Second Place Getter 2013: A Dance of Queens by Katherine Marcella
The music flowed sweetly tonight. She closed her eyes and reached out, shivering at the touch of Robin’s strong hand against hers. They danced the formal steps of the pavane slowly, the train of her court gown rippling like a peacock’s tail across the floor tiles. The pavane ended, and the music quickened into a volte. Robin pulled her close, his lips pressed to her cheek. He held her so tightly her breaths came in shallow gasps. Then he lifted her high, and they both laughed as her skirts whirled around her.
“Your majesty!” She hadn’t heard a knock or the chamber door opening, but Robin’s laughing face dissolved, replaced by Kat Ashley standing solidly in the doorway.
“Forgive the intrusion, your majesty.” Her old governess entered the chamber and handed her a longish object wrapped in frayed blue velvet. “They were emptying space for your wardrobe and found this in an old trunk belonging to your father. They weren’t sure what to do with it.”
The object was heavy. Lead maybe? But why was it so oddly shaped? She tore away the shreds of velvet to find not lead, but the warm gleam of gold: a thick gold seal with a crystal and silver filigree handle. She tilted the bottom edge toward the candle on her bedside table to better view the carving on a stone inlay of some type, an amethyst perhaps? She couldn’t tell. But there was no mistaking the quartered arms of England and France. She shot a questioning look at Kat.
“It belonged to Queen Mary, ma’am. You wouldn’t have known her.”
As always when her sister was mentioned, Elizabeth’s back stiffened, and her reply was tart. “I knew my sister only too well. And she imagined many things for herself, but never, I think, that she was the Queen of France.”
“No, ma’am,” Kat suppressed a laugh, “Not that Queen Mary but the other one, your father’s sister, the one they called the French Queen after she returned to England. And you could not have known her.”
Elizabeth ran a finger over the carving. “No, she and I were on the earth for such a short time together — I in my mother’s belly, she on her death bed. She exited life before I entered it. But I’ve heard the tales of her.”
“I saw her once in my youth. She was much loved and a great beauty.”
“‘Of face and form striking fair, with sunshine hair, and eyes like oceans of summer skies,’“ Elizabeth quoted. “So the poets say of her — dragged kicking and screaming from the arms of the man she loved and chained to a throne she wanted naught of. Never, they say, has an English princess been so reluctant to become a queen. But she found her way back to her true love, didn’t she, Kat? A queen and married to the man she desired. Is such a thing truly possible?”
“Probably not, ma’am, leastwise no longer.” With an arched eyebrow that spoke louder than her words, she curtsied again and closed the door behind her.
Damn it! She knew Kat far too well. That look was meant to summon up the spectre of Tom Seymour though she would never have dared utter his name aloud. Damn Kat! Tom was in the ground, and that chapter was well and truly written. He was never meant for her. They would not have loved well. That was as certain as anything under the firmament. She had closed that book a long time ago and would not open it again. Though sometimes — to herself only — she had to admit that in Robin she did sense faint traces of Tom. No, she shook that off. Robin was himself and the one she truly loved. He belonged to her present and her future. She would not dwell in the past.
Elizabeth clinched her fists to her side and commanded the musicians send cascades of music to fill her chamber once again, a rousing galliard this time, happy enough to drive all else from her thoughts. But her ears met only silence. The music was gone. Robin was gone. And her glittering peacock gown had become a linen shift of virginal white.
Nor would sleep come. She kicked heavy bedding aside and threw pillows. She yanked back the suffocating canopy curtains to gulp down cool air, but nothing worked. After many restless hours, she lay spent on her side, resigned to passing the night watching moonlight filter through the casement windows and crawl across the tiles where she had danced with Robin. Dear Robin . . . he could be her husband and lay with her now. She had only to voice the words, and it would happen. The inconvenient wife was now dead, but Robin was kept from her by a snivelling Council all too ready to label him a murderer. That he could not be. She knew it as she knew her own soul. She could make the Council believe it, and Parliament too if necessary. They certainly yammered at her often enough about the necessity of marriage. How she would enjoy flinging their words back in their smug faces! She gasped aloud as a tantalizing idea crossed her thoughts: what if they did try to thwart her … would she still want to be their queen? Could she dare leave all behind her for Robin?
The moonlight was shifting oddly. The smile she could feel curling on her lips disappeared abruptly and she braced her body against the bed, preparing to call out to her guards. Shapes appeared in the courtyard behind the glass . . . no, in front of the glass in her chamber. She blinked several times, but they did not vanish. They grew stronger and more defined — curved shapes, swaying and weaving amongst themselves like stitches in an elaborate tapestry. Eventually she could make out three, no, four women who plaited their ways around each others’ movements dancing in graceful steps. Moments and spaces of stillness lingered, yet always movement somewhere, first one moving, and then another. Now music accompanied them, music more beguiling than any her musicians could conjure up.
One of the dancers paused in front of her – a blonde beauty. Of course, that had to be the French Queen. The poets had failed to do her justice. Mary’s hair shimmered in the moonlight as she tossed her head and smiled. Of course she was happy. She had exactly what she wanted. If the Queen of France could marry the Duke of Suffolk, could not the Queen of England marry the Earl of Leicester? It was the same thing, wasn’t it? No … it wasn’t. Much as her heart desired to believe it, her sharp intelligence pricked out the differences. The French Queen was a Dowager Consort Queen. She had never had the same responsibility for a country and its people that Elizabeth did. She could marry as she pleased and did so. But shouldn’t all queens have that right? Before Elizabeth could puzzle out the answer, the French Queen was gone with a lilt of silvery laughter, and another had taken her place in the dance.
The newcomer was tall with dark hair and defiant eyes. Elizabeth bit her lip and lowered her gaze. Her heart thudded with heavy strokes. Though she knew not why, she could not look into her mother’s face. Few dared talk to her of Anne Boleyn during her childhood. A rare kind word reached her ears to gladden her heart, but harsh cautions not to be like the one who birthed her were her usual lot. Those memories were deeply buried, and she had no desire to dig them up. It was yet another book that should stay closed. But now that she was queen, why were none willing to tell her if she had in any way become like her mother? The question burned in her unexpectedly. Even if they did and dared speak honestly, would she listen? No, maybe not, because the only caution that lodged in her heart was that the choices of queens could come with dangerous consequences.
When she could face the dancers again, she raised her eyes to see another blonde gazing at her. She wasn’t the beauty the French Queen was, but she too smiled. This woman was not one she knew, but she was somehow familiar. The face resembled her own and, even more so, her mother’s. Yes, that had to be her other aunt, poor feckless Mary Boleyn. Mary had never been much spoken of either. What had her story been? Some scandals at court certainly, but mostly a base marriage. She was the sister of a queen and could have made an exalted marriage — not a marriage to make her a queen perhaps, though who knew what was possible? But Mary turned her back on that. She married a nobody, and became a nobody herself. Elizabeth could not recall the husband’s name, but remembered well Mary’s defence of her choice: “I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen in Christendom. And I believe verily … he would not forsake me to be a king.”
Would Robin beg bread with her if they had to? And would he forsake her for a chance to be a king? Many accused him of grasping for power, of aiming his arrow for the highest prize — not the Queen, but the throne. Could she ever be certain it was herself he coveted and not England?
Mary Boleyn drifted seamlessly back into the pattern, and another dancer caught her eye, one she could not help but recognize. Even with the squat stature and choleric temperament, her sister Mary was graceful and ethereal when she danced … but why was she not smiling? Should she not be happy? She married the man she had bargained for, though it was whispered in dark corners, a man who did not love her and saw his marriage as a distasteful duty. Mary may have loved, but she was wedded only for her throne and the boundless coffers of gold Philip of Spain drooled over to fund his endless squabbles with France and his adventures in the Low Countries. Did Mary, besotted with her fancies after her life of deprivation, ever think on that? Or did she know it and make the bargain anyway, capturing a chessboard King while weakening the Queen’s position? If so, what had it profited her? Her husband loved her not. And, ultimately, her people loved her not. Elizabeth scarcely noticed Mary leaving.
Others joined the dance, a long line of women she did not know but all with their lives of choices made, of gain and loss.
The music vanished first, fading at the first cock’s crow, to drown in the rhythms of the stirring household. The sun soon overpowered the moon, flooding the chamber with its radiance and chasing away the dancers, dissolving them into dust and wisps of memory.
Unwilling to let them leave, Elizabeth reached out to bring them back. Her hand met not a dancer, but the seal of the French Queen left on her table, a symbol heavy with the responsibility of queenship. She grasped it tightly. Moonlight, sunlight. Lead, gold.
She had her answer.