The Tudor Secret - By C.W. Gortner


Everyone has a secret.

Like the oyster with its grain of sand, we bury it deep within, coating it with opalescent layers, as if that could heal our mortal wound. Some of us devote our entire lives to keeping our secret hidden, safe from those who might pry it from us, hoarding it like the pearl, only to discover that it escapes us when we least expect it, revealed by a flash of fear in our eyes when caught unawares, by a sudden pain, a rage or hatred, or an all-consuming shame.

I know all about secrets. Secrets upon secrets, wielded like weapons, like tethers, like bedside endearments. The truth alone can never suffice. Secrets are the coin of our world, the currency upon which we construct our edifice of grandeur and lies. We need our secrets to serve as iron for our shields, brocade for our bodies, and veils for our fears: They delude and comfort, shielding us always from the fact that in the end we, too, must die.

* * *

“Write it all down,” she tells me, “every last word.”

We often sit like this in the winter of our lives, chronic insomniacs in outdated finery, the chessboard or the game of cards neglected on the table, as her eyes—alert and ever-wary after all these years, still leonine in a face grown gaunt with age—turn inward to that place where none has ever trespassed, to her own secret, which I now know, have perhaps always known, she must take with her to her grave.

“Write it down,” she says, “so that when I am gone, you will remember.”

As if I could ever forget …


Chapter One

Like everything important in life, it began with a journey—the road to London, to be exact, my first excursion to that most fascinating and sordid of cities.

We started out before daybreak, two men on horseback. I had never been farther than Worcestershire, which made Master Shelton’s arrival with my summons all the more unexpected. I scarcely had time to pack my few belongings and bid farewell to the servants (including sweet Annabel, who’d wept as if her heart might break) before I was riding from Dudley Castle, where I’d spent my entire life, unsure of when, or if, I would return again.

My excitement and apprehension should have been enough to keep me awake. Yet I soon found myself nodding off to sleep, lulled by the monotony of the passing countryside and my roan Cinnabar’s comfortable amble.

Master Shelton startled me awake. “Brendan, lad, wake up. We’re almost there.”

I sat up in my saddle. Blinking away my catnap, I reached up to straighten my cap and found only my unruly thatch of light auburn hair. When he first arrived to fetch me, Master Shelton had frowned at its length, grumbling that Englishmen shouldn’t go about unshorn like the French. He wouldn’t be pleased by the loss of my cap, either.

“Oh, no.” I looked at him.

He regarded me impassively. A puckered scar ran across his left cheek, marring his rugged features. Not that it mattered. Archie Shelton had never been a handsome man. Still, he had impressive stature and sat his steed with authority; his cloak, emblazoned with the ragged bear and staff, denoted his rank as the Dudley family steward. To anyone else, his granite stare would have inspired trepidation. But I had grown accustomed to his taciturn manner, as he had been overseeing my upkeep since his arrival in the Dudley household eight years ago.

“It fell off about a league back.” He extended my cap to me. “Since my days in the Scottish wars, I’ve never seen anyone sleep so soundly on horseback. You’d think you’d been to London a hundred times before.”

I heard rough mirth in his rebuke. It confirmed my suspicion that he was secretly pleased by this precipitous change in my fortune, though it wasn’t in his nature to discuss his personal sentiments regarding anything the duke or Lady Dudley commanded.

“You can’t go losing your cap about court,” he said as I clapped the red cloth hat back on my head and peered toward where the sun-dappled road climbed over a hill. “A squire must be attentive at all times to his appearance.” He eyed me. “My lord and lady expect much of their servants. I trust you can remember how to behave with your betters.”

“Of course.” I squared my shoulders, reciting in my most obsequious tone: “It’s best to remain silent whenever possible and to always keep your eyes lowered when spoken to. If uncertain