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The home of Dr. John Dee, Mortlake, SurreyÂ
Torvald stopped at the bottom of the stairs, frowning as he girded himself to face the evening.
More people who would know their faces.
More people who would have to be avoided in coming years, when age didnâ€™t touch Ari and him. They would have to hide somewhere far to the north to stay away from them all.
Voices drifted down to meet Torvald, followed by a cloud of scent, the usual mix of sweat and heavy perfume that marked the higher classes these days. Suppressing a sigh, he listened to see what he could tell about Dr. Deeâ€™s visitors before he went up. He had heard the names the night before, of course: Sir Edward Devereux and his party. As cousin to Essex, the queenâ€™s favorite, Devereux could represent either great trouble or a great boon to the doctor.
But there were few hints of Devereux’s intent in what Torvald could hear from below, so he brushed a few stray bits of grass off his clothes and started up the stairs, stomping a bit so Dee might hear him coming.
â€œAh. Here is my friend at last,â€ said Dee, motioning him forward. â€œJoin us, sir. Let me make introductions quickly so you may eat your meal before the rest of us are entirely finished.â€
As Torvald crossed to where the Dees and their guests all sat at table, nearly finished with the evening meal, the old master indicated a man and woman whose fine clothes marked them as noble. â€œSir Edward, Lady Devereux, I give you Master Torvald Rolandson. He is a friend of Master Sterling, who you met earlier.â€
John Dee had never properly gotten his tongue around Torvaldâ€™s and Ariâ€™s father-namesâ€”which was probably just as well. Rolandson and Sterling sounded English and let them blend in more easily. Torvald stood behind the one empty chair at the table and gave Devereux and his tiny, auburn-haired lady a deep bow.
â€œRolandson.â€ Devereux looked Torvald up and down. â€œI do not know that name.â€
â€œUnsurprising, sir. My family is from the far north and of no renown.â€
â€œMmm.â€ Devereux nodded, apparently satisfied, and motioned toward the plump, older man to his left. â€œThis is my wifeâ€™s father, Edward Arden of Park Hall.â€
Torvald exchanged courtesies with Arden, who introduced another daughter who also looked much like himself, and her husband, Margaret and John Sommerville, then lifted a hand toward the woman in widowâ€™s black who occupied the place next to Torvaldâ€™s. â€œAnd Lady Dee has decreed you should sit next toÂ .Â .Â .â€
Ardenâ€™s voice faded to a buzz as Torvald found himself looking down into a most wondrous pair of eyesâ€”wide and surrounded by thick, dark lashes, with an intelligence behind them that was clear and uncompromising.
But what captured Torvald was their color. Some might name it hazel, except that it was so paleâ€”an off shade lying somewhere between the silvered green of the underside of a leaf and the pale tan of fine doeskin. A slightly darker band circled the outer edge like a shadow. Heâ€™d never seen eyes quite like them, and he was still absorbed by the effect when their owner bowed her head in courtesy. â€œMaster Rolandson.â€
With a start, he realized that heâ€™d missed her name. As he swept down into his bow, he rifled his memory for what had just been said. No. It wasnâ€™t there. He made do with a simple, â€œMistress.â€
Her eyes narrowed a bit, but she only nodded and then, introductions complete, he slid in next to Mistress Pale-Eyes. As he settled beside the unknown lady, he caught a murmur that began something like, â€œJo-see-,â€ and faded away.
She twisted toward him to adjust her skirts, sending a wash of gilliflower and ambergris perfume over him and putting her mouth nearer to his ear.
â€œJosian Delamere,â€ she pronounced more clearly, if no more loudly. â€œI saw your confusion. You did not hear my name, and I would rather you not flounder about without it all evening.â€
Flounder? He hadnâ€™t heard the fish name used that way before, but her meaning was clear enough. â€œForgive me, mistress. I was caught up in your eyes.â€
She stopped worrying at her skirts and lifted those very eyes to meet his. â€œThey are odd, are they not?â€
â€œOdd,â€ granted Torvald. â€œBut calming. Like a woodland pool reflecting a cloudy sky.â€
â€œOh, well done, sir. I like that.â€ Grinning, she looked to Devereuxâ€™s wife across the table and raised her voice. â€œMaster Rolandson says my eyes are the color of clouds in a forest pool. That is so very much better than spoiled cheese, donâ€™t you think, Catherine?â€
Lady Devereux laughed and turned an engaging smile on Torvald. â€œWhen I said that, she had just cut my best silk braiding to tie it on the dogâ€™s tail.â€
â€œIt suited the dog better than you,â€ said Josian lightly, and both women laughed, clearly having forgiven each other years ago.
Servants came in with fresh food for Torvald, and as he began to eat, the others went back to their conversation. Aided by generous amounts of ale and wine, they talked about everything from the most recent news out of Ireland to the previous weekâ€™s windstorm.
Beside him, Mistress Delamere sopped her plate, then signaled the serving man for more beef. She caught Torvald looking at her and shot him a rueful grin. â€œYou must think me a glutton. It is just that it is such a pleasure to taste the food itself, instead of only spices and sugar. The queen likes everything so very sweet. Even the meat.â€
â€œYouâ€™ve been at court?â€ asked Torvald.
She nodded as she indicated the slice she wanted. â€œThese two years past.â€
â€œAnd not improved by the experience, I avow,â€ muttered Sommerville.
â€œJohn.â€ Ardenâ€™s voice was low but sharp with warning for his son-in-law.
â€œElizabethâ€™s teeth rot for the same reason the kingdom does, from too much indulgence,â€ continued Sommerville, oblivious, as all the Ardens paled.
Devereuxâ€™s face darkened. â€œYou speak of our queen.â€
But Sommerville seemed not to hear. â€œThe only cure for such decay is to pull it, lest all of England rot with the poison.â€
â€œEnough!â€ Devereuxâ€™s hand smacked down on the table, rocking the plate, and Torvald sat up straighter, quickly checking the other menâ€™s weapons and judging distances. â€œHold your tongue.â€
â€œI must agree, sir. I cannot tolerate such talk at my table.â€ Red spotted Deeâ€™s cheeks over his beard. â€œI will not. Not even from a guest.â€
â€œOf course not, Master Dee, nor should you have to,â€ said Josian Delamere, her voice firm but evenâ€”as though the topic were only a poorly starched collar and not sedition. â€œAnd so we will speak of other things. I have been curious about our claims in the New World, sir. I have read your Title Royal.â€
â€œHave you really?â€ Deeâ€™s attention swung toward her, though he kept glancing at Sommerville.
â€œAye. It is so widely discussed atÂ .Â .Â . in town that I thought I surely must.â€ She lifted her cup to take a sip, and a tremor across the surface of her wine was the only thing that betrayed her shaking hand. â€œI had heard of Madog and King Arthur, of course, but Brutus of Britain was unfamiliar to me. Can you tell us more about him?â€
Sommerville leaned forward, tense, but his wife quickly laid her hand on his arm. â€œJohn, please. We have enjoyed such a pleasant journey thus far. Do not spoil it for me.â€
The man started, blinked a few times, and then visibly softened, seeming to come back to himself. â€œIÂ .Â .Â . I apologize, my love. And also to you, Master Dee. Your pardon.â€
And like that it was over, the conversation turning to back to matters in which all sides could find common interest and pride. Having listened to Dee talk through many of his ideas before he wrote his treatise, Torvald sat back, kept one eye on Sommerville, and listened, mostly to the woman beside him. Her pointed questions challenged Deeâ€™s ideas and encouraged him to keep speaking, giving her sisterâ€™s husband time to regain control and Torvald time to observe her. She was taller than her sisters and golden, in a way that made Torvald think of home despite her black clothes and veil. Her voice matched her eyes, he decided, creamy and full of intelligence, but with an edge of darkness that made a man think of long nights and curtained beds.
By the time the meal ended, the question of Englandâ€™s right to colonize the new lands across the sea had been settled to everyoneâ€™s satisfaction. Everyone stood aside for the trestle to be put away.
â€œMay I show you something, mistress?â€ Torvald held out a fisted hand and led her toward the far end of the gallery, where he stopped before a nondescript painting of Dee. But like the ladyâ€™s, his attention remained on Sommerville, watching warily until the man was safely surrounded by his wife and her father. Beside him, Josian let out a sigh. He looked down at her with sympathy. â€œYou handled him well.â€
â€œFather should not have brought him.â€
â€œNo. Why did he?â€
â€œHe was coming to escort me home, and Margaret had heard of a physician in LondonÂ .Â .Â .â€ The corners of her eyes pinched. â€œJohn isÂ .Â .Â . He has a brain fever.â€
Brain fever? No, he was surely mad, for only a madman would say such things before strangers. Before the queenâ€™s own astrologer, for Godâ€™s sake.
â€œDevereux is furious. He only came because Catherine thought their presence would help keep John peaceful, butâ€”â€ She stopped abruptly, then raised her voice to a more natural level. â€œWhere did you say your family is from?â€
â€œUm, Northumberland.â€ He had no time to say more, because Devereux was upon them.
The nobleman stopped beside Josian and squinted at the portrait. â€œThe one over the sideboard is a better likeness of the master.â€
â€œHis lady painted this one,â€ said Torvald.
â€œAh. No doubt he treasures it, then.â€ Nodding in approval, Devereux looked to Josian. â€œIt is time to retire. The others are taking their leave.â€
â€œSo they are. Thank you, my lord. And your pardon, Master Rolandson, but we make for Staines Bridge and home at first light.â€ She smiled brightly at him and dropped a pretty curtsy. â€œPerhaps you can tell me about Northumberland the next time we meet. I have never been there.â€
â€œâ€™Twill be my pleasure, mistress.â€ Torvald bowed. â€œGodâ€™s rest to you. And to you, my lord.â€
When the last of the visitors were gone, Dee motioned him over. â€œSir Edward has asked to speak with me alone. He waits in my study. Can you find other occupation till we finish?â€
â€œI can. I need to use the Arnaldi Hermetis.â€
â€œAgain? Well, it is just as well. Off to the library, then, and I will send a boy when we are done.â€
Torvald nodded, fetched the key and a candle, and headed off to Deeâ€™s famous library, which lay in a separate building across the yard. From its doorway, he had a good view of the side of the house with the bedchambers, and he stood there a moment, tracing the shape of the windows by the light that seeped through the shutters.
Behind one of those windowsâ€”he wasnâ€™t sure whichâ€”Mistress Pale-Eyes was undressing, combing out her hair, readying herself for bed. He wished he could watch her. He wished heâ€™d met her earlier, before she was leaving London. He might have found a way to spend a few nights in her company. Perhaps even in her armsÂ .Â .Â .
He found the book he needed, and a few others that looked interesting, as well. When he was summoned back to the study at last, Dee was hunched over a sheet of paper, scribbling. The master didnâ€™t look upâ€”a common thing when he was in the throes of an ideaâ€”so Torvald quietly laid out the Hermetis and the other texts alongside the manuscript Ari had left for him and set to work.
After a time, the scratching stopped and Dee lifted his head. â€œYou found what you need? Good. I have decided to leave you to your own devices tonight so that I may bid our guests farewell on the morrow.â€ As he spoke, Dee sprinkled sand over his words. â€œI like Devereux, and even Arden, but SommervilleÂ .Â .Â .â€
â€œHe is trouble,â€ Torvald agreed.
â€œBy the devil, I will be pleased to see him go.â€ Dee checked the ink for dryness, then carefully tipped the sand back into the pouncer. He slipped the document into the stack on his desk, then lit a candle stub from his lamp and put the lamp out. â€œWell, then. To bed I go. Godâ€™s rest to you, sir.â€
â€œAnd to you, master.â€
Alone, Torvald put his full attention into work, determined to complete the pages Ari had asked for, even though in his heart, he felt all this poring over fading parchments was in vain. It was slow, frustrating work, deciphering the coded language, and he was still at it when the floors above started to creak as people woke from their first sleep and moved around, doing the small tasks people did at such hours. Josian Delamere was up there, padding around upstairs in naught but her linensÂ .Â .Â .
And thinking of that, of her, would gain him nothing. He forced his mind back to the cramped script before him, and after a while, the house grew silent again.
He was deep in the text when he stumbled over yet another glyph he didnâ€™t know. He carried his lamp to the far corner where Dee kept his arcane grammars and began searching the shelves.
He had just found what he needed when a floorboard in the hallway squeaked and the door handle rattled. Before he could think, habits born of centuries of hiding took command. He pinched out the wick and flattened into the shadows, his dagger half out. The door pushed open.
â€œHalloo?â€ The low voice had him smiling even before its owner slipped into the room, holding a candle to light her way. â€œMaster Dee?â€
With barely a glance around, Josian Delamere padded across to the opposite shelves, her bare feet slapping softly on the floor. Torvald eased his knife back into its sheath, ready to step forward and announce his presence. But something held him back, and he found himself lingering in the corner, watching from the shadows as she studied the shelves. She finally picked out a slim volume bound in green leather and carried it to Deeâ€™s desk. She laid the book down and touched her candle to the wick of the master’s reading lamp.
As she did, the change in light brought her breasts into relief against the linen of her nightdress. Sudden desire punched Torvald in the gut, and he sucked in his breath, a harsh hiss in the silence.
â€œOh!â€ Josian jumped, sending her book spinning across the desk. It crashed into a folio and the contents spilled over the edge. â€œWhoâ€™s there?â€
â€œOnly I, my lady.â€ Torvald stepped out where she could see him.
â€œMaster Rolandson.â€ Her shoulders sagged with relief. â€œI didnâ€™tÂ .Â .Â . Why did you not say something when I came in?â€
How could he answer when he wasnâ€™t certain of the reason himself? â€œI meant no harm. Forgive me.â€
â€œThat makes twice in one evening you have needed my forgiveness. Perhaps you should travel with your own confessor. And perhaps I can borrow him to intercede with Master Dee for jumbling his desk.â€ She knelt to retrieve the sheets that had fallen.
Torvald helped her rise, and together they arranged the papers as best they could and tidied the desk. â€œNo harm done.â€
â€œGood.â€ Her smile faded as an awkward silence stretched between them. She cleared her throat. â€œIÂ .Â .Â . did not find sleep again, so I thought I might read a little. I thought no one would be awake.â€
Torvald picked up the green book sheâ€™d chosen and read the title. â€œOn the Meaning of Dreams.â€
â€œI saw it when Master Dee was showing us his study this afternoon. I hoped it might help me make some sense of a dream I have had often these last months.â€
â€œLet us look.â€ He settled the book across his palm and opened it. â€œWhat do you dream of?â€
â€œThe oddest thing,â€ she began. But before she could tell him what was odd, a dull wooden thunk sounded outside. â€œWhat was that?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ Frowning, Torvald blew out her candle and the lamp, then went to the tall window and lifted the edge of the drapery to ease open the shutter. She stepped in beside him, her perfume a sweet note against the dusty smell of the cloth. Together, they watched two dark figures hurry across the moonlit yard and disappear into the shadows beside the library.
â€œRobbers?â€ asked Josian.
â€œPerhaps.â€ A faint glow rose over the yard, then vanished; rose again, then vanished. It seemed to be coming from somewhere above them. Outside, the men came out of the shadows and started toward the house, coming almost directly toward the window where they stood. Torvald quickly closed the shutter and let the curtain fall back into place. â€œWhoever they are, it seems someone in this house has signaled them.â€ Soft footfalls sounded above, moving toward the stairs. â€œAnd I believe whoever it is, is coming down. Perhaps to this room.â€
â€œHere? Jesu, if I am found with you like thisÂ .Â .Â . My father will kill youÂ .Â .Â . I must go.â€ She turned toward the door.
He grabbed her arm. â€œNo time. Come.â€ If those were robbers in the yard, far more than her reputation might be at stake. But guarding her reputation would guard her, as well as avoid dealing with her fatherâ€”so Torvald drew her along, snatching up his sword and the Hermetis as they passed the desk in the dark. He groped his way to the end wall, found the right shelf, felt for the latch, and pressed.
â€œA priest hole?â€ she breathed as the shelf swung silently open.
â€œPerhaps once, but no longer. Quickly.â€ Torvald shoved the book and sword onto a shelf, pushed Josian into the hole, and stepped in after her. The narrow space had been made narrow by the shelves Dee had added to hold volumes so heretical that they might put him at risk if seen by the wrong people. There was barely enough room left for one man to turn around, and Torvald had to wriggle in close to Josian to fit. He pulled the door shut behind them and locked it in place just as the library door opened. Thin beams of light spilled through the fine screen near the ceiling that had once provided air for a hidden priest.
They froze, listening in the dark as whoever it was crossed the room and threw the shutter and window open. Torvald reached behind himself to touch the hilt of his sword, reassuring himself that it was in easy reach. If the intruders moved toward the sleeping folk upstairs, he would stop them. For now, however, he would let this play out.
â€œSo this is his house,â€ whispered a man. â€œNever been in a witchâ€™s den before.â€
â€œDee is more fool than witch.â€ The voice was instantly recognizable as John Sommervilleâ€™s. Josian sagged against Torvaldâ€™s chest and shook her head in disgust or disbelief, or more likely both. Torvald silently cursed the man. He was putting his entire family at risk with his treasonous nonsense.
â€œIâ€™ve heard he talks to angels,â€ said a third voice.
â€œSo he claims. But rumor has it that even the royal whore begins to doubt him,â€ said Sommerville. â€œBut it matters little whether he speaks to angels or the devil, himself. He will burn before the yearâ€™s out, and his blasphemous books with him. They all will. Do you have the list?â€
Papers rustled, there was a momentâ€™s silence, and then Sommerville made noises of approval. â€œExcellent. With this, our friends will be far more willing to help us.â€
â€œHave a care. If your friend Devereux finds itÂ .Â .Â .â€
â€œIt will be in other hands before nightfall,â€ Sommerville assured him. â€œNow go before someone comes. And forget you were ever here. As will I.â€
There was more scuffling, the click of the window latch and shutters, and then silence. But light still glowed through the screen, and moments later, the faint scrape of a quill across paper said Sommerville was writing. Copying his list, perhaps, or adding to it.
Torvald and Josian settled in to wait, gradually relaxing into each otherâ€™s arms as Sommerville scribbled barely two yards away. The priest hole closed around them, seeming to grow even narrower as Torvald became more and more aware that the person he shared it with so closely was a woman.
A half-dressed woman.
In a thin linen smock.
Josianâ€™s scent, her warmth, the press of her unbound breasts against his chest, they all worked on his body in ways he would enjoy in other circumstances, but which were disconcerting just now. The more he tried not to think of itâ€”of herâ€”the more he could think of nothing else and the more she affected him. He shifted, trying to pull his lower body away from her before his arousal became too apparent.
Josian lifted her head for a moment, those canny eyes of hers glittering up at him in the thin light, and then she laid her cheek back against his chest, accepting. Understanding. She was a widow, after all, not a maid. She knew how men were. He stopped worrying about his swelling cock and just held her, surrendering to the forced closeness, enjoying the pleasure of a woman in his arms, considering what he might do, if there were time and she were willing.
Eventually, Sommerville started yawning, and not long after that, the scratching stopped and he pushed back from the desk. A moment later, the study door squeaked open and shut again, taking the candlelight and leaving them in pitch black. They waited until the stairs and then the floor overhead creaked with his passage, then a little longer until he must surely be abed. Finally, the darkness grew oppressive, and Torvald worked his hand up to find the catch and release it with a snick. The bookshelf swung wide, and they half spilled out into the library, still clinging to each other as they adjusted to the freedom and sweet air.
â€œI should go,â€ she whispered.
â€œGive him time to find sleep,â€ Torvald murmured, his lips against her temple. He didnâ€™t want her to go.
â€œNo. I must go now, lest IÂ .Â .Â .â€ She shifted in his arms, suddenly lifting to press a kiss to his lips. Not a long kiss, nor a deep one, yet one so full of longing and need that it set his blood roaring in his veins. She slipped out of his arms before he could pull her closer and backed away, vanishing into the blackness. â€œThank you for hiding me.â€
â€œâ€™Twas my pleasure.â€
â€œI could tell.â€ It sounded like she might be smiling.
He liked that. â€œMistress, if youÂ .Â .Â .â€
â€œI will remain with my parents in Warwickshire for a fortnight.â€ A soft thud and a swallowed Ow! told him sheâ€™d bumped something in the dark as she backed away. â€œAfter that, I go home to Oak Hall, in Delamere, east of Chester. PerhapsÂ .Â .Â . if you chance to ride that wayÂ .Â .Â . you might visit me?â€
â€œOak Hall, Delamere, in Cheshire,â€ he repeated in answer.
â€œAye.â€ Air wafted through the library as she found the door and tugged it open. Her gown was just visible in the light from the window over the hall door beyond. â€œGod give you good rest, sir.â€
â€œWait. You never told me what dream brought you down here to me.â€
â€œA white horse,â€ she murmured. â€œI dream always of a white horse running toward me, and I waken just before it reaches me. I do wonder what it means.â€ And then she was gone, her bare feet nearly soundless on the wood as she hurried back to her bed.
Torvald stood frozen in the dark, his pulse drumming in his head as her sound and scent faded around him.
She dreamed of a white horse.
And she wanted him. She had spent an hour in his arms, against his swollen cock, not only forgiving his lust but kissing him afterward. And then she had invited him, all but a stranger, to her home and, if he didnâ€™t misunderstand her, into her bed.
She was the one. Surely she was.
In the next instant he rejected the idea. Why would the gods choose him next when the others deserved it so much more than he?
But if she wasÂ .Â .Â .
He let his thoughts drift, there in the dark, imagining how it would be to linger over those sweet, soft lips. How it would be to make her cry out beneath him. How he would make her love him. How that love would bring him back into the world of men. Into a true life.
If she was his. If she was truly woman heâ€™d waited for all these long centuries.
It was almost over.
Thank you, Freyr, keeper of the sun and rain, giver of peace and pleasure. He would have to make an offering worthy of such a gift, a sacrifice that might also, at long last, atone for what he had done so long ago.
But it would have to wait.
By the time he relit his lamp off the banked fire in the hall and penned a warning to Dee about what heâ€™d heardâ€”he left out that he had heard it whilst Josian Delamere leaned against his hardened cock, though Dee would no doubt find that amusingâ€”the first birds were beginning to twitter in the eaves. He shifted the quill and ink from the right side of Deeâ€™s desk to the left as a signal that the master should look for a message, then slipped the page into the agreed-on place in the priest hole where the servants wouldnâ€™t find it and locked the shelf back in place. With everything secure, he collected his cloak from the peg and the raven from his perch and slipped out, headed for the stable.
â€œDelamere in Cheshire,â€ he repeated softly to the bird as they turned west out the gate a little while later. â€œFinish with your damnable books before the weather changes. Sheâ€™s as fair as Gymirâ€™s daughter, and she wants me.â€
And he wanted her. How very desperately he wanted her.
It was his turn.
Oh, please, Freyr. I am so very unworthy, but please let it be my turn.
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