"The King Returns!" the heralds announced throughout the castle.
Isabella Swan continued to boil the laundry. Her job was never completed.
"Come down from there," Anne Hartley, one of the ladies in waiting, demanded.
Isabella stood on the step and stirred.
"I think the royal procession will take no heed if one royal laundress is missing," Isabella said. She hid her accent well. She knew what might befall her if she let her origins be flaunted.
"They will indeed. The entire castle is supposed to be present. There are no exceptions, by order of his Majesty, King Hen—"
"I know the name of our great sovereign," Isabella snapped. "I'll be down forthwith. Start without me, and I shall meet you there."
Why did Lady Hartley think it was her responsibility to order others about? Isabella knew what her job was, and she also knew she was insignificant.
The best part of her job was she had access to the royal closets and to their privy chambers. It meant she was trusted, could touch and see all the sumptuous royal clothes and sample of their plush textures. She reached inside her jar next to the implements and brushes meant for the thick cloths, and pulled out the key to his royal majesty's chamber.
She would have to hurry and put in the last of his clothes before he returned. Most likely the king would be tired and want to rest. She should have placed these clothes in their rightful place yesterday, but the queen demanded her attention. Catherine Parr was notable with her fashionable presence and suspected the king might return soon. Her dresses had to be immaculate, and the silk brocade clothes had to shine.
Isabella flexed her fingers. They were stiff from all the brushing of the royal clothes yesterday.
She sighed heavy and full, then looked down at her shabby, simple attire. Today she was so tired when she awoke that she grabbed the first pair of clothes she could find, taking no heed to letters that had been received of late from the king himself, stating his return was imminent.
King Henry was notorious for exaggerating his arrival. How many times had Isabella seen the royal procession delayed because Henry was feeling unwell?
Isabella grabbed the key and tucked it between her lips. Then she gathered his thick padded jackets, his doubloons, vests and capes and cradled them in her arms.
She ran through the halls up to his chambers. Her hand trembled as she unlocked the door. Once through the outer chamber, she breathed easier.
After she made her way through two chambers and then arrived at his closet she doubled her pace.
The trumpeters outside were blowing their horns.
Lord be with me! He's here already!
She stumbled into the closet, tripped and landed on top of her load of clean clothes.
Isabella rolled off the pile, and the moment her eyes scrutinized the clothes, she could see her job here would be over. There was a rip in one of his finer coats, dirt already ground into his green and gold vest and there seemed to be some kind of animal hair clinging to his black velvet robe.
"Damn these skirts!" she said under her breath.
They were too long and she scarce had a moment to alter her own clothing since she was so often handling the royal wardrobe.
She took a few heaving breaths and went about picking them up one at a time.
The least damaged clothes she attended to first.
She placed the first three items in their designated spots and brushed them off with her fingers, in case they did get dirty.
Hopefully the king in his fifty-second year of life would not notice a minor spot of dirt here and there.
But then even if his eyesight was less than perfect, the courtiers surrounding him would notice.
"I do not have the time to go back and rebrush these!" She scowled at the clothes.
Perhaps he would choose some of his newer items. He used to be known for giving away his clothes after wearing them only once, but in his older age he was more prudent and judicious with his wardrobe.
Isabella gave that credit to his wife, Catherine.
She was a humble queen even though she had expensive tastes. But there was not much waste in the castle since their marriage a year ago.
The fact Isabella was hired at all was a testament to the queen's prudent ways.
Catherine was keenly aware of Henry's wandering eyes, and she, the queen, made sure to only bring older ladies than herself in, as her current ladies-in-waiting.
Isabella was one of the few younger than Catherine.
But as the royal laundress she had little reason to ever come across the king or garner his attention.
As a widow, she was also considered less desirable, though it didn't stop Henry from marrying two of his wives, both named Catherine, and both outliving a previous spouse.
Isabella wiped with her sleeved arm at her misted brow.
The clothes were heavy and cumbersome.
After she finished with the next two vests that looked presentable, she went to the torn garment.
How would she explain this?
Perhaps she could take it to the tail—
"May I ask why you are standing in my way, mistress?" a deep booming voice said behind her.
She startled and jumped, dropping the damaged item. Her teeth slammed together and her shoulders hunched up.
She'd be banished. Henry would dismiss her forthwith.
She turned slowly around to face the king. Her expectation of finding an angry, red faced, stodgy old tyrant was shattered.
All she heard was incessant gossip about how fickle and temperamental Henry was.
This overweight man was sweating like she, but his slate blue eyes were gentle, and held a pool of good humor.
He chuckled deep in his throat when she picked up his clothes and handed them to him.
She curtsied and wiggled her way past him without a word.
"Since you are here, and you seem to take disagreement with these clothes, you can help me remove the soiled ones I am already wearing. I mean to nap, and you, my dear lady, may take all these clothes down with you to the royal laundress," he said.
His eyes twinkled with mischief.
Her breath caught like a clasp in her throat. Undress his royal person?
He must be in jest.
"But I am the royal laundress, and it wouldn't be proper to . . ." She lost her pattern of speech and thought, as he began to disrobe directly in front of her.
The first item he removed was not his coat—nay. It was his breeches.
And even though he was a portly man, well fed in his many years as monarch, he had comely legs. They were shapely and filled with power, but this still had her ill at ease.
He smirked. "That was the easy part. These hose are more difficult. I need assistance. Are you competent to do it, or must I replace you with somebody less attractive and maybe less in need of employment?" he asked with a taunting edge to his tone.
She failed to answer, but sucked in her lips instead.
Dutifully, she stepped to his side, and finally said in the faintest voice possible, "Sir, as your laundress, might I suggest we remove the coat first so I may better see what I am attending to while I remove your stockings off your backside?"
He laughed heartily, and a wave of shock ran through her entire body like a dousing rain.
She realized how awfully crude that sounded.
"I'm so . . . Beg your pardon, your majesty, I didn't mean . . ."
He gripped her hood and yanked it off.
"You may speak whatever you like. I find it a good wake for my soul, for none listen to this tired old man anymore. I weary of false ears and prattling tongues pretending to do my bidding. If they ever heard a word I truly said, this country would be much different, and so would my war in France," he said, handing her the hood. "You might be able to see better without this falling in your eyes as well." He smiled.
The gentle tone, the sadness and heartfelt goodness of his words made her insides feel warm and smooth.
There was nothing scary about this man. In fact, he reminded her of her own father—a tender soul and loyal husband.
She eased her way around him and slid his coat off.
It smelled of spices he'd burned on the boat.
"How weary you must be after your war and long travels," she said.
He sighed heavy and long. "The war was tedious and not as prosperous as I had hoped. But it did give me a reprieve," he said. "And I came to some decisions. My half-brother will be here soon. He'll be taking on many duties to relieve me when I am sore vexed with my cantankerous leg. There is talk of me making him my heir, but I am uncertain that is the course I will go."
Five groomsmen came into the room and diverted their gaze quickly when they saw he was being attended to by a woman.
This was unheard of.
"Leave while I converse with my laundress," Henry's voice commanded with a powerful air.
They bowed as they retreated, and she cringed at the thoughts of how much scandal and pain the rumors they would spread, would affect her.
This is gonna be a short story, but a lot of fun to delve into if you like Tudor stories.
Thank you to my pre-readers, boo1414 and Krystal Augstine, and my beta Anakin Smom. They've been such a terrific help. This story is already completed, so I'll be posting faithfully each Monday and Friday until I've posted it in its entirety.