Maid of Wonder, page 1
For my nieces, Abigail and Danielle.
May your lives be filled with wonder.
Writing Maid of Wonder was a true gift, as it allowed me to marry up my love of all things magical with my love for Elizabethan history. Many thanks go to my agent, Alexandra Machinist, for taking a chance on the Maids of Honor. It has been a wonderful journey! Thank you also to my editor, Christian Trimmer, for his profound insights and guidance, and to Catherine Laudone, assistant editor extraordinaire, for her patience in answering my never-ending questions. I am also sincerely grateful for copyeditor Bara MacNeill, who not only kept me in line with dates, word choices, and math, but who honored me with her thorough and careful review of my work. Any errors are, of course, my own.
Last but never least, thank you to John Dee for his fascination with angelic communication, and to the practitioners of magic and mysticism throughout the ages—the alchemists and astrologers, seers and psychics. This is Sophia’s story, and that makes it your story as well. Thank you for the inspiration.
Death always starts as a whisper.
The dark angel hovers just at the edge of the glade, cloaked in shadows. But its voice is clear enough, the undertone so grim, so depressing, the very air around me seems to wilt a little at its passage.
Back on my own plane, amidst Queen Elizabeth’s chattering court at Windsor Castle, I would not have heard its dire prediction so well. There, the angels’ voices are no more than a puff of wind, the rustle of a playful breeze. Too quiet to be understood but impossible to ignore; an endlessly taunting conversation, just out of reach.
But here in this place that is more their world than mine, here I perceive the angels all too well. Here they shout and clamor; they demand and scoff. Here they insist and wail and rage.
Still, when they speak of death, even the angels are careful to keep their voices low. As if they understood that this is information not made for man to hear.
Man—or in this case, woman.
Death comes to Windsor, the specter murmurs again.
I turn toward it more fully, taking its measure through the gloom of this bleak hollow that serves as our meeting place. For I know this dark angel, and it knows me.
I have dreamed of it since before I could speak, terrifying nightmares that accompanied my loneliest nights and most desolate days. Throughout my childhood I feared it with the whole of my being. But since I have begun entering its realm more boldly these past few weeks, something fundamental has shifted between this grim specter and myself. I have watched it drift closer and closer to where I stand, surrounded by the other angels. As if it cannot stay away from me, despite its clear aversion to the other spirits who grace this quiet space.
For it is not like them.
It does not gown itself in blue-white light, almost too beautiful to behold. Sparkling wings do not flutter around its broad shoulders, displacing the eerie mists of this realm. It does not even style itself as a man or woman, like all the other angels do. Instead, it is a creature of shadow and fire, of pain and loss and despair. Across the hollow it stands, hunched and cowled in its heavy robes, the faintest hint of yellow flame emanating from its hooded head. It bends that hood toward me now, and I feel the blackness of its stare all the way to my physical self. Dread and deep foreboding lance through me, though my physical form remains hidden away, seated on a stone bench in a quiet glade much like this, just inside the edge of Windsor Forest.
But while my body rests safely in that small wooded clearing, my spirit is here, in the angelic realm. And in this place of dreaming, my spirit is strong. Here, I need not mask my oddness, desperate to remain unnoticed. Here I need not cower or shrink.
Here I need only one thing.
“Who will die at Windsor? Can you give me a name? Or has this shade already crossed over?” I glance into the murk surrounding me, feeling the gaze of some poor departed soul trapped there, who is even now peering at me from the gloom. Its attention seems almost too strong to be one of the dead, too focused and intent, but I have never encountered any creature in this spectral realm that was neither angel nor shade. Perhaps this soul died recently . . . or reluctantly.
A chill slips along my skin. When I was very young, I believed that the angels who whispered to me were people who had passed away, still longing to reach the ones they’d left behind. But I have since come to understand that the dead do not speak in this shadowed realm. The souls of the departed can linger here, true. But they merely wander silently, caught between the world they’ve left and the world they fear to enter.
I have always pitied those grey shades. Recently, I have come to understand them as well.
For I am Sophia Dee, the much-remarked-upon niece of the most learned man in England. I am the weird girl, with nightmares and headaches and strange visions that assault me at awkward times. The girl who hears whispers when no one is talking, and who sees shadows in the full light of day. But despite all these things, I was also always the girl who knew her place in the world—who at least was certain of her past, if not her future.
Because, as I have recently learned, I am not merely Sophia Dee, quiet and strange; the youngest member of the select group of maids chosen to spy for the Queen. I am also Sophia Manchester, the stolen-away child of a wealthy, loving father and a long-dead mother. The girl of pure potential, a symbol and a prize. The soon-to-be mystical warrior, whose power shall lie not in my sword, but in the secrets I will one day snatch from the angels’ perfect lips.
And I will show them all.
I will be the seer the Queen believes that I can be. I will earn my title as a Maid of Honor, standing shoulder to shoulder with the other girls who make up our secret company: a thief, an assassin, a genius, and a beguiler. I will see the future so well and so clearly that I will prove to be Elizabeth’s most valued asset, worthy of my place in her service. I will belong once more within the world of man, even as I learn to walk ever further into the realm of angels. And I will show them all.
“Answer my questions, else I will leave!” Most of the angels shrink away from my harsh words, but the grim specter seems to embrace my anger. To revel in it. The wisps of flame, which were at first barely visible at the edge of its cowl, now seem to brighten as my irritation sharpens, and the dark angel’s body becomes more solid in its cloak of dun-colored wool.
Emboldened, I take a long step forward, away from the bench that serves as my grounding point within this dreaming plane. The bench is made of pure obsidian, the same material as the small scrying stone I carry around my neck. When I first saw the obsidian bench in this glade, I knew its purpose immediately. It is my touchstone, the way back to my own plane. As long as I can see that bench, touch it, I will always find my way home.
Accordingly, I know I should never lose sight of this bench, though I am sorely tempted. I long to race into the angelic plane without restriction, to learn all its secrets. I dare not, of course . . . and yet I cannot help but wonder what lies beyond this misty glade.
Worse, the specter seems to sense my unspoken yearning. It watches across the open space between us, its silence now a mockery. It recognizes that I am linked to the obsidian bench, as surely as if I were holding on to my mother’s hand, a hand I can no longer remember. The dark angel stands there, testing me, and I take another step forward, away from safety. Away from the certainty that I can leave the spectral plane at any moment, the certainty that I am in control.
I am no fool, mind you. But this
Then it deigns to speak, and my heart shrivels within me.
Though I see it plainly across the clearing, the dark angel is also at my side, bent close to my right ear, its fiery breath hot upon my neck.
Death plays your Queen in a game without end, it whispers. It circles and crosses, then strikes once again.
“No! No riddles,” I demand, grateful for the spark of anger that drowns out my fear. “Tell me plainly what I must know.”
They do this, the beings in this place. They speak in rhymes and twisted verse. I am certain their craftiness is deliberate, to keep me here as I struggle to understand them. But I have no patience for such games this day, not if the Queen is truly in danger. “Elizabeth herself will be attacked?” I ask. “But when? How?”
Across the glade, yellow flames blaze around the angel’s hood, licking along the rough wool. Suddenly there is a hiss of words in my left ear, as swift as a murderer’s knife. The death you don’t seek is the one you should fear. It aims for the blind, but catches the seer.
“Stop that!” I jump away, but there is nothing beside me. I look back to where the specter hovers. “I need actual answers!”
It is no use. My dark angel seems done with me, shifting away into the gloom. I know better than to follow it. Instead, I withdraw as well, stepping backward until the obsidian bench grazes the backs of my legs. I sit down firmly, resolutely, and stare out at the specter’s retreating form. If its words are worthless, then they are worthless. I will not drive myself to madness chasing it through the shadows.
Not today, anyway.
At the last moment, the dark angel turns to me. Its final words tease at my mind like a faint, mournful cry:
Follow the doves.
And it is gone.
Follow the doves? I groan inwardly. That’s like telling me to chase the wind. I close my eyes and allow myself to leave this realm of mists and misdirection.
I feel a familiar terror clawing at me as I resurface in the center of a brightly lit forest clearing, my lungs straining for breath, my hands clenched, my jaw tight—
I open my eyes. Around me, as always, I see naught but my charming glade tucked up against the eastern walls of Windsor Castle. It is a fine October day, and the leaves are ablaze with color. Hastily I tuck my obsidian scrying stone and its chain back into my bodice, smoothing down my simple dress. I draw in several steadying breaths, reminding myself that I am awake, I am alone. I am, for now anyway, safe. Gradually my heart stops its thundering, and I slump on my little stone bench. I prefer this location in the depths of summer, but I cannot deny its beauty even today, with the sun dipping low in the sky, and . . .
I frown, peering upward. How has the sun moved so far, in truth? What time is it?
A distant peal of bells shatters the silence, and I move quickly toward the edge of the clearing. The bells strike one, and I gather up my skirts, preparing to run.
The bells churn on. Two, three. I am running now, realizing that I have been absent for hours. Hours when I was supposed to have been bent to my tasks for the Queen, or for one of her ladies. Hours when I was supposed to have been studying.
Four. Then nothing further. Four then, but not five. I can still make the end of my last class!
I dash through the forest till my breathing is ragged and my lungs ache. Death plays your Queen, the dark angel said, in a game without end. Does that mean there are multiple threats to Her Grace? If so, from what quarter? And why can’t these messages ever make sense?
My lungs almost bursting with the effort, I reach the King’s Gate and do not bother slowing down, turning the corner and rushing into the Lower Ward. With the coming of harvest season, it seems the castle has flung open its doors to travelers far and wide—they are all here, and they have money to spend. I dart in and out of the closely packed carts, desperate to get through. Rounding a corner too quickly, I hear a startled shriek but cannot stop. I barrel into a woman whose cage goes flying, setting free—
A small flock of doves.
“Look ’ere! Wot’s this!” The woman’s caterwauling sounds far too loud in my ears, and my hands fly to my pouches, scrabbling for coins. Nothing soothes the affronted like shillings. I’ve learned to carry money with me at all times, as I am constantly running into everyone, from goodwives to guards.
“I’m so sorry!” I begin, still fumbling with my skirts, but the woman is already speaking over me.
“Ye’ve released all my doves, you silly chit! I’ll never— Ah!”
She chokes off her own words so sharply that I glance up at her. The old woman is suddenly as pale as death, her mouth agape. I turn to see what has caught her up so completely. Then I stare too.
Her flock of doves hasn’t scattered to the sky as we both expected it to do. Instead, the birds are racing through the market stalls, weaving and bobbing and diving around townsfolk and farmers, nobles and serfs. I grow dizzy trying to follow their flight, and then I notice something else. The birds are trying to escape, to soar up into freedom, but they just . . . can’t. An invisible force is somehow holding them back, trapping them within the circle of carts in the Lower Ward.
I see other shadows among the carts then, skimming and darting like half-remembered dreams. The angels? Are they yet with me? I purse my lips, trying to focus. I need to see what’s happening here. I need to see!
I tilt my head, and the world around me shifts, signaling that I have breached the spectral plane. I can see more when I am grasping the obsidian stone, but for now this half trance will do. Through the prism of my altered vision, the ward is transformed from a raucous collection of hucksters and buyers and steaming meat pies into a crush of carts that seem hemmed in by a malevolent force—everything trapped, frozen in place. The doves that I startled cannot escape this invisible force either. They are beaten back every time they reach the edge of the carts.
Through the frantic weaving of the doves, I see something else as well—ravens. Several of the large glossy birds are perched atop the outermost stalls of the market day crowd, their beady eyes locked on the frenzied white doves. The carts the ravens have chosen are all prosperous, large, and overflowing, with grinning, gap-toothed women out in front. When I focus on the women, however, a chill clutches at my heart. I know one of them.
It’s Mistress Maude.
As round as an apple, with steel-grey hair and a loud, boisterous manner, Maude is an herb mistress in the town of Windsor, renowned for her true love tinctures and honesty teas. But of late, my fellow spies and I suspect that she brews far more than harmless potions in her cottage workroom. I, for one, came away from her market stall in Windsortown but weeks ago convinced she was a poisoner. So far, however, I have no proof, only my suspicions. Which is hardly enough to call in the magistrates.
But seeing Mistress Maude here, in the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle, strikes me as important. And important in a very bad way. I glance from her to the women standing next to the other carts where the ravens have perched. Their presence feels dark, almost ominous. What is their purpose here?
“’Ave a care!” The startled voice of the dove seller cuts across my half trance, and I snap back to the present moment, just as we’re both surrounded by frantically flapping doves. The birds—quite literally—have come home to roost, landing with a flurry of wings at the old woman’s feet.
“God’s breath,” she says, her voice awed. “I’ve never seen the like.”
Stupefied, she sets her cage upon the ground and opens it, and the birds walk, flop, and hop in, as docile as hens at feeding time. We both stare at the cage, then at each other. When have wild birds ever acted this way?
“Ho there, Miss Sophia!”
“Master Seton!” I manage. “You startled me.”
“Not ’alf as much as you just startled that poor goodwife, I wager.” Seton chuckles and moves his hand over my hair. At the light brush of his weathered fingers, a few white feathers drift down past my face. “Shouldn’t you be in the Upper Ward?”
I try to quell my nerves. Of late, it seems as though every guard in the castle knows my business. Has the Queen ordered that I be watched? I know Elizabeth is eager for me to show signs of my skills, but surely she hasn’t grown so impatient that she tracks my every move. “I was getting some air.”
“Outside the walls? Good Windsor air does not suit you?” Seton draws in a deep breath, his barrel chest expanding to its full bulk, and I cannot help but laugh. I do like Seton, no matter that he treats me not as a young woman of the court, but as if I were his own grandniece, always underfoot. I glance past him and see his mare tethered away from the other mounts, and I blink in surprise. Sitting on the horse’s back, right at the crest of the saddle, is another blasted dove. “Since when does Ladysweet give shelter to birds?”
Seton glances over as well, and an indulgent smile creases his face. “She’s feeling poorly today.” He shrugs. “Perhaps the wee thing will lift her spirits.”
Only then do I note the mare’s drooping head and tired eyes. I am well acquainted with this horse, as I try to sneak her an apple more days than not. She’s normally as lively as a foal in the springtime, but not today.
“What ails her?” I move toward the horse, noting her unusually full belly beneath the loosened saddle straps. As I approach, the dove startles. It flies over my shoulder to where I suspect it will rejoin its fellows.
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