Queen of Silks

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Queen of Silks



   For Luke and Joe

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   Spring 1471

   Isabel knelt. 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 haloes 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 sombre. ‘O most sweet lord Jesus Christ, true God,’ she muttered, fixing her eyes on the calluses and needle pricks on her fingers, proof that she, unlike Thomas Claver, wasn't so spoiled by coming from a wealthy family that she wouldn't deign to learn the family business, ‘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 travellers 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. In her mind's eye, Thomas Claver was coming toward her, with his hands stretched out to grab her. She was frozen into the stillness of panic as he loomed over her; no point in shrinking back, as every fibre of her body was screaming to, because the door was locked and there was no escape.

   Wisps of voices came unbidden into her head. Her father's: ‘an honour for the family …’ and ‘… important for the family to have Alice Claver's goodwill …’ and ‘… an excellent businesswoman; she's well-connected, you know; she'll introduce you to people who can help you in life …’ and ‘… it's not what you know, it's who you know …’ and ‘… I'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.’ Jane, resigned but still giggling under the bedclothes, somehow managing to be philosophical even in this misery: ‘… well, at least you know your one 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 blonde 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 honourable 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?

   Her shoulders heaved. The lump in her chest swelled to bursting. And before she knew where she was, 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. I'm crying, she thought, with the calm part of her mind; observing herself, somewhere below that thought, hug her own shoulders with both arms and curl up so low that her head was almost touching the stone floor. But she was sobbing too hard to be surprised.

   A shadow moved nearby. Footsteps stopped a few paces away. She heard the faint click of spurs. She didn't care any more. Now that she'd abandoned herself to the angry 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. She didn't want to be aware of a new candle flame sputtering into life in the unfocused blaze around the Virgin. Yet it was enough to still her heaving chest for a moment and 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 and what might be hiccups, pulling at her skin to try to dry it off, waiting for the unwanted fellow-worshipper with the spurs that clinked to go away.

   But he didn't. He came back and stood right next to her. Peeping out from between her fingers, she could see the spurs and the mud on his boots. She kept her head determinedly down. He'd go, she thought, in an agony of impatience; she just had to keep quiet.

   There was a silence the length of a long-held breath. Then, with dread, she felt a hand on the tight curved agony of her back: a warm hand; a deep, comforting, heel-of-the-hand caress. She burrowed lower into herself to escape; but not before she'd felt the solid reassurance of it. When the surprisingly beautiful bass voice murmured, from just above her head: ‘Forgive me, but are you all right?’ the memory of that silken male touch, the like of which she might never feel in the future closing in around her, was enough to dispel her irritation at being interrupted in her private grief.

   Miserably, resignedly, she raised her head. The face she could half-see looking down at her was thin and dark and hard. But it was softened by an expression of concern. He couldn't have been more than a few years older than she was: eighteen or nineteen, maybe, like Thomas Claver. But he was an adult, with a shadowed jaw and the wiry strength of a man in the neat movement of his arms as he leaned further towards her, with enough delicacy of understanding to realise he shouldn't touch her, clasping his hands together as if to stop himself. She was strangely warmed by the kindness in those narrow eyes.

   ‘Just praying,’ she said, with what shreds of dignity she could muster, looking straight back at him, daring him to give her the lie – how was he to know she wasn't a hungry mystic, in the grip of a tearful vision? – but suddenly aware too of how she must look, with her kerchief pushed back and straggles of hair catching in her streaked wet face and her eyes all puffy and pink and swollen and her skin probably hideously blotched.

   He didn't respond except to go on looking un blinkingly at her, and there was something quizzical on a face she could see was used to weighing up new situations quickly. She raised a hand and wiped firmly at both cheeks, trying to master herself and surprised at finding that gaze was enough to quell her sobs. She even managed a watery smile as she uncurled herself and sat up on her knees, feeling the darkness inside shrink as her back muscles straightened. ‘Well, I was praying,’ she added defensively. ‘I was just crying too, that's all.’

   He smiled, now, and although he had thin lips it was an attractive, straightforward smile; she found her own lips curling briefly up in response, aware of her hands busying themselves in their own ritual of patting and tidying her face and head, trying to restore order to herself.

   He didn't comment on her appearance. She supposed there was nothing he could say without being either gallant, which would have been wrong, or discourteous, which would have been worse. He just carried on looking into her eyes, with the memory of a smile in his and with his body taut and still. She liked the stillness of him. She was aware of the sword buckled to his belt, the plain travelling cloak. He must have something to do with the troop movements, she thought, be a gentleman in someone's entourage. But his presence was so encouraging that she found herself hoping he wouldn't hurry away soon.

   He didn't. Eventually he murmured, ‘I'm forgetting that I came here to pray too.’ And he glimmered at her, with the beginning of another smile. ‘Like you. Sometimes your troubles seem so great that nothing but God's guidance will be enough. And even that …’ He broke off and looked away, and she felt the sadness in him, a helplessness that seemed as great as hers, without needing to understand it. ‘May I pray with you?’ he said, a whisper of velvet bass.

   She gestured, caught up in the moment, happy to have him near. He knelt beside her, in one fluid movement, and bent his head over his hands, and closed his eyes.

   Isabel shut her eyes too and steepled her own hands, but she had stopped doing more than imitate the appearance of prayer; what she really wanted now was to hear the muttered words coming from the stranger's lips. She wanted to know what he was praying for. ‘Even so, Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, deign to free me from every tribulation, sorrow and trouble in which I am placed and from the plots of my enemies,’ he was murmuring, a prayer as sombre as hers but not one to enlighten her; ‘and deign to send Michael the Archangel to my aid against them, and deign, Lord Jesus Christ, to bring to nothing the evil plans that they are making or wish to make against me, even as you brought to nothing the counsel of Achitophel who incited Absalom against King David …’

   And his voice dropped to a drone of Latin, and then fell altogether silent. When she stole a sideways look at him, his lips were still moving; she thought she saw a tear glistening on his cheek too. He didn't seem to be aware of it. He was lost to the world.

   She went on watching. He was visibly reaching a resolution. His jaw tightened. Then, without warning, he dropped his hands, raised his head and looked round at Isabel, so quickly that she didn't have time to lower her own curious eyes. Without reproach, his bright gaze held hers; she felt it as a shock right through her body.

   ‘So shall we both trust God to provide for us?’ he said, and grinned, a bit wolfishly, suddenly looking cheerful and eager to be on the move. He was on his feet, holding a hand out to her. Without thinking, she took it and scrambled up too. His hand was warm and dry with strong fingers. She found herself walking with him. To her surprise, they headed towards the bright arch to the street, feet in step.

   As long as I'm out I don't have to go home, Isabel thought, as the wind flapped at her skirts, with the fuzzy, fleeting contentment born of being caught up in an unexpected adventure. As long as no one sees me here I don't have to decide what to do. So she followed the stranger obediently into the Bush tavern, a few steps away down Aldersgate, where he headed straight for a table in a vaulted alcove under a window where someone else's meal, and the game of chess abandoned on a stool, hadn't yet been cleared away, ordering a jug of claret and whatever cold meat the landlord had as he passed. He stood looking down at the checkered wood, absent-mindedly fingering the pieces left at the side of the board, while a serving girl piled up tankards on one of the greasy boards covered in pork rinds. Isabel edged round the tables and stools towards him, suddenly breathless at her own strange boldness in sitting down to eat with a stranger. But if he was aware of her discomfort he didn't betray it. He was grinning at some thought of his own; he held one of the carved pieces out to her as she approached, and said lightly: ‘After all, perhaps none of the moves that worry us so much in life are as important as we think’. He popped the piece into its bag. ‘We all end up equal at the bottom of a bag, don't we?’

   Isabel's nervousness vanished with the chess pieces he was whisking into their leathery resting place. She laughed and sat down. ‘I just don't want to wait till I die before my problems get solved,’ she answered, wishing she could achieve the same resigned tone. ‘I'm hoping something will sort them out now.’

   She wasn't made to be philosophical. Nor could she quite find it in herself to do what she wanted to – find out more about her vis-à-vis. As soon as the maid had dumped two wooden platters in front of them, and even before he had finished pouring out the wine, Isabel found herself pouring out the whole story of her own troubles instead.

   She told him how her father had fallen from grace at the Guildhall for losing his temper at a meeting – so badly he began shouting and blaspheming – while he was trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade the City to support King Edward and his Yorkist army in the wars. John Lambert had thought the rest of the merchants were being hypocritical to give in to the rival Lancastrian army – mad, pitiful King Henry, brought back to fight his last battles after ten years in forced retirement by the Earl of Warwick, who'd been King Edward's closest friend until they'd fallen out and he'd turned rebel. John Lambert didn't like the sight of the fierce, treacherous earl masterminding the feeble-minded Henry's every move. Nor did he have much stomach for Edward's younger brother, the Duke of Clarence, also in rebellion against his own blood; a lesser traitor hanging on Warwick's coat-tails, hoping in vain that he might get to be Yorkist king of the Lancastrian rebels. John Lambert had been right, really. It had been ugly. And London was Yorkist to a man, had been for years. Every merchant knew King Edward, who was strong and young and intelligent, and had been on the throne for ten years already, was a better king for supporting their trade than Henry, who had let lawlessness rule the land for more than twenty years before Edward first seized the throne. But the Lancastrian army had been here at the gates, and the consensus of the meeting had been ‘anything for a quiet life’. So John Lambert's outburst had not only been disregarded but had turned the rest of the merchants against him. They set such store by dignified agreement, they couldn't forgive a man who could rail and rant the way he had.

   She found herself describing her father's stricken look when the mayor's men came and took away the striped pole outside the Lambert house – his alderman's post, his treasured symbol of office, the pole on which aldermen posted their proclamations. She told him how her father had then fixed on the idea of mending his quarrel with the City's great men by marrying off her and her sister; the way he'd suddenly announced she and Jane were to be betrothed to the outlandish suitors he'd picked for them, as soon as he'd heard King Edward's army was winning and moving on London, as soon as he could be reasonably sure that the merchants would bow to circumstances and remember they'd been Yorkist all along and open the gates to King Edward; as soon as they might be persuaded to think John Lambert hadn't been so wrong after all.

   Isabel thought her father had been rubbing his nose in his storeroom and plotting the whole thing for months beforehand. Bitterly, she told the stranger how she and her sister were being sacrificed for her father's ambition. It wasn't fair, she said. He'd promised his daughters all their lives that, within reason, they'd have the freedom to marry as they chose. But when it came to it, he was breaking that promise.

   ‘I know it makes sense to him,’ she finished. ‘Half his old friends in the City are coming after him with court cases. They think he's finished. They're kicking him while he's down. And he wants to show them he's still got the power to make good alliances. He's imagining a wedding banquet that will put every trading company's summer feast into the shade – he loves parties; I just know he's already envisioning those tables groaning with honeyed peacocks and blancmanges of asses’ milk. He wants to try and impress everyone with the idea that the Lamberts are still on top of the world. He thinks a couple of weddings will win them all back.

   ‘But he doesn't seem to see it won't help him. They'll still remember him as the man who shouted at the mayor. And we'll be married to those clowns forever. It's wrong. I'm too young to be married. I'm only fourteen. And anyway, the last person I'd choose, ever, would be Thomas Claver.’

   The dark man from the church was easy to talk to. He kept steady eyes on her throughout her passionate monologue. He nodded understandingly when she looked sad and his eyes crinkled in amusement when, in the hope of entertaining him, she started using fanciful turns of phrase she wouldn't normally have attempted. Yet when she came to a halt, Isabel had the uneasy feeling she'd got it wrong. He didn't look fired up with any of her indignation. He just looked thoughtful.

   He'd been cutting up bits of meat with his knife while she was talking. He looked down at the red squares on his board now she'd fallen silent and seemed almost surprised they were all still there. He speared one and began chewing on it, looking at her again, still reflecting, until, in an agony of self-consciousness, she began to wish she'd kept quiet, or at least asked him more about himself before telling all her woes.

   ‘I can see why you're unhappy,’ he said in the end, and she glowed at the warmth in his voice. He wasn't good-looking, quite. His thin features weren't as bold and regular and noble as her father's, say, or the godlike, golden Lynom boys'. This man's face was thin and serious; made to be worried. If he hadn't sat so straight and used his wiry body so fluidly, if he wasn't gazing at her with such unwavering attention, she might have found him ratlike. Mean-looking. But the richness of his voice vibrated through her, making him magical. ‘You're in a difficult position,’ he was saying. ‘You think your father is making a bad judgement.’

   She nodded, and took a sip from her cup of wine to hide the gratitude she could feel staining her face pink.

   He leaned forward. Put his elbows on the table. She thought he might be going to touch her, comfort her. She blushed deeper and bent in on herself.

   He didn't. He just joined his hands together, steepling them thoughtfully under his chin, leaning on his thumbs, and went on looking calmly at her. ‘May I offer some advice?’ he asked. His dignified simplicity made her feel ashamed of her own blurting.

   Attempting to match his formality, she nodded again, trying not to let the hope shine too obviously on her face that he would hit on some easy way out for her.

   ‘You have to marry as your circumstances demand,’ he said, so gently she could hardly bear it. ‘I think from what you've told me that you know your father loves you. He's saying he's trying to do what's best for your family. And it's a father's job to make good alliances for his children. Even if he hasn't fully understood your feelings, perhaps he knows more about your family's circumstances than you do.’

   ‘But,’ she stammered, lost in disappointment. ‘But …’

   ‘I know,’ he said sadly, ‘it's not what you wanted to hear.’

   He lowered his eyes. So did she; concentrating furiously on the new batch of pork rinds and pink shards of flesh on their own platters; willing away the hotness in her eyes.

   ‘It can destroy a family if a father doesn't think about how to marry his children, you know,’ he was saying, somewhere behind the redness of her eyelids. ‘It nearly did mine.’ She glanced up, surprised. His eyes were still on her, though they were unfocused now, far away, not so much looking into her soul as lost in a dark part of his own. ‘He spent his whole life at the war, my father, and he was a good soldier. But when we heard he'd been killed, there we were: a brood of orphans scattered around the country, without a single marriage that would have given us a new protector among the six of us. He never realised that making alliances for his family was just as important as winning battles; that you need friends to defeat your enemies – a strategy for living, not just for dying.’

   He laughed, with a tinge of real bitterness. Isabel kept quiet, less because she was artfully drawing him out at last, as she'd imagined she would, than because she didn't know how to respond. She was realising uncomfortably how little she knew of the world outside the Mercery, of the world where the war was. Trying to imagine what it would be like for your father to die, all that came to her mind was sounds: the snuffles of women weeping; the banging of a hammer, nailing down a coffin lid, nailing shut the door of her home; the chilly quiet of Cheapside by night, for those with nowhere to go; the scuttling of rats. Her mother had died too long ago for Isabel to remember her. But she couldn't form a picture of a life in which her father wasn't fretting in the silkroom, nagging a bit more work out of some sunken-eyed shepster, smiling even as he picked at a minutely off-kilter seam with his obsessively clean fingernails; or drawing in a noble client by singing out the beauty of his stock with his green eyes glowing; or counting out his piles of coin later with a sly laugh at how envious the noble client would be if she only realised by how much the servile merchant's silk profits outweighed her rents and rolling acres. Isabel couldn't imagine waiting, in some half-closed house in a field, for the rumour, or letter, or servant limping home in bandages, bringing word; those words, whatever this man must have heard. Yet even failing to envision it brought it closer. It had always been enough to know that the war happened to other people; but now she was talking to someone who had been touched by it she felt herself, for the first time, weighed down with nameless possibilities. She didn't know what the weak flexing in her gut was called, or the darkness seeping through her veins; but she thought it might be fear.

   She crossed herself. Filled with a sudden longing to be wiser and older, she thought: it's ignorant to live in a city that's about to be entered by a conquering army (King Edward's army was at St Albans, people said; it would be here any day, and the mayor had already given the order to let the soldiers in) yet be so innocent of disaster. Pig ignorant. I've grown up in a land where two families of kings have been fighting each other for the throne for as long as anyone can remember, and I know nothing about it. You don't if you're a Londoner. We hardly see it. Still, he'd think me a child if he knew.

   He didn't notice her gesture. ‘Well, we survived. But we've been unlucky ever since with our marriage choices,’ he was saying, with a twist to his mouth that made his face look pinched and hard. ‘My eldest brother ran away with a war widow, the stupidest possible love match, just when what family we still had was finally arranging a proper alliance for him. We're only just seeing the end of the years of hatred that brought. And then a second brother married to spite the eldest brother, deliberately going against his wishes. And that's meant more trouble …’

   He sighed and looked down at the neat meat squares his hands had been cutting as he talked, and pushed one gently towards himself with his knife. Then he stabbed it. Isabel took another sip of rough dark wine as it disappeared into his mouth, wondering which brother he'd been thinking of when he'd made that stabbing movement. ‘I'm glad it's over now,’ she ventured, glancing up, ‘your family trouble, I mean.’

   Perhaps it was the smallness of her voice that made his eyes gentle again.

   ‘Almost over,’ he corrected, looking properly at her once more. ‘There's still my marriage to arrange.’

   For a second, his voice was so tender that her heart leapt. She caught her breath, leaning eagerly forward behind her cup. Then she felt a sigh ebb out of her as he went on, more harshly: ‘And now it's my turn there's nothing I want more than to make a marriage that will be good for my family – but my second brother's trying to stop me. He's fighting it so hard that I think even my trying to do the right thing might turn out to be the wrong thing. I've found myself thinking I should pull back … to satisfy him.’ His jaw tightened, as it had in church. ‘I'm not going to, though,’ he added firmly. ‘That wouldn't help either. But I sometimes wonder if we'll ever stop being orphans at war, wilful children in men's bodies, destroying each other while we try to sort out the things our father should have decided.’ He sighed. ‘You can see why I believe there's nothing more important than marrying in the best interests of your family, can't you?’ he added with more energy. ‘You have to work together, do your duty; or you're lost.’

   ‘Oh,’ Isabel muttered lamely. There was another long silence, broken from somewhere behind by a roar of male laughter. The girl cleared away their boards. Isabel noticed that the light was failing. The window was still bright, but his face was falling into shadow. She hadn't heard the bell; but the markets must be closing.

   He was sitting very straight and apparently still on his stool. She felt, rather than saw, the tiny movement of his hand twitching at his sword hilt. She remembered peeping sideways at his hands in the church: they'd been brown and well-made, with thin fingers, with bitten nails.

   She wanted to ask: ‘Do you love her?’ But she sensed that was a question girls giggling in silkrooms might ask, and not for him. Instead, she faltered, ‘But don't you ever wish … ?’ and left the question hanging. She didn't know herself how she'd have finished it.

   When his voice came out of the gloom again, it was wistful and there was no flash of eyes; he must be looking down.

   ‘Ah, wishes …’ he whispered back. ‘If we could live by our wishes … please ourselves: live at peace, kill nothing but dragons … eat buttercups … ride unicorns … who knows what any of us would do?’

   She heard a quiet rumble of laughter. She could see the ghost of the evening star through a smeared window pane. She put her cup down and left her hands spread on the table. She looked at the two pale shadows on the dark wood: fingers long and lovely enough to embroider church vestments with, as her father liked to say. The question flashed through her mind – was he looking at them too? – as she thought, all I want is to go on sitting here in this darkness; not to talk; not to think; not to go home.

   ‘Of course, you don't have to take my advice,’ he said in the end. When she looked up his eyes were gleaming quizzically at her again over steepled fingers, his long eyes the only clearly visible part of his shadowed form. ‘If you have choices, that is.’

   ‘Choices?’ she repeated dully, as reality came back like a sour taste in the mouth. Knowing that her father wouldn't let her run away from marrying Thomas Claver by paying her dowry to a nunnery instead, since she'd never shown the least sign of having a vocation; wondering if she'd have the nerve to risk walking out of his great place, where she'd always been Miss Isabel, daintily perched on wallows of silk, sewing altar cloths, to become a withered, unregarded, unmarried housekeeper in the household of the kind of wealthy wife Jane would become. Knowing she wouldn't. Aware too that there were other, worse possibilities that her imagination was shying away from. ‘What choices?’

   He glanced over at the chessboard and grinned. ‘Strategic choices,’ he said, with a return of the wolfish energy she'd glimpsed as they left the church. ‘You mustn't think life is a romance; that some knight errant will come along and slay the dragon for you. Knights don't really sit and pine at lovely ladies' gates. They fight. That's reality. War. Chess. All you can do is plan as many steps ahead as you can and position yourself for a good move next time. Know what your powers are and what you can do.’

   Briskly, he shook out a couple of pieces. ‘Look. Say I'm a king: I can move in several directions. If the way I want is blocked, there are others open to me. But let's call you a pawn. You don't have so many choices. All you can do is move forward, one step at a time. And I'd imagine your only forward movement now is to say yes.’

   She glanced up; down, at her fingers, plucking at each other; up again through her eyelashes, seeking his eyes but hiding hers when she met them; not wanting to acquiesce. How could he look so soft, but be so hard? Was that what the war had done to him, or just his nature? She didn't want to accept that her dilemma could be reduced to this ruthless balancing of possible outcomes; this cold-blooded comparison of disadvantage. All she wanted was to come up with some way of talking her father out of his foolishness, she thought; ready to toss her head like an impatient pony, but restraining herself just in time, with the dawning awareness that there was no place left in her life for petulance. Her father wasn't going to change his mind.

   ‘Well?’ the man in front of her murmured. His voice might be soft, but there was no ignoring the challenge in it. ‘Do you have any other choices?’

   She shook her head, filling up inside with a darkness that crawled and churned.

   ‘You're young,’ she heard him add. She thought she heard sympathy. ‘Take the long view. This is only your first move. You'll get more chances later.’

   The serving girl was lighting candles in the back vaults; people were crowding in from the markets. She couldn't bring herself even to nod. Forever yawned ahead of her fourteen-year-old mind like a pit. She got up. Wished she had a cloak to wrap carefully around herself. It would be cold outside. There was nowhere to go but home.

   ‘Thank you for your company,’ she muttered, staring at her feet, and turned to the door.

   He was on his feet in a dark whirl; beside her, a hand on her back. ‘It's not easy, I know,’ he whispered. ‘I was lucky we met today: you've helped me see what I should do. So thank you. And good luck. I hope I've helped you do the right thing too.’

   She was aware of his downturned face just above hers. From very close, she became conscious of his arm stretching around behind her; of long lean muscle and the dizzy moving together of bodies. Or did she misunderstand? Before she quite knew what was happening, it wasn't happening any more. He was striding off very fast towards the serving girl, in her pool of candlelight, feeling down his leg for a purse; glancing briefly back at her, still with those half-closed, intent eyes; muttering, ‘Goodbye, Isabel.’

   She stood there for a moment more. Astonished; still feeling the heat of his hand on her skin. Watching his retreating back. Then she braced herself for the evening chill, and walked out into the starlight. She thought she glimpsed him turning back round to watch the door swing shut behind her, but she couldn't be sure.

   Every step she took back towards her home felt harder. Every dutiful footfall was heavier. That last moment was still with her, mixed up with the wind flapping at her skirts. It stayed with her like the eye's long memory of flame: the man with the soft eyes and the hard mind looking back at her over a lean shoulder, then moving away so fast that the candles silhouetting his form shrank back as if a dark wind was blowing at them, murmuring goodbye in his black velvet voice. His hand on her back. She didn't even know his name. She'd never see him again. It would have to be enough that for an instant they'd drawn so close she'd almost felt the heat of his body on hers. Even the possibility of one day feeling that radiance again, of being transformed like a wisp of silk lit up by the sun, might help to sustain her through the drab future her father was planning for her.

   Isabel married Thomas Claver a week later, on a bright April morning, on the steps of St Thomas of Acre. The little people squinting across Cheapside to the church door smiled at the sight while they filled up their buckets at the water conduit, or popping heads out from one of the many covered markets behind the Mercers' thoroughfare and the cramped stalls lining the road, where low-ranking silkwomen doing needlework or weaving or throwing or twisting threads craned their failing eyes to watch the world go by as they worked. A couple of crones poked each other and cheered the little procession on to the door, with the mocking laughs of the old. But all they probably noticed was John Lambert, in his mercer's blue velvet livery robes trimmed with fur, looking as magnificent and proud as a prince between the two young female forms whose future he was settling.

   Isabel's heart was beating so loud she was breathless with the boom and thud of blood in her ears. It was all she could do to stop her own small, unimpressive, down-covered limbs, so like her dead mother's had been, from trembling, and her freckled face from showing fear. When she'd looked into her mother's beaten copper mirror before leaving, the dark blue eyes in the face that had stared back from it had been wiped of their usual intent, good-humoured look. There was no sign in that face that its owner was usually chatty and bright and asked inquisitive questions about everything she saw. There was none of the charm in those neat, symmetrical features that often made people look at her with the beginning of a shared smile, even if she wasn't trying to beguile them. The face looking back at her now didn't seem pretty: just quiet, even placid. Her red-gold hair was smoothed neatly away under her veil. It was the best display she could manage in the circumstances.

   She couldn't look at Jane, as slender and golden as ever. Jane was dressed exactly like Isabel in one of the yellow gowns embroidered with silk flowers in which John Lambert had displayed them on his retail stall in the biggest market, the Crown Seld, whenever he made them sit there, embroidering the heavy orphreys that would later border extravagant church vestments. (The sight of the two girls, so fresh and pretty, was supposed to draw in passing trade; Isabel had spent her life complaining that she wanted to do more than just sew while she was working in the seld, but her father had always been adamant – embroidering church vestments was the only suitable part of the mercer's trade for a young lady of her stature.) Jane was her father's daughter even now, down to the emerald-green eyes and noble profile and air of perfect composure under pressure. Isabel shrank into herself as she peeped at her sister, wished she could look so self-assured. Isabel couldn't look at the bridegrooms – Will Shore, somewhere over there on the edge of her field of vision, behind Jane, a shy beanpole in violet hose, and Thomas Claver, thick-set and reddish-haired, next to her. In Thomas's case, though, she was at least aware of his eyes darting between the watchers and her father and his own tub of a mother, whose reddish face was cheerful above her serviceable dark clothes. John Lambert had wondered aloud more than once in the past few days whether Alice Claver – who was famously not one for ceremony – would have the decency to dress appropriately for the occasion. She'd lived down to his expectations, wearing only her usual market clothes with a bright blue cloak wrapped over them, as if she'd hastily borrowed some of her stock for the day, or was expecting rain. If anything in the assembly of people Isabel couldn't look at now gave her comfort, it was Alice Claver looking scratchy and uncomfortable in that dressed-up cloak.

   There hadn't been much time for Isabel to get used to her situation, what with King Edward's army entering the City and the curfew being moved to before sunset, just in case, and her father being called on to head one of the city patrols watching the soldiers to prevent outrages against the citizens. At the end of the first day, when people had begun to relax a little, as they saw this army, now mostly camped outside the walls in Moorfields (with just a few hundred lodged in Baynard's Castle, the riverside family home of the dukes of York), was not going to make trouble, and as eager vintners and fishmongers rushed to make contracts to supply the soldiers until they left to march north again, an agitated John Lambert had got the call to join the King and his generals at the thanksgiving Mass they were holding at St Paul's. His delight at that almost compensated for being left out of the farewell banquet at Baynard's Castle last night, at which the mayor had been allowed to serve the King's wine. And his preparations for being briefly in sight of the court had overshadowed the planning for the weddings.

   With so much going on, John Lambert had only had time to take Isabel once to the Claver house on Catte Street, a great place whose airy halls and parlours put to shame even the substantial Lambert family home round the corner on Milk Street, even if it wasn't decorated with half so many tapestries and carpets as the Lambert house. It was in the morning of the day the gates were opened to the army. He was already in his harness ready to ride out with the patrol. He'd hastily sorted out the business side of the marriage with Alice Claver, at one end of the great hall, in the space of an hour, while the betrothed couple had been given a brief chance to get to know each other, sitting awkwardly on benches drawn up across from each other, at the other end of the room.

   It had taken Isabel what seemed an eternity to find the strength to raise her eyes. When she did, she'd been astonished by the picture the young man opposite her presented. He wasn't slurping at the cup of wine his mother had left by his side before tactfully drawing away. He was slumped on his bench, with his pink face in shadow under hair that wouldn't lie down. He was staring at his feet, pulling at the purse dangling down his leg with busy fingers, and biting his lip.

   He looks scared to death, Isabel had thought suddenly, sitting up straighter with the realisation. More scared than me. He'd probably never succeeded in touching any of the tavern girls she'd seen him leering over in the Tumbling Bear and the Lion, she realised with a flash of intuition. This indulged only child of a rich widow, who'd never been sent to start an apprenticeship in another household, who'd been allowed to avoid learning his mother's trade in her own house, was looking like a large child on the brink of tears. He'd almost certainly never been alone with a female of his own age. And now it was all catching up with him. She'd been surprised to find herself feeling something close to pity.

   She'd leaned forward, wanting so much to comfort him that she very nearly patted his hand. But the only subject she could think of to break the ice was business. Her father had said Alice Claver was planning to buy her son into the livery and give him one thousand pounds' worth of goods so he could bypass apprenticeship altogether – the ten years of study most boys did – and start trading on his own account as soon as he was married. They'd still have to live with his mother while he was setting himself up; but Alice Claver's home contained so many leagues of rooms and halls that it would be no hardship. Perhaps Thomas Claver would be reassured by being reminded of his prospects, so glorious compared to the ten pounds here and five pounds there that so many young bachelors cadged from wherever they could to scrape together the stock they needed to start trading for themselves. It might make him feel in control of his destiny. ‘You must be pleased about getting into the livery,’ she'd ventured hesitantly, trying to form an alliance, doing her best at an encouraging smile.

   But he'd only scuffed his feet against each other and scowled. ‘Oh, that. It's just my ma pulling strings,’ he'd said sullenly. ‘It doesn't mean anything. Doesn't mean I'll actually get to do what I want. She'll have her fingers all over my business from day one, just you wait and see. “Thomas, do this; Thomas, do that; Thomas, don't do that.”’ He peered up at last, but only to fix her with a look of gloomy malice before turning back down to his scuffing and scowling. ‘And it won't be long before she starts in on you either.’

   Isabel only knew Alice Claver by reputation. In the markets, the silkwoman was respected and mostly liked as a force of nature; a solid woman in her middle years with a wide face and a wider smile, when she chose, though she wasn't scared of scowling or talking sharply either. Alice Claver whisked through the covered markets where she kept half a dozen retail stalls and booths and chests, selling whole silk cloths from Italy and silk threads from all over the world and the piecework ribbons and small goods that were made by her workers in London, jollying her own people relentlessly along, sweet-talking the mercers, and selling to clients with such down-to-earth persuasiveness that they hardly knew where they were before they were parting with their money. She hadn't married again after her husband died, years ago. But she'd kept his business going. And she'd made enough money from carrying on Richard Claver's trade in luxury goods to go on leasing the palatial great place they'd lived in together from the Mercers for what every silkwoman in the Crown Seld knew to be the princely annual rent of £8 13s 4d. She'd registered to trade in her own name, as a femme sole, taking responsibility for her own debts. She didn't have John Lambert's disdain for training girls – she trained younger silkwomen as if they were proper male apprentices, teaching them everything about how trade was conducted. The only thing the trained silkwomen couldn't do was to join the Mercers' Company; that was for the men; but they could set themselves up and, if things went well for them, keep themselves in style without depending on a husband. Things had gone well for Alice Claver. She sold fine silk goods to the King's Wardrobe. She visited textile markets in the Low Countries and bought the finest cloths in quantities that were the envy of many merchants. She'd even organised the other wives of the silk business, and some of the most influential of their mercer husbands, to join her and the unmarried silk-women in petitioning parliament to protect their trade from foreign competition. And she was the centre of charity around her home. She might not have much physical grace, but she had more energy than most women half her age – enough energy, Isabel thought with another surprised stab of compassion, to overwhelm a son with no great appetite for work.

   So Isabel persevered with her smile. ‘Oh well,’ she said brightly, reminding herself that a soft answer turns away wrath, ‘we'll see her off, don't worry.’ She sounded more confident than she felt. Alice Claver would be hard to see off. ‘You'll soon learn how to run things for yourself. And I can help. At least,’ she corrected herself, smiling a bit ruefully at the thought, ‘I can a bit. My father's always refused to let the women in his family learn the business. He says it's because he has his position to think of, and there's no need now he's so rich, though we know it's really because my mother never knew enough about silk-work to teach us herself or hold her own in the selds, and after she died it would have meant losing face to change his ways and let us start learning. Anyway, he doesn't like training girls too much. So all he's ever let me do is embroidery. But I'm good at that.’

   She kept her eyes on his face. She felt, rather than saw, him begin to look less lugubrious when she started to laugh gently at her own family.

   So she persisted, willing him to laugh with her: ‘He says, “Lovely ladies with long fingers should embroider church vestments,”’ and she imitated her father's rolling, mellifluous voice well enough that the corners of his mouth lifted up. ‘It's the only thing he thinks ladylike enough for us.’

   Suddenly he looked up and stared into her eyes, so straight and so hard and so long that she thought she'd said something to offend. She stared back, astonished. What could it have been? But then she realised he wasn't offended, just overcoming shyness. Slowly, his face softened. She could see sweetness in his relieved grin. ‘You're not half as grand as I thought you'd be,’ he'd said. Isabel thought they'd both briefly sensed the possibility of forming an alliance: the young and powerless against the families who controlled them.

   Whether Thomas Claver still felt well-disposed towards her now, at the church door, Isabel couldn't say. Her eyes were fixed on the nails on the door while the priest mumbled.

   Her father had to nudge her when the time came to exchange rings. She pulled hers off her finger and held it out, still staring at the doornails through the drumbeats in her ears. Her fingers were damp and she could feel prickles on her back. But she didn't hesitate.

   Thomas was less lucky. She could feel him tug. Nothing happened. He tugged again. This time the ring came off, glittered in the corner of her eye, and flew down towards the cobbles. It bounced twice. It turned like a tiny hoop. She heard, rather than saw, it come to rest at her feet.

   Everyone went quiet. Her father drew in his breath. His mother hissed, ‘Thomas!’ Isabel glanced sideways at him from under her veil. He'd gone bright red. His mortified face was wet, his eyes appalled at his own clumsiness. Alice Claver was poking him in the ribs, pointing down, miming instructions for him to lean forward and pick the ring up. But he was rooted to the spot. Everyone else was frozen too.

   Isabel's heart swelled with something that made her forget her fear. She bent down, picked up the offending ring herself, and put it on her own finger; then she reached for Thomas Claver's unresponsive hand, drew it to her, and slipped her ring onto his finger. The group still seemed to have stopped breathing. Taking a deep breath, she raised her eyes slowly along Thomas Claver's arm until she was looking into his face, and watched his eyes move from an awed consideration of the hand she'd dressed with her ring, up her arm to her face. Behind his obvious terror, whether it was at having broken the forward movement of the ceremony in a way that would be chewed over in the selds as a possible bad omen, or just at having embarrassed his mother with his clumsiness, she could see the dawn of a quiet, desperate hope in those white-ringed eyes, a hope that she might somehow save him.

   Hardly knowing what she was doing, she lifted her face to his, pre-empting the moment in the ceremony when bride and groom were invited to kiss. And when he only stared back at her, as if he had no idea what to do next, she boldly stretched out the hand that now wore his ring to touch the back of his head, stood on tiptoe and kissed him firmly on the lips.

   There was a screech of approving laughter from one of the beldames by the water conduit. Then, even from within that awkward embrace, with her eyes shut and her body held apart from the big, hot frame of her husband, Isabel could feel the Lamberts and Clavers and Shores all relax; breath expelled; bodies moving; little murmurs and eddies of happy sound. When she opened her eyes and stepped back, Thomas Claver went on looking at her in a kind of amazement. He was still pink about the face, and still damp. But he was smiling.

   Isabel danced at the feast. She danced with Thomas, suddenly shy again and avoiding his eyes; aware of the dampness of his hands; holding herself nervously back from his large body. She danced more freely with every mercer who was her father's or her new mother-in-law's friend, until the blood came back to her cheeks with the sheer pleasure of movement. She whirled her skirts and flashed her ankles; sufficient unto the day, she thought, with sudden hectic gaiety, draining her cup of wine. Suddenly it felt like an easing of her burden in life to be free of her father. She was nervous about what would come after the dancing, of course; but there'd be time to worry about tonight when tonight came. When the third course was brought in, giant pyramids of blancmanges wobbling in the heat, she let her partner, a bright-eyed old friend of Alice Claver's called William Pratte, lead her back to his place on the trestles and courteously pass sweet dainties her way.

   Thomas brought William Pratte's wife, Anne, back to the table, then left the room. He half-glanced at Isabel. She caught the nervous look, but was too shy to smile back. It was only after he'd turned uncertainly towards the door that her lips started to curve up. She sat breathlessly quiet among his mother's friends, feeling grown-up. She couldn't be unaware of Alice Claver and the plump, knowing, eager Prattes gossiping beside her. They talked in low voices, darting cautious glances all around; but they clearly weren't trying to hide what they were saying from her.

   ‘Well of course they fight dirty,’ William Pratte was saying, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. ‘The nobility have never been half as noble as they like to make out. They say King Edward didn't so much win the last battle as chase the other lot into the millpond and drown them.’

   Alice Claver snorted irreverently. ‘Like kittens,’ she said. ‘Well, all I can say is good riddance.’

   ‘Still. It's not exactly Camelot, is it?’

   John Lambert was leading Jane down the row of raised arms in the centre of the room. He was radiating happiness at having pulled off his plan, skittishly kicking up his heels and smiling at everyone whose eyes he met. Yet he must be able to see the room was only half-full, and mostly with the Clavers' and Shores' family connections, not the great and good of the City he'd wanted to attract. Isabel thought: if they'd really forgiven him, the mayor would be here. The aldermen. Her relief at having got the ordeal of the wedding over was so great that the thought almost made her feel sorry for him.

   ‘Do you think it's true what they say?’ Anne Pratte was half-whispering, her eyes batting flirtatiously up and down. These people seemed to be much more disrespectful and sharp-tongued than her father, Isabel thought, with a flicker of interest. She'd only ever heard the York royal family discussed in tones of hushed reverence at home. Did they always talk like this? ‘About the youngest brother; the Duke of Gloucester; how he killed …’

   She dropped her voice. Isabel sensed she'd hear the same stories again. But for now a movement at the other end of the room was distracting her; a flurry at the door. Thomas? She glanced up.

   A crowd was forming over there. She could hear the sounds of hooves and metal outside. There were new people sliding into the room, round the edge of the group; and she could see one of them was Alderman John Brown. At the centre of the crowd was a tawny uncovered head, taller than the rest, with bobbing and bowing going on all around it.

   William Pratte was still whispering conspiratorially, getting back to the meaty talk, lifting one hand off his plump knees; including Isabel, to her slight alarm, in his bright-eyed gaze. It was almost as if these middle-aged people, with their knowing ways and cheerfully treasonous talk, hadn't realised how young and inexperienced Isabel was; if she hadn't known such a thing to be impossible, she might have thought they were deliberately trying to include her; trying to be friends.

   The crowd by the door shifted and cleared, like clouds blown by the wind. For a second, Isabel could see over the three grey heads bent in front of her, and what she seemed to be seeing was her father, down on his knees, grinning like a lunatic at the floor and being patted on the back by a tall man in clothes that seemed to shimmer gold in the heavy afternoon light.

   ‘Look,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse with surprise.

   William Pratte followed her finger. ‘Good God,’ he said. ‘Alice, look.’

   Alice Claver's head turned, and stayed stuck in a stare directed at the doorway. But Anne Pratte was still caught up in the whispering.

   ‘But Alice, that's exactly what they are saying,’ she was muttering happily. And then she looked up, too, saw Alice Claver rising slowly to her feet, still staring, and began to gape like an astonished fish. ‘It's the King!’ Anne Pratte said foolishly – foolishly, because others were dropping to their knees too now, crowding in: the mayor, suddenly and miraculously present; Will Shore's parents; the Prattes; Alice Claver (how had she got there so fast?). Now John Lambert was scrambling to his feet to get out of the crush of kneelers, dancing backwards in something close to panic to create a place of honour for the monarch who was gracing his table with this extraordinary visit, and startled apprentices and serving girls, getting the message, were rushing to and fro clearing away the dishes from the tabletop and whisking in fresh dishes and strewing the boards with rose petals. And every bare head was bowed, but every pair of eyes was raised, fixed on King Edward, drinking him in.

   ‘Well,’ said the King, casually moving through the room towards Isabel's father and patting him on the back again, and every mouth opened in adoring appreciation of his words, ‘how could I let my best friend in the City of London marry his daughters without coming to wish them well?’

   John Lambert was pink with gratification; his smile almost cracking his face in half. He didn't look handsome and distinguished, for once; his bowed posture and that smile reduced him to servility. He looked as though he was thanking God for having given him the opportunity, over the years, to lend King Edward £1,052 10s, the sum he so often liked to remind his daughters was as much as the Duke of Gloucester himself could hope for in rents in a year and more than most knights could hope to lay their hands on in a lifetime; he looked as though he was thinking that the reward of the King's presence here, now, was enough to repay those debts even if he never saw a penny of the money again (which he might easily not). Still, no one could look handsome next to this King, whatever they were thinking, Isabel realised. Edward's golden presence would always diminish everyone else.

   The King and his friend – a dark, laughing nobleman almost Edward's height, who would have been the most striking person in the room if he'd come alone, and whom Anne Pratte identified for Isabel, in a piercing whisper, as Thomas, Lord Hastings, the King's dearest friend – looked as though they were here to stay. The King ate a slice of beef. He drank a cup of claret. He smiled at Jane till she blushed. He congratulated Will Shore on his bride. He asked the groom's permission to dance with her. He led Jane, floating like thistledown, through an entire basse dance. Why her, not me? Isabel thought, without really understanding the thought; she knew really that she'd have been terrified to touch the King's person. But everyone turned to Jane first. ‘There, you see,’ Anne Pratte burbled to Isabel, her face glowing, her disrespectful gossip of a few moments before entirely forgotten, blotted out by the majesty of majesty, ‘your father's in the good graces of the King, all right … what an honour … can you imagine? I've never heard of anything like this before … you'd never have got King Henry mixing with merchants, that sad sack … I've always said loyalty deserves to be rewarded.’

   Now John Lambert was rushing to Isabel to present her to the King. She was embarrassed by the look of triumph on her father's face, but she let him take her hand. However fast her heart was beating, she kept her eyes turned down as he pulled her along the side of the table and began muttering ‘Sire’ and ‘May it please your grace’, and bowing and scraping. She made her deepest curtsey and rose, with her eyes still down. She didn't want to be drawn into the excitement. But it was infectious. ‘Aha, another Lambert beauty,’ the King said. And his voice was so deep and rich and full of unexpected beauty that it surprised her into looking up; for a second it had reminded her of the voice of the stranger she'd met in the church. For a second, as she met this stranger's eyes, she was disappointed to see a bigger face, fleshier and handsomer. But something kept her gazing into these eyes, full of lazy laughter; aware of his sensual mouth, twitching up at one corner as if starting to laugh at some secret joke he was about to share with her. Perhaps it was the long gold of the afternoon, but in the warmth of that gaze she felt time was suspended. The crowded scene faded. All she was aware of was the man's eyes holding hers until she felt her own cheeks tingle with pleasure and her mouth widen into a smile. Until, to her surprise, she found she was laughing; a laugh of pure, animal joy.

   They were lighting candles at the back of the room, she noticed, coming to, wondering where this immense happiness had come from so suddenly.

   Then it was over. No dancing. The King waved his congratulations to Thomas, just coming back into the room, who looked even more startled than everyone else, then alarmed, then scared when he saw his mother's frown, then almost fell over himself falling to his knees. And John Lambert rushed Isabel away to her table again, still bowing and grinning. All that was left was her exhilaration.

   As John Lambert settled her back on her stool, fussing around her, unable to contain his excitement, he couldn't stop muttering: ‘a wonderful man; a king to be proud of; we're living in fortunate times; you've been honoured … honoured …’ As she reached for her cup, she noticed, with a small pang of a sourness she wouldn't admit might be jealousy, that the King was dancing with Jane again.

   ‘One thing's for sure. No one will ever remember about the ring now,’ Thomas said happily, stroking her fine fair hair with one hand, pulling himself up on his other elbow so he could look at her face on the pillow in the morning light. He wasn't fat, as she'd thought; she knew now that his ox-like body, twice the size of hers, was all heavy muscle and power.

   She murmured something indistinct, trying to put aside her embarrassed, happy, sticky memories of the overwhelming things she and he had done in this bed in the dark, to the truly astonishing event of yesterday, the only thing about her wedding that every gossip in the selds would now be discussing – the King's presence at the feast.

   The King of England at her wedding, she thought with sleepy wonder. The newly returned King Edward – who a year ago had been a terrified runaway, chased out of the country by King Henry's army, forced to take ship for the Low Countries after being routed in some battle at, she thought, Doncaster; and walking through the night, with his brother and his closest friends, across the Wash, while the tide came in and pulled his men, screaming, into the sea they hoped would save them, if they could only reach a port to escape abroad from. No wonder the other merchants had thought, back then, that it would be best to accept King Henry's army; even if they'd enjoyed the ten years of Edward's reign before that; even if they remembered the earlier decades of King Henry's aimless rule as a slide into anarchy, when nothing could stop the pirates and the robber barons, when the wine fleet stopped coming and it was dangerous to cross the Channel with their cargoes. King Edward hadn't seemed to have a chance, a year ago. But he was a lucky man; a man with skill. He'd never lost a battle. He'd found funds and raised another army and fought his way back to London. And now he was showing how he planned to rule, if he finally defeated the Lancastrian armies still in the Midlands – as a friend of merchants. He'd come to her wedding.

   No one had ever heard of such a thing. No other king had ever done anything like coming to a merchant's feast. But then no other king had had to borrow so much from the City to pay his way in the war he'd seemed fated, until recently, to lose. And there was no one he'd borrowed more from than John Lambert. Isabel thought back to the frantic bobbing and scraping that had taken over the party when King Edward walked through the door. The reverence. The fawning laughter. ‘Oh … my father's face …’ she recalled, and laughed; not the polite tinkle with which she met the pleasantries of grown-up mercers and their wives, but one of the big deep snorts of mirth she and Jane indulged themselves in, in the Lambert children's bed, when no one else was listening.

   Thomas Claver guffawed with her. ‘And my mother,’ he picked up cheerfully. ‘I could just see her wishing she'd dressed up properly for once. She wasn't the only one, either. I'd say every woman in that room would have done anything to catch his eye.’ He pulled himself over her, planting a big elbow beside each of her ears, grinning down at her with a confidence that looked new and unfamiliar on him. ‘Even you, maybe. Hmm?’ She shut her eyes, shy at looking at him so close, in daylight, and breathless now his chest was squashing down on her again, his legs pushing between hers. He brushed a strand of her hair mischievously across her eyelids. ‘Tell me. Was the King the man of your dreams?’

   She shook her head with her eyes still shut, smiling at the soft brush of hair on skin and the gruff gentleness of his voice. If they were going to go on being this kind to each other it would be easy to stay absorbed in the moment, this one and perhaps many more; to feel lucky at being granted the new pleasure of being with someone who would never criticise her or demand anything of her beyond physical affection and answers to the kind of excitable, puppyish questions he'd been pounding her with since before dawn – ‘What are your three favourite colours?’ ‘… your favourite food?’ ‘… your worst memory?’ ‘… your patron saint?’ But his question reawakened a part of her that was separate from Thomas Claver; a part that knew that this easy sprawl of limbs, and even the first pulses of excitement in her body as he pushed his weight closer, didn't fill her senses and change the colours of the air in the way they'd been changed, for a few magical seconds, by the man in the tavern who'd told her she had no choice but to marry.

   ‘No,’ she whispered, laughing, ‘of course he wasn't.’ And she arched her aching body up invitingly under Thomas Claver's, and met his lips with hers, and tried to banish that other face – the piercing black eyes, the raised eyebrows like a cross, the dark velvet voice – back to the limbo it belonged in. I'm blessed to have found this much happiness, she told herself; it would be a sin to ask for more.

   ‘So who is?’ Thomas Claver's voice interrupted, as he moved his lips across her face to her ear, sounding hoarse now as desire gripped him in earnest, and she breathed the answer he wanted to hear, and almost meant it:

   ‘You.’

   Afterwards, stretching back on the pillows, she shook her head lazily when Thomas said, with a sudden return of anxiety, ‘We should go to breakfast soon; there's hell to pay if you're not down by dawn.’

   ‘We don't have to do everything they want today; they'll understand,’ she murmured back, stroking his shoulder, ‘they'd be disappointed if we rushed out to eat this morning.’

   She was pleased when his face relaxed back into its previous expression of joy – and then suddenly struck by what might have been the very oddest part of the whole strange day she'd just lived through.

   It was Jane. Jane, who was never anything but perfectly sunny as she did the right thing and kept everyone satisfied; Jane, who always looked for something to be happy about in the most miserable of situations; Jane, who'd accepted her father's choice of husband with so much less fuss than Isabel (‘It can't be that bad – at least we'll never have to sit on those horrible stools in the Crown again, blinding ourselves just to trim some old bishop's robe, with every market boy gawping at us as though they'd never seen a girl before’). Jane, whom she'd expected to become the perfect wife instantly: laughing in the kitchen with the servants and the children; laughing more elegantly at the mayor's table; charming her husband into high office; magicking contracts out of customers with her wit and lovely limbs.

   Jane hadn't been so graciously dutiful last night. As soon as the King had bowed and asked her husband's permission to take her as partner in the basse dance, she'd got up, without even waiting for Will Shore's stammered consent, and swayed off across the room with the King, looking radiant.

   An hour later, when Isabel and Thomas left, Jane was still sitting with the King in a pool of golden light, ignoring her husband, deep in a serene conversation quite unrelated to the hubbub of dancing and shadows all around. And, in the darkness beyond their conversation, Isabel now remembered an uneasy play of eyes. John Lambert's eyes, fixed adoringly on the King. The eyes of the King's friend, Lord Hastings, fixed hungrily on Jane. And Will Shore's eyes, dazed and puzzled, looking from one golden head to the other, as if he were wondering whether to feel awestruck by the King's attention to his new wife, or just left out.

   In the end, they only got up in time to join Alice Claver for dinner after eleven in the morning. There was a simple dish of beef and bread and beer, all anyone could manage after yesterday's excesses. William and Anne Pratte were there with Alice – had they even gone away? Alice wondered. They seemed as familiar with this house as if they lived here, though she knew they had their own home near Jane's new one on Old Jewry. They were gossiping and grinning, like they had been yesterday, and Anne, on seeing the young couple, immediately launched into a story for them about the excitements they'd missed later last night. About how more courtiers had come to join the king after the couple had left, including the King's brother, the Duke of Gloucester, small and dark, ill-favoured and bad-tempered, and about how Jane had danced with the King practically till the candles had burned down.

   Perhaps it was sharing work, in the way of so many Mercery families – the husband doing the wholesale trading while the wives made luxury retail products from their husbands' silk purchases, sold them, and minded the apprentices – that had made this couple look so like twins. They were both small and tubby and cheerful. William Pratte's hair was thin and grey, and both pairs of eyes were grey too, but as lively and inquisitive as those of squirrels. They finished each other's sentences, and Alice Claver's too. That would never have happened at the decorous, often silent Lambert table; but no one here seemed to mind.

   The three of them made such a point of courteously including the newlyweds in their grown-up conversation, and so strenuously avoided reference, even by the smallest untoward smirk or movement of an eyebrow, to the pleasures of the marriage bed, that Isabel spent the entire meal going alternately hot with shame and cold with dread, just in case they were about to start.

   Her stomach churned so badly at times that she could only half-hear the harmless gossip they were chewing over from the wedding feast. John Brown, her father's replacement as alderman: going bald; looking fat; should take more exercise. Her father: looking indecently handsome; what had his robes cost him? (Here three bright pairs of adult eyes turned cautiously towards her, then away.) Gratefully, she felt Thomas's hand cover hers under the table and squeeze. His hand was damp; his face hangdog; he must feel as nervous as her.

   ‘You'd never have got King Henry turning up like that at a merchant's wedding,’ little Anne Pratte whispered confidingly, turning to Alice Claver. Isabel waited for Alice Claver, the head of this household, to look forbiddingly at her; it didn't do to gossip about kings. But the larger woman just snickered encouragingly and replied, with a disrespect Isabel found startling: ‘No, never; give me a big handsome hero for a king any day, especially if he's going to take a proper interest in us …’

   ‘… And stop the Italians cheating us,’ William Pratte butted in hopefully. ‘And knock some sense into the Hanse. Maybe even get the French pirates while he's about it. I'll be for the House of York, all right, if King Edward's going to really stir himself to help the City. No more loafing around while every lord in the land runs wild and our business goes to rack and ruin. I tell you, it'll be ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Hallelujah!’ every morning at my table if Edward goes on doing better than that …’ He screwed up his face and stuck his tongue out of his mouth, letting it loll like a lunatic's. The street-boy code for half-wit King Henry.

   Isabel stared. She should have been scared of what her father would definitely have called treasonous talk. But there was something about the casual mischief flickering round the table that she thought she was going to like, once she'd had time to get used to it.

   ‘Well, let's hope he wins, then,’ Alice Claver said briskly. ‘He still has to catch Warwick.’

   ‘Now,’ she swept on, turning so suddenly to Isabel and Thomas that the bride hardly had time for her heart to leap into her mouth. ‘You two. Talking of our business going to rack and ruin, isn't it time to get you to work?’

   Alice Claver's manner might have been brusque, but her eyes twinkled so merrily that Isabel didn't feel offended. For a moment, at least. Then she realised Thomas, at her side, was bristling with resentment, and thought, falteringly, that perhaps she'd misunderstood the mood.

   ‘Get your lovely legs into the storeroom, eh, Thomas?’ Alice Claver went on prodding, with the beginning of a rough growl of laughter in her voice. ‘Show Isabel the ropes?’

   Isabel looked down at the table, but not before she saw the Prattes giving each other another of their sharp, birdlike looks – enough to show her it wasn't the first time they'd heard Alice Claver say this sort of thing to her son, and that they didn't expect a positive outcome. Isabel squeezed Thomas's hand back. If he felt bullied, she wanted to show her support.

   ‘Aw, Ma,’ she heard Thomas answer. It was a child's whine, and there was a cunning look in his eye that she could see meant he had no intention of working today and would say anything to avoid it. Isabel let her hand go soft again. ‘We only got married yesterday.’

   Alice Claver looked unimpressed. ‘Well, you've had all morning to loll about, haven't you?’ she said, and there was more roughness and less laughter in her voice now. Isabel blushed. The Prattes glanced at each other again. Visibly restraining her impatience, Alice Claver continued: ‘You know William's very kindly offering to take you round the selds. Showing you the kind of range of goods you might think of buying to set yourself up. Introducing you to the kind of people at Guildhall who can advise you.’

   She paused, as if this would jog Thomas's memory. But Thomas stayed mulishly quiet.

   Anne Pratte piped up, in her fluting little voice: ‘You don't need to worry about Isabel, Thomas. I'll look after her for the afternoon. I'm going round Alice's embroidery suppliers; it would be useful for Isabel to meet them. She can come with me …’

   Isabel could see both offers would be helpful if Thomas were to start buying in enough stock to get going as a merchant in his own right, and she needed to learn the names and faces of the silkwomen she'd soon, perhaps, need to commission work from. She squeezed his hand again and looked encouragingly at him from under her lashes, trying to convey that she'd like him to say yes. But Thomas just scowled harder.

   ‘Ma,’ he repeated, with the elaborate patience of a man talking to an idiot. ‘I just said. We've just got married. And Isabel wants to go and see off the King's army. We were going to take a picnic.’

   The eyes all turned on Isabel, making her face burn. She'd been acutely embarrassed by Thomas's tone of voice. However informal people were in this household, it surely couldn't be right to talk back to your mother like that. Besides, she'd made no plan for a picnic or a trip to see the army leave Moorfields; if anyone had asked her, she'd have said no. She knew nothing about soldiers except that they were dangerous. Why court trouble? And she certainly didn't want to be Thomas's alibi for shirking an arrangement his mother had made for him. It would only make Alice Claver dislike her, and she didn't want that either.

   But she was Thomas's wife now. It was her duty to stand by him. And she didn't like the way Alice Claver was using the Prattes as an audience to try to shame Thomas publicly. She'd have to find a way to sweet-talk him into doing what his mother wanted, privately, later. For now, all she could do was brazen out Alice Claver's accusing stare, try to smile light-heartedly, as if nothing were amiss, and pray that the hot tide of blood staining her face red right to the roots of her hair would recede.

   There was a long, frustrated pause.

   ‘Well, if that's what Isabel wants,’ Alice Claver said coldly, turning away. She didn't finish the sentence. No one else finished it for her this time, either.

   ‘Come on, Isabel,’ Thomas said, getting up and pulling her along behind him.

   Isabel glanced back from the doorway. The Prattes were quietly shaking their heads at each other. But Alice Claver was still staring straight at her, and there was a cold anger in her eyes. With a sinking heart, Isabel realised she'd made an enemy.

   Like every other Londoner who'd gone to gawp gratefully at the soldiers who'd come into their city without robbing or raping them, when it came to it, Isabel and Thomas Claver were too nervous of the men at arms camping outside the walls to go very near. Instead they joined the crowd lurking cautiously under the fruit trees that the city people grew on their vegetable patches, munching bread, trampling people's beans and peas, knocking over archery butts – enjoying the muted thrill of threat from the peace of the dappled shade, but not wanting to enter that vast, gleaming, sunlit tapestry of horsemen and sharp blades. We're like cows chewing our cud, she thought, lulled into a half-dream by the drone of insects and the buzz of the crowd and the warmth of Thomas Claver's arm around her waist, not knowing whether to feel proud or ashamed of the prudence of her own city sort. And, watching the fighters clean their harnesses and weapons – the word was that all these knights and squires and countrymen and cut-throats would be marching north tomorrow to find the Earl of Warwick and finish him off – she also thought, and they're like wolves.

   She and Thomas hadn't spoken since leaving the house, just walked with the sun on their backs in companionable silence. The rhythm of the walk had helped diminish Isabel's sense of unease. Once Thomas had calmed down, she thought, she'd find a way to talk about work and make it easy for him to agree to do as his mother asked. But not just yet.

   ‘You're so tiny,’ Thomas Claver muttered suddenly, pulling her round into his arms, staring softly down at her. She hardly reached his big shoulders.

   He nuzzled her ear with his lips.

   ‘Thomas,’ she murmured, turning her face up to his, but not knowing quite how to go on; wishing she'd had more practice at persuading people to do things.

   He put his lips above her eyes. ‘Kissing away your frown,’ he whispered.

   She smiled uncertainly. Then, not able to think of a clever way of raising the subject, she plunged ahead. Better to get it over, she told herself. ‘We will start work tomorrow, won't we?’ she said anxiously. ‘I don't want your mother to think I'm a bad influence on you.’

   He smiled back, but his eyes shifted sideways.

   ‘I just want a few days alone with you,’ he said softly. ‘That's not too much to ask, is it?’ Then, with a show of what he clearly hoped was nonchalance, he went on: ‘We'll get that out of my ma without too much trouble. Don't worry about her. She's a tough old bird, but I know how to handle her.’ He put his lips on hers. She closed her eyes and let him sweep her up almost off her feet into a kiss.

   But even as her body responded her mind was filling with difficult questions. Was this kiss just his way of stopping her from talking? And how long was he planning to spin out those ‘few days’ of idleness?

   ‘We'll start after May Day,’ Thomas said. ‘That's quite soon enough.’ He shut his mouth as tight as a trap. He'd said the same thing every day, at every meal, for a week.

   The Prattes eyed each other.

   Alice Claver gave Isabel her by now habitual look of loathing. When she was angry her round face went a duller red. Her eyes went almost black. Her lips became a sneering slit.

   Isabel eyed her defiantly back. What's the point of you all blaming me? she thought helplessly. He's never worked. You've never made him. It's not my fault if he won't now.

   She could hardly remember the gossipy charm of that first dinner. The atmosphere in the house had become so poisonous that she was almost relieved to be out with Thomas after every morning row. Boating. Fishing. Watching him at the archery butts. Dining in taverns farther from the Mercery than she'd ever been: in Westminster, in riverside villages as far away as Kew, or in the wilds of Haringey Park. She'd learned so minutely in these days of startling physical closeness how his face and hair and thickly muscled limbs would move at any given moment, that she felt they'd become close. She'd almost stopped comparing his body with her memory of the man in the church; that quick darkness. But these trips, in which aspects of Thomas's life that she'd never have seen in Catte Street were revealed every day, were an unsettling reminder of how little she really knew him. It seemed as though Thomas must know tavern keepers and shifty drunks across half of England. Everywhere they went, men sidled up to him, grinning. ‘My wife,’ he'd say, proudly; and they'd give her the kind of measuring looks that made her blush, or they'd guffaw and nudge him. ‘Making good, are you, Tommy boy?’ one old villain with a broken nose asked him merrily. ‘Well, it's high time you settled down.’

   Whatever Thomas said, she didn't for a moment believe he would knuckle down to learning his trade after May Day. He'd find another excuse to postpone it. She thought he must be scared of admitting how much he had to learn; she also thought his mother wasn't making it any easier by bullying him in front of the Prattes, who were always dropping in because Anne Pratte worked with Alice. It can't go on like this, Isabel thought sometimes. Thomas will have to start work soon. But she'd begun to accept her dreamlike, aimless new existence. She was feeling more defiant every time Alice Claver froze her with one of her stares. Anything was better than being at Catte Street with those frightening looks.

   When Isabel was woken up at dawn on May Day by the door of her chamber banging open, and Alice Claver's familiar, heavy footsteps storming in, her first sleepy, confused thought was that her mother-in-law must finally have got so angry that she'd resolved to pull them out of bed by force and put the pair of them to work right now, feast day or not.

   Quickly, she pulled the sheet over her head and prodded Thomas into muttering wakefulness. Luckily the bed curtains were drawn. They lay in each other's arms in the hot darkness, hardly breathing, listening for clues; bracing for invasion.

   But the footsteps went thudding right past the bed, straight to the window, then fell silent. Alice Claver must be leaning out listening to the street talk, Isabel thought; she wouldn't hear it from her own room, which looked out on the garden. But why? All she'd hear would be a lot of people setting up their stalls and talking about the maypole dancing later. Thomas raised an eyebrow, giving Isabel the kind of rueful look that she now knew to be an invitation to giggle at his mother's infuriating ways. She grinned back.

   Yet when Alice Claver did finally stalk over to the bed and twitch back their curtains, her face was so drained of colour and her eyes so full of fear that the sight of it wiped away their guilty smiles in an instant.

   Alice Claver said, in a monotone, ‘They say there are ships attacking from the river,’ and, after a long, expression less stare at both of them, ‘Get up; quick; we must lock up.’ And she half-ran from the room.

   As the door clapped shut, Isabel and Thomas pulled themselves up on their elbows, both wide awake now, and stared at each other. He looks excited, Isabel thought, and knew his face was reflecting her own expression. Neither of them was really scared. The memory of King Edward's chivalrous soldiers was too recent for that, and they'd never seen any others.

   ‘I should go out,’ he said, drinking her in hungrily. ‘Join the patrols.’

   ‘No,’ she replied quickly. She put a hand on his arm. I don't want him doing anything dangerous, she thought. But she also knew she didn't want to be left alone in this house.

   ‘I must,’ he said, and for the first time she saw what he might look like once his youth had passed: calm and decisive, as if he'd been relieved of all the uncertainties of his youth. It took her breath away. Feeling almost giddy with what she thought must be the first pang of real love, she looked down, feeling ashamed, listening in silence as he went on: ‘I'm a good marksman.’ He looked at her, almost pleadingly. ‘I want you to be proud of me.’

   She nodded, reluctantly accepting his choice. Very tenderly, he raised her face to his.

   He'd gone before she realised she hadn't remembered to say a prayer over him or whisper a word of love. She set off downstairs alone to face Alice Claver.

   The first rush of closing shutters and barring doors and dragging chests in front of them and drawing water and bringing in all the loaves and cured meat they could lay hands on in the pantries left them breathless and hot. It was only after that, while they sat in the half-dark they were to stay in for the best part of the next two weeks, that the fear set in and they got cold. First it was just Isabel and Alice Claver and three serving girls in the parlour, shivering and hugging themselves despite the summer swelter; but then, a few hours later, Anne Pratte came too, banging at the door to be let in with none of her usual timidity, bringing life back into the room.

   William Pratte was in charge of the Old Jewry patrol. He'd dropped his wife at Catte Street as he set off for the riverside with his muster of amateur archers. ‘Thomas will have joined him, don't you fret,’ Anne Pratte said comfortably to both Alice Claver and Isabel, settling herself down on a bench with her sewing. Isabel was relieved to see that, just as Thomas's stock had risen because he'd been so eager to go out and defend his women and his city, her own enemy status was becoming fuzzy in this artificial twilight.

   Anne Pratte's calm astonished Isabel. Even from the relative safety of Catte Street, well back from the Thames, you could hear the explosions and the crash of riverside buildings falling. The Bastard of Fauconberg's Lancastrian troops were trying to rescue King Henry from the Tower; the pirates from Kent and Essex with him just wanted to run riot through London with their clubs and pitchforks. Every thudding footstep outside might be the first of them, and you could do nothing about it except pray. Each booming hit sent a shudder through the nearby streets. Not just because of the windows cracking, or the falling pewterware, but because of the dirty black tide of dread that comes over all human flesh at the realisation that it is soft and pink and defenceless against death. Yet even when one of the serving girls began whimpering, and Alice Claver, grey-faced in the grey light, was muttering prayers under her breath, and Isabel had her eyes tight shut, willing herself not to lose her dignity but feeling the dark tide coming close to overwhelming her, Anne Pratte carried on sewing and grumbling. Isabel admired her for it. It somehow helped keep the fear at bay.

   ‘Knights in shining armour indeed,’ Anne Pratte said crossly, early on, biting off a thread as though it were an advancing Lancastrian's head, so fiercely that her floppy turkey neck quivered. ‘The laws of chivalry, my foot. I don't care what they say about warfare being a noble art. This is just fighting. Bullies with weapons, and us caught in the middle.’

   Naturally, in the circumstances she spent a lot of those twilit days complaining about the Lancastrians. But she was catholic in her dislikes. She had bad things to say about the Yorks too. King Edward's womanising got short shrift. So did his grasping queen, Elizabeth Woodville, (‘not a drop of royal blood in her body, that one; but more than enough pure ambition to make up for it … a beauty, of course, but harder than diamonds’) who enjoyed the exercise of power so much that she kept every princess of the blood royal standing for three silent hours at every meal. ‘Just because she can,’ Anne Pratte finished triumphantly.

   She didn't have much time for King Edward's brothers either. The Duke of Clarence, who'd gone over to the Earl of Warwick's side and married his daughter, Isabel Neville, in the misguided hope Warwick would think that reason enough to make him king, was an opportunist and, worse, a ‘nasty little traitor who's no better than he ought to be’.

   As for the younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester (an eighteen-year-old veteran whom Isabel remembered John Lambert describing with awestruck reverence after seeing him at King Edward's Mass in April), in Anne Pratte's view he was an out-and-out thief. He'd kidnapped an elderly noblewoman and forced her to sign away her lands. Anne Pratte had heard the story from Sir John Risley, a Knight of the Body for whom she was making some silk pieces. ‘Sir John says the old countess thought the duke would kill her if she refused. So she did it. Wept a lot, of course. But she had no choice. She's got nothing any more, Sir John says; she's taking in sewing to pay the nuns. And when Sir John asked the King the other day whether he thought it would be a good investment for him to buy the house from Gloucester, he said the King just squirmed with embarrassment. “Don't touch it, Risley,” he said. “Don't touch it.” He knows his brother stole it all right.’

   She leaned forward to catch Isabel's eye. She was enjoying the younger woman's attention. Isabel was imagining the Duke of Gloucester bullying the old countess, and in her mind's eye the duke was dark and thin, with a scowling face as hard as the man's she'd met in the church might, perhaps, sometimes be, while the old lady looked like a frightened, thin Alice Claver. Isabel had her sewing with her – a piece of embroidery she planned to turn into a purse for Thomas when he got back, with hearts and flowers in blues and greens, and their initials twined together – though it was so dark in here that she'd hardly touched it. Still, a truce between Isabel and Anne was definitely taking shape on the bench they were sharing, even if Alice Claver, in her own corner, was doing no more than grunt every now and then in response to her friend's non-stop talk. Isabel knew Alice Claver must be too frightened to reply. She couldn't feel sorry for her mother-in-law, not after all those rows and glares; even now, even here. But she could see Anne Pratte wanted, tactfully, to comfort her friend.

   Over in the other corner, a throat was cleared. Then Alice Claver's voice boomed out of the darkness, so loud and so ordinary that Isabel almost jumped: ‘Disgraceful. Almost makes you proud not to be one of them, doesn't it? Men of honour, my eye.’

   There was triumph in Anne Pratte's eyes at having brought her friend back from the darkness. ‘Yes, indeed, dear,’ she answered gently. ‘I always say all the fighting these great lords enjoy so much is really just an excuse to go out and grab someone else's land, isn't it?’

   Alice Claver began to laugh. A single hoot at first, then more hoots; then gales of relief. It was infectious. Before Isabel knew where she was, she and the others had joined in too. When she turned round somewhere in the middle of a gust of laughter, and met Alice Claver's creased, weeping eyes for the first time in a long time, she realised the black, hateful look had gone from them. From relief as much as anything else, she started laughing even harder, until she, like Alice Claver, was holding her sides and groaning with it.

   ‘Ooh,’ Alice Claver said, what seemed like much later; sounding almost her usual self. Anne Pratte was watching her from over her flashing needle with quiet satisfaction. ‘It hurts. I tell you what, Anne. You'd better give us all some of your sewing to do. It's keeping you calmer than the rest of us put together.’

   All Anne Pratte had in her pile was sheets for turning. Nothing you needed strong light to see. Alice Claver got up, took one off the pile and sat down again to thread a needle.

   She turned and looked at Isabel with triumph, as if she'd hit on a new reason to find fault with her. ‘Don't just sit there,’ she snapped. ‘Get yourself a sheet too. Do some work. Go on.’

   She must be feeling better. She was turning nasty again. Isabel blinked away the tears prickling behind her eyes. Hadn't Alice Claver seen she already had work in her lap? Silently, with as much dignity as she could muster, she held up her little rectangle of silk embroidery in self-defence.

   Alice Claver got up and with a single dark swoop snatched it away and pushed a sheet at her instead. ‘Waste of silk,’ she said gruffly. ‘You'll only make a mess of it in this light.’

   Isabel lowered her head. Without comment, as if she were also a little frightened of her friend's rage, Anne Pratte passed Isabel a needle.

   But, as Alice Claver sat down, Isabel was aware of her mother-in-law looking closely at the confiscated piece of embroidery as if to find something in it to sneer at; then peering closer, then holding it up to the light. She could almost swear Alice Claver looked surprised. Well, she was good at embroidery. Everyone had always said so. She kept her eyes firmly on the needle she was threading, her back tense, waiting for a new attack once Alice Claver had worked out what to say. But it didn't come. They sewed in silence.

   ‘He wasn't with me,’ William Pratte said. ‘I never saw him.’

   William Pratte was filthier than Isabel could have imagined. But he looked happy and healthy too, leaner and more muscled than he'd been a fortnight before, with his bald patch freckled a pinky brown and the sun still warm on his cheeks.

   The relief of knowing it was over, and the Bastard's head, along with those of the Mayor of Canterbury and the pirate captains, was safely on London Bridge, was making everyone feel drunk with the pleasure of being alive. The serving girls were opening the shutters, letting air and sun in with a series of joyful bangs. After a twirling embrace with her husband, Anne Pratte had rushed straight out to the garden to see what salad leaves there were. ‘I've been thinking for days, I could murder a nice dish of sorrel,’ she'd shrilled, waving her arms.

   ‘Perhaps he went with your father,’ William Pratte said, scratching himself. Isabel breathed: ‘Did you see him?’ He nodded kindly. ‘Oh yes, don't worry about him, I saw him on Tower Hill just yesterday. He had Will Shore with him. Hugh Wyche. The Chigwells. I didn't see Thomas. Then again, I didn't stop to ask. Just waved. But Thomas will be somewhere.’

   Alice Claver was beaming so hard at being let out of the darkness that nothing could dash her spirits. ‘Well, all I can say is thank God we have the daylight back,’ she said happily, including Isabel in her smile. ‘Thomas has always been a law unto himself. He'll turn up in his own good time. And we'd better get you bathed before he does, William. I've never seen so much dirt on one body.’

   No one worried too much when Thomas didn't show up that night either. Half the patrols were still out celebrating. The taverns were heaving.

   A little hesitantly, Isabel went along when, just before sunset, William Pratte took the two silkwomen to explore the damaged riverside zone beyond Cordwainer Lane. She didn't want to be out when Thomas arrived, but Alice Claver gave her a warmish look and said, ‘We'll get back before he does,’ and she gave in. Women were walking along the Strand through summer clouds of gnats, looking in astonishment at the fallen masonry and the burn marks or listening to their dirty, proud men gabbling, very fast and excited, ‘This is where we were when they started shooting’, or ‘This is where I hid from the wildfire’.

   The pirates had been beaten back from London Bridge. They'd gone downriver to Kew and tried to land there. They'd come back. But the defences had held. There was drunken singing everywhere, and a lot of woozy yelling: ‘God Save King Edward!’

   Seeing Isabel glancing around in case Thomas suddenly came out from some corner, Alice Claver told her: ‘It would be unusual for Thomas to come straight home’, and laughed, not unkindly, in the direction of the Tumbling Bear. Isabel tried not to feel disappointed that her husband hadn't rushed back to her side. But, since no one had word of him being hurt, and William Pratte said there'd been surprisingly few men killed, he must just be out drinking somewhere. For the first time, the memory of all those shady men he knew in all those taverns came back to her, replacing the pictures she'd called to mind so often in the darkness that they now seemed threadbare and soiled from overuse: his soft look back at her as he'd slipped out of the door on the day the ships came in; his parting murmur of ‘I want you to be proud of me.’

   ‘I love you,’ she muttered under her breath, to keep her spirits up, as she'd done a million times during the siege. ‘I love you.’ But she could feel doubt creeping in. She knew Thomas found home difficult and work difficult. Perhaps, now he'd discovered the pleasures of fighting, he'd seen a more exciting way of keeping out of his mother's hair than sheltering behind his new wife? Perhaps her novelty had worn off?

   Isabel felt suddenly so alone that she shivered. The heat was going out of the evening air. It was nearly curfew. He wouldn't come tonight. Anne Pratte put her shawl round Isabel's shoulders without comment; Isabel looked gratefully at her.

   ‘We kept our spirits up by turning sheets while you were out there fighting,’ Alice Claver boomed at William Pratte, back at Catte Street, over the evening meal. ‘And Anne kept our spirits up with gossip.’ She turned to Isabel for confirmation. ‘Didn't she?’

   And, seeing those eyes on her again with this new expression of wary near-warmth, it was suddenly clear to Isabel what she had to do before Thomas got home. She didn't want to be enemies with Alice Claver. And tonight, Alice Claver didn't look as though she wanted to be enemies either. There was no need. The half-truce that had set in might just hold if she helped it along. It was Thomas's stubbornness that had made things go wrong. Now was her chance to put things right. If she wanted to be happy as a Claver, she was going to have to get up at dawn and offer to start working for her mother-in-law.

   Alice Claver had the same idea. When she saw Isabel in the morning, she didn't even comment on Thomas's non-appearance. She just said: ‘Shall I show you the storeroom?’

   Isabel nodded, trying to match that matter-of-factness. She'd hardly ever been in her own father's storeroom. It was his holy of holies; too precious for children, he said.

   She padded down the corridor behind her mother-in-law, secretly impressed; willing Alice Claver, now fiddling with keys at the door, to learn to like her.

   Alice Claver's warehouse stretched all the way along the side of her house: a vast barn of a place, its high rafters lit up by slanting early sunlight from window slits.

   It took a few moments for Isabel's eyes to adjust. Then she gasped.

   She'd never seen so much luxury in one place. It was as if she was in the middle of a snowfall, but an unimaginably lovely and costly snowfall that gleamed and glowed in every rich colour possible. There were wafts and drifts of it wherever she looked, piled up against walls, soft on the stone floor. She glided forward, swept away by the magic of it, to touch as well as look. She'd seen plenty of velvets like these, in the dark colours of Lucca or the brighter hues of Siena; but never anything like the piece glittering stiffly with gold embroidery under her hand, or the green silk cloth underneath it, figured with peacocks shimmering blue and purple, or the unicorns and leaping harts prancing across the red and gold satins and damasks and taffetas. Nothing like this.

   She twirled and turned in the dusty shafts of light, pulling at one bale, holding up another. Lost in the moment. Astonished.

   She only remembered Alice Claver was there when she became aware of the older woman looking at her, with a slow half-smile on her lips, as if she understood Isabel's enchantment. She must feel it herself. In this shadow world, lit up by one of the sideways rays of light from on high, with the ground around her a tumbling mass of scarlets and purples and silvers, Alice Claver had stopped looking as barrel-like and brutally commonsensical as she did elsewhere; she seemed suddenly taller and more mysterious, like an angel in a halo of gold, or a rustic wise woman summoning spirits from the woods.

   Now Alice Claver was sweeping Isabel around, poking into corners, pulling things out, energetically talking. The silkwoman poured out information at a speed Isabel could hardly keep up with, giving her stern looks if she felt Isabel's attention flagging. Isabel nodded, and tried to absorb as much of the flood of knowledge as she could. She was learning more in her first hour in this storeroom than she had in a lifetime as John Lambert's daughter. It was exhausting. But it was exhilarating too; so absorbing it kept her returning thud of anxiety – ‘Where is Thomas?’ – at bay.

   Alice started with reels and skeins and loops of silk threads: dyed, twined, thrown, boiled, raw; all glowing with the sun and scents of faraway places Isabel could hardly imagine. She learned that Persian silk came from the mysterious regions near the Caspian Sea: Ghilan, Shilan, Azerbaijan; that since Constantinople had fallen to the Turks Venetian merchants hadn't been able to buy in their old Black Sea markets, but that the Persians were sending more and more silk – both cloth and threads – by caravan to Syria, outside the control of the Turks, and that the Venetians were now getting their Persian silk supplies in from the markets of Damascus and Aleppo. She saw Persian silk threads called ablaca, ardassa, and rasbar. She saw Syrian silk threads called castrovana, decara, and safetina. She saw Romanian silk threads called belgrado, belladonna and fior di morea. (‘Most of my supplies come from Venice,’ Alice Claver said by way of explanation of the Lombard-sounding names, ‘it's still the greatest centre in the world, where East meets West … and the quickest way for you to pick up some Italian, which you'll need to do – and Flemish, of course, that's vital too – is going to be by learning these Venetian names.’) She rolled the names on her tongue as though they were poems; Isabel imitated her as best she could. Spanish silk threads: spagnola, cattalana. Threads from southern Italy: napoletana, abruzzese, pugliese, calabrese, messinese. The home-grown silks from the forests of mulberry trees cultivated by old ladies in black in Tuscany: nostrale. The home-grown silks from the forests of mulberry trees cultivated by old ladies in black in Venice's own Terraferma hinterland: nostrane.

   They were both so absorbed that they jumped when Anne Pratte's round face came into view at the door. She was illuminated by the sunlight, too, but she had none of the skittish cheerfulness of yesterday. She looked grey; stricken. ‘Alice,’ she said quietly to her friend. She didn't even seem to notice Isabel. ‘Alice. I'm sorry. They've found Thomas.’

   Isabel didn't understand the look, but she felt faint with foreboding. She stole a timid glance at Alice, looking for guidance. Alice was clutching very hard at the skein of stuff she'd been showing her daughter-in-law. It was indigo-coloured, Isabel remembered afterwards, the darkness of widow's weeds, and now it had tightened painfully against Alice's blotchy hands. Alice wasn't one to waste words, and she could see that Anne's face made it pointless to ask whether Thomas was alive.

   ‘Where?’ Alice asked.

   He hadn't gone far. He'd been trapped under what must have been one of the first falls of masonry on Thames Street on his way to find the fighting. The men digging him out had just seen his name stitched into his purse and come to the house to bring word. When they'd arrived at the door, Anne had already been walking in. She'd rushed straight back to Alice to break the news more gently than they could.

   Wordlessly, Alice held her hand out for the purse. Feel the goods for yourself; take nothing on trust: market laws. The indigo silk dropped away, leaving a red weal across her index finger and palm. But Anne shook her head, and now even Isabel, whose mother had died before she remembered, who hadn't known death, could understand that there was no comfort in that look, no possibility of error. ‘It's his,’ Anne said gently; bleakly. ‘I saw it.’

   ‘I sewed that purse myself,’ Alice Claver said with unnatural calm. ‘I thought it would help if he passed out in a tavern somewhere. Having his name so clear on it.’ Then her body began to heave. The sound that started coming from her was not unlike her laughter in the dark parlour a few days earlier: a harsh, dry sucking in of breath; a snort of something loud and unmelodious. It took Isabel – standing utterly still at her mother-in-law's side as if she'd been turned to stone – what felt like an eternity to realise that this strange braying noise must be crying.

   ‘There, dear, there,’ Anne Pratte was murmuring, as her larger friend heaved towards her in an ungainly mess of arms.

   No one acknowledged Isabel's presence. It was as if she wasn't there; didn't exist; hadn't been married to Alice Claver's son; hadn't just been trying to learn Alice Claver's work. Neither of the older women even saw her leave.

   ‘You're well-provided for, at least,’ Anne Pratte said, dabbing at Isabel's face. ‘You won't have to worry. You get half the thousand pounds Alice settled on Thomas for the marriage. Quite a dower. Your father will welcome you back with open arms with all that.’

   Why would I go back to my father? Isabel wondered, but she kept the thought to herself.

   Anne Pratte had come up as dusk fell with a bowl of water. She'd murmured, ‘Oh, your poor eyes’ and ‘Alice is sitting with him; they've laid him out in the hall; would you like to join her?’ and just sighed when Isabel shook her head. She appreciated being remembered by Anne Pratte, who had a kind heart. But she'd wait. She couldn't face Alice Claver now.

   ‘I know. It hasn't been easy,’ Anne Pratte had said sadly. She'd had the grace to stop there.

   She'd waited a few more moments, patting and dabbing at eyes and shoulders, before clearing her throat and asking, ‘Forgive me, dear, but I know you'll understand why I …’ and giving Isabel something like her usual bright, inquisitive look. Isabel had stared back, not understanding. Anne Pratte had looked harder at her and raised her eyebrows. Her expression was encouraging, as if she were trying, wordlessly, to discover some secret only Isabel knew. Isabel knew she must be being stupid not to understand. She looked down at the bowl of water with the cloth sticking out. Anne Pratte composed her features into an expression of still greater patience. ‘Are you … by any chance … ?’ She'd nodded her head. Then she'd paused delicately.

   ‘Oh,’ Isabel had said flatly. ‘With child, you mean. No.’

   Anne had sighed. There was a silence. Then she'd nodded again.

   ‘Shall I send for your sister?’ she'd asked a moment later. ‘Or your father?’

   Isabel could see what Anne Pratte was feeling towards: nudging her back to the Lamberts to save her friend Alice Claver from having to go on sharing her home with an irritant, a girl who'd never settled in and never worked, and whose continued presence now would only remind her of the son she'd lost. If Isabel had been expecting a baby, or if they'd become close, it might have been different. But it was too late to think like that. This was how it was.

   She shook her head again. Stubbornly. Refusing the possibility of sinking back into her childhood life as if this time with Thomas had never been, because what went with that would be waiting to be found a new husband and sent off again like a parcel of cloth. She didn't want Jane's smug pity or the servants' anxious, helpless eyes; not yet. She didn't want her father rushing to find a new plan. She didn't want to have to face up to a choice between being a burden on the Lamberts or a burden on Alice Claver. There'd be time for that tomorrow, after the funeral. She just wanted to be alone and, later, to sneak downstairs and be alone with Thomas.

   She was grateful when Anne Pratte patted her shoulder and left.

   Alice Claver was asleep on a chair drawn up near Thomas. Her face was ravaged. She was snoring softly. The candles at his head were low. It was nearly dawn.

   Isabel tiptoed round her and put a stool quietly down on the other side of the two benches they'd laid Thomas on.

   They'd wiped the dust off him, but the smell of death was so strong it turned her stomach. His body was wrapped in sheets. They'd left his face uncovered. It was so perfectly still that it seemed somehow flatter and wider than she remembered. She leaned forward, trying not to be frightened; trying to stop retching. She touched his cold cheek, then crouched down over his face and kissed it until it was as wet as hers. But it stayed empty. ‘I love you,’ she muttered, so panicked by the finality of it she couldn't think of a prayer.

   Alice Claver stirred. Isabel froze into her crouch, hardly breathing, willing her mother-in-law back to sleep.

   But Alice Claver opened swollen eyes and said: ‘I used to swing him round in the garden until I was dizzy.’

   Isabel wasn't sure Alice Claver was talking to her. ‘When he was little,’ Alice Claver went on in the same dreamy monotone, ‘he couldn't get enough of it. Lay on the grass howling with laughter.’

   She nodded, up and down; remembering. ‘While Richard was alive …’ she murmured. ‘When I still had time.’

   A shadow passed across her face. ‘I should have made more time.’

   She closed her eyes again. But Isabel could see she hadn't gone back to sleep. Her face was too alive for that: terrible with grief; twitching with memories.

   Isabel hadn't imagined Alice Claver would feel guilty.

   Wishing she had the courage to show the compassion sweeping through her – to go over and put her arms round the older woman, or pray with her – but knowing she didn't, Isabel put a last tentative kiss on the lips of the husk of Thomas instead, and slipped away.

   Her last thought before her own twitchy, uneasy sleep took her over was, ‘I'll go home.’

   It was only after the funeral the next day that she realised she couldn't go home.

   Not because of her father's irritating calculations at the plain meal of bread and cheese and beer that the Prattes organised in Alice Claver's house after the burial – ‘You'll be out of mourning in a year; you could marry again at sixteen. With that dower you'll be able to choose whoever you want’ – as if she was really supposed to believe that John Lambert would keep his word and let Isabel choose, any more than he had the first time. Not even because he'd said, with what she thought supreme tactlessness, as if discussing possibilities for her next marriage at her husband's graveside might cheer her up, ‘One of the Lynom boys, even. Now that would be a good match.’

   It was the other guests who shut the door home to her: Thomas's friends from outside the Mercery. One red-nosed shabby man after another; some vaguely familiar, some perfect strangers, but all avoiding her eyes and Alice Claver's. All shuffling up to William Pratte instead, taking him off into corners for their private chats, searching through pockets and pouches and purses for dirty bits of paper to present to him. They wanted to talk to a man.

   William Pratte was well-known as an administrator. He was on the merchant venturers' committee at the Guildhall. He knew how to be correct. Isabel watched him out of the corner of her eye as he gravely thanked each guest for the paper, and folded it away. But his plump face, already sad, got longer every time a new hand tapped him on the shoulder.

   He waited for everyone to leave before he took Isabel into Alice Claver's accounting parlour and told her. She could see the pity in his eyes; hear it in the gentleness of his voice. Thomas had debts. Over the past four years, he'd pledged away every penny and more of the money his mother had settled on him. ‘I had no idea,’ William Pratte said sadly. ‘I just thought he was sowing his wild oats in the taverns.’ He showed her the documents on which Thomas's many half-baked hopes of instant wealth had been set out: a half-share in a failed brewery here; £100 to an absconding Southampton shipper there; £85 for a consignment of Cyprus gold thread that had never materialised; deeds for a tenement in Southwark that had caught fire; and dogs, bears, and tavern bills mounting up to dizzying amounts. He'd even bought Uncle Alexander Marshall a horse. Everyone knew Thomas had expectations; it seemed he'd been easy meat for every trickster in town. William Pratte finished sombrely: ‘This might not be all, either. We'll just have to wait and see what other bills come in.’

   ‘But,’ Isabel stammered, her head reeling, unable to take it in, ‘he can't have spent that much. It's a king's ransom.’

   ‘He must have thought it would be easy to make back the kind of money that would make Alice sit up and take notice,’ William Pratte said, shaking his mild head. ‘At first, anyway. And later he must have realised they'd come after him for payment as soon as word got out that Alice had set him up to start trading properly. No wonder he kept putting off the day, poor boy. I don't like to think how he must have worried.’

   Suddenly Isabel remembered the calm, cleansed look Thomas had given her when he decided to go and fight. ‘I want you to be proud of me,’ he'd said. Pity hit her in the chest like a stab wound. Was this why he'd gone?

   Equally suddenly, she found herself blurting a question she only realised she needed to ask as she heard her own words: ‘My inheritance?’

   But she already knew the answer. Thomas had spent her inheritance.

   ‘I'll call Alice in now,’ William Pratte said, avoiding the question. ‘I wanted to tell you first.’

   When Alice swept in, knowing, as Isabel herself had known a short while before, that William Pratte could only have bad news, Isabel's face was as set as her mother-in-law's. It was so obvious in advance that Alice was going to blame her for Thomas Claver's transgressions that she wasn't even surprised at the narrowing of the older woman's eyes; the furious, accusing glances her way; the white flared nostrils; the horse-snorts of breath. Isabel just stared at her feet and tried not to hear Alice Claver growl, at first disbelievingly, then with a rage she didn't want to see, ‘Thomas was an innocent for his own good’, and then, ‘He'd never have thought of any of that by himself’. If Alice Claver chose to think the question of Thomas's debts through, she'd realise it would have been impossible for him to have spent that vast fortune in the few short weeks of his marriage. But Isabel could see that Thomas's thrifty mother couldn't bring herself to consider how a sum of money equivalent to the King's loans from John Lambert could possibly have been lost so lightly. It happened all the time; the sons of the rich didn't always value the hard-earned wealth their parents had amassed. But facts were too difficult for her right now. Easier to look at the bowed girl's head in front of her and puff and glare; easier to say to herself, ‘She led him astray.’

   The unfairness of it cut at Isabel's heart. The child in her wanted to wail, as she'd always wailed when Jane got off without punishment while she was beaten for some shared misdemeanour, that the grown-ups had got it terribly wrong. But she was grown up herself now. She scuffed one toe against another and pursed her lips.

   She stayed in her room that evening. The Prattes stayed downstairs with Alice Claver.

   She sat very straight, not moving, intent on working out what to do and how. Even when she remembered Thomas, lying on the bed watching her think something out before, laughing and saying, ‘You've gone like a cat watching a mouse; are you going to pounce?’ she wouldn't let the thought in or the tears out. This wasn't the time for crying.

   He'd wanted her to be proud of him. And if he hadn't been killed he'd have sorted his troubles out somehow, so she could have been. But she could still protect his memory.

   So much of what was on her mind was so painful that it was a relief, from time to time, to let her thoughts wander back to the dark man in the church, with his soft eyes and hard-nosed advice. There was no point in dreaming of that man; no point in taking refuge in girlish musings about how, if she'd been married to someone with that man's capacity for clearly understanding a problem, she'd never have been in this trouble in the first place. She just had to take the best from that memory. He'd had more foresight than she'd realised when he'd said, ‘This is just your first move. There'll be others later.’ She hadn't expected the next move to come within weeks. But now it was here. And she had to make it a good one. She had to think it through as carefully as a general planning a battle.

   By morning, she'd worked out the best thing to do in the circumstances. It wasn't going to be easy. But it would be right. She thought the man in the church would approve.

   She rose early enough to clean her face of its stains, dress soberly, and catch her mother-in-law alone, heading out to Mass with a terrible loneliness on her face.

   Lonely or not, she could see Alice Claver would rather go without her. But she didn't give her the opportunity. ‘May I come with you?’ she asked, and determinedly linked arms. After a moment's rigid surprise, she felt her mother-in-law's arm relax.

   Alice Claver didn't seem to notice the tears running down Isabel's cheeks in the chapel. She came out calm and quiet; cleansed. But she didn't say a word to Isabel.

   Isabel waited till they'd got back into the great hall. She settled Alice Claver onto a bench. Fetched her leftover bread and cheese. Set it out neatly. Her heart was thumping.

   Alice Claver was staring unseeingly out of the window. Her expression wasn't promising.

   ‘I wanted to ask,’ Isabel began, hesitantly.

   Those dark eyes came reluctantly to rest on her. It struck Isabel, for the first time, that Alice Claver was too uneasy with her. She couldn't really go on choosing to blame Isabel for leading her son astray; not for long. It was just possible, instead, that Alice Claver was feeling embarrassed at Isabel being left a penniless widow as a result of marrying a Claver. The thought gave her courage.

   ‘… I want to stay here,’ she finished. ‘Live with you.’

   Now she had Alice Claver's attention. Hostile attention, perhaps; but that was better than nothing.

   ‘Why?’ the older woman barked.

   ‘I can't go home,’ Isabel said, rushing into her argument. ‘My father will want to marry me again. But I won't have a dower now. And I don't want them to find out why.’

   She paused to let the idea sink in. The older woman turned away. Isabel could see her thinking. Alice Claver didn't want the Lamberts to find out there was no dower either. They could both imagine the destructive buzz in the markets. It would ruin Isabel's chances of marrying again, if she ever wanted to, but it would also blacken Thomas's name forever. It wouldn't be good for Alice's business, either.

   ‘I don't want people to think badly of Thomas,’ Isabel went on, as persuasively as she knew how. ‘And if I stayed with you, there'd be no need for anyone to know what he left me. Not unless I were to get married again, anyway.’

   She could feel Alice Claver softening. She knew the woman was a swift weigher-up of realities, so must understand that Isabel was offering her a chance to save face. The next answer, another bark, was less fierce. ‘You'd have to work, you know. There's no room for merry widows here. You can't just sit around having picnics all your life.’

   Isabel nodded, refusing to be nettled; she knew she was winning. ‘Oh, I'll work all right,’ she replied, with all the enthusiasm she could muster. ‘You know I will. I'll need to, now; I have a dower to earn back’, and although she kept her voice soft she felt a quiver from the older woman that she hoped might be shame at her own ungraciousness. ‘I've thought it all out. You don't even have to take my word for it. We could make a contract if you'd rather. You could take me on as a proper apprentice.’

   Alice Claver nearly stared. An apprentice? She'd be getting ten years of unpaid labour out of a deal like that.

   Isabel knew it was a good offer. But Alice Claver was too canny a market woman to show surprise. Raising a hand to her mouth to cover her expression, she said, deadpan: ‘I could.’ And, several seconds later, ‘I suppose.’

   Isabel could hardly contain her impatience.

   ‘So … will you?’ she said.

   Alice Claver dragged out her pause for longer than Isabel would have thought possible. But when, finally, making a show of reluctance, she did nod agreement – then leaned forward, with a shadow of her usual market manner, and shook Isabel's hand as if to close the deal – Isabel thought she could see a gleam of satisfaction in those puffy dark eyes.

   ‘But I want to stay with her,’ Isabel said wearily. The conversation seemed to have gone on for hours.

   ‘But you can't,’ her father said again. ‘Not as an apprentice.’

   She knew his style of argument. It was merchant style: repeating himself, without raising his voice, until the sheer boredom of the discussion wore whoever he was arguing with into reluctant agreement. He called it consensus. And what he'd been saying today was: You could marry anyone in the City with your dower. And: No daughter of mine need ever work; I've given you the best opportunities in life; what will people think? And: Just look at your hands; lady's hands; think what they're going to look like once your new (eyebrows raised, shoulders raised) mistress gets you throwing raw silk or dunking yarn into pots of dye.

   John Lambert glanced round his great hall, as if trying to draw inspiration from his lavish tapestries and his cupboard full of gleaming silverware. He was visibly longing to go back to their more pleasurable earlier conversation, in which he'd been able to boast that Lord Hastings and the Duke of Gloucester had paid him a personal visit at the Crown Seld that morning – ‘Just sauntered in; His Grace was gracious enough to remember me from the Lord Mayor's banquet; two of the greatest men in the land …’ – and they'd looked at his imported Italian silk cloths, and Hastings had ended up shaking hands on a promise to buy a length of green figured velvet. He poked at the remains of his meal.

   ‘Look,’ Isabel said impatiently, ‘I didn't want to marry a Claver in the first place, but you insisted. You said it would be good for your business to make a relationship with the Clavers. Now I want to stay; but you're saying I shouldn't. It's only a month later. Tell me this: what's changed?’

   ‘That was a marriage,’ her father said, sounding impatient at last. ‘This is …’ he wrinkled his nose, ‘business. And an unsuitable business for a young lady of your accomplishments, if I may say so. A waste of your French … your Latin … your lute playing.’

   Isabel bared her teeth at him in a grin so angry it felt almost like a snarl. ‘Well, why shouldn't I learn the business?’ she said. ‘You do it; and a lot of girls I know learn it too. We Lamberts are the only ones who think we're too grand. But what's wrong with doing something useful? What if I actually want to be a silkwoman? What if I want to be’, she lingered, ‘independent? Of other people's whims?’

   ‘You can't do it,’ he said hotly. Both hands clutched at the table edge.

   ‘Why?’ she replied, eyeing him insolently back.

   ‘Because I forbid you to!’ he yelled, startling her as he leapt to his feet. ‘I forbid you to humiliate the Lamberts, and drag our family name down!’

   ‘You can't forbid me to!’ she cried back, standing up too. ‘I don't have to obey you any more! I'm a widow! Widows are legally responsible for themselves! I'm not a Lambert now – I'm a Claver! And I can choose my own future!’

   They eyeballed each other like fighting dogs. There was a long, ominous silence. She'd never disobeyed him before; not like this. He didn't look as though he'd forgive her easily for betraying him into this undignified shouting match – for losing his temper again, like he had at the Guildhall.

   He turned and walked out, without a backwards glance.

   Isabel had thought Jane would be contemptuous of the idea of working in the markets. But when she first told her older sister, Jane was endearingly practical. ‘Ten years,’ she said gently, wrinkling her nose but trying to understand; not sneering. ‘That's a long time. What if you hate it in a month?’

   Isabel nearly cried at her sister's sympathetic tone. She was moments away from confiding in Jane; but she couldn't. She didn't know if Jane – who was glowing even more beautifully than before now she was married – would tell her husband; if word would get out. So she shrugged and tried to look unconcerned.

   ‘There'd be no going back,’ she said laconically.

   Jane tried again. She put a hand on Isabel's arm and looked very sweetly into her eyes.

   ‘I know you're in mourning,’ she murmured. ‘I can imagine how terrible it must feel …’

   Isabel nodded mutely, looking away; looking down; willing herself not to weep.

   ‘But, Isabel,’ Jane went on, in the same sweetly reasonable voice. ‘It was just an arranged marriage. Don't you remember? A month ago, you didn't want Thomas Claver for a husband. You can't really believe you're heartbroken enough now to sign away half your life to his mother.’

   Isabel flinched. She'd known, really, that Jane wouldn't understand.

   ‘Even if you really do think now that you'll always feel like this, you must know it will pass,’ Jane said, and now Isabel could hear the familiar patronising big-sister note creeping into the voice in her ears. ‘What if a year goes by and you want to marry again? If you're an apprentice you'll have to wait till you're twenty-four. And you'll be even older before you can have a baby.’

   Twenty-four, Isabel thought, before her defences came up against that tone of voice. An eternity. Then, with startling simplicity, it came to her that she didn't want to marry again and become a hostage to someone else's fortune. It wasn't just something to say defiantly to her father. It wasn't just that she had no choice but to apprentice herself to Alice Claver if she were to protect Thomas's memory. This future might actually be for the best. Widows were legally free; their fathers couldn't control them; they could make their own money and spend it as they chose. Alice Claver was robust. She'd used the freedom of widowhood to make a good life. Maybe she'd teach Isabel to do the same thing. With a flash of defiance, Isabel thought: ‘I won't marry again. Not unless I'm free to choose someone who makes me feel …’ She didn't know what she would want to feel; the nearest she could come to it was something like that brief moment, before all this, in the tavern, when the touch of a man who was not Thomas Claver had sparked through her like lightning. So she smiled, tightly, and crossed her arms against her sister, and repeated: ‘No going back.’

   Jane sighed. ‘Well,’ she said, rather sadly, ‘I suppose we all find our own escapes.’

   Isabel could see her sister had given in. She thought, suddenly, that she might have judged Jane's intervention too harshly. Jane was only doing her best in uncertain circumstances. She hadn't meant to give offence.

   Jane started pinning a dark gown from the wardrobe against Isabel. ‘You've lost weight,’ she said, with a mouthful of pins. Then: ‘You must have found something better than you expected in Thomas Claver …’ There was a question in her eyes.

   Isabel pressed her lips together and nodded. She felt tears near. To stave them off, she answered with her own question: ‘Doesn't everyone?’ She hadn't even asked Jane how things were turning out with Will Shore, she realised. Hastily, she added: ‘Isn't living with Will better than you expected?’

   It seemed a safe question. Jane had given no sign of being unhappy. If anything, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever; her skin glowed gold.

   Jane laughed. It was such a joyful laugh that Isabel thought she must be agreeing. It was only later, going back to Catte Street, with one dark gown on her back and another in a basket, that Isabel realised she hadn't paid attention to what Jane Shore's words had been: ‘Will is exactly what I expected.’

   It wasn't the glowing endorsement of life with a husband that Jane's air of barely suppressed pleasure in living led you to expect.

   Lord Hastings and the Duke of Gloucester were strolling through the Broad Seld after the leisurely meal they'd taken at the Tumbling Bear. They were side by side, talking quietly and occasionally laughing at remarks no one else could hear. Unlike most strangers, who tend to think themselves unobserved when on unfamiliar terrain, not realising how sharply they stood out to everyone else, these two noblemen – soldiers by instinct and experience – were aware of the eyes on their backs; on their swords and spurs. But they didn't mind.

   Hastings was saying, with a touch of self-mockery: ‘blonde … sings like a nightingale … witty, too … and dances like thistledown. You should see her dance. And her eyes …’ Then: ‘The same green as that velvet. She'll look beautiful in it. I'll send it to her as soon as I get it.’

   His long limbs were made for war, but the troubadour words made his voice sound made for love. The thought of Jane Shore's skin and smile had filled him with sunshine for weeks. He looked cheerfully down at his companion, a few inches shorter than him and twenty years younger: his battle companion, his dearest friend's brother, a boy now grown to manhood and fast becoming a friend in his own right. He wanted them to share the irony of buying a rich cloth from a merchant and giving it to the merchant's lovely daughter.

   But Dickon wasn't really listening or meeting Hastings' eyes. There was a polite half-smile on the younger man's thin, sallow face, but his eyes were wandering: from stall to stall, from one white-fingered embroiderer to the next, as if he were looking for someone.

   ‘Looking for someone?’ Hastings asked lightly; a question not meant to be taken seriously.

   Dickon came to; for a moment he looked almost start led. Then he grinned his wolf-grin and shook his head. ‘We're not all hankering after merchants' daughters, Will,’ he said breezily. Then, with his grin turning into a laugh, ‘though enough people seem to be hankering after your one.’

   He looked around again (for a second, William Hastings thought he glimpsed the questing look in those narrow dark eyes again), and added, even more breezily: ‘And there are plenty of pretty girls here, of course.’

   Dickon's eyes never looked lost. Dickon's decisiveness was one of the qualities Hastings admired in the Duke. Hastings knew there was a fatal softness in his own soul that might, one day, do for him; it made him appreciate the cheerful ruthlessness of Dickon's approach to life even more. Dickon's flintiness had saved him once already, on that night they'd been half-walking, half-running across the Wash after everything had gone so wrong at Doncaster; when the tide had come rushing treacherously in on them and some of his men, with mud and sand gluing their wet boots down, hadn't had the strength to pull up their exhausted legs to sprint to the tussocks of grass that suddenly meant safety. It was the knight right behind Hastings who'd been swept back into the boiling water – Thomas de Teffont, a Wiltshireman; Hastings still remembered the young man's look of terror as he was pulled back, wide eyes and mouth open in a soundless scream, teeth glittering in the moonlight. Hastings had been about to release his own hold on the grasses to stretch back for Teffont, who was hardly more than a boy; who shouldn't die there, when Dickon had stopped him. Dickon, one hand grabbing into the heart of a spindly bush, the other hand hard on Hastings' soaking brigandine. Dickon: a voice as cold as Hell frozen over, grating: ‘Leave him. It's more important to save yourself.’

   So Hastings was surprised to find he didn't completely believe in Dickon's breeziness today. The voice of the man who never dissembled didn't, for once, ring quite true; it carried a different message from the one in his eyes. Hastings listened with the beginning of curiosity as the duke went on, still casually, but with hungry eyes: ‘Wasn't Lambert marrying off two daughters, anyway? The blonde one we've been hearing so much about ever since, but another one too – a redhead?’

   Hastings nodded, suddenly swept away by the memory of his first sight of Jane Shore in Lambert's great hall at that wedding feast: Edward dancing with her until her cheeks flushed with roses and her teeth flashed in the smile that had swept him away.

   Hastings had poured her a goblet of wine as Edward sat her down next to him. He'd leaned forward and given it to her himself, and she'd touched his hand for a fraction longer than she'd needed to, and looked at him with soft, shining eyes.

   ‘Well,’ Dickon's voice went on, with a hint of impatience, ‘where is she now?’

   ‘Who?’ Hastings said blankly. Then, with slight embarrassment: ‘Ah – the redhead.’ He spread his arms wide in a parody of bewilderment and shook his head and let his courtier's smile – a smile of great charm – spread over his face. ‘Married,’ he replied, and shrugged a little more. ‘So who can say?’

   They walked out into Cheapside. Hastings could hear Dickon humming under his breath.

   ‘Didn't you want to buy something too?’ he said awkwardly, as they reached their horses. ‘I thought you said …’

   Dickon's eyes glinted at him with characteristic dry amusement over the knotted reins, as if relieved Hastings wasn't too love-struck to have noticed his friend had come away empty-handed. ‘Nothing caught my fancy,’ he answered easily.

   Isabel wouldn't wait any longer. She knew her father would sulk for months. She was past caring. She called in a notary from Guildhall the very next morning to draw up the apprenticeship agreement, as soon as she'd taken in the two dark robes. She didn't want to be dissuaded. It would be too easy to give in and go home.

   The young man who turned up at Catte Street was the younger of the two Lynom boys; the tall, clean-cut sons of Hugh Lynom, silk merchant of Old Jewry, the Prattes' and the Shores' closest neighbour; the boys every girl in the Mercery had always dreamed of marrying. They were twins: so alike Isabel had never been able to tell them apart, though she thought this one was called Robert. But the sight of his eyes (topaz, she remembered Elizabeth Marchpane calling the colour of the Lynom boys' eyes; no, manticore, Anne Hagour had dreamily contradicted her: man-tiger) reminded her of the one definite thing she knew about them: that they'd both chosen not to go into their father's business but to train as lawyers instead. Their father had gone round telling people, with wistfulness in his voice and hurt in his eyes, ‘they say there are opportunities I'm too old to understand in government; they'll see the world and better themselves faster outside the Mercery, they say.’ Thomas had told his father that with all the redistribution of lands and estates that the wars had brought, he'd get richer faster if he went into drawing up property transfer agreements. Robert had told his father he'd get richer faster if he stayed in the City but went into representing City merchants and the Guildhall in negotiations with the Royal Wardrobe. They weren't the only young men to see new horizons beyond the City walls; and everyone knew their father was longing to amass a big enough fortune to buy his way into the gentry anyway; but the fact of both sons leaving the Mercery had aroused comment. The selds had buzzed with it for weeks.

   Isabel gritted her teeth. It was just her luck. A Lynom wasn't going to sympathise with her decision to sign up for a ten-year silkworking apprenticeship. If she wasn't careful he might even delay things; let her father know before the papers were signed and sealed.

   For once she was grateful for Alice Claver's warhorse ways. ‘Sit down, young man, and take down the terms,’ her mother-in-law rattled out, breaking through the visitor's formal regrets over the death in the family; and the Lynom boy sat obediently at the table and began unpacking his box of pens and parchment. If Isabel hadn't felt certain nothing could make Alice Claver nervous, she might have thought the silkwoman was in even more haste than she was. ‘Term, ten years. Premium, five pounds.’

   The Lynom boy's good-humoured eyes were laughing. He could feel her haste too. And he was intrigued. Isabel thought for a moment he must sense a story to tell the selds – at least until she remembered that he'd changed his own life to get away from the selds. Perhaps, she thought, reassured, he was the right person to be making this document after all.

   As it turned out, he didn't try to delay. He'd become a lawyer through and through. He wrote the usual promises into the document: that Isabel would cherish her mistress's interests, not waste her goods or trade without her permission, behave well, and not withdraw unlawfully from her service; that Alice Claver would ‘teach, take charge of, and instruct her apprentice’ in her craft, chastise her in meet fashion, and find her footwear, clothing, a bed, and all other suitable necessities.

   Alice Claver looked over his shoulder. ‘What's this?’ she said sharply as he carried on writing. He stopped, looking confused, and ran his hand through his tawny-blond hair. He'd started to add the final boilerplate phrase of contracts involving girl apprentices – that Isabel should be treated pulchrior modo, more kindly than a boy. ‘She's my family,’ Alice Claver said brusquely. ‘How else would I treat her?’ She barked with laughter. After a pause, Isabel laughed too. The Lynom boy looked from the older woman to the younger, both in their black gowns. Then he smiled and crossed out the offending line. But Isabel felt his gaze linger curiously on her as he packed up his pens.

   ‘My fee for drawing up the indentures and registering them with the Mercers' Company clerk is one shilling,’ the Lynom boy said, sanding what he'd written with fluid muscles.

   Alice Claver nodded. ‘Do it today,’ she said.

   The Lynom boy brought copies of the documents back two days later, duly registered. Isabel received him, wondering at the discreet sympathy in his eyes until he gave her the other letter he was also carrying for her.

   It was a cold, brief letter from her father: formal notice that he was rewriting his will to leave his estate to Jane, ‘my one dutiful daughter’. Isabel could see from Robert Lynom's expression that he knew what it said.

   She glanced over it. Nodded curtly. Let the hand holding the letter flutter down to her side. Kept the anger and contempt and hurt boiling inside her tightly shut down. She knew what her father would want her to do, but she wasn't going to weep or run begging to him to change his mind. She wouldn't let herself be bullied. She was learning not to let her face show her feelings.

   Alice Claver and Anne Pratte swept in. When Alice Claver saw the young lawyer, she held her hand out for the documents she was expecting. He smiled, bowed courteously, and passed them over. She gave them a careful reading, then grunted with satisfaction. She tucked them into her large purse. She didn't look at Isabel or ask what the letter still held loosely in her apprentice's hand was.

   Alice fixed Robert Lynom with a sudden, fierce smile. Now the business was done, she had time for conversation. ‘I hear Lord Hastings has been buying in the selds. In person. From’, she gestured sideways at Isabel without catching her eye, ‘my new apprentice's father.’

   Isabel looked away; perhaps she should have told Alice Claver about Lord Hastings' visit herself, but her quarrel with her father had made her forget it. However, Robert Lynom knew enough to satisfy the silkwoman. He nodded easily. ‘He has indeed,’ he said, including Isabel in his answering smile, putting away his papers in his box. ‘A cloth of green figured velvet. From Lucca, if I remember rightly. They say he paid a good price for it too.’

   It was natural to discuss this new phenomenon. It was unusual for noblemen to visit the markets themselves. If they were of the blood royal, they usually placed orders through the King's Wardrobe in Old Jewry, and administrators such as Robert Lynom would find merchants to meet their requirements. Otherwise lords might send representatives to the markets to bargain for luxury goods in their place.

   But unusual things had been happening since King Edward came back, and Lord Hastings, his closest adviser, was an unusual nobleman anyway. He'd survived the times of exile and poverty by living on his considerable wits; he'd gradually turned the meagre estates of his inheritance into a magnate's fabulous wealth. Now that his lord was back on the throne, Hastings was showing he wasn't the kind to stand grandly on his aristocratic dignity, willing only to live by the sword. As a mark of the King's trust, he'd recently been named Governor of Calais, and the markets were full of the rumour that he planned not just to run the garrison there but to take a personal interest in the port's trade as well. There was even talk that Lord Hastings was courting the staplers of Calais, who controlled all the exports of raw wool from England, by becoming a merchant of the staple himself. They said he had the wit and imagination to find common ground with anyone, noble or not. Remembering his merry, kindly eyes from the wedding feast (before he started staring so hungrily at Jane, at least), Isabel could believe it.

   Alice Claver wanted to know more, but she didn't want to show her envy of John Lambert's deal too openly. She didn't ask the price her competitor had charged for his cloth. Instead, she asked casually: ‘And did his lordship say what he was going to do with the velvet?’

   Isabel was trying to think of nothing more than enjoying the story. She would have time enough later to fret about her father; there was nothing she could do about him anyway. She leaned encouragingly towards Robert Lynom.

   ‘He didn't,’ the Lynom boy said briefly.

   But Anne Pratte knew more. She always did. She'd quietly taken up a seat on a little footstool by the window; she had a piece of work in her hands; but she was following everything like a small bloodhound. She picked up the narrative by piping up, with gusto: ‘But there's talk, of course. They say he sent it as a gift to a lady, don't they?’

   At her voice, Robert Lynom suddenly started to look excruciatingly uncomfortable. He stopped; bit his tongue; blushed. Isabel couldn't understand what was going through his head. ‘Well,’ Alice said impatiently. ‘Who to? You must know. You'll have done the paperwork, won't you? Spit it out, man.’

   He mumbled something. Even his scalp was on fire. He picked up his box.

   Alice Claver planted herself one step in front of him, her smile half a threat.

   ‘Don't leave us hanging,’ she said, more command than plea. ‘Who was the cloth for?’

   He composed himself. Decided upon his choice of who to offend, and made himself smile at Alice Claver. Turning sharply away from Anne Pratte and slightly away from Isabel, he said: ‘They say – though I can't be sure they're right – to your new apprentice's sister, Mistress Shore.’

   Alice Claver almost choked. ‘No,’ she said, with a mixture of shock, disbelief, envy and amusement. ‘Really?’ Then, as if remembering Isabel's presence, she clapped a friendly hand on Robert Lynom's back and ushered him out towards the door. Twittering excitedly, Anne Pratte followed; she wasn't an unkind woman usually, but the thrill of that story had eclipsed any worries she might otherwise have had about Isabel's feelings.

   Isabel thought he wouldn't dare even glance back at her. He disliked market gossip, and he'd known what was in the letter her father had written her; he'd be miserably aware of having added to her worries about her family with the story they'd bullied out of him.

   But he did look back, from the doorway. ‘Good day, Mistress Claver,’ he said bravely; and, in a rush, ‘My apologies. I shouldn't have …’

   She met his eyes and nodded, forgiving him. And it was the memory of that moment of mutual bravery, and the gratefulness on his face, that gave her the courage to decide, once she was alone with the letter, not to think about it any more, or rage against her father, or envy Jane's beauty or aristocratic admirers. She was a Claver now. Her life was here.

   If Isabel thought she'd be taken straight back to Alice Claver's inner sanctum, the silk storeroom, as soon as she'd apprenticed herself, she was undeceived that night over dinner.

   The apprenticeship timetable Alice Claver outlined, with a hard look, had no space in it for musing over the finest luxuries of civilisation, or for planning vast wholesale purchase strategies. It involved mastering all the eye-straining, low-grade, repetitive, menial tasks of retail silkwork first – the jobs Alice Claver put out to the wrinkled, skinny shepster and throwster women who worked from five-foot-wide stalls huddled outside the biggest selling markets, the Crown and Broad Selds, along their frontages on Cheapside and down their side doors on Soper Lane. Not just twisting imported raw silk into threads; but throwing it into yarns ready for use, and spinning, and dyeing, and turning seams. She was to learn every stage of the process from taking the strands of raw silk gathered by Italian reelers from silkworm cocoons to selling manufactured silk, on the street, by the ounce or the pound, as sewing silk, open silk, twine silk or rough web silk, the stuff used to make loops on which to attach warp threads while weaving, so they could be separated into two sets to let the weft thread pass between them. And she wasn't just to learn these humble jobs, but to sit outside in all weathers with the hunched shepsters and throwsters and dyers, learning from them, and about them.

   The Prattes sneaked a look at each other. Isabel knew it was a test. Alice Claver must be doing this deliberately. She could imagine her mother-in-law's voice saying, with grim satisfaction, ‘Let's knock the nonsense out of her’. She must think Isabel would protest. Isabel wasn't going to. She kept her eyes humbly down on her untouched food and nodded.

   ‘It's only for a year,’ Anne Pratte said reassuringly, in her papery little voice, as if trying to soften Alice Claver's blow. ‘The next stage is embroidery. But we already know how good you are at that. So it won't be long before you can move on to the real thing and start learning weaving. Narrow-loom work. Ribbons. Cauls. Laces. London's glory. The finest silk piecework in Christendom. And,’ daringly, flinching from Alice Claver's cold gaze, she leaned forward and patted Isabel's hand, ‘I've asked Alice if I can teach you that.’

   Isabel looked up, surprised and touched. Four Pratte eyes were on her, brimming with kindness. The Prattes were both ignoring Alice Claver, still glowering behind them.

   She rose in the dark all winter. She went to work holding a candle in chapped, raw hands, like all the other poor girls in brown and grey woollens working in the selds, whose existence she'd never been more than half-aware of until now. Like them, in those clothes, she'd become invisible to everyone from the Mercery's richer, gayer families – even her own father. He walked straight at her in the street – she sometimes felt, as she jumped out of his way, that if she didn't move he'd walk straight through her. The pretty merchants' daughters she'd grown up with didn't mean to snub her. They just wafted by the quiet dun mouse of a girl on their way to sit embroidering at their fathers' stalls in their spring-coloured puffs of satin. They couldn't see her.

   Sometimes she felt like a living ghost – transparent to everyone she'd ever known. No one minded nowadays if, while she was throwing or twisting silk or turning a seam, her eyes filled with hot tears that crept down her face until, in the autumn winds, her cheeks became as raw and chapped as her fingers. No one minded, because no one noticed, as long as she turned out the required number of threads or piles of fluffiness or bright twisted yarns, when she would be rewarded with a rough pat, or a grunt, from whichever shabby mistress she was being loaned to for the day. And she found the hotness of her own tears a comfort – a proof to herself that she was there, after all; not quite transparent and emptied of the fluids of life; not quite invisible.

   The tears were for Thomas, she told herself. So was the shrivelling pain she always felt under her heart, always, as if her body were being drained away by a tide that was pulling her off into the darkness. But sometimes, as her hands moved through the silk, with a deft life that felt independent of her mind, she thought the tears, and the pain, might after all be just for herself.

   She talked to Thomas in her head. Or she tried. Tried to keep him alive; tried to take comfort in remembering his look of fuzzy astonishment when he woke up to find her next to him, his delighted snugglings and the little kisses he'd place, shyly, like acts of worship, on her hands or forehead. But all she had to tell him, apart from how she missed him, missed the warmth of a time when someone needed her, was about the detail of her days drudging in the selds. And what would he have understood of any of that?

   Sometimes, when it felt too hard to explain to Thomas why she'd kept submissively quiet when Alice Claver or one of her underlings pulled a piece of work apart and told her to start again, when she couldn't even begin to imagine the look on his face, she'd talk in her head to the man from the church instead. He'd have understood why she gritted her teeth through the cold that went into her bones; took the telling-off and the false starts so patiently. Gradually his became the face she conjured up to talk to in whatever corner she was working in; a stranger, really, but someone who knew about purposefulness, who could coolly plan ahead. ‘He'd be proud of me if he saw me now,’ she thought stoutly sometimes, ‘doing the right thing by Thomas, and helping fate to bring me a better future into the bargain.’ Though at other times, in the moments of despair when her guts felt full of ground glass, when she stopped believing she was anything but a pair of hands twitching outside a grey dress, when the darkness seemed to be going to last forever, she'd sometimes also think: ‘No, he'd be horrified. I've taken the wrong way. I'm lost.’

   She came home to Alice Claver's house most nights too tired to think. She was grateful for that. All she had energy to do was to curl up alone on her grand, empty marriage bed, stretching out her cramped muscles, whispering to Thomas as she rubbed warmth back into her blue-white fingers.

   With time, though, she found there were consolations. Long after she'd lost one world she realised she'd somehow gained another: the busy, raucous, teeming world of the other hard-working women in browns and greys: the ones who did the jobs other people made fortunes from, the ones she herself had only just begun to notice.

   Isabel had grown up at the smart northern end of the Mercery – the roads leading up to Catte Street and the Guildhall beyond: grand Milk Street and Honey Lane and Colechurch Lane; Old Jewry, to the east beyond St Thomas of Acre, where the Prattes and Lynoms and Shores lived, and where the Royal Wardrobe was, the depot for all royal cloth purchases. Now, running errands for Alice Claver taught her every inch of the industrial south side of Cheapside too: the sunless snakings of Popkirtle, Thenwend and Gropecunt Lanes, behind Cordwainer Street; every tenement, warehouse and patch of garden, and every jobbing mercer and silkwoman wife, stallkeeper, denizen, stranger and pieceworker living and working in them.

   For anyone willing to listen, those lanes were alive with talk.

   The silk workers she was farmed out to quickly forgot to be shy of her. Sometimes Isabel had her ear bent by the forbidding Katherine Dore, the throwster who was taking her ex-apprentice Joan Woulbarowe to court for stealing £12 13s 4d of silk. Sometimes she'd get caught, somewhere in Soper Lane, by gangling, wild-elbowed Joan Woulbarowe, out of jail now, preparing for her next appeal appearance at the Court of Arches while she stayed with her aunt, Rose Trapp, in a tenement in Lad Lane. Joan Woulbarowe said her mistress had wanted to keep her in service once her term was up, and had invented the whole tarradiddle as a way of trapping her to stay on as unpaid help. Isabel never got to the bottom of the story.

   Sometimes Isabel learned things about her own Lambert family from the market talk. When Agnes Langton died at Stourbridge Fair, her terrifyingly overbearing mother, Jane Langton, the widow of a saddler, who knew nothing of the silk trade, had swept out from a hitherto unsuspected tenement behind St Benet Sherehog Church and completed Agnes's enormous transaction with two Genoese merchants for silk goods worth £300 15s – then sold the lot on to John Lambert for a cheeky £350, enough to keep her comfortably in her old age, and retired to Norfolk. ‘He doesn't keep his ear to the ground, that John Lambert,’ Agnes Brundyssch the throwster said comfortably. ‘Never did.’

   But no one on the street had a bad word to say about Alice Claver. She was the heroine of the markets. Alice Claver was the protector of the poor, because she wrote the petitions every market woman wanted: the Stop the Italians petitions. The grey and brown women hated the Italians, who tried to undercut the delicate small silk goods that they made in London by selling their own countrywomen's imported goods at cut price. Isabel knew that Alice Claver got William Pratte to help her draft the petitions that she and a gaggle of lesser silkwomen presented regularly to Parliament, using proper legal language. But they didn't care about him; he was invisible to them. They believed it was purely thanks to Alice Claver that they'd got four Acts of Parliament through, protecting them from the greedy Lombards, who as everyone knew were worse than the French and Hanse and Flemish put together. ‘You have to be tough to stop the Italians,’ Isabel Fremely said, nodding at Agnes Brundyssch. ‘Mistress Claver's more than a woman. She's a force of nature.’

   As winter turned to spring – every now and then a fresh breeze blowing through the stalls with a promise of blossom tomorrow – Isabel sometimes found herself breathing in deep and thinking, ‘I'm still here’ and ‘I've done it.’ And when she did, it was the face of the man in the church that creased into an encouraging wolf-smile in response. Quite what she'd done, beyond surviving the winter, wasn't clear even to herself. But sometimes she thought it was keeping quiet to the market women about her personal sorrows, her times of weakness; sticking with iron-hard determination to her pledge to become a good apprentice to Alice Claver, not to sink into peevish resentments. When she smelled spring coming, and heard the respect of the tough women around her for her mistress, she realised she agreed. She'd learned to share their grudging admiration for Alice Claver's limitless commitment to her work.

   Isabel kept out of Jane's way all winter. She didn't know what to say to her. She was mastering the resentment she might have felt for Alice Claver; and she didn't want to have to start struggling to master resentment against her sister. Besides, it would have been excruciating if Jane had started trying to make peace between her and their father, charming him with a flick of golden blondeness or an alluring white hand on his sleeve.

   She saw her sister on Sundays, at St Thomas of Acre, and every time Jane appeared in church she'd be dressed in something finer than the last time, and her honey skin would be softer and her eyes brighter than ever before. Throughout the prayers, Isabel would be aware of Jane looking shyly over, sweetly as ever, as if trying to meet her eye. But Isabel kept her own eyes down. And when they did stop to talk on the street afterwards it was hard to know how to take up the old companionship of children who'd shared a bed and squabbled over toys. Jane hardly mentioned Will Shore, who anyway was always off somewhere abroad – Bruges, or Cologne – building up his business. Isabel thought it might be because Jane didn't want to remind her of her own widowed state. If that was Jane's notion of delicacy, she was grateful for it; but she didn't enjoy the small talk about luxurious living that Jane chose to go in for instead. Jane had taken up hawking, she said. She was working on a tapestry of St George killing the dragon. John Lambert was going to take her as his partner to the hunt King Edward had invited him to at Eltham; she was going to have new sleeves made for her yellow silk for the occasion. And her eyes would seek Isabel's out, gently offering to share her pleasure at life, then lower themselves again, with a hint of disappointment, when Isabel failed to respond.

   If Alice Claver was aware of the silence growing between Isabel and her sister, or of the breakdown in communications between Isabel and her father, she didn't show it, even though her eyes were always on Isabel, boring into her back in the selds or in the house. She never talked about Thomas, though Isabel longed painfully to hear someone else talking about him with love and pain. It was as if Alice Claver didn't want to share her memories of him with a girl she now treated as an outsider. But her animosity was gone. Isabel couldn't read what was in the quietness that had replaced it.

   After church on Sundays, instead of visiting her family or going with Alice Claver to eat with the Prattes, Isabel filled her free hours by working on the embroidered purse she'd started making for Thomas during the siege. The delicate work brought her numb fingers back to life. She sat alone by her window, watching her needle flash up and down, sewing tiny stitches into his initials, trying to think of each stitch as a prayer for her husband's soul, an act of remembrance. She got Agnes Brundyssch to teach her how to make cord for the braid. She got Isabel Fremely to cadge her some leftover Cyprus gold thread from David Galganete, the sharp Genoese merchant she bought from, to make tassels.

   She finished the purse in time for Thomas's obit, a year after his death. But by the June morning when she quietly laid her offering on the altar at St Thomas of Acre, under cover of a cloud of incense and the drone of the chantry priest, she knew Jane had been right to say her feelings for Thomas might fade. She was still full of pain, but it had become vague and cloudy, without a source. She could hardly recall his face or voice now. It was as if she'd sewn all her memories into the purse and had nothing left.

   Even the purse, which had started as a love token, had become something else. For months now, she'd found herself taking pride in it as a sampler of the fine silkwork she hoped to master. What she wanted most in the world now was for Alice Claver to pick up her work from the altar and admire it enough to send her to Anne Pratte for lessons. Isabel bent her head in prayer as Alice Claver's hand strayed towards the purse.

   A time for everything, and everything at the proper time. Alice Claver waited out Anne and William, with their regrets; Father Ignatius; the pompous, wordy, hand-wringing John Lambert, and his idle elder daughter, the long one with the flashing eyes and teeth and with breasts precariously laced into a bodice that might have been suitable for court but had no place at a sober City memorial service.

   She knew exactly what she was going to say. She'd thought it out carefully. But that didn't stop her rehearsing it a few more times as she tapped her fingers on the table, willing Lambert to take himself and his family off home, impatiently tweaking off the heads of flame of any candles she could see that had burned down to anything like their last inch, and prodding at the platters of cheese whenever the boy passed, a gesture amounting to a broad hint to start clearing up even before the guests had gone.

   Even so, when she was finally left alone with her charge, she didn't know how to begin. It wasn't that Isabel's modest gown, cautiously bowed shoulders and watchful eyes actually conveyed anything she could construe as reproach. It was more that the neat figure, slipping quietly in and out of the house, working in almost complete silence at home or in the selds, lowering her eyes whenever she felt Alice Claver looking at her to contemplate her own raw hands with their purple and yellow blotches from dye and their calluses and ridges from market work, had begun to remind Alice Claver uncomfortably of her own younger self.

   Alice Claver was proud of that enterprising younger self. She'd been raised by an uncle in Derby, while her parents were living in France supplying cloth to the garrisons. She'd worked her fingers to the bone for her foster family, though they'd never been close; neither side had been sorry when, once she turned twelve, her silk skills were well-enough known that she'd been offered an apprenticeship with Robert Large in London. London had felt glamorous: bustling, big, busy, full of possibilities, and, best of all, safe. The walls and gates and patrols and carts and cheerful push and shove helped banish the memory of the empty Derbyshire countryside – the brambles and scrub advancing over what people said had once been fields; birdsong and the rustle of animals where there'd once been fires in hearths; the skeletons of manor houses abandoned after the Black Death long ago; her uncle kicking over a collapsed wall in the forest, one of a strangled collection of stones in ivy that must have once been a village, telling her, with gloomy relish, ‘This is where we Boothes came from. Right here. If this was a hundred years ago, you'd have seen dozens of people here. Working, praying, eating, raising children. Our blood. And none of them with the least idea they were all about to be wiped out. God rest their souls.’

   It was lucky for her, she'd been told, that people today still lived with those ghosts and that the gravestones in the churchyards danced with skeletons; that everyone still reminisced over the warmer, richer, safer days when the land was full of fields and the fields were full of people. It was because the world had shrunk into this modern twilight of spectres and memories – and later, within her own memory, because the war had also begun taking its toll on the young men of Derby – that so many girls were encouraged to train in the guilds. Looking back, Alice knew that getting a trade had saved her. Her parents, stubbornly struggling to live in Normandy while their daughter was raised at home, went missing during the fall of France. There was no way of knowing whether they'd become part of the army of vagrants that straggled back to England or begged in the streets of Calais, or survived, for a while, in the forests. But by then, in her twenties, she'd established herself as a Londoner. Her parents were shadowy half-memories. Her real family had become the Large establishment at Catte Street: the other apprentices her brothers and sisters, as proud as Alice to be part of one of the best businesses in the Mercery. If she hadn't been a trained silkwoman; if she hadn't married Richard Claver out of the Large household and worked with him on making their business even bigger than Robert Large's, she'd have been lost too.

   No, I've never been afraid of hard work, and it's made me who I am, she thought complacently, letting her mind dwell with irritation on the lounging, indolent, grinning Shore girl, who'd have been lost if she'd ever been called on to do an honest day's labour. Who'd never had to do such a thing, like so many children of the London rich. They were all the same: spoiled and idle, thought they were too good for it …

   Alice Claver pulled herself up, feeling those certainties fade as she tried not to think of Thomas. She looked at the smaller, browner sister of that girl, with her face carefully wiped clean of expression; at the scars of work on those younger hands. A girl who hadn't been brought up to fear the emptiness of birdsong. A girl who'd grown up with expectations of wealth and ease. A girl who'd lost all that and yet taken on Alice Claver's hard apprenticeship without complaining.

   ‘You've learned all you need to know from the markets,’ Alice Claver said, feeling her lower jaw clamped to her head so that it was hard for the words to come out.

   Isabel looked carefully up.

   ‘You can start with Anne tomorrow. It's time for you to learn to make manufactured goods. Do the skilled work.’

   Isabel looked down again. But Alice Claver had seen the light gleam in her eyes.

   ‘You'll meet my Venetian supplier this week. Goffredo D'Amico. It's an important relationship,’ she went on. ‘He and another old friend of mine are staying with the Prattes. They'll eat here. I'd like you to join us …’

   Alice could see Isabel realise there was more to come. The girl looked up; trying to puzzle out what she'd be asked.

   ‘I wanted to get Thomas's obit behind us before starting work with D'Amico,’ Alice Claver said. ‘But there's one thing I've already talked over with him. I've arranged a loan.’

   She looked almost beseechingly at Isabel. She didn't want the girl to take this as some sort of apology. ‘For five hundred pounds. The sum your dower would have been.’

   Isabel's eyebrows were beginning to rise.

   ‘It's time for us both to take stock.’ Alice Claver hurried over the words. She didn't want to mention Thomas's name. Thomas would have sorted himself out if God hadn't taken him back. She knew that Isabel knew that. ‘There's no room for shirkers in my house. I'll need someone who can become a partner, once they're trained. So I want you to know now that you're provided for. I'm going to make over the five hundred pounds to you as a dower. If you want to go off to your family, get married, you're free to. You've got the money. I can dissolve our contract. But you can still’, and now she was looking down at her own rough hands, ‘choose to stay.’

   There was a long silence. She plaited her fingers, waiting.

   ‘And work,’ she added gruffly. ‘Hard.’

   When she did dare raise her eyes, there were no embarrassing transports of joy on the little heart-shaped face in front of her. Isabel was looking up at her, very seriously, with her eyes slightly narrowed. It was the look Alice Claver put on her own face when she was considering an offer. With a shock of what she thought might be gratitude, Alice Claver realised Isabel must have learned that look from her.

   She was almost surprised to see Isabel's lips form the words: ‘I would like to stay.’

   Alice Claver felt the wide grin she reserved for the Prattes and her other old friends break out on her face; she was suddenly strangely short of breath. I've got used to having her around, she told herself. That must be why. Somewhere in the confused back-clap that followed, the bustle of sitting down and pouring out two cups and starting to describe tomorrow's work in something much closer to an everyday voice, then the move to the silk storeroom, Alice Claver felt the beginning of the same comfort she'd drawn from making friends, back in those first days at Catte Street, with Anne and William and the others; the smoothing out of differences, mistakes, flaws in the weave; the tying of bonds that might be strong enough to take the place of family.

   Isabel could see Alice Claver was reassured to be in her storeroom. The diagonals of pink and gold light from the windows made her wares shimmer. They transformed her too. She lost her gruffness. Her eyes sparkled. There was love in her voice.

   She set out a brisk timetable for the rest of Isabel's voluntary apprenticeship. Two years to learn to sew each of the delicate small items that made manufactured silk-work London's glory – from transparent cauls for the hair, decorated with jewels and gold thread, to the laces and points needed to fit together the elaborate items of clothing made by the vestment-makers, to tasselled and embroidered and jewelled purses pulled tight by drawstrings and tied to the belt by purse strings, to the heavy strips of glittering embroidery, to orphreys for edging ecclesiastical robes, to ribbons, woven on a miniature narrow-loom, a box so small you could clamp it to the edge of a table – the only piece of equipment more complicated than a needle in English silkwork.

   During those two years Isabel would also accompany Alice Claver to meetings with foreign silk merchants and aristocratic clients; she would go to the Royal Wardrobe when Alice Claver had a contract to supply royalty, and learn how to tender for work and the formalities for delivering it. She would learn some of the faces and the names of the most powerful people in the business. Once the two years were up, she'd start going with Alice Claver to the trade fairs at Bruges and Antwerp. There, she would begin to see how to make the large-scale wholesale deals considered the pinnacle of achievement for a silk merchant – choosing and buying the trade's greatest luxury, the whole silk cloths woven in the East and in Italy on full-size broadlooms, a skill not known in England. She'd learn how to import these cloths, each worth a substantial portion of a prince's annual rents, to make garments for the richest people in England.

   ‘Why do we have to go abroad to buy whole silk cloths?’ Isabel ventured, feeling ignorant. ‘Or pay the margins the Italians here take? Can't they be made in London?’

   Alice Claver darted a bright, intense look at her, as if Isabel had intuited something extraordinary.

   ‘We don't have the knowledge,’ she answered, after a pause.

   ‘Why?’ Isabel asked. ‘Surely it's just the same as weaving wool?’

   She felt as she said it that she must be saying something stupid. But her question seemed to have opened the way to Alice Claver's heart.

   Alice Claver's eyes were full of enthusiasm, but she shook her head. ‘Far more complicated,’ she said decisively. ‘Finer, for one thing. Venetian export damasks have 9,600 silk threads in a single arm's-width, a braccio. Even cloth of gold and plain velvets have 7,200 threads. And to get the patterns in the cloth, you need far more than one line of warp threads and one line of wefts; you might have half a dozen of each in a single cloth, each needing something different done to it. Considering what silk costs, no one could afford to just start experimenting. You'd need to know the secret before you even thought of trying to build, or thread up, a full-size loom – as long as two men and as wide as another – with good-quality silk. It would bankrupt a king to start working it out from scratch.

   ‘And it's not just the number of threads. It's knowing how to mix the different imports. Look,’ she went on. It was clear she'd thought about this many times. She started pulling out bolts of stuff to show Isabel how threads from different lands could be mixed together in the same piece of silk cloth; how a single bolt could be made of Spanish silk warp and Persian silk weft for a satin; or a Syrian silk warp and Greek silk weft for a damask; how two kinds of silk from different regions could be put together and thrown to form a single thread. She said some silks, such as orsogli, were especially suitable for warp threads; that all types of cloth could use weft threads of Persian leggibenti, catangi or talani; that velvet-like satins needed weft threads of the calabrese, the catanzana, and the crespolina productions; that the siciliana was right for heavy satins and that medium-thick silk threads, for slightly lighter cloths, were called di donna and granegli. Isabel learned that silk from Almeria was used for taffetas and satins, and silk from Abruzzi for zetani, fabrics made with a satin weave and sometimes with a velvety pile.

   ‘These are just the odds and ends of knowledge I've picked up over the years from buying silk,’ Alice Claver said modestly. ‘But to weave a silk cloth that would be distinctive, and saleable, you'd need to have mastered all this and more. Much more.’

   Isabel surprised a yearning look on her mistress's face.

   ‘To have a hope of succeeding, you'd need a three-way deal on a scale no one has ever done in London,’ Alice Claver went on.

   She'd thought about it a lot, Isabel could see. Alice Claver couldn't shake off her longing to do this vast deal, however impossible she was making it sound. ‘First, you'd need an Italian master willing to share his secrets with you,’ she said briskly, lifting up one finger. ‘And that's a rare beast, let me tell you. It would be easier to catch a unicorn.’

   She lifted a second finger. ‘Next, he'd need to get permission from his city government in Italy to import a full workshop of craftsmen here to set up. And the Venetian silk boards hate letting good people go. So you'd have to factor in years of bribing bureaucrats. Nothing happens fast in Italy.’

   Isabel nodded, reluctantly. It did sound intimidating.

   ‘But the biggest problem would be the third one,’ Alice said, looking gloomily at the third finger she was raising to wave in Isabel's face. ‘Money. Even if you had the other parts of the deal in place, who would pay? You'd need a rich backer at the London end. A very rich backer. Someone willing to lose vast amounts of money every year for decades while an entire industry was set up. You might not see a return for twenty years. But there'd be wages and houses and materials and costs to cover all the while. Silk doesn't come cheap. It would be beyond the means of anyone I can think of, except the King, unless by some miracle the entire guild of mercers joined forces to back it instead.’

   The silkwoman laughed mirthlessly. ‘They certainly never would. They'd be too scared. The Lombards here make half their money out of importing silk cloths to sell to us; and the rest from banking for London merchants. They wouldn't take kindly to Londoners trying to set up a business that competed with theirs. And since our mercers do their banking with the London Italians, they couldn't cross them without having their trade accounts cut off,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘just like that. No one would run that risk. You might get rich in twenty years by weaving silk cloths, but how would you buy your ready-made silks at Antwerp and Bruges until then, without those accounts?’

   She shrugged. She looked down at the silks she'd pulled out, tutted, and began resignedly to fold them away, as if she were packing away the impossible dream at the same time.

   Then she stopped again; she couldn't quite bear to drop the subject. She gave Isabel a hard look. ‘And while we're talking about impossible, there's this too,’ she said. ‘Gossip. Even if you did manage to find a way to get going, you'd have to spend all those years of setting up keeping your plans a complete secret from every Italian merchant in London. But can you imagine starting something so big, which would employ so many people, without the markets being full of it?’ She grunted. ‘There'd always be talk. It's all impossible.’

   She sighed. Looked at the greens and golds still spread around her, blazing in the sunset; the colours of dreams.

   Isabel said stubbornly: ‘The money's the real thing, though. Wouldn't the King pay?’

   Alice Claver snorted. ‘Him?’ she answered succinctly. ‘Broke. Too many wars.’

   Isabel sighed. Alice was right, she realised; the King was always borrowing money from the City. ‘Someone will work out how, sooner or later, though …’ she said wistfully.

   Her mistress's face brightened. ‘Yes, and make a fortune,’ she agreed robustly. ‘At least I hope so. London silkwomen are the best in Christendom. It's against nature for us to let the Italians have the best of the market. There must be more for us in the future than fiddling around with tassels and braids and bits of ribbon!’

   She guffawed as if she and Isabel were old friends. Astonished to have been given a glimpse of Alice Claver's heart's desire, Isabel hesitantly joined in.

   ‘So is it true?’ Anne Pratte asked, eyes coquettishly down on her flying fingers. ‘What they're saying about your sister?’

   Isabel had her fingers awkwardly up in the air, each with a bow of blue silk around them, and the other end of the blue threads tied, six feet away, to a nail in the wall. The braiding technique involved swapping bows from one finger to the next, using four fingers on each hand in a complicated chain of movements, each round of which created an elaborate knot that lengthened the fingerloop braid by a fraction. She'd been hoping to astonish her new teacher with her skill.

   She had no idea what Anne Pratte could have heard about Jane. She should have known, though. She was coming to appreciate how important it was to know what people were saying. A rumour might mean a concealed truth; guessing a secret might give inside information that might then translate into a deal on advantageous terms. So the question made her drop one loop, then another. She hissed in a breath.

   ‘Pick it up, dear, quickly,’ Anne Pratte said calmly, taking in the tangle of threads and instantly understanding what was going on with them. ‘You're on bow reversed; pick up the side below, not the side above; then lower the bows.’ Without for a second pausing the lightning rhythm of her own hand movements, in and out, with a haze of blue loops whisking on and off her fingers, and the cord, which would be used as the drawstring for a purse, already at least a foot long, she went on, in the same meditative tone: ‘They say Jane Shore is going to divorce her husband.’

   ‘Oh dear,’ Anne Pratte added fretfully a moment later, looking across again. ‘Whatever have you done with that braid now?’

   Anne Pratte let Isabel out early when Isabel said she wanted to visit her sister. She softened visibly when Isabel told her she'd been meaning to tell Jane she'd moved inside the Claver house to start learning fine silkwork.

   There was no one at the Shore house on Old Jewry. It was shut up. Isabel found Jane in the garden of John Lambert's house instead, even though their father was away in the Low Countries. She was sitting on a bench, bareheaded, with the sun turning her waist-length blonde hair to a white-gold flame. She was reading a French romance; one of the new printed ones from Gutenberg. She was wearing a green velvet robe, with an emerald-in-the-heart pendant round her neck. There was a little smile on her face, and she was humming.

   ‘You probably know more than I do,’ she said coyly, in answer to Isabel's abrupt question. She didn't seem surprised by it, any more than she did by Isabel's sudden appearance at the Lambert house for the first time in months. It all seemed quite natural to her. She was used to people wanting to know her business. ‘What are they saying?’

   It took Isabel what seemed like hours to drag it out of her sister, in a welter of embarrassment and euphemism. Will Shore had never beaten his wife, or neglected her (except for his ledgers), or been cruel in any worse way than to bore her. But he couldn't perform the act of love. ‘We've never … never … you know,’ Jane muttered, and Isabel first nodded, then shook her head, with the smell of Thomas's body suddenly filling her nostrils. She shut her mind to it; pursed her lips to keep memory away. Jane was giggling in what sounded like girlish embarrassment.

   The four-year age gap between them used to mean that Jane always seemed grown-up and sophisticated to Isabel, whatever she did. But when Isabel heard that pretty tinkle of a laugh she suddenly felt older than her elder sister. Jane didn't seem to know the meaning of pain. A divorce would publicly shame Will Shore forever, Isabel thought. She hardly knew him, but he seemed harmless enough: skinny and hard-working and dull. And she could just imagine Katherine Dore and Agnes Brundyssch's response to the gossip. The delight. The catcalls. The gestures. He'd be destroyed.

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