Queen Elizabeth I will be soon arriving in Cambridge on a Royal Progress, and as part of the festivities, students want to stage a mock kidnapping attempt. But Sir William Cecil, who doesn’t care for the idea at all, asks Elizabeth’s sometime spy Ursula Blanchard (To Ruin a Queen, 2000, etc.) to investigate. Ursula goes undercover as kitchen help at Roland Jester’s Pie Shop—an Elizabethan fast-food restaurant that makes McDonald’s look like a sterile environment—where the students in question hang out. Their court liaison, Jester’s half-brother, Cambridge don Dr. Giles Woodforde, returned to town after failing to woo Lady Lennox, a powerful courtier who hopes that her son or grandson will one day be England’s King. At Jester’s, Ursula hears gossip that at first seems unrelated to the royal court. Abandoned by his wife, Jester violently objects to his daughter Ambrosia’s young lover, Thomas Shawe, one of the students in the problematic performance. After her heavy-handed employer knocks her around, Ursula can sympathize with both Mistress and Miss Jester. Then, before he can keep a rendezvous with Ursula, nervous young Thomas is thrown from his horse and killed. Despite the distractions of the Jesters’ family circle and the equally lively domestic life of her servants Roger Brockley and Fran Dale, Ursula doggedly manages to uncover and thwart a threat to national security.
Buckley describes vividly the difficulties of people living and competing with each other in Elizabethan England, though even Machiavelli might object to her convoluted plot.