Outside the gates of London, the victorious army of King Edward IV and his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is camped, waiting to make a triumphal procession into the capital tomorrow. It is nearly a year since the popular Edward, king of England for a decade, was forced to flee his country, as a result of a plot to put his old rival for power, the former Henry VI, back on the throne. The plot has come to nothing. Pitiful, mad Henry VI is a prisoner in the Tower of London again, and will soon be dead. King Edward, handsomer and more golden than ever, is down the river at Westminster Palace for the night, being re-united with his wife, who's spent the past winter in sanctuary. He's taking a first look at the baby son born to her during his absence—his heir, the future King Edward V. Meanwhile, the relieved citizens of London, making preparations to welcome the returning king and his family, are hoping they've lived through the last convulsion of the fighting between the royal houses of York and Lancaster that we know today as the Wars of the Roses.
Isabel knelt with a rustle of tan silk. She didn't know the church, but she was aware of shadowy people moving round, or kneeling in corners. Not many, though. It was too late for Sext and too early for None. Most people would be out working. She put her hands up to her face, palmer fashion, staring down at the long, undecorated fingers in front of her eyes, shutting everything else out until even her eye's memory of the candle halos in front of her had faded. Her father couldn't really mean to marry her to Thomas Claver, could he?
Her lips began to form the Latin words of prayer. She tried to ignore the picture in her mind, of Thomas Claver's thighs spreading on a window bench at the Tumbling Bear, and his mouth forming that slack, leering grin as he and her uncle both lifted their tankards to an embarrassed serving girl (trying to ignore them, as all servants did) and nudged each other obscenely. She shivered, but perhaps that was just because the prayer that had come to her mind was so somber. "O most sweet lord Jesus Christ, true God," she muttered, fixing her eyes on the calluses and needle pricks on her fingers, "who was sent from the bosom of the almighty Father into the world to forgive sins, to comfort afflicted sinners, ransom captives, set free those in prison, bring together those who are scattered, lead travelers back to their native land, minister to the contrite in heart, comfort the sad, and to console those in grief and distress, deign to release me from the affliction, temptation, grief, sickness, need and danger in which I stand, and give me counsel."
But however hard she concentrated on her fingertips and the movements of her mouth, she couldn't retreat into the muzz of incense and contemplation she was seeking.
Wisps of voices came unbidden into her head. Her father's: "an honor for the family . . ." and ". . . .mportant for the family to have Alice Claver's goodwill . . ." and ". . . .n excellent businesswoman; she's well connected, you know; she'll introduce you to people who can help you in life . . ." and ". . . .t's not what you know, it's who you know . . ." and ". . . .'m relying on you to do the right thing for the family." Her nurse's hurried, worried whispering, trying to make peace: "at your age you think it's all about love . . . but all men are the same really . . . I know he's a bit wild now, but you'll set him right in no time, get him working . . . the important thing is to be in a good family; once you have babies you'll understand that children are all that matter in life anyway." Her sister, Jane, giggling under the bedclothes, somehow managing to be philosophical even in this misery: "Well, at least you know he likes girls. What am I going to do with that old stick Will Shore and his all-night ledgers? Just imagine trying to kiss him!"
It wasn't half so bad for Jane, Isabel thought furiously, trying to fight back the hot prickle behind her eyelids as she remembered her elder sister's bewitching face, all pale blond hair and flirtatiously downturned green eyes and charm, breaking into that rueful smile at the idea of having to marry Will Shore. Will might be a walking cadaver with no chin and no conversation except for what was on his books, but at least he was a man set on his path in the world. He was a freeman and a citizen; he had an honorable apprenticeship behind him and a business already set up. He'd bore Jane to death, but he'd keep her in the silken idleness she liked so much too, lolling on cushions and reading romances and planning her next gown. And she knew it. What did she have to complain about?
Isabel's shoulders heaved. The lump in her chest swelled to bursting, and, she found herself holding her head in her hands, squeezing helplessly at her closed eyes to stop the tears coming out, with her fingers salty and wet and her breath as fast and anguished as if she were running for her life.
A shadow moved nearby. Footsteps stopped a few paces away. She heard the faint click of spurs. She didn't care anymore. Now that she'd abandoned herself to the helplessness of her emotions, she couldn't have stopped the storm inside herself even if she'd wanted to. The footsteps moved away. But not far enough to forget them. A new candle flame blazed around the Virgin, enough to still Isabel's heaving chest for a moment. She fell silent, aware of the tears still coming through her fingers and the smeary mess her face must be, trying to breathe deep to control her sobs, rubbing at her skin to try to dry it off, waiting for the unwanted fellow worshipper to go away.