I spent much of the next few weeks reconciling how the unwashed bodies I had seen stretched out over Mama and Papa's bed could have ever been my parents. At the time, I could not draw the line of distinction between past joy and present forlornness; I could not imagine ever thinking of Mama and Papa again without sadness.
But one day, as I slurped down the spoonful of broth Aunt Kate was holding out, it occurred to me to worry over my future. "Are you going to send me to the convent school when I'm better?"
Aunt Kate frowned and clacked the spoon against the side of the bowl before offering it to me again. "No."
"Then, how shall I live?"
She set the spoon down and looked at me. "I've sent a letter to Queen Margaret. I won't know until I've received a reply."
She announced it as calmly as Mama might have mentioned meeting Father Andrew after Sunday Mass, but sending a letter to the king's wife was far from an everyday occurrence for me. "The queen! What sort of letter?"
Aunt Kate sighed, tired of my never-ending questions, I suppose. "I can think of only one way to take care of you," she said. "But Her Majesty must agree to it first."
"You're not sending me to the Cunningham's to live?" I drew up my blankets, as if they could protect me. The neighbor lady had stopped by once since the funeral Mass, but mercifully, she had left us mostly alone since Aunt Kate's outburst against her.
Aunt Kate laughed softly. "I do not think you would last a week there. Besides, it would not be fair to ask Cunningham to feed you when he has such a large family of his own."
I had a sudden quiver of hope. "Are you going to run Papa's shop?" Is that why she had to written the queen — to ask permission to leave her service?
Aunt Kate got up and adjusted her long skirt around her in one smooth motion. "I can see you are not hungry enough to eat. I'll come back with more broth later."
So, secretly, I believed I had figured out the contents of her message.
Queen Margaret's reply came the first day I was allowed downstairs to sit by the fire. By that time, the wind blowing through cracks in the house was no longer tinged in frost, and it had been raining for days. Looking out at the puddles in the streets, I despaired to think of how long it had been since I'd been free to run outside. The snow had been thick on the ground, then.
Father Andrew delivered the letter through the mud, the bottom of his cassock caked with it by the time he arrived. He paid it no mind, bouncing from one foot to another while clutching a stack of official-looking parchments. "Lady de Coville," he said, broad face beaming at Aunt Kate. "A royal messenger just delivered these to me! I could not believe it at first. The one on top — 'tis — 'tis that really her seal?"
Aunt Kate craned her neck to look and nodded. "Indeed. It was written by Her Majesty, herself."
"Imagine Queen Margaret sending a message to our Katherine," Father Andrew wondered. "Forgive me, my lady. But, perhaps, do you need me to read it for you?"
Aunt Kate held out her hand, "Thank you, Father, but I have no need."
She smiled as her eyes drifted down the page. "Good news?" Father Andrew asked.
"Yes," she looked up. "It's the message I was hoping for. Her Majesty has agreed Abigail should have a place at the palace with me when I return. She says my charge misses me, so I must hurry back as soon as can be arranged."
"Prince Bartholomew," she told the priest simply. "I am head lady of his nursery."
Father Andrew's eyes grew wider. "Now here is news! I did not know you had risen so high, Lady Katherine. What an honor — And for you, young Abigail," he turned to me. "What an opportunity! You must write me, when you learn how, and tell me about our future king!"
I, however, didn't understand why he and Aunt Kate seemed to think the news so wonderful.
"Why can't we stay here?" I asked.
"Why, Abby," Aunt Kate sounded astonished. "Her Majesty has commanded we go to the palace. And we cannot stay here; the shop has been sold. Father Andrew has helped me trade it to John Carpenter for enough gold to make you a fine dowry."
I had been betrayed. My closest living relative had sold my home out from under my feet — and to one of Papa's competitors, no less. It did not matter that I could not run a business by myself. The promise of a fine dowry meant nothing to me.
It was all Prince Bartholomew's fault. Even though Aunt Kate had come to mean my whole world, she must have felt no love for me. All of it was directed towards this sniveling princeling. She wanted to return home to her beloved palace and would drag me along with her if she must. I dared not say any of this aloud, of course, but the injustice of it boiled.
I endured the rest of Father Andrew's visit in silence, but as soon as he left I hugged my knees to my chest, and confronted my aunt. "I thought you were one of the queen's ladies in waiting." So Mama had told me. That was the way the story had always gone. Besides, who had ever heard of a prince being in a nursery?
Aunt Kate cocked her head at an angle and studied me. "I was, once, but when Tholly was born, the queen entrusted me to be his caretaker."
"A pet name for the prince."
"It sounds strange."
She shook her head. "Not so strange — You will see he is much too young a boy to be called Bartholomew all the time. Why, he's barely a year older than you."
Indeed. A rival, then. "You care more for him than you do me."
"I do not," she said, rapping the palace documents against Papa's writing stand. "You are my own flesh and blood — But, I have taken care of Tholly since he was a mite, and I dare say he knows me better than his own mama. These weeks I have been away cannot have been easy for him — And the queen has commanded our return. We must obey."
Before the queen's summons, I had been anxious to be well, but once I knew what was in store for me upon my recuperation, I was not so eager.
Still, my reluctance did not stop spring from coming, and it did not keep Aunt Kate from bustling around Papa's shop, sorting what should be packed, what must be sold and what had been included in the deal with John Carpenter. I was well enough to sit before the hearth and watch her efforts, but not to aid much in the packing, which suited me well enough. I wanted no part of helping this traitorous aunt of mine unseat me from my own home. But, despite my best wishes, the day I had been dreading eventually arrived. I had been fully out of my sickbed for a week when a royal coach arrived to transport us to the palace.
I know now that the vehicle sent for us is a carriage none of the royal family ever uses, it is not considered ornamented enough for their splendor, but that day it seemed like a very fine coach indeed, all white and gleaming, with the royal arms embossed on the sides of the doors. The carriage had drawn all the neighbors around, and while Aunt Kate went out to confer with the coachmen, I hung back in the doorway and watched the crowd. Part of me wanted very much to climb aboard and see if the inside was just as clean and luxurious, but I had not forgotten it was there to take me away from my home forever.
I scowled at John Carpenter, who stood nearby, looking far too smug for my liking. All the Cunninghams were there too. As we said our farewells, Mistress Cunningham dropped to her knees beside me, clutching me to her swelling bosom and weeping, "Oh, ye were always like one of my own to me."
I shuddered, for fear she meant it and would never release me, but Aunt Kate came to my rescue with a gentle touch on my shoulder. "Come, Abby. The coach is waiting."
I had been dressed in the finest gown I owned, but as I looked up at her, I realized did not begin to match the brocade Aunt Kate had donned again. As a coachman helped her up, her transformation was absolute. The warm-hearted mother figure who had been taking care of me those many weeks had disappeared. She was once more the elegant stranger.