"High in action and breath-taking plot"
Reviewed by Samantha R
Posted August 4, 2013
Brendan Prescott has once again been summoned to court to be a spy. Now, he must balance his loyalty to Princess Elizabeth Tudor while also not betraying another of his blood, Queen Mary Tudor. But as always with the Tudors and their followers, one can never be certain who to trust...
The second installment of The Spymaster Chronicles, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY begins with Brendan happy with his love, Kate, when Kate's father once again demands he go to court for Princess Elizabeth. From that moment on, the story is action packed and flies by. Brendan does his best to play his part, but there are plans and betrayals within plans and betrayals, and no one is positive on who knows what. With Kate not being with him in order to keep his disguise up, he is alone at court with his squire and faces temptation with a lady serving the Queen. I suspected her at first of foul play, but even I couldn't have predicted what her true motives were. That was one of the parts I loved most about this novel; no matter how sure you were of someone's loyalty or even true identity, you never really knew until the end. The mystery has readers constantly guessing and trying to figure out the grand scheme behind it all.
Brendan was a good choice for a protagonist, because his character is honest. He is not a hero, though he tries to do the right thing. And he is not invincible to corruption, though he tries to fight it. He knows he has troubles he needs to face and sort through, even if his actions don't always support what is best for him to do so. However, unlike many, he truly does not wish to wholly side against Mary or Elizabeth. He wants Elizabeth on the throne, but he does not want the destruction of Mary. He knows that Mary is not evil; she has just been consistently misguided and misinformed for so long, she cannot always separate the trustworthy from the untrustworthy. His view of them both was unique and refreshing.
Kate wasn't present for the majority of the novel, but I'm hoping there will be more of her in the next book. I enjoyed seeing the priority geared towards Brendan, but it would be nice to give her some more spotlight as well. If you're a reader of historical fiction filled with action and plot, pick up THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY.
England, 1553: Harsh winter encroaches upon the realm. Mary
Tudor has become queen to popular acclaim and her enemies
are imprisoned in the Tower. But when she’s betrothed to
Philip, Catholic prince of Spain, putting her Protestant
subjects in peril, rumors of a plot to depose her swirl
around the one person whom many consider to be England’s
heir and only hope—the queen’s half-sister, Princess
Haunted by his past, Brendan Prescott lives far from the
intrigues of court. But his time of refuge comes to an end
when his foe and mentor, the spymaster Cecil, brings him
disquieting news that sends him on a dangerous mission.
Elizabeth is held captive at court, the target of the
Spanish ambassador, who seeks her demise. Obliged to return
to the palace where he almost lost his life, Brendan finds
himself working as a double-agent for Queen Mary herself,
who orders Brendan to secure proof that will be his
cherished Elizabeth’s undoing.
Plunged into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a
mysterious opponent who hides a terrifying secret, Brendan
races against time to retrieve a cache of the princess’s
private letters, even as he begins to realize that in this
dark world of betrayal and deceit, where power is supreme
and sister can turn against sister, nothing—and no one—is
what it seems.
"Cut and thrust! To the left! No, to your left!"
Kate's shout resounded within Hatfield's vaulted gallery,
punctuated by a metallic hiss as she lunged toward me on
soft–shod feet, brandishing her sword.
Ignoring the sweat dripping down my brow, my
shoulder–length hair escaping its tie and plastered to
my nape, I gauged my position. I had the advantage of my
weight and height, but Kate had years of training. Indeed,
her experience had come as a complete surprise to me. Kate
and I had only met five months before in the palace of
Whitehall, during the time of peril when I served as a
squire to Lord Robert Dudley, son of the powerful Duke of
Northumberland, and she acted as an informant for our
mistress, Princess Elizabeth Tudor. During our time at
court, Kate had displayed rather unusual skills for a woman,
but when she first offered to instruct me it never occurred
to me that she'd be so adept with a blade. I'd thought to
call her bluff, thinking at best all she could manage was a
few thrusts and parries. She soon proved how wrong I was.
I now averted her lunge, her sword slicing the air.
Twisting around, pivoting on my shoes' soft leather soles, I
watched her stalk to me. I let her approach, feigning
weariness. Just as she prepared to strike, I leapt aside,
slashing down with my blade.
The smack of steel against her gauntleted wrist clapped
in the hush like thunder. She let out a startled gasp,
dropping her sword to the floor with a clatter.
Taut silence fell.
I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. "My
love—oh my God, are you hurt? Forgive me. I didn't
mean it. I didn't ... I didn't realize..."
She shook her head, peeling back her gauntlet. I saw a
slice in the red cloth lining where my sword had bit
through. My stomach somersaulted. "But how...?" I gaped. I
ran my finger over the keen edge of my blade. "My sword,
it—it's not blunted. The tip: It's always supposed to
be blunted. The nub must have fallen off!"
I started to check the floor, paused, in sudden
understanding. I looked at the long–limbed youth
standing as if petrified in a corner.
"Peregrine! Did you blunt my sword as I told you?"
"Of course he did," said Kate. "Stop yelling. Look, I'm
fine. It's just a scratch." She extended her wrist. That
tender white skin I'd kissed countless times had begun to
darken into what promised to be a magnificent bruise, but to
my relief there was no visible wound.
"I'm a brute," I muttered. "I shouldn't have struck so hard."
"No, that's exactly what you should have done. Surprise
and disarm your opponent." She leveled her
honey–colored eyes at me. "You'll need a better
instructor. I've taught you everything I know."
Her praise gave me pause. Though it gratified me to hear,
I found her compliment a little too opportune to take at her
word. I leaned down to the sword at her feet. My jaw
clenched. "I should have known. Your nub seems to have
fallen off as well." I paused, taking in her expression.
"God's teeth, Kate, are you mad? Why would you do such a thing?"
I felt her set a warning hand on my arm, but I ignored it
as I swerved back to Peregrine. He didn't shift a muscle.
His green–blue eyes were wide, framed by the dark
thicket of curls falling about his face. He didn't know his
day of birth but believed he neared his fourteenth year, and
though he hadn't grown much in height, his features were
starting to lose their elfin childishness, revealing the
handsome man he would become one day. The clean air and
plentiful food here in Elizabeth's manor of Hatfield had
transformed him, erasing all trace of the malnourished
stable hand who'd first befriended me at court.
"You should have checked," I said to him. "That's part of
being a squire. Squires always double–check their
Peregrine stuck out his lower lip. "I did check it.
"You did?" Though I heard the sudden anger in my tone I
couldn't stop it. "Well, if you did check, you did a poor
job of it. Maybe you're not ready to be a squire. Maybe I
should return you to the stables. At least there no one can
Kate let out a cry of exasperation. "Brendan, honestly!
Now you are being a brute. Peregrine is not to blame. I took
off the nubs before you got here. I'm also wearing enough
quilting under my jerkin to weather a storm at sea. I wasn't
in any danger."
"No danger?" I turned to her, incredulous. "I could have
cut off your hand."
"But you didn't." She sighed and raised herself on
tiptoes to kiss me. "Please don't make a fuss. We've been
practicing every day for weeks. Those nubs had to come off
I growled, though I knew I shouldn't berate her. It had
taken me some time, and many bruises, to recognize that
while outwardly a vehicle to teach me the intricacies of
swordplay, our practice sessions were, in truth, our way of
directing our frustrations that we'd not had the opportunity
to ask leave to wed before Princess Elizabeth departed for
London to attend the coronation of her half sister, Queen Mary.
Given the circumstances, Kate and I had reluctantly
decided not to burden Elizabeth with our request to marry.
In the days leading up to her departure, the princess had
kept a firm smile on her face, but I knew she was
apprehensive over her reunion with her older sister, whom
she had not seen in years. It wasn't merely the
seventeen–year difference in their ages. While
Elizabeth had been raised in the Protestant faith, a result
of her father King Henry's break with Rome, Mary had cleaved
to Catholicism—and it had almost cost her everything
in the final days of their brother King Edward's reign.
I knew all too well about the dangers the princesses had
endured. Like Elizabeth, Mary had been targeted by John
Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who ruled in Edward's name.
While the young king lay dying, Northumberland had schemed
to capture the Tudor sisters and set his youngest son
Guilford and daughter–in–law Jane Grey on the
throne instead. He might have succeeded, too, had I not
found myself thrust into the midst of his plans, unwittingly
becoming one of the architects of his demise. It was how I'd
first met Kate and come to serve Elizabeth; now, with
Northumberland dead, his five sons imprisoned, and England
celebrating Mary's accession, Elizabeth had had no choice
but to obey her sister's summons, though, to my
disconcertion, she insisted on returning to court without us.
"No, my friends," she said. "This is hardly the time for
me to appear with an entourage. I'll attend the coronation
as a loyal subject and be back here before you know it. It's
not as if Mary wants me to stay. She has enough on her
platter. I'd only be a burden."
Elizabeth had chosen only her trusted matron, Blanche
Parry, to accompany her. I didn't like it. The night before
she left, I asked her again, in vain, to let me go with her,
citing my fears for her safety in the cesspool of intrigue
She laughed. "You forget I've breathed the airs of that
cesspool my entire life! If I could survive Northumberland,
surely there isn't much to fear. However, I promise you that
if I find need of protection, you'll be the first person I
She left Hatfield as autumn gilded the land. With her
gone, the household settled into a quiet routine. As I
fought off my disquiet over her safety by dedicating myself
to my studies, my sword practice, and other chores, I came
to realize it wasn't that Elizabeth had not wanted me with
her, but rather that she'd known me better than I knew
myself and acted in my best interests.
The truth was I wasn't ready to return to court. I still
needed time to heal.
Remembering this, I regretted my tone with Peregrine, who
had helped me through so much. Keeping an arm about Kate's
waist, I motioned to him. "Come here," I said.
He sidled forth. He had become my shadow, following me
everywhere—"like an adoring pup," Kate had
remarked—as evidenced now by the appeal in his
"I ought to send you off to empty the bilge pit or
something equally unappetizing," I grumbled. "Haven't you
learned it's never wise to trust a woman?"
Kate jabbed me in the rib.
"Yes," said Peregrine. "I mean, no."
"Well?" I arched a brow. "Which is it: yes or no?"
Kate let out a laugh. "You are impossible! Let the lad
be. He has years yet to learn about the wiles of the fairer
sex." Stepping away from me, she undid the snood at her
nape, releasing her auburn hair. I ruffled Peregrine's
curls. "I am indeed a brute," I said to him. "Please,
Peregrine was opening his mouth to reply when Kate
exclaimed, "Papa, what a surprise!" and I froze where I
stood, staring toward the gallery entrance in disbelief.
Coming toward us was the last person I'd expected to
see—a dapper figure in a black cloak, a satchel
strapped to his shoulder. As he removed his flat black cap
from his balding pate, I thought William Cecil looked
younger than his thirty–three years and healthier than
the last time I'd seen him. Even his russet–colored
beard was free of any telltale white, and his bronzed face
was a sure sign that, like me, he'd been spending
much–needed time outdoors, tending to a garden or herb
patch or whatever it was he did when not manipulating other
"I trust I do not intrude?" he said in his smooth tone.
"Mistress Ashley told me I would find you here, taking your
"You always intrude," I heard Peregrine mutter, and I set
a hand on his shoulder. Cecil's light blue eyes glinted in
amusement as he looked in the boy's direction before he
turned to Kate, who appeared uncharacteristically flustered.
Though she feigned surprise, I had the distinct impression
Cecil's arrival here was not unexpected.
"My sweet Kate, it's been too long." Cecil embraced her.
"My wife, Lady Mildred, was most concerned you might have
taken ill. We were relieved to get your note."
Note? I shot a sharp look at Kate as she hugged Cecil in
return. She had every right to, after all. She had become
his ward upon her mother's death, raised in the Cecil
household by him and his wife. Why shouldn't she have
written to him? Only, she had not mentioned it to me, though
she knew how I felt about this man. She had not contended
with him as I had, when he had served Northumberland as his
private secretary and lured me to spy against the Dudley
family. She had not learned that her beloved guardian had
several faces, none of which could be fully trusted.
"I'm so sorry to have worried you and Lady Mildred," Kate
now said. "I've wanted to visit, but—" She turned to
me, taking my hand in hers. Cecil glanced down with apparent
indifference at our clasped fingers, though he could hardly
have missed the inference. "Time just got away from us,"
Kate went on. "Didn't it, Brendan?" She smiled at me.
"Lately it seems we haven't enough hours in the day. The
house always need so much work."
"I can imagine it," Cecil said. "And I don't wish to be
an imposition, though I was hoping to stay for supper. I
brought a meat pie and jar of honey. I left them with
Mistress Ashley." He smiled warmly at Kate. "I remembered
how you used to love honey from our hives when you were a girl."
"Oh, how kind of you! Yes, I'll see to it at once." Kate
glanced again at me; my stomach knotted. It took all I could
muster to say dryly, "Indeed. How could we refuse?"
Cecil met my gaze. He hadn't missed the undertone in my
voice. I already knew there was more to his visit than mere
worry over Kate's health.
"A moment, if you will," I said to him, and I guided Kate
a short distance away, leaving Peregrine to glare at Cecil.
In a taut voice, I asked her, "What is this about? Why is he
here? And why didn't you tell me he was coming?"
"Just heed him," Kate said. "It's important."
I went still. "Is it about...?"
"Yes." She put a finger to my lips, preempting my
eruption. "You can berate me later, but for now I'll leave
you two alone so I can see to supper. Try not to hit him,
yes?" She turned about with a bright smile, gesturing to
Peregrine. As she herded him out, Peregrine glared over his
shoulder at Cecil.
"Judging by the look on your face, and your little
friend's reaction, I assume you'd rather I wasn't here," he
"And I see you haven't lost your acuity. What do you want?"
He smiled, moving to the window seat. "You're looking
fit," he said. "You've put on weight. The air here at
Hatfield suits you, it seems."
"Better than the court," I replied. I concentrated on
keeping an impassive stance. Cecil was an expert
dissimulator; he knew how to get under my skin. I could
already sense him gauging me, assessing how this time of
seclusion, of early mornings and earlier nights, had
transformed me so that I no longer resembled the callow
youth he'd lured into informing against the Dudleys. "You
haven't answered my question," I said.
"I came to see you." He sat. "Kate sent me a note, but I
wrote to her first. I told her I had important news to
impart. She returned word that I should present myself."
"You could have written to me."
"Yes, I could have. But would you have replied?"
"Depends." I eyed him. "You still haven't answered my
To his credit, Cecil looked discomfited. "I would not
have come were it not a matter of urgency, I assure you.
I've no desire to cause you any more trouble than I already
"Is that so?" I asked, and as we faced each other for the
first time since the tumultuous events that had first
brought us together, I reflected on the irony that two such
antithetical men could hide such powerful secrets about each
other. For only I knew how ruthlessly Cecil had acted to
destroy his former master, Northumberland, and protect
Elizabeth, just as only Cecil knew the truth of who I was.
I tensed as Cecil shifted aside the pile of books on the
window seat and perched on the cushions. He picked up one of
the volumes, perusing it. "I see that besides your
swordsmanship, you've taken to studying Spanish and French.
Quite a formidable endeavor, if I do say so myself. One
might think you're preparing for something."
I had to school myself to meet the impact of his pale
blue eyes. Enough had gone between us for me to know I'd
always be on the short end of the mallet when it came to
Cecil. Even now, as he stood poised against the window
embrasure as if he were still holding audience in his London
manor, his power and influence vast, though rarely exercised
in public, I felt a shudder pass through me as I
contemplated everything he was capable of.
I clenched my jaw. "Lest you forget, I now serve Princess
Elizabeth. I am not your informant anymore, so get to the
point. What is this urgent matter?"
He inclined his head. As usual, his
matter–of–fact air didn't do justice to the
exigency that must have propelled him to Hatfield. Still,
his opening volley took me off guard.
"Have you any word from Her Grace?"
I felt a chill that had nothing to do with my
sweat–dampened chemise. "Not recently. We had a short
letter from her a month or so ago, saying she was staying on
at court through Twelfth Night. We assumed the queen had
invited her to stay."
Cecil arched his brow. "Oh, she is staying, but not
because she was invited. Mary has ordered her to remain at
court." He paused. "Do I have your interest?" He reached
into his satchel to remove a sheaf of papers. "These are
reports I recently received from an informant. I assumed
that under the circumstances, you wouldn't take my word for it."
I crossed my arms with deliberate nonchalance, hiding my
"Elizabeth is in danger," he said. "Grave danger,
according to these reports."
I took a moment to meet his gaze. I found no deception
there, no conniving. He looked both troubled and sincere.
Then again, he was a master at hiding his motives.
"In danger?" I repeated. "And you have an informant at
court who told you this? Who is it?"
He shook his head. "I don't know." He untied the leather
cord binding the sheaf. "These reports started arriving a
month or so ago—all anonymous, all in the same hand."
He extended one of the papers to me; as I took it, he added,
"That's the last one. It arrived about a week ago. You can
see the paper is a common grain, like the others, but I
believe the man who wrote these reports must be employed at
court. His information indicates proximity to the events he
describes. Look at the handwriting: It's orderly but not
overly literate; a secretary or notary, perhaps."
I scanned the report. The writing reminded me with a jolt
of the neat lettering I'd often seen in the castle account
ledgers kept by Archie Shelton, the Dudley family steward.
Shelton had trained me to be his apprentice. He also first
brought me to court to serve as a squire to Lord Robert
Dudley, plunging me into danger.
I tore myself away from the memory. "I don't understand,"
I said, looking up at Cecil. "This is an account of Queen
Mary receiving a Spanish delegation to offer the Emperor
Charles V's congratulations on her coronation. Why is that
unusual? The emperor is a fellow sovereign."
"Turn it over," he said. "The page. Turn it upside down,
and hold it up to the light."
I went to the windowpane and pressed the paper against
it. I had to focus, but then I began to see them:
translucent white lines, surfacing like ghosts between the
There was another letter, hidden within the letter.
I squinted. "I can't make it out. The words are too faded."
"The special ink he used is activated by lemon juice,"
Cecil explained. "It's a familiar ploy, and I'm ashamed to
admit it took me a while to figure it out. Clearly this is
not the work of a trained spy. At first, I thought someone
was playing a trick on me, in rather poor taste, sending me
reports of seemingly innocuous events at court. But as they
kept arriving, I started to get suspicious. Fortunately,
Lady Mildred always keeps on hand the juice of preserved
lemons from our orchard." He met my stare. "I have
transcribed everything for you here, on this paper. What
that invisible letter says is that unofficially, the Spanish
delegation brought Charles V's secret offer of marriage to
his son, Prince Philip."
"Philip?" I started. "As in, the prince of Spain?"
"The same. And the emperor is more than a fellow
sovereign: He is the queen's first cousin, whom she's always
treated as a family confidant. She relies on his advice.
Should she accept his offer of marriage to his son, one of
the terms of the betrothal will be returning England to the
Catholic faith. Charles V will tolerate nothing less. It
also goes without saying that a rapprochement with Rome
would be calamitous for every Protestant in this realm, and
most of all for Elizabeth."
He picked up the page on which he'd transcribed the
invisible words from the reports. "See here. ‘Her Majesty
heeds exclusively the imperial ambassador, Simon Renard, who
deems Elizabeth a bastard and heretic, and menace to the
queen.'" He glanced up at me. "They're all in this vein: two
or three secret lines per report, yet taken together they
present an undeniable picture."
My heart started to pound. Cecil might be a liar, but
when it came to Elizabeth he was nothing if not thorough.
She meant everything to him; she was the reason he
persisted, the beacon that guided him through the shoals of
his disgrace, as the fall of Northumberland had been his
fall as well, for Queen Mary had exiled him from court.
"Her Majesty doesn't strike me as someone who is easily
swayed by others," I said.
"Yes, she is like her father that way; she makes up her
own mind. But she is also the daughter of Catherine of
Aragon, a princess of Spain, and Simon Renard represents
Spanish interests. He has served the Hapsburg emperor
Charles V for many years, and she takes his advice
seriously. If Renard is advising that Elizabeth poses a
threat to her faith and her desire for a Hapsburg marriage,
nothing could be more calculated to rouse her suspicions.
After all, religion is the queen's lodestone. She believes
God himself guided her through her vicissitudes to the
throne. Elizabeth is a Protestant; she stands in direct
opposition to everything Mary hopes to achieve, including
returning England to the Catholic fold."
Alarm went through me. "Are you saying this man Renard
seeks the princess's arrest?"
"And her death," replied Cecil. "It can mean nothing
else. With Elizabeth out of the way, the succession is to
Prince Philip and Mary's future child. An heir of Hapsburg
blood to rule England and unite us with the empire, thereby
encircling the French—it is Charles V's dream. Renard
is a career civil servant; he knows whoever delivers that
dream stands to gain a great deal."
I stared at him, aghast. "But the queen would not harm
her. Elizabeth is her sister and..." My protest faded as I
took in Cecil's expression. "Dear God, do you think he has
any proof against her?"
"Besides accusations whispered in the queen's ear? No,
not yet. But that doesn't mean he shan't be long in
obtaining it. Make no mistake: Simon Renard is a tenacious
opponent. When he sets his mind to something, he will not
stop until he achieves it."
I clearly heard the soughing of the evening wind rising
outside. I took a moment to collect my thoughts before I
said quietly, "What is it you want from me?"
He smiled. "What else? I want you to go to court and stop
Renard. You earned Queen Mary's trust when you risked
yourself to help her escape Northumberland's coup. She would
welcome you. Gain a post in her service and you can beat
Renard at his own game."
I let out a terse laugh. "Just like that? I return to
court and the queen grants me hearth and board, and a post
to boot?" My mirth faded. "Do you think me a complete fool?"
"On the contrary, I think you have a flair for this work,
as previous events have shown." He glanced at the pile of
books by his side, now overlaid by his reports. "I do not
believe this rural life can satisfy you for long, not with
so much important work yet to do."
His unexpected insight stung me, more than I cared to
admit. I didn't relish his knowing things he had no right
to. I didn't want him inside my head.
"The last time I accepted an assignment from you," I
said, "I almost perished."
"Yes." Cecil met my regard. "A spy does run that risk.
But you prevailed, and rather well, I might add, all things
considered. This time, at least you'll be prepared and know
who your foe is. You will also return to court under the
alias I gave you when you first met Mary. You will be Daniel
Beecham, and his return is unlikely to arouse much interest."
He rose from the window seat, leaving the reports on my
books. "You needn't answer me now. Read the reports and
consider whether you can afford to ignore them."
I didn't want to read his reports. I didn't want to care.
Nonetheless, he had already lured me to his bait. He stirred
something in me that I could not evade—a restlessness
that had plagued me ever since I had left court for this
Cecil knew it. He knew this terrible craving in me
because he also felt it.
"I still must talk to Kate about this—" I started
to say. I stopped, noting his impatient frown. "She already
knows, doesn't she? She knows you want to send me back to
"She's no fool, and she cares for you—rather
deeply, it would seem. But she also understands that in
matters such as these, time is often the one commodity we lack."
I clenched my jaw. I thought of Kate's enthusiastic
cajoling of me to master the sword, her determination for me
to excel. She must have suspected a day would come when I'd
be compelled to return to court in defense of Elizabeth.
"I should wash up before supper," said Cecil. "I assume
you'll have more questions after you read these. I can stay
the night, but tomorrow I must return to my manor."
"I haven't said I agree to anything."
"No, not yet," he replied. "But you will."
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