"The countess is not only learned but also has a propensity for setting things alight," Kit observed, pouring himself another generous beaker of wine. He stuck his nose in it and breathed deeply. It smelled rather like Matthew. "Stay away from her stills and furnaces, Mistress Roydon, unless you want fashionably frizzled hair."
"Furnaces?" I wondered who this could be.
"A h, yes. The Countess of Pembroke," George said, eyes gleaming at the prospect of patronage.
"Absolutely not." Between Raleigh, Chapman, and Marlowe, I'd met enough literary legends to last me a lifetime. The countess was the foremost woman of letters in the country, and Sir Philip Sidney's sister. "I'm not ready for Mary Sidney."
"Nor is Mary Sidney ready for you, Mistress Roydon, but I suspect that Henry is right. You will soon grow tired of Matthew's friends and need to seek your own. Without them you will be prone to idleness and melancholy." Walter nodded to Matthew. "You should invite Mary here to share supper."
"The Blackfriars would come to a complete standstill if the Countess of Pembroke appeared on Water Lane. It would be far better to send Mistress Roydon to Baynard's Castle. It's just over the wall," Marlowe said, eager to be rid of me.
"Diana would have to walk into the city," Matthew said pointedly.
Marlowe gave a dismissive snort. "It's the week between Christmas and New Year. Nobody will pay attention if two married women share a cup of wine and some gossip."
"I'd be happy to take her," Walter volunteered. "Perhaps Mary will want to know more about my venture in the New World."
"You'll have to ask the countess to invest in Virginia another time. If Diana goes, I'll be with her." Matthew's eyes sharpened. "I wonder if Mary knows any witches?"
"She's a woman, isn't she? Of course she knows witches," Marlowe said. "Shall I write to her, then, Matt?" Henry inquired.
"Thank you, Hal." Matthew was clearly unconvinced of the merits of the plan. Then he sighed. "It's been too long since I've seen her. Tell Mary we'll call on her tomorrow."
My initial reluctance to meet Mary Sidney faded as our rendezvous approached. The more I remembered-and discovered-about the Countess of Pembroke, the more excited I became.
Françoise was in a state of high anxiety about the visit, and she fussed over my clothes for hours. She fixed a particularly frothy ruff around the high neckline of a black velvet jacket that Maria had fashioned for me in France. She also cleaned and pressed my flattering russet gown with its bands of black velvet. It went well with the jacket and provided a jolt of color. Once I was dressed, Françoise pronounced me passable, though too severe and German-looking for her tastes.
I bolted down some stew filled with chunks of rabbit and barley at midday in an effort to speed our departure. Matthew took an interminable time sipping his wine and questioning me in Latin about my morning. His expression was devilish.
"If you're trying to infuriate me, you're succeeding!" I told him after a particularly convoluted question.
"Refero mihi in latine, quaeso," Matthew said in a professorial tone. When I threw a hunk of bread at him, he laughed and ducked.
Henry Percy arrived just in time to catch the bread neatly with one hand. He returned it to the table without comment, smiled serenely, and asked if we were ready to depart.
Pierre materialized without a sound from the shadows near the entrance to the shoe shop and began walking up the street with a diffident air, his right hand firmly around the hilt of his dagger. When Matthew turned us toward the city, I looked up. There was St. Paul's.
"I'm not likely to get lost with that in the neighborhood," I murmured.
As we made our slow progress toward the cathedral, my senses grew accustomed to the chaos and it was possible to pick out individual sounds, smells, and sights. Bread baking. Coal fires. Wood smoke. Fermentation. Freshly washed garbage, courtesy of yesterday's rains. Wet wool. I breathed deeply, making a mental note to stop telling my students that if you went back in time, you would be knocked over instantly by the foul smell. Apparently that wasn't true, at least not in late December.
Men and women looked up from their work and out their windows with unabashed curiosity as we passed, bobbing their heads respectfully when they recognized Matthew and Henry. We stepped by a printing establishment, passed another where a barber was cutting a man's hair, and skirted a busy workshop where hammers and heat indicated that someone was working in fine metals.
As the strangeness wore off, I was able to focus on what people were saying, the texture of their clothes, the expressions on their faces. Matthew had told me our neighborhood was full of foreigners, but it sounded like Babel. I turned my head. "What language is she speaking?" I whispered with a glance at a plump woman wearing a deep blue-green jacket trimmed with fur. It was, I noted, cut rather like my own.
"Some dialect of German," said Matthew, lowering his head to mine so that I could hear him over the noise in the street.
We passed through the arch of an old gatehouse. The lane widened into a street that had managed against all odds to retain most of its paving. A sprawling, multistoried building to our right buzzed with activity.
"The Dominican priory," Matthew explained. "When King Henry expelled the priests, it became a ruin, then a tenement. There's no telling how many people are crammed in there now." He glanced across the courtyard, where a listing stone-and-timber wall spanned the distance between the tenement and the back of another house. A sorry excuse for a door hung from a single set of hinges.
Matthew looked up at St. Paul's and then down at me. His face softened. "To hell with caution. Come on."
He steered me through an opening between a section of the old city wall and a house that looked as though it were about to tip its third story onto passersby. It was possible to make progress along the slim thoroughfare only because everyone was moving in the same direction: up, north, out. We were carried by the wave of humanity into another street, this one much wider than Water Lane. The noise increased, along with the crowds.
"You said the city was deserted because of the holidays," I remarked.
"It is," Matthew replied. After a few steps, we were pitched into an even greater maelstrom. I stopped in my tracks.
St. Paul's windows glimmered in the pale afternoon light. The churchyard around it was a solid mass of people-men, women, children, apprentices, servants, clergymen, soldiers. Those who weren't shouting were listening to those who were, and everywhere you looked, there was paper. It was hung up on strings outside bookstalls, nailed to any solid surface, made into books, and waved in the faces of onlookers. A group of young men huddled around one post covered with flapping announcements, listening to someone slowly sound out job advertisements. Every now and then, one would break free from the rest, hands slapping him on the back as he pulled his cap down and set off in search of employment.
"Oh, Matthew." It was all I could manage.
People continued to swarm around us, carefully avoiding the tips of the long swords my escorts wore at their waists. A breeze caught at my hood. I felt a tingle, followed by a faint pressure. Somewhere in the busy churchyard, a witch and a daemon had sensed our presence. Three creatures traveling together were hard to ignore.
"We've caught someone's attention," I said. Matthew didn't seem overly concerned as he scanned the nearby faces. "Someone like me. Someone like Kit. No one like you."
"Not yet," he said under his breath. "You aren't to come here by yourself, Diana-ever. Stay in the Blackfriars, with Françoise. If you go any farther than that passageway"-Matthew nodded behind us-"Pierre or I must be with you." When he was satisfied that I had taken his warning seriously, he drew me away. "Let's go see Mary."
We turned south again, toward the river, and the wind flattened my skirts against my legs. Though we were walking downhill, every step was a struggle. A low whistle sounded as we passed by one of London's many churches, and Pierre disappeared into an alley. He popped out of another just as I spotted a familiar-looking building behind a wall.
"That's our house!"
Matthew nodded and directed my attention down the street. "And that is Baynard's Castle."
It was the largest building I had seen yet except for the Tower, St. Paul's, and the distant prospect of Westminster Abbey. Three crenellated towers faced the river, linked by walls that were easily twice the height of any nearby houses.
"Baynard's Castle was built to be approached from the river, Diana," Henry said in an apologetic tone as we traveled down another winding lane. "This is the back entrance, and not how visitors are supposed to arrive-but it is a great deal warmer on a day like this."
We ducked into an imposing gatehouse. Two men wearing charcoal gray uniforms with maroon, black, and gold badges strolled up to identify the visitors. One recognized Henry and grabbed at his companion's sleeve before he could question us.
"We're here to see the countess." Henry swung his cloak in the direction of the guard. "See if you can get that dry. And find Master Roydon's man something hot to drink, if you would." The earl cracked his fingers inside his leather gloves and grimaced.
"Of course, my lord," the gatekeeper said, eyeing Pierre with suspicion.
The castle was arranged around two enormous hollow squares, the central spaces filled with leafless trees and the vestiges of summer flowers. We climbed a wide set of stairs and met up with more liveried servants, one of whom led us to the countess's solar: an inviting room with large, southfacing windows overlooking the river. They provided a view of the same stretch of the Thames that was visible from the Blackfriars.
Despite the similarity of the view, there was no mistaking this lofty, bright space for our house. Though our rooms were large and comfortably furnished, Baynard's Castle was the home of aristocracy, and it showed. Wide, cushioned settles flanked the fireplace, along with chairs so deep that a woman could curl up in one with all her skirts tucked around her. Tapestries enlivened the stone walls with splashes of bright color and scenes from classical mythology. There were signs, too, of a scholar's mind at work. Books, bits of ancient statuary, natural objects, pictures, maps, and other curiosities covered the tables.
"Master Roydon?" A man with a pointed beard and dark hair peppered with gray stood. He held a small board in one hand and a tiny brush in the other.
"Hilliard!" Matthew said, his delight evident. "What brings you here?"
"A commission for Lady Pembroke," the man said, waving his palette. "I must put the finishing touches on this miniature. She wishes to have it for a gift at the New Year." His bright brown eyes studied me.
"I forget, you have not met my wife. Diana, this is Nicholas Hilliard, the limner."
"I am honored," I said, dipping into a curtsy. London had well over a hundred thousand residents. Why did Matthew have to know everyone that historians would one day find significant? "I know and admire your work."
"She has seen the portrait of Sir Walter that you painted for me last year," Matthew said smoothly, covering up my too-effusive greeting.
"One of his best pieces, I agree," Henry said, looking over the artist's shoulder. "This seems destined to rival it, though. What an excellent likeness of Mary, Hilliard. You've captured the intensity of her gaze." Hilliard looked pleased.
A servant appeared with wine, and Henry, Matthew, and Hilliard conversed in low voices while I examined an ostrich egg set in gold and a nautilus shell in a silver stand, both of which sat on a table along with several priceless mathematical instruments that I didn't dare touch.
"Matt!" The Countess of Pembroke stood in the doorway wiping inkstained fingers on a handkerchief hastily supplied by her maid. I wondered why anyone would bother, since her mistress's dove gray gown was already splotched and even singed in places. The countess peeled the simple garment from her body, revealing a far more splendid velvet and taffeta outfit in a rich shade of plum. As she passed the early-modern equivalent of a lab coat to her servant, I smelled a distinct whiff of gunpowder. The countess tucked up a tight curl of blond hair that had drifted down by her right ear. She was tall and willowy, with creamy skin and deep-set brown eyes.
She stretched out her hands in welcome. "My dear friend. I have not seen you for years, not since my brother Philip's funeral."
"Mary," Matthew said, bowing over her hand. "You are looking well."
"London does not agree with me, as you know, but it has become a tradition that we travel here for the queen's anniversary celebrations, and I stayed on. I am working on Philip's psalms and a few other fancies and do not mind it so much. And there are consolations, like seeing old friends." Mary's voice was airy, but it still conveyed her sharp intelligence.
"You are indeed flourishing," Henry said, adding his welcome to Matthew's and looking at the countess approvingly.
Mary's brown eyes fixed on me. "And who is this?"
"My happiness at seeing you has pushed my manners aside. Lady Pembroke, this is my wife, Diana. We are recently wed."
"My lady." I dropped the countess a deep curtsy. Mary's shoes were encrusted with fantastic gold and silver embroidery that suggested Eden, covered as they were with snakes, apples, and insects. They must have cost a fortune.
"Mistress Roydon," she said, her eyes snapping with amusement. "Now that that's over with, let us be plain Mary and Diana. Henry tells me that you are a student of alchemy."
"A reader of alchemy, my lady," I corrected, "that is all. Lord Northumberland is too generous."
Matthew took my hand in his. "And you are too modest. She knows a vast amount, Mary. As Diana is new to London, Hal thought you might help her find her way in the city."
"With pleasure," the Countess of Pembroke said. "Come, we shall sit by the window. Master Hilliard requires strong light for his work. While he finishes my portrait, you will tell me all the news. Little happens in the kingdom that is beyond Matthew's notice and understanding, Diana, and I have been at home in Wiltshire for months."
Once we were settled, her servant returned with a plate of preserved fruit.
"Ooh," Henry said, happily wiggling his fingers over the yellow, green, and orange confections. "Comfits. You make them like no one else."
"And I shall share my secret with Diana," Mary said, looking pleased. "Of course, once she has the receipt, I may never have the pleasure of Henry's company again."