THE THAMES WAS BUSY and we had difficulty finding a wherry at the river stairs. Barak cursed roundly, fearing we would be late. At length a boat arrived and we sailed upriver, a strong southerly wind plucking at my robe and driving the craft briskly through the water. I thought of Elizabeth, how terrible her state of mind must be, her whole being dominated by her hatred of the savage God before whom she meant to martyr herself. I shuddered at the darkness that overlay her mind, even as, I felt, I understood it. I glanced at Barak: he sat hunched and gloomy in the stern of the boat. I thought perhaps he understood too. But we dared not talk of such things before the boatman.
At last the wherry bumped into Westminster steps. Barak jumped out and we scrambled up the stairs, half-running across to the Privy Gallery. We stopped a moment to catch our breath under the mural, the king frowning down on us, then walked through to Cromwell's office.
Grey was at his desk, working on a bill to be presented to parliament, running a rule down the long sheet of parchment. He looked up sharply. 'Master Shardlake, I was beginning to fear you would be late. The earl is – is not in a patient mood today.'
'I am sorry, the river was busy-'
'I'll take you in.' He got up with a sigh. 'My master is sending so many bills to this parliament that his work lacks its usual level of care.' He shook his head. 'He is very preoccupied.' He knocked on Cromwell's door, and ushered us inside.
The earl was standing by the window, looking out at Whitehall. He turned a dark, frowning face towards us. He was dressed magnificently today in a robe of red silk such as the rules allowed only barons to wear, edged with sable fur. The star of the Order of the Garter hung from a colourful ribbon round his neck.
'Well,' he said grimly, 'you've come.' He strode to his desk, which was heaped high with papers. He must recently have thrown down his quill in anger, for it lay in the middle in a pool of ink. He sat down heavily in his chair and stared at us, his face set hard.
'Well, Matthew, it seems you have sent me on a fool's errand.'
'Sir Richard Rich,' he snapped. 'I called him in here on Saturday night.' He linked his hands together and banged them down on the table. 'The reason Rich has been making threatening remarks to you and the reason Bealknap thought he was safe from me have nothing to do with Greek Fire.'
'You have been acting for the Common Council, have you not, on a case involving whether a monastic property may be exempt from the City statutes?'
'Indeed. It is going up to Chancery.'
'No,' he said heavily. 'It is not.' He took a long breath. 'Many influential people have bought monastic properties in London, Matthew. The City was full of the pestilential places before we dissolved them. Unfortunately, there are so many on the market now that the value of land has fallen. I have had complaints from several people that they were induced to make bad investments. When the case over that damned cesspit of Bealknap's arose, Rich came to me and said it was important Bealknap won. Otherwise the council would use the case as a precedent and make life difficult for the new owners, some of whom can only turn a profit by converting their properties into housing of the cheapest type. Do you see now?' He raised his eyebrows. 'Many of these are men whose loyalty I am trying to keep, in these days when all are ready to turn against me.'
'Rich did not tell me you were the lawyer acting for the council, or I would have guessed what all this was about long ago. I agreed to his bribing Judge Heslop to get the right judgement, which owners of monastic properties could then use as a precedent in any future cases. Rich tells me he put pressure on some men who are his clients to take cases they had with you to other lawyers as a warning. A Chancery judgement against Bealknap could upset the whole applecart – do you see?' He spoke coldly, distinctly, as though to a foolish man. 'That's what his threats were about and that's what Bealknap thought you were pressuring him about. And you didn't realize.'
I closed my eyes.
'It's a dog's breakfast, isn't it!' He gave a hollow laugh. 'Weren't you worried, Matthew, that cases were being taken from you? Didn't you investigate? You would soon have seen all the clients were Sir Richard's men.'
'I have been too busy, my lord,' I said. 'I have thought of nothing but Greek Fire and the Wentworth case. I have had to leave my work with my chambers fellow.'
He gave me a sharp look. 'Oh, yes, Master Wheelwright. His holiness will carry him into the fire one day.' He closed his jaw hard. Once Cromwell could have protected radical reformers, but no more. He stood up abruptly and walked over to the window, looking at the courtiers and clerks milling outside. Then he turned back to me.
'It seems clear to me, from their reactions, that neither Bealknap nor Rich is holding anything back about Greek Fire. Rich didn't even know about it. I managed to elicit that without alerting him to its existence. Just.'
'I see. I am sorry, my lord.' I felt a fool, a dolt.
'That leaves Lady Honor and Marchamount.' He began pacing the room, his head bent. 'So, next, what about Lady Honor? I gather you and she have been having a merry time together.'
I glanced at Barak, who gave a shrug.
'There was something she was holding back,' I said. 'Something between her and Marchamount and the Duke of Norfolk. It has taken some digging, but that too was nothing to do with Greek Fire.'
'What was it?' he asked sharply.
I hesitated a moment. I had promised to tell nobody. But when Cromwell raised his head and gave me a look of great fierceness, I told him.
He only grunted. 'Well, let Norfolk chase her all over London instead of plotting against me. So, there is no evidence to link her with Greek Fire either?'
'No, my lord. None.' My stomach was knotted with shame for betraying Lady Honor's confidence.
He turned and paced the other way. 'And Marchamount?'
'Just a feeling he was not telling all, my lord. Barak said you would summon him.'
'I did.' He stopped and looked at me. It surprised me to see his face was not angry, only filled with a desperate weariness now. 'Marchamount has disappeared.'
'He is not always easy to find. Last week I could not reach him – he was out of London on a case.'
Cromwell shook his head. 'I sent a couple of men to his chambers. They found his clerk in a state because he had not turned up for a case, had not been in his rooms all night.' He stared at me. 'Did you threaten him with my wrath?'
'But he may have guessed he was not out of the woods and fled. Or has he gone the way of the Gristwoods?'
I shivered. 'If he is not safe, Bealknap and Lady Honor may not be either.'
Cromwell sat down again, shaking his head. 'They've been one step ahead of you all the time, haven't they?' he said in the same quiet tone. 'Whoever is behind this is the most cunning, clever rogue I've ever encountered and I've met many.' A smile flickered across his granite face. 'In another context I could admire him. Or her.' Then, to my relief, he shrugged his heavy shoulders. 'You've done your best. The game's almost done. There are only three days till the demonstration and we're no further forward in finding the formula, or the apparatus. Where in Jesu's name have they hidden that?' He turned to Barak. 'Jack, try once again to trace Toky and Wright. Tell your contacts I'll pay the pair anything if they'll come over to me.'
'I will, my lord. But even if I trace them, I doubt they'd risk changing sides at this stage.'
'Well, try again. I think I must tell the king tomorrow, Wednesday at the latest. Matthew, Barak reported the prostitute who died said the whole thing was a plot against me from the beginning.'
'Yes, my lord.'
'Well, there have been enough of those. Don't give up yet. Put your mind to it.' There was desperation in his voice. 'And go to Lincoln's Inn. They'll maybe tell you things they won't tell my men. Search Marchamount's rooms.'
'Give me until Wednesday, my lord. I will do what I can. Do not tell the king till then.'
'Have you some lead?' His eyes bored into mine. I swallowed.
'I – no. But I will think, as you ask.'
He looked at me hard for another long moment, then turned back to his desk. 'Go then,' he said. 'God's death, Grey will bury me in papers.'
His resigned, almost gentle manner so surprised me that I stood there a moment, fighting a sudden urge to tell him I had found some Greek Fire and given it to Guy. I realized that my old loyalty to him was not quite dead, after all. Barak motioned to the door and, to my surprise, I heard footsteps scurrying away as he opened it. We stepped out to see Grey sitting down at his desk, his face flustered.
Barak grinned. 'Been eavesdropping, master secretary?'
He did not reply, but reddened.
'Leave him, Barak,' I said. I thought: Grey is terrified of what may be about to happen. He is right to be. And I have found some Greek Fire and hidden it from Cromwell. For a moment I felt faint again.