Here is the conclusion of last weeks short fiction. Grace O’Malley has just arrived in England and is about to face Queen Elizabeth, her supposed enemy. Enjoy!
The steward opened the door to me. Richard and about a half-a-dozen of my men followed after me.
The long, narrow room was made of wooden walls and stone ceiling, suited out in extravagant trappings. Curtains and tapestries lined the windows and walls. Hundreds of people lined the room, concentrated in clumps toward the far end of the room. They were all dressed like peacocks, ridiculous amounts of fabric on both the men and the women. The silks and velvets of their doublets and petticoats were a rainbow of colors. Their collars stood either up or out from their shoulders like odd exotic feathers. What a strange sight they were.
The room was chilled, but smelled of bodies. It reminded me of the smell that continued to linger in a ship’s hull even after the crew had left. Sweat and shit.
“Grace O’Malley, Your Majesty,” he called to the room.
I didn’t understand much English, but I knew enough of it to know it sounded ugly. They called me Grace. Bingham used the name. It sounded like the way a snake would say my name had it been given words. It sounded slick on the tongue and not to be trusted.
As soon as my name rang through the hall, every powdered face turned to look at me. Some of them looked curious, others disgruntled, most just stunned.
At the far end, was a great chair where the lady herself was seated. I looked to Richard who stood behind me to my side. He gave me a smirk and a reassuring nod.
The crowed of smelly peacocks parted as I moved forward through the room, the polished wood cold on my bare feet. Looking at all of them in their frivolous clothing, I couldn’t help but feel underdressed.
I wore the green woolen gown Muireann had made up for me when Richard was given the MacWilliamship. I had paired it with the cape I wore on holydays. It was trimmed in fur and trailed behind me. I pulled it closer to me as I neared Elizabeth.
I felt comforted by the wooden floors beneath my feet. They were much smoother than the weathered wood of my ship’s deck, but I was able stride with greater confidence at I moved onward.
The woman did not rise as I approached. I paused in front of the throne, but did not bow.
“Grace O’Malley,” she said in greeting. She rambled off some sort of welcome in English so quickly, I could not quite make out the particulars of what she was trying to say. Instead, having come in from the rain, my nose began to drip and I sniffled.
The queen studied me as I flicked my finger under my nose, trying to keep my nose from dripping. “Dewyewneadakurcheeph?”she spoke.
English was an odd language. Harsh consonants and titling vowels. And they all spoke so rapidly, it was hard to distinguish in the language I used the least.
Everyone looked at me expectantly. They waited for me to respond. I could speak enough English to say what I needed. I could voice my complaint best in Irish. No one except Richard and my crewmen would understand me. Thinking on it for a moment, I responded in Latin.
“Precibus meis,” I said. My apologies. “I do not understand.” I could hear Richard clear his throat behind me as I lied.
“Video,” She responded. The queen’s Latin sounded more polished with her English accent. Still, neither of us was speaking in her more comfortable tongue. The tables were equal. We were able to express ourselves only as well as the other. “I had asked if you needed a handkerchief.”
“Please, m’lady.” A few gasps could be heard through the room. It was an address of low rank. But the queen was a peer. I couldn’t just be calling her Your Majesty like some scullery maid. Richard cleared his throat once more. This time in warning. I merely smirked at him over my shoulder as the queen gestured for one of the men present to hand me a square of linen.
I took the kerchief, trying to blow my nose as ladylike as possible. Not that I really knew how to accomplish that. I wasn’t sure how to keep the air from honking between my nostrils and the fabric.
Everyone in the court continued to stare as I brought the kerchief away from my face. No one moved to take it. I held on to it, figuring I could dispose of it momentarily.
“So you have come to me for an audience,” the queen asked. Her voice rang out through the stone ceilinged courtroom.
“Aye.” I nodded. “I have.”
“So what is it you have to say?” she asked. Her flock of peacocks all seemed to lean forward a tad.
“I say that I would like a private audience with her majesty.” I found prudence in using the title this time. Still, a collective gasp went up from the courtiers. Their hushed whispers made them sound like peacocks as well as look it, occasional squawks sounding amongst the hissing. I fiddled with the handkerchief nervously with my left hand. “If she pleases,” I added self-consciously for good measure.
After a few seconds of the hissing and squawking, the queen held up her hand and the flock fell silent. “Very well,” she said, standing. More gasps sounded through the room. Two stewards scrambled behind the throne over to a pair of doors I hadn’t noticed.
The queen stepped down from the dais and headed toward the doors. I looked back at Richard, both of us surprised it was that simple.
“Well go!” he mouthed.
“Fine,” I mouthed in response, trying to scramble after the queen as gracefully as possible.
The stewards held the double doors open as we passed in to the privy chamber. One of them eyed me suspiciously as the other stared dutifully ahead. The courtiers behind us were silent as the door closed behind me.
We were alone.
The room was large, though less so than the court room. The privy chamber was square, with a tall ceiling and rich trappings. The floor of this room was made of the same dark wood, but was covered by a large green rug embroidered with golden leaves. The two great windows on either side of the hearth had thick drapes, only opened about a foot to let in light. Around the room, chairs and ornate sofas were set in clumps for entertaining. Another large chair sat on another dais at the back of the room. Blast! The woman must spend her days sitting. A china tea service sat against the left wall next to a servant’s door. Besides us and the furniture, the room was empty.
Elizabeth stood, staring me up and down.
“You’re less masculine than I would have imagined,” she observed.
I eyed her, puzzled. Was this an English complement? “Thank you.” I replied, just to be safe. Fiddling once more with the handkerchief, I decided now was as good a time as any to get rid of it. A fireplace was on the wall to my right. Nearing it, I could see out the two large, paned windows. They over looked the river, my galley visible in the distance. The embers smoldered from the morning’s fire. I stepped over and dropped the square of fabric on the ashes and it began to smoke.
Turning back to the queen, I could not mistake the look of shock that crossed her face.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“You keep that,” she said, stunned.
“I snotted in that,” I said, mildly disgusted. Why on earth would I keep the dirty rag? They had to have others, to be sure!
“You keep it in your pocket for the next time you need it.”
“Oh.” I felt my eyebrows scrunch. “I’m sorry, I guess I’m used to a higher standard if hygiene.”
I couldn’t tell if she was cross or amused by my comment. It took me a minute to recognize that it had been a tad backhanded. Silence settled over the room as we both stood in the privy chamber, enchanted by the carpet.
“Grace?” The queen asked after a bit.
“Granuaile,” I corrected without thinking. “Your majesty,” I added as an unconfident afterthought. Her red eyebrows crinkled in puzzlement. I began to explain. “My name is Granuaile. Most of my men call me Grania. Bingham insists on calling me Grace.” I could feel my nose wrinkle as I said the disgusting name. Even saying it felt snake-like.
“Grahn-oo-wall,” she tested the word.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the pronunciation. “You can use Grania. It might be easier.” Beneath her white powder and red rouge, I could see the queen give a genuine blush. The tension in the room was beginning to dissipate, but I could still feel her discomfort.
I knew Elizabeth was only a few years my senior, but her face was beginning to sag with age. The wrinkles on her brow and around her eyes had attempted to be masked by the face powder, but the thin dust had settled into the creases, emphasizing the lines. Her lips were painted red to match the fabric of her gown. Her head was encircled with a large white collar that made her look more like a peacock than any of her ninny courtiers. Her hair was covered by a red wig that matched her brows and lashes. And beneath the lashes sat a pair of blue eyes that seemed a little sad as they studied me. I couldn’t help but feel an unexplainable pity toward the woman.
“You don’t get corrected often, do you?” I asked.
She eyed me, considering something before speaking. “Sit with me, will you?” she asked, gesturing to an embroidered settee.
I followed her to one of the seating areas. Sitting seemed a bit of a challenge for her, trying to worm her way through her skirts into a seated position. Once she was down, there was hardly room for myself. I made the best of it, pushing some of her gown to the side.
“So you’re the pirate queen,” she stated as I tried to get settled.
“That’s what the English intruders insist on calling me.” I nodded.
She shook her head. “You’re not what I was expecting.” She had spoken the same thought earlier.
“You were expecting some man in a dress to come tearing through your court?” I asked, trying not to smile at the absurdity.
“Well, if I am to believe Lord Bingham’s letters, yes.” She smiled as well. “You’re a woman in power. And you are inpower.”
I couldn’t help but give her an odd look. Was that supposed to make sense? Perhaps it was the Latin.
She shook her head, quickly. “What I mean,” she began to clarify. “Is that you have maintained your power, but you’re a woman?”
“You’re not?” I asked, still puzzled by this strange woman. They all acted as if she was God himself, and here she was right crazy!
She opened her mouth to speak, but then hesitated, folding her hands in her lap. After another moment, she finally found her words. “My advisors still do not believe a woman can be a worthy queen. To them, femininity is weakness and weakness has not place on the throne. Yet your men will sail to England to confront your better. How do you do it?”
I bristled at the word better, Richard’s words echoing in my head. Finery is not the mark of a ruler. It’s what they will do for their land.
“I do what I must to provide for my clan,” I answered. That was why I was here, wasn’t I? But I wasn’t here for my clan. Not entirely. “And my boy.”
“Right, your son.”
I nodded. “He’s committed no more treason than you have, ma’am. Any of his actions have been under my command. More against Bingham than yourself.”
The queen looked away, thinking for a moment. “Lord Bingham is really that terrible?” She asked, still not looking at me. From the tone in her voice, she already knew my answer.
“My people have not been safe on their own land in the last five years. No one knows when their farm will be taken in your name. Not to mention anyone can be accused and executed for treason at a moment’s notice.” I fingered the embroidered fabric of her skirt that pushed against my leg. “He killed my brother.”
The queen turned to me, her sad eyes now filled with concern. “In my name.” It might have been a question, but she spoke as if it was a statement.
“At least for England,” I nodded. We were both quiet for a moment as I thought about Donal. After a few moments, I spoke again. “Ireland may have been taken by you, but under Bingham, my clan is not willing to yield.”
“Is this a threat?” she asked. She didn’t seem angry. She just looked straight ahead of her, like she was thinking hard about something.
“Not at all. It’s just how things are.”
“So why are you here?” She turned, her light eyes becoming cold.
“I want my boy free. I want to be governor to my own clan. I want your permission to do what I must to maintain my clan by land or sea. Ultimately, I just want Bingham to leave me and my people alone.”
“So you are not threatening rebellion.” She looked to me once more.
I shook my head.
Looking about the room for a moment, the queen stood, freeing up more of the settee.
“Grania,” she said, beginning to pace outside the seating area. “I respect what you have done for the sake of your land. You have done nothing I would not have done myself in such a position. Nothing I wouldn’t do should Spain show up on my doorstep.” She paused, glancing out the window before turning on her heel. “I admire your tenacity. And I will acknowledge that Bingham has done you wrong. I apologize that he was acting under my orders, though I cannot apologize at my desire to squash any sign of rebellion.” She turned once more, the fabric of her gown making crinkling sounds like luffing sails with each step. The hem whumphed each time she came about. “I will write him directly, demanding your son be released. Should he have executed your son in the time you have been away, I will do what I must to right the wrong.” As she spoke these words, a knot formed at the back of my throat. Tibbot would be released. “I must think on the rest of your requests and will write you once you have left here. All I require is your word that your rebellion is against Bingham and not against England.” She stopped, directly in front of the closed door, looking to me expectantly.
I thought for a moment. I tried to form my words as diplomatically as I could. “I will stay out of England’s way if England respects my land.”
She nodded. “I feel that is fair.”
And with that, she turned on her heel, facing the door way. The audience was done.
Quickly, I scrambled up from the seat to get behind her. She cleared her throat a bit loudly and as if by magic, the chamber doors flew open simultaneously. The stewards behind them, holding them open with straight backs and indifferent gazes.
The courtiers on the other hand began to crane their necks, dying to see if there was any sign on our faces as to what had transpired. Being behind Elizabeth, I could see nothing of her expression. I could only try and suppress the smile on my own face.
The queen took her place once more on her throne. I moved beyond it down the room toward Richard. A smile broke out across his own face as he looked into my eyes.
“Come on,” I said, nodding toward the door. “It’s time to go home. We have to meet our boy.”