Recently widowed Ursula Blanchard, retired, as she thinks, from the service of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir William Cecil, has never liked the uncle and aunt who brought her up. But when they plead for her to save the life of their son, the bully of Ursula’s childhood, she can’t resist. So off she goes from Sussex from Northumberland, hoping to intercept Edward Faldene before he can reach Edinburgh to bring down a charge of treason on his head by passing on a list of English citizens willing to support Mary Stuart in her plot to oust Elizabeth. Bypassing the queen’s permission for the journey in order to keep Edward’s treason secret, Ursula travels to the barbaric north with her faithful tirewoman, Fran Dale, and Fran’s husband Roger Brockley, whom Ursula can’t help flirting with. Though she nearly overtakes Edward, bad weather and injuries slow them down, and by the time she finally catches up with her cousin, he’s been stabbed to death. At Ursula’s request, Sir Brian Dormbois, one of Edward’s Scottish contacts, asks enough questions to discover who hired the killer, but he refuses to share the information unless Ursula is willing to share his bed. And soon enough her own investigation is derailed by Sir Brian’s increasingly importunate pursuit of her, which does nothing to recommend Scotland as a home for civilized creatures.
Ursula (Queen of Ambition, 2002, etc.) continues to tack as skillfully as ever between loyalties to her ruler and her family—a dramatic strength this sixth dose of Elizabethan realpolitik brings into especially sharp relief.