Mariana continues her bawdy and frequently catastrophic career as a solver of mysteries, this time in England, where, having been recruited to a network of secret agents specialising in the occult, she takes on two of the Undead which infested the country, especially Essex, not only in the early Middle Ages but again in the 14th Century, in the wake of the Black Death.
"It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony." He wrote this "as a warning to posterity" and added "were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome". (William of Newburgh, a 12th-century English historian and Augustinian Canon of Anglo-Saxon descent from Bridlington, Yorkshire.)
It turns out that the mission involves going undercover as a prostitute (not difficult for her, given her experiences since she was sold as a sex-slave at the age of fourteen) but will she ever again be able to convince people that Mad Mariana the Spanish whore and Lady Marian MacElpin are one and the same person?
Southwark, March, 1379
'Do you remember when you jumped into the river in Paris?' Ferchard asked, suddenly. 'In the middle of winter. Daft wench.'
'Daft? If I hadn't, the poor girl would have drowned.'
'I didn't mean you, not this time. The red-headed lass you jumped in after. What was her name?'
'Aye, Natalie. Good thing you're half fish.'
Ferchard and I were standing on London Bridge, gazing down at the rushing water, thinking and dreaming and reminiscing. Flowing water will always make you dream, and how could we help comparing it with the Seine?
When the tide is out in London, there is no comparison, the Thames is just a shallow stream bordered on both sides by mudflats littered with garbage, but when the sea surges back up, the river fills and spreads and is wider and to my mind even more majestic than the Seine.
'Ah, remember that great island and the cathedral – Notre Dame – and the tavern where we took you after we fished the pair of you out? What was the name of the place? You can't get food like that here.'
'The Chaire,' I said. 'Ferchard, I think ... '
I'd been waiting ages – months! – for the right moment and that morning he did seem to be in a good mood. Had he finally forgiven me? We would see.
'Aye, lass? What is it now?'
I didn't like that "now" but I took the plunge. 'Ferchard, I'd really like to make use of that introduction the Sire de Coucy gave me to Princess Isabel. Princess Isabel of England is Coucy's ex-wife, did you know that?'
The pale blue eyes turned icy..
'It's been a year now,' I hurried on, 'and I need to make myself known to people who matter if we're going to stay here. As Lady Marian, I mean. Before the same thing happens as happened in Paris.'
'The Princess has contacts in France. She may already have heard about you.'
She may indeed, and I could hardly blame Ferchard for that.
We gazed at the river a while longer in silence, then we walked home.
As we entered the house he said 'You know all I have always wanted was for you to leave behind the past and establish yourself as your father's daughter. Go then, lass. If you can be accepted by the English royal family as who you truly are, you will be welcome everywhere.'
'Thank you, Ferchard.' I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and lifting my skirts ran up the stairs, shouting for Yahia, the enormous Moorish eunuch who had been with me since my time in Granada.
The princess was staying at the Savoy Palace, the London home of her brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, uncle of the boy-king and without question the most powerful man in the kingdom. I thought it might help my cause if I met him, too, but there was little chance of that.
My note simply said I had met de Coucy at Beauté-sur-Marne and, on learning that I was coming to London, he had recommended that I present myself to her; that she always liked to meet interesting and well-travelled people.
Next morning, a messenger arrived wearing the Lancaster livery, a shy, gangly youth whom Khadija's heart warmed to at once. She began to feed him on fresh-baked bread and new-laid eggs – we had chickens already, thanks to Undead John. I sat opposite the lad, hungry myself at breakfast-time for once, and devoured one of those omelettes only Khadija can cook.
As we ate, we watched each other – he uncertain at first, then relaxing as he realised I was on his side.
I looked back down at the note he had brought, then back up at him. He was clearly hoping that notes between the Savoy Palace and this house at breakfast-time would become a regular occurrence.
Her Royal Highness the Princess Isabel would be pleased to receive Lady Marian MacElpin this afternoon betwixt sext and nones.
'Would you like me to return at midday to escort you, my lady?'
'Yes, that would perhaps be a good idea this first time. Thank you – er – '
'Humphrey, my lady.'