'And that is all it means to you?' Edward's knight is skipping over the squares. 'Diplomacy?'
'I cherish diplomacy. It's cheap.'
'Yet they say you love the gospel yourself.'
'It is no secret.' He frowns. 'Do you really mean to do that, Edward? I see my way to your queen. And I should not like to take advantage of you again, and have you say I spoiled your game with small talk about the state of your soul.'
A skewed smile. 'And how is your queen these days?'
'Anne? She is at outs with me. I feel my head wobble on my shoulders when she stares at me hard. She has heard that once or twice I spoke favourably of Katherine, the queen that was.'
'And did you?'
'Only to admire her spirit. Which, anyone must admit, is steadfast in adversity. And again, the queen thinks I am too favourable to the Princess Mary I mean to say, to Lady Mary, as we should call her now. The king loves his elder daughter still, he says he cannot help it and it grieves Anne, because she wants the Princess Elizabeth to be the only daughter he knows. She thinks we are too soft towards Mary and that we should tax her to admit her mother was never married lawfully to the king, and that she is a bastard.'
Edward twiddles the white pawn in his fingers, looks at it dubiously, sets it down on its square. 'But is that not the state of affairs? I thought you had made her acknowledge it already.'
'We solve the question by not raising it. She knows she is put out of the succession, and I do not think I should force her beyond a point. As the Emperor is Katherine's nephew and Lady Mary's cousin, I try not to provoke him. Charles holds us in the palm of his hand, do you see? But Anne does not understand the need to placate people. She thinks if she speaks sweetly to Henry, that is enough to do.'
'Whereas you must speak sweetly to Europe.' Edward laughs. His laugh has a rusty sound. His eyes say, you are being very frank, Master Cromwell: why?
'Besides,' his fingers hover over the black knight, 'I am grown too great for the queen's liking, since the king made me his deputy in church affairs. She hates Henry to listen to anyone but herself and her brother George and Monseigneur her father, and even her father gets the rough side of her tongue, and gets called lily-liver and timewaster.'
'How does he take that?' Edward looks down at the board. 'Oh.'
'Now take a careful look,' he urges. 'Do you want to play it out?'
'I resign. I think.' A sigh. 'Yes. I resign.'
He, Cromwell, sweeps the pieces aside, stifling a yawn. 'And I never mentioned your sister Jane, did I? So what's your excuse now?'
When he goes upstairs he sees Rafe and Gregory jumping around near the great window. They are capering and scuffling, eyes on something invisible at their feet. At first he thinks they are playing football without a ball. But then they leap up like dancers and back-heel the thing, and he sees that it is long and thin, a fallen man. They lean down to tweak and jab, to apply torsion. 'Ease off,' Gregory says, 'don't snap his neck yet, I need to see him suffer.'
Rafe looks up, and affects to wipe his brow. Gregory rests hands on knees, getting his breath back, then nudges the victim with his foot. 'This is Francis Weston. You think he is helping put the king to bed, but in fact we have him here in ghostly form. We stood around a corner and waited for him with a magic net.'
'We are punishing him,' Rafe leans down. 'Ho, sir, are you sorry now?' He spits on his palms. 'What next with him, Gregory?'
'Haul him up and out the window with him.'
Copyright © 2012 by Hilary Mantel
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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