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Authors: Karen Harper

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“Not likely you'd have been pleased to run errands,” Meg picked up the strand of their talk, unable to keep from defending herself. She too wondered where Bett had ducked out to, but didn't want to get her in trouble by making a point of it. “Not unless it's a delivery down by the river landings and water stairs where you'd find your old rowing cronies, and it wasn't there. I did see the queen pass by, though,” she added, knowing that would placate him.

“Heard she was abroad,” he said, rubbing his calloused hands together as if he were washing them. “Didn't happen to see your old comrades-in-arms sticking to her skirts, did you? That run-off-at-the-mouth rogue Topside or the queen's fetch-it man?”

“No, I didn't see them, and Jenks is one of her bodyguards, not some sort of lackey.”

“And Topside?” he challenged, his voice even sharper.

“Ben, you know he's her chief player, though some call him her fool, and she keeps him busy.”

“Just you be sure he's not busy being love's fool, or I'll crack his crown,” he threatened, fists on the counter as he leaned toward her.

Meg went on rolling pills. Sometime, somehow, she had to earn enough money to pay Ben off and get him
out of her shop and her life. Even if she never had another man, she'd be better off. But for now she kept measuring out little fingernail-sized bits of bruised lily root and rolling each in a drop of warmed, malleable wax from a pewter plate over a small flame, then setting them aside to harden. Sometimes she used honey, flour, or animal fat as binders, but she always thought wax worked better, as long as her customers didn't leave the pills in the sun or too near the hearth. She worked with great dexterity, feigning interest in each small, round pill, but she was aware that Ben was sidling closer.

Ben Wilton wanted a son, as if it wasn't enough that she ran the shop and played wife and sometimes nursemaid to him, when she still could not recall for the life of her why she ever would have wed him in the first place. She'd made that miserable mistake in what she thought of as her “other” life, before she was kicked in the head by a horse and Sarah Wilton ceased to exist for her. Not only could she not recall Ben but she had no early memories of her now-deceased parents and how they'd taught her the herbs, although her knowledge of the trade strangely had stuck with her.

But Meg thanked God that Ben—and mayhap the queen herself—had let her hire Bett and Nick to help keep shop. Bett Sharpe tidied up both their shop and privy chambers and gathered and sorted herbs. Bett's husband, Nick Cotter, delivered goods if they were not picked up here. Bett was the mother of the queen's young
artist, Gil Sharpe, who, like Bett, had begun life as a thief, but now drew portraits and pictures for the queen. Ned had said Her Grace might even send the boy to study art abroad, if she could bear to part with him. That thought made Meg hurt and hate again. She squashed the next pill too flat and had to carefully remold it.

“If 'n Bett'd get her carcass back in here to watch the place, I'd give you a quick tumble upstairs,” Ben said, his big, hard hand cupping her bottom right through her skirts.

Despite the fact that she'd been bracing herself for some such tactic, Meg jumped, then covered her alarm with a girlish giggle. She worked hard never to let Ben know he cowed her or had her at a disadvantage.

“We'd better not,” she said, her voice steady. “Dr. Clerewell might be by for his lupin and theriac, and we don't want him buying it anywhere else.” Theriac was a new panacea which contained many rare ingredients and cost a small fortune. And though the apothecaries' profit was minimal, the doctors upped their cost sky high for prescribing it, just so folks would know they were getting something new and special—and to fill their already fat physicians' purses, Meg fumed.

“At least,
there's
a bird worth snaring,” Ben said, giving her bum a smack before he leaned both elbows back on the counter and lolled there. “Not many doctors you got coming in here reg'lar. Clerewell said he likes our
shop best of all, 'specially since I let on you used to work for the queen herself and she still favors you.”

Meg wanted to bang him over the head with the pewter tray of pills, but she bridled her fury. She picked up the tray and walked away to drop her small creations into paper packets and then those into a labeled wooden box in one of the many narrow storage drawers that lined the wall.

“But the queen doesn't favor me,” she said quietly, when she got hold of herself again. “And I told you we're doing well enough without your tales to impress customers,” she went on in a rush, fighting back tears. “God's truth, the queen wants nothing to do with m—”

He banged his fist so hard on the counter that her scales jumped and swayed. “You promised me you'd work on changing that!” he bellowed. “Like I told you, we need something that'll rattle her good, make her want your cures again. Hell's gates, if 'n you went back to her, the word'd get out, the coins'd roll in then.”

“We had a high-paying, well-spoken customer about a fortnight ago who wanted ground unicorn horn,” she protested, “so it's not just Dr. Clerewell and a few other courtiers carrying us.” She went over to her display of elixirs, syrups, juleps, decoctions, and cordials sitting on the sill and on the three shelves above it Nick had built for display. She rotated the bottles to turn the other sides to the sun in the bull's-eye, thick-paned window.

As she stretched to reach for the top row, she ached,
just remembering Ben's hamhock fists the last time he got overmuch beer and lust in him at the same time. With Ben, maybe like with too many folks, love and hate got twisted up sometimes, and they committed demented, daring acts they didn't really mean. But then it was too late.

T
HE SMALL POX,” ELIZABETH WHISPERED TO ROBIN AS
they stared down at the ornate figure. “This depicts the Queen of England with pox scars all over her face and hands!”

She pulled her feet back from the effigy, which seemed to crowd the coach between them. She pressed her trembling hands over her eyes to shut out the sight of the plaster face with its ravages of deep, rounded pits and smears of scars. In her mind's eye, she saw the horror of the dread disease again.

She had been a gangly, young girl that summer and was so thrilled to have the continued affection of her fa-ther's sixth queen, the kindly Katherine Parr, who had been recently widowed by King Henry's death. At her stepmother's house at Chelsea, west of London on the Thames, a garden of hollyhocks and roses grew, surrounded by a wall and locked gate that opened on the narrow lane behind the house. Beyond grew fragrant fields of meadowsweet and woodruff which smelled like
new-mown hay. Perhaps that place, that memory was why she loved those strewing herbs yet today.

But the garden was a haven, and Elizabeth, up to that point, had been sheltered from the ugliness of life, from people who were not attractive, for that was what her father favored.

That long past day, slipping away from both the Queen's Grace and her companion, Kat Ashley, Elizabeth took the key, hidden in the chink of the brick wall. Outside the gate the entire world was splendidly beckoning—until she saw them.

At first she told herself it was only a mother and her two little ones, the girl still in leading strings, the babe held in arms. Even when the princess saw they were ragged beggars, no doubt scurrying from back door to back door in the rural village, she was not afraid and rummaged in her small dangling purse for a stray coin to give.

But then she saw their faces fully in the sun. The mother's, perhaps once comely, deeply pocked and ravaged, the children's, too, a marred mass of scars and pits—

Princess Elizabeth's courage and charitable heart failed her. Gasping, she backed away and tripped to bounce her bottom in the dirt. The toddler came to stand over her, looking down, holding out a dainty hand, also poxed and pitted.

“Tell the young lady yer name now,” the mother
prompted as if the precious day and world had not just turned upside down.

“Me 'Liz'beth,” the child said in the sweetest voice.

That other 'Liz'beth, Princess of England, had scrambled to her feet and scurried in the gate like a craven coward. But ever since, even when she saw her brother, young King Edward, waste away from the great pox, which the physicians called syphilis, even when she once glimpsed lepers, even when she saw the grotesque neck swellings of scrofulous folk that the monarch traditionally blessed each year, she always saw the face of that mother and her two little ones and hated how she'd run from them. Yet she ran still in nightmares that plagued her in her sleep.

Now in the coach the queen pulled her hands from her hot face and thrust them unladylike under both armpits and clasped them there to steady herself.

“I can have this counterfeit corpse covered and carried into the doctors' hall,” Robin said, evidently heedful of her agitation. “You can command them to destroy it or store it, then we will be on our way and put out the word that you simply stumbled getting in the carriage, scraped your hand or face, and cried out, or—”

“Enough!” she told him, seizing her cloak from him and throwing it over the figure. “The queen must not stumble or cry. We are taking this wretched thing back to Whitehall where it can be studied, probed, and whatever I must do to discover who put it here and why. And
we must be sure,” she added, sitting up straight as the thought struck her, “that it was put in the coach here and not at the palace. Summon Boonen for me.”

Robin whispered to Jenks, who produced the driver. Rotating his flat cap in nervous hands, the burly man squinted into the dim coach to see her. Elizabeth leaned toward him in the door so he could not catch a clear view inside.

“Boonen, did you look inside here when you hitched the team this morning?” she asked, careful to keep her voice down so the others would not hear.

“Oh, aye, Your Majesty, that's part of my charge and duty, it is. Swept it out good and all. And the window flaps were down. We were moving all the way, so no one could of throwed refuse in—not till we got here—if that's what happened, Majesty. Begging your leave, but what's that thing there I can see right—”

“That will be all, and tell no one aught of this—re-fuse.”

As Boonen bowed himself back into the crowd, the queen told Robin, “Get out and tell the guards to announce that the crowd should return early on the morrow because they will receive a token of their kindnesses to me today.”

“What?” Robin said, his handsome face crumpling in a frown. “You start doing that to crowds and you'll have bedlam next time you so much as show your face at a window.”

Elizabeth could tell she was thinking way ahead of him, but then she usually did. “I say that, Robin, so that I may have a few trusted men here tomorrow to question people about what they saw today. Otherwise, we'd have to somehow track them all down. Do as I say.”

But he still could not move fast enough for her. The queen slammed the door after him when he climbed out to do her bidding. “Let everyone mount for the ride back,” she called out to Jenks through the still partly opened window. “Driver, on!” she cried and slapped down the leather flap.

The entire way back to the palace, Elizabeth did not look out again. It was dark and stale in here, and that thing at her feet shifted and shuddered as if it were alive. The queen felt sick to her soul, but she'd be damned if she wouldn't uncover the villain behind this, and quick.

G
RACIOUS, CREATING THIS TOOK TIME AND TALENT
,” Kat observed as she watched Jenks and Robin Dudley lay the effigy on the table in the queen's privy chamber and remove her cloak from it. They had brought it up the servants' stairs from the stables. The queen had ordered the room cleared but for the four of them—and that thing. “Would you believe it?” Kat marveled, evidently missing Elizabeth's baleful stare. “It's really quite good.”

“It's appalling,” the queen corrected her. “Accursed!
Look at that poxed face.” If it would have been anyone but Kat, still looking unsteady and wan, she would have rounded on her. “Thank you, Lord Robin, that is all,” Elizabeth went on with a dismissive nod, “but I would deem it a favor if you would send Secretary Cecil to me. He cannot be far,” she added pointedly when he still hovered. “And do not broadcast to others what—and who— this looks like.”

BOOK: The Queene's Cure
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