Ready at Your Hand, Prologue (1/10)

Author: dettiot

Rating: T

Summary: In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a Catholic plot against the queen comes to the attention of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. To protect Elizabeth, he develops an unusual plan: hide the passing of intelligence between two agents by a false romance. When Lady Sarah Walker and Chuck Carmichael meet, though, their pretend flirtation becomes much more.

Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Note: And now for something very different: a historical AU set in the middle of Tudor England. I have a background in history, so when I received a prompt at my Tumblr about Chuck and Sarah in the middle of a royal court, I immediately got inspired. This prologue features a good bit of history and might feel a bit exposition-heavy, but I thought it was necessary to set the stage. If you like history, when I post each chapter I will give a run-down on the historical background on my Tumblr.

Thank you to kastropi on Tumblr for the original prompt.

This story would be pretty awful if it wasn't for the brilliant /victorianoir. She was my first reader and provided lots of feedback, as well as hilarious commentary on each chapter.

I truly hope you enjoy this different take on Chuck and Sarah! Thank you for reading.

XXX

I have been ready at your hand,

To grant what ever you would crave,

I have both wagered life and land,

Your love and good-will for to have.

Greensleeves

XXX

On this June day in the year of Our Lord 1583, the small office within the Palace of Placentia at Greenwich was stuffy and dim. The windows were barred shut against the fresh, pleasant air of an English spring and heavy drapes blocked the sunlight. The work done in this office could not be exposed to prying eyes or eavesdropping ears; the clerk who sat just inside the office, sorting documents, had already shed his doublet due to the heat and his linen undershirt was splotched with sweat.

Yet after a near full decade of work as Queen Elizabeth's principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham had grown used to the conditions. His black clothing was perfectly in place, his ruff drooping slightly in the warm air. He methodically reviewed the latest reports from his intelligencers, sent from the corners of Catholic Europe as well as every part of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The reports detailed an array of rumors, conversations and actions, creating as a whole a sprawling, disharmonious portrait. And the image at the center was still unclear.

What was certain, Walsingham knew, was that the Pope and the Catholic kings of Spain and France were ever-ready to invade England, topple Elizabeth from the throne, and install a Catholic puppet who would restore the land to the blasphemies of popery.

Of course, that had been the goal of those men since the accession of Elizabeth twenty-five years before. When the Queen of Scots had been grudgingly allowed into England in 1567, leaving her throne to her infant son, a ready-made focus for Catholic hopes was created. In the subsequent decade and a half, the Scottish Queen-capable of charming any man into supporting her cause-had been the center of plots and intrigues, both foreign and domestic.

Walsingham set down his papers and sighed, stroking his stomach. By now he should have grown inured to the constant reports of yet another attempt to invade England, assassinate the Queen and install the former Queen of Scots as the country's new queen. Yet this latest plot, as detailed in these reports from his friend in the North, posed the greatest challenge to England since the Duke of Norfolk's treachery ten years before.

The need to be ever-watchful and ever-alert was grinding him down. He could sense that his old stomach complaint was preparing to reassert itself, promising another round of misery. That would mean a withdrawal from court to his country estate, leaving the Queen without his guidance. He was not so foolish to think the Queen could not function without him; if that could be said of anyone, Lord Burghley was that man. Yet he did not wish to leave Elizabeth Tudor unprotected.

With that thought in mind, Walsingham nodded to his clerk, who silently stood and withdrew from the office. Walsingham waited until the man's footsteps had receded, then drew out a key that opened the door to the inner office, where resided the secret cabinet which held the most important and closest-guarded secrets of the realm.

He had an idea on how he might guard the queen in the event of his absence, while at the same time facilitating communication from the newest weapon in the fight against Catholic intervention in England. The Earl of Lincoln's household had fallen under suspicion, and while his northern correspondent had taken steps to gather intelligence, more needed to be done to protect Queen and country. Especially since his correspondent had felt too much attention being paid to him, requiring an alternate arrangement be made to allow Sir Francis to keep the Earl under surveillance.

It was critical to stop those who sought the removal of Queen Elizabeth and the restoration of Catholicism to England, regardless of their status. And to do that, he needed intelligence. For as he prayed to God every night, England would remain Protestant as long as he kept his wits about him.

Opening the cabinet, Walsingham withdrew a small notebook and flipped through it. He ran his eyes over the ciphered lists, then nodded. It was as he thought: the Lady Sarah Walker would serve his purpose admirably.

The notebook was returned and the cabinet was locked. Walsingham sat at his desk and leaned forward, writing a message to the Lady Sarah that inquired about her health, commented on the fine weather, and invited her to visit him after the midday meal the following day.

It all seemed perfectly innocuous. Which was the point, of course. The invitation would be seen as a young woman meeting with her guardian, perhaps to discuss her future or family matters. But in truth, it was finally time to inform Lady Sarah of the role he wanted her to play.

To outside observers, Lady Sarah Walker was little different from the other maids of honour in the Queen's household. It was true that she was but a passable musician, a quality the music-loving Queen rarely accepted in her maids. Yet Lady Sarah had both obvious and unnoticed skills, and after four years of service had become well-known to all members of the Court.

Long ago, Sir Francis had seen how servants were overlooked and ignored by their masters. The great and powerful, used to the invisibility of their maids and valets and the rest of the staff, had little conception that those same servants were listening to every conversation. Watching a suspected traitor by inserting a spy into their household had proven fruitful again and again. That was what Larkin had done with the Earl of Lincoln: recommended an old schoolmate as secretary to the Earl, a man that Larkin could gather information from without arousing interest from the Earl or his cronies.

Rarely was such a spy a female, however. Walsingham had few female intelligencers in his network and none which could match his best male contacts. None, except for the Lady Sarah Walker.

And it was little wonder, for he had spent over ten years learning the best way to make a spy by practicing those lessons on Lady Sarah Walker.

XXX

"Enough!"

The voice of Elizabeth, Queen of England and Ireland, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and undisputedly the most powerful woman in Europe, rang out. It made men and women of all ranks tremble, yet Lady Sarah Walker had been prepared for her sovereign's interjection.

"I apologize for my poor performance, Your Majesty," Sarah said, rising to her feet and curtsying to the Queen before handing the lute she had been playing to another lady in waiting.

"Have you been practicing, Lady Sarah?" The queen's sharp blue eyes narrowed.

"I have, Your Majesty," Sarah replied promptly. "Yet I find I do not improve. A fact for which I am grateful for, as I would never wish to outstrip your talents, ma'am."

Elizabeth let out an unroyal but emphatic snort. "Your charm almost makes up for your clumsy fingers. But you are forgiven, Lady Sarah. Now, Lady Russell, play for us."

Lady Russell, the Countess of Warwick, nodded her head and began to play. Meanwhile, Sarah took a seat and picked up the blackwork embroidery she had abandoned when the Queen had commanded her to play.

Carefully performing the small stitches required for her sewing project, Sarah let her mind turn over the letter she had received last night from Sir Francis. It was unusual to receive communication from him, and even more unusual that he requested to see her. Yet it gave her hope. Hope that perhaps he was finally trusting her with an assignment worthy of her.

To those at court, Lady Sarah Walker was a maid of honour, charged with waiting upon the Queen and providing company and entertainment to the monarch. Sarah knew what most people thought of her: she was considered quite lovely and generally held in high regard. Her lack of musicality notwithstanding, Sarah was known for her skill at embroidery, a ready wit, and excellent dancing skills. It went unsaid among most people, though, that as the orphan daughter of a knight from Derbyshire, her prospects were limited. She had no land and little fortune. Now nineteen years old, Sarah knew that she was destined for a life of service.

Of course, she could always get married. But she had no interest in marriage; she had graciously refused those few offers she had received, demurring that the Queen would not like to lose her. And any suitors who had attempted to sound out the Queen on this issue had their ears pinned back by the monarch. This fit in with Sarah's plans perfectly-no husband would permit his wife to do what she wished to do.

Yes, Sarah envisioned a life of service, but not as a lady-in-waiting. She wanted to be a spy, like the men Sir Francis managed and coordinated. Yet her de facto guardian had been reluctant-nay, downright refused-to use her in that role, even when the scraps of knowledge she had reported to him over the last year had proven to be accurate and helpful.

She didn't understand his rebuffing of her services, when he had clearly planned for her to take her place as a spy. From the day she had first met him, he had instructed her in the wisdom of his motto: video et taceo, see and stay silent.

The soft plunks of needle hitting canvas were the only sign of her anger as Sarah considered her history, searching again for a clue to understand his character. She had known Sir Francis for over ten years now. They had met in Paris when she was barely eight years old and he was the Ambassador to France.

Paris in the late summer of 1572 should have been buzzing with excitement over the wedding of Henri of Navarre, the heir to the French throne, to Margaret of Valois, the sister of the current king. Yet there was no excitement for the marriage, because Henri of Navarre was a Protestant and his bride-to-be, like most of France, was Catholic. The religious tensions between Protestant and Catholic finally exploded a few days after the wedding, leading to the slaughter of thousands of Protestants. Including Sarah's parents.

Sarah swallowed. The loss of her parents had dimmed over the years; she had been so young and their murder happened so long ago. Yet that didn't change the hole they had left in her life, didn't change how their loss had altered her status. Before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, she had been a young heiress with a bright future. Afterwards, it was all gone.

From what she could remember and what Sir Francis had discovered afterwards, Sarah's mother, had been Scottish, part of the large retinue sent to France with Mary, Queen of Scots upon her betrothal to the French king's heir. As a devout Protestant, her mother had felt isolated amid the French Catholics. She left service after meeting and marrying Sarah's father, a young yet promising Englishman who worked in Paris as a merchant's representative.

In the summer of 1572, the small family had been looking forward to the next year, when they would all return to England and enjoy the riches that her father had acquired through the years. Yet as the angry mobs swept through Paris, slaughtering Protestants en masse, Sarah's father had left their home on the edge of the city to guard his office, never to return.

Those days were still a blur to Sarah, a hazy fog of hunger and sleeplessness and fear. She could remember sneaking through the streets at night, with her mother and their maid Marie, searching for refuge. There had been quick, quiet whispers between the two women while Sarah thought about her empty belly. And then one night, Sarah went to sleep curled up between her mother and Marie in an abandoned pigsty, but woke up the next morning with only Marie.

Had her mother left in the middle of the night to relieve herself and been killed? Did she sacrifice herself to save Sarah? Or had she taken an opportunity to leave her child behind and start a new life? Sarah didn't know and Sir Francis had never revealed whether he knew more about her mother's fate.

Marie, a young Catholic girl, could not hide Sarah. So the maid had taken Sarah to the home of the English Ambassador, Sir Francis Walsingham. "He can find your family and keep you safe, my little one," Marie explained to Sarah in soft, rapid French.

Parting from Marie had prompted more tears than losing her parents. Marie was the last link with her home, with her happy memories, with her parents. But all too soon, Marie left and Sir Francis took control of her life.

Without any family in England or Scotland to take Sarah, Sir Francis had agreed with his wife to allow Sarah to serve as a companion to their daughter Frances. And thus began the next chapter in Sarah's life.

Her past was concealed by Sir Francis; she was introduced as a distant relation of Lady Walsingham's, the orphan daughter of a knight. Brought up as a proper English girl along with Frances Walsingham, Sarah was instructed in reading, writing, languages and some basic mathematics, plus the usual lessons in dancing, music and archery. And then there were special lessons, taught by tutors hired by Sir Francis. Men who taught her how to handle knives, women who showed her to disguise herself with cosmetics and clothing.

Sarah frowned at her needlework. By the time she was fourteen, she had realized that this special instruction would be ideal for someone being trained as a spy. Yet Sir Francis never told her why he arranged the extra lessons, and after six years in his household, she had learned the benefits of staying quiet and keeping her thoughts to herself. When Sir Francis had informed her at the age of fifteen that she was to serve as a maid of honour to the Queen, she had hoped he would explain himself. Yet no explanation came. After four years, she was tired of waiting.

Perhaps it was time to confront Sir Francis. To insist on an answer to the question of what he intended for her. Today's meeting would be an ideal opportunity.

The chiming of the audience chamber's clock drew Sarah's attention. It was time for her to leave for her meeting. Rising, she waited for a break in the music and then curtsied deeply to the Queen. "May I have your permission to withdraw, Your Majesty?"

Elizabeth nodded and waved her hand in the air, and Sarah rose and backed away from the monarch. Once out of the chamber, Sarah walked quickly towards the room she shared with another maid. She had just enough time to change her ruff before meeting Sir Francis.

XXX

For Mr. Charles Carmichael, this day had been nothing but nerve-wracking. He shuffled his pen case and notebooks as he walked through the halls of Greenwich Palace, feeling like a child just starting grammar school. Actually, he found himself wishing he was back at Cambridge, studying with other scholars and seeing his sister and his best friend during holidays. But he was now nearly nineteen, done with his formal schooling and starting to make his way in the world.

It had been thanks to a fellow Cambridge scholar, Sir Bryce Larkin, that he was now employed. Sir Bryce had recommended him for a position in the household of the Earl of Lincoln, the Lord High Admiral and a gruff, taciturn man. After three weeks in the Earl's service, Chuck still didn't know exactly why the Earl needed another secretary. Between the Earl's private secretary and Mr. Milbarge, the chief clerk, there was barely any work. Chuck found himself copying letters in order to stay busy. But Bryce had assured Chuck that the Earl needed assistance during their evening conversations at the local public house. He felt a bit guilty over doing little work for a generous salary, but his sister Eleanor had counseled him to be patient when he had visited her last Sunday.

"You've just begun, Chuck," she said, using the nickname she had given him as a child. Eleanor handed him a cup of tea before taking a seat across from him at the kitchen table in her small cottage. "Perhaps the Earl simply needs time to become used to having a stranger working for him."

"That's true," he had said, sipping some tea. "And at least I can help you now."

Eleanor had smiled brightly at him. "Your help is wonderful but unnecessary. Soon Devon will be finished with his training and then we'll be married."

Chuck had returned his sister's smile and done his best to enjoy the rest of his visit before returning to within the city's walls. Yet he still felt confused about what was expected from him. His feelings of uncertainty had increased after the letter he found at his lodgings, left there by Bryce.

It had been more of a quick note, informing Chuck that he had to leave for Paris immediately. "Visit the Crown and Thistle the day after tomorrow as usual, and a friend of mine will meet you there," Bryce had instructed him.

Part of him wondered at the odd request, fearing into what Bryce had gotten him. At Cambridge, Bryce had convinced Chuck into youthful hijinks a few too many times for his comfort. But that was back when they were barely out of childhood. They were both now grown men. Bryce wouldn't let him come to any harm. So Chuck, convincing himself that he was feeling unnecessarily worried, had gone to the public house.

To his surprise, it had been Sir Francis Walsingham waiting to speak with him. Sir Francis, the Queen's secretary, one of the most important men in England! Over a dinner of mutton, rye bread and ale, Sir Francis had informed Chuck of the truth of the situation.

"Your employer has become surrounded by traitors," Sir Francis had said in a soft, guarded voice. "Your friend, Sir Bryce, knew this and wished to prevent these traitors from attacking the Queen or damaging her realm. However, he is no longer available to meet with you and gather your observations."

"That-that was why he recommended me for the position?" Chuck asked, staring at the elderly man in front of him.

Sir Francis nodded. "Yes. Normally, he would send your answers to me. You cannot report directly to me; it would be too dangerous for you to be seen in my company that frequently. Therefore, I have arrived at a solution."

Chuck looked at Sir Francis, feeling nervous and fearful. All he wanted was a position that would support himself and help Eleanor. Something that would allow him to maybe one day marry and start his own family. Not that there was any woman who would look twice at him, but he couldn't help hoping for that kind of future. Safe, simple and quiet: that was all he wanted from his life.

But . . . but if the Earl had become entangled with people who wished ill of the Queen, didn't Chuck have a duty to protect his employer? Plus, he was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth. If he helped Sir Francis, he might be able to play a small part in keeping the Queen safe.

Wrapping his hands around his mug of ale, Chuck debated what he should do. He knew what his sister would tell him to do; Eleanor had always thought more of him than he did of himself. She would say that he was a good man and he shouldn't be afraid of doing what was right.

As always, his sister was wiser than he was.

So Chuck looked at Sir Francis and nodded. "What do you want me to do?"

The older man had a small smile on his face. "Simply watch the Earl. Learn who visits him, who corresponds with him. Listen to the conversations he holds with other men when he doesn't notice you are in the room. Every few days, you will compile what you know into a report which you will give to my intermediary."

"Who?" Chuck asked curiously.

"Would you be able to visit Greenwich tomorrow afternoon?" the spymaster asked, confusing Chuck.

"I believe so . . . the Earl hasn't informed me of any need of my services tomorrow," Chuck said slowly.

"Good," Sir Francis said. "Come to my office at the palace, then, at three in the afternoon. You'll learn more then."

Chuck took a long swallow of his ale. "Very well, sir."

In the intervening hours, Chuck had reconsidered his decision a thousand times. It was one thing for Bryce to play at this game of spies and traitors; as a nobleman, he had his family name and riches to protect him. But Chuck was nothing more than a smart boy who had received a scholarship to Cambridge, helping him to rise above his humble origins. If he failed in this, the best he could hope for was escaping without utter ruin. At worst, prison or death awaited him.

But somehow, he found an unknown reservoir of courage within him. He thought of what his sister would want him to do and what his childhood friend Morgan thought of him. Chuck knew that they both thought he was a good man. And he wanted to live up to their opinion of him. Considering that he might be able to help protect Queen Elizabeth, Chuck knew that he should do his part.

So here he was, following the directions to Sir Francis's office that he had received from a guard. Once he reached the office and stood before the closed door, Chuck took a few breaths, trying to gather himself. He smoothed his dark red doublet, then tugged a little on his linen cuffs, adjusting them. After tucking his notebooks and pen case under his arm, he lightly tapped on the door.

"Enter!" came the voice of Sir Francis.

Ignoring his nerves as best he could, Chuck stepped inside and squinted, trying to see in the dimly-lit room. Sir Francis was standing just inside the door, greeting him quietly before leading him deeper into the room. As his eyes adjusted, they widened when he realized he was not alone with Sir Francis. And the third occupant of the office was not at all who he expected.

End, Prologue