August, 1540, Hampton Court Palace, England
Our new queen does look a pretty thing in that gown, all velvet and jeweled and royal purple. She does sparkle, this little Catherine Howard does, I will say that for her. But I’ve seen the ones who’ve come and gone before her, and I don’t know where all these rounds of dancing and banqueting will lead unless—may the Lord bless us so—she already have a prince lying in wait in her belly. Surely Henry thinks of this when he looks at her; he is our old lusty king Hal again, after years of sourness and dismay. A bit rounder than he was in younger years, of course, for nothing pairs so well with dismay as unwatered wine and an extra pudding or two, but that is not for me to worry about. Let little Catherine figure how to make the great king happy; I am content to watch from the shadows.
The young queen twirls on the dance floor, that wide gown swishing around her and her bodice and fingers all a-twinkle with gems. I am only a servant here, a cook’s helper no less. But I will tell you this: I would not dally with this king for all the velvet and jewels in the world, not with all of Henry’s dead ghost-wives nipping like dogs at my heels. I can see them all in the hall right now: the first Catherine is blowing out candles, Jane Seymour plucks a sour note on a lute string, Anne Boleyn rakes her fingernails across the tapestries. Little Catherine does not see them, no, not yet. Her eyes are blinded by diamonds. But if ghosts don’t take her down, the living will. They surround her, too, smiling, always smiling, with eyes like those I see on dead fish.
May she fill a bassinet with a red-haired Tudor babe, Amen. A son, of course, Amen, again to that—and may she be so lucky as to live to tell the tale. Luckier than all the rest before her. Amen.
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