Harry Turtledove

Ruled Britannia


Two spanish soldiers swaggered up Tower Street toward William Shakespeare. Their boots squelched in the mud. One wore a rusty corselet with his high-crowned morion, the other a similar helmet with a jacket of quilted cotton. Rapiers swung at their hips. The fellow with the corselet carried a pike longer than he was tall; the other shouldered an arquebus. Their lean, swarthy faces wore what looked like permanent sneers.

People scrambled out of their way: apprentices without ruffs and in plain wool caps; a pipe-smoking sailor wearing white trousers with spiral stripes of blue; a merchant's wife in a red wool doublet spotted with white- almost a man's style-who lifted her long black skirt to keep it out of puddles; a ragged farmer in from the countryside with a donkey weighted down with sacks of beans.

Shakespeare flattened himself against the rough, weather-faded timbers of a shop along with everybody else. The Spaniards had held London-held it down for Queen Isabella, daughter of Philip of Spain, and her husband, Albert of Austria-for more than nine years now. Everyone knew what happened to men rash enough to show them disrespect to their faces.

A cold, nasty autumn drizzle began sifting down from the gray sky. Shakespeare tugged his hat down lower on his forehead to keep the rain out of his eyes-and to keep the world from seeing how thin his hair was getting in front, though he was only thirty-three. He scratched at the little chin beard he wore.

Where was the justice in that?

On went the Spaniards. One of them kicked at a skinny, ginger-colored dog gnawing a dead rat. The dog skittered away. The soldier almost measured himself full length in the sloppy street. His friend grabbed his arm to steady him.

Behind them, the Englishmen and — women got back to their business. A pockmarked tavern tout took Shakespeare's hand. 'Try the Red Bear, friend,' the fellow said, breathing beer fumes and the stink of rotting teeth into his face. 'The drink is good, the wenches friendly-'

'Away with you.' Shakespeare twisted free. The man's dirty hand, he noted with annoyance, had smudged the sleeve of his lime-green doublet.

'Away with me? Away with me?' the tout squeaked. 'Am I a black-beetle, for you to squash?'

'Black-beetle or no, I'll spurn you with my foot if you trouble me more,' Shakespeare said. He was a tall man, on the lean side but solidly made and well fed. The tout's skin stretched drumhead tight over cheekbones and jaw. He slunk off to earn his pennies-his farthings, more likely-somewhere else.

A few doors down stood the tailor's shop to which Shakespeare had been going. The man working inside peered at him through spectacles that magnified his red-tracked eyes. 'Good morrow to you, Master Will,' he said. 'By God, I am glad to see you in health.'

'And I you, Master Jenkins,' Shakespeare replied. 'Your good wife is well, I hope, and your son?'

'Very well, the both of them,' the tailor said. 'I thank you for asking. Peter would be here to greet you as well, but he is taking to the head of the fishmongers a cloak I but now finished: to their hall in Thames Street, in Bridge Ward.'

'May the fishmongers' chief have joy in it,' Shakespeare said. 'And have you also finished the kingly robe you promised for the players?'

Behind those thick lenses, Jenkins' eyes grew bigger and wider yet. 'Was that to be done today?'

Shakespeare clapped a hand to his forehead, almost knocking off his hat. As he grabbed for it, he said, '

'Sblood, Master Jenkins, how many times did I tell you it was wanted on All Saints' Day, and is that not today?'

'It is. It is. And I can only cry your pardon,' Jenkins said mournfully.

'That doth me no good, nor my fellow players,' Shakespeare said. 'Shall Burbage swagger forth in his shirt tomorrow? He'll kill me when he hears this, and I you afterwards.' He shook his head at that-fury outrunning sense.

To the tailor, fury counted for more. 'It's near done,' he said. 'If you'll but bide, I can finish it within an hour, or may my head answer for it.' He made a placating gesture and, even more to the point, shoved aside the doublet on which he'd been sewing.

'An hour?' Shakespeare sighed heavily, while Jenkins gave an eager nod. Drumming his fingers on his arm, Shakespeare nodded, too. 'Let it be as you say, then. Were it not that the royal robe in our tiring room looks more like a vagabond's rags and tatters, I'd show you less patience.'

'Truly, Master Will, you are a great gentleman,' Jenkins quavered as he took the robe of scarlet velvet from under the counter.

'I trust you'll note this unseemly delay in your price,' Shakespeare said. By the tailor's expression, he found that not in the least gentlemanly. While Shakespeare kept on drumming his fingers, Jenkins sewed in the last gaudy bits of golden thread and hemmed the robe.

'You could wear it in the street, Master Will, and have the commonality bow and scrape before you as if in sooth you were a great lord,' he said, chuckling.

'I could wear it in the street and be seized and flung in the Counter for dressing above my station,'

Shakespeare retorted. ' 'Tis a thing forbidden actors, save when on the stage.' Jenkins only chuckled again; he knew that perfectly well.

He was finished almost as soon as he'd promised, and held up the robe to Shakespeare as if he were the tireman about to dress him in it. 'You did but jest as to the scot, I am sure,' he said.

' 'Steeth, Master Jenkins, I did not. Is mine own time a worthless thing, that I should spend it freely for the sake of your broken promise?'

'Broken it was not, for I promised the robe today, and here it is.'

'And had I come at eventide, and not of the morning? You had been forsworn then. You may have mended your promise, but that means not it was unbroken.'

They argued a while longer, more or less good-naturedly. At last, the tailor took five shillings off the price he'd set before. 'More than you deserve, but for the sake of your future custom I shall do't,' he told Shakespeare. 'Which still leaves you owing fourteen pounds, five shillings, sixpence.'

'The stuffs you use are dear indeed,' Shakespeare grumbled as he gave Jenkins the money. Some of the silver and copper coins he set on the counter bore the images of Isabella and Albert, others-the older, more worn, ones-that of the deposed Elizabeth, who still languished in the Tower of London, only a furlong or so from where Shakespeare stood. He looked outside. It was still drizzling. 'Can you give me somewhat wherewith to cover this robe, Master Jenkins? I am not fain to have the weeping heavens smirch it.'

'I believe I may. Let me see.' Jenkins rummaged under the counter and came up with a piece of coarse canvas that had seen better days. 'Here, will this serve?' At Shakespeare's brusque nod, the tailor wrapped the cloth around the robe and tied it with some twine. He bobbed his head to Shakespeare as he passed him the bundle. 'Here you are, Master Will, and I am sorry for the inconvenience I put you to.'

Shakespeare sighed. 'No help for it. Now I needs must-' Horns blared and drums thudded out in the street. He jumped. 'What's that?'

'Did you not recall?' The tailor's face twisted. 'By decree of the Spaniards, 'tis the day of the great auto de fe.'

'Oh, a pox! You are right, and it had gone out of my head altogether.' Shakespeare looked out into the street as horn calls and drums came again. In response to that music, people swarmed from all directions to gape at the spectacle.

'A lucky man, who can forget the inquisitors,' Jenkins said. 'A month gone by, as is their custom, they came down Tower Street making proclamation that this. ceremony would be held.' He might have been about to offer some comment on the auto de fe, but he didn't. Shakespeare couldn't blame him for watching his tongue. In London

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