Maid of Secrets

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Chapter One

April, 1559

London, England


Mule-brained Tommy Freeman would ruin everything.                 

To my credit, I didn’t even flinch as I caught sight of his white-blonde hair bouncing through the crowd. I’d been trained better than that. But the fat purse I’d just lifted from an unsuspecting lord now felt too heavy in my hand, and I shoved it deep into the folds of my overskirt with perhaps a bit more force than necessary.

Stepping away from my mark, I smiled easily and strolled forward a few lazy paces along the crowd’s edge; just another young English lady, out enjoying the day’s spectacle.

No one so much as glanced at me.

I ducked under a faded coronation banner that still whipped proudly above a milliner’s storefront, and paused to scan the knot of Londoners clumped together in the inn’s courtyard. Tommy wasn’t hard to spot.

Where was the pie-eyed little bit going? And what fool had thought he was safe to go a-roaming?

The youngest—and by far the most hopeless—thief of The Golden Rose acting troupe could barely pick the pocket of the simplest of villagers, but this was Londontown.  With his mutton hands and clumsy feet and a mouth that galloped well ahead of his brain, Tommy would be branded a thief before he’d bobbed his first lord. And then he’d be branded in fire, a white-hot poker pressed into the soft skin of his hand, forever announcing him a criminal.

My mouth tightened into a grim line. No child deserved that. No matter how pea-brained.

I threaded my way through the gawkers, steadying my nerves by snipping off another loose bauble from a slashed velvet sleeve as I passed. Then, the tuft of white hair abruptly changed course in the crowd, and panic squeezed my heart. 

For Tommy, who couldn’t tie his own breeches without getting his fingers trapped, crowds were a disaster. The boy somehow always went after the one mark in the mob who’d never be taken in by his sweet-faced charm and big blue eyes.

Show Tommy a hundred people to fleece, and he’d always choose the worst. 

It was almost a gift.

Truly. I’d seen the boy target magistrates and nuns.

Now, judging from the purposeful stride of his small, pumping body, Tommy had already picked out his next unlikely victim. I followed the child’s line of sight. And then I did flinch.

Tommy was heading straight for the Queen’s court. 

More specifically, toward a hawk-faced scowler dressed all in black, including a thick wool cape and heavy trunkhose despite the balmy spring afternoon.  I’d heard the man called Sir William, even as I’d brushed by him naught but an hour earlier. He looked like he was perpetually in a bad mood, as pale and sour as spoiled milk. The type of man who expected bad things to happen.

I’d been happy to oblige him.

But that explained Tommy’s interest, now, didn’t it. Sir William had been making a fine art out of flashing a temptingly round money pouch, loosely attached to his belt. He’d displayed the heavy bag no less than a dozen times with a toss of his cape. It was a folly, of course, meant to draw the eye and the errant hands of a thief, whom Sir William could then catch in the act and punish publicly. It would all make a very fine statement on the Queen’s policies on thievery.

Sir William’s smaller purse, discreetly tucked against his side, was the real prize. Or it had been. As it happened, I’d already nicked that purse without the good lord realizing it… which meant that Tommy still had a gift for picking the wrong mark.

Figure it out, Tommy….

A sudden spill of people jostled in front of me, blocking my view. For the first time ever, I wished a teeming crowd had not turned out to watch our company’s afternoon performance.

The Golden Rose acting troupe had taken London by its short straps—and not a moment too soon. Grandfather, God rest his soul, had always forbidden us to perform in any of the larger cities. But young James McDonald was the Troupe Master now, and he’d seen the truth of things quickly enough: with the crowning of a new, triumphant Queen, no one much cared for traveling actors anymore. The village folk were giving all their time – and their money – to bards with stories of London and its new royal court. All eyes had turned to the capital city. To survive, that’s where we had to be as well.

And without question, we’d never had larger crowds for our shows than here in Londontown, or riper pickings. Surely, Grandfather would understand.

Just today, in truth, as we performed in the sprawling courtyard of the White Lion Inn, we’d won the ultimate boon. The dazzling Queen Elizabeth and her court of fools had taken it into their heads to walk the city’s streets and mingle with the common folk. Even now, they tarried to watch our company shout our way through the second act of our most popular play, “The Beggared Lord.”

We’d felt the court’s royal presence before we could even see it, like the quickening breeze of a sea-borne storm. Gap-toothed urchins, worn-faced merchant’s wives, even sharp-eyed hucksters had all tensed with expectation, eager to see the new young Queen.  I confess I stared as well. She was nothing short of awe-inspiring, our Elizabeth. Young and powerful. Radiant. Gloriously free to do whatever she wanted. 

With her arrival, however, the crowd had swelled to bursting, to include my favorite kind of mark: smug-lipped lords who’d have never stopped to watch a gaggle of traveling actors, but who couldn’t help but gawk slack-jawed at royalty. I’d caught the knowing nod from Master James and had set to work among them. In no time at all, I’d secreted away a fortnight’s worth of their coin beneath my skirt’s heavy cloth.

Master James would be proud. I smiled just thinking on that.

But if Tommy picked the wrong pocket and was detained today, the blessing of the Queen’s presence would become our curse. Even if the boy didn’t come away with Sir William’s purse successfully, he would be detained for trying. Searched.

And though Tommy wouldn’t have Sir William’s money on him, he’d probably managed to lift someone’s silver this day. Which would be aught that was needed to doom us all.

Once the thread of suspicion began to be pulled, The Golden Rose acting troupe would quickly be unraveled. There would be twenty branded thumbs before the day’s end—the punishment of choice for first-time offenders.

And that was if we were lucky. If the Queen wasn’t feeling indulgent, our plights could be far, far worse. Gibbets. The stocks. The whistle of whip leather cutting into flesh.

My stomach clenched as a space cleared in front of me and I plunged forward, locating Tommy anew when he stepped deliberately into the outermost ranks of royal courtiers. With a nonchalance I’d perfected over long years, I moved ever closer to him, my steps meandering and my manner harmless. This was an act I knew all too well.

Because I was female, I was forbidden to play a true role as a Golden Rose actor before the crowd. Instead, I’d honed my theatre craft in the crowd.

I was a fine and laughing lady, a guileless merchant’s daughter, a wasp-mouthed fishmonger’s wife. I mimicked those around me with grace and ease—be they farmers, freemen or fools. To a one, I smiled, nodded… then picked their pockets.

By all accounts, you could say I stole the show.

I reached Tommy just as I saw his tiny hand flash out toward Sir William’s false purse, a look of confusion and dismay marring his bright features as, of course, he missed the man entirely. Then I heard the turning harrumph of his target. Tommy had committed no crime, yet that still might not save him.

Moving quickly now, I yanked a heavy brooch out of my bodice and swirled forward in a fluster of bluster, praying that my carefully painted face still gave the impression of sophistication far beyond my age of seventeen years. 

“What, ho, young man, you found it!” I cried, even as Sir William’s head jerked up at the interruption, his cold gaze flashing over me as I reached forward, clasping my hands over Tommy’s and pressing the brooch into his dirty palm. “My sweet and heavenly days, this is some great luck. What a wonderful lad you are, for finding my lost treasure!”  

Even Tommy realized something had gone terribly wrong. “T-tis nothing, m’lady, I saw it shining in the dirt?” he said hopefully, his wide eyes desperate as he proffered the brooch back to me.

 “And shine it would!” I beamed, taking the bit of jewelry with great show. “You’ve done very, very well. You should be proud of yourself.”

Tommy nearly fainted with relief, his grin huge and heartfelt. God love the boy, he did try. 

As I cooed and fluttered, however, I could feel the chilly grey censure of Sir William, hovering like a soft-gloved hand over my hair, ready to strike.  Panic clawed up my throat under the man’s keen attention, but I kept my voice steady, my eyes bright.

“There, now, off you go,” I said, plucking a coin from the largest purse in my carefully-sewn pockets, and forcing myself not to smirk. I was paying Tommy with Cecil’s own coin, of all the grand irony. Swiftly, I pressed the shilling into Tommy’s hand. “Run along and get yourself a pastie, sweetling, and tell your mum ‘twas a gift for being the smartest of boys.”

“I will! I will then! Thank you!” 

As Tommy dashed away, shouting with his good fortune, I turned smartly in the other direction, clutching the brooch to my chest, a fine lady with her riches restored. I went five long paces, then stepped into a deep and shadowed doorway, holding my breath as I glanced back.

I needn’t have worried. To a man, the crowd looked on with indulgent smiles at Tommy’s loud and coltish run, no one giving a thought to the woman who’d rewarded him so generously.

Even Sir William’s eyes tracked the boy, a curiously soft, secret smile on the man’s thin lips. I offered him my own mocking smile from the shadows. Look your fill, you old goat.

I had no way of knowing that smile would be my undoing.

After allowing another few minutes to pass, I rolled out of the doorway, taking pains not to clink. I drifted through the crowd as The Golden Rose actors finished another brilliant performance. Master James and I exchanged another pair of nods as I passed, even as the crowd burst into rowdy applause. Had he seen me save Tommy’s thumbs?

The sudden heat that swept through me at that thought made me wince, and I looked away hastily.  Not for the first time, I decided that I cared too much what our new young Troupe Master thought.  

I lifted my chin, once more immersing myself in my role as a wordly merchant’s wife—whose husband was conveniently away on the continent, and ergo not carping at me night and day like all the husbands I’d ever seen.

Pish on Master James. There was no harm in being glad he’d noticed my accomplishments, but that was all there was to my interest. It mattered naught that the Troupe Master was young and lively, dashing in his deep black velvet doublet and slashed trunks, with his rogueish grin and curling chestnut hair and bright green eyes.  He was merely doing his job as Grandfather’s replacement, safeguarding our traveling license and ensuring that our troupe of twenty-odd actors and their wives and children did their jobs and ate their fill. He was a good Troupe Master, nothing more and nothing less, and I was glad to have him guiding our way.

Especially now. I grinned as I hauled my gold-laden skirts up a short stone staircase to gaze over the Thames, the last lines of “The Beggared Lord” booming out behind me. Grandfather had always worried too much about the dangers the cities held for our company. And for what? London had welcomed us with open arms—and pockets—and I’d never felt more right with the world.

As evidenced by today’s work, I’d successfully proven my worth to the troupe twelve times over. Soon Master James would promote me to lead the street thieves, and then I could begin keeping a portion of our profits for myself. Within three years—less if we kept to larger cities—I’d have enough coin to recreate myself as whoever I wanted to be, wherever I wanted to be it.

That thought was almost too much to think about. I hugged it to me close, a hidden dream.

Then I straightened, pressing my hands to the small of my back to counterbalance my heavy skirts, as yet more acclaim for The Golden Rose troupe thundered through the courtyard behind me. I had no more time for dreaming. There were riches to be sorted and sold, and plans to be made for our next performance. Master James relied on me more with each passing day. And if he hadn’t seen my work with Tommy, I thought, I’d be the first to tell him about it, and I’d bury my blushes in gold. Everything was moving forward the way it should, and I was at the pinnacle of my abilities: subtle, skillful, and—in my own way—wondrously free.

Two weeks later, they caught me.