown with a dark cream accent. And no jewels, pearls. Pearls at your ears and throat and on your gown. Maybe diamonds…"

"I cannot afford such finery Catherine, be sensible."

"Oh no." Jane said gravely, putting her hands in her lap "Your Brother knows what is at stake. He would spare no expense. There will be those who say you have no right to the Throne Madge. They will say you are a commoner and a bad choice of bride for His Majesty. Some want marriages with the French, and those who want and English bride say her blood must be old and royal."

"Well, Margaret can trace her line back to Edward the First, distantly, through her Father."

"How did you know that?" Margaret whipped her head around. It had been a story her Mother had whispered to her sometimes, of their family ties to the great Edward Longshanks. But she had said it wasn't worth mentioning in mixed company, as their ties to him were not as strong as others. They were not blood royal.

"Everyone knows that. You are to be Consort to the King. People at Court think themselves experts on your history and your pedigree." She smiled "Do not look so fearful, so pained. You act as if-"

She looked down at the floor, her eyes filling with tears. Silence in the little group. They all looked puzzled, stunned.

"Dear girl, why in the world are you crying?"

She blinked, not letting the tears fall and shaking her head vigorously.

"I am afraid."

She lied. She cried because as time passed, it seemed like refusing the King would alienate many people. Her Brother, the court, Edward himself and now even her friends. They already had crowned her Queen in their minds. How would they react when they found out who she truly wanted to marry?

It didn't matter. She smiled. It didn't matter.

"Marriage pleases God Margaret, and you could do much worse than the most powerful man in England. Your children will be Princes and Princesses, Kings and Queens. You will be the foremost Lady in the country. You need not fear."

Jane, who had only a short time ago had bemoaned marriage as her worst nightmare, looked so serene and sure when telling Margaret this, she nearly laughed. This smile lifted the tension and they fell into their usual joyous chatter about anything and everything.

Then the King was announced. When he entered, everyone stood and did reverence to His Majesty. As she rose Margaret felt something stir in her belly and she tried to shake it from her, but it would not be gone. That slight, gentle kiss in the shadows had awaked something in her. It was something much different than the engulfing passion of Paul. It did not instantly engulf her and steal her senses as she burned. It was almost a lightning bolt, a current so strong and clear shining through her, that made her feel as if she were a beacon.

He wore purple and black that night with a long cape to cover his well bandaged shoulder. Despite his still pale countenance he looked as handsome as ever. As he entered, the pride of his court was evident. Even with Northumberland trying to keep him under his thumb, Edward was still a good and just King. His reign, the reign his Father had worked so hard for, would be a magnificent one. That was what they all hoped and prayed for.

He was old enough now, to marry, to have his own household and to beget an heir. He needed a bride, his people needed a prince in the cradle and then a spare Prince in the Queen's belly the next year. Margaret could feel the weight of that on her like a lead cloak. As she trembled at the thought, his eyes landed on her. He strode forward, with the whole room watching until he was right in front of her. His smile was warm and he smelled fresh, as is he had come straight from a bath in his chambers. It was likely he had. Of the few times a year most of the nobility bathed, Christmas was usually always one.

"Would Mistress Sidney care to accompany Us to the stage for tonight's play?"

Margaret could not help but smile. She was excited for the play, had been since they'd announced it weeks before. Sitting in the front and center with Edward would be a treat. He enjoyed the skits and plays put on at court just as much as she did and they had talked of their shared love a few times in the past.

"It would be an honor Your Majesty."

She curtseyed again and then rested her arm gently in the crook of his as they lead the court to their seats in the adjoining hall. Edward turned to her, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. He inched closer, leaning down to whisper in her ear.

"I have had it settled. We will be married in late March, when it is warm. You will have a Spring wedding, my beautiful Queen Margaret."

For a moment she nearly lost her footing, but regained it before anyone could see.

"I am sure any wedding of the King's will be a beautiful wedding. I have always loved them in the Spring."

The answer suited him, but she had been sure to speak only of a King's wedding. Not a wedding to her. She would stand steadfast, and she would tell Paul so in a few hours' time. She may have loved the King, but he had come second in her affections since the first time Paul had kissed her, and now he always would.