Courting Dragons Excerpt

Jester_-_Lancelot

COURTING DRAGONS
 
A King’s Fool Mystery
 
1529

Will Somers plays the fool for King Henry VIII—quite literally. As the court jester to the king, he is one of the few men within the sphere of the king’s shadow who can poke and prod his royal master, making a fool of him, entertaining Henry with song and jest, and having the privilege of being the only one in the kingdom to call him “Harry” to his face. And while courtiers, councilors, and ambassadors quiver under the king’s assault—as indeed, many are executed for crossing him—Will finds his place as part of the family, attending to one prince and two princesses and eventually endearing himself to six queens, while keeping his head at the same time.

Though he is surrounded by all of court, Will finds his life a lonely one. A king’s fool is not a man who can easily make friends with those who might be competitors for his royal patron’s time. But an intimate moment with a male courtier finds Will possibly part of a bigger conspiracy, especially when this same courtier is found dead, his throat cut. Amid the crisis at court when divorce threatens Queen Catherine’s place by her own lady’s maid, Will sets himself the difficult and deadly task of finding the killer and stopping the conspiracy before death reaches the Tudor monarch.

This is the first in a Tudor mystery series, featuring King Henry VIII’s real court jester, Will Somers, during Henry’s troubled reign.

One
 
Greenwich Court
 
Autumn, 1529

The king laughed, thank Christ.

It wasn’t always an easy feat, though I had only been at it for three years, I knew well what King Harry liked. I could also read his face and by the tilt of a ginger brow and the flicker of a lash, I knew he was not in need of his jester at the moment, for his eyes lingered not on his wife, Queen Katherine—stuffed away so he would not have to look upon her—but on her erstwhile lady, Anne Boleyn. In fact, she was no longer required to serve the queen, and we at court had little doubt as to what that might mean.

King Harry tapped his foot to the rhythm of a merry song plucked out by his musicians, and so as quiet as a man can be with bells sewed to his jerkin, I slipped away.

The tiny silver bells were a constant reminder that I was set apart. Not quite a courtier but merely a shadow of one, always trailing after, hiding. But a presence nonetheless. A jester walked a fine line between distraction and destruction.

At least I wore my motely on the outside. Far too many at court wore them concealed under fine slashed velvets and brocades. And many more under chasuble and miter.

I moved with impunity through the crowd. There were dancers in the center—courtiers showing off a well-turned leg. A table with food groaned under the weight of Henry’s indulgence, for he loved a merry court and it hadn’t been very merry for the past few years under his frowning brow and stiff queen. To be fair, the queen and the Princess Mary were often cosseted away from the king’s strange wrath, and it was scarce her fault that she had been so stiff of late. For she was beyond the years to bear the king sons. I knew it. The court knew it. But most importantly, Henry knew it. The king had indulged the Princess Mary when she was young, he calling her his Pearl. And yet, as the years wore on and Mary came out of her childhood and his wife failed to give him living sons, he was not enthralled at the prospect of a queen to rule after him. A man needs sons, and a king needed them far more than any other mere man.

Soon there were rumors. Salacious, ugly rumors that he would put away his wife to get him a new one who could bear him sons. It had become a very great matter.

The rest of court, those who were not cavorting in dance, stood at the perimeter. Like mussels and other carbuncles, they clung tight to what they believed was a sturdy pier as the tide washed in and washed out again. But this pier was a false hope, for in most instances it was to another courtier they clung, believing them to stand upon a higher rung of the king’s ladder. Foolish to put your hopes in such, for a ladder does not only go up, but it has a descent as well. For three years I watched men climb, cling, and clatter down. There were very few men who survived it for any length of time…and one of them was me.

And even so, I have never counted myself secure.

As much as I amused his majesty, kept him smiling, kept him thinking, I kept it in the back on my mind that it might only be a matter of time till his anger could not be culled, and I would be the recipient of it. Oh, he cuffed me, often. And kicked. Mostly in good nature. Once or twice in true anger. And yet, his majesty well knew that I am no carry-tale, no whisperer, nor flattering insinuator. I tell the truth to shame the Devil and woe be to that Devil who tries to shame me back. I am always Harry’s man, no matter what. It is my gift…and my curse.

A fool’s work is never done, I mused. For look. Here comes Cromwell.

He was the corpulent Cardinal Wolsey’s assistant and as Wolsey stepped lower on the ladder’s rung, so his lickspittal Thomas Cromwell moved up it. Where his grace the cardinal had moved comfortably through the crowds, Cromwell did not, for he came from low estate. Like me. But at least I admitted to being a fool.

His manner was not as oily as Wolsey’s, like the snake in the Garden, for the cardinal had cajoled, convinced, and connived. If you did not please Wolsey, Wolsey made certain the king would not be pleased. But unlike the boisterous cleric, Cromwell was quiet, like a ghost, and very like a ghost appeared most inconveniently. And though he had a sharp eye like any predator, he once again failed to notice me, for surely his sneer would have been all the more pronounced. Instead, I waited for the opportune moment to startle him and I was not disappointed when I stepped into the candlelight and with a huge sweep of my arm and a cascade of tinkling bells, I bowed low.

“Good Master Crumbled Well. Wither do you go?”

“To my duties, fool. Why do you skulk so?”

“It is my duty, good sir, for to seek amusements for my king.” I cast a glance toward the dais where King Harry nodded to the dancers. “And they might be in a room filled with people making merry…or in locked chambers where plots are hatched.”

Cromwell muttered something unintelligible and tried to push past me. I snatched the leather satchel from under his arm and earned a muffled exclamation from the man.

“Will Somers, give that back at once or I shall…” He dropped his voice, but even so, others near us could not help but notice us and smile under their hands.

“Or what, sir? Idle threats, Master Crumbled Well. You and I both know our Nuncle Harry would have words for you on the matter. But what have we here?” I began unlacing the flap. Cromwell reached, but I, more agile than the lawyer, managed to keep it just out of his reach. The courtiers within our hearing laughed. Oh, how Cromwell hated that, hated to be made a fool of.

Cromwell’s assistant finally took hold of the satchel I wasn’t trying very hard to keep from him and handed it to his red-faced and ruffled master. The man tucked it tightly under his arm again. He stabbed a finger into my face. “You had best watch yourself, Master Somers. Your day will end like any other man’s.”

“Oh, but until that day, Master Crumbled Well, I can sit at my king’s feet and give him good cheer. A man who cheers the king is longer-lived than one who frowns and gives him sour milk. If I were you, Master Crumbled, I’d sweeten my milk.”

“Rot in hell!” He turned swiftly and continued through the laughing crowd.

“You will lead the way, won’t you good master?” I called after him.

My courtiers laughed and applauded. I bowed to them, bells jangling from my sleeves.

They soon turned away. Fickle. As long as I entertained them I was like a pouch filled with gold. Once the gold was spent, what was I but an empty pouch?

And so I finally found my moment of leisure. Crossing my arms, I leaned against the warm wainscoting and watched the dancing, the musicians. I gazed at the crowd, ticking in my mind “what next, what thing would please the king?” Always was I at such occupation. My old master back in Shropshire had made note of my judicious eye and wit. He himself presented me to the king only three years ago. And even after all this time, comparing my possible history should I have stayed in Shropshire to that of my life now at court… I cannot to this day decide what was the better part.