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Queen's Gambit

A Novel
By Elizabeth Fremantle

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Queen’s Gambit

Prologue

Charterhouse, London,

February 1543


The notary smells of dust and ink. How is it, Latymer wonders, that when one sense blunts another sharpens. He can pick up the scent of everything, the reek of ale on the man’s breath, the yeasty whiff of bread baking in the kitchens below, the wet-dog stink of the spaniel curled up by the hearth. But he can see little, the room swims and the man is a vague dark shape leaning over the bed with a grimace of a smile.

“Make your mark here, my lord,” he says, enunciating as if talking to a child or an idiot.

A waft of violets sweeps over him. It is Katherine—his dear, dear Kit.

“Let me help you up, John,” she is saying, as she shifts his body forward and slips a pillow behind him.

She lifts him so easily. He must have wasted quite away these last months. It is no wonder with the lump in his gut, hard and round as a Spanish grapefruit. The movement starts something off, an excruciating wave that rises through his body forcing an inhuman groan from him.

“My love.” Katherine strokes his forehead.

Her touch is cool. The pain twists deeper into him. He can hear the clink of her preparing a tincture. The spoon flashes as it catches the light. The chill of metal touches his lips, and a trickle of liquid pools in his mouth. Its loamy scent brings back a distant memory of riding through woods and with it a sadness, for his riding days are over. His gullet feels too thick to swallow and he fears setting off the pain again. It has receded but hovers, as does the notary who shifts from one foot to the other in an embarrassed shuffle. Latymer wonders why the man is not more used to this kind of thing, given that wills are his living. Katherine strokes his throat and the tincture slides down. Soon it will take effect. His wife has a gift with remedies. He has thought about what kind of potion she could concoct to set him free from this useless carcass of his. She’d know exactly what would do it. After all, any one of the plants she uses to deaden his pain could kill a man if the dose were right—a little more of this or that and it would be done.

But how can he ask that of her?

A quill is placed between his fingers and his hand is guided to the papers so he can make his mark. His scrawl will make Katherine a woman of considerable means. He hopes it will not bring the curse of fortune hunters to her door. She is still young enough, just past thirty, and her charisma that made him—already an elderly widower—fall so deeply still hangs over her like a halo. She never had the ordinary beauty of other men’s wives. No, her attraction is complicated and has blossomed with age. But Katherine is too sharp to be taken in by some silver-tongued charmer with his eye on a widow’s fortune. He owes her too much. When he thinks of how she has suffered in his name, it makes him want to weep, but his body is incapable of even that.

He has not left her Snape Castle, his Yorkshire seat; she wouldn’t want it. She would be happy, she has said many times, if she were never to set foot in Snape again. Snape will go to Young John. Latymer’s son did not turn out quite the man he’d hoped and he has often wondered what kind of child he might have had with Katherine. But that thought is always shadowed with the memory of the dead baby, the damned infant that was made when the Catholic rebels ransacked Snape. He cannot bear to imagine how that baby came about, fathered by, of all people, Murgatroyd, whom he used to take out hunting hares as a boy. He was a sweet lad, showed no sign of the brute he would become. Latymer curses the day he left his young wife alone with his children to go to court and seek pardon from the King, curses the weakness that got him involved with the rebels in the first place. Six years have passed since, but the events of that time are carved into his family like words on a gravestone.

Katherine is straightening the bedcovers, humming a tune; it’s one he doesn’t recognize, or can’t remember. A surge of love rises in him. His marriage to her was a love match—for him, anyway. But he hadn’t done what husbands are supposed to do; he hadn’t protected her. Katherine had never spoken of it. He’d wanted her to scream and rage at him—to hate him, blame him. But she remained poised and contained, as if nothing had changed. And her belly grew large, taunting him. Only when that baby came, and died within the hour, did he see the smudge of tears on her face. Yet still, nothing was ever said.

This tumor, eating away at him slowly, is his punishment, and all he can do to atone is make her rich. How can he ask one more thing of her? If she could inhabit his wracked body even for an instant she would do his bidding without question. It would be an act of mercy, and there is no sin in that, surely.

She is by the door, seeing the notary out, then she floats back to sit beside him, pulling her hood off and discarding it at the foot of the bed, rubbing her temples with the tips of her fingers and shaking out her Titian hair. Its dried-flower scent drifts over and he longs to bury his face in it as he used to do. Taking a book, she begins to read quietly, the Latin tripping easily off her tongue. It is Erasmus. His own Latin is too rusty to get the sense of it; he should remember this book but he doesn’t. She was always better learned than him, though pretended otherwise, never one to blow her own bugle.

A timid knock interrupts them. It is Meg holding the hand of that gawky maid, whose name escapes him. Poor little Meg who, since Murgatroyd and his men came, has been jumpy as a colt, which made him wonder what might have been done to her too. The little spaniel comes to life with a frenzied wagging and wriggling about the girls’ feet.

“Father,” Meg whispers, placing a spring-meadow kiss on his forehead. “How do you?”

He lifts his hand, a great dead lump of driftwood, placing it over her soft young one, and attempts a smile.

She turns to Katherine, saying, “Mother, Huicke is here.”

“Dot,” Katherine says to the maid, “will you see the doctor in.”

“Yes, my lady.” She turns with a swish of skirts, making for the door.

“And Dot . . .” adds Katherine.

The maid stops in the doorway.

“ . . . ask one of the lads to bring more wood for the fire. We are down to the last log.”

The girl bobs, nodding.

“It is Meg’s birthday today, John,” says Katherine. “She is seventeen.”

He feels clogged up, wants to see her properly, read the expression in her nut-brown eyes, but the detail of her is blurred. “My little Margaret Neville, a woman . . . seventeen.” His voice is a croak. “Someone will want to marry you. A fine young man.” It strikes him like a slap in the face—he will never know his daughter’s husband.

Meg’s hand wipes at her eye.

Huicke slips into the chamber. He has come each day this week. Latymer wonders why it is that the King sends one of his own physicians to care for an almost disgraced northern lord such as he. Katherine thinks it is a sign that he is truly pardoned. But it doesn’t make sense and he knows the King enough to suspect that there is an ulterior purpose to this gesture; although what it is, he’s not sure.

The doctor is a thin black shadow approaching the bed. Meg takes her leave with another kiss. Huicke draws back the covers, allowing a rancid stench to escape, and begins to palpate the lump with butterfly fingers. Latymer hates those kid-clad hands. He has never known Huicke to remove his gloves, which are fine and buff like human skin. He wears a ring set with a garnet the size of an eye over them. Latymer loathes the man disproportionately for those gloves, the deceit of them pretending to be hands, and the way they make him feel unclean.

Sharp bursts of pain peck at him, making his breath fast and shallow. Huicke sniffs at a phial of something—his own piss, he supposes—and holds it up to the light while talking quietly with Katherine. She glows in the proximity of this young doctor. He is too fey and girlish to be a threat at least, but Latymer hates him anew for his youth and his promise, not just for his gloved hands. He must be quite brilliant to be in the King’s service and still so young. Huicke’s future is laid out before him like a feast, while his own is all used up. Latymer drifts off, the hushed voices washing over him.

“I have given him something new for the pain,” she is saying. “White-willow bark and motherwort.”

“You have a physician’s touch,” Huicke replies. “I would not have thought to put those together.”

“I am interested in herbals. I have a little physic garden of my own . . .” She pauses. “I like to see things grow. And I have Bankes’s book.”

“Bankes’s Herbal, that is the best of them. Well, I think so, but it is rather scorned by the academics.”

“I suppose they think it a woman’s book.”

“They do,” he says. “And that is precisely what recommends it to me. In my opinion women know more about healing than all the scholars in Oxford and Cambridge together, though I generally keep that to myself.”

Latymer feels a bolt of pain shooting through him, sharper this time, folding him in half. He hears a scream, barely recognizing it as his own. He is dying of guilt. The spasm wanes eventually to a dull ache. Huicke has gone and he supposes he must have been asleep. He is struck then with a sudden overwhelming sense of urgency. He must ask her before speech deserts him, but how to phrase it?

He grabs Katherine’s wrist, surprised by his own strength, rasping, “Give me more tincture.”

“I cannot, John,” she replies. “I have already given you the limit. More would . . .” Her words hang.

He grasps her more tightly, growling, “It is what I want, Kit.”

She looks at him, straight on, saying nothing.

He thinks he can see her thoughts like the workings of a clock, wondering, he imagines, where in the Bible to find justification for this; how to reconcile her soul with such an act; that it could send her to the gallows; that if he were a pheasant got at by the dog, she would think nothing of a merciful twist of his neck.

“What you ask of me will damn us both,” she whispers.

“I know,” he replies.

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