Like her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I, Mistress Ursula Blanchard Stannard (The Fugitive Queen, 2003, etc.) finds it hard to escape the evil influence of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, invites Ursula to London to vet a possible suitor for her daughter Meg. Though Meg, at 13, is too young for marriage, she’s not too young for betrothal, and Ursula jumps at the chance to take Gladys Morgan, her elderly and acid-tongued retainer, with her. Gladys, a skilled herbalist, has unfortunately used her other skill, invective, to curse prominent neighbors, provoking charges of witchcraft. Ursula and her husband Hugh, their maid Fran Dale, their manservant Roger Brockley, their companion Sylvia Jester, and young Meg, along with old Gladys, arrive in London to find the Duke’s protégé, Edmund Dean, intelligent, magnetic, and disinclined to take no for an answer. The Duke, it turns out, is hopelessly infatuated with Mary, Queen of Scots, and aspires to the Scottish “crown matrimonial.” But who would turn down the role of king consort of England, if it were suddenly available? As Ursula attempts to deal diplomatically with Dean, a messenger from the Duke’s banker who accepts mysterious bags of money is killed, and Ursula realizes that her days as the Queen’s intelligencer are not over.
Political conspiracy and personal betrayal make this a strong outing, although Ursula’s extended family is growing hard to seat comfortably in one novel.