The queen rose early the next morning. She knew that by all rights, she should have rested longer after how late the ball had gone. However, her mind had been much occupied, and sleep eluded her.
After Sarah was summoned, Mary was dressed in a rich blue gown, and a strand of pearls placed clasped around her neck.
"A simple chignon will be fine for now," the queen murmured. "I will come back after chapel to have it done properly. I wish you to remain here until then.
After all, she must always be presentable, so her dress was impeccable as ever, but the prayer veil she wore would cover her hair.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Sarah said quietly. She lifted the weight of the queen's hair into her hands and looped it carefully but swiftly, then secured it in place. Finally, she arranged the veil delicately over the queen's face.
"I will return in some time," Mary said.
Sarah curtseyed, and shut the door softly behind her.
Nodding to the guards who were posted outside her door, the queen lifted her skirts and started down the familiar path to the chapel. She had tread this particular corridor many, many times in her years as queen at St. James' Palace. Often, she had come to the chapel to pray for a son. Sometimes, too, she had come to pray for her husband's soul - at the very least, that it would be protected from the sins of adultery.
This morning, however, as she entered the sanctum of the chapel, her mind felt shuttered. She knelt in front of the altar and closed her eyes, willing the words to come. She had prayed for over ten years for a healthy son to secure the throne - and prayed that a baby would finally place her back squarely in James' affections.
Soft footfalls sounded behind her, and she opened her eyes to see the resident priest kneeling beside her. Thank God it was the priest, and not one of the Protestant pastors kept around for the more misguided lords and ladies.
"Your Majesty," he said kindly, bowing his head to her. "May God bless you and keep you."
Mary bestowed a wan smile upon him, the best she could muster. This priest, Father John, was her favorite; he had prayed with her through many years of sorrow, even when she had not spoken her request specifically. No doubt he could have guessed the source of her shame, just as the rest of the kingdom could.
Sighing softly, she said, "God has been kind to me, Father John, in all respects but one."
She lowered her head, feeling tears start to form in her eyes, and glad for the veil that covered her face and preserved her dignity. Closing her eyes momentarily, she lifted her head once more; no tears had escaped, and she would not let them.
"You may speak at liberty, Your Majesty," the holy father said gently.
"A child," Mary whispered. Regaining her composure, she added more clearly, "A son. I still long for a prince to secure the holy lineage of a Catholic Stuart on the throne of England."
The priest was quiet for a moment. "In such times, when the answer to a prayer seems so beneficial, we can only wonder why God has not granted it."
Tenderly and paternally, he laid his hand upon the queen's, and she laid the fingers of her other hand gratefully on his.
"Your Majesty, if I may, is in good company. Think of how Elizabeth longed for a son for years, only to have God grant her John the Baptist. There was Sarah, who birthed Isaac in her old age, and gave rise to many nations through the fruit of her womb. And Rachel, who for years prayed for a child, only to be blessed with Joseph, savior during a famine. You are still young, Your Majesty. And your miraculous child may yet glorify God."
The queen withdrew her hand and stood. Elizabeth. Sarah. Rachel. Sarah… She paced for a moment before the altar, as if walking back in time, walking back through the stories so well known to her. It had taken the intervention of an angel of God for Elizabeth to conceive. Rachel had not been so patient; she had offered her handmaiden up to be a surrogate first, before having a child of her own. And in Sarah's case, Abram had lain with her servant, Hagar, as well. When the servants conceived, their children were treated as the children of Rachel and Sarah. Then, after that, Rachel and Sarah themselves had conceived...
"...are you quite well, Your Majesty? I pray I have not offended, and if so, I beg-"
"Quite well," Mary answered, interrupting the Father for the first time, and for the first time not perturbed by it. "In fact, you have helped me a great deal."
And without another word, she turned on her heel to leave, skirts swishing.
If James wanted to find himself some sort of surrogate, Mary had just the hand-maiden in mind. But she was going to do it her own way.
The queen hastened from the chapel to her private chambers, so quickly that the guards had to march double-time to keep pace with her. Of course, she had only lengthened her graceful stride, and had never allowed her dignity to be reduced.
"I wish for you to stand apart, out of hearing," she ordered. No one may overhear what was to be said. "On pain of death." She looked at them severely. This was a matter of state, after all. At least, it could be, if Sarah agreed, and all went well.
They murmured their assent and bowed obediently.
"I shall break-fast in my chambers today. I wish my husband to be informed of this."
"Yes, Your Majesty," the guards said, and sent one of their number with this message. The rest took their post throughout the corridor, some distance away from the door. In accordance with their training, they were to stand close enough to hear the queen if she shouted for help, but remain far enough so they could not hear anything spoken in a lower voice.
She opened the door and swept inside, nodding to Sarah as the girl hurried to curtsey. The maid looked slightly discomfited by the queen's abrupt entry.
"Sarah," she said in greeting. She swiftly closed the door behind her. "I must speak with you at once."
The maiden's eyes were wide. "You have my complete attention, Your Majesty."
"You may sit," the queen instructed, her eyes roaming over Sarah as the maid obeyed.
The girl was young; her eye was bright, her cheek pink, her flesh soft and supple. She was well-formed - healthy, but not overly plump. As she looked up at the queen, her eyes were inquisitive, questioning. As she had said, the girl was attentive and obedient. Yes - she would do nicely.
"You have served me faithfully for over two years now."
"Yes, Your Majesty, and I thank you for the opportunity," Sarah said quickly. "It has been a privilege."
The queen raised her hand. "I do not request compliments. Only listen to me." When Sarah inclined her head indicating that she would listen quietly, Mary continued. "Trusting in such exemplary service, I have often placed you in confidence."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Sarah said quietly. She opened her mouth as though to say more, but closed it again, remembering herself and her promise to listen.
"I am going to do so once more. But first, I wonder how much you are willing to place me in confidence."
The queen watched Sarah closely; the girl's brows had furrowed, but then she mastered herself again, expression returning to its previous neutrality.
"I have heard rumors," Mary continued, "that there is a servant here, by the name of Philip, who has taken a fancy to you. Are you aware of any truth in this?"
Sarah blushed, unable to maintain her passive expression - and that revealed enough.
"Your Majesty," she said quickly, "I would hardly dare to think that the queen would take an interest in such... trifling matters."
Raising her eyebrows at Sarah, Mary waited, until eventually the girl blushed deeper.
"...yet... even if he did take an interest in me, and I do not know that he does, all of the servants know that our entire duty in life is to serve Your Majesties. There is no time to think of marriage or children."
The queen stepped closer, and extended her hand. Tentatively, Sarah took it.
"It is as you say: your primary duty is to me. I know you would do anything for me."
"Yes, Your Majesty. I would."
Studying the girl's face, Mary could see that it was true. At the girl's loyalty and sincerity, the queen let her expression soften. Despite the enormous gulf between their stations in life, she and Sarah had something in common, then: they had both been denied something they desired.
"But marriage and children - you have thought of them, haven't you?"
Sarah lowered her eyes. "Your Majesty-"
"Come now." Gently, maternally, the queen lifted Sarah's chin. "I have heard this Philip is a handsome young man, and you are a comely young woman. All girls must have a sweetheart to think upon - have dreams of a life of their own. A little home… a family…"
"I-I suppose so, Your Majesty."
"And if it is as you say, Sarah, that you would do anything for me, there is something I would have you do. And I will do something for you."
Finally, Sarah's gaze lifted to meet the queen's.
"Sarah," she said, "are you familiar with the Biblical story after which you are named?"