Greenwich Palace, 1522

“Damn him! Damn the man!” Her father railed, his long, greying hair flying about his head in an unkempt frenzy. His hat had long ago been discarded and lay crumpled on the table top beside him.

Thomas Boleyn cupped his hand in one large palm and leaned against the plastered mantlepiece. Bear great blood, they might. Have a mistress in the king’s sheets, they might have. But still they enjoyed only modest rooms with modest plastered fireplaces.

Anne’s dark eyes never left her father’s anxious figure.

“Wolsey is a madman unbridled,” she heard her uncle’s cool voice croon from his place at the head of the table. “His blood is common blood. Did you expect your connections to my house would do you any good with him?”

“It is not as though I ask for anything other than what belongs rightfully to me!” her father spit, rounding on her uncle and turning his back to the stifling heat of the fireplace.

Thomas Howard did not so much as blink at his enraged brother-in-law. Why should he? He was an anointed Duke, a member of the blood royal itself. Who was Thomas Boleyn to shock him or move him in any emotion whatsoever.

Norfolk’s cool eyes merely studied Anne’s father. When he spoke, his voice was equal parts ice and glass.

“Wolsey cannot be trusted. He will play the part of the docile dog when it suits, but he will never fail to turn and bite the hand that reaches out to him as soon as his master’s back is turned. You were a fool to put your faith in him.”

“But the king himself…” Thomas sputtered, enraged.

“The king doesn’t care one common shit about you or your other daughter’s marriage. If you believe he does then more fool you.”

Anne felt the shock reflected in her father’s face.

His face fell suddenly, and Anne caught a glimpse of the long, arched oval of her own face. In the blink of an eye, though, her face was gone and there was an old man’s face there instead. Wane. Full of lines. It looked as though it were carved out of a strange, pale leather. His bright blue eyes seemed to flicker and dim in an instant, receding back into the off gauntness of his face. Anne knew what thoughts were flickering about there, in that ghost of a man. He was faced now with his own insignificance, his own trivial existence.

Try as he might, Thomas Boleyn could never be as grand as he wanted himself to be. His birth and standing would simply never allow it.

But just as quickly as the doubt and the fear had come, they were gone once more, flickering away with the old man’s ghostly countenance.

While Norfolk sat stony and still, like a statue carved from marble, Thomas drew himself up and cloaked himself once more in his indignation. He could swallow the king’s easy dismissal, but he would not have it from Wolsey. He was at least better born than that up-trumped butter’s son if no one else at this court.

“What then,” her brother George chirped in suddenly, speaking for the first time since they entered the room. “What are we to do about this Wolsey and how are we to get my dear sister wed.”

He turned to look at Anne as he spoke and she almost smiled at him.

Norfolk turned his stoney glare to face the two Boleyn children. He studied them as if making a great note of them.

“I would dare say that we are faced with no other option. While your sister holds the higher place in the king’s bed, we must do nothing to offend Henry. Therefore we cannot afford offend Wolsey. We will play his game and jump through his extraordinary hoops as we always must.”

Anne’s temper flared. George reached a hand towards her beneath the table, but he was too late. She was stoked.

“Am I to be frozen in time then, Uncle?” Anne asked, her voice as sweet as honey. “Am I never to be able to do my service to this family? Will I never be able to take the consolation I may from this life by going forth and bearing sons of great name for our houses?”

Her uncle Howard’s eyes narrowed and his mouth shriveled into a crooked snarl.

“You will do your duty when and where you’re told to do it, madam,” the old man snapped. “And you will hold your tongue, as your sister does, in the interim.”

Anne ground her teeth together and clutched her hands together tightly beneath the table’s heavy surface. She could feel the blood receding from her knuckles. If she bared them now, her hands would be whiter than snow.

George’s hand had found her thigh, and he was squeezing it now, imploding her not to push the volatile situation any further, but Anne could not resist. She was French now, not English. She had not been English for a long, long time. Her blood was up. She would have it out with them.

“Then why have you called me here, Uncle?” Anne snapped, the venom now palpable in the sweet French tones of her voice. “Why have you graced me among this inner sanctum if not to help me?”

The look the Duke of Norfolk gave her then was pure acid.

Her father shifted anxiously beside the mantle, struggling to hold on to his indignation and his grandiose pride.

“I am sure that Anne did not mean to speak in such harsh tones,” he interjected suddenly, blue eyes flashing from Anne to the old patriarch. Thomas was a man that was ever-so-disturbed by the occasional lifting of the veil.

Anne looked at her father brazenly and told him everything she wanted to say in one glance. She did mean to say it, and she would say more and worse if answers weren’t given to her soon. George felt the eruption and made a move.

“My sister speaks illy in her turn, but she is right. Why have we brought her here? Is this an end to the marriage, then? Are we free to find her a more suitable candidate?”

“You think yourself so grand that you can do better than an Earl, boy?” snapped Thomas Howard, turning his fury from Anne to her brother. “Maybe she’ll have a dukedom, eh? How about my dukedom? Why, let us dream even bigger. Let us make her the queen.”

They all caught their breath at the treasonous barb.

Voices were being raised now and tensions were raging high. It was Anne who decided to put it to rest.

“George is right. That was ill spoken of me. Forgive me. I forget myself and my place at times. It is the weakness of my woman’s blood.”

Anne could feel something inside her curl up and die a bit as she swallowed her pride down low. There was no sense to this raging. There never was. And besides, she did not want the Irishman. Not even if he was an earl. Ireland was a dank and uncivilized wasteland. Full of ruffians and lawless pagans, it was a wild that Anne did not want to imagine. Somehow, though she didn’t quite know how, she knew that in Ireland nothing awaited her but death. It could be no other way.

A heavy silence fell over the room for a long while. The fire died away and crackled loudly in the silence, the little pops like explosions in the blooming awkwardness. The candles burned down low as they stared at one another, each more cooly than the last. It was Thomas Boleyn that spoke at long last.

“So we will wait,” he said, conceding the lost and swallowing his pride as his daughter had. This was no longer just about appeasing Wolsey and Henry. It was about appeasing Norfolk as well. Whatever else happened, if they lost the allegiance of that great northern house, they would lose the only bargaining chip they bore as common Boleyns.

“We will wait and play his game,” her father went on. “We will jump through his hoops and give him the things he requires. Eventually, he or Henry will show favor to me and mine. Whether that be through my endeavors abroad or your sister’s more domestic endeavors. When that time comes, we will spring ourselves forward all that we can and hope to prove our loyalty to His Majesty even further.”

One by one, they nodded their heads in agreement.

It was George that pointed out the obvious question that hung in the air.

“And what are our orders until then,” her handsome brother asked politely. Norfolk looked up at Thomas Boleyn, judgement written plain across his face.

“We watch,” their father said, his voice little more than a whisper. “We watch and we wait for him to make a mistake.”