“I hear the Earl of Warwick skulks in Le Chanel Anglais,” King Louis the IXth said, swirling his goblet of wine to better catch the aroma. He breathed it in. French wine was just so much better than any other. He looked at the woman sitting opposite him through his eyelashes. The firelight was glinting off her copper curls, the grey streak at the front – testament to both her age and tribulations – hidden in shadow. She was still a good looking woman, he thought.
“I don’t care!” the woman said. But Louis knew that she did, secretly, for she was in love with the Earl of Warwick and had been since a mere slip of a girl of 23. “‘E can do what ‘e likes! ‘E can drown for all I care!”
“Just think though,” Louis mused, as if running a completely hypothetical scenario through his analytical and devious mind. “What he could achieve if he was on your side. Do you not want your husband to be king of England once again?”
“My ‘usband can rot in ze Tower of London for all I care!” Margaret said scornfully. “‘E ‘as done nozing but skulk zere for years! A real man would ‘ave escaped and come to rescue me, come to restore me to my rightful place!”
“Perhaps that is why the Earl comes,” Louis pondered. “To restore you to your rightful place. You know better than I where that is.”
In ‘is ‘eart, she thought miserably. In ‘is arms, in ‘is bed. By ‘is side ruling Angleterre! But zat will never ‘appen for I will not bow to ‘is petulant demands!
“He is very handsome, is he not?” Louise cogitated. “And very tall. He can have any woman he wants, they tell me, yet he prefers to live the life of a loveless monk.”
“‘E ‘as ‘is wife!”
“My spies tell me they have not lain together since she begat their second child. I wonder what it means, that a man so handsome, so virile, so manly, should remain celibate all these years. Perhaps he is honouring a lost love. They say he once had a secret, but that could just be a rumour.”
When Margaret laid her head on her pillow that night her eyes swam with tears and she felt that her heart would break. I am ‘is secret! she thought. I am ze one ‘e carries in ‘is ‘eart and memory. It is for me zat he keeps ‘is ‘onour and chastity. And ‘ow ‘ave I rewarded ‘im? By nurturing my ‘ate and loathing! ‘Ardening my ‘eart against ‘im! She sobbed herself to sleep that night and for many nights after.
Dakota Fitzpercy sat in a chair in the Bastard of Fauconberg’s cabin. He sat opposite, leering at her.
“No,” she said crossly. “Do not leer! It is disrespectful and I shall not be so direspected! If you have any hope that one day I shall let you kiss me again, you must be better behaved!”
“But I can have any woman I want!” the Bastard said.
“Not this one! Women deserve respect, Thomas. We deserve to be treated the same as men. Not for me the dull domestic life of a downtrodden wife. I want adventure! To see the world!”
“And I shall take you!” The Bastard’s eyes were shining. “Oh, there is so much I want to show you!” He dropped to his knees and took her hands in his. “I adore you! There is nothing I would not do for you! For you are brave and strong and beautiful. I will prove myself worthy of you, just you see! When I see you again I shall be a changed man!”
“I hope you shall,” she said sadly. “But I fear that the task is too great for one so degraded as you.”
He kissed her hands fervently and, after a few minutes, she snatched them away. “There was a seagull on the deck with a broken wing,” he said, his eyes shining with unbidden tears. “The old me would have wrung its neck and tossed it overboard. But I remember what you said about animals having feelings, too, and bandaged its poor wing. I tended to it day and night! And every time I looked at it, I thought of you. Dear, sweet Dakota. You are that wounded seagull and I would mend you with my love! I would set you soaring above the world and stay meekly at home waiting for your return. Please, you must let me kiss you again!”
“And so you shall.” She stood up. “After I have carried out my mission. If you have been good.”
She would have to go soon, for her mission was both urgent and important.
Just as she was about to disembark, the Earl of Warwick appeared. He pressed a packet into her hand. “If you see the one who was once queen of England, pray you give her this.” His voice was choked with emotion and his hand trembled. He looked like he might be about to speak more but didn’t. Before she could respond, he was gone. Odd, she thought, frowning. Then she shrugged and made her way down the gangplank to the quay, frowning at the catcalls and whistles that inevitably greeted her.
The King of France wasn’t difficult to find. He was in Paris. Dakota had taken the time to change her clothes and now wore a magnificent frock in delicate shades of blue. To match my eyes, she thought, examining herself in the mirror. She curtseyed low when she saw the king, knowing that this best showed the hint of her magnificent bosom. When she straightened up she smiled at him and handed him the letter. He took it, kissed her hand and moved on to the next person who waited in line to greet him.
At the feast that night, Dakota watched Margaret of Anjou cutting up her son’s meat and feeding it to him, bite by bite. Spoiled brat! she thought contemptuously. If he had had the life she had had… Her childhood home burned by Saracens, her father slaughtered and her mother carried off as the prize to the harem of the sultan, he’d think twice before being so demanding! It had been this tragedy that had set Dakota’s feet on the path to adventure. There was a hint of revenge in her heart as well, but she wasn’t sure she’d get around to that. Independence was the thing! No man would pin her down. The queen looked sad and wistful. There was the hint of a tear in her eye when she watched courting couples kissing and cooing. She loves, Dakota thought sadly. And that love is lost. Dakota thought of her own lost love, who had perished saving her from the evil clutches of the Squire Runstable. She shuddered to remember how she had almost been forced to marry the old man. But Harley had saved her, his own life forfeit so long as hers was safe.
When the opportunity presented itself, Dakota approached the queen and slipped the letter into her hand. Perhaps the Earl had got it from an admirer of the queen, who blanched as pale as a sheet when she saw the writing on the envelope. She stuffed it into her bosom, looked down her nose at the girl and swept away, her fractious whining son scampering after her.
Under cover of darkness, and once more in the disguise she so loved, Dakota made her way to Bruges. Home of exiles. As she neared the city, she was accosted by a band of thugs.
“What have we here?” one of them said, leering at her. “A maid by all that’s holy! She shall fetch a pretty price in the slave market!”
Dakota thought there might be too many of them, about 15, for her to take out in her usual enthusiastic and unnecessarily violent style and was just starting to wonder how she was going to get out of this one when a voice, potent and full of quiet menace, growled, “Leave the girl or lose your lives!”
Who, she thought, is this mysterious stranger who is hidden in the dark and whose voice is used to being obeyed? When he walked into the firelight she gasped. It could not be! Surely!