30 May 1593
Annie brought the small statue of Diana to Father Hubbard, just as Master Marlowe had made her promise to do. Her heart tightened to see it in the wearh's palm. The tiny figure always reminded her of Diana Roydon. Even now, nearly two years after her mistress's sudden departure, Annie missed her.
"And he said nothing else?" Hubbard demanded, turning the figurine this way and that. The huntress's arrow caught the light and sparked as though it were about to fly.
"Nothing, Father. Before he left for Deptford this morning, he bade me bring this to you. Master Marlowe said you would know what must be done."
Hubbard noticed a slip of paper inserted into the slim quiver, rolled up and tucked alongside the goddess's waiting arrows. "Give me one of your pins, Annie."
Annie removed a pin from her bodice and handed it to him with a mystified look. Hubbard poked the sharp end at the paper and caught it on the point. Carefully he slid it out.
Hubbard read the lines, frowned, and shook his head. "Poor Christopher. He was ever one of God's lost children."
"Master Marlowe is not coming back?" Annie smothered a small sigh of relief. She had never liked the playwright, and her regard for him had not recovered after the dreadful events in the tiltyard at Greenwich Palace. Since her mistress and master had departed, leaving no clues to their whereabouts, Marlowe had gone from melancholy to despair to something darker. Some days Annie was sure that the blackness would swallow him whole. She wanted to be sure it didn't catch her, too.
"No, Annie. God tells me Master Marlowe is gone from this world and on to the next. I pray he finds peace there, for it was denied him in this life." Hubbard considered the girl for a moment. She had grown into a striking young woman. Maybe she would cure Will Shakespeare of his love for that other man's wife. "But you are not to worry. Mistress Roydon bade me treat you like my own. I take care of my children, and you will have a new master."
"Who, Father?" She would have to take whatever position Hubbard offered her. Mistress Roydon had been clear how much money she would require to set herself up as an independent seamstress in Islington. It was going to take time and considerable thrift to gather such a sum.
"Master Shakespeare. Now that you can read and write, you are a woman of value, Annie. You can be of help to him in his work." Hubbard considered the slip of paper in his hand. He was tempted to keep it with the parcel that had arrived from Prague, sent to him through the formidable network of mail carriers and merchants established by the Dutch vampires.
Hubbard still wasn't sure why Edward Kelley had sent him the strange picture of the dragons. Edward was a dark and slippery creature, and Hubbard had not approved of his moral code that saw nothing wrong with open adultery or theft. Taking his blood in the ritual of family and sacrifice had been a chore, not the pleasure it usually was. In the exchange, Hubbard had seen enough of Kelley's soul to know he didn't want him in London. So he sent him to Mortlake instead. It had stopped Dee's incessant pestering for lessons in magic.
But Marlowe had meant this statue to go to Annie, and Hubbard would not alter a dying man's wish. He handed the small figurine and slip of paper to Annie. "You must give this to your aunt, Mistress Norman. She will keep it safe for you. The paper can be another remembrance of Master Marlowe."
"Yes, Father Hubbard," Annie said, though she would have liked to sell the silver object and put the proceeds in her stocking.
Annie left the church where Andrew Hubbard held court and trudged the streets to Will Shakespeare's house. He was less mercurial than Marlowe, and Mistress Roydon had always spoken of him with respect even though the master's friends were quick to mock him.
She settled quickly into the player's household, her spirits lifting with each passing day. When news reached them of Marlowe's gruesome death, it only confirmed how fortunate she was to be free of him. Master Shakespeare was shaken, too, and drank too much one night, which brought him to the attention of the master of the revels. Shakespeare had explained himself satisfactorily, though, and all was returned to normal now.
Annie was cleaning grime from the windowpane to provide better light for her employer to read by. She dipped her cloth into fresh water, and a small curl of paper drifted down from her pocket, carried on a breeze from the open casement.
"What is that, Annie? Shakespeare asked suspiciously, pointing with the feathered end of his quill. The girl had worked for Kit Marlowe. She could be passing information to his rivals. He couldn't afford to have anyone know about his latest bids for patronage. With all the playhouses closed on account of the plague, it would be a challenge to keep body and soul together. Venus and Adonis could do it-provided nobody stole the idea out from under him.
"Nothing, M-M-Master Shakespeare," Annie stammered, bending to retrieve the paper.
"Bring it here, since it is nothing," he commanded.
As soon as it was in his possession, Shakespeare recognized the distinctive penmanship. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. It was a message from a dead man.
"When did Marlowe give this to you?" Shakespeare's voice was sharp.
"He didn't, Master Shakespeare." As ever, Annie couldn't bring herself to lie. She had few other witchy traits, but Annie possessed honesty in abundance. "It was hidden. Father Hubbard found it and gave it to me. For a remembrance, he said."
"Did you find this after Marlowe died?" The prickling sensation at the back of Shakespeare's neck was quieted by the rush of interest.
"Yes," Annie whispered.
"I will hold on to it for you then. For safekeeping."
"Of course." Annie's eyes flickered with concern as she watched the last words of Christopher Marlowe disappear into her new master's closed fist.
"Be about your business, Annie." Shakespeare waited until his maid had gone to fetch more rags and water. Then he scanned the lines.
Black is the badge of true love lost.
The hue of daemons,
And the Shadow of Night.
Shakespeare sighed. Kit's choice of meter never made any sense to him. And his melancholy humor and morbid fascinations were too dark for these sad times. They made audiences uncomfortable, and there was sufficient death in London. He twirled the quill.
True love lost. Indeed. Shakespeare snorted. He'd had quite enough of true love, though the paying customers never seemed to tire of it. He struck out the words and replaced them with a single syllable, one that more accurately captured what he felt.
Daemons. The success of Kit's Faustus still rankled him. Shakespeare had no talent for writing about creatures beyond the limits of nature. He was far better with ordinary, flawed mortals caught in the snares of fate. Sometimes he thought he might have a good ghost story in him. Perhaps a wronged father who haunted his son. Shakespeare shuddered. His own father would make a terrifying specter, should the Lord tire of his company after John Shakespeare's final accounts were settled. He struck out that offending word and chose a different one.
Shadow of Night. It was a limp, predictable ending to the verses-the kind that George Chapman would fall upon for lack of something more original. But what would better serve the purpose? He obliterated another word and wrote "scowl" above it. Scowl of Night. That wasn't quite right either. He crossed it out and wrote "sleeve." That was just as bad.
Shakespeare wondered idly about the fate of Marlowe and his friends, all of them as insubstantial as shadows now. Henry Percy was enjoying a rare period of royal benevolence and was forever at court. Raleigh had married in secret and fallen from the queen's favor. He was now rusticated to Dorset, where the queen hoped he would be forgotten. Harriot was in seclusion somewhere, no doubt bent over a mathematical puzzle or staring at the heavens like a moonstruck Robin Goodfellow. Rumor had it that Chapman was on some mission for Cecil in the Low Countries and penning long poems about witches. And Marlowe was recently murdered in Deptford, though there was talk that it had been an assassination. Perhaps that strange Welshman would know more about it, for he'd been at the tavern with Marlowe. Roydon-who was the only truly powerful man Shakespeare had ever met-and his mysterious wife had both utterly vanished in the summer of 1591 and had not been seen since.
The only one of Marlowe's circle that Shakespeare still heard from regularly was the big Scot named Gallowglass, who was more princely than a servant ought to be and told such wonderful tales of fairies and sprites. It was thanks to Gallowglass's steady employment that Shakespeare had a roof over his head. Gallowglass always seemed to have a job that required Shakespeare's talents as a forger. He paid well, too-especially when he wanted Shakespeare to imitate Roydon's hand in the margins of some book or pen a letter with his signature.
What a crew, Shakespeare thought. Traitors, atheists, and criminals, the lot of them. His pen hesitated over the page. After writing another word, this one decisively thick and black, Shakespeare sat back and studied his new verses.
Black is the badge of hell,
The hue of dungeons
and the school of night.
It was no longer recognizable as Marlowe's work. Through the alchemy of his talent, Shakespeare had transformed a dead man's ideas into something suitable for ordinary Londoners rather than dangerous men like Roydon. And it had taken him only a few moments.
Shakespeare felt not a single pang of regret as he altered the past, thereby changing the future. Marlowe's turn on the world's stage had ended, but Shakespeare's was just beginning. Memories were short and history unkind. It was the way of the world.
Pleased, Shakespeare put the bit of paper into a stack of similar scraps weighted down with a dog's skull on the corner of his desk. He'd find a use for the snippet of verse one day. Then he had second thoughts.
Perhaps he'd been too hasty to dismiss "true love lost." There was potential there-unrealized, waiting for someone to unlock it. Shakespeare reached for a scrap he'd cut off a partially filled sheet of paper in a halfhearted attempt at economy after Annie had shown him the last butcher's bill.
"Love's Labour's Lost," he wrote in large letters.
Yes, Shakespeare mused, he'd definitely use that one day.