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The Agents of the Crown—the “rollicking new historical thriller” ( The New York Times Book Review) series—returns with this riveting novel following the original MI6 agent as he is assigned a dangerous mission to recreate a weapon from antiquity. As she travels through Waltham Forest, Queen Elizabeth I is ambushed by masked gunmen who leave her carriage riddled with holes before disappearing into the night. The Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, is tasked with finding the perpetrators, about whom they know precious little. But someone alerted the gunman to the route of the Queen’s carriage, and Walsingham knows that the assassins will not stop until she’s dead. While Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council debates how to best secure the throne in the wake of the attack and Catholic Spain’s further intrusion into the Low Countries, the queen herself searches for the ultimate weapon to protect her country and throne: Greek fire, the recipe of which disappeared with the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. She orders her friend John Dee—scientist, philosopher, and spy—to rediscover this vital secret, despite his misgivings. For he understands that in a world fraught with coded messages, ruthless adversaries, and deadly plot, his mission to secure his nation’s future may prove impossible, unless he deploys the most effective weapon of all: intelligence. With his “twisty, fast-paced” ( Publishers Weekly) prose, Oliver Clements weaves another white-knuckled and intelligent historical thriller set in the Age of the Enlightenment with parallels in the present day.
Release date: December 7, 2021
Publisher: Atria/Leopoldo & Co.
Print pages: 224
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Whitehall Palace, London,
same evening, first week of November 1577
Sir William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, stands in the darkness, in the middle of the great courtyard of Whitehall Palace, next to Sir Christopher Hatton, whom the Queen has recently appointed member of the Privy Council purely because—Cecil coined the rumor—he is an uncommonly graceful dancer. They are looking up at the Great Comet in the night’s sky.
“There,” he says. “Do you not see, Sir Christopher? Its tail points to the Low Countries.”
Cecil is half joking, extending a hand of friendship to patch up what has been a bitter few months of rancorous factionalism in the Privy Council, with two parties opposed to each other on the matter of sending troops to help the Dutch Protestant armies against the Spanish and Catholic Dutch. Cecil had hoped the argument was ended, this last week, when the Queen at last made up her mind in favor of sending troops, deciding in favor of the faction led by Cecil and Walsingham, and against the faction led by Hatton. But Hatton is obviously not yet ready to accept defeat, nor the proffered hand.
“That might mean anything,” he scoffs.
“No,” Cecil tells him. “It means good Protestant Englishmen will soon be coming to the aid of their Dutch cousins, and that together we will drive Spain back within her own borders and, God willing, strike such a blow as will rid Christendom of popish superstition for all time.”
He, again, is only half joking.
“I still believe it is a grave mistake,” Hatton says, seriously. “We should not even be sending them money, let alone troops. It will deplete our treasury, and our numbers, and it will unite France and Spain against us. More than that, also, it gives succor to any subject who rises up against his rightful king. Her Majesty is sowing the wind, and she shall reap the whirlwind.”
“We’ve been hearing that same old refrain for years now,” he reminds Hatton. “The simple fact is that if we let the Spanish crush the Dutch, they will. And then they will turn to us and crush us. There will be fighting, I know, and it will cost gold, and blood, but so much less if it is done now, and in the Low Countries, and mostly by Dutchmen. Spend now, save later. I am glad the Queen has finally seen sense.”
Hatton blows out air.
“Twenty thousand pounds? Ten thousand men? It is the thin end of the wedge, Lord Treasurer.”
Cecil knows Hatton hardly cares about the money. It is the old religion he hankers after. A return to Rome. And that is really why the Queen appointed him to the Privy Council: not because he has a well-turned calf, though he does that, but because she is naturally cautious in these affairs—or is too aware of the risks they involve—and Hatton is there to serve as a bulwark against Master Walsingham’s zeal.
“Well,” Cecil tells him, “it is done now in any event.”
“We shall see,” Hatton says. “There is many a slip between cup and lip.”
Cecil wheels on him, suddenly furious. This argument has been had! It has been lost and won and now there is nothing more to be said.
“What do you mean by that, Hatton?”
Hatton is taller and younger, and infinitely more agile, but Cecil is Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer of England. And two Yeomen of the Guard are never more than ten paces from his side.
“Nothing,” Hatton says, backing away. “Nothing, I do assure you.”
Cecil growls and pulls his furs tight about his shoulders. He wonders at his sudden flare of anger. Perhaps because he knows Hatton is partly right? At the beginning, five years ago now, when the Protestant Dutch provinces first rose up against their Spanish Catholic king, the Dutch looked to the English for help—for money, or troops, or ships at least—but Her Majesty was too conscious of the divine right of a king over his subjects and was too afeared of offending the Spanish, and so she dithered, and it has taken Cecil and Walsingham five years to persuade her to help the Dutch, and though she now sees sense, there is no telling what she will feel next week. Or the week after that. And even if she stays her course, will the promise of money be enough to keep the fragile Dutch alliance together? The so-called Pacification of Ghent? If the northern Calvinists under William of Orange gain too much head, the southern Catholic states under Philippe de Croÿ will almost certainly revert to King Philip of Spain, and then England is back to where she was, only having spent twenty thousand pounds and lost ten thousand English lives.
Until then, though, Cecil is content, and is wondering about returning home, since there seems nothing afoot that cannot wait until the morrow, when he hears bells tolling in the city.
“What in Christ’s name is that? Fire?”
A moment later, Sir John Jeffers’s boy—filthy, stinking, and tearful—is marched into the courtyard and brought before them.
“How now, boy, what is this?”
At the news, they retire at once, utterly incredulous, utterly dismayed, to the Privy Chamber where they question the boy, who stands almost incoherent and hoarse from shouting out the news as he rode through the city that the Queen is dead.
“You did not see her wounds?” Hatton asks.
The boy shakes his head.
“Captain Jeffers sent me here straight off, soon as it happened. Tell them she has been shot, he said. In her belly. By a dozen men with guns, in Waltham Forest. I saw the carriage. Full of holes, it was, sir, like a strainer. And her women were weeping and pulling their hair, and Mistress Frommond was with blood all on her hands.”
He holds out his own to show them his leather-stained palms as if they were hers. His eyes are bright, as if he were mad, and he has lost his cap.
“But she was not dead when you left to ride here?” Hatton asks.
“I was not going to tarry till she was, was I?”
“Fair enough,” Cecil supposes. He thanks the boy and sends him to the kitchens.
“Only do not dismay the cooks,” he tells him. “We are in for a long night and shall have need of their services.”
Then he sends for the Queen’s surgeons and her physicians to be roused, and for messengers to ride for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and for Master Walsingham, also. He sends for more candles, and a fire to be lit. Finally, he sends for the casket to be brought up from the vaults below, and then he sits at the board and is still for a moment, save for his fingers that drum a rhythm from his childhood.
“Dear God,” he says, more to himself than Hatton. “Dear bloody God. What now?”
Hatton says nothing. He paces like a cat in the shadows. Cecil can imagine his tail twitching. A moment later, a steward returns to usher in two footmen, carrying between them the casket Cecil ordered. They place it on the table and step back and set about lighting the fire and the candles. Cecil remains staring at the casket for a long moment.
He knows he should fish out that key from his doublet and start summoning all the messengers he will need to promulgate the news, to send out the letters contained therein: to George Talbot in his castle in Sheffield to alert him to post a heavier guard on Mary, Queen of Scots, who must be the likely focus of this plot to kill Queen Elizabeth, and probably at the heart of whatever comes next. He should send word to the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and to Edward Clinton, Lord High Admiral of the fleet in the Narrow Sea, to warn them to expect an attack from Spain at any moment. Likewise to the governor of Berwick Castle that he must anticipate some incursion from Scotland. He should be mustering the city’s militia and warning the Constable of the Tower to ready his keep for the arrival of a court without its Queen.
It is what they have planned to do, but really, now that it has happened, what is the good of all that?
It is useless.
Elizabeth Tudor is dead. Long live Mary Stuart.
Cecil continues to stare in silence at the casket on which the dust lies so thick it forms a wrinkled cloth, like fine felt. He cannot believe it. He cannot believe she is dead. Elizabeth, the Queen, who has been through so much and who meant so much to so many. The Queen in whom all their hopes reposed.
It is no surprise, of course. It has been long threatened, long expected, even, but however hard he has tried to imagine it over the years—and planned for it, as they all have—he has never grasped until now how it would feel. Even when she was stricken with smallpox back in 1562, he did not think she would actually, genuinely, die. After all she’d been through, the dangers she had weathered, when all around there were men desperate to kill her, it seemed too much an affront then, for her to go by her own bodily weakness.
Opposite him Hatton now sits in silence, waiting. There is a rumor—reliable, according to Walsingham, though denied by Hatton—that Hatton has promised Mary of Scotland that should Elizabeth of England die without heir, then he himself will be the first to come north to collect her; and that he will lead her south, carrying her Sword of State upright before him, into London and onto her throne of England.
And yet still he sits, with his long nose, and his sculpted beard, and his velvet cap with its band of gold-foiled pearls and pert white feather. There is cloth of gold, too, threading through the dark stuff of his doublet that catches the candlelight quite beautifully, and though he cannot be blamed for wearing such a thing on a night like this—for how could he have known what might happen?—nevertheless, Cecil does blame him.
He leans forward.
“Sir Christopher,” he says, “is there not somewhere you need to be?”
Hatton looks at him defiantly.
“No, my lord.”
Cecil sits back, satisfied he has caused offense.
“My Lord of Leicester should be with us shortly,” Cecil tells him. “And Master Walsingham.”
Hatton clicks his tongue against his teeth.
“Good. Perhaps Master Walsingham will be able to enlighten us as to how this can have been allowed to happen? All his devilish plotting and planning, his placemen in every great household in the land, his breaking of seals and meddling in other princes’ affairs, and all for what? Naught!”
“But it is not such a disaster for you, is it, Sir Christopher?” Cecil goads. “Your only regret can be that you will not be afforded the chance to twirl and jig at the masque to mark Her Majesty’s birthday, will you? Or perhaps you have in mind a different sort of dance—of a horizontal nature—with the new queen? Is that it?”
To his credit, Hatton appears genuinely startled by Cecil’s suggestion.
“M-m-y Lord Burghley,” he stammers. “I am… my objection to helping the Hollanders is not so… I would never countenance… Her Majesty’s life… You accuse me of—”
Hatton is so shocked that he cannot form the words. Nor can he be sure of what exactly Cecil is accusing him. Nor, in truth, is Cecil, exactly, but he feels he has suffered a great wrong—England has suffered a great wrong—and that because of this infamous night, a woman is dead, and Cecil’s lifework is in ruins. And there, on the other side of the table, with a handsome beard, gold-foiled pearls, and gold thread in his doublet, sits the man in whose favor the wind suddenly seems to be blowing.
Mortlake, west of London,
same evening, first week of November 1577
Dr. John Dee stands in his orchard with his friend and neighbor Thomas Digges, spyglass pressed to his eye, watching the fiery orb of red with its long, blazing tail of furious white.
“Whatever can it mean, sir?” Thomas Digges asks.
Dee does not take his eye from the glass.
“Perhaps, Thomas,” he says, “one of its first tasks is to signal that since we have known each other for twenty years or more, and I count you as my friend and believe you to consider me likewise, it is time you called me by my Christian name?”
Digges thinks about this for a moment.
“Would the heavens expend such power on such a trifle, do you suppose?”
Dee lowers the glass to look at Digges.
“Now that is an interesting question, Thomas. How much power might it cost God to send a comet such as this? If He has infinite power—and He does—then might He not send any number of these comets, to remind mankind of any number of trifling things: to turn our shoes over at night so that the darkness does not pool within; to shut up our geese, too, less they fall prey to the fox; to—”
“—to pay the bookseller what he is owed,” Digges interrupts, “so that he need have no recourse to the services of bailiffs?”
“Yes, that, too,” Dee agrees. “But He doesn’t do so, does He?”
“But if He did?”
“Then I would, of course, remember to pay the bookseller so that He need have no recourse to… to all the rest of it.”
Dee passes Digges back the spyglass, and they are comfortably silent awhile, each tied up in his own thoughts. After a moment, Digges speaks, more serious this time.
“What do you think it really portends, John? Is it the End of Times, as Luther predicts?”
Dee exhales. Luther has made much of the coming of the end of the world. They all have, those Germans. It is as if they have a taste for it: fire, brimstone, sudden violent death. Odd, he thinks.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” he says. “And look; its tail points eastward, toward the Low Countries.”
Dee goes on: “Johannes Trithemius reminds us that the angelic spirits rule the planets each for a period of 354 years, and it may be that this comet signals the end of one period and the beginning of another. So it may not signal the End Times such as Luther imagined, but the beginning of a new order, overseen by a virtuous angel. It may be that the world is set to become unified spiritually, and politically, under one Last Ruler. A time when all sins are wiped away, and we return to a state of purity such as we have not seen since Adam first ate of the forbidden fruit.”
He is being optimistic. Digges is not: “But was a comet not also seen in the year of the Battle of Hastings?”
Digges refers to the comet seen above England in the year 1066, which presaged the death in battle of the last English king, Harold, and arrival on the throne of the French conqueror, William. Immediately the atmosphere clenches. Both men think of the throne’s current incumbent: Queen Elizabeth, life and limb already threatened on all sides, and how she must feel seeing such a sign.
“Will you go to her?” Digges asks. “Go to Her Majesty?”
Dee has been wondering the same thing since he first saw the comet. He cannot for a moment believe that she is not studying it this very moment, just as he is—though in greater comfort perhaps, wrapped in sable, without the odorous Thames lapping at her toe caps—and he cannot for a moment believe she is not thinking of him, just as he thinks of her.
“If she calls for me, I will go, of course,” Dee says, without needing to add the “but.”
Digges says nothing. Dee passes him back his spyglass and the young man puts it to his eye.
“Or it might just as easily portend some great discovery,” Dee goes on, trying to sound ever more hopeful. “Some treasure, perhaps? Or even, God willing, the end to our Great Work, the thing what we have been seeking all these years.”
Digges lowers the glass.
“You mean the ore that Frobisher has brought?”
“Well, yes, that, too,” Dee says, having forgotten the ore—nearly two hundred tons of it—which the admiral has brought back from the New World, from a sample of which Dee has had his alchemical assistant, Roger Cooke, try—with no joy, alas, yet—to extract gold.
“But I was thinking of something even closer to home.”
He means, of course, the lapis philosophorum, the philosophers’ stone.
Digges draws breath.
“Are you that near?”
“I am this close!” Dee laughs. “One more distillation, perhaps.”
By which he really means ten times ten times ten. Digges is almost distracted from the comet by the news.
“But John,” he says. “That is marvelous news! Congratulations, my friend! You will never need worry about booksellers’ bills again!”
Dee smiles. Should it be so surprising, he wonders, that a man so interested in spyglasses should also seek to reduce the mighty to a trifle?
“The gold would be useful,” Dee admits, “but it is the elixir of life, of eternality, that would be my chief delight.”
Just then there comes a shout from the river. A barge.
“Who can that be at this time of night?” Digges wonders.
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