O n a hot, still morning in July, the Lady Mary, daughter to King Henry the Eighth, arrived at the great country palace of Hatfield, trotting into the courtyard on a white palfrey followed by four gentlemen, two ladies-in-waiting, and a female fool.
As soon as she had dismounted, she stooped to kiss the small girl who was waiting to greet her, whose nurse had just reminded her to sketch a wobbly curtsy to the older sister she had not seen for many months. The child was solemn-faced, fair-skinned, and freckled, with long tendrils of burnished red hair escaping from the embroidered white coif that was tied beneath her chin.
“My, you have grown, sweeting!” Mary exclaimed in her gruff voice, stroking Elizabeth’s hair and straightening her silver pendant. “You’re nearly three now, aren’t you?” Elizabeth stared back, unsure of this richly dressed lady with the sad face and skinny body. Mary was not beautiful like Elizabeth’s mother: Mary had a snub nose and a downturned mouth, and although her hair was red like Elizabeth’s and their father’s, it was thin and frizzy. And of course, Mary was very old—all of twenty years, she had been told.
“I have brought you gifts, Sister,” Mary said, smiling and beckoning to a lady-in-waiting, who brought over a wooden box. Inside, wrapped in velvet, was a rosary of amber beads and a jeweled crucifix.
“For your chapel,” Mary said, pointing to the latter.
“Pretty,” said Elizabeth, gently fingering the beads.
“How does my sister, Lady Bryan?” Mary rose to her feet and greeted the governess with a kiss. “And you yourself? It is good to see you again, but I would it were in happier circumstances.”
“I too, my Lady Mary. We are well enough, both of us, I thank you,” the woman answered.
Elizabeth, watching them, was slightly discomfited by their words and curious at seeing a pained expression fleetingly shadow Mary’s plain features.
“I will speak with her presently,” her sister said. Lady Bryan nodded.
“I am grateful, Your Grace,” she said. “I pray you eat first, for it is nigh to eleven o’clock and dinner is almost ready.” Elizabeth was no longer listening; her attention had now focused on her new beads.
“I have brought my fool, to afford a diversion later, if need be,” Mary said, and Elizabeth’s ears pricked up. She liked fools. They were funny.
While the roast goose and hot salad were being served with appropriate ceremony to Mary in the great hall, Elizabeth was sent to the nursery to have her dinner.
“I hope Your Grace will excuse us,” the nurse said to the Lady Mary. “The Lady Elizabeth’s Grace is too young as yet to eat with the grown-ups.” After being pressed into another curtsy, the child was led away by the hand.
As soon as she had gone, Mary laid down her knife and shook her head sadly.
“I hardly know how I am going to tell her, Margaret,” she said miserably, looking to her former governess for support.
Lady Bryan rested a comforting hand on hers.
“I wouldn’t be too explicit if I were you, Madam.”
“Oh, no,” agreed Mary fervently. “Does she often speak of her mother? Do you think she will be much discomforted? After all, she cannot have seen much of her.”
“I’m afraid she did. Her Grace—I mean the lady her mother—kept the child with her, more than was seemly for a queen. If you remember, she even refused to have a wet nurse,” Lady Bryan recalled with a sniff of disapproval.
Mary looked at her with mounting anxiety. She was dreading the coming confrontation.
“Do you think she will understand?” she asked.
“There is much she understands,” Lady Bryan replied. “My lady is more than ordinarily precocious. As sharp as nails, that child, and clever with it.”
“But a child for all that,” Mary said, “so I will break it to her as gently as I can, and may our Holy Mother and all the saints help me.”
Seeing her so distressed, Lady Bryan sought to steer the conversation away from the subject, but while she and Sir John chattered on about household matters and the state of the weather, and while all of them toyed with their food, having little appetite for it, Mary, her heart swelling with love and compassion for her little sister, could only think of the heavy task that lay ahead of her.
Why should she feel this way? she asked herself. Why had she agreed to come here and perform this dreadful errand? Elizabeth’s very existence had caused her untold pain and suffering, and it was