Dakota Fitzpercy watched the scene on the far side of the room through half closed lashes. The queen – and she pursed her lips in contempt to grant the brazen woman her undeserved title – was talking quietly and intently, the king – poor lamb! – listening, chastened and silent, to the almost sotto voce tirade. Dakota, trained by the best in the business, caught only one word in three.
“.. may… cousin… is… friend… you… opportunity… he… kingmaker… he… his… your… queen!… not… tolerate… should…”
Dakota turned in her stool so that she could lipread, which she was also trained to do.
“Besides, his wife does everything she can to outshine me on every occasion. She gives herself such airs, just because she is a countess born and I am merely the daughter of a knight and a wi… dowager duchess!”
“All will be well, my own heart’s darling!” Ned said, bending down to kiss Elizabeth’s hand. “If any slight you again, they shall live to regret it.”
The queen narrowed her eyes. “The chancellor…” She trailed off and turned away, as if reluctant to talk. What? Dakota thought, was she planning now. Ever since she was a young girl, abandoned by her natural father who, rumour had it, was closely connected to a once powerful northern family, and taken into the bosom of the Nevills of Middleham, Dakota had known where her loyalties lay. That was until recently, when she’d been wooed and seduced by an even more powerful and devious man than even they were. But that was a secret that would never pass between her lips. She must stay in deep cover, for the sake of both her masters. So lost was she in thought that she almost missed the queen’s next words. “I would be more comfortable if… someone else were chancellor.”
The blood in Dakota’s veins ran cold. She must warn him! But how? How to escape the cloying atmosphere of the court, where she must be at he queen’s beck and call twenty four hours a day? She would have to find a way! He must be warned.
All that afternoon she waited for her chance. Elizabeth, perversely it seemed to the young spy, kept her women cooped up in this room far longer than she was wont. They began to get on Dakota’s nerves and she thought if she heard one more simpering word, one more fawning compliment to their mistress’s beauty she would scream! But finally she was free to go. She threw down her embroidery and ran from the room, took the stairs two at a time to her own chamber, discarding her gown by the door and struggling into the breeches and doublet she kept within easy reach but out of view of prying eyes, pinning her tumbled hair up under a cap and slipping out of the palace by the secret way only she knew of. At last she was free!
In the palace yard, the sound of low urgent voices made her stop. Slipping behind a convenient pillar she sought the source. She caught a flash of silver gilt hair behind a cart and knew it to be the queen.
“We have a spy in our midst,” she said. “Someone is reporting my every word to our enemies. I am sure it is one of my women, but I have yet to ascertain just who.”
“It is only a matter of time before they are unmasked.” The other voice could belong to no-one but the queen’s bother, the devastatingly handsome Anthony Woodville who had set all the girls’ hearts aflutter. But he only had eyes for Dakota and had pursued her relentlessly since she first arrived in London. She was close to landing him, but if she were exposed as a spy! Getting to the archbishop’s house before anything bad happened was becoming urgenter with every second. Now it wasn’t just his safety that mattered, it was also hers! If she had time, she’d come back and loiter outside Anthony’s rooms in the hope that her dazzling beauty would make him forget himself and let something slip.
Her heart pounding in her chest, her breath ragged in her lungs, her feat pounding the filthy streets, dodging carts, vendors of tat and knicknacks and the questing hands of drunken sailors – for even disguised as a boy her flawless beauty could not be hidden – she made her way to the archbishop’s house. With the kingmaker out of the country, only she, little Dakota Shelby Fitzpercy, stood between the chancellor and ruin. But she was too late! That was the king’s horse in the yard, she’d know it anywhere – the only horse in England strong enough to carry the very tall man. She ducked behind a convenient pillar and watched.
“Hand it over!”
She could see them now, at the door of the house. The archbishop, resplendent in his robes, was frowning in confusion.
“I’m not leaving here without it!” Ned shouted. “You have upset the queen one time too many, cousin, and now it ends! And I want the name of the girl you have sent to spy on us.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ned!”
“Yes you do! She is your protege, or your brother’s. It doesn’t matter. Either way, she will hang for her crimes.”
Too late! She had failed! And if she was caught here, all would be undone. There was nothing for it but to make her way to the docks, stow away on a ship bound for France and throw herself on the mercy of her new master. He would look after her, as he had promised many times in his coded letters to her. And, she thought stoically, if you can’t trust the king of France, who can you trust?