The Queen is Dead!: Katherine of Aragon dies in 1518

I: 10 November 1518
  • So, I've been lurking on this site for a while and now that I'm officially a member, I thought I'd explore making a timeline based off one of my old Tudor Fanfictions. The advantage being that I have the whole basic story written, so I can just rewrite the bits I think need it. As such, updates should be fairly frequent.

    The basic premise? What might have happened at the Tudor Court had Katherine of Aragon died in childbirth with her final child, leaving Henry VIII a widower. Enjoy!

    10 November 1518
    With a woman’s final anguished breath, the fate of a country changed forever.

    The woman was Queen Katherine of Aragon, wife to King Henry VIII of England and her body, exhausted with the travails of six pregnancies and childbirths, was finally giving up.[1]

    The physicians exchanged a look over her head.

    “It’s no good, Thomas,” one of them said, “The child is stuck. The labour has gone on for too long. Even if we were to cut open Her Majesty, there’s but a slim chance that the child would still live. And Her Majesty’s person is sacred. We cannot…”

    “Aye, but if this child is a boy, then it is the King’s heir. The son he has wanted for this past decade. If it yet lives, the child is our Prince of Wales. Doing nothing means we give that boy up for lost. We may well murder him. Need I remind you of the oath we both took when we entered this profession?”[2]


    “Well then. And this is no ordinary mother and child. This is the Queen of England, giving birth to a child that may well be our Prince. Would you have the blood of a Prince on your hands, William?”

    “Sirs,” a woman’s softly accented voice broke in before the other man could respond, “This is no time to think of Royal protocol. The Queen is a woman and a mother like any other. She would want you to do everything within your power to save her child.”

    The physicians turned to look at the speaker.

    “With all due respect, Mistress Willoughby, you know nothing…”

    “No,” Maria Willoughby, nee de Salinas, cut him off, “I do not. But I do know Catalina. I know what she would want.”[3]

    Pausing, she stroked a tendril of her mistress’s auburn hair away from the waxen face. When she spoke again, her voice was scarcely above a whisper, but there was a determination in it that could not be gainsaid.

    “Cata is beyond pain now. She’s gone to meet our beloved Father in Heaven. She’s in His hands. So do what you have to do, Sirs. Do what you have to do for the sake of this country. I’ll answer for it to His Majesty.”

    Bowing before the steel in her eyes and voice, the two men nodded and reached silently for their scalpels.

    With trembling hands, they sliced jaggedly into the Queen’s still warm flesh, praying they wouldn’t be sent to Hell for violating Her Majesty’s person.

    To no avail. They were too late.

    His Highness, the Prince of Wales, who would have been the apple of his father’s eye, had he lived, but instead had done nothing more than condemn both himself and his mother to death, lay jammed in the birth canal. He was perfectly formed, but large. Too large.[4]

    Dr William Butts picked him up, rubbed him down with a linen cloth and put his ear to the boy’s chest, searching for a sign of life that he already knew would not be there.[5]

    “Dead?” His colleague’s voice was low, mournful. William nodded gravely.


    [1] The POD. Historically, Katherine survived this childbirth and went on to live almost another 18 years.

    [2] The Hippocratic Oath doctors used to have to take. In a nutshell, it means to do no harm.

    [3] Maria de Salinas, Baroness Willoughby. OTL one of Katherine of Aragon’s friends from childhood, who defied Henry VIII to be at Katherine’s side as she died in 1536. I couldn’t not have her present here.

    [4]Minor butterflies. OTL Katherine of Aragon gave birth to a stillborn girl on November 10th,1518. Here, it’s a boy.

    [5] OTL one of Henry VIII’s most famous court physicians. The Thomas mentioned earlier is his predecessor, Dr Thomas Linacre. I'm not entirely sure Butts was working for Henry in 1518, but I couldn't find another physician who might have been. Happy to edit if someone can correct me.
    II: 10-12 November 1518
  • I thought I'd carry on setting the scene by letting you all see the direct aftermath of Katherine's death in this universe. Fair warning, I've always been better at writing the personal side of AUs than the political. If there's anything in particular you want to see politics-wise, please prod me to get round to writing it... Enjoy!

    Henry knew something was wrong. When he heard Cata’s screaming stop, yet failed to hear the piercing cry that heralded his son’s entry into the world, he knew something was wrong.

    So, it was hardly a surprise to see Dr Linacre appear at the door with gravity in his face and sorrow in his eyes.

    “Your Majesty.”

    “The Queen? The Prince?”

    “The child was too large. Her Majesty fought valiantly, indeed, we all did all we could, but in the end, Nature took its course. We lost them.”

    It was one thing to know something was wrong, but quite another to hear it, Henry realised then. Though he’d thought he was prepared for the worst, a deep wave of sadness welled up in him at the physician’s words. Tears threatened and he was too choked up to speak. Which meant it was Brandon who spoke next.[1]


    “Both, Your Grace. Your Majesty. I am so sorry.”

    Henry waved the man away, unable to speak. He didn’t need platitudes and condolences. He needed them. His Cata and his Prince. But he couldn’t have them. He’d lost them. Both of them.

    He’d never see Cata again; never see her play with her auburn hair; never rest his head in her lap; never hold her in his arms. He’d never see her smile as their son called her Mama; never hear her laugh proudly when the boy took his first steps.

    He’d never take the boy riding, never see him shoot his first arrow; never invest him as the Prince of Wales. He’d never hold him high above his head and present him to the people as their future King.

    “Harry?” His sister ventured, moving forward. She laid her hand on his arm. Just like Cata used to do.

    Henry felt tears rising at her touch, but he choked them back. Grief could come later. He had duties to perform first.

    Wrenching away, he laid his hands flat on the table and tried to clear his head. He owed it to Cata to do this properly.

    “Tell the Court…” His voice shook. He swallowed hard and tried again, “Tell the Court the Queen has died in childbirth and the child with her. No need to tell them it was a boy. Declare Court mourning. And send the Princess Mary to Eltham.[2] She’s too young…too young to be here amongst this grief.”

    His voice was flat, monotone. The words left a metallic tang in his mouth. He turned for the door.

    “I shall withdraw into my chambers. Alone. Pray God I’ll find peace there.”

    “Harry,” Mary started.[3] He raised his head to her and she fell back at the look in his eyes.

    “Alone, Mary.”

    She let him go without another word.

    *** *** ***​
    “Are you sure this is a good idea, Lady Bryan? Surely the Royal Family should be together in this dark time?”

    Lady Margaret Bryan, Lady Governess to Her Highness the Princess Mary, looked up at the maid who had spoken.

    “It is not for us to question, Mistress Alice. The Queen has died in childbirth and the King has deemed Her Highness too young to deal with Court mourning. We are to go to Eltham and there’s an end to it.”

    “But Milady, does Her Highness know yet? It’s been two days. Does Her Highness know yet?” Alice glanced towards the door as she spoke.

    Before Lady Bryan could answer, there were unsteady footsteps in the passage outside and a two-year-old girl with dark blonde hair appeared in the doorway. Seeing Lady Bryan, she made a beeline for her.

    “Muggie, why packing?” she demanded.[4]

    “Your Highness,” Lady Bryan curtsied, “The King has decided you’re to move house. To Eltham.”


    “To Eltham, Your Highness. It’s a nice place. You’ll like it. I promise. Come, we’d better get you ready.” Lady Bryan held out her hand and Princess Mary took it trustingly. She didn’t make a fuss as they dressed her and prepared her to go out. In fact, it wasn’t until they were halfway outside that she suddenly stopped and pulled back.

    “Papa? No say Papa goodbye? Mama? Say Mama goodbye?”

    Lady Bryan knelt down to the toddler’s height, “Papa’s busy, Your Highness. I wrote His Majesty a letter to say we’d gone rather than take you to say goodbye. But don’t worry, His Majesty loves you. He’ll miss you very much. He’ll send for you just as soon as he possibly can. I promise.”

    “Well, Mama? Say Mama goodbye?”

    Lady Bryan’s heart clenched. She’d hoped to get Mary to Eltham before telling her what had happened. Now it seemed that she was not to get that respite. She reached out a hand to the child.

    “Your Highness. I’m going to tell you something and I need you to be a big brave girl. You have to listen to me. You can’t see your Mama. I know you want to see her, but I’m afraid Her Grace has gone to sleep.”

    “Wake up. Say goodbye.”

    Mary’s piping voice was insistent. Lady Bryan ached to hold her in comfort, or at least to be having this conversation somewhere more dignified, more private, than the corner of a stairwell, but, unfortunately, the circumstances did not permit that. All she could do was lay a gentle hand on Mary’s tiny shoulder and soften her voice as she gazed into the child’s wide blue eyes, “I know you want to, Your Highness. Believe me, I would if I could. I would if I could. But we can’t. Your Mama’s gone to sleep because she’s gone to live with God and His angels. Once you’re sleeping God’s sleep, then no one can wake you up. I’m sorry.”

    “But I want see Mama! Want see Mama! Want see Mama!”

    “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” Lady Bryan repeated, hoping to soothe her charge. To no avail. Mary’s eyes filled with tears and she began to lash out at the walls and people around her.

    “Want see Mama! Want see Mama!”

    Lady Bryan made her decision. Protocol be damned! She had to get this child to Eltham so she could soothe her and settle her properly.

    She swept the screaming Princess up into her arms and hung on to her grimly. Ignoring the ear-splitting shrieks of, “Mama! Mama! Want Mama!”, that were reverberating off the walls around her, she hurried down the stairwell and out into the courtyard.

    As Mary, still kicking and screaming, was bundled into the carriage and borne off to Eltham, the skies clouded over and it began to rain in torrents. It was as though, upon hearing its little Princess’s pain, the whole of England had decided to give full rein to the grief it felt for Catalina de Aragón. For its Queen Katherine, Queen of Hearts.

    [1] Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Arguably Henry’s closest friend.

    [2].Eltham Palace, Henry VIII’s childhood home. It made sense to me that he’d send his daughter there if he was grieving. Send her somewhere he remembered being happy.

    [3] The ‘sister’ referred to above. Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk, born 1496. Henry’s youngest and favourite surviving sibling.

    [4] ‘Muggie’ was apparently Elizabeth I’s OTL nickname for Lady Bryan. As we have no record of what Mary called her at that age and Lady Bryan was nurse, or rather Lady Governess to them both, I’m borrowing it.
    III:13th November 1518
  • “We’ll lay the Queen in state at Baynard’s Castle,[1] then process her to Worcester Cathedral on the first of next month, if that suits Your Highness,” Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England,[2] glanced up at the young Queen Dowager of France. [3]

    She nodded, “Of course.”

    “Your Highness is sure that this is what His Majesty would want? For Her Majesty to be interred with His Highness, Prince Arthur?”

    “His Majesty is too prostrate with grief to be able to worry himself over the details of the funeral, my Lord Norfolk. He has left such matters to me and I can think of nothing more fitting than laying the Queen to rest beside the husband of her youth. In any case, if my brother the King so chooses, he too can be interred at Worcester when the time comes.”

    The young woman spoke with a determination that could not be gainsaid. The Earl Marshal bowed his head.

    “As you wish, My Lady. I assume Your Highness will be Chief Mourner?”

    “Aye, Thomas, I will. It is my duty, both as Katherine’s sister and as Her Majesty’s loyal subject to see her interred as befits a Queen. Lady Willoughby shall carry my train. And the Princess Mary shall follow behind us.”

    “Is that wise, Your Highness? Forgive me, but the Princess Mary is so young. Will Her Highness truly handle the rigours of the service? I thought the King had given orders for her to go to Eltham? As for Lady Willoughby carrying your train, she is a Spaniard born. There are many English ladies of noble birth who would relish the opportunity to do their Queen this final service.”

    Mary blinked.

    “Have I not just told you, Lord Norfolk, that my brother the King is prostrate with grief? His Majesty is not thinking clearly. Her Highness the Princess Mary needs to be at the service. The people need to see us united in this time of grief. Besides, my niece deserves to say goodbye to her mother, no matter how young she is. I will write and inform her household that she is to meet us at Worcester for her mother’s interment on St Lucy’s Day immediately.[4] As for the matter of who carries my train, well, I believe you forget, Your Grace, that just as Lady Willoughby is a Spaniard born, so too was our noble Queen. Lady Willoughby was both a loyal servant and a trusted friend to Her Majesty from the earliest days of their youth. I can think of no one more fitting to fulfil the office than Lady Willoughby.”

    With that, Mary rose to her feet.

    “T think that is all, My Lord. I will leave the further details to you. After all, you have my mother’s funeral before you as a precedent, so I do not see how you can go wrong.”

    “Madam,” Thomas Howard bowed his head and Mary swept from the chamber.

    “Your Grace.”

    The courteous whispers of acknowledgement were muted. Everywhere she looked, there was black. Black and grey and ashen, sleepless faces. It was clear the courtiers were reeling. Their Queen had gone and she’d taken their sense of security with her.

    Not for the first time, Mary wished her brother were here; that he hadn’t withdrawn into his chambers. He was needed here. Not for his gaiety, but for his ability to lead. If he’d been here, he could have stabilised the Court; let them share in his grief at the same time as he shared in theirs. But he wasn’t here and so, as his sister and their Princess; as the premier noblewoman at the Court of England, now that Katherine was dead and little Mary had been taken to Eltham, it was up to her.

    Mary forced a look of calm to her face and clenched her hands inside her sleeves to keep them from trembling as she addressed the crowd. “My Lords, My Ladies. Your concern for us in this time of distress is commendable and I thank you for it. Rest assured, you will all get your chance to say farewell to the Queen. Her Majesty will be lying in state at Baynard’s Castle from tomorrow, now that the embalmers and the waxwork makers have finished their work.”

    Taking a deep breath, she glanced around the group of people gathered before her. There was not a dry eye in sight. Choking back her own tears, she continued, “Your obvious grief for the Queen is a balm to my wounded soul. It gladdens my heart to know that the woman I loved as my older sister was so dearly loved and will be sorely missed by all of you. Were His Majesty here to see it, I know it would gladden him too.”

    Seeing her husband at the other end of the Hall, she inclined her head slightly and then started towards him. The crowd parted to let her through and, within moments, she was at his side.

    “Charles,” She clasped his arm, drawing strength from the warmth of his skin. He lowered his head to kiss her briefly.

    “Mary. You have the details sorted?”

    “Yes. Katherine’s body will begin lying in state tomorrow.”


    “Baynard’s Castle. She’ll be buried at Worcester, next to my brother Arthur.”

    “Next to Arthur? Does Henry know? Are you sure he’d approve?”

    “No. But since he won’t see me and would never talk about death even if he would, I’m doing the best I can. What’s good enough to be the resting place of the future King of England strikes me as fitting for the final resting place of the Queen Consort who came to England to be his bride first.”

    “Very well. You’re the Princess. You were trained in ritual and statecraft. I was not,” Charles bent and kissed Mary again, before saying “I went to your brother’s rooms again.”

    “Did he see you??”

    “What do you think?”

    Mary sighed. “I wish he wouldn’t do this. I wish he wouldn’t lock himself away like this.”

    She swung her husband around so that he could see the courtiers for himself.

    “They need him, Charles. They’re reeling and they need their King.”

    “We all do, Mary. We all do,” Charles sighed regretfully, “And we shall have him. Sooner or later, we shall have him. Sooner or later, he’ll pull himself around. I promise. But in the meantime, we shall simply have to make do with Her Grace Mary, the Dowager Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk.”

    Mary managed a wan smile at his flattery.

    “Stop it, Charles!” she chided, batting his shoulder playfully as they rounded the corner. Even as she did so, however, she was grateful for the brief moment of levity. As much as she grieved for Katherine, she needed to have something to distract her from her next duty. The duty of acting as Chief Mourner at her Queen’s funeral.

    [1] Katherine’s former London residence before she married Henry VIII OTL. It made sense to have her lying in state there.

    [2] Yes. That Thomas Howard.

    [3] Henry’s younger sister Mary, so titled after her first marriage to King Louis XII of France in 1515. She is also Duchess of Suffolk by virtue of her marriage to Brandon. I will probably use the titles interchangeably, for ease of reference.

    [4] 13th December.
    IV: December 1518
  • The fog pressed thick and close about the funeral cortege, muffling the hoof beats. The Londoners had to strain to see the bier as it was borne past them. Nevertheless, every man, woman and child in the crowd behaved with the solemnity that befitted the occasion. None jeered or catcalled. Every man doffed his cap. Many of the women and children stretched costly lighted tapers – far more costly than they could really afford- out to the procession, or else fell to their knees, weeping openly, as it passed.

    However, Queen Katherine wasn’t just being mourned in the streets of London. Up in a sumptuous room high above the street, her former husband was also watching the procession pass by. He hadn’t intended to; hadn’t wanted to put himself through the pain, but he hadn’t been able to keep away. His conscience, the sense that Cata deserved to have him pay his respects, had driven him to the window.

    He saw his sister ride by, her young back drawn up ramrod straight as she tried to put on a strong façade for the people. Sweet Mary. What would he have done without her in these last two weeks? Henry didn’t know, but he didn’t have time to consider it.

    As Cata’s bier reached the section of street directly beneath his window, the sun suddenly broke through the fog. The burst of golden light illuminated the body on top of the bier, accentuating the richness of her scarlet robes-of-state, sparking off the jewel-encrusted rings, brooches and necklaces draped over the figure’s slender fingers, full breasts and graceful neck. It caught her flaming auburn hair and made it flame up, bright as the fires she had loved to sit beside.

    What impressed Henry most, though, was the way the light caught the golden circlet mounted on her brow. It made it gleam, encircled Cata in a ring of golden light. It was almost as though God had already made her an angel.

    “Take her then. Take her and take care of her. For she of all people deserves to be with you. She was the sweetest, most caring, most beautiful..,” Henry couldn’t go on. His tears threatened to choke him and all he could do was emit a strangled gasp, “Cata! Cata!”

    He sank to his knees, burying his face in his hands. “Why, Lord, why? Why her? Why him? Why them? Don’t I deserve them? Don’t I deserve a son? A son and a Queen? Why did you take them from me? Why?”

    The tears started flowing and this time he didn’t hold them back. Instead, he let himself howl for his Queen and unborn son, howl out the pain that had lodged itself so deeply within his broken heart.

    *** *** ***​
    “No! No! No sleep! No!”

    Lady Bryan heard her young charge’s screams long before the maid appeared in the doorway.

    “She won’t sleep?”

    “No, Lady Bryan. The Princess is exhausted, but she’s fighting it.”

    “Again,” Lady Bryan sighed. The maid nodded.

    "And she needs to be well-rested for her mother's funeral tomorrow. Otherwise we'll have a tantrum on our hands in the Cathedral."

    The younger woman opened her mouth to protest, but Lady Bryan held up a hand.

    "Don't tell me we won't, Joanna. You know what Her Highness is like when she's tired."

    Joanna exhaled and nodded, biting back a grimace despite herself. Several moments passed as she hesitated, “If I might be so bold, Lady Bryan?”

    “Go on.”

    “I believe the Princess needs her father. If we could only persuade the King to pay Her Highness a visit once she returns to Eltham, things might be easier. Her Highness isn’t just grieving for her mother, it seems to me. She’s aching for her father too. I don’t think she knows he loves her anymore.”

    Exhaling slowly, Lady Bryan got to her feet.

    “Your concern does you credit, Joanna. But the King is the King. We cannot presume to tell His Majesty what to do.”

    “But then, is there anything we can do?” Joanna’s face fell, even as she saw the sense in the older woman’s words. Lady Bryan laid a gentle hand on the young woman’s shoulder.

    “The Queen Dowager of France is His Majesty’s sister and, next to Queen Katherine, the woman he loves most in England. There is a chance that she may be able to exert some influence on him. Let me settle the Princess and then I will send Her Grace a note, asking her to let me speak to her.”

    “Yes, Lady Bryan,” Joanna curtsied and drew back to let the older woman past as she went to try to soothe the Princess.

    Inside the opulent bedchamber clustered four or five young women, all desperately trying to calm the screaming toddler who lay in their midst.

    “No sleep! No! Want Papa! He no make me sleep! Papa! Papa!”

    “Leave us, Ladies,” Lady Bryan’s voice rang out hard over the Princess’s screams. Looking relieved, the bevy dropped the requisite curtsies, murmured, “Your Highness. Lady Bryan,” and disappeared through the open door. Lady Bryan sat down on the end of the bed and drew the sobbing child on to her lap.

    “Come, Your Highness, what’s all this noise, hmm? Princesses aren’t supposed to behave like this, are they?”

    “I no want sleep, Muggie”, Exhausted by her fit of temper and reassured by the warmth of her governess’s lap, Mary appeared reasonably calm, but Lady Bryan knew it wouldn’t last. They’d been over this ground too many times in the past fortnight for her to be taken in by this lull in the storm.

    “I know, Your Highness, but you have to sleep. Otherwise you’ll be too tired to ride in your mother’s procession tomorrow and that would be no good at all, would it? Come, lie down and let me sing you to sleep."

    “But I no want sleep! Want Papa,” Mary cried, “Want Papa!”

    “Your father the King isn’t here, Princess. He’s not allowed to be here at the funeral, in case people imagine his death. Which isn’t allowed because he’s the King. He’ll come and visit you once we’re back in Eltham, though. I’m sure. And he’ll come all the sooner if you’re a good girl and get some sleep. Hush now. Hush.”

    “No. Papa! Papa!”

    “You can’t have Papa. You’ve got to sleep.”

    All of a sudden, the little girl broke in the face of her governess’s implacable reasoning.

    “I no want sleep! I scared, Muggie!”

    “Your Highness, there’s nothing to be scared of. Sleeping’s lovely and we all need it. I do too, you know.”

    “Is! What if I no wake? Mama no wake, what if I no wake?”

    The innocent question sent a knife through Lady Bryan’s heart. “Oh, Your Highness!”

    “Mama no wake. What if I no wake?” Mary repeated. Lady Bryan pulled the child even closer.

    “You will,” she promised, “You will. Mama’s an angel now. She’ll watch over you and make sure you do. And I’ll wake you myself. Go to sleep now and I’ll wake you in the morning.”

    “Promise?” Mary’s candid eyes were begging.

    “On England, Harry and St George,” Lady Bryan kissed her charge’s brow and tucked the warm swansdown covers around her. She rose to leave, but Mary clung to her.

    “Stay. Hold,” she demanded.

    And Lady Bryan couldn’t resist. Even though it went against all her principles of child-rearing, she lay down upon Mary’s luxurious four-poster bed, fully clothed, and drew the little girl into her arms. They stayed like that until Mary had fallen asleep.

    Once she had, Lady Bryan kissed her one last time, then slowly rose and untangled herself. Going to her own room, she fetched parchment, quill and ink and began to write a letter to the Duchess of Suffolk.

    “Your Grace,

    Forgive me for writing at such an inopportune time. I realise that now, with Her Majesty to be buried on the morrow, is perhaps not the most fitting time to ask this, but I don’t know who else to turn to.

    As Your Grace may have noticed since joining up with us here at Worcester, Her Highness the Princess Mary is far from the gracious, biddable Princess she normally is. Her mood shifts violently from instant to instant. While I am sure these violent mood swings are largely caused by grief, I feel that the fact that His Majesty hasn’t visited her since Queen Katherine’s death has only exacerbated the matter. Please, Your Grace, I beg of you, if you can, use your influence with His Majesty and try to persuade him to visit the Princess once Her Highness returns to Eltham. I feel sure that a visit from the King would help Her Highness settle into her new home and come to terms with the loss of her mother.

    A thousand thank yous and, once again, I offer my deepest condolences over the loss of Queen Katherine.

    I remain, Madam,

    Your devoted Servant,

    Margaret Bryan.

    When she had finished, Lady Bryan let the letter dry, then lit a candle and sealed it with dripping wax. Calling a page, she handed him the letter.

    “For the Duchess of Suffolk,” she directed.

    The lad nodded, bowed and was gone. Lady Bryan watched him go and then turned to her embroidery, always keeping an ear open for the muffled cries that heralded Princess Mary’s awakening from a nightmare.
    V: February 1519
  • I'm not sure what I make of this section, but it seemed the only way to move the story on. And yes, I know Henry's grief is excessive. But, it's Henry. And he's just lost his son and heir as well as his wife, Bear with me.

    “It can’t go on like this!” the Duchess of Suffolk sighed, “It’s been three months, Charles. We can’t go on like this! We can’t!” She flapped a letter in her husband’s face, “Quite apart from the fact that the Privy Council is starting to get restive, Lady Bryan says the Princess is getting more and more impossible. It’s the third letter I’ve had like that this month. She needs her father. Mary needs her father and England needs her King!”

    “I know. I know. But what do you want me to do about it?” Charles sighed, “Henry is the King, Mary. If he wants to stay in seclusion, then, hard as it is, there’s nothing anyone can do.”

    “You could try. You’re his best friend.”

    “You’re his sister. What makes you think I could do a better job than you could?”

    “I’m a woman. He won’t speak to me the way he would to another man. Particularly not since I’m his younger sister. Please.”

    Winding herself around him, she stroked his hair.

    “There’s no one who knows how to talk to Harry better than you. And think of little Hal. Would you want to let him live with the pain of not knowing his father?”

    “No! Of course not!” Charles exclaimed, his heart clenching at the thought of no longer being a part of his son’s life. Mary wound his dark locks around her fingers.

    “I thought not. So don’t let Mary go through it either. Go and talk Henry out of his seclusion. Please.”

    “Oh, very well. I’ll try. I’ll try.”

    Extricating himself from her hold, he sighed, kissed her swiftly, slipped from the room and made his way to King Henry’s apartments.

    A young page, Francis Weston was just exiting as he reached them. Charles stopped the boy with a quiet hand on his shoulder.

    “How is he, Francis?”

    “No better, no worse, My Lord Suffolk,” Francis murmured. Sighing, Charles nodded and stepped past him into the darkened room, trying not to reel back at the musty smell that permeated the air.

    “Harry? Your Majesty?”

    “I said I didn’t want to be disturbed, Charles.” Henry’s voice was heavy. Charles hesitated, but knew he had to press forward. He owed it to Mary – both Marys- and to Henry.”

    “I know, Henry. I know.”

    “Then why are you here?”

    “Because I’m your friend. Because I don’t like seeing you hurt. Because I want to help you.”

    Charles stepped forward, laying a daring hand on his sovereign’s shoulder. To his relief, Henry didn’t pull away. Instead he simply sighed bitterly.

    “You have, Charles. You and Mary both. More than you know.”

    A silence stretched between the two men for a moment. Suddenly, Henry burst out, “Is there a curse on the Tudors, Charles, because we won our throne through conquest and not through blood? Are we doomed to lose our Queens in childbed forever?”

    “No, Henry no! You mustn’t think that! You mustn’t!”

    “My father lost my mother. I lost Cata. And my son. There must be…”

    “It was bad luck, Henry, that’s all. Sheer bad luck. Look, I know how you feel. I know it feels like the end of the world; like she’s taken your youth with her; like you’ll never be happy again. But it’ll pass. Trust me, it’ll pass.”

    “How do you…? That’s it exactly. How do you know?”

    At Henry’s words, Charles sighed with relief, releasing a breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding. He couldn’t let Henry consider the fact that he might have been cursed. He couldn’t. Henry was so superstitious. Who knew where he might let the thought lead him?

    He said nothing of his thoughts to Henry, of course. All he said was, “I lost my Anne, remember? I lost my Anne just like you lost the Queen.[1] I felt like you, Harry. I thought I’d never be happy again. But things changed. You opened talks for my marriage to young Viscountess Lisle, you invited me back to Court. [2]And I stopped grieving like a husband and a father and let myself grieve like the young man I knew I still was. And then you I met Mary. Your sister. I met her and I loved her. She made me happy again, Harry. She made me happy again and now we’re married and have our beautiful children. So you’re not cursed, Harry. You’re not. You’ll have a boy to be your Prince yet. You’ll have him with a woman you love, I promise. Just because you lost Cata doesn’t mean you can’t have a boy with a woman you love. You just have to give it time.”

    “What changed you, Charles? What changed things for you?” Henry’s voice was hollow. Charles took a deep breath. He knew he was taking a gamble with his next words, knew Mary would hate him for this whatever the result, but he had no choice. He’d baited the hook and now he had to reel it in.

    “I grieved like a man. I let myself stop being a husband and a father and just became a man. That’s what you need to do, Harry. Stop being a King. Stop being Cata’s husband. Stop being Mary’s father. Just be Harry. Just Harry.”

    “How? After everything that’s happened, Charles, how?”

    “Would you like me to show you?”

    Henry fell silent and Charles held his breath, straining his eyes through the darkness to see how his friend’s face changed.

    Finally, Henry nodded.

    *** *** ***​
    “You’re doing what?! Taking him drinking?! Whoring?! No! Oh no, Charles, I forbid it! I forbid it, do you hear me?!” Mary screeched at her husband.

    “I never said I was taking him whoring! Where do you get that idea from?”

    “Because I know you! I know the friendship you used to have. You’re thinking of it, aren’t you?”

    “What does it matter what I’m thinking of? At least he’s out of his room!”

    “See? You don’t even try to deny it. Not properly. My God! You were supposed to persuade him to visit the Princess, not agree to take him whoring! What about his role as her father or her King? What about his duties to England?”

    “His sense of duty is what got us into this mess in the first place. It’s crushing him, can’t you see that?”

    “And getting him drunk and letting him sleep with common women is supposed to help?!”

    “Yes! It’ll help him let go. You’re a woman; I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Just trust me. Trust me to know what’s best for your brother.”

    Charles shoved past Mary. She sprang ahead of him and slammed the door.

    “You’re not doing it! I forbid it! I forbid it!”

    “Who are you to forbid me anything?!”

    “I’m the Dowager Queen of France! The King of England’s sister!”

    “Not anymore! You’re not my Princess anymore! You’re my wife! You’re my wife and by God, you will stand aside. Now!”

    Before he knew what he was doing, Charles had raised his arm to strike Mary. Stunned, she shrank back slightly, just enough for him to force her out of his way.

    He flung himself down the passage, still seething; still shaking with anger. What was he doing? He’d never threatened Mary like that before. Never. He had to be going mad.

    “All the more reason to get Harry back to himself by whatever means necessary,” he thought, “All the more reason. I’m not sure how much more of having to lead the Court in his stead our marriage can take.”

    [1] Brandon’s OTL second wife Anne Browne, by whom he had two daughters, Anne and Mary. I couldn’t find out her fate, so for the purposes of this TL, she died in childbirth with Mary in 1510.

    [2] Brandon was betrothed to Elizabeth Grey, Viscountess Lisle in 1513 and took the title Viscount Lisle in her name, but jilted her for Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France, two years later, before they actually married.
    VI: France, February 1519
  • “Mary,

    I am coming over to Paris on State business as soon as the sailing season starts. I shall be taking you back to England with me on my return to join your cousin Isabel in the Dowager Queen of France’s household . Queen Mary has asked for you specially, so I hope you won’t be silly about coming back. Anne shall stay in France for a while longer, since she seems to be doing well for herself there.

    Your future Mistress asks to be remembered to you both and I ask you also to remind Anne always of her duty to the Boleyns and Howards. Remember yours too, daughter, and behave accordingly.

    God be with you,


    Mary Boleyn’s hand clenched on the letter she was reading. Her heart sped up and she had to fight to control her breathing. She’d known this day would come, had almost been expecting it, but she still couldn’t quite believe the words she was reading. She was to go back to England. After all these years in France, she was to go back to England.

    “Marie? Are you all right?” Her best friend, Jeannette, called to her softly.

    The question snapped Mary out of her reverie. Anne! She had to know! Mary was leaving her behind; it was only fair to give her due warning. Ignoring Jeannette, she whirled round and fled down the corridor.

    “Marie? Ça va?” Jeannette called after her, but Mary was gone. She raced away down the passages, heedless of decorum as she sought her younger sister.

    Suddenly, the door of a nearby schoolroom swung open and Anne came out, laughing and teasing a younger girl over her shoulder.

    Despite the situation, Mary couldn’t help but scold her younger sister as she pulled her aside.

    “How many times must I tell you this, Annie? You mustn’t speak to Her Highness like that! Renee might only be nine years old, but she’s a Princess of France![1] You’d do well to remember it.”

    “Agh, Marie, leave it. You’re my sister, not my Maman. When we’re in private, Renee wants to be my friend, not Renee, file de France. As long as she wants that, I’ll treat her like it, d’accord?”

    Mary opened her mouth to argue further, but Anne merely shrugged elegantly and changed the subject with a grace that was far beyond her years.

    “Now, I assume you didn’t come looking for me to scold me on my conduct towards the Princess Renee. What’s going on?”

    “Papa’s written from London. He’s coming over at the beginning of the sailing season and he’ll take me back with him. I’m to serve our Dowager Queen again, but this time at the English Court.”

    “ Reine Marie?”

    “Oui. Reine Marie.”

    “Et moi aussi? Moi aussi? Marie, moi aussi?“

    As she often did when she was distressed, Anne lapsed into French. Mary glanced down at her sister, suddenly realising what a child she still was. She was happy here in Fontainebleu; Paris was more of a home to her than England. It was hardly surprising. Anne had only been seven when they’d come to France with Dowager Queen Mary. She scarcely remembered England.

    Gently Mary shook her head.

    “Non, Anna, non. Tu non.”

    Once she had soothed Anne enough for the latter to listen to English, she went on, unfolding the letter and rereading the words she’d already burned into her memory aloud to her sister. When she’d finished, she looked back down into Anne’s dark eyes, offering her a reassuring smile.

    “See? You are to stay here, Annie.”

    Relief flickered in Anne’s eyes before she managed to pull herself together. The Boleyn sisters shared a long glance before Anne whispered, “I’ll miss you.”

    It wasn’t the warmest of sentiments, but Mary knew Anne meant what she said. She was happy to be staying in France, but given the gap between them in age and the absence of their blood mother, Mary was the closest thing to a mother that Anne had ever known.

    Without another word, she closed the gap between them and pulled the younger girl into her arms. Despite herself, Anne returned the embrace. For a few moments, the girls let themselves forget that their worlds were changing around them. For a few moments, they were nothing more than what God had made them in the first place. Sisters.

    [1] Renee of France, younger daughter of Louis XIII and Anne of Brittany, b.1510
    VII: March 1519
  • It was already getting dark when there came a quiet knock on Henry’s door.

    He jerked his head at the page who stood behind him, “Get it.”

    “Yes, Sire,” the boy nodded, leaving his place to open the door. Charles stood behind it. he dismissed the page with a simple wave, “Out. I’ll take care of His Majesty.”

    The page looked quickly at Henry, who nodded approval. The boy bowed silently, then vanished. As the door shut behind him, Charles took over, fastening Henry’s dark cloak about his shoulders.

    “Are you ready?”


    But Henry didn’t sound ready. He sounded more unsure of himself than Charles had ever known him. Daringly heedless of protocol, he clapped his friend heartily on the back.

    “Don’t worry. The girls are clean and of high birth – as high as you’ll get in the profession, anyway. And everyone goes by a false name. No one need know you’re the King, not if you don’t want them to. It’s only a bit of harmless fun.”

    “Fun you indulge in?” Henry’s voice was sharp. Mary was his treasure; the last of his family. If Charles was unfaithful to her -!

    “Not since I met and married your sister,” Charles lied smoothly. He’d seen the cloud of anger pass over Henry’s face and knew well enough to head it off quickly. At his words, Henry relaxed and even managed a smile as Charles led him from the room down the twisting passageway to the back stable yard where their horses stood waiting.

    It was but a short ride to the building that Charles had in mind. Upon reaching it, he tossed a nearby boy the reins and signalled to Henry to do the same. Then he turned to another and called, “Here, Will, look sharp and tell Madam Freeman that Master Lisle’s here and that he’s brought a friend. John. John…”

    “Owen,” Henry supplied, as Charles cast hurriedly about for a name. Charles nodded, “Owen.

    “Yes, Master Lisle. Any other message?"

    Charles hesitated, glancing at Henry, "Tell Madam Freeman we'll need a gentle one for John, will you?”

    "Of course, Sir! Right away, Sir!" Will tugged his forelock and dashed inside. Henry and Charles followed more sedately, so that, by the time they entered, a buxom woman with luxuriously curling chestnut hair was already shouldering her way towards them.

    “Master Lisle,” she curtsied, “How wonderful to see you again. It’s such a pity that your affairs keep you away for so long at a time.”

    “A great pity, Madam Freeman,” Charles breathed, lifting the woman’s hand with practised ease. Henry frowned as his best friend transformed into such a practised charmer, but, at that precise moment, Madam Freeman noticed that he was still standing alone.

    “Ah, forgive me, Master Owen. I hear we need a gentle one for you, yes?”

    Without giving Henry a chance to respond, she turned, clapping her hands, “Tilda. Take care of Master Owen for me.”

    A young girl; a slender willow of a thing with a mass of tumbling blonde curls, moved forward.

    “Of course, Madam Grace. If you’ll follow me, Sir?”

    Henry cast a glance back at Charles who nodded, “Go. I’ll wait here, John.”

    Fearing for his image, Henry had no choice but to follow Tilda. However, once they were away from Madam Freeman’s eagle eye, she softened.

    “First time out, Sir? Don’t worry, nerves hit them all in one way or another. We can take as much time as you like. Just lie back on the bed, have a glass of wine and then, when you’re ready, I’ll show you a few tricks that will work on any girl, no matter who she is.”

    Henry did as he was told, feeling a strange relief as the weight of his titles was lifted from his shoulders. He didn’t have to be King Henry here. In fact, he didn’t even have to be Henry, which meant he wouldn’t be betraying Cata’s memory by what he was about to do. He could just be John. Ordinary John looking to assuage his ordinary desires.

    He kept telling himself that, with the result that, when Tilda began to stroke him in all the right places, it seemed natural to him to respond in the ordinary way.
    VIII: March - April 1519
  • It seemed to Henry later that his night with Tilda had been a dream, a dream he longed to recapture but couldn’t.

    Now that he was out of his rooms, duty overtook him once more. His ministers swarmed about him, begging for his input on this treatise or that law or some proposed Bill for Parliament. Fools. Couldn’t they manage without him for just a little bit longer? Didn’t they realise he had other matters to attend to?

    Like the blonde in Mary’s ladies, for instance. He liked her. He liked her because she reminded him of Cata, in the way that she was so quietly spoken, but thankfully she wasn’t like Cata to look at. No. she was like Tilda to look at. If it hadn’t been for the obvious difference in their status, they would have been able to pass as twins. They had the same slender figure, the same big blue eyes, the same mass of blonde curls. The same ones his mother had had too.

    Of course he wouldn’t lie with this girl. No. Cata was barely cold in her grave. It would be treading on her memory. Tilda hadn’t been, of course, because he hadn’t been himself then. He’d been John Owen and no one had known he was the King, but this girl would be different. She’d know he was the King. So he couldn’t sleep with her. And he wouldn’t. But he would enjoy her company. Cata wouldn’t begrudge him that, would she? Of course she wouldn’t. after all, it wasn’t as if he was in love with this girl, not the way he’d been in love with her. No. he just wanted to enjoy the girl’s company a little, as friends. That was nothing wrong in that, was there?

    *** *** ***​

    Mary knew her brother was infatuated with Bessie Blount. [1] She knew he was also trying to assuage his conscience because of his grief for Catalina,[2] but she knew his desires would win out in the end and he’d start courting Bessie.

    He didn’t say anything. Of course not. But he didn’t have to. The way his eyes kept lingering on the girl was enough. She was just waiting for him to ask her name.

    So why, when the question finally came, did it feel like something momentous was about to happen? As though it was such a threat to her place at his side as his hostess?

    “Sister. That blonde girl amongst your ladies, the quiet one. What’s her name?”

    “Bessie, Bessie Blount,” Mary choked out the name, desperately trying to hide the fact that the syllables were leaving a sour taste in her mouth. She had to force her face to remain blank as she watched her brother as he rose, walked over to Bessie and bent to whisper something in her ear.

    She saw Bessie nod, rise and follow him out of the room. She saw the way her cheeks were tinged pink with pleasure when the two of them came back into the room and the way her brother walked with a slightly jauntier step.

    He bent over her hand and kissed it, “Farewell, Sister. I must take my leave. Matters of State detain me.”

    She nodded, and let him go, her mind whirling. There was no doubt about it. Whatever Charles had undertaken with Henry that one night had driven him straight into Bessie’s arms. Mary only hoped the matter wouldn’t spiral out of control.

    [1] Yes. THE Bessie Blount. She's just caught Henry's eye a little later than OTL.
    [2] No, this is not a mistype. In my head canon, Henry and Mary called Katherine by a Spanish version of her name (or its abbreviation) in private, as a mark of affection.
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    IX: April 1519
  • Bessie tumbled into her family’s apartments, almost shouting with glee.

    “Cecily! Cecily!”

    “What is it, Beth?” Her older sister appeared from the other room, frowning slightly at the open excitement in Bessie’s eyes.

    “Bessie. I’m Bessie now, Cecily.”

    “Not to me, you’re not,” Cecily murmured, flicking her eyes downward in a stab of regret. If only their mother were here. She’d have been able to temper Beth’s vivacity. For all she was three years older, Cecily was often overwhelmed by her sister’s forceful personality. Beth might only be eighteen, but she knew her own mind, that much was sure.

    Giving herself a little shake, Cecily looked up and smiled, “Anyway, you had something to tell me. What is it?”

    “I’m to ride out with His Majesty tomorrow.”

    “You’re to – Beth!”

    This time, Bessie didn’t complain about the use of the childhood nickname. Instead, she laughed in triumph.

    “Yes, me. He asked me. Not his sister, but me.”

    “You’ll have to look your best,” Cecily, ever the pragmatic one of the sisters, went straight down to details, “Have you thought what you’ll wear?”

    “My cornflower blue velvet with the swansdown cape?”

    “Yes, maybe. Blue suits you. And we can put Mama’s sapphire around your neck.”

    “Hmm,” Bessie was saved from answering properly by a knock on the door.

    “Come in,” Cecily called. The door opened a crack and their cousin Mark put his head round it.

    “I heard our Bessie’s been noticed. Are you planning for the ride?”

    “Yes,” Cecily answered, before Bessie could do so.”

    “Good, then my errand isn’t in vain. Father will want to see the Blounts do as well as he can out of this. If you get the opportunity, give this to the King,” Mark produced a rosary of polished mahogany from his pocket, “It was our grandmother’s and the King likes family loyalty. He attaches a great deal to sentimentality. Giving him this will show that the Blounts are willing to sacrifice their own family treasures in order to succour him in his grief. And even if the opportunity doesn’t arise, you’re to wear it on your belt by your hunting flask. He’ll appreciate the show of your piety. Do you understand?”

    “Yes, Mark,” Bessie sighed, taking the rosary from her cousin. He raised his eyebrows at her reluctance.

    “I thought you’d be happier than that. I’m trying to help you.”

    “Who says I want your help? The King noticed me, not the Blounts. I’m not a child any more. I’ll handle him, thank you.”

    “What do you mean, ‘handle him’? What do you want out of this?” Mark started at the ferocity in Bessie’s tone. She shot him a winsome smile.

    “I don’t know yet. Let me start the game before you ask me what the end moves will be, Mark. Now, I must go, or Duchess Mary will miss me.”

    She moved the door, brushed her cousin’s cheek with her lips as she passed him and hurried off, leaving her cousin and sister exchanging worried glances.

    *** *** ***
    Bessie was already mounted when the King came hurrying into sight. He stopped in his tracks and bowed to her.

    “Mistress Blount. Forgive me for having kept you waiting. Such behaviour is unpardonable in a gentleman.”

    “But not in a King,” Bessie replied, “I quite understand that matters of State must come before something as trivial as honouring an unworthy lady with Your Majesty’s attentions.”

    “Oh, not unworthy. Never unworthy!” the King hastened to assure her, kissing her hand briefly before swinging himself into the saddle, “What do you think of my Perseus?” he added, a note of pride creeping into his voice as he gathered up the black’s reins.

    “A fitting foil for so golden a King,” Bessie murmured, tipping her hood back half an inch so that her golden curls, so unlike the late Queen’s, shone visibly in the early spring sunshine.

    A weak smile tugged at the King’s lips, “You think me golden, Mistress Blount?”

    “As the noonday sun, Sire,” she replied, glancing at him as she allowed her mount to break into an easy loping trot, “Has Your Majesty given any thought as to where we might go today?”

    He started at the direct question, then recovered, “The lake, perhaps?”

    “Of course.”

    Bessie spurred her bay forward and the King fell into step beside her. The two of them rode along in silence for a while before he finally broke it.

    “You ride better than my wife did, Mistress Blount. Not that she didn't have skill, but she wouldn’t have dared canter along as you are doing. It wouldn’t have been fitting for a Queen.”

    Pain sparked in his eyes and, to her surprise, Bessie found her heart melting at the lost note in his voice. Thanking heaven for Mark, she pulled the rosary from her belt.

    “I know the Queen was a wonderful woman, Sire. My family and I say prayers for her soul every day.”

    “Do you?”

    “Yes, I use this rosary. It was my grandmother’s.”

    He half-reached for the beads and Bessie dropped them into his palm, “Take it, Your Majesty.”

    “But…it was your grandmother’s.”

    “She left it to me in her will, so it is mine to do with as I please,” Bessie lied, continuing, “I’m giving it to you. I would be honoured to think that my humble gift will be giving such a great King a little relief from his pain,” Bessie closed the King’s fingers gently over the rosary, letting her hand linger on his for just a moment. He raised his eyes to hers.

    “You have a noble heart, Mistress Blount.”

    “A heart always at Your Majesty’s command,” Bessie whispered, somehow instinctively knowing what to say. A heartbeat passed. Two. The King leaned from his saddle. Bessie felt his hand on her cheek and let her eyelids flicker shut. His lips brushed hers, their touch light as a feather’s.

    “Thank you…Bessie.”
    Section X: April-May 1519
  • The weeks passed and Bessie found herself spending more and more time with the King. He called to take her riding on an almost daily basis. They dined together; played cards together in the evenings. It built up gradually, but one day, Bessie realised that she was spending more time with the King than anyone else was; even his sister Queen Mary of France and her husband, the Duke of Suffolk.

    Which meant that it was only a matter of time before the family found out. Mark and Cecily had known for from the beginning, of course, but now her father and uncle realised that their little girl was no longer the helpless little flower that they thought she was.

    One morning, they called her to her father’s rooms.

    “Father. Uncle,” Bessie curtsied. Her father nodded in acknowledgement.


    “You wanted to see me?”

    “Yes. It appears you’ve been spending quite some time with the King recently.”

    Bessie shrugged, “His Majesty asks for me and I obey.”

    “As you should. How far has he taken things? I know he is still grieving the loss of the Queen, but King or not, he is a man and many a lesser man takes a mistress in such circumstances.”

    “Not far, Sir. But I am not ready for him to take them further yet.”

    “Not ready?” Her father’s voice sharpened, “What do you mean, you are not ready?”

    “His Majesty does not look to me for everything yet. I need him to do that before I am ready.”

    “Look to you for everything! Good God, girl, are you playing for the throne?!”

    Bessie hesitated. The truth was, though she might have been at first, now she genuinely just wanted to help the King through his grief. The last few weeks in his company had been more wonderful than Bessie had ever dared hope they would be. But she couldn’t tell the men in front of her that. They expected more of her. Closing her eyes and steeling her heart against the pang of guilt that stabbed at her, she kept her voice as steady as she could as she answered, “Not necessarily the throne, Father, but England has no Queen, so I do not see why I should not be at His Majesty’s side just as well as any other woman.”

    “Nor do I,” he murmured, then sighed, “Very well, Elizabeth. You seem to be handling the matter well enough for the moment. His Majesty seems happy enough with you, so I do not see any reason to change things for now, but if we’re no further forward soon, things may be different. Is that clear?”

    “As crystal, though we will be,” Bessie assured him, summoning a confidence she did not feel.

    “Very well, you may go, Elizabeth.”

    Bessie curtsied, then ran out of the room and changed her gown before riding to the lake to meet the King.

    He was ahead of her and turned at the sound of her hoof beats.

    “Bessie,” he greeted, attempting to smile at the sight of her, but not quite managing it. Groaning inwardly as the realisation that he was in one of his more morose moods dawned on her, Bessie drew rein and slid from the saddle.

    “Henry!” She caught his hand and tugged him towards the lake with her, “Come in with me.”

    “What?!” He started. Bessie nodded.

    “It’s May. Surely it’ll be cold.”

    “Cold but not too cold. Oh come on, Henry! Please! Come in with me!” she begged him, flashing him his favourite half-smile as she waded into the shallows of the lake, lifting her skirts high to try to keep them somewhat dry.

    “Katherine wouldn’t like it. She’d say it was beneath me as a King and a widower.”

    Stifling a sigh, Bessie splashed out of the water and went around behind him, knowing he needed careful handling when he got melancholy like this.

    “Katherine loved you, Henry. And you loved her. I’m not denying that. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up all fun forever. Part of loving someone is wanting them to be happy. Katherine would want you to be happy. So come on. Don’t just be a King, be a man too. Be a man and play with your sweetheart. Please?”

    “Are you my sweetheart, Bessie?” His voice sounded worryingly insecure. Bessie just wanted to kiss the smile back on to his face, but forced herself to chuckle lowly, caress his shoulder and then reach up and ruffle his hair.

    “You know I am, Henry. You know I am. Now catch me.”

    Risking everything, she backed teasingly away from him and raced back into the shallows. To her delight, he chased after her. Spinning around, she scooped up a handful of water and flicked it in his direction.

    There was a moment of stunned silence and then she was rewarded with the sound of something she hadn’t heard before. The great bellow of his laughter.

    “Oh, Bessie, you are the best girl in England! Oh that I could have you at my side every day!”

    Bessie’s heart skipped a beat. If he was saying stuff like that, then she ruled him as completely as she could ever hope to, given that she could never be his anointed Queen. She swung round to him.

    “Oh, but Henry, you can. You are the King. You have only to command and I would have to obey.”

    “But I don’t want to command. I want you to come to me of your own free will,” he whispered.

    Bessie pretended to hesitate, but her heart was singing and it seemed natural to her to say, “My will and my heart are one and my heart is yours.”

    It seemed natural to her let him sweep her up and canter her back to the palace in his arms, abandoning her horse there by the lakeside; to enter his rooms beside him as though her rightful place was on his arm; natural to yield her most precious possession to him in one heated flood of bloody passion.
    Section XI - May 1519
  • “Come, Mary. Say your farewells and we’ll be off to catch the tide,” Thomas Boleyn spoke gently to his eldest daughter. More gently than he normally did. Mary was fully aware of that fact, but knew exactly why he was playing the doting father, delighted to be taking his daughter home. He was in public, in front of King Francis, Queen Claude and the Duchess of Alencon, who had Annie beside her.

    Still, though Mary raised her eyebrows inwardly at her father’s acting, she dared not challenge his authority so flagrantly, so she merely nodded, murmuring docilely, “Yes, Papa.”

    She turned to the King, Queen and Duchess, curtsying swiftly. King Francis raised her up, whispered a few words of farewell into her ear, waving away her attempts at an eloquent thank you and then nudged her in the direction of her younger sister.

    “Annie,” Mary breathed, embracing her younger sister, “Be a brave girl.”

    “When am I not?” Anne asked, cocking an eyebrow. Mary chuckled.

    “True. But still, you’re the only Boleyn left now. Stay strong. Stay strong and do us proud, hmm? I’ll be thinking of you.”

    “And I of you, Marie. Take care. Take care and Godspeed, ma soeur.”

    “Godspeed and God be with you, Marie,” The Duchess echoed Anne’s words, placing a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. Releasing her sister, Mary dipped down into a final curtsy.

    “Thank you, Your Highness. God be with you.”

    Then she took her father’s arm and backed out of the room.

    Anne watched the two of them leave, feeling tears prick her eyelids. Why did Marie have to leave her? Couldn’t they go on being the Boleyn Sisters, as they always had? How was she supposed to cope now that the last of her family had left her?

    “Annabelle, Ca-va?” Her Mistress touched her shoulder, “Renee is asking for you.”

    At the words, Anne gave herself a little shake. Of course she’d cope. Wasn’t she Anne Boleyn? Duchess Marguerite’s bold little Boleynette? Besides, she was twelve years old. Practically a woman. She didn’t need a mother any more. Especially not when Madame Marguerite took such good care of her and Princess Renee thought of her so highly.

    Drawing herself up, Anne nodded, “Oui, Madame. Ca va.”

    With the words, she shut off the part of her that was still little English Annie and gave herself up to being French.

    Gave herself up to being Annabelle.
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    Section XII - June 1519
  • Mary’s heart was hammering as she knocked on the door of the Dowager Queen's apartments. A page in dark blue and soft grey livery opened it, “Yes, Mistress?”

    “I am Mistress Marie – I mean, Mistress Mary Boleyn. I am to join Her Grace’s household this morning,” she explained, sensing the blood rush to her cheeks as she mangled the introduction. Thankfully, the lad only inclined his head and stepped back, “We’ve been expecting you.”

    Mary felt at home as soon as she set foot in the Duchess’s apartments. They weren’t as opulent as they used to be; now that she wasn’t Queen, but only a Dowager Queen and Duchess of Suffolk, they weren’t the best in the palace, but they were still opulent enough to denote her status. They still had her spoilt pet dogs scampering around, making an absolute cacophony. Many of her old friends from when she’d first gone to France still sat sewing in the windows, laughing quietly with one another.

    One of them, Sarah, caught sight of her and sprang up. “Mary! You’re back at last!”

    “I am. Papa brought me back. He thinks it’s high time James and I were betrothed. I mean, we are both quite old enough to, in his words, ‘consent to and seal the union’.”

    A stab of guilt went through her as she mocked her father, but it quickly dissipated as Sarah laughed and threaded their arms together.

    “And so you are! Now come. I’d better present you to Her Grace so we can have you sworn in and then we’ll be free to catch up properly.”

    *** *** ***​
    The Duchess greeted Mary almost as warmly as Sarah had done and, within hours, she had regained her footing within the bevy of ladies as though she had never been away. Which meant it was only natural that she should be at her mistress’s shoulder when, as the group headed outside to hawk in the gardens, they crossed paths with another woman.

    The woman was slender and blue-eyed, with a mass of honeyed curls tumbling down her back. She wore an expensive gown of cornflower blue silk and carried herself nobly. Only the hint of arrogance in her eyes and the scarcity of ladies trailing behind her belied the fact that she wasn’t as high ranking as she clearly seemed to think she was.

    The Duchess’s entire body tautened. “Mistress Blount,” she acknowledged icily.

    There was a fraction’s silence and then Mistress Blount dipped into the merest hint of a curtsy, “My Lady Suffolk.”

    Mary heard Sarah gasp beside her as she caught her own breath. To address their mistress by her lower title was a blatant breach of courtesy. Who did this woman think she was? She was certainly no shrinking violet, that was for sure. She may have bent the knees, but her head was still up; her eyes still locked with the Dowager Queen's. There was no submission or servility anywhere in her posture or indeed in her demeanour at all. The two women stared one another down for a few more seconds before Mistress Blount snapped her fingers.

    “Come,” She instructed her ladies, sweeping past the King’s sister as though she owned the palace. Colouring, the ladies swept down to the floor in respect for Her Grace's higher rank and then followed. Mary glanced between the rapidly vanishing quintet and her fuming mistress, then, correctly supposing she wasn’t going to be able to ask her mistress, dropped back to talk to Sarah.

    “Who was that?”

    “That was Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Blount,” Sarah hissed, spitting out the nickname as though it were belladonna, “You replaced her in Her Grace’s household, as it turns out.”

    “Mistress Blount was in Her Grace’s household? They don’t appear to get on,” Mary murmured, a hint of question in her voice. Sarah growled.

    “And they shouldn’t. Mistress Blount is the King’s latest paramour. Now, I’m not saying it’s not within His Majesty’s rights to take a mistress, but honestly, did it have to be Mistress Blount? She’s become insufferable. Less than three months she’s been at his side. Less than three months and she already thinks herself a Queen. Just because she’s lucky enough to have been granted a few ladies of her own, she thinks we should all be bending the knee to her.”

    Sarah was about to say more when the Dowager Queen called, “Mistress Boleyn?”

    “Yes, Your Grace?” Mary hurried forward.

    “You’ve just come from France. Does King Francis keep a Mistress?”

    “Your Grace, it is the right of every King to keep a Mistress.”

    “Aye, I know that well enough. I’m asking; does King Francis exercise that right?”

    “Yes, Your Grace.”

    “I see. And how does the chosen lady conduct herself in Queen Claude’s presence?”

    “My Lady, they barely meet.”

    “But when they do?”

    “Well then, Madam, Queen Claude is of course paid the full respect that is due to her as Queen of France. King Francis insists upon it.”

    “Francis insists upon it, does he?” A look black as thunder rolled across Mary Brandon’s pretty features, “Francis insists upon it, yet my brother, the greater King by far, is content to let his spoilt teenage whore act as though she runs the Court.”

    There was nothing Mary could say to that. Instead she merely curtsied silently. Her Grace peered down at her for a few seconds, before sighing loudly.

    “Still, my brother’s whims are not your fault, Mistress Boleyn. Run and fetch my hawk, would you?”

    Relieved to have got away so lightly – the old Mary Tudor would have thrown something at her for being the bearer of bad news – Mary straightened up, murmured “Madam,” and ran, all the time wondering whether she could have answered any differently. But no, she couldn’t have. She had been as diplomatic as she could while still telling the truth. Wasn’t one supposed to tell the truth to one’s monarchs, if they demanded it?
    Section XIII - June 1519
  • Though Bessie had been going towards her own rooms, she changed tack and headed for the King’s apartments. How could Mary Brandon think she could get away with calling her ‘Mistress Blount’ and forcing her to curtsy to her? How could she? Hadn’t Bessie done more for the King than his sister had? Wasn’t she the one whom he loved with all his heart; the one he’d claimed he wanted at his side every day? Of course she was. So shouldn’t Mary be the one showing her respect? Of course she should.

    Bessie stormed through the doors, slamming them behind her. A multitude of pages and serving boys looked at her in shock.

    “Out! All of you, Out!” she screamed.

    Startled into obedience, they ran.

    Hearing the kerfuffle, Henry came out of his bedroom, alarmed when, eyes pooling with tears, Bessie flung herself into his arms.

    “I can’t do this anymore! I can’t!”

    “Bessie, what’s wrong? Darling?”

    He held her, rubbing soothing circles on her back. Gradually, Bessie allowed herself to be comforted. At last, she looked up at him with all the injured innocence she could muster.

    “It’s not fair, Henry. It’s not fair!”

    “What’s not fair? Bessie, I can’t help you unless you talk to me. What’s not fair?”

    “Your sister,” Bessie gulped at last.”

    “What about my sister?”

    “She still treats me as though I’m in her household. She still expects me to defer to her!”

    “Well, she is my sister. She is a former Queen of France and a Princess.”

    “Not anymore! She’s just a Duchess now. Besides, she betrayed you when she married without your permission! I’ve never betrayed you! Never!”

    “I know you haven’t. I know.”

    “So make her treat me with respect! Make her curtsy to me! Please!”

    Henry opened his mouth to protest, but Bessie pressed on, “I love you, Henry. I love you just as much as Katherine ever did. You know that. You know I came to you of my own free will, whereas she married you for politics as much as for love. And Mary always showed Katherine respect, so why should I be any different? Tell your sister to show me respect. Please?”

    Henry began to try to explain that Katherine had been a Queen; a daughter of Kings and that, besides, the circumstances had been different, but somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. As he hesitated, Cata’s voice flashed into his head, “She’s playing you, Harry. Can’t you see she’s playing you?”

    He shook his head firmly. “Shut up!” he growled inwardly, “Shut up! Can’t you see she’s crying over this? I won’t have her crying over this! When you died, I swore I’d never make a woman cry. After all, I never made you cry, did I? No. it was you who made me cry when you left me. Bessie’s made me happy again. I owe her something for that. Besides, she’s right, Mary and Charles did betray me. I’ve been too soft on them, as you pointed out to me, if I remember correctly. This will be a good lesson in humility for them both.”

    Stroking Bessie’s hair, he led her to the nearest chair and sank down on to it, pulling her into his lap.

    “It’s all right, Bessie. It’s all right. You don’t have to acknowledge my sister. You’re right, she should be the one acknowledging you. I’ll speak to her. In fact, I’ll speak to everyone. We’ll have everyone calling you, ‘My Lady Blount’ and honouring you as you deserve before the week’s out. Everyone will be bowing to you and you won’t have to curtsy to anyone. Not even Mary.”

    “Do you promise?”

    Her voice was damp, strangled. He nodded.

    “I promise. I give you my word that I’ll arrange it today. Does that please you, sweetheart?”

    Her answer was a wordless kiss; the sweetest they had ever shared.
    Section XIV - June 1519
  • “Henry, you can’t be serious! Me, curtsy to her? To that – that upstart?!” Mary Brandon stared at her brother, incredulous with anger, “She’s a nobody!”

    “Nevertheless, Mary, you will show her respect. I demand it.”

    “I’m your sister!”

    “And still my subject. Bessie will be ‘My Lady Blount’ to everyone before the day is out and you, as the second Lady in England, will be the one to set an example.”

    “And if I refuse?”

    “Then you’ll count yourself lucky if you’re still a Duchess at the end of the week.”

    Mary’s jaw dropped, “You wouldn’t! You wouldn’t possibly hold Charles responsible? You know no man can control me, least of all him! Why on Earth would you strip him…Unless…Do you still hold our marriage against us? After all these years?”

    “I suggest you don’t chance what I would and would not do. Just do as you’re told. I’m the King of England and I will be obeyed, do you hear?”

    Mary began to retort, but bit the words back as the herald struck his staff against the floor, “The Lady Blount to see you, Your Majesty.”

    Instantly, the ire melted from Henry’s face as though it were made of wax. He crossed the room in two strides and caught Bessie’s hand in his before she had even begun to curtsy.

    “Bessie, darling.”

    His voice was soft, tender. As tender as it had once been when he spoke to Mary. Or Katherine, his real Queen. It nearly made Mary sick to see him fawning over the young harlot as solicitously as one might a Princess of the Blood. Yet worse was to come.

    “Sire,” Bessie breathed, “I had hoped to catch you alone, but if you are occupied…”

    “No, sweetheart, I’m not. Mary was just leaving, weren’t you?”

    The dismissal was final. And with Henry holding the Blount girl’s hand as tightly as a drowning man might clutch a stray spar of wood, Mary had no choice but to abase herself before the two of them.

    “Your Majesty. My Lady Blount.”

    The words clumped in her throat, threatening to make her sick. Oh, the shame of it! That she, a former Queen of France and Princess of England and Duchess of Suffolk besides, should have to bend the knee to a mere Knight’s daughter! Resentment, so long smouldering in her heart, sparked and burst into flame. In a matter of moments, she determined that, should it ever be possible, she would oust Elizabeth Blount from her brother’s heart, no matter what it cost her.

    *** *** ***​
    Unknown to Mary, Bessie was struggling with a dilemma of her own. She loved the King, she really did, and she loved the way he treated her; as though she were the only girl in the world, but she was realising now that her carefree behaviour had produced consequences far greater and weightier than she had ever imagined it might.

    She was kicking herself. She could try to pass it off as youthful ignorance, but, whatever people might think of her, Bessie knew she was intelligent enough to know that, at eighteen, one really ought to know better. Especially given what had happened to Queen Katherine less than a year past. Who knew how the King would react? Oh, he’d sworn to be Bessie’s Sir Loyal Heart forever, to love her come Hell or High Water, but hadn’t he sworn that to the Queen? Hadn’t she died in childbed? Wouldn’t that be the only thing on his mind, if she, Bessie, told him? Of course it would! So she couldn’t tell him! She couldn’t!

    “Bessie. Are you all right?”

    God, he was so sweet; so eager to check on her welfare. He had noticed her distraction and touched her cheek to recall her to him. Bessie turned her head to kiss his cheek.

    “Of course I am, Henry. Forgive me. I was just thinking of the Midsummer’s masque tonight, that’s all.”

    “Ah yes! I shall be King of Summer and you shall be my Princess! Princess Elizabeth of the Roses,” His brow cleared at her words. Soon he was lost in detailing the masque; the clothes they would wear; the lines they would speak, even the dance the two of them would dance together to bring summer to the Court and therefore to England. Before long, he had pulled her up to rehearse it one last time and Bessie, relieved to have averted his attention so easily, was more than happy to go with him.
    Section XV - July 1519
  • “You have to tell him. Beth, you have to tell him!” Cecily insisted, “You’re not doing yourself any favours by refusing to tell him. At the moment, you might be able to fob him off with pleas of illness and your courses, but that won’t last forever. Eventually, he’s going to insist on bedding you again and that might harm the child you’re carrying.”

    “I don’t care! I don’t care! I’ll take the risk!” Bessie sobbed, feeling more like a child than ever as she buried her face in her hands. Cecily knelt down beside her, gripping her shoulders.

    “Elizabeth Blount, you listen to me. You can’t do that. You can’t do that, not anymore.”

    “Why not? For God’s Sake, why not?”

    “Because you’re not a child anymore. You’re nineteen on your next birthday and a mother to be. The child in your belly is a responsibility, one you will have to bear, whether you like it or not. And part of that responsibility is telling the King. Do you understand?”

    “But I don’t want to!”

    “It’s not a question of ‘I want’. It’s a question of necessity. The King must know you are carrying his child and there’s an end to it. Now, I’ll go as far as to say that if you’d rather I told him, then I will, but…”

    “No,” Bessie shook her head, “He barely knows you. He’ll take it better from me. But I would like Mark to be there. I’m going to do this, then I’m not going to do it alone.”

    “All right. All right. I’ll tell Mark to come and find you and the two of you can tell the King. Hmm?”

    Bessie nodded slowly. Cecily breathed a sigh of relief and stood up. “Good girl. Good girl. You’ll see; everything will be much easier once you’ve told him.”

    “Will it?” Bessie wondered, but there was no time to argue. Cecily, ever the prim yet pragmatic one of the two, was already gone.

    *** *** ***​
    “Are you sure about this?” Mark squeezed her hand gently. She shook her head, “No.”

    “You don’t have to do this.”

    “Yes, I do. Cecily will have my head if I don’t.”

    “Your father will have your head if you do. If he finds out you’ve slept with the King and not taken precautions…”

    “He’s going to find out eventually. One way or the other. I can’t hide this forever. If we can get Henry on our side, then I might be able to brazen the whole thing out. After all, there’s no shame in being the King’s mistress, is there? Especially when he’s not married.”

    “If,” Mark repeated anxiously. But there was no time to say any more, for there were footsteps in the passage outside and Bessie’s page was crying, “His Majesty the King.”

    Dazedly, Bessie rose to her feet and dropped like a stone into a curtsy. The King held out a hand to her, but she was blind to it. She remained in her supplicant position until the strain of holding it got to her and brought awkward tears welling up in her eyes.

    “Bessie? Bessie, what is it, darling?”

    His Majesty knelt down beside her, holding out his arms to her. She felt him embrace her and her defences broke.

    “I’m sorry! I should have been more careful! Please don’t be angry!”

    “I could never be angry with you, sweetheart. Never. I promise. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

    Oh, he was saying all the right things, but who knew if he’d stick to them once he found out? Where would fine words get her if, in a few months’ time, she was swollen and heavy and unable to show her face at Court for fear of disgrace? If only he hadn’t lost the Queen in childbed! If only it hadn’t made him so mercurial! She wouldn’t be so scared.

    As it was, however, all she could do was cling to him as a drowning man would cling to a rope thrown from a ship. “Please don’t be angry,” she repeated.

    “Why would I be angry? What can you possibly have done that would make me angry with you?”

    “I’m pregnant!”

    Suddenly the dreaded words were out, blurted out in a strangled rush of desperation. Their effect on the King was immediate. His body went taut against her and his hands stilled in her hair.

    “What did you just say?” he whispered.

    “I’m pregnant,” Bessie repeated into his chest, silently begging Mark to help her. As though he could sense her predicament, Mark broke the silence, injecting an extra note of gaiety into his voice.

    “Isn’t that wonderful news? Congratulations, Your Majesty. May I be the first to congratulate you on the prospect of a healthy son? And my best to you too, of course, dear cousin.”

    “Of course you must, Master Blount. And you must take the very best care of your cousin now. Nothing could be more important than the child in her belly, do you hear?”

    “Yes, Sire. You may count on me to do my level best, My Lord.”

    “I know I can. And you must give Bessie everything her heart desires. Money no object. Her…My…Our future happiness depends upon it. This child must be swaddled in love and care before it even leaves Bessie’s womb. Understood?”

    “Yes, Sire,” Mark nodded, clearly thrilled at how well the King was taking the news. Bessie felt her heart sink. The King appeared to be solicitous, true, but his concern had been general; focused on the child’s welfare and not hers. Not once, though she was still in his arms, had he bent his head and asked about how she felt about becoming a mother before she herself had completed a score of years on God’s Earth. Nor had he told her how happy she’d made him, as she’d always imagined her husband would do when she shared the news of her pregnancy with him. True, it could just be because Mark was in the room, but the presence of others had never stopped him declaring his feelings before. Bessie feared that this deliberate control of his emotions could be the beginning of the King’s withdrawal from her arms. Still, he hadn’t acted angry, so perhaps she didn’t have to start worrying just yet. Even if it had taken him a heartbeat too long to answer Mark. She leaned back against him and tried to take heart from the way his arms automatically tightened around her.
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    XVI: September 1519
  • Henry didn’t say anything, but Charles wasn’t blind. He could see for himself that the Blount girl was no longer in quite as much favour as she used to be. Henry used to practically be joined at the hip with the girl, but now it was possible to speak to him alone; to take him riding for an afternoon without her tagging along.

    And sometimes, just sometimes, he would come and join Charles in flouting convention to dine with Mary in her confinement and the three of them would sit and laugh and talk about their days in the nursery at Eltham, just the way they used to. The way they used to before everything had happened.

    So it was hardly a surprise when the Blount girl’s belly started to swell. No wonder Henry had been so distant towards her. He would be worried that he’d lose her in childbed just like he lost the Queen. Still, that child was his. It could be his son, his heir. So why wasn’t he making moves to marry her? Why hadn’t he even acknowledged the pregnancy? With the way he’d doted on her all through the spring and early summer, Charles would have expected him to do nothing less. Yet he wasn’t. Instead, he was withdrawing into himself, becoming quieter and quieter as Bessie’s pregnancy became more and more pronounced.

    The fact that Henry didn’t mention Bessie’s pregnancy meant that Charles couldn’t either. In fact, it wasn’t until Mary’s own pregnancy came to term that September and Henry congratulated him on having expanded his family yet again, with another daughter this time, that Charles dared to lean on the years of friendship and honesty between them and say, “Thank You, Your Majesty. As you may imagine, Mary and I are delighted by Lady Eleanor’s safe arrival in the world. May I in turn, offer my humblest congratulations to you?”

    “Congratulations? Whatever for?” Henry sounded nonplussed. Baffled, Charles took a step back.

    “Well, the Lady Blount, of course. The child must be yours. After all, you’ve scarcely been apart since the spring.”

    “Oh, that, of course. Thank you,”

    “If I might be so bold…You don’t sound especially pleased, Your Majesty. Surely a child at this time is a blessing; a fresh start?”

    Henry’s eyes darkened momentarily and he flashed them to Charles’s face before sliding his gaze away. Charles reached a hand towards him inquiringly, “Your Majesty?”

    “If it were legitimate, yes. But even if it is a boy, that child is a bastard. It could never take my throne. What good is that for England? What good is that for me?”

    “It’s not too late. You could marry her. Marry her now and the child would still be born in wedlock, which is the important part. You could have your Prince, Sire. You and the Lady Blount could be King Henry and Queen Elizabeth, just like your parents were and, like them, you could have your Prince Arthur within the year.”

    For a moment, Henry’s face lit with hope; then, mere instants later, he shook his head, “I can’t.”

    He turned away. “I can’t,” he repeated.

    “Why not?”

    It was too direct a question to put to one’s King, really, but Charles sensed that this wasn’t the time for protocol. Watching, he saw how Henry’s shoulders tensed, then slumped as he exhaled.

    “Because I’d curse her if I did. I’d curse her. Our child would be born dead, I know it. Or else I’d lose her. As a punishment for not staying true to Cata’s memory. Or else because my father took the throne by force and not by right of blood. No. I can’t do that to her, not to my beautiful Bessie. I can’t.”

    “But now? What if the child lives? Will you at least acknowledge it?”

    “Oh yes. I owe her that much, at least. And I’ll see her taken care of. God, if I could be sure that the child would live; that they’d both live, I’d marry her tomorrow. But I don’t and I can’t make the same mistake twice. I did it to Cata and I won’t do it to Bessie. I won’t do it to another woman I love. I won’t.”

    “Harry…” Charles started, then sighed. He could see it was useless. Henry was determined to be melancholy tonight. He would just have to hope that, the next time Harry fell for a girl, he was able to put aside his worries for long enough to do his duty and beget a legitimate heir on her.
    XVII: October 1519
  • "So. Harry doesn't feel comfortable, now that his harlot's pregnant?" Mary Brandon chuckled, "How ironic, given that he's the one who got her into that state in the first place."

    Her voice was biting. Charles rested a hand on her stomach where it was still plump from little Nell's birth, rubbing it lightly as he answered, "No, he he's not, but I'll thank you not to be so open in your glee, Madam. He is your brother, after all, and he hasn't rescinded his orders that we treat the Lady Blount with respect yet. Besides which, need I remind you that we all know what happened the last time Harry was this insecure? We need to organise a distraction for him before we lose him all over again."

    "True," Mary mused, shifting Nell in her arms and already running over the ladies present at Court in her mind's eye. They needed one who was pretty enough to tempt her brother, vivacious enough to hold his interest, clever enough to, unlike the Blount girl, not get herself with child, at least not for the moment, and humble enough not to try to take over the reins at Court as Bessie Blount had done. Unsurprisingly, there weren't that many candidates, especially not since Mary only felt safe enough to entrust the job to one of the girls in her own household. Preferably one of the ones who'd already proved their loyalty when they served her during her months in France. Sarah, perhaps? No, she was too outspoken. Henry would have loved her a year or two ago, but not now, not when he was so insecure. He'd need a girl he could play the Knight in shining armour with. Susanna? No, too old, too like Cata. She'd bring back painful memories. For everyone.

    Mary was so lost in her own thoughts that she scarcely even noticed when Charles, chuckling at the calculating smirk on her lips, plucked Nell from her arms, laid her back in the bassinet and kissed them both as he took his leave. Nor did she notice, when, several minutes later, Nell started squalling with hunger.

    As such, she didn't call for her to be taken back to her wet-nurse, so the poor babe was positively howling by the time one of the maids screwed up the courage to enter Mary's private chamber to fetch her without permission.

    The door opened a crack, and Mary Boleyn looked in, "Forgive me, Your Grace, but I heard Lady Eleanor crying and I wondered if you might like me to take her back to her wet-nurse?"

    "Oh! Yes, of course, Marie, thank you," Mary answered, waving her in and addressing her by her French name, as indeed, everyone in the Duchess's household had taken to doing in an attempt to keep the two of them apart.

    Following Marie with her eyes as she scooped Nell up and crossed the room to the door that led into the nursery suite, trying in vain to soothe the ravenous child as she did so, Mary smiled wanly as she realised what a faithful servant Marie was becoming. For all that she was slightly different because of her French education, she was still a trusted friend and a part of Mary's household that she wouldn't have known how to do without.

    And then it crashed over her like a thunderbolt. Marie might just be able to serve her in another way as well.

    *** *** ***​

    "Sarah, tell Marie I need to talk to her, would you? And shut the door behind her and make sure we're not disturbed, understand?"

    "Yes, Madam," Sarah curtsied and was gone. A few minutes later, Marie, having returned from the nursery suite, was curtsying beside her, "You wanted to see me, Madam?"

    "Yes. I…I...," To her horror, Mary found that this was more difficult than she had thought it would be. The words stuck in her throat and in the end, she had to tackle the matter by way of another route.

    "You know Queen Katherine's memorial service is coming up next month, don't you?"

    "Yes, My Lady."

    "Well, I don't know how much of it you heard about, being in France as you were, but the King took the Queen's passing extremely hard. He withdrew into his rooms for months. I don't want that to happen again. I don't think the country could handle it."

    "I'll pray that it doesn't, then, Madam."

    "I want more than your prayers, Marie. I want your help in ensuring that it doesn't."

    "My help?" Marie looked at her, wide-eyed and Mary had to bite down on a surge of anger. Was Marie really that obtuse? Was she really going to make her spell it out? Sarah would have understood what her mistress was asking long ago.

    However, Harry liked his girls slightly naïve and trusting, so Mary swallowed her ire and kept her voice steady as she answered, "Yes. The King is going to need good friends about him during this difficult time," She paused to let her words sink in, then continued, lying skilfully as she went on, "I had hoped the Lady Blount would be able to support His Majesty over the next few months, but sadly, they appear to have parted ways recently. Can I trust you to offer my brother your friendship in the place of hers?"

    The mention of Bessie had done its work. Understanding flashed across Marie's face, before, her features blank, she sank to the floor in a graceful curtsy, "If that is what Your Grace requires of me," she murmured.

    Despite herself, Mary found herself admiring the younger girl's composure. What Mary had just asked of her – to put herself in the King's way and basically hire herself out to him as a whore, though hopefully without getting herself with child – could not be a pleasant thought for any girl who hoped to make a good marriage. Yet Marie was taking the news and agreeing to it almost without a pause for thought. Clearly, she was a better courtier than she sometimes let on. Maybe this wouldn't go as badly as she, Mary, had feared it might.

    *** *** ***​

    Of course, Marie had her own thoughts on what her mistress had just asked of her. It wasn't that she had anything against helping the King through his grief, of course not. She was loyal to him and would do anything she could help him. However, if she'd been taught one thing by her mother and father before she went to France, it was that a girl should never surrender her virtue before marriage, no matter who asked it of her. She hadn't given in to King Francis when he tried to court her and take it and she wouldn't give in to King Henry either. No matter what. Her maidenhood was her husband's to take and she'd make sure that, whoever he was, he was the one to take it. Which meant she'd have to go in to this game with her eyes wide open and be very careful about how far she let the King go.

    Oh, it was a dangerous game she was playing, Marie knew, but it was the only game she could play. She had no choice. If the King made advances to her – advances beyond friendship, she'd have to refuse him. Refuse him and then try to deal with whatever consequences came her way.
    XVIII: October 1519
  • Because I need cheering up after @BlueFlowwer decided to decimate my beloved House of York in 'Marriage of the Century', you're getting an early chapter. Here is the Wolsey section I promised a while ago.

    On the other side of the palace, George Cavendish [1] was hastening towards his master’s office, an open letter clutched in his hand.

    “Your Eminence?” He asked, as he reached the ajar door and pushed it further open. Wolsey looked up.

    “George? What is it? I’m trying to do the accounts for this past quarter. I thought I said I didn’t want to be disturbed?”

    “I know, Your Eminence, and I apologise, but this has just come off the boat from France and I felt you ought to know immediately.”

    So saying, George pushed the missive he carried across the desk. His master picked it up and scanned it, his double chins quivering gently as his beady eyes flicked across the page.

    When he had finished it, he remained silent for a few moments, rubbing his chin – one of them, anyway- across his open palm thoughtfully.

    “So,” he said at last, “The Duke of Alençon has died in a hunting accident.”

    George nodded, though kept silent. He knew the prodigious brain under that Cardinal’s hat would be working furiously and he had no desire to spoil his master’s train of thought.

    Sure enough, within a few moments, Wolsey stood up and began to pace the room, thinking aloud.

    “This leaves King Francis’s sister Marguerite a widow. A beautiful widow, they say. A beautiful widow only a year younger than His Majesty.”

    “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking, My Lord Cardinal” George ventured.

    “Well, the Queen’s passing has left us without a European alliance. I don’t want to trouble the King in his time of grief, but I think it would be prudent to forge another as soon as possible, don’t you?”

    “And you don’t think another Spanish alliance is the way to go?” George asked, earning himself a sharp look from his master.

    “After all the pain the Spanish have caused His Majesty recently? No, I think not. Let’s not risk opening old wounds. As prestigious as the Lady Isabella of Portugal would be as our Queen, she would not please the King. The same goes for the Lady Maria. Or indeed, any of the late Queen’s nieces. His Majesty would constantly be comparing them to their late aunt.”

    “And that would be a bad thing…” George trailed off. In all honesty, he couldn’t see why it would be a bad thing for the King to be comparing his second wife to his first. Her Grace had been a much beloved Queen, after all.

    His master snorted impatiently, breaking into his musings.

    “Oh, for heaven’s sake, boy, use your head! If the King compares his Queens like for like, then the second will be found wanting and who will get the blame for that? Whoever pushes the King into the match in the first place, of course! No, I’ll not stick my neck out for the axe like that, not if I don’t have to. A French alliance is the way to go, now that it is possible.”

    “Of course, I quite see your point, sir,” George said hastily, “But… The King is a proud man, Your Eminence. Are you quite sure he would accept a widow as his bride, when the Princess Renee is still unmarried, a virgin untouched?”

    For a moment, Wolsey paused in his pacing, steepling his fingers together against his temples.

    “Do you know why the Princess Renee is still a virgin, George? It’s because she’s a child! She’s not even ten years old. And from what I hear she’s practically a cripple into the bargain. [2] Do you want to be the one to tell His Majesty that, now that his beloved wife, who was once referred to as the most beautiful woman in Christendom, is dead, he must wait three years to take another, one who is deformed, one who limps? How do you think he’ll take that, hmm? Especially with the English Succession currently resting purely on the shoulders of Her Highness the Princess Mary? Well?”

    George gulped. His master nodded.

    “I thought not. Now, listen. Here is what we must do. We must write to King Francis as soon as we can, expressing our condolences upon the death of his brother in law.”

    “Yes, Sir. Should we also broach the idea that we might be open to an Anglo-French alliance?”

    Wolsey hesitated for a moment, as he mused on the best way to approach this delicate matter, before nodding, “Why not? Nothing could happen officially until Madame Marguerite is out of mourning, of course. It would not be seemly. Nonetheless, it never hurts to be beforehand. Yes. Do it. I tell you, George, if we handle this right, we could have a new Queen this time next year and a Prince in the cradle within twelve months of that.”

    “Yes, My Lord Cardinal.”

    “Well, what are you waiting for then, you cretin?! Get to work! Draft me a letter I can send to Paris! Quickly!”

    “Yes, Your Eminence. Sorry, Your Eminence!” Flushing as his master’s volatile temper flared up at his slow reactions, George mumbled an apology as he hastily backed out of the room.

    He left a very pensive master behind him.

    [1] Wolsey's OTL Gentleman Usher, who wrote a biography of the Cardinal after his master's death. I saw no reason not to keep him TTL.
    [2] I remember reading this description of Renee when I was a child. I can't remember where I saw it, but it fitted the scene, so I kept it in. I apologise if it is incorrect/offends anyone. And yes, she would only have been nine at this point in time. There was a fair gap between her and Claude.
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    XIX: October 1519
  • Dearest Annie,

    First, please convey my heartfelt condolences to Duchess Marguerite over the death of Duke Charles. I know they never perhaps loved each other as much as King Henry and Queen Katherine did, but I also know how much kindness and mutual respect there was between them. I can only guess at how much she must be reeling from his death. As indeed am I. I remember how kind he was to both of us when were arrived on French shores with the old Queen Mary, two shell-shocked and motherless little English girls. I beg you, let Marguerite know that I am praying both for his soul and for her at this difficult time.”

    Here, Marie paused, wondering whether to tell her little sister what Duchess Mary had requested of her. Annie was only twelve after all. Then again, twelve was legal womanhood. And Annie had grown up at the French Court, in the service of one of its most glittering personages. It was hard to believe that she wouldn’t already know about this sort of thing. Perhaps, strange though it seemed, it was time Marie started entrusting confidences of this sort to her little sister.

    Uncertainly, she dipped her pen back into her ink and laid her nib to the parchment once more.

    “As for me, everything is going well here in England. I’m rising ever higher in Duchess Mary’s favour. So much so, in fact, that she recently put her trust in me and gave me a commission. I am to try and win His Majesty’s confidence and distract him during the preparations for Queen Katherine’s memorial service, so as to prevent him from becoming overwhelmed with grief once more.

    I will let you know if I am successful. But please, say nothing of this in your letters to Father. He will find out soon enough and I would rather do without his interference for as long as I can.

    Anyway, time grows short, so I send my blessings, little sister, and ask that you fill me in on all the news from France just as soon as ever you can. Greet Jeannette for me.

    God Bless, Annie. I remain, as ever,

    Your sister Marie”

    Signing, drying and sealing the letter, Marie went down to the postmaster’s office.

    “For my sister, Master Cornwalsh, but keep it separate from the family packet, will you?” she requested, pressing a gold half-angel into his hand and turning on her sweetest smile. He melted instantly.

    “But of course, Mistress Boleyn,” he assured her, taking the sheaf of parchment from her. Marie smiled in relief, “Thank you.”

    Then she turned and ran back up the stairs, back up to her duties in the Duchess’s household.
    XX: October 1519
  • Marie was sewing and gossiping with Sarah one morning when their mistress called, “Sarah, Marie. I plan to hold a masked ball to celebrate my return to Court. The Virtues and the Vices. Sarah, you can play Perseverance and Marie, I’d like you to play Gentleness."

    Marie lifted her head and sought her mistress’s eyes. A current of understanding passed between them.

    “As Your Grace wishes,” she murmured.

    *** *** ***​
    The weeks passed in a haze of rehearsals and all of a sudden, the day came. Marie found herself, not only resplendent in a gown of ivory-coloured silk, but standing on the highest tier of a painted wooden castle, symbolically “trapped” by her mistress, herself dressed in scarlet and black satin in her role as Lady Cruelty.

    There was a flourish of trumpets and a dozen masked knights, led by Sir Loyalty and Sir Ardent Desire, rushed into the hall.

    One of them, Sir Ardent Desire, put up his sword.

    “My Lady Vices, I desire – nay I demand – that you release these, your gentle prisoners.”

    “As Lady Cruelty, I feel I may withhold their delights a little longer”, Duchess Mary laughed.

    “Aye, for myself alone,” Susanna, or rather, Lady Selfishness, added.

    “As Lady Scorn, I laugh at your desires,” Jane Parker improvised.

    The audience howled with laughter. Sir Ardent Desire’s eyes flashed.

    “My Lady, I think you will find that desire overcomes all,” he countered, before clenching his hand on the hilt of his wooden sword and raising the blade above his head.

    “Attack!” he yelled.

    Amid howls of merriment, the knights rapidly scaled the battlements. As befitted a masque, the Vices yielded after only the most token of resistance, though Marie did see Lady Cruelty being led off by Sir Ardent Desire, so presumably she would be dancing later, having been granted clemency for yielding.

    As Marie watched her go, however, she was recalled to her part in the masque by Sir Loyalty’s hand closing over her wrist.

    “Gentleness, you are my prisoner now,” he breathed.

    Though Marie recognised His Majesty’s voice instantly, she didn’t let it show, only half-curtsied and let him lead her from the battlements, face impassive.

    No words passed between them as they stepped together through the first part of the salladre, but when they switched partners as the dance demanded, Marie felt his eyes following her.

    And when, released from Sir Francis Weston’s – Sir Courage’s – hold, she took his hand once more, she could tell he was barely able to restrain his curiosity.

    “Who are you?” he murmured, “Have I seen you before, Lady Gentleness?”

    Marie hesitated for just a beat or two – to steel herself for what she was about to do just as much as to heighten his curiosity. Then she let her eyes flash – just for an instant – up to his face.

    “I’m Marie,” she whispered, “Marie Boleyn.”