But those, thought Mary, like herself, who had to come in secret, must come also unobserved, which meant the coach was closed, its curtains drawn so none could peer inside and see them, and this meant they neither could see out.

She guessed when they had entered through the palace doors by how the sound of rolling wheels and clopping hooves began to echo closely, telling her they now had come into a passage. And she heard the swing and creak as heavy wooden doors were closed and barred behind them, as the coachman brought the horses to a halt.

Suddenly nervous, she raised her head and looked again at Hugh, and in his steady gaze found reassurance.

The coach door, when it opened, swung towards the unseen coachman who was holding it, and came to rest against the wall of the dim passage, serving as a screen of sorts to shield them from the eyes of any who might seek a view of these new visitors. And in the wall, another door now opened inward, to admit them to a secret stair. The man who held that door was evidently known to Hugh, for they shook hands in silence as they met each other. Once they were inside, the secret door was closed again, and Mary heard the coach wheels rumble onward down the passage and proceed through what was probably the courtyard.

The man who had met them appeared to be in his midthirties and carried himself like an officer. He said nothing to begin with, only led them up the narrow stairs and into a long gallery with tall grand windows and a vaulted ceiling that was decorated beautifully in intricate designs that fooled the eye. At the end of the gallery four narrow steps took them up into a private receiving room, where the high and rounded ceiling had been painted very cleverly to seem to be the sky, viewed through a realistic garden trellis with bright vines of tiny blue flowers trailing all round it, and Cupid-like putti at play in the leaves.

Here the man turned to face them and greeted Hugh in a more good-natured manner. “I see the clothes reached you. Lord Marischal hoped they would.”

“Aye. It was kind of His Lordship.”

“And you must be Thomson.” Not waiting to be introduced, the man held out his hand. “I am Captain Hay.”

The name appeared to register with Thomson, for he smiled in pleasure. “Not the famous Captain William Hay who once sailed in the navy of the late tsar in St. Petersburg? My brother is a merchant there. George Thomson. He speaks highly of you, Captain.”

“Very kind of him, I’m sure.” His gaze moved on politely. “And this would be…?”

Hugh said, “Mistress Mary Dundas. She’s the sister of Nicolas Dundas.”

“Ah, Dundas, yes. So that’s why you asked me about the wig maker. I was able to—” But he was brought up short by footsteps in the gallery. He turned, and Mary turned as well.

The king had come.

Seeing him actually there in the room with them struck her at first as a thing overwhelming. It took her a moment to drop into her finest curtsy the way she had practiced, and keep her head bowed in respect until he gave them all leave to rise.

He was tall, with a wig of pale gray and a suit of gray silk a shade darker, trimmed richly with gold braid and lace, his chest crossed with the ribbands and medallions of his varied royal orders, though she knew not what they were. She looked to match the features to the portrait she had studied at Sir Redmond Everard’s—the portrait of the king when he had been a boy, his hand upon his hip with confidence, his gaze fixed with keen interest on some distant sight. This older King James had the same stubborn chin but his dark eyes had grown more resigned. And when he smiled, it was the faintly weary smile of a man who had seen much and could not be easily drawn to react to what others might view as intriguing.

Still, when he saw Hugh standing proudly in Highland dress, King James appeared to be moved.

He said, “I know your face, do I not?”

Captain Hay introduced Hugh more formally, and the king nodded. “Of course, I remember now. Mr. MacPherson. You came here to Rome years ago with the Earl Marischal and his brother on their way to Spain.”

“I am honored, Your Majesty, that ye’d remember.”

“I trust I shall always remember my brave and faithful Highlanders, and particularly those of a name so sincerely attached to me. Believe me, Mr. MacPherson, I know how loyally you and your clansmen are inclined, and I’m glad of the help of so many brave men, at a time when honest hearts and hands were never so much wanted.”

Thomson, when the king’s gaze moved to him, remarked, “Your Majesty, I can assure you there are honest hearts and hands in all three of your kingdoms.”

“Mr. Thomson. Our worthy friends in Paris have mentioned you more than once to me.”

“Then you’ll know there is nothing I would not willingly undergo for your service. I have never failed to assist my fellow Jacobites in England financially whenever I could, and in Paris Mr. Robinson and I were pleased to be able to give some of your principal men great sums out of our joint stock. I also gave, out of my own pocket, upwards of eight hundred pounds, and there is more that can be got to help prepare for your return to England to take back your rightful throne from the usurper.”

“A rebellion?” The king’s wise, indulgent expression put Mary in mind of her uncle’s face whenever one of her cousins said something that showed want of thought or experience. “I have myself been expecting such things all my life,” he said, “and they have never happened with success.”

Thomson assured him this time would be different. “I promise you, Your Majesty, you have many friends right now in London. Why, some of the aldermen serve as cashiers for the money collected to support your cause, and the city is ripe for revolution.”

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