The strange tree continued to grow and develop the next day and the next: Its fruit ripened and fell among the tree's roots in the mercury and prima materia. New buds formed, blossomed, and flowered. Once a day the leaves turned from gold to green and back to gold. Sometimes the tree put out new branches or a new root stretched out to seek sustenance. "I have yet to find a good explanation for it," Mary said, gesturing at the piles of books that Joan had pulled down from the shelves. "It is as if we have created something entirely new."

In spite of the alchemical distractions, I hadn't forgotten my witchier concerns. I wove and rewove my invisible gray cloak, and each time I did it faster and the results were finer and more effective. Marjorie promised me that I would soon be able to put my weaving to words so other witches could perform the spell.

After walking back home from St. James Garlickhythe a few days later, I climbed the stairs to our rooms at the Hart and Crown, shedding my disguising spell as I did so. Annie was across the courtyard fetching the clean linen from the washerwomen. Jack was with Pierre and Matthew. I wondered what Françoise had procured for dinner. I was famished.

"If someone doesn't feed me in the next five minutes, I'm going to start screaming." My announcement as I crossed the threshold was punctuated by the sound of pins scattering on the wooden floorboards as I pulled free the stiff, embroidered panel on the front of my dress. I tossed the stomacher onto the table. My fingers reached underneath to loosen the laces that held my bodice together.

A gentle cough came from the direction of the fireplace.

I whirled around, my fingers clutching at the fabric covering my breasts. "Screaming will do little good, I fear." A voice as raspy as sand swirling

in a glass came from the depths of the chair that was drawn up to the fireplace. "I sent your servant for wine, and my old limbs do not move fast enough to meet your needs."

Slowly I came around the bulk of the chair. The stranger in my house lifted one gray eyebrow, and his gaze flickered over the site of my immodesty. I frowned at his bold glance.

"Who are you?" The man was not daemon, witch, or vampire but merely a wrinkled human.

"I believe that your husband and his friends call me the Old Fox. I am also, for my sins, the lord high treasurer." The shrewdest man in England, and certainly one of its most ruthless, allowed his words to sink in. His kindly expression did nothing to diminish the sharpness of his gaze.

William Cecil was sitting in my parlor. Too stunned to dip into the appropriately deep curtsy, I gawped at him instead.

"I am somewhat familiar to you, then. I am surprised my reputation has reached so far, for it is clear to me and many others that you are a stranger here." When I opened my mouth to reply, Cecil's hand came up. "It is wise policy, madam, not to share overmuch with me."

"What can I do for you, Sir William?" I felt like a schoolgirl sent to the principal's office.

"My reputation precedes me, but not my title. 'Vanitatis vanitatum, omnis vanitas,'" Cecil said drily. "I am called Lord Burghley now, Mistress Roydon. The queen is a generous mistress."

I swore silently. I'd never taken any interest in the dates when members of the aristocracy were elevated to even higher levels of rank and privilege. When I needed to know, I looked it up in the Dictionary of National Biography. Now I'd insulted Matthew's boss. I would atone by flattering him in Latin.

"'Honor virtutis praemium,'" I murmured, gathering my wits about me. Esteem is the reward of virtue. One of my neighbors at Oxford was a graduate of the Arnold School. He played rugby and celebrated New College victories by shouting this phrase at the top of his lungs in the Turf, to the delight of his teammates.

"Ah, the Shirley motto. Are you a member of that family?" Lord Burghley tented his fingers before him and looked at me with greater interest. "They are known for their propensity to wander."

"No," I said. "I'm a Bishop . . . not an actual bishop." Lord Burghley inclined his head in silent acknowledgment of my obvious statement. I felt an absurd desire to bare my soul to the man-that or run as far and fast in the opposite direction as possible.

"Her Majesty accepts a married clergy, but female bishops are, thanks be to God, outside the scope of her imagination."

"Yes. No. Is there something I can do for you, my lord?" I repeated, a deplorable note of desperation creeping into my tone. I gritted my teeth.

"I think not, Mistress Roydon. But perhaps I can do something for you. I advise you to return to Woodstock. Without delay."

"Why, my lord?" I felt a flicker of fear.

"Because it is winter and the queen is insufficiently occupied at present." Burghley looked at my left hand. "And you are married to Master Roydon. Her Majesty is generous, but she doesn't approve when one of her favorites marries without her permission."

"Matthew isn't the queen's favorite-he's her spy." I clapped my hand over my mouth, but it was too late to recall the words.

"Favorites and spies are not mutually exclusive-except where Walsingham was concerned. The queen found his strict morality maddening and his sour expression unendurable. But Her Majesty is fond of Matthew Roydon. Some would say dangerously so. And your husband has many secrets." Cecil hauled himself to his feet, using a staff for leverage. He groaned. "Go back to Woodstock, mistress. It is best for all concerned."

"I won't leave my husband." Elizabeth might eat courtiers for breakfast, as Matthew had warned, but she was not going to run me out of town. Not when I was finally getting settled, finding friends, and learning magic. And certainly not when Matthew dragged himself home every day looking as if he'd been pulled backward through a knothole, only to spend all night answering correspondence sent to him by the queen's informants, his father, and the Congregation.

"Tell Matthew that I called." Lord Burghley made his slow way to the door. There he met Françoise, who was carrying a large jug of wine and looking disgruntled. At the sight of me, her eyes widened. She was not pleased to find me home, entertaining, with my bodice undone. "Thank you for the conversation, Mistress Roydon. It was most illuminating."

The lord high treasurer of England crept down the stairs. He was too old to be traveling about in the late afternoon, alone, in January. I followed him to the landing, watching his progress with concern.

"Go with him, Françoise," I urged her, "and make sure Lord Burghley finds his own servants." They were probably at the Cardinal's Hat getting inebriated with Kit and Will, or waiting in the crush of coaches at the top of Water Lane. I didn't want to be the last person to see Queen Elizabeth's chief adviser alive.

"No need, no need," Burghley said over his shoulder. "I am an old man with a stick. The thieves will ignore me in favor of someone with an earring and a slashed doublet. The beggars I can beat off, if need be. And my men are not far from here. Remember my advice, mistress."

With that he disappeared into the dusk.

"Dieu." Françoise crossed herself, then forked her fingers against the evil eye for good measure. "He is an old soul. I do not like the way he looked at you. It is a good thing milord is not yet home. He would not have liked it either."

"William Cecil is old enough to be my grandfather, Françoise," I retorted, returning to the warmth of the parlor and, finally, loosening my laces. I groaned as the constriction lessened.

"Lord Burghley did not look at you as though he wanted to bed you." Françoise glanced pointedly at my bodice.

"No? How did he look at me, then?" I poured myself some wine and plopped down in my chair. The day was taking a decided turn for the worse.

"Like you were a lamb ready for slaughter and he was weighing the price you would bring."

"Who is threatening to eat Diana for dinner?" Matthew had arrived with the stealth of a cat and was taking off his gloves.

"Your visitor. You just missed him." I took a sip of wine. As soon as I swallowed, Matthew was there to lift it from my hands. I made an exasperated sound. "Can you wave or something to let me know you're about to move? It's disconcerting when you just appear before me like that."

"As you've divined that looking out the window is one of my tells, I feel honor bound to share that changing the subject is one of yours." Matthew took a sip of wine and set the cup on the table. He rubbed tiredly at his face. "What visitor?"

"William Cecil was waiting by the fire when I came home."

Matthew went eerily still.

"He's the scariest grandfatherly person I've ever met," I continued, reaching for the wine again. "Burghley may look like Father Christmas, with his gray hair and beard, but I wouldn't turn my back on him."

"That's very wise," Matthew said quietly. He regarded Françoise. "What did he want?"

She shrugged. "I do not know. He was here when I came home with madame's pork pie. Lord Burghley asked for wine. That daemon drank everything in the house earlier today. I went out for more."

Matthew disappeared. He returned at a more sedate pace, looking relieved. I shot to my feet. The attics-and all the secrets hidden there.

"Did he-"

"No," Matthew interrupted. "Everything is exactly as I left it. Did William say why he was here?"

"Lord Burghley told me to tell you he called." I hesitated. "And he told me to leave the city."

Annie entered the room, along with a chattering Jack and a grinning Pierre, but after one look at Matthew's face, Pierre's smile dissolved. I took the linens from Annie.

"Why don't you take the children to the Cardinal's Hat, Françoise?" I said. "Pierre will go, too."

"Huzzah!" Jack shouted, delighted at the prospect of a night out. "Master Shakespeare is teaching me to juggle."

"So long as he doesn't try to improve your penmanship, I have no objection," I said, catching Jack's hat as he tossed it in the air. The last thing we needed was the boy adding forgery to his list of skills. "Go and have your supper. And try to remember what your handkerchief is for."

"I will," Jack said, wiping his nose with his sleeve.

"Why did Lord Burghley come all the way to the Blackfriars to see you?" I asked when we were alone.

"Because I received intelligence from Scotland today."

"What now?" I said, my throat closing. It was not the first time the Berwick witches had been discussed in my presence, but somehow Burghley's presence made it seem as though the evil was creeping over our threshold.

"King James continues to question the witches. William wanted to discuss what-if anything-the queen should do in response." He frowned at the change in my scent as the fear took hold. "You don't need to know what's happening in Scotland."

"Not knowing doesn't keep it from happening."

"No," Matthew said, his fingers gentle on my neck as he tried to rub the tension away. "Neither does knowing."

The next day I came home from Goody Alsop's carrying a small wooden spell box-a place to let my written spells incubate until they were ready for another witch to use. Finding a way to put my magic to words was the next step in my evolution as a weaver. Right now the box held only my weaver's cords. Marjorie didn't think my disguising spell was quite ready for other witches yet.

A wizard on Thames Street made the box from the limb from the rowan that the firedrake gave me the night I made my forspell. He'd carved a tree on its surface, the roots and branches weirdly intertwined so that you couldn't tell them apart. Not a single nail held the box together. Instead there were nearly invisible joints. The wizard was proud of his work, and I couldn't wait to show it to Matthew.

The Hart and Crown was oddly quiet. Neither the fire nor the candles in the parlor were lit. Matthew was in his study, alone. Three wine jugs stood on the table before him. Two of them were, presumably, empty. Matthew didn't normally drink so heavily.

"What's wrong?" He picked up a sheet of paper. Thick red wax clung to its folds. The seal was cracked across the middle. "We are called to court."

I sank into the chair opposite. "When?"

"Her Majesty has graciously permitted us to wait until tomorrow." Matthew snorted. "Her father was not half so forgiving. When Henry wanted people to attend him, he sent for them even if they were in their bed and a gale was blowing."

I had been eager to meet the queen of England-when I was back in Madison. After meeting the shrewdest man in the kingdom, I no longer had any desire to meet the canniest woman. "Must we go?" I asked, half hoping Matthew would dismiss the royal command.

"In her letter the queen took pains to remind me of her statute against conjurations, enchantments, and witchcrafts." Matthew tossed the paper onto the table. "It would seem Mr. Danforth wrote a letter to his bishop. Burghley buried the complaint, but it resurfaced." Matthew swore.

"Then why are we going to court?" I clutched at my spell box. The cords inside were slithering around, eager to help answer my question.

"Because if we are not in the audience chamber at Richmond Palace by two in the afternoon tomorrow, Elizabeth will arrest us both." Matthew's eyes looked like chips of sea glass. "It won't take long for the Congregation to learn the truth about us then."

The household was thrown into an uproar at our news. Their anticipation was shared by the neighborhood the next morning when the Countess of Pembroke arrived shortly after dawn with enough garments to outfit the parish. She traveled by river, having taken her barge to the Blackfriars-although the actual distance was no more than a few hundred feet. Her appearance on the Water Lane landing was treated as a public spectacle of enormous importance, and for a few moments a hush fell over our normally raucous street.

Mary looked serene and unperturbed when she finally stepped into the parlor, allowing Joan and a line of lesser servants to file in behind her.

"Henry tells me you are expected at court this afternoon. You have nothing suitable to wear." With an imperious finger, Mary directed still more of her crew in the direction of our bedchamber.

"I was going to wear the gown I was married in," I protested.

"But it is French!" Mary said, aghast. "You cannot wear that!"

Embroidered satins, luscious velvets, sparkling silks interwoven with real gold and silver thread, and piles of diaphanous material of unknown purpose passed by my nose.

"This is too much, Mary. Whatever are you thinking?" I said, narrowly avoiding collision with still one more servant.

"No one goes into battle without proper armor," Mary said with her characteristic blend of airiness and tartness. "And Her Majesty, may God preserve her, is a formidable opponent. You will require all the protection my wardrobe can afford."

Together we picked through the options. How we were going to make the necessary alterations so that Mary's clothes would fit me was a mystery, but I knew better than to inquire. I was Cinderella, and the birds of the forest and the fairies of the wood would be called upon if the Countess of Pembroke felt it necessary.

We finally settled on a black gown thickly embroidered with silver fl e u r s - d e - l i s and roses. It was a design from last year, Mary said, and lacked the large cartwheel-shaped skirts now in vogue. Elizabeth would be pleased by my frugal disregard for the whims of fashion.

"And silver and black are the queen's colors. That's why Walter is always wearing them," Mary explained, smoothing the puffed sleeves.

But my favorite garment by far was the white satin petticoat that would be visible at the front of the divided skirts. It was embroidered, too, with mainly flora and fauna, accompanied by bits of classical architecture, scientific instruments, and female personifications of the arts and sciences. I recognized the same hand at work as that of the genius who'd created Mary's shoes. I avoided touching the embroidery to make sure, not wanting Lady Alchemy to walk off the petticoat before I'd had the opportunity to wear it.

It took four women two hours to get me dressed. First I was laced into my clothes, which were padded and puffed to ridiculous proportions, with thick quilting and a wide farthingale that was just as unwieldy as I had imagined. My ruff was suitably large and ostentatious, though not, Mary assured me, as large as the queen's would be. Mary clipped an ostrich fan to my waist. It hung down like a pendulum and swayed when I walked. With its feathery plumes and ruby- and pearl-studded handle, the accessory was easily worth ten times what my mousetrap cost, and I was glad that it was literally attached to me at the hip.

The subject of jewelry proved controversial. Mary had her coffer with her and pulled out one priceless item after another. But I insisted on wearing Ysabeau's earrings rather than the ornate diamond drops that Mary suggested. They went surprisingly well with the rope of pearls Joan slung over my shoulder. To my horror, Mary dismembered the chain of broom blossoms that Philippe had given me for my wedding and pinned one of the floral links to the center of my bodice. She caught the pearls up with a red bow and tied it to the pin. After a long discussion, Mary and Françoise settled on a simple pearl choker to fill my open neckline. Annie affixed my gold arrow to my ruff with another jeweled pin, and Françoise dressed my hair so that it framed my face in a puffed-out heart shape. For the final touch, Mary settled a pearl-studded coif on the back of my head, covering the braided knots that Françoise piled there.

Matthew, who had been in an increasingly foul mood as the hour of doom approached, managed to smile and look suitably impressed.

"I feel like I'm in a stage costume," I said ruefully.

"You look lovely-formidably so," he assured me. He looked splendid, too, in his solid black velvet suit of clothes with tiny touches of white at the wrists and collar. And he was wearing my portrait miniature around his neck. The long chain was looped up on a button so that the moon faced outward and my image was close to his heart.

My first glimpse of Richmond Palace was the top of a creamy stone tower, the royal standard snapping in the breeze. More towers soon appeared, sparkling in the crisp winter air like those of a castle out of a fairy story. Then the vast sprawl of the palace complex came into view: the strange rectangular arcade to the southeast, the three-storied main building to the southwest, surrounded by a wide moat, and the walled orchard beyond. Behind the main building were still more towers and peaks, including a pair of buildings that reminded me of Eton College. An enormous crane rose up into the air beyond the orchard, and swarms of men unloaded boxes and parcels for the palace's kitchens and storerooms. Baynard's Castle, which had always seemed very grand to me, appeared in retrospect a slightly down-at-the-heels former royal residence.

The oarsmen directed the barge to a landing. Matthew ignored the stares and questions, preferring to let Pierre or Gallowglass respond for him. To the casual observer, Matthew looked slightly bored. But I was close enough to see him scanning the riverbank, alert and on guard.

I looked across the moat to the two-storied arcade. The ground floor's arches were open to the air, but the upper floor was glazed with leaded windows. Eager faces peered out, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals and obtain a morsel of gossip. Matthew quickly put his bulk between the barge and the curious courtiers, obscuring me from easy view.

Liveried servants, each one bearing a sword or a pike, led us through a simple guard chamber and into the main part of the palace. The warren of ground-floor rooms was as hectic and bustling as any modern office building, with servants and court officers rushing to meet requests and obey orders. Matthew turned to the right; our guards politely blocked his way.

"She'll not see you in private before you've been draped over tenterhooks in public," Gallowglass muttered under his breath. Matthew swore.

We obediently followed our escorts to a grand staircase. It was thronged with people, and the clash of human, floral, and herbal scents was dizzying. Everybody was wearing perfume in an effort to ward off unpleasant odors, but I had to wonder if the result was worse. When the crowd spotted Matthew, there were whispers as the sea of people parted. He was taller than most and gave off the same brutal air as most of the other male aristocrats I'd met. The difference was that Matthew really was lethal-and on some level the warmbloods recognized it.

After passing through a series of three antechambers, each filled to bursting with padded, scented, and jeweled courtiers of both sexes and all ages, we finally arrived at a closed door. There we waited. The whispers around us rose to murmurs. A man shared a joke, and his companions tittered. Matthew's jaw clenched.

Tags: Deborah Harkness All Souls Trilogy Fantasy