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The smoke of burning London still clung to Captain Thomas Winslow as he rode his lathered, exhausted horse through the late-afternoon streets of Plymouth. Or at least he assumed he must smell of it, from the way people stared.

"What news?" some of the people called out. He rode on without answering, for the summons that brought him here allowed of no delay. And besides, they wanted reassurance and he had none to give.

He didn't pause as he rode past the Barbican, the district whose denizens specialized in separating sailors from their shares of prize money. The off-watch members of his own crew were undoubtedly there now, enriching the whores and tavern keepers with what little remained of the proceeds of their last voyage. He hoped they hadn't gotten into too many fights with tavern riffraff who'd taunted them with cowardice because they were still in Plymouth.

* * *

He did, however, stop at the dockside where the Heron was tied up, practically alone. Even the man who had summoned him took second place to his ship.

"Boatswain!" he shouted without dismounting.

Martin Gorham appeared at the quarterdeck rail and touched the place where a forelock would have been if his hair hadn't receded. "Cap'n! Now God be praised! Are we to weigh anchor?"

"How stands the ship?" Winslow demanded without directly replying to a question he couldn't yet answer.

"Well enough, Cap'n. We've kept her in readiness to sail as you ordered, and it'll take me little time to haul the men out of the gutters." Only in the last generation had it become customary to refer to ships as female, but by now the usage was so well established that even old hands like Gorham did it. The boatswain turned to the watch. "What're you waiting for, you whoresons? Lower the gangway for the Cap'n!"

"Belay that," said Winslow. "I've no time. I must meet someone at the Red Lion."

"You'll not come aboard, Cap'n? But when do we sail?"

"Soon." Winslow hoped it wasn't a lie.

After the Spanish fleet had been sighted on July 25, everything that could float and fire a gun—even merchant ships that could do little more than "put on a brag"—had followed the Queen's warships out of Plymouth harbor. But Heron, a race-built three-hundred-tonner mounting a dozen guns, had stayed behind, and her captain had traveled to London, for he'd had his orders.

Gorham leaned over the rail and his ruddy face wore a beseeching look Winslow had never seen on it. "Cap'n, some of the rumors we've heard . . . some of the tales of what befell Lord Howard's fleet . . . the work of the Devil . . . Cap'n, what's happening?"

Winslow squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Then he turned his horse's head away. "I'll tell you everything when I return," he called out over his shoulder as he rode off.

The Red Lion was Plymouth's best inn. The big half-timbered building was surrounded by watchful guards—surprisingly, for a great show of soldiers was not usually the way of the man Winslow had come to see. A letter in that man's hand, presented to the scowling guard captain, got him admitted with only a slight intensification of the scowl. A soldier led him to a large upstairs room.

Two men were in the room. One, wearing the long robes of a scholar, stood at a window, gazing westward at the harbor. Winslow thought he looked vaguely familiar, but promptly dismissed him from his mind. The other man sat behind a heavy oak table spread with papers—a lean man in his mid-fifties dressed in Puritan black that was relieved only by his white ruffed collar and a gold chain of office. His face was long and sharp-featured, with darkly sallow complexion and a neatly trimmed iron-gray beard. He gazed at the newcomer with hooded dark-gray eyes that missed nothing.

Winslow stood before the table and bowed. "Mr. Secretary."

Sir Francis Walsingham, Privy Councilor and Principal Secretary of State, had been knighted a decade before, but people still addressed him as "Mr. Secretary." Somehow, it sat more easily on him than "Sir Francis." They even called him "Mr. Secretary" in the third person, so completely had he made the office of Principal Secretary his own. The undefined nature of its duties and powers had been, to him, an opportunity rather than a vexation. If nothing was specified, neither was anything ruled out. Building on the foundation laid by his predecessor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, he had gathered more and more of the reins of government into his supremely capable hands. He had also developed something so new in the world that it did not even have a name. It would be a long time before anyone thought of the term "secret service."

"Greetings, Captain Winslow," he said, inclining his head in return. "I'm glad to see you here safe. You've ridden hard."

Winslow was suddenly and acutely aware of the state of his clothes, caked in dust and speckled with blown spittle from a succession of horses. "I came in haste as your messenger commanded." He reminded himself that it was never a good idea to try to withhold anything from Walsingham, and added, "I paused only to assure myself that all was well with my ship."

"And quite rightly, too. You must be exhausted. Sit down and pour yourself some wine." Walsingham indicated a flagon and goblets.

"Thank you, Mr. Secretary." Winslow lowered himself into a chair and poured wine with a hand whose shakiness made him conscious of the fatigue he had been holding at bay. He wanted to gulp the wine, but he made himself sip it slowly. It was well to keep one's wits about one when Mr. Secretary Walsingham wanted information . . . as he always did.

Long before becoming Principal Secretary—perhaps even before his stint as ambassador to France in the early 1570s—Walsingham had begun constructing a network of informers that extended far into Europe, and beyond into the Near East and North Africa. Indeed, some said he'd cultivated his first sources of intelligence in his early twenties while studying Roman civil law at the University of Padua, that hotbed of the new Machiavellian statecraft. Such would normally have been dismissed as beyond the range of human foresight. But in Walsingham's case it was actually believable. Knowledge is never too dear was his favorite saying, and he had spent most of his life acting on it. By now he sat at the center of a web that included at least five hundred paid spies of various kinds and degrees, from lowlifes of the London streets and the Southwark theatrical demi-monde to relatively respectable merchant travelers, and on upward to suborned diplomats and nobles, in layers of redundancy and labyrinths of compartmentalization. And then there was the support system of code-breakers, handwriting experts, forgers . . . and transporters of agents and messages, like Thomas Winslow, merchant adventurer of Plymouth.

"I already know," Walsingham began, "of what transpired after Parma's forces landed. But you were there. Could anything have been done?"

"No, Mr. Secretary. The Dons landed at Margate and advanced through Kent, south of the Thames. Our main army was north of it at Tilbury."

"Yes," Walsingahm nodded. "Her Majesty had planned to go to Tilbury and review the troops. I believe she intended to make a speech to them. But then the word arrived of what had happened to the fleet. She still wanted to go, but was dissuaded. At any rate, I have heard that the bridge of boats across the Thames was rushed to completion."

"Yes, Mr. Secretary. What human effort could do, was done. And it sufficed to get the troops across the Thames—as many of them as hadn't deserted." Remembering the horror that had run through the camps at the news from the fleet, Winslow wondered that they hadn't all deserted. He wasn't even certain he would have blamed them. These men hadn't taken up arms to fight the powers of darkness. "They joined the men of Kent, and made a stand on the Medway, near Rochester. But . . ."

"Yes," Walsingham nodded. "I have had reports of what happened to the Earl of Leicester's army."

Leicester! thought Winslow with a bitterness he dared not reveal. It was not for such as him to criticize a nobleman, even though he had spent years plying back and forth across the narrow seas with reports for Walsingham on how the war in the Netherlands was being lost thanks to Leicester's incompetence. Well, he reminded himself with a kind of vicious satisfaction, Leicester's plump body is food for the crows now. But the flame of rage within him lasted only a moment before guttering out, banked down by sodden awareness that it wouldn't have made any difference if the Captain General had been a soldier who had known what he was doing. He wouldn't have had anything to do it with.

There might have been a time, as the tales of chivalry asserted, when war had been a matter of individual heroics. Winslow doubted it. And even if it were true, that time was long past. Nowadays untrained men, however numerous and however brave, were meat for professionals like the Spanish tercios: regiments whose training meshed arquebus and pike into a single killing machine with a thousand bodies, one brain and no soul. That machine had ground up the militias of Essex and Kent at Rochester, and disposed of what remained of the Trained Bands of London at Kingston-upon-Thames, all with barely a pause. Then Parma had swung around to the north and marched east through Westminster, arriving at the gates of London a week after landing at Margate.

"I've had only fragmentary reports from London," said Walsingham, as though reading his mind. "Was it . . . ?"

Winslow found he must fortify himself with a swallow of wine before meeting Walsingham's eyes. "It was Antwerp all over again."

Walsingham winced as though he could hear the screams of the tortured men and raped women and children, and smell the stench of roasted human flesh. Everyone knew what had happened when that city had finally surrendered to Parma three years before.

"Ah, Mr. Secretary," Winslow spoke after a moment, "I have no knowledge of Her Majesty. In all the chaos . . ."

Walsingham's features smoothed themselves out into their usual mask of bland imperturbability. "Don't worry. We spirited the Queen away from London in time. That was why she had to be persuaded not to go to Tilbury. It was clear that Parma planned to sweep around London to the west, precisely for the purpose of catching her in his net." He paused, and when he spoke his voice was carefully expressionless. "You have no knowledge, I suppose, of my estate at Barn Elms?"

"No, Mr. Secretary," said Winslow miserably.

"Ah, well. There's not much doubt, is there? It was practically in Parma's path."

"As was my home at Mortlake, only a few miles away at Richmond," said the man standing at the window, whose presence Winslow had almost forgotten. "At least word was sent in time for our families to depart for the north." He turned and faced them, a tall man of about sixty, with mild blue eyes and a long but smoothly combed whitening-blond beard. His speech held a slight Welsh accent. "Hello, Thomas."

Winslow almost spilled his wine in his surprise, and half rose to his feet. "Doctor Dee! But . . . but I thought you were—"

"At Krakow, in the employ of Prince Albert Lasky, where you last saw me," Dee finished for him. "And so I was, until recently. I'd still be there, in the ordinary course of events. But in case it's escaped your notice, events have ceased to be ordinary. The Gray Monks began to take an interest in me."

A chill seemed to invade the room.

"They know a threat when they see one," Dee explained parenthetically, with his characteristic modesty. "Eventually, Prince Albert yielded to their pressure and expelled me. Several of his retainers had been found dead, their bodies in a condition I'll not describe. At least the Gray Monks didn't succeed in killing me. They did kill Edward Kelley."

Winslow murmured conventional condolences, but privately he regarded Kelley as no loss.

He had first met Doctor John Dee—eminent mathematician and linguist, astrologer to the Queen, experimenter in alchemy, and, it was widely whispered, sorcerer—years before, going to him for advice on navigational theory as had many others, up to and including Francis Drake. (In fact, Dee was no stranger to voyaging himself, having accompanied Martin Frobisher's arctic expedition of 1576, when his divining rod had proven embarrassingly unsuccessful at distinguishing real gold from the fool's variety.) Only later had he learned that they were coworkers in the Walsingham organization. Dee had reliably produced horoscopes showing the stars to be unfavorable to policies the Principal Secretary opposed, like the Queen's proposed marriage to the Duke of Anjou. He had also recruited certain of his fellow Cambridge alumni, notably the playwright Christopher Marlowe, as informants. Most importantly of all, perhaps, he had possessed in his vast library at Mortlake—doubtless ashes, now—the supposedly lost code book written by Johannes Trithemius a century before. Using that and his own linguistic gift, he had devised unbreakable codes for Walsingham. Indeed, when Dee claimed to have discovered the "Enochian" language in his efforts to summon angels, there were those who suspected that it was really just another code. Winslow knew better. Dee genuinely believed that he and Kelley, his medium, had revealed the native language of the angels. Winslow had thought that nonsense—everyone knew they spoke English!—and could never understand how so wise a man could be so gullible as to be taken in by an obvious rogue and trickster like the failed Oxford student Kelley, under whose influence he had gradually abandoned all his non-occult pursuits and departed for Krakow. He had continued to perform occasional services for Walsingham, however . . . 

"I can see why you attracted the Gray Monks' attention," Walsingham remarked with a frosty chuckle. "Your prophecy of violent storms in the northern seas this year made it difficult for Phillip of Spain to get enough sailors for his Armada."

"I merely reported what the stars foretold," Dee declared loftily. "The storms will indeed come to pass. If our fleet had forced the Armada into the North Sea, with no way home to Spain save around Scotland and Ireland, its fate would have been sealed." He shook his head, dismissing the might-have-beens. "But yes, Parma doubtless considered the location of Mortlake when he planned his line of march. The location of Barn Elms, too," he added in a gracious aside to Walsingham. "I believe the Spanish ambassador once wrote, 'This Walsingham is of all heretics the worst.' "

"So he did. Seldom have I received a more valued compliment." Walsingham didn't need to add that he had read the diplomatic correspondence before King Phillip had. He laid his hands flat on the table in a getting-down-to-business gesture. "Well, they didn't catch either of us, did they? And now it is time to confer on the course of action for which God has spared us." He reached behind his chair and pulled a cord. A servant entered silently. "Ask Sir Walter and his companion to join us."

Winslow started, for he knew who "Sir Walter" must be: Sir Walter Raleigh, favorite of the Queen and Vice-Admiral of the West Country, responsible for the defense of the counties of Cornwall and Devon near whose common boundary they sat. More and more, he understood the veritable phalanx of guards around this inn. He also began to feel acutely conscious of his own modest social status. "Uh, with your permission, Mr. Secretary, I'll take my leave."

"No, Thomas." It was the first time Walsingham had ever addressed him by his Christian name, but it did nothing to soften his habitual understated tone of command. "You will remain. I know how weary you must be, but you are a full member of our council of war."

"I, Mr. Secretary?" Winslow's voice rose to an incredulous squeak.

"You." Walsingham adjusted a paper on the table as though adjusting his thoughts. "First of all, I must take you into my confidence. As I told you, the Queen escaped from London. I failed to mention that she is here."

"Here? In Plymouth?"

"Yes. It was the logical place to bring her. Of all parts of the kingdom, this is the most loyal. First of all, Devon is Protestant to the marrow. Secondly, the seafaring families that control Plymouth are Her Majesty's strongest supporters—and with good reason, since her 'Letters of Reprisal' gave legal immunity to Hawkins and Drake and—" Walsingham's lips quirked upward as he regarded Winslow "—other sea dogs." He paused significantly. "Haven't you wondered why I required you to keep your ship here at Plymouth, when you wanted with all your heart to sortie out with Lord Howard and Drake and the rest, and bring the Spaniards to battle?"

"I have, Mr. Secretary. I know now that if you hadn't I'd be dead and the Heron would be less than ashes, consumed by the fires of Hell. So I know I should feel gratitude to you—and maybe someday I'll be able to feel it. But I still don't understand."

I really must, Winslow thought, be drunk with exhaustion, to speak so to Mr. Secretary. But what does it matter, now? What does anything matter?

"Then understand this, Thomas. I needed to hold a stout ship, with a captain I knew I could trust, in reserve." Walsingham leaned forward, and Winslow could look nowhere but into those dark-gray eyes. "You are going to be the agent of Her Majesty's escape from England."

Winslow gulped the rest of his wine.


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