"Now, Mary, you go too far," he protested around a mouthful of candied orange peel.
"Is your husband with you, Mary, or does the queen's business keep him in Wales?" Matthew inquired.
"The Earl of Pembroke left Milford Haven several days ago but will go to court rather than come here. I have William and Philip with me for company, and we will not linger much longer in the city but go on to Ramsbury. The air is healthier there." A sad look crossed her face.
Mary's words reminded me of the statue of William Herbert in the Bodleian Library quadrangle. The man I passed on the way to Duke Humfrey's every day, and one of the library's greatest benefactors, was this woman's young son. "How old are your children?" I asked, hoping that the question was not too personal.
The countess's face softened. "William is ten, and Philip is just six. My daughter, Anne, is seven but she has been ill this past month, and my husband felt she should remain at Wilton."
"Nothing serious?" Matthew frowned.
More shadows scudded across the countess's face. "Any sickness that afflicts my children is serious," she said softly.
"Forgive me, Mary. I spoke without thinking. My intention was only to offer what assistance I can." My husband's voice deepened with regret. The conversation was touching on a shared history unknown to me.
"You have kept those I love from harm on more than one occasion. I haven't forgotten it, Matthew, nor would I fail to call on you again if necessary. But Anne suffered from a child's ague, nothing more. The physicians assure me she will recover." Mary turned to me. "Do you have children, Diana?"
"Not yet," I said, shaking my head. Matthew's gray glance settled on me for a moment, then flitted away. I tugged nervously at the bottom of my jacket.
"Diana has not been married before," Matthew said.
"Never?" The Countess of Pembroke was fascinated by this piece of information and opened her mouth to question me further. Matthew cut her off.
"Her father and mother died when she was young. There was no one to arrange it."
Mary's sympathy increased. "A young girl's life is sadly dependent upon the whims of her guardians."
"Indeed." Matthew arched an eyebrow at me. I could imagine what he was thinking: I was lamentably independent, and Sarah and Em were the least whimsical creatures on earth.
The conversation moved on to politics and current events. I listened attentively for a while, trying to reconcile hazy recollections of a long-ago history class with the complicated gossip that the other three exchanged. There was talk of war, a possible Spanish invasion, Catholic sympathizers, and the religious tension in France, but the names and places were often unfamiliar. As I relaxed into the warmth of Mary's solar, and comforted by the constant chatter, my mind drifted.
"I am done here, Lady Pembroke. My servant Isaac will deliver the miniature by week's end," Hilliard announced, packing up his equipment.
"Thank you, Master Hilliard." The countess extended her hand, sparkling with the jewels from her many rings. He kissed it, nodded to Henry and Matthew, and departed.
"Such a talented man," Mary said, shifting in her chair. "He has grown so popular I was fortunate to secure his services." Her feet twinkled in the firelight, the silver embroidery on her richly colored slippers picking up hints of red, orange, and gold. I wondered idly who had designed the intricate pattern for the embroidery. Had I been closer, I would have asked to touch the stitches. Champier had been able to read my flesh with his fingers. Could an inanimate object provide similar information?
Though my fingers were nowhere near the countess's shoes, I saw the face of a young woman. She was peering at a sheet of paper with the design for Mary's shoes on it. Tiny holes along the lines of the drawing solved the mystery of how its intricacies had been transferred to leather. Focusing on the drawing, my mind's eye took several steps backward in time. Now I saw Mary sitting with a stern, stubborn-jawed man, a table full of insect and plant specimens before them. Both were talking with great animation about a grasshopper, and when the man began to describe it in detail, Mary took up her pen and sketched its outlines.
So Mary is interested in plants and insects, as well as alchemy, I thought, searching her shoes for the grasshopper. There it was, on the heel. So lifelike. And the bee on her right toe looked as though it might fly away at any moment.
A faint buzzing filled my ears as the silver-and-black bee detached itself from the Countess of Pembroke's shoe and took to the air.
"Oh, no," I gasped.
"What a strange bee," Henry commented, swatting at it as it flew past.
But I was looking instead at the snake that was slithering off Mary's foot and into the rushes. "Matthew!"
He shot forward and lifted the snake by the tail. It extended its forked tongue and hissed indignantly at the rough treatment. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the snake into the fire, where it sizzled for a moment before catching light.
"I didn't mean . . ." I trailed off.
"It's all right, mon coeur. You cannot help it." Matthew touched my cheek before he looked at the countess, who was staring down at her mismatching slippers. "We need a witch, Mary. There is some urgency."
"I know no witches," was the Countess of Pembroke's swift reply.
Matthew's eyebrows rose.
"None to whom I would introduce your wife. You know I don't like to speak of such matters, Matthew. When he returned safe from Paris, Philip told me what you were. I was a child then and understood it as a fable. That is how I wish to keep it."
"And yet you practice alchemy," Matthew observed. "Is that a fable, too?"
"I practice alchemy to understand God's miracle of creation!" Mary cried. "There is no . . . witchcraft . . . in alchemy!"
"The word you were searching for is 'evil.'" The vampire's eyes were dark and the set of his mouth forbidding. The countess instinctively recoiled. "You are so sure of yourself and your God that you claim to know His mind?"
Mary felt the rebuke but was not ready to give up the fight. "My God and your God are not the same, Matthew." My husband's eyes narrowed, and Henry picked at his hose nervously. The countess's chin rose. "Philip told me about that, too. You still adhere to the pope and the Mass. He saw past the errors of your faith to the man underneath, and I have done the same in the hope that one day you will perceive the truth and follow it."
"Why, when you see the truth about creatures like Diana and me every day and still deny it?" Matthew sounded weary. He stood. "We will not trouble you again, Mary. Diana will find a witch some other way."
"Why can we not go on as we have before and speak no more about this?" The countess looked at me and bit her lip, uncertainty in her eyes.
"Because I love my wife and want to see her safe."
Mary studied him for a moment, gauging his sincerity. It must have satisfied her. "Diana need not fear me, Matt. But no one else in London should be trusted with the knowledge of her. What is happening in Scotland is making people fearful, and quick to blame others for their misfortunes."
"I'm so sorry about your shoes," I said awkwardly. They would never be the same.
"We will not mention it," Mary said firmly, rising to say her good-byes.
None of us said a word as we left Baynard's Castle. Pierre sauntered out of the gatehouse behind us, jamming his cap on his head.
"That went very well, I think," Henry said, breaking the silence.
We turned on him in disbelief.
"There were a few difficulties, to be sure," he said hastily, "but there was no mistaking Mary's interest in Diana or her continued devotion to you, Matthew. You must give her a chance. She was not raised to trust easily. It's why matters of faith trouble her so." He drew his cloak around him. The wind had not diminished, and it was getting dark. "Alas, I must leave you here. My mother is in Aldersgate and expects me for supper."
"Has she recovered from her indisposition?" Matthew asked. The dowager countess had complained about shortness of breath over Christmas, and Matthew was concerned it might be her heart.
"My mother is a Neville. She will, therefore, live forever and cause trouble at every opportunity!" Henry kissed me on the cheek. "Do not worry about Mary, or about that . . . er, other matter." He wiggled his eyebrows meaningfully and departed.
Matthew and I watched him go before turning toward the Blackfriars. "What happened?" he asked quietly.
"Before, it was my emotions that set off the magic. Now an idle question is enough to make me see beneath the surface of things. But I have no idea how I animated that bee."
"Thank God you were thinking about Mary's shoes. If you'd been examining her tapestries, we would have found ourselves in the midst of a war between the gods on Mount Olympus," he said drily.
We passed quickly through St. Paul's Churchyard and back into the relative quiet of the Blackfriars. The day's earlier frenetic activity had slowed to a more leisurely pace. Craftsmen congregated in doorways to share notes on business, leaving their apprentices to finish up the day's tasks.
"Do you want takeout?" Matthew pointed at a bake shop. "It's not pizza, alas, but Kit and Walter are devoted to Prior's meat pies." My mouth watered at the scent coming from inside, and I nodded.
Master Prior was shocked when Matthew entered his premises and nonplussed when questioned in detail about the sources and relative freshness of his meat. Finally I settled on a savory pie filled with duck. I wasn't having venison, no matter how recently it had been killed.
Matthew paid Prior for the food while the baker's assistants wrapped it. Every few seconds they gave us furtive glances. I was reminded that a witch and a vampire drew human suspicion like a candle drew moths.
Dinner was comfortable and cozy, though Matthew seemed a bit preoccupied. Soon after I'd finished my pie, footsteps sounded on the wooden stairs. Not Kit, I thought, crossing my fingers, not tonight.
When Françoise opened the door, two men in familiar charcoal livery were waiting. Matthew frowned and stood. "Is the countess unwell? Or one of the boys?"
"All are well, sir." One of them held out a carefully folded piece of paper. On top was an irregular blob of red wax bearing the impression of an arrowhead. "From the Countess of Pembroke," he explained with a bow, "for Mistress Roydon."
It was strange to see the formal address on the reverse: "Mistress Diana Roydon, at the sign of the Hart and Crown, the Blackfriars." My wandering fingers easily summoned up an image of Mary Sidney's intelligent face. I carried the letter over to the fire, slid my finger under the seal, and sat down to read. The paper was thick and crackled as I spread it out. A smaller slip of paper fluttered onto my lap.
"What does Mary say?" Matthew asked after dismissing the messengers. He stood behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders.
"She wants me to come to Baynard's Castle on Thursday. Mary has an alchemical experiment under way that she thinks might interest me." I couldn't keep the incredulity out of my voice.
"That's Mary for you. She's cautious but loyal," Matthew said, dropping a kiss on my head. "And she always did have amazing recuperative powers. What's on the other paper?"
I picked it up and read aloud the first lines of the enclosed verses.
"Yea, when all me so misdeemed, I to most a monster seemed, Yet in thee my hope was strong."
"Well, well, well," Matthew interrupted with a chuckle. "My wife has arrived." I looked at him in confusion. "Mary's most treasured project is not alchemical but a new rendition of the Psalms for English Protestants. Her brother Philip began it and died before it was complete. Mary's twice the poet he was. Sometimes she suspects as much, though she'll never admit it. That's the beginning of Psalm Seventy-one. She sent it to you to show the world that you're part of her circle-a trusted confidante and friend." His voice dropped to a mischievous whisper. "Even if you did ruin her shoes." With a final chuckle, Matthew withdrew to his study, dogged by Pierre.
I'd taken over one end of the heavy-legged table in the parlor for a desk. Like every work surface I'd ever occupied, it was now littered with both trash and treasures. I rooted around and found my last sheets of blank paper, selected a fresh quill, and swept a spot clear.
It took five minutes to write a brief response to the countess. There were two embarrassing blotches on it, but my Italic hand was reasonably good, and I'd remembered to spell some of the words phonetically so that they wouldn't look too modern. When in doubt I doubled a consonant or added a final e. I shook sand on the sheet and waited until it absorbed the excess ink before blowing it into the rushes. Once the letter was folded, I realized that I had no wax or signet to close it. That will have to be fixed.
I set my note aside for Pierre and returned to the slip of paper. Mary had sent me all three stanzas of Psalm 71. I took up a new blank book that Matthew had bought for me and opened it to the first page. After dipping the quill into the nearby pot of ink, I moved the sharp point carefully across the sheet.
They by whom my life is hated With their spies have now debated Of their talk, and, lo, the sum: God, they say, hath him forsaken. Now pursue, he must be taken; None will to his rescue come.
When the ink was dry, I closed my book and slid it underneath Philip Sidney's Arcadia.
There was more to this gift from Mary than a simple offer of friendship, of that I was certain. While the lines I'd read aloud to Matthew were an acknowledgment of his service to her family and a declaration that she would not turn away from him now, the final lines held a message for me: We were being watched. Someone suspected that all was not as it seemed on Water Lane, and Matthew's enemies were betting that even his allies would turn against him once they discovered the truth.
Matthew, a vampire as well as the queen's servant and a member of the Congregation, couldn't be involved with finding a witch to serve as my magical tutor. And with a baby on the way, finding one quickly had taken on a new significance.
I pulled a sheet of paper toward me and began to make a list. Sealing Waxe A Signet
London was a big city. And I was going to do some shopping.