And that’s a wrap, or at least a draft. I said a chapter a day, and I pretty much pulled it off, missed a few here and there, but I’m posting five today, so that’s 37 days, 38 chapters, bada bing, bada boom.
When I fired this puppy up back on August 8, my goal was to wrap it up by Bouchercon. That way, I could drink like a fish in clear conscience, knowing I wasn’t blowing off my WIP. OK, I had to squeeze five chapters in under the wire to do it, but it’s done.
If you’re new to my on-line novel, you can catch up on the previous chapters right here. Now that the story’s done, chime in, let me know what you think.
And for that merry band that has been along for the ride, I thank you.
Reaching the river, I could plain see the building the baker had described, mongers of fishes, eels and other aquatics making commerce at the level of the street, the building clear having been first only one level, but in the manner common now to London, a second story was late added, it being accessed from stairs laid in a galley to the side of the building nearest me. There seemed be some commotion in the rooms upper, as I could see persons moving rapid past the windows, and twice in short minutes since my arrival, men made down those outside stairs carrying chests, stacking them on the short dock at the road’s end.
A pincke was tied at the dock, those being common to the river for their shallow draft, as they could make easy up the Thames in varied tides and still be sound enough for the channel or the nearer seas. The ship’s crew was busy with the rigging and other such matters that made clear they would soon sail.
“Boy!” I called to me a lad of perhaps ten who was coming from near the dock.
“Sir?” he asked.
“Do you know today’s tides?”
“I should hope, being as I serve the chandlers near. Those making to sea today will be off within the hour.”
“Do you know that ship?” I asked, nodding to the dock.
“The pincke? I’ve been on and off all morning, helping load her. Once the couple from the rooms over the shops have their luggage aboard, she’ll be away.”
“I think I know this couple,” I said, “the wife being young and remarkable fair.”
The boy blushed a little. “To be true, sir, I may be but a lad, but I will admit I was some scolded by her husband, him feeling I played my eyes on her over much and on my work not enough. He said my eyes did offend me, and I would better heed God’s Bible and have them out than continue in my foul habits and risk hell’s fire.”
Making it plain that Mary and her priest were near to making their escape.
“Do you know this street well?” I asked, “Not just this district, but those finer shops nearer to Threadneedle and the grocer’s market there?”
He nodded. “I do, sir.”
I took a half crown from my purse and held it up for his inspection. “Take this and be fleet. At the edge of that market will be several men at arms on horse, at the head of which is the Baron Hundson. Tell him Shakespeare bids him meet me here, and with all haste. Have them hence before this ship makes sail, and you shall have a full crown, too.” I pressed the coin into the boy’s hand. “Go!”
The minutes marking the boy’s absence ground heavy, each chest carried down from those rooms and stacked to the dock was like a sand from a glass that marked my own life, for the ship was clear ready, several others already being at sail on the river, both the tide and the winds in their favor and taking them rapid to sea, and now the ship’s crew was boarding those chests from the dock to the ship’s hold, none more coming from the rooms, that frantic traffic I had seen in the upper windows now stilled. Should the ship make sail before Carey came and lose itself in the Thames’ heavy commerce, I was likely doomed.
A man in this anxiety is a poor judge of time, but the boy seemed too long gone. The last chest now aboard, a member of the crew made up the stairs and then back, short followed by a gaunt man of middle years in plain dress of almost Puritan fashion, and by Mary, whose dress tried also for plain, but on her form and in the company of her aspect, failed in that office. I looked hard first up the street, hoping to catch some hint of Carey, seeing none, but thinking, if the boy were faithful, Carey must short arrive, and that any delay I could affect might buy me not only short minutes, but also long years, and that I might as well try buy them at risk of my life, as such life as I would have in failing would be little measured but hard suffered.
I drew my blade and stepped into plain view, moving rapid toward them.
“Mary Norton,” I called.
She turned and seeming almost smiled. “My good sir,” she said. “I cannot call thee false to be here having first said me safe, as you did say you would be as true to me as I was to you. I would have you know, though, that I did hold you at your word and such man at whose hands you did almost suffer was sent by another against my will, some feeling trust an insufficient shield.”
“But I did suffer at those hands, Mary, as they did take a dear boy wholly good in spirit who did ready trade his own life to save mine.”
She closed her eyes and breathed long. “I will pray on his soul, sir, as I would have none innocent suffer.”
The gaunt man called into the ship. “Gentleman! We are accosted! Have this brigand away that we might board and be off.”
At which several crew disembarked variously armed with staffs and other such weapons handy and made hard at me, spreading into an arc that I might face only few of them at once.
“That man is a priest secret in this country and the woman an agent of Spain,” I called loud, hoping sway them to my side or at least stall their advance..
A large man to my front, thickly muscled and much weathered from his long sailing laughed. “And I am some dainty mermaid come to shore to find your love,” and he swung hard at me at long staff, which I ducked under, hearing his fellows laughing as they closed, and I swung my blade in circle, some surprising them at my crouched level, and catching one of them below this knees, cutting him deep, him falling, and I felt a blow fall hard across my back just as I rose, my sword almost coming from my hands, but that blow thrust me forward, and past the swipe of some cudgel such that I was able to swing my sword up, cutting that man’s arm, and then step past him and through their circle a brief moment. I ran some few steps nearer the dock, the river blocking any escape in that direction, and turning back could see Carey closing hard at the front of his men, the horses crashing into the crew, Carey’s sword flashing down on my muscled mermaid, and having his arm near off at his shoulder..
“STOP!” screamed Mary. At which the melee paused. “My defeat clear, I will have no more suffer in my cause. We are your prisoners, sirs.”
“And I am a one-armed mermaid,” the large man said in a shocked voice, seated now in his own blood, “and ruined for the sea.”
The chests taken from the ship lay scattered open across the dock in the lowering sun, my having been with Carey some hours having them off and broken open, as they were solid and careful locked, finding in them the priest’s vestments, chalices, Latin bibles and the other accoutrements of his religion, and also several bottles of that good port for which the Spanish are rightly known, and now I sat with Carey on the dock’s end looking out on the river, each with a bottle of that rich Spanish wine.
“I must admit you looked surprising fierce in your battle, Will,” Carey said, “though unschooled, to be sure. Still, two men cut and you untouched.”
I felt across my back a hard reminder of the blow I had suffered. “I would not say untouched, sir, but as my goal was alive until your arrival, I will call my action a success.”
He raised his bottle to me in salute. “You have been brave and true in my service, sir, and your company can count me your faithful patron all my days.”
I nodded. “In truth, I have earned in the knowing of my own self much in this exercise and could almost count me in your debt for that benefit, but for much suffering and blood that I cannot help but feel falls to my own hands.”
“A hand unstained is a hand unused, sir. Who will try will fail, but who will not can scarce be counted a man.”
We drank some moments in companionable silence, hearing behind us the sounds of the day’s commerce drawing to its end, the mongers trying entice some final custom in their last minutes, some shutters already slamming closed.
“Even knowing her religion and her cause, it harms me some to think of young Mary in Topcliffe’s care,” Carey said finally, “understanding some now her history and knowing that, were I her, I might easy have reached a similar end.”
That thought cut hard, and I had a long pull at my bottle to still it. “We think ourselves loyal to a crown or a god, but in the end, I think, can only true serve our own hearts.”
“She has served her own and brave,” he said. “Still, I cannot say I am ungrateful that we ruined what further mission she must have had. Sad as I am for my father’s suffering at her hands, I cannot think that her entire purpose.”
And I knew sudden that I had watched this play as does an audience, swept up in its events and in that strong current, working too hard toward shore to question them, when I should instead have seen it as an author, in my mind and not my heart, and pulling ready at every lose end to unravel its meaning.
“Your father dead, she still stayed long in this country, even early suspecting that we questioned her role,” I said, “and yet now, nothing new accomplished, she would bolts for Spain.”
Carey shrugged. “And to your credit, sir, as it was your investigation that made plain her mission.”
I shook my head. “Yours as much as my own, and Topcliffe’s, as I would never have suspected Spanish mischief. But no, something is amiss. That she might bolt to some new hide, that I could credit, but she seems too stern in her character to quit the country whole with some task undone due only to threat, for that smells of coward, and she does not have that scent.”
“Sir!” One of Carey’s men called to us from the dock’s opposite end where they made inspection of the final few chests, which seemed to hold only clothings and other such unremarkable things. “I would have you see this”
So we made to the man, a small chest of Mary’s things open at his feet, the chest filled mostly those items most intimate in their nature.
Carey snorted. “Did her beauty so inflame thee, Snellings, that you would have your nose in her drawers?”
The man stuttered a moment, then answered. “Look here, sir.” And he pulled down from the chest’s side a false lining, behind which were lined several small bottles in varied colors, as one might find at an apothecary’s shop.
I grabbed Carey by his arm and pulled him to his feet and towards the horses, grabbing the first I saw and swinging myself into its saddle, Carey, too, swinging aboard his own, as I spurred my horse away from the river with Carey in pursuit..
That Mary might leave note for the mercer explaining her absence rang true, for that explanation would forestall his searching for her or raising any alarm. But that she would stay late in the night to complete her sewing, and for a Queen she did clear despise, here was that moment in the play’s progress that I should have noted and did not.
I explained the threat to Carey as we rode.
The mercer’s shutters were closed when we arrived, and his door bolted, but Carey hammered hard at it with his fist, the mercer opening the door some alarmed.
“Master Shakespeare, sir. What matter could have thee so, and outside our normal time?”
“Those items Mary completed for our good Queen,” I said. “I would have them immediate.”
“You actors have a reputation for your drinking, and I can smell it on you,” the mercer said, his voice now hard, “but this prank does not amuse.”
“It is no prank, sir,” Carey answered, “and we have not time for long congress. I am the Baron Hudson and I tell you plain that you are either party to or have been sore used in a plot against our good Queen, and you will either fetch out those garments now or I will strike you down where you stand and take them.”
At that moment, the rest of Carey’s company, having noted our alarmed departure and so giving chase, arrived, reigning in their horses to our back.
“But those are gone, sir,” the mercer near blubbering, “delivered to the court this very day. What plot can there be in them?”
Carey leapt back to his horse, me following, and turned it to his men. “Keep secure this man and building until I send word, and touch nothing.”
And we rode hard for Whitehall.
Our ride left many sprawled in our wake, Carey’s horses being large and trained for war and so not shy of crowds, and the streets being thickly peopled at that hour, but we arrived quick at Whitehall’s gates and I watched amazed as Carey cleaved hard such protocols that would usual long delay our progress further.
Challenged first by the guards at gate, Carey leapt from his horse and drew close to them, and where I thought I had heard him stern previous, heard now such voice as I suppose man learns in war in efforts to make himself entire a weapon.
“I am George Carey, Second Baron Hundson, son of your late Lord Chamberlain. Your Queen is in dire peril and you will have me to her immediate or I will hold bound to any consequence all who impede me.”
The guards looked to each other, their officer finally answering.
“I know you, sir, and make full note of your urgency, and will have my man quick to make congress with the household. But I can assure you no threat has passed this gate, not this day, sir. Not on my watch.”
At which Carey quick drew his sword and had the tip of it to the officer’s throat before any could make move.
“This threat is one of guile and poisons, and they are already by you unknowing. You may let me pass or keep my company, but I will immediate to the Queen’s quarters and if you think other, then let us settle it here in blood.”
There was a short pause in which those other guards present did all draw their swords, and not seeming know where to point them, pointed them all at me, and so I hope Carey’s argument won the day quick or I might, as my father had long wished, end holy.
“If you will put back your sword, sir,” the officer answered trying hard for a voice equal stern, but its timber instead much unsteady, “I will have you hence, but in our company only.”
Carey sheathed his sword and walked hard past the man toward the palace, the guards now scrambling to form around him, me trailing the procession.
“But what of him, sir?” the officer asked, pointing back at me.
“He is in my service and I in his debt.”
Our assembly burst into the castle proper, Carey being with it clear familiar making direct toward the Queen, the train of our company growing as we pressed toward her apartments, until final we approached her door, Carey calling from some yards distance that he would see the Queen immediate and not be stayed.
“But the Queen is dressing, sir!” the attendant there stationed said, rising to block Carey’s path, Carey planting a hand to the man’s chest, the Baron’s muscle and momentum sending the attendant far down that hall and to his backside, and Carey burst through the first door, some of the Queen’s lady attendants their gathered and shrieking at this intrusion, but Carey was unswayed and then burst through the second, through which I could see our good Queen, standing in her stockings, farthingale and chemises, her corset on but not yet tightened, the lady dressing her standing behind and ready to perform that office.
Carey sank immediate to one knee, his head bowed.
“Your majesty, I do most humble beg you forgive this intrusion, but must ask that your lady stop immediate with your dressing, as you are at grave peril.”
“Carey?” she said, looking down to confirm his identity. “It is you. Your father’s manners were at times some rough, and I see you do surpass him in his lesser habits.” Looking past Carey to the larger crowd beyond she raised her brows. “While we do enjoy an audience, we would have it see less of our person.”
Her gaze past over those faces present, passing by me but then snapping quick back.
“And who is this man that you have brought to watch your Queen in her nakedness, Carey?”
“Pardon, your majesty?” Carey said, still on his knee and his face still to the floor in bow.
“Oh for God’s sake man, stand. You are curious in which manners you observe and which you do not.”
Carey stood, and the Queen made a questioning face, her hand pointed clear to me.
“William Shakespeare, your majesty,” he said.
“The playwright?” she answered.
“The same, ma’am.”
She beckoned me with her hand, and I made into the room next to Carey, me, too, dropping to my knee and bowing.
“Your majesty,” I said.
“And are there any others we should greet in this multitude you have brought to observe my dressing? A bear baiter, perhaps?”
Carey’s face blushed full red. “No ma’am.”
“Well,” she said, waving the guards and courtiers back, “having all the players present, we supposed we needs hear this tale, and Shakespeare’s reputation being as it is, I prithee it be a good one, as a fine play does oft soothe our temper, and it current does run some hot.”
The crowd excused and the door to the room immediate closed, the Queen looked hard at Carey, having dropped the mask of patient bemusement she wore for the larger audience, and speaking clear harsh.
“Explain yourself, sir.”
“Your majesty, that chemise and corset, where they today delivered from your mercer?”
She snorted, “Do you suppose, Carey, that we trouble with the details of our garments, taking council on that issue, perhaps, between matters of the treasury and our varied foreign entanglements?”
“These are new today, your majesty,” her dresser answered, “you having liked such late received that were of this finer silk.”
“I ask only as I fear them possible poisoned,” said Carey, “we having late uncovered much serious Spanish mischief, and this seeming be its object.”
“Myself and Shakespeare, your majesty.”
She looked at me and gave a wicked smile. “Well, sir, you having joined Carey in this unassigned office as my new intelligencer, it seems you will share equal in either his reward or his punishment.”
“Ma’am,” Carey said, “I beseech thee, careful remove the corset and chemise that we might make their inspection. If I am wrong, then I will glad suffer as you require, but if my thinking be true, then your life could short be forfeit.”
“Carey, on such occasions as we may have claimed to hold our people close to our bosom, you may have took my speech to literal. If we am to be further disrobed, you and your apprentice spy shall have to be excused.” She motioned to another door past, and we had hence, it closing and us being in what seemed her closet.
The chamber having no window, it was dark entire. After some minutes, Carey spoke.
“The threat being so immediate, I never stopped to credit your thinking. I hope your wits be true.”
“I think my argument sound,” I said, “though I would not have played it for these stakes.”
After another pause, Carey spoke again.
“I do wish they would hurry with their dressing.”
“In truth,” I answered, “I can wait longer, as I do not rush to peril as seems your habit.”
Through another pause, Carey’s breath seemed to grow labored. He spoke again
“May I make you a confession in confidence?”
“You may, sir.”
“Since I was a boy, I have always been greatly feared of such spaces as this, anywhere small and dark, and I am close to panic.”
And I was so shocked to think this man, who I had late seen fearless play mortal at swords and with no thought breech this palace, quailed by a simple closet. I could not contain a short laugh, Carey then smacking me hard to my chest, and the closet door then flung open, the Queen standing in its space, now full dressed.
“Do I amuse you, sir?” she asked.
And I sudden thought charm my best defense and so answered, “Only if that is your intent, your majesty.”
At which she smiled a little, and I was a little relieved.
“While the plot be infernal, the design is ingenious,” the Queen’s apothecary speaking, him and most high members of her council now present in some larger room to which the items from the mercer’s shop had been transported. The chemises had proved free of taint, but the corsets were true deadly.
“The stays have been sharpened at their ends,” he continued, “and treated with the poison late developed in Venice from castor beans from which death is sure and for which no antidote is known. I have checked, and did also find such in those bottles in this Norton’s chest. The stays were then tempered so that they wished curve inward, and would so pierce your royal person, being held straight to their place by only some light sewing, which would break ready loose when the laces to the corset were pulled tight, at which your majesty would have been pierced and mortal poisoned.”
The Queen cocked an eye. “We have oft suffered for fashion’s sake at a corset’s hand, but never this dear.”
She turned to Carey. “You are true forgiven, sir, and true loved, for we think few in our service would have been so reckless for our safety, and you are named immediate Lord Chamberlain in your father’s place, as the safety of our Royal Household falls chief in those duties and you have already that secured.”
“I am true grateful, your majesty.”
She turned to Burghley, a minister much in her confidence.
“Any further from Topcliffe on this? Can we be sure we have the entire threat?”
“From the girl, nothing, as she has suffered his complete efforts with no word save her praying. The mercer, we think, was none involved, but simple used, as he confessed all immediate on only making Topcliffe’s company and we have been at some trouble to stop his talking at all since. The priest suffered hard, but then broke. He seemed little schooled in her mission, being sent as her spiritual support. We do have from him such names as counted in his congregation, and those are now in our custody and will be examined.”
Which news troubled me dear, thinking on my word to the baker and his wife that they were safe in this.
“And you, Shakespeare. You have served us well. What will you have for it?”
“The boy, Jenkins, who died in this service. I would have his family cared for.”
“Done,” she said. “None other?”
There was much other that such man as I had been at this matter’s start would have ready asked, but I was now instead troubled more by that accidental evil done at my hands.
“These Catholics arrested on the priest’s confession, I have had truck with some in their number on this matter who did serve you well, your majesty, and am pained to have them suffer.”
“It being Catholics also that made this plot,” she said, “and these all having ready prayed with a secret and foreign priest, knowing this full well a crime.”
“I do not argue that, your majesty. But without their service, this plot would not be known and you like would now be dead.” And I told her all concerning the baker and his wife, there being nothing left I could do to protect them save pray mercy.
The Queen sighed long. “In truth, Shakespeare, we have been long vexed in the matter of religion, and did try for some years toward tolerance, our tolerance met with rebellion and calls from the Pope for my death, matters of religion now being close tied to matters of state. And yet Christ calls us all to mercy.”
She paused, looking about the room as if seeking counsel and none meeting her eyes.
“It seems only the playwright has any courage in his tongue today. Very well, these two, in recognition of their service, can be freed, needing only swear their loyalty. We will have word sent immediate so that they are not subject to Topcliffe’s art.”
“If it please your majesty,” I said, “I will take word to them direct, as I am certain this august assembly requires no further council from me.”
She nodded and turned to her clerk. “Have immediate drawn such papers as he needs.”
The clerk made for the door, me following.
“Shakespeare.” The Queen spoke again when I was at the door’s verge.
“We alone decide whose council we require. Do not be surprised if yours is required again.”
The matter so sudden at an end, I wandered home slow, the evening turning to night in my passing, and I was bereft, as my service to Carey had full consumed me these many days and also left me such changed that, wanting now only to return comfortable to the London of my old habits, I felt lost in my own company, unwilling to be the man I had been but unsure of the man I had become and thus alien in all surroundings, such clouds as had marked the horizon on my departure from Whitehall having bloomed in the night’s darkness, and the night veined with lightning by that time I reached my door.
I thought to write, hoping leech through my pen some of this vague unease, thinking my late adventures might serve meat for some new play, but as I toyed at such idea, that a man might be cast as the personal inquirer into the matters of the great, a private eye in their privileged world, the idea seemed too fantastic for any audience to credit.
Sleep seemed the only remedy, so I took to bed, true wearied but sure my scattering thoughts would block Morpheus’ admittance. But sleep came ready and I was thankful to find it the plain oblivion of the dead, unscarred by dreams, for what dreams might bloom from such seed with which I had late sowed my own mind did give me pause.
I stepped from my rooms the morning next feeling some lightened and wondering by what alchemy, as I had made witness these past weeks as some had some died, some had suffered, and some had gained, none seeming through their own merit or earning, but all greater or lesser, whether by intent or accident, at my hands. I was myself lost a son, estranged a wife, a grief to my father, known more a sinner to many than I wouldst be, though not so much a sinner as I was known to myself, and witness at the death of a boy I called friend, if not cause of it. But it did seem such sun as this day blessed, which was much fair and framed in a sky washed clean in the night’s thunderings so that such scents as the breads made fresh at that baker near did have their rare chance to clear present their small glories above the usual effluent attendant to man’s greedy agencies, and I did suddenly know the sun shone on us all even, and under its grace we chose whether to trudge weary as toward dusk or dance lively as toward dawn, thinking that it be such greater or lesser weight as our personal secrets did press upon us that decided our direction. But our secrets were of our own fashioning, and such weight as they bore of our own deciding, and mine own all having been made plain before eyes both common and noble, I did this once have none to carry, and so decided to turn east, toward dawn and step light for those minutes or hours or days before I was anew cursed with their kin, knowing any promise to avoid such new burden to be a naïve and false hope, but knowing too such evils as we suffer are as random and fickle as such blessings, and that to bear each in turn with such grace as we can muster, ready to forgive our fellows such weakness as we can, and ourselves such weakness as we must, this is all we can do.
And the bakers was near, and the bread did smell sweet.