Courting Dragons Excerpt

Chapter One

Greenwich Court, Autumn 1528

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 Henry 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 Catherine—stuffed away so he would not have to look upon her—but instead on her erstwhile lady-in-waiting, 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 Henry tapped his foot to the rhythm of a merry song plucked out by his musicians. He sat at the head table facing outward toward all, and his chair was under the Cloth of Estate, a canopy that climbed up the wall and hung over his royal self so that all would know where he was in the room. As if they wouldn’t know.

And so, as quiet as a man can be with bells sewed to his person, I slipped away.

I wore my usual blue doublet, a short-waisted and tight-fitting garment that covered my chemise, with long, tight sleeves. My blue hose was tied to the doublet’s hem with points—laces, that is—tipped with silver. Silver-tipped because Henry paid me enough and I was vain enough to want it. I also wore a hood of party colors of blue and green, and there would be no mistaking me for a courtier or a servant whilst wearing such. There were also a few tiny bells sewn to my doublet’s sleeves and the hood, for it was easy to caper about in only this as I was always rolling on the floor or climbing onto tables, or simply gamboling about. But more often than not—because the palace was so cold—I wore my coat overall. It was of green wool with many pleats at the skirt that reached down to m’knees, because I fancied myself a courtier and had the coin for pleats, for the more pleats a man had, the wealthier he was…or appeared to be. And at court, it was as much about appearance as competence; the former overall, and the latter not a wit. And aye, I was be-belled upon the sleeves of my coat as well. But the fewer the better, was my thinking on it. For the tiny silver bells were a constant reminder that I was set apart. Not quite a servant but not quite a courtier. Merely a shadow of one or the other, always trailing after, hiding. But a presence nonetheless. A jester walked a fine line between distraction and destruction.

At least I wore my motely—my fool’s garb—on the outside. Far too many at court wore them concealed under fine slashed velvets and brocades. And many more under chasuble and mitre.

I scanned the great hall, its space as big as a cathedral’s insides, or nearly. Open wide for the laying out of trestle tables for meals for the many—as they were now—and easily a place for ceremonies of state for all of court, or nearly so, to attend and view the king and ministers and foreign officers or any other gathering that needed bodies crushed together to prove the majesty of the king.

Great arched windows above on both sides showered the hall with light, for the ceiling above in its carved wood of arches and pendants was dark so as to direct the eye to the many intricate tapestries lining the walls. There they depicted hunts, and dances, and country scenes of royalty observing the farmers at play. Idyllic scenes to remind all and sundry of what it meant to rule and who was being ruled.

It was late afternoon, and there were candles—oh so many candles like the stars in the night sky—in chandlers and raised coronas hanging from the ceiling. It was lavish beyond the most covetous of dreams, for just as I had bells sewn upon my coat, so did courtiers have jewels sewn upon theirs and they sparkled with celestial light. It was a sight to behold, one a mere lad from Shropshire as was myself, had never seen before.

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.

He had only been a lad of ten, after all, when he first met Catherine of Aragon on her way to marry his brother Arthur…who later died. And almost immediately, the former king and Henry’s father, the late King Henry VII conspired…oh, forgive me. For the word is contrived—a new treaty with the king of Spain to marry Arthur’s Spanish widow to his English son, Henry, now the heir to the English throne. King Henry VII was supposed to have been a tricksy man with a contract.

Can this be the moment the trouble began?

I had heard Henry rejected the idea of marrying his brother’s widow when he was still a lad. And so our poor Catherine languished at court, a widow to the boy prince, Prince Arthur. And in danger of becoming Henry Seven’s new wife, an old man, for sly and greedy Henry Seven would not return Catherine’s dowery to King Ferdinand of Spain, nor would he return Catherine.

It was said that Henry Eight only took her up again once his father died to spite him. But it was also said that it was a happy court. Indeed, when I arrived three years ago, it was a festival every day.

The king used to indulge his daughter, the Princess Mary, when she was young, he calling her his Pearl. And yet, as the years wore on and Mary grew 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 most of all.

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.

As for me, I like to discover about the men and women who are here for all their greed and ambition…and any other thing I can use to jest about. And when the court gathered, as it did this evening, it was my time to feast.

The rest of court, those who were not cavorting in dance, stood at the perimeter. Like mussels and barnacles, 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…except me.

And even so, I have never counted myself secure.

As much as I amused his majesty and kept him smiling, I had it in the back of my mind that it might only be a matter of time till his anger could not be placated, 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 grace 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 Henry’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 rungs, so his lickspittle Thomas Cromwell moved up it. Where his eminence 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, for the cardinal had cajoled the king when Henry was younger and was given many favors. But unlike the boisterous cleric, Cromwell was quiet, like a ghost, and very like a spirit he appeared most inconveniently. He was a lawyer and a member of Parliament, and a man in his middle years of some discretion. I didn’t know if his excessive reading caused the perpetual squint, but he always seemed to be calculating something. A dark man, like a shadow, for he was in the shadow of Wolsey, advising him, having Wolsey speak his words.

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 Henry 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 Uncle 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 in his long gown, managed to keep it just out of his grasp. The courtiers within our hearing laughed. Oh, how Cromwell hated that, hated to be made a fool of.

Cromwell’s secretary, Ralph Sadlier, 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, I’d sweeten my milk.”

“Rot in hell!” said his secretary, turning swiftly with his master Cromwell, as they both continued through the laughing crowd.

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

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

Yet soon enough, they 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. 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 which was the better part.