The First Chapter
In Which Is Presented the Palace of Queen Gloriana Together with a Description of Some of Its Denizens and a Brief Account of Certain Activities Taking Place in the City of London on New Year’s Eve Ending the Twelfth Year of Gloriana’s Reign
THE PALACE IS as large as a good-sized town, for through the centuries its outbuildings, its lodges, its guest houses, the mansions of its lords and ladies in waiting have been linked by covered ways, and those covered ways roofed, in turn, so that here and there we find corridors within corridors, like conduits in a tunnel, houses within rooms, those rooms within castles, those castles within artificial caverns, the whole roofed again with tiles of gold and platinum and silver, marble and mother-of-pearl, so that the palace glares with a thousand colours in the sunlight, shimmers constantly in the moonlight, its walls appearing to undulate, its roofs to rise and fall like a glamorous tide, its towers and minarets lifting like the masts and hulks of sinking ships.
Within, the palace is rarely still; there is a coming and going of great aristocrats in their brocades, silks and velvets, their chains of gold and silver, their filigree poignards, their ivory farthingales, cloaks and trains rippling behind them, sometimes carried by little boys and girls in such a weight of cloth it seems they can barely walk. There is precise and delicate music to be heard from more than one source, and nobles and retainers all pace to the music’s time. In certain halls and rooms masques and plays are rehearsed, concerts performed, portraits painted, murals sketched, tapestries woven, stone carved, verses recited; and there are courtships, consummations, quarrels, of the intense sort always found in the confines of such a universe as this. And in those forgotten
spaces between the walls live the human scavengers, the dwellers in the glooms—vagabonds, disgraced servants, forgotten mistresses, spies, ostracised squires, love children, the deformed, abandoned whores, idiot relatives, hermits, madmen, romantics who would accept any misery to be near the source of power; escaped prisoners, destitute nobles too ashamed to reveal themselves in the city below, rejected suitors, defaulting husbands, fear-driven lovers, bankrupts, the sick and the envious; all dwell and dream alone or in their own societies, with their own clearly marked territories and customs, living apart from those who exist in the brilliantly lighted halls and corridors of the palace proper, yet side by side with them, rarely suspected.
Below the palace lies the great city, capital of an Empire, rich in gold and fame, the home of adventurers, merchants, poets, playwrights, magicians, alchemists, engineers, scientists, philosophers, craftsmen of every sort, senators, scholars—there is a great University—theologians, painters, actors, buccaneers, money-lenders, highwaymen, dancers, musicians, astrologers, architects, iron-masters, masters of the great smoking manufactories on the outskirts of Albion’s capital, prophets, exiles from foreign lands, animal trainers, peace-keepers, judges, physicians, gallants, flirts, great ladies and noble lords; all bustle together in the city’s alehouses, ordinaries, theatres, opera houses, inns, concert halls; its forums, its wineshops and places of contemplation, parading fantastic costumes, resisting conformity at any cost, so that even the wit of the city’s urchins is as sharp as the finest conversation of the rural lord; the vulgar speech of the street arabs is so full of metaphor and condensed reference that an ancient poet would have given his soul to possess the tongue of a London apprentice; yet it is a speech almost impossible to translate, more mysterious than Sanskrit, and its fashions change from day to day. Moralists decry these habits, this perpetual demand for mere empty novelty, and argue that decadence looms, the inevitable result of sensation-seeking, yet the demand on the artists for novelty, while it certainly means that bad artists produce only fresh and shallow sensation, causes the best of them to fire their plays with a language that is
vital and complex (for they know it will be understood), with events that are melodramatic and fabulous (for they know they will be believed), with argument on almost any subject (for there are many who will follow them), and so it is, too, for the best musicians, poets, philosophers—not excluding those lowly writers of prose who would claim legitimacy for what everyone knows is a bastard art. In short, our London is alive at every level; even its vermin, one might suspect, is articulate and flea discourses with flea on the question whether the number of dogs in the universe is finite or infinite, while rats wrangle over such profundities as which came first, the baker or the bread. And where language catches fire, so are deeds performed to match, and the deeds, in turn, colour the language. Great deeds are done in this city, in the name of its Queen, whose palace looks down upon it. Expeditions set forth and discoveries are made. Inventors and explorers enrich the Realm—twin rivers flow into the city, one of Knowledge, one of Gold, and the lake they form is the stuff of London, equal parts intermingled. And there is conflict, of course, and crime here—the passions are high and heady, the crimes are fierce and horrible, for the stakes can be enormous; greed is a giant, ambition is Faith to more than a few—a drug, a disease, a cup that can never be drained. Yet there are many, too, who have learned the virtues of the rich; who are enlightened, humane, charitable, generous; who live according to the highest Stoic tradition; who display their nobility and offer themselves as examples to their fellows, both rich and poor; who are mocked for their gravity, hated for their humility, envied for their self-sufficiency. Pompous piety, some would call their state, and so it is, for some of them, those without humour, without irony. These proud princelings and captains of industry, merchant adventurers, priests and scholars follow a code, but they are individuals nonetheless—even eccentrics—though all would serve the Nation and Empire (in the person of their Queen) at any cost to themselves, even, should necessity demand, with their lives; for the State is All and the Queen is Just. Only secondly, to a man and woman, would they consult private conscience, on any matter whatsoever, for they would
deem all personal decisions subservient to the needs of the State.
It has not always been so in Albion, was never as completely true as it is, now that Gloriana rules; for these people who, through their efforts, hold this vast Commonwealth in balance, who make it a coherent entity, who ensure its stability, believe that there is only one factor which maintains this equilibrium: the Queen Herself.
The circle of Time has turned, from golden age to silver, from brass to iron and now, with Gloriana, back to gold again.
Gloriana the First, Queen of Albion, Empress of Asia and Virginia, is a Sovereign loved and worshipped as a goddess by many millions of subjects, admired and respected by many more millions throughout the globe. To the theologian (save for the most radical) she is the only representative of the gods on Earth, to the politician she is the embodiment of the State, to the poet she is Juno, to the common folk she is Mother; saint and villain alike are united in their love for her. If she laughs, the Realm rejoices; if she weeps, the Nation mourns; if she has a need, a thousand would volunteer to satisfy it; if she is angry, there would be scores to take vengeance on the object of her anger. And thus is created for her an almost unbearable responsibility: Thus she must practise diplomacy at all levels of her life, betraying no emotion, expressing no demands, dealing fairly with all petitioners. In her Reign there has never been an execution or an arbitrary imprisonment, corrupt public servants have been sought for actively and dismissed, courts and tribunals deal justice to poor and powerful equally; many, who offend against the letter of the law, are released if the circumstances of their crimes are such that their innocence is evident—so thus, effectually, the injustice of the Law of Precedent is abolished. In town and meadow, in village and manufactory, in capital or colony, the equilibrium is maintained through the person of this noble and humane Queen.
Queen Gloriana, only child of King Hern VI (despot and degenerate, traitor to the State, betrayer of his trust, whose hand caused a hundred thousand heads to fall, unmanly self-murderer), of the old blood of Elficleos and of Brutus, who overthrew Gogmagog,
is forever aware of this love her subjects have for her and she returns their love; yet that love, both given and received, is a burden upon her—a burden so great that she can scarcely admit its presence—a burden, it might be thought, that is the chief cause of her enormous private distress. Not that the Realm is unaware of her distress; it is whispered of in Great Houses and common ordinaries, in country seats and clerical colleges, while poets in verses refer obscurely to it (without malice) and foreign enemies consider how they might make use of it for their own ends. Old gossips call it Her Majesty’s Curse, and certain metaphysicians claim that the Curse upon the Queen is representative of the Curse lying upon the whole of humankind (or perhaps, specifically, the people of Albion, if they wish to score a provincial point or two). Many have sought to lift this Curse from the Queen and the Queen has encouraged them; she never quite gives up hope. Dramatic and fantastical remedies have been tried, without success; the Queen, whisper the gossips, still burns; the Queen still groans; the Queen still weeps, for she cannot be fulfilled. Even common alehouse jesters make no jokes concerning this; even the most puritanical, the most radical of evangelists draw no morals from her predicament. Men and women have died grotesquely (though never with the Queen’s knowledge) for making light of the Queen’s Trouble.
Day upon day Queen Gloriana, in her beauty and her dignity, her wisdom and her power, conducts the business of the State according to the high ideals of Chivalry; night upon night upon night she seeks that satisfaction, that final abandonment, that release which sometimes she has almost reached, only to fall back from the brink of fulfilment, back into an agony of frustration, of misery, of self-hatred, of conscience, of confusion. Morning after morning she has risen, suppressing all personal grief, to continue with her duties, to read, to sign, to confer, to discourse, to receive emissaries, petitioners, to christen ships, to unveil monuments, to dedicate buildings, to attend entertainments and ceremonies, to show herself to her people as the living symbol of her Realm’s security. And in the evening she will play hostess to her guests,
converse with those courtiers and friends and relatives closest to her (including her nine children) ; and thence, again, to bed, to her search, to her experiments; and, when, as always, they end in failure then she will lie awake, sometimes voicing her agony, not knowing that the secret halls and passages of her vast palace catch and amplify her voice so that it may be heard in almost every corner. Thus the Queen’s Court shares her grief and her sleeplessness.
* * *
“Ah, the yearning! I would cram whole planets into my womb, could they but fill the void in me! This torture is too great. I could bear any other. Is there nothing, no-one, to sate my need? If in dying I could experience release, just once, I should willingly submit to any horror . . . But this is treachery. We are the State. We serve, we serve . . . Ah, if there were but a single being in all our Realm who could serve us . . .”
* * *
In his great bed of sable and beaver, a naked wife on either silk-clad arm, Lord Montfallcon lies; listening to these words which come to him as whispers and occasional cries, knowing that they issue from the lips of his Queen a quarter of a mile distant in her own lodgings. She is the child, the hope he guarded with mad idealism through all the terrible, euphoric tyranny of her father’s monstrous reign. He recalls his own loyal attempts to find a lover for her, his failure, his considerable despair. “Oh, madam,” he breathes, so that his loved ones shall not hear, “if thou wast only Woman and not Albion. If thy blood were not the blood it is.” And he draws his wives to him, so that their hair shall cover his ears and he need hear no more, for he would not weep tonight, this brave ancient, her Chancellor.
* * *
“ . . . Nothing can destroy me. Nothing can bring me to life. Has it been so for a thousand years? Three hundred and sixty-five thousand aching days and wasted nights . . .”
* * *
Skulking through one of his discovered tunnels on his way to snatch food from the palace larder, Jephraim Tallow, outcast and cynic, a little black-and-white cat, his only friend, upon his shoulder, pauses, for the words boom in his eardrums, boom through his bones, boom in his belly. “Bitch! Ever on heat, never brought to the boil. One night, I swear, I’ll sneak into her rooms and service her, for my satisfaction if not for hers. I can sniff her sex from here. It will lead me to her.” The cat makes a small sound, to remind him of his quest, and digs claws through thin, patched cotton. Tallow turns a mild, shifty eye on his companion and shrugs. “But so many have tried in so many ways. She’s a much-explored maze, without a centre.” He slides around a bend of metal, reaches an air-duct of stone which leads to a disused sewer, finds himself in a gallery of creaking beams and dripping pipes, scuttles through dust, his candle guttering, and into a rotted doorway like the entrance to a kennel. His nose twitches. He catches a whiff of lately roasted meat. He licks greedy lips. The cat begins to purr.
“We’re none too close to the kitchens, Tom.” He frowns, then lets the cat jump down and pass through the little door, wriggling after it until both are stopped by a lattice of carved wood behind which firelight bounces. Tallow puts an eye to an opening. Here is one of the palace’s great public rooms. The fire is dying in the grate directly opposite. A long table is scattered with what is left of a feast—and some of the feasters who lie on and about the table. There is beef and mutton and poultry, wine and bread. Tallow tests the panel. It rattles. He seeks for catches and finds nails instead. He reaches for his little knife, on a cord at his throat, draws it up and prises at an edge, pushing it back from the nail until it threatens to splinter. He works his knife around the entire panel, loosening it. Then, grasping the lattice with his fingers, he pushes with his free hand so that the whole is detached. He pulls the panel in and places it carefully behind him, then looks down. It is a fair drop to the flagstones; there seems no easy way of returning, save by moving a piece of furniture, which would betray his means of entrance. The cat, disdaining his master’s caution, and with a noise in his chest, half-purr, half-growl, springs from vent
to table in one long leap. His mind made up for him, Tallow swings out, hangs by his fingers, then drops, grazing a small bench he has not seen from above, barking his shin. He curses and hops, re-sheathing his knife inside his shirt, turning and limping rapidly for the table where the cat already tugs at a turkey. It has been cold in the tunnels and Tallow realises the extent of his discomfort as the fire warms him. He carries a good part of a baron of beef to the fire, sits himself in the inglenook and begins to chew, cocking one eye at the snoring guests—entertainers, by their costume, who entertained themselves too well. Light suddenly falls on these figures and Jephraim is alerted until he looks up to see that there are windows set near the roof; he is unused to windows in his own dominion. Moonlight enters. White clowns and patch-coat harlekins lie upon cloth-of-silver, like dead geese on snow; their disguises are stained with wine which turns from black to red as the strength of the moonlight grows. Their powdered, masked heads are twisted, lying on outstretched arms; their crimson mouths gape, their painted eyebrows twitch, and Tallow fancies they are all murdered, looks about for weapons, sees only slapsticks, bladders and a wooden cucumber, subsides to give his full attention to his meat, feels his belly begin to swell, and sighs, turning a newly ruddy, grease-smeared face towards the dying fire, licking the savoury beef juice from his curved lips (a permanent smile which has saved him from as many disasters as it has threatened to create). It is the cat who looks up first, a whole roasted wing in its mouth, and Jephraim is not slow to hear the footfall. He rushes for the wine bottles, picks one which is too light, grabs another almost full, glances at his doorway, realises he cannot leap for it without abandoning meat and wine, ducks beneath the table, disturbing a grunting Zany whose sacklike smock is sour with vomit and whose left hand is buried in the clothing of some ambiguous Isabella who smells altogether too strongly of violets. Cross-legged behind his companions Jephraim watches the far door, through which, clumping gloomily, comes one he recognises, for no other would wear such ornate and useless armour so late at night without a ceremony of some sort to demand it. It is
Sir Tancred Belforest, the Queen’s Champion, miserable as ever—as unfulfilled in his way as the Queen he serves, for Gloriana has demanded his word that he will not do violence in her name, nor in the name of Chivalry. Sir Tancred stops to gaze around the room. He crosses to the mirror which reflects the fire. His long moustaches are drooping and he tries to curl them, twisting them around his naked fingers (which jut oddly from the mass of metal encasing the rest of him). He has some success, but not enough. He sighs, clanks to the table and, so Jephraim guesses, pours himself a cup of wine. Studying the noble knight’s gold-spiked knees, Jephraim lifts his own bottle and joins Sir Tancred in a gulp or two.
The door creaks and Tallow cranes his neck, observing first a trio of candles, burning cheerfully, then the outline of the young woman who holds the candelabrum. She wears a bulky robe pulled over her scarcely less bulky nightgown. Her face is in shadow, but seems soft and young. There is a further bulk above it, a bulk of dark red hair. From this young woman’s mouth comes a strong impatient sigh. “You are too quick, Sir Tancred, to retreat into silly sulking.”
Sir Tancred creaks a trifle as he turns. “You blame me—and yet it’s you, Lady Mary, who spurns my embrace.”
“I merely feared a spearing from your ornaments and suggested you remove your armour before you took me in your arms. I reject not you, Tancred, my dear, but your suit.”
“This armour is the badge of my calling. It is as much a part of me as my soul, for it displays the nature of my soul.”
Lady Mary (Tallow guesses her to be the youngest of the Perrott girls) moves across the floor and Tallow feels her warmth as she comes close to Sir Tancred. Tallow begins to lust for her, to scheme, a little hopelessly, for a means of making love to her. “Come back with me now, Tancred. The Old Year has passed, as I swore it would not, without a sharing of love between us. Let us, I beg you, begin the New Year in proper resolution.”
The Zany groans and stirs. A little more vomit bubbles in his throat. He coughs, soiling his smock again. He takes a firmer hold on whatever it is that he grips in or upon his Isabella and begins to
snore in a loud, somewhat self-satisfied tone, disturbing the lovers.
“My dear heart,” murmurs young Mary Perrott.
“Oh, indeed, my dear heart!” replies Tallow very quietly.
Mary tugs at Tancred’s hand.
Unable to resist an impulse, Tallow takes the arm of the Zany and stretches it out towards the Champion’s foot, but delays Tancred’s iron ankle with his own hand so that the Champion is checked, kicking loose all too soon, seeing the innocent fingers of the Zany there, and pausing to tuck them, with a fastidious metal toe, back beneath the table. Tallow has done all he feels he is able to do and watches sadly as the lovers depart, rustling and clattering, to Lady Mary’s rooms.
Glad to be free of the Zany’s company, Tallow emerges from beneath the table, finds a cork, seals his bottle, and puts it in his belt, whistles softly for Tom, flings the cat accurately through the panel, stands tiptoe upon the bench which grazed his shin, reaches long fingers to grasp the ledge and hauls himself upward until he is in his hole again, replacing the panel as best he can, feeling the cold of the tunnels ahead and already regretting his haste in leaving the fire. He sighs and begins to wriggle forward. “Well, Tom, so it is New Year’s Eve we celebrate.” But Tom is racing ahead in pursuit of a rat and does not hear his master. As Tallow crawls behind the eager beast, he hears from beyond the panel a high, fluting wail.
Master Ernest Wheldrake has been in a corner of the hall all this time. He has seen Tallow come and go, he has overheard the lovers, but he has been too drunk to move. Now the poet rises, finds his quill where he dropped it an hour since, finds the notebook in which he had begun to write his verse, treads upon the fingers of the Zany and, believing he has crushed some small rodent, tears at near-scarlet hair and wails again: “Oh, why is it that I must destroy so much?”
He leaves the hall, still seeking ink. It was for ink that he originally left his own apartments, a mile or more away, as he sat writing an accusatory sonnet to the wench who broke his heart that morning and whose name he cannot now recall. He stalks the lamplit
corridors, a small flame-crested crane wading through shallow water, seeking fish, his arms stiffly at his sides, like starched wings, the quill behind his ear, the book in the large purse at his belt, his eyes on the floor, mumbling snatches of alliteration—“Sweet Sarah sate upon the starry step . . . Proud Pamela this poor ploughman’s heart hath pierced . . . A doom did Daphne declare that day . . .”—in an effort to recall the offending maid’s name. He takes a turn or two and discovers himself at an outer door. A tired man-at-arms greets him. He signs for the door to be opened.
“?’Tis snowing, sir,” the guard declares kindly, hunching himself in his own furs, by way of emphasis. “Perhaps the coldest night of the winter, with the river threatening to freeze.”
Gravely Master Wheldrake signs again, piping: “Temperature is merely a state of mind. Anger and other passions shall warm me. I go down to the Town.”
The guard takes his cloak from his shoulders. It engulfs the tiny poet. “Wear this, sir, I beg you, or you’ll be a statue in the gardens by dawn.”
Wheldrake becomes sentimental. “You are a noble knave, a brave, bold, bragging bear of Albion, the best of Boudicca’s valiant breed, a warrior whose goodly deeds shall boast more fame than any limping line that Wheldrake pens. I thank thee, fellow, and bid thee fond farewell.” With which he flings himself through the door, into the dark and shivering night, into the snow, and plunges along a path which winds towards the few lights still burning in a London that largely sleeps. The guard wraps his arms around himself for a moment, watching the poet depart, then draws the door shut with a bang, regretting generosity which, he knows, will not be remembered when the morning comes, yet superstitiously glad to have performed a good deed so early in the year and thus almost certainly assuring himself of a little reciprocal luck.
Master Wheldrake’s own luck pulls him, oblivious, through two snowbanks, across a frozen pool, through a gate in the wall, into the outer lanes of the town, where the snow has not settled so thickly. He takes a familiar road, by instinct rather than judgement, which brings him at last to the shuttered walls of a large, ramshackle
building which sports a bush on a pole above its main arch and a sign on the door proclaiming itself the Seahorse Tavern. Lights behind the shutters, noise behind the doors, tell Master Wheldrake that this, one of his favourite drinking places and a notoriously unwholesome den, will give him the welcome he most desires, provide the comforts his blood demands, and he knocks, is admitted, passes through the courtyard with its ranks of galleries in the darkness above, enters the public room and sinks into the stink and din of coarse laughter, vulgar jesting and bad wine, for it is amongst ruffians like these, amongst whores, amongst the resentful, cynical, ill-natured and desperate men and women who inhabit this riverside rats’ nest, that the wounded poet can most easily find release from all that burdens him. He lets the guard’s fur fall, cries for wine and, when he produces gold, is given it. The familiar whores come up to him, scratching at his neck, threatening him with all the delights he craves; he grins, he bows, he drinks; he greets those he recognises and those he does not recognise with equal good humour, encouraging their mockery, their contempt, giggling at every insult, screaming delightedly at every pinch and shove, watched by the quiet, cruel eye of a man who sits in a gallery above, sharing a bottle with a burnoosed, bearded and beringed Saracen who is a little disturbed by the crowd’s treatment of Wheldrake.
The Saracen leans towards his companion. “They mean that gentleman harm, I think.”
The other, whose face is largely hidden by heavy black locks and by the brim of an outlandish sombrero which sports the tattered feathers of a crow, whose body is wrapped in a black, stained sea-cloak, shakes his head. “They perform for him, sir, I assure you. It is how they earn his gold. He’s Wheldrake, from the palace. A protégé of the Queen’s, son of some noble Sunderland family, Lady Lyst’s lover. He spends much of his time in taverns like this one and always has, since he was at Cambridge’s University.”
“You’ve known him so long?”
“Aye, but he has never known me.”
“Oh, Captain Quire!” The Saracen laughs. He is drunk, for he is not used to wine. He is a handsome young merchant, a minor
lord in Arabia, that most ambitious of all lands under the Queen’s protection. Doubtless he is flattered by the fact that Captain Arturus Quire has befriended him; Quire knows the whole of London, knows how best to find the most enjoyment in the city. The Moor half-suspects Captain Quire to have an eye on his purse, but he carries only a moderate amount of money, to which the captain is welcome, for the pleasure he has so far provided. The Moor frowns. “Would you be bent on robbing me, Quire?”
“Of what, your honour?”
“My gold, of course.”
“I’m no thief.” Captain Quire’s voice is cold, bored rather than offended.
The Saracen reaches for his wine-cup, watching curiously as two of the whores begin to lead Master Wheldrake up the stairs and around the gallery, into a passage. “Arabia gathers power daily,” says the young man significantly. “You would be wise to cultivate her merchants; to consider advantageous trading alliances. Our fleets dominate Asia, second only to Albion’s.”
Quire darts him a glance, searching for irony. The Moor raises a glittering hand and smiles to reveal more gold. “I speak of mutual gain, nothing else. It is well known how much our young Caliph loves Queen Gloriana. Her father conquered us, but she redeemed us. She gave us back our pride. We remain grateful. It is in our political interest to retain her protection.”
There comes a sudden yell from below and the flames of the fire roar up for a moment; a lamp has been flung into the grate. Two bravos battle, cutlass and dirk, amongst the benches. One is tall and thin, in worn velvets; the other is of medium height, altogether a better swordsman, and, in his leathers, almost certainly a professional soldier. The Moor leans forward towards the rail, but Quire leans back, fingering his lantern jaw, bringing thick, black brows together, considering his own thoughts. Meanwhile Master Uttley, the innkeeper, acts with habitual speed, rolling across the filthy floor to the door. He is round-faced, pasty-fleshed, this publican; there are black spots under his skin, like figs in duff, giving him a piebald look. The door is opened and the room begins to
chill. Master Uttley clears the crowd, this way and that, a dog with its sheep, leaving an avenue for the duellists, who gradually back towards the door, then disappear, clashing, into the night. Master Uttley bars and locks the entrance. He glares towards the sputtering fire. He stoops to pick tankards and plates from amongst the rushes and sawdust. One of his whores attempts to help him, knocks his shoulder, and is cuffed with a jug before Uttley returns to his own den, immediately below the gallery where Captain Quire and the Saracen sit. The fire throws long shadows and the tavern becomes suddenly still. “Possibly we should seek a warmer place?” suggests the Moor.
Quire sinks further into his seat. “This is warm enough for me. You spoke of mutual advantage?”
“I assume that you have shares in ships, or at least command of a vessel, Captain Quire. There is information to be acquired in London which would be denied to me, but which could easily be available to you . . .”
“Aha. You want me to spy for you. To learn of ventures early so that you may send your own ships ahead, to catch the rival’s trade?”
“I did not mean to suggest that you spy, Captain Quire.”
“Spy’s the word, though.” A dangerous moment. Was Quire offended?
“Certainly not. What I suggest is common practice. Your own people do it in our ports.” He is placatory.
“You think I’m the sort to spy upon my countrymen?”
The Arabian shrugs and refuses the challenge. “You are too intelligent for this, Captain. You deliberately bait me.”
Quire’s thin lips part in a smile. “Aye, sir, but you’re not being frank.”
“If you think so, we’d best terminate our conversation.”
Captain Quire shakes his head. Thick, long ringlets swing from beneath his sombrero. “I must tell you that I own no interest in a ship. I command no ship. I am not even an officer aboard a ship. I am not a seaman. I serve with no company, either ashore or afloat. I’m Quire, nought else but Quire. Therefore I cannot help you at all.”
“Perhaps you could help me more.” Significantly, yet uncertainly.
Quire raises the shoulder nearest the Saracen and leans his chin on it. “Now you intend frankness, eh?”
“We would pay for any kind of information concerning the movement of Albion’s ships, whether military or civil. We would pay for rumours from the Court concerning official adventures. We would pay considerably for specific news of Queen Gloriana’s private converse. I’m told there are means of overhearing her.”
“Indeed, my lord? Who told you so?”
“A courtier who visited Baghdad last year.”
Quire draws in his lips as if considering all this. “I’m not rich, as you may observe.”
The Moor pretends that he has noticed this for the first time. “You’d be improved by a new suit of clothes, that’s true, sir.”
“You are not a fool, my lord.”
“I think that I am not.”
“And you guessed from the first I was neither master nor merchant.”
“There are men of a certain disposition in Albion who affect poverty. One cannot judge . . .”
Quire nods. He clears his throat. Along the gallery now comes a scrawny, snagtoothed villain wearing leggings of rabbit fur, a torn quilted doublet, a horsehide cap pulled down about his ears. He wears a sword from the guard of which some of the rust has been inexpertly scratched. His gait is unsteady not so much from drink as, it would seem, from some natural indisposition. His skin is blue, showing that he has just come in from the night, but his eyes burn. “Captain Quire?” It is as if he has been summoned, as if he anticipates some epicurean wickedness.
“Tinkler. You are just in time to be my witness. This is the Lord Ibram of Baghdad.”
Tinkler bows, leaning one filthy hand upon the table. Lord Ibram looks uncertainly from Tinkler to Quire.
“The Lord Ibram, I’ll have you know, Master Tinkler, has just insulted me.”
The Moor is at last on his guard. “That is untrue, Captain Quire!” He cannot rise, for the table stops him. He cannot leave without
pushing past either Quire or Tinkler, who is evidently a familiar accomplice of the captain’s. “This is to be a quarrel, then,” he says, drawing a sleeve back from his right arm. “Premeditated?”
Captain Quire’s voice grows colder. “He has suggested I spy upon the Queen herself. He tells me that young Sir Launcelot Teale revealed to him a means of doing this.”
“Ah!” says Lord Ibram loudly. “You know everything. I am trapped. Very well.” He makes to push the table back but Quire holds it. “I admit I attempted to make a spy of you, Captain Quire, and that it was a foolish attempt—since you are plainly already a professional. But I trust you are also a good diplomat and will understand that if I am captured, or tortured, or slain, it will have repercussions. My uncle is brother-in-law to the Emir of Morocco. I am also related to Lord Shahryar, ambassador to Albion, who arrives shortly. I’ll leave now, admitting my folly.” He manages to stand at last. He lets his robe fall away to emphasise the fact that he is armed. He has made a further mistake, for Quire grins quickly and triumphantly at him.
“But you have, after all, insulted me, Lord Ibram.”
Lord Ibram bows. “Then I apologise.”
“It will not do. I am a loyal subject of the Queen. She probably has few better servants than Captain Quire. You are not a coward, sir, I hope.”
“Coward? Oh! No, I am not.”
“Then you’ll allow me . . .”
“What? Satisfaction? Here? You want to brawl, do you, Captain Quire?” With a dark eye cocked, the Moor draws on a jewelled glove and lets the gloved hand fall upon the ornate hilt of his curved sword. “You and your accomplice hope to kill me?”
“I’ll make Master Tinkler my second and give you the opportunity to seek a second for yourself. We’ll find some private place to fight, if that suits you better.”
“You intend to fight fairly, Captain Quire?”
“I have told you, Lord Ibram. You have insulted me. You have insulted my Queen.”
“No, I have not.”
“You have made insinuations.”
“I spoke of common gossip.” The Saracen realises he has betrayed his own pride and bites his lip as Captain Quire again grins up into his face.
“It is unseemly, in a great lord, surely, to give such gossip credence? And as for reporting the tittle-tattle of the gutter, that is certainly dishonourable.”
“I admit it.” The Moor shrugs. “Very well, I’ll fight. Must I find a second from this rabble? Are there no gentlemen upon whom I can call?”
“Only Master Wheldrake. Shall we see how much liquor is left in him?” Quire makes no move around the table. Tinkler steps back to let Lord Ibram pass. Quire begins to walk along the gallery towards the passage where Wheldrake disappeared, but the Moor stays him. “The poor creature would not be capable.”
“Then one of these.” Quire indicates the population below. “Any will do it, if you pay.”
The Moor leans over the rail. “I require a second in a duel. A crown to the man who comes with me.” He displays the silver coin. The ruffler in leather, who lately went fighting through the door, has returned, presumably by means of another entrance. He is red-faced and there are two long scratches across his forehead, a bruise on his bald scalp, and his ear has been cut—he holds a sponge against it.
“I’ll do it. I’d rather be a witness than a participant.”
Quire smiles. “What became of your opponent?”
“He ran off, sir. But he left this behind.” He reaches to the table nearest him and displays a severed nose. “I bit it off. He wanted it back so that he might find a barber to sew it on again. I won it fairly and refused to return it.” Laughing, he flings it towards the fire, but it falls short and begins to roast on the tiles.
Lord Ibram turns to Captain Quire. “You know something of me? Sir Launcelot will have told you?”
“That you’re a good swordsman?”
“Then you reckon yourself a better?”
Quire will not answer.
The party leaves the tavern by the back entrance, moving along the river path to where a carriage still waits. It is the one that brought Quire and Ibram to The Seahorse. They are all shivering as they clamber in and Quire gives the coachman directions for the White Hall fields. Quire looks out once at the broad, black river. Snow falls upon it. It seems to move more sluggishly than usual. Through the snow he sees the faint outline, the lights of a good-sized ship, hears the splashing oars of tugs towing it in to the dock at Charing Cross. He glances at the glowering Moor, whose anger seems primarily directed inwards, he winks at Tinkler, who grins a snagtoothed grin, but he does not look at the soldier with the red sponge who begins, perhaps by way of earning his silver, to try to engage Lord Ibram in friendly conversation.
The carriage bumps over frozen ruts and is swallowed.
On board the ship coming so late and with such difficulty up the Thames, Sir Thomasin Ffynne stamps one foot of flesh and one of carved bone upon the timbers of his bridge and thinks his breath must freeze before his eyes. He hopes the dawn will come before the ship reaches her dock, for he mistrusts the tugmen hauling her. There are not too many lights burning and those he can see are obscured by the weather.
Heavy snow coats the whole ship, yards, rigging, rails and decks. It settles upon Tom Ffynne’s hat, his shoulders; it threatens to slip between boot and stocking and freeze his remaining foot so that it will also have to be removed (it was frostbite took the other, on his famous voyage into the Arctic Circle).
Tom Ffynne is back from his pirating—toll-gathering, he calls it—in the Mexican Sea. He had hoped to be back for the Yuletide Festival, then for the New Year’s Masque, but has missed both and so is in poor temper. Yet he looks gladly at his London, at the distant great glistening palace, and he even thanks the lad who brings him a tin cup of hot rum from the galley. He sips, the metal burning his bearded lips, and grunts, and stomps, and sings out in his sharp falsetto at the tugboats whenever it seems to him that the ship moves too closely to the high embankments of the riverside. Diminutive, plump, ruddy-faced and twinkling, Sir Thomasin Ffynne’s
appearance disguises one of the shrewdest brains in all Albion. An admiral at twenty-six, he sailed with the war-fleets of King Hern, in the old days of conquest and pillage, and it was under Hern that he became known as Bad Tom Ffynne, in an age that had many bad men in it. Yet his love for the Queen is as strong as Lord Montfallcon’s, one of the few others who survived Hern’s reign with some sort of honour, and one of the few still to hold office under Gloriana. It was Tom Ffynne’s uncle who took the Moorish Caliphates for Hern, but it was Tom Ffynne who held them, made them almost totally dependent upon Albion for their defence, their survival. Two revolts in the great continent of Virginia were also put down by Ffynne, assuring his nation’s power; and in Cathay, in India, in all the kingdoms of Asia and on the coasts of Africa, Tom Ffynne has fought, with absolute savagery, to maintain Albion’s dominance over these lands which are now Gloriana’s protectorates and which she does conscientiously protect, forbidding violence, demanding justice for all those for whom she accepts responsibility. Baffling days for Ffynne, who once possessed a reasonable trust in terror as the best instrument for maintaining Order in the universe; who saw all this new Law as an unnecessary expense, a wasteful business that was, moreover, abused by those it was intended to benefit; yet he has come to respect his Matriarch’s wishes, maintains a grudging inactivity where the Queen specifically forbids his movements, and contents himself with exploratory journeys involving a little incidental piracy, so long as the ships involved are not under the protection of a far too generous monarch. The holds of his tall ship, the Tristram and Isolde, are currently full, half with the treasure of some West Indian emperor, whose cities Tom Ffynne visited on a voyage along a broad river which took him hundreds of miles into the interior, and half with cloth and ingots taken off two Iberian caravels after an engagement lasting five hours near the coast of California, that most westerly of Virginia’s provinces. Tom Ffynne intends to deliver all to his Queen, but retains an educated hope that the Queen will let a large share be kept back for the Tristram and Isolde’s officers and men. He is anxious to be granted an audience for another reason:
he has news which he knows will interest Montfallcon and possibly alarm the Queen.
Ffynne realises that the dawn has come without his noticing it, the snow is so thick. Gradually the horizon grows pale, revealing a palace like some gigantic Alpine peak, a London half-buried in snow, a Thames on which ice is forming even as the ship moves through it.
All is white and silent. Tom Ffynne stops his stamping to stand in wonder at the sight of Albion’s capital on this New Year’s Day, beginning the thirteenth year of Gloriana’s peaceful reign and, according to old Doctor Dee, the Queen’s astrologer, the most significant both in her life and in the history of the Realm.
Tom Ffynne lets out a huge, billowing breath. He claps mittened hands together and shakes little icicles from his dark beard, grunting with pleasure at the sight of his home port, in all its proud, frozen glory; its temporary tranquillity.