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At The King's Command

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Richmond Palace, England


Stephen de Lacey, baron of Wimberleigh, walked into the Royal Bedchamber to find his betrothed in bed with the king.

His face as cold and unflinching as a Holbein portrait, Stephen stared at the dark-eyed Welsh beauty all but hidden beneath the quilted silk counterpane. A hissing tide of resentment roiled deep inside him, threatening to drown him. Clenching his fists at his sides, Stephen conquered the turmoil within. Through deliberately blank eyes, he looked at King Henry VIII.

“My liege,” he said, blowing stiffly, inhaling the scent of dried lavender and bergamot from the sachets in the bed hangings. By the time he straightened up, the king’s attendants had arrived to groom their sovereign for the day.

“Ah, Wimberleigh.” The king put out his arms as an attendant scurried forward and helped him don a loose silk jacket. Henry smiled. In that smile there lingered yet a hint of the old charm, the derring-do of a golden young prince. A prince whom Stephen, as a boy, had idolized as the second Arthur.

The legendary Arthur had died young, in a blaze of glory. Henry had made the mistake of living on into the corrupt mediocrity of middle age.

“Come, come,” said Henry, beckoning. He swung his swollen legs over the side of the bed and pushed his pale feet into a pair of brocade slippers held by a kneeling servant. “You may approach the royal bed. See what I’ve found you.”

As he crossed the huge room, Stephen felt the searing curiosity of the sovereign’s attendants. By now the chamber was crowded with titled gentlemen, all engaged to supervise the most intimate bodily functions of the king—and also to influence the policies of the realm.

Sir Lambert Wilmeth, groom of the stool, took His Majesty’s bowel movements as seriously as Scottish border disputes. Lord Harold Blodsmoor, surveyor of the wardrobe, regarded the king’s collection of shoes as highly as the crown jewels. Yet at the moment, the attention of these great gentlemen burned into Stephen de Lacey.

The girl smiled shyly and even managed to summon an artful blush. She stretched with catlike grace, a bare shoulder emerging from the bedclothes. Like most of the king’s mistresses, she took a perverse pride in sharing the bed of the sovereign.

After so many betrayals, Stephen should have known better than to trust the king. Should have known that the summons could only mean more petty cruelty.

“I was feeling frisky today.” Henry’s grin held both mischief and subtle rancor. Limping slightly, he went to the royal stool, speaking over his shoulder as he relieved himself. “I decided to exercise the droit du seigneur—again. An antiquated notion, to be sure, but one that has its merits and deserves to be revived from time to time. Now, make a gracious greeting to your lady Gwenyth, and then we’ll—”

“Sire,” Stephen broke in, heedless of the gasps from the noblemen present. No one interrupted the king. In the thirty years of his reign, Henry VIII had put men to death for lesser offenses.

Instantly Stephen regretted the risk he had taken. With that one blurted word he might have jeopardized everything.

“Yes?” The king seemed only mildly annoyed as his gentlemen helped him into doublet and hose. “What is it, Wimberleigh?”

Stephen couldn’t help himself. A killing rage rose like a fountain of fire inside him. “To hell with your droit du seigneur.”

He turned on his heel and strode from the Royal Bedchamber. Though well aware of the infraction he was committing, he could not be a willing player in the familiar, vicious diversion that so delighted Henry.

The red-and-white livery of the king’s Welsh yeomen passed in a blur as Stephen strode out into the paved central court. Seeking a place to cool his temper in private, he stalked into a walled garden. A pebbled path led him through tortured little plots of whitethorn and sweetbriar. The flower beds had been arranged geometrically, so that they resembled rather coarse mosaics.

Stephen wished for the hundredth time that he had ignored the king’s annual summons and stayed in Wiltshire.

But to refuse the command was to risk the one thing Stephen would kill to safeguard. If the price of keeping his secret was to have his heart ripped out and his pride publicly shredded, then so be it.

His conviction that the king hadn’t finished with him proved correct, for an hour later, a haughty majordomo summoned him to the Presence Chamber.

An open-timbered ceiling arched high over the hall. The watery sunlight of early spring streamed in through twin banks of mullioned windows. Colored glass made a shifting, jeweled pattern on the walls and floor. Somewhere, an unseen lute player strummed softly, the shimmering music a sweet undercurrent to the murmur of voices.

Members of the Privy Council stood by, sharp eyed, their shoulders hunched beneath heavy, long robes.

Stephen paced over the smooth flagstones to the gold-and-scarlet-draped dais. There he stopped, swept his satin-lined cloak back over one shoulder, and sank into a formal obeisance. Even without looking at the king, he knew Henry relished the submissive pose of a man of Stephen’s height. Henry took pleasure in anything that made Stephen feel smaller.

He rose with hatred and defiance clear in his eyes, and a gift in his extended hands.

Henry sat upon his massive carved chair, looking like Bacchus clad in silver and gold. In recent years, his face had grown as large as a haunch of beef.

“What’s this?” he asked, nodding to a page. The lad took the small wooden coffer from Stephen and offered it to the king. With childlike haste, Henry opened it and extracted a tiny watch on a golden chain. “Marry, my lord, you never fail to amaze me.”

“A trinket, no more,” Stephen said in a flat, dead voice. Henry had many appetites, most of them insatiable. Satisfying his craving for unique gifts was no challenge.

Henry slipped the chain through the baldric that encircled his ample girth. “I assume the design is original.”

Stephen nodded.

“You’ve a rare talent for inventions of all sorts, Wimberleigh. A pity you are so lacking in plain manners.” The breadth of his cheeks made his eyes look beady, his mouth thin lipped and tight. “You left the Royal Bedchamber without begging leave, my lord.”

“So I did, sire.”

Henry’s hand, pudgy and sparkling with rings, smacked down on the arm of his chair. His fingers strangled a carved gargoyle. “Damn your eyes, Wimberleigh. Must you always breach the limits of propriety and decorum?”

“Only when provoked, sire.”

The king’s expression did not change, yet his small bright eyes took fire. “Has it never occurred to you,” he asked in a soft, deadly voice, “that you might do better to dance with your betrothed rather than with my patience? Lady Gwenyth is beautiful. She’s well-bred and reasonably wealthy.”

“She is also ruined, sire.”

“I did honor to the wench,” Henry snapped. “There is only one king of England, just as there is only one sun. My favor is not for one alone.”

Stephen bit his tongue to stop himself from responding. It was useless to quarrel with a man who likened himself to a heavenly body. He could satisfy his every whim all too easily, for what sane man or woman would dare refuse him?

“For God’s sake, Stephen,” Henry thundered, “your evasiveness bedevils me. I’ve found you four eligible ladies in the past year, and you’ve refused them all. What is it that makes you so much better than any other noble?”

“I do not wish to marry again,” Stephen stated. He could not resist adding, “My favor is for no one, not even that silly Welsh comfit I found in your bed.”

“Comfits are sweet and agreeable to the palate,” Henry pointed out.

“Aye, but when handled by too many fingers, they lose their savor. And when left long enough to themselves, they rot.”

Without taking his eyes off Stephen, the king held out his hand. A servitor stepped forward and placed in it a silver cup of sack.

Henry drank deeply of the Canary wine, then said, “Ah. Still you pine for your Margaret, now seven years cold.”

With all that he was, Stephen resisted the urge to bury his fist in his sovereign’s face. How blithely Henry spoke of Meg—as if he had never even known her at all.

“Was she so very dear to you, then,” the king went on, twisting the knife, “that you cannot love another?”

Stephen held himself motionless as his mind filled with memories of Meg. Peeking at him timidly from behind her veil on their wedding day. Weeping in pain and fear in their marriage bed. Hiding her secrets from the husband who adored her. Dying in a sea of blood and bitter curses.

“Margaret was—” Stephen cleared his throat “—child. Gullible. Easily impressed.” With terrible, blade-sharp guilt, he knew he had forced her into womanhood and then into motherhood. And finally and most unforgivably, into death.

“I know well what it is to mourn a wife,” Henry said, an unexpected note of sympathy in his voice. Stephen knew he was thinking of quiet, dutiful Jane Seymour, who had died giving the king the one gift he craved above all others: a male heir to the throne.

“However,” Henry continued, imperious again, “a wife is a necessary ornament to a man’s station, and old memories should not make you balk at duty. Now. As to the Welsh lady—”

“Sire, I humbly beg your pardon.” He dropped his voice so only the king could hear. “I will not take any man’s leavings—not even those of the king of England. I’ll not be a salve to your conscience.”

“My conscience?” Henry’s mouth curved into a cold sickle of amusement. His voice was a whisper meant for Stephen alone. “My dear lord of Wimberleigh, where on earth did you get the notion that I had one?”

Stephen’s neck tingled. He reminded himself that Henry VIII had put aside his first wife and brought about the execution of the second. He had appropriated the authority of the church, taken possession of monasteries, driven the poor from their lands. The mere ruining of a young virgin would hardly trouble a man like Henry Tudor.

“My mistake,” Stephen replied softly. “But never mind, the Lady Gwenyth would not want me anyway.”

“Ah, your tarnished reputation,” Henry said, waving his now-empty cup. “Wild revels, gambling and rapine. The gossip does find its way to court. Marry, sir, every maiden in the realm quails in fright at the very thought of you.”

Stephen preferred it that way. He had worked hard to hide his few good qualities beneath a patina of ill repute. “I am a man of low morals. An unfortunate flaw in my character. And now if it please Your Majesty, I must withdraw from court.”

With a swiftness that belied his age and bulk, the king came out of his chair. His thick-fingered hand closed in the front of Stephen’s quilted doublet. “By God, it does not please me.” He put his face very close to Stephen’s, so close that Stephen could smell the warm sweetness of sack on his breath. “Get you a wife, Wimberleigh, and then get you a proper heir, else all of England will know what you hide at your Wiltshire estate.”

An animal roar of denial surged to Stephen’s throat. With an effort born of years of iron control, he forced himself to keep from tearing into the royal face. How Henry had come to know Stephen’s terrible secret was a mystery; how he intended to use the knowledge was becoming painfully obvious.

With a will, Stephen expelled his breath slowly and stepped back. The king no longer gripped him, yet the hold lingered invisibly—would linger until Stephen shed himself once and for all of the king’s ire.

“To your knees, Wimberleigh.”

His cheeks on fire with rage, Stephen sank down.

“Now swear it. Let me hear you vow that you will obey me.” The king’s voice rang loud. “Let me hear that you will wed—if not Lady Gwenyth, then another.”

The command hung, suspended, in the deafening silence that followed. From his low perspective, Stephen caught details with uncommon clarity: the ancient dust clinging to the hem of the king’s cloak, the faint, septic smell of the ulcer on Henry’s leg, the soft chink of the sovereign’s chain of office as his massive chest rose and fell, and the dying echo of a plucked lute string.

All the court waited in a state of breath-held anticipation. The king had flung down the gauntlet, had challenged one of the few men in the realm who dared defy him.

Stephen de Lacey was no fool, and he valued his neck. The years, at least, had taught him to equivocate. “Your will be done, sire.” He spoke clearly so all could hear, for he knew if he mumbled the pledge, the king would make him repeat it.

A collective sigh came from the Privy Councillors. How they loved seeing one of their own humiliated.

Henry lowered his vast bulk onto the throne. “I trust you’ll obey this time.”

Stephen stood. The king dismissed him with a curt nod. Almost immediately, Henry began to bellow for his attendants. “Saddle my horse, I wish to go riding.”

Stephen left the Presence Chamber and passed through the antechamber. The air of corruption lingered even here, in the heavy scent of sandalwood burning in a corner brazier, in the stale mats of rushes that had not been changed in months.

Prior to his audience, Stephen had requested that his horse be brought out, for he wanted to be away swiftly. The grooms of the royal stables had promised to have the tall Neapolitan mare ready outside the west gate.

Stephen strode across the courtyard and passed between the octagonal-shaped twin towers. He paused beneath the ornate portcullis, the pointed wrought-iron bars aimed straight down at his head.

As promised, his mare stood ready in saddle and trappings, tethered to an iron loop in the shade of a spreading oak some distance beyond the gatehouse.

He frowned at the negligence of the grooms. Didn’t they know better than to leave a valuable animal unattended? And where the devil was Kit, his squire?

Cocking his head, Stephen saw a movement beside the mare. A wraithlike shadow, secretive as an unconfessed sin.

A filthy gypsy woman was stealing his horse.

Juliana could not believe her luck. So desperately had she needed a horse for the fair in Runnymede tomorrow, she had been prepared to enter the very walls of the riverside palace and boldly steal an animal.

Instead, as she crouched in a stand of copper beeches and regarded the glistening walls and gilt turrets of Richmond Palace, a groom had emerged with one of the most magnificent beasts she had ever seen. The horse was fitted out with trappings of silver and Morocco leather that would, if traded, feed the gypsy tribe for a decade.

Pavlo, her windhound, had scared the lad off. By now it was a common ploy. No Englishman had ever seen a borzoya, and most thought the huge white dog some sort of mythical beast.

She glanced around to gauge the chances of being caught. A pair of guards in Kendal green-and-white livery stood sentinel in front of the twin gate towers about two hundred paces distant. Their blank gazes were trained on the horizon of the hills that rose above the river Thames; they paid no heed to the horse standing quietly in the shadows.

Juliana paused to touch her luck token—the dagger brooch she wore pinned inside the waistband of her skirt. Then she crept out of the beech grove. The matted grass was damp and springy beneath her bare feet, and her anklets of cheap tin clicked softly with each step. Her skirts, constructed of pieced-together bits of fabric, brushed the ground.

After five years of living among the gypsies of England, she had grown accustomed to looking like a beggarwoman—and to behaving like one when necessary. She accepted her lot with a sort of weary resignation that belied the purpose that still burned in her heart.

Never had she forgotten her identity: Juliana Romanov, daughter of a nobleman, betrothed to a boyar. One day, she vowed, she would return to her home. She would find the men who had murdered her family. She would see the killers brought to justice.

It was a grand undertaking for a penniless girl. The early months in England had been almost hopelessly hard. She and Laszlo, who posed as her father, had bartered her clothes and jewels, bit by bit, on the long journey to England. She had arrived with nothing save her precious brooch, the glittering jewel encircled by twelve matched pearls, the secret blade inside, and the Romanov motto etched in Cyrillic characters on the back: Blood, vows and honor.

It was her last link with the privileged girl she had been. Never would she trade it away.

In time, the shock of losing her family had become a dull, constant ache. Juliana threw herself into her new life with the same determined concentration that had so pleased her riding and dancing masters, her tutor and music teacher, in Novgorod.

She had learned how to barter for a horse in apparently ill health, heal the animal, conceal its defects, and then sell it back to the Gaje for profit. How to appear at a market square looking like the most bedraggled, afflicted of creatures, so filthy that people gave her coin simply to be rid of her. How to perform breathtaking carnival tricks on horseback and afterward, with a lazy, seductive smile, collect coins thrown by her rapt spectators.

Life might have gone on like this indefinitely, but for Rodion.

Juliana shuddered as she thought of him—young, crudely handsome, glaring across the campfire at her with a sort of cruel possessiveness hard on his features.

The inevitable marriage proposal had come last night. Laszlo had advised her to accept Rodion. Unlike her, Laszlo had long since surrendered any dreams of returning to the old country.

Not so Juliana.

Rodion’s plans had spurred her on her quest. The time had come to leave the gypsy train, to present herself to the king of England and request an armed escort back to Novgorod.

Her first order of business was to obtain a set of proper attire. She had become adept at pilfering food from market carts and washing pegged out on lines. A fancy court dress was much more of a challenge.

In the past, the men of the tribe had taken all her earnings. This handsome mare was for her alone.

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. The town of Runnymede held its horse fair starting at dawn tomorrow. She would make the sale quickly, then put her plan into motion.

“Stay here, Pavlo,” she whispered. The large, shaggy dog cast a worried look at her, but lay down and settled his long muzzle between his front paws.

Crouching low, Juliana approached the horse from the front, slightly to one side. “There, my pretty,” she whispered to warn it of her presence. “You’re a pretty mare, that you are.”

The horse ceased its browsing in the tufts of clover at the base of the tree. Its nostrils dilated, and Juliana heard the soft huff of its breath. The well-shaped ears lay back.

Juliana made a low clicking sound with the back of her tongue, and the ears eased up a little. She held out her hand, palm up, offering the horse a pared turnip she had filched from someone’s kitchen garden.

The mare devoured the raw turnip and nudged Juliana’s hand for more. She smiled. For all their strength and speed and endurance, horses were simple creatures easily led by their appetites. Not unlike men, Catriona would say.

Though tension burned in her shoulders and the need for haste pressed at her, she fed the mare another piece of turnip and moved close, running her hand down one side of the smooth, firm neck and up the other. All the time, she kept up a soft patter of speech, English words, mostly nonsense, the lulling language of a mother soothing a child to sleep. In moments, she knew the horse was relaxed and docile.

She glanced at the gate; the guards had neither stirred nor noticed her. A man appeared beneath the portcullis. From this distance, she had only the swift impression that he was tall, broad and tawny haired.

Filled with a sense of impending triumph, Juliana untied the braided cord that secured the horse to the iron loop. She placed one bare foot in the stirrup and reached for the raised cantle of the saddle to hoist herself up.

“Stop, thief!”

For a fraction of a heartbeat, the shout froze her. But in the next instant, Juliana swung up as if lifted by the hand of God and landed astraddle. Without breaking the flow of motion, she slammed her heels against the sides of the horse and made a loud smooching sound.

The horse took off like an arrow shot from a bow. Juliana gloried in the sensation of riding the best horse she had mounted since her frantic flight from Novgorod five years before.

“I see the gypsy’s stealing your horse, Wimberleigh.”

Stephen was so shocked to see the woman galloping off astride Capria that he had not realized King Henry, surrounded by his entourage, had appeared on the high walk between the gate towers.

“She’ll not get far,” Stephen stated loudly. He whirled toward the stables where a groom was leading a saddled hunter out into the yard. “Bring me that horse at once,” he shouted.

The groom looked momentarily confused. Then, apparently convinced by the thunderous scowl on Stephen’s face, he hurried toward the gate with the horse.

“I’ll make you a wager.” Henry shaded his eyes and squinted at the fleeing figure of the woman, tattered skirts and tangled hair flying on the wind. “A hundred crowns says you’ll never see that mare again.”

“Done,” Stephen snapped, mounting the hunger. He dug in his spurs and clattered across the bridge, out onto the open road. The horse had an indifferent gallop and a hard mouth. Stephen would have a bit of a chase on his hands, for Capria was the superior animal. And, he conceded, the gypsy wench was a skilled rider.

She flew past a grove of copper beeches, and a large white dog joined her on the road. Surprise stabbed at Stephen. The lanky, long-haired dog was nearly as swift as the horse.

He bent low over the pumping neck of the hunter. The brown clay road streaked beneath him in a blur. The gypsy whipped a glance back and banged her bare heels against Capria’s sides.

Stephen closed a bit more of the distance between them. A sense of certainty surged up in him. He did not have to ride the woman down. He knew another way to bring Capria back. He needed only to get within earshot.

When he was sure his quarry lay close enough, he put his fingers to his lips. Shaping his mouth with his fingers, he emitted a long, ear-splitting whistle.

The mare jerked her head to the side. The reins slipped from the gypsy’s grasp. Capria slid to a stop, wheeled, and charged back the way she had come.

“No!” The thief’s faint cry carried across the undulating downs along the river. She groped for the flying reins, but the whiplike length of leather eluded her.

Stephen took a dark pleasure in her struggle. A lesser rider would have fallen, possibly to her death, but the woman’s legs stayed tight around the horse’s girth, her feet firmly in the stirrups.

With her throat locked in terror and her hands gripping the mare’s gray mane, Juliana exhorted the horse to turn, or at the very least to stop.

But the stubborn creature only did so when it reached a large man standing beside a horse in the middle of the road. Catching the loose rein, he held out a treat in his other hand.

A crushing sense of defeat caved in on Juliana, but she gave herself not a moment for regrets. Even before the mare came to a full stop, she hit the ground running.

Her head jerked back, and she felt a tearing pain. She loosed a low, throaty scream. The villain had hold of her long braid.

She kicked out with her bare feet, bruising them against the man’s tall boots. She scratched, digging her claws into his neck, his ears, anywhere she could reach.

The fight lasted mere seconds. With perfunctory swiftness, he used the leather reins to lash her wrists together.

“Now then.” His voice was a deep rumble of anger.

“Pavlo!” Juliana screamed.

The dog lunged. A hundredweight of muscle and fur hurled itself at the unsuspecting man.

Pavlo’s yelp of pain pierced the air. Juliana blinked in amazement. Somehow, the man had grabbed Pavlo’s crimson vellat collar and twisted, choking off the dog’s windpipe.

“It would be a pity,” he said, his tone infuriatingly blasé, “to destroy so magnificent an animal. But I shall, wench, unless you command it off the attack.”

Juliana did not hesitate. Nothing, not even her own freedom, was more precious to her than Pavlo. “Let up, Pavlo,” she said in Russian. “Easy, boy.”

The dog submitted, relaxing his knotted muscles and emitting a strangled whine. The man eased his grip on the collar and then let go. “I wonder,” he said. “Is this a case for the sheriff or the palace warden?”

“No!” Juliana had learned to loathe and fear the sheriffs of England. She plunged to her knees in front of her captor, her bound hands held high in supplication. “My lord, I beg you! Do not turn me over to the sheriff!”

“Christ’s bones, woman.” His face flushed with chagrin, he gave her sleeve a tug. “Get up. I mislike begging.”

Heaving a sigh of resignation. Juliana stood. Vaguely she became aware of movement high on the walk between the two towers of the distant palace gate, but her gaze stayed riveted on her captor. He was garbed as a gentleman, in a costume of such exaggerated virility that she blushed. An abbreviated doublet allowed his white shirt to billow forth. Huge sleeves with clever slashings bloomed from the armholes. Tight particolored hose hugged his long legs, his muscular thighs, and culminated in an immense codpiece all decked with silver braid.

A large hand, surprisingly gentle, touched her under the chin and drew her gaze upward. “Nothing but trouble there,” he said, a faint note of cynical amusement in his voice.

With the fire in her cheeks intensifying, she studied his face. He was cleanshaven, an attribute that never failed to shock her, for Russian and gypsy men alike always wore full beards. Framed by a mane of wheat-colored hair, this man’s face was smooth and stark, with chiseled angles that bespoke strength—and intimidating power.

Fear fluttered in her chest. It was his eyes that discomfited her. They were unusual, of the palest, opaque blue, cold as moonstones. She peered into the icy blankness and was startled at what she saw there. A hard, tight pleasure. As if he had enjoyed the chase.

Suddenly the thought of being handed over to the sheriff did not seem so dire as tarrying in the company of this huge, forbidding lord.

But instinct told her not to show fear. She tossed her head. “You’ve got your horse back. She’s a disobedient nag anyway, so why don’t you let me go on my way?”

The man’s mouth tightened. His version of a sardonic smile, she decided.

“Disobedient?” Absently he fed the mare a morsel from a pouch that hung from his wide, ornate belt. “Nay, just greedy. Capria learned long ago that to come to my whistle meant to win a bit of marzipan.”

Before she could catch herself, Juliana mouthed the unfamiliar word.

“Almond sugar,” the man said pleasantly enough. He held out a pasty-looking morsel. “Would you like some?”

She turned up her nose in resentment. The horse snatched at the tidbit.

“Where did you learn to ride like that?” her captor asked.

Juliana hesitated, wondering which lie to tell. If she admitted she had polished her considerable skills with the gypsies, it would endanger the band, for the Romany people were rarely welcome among gentlefolk. Unexpectedly, she heard herself blurting out the truth. “I learned from my father’s riding master. In Novgorod, a kingdom of Russia north of Muscovy.”

The man lifted one tawny eyebrow. “Not only a horse thief, but a lunatic, as well. How long has it been since you escaped Bedlam?”

“Not only a bully, but a braying ass, too,” she shot back.

“Lord Wimberleigh!” A man in palace livery came pounding along the road. “You’ve collared the horse thief, then.”

“It appears that I have, Sir Bodely.”

“Well done, my lord, and you gave His Majesty a few moments of diversion in the process. Though I trow he’ll not look kindly on losing the bet.”

“Your prisoner, Sir Bodely,” Wimberleigh said with a mocking bow. He grinned at Juliana. “The palace warden’s thief taker, at your service.”

Sir Bodely’s brows beetled together. “A wench, is it? Looks gypsy to me.” With swift, jerky movements, he bound her hands with coarse rope and gave the discarded reins to Lord Wimberleigh.

From a belt overhung with an ale-swiller’s gut were the tools of the thief-taker’s trade: a black whip, manacles, and hobbles.

Wimberleigh’s gaze fixed on the savage utensils. His eyes turned flinty, and beneath his billowing sleeves, his shoulders hunched. He turned away. “I’d best be on my way, then.”

In a red haze of fury and fear, Juliana called out, “Are all great lords as cowardly as you, sir?”

His back stiffened, and he swung around to regard her with the respect he might afford a spider. “Were you addressing me?”

“You are the only cowardly lord present at the moment.”

His eyebrows slid upward. “So. You find me cowardly, do you?”

Gingerly she lifted her bound hands. “You are quick to accuse me of stealing your horse, yet you balk at staying to see me punished. What is the penalty for my crime? Hanging? Or perhaps since I failed in my endeavor, I shall merely have my nostrils slit or a hand or an ear cut off. A true man would not lack the stomach to watch.”

His squarish jaw tightened. He addressed the palace official. “Will the wench have a chance to face her accuser in a court of law?”

Juliana held her breath. The law always reads against the gypsy. Laszlo had drummed that lesson into her head. But despite the past five years, she was not a gypsy. She was of noble birth. Her kin had been great princes and rulers. She would convince the court of her true identity and soon have the insolent Wimberleigh groveling at her feet.

The brassy blare of a horn scattered her thoughts. Out of the gates came a party of mounted noblemen, their persons arrayed even more sumptuously than Lord Wimberleigh’s. Retainers swarmed around the gentlemen, boys trotting at their stirrups, a few clutching lead reins.

Sir Bodely doubled over in an obeisance so deep it looked painful. Even Wimberleigh bowed. Juliana simply stared, and with unerring instinct she picked out the king of England.

He rode a roan hunter. His saddle was huge, no doubt specially constructed to accommodate his ponderous weight. Henry of England was as impressive as Grand Prince Vasily had been. Like a proper boyar, the English king wore a full beard. His raiments glittered with gold and silver threads, and his mantle was edged with the black fur of the civet cat.

“My lord of Wimberleigh.” The king’s voice was cold and full of hate. “It seems you made the better wager. I thought your mare a lost cause.”

A wager?

Juliana felt a hot stab of anger. Her life hung in the balance, and the king and Wimberleigh were settling wagers?

“Tell me, my lord,” said the king. “What trick did you play?”

“No trick, sire. I’ve trained the mare to come to my whistle regardless of her rider. She’s as obedient as she is swift.”

“The beast is a wonder,” cried one of the king’s men, clutching his velvet hat to his chest.

“Indeed she is, Francis,” Henry replied. “No need to get yourself overwrought.” His gaze flicked to Juliana. His small eyes were black and impenetrable. His thin mouth, enclosed in the graying red-gold beard, pressed tight; then the corners lifted in a grin. “An Egyptian wench. Well done, Wimberleigh.”

A fresh wave of fear struck at Juliana. “Egyptians,” as folk called the gypsies, were considered outlaws. In some areas, they were hunted for sport with prizes awarded to men who managed to kill or wound one.

“Your Majesty.” Juliana spoke clearly, aware that a faint accent tinged her words. “I am no gypsy.” Her resonant voice, the carefully formed words, attracted the attention of all. Her goal had been to win an audience with Henry of England. True, she had not anticipated these precise circumstances, but now that she had his attention, she would make the most of it.

Henry loosed a bark of laughter. “It speaks! And rather prettily, I must admit.” He reached out his gloves and jeweled hand. “Come here, wench.”

“Your Grace, no!” A dark-haired lady on a palfrey beside the king gasped. “She’s probably crawling with lice and vermin.”

“I don’t mean to touch it, Lady Gwenyth. I merely wish to look at it.”

With her head held high, Juliana stepped forward. To her constant mortification, she did indeed suffer from frequent infestations of lice, and at the moment she itched from a light case. Still, she refused to surrender her moment with the king. Rope dragging in the powdery earth, she made a graceful, flawless obeisance. A murmur of new interest rippled through the fast-swelling crowd.

Juliana took a deep breath. Borrowing the storyteller’s art she had learned from nights around the gypsy campfire, she began to speak.

“My name is Juliana Romanov. I was born in the kingdom of Muscovy to the royal boyar Gregor Romanov of Novgorod.”

From the corner of her eye, Juliana saw two ladies put their heads together and whisper. One of them pointed at Juliana’s cold, bare feet.

She ignored them. “It is true that I tried to, er, borrow the horse of Lord Wilberford.” She hoped she’d got his name right. “I knew not what else to do. Your Majesty, I am the victim of a terrible injustice. I meant to seek your protection and ask your help for a lady of the blood royal.”

Low laughter came from some of the courtiers. Juliana knew they could not see past her tattered gown, her tangled hair, the smudges of ash and road dust on her face.

Yet she had the king’s attention. She meant to seize the moment. “Five years ago, Grand Prince Vasily died, and the boyars—whom you call councillors or nobles—warred against each other. A band of mercenaries burned my father’s house and murdered my family.” She dropped her voice, amazed that even after five years, the nightmare memories still held her in a grip of horror and grief. For a moment, she was back in Novgorod, watching the bloodred flicker of flames on the snow, the tall boots crunching over the drive, the cruel blade of a killer. She heard again the yelp of a dog and a man’s muffled curse.

As quickly as it had come, the vision vanished, leaving her drained. “I alone survived, and by God’s grace escaped to England.”

“Cromwell!” the king bellowed.

The dark-robed man, his clean-shaven face pale, dismounted and stepped forward. “I am here, sire.”

“What think you, Sir Thomas? Can this barefoot wench truly be a daughter of Muscovy royalty, or has Wimberleigh bagged us a madwoman?”

Sir Thomas steepled his long, pale fingers. “It is true that Vasily the Third died five years ago, that there was infighting among the boyars. I had it from the Prussian ambassador.”

Encouraged, Juliana nodded vigorously. “Then you understand my position. No doubt a prince as lofty as yourself would feel honor bound to give me your full support.”

The king chuckled, a charming, musical sound. His mount shifted beneath him as if straining from the burdensome weight. “What sort of support, my lady?”

“A naval escort. Well-armed, of course, for I shall need help in bringing the murderers to justice.”

Someone in the riding party laughed outright. Others joined in the mirth. Wimberleigh raised his eyebrows in skepticism. Furious, Juliana did the unthinkable. She plunged her bound hands into the waistband of her skirt and drew forth the Romanov ruby brooch.

“This is proof of my identity,” she declared. “My father gave it to me on my thirteenth name day.”

“Tis paste,” Lady Gwenyth declared with a bored sniff.

“Or stolen,” said someone else. “We already know she is a thief.”

The dark man called Cromwell addressed Sir Bodely. “Take the cozening wench away and hang her.”

Though her fingers were numb with terror, Juliana had the presence of mind to slip her brooch back into its hiding place.

Chains and manacles clanking, Sir Bodely advanced. Wimberleigh planted himself in the warden’s path. “Free her,” he said.

“But, my lord—”

“I said free her,” the huge, brooding man repeated. “Her offense—such as it was—is against me. I say she goes free.”

The king stroked his beard. “You always did have a soft spot for downtrodden females, eh, Wimberleigh?”

“She’s naught but the bride of calamity,” Cromwell said, his voice nasal with annoyance. “Surely the baron of Wimberleigh has better causes than—”

“Peace, Thomas.” The king held up his hand, then gave a curt nod to Sir Bodely. The warden loosed Juliana’s bonds. Her first instinct was to flee, from the crafty king and his court, and most especially the forbidding man who all but held her hostage with his cold glare.

“What say you, Wimberleigh?” the king asked. Cruel laughter danced in his eyes. “Shall we send the wench on her way, or do you want to keep her for yourself?”

Lady Gwenyth tittered behind her hand.

Juliana watched the tall, tawny-haired lord. He did not move a muscle, yet she sensed that he was torn. His craggy face was a mask of sheer dislike—whether of her or the king, she could not tell. She held her breath, waiting for his answer.

Stephen expelled his breath, wondering how he should answer. Knowing that any response would be the wrong one.

Murmurs of laughter rippled from the crowd. As far as they were concerned, this was a farce put on for their entertainment. In spite of himself, Stephen had to admire the way Juliana bore up under the humiliating mirth of the king and his court. Henry’s black-eyed glare had taken down fiercer adversaries than an addlepated gypsy girl, yet she returned his stare with unflinching ferocity.

Almost as if she viewed herself as his equal.

All of Stephen’s instincts urged him to send the girl on her way, back to her coarse gypsy people. Then he committed a grave error. He looked into her eyes.

What a world of torment and yearning he saw there, in the flickering green depths. He thought of the husky, exotic cadences of her voice, the curiously accented words. Your Majesty, I am the victim of a terrible injustice. He told himself it should not matter; he had no business to concern himself with the troubles of an unwashed half-mad gypsy.

And yet a voice rose inside him—alien, yet wholly from the depths of his heart. “Sire, the choice should be hers.”

“Nay,” cried Henry, and his tone raised a prickle of suspicion on the back of Stephen’s neck. “The choice is mine. If we let the wench wander free, she’ll doubtless revert to her thieving ways. This girl, wild as she is, must wed.”

A chill touched the base of Stephen’s spine. In his mind he heard the echo of the king’s command: Let me hear that you will wed—if not Lady Gwenyth, then another.

Henry was angry at losing the wager. He had ruined a handful of maidens and his patience was wearing thin. Stephen knew, with a leaden sinking in his gut, that the king had found a new way to indulge his malice.

“You, my lord, will marry the wench,” Henry proclaimed.


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