I will be as good unto ye as ever a Queen was unto her people. No will in me can lack, neither do I trust shall there lack any power. And persuade yourselves that for the safety and quietness of you all I will not spare if need be to spend my blood. --Elizabeth I on the eve of her coronation
Prologue—London, January 1559
“Out of my way, you foul hedge pig! Ain't you ever been told to give way to ladies before?” Nell shoved at the thick crowd clustered ahead of her, using her elbow or a well-placed heel to wriggle her way in. She had never seen a real-life queen before, and she wasn't going to miss it.
Nell's grandmother, who had been a toothless old crone when Nell was a toddler, good for nothing but sweeping the floor and boiling the linen of the bawdy house, once saw this new queen's mother, Queen Anne Boleyn, ride past in her own coronation procession. She'd told Nell all about it, and Nell remembered it now. Her grandmother's stories of Queen Anne's gown, all silver and gold, sparkling as she sat up high in her chariot with her black hair loose and twined with jewels. The music and the flowers, the wine that flowed free at every fountain.
“There were few enough to cheer for her, Nellie,” her grandmother had always finished the tale, with a rueful shake of her gray head. “For all that they drank her wine enough, there were too many as missed good Queen Katherine of Aragon. But she was a glorious sight to see. She knew how to put on a show, did that one. They say she started from naught, too. Think what you could do, my Nellie, with the right man...”
“And look where 'the right man' got Queen Anne in the end!” Nell's mother would cry, stumbling into the kitchen in her stained smock, her lip paint smeared and her eyes shadowed. “Better an honest whore than a dead queen. Don't go filling the child's head with strange fancies, Mother.”
Fancies died quick enough in the stews of Southwark, no doubt about it. A girl had to eat, and dreams of jewels and white chariots wouldn't fill a hungry belly. Nell's grandmother was long dead now, her mum too, and she worked hard to keep their old room at the bawdy house for herself and her sister.
But she still remembered those words, the image of Queen Anne in her gold and silver gown, and she wanted to see a queen for herself. When Queen Mary, daughter of “good Queen Katherine,” came to the throne five years ago, Nell was still just the scullery girl of the house at the Cardinal's Hat, too young to be a proper whore, and she couldn't escape when the others went to see Mary come into the city after vanquishing the men who would have overthrown her.
“Wasn't anything to see, anyway,” the girls sniffed when they came back from Mary's procession. “Her jewels were fine enough, and her gown fancy, but her face—I would just as soon have looked at her horse. She never smiled, neither. A queen ought to smile.”
This new queen, Queen Anne's daughter, was sure to be different. And Nell was going to see her, even if she had to clout someone over the head to do it.
“Out of my way!” she screeched. It was a cold day. Frost lay thick on the lanes, a silvery white layer over the mud and muck, making the ground slippery underfoot even as it cut some of the sickly-sweetish stench of the streets.
Nell had never seen London like that before, even though she had lived there all of her days. For over a month, people had been working day and night to dress the drab, crowded streets in their finest for Queen Elizabeth. Windows that had never seen soap before gleamed in the pale, watery winter sunlight. Trash middens were cleared away, drainage ditches flushed down to the river. Brightly colored banners hung from every house, snapping in the wind.
Here by the river, where soon the queen's barge would pass as it went from Whitehall to the Tower, the cold didn't reach its icy fingers through the close-packed crowds. Everyone jostled shoulder-to-shoulder there, shopkeepers, ferrymen, the clergy clutching their new English Bibles, beggars, merchants' wives in their pretty hats, children perched on their fathers' shoulders. They all waved small green and white banners, clutched flowers to toss to their queen.
Even common whores like Nell, who rarely dared venture from the narrow warrens of Southwark, were a part of it. The everyday world of grime and grit and heaving work, of grasping desperately for every drink of wine, every stick of firewood, fell away before the magic of the day. She was just another English person, like anyone else, and she was about to see the queen.
If those bloody cod-pigs would get out of her way!
“Nell!” she heard someone shout, and suddenly a gloved hand shot out from the jostling crowd and grabbed her arm. Before she could think, she was pulled to the front of the throng, right up to the edge of the riverbank.
Gasping for a breath, she looked up to see one of her regulars grinning down at her from beneath his fine pearl-trimmed, white-plumed cap. “I thought that was you, Nellie.”
Nell laughed as she twitched at her best red skirts. “Why, lovey, you're a true white knight today, ain't you? I'd have thought you'd be at the queen's palace yourself.” He wasn't the first one she wanted to see today, not the one she secretly dreamed of running into. Even whores had their favorites, after all. But Rob was surely working today, and this man was nice enough.
Especially when he helped her to such a vantage point.
“There's a better view here,” he said, waving his velvet-clad arm over the gray ribbon of the river. “And the company is merrier. Here, have a ginger cake.”
“Don't mind if I do.” Nell watched as he tossed a coin to one of the vendors hawking their cider and spiced wine, and took the warm cake he bought. As she nibbled at the rare treat, he slipped his arm around her waist and she studied the river flowing in front of them.
Even the Thames seemed different today, clearer, calmer. The boiled heads were cleared from the pikes above London Bridge, and the cold air was free from the miasma of the Smithfield fires that were lit all too frequently in Queen Mary's day. Instead of the thick stickiness of fear, there was laughter. It was as if the summer sun came out again after a rainy, chilly night.
Except that it was still cold. A damp breeze swept up from the river and curled around Nell, even through her best woolen sleeves and heaviest shawl.
“Cold, Nell?” her companion said, his arm tightening around her. “I can warm you later.”
Nell turned to smile up at him. Suddenly a movement on the opposite bank caught her attention, a flash of golden hair among the crowd. Against her will, her heart beat a little faster. She went up on tiptoe, struggling to see across the water and through the shifting knots of people. But the glimpse was gone.
Nell leaned back on her companion's arm, some of the sparkle of the day sputtering and dim. It probably was never him, anyway. He hadn't been to see her in such a long time.
Suddenly a loud trumpet blast split the air, and it was as if lightning suddenly danced over the crowd.
“She comes, she comes!” the cry went up. Everyone surged forward in one great heave, and Nell stumbled.
Her friend's hand held her steady, and she clung to him as she tried to see the river. It was indeed the queen's procession, slowly floating into view.
The queen's great barge, all golden and white, sparkled like it was a living thing. A Tudor rose, white within red, was painted on the prow, surmounted by a crown and the gilded initials ER. Green and white silk hangings draped at its sides and hung from the golden canopy.
Smaller barges followed in its wake, the Lord Mayor in his dark robes, and all the guilds, decked and trimmed with their finely embroidered banners. But everyone only watched the figure that stood above that painted Tudor rose, her arm raised to wave as she bowed to the crowds.
Nell watched, spellbound. Queen Elizabeth was not overly tall, and was very slender and young-seeming, her red-gold hair waving loose over her shoulders. Her heart-shaped, pointed-chinned face was milky white against the gold satin, violet velvet, and ermine of her robes. But her girlish figure radiated heat like a summer's day itself, heat and confidence and joy that was infectious to all around her.
For an instant, the roaring crowd went silent at her appearance. Then a cheer rose up, gathering and growing as it swelled along the riverbank and over the whole city.
“God bless Your Grace!” came the cry, flowers raining down on the water.
“And God bless all of you, my good people,” could be heard her reply, faint but clear. The queen bowed and waved, smiling brilliantly even though tears could be seen sparkling on her pale cheeks. All around her on the barge were her ladies and her leading courtiers, clad in rich satins and velvets, sparkling jewels, bright swords. But no one could see anyone except the beautiful new queen.
It was just as Nell's grandmother had said of Queen Anne. She knew how to put on a show.
Even Nell, who had thought she was long past being caught by such sparkle, found herself with a tear in her eye. Aye. That was a queen, to be sure, and Nell was glad to have seen one at last.
But a girl still had to earn her bread.
“God's teeth, but it's amazing, Nell,” her companion said.
Nell shook out her mended red silk skirts and tried to compose herself. To bring herself back to the real moment, real life. “What's amazing, lovey?”
“Why, that she looks like you, of course.” He laughed, and gestured to the figure in the barge as it drifted away toward the menacing hulk of the Tower.
Nell frowned doubtfully. But then she looked closer at the barge, casting off the magic spell of the crown to try and see the woman beneath. “Bodkins,” she breathed, for he was right. Nell saw just such red hair, just such a longish nose and small, high bosom, in her cracked glass every night.
“Maybe I should start charging more,” she said, trying to joke despite the unsettled feelings of such a realization. “The royal experience, eh?”
And if only she could find a fine velvet gown and pearl necklace like that...
“Shall I come by later, Nell?” he said, as the queen's barge sailed onward and the crowd started to drift after it. “I could use a bit of the, er, royal experience myself.”
Nell fondly patted his cheek. “Come early, lovey, and you can be the first.”
She swirled around and made her way through the crowd, sauntering easier now that she didn't have to elbow her way through. Everyone was going the other direction now, trying to follow the queen, but Nell had to get home and make sure the house was ready. It was sure to be a busy night.
She left the river behind to plunge back into the twisting, narrow lanes of Southwark, where the meager light of the winter's day was nearly blotted out by the leaning, peaked roofs and overhanging windows nearly touching above the paths.
It was strangely quiet for an afternoon. Usually Nell only found such rare peace when she made her way home in the mornings after a night out looking for customers. The district, shut off from the city gates and beyond the touch of the royal law, made its living in dubious pleasures like bear pits, theaters, brothels and taverns, and couldn't often rouse itself before noon. But today was different. Today almost everyone was gone to see the queen, and doors and windows were still shuttered.
Except for Old Madge, sweeping the dirty doorway of her tavern, and a flea-ridden cat streaking across the muddy lane, Nell was alone with her thoughts. A strange experience. She couldn't quite get the queen's face out of her mind, or the strangeness that she looked a bit like Nell herself. Who would have thought it? She wagered that whores all over the place would be dying their hair now, but Nell's was all natural.
She laughed as she made her way past the midden heap at the back door of the bawdy house, where the pigs rooted, and climbed the rickety steps at the side of the building that led to her room. She and her sister Bess paid a bit extra for that privacy, but it was nice for their regulars not to have to make their way through the front doors of the house and past the other bawds.
At the top of the stairs, her door was slightly ajar, but she scarcely noticed as she pushed it open. She was still caught up in thinking about the red-haired queen.
The small room was dim, the shutters still drawn over the cracked window, the fire died down in the grate. Her meager furnishings, the rickety wash stand, the stool, the narrow bed with its threadbare hangings, cast shadows on the plastered walls.
Suddenly, one of those shadows shifted. A silent figure rose from her bed.
“Oh!” Nell gasped, startled by the unexpected movement. But then she saw who it was, and she smiled. “So you came back. I'm glad. I've missed you, I have.”
She turned to shut the door behind her, letting her shawl fall from her bare shoulders. There was a rustle of movement, a hard hand on her arm.
“No need to be impatient...” Nell said with a laugh. A blinding pain struck the back of her neck, a flash of brilliant light, a sticky rush. She screamed as she fell forward, hitting the door hard face-first, convulsed by the hot, horrible pain. Her fingers closed on something small and cold, like metal, and she pulled at it as she tumbled down.
Then there was only cold blackness.