“Mary was nae so very Scottish, was she?”

“Her father was the king, and that makes her as much one of us as he was.”

The servants spoke freely in the kitchen, in the belief Janet had left the building entirely and was on her way back to the house, so she paused to listen from the other side of the entry door. It was with mild interest, as her ear caught dark words about the recently beheaded queen of Scotland. Her husband thought her entirely too nosy, as did most people, though she thought it perfectly reasonable to want to know how people felt about things. Henry was English, a Londoner by birth and ancestry. But though he’d made her a de Ros eighteen years before, Janet was still a Douglas at heart and Scottish to the bone, and that made her naturally curious what her countrymen had to say about the foreign execution of their sovereign.

The cook continued, skeptical of Mary’s credentials as a Scot. “She was raised by her French relatives, was she not? And a superstitious Papist in the bargain.” Janet had to concentrate hard, to hear the voices over the banging of iron pots against stone and oven bricks. She leaned close to the door.

“She was born in the north, not on the Continent,” replied the cook’s assistant in his slightly nasal voice that reminded Janet of a swarm of horse flies, “and that makes her as Scottish as you and I are, who have lived amongst the coddled Sasunnaich these many years.”

The cook had no more than a grunt in reply to that, and there was an especially sharp banging of iron pot against brick and iron grate that gave Janet to know without having to see him that he was irritated. That gave her a grin. This was honesty she was hearing.

But his indiscreet, young assistant barreled ahead with his argument, oblivious to his master’s ire. “I say she was a woman as brave as any Scot, and Elizabeth had nae right to regicide.”

“She murdered her husband, did she not? Any woman who would do that deserves to die, no matter whether queen or peasant, foreign or not. So mind yer tongue, Willie. I’ll have nae sich talk in my kitchen.”

Young Willie made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat, but said nothing further and Janet was left with only the clanging and thumping sounds of the evening meal under construction.

A voice near Janet’s ear gave her a start. “Eavesdropping on the coarse and ignorant again, my love?”

She turned to find Henry standing behind her. “I didn’t hear you, husband.”

“I can see that.” He grinned at her discomfort, for he liked to tease her, and she him, a game they had played for nearly two decades. By her reckoning, she was slightly ahead for a lifetime score, though she was certain he would disagree and she let him believe it was true.

He proceeded on his way, toward the outer door at the front of the entry, that led to the small courtyard and across to the main house. Janet followed, hiking her wrap a bit against the mid-winter chill she would find outside. “Do you think Elizabeth was within her rights, then?”

Henry held the door for her, then shut it behind to walk with her across the small, paved area. The air was still, but icy, and snow lay about in little piles and drifts. Breaths came as white vapor that dispersed before their noses.

“‘Tis not for me to say whether the queen was within her rights. Judgment is God’s purview, and we’ve no say in the matter. Nor does Mary herself, for that. By now she’s received her judgment from God as well as from her cousin.”

He was right, of course. Normally the knowledge that all things happened for a reason quieted Janet’s habitual curiosity, but today the uneasiness remained. And niggled. A vague discomfort persisted among her innards, and she had to take a deep breath to loosen the knot in her belly. She hadn’t liked the news since it had come to her, that the execution in Fotheringhay had taken place on schedule two days before, and the past two nights she had lain awake to puzzle out the rights and wrongs among the ruling class. She said, “Her final judgment might be beyond us, but we are left to decide whether Elizabeth is executioner or murderer.”

Henry’s eyes darkened, and he glanced around to know whether someone might be listening. “‘Tis Mary who was the murderer. She was executed for the destruction of her own husband.”

“No, she was executed for plotting to destroy Queen Elizabeth.”

“Which she richly deserved.”

“A matter of opinion, and nobody seems to care about that. All they talk about is Lord Darnley.”

“What does it matter why she was executed, so long as she deserved it?”

“Well, there is the law to consider.”

“‘Tis a broad question.”

“‘Tis a judgment we must make for our own protection, or what are laws for? God cannae wish us to leave ourselves at the mercy of murderers, after all.” A sly smile crossed ha face. “No matter whether queen or peasant, and we dinnae ken which Elizabeth might be at the end of the day.”

Henry glanced back at the kitchen door, looking terribly uncomfortable. Servants were never to be trusted, no matter how loyal they might seem on the face of it. His voice tensed and went low. “Janet, ’tis one thing to speak this way to your husband, who loves and respects you, but there are others in the world who are not nearly so invested in your welfare and would do you harm-do us harm-were they to hear you speak so…carelessly.”

Janet glanced around. The kitchen windows were high on the wall, and on the other side of the courtyard in any case. “I see no one about.”

“Then I trust when you are not in the sanctuary of our household you will keep your own counsel among others?”

“Of course, Henry.” She smiled and laid a hand aside his cheek. He was nearly forty, and the years had lined his face, but she still saw in him the nineteen-year-old she’d married so long ago. “You may trust I’ve not gone stupid of a sudden.”

That made him smile. “Of course not. But you are a woman, with the curiosity of a cat. You must understand our vulnerability. Your stubborn Scottish nature sometimes impedes your better sense.”

Her tone sharpened with irritation, though she was careful not to let it slip into real anger. “That sense being a veneer carefully laid on since my arrival in London, I take it?”

“I wouldn’t have a wife without sense, and did marry you before you came here.” His point was as reasonable as his tone.

“So you may congratulate yourself on your excellent good sense in choosing a wife, and rest assured I am the same woman you married, though perhaps older and even wiser.”

“But a woman nevertheless.”

“And obedient to my husband in all things.” She gestured a slight bow of the head to him. “Your welfare is ever my first concern, for it is inseparable from my own. Even my femininity won’t allow me to ignore that. Have I ever given you cause to chastise me for indiscretion?”

Henry relaxed “No.”

Palms spread, she continued with a bright smile and a light tone. “Then set your worries aside. Trust your wife as yourself, for we are one.” She reached for his arm and he offered it in escort to continue on their way toward the rear entrance to the main house. “So, tell me, Henry, do you believe what they say about the execution? That the axeman had to swing three times?”

A shudder ran through Henry’s body, and he shook it out with his shoulders. “I heard it was but twice, but that to me is twice what it should have been.”

“Or more.”

He glanced at her in warning, but said nothing more about her stubborn, Scottish persistence. Instead he said, “They say she prayed between the first stroke and the final.” He held the door for her and they entered the house.

“I certainly would have.”

There was a dark hesitation, then he added, “Her little dog crawled beneath her skirts.”

Sadness curdled Janet’s gut. “Unfortunate creature.”

“The queen, or the dog?”

She thought a moment, and decided, “Both. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be beheaded. A ghastly thing, surely.”

“And you shouldn’t dwell on such terrible thoughts in any case. Be happy you are alive, though she is not.”

“Even if my queen was murdered by your queen and didn’t deserve to die?”

“Even then, for there’s naught to be done about it.”

Janet found that thought depressing, as well.

Henry’s chamberlain entered the hall, and the two fell silent in front of the servant. But then Janet leaned close to her husband’s ear and whispered, “I sincerely hope your queen doesnae ever deem you worthy of her particular attention.” Then she gave him a look that conveyed he must know what she meant. By his eyes she could see he did.

Supper that evening was salted beef supplemented with some rabbits caught on their rather remote holding. They lived on the outskirts of London, close enough to the center of society for the business advantages, but far enough to not be caught inextricably in the web of politics that ever snarled those who spent too much time at court. Henry had met the queen only a few times over the course of his career, and Janet never, such access a rarity for even a wealthy merchant. But they both knew well many courtiers and did much business with the royal household and with those close to the crown. An eye for politics was useful in Henry’s dealings, and Janet’s ear perked as well as his when at table their eldest son mentioned what he’d heard in the household of one such courtier that afternoon.

“They fear an uprising,” said young Thomas, then tore into a fat rabbit quarter. He was barely seventeen, and had the appetite of a destrier. At a given meal he would eat an entire rabbit, two bread loaves, a portion of the beef, and more than his share of the baked garlic. Janet thought he would eat the pantry bare if he were allowed. With his mouth still full of meat, he ripped apart his bread and bit into the crust. The other three children ate quietly, as they’d been taught, though their youngest daughter banged her heel against a chair leg in a tattoo the thud of a heartbeat. Their second son daydreamed as he chewed, and stared absently at the tapestry hanging against the wall to his left, and the youngest boy listened to his older brother.

“Who, exactly, is in fear?” Details. Janet needed details if she was to weigh this information properly.

Thomas chewed fast, then swallowed. Between bites he said, “Everyone. The talk of what Elizabeth has done is like wildfire everywhere.”

Henry said, “She’s done naught but keep a traitor from usurping the English throne.”

Janet said, “And what makes you think Mary wanted it?”

His lips pressed together and he gave her a look of disgust at her silly question. Janet shrugged, for he was right. Of course Mary desired it. It was human nature. It was surely the reason she’d married the unfortunate Darnley to begin with, to strengthen her dynastic claim in England, for he was her cousin as well as Elizabeth’s and his claim was nearly as strong as her own.

“Very well, then, so she wanted the throne. But did she want it badly enough to commit treason for it?”

“Would she have looked on it as treason? Indeed, would it have been treason? She wasn’t an English subject.”

Janet shrugged. “I cannae say. In any case, she had no history as a troublemaker. It’s not as if she’d ever called for English Catholics to rise against Elizabeth. In fact, by all accounts she attempted to make peace between the religions since returning to Scotland.”

“But if she thought of herself as the rightful queen… She did, after all, use Elizabeth’s arms. Presumptuous, at the very least.”

Janet leaned in to murmur her reply as if it were obvious and his statement a silly one. “She was, after all, Elizabeth’s closest living relative and should have expected to succeed her. And presumptuous as it may have been to use the royal arms on her plate, it would also have been a casual indiscretion unlikely in someone bent on violent overthrow. It put Elizabeth on her guard. A true usurper with ulterior intent would have considered that.”

“Perhaps. In some views. But she behaved as if she were already on the throne.”

“That’s absurd.”

“I beg your pardon?” Henry lowered his brow to let her know she was overstepping.

“I mean, husband, that she would never have come to England if she’d thought it would be perceived as a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. Most invading monarchs arrive with an army and trumpets blasting, not in disguise and asking for help.”

She turned to Thomas, who again had a cheek filled with beef he swallowed in bits as he methodically chewed. “Tell us what you heard today, son.”

Thomas stopped chewing, thought for a moment recollecting, then resumed chewing and said, “I met with Suffolk and some of his people on the matter of ship’s supplies, in particular the grains and lard, when the subject of the execution came up.” His eyes rolled. “You can imagine the reaction he had.”

“I expect he was sanguine about the affair.”

Thomas chuckled. “More than that, he was ecstatic. Puffed up like an adder, he was so pleased she was dead and had died horribly.”

Janet said, “He would need to appear so. The family’s reputation, you know. Nobody wants to be on Elizabeth’s bad side, and they have a history of it.”

“No, it seemed genuine. Not the slightest sign of regret. His laugh was loud enough to wake the headless queen. He blustered and roared like a wild creature, declaring his joy at the execution. Well, of course his man Robert let us all know of the things he’d heard about town. Folks muttering about the right of the queen to murder a foreign sovereign.”

“But if Mary styled herself the successor, she should necessarily have been under English authority.”

“Tell that to the mobs who would have Elizabeth’s head in place of Mary’s.’

“Catholic mobs,” muttered Henry.

Thomas continued, as if Henry hadn’t spoken. “And the old nobles who saw Mary as the salvation of the Catholic religion and the Pope’s authority.”

“But why did Mary even come here? She must have known Elizabeth was dangerous to her.” That niggling discomfort grew in Janet. This was the heart of what annoyed her about this. What had made Mary behave the way she had? What had caused her to make such an enormous mistake?

Thomas shrugged as he gnawed again on the bone in his hand, then said, “Who ever knows what makes a woman do what she does?”

“Well, being a woman myself, I ordinarily would have some idea, but not in this case. It simply makes no sense.”

“Half of what I see among Elizabeth’s court makes no sense to me. They’ve all got their wants and ambitions, each conflicts with the other, and nobody behaves with any of the Christian charity they all strive so hard to defend against the so-called corruption of clergy.”

Henry chuckled, and nodded knowingly. “Aye, son. There is that.”

Even Janet had to nod in agreement. Often her fellow Protestants made her wonder about their spiritual integrity in their unruly zeal to purge the world of spiritual authority. It was all so filled with private agenda. So…muddled.

She despised muddled thinking. One thing that had helped make the family’s fortune in the trading of goods was her insistence that nothing ever be vague. Details. Her mind craved details, and that was why her gut fluttered at every thought of what had happened. And of what was happening now. A rising would be an ugly thing. Dangerous for them all. The future could never be bright with all this doubt hanging over it. She wanted to know what was going on and what she could expect to happen. There was no security without that. “Are there people arming?”

“Not that anyone knew. So far nobody has died. But you never know.”

Henry said, “It’s madness. The woman deserved to die, regardless of whether she may or may not have conspired against the queen. She did, after all, murder her husband.”

“Bothwell murdered Darnley. You know that.” Mary’s husband had been dead for decades, and this subject had been well hashed between them for half their lives, neither budging in their opinions.

“And you believe she had naught to do with it? When she married the murderer as soon after as she could?”

“‘Twas a forced marriage. He wanted her throne only. So did Darnley, for that.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I’ll wager.”

“No risk there, since the only people who know the truth of it are dead or exiled.”

Janet found herself having to agree with him, and fell silent. She picked at her food as her thoughts became deep and sludge-like. There were too many questions. Too much was unknown, and the things she did know were dark and smelly. Unwieldy. Mary a murderess? Who could know? The Scottish queen had a reputation for her ladylike behavior and deference to men. Was that a lie? Everyone knew what sort of queen she had been, but what sort of woman had sat on that throne? Who was she when she was alone? What thoughts and feelings had occupied that head she’d ultimately lost?

Janet chewed a bit of beef between her fingers and stared into the middle distance while her mind tumbled with what little she knew of Mary Stuart.

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