The Quality of Mercy Faye Kellerman A thrilling story set in Elizabethan London, from New York Times bestselling author Faye KellermanOne wrong move could lead to death…1593. Rebecca Lopez, daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s physician, enjoys a seemingly privileged life at Court. Yet she guards a dangerous secret. She is Jewish – and her forbidden faith could bring her downfall at any moment.One night, infuriated by the restrictions imposed upon her, she slips out of her household, disguised as a boy. There she crosses paths with a dashing and daring young man – a young man by the name of Will Shakespeare.As a dutiful Jewish daughter, Rebecca never considered falling in love with such an unsuitable man. But as she and Will become ensnared in a dangerous web of intrigue, secrets and murder, they must protect each other if they are to escape alive… The Quality of Mercy Faye Kellerman Copyright (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in the United States by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1989 This ebook edition published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2019 Copyright © Plot Line, Inc. 1989 Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover photography © Shutterstock.com (http://Shutterstock.com) Faye Kellerman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Ebook Edition © April 2019 ISBN: 9780008293543 Version: 2018-12-12 Dedication (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) For Jonathan. And for Barney Karpfinger: Diogenes, stop looking, I found him. Thanking the translators: Maribel Romero, Phyllis Elliott, and Miriam Lewis. And a special thanks to John and Mary Jane Hertz— two people worthy of their titles. Map (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) Contents Cover (#u02bb7b44-c93f-5725-be8e-4c9036ebffdd) Title Page (#u9fcfcdde-9d03-5789-afb2-79b940226f43) Copyright Dedication Map Lisbon, 1540 Chapter 1 London, 1593 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Chapter 58 Chapter 59 Chapter 60 Chapter 61 Chapter 62 Chapter 63 Historical Summary Keep Reading About the Author Faye Kellerman booklist About the Publisher Chapter 1 (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) As I see the first hint of sunlight, the death march begins. We advance toward the Terriero do Paco—the great city square adjacent to the Royal Palace on the seafront. Leading the processional is Don Henrique—the Inquisitor General of Portugal by appointment of his older brother, His Royal Highness John the Third. Don Henrique is an ugly man—lean, with an avian nose, and black eyes set so deeply that the sockets appear hollow. His thick beard—a weave of bronze, copper, and iron—is meticulously shaped to a dagger point. His dress is appropriately august—official: floor-length black robe and cape, white clerical collar, and black trapezoidal hat. Dangling from his neck is his scallop-edged crucifix of gold, inset with topaz, lapis, aquamarine, sapphire, and topped with a finial of diamonds. A haughty man, Don Henrique always wears jeweled crosses. Gilt bible clutched to his breast, eyes fixed straight ahead, he presses on slowly but inexorably, prepared to carry out the work of his God. Following the Inquisitor are four rows of black-garbed monks. Around their necks are unadorned crucifixes fashioned from the heavier base metals. Rigid and stone-faced, they carry black-covered bibles and hold aloft crosses and banners. They chant low-pitched dirges as they trudge forward on sandaled feet. Behind the clergy are the royal officials and the black-hooded executioners—the secular arm of the law. Their ranks advance in taut, military fashion—arms swinging with pendular precision, not a boot out of step. We are at the rear of the retinue. The victims—the wretches. We are heavily guarded and hold lighted tapers that spit fire into the early morning sky. Some of us endure the ordeal with stoicism—posture erect, gait sure-footed and strong. That is how I walk. Others about me seem stuporous, stumbling off-balance, as if being yanked forward by an invisible harness. The weakest weep openly. The auto-da-fé—act of faith—is the day of reckoning for us. We’ve been convicted of violations of the Church. We walk forward, clearly identified for the onlookers; we wear the dreaded sambenito—the two-sided apron of shame imprinted with symbols corresponding to our infractions. Serious sinners like myself wear corazas—conical miters—as well. Some are considered penitent and deemed reconcilable to the Church. They will gratefully accept the penalties meted out to them. The pettiest among them will be punished with fines, terms of forced servitude, or imprisonment. More serious transgressors will merit whipping or public shaming—being stripped to the waist and paraded around town to the derision and jeers of their countrymen. Wretches who committed grave infractions will be plunged into poverty, have all their worldly possessions confiscated by the Holy Office. These offenders will be stigmatized for generations, their descendants barred forever from entering the Holy Office, from becoming physicians, tutors, apothecaries, advocates, scriveners, or farmers for revenue. They will be forbidden to dress in cloth woven from gold or silver thread, wear jewelry, or ride on horseback. But they are fortunate. I, and others like me, are deemed impenitent. We hapless souls are guilty of the most odious heresies. My specific crime is Judaizing—practicing and professing the ancient laws of Moses rendered obsolete by their Jesus Christ. Once, Spain called me a converso—a Christian of Jewish bloodline. I was an overt Catholic, but secretly I practiced the old ways. My transgressions were discovered by a wanton woman. Now I am doomed. Distinguished from the fortunates by our green tapers and dress, we—the relapsos—wear special fiery miters and the sambenito of death imprinted with the likeness of the Devil himself. Around his horned visage and pronged fork are leaping flames: the Hell that is to await us. I spit on their stinking Christian ground. That’s what I think of their Hell. This morning will be my last. Before the night is over, I will be sentenced to die without effusion of blood, their castigation derived from John 15:6—from the teachings of their Savior Himself: If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. The dank ocean fog begins to melt, yielding to an opaline sky dotted with tufts of woolly cloud. At six in the morning the city bells ring out the signal and I shudder with dread. The cobblestone walkways begin to fill with austere gentlemen somberly wrapped in dark capes. They step with much haste, their servants at their heels. Ten minutes later the veiled women of the households emerge—wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Some of the women hold babies and toddlers, others drag older children, chiding them for slowness. The streets soon become a throng of bodies. In the center is this murderous tribunal—as poisonous as an asp. It undulates its way to the city square. By the time the officials arrive at the Terreiro, most of the spectators have been positioned, either standing, or seated in the gallery benches that form a semicircle around the dais, the garrotes, and the stakes. In the foreground are the white-capped swells of the ocean. In the background stands the great palace, casting a deep shadow over the galleries. We are ordered to stand up straight. A guard hits the woman next to me. She is eight months pregnant, younger than I, I think. Around seventeen. Her back is stooped from the weight of her fruit. I smile at her. Wet-eyed, she smiles back at me. Our eyes have told each to be strong. As Don Henrique ascends to the black-draped podium, the noise of idle conversation softens, then finally quiets to silence. The Inquisitor stands immobile, his head bowed in meditation. The sun, now higher in the advanced morning sky, projects a metallic sheen onto the ground, gilding the Inquisitor. Tides yawn rhythmic, lazy growls. An uneasy calm has blanketed the air. Suddenly, a mourner’s wail blasts through the square, reverberating against salty air and harmonizing with the ocean’s roar—the baritone summons of a sheep’s horn. The pregnant girl next to me jumps. I do nothing. The audience is cleaved in two by a red carpet, unfurled and smoothed by royal attendants. King John and Queen Catalina—may they rot in Hell—enter the gathering, followed by their entourage. His Majesty’s porcine features are embedded in pillowy cheeks that are pink and pockmarked. He’s fair-complexioned, with a neatly trimmed but scant beard. His portly frame looks especially obese today, swaddled under layers of clothing. His sable collar, draped over a padded doublet of gold, frames his chin like the mane of a lion. Resting on his shoulders is a blue velvet robe secured by a clasp of jewel-encrusted animals linked together with braided silver. His round hose are pleats of blue and scarlet velvet and puffed out at the hip line. Hanging from his belt is a gold scabbard revealing the gem-studded handle of a broadsword. His stockings, no doubt made of pure silk, are obscured by high-polished black boots that end mid-thigh. On his head is perched the royal crown of the State. The Queen is the daughter of the Emperor Charles the Fifth of Rome, granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Her facial features are small and pinched, her complexion tinged with olive. Her slender arms are hidden under full, maroon sleeves, but the bodice and stomacher of her dress reveal her pride, her vanity—a tiny waist that is rumored to be encircled easily by her husband’s thick hands. She wears a flowing skirt of black taffety overlaid with gold lace, and is crowned with a diamond and emerald tiara. A staunch Catholic, Catalina is the driving wind behind the Inquisition. She was inspired by the religious fervor of her late confessor, Frai Diogo da Silva—another pig. The monarchs are led to raised thrones at the top of the galleries. As soon as they are seated, the Inquisitor lifts his head and extends his arms toward the rulers of the land. “Mighty Sovereigns.” Don Henrique bows low. “King and Queen, Protectors of the True Faith. On a throne of velvet you sit most high. Justice and truth in God you preach as well as practice. In the great reign of King John the Third, the Savior shall once again witness purity of blood as we ferret out the foul stench that has infiltrated the rightful Church. Only under fair and impartial rulers such as yourselves, good King and Queen, will Catholicism be purified for true believers. A pure race—of pure, true Christians—to serve the most Holy One, Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” King John and Queen Catalina—the swine—duly nod. “As for the condemned, the wretched souls,” Don Henrique continues, “assuming they have souls, so beastly and dung-riddled are their filthy, ghastly undertakings …” The crowd nods in agreement. A baby lets out a sudden shriek. “Yea,” Henrique exclaims. “Yea … even an innocent babe cries out at the sight of the Devil himself, beseeching the Lord, ‘Most holy Savior! Protect my baptized soul!’” The Inquisitor’s voice rings out. “Protect me against the disgusting, putrid pollution that has entered the most holy religion of God, subverting the good into evil.” Don Henrique points to us—those sentenced to death. “Damned ye be! Damnable are your crimes against man and against God. Ye are to consider the stake a most gentle taste of what awaits you once ye are in the grasp of the Devil. Ye shall drink boiling lead and eat molten brimstone for ale and food. Daily ye shall be skinned and burned, steamed in cauldrons of liquid fire. Your livers shall be fodder for the vulture, your hearts sustenance for the crow. Your entrails shall ye eat, the filth of your bowels shall ye breathe. Your eyes will be plucked out with glowing pokers as the Devil and his servants laugh at your wretched miseries.” The Inquisitor holds his breath until his face is flushed, then lets out a chilling scream directed at the crowd. “Ye think you are safe from the wiles of the Devil? Think again lest in your airs ye drop your shields and give space for the Devil to come and do his bidding.” He returns his attention to us. I listen, but his words do not affect me. I’ve heard them many times before. Don Henrique clutches his heart and says, “Satan—cursed be his name—has entered these filthy souls. But Jesus Christ, in His martyrdom, died for you. Died for your souls—all souls, the filthy with the pure. There remains hope for your souls in the life hereafter. Your earthly life is over. By your own stinking hand ye were sentenced, as God and the Church had tried to enter in life and failed. Perhaps ye shall see His wisdom now that death is upon your wretched bodies. “Ye still have a chance! Ye still can make restitution to the cross by publicly confessing your errors and admitting them before man as well as God.” Don Henrique lights a torch and hoists it into the air. “Let the proceedings begin,” he says. The ordeal will last all day. The lightest offenders are dealt with first. One by one they are summoned before the Inquisitor, insulted and cursed, then assigned their punishment by the secular arm. Maria Gomez is fined for appearing unveiled in public against the wishes of her husband. Joao Dias is whipped for theft. Salvador Guterrias is imprisoned for life for unnatural fornication with his wife. They should know the real truth. In the dungeon he told me that he had fornicated with animals, that they were more satisfying to him than his fat, stinking wife. Had that bit of knowledge come to the attention of the Inquisition, he would have been sentenced to die. Name after name is called. We are forced to stand rigid during the proceedings. I worry about the girl next to me. I fear she will faint and then the guards will beat her. But she proves stronger than I had first thought. Yes, she sways on her feet, but her spine remains upright. The tribunal continues past the noon hour and chews up the afternoon until dusk spreads over the square. No conversation in the audience is permitted. Children who violate the rule are immediately silenced—first verbally, then with a sharp slap. Roving guards maintain decorum with stern demeanors and, for those who have succumbed to dozing, a rap on the head with a stout staff. Nightfall begins to darken the landscape, but the Inquisitor shows no signs of tiring. Do murderers ever tire of their lust for blood? As the torches are lit around the edges of the stage, Don Henrique points an accusing finger at the first of us condemned to death. “Fernando Lopes!” he cries out. “Come forward.” Lopes is an emaciated, hirsute man of thirty. His pale skin stretches over a large bony frame that once had been thick and muscular. I had known him before he was caught. He has degenerated very badly. His eyes, dulled by years of incarceration, seem mad now. They dart about aimlessly. His beard, once dark and handsome, is a gray nest of brambles, caked with spittle and blood. His hands are bound with leather straps, but his feet are untethered and bare. He is pulled forward by two guards. “Thou miserable, filthy wretch of dung!” the Inquisitor says. “Thou hast been accused of relapsing!” “No,” Lopes protests. It is useless to deny, but Lopes will do it anyway. He is that kind of man. “Quiet, sinner!” shouts the Inquisitor. “Thou knowest this to be truth! Thine own daughter confessed thy sins. Because her confessions were made under oath to the Holy Office, her life shall be mercifully spared. But thee … thou who wast warned in good faith—” “But I have done nothing, Most Holy—” “Still thou deniest what has been observed and verified by thine own daughter!” the Inquisitor screams. “Thou art to be eternally damned if thy confessions are not made before thy death. Make thy confessions, sinner!” “But I have done nothing—” Don Henrique addresses the audience, his expression incredulous. “What is to be done with this mongrel to save his soul? Must we show him the Devil’s way?” Turning to one of the sentries, he orders, “Shave this New Christian!” As two warders restrain Lopes, a third takes his torch and brings it to the struggling man’s beard. The whiskers catch fire and Lopes screams. I cannot watch anymore. Henrique says, “Confess thy sins, wretched soul, and allow the Savior to take pity on you!” “I confess! I confess!” “Thou will confess in earnest?” “Yes, yes, only please! …” I force myself to glance at the wretched man. Lopes is on fire—a human torch. His shrieks curdle my blood. “Douse the fire,” Don Henrique suddenly commands. A bucket of water is splashed into Lopes’s face. He gasps for air, his face a grotesque melting candle of dripping water, burnt hair, and charred skin. The Inquisitor accuses, “Thou changest linens on Friday. And thou concealest the treacherous act from thy servants by placing the dirty linens atop the clean, only to remove them before sunset on Friday. Admit it!” Lopes says nothing. “Still thou wadest in defiance!” “No, Your Holiness,” Lopes squeaks. “Speak up, Fernando Lopes!” the Inquisitor thunders. “Did thou change linens on Friday?” Lopes nods. “Dost thou admit to thy sin?’ “Yes, Your—” Lopes swallows. “Yes, Your Holiness.” “And to thy sin of refraining from the consumption of pork?” “But Your Holiness,” Lopes protests feebly, “pork makes me ill—” “Still thou retainest the Devil’s obstinence?” “Truly my stomach is ill-bred for its consumption.” Don Henrique turns to the galleries. “Must we continue listening to the lies of this filthy Jew? Must we prove our intent to save his soul once again? Light the beard.” “No!” Lopes screams. “Yes, I confess. I did abstain from the consumption of pork.” “Thou art a Judaizer. Admit it, Jew!” “Yes, yes, it is true!” “And who else was involved in thy crimes? Thy wife?” “No! Verily, she is an honest Christian!” “As thou art an honest Christian,” Don Henrique mocks. “No, no! She knows nothing of my sins—” “Admit it, dog! Thy wife is also a sinner—” “But it is not true!” “Light his beard.” “No,” Lopes pleads with anguish. But this time he refuses to speak further. His cries are put to rest when again Don Henrique orders his beard to be drenched. “Fernando Lopes,” says the Inquisitor, “dost thou repent for thy wicked ways?” “Yes,” Lopes whispers. “Dost thou embrace the cross and pledge an oath of faith that Jesus Christ is thine only chance for salvation in the Hereafter?” “Yes.” Don Henrique walks over to the condemned man and holds out his crucifix. “Embrace the cross, Fernando.” Lopes does as ordered. “Pledge thy faith to Christ the Lord,” demands the Inquisitor. “I pledge my faith to Christ the Lord.” “That He is thy Savior.” “He is my Savior.” “And thy salvation in the Hereafter.” “And my salvation in the Hereafter.” “Thou art a wretched sinner, but thou dost make penitence on this day for all thy previous sins.” “I am a wretched sinner, but I do make penitence on this day for all my previous sins.” “And pray for the mercy of Christ.” “And pray for the mercy of Christ.” “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” “Fernando Lopes,” cries the Inquisitor, “for thy free confessions, thou warrant mercy. Thou shalt be relaxed to the secular arm for punishment, but shalt be garroted in a swift manner as a reward for thy free confessions and thy pledge of oath to the True Faith.” The guards unbound the prisoner’s limbs and lead the limp, burnt man over to an open iron collar attached perpendicularly to a metal post. As the collar is clamped shut around his scrawny neck, Lopes begs for his life, but his whines are cut short at the first turn of the screw. The collar tightens. Lopes gasps and clutches at the metal band constricting his throat. The screw is turned again. Lopes’s pasty face takes on the blue tinge of strangulation. The screw makes a final revolution, and Lopes’s arms, legs, and bowels relax. The crowd roars at the sight of the lifeless body. A few minutes later a warder loosens the screw and removes the collar. Lopes tumbles to the ground, a pile of dead bone and skin. The body is dragged by the hair to a pyre. After securing the corpse to the stake, the sentry notices that the head is dangling precariously from its broken neck. He grabs a handful of Lopes’s hair and ties it around the stake. The head is now sufficiently upright, dead eyes gaping at the galleries. Satisfied, the sentry walks away to join his ranks. The corpse will be burnt at the conclusion of the ceremony—the grand finale that serves as a caveat for those who contemplate straying from the catechisms of the Church. Don Henrique turns his attention to the woman next to me. She, like me, is a relapso—a converso found guilty of Judaizing. She admits her guilt freely. She begs for another chance, not for her, but for her unborn child. Her pleas, though acknowledged, merit her no special favors. She makes a final effort to save her baby. Let her be punished by death, but cannot the tribunal wait until after the baby is born? The answer is no. She is garroted after reaffirming her faith to the cross. Three more men are placed in the iron collar—two for Judaizing, one for sodomy with his stableboy. Two more women. Another man. Another woman. Deep into the night until Don Henrique eyes the last victim—me. I am nineteen, with gray eyes that used to shine like newly pressed coins. Once my hair was beautiful. It is now a cap of untamed dusty curls that fall past my waistline. My face is covered with sores, my lips cracked open, oozing blood. My teeth are gone, having been rooted out with tongs as punishment for biting a jailer. My nude gums are uneven nodules of angry red flesh. A guard gags me. I fight viciously against leather restraints that bind my arms and legs. Two guards are holding me in place, but the sweat on their faces bespeaks the intensity of my struggles. “Teresa Roderiguez!” the Inquisitor announces. “Filthy wretch of a daughter. Have thee anything to say in behalf of thy defense?” I nod. “Remove the morgaza,” orders Don Henrique. As one of the sentries pulls off the gag, I yell, “A pox on thee!” Don Henrique stiffens with rage. I am glad. He shouts, “Wretched, filthy dog! Save thy soul!” I spit in his direction. The Inquisitor raises his fist and cries, “Thou shalt burn in Hell continuously lest ye make confessions!” I say, “I piss on thy confessions!” I spit again. “Putrid agent of the Devil—” “I am a Jew! I shall die a Jew!” “Aye, the witch dost admit her heresy!” Don Henrique says to the audience. He faces me. “Thy ghastly, bull-dunged body shall be a playmate for the Devil lest thou make thy confessions to Christ—” “I shit on thy Christ! Shma Yisroel, Adonai—” “Silence! Gag the filth!” The rag is stuffed back into my mouth. “Light the dog’s feet!” A torch is held under my soles. The flames tickled, then burned the callused flesh, causing it to blister and wrinkle like roasted chestnuts. I scream. The agony causes me to buck harder than before. “Have thee something to say now, Teresa Roderiguez?” I nod. “Remove the morgaza,” the Inquisitor says. A sentry sighs and pulls the rag out of my mouth. I scream, “Shma Yisroel, Adonai—” “Replace the morgaza! For thy obstinance, bitch, shalt thou burnest. To the quemadero shalt thou be placed alive, and there shalt thou be raped by the Devil for eternity!” The guard pulls me to the stake. I fight him, attempt to land blows and kicks with my bound arms and legs. It is useless. As I thrash, they strap me onto the pyre and the Inquisitor offers his torch to King John. His Royal Highness rises, straightens his cape, then takes the arm of his Queen. Both monarchs step down from their thrones and, heavily guarded, walk to the pyre where I am jerking and twitching. The torch passes from the Inquisitor to the King, then again from the King to the Queen. With the help of her husband, the Queen grazes the torch against the bottom layer of the pyre and the wood erupts into flames. As the fire creeps upward, toward my feet, the crowd begins to stir. Smoke soon envelops me, the hot breath of the stake erupting into an open conflagration of skipping plumes. I howl in pain, then cry out a single word—Adonai. I hear the crackle of flames, the screams and cheers of the crowd, the bleating of goats. I smell my own burnt flesh … I am going. I am gone … Chapter 2 (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) As the last bits of dirt were shoveled over the grave, William Shakespeare arose and dusted clots of mud and loose earth from his stockings. He looked down at the fresh soil, still stunned by the sudden loss of his mentor, his best friend, Henry Whitman. What villain had done such a foul deed, slaughtered a man on the open road? Shakespeare shuddered as he pictured Whitman dying in that muddy sheep’s cot, his bones cold and stiff from the chilled northern air. The body had been found by a shepherdess, the rapier still embedded in Harry’s back. It had pierced his heart. Dear God have mercy upon his soul and rest be to his ashes. Harry’s demise. A surprise attack from a hidden enemy or a madman? The culminating act of a heated quarrel? Always clever—even when sorely drunk—Harry had been an expert improviser, had talked his way out of many tense situations. A good player must be creative, Harry had told him once. If the book is less than perfect, it’s up to the man on stage to make amends. Poor Harry. Performing his final scene without an audience. The ultimate insult for an actor. In life, periods of solitude were blessings. Dying alone was a bitter curse. Rubbing his gloved hands together and tightening his cloak, Shakespeare stared off into the gray landscape. The cemetery was four miles from Bishopsgate, an hour’s walk from London—a long walk when the heart was heavy with sadness. He turned to his right and spotted an incoming funeral train about two hundred yards to the north—a long line of mourners holding banners, torches, and scutcheons. Squires, bearing the family’s coat-of-arms, were followed by blue-gowned servants. Evidence of a man of much means: the deceased had been a gentleman. The casket, draped in black, plodded through the fog as if it had been cast into choppy waters. The funeral party soon came into sharper view. Beyond the staff there were very few mourners. Very few had shown up at Whitman’s funeral as well. A day for small funerals. The incoming party passed to the right of Harry’s grave, steadily crunching wet grass underneath leather soles. Shakespeare returned his eyes to the grave, almost expecting Whitman to pop his head up and claim his entire demise was jest. When that didn’t happen, he began to walk away. He hadn’t gone more than ten feet when he felt the presence of eyes upon him—an eerie, intangible touch that crept down his spine and grabbed his legs. He spun to his left, in the direction of the gentleman’s funeral, and saw a motionless, veiled woman appearing to stare at him. Transfixed by her image—a black icon enveloped by shimmering air—he stared back. Delicately, she lifted her veil and regarded him further. She was young, Shakespeare noticed immediately, and beautiful. Her eyes were steely gray, yet burned like coals afire. Her complexion was flawless—milky white with a hint of blush on high arches of cheekbone. Her lips were full and slightly parted, emitting small wisps of warm breath. Her brow and most of her hair were shadowed by hat and veil, but several loose tresses streamed alongside her cheeks and gleamed as black and silky as the fur of a witch’s cat. Statuesque but hazy, as if chiseled out of the clouds that surrounded her, she seemed but a dream. “Rebecca,” a distant voice said. The woman didn’t respond. The voice suddenly took the shape of a man. An elderly gentleman with a sizable belly and a comely red beard, dressed in a knee-length physician’s gown. The cloths of his vestments were not wool or linen, but silk and velvet, the leather of his boots polished to a high shine. “Rebecca,” he repeated. “Grandmama needs your help.” Immediately, the woman lowered her veil and caught up with the rest of her party. Shakespeare felt a tap on the shoulder and jumped. It was only Cuthbert. His eyelids drooped with fatigue, his hazel eyes were red and watery. Like his famous brother, Richard Burbage, Cuthbert was well developed, with thick lips, high cheekbones, and a bulbous nose. The main difference between the two was their voices—Richard’s was deep and melodious, Cuthbert’s thin and tinny. He wasn’t much older than Shakespeare, yet he always walked with a stoop reserved for men twice his age. He placed his hand gently on Shakespeare’s shoulder. “Your roving eye shows no respect for the solemnity of the occasion,” Cuthbert said kindly. “Reproach me not,” said Shakespeare. “It was she who engaged me.” “Who was she?” asked Cuthbert. “I know not.” “Save that she is beautiful.” Shakespeare smiled. “My eye isn’t alone in its wanderings.” “I admit it to be the truth,” Cuthbert said. “She was a lovely spirit amid all this death.” He paused, then said, “Harry’s death is a great loss for all of us. But I know what Whitman meant to you, Willy. I’m sorry.” Shakespeare said, “Whitman was a drunk, a braggart, and a carouser. He constantly floundered in a sea of mischief, coming periously close to drowning until someone—usually me—had the decency to rescue him. This time I wasn’t there. Whitman was a millstone about my neck.” “You don’t mean that,” Cuthbert said. “Don’t I?” “You’re angry with him.” “How can you be angry at a corpse?” But he was angry. Enraged! And guilty! If only he had been there. In the early days it had been the other way around—Harry the nursemaid, he the baby. Shakespeare had been nineteen at the time, void of any marketable craft. A convicted poacher, he’d been expelled from his native shire of Warwick because he hadn’t been able to pay the stiff fine and had been too full of pride to ask his in-laws for help. He packed a bag and bid good-bye to Anne and the children, swearing to send them all his money just as soon as he was hired by a troupe. But after living on the streets for six months, his only income pennies for lyrics he’d written for troubador songs, Shakespeare had become despondent. No one would hire him as a player, no one was interested in reading his playbooks. It had been desperation that made him seek out Whitman. The famous actor, though known to be moody and drink in excess, had sudden bouts of unexplained generosity. After one of Whitman’s productions, Shakespeare approached him, fully expecting to be rebuffed. Though there was no room in the fellowship for another itinerate player, Whitman agreed to read Shakespeare’s play. And read it Harry did, grunting, muttering to himself as he sorted through the uneven scraps of paper on which the lines were written. Shakespeare couldn’t afford anything as luxurious as unused paper. When Harry had finished, he calmly handed Shakespeare back his play and asked what he knew about horses. That was it. Not a single comment on his work, just what did he know about horses. Shakespeare told Harry that he knew much about grooming—a bald lie—and was hired on the spot. His first real work in London—tending the horses of the gentleman playgoers. He’d been so grateful to Harry for the opportunity. A few days later Shakespeare burned the book. It remained forgotten until six months later. Harry had been voicing one of his many soliloquies on stage when he started to improvise using lines from Shakespeare’s ill-fated play. The rogue had committed the book to memory as he read it! Afterward, in a tavern, of course, Harry begrudgingly gave Shakespeare a word or two of credit for the well-received lines he’d orated. Shakespeare looked back at Harry’s grave. Only Whitman’s widow and her parish priest remained, the other members of the fellowship having already begun the walk back to London. Cuthbert followed Shakespeare’s eyes and said, “Poor Margaret. What will she do? We’ll have to help.” “Such were my intentions,” Shakespeare said. “What have you in savings?” “Four crowns—two are in my doublet.” “Good luck at the cockfights over the year?” “Not so,” Shakespeare replied. “I’ve simply been saving my coins. Anne should lack nothing.” “What a liar you be,” said Cuthbert, grinning. He quickly added: “A statement made in jest, dear cousin.” “I see you value your ballocks.” Shakespeare laughed. “In truth, perhaps a bet or two did turn up sweet. Now, how does a gentleman offer the widow money without offending her honor? Margaret’s a woman sated in pride.” “Yes, a problem.” Cuthbert broke into a series of spasmodic coughs. “Then this is what you do. You must lie—in good faith, of course.” “How so?” “Tell her the money was owed to her husband. He had lent you the pounds when your debts mounted, and had never told her lest he sully your image in her gentle mind. If it pleases her, she may take her just due.” “She won’t take my money.” “You approach her with a humbleness of tone, yet insistence in your voice. The hooded eyelid, a grave downturn of the lip. Marry, Will, you’re a player! Use your skills and convince the poor widow.” “Aye, a player I am,” Shakespeare said. “But she was the superior player’s wife.” Cuthbert coughed and nodded. “True. But now she’s stricken with grief. Her finely honed senses have been dulled.” He nudged Shakespeare in the ribs. “The priest is leaving her alone. You have opportunity. Make the most of it.” Shakespeare nodded and approached the grieving widow. She was a tall woman with colorless eyes, the lids red and puffy with sorrow. Because her veil was up, the frosty air had bitten raw her cheeks and nose. She held in her hand a sprig of rosemary which she fingered absently. Such pain etched on her face, he thought. It served to increase his own. “William,” she said quietly. “Margaret.” He kissed her on the cheek then lowered his head. “Harry was a good soul, wasn’t he?” she asked. “Yes, he was.” “I loved him, Willy.” “I loved him as well,” Shakespeare said softly. “He was my brother in spirit if not in flesh. I’ll miss him dearly.” “So will we all,” Margaret said. “At least he’s not departed in vain. Nine living souls will attest to that.” “How are the children faring?” Margaret sighed. “Their father’s death leans heavily on their legs, but with God’s help they shall keep their balance.” “May God shine his love on them.” “Thank you,” Margaret whispered. Shakespeare held her hands. Margaret had always impressed him as being a strong woman. She had to be. Nine children and a husband who was never home. But Shakespeare never heard her complain. Harry had always supported his family quite well. Shakespeare cleared his throat. “I have something I must give you,” he said. “I’m not in want of anything.” “Nor do I claim you to be. I simply want to pay you back for money I borrowed from Harry.” Shakespeare reached into his doublet and took several gold coins. “It’s long overdue.” Margaret said, “Harry did not make it a habit to lend money, Will. You, more than anyone, should be aware of that. Ye men! Cuthbert had tried the same tactic and was no more successful.” The scoundrel, Shakespeare thought. Instructing me, knowing all the while I would fail. He sighed to himself. “I pray you, Margaret,” he said. “Take it so I may do honor to my mentor’s widow. The favor will be yours.” He extended his hand toward her. “Please.” Slowly, Margaret reached for the crowns, then retracted her hand. “If I’m in need, dear Will, I’ll call you. For now, let’s leave the matter untouched. Agreed?” “Agreed.” Shakespeare stuffed the coins back into his doublet. “Aye, such times we live in, Will,” Margaret said, walking away from the grave. “An honest man cannot traverse the land without fear of the bastard highwaymen.” Shakespeare said, “Were I to find the cutpurse responsible for this act, I’d give him his entitlement. Bait for the unchained bear would be an appropriate death.” “Aye, make it slow and painful,” Margaret added. “And gruesome.” Margaret laughed hollowly. “We’re as bad as heathens. Christians do not engage in this kind of speech.” Shakespeare said nothing. “Aye, Will, you are as Harry. Incorrigible.” Margaret sighed. “How I yearn for more innocent days.” “An illusion, Margaret.” “Not so,” she protested. “My grandmother recalls such times.” Shakespeare didn’t answer. “And you think this not so?” “Memories of the elderly are bathed in sunlight—exceedingly bright yet very indistinct.” Margaret shook her head. “So I shall remain wistful and labor in my delusion,” she said. “It’s a terrible lot to be a player. Traveling on the road, dependent on the kindness of the hostler, alert and watchful lest you fall prey to the cozening knave that roams the country’s highways. If you were sound of mind, Will, you’d go back to Anne and the children and return to the occupation of your father.” Shakespeare shook his head. “Go home to your family, Will. Go home and make peace.” “My home is here with the fellowship, Margaret,” Shakespeare said. “I’d be one foot in the grave if I gave up the theater. Anne knows that. I cannot live without the stage, and she refuses to uproot. So we both act as we must. The great Guild of Whittawer will have to go on without me.” He smiled. “Heaven only knows how it has endured this long in my absence.” They walked a few more feet in silence. The wind shot chilled arrows that pierced their lungs. Shakespeare said, “Margaret, why did you bury Harry outside of London instead of in his family land up North?” Margaret turned white. “Harry mentioned his family to you?” “Very briefly. He claimed he was born of displaced nobility. But then again, he claimed diverse things, many of which were products of a prevaricating mind.” “Harry had kinsmen up North,” Margaret said. “But they are not family. You see how many have come to his funeral today.” “Yet he was visiting them when he was killed,” Shakespeare said. Margaret didn’t respond. She wrapped herself in resentment and wore it as visibly as her cloak. She bit her thumbnail, then said, “Who will find my husband’s murderer, Willy?” It was Shakespeare’s turn to be silent. “None of Harry’s true brothers have offered to seek vengeance for him,” Margaret said. “My husband’s soul cannot rest in eternity until the slayer is brought to justice.” “I’m aware of that, Margaret.” “When you had no one to turn to, twas Harry—” “I know,” Shakespeare interrupted. “What would you like me to do?” “Find this fiend,” Margaret announced. She stated it so simply, as if it were the only agenda open to him. “I suppose I could take a brief trip up North,” Shakespeare said. “Make a few inquiries … Although without Harry, the fellowship is sadly lacking competent players. And the theaters have just reopened—” “If the fellowship can go on without Harry, production can proceed without you. Find my husband’s murderer!” Shakespeare said he’d try, though his stomach had become knotted at the thought. He would depart in a few days. Margaret whispered breathlessly, “Hints are that the killer is well versed in the Italianate style of dueling. The rapier’s thrust cut deep into Harry’s heart.” “Then the murderer must have been very adroit,” noted Shakespeare. “Harry was a fine swordsman.” “Yes,” Margaret answered in a small voice. “Precaution, Will. Be clever or you’ll find your fortune as Harry’s.” “I shall step lightly,” Shakespeare said. For a moment, he wondered how she had ensnared him to do her bidding. But deep in his heart he knew that she really didn’t talk him into anything. Shakespeare wanted to avenge his mentor. He also knew that had the situation been reversed, Harry would have done the same for him. “If I find this Hell-rot scum, I shall be well prepared.” “And I shall love you all the more for my Harry’s revenge.” Margaret’s face had become alive with the desire for retribution. “God bless you, Will Shakespeare. An honorable man, you are.” Margaret kissed his cheek and dropped his hand. “I must rejoin my children and friends. You’ll keep me informed?” “Of everything I disclose.” “I wish you luck, William.” She let down her veil, tightened her cloak, and hurried away. Cuthbert waited for Shakespeare at the mouth of the open road. The overcast had started to lift, giving way to the green velvety hillside, a smooth verdant wave speckled with silver brush, ancient oaks, wildflowers, and the white nap of unshorn sheep. Taking a deep breath, he tried to exhale slowly, but instead let out a hacking cough. He cleared his lungs, spat out a large ball of phlegm and flexed his stiffened fingers. His eyes swelled with water and he blew his red, round nose. Bells from the church tower rang out the time—eleven-thirty by the clock. Burbage was well aware of the hour before it was announced. His stomach had told him it was time to take dinner. So late, he thought. And the sets still needed repairs. With Whitman’s funeral and so little time to prepare, the production would be a disaster! The troupe could no longer afford to play half-empty galleries. Not with the new batch of costumes recently purchased—genuine furs for the king’s robes. Such extravagance his brother, Richard, insisted upon. And the new swords! Not to mention the two new hired men and another member demanding to be a sharer. Then there was the constant threat of Black Death. The outbreaks of plague had subsided long enough to allow the Master of the Revels to reopen the theaters. But if this year’s epidemic proved to be as deadly as last year’s, the theater doors again would be locked. Gods, would that be calamitous financially! Shakespeare caught up with him and the two of them began their journey back to Southwark just across London Bridge. “You seem lost in thought, friend,” Shakespeare said. “The business of providing pleasure to others,” Cuthbert answered. “No matter. How’d you fare with the widow?” Shakespeare looked impish. “Margaret will be well provided for.” “Good,” sighed Cuthbert. “The lady always did prefer you to me.” “My waifish eyes, dear cousin. They tug at the heartstrings.” “Or leer at the chest,” mumbled Cuthbert. “Depending on your mood.” “She refused my crowns, my friend—no surprise, eh? But did agree to take them should there be a time of need.” “Fair enough.” Shakespeare stopped walking, “Cuthbert, who would do this to Harry? Yes, someone might filch Harry’s purse as he lay sleeping off one of his drunken states. That has happened before. But murder him? He had not a true enemy this side of the channel.” “Vagabonds knew nothing of his kindness.” “True—if his murderer was a highwayman …” “And you think it might be someone else? Someone he knew?” “I’ve no pull to one theory or the other.” Cuthbert said, “There is the possibility that Harry became drunk and a foolish fight ensued after words were spoken in choler. Harry often spoke carelessly when drunk.” “Yet he was equally quick with the apologies,” Shakespeare said. “Besides, he died in an open field and not on the floor of a tavern.” Alone, Shakespeare thought. “He could have been moved to the field,” Cuthbert said. “A lot of bother,” Shakespeare said. Cuthbert agreed. He asked, “What about the coins he was carrying? Margaret made mention that Harry had pocketed several angels before he left for his trip up North. They were gone when the body was discovered. Harry was robbed, Willy.” “Or Harry spent the money before he was murdered,” Shakespeare said. Cuthbert conceded the point. They resumed walking. It seemed to Shakespeare that Harry could have easily done in an ordinary highwayman itching for a scrap. Whitman was a deft swordsman. But was he caught off guard? Had the attacker been a fiercesome enemy or a madman possessed by an evil spirit? Shakespeare stepped in silence for several minutes, brooding over the fate of his partner and friend. Again Cuthbert placed a hand on his shoulder. He said, softly, “What’s the sense, Will? Harry is dead and gone. But we are still among the living. We’ve a performance at two and our stomachs are empty.” “I’ve not an appetite,” Shakespeare said. “But a pint of ale would well wet my throat.” Cuthbert coughed. “And yours, also,” added Shakespeare. “Have you seen an apothecary about the cough?” “Aye.” “And what did he say?” “Quarter teaspoon dragon water, quarter teaspoon mithridate, followed by a quart of flat warmed ale. If it worsens, perhaps more drastic measures need to be taken.” “What kind of measures?” “He made mention of leeching.” They were silent for a moment. “Nothing to be concerned about,” Cuthbert said. “Good.” Shakespeare paused, then said, “I must go up North for a few weeks.” Cuthbert stopped walking. “Up North? Alone? Are you mad?” “Far from it.” “Though I mean no disrespect for the deceased, we are already one player short, Will.” “Margaret asked it of me,” Shakespeare said. “And I would have done it anyway. I owe it to Harry.” “A minute ago you called him a millstone around your neck.” “He deserves peace in eternity,” Shakespeare said. His eyes suddenly moistened. “He visited me in my dreams last night, lectured me in the proper art of projection …” Shakespeare suddenly covered his eyes with his hands. “His restless soul hangs about me like a nagging wife. The Devil with it! I must avenge him, Cuthbert, or I’ll have no peace of mind.” “But—” “Save your breath.” Cuthbert knew arguing with him was useless. Shakespeare and Whitman—both mules. He said, cautiously, “Perhaps the fellowship can handle your absence financially, if it’s only for one week—” “Give me two weeks. The open roads may be poor.” Cuthbert sighed. “Two weeks, then. I pray you, Willy, no more than two weeks.” Shakespeare agreed, then added, “Much can happen in two weeks.” Chapter 3 (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) Judging from the number of people, the funeral party was an immense success. It was only six in the evening, but scores of sweating bodies had already filled the Great Hall of the Ames’s manor house. Most were respected commoners—wealthy business merchants, gold traders, and local statesmen—but some gallants and important nobility had elected to make an appearance. The great ladies gossiped, huddling around the lit wall torches or floor sconces so they could be observed and admired under proper lighting. They fanned themselves, studied the crowds, the dress of those without title, wondering if the commoners were violating any of the sumptuary laws. Other wives stood against the black-draped walls and sneered at their husbands stuffing their mouths with food. Two dozen rows of banqueting tables were piled high with delicacies—milk-fed beef stewed with roots, venison in plum sauce, trays of poultry, platters of pheasants roasted over the open pit in the center of the room. The hall had become stifling, choked with the smell of perspiration and the heat of cooking. But Rebecca Lopez took no notice. Head down, she spoke to no one, and no one dared address her. She was the fiancée of the deceased, Raphael Nuñoz, and as such, entitled to her grief in solitude. She had chosen a spot under a drafty window at the far end of the Great Hall and remained alone, her aloofness constructing an invisible barrier that kept the guests away. Frosty air blew upon her neck and shoulders, and she was shivering—the only one in the room to do so. Her mother had offered her a blanket, but Rebecca had declined. She made no further effort to become warm. Yesterday she’d been numbed by what had happened. She hadn’t been able to feel cold, heat, or pain. But now all she felt was anger and a fervent wish that all the commotion would end soon. Among all of them—the so-named mourners—not a tear had been shed. Sheer hypocrisy, she thought. They come not to console, but instead to gorge themselves or chat idly about the weather. Let them take a stroll if the chill occupies their thoughts so. Let them leave, so the air inside will clear of their foul odor and overbearing perfume. Through her long black veil she eyed Hector and Miguel steeped in sadness. They were large men made small by black sorrow. Her heart ached for them—father and brother—so deep was the intensity of their loss. Rebecca remembered the swift death of Raphael’s mother, Judith. She’d been no more than a little girl at her mother’s side, but nevertheless recalled the ashen face, the bloody legs with a dead child between them. The memory had haunted her for years. Now, ironically, she was thankful that Judith had died and been spared the pain of seeing her firstborn dead. How she wished she could hold Hector and Miguel in her arms, sing them sweet lullabies and take away the anguish. But to perform such an act of solace was to confess that they were more affected than she by Raphael’s death. Even though this was true, she didn’t dare admit it. Raphael. Since she had to marry—and he had been forced to wed as well—their union would have been as good as any. He’d been a sweet, sweet lover with a randy laugh, very adventurous under the sheets. But there had been another side to him, dark and brooding. Unlike Miguel, Raphael had a terrible temper, and though he had never struck her, he’d come close more than once. Rebecca learned early in their relationship to stop asking him questions about the mission. Her betrothed, always burdened by worldly matters. Though Rebecca mourned his death, she was relieved by the aborted nuptials. Unlike most of the girls her age, it had never been her dream to marry, to become the perfect English gentlewoman. All she could see was young girls turning older than their years, weighted down by pregnancy that turned into obesity. Fat and saggy, disgusting in the eyes of husbands who leered and groped after smooth, supple bodies. And the bairns, crying and wailing, drooling cheesy spit. And then there was the permanently etched fear of ending up as had Judith—the women and girls staring at her corpse. Rebecca knew her reprieve from wedlock was temporary. It was only a matter of time before Father replaced Raphael with another—Miguel, most likely. Once married, she would have to obey her husband without question. It was her duty. But for now, unexpectedly released from marital obligations, she felt like a wild horse destined for domestication but suddenly let loose instead. Freedom snipping away her feelings of numbness, of sadness. Obscene as it was, she couldn’t help herself. Rebecca adjusted her coif, looked around the room and saw Lady Marlburn stuffing her corpulent body with comfits, licking sticky sugar off of her sausage-shaped fingers. Rebecca had been periodically observing her for an hour. The lady had consumed ample quantities of capon, duck, veal, moorcock, pigeon, and pickled eggs, washing it all down with tankards of ale. She’d be heavily purging herself tonight. The chamberpot would be filled with her putrid stools. Swine, they were. Keeping their close stools next to their bedposts, smelling the fetid stench as they slept. It was Rebecca’s grandam who insisted that the pots be kept away from the bedchambers and the kitchen. And they have the audacity to call us swine. Thoughts of her grandam filled Rebecca with warmth. Though Rebecca loved her mother—she was a dutiful daughter—it was the old woman who had always been the main recipient of her affections. The hag, as she was called by everyone else, was a skeletal witch, crippled severely by disfigured feet. Toothless and wrinkled, she rarely talked to anyone, and when she did, it was usually nonsense. People thought her a bit daft, but Rebecca knew she spoke foolishly to keep people from prying into her past life—years that even Rebecca was not privy to. When they were alone, Grandmama revealed a remarkable acumen, a steadfast calm in the face of crisis, and an inexhaustible patience. Grandmama had taught her to read Hebrew, had taught her much about the old religion through tales and stories. Young and old—confidantes—each listening to the dreams of the other. Rebecca was awakened from her reverie by the harsh cackle emitted from Lady Marlburn. As the great dame laughed, layers of chins slapped against her chest. Her breasts were enormous, tumbling out of a too-tight bodice. Her pomander was entrapped in cleavage—the sickly sweet-smelling orb peeking out of the gorge that separated mountainous mounds of flesh. Lord Marlburn stood dutifully at her side, nodding at the appropriate moments, sneaking sidelong glances at Rebecca. The “great” lord and lady, her father forced to show them respect because they were nobility. A pox on them. Rebecca remembered too clearly Lord Marlburn’s heavy arms holding her down, the thick hand clamped tightly over her mouth. His prick, stubby and crusted with scum, pushing deeply into her body. His stench and sweat dripping on her freshly washed skin. When he was done, the previously lust-blinded lupine face had become sheepish. He had cried to her, begging her forgiveness at what he had thought was her deflowering. His weeping had made her even more sick and contemptuous. It had been simply her time of the month; she hadn’t been a virgin for two years. But she had told him nothing. Gifts soon followed—expensive bolts of cloth, bracelets studded with jewels, rare edibles—citrus from southern Italy, asparagus from Holland, chocolate from Spain. He had tried to speak with her, but she feigned illness, knowing he was mad with worry that she was carrying his bastard child. More gifts. More and more. What a fool! Looking at the two piggish bodies, Rebecca wondered how he could possibly mount and penetrate her when their torsos were wrapped in so many layers of fat. She tried to imagine their humping—two mastiffs pawing at each other, huffing and puffing. She hated them! At the moment she hated everyone. From the shield of her veil she noticed Dunstan approaching her. Her cousin was handsome. Tall, well built, his muscular thighs bulging under his stockings. His chest seemed massive under his peasecod doublet. His hair was long and sleek, his beard midnight black. A diamond winked from his left earlobe. As he neared, Rebecca picked up her head and nodded an acknowledgment. “How are you faring?” he asked, standing at her side. “Worry not for my sake,” Rebecca said. “Instead worry for Hector and Miguel. I fear that Raphael’s death will leave them weak with grief.” Dunstan sighed and nodded. “And what about your grief?” “I’ll survive.” “Did you love him?” Dunstan asked. “He was my betrothed, Dunstan. Of course I loved him.” Dunstan touched his earring with his forefinger and thumb. “And did you love him even as he bedded your chambermaid?” Rebecca faced him. “You’re despicable.” “Admit it,” Dunstan said with a half smile. “You feel relieved.” Rebecca turned away, blushing at the truth. Carelessly, she said, “Raphael’s death leaves us in a ticklish position, does it not?” Dunstan whipped his head around and whispered, “Quiet. We’re among strangers.” “My father talks freely,” Rebecca said. “He’s often unaware who is listening.” “God’s sointes, Rebecca, keep your voice down!” Dunstan reprimanded her. “Your father is discreet because he trusts you and speaks unmolested in your presence. Don’t make an ass out of him—or us. As comfortable as we live, we’re not immune from the whims of our rulers.” Rebecca knew that to be the truth. England’s religious tolerance could quickly be replaced by the Queen’s sudden death or military mutiny. It wasn’t that long ago that peace was threatened by Her Majesty’s cousin—Mary Queen of Scots. Staunch Catholics had been slaughtered. If the Papist burns easily, how much hotter burns the unbaptized heretic? Rebecca said, “Father instructs me to concern myself little in matters of politics, only to do what I’m told. I forge the documents and forget what is being said around the house.” “Sound advice,” Dunstan answered. “He treats me as if I hadn’t a brain.” “He’s worried for your safety. Uncle has some formidable enemies—” “Essex—” “Lower your voice.” “I’m whispering.” “Say no more about the mission.” Dunstan scanned the room. Thank God no one was watching them. “Raphael’s death is not only a great loss for our people, but a dilemma for you as well. We both know that Miguel is unfit as a husband. Your future is no longer ensured.” “It matters not to me.” “Aye, but it matters much to your father.” Dunstan patted her knee. “But God gave you a fair face and a beautiful form.” “And a keen mind as well,” she reminded him. “That is no asset, dear cousin. It’s a defect.” She turned her head away. “Not to worry,” he said philosophically. “I overheard your father talking to quite a few lords.” “A waste of time.” “Tis good you are less than anxious to wed.” Very good, he thought wolfishly. “I approve not of the merchandise available.” Rebecca sighed. “And what does not meet with Sir Dunstan Ames’s approval?” “They’re Englishmen … real Englishmen. Best to stick with kinsmen who understand our ways, even if we have to import a man from the Continent.” Dunstan looked at his hand, at his gold ring. “Although there are advantages of marrying peerage …” Such as the weight of their purses, Rebecca thought. She said nothing. Dunstan stroked her cheek under the veil. “Such a face you have. You could be a countess with the bat of an eyelash … The revenues of an earldom at your command … all those golden angels falling at your feet.” “And a tarnished noble as well.” Dunstan smiled. “A comfortable position nonetheless.” “And a grand one for the mission,” Rebecca said. “A matter of time before hands dip into my lord husband’s pockets.” “We don’t use money for personal gain, Rebecca,” Dunstan said. Rebecca said, “Then why do your fingers sparkle?” “I work hard, cousin,” Dunstan said. “I go without sleep for nights—” “Yet you still live, while Raphael is cold,” Rebecca snapped. “Need I remind you of that detail, cousin?” “I offer my services wherever I’m needed.” “Bah,” Rebecca said. “Even at a time such as this, you bait me, Becca,” Dunstan said. “What pleasure do you derive from it?” “The same pleasure you derived when you bespoke of Raphael bedding my chambermaid?” Dunstan didn’t answer, and glanced around the room. All he saw were people preoccupied with themselves and the food. The tables sagged under the weight of platters. And so much more still being prepared in the kitchen. As one tray grew empty, another was brought out by a scullion. Since no one was paying them any mind, Dunstan took her hand, and she didn’t resist. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, Rebecca.” For the first time this afternoon her lip quivered. The overflowing lakes that had formed in her eyes became rivers of tears pouring down her cheek. “It was for no purpose, Dunstan,” she whispered. “A barter of Raphael’s life for another. Yes, I confess that I wasn’t keen to wed, but I grieve for the loss of my betrothed. At times the mission seems like such folly—” “Shh,” Dunstan reprimanded her. “There’s much thou knowest not, little one.” “Oh Dunstan!” she implored. “Don’t let Father marry me to Miguel, as is his duty. You’re a man. Be my lips and plead my case. Though I am so very fond of Miguel, our union would be a mockery!” In sooth, Dunstan thought. He shook his head, knowing it was his cursed luck to tell his uncle Roderigo the truth about Miguel’s preferences in the art of love. Uncle had a vile temper and was bound to become enraged. He had always loved Miguel like a son. Diplomacy would be of the essence. He turned to Rebecca. “Nonetheless, it’s your father’s duty to find you a husband.” But in the meantime, … he thought. Rebecca moaned. “Dear God help me. At least I had learned to understand Raphael. I become ill at the thought of marrying anyone else.” “Hush,” he said soothingly. “Keep your ideas to yourself, Rebecca. The more obstinate you become, the more your father feels a need to tame you by marrying you off to the proper gentleman.” “Yes.” She dabbed her eyes with a lace kerchief. “You’re correct … for once.” Dunstan ignored the barb. They’d become so frequent of late. He said, “Until an appropriate suitor is found, your hand shall remain free.” “I don’t want a suitor.” “You are young and foolish. You don’t know what you want.” “Had I the skills of a surgeon, I’d rip my womb from my body—” “Quiet!” Dunstan said. “You’re too young to know the power of the bush between your legs. It will not be plump forever, Rebecca. One day it will dry up and no one shall be enamored of it—or you. You must learn to use the graces God has given you. It guarantees a life of leisure for your old age. A man will endow much upon you if in your youth you serve him well.” “The stars cast upon me ill hap when they formed me woman,” Rebecca mumbled to herself. “You speak nonsense.” Dunstan held her hands and looked into her veiled eyes. “But these are trying times for all of us, and you especially are confused. Angry one moment, sullen or grief-stricken the next. It’s best if you say nothing until you’re of stronger mind.” Rebecca knew he was right. She was exhausted by her contradicting emotions. Dunstan gave the room another cursory glance. They were still talking unnoticed. Lifting her veil, he kissed her quickly on the lips. “And pray, my sweet, speak not of the mission. You must learn to silence your thoughts, Rebecca. Lips should be shields, not sieves through which excess words do escape.” Rebecca nodded and Dunstan kissed her again. This time it was with a passion she had experienced long ago in the darkness of a hayloft, and she immediately pulled away. She felt Dunstan’s disappointment and almost felt sorry for him. Almost. He had been her first tutor, her mentor. It was he who taught her about freedom, filling her mind with tales of his travel to the Continent, to North Africa and the East. He taught her Arabic, Italian, French, Flemish. With each language she acquired, books in the original editions soon followed. Her head became dizzy with ideas that displeased her father immensely. But Dunstan disregarded him and continued her education—in body as well as mind. Rebecca knew he was after the body all along, but he, amongst all the others, was the only one willing to take the time to teach her. So she ceded to his wishes. And he was a gentle one for the first time—calm and slow—coaching with unusual patience the clumsiness out of a twelve-year-old girl. Rebecca smoothed her cousin’s mustache with the tip of her finger. “How are the bairns?” she asked. “A lively brood. Grace is ready to drop another son for me. She’s a healthy woman.” A cow, he thought, but God be praised, a good one for breeding—three sons and a daughter, all thriving. Dunstan lowered her veil. “Grace is a good woman also. I thank God for the day I married her. You could learn a great deal from her, cousin.” Surreptitiously, Dunstan placed in Rebecca’s hand a folded piece of paper. “What is this?” she said. “Your proper mourning prayers for your betrothed. Say them in silence before you sleep tonight. God will hear them.” Rebecca started to unfold the paper. Dunstan placed his hand on hers. He whispered, “Not here, Becca, in private. They are written in the old language.” Rebecca paled and quickly stuffed the paper up her sleeve. Dunstan caught the eye of the fat Lady Marlburn and nodded. He whispered to Rebecca, “When alone, you must sit on the floor, even take your meals while sitting on the floor. You may sleep in your bed, however.” “What happens when my chambermaid comes in my closet,” Rebecca whispered back. “When she knocks, you get up. She mustn’t see what you are doing—ever. Our money is to be used for the mission, not for paying off suspicious maids. After she leaves, you must sit back on the floor.” “For just seven days or the whole month?” “Just the seven days, starting tonight. Then comes the month of lesser mourning.” Dunstan squeezed his cousin’s hand. “We cannot speak anymore. The grand dame Lady Marlburn has espied our conversation and is coming our way. Soon you’ll be besieged with ghouls. Unless you wish to converse with them, I suggest you feign exhaustion.” Rebecca slumped in her chair. It wasn’t a hard scene to play. She closed her eyes. Blessed darkness. Chapter 4 (#u030dea56-f839-5cb7-82fc-d99598947c89) By midnight only the converso men remained—six tonight because Hector and Miguel had gone home early with the women to grieve in private. The men sat around the table and waited for the servants to finish tidying the mess that the visitors had made. The wooden plank tables upon which the massive feast had rested were barren. With the fifty-foot walls covered in black cloth and a strong wind whistling through mullion-glass windows, the room seemed as desolate as a crypt. Dunstan Ames suggested that the men retire to a smaller closet, but his father shook his head, feeling too tired to move. Servants and scullions scurried about the hall, their footsteps muffled by the rushes that blanketed the stone floor. Eventually Dunstan grew impatient with their presence and shooed his father’s lackeys away. Roderigo Lopez was nearly sick with exhaustion and worry. Thank God Rebecca had proved herself to be a strong girl. Not an easy chore. The funeral had been a long ordeal, the church service full of pomp and prayer that left the conversos noticeably uncomfortable. As professed Protestants but secret Jews, they were members of the local parish and attended sabbath services as required by the law of the land. But they tried to be as late for church as possible, sometimes not arriving until the conclusion of the service. Roderigo knew that the other parishoners noticed their tardiness. But the congregants never voiced a word of protest because the parish priest always greeted the conversos warmly. The secret Jews were paying him well. Though they breathed easier in England than in their native land of Portugal—there was no Inquisition here, praise God—they were still forced to hide their worship from prying eyes. An extremely difficult task. Like most landed gentry, Roderigo’s household—and that of his brother-in-law—contained many servants. Discovery of their secret religious services would brand them as Jews, which would mean deportation. Now, with the servants gone—privacy at last—the conversos could begin the true service of mourning. Dunstan closed the massive doors to the room and the assembled men stood up from the bench, retrieved black skullcaps from their pockets and covered their heads. Roderigo looked at the men—his son, two nephews, a brother-in-law, and a distant cousin. Five grim faces, worn but visibly relieved to be away from the Gentiles. He nodded for his cousin, Solomon Aben Ayesh, to lead the services. Lopez envied Aben Ayesh. Solomon was the only one amongst them who was an openly professed Jew—a luxury he was now afforded since he no longer lived in Europe. Solomon was short and as thin as a reed, with midnight-blue eyes which appeared black at a distance. As a diamond farmer in India, Aben Ayesh had become rich and powerful—so formidable a man that the Turkish court had rewarded him with the title of Duke of Mytilene. His network of spies was well known throughout the Continent by monarchs who ignored his religious beliefs in order to secure his confidence and, by extension, his privied information. Even though Lopez, as the Queen’s physician, held an enviable position in England, he had none of Aben Ayesh’s religious freedom and independence. Roderigo listened to Aben Ayesh’s prayers said in Hebrew, then repeated the words out loud. Aching, he felt all of his sixty-eight years. He sucked in his overhanging belly—his stamp of wealth—and straightened his spine. When praying to God, one should stand erect. The Almighty had been kind to him—a good wife and two living, healthy children, one of them a son. God had been good to him physically as well. The hair atop his head was still plentiful, and his skin was nearly wrinkle free, as if Father Time had aged him in leap years. His beard remained as dense as moss and youthfully colored—deep burgundy mixed with rust and wisps of silver. Roderigo thought back to his first shiva—the official ceremony of Jewish mourning. It had been a clandestine affair in Toledo, held for a cousin burnt as a heretic. Roderigo had just turned thirteen, the age of Jewish manhood, and had been told only recently of his converso bloodline by his parents. Marry, what a revelation that had been! Despite the shock, and danger, that lay ahead, Roderigo decided to remain faithful to his forefathers. He wanted to be a healer of mankind and chose to study medicine—the learned art of the Jewish people. He entered the Universidad Literaria de Salamanca in Spain, graduating with high honors and a medical degree. Desiring more liberty for his secret practices, Roderigo moved to England during the first years of Elizabeth’s reign, hoping to find relief from the Inquisition; the Virgin Queen was known for a tolerant monarch. As long as her subjects openly supported her and her Church, she chose not to ferret out those who worshiped differently in private. She did this to retain the support of the thousands of secret Papists who still resided in the northern region of the country. But it had a secondary beneficial effect for Roderigo as a secret Jew. As long as he went to the local church, he could practice his religion in the privacy of his own home. When it was time to marry, Lopez stayed dutiful and chose a wife from the old country—a Portuguese conversa girl twenty years his junior, a cousin of Solomon Aben Ayesh. The doctor brought her over to England, and they settled down to daily life. Lopez rose to prominence in his field, becoming a member of the College of Physicians and the first house physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. His reputation merited him the appointed physician to the Earl of Leicester. This led to the coveted position of Physician-in-Ordinary to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, seven years ago, a position he still held. But for all his honors, Roderigo couldn’t save Raphael. Teary-eyed, he averted his gaze downward. He’d lost not only a dear friend, but a son-to-be. Such a sorrowful death. Aben Ayesh finished the prayers and instructed the men to rip the stitching of their doublets then sit on the floor. Roderigo noticed Dunstan wincing. His nephew had been foolish enough to wear a gold-threaded doublet—vain peacock that he was. Roderigo glanced at his son, placed his hand upon his shoulder. Benjamin had just finished Oxford and was planning to go abroad to Venice when the news of Raphael’s death came tumbling upon the family. Roderigo had insisted his son stay for the funeral, but instructed him to leave afterward. Benjamin was kind and generous, thanks be to God the boy was not an ingrate, but unlike his sister, he was slow of wit. A plodder, Roderigo had told his wife Sarah. Roderigo hoped that travel would teach him more successfully than had the university. Lopez sat on the sweet-smelling rushes next to Benjamin. Across from him were Dunstan and his brother Thomas—a smooth-faced fair man of nineteen. Thomas was built lanky, with long, thin, effeminate fingers. The boy cursed his body often and lashed out frequently at anyone who suggested he was anything less than a man. His quick temper had necessitated early in life an expertise of swordplay. Thomas was renowned for his skill of the fence—much to Dunstan’s displeasure. Thomas could easily best his older brother with a few quick strokes. Roderigo faced his brother-in-law, Jorge Añoz—Sir George Ames outside the converso community. Jorge had married Sarah’s sister. Good women, thought Roderigo, gentle and dutiful wives. Roderigo thought of his and Jorge’s mistresses and mentally added, tolerant women as well. He said to Jorge, “Raphael needs a replacement as soon as possible.” Dunstan twisted a braided gold chain around his first finger, then let it fall back against his chest. Surely they didn’t mean him. Jorge said, “We must find out who told the Spanish captain that Raphael was on board.” “What makes you think that someone told the captain?” Roderigo said. “He could have simply been found by one of the crew, hiding with the stowaways.” “Not in a galleon,” Jorge said. “The vessel is so big, twould be an incredible bit of luck to find someone well hidden. So many hatches and compartments.” “Well, someone found Raphael and the stowaways,” Aben Ayesh said. “Someone handed them over to the Inquisition. But that must not deter us. Too many lives depend on us, on this mission. When was the last time you communicated with the Spanish king, Ruy?” “I’ve yet to receive word from King Philip,” answered Roderigo. But Roderigo knew he would hear from His Majesty soon. Another payment was due. “Do you think he knows what happened?” Jorge asked him. “I don’t know,” Roderigo said. “But if he is aware of this mishap, we’ll have to increase the payments greatly.” All the men groaned. They were already paying the Spanish King a fortune in bribe money. “Can you discreetly get word to His Majesty, Ruy?” Aben Ayesh asked. “Find out what he expects from us?” Roderigo shook his head. “Transactions such as this one may only be made under the most private of conditions. If, God forbid, our correspondence is discovered, Philip will be angered—beyond repair this time.” Everyone knew what Roderigo meant. Four years ago, at Roderigo’s and Jorge’s prodding, Queen Elizabeth had abetted the revolt of Don Antonio against King Philip. Don Antonio was an illegitimate descendant from the royal house of Portugal. With English forces at his side, Antonio had rallied his people to revolt against the tyrannical yoke of Spain. It had been a well-placed scheme at the time, and had Don Antonio been of stabler character, it would have worked. The Queen hoped to set up Don Antonio as King of Portugal and gain a formidable ally against Spain in the Iberian peninsula. The conversos wanted Don Antonio as monarch because he was of Jewish descent. Perhaps, as king, Don Antonio would do away with the Inquisition in Portugal—if not abolish the tribunal, at least restrict its powers. Unfortunately Her Majesty’s fleet, commanded by Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake, failed miserably, their attacks easily repelled by King Philip’s Armada. All were left with much to explain. To restore faith with King Philip, appease his wrath, and prevent repercussions against the Spanish conversos, Aben Ayesh paid Philip the enormous sum of fifty thousand ducats. Philip’s anger abated and he allowed their mission to progress without interference. To mollify the irate Elizabeth, Jorge opened the coffers of his lucrative spice business—chartered as the Ames Levantine Trade Company—and stuffed the royal treasury with as much gold as his purses would allow. Her Majesty was forgiving. As a token of her merciful nature, she kept Lopez on as her personal physician and knighted Jorge and his two sons. “We need another man quickly,” Aben Ayesh stated. “I’ve yet to speak with Hector, but it seems that Miguel, being Raphael’s brother, is the logical replacement for the mission.” “For Rebecca’s husband as well,” Roderigo added. Dunstan cleared his throat, flicked away the rushes about him. It was as good as any chance to tell him. Perhaps, with the other men around, Roderigo would exercise some control over his temper. Again the chain was entwined around Dunstan’s finger. He asked permission to speak freely from his father. Jorge nodded. “Dear Uncle,” Dunstan started off, “Miguel would be an ill-advised husband for Rebecca.” Roderigo stared at his nephew. “Ill-advised?” Dunstan nodded. “Whatever do you mean?” Roderigo stated. “It is Miguel’s religious duty to his brother. He must marry Rebecca and produce a son in his brother’s name.” Dunstan hesitated, then said, “Such a union would be doomed, Uncle.” “Where do you come to assert such a statement?” Roderigo asked. “Miguel and Rebecca have known each other for years, they are very fond of each other. She was only promised to Raphael because he was the elder of the two boys. One’s as suitable as the other for a husband. Besides, Miguel has no choice. It’s our law.” Dunstan looked to his brother for help. “Uncle,” Thomas said gently. “Miguel is Italian in his practices of love.” Roderigo’s eyes widened. “What?” he said. It came out a whisper. “Where did you hear such twaddle?” Jorge demanded of Thomas. “From Miguel himself,” Thomas answered, rubbing his naked chin. “He told us, Father, as soon as he was sure that it was Raphael who’d perished,” Dunstan said. “Why wasn’t I told?” asked Jorge. “He begged for no one to know until Uncle had been informed,” Dunstan answered his father. “I thought it best not to contest his wish, seeing the emotional state he was in.” “Miguel is a buggerer of men?” Roderigo said, horrified. Thomas nodded. “Tis not that uncommon, Uncle,” Dunstan said. “Quite the fashion in Venice.” Roderigo looked at his son. “No worry, Father,” Ben reassured. “I find the thought very distasteful.” “We must get back to business,” Aben Ayesh said uncomfortably. “Ruy will deal with his matters as he sees fit—” “I refuse to believe it,” Roderigo interrupted. “Ruy—” Aben Ayesh said. Roderigo stood up and began to pace. “I cannot believe it!” “Perhaps it’s simply a ruse,” Jorge suggested. “Perhaps the thought of sudden marriage has left Miguel with cold feet.” Thomas shook his head. “Dunstan and I have known long before Raphael perished. Many times we’ve seen Miguel roaming St. Paul’s Marketplace, frequenting places that specialize in … Italian taste. He fancies himself quite a wit, accompanying the likes of Marlowe—” “Miguel with Marlowe?” Roderigo gasped. “That godless heretic, that hater of Jews? Impossible!” “Love is strange,” Dunstan snickered. Roderigo slapped him soundly across the cheek. Dunstan’s hand went to his face. His eyes burned with fury. Roderigo said, “How dare you mock your cousin?” Dunstan spoke slowly, “I mock him not. I simply tell you the truth, whether it be acceptable to you or not, Uncle. I pray you, do not kill the messenger.” Roderigo sank down onto the floor. Thomas took out a poniard and, without thinking, began to scrape the mortar between the stones. “Marry, Thomas, put that away,” said Jorge. “You’ll loosen the blocks.” “Your pardon, Father.” Thomas returned the dagger to his belt. “I meant no harm.” Dear God, such a horrendous predicament, Roderigo thought. Raphael gone. The mission in jeopardy. And my dear Becca. He said, “How can I marry my daughter to a buggerer?” Dunstan asked if he could speak. Roderigo nodded wearily. “Uncle,” Dunstan said. “It’s best if Rebecca remains available until an appropriate suitor is found.” “The Baron of Herdford seemed interested in her,” Thomas remarked. “At least, he inquired about her quite extensively.” “Bah,” Dunstan answered, brushing him off. “He’s an old bag of wind whose sword lost his thrust many summers ago.” “Tis not only rutting that makes a good husband,” Benjamin argued. “He’s rich.” “Tut, Benjamin,” Dunstan replied. “Have pity on your sister. The Baron of Herdford!” “The old lord will die soon,” Benjamin persisted. “As a wealthy widow with title, Rebecca could have her pick of suitors.” “She has her pick anyway,” Dunstan said. “Beautiful, young—” “Mulish,” Ben said. “Say rather she’s … an independent thinker,” Dunstan said, smiling. Roderigo suddenly turned on him. “With quite a bit of help from you, Dunstan. You’ve filled her brain with unfortunate ideas, nephew. Twas not helpful to her or me.” “Uncle,” said Dunstan, “if knowledge be port, Rebecca be a drunkard. The girl soaks it up. Better she be tutored by a kinsman than a stranger who will lure her away from family—” “Enough of my family matters,” Roderigo suddenly announced. “It’s my problem and I’ll do what’s best for my daughter … We must concentrate on the problem at hand. There are lives to be saved.” “Here, here,” said Aben Ayesh. “People are dying! We must save them. As Raphael’s brother, Miguel still is the logical choice.” “Miguel? Bah!” Dunstan exclaimed. “Better to send Rebecca.” “Miguel has always been trustworthy,” answered Jorge. “I’m sure he’d be willing to continue his brother’s missions. To suggest him a coward, Dunstan, because of his … his peculiar passions, is ill-advised.” “Very well,” Dunstan said. “If you think him able—” “He is able,” Jorge said. “Do you agree, Solomon?” “We are in complete accord,” said Aben Ayesh. “It is settled. We shall talk to Hector and Miguel immediately.” “At least Miguel will have something in which to prove his manhood,” Dunstan snickered. Thomas said, “Need I remind you that Miguel is tall and strong. He excels at hawking. He relishes the thrill of the hunt!” “Aye,” Dunstan laughed. “As long as the hunt is for boys.” “Men,” Thomas corrected. “There’s a difference?” Dunstan said. “A boy is your five-year-old son, brother,” Thomas said. “Miguel fancies men. Always has. Tis hard to fathom why God fashioned him as such. One would think him weak and timid. Yet Miguel’s grip is as strong as the peregrine’s.” “Miguel is weak in the art of swordplay,” Dunstan said. “So are you,” Thomas stated. “Quiet,” Jorge said to his sons. “Both of you are like jackals at each other’s throats.” Roderigo said, “Dunstan raised a good point. Miguel is weak in his swordsmanship. Considerably weaker than had been Raphael, God rest his soul. And many were better than he had been.” Jorge agreed. He said, “Thomas, it’s up to you to teach him your expertise.” “I’ll set up regular times to spar with him,” Thomas said. “Instruct the woman to act the man,” Dunstan said with a smile. “Does jealousy talk?” Thomas asked his brother. “I? Jealous of Miguel? Absurd!” “You have yet to forgive him for the pouncing he bestowed upon you at our last wrestling bout.” “Wrestling for sport is one thing, Thomas,” Dunstan retorted hotly. “Braving peril is quite another and is reserved for only true men.” Jorge wagged an angry finger at Dunstan. “Keep your thoughts to yourself, my elder son. Sport with Miguel as well. He needs much practice if he is to be prepared for the ordeals that await him.” “As you wish, Father.” Jorge faced Aben Ayesh. “How much time do we have to teach Miguel?” “Never enough,” Aben Ayesh said. “A merchant galleon is due here in twenty days, docked at Portsmouth for only a week.” Not much time at all, Roderigo thought. So much to be done. Twenty days to teach Miguel to ride the treacherous road to the port, how to defend himself against the ruthless highwaymen, how to sneak aboard the ship, find the stowaways, and present them with the forged papers that would give them freedom at last. “How many conversos are we to provide papers for?” Roderigo asked. “De Gama wrote at least a dozen,” Aben Ayesh answered. Esteban Ferreira de Gama was their Iberian contact, the man responsible for concealing the Spanish conversos on the galleons. King Philip knew about him. As long as the English conversos continued to pay His Majesty, Ferreira de Gama was safe from harassment by the Spanish sentries guarding the docks. But once on board, the stowaways were on their own. “How many men, women, and children?” Roderigo asked. “I have to tell the women what kind of papers to prepare.” “I know not,” Aben Ayesh answered. “De Gama has promised another note letting me know the details of the cargo.” Unusual cargo. But when writing to Philip, the Ames Levantine Trade Company had to refer to the stowaways as something. Roderigo was the intermediary representative acting for the company, requesting in writing the purchase of “cargo” from His Majesty. Sometimes the company acquired “pepper.” Other correspondences spoke of the company’s desire to buy cargo of musk, amber, pearls, rubies, diamonds. Much “trade” he had with the Spanish king. Perhaps too much trade for the Queen’s tolerance. Unofficially, England and Spain were still at war. They had to act as fast as possible. Aben Ayesh continued, “The stowaways should be docked in Spanish Brussels by the end of June. Our agent there is still David. He will bring them to Amsterdam and integrate them.” Jorge said, “The whole mission will be harder than ever. The galleon ship flies the flag of Sicily—Philip’s dominion. There are bound to be Spaniards aboard, and since Raphael was caught, they’ll be looking out for more stowaways—as well as Miguel.” “Ferreira de Gama wrote of another possibility,” Aben Ayesh said. “It may be possible to transfer the conversos to an inbound vessel—a ship headed for the Thames. If this is the situation, Miguel has only to sneak aboard a local ship—a much simpler task. The English will not be as suspicious or as vicious as the Spanish. And, God forbid, if Miguel is captured, at least he’ll be under the arm of Her Majesty instead of His Majesty and the Inquisition—as was Raphael.” He sighed. “Dearest, poor Raphael …” Aben Ayesh lowered his head for a moment. Then it was back to business. He said, “If Ferreira de Gama can arrange such a task, so be it.” “How inconspicuously does Esteban Ferreira de Gama move under the watchful eye of the Inquisition?” Dunstan asked. “He grows increasingly concerned for his safety,” Aben Ayesh said. “But, praise be to God, so far the Holy See has no suspicions that he is one of us.” “What’s the name of the galleon that holds the conversos?” Benjamin asked. “El Don Carlos,” said Aben Ayesh. “Would that Philip’s son were as mighty as his namesake of a ship.” “We must begin Miguel’s training at once. He must be skilled enough to fight off anyone who challenges him on the road to Portsmouth.” All eyes went to Thomas. “I’ll teach him what I’m able.” Thomas patted the hilt of his sword. “But only Miguel can execute the moves.” He paused, then blurted out, “Of course, I’d be happy to accompany him—” “You’re needed in the business,” Jorge said firmly. “I need someone trustworthy with the money and inventory at home.” “What about Dunstan?” Thomas retorted. “Dunstan travels much,” Jorge said. Benjamin said, “Uncle, I could cancel my overseas travel if I am needed.” “Nonsense,” Jorge said. “Go to Venice.” Thomas said, “But—” “Enough,” answered Jorge. “Father, there is not a man alive who has my skill in swordplay, my swiftness, my strength—” “Quiet,” Jorge yelled. “I’ve heard your pleas before and again I reject them. Thomas, my son, if we have not the funds with which to bribe, all our efforts are for naught. Besides, Tommy, I want you whole until Leah is healthy enough to deliver to you a fine son.” Biting his lip, Thomas sank back in his chair. Dunstan grinned. “By the way, Tommy,” he said. “Where is your wife?” Thomas reddened with anger. As if the bastard didn’t know. “Leah has taken rest with her parents in Turkey,” Aben Ayesh answered for Thomas. “She’s due back in England during autumn.” Dunstan said, “Tut, tut. The lass was sorely worn out by the birth of another daughter!” Thomas bolted up and drew his sword. “Stow thy peace, Thomas,” shouted Jorge. “And quit thy baiting words, Dunstan. Such animosity between brothers! Tis ungodly! Learn a lesson from Miguel and Raphael—God rest his soul. Now there were true brothers.” Shamefaced, Thomas returned to the floor. The men sat in silence for a moment. Aben Ayesh asked wearily, “Any questions about the operation?” Again, shakes of the head. Aben Ayesh said, “We need many more citizen’s papers. We have left only six official sets.” “Grace is completing a set as we speak,” said Dunstan. “Maria had done two,” Jorge said. “We still are short,” Aben Ayesh said. “I shall tell Sarah to get to work,” said Roderigo. “Becca can work as well. The task shall occupy her thoughts, keep her mind off her woes.” “Uncle,” Dunstan said, “I pray you, remind Rebecca to speak with discretion.” “Has she been indiscreet?” Roderigo asked. Dunstan hesitated, then said, “She’s a woman. All women have loose tongues. And that can be fatal, especially since you house that worm, de Andrada.” Roderigo grimaced at the mention of the name. De Andrada, Don Antonio’s former “trusted” spy, wanted by Don Antonio for being a traitor. A snake Lopez was forced to feed and shelter because de Andrada had managed to learn too much about their operations. Though de Andrada had acted grateful for the help, Lopez knew he could never be trusted. “I shall remind Becca of the virtue of silence,” Roderigo said. “We must pray,” Aben Ayesh said, rising. “Instead of our individual meditations, let us say our morning prayers together—as if we were a minyan.” “Morning prayers?” Dunstan said. “It’s still night.” “Would you rather say them when the servants are awake and their ears are open to our chanting?” Roderigo said. Dunstan turned red. “Excuse my impertinence, Father,” Benjamin said, “but do not we need ten to be a minyan?” Roderigo said, “We are only six in number but thousands in spirit. God will forgive us.” The men stood and faced the eastern side of the chamber. Jorge extinguished the torches, leaving only the faint, orange flame of candlelight. Silhouettes of faces projected onto the walls. Head down, Aben Ayesh began the prayer of kaddish over Raphael’s soul—a supplication praising God’s infinite power and wisdom. He whispered the blessing so the servants could not hear. But in truth, he knew he needn’t have vocalized the blessing at all. God hears everything. Chapter 5 (#ulink_aca7221b-fd20-524f-9c34-e0986332273d) Manuel de Andrada knew they were plotting his demise. He could feel evil vapors swirling about his room. It was the same aura he had sensed before his defection from Don Antonio’s service, and it filled him with dread. Twas only a matter of time. He shivered under his counterpane, his winter nightshirt itchy, sewn from frieze cloth—a pauper’s garment. Marry, how it irritated his skin! Dr. Lopez had not the decency to give him one woven from flax, the miserable wight. Throwing the blanket atop his head, de Andrada bunched himself into a tight knot and began his ritual curses. Curse Don Antonio—his former master. A man he had fought for, spied for, a man whom he had almost given his life for … Almost. Curse King Philip—a weak old wretch whose generosities were as shriveled as his face. De Andrada remembered his last visit with His Majesty, kissing the bony hand, sitting at the side of the black, velvet wheelchair. The royal features had been as hard as stone, the eyes as small as a rat’s. Cold, calculating, and stingy. Did the King not recognize the service that he—Manuel de Andrada—had performed for him? He had spied against Don Antonio for Philip, had even bribed a helmsman to deliver the Pretender to the Throne of Portugal into the hands of the Spanish king. But the note had been found. Though written in special ink, it had been deciphered. His treason against Don Antonio—who was now in exile, somewhere in Eton, de Andrada had last heard—had landed him six months in the Tower. Had that been part of Lopez’s plan to do him in? Had Lopez only rescued him because he had known about the doctor’s mission? Had Lopez been afraid that he—de Andrada—would be of loose lips? He thought a moment. No, de Andrada thought, decidedly not. Lopez had been a true healer back then—kind and true-hearted. It was Lopez who’d secured his release from prison. The doctor had taken him into his own home, fed him fresh meats, clothed him in vestments that didn’t itch. Had Roderigo not intervened in his behalf, he would have been behalved. But curse Lopez now. He had dealt deceptively with his faithful servant—Manuel de Andrada—just like the rest. Though Lopez professed that he was a guest in his house, without any funds, de Andrada was completely at Lopez’s mercy. Aye, the doctor had turned into a witch doctor. Roderigo Lopez had beguiled him, forced him to act as a go-between with the King of Spain, inveigled him into his Jew-saving intrigues. And now, after months of dedicated work, de Andrada was being discarded, tossed out the window like shit in a chamberpot. He sighed. In his life he’d been employed by so many, turned traitor to so many. It was hard to keep them all sorted. How would the doctor arrange the death—his death? An accidental fall from a horse? Did not the groom look at him with naughty eyes? When had that been? A week ago? Two weeks? Aye, when Saturn had been in Pisces, the sun sign of his birth. A bad omen! He rolled over onto his back and groaned. Poison perhaps? Aye, poison was a favorite pastime of the physician to the Queen. De Andrada remembered too clearly Lopez’s verbal offer to poison Don Antonio. Aye, Lopez denied it to the world, and nothing in writing could prove otherwise, but de Andrada had heard the words uttered from the witch doctor’s lips. Bottles of potions were stored in Lopez’s still room. Jugs of Indian acacia. Barrels of distilled hemlock, ripening, aging like kegs of fine wine! De Andrada trembled. Suddenly all was clear. Why was he always the first to be served at dinnertime, at suppertime as well? It was not as they claimed—that he was a guest, and as such, honored with the first fruits of the kitchen. Nay, his portion of food had been tainted. Slow and painful poisoning! The realization of why he’d been so ill of late. Marry, it was so logical now. They hated him. Had he been invited to the house of the doctor’s brother-in-law? No. The reason for the exclusion? It could only be treachery against him. He was wasting away on a stiff straw pallet, racked with fever and pain brought on by poison, while they laughed at his impending death. He gasped and coughed, trying to bring up his supper. After a minute of retching, he gave up. The juices of his stomach had eaten up the stew hours ago. The stew, he thought. He recollected tiny pieces of fleshy vegetable mixed with roots, leeks, and mutton. Mad apple! He shuddered. Had the stew contained eggplant as well as rat’s bane? Poison was not enough for the doctor’s delight. He was trying to drive him mad as well! He’d take no more meals with the evil ones! Suddenly he smiled. He was safe—at least temporarily. How much he had overheard! How many “secret” letters he had read! How much he knew! Lopez had disregarded his own rules—destroy anything written, talk softly, trust no one. And then there was Nan Humbert—the Ames’s chambermaid. All he had to do was pray with the withered, Puritan biddy and she’d sing much about the family whispers. She had bigger and better ears than he did. De Andrada started to plan his defense. Who was Lopez pitted against? Who loathed Lopez as much as Don Antonio … No, that wasn’t it. Who loathed Lopez more than he detested the doctor himself—and had the power to turn his hatred into action? Certainly not Lord Burghley. He and Lopez had become friends of late. Not his crookback son Robert Cecil either. Who? Why, the ambitious red-haired youth with the fair face and the choleric temperament. Essex! He would ingratiate himself with Essex. Offer to spy against Lopez in order to secure the lord’s favor. The smile widened to a grin. Essex. Such an impetuous cock. He’d do anything to advance his War Party. It was no secret that the lord longed for war—for an astounding military victory over Spain, with him at the head of the troops. How Essex hungered for power, the cheers and adulation of his countrymen, the admiration of his peers. How he ached to win the hand of Eliza. Oh yes, it was the crown of England that the lord desired. It was no secret at all. Even Her Majesty knew his wants. But the High Treasurer, Lord Burghley, and Lopez were obstacles, both secretly advocating peace with the King of Spain to Her Majesty. Lord Essex was bound to welcome his help, would receive Manuel de Andrada with much cheer, heaping angels upon him as payment for well-executed spying. Of course, there was the small matter of Antony Bacon, Essex’s spy master. De Andrada would have to convince him that he was trustworthy. Bacon was a clever man, exceedingly wary. But hadn’t he, Manuel de Andrada, fooled other equally clever men? Bacon was but one small obstacle to overcome. De Andrada felt confident and congratulated himself for a scheme so brilliant. He hugged himself harder, tighter, squeezing his knees against his chest. Eat no food. Not even the fruit in the bowl. But he was hungry. One bite of apple? Nay, do not succumb. It is all vile. A half bite? Not even a lick. He would not give up without a fight! He would scrape and bite and claw and kick, but he would not give up without a fight. If he would lose his head, so would a witch doctor. Rebecca lay atop her feather mattress, wondering how her father was planning her future. She had no idea how late it was as she couldn’t see the sand glass on the mantel opposite her bed. Yet she refused to light her candle, consuming solace once again from the darkness. Her chamber walls, like those in her uncle’s Great Hall, had been draped in black cloth, hiding the arras work and tapestries. She felt as though she were sleeping in a bat’s cave. The sole illumination came from moonbeams streaking through her bedchamber’s window. They fell upon the table next to her bed, highlighting the pitcher and washbasin on the tabletop. Outside, the winds whistled through the shutters, swayed the boughs of the newly budded trees, kicking up eddies of dirt and dust, a moving sketch done in charcoal and framed by the window sash. Her future. If only she had some control over her destiny. Her life, always in the hands of another—her elders, her cousins, her brother, God—in any hands but hers. Were her hands any less capable than Benjamin’s, than Dunstan’s or Thomas’s? But her hands had the misfortune to be attached to the body of a woman. She swallowed back tears, cursed her lot in life. A moment later she broke into sobs, feeling sudden shame at her rantings. Why had she been allowed to live and her betrothed taken in his prime? Poor Raphael, how did you meet your end? Rebecca had loved him because it had been her duty. She had addressed him with a modulated tone of voice, greeted him with smiles, suffered his dark moods in silence. She knew it was his work, not she, that had been his true passion. Life was a mysterious animal. In the end it was his passion that did him in. She worried that the passion might also destroy her dear Miguel. Miguel was her distant cousin but her brother in spirit. He’d never been a lover of women. Yet he was also a dutiful son. If their fathers wished them to wed, they would wed. And what a mockery that would be. There was a knock on her door, her mother’s whisperings. Rebecca forced herself upright, unlocked the door, then fell back atop her counterpane. Sarah Lopez, clad in her bedclothes, entered the bedchamber and sat on her daughter’s mattress. A moonbeam fell across her face, turned her cheeks ghostly white. Her eyes looked so sad, but Rebecca had never remembered a day when they had looked happy. Sarah brushed her waist-length gray hair off her shoulders and touched Rebecca’s hand. It was rigid and cold. “Under the covers, Becca,” Sarah ordered gently. “I’ll not allow you to grow ill from the frigid air. Tis a tomb inside here—dark and wintry. I’ll call the chambermaid and have her rekindle the hearth immediately.” Rebecca squeezed her mother’s hand. “How can I allow myself warmth and comfort when Raphael sits for eternity in an icy bed?” Sarah pulled back the bedcovers. “Inside, little one, I prithee.” Rebecca slithered underneath the down blanket. Sarah drew the spread up to her daughter’s chin. “I’m not half the clever wordsmith that you are, Becca,” spoke Sarah. “I’ve stayed up for hours trying to find proper words of solace, yet my mind is as empty as a newborn babe’s. Tell me what to do to comfort you.” Rebecca didn’t answer. Her mother’s voice, though soothing, sounded so weary. It saddened Rebecca to think that she’d brought any more woes to her mother. She embraced her mother and told her she loved her. Sarah said, “You are my joy, Becca. All I desire is happiness for you and Benjamin.” Rebecca knew this to be the truth. She’d never seen her mother engaged in idle play. Sarah’s life revolved around Father and his activities, around her and Ben. Rebecca asked, “Has Father made mention to you of my future?” “He has yet to return home from Uncle Jorge’s.” She sighed. “I suspect he’ll spend the night there. By and by you’ll know of Father’s intention. He’s never been one to hide from you his plans.” “I wish he’d leave me in solitude.” “That is impossible, dear Becca,” Sarah said. “While you’re still somewhat young, the years do pass by quickly. Best to have children while your womb is strong.” “I wish—” Rebecca realized how quiet was the night and dropped her voice. “I wish our religion allowed us nunneries.” “Black is a color ill-suited for your complexion,” Sarah said. She kissed her daughter’s cheek. “Have you said your proper prayers for … for Raphael?” Rebecca nodded. Sarah said, “God will hear them.” Rebecca asked, “Have you told Grandmama about Raphael?” “I didn’t tell her, yet she knew,” Sarah said. “Sometimes I think my mother a witch rather than an addled old woman.” “She is neither,” Rebecca said. “She is a marvelous woman.” “Tis most inappropriate for you to doubt my love and affection for my mother, Becca.” Sarah’s voice held a wounded note. Rebecca picked up her hand and kissed it. “I apologize, my gentle mother.” Sarah squeezed her daughter’s hand and said, “Grandmama shows no fretting over the news. She keeps her tears inside. Yet we both know she feels deeply. Raphael had been kind to her.” “May I spend my mourning in Grandmama’s room?” Sarah thought for a moment. “Father would never permit it. Guests will come to comfort you—” “They come to eat.” “Nonetheless, you must be visible and behave appropriately. Accept their platitudes of sorrow as if they meant something to you.” “Playact, aye?” Sarah sighed. “Yes,” she said. “Playact.” “At least may I pass my nights with her?” Her mother lowered her head and said, “Father prefers to keep you away—” “Father errs,” Rebecca interrupted. “Father thinks Grandmama’s an old harpy with a head full of mush. You know that’s not so.” “Rebecca, my obligations come first to my master, second to my mother and children. You must learn that else you’ll make a poor English gentlewoman and wife.” “I’d rather become not an English wife but an English spinster,” Rebecca blurted out. “I’ve no desire to marry!” She expected to hear reproachment from her mother. Instead Sarah patted her hand in sympathy. “Time will alter your desires,” she said. Rebecca noticed for the first time how her mother trembled from cold. She held open her cover for her, bade her to come inside. Sarah shook her head. “I must get back to my chambers. Father will be furious if he finds me sleeping with you. He thinks I’ve spoiled you beyond redemption.” “In sooth, his assessment is not far from wrong.” Sarah smiled. “Do try to sleep.” “Mother?” “Aye.” “Can you request of Father to allow me to sleep with Grandmama? I’d find it most comforting.” “I’ll pose the question to him. But I think you’ll mislike the response.” “Plead with him.” “I’ll do what I can, Becca.” Rebecca hesitated, then said, “I’m being selfish, Mother. Plead not with him. Ask him most noncommitally. Don’t risk his wrath for my sake.” Sarah kissed her daughter. “I’ll do what I can,” she repeated. “Should I call the chambermaid to rekindle the fire?” “Not necessary,” Rebecca said. “I’m very sleepy.” “Well then,” Sarah said. “Good night, Becca. Things will be better come the morning light.” Rebecca nodded, watched her mother’s shadow disappear from the room. Her mother, the hours of her life divvied up by Father and his work, by her and Ben, by Grandmama. But never a moment for herself. Sarah had once told her that she thought of herself as an extra arm for the members of her family. Rebecca also remembered when her mother had confided her reveries as a young girl—how one day she’d live in the clouds made of spun sugar, fly upon the back of a golden eagle and touch the sun. Where did those dreams go? Her mother—her heart in the sky, her muscles saddled with duty. Chapter 6 (#ulink_01607116-ac9d-55db-8c73-1483db9f600c) Shakespeare knew he was lost. He’d passed the same bridge-shaped rock an hour ago. Madness to come up North alone, trying to retrace a dead man’s last steps, chasing revenge as elusive as the wind. He should have insisted to Margaret that the trip would accomplish nothing. But something had propelled him forward, something more than a widow’s pleas. Past images. A costume and a scroll being shoved under his nose as he tended the horses of the playgoers. Harry slapping him on the back … Fiacre Nits, who plays the watchman in the second act, has just turned ill. Vomited all over the ground. Good hap that he wore not his costume. Harry had turned nearly purple from laughter. You want me on stage? was all that Shakespeare had been able to say. You’re the only one who’s sober enough to memorize the lines on such short notice. More laughter. Whitman’s laughter. It played in Shakespeare’s head. A painful reminder, the sound so hollow now. Shakespeare kicked the haunches of his horse, sending it into a gallop. He cursed, wondered where the hell he was. So far he’d managed to follow Harry’s path quite closely. But this particular route, although the most direct to the burg of Hemsdale, was full of nature’s detours—hilly rocks and sudden dales, steep crags and crevices that plunged raggedly into the ground, circumscribing the knolls like a moat around a castle. He pulled the horse to the left, hoping he’d find a decent inn before dusk. Polished, windswept ledges of sandstone erupted out of rocks and grassland abloom with clumps of purple heather. The summits of the hills reflected the gold of the sun, setting them on fire like a flame on a candle. At least this terrain allowed easy riding—soft, gritty soil that yielded under each beat of the hoof—far more comfortable on the body than the hard slate rock he’d experienced in the extreme northern regions. He’d been fortunate. The weather had been accommodating, allowing him to cover much ground in a short time; barely a week since he’d left the walls of London. He’d fallen prey to only a few days of hard rain, and this morning just a thin blanket of haze covered the sky—that already burning away in the afternoon sun. His horse trampled over a heather bush plump with baby grouse. They scampered off in all directions—a delicious feast of tender meat dissipating before his eyes. He groaned, suddenly, realizing how long it had been since he’d taken a stomach. He would eat, but not while the sun was out. No time to be wasted. Days of riding with nothing but a sore bum to show for it. So far the trip had illuminated nothing about Harry. Questions had been asked and answered by protestations of ignorance. Shakespeare had spoken to at least two dozen innkeepers. Three hostlers told him that the great actor had indeed blessed their modest hostel with his drunken but amusing presence. They smiled as they told Shakespeare that Harry had entertained the guests with a (cough, cough) randy soliloquy. But beyond that, Whitman had been a gentleman. He had stayed the night, paid his bills, and left early the following morning in fine health. One hostler did recall Harry speaking with excitement about his impending visit to his relatives up North. Anything else, Shakespeare asked. The innkeeper shook his head no. His friend’s last days of life seemed ordinary. What could Harry have possibly done to instill murder in a man’s heart? What nefarious creature had done him in? And the ever nagging question of why. Shakespeare had been determined to find answers—for Margaret’s sake as well as his own. But now, after much wasted time, the ardor for truth had cooled. He missed London, his cell, his poetry writings and books. But he’d come this far. Might as well finish his task. From the inns Shakespeare learned that Harry had visited his relatives—a first cousin, Viscount Henley and his family. And, as Whitman had once mentioned in passing, Lord Henley was genuine peerage. He’d been granted a township in Northumberland. Brithall was the name of his castle, and an impressive pile of bricks it was. Before Shakespeare left, Margaret had told him that all of her husband’s kinsmen were secret Papists, followers of Rome, like many of the northerners. She said that Harry had once confided to her that Brithall held a secret underground chapel where votive candles were kept along with icons of the Virgin. But the boldest act of outrage was a fugitive priest in their hire—a Jesuit who narrowly escaped capture from the authorities by hiding in one of the castle’s priest holes. Harry later recanted his story about the priest, saying it had been a tale told in jest—to scare her. But Margaret felt his denial had been a lie. Margaret had always been nervous about Harry’s excursions—the length of the trip, the dangers of the highways—but after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, with anti-Catholic sentiment running high, she’d actively protested his visit. What if that priest were discovered? Harry had always taken pains to reassure her. Queen Eliza was a tolerant woman, God sing her praises. Hadn’t it been rumored that Eliza’s private chapel mimicked those of the High Church despite her excommunication from Rome? But Margaret hadn’t been easily consoled. Who could say that Eliza will always be tolerant, she’d told Harry. Is not the Queen older, more eccentric? Did not she hang six hundred northerners for treason? Papist northerners? Priests—and their followers—had been burned before. They could be burned again. But Harry had continued his visits. Harry as a Catholic: that had surprised Shakespeare. His friend and mentor had always been irreverent, and religion was his favorite topic of scorn. How he’d mocked the Puritan, ridiculed the pious parish priest. And now to discover that it wasn’t the institution that had offended his sensibilities, but rather the method of worship. A side of Harry Shakespeare knew little about. Yet he had known a side of Harry that he loved. He knew him as the man who had coached his voice, had taught him how to project over the shouts of the groundlings and the boos of the twopenny rowdies. He knew Harry as the man who instructed him in dance, as the man who had insisted that the fellowship take Shakespeare on as a sharer. He knew Harry as a money lender, the one who paid the enormous sharer’s fee of twenty pounds for his ’prentice, Willy. Yes, once Harry had taken care of him. But Shakespeare had loved him deeply even when the roles had reversed. Shakespeare, apologizing to an irate tapster for Harry’s big mouth; Shakespeare, pulling him out of brabbles with younger men ready to kill them both; Shakespeare, patting the back of a stuporous man, hugging him as he cried. His love for Harry flowed through his veins as sure as blood. Shakespeare’s quest for Harry’s murderer, for his mentor’s eternal peace, was strong and potent—like the sting in the loins. He’d ridden farther, thinking about the different side of Harry—the one which he’d not been privy to know. A secret Catholic. Yet Harry had left Brithall alive and well. Or so had said Viscount Henley. Shakespeare had spoken to Henley briefly as they strolled the Brithall’s formal gardens. Shakespeare had asked the lord as many questions as manners would allow, but Henley knew nothing about Harry’s murder. Shakespeare hadn’t broached the subject of the priest. It hadn’t seemed necessary. By the time Shakespeare had departed from Brithall, he was satisfied that Henley had nothing to do with his kinsman’s death. Perhaps the murder was as reported. Harry’d been victimized by the scurrilous highwayman and dumped in the sheep’s pen. But perhaps someone—a secret member of some anti-Papist guild—had found out about Harry’s Catholic sentiments, stalked him, and had taken his life in the open countryside, away from alert eyes. Guesswork. Endless hours of riding, endless hours of nothing. The sun was bowing low, readying itself for final exit. Clouds were coalescing into thick gray foam. The ground had become wetter; sparse shrubbery had thickened into wooded copses of cotton grass and bilberry bushes and newly budded gnarled oak. Shakespeare realized he was famished. Another night under a coverlet of stars. He found a pocket of fresh water, not much bigger than a puddle but enough to satisfy the thirst of a tired animal. After the horse had drunk his fill, Shakespeare dismounted and tied him to a tree. The winds were gentle, redolent with the pungent aroma of fermenting bilberries. He opened up his leather bag and pulled out a slab of ham, eating it in three bites. His supper was followed by sips of ale from his drinking gourd and fresh bilberries. He lay undisturbed except for the occasional scurry of fleeing woodland creatures—red deer, grouse, squirrel, hedgehogs. The thought of fresh game aroused his belly—meat crackling over an open fire. A lover of hunting, he reminisced of his days as a boy, hare coursing … deer poaching. Though plagued with an unsatisfied stomach, he drifted off to sleep. Shakespeare was awakened by trampling in the brush. Clay-cold and rigid, his clothes damp with morning dew, he opened his eyes but didn’t move. Dawn was waging battle against a metallic sky. He reached for his falchion, grasping the handle tightly, and waited. Sounds of footsteps. He sprung upward. A startled gasp and a shower of bilberries. Then he saw her. She was a plump girl, no more than sixteen, with dark, loose hair and alabaster skin—a perfect white except for smidges of rosy pink on her nose and cheeks. Some of her front teeth were missing. “Ho, wench,” Shakespeare said. “What are you doing here alone at this hour?” The girl cowered in the brush, fear etched in her black eyes. “Met your lover, did you?” Shakespeare said. She said nothing. Just quivered in the bushes. An idiot to be sure, he thought. “Be gone,” he said testily. She didn’t move. It was then that he noticed the empty basket stained a deep plum. He bent down, picked it up and tossed it over. It hit her on the left leg, but she didn’t react. “Picking berries, were you?” Nothing. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll not be bothering you.” She smiled. Despite the toothless gaps, she was pretty. Shakespeare felt a tug under his breeches. “Off with you,” he said. “Lest you be enticing the man to act the animal.” She smiled again and hiked up her skirt. Dumb, he thought. But not deaf. She was as warm as fresh milk, as sweet as cream and as soft as butter. She was also not a mute. As she lay, nestled in his arms, she told him her story. She was the bastard daughter of a whore, orphaned at eleven when her mother died of sweating sickness. Left destitute, she continued her mother’s profession of providing aid and comfort to the village men. A year ago, six months pregnant, she’d been inflicted with ague. The baby had died in her belly. Vividly she described to him her fits and fevers, her bloody vomit and stools. But somehow she had survived, nursed her ills with poppy water, the juice of red nettles, juniper berries, and flat ale with dragon water. She was still weak, she claimed, but at least she was alive. And yes, she was still a punk servicing the local men as well as the foreigner. She lived in a village not far away from this spot. When she wasn’t whoring, she was busy in her still room, preparing remedies and potions. Rising early, three or four in the morn, she’d come to the heather moors to pick bilberries and herbs for her medicines. They were well received throughout the countryside, and often in the plague-infested summertimes, her special mixtures made her more money than her stewing. The only thing that worried her was talk that she was a witch. Nay, tis not so, she had said. Simply flapping tongues of the gossip mongers. As she told her tale, her hands moved over Shakespeare’s body, reawakening his lust once again. He stroked her pillowy thighs, parted them and boarded her. Afterward he offered her money, but she had refused. Your kindness, good sir. Tis ’nough. He stood up and brushed dirt off his hose. “Where is your village?” he asked. “Yonder,” she said, pointing to her left. “Will you accompany me there?” She smiled. “Me whorin’ is free, but me guidin’ will be costin’ ye.” “A survivor you are.” “Aye. Ten shillings.” Shakespeare gasped. “That’s robbery!” The toothless smile widened to a grin. “Ifin it be too much, you be findin’ it yourself.” “Blood of a Jew, you have,” Shakespeare said. “I shall simply wait for you to return, idiotic wench. Then I shall follow you.” “Aye, and wait all of the day for me to pick me herbs. Whatever pleases you, sir.” Again the smile. It had become venal. “A penny’s more the cost,” he said. “You insult me, sir. Five shillings.” “A penny.” “A shilling.” “Tuppence.” “A sixpence.” “A tuppence,” Shakespeare repeated. He mounted his steed. “Keep kicking a jade, wench, and you’ll have a dead horse at your feet.” “A tuppence it is,” she said, hopping up behind him. Her knowledge of the terrain was flawless, her senses keen, her skills swift. A large ground squirrel darted in front of their pathway. A moment later it lay dead, impaled to the ground, her dagger through its belly. She dismounted his horse, pulled out the knife and flung the bloodied carcass over her shoulder. The animal would give her money and food for the week, she explained. “I shall keep the meat for me meals, sir. The innards will be stuffed with rye and oats, boiled, sliced, then sold to the Fishhead to be eaten cold. The pelt and tail will be a hat, the spleen and liver will be roasted in an open pit and sold at the marketplace, the blood will be mixed with ale and sold to the apothecary as a remedy for virility problems. The brains, heart, lungs, and kidneys shall be minced and made into pies. The teeth shall be ground into powder and mixed with cinnamon and mint. When stirred with warm ale and a teaspoon of dragon water, tis good for the brain.” “What about the eyes?” Shakespeare asked. “Pickled in vinegar,” she answered. “When swallowed whole, they are also good for the brain.” He thought about that along the way—a supper of pickled eyes. The burg of Hemsdale was under the jurisdiction of Henton Hall. It was a poor town eroded by bitter cold and strong winds. The first houses that came into view were built from clay, colored red, white, or blue, and ceiled with straw, reeds, and mud. Little protection from the rain, Shakespeare thought. As they reached the main thoroughfare, the hamlet awoke from its dormancy. Here were the townspeople busy with activity—wives and daughters buying fruits from the costermongers, or red, fresh beef from the butchers. Laborers and citizens staggered out of red-sashed taverns, children chased one another. There were the merchants shouting from the windows of their houses, “What de ye lack, today?” trying to ensnare buyers to purchase their wares. Aproned men pushing carts loaded with edibles sang out their selections—fresh cucumbers or melons, oatbread and barley cakes, and sweet marchpane and comfits. A lute player strummed out a tune as maidens giggled and danced. Shakespeare dismounted and led the whore and his horse through the tumult. Not as festive as Paul’s, but the noise did seem to liven up the weary little village. He stopped to buy a pear. A big one. He bit into the skin and let the sweet juices dribble down his chin, then wiped them up using his sleeve. As he chewed, his thoughts turned back to Harry, until he was interrupted by a hoarse voice. “Ye shall burn in hell lest ye repent for your wicked ways.” Shakespeare turned around and saw hard, black eyes. A blasted Puritan as bleak in character as he was in dress. Serious and sour, glutted with scorn. His voice was raw, his features small and pinched. He held out an ungloved hand—red as if burnt by fire. He pointed a gnarled finger at Shakespeare and said, “Taker of the flesh of a whore. Repent before it’s too late!” Shakespeare and the whore said nothing. “Repent!” he shouted with urgency in his voice. “You must repent!” Shakespeare raised his eyebrows. “Why must you wear black all the time? Surely the Lord didn’t create colors to be disregarded as such.” “Colors are sinful!” he blasted out. “They cause the eye to see false beauty.” He curled his finger into his fist and shook it at them. “Only repentance can bring pure truth, pure beauty. Look around.” The Puritan swept his arm across the town. “All is filled with the Devil’s biding. Satanic mummeries held not more than a week ago. Spring is here and soon our souls shall be assaulted once again by hedonistic orgies and rituals.” “Beg your pardon, sir?” Shakespeare asked. “Poles bedecked with flowers—icons of paganism.” “He means the maypole,” the whore said. “Such pastime is merely amusement,” Shakespeare said. “Frivolous, but not unseemly godless.” The Puritan’s eyes burned with fury. “Frivolity is the Devil’s meat. Thou must repent, sinner! Rid thyself of all foul beasts, that foul beast.” Out came the finger. He pointed to the whore, and she smiled at him. “Filth,” his raspy voice uttered. He pulled a hood atop his head. Shakespeare rolled his eyes and led the horse around him. “I thank you for your counsel, good sir.” “Ye still have time to repent, sinner,” said the Puritan. “Repent! Repent, I say! Before the gloaming! Before it’s too late!” On the outskirts of town lay the bigger, wooden houses. Four of them. He asked her who lived there. “The first one over there with gardens, that belongs to Alderman Fottingham,” she replied. “He’s one of me best sporters. The two over there belongs to citizens—one’s a merchant, the other an apothecary. The biggest house—other than Henton—belongs to a yeoman.” “Where is Henton House?” Shakespeare asked. “Twenty minutes out that way,” she said, pointing her finger. “Is the Earl of Henton in residence?” “I know not, sir.” “Do you know if Fottingham is home?” Shakespeare asked. “No, sir.” Shakespeare stopped the horse in front of the alderman’s house and then helped her down. “This is as far as I take you.” She nodded and gave him a small curtsy. Clearing his throat, he asked, “Is it your habit to entertain the stranger?” “Ifin he can pay, tis all well with me.” “Have you had occasion to see a man here maybe three weeks ago? His name was Henry Whitman.” “I know not the name.” “Tall fellow, thick brown curls and a woolly brown beard. Full of muscle and grit.” “He sounds like a bear.” “Aye, a bear he was. Deep voice that carried like the roar of thunder.” His own voice had become loud and dramatic. She smiled. “And hands as big as mutton chops,” he went on. “And eyes as wide as the Channel and as dark as a witch’s hat. And he loved to attack pretty little maidens,” he added, tickling her ribs. She burst into laughter. He hooked his arms around her waist and spun her around in the air. “Seen him, you have?” he asked. She shook her head no. “He never crossed your bed.” “Sorry, no.” Shakespeare sighed and put her down. “Who was the Puritan who accosted me on the road?” “That’d be Edward Mann. He’s a bit mad in the head. He’s been married three times; and all three times his wives died in childbirth. He claims he’s possessed, a witch has cast a spell on him and the spell won’t be lifted unless all of England repents.” “Had he ever had dealings with a witch?” Shakespeare asked. The strumpet grinned wickedly and whispered, “I know not a witch exactly, sir, but mayhap I said an evil word or two about him.” Her eyes widened with sudden fright. “You’ll not be telling anyone what I said, eh?” “No.” “Good.” She leaned over and kissed his cheeks. “Me coins, now.” “Many thanks for your help, little one.” He slapped coins into her palm and pinched her bottom. She gave him a coy, closed-lip smile and skipped away. Chapter 7 (#ulink_c09addfd-694f-51c4-8c19-69a984c9365a) Food before conversation, the portly alderman had insisted. Talk grows irksome on an empty stomach. Fottingham was a man of good height but even more impressive girth. But his smile was welcoming, his voice cheerful, his blue eyes clear and friendly. His servants brought out plates of boiled beef, rabbit, grouse, quail, and venison. The meat was hot and fresh, and Shakespeare ate until his doublet bulged uncomfortably. After the trenchers had been cleared, Fottingham gathered up his fur-trimmed black robe, stood and stretched. Lumbering over to the hearth, he snatched two tankards from the mantel and filled them with ale. He gave one to Shakespeare, then settled back into his chair. Shakespeare sipped the foam contentedly. The room was cool but dry, the floors covered with fresh straw, the plastered walls adorned with painted cloth. The windows were open, and a healthy wind stirred up air that had been thick with the smell of grease. “You say that Cat brought you into town?” Fottingham asked. His black beard, spangled with droplets of ale, spread over his chest like a bib. “Cat?” Shakespeare asked. “The stew.” “She told me not her name.” Fottingham’s eyes brightened. “Flesh of a woman who has no name. How lusty.” Shakespeare smiled. “Why do they call her Cat?” “Because she purrs like a kitten during the rutting. Her Christian name is also Catherine.” “She tells an interesting story.” “Marry,” the alderman said, dismissing him with a wave of his hand. “She’s a notorious liar. Her mother lives, as does her father. He’s a whoremonger. Cat is his best moneymaker.” “I’ve been gulled,” Shakespeare said dryly. Fottingham laughed. “Fell for her pathetic tale, did you? Paid her twice as much as necessary?” “I think so.” “Not to worry,” Fottingham said. “Others have been her coney. Besides, your face would be pleasing to the young girl. I’m sure she was quite enthusiastic with her favors.” “Quite,” Shakespeare said. “Though she did remark that the hair on my head was scant … the hair on my chin as well.” “Tact is not the whore’s forte,” the alderman said. “She chides me constantly for my growing belly.” He patted his stomach. “Once I was as trim as you. Once I was as young as you also. The luxury of aging. One may grow fat and content and sport with merry young wenches without bitter tears from the wife. Mine has served her purpose. Fifteen children, ten which still live. She is grateful for the punks. They give her much rest.” Fottingham belched out loud, spied a leftover piece of meat on the floor and popped it in his mouth. Rabbit. Delicious. “And now I have the pleasure of asking what has brought the player and bookwriter William Shakespeare to Hemsdale.” “I’m looking for acquaintances of a man—one Henry Whitman—Harry, as he liked to be called.” “The famous player Harry Whitman?” “Yes.” “Are you his friend or his enemy?” “His friend,” Shakespeare replied. “His company played here six years ago,” Fottingham said. “The troupe was very well received. Whitman was particularly impressive. He and that other one, who was quite a bit younger.” “Richard Burbage.” “Yes, that was the name,” said the alderman. “But you weren’t with them.” “I wasn’t in London at the time.” “Where is your birthplace?” “Warwick.” “Never made it this far north before?” “Not until this day,” Shakespeare said. “Mayhap Harry passed through here recently?” “Harry passed through here yearly,” Fottingham said. “On his way down from his visits with his cousin, Lord Henley.” “You knew Harry well?” Shakespeare asked. “Hardly at all,” said Fottingham. “But Harry is hard to miss. He’s a noticeable man physically—big and hairy. But as big as Harry is, tis his voice that is most memorable.” Shakespeare said, “He played it as if it were a viol—deep and beautiful. His soliloquies could bring one to tears.” Fottingham saw moisture in the younger man’s eyes. He stared at Shakespeare and said, “What happened to Harry?” Shakespeare whispered, “He was murdered.” “God’s blood, that’s horrible!” Fottingham seemed genuinely surprised. “Henley never said a word. When did this happen?” “About two weeks ago.” “Where was he done in?” “In the open countryside about fifteen miles from here. He was found dead, stabbed, left to rot in a sheep’s cot.” “Good heavens!” Neither one spoke. Fottingham suddenly squinted his eyes with suspicion and asked Shakespeare, “And why are you here?” Shakespeare replied, “I’m trying to find out what happened to him during his last days. Perhaps you know of someone who had talked to him as he passed through Hemsdale?” “Not I.” The alderman lifted a thigh and passed wind. “I don’t even recall seeing him two weeks ago, although I know he passed through Hemsdale every year right before Mayday.” “But you had spoken to him in the past?” Shakespeare asked. “A word or two,” the alderman said. “Harry never resided at our local inn—The Grouse. He literally passed through the town.” Fottingham paused. Shakespeare knew there was more but like the line well-acted, timing was of crucial importance. He waited for the alderman to continue. A minute later, Fottingham said, “It might be wise if you let the dead rest in peace, my friend. It’s possible you’ll discover things about Harry that are best left buried.” “Such as?” “Things.” “Specifically.” “Just things.” The alderman closed his mouth stubbornly. Shakespeare chose not to push him further. He said, “A poor outcome is a consequence of gambling. I’ll chance the game.” “Why is this bit of intrigue important to you?” the alderman asked. “It won’t restore breath to Harry’s nostrils.” “I have reasons.” “Revenge on his murderer?” “Perhaps.” “It will eat you alive, Shakespeare. Rot the flesh off the bones. The fiend could be anyone—a man with a personal grudge, a hot-headed drunk, a madman. Leave revenge to the hands of God.” Shakespeare said nothing. “Revenge is a wily bastard, goodman,” said Fottingham. “Be careful or you’ll suffer the same fate as your friend.” The alderman paused, then said, “Go to the Fishhead Inn and talk to the innkeeper—Edgar Chambers. Harry often stayed there. I’ve even heard him recite some of his bawdy poetry there. It was quite clever and very randy. I shall write you a letter of reference for Chambers.” “Thank you, sir, for your sound counsel and help.” Shakespeare stood up. “Is Lord Henton in his residence?” Fottingham stood and let out a rakish laugh. “Aye. But he won’t be telling you anything important. He’s weak in the head.” The alderman tapped his temples. “And old and feeble. His quill has been quite dry for years now, though it doesn’t bother his young, pretty wife. Her parchment is well-saturated.” Shakespeare smiled, noticed the gleam in the alderman’s eye. “You’ll get nothing from the old lord,” Fottingham said, scribbling out a letter on a scrap of paper. “Speak with Chambers at the Fishhead. He’s a slippery man, Shakespeare. Selectively quiet. You may need to expend a tuppence or two before the innkeeper grows loquacious.” “Rare is the man who dances not to the tune of jingling coins.” “True words, my boy,” said the alderman. He closed the letter with his seal and handed it to Shakespeare. In return, Shakespeare drew his poniard from its hilt. “A gift for your kindness,” he said, extending the dagger. “Nay, insult me not, goodman.” “But the insult will be mine, sir, if you accept it not.” “If I come to London, treat me as I treated you.” “But I cannot hope to entertain you in such a splendid manor.” “Then invite me to witness you on stage.” “Done a thousand times.” The Fishhead Inn lay on the rocky banks of Loch Gelder, a small shadow of the steely, blue water. From time to time the smooth surface of the looking glass would crack open and up would jump an industrious gilded-scaled gudgeon or a silvery loach sided with streaks of pastel pinks and blues. Long seasons of heavy rainfall were common, and flooding of the inn from the lake was warded off by a barrier of piled boulders. The hostel was modest in size, holding one hundred fifty able-bodied men. The architecture was simple—two stories of plastered walls, roofed with rifts of oak timber. A fine brick chimney puffed out clouds of muddy brown smoke. The welcome sign—the hallmark of a quality inn—was fashioned from a solid block of walnut. Carved out of the center was a loach painted in bright reds and greens, with its tail curved under its belly. FISHHEAD INN was carved about the loach in bold, blue letters. The rest of the block was smooth, finished wood, sanded and varnished to a high gloss. Three feet in length, six inches in depth, the sign was too large and heavy to hang. Instead it was propped up by two oak posts. Excessive and costly, thought Shakespeare. He went inside, sat down at a small, round table and ordered a bottle of the cheapest port on the fareboard—two shillings sixpence. His money was draining, and he hoped his luck at the hare races would continue as it had the past year. He drank half the bottle then, fueled by the warm glow of the spirits, asked the tapster if he might have a word or two with Edgar Chambers. Shakespeare handed him his letter of reference. Minutes later a man sat down at his table and introduced himself as Chambers. Young, Shakespeare noticed. Perhaps as much as ten years younger than himself. At the most twenty. Ruddy red cheeks and a fleece of strawberry-blond wool for hair. Shakespeare extended his hand and Chambers took it. “I thank you, kind innkeeper, for permitting me the pleasure of your company,” Shakespeare said. “The honor is mine, goodman,” Chambers replied. “Welcome to my humble little hostel.” “Nay, it is a splendid hostel,” Shakespeare argued. Such deprecation was not expected to pass without comment. “Full of scrumptious food, fine wines, and company fit for the Queen. Tis truly English, goodman.” “You are too kind,” Chambers said. “How can I be of service to you?” “Did not Alderman Fottingham’s letter explain the purpose of my visit?” “Nay. He wrote simply that you wish an audience with me.” “Then I shall tell you the purpose,” Shakespeare said. “I’m trying to find out if a friend of mine passed through this town—Harry Whitman.” Chambers paled. Shakespeare leaned forward. “What do you know about him?” Shakespeare asked. “Yes, well … He’s a great player, of course,” Chambers stammered. Shakespeare said, “He lodged here often—” “No!” cried Chambers. “Who told you that?” “He stayed overnight—” “No,” Chambers insisted. Shakespeare took out a shilling. “No,” Chambers said, hitting it out of his hands. “Not for love or money did he lodge here. Good day, sirrah!” Chambers stalked away, but Shakespeare followed him. He grabbed the hostler’s arm. “Are you challenging me?” Chambers said with sudden viciousness. His hand was clenched around the hilt of his rapier. “I pray you,” Shakespeare said, “understand that I loved Harry, that he was most dear to me. If the tendrils of compassion wrap around your heart, let them squeeze it to remind you of the pain of untimely loss—of murder most fell.” “Murder?” Shakespeare nodded. Chambers had turned ashen. “We cannot talk here in public,” Chambers whispered. “Too many open ears. Come with me.” Shakespeare followed the hostler down a dim hallway dotted with rushlights housed in rusty wall sconces. At the end of the hall was a small, almost hidden door. Chambers took out a large, brass skeleton key and opened the lock. Chambers’s private closet was spacious and brimming over with natural light. The walls were wainscoted with walnut panels below, forest-green silk cloth above the wood. Framed pictures of fish—all kinds of fish—abounded. A large mounted whitefish rested on a wooded mantel. Chambers pulled out a chair from a round table, offered it to Shakespeare, then sank wearily into his own chair, positioned across the table. Shakespeare said, “Tell me what happened to Whitman.” “I don’t know anything about a murder!” insisted Chambers. “As God is my witness, I speak the truth.” “Then what do you know?” “He lodged here.” “For how long?” Shakespeare asked. “Three … no, four … four days.” “A long time,” Shakespeare commented. “Was that his usual length of stay?” Chambers shook his head rapidly. “His longest visit ever. In the past he had stayed only a night. Last year he stayed two days. This time four.” “Then why did you deny knowing him?” Shakespeare asked. “I had my reasons,” Chambers said. “And they were?” Chambers didn’t answer. Shakespeare let it go and asked, “How did Whitman pass the hours here?” “In pursuit of pleasure,” Chambers said. “Your friend was fond of dicing.” Shakespeare frowned. “Dicing?” “Aye.” Shakespeare said, “Harry enjoyed drinking, making merry. But dicing? You’ve mistaken him for someone else.” “No mistake. Whitman diced, gambled. And lost a great deal of money.” “Tell me.” Chambers became animated. “The first night his hap was sweet, his winnings large. But the last days of his stay—he was here for five days—” “I thought you said four.” “Four days then. Yes, it was four days. On the fourth night, when Harry became involved with a group of rogues—unscrupulous men—his luck suddenly changed.” Shakespeare felt suddenly ired, frustrated. “He became someone’s coney—a dupe.” Chambers nodded. “You didn’t stop the rogues from cheating?” Chambers said, “In my business one never interferes with gentlemen dicing. They become most resentful.” Shakespeare asked him to continue. “The stakes grew higher,” Chambers said. His eyes darted from side to side. “I know not exactly what happened, sir. It was said that Harry’s luck took a sudden turn for the better. Then it was discovered that Harry held in his pockets several pairs of false dice.” Shakespeare cursed inwardly. Uncover things best left buried. He said, “Harry was many things—a philanderer and a carouser—but always an honest man.” “Then it grieves me to tell you this, goodman, but in his possession were a flat carter-treys, a flat cinque-deuces, a barred carter-treys, and high fullam.” “High fullam?” “Dice weighed toward high numbers.” “I don’t believe it,” Shakespeare said. “He was duped.” “I was not there when the accusations were made, sir.” “Where were you?” Shakespeare asked. “I have a brother,” Chambers said. “He was in charge of the inn’s business that evening.” “May I speak with him?” Shakespeare asked. “He’s in Kent, sir.” “Had you ever seen Harry dice on any previous visit here?” Shakespeare asked. “Yes sir, I have.” “You have?” “Yes.” Chambers began to shake his left leg. Shakespeare told him to complete the dreadful tale. Chambers said, “The next morning I saw Harry paying off these men with big coins—angels, nobles, sovereigns.” Where had Harry come to so much money? Shakespeare wondered. He asked, “The name of these rogues?” “I divulge their identities only because you say he was a kindred spirit with your soul.” “I speak honestly.” “I only know two names. The leader—a vicious uprightman who’s quick with the sword—and his doxy.” “His name?” “Have respect for my soul. Do not breathe the name I’m about to utter.” “On my honor.” “And be careful for your hide,” Chambers warned. “He’s ruthless and evil.” “I shall be wary,” Shakespeare said. “Pray, his name?” “Mackering—George Mackering.” Shakespeare groaned. “You know him?” asked Chambers, frightened. “By reputation only,” Shakespeare answered. “An atheist—a foul, cunning man. And deadly with a sword.” Chambers swallowed back a dry heave. Shakespeare said, “His woman is still Mary Biddle?” Chambers nodded. “Are they still here?” Shakespeare asked. “No.” “Back in London?” “It seems likely. London is Mackering’s favorite place of operation.” Chambers paused, then said, “Pray, leave now.” Shakespeare stood up and placed a shilling atop the table. Chambers snatched it up, bit it, and placed it in his purse before Shakespeare was out the door. Chapter 8 (#ulink_80c71c70-4736-55ec-8680-7fb50ff1fea1) All was not well with Roderigo Lopez. Raphael’s death had been a black cloud, a storm that had left no one in the family untouched. Rebecca was once again a single woman, and Miguel’s peculiarities were keeping her that way for the moment. But now Lopez was preoccupied with a single thought—it had been nearly a month since he’d been called to court. Though it could not be proven, he knew in his heart that the Queen was deliberately shunning his counsel, her avoidance no doubt fueled by evil words from the damnable Essex. Royal blood ran thick through the earl’s veins—another stubborn redhead with a fiery temperament. Roderigo spewed out curses as he paced, his heavy bootsteps stomping through the straw and echoing against the stone pavers. Normally the East Cell of his home was his favorite place of refuge—a closet where he could work or relax unmolested. Warmed by the fires burning in an exceptionally large hearth, Roderigo often sat at his desk in his favorite chair, admiring his pewter inkstand or unfolding and studying his recently charted maps. Once a week he counted his assets on his calculating board. The chamber was his retreat from the outside world. But this afternoon its magical spell of tranquility had been broken by the presence of his nephews—Thomas and Dunstan—and Miguel Nuñoz, sitting around his personal writing table. May we meet, they had asked. Details of the mission must be discussed at length … And other things. He knew what they meant by other things, what they dared not say in public. He had lost favor with the Queen. Only a temporary condition, he assured himself as he marched to and fro. Essex’s doing today would be his undoing in the future. He’d see to that! And to think that he had once trusted the bloodlusting dog. He had to reach the Queen. But how? As of late Her Grace had no need of his services. The woman was in perfect health, sound in both body and mind—as strong as a bull and as crafty as a witch. “A pox on him,” Roderigo swore out loud once again. “Curse Essex and everything he holds dear.” “Do cool your choler, Uncle,” Dunstan said, playing with his diamond earring. Good heavens, the old man was full of spleen tonight. “It does us no good if you mutter and strut.” Roderigo cursed again, but this time the heat of his words was directed against his nephew. “Show respect to your elder, you arrogant little maggot.” He slapped Dunstan soundly across the face with the back of his hand. Stung more by the insult than by injury, Dunstan stammered out words of apology. With an unsteady hand he removed a red silk kerchief from his doublet and wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead, his eyes beseeching his brother for help. “Do sit, Uncle,” Thomas urged. Reflexively, he rubbed his naked chin, and thought angrily of his smooth skin. Why had he been hexed—to exist without manly fur? Why him and not Dunstan? He was star-crossed, pulled too early from the womb under the wrong configuration of planets. He glanced at Roderigo, who hadn’t appeared to hear him. “Pray, do not tire yourself unnecessarily, Uncle. Better to save your energy for more noble a purpose.” Roderigo considered the suggestion, and upon deciding it to be a good one, sat down in his favorite oak armchair. Sarah had sewn the pillow used for a backrest—a portrait of Deborah, the blind prophetess, holding the scales of justice. He tilted his head backward and regarded the fresco painted upon the ceiling—Samson breaking down the pillars of the Philistine temple, curly hair cascading down to his loincloth, eye sockets vacant and white. On the walls hung tapestry panels that told the story of David and Bathsheba. When he stared straight ahead, he saw three pairs of anxious eyes. Roderigo longed to look at something that didn’t look back at him. Grumpily, he rang for Martino, his blackamoor servant. “Where is your father?” Roderigo asked Dunstan. “His trade took him down to Dover,” Dunstan answered quietly. “A new shipment of anise.” Martino entered the closet and Roderigo barked out an order for superior port. After the servant departed, Lopez’s eyes rested upon Miguel, almost daring him to speak. The young man pushed a ringlet of black hair off his forehead and squirmed under the scrutiny, crossing and recrossing his legs, unsure of how to proceed. Miguel knew he had disappointed Roderigo immensely, but what could he have done differently? Would it have been better to say nothing? Miguel had told Rebecca about his vices years ago. Now, at last, Roderigo knew the truth as well. After much deliberation, when it had been verified that Raphael indeed had perished, he’d confessed his preferences in the art of love to Dunstan and Thomas, suspecting that they had known about his practices all the while. He’d asked them to deliver the news to their uncle, thus sparing him the initial pain and embarrassment. He held so much admiration and love for the doctor, a man who had treated him as kindly as his own son, Benjamin. And Sarah was the mother he had never known. Though the families were distant relations, they had always been inseparable. But Roderigo, sorely impatient with anything that upset his plans, had been furious with him—as if Miguel had failed him out of spite. Much as Miguel tried, he couldn’t seem to make Roderigo understand: that he loved Rebecca dearly as a sister, that his own welfare was secondary to hers. Rebecca deserved more than he could hope to give her. God knew he had tried to explain it, but the doctor hadn’t seemed any more consoled. Such contempt in his eyes as he spoke: Surely you can tolerate her as a diversion. At least you can hold your nose long enough, until there is a legitimate heir. Miguel held his own flaring temper and said nothing. Roderigo continued, Out of my sight, you fop, you woman! Play with your boys until it falls off and rots, for all I care. Miguel had stalked away, angry and guilty. He cursed God for afflicting him with so wretched a perversion made so sweet by his lovers’ arms. If only Raphael hadn’t died! But then there came his reprieve. The mission. The family men had approached him. Would he volunteer to continue his brother’s efforts? Miguel had offered to work for the mission many times, but the suggestion always had been met with hesitancy by his father and Raphael. Aye, Raphi had loved him, always tried to protect him against the evil forces that be. And in the end it was Raphi, not he, who’d been murdered by Satan’s agents. After Raphael’s death, Miguel was determined to go on with his brother’s work. He was thinking about how to approach the other men when they came to him. Would he continue where Raphael had left off? By God, he would, he’d replied. It would be an honor! If God were with him, he would save lives, revenge his brother’s death and earn back the doctor’s respect. Despite the mounting adversity—the Earl of Essex’s hatred of Roderigo, the rise in popularity of the lord and his War Party—the secret Jews decided they must carry on. “The Queen,” Miguel began. “Her Grace has yet to send for you, Ruy.” Roderigo continued to stare at him. The tip of his beard was tightly wound around his fool’s finger and was turning it purple. Slowly he liberated the finger and clenched his hands into fists. “No,” he whispered tensely. “Essex has seen to that. Only war with Spain will satisfy his insatiable love of blood.” “A pity the Queen was inflicted with smallpox so long ago,” Dunstan said. “More so a pity that the illness seems only to strike once in a life.” “Dunstan!” Miguel said. “Harsh, but true,” Dunstan retorted. “Surely she couldn’t avoid Uncle if she were gravely ill.” Roderigo glared at his nephew. “You repulsive worm!” He raised his hand, then seeing Dunstan flinch, slowly lowered his arm. Why bother? The boy had only stated in words what he himself had wished all along. “There are servants here with big ears, Dunstan,” Roderigo said softly. “And the gutter rat de Andrada as well. Be mindful of that.” Dunstan buried his head in his hands. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. “A thousand apologies, Uncle. Raphael’s death has affected my nerves, my manners as well.” Miguel placed his hand on Dunstan’s shoulder, cheeks wet with sorrow. “His untimely demise is painful to all of us. But we must go on—” “At what costs, my friend?” Dunstan replied. “Our intrigues are becoming too dangerous.” Miguel pulled his hand away, laced his fingers together. “Dunstan, I’m the one in peril, yet I’m willing to continue.” Because you’re young and rash, Dunstan thought. He said, “Essex is powerful, Miguel. If he should find out—” “He will not find out,” Roderigo stated. “But—” “He knows nothing,” Roderigo insisted. “What we do may be falsely interpreted as treason, Uncle,” Dunstan said. “Traitors, Uncle, are quartered at Tyburn!” “You speak absurdities,” Roderigo said. “Does he?” Thomas asked. “We’re loyal subjects of Her Majesty,” Miguel exclaimed. “No one could doubt our unswerving allegiance to the crown.” Dunstan said, “We’re negotiating with the Queen’s bitterest enemy without benefit of her counsel. And before you object, Uncle, pray, hear me out.” Roderigo waved a hand in the air. “Speak.” “The mission was dangerous enough before Raphael had died. Any of our previous correspondence with King Philip could have been—and still could be—enough evidence to hang us—” “Yes, yes,” Roderigo said. “Make your point, Dunstan.” Dunstan said, “Think about this, Uncle. Raphael was murdered a month ago. King Philip was furious at our carelessness because it put His Majesty in a most awkward position. If the Pope or the Holy See found out—” “Neither did,” interrupted Miguel. “Let me finish,” Dunstan insisted. “Suppose either one did. Philip is supposed to be the staunch defender of Catholicism. Imagine what would happen to his standing in Rome if he had been caught dealing with conversos. If it were known publicly that he was allowing Jews to escape from his dominions—” “Summarize, nephew,” Roderigo said. “If that were to happen, Philip would have to restore his credibility to Rome,” Dunstan said. “One way to win back his image as the Catholic king would be to burn more conversos. Thus, by our actions, we could be exposing our brethren to more danger—” Roderigo said, “Since Philip himself is still dealing with us, even after Raphael’s death, I don’t think he’s worried about being censured by Rome.” Dunstan said, “Yet his latest communications with us have been livid in tone, aye? And after Raphael’s death, Philip has asked us for much more money per head of Jew smuggled out as compensation for his troubles.” Roderigo’s eyes widened. Rebecca had been eavesdropping, her tongue flapping to her cousin. He said, “Where did you come to that knowledge?” Dunstan turned red. “I hear things.” “Rebecca hears things, you mean.” Roderigo was enraged. How could she show so little sense? But he’d deal with her later. He said, “Go on with your point … or her point. I hear my daughter’s words coming from your mouth.” Dunstan said, “My thoughts are my own, Uncle.” Almost my own. “We’ve had many communications with Philip this past month—letters of reproach, notes of negotiation for the right price of ‘pearls, musk, and amber.’ Is it possible that maybe one note fell into the wrong hands—into Essex’s hands? Is it possible that the earl has shown the note to Her Majesty and that’s why you’ve not been called to court?” “Nonsense,” Roderigo said. “You worry too much,” said Miguel. “The Queen has been well and has no need for her doctor’s services.” Roderigo regarded Miguel and nodded with appreciation. Miguel held a smile in check. Was there not a glint of moisture in the doctor’s eyes? Perhaps hatred’s cold heart was beginning to thaw. “Forget Essex,” Roderigo said. “His spies are amateurs. He knows nothing about missions. If he did, I would have been dead by now. As for Her Grace, Elizabeth’s a keen politician—very adroit indeed. Though Essex be her favorite, she has no use for Essex’s desire of war with Spain. Battle is very costly to the treasury.” “It’s not the Queen’s opinion of Spain I fear,” Thomas said, encircling his fingers around the hilt of his sword. So comforting was the chill of metal in his hand. “It’s the sentiment of the populace that worries me. Just walk down Paul’s at noon. Our countrymen cursed the Spaniard with a vengeance. If we were discovered dealing with Spain, the masses would tear us apart before the courts could try us.” “Essex owns the heart of the Englishman,” Dunstan said. “Essex is a fool,” Roderigo said, stroking his beard. How Thomas envied that mannerism. “Aye, but the fool is well loved by Her Grace,” he said. “So was Tarletan,” Roderigo said. “He had no say in foreign policy.” “She uses Essex for her purposes,” Miguel said. “And he uses her,” Dunstan said. “It is only a matter of time before Essex finds out. We must stop these intrigues—” Roderigo turned to Dunstan, eyes smoldering with rage. “Are you giving me orders, nephew?” he asked softly. Dunstan paled and quickly answered no. “Good,” said Roderigo. “You’ve been most helpful to us, Dunstan. Your sound mercantile practices have gained us much revenue. But remember your manners when you’re among elders.” Even if the elder was lower class, Dunstan thought. But he apologized anyway. This was not the time for confrontation. Roderigo said, “Neither Philip nor Elizabeth desire war. Philip is too old, and Essex notwithstanding, Elizabeth is no fool. The Queen does not fight in battles she cannot win.” Thomas said, “Uncle, it was Queen Elizabeth who embraced war with Spain and our Don Antonio in his bid for the throne of Portugal. Certainly that was a battle she didn’t win.” The door to the room opened and the conversation quieted to icy silence. Martino entered the closet clad in a blue gown over white broadcloth hose. The blackamoor carried a tray on which rested a jug of port and four goblets fashioned of Venice glass—a gift to Roderigo from Solomon Aben Ayesh. Roderigo was proud that such royal items were in his possession. Martino placed the tray on the table and lifted the goblets with special care. Despite his Levantine ancestry—the black eyes, the hook of the nose—Martino insisted he was brought up in the Protestant faith, and was a staunch supporter of the Church of England. Roderigo, knowing well the abuse that the converted Moors—the Moroscos—had suffered at the hands of the Spanish Church, immediately hired him. His kindness had been paid off by Martino’s loyalty. As the blackamoor poured the spirits, Roderigo thought of Don Antonio. God in heaven, the ass had had the perfect opportunity. Damn his incompetence! If only he’d been of stabler and stronger character. The conversos would have had one of their own on the throne. Now it seemed that the bastard had taken refuge in Eton, under Essex’s protection, and both of them hated his guts. Martino finished his duties and left the chamber. Roderigo said, “Don’t mention Don Antonio in my presence again. The monster still plagues us. He’s under Essex’s wing, and de Andrada has told me that he and Essex will stop at nothing to ruin us.” “Uncle, de Andrada is Don Antonio’s former spy,” Dunstan said. “He is also a perjurer, a noted liar, and a traitor. And before you unharness your anger against me, realize that you’ve said those very words many times in the past.” Roderigo said nothing. “Why do you continue to shelter de Andrada in your home?” Dunstan asked. Roderigo sat back down. “Dunstan, my nephew, you are indeed an idiot. De Andrada is a poisonous snake. He knows too much and is dangerous out of my watch … And yes, I admit he’s dangerous inside my house as well. He is a damnable nuisance.” The room fell quiet. Damn them all, Roderigo thought, Don Antonio, de Andrada, Essex, Philip, Elizabeth. If he had the power and guts, he’d poison them all with a healthy dose of Indian acacia. Roderigo said to Dunstan, “You’ve asked to speak with me, to discuss the mission, express your worries about our safety. I contend we are safe—for now. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t become careless. Who knows how Raphael was exposed? We must use extreme caution in the future.” “Uncle,” Dunstan said. “I ask you if it’s worth it to continue at the expense of our own lives.” Roderigo said, “As long as we keep the monarchs happy with gold, the mission is on safe grounds … provided that Miguel is not caught, of course.” The comment reverberated in the quiet of the room. Thomas pulled a dagger from his belt and examined its fine-honed edge. Roderigo took a sip of port, smoothed his beard, then flicked a speck of imaginary dust off his round hose. Dunstan adjusted the cuff on his sleeve and glanced at Miguel, who finally spoke up. “I’m not worried,” he said. “Things are proceeding smoothly. Just a week ago I was able to carry out my first assignment and present papers to six stowaways. They’re now residing safely in the Low Countries.” “How did you contact them?” Thomas asked. Miguel explained how Esteban Ferreira de Gama had sneaked out the stowaways from a Spanish cutter late at night. It had been pouring rain and all of them were soaked and chilled, but no one could dare utter a sound, even a sneeze. The Almighty was merciful, Miguel said. The ship docked safely at Portsmouth. De Gama was the first to venture off the boat, and was elated to see England shrouded in mist. Good cover! He found some empty crates, packed the stowaways inside, then loaded them on an inbound ship as supplies. Miguel described how he was able to board the local ship, docked at the wharf on the Thames, and hand the stowaways their citizen’s papers. “They left the same night for Spanish Brussels,” Miguel said. “Father received word that they were successfully met by ‘David,’ who escorted them into Amsterdam.” “Well executed!” Roderigo cried with pride. “I thank you,” Miguel said. His eyes shifted back and forth between Dunstan and Thomas. “My friends, my brothers, if you could have seen the look of gratitude etched upon their faces, you would know that we’ve no choice but to continue our efforts—increase them if necessary. We’re saving lives!” Roderigo said, “And how do Sir Thomas and Sir Dunstan respond to that?” Thomas was the first to speak. “So be it,” he said. Dunstan didn’t answer. Miguel said, “Dunstan, my good man. There’s more to life than life itself.” “Miguel,” Roderigo said. “I’ve just received word from de Gama that another ship could be due in Plymouth a month from now. Do you feel able to meet the challenge?” “Aye.” “Good man!” Roderigo said. “Any comment from the knighted ones?” Thomas’s hand went to his dagger, then slipped by his side. He shook his head no. Dunstan rolled his eyes backward. Roderigo caught the gesture of contempt but said nothing. The boy knew he had been outvoted. No sense in pushing his nose into his failure. Roderigo rose from his chair—a signal for the others to stand as well. “Let us say our evening prayers. Lord knows how much we need guidance and forebearance.” After the men had finished the “Shemona Esreh,” the eighteen verses of Hebraic silent meditation, Miguel said, “If you have no more need of me, I shall be off. Thomas, be so good as to sport with me this week. Much of the art of fence I have yet to learn.” Thomas answered, “I have time now, if it is convenient for you.” “Good,” Miguel replied. “I shall take my leave as well,” Dunstan said. “Good day, Uncle,” Thomas said. “The three of you shall sup with us tonight,” Roderigo announced magnanimously. “If it pleases you,” Dunstan answered for the group. “I as well?” Miguel asked Roderigo. The doctor walked over to Miguel and hugged him tightly. “Yes,” he said. “You as well … my son.” With Miguel in the lead, the three young men left Lopez’s private cell and descended the spiral stairway. Miguel ran down the long hallway, into Lopez’s library, and threw open the doors to the formal gardens. The Ames brothers followed at a slower pace. Miguel took a deep breath and let it out slowly. An iron bar had been lifted from his shoulders. He had been forgiven! He felt as swift as a hawk, as bold as a lion. Invincible. He saw Rebecca resting on a stone bench in the almond orchard and called out to her. Thomas caught up with Miguel and glared at him. “Do you want to gossip or sport,” he asked irritatedly. “Shall I ignore the bereaved?” Miguel was just as irritated. “Bereaved?” Dunstan whispered to his brother. “Never has she been more joyous.” Rebecca waved to the men, and Miguel ran ahead to her. She stood, held out her arms, and they embraced. “He has made amends?” she asked, but did not wait for the reply. “I knew he would. Father is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” She mussed his hair. “And you’re continuing the intrigue?” “Dunstan has told you his doubts about the mission?” “No, Miguel,” Rebecca said. “I disclosed to him my doubts.” “His words were your idea, then,” Miguel said. She pulled away from him. Miguel said, “Becca, I must continue the work of Raphael—” “No!” “We’re saving lives.” “It isn’t enough that I mourn for Raphael?” she asked. “Must I mourn for you, also?” “I’m cautious—” “Your brother used caution. He’s dead.” Thomas and Dunstan approached, greeting their cousin with a customary kiss. “You’re upset,” Dunstan said to her. “How astute,” she answered. “You couldn’t talk him out of this?” “Miguel is stubborn,” Dunstan answered. “You’ll not be happy until you die a martyr,” she said to Miguel. “That’s not so.” She leaned her face against Miguel’s chest and held him. “I’m so worried. We are all so vulnerable.” “Nothing will happen to me—or you—or any of us,” Miguel insisted. He broke away from her grasp. “I must practice my swordplay, Becca. My skill is my accursed weakness. Pray, don’t worry about me.” “Teach him well, Thomas,” she whispered to her cousin. Thomas whispered he would, then he and Miguel left. Rebecca waited until the both of them were out of sight, then wrapped her cloak snugly around her body. “The mission turns Miguel’s mind to marchpane,” she said to Dunstan. “He’s drunk from a single sip of success, but it’s not pride that motivates him. It’s acceptance by my father, by you as well, cousin. Raphael used to call Miguel the eternal puppy, so eager to please and trusting he is.” “At seventeen I, too, was eager,” Dunstan said. “Life shall polish his senses.” “If he lasts long enough to benefit from experience.” Her eyes hardened. “And age has nothing to do with idealism. I’m no older than he, yet I’m as cynical as an old man of forty. Cannot you stop him, Dunstan?” “No.” “Then may God bless and help him.” “How do you feel, Becca?” “I’ve been confined here for weeks,” she answered. “Much time I’ve spent in prayer, but it has provided me with little solace. Just lethargy. Grandmama says that idleness has made me slow-witted.” “Perhaps she compares you to me,” Dunstan said. Rebecca laughed. “Dear cousin, an intelligence of wit assumes a whit of intelligence. One must have the latter to have the former.” Dunstan frowned. “Idleness has not made you less clever,” he said. “But it has made you more vicious than ever.” Rebecca cocked her head and pouted. Marry, she was lovely, Dunstan thought. “Shall I take you to Cheapside?” he asked. “Mayhap you mean to bed?” Dunstan bit his lip to hold back a smile. “If that be your desire.” “Go home to your wife.” Dunstan sat down and cradled his chin in the palms of his hands. He looked so troubled, Rebecca thought, but in a rather childish way. As if his mother had taken away his sweetmeats. “What is it?” Rebecca asked. Dunstan sighed. “Grace has been so unresponsive since she has foaled. I don’t understand it. I give her gifts, I’ve hired for her more servants than wait upon the King of Scotland. I’ve indulged her every whim.” “You might consider giving her attention.” “I’m very attentive.” “Aye, to the scullery maid, the milkmaid, the chandleress—” “I’m not a monk, Rebecca. Do not lecture me.” She became silent at the tone of his voice. “Come, cousin,” he said. “Let us take a ride to the country.” She shook her head. It would be disastrous to fill him with false hopes. The sparks she’d once felt for him had died years ago. She’d been just a little girl, and Dunstan had been her porthole to the world. Things were different now. She was no longer dependent on him to teach her things. Still, Dunstan persisted in trying to revive the past. “The country would do your nerves well,” he begged. “I thank you, but no.” “You’re a stubborn twit of a wench,” Dunstan said angrily. “Or a wit of a wench,” she smirked. He grabbed her. “Remember, it was I who broke you in.” “I remember it well,” she said. “Then why have you turned so cold to me?” Not wanting another exhausting confrontation, she smiled and stroked his cheek. “You look handsome, Dunstan.” She tugged the corners of his mustache. “The color red suits you well.” “You taunt me, Becca.” “Not at all.” “Then bed me.” “Impossible.” She straightened out his ruff. “Why do you treat me as thus—the tongue of a kitten one moment, the bite of an asp the next?” “Blame it on the stars.” “You toy with my emotions.” “Dunstan,” she answered, “listen to me. Your cap houses one head, your codpiece the other. Think with the proper one. I’ve grown into a marriageable woman now. You must stop your ridiculous flirting.” “I love you.” “Would your ardor remain hot if I wore the battle scars that decorate Grace’s belly?” Slowly he released her from his grip. “I cannot stop thinking about you. You must marry before I do something … very foolish.” “You mean I must become pregnant, fat, and complacent. Then I will no longer be desirable.” Dunstan smiled sadly. “That is exactly what I mean.” “At the least, you’re truthful, if not honest.” She pushed him away. “Go home to Grace. Perhaps she’s not the wildest between the sheets, but indeed she’s served you well.” Rebuffed again, he stood, bowed, and doffed his hat, showing her the inside of his cap—a gesture of scorn. As he left, he turned to see her gathering almond blossoms in her skirt. Her black hair was loose and long, her ungloved hands so delicate and slender. He felt the sting and cursed what he once had, what he finally realized he had lost forever. Chapter 9 (#ulink_db426976-560b-5500-b560-6e8e331771f2) Politics, politics, and more politics. It made Roderigo weary, and he almost wished himself a simple country doctor again. Putting down his quill, he reread the letter to Ferreira de Gama, admiring the strokes of his Italian hand, so rich with flourishes yet far easier to pen than the traditional secretary hand. Satisfied with the correspondence, he folded and sealed the letter, removed his spectacles and leaned back in his chair. Surrounded by solitude in his private closet, he tried to forget the discouraging words of his nephews. But they buzzed through the air like gnats. What if Essex were to intercept their correspondence with Philip? What would it mean? Disaster! Blank failure from your mind, Roderigo told himself. Just use caution and worry not. There would always be naysayers. Let them say nay, he would say yea. The fire needed to be stoked. Rather than call a servant, he got up and poked the logs himself. The embers erupted into flames, and the gust of heat warmed his stiff hands. Roderigo regarded the hearth in his closet. The Great Hall was outdated, being warmed by only a central pit. It was time to mason a fireplace there. One that would hold a majestic mantel … a mantel carved from the finest walnut. And the hearth should be chiseled from Sicilian marble—deep green preferably, to match the view of the orchards from the leaded-glass windows. And a magnificent chimney puffing out big bellows of smoke so that all of London—and Essex—would know that the Great Hall of Dr. Roderigo Lopez was royally warmed, suitable for entertaining the most revered prince of state. He’d talk to Sarah. A dutiful wife, she’d arrange the details quickly. He had but to speak and Sarah would carry out his wishes. Lopez heard a knock upon the door. He asked who it was and his daughter identified herself. He allowed her to enter. Rebecca stood for a moment underneath the frame of the door. Roderigo was surprised to find her still dressed in black. He would have thought she would abandon the dark clothing as soon as her shiva—her first period of mourning—had finished. Mourning. It had only intensified her beauty, and that worried Roderigo. She had become as jumpy as a kenneled hound, and God only knew what would happen when she was freed from her obligatory month of grieving. An appropriate suitor had to be found lest he find himself the grandfather of a bastard. In his mind, Miguel was still the preferred son-in-law, despite his … whatever it was. He couldn’t imagine marrying her off to anyone but kinsmen. Perhaps there existed an appropriate suitor in the Low Countries or the Levant. He’d speak at length with Solomon and Sarah. They would know who the available men were. Another detail to arrange. He sank down into a padded armchair and called to Rebecca. “Come to me, daughter.” Approaching with a coy smile, Rebecca took a soft velvet pillow and sat at her father’s feet, her overskirt and petticoat billowing over the floor. She curled up against his leg. He reached down and entangled his fingers in her thick, black hair, then stroked it as he would the fur of a lapdog. “Has the Queen summoned you yet, Father?” “You can answer your own question,” Roderigo said. “You seem to know much about my affairs.” “You’re angry at me for telling Dunstan the words of Philip’s letters to you,” Rebecca said. “So be it. Punish me if you desire, but I did it out of love. I’m worried for Miguel’s safety. For yours as well. Essex is clever and vicious.” Roderigo stroked his daughter’s cheek. He felt saddened by the burden that the mission had imposed upon her. “Don’t worry about me, Becca. Worry instead about your lack of husband.” “I need not a husband.” “Bah.” She said, “There’s none suitable who bids my calling.” “Lord Holderoy?” “You can’t be serious, Father. He’s too fat and too old. His seed is no doubt less than copious.” “The Earl of Nottingham?” “A pompous snot.” “Marquis of Cumberland?” “Father! He is a Papist!” “He is also rich and mad for you, daughter.” “I will not marry a Papist!” “Aye, you truly are your father’s daughter,” Roderigo said. “Filthy swine are the Catholics. They burn relapsed conversos as readily as firewood. And the Protestants are no more gentle. Luther, who openly courted the Jews at first, became angered by their refusal to convert. The serpent recanted his praise and went on to blame all the ills of the Continent on the recalcitrant Semites. They all disgust me, the Gentiles. And yet we are completely dependent on their mercy. As much as I plot and plan, it all comes down to the good graces of a tolerant monarch. As of this moment I sit here powerless. I can do nothing until Her Grace beckons me to court.” “Poor Father,” she cooed. “Chafing at the bit while the evil Essex schemes.” Roderigo said, “I scold you for repeating my words, and still I talk too freely to you. Don’t mind my affairs.” “But I care for you. As you care for me. That’s why you’ll not insist that I marry just for marriage’s sake. Besides, I’m still young—” “Not so young anymore. Your mother had borne me three children afore she was twenty.” “And the Lord took them all before their majority—God rest their souls. A young womb yields unripe fruit. Better to wait until the tree grows strong.” “Bah,” he sneered once again. “Don’t prattle about unripe fruit. You desire freedom.” “No,” Rebecca protested. “Only the proper bridegroom.” “Which means no husband at all,” Roderigo said. “You’re true to your stars, my child. A Scorpio with the moon in Gemini—a fatal sting that’s mercurial in nature.” “Nonsense,” Rebecca said, giving him a playful slap. “A bellyful of children should calm you down.” “Again nonsense. A bellyful of children will only make me fat and contemptuous to my husband. You wish not that for me, do you, Father?” “I wish you to be happy. And a gentlewoman cannot be happy without a husband.” “But—” “What would you do without a husband?” Roderigo asked. “I’d have much to do just being your daughter.” Roderigo smiled. “That is not a sufficient position in life.” “It is all the position I need.” “You need to be a gentleman’s wife.” “I should like to continue to help you with your patients. Spend valuable time ministering to the ill. Haven’t you said that I am your extra set of hands—skilled hands?” Roderigo kissed those hands. “I cannot reason with you on this issue of marriage. You distract me with silly talk about your hands. If you force me to become a tyrant, I will, Becca. You will marry when I see fit, and now I’ll hear nothing more to the contrary.” Rebecca said nothing. Silence was her best weapon against her father’s obstinacy. It had worked in the past, and it seemed to be working now. Roderigo’s face softened. He asked her how she spent the last days of her second period of mourning. Rebecca replied, “The hours are long when one is weighted down with boredom.” “I asked you not whether you spent your hours contentedly,” Roderigo replied. “Answer my question.” “I sew and read.” “And do you do what your mother requests?” Rebecca paused a moment, puzzled. “I do all that Mother asks of me.” “And you’ve almost completed your tasks?” Rebecca’s face lit up with understanding. “Marry, you mean the forged papers—” “Quiet,” Roderigo interrupted. “Keep your voice low.” Rebecca whispered, “I’ve finished one set and am busy penning another.” Roderigo smiled and stroked her cheek. “Well, then. And your music?” Rebecca replied that Grandmama said she wasn’t allowed to play music until the thirty days of her second period of mourning were over. She told her father she only had six days left, trying to sound casual, but the relief in her voice was too evident. Her father had noticed it and arched his eyebrows in disapproval. She added, “Aye, Father, a month of mourning officially for Raphael, but for years he will live in the heart.” Rebecca sensed that she had said the wrong thing. Her father tensed. “Raphael was a wonderful man,” he said. “Aye.” “He deserves a true mourning, not simply an official one.” “I understand,” Rebecca answered. “I think not.” Roderigo pushed her away. “Leave now.” “Father, I’ve always been a dutiful daughter to you,” Rebecca said. “I would have been a dutiful wife to Raphael. But I was not passionately in love with him.” “You would have learned to love him.” “I’m not denying that,” Rebecca said. “Some note in my voice has offended you. I pray you to pardon me.” “I don’t want apologies, Becca. I simply want you to wed for your own sake. Find a suitable man that pleases you. Because if no man is to your liking, you’ll simply have to marry one you dislike.” “Father—” “No more said about it!” Roderigo curled the tip of his beard with his finger, cleared his throat, then said, “I’ve received word that Uncle Solomon has safely arrived in Turkey.” “Thanks be to God,” Rebecca answered quietly. He sighed and tried again. “Did I tell you about the letter that your brother sent me?” “Two times. Ben is well and is enjoying Venice. He eats a great deal—less meat, more bread.” “Did I tell you about their eating geegaw—a fork they call it. They spear their food—” “Aye, you told me.” “Ben said they eat using these toys for fingers because their hands aren’t clean.” Roderigo laughed. Rebecca was not amused. “Shall I go now?” “No. Your beauty warms my bones,” said Roderigo. “Stay. And do not sulk.” “As you wish.” “Stubborn girl,” Roderigo muttered. Before Rebecca could reply, Martino walked in the room, panting with excitement. A gentleman wearing royal livery had arrived with a message to deliver to Dr. Lopez. Rebecca stood up and looked at her father. His face held an expression of concern mixed with excitement. At last. Some word from the Queen. It was, of course, a double-edged sword. Father had been summoned, but for what purpose? Rebecca’s heart started hammering, her head suddenly felt light. Please God, let all be well. Roderigo commanded Martino, “Let him in. But give me some minutes to make myself acceptable.” To Rebecca he said, “Dress me quickly.” Immediately she began to truss his points, lacing firmly the ribbons of his gown. “Where are your shoes?” she asked. “My boots are—” “Nay, Father, not your boots. Your velvet shoes—the ones topped with roses.” “Need I my velvet shoes?” “Father!” “They are in my bedchamber.” “I will retrieve them along with your garters. And a new ruff as well. The one you wear sags pathetically under the weight of your beard.” She was off. He was elated. The Queen had sent for him. Was Essex out of favor? Did she desire to use his secret contact in Spain? Did she need news from Solomon Aben Ayesh’s well-connected band of Levantine spies? Did she simply desire his counsel? Suddenly he stopped and felt a cold shiver run through his body. Could the Queen be actually ill? Perish the thought! If her life ended, so would go all his power. He picked up his bag and checked its contents. A few elixirs, a few powders. He was lacking the necessary medicines—the purges, leeches, potions, poultices. Thank God Rebecca and Sarah were so meticulous in stocking the stillroom. Rebecca was back with a new ruff and his shoes. Quickly she placed multiple layers of lace and wire around his neck. Her father seemed calm, he wasn’t trembling or breathing hard, but his color seemed unusually flushed. Her own fingers were stiff. God give him strength, give her strength. Let this be a portent of good things to come. “My medicine bag is nearly empty,” Roderigo told her. “Tell me what you need.” Roderigo listed the medicines: a jug of leeches, trefoil, thistle, walnut shells, cheese mold, fungus on rye—women of that age are known to have bleeding of the privates. “Perhaps a sprig or two of parsley mixed with dragon water,” Rebecca suggested. “The condition of Her Grace’s teeth is quite poor.” “Aye, parsley with water, and dried mint as well. And my special purge.” “Done,” said Rebecca. “Shall I ask Martino to show in the messenger?” “Aye … wait.” Rebecca stopped. “Am I presentable?” Roderigo asked. “More than presentable, Father. Comely.” Roderigo smiled and blew her a kiss as she left. The messenger entered—a young man wearing the royal arms. He was just a boy, Roderigo thought, with hardly more than fuzz for a beard. Yet Roderigo quaked before him as if he were the Queen herself. “Does Her Grace find herself in good health, sir?” Roderigo asked. “I know not,” the gentleman answered. “Come, sir,” Roderigo insisted. “Surely you were informed—” “I was told to call you to court,” the boy said. “One does not inquire about the Queen’s business if one wishes to keep his head.” Roderigo swallowed dryly. “I shall prepare to leave at once.” “A steed shall be waiting for you.” The messenger turned on his heels and left. Revolting little roach, Roderigo thought. Unbecoming for a Queen to use such young rats as messengers. The little worm had a voice as cold as snow. It had sent a shiver through Roderigo’s spine. He looked up and saw Rebecca carrying an armful of vials. “Come, daughter,” he said. “Tarry not. Place the medicines in my bag.” She did as instructed, then looped an amulet around his neck. This one was arsenic paste sewed in dog skin, she explained. “It will guard you against Black Death should the Queen be inflicted.” She pulled out a white crystal pebble from a jug. “Open up.” Roderigo stared at the crystal. His mother-in-law had always insisted that the salts protected better than any charm the “wisemen” wore. Its taste was bitter, though not as bitter as the plague, Roderigo thought. He’d treated many patients steeped in Black Death, and not once had he or a member of his family been cursed with the disease. The hag might be a wretched old thing, but her potions were strong and effective. There were already mutterings that the false Protestants were not only secret Jews, but agents of Satan as well. How else could they circumvent the ubiquitous plague? Marry, Roderigo thought, let them mutter. I shall live. He plucked the salt out of Rebecca’s hand and swallowed it. “I shall take one also,” Rebecca announced. “For what purpose?” Roderigo asked. “Oh Father,” she blurted out. “Let me come to court.” “Impossible,” Roderigo answered, not unkindly. “The Queen was very fond of me,” Rebecca reminded him. “She brought me comfits and jellied quince. She loved my singing. My virginal playing made her weep.” “Another time, Becca,” he said. “Once my favor has been firmly restored in her eyes.” “If she is ill, I can assist you. I’ve come with you diverse times to visit the ill at St. Bartholomew’s.” “This is the Queen.” “How often did I stand by your side when Lord Leicester was ill?” “He was not the Queen.” “Her body is still human. If she is ill, I can help—” “Go away, daughter. I have no time for your foolishness.” Rebecca knew she should respect his wishes, but the last twenty-four days had been so confining. She envied her brother, off in Venice, her cousins gallivanting about. Only she and Uncle Hector had shown any respect for Raphael. True, she had been his betrothed, but it didn’t seem fair that only she should be cloistered. Rebecca argued, “Had you not told me I should have been born a man so I could have practiced your chosen profession?” “But you’re not a man.” Roderigo shook his head. “Aye, not a man at all.” “I’m better equipped than Ben,” Rebecca said. Roderigo glared at his daughter, angry at being confronted with the truth. Ben was an open wound in Roderigo’s heart. A wonderful boy, kind and good-hearted, but not as clever as Roderigo had wished. A curse to have a quick-witted daughter and a dull-witted son. “Even if I would have permitted you to accompany me under ordinary circumstances, I would not allow it now,” he said sternly. “You’re in mourning, Rebecca.” “I pray you, Father.” She sunk down on her knees and grabbed his hands, kissing his jeweled fingers. “I must leave here. I feel as if I’m being enveloped by the blackness I wear. I must escape or I’ll go mad. I beg of you.” Roderigo withdrew his hands and said, “Your playacting may have its desired effects on young hearts, Becca, but my ears are deaf to your antics.” Rebecca’s despair looked honest. Roderigo helped her to her feet and kissed her cheek. He said, “The Queen may have summoned me for reasons other than illness, little one. There is no place for women in politics.” “Then what is the Queen? A bear? A goose? Aye, she must be a dog because oft you call her a bitch—” Roderigo slapped her across the face. “Your tongue needs a knotting.” The slap was a light one—a warning that she’d gone too far. But she remained undeterred. “The Queen’s a woman. Does she not involve herself in politics?” “Bah,” Roderigo said. “You refuse to give up. Go away, silly Becca. You irritate me and I’m in no mood to be irritated.” “Please, Father,” she implored. “If you have no need of me, I shall parade my wares around the galleries. Handsome and rich courtiers abound. Many are single, many are very well regarded. Who knows who may buy the merchandise? How am I to find a husband if you keep me locked up in these walls? I ask you so little, Father. Cosset me this one time.” “You are the most pampered, spoiled, self-indulged young lady I have ever met!” Roderigo said harshly. But his eyes were smiling. She knew she had won. “Have your maids prepare you quickly,” he said. “If you’re not done by the time I depart, you shall be left behind.” Rebecca’s heart took off in wild anticipation. To visit London-town. What a glorious place it was in springtime. Full of excitement and bustle. Stalls packed with the latest wares, ladies on the arms of their lords, bedecked in the most fashionable of dress. New sights and smells. New faces. She wanted to throw herself at her father’s feet and kiss his shoes in gratitude. He was taking her away from these walls, this prison. She should have vowed never to anger him again, should have showered him with obsequious words of praise. Instead all she said was thank you, her voice surprisingly cool and detached. Chapter 10 (#ulink_6735ff74-e0e6-5e6f-a6be-7556dff1d010) The Queen was in a foul mood, made even fouler the moment Dr. Lopez walked inside her bedchambers. Her Majesty’s personal sleeping closet, though modest in size, was opulent in style. The walls of the chamber were covered with silk cloth embroidered with the royal coat-of-arms. Velvet drapes sewn with silver and gold thread hung over two arched windows that provided the Queen with a view of the rose gardens. Her Majesty’s poster bed was carved from walnut, its mattress topped with down-filled counterpanes, and velvet and taffety pillows. Elizabeth sat on a throne, positioned to the left of her bed. Next to the royal chair stood a table upon which sat a porcelain water basin and pitcher, both leafed with gold. Lopez gave the obeisance of reverence—the customary bow given to a monarch—and started to advance, but the Queen commanded him to stop. “Who called him!” she demanded of the High Treasurer, Lord Burghley. “But madam, you are ill—” “You whale!” she screamed at Burghley. “You swine in black. You Puritan! Get him out of here!” Burghley shrugged haplessly at Roderigo and their eyes met. Not a true friend, Roderigo knew. Impossible to keep one’s neck whole and trust anyone in power. But at the moment he was an ally, their connection the hatred of Essex. “Go!” the Queen commanded Roderigo. Her nightdress was soaked with perspiration. Yet her teeth chattered. She adjusted her wig—locks of flaming red hair knotted formally and entwined with diamonds and sapphires—then threw her sable-trimmed robe over her chest. “You are flushed, madam,” Roderigo said. He dropped to his knees. “You are short of breath—” “I didn’t ask for your opinion on my state of health,” Elizabeth snapped. “Did not I order you to leave? Do you disobey—” She stopped her outburst and stared at Rebecca. “You brought your daughter to my bedchamber? Here? Now? Are you mad?” “Your Grace—” Roderigo stammered. “Why did you bring her?” the Queen demanded. “To aid—” “So you need assistance, Dr. Lopez?” “Why no, but—” “Stow it!” The Queen smiled, exposing blackened teeth. She tottered over to her bed and collapsed onto the mattress, allowing Burghley to draw her coverlets up to her chin. Her amber eyes danced playfully as she stared at Lopez’s daughter. “I will receive you now, dear girl,” she intoned sweetly. Rebecca felt dizzy. As she approached the Queen she realized that she was trembling from head to foot. Unsteady on her legs, she managed three deep curtsies. “You may rise,” Elizabeth announced as she held out her hand for Rebecca to kiss. “Don’t just stand there, Burghley, have someone bring the maiden a pillow so she may sit.” “Yes, madam.” Burghley bowed and left. “And you,” she said, turning to Roderigo. “What good can you do me?” “Whatever is in my power.” “Which isn’t much, is it?” “Too meager for Your Grace.” She coughed up a ball of sputum and spit it into a laced handkerchief. “Your flattery is revolting,” Elizabeth said. She gestured Lopez upward. “You may rise.” Roderigo stood but said nothing. A lady-in-waiting brought in a red pillow. She curtsied before the Queen, lay the cushion down. A fair little wench, Roderigo thought. Rosy and round … no more than Rebecca’s age? He had stiffened with lust that now repulsed him. God’s blood, where did the time go? He barked at the maiden, “Prepare for your Queen a posset of milk, honey, and ale immediately.” She nodded stupidly. “Go,” the Queen commanded her. She curtsied and scurried out the door. “Shake not like a cornered deer,” she told Roderigo. “Prance over here and do something.” To Rebecca she said, “Sit at my feet, my sweet. Your face is pleasing to gaze upon.” Rebecca took the pillow and sat on the floor. “No, no, no, you silly goose,” Elizabeth chided, then winked at Rebecca. “Though I hope you not be a Winchester goose.” She laughed at her pun. “Now tell me, dear thing: Have you been touched by the Great Pox?” Rebecca blushed. “No, Your Grace.” “The filthy French do give the English such lifelong gifts,” Elizabeth cackled. “Are you certain you’re clean?” “Yes, Your Grace.” “You must have hordes of men competing for your maidenhead.” Elizabeth smiled wickedly. “Or should I speak in the past tense?” Rebecca turned a deep shade of scarlet. “Come, come,” the Queen said abruptly. “Off the floor. You may sit at the foot of my mattress.” Rebecca did as told, then asked, “May I speak?” “I wish you would,” Elizabeth said. “Your voice is so much more palatable than the others that surround me.” “May I rub Your Grace’s feet with ointment? I fear they are cold.” “A fine idea,” the Queen said, exposing her legs. The skin was pale and loose, webbed with thin blue lines. She pulled off her sable slippers and slapped her feet into Rebecca’s lap—two blocks of ice. “Rub, dear girl,” Elizabeth commanded. Roderigo gave Rebecca a sympathetic look, then handed her a rag, a tin of sweet-smelling herbs, and a vial of ointment from his bag. The woman’s feet had become encrusted with flecks of dirt and scaly skin. Rebecca slowly eased away the dead skin and methodically picked off the dirt with her fingernails. After the royal feet were cleaned, she began her rubbing and perfuming. The toes turned from white to pink, from pink to red. As they did, Elizabeth almost purred with contentment. Then, still playing the feline, she turned to Roderigo, arched her back and snarled, “I feel awful.” “The demands placed upon Your Grace are endless—” “I know the enormities of my duties, you drooling dolt. Quit fawning me. Instead, tell me what ails me.” “You have a fever, madam. You need honeysuckle leaves steeped in water.” “My throat hurts.” She rubbed her neck. Her eyes suddenly beseeched Roderigo’s. “Quimsy?” “Open your mouth, madam,” Roderigo said. The Queen obeyed. Roderigo raised a lit candlestick and peered down the royal throat. A moment later he shook his head no. “Your gullet is merely raw and red. No telltale signs of quimsy.” The Queen smiled and pushed the candle away. “Get that away from my face, you jack. The light irritates my eyes.” “As you wish.” Roderigo tried to remain calm. “The posset that I have requested shall soothe your throat. Also, I will give Your Grace something to help the fever.” Roderigo took out a small jug sealed with wax. “A spoonful every hour until the royal forehead feels cool to the touch.” “Your little girl has grown up, Ruy,” the Queen said, wiggling her newly warmed toes. “My, how she has grown up! Why didn’t you ever do this for me?” “Why … Your Grace never asked,” he sputtered. “And you never volunteered, you plant. The girl has brains under her coif. You must have been away from home the night she was conceived.” The Queen prodded Rebecca in the ribs with her toes. “When you are done with my feet, you may proceed with my hands.” “Thank you, Your Grace.” Elizabeth picked up the jug, poked through the wax seal with her finger, and sniffed the contents. “What’s in here?” she asked suspiciously. “Four spoonfuls of the juice of red nettles, eight of ale, thirty grains of nicra picra, and a half pint of aqua vitae.” She handed the container to Rebecca. “Taste it for me, my dear.” “It would be my honor, Your Grace.” Rebecca took a healthy swallow and passed it back to the Queen, who looked at Roderigo with a sly smile. “It has been rumored that you have a special penchant for ratsbane and Indian acacia, Ruy.” Roderigo turned white and coughed. “Madam, I’ve—” “Oh, stow your mouth!” Elizabeth laughed. She took a gulp of the medicine. “No matter,” she said. “I trust you. For your daughter’s welfare if not for mine. Tell me, what do your spies in Iberia say about His Majesty, King of Spain?” “His treasury lessens daily, his navy is in ruins, the sailors poorly paid and mutinous. He has no means for war. He knows when he has been bested.” “Go on, go on,” Elizabeth commanded. “His Majesty is much bothered by the French Protestant Henry of Navarre and continues to stare wistfully to the north. So does the Duke of Parma.” “Tell me something I know not.” Roderigo hoped his voice was steady. He said, “They comprise a stronger team than either one individually.” “Do you think it wise for England to continue to aid France and the two-faced Navarre?” The Queen smiled wickedly. “Speak, man! Give me your opinion.” “It is costly,” Roderigo said cautiously. “Your ancestry shows itself,” Elizabeth said, raising her eyes. “But tis true. Our involvement on the Continent is slowly bankrupting the treasury. Not that Essex is concerned. He spends as if I were magical rains always filling the wells he calls his pockets.” She shook her head in disgust. Roderigo said nothing. The Queen knew of his rivalry with Essex, and her comments were meant to incite a reaction from him. She was a master of playing people against each other, thus neutralizing all forces against her. When it was clear that Roderigo refused to enter a game he could not win, the Queen said, “What does the King of Spain conspire?” Dark circles of sweat stained Lopez’s armpits. Praise God Rebecca had remembered to add the sweating salts to the sleeves. He would be wet, but at least his body odor would offend no one. “It is rumored that though His Majesty wars with the French king, they meet covertly—” “The bastards!” the Queen screamed. “When?” “I’ve heard the gossip a few days ago.” “And why was I not informed?” “I had not been summoned to court, madam.” Elizabeth winced. “Damn Essex,” she muttered. This time Roderigo smiled. It had been just as he thought. Essex had been keeping him away. And in his absence, the Queen had lost a valuable piece of gossip. “Damn him!” she repeated. “What are we to do about this?” She was trying to trap him again. “Your Grace,” Lopez began, “England is the Jeweled Maiden of the Sea, the mightiest and swiftest power in centuries. All because on the throne sits a just and fair monarch who governs by divine inheritance—” “Oh bother! You speak a lot and say little … But you have worthy spies.” She thought a moment, then said, “I hear you have a fine falconer.” “I do, madam,” Roderigo answered. “I have a sick bird in my mew, a fine female peregrine. See if your falconer can restore her to health. If he can, you may have your pick of her eggs.” “Twould be my honor, Your Grace.” “Of course it would be your honor.” She waved him away. “Go and leave me with my medicines.” “As you wish, madam,” Roderigo said. “Shall I come by tomorrow and see how Your Grace is faring?” “Yes, yes,” the Queen answered. “Away.” “My most humble gratitude for allowing me the pleasure of serving Your Most Holy—” “Good, good, enough blather,” the Queen interrupted. “Now go.” “Come, Rebecca.” “The girl stays.” “Madam, I—” “The girl stays,” repeated the Queen. “Did you not hear me the first time, Dr. Lopez?” “Absolutely, madam. It’s just that such an honor you have bestowed upon her … I am speechless.” “Would it were so.” The Queen pointed to the door. “Be gone!” Roderigo bowed and tried to meet Rebecca’s eyes. But hers were fixed on the brown-spotted flesh topping the Queen’s hands. He had no choice but to leave. As he stepped out into the Privy Chambers, his body was shaking uncontrollably. Rebecca proceeded from rubbing hands to rubbing the neck and face. Though Her Majesty’s body had been prey to the ravages of time, her face still retained remarkable smoothness of skin, wrinkle-free except for small lines around the eyes and lips. Her cheeks were dry and rosy, a deeper blush than usual due to fever. She moaned softly under Rebecca’s touch. “What say you of my condition?” “Excuse a lowly girl’s ignorance, Your Grace, but I am not qualified to answer your question lest I err in my appraisal and cause ill to come to you. I’d rather die myself.” “Answer it anyway,” Elizabeth commanded. “If Your Grace insists, I’d say that madam is heavy with choler. Your skin is hot and dry. The phlegm that Your Grace spits is a sign of recovery being moist and cool. Madam must drink. Pints and pints of clear cistern water mixed with aqua vitae. It will bring on more phlegm and keep the humors in balance.” “Your hands are so young.” Elizabeth held them to her cheek. “Do they cool you, madam?” “Indeed they do.” “Then I shall keep them on your face all night whilst you sleep.” Elizabeth smiled. “If thy hands are cool and bring relief to thy Queen, how much more so thy body.” She rang for one of her ladies-in-waiting. The girl who entered the chamber this time was young, thin, and pockmarked from recent disease. “Undress the girl,” the Queen ordered. Rebecca froze. “Go on, little goose.” Elizabeth pushed Rebecca upward. “Stand up and allow yourself to be served.” On wobbly feet, Rebecca rose. She felt the points of her sleeve being loosened, her bodice coming undone. Off they dropped to the floor, followed by her skirt—a velvet puddle around her ankles. Trembling, she stood in her chemise and stockings. Elizabeth smacked her dry lips. “Continue,” she said to her attendant. Rebecca felt her knees nearly cave in. Off came her undergarments until she was naked, her body lithe and silky, a feast for Elizabeth’s gleaming eye. The woman looked as lecherous as Dunstan. Bile rose in Rebecca’s throat. “You may go,” the Queen said, dismissing her maid. “Come here, Rebecca. The raw air causes you to shiver.” With no other alternative, Rebecca forced a smile and obeyed the command. “Such lovely teeth,” Elizabeth remarked. She held open her coverlets, and Rebecca slid under them. “Smile for me again.” Rebecca smiled. The old woman’s breath smelled of ale and garlic. “Lovely, lovely teeth.” “I would give them to madam, if I could,” Rebecca said softly. “You really are a dear girl, aren’t you.” Elizabeth ordered Rebecca to turn over, then pressed her sagging belly against the smooth arch of the young girl’s back, grinding her hipbone into a firm buttock. Her arms embraced Rebecca, her hands cupped full, soft breasts. She lowered her left hand and tucked it between Rebecca’s legs, a finger poking up into the internal folds of her womb. Ah, to be young again. The girl’s body was so lovely, so cool. She closed her eyes. “Are you comfortable?” “If it is so for madam.” “Madam is quite content.” “Then I am as well,” Rebecca replied. “Go to sleep,” Elizabeth said. Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut and prayed she wouldn’t cry out her revulsion in the night. The coach bounced slowly as it maneuvered through London’s streets, thick with people. Multitudes of human bodies, Roderigo thought, clogging up the roads, scaring the horses. In this traffic it would take at least an hour to reach his home in Holborn. And the noise was fierce. The shouts of the mongers, the banging of hammers, the clang of clashing swords, and the bells ringing endlessly, announcing births, deaths, christenings. He was getting a headache and was out of extract of thistle. Such was his luck of late. He glanced at Rebecca, head down, sitting stoically, not saying a word since they’d left the great palace of Whitehall. He was waiting for her to speak, to confide in him about what had happened, but the girl remained fixed in her silence. And her silence only made the horrible noises outside seem louder. “Enough of your game of handy-dandy, Becca. Open your hands and expose me your nut.” “Pardon?” “What happened with the Queen? What did Her Grace say to you? She did speak to you, did she not?” “Aye.” “What did she say?” “Did she not tell you?” Rebecca asked. “Would I be asking you if Her Majesty were loquacious?” Roderigo snapped. “The Queen said nothing to me, except to complain about her health.” Roderigo kept his voice very low. With all the street noise, it was unlikely that the coachman could catch even a wisp of their conversation. But one could not be too careful in these troubled times. “Tell me what transpired.” Rebecca hesitated, then whispered, “Her Grace extended me an invitation to become a maid of honor.” Roderigo smiled. “This is better than I could have hoped for.” The smile widened into an open grin. “How much information you’ll be privy to, daughter. How much you’ll be able to tell me! What a weapon you shall be. Essex’s lust for war is well tempered by his lust for the fairer sex. A coy smile in his direction, Becca, and he’ll be mush. You’ll pierce his nose with your feminine wiles and lead him anywhere. He’ll confide in you, tell you things. And then you can tell me things!” He hugged her tightly. “My daughter, words can’t express how proud I feel.” Rebecca said nothing. “Becca, do your ears shut to your father’s words?” “I heard them.” “Even in our moment of triumph you’re infuriating.” Roderigo shook his head, fought off creeping anger. “If you remain as immobile as stone, so be it. When are you to leave for court?” She remained silent. “Becca, when are you to arrive at court?” “I refused the offer.” Rebecca turned to face her father and blanched at the anger she saw. He was scarlet with fury. Her body began to tremble. “I …” She swallowed, tried to bring moisture into her parched throat. “I told Her Grace how pleased I was that such a proposal was bestowed to me. But I spoke to the Queen of my grandam, how much the old woman relies on my care—” Roderigo slapped her hard across the face. Rebecca brought her hand to her cheek, eyes burning with tears of rage and fear. “You let a stupid, old turd of a woman stand in the way of such an opportunity?” He spat at her. “You stupid bitch!” “I love her.” “She is a doddering old fool, strictly your mother’s mother!” “Father, I—” Again Roderigo hit her. “Say nothing unless I command you to speak.” Rebecca bit her lip and fought back more tears. “How could you have done such an idiotic thing?” he whispered, squeezing her arm. She gave out a small cry. Roderigo took a deep breath and loosened his hold. “Tis so unlike you.” “May I speak?” she choked out. “You may not!” They continued riding without speaking, the coach suffused with the sound of daily life. Roderigo clenched his fingers around his thighs until they ached. He released his grip on himself and clasped his hands tightly. Of all the daft things that Rebecca had ever done! She was a lunatic, just like his lunatic mother-in-law. A girl carved out of the same mad nature, built with the same will of iron. He cursed his stars—a shrew for a daughter, a shrew for a mother-in-law. And a wife who mollycoddled them both. Enough of Rebecca’s defiance! She had to marry as soon as possible. He thought of Miguel—the preferred choice. Despite his proclivities in the Italian ways, he had shown himself to be brave and loyal. Better he be a man of substance in battle and a woman in bed than the other way around. As for Rebecca, once she was fat with child, nothing else would matter. And at least the two of them were fond of each other. He’d speak with Hector, and damn what the children thought! Roderigo looked at Rebecca, who was staring ahead, gazing at nothing. He felt his anger abate, replaced by confusion. What possibly could have possessed her to refuse such a splendid opportunity—for herself, if not just for him. Was she a witch? He shuddered and pushed away the thought. “Explain yourself,” he whispered. “And keep the level of your voice to a hush.” She opened her mouth but no words came out, only small, muffled cries. Roderigo sighed, put his arm around his daughter and pulled her near as she sobbed silently, shoulders heaving against his chest. “Calm, Becca,” he said. “Dear girl, at the least you should have consulted with me before you offered a reason of refusal to Her Grace. I know it’s hard to leave family, but such a chance we had, daughter—both of us. Tis too much for me to fathom! I would rather you had told me nothing.” Rebecca continued to cry against her father’s doublet. “What did Her Grace say when you mentioned your grandam?” Roderigo asked, still hugging her. “She said she understood my plight. In sooth, she was excessively pleased at my devotion. A young lady caring not about herself, but for an old woman’s health.” “I’m sure it touched her heart,” Roderigo said. “Aye.” Rebecca dried her tears on her sleeve. “She gave me a ring. It’s in my bag.” Roderigo snatched her bag, ripped it open and pulled out the piece of jewelry—a large round ruby surrounded by stars of cut diamonds. He gaped at the ring as if it were an evil talisman and felt his hands grow cold. Twas the exact ring, he said to himself. The very one he’d presented to Elizabeth not too long ago—a peace offering given to him by King Philip for Her Grace, demonstrating His Majesty’s sincerity toward harmony of the two nations. And now the ring had been returned to the messenger. A shiver ran down his spine. An old jewel of Spain he needed not, especially in view of England’s current climate of hatred toward Iberia. Why had the Queen restored it to him? And why through Rebecca? Did it mean anything significant? Perhaps Elizabeth in her advancing years had forgotten that he’d given it to her in the first place. Or perhaps, Roderigo thought, Essex had wanted the ring back in his hands. “Father, are you well?” Rebecca asked. Roderigo awoke from his nightmare and stared at her. “I’m quite well,” he answered. “You’ve turned ashen!” Rebecca gasped. She dabbed his forehead with her handkerchief. “Shall I stop the coach?” “No!” Roderigo shouted. He immediately dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’m well, Becca … I’m simply shocked by the sight of such exquisiteness. The ring must be worth over a hundred pounds.” “Take it, Father.” “Marry, no!” he said. “I wouldn’t think of such a thing, Becca.” She was taken aback by the vehemence of his refusal. “I’m flattered by your offer, Rebecca,” he explained. “Tis simply to say that the ring is yours.” “It would do me pleasure if I could give it to you.” “No, daughter, I cannot take it,” he said. “But I see your heart is pure with kindness toward me. The next time we minister to the Queen, you must wear it.” He slipped it back in Rebecca’s bag and kissed her red, wet cheek. “Such a splendid piece of jewelry. Then you’ve still much favor with the Queen.” “She said I may come to court anytime.” “Then her invitation is still—” “Father,” Rebecca implored in a whisper, “do not force me! I pray you with all my heart, Father, please do not compel me to go.” She began to sob again. “Becca, my love …” Roderigo cleared his throat, touched by her emotional cries. “No one will force you to leave the family you hold so dear. But you must tell me why. You’ve always been so headstrong, so independent, having shown in the past no need of my advice or assistance. Explain yourself to me.” Rebecca was silent. How could she begin to tell him? Of the Queen and her perverted ways. Of her foul breath, slimy hands, and serpentine tongue. Her father wouldn’t believe her, no matter how she’d insist it to be the truth. The worst insult under heaven—to be called a liar. “I cannot express it into words.” She wiped her tears with her handkerchief and sniffed the spicy aroma of her pomander. Would that it could remove the stench of the old woman from her nostrils. And Rebecca knew that odor was not a condition of advanced age. Grandmama smelled as sweet as the rosewater she bathed in. Roderigo hugged her again. “Never mind. As long as the Queen bears no ill will toward you.” Or to me. “None whatsoever, Father. I assure you.” Rebecca had made certain of that. She’d accommodated the Queen’s every whim, quenched her every desire. The memories made her weak in the stomach. Roderigo put his mouth against his daughter’s ear and whispered, “She really is a wretched old harpie, is she not?” For the first time in twenty-four hours, Rebecca smiled sincerely. Chapter 11 (#ulink_e9ae4ff0-7381-5f71-b1cf-58532856cdde) Christopher Mudd had caught his coney—an old windbag of a knight sorely drunk on cheap booze. The dupe was fat with a honey-tipped beard and surprisingly spindly legs. Wearing a scarlet doublet and brown hose, the gallant looked like an apple perched atop two wooden sticks. A bene gull he’d be, thought Mudd. He thanked the stars for his good hap and prayed that there were many coins in the coney’s purse—enough to please the master. Ye Gods, Mackering had been in a fierce mood of late, constantly cursing, smacking him for bringing in too little money. Waving the sharp dagger in front of his nose and threatening to cut it off. Mudd shuddered at the thought. He’d worked for Mackering for five years, his specialty tricks of falling: the spoon drop, the madman, the drunk, the one inflicted with falling sickness. The master had been a decent jack in the past, but now he’d turned into a rabid dog—biting without cause. All because of that player, Harry Whitman. Tush, was Mudd sorry that he’d come with the master on the high roads up North. Mackering had changed for the worse since that fateful day, the day they’d cheated Whitman at dice. He’d become fretful with a temper that exploded like rain clouds. Mudd sighed and rubbed his nose, appreciating its wholeness. May his hap stay good, may the coney’s purse be heavy tonight. It wasn’t too long before the gull stumbled out of the tavern, his arms looped around a clubfooted jack, the two of them singing loudly about a whore of Greenwich. The dupe’s companion was thin and seemed to be having a hard time keeping the lardish knight afoot. Mudd wondered how much he could cheat out of the sod. Two shillings? Maybe three, if luck be a sweet wench. He had watched the knight for at least an hour, and the gallant had spent freely, buying sack for all those interested in being bored by his tales. The night might prove very good indeed. Maybe, then, with his hands filled with shillings, Master Mackering would be satisfied. The two dolts stopped. A moment later the knight undid his codpiece and pissed against the side of the alehouse. Now was Mudd’s chance. He approached the fat man with an unsteady gait, swaying markedly as if he, too, were inebriated. At the correct moment he bumped into the gallant, bounced to his right and stumbled to the ground. “A thousand pardons, good sir.” Mudd spoke loudly, slurring his words. The gallant looked at Mudd’s torn clothes and dirty face and sneered. “Watch where you’re going, cur!” he yelled, trying to reattach his dangling codpiece. “A thousand and thousand pardons, my good sir,” Mudd answered. He attempted to upright himself and again fell to the ground. “Nothing so repulsive as one who cannot hold his drink,” remarked the dupe’s crippled companion. “Where are the constables when they are needed?” the gallant boomed. He was fully dressed now, tripping over his feet but not falling. “Constable! Constable!” “Try the watchmen,” suggested the man with the clubfoot. “Tis a bonny idea,” agreed the knight. “Watchman! Watchman!” He leaned against the cripple and his weight knocked both of them over. “Stupid sot,” the knight said to Mudd. “Now see what you’ve done!” He managed to stand up, and pulled Clubfoot to his feet. “Are you well, sir?” the knight asked his companion, brushing dust off his sleeves. “Aye, quite well,” Clubfoot said. He hobbled around in a circle. “No thanks to this churl!” “Out of my sight before I step on you, beggar,” the gallant said, nudging Mudd’s stomach with the tip of his boot. “Watchman! Constable! Watchtable!” “Now, a God’s will,” Mudd said, “what have I found?” He picked up a piece of paper and unwrapped it. A gilt spoon spilled to the ground. The gallant’s eyes widened. Mudd stared stuporously at the item, then picked it up. “What shall I do with such a geegaw?” he asked. “Sir,” the cripple said. “I marvel at your good luck!” “Good luck?” Mudd acted confused. “What good is this?” The gallant smiled. “Let me help you to your feet, dear man.” Mudd was yanked upward. He recoiled from the fat knight’s breath, reeking of garlic and cheap sack. Clubfoot said, “Sir, that geegaw is worth—” The gallant said, “Sir, you have found a trinket worth nothing.” “My luck,” Mudd pouted. “Marry, I wish someone else would have found this. What shall I do with such trumpery?” The knight brushed the dirt off Mudd’s shredded jerkin. “I shall take it off your hands.” “Nay, perhaps I shall give it to my mother!” Mudd swayed on his feet. “Perhaps I shall give it to my sister.” He stared at it and examined it closely. “Perhaps I shall throw it away. Would I have a crown instead of such a silly toy?” “A crown, nay,” said the cripple. “But I’ll trade you a shilling for it.” “You said it is but a toy,” Mudd said, confused. “Yet you offer me a shilling?” “Aye … It strikes my fancy,” the cripple replied. “I shall give you two shillings,” the gallant countered, shaking off the arm of the cripple. Clubfoot became angry. “He tries to cheat you,” he said. “I shall give you four shillings.” “This lame jack is a scoundrel,” the gallant retorted. “Five.” Mudd stared at Clubfoot. It was now his turn to up the auction. “Five is too grand a price for me,” the cripple said. “I have only four shillings, twopence in my doublet.” “I will give you five shillings for that trinket, sir,” the gallant cried. “Aye, take it for five shillings.” Mudd shrugged, giving him a vacant smile. He held out the spoon, then swiftly retracted it. “You’d not be cheating would you?” “Nay, good sir, never!” the gallant insisted. “The trinket is … for my wife. She is fond of such toys.” The cripple said, “Sir, I suggest you take it to a goldsmith. I suspect it could be valuable.” The knight glared at him. Mudd pondered the suggestion, then threw up his arms. “Who has the time for such tomfoolery?” he said. “Tis but a toy to me, and five shillings is five shillings. If you want it for five shillings, I’ll strike a bargain with you.” “Done,” the gallant said. He quickly handed Mudd the coins and snatched the spoon from his hands. “He has cozened you,” the clubfoot announced. “Out of here, you lame fool,” the knight yelled. “Bah!” said the cripple. “Drunken dolt.” “Pay him no attention,” the gallant said after Clubfoot left. “Perhaps this chance meeting, dear sir, will bring us sweet fortune.” “Aye, good luck indeed, indeed,” Mudd said. He smiled an idiot’s grin. He tottered away. When safely out of sight, he laughed. Five shillings! So much more than he had hoped for. He opened his jerkin and felt inside his pockets. There were four of them left—four small, wrapped packages of “valuables”—dross metal spoons covered with gold paint. At five shillings apiece, he’d walk away with a goodly bung—a purse full of gold. A sweet evening it was proving itself to be. Aye, plenty of coins for Master Mackering, and perhaps a groat or two for dicing—ifin he could filch the money without the master knowing it. Marry, Mackering had eyes in the back of his head—always seemed to know which of his men was stealing from him. Dangerous it was to cheat the master. Mudd felt in his other pocket for the pint of spirits. A necessity—a goodly bribe that caused the head of the watchman to turn in the other direction. Whittled cows, the watchmen were—all of them. In case the booze was less than persuasive, the dagger hidden in the waistband of his galley slops would convince the most mulish of constables to get him hence. Walking a few more blocks, Mudd heard raucous laughter coming from the inside of another alehouse—the Greenhouse Inn. He stopped. Hidden by shadows, he peered through the red lattice of the inn’s window. Twas a bonny tavern that would serve his purposes well, populated with a merry crowd sated to the gills. It wouldn’t take long before another coney was caught. Aye, lots of money to be made this night. Mudd leaned against the building, a smirk on his lips. And he waited. Chapter 12 (#ulink_4308b300-154d-50b0-a741-5ccee46c14ce) The stink of tallow. Shakespeare’s head felt leaden, his body thick with sleep. Unsure of the hour, he wondered if dawn had awakened from her cyclical slumber. Was he dreaming? He drifted back into sleep, dreamt of demons prancing around the maypole. They had piggish bodies, forked tails, black eyes, and wore black hoods. Fire sparked from their mouths and nostrils as they hissed like snakes. But Mayday had passed a week ago with no such demons at all. Bonfires all night. London’s revels lasting until dawn. No black demons. Or had they been there without him noticing? Again the stench of burning fat assaulted Shakespeare’s nostrils. He opened his eyes. Dark, damp, and cold. Slumped over his writing table, his folded arms a pillow for his cheeks, he realized he had fallen asleep while working, as he had so many times in the past. Had he been asleep for a minute? An hour? He raised his head, saw sparkling points of golden light. He stared at the flickering wick, at the shadows leaping off of the walls as if engaged in his dream’s ritual maypole dance. Nocturnal creatures. His quill lay atop the foul papers of his latest playbook, bleeding ink over the stage directions. Damn his carelessness! Now he’d have to rewrite the page. The garlic mutton he’d eaten for supper that night lay like stone in his stomach. His mouth felt dry and numb. He ran his tongue over his lips and stared at the goblet of sack resting a foot away from his hand. Slowly, he extended his arm and clasped the stem of the cup. Raising his lips to the edge of the vessel, he took a small sip; the act of drinking seemed to tire him further. He lowered his head back into the cradle of his arms, but kept his eyes open. The room suddenly became dark. But not dark. Shakespeare felt his heart beat rapidly, his body wet with icy sweat. Another shadow—much bigger and darker. It seemed to blacken the room. It loomed over him, then was silhouetted by the glow of candlelight in witches’ colors. Shakespeare’s mind was a swarm of loose thoughts. Black and orange. Orange and black. Incarnate of evil from doggish pack. What wolfish scheme hast thou conspired that pricks my skin and sets it afire? “Who are you?” he asked. No answer. “Are you touchable?” He extended his hand outward and sliced through air. “Surely I am dreaming. My eyes deceive my wits.” “We have met,” said a voice. Deep, guttural. A voice like none he’d ever heard. Or had he? Shakespeare began to tremble. “I ask you again, sir. Who are you?” The voice answered: “The specter that is to thee nearest is one thou holds so very dearest. He comes to give thee counsel wise to rid thee of the filthy lies that thou hast heard with thine own ears, inflicting wounds unto thy peer.” “Harry?” Shakespeare asked in a whisper. The apparition said: “My love for thee was never ending, not as a sapling, ever bending in a tempest of rumors thick and deep that makest me moan, alas, cry and weep.” “Harry,” Shakespeare repeated. “Thou art an illusion. I hear, yet I hear nothing. Thou art whirls of imagination brought upon by overwrought nights of too much toil.” “Nay, tis not so,” the voice protested. “I am the ghost of thy mentor—thy fellow—Harry Whitman.” Shakespeare shook fiercely. “Tis true,” the apparition insisted. Shakespeare shivered violently. His closet had turned so cold. He asked, “What counsel doth thou offer me?” “Let the buried rest in peace.” “My inquiries into thy death—” “They are false! Lies! They cut me savagely!” “The innkeeper Chambers spake that—” “Chambers! A sinner! A cozener! A rogue! Believe him not.” “Dear Harry,” Shakespeare said. “If thou desireth me to stop my inquiries, thou must confess to me. Who murdered thee? And why?” The voice answered: “It matters not the way I leave, tis ’nough that thy pure heart doth grieve for a hapless life ended, etched in blood. And chewed and spat like vomitous cud. Be kind, dear Will, spare me sorrow, Erase thy revenge come the morrow.” The waning flame began to sputter. “Don’t leave me, Harry,” Shakespeare whispered. The light dimmed, then finally died. Shakespeare felt a sharp rap on the back of his neck, then found himself floating in total blackness. A serpent had wrapped around his arm, squeezing the blood from the limb. Shakespeare tried to cry out but no sound issued from his throat. As he attempted further cries, he felt his windpipe tighten, constricting his breath. He began to panic. The snake winked at him, an evil look glowing in its eyes. It hissed and clamped more tightly around his arm, its slithery body taut with muscular ripples. The snake began to speak, but the words were unintelligible. Louder and louder, until it screamed. “Wake up, Willy!” At last Shakespeare understood. Still panting, he barely opened his eyes, opened them enough to see Cuthbert Burbage yanking on his lifeless arms. “It’s already past daybreak, Willy! There’s work to be done!” Cuthbert tugged at him mercilessly. “Wake up, you besotted swine!” “I’m up,” Shakespeare croaked. “You speak but you’ve not awakened.” In sooth, Shakespeare thought. He said nothing, and suddenly realized that his head was throbbing with pain. Too much drink? Impossible. He’d drunk very little last night. Or so it had seemed to him. His mind was a gale of confusion. He wished that Cuthbert would let go of his arm. “My apologies in advance,” Cuthbert said, releasing him at last. Shakespeare began to doze off. A minute later he was drenched with water. He bolted upward. “For God’s sake!” he screamed. Cuthbert placed the empty water pitcher on the floor, found a dry rag and offered it to Shakespeare. “Dry your face.” Shakespeare was seized with the shakes. “Marry,” Cuthbert said. “You’re ill.” “No,” Shakespeare insisted. “I’m well. Just wet and cold.” He stood up on quivering legs and dried his face. “I was having a beast of a nightmare. I thought a serpent was upon me.” “Let me help you dress—” “I’m able to dress myself, thank you,” Shakespeare snarled. He managed to change his soaked chemise, but it took a great deal of effort. His head throbbed. A bad attack of fever, he thought. No worse, he hoped. “You’re flushed, Willy,” Cuthbert said. “Go back to sleep. And for the love of heaven, sleep on your pallet. No one can get a proper night’s rest slackened over on a desktop.” “The voice is the voice of Cuthbert, but the words are words of Anne.” Shakespeare slipped on his hose. “You have need of your wife.” Cuthbert looked around the room. It was covered in dust. “Or at the very least, a wench with a broom.” Shakespeare picked up his doublet and looped his hands through the armholes, straining with each movement. He heard Cuthbert gasp, and looked up. “What is it?” he asked. “Your head.” Cuthbert reached out to touch the back of his friend’s skull, but quickly withdrew his hand. Shakespeare felt it immediately—a large, crusty lump at the base of his head. He picked off a piece of the scabrous wound and regarded the dried blood. “Someone attacked me last night,” he announced. “Bigod! Who?” “Harry’s ghost.” “What?” Cuthbert whispered. “Harry’s ghost,” Shakespeare repeated. “At least that’s who it said it was. I never did see its face. Nor was its voice tuned as Harry’s.” He held up a loose sleeve. “Help me put this on.” Cuthbert sank down onto the straw pallet in the corner of the room. His face was white. “Whatever it was knocked me over the head,” Shakespeare said. “Why Harry’s ghost would desire me harm, I know not.” He noticed that Cuthbert had begun to tremble, and sat down next to him. Shakespeare prodded his friend’s arm. “Get hold of your wits, man. We have a performance this afternoon. Best we get in as many as we can while the theaters are still open. In the last few weeks Black Death has stalked the city like a fiend gone mad.” Cuthbert took the sleeve absently. “Do you think you were actually visited by Harry’s spirit?” he asked. Shakespeare shrugged. “I know not.” “What counsel did it offer you?” “We didn’t talk too long. I do remember asking myself this—why was I falling back asleep when there still remained so much more to say? Now I realize that the ghost—or whatever it was—blunted my senses lest I question it too keenly.” They sat in silence. Shakespeare pulled the sleeve away from Cuthbert and, with a heavy sigh, drew it over his arm. “At least truss up the points for me,” he said. “Merciful Jesu,” Cuthbert said, tying the sleeve to the doublet. “If it were Harry’s ghost, then the dead shall not rest in peace until the murder has been avenged.” “On the contrary,” Shakespeare said. “The voice told me to cease my inquiry in Harry’s murder. Which makes me think that it was indeed a man and not a spirit.” “Or maybe it was nothing at all, Willy.” Cuthbert stood and began to pace. “Perhaps you drank too much sack last night.” “Only a sip or two.” “Are you sure—” “A God sointes, Cuthbert, do you honestly think I bashed in my own head? My imagination may be fanciful, but this bump isn’t a product of conceit. Nay, I wasn’t overpowered by sack last night, but something in the sack overpowered me—nightshade, or perhaps foxglove or Indian acacia. I’m sleepy from potion, my friend. I can barely stand without toddling.” “And you think a spirit did this to you?” Cuthbert asked. “Either a specter or an imposter. Throw me my other sleeve. It’s on the desktop.” “Are you going to listen to its caveats?” “No.” Cuthbert tossed Shakespeare the sleeve. “You’re not?” “Not at all. Had it been polite, I would have considered its admonitions. But since it has shown itself to be a rude animal, I will disregard it totally.” “And you will continue to look for Harry’s slayer?” “I shall … though it may take me years to find him.” Shakespeare finished tying his sleeve and stood up. “It’s not the first time it has taken me years to achieve my goals.” It had taken Shakespeare three years to go from horse tender to stagehand, another three years until he’d been made an equal sharer in the fellowship. Whitman had been Shakespeare’s staunchest supporter. Richard Burbage, the fellowship’s lead actor after Harry, had been vehemently opposed to the idea. Their argument had been overheard by the entire troupe. Shakespeare is strictly mediocre as a tragedian, Burbage had boomed. Agreed, orated Whitman in a louder voice than Burbage. His voice barely projects over the shouts of the groundlings, Burbage argued. Agreed, said Harry. He has little presence on stage. He had a good comic presence in his last performance, Harry said, defending his charge. Burbage cried, He almost upstaged me! No, no, I refuse to have equal billing with an upstart. Harry said, If he is not part of the fellowship, then the fellowship will have to do without Whitman. He added slyly, See how you do playing against me instead of with me, Burbage. Richard Burbage paled. Whitman was the biggest draw in London. Burbage said, Divine Jesu, Harry, Shakespeare is a good bookwriter. But why do you insist that he be part of the fellowship? Because I love that boy, Harry said. He’s a dreamer … as I once was … The next day Shakespeare had been voted in as a sharer. Yes, Shakespeare had had patience then, he would have patience now. He said to Cuthbert, “I shall know Harry’s murderer and he shall know me.” “Some things are better put to rest, Willy.” “Harry was cut down before his time. The rogue responsible must pay. Harry’s soul must be put to rest.” Shakespeare held back his grief. “Enough said. Where did I put my shoes?” “They’re in front of the window.” Shakespeare walked over and picked them up. “They’re frozen.” He looked at Cuthbert. “I make it not a habit to work in front of an open window in such weather. The cold freezes the ink.” “The spirit—or the imposter—must have come in through the window,” Cuthbert said. “Obviously it neglected to secure the latch when it departed.” “Now that’s a curious thing indeed,” said Shakespeare. “I was always made to understand that ghosts could pass through solid matter.” “Well, your spirit may not have passed through the brick wall, but it must have been an accomplished climber. Your room is at least twenty feet up from the street. Why didn’t the apparition simply climb the stairway and jiggle the door?” “It was bolted shut. Prying it open would have been difficult even for the most experienced of thieves. Twould have created much mess and racket.” “Is your window bolted shut as well?” “Closed, but not locked. The latch had broken off during the last windstorm. My current preoccupation with Harry has not afforded me time to repair it.” “So there’s no other way to come in except through the window?” Shakespeare nodded. “A practical fellow, this ghost of Harry’s.” “Harry was practical,” Cuthbert said. Shakespeare smiled and held up an icy shoe by the toe. “What am I to do? I haven’t another pair.” “Use mine.” “Be not absurd. Are my feet more valuable than yours?” “I’ve another pair. We’ll stop by my closet on the way to the theater.” “Than I shall wear these until we reach your room.” Cuthbert grabbed the shoe from Shakespeare’s hand. “Admit it or not, my friend, you are ill. You’re red from fever and you’re shivering.” “And you’ve just bested a miserable cough.” “Stop jousting, Shakespeare, and listen to me for once. Wear my shoes, I’ll wear these.” Cuthbert squeezed the leather pumps and small trickles of water splashed to the ground. “See. They’re melting already.” “Such cheer,” Shakespeare said. “It makes me sick.” “How does your head feel, Will?” “As if it were visited by the Scavenger’s Daughter.” Papers tucked under his arms, Shakespeare strolled with Cuthbert in silence down Gracechurch Street. With his feet dry, ensconced in warm woolen socks and cracked-leather boots, he felt much better. The sting of the cold was chasing away his lethargy, and his mind began to revitalize, racing with thoughts of one book or another. He loved the walk from his room in the city of London to the new theater in Southwark, just over the Thames. In the quiet of the predawn dark ideas would come to him, often starting off as no more than a wisp of reflection—a line or two, perhaps taken from bits of overheard conversation or gossip. London was an early riser, waking not as a man who stretches and bellows and farts, but as a woman who slowly wipes sleep from her eyes and smiles, seducing all that surrounds her with innocence and beauty. He loved her all the time, but more deeply in the mornings. By the time they reached London Bridge, Shakespeare noticed how truly late it was, his oversleeping an outcome of the potion slipped into his sack, no doubt. The shops and houses that lined the bridge were bustling with activity. The sun had risen hours ago and was desperately trying to break through a sheet of steely clouds. A week ago it had been hot. Last night, freezing, unusual for May. Daft weather, daft times. They passed St. Thomas of the Bridge, with its stately columns and pointed, arched windows—architecture of the old Church. His mind, filled with the image of Christ, suddenly juxtaposed against the dark memories of last night. Who had visited him? Though he believed in ghosts, he was skeptical that he’d witnessed a genuine apparition. A phantom from the netherworld would be ethereal—of no form or definite shape. It needn’t have used a physical blow on the back of the head as an admonition. Yet what visited him last night did precisely that. Shakespeare cleared his thoughts. Walking steadily, he and Cuthbert crossed over the gray waters of the Thames until reaching St. Saviour’s in Southwark. As they continued west, Shakespeare could hear the snorts and cries of the bulls, bears, and dogs caged in Paris Gardens. So far the theaters and baiting arenas had been allowed to remain open for public viewing, but if the toll of the dead from plague climbed further, all forms of amusement would be shut down to prevent further spreading of disease. Compared to last year, it seemed to Shakespeare that Black Death was striking earlier in the season and deadlier than ever. Shakespeare had been lucky since arriving in London ten years ago. Rarely had the theaters been forced to close for more than a month at a time. The last time they had bolted their doors had been last summer—in July, when London had been choked with disease. The company had taken its productions on tour. Shakespeare remembered that travel had been exhausting. The country roads, often flooded, had been small or nonexistent, and the company’s accommodations had been cheap. Frequently they had passed the night in the stable with the horses, using only loose straw for a blanket. But, marry, the countryside had been in full blossom that year, a palette of color, the air scented sweeter than perfume. Shakespeare inhaled deeply, and a waft of dung assaulted his nostrils. A bear’s roar filled his ears. A devil it was to project the lines over the blast of animal noises. But the theater’s new location was amid a lot more traffic, and the more traffic, the more money. They reached the Unicorn. The theater was not yet completed, only half built, and preparations for the play seemed as chaotic as ever. The recent move from Shoreditch to Southwark was simply one more complication in a never-ending series of problems. Stagekeepers attempted to clean the standing pit and the galleries, sweeping away the remains of rotted food served during yesterday’s performance. Hired men wielded hammers and calipers, building scaffolds and fixing warped boards on the platform stage. A boy apprentice, gowned in full costume, raced back and forth, toting faggots of wood needed for repairs. Robin Hart paced furiously, the ’tire man shouting complaints to no one in specific about the condition of the players’ wardrobe. The clothes were being treated carelessly, and he was tired of mending unnecessary tears. William Dale grabbed Shakespeare as soon as he saw him enter, pulling him away from Cuthbert. “Where were you?” he asked. “Don’t you realize the time?” Shakespeare debated giving him an explanation but thought better of it. He shrugged helplessly. “We’ve a problem,” said the keeper of the books. “The Master of the Revels has taken umbrage to your Richard.” “Which Richard?” “The Third.” “What’s wrong with the book?” Shakespeare asked. “Willy,” shouted the ’tire man from afar. He was upstairs in the second gallery, holding a bundle of clothing. “Come get fitted.” “In a minute, Robin,” Shakespeare shouted back. He returned his attention to Dale. “What’s wrong with the play?” “Master Tilney objects to your portrayal of Richard. He claims you’ve made the Duke of Gloucester too human.” Shakespeare sighed. “Too human?” “The original book—which you’ve rewritten—showed Gloucester to be an evil, scheming—” “I’ve continued to write him with much evil—” “He has too much doubt, Will,” Dale said. “Aye, he does evil, but he anguishes about it.” “Without the anguish,” Shakespeare said, “he becomes a flat figure of a man with no thoughts other than those of the Devil. If I’d wanted to write a passion play, where good is named good, evil is named evil, chastity is a boy wearing white and gluttony a fat man with a pomaded beard, I would have done so without using the pretense of Richard.” “Will,” Dale explained patiently, “the Duke of Gloucester was usurper of the throne. The Queen will not be pleased if such a man is played for sympathy. The Tudors are claimants from the House of Lancaster.” “Harry the Eighth was more York than Lancaster,” Shakespeare countered. “Owen Tudor came from the House of Lancaster.” “Not a drop of true Lancaster blood had ever flowed in the Welshman’s veins—” “Let us not quibble with bloodline, Will, and address the problem in our hands,” said Dale. “Master Tilney feels the play is subversive, and we dare not displease Her Grace.” He gently pushed the book against Shakespeare’s chest. “Evil up old Richard. And quickly. We’d like to perform the book by the summer.” “Shakespeare!” Shakespeare turned around. That rich, booming baritone could only belong to one person. Richard Burbage was in fine form today—erect posture, as stately as nobility. His nose wasn’t nearly as swollen as it had been the last couple of weeks, and his complexion had returned once again to its rosy hue. His eyes, always dark and secretive, came alive differently with each character he portrayed. This morning they seemed to smolder. “I see my brother has managed to drag you in before the dinner hour,” he said. His voice was piqued. Shakespeare smiled. He said, “What do you think of my Richard the Third? You’re the one who’s to play him. Do you think he’s evil enough?” “I’ve been meaning to speak with you about that very book,” Burbage articulated. “I have concerns about Gloucester’s opening words.” “What kind of concerns?” “My entrance speech is much too short.” “It’s forty lines.” “Bah,” Burbage scoffed. “Hardly a word is out of my mouth before I’m interrupted by Clarence. I need to expound—set forth my plans, my wishes, my desires, my ruthlessness. Add at least another twenty lines.” “Twenty lines?” “Or even an addition of thirty would not be excessive.” Back to his desktop tonight, Shakespeare thought. “Do you like the book as written, Burbage?” “Aside from the opening speech?” “Aside from the opening speech.” “Richard’s part is too small.” “Do you think Richard is played too sympathetically?” “No,” Burbage said. “He just isn’t given enough opportunity to speak.” He smiled and added, “I like that touch you added about old Gloucester being a crookback. It shall play magnificently on stage. All eyes will be upon me.” The ’tire man shouted again. He was now up on the third level. “You must get fitted at once.” “Five more minutes, please, Robin,” Shakespeare screamed back. “By the way,” Robin yelled. “Your new sword just snapped in two. That’s what you get for ordering cheap!” Splendid, thought Shakespeare. “So you don’t think the play is treasonous?” Shakespeare asked Burbage. “Heavens, I’m in no position to judge such an accusation!” Burbage answered. “I’m a tragedian, not a censor.” He patted Shakespeare on the back. “Another forty lines, even fifty if it’s going well.” Without another word, Burbage walked away. Robin Hart came forward carrying some pins and a costume. “Since you persist in ignoring my pleas, I’ve come to you.” “It’s not possible to dismiss Richard Burbage in mid-sentence,” Shakespeare said. “Hold still.” The ’tire man placed a cook’s hat atop Shakespeare’s head. The rim was much too large and slipped over his face. “What is this?” Shakespeare protested, lifting off the hat. “You are to play the cook this afternoon,” Hart said. “By the way, I’ve found you a sword.” “Whose?” “Mine.” “Tut, Robin. I can walk home and get my own sword.” “Too late for that. Just be careful with it.” “I shall.” “The blade is imported from—dare I say it—Toledo. Such a fine point it has. The slightest poke could cause a nasty wound. But I trust you with it.” “Many thanks,” Shakespeare said. “I thought Augustine was going to play the cook.” “Augustine broke his leg. He fell off a horse, the stupid jack!” Hart plopped the hat back on Shakespeare’s head and began to pin the rim. “You’re also to play the guard, the night watchman, the constable—” “How am I to play the constable if I’m to play the drunkard, when the drunkard and the constable are on stage at the same time? Must I talk to myself?” “You shall simply shift from one position to another.” “That’s absurd. I will be laughed off the platform and pelted with slop.” “Nonsense,” Hart insisted. “You may play the fool as well, if you’d like.” “I’m already doing that.” The ’tire man pulled the hat off and pounded Shakespeare on the back. “We have confidence in you, Willy.” “Where is the book?” Shakespeare asked. “If I am to be an ass in front of hundreds of people, I may as well learn the lines.” Hart handed him scrolls of the various parts. “The lines are simple enough. If you don’t like what’s there, write your own. Only do be careful of the cues. Keep them consistent with the rest of the book.” Shakespeare groaned as he read. “Who’s doing the prompting this afternoon?” he asked. “Willy Dale.” “Then it seems I should have great need of his services. There are over three hundred lines to commit to memory.” “I’ve no worry,” Hart said. “You’ve done it before. But a little suggestion, Willy.” He smiled and patted his cheek. “Go gently with the garlics at dinner.” Chapter 13 (#ulink_deebfce5-1b65-5e82-a698-584dbb69d41d) Rebecca placed the mustache over her lip and pressed it down. Picking up the looking glass, she blew warm air onto its surface and buffed it with the hem of her chemise. It was an old mirror, dull and distorted, and she had to squint to keep her eyes in focus. But once she made out her reflection, she smiled. The mustache and beard she’d chosen were perfect—full with reddish tones. With her face disguised in manly pelt, she realized how much she resembled her brother—their features were the same, only their coloring differed. She stroked the beard and decided it would be a nuisance to have facial hair, something else to be washed, combed, trimmed, and pomaded. Ah, but what it signified! The hair on her chin and above her lip meant she was no longer artwork—a thing of beauty to be courted, wooed, and won. Nor was she required to remain homebound until a proper escort was found. She wasn’t obliged to act flirtatious or coy. Or keep her hands busy. (The true English gentlewoman was always industrious, her aunt had lectured.) The beard and mustache allowed her the luxury of idleness, the sudden freedom to come and go and do as she pleased. To be a man, she thought wistfully. Picking up her brother’s hose, Rebecca pulled them over her coltish legs. Although Ben was taller than she, he wasn’t particularly tall for a man, not like their father. And she had the fortune—or misfortune, her brother had informed her—of being well sized for a woman. His hose were too long for her, but the excess material was easily hidden inside his boots. Her brother had enormous feet. Even the surplus of stocking failed to fill up the empty space. No matter, she thought. Grandmama would stuff them with rags until they fit snugly. Marry, the boots were old. They’d been redyed a sickly brown, the toes were scuffed beyond repair, and the left sole sported a pennysized hole. But a starving man didn’t scoff at scraps. They were the only shoes Ben had left behind, and they would suffice. A pity he’d taken all his good ones to Venice, Rebecca thought. She especially liked his red velvet shoes with the gold buckles. They would have looked splendid with the yellow and black round hose she’d chosen to wear today. Her chest would look much too womanly under a doublet. She needed help. She gathered up a set of gold sleeves, a slashed gold and red doublet, a pair of gloves, and a brown cap with a peacock feather. Stuffing the clothes under her arms, she opened the door to her brother’s bedchambers and peered down the hallway: a chambermaid, carrying fresh sheets. She disappeared into the left guest closet. Her mother was not due back from her visit with Aunt Maria until suppertime. Her father was God knew where, discussing God knew what with God knew whom. He’d taken with him the new houseguest, Esteban Ferreira de Gama. De Gama had been most cordial to Rebecca since his arrival a week ago. She thought him quite witty, if not handsome—thickly set, with enormously powerful legs, like those of a draft horse. A warm smile, but not lecherous. Not like Manuel de Andrada. Only he remained inside the house with her, alone with Grandmama and the servants, the door to his cell shut. What would that weasel say if he saw her like this—false beard and dressed as a man. Would he laugh at her, tease her, or threaten to tell her father? She decided most definitely he’d threaten to expose her game—unless, of course, she capitulated to him. How many times he had pawed her or worse, tried to corner her and pry open her legs. She dared not tell the men in her family about it. She’d implied de Andrada’s improprieties to Ben once before, and her impulsive brother had been ready to kill the weasel on the spot. She had to use all her feminine wiles to restrain his rage. The last thing in the world the family needed was an unexplained murder in their house, the law poking its nose into the family’s personal affairs. So she held her peace about de Andrada and kept the door to her bedchamber locked. Manuel de Andrada had to be a very important man for Father to keep him around. Or at the very least, a man who knew too much. She spat on the floor and cursed his name. How much longer would her father have to support that maggot? Give him clothes, food, and shelter? Several of her kinsmen had spoken of poison and de Andrada in the same sentence. She wished the talk would convert to action. Tiptoeing out of her brother’s bower—all the sleeping quarters were on the upper level—she scampered down the hallway, then ran down the spiral staircase, hurrying into the library. She hid behind a walnut bookcase overflowing with her father’s medical tomes and surveyed the room. No one around. She rushed out of the library to the door of her grandma’s closet. Roderigo had built the chamber to suit the old woman’s needs. Since the hag was severely crippled, her cell was on the first floor—no steps to maneuver—and right off the kitchen. It made serving her meals easier. Rebecca threw open the door and the toothless woman looked up from her poster bed and smiled. She was reading, her emaciated body propped up with a half-dozen pillows. “I need some help,” Rebecca said, closing the door. “You disguise yourself again?” the hag croaked out. “You’re the Devil!” “Hurry, Grandmama. I must leave before that slimy worm de Andrada sees me.” The old woman put down the book, slowly swung her legs off the mattress, and rested her bandaged feet on the floor. Rebecca stood to help her, but her grandmother motioned her down with the palm of her hand. Her feeble movements were painful for Rebecca to watch—withered, spotted hands pushing up a frail body hanging from a bent spine, bony fingers reaching for her walking sticks. When the hag was finally upright—or as upright as she could be—she extended the sticks out and dragged her legs toward them. Her hands trembled horribly, but Rebecca knew there was yet so much the old woman could do with them. The young girl forced herself to act impatient and short-tempered with the hag. Anything less would seem as if she pitied her grandmama, and as sure as poison, pity would kill her. “Hurry up, you old sot,” she chided. “Father should have put you away years ago.” “Hush your foul mouth, Devil.” “Have I all day to watch a cripple walk?” “Whore.” Rebecca smiled. “Daughter of Jezebel,” the hag scolded. “Tell me about Jezebel,” said Rebecca. “Your learning of the scriptures is an abomination.” The old woman reached her and kissed her bearded cheek. Rebecca threw her arms around the skeletal frame. “You’ll break me in two,” Grandmama screamed. “I hope so.” The old woman pushed her away, bent down on the floor and opened the lid to a box. She pulled out swatches of rags, a twine of string, and a knife. Rebecca stripped naked from the waist up. “You’ve such lovely, large mounds, granddaughter,” the old woman said, wrapping the girl’s breasts in rags. “You’ll flatten them out if you keep this up.” “Would I could lop them off.” “Oh hush up.” After Grandmama encircled Rebecca’s chest with rags, she pulled the ends tightly from behind and secured them with string. “I can’t breathe,” Rebecca gasped. “Hush. You’ll grow used to it.” “It’s too tight.” Her grandmother responded by pulling the twine tighter. “I’m being crushed,” Rebecca pleaded. The old woman ignored her. “So you know nothing of Jezebel?” “I know something of her,” Rebecca said. “I greatly like hearing your versions of the stories.” “Not my versions!” the hag said, knocking Rebecca’s head. “Ow.” “These are stories as written by our prophets,” the old woman lectured. “Written for us with God’s guiding hand! Now, what do you know of Jezebel?” “She was enticing … and wicked.” “Aye, very wicked. She was the wife of the King of Israel—King Ahab. She turned him wicked as well.” “Wasn’t Jezebel a whore?” “Much worse, Becca. Jezebel was a murderess who used her womanly powers for evil—to lead the righteous to do evil. As she did with King Ahab.” “Yet she was successful in her design, Grandmama,” said Rebecca. “Why do you say that!” “Because her scheming gave her the title of Queen.” “And that is your definition of success?” “Not a bad definition, I should think.” “Ah Becca, it pleases you to rile me.” Grandmama tugged on the twine. Hard. “Aye, most of the time Jezebel was successful. But one man did not succumb to her designs. The prophet Elijah. He escaped her powers because he was strong in the mind and believed in God.” “Our God,” Rebecca clarified. “When I speak of God, I only speak of one God,” the old woman whispered. “The God of Moses—Adonai. Lo yeheya le’ha elohim a’herim al panai. ‘There shall be no other God before me.’ Jesu was an invention of a demented, embittered bastard named Saul. Because of Elijah’s faith in Adonai, his mind proved impenetrable to evil.” “Elijah was a very dour prophet.” “All the prophets were dour. They were forecasting doom. It would have been blasphemous to act otherwise. But Elijah did have one distinction. Do you remember what that was?” “No.” “God took Elijah whilst he was alive.” “Ah, the chariot of fire across the sky,” Rebecca said. “What a spectacle that would have been. Twould have bested any fireworks ever performed for the Queen.” The hag knocked Rebecca’s head again. Rebecca laughed. “What finally happened to Jezebel?” “You remember not?” “No.” “She was pushed out of a window and was devoured by mad dogs.” “God’s sointes, what a horrible death!” “She was evil.” “Even so, Grandmama.” “All that remained were the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands.” Rebecca laughed and her grandmother slapped her on the back. “It’s the truth, you heretic! Read your bible.” “I’ve lost my new English copy, and the Latin version has half the pages missing.” “I must get you a bible scripted in the old language,” Grandmama said. “I have one, but the pages are as yellow as saffron and turn to dust at a finger’s touch.” The hag paused. “Perhaps Uncle Solomon can find one in his country. How much of the Hebrew you read do you understand?” “About half.” “If I come upon an old ‘Naviim,’ I’ll translate the entire story for you.” “I would enjoy that,” Rebecca said. “Grandmama, why would mad dogs leave such strange spoils behind?” “It wasn’t the dogs, silly girl. God left such spoils behind.” She turned Rebecca around to face her. “You’re as flat as a boy now.” Rebecca kissed her cheeks. “Why did God leave such spoils?” “In our old religion there is a custom of dancing in front of a bride, to gladden her heart and make her wedding day most joyous. It’s a righteous thing, to dance before a bride.” The old woman hobbled back over to her bed and sat down on the straw-covered mattress. “The sight of a maiden in her wedding dress held spellbound the wicked Jezebel, and she danced with love of Adonai in her heart for the bride. She clapped with her hands and stamped with her feet. So God spared them as a reminder for the one good deed she had done.” The old woman paused, then said, “I have endured many terrible things in my life, Becca, but faith has kept me alive. And clear drinking water can sometimes come from the rottenest of wells. Remember that. It could save your life.” Rebecca looked at her, puzzled. “Never mind,” Grandmama said. “An old woman is loose in her thoughts, as you are loose in your boots.” She began cramming small bits of cloth around Rebecca’s feet, tickling them whenever she could. How she loved the sound of her granddaughter’s laughter, the echo of her own girlish joy. When the boots were sufficiently tight, Rebecca slipped on the doublet. The old woman tied up the sleeves, and meticulously pinned the young girl’s hair under the cap. “Step away from me,” Grandmama commanded Rebecca. She admired the form. “The fairest man I’ve ever seen.” Rebecca smiled. “And where is your belt, sword, and dagger, young man?” “I’ve ‘borrowed’ some of Thomas’s. He shan’t miss them for a few hours. They’re hidden in one of the hedges outside.” The old woman reached out for Rebecca’s hands and kissed them. “Be careful among those ruffians.” “I will.” “Where will you go today, Becca?” “Since the theaters remain open, I think I’ll go to Southwark.” Rebecca slipped on her gloves. “To that new theater, the Unicorn.” De Andrada saw the young man leave through the window and smiled wickedly. So, the beautiful Rebecca had entertained a lover while her parents were away. If she were warmed from one man, how fiery she would be after two. He grew hard between his legs as he opened the door to his closet. He tiptoed down the stairs, eager with excitement. He could feel himself upon her, smooth skin squirming under his body. She would protest—aye, maybe even pinch and bite. He liked it that way. Then he’d tell her he’d seen her young man—a skinny runt in yellow and black round hose, a fancy slashed doublet, and the cap with the feather—and the fighting would stop. He snickered. What would she say when he threatened to tell her father? Would she plead with him, beg him to silence? Aye, he would be silent, but he had to get something in return. Having no choice, she’d have to capitulate. He’d be rough with her, he decided, slap her around, bite the inside of her white thighs—bruise her well, the snobbish wench. Then as she wept, he’d thrust himself into her insides, already well wetted from her previous encounter. Aye, he’d replace the young man’s spare seed with a raging river of his own. He grinned at the thought. Ruy Lopez had betrayed him, had made Ferreira de Gama the new Iberian contact for the mission, taking de Gama instead of him. Though the doctor had tried to downplay the significance of de Gama’s visit, he—Manuel de Andrada—had overheard the men speaking about de Gama. He had powerful ears, thanks be to Providence. A good piece of information to be used against Lopez when the time was right! What flimsy excuses the witch doctor had offered when he and the snake, de Gama, were about to leave this morning. Esteban is simply accompanying me to St. Bartholomew’s, Manuel. Nothing more. He wants to bring a bit of cheer to those hospitalized. When de Andrada asked if he, too, could go with them, Lopez flatly refused. And the witch doctor had the gall to tell him it was for his own protection. You’ve been quite weak the past few days with fever and water loss, Manuel. Better to convalesce away from the breath of the ill. Aye, he’d been ill, but that wasn’t the reason he’d been deserted. Bartholomew’s had been a ruse. According to the stable boy, the horses hadn’t been pointed in the direction of the hospital. Scheming behind his back again! Rebecca was owed to him as payment for his unappreciated service. He placed his hand under his hose and stroked his throbbing erection. Shaking with lust, he touched the doorknob of Rebecca’s bedchamber, then turned it quickly and stormed his way inside. His first reaction was one of confusion; the sheets were folded, properly made up. He searched the room, but there was no sight of her, no musky smells from a recent dalliance. He closed the door and searched other rooms, only to find nothing suspect. Where had they met? Maybe the hag knew. He walked down the stairs and opened the door to the old woman’s chambers. She looked up quizzically. “Where is she?” demanded de Andrada. The old woman smiled benignly. De Andrada went over to the poster bed and shook her violently. “Where is Rebecca?” he screamed at her. “Rebecca?” she said. “Your granddaughter, you stupid sow!” “Oh … aye, my granddaughter is named Rebecca.” “Where is she?” de Andrada bellowed. “She went with her mother … to visit my daughter, Maria. I have two daughters. One married Jorge Añoz, the other married—” “Stow it, you old fart!” De Andrada paced. “She didn’t leave with her mother, hag. Where is she?” “Ah, I remember now,” the hag muttered. “I do, I do, I do. She went riding with my grandson, Dunstan. Or was it Thomas? Or was it Ben?” “You piece of brown turd.” De Andrada covered her face with the sheet. The little bitch had slipped through his fingers. “Who was that man?” “Which man?” asked the old woman in a muffled voice. De Andrada uncovered her face and said calmly, “The one with the feather in his brown cap. He just left the house not more than a quarter hour ago.” “Which man?” “Oh, never mind. You’re a blot on the Isle. I’d be doing everyone a service if I murdered you on the spot.” The old woman cracked her thin lips into a smile. “Aye, I would do it,” de Andrada said. “But why should I do any favors for a devil of a doctor?” He turned around and stomped out of her bower, slamming the door behind him. Chapter 14 (#ulink_d86ed929-cfb0-553a-affd-6e4e37727079) Shakespeare saw the black shadow pass and felt a sudden chill. His mind was playing tricks again. Had not the sun been darting in and out of the clouds all afternoon? He was seeing ethereal things, hearing voices that were nothing more than the whistle of the wind. Harry’s ghost, or whoever it was, had shaken him more than he was willing to admit. If the midnight visitor had been Harry’s ghost, then there lay a very serious state of affairs. A spirit would haunt only if the soul was unclean. And if it hadn’t been a specter, then some man had broken into his room, infused his drink with a potion, and clubbed him on the head. Either alternative remained unattractive. Standing behind the backdrop of the stage platform, Shakespeare readjusted his chef’s hat and waited for Burbage to finish up his “Oath of Loyalty” speech. The play they were performing was one of the worst in their repertoire, written by a rakish clod named Dubbin who was inflicted with falling sickness. He claimed his fits were messages from angels. The jack was a false prophet to be sure, but no one dared dispute him. Burbage loved the book because it had many long, solo passages. Shakespeare considered the writing dull and ponderous. The humor was so dry that the groundlings didn’t understand it, and the gentlemen who did catch the puns seemed not to like them. Dubbin might have been touched by the divine, but his writings were anything but inspirational. What the fellowship wouldn’t do to please Master Burbage. Burbage, with his broad, sweeping gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and deep moaning voices—all of his mannerisms stolen from Harry Whitman. But even Shakespeare had to admit that Burbage had learned his lessons well. He’d become the consummate actor—the only legitimate heir to Harry’s throne. Robin Hart came up to Shakespeare and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Old Rich is at it again.” The ’tire man frowned. “You should see him on stage, stomping over the hem of the robe. He’s going to rip the fabric! I just know it!” Shakespeare smiled. “Someone came around asking for you,” Hart said. “While you were taking dinner.” “Who?” “He didn’t say his name.” Shakespeare felt a sudden prickling on the back of his neck. “What did this nameless someone want?” “He sends greetings to you from a mutual friend—a gentleman.” “What was the gentleman’s name?” “I don’t remember his name, either, save that he called him Master so-and-so. Hence, he had to be a gentleman.” “You’re most helpful, Robin,” said Shakespeare. “I’m simply a worn-out ’tire man, not a player, and I make no pretense of having an exceptionally sound memory, as the rest of you do.” Shakespeare turned to him and patted his shoulder. “Did the nameless messenger mention the mutual gentleman’s name?” “Aye, he did. It simply slipped my mind.” Hart thought a moment. “The name sounded like a fish,” he said. “Master Herring?” Shakespeare asked. “No, that wasn’t it.” “Master Halibut?” “Nay.” “Master Gudgeon? Master Roach?” “No, no. It wasn’t that at all.” Shakespeare shrugged. His outward appearance was calm, but inside he was very taut. “Mackerel,” Hart announced with a note of pride in his voice. “His name sounded like Mackerel.” He looked at Shakespeare and gasped, “Good God, Willy, you’re white.” “Mackering,” Shakespeare whispered to Hart. “Was the gentleman’s name Master Mackering?” “The very one,” Hart said. “What is it?” Hart gasped. “Heavens, do you think he meant the ruffian George Mackering?” Shakespeare ignored the question and asked, “What did this ‘messenger’ look like?” The color had suddenly drained from Hart’s face. “Look like?” “Aye.” “I … I know not how to describe him. I know it seems preposterous, but it was as though he had no face.” “Did he have a beard?” “I recall a beard. At least, I think I would have noticed had he been smooth-faced.” “Tall? Short? Portly? Reedy?” Hart closed his eyes and said, “I cannot picture his stature.” “A big nose? Fat lips? The color of his eyes?” “Nothing, Willy.” Hart sighed. “I’m sorry.” “What did he sound like?” Shakespeare questioned. “His voice sounded … unnatural. Deep, but hoarse.” “An accent?” “I remember not. He spoke so little.” “Describe the clothes he was wearing,” Shakespeare pressed. “Surely you noticed them.” Hart brightened. “I did. A thick woolen hooded cape, old boots caked with mud at the toes and heels. His doublet was much out of date, its skirt way below the waistline.” “The colors of the garments, Robin?” Shakespeare asked. Suddenly Hart felt cold. “His entire dress was colored black.” Rebecca took a last bite of apple and dropped the core to the ground. A fat woman pushed against her—no doubt to get a better look at Burbage—and Rebecca pushed her back. In deference to Rebecca’s fine dress and beard, the woman retreated. Rebecca smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle in her doublet. Surrounded by swine, she thought. Yet they were pure of heart, these vulgar groundlings. They laughed, cried, cheered the hero and booed the fiend, and if the play was wretched, the actors would know about it. The nobility in the upper seats were very well-mannered, but not an honest emotion passed through their bodies, not a true passion pierced their hearts. Twas better to stand with the groundlings, smell their foul breath, their sweat, piss, and vomit. Better to be shoved and pushed in their drunken stupor than to sit as a lady, escorted by a lord as beautiful as chiseled marble and equally cold to the touch. What a lovely voice Burbage has, she thought. So commanding, it soared above the belches, coughs, and rude laughter and boomed out like cannon fire. She loved to listen to him, to look at him. He could be as graceful as if he danced the pavane, as forceful as if he marched to war. Often she would daydream of playing with him on stage, how it would be if he were Hero and she Leander, to be Thisbe to his Pyramus. She raised her pipe, inhaled a whiff of tobacco and coughed. Heavens, the smoke was strong, and the odor stank like a dung heap. A filthy vice. But she loved the look of disdain elicited from the Puritans as she blissfully puffed away while walking down Paul’s. They thought she was doomed to Hell. Would they could know that, as a woman, she was cursed by her own private hell. Burbage finished, and the setting was immediately switched. A boy came in carrying a sign that said KITCHEN. On the left side of the stage was a table on which rested a pot housing a squawking chicken, a butcher’s cleaver, and a plate full of entrails, the blood dripping to the floor. The chef entered the platform through a door in the backdrop marked ENTRANCE. Today he was played by William Shakespeare. Rebecca always was drawn to Shakespeare’s comic performances. He hadn’t half the acting skill of Burbage, his voice being higher and more easily strained, losing projection when he shouted. But his eyes held her as none she’d ever seen. They were the palest blue, like fresh snow awash with sky, imbued with an unmistakable intelligence. She remembered them clearly at the burial grounds, staring back at her, questioning her own eyes. His countenance that day had been so somber, suffused with much pain, completely out of character with the doltish parts he usually played. She hadn’t been able to reconcile that man with the player, and so she’d stared at him. Of course, everything that day had been blurry, so very unreal … She shooed the dark thoughts from her mind and returned her attention to the platform. Shakespeare was wearing a hat much too large, staggering around, trying to bring the bottle he carried to his lips. The crowd began to laugh. When the hat fell over his forehead and eyes, he stumbled about, then danced an exaggerated trip. Rebecca found herself laughing along with the others. Shakespeare raised the brim of the hat from his eyes and slowly, in drunkenly fashion, swaggered his way over to the table. Setting the bottle down, he grabbed the chicken, lifting the hapless bird up by the neck, and raised the cleaver. He swung the cleaver at the bird’s scrawny throat but cut only air instead. The audience howled with laughter. Shakespeare stared at the crowd, wearing a look of confusion, then gaped at the chicken. “Why are you still whole?” he cried. The bird was flapping its wings with distress, fluttering feathers in his face. Shakespeare trapped them in his mouth, then blew them at the crowd like a gust of snow. “You should be very much dead,” he explained to the bird. “Pouring out blood as freely as I piss out ale. Like thus.” He picked up a handful of bloody innards and smeared it over the chicken. “There,” he said. “Hold still, and by my will, I shall instill you to nil.” He held up the cleaver, swung it forcefully, but again cut nothing. Again and again he whipped the cleaver through the air, each time barely missing the chicken’s throat. Finally he plunged the cleaver down onto the table and split a piece of sanguineous entrail in two, splattering blood all over his costume. Not written in the book, Shakespeare groaned inwardly. Robin Hart was going to reproach him severely for the mess. Off to the left of the stage Shakespeare could see the ’tire man’s face fall. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/faye-kellerman/the-quality-of-mercy/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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