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 tip-toe 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 lamp-lit 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 seacloak, 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 protege 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 winecup, 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 rooms 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?

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