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Sweet Lies

Click. Click. Click.

The high, clear clicks of heels on marble unnerved me, and it was a few moments before I recognised them as my own footsteps.

Fear curled in my stomach, trussed up so tightly that I could hardly breathe. I had been forcibly laced into my mother’s wedding dress, hastily altered to fit my narrower frame. My satin heels, loaned under protest from my youngest sister, pinched my toes tighter with each step. Yet I knew that despite my best clothes, I would never be half as finely dressed as the rest of the Ladies of the court.

I dared not look right nor left, but fixed my gaze on the marble squares at my feet, slowly turning past as I walked up the long room, black, white, black, like a chessboard. One foot in front of the other. Nice and slow.

I reached the top of the room, barely a few paces from the throne itself, but I dared not raise my gaze. I sank into a low curtsey, wobbling in my too tight shoes. “Your Majesty,” I tried to say, but the words stuck in my throat and my mouth was dry. I licked my lips nervously.

“Welcome, girl.” The voice that greeted me was soft, with the subtlest hint of a French accent in her voice.

My curiosity overwhelmed my fear as I longed to see the face of the woman who greeted me. She’s no better than you are, I whispered to myself, to counter the nerves. Not a born queen. A girl, just like you. That’s all.

I glanced up.

I was wrong.

She may not have been a princess, but she was an anointed queen, and looked it. Sharp eyes nursed each corner of the room, and when they glanced on me, they seemed to pierce through to my soul. Her gown was a royal purple, slashed to reveal white satin, embellished on every inch with gold and silver thread of the quality that I had never even touched. Her chair was comfortable and padded with velvet, yet she sat forward on it, her back straight and her neck erect. I was the smallest thing beneath her, not worthy of attention. Not worthy even to glance at her.

I hurriedly looked away.

“What is your name?”

“Rosa, your Majesty. Rosa Fenton, daughter of Thomas Fenton, the black-“

She cut me off. “They say,” she began, her voice carefully casual, “That you tell the future.”

At those words, the court pricked up their ears. Whilst everyone pretended to continue with their conversations, chatting or playing cards, I could tell that their ears were straining to hear my reply.

“Sometimes God grants me that grace, madam,” I replied, careful as she.

“How?”

I sighed. It was the question everyone asked, with good reason. Yet there was no way to answer it, not one that people would believe.

“Our Lord grants me visions, madam. Sometimes in dreams, sometimes in mirrors. He shows me the way and I am ever grateful.”

The Queen nodded, tapping her hand softly against the arm of the chair. My knees, cramped from spending so long in a deep curtsey, began to shake, but she barely noticed, so deep was she in thought.

“You may all leave,” she said suddenly, sharp eyes darting across the mismatched members of the court.

Hurriedly, they gathered themselves and began the slow process of bowing their way from the room, each one giving me a curious sideways glance as they left. The Queen’s frown deepened as they hesitated, hands fluttering over cards and coins.

“Never mind them, go,” she hissed, and the court scuttled from the room like beetles.

A curly-haired man at the queen’s elbow lowered his lips to her ear. “Anne –”

Her fan rapped his knuckles. “George, leave me. I will be fine.”

“I think you should beware.”

The glance that they shared said more than words. A smile flirted at the corner of George Boleyn’s mouth and he bowed, heading out of the room without so much as a glance towards me.

I held my breath as I realized what this meant.

I was alone with the Queen of England.

It was she who had fought off every girl at court to become the most powerful woman in the land. It was she who had sent Queen Katharine into exile and wed her husband and borne his daughter. It was she who had snatched the heart of a king and carried it high.

Click. Click. Click.

I glanced up again to see her stepping down from the golden throne to stand in front of me. I wobbled again at the thought of her coming so close, my leg gone dead beneath me.

“Oh, rise,” she said, distractedly, pacing up and down before me, her dark brow furrowed in thought.

Gratefully I rose from my uncomfortable crouch, keeping my eyes fixed on the floor as she continued to pace steadily across the room.

It was a long time before I realised that she had stopped and was staring at me. “How do I know I can trust you?” she said, abruptly.

“Your Majesty?”

“How do I know you are telling the truth? That you won’t go running to the Spanish woman, or any of her spies?”

“Oh.” It was a fair question, and one that I could not answer. There was no way that I could prove myself to be correct. My reputation had brought me this far, but the Queen was too shrewd to be taken in easily.

“Well?”

“Your Majesty,” I began slowly. “If I may be so bold – if I were to tell you something that no-one else could know – then perhaps you would believe me?”

“You are a mind-reader?”

“No, your Majesty. Only observant.”

She sucked her breath in at that. “Very well.”

I bit my lip, summoning up the courage. Of course I knew – I had known since I had entered the room – the secret that the Queen guarded close to her breast, the one thing she would not have dared tell a soul. But how could I tell her that? Dared I be so impertinent?

“I’m waiting.” Her voice was sharp. Clearly, she was ready to believe I was a fake.

I took a deep breath. “Your Majesty is with child, are you not?”

Anne Boleyn froze. The room grew cold as neither of us dared speak, nor even breathe. I desperately wished I could freeze my heart, for I was sure the queen could hear the rapid drumbeat pounding in my chest.

The silence stretched on, a thin sheet of ice. I felt my face grow warm as I wished more than ever that I had held my tongue.

The Queen spoke. “How?” she asked, breathlessly, lost for words.

“I don’t – I can’t –” I trailed off, no explanation coming to my lips. “It is like the fortunes, your Majesty. I don’t know how, or why. Just that I do.”

Her heels clicked on the marble as she walked over to one of the small tables at the side of the room. With an easy movement, she swept the interrupted game – cards, bets, score sheets and all – onto the floor, sitting beside it on one of the chairs.

Sitting, she lost her height advantage, and forgetting my presence, I saw her face sag as the queenly mask slowly began to slip. She seemed no longer a great woman, despite her embroidered gown. The bejewelled, half-moon hood suddenly seemed too heavy for her head, no longer an ornament but a burden to be carried. I realised with a pang of pity and fear that she was not much older than I, yet her face was lined with troubles.

“It’s true,” she whispered to the room in general. “It’s true, I cannot deny it. I daren’t tell a soul, not with a girl in the crib and a boy in the ground. I can’t, not until I’m in my fifth month. When it cannot be denied any longer.”

She seemed to remember me again, abandoned in the middle of the floor. She waved an exhausted hand at the chair opposite her. “Sit.”

“Your Majesty, how may I help you?”

She was looking at me properly now for the first time, her black bird-like eyes piercing mine. For the first time I had the courage to stare right back at her, taking in every aspect of her narrow, chiselled, face that reminded me of the full moon.

“If you can tell the future,” she began, her voice trembling – whether with excitement or fear I could never tell – “Then maybe you can tell me something.”

“I would of course be happy to oblige your Majesty,” I murmured condescendingly.

She ignored me. “I will pay you anything you choose to name. Money, jewels, titles. I can get you a place among my ladies in waiting, if you wish. A horse, a manor... what do you want?”

I stared at her, my throat constricting. I had never had such things in my life, and I wanted – I wanted every one of them.

The queen glanced down at my hands, folded neatly on the table, and the slim band of clasped hands that adorned my ring finger. “You’re betrothed?”

I blushed, covering up the ring. “Yes, your Majesty. To Thomas Cooper.”

She glanced at me, giving me a smile so human I thought I had imagined it. It was the smile of a friend to a friend, not a queen to her subject.

Then Anne Boleyn remembered, and the smile was dropped. “If you help me, you will have the best wedding you can imagine. A place at court for your husband, if he pleases.”

I gasped, knowing what that would mean to Thomas. “Tell me what you want first,” I whispered hoarsely, in my greed forgetting to be polite.

She didn’t seem to notice. “In return, you must keep your mouth shut. Not a word of what happens here is told to anyone, not to your parents, your fiancé, no-one at all, do you understand me?”

Mutely, I nodded. I couldn’t comprehend what she was asking me to do. My head was buzzing with the brighter than life colours which burst before my eyes as they often did before I Saw. I fought them, trying to stay conscious.

“I need your word, Mistress Fenton.” The words were cutting, and brought me back to the present.

I looked into the Queen’s eyes, and said what I knew to be the truth. “You have my word. I will say nothing.”

She nodded, giving me the faintest of smiles. A pretty girl lay under that mask, I thought, a gentle one with kind words. But the harsh reality of court life had sharpened her wits along with her cheekbones, and Anne Boleyn knew not to trust readily. I could see it in the way her black eyes darted here and there, a sparrow seeking out danger from every angle.

For a long time she said nothing, gathering the courage to ask the question that I knew she would, because she had to, because there was no other choice.

Quick as lightning, her long fingers darted out like a snake and grabbed mine in a vice-like grip. I gasped at the cold but she paid no heed, snatching my wrist and pressing it against her stomacher. For the first time in my life I felt velvet beneath my palm, fingering the gold lace, but she had no time for such trifles.

“Have I a boy in here?” she asked, gabbling the words. “I would have no false tongue from you, Mistress. When I bore Elizabeth, each and every wise woman in the country received a purse of gold from the king when they promised a prince. A lie will send you to the block, Mistress Fenton. I won’t have barley-sugar lies, and the sweet false promises I am offered every day. I want the truth.”

I just gaped, the words would not form in my mouth. Colours burst before my eyes; I saw Anne, her slender body writhing in the grip of childbirth. I saw a succession of babies, each one more bloodstained than the last, being snatched by the claws of death.

There was a grinding sound in the distance, a sound that made sent shivers up my spine and set my teeth on edge. The newly sharpened sword swung higher and higher, towards the face of a woman I now recognised.

As suddenly as it had begun, the colours faded. I felt cold marble pressed to my face and felt myself lying on the floor, wondering how I had got there. The room rang, and I knew it to be the aftershock of my own scream.

“Your Majesty?” I heard a male voice, low and urgent. The hiss of a sword from its scabbard.

“Leave us!” Anne’s voice cried out, before becoming suddenly hushed. “We are fine. A misunderstanding, that is all. Go!”

The footsteps retreated, and then a door creaked shut.

I sat up slowly. My face was aching from where it had slammed into the floor, and my head and ears still rung from the noises. But it was nothing, nothing to Anne.

She had sunk to the floor, her skirts ballooning up around her as she shook on her knees, her face white.

“Oh, God, have mercy on my soul,” she whispered, as though already on the scaffold.

“Your Majesty?”

She looked up at me. “You saw it, didn’t you?” She pressed a hand to her stomacher. “I don’t need a fortune teller to read your face. In truth, I knew it all along. It’ll be another girl. Or if a boy, dead within the hour. Or the day. It won’t be enough.”

Her whole body was trembling. “He’s already tiring of me. I’m no use as a mistress, nor as a wife. If I cannot produce his sons, he will have done with me.” She no longer seemed to care that I was there, staring straight through me. “My God, I will be dead.”

I caught my breath. “I saw...”

“What?” The queen was regaining composure now, staring at me with those intense eyes. But they no longer sparkled with her infectious spirit, they haunted me, as though she were already a ghost.

“I saw your child,” I whispered. “Half Tudor, half Boleyn. Royal blood and a brutal determination to be the monarch England needs. I saw Henry’s redhead with your dark eyes, who will be the longest reigning Tudor, who will found England’s golden age.”

Anne looked up at me. “Tell me,” she insisted, eyes widening, desperate to drink every last drop of hope I could give her.

I tried to swallow, but couldn’t. “The golden age,” I began, but the words stuck in my throat.

“Not that.” Anne brushed aside the politics, one hand pressed to her belly. “Tell me. What will he be like? My son.” She said the words as though they were honey, sweet to taste in her mouth.

My cheeks burned. “No,” I said, my voice breaking. “Not your son. Your daughter. Your little girl, Elizabeth.” I could see the life drain from her eyes, her cheeks, and tried to console her. “Your Elizabeth, the king’s Elizabeth. She will be a great reformer, the founder of the Church in England. She will be strong in war, driving the Spaniards from her doorstep and the Scots from the North. She will be beautiful, courted by every prince in Christendom. Your Majesty, what is more important than that?”

Anne’s pale lips worked. “It’s not good enough,” she whispered. “Not good enough.”

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