Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (10 page)

John straightened suddenly. ‘Listen! Is someone calling you?’

They looked towards the palace, and there came the sound of a woman’s voice. ‘It is my mother! Whatever possesses her to call for me herself? I had best present myself immediately.’

Seizing his hand, she hurried towards the palace, where they encountered Dame Grey just inside the doorway, still with her walking stick, although her knee had mostly recovered.

Elizabeth’s eyes moved over her daughter, whose fluster was plain to see. Her glance flickered to John, who met it squarely. Her arched eyebrow was raised, but she turned to Cicely. ‘The queen wishes to speak with you, madam. Urgently it seems. I despatched a page but he could not find you! God’s blood, girl, you look like some serving wench, more at home in a tavern than a palace. You shall not present yourself thus but will change at once. Come!’ Without a further glance at John, she seized her daughter’s elbow, but Cicely stood firm, refusing to allow her arrogant mother to so slight him.

‘Mother, I will present to you John of Gloucester.’

Elizabeth looked sourly at her daughter but was forced to acknowledge the son of Richard Plantagenet by coldly inclining her head. He was partly in shadow, and his resemblance to his father was once more apparent in the faint smile upon his lips as he bowed over her hand.

Minutes later, in the rooms Cicely shared with Bess, Elizabeth studied her second daughter closely as she presented herself for approval.

‘I am ready now. Do I look well enough?’ Cicely asked.

‘As much as you ever do in black,’ was the discouraging reply. Then the hawk-eyed Elizabeth noticed the chain that was newly around her neck. It was long, and disappeared between her breasts. ‘It is some time since I have seen that. Why do you suddenly wear it again?’

‘Impulse.’

Elizabeth gazed at her. ‘What do you wear upon it?’

Cicely drew away. ‘Nothing, Mother, it is just a chain.’

Elizabeth stood suddenly and caught the chain, pulling it into view before Cicely could prevent her. Seeing the ring, Elizabeth exhaled. ‘So . . . you have a love token. John of Gloucester, one imagines.’

‘Yes.’ Cicely took the chain from her mother and dropped the ring between her breasts again. ‘Is my appearance now suitable for me to present myself before the queen?’

‘Well, it is a vast improvement on previously, when you looked like a common whore after rolling in the grass with Richard Plantagenet’s by-blow.’

‘I had merely been out walking, Mother, not anything else. Why must you always be so unpleasant? I marvel Father ever desired you to the extent he clearly did.’

‘Be unattainable, my dear, and you will achieve anything you want from men. They are ruled by their lusts. Believe me, this is good advice.’ Elizabeth gave a very small smile. ‘I had thought better of you than to pant after a king’s bastard!’

‘Why so, Mother? Like clings to like, after all a bastard is what you and my father have made of me.’ With a stony face, Cicely curtseyed and swept from the room.

Richard’s queen
lay upon the huge royal bed, supported by many rich cushions; her face was ghastly, her huge eyes silhouetted by dark, bruised shadows, and her hair hung limply against her breast. She held out her hand to her husband’s niece, and dismissed her ladies. When they were alone she leaned wearily back against the cushions and closed her eyes.

‘Cicely, I wish to have you near me. In my inner household, where only those I truly depend upon can come. You are only young, I know, but I also know, by the respect the king has for you, that I will be able to place my faith in you. Forgive me for wanting to lean on you so much, but I need someone to talk with, to share my sorrows with, and my ladies, even those most close until now, simply will not do. There has to be one special person to whom I can turn for everything of an intimate nature. There is no one else here with whom I feel so completely at ease. I can no longer be truly myself even with my dearest lord, with whom I once shared everything, because I need to hide so much from him.’

Cicely’s heart was filled with compassion, but part of it rejoiced to hear Anne call Richard her dearest lord, because it meant she
did
love him truly after all.

Anne paused as a fit of coughing overtook her, and when she took her handkerchief away from her mouth, Cicely saw the spots of blood that John had mentioned. The queen nodded. ‘Yes, the mark of death is truly upon me. Richard does not know, nor must he. To let him see daily proof of how much my health now fails would be to weigh him even more than he already is. I try to shield him from it. I have not been at his side as much as I wished, since—’ Renewed tears welled from her eyes. ‘Since we lost our dearest son,’ she whispered.

Cicely took her hand and held it gently. ‘I am so very sorry, Your Grace. And of
course
I will help you however I can, but surely the king
has
to be told?’ She found herself taking the soiled handkerchief and searching for another.

The queen pointed towards a cabinet. ‘They are in there. Cicely, he does not have to be told until it is unavoidable.’ She took a deep, shuddering breath, both to drive away the new tears and to regain the strength to continue speaking. ‘I should not confide this to anyone, but I have kept him from my bed by saying I am too frail. I will not even let him sleep at my side because I am so afraid that I will be the cause of his death too. I know he needs me, just to hold me and share everything as we used to, and I
do
want him to be with me, so very much. There is no man more sensitive and understanding, more precious to me, but I could give this vile curse to him as well. Do you understand?’

Cicely’s eyes also filled with tears. ‘Oh, my poor aunt . . .’

Anne smiled a little. ‘I am ashamed to share the secrets of my marriage bed with you, a maiden, but if you are to help me, and understand me, you need to know how I truly feel. It is so comforting to be able to speak to you. Maybe it is the honesty in your eyes, and the staunchness of your spirit. I know Richard feels it, and even though I hardly know you, I feel it too.’

The queen tried to sit up a little, but found it too weakening, even with Cicely’s help. She paused to regain her breath and smiled as Cicely managed to put some more cushions where they would help the most. ‘It is because of the telltale blood that I wish to speak with you, for I
must
conceal my condition from Richard for as long as possible, and to do so I will need a helper, someone to take away my handkerchiefs and replace them with fresh ones without drawing attention. Someone to make me comfortable when I need it, without my having to instruct it. You have helped me twice since coming here now, and on neither occasion did I have to ask you. So my heart tells me to turn to you, even though you are of such tender years.’

‘I will do all I can,’ Cicely promised, reaching out to put her strong young fingers around Anne’s skeletal ones. ‘When do you wish me to join your inner household?’

‘Immediately. Richard will soon return to Nottingham, from where he can easily march to any part of England Tudor may choose to invade. I will wait here until I have regained a little strength, and then I will go to join him. That means the entire court will accompany me.’

‘Should you not stay here? Travelling is so very arduous, especially in a litter.’

‘I will not leave him alone, Cicely. He needs me to be near. I may no longer be the wife he once had, but I still love him.’

‘And he loves you, Your Grace.’

Anne managed a smile. ‘Just think, Cicely, being so close to me will mean seeing more of John of Gloucester, which I am sure will please you.’ She closed her eyes. ‘If only he were legitimate, for it would resolve so very much.’

Chapter Twelve

Bess was not
at all pleased to hear of her sister’s new position so near the queen. Cicely had not said anything of what Anne had told her. As far as Bess was concerned, Cicely had simply been summoned to a place that ought to have been granted to Richard’s eldest niece.

‘By right it should be me,’ she declared.

Cicely looked at her.
‘You?
Bess, you can barely bring yourself to be civil to the poor queen, so why on earth would she wish to have you at her side?’

Bess tossed her head, but said no more on the matter.

It was then that Cicely received another royal summons, this time from Richard himself. As she prepared to go to his apartments, she saw the stricken look in Bess’s eyes, the unshed tears and deep hurt. ‘He never thinks of me, Cissy, it is always you. What do
you
have that I do not?’

‘I do not know.’ But Cicely wondered if Richard sensed something in Bess that made him feel uneasy. She took her sister’s hand for a moment and squeezed it reassuringly, but it was not easy to offer comfort when she so disapproved of Bess’s behaviour.

She hastened to Richard’s apartments, wondering why he wished to see her . . . and wondering too how he would be. He had not been seen since his return. A page admitted her, and she was conducted to one of the private chambers overlooking the river. Richard was not there; no one was there. She glanced around. It was clearly one of her uncle’s personal rooms, for there was evidence of him all around, from his books to his circlet, lying on a table where someone had put it, for he had not worn it on his return. One of his rings was there too, the one with the huge ruby.

She drew the chain from her bodice, and looked at the ring John had given her. It was warm from her body, and because it was John’s, she raised it to her lips.

‘A tender moment, Cicely?’

Richard’s voice startled her, and she turned swiftly to see him in the doorway. He had changed his clothes, no longer black, but grey, simple and unadorned, and his doublet was only partially fastened. It was not like him to be so remiss, and yet it went with his ruffled hair and his hollow eyes. It was as if something crucial had been driven from him. The shadow of grief was there to such a degree that he almost seemed like his own ghost.

He came towards her, looking at the ring she still held. ‘John wastes little time, it seems,’ he murmured, not with anger or disapproval.

‘Do you mind very much, Uncle?’

He met her eyes. ‘No, for it is his to give as he wishes.’ He glanced at her black gown. ‘No mourning, Cicely. I intend to let it be known. I do not want to be reminded of my child’s death, rather of his life. Do you disapprove?’

‘No.’

The faintest of smiles crossed his lips. ‘I knew you would understand.’

‘Uncle . . . ?’ She longed to embrace him, to hold him close and somehow alleviate his sorrow.

‘Please do not say anything,’ he said quickly, raising a hand that was clearly defensive.

‘But I must, Uncle, for I love you dearly and it breaks my heart to see you in such agony. I did not know the little boy you have lost, even though he was my cousin, but I do know you, and the poor, dear queen. I comfort her, but need to comfort you as well. Do you not see that?’

‘Please, Cicely . . .’ He turned away, his voice tight as he struggled with his emotions.

But she would not let him spurn her help. ‘It is
I
who must say please to you.
Please
, let me show I care.’

‘I already know you care, Cicely.’

‘Do you?’

He met her eyes again and smiled a little. ‘Oh yes.’

His sadness wrung her heart. She felt so many things towards him, but to see him tortured with despair was almost too poignant. His pain was hers too. ‘Please let me be closer to you, or I will die of your grief,’ she whispered.

‘If I let you hold me, for that is what you will do, the little composure I still have will be forfeit. I do not think either of us wishes that.’ He turned away. ‘It was not to leech upon your strength and kindness that I have sent for you.’

‘Leech? I give both gladly.’

The hint of a smile played around his mouth again. ‘I stand corrected.’

She put out a hand to touch him, but he moved away. ‘I believe you are to enter the queen’s inner household?’

‘Yes, with your permission.’ Please do not let him ask her why.

‘My permission? Yes, yes, you have it. If it pleases the queen to keep you close to her, then it pleases me.’ He paused. ‘Cicely . . . take care of her for me.’

‘I will do all in my power, Uncle.’

He nodded. ‘I know, but I needed to say it.’

She gazed at his face, so very handsome, so enticing. He was affecting in every way, and no one could ever be indifferent to him. Bess’s description returned. Yes, he was beautiful, and more physically and mentally magnetic than he seemed to know. He would always move and inspire others, and make them his eager servants forever. And yet he behaved as if unaware of this inherent power. There was nothing vain about him, or any arrogance in his character. And there was nothing she, Cicely, would not have done for him. Just as she was about to break the silence, he spoke of Bess.

‘I have the feeling that your sister may not have been so eager to come to my court as I first thought. Does she regret Henry Tudor’s failure to depose me?’

Cicely stared at him. ‘Regret? Oh,
no
!
Why do you think such a thing?’

‘Because she makes little effort to hide her dislike of the queen. Perhaps Bess feels that she herself should be wearing the crown as Tudor’s wife? It both angers and hurts me.’

Somehow Cicely managed to meet his steady gaze. ‘Bess loves you, Uncle.’ Oh, how true. ‘And she loves the queen. You mistake her manner.’

He twisted his lips. ‘Really? I need more persuasion, I fear. You forget that I understand you as much as you understand me. You are not being entirely forthcoming about your sister.’

Cicely lowered her eyes guiltily. ‘But you
are
wrong to think she wants Henry Tudor to take your throne. Nothing could be further from the truth.’

He did not respond, and as the seconds passed she felt she had to say something. ‘Uncle, forget Bess, for it is not important now. Is there anything
I
can do to help you with . . .’ She did not finish, for what words could she use to describe the awful vacuum that was now at the centre of his soul?

‘Help me?’

‘Do anything to make a little difference?’

He smiled. ‘You help me by being close to my queen.’ He went to the table and picked up the circlet. ‘Well, I must play the king again, eh?’

Something broke inside her and she ran to him, flinging her arms around him and holding him so tightly she feared she would stop his breath. She knew he did not want it, but he was in her embrace now, and she willed all her strength to transfer to him. ‘You do not
play
the king, Uncle, you
are
the king! A very good king. England is your realm, and you rule and defend it as truly and dedicatedly as could be wished. Do not doubt yourself or feel less of a ruler because you are afflicted by such cruel grief. We look to you for your strong and unswerving leadership. My father loved and admired you, and would have been lost without you. I will not let you sink beneath this, I will
not
!’

‘Cicely, you disobey my wish and take advantage of my patience.’ He tried to pull away, but it was half-hearted.

She tightened her hold. ‘I do? Then, king or not, I am
glad
to defy you!
Someone
must be here for you. The poor queen is ill, she no longer has strength, but
I
do, and I will be here. For her. But mostly for you! You enslaved me that night at the abbey. You took my breath and my heart away with your kindness, humour and forbearance. When you smile, I am made so happy, and I would fight Satan to help you.’ Tears brimmed in her eyes. ‘I cannot do much, but if I can help you to smile again, I will. And if that is defiance, then so be it.’

He struggled against his emotions, and her embrace did not waver. Instead she held him more, and at last his arms moved gently around her, and she felt his lips upon her forehead. ‘Jesu, Cicely, you will make me the most conceited monarch on earth.’

She heard the faint echo of his former self, a trace of the humour that so bound her to him. ‘Perhaps I am the most conceited niece, believing I can help to heal you all by myself.’

‘I do not deserve you, my sweet Cicely.’ He caught her wrists and unlinked her arms, drawing first one hand to his lips, and then the other. His eyes were very dark and unhappy, but somehow he managed the smile she sought. ‘John is very fortunate.’

‘I am fortunate that he likes me.’

He touched the ring on the chain. ‘If he gave you this, he more than just
likes
you, Cicely. I am glad, for I could wish for nothing better.’

She searched his eyes, for there was a note in his words that made her think his thoughts had returned to Anne. ‘I
will
look after the queen, Uncle.’

He nodded again. ‘For however long it takes, mm?’

She gazed at him. ‘Please, Uncle . . .’

‘Do not look so anxious, for I am not about to inveigle you into betraying her confidence. The moment she told me she had requested your close presence, I knew why. You are everyone’s confessor, are you not? Tell me, Cicely, who is
yours
?’

‘From now on it will be your son, Uncle.’

He smiled. ‘Well, know that I am also at your disposal.’

‘Confess my innermost thoughts to the King of England?’

He put his hand briefly to her cheek. ‘No, to your fond uncle.’ He smiled. ‘You may go now, Cicely, for if I am indeed to be the king you say I am, there are duties to which I must attend.’

She dropped a deep curtsey, from which he was swift to raise her. ‘No, not this time. Your love and good sense have helped me more than I could have imagined. I thank you with all my heart.’

Her tears had their way as she left him, and her steps took her straight to Bess, whom she confronted in a way she had never thought herself capable. ‘Listen to me, you miserable, self-centred bitch! Do you know what Richard thinks of you? He believes you regret Henry Tudor’s failure to invade and claim you. He thinks you hoped to be a Tudor queen instead of just a Yorkist princess.’

‘Yorkist bastard,’ Bess corrected, gazing up at her in astonishment. ‘Please do not be so reticent, Cissy; say what you really think.’

Cicely did not care about the sarcasm. ‘You have hurt him, Bess, you have hurt the man you adore to the exclusion of prudence. Is that what you want? He has noticed how you are towards the queen, and if
he
has, then you may count upon it that everyone else has too. There are whispers and sniggers about you, or had you not realized? I am ashamed of you, ashamed that you are my sister. You do not deserve his kindness and consideration, and so help me, if you continue to hurt him, I will scratch your evil eyes from their sockets!’

Bess stared at her. ‘Cissy?’

‘I have made myself clear, I fancy.’

‘I . . . I have hurt him?’ Bess seemed dazed.

‘Yes. And angered him,’ Cicely added for good measure. This was long overdue, and she only wished she had been driven to it sooner.

Bess’s lips trembled. ‘He said so?’

‘Yes. He loves Anne, Bess, and nothing you do will ever change that, but you have changed what he thinks of you. Face up to the truth, about him and about yourself. Be our father’s daughter from now on. Can you imagine what
he
would think to know all this of you? You were his favourite, his beautiful Bess, but he would never forgive you for what you do now.’

Tears shimmered in Bess’s lovely eyes. ‘I have hurt Richard?’ she whispered, so stricken that it was all she could manage.

‘Confront the demon that has possessed you, Bess. Drive it out and seek forgiveness. Seek an audience with Richard, reassure him of your loyalty to his queen and his cause, for as God is my witness, he deserves far better than you have seen fit to offer. But
I
will accompany you,’ Cicely warned, ‘and if I see
anything
perverse in your conduct, I will drag you from the room. Do what is right for
him,
Bess, not for yourself.’

Bess sat like a crushed mouse. ‘He will not see me,’ she said in a small voice.

‘He will if I request it.’

‘Ah, yes, for you have him around your little finger.’ Bess was expressing a fact.

‘Because my love for him is what it should be,’ was Cicely’s short reply.

It was soon done, and Richard had been reconciled by Bess’s abject apologies and distress, but there was still a reserve in him that Cicely knew would be a long time mending. If it ever would.

Anne changed her mind about staying on in London for a while, having decided to accompany Richard to his chosen headquarters in the centre of his kingdom. The journey would take them away from the heat and smell of summertime London, and out into the wider countryside and the beauties of Sherwood Forest. And so Richard’s entire court moved north as well.

Nottingham, the Castle of Care, where Richard had heard of the death of his son, had very sad, very raw memories, but it was the best situated fortress for Richard’s purpose. There he waited, like a patient spider for a cautious fly. The whole realm waited for the uprising and invasion, but the months drew on and it did not come.

Cicely was kept very close to Anne, and occasionally heard comments—private asides among the other ladies—that it was surprising the late king’s
second
daughter had such a place of honour, not the first. Bess conducted herself with restraint, trying hard not to do anything that would cause unwelcome comment, but Cicely knew how very difficult it was for her sister. Bess’s love for Richard Plantagenet only increased. Sometimes he stopped to speak to her, but he was not at ease with her as he always was with Cicely.

John was at Nottingham as well, of course, and he and Cicely spent every moment they could together. Their love grew, as did their passion, but they did not consummate it, for that could have embarrassing consequences, both for themselves and for the king. Everyone knew of their love, including Ralph Scrope, whose gloomy presence was the only shadow over their happiness. He took to watching them whenever possible, and was like a footpad creeping behind them. John and he were no longer friendly, and there had been a scuffle that ended when John shoved Ralph’s head into a pile of horse dung. It did not deter Ralph for long, for he soon began following them again.

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