But how could he not like you?"
"He is an earl, Joan!"
"And you, Marget, are to be his countess."
The Midsummer Day sun was hot and absent any breeze. We were sitting on a log at the marsh's edge, our skirts drawn up to our knees, caps resting on the ground beside us. The marsh birds would warn us of any intruder, but there were unlikely to be any wanderers this festive day. We had slipped away from the city's merriment to ponder my rapidly approaching marriage.
In several short months I was to exchange my life as a knight's daughter for life as a countess. That thought still had the power to drain the blood from my face as if January's salt-laden winds were whipping in from the Wash, stealing my breath as they continued on their way.
"Think you. For how many years now have you trained for this?"
"Twelve." It had begun at the age of five. If I whispered the number it was only because, of a sudden, I did not wish for the training to end.
"And now you can ... what are all those things you can do? 'Tis been some time since I heard your father recite them all at my father's tavern."
"He has been busy."
"Aye. The pride of our fair city. The noble merchant-turned-landowner. He has been turning himself in circles, sending hither and thither across the kingdom to catch you a husband. You should be rejoicing at his success."
"But what if—"
"What if what? What if you cannot please him?" Joan's voice was rising, as if my worries were trifles too small to warrant her attentions. "Do you not know a dozen ways to dance? Can you not sing like a songbird? In how many languages can you read? And how many stitches can you work upon a canvas? How can you fail to please him, Marget?"
"If only I could meet him ..."
Joan shrugged. "And what good would that do anyone?"
"What if he is ... aged?"
"Then you will spend less time in bed and more time in delighting yourself with ... all the means of a countess at your disposal."
I could not keep a blush from spreading through my cheeks. "But his first wife—"
"The marriage was annulled. Is that not what you told me?"
"Aye. 'Tis true."
"Then she was no wife to him at all."
"But what if—"
"What if horses could fly? Would that not be marvelous? What if the Queen herself were to trade places with me? Would that not be grand?"
I grabbed her arm and made her stop. Made her turn toward me. "Truly. What if I cannot please him?"
"Are you meaning to ask me if you are to play the role of your mother?"
My fingers tightened around her arm.
"He will not be your father, Marget. You will please him. He will stay in your bed. Is that what vexes you?"
I could not bring myself to nod, but Joan knew me almost better than I knew myself.
"Hear me: there is nothing in you that could make him cast you off."
"Hush you. Last time I noticed, earls were still men." She said it as if that settled everything. As if there were no reason for the worries that churned in my belly.
"And last time I looked, Marget, you still had the face of an angel." Her gaze softened before she continued on. " 'Tis nothing like my own."
Her words asked for no comment and none was needed. We both knew the truth, had known it since we became friends. God had doled out looks to me with a generous hand, while he had been overly judicious with Joan. Her eyes seemed perpetually tired; her mouth drooped constantly in apparent fatigue. She hunched at the shoulders as if expecting a blow at any moment. Her strengths were abundant—loyalty, honesty, good humor—but they registered not upon her person. My poor, sweet Joan was less than plain. But it seemed not to matter to her one whit. She had always been my protector. I had assumed she always would be. But fate had decreed that in a few short weeks I would be embarking upon a new life without her. And at that moment, that seemed the worst part of the impending change.
"Come." Joan bent to pick up our caps and then took my hand, pulled me from the log, and began to run toward the city's walls, toward the bonfires and the singing and the dancing.
I could do naught but follow.
It was enough to drive a man mad!
Any nobleman worth his title could write poetry. That was what my tutor had taught me long ago. That was what I had always believed. But then came Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and now rumors of some person named Shakespeare. They had ruined it for us all. It was no longer acceptable to just dash out a sonnet. One must employ mythology and politics, and work for days to cultivate allusions aplenty.
But now, all I needed was a rhyme for carriage.
Her Majesty's comportment, her carriage, could be compared to ... Bah! It had been at the edge of my mind the entire forenoon. Carriage ... carnage.
Carriage ... cleavage.
There was no hope for it. It would come. I could feel it, but I might as well do something else, something more productive, until it did. Why did poetry have to require so much work? I was replacing the quill in the inkwell when a knock sounded upon the door, and then it opened forthwith.
It was Nicholas. He was carrying something in his hand. "For you, my lord." He straightened from a bow and extended a document toward me. "From the east, my lord."
The east. Perhaps ... I made quick work in breaking the seal, but then found my eyes could not deal so deftly with the words contained inside. If only my hands would stop shaking.
I spread it on the desk before me but still could not focus on the words long enough to read them. Pushing away from the desk, I gestured Nicholas toward the paper. "Read it."
"My lord." He stood beside the desk and took the letter into his hands. " 'Tis dated King's Lynn this twenty-second day of June. 'To Simon St. Aubin, most gracious lord, Earl of Lytham, I humbly take my pen in hand to—' "
"Aye, aye. Does he accept the terms or not?"
"It seems, my lord that ..."
"An aye or nay will suffice."
"If you could find the patience to allow me the opportunity to simply—"
"You vex me."
Nicholas's lips twitched into the briefest of smiles. "If you would rather have the reading of it, my lord?"
"Nay! And may the devil take you."
"Then ... it would seem as if ..."
Nicholas held up a finger to stay my words. If he had not been my most trusted friend, I would not have forborne the insolence, but he was my Gentleman of the Horse. And I had marked him as mine in my younger days. Had it not been for my youth's ill temper and the sharp end of a stick, he would now be absent a star of a scar that marred his left cheek.
"What say you?" I asked again.
Using that same finger, he reached down and slid it beneath a line of text. And then, finally, he lifted his eyes to mine. "Aye. After all of that, in the very last phrase, he agrees. You shall have the hand of his daughter in marriage."
"Congratulations, my lord. It is my fondest hope that the young lady will bring you nothing but happiness."
I looked at him. Though his mien revealed nothing but innocence, I knew him too well. "You mean to say, as opposed to the first young lady?"
Nicholas merely stood there.
I frowned as I regained my desk and removed my quill from the inkpot. "The young lady is of no importance."
"I beg to argue, my lord."
"You have never begged for anything in your life, Nicholas." I looked up just in time to see him hide a smile by tucking his chin into his chest.
"Be that as it may, that young lady shall soon become your countess."
"Aye. 'Tis the manner in which these things generally occur."
"A countess who will represent you. A countess who may bear you an heir."
I put the quill back into the inkpot and turned to look at him. "Pray, be plain."
"As a knight's daughter, her only wish will be to please you. You must not punish her for another's mistakes, my lord."
"Do you think me some cruel tyrant?"
"Nay, my lord. But it was you who said she was of no importance."
"Relatively speaking, Nicholas. 'Tis her dowry that I am after. Her knight-father's riches will allow me to regain Holleystone. If there is anything to rejoice over, 'tis that fact. You and I shall both be going home. 'Tis for that God is to be praised."
After being sold to pay for another's destitution—my brother's, the former earl—Holleystone was once again to be held by its rightful owners. And never again would it leave the family's possession.
Coaxing the lease of my other estate, Brustleigh Hall, from the Queen had been a victory, but the return of Holleystone would be a triumph. It was a shame I would have to marry for that pleasure, but the return of Holleystone was worth any tribulation. Surely the girl could not be so bad as my first wife, Elinor. I gathered those thoughts before they could gallop away from me. Though I had taken Elinor to wife, Parliament had recently annulled that marriage and so, in fact, I had no wife. Had never had. But the Act of Parliament that had expunged a marriage had failed to obliterate the memories ... that the face of an angel could hide a heart so duplicitous ... that beauty could be so deceitful.
It still cost me to think of the ways, all the very many ways, in which she had betrayed me. Though I had tried everything I knew to mend the wound, each thought of Elinor pulled at the edges, threatening to start it bleeding once more. And now I was to bind myself to another woman.
At least this one was just a knight's daughter. Surely I would not be expected to keep her long at court. Just as soon as I was able I would hide the horse-faced young girl away at Holleystone. Would that I could send her to Brustleigh and keep Holleystone for myself, but it seemed it could not be helped.
If Holleystone was personal, a family wrong to be righted, then Brustleigh was for the Queen. The renovations were nearly complete, and with what would be left of the girl's dowry, the remaining work could be finished sooner rather than later. And when it was, I would persuade Her Majesty to visit. With that sign of preference, along with some small sign of the Queen's preferment, then I could finally be first among her courtiers.
Nicholas cleared his throat, a sure sign that I had been ignoring him. "The young lady, my lord."
"What of her?"
"You will not neglect her, my lord?"
"Certainly not! Luck's chosen vessel must be looked after ..."
My thoughts turned toward all the ways in which I might, very soon, become lucky. I might be selected to receive a venerable Garter Knighthood. I might be asked to take a seat on Her Majesty's Privy Council. I might be given another estate or even a chance to purchase a monopoly.
"What is it?"
"The gifts, my lord."
"If you are to be married in several months, then I have only several months to attend to the preparations, my lord. First among them, the gifts."
"For the betrothal, my lord. And the morning after."
"Morning after what?"
"Your wedding, you great dunce!"
I waved him away. "Choose something you deem adequate. And since you concern yourself with the girl's welfare, take the gift there yourself."
I am certain he thought I did not see him shake his head over my words; I did. But I could not care. Fortune had finally smiled upon me. My ship had turned its sails toward home. That I would soon be married and have some girl by my side as I sailed could hardly matter.
That was it! Carriage, marriage. Her Majesty's carriage could be compared to a marriage of ... grace and virtue? Of grace and ... beauty? Grace and something. Why did poetry have to come in fits and starts? My only hope was that the more I practiced, the more I wrote, the easier it would become.
As Nicholas left the room, I reviewed the portions of the sonnet I had already written. I had been writing on the subject of Her Majesty, but as I contemplated my future, I decided to write instead about Fair Fortune.
I put the one sonnet to the side and began anew.