I'd Rather Lose My Head by Kat Devitt
Kat Devitt is an academic librarian with a deep and profound love for history and literature. She studied at Drexel University for my M.L.I.S. and Stockton University for her B.A. in History. Her fiction has appeared in TWJ Journal and Bold + Italic and Scarlet Leaf Review. She currently serves as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. Her website is https://katdevitt.com/
Anger burned her insides, deep within her lungs. Anger burned her outsides, boiling to the surface in her cheeks. She stood as a flame, ready to set fire to Hever Castle and all within. She wanted everyone and everything to burn within her pain.
“Love means nothing in this world!” Anne Boleyn tossed a silver-gilt brush across the bedchamber. “Nothing!”
On the other side of the chamber, the brush clattered as it landed at her sister’s feet. Mary stared at the bristles pointing up at her, as if accusatory. Mary had done no wrong to her, but still, Anne blamed her sister for not siding with her.
Mary’s gaze touched upon her. “Anne, you must calm yourself.”
Even her sister’s big, pale blue eyes could not soothe her. “I cannot be calm when my heart cries out.”
“You sound like a character from a Greek tragedy.”
“I could start to write one. Putting quill to paper might help with my pangs.” Anne fell back into the chair by her dressing table. “I loved him, and yet he chose another.”
Anger stripped away to the pain beneath. Sadness. Anne sunk into its watery depths, dousing her flames, if only for a rest. Raging was a tiring business.
Mary wilted in her corner, taking the peace as it came. Anne glanced at her, studying her as she sat perched in a chair, her gaze downcast. Her flaxen hair gleamed in the knots wrapped around her head, revealing a slender neck. Her dark green dress offset the paleness of her skin, like a pearl laying in moss.
Their family considered Mary the prettier one. Her history evidenced her beauty. She’d been the mistress of two kings, but each had tossed her aside. Her affair with King Henry VIII ended months ago. Now she existed in an unhappy marriage to a wealthy courtier with a newborn to care for.
“Henry Percy was promised to another when you came along.” Her mouth moved like the petals of a rose rustling in the wind. “He was never yours to take.”
“His parents worked out a betrothal on his behalf. He never consented to it. His heart was promised to me.” Anne’s fingers crept up her chest, like a spider. She spun a web over her heart as it beat out loss and sorrow, preserving it in silver lattice so it might survive. “Until this morning. Why did he change his mind?”
Mary held her silence.
“Why?” The question floated from Anne’s lips on a whisper.
“Duty.” Mary shaped the word without hesitation. Their father enforced that rancid word throughout their lives. He repeated and repeated its lesson until their tongues could form no other motto. He taught that their lives were possessions to three forms of duty: duty to their country, duty to their King, but above all, duty to the Boleyn name.
Anne never wanted duty to signify her life, nor did Henry Percy. She discovered a kindred flame in him. In the moment they met, he craved after her, like a beggar after water. They sparked and blazed in the months to follow.
One night, he took her in passion. And she lived outside of duty. For the first time, she understood the truth about herself. She was not her father’s teachings, no matter how hard he tried to press her into his mold. She was desire. She was rebellion. This was the clay of the true Anne Boleyn.
Henry Percy held her that night, skin to skin. They promised themselves to one another, paving out a future together in their minds. He claimed so much that night. He claimed the moon and stars for her, claimed the fires of hell and the light of heaven. He’d give her anything, on the condition she would always be his.
He told her of his family. They, too, tried to force him to fit the model of duty. He despised them for pressing him towards a betrothal struck when he was a child. He claimed he wanted to smash the word “duty” into nothingness and eradicate it from their language. Then, and only then, could they belong to one another.
Anne believed him. But he wasn’t strong enough to live up to the might of his declaration. And now she sat here, a fool, while he went against all his silly promises and dwelt in what she despised most—duty.
Memories crept from her head as her thoughts returned to Hever Castle. Sunlight poured in through windows, their drapes cast aside. Shadows shrank against the walls, thrust back by the day’s rays. Melancholy—her melancholy—hung about the stone walls and rosewood furnishings.
“He never wanted to marry that Mary Talbot,” Anne said.
“He’s clearly changed his mind.”
Anne glowered at her sister. “He said her face was too long and narrow, like a horse, and her mouth too full of rotting teeth.”
“I’ve seen her at court. She’s not as awful as you say, but you are the superior beauty.”
“Mary,” she hissed through clenched teeth, wishing she still held the brush in her hand. “What is the use in talking to you? You do not side with me. You sit there neutral, ignorant to what I suffer.”
Mary sat still for a time, her lips unmoving. Outside the windows, an oak tree rustled, shaking the shadows within. Sunlight flittered, and not far off, a bird cried. The world outside progressed, but Mary and all within the castle stayed still. Her only sign of movement was her deepening brow.
“I know what you wanted.”
Anne scoffed. “Oh, really? Do tell.”
Mary sighed, as if weary of her challenges. “You saw yourself wedded to him. You envisioned long days spent at his side and longer nights in his bed.” She tilted her head back a little, staring down the length of her nose. “You saw yourself growing old and crippled with him.”
It was Anne’s turn to remain in stillness. Despite the differences in their nature, fiery versus demure, Mary still understood her desires. She saw her rosy vision, both as a woman and a sister. “Maybe not crippled, but surely old.”
Mary gave a small smile. “You saw a lifetime with him stretched out before you.”
Anne allowed her tears to come at last, putting out her fires. She welcomed them as one does the rain after a long drought, when the world needs to be touched and soothed. “I blame Cardinal Wolsey. He reprimanded Henry Percy for following his heart rather than his family duty.” She brushed her cheeks with a velvet sleeve. “Oh, why did he have to prod his nose into affairs that do not concern him?”
“It does, Anne,” Mary corrected. “Henry Percy is a page in Wolsey’s household. Wolsey is responsible for his servant, and being a man of the cloth, wishes to keep scandal far from his name.”
“How can he keep scandal away when he conducts and conceals the King’s love affairs right underneath the Queen’s nose?” She shook her head with vigor. “There’s more to why Wolsey forced Henry Percy to break his attachment to me.”
Mary opened her mouth to exert more wisdom, but a knock at the door cut through whatever she meant to say. She locked her lips, her gaze dropping to her lap as the rap rippled through the chamber. She stood still, like marble, with only her breathing to hint at the life within her pale, rosy body.
Anne took a deep breath, holding back her annoyance at this interruption.
“Come in,” she called.
A maid opened the door. She took a few steps into the room, her slippers scraping against the stone floors as she hardly lifted her feet. She had an unnatural twitch set in her face, causing the freckles on her cheeks to leap and bound.
She stood stock-still for a passing moment, all except for that ungodly twitch. “A royal messenger comes for you, Lady Anne.”
Shock snuffed out Anne’s kindling anger with one swipe. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the maid. Her face continued to twitch and dance.
Anne passed her gaze over to Mary. She remained calm and composed, but her blue eyes betrayed her. They glittered with curiosity, as if Mary pondered on the same questions as her. What might a royal want with a Boleyn girl?
Anne waved a hand at the maid. “Well, why do you just stand there? Fetch the messenger.”
The maid returned a few minutes later in the shadow of a youth swathed in vibrant hues of blue and green. He was lanky and gangly, not a mark past seventeen, but he could tower over a giant or cyclops. Sitting in her chair, Anne needed to tilt her head back to meet his gaze.
“Good day to you, sir,” she said.
He bowed his neck, his gaze concentrating on the stone floor.
Behind him, the maid’s face twitched. She dipped into a curtsy and backed out of the room. Her legs quivered a little as she bucked down the hall, like a rabbit on a mad dash. Nervous, that one, but Anne quickly forgot about the curious servant and looked towards the royal messenger.
“Lady Anne.” His voice cracked from pubescence, but he carried himself with a regal bearing. He thrust out his hands, in which he held a silver box covered with pearls. “King Henry sends you a gift.”
The messenger’s eyelids drooped, giving him an air of boredom, as if he’d performed this task a hundred times. Those hands must’ve delivered presents and trinkets to scores of women on the King’s behalf. Once, even Mary, her own sister, received gold trinkets and silk fripperies from the King, but he’d discarded her after his lecherous tastes found release elsewhere.
Apparently, Anne was that release.
She thought again of Wolsey. He acted as an instrument for the King’s desires, conducting his carnal affairs. He’d infected her attachment with Henry Percy, and now the King bestowed a gift upon her.
Anne folded her arms over her chest. “Lift the lid.”
The messenger pursed his lips at her command, as if it wasn’t what he expected. She did not snatch the box away and peek inside with glee, like most other silly women. She did not simper. She did not giggle. She remained in her seat with a scowl fanned by suspicion.
“Open it,” she said, more biting.
He moved his hand and lifted the lid with his narrow fingers. The box creaked on its hinges, and inside, a bauble glinted in the sunlight. “Here you have it, Lady Anne.”
On emerald velvet lay a gold locket. A Tudor rose was engraved into its center. A chain wound around the locket, like the biblical snake that tempted Eve.
Mary sighed, as if remembering her own courtship with King Henry. “How lovely.” Her hand flew up to her neck, as if she imagined it resting on her collarbone.
King Henry VIII’s lust snaked around Anne, but the serpent reared a second head. Wolsey. He’d encouraged Henry Percy to cast aside his affections for her and return to his betrothal to Mary Talbot, that horse-faced harlot.
To what end?
Henry Percy fell into duty, breaking his promise, leaving Anne to wallow in her heartache for him. Well, wallow after she threw around a few brushes and baubles. She never was good at leashing her temper.
But what scheme lay in the cardinal’s head?
Anne’s suspicions simmered. “Now open the locket.”
The messenger exchanged her order for a glower, but he did as he was bid. He lifted the lid with a tenderness, as if he caressed the bones of St. Peter. He revealed a miniature portrait of the King within the locket.
Henry VIII stared back at her with hard eyes. His mane of auburn hair was hidden beneath a cap topped with a feather. His jaw was thick and covered with an auburn beard. He exuded command, even in a thousand brushstrokes.
Anne sensed herself falling into a darkness the more she stared at his royal likeness. She’d laid eyes on the King before at masques and royal celebrations. She admired him as England’s king, but she’d never been drawn to him in lust.
Anne touched her throat. She sensed a thrust there, as if a phantom sword tore into her flesh. Again, and again. Her head. It was as if her head was falling off and into madness. She descended into it as she worked out a theory.
Wolsey encouraged Henry Percy to desert her, because the King desired her for himself. Wolsey concealed the King’s desires under the pretense he wanted Percy to return to Mary Talbot, leaving Anne as a target for his royal quiver. And this gift bolstered her theory.
The messenger cleared his throat. “His Highness also sends a letter.”
Anne rose from her chair, her head still on her shoulders. “Give it here.”
He snapped the box lid shut and proffered a letter. “For you.”
Anne crossed over and seized the letter. She glanced over at Mary, her captured audience. Mary thought she could be a character in a Greek tragedy? Well, here it was. A drama for her eyes.
She snapped the letter’s wax seal. It crinkled each time she unfolded another square, until it was in full bloom. She began to read:
These many months past, I have watched you with a curious eye. Agony fills me when I watch you laugh, dance, and titter. Even now, in memory, longing pierces my poor heart.
Half of my court has been charmed by your most bewitching, dark eyes. You’ve woven a spell around me, too, Anne Boleyn. My dreams are filled with your vision, my days with hope for a glimpse of your eyes.
I write to you not as a king, but as a man stricken with desire. I join the lot kneeling before you, where I might kiss the tips of your feet, like many a wanderer to a temple. Please accept this locket as a symbol of my heartache. Come into my arms. Relieve this desire of mine. From one under your spell, H.R.
Anne folded the letter without haste, giving herself time to think. These many months past, I have watched you with a curious eye. All this time, the King had observed her like a hunter after a prize. His arrow came when he pierced her relationship with Henry Percy. And his arrow was Cardinal Wolsey.
She creased the letter with the ends of her nails, pinching the edges. “I am touched by the King’s kindness, but I cannot accept his gift.”
Confusion riddled the messenger’s face, as if she’d spoken some demon language for his ears alone. “Pardon, my lady, but my orders were to deliver this gift to you.”
“And so, you have.” Anne smiled. “But I do not wish to keep it.”
He stood there, as if he was a statue for her viewing.
“Must I repeat myself?” she asked. “Return it.”
He stared at her for a brevity, as if she was of another country, another time, another place. Few ever denied the King, but this was her life. This boy could stare at her for hours, if he pleased, but it wouldn’t alter her mind. Her heart did not sing for the King. If it did, he’d lock it in a cage and keep it there.
Anne thrust the letter against his chest. “You may go.”
He curled a hand around the paper, while balancing the box in the other. He blinked. The fall of his eyelids seemed to sever his spell, for he gave a shallow bow and swirled out of the room, swishing his fabrics of vibrant blues and greens.
Mary pounced on her as soon as the door closed behind him. “Why would you reject such a gift?”
“I did not want it.”
“The King shows you favor.” Her hand remained at her throat, as if she clutched onto the ghost of jewels she once earned as his mistress. “He honors you with his attentions.”
“It’s not an honor to be a whore.”
Mary’s hand fell into her lap. “You take a step too far.”
Mary acted as if she’d been slapped, but her past had delivered the blow. Not Anne. She’d been the whore for two kings: King Francis, of the French, and King Henry VIII. Both had discarded her, but that was the lot of women who chose to become a royal mistress. They enjoyed favor for a time, but they were tossed aside into the rubbish heap like yesterday’s scraps when all the marrow had been sucked from their bones.
“Do I?” Anne cocked a brow. “Or do I learn from your mistakes?”
“Passion is not a mistake.”
“And yet you’ve landed yourself in an unhappy marriage. I wonder how you ended up there.”
Mary’s jaw sagged, but Anne could only shrug. She was right, after all.
Anne walked over to the window and looked out at the expanse of greenery. It seemed to stretch on forever. If heaven had a color, it was green.
“I suspect King Henry instructed Cardinal Wolsey to end my attachment with Henry Percy,” Anne said more to the glass than to her sister.
“Maybe. Or maybe you are spinning stories to create the answers you want.”
“I’m not building fantasies, Mary. Henry Percy was set on having me as his wife.”
“It’ll not happen now. He’s to marry another.” Mary delivered her own blow, and to a fresh wound.
Angry tears flooded Anne’s vision. She wiped them away in time to see the messenger canter away on a bay stallion. The messenger bopped on the beast’s back, as they darted from Hever Castle, across the greenery and into the forest. Away from the shades of heaven and back to the stone walls of man.
“I’d rather lose my head than belong to the King.”
Mary’s chair creaked as she rose. “Then you’re a fool.” She spoke to her back, as if it possessed more sense. “He’ll only press and pursue, until you give in. And once you do, you will end up like me.”
Mary’s feet pattered across the stone floor. She closed the door behind her with a thud. And Anne was alone.
She deserved it for having provoked her. She shouldn’t have said what she did about Mary’s past, but it’s true she learned from her sister’s mistakes. She would be no man’s mistress or whore. She’d be called “wife” or nothing at all.
Anne stared out from the window, as if she was locked away in a tower. She sensed this as an echo, either through the past or to the future. She hadn’t a clue, but she knew she never felt so trapped. Or mad. Whether it was the loss of love or the pursuit of a king that drove her imaginings, she could not tell.
She balled a hand at the hollow of her throat, and she imagined a time she might lose her head. She stood on a scaffold, addressing the crowds. She lay her head on the block, and the sword swung down to meet her neck, again and again.
Anne did not know what led her to that moment. If passion or duty sent her there. She did not know if it was premonition or fantasy, but standing at that window, she envisioned her head falling into the greenery below.
And she prayed it might never happen.