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The Sophistry of Alchemy

 

Prologue

London

December, 1482

 

Isolda looked across the table at him, the man who was everything to her, the man whom she had loved since she was little more than a child. He held her gaze steadily, his eyes full of remorse, the turn of his mouth a haggard expression of regret. Hesitantly, he reached across the table and touched her hand, and she – without thought, without willpower – flinched and drew away. His eyes darkened. To avoid his look of vexation, she quickly dropped her eyes to the table, where she traced the lines of a carving in its wooden surface nervously with her fingertip.

“How will Your Grace make him pay?” she demanded above the din of the ale-room, her voice tremulous despite every effort.

He shook his head. “Only time will tell, Isolda. And surely, you realize that these things take time.”

“I haven’t got time,” she responded, refusing to meet his eyes. She felt suffocated by his presence, meek before his impressive stature. She wanted to run from him, yet at the same time she longed for the familiar warmth of his embrace, of his comforting arms and probing fingers, of his mouth that devoured and his words that soothed. “He must be felled.”

“And so he will be.” Once more, he reached across the table and grabbed her hand. This time he gripped her wrist, his fingers unyielding. “I failed in protecting you, and by God do I suffer. Would you believe, Isolda, that I, the Duke of Buckingham, felt such remorse for anything as I have felt for my failure?”

Isolda smiled thinly, wryly. “Has Your Grace regretted anything?”

“But for this, per carú, no.”

The sound of her Welsh sobriquet, that which he had called her when she was a child, surprised her. Her head jerked up, and she saw that he was softly grinning. For a third time, she tried to retract her hand from his grasp, but his hold was immutable. She had to remind herself of that which she had always known: what Buckingham wanted, Buckingham attained. Her words sounded hollow to her as she muttered,

“I had come to believe your love for me was purely facile.”

“Forsooth, per carú, you be so wrong.”

“If so, then prove it to me!” she commanded savagely. “If you verily regret what was done to me, then you will avenge me!”

Buckingham released her abruptly and stood, his physical height dominating the tavern. For a moment, Isolda thought him angry, and feared the prospect of his displeasure. But then his eyes softened; he rounded the table and folded her into his arms, ignoring her attempts to squirm away. “Lady Fate be capricious indeed. For now, Dorset be at the top of Her wheel, but She be blind. One day, when it suits Her will, She will spin her wheel and Dorset will fall. And think how far he has to fall! I be an agent of Lady Fate. I can do nothing but aid Her.”

Isolda melted into his hold, resting her cheek on his shoulder as he silently stroked her back. How long it had been since she had felt his arms around her! The rosemary scent of his breath enveloped her like a cloud, his red-gold curls set with egg whites and sulfur crispy against the stiff box of her headdress.

“I want him to live,” Isolda said suddenly, the coldness in her voice startling her, “in shame and misery. I want him to feel the indignity, the humiliation, he caused me.”

“And so he shall, my counterfeit baroness.”

“You will fell him?”

“I swear it.” He wrapped his powerful hands around her shoulders and forced her upright. “Tell me you love me.”

She was obsequious in her reply, for she knew what was expected of her. “I love Your Grace.”

“And be you mine, per carú?”

As long as he avenges me, she thought to herself. But aloud Isolda answered simply, “Always.”

 

Chapter One

Brecknock Castle, Brecon

Friday, 18th April, 1483

The rain was not the cruel vengeance of autumnal storms, but rather the sweet, vernal melody of springtime showers. Though the clouds blanketed the southern Welsh sky like a nun’s habit, there was more than enough light for Buckingham to read by; the streaks of rain down the green-tinted window pane and the pocks in the leaden pane’s uneven surface made fanciful shadows on the linen paper of the letter clasped in his hands. His eyes studied the large blot of green wax sealing the letter closed, the imprint of the monogram with the letters I M S curling into the baron’s coronet surrounding it. Buckingham knew the monogram well, not just from years of receiving letters from its owner, but because he had designed it. He had gifted it to her. Isolda Sevin, Baroness of Merioneth. Just as he had created the monogram, so had he created her.

Buckingham ensnared the light green ribbon entrapped by the green wax and pulled upward, breaking the wax’s bond with the letter. He smiled to himself. Isolda always used green. It was his favorite color on her: green for virginity, green for innocence, green because it matched her eyes.

The script on the page was familiar, delicate and submissive like its author; the language indecipherable to most Englishmen because when Buckingham and Isolda spoke in secret, they spoke in Welsh. The smile lingered on his lips as he commenced to read:

My dearest Duke-

Commend me unto Your Grace this 15th day of April, as I pray heartily for your health and well-being. I informed you in my last letter of the untimely death of our goodly King, but six days ago, and that His Grace the Duke of Gloucester was appointed Lord Protector. I write firstly to inform Your Grace that my husband has bowed to your demand and entreated Her Grace of Gloucester to allow me succor in her household at Middleham. I have already left, and I write this to you from an inn at Stony Stratford, where we have stopped for the night. I know not what has ensued in London during my absence, but I shall endeavor to explain what the Queen’s Wydeville kin have done since the death of our King; though, surely you have been duly informed by your own spies, I shall yet fulfill my duty to you and tell you all.

            Buckingham paused, stroking the stubble on his chin and turning his gaze to the sodden grounds of Brecknock Castle below. Isolda was right. He was informed daily of the goings-on at court by his intricate network of spies, a network he had been at liberty to develop because he had had nothing else to do for the thirteen years he had been Duke in his own right. King Edward had refused to give him any substantial appointments, nor any role in the government of the Realm. Such appointments were his by desert, yet he had been deprived of them. The wound was cutting and deep. So Buckingham had tried to heal as best he could: by spying.

            With a growl in the back of his throat, he returned to Isolda’s letter. Mayhap he already knew, but he wanted to read Isolda’s telling of the tumult.

As expected, the Queen and her kindred oppose the dead king’s will most heartily. The Queen had purposefully kept the news of the King’s death from Gloucester, and her Wydeville kin have acted fast. That lecherous devil-spawn, Dorset, passed a measure to equip a fleet of vessels under the auspices of protecting the coast. I overheard Lord Hastings complaining to my husband that Dorset now controls the royal ordnance and the treasury.

            Buckingham nodded thoughtfully to himself. Isolda did not know that Dorset had taken half of the royal treasury and sent it to sea with his naval fleet, hiding the other half for himself. Dorset controlled too much, Buckingham mused as he continued reading:

The Queen has summoned the Prince of Wales to London forthwith, so that he could be crowned immediately. The date of the Prince’s coronation be set to the 4th May.

            “Begad!” Buckingham exclaimed. “So soon!” This, he had not heard from his spies, either because they were not privy to the innermost workings of the dead king’s privy council, as Isolda was, or because the news was so recent that it had been Isolda’s letter that reached him first. He drew in a deep breath and finished Isolda’s letter.

I know you be not entirely disposed to Gloucester’s cause, but I pray you think of the alternative. You know what Dorset did to me. He shall ravage England as surely he did my body, and as the Prince of Wales will not reach his majority for another four years, he shall be nothing but a puppet. I beg Your Grace to come to Gloucester’s aide. Pledge him your support. I shall do what I can to keep you informed from Middleham.

                        Yours for eternity,

                                    Isolda - BM

Isolda had nothing to fear. Buckingham crossed the room to his cabinet and withdrew a piece of linen paper and a pen. He quickly sharpened the pen’s bone point, then opened the cap to the bottle of ink and dipped his nib. One letter was to Gloucester, short and concise. The other was to Isolda, reassuring her of his intentions.

Buckingham felt a storm was brewing. The White Rose of York, the noble household that had ascended to the throne under King Edward’s leadership, was breaking under the pressure of its fragile façade. The Wydevilles had been followers of Lancaster, and though King Edward had tried to enfold the Wydevilles into the realm of the White Rose, the Wydevilles would have never completely forsaken their tendencies toward Lancaster’s Red Rose. How long, Buckingham wondered, had King Edward expected the farce to last?

Buckingham had been raised red just as the Wydevilles had, but Dorset had decided what side Buckingham would support more than two years ago. It did not matter if Buckingham was ill-disposed to Gloucester’s cause; he had made a promise to Isolda, and now he saw his chance. Dorset would fall, and Buckingham would relish the occasion.

                                                                        ***

Lady Anne rushed forward from the stately group of northern lords waiting in the great hall and gathered Isolda into a familiar embrace. Isolda’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment as Lady Anne pulled away, damp from Isolda’s rain-soaked attire, but the Duchess did not seem fazed.

“Welcome to Middleham, my lady!” Lady Anne exclaimed, looping her arm through Isolda’s and leading her to where her husband and his retainers stood, ready to receive the noble refugees from London.

“Well met, Lady Merioneth,” the Duke of Gloucester said as Isolda bowed before him. He held out his hand and grinned softly as Isolda pressed his knuckles against her forehead. “You look decidedly better since the last time we met.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Isolda responded as he motioned for her to rise. “I daresay I have not been under the stresses that plagued me during our last encounter.”

“Forsooth.” Gloucester and turned and motioned for his men to follow him. “My lady, there has arrived a messenger from His Grace of Buckingham who bears a letter in your name. If you will accompany me to my apartments, you may receive him there.

“As Your Grace does wish.” She bowed quickly to Lady Anne, then followed Gloucester and his councilors into the duke’s apartments.

Gloucester and his lords left her alone in the antechamber as they removed into his privy council room. Perhaps feeling safe in the confines of his castle, Gloucester did not fully close the door separating the two rooms, and Isolda sat in a chair close to the door to overhear the conversation. For years, she had gathered information for Buckingham, and she was accustomed to looking inconspicuous in her eavesdropping. None of the servants seemed to notice her.

At first the councilors discussed the events Isolda was already aware of, but the conversation became most interesting to her when she heard Gloucester tersely declare,

“I have but one purpose, and that is to secure the Realm. His lordship of Hastings has requested that I depart immediately for London and take into custody the Prince of Wales. Tell me, Lovell, your opinion: are the Wydevilles so powerful that nothing will stop them? Does my position depend upon the custody of the Prince?”

“Your Grace surely knows,” the Viscount Lovell replied, “the Wydevilles fear nothing more than that Your Grace shall assume the role our goodly King decreed and take into your hands the Prince of Wales. Methinks if the Prince of Wales be under Your Grace’s control, the Wydevilles will consider all to be lost.”

“Methinks the same,” Gloucester agreed. “Summon Master Kendall! We shall dispatch a message to Rivers requesting to meet in Northampton, there to travel to London together. We leave Middleham in two days.”

A servant exited the room, undoubtedly the servant to whom Gloucester had demanded Master Kendall’s person, and closed the door firmly behind him. Such was the end of Isolda’s eavesdropping. As the servant hurried out the door on the opposite wall, another man slipped in, and Isolda was stunned to recognize the figure of the slight, odd-looking man.

“De Wainne!” she exclaimed, pushing herself to her feet.

De Wainne swept into a low bow, sweeping aside the folds of his red and yellow tabard. “My, my, Lady Merioneth, I be surprised your ladyship remembers such a lowly person as myself.”

“And how could I forget you, De Wainne? Have I not known you since I was but eleven years old?”

De Wainne’s bottom lip disappeared into his mouth as he paused to reflect, then reappeared gleaming with spittle as he sighed, “Ah! ah! Jesú, Lady Merioneth, but methinks you be right! And after these six years, does your ladyship still feel for our Grace of Buck the same affection as when your ladyship was a lass?”

Isolda’s cheeks burned red. “That be none of your business, Master De Wainne,” she reprimanded, but in all honesty, she simply did not want to admit that her affection for Buckingham had grown more over the years. “His Grace of Gloucester informed me you’ve a letter for me?”

As he bowed once more, De Wainne gave Isolda a smile that made her shudder. “Indeed, I do.” He handed the letter to Isolda as the door behind her opened, and De Wainne hailed the servant.

“Announce me to His Grace,” he ordered, brushing past Isolda. “I come of Buck.”

Isolda hovered just outside the door to try to eavesdrop, but all she could overhear was the muffled mumbles of De Wainne’s voice. At last a cry of joy expounded through the wood.

“Alas!” shouted one of Gloucester’s closest friends, a rich northern lord by the name of the Viscount Lovell. “Buck has sworn us his support!”

Isolda lowered her head to hide her grin and quickly left Gloucester’s apartments, excited to read the letter from Buckingham. She had always known Buckingham would swear his support to Gloucester. What better way to bring down Dorset?

                                                                        ***

As soon as he received notice from Gloucester, Buckingham gathered his men and rode with all haste to the North, determined to give Gloucester no doubt as to his loyalty. He sent ahead his boyhood friend and a knight of his body, Sir Persivall, to reassure Gloucester of his devotion and discover the other duke’s happenings. When Sir Persivall rejoined Buckingham and his men on the road to Nottingham, Sir Persivall explained,

“A man of Rivers arrived at Nottingham last night and informed Gloucester that Rivers wished to meet him in Northampton tomorrow, so that they might ride into London together. His Grace of Gloucester wishes that you change course to Northampton.”

“And what think you of this, Humphrey?” Buckingham pressed, sitting back in his saddle.

“Methinks Rivers would not deign to stop in Northampton. Forsooth, it surprised me that a man of Rivers even appeared.”

With a long sigh, Buckingham placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and dropped his reins momentarily to push back a stray curl of his hair. There was no sulfur and egg resin in his hair today; such luxuries were saved for the court, but not hard travel such as this. “What about the wagonloads of weapons along the road?”

Sir Persivall smiled smugly. “Gloucester thinks they be Rivers’ men, as expected.”

Buckingham nodded and clapped his friend on the back. “You’ve done well, Humphrey! You’ve done well!”

It was not until the next evening that Buckingham and his pitiful (as he called it) retinue of three hundred men entered Northampton. As Buckingham had anticipated, the city was far too silent. Gloucester had only brought five hundred men with him, and Gloucester’s Yorkshiremen were known for their respectful treatment of the cities they passed through on their travels. Rivers’ men were nowhere to be seen. Another long time retainer of Buckingham, Thomas Perry, reined in beside Buckingham with the explanation:

“Rivers and his men rode on to Stony Stratford, fourteen miles south of here. The Prince, his closest men, and all two thousand of his armed escort have overwhelmed the town.”

Buckingham clucked his tongue and shook his head. He was about to reply when Sir Persivall, who was already dismounted, ran out to Buckingham’s steed and, grabbing the reins, stuttered,

“You will never believe who Gloucester be dining with this moment!”

Spurred by the urgency in his voice, Buckingham swung his leg over his horse and slid effortlessly to the ground. A quick snap of his arm pulled his cape of his horse’s rump, and he was already struggling with his riding gloves as he demanded, “Out with it, man! Who?”

“Rivers!”

Buckingham halted in his tracks, frowned with disbelief and turned to face Sir Persivall. “Rivers?” he repeated. “Where be his men?”

“He rode here alone from Stony Stratford to converse with Gloucester privately.”

“The presumption!” Buckingham paused, then ordered, “Surround the inn. Rivers will not make it back to Stony Stratford tonight, whether by Gloucester’s word or mine!” Summoning a bright smile, he strode into the inn and shouted amiably, “Cousin!”

He crossed the room in few steps and embraced Gloucester as if they were old friends. When his eyes fell on Rivers, he blinked, as if in surprise, and said, “Brother Anthony, I be all astonishment. My heralds told me you had ridden to Stony Stratford.”

Rivers paled visibly. “That we did, Grace. We were afraid Northampton would not have enough room to accommodate our young Prince’s escort and His Grace of Gloucester’s retinue. Seeing, now, that Your Grace has arrived, methinks I was right.”

It was a weak excuse. Buckingham could not help himself. “Have not Parliaments been conducted here in Northampton?”

A deep blush climbed up Rivers’ cheeks. The earl’s excuse hid his purpose like the crystalline waters of Avalon; Buckingham could see right through it. To break the uneasy silence that followed, Gloucester invited,

“Join us for supper, Harry. We were just sitting to eat.”

“Jesú, Dick, you read my mind! I be positively famished!” Buckingham did not wait for Rivers or Gloucester to sit first, but pounced upon the food like a ravished wolf.

As the three men carried on with supper, Buckingham encouraged Rivers to speak about his many travels and adventures. Rivers was a worldly man. It was unfortunate, Buckingham thought to himself, that Rivers had been born into the House of Wydeville, because he was as different from his grasping, arrogant siblings as white was from crimson. Buckingham silently mused over Rivers’ career. It was well known that Rivers was a patron of the arts, and had even patronized William Caxton, that innovative printer whose shop was in London. Rivers’ passion for learning was common knowledge as well. He had often boasted that he could read and write in French, Latin, Greek, and German, beside the colloquial English. It was not titles and fortune that had made Rivers a happy man, but the acquisition of knowledge. Secretly, Buckingham harbored a deep respect for the brother of his much-hated Wydeville wife.

It was far into the night when Rivers at last rose to his unsteady feet, saying he had promised the Prince he would return to Stony Stratford that night. Buckingham and Gloucester shared a glance, and at that moment Buckingham knew Gloucester had the same idea.

Gloucester laid a hand on Rivers’ arm. “Stay here the night, Anthony. It be a long ride south, fourteen miles alone and after so much wine. Surely you realize how dangerous the roads can be at night.”

Rivers shook his head, as if throwing off the crippling woes of inebriation, and said gravely, “Your Grace, methinks I should return.”

“Come now!” Buckingham cried, wrapping his arm around Rivers’ shoulders. “You may go tomorrow. The young king shall not miss you for one night. He has an escort of two thousand men, after all.”

Rivers tried again to protest, but the two dukes quieted his objections. Soon they had led him upstairs, gently forced him into a bedroom, and flanked to guards on either side of his door. Rivers was officially arrested. Buckingham and Gloucester retired to Gloucester’s bedroom. 

                                               

 

Gloucester already sat at the meager table, staring at a flask of wine and two cups awaiting his use. With a loud sigh, Buckingham took his seat across from Gloucester and reached for the flask, pouring himself a cup. He raised it to his lips, but said before he drank,

“What do you think, Cousin? Rivers was grasping at straws.”

“Riding to Stony Stratford,” Gloucester sighed, “was not a wise decision. Did he think I would not see through the lie?”

“There be more than enough room in the town. Men sleep in the stables, if they must.” Buckingham stopped, sipped from the wine, then continued, “Methinks they were wont to continue on to London without you. Rivers had no intention of allowing you to join them. Hear me, Cousin: if Madame Wydeville and her kin get hold of the Prince, all shall be lost.”

With a gruff nod, Gloucester replied, “I know.”

“You received Hastings’ letters, so you must know of the climate in London. God does know the Wydevilles control much – too much for my comfort.”

“What was my brother thinking?” Gloucester sighed.

“No one can know, Cousin, but he made a fine mess of things. Naming Rivers Protector of the Prince, Dorset Constable of the Tower, leaving so much in the hands of the Queen, he set up a Wydeville government so beautifully, then changed his will on his deathbed! There be no reason to his actions, I be dumbfounded! But I hear, Cousin, that men cower from the Wydevilles. They wish not to identify the Prince’s cause with that of the Queen’s.

“And Dorset be far too arrogant for anyone’s good. I hear he attempted to define your power at a council meeting. Hastings protested, but it did not escape my notice that a council was called at all. Without a crowned king to preside, a Royal Council be illegal.”

“Tell me, Harry, why you have come to my aide,” Gloucester demanded. “Do you support me because of what was done to Lady Merioneth?”

Buckingham was taken aback at the clarity of Gloucester’s question, but he was determined not to allow Gloucester to see his true purpose. If Gloucester did not trust in Buckingham, then Buckingham would not be able to use Gloucester effectively; and Gloucester’s malleability to Buckingham’s will was vital. Buckingham needed to regain control of his hold on Dorset and Isolda. He would not be satisfied until they were both dependent upon him.

With a shake of his head, Buckingham explained, “I will not lie that I wish to see Dorset fall, for what he did to Lady Merioneth was deplorable and unforgiveable. Surely, Dick, you would agree that Dorset’s fall would bring pleasure to you, too? But my reason for supporting you does not stop at so shallow a purpose. The Wydevilles represent all that be corrupt in our government, and I fear that should the Wydevilles be allowed to rule as they see fit, the Realm shall lapse once more into the civil war and strife of the past three decades. I do not want to visit upon my children the consequences of war that was visited upon me. Besides, what hope have we in the law if the Wydevilles reign supreme?”

Gloucester shook his head disdainfully, seemingly satisfied with Buckingham’s answer. “The law means naught to the Wydevilles.”

“Indeed,” Buckingham agreed dryly.

They continued to converse late into the night, weighing the decisions they had at their disposal. But if one thing was certain, they knew they must oust the Wydevilles from power. Buckingham’s smooth voice murmured across the table to Gloucester,

“Our choices if we fail, Cousin, be either permanent exile or death.”

 

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