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geeking out on shakespeare's histories
[FICATHON] Emeralds and Rubies, for lareinenoire 
3rd-Sep-2012 04:51 pm
yay beer by saltedpin
Title: Emeralds and Rubies; or, a conspiracy of women
Author: the_alchemist
Play: Richard III
Recipient: lareinenoire
Characters / Pairings: Jane Shore, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III and others.
Warnings: Richard is creepy about women.
Summary: What if Elizabeth and Jane really had been conspiring against Richard? Would they have stood a chance of changing history? For the better?
Notes: Thanks to my wonderful beta readers, R and R.

Chapter 1

Matthew Shore spent lavishly to make his shopfront the most attractive in Lombard Street, but neither the fresh paint nor the crimson velvet, nor even the gold goods themselves could compare to its greatest ornament.

He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she talked jewellery with ... wait. Was it? He couldn't help looking up. Yes! He had seen that tall, well-muscled frame before, had seen that easy smile, that handsome face, that flowing hair. He had seen them riding in triumph to their coronation.

***

"... but for your wife's colouring, I would suggest emeralds," said Jane.

"The rubies are very beautiful," said Edward, gazing with appreciation at Jane's chest where the necklace was displayed.

Jane smiled. "They suit me well because I'm a redhead," she said. "But with your wife's silver blonde hair, emeralds would be best."

"I bow to your expertise," said Edward. "Ask your husband to make me one with emeralds."

"Of course." Jane curtsied gracefully.

Edward turned to go, flanked by his bodyguards, but then turned back. "And one with rubies too," he said, smiling. "They may not suit my wife, but I have another friend on whom they would look very well indeed."
Chapter 2

George and Richard sat on horseback waiting for their brother and his new woman, watching the huntsman lead out hounds one relay at a time.

"I wonder whether she's ridden a horse before," said George.

Richard laughed. "Perhaps Edward is demonstrating side-saddle," he said.

"Well," said George. "I suppose he couldn't take a mistress of nobler birth than his queen."

Richard grunted his agreement, but George wasn't sure he'd understood. "And the Woodvilles are scarcely better than tradesmen and citizens," he added.

But just then, George's eyes widened as Edward and Jane rode out: she unveiled and resplendent in her rubies and a scarlet gown, wide enough for her to ride astride. Richard's eyes narrowed.

"Good morrow, brother," said George, looking only at Jane. "And this must be the fair Mistress Shore ..."

Jane took care to appear unruffled, slightly aloof, although she would have found it all too easy to get caught up in the excitement of her first hunt. She was pleased to discover she was the only woman there. That would make things easier. George came to her at once and offered to teacher her how to shoot a short bow. Good. She could begin with him. She accepted, dismounted, and let him hold her from behind as he showed her how to hold it. She flirted and complimented him and laughed at his rather boorish jokes, until it was safe for her to block out his voice and look round for her next conquest.

She noticed Richard out of the corner of her eye. He sat on a tall white horse a little apart from the others, and was at least easy to recognise.

"Don't worry about Richard," Edward had said. Jane thought it strange that Edward should think she would worry about his youngest brother, who was by all accounts a cripple. "He looks very solemn sometimes," Edward went on, "but he's mild and gentle as a lamb. He might be a bit strange with you at first – he's nervous around women, I think – but he is the most loyal man I know and would never do anything to hurt me or those I love."

Once Jane saw him, she understood what Edward meant by 'strange' and 'very solemn'. His blue eyes were so intense that she didn't feel she could stand to look at them for long, and he was staring at her with what seemed more like disdain than admiration.

By rights she should have tried to win him next, but she decided to try an easier conquest first. She noticed one youth disguising his approval of her beauty less well than the others. From his age she guessed that he was Edward's stepson, Tom Grey, the Marquis of Dorset. He had been the member of the hunting party she most feared to meet, for she thought he would despise her for his mother's sake.
But apparently filial loyalty weighed less heavily with him than baser passions ...

Jane allowed Tom to help her remount, and they sat chatting together. Jane found him a rather charming companion, and allowed herself to appreciate his boyish good looks.

***

During the chase itself, Jane rode beside Edward, exhilarated by the fast pace, the fine horse and even by a lust for blood, for the kill. She longed for other animal pleasures too. When Edward caught her in a clearing alone and leaned over to kiss her mouth, she responded hungrily, wishing he could take her right there on the forest floor, but then she caught a glimpse Richard watching them through the trees, and pulled away, blushing.

They rode on, faster and faster, until Jane couldn't think of anything but staying on her horse and keeping up with the others.

Then at last the hart turned to face them, panting with exhaustion, fixing them – fixing her – with his frightened, angry eyes. She felt pity then and wished she could ask Edward to spare him, but she was afraid of the others' laughter. She had worked hard to show them all that she was more than just a city wife, that she was worthy to be their king's companion, and all that work could be undone in a moment.

Yet to continue watching the suffering, desperate animal was too much for her, so she turned her face away and noticed Richard gazing at her again. His eyes were the same blue as Edward's, she saw, but whereas Edward's were merry and beautiful (forget-me-nots and sapphires), his were like a sword in the hottest part of a blacksmith's fire.

Jane was not normally perturbed by the stares of men: they were her victory, her right. But this was different, and she didn't like it. A few seconds after she noticed him, Richard turned to Edward and spoke, loudly, so that all could hear.

"Edward," he said. "I beg the honour of determining who shall make the kill today."

Edward inclined his head. "Certainly, brother," he said.

He turned to Jane. "Mistress Shore," he said. "You have acquitted yourself valiantly today, far beyond your sex and your station in life. Take my sword and prey on yet another hart."

Jane knew at once he had read the pity in her face and this was an act not of kindness but cruelty. She felt violated, sick ...

"Richard," said Edward, "I don't think–"

But Jane rallied herself and smiled graciously. "Why thank you, my Lord of Gloucester," she said and dismounted, then took the sword, feeling fear now as well as pity, but not letting either show.

Edward nodded to three or four huntsmen who held the exhausted animal, while she stepped forward and, trying not to think about anything except looking as graceful as she could, thrust the sword with all her strength at a place in between its shoulder muscles, where she hoped the heart might be. The sword must have been very sharp, because it cut through hide and muscle more easily that she was expecting, though the first thrust did not kill the animal and nor did the second. Finally, she dropped the sword and used her own dagger to cut its throat, and stepped back, panting.

Her scarlet gown was flecked with the darker red of the hart's blood, but only her gloves were badly sullied, so she simply removed these and dropped them to the forest floor.

Feeling a few drops of blood on her cheek, she wiped it with her hand, turned to smile directly at Richard and slowly licked her bloody fingers.

***

As the huntsman began the unmaking of the carcass, another horn sounded and a party of riders came through the trees. They were led by two ladies, one older, one younger.

Jane instinctively turned to Edward, and saw his shoulders become more tense has he rode forward.

"My lady mother ..." he said, nodding to the elder, a serious looking widow in black.

"... and my love," he said to the younger, who wore a green gown and a emerald necklace, which Jane then recognised as the one she had sold to Edward on that first day.

Although Jane tried not to let her curiosity about Elizabeth show she could not help casting surreptitious glances in her direction. She was even more beautiful than Jane had imagined, with pale blonde hair and skin like ivory coloured silk. Jane perceived that both the curiosity and the desire to hide it were mutual, for Elizabeth kept glancing at her too. How would it go, she wondered. A wife's jealousy could make a mistress miserable, but a wife's tolerance could make all three of their lives a hundred times better.

Edward begged a blessing from the Duchess, who gave it to both himself and George, though not, Jane noticed, to Richard. Edward had told her that her third son was far from being her favourite, but she was shocked at so public a slight.
Chapter 3

After that day's hunting, Jane saw little of Richard. She was disappointed. She thought she had won a victory of sorts, but would have liked to make sure. There was something else too. Richard inspired an uncomfortable sort of passion in her. She certainly couldn't ever love him, but she prickled with desire whenever their paths crossed.

She tried to stay clear of Elizabeth and the other Woodvilles, despite her continuing curiosity. Nonetheless, she ran into young Tom Grey far too often for it to be coincidental. She smiled at the thought of him. There was someone she perhaps could love, once he was a year or so older.

Thinking of other men was not a sign that she had ceased to love Edward: indeed she loved him more than ever, but she needed to show herself that the world would not end should Edward forsake her. There were other protectors, other bodies to explore, other lives and pleasures to share. If no-one else, there was her old friend Richard Hastings, who had loved her since she was fifteen, but was far too polite to make a move without her encouragement.

And perhaps Edward never would forsake her. He had begged her to let him get her marriage annulled, and Jane now lived in her own house near the palace, seeing Edward nearly every day. There was a walled garden that became their own little world of pleasure, where they talked and listened to music and she read to him from books of poetry and chivalry, and they ate fruit and dainty sweetmeats.

***

Richard watched Edward and Jane from his bed-chamber as they lay together on the lawn in little garden, the one where Richard used to practice sword-play with his brothers.

He watched him slobbering on her neck, and exposing the deceptive whiteness of her thigh. How many men have been there before him, he wondered?
Then in his mind's eye he saw it again: saw her bloodstained hand pushing itself between her soft, full lips, until she withdrew it again, sticky with saliva.

Edward was not like him. Edward could have any woman he wanted. Why did he choose to debase himself on a whore? He must be stupid to allow himself to be deceived, to think there was anything fit for him in that stinking place between her thighs. What did she do? Perfume herself with scented oils? If she were his, then she would appear only in her true form, and that was how he wanted her.

Day by day as he watched, he felt his regard for Edward slowly slipping away. Good. That would make everything much easier.

***

Jane lost herself in the ecstasy of his touch, in the smell of roses and freshly cut grass mingling with his musky smell and hers. Then he took a final kiss, and rolled over so he was sitting up.

"Time to go," he said. "The ambassadors will soon be here."

She leant forward and lightly kissed his neck a dozen times. "Let them wait," she said. "The sun will go down soon, and then you can go, but stay with me until dusk."

"You Eve," he said, returning her kisses. "You serpent. You must be punished."

And she scrambled up and ran towards the summerhouse, laughing. He followed her, caught her, threw her over his lap and started spanking her, both of them laughing now.

***

High above the garden, Elizabeth felt the familiar pains come on again. This was the twelfth time and, she hoped, the last. Women were made to bear, and bear she did - bore with his thoughtlessness, his infidelities, the kingly largesse that overflowed into the lap of any tolerably fair woman who crossed his path, and now (it seemed) had blossomed into something deeper with that Shore woman.

Yet Elizabeth too was still beautiful, and still loved. Deeply loved, and loved (as Jane was) for her wit and beauty as well as for the bonny children that still kept coming even though, if she reckoned right, she had seen more than forty summers.

Edward had enough love for more than one women, and she refused to be jealous, so long as she got her share. And when beauty came to an end, and with it love? Well, she wouldn't think about that. Instead she would keep working, keep forcing beauty from a body that had borne so much, so many. Yes. She would carry on bearing that burden too.

Her quick mind played with the words: bears and boars, men and swords. She was not yet safe, the realm was not yet safe. Jealousy would be so easy, but the last thing she needed was to make more enemies for herself. She would be proud but not petulant. She had her children, her brothers, even her admirers, though of course she could only afford to solace herself with their smiles, never their touch.

The pains were coming quicker now. Elizabeth called for a gentlewoman to fetch the midwife and the emerald ring she had worn ever since her first, when, seventeen years old and scared, her old nurse had pushed it into her hands saying green is for luck and life and life-giving and for constant love between husband and wife.
Chapter 4

It was four weeks since Jane had been summoned to the palace, when, on a damp March morning, a worse blow than this neglect struck. The bailiff called and told her steward that the rent was no longer being paid.

Well, that was it, then. She tried not to go over everything that happened at their last meeting, but couldn't help it. He had showed no displeasure with her, had said he would call for her again in a few days. It had been in every way an ordinary afternoon, if the word 'ordinary' could ever be applied to the bliss she shared with her lover.

In all probability it had nothing to do with her. It was mostly likely that affairs of state – or his wife's importunities – had simply made it inexpedient for him to keep her as his mistress. All the same, it was harsh of him not to tell her, not to say goodbye.

Yes, she would weep. She would weep for days, and perhaps for weeks. But she had lost lovers before and had healed, and she would heal again.

She called for paper, pen and ink, and while the maidservant fetched it, rummaged in her jewellery box to find something to sell to pay off the bailiff. Her fingers found the ruby necklace, his first gift to her, and she couldn't help putting it on. That, she would never sell.

Once the writing things were in front of her, she began. "To William Lord Hastings, from ..." yes, she would have to play the damsel in distress. "From the unfortunate, unhappy Mistress Jane ..." Everyone still called her Jane Shore, although now she had never been married to Matthew, and so in truth was Elizabeth Jane Lambert. And that is how she had first known Hastings, of course. Yes. "Mistress Jane Lambert." He would remember her then as she once was, girlish and virginal, greatly in need of protection.

***

Elizabeth hesitated, not for selfish reasons – she was long past all of that – but because of fear for her husband's immortal soul. But in the end, her compassion won out. Not only for her husband, but for her children, and yes, perhaps for Jane too. Although she wished she had the luxury of delusion, she knew which way it was going, and must gather whatever meagre allies she could. Besides, something told her that Jane's power was not so meagre as all that.

"Alice," she called to one of her gentlewomen while searching through her jewellery boxes. "I need a message sent in secrecy. It is to the wife of Matthew Shore, a goldsmith in Lombard Street. Tell her to come privately to me. If anyone asks, it is regarding this brooch."

She handed Alice a brooch studded with emeralds and rubies. Alice curtsied and left.

***

In her chamber in the house of William, Lord Hastings, Jane fingered the brooch that had been sent to her. Still no word from Edward – it had been six weeks now – and now this from his wife, sent a fortnight ago, but to the wrong address.

What could Elizabeth want? To harm her? How? And why, now she was an exile from Edward's bed and thoughts? She was tempted to go purely out of curiosity.

Alas that she had no-one to confide in. She regretted the annulment. Although there had never been any love or desire between her and Matthew, there had been companionship and confiding. He had no interest in her body, being more inclined towards the male sex, but had appreciated her beauty both for itself and for the custom it brought to the shop. Her amours were an important part of how he ran his business, and they had plotted them together in their common interest. He was the only man she knew who had not loved her, at least a little, and thus provided a useful perspective.

William was generous and kind, but he hated the queen and her family and so she felt she couldn't trust his advice on this matter.

She touched the brooch to her cheek to feel the cold metal, the cold stones. Rubies and emeralds. But that was her and Edward's private joke. Had she got wind of it? Had he told her, even? She felt slightly violated at the idea. Could it be a coincidence? Or perhaps she had just noticed the necklaces.

It was no good. She could not rest until she knew what it was all about. She put on her cloak and set out towards the Palace.

***

She could tell as soon as she was within a street of it that something was happening, but hurried on, heedless of the nervous whispering she observed around her, more curious than ever, and, by the time she reached the gate, beginning to fear.

For obvious reasons she had not previously visited Elizabeth's rooms and didn't know where to go. The servants she asked simply told her that the queen was 'indisposed' but would not say why. At last someone she recognised almost ran into her: Tom Grey.

"Tom," she said, without even a 'good morrow'. "What on earth is happening? Your mother summoned me, but I can't find her, and everyone seems to be in such a hurry."

Tom glanced to either side, then ushered Jane into an empty bedchamber.

"Jane," he said. "I'm so sorry, but Edward is dead."

She felt the blood drain from her cheeks, and shook her head. No. That must be a mistake. He was so young, so strong. Invulnerable, she had thought. And yet if he had been ill, if he had been incapable of calling her to him these past four weeks ... How cruel of her to think herself abandoned! Why had she not written to him? She had thought it unwise to seem too eager. How foolish she had been. And was it really now too late?

"Sit down," said Tom, fetching a chair. "I know. It was a terrible shock to us all. I knew he had been ill, but ..." He trailed off.

Jane sank down. "I didn't even know ... Oh, Tom." She threw her arms around him.

"Jane, Jane, Jane," said Tom, holding her.

Then the door opened, and Tom leapt up. "Mother!" he said.

***

Elizabeth took the scene in, taking care to appear more calm than she felt. What did it mean? Was her son simply comforting her husband's lover, or was it something else? She shook her head, trying to clear some of the thoughts and emotions that cluttered it. It hardly mattered. What mattered was that Jane was there. What mattered was what happened next.

"You came," she said. "I'm so sorry you were too late. I ..." She struggled to keep her voice steady. "I know you loved him."

Jane nodded. "Thank you, madam," she said. "I cannot thank you enough for thinking of me, it is a generosity I would never have dared hope of."

"Well," said Elizabeth, stiffly. "No more of that. I am sorry you could not say goodbye to him, but that was only one of the reasons for which I called you. The other is more pressing now than ever. Tom, would you mind leaving us?"

Chapter Five

"I don't know," said Jane, after she had heard what Elizabeth had to say. "It is only natural that Richard should be named Lord Protector. After all, with George dead–"

"Killed by Richard," said Elizabeth.

Jane looked at her. "I heard that he died because ..." she began. In fact Hastings had told her that it was Elizabeth and her family's scheming that had killed the Duke of Clarence. "I heard that Richard pleaded for his brother's life."

"Then you heard wrong," said Elizabeth crisply. "And I swear it on my sons' lives."

Jane looked at her, trying to figure it all out. Hastings trusted Richard, called him a good man, said he had been slandered because of how he looked, and she had been mostly convinced he was right, despite those eyes of his. Now she didn't know. Hastings could be rather naive sometimes, whereas Elizabeth ... but how could she tell after one conversation? And what Elizabeth was asking was too much, clearly too much. There could be no doubt about Jane's answer.

"I believe you are sincere, Madam, really I do. And I will forever be grateful for you for ... for trying ... before it was too late, I mean." The remembrance that Edward was dead came over her again, and this time it felt truer, heavier, more painful. Tears came into her eyes, and she struggled to finish what she was saying. "I'll help you in anything else, Madam, but not that. I can't ... I won't ..."

Elizabeth turned away from her in frustration, but tried to keep her voice calm. "All right," she said. "But if anything happens to make you change your mind, you know how to find me."

***

"Tommy," said Elizabeth to her eldest son, once Jane was gone. "What are your feelings towards Mistress Shore?"

Tom Grey coloured, but didn't speak.

"You like her, don't you?" said Elizabeth. "Don't be ashamed. I like her too."

Thomas looked surprised. "But–"

"Oh come, come," said Elizabeth. "I'm a queen, not some jealous housewife. Of course I had to share Edward with someone, and I am pleased it was her. If you wish to ... deepen your knowledge of her, I will not stand in your way. In fact I shall rejoice in it."

Then she walked out, because she had done all she could and could no longer hold herself together, but had to give way to the terrible flood of grief that she feared could overwhelm her if she didn't allow it a little leeway.

Chapter Six

Jane had spent a disturbed night. She had been woken by a messenger from Margaret Beaufort banging on Hastings' door in the early hours. Margaret and her latest husband, Thomas Stanley, had some suspicions – more than suspicions, the messenger said – that Richard was conspiring against them, and meant to move decisively at some kind of council they were holding the next day. Some of what he said matched so closely what Elizabeth had told her, that Jane began to fear.

Once the messenger was gone, she began to speak. "My Lord–" she began, but there was a second knock on the door, and Hastings let in Sir William Catesby, whom Jane knew to be a close associate of Richard's.

If the messenger's words had made her fear, Catesby's confirmed every fear and more. There was a plot to depose Elizabeth's sons and put Richard on the throne, he all but openly admitted it.

"My Lord," said Jane, as soon as Catesby was gone. "Take heed of what Lord Stanley said, I beg you. Follow him to the north and do not by any means attend the council today."

Hastings laughed and kissed her on the head. "Oh Jane," he said. "I do not know what has got into everyone today. Fearing Richard? The poor man is incapable of doing anyone the slightest harm - morally I mean as well as physically."

"But I spoke to Queen Elizabeth–" began Jane, and immediately knew it was a mistake.

Hastings frowned. "What did you do that for?" he said. "I do not like that at all. But wait. Hey! You there!"

And he waved at someone in the street: some kind of heraldic officer, Jane guessed from his coat. "Stay here," he said, and ran down to meet the man.

Jane sat on the bed, her heart pounding. What could she do to make him stay behind today, and then flee northwards? She was at a loss for any rational argument beyond those already presented to him, so when he returned she would just have to beg him on their love.

But he didn't return, he went straight to the council before Jane knew of it, and although she allowed herself to hope, fear was stronger, and she feared he would never return again.

Chapter Seven

By the time Jane could be admitted to see Elizabeth, Hastings was dead, and so was Elizabeth's brother and her second son, Richard Grey.

"I am sorry," said Jane. "I am sorry for your loss and not believing you and sorry for everything and ..."

She gave way to weeping, and Elizabeth, red-eyed but silent, comforted her in her arms.

"I'm ready," Jane went on. "You said ... you said you thought there was something we could do. Something I could do. About Richard, I mean."

"I'm sorry for your loss too," said Elizabeth. "Hastings never liked me, but he was a good man, faithful to Edward and to our sons."

Jane swallowed and nodded. "Yes," she said. "And I will be faithful to them too, but ... well ... I confess I cannot see what I can do. Your brother was a strong, powerful man, and so was Hastings–"

Elizabeth cut her off. "What did you hear about the council today?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" said Jane. "You know what happened. Hastings–" She choked back another bout of tears.

"Do you know who else was denounced?" she asked, but continued straight on. "Us," she said. "You and me. Richard said we both used witchcraft to wither up his arm."

Jane's sobbing was mixed with laughter. "That's ridiculous," she said. "Everyone knows he's been that way since he was born. And everyone has us marked out as rivals. As enemies, even."

"Yes," said Elizabeth. "And its ridiculousness is a mark of how confident he is. No-one dared gainsay him. And confidence – over-confidence, at least – is a weakness."

"But if even Rivers, if even poor Hastings could do nothing, what chance do we stand? We are only women, Elizabeth. If there is something I can do, I will do it willingly, even if it means my death. If I knew witchcraft I would wither up every little bit of him until there was nothing left, but I've never learnt anything like that, and neither have you, I think?"

"There is plenty you have learnt, though, is there not, Jane?"

Jane hesitated. "I can assay gold," she said. "And set precious stones. And shoot a short bow, thanks to poor George Clarence."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrow. "I had no idea you were so skilled," she said. "But it is another talent I'm referring to. The one for which you are famed."

"Oh." Jane coloured.

"I want you to seduce Richard," said Elizabeth, simply. "And kill him in his sleep. I can provide the means for your safety after it is done. One of the servingmen in Richard's household is my ally, and although he is not man enough to do the deed himself, he will help us, by planting the weapon in his bedchamber, and escorting you out to the river. You may have to hide in a nunnery for a few months, but I will see to it that your every need is provided for and that when you return to London you will be celebrated as a second Judith, the heroine who saved England from a tyrant."

Jane looked down at the floor. She couldn't imagine it. Couldn't imagine driving a knife into human flesh. Yet she had steeled herself to kill the hart. And then it was only her pride that drove her on, and now she had every motive in the world: Hastings, George, perhaps (the thought struck her for the first time) even Edward, and certainly the future of his sons, whom he loved more than his own life.

She looked directly at Elizabeth. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for your faith in me. I will do as you ask."

Chapter Eight

The conspiracy of women never met together, but two by two while sewing, or kneeling together in prayer.

Queen Anne whispered to Elizabeth the secrets of Richard's sleep. He slept on the left side of the bed, and woke often, so a sleeping draught would be necessary.

Through her husband, himself sympathetic to their cause, Lady Margaret Beaufort passed on what the men said in Council. They talked openly of Richard's coronation, she said, and Edward's sons, locked away in the Tower, were called 'bastards'.

And then there was the other Margaret, old Henry's wife, who hated every one of them so far as Elizabeth could tell, but hated Richard most of all. No-one included her in the conspiracy, but she included herself, and pulled Jane aside to some dark place in the palace cloisters. "I know what you're doing," she hissed, pawing Jane's sleeves with long dirty fingernails like a vulture's talons, "and you have my blessing. But take care and do not trust the Woodville woman, she keeps faith with none but her own breed."

***

Elizabeth had in fact vowed to herself not to break faith with Jane, though perhaps doing so would have been the course of wisdom. Lady Margaret gently hinted she should, although she was not so vulgar as to come out and say it.

Elizabeth would not do it. There had been too much deceit, too much broken faith, too many men who had but little regard for truth and honour. For though it pained her to speak of her brother and her husband in those terms, she could see all too plainly it was true. They had meant well, but you cannot fight evil with evil, cannot defeat a traitor with treachery.

Now the men were gone, all but the worst of them, and the women and children were left to rebuild the country with honour, fidelity and truth.

And murder, a voice in the back of her head told her. For all your high words about putting an end to dishonour and untruth, is not murder the worst of all? Perhaps, but to kill Richard was not murder, it was lawful execution. No, it was less than that. It was to destroy a piece of vermin. Even his own mother spoke of him in those terms, even a pious and holy woman like the Duchess of Gloucester.

Don't think of it, she urged herself. Think of the future, of your son and of the golden age of peace his reign will begin.


Chapter Nine

The day came sooner than they had planned. One morning Elizabeth went to the Tower for her customary visit to her sons, and found her way was barred. At the same time a message came to Anne, telling her to come to Richard's side for his coronation, which was to take place in a week.

Elizabeth no longer dared meet with Jane openly, so it was Lady Margaret who passed on the message that she was to carry out what they had discussed as soon as possible.

"There will be a dagger under the left side of the mattress," she said. "Go in unarmed, as he will probably have you searched. Wait until he sleeps, take the weapon – be sure not to search for it until then, for he will certainly see you – then stab his throat, three or four times, if you can. That should prevent him from making much noise, but if there is anything you will need to cover it up with sounds of ..." Lady Margaret's eyelashes fluttered at the indelicacy of it. "Of pleasure," she concluded, then went on hurriedly. "Try not to get his blood on you, and if you cannot help it, wipe your face and put your kirtle back on. I assume you do not wear it when you ... go to bed."

Jane had to work to prevent her tension from spilling out as uncontrollable laughter. In fact she had ... "gone to bed" in every state from fully dressed to fully naked to dressed as a nun, or a man or – once – with a map of Greece painted on her belly.

"Unbar the door and turn left into the small corridor that the servants use. Go down the stairs and out and you will find yourself by the door to a walled garden which Elizabeth tells me you know well. Go straight through it to the other side, and you will find the river gate unbarred. A boat will be waiting for you to take you to safety.

Lady Margaret went through all of this more than thrice before she left off. Then: "are you sure you understand?" she said, as though to an infant.

Jane nodded, holding her tongue from saying she was deficient only in morals, not in intellect.

Once alone, Jane's annoyance and amusement at Lady Margaret faded quickly into fear. Could she do it? It was dangerous. Perhaps she would be killed, she who loved life so much. Well, she wouldn't allow herself to think about that. Instead she would think about poor Hastings, to whom she never even said goodbye, and about Edward's children, locked away from their mother.

***

"My Lord Protector," said Jane, when granted a private audience.

"What do you want?" asked Richard. He was seated in a wooden chair on a dais, almost like a throne. She had forgotten how like Edward's his eyes were, but how cruel they were too, and how frightened, she now thought.

Jane smiled. "Protection," she said.

"From what?" asked Richard.

"Elizabeth," said Jane. "I know she had my Hastings killed – she and Rivers – and now she wants me too. She's still jealous."

"But I gave the order for Hastings to die," laughed Richard. "He was my enemy."

"Who informed against him?" said Jane. "Everyone in London says it was Elizabeth."

"Well," said Richard. "It may be so. But you want protection, you say? And what can you offer me in return?"

"Information," said Jane at once.

"Go on," said Richard. Jane could see he was surprised and had expected her to offer him something more obvious. However, through Elizabeth, Anne had cautioned her that Richard preferred his women unwilling.

"The Marquis of Dorset is courting me," said Jane. "His mother doesn't know, of course, but he's already let slip that the Woodville rebellion didn't die with Rivers. In exchange for your protection, I will tell you all I can."

Richard slipped down from the dais, came too close to Jane, and stroked her face with his hand. "Information is not enough," he said.

Jane made herself tremble and look down.

"What?" said Richard. "Mistress Jane Shore blushing like a virgin? Or am I not good enough for you? Not fair like Edward, or sweetly spoken like Hastings? Are you too nice and dainty to share my bed. Go on then, tell me no. Tell me what's wrong with me. Tell me to my face."

"I ... am your obedient servant, Sir," said Jane. "In anything you request of me."

"Good," said Richard. "The man keeping guard outside is called Ratcliffe. Tell him to bring you to my bedchamber at midnight tonight."

Chapter Ten

Jane submitted herself to be searched without a protest, pleased that her co-conspirator had predicted this eventuality, and praying that the weapon had been set correctly beneath 'her' side of the mattress.

He searched her himself, stripping her as he did so. She tried by force of will to calm her fast and heavy heartbeats, but to no avail. Oh well. If he noticed, she could tell him she was always afraid before taking a new lover. Before being taken, rather, for from what Anne had said, Richard allowed his women no role other than utter passivity.

Finally, he pulled her shift over her head, leaving her naked. He was still dressed, not just in his shirt and hose but his doublet too, buttoned up to the chin, and his dagger remained strapped to his side as he pushed her down onto the bed, and spread her legs.

This is what it must feel like to be a whore, she thought to herself, surprised because she had half believed those who said that's what she was. Yet her body knew how to respond and she relaxed into it, waiting for it to be over, waiting for him to sleep, waiting for her moment to change the world.

***

But as soon as Richard was done with her and she was putting her shift back on, he got out of bed again.

"My Lord?" she said, feigning a sleepy, languid voice.

"Go to sleep," he snapped. "I will want you again in the morning."

She glanced sideways and in the dim candlelight (all but two were extinguished) glimpsed Richard's cup of wine, containing the sleeping draught, still undrunk. She cursed inwardly.

But Richard was looking at her, so she turned over and spread out, making small contented noises. He grunted and turned away, satisfied.

After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, she carefully opened her eyes, though just a crack. The candles were still alight, and Richard was pacing to and fro, muttering to himself. Jane was half convinced her beating heart would be loud enough for him to hear.

She waited. The worst thing was not knowing. Not knowing when he'd come to bed, not knowing how long the boatman would wait for her, not even knowing whether the dagger was set in its place.

She watched him for several minutes. He seemed distracted. Perhaps she could at least check the weapon. Before she could change her mind, she turned over and let her arm hang slightly over the side of the bed, eyes closed again. She heard Richard's footsteps hesitate for a moment, but then continue as before. She opened her eyes: he was paying her no heed.

Carefully she prised her fingers between the mattress and the base of the bed. She could feel ... something. But couldn't get it out. She was lying on it. She would have to shift her weight. Richard turned, and in an instant she let her fingers go limp. Had he seen something? She turned over, as though in her sleep and made heavy breathing sounds to cover her heartbeat.

How long passed in that way? It felt longer than a night spent in sickness or in religious vigil, longer than a night could possibly be, and yet the night was not nearly over, the candles not half burnt, when she decided to try again, lying further away from the edge of the bed, with further to reach, clumsily fumbling ...

"Jane? Jane?" Richard spoke softly, and she moaned in response. She could have cursed herself for not managing it better. He came and sat on the bed, and lightly brushed her arm with his hand. It was a strange gesture, gentle and tender, and Jane wished she had the leisure to learn to understand this man.

This must surely be it, must be his time for sleep now. She moved a little in her own feigned slumber and smiled invitingly. He brushed a wisp of hair from her face, but then stood up and started pacing again, and kept pacing back and forth, back and forth.

Did he never sleep? She asked herself this in frustration, but then the thought struck her that it might be true. The Duchess his mother said her pregnancy had lasted two years, and certainly Richard's body didn't look like anyone else's body, so perhaps it worked differently too, perhaps he didn't need sleep. And she was so exhausted herself now that despite her agitation, her eyelids kept drooping.

What would she do? Admit defeat? No. Edward's sons were in danger and every day made them more so. She would do what she could even if cost her life. She knew how to defend herself: her father had taught her, and so had several of her lovers. If she couldn't cut his throat while sleeping, she would just have to devise another way of doing it.

Richard was gazing out of the window. This was her chance. For the third time she reached for the dagger, less slowly now, determined to get it before he turned back. Her finger hit the blade first, causing a small sharp pain. But she fumbled for the hilt and managed to pull it under the sheets with her, just as Richard was turning.

What now? Her finger hurt. If she could barely endure such a little cut, how could she endure the pains of death? She tried not to think of that. It wasn't as though she would have a choice, after all. Still Richard paced. She glanced at the candles. Three quarters gone. That meant it was ... what? An hour or so until dawn, perhaps?

Then, Richard sat on the bed for a second time. This is it, she thought. He's finally going to sleep. Her breast flooded with anxious hope. He was fumbling with something. Removing his stockings? No. Putting his boots on. This was it. He was going out. This was her last chance.

His back. His kidney. That was how you killed a man from behind. She sat up and thrust it in just as he was turning. His movement wrenched her wrist, but she managed to twist the dagger as she pulled it out. So much blood. He was shouting. Shouting for help. She stabbed the dagger wildly in the direction of his throat, but caught his cheek instead. The door was barred, but someone was rattling it, trying to get in. Richard's guards, she assumed. He had her wrist and was pushing her down backwards again, trying to wrestle the knife from her. But his grasp was weak, much weaker than it had been the night before and so she could kick him away, and by the time she turned to look, he was barely moving. Barely making a sound.

What now? The window was her only option. They were on the first floor, so perhaps she could jump without injuring herself. The door was being rattled more violently now, so she did as Lady Margaret had suggested and made a rhythmic grunting noise while opening the window. The rattling stopped, as though someone were listening. There were no trees outside for her to climb down, but she thought that if she let herself down as slowly as she could then–

The rattling started again, and a man's voice was shouting: "Hoy! Richard! My Lord?"

She scrambled out. She had imagined herself hanging down from the bottom of the window frame before letting herself go, but she wasn't strong enough, and fell awkwardly, twisting her ankle. She looked around. Thank God the moon was bright. There was the gate to the walled garden. She half ran, half walked over to it, her ankle getting more painful with each step.

She pushed on it but it wouldn't open. Elizabeth had promised it would be left unbolted. She pushed harder and eventually threw her whole weight against it, but to no avail. Had she been betrayed? She was frantic, but knew that wouldn't do, and fought to calm her mind, then noticed the hinges, and pulled the door instead of pushing. It came open easily.

There was time, even then, for her to laugh at herself as she tried to bolt it behind her, but her laughter stopped as she found the mechanism too stiff. So she just shut it and limped towards the river gate, her ankle getting more painful with each step.

She got a little more than halfway across the garden before her ankle simply couldn't take her any more. She tried hopping, hating the indignity of it, then fell down on all fours like an animal. It was then that she heard the other gate opening and booted feet along the path. She scrambled for a flowerbed, and hid between a row of rosebushes and the wall, barely heeding the thorns as they pricked her legs, arms and face.

What now? She couldn't hope to stay hidden. It was only a matter of time before they found her, even in the dark. But if she could make her way along the wall and round the corner, the river gate would be just there. It was horribly slow. She had to feel her way bit by bit, and that would have been hard even if all her limbs had been sound. Twice she felt the crunch and squelch of a snail as the heel of her hand crushed it, but paid no heed. Sometimes there was no room behind the bushes, so she had to go between them, convinced that the moving white of her shift would give her away.

Then she heard a shout. "Hey! There!"

She didn't dare turn to see whether she had really been spotted, but made her way onward, charging faster than before until her shift got caught on a thorn. Then she looked backwards and saw them, running directly towards her. There was no longer any point in hiding, so instead she simply flung herself at the door, pulled it open, and saw ... nothing. No boat. Just the river. She hesitated for a moment then, seeing no other option, jumped in, thankful for the childhood holidays on which she had learnt to swim.

She sank down. It could only be seconds before she needed to breathe, and then it would all be over. Still. She wouldn't give up. She swam as far as she could before surfacing, keeping near the palace walls, making her way to a patch of reeds that would scanty cover, but better than nothing, perhaps, in this light.

She did not come up until her lungs felt as though they were bursting.

"There she is!" One of the guards had spotted her at once. "Get her, boys!"

"I can't swim, captain!"

"Nor can I!"

Jane laughed out a mouthful of water as she got her breath back before swimming for ... somewhere. Of course they would get her in the end, they were running for help even now. But it didn't matter. Odds were that Richard was dead and if not ... well, she had done her best, and he certainly wouldn't be in a fit state to be crowned for a while. She was sad, not so much at the thought that she would die, but at the knowledge she had been betrayed. Where was the boat? Was there ever a boat? Had Elizabeth betrayed her or was it the boatsman? She would probably never know. The sadness mellowed into acceptance.

She swam further round the wall, and when she saw a boat there, she didn't understand: thought it was a stranger or an enemy, even when the boatsman whispered "Mistress Shore?" and held out his hands to haul her up.

"But I thought you were to come from the gate?" he continued, gesturing up to a different gate. It was only then that Jane understood, and started laughing as she pulled on the spare robe waiting for her, and kept laughing all the way to Greenwich.

Chapter Eleven

The coronation of Edward V was even more splendid than that of his father, and Queen Elizabeth, as his mother and regent, took pride of place by his side.

Near her was her daughter-in-law, the Marchioness of Dorset, formally known as Mistress Jane Shore, the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, and the Duchess of York, grandmother to the king. As the men celebrated into the night, these four excused themselves, pleading the weakness of their sex, and retired to Elizabeth's solar.

"We only want Lady Margaret here," said Anne, " and the conspiracy of women shall be complete."

"And Queen Margaret too," said Elizabeth. "We must not forget her." And then, to forestall any complaint, she went on. "Indeed we must forget all lingering resentments and wrongs, and teach England how to live in peace. Had she come, I would have given her an honourable place."

"You invited her then?" asked the Duchess of York.

"Certainly," said Elizabeth. "Though I am not surprised she did not want to come. I am surprised at Lady Margaret though. She said she was visiting her son in France, but one would have thought she could have delayed for a week or so."

***

There was a heavy knock on the door, urgent and quick, and it opened before Elizabeth had a chance to respond.

"Madam," said a servant in palace livery. "You must come at once. An army has landed at Dover with the Earl of Richmond at its head, and his mother and the old queen, Queen Margaret I mean, with him. Lady Margaret has a message for you. She says–"

But Elizabeth turned away, unable to hear more above the sound of her own heartbeat.
Comments 
3rd-Sep-2012 11:43 pm (UTC)
CONSPIRACY OF WIMMINZ.

I love this so much. I love how blasé Jane was about everything (a map of Greece, hee!) and how she and Elizabeth were allies instead of enemies. I love the botched assassination attempt and the fact that of course Margaret Beaufort double-crosses everybody in the end. Fantastic job, Mystery Author!
4th-Sep-2012 01:15 am (UTC)
This is fantastic. I love Jane's perspective -- I don't think she realizes how brave she is -- and the glimpses of all the surrounding characters as well. Very nicely done.
4th-Sep-2012 02:07 am (UTC)
I love this. I love that Jane is such a sweet and down-to-earth woman who doesn't want to hurt a soul; I love that Elizabeth Woodville can put aside her pain over Edward's infidelities for the good of her family and of her kingdom. I love that Richard seems to honor Jane while being fantastically cruel--and it's very telling that his wife passes on the info that he likes unwilling women. I love that the conspirators never meet simultaneously. I love how the conspiracy almost comes off--but Margaret Beaufort outsmarts everyone.

Fantastic job.
4th-Sep-2012 04:19 am (UTC)
Oh, damn - they almost managed it!

(beautifully done, by the way)
4th-Sep-2012 11:44 am (UTC)
Oh, this is great! I love how this could be such a marvellous solution, and then really, really isn't, because some things are inevitable.
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