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Violence warning for this chapter, but no broken bones. Just the comeuppance of a certain character who needs to be disciplined for making false accusations against our Queen Anne.

This may be the longest chapter I have ever written but it didn't feel right to split it into two.



"You are certain that this is what you want?" The Executioner's tone sounded bland but Henry was sure that he could hear a hint of approval in the words, letting him know that his guide was far from displeased to see that Henry had not been able to kill Anne. This was what the Executioner had wanted, from the moment he first came to him. "You wish for her to live?"


It was not entirely true.

If not for the fact that the Executioner was determined that, if Anne was to die, Henry should be the one to strike the deathblow, he would have made a different choice.

He wanted to preserve his marriage to Jane, wanted to have their son, wanted a Prince of Wales he could raise and teach to be the kind of King that England would need when he was gone, a King who could continue the Tudor dynasty and preserve his father's legacy. He had made his decision before, deciding that it would be better for him and for his country if Anne was sacrificed so that England could have a Prince, but he had not been able to steel himself to be the one to strike Anne's head from her body, could not be the man by whose hand her blood was spilled.

Did that make him a coward, a man who was willing to allow an innocent woman to die when he believed that another man would snuff out her life, but not willing to do the deed himself?

For better or worse, his decision was made now.

He could not swing the sword so he could not be free of Anne. She would be his wife from now until the end of their days, and the only heirs he would have would be heirs born from her.

If she never had a son, he would never have one… at least not a legitimate son.

The Executioner had not demanded fidelity of him, but what good would a bastard be to him?

What good would a bastard be to England?

He had already had to fight to make Elizabeth his heiress instead of the Lady Mary, resorting to such drastic measures to defend her rights that he could not hope to replace her with a bastard.

He would have to either send Jane away from his court, sending her back to Wolf Hall and her family and hope that her reputation had not suffered so much damage thanks to his attentions to her that no man was prepared to accept her as his wife, or else he would have to face her with the revelation that, despite their hopes, he would never be able to have her with honour, as he had wanted to, so badly, and that she could only remain part of his life as his mistress. He would not be able to offer her marriage, showing the world how highly he esteemed her, and how much he loved her. The best he would be able to give her now was a place in his life as his mistress, but how could he insult her by asking her to be his illicitly when he couldn't give her a lawful union?

He would not even be able to keep her at court, not when he knew that Anne would remain Queen. How could he ask Jane to continue to serve Anne, or Anne to continue to tolerate Jane's presence in her household, when they would both know that, if he had been allowed to do as he wished, he would have sent Anne away and raised Jane to the throne in her place?

Anne would be angry if he obliged her to retain Jane as one of her ladies, and she would undoubtedly be suspicious if he indicated that he required this of her, convinced that Jane was his mistress, and that this was the reason why he insisted that she should continue to be part of her household. Even if she knew that her position as his wife was safe, she would still resent Jane's presence, just as she would resent any show of favour to the Seymour family, jealously watching to see how many honours Jane won her kinsmen by pleasing him, but that did not trouble him near as much as his worry about how Jane would feel if she remained at court in that capacity, when she had hoped for so much more, and when so many of the courtiers knew of her hopes.

It would only hurt and humiliate Jane to have to wait on a triumphant Anne, spending her days in the company of Anne's ladies, many of whom were loyal to their mistress and who would heap scorn on Jane's head now that they knew that they would never have to call her their Queen and never have to worry that she would be able to exact retribution for the coldness, doing everything they could to make her so unhappy that she resigned her place in Anne's household voluntarily, ensuring that Anne would not have to tolerate her company a moment longer than necessary.

He didn't want to see her suffer, not when she had only ever sought to make him happy.

Since she could not be his wife, the only way that she could be his would be as his mistress, with their son born a bastard, a child to whom he could never leave his throne, even if he was the finest boy ever born, a healthy, intelligent boy that any King could be proud to point to as the heir to his throne. The circumstances of his birth would act as a permanent barrier between the boy and the Crown. Any son he and Jane had would be nothing but a royal bastard, and would always be second in rank to the children Anne bore, even if Anne only had a daughter.

He could protect the child while he lived, showing him that he still cared for him, even if he was illegitimate, and that he cared for his mother, just as he could ensure that he was granted estates to support himself when he was an adult, but once he was gone, Anne's family would not wish to receive the boy at court, preferring to leave him to languish in the countryside.

His peace with his eldest daughter, and the relationship they had rebuilt together, was lost.

He was certain that Mary would see sense in time. She had admitted that, even if Anne remained Queen, she would have taken the Oath, eventually. But how long would it take before Mary was able to recognize that, however much she might wish it, however much she prayed for her father to set his wife aside, Anne would not be replaced with a Queen she could more easily accept?

Chapuys had surely told Mary as soon as the first cracks appeared in his relationship with Anne, so she might believe that, if she waited long enough, he would banish Anne from his side, and that once Anne was gone, he would reach out to his eldest daughter, missing her so badly that he would be eager to welcome her back into his life, as a Princess once more, willing to forget what he had learned over the past years, not to mention forget Mary's disobedient, unfilial, even treasonous behaviour, rather than remain alienated from his daughter if she did not acknowledge her bastard status and her father's place as Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Chapuys undoubtedly had Mary convinced of this, filling the girl with false hope that he might be induced to forget what he knew of the invalidity of his marriage to Katherine, for Mary's sake, and that Jane's kind intentions towards Mary might allow her to persuade him to allow her the honours of a Princess, for her sake, as though he was in the wrong for ever denying them to her.

How much unpleasantness might he have to endure with Mary before the girl yielded, how many bitter disputes over the girl's status would there have to be?

It might be many months, perhaps even years, before he could persuade Mary to yield, especially if she was slow to accept that Anne would not be set aside and that the rumours she had heard of another lady who might supplant Anne in his affections had come to nothing, or if she was led to believe that the Emperor would succeed in badgering Henry into restoring her as his heiress as long as she held to her stubborn insistence on her title as Princess and never yielded. During those months, he would have to treat his dear daughter as his enemy rather than his beloved child. He would not be able to have her at court until she acknowledged her bastard status, and he knew that he would miss her, now that he had enjoyed almost a year of being reconciled with her.

And yet he was not entirely regretful about the way things had transpired.

If Anne's execution were reversed, his hands would be washed clean of her blood. Even God would not be able to condemn him for the sin of Anne's murder, not when He would see how much Henry sacrificed in order to bring her back, and know that he had made amends for his sin. The price he paid to bring Anne back was high, but surely he would find favour in God's sight as a result.

The next time he saw little Elizabeth, he would be able to know that he had given his daughter her mother back. It might pain him to lose his happiness with Jane, and the hope of their son, just as he was sure that Mary would regret losing the stepmother who had treated her with such kindness, consideration and respect – though Mary was blessed, in a way, as she would never remember that Anne had died and that Jane had taken her place as Queen, and she would never know of the kindness she would have shown her – but Elizabeth would have Anne again.

She had told him that she would rather have her mother back than her title as Princess and now he was going to give her both her loving mother and the royal honours she had once enjoyed.

Elizabeth would never even remember losing either of them.

"What will happen?" Henry heard himself ask the question in a hoarse voice. "Will I go back to before she died, or will the world change by the time you send me back?"

He found himself hoping for the latter.

If he was to be sent back to a changed world, a world where Anne was never sent to her death, and where she remained his Queen, the changes would be made and he would be able to see how the world had progressed without Anne being sent to her death, without him annulling their marriage or disinheriting their little daughter. Perhaps, if he was very fortunate, the Henry who lived in that world, the Henry whose place he would take, would have made the difficult decisions for him already, deciding how best to deal with Mary, and how best he could secure her cooperation so that he might bring her back to court, as well as deciding what he should do about Jane, so that the worst of the unpleasantness would be over and he could go on with his life.

He might even have rebuilt his relationship with Anne, so that Henry would not need to win her trust once more and show her that her place in his life would never be usurped.

Of course, based on his past experiences with the Executioner, he knew better than to think that his guide would ever allow him to take the easy way out.

Even now, when he had done as the Executioner wished and saved Anne, he was sure that he would not be spared any of the difficulties that lay ahead of him.

"You will go back to before her execution, and before her arrest. When you go back, none of it will have happened. You will remember, so that you will be able to alter your decisions based on what you now know but it is better for her if she does not need to know what you did to her, don't you agree? If you want to save her, you will know what you need to do when you get back and, from then, the life you make will be your own, and it will be shaped by your future choices. I can't tell you what your future will hold." He added, before Henry could ask him about it.

"I understand." Henry said, wondering what point of his history with Anne he was to be sent to.

Did the Executioner intend that he should go back to the moment before he gave Cromwell orders to investigate the allegations made against Anne, or might he go back even further, to an earlier point in their marriage, so that he could begin treating Anne differently?

He thought that he would like to go back to before Jane had caught his eye; even though he was to remember everything of what had happened, and would not be allowed the luxury of forgetting how much she meant to him and how happy they were, he couldn't help but think that it would be easier for him if Jane, her family and the rest of the court never knew how he felt about her.

If not, how was he supposed to know how he ought to treat her and her family? How could he know what he should say to Jane when he broke the news to her that she would not be his Queen, after all, when he had as good as promised her and her family that she would? He might not have stated his intention to annul his marriage to Anne, and it would not have been fitting for him to propose marriage to Jane until he consulted Cranmer and heard the archbishop's assurances that his marriage to Anne was no marriage, but they were not fools and knew what he hoped.

Now the hopes of the Seymour family, and the hopes he and Jane had shared would come to nothing and he did not know how he was going to be able to tell her that in a way that would let her know that his feelings towards her were unchanged and that, if things were different, he would be overjoyed to be able to call her his wife. Would Jane think him changeable, inwardly condemning him for leading her to believe that he would marry her only to change his mind and scorn the opportunity to rid himself of Anne, even if she didn't openly reproach him for it?

If she did, was there anything he could do to change her mind?

Should he try to change her mind or would it be better for him to let her think that she had never truly had a chance of being Queen so that she would not regret that it was not to be?

If the Executioner could hear what he was thinking, he gave no sign of it, and he offered no advice as to how Henry ought to deal with the woman he wanted as his Queen, or her family.

"I have one request that I would like to make of you." The Executioner's voice was surprisingly gentle, an almost pleading note in it, one that took Henry aback.

"What is it?" He asked.

"You have decided that you will save her life, and you understand that this means that you will be keeping her as your wife." The Executioner stated, repeating the terms of the earlier proposal – as though Henry was likely to forget them! "However, other than that, your choices for your future and hers are your own, so I am asking you to be good to her. Make her happy. Be kind and gentle, even when you feel impatient, and remember how much you loved her before, and how much you wanted her to be your wife. She loves you and, if you let her, she can make you happy. Give her that chance, please, for both of your sakes. You won't regret it."

"Why are you asking me this?" Henry asked, feeling puzzled.

The Executioner was not speaking simply of a wrong that needed to be righted, a murder that needed to be undone.

He cared about Anne's happiness as well as her life, and he wanted to know that she would be happy once she was brought back to life. Saving her life wasn't enough for him, nor was keeping her as Queen. He wanted Henry to do more for her than the terms of their deal demanded. He cared about her, so much so that he had insisted that she retain her place as Queen as well as her life, refusing to allow Henry to deprive her of her title, as though he knew how much Anne would want to keep her title, and for Elizabeth to keep hers. Although Anne would have cooperated, if forced, given the choice, she would want both. She would want to keep her life and ensure that she did not have to surrender her place as his wife and Queen in favour of Jane. She would want to know that her child would be England's next ruler, not a child born of Jane.

It seemed that the Executioner was determined that she should have her way, in all things.


What was Anne to the Executioner that her fate was of such vital importance to him?

Who was the Executioner?

The Executioner did not answer Henry's questions, spoken or unspoken. All he said was "Please."

Henry felt himself nod, though he did not think that he made a decision to do so, and he could see the relief in the Executioner's eyes, which locked with his as their surroundings melted away.

Brandon was saying something but Henry, disoriented by his sudden return to his past, did not register the meaning of the words, and he gaped at his friend in confusion.

"I'm sorry, Charles. You're going to need to repeat that." He said, closing his eyes for a moment in order to rest them, and reminding himself to make enquiries about the date from one of his grooms, at the earliest possible opportunity, so that he would know where he stood. Even if the groom was astonished by the question, he would never dare to remark on it, and the grooms of his Privy Chamber were forbidden to gossip, on pain of instant dismissal from royal service. He probably should have thought to ask the Executioner what date he was to be sent back to, so that he could remember what had happened at that time and be prepared for what would happen. Until then, all he could do was hope that events would jog his memory, allowing him to guess the date.

Although Brandon must have been surprised by Henry's words, he hid it well, repeating his comments verbatim.

"As your oldest friend, as well as your most loyal subject, I feel it is my duty, however painful, to report some truths to you." He repeated his words, sounding as though this was not the first – or even the second – time he had spoken them. How long had he spent practicing those words, perhaps before a mirror or with his wife for an audience, rehearsing them until they sounded appropriately sincere and concerned, with his face schooled into an appropriately sober expression, before approaching Henry to speak them, confident of the effect they would have on him? Had he doubted, even for a moment, that Henry would seize on his words and order an investigation, or had he feared that he would face his anger for daring to accuse his Queen? Had the thought that Henry might ask Anne about the allegations, believe her when she denied her guilt and punish Brandon for falsely accusing her ever crossed his mind?

Henry doubted it.

"'Truth', said jesting Pilate, 'what is Truth?'" Henry quoted himself wryly.

Once, he told Anne that there should always be truth between them, confiding in her that he believed it to be the very definition of love and promising her that she would always have the freedom to speak openly with him, able to speak her mind on any subject she chose but, when the time came for that to be tested, she wasn't the one in whom he had placed his trust. He never gave her a chance to speak to him, even when she pleaded with him, Elizabeth in her arms, imploring him to give her a chance for the sake of their child and the love they once shared. He trusted Brandon instead, trusted that his friend would not lead him astray, even if he disliked Anne, even if he would have been glad to see the back of her, and Brandon had lied to him.

His trust in Brandon, and in their friendship, was poorly repaid.

Would Anne do better, if he gave her the chance? The Executioner seemed to think that she would.

"There are some rumours about the Queen's behaviour." Had he not been Henry's closest friend, Brandon would not have dared to speak these words, even if Anne no longer enjoyed Henry's favour. Cromwell would never have dared to broach the subject so openly, and while Chapuys might drop unsubtle hints that Anne was responsible for Mary's illness, that she had poisoned the girl or else urged those at Hatfield to treat Mary as harshly as possible in the hope that their cruel treatment would cause the girl such distress that she would become ill as a result of it, so ill that she would not have the strength to fight off her sickness and would die without Anne needing to resort to poison and take the risk that her deed might be discovered, even he would not dare to allege that she was unfaithful, not in Henry's hearing. They had needed Brandon for that. "It seems she entertains men in her room at night, flirts and behaves intimately with them."

Anne was dancing now, little realizing the words being spoken about her, just a few yards away.

For a moment, Henry couldn't take his eyes off her, and he listened with only half an ear as Brandon repeated his allegations, allegations that had brought about Anne's ruin once before, but that would not be allowed to do the same again. She was innocent now, in a way, trusting that he had been sincere when he swore to Chapuys that, if the Emperor wished for an alliance with him, such an alliance would be contingent on him formally acknowledging Anne as Queen of England, a public bolstering of her status – or so she had believed it to be – that was very welcome to her in the aftermath of the loss of their son, when she knew that her position was fragile, especially when her husband's eye had fallen on another woman, one who would not be his mistress.

She might have railed against his mistresses before but she could see that Jane was more of a threat to her because Jane would not be his mistress, prolonging his interest in her.

She wanted to believe she was safe now, that she no longer had to be on her guard against attempts to remove her from her place as Queen in favour of another woman, as had been his intention when he first made his outburst. He had wanted her to believe herself safe so that she could not fight an annulment, so that she would not think that she needed to fight, allowing him to catch her off-guard and see to it that their marriage was rendered null and void and that he was free to marry Jane without hindrance, knowing that Anne could not fight him as Katherine had.

However, despite her relief over his public upholding of her status as his Queen, Anne's gaiety was strained, betraying the fear she still felt, despite her efforts to appear confident and happy. He didn't doubt that most people who saw her now were taken in by her act, believing that she had bounced back from the setback of her miscarriage and that she was certain of her place in her husband's affections, little realizing how frightened she really was, but Henry could see past the mask of joy she wore, and could understand just how terrified Anne was, for herself and Elizabeth.

And she had had no idea of what was going to happen to her.

To her mind, the worst she had to worry about was that her marriage would be annulled, and their child branded a bastard, to pave the way for Jane as Queen and Jane's son as heir to the throne. Katherine was dead, and Anne could no longer comfort herself with the reassurance that he would never set her aside in favour of the woman he was so determined to be rid of for her sake. Perhaps she might have worried about the possibility of poison, she was nervous about that, but she could not have anticipated that she would be branded an adulteress and executed for it.

Even if she had thought to guard against murder, she would never anticipate that, rather than being a secret act carried out by her enemies or her agents – after which Henry would make a show of mourning her before marrying Jane, citing his concern for the succession as the reason for his hasty remarriage – her murder would be carried out in public, disguised by false charges.

She would never have anticipated that he would be willing to go to such lengths in order to be rid of her, not even for Jane's sake.

He would not have gone to such lengths just to be with Jane, no matter how he felt about her.

He had to believe that.

He had to believe that, even if he was told that there was no way that he would be able to annul his marriage to Anne, he would not have been willing to kill her and would have accepted that there was no alternative but for him to keep her as his wife, forgetting the idea of remarriage. He had only taken that step because his friend, a man he believed that he could trust, had taken advantage of the fact that Anne was out of favour so that he could achieve the ambition he had cherished since Anne's coronation and destroy her, as his wretched wife had exhorted him to.

Brandon knew that Henry was too disenchanted with Anne and too angry over the loss of their son to be prepared to listen to the protests of innocence she would undoubtedly make, and he was certainly no longer so enraptured with her that he would have dismissed the possibility that she had betrayed him outright, as he had once dismissed Brandon's allegation that Anne and Thomas Wyatt were once lovers, punishing her accuser for having the gall to breathe a word against the woman he loved, against the Queen of England, and paying his words no further notice.

Brandon knew that, once he made his accusation, Henry would be so jealous and so hurt that he would be determined to punish Anne for betraying his trust, even willing to kill her for it.

Whatever his reason for accusing Anne, whether he feared that Henry might change his mind about setting her aside, if Anne was given time to win him over, something Brandon would never have wanted, or whether he objected to the idea of Anne being allowed to withdraw from her marriage and enjoy a dignified retirement from court, with all of the honours and comforts that Henry would willingly have granted her if she did not make trouble, wanting to see her dead rather than divorced, the result of his accusation was catastrophic, first for Anne, who had lost her life, and now for Henry, who had lost his chance of a happy marriage and a strong son with Jane.

Brandon had destroyed everything, because he could not wait and trust that Henry would send her away, because he couldn't let go of his obsession with destroying Anne.

Henry's fist flew out, connecting with Brandon's jaw with a satisfying crack and Henry watched, glowering, as his once trusted friend hit the ground with a heavy thud. Brandon groaned but, instead of being happy to know that the other man was in pain, Henry was angry that he wasn't in enough pain. He had robbed Anne of her life before, and he had robbed Henry of his happiness with Jane, and he had robbed Henry's son of the life he should have led as the cherished Prince of Wales and, one day, as a King that all of England could be proud of.

He deserved worse, and he would get it.

The music and the dancing stopped and the court watched, agape, as their King pummelled the Duke of Suffolk, punching every part of his body he could reach before he gave up on that and began to kick his prone form, ignoring his groans of pain and his pleas to stop. Henry was so intent on punishing Brandon that he scarcely noticed that he had gathered an audience.

When his rage dissipated enough for Henry to realise that many pairs of anxious eyes were watching him, with his courtiers wondering what Brandon had done to make him so angry that he was prepared to beat him in the Great Hall, in full view of the court. He could hardly tell them the true reason, could never tell them that it was not Brandon's words that angered him as much as what those words had cost him so, thinking quickly, he bent down to grab the prone Brandon by the collar, hauling him to his feet with a rough shake. Because it would mean his death if he struck his sovereign, even in self-defence, Brandon did not fight back or struggle against his grasp. He had no alternative but to bear the beating as best he could, and hope that it would soon be over.

"How dare you insult my Queen?" Henry bellowed as loudly as he could, seizing on the excuse for why he would be so angry with the other man and thinking that he could kill two birds with one stone. Not only would he make it abundantly clear to Brandon and to everybody within earshot that he would not listen to a word against Anne, from anybody who was foolish enough to accuse her, it would also help silence the wagging tongues that had speculated avidly about the likelihood of Anne being set aside, ever since her miscarriage. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you!"

"Your Majesty, I..."

"Silence!" Henry punctuated the word with another punch, and felt Brandon sag in his grasp before he regained his footing. "There's only one thing that I want to hear from you – an apology!"

"I'm sorry." Brandon choked out the words, a trickle of blood dribbling from his lips. His nose was also bleeding, the mixture of blood and mucus smeared on his face making him look gruesome.

"Not to me, you idiot. You will go to apologize to Queen Anne for daring to insult her." Henry told him, gesturing towards Anne with one hand. She was frozen in place, staring at him with wide blue eyes, as bewildered by what was happening as everybody else, if not more so. Looking at her, Henry felt a fresh pang of guilt. His wife was surprised that he would defend her against somebody who insulted her, instead of expecting no less from him, as should be no more than her right.

He clearly had a great deal of work ahead of him if he wanted to make things right between them.

It was plain from the expression on Brandon's face that he was astonished and dismayed to see Henry defend Anne, at least so vehemently – perhaps he had expected a token reprimand for speaking against a woman who was still Queen of England, at least in name, or a warning that Henry would not be pleased with him if the allegations turned out to be groundless, before a full investigation was ordered, one that would manufacture the evidence needed to send Anne to the scaffold. However, he did not dare to disobey Henry, not when he was plainly furious, so he took a step in Anne's direction, looking as though he would prefer to be walking to the scaffold than to apologize to her, before Henry's next words halted him.

"I didn't say that you were to walk to Queen Anne." He pointed out coldly. He had not wanted a scene but now that one had started, he was going to take advantage of it and drive his message home, not just to Brandon but to every member of his court, and to every ambassador present, so that they could let their masters know just how things stood in the English court.

If the Emperor believed Chapuys' hopeful predictions that it would not be long before Anne was set aside and a lady who would suit their purposes better was raised to the throne in her place, he would have to learn that he was mistaken, and King Francis would know that when Henry told him than an alliance between them was conditional on Anne being recognized as Queen, his demand was sincere and he was not hoping for a refusal that would help him justify setting Anne aside. He would also know that Elizabeth's position as Princess was secure and that he did not need to worry about the child being disinherited if he agreed to allow his son to be betrothed to her.

Brandon's eyes blazed and, for a moment, Henry wondered if the other man might actually dare to refuse his order but after a moment, Brandon dropped his head and lowered himself to his knees, crawling a few yards in Anne's direction, as slowly as he dared, conscious of the eyes of the court upon him. His apology was mumbled and his resentment was palpable but that was hardly surprising. He had been so confident that the time had come for him to destroy Anne, once and for all, that it was a bitter shock for him to see Henry side with her instead.

He might not dare to refuse Henry's order but it would be a long time before he forgot this shame... just as it would be a long time before the courtiers forgot what happened to a man when he dared to slander Anne, even if that man was one of Henry's closest friends, a man he had trusted and cared for long before he ever laid eyes on Anne.

If Brandon could be punished so harshly for doing so, they would get worse.

The silence was tense as the courtiers watched the Duke of Suffolk abase himself on the King's orders and Henry's eyes darted from one face to the next, scrutinizing their reactions.

Catherine Brandon looked as though she would love nothing more than to interfere, to protest against this indignity for her husband but she was intelligent enough to realize that she needed to keep her mouth shut, to know that it was better for Brandon to endure the indignity of having to grovel at Anne's feet and publicly beg her to pardon him for an offence that was, to his mind – and, in all likelihood, his wife's too – no offence at all but a penalty Anne had justly earned than that she should voice an objection to the way he was being treated and earn the Brandon family an even greater share of royal anger, one that could see them permanently banished from court, unable to win their way back into Henry's good graces or to target Anne again.

Even if a time came when he allowed them to return to court, Henry was determined that neither Brandon nor his wife would have the slightest opportunity to harm Anne again.

A few faces were bright, betraying their pleasure at this turn of events. Thomas Boleyn's glee at the fact that Henry had spoken in Anne's defence and punished his friend for insulting her was ill-concealed. George Boleyn was also pleased, although Henry suspected that his pleasure was for Anne's sake only, that his brother-in-law was glad that his sister was defended rather than happy to see a nobleman who was no friend to the Boleyns publicly shamed. Others, like Thomas Wyatt and Mark Smeaton, men who cared for Anne and who must be worried about her position, now that it was known that Henry loved Jane Seymour, were pleased for her sake, taking this as a sign that Anne's place as Queen was more secure than they had feared.

Edward Seymour was a master at concealing his emotions when necessary, and only the briefest flash of fear entered his eyes to show that he was troubled by this turn of events. The rest of the Seymour family were not so adept at maintaining a blank expression and both Sir John and his younger son were visibly troubled to see Brandon – whom they must have counted as an ally of the Seymour family in their quest to see Anne cast aside so that Jane might take her place as Queen – humiliated thus and Jane was even more distressed. Henry could see pity for Brandon in her eyes but she also kept stealing glances at him and at Anne as she watched the scene play out in front of her, as though she was trying to work out what this meant for her.

If Henry was defending Anne, did that mean that his love for her was renewed and that she could expect that she would soon be ordered to leave the court and return to her family's home?

Had Anne managed to win Henry back, despite the fact that the odds were stacked so heavily against her, ensuring that Jane would never be able to come between them again?

Was she watching her hope of becoming his wife and Queen die?

Anne was the most shocked of all by this development. Her face was white as she watched Brandon crawl to her and heard his resentful apology, her blue eyes wide with disbelief at the sight of Henry's friend and her enemy humiliated thus for her sake. She nodded automatically in response to his words, before looking to Henry to see what he wanted to do next, deeming it best to leave the decision up to him. Brandon did not dare to rise from his knees until he was given leave to do so, no matter how humiliated he was to be left kneeling at Anne's feet.

"Get up and get out of my sight." Henry commanded him brusquely. "And if you are still at court tomorrow morning, you will be committed to the Tower for slandering Queen Anne – and you can take your wife with you." He added, glaring in Catherine Brandon's direction and cursing the day Brandon had decided to marry the wretched woman. Better that he should have lived as a widower after Margaret's death than take that viper as a wife. He was certain that the man he had called 'friend' for so long would never have dreamed of trying to do anything to harm or undermine the woman he loved, the woman he had chosen as his Queen, if not for that woman's influence. She hated Anne and had turned Brandon against her. "Neither of you are welcome in our court."

"Yes, Your Majesty." Brandon responded, rising to his feet and reaching out his hand to take his wife's, so that he could lead her away with what little dignity he could muster.

Henry allowed the silence that hung heavy in the Great Hall in the aftermath of the Brandon's departure to persist for a minute or two before he broke it, his tone hard and cold.

"Anybody else who dares to slander our beloved Queen Anne can expect the same treatment, if not worse." He warned gravely. He allowed his gaze to settle on several people, including Chapuys and the Seymour family, those he knew to be Anne's enemies, people who needed to know that they could not hope that a move against her would have his support. In the past weeks – from their perspective, it felt like a lifetime for him – he had given them cause to think that he would welcome any suggestion as to how he could rid himself of Anne and make himself a free man once more but he wanted them to know that this was no longer the case. He had sworn to keep Anne as his Queen, and he would keep his vow. "No matter who they are."

His message delivered, he extended his hand to Anne. "My Queen." As soon as she placed her hand in his, he swept out of the Hall with her, knowing that as soon as they were out of earshot, rampant gossip and speculation would begin as the courtiers debated the impact of his words, some rejoicing and others aghast, depending on their attitude towards Anne.

He had delivered his message, and he knew that they had taken his meaning.

He had intended to wait until morning before he spoke to Anne, thinking that he needed the time to get his thoughts in order and to decide what, exactly, he was going to say to her before they came face to face again but, within a couple of hours of escorting her to her apartment and bidding her goodnight, he felt as though he could not wait any longer before saying what needed to be said and he sent a message to Anne, requesting her presence in his Privy Chamber.

Anne appeared within minutes, so quickly that it was plain that she had come as soon as she received his message, taking only the time she needed to don a deep green velvet robe over her nightgown, and to put on the matching slippers before coming to him. Her long hair was loose. It would have taken her a long time to change into a proper gown and to put her hair up, even with the assistance of her ladies, and she was plainly apprehensive about not leaving him waiting for her a moment longer than was absolutely necessary, for fear that he would become impatient and angry, and that the delay would cost her his good will. Madge Shelton and Nan Saville, both looking as though they too had been called from their beds in haste, accompanied her.

All three curtsied when they entered, Anne's curtsey shallower than those of her ladies, and then at her nod, Madge and Nan withdrew from the room so they could await her outside.

"If I had known that you had retired for the night, my lady, I would have waited until morning to see you." Henry said courteously but he wasn't sure that he meant what he was saying. He didn't think that he could have waited until morning, even if it meant disturbing Anne, but he could have come to her apartment instead of summoning her to his presence if he had known.

"It's alright, Your Majesty." Anne responded with polite formality.

Henry nodded, motioning to one of the chairs in front of the fire. "Sit down, please." He invited her, waiting until she had taken a seat before he sat down in the chair opposite her. They were separated by a small table but he was able to look directly into her eyes as he spoke to her. "I am sure that you have heard some of the rumours going around the court," he began, deeming it best not to dance around the subject, "rumours that the validity of our marriage, and the legitimacy of our child, is in question." He did not allude to the fact that those rumours undoubtedly included the fact that he had fallen in love with Jane, and that it was his wish to marry her so that she might become his Queen, a goal that could only be accomplished if Anne was set aside.

It could come as no surprise to Anne that the validity of their marriage was in question, people had disputed her right to the title of Queen since the day their marriage was first announced, just as they had disputed Elizabeth's right to be Princess of England and heir to the throne, preferring to insist that Katherine was his true wife and that Mary was no bastard but the true heir.

The difference was that, before, he had always stood by her, refusing to allow anybody to deny her place as his wife in his hearing and insisting that she and Elizabeth should be recognized as Queen and Princess, respectively. Before, he had executed men who denied the validity of his marriage to Anne, he had demanded that foreign monarchs should accept his new marriage, and he had sent delegations to Katherine and Mary, commanding them to cease to claim titles to which they had no right and punishing them with hardship and separation when they refused to obey.

Before, there was very little that he was not prepared to do to defend his wife and daughter.

Now, however, Katherine was dead and Anne had cause to fear that, instead of defending her place as his Queen, he would support those who challenged it so that he might have Jane. Now she had to worry that, instead of defending Elizabeth from those who would call their little girl a bastard, he would disinherit their child in favour of the Lady Mary, at Jane's urging, leaving his elder daughter as heiress presumptive pending the birth of a son by Jane, the son that Anne had promised to give him but that, so far, she had not been able to bring into the world.

"Yes, Your Majesty." Anne's voice was steady but Henry could hear the fear in her tone, and could guess what thoughts must be running through her mind as she listened to him.

Her eyes were full of hurt but he saw resignation there too and knew, by looking at her, that she had already accepted that if he had decided that he wished for their marriage to be declared invalid, she would not be able to fight him. Any power she wielded came from him, and could be withdrawn at his pleasure. Even Cranmer, who was a friend to the Boleyn family and had been for many years and who, in his capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury, had pronounced Henry's union with Katherine null and void and who had declared that his marriage to Anne was lawful in the eyes of God, would not dare to stand with her once he knew that Henry wished to be rid of her. He was not like Bishop Fisher, who clung to Katherine's cause even when everybody could see that she had lost, and Anne had no ally like Thomas More who would side with her in defence of her marriage and her child's place, no matter what consequences he had to face for doing so.

Even Anne's father, brother and uncle would not dare to side with her once they knew that it was Henry's wish to end their marriage. They would rather retain his favour than support Anne.

If Anne tried to fight for their marriage, she would fight alone, she would lose and she knew it.

She was not such a fool that she would fight a losing battle, not when she could only hurt herself and, more importantly, Elizabeth by doing so.

"I don't want you to pay any attention to those rumours." Henry instructed. Anne looked surprised by his words but she didn't say anything. Her posture was tense as she waited for him to tell her what he had planned for her and for their child. "Our marriage is lawful and valid, and I will not allow any man to question that fact – or any woman either." He added with a frown, remembering that Jane, no doubt at the urging of her family, had dropped hints that his marriage to Anne was viewed as unlawful and that little Elizabeth was not accepted as legitimate.

When he first heard Jane speak those words, over a year ago – though, now that he had gone back, it was only a matter of days since she raised the issue – it had not occurred to him to think that Jane might be trying to undermine Anne's position, and that of Elizabeth, in the hope that it would encourage him to dissolve his marriage to Anne sooner rather than later, and marry her.

He had thought Jane too innocent and too unambitious to be willing to make a move like that, and he certainly had not thought that there was any reason why she would speak against little Elizabeth's legitimacy if she did not truly believe that the child's right to the title of Princess was doubtful but now – in fact, he had thought that, as Jane was so sweet, it must have given her great pain to say or do anything that would lead to an innocent child like Elizabeth being harmed in any way and that only her innate honesty could have obliged her to speak her mind on the subject – he could not help but wonder if he had underestimated Jane.

Once she became Queen, Jane had spoken for the Lady Mary, stressing her earnest desire to be able to welcome the girl to court and be a friend to her, even attempting to dissuade him from proceeding against Mary when it appeared that the girl was still determined to cling to the lie of her legitimacy, defying her father and her sovereign. He had believed that she was motivated by pity for a lonely girl, and the kindness of a tender heart, so even though he was irritated by her interference, he could forgive her for it, but was there more to it than that?

Chapuys was the first ambassador Jane had received, and from his hiding place behind a screen, Henry had heard the man thank Jane for her efforts to bring about a reconciliation between him and Mary, praising her as a peacemaker and stressing that the kindness she showed Mary would be rewarded by the friendship and love of a dutiful daughter, and even daring to hint that Mary would please Jane more than her own children, as though a disobedient girl like Mary should be more loved than the sons he and Jane would have... or as though Mary would be a worthier heir than their sons, and should come before them. Jane pledged to always show favour to Mary and it quickly became apparent to Henry that she was determined to keep her promise to Chapuys.

Even Elizabeth was able to recognize that Jane favoured Mary far more than she favoured her, even though both girls were Jane's stepdaughters, with equal claim on her affection and care.

A little girl not yet four years old could see it but he was blind to Jane's different attitudes towards her two stepdaughters, never thinking to suspect that she would play favourites.

Had Jane's attempt to cast doubt over little Elizabeth's legitimacy been a deliberate act, calculated to ensure that the child would be disinherited in the hope that, with her young rival declared a bastard, the way would be cleared for Mary to return to court as a legitimate Princess and that, once restored, Mary was guaranteed to be a friend to Jane and to her family?

Had she promised to do this for Mary in exchange for the Emperor's support of her as Queen, knowing that he did not wish to accept Anne and that he would be pleased to welcome a Queen of England who was determined to be a friend to Mary and to bring her back to court with royal honours, ensuring her restoration to the succession if it was possible and to favour if it was not?

He didn't like to think of Jane as being capable of behaving thus, urging that a young, innocent child – a child whose rights she and her family had sworn to uphold when they took the Oath! – should be deprived of legitimacy in order to win the Lady Mary a title she had no true right to, just as he didn't like to think that Jane and her family had been plotting about how best to ensure that Jane would be Queen, even before he indicated that it was his wish to dissolve his marriage to Anne so that Jane could be his new bride, but he couldn't think about that now.

He needed to speak to Anne now, and he needed to ensure that he did not allow himself to be distracted by other thoughts.

He would deal with Jane later.

"There can be no doubt over the validity of our marriage, my lady," he told Anne, wanting to reassure her that he would fight for their marriage, should the need arise, rather than help to see it dissolved in order to replace her with another. She didn't need to fear that anymore. "My union with the Princess Dowager of Wales was invalid, as you well know, and our daughter, the Lady Mary, is illegitimate, a fact that nobody may truthfully deny. The Church of England, under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, investigated the matter thoroughly before pronouncing that union void, and declaring that ours is a true and lawful union. Their verdict is the only one that matters, and I won't allow anybody to dispute this fact." He maintained staunchly, his tone so resolute that anybody who overheard his words could be forgiven if they assumed that Anne might have said something that indicated that she questioned the validity of their marriage. "The succession is vested in the children we will have, and no others."

Anne hid her astonishment at his vehemence as best she could, but he could see that she was surprised to hear him speak thus... surprised, but very relieved and pleased.

If she was thinking of Jane, wondering if, even though her place as Queen was safe, she would still be expected to put up with having the other woman in her household, and with knowing that the whole court knew how Henry felt about her, she didn't show any hint of apprehension and he wasn't entirely surprised by this. Elizabeth was her first priority and he suspected that, as long as Anne could be confident that she did not need to fear the prospect of their child being disinherited, she would learn to tolerate his mistresses without complaint, as Katherine had before her.

He wasn't sure how he felt about that.

"You don't know how happy it makes me to hear you say this, Your Majesty." She said. Her smile was tentative at first but, as it became wider, Henry found himself feeling as moved by it as he had during the happy, golden days of their courtship, when he was so confident that the future would bring him all he could ever want. Looking at Anne's smile, he found it difficult to regret his decision to choose a course of action that would keep her as his wife for her lifetime. At least he could have no doubt that his wife loved him. "I heard some rumours, and I was worried that..."

"You have no need to be worried, Anne, I promise." Henry cut her off firmly. "You are my Queen, and you will be staying my Queen, I swear it to you. Nobody will take your place." Anne nodded, looking too moved to speak, and Henry impulsively reached out to take her hand in his and kiss it. This time, he was not going to send her to the block, was not going to deny their marriage or to rob their child of her legitimacy, but he couldn't help but feel a pang of guilt when he remembered that he did that before, and then went on with his life for over seven months before he was willing to entertain the possibility that she was innocent, almost allowing himself to repeat his mistake. Anne might not remember it but he did, and he wanted to be able to make it up to her. "I was thinking about paying a visit to Hatfield tomorrow," he told her, knowing that Anne's pregnancy had prevented her from making the journey, as had her delicate state of health as she recovered from her miscarriage. "It would make me very happy if you agreed to come with me."

"I would like nothing more, Your Majesty." Anne said, her smile wider and brighter at the prospect of seeing her beloved little girl again. It was rare for them to pay a visit to Hatfield together.

Henry nodded, returning her smile before sobering. "And while we are at Hatfield, I intend to speak to the Lady Mary." He said. Anne flinched slightly at his words, looking worried, afraid that he was about to tell her that it was his wish that Mary should become the heir to the throne, as Chapuys had hinted would be necessary in order to secure an alliance with the Emperor. He continued quickly, not wanting to leave her in suspense. "Mary may not be a princess, but she is my daughter and her place is at court, if she shows herself willing to be properly obedient and loyal to us." He stated firmly. He wanted to have Mary back in his life, and to see his eldest daughter received at court with honour, as she was when he had Jane by his side as his Queen.

He was not going to forget how happy he was to be reunited with Mary, or to give that up.

Jane was lost to him, as was the Prince he hoped to have, but he could still have Mary back.

"Lady Bryan told me that the Lady Mary still refuses to recognize Elizabeth as the rightful Princess, or to accept the validity of our marriage." Anne said, a worried expression on her face as she imagined what it would be like if Henry welcomed Mary back to court before the girl became reconciled to her bastard status, preferring to have her living at court with him than to keep her in exile until she admitted that she was a bastard. She could picture her stepdaughter insisting on referring to her as the Marquess of Pembroke and publicly denying her her title as Queen, making frequent allusions to Katherine as Queen and refusing to yield precedence, always claiming the right to walk ahead, insisting that, in the absence of a Queen that Mary would deign to recognize as having a right to that title, she, as Princess, was first lady at court.

If Henry decided to pamper Mary, Anne wouldn't be able to make her behave respectfully.

Courtiers who were unsure what Mary's restoration and Henry's decision not to oblige her to take the Oath meant might think that they should curry favour with Mary, abandoning her, and foreign ambassadors who witnessed the state of affairs at court might write to their masters to let them know that the Lady Mary stood so high in her father's favour that she was even permitted to treat the Queen as disrespectfully as she pleased, suggesting that, as Henry plainly had such affection for Mary, it would not be long before he restored her as his heir, ahead of Elizabeth, and recommending that their masters should not agree to betroth their sons to a child who was likely to be supplanted as heiress before she was much older, and ask for Mary's hand instead.

There were so many ways in which Mary could make life unpleasant for them, if she was minded to do so and if Henry's affection for his daughter led him to allow her to behave as she chose.

"She will accept that she is illegitimate, and she will recognize that you are my lawful wife." Henry stated, confident that Mary had spoken truthfully when she assured him that she would still have come to recognize the truth about the invalidity of his marriage to her mother, even if Anne had remained Queen. "When she does, I would like to know that you will welcome her." He added, a warning note in his voice. Mary had been stubborn but it was natural that she had wanted to defend her mother, and once she repented of her stubbornness, it should not be held against her.

Whether Anne liked it or not, he expected her to welcome his daughter and to treat her kindly.

"Then I will be happy to welcome her to court." Anne stated truthfully, thinking that this would be desirable for political reasons as well as for personal.

While Mary lived a servant's life at Hatfield, it was inevitable that people would be indignant on her behalf. Even those who could accept Cranmer's ruling on the invalidity of Henry's union with Katherine would think that it was wrong for a young girl who was raised to think of herself as a princess and as her father's heiress and who had enjoyed every luxury and privilege during her early years to be forced to act as a servant to the child who now enjoyed those honours by right. It was inevitable that people would view this as an act of cruelty. If Mary lived at court, and was seen to be treated well and with the degree of honour due to a King's natural daughter, they would have less cause for indignation on her behalf and less cause to sympathize with her.

On a personal level, Henry would want to have his daughter back in his life and would be happier to have Mary at court with them instead of estranged from the royal family. He loved his daughter and would want to treat her kindly, if she behaved as he wished her to. He would consider anybody who attempted to dissuade him from showing Mary kindness cruel, not unjustifiably. Anne's only quarrel with Mary was the girl's refusal to accept her as Queen and Elizabeth as Princess. Once Mary did this, she would be happy to welcome her to court and to show her that she would never need to regret her submission. She would be treated well and honourably.

"Good." Henry's smile was warm and approving, and his touch was gentle as he raised her hand to his lips for another kiss, pleased by her response. It was late, and he thought that they had covered enough for one night, so he released her hand. "We have a long journey tomorrow, Anne, and we will need to leave early. You should go to bed. I'll see you in the morning. Goodnight."

"Goodnight." Anne responded, dipping a slight curtsey before leaving the room to return to her own quarters, feeling more relaxed than she had in months.

For the first time since losing her baby boy, she felt as though she could have hope for the future.

Because the day was a warm one, they opted to ride to Hatfield on horseback rather than travelling by carriage. It was quicker and more pleasant to travel thus. They were escorted by a company of guards charged with ensuring their safety and Henry, not feeling inclined to spend too much time chatting with Anne, deliberately set a fast pace to discourage conversation.

They set out early in the morning, after a light breakfast, and they were at Hatfield before noon, which pleased them both as it meant that they would have more time with Elizabeth before they needed to return to the palace. Henry dismounted first, extending a hand to help Anne down from her horse and, arm in arm, they made their way towards the door, with one groom hastening ahead to knock and to alert the inhabitants of Hatfield that the King and Queen were here and to warn them that they would need to make haste if they were to offer a fitting greeting.

It occurred to Henry that this was the first time that he and Anne had paid a visit to Elizabeth's establishment at the same time, a thought that he found troubling.

It was true that, when Anne was pregnant, she had not been able to travel for fear of harming the child she carried but, even taking that into account, he had had ample opportunities to bring her with him when he paid Elizabeth a visit. Anne was always eager to see Elizabeth, and would have been delighted to accompany him if he indicated that he would like her to join him, but he had never invited her to accompany him to Hatfield when he was going, usually not bothering to let her know when he intended to see their daughter and only telling her after his return, and whenever she was planning a visit and asked him if he would come, he always had an excuse for why he could not go, even though he enjoyed visiting Elizabeth and knew that she would love to see him, and that she would be doubly delighted to have both of her parents surprise her with a visit.

Perhaps it was because he knew that Mary would also be at Hatfield.

The first time he visited Hatfield, snatching time during his progress to take a detour to his baby daughter's establishment and spend a few minutes greeting Elizabeth and commending Lady Bryan for her care of the precious royal child entrusted to her, he had not asked to see Mary but that had not kept his eldest daughter from standing out on the balcony to watch him prepare for his departure, her presence a silent reproach to him for ignoring her during his visit, for setting her mother aside and for denying her the title of Princess and bestowing it on Elizabeth instead.

She was dressed in black, as though in mourning for the loss of her status as Princess, the loss of her father's favour and the loss of her mother's presence, her posture and the tragic expression on her face exuding grief and distress at the thought that her father could not only have sent her to Hatfield as a servant but also ignore his child when she stood there before him.

She didn't say a word but it was as though he could hear her pleading with him to acknowledge her, if only with the briefest look, anything to let her know that he still cared about her.

Despite intending to hold firm to his resolve to ignore Mary until the girl recognized that it was her duty, as his daughter and as his subject, to accept the truth about the validity of his union with her mother and her illegitimacy, and to cease her false claims to the title of Princess, he could not remain unmoved when he saw his daughter watching him with sorrowful eyes, silently pleading with him for some sign of recognition, and he bowed to her, prompting the gentlemen in his train to do likewise, for fear of reproach if they ignored Mary when Henry acknowledged her.

At the time, he had not stopped to think what was going through the minds of his escorts when they saw him acknowledge Mary, bowing to her as he would to one of the highest ladies in the land, despite the fact that he had passed an Act of Parliament entailing the Crown to his heirs by Anne, excluding Mary as though she was never born, and he knew that they must have wondered what this might mean for Mary and if it signalled a change of heart on his part over her disinheritance or the annulment of his marriage to Katherine but he had not thought of that then, nor had he considered the possibility that Anne might learn of it and worry that he regretted setting Katherine and Mary aside in order to marry her and legitimise Elizabeth.

Later, he chided himself for acknowledging Mary, knowing that such a move could only serve to give her false hope that she would be restored as a Princess and resolving never to do that again.

How could he expect Mary to learn her place if he sent her mixed messages about her status and about his intentions where she was concerned?

He kept his promise, steadfastly ignoring Mary and issuing instructions to Lady Bryan that she was not to be permitted to appear in his presence when he visited and that she was not to be allowed to trouble Anne when she came to see Elizabeth, unless Anne expressly requested Mary's presence, in which case Mary was to be obliged to obey the summons and to pay her respects to her stepmother. He refused to answer any messages Mary sent to him when she heard that he was at Hatfield, begging leave to wait on him, with anything other than a curt refusal but perhaps this way why he was so reluctant to bring Anne with him when he travelled to Hatfield.

If Mary tried to approach him again, Anne would be fretful if she thought that he wanted to speak to the girl, afraid that he would decide to favour her over their daughter, especially as she was older and could converse with him intelligently and play for him on the lute, entertaining him in ways their baby daughter could not. She would be sullen on the way home if he showed Mary any sign of recognition but, at the same time, Mary would have been bitterly humiliated and hurt if he rejected her in front of Anne – or, worse still, she would tell herself that Anne's presence was the only reason he ignored her and that, if he had come alone, he would not have hesitated to greet her, showing her and the others at Hatfield that she was still his most dearly loved daughter.

As delighted as Elizabeth would be to see her parents arrive together today, Mary would be grieved to see it as she would be hoping that Anne was so far out of favour that Henry would never contemplate spending a moment longer in her company than he was obliged to by convention or courtesy, and hoping that Anne's loss of favour would be her gain.

This joint visit would show her that she could not hope to see Anne set aside in favour of a stepmother she would prefer, one who would champion her interests at Elizabeth's expense and who would do everything in her power to shield Mary from the consequences of her defiance and who would, when Mary submitted, give her as warm a welcome to court as she could hope for.

Anne was going to remain part of Henry's life for the rest of her days, and Mary needed to know that, if she hoped for her father's love and favour, she would need to accept that.

She had no other choice.

Once she submitted, he would see to it that she was never given cause to regret it.

Lady Bryan must have had to make haste from the nursery in order to be down in the hall when they arrived but her gown was free of crumples and creases, her cap was straight and there was not even a hair out of place or a flush in her cheeks to betray her rush to be there to greet them. She swept them a deep, immaculate curtsey, waiting for Henry's gesture before she rose. "Your Majesties, it is an honour to see you again." She said politely. "Welcome to Hatfield."

"Thank you, Lady Bryan." Henry said, favouring the governess with a smile. In the other time, when Anne was executed, Lady Bryan must have been shocked and dismayed to learn that the little girl in her charge was no longer a princess but a royal bastard, and one who bore the taint of having a mother who was executed for treason but she continued to care diligently for Elizabeth, defending her interests as best she could and even daring to write to him to ask for money to buy clothes for the child when she outgrew them, though she knew that Elizabeth was out of favour. It made him ashamed to think that he could have treated an innocent little girl thus, and he was grateful to her for caring for Elizabeth when he did not. "How is our daughter?"

"Princess Elizabeth is the sweetest, cleverest and most beautiful child I have ever known." Lady Bryan told him. "She is a credit to Your Majesties, and to England – we have already begun our elementary lessons, and I have never seen a child learn so swiftly. She soaks up knowledge like a little sponge, and she never forgets a thing. It is remarkable for a child of her years."

"I'm not surprised." Henry said, remembering the eloquent little girl who greeted him on his visit to Hatfield before he came back, a child whose cleverness and precocity were plain to see. If he had to accept the idea of leaving his throne to a daughter, he could at least thank God for giving him such a perfect, remarkable child. If any woman could overcome the handicap of being born female and have the intelligence and the strength to rule England, it would be Elizabeth. "She is the most perfect princess that England was ever blessed with." He said, raising his voice slightly so that even the attendants standing at a respectful distance could hear them, in case they had been wondering whether their young mistress might not be allowed to call that title hers much longer.

The sooner he was able to stamp out the gossip about the strife in his marriage to Anne and the likelihood that he would seek to set her aside in favour of another woman, the better.

Lady Bryan's smile at his words was wide and proud, unsurprisingly so, as she had spent more time with Elizabeth than either of her parents did, and took great pains with her upbringing. Behind her, the maids of honour who attended Elizabeth were also smiling at this, both in pleasure at the compliment and relief at the evidence that the child was as favoured as ever.

"The Queen and I would like to see the Princess, when she is ready to receive us." Henry said, watching as Lady Bryan motioned for one of the maids of honour to fetch Elizabeth.

They did not have long to wait before the young woman returned, holding Elizabeth by the hand, smiling indulgently at her young charge as she pulled her hand from her grasp so that she could run to her parents, the skirt of her silk gown rustling as her feet flew.

"Mama! Papa! Mama! Papa!" her excitement was obvious and infectious. She ran to Anne first, and Anne knelt to her level and held her arms out to her, hugging her tightly and showering her with kisses. Henry was aware that, not that long ago, he would have been indignant to see Elizabeth run to Anne before she greeted him but, watching his wife and daughter together now, he couldn't feel anything other than pleasure at the sight of their mutual joy. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lady Bryan take a half-step forward, ready to restrain her small charge and to remind her that she should greet her parents properly, with a curtsey and a respectful welcome, but he shook his head, signalling that the governess should leave her be.

He and Anne were able to visit only infrequently, and he did not want to waste time on ceremony, nor did he relish the idea of seeing his daughter curtseying gravely and greeting him by his formal honourific rather than as her Papa. When she was older, he supposed that a degree of ceremony would be necessary but Elizabeth was too young for that now.

It was his turn next and Elizabeth squealed with delight as he swung her into his arms, planting a smacking kiss on her cheek. She returned the kiss, putting her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly, resting her head on his shoulder and looking up at him with adoration and admiration.

It was strange to feel how light she was, compared to the child he had carried in his arms a matter of days ago. As was often her custom, Anne had brought new gowns, kirtles and petticoats for their little girl, rich gifts that she knew Elizabeth would rejoice in but Henry knew that it would not be many months before Elizabeth outgrew them… but, by then, Anne would have lavished her with more clothes, just as fine and just as beautifully made. He wondered what Elizabeth thought when she realized that the supply of clothes her mother lavished on her had ceased and saw that, when she began to outgrow the ones she had, no new ones were forthcoming and he reminded himself to tell her that Elizabeth's hair was likely to deepen to red before she was much older, so that Anne could choose fabrics that would suit the striking colouring Elizabeth would soon boast.

His daughter was going to be a great beauty one day, as Anne had predicted.

"I'm so happy that you've come to see me, Papa, you and Mama." Elizabeth declared happily, giggling as her father spun around with her held securely in his arms.

Henry kissed her again, smiling at her joy. "So are we, sweetheart." He told her. "So are we."

At Lady Bryan's direction, the household made hasty preparations for a meal worthy of their exalted guests but, for once, Henry's interest in the food he was served was minimal. He was far more interested in watching Elizabeth chatter to Anne, filling her in on every detail of her doings since they last saw one another and asking when she would next be allowed to come to court.

"Soon, sweetheart, I hope." Anne said, glancing to Henry and hoping that he would confirm this.

"Very soon, my princess." Henry promised but his attention drifted from his daughter to the tables set in rows in front of the dais, at which the members of the household were eating their meal.

He had expected to see Mary eating at the table immediately in front of the dais, where the maids of honour who were not serving Elizabeth at table were dining but she was not there. Thinking that Mary might have opted for a place further away, not wanting to be so close to Anne that she would be obliged to greet her, he scrutinized the other tables as well, in case his elder daughter had taken a place at one of them, where she could eat her meal quickly, without attracting the attention of the royal party, before departing but there was no sign of her.

"Is the Lady Mary ill?" He asked, feeling irritated to think that Lady Bryan could not have found the opportunity to tell him so, if this was the case. He could understand that she might not want to speak of it to Anne, who was happily occupied with her visit to Elizabeth, for fear of marring the visit but she should have said something to him, even if she had to say it privately.

"No, Your Majesty, the Lady Mary is in good health." Lady Bryan assured him. "Better than usual." She added, the slight frown that creased her brow telling him of the trials that the governess endured, having to deal with a girl as stubborn as Mary, one who was often ill and who claimed illness even more often than that. Her task was an honoured one but not an easy one.

"But I do not see her at table."

"No, Your Majesty." Lady Bryan looked even more uncomfortable now. "The Lady Mary refuses to dine in the Hall, Your Majesty, as she will not sit below the Princess. She has said that she will be pleased to dine in the Hall when she may sit in the place of honour, under a canopy of estate, but not until then – and, of course, we would never allow such a thing." She added hastily, seeing Henry's frown and wanting to make sure that he knew that nobody at Hatfield would ever dream of defying his commands and giving in to the demands of the Lady Mary as long as she presided over Princess Elizabeth's establishment. "I have told her that you have given orders that she is to be seated with the Princess' other maids but she refuses to obey. She eats her breakfast in her chamber in the morning, before she begins her duties, and she takes supper alone but she will not dine in the Hall. I have tried to reason with her but she will not listen."

Henry exhaled sharply. He knew that Mary was obstinate but he had not imagined that she was so obstinate that she would deny herself food rather than conquer her pride.

It was no wonder that she was ill so often if she would not eat properly!

"I do not blame you, Lady Bryan." He told the governess, who was looking anxious, as though she was afraid that she would be reproved, either for not managing to induce Mary to dine in the Hall, as he had ordered, or for not breaking the rules if that was what it took to ensure that his daughter ate well. He reached for Anne's hand, kissing it, and he ruffled Elizabeth's hair. "If you will both excuse me, I think that I need to speak to the Lady Mary." He had intended to do so anyway, after dinner, but now he did not want to wait.

When he first began the task of drawing up plans for Elizabeth's household, and decided that Mary should be obliged to wait on her baby half-sister, in order to teach her her place, he gave orders that until Mary accepted her illegitimacy, she was to be lodged in a small, plain chamber, without any of the rich furnishings, hangings, carpets or ornaments that adorned the royal apartments at Hatfield but, even so, he was taken aback when he was conducted into Mary's chamber by a servant and saw just how cramped, dark and sparsely furnished it was. The narrow bed took up almost the full length of one of the walls, with a chest at the foot for Mary's belongings, and there was a small table and a chair by the room's only window. A few tallow candles were burning, providing faint illumination and a slightly smoky smell but the room was still gloomy.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he saw Mary rise from the only chair and sweep a deep curtsey to him, and her face was wreathed in a smile of welcome and joy.

"Your Majesty… Father…" She tested both forms of address, wondering if he would be offended if she was not formal with him or if it would please him to hear her call him 'Father'.

It had been so long since they spoke that she no longer knew where she stood with him.

"I did not see you at dinner, Mary." Henry said. He motioned for his daughter to rise from her curtsey but he held himself in check and did not step forward to help her to her feet or to embrace her, even though he wanted to. He needed Mary to see where she stood and, for the moment, that meant that he needed to keep his distance. "Why didn't you come to the Hall to dine?"

Mary lifted her head, her chin set determinedly. She looked as obstinate as her mother had, on the day when Katherine told him that, for every scholar who took his part in the Great Matter, she would find a thousand to vote for her and his heart sank at the sight. Katherine had died alone and without the comforts she could have otherwise enjoyed thanks to her stubbornness. He hoped that Mary would be wiser than her mother but, looking at her now, he thought that it might take months – if not years, with Anne still living – for Mary to accept the unpalatable truth.

She was too much like Katherine… and too much like him, he admitted inwardly… to give in easily.

"It was not my wish to offend you by not appearing, Father," she said, "but I cannot dishonour my rank by sitting below the daughter of your concubine while she dines in state. If I did, people would conclude that I accepted that she is my superior in rank, and that is not the case. I would have been glad to come to pay my respects to you upon your arrival, but you previously gave orders that I was not to be permitted to approach you when you came to visit Lady Elizabeth." She laid a pointed stress on the title and her eyes blazed with defiance as she met his gaze.

"Princess Elizabeth." Henry corrected her sharply. "It is my wish and my command that you address your sister by her rightful title, and that you show her the respect due to her rank."

"She is not the Princess of England!" Mary protested, tears of anger and indignation springing to her eyes at his words. "Her mother is not your Queen, she can't be your Queen because you married her when my mother, your true Queen, lived. I am the Princess and she is the bastard, not the other way around, and you must see that. Your Majesty knows that I am your trueborn daughter. Why are you letting that woman make you pretend that I am not?" She asked bitterly, a scowl creasing her brow as she referred to Anne, her loathing of her stepmother palpable.

Despite intending to be gentle with Mary and to coax her into seeing his side of the matter and recognizing that he was right, Henry was angry to hear her speak thus.

He could understand that Mary's opinion of Anne was a low one, that was natural under the circumstances, especially as he was certain that his daughter's mother and governess would have done their best to convince Mary that Anne and Anne alone was responsible for the Great Matter, which would never have happened if not for her as they would not want to distress Mary by blaming him or by letting her believe the rumours about how his lack of a son was the reason why he wanted to take a new wife, as Katherine was too old to give him a son and he was unwilling to accept Mary as a suitable heir. However, Mary was no longer a child and should not be trying to hide from the truth by clinging to excuses and blaming Anne for everything.

Anne did not rule him and never had, even at the height of his love for her.

He was the one who recognized that his marriage was invalid, before he contemplated the idea of marrying Anne. Did his daughter think him a fool who was manipulated by a girl? Did she think so little of him that she believed that, for the sake of his lust, he was willing to set aside his wife and bastardise their daughter even when it meant fighting the pope and the Emperor? In some ways, it would have been easier for him to keep his mouth shut and pretend that Katherine was his lawful wife until the day she died but, once he realized that their union was unlawful, his conscience wouldn't allow him to pretend it was, not even for Mary's sake. Even if he never met Anne, he would have had no choice but to extricate himself from a sinful union.

How dare Mary suggest that he set Katherine aside for his own purposes?

"It is treason for you to claim the title of Princess, Lady Mary." He told his daughter coldly. "You are illegitimate. I understand that it was distressing for you to learn this and because of this, I have been patient with you." He was aware that some would dispute this, calling him cruel for sending Mary to wait on Elizabeth but, at the time, it had seemed like the quickest and most effective way to bring his obstinate daughter to an understanding of her true place in the world. He also felt that he had shown great patience by not taking sterner measures against her for her refusal to take the Oath. "But you are no longer a child and it is time for you to accept the truth. I am your King as well as your father, and you have a duty to obey me."

"I cannot go against my conscience, Your Majesty, even at your command." Mary insisted. "I am the Princess of England and you know that I am!"

Henry sighed inwardly. As angry and as irritated as he was by Mary's obstinacy, he had to admit that there was a small part of him that was proud to have sired a daughter who, while she was wrong in her beliefs, was brave enough to stand against him. The young woman standing before him was not the sweet little girl he remembered lifting in his arms, the child who idolized her beloved father, but she was somebody that he wanted to get to know again, somebody from whom he had been parted for far too long and whom he wanted in his life again.

"I know that you are my daughter, Mary." Henry gentled his tone. "That is what matters most, is it not? Far more than the question of titles? Your mother refused to admit that she was not my wife, she was too proud to see the truth, and too proud to give up the title of Queen, even when she knew that justice demanded it. I know that she taught you to think yourself legitimate, and I do not blame you for wanting to believe it, but it is time that you recognized the truth. You are illegitimate but that does not need to make a difference to you, not if you don't let it."

He meant what he was saying.

If Mary would yield to him, if she would allow him to welcome her back into his life, she would want for nothing. She would have every comfort that she had enjoyed as a Princess and she would be welcomed to his court with royal honours. No courtier, no matter how high-ranking they were, would be allowed to use Mary's bastard status as an excuse to disrespect her. If he could find a suitable prince, he would arrange a splendid marriage for her and, if her illegitimacy meant that no prince would accept her, he would find her an English lord who would know how blessed he was to have such a wife. He would love her just as much as he loved Elizabeth, cherishing them both and showing Mary and the world that she was his beloved daughter, his pearl.

Surely Mary would see reason.

Surely she would not lose all that he would willingly give her in exchange for her cooperation rather than acknowledging that her true title was Lady, not Princess.

"That woman is not your Queen." Mary's voice was trembling now with the effort of holding back tears. "My sainted mother was your true Queen while she lived, and now that God has called her to Him, you are a widower in His eyes. Father, you do not need to stay with her, whatever spells she has used to entrap you! Mother would want you to take a new wife, a true wife, a good woman who is worthy of being your Queen! I've heard that you don't want to stay with her, so don't! If you say that my mother was your wife, you will be able to marry any lady you choose!"

Henry was alarmed to see that Mary's face became pale and her breathing was shallow and rapid. He was afraid that she would faint if she became any more agitated than she was already so he waited for her to get herself under control before he spoke again.

"I'm not going to do that, Mary." He said gently, inwardly wondering what Mary would think if she ever learned what had happened before, or if she knew how it made him feel to know that he had lost his chance to marry Jane and have a son with her, and that he still chose to save Anne. "Even if I wanted to marry another woman, I won't pretend that the Queen is not my lawful wife, or that our daughter the Princess is not my legitimate heir. That is the truth and if you want to be a part of my life, you will have to accept that."

For the briefest of instants, he could see a flash of longing in Mary's eyes, one that told him how difficult it had been for her not to receive the love he had lavished on her during her childhood. If it had been difficult for him to turn his back on Mary, it must have been doubly painful for her; he had Anne and Elizabeth, and many activities to divert him but Mary had nothing and nobody.

"The Queen and Princess are in the Hall." He said coaxingly, extending a hand to Mary. "come with me, and pay your respects to them, and you can come back to court with us – or, if you do not want to come to court," he added, mindful of the fact that Mary might not be ready to live under the same roof as Anne, "we can choose a palace for your household."

He would not demand much from Mary, not yet. The Oath could come later but, for the moment, he would be satisfied with something more minor than that; a curtsey, low enough to show that she recognized that Anne was her Queen... that she address her as 'Your Majesty' or 'Queen Anne'... that she call Elizabeth 'Princess', at least once... he would be happy to accept it.

It would take Mary half a minute, no more, and then he could show her favour again.

He was sure that she wavered, wanting to have his love again, but she would not place her hand in his and, when he looked at her face, he could see that, for now, her mind was made up.

"No, Your Majesty." She said, clenching her hand into a fist and pressing it to the black folds of her skirt, as though she was afraid that it would place itself in his hand against her will. "I will not."

He could tell from the expression on her face that she expected him to shout at her, to threaten her with a harsh punishment for defying him but, even though his first instinct was to castigate Mary for her ingratitude and disobedience, to remind her that, as his daughter and as his subject, she was duty-bound to obey him and to warn her that there were worse accommodations for her than this chamber, and worse fates than waiting on Elizabeth, he was able to control himself.

Two and a half years ago, he sent Mary to Hatfield to wait on Elizabeth and to learn her place but that lesson had clearly not been learned, so it was time to try a different method.

After Anne's execution, he had removed Mary from Elizabeth's household and allowed her an establishment of her own at Hundson, to show her that she would be well-treated once she obeyed him and, not long after her removal to Hundson, Cromwell was able to bring him Mary's submission. It was true that it had taken Mary some time, as she had probably taken her improved circumstances as a sign that he was softening towards her and that he would not continue to press her to take the Oath but, once Sir Francis Bryan made the situation plain to her, she yielded.

If he replicated the additional consideration he showed to the girl after Anne's execution, that might succeed in getting Mary to admit the truth, once and for all.

"I am disappointed in you, Lady Mary." He told his daughter sternly, deliberately emphasizing the title she refused to accept. "If you do not wish to be reconciled with your father, then that is your choice and you will have to live with the consequences." He allowed her to digest his words for a few moments, to imagine what he might mean by consequences, before he continued. "It was my hope that your time at Hatfield, in attendance on Princess Elizabeth, would teach you your place but it does not seem to have moved you and I do not want the Princess exposed to your unfilial, disobedient and treasonous conduct, in case you set her a bad example, so you will be removed as soon as arrangements can be made. You are to live at Hundson House from now on."

Mary's face betrayed her surprise and pleasure at this news, clearly taking it as a victory, believing that her refusal to accept her lowered status had won her a household of her own and that she could take this as a sign that her father was more favourably disposed to her than she thought.

He was quick to disillusion her. "At Hundson, you will be addressed by all as 'Lady Mary'. I will be placing a trustworthy steward and chamberlain in charge of your affairs, and they will see to it that nobody will pander to your pride and address you by a title to which you have no right. If you choose not to accept the service of those who address you by your correct title of Lady, that is your choice." He told her, remembering how stubborn Katherine was about refusing to allow those who addressed her as Princess Dowager to tend to her and allowing only the single lady who called her Queen to attend to her. Only his awareness that the Emperor might deem himself duty-bound to interfere if his aunt was left entirely without attendants kept him from ordering Mistress Darrell to leave Katherine when she proved to be as obstinate as her mistress about using the forbidden title. For Mary, there would be no concessions. "You will not be permitted to receive visitors or letters, and if you attempt to plot treason, I will not spare you the punishment."

Mary's life at Hundson would be what she made of it, for better or worse. If she was sensible and accepted the service of the modest household he would arrange for her, one appropriate for his natural daughter, and if she accepted the allowance he would supply to her as his natural daughter, her time there would be comfortable and pleasant. If she was stubborn and disagreeable, insisting that she was the Princess and scorning the service of servants who would not humour her, she would have nobody but herself to blame for her discomfort and difficulties.

"When you decide to be my good, obedient and loving daughter and subject and take the Oath, I will be delighted to welcome you to court. Until then, I will not regard you as my daughter." Mary let out an audible sob at this but he did not make any attempt to comfort her, although part of him wished to. He needed to hold firm, or Mary would never give way. "It is up to you."

He turned on his heel and walked out of the bleak chamber, steeling his heart against the sound of weeping and refusing to allow himself to turn back to offer Mary some comfort.

If he had to harden his heart to Mary in order to get her to take the Oath, he would do so.

It was the only way that he could have her back in his life.

Anne was in excellent spirits after their return to Hatfield, her face alight with happiness, as though she was able to draw sustenance from being in Elizabeth's presence. It had been a long time since he saw her looking so radiant. She had not asked him about what he said to Mary, and made no protest about the household that was to be set up at Hundson. Her expression was so guarded that he did not know whether she was dismayed, thinking that this was a mark of favour for Mary and a sign that she needed to worry that he might opt to favour Mary over Elizabeth as his heir, or if she was glad that Mary was to be removed from Elizabeth's household.

It occurred to him that he had never asked Anne's opinion about Mary waiting on their daughter.

When they returned, however, he raised a subject that brought a look of dismay to Anne's face before she could conceal it.

"If she is not occupied with her duties in your household, please send Mistress Seymour to my Privy Chamber." He instructed, not meeting Anne's eyes as he spoke the words. He knew that it would distress her but he reasoned that it would surely be more upsetting for her if he sent for Jane without telling her, since secrecy would make her suspect the worst. "I wish to speak to her."

"Yes, Your Majesty." Anne responded unhappily, curtseying gracefully before she withdrew. She didn't argue with him, ask him what he wanted with Jane or reproach him for his attentions towards her lady-in-waiting. She did not even complain about being used as the messenger between him and Jane. She clearly knew that it would do no good to remonstrate with him and had decided that it would be better for her to accept it quietly, even if it was embarrassing for her to have to seek Jane out to tell her that Henry wanted to see her.

He felt sorry for her but, by nightfall, Anne would know that she need not have worried.

Less than a quarter of an hour later, one of Henry's grooms announced Jane and she entered the room, sweeping him the deepest curtsey and keeping her head lowered modestly.

"Rise, Mistress Seymour." Henry told her brusquely. He could see that she was surprised to hear him address her thus, by her name instead of by an endearment and her blue eyes were impossibly wide as she looked at him, anticipating that this boded ill but not knowing what she should do in order to avert disaster. There was nothing that she could do, even if she wanted to. His mind was made up, and he would not change it. There was nothing that Jane could say or do to turn him from his chosen course. "As I am sure you are aware, Mistress Seymour, you and I have been the subject of a great deal of gossip of late – although, thankfully, it seems to be confined to the court and has not yet spread among the people. It seems that our friendship has given them the wrong impression." He added blandly, as though he had no idea why there would be any rumours about them. "They seem to believe that I wish to have you as my wife!" He adopted a scornful tone, as though such a suggestion was utterly ridiculous.

"Your Majesty, I promise you that I have been discreet. I only spoke of it to my family, not to anybody else, I swear it." Jane hastened to assure him.

"Not that there was anything to speak of, was there, Mistress Seymour? Our friendship was innocent, and nothing more than a friendship." He spoke slowly and with emphasis. Jane was not clever like Anne, and would not be able to read between the lines of what he was saying as easily. He could not spell out the fact that, from now on, they both needed to pretend that there was never anything between them but an innocent friendship, that he had shown her no more attention than he would any other lady at court, and that they never spoke of marriage, but he hoped that Jane would be able to grasp the meaning of his words, and understand what she needed to do in order to allow all concerned to move on.

Jane opened her mouth to protest then closed it again, taking a couple of minutes to digest what he was saying and to realize what it meant. It irritated him to see how long it took her to understand and accept what he was saying. "No, Your Majesty." She said at last, her voice meek.

Henry gave her a curt nod. "I am sure that you understand that, although there was no real foundation for the rumours, my beloved wife, Queen Anne, is very distressed about them. The last thing that I wish is to cause her grief, and we both know that it will do your reputation and your prospects great harm if we allow those rumours to continue." His threat was a thinly veiled one; it was undeniable that Jane's reputation at court had suffered but, if they put at stop to it now, her good name might be salvaged. If Jane chose to be foolish and clinging, she would add fuel to the fires of gossip but the chief casualty would be herself. Few would think ill of him for enjoying the company of a pretty woman but they would condemn an unmarried woman for giving herself to a married man. "I think that it would be best if you left the Queen's household."

A pink flush spread over Jane's cheeks at this, betraying her embarrassment at the idea of being dismissed. "Does Your Majesty wish me to remain at court?" She asked hopefully, thinking that, even if she was no longer to wait on Anne – and since Anne was to remain Queen, Jane had no wish to continue to wait on her – she could live at court with her father.

"That would hardly be fitting, Mistress Seymour, under the circumstances."

He had thought about what it would be like to keep Jane at court.

When he first fell in love with Anne, recognizing instinctively that she was like no other woman he knew, he offered her the role of maitresse en titre, a role that would formally acknowledge her place in his heart and a role that he could offer Jane now, if he chose. Anne might be jealous but he could see to it that Jane knew her place and did not offend her by flaunting the fact that she was favoured and, in any case, Anne was likely to be too relieved that she did not need to worry that she and Elizabeth would be set aside to be unduly troubled if Jane was his mistress. She would definitely prefer to know that Jane was his mistress rather than having to fear that, despite his assurances that their union was valid, he would try to make her his wife.

He knew that they could conceive their child together, and allow it to be born illegitimate but still honoured, even if it could not be royal but he also knew how he would feel if it was a boy.

If he took Jane as his mistress and she bore his son, he would forever regret that their son was born a bastard instead of a prince. He would come to resent Anne for the fact that, in choosing to save her life, he cost his son by Jane his chance of being Prince of Wales, and if that happened, he would not be able to be happy with her, or to make her happy.

In this case, it was better for him not to know what the child would have been.

"What will happen to me, Your Majesty?" Jane's voice was small and she was plainly distressed to think of what might lie in store for her in the future. She was not to be Queen, and she doubted that her family would enjoy the great honours that her father and brothers had hoped for. She was unlikely to find a lord who was willing to marry her, as they would all be aware of her previous relationship with Henry and would suspect that she was no virgin, and she did not relish the idea of marrying a country squire when she hoped to marry the King of England.

"I am sure that your father will arrange a marriage for you," Henry said briskly, inwardly resolving to have a quiet word with Sir John to let him know that, in light of what had happened, he was willing to contribute to Jane's dowry and to help find a suitable country gentleman, preferably one who would not wish to bring his bride to court, who would marry her.

"Yes, Your Majesty." A sullen edge entered Jane's voice, one that surprised Henry as he had not thought of her as a woman who would sulk if she did not get her way.

Part of him wanted to apologize to her, as he had led her to believe that she would be his wife and that, far from being shamed by their relationship, she and her family would derive great honours.

Part of him wanted to promise her that, even though she had to leave the court, he would continue to think kindly of her and, if she ever needed his help, he would be happy to do her whatever service he could for the sake of the love he had borne her.

Part of him wanted to tell her that he would make her father a lord, to help her make a better marriage and to compensate her and her family for the embarrassment they would suffer.

But he didn't say any of those things.

He couldn't tell Jane the truth about why she was not going to be his wife, and any excuse he could give her would sound hollow.

"I will tell the Queen that I have given you leave to resign your position in her household and return to your family's home." He said, speaking more gently this time and thinking that there was at least one service he could do for Jane. By telling Anne of her departure himself, he could spare her the embarrassment of having to go to her to beg for leave to withdraw. "You may go to your family's apartment and pack your things. I will speak to your father, and let him know that he should make arrangements for you to travel to Wolf Hall as soon as can be arranged."

"If that is what Your Majesty wishes." Jane responded, her dismay plain.

"It is." Henry told her flatly, nodding briefly to indicate that their audience was at an end and that she should leave. She curtsied without another word, backing out of his presence.

He expected to feel regret at the sight of Jane's retreating back but, to his surprise, his chief emotion was relief. Their time together had been happy but he didn't think that he would miss her as much as he would have thought... as much as he would have missed Anne, and his life with her and with Elizabeth if he had decided against saving her. He could think about the prospect of her marrying another man, keeping his house and bearing his children without feeling jealous of whichever man became Jane's husband but he would have been jealous if Anne remarried.

Watching Jane leave, he was able to think that this was for the best.

He couldn't sleep that night.

He lay awake in his bed, trying to remain still so that he did not disturb the groom sleeping at the foot of the bed, and mulled over the events of the day.

All things considered, he believed that he had handled things with the women in his life as well as could be expected.

Elizabeth was delighted to see him and Anne together and, as she grew older, she would be able to enjoy the knowledge that her place in the world was a secure one and that she would always enjoy the love of two parents who would do everything in their power to ensure that she was happy, safe, honoured and well-cared for. She would never want for anything and he would always cherish her as the child of his love for Anne, as his precious jewel of England. He wanted her to be happy and, if God did not grant him a son by Anne, he would see to it that Elizabeth was given the education she would need to rule England, the same education he would give a Prince of Wales.

Mary would be distressed tonight, he could not pretend otherwise, but he was sure that he had made it clear to her what she needed to do if she wished to have his favour again, and that, as stubborn as Mary was, she would not cling to her defiance much longer, once she saw that he meant what he said about distancing himself from her until she took the Oath. He would not have to wait too long before she wrote to him, apologizing for her offences against him and pledging to take the Oath and, until then, she would be comfortably provided for at Hundson.

Jane had already left for Wolf Hall, her belongings packed in haste and a carriage arranged to bring her home as soon as she was ready to travel. Her brother, Edward, accompanied her and Henry didn't doubt that that shrewd man would know that, after the way Henry defended Anne when Brandon spoke against her, Jane's dismissal from court could not be taken any other way than that Henry no longer wished for her to be his wife. He was no fool who would delude himself into thinking that this was an attempt at deception on Henry's part, allowing him to make the court believe that he was reconciled with Anne and buying himself time to move against her and, once she was gone, to recall Jane to court so that he might marry her.

Sir John Seymour might have tried to console his daughter, and himself, with theories about Henry sending Jane away to still gossip about them so that, when he annulled his marriage to Anne, he would not need to worry about the people condemning him for setting aside another wife when he decided the he would prefer another woman but Edward would not let her cling to false hope.

He would ensure that Jane could harbour no illusions about her chances of being Queen, telling her that her hopes were at an end as soon as Henry turned on Brandon for speaking against Anne.

Anne was more cheerful than he had seen her in a long time. Her pleasure in the time spent with Elizabeth was evident and, when he went to her to let her know that he had dismissed Jane, she impulsively thanked him for it before checking herself, remembering that, as Queen, she should not trouble herself to notice Jane's existence, much less the fact that Henry was attracted to her. She was still somewhat wary, as though she expected to discover that there was an ulterior motive that had led him to punish Brandon for slandering her and to dismiss Jane, Anne's one-time rival, from the court but, even though he didn't like to acknowledge it, he had to accept that it was natural that, after everything that had happened, she would be slow to trust her good fortune, and slow to trust him. Only time could convince her of his sincerity.

Of the four of them, it was Anne who occupied his thoughts the most, and she was the only one that he was not yet fully happy about the way he left things between them.

It was late but, despite that, Henry rose from his bed, as though his legs had developed a mind of their own. The groom was a light sleeper and awoke as soon as he heard movement, jumping from his cot, ready to serve, but although Henry allowed him to help him into his robe, he did not allow him to accompany him when he left his apartment, nor did he allow the sentries who stood guard outside his door to escort him.

The journey to Anne's apartment was a short one but it was one that he wanted to make alone.

Anne was sleeping but Madge Shelton was awake and, when she saw him, she hastened in to wake Anne before he could stop her. "Madam, the King is here!"

If Henry had ever been in doubt of how much his wife had hoped and prayed that he would begin to visit her bedchamber again, Anne's reaction to this news told him all he needed to know. She was awake and alert as soon as Madge spoke to her, sitting up in bed with a smile of welcome and joy on her face, her blue eyes full of hope.

"Your Majesty." She greeted him warmly, hesitating briefly as she tried to decide if she should get up and ask Madge to bring her her robe so that they could sit and talk or if she should stay in bed and wait for him to join her there. She was hoping for the latter but did not dare to ask.

How could he disappoint her?

"My lady." He said, shaking his head slightly to indicate that she should stay where she was. He sat down on the bed next to her, the silk coverlets crumpling under the weight of his body, and he reached out to stroke her hair and then to gently run a finger down her cheek. "Sweetheart." He was pleasantly surprised to find that the endearment came more easily than he would have thought and that, far from feeling forced, it felt natural for him to reach out to touch Anne, natural to want to be near her, natural to kiss her and to lie down next to her.

His arms encircled her and her body shifted into his embrace as though she belonged there.

He could wait until morning before they spoke again. For now, he wanted to hold her.

As he drifted off to sleep, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, as though somebody was watching him, even though he knew that Madge left Anne's apartment as soon as she knew that he would be spending the night with her mistress. He wondered if it was the Executioner watching and, for a moment, he thought that he could see him watching, a glowing white shadow by his side, before the image melted away from his sight.

If the Executioner was there, he hoped that he was pleased with what he saw.

"You were right." The voice of the archangel was melodious yet still betrayed surprise.

"I told you." The guise of the Executioner melted away, the form becoming shorter and slimmer, the muscles of the arms and legs softening while the large, calloused hands shifted into a woman's slender, tapered fingers, white and soft from lack of labour. "He loved her, even if he forgot it. All he needed was the chance to save her, he wouldn't refuse it, even if he thought he wanted to."

"I did not doubt his love, only his willingness to make the necessary sacrifice. What you asked of us was no easy thing. The price was a high one and he could not be forced to pay it."

"But he did pay it." The woman countered, a smile gracing her lips as she watched the sleeping couple lying on the bed before her. She leaned forward, reaching out to caress Anne's cheek, her touch so gentle that it was almost imperceptible to the living. Anne stirred slightly but did not wake, snuggling closer to Henry. "She's safe now, and so is George."

"Thanks to you." The archangel pointed out. "I don't know if anybody else could have persuaded him. Few have ever asked for such a thing, or thought to ask but you were so determined."

"Of course I was." She said matter-of-factly. "They don't stop being my children because I'm dead. I will always do everything I can to protect them."

"You've succeeded. It's up to them to decide what to do with their lives now."

"I know." She agreed. "But I will always be watching over them."

"I'd expect nothing less."