The knock was discreet, recognizable now. Chuck Bass stood from his cold bed and opened the door and as expected Daniel Humphrey stood there. He stepped aside and allowed the scholar to step inside. He asked, "What news have you of the north, Humphrey?"
"No news of the uprising today, my lord," answered Humphrey in a cautious note. By now he had realized how it was that the earl wanted to wake to news of the north, of that black abyss where Nathaniel had taken Lord Bass' wife and disappeared. Before Chuck could ask, he handed a rolled missive to him and said, "Lord Cromwell has asked that I give you this."
Chuck frowned and took the parchment. He glanced at the wax and saw the king's seal. Chuck broke the seal and unfurled the declaration. The first script he recognized was his name and that of Blair. He looked up at Humphrey and demanded, "What is this?"
"Your divorce, my lord."
Chuck's brows drew together. "I did not ask for a divorce." The king be damned, and he would say it aloud were it not for his fear that the king had spies everywhere.
The scholar nodded. He continued, "The king, or perhaps Lord Cromwell, shall speak to you of your choices. I believe they have listed the wealthiest daughters in court who shall make a good match for you."
In response, Chuck took the decree and walked past Daniel Humphrey and towards the king's quarters. When he arrived, the guards blocked his path. "I wish to speak with the king."
"My lord, the king is otherwise engaged."
"How is he engaged when council has not begun?"
"Lord Bass," Humphrey said quietly behind him, "do you think it wise to demand anything from the king's household?"
"Who is inside?" Chuck asked again.
"Lord Cromwell, my lord," answered the guard. Before Chuck could ask for entrance once more, the guard added, "The queen, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Mary."
The door opened and Cromwell stepped outside. From the doorway Chuck spied Henry leaning forward as he spoke to a red-headed child about as tall as her father's knee. He drew out a sharp breath when the face that stared back at him was that of the king, yet the eyes were so much like Anne. "Elizabeth," he whispered of the young child. He had sworn to Anne he would see to Elizabeth's care, but after having lost Blair he had little desire apart from gaining the king's respect. The girl looked hale, even when Queen Jane took her in her arms. "The princess—how does she?" he asked quietly.
Behind him Daniel Humphrey spoke, for truly he was the one who knew every piece of news in the kingdom. "Healthy. A hardy child. She has asked but once for her mother and when told Queen Anne would not see her again she had not asked again."
"She knows her mother is dead," Chuck acknowledged. "What pity for one so young."
Lady Mary stepped forward and curtsied to her father, then turned her head and spied Chuck Bass at the doorway. She bowed deeply and Chuck saw Henry dismiss his eldest. Lady Mary kissed her sister on the top of her head and walked towards the doorway.
"Lord Cromwell," she greeted in dismissal. The man bowed and made his way to the opposite side of the corridor. Lady Mary turned to Chuck and greeted him with all the grace that she carried in her aristocratic bloodline. "Lord Arundel," she said to Chuck. When she extended her hand and waited for Chuck to kiss it, she held with it the dignity of the Spanish kings and queens. Chuck bowed and kissed her hand. Even outside of the line to the Crown she was every bit the royal princess. "I knew your father," she pronounced, and Chuck did not think it a ridiculous thought. His father had been a proud supporter of the pope as was her mother. "She served us well."
"He loved your mother," Chuck admitted.
Lady Mary nodded and added, "Perhaps it is her love for our Faith that caused his mishap when he was ordered to the pope to disgrace my mother."
Chuck shook his head. He had no wish to discuss religion, or how matters of the church could take away a man's life. "How do you, Lady Mary?"
"I abhorred my disinheritance and the state of affairs when that whore took my mother's rightful place," she said candidly. She eyed Chuck from head to toe. "I hear you had been commanded into marriage with the whore's cousin."
"I was," was his neutral answer.
"I also hear that she has cuckolded you like Anne did my father."
Chuck closed his eyes. When he opened them he told the princess, "Lies, both of them."
Lady Mary's eyebrows shot up her forehead. "And yet you agreed to this divorce?"
"You know as well as I, Lady Mary, that once the king decides on a divorce then a divorce shall happen."
The corner of Mary's lips curved upward, and Chuck wondered if it was not inappropriate to discuss some matters with levity. "Lose your husband or lose your head," she said lightly, almost teasingly. He supposed if one was a forgotten princess, declared bastard by her own father, levity was the only way to save face.
"I know that your father loved my mother, but he was ever loyal to the king. And you, Lord Bass? What of you?" Lady Mary asked. Chuck did not answer, because any answer would either displease the king, or the princess, or whoever listened at that moment. Lady Mary stepped closer to Chuck and said quietly, "There are those loyal to my mother and to the true church, and they gather now in York to rally for the faith."
Chuck tightened his jaw and refused to speak a word of what he knew.
"His majesty, my father, seeks to stop the rebellion."
"If the rebellion seeks to question the supreme power of the king, the king has the right to quell it," he intoned.
Lady Mary's eyes narrowed. "The Vanderbilt clan is one of the most loyal. On the ground there are tens of thousands of people who gather. Lord Bass, the insurgency has broken."
He swallowed. Nathaniel had spoken to him of the same. He knew the plan. It seemed that all was happening according to the plan. Except, his wife was there. "Good."
"The king sent word of Suffolk and tens of thousands hastily dispersed."
"Word of Brandon and they dispersed. It must not be as fearsome as we thought."
The princess liked her lips, then whispered, "They think to gather again in a fortnight, in York, on Vanderbilt's lands."
Chuck tested, "Why do you tell me this, Lady Mary? Are you not worried I would speak of this knowledge to the king?"
The princess merely smiled and shook her head. Then she said, "Your wife comes along well and healthy, despite the hard life on the ground. This business of rebellion is taxing on one, especially with such delicate constitution."
"My wife—you know about my wife."
"I know many things about the rebellion," the princess said cheerfully. "There is some benefit from being a forgotten child. Oft the kingdom forgets to learn about me. Is it not odd then, that those that Catherine and Anne left behind find themselves now on the same side outside of the king's good graces. Pity you still are firmly lodged there."
Chuck grabbed the princess' arm. When Lady Mary gasped in shock, Chuck released his grip and apologized. "Tell me about my wife," he requested.
The door to the king's chambers opened. Lady Mary stepped away from the earl. Henry stepped out of the room and eyed Chuck Bass. Lady Mary curtsied, then said to Chuck, "I cannot tell you more but this, my lord. Make your way to her. Post haste."
"The king has the whole of court, and she only has you. Make your way to her and undo your divorce or you shall regret it," Lady Mary advised. "Anything you have to do, do it."
"The king does not trust me." He cleared his throat. "I threw my lot with Anne."
Lady Mary's eyes narrowed. "I heard you spoke against her in trial." And she stated clearly, "This is why I am here speaking of this to you."
Chuck swallowed. "I remember it differently. I spoke for Blair."
"And the whore?" Lady Mary pushed.
"I refused to speak for Anne when a word would have placed my wife at risk."
Lady Mary held Chuck's gaze, reading him it seemed. And then she nodded.
"Bass!" the king called. "What in bloody hell do you at my doorstep in an ungodly hour?"
Chuck stepped forward and raised the missive. "This divorce, your grace," he answered.
"Ah." Henry nodded. "You shall accept it and you shall thank me."
Lady Mary brushed past behind him as she made her way towards the doorway. She extended her hand. Lady Elizabeth took her sister's hand and curtsied formally to both Chuck and her father. One woman had before refused to divorce the king. Queen Catherine lived then in shame and seclusion until her death. The other woman was offered and divorce and took it, only to end up on the block.
"You are a free man, Bass. I have a ward, a most delightful girl of sixteen who spends her days with a needle and thread and spins the most outrageous little frocks." Henry described the girl he would have his new favorite wed. "Common blood, but her father married a wealthy, handsome widow who gave her a rather large sum for her dowry. She has no mind for politics, as is a young wife's place."
Chuck spied Queen Jane, the king's most favored, working on a kerchief in her corner. Quiet, retiring, yielding as it were. Jane looked up and Chuck caught the wise eyes, knew the queen hid more than the king could suspect.
"The girl is young yet, with much promise to provide you a son."
And then from her perch the queen looked up and offered, "Think, my lord, of an infant son with golden curls who shall come riding or hunting with you."
The king's chest swelled at the thought. He had not hidden from anyone the very thing he desired the most.
"Can you see him, my lord?" the queen asked.
Chuck had thought himself a fine man, and all fine men dreamed of lads to bear their name and title. "No," he answered in wonder. Because truly, he could very possibly die without a child.
"I have asked Lord Cromwell to draft your marriage documents to ensure we have young Jenny's inheritance locked for Arundel."
"Majesty, I have no wish for another wife," Chuck said, "so soon after my first." He confessed, "In truth I long for mine."
Chuck expected the king's anger. Instead, he was surprised that the king moved forward and quietly said, "I shall send for young Jenny then, that you might see if she pleases you." And then, "She will haunt your dreams and you shall wake aching for her. She is wicked and had put some witch's spell on your person." And Chuck wondered if the king did not speak from waking nightmares out of his guilt for what he had done to Anne. "And you shall wonder if she were not the only one you could love."
He almost nodded in agreement. Then the king continued, "She is not. You shall wed this heiress and you shall thank your sovereign. You shall yet have a fertile wife and a son to bear your name."
There was no heaven, no hell in the Tudor court.
"I thank you, your grace," Chuck pronounced. Heavens, the court truly made one into a man and twisted your balls until you fell on your knees for mercy. "I am," he managed, "grateful for your generosity."
At that, Henry nodded in pleasure. "Anything for Bartholomew's son." He motioned towards Chuck and when Chuck walked towards him Henry continued, "Join us for tennis this noontime, Bass. I wish to discuss a few matters with you."
At the invitation, reserved only for Henry's most trusted, Chuck knew his acquiescence had bought him this new place in court.
Chuck swung the sheep gut racket hard, sending the ball to the wall. It bounced off to the other end of the large covered court. Chuck glanced at the king, who leaned forward with his elbows on his knees as he watched intently. Chuck's sweaty hair fell over his eyes. He shook it free and saw the king's look of satisfaction when Chuck's opponent lunged and missed the ball.
"Dalgaard!" the king barked, and ended in a chuckle. "How feels it when you are playing with men who have no need f your father?"
The earl knew what he needed now, and he pursued it with single-minded obsession.
There was a smattering of applause. The Belgian ambassador's son tossed his racket to the side and shook his head. Then the king pulled himself up to his feet and gave a series of sound claps. The king motioned over to him and Chuck made his way towards his sovereign.
"Your father trained you well, lad," the king said to him.
"Indeed he did, your grace," he answered. Bartholomew taught him Henry's favorite game the day Chuck learned to ride a horse. Like riding, playing tennis was a necessity in court that Bartholomew sought to equip his son. It was a way to the king's good graces, his father had told him. Seeing the way Henry now regarded him Chuck knew his father told the truth.
"The old earl did have a way of smashing these balls to the wall," Brandon commented as he turned the leather ball over and over in his hands.
Chuck noted that the duke was fully attired for long travel. He nodded towards his boots. "It appears, my lord, that you are on your way away."
"Aye. Business for the king." Charles Brandon smirked. "Perhaps with age, lad, you shall go on your own assignments for the crown."
Chuck noted how Cromwell stood in attention at the conversation. He leaned by Henry's ear.
"I have trained myself my entire life to defeat the best sportsman in England," Chuck said, deferring to the king. "While the king heals his leg I must go to the second best." He extended the racket towards Charles Brandon. "My lord duke, will you fulfill a young boy's dream? It would please me to have a game with you."
"Bass!" called the duke in response, effectively cutting Cromwell's quiet words, "I would love nothing better than to show you a silver tongue does not a sportsman make. Alas, I am to leave at the king's behest."
By now a handful of the council members had gathered around. Chuck looked to the king, knowing that he had appealed to every sense of what Henry considered noble in the challenge. "Majesty."
Brandon shook his head, "My mission requires that I leave post haste."
Chuck contained his relief when the king declared, "Come, Brandon. How long shall it take to squash the young Bass?" Henry's voice almost verged on jolly despite the foul mood that often descended on him when he watched younger men play the sport he used to excel at. "Come teach this young man a thing or two of what I have taught you countless times. The north shall wait."
The north. Like his own guiding star, he needed a reason, a legitimate reason to come up north. He had not made a mistake in believing that if it was any serious matter, the king would tap on Brandon for his response. "York?" he asked.
"York to clean up scum," answered the duke. He took off his cape and handed it to his squire.
"Your grace," Cromwell said quietly. "There is no need to discuss the mission here."
Chuck turned a cool gaze to Cromwell, remembered well the demand to him on the queen's trial. "Why, Cromwell, if I did not know better I would say you trusted me not." Cromwell narrowed his eyes, but Brandon burst into quiet laughter. "Now," Chuck said to the duke, "how does a man join this trip? Tennis holds only little interest for me. I find myself searching for another pastime."
"You are bored, and you wish to join my journey?"
"It is real man's work, Bass," warned the duke.
Cromwell said quietly, "Real man's work. It is more than rutting and sowing your seed on innocent young women fresh in court."
The reference to Blair was like a sock in is gut. He felt a tick in his eye. Chuck lunged at him, but Brandon caught his arm. "Let it pass," the duke advised quietly. "Cromwell has the king's ear. Your temper cannot be your fall, not when you have already come far."
The assurance was enough. Coming from the duke, it might as well have come from Henry. Chuck considered that he had succeeded in what he sought in staying. "Perhaps, as my father had repeatedly said, it is time that I am a man of the court."
Brandon nodded and patted his back, then turned to Henry. "If the earl of Arundel can show us how much of a man he has become then I may use him up north, your grace."
The king squinted as he considered Chuck. Chuck pulled himself up as tall as he could. "You think you are man enough to aid Brandon?"
"I was man enough before I returned to court, majesty. Everyone only needed to see it."
The king guffawed, then waved his hand. "Then defeat the duke. If you are man enough to do so, you are man enough to shepherd wayward peasants in York."
At that, Chuck leaned to pick up the leather ball. With a smirk on his face, he looked down hard on the ball and thanked his father for the hours upon hours learning a game that Chuck had not thought any pleasure at all.
Someday, Bartholomew had told him, you shall see that this shall be your most vital skill.
Today, father, was that day.
Chuck bounced the ball hard on the ground and up it sprang with a loud thud. When it fell back down with speed Chuck swung hard with the racket and hit it hard towards the wall. The duke caught it as it bounced and hit it harder. Chuck caught the ball and half-twisted his body to hit it back, far above the duke's head and bounced on the back wall. The ball bounced off to the side wall, on the opposite side of the duke. When the duke lunged and fell at hi side, Chuck grunted it pleasure at the win.
He threw down his racket, then looked towards the king. "It seems, majesty, that I shall not be in your council these next days."
The king nodded and with a large grin he said, "And here your new bride is about to arrive. If she comes here and you are not, she might just take in the pleasant sight of all these other young gentlemen in court."
"I shall endeavor that my heart not be so broken, majesty," Chuck called to the king.
"Saddle your horse, Bass," said Brandon from the ground. "And none of the trappings. Leave the carriage and the chests."
Chuck walked over to the duke and held out his hand. Brandon accepted the assistance and allowed Chuck to pull him up. "The carriage was for my wife, my lord. I assure you, I can travel in much the way you do."
Brandon nodded curtly. "Where your wife is, a change of garment is a luxury."
Chuck stopped. His grasp tightened around the duke's hand. "Do you know?"
The duke answered, "Did you truly think a man as young as you could honestly beat the duke of Suffolk in tennis, Bass?"
"Then why?" Chuck asked, puzzled. Lady Mary had know enough to convince him it was time he left the comfort of court and retrieve Blair. But Lady Mary was the one staunch support of the faith and what the rebels wanted. If the duke knew—and he could not put it past Charles Brandon to know everything on the ground in a rebellion he was tasked to stem—then it might Lord Archibald, despite his own conviction, could not be equipped to keep her safe. More importantly, if the duke knew, then why would he allow Chuck's company up north?
"I have been where you are—wrapped around the finger of a woman that the king did not wish for me," Brandon reminded him. "I shall allow you your little fantasy and then you shall outgrow her."
Much luck, thought Chuck. One night with Blair and she had been in his dreams for three years, wherever in the world he roamed. Now he was a husband and a father to their lost little girl.
"Is that how it was for you?" asked Chuck.
"That is another lifetime, Bass," the duke responded. "This kingdom can offer you all that you ever want in life. Then," he said, "you shall regret nothing of what it took to bring you here."
Chuck walked towards his opponent and called for him. "Damien," he said.
The young man turned around and nodded at Chuck. Damien Dalgaard looked back towards the nobles, far enough away that they would not be heard. "The purse must be worth that humiliation, Bass," the ambassador's son warned. "You know that I am undefeated in my home kingdom. I fear you have soundly destroyed my reputation."
The earl nodded, then handed a purse of gold to the other man. "I told you when we met in Belgium that I shall always be fair. It is but fortunate that you have joined your father here."
"I am certain other lords would allow you to trounce on them before the king for a purse this heavy," answered Damien as he peered inside and saw the gold.
"I needed to challenge the duke of Suffolk, and defeating the undefeatable—with a reputation such as yours—is the only way I could intrigue the king enough to order Brandon to a game."
Damien nodded in satisfaction. "Had I played at my very best, you could still have possibly beaten me."
"I abhor long physical activities except for one," teased Chuck.
Damien extended a hand. "It was a pleasure doing business with you."
Chuck shook his head. "We are not done," he said. "How would you like to make a purse ten times that amount?"
The ambassador's son smirked. "You have another lie you wish for me to play?"
"If you play your cards right, you might come into a purse a thousand times larger."
"This is not a tennis game then," Damien surmised.
"This is a challenge to seduce a young girl," Chuck informed Damien. "If you convince her to wed you, then you shall come into an inheritance no one in Belgium shall ever deem you unfit being just a second son."
"And what shall you get out of this?" Damien asked. "I know you, Bass, and there is always something for you in these little deals."
Chuck shrugged. "Perhaps this time, I merely wish to reward you for your good work."
"Bass, the reason I trust you is that I always know what you have to lose."
So Chuck told Damien, "I have no wish to marry the girl, as the king would have me do."
Damien nodded. "Considering the element of danger that has come in by defying Henry's wishes, I shall need twice the amount you have initially offered."
Chuck laughed. "I expected nothing less from you." He shook Damien's hand. "You shall do it then?"
"Bloodstained sheets shall be flying from the castle rafters within the week that your bride arrives."
"Humiliation is unnecessary," Chuck instructed. "But I shall need for the king to know, and therefore break what engagement he had made for me."
"He shall find a new bride, you know, after this girl," Damien countered.
"Then I shall make you a rich man," Chuck answered.
He looked back towards the king and the duke and saw Brandon wave him over. Chuck nodded and turned back towards them.