“The Fashion of Men” by Kat Otis

“The Fashion of Men” by Kat Otis

Our boots strike mat-covered stones and echo down the corridor like the muffled drums of a funeral procession. It does not disturb the Yeoman of the Guard—or if it does, they do not show their discomfort—so I force myself to mimic my escorts’ apparent calm. The Tower of London was once the residence of my ancestors, but in my mind it will always be a prison. I shudder to think how much blood has soaked into the earth of the inner ward. Too much.

And yet, perhaps, not enough.

Two pox-scarred Yeoman Warders stand watch outside the royal apartments, ostensibly to protect my queen but in truth to make certain she does not try to escape. One produces keys and unlocks the heavy wooden door. At my gesture, a Yeoman enters the royal apartments, searching out any sign of danger before I enter. It is not that I doubt my wife’s loyalty…

God in heaven, I cannot lie. I do doubt and I hate myself for doubting her.

I would hate the consequences of her betrayal even more.

“Leave us,” I order the Yeomen. A few look unhappy at the order, but none dare disobey. Unless I decree otherwise, Mary Tudor is still my wife.

And even if I do decree otherwise, she will always remain my half-sister.

Mary must have been reading when the Yeoman entered, for she now sits with an open Bible on her lap. Her face reveals none of her thoughts as she sets her Bible aside and rises to greet me.

“Henry. I see you have begun wearing those ridiculous codpieces, again. How long is that? Two hands? Three? How much stuffing did you need to fill it?”

“They are the fashion of men,” I warn her, stiffening. She is here on suspicion of treason but her words verge on treason outright. No matter how angry she is with me for her imprisonment, she must still mind her tongue. A closed door is not enough to prevent the Yeomen from eavesdropping.

“A prince need not follow the fashions of mere men,” Mary says, her own voice smooth as silk. She watches me with wide, innocent eyes, as if it never occurred to her that her words could be taken to mean anything else. But we both know the secret she alluded to—our marriage has never been consummated and she can never bear the children of my body.

“Our children miss you,” I say, walking to the window so I do not have to see whatever emotions my words call to her face. Part of me wants to fall on my knees at her feet and beg forgiveness for ever doubting her. Part of me wants to shake her until the treacherous truth flies from her lips. “I have invested Hal with the Principality of Wales. Kit and Bess grow to look more and more like your mother every day.”

Mary does not respond for a moment, leaving me to contemplate the view from her window. Across the inner ward, I can see the royal chapel, St. Peter Ad Vincula. I can also see the Tower Green where our father vented his rage on those who dared to defy him. It is where my mother, Anne Boleyn, lost her head. Mary’s mother fared better than mine, for all that her marriage was annulled and Mary declared a bastard. At least Katherine of Aragon was allowed to die a natural death.

“What…what of Ned?” Mary finally asks, reluctance clear in her voice.

And so we come to the heart of the problem. “Ned looks exceedingly like his father.”

I turn from the window in time to see Mary wince and it enflames my anger. All I asked of her was discretion and in return her children—our father’s grandchildren—would be kings after me. When Mary’s conscience pricked her, I even reconciled with Rome and acquired a papal dispensation for her sake—though within five years she quietly suggested we should encourage the Pope to mind his own affairs and leave England to us. I loved her. I gave her everything in my power.

Everything save the throne itself.

“Edward Courtenay is a fool,” I say, letting anger sharpen my voice. “He makes no secret among his friends that he has bedded you. Christ’s wounds, Mary, what were you thinking?” I slap my palm against the wall but take little satisfaction in startling her into showing the first hint of fear. “A descendant of Edward IV? The only more dangerous choice would be one of Margaret Pole’s sons!”

Mary tilts her chin upward and buries fear beneath defiance. “Indeed.”

I catch my breath. She cannot possibly mean what I think she means. I have never pressed her to name the children’s fathers—in the eyes of the world, I am their father—but now I wonder if that was a mistake. The Tudor dynasty is not so secure that a descendant of the old Plantagenet dynasty cannot still overthrow us.

With effort, I lower my voice again and step closer. “Do you still hate our father so much that you would destroy his legacy?”

As always, the mention of our father brings her own Tudor temper to the forefront. “He led England into heresy and for what? For a son?” Her voice dripped venom. “I could have been his heir. I would have made a good Queen of England.”

Oh, Mary, Mary, hold your tongue. Yes, I am still furious with her machinations, but I realize then that I am willing to forgive her. She is my sister—my wife—and I love her. But she must bend or I will have to destroy her. “You are Queen of England. For now.”

Mary draws back, eyes wide, as if I have struck her.

The worst part is she is right, in a way. She could have been our father’s heir and she would have made a good Queen Regnant. And yet she is so terribly wrong. England is not ready for a woman to rule and our father would have married her off to a hand-picked successor rather than let her take the throne in her own right.

I know because he threatened to do just that, the day my mother was beheaded. For three terrifying weeks, I was imprisoned in this very apartment, wondering whether I would live or die. If I move one of the wall hangings aside, I know I will still find the place where I carved my name into the stones.

Not Henry, but Henrietta.

It is only God’s mercy that sent our father to his grave before he could find a way out of the predicament my mother created with her deceptions. And I, a bare fourteen years old, immediately used Mary to compound that deception with yet more deceptions.

But she is also my father’s daughter and she rallies after only the briefest of hesitations. “Then tell me how our kingdom fares.”

Our kingdom. It is half flattery and half fishing for information, seeking to discover what has happened since her imprisonment. I consider hiding the news from her, but she loves her mother’s Spanish relations so if there is any hope of reconciliation, I had best speak now.

“I have dowered Kit with the pale of Calais and offered her to the Dauphin of France.”

Mary hisses in a breath. “An alliance with France!” But then she surprises me. Instead of railing at me for weakening our Spanish alliance, her mind takes her in another direction. “You think to exchange Kit for Mary Stewart? The French will not give up the Queen of Scots without a greater sacrifice than Calais.”

“They will hold out for me to give up my claim to the French throne,” I agree, glad that she has immediately understood my aims. If her mind runs in the direction of England’s best interests, she is not lost to me after all. Now to slide in my threat. “It is not too great a sacrifice to secure Scotland—and the nearest legitimate heir to my throne.”

Mary stiffens and cannot hide her horror. “You would not disown our children-”

“I would prefer not to,” I tell her, quietly. I let her see the pain that the thought causes me, the grief I would feel if I had to put aside our bright, beautiful children and condemn them to be scorned as bastards—as Mary once was. “But because of your carelessness, I may not have a choice.”

Mary wavers, torn between the path she has been following and the one that will let her live. “Henry…Henry, please…”

I put a hand on my hip and cock my head to the side, making a show of considering her. Mary looks so much like her daughters—our daughters—that it is enough to break my heart. After a silence long enough to drive home my resolve, I finally say, “Edward Courtenay will be attainted of treason tomorrow. The question is, will you join him?”

That is not the real question, of course. What I mean—what I cannot ask—is whether or not she has betrayed me to the men who have shared her bed.

Mary draws herself up to her full height. “I swore an oath before God never to reveal your secret,” she says, with painful dignity. “Do you think me such a fool that I would risk my immortal soul out of spite? I have abided by the letter of that oath and I will always abide.”

The letter—but not the spirit. She will never bend that far.

Mary is as loyal as her pride allows, but she is also too dangerous to let live. I have always known this but I hoped I could appease her. Perhaps she defies me because she feared this day would come, regardless of how loyal a wife she proved herself. Perhaps she defies me from jealousy, for seizing the throne as she could not. Or perhaps, just perhaps, it really is her conscience that drives her to it.

Some days I wish she had less of a conscience. She inherited it from our father, along with his ambition and pride. If not for that tender conscience, she would have simply murdered me after she produced a royal heir. I am not eager to die, but it would have made everything so much simpler.

It would have spared me this moment.

“Then I will stand by you and our children,” I tell her, and pretend not to see the way her shoulders slump in relief. “I, too, swore an oath.” Until death do us part. “Once Courtenay is dead, I will release you from the Tower.” My throat tightens and I struggle to strengthen my resolve. Deception upon deception. “Perhaps we have both seen enough of London for one year. Where would you like to go next? Windsor, perhaps?”

Mary sinks into her chair. “Windsor…Windsor would be lovely.”

I stride to her side, bend low, and kiss Mary’s cheek. “I love you, Mary.”

Mary seizes my hand, kissing it, but does not offer words of affection in return. Maybe she is just too relieved for words. Or maybe she realizes that she will not leave the Tower alive.

I turn and leave before she can see that I am now blinking back tears.

The two Yeoman Warders wait for me outside, along with six more Yeomen of the Guard. The eight are all hand-picked and loyal men, whose fates rest securely in my power. There are secrets I cannot trust even to them, but this one they will have to share.

“Let it be done,” I say, softly.

One of the Yeoman Warders picks at his pock scars while the other bows and vanishes down the stairs to another level of the tower—and the apartments of another, sicker prisoner.

“Come away, Your Majesty,” one of the Yeoman of the Guards dares to touch my elbow.

Another time, I might have punished him for the presumption, but not today. He is right—I dare not contract the smallpox that is about to tragically kill my wife.

I should feel relief that the last person who could betray me is about to die, but instead all I feel is doubt and guilt at my own betrayal. But the decision has finally been made and in moments there will be no going back. I will have murdered my wife, just as our father murdered my mother.

I suppose, in the end, I should not be surprised.

Like Mary, I am our father’s daughter.

And until God decrees otherwise, I will be England’s king.

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her historical fiction has appeared in OSC’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She can be found online at www.katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.