A spy in skirts serves in Her Majesty’s secret service, Tudor style.
In February 1577, 40-ish, thrice-widowed Ursula Blanchard is giving a wedding for her young ward when she receives an important guest: William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer and assigner of secret errands on behalf of the queen. Unlike past tasks, he assures Ursula, this one poses no danger to her. She has merely to go to Edinburgh and deliver a highly confidential letter, thence to a remote Yorkshire manor, Stonemoor House, to collect a rare book of astronomical observations. As a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, who is also her half sister, the product of Henry VIII’s infidelity when he was married to Anne Boleyn, Ursula can hardly decline, but she can ask Burghley why he isn’t sending a Queen’s Messenger. It turns out Burghley has already dispatched two—including Ursula’s good friend and one-time suitor—but they never returned. Despite this less than reassuring news and her resident soothsayer’s warning, the first part of Ursula’s errand goes smoothly enough. In fact, it takes Burghley longer to explain the letter, which concerns a plot surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots, than for Ursula to deliver it. The next task requires Ursula and her retinue to brave a blizzard to get to Stonemoor, an informal convent. During their stay, Ursula’s personal tirewoman Fran discovers a secret sign that at least one of the Queen’s Messengers has been there and was in danger. So Ursula and her friends are more than happy to pay for the book and head home. But a strange fact about the book (quite apart from the curse on it) and a piece of gruesome evidence make Ursula turn her party back to Stonemoor and the danger she’s feared all along.
Buckley’s storied heroine (A Perilous Alliance, 2015, etc.) has all too little chance to prove herself in her 14th adventure: too many of the critical scenes are either narrated to her or take place offstage.