“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, snag-toothed 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 inward, he winks at Tinkler, who grins a snaggletoothed 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

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