TWICE I ABANDONED the reading, when three single dots above a solitary pair appeared in the first house. The Dragon’s Tail is the harbinger of disaster and signifies the end of affairs of any kind. Each time, I destroyed the chart and reformulated the question before starting again. Three nights I spent without sleep only to find my worst fears confirmed.
I collapsed on the library floor, where Margarite found me, shivering and rambling incoherently in a language she couldn’t understand. She sent for the doctor, who let my blood and the fever subsided, but it was a week before I was well enough to return to my task.
I checked my calculations, but there was no mistake. I convinced myself there must be some doubt, some error in my addition, something I was missing in the interpretation. I pored over tables, laboriously copied from ancient texts, until once again I was close to exhaustion.
It was nearly midnight when word finally arrived. All but my elderly servant had long since gone to their beds, and the only sounds were the crackling of the logs in the fireplace and the patter of rain outside. If my mind was beginning to drift once more, the gentle rapping brought me with a jolt to my senses. I could just make out, through the leaded lights, familiar, weather-beaten features, framed by a grey hood.
I put down my quill, took up the candle and made my way across the room; a strong hand swept trickling droplets from the diamond panes and a pair of piercing eyes sparkled in the flickering gloom. I opened the window and the soaking man climbed in.
He’d aged in the two years since I’d seen him. A stranger would hardly have guessed he was more than a decade younger than me.
“I’ve been expecting you,” I said, ushering him towards the fire. “Take off your coat, and warm yourself.”
I went into the hall and called for food and drink. When I returned he greeted me with a knowing smile.
“Never was a house so aptly named!”
“That’s as maybe,” I replied, “and I have you to thank for that.”
I was born in Moneyhill Hall, and the oak-panelled walls and stone-mullioned windows held nearly half a century of memories. But now was not the time to reminisce. From among the papers on my desk I plucked a single sheet, on which was drawn a shield containing sixteen figures, each formed of seemingly random stars.
My visitor had seen many such charts over the years. It was beyond his skill to interpret, but he nevertheless looked at it and sighed. There was no need for me to tell him how it was to end.
“When is it to be done?” I asked.
“Soon. Next Monday.”
“Lord Mayor’s Day.” I could hardly spit out the words.
He shrugged. “Perhaps James will change his mind. He did once before.”
“No. There’ll be no stay this time. The moment has been chosen by design. London will be full of more pleasant attractions.”
There was a knock at the door and Isaac came in with a plate of cold meats and a jug of ale. I asked him to make up a room for our guest and to let the mistress know he was here. He nodded, stifling a yawn, and, guiltily, I realised quite how late it was. “And then to your own bed,” I said.
My friend tucked in like a half-starved hound; he’d not stopped for the two days he’d been on the road. I put another log on the fire, but, before we could continue talking, the door flew open.
“Guaterral is to die! Can that be true?”
“Yes, my love.”
“A traitor’s death?”
“It would seem so.”
When I look at her now, all these years later, she’s still as beautiful as ever, but her Castilian eyes seemed never more blue than they were that night. She was crying as she ran into my arms.
Her tears were for an Englishman feared and respected by Spain in equal measure. They were for his faithful, beloved and soon to be widowed wife, and for a sole surviving son, who’d never known his father and now never would. They were for the few loyal retainers, who’d remained to the end, and for the ordinary men and women, deceived by their king, who’d forgotten the last great man of their age. But most of all they were for me, her husband, a man who owed a debt that could never now be repaid.