There had been a knock at their door in the pre-dawn hours, and George Boleyn had whispered instructions to Will. When he left, Will closed the door and leaned against it for a long moment, hitting it softly with the side of his fist.
“I must go,” he said to Emma.
She climbed from the bed. “Where?”
“I cannot say.” Will seemed angry about that last point and Emma did the only thing she could do: pull him into her arms.
“It matters not,” she whispered. “As long as you return to me.”
He’d be gone for two days, he told her, three at the latest. They kissed at the door a long while before he left, and Emma tried to imprint upon her very soul his scent, his taste, the feel of his body pressed against hers. And she managed not to cry until he had shut the door behind him. Jack brought her a napkin to wipe away her tears and then sat and groomed her hair as she sobbed.
Emma would have liked the horse he was riding, Will decided. It was a sprightly, cheerful beast with bright eyes and a shiny, well-groomed coat. And though he felt a little foolish doing it, Will found himself talking to the horse as they rode along, and bizarrely enough, the horse seemed to listen to him, if the turnings of his ears were any indication. Perhaps the animal just liked the sound of his voice.
In any case, it made Will feel better to talk about Emma. She had seemed so much better since the return from the ocean, and then the bath he had managed to obtain for her. She had seemed so well he had considered asking her if the time was right for them to have a child, but then the king had sent him on this errand. The separation was hard enough on Will; how would Emma fare? He had terrible visions of her ceasing to eat, of pining for him, pining for the sea, grieving herself sick. It induced him to urge the horse to a faster pace, though the horse didn’t seem to mind.
The castle rose stark and forbidding in the distance. It was an ancient place, one Henry hadn’t renovated to the extent of his other palaces. He had stopped here on progress a few times to enjoy hunting in the nearby preserve, but had otherwise ignored it. Katharine was housed here now. It couldn’t be terribly comfortable for her, used as she was to massive palaces with ornate rooms decorated in the latest trends of opulence. This house was in a state of poor repair and the air was cool and damp, unhealthy for a woman in Katharine’s condition.
The steward who answered the door recognized Will and was welcoming. He was taken into the empty great hall and seated at a table with a jug of ale and a piece of bread and cheese to refresh him after his long journey. Will glanced around while he chewed, eyeing the dusty tapestries, the middling display of plate on the sideboard.
Near the fireplace, a small handful of ladies were embroidering a tapestry, all of them bent over the large frame. Katharine’s household had been reduced again when she moved here. Once, hundreds of ladies had served her. Now, it was down to a few dozen, smaller even than the household of a princess dowager, as punishment for her stubbornness. Katharine reduced that number herself by refusing to accept any lady who didn’t acknowledge her as queen. The rejected ladies stayed in the outer rooms of the house, spending their days embroidering and gossiping, some of them never having laid eyes on the woman they were ostensibly here to serve.
The women peered at him curiously. One of them giggled and whispered to her neighbor at Will’s hunched shoulder. He pointedly ignored them. He had the feeling if Katharine had been present, she never would have dared.
“Master Somers?” Elizabeth Darrell stood in the doorway. She curtsied to him and Will rose and bowed back to her.
“Mistress Darrell,” he replied. “ ‘Tis good to see you once more.”
“And you as well, Master Somers. What service may I do for you?”
“I have been sent to speak with your mistress.”
Elizabeth’s smile faltered. “She is not well today.”
Will took a deep breath. “I am afraid I must insist. I have a message from the king.”
She nodded. “As his majesty commands. Follow me.”
Katharine’s rooms were tucked away at the back of the castle, down dim and winding halls. Elizabeth carried a lamp with her to light their way and cautioned Will about the loose board in the doorway. He stepped over it into Katharine’s empty presence chamber. A chair sat on a dais under a cloth of estate, embroidered with the arms of Spain and Wales, Katharine’s coat of arms as a princess dowager. The chair was thickly coated with dust. Both of them bowed to it briefly as they passed into the privy chamber.
The room into which he was led was silent and dim. A pallet bed in the corner bore Katherine, a stout figure dressed in black. Her bed of estate was on the other side of the room, with rich hangings and fat pillows, crowned with that new coat of arms she detested. It would be like her to refuse to sleep in it.
Katharine rolled over and her face still wore that gentle, welcoming smile he remembered. “Master Somers!” she said, as though greeting an old friend. “Pray, forgive me that I do not rise. I trod on a pin, injuring my foot, and I have been sore annoyed with a cough.”
So sore she wasn’t wearing a shoe. He could see a hint of bare sole peeking from beneath her gown. A poultice had been applied to it, held in place by a thick linen bandage.
“Have you news for me of my husband?” she asked.
Will wished he’d drank more ale in the hall. He knelt next to her cot. “I do, Madame.” He took the paper of instructions from his pocket and opened it. He opened it slowly and reluctantly raised his eyes to her face. “The king’s majesty sends you word your marriage has been judged unlawful by the universities and by the Lords and Commons. The archbishop has pronounced it null and void, and the king’s marriage with Anne Boleyn to be sound and true.”
Katharine sucked in a breath that sent her into a coughing fit. Elizabeth Darrell hurried over with a goblet and she helped Katharine to sit up enough to drink it. Katharine choked on the liquid and Elizabeth murmured soothing words as she rubbed Katharine’s back. Elizabeth shot Will an angry look and he grimaced.
“I do not say this because I wish to,” he said, his tone pitched low to avoid the ears of the ladies who were undoubtedly listening at the door.
“Aye, that I know, Master Somers,” Katharine said between small coughs. “Pray, continue.”
Will dropped his gaze to his instructions. His hands had crushed the paper at the sides and he forced himself to loosen his grip. “By order of the king’s majesty, you are to abandon your pretended title of queen and content yourself with the title princess dowager. If you obey and show yourself to be a true and loyal subject of his majesty and his lawful wife, Queen Anne, you will be housed in comfort with the honor due you, and your daughter, the Lady Mary, will be permitted to visit once more.”
Katharine waited for a moment before she spoke. “Is that all, Master Somers?”
“Aye, madame.” Will couldn’t look at her.
“I thank you for delivering the king’s message to me,” Katharine said. Her voice was steady once again, warm and kind. He glanced up to her and saw she was giving him a small smile of understanding. She gestured to Elizabeth who brought over a small bag. “For your pains, Master Somers.”
Elizabeth handed the heavy pouch to him and he heard the coins clink inside. “Your grace,” he started, and then closed his eyes. “I cannot—“
“Pray, accept it in the spirit it was given.” Katharine’s smile was gentle and warm.
“Aye, Madame.” Will raked a hand through his hair in frustration. He cursed Henry for sending him on this task, to say hard words to this woman who had heard them before. Did Henry imagine Will would change her mind?
“I shall give you my reply now, and I ask you to convey it to my husband, the king.”
“I will, Madame.” Will looked up from the floor and saw something he would never be able to describe if he attempted to tell the tale to another. Like an invisible cloak, a mantle of dignity and power settled over Katharine. She was the infanta of Spain, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the descendant of generations of queens and kings. Royalty was writ in her blood.
“I am the king’s true and lawful wife, and there is no queen of England, save myself. The king may do what he will in his own realm, and the universities may say what they will, but there is none who might decide my case other than his holiness, the pope. I will not damn my soul by agreeing to the lie I am but the princess dowager. Nor will I illegitimatize my daughter, the rightful princess, Mary.”
She began to cough again and Elizabeth brought the goblet of wine to her lips. Katharine drank deeply and extended her hand. “May I see those instructions?”
Will handed the paper to her wordlessly. In truth, he was grateful to be rid of it.
“A pen,” she murmured to Elizabeth who fetched a wood box from a table on the other side of the room. She unhooked the clasps on the side and folded it out into a writing desk. Elizabeth uncapped the ink and dipped a quill into it. Katharine laid the instructions on the leather-covered surface of the table. Elizabeth brought the lamp closer and Will could read the words at the top of the paper, To the princess dowager, Katharine of Spain.
Katharine took the quill and slashed through the words savagely, tearing the point of the quill through the paper. She paused and closed her eyes for a moment. “Might I have your leave to make a copy of this document in Spanish, that I might send it to his holiness, the pope?”
“Aye, my lady.” Will could barely force out the words. Appeals to the Pope were now forbidden, but somehow, Katharine still managed to get letters smuggled out of the country, though little good they did her.
She smiled at him with that same gentleness and withdrew a sheet of paper from her desk. She wrote quickly, pausing now and again to re-dip the quill. When she finished, Elizabeth shook sand over the paper to dry the ink. Katherine folded it thrice and dripped some wax onto the edge of the paper, then pressed her ring deeply into it, creating an envelope with her signet seal.
Katharine held out the instructions she’d copied. “I thank you, kind sir.”
“Madame, I merit no title,” Will replied.
“Were it in my power any longer, I would see to it you got one.” She took a deep breath and coughed again, deep wracking coughs that shook her entire frame. “Prithee, convey to the king, my husband: I pray for him night and day, and the love I bear for him is why I stand firm in my convictions. I do this not from obstinacy, but to preserve the rights of my daughter, and care for my immortal soul will not allow me to lie.”
Will stood. “I will carry your words to him.”
Katharine held out a hand to him and Will took it, pressing a kiss to the back of it. “God’s blessings upon you, Master Somers. You have served your master well, but your heart is kind.”
Will thanked her and hurried from the room. His throat felt so tight it was difficult to breathe. A burning ball of anger seethed in his chest. Regardless of the legalities, of the religious implications, Katharine didn’t deserve this. And it left a chill in his bones, for if Henry could condemn the wife who had loved him for twenty years to this exile, torn from everyone she loved, what else could he do?