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'Trick of the Light' 7/?

Title: Trick of the Light
Fandom: The Tudors
Part: 7/?
Pairing: Anne Boleyn/Thomas Cromwell


7.

“Majesty,” he says, without hesitation. It trips off the tongue as readily as the reply to a litany these days. He sweeps aside in a graceful genuflection to let her pass. She does not.

“Mr Cromwell.” He has to take a step back in order to avoid the hem of her skirts brushing against his leg as they swish forward in the wake of her slowing beside him. Behind her, her ladies Sheldon and Saville halt uncertainly, Mistress Madge clutching the leash of the Queen’s docile spaniel. She glances away hurriedly as Cromwell meets her eye, and, feeling inexplicably cornered by this small mob of women, he looks back at Anne. He is a little surprised to see that she is smiling, although experience tells him that this is rarely a portent of good tidings.

“I have been hearing great praise of your diplomatic skills, Mr Cromwell,” she says, her voice almost blithely conversational. She makes a small inclination with her head as she turns again, instructing him to accompany her towards the door, and they move forward into the pale afternoon sunlight.

“I am doubtless unworthy of such praise, madam,” he replies, feeling himself slipping almost automatically into the obsequiousness required of his position.

He senses rather than sees Anne smile again. It is a certain quickening in the air, nothing to do with the sharp breeze against which she is suitably protected with muff and fur-lined hood, and he is not. It is less than a month until the start of her confinement, and no doubt she is wanting to make the most of her relative freedom before then.

“You are far too modest, sir,” she says easily. Cromwell guesses that he can reliably estimate the course this conversation will take: claim, counter-claim, deflection, parry, pursuing each other in wary circles like ravening wolves on the track of mutually stalked prey, neither wanting to admit to their own starvation. All happily devoid of either speaker’s true intent. The modes of courtly conduct are an intriguing paradigm of self-denial.

“According to His Majesty, we have you to thank for the recent acquisition of our new Spanish friends,” Anne goes on. Her breath freezes in a cloud as she chuckles softly. “You ought to be careful, Mr Cromwell, or you will be putting Ambassador Chapuys out of a job.”

Cromwell smiles. “I am entirely indebted to His Excellency for the furthering of our alliance,” he says. “He is a man of…” He pauses to select from the more ambiguous vestiges of his vocabulary - “Of superior integrity.”

“Rather like yourself, some would say.”

He inclines his head obligingly. So. She has brought him out here to apply her version of an interrogation. Well, he knows this game in his sleep by now.

Their steps have aligned into almost companionable sequence, and gravel crunches in unison. Sheldon and Saville follow at a meekly respectful distance, the dog now bundled in Madge’s arms.

“However,” the Queen says thoughtfully, after a small silence between them during which Cromwell’s mind has wandered longingly back to the warm fire in his office, and the paperwork on his desk, “I must confess that I am curious, Mr Secretary.”

He looks at her, an eyebrow raised enquiringly. “Madam?”

She is gazing straight ahead, and the wind-snap has stained the fullness of her cheeks rouge. A small smile twists her flexible mouth. “It is said that you and Ambassador Chapuys have become particularly close of late.”

“It has indeed been necessary that he and I liaise over certain matters.”

“One almost begins to wonder what else you and His Excellency have been discussing in your private discourses.”

This is perhaps the one thing he has not seen coming, and he silently curses himself for allowing himself to be out-manoeuvred.

“Only that which is of benefit to the realm, Your Majesty,” he says carefully. “To be sure, it is an interest His Excellency and I have in common: that which safeguards the prospects of our two nations.”

“Really.” Her tone is flat, almost uninterested. They are approaching the parameter of the gardens, the path cutting sharply to their left, the misted hulks of the trees obscuring the buildings beyond to their right. Anne does not hesitate as they reach the small junction; she turns left, and her train has but to follow.

“Yet what does puzzle me, Mr Secretary, is why you are not entirely more transparent in your dealings with Chapuys.”

The cold wind is making Cromwell’s mouth dry, or at least that is what he chooses to blame for the difficulty he suddenly finds in swallowing.

“I am not sure I understand, Majesty…”

“No?” She removes a gloved hand from her muff to lightly brush a strand of hair that has been teased loose by the breeze away from her cheek. In the same movement, she slows to a halt and turns to regard him fully. Her eyes are those of a terrible, unknowable sphinx.

Looking back at her, Cromwell suddenly feels a sharp rise of irritation. She has compelled him out here with nary a pretext of courtesy, regardless of the frigid climate nor the demands of his office, and now is expecting him to imperil his health and occupation with nothing to defend either but the inadequate layers of his official robes, while she luxuriates in fur and the superfluity of time all women of quality are tasked to expend at their leisure. Queen or no, the conceit of the lady is quite astounding.

“Madam,” he begins evenly, certain that the thin vein of annoyance in his voice is perceptible only to his own ears. “Pray forgive what is I am sure an unforgivable obtuseness on my part, but I am entirely ignorant as to what it is that you are alluding to.”

Anne tosses her head as she laughs suddenly, a hard, ringing sound that seems to echo across the silent, deserted expanse of garden. She turns and resumes walking. After a moment, Cromwell follows her, undismissed and helpless to do anything else, attaining her side again in several long strides. Behind them, as ever, he hears the rustling of Nan Saville’s and Madge Sheldon’s skirts. He would rather have not had an audience.

The Queen’s silence endures until they reach the hedgerow that runs adjacent to the fountain.

“I hear that you have sent the Duke of Suffolk on a reconnaissance mission.”

Cromwell holds the start of shock he feels in check. He looks across the gardens to where the mist hangs heavy close to the ground as he tries to assemble a reply from his scattered preconceptions. How can she know? What does she know?

But Anne is going on, before he has had time to formulate a deflection. “I am glad to see you paid heed to our recent discussion.”

That presumably being the one where she expressed a lively interest in seeing the permanent separation of his head from his body. Cromwell swiftly runs through the specifics of the conversation in his mind…reformseducational causesWolseycropped at the neck

He takes a risk.

“Your Majesty is referring to the school in Winchester?”

She deigns to nod. “A fitting beneficiary of our monastic funds,” she says with satisfaction. “And a worthy focus for Suffolk’s talents,” she adds, not without a trace of irony.

Cromwell’s soft chuckle is as much from relief as it is from the faint absurdity of the idea, none of which he sees is lost on Anne. “I know that His Grace was more than happy to oblige,” he says, and if falsehoods are an unforgivable sin, he has just damned himself to Hell and back.

“His Grace has far too much time on his hands,” Anne says dryly. “It pleases me to see him suitably occupied. Men are apt to cause mischief when they are allowed to fall to idling.”

“Indeed,” Cromwell says with an amused smile.

If there is one thing that they share still, surviving in the embers of their shot down alliance, it is the hatred that they equally inspire in the Duke of Suffolk. There is something almost poetic in that, Cromwell thinks: finding accord in the mutual condition of being loathed.

“However, I hope that His Grace is mindful of the grave import of his office,” Anne says. “It is my observation that his enthusiasm can be…shall we say, lacking in certain areas?”

Cromwell is silent for a moment as he allows the implication of this statement to sink in. The accusation of treason hangs lightly on the words, spoken so casually anyone else may well have missed it, and Cromwell suspects that the trap is laid there in order to tempt him into infidelity to the King’s closest friend, something Anne would be anxious to relay to His Majesty at the nearest opportunity. He knows what the price of imprudent chatter can be, how articles mentioned in passing during an otherwise meaningless conversation can later resurface to be held against you at a trial for your life.

“His Grace is, I am sure, aware of the manifest righteousness and sanctity of our reforms,” he says carefully. Anne smirks, her beauty rendered cruel.

“If you say so, Mr Secretary,” she replies, turning her head just long enough to meet his eyes, “then it must be true.”

He clasps his hands more tightly behind him as they walk on.

The chill wind catches them at an angle as they turn out of the protection of the hedgerow, and Cromwell is unable to stave off a shiver that creeps up on him, the breeze nipping at his ears like a sprite. Anne’s eyes, bluer than an ocean he has not seen since he was seventeen, are on him in a moment, as any sparring partner senses weakness.

“You are feeling cold, Mr Secretary?” she enquires lightly. “Perhaps we should adjourn inside.” She pauses, allowing the beat to bring its full effect to her coda. “A man could catch his death out here.”

So much for allies.

“I confess that I am ill-attired for walking,” he says, with a self-deprecatory smile. At this, she stops, her eyes full on his face, and then very deliberately, with a unfathomable expression of amusement, or malice, or something entirely different, her gaze moves slowly, almost indulgently, from his face to the slant of his shoulders, and then onward, journeying his full height, taking in the sable fold of his robes, soft black over the denser black of his doublet and breeches, his gloveless hands and stockinged legs, moving across every inch of him as an artist drinks the sight of their subject, seeming somehow to penetrate the inadequate layers of his clothing and scorch his flesh underneath, almost indecently, almost knowingly, and at the mercy of her gaze Cromwell feels himself flushing. He has never felt quite so fully, so thoroughly, so nakedly appraised before.

“You should take better care of yourself, Mr Cromwell,” Anne remarks at last, her perusal finally ending back where it started. “So valuable an asset to England as yourself.”

He has never heard anything less like a compliment before in his life.

Cromwell clears his throat, feeling inexplicably flustered, still flayed by the sensation of her eyes on him and utterly at a loss as to decipher why.

“Lady Sheldon,” Anne says suddenly, and Cromwell glances in surprise at the two ladies-in-waiting standing several feet away. He had entirely forgotten their presence. The Queen is holding out an imperious hand.

“I will walk her for a while,” she says, and Madge comes forward holding the spaniel, which submits itself to being briefly fussed by Anne, fingering its glossy ears and kissing its soft, domed head as she coos endearments, before she takes the leash from Lady Sheldon and sets the dog on the ground. Madge drops a small curtsy, whispering a hurried ‘Madam…my lord…’, and retreats back to where Lady Saville is standing.

The spaniel snuffles speculatively at some fallen leaves as they begin to walk again, but otherwise allows Anne to lead it, placidly, the leash slack between them. Cromwell begins to wonder if he will ever be permitted to return to his office. The intense cold of the day is working its way into his bones, and it is becoming increasingly difficult not to shiver constantly. Not only that, but he strongly suspects that his nose is about to start running, and he feels compelled to either sniff or take out his handkerchief. He is sure that his nose is quite rouged at the tip by now.

“Have you spoken to the King about Mistress Seymour?” Anne asks suddenly.

The unexpected nature of the question almost makes him stammer. He glances at her, but her gaze is set determinedly ahead, eyes hard and blue in her pale, cold-pinched face.

“About what, madam?” he enquires delicately, but she is already shaking her head.

Please, Mr Cromwell,” she says sharply, her smile mirthless. “Do me the service of not pretending to be a fool. It does not become you.”

Cromwell wets his lips, and instantly regrets it as the wind parches them. “I know that His Majesty has mentioned Mistress Seymour on certain occasions,” he says, weighing the price of each word before he speaks it. “I believe he judges her as fit to wait upon you at some point in the future.”

She gives a proud jerk of her head, a though shaking off his words. “That is my decision,” she snaps, her voice harsh, jealous, stung by the losses that they both know she endures but neither dares to speak.

“I am sure His Majesty has only your best interests at heart, madam,” Cromwell says cautiously, loathing himself even as he hears himself utter the empty, meaningless platitude. He barely stifles a flinch when Anne laughs.

“Oh, of course he has,” she says bitterly. “Only my best interests.”

There is a sudden fierce gust of wind, one that sends the skeletons of leaves skittering towards them on the path and blows Anne’s hood straight back, exposing her dark, fretted hair. It catches the tail of Cromwell’s robes, billowing them out behind him, and he shivers again uncontrollably, miserable with the cold.

“You should go inside, Mr Cromwell,” Anne says. Suddenly, she sounds tired; not snide or caustic, but weary.

“Perhaps Your Majesty should do the same.” He feels strangely reluctant to leave her, as though he is somehow responsible for the vacillating frenzy and despair of her predicament. Which, on second thoughts, he probably is, at least in part, but this is not something he has ever allowed to trouble him before.

Anne shakes her head, once, curtly. “No. I wish to walk a little longer.”

He hesitates, halfway towards a bow of departure, unsure of the wisdom of either staying or leaving. “Is…?” he says, uncertainly, then with more purpose: “Is there anything that I might do for Your Majesty?”

No,” she flares suddenly, eyes flashing with the abruptness of her passion. She turns so sharply to face him that the leash snaps taut, and the spaniel yelps in pain as it is dragged off its feet. Cromwell takes a step back at the cold fury he sees in Anne’s eyes. Her loveliness is…almost merciless now, almost unearthly, not the milk and temperance of the pastorals of ideal womanhood, but witching her beauty through ferocity and hatred.

“The only thing you can do that will be of any service to me would be to keep away from me,” she says, almost spitting the words out in her anger . “I have neither desire to speak to you, nor to lay eyes upon you, beyond that which is an evil necessity. So kindly do not trouble yourself to be courteous to me.” Her lip curls contemptuously. “I am not interested in your pretty phrases or your empty flattery.”

Cromwell stares back at her, no less astonished than if she had struck him. Her nostrils dilate and contract as she breathes, her eyes fierce on his face, before she turns on her heel, the suddenness of the movement making him blink.

Both Saville and Sheldon hurry after her, pausing only to bob in acknowledgement as they pass him by.