Chapter XVIII

December 26th, 1555

In the same garden he had found her when he first came to Greenwich, he found her again. She was sitting on a curved stone bench. The wind blew bitter as she pulled a heavy, hooded cloak about her and tried to keep herself warm. He smiled at her little figure as he neared her.

"My Lady."

At the sound of his voice she startled. Her hair was studded with sparkling gems and her complexion glowed in the bright, winter moonlight. She looked beautiful, and next to her Yuletide finery he felt like a street urchin. He paused.

She looked confused as he stopped. Lifting herself from the bench she neared him, her eyes clouded with anxiety. She could read the uneasiness in his handsome face. The rumors had spread that the King had chosen Margaret and that they would soon be wed, with nothing to impede their nuptials. It was being sung and recited and repeated that the young, glorious King had married an honorable English lady for love. She was daughter of the much loved William Sidney and a lady not born into the lurid intrigue of the English court. The land rejoiced at such a Queen, one of their own and a good Protestant girl to boot.

Paul felt his dread growing. She had told him that she chose him, that she would deny the King. But the pained look on her face spoke volumes. His pain radiated from him as he contemplated what she would tell him. She must have come to tell him that their charade was over.

"Paul." She said his name like a prayer, the reverence chilling him to the bone "Why do you hold yourself at length? Come to me. Come to me my Lord."

He could not bridge the gap.

"The King, if he found me here, would have my head and yours. I cannot hold close to my heart the betrothed of my sovereign Lord."

She sank into her seat again. Her countenance was stricken, her shoulders slumped.

"I came to borrow strength from you, good Sir. I came to speak of my refusal of the King, and of my love for you. That you greet me such makes me wary of my plans. If you are not for me, why should I lend my disgrace and banishment?"

There was a stunned silence. He watched her, listening for any trace of treachery. She looked sincere. He rushed to her, pulling him into his arms and pressing her form to him as tightly as he could. She struggled at first, still stinging from his comments.

"You speak so poisonously and then hold me so tenderly? What nature am I to judge you by; your words or your actions?"

He pushed a stray curl from her forehead and cupped her face with his other hand. She leaned into him, tired and weak.

"Dear girl, I can only ask you judge me by my love for you. I fear, every moment that you will forsake this foolish scheme to troth yourself to a meager stable boy. What am I to a King as your Lord and husband? What have I to give to such a Lady as you? It is unnatural for you to desire me above all others, as I am below you in station so much that it would tear you from all your kin were you to truly embrace me as your lawful spouse."

She shook her head violently.

"I grew up in a small country house, I lived a quiet life. I read and tended to my Sister's garden. I gave alms to the poor and learned to run a small household of my own. I came to this court an innocent and I have seen nothing but treachery and misery. I am no fit to rule a castle, a court or a country. I am no Queen. I am better suited a stable boy's wife, by God!"

He laughed. There were tears running down her eyes but the fire with which she replied made him stir with desire. What a woman this was!

"My father left me a small bit of money and my own house in York. Henry will be sure to leave me with a sizeable dower, even if I refuse the King."

Paul stiffened. That very task would mean so much.

"We will have to marry in secret. We would have to elope and to consummate the marriage. If we begat a child they would have no use but to let us live. But it is a dangerous plan Margaret. You risk all, including your life."

"And yours?"

"I would gladly lay mine down for a chance to be your husband, my love."

She sighed, leaning her head against her shoulder and smelling his scent. He smelled of the stables, and of his evening meal. But he also smelled of ink and soap and his own intoxicating scent that was unique only to his skin. He wrapped his strong arms about her waist.

"The sun has risen in earnest. We cannot stay."

"Only one moment more please Paul."

"I will speak to your brother. I will tell him before the court leaves for Richmond."

"No. We must wait till after Yuletide, until the court has dispersed. You must accompany the court to the Lady Anne's castle. We will both speak to Henry; we will elope if we must. But rest assured my love that I only have a true heart for you Master Bingham and I will shout it from the walls of every castle in England if I must do, to convince you of it."

"You have convinced me, my Lady love. For I hear the affection you bear for me in your words and feel it in your touch. It causes me to wonder at the awesome mysteries of my God, and believe in the power of supplication. I have prayed for this moment Margaret and the Lord has answered my prayers."

The courage she needed, the strength she had hoped to gain from him, emanated from those words. In the coming days and weeks she would hold them to her like a shield against the tumult that was sure to come. Paul was her rock, would be her husband and nothing could tear them asunder. Not even their King.

January 6th, 1556

"Truly, I mustn't continue or I shall faint."

Eleanor laughed as the music came to a halt and Margaret watched fondly as Sir Stapleton placed a concerned hand on her shoulder. Her hand brushed her stomach briefly and she seemed to swoon slightly. Margaret felt a little nudge of suspicion.

"Do you see her Catherine? I suspect something of her."

"Ah." Catherine Dudley nodded astutely, taking a big gulp of something that smelled a bit stronger than what Cat usually indulged in. "Yes. It would suit Eleanor to bear Sir Brian a son. She is well suited for motherhood. See how well she had chaperoned that De Vere baggage? Not a single incident since she made her appearance at court."

That was true. Katherine De Vere had courted no more scandal under Eleanor's astute watch. But she had only been in the public eye since Christmas. Eleanor hadn't had responsibility of the girl for very long. Margaret guessed she could cause some sort of havoc.

"Would you dance again Margaret? The King seems thrilled to watch you. He can barely pay attention to poor Renard. Your crimson gown hinders the Empire's agenda quite effectively."

It was true. Edward was leaned forward on the royal dais as his court danced around him, watching Margaret with ardent eyes. Simon Renard, the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador was trying valiantly to get his attention. The final night of the Christmas revels would end soon. In a few days they would be packing up and leaving for Richmond and Madge had no idea what he was planning or when. Henry had ridden ahead to Mary at Richmond and she wouldn't see him again till they arrived.

She would have to break the news to him at Richmond. It would be the hardest thing she'd ever done. Margaret had no idea what he would do, but she could only hope that he would understand and support her. She wouldn't forsake true love for ambition. It was true her feelings towards the King had been confusing as of late but she had decided it was her devotion as his subject that had led her to imagine these feelings for him. She could not imagine herself as a woman torn between two loves. If it was true love, real love, it was the only love there was. There should be no room for others, or for doubt.

In her own secret knowledge of her own true love, she felt a jolt of pity. Turning, she caught Edward's gaze. All that she had learned of the King, all the things that made him a man, haunted her. He thought himself a man in love, a man on the brink of marriage. He had chosen her above all others to be his bride. His pride would be heart, he would be wounded. It was frightening to incur the King's wrath but how could she ever forgive herself for being the cause of his sadness?

Suddenly her head began to pound. Her resolve was strong, but in the midst of all the Holiday joy and celebration, in the midst of her own internal crisis she could not calm herself. She needed Paul, she needed his arms and his kiss and his words to soothe her. As she turned to bolt, a voice behind her startled her.

"Margaret, darling, could you be of some assistance?"

It was Katherine De Vere. Madge gave a brittle smile and a slight curtsy.

"Lady De Vere, I am quite tired and-"

"You weren't thinking of leaving the festivities at this hour were you? It is Twelfth Night, and the merrymaking has just begun. The King will finish with his advisors, and he will wish to dance with you."

Her last sentence hung in the air like a taunt. She didn't dare look up at the King, for fear of the truth in her words. How could she face him now, knowing what she would shortly have to confess? She cursed the unfortunate girl before her.

"You seek shelter from the storm, Mistress Sidney?" Katherine's head fell back and she laughed as if it were the most amusing thing she could imagine "You bear no love for our King."

"Do no presume to know who I love, my Lady."

"I never presume. My sources are always impeccable. Being disgraced can lead to some wonderful connections. I'm privy to all sorts of lower class secrets, you know."

Madge froze.

"Ah yes, I am quite the little secret keeper my dear. I've yet to let anyone know of the wonderful bit of gossip about you and the stable boy."

She wanted desperately to shut her up. There were people about, who could hear what she was saying who would go mad with the news. Madge composed herself briefly and laced her arm in Katherine's. Leading her slightly away from the bustle of the crowd she kept a serene smile on her face as they walked. When they were suitably far enough away she spun on Katherine.

"What is it that you want? To disgrace me? Wait but a few days and I shall do so myself. You need not waste your energy."

Katherine raised an eyebrow.

"You are quite the fool, Margaret Sidney. You would deny a King for a fit of lust over a pauper? Queens have lovers of course, as long as you can convince him you are virgin on your-"

"You go too far Madame. My honor is unstained; I am a virgin, touched by no man and with no mark of the sin of fornication upon me."

"To sin in the heart is to sin of the body. Have you not imagined his rough hands on your skin?"

"Stop this."

"I know the fascination with the lower class dear; I had quite the affair with one of my Father's servants if you hadn't already heard. For you, so nearer to his caste, it would have been even harder to resist your inferior nature. When carnal love is concerned-"

"You are base and vile and I wish to never speak with you again!"

Margaret needed to escape. This horrid woman had somehow found out her secret and now she feared the worst. Who else would the tactless Katherine De Vere tell of Margaret's indiscretion?

"Stay awhile Margaret. I have someone who would like to meet you."

She stopped and turned. Now, standing beside the elegantly dressed Lady De Vere there was a servant girl. She was pretty, with blonde hair tied modestly behind a clean, white veil. Her green eyes were vibrant and she was comely, with a good figure. She stared at the floor, her hands trembling.

"Lady Margaret Sidney, this is young Joan Rowley. She is the daughter of my chief laundress. It appears that she is in fact stained with the sin of fornication. Isn't that so Joan?"

Margaret was confused. The servant girl nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.

"She has come to me begging for help and as a good and gentle, Mistress I have obliged her. It seems that your stable boy is a busy lover. His reputation precedes him, of course, but lately his affections have been quite hot for two ladies in particular."

Katherine winked.

"Considering your status and your slightly more impressive dower, it is no wonder he has put thoughts of love and marriage in your mind without the pursuit of more…pleasurable alternatives. Joan, it seems, was on the opposite end. He has been bedding her Margaret, and he has gotten her with child."

She felt the air empty from her lungs. She remembered the warning Catherine had issued about Paul, about him ruining respectable women. The girl was crying in earnest now, one hand on her stomach and one hand covering her tear soaked face.

"Tis true Lady Margaret, he has promised me marriage in the past but he told me he planned to marry you. He would forsake me and his unborn child for your love! I beg you, do not take him from me or I shall be ruined. No man would have me!"

Margaret trembled. She was angry, hurt, confused and had no idea what to do. These were lies, horrible, malicious lies.

"You dare set up this charade? I shall inform my Brother and he will have words with the Earl of Oxford and you will be sorry."

"Ah, my Father does not care about me Margaret, which is one luxury I do have. No man to meddle in my affairs. And go ahead; reveal your own sins to your brother. I was only fulfilling a promise to my serving girl. If Paul does indeed neglect his responsibilities, I will take the matter to my Father myself. I am a go between dear girl, and nothing more."

She felt her stomach begin to knot up. The girl, Joan, looked ready to flee. Margaret stepped to her, taking the girl's quivering hand's in hers.

"Is it true? Do you swear on your honor he has been to your bed?"

Joan nodded her head furiously, tears streaming down her reddened face.

"And you are with child? His child?"

The girl choked back a sob.

"He is the only man I have ever known My Lady. I thought we were to marry. My Father would beat me if he found out I have lain with him. I will be disgraced and ruined!"

Her words ate at Margaret's resolve. If it was true, if Paul did in fact Father her child and did not marry her she would be ruined. What marriage could this poor girl garner with another man's babe in her belly? But she could not imagine Paul being untrue. She was risking everything, they were risking everything.

"I…I shall speak to Paul and I shall get to the bottom of this." She said that gently, but turned to Katherine with a spiteful glare "If it is a slander, I will discover the truth."

"He will lie to you, my sweet, simple Margaret. As I said, if he disgraces her, I will be her champion. I would not let her name be sullied by such a man."

With a smile she turned, leading Joan down the corridor. Madge stood dumb founded in the darkness. Behind her she could hear the lute playing high and sweet. It was early yet, and she had made no mention of leaving to anyone. But her heart was heavy, and she could not return. She leaned against a pillar and let the tears come. In one fell swoop, the De Vere harpy had ruined her vision of happiness. She had called her simple. Was she? Had she been foolish enough to let a scoundrel lead her to the altar?

Fear surged through her. This tentative, new love for Paul had come so quickly. She did not know him, she had let herself succumb to the abandon of his love. Did he even love her? Margaret felt her head spinning. It seemed that no matter how high or low, in the court of King Edward there was intrigue and deceit. She couldn't escape it. She had believed Paul was her safe haven, but now her world had shifted. Margaret didn't know what to do next.

"Mistress Sidney."

Dudley's voice startled her so badly, she nearly screamed. Standing to her left, dressed in all his finery, was the Duke of Northumberland. Since she had been placed in his household Margaret had seen much more of him, but they had only spoken a handful of words to one another. His shrewd eyes surveyed her, and he smiled slightly his hands clasped behind his back.

"Your Grace, I am sorry. I was feeling ill and I did not want to cause a scene in the Hall."

He didn't speak, but took a step closer. He looked down the hall that Katherine had just excited and her heart skipped a beat. Dudley was intimidating, a calculating man of granite and iron. He was the most powerful man in England, next to the King and he knew it.

"Your Grace please-"

"Of course. The festivities have been frenzied. And winter breeds a weak constitution, does it not?"

She nodded.

"You may retire Margaret. We leave for Richmond soon; you should rest so you can be well for the journey."

He nodded and two of his guard appeared from out of the shadows. Madge was shocked at their silent arrival. She wondered how many men Northumberland had at his disposal, and how many of them he kept at court. She shivered.

"Mistress Sidney, I hope you know that I consider you family. I have come to love Henry as a son, and his family is as good as kin to me. I am loyal to my family."

She turned to look at him, surprised. Something so kind from such a cold man. He smiled again and she felt her skin crawl.

"And I expect them to be loyal to me in return. Escort Mistress Sidney to my wife's rooms. See that she gets there in one piece."

He winked and turned to enter the hall again. As she and her borrowed guard headed back to her room in the Lady Dudley's apartments, she thought of Dudley's words to her. He expected loyalty? What good could her loyalty do him?

As Margaret Sidney, nothing. As Queen of England…..

Lying in her bed that night, his words left her cold. Dudley had noticed her as a player on the board and he would waste no time in moving her about as he pleased. The gulf between her and Henry left her vulnerable. He could not defend her against Dudley's wiles. He had just as much to lose as she did.

As she heard the rest of the household returning and settling in for bed, she still laid awake with her thoughts and fears. She would find no peace, or sleep, for hours to come.