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The Taming of the Queen


He stands before me, as broad as an ancient oak, his face like a full moon caught high in the topmost branches, the rolls of creased flesh upturned with goodwill. He leans, and it is as if the tree might topple on me. I stand my ground but I think – surely he’s not going to kneel, as another man knelt at my feet, just yesterday, and covered my hands with kisses? But if this mountain of a man ever got down, he would have to be hauled up with ropes, like an ox stuck in a ditch; and besides, he kneels to no one.

I think, he can’t kiss me on the mouth, not here in the long room with musicians at one end and everyone passing by. Surely that can’t happen in this mannered court, surely this big moon face will not come down on mine. I stare up at the man that my mother and all her friends once adored as the handsomest in England, the king that every girl dreamed of, and I whisper a prayer that he did not say the words he just said. Absurdly, I pray that I misheard him.

In confident silence, he waits for my assent.

I realise: this is how it will be from now until death us do part, he will wait for my assent or continue without it. I will have to marry this man who looms larger and stands higher than anyone else. He is above mortals, a heavenly body just below angels: the King of England.

‘I am so surprised by the honour,’ I stammer.

The pursed pout of his little mouth widens into a smile. I can see the yellowing teeth and smell his old-dog breath.

‘I don’t deserve it.’

‘I will show you how to deserve it,’ he assures me.

A coy smile on his wet lips reminds me, horribly, that he is a sensualist trapped in a rotting body and that I will be his wife in every sense of the word; he will bed me while I am aching for another man.

‘May I pray and think on this great proposal?’ I ask, stumbling for courtly words. ‘I’m taken aback, I really am. And so recently widowed . . .’

His sprouting sandy eyebrows twitch together; this displeases him. ‘You want time? Weren’t you hoping for this?’

‘Every woman hopes for it,’ I assure him swiftly. ‘There is not one lady at court who does not hope for it, not one in the country who does not dream of it. I among all the others. But I am unworthy!’

This is better, he is soothed.

‘I can’t believe that my dreams have come true,’ I embellish. ‘I need time to realise my good fortune. It’s like a fairy story!’

He nods. He loves fairy stories, disguising and play-acting, and any sort of fanciful pretence.

‘I have rescued you,’ he declares. ‘I will raise you from nothing to the greatest place in the world.’ His voice, rich and confident, lubricated for all his life with the finest of wines and the fattest of cuts, is indulgent; but the sharp little gaze is interrogating me.

I force myself to meet his gimlet eyes, hooded under his fat eyelids. He doesn’t raise me from nothing, I don’t come from nowhere: I was born a Parr of Kendal, my late husband was a Neville, these are great families in the North of England, not that he has ever been there. ‘I need a little time,’ I bargain. ‘To accustom myself to joy.’

He makes a little gesture with his pudgy hand to say that I can take all the time I like. I curtsey and walk backwards from the card table where he suddenly demanded the greatest stake that a woman can wager: a gamble with her life. It is against the law to turn a back to him: some people secretly joke that it is safer to keep an eye on him. Six paces backwards down the long gallery, the spring sunshine beating through the tall windows onto my modestly-bowed head, and then I curtsey again, lowering my eyes. When I come up he is still beaming at me, and everyone is still watching. I make myself smile and step backwards to the closed doors that lead to his presence chamber. Behind me, the guards swing them open for me to pass, I hear the murmur as the people outside, excluded from the honour of the royal presence, see me curtsey again on the threshold, the great king watching me leave. I continue backwards as the guards close the double doors to hide me from his sight, and I hear the thud as they ground their halberds.

I stand for a moment, facing the carved wooden panels, quite unable to turn and face the curious stares in the crowded room. Now the thick doors are between us, I find I am shaking – not just my hands, not just trembling in my knees, but shuddering in every sinew of my body as if I have a fever, shivering like a leveret tucked down in a wheat field hearing the swish of the blades of the reaping gang coming closer and closer.

It is long past midnight before everyone is quiet and asleep, and I put a blue cloak over my night robe of black satin and dark as a shadow in the colours of the night sky, go quietly out of the women’s rooms and down the great stairs. No-one sees me pass, I have the hood pulled over my face, and, anyway, this is a court that has bought and sold love for years. No-one has much curiosity in a woman going to the wrong room after midnight.

There are no sentries posted at my lover’s door; it is unlocked as he promised. I turn the handle and slip in, and he is there, waiting for me at the fireside, the room empty, lit only by a few candles. He is tall and lean, dark-haired, dark-eyed. When he hears me he turns, and desire illuminates his grave face. He grabs me, my head against his hard chest, his arms tightening around my back. Without saying a word, I am rubbing my forehead against him as if I would drive myself under his skin, into his very body. We sway together for a moment, our bodies craving the scent, the touch of the other. His hands clutch at my buttocks, he lifts me up and I wrap my legs around him. I am desperate for him. He kicks open the door of his bedroom with his booted foot, and carries me in, slamming it behind him as he turns and lays me down on his bed. He strips off his breeches, he throws his shirt to the floor as I open my cloak and robe and he presses down upon me and enters me without a single word said, with only a deep sigh, as if he has been holding his breath all day for this moment.

Only then do I gasp against his naked shoulder: ‘Thomas, swive me all night; I don’t want to think.’

He rears above me so that he can see my pale face and my auburn hair spilling over the pillow. ‘Christ, I am desperate for you,’ he exclaims, and then his face grows intent and his dark eyes widen and are blinded by desire as he starts to move inside me. I open my legs wider and hear my breath coming short, and know that I am with the only lover who has ever given me pleasure, in the only place in the world where I want to be, the only place that I feel safe – in Thomas Seymour’s warm bed. 

The Taming of the Queen
by by Philippa Gregory