About the Book
1559. A girl arrives in London to search for her brother.
Aalia, an awkward, arrogant teenager plans to bring William to his senses, until she discovers that both their lives are based on a lie.
Aalia must unravels a web of secrets but has the weight of her past to contend with.
Courageous and undisciplined, Aalia gradually comes to terms with the truth that William, her brother, has royal blood.
Deciding to undermine the men who want to use him as a pawn, Aalia must negotiate a world where secrecy arms the powerful. But unwilling to ask for anyone’s help she is forced into making a fateful decision.
Who can she trust when everyone around her is plotting? Is the truth really something worth dying for?
This epic story of secrets and betrayal paints a vivid picture of Elizabethan England and asks questions that span beyond the test of time.
LONDON, JUNE 1559
Aalia came in June, when the tides were low, and the city reeked of vermin. Brought on a caravel commissioned by the Company of St. Thomas, she meant to betray a promise.
The caravel called Cornucopia flounced up the Thames like a harlot, bloused with bright-painted sails and long, shimmering pennants. As the river-pilot boarded at Greenwich, a band of minstrels started hammering out tunes from her deck, none vaguely virtuous, and while the gaudy little ship wove her way towards the Pool, barely a wherryman working the Thames wasn’t tempted to raise his oars and let the grafted labours of everyday skip to a different beat. For the devil owns all the best tunes.
Rumour ran ahead of the tide. Before Cornucopia could reach her final mooring, merchants gathered at the Foreign Wharf, eager to discover what St. Thomas had brought to trade. A boat from the East was bound to carry barrels of spices or pepper, or bolts of fine silk brocades for the spendthrift ladies at court. Nothing bad ever came out of India.
After Cornucopia nestled against the quay, the ribald music played on. Turning heads, distracting souls, drawing easy legend. Two figures swathed in clotted cloaks watched from the caravel’s deck, bare heads bent together under the timid English sun.
‘You’ve stirred up a festival, Aalia.’ Tall, fine-featured, the gentleman nodded his raven head and smiled. ‘Is your voice wrung dry with singing?’
Hugging her thin bones, the girl looked away.
‘I can bleat ‘til dawn, if necessary, Georgiou, but I wonder at this audience? We’ve barely stirred their stolid English souls. I fear we’re hosting a wake.’
‘Did you ever see such a city?’ He pointed above the wooden shore, to the spires and towers, the clustered roofs and pied buildings.
‘I like Venice better. The air’s too sombre here.’ Her gilded head didn’t turn.
‘They say the English smell of fear, but Piatro says that’s because their clothes are sweated and stale.’ Georgiou laughed, pinching his nose.
‘Well, it can’t possibly come from dancing… who can resist such a jig? But, see… they’re so boned and padded, they can barely bend, never mind hop, skip, and jump.’
‘That’s actually the second encore.’ Georgiou ignored her pouting. ‘Though it will hardly please the London Master of St. Thomas. Padruig warned we must creep into England like mice.’
‘He confuses us with rats, another good reason we shouldn’t bide by his rules.’ She tightened her boyish hands into fists. ‘Why hide? We need to be noticed, or else we shall fail.’
Georgiou leaned across the rail, unwilling to soothe her spite. When they left India, he’d dragged her on-board, spitting like a cobra. Despite everything the fool had done, Aalia kept faith with her brother. William, the golden boy. He’d been Georgiou’s idol, too, except the measure of his betrayal cut him to the heart.
A pennant grazed his face, and he turned from gazing at the city, nodding instead at the shuttered hatch which let below deck. ‘Piatro’s anxious to know how you persuaded our good Captain to raise every flag and banner in Cornucopia’s store?’
‘Bribery. It oils the wheels of avarice.’
‘That old river-pilot warned we’d have to pay a fine for raising pennants we’ve no right to. He thinks we’re probably pirates.’
‘Horrible little man… officious true, spiteful yes, but lacking the artillery for a proper battle. I wonder if William has come.’
Georgiou ran his memory across the faces lining the wharf. ‘Your brother made clear he didn’t wish to be followed. He’ll hardly come to greet you.’
‘Verily… isn’t that a lovely English word… I’ll catch him by and by.’
Cornucopia’s Captain bellowed out orders, as ropes crashed and pulleys creaked, and the last torn sail crashed stiffly onto deck, carpeting the busy troubadours. In a sudden warp of silence, bare- footed sailors crisscrossed the decks, nodding deferentially as they passed between the grey-cloaked servants of St. Thomas.
In Cornucopia’s comfortable belly, two fellow travellers ignored the banded celebrations announcing a new port of call. Piatro Kopernik, silk-tongued merchant of Danzig, was so imbibed with India, he assumed Mughal style, and Andreas Steynbergh, owl-eyed doctor and alchemist, who rarely ventured anywhere without the promise of a new discovery. They’d remained in their quarters because Piatro was sick, too sick to move from his bunk, and Andreas served as a willing nurse, Aalia’s moods being better viewed at a distance. A gifted child but difficult. Sometimes, when she sang, her voice held a majesty that could charm a lion from its lair. God willing, this time it would.
Draped across the bunk lay a dull woollen cloak. Andreas pulled at its folds until he found the simple, black cross which defined the ancient Company of St. Thomas. In their name, his good friend, Otar Miran, had commissioned their Portuguese captain and twenty experienced hands, promising a generous dividend should they happen to drop anchor in London before mid-summer’s dawn. They’d succeeded with one day in hand, the mission being urgent and St. Thomas’s pockets deep. But when they’d left India at the tail-end of November, they had no way of knowing Mary, Queen of England, was already dead, never having given birth to an heir. Nor did they know her half-sister, Elizabeth, was already crowned in her place. While a season of feting drained every tavern of its living, Cornucopia raced frantically towards England, because St. Thomas’s most dangerous secret was about to be revealed, and the name of that secret was William.