'If the reading of the stars is correct, His Majesty has only a short time to live. And he will die through violence'. 1642: Laurence Beaumont has just returned to England after six long years in the European Wars. Fleeing home to escape the responsibilities of his noble birthright, he served as both mercenary and spy, and ended up a cardsharp in a Dutch brothel. The atrocities he witnessed abroad have utterly destroyed his faith in any cause, and shattered his self-respect. As the clashes between King Charles I and his mutinous Parliament escalate towards full civil war, Beaumont is sucked back into violence and intrigue when he discovers coded letters outlining a plot to assassinate the king. Hounded by the conspirators and pressed into service by the Secretary of State's ruthless spymaster, Beaumont finds himself threatened on all sides, in peril of his life if he makes a single slip. The ravishing Isabella Savage, a practised seductress, offers to help him, but he must beware of her charms. And all the while, Beaumont is haunted by a strange prophecy, and the memory of a love betrayed...
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V. C. Letemendia was born and raised in Oxford and lives in Toronto. After completing a doctorate in Political Theory and lecturing for some years, she chose to pursue a career as a writer and editor. Since childhood she has been fascinated by the English Civil War. This novel, ten years in the making, is her first.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Cadiz, Spain, July 1642
At a sharp bend on the road to Cadiz, Laurence heard a strangled cry pierce the air, as of a man being choked.
“God damn,” he muttered, reining in his horse. If there was trouble up ahead, he could not circumvent it. To his left, sheer cliff descended to the sea miles below, and to his right, the barren, rocky hillside rose up too steeply for his horse to negotiate a path. Yet what did he care, anyway, he thought; he had no fear for himself.
Urging his mount forward again, he rounded the bend. Some twenty yards from him, a couple of men were assaulting an elderly fellow: one held a knife to his throat while the other searched him roughly. Both thieves were barefoot and scrawny, dressed in rags. They were jeering at their victim, doubtless pleased to have hit upon such easy prey, and so intent on their work that they did not notice Laurence. Nearby, indifferent to the spectacle, a pack mule stood nosing at the dusty earth.
Heaving a sigh, Laurence drew out his pistols. Empty as they were, he levelled them at the thieves. “ Déjale,” he yelled resignedly.
They turned, clearly taken by surprise. One bolted off immediately and scrambled up the hill, agile as a mountain goat.
Laurence watched him disappear before addressing his accomplice, who still had his blade tight to the old man’s neck. “I said, leave him alone! And get lost before I shoot you.”
“Get lost yourself, you son of a whore,” the thief retorted with impressive bravado. “I was here first.”
Laurence could not help smiling. “I’m not in your trade, and I have money. I’ll give it to you, if you release him.” He tossed the pistols some distance from his horse, catching as he did so an anguished flicker in the old man’s eyes. Wary but curious, the thief squinted at Laurence as he dismounted and reached into his saddlebag. He withdrew his purse and poured from it a few coins, letting them slide through his fingers. Next he shook the purse, which emitted an unmistakable clinking sound, and threw it on the ground. “You can have the horse as well. In fact, you can have everything.” The thief ’s confusion was so obvious that Laurence nearly laughed; no sane person would freely surrender his horse and weapons in such desolate countryside. “So, what are you waiting for?” he demanded, becoming impatient.
The thief stepped away from his victim to approach the purse, staring at it greedily. As he was about to snatch it, Laurence moved faster, kicking him in the shoulder. He howled, though he did not drop his knife. Grabbing Laurence by the knees, he brought him down, and they wrestled together in the dirt, rolling dangerously close to the edge of the precipice. The thief was all muscle, his grip on the weapon like a vice. He fought harder than Laurence, who only wished to allow the old man time to escape, and then let it all end quickly.
At length Laurence stopped struggling altogether. The thief was on top of him, aiming the steel point at his heart. Laurence gazed straight into his eyes and knew: the thief was afraid. “What’s wrong with you, never killed a man before?” he taunted him contemptuously.
The thief scowled and bore down with the knife. But as the tip of the blade pricked Laurence’s flesh, he smelt the thief ’s rotten breath full in his face and the stink of it roused his disgust: he was not prepared to die like this. He struck at the knife, which flew from the man’s hand, and they began to wrestle again. He was unconscious of his actions, relying on instinct honed by long practice, the blood pounding in his ears and seething in his veins as if he were in the midst of battle. Suddenly he heard the thief shriek, and felt him grow limp and heavy. He thrust aside the body and lay back, panting; he must have managed to fish out the slim dagger that he always kept in his doublet, for it was driven to the hilt into the thief ’s chest, and his left hand was wet and sticky with gore.
He looked over at the old man, who was still beside the mule, his expression a mixture of puzzlement and awe. “You’re safe,” said Laurence. “You can be on your way.”
“Bless you, sir.” The man’s face, brown and wrinkled like a cured olive, broke into a wide grin. He picked up the purse, the scattered coins, and the pistols and set them down neatly beside Laurence. Then he went over to the corpse and, without a hint of distaste, pulled out the dagger and cleaned it on the thief ’s rags. “You took a wild risk, in letting him have the advantage. To bluff with one’s life is true courage.” He frowned at Laurence thoughtfully. “Or else madness.”
“It wasn’t courage,” Laurence said, sitting up to accept the knife from him.
“Whichever the case, you saved my life.” The man produced a flask from a pocket in his travelling cloak and offered it to Laurence; it contained cool water, more reviving to Laurence’s parched mouth than any spirits. “Are you bound for Cadiz, as I am?” Laurence nodded, drinking. “In return for what you have done, you must come to my house there, as my guest. I insist!”
Laurence hesitated. He would have preferred to refuse, but more thieves might be lurking about, and he did not want to leave the fellow unprotected. “Very well,” he said, as he rose, wiping his hands on his already stained breeches.
“God is great,” the man exclaimed, patting him on the shoulder. “God is great.”
As they proceeded together on foot, walking their beasts, the man explained that he was a merchant returning from Tarifa. “I had to collect a bolt of silk, and while I was waiting to receive it, my two servants fell ill. They could not escort me back, but I was in a hurry to get home, so I set out alone. What a fool — and I could have been a dead fool had you not chanced by and rescued me. My name is José Moreno, sir. What is yours, and where are you from?” When Laurence told him, he seemed bemused. “An Englishman, are you? You don’t look like a foreigner — and you speak with no accent. Indeed, I confess at first I thought the same as the thief — that you were another brigand,” he remarked, surveying Laurence’s garments. “Yet with this handsome black stallion — not to mention your gold, and your expensive arms — you are more of a target for robbery than I.”
Dusk had fallen by the time they arrived at Cadiz. José guided him through winding streets to a passageway between high, forbidding walls. They reached a door upon which José knocked several times, in a distinct pattern. A servant as brown-skinned as he admitted them into a large torch-lit courtyard where fruit trees and flowers bloomed; the house was constructed in a square around it, with covered galleries on all sides.
While Laurence peered around, amazed that such beauty and luxuriant growth could be so perfectly concealed from the street beyond, the servant bowed to him, handed him down his saddlebags, and led away his horse and the mule. Then José took him beneath one of the galleries, saying, “We should not eat until we have cleansed ourselves.” He paused a moment before calling out, “Khadija!”
A most extraordinary woman emerged from the shadows: she was an African, her skin not black but a ruddy copper hue. She wore indigo robes, with a cloth of the same colour wound about her temples, and her ears were pierced with gold rings from the top to the bottom of both lobes. Her hair was dressed in tiny plaits, sticking out from beneath the cloth like so many spiders’ legs. At the corner of each eye there were three short scars, as though to simulate the lines of a smiling person, and her nose was long and fine, like José’s. Her age could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty years old. José addressed her in what Laurence recognised as Arabic, and she went away, head held high as if she were a princess rather than the slave that he presumed she was.
“Khadija will bring us fresh linen and make food while we perform our ablutions,” José told him.
In a separate room off the courtyard was the bath, wide and deep, like a rectangular pond, filled with scented water. José paused once more, regarding Laurence intently as if to gauge his reaction, and then began to undress. Laurence held back, embarrassed by the layers of grime beneath his clothes; he had not been able to wash properly more than once or twice in the past few months.
“What is it, sir?” José inquired, as he sank into the water. “Are you not accustomed to bathing? Or is it that you have never seen a circumcised man?” he added, in a low voice.
“But I have. I knew a Jew in The Hague.”
José considered this carefully. “Could he practise his faith, where he was?”
“I believe so. I hope so, at any rate.”
Again, José appeared surprised. “But you are a Christian, no?”
“I am . . . nothing,” Laurence said, as he bent to rinse the thief ’s blood from his hands.
“You are not nothing in the eyes of God. Remember that. I shall be frank with you, sir,” José continued. “My birth name is not José. It is Yusuf.”
“Were you a Muslim?”
“I still am.” There was a silence. “Do you regret now that you saved me?” asked Yusuf.
“Not at all — though isn’t it forbidden for you to worship?”
“It is forbidden these days even to have infidel ancestry. As you may know, more than thirty years ago the conversos were almost all expelled, and amongst those of us left, few are brave enough to cling to our true religion. I could bring the Inquisition down upon me just for taking this bath.”
So Yusuf had risked his own life, Laurence realised, in inviting him here.
After they had dried themselves, Yusuf gave Laurence a clean shirt. “My son’s,” he said. “He is away doing business on the Guinea Coast, where I bought my Khadija. She is now the lady of the house. My first wife died when I was still captain of a ship. I have five sons who are grown and gone to sea — they inherited my passion for it.”
At table they were served by Khadija. Yusuf took no wine himself but filled Laurence’s cup generously. When the plates were cleared, he brought out a pipe and lit it. After inhaling, he passed it to Laurence, who was familiar with the smell: he had smoked hashish as a youth with his tutor Seward in Venice, and on a few occasions since. Relaxed by the drug, he listened more than he talked, yet he began to suspect, from something in Yusuf ’s manner, that his host was deliberating over an unspoken question.
Finally Yusuf put down the pipe. “I must ask — why do you claim to be an Englishman? I am sure that you have Barbary blood. I should call you a Moor like myself, if it would not insult you.”
“Oh no, I’m used to being called many things,” said Laurence, amused. “I’m only half English, though. My mother is a Spaniard.”
“Ah, that explains your facility with the language. Is she in Cadiz?”
“She’s in England. I haven’t seen her in six years.”
“You have been away a while. As a soldier?”
“For most of the time.”
“So what brings you to my city?”
Laurence laughed shortly. “No good reason.”
“Are you by yourself ?”
“Where will you go next?” Laurence shrugged. “You are welcome to stay with me however long you wish,” Yusuf said, “or I could find you passage to Africa, or to the Indies, should that strike your fancy. There is also a ship in harbour bound for the English coast. She leaves within the week. Or would you prefer to travel by land?” Laurence shrugged again; he had absolutely no answer. “Khadija!” cried Yusuf. “Our guest is in need of advice.”
Khadija came bearing a small woven basket. She tipped it on to the table and about a dozen small, shiny, oval-shaped shells fell out, smooth on one side and etched with what resembled little teeth on the other. “Pick them up and put them in my hands,” she told Laurence, in accented Spanish. “Then I shall let them fall where they will, and read them for you. They will speak of your future.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe they can,” Laurence said, forcing a smile.
“Then what have you to worry about?” asked Yusuf.
It would be churlish to decline, so Laurence did as she bade. He must pretend interest, he reminded himself, as she surveyed the shells, her broad lips parted in concentration.
“You tried to kill yourself today,” she began, her tone clear and certain.
Laurence betrayed no reaction. Privately, he was unsettled. Even if his host had described to her what had happened on the road to Cadiz, there was an earlier event about which Yusuf could not be aware.
“A woman has poisoned you,” she went on, sending a shiver down his spine. “Now you are in hiding, from the world and from yourself. Yet soon you will cross paths with another woman, who will deserve your love. She has the name of a great queen and she will give birth to your child, if you are ready for her. But if you do not spit out the poison, you will lose her.”
His scepticism returned: it was the sort of vague, trite prophecy that Juana might have invented, assuming that everyone wanted to hear about love and fertility. In his case, this could not be further from the truth. The strange apprehension that he had just felt was probably the hashish working on his troubled mind.
“Again,” Khadija ordered. Obediently he gathered up the shells. This time when she released them they jumped apart and scattered as though possessed of their own force. She absorbed their arrangement and said with the same certainty, “You alone can prevent a tragedy in your land, and what you have that was stolen holds the key.”
“What is it that I have?” Laurence demanded, his pulse quickening. “Can you tell me?”
Khadija made no sign that she had heard, putting the shells back in their basket one by one. She was too astute to spoil the impact of her guesswork by elaborating on it, he thought wryly. Remarkable, however, that she should have been quite so fortunate.
She gestured to him to give her his hands; hers were soft, her fingers slender and pliable as those of a girl. Was he meant to thank her, he wondered, or was she offering him some kind of blessing? Her expression at once tender and severe, she inspected his palms, calloused from riding, and his nails, broken from months of living rough; and she rolled up his sleeves to the elbow, palpating the lean flesh of his forearms with her fingertips. “You earn your way with your hands,” she commented.
“He is a soldier, Khadija,” Yusuf informed her.
“Not any more. He makes his living through games of chance.” Laurence blinked at her, astonished. “And the night this was done to you,” she said, touching the scar on his left wrist, “you played a game that changed your fate.” He gasped, shuddering as she caressed it.
“Khadija, now you are scaring him,” said Yusuf. “He’ll think you are a witch.”
She dropped Laurence’s hands and leant forward to murmur in his ear. “You must go home.”
“Why?” he whispered, his voice as tremulous as the rest of him.
“That is for you to learn.” She slipped from her arm a thin leather bracelet, which seemed to contain something stitched inside. “Here — it will protect you on the journey, and remove the worst of the poison,” she said, looping it about his scarred wrist. “Wear it until ...
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