Suddenly there was a commotion in the corridor outside their sitting room, and the sound of swift, light footsteps and the rustle of skirts.
Kate barely had time to rise to her feet before the door swung open and Elizabeth stood there. She was dressed in somber dark green, her red hair bound up in a gold knit caul. Kate Ashley, long the princess's governess and Mistress of Robes, who had been separated from Elizabeth since the Wyatt Rebellion and her incarceration in the Tower, but who was now returned to Hatfield, hurried after her to wrap a shawl around her shoulders.
“Indeed it is a warm day, Kate,” Elizabeth said. “We must not waste such a treasure after all the cold rain. Come walk with us in the garden.”
“I thank you, Your Grace, but I really should stay with my father,” Kate said.
“Nonsense,” Matthew said heartily. “You need exercise, my dear, and I need to get on with my work. I shall do very well here for a few hours.”
Kate studied him uncertainly, but he did seem well settled-in for the afternoon. And she would have to face Elizabeth sometime soon.
“Very well,” she said. “But send Peg for me at once if you have any need of me.”
“We will not go far,” Elizabeth said.
Kate took up her cloak, her old dark brown one this time and not the fine blue one ruined with blood, and followed Elizabeth out to the gardens. In the foyer, just at the base of the grand staircase, Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth's surveyor and most trusted secretary, sat at a hastily-arranged desk, busily writing out lists and documents. He had arrived just as the queen's officers left, the greatest sign yet of vast changes to come.
Elizabeth led them briskly along the pathways, Kat Ashley and a few other ladies following, but the princess was much lighter of foot then them. She took Kate's hand and drew her along, and soon they were far ahead pf the others, beyond the formal pathways and near a grove of old oak trees on the slope of a hill.
From there the red bricks of the house gleamed in the amber sunlight, warm and welcoming. A maid shook a rug out of an open window, and a dog barked. Everything looked so calm, so peaceful, as if nothing terrible had ever happened in such a beautiful place.
“Has your arm healed, Kate?” Elizabeth asked.
“Very well, Your Grace. Lady Pope's poultices worked wonders. I think there will only be a small scar.”
“Aye. Tis better to hide the scars inside, where others can't see them.”
Elizabeth paused to lean back against the tree, narrowing her eyes as she stared off over the empty fields. She twisted her pearl and ruby ring around her finger. “Your father is right, you know. You cannot blame yourself for what happened.”
Kate closed her eyes against the rush of pain. She had gone over and over those words in her own head and still she had no solution, no solace. “I should have seen it was ---- all along. I let my feelings of friendship blind me.”
“You did not.... I have been playing this dangerous game since I was three. I didn't see what -- intended. But I am only one person, Kate, as are you. A great change is coming very soon, and when it does I will need many people around me to be my eyes and ears. People I can trust.”
Kate shivered. She wanted so much to be one of those so trusted, but how could she? She wasn't sure she could even trust herself. “People such as Cecil and Mistress Ashley?”
“Aye, of course them. They have been loyal to me since I was a child. But also you. I shall need you to come with me as well.”
“But I failed you, Your Grace! I did not stop ---- when I should have.”
“You never failed me. In fact, you proved your worth. It is your great kindness I need now, Kate. Your sweetness and your steadfastness. Real kindness is rare in this world. You care about people, truly care about them, and that draws them close to you. It persuades them to confide in you, as no one ever would with a queen. And you can go places where I cannot, like kitchens and playhouses. Aye, I shall assuredly need you close to me.”
Kate turned Elizabeth's words over in her mind, along with everything that had happened since Lord Braceton stormed into Hatfield. She remembered what ---- had said, that Kate could never match the cruelty of those who sought to play games of crowns. But her heart was harder now, and her trust was cracked. She would surely never be so easily deceived again.
But maybe Elizabeth was also right, and kindness could be an asset and a weapon in itself. Perhaps, with time, she could learn to use it to protect the people she loved.
Like in music, it took many disparate strands to make a coherent whole, to make a beautiful madrigal.
“I only know one thing now, Your Grace,” she said. “I will serve you however you require, for as long as you need me.”
Elizabeth gave a strangely sad smile. “My sweet Kate. I hope you shall never regret those words, for I shall certainly hold you to them.”
One of the other ladies came dashing up the slope of the hill, the breeze threatening to sweep her cap from her head. “My lady! My lady, riders are approaching.”
Elizabeth turned and shielded her eyes with her hand. Kate peered over her shoulder to see it was indeed a large party of riders thundering through the gates, throwing up clouds of dirt. As they came closer, Kate could see that the leaders were men she recognized from court, the powerful earls of Pembroke and Arundel.
Elizabeth's face turned white and her hand trembled, but she stood very still as they galloped nearer. At the foot of the hill, Lord Arundel drew in his horse and slid to his feet. Out of breath, he climbed the hill to kneel before the unmoving Elizabeth.
“Your Majesty,” he gasped. “I bring tidings from London.”
He held up his hand, and on his gloved palm gleamed the coronation ring. The large ruby stone that never left a monarch's hand until they were dead. He did not even need to say anything else.
“This is the Lord's doing,” Elizabeth said, quietly but strongly. “And it is marvelous in our eyes.”