Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (6 page)

‘Even if you discovered the truth about Lady Eleanor Boteler?’

‘How abominably direct you are.’ His grey eyes were riveting in the firelight. ‘Whatever my opinion of your father’s marital maze, he was still the rightful king, so, yes, I would have served him. But I could not stand by after his death and allow his illegitimate offspring ascend to the throne. The pre-contract proved
my
right to the throne, your uncle Clarence’s son having been barred by his father’s attainder. Not only was I the king, but I had my own son’s rights to consider. He is my heir. There is also the matter of England. The land cannot sustain a minority rule at this time. It requires a man of some experience. That, I am afraid, happens to be me.’ He smiled.

‘I think you are right on every point, Uncle,’ she answered.

‘You do?’

She nodded. ‘Yes.’

‘You are astonishingly mature, Cicely.’

‘I have had time to think since being in here.’

He laughed. ‘No doubt, but you can blame your mother for
that.
’ He became serious again. ‘Cicely, I have not relished what has happened to you, your brothers and sisters, who are all my close blood kin, even if outside marriage vows. Your father wished me to be Lord Protector, but instead of his instruction being carried out, your mother and her family caused rebellion, my exclusion and would probably have done away with me. I had to execute Rivers and Grey, for they had committed treason, but it was another act that hurt you. And since then there has been another rebellion. I have asserted my authority and behaved as I think is right. Nevertheless, you have not deserved what has happened to you, and for that I ask for your forgiveness.’

‘There is no need, for I have already said I think you had no choice but to act as you did. You were honourable. If you had not become king, England would be still torn by many ambitious nobles squabbling for influence. You are the only man who can control them all. You are also the one with the greatest claim to the throne and the greatest ability.’

‘How
old are you?’ he asked on an amused note.

‘I am in my fifteenth year.’

‘So you are fourteen?’

She blushed. ‘I am in my fifteenth year,’ she said again, ‘and next month, on 20 March, I will commence my sixteenth year.’

‘The Feast of St Cuthbert. My chosen saint. So, being in your fifteenth year is that important?’

‘Yes.’

He smiled. ‘As you wish.’

‘I
do
wish, for it is not pleasant to be half-child, half-woman.’

‘Oh, I think we can safely say you are a woman, Cicely Plantagenet, for you certainly keep me on my kingly toes.’

It was so easy to speak to him. He did not look down on her as tiresome, nor did he show impatience or any of the other attitudes adults so often adopted when faced with awkward, if not to say insolent, questions from one as young as she. The impulse to touch him was too great to resist. She put her hand on his forearm, where the slashing of his sleeve revealed the rich embroidery.

His hand moved over hers. ‘Cicely, your father played me for a fool. A loyal fool, but a fool nevertheless. He kept the pre-contract a secret from me and by so doing intended to deny me
my
right by letting his illegitimate son ascend the throne. And he permitted me to plead for my brother Clarence’s life, when all the time he meant to have him despatched. It is hard to forgive such things.’

‘You are true to yourself, I think.’

He gazed at her. ‘I have never spoken of these things before. God alone knows why I am telling you. Can I rely upon your discretion?’

‘Of course. You were loyal to my father, I am loyal to you.’

‘It is that simple?’

‘Partly.’

‘Ah, there is a reservation.’ He waited for her to explain.

‘I will also be loyal to you because you are honest.’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘There are many who would not agree with
that
!’

‘They do not know.’

‘Know what?’

‘You.’

He paused. ‘That is a great compliment, I think.’

‘No one could speak with me, tolerate me, as you do and be bad.’

‘And that is carved in stone?’ He smiled.

She smiled too. ‘Yes.’

He suddenly put an arm around her shoulders, and the gesture seemed intimate because of the way his back curved, but it was merely warm and appreciative. ‘You are an exceptional lady, Cicely. I look forward to when you come to court. You would of a certainty be wasted on the likes of Ralph Scrope.’ He kissed her cheek, and there was mint on his breath, sweet and fresh.

Then he took his arm away. ‘I think I should ask if your sisters are well?’

‘The little ones are in excellent spirits. Being in sanctuary does not mean anything to them.’

‘And Bess?’

Her heart lurched. ‘Bess?’

He tilted his head. ‘You
do
have a sister named Bess?’

‘I— Yes, of course. She is well too.’

‘And still beautiful?’

‘Yes.’

He smiled. ‘She is very much my brother’s child, whereas you, Cicely, look very like me. But I can assure you that your mother and I have never been that close. Oh, what a dire thought.’

Oh, how she longed to ask him about Jane Shore! His view of the incident would be so enlightening. This thought led Cicely to another. Was he really faithful to his queen? It was now even harder to imagine he had no mistresses, for he was so desirable, both for himself as well as his power, but if he did have mistresses, there were still no whispers, no names mentioned. Nothing. She gazed at him, for it was also hard to think that Anne Neville had ever preferred another to him.

The expressions on her face interested him. ‘I think I should definitely not ask what you are thinking.’

‘Definitely not.’

‘Then I will refrain.’ He pushed his hair back, and she noticed that he had lost part of the small finger of his right hand.

‘What happened?’ she asked, pointing to it.

‘Too much childish enthusiasm at swordplay. You see? I am malformed
and
missing parts of myself. At this rate there will be little left of me to eventually bury.’

‘But what there is will still be honourable and honoured.’

He gazed at her. ‘You quite rob me of words, Cicely.’

‘You give me words. I have never met anyone like you before. Well, not since I have grown up.’

He smiled.

‘I will always honour you.’

He continued to gaze at her. ‘And I you, I believe.’ He touched her cheek again, lingering a little, and then drew his hand away again. ‘I wish you to stay when your mother arrives. What I have to say to her I desire you to hear as well.’

‘She will not like that.’

‘Possibly, but I think my rank exceeds her, do you not agree?’

‘Yes.’ How he fascinated her with his lightning changes from uncle to king, his easy manner closely followed by tension. He was as taut as a bowstring, and yet throughout remained so accessible.

Elizabeth threw open the door and strode into the room, wrapped only in a loose robe over her nightgown. She halted in disbelief when she saw him. ‘So, you
are
here. I thought it must be a jest.’

Cicely hung her head in shame that her mother could show so little respect to the King of England.

‘Some may call me a jest, madam,’ he replied, ‘but you had better be sure I am not.’

Seeing Cicely, Dame Grey signalled imperiously for her to leave, but Richard raised his hand. ‘Cicely will remain. If you wonder why I have not requested Bess’s presence as well, it is because I wish to spare her the personal pain of your actions, of which I imagine she knows nothing. You or Cicely will tell her afterwards, but she will not learn it direct from me.’

Elizabeth looked squarely at him for a moment, and Cicely almost expected her to tell him how her eldest daughter felt about him, but then, without requesting his permission, she went to sit by the fire. As Cicely positioned herself behind her mother, she was sure there was suppressed amusement on his lips. He glanced at her for a moment, and yes, he found Dame Elizabeth Grey entertaining, although that fact would not have been perceived by many.

Then his attention was fully upon her mother. ‘You have pledged your eldest daughter to Tudor, madam, and I will know your reasons.’

Cicely’s lips parted in shock. Bess was pledged to Henry Tudor?

All Elizabeth’s hatred flooded back. ‘There are four dead reasons, Your Grace.’

‘Explain that remark, madam, for I do not wish there to be any room for misunderstanding between us.’

‘Very well. You executed my dear brother Rivers, and my younger Grey son. And, even more heinously, you have done my royal sons to death most cruelly.’

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘Rivers and Grey were guilty of treason. As you also were, of course. As to your sons by my brother . . . How came you by this wondrous information?’

Her lips compressed stubbornly and she turned her head away to stare at the leaping fire.

‘What promises did the reptilian Lady Stanley make to you?’

‘If you know so much perhaps you will tell me!’ Her face was ugly with malice as she looked at him again.

‘Your insolence is unbecoming, Dame Grey. Must I remind you that
I
am the monarch here?’

It was said levelly, but there was sufficient warning in it for Elizabeth to shift awkwardly in her place.

‘Now then,’ he went on, ‘have you or have you not promised Bess to the Tudor upstart?’ She did not meet his penetrating grey gaze, so he continued, ‘You promised Bess because Henry Tudor’s mother told you I had foully murdered your sons—my own nephews! She is not unbiased, I think, or did you not think of that? You accepted what she said without question, and signed your name to a letter of consent. I marvel at your crass stupidity. Did you not recognize that scheming woman’s purpose? God’s blood, I knew what you
said
of me, but I did not think you actually
believed
it!’

Elizabeth’s face had drained of colour. He knew everything when she believed her actions were undetected.

Richard turned away, leaning a hand on the chimney breast as he kicked at the burning logs. ‘Lady Stanley tricked you, madam. Your sons are not dead.’

Chapter Seven

Elizabeth stared at
the king. ‘Not dead?’ she whispered.

Richard drew a heavy breath. ‘Lady Stanley told you they were in order to dupe you into signing your name to what she wanted. Her purpose is to sway uncertain nobles against me, in the hope of ending my reign and seeing Henry Tudor in my place. Disgruntled Yorkists would be influenced by the promise that Bess would be his queen. Well, Tudor’s mother has not succeeded, and I have seen that her Stanley husband confines her to one of his estates. I will not have her miserable, arrantly hypocritical visage near me. Stanley himself only holds on by a thread. And so do others, so take care. I
am
capable of harsh action, as Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Buckingham discovered to their cost, and as some of your other kinsmen and allies may yet discover.’

He looked at Cicely. ‘Cicely, Lady Stanley carried my queen’s train at the coronation. Did you know that? You are right, lenience seldom works with an implacable foe. Always remember it, even if I have not as often as I should.’

She felt his bitterness.

Deciding he lied about her sons, Elizabeth’s lips had curled back derisively. ‘Well, you crooked, uneven tyrant, I wish Lady Stanley and her son
had
succeeded. Oh, how I wish it.’

‘Mother!’

Elizabeth twisted around to look up at Cicely’s shocked face. ‘What is this? I now have
two
daughters who leap to this monster’s defence?’

Cicely’s eyes became bright with caution, and she wondered if her mother would have adopted such an attitude with any other king. But then, had not she, Cicely, taken liberties with his tolerance?

For a moment Elizabeth remained angry enough to say what she pleased, but then thought better of it and fell silent.

Richard looked from mother to daughter. ‘What is it you do not wish me to know, Cicely?’

Elizabeth responded haughtily. ‘It is not your business, king or not.’

He ignored her. ‘Cicely?’

‘There is nothing,’ she replied, meeting his eyes unhappily. She found it very difficult indeed to lie to him.

Richard raised an eyebrow, but did not press her. He had time for her, as she did for him. His attention returned to Elizabeth. ‘Do not rely upon my chivalry or forbearance, madam, because at this moment the thought of seeing your mischief-making head upon a block holds much appeal.’

‘You would not do that! You are many things, Richard of Gloucester, but you have never raised your hand against a woman.’

He found that laughable. ‘So I do have one redeeming feature? That is solace indeed. However, it is clear that I really should mend my ways, because women are certainly raising their hands against me.’

‘Oh, how glib you are. Even
I
am influenced, almost wanting to like you, although I know you have killed my boys. Maybe not with your own hand, but certainly you gave the order. I know it in my heart.’

‘Your
heart
?’ He grinned.

Elizabeth’s fingers tightened on the arm of her chair, and Cicely knew her mother was battling with herself, wanting to fly at him and claw the mockery from his face, yet knowing it would be a grave mistake.

‘And if I prove to you that your sons live?’ Richard asked her.

‘What will you do? Show me from a distance two boys of comparable height and colouring and tell me that they are my children?’

‘You really begin to tire me, madam, and I find you as displeasing as I ever did. I am not concerned with
your
welfare or how long you choose to remain here, but I
am
concerned with your daughters. It is for their sakes that I am come here this night. Your sons live and are well, and if I prove this to you, I want your word—written, of course, since that appears to be your chosen way—that you will allow your daughters to leave without delay. You as well, if you so wish, but please believe me, I would be happy for you to moulder here. Oh, but I
do
want the treasure back. It belongs to the crown, not the Woodvilles, even though they may believe otherwise.’

Elizabeth flushed, but remained arrogant. ‘And if I refuse all this?’

‘Then you do not see your sons, and you remain here indefinitely. I will not weary myself or my Council with tedious talking and pleading. You are here of your own volition, madam, but if your daughters require me to take them under my protection, I will heed their wish.’

Cicely put a timid but appealing hand on her mother’s arm. ‘Please, Mother.’

Elizabeth took a long moment, but at last she submitted. ‘Very well, Your Grace, I give my word that if my sons are alive, I will come out of sanctuary, my children with me. You will have my letter of consent, although I cannot take back that which I gave to Lady Stanley. But what will you do with us after that? I cannot imagine you want us near you, reminding everyone of your late brother.’

‘I have no qualms about reminding anyone of Edward IV, madam. I loved and served him as a loyal brother should.’ Richard glanced at Cicely, his eyes alight as he again remembered their conversation.

Elizabeth gazed at him. ‘I wish I understood you, Richard Plantagenet.’

‘I am relieved you do not. Now, you will need something warm to put about your shoulders. The night is cold.’

Elizabeth stiffened with suspicion. ‘I am to go to them? Why do you not bring them to me?’

‘You surely do not think I would be idiot enough to bring them
into
sanctuary? No, you must come outside to them. Not to the streets of London, merely the abbey courtyard. I will not abduct you, you have my word. However, you may remain here if you wish and I will depart, taking your sons with me. They will not be in London for much longer anyway. I cannot have the likes of John Welles, Lady Stanley’s overenthusiastic half-brother, planning to get in either to dispose of or rescue them. It would certainly suit Henry Tudor to have them dead.’

‘Would it not suit you as well to have my boys dead?’ Elizabeth ventured.

‘No, madam, it would not. I have no intention of murdering my nephews.’

‘You can
say
it, Your Grace, but—’

‘You have my solemn vow,’ Richard broke in coldly. ‘Have you ever known me to break my word? So, if you wish to see your sons, now is probably the best opportunity.’

Elizabeth put out her hand involuntarily. ‘I will come!’

He took a rug that had been draped over a chair and put it around her shoulders. ‘Once again a king dresses you, my lady,’ he murmured.

‘I am given to understand there are many ladies who would wish
you
to dress them, Richard Plantagenet, having undressed them first, of course.’

‘Oh, my conquests are legendary.’

‘They should be, but you do not appear to have the wit to do anything about it. Or do you?’

He met her eyes. ‘That, madam, is for you to speculate upon.’

She looked at him for a long moment, and then swept from the room, leaving the door open. She would wait at the bottom of the stairs.

‘Do you wish to see your brothers, Cicely?’ Richard asked.

‘Yes. Please.’ He went out to collect his hat and gauntlets, and then gathered his cloak from the floor and brought it back to rest it gently around her shoulders. Again there was that odd intimacy about him, that hint of an embrace. But it was innocent. She doubted he even knew he did it. ‘I am glad to have made your acquaintance again, Cicely Plantagenet.’

She returned the smile. ‘And I to have made yours, Uncle.’ She was his slave. Had he asked her to stand on her head and bounce, she would have endeavoured to do it.

But then something drew his sharp attention outside the door. Bess stood there, wearing only her night robe. Cicely’s heart sank, for she could almost
feel
her sister’s hunger.

‘Bess?’ Richard smiled.

‘Your Grace.’ Somehow Bess managed to curtsey to him. Cicely knew what emotions were rioting through her sister, just to be face to face with him again.

‘Uncle. Call me Uncle.’

Cicely could only guess how much Bess hated that word.

Bess looked at the cloak around Cicely’s shoulders. ‘You are going somewhere?’

Richard nodded. ‘To the courtyard. Your brothers are there.’

‘My brothers? They
do
live?’

‘Yes, although I had hoped that at least
someone
here would have credited me with clean hands.’ There was a hint of bitterness in his voice.

‘I always believed in you, Uncle,’ Bess replied, not entirely truthfully, for she had confessed to Cicely of entertaining fleeting doubts.

He looked at her, and said nothing.

She came closer. ‘May I come too? To see them?’

‘Of course.’ He cast around for something to keep her warm. There was only the curtain beside the doorway, so he tugged it down, clearly with more strength than it seemed, for it gave way immediately.

Cicely felt the brink come close again, for now Bess would confront their mother in his presence. And Bess knew it. She watched as he put the curtain around her sister, and saw how Bess’s eyes closed with the intense joy of it. His lips were close as well. It meant little to him, but more to his eldest niece than he could ever imagine.

Suddenly Bess’s hand moved over his, making him stay. ‘Uncle . . . ?’

Cicely gazed at a nearby torch.

‘Yes, Bess?’

‘I . . .’

He waited.

‘I . . . do so want to leave this place.’

‘And so you shall, for your mother will have to honour her word.’ He moved away from her, and Bess closed her eyes again, trying to hold on to the exquisite pleasure of his touch.

Cicely remembered Ralph Scrope and was anxious. ‘Uncle, I do not wish to speak to Ralph Scrope.’

‘He will not approach you, Cicely, I will see to it.’

‘Thank you.’

They descended to the door to the courtyard, where Elizabeth waited. Bess faced her mother, her face set with determination, and after a moment Elizabeth gave ground. There was nothing to be gained by forcing unwelcome knowledge upon Richard. Not now. Unless, of course, her sons did not live after all.

Richard conducted them outside, and Cicely saw Ralph standing with the king’s dappled horse. He smiled at her, the same carefree, engaging smile of before, and his light brown hair lifted as a breeze sucked down into the courtyard. He was tall and well made, attractive in almost every way, but she did
not
wish to marry him. He took an eager pace forward, but then saw the brief shake of Richard’s head. His face changed and he quickly stepped back again, his eyes downcast. He remained thus as Richard led Elizabeth and her daughters across the now-thick carpet of snow. Cicely was dismayed that because she was shorter than the king, his costly, fur-trimmed cloak dragged the ground behind. Snowflakes fluttered, catching on her face and in her hair, and her bare feet were already so cold. As Bess’s must be too, although Cicely doubted her sister was capable of feeling the cold when Richard was near.

The men who had been stamping and cursing were instantly silent and respectful at the king’s approach, and obeyed immediately when he signalled to them to help the two small, muffled figures still mounted to descend. They were led to the king and their identities revealed.

Edward, so briefly the new king, and Dickon, the little Duke of York, were immediately recognizable in the torch-lit courtyard, and Elizabeth sobbed joyfully as she ran through the snow to snatch them to her breast and weep loudly. She did not seem to notice the sudden chill as the rug fell from her shoulders into the snow.

Cicely stooped to retrieve it, full of relief and gladness that her brothers were alive, as Richard had said, and she bent forward to kiss them both as they huddled against their mother. She heard Dickon say her name and she smiled at him. Edward barely acknowledged her, but then he was always disagreeable. Being of poor health did not improve him, although he was no worse now than he had been the last time she saw him. They both looked well cared for.

Bess went to them then, and as Cicely straightened to stand back, she became aware of the king’s eyes upon her. This time she could not read his expression, but guilt scythed through her for having ever been unsure of him. She found herself going to kneel before him, to draw his gauntleted hand to her forehead.

‘I had doubts, Uncle. Please do not think less of me for it.’

He raised her swiftly. ‘I could never think the less of you for your honesty, Cicely.’

‘I did not know you until tonight, but now I think I do. Please know that I will always support and love you.’

He smiled. ‘Our spirits are as kindred as our blood, Cicely Plantagenet. Do you not agree?’

‘Yes.’ Then he turned his attention to Elizabeth, to whom Cicely had now returned the rug. ‘Well, madam, you see before you your sons, alive and well. I trust you will abide by the word you gave me?’

He beckoned Ralph to bring the stallion, and the hooves clip-clopped slowly, not quite muffled by the snow. Cicely felt Ralph watching her, and at last looked up to meet his eyes, still hazel in the light of a torch. She felt his anger and resentment, and knew it was not
her
he had wanted, but the rank and influence he would gain through her. Thanks to Bess, she had made the right decision.

Richard mounted, and did so as lithely and easily as any other man. It was only when he hesitated in the saddle that she remembered his uneven back. Then he was himself again, as if nothing had happened. He was Bess’s perfect Richard again, the rich green velvet of his doublet dotted with clinging snow, as was his hair. A snowflake brushed his lips, and Cicely saw how Bess watched it, wishing
she
were that snowflake.

His men took the boys away from their mother’s desperate arms, and as Ralph returned to his own mount, without looking at Cicely again, Elizabeth hurried to grasp the bridle of the king’s horse. ‘Why? Why do it this way, at night, with my sons hidden beneath cloaks? Why do you not show them to the realm?’

He soothed the excited horse as he looked down at her. Cicely was sure he meant to deny her mother an answer, but then he changed his mind. ‘I have already been forced to deal with two assaults upon my throne, assaults in which
your
name has been somewhat prominent, madam. I will not flaunt your sons before the people as if they are my trophies. The spoils of war. I am not such a man to do that. If they are not seen they will eventually not spring to the instant mind of anyone with a grudge against me. That is why — not to harm them or kill them, just to keep them from scheming minds. I will not always keep them like this, only until I am established and the land is settled. I weary of rebellion and will avoid all provocation if it is in my power to do so. Does that suffice?’

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