Nicholas would go to Westminster and request the king’s sanction of John Constantyn’s fate. Men were appearing in court for slandering the mayor through criticism of the execution. It would be easier to deal with them if the correctness of the punishment could be settled for all. Henry was sanguine on the subject. He was sure that Nicholas had acted justly because Margery was not. She tutted in the background and Idonia smiled back. What did Idonia think now? Was she still confused? Did she think that man should never condemn man? If so she did not say so. She was annoyingly still and serene. He had performed one of the most passionate feats of his life and she was cold as crystal.
The heat of the horse rose through the saddle and into his loins. It felt good to be here up above the officers and the servants and ready to ride to the king. Only so many men in the world could put a hand to its turning. He blessed his father once again for bringing him to the city where he had this chance. The sun was bold in its approach to the equinox. Nicholas let his cloak loose at the front and was still too warm. He rode with an escort of mayor’s serjeants but he also took Hamo. He who had been known for his bulk and bounce had lately smoothed his style, but the jounce returned to his step today and seemed somehow to transfer to his horse.
They entered the outer court of the palace, that huge space under the oblique eye of the abbey, in which the pomp of official visits vied with the delivery of victuals, the clearing of weeds and the unblocking of the fountain. The Surrey rag of the great hall was flanked by a straggle of buildings on either side, pointing to the Thames on the left and on the right towards the inner gateway. This gave access to the green yard along the west side of the hall and beyond it the apartments of the king and queen. At the far end of the palace, overlooking the king’s garden, stood the Jewel Tower on its lonely spot stolen from the abbey grounds. It was a tiny tower to rival God’s great house but in it was stored half the wealth of the palace. Did it sneer a little as it looked towards the material glories of the church?
Hamo was alert as a hare to a scent that could be foe or favour. He saw the riches from the stretched corners of his eyes but his nose kept straight ahead. As they were led through the great hall, Nicholas nudged him to notice of a fabulous golden astrolabe. For a moment Hamo’s eye gathered it up gratefully: ‘You have something like that in La Riole, Sir Nicholas,’ he whispered.
‘Yes, one,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Without all the jewels.’
They were in the sunshine again and facing the Thames. Their guide, a clerk of the household, rolled around the walls until they came to a crowded chamber by the exchequer. Nicholashad heard of this room, which had becomethe favourite meeting place for the king’s council. Its starry ceiling belied the bright sun outside and it seemed as if the collision of cold and warm air had created a storm within. Nicholas and Hamo waited at the back while the serjeantsstayed outside. The meeting blew on and there seemed little prospect of calmer weather.
There is a familiar moment in the life of a meeting when the desire of some to express increasingly perverse opinion meets the desperation of the remainder for a piss. This was that moment, recognisable in Guildhall and Westminster Palace alike. There was need for one man to take charge. All these voices clashed like pots and pans in a kitchen and nothing could be made of them. There was pain in the king’s face and he waved the cacophony down. The cooks shuffled back into a respectful row while the kitchen maids steamed lightly in the scullery.
The discussion involved two manors forfeited by Alice Perrers, mistress of the late king. The issue was their return to Sir William de Wyndsore, former Lieutenant of Ireland, who was her husband. The feoffee of the manors had recently died and it was confirmed that the king and council had previously granted William their reversion, taking into account his good service to the crown. However, a tinder of almost-dead affects—jealousy, vanity, scorn—flared up in the chamber on the mention of Alice’s name. The king stood dramatically as if to stamp it out.
‘It will be as I have said. It is right that the livery of the manors revert to William. He may have been less fortunate in marriage than some of us here but he has been a good servant to the crown. Now we will take time to refresh ourselves since this is clearly needed.’
Nicholas had heard this voice first at Smithfield, although the king had had to force it downwards then to carry its weight. Now the pitch had settled and the sound was like oak tuned for music. No-one could counter that tone. Nicholas enjoyed its echo through the otherwise empty air. He understood that the councillors were more illustrious than the mayor of London, but it was he that felt desperate to congratulate the king. But on what? On the breaking of his voice? No, it was not his voice – it was his use of it. He was commanding, clear, solid. Did he get that from his father? His grandfather? His uncles? Surely not his uncles? But it was true: all these royals scions had this resonance, and when the notes clashed the ears of Albion were rent.
The council often sat without the king. But how did it manage? Men were made quarrelsome and must be restrained. A band of equals would never come to a conclusion. How could it be otherwise, since the world was made to serve one God? There could be no other pattern for earthly affairs; there must always be one man above the rest to make the final judgment. The problem was how to chose the one who chose. The knightly class did it by ancestry, which was easy but unreliable. It did not always produce an Edward III. Sometimes it produced his father and there was discord. Would it be better to chose the best man once he was grown and could prove himself? That was closer to the system in the city. The flaw was that election was for a short time only. Better to allow a longer reign.
Nicholas was brought forward to speak to the king, who ceased shaking his head and welcomed the mayor eagerly as if he might better understand the weight of the crown than those who were close enough to touch it.
‘I come to speak to your lordship the king on a matter of justice. John Constantyn, a cordwainer, was executed on Chepe for a string of offences, including treason and insurrection. It was he who led others to shut their shops and to riot in Budge Row.’
The chancellor, Michael de la Pole, now earl of Suffolk, whispered in the king’s ear. Richard smiled for a moment and then restored his beautiful features to sobriety. ‘Yes. Executed on Chepe, tried on Watling Street. So, what is the difficulty?’
‘Some men see the trial as irregular, my lord.’
‘What do they think of the riot? They should be as alarmed as I am about mayhem in the city. You acted rightly to restore the king’s peace.’ He glanced back at the chancellor. ‘I will issue a writ.’
‘Thank you, my lord. That is what I had hoped and I am grateful.’
‘I am happy to be of use to you, Sir Nicholas. I am confident that you are upholding my interests in the city.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘This cordwainer was an associate of John de Northampton?’
‘Yes, my lord. Others have been arrested: one of my sheriffs, John More, and Richard Norbury, a mercer. They will come to the king’s bench for sentence.’
‘I do not understand the desire among city men for violence and disorder. If you are so concerned with trade, surely that proceeds better in peace.’
‘You are entirely right, my lord.’
‘Make sure it is so and I will reward your loyalty. Come and visit us again. Enjoy the hospitality of the palace and keep us informed of what is happening in the city.’ Richard accepted a silver goblet from a servant who mirrored his youth and figure but who might otherwise have come from another world. The dull copy barely existed beside the original and, instead of fraternity, there was a breach between them as of forest and fen.
‘I believe the lord treasurer wishes to speak to you, Nicholas,’ said the king, lifting his bright eyes from the goblet and then returning them to show that the audience was complete.
Sir Hugh Segrave was poised behind him like a puppy who has seen a shiny ball. Above his head the stars were flat and dull. Not one of them winked, despite their initial promise. Nicholas anticipated a winding path to the presence of Sir Baldwin Raddington, but this was not the reason he had ridden out of the city and he did not want his purpose perverted in this way. ‘I will be able to offer another loan by the summer, my lord. But I fear it would not be useful to discuss it today.’
Hamo was swaying gently in the palace yard. His thick shape wallowed in the luxurious air, on top of it the smile of a truffle hog. It had been amusing to see his awe when he first arrived at La Riole but his amazement at the palace had become annoying. Why had Nicholas brought him? It was not a place to be seen with Jankin or Ralf. Hamo looked less suspicious, an empty vessel. But the serjeants were sufficient escort. He had brought Hamo because his investment was awry and he wanted to watch for clues to its decline. But today there were none to be seen. He was perfect in his solid silence. His eyes were diamonds and his skin gold leaf, like a statue that has forgotten its guts are dirt.
‘Hamo, find my horse. We have plenty of business in the city.’
The sun bent over the city and blew sparks across the upper cells of Newgate. There was fire in the Fleet and flames of yellow on the roof of Saint Paul’s. There was a strange feeling in Nichol’s limbs, a feeling of settling into comfort while being kneaded to zeal. It was almost sexual, but it was simply warmth. Nicholas breathed deeply, squeezing out the chill air of Westminster and savouring the sweatiness of the city in its place.
Jankin was standing in the yard of Saint Martin-le-Grand. He was watching, but pretending not to watch, each figure that came into view. He could well have been a fugitive looking out for his pursuers since the college of Saint Martin’s, confirmed in its independence of the city by William the Bastard, was the first choice of sanctuary for murderers and thieves.
‘He will be here soon,’ said Jankin.
‘Am I to stand in the yard to wait for him?’ asked Nicholas.
‘Do you want to go into the church, Sir Nicholas?’
‘Perhaps not, but the sun is too hot.’
‘There is some shelter on the other side, a covered walk.’
Hamo and Nicholas moved round to the shade. The serjeants had been sent on to the Guildhall, otherwise they would have made an odd sight attempting to inhabit the narrow space and thereby defeated their master’s calculation of the correct level of conspicuousness. There was a tapping on the roof. A gull or a rook – something heavy enough to percuss the thin layer of lead above Nichol’s scalp with skips and scurries. Or was it rats? He listened for the whoosh of wings. Was the only way to tell a rat from a bird that one kept on scurrying while the other flew away? From where they stood they could see across the Shambles and Paternoster Row to the roof of Saint Paul’s and Nicholas made an effort of pointing for the benefit of Hamo.
Jankin appeared with the sandy haired skinner. He was clearly annoyed that Nicholas wanted this meeting with his spy. Jankin should hold the strings between them not to stand aside and fidget. But Nicholas wanted to see the tongue form the words he usually received mangled by Jankin’s peculiar organ. The skinner’s tongue was stroking firmly—not too easy, not too rushed. The skinner’s face was bare and hard, like rock that would not fret in a flood. Nicholas envied his endurance but that was not the point of facing him. He wanted to know that his money was well spent, whether it was Hamo’s food and drink or this man’s bag of gold. But in the case of the skinner the damage would be so much greater should the purchase prove unsound.
‘Well, Peter Stenby, what is happening among those who are against me?’
‘Nicholas Twyford is emerging as their leader.’
‘I thought so. But does he intend to be mayor?’
‘Yes, though there is time for another to supplant him.’
‘Nicholas Twyford is a wick that flares but lasts long.’
‘The worst combination,’ agreed the skinner.
‘How to dislodge him?’
‘Better to watch than prod, I would say. Do you want to spend all your time trying to spot new contenders?’
‘There are things in his history that could be used when the time comes.’
‘He has a history with you, Sir Nicholas. That may force mistakes.’
‘Yes, he defied me when he was sheriff and I put him in prison. Are there still many covins?’
‘If there are they are hidden from me. I think they are wary since the arrest of their friends.’
‘Are they angry about that?’
‘They are furious. They thought your power would collapse and they would have the day.’
‘Keep paying me and you will have my full support.’
‘That I can understand. But don’t tell me good things because you think they have a higher price. And don’t think that if our arrangement comes to an end you are free to make new money from old business.’
Nicholas looked at the skinner. He had never seen before the bubos scar on his neck. Surviving the plague might make you a saint or cause you to abandon the struggle for virtue. Perhaps a man would feel himself divine, one way or the other. But the skinner would find he was mortal if he ever attempted to smite Nicholas Brembre.
‘I want to know about Thomas Usk. Has he really changed sides?’
‘Oh yes,’ said the skinner. ‘But don’t believe he is led by his heart. Thomas is speaks keenly of principle while his boots shuffle towards the winning side.’
There it was again. Nicholas was becoming weary of such knowledge of the nature of man.
‘He will be happy to do a deal?’
‘Thomas knows more about John de Northampton than any of us. If he speaks at the trial John will not survive it.’
The sandy haired skinner walked away with Jankin. They had spoken for too long, despite efforts to make Hamo appear the focus of the exchange. Nicholas continued to point to features of the college of Saint Martin’s including the famous bell tower from which the curfew was rung. Hamo looked confused. He did not understand why he was standing in a dusty space whispering with skinners so soon after visiting the king.
‘We have to go where the business is, Hamo. If we have business with the king we go to the palace, but much city business is done in churches or in their yards.’
‘Yes, Sir Nicholas. Then I am glad the that the sun is shining.’
Jankin met them again by Saint Michael-le-Querne. He was still annoyed though he should be pleased. It was Jankin who had been urging him to see that Nicholas Twyford was the next threat. On the other hand it was Jankin who warned that things were worse than ever, while the skinner suggested that the enemy was stunned and that there was good reason for confidence that John de Northampton would be hung. Jankin thought that everything was in endless decline. He was easier with the world if it gave him no hope. Good had fled the insurrection and its voice would not be heard again in the city of London.
But Jankin was wrong. Though it was very slow, there was progress. Each step on its own was uncertain but the gains accumulated until the advantage was clear. There was no longer the feeling that disorder would lead to complete loss of control or that if he sent out an alderman or a serjeant they would be chased back by a mob. And John de Northampton, should he escape death, was unlikely to set eyes on London again. Though some men retained his image as a spur, none of them possessed the witchery that had given him such power over his supporters.
Meanwhile, everything – most things – went well with Nicholas’s plan for the city. He had repaired most of the corrupted ordinances and was gaining ground on workaday matters too. He had appointed a water bailiff to test nets, destroy illegal weirs and ensure that only the right fish reached the markets. The chapel on the bridge was under repair by Henry Yevele. Richard Odyham was reorganising some of the court work. But he must find time to consider that other issue, less practical than the others but no less important, which had become lost amidst the frenzy of riot and conspiracy. They arrived at the Guildhall where Nicholas sat himself down in his corner of the officers’ room, opened his commonplace book and cut the letters ‘NEW TROY’ into the pale, tender paper.
On their way home they visited the warehouses. In Soper Lane the workers were rattling around the building, sampling, sorting, shifting and stowing. Even Richard, the slumbering apprentice, was producing sweat as he pulled at a sack.
‘Does he do that when I am not watching?’ Nicholas asked Bertram, master of the warehouse.
‘The boy has fire in his braes since your last visit, Sir Nicholas.’
Ralf was there marking out items to take with him to Zealand. No-one had ever accused him of inactivity, although his movements were smooth and slow. There was a terrifying purpose to them as if however long it took he would have you in his grip. Nicholas had resolved to send him to the staple with a cargo of wool, tin and a range of smaller goods. Bertram, now more familiar than anyone with the low countries and the sea that threatened them, would lead the trip. He had set out in great hope last year with Bishop Despenser but after the demise of the crusade he remained to take on the less chivalrous task of closing down Nicholas’s affairs in Flanders.
‘I am very grateful to you, Bertram,’ said Nicholas. ‘Now, as regards Middelburg, you have seen the locked box. It contain letters, bonds and some pieces in bags. Take great care of them, especially the letters. They are to be passed by you to those named or brought back. The final letter is for you and explains what to do with the pieces.’
It was risky to send the reliquaries. They had been given to Richard Lyons in payment for licences to evade duty, or so he said at the time. Richard had passed them to Nicholas for safekeeping. He had stowed them away carefully and left them alone even after Richard’s famous death. But while the pieces lay quiet, fragments of their story came gradually to Nicholas’s ear until he could guess the whole. He had not worried greatly before but Nicholas Twyford was a new opponent, a meaner one in many ways and therefore more attentive to detail. As a goldsmith he understood something of the Italian arts of banking and insurance that pertained to this legacy of the dead Richard. Goldsmiths had largely been replaced in the role of money men, but they kept up their interest. Nicholas did not approve of what had been done but he was linked to it by his service to his old friend.
Reliquaries, as everyone knows, vary in size, and not necessarily in accordance with the body parts or other holy objects they contain. In Gascony Nicholas had seen an ivory casket, five spans by three, which held a toenail of the Magdelene. Richard’s reliquaries were small but were made of solid gold and buried in precious stones. What might they have held had the commissions been concluded? One a thorn from Christ’s crown, the other a lock of a saint’s hair curled tightly into the space behind the rock crystal? Nicholas had wanted to show them to Idonia for the comfort they might bring her. But they were not his to reveal and Richard had demanded complete confidence. They were beautiful. Even Nicholas had pleasure from them. The work in gold was exquisite, whatever the intended contents. They were warm from their bags. Might the thorn truly have pierced the head of Christ? Or perhaps it was a thorn from a wood in Kent or the banks of the Rhine or the wrenched earth of Rome, wherever the reliquary was made. But even so its fate was remarkable. Wherever the bush that grew it, the thorn forsook its parent early and grasped a form of immortality rather than fall to the ground with the dust of its siblings.
Near vespers they came back past Saint Antonin’s. Nicholas peered into the clotting shadow of the yard and saw live flesh within. The fox had become mangy and was scratching at a greater rate than ever. The red coat had turned dull brown and the tail was soggy and dread. But it stretched, shook itself and began to lick its flank. The eyes were still bright and the paws touched the earth lightly as it took off between the gravestones. It was here that the fairy had come to him. It was a thing of the air, incorporeal. Perhaps nothing of it had ever been here the world. What did that make of his desire? He was a fool. He had tried to match a spirit and thought that an earthly fumble would keep her.
But did she enjoy it or was she or merely the best actress in the world? She said she did not want to risk her bread for contingent pleasure. But what was pleasure? Was not starvation a low price for this ecstasy of the earth, this blessed agony, this sweet torsion that is essential to man? Not for a fairy, it seems. But why does a fairy need to eat? Perhaps to convince herself she is human. Maybe she fears she will float away. And how would that be bad? An effort of will allowed Nicholas to shut out regular vexations but he could not shut out the memory of Beatrice. Hair like mead, eyes like fractures. Let me breath myself into your body and disappear on the wind.