Once again Ursula Blanchard, now married to Matthew de la Roche and living in France, is on a mission, reluctantly, to serve Queen Elizabeth and her Secretary of State Sir William Cecil (The Doublet Affair, 1998, etc.). In order to lure Ursula back to England in 1564, Cecil has arranged the disappearance of Ursula’s young daughter Meg, sending her and her maid Bridget to Vetch Castle, home of Lady Thomasine Mortimer and her son Sir Philip. Cecil wants Ursula to join Meg at the castle to investigate the rumors of Philip’s treason. Finding her daughter unharmed, Ursula agrees to accept the mission, and proceeds, with help from faithful retainer Roger Brockley and his wife Dale, to a dead-of-night errand involving incriminating documents. Meanwhile, deeper waters swirl around another guest at the castle—young Rafe Northcote, son of Philip’s late friend John Northcote. Rafe’s vibrancy is no more than a red herring; his intimacy with the middle-aged Lady Mortimer leads eventually to his murder and the near-demise of Ursula and her aides. Only with help from Gladys, a witchlike local crone, will Ursula succeed in uncovering Rafe’s murderer, accomplishing her mission for the Queen, and, with her stalwart friends and Meg, returning to a more normal life.
An almost impenetrable thicket of plots and subplots, plus an endless list of characters and connections, makes for heavy going. A banquet for history buffs, but others will need the author’s elegant style to hold them to the end.