Cicely's King Richard (Cicely Plantagenet Trilogy) (9 page)

Margaret’s eyes were hooded as she acknowledged them both and then moved away over the grass like a black shadow. The sisters shivered, and then Bess pulled a face. ‘Oh, Cissy, can you just
imagine
what her precious Henry must be like?’

‘And can you imagine four husbands having to bed such a spiteful bag of bones? What valour and determination they must have had. I gather Lord Stanley no longer does, because she has taken a vow of celibacy, or some such thing. How thankful he must be.’

They giggled together, but meeting Margaret again had been an unpleasant reminder of the threats Richard still faced if he was to keep the throne.

As Henry Tudor’s mother disappeared into the palace, a man who was just leaving had to stand aside for her. It was Francis Lovell, and he bowed to Margaret, although not with particular respect, but then he saw Richard’s two eldest nieces watching, and gave them a broad grin as he strolled across to them, past the younger girls still at their play. His stocky figure was very reassuring after the spectral Margaret.

He swept them a respectful bow. ‘I trust you are enjoying your freedom, my ladies?’

‘Oh yes,’ Cicely responded.

He gave her an arch look. ‘Yes, so I have noticed, Lady Cicely.’

She flushed and lowered her eyes. It was sometimes really horrible to be young, because everyone older seemed to think it was their right to tease.

‘You have not gone north as well, sir?’ Bess enquired.

‘Within days I will. The king gave me various tasks to complete here first.’

Cicely looked at him. ‘Why has our uncle allowed Lady Stanley to return?’

He spread his hands in disbelief. ‘I wish I knew. She is a rotten apple well able to spoil more in the barrel. I do not always know what is in the king’s mind.’

Bess curled her lip angrily. ‘After what she did, at the very least she should have been thrown into the Tower and left there to contemplate upon her actions.
I
would have had her evil head!’

‘So would I,’ Cicely added.

‘Such savage words from such dainty lips?’ Francis feigned horror, but then became serious. ‘You must realize that had Richard executed or even imprisoned Lady Stanley, then the same fate would necessarily have fallen upon your lady mother, for she was every bit as guilty in that conspiracy.’

Bess stiffened. ‘Sir, my mother has given her word that the king will have no cause to regret giving her his protection, and she will be true to that. There you see the difference between Dame Grey and Lady Stanley.’

He nodded. ‘I sincerely hope you are right, my lady.’

‘I am. My mother will
not
fail Richard, for
I
will see to it.’

Cicely could tell that he was not entirely convinced in Bess’s ability to control her mother, but where Richard was concerned, Bess had no equal as defender.

Chapter Eleven

Only weeks later,
the bells of London tolled sorrowfully, their solemn booms resounding across the dark April skies and finding an answering echo in the ominous rumbling of thunder. The great stone tower by the river landing of the palace vibrated with the noise of its three giant bells, and across the courtyard at Westminster Hall still another bell shuddered through the still air. The heavy clouds crowded the heavens and the breathless air lay oppressively upon the land. The river was silent, not a boatman plied his trade, and craft wallowed idly on the dark waters lapping undisturbed against the wharfs. The myriad white swans glided without a whisper on the moving waters, unconcerned that tragedy had befallen the king and queen.

Once again wearing black, Cicely stood by an open window that overlooked the courtyard, watching a slow procession approaching. It was a very different spectacle from the one that had left in March, because Richard and his queen returned to their capital in deep mourning for their ten-year-old son, Edward of Middleham. He rode alone at the head of the procession, his horse caparisoned in funereal black, his clothes of a like colour. His bowed head was bare, without hat or even circlet, and his dark chestnut hair fell forward to shadow his sorrowing face. His slight figure seemed remote, almost distant, yet he was there, bereft and grieving, not looking once at the silent crowds lining the way. The crisp clatter of the horses was overwhelmed by the resonance of the bells and growls of thunder.

Of poor Anne there was no sight, for she travelled in the litter, the curtains tightly drawn. Her anguish was so intense that Cicely was to learn she found it difficult to even walk without support. The loss of her only child was a mortal blow to this delicate, frail queen, who could not bear Richard another. He was now a king without an heir, and Anne knew there were many who would deem it her fault for being so feeble. Perhaps he did too. No one knew his thoughts.

Behind the clustering roofs and steeples of the city, a blaze of lightning illuminated the skies, glancing brightly off the river. The answering thunder broke overhead almost immediately, and the heaviness of the air seemed to press Cicely with its humid fingers. In an effort to bring some coolness to the room, she placed her hands on the embrasure and leaned out a little. A faint breath of wind arose and the first large drops of storm rain began to fall, their force whipping up the dust on the ground below.

The dust soon became mud in the ever-increasing downpour, and the bruised leaves of the herb garden filled the air with their newly released scent. Straining her eyes through the rain, she sought John among the riders behind the king, but it was Richard himself who claimed her attention as he at last looked up at the palace. He did not seem to notice the torrential rain, or indeed notice anything at all. He appeared to be looking directly at her, but she knew she was invisible to him. He was a father in the purgatory of his child’s death, and the queen had retreated from him, unable to offer him any consolation at all. His expression was stern and his lips hard, and he made no attempt to cover his head as the rain soaked his hair so that it clung to his face and neck. Cicely found it harrowing to see him thus, and wanted to go down to meet him, but knew she could not.

She watched him dismount at the palace steps. The yard was filled with horses; his men in clothes as black as his, but with his white boar emblazoned on their breasts. He looked at no one as he hurried up the steps into the palace, and only one figure went after him. John, also clad in black. She stretched out a little more, to see him for longer as he followed his father. He glanced up, his taut face a measure of the sorrow he shared with Richard and Anne, but he knew Cicely was there, for he smiled briefly before disappearing into the palace.

Anne’s litter moved on towards a side door, from where she could be helped out of it and carried up to the royal apartments. Her head lolled and she seemed almost grey, as if what little spark there was in her had been snuffed. She saw nothing, said nothing, and knew nothing as she was borne into the palace.

Cicely watched the rest of the procession stream into the rain-drenched yard, the horses hanging their proud heads as reluctant servants hastened out to their tasks, and then she went to find her sister.

She found Bess seated at her embroidery, her eyes bright, her lips tight. The needle flew in and out, and she did not look up as Cicely entered. They sat in silence for a long time, until at last Bess lowered the needle. ‘He
will
be mine, Cissy. Only Anne stands in my way.’

Appalled, Cicely leapt to her feet again and ran out. Her sister’s lust for Richard had begun to extinguish all the good that was in her. He would
loathe
her for what she felt and said.

For most of that terrible day the thunder rolled around the skies, vying with the persistent bells. In the humid palace the sounds were at war with one another and Cicely’s head rang with weariness. She longed to see John, but he had not come to see her, nor even sent a message. Sitting by the open window in her rooms, breathing in the lingering scent of the herbs as it lay strong upon the air, she wished the rain would stop so she could walk in the garden. At least it fell less heavily now and in the distance there was a break in the clouds, through which beams of sun reached down to the sodden earth. Soon she would be able to go out.

At last the storm became little more than a faint drizzle and, not even taking a cloak, she hurried down through the palace and out into the afternoon, where dampness floated like cobwebs in the brightening air. The grass was soft beneath her slippers and the hem of her gown soon became wet, but she did not care. The scent of blossom was sweet, and as she inhaled she heard the guttural grumbling of the storm in the distance.

She went to the part of the wall where she had been before, and leaned over to watch the boatmen as they plied their trade after acknowledging the king’s sorrow by staying ashore throughout the morning. Their voices were subdued, and when one of them laughed, the others scolded him. She noticed a large white swan bobbing on the water directly below her, and almost immediately it hissed and stretched up, wings flapping. She bent to pick up some tiny stones, and tossed them at it.

‘Do not threaten me like that, sir, or I will have your feathers to stuff my mattress!’

Almost as if it understood, the swan moved away, its black legs pumping through the water. Her reflection was broken, swaying wildly on the wavelets, and as it became gentle again, she saw she was no longer alone, for John was standing beside her.

She whirled to face him, her breath catching with pleasure. ‘John!’

He gazed at her. ‘Cicely. . . ?’

She saw the change in him. Richard and Anne may have lost a son, but he had lost his half-brother. ‘Oh, my poor John,’ she whispered, stretching out her hand.

He linked his fingers with her, and then suddenly pulled her close. ‘I have missed you so, Cicely,’ he breathed, his lips moving in her damp hair. ‘When it happened, I could hardly bear my father’s misery. I have never seen him like that before, not even when your father died.’

She held him tightly, pressing her face into the rich stuff of his doublet, savouring every second of their first embrace, even though the circumstances were so sad.

He drew back to cup her cheeks in his hands. ‘I feel as if we have been together all our lives. You feel the same, do you not?’

She nodded. ‘Of course I do, for I missed you every moment you were away.’

He bent forward to put his lips to hers. It was a far different kiss from the one they had shared in March, for now he made no attempt to hide his love. The kiss was long, sweet, and more exhilarating than Cicely could have ever imagined. It was her first true kiss, unhurried and not restrained by watching eyes, and she wished it would never end . . . wished it could lead to so very much more. Her body was awakened by desire, and the passion that swept through her now was new and so ravishing that she felt she might almost die of it. She breathed his name as restraint began to slip away from her. If anyone looked from a palace window they would see, but she did not care. Nothing else mattered, only him.

He was no less aroused, and so held her gently away. ‘Sweet God, I love and want you so much, Cicely.’

‘And I you.’ She could have wept for the ending of those blissful moments.

‘It would be better if we talked of something else, I think.’ He smiled self-consciously. ‘You rule my heart, my lady.’

She took his hand and kissed it tenderly. ‘I cannot believe this is happening, John.’

He closed his eyes as her lips caressed his skin, and then had to pull his hand away. ‘Jesu, I feel as if I will explode.’ For the first time he glanced at the palace windows, but there was no one watching. His father would put up with much from him, but not the public deflowering of a favoured niece!

Drawing a very long breath to steady himself, he looked at her again, and on impulse searched in his purse, bringing out a little golden ring set with a single sapphire. ‘Will you wear this for me?’ he asked, holding it out, and then smiling. ‘Oh, I do not mean on your fourth finger, for we would rightly be chastised for such speed and presumption. Maybe you could wear it on a chain around your neck? Oh, I do not know, nor do I care
how
you wear it, just that you do. It was my mother’s, and I want you to have it.’

‘But if it was your mother’s, surely you want to keep it?’

‘My father gave it to her when he was almost the same age as me, and now I want to give it to you. He will understand.’

‘Will he? I do not know anything about her, John, but it could be that he loved her and would not wish his ring to be on any other lady’s finger but hers.’

‘She was a lady in the Countess of Warwick’s household. They knew each other when he was in the earl’s household. Not long after I was born, she gave me to my father because she was to marry a brutal man who believed her to be a virgin. My father tried to prevent it, but she married anyway. Six months later her husband killed her; my father believes it was because he discovered she had a child. I know no more. My father saw that I was raised as his son. I have not lacked for love or luxury.’

Richard had been about John’s age when he became a father, and the thought raised uncertainty in her. ‘Have you . . . lain with many?’ Her cheeks were hot as she asked the question.

He smiled. ‘What would you have me say, Cicely? That I am as pure as you?’

‘No, for that would be foolish. You are a man; it is expected that you bed as you choose.’

‘Cicely, I
have
lain with others, but never with the feelings I have for you. You are so important to me that I cannot bear to think of ever losing you.’

‘You will not lose me, John of Gloucester.’ She slipped the ring on her little finger, which she then closed tightly to be sure it stayed there until she could put it on her favourite golden chain.

He put his arm around her shoulder, and they leaned together to look over the wall. She gave a little laugh. ‘I cannot believe how much I have changed since my father died.’

‘My father thinks you very wise.’

‘How very dull I must be.’

He shook his head. ‘No, for you to have won his favour so completely is a measure of how he respects you. You make your sister Bess seem most immature.’

‘Do not say that. It is hard for her to know that she is no more than a useful bride to someone like Henry Tudor.’

‘And so are you,’ he pointed out. ‘The Tudor must promise to marry one or other of you, because only you two are old enough to consummate such a marriage. He needs the deed done as quickly as possible.’

‘He will
never
take the throne, John,
never
! And I would rather burn in Hell than lie with him! So would Bess.’

He leaned to brush her cheek with another kiss. ‘How fierce you are, my lady.’ Then he drew away. ‘I feel so guilty for being happy when my father is so sad. Do you know how he sees this bereavement? The loss of his son is God’s reprisal for taking the throne. Nothing anyone says will convince him otherwise; he can no longer seem to see that the throne is his by right of your father’s bigamy. He is so burdened with conscience that I begin to fear he will break beneath the strain. There is no one more loyal to him than me, and yet even I am concerned about his ability to rule now—as unsure as I think he himself is. He governs with his heart and not his head, and in these dangerous times that is a crime!’

‘But it is a fine heart, is it not?’

‘Aye, sweetheart, it is a fine heart, but will one day lead him into a folly from which no one and nothing will be able to rescue him. The queen looks nigh unto death and he sees her drifting away from him. Jesu, the night the news of Edward’s death arrived at Nottingham, he was so stricken, so overcome with grief, that when someone was heard to suggest he should put the queen aside and marry a healthy bride, Jesu, I thought he would kill the fellow with his bare hands. No, he will never put Anne aside, and so he will have to name an heir, probably his sister’s eldest son, the Earl of Lincoln, who, incidentally, is expected here imminently. He has been in the north in connection with my father’s affairs there. I will like to see him again. I like Jack of Lincoln.’

Cicely thought of her dashing twenty-two-year-old first cousin, whom she had always liked very much. She also coveted the amethyst ring he always wore. It was
such
an amethyst. ‘Jack will be a worthy heir, but it seems so wrong that Richard has you, so strong and healthy a son, yet cannot name you to succeed him.’

‘Ah, such is the fate of royal bastards.’ He smiled. ‘I speak as one to another, of course.’

‘Of course.’

His humour was brief. ‘Sadly, I think Anne herself will solve the problem. She thought herself unnoticed but one day just before news arrived at Nottingham of the prince’s death, I saw her cough into her handkerchief and it was specked with blood.’

Consumption! Cicely crossed herself. ‘Oh no. Is that not how her sister Isabel, Duchess of Clarence, died?’

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