Chapter 1: The Time is Out of Joint
Prologue: In which a perfectly pleasant evening in is interrupted by a murder that took place four centuries ago.
13 January, 1999
"O for a muse of fire," England quotes, "that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention," and hits rewind on the videocassette player.
America pauses, his fistful of popcorn halfway to his mouth. Careful, England wants to chide him, don't let the kernels spill between the sofa cushions. "That's really pretentious."
"That's the first line of the play."
"I know it's the first line of the play, I'm just saying—"
England sighs. "I thought it would be a proper start to things." The videocassette player whirrs and clicks behind him in agreement, or so he imagines.
The sofa, however, groans as America sinks deeper into it. "It's just a movie."
"It's a damned good movie," England says, "and I'll quote whomever I please."
"Touche." America holds up his hands in—no, surrender is never the right word for America, England thinks, his mouth twisting at the side. Appeasement, perhaps, though that word's more suited to England also. "So was Agincourt actually like that?"
The way England bares his teeth isn't quite a smile. "It was equally satisfying." Ah, the image of France sprawled on the ground, his hair and armour plastered with mud and the rain spattering his cheeks—it's an image he hasn't yet tired of, even after all these centuries. "A good deal muddier, but that's difficult to portray onstage." He smirks again; it's difficult not to. "Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France, after all."
"The prologue asks the audience to create the army in their mind's eye," England explains, checks the time on the videocassette player. Still another three minutes to go, it seems. "Since the stage alone isn't equal to the task."
"Is the movie?" America asks, grinning, and England ought to scoff at his cheek but there's something so guileless about it still, even after all these years. Well. All these years might be overstating matters. God, he didn't even exist when Agincourt was fought, did he?
"Better," England says, "and worse. It leaves less to the imagination, but—it's difficult to explain."
England rubs his temples. "You've made enough films of your own history, you know the feeling. When the picture before you isn't quite as you remember it."
"Well yeah," America says, "but sometimes it's a better story that way."
"Will would agree." England has more than a trace of a smile, remembering. "He and I had this very conversation—oh, every time he wrote one of his histories, or nearly. 'We remember them twofold,' he'd say. 'As they were, and as they ought to be.'"
The tape clicks to a stop.
America's smiling, but there's a softness to it, a kind England doesn't often see on him. "Smart guy."
"Oh, he was brilliant. And rather self-effacing about it, too."
"Wait, Shakespeare was shy?"
"No, not shy, have you ever met a shy actor? It goes against the principle of the thing. And he did act, you know. He was no Burbage or Alleyn, but he did well enough with it." There was a kind of comfort in watching him perform, England recalls—he knew each board he trod, each line he spoke, knew them as surely as if they were parts of himself, and never tried to inflate their worth or call attention to the man behind the illusion. "He accepted praise for his work, he'd have been mad not to, but he never dwelled on it the way some others did."
America cranes his head to the side, and good god, why must he look so young tonight? "You miss him, don't you?"
"I do," England sees no shame in admitting. "Him, and the Chamberlain's Men, and the playmakers, and their audiences." And their queen—perhaps their queen most of all—but well, he hardly needs to say that. "God, those days."
"Must've been great," America says absently, flicks kernels of popcorn onto the floor.
"America, I just vacuumed."
"It's just a few kernels."
"Yes, and you can clean them up later."
America wrinkles his nose. "Why should I clean your house?"
England reaches forward and cuffs him upside the head, lightly.
"You deserved it."
The next kernel of popcorn America flicks is aimed squarely at England, who manages to deflect it in time, if not quite to turn it back on America. America scoops up another fistful of popcorn and launches it at England, and this time England can't swat them all away; one even lands in his open—and sputtering—mouth. "You little—" he begins, strides over to the couch, and buffets America about the head with one of the cushions.
"You'll knock over the bowl!" America says through his laughter, but puts up a valiant effort to defend himself, fends off each strike with hands and elbows and shoulders. England swats at America's stomach, and America says "Oh no you don't" and grabs the collar of England's shirt, pulling him forward and trapping his hand behind America's back and, yes, upending the bowl of popcorn in the process.
England can't decide if the pillow trapped between their chests is too much of a buffer between them or not enough of one. Shallow as America's breath is, England can still feel it against his cheeks and lips. His chest constricts, mouth parted—
"We should." America clears his throat; he glances at something over England's shoulder, his gaze not resting on England's face. "We should probably start the movie."
"And clean this up," England agrees, glancing down at the spill.
"Yeah. I make another bowl, you clean this up?"
"Ought to be the other way around," England mutters, but does his best to withdraw. His hand's still trapped between America's back and the sofa's arm, so he says, "You need to move."
"Right. Right." America leans forward, allows England to withdraw. "And you'd burn the popcorn."
"It's better burnt," England informs him, brushing a few stray kernels off his trousers. "I'll fetch the broom."
"You are a strange little man," America calls after him, then: "Hey, England?"
"What was Agincourt actually like?"
England really ought to get the broom and dustpan. Instead, he pauses before the telly, leans against the cabinet it rests in. "I mentioned the mud."
"You mentioned the mud."
"Awfully convenient, that mud. For Harry, I mean. France's knights were all in armour, and our longbowmen had almost none." If he lids his eyes and breathes in, he can almost recall the smell of the day: the stench of the muck, the sweat of his soldiers, the iron reek of blood pervading everything. "The knights had to wade through the mud to reach us, and sank in it up to their knees. Imagine trudging through something that thick with twenty kilos of metal strapped to you."
America makes a face that's half-whistle, half-cringe.
"Some of them drowned in their armour," England goes on. "Those that did reach us were too exhausted to put up much of a fight. And the field was too narrow for France's numbers to do him much good. All those lines of men crushed together, scarcely able to use their swords."
"Yes, well. War is rarely pleasant, particularly for the loser."
"I know that."
"France did learn to mind my bow after that, though." England's smile can't really be called one. "Would that the lesson had stuck longer."
"Right, because Joan—"
England hopes the look he shoots America is sufficiently murderous. It quiets him, at least for the moment.
"Never mind," America says. "So, uh, did Henry really say all that? 'We band of brothers,' that stuff?"
"Will dressed it up a bit. The atmosphere was a sight more remorseful; we spent most of the eve of battle cleansing ourselves of our sins." England remembers that, too, his hand at his heart, his lips pressed to the ground. "Henry said France would likely capture and ransom the nobles, but the common folk would see no such mercy, so they had best fight for their lives. I think the message stuck."
"Kind of different from 'we band of brothers.'"
There's still popcorn clinging to England's sock. He brushes it off. "As they were," he repeats, "and as they ought to be." He really ought to do something about the rest of this; the popcorn still litters the floor, and he crushes more of it underfoot every time he shifts his weight, sends crumbs scattering in patterns he can't decipher.
—well. Save that one.
England squints and stoops. Coincidence, most likely, but he knows the rune taking shape among the crumbs. He traces the emerging pattern with his finger; it's one he's outlined before, a ward to guard and protect. The air shivers as his hand passes through it, and it sets him shivering as well.
He shakes his head. Merlin's beard, he's reading significance into everything tonight. Even Will wasn't all signs and portents. "It's nothing," he says. "I'd best clean up."
"Yeah," America says, and England looks up in time to catch the slight frown creasing his features. "You do that."
England nods and rises to standing, blinks. More patterns gather and swarm before his eyes, fleeting glimpses of—something. He rubs his eyebrows to relieve the pressure gathering behind his eyes. Damn. Is his economy fluctuating? No, the effects of that tend to be more violent, perhaps it's something in the Thames again. He says as much to America, tries to smile.
"Can't be any worse off than it used to, right?" America asks. "I mean, a century or so ago."
"I bloody well hope not," England says, wincing at the memory. The blood behind his eyes throbs steadily, swells. Damn again. It's almost the same feeling as when England first tried his hand at factory work and found himself too exhausted to close his eyes after; they were red and swollen enough that even attempting to shut them hurt. Or perhaps it's closer to a feeling he had earlier than that, on campaign in the Low Countries and Ireland—
His head nearly splits in two at that thought, and England shouts, clutches his temples. Ireland. Fuck, has she done something? No, but merely thinking her name makes him want to double over.
"Hey, England—" That note of uncertainty isn't often one he hears in America's voice, and he'd remark on it if the drumming in his head were less incessant, but even his teeth are starting to chatter to that infernal rhythm. England falls to his knees, and the ground trembles.
"England, England, your house doesn't get earthquakes, seriously, England, what the hell—"
"Fuck if I know!" he manages to shout as the air around him hums and thickens.
There's a tearing sound, as though the fabric of the world is being rent, and England's head swims before it swarms with sound and light—the fae are by him, surrounding him, tugging at his clothes and hair and chattering insistently, their shrill voices overlapping until he can't make sense of any of it.
"Slower," he gasps, "please—"
"England, what the hell?" America asks, and dimly, as though through a clouded glass, England sees America get up from the couch and cross to him, take him by the wrist. England tries to snatch his hand away—the fae are making claim to him now, it's not good to interfere with that—but the fae pull in the opposite direction, and England's head spins once more.
The fae continue to shriek, and England strains to listen: Gloriana, they repeat, again and again. Gloriana.
England's blood runs cold.
"Elizabeth," he barely breathes. "Something's—something's gone wrong with Elizabeth."
"Elizabeth?" America asks, and though England can't see his face well, he imagines the confusion settling over it. "England, she's been dead for like four hundred years."
England shakes his head, mouth dry, throat thick. "Time is—time is a funny thing," he says, wetting his lips. "Who's to say what happened then isn't happening now, elsewhere—"
Save her—save yourself—
He can't tell whether he nods or collapses, but he does hear America shout "England!" again, feels America pull him close to his chest. Ha, it's almost the picture of how England used to hold him long ago, sometimes, but they've reversed their positions now.
The fae are little more than streaks of light now, building and burning in intensity and swirling round and round—
—until a crack greater even than the first splits the air, and there's nothing but darkness.
England opens his eyes and the darkness abates, but only slightly. The pain in his head fades no less slowly; he gives a small groan and hauls himself to his knees, blinking as his eyes adjust. America's chest is still a solid presence against his back, and England—well, it's a comfort now, he supposes.
"England," America says, his voice oddly high and thin. "England what the fuck is going on?"
"I don't know," he admits, standing. Wherever they are, it's colder than a witch's tit. England can make out the foggy outline of his breath in the air, and behind him, America's teeth chatter. There really isn't much light to speak of, only a dim glow from a half-dead lantern and a few cold pinpricks of light from the window. England rubs his forehead yet again. Where is this? It feels familiar, it feels like his land, but who would live here, like this?
America hasn't stopped speaking, he realizes belatedly. "—don't know if you spiked my drink or put something in the popcorn or I don't even know but seriously whatever you did, not cool."
"I didn't do anything, it was the fae."
"Right. The fae." America's most likely glaring. "England, stop pinning everything on your little fairy friends and tell me—"
"Quiet!" he snaps. Mercifully, America listens. England takes a steadying breath, continues. "I have no idea where we are, and only the vaguest of ideas how we got here, and I do not want to attract undue attention."
"Was this a classified project or something? Some kind of—I don't know, is it that underground hadron collider? It's the underground hadron collider. Wait, that's in Switzerland."
"Yes, America, that's in Switzerland, and no, I am not developing any technologies for teleportation, now help me look around."
"This is a dream," America says. "This is a really really bad dream. This is the kind of dream where I'm going to look down and notice I'm not wearing pants."
"Are you wearing pants?"
"England—no. Fragment of my imagination that looks like England. It's time to wake up, okay? I don't like this dream anymore. I want to go back to Kansas. There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like—what is that smell?"
And now that some of the initial panic's faded, England notices it, too. Really, he's surprised he didn't notice it sooner, because the reek pervades everything. It's the stench of dirt and dung, unwashed bodies and what they leave behind, of grease and sweat and drips of meet and stale beer. And something worse overlaying that: the cloying smell of rot.
"England—dream-England, you know what I mean—but anyway, jeez, what happened to your housekeeping—"
England stretches out his hand, strokes one of the rough-hewn bedposts before him. He can see shapes if not details, and the room has few enough of those. It's a small room, little more than a garret, which explains the chill. Other than the bed, he sees something that puts him in mind of a close-stool—no proper toilet, wherever this is, that explains some of the smell. There's a trunk at the foot of the bed, he nearly bangs his toe into it, and the bed itself gives off a sort of dying heat; America's noticed that, and he holds his hands over the covers, rubs them together briskly. If England squints, he can see a desk in the far corner—
—and a figure slumped over it.
Again, England freezes, but the figure doesn't move.
"England," America says, now in a whisper, "there's someone here."
"Yes. I know."
Slowly, slowly, England creeps closer. The silence is thicker than he'd like. Some distant sounds from outside filter in—shouts, perhaps, and a sudden squeak—but no car horns, and none of the country noises England knows. It's a cliché, but England suspects the loudest sound is the hammering of his heart.
Slowly, slowly, England rounds the corner of the desk. Slowly, slowly, England stretches his hand towards the man, and the dying lantern-light spills onto his fingers.
America, of course, abandons such delicacy, and taps the man on the shoulder.
"What the sodding hell—" England begins, but the man doesn't stir.
"Shit," America breathes. "England, is he dead?"
He's had to say I don't know too many times, and here's another. "I don't know. It would explain the smell."
"Oh man, you have no idea how much I don't want to be in a creepy house in the middle of the night with a dead person. No. Idea."
"I have a fairly good idea," England says, recalls all the nights America used to crawl into his bed. He hoists the lantern aloft to get a better look at the man and starts: the man's jerkin and doublet hang about him far too loosely, and even in this light, England can see the black stains on his cuffs, the dirt ringing his collar. A wealthy man, or he was once. More significantly, a man from another time. The chill settles into England's bones. Where have the fae taken them?
He lifts the lantern higher to cast some light on the man's face, and nearly drops it.
"Dear sweet fucking Christ," he breathes.
"It's Edmund," England says, barely believing it himself. "Edmund Spenser. Gloriana. Of course."
"Gloriana? Edmund Spenser? The poet?"
"Yes, the poet." Died for want of bread, Ben Jonson said, and England can believe it. His own stomach gives a pang at the hollowness of Spenser's cheeks, the sharpness of the bones beneath. Damn and damn again. "The fae said Gloriana was in danger. Gloriana was his name for her in The Faerie Queene."
"That's great and all, England, but he's been dead for—"
"Four hundred years, yes." The light itself trembles. "Considerably less than that now."
"No way. No. No way in hell." America's voice rises, sharper than the chill. He seizes England by the shoulder, spins him around. "This is just—it's one of those bad dreams you get from indigestion or something, I never should have eaten that pot roast you made, I bet I got food poisoning and that's why I'm sharing a room with a guy who's been dead for four hundred years because—I mean, I'm dreaming, I have to be dreaming, I'll pinch my leg to prove it—ow!"
"America," England hisses, "you're hysterical."
"I'm not hysterical!" The effect of America trying to shout and whisper at the same time would be comical were England himself not on the verge of doing the same. "I just—these things don't happen."
"You believe in aliens," England murmurs, and the odd strain seems to have crept into his voice now. "Is this so much harder to accept?"
"Aliens are not time travel with fairies and have I mentioned the part where we're in the room with a dead man in the middle of the night because I am seriously not okay with that—"
Spenser groans. England does drop the lantern. Somehow, mercifully, it stays lit.
England wastes no time, takes Spenser's wrist and presses two fingers against the vein. His pulse is sluggish, weakening by the beat, but there. "Barely. Spenser, Spenser, do you hear me?"
There's movement behind Spenser's eyelids, at least; his lips part, but no words come out. Is England too late? Inwardly, he curses himself, and curses everything else he can think of for good measure, from the courtiers who allowed his most treasured poet to starve like this, to the fae for taking him through time with no explanation, to America, who has picked up a pewter cup from the desk and is, from the looks of it, sniffing its contents.
"England," America says, and the colour of his voice has changed again, darkened. "How did this guy die? In history?"
"Starvation," England says, smoothes some of the rank hair from Spenser's brow.
"I'd rethink that one." America holds the cup under his nose, and England nearly gags on the scent: roses mixed with rot.
"Hellebore. Black hellebore," he manages, and looks down at Spenser in horror. "Good god, man, did you do this to yourself?"
"Not I," Spenser croaks at last, and England cannot bend closer to listen fast enough.
But more isn't forthcoming, and England has no water to offer him.
"Jesus, look at his throat," America says. "It swelled right up."
"I know," England snaps, and grabs Spenser's wrist again. "Thy Nation speaks, Spenser."
Some flicker of light stirs behind his eyes. "Praise god," he whispers, each word a labour. "I did hope—I would see you, before the end."
"Who did this to thee? Speak, if you can."
Spenser chokes, the brightness in his eyes now almost feverish. "The book—"
"What?" America asks.
"Gone—ought have been—" Spittle foams at the corners of Spenser's mouth as his limbs stiffen, his eyes roll; his chair rattles against the floorboards as he leans back into the darkness, trembling.
"America, hold him still!" England shouts. "He's convulsing!"
America nods, and even in the dim light England can see the color leech from his face. He grips Spenser 'round the torso, pinning his arms close, and though Spenser's legs thrash madly the rest of him remains contained. Perhaps too contained—the muscles at the side of Spenser's cheek twitch under England's fingers, but his jaw remains shut. Somehow, he forces the words through: "Find—Will—Will Shakespeare—"
"We shall, we swear it—Spenser—Spenser—Edmund, stay!"
But with one final great shudder, he is gone, the lantern guttering and dying with him.
"England," America whispers in the thickening dark. "England, what's going on?"
Trembling, England slides his fingers up Spenser's face, finds the lids of his eyes, pulls them down. "I suspect we're about to find out."
The complete footnotes will come at the end of this fic. There will be a lot of them! (Seriously, I have so many books stacked on my desk right now.)
Agincourt! Agincourt was awesome—well, if you were English. The English were grossly outnumbered, but thanks to their longbows and to some really awful terrain on the field, they prevailed. Also, watch this. Just—just do.
Edmund Spenser was basically England's poet laureate during Elizabeth I's reign—his epic The Fairie Queene is a mythical retelling of her court. He died on January 13, 1599 "from lack of bread" according to Ben Jonson, but—well, the fact that the summary of this fic mentions Shakespeare and zombies should indicate that much.
Chapter 2: Something Rotten
In which America seeks explanations, flees faster than he intended to, and meets a playwright of some renown.
January 13, 1599
America is stuck in the dark with a dead man.
If this isn’t the last situation he wants to be in (the last situation he wants to be in probably involves Russia and Cuba and China playing catch with missiles on his front lawn, or maybe killer clowns), then it’s pretty close to it. He shivers, and not just because this room sucks all the warmth out of him. Jesus, haven’t these people heard of central air?
Well, no, not if it’s 1599, but there’s no way it’s 1599. You can’t just travel back in time, imaginary fairies or no, and even if you could America guesses the rules would have to be a little bit different for Nations, because how can you be something you weren’t then—
His head hurts, and no matter how much he shakes it, it won’t clear. Anyway. This can’t be 1599, and if it’s not 1599, there’s not really a dead man slumped over the desk and England isn’t really whispering something in a language that makes America’s ears buzz and America isn’t really cold, because he isn’t even really here.
Goosebumps prickle up all over his arms, and he hugs himself more tightly. He’s awfully cold for not being here. England keeps chanting; the sounds scrape America’s ears, and he hisses, “Will you stop that?”
“I’m making inquiries of the fae,” England says, and America can hear his teeth grit. “Hush.”
“Making inquiries of the—England, now is not a good time to talk to your invisible magical friends!”
“It’s a damned good time, as they’ve got a better idea of what the fuck’s happening here than I do.”
Great. Just great. America’s nails bite into his arms. “I know what’s going on.”
Holding a conversation with England when America can barely see three feet in front of his own nose is a little too creepy for his liking, he decides. He can’t even see his breath fogging. “Yep. This is a dream.”
“A—is that really the best you can come up with?”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” America retorts, crosses his arms tighter, braces himself against the fresh blast of cold.
“Yes, because it makes so much more sense to deny what’s in front of you—”
“Nothing’s in front of me!” he shouts, and the sound rings out in the awful flat darkness. “I’m asleep!”
“America—America, fine,” England says, his voice drawing closer. “You’re asleep, I haven’t the energy to argue the point,” which is such an England thing to say when he knows America’s winning whatever argument they’re having, “but if you are sleeping and you haven’t been able to wake yet, why not accept the dream?”
“Why not play along, you mean.”
“Because this dream sucks.” America glares at his surroundings—well, more like squints at the bits of them he can see, the panes of frosted glass and the planks framing the window. “I’m cold and I’m practically blind and there’s a murdered guy sitting like three feet away from me.”
“Yes, and dead before he could name his murderer. Or unable to.” England sighs. It’s a softer sound than America’s used to from him. “That’s why I summoned the fae, you know, to see if they could detect a geas on him.”
“A what?” America asks, leaves aside the fact that none of this makes any sense. “And he did say someone’s name, he said Will Shakespeare—”
“Will Shakespeare is not a murderer,” England snaps, and America’s heel hits the bedpost as he recoils. “For the love of—sweet fucking Christ, I knew the man, he’s no villain.”
“He writes a pretty convincing one.”
England scoffs. “And do you think Anthony Hopkins eats people on a regular basis?”
“Of course not,” America says, and adds, “that’s different.”
“Is it really.”
New topic. America rubs his eyes. Why are the two of them even talking about this? It’s not like any of it’s happening. The chill starts to seep into his bones, and he stifles another shudder. “Okay, so let’s say find Will Shakespeare meant something else. What? And why didn’t Spenser say who killed him?”
“Perhaps he couldn’t. Or perhaps this was more important.” England’s breath settles on the back of America’s neck, and even though it warms his skin, he shivers.
“More important? Why? England, why are we even here?”
“I thought you said we weren’t.”
America glares—or would, if he knew where to glare. “Okay, let’s say I’m kind of maybe playing along with this dream thing, because it doesn’t look like I can wake up anytime soon. So it looks like I’m stuck here.” He gives his leg another hopeful pinch. Yep, still stuck. “So where is here?”
“London,” England says, almost too quietly to be heard, and America wants to reach out and make sure he’s still there, feel him, pull him closer—so it’s not like he’s been left in the cold, ha, get it. He shoves his hands into his pockets instead.
“January 13, 1599, if I’m not mistaken, or damned close to it,” England continues. “Elizabeth reigns—for another three years, at any rate. She’s waging war on my sister, and she’ll send her favorite, the Earl of Essex, to manage the campaign in a few months’ time. He’ll mismanage it, and fall into disgrace. Spain stages another Armada later this year—or I think he will, and we act accordingly, but Spain’s ships never arrive.”
“Kinda depressing. And this guy Spenser, he dies that year, too?”
“But not like this.”
“No. Not like this.”
“England it’s really dark and I’m really cold—”
“Yes, I’m aware!” From the flat thump, it sounds like England struck the bedpost. “We’re going nowhere with this, damn it.”
“Then let’s leave. Seriously.”
“England, unless you can dust for fingerprints or something—”
“That’s what I’m trying to do. Metaphorically, at least. The fae could do me a sodding favor—oh hush, you lot, what do you mean you can’t—”
“England, let’s go!”
“I’m trying to get the dear little buggers to help me scry the past, but they’re making an awful racket, say they don’t dare trespass, well apparently you dared trespass when you yanked me out of my own time—oh, it wasn’t you, so sorry, but could you bloody—”
Something scrapes and skids across the ceiling.
“Shit,” America and England say at the same time.
“Who’s that?” America hisses.
“Another lodger, I shouldn’t wonder—”
“Or a burglar, or the murderer, what if the murderer’s been listening to us the whole time—”
England grabs for America’s hand in the dark, and his hand’s the warmest thing America’s felt yet here, he can’t help squeezing back just a little, enough to get his blood circulating again. “Let’s not stay and find out, shall we?” England murmurs as the scraping sharpens overhead.
Now the blood’s draining back out of America’s hands. He swallows. Great. “England, where are the stairs?”
“The far right corner, I’m certain I saw—”
“Sounds about right.”
They can’t run to the stairs, it’s too dark for that, but they can fumble toward them as fast as possible, let go of each others’ hands to stretch them out in front, feel their way around in the dark. America stumbles onto the first step and nearly pitches down it, but England grabs the back of his collar and hauls him to his feet. America means to tell him thanks but then there’s another set of footsteps, heavy and measured, and even if this is a dream, hell if America’s going to be caught by the boogeyman. Even the starlight from the window dims, jesus, can the timing get any worse?
The footsteps get louder and now England’s hands are pressed to America’s back, shoving, and America clutches at England’s sleeves for support except that sends both of them skittering down the stairs, pressed together and tumbling. England’s knee sinks into America’s stomach—he hacks and coughs and doesn’t mean to shove England off, but the next thing he knows, he’s sprawled at the bottom of the steps alone.
Not good. The footsteps seem to be getting softer, at least, and America strains to hear England’s even softer walk, but there’s nothing coming down the stairs, which is good and bad. “England?” he calls, as loudly as he dares. Nothing. Maybe he did hit the ground before America. Maybe he’s already left. Maybe. The cold hasn’t gone away, but America’s palms still sweat. He can’t make out much down here, either, though at least someone thought to put a lantern in the window. It’s almost exhausted itself, but between the flame and the starlight spilling in, America can make out the outline of a door.
The footsteps start back up, the planks above America’s head creak, and America hisses “hurry!” up the steps and dashes for the door, bangs it open and hopes it won’t slam shut. Just in case anyone actually is living in there other than the dead man, though he kind of doubts it.
Well, damn. If he thought the cold was bad before, it was nothing compared to this: the wind shrieks and sends flurries spiraling toward America’s eyes, and he’s barely brushed the snow out of the way before another gust nearly knocks him flat against the wall. The chill sinks deeper than his bones; christ, it’s like ice is forming in his blood. “England?” he calls again, or tries to, his teeth are chattering too much to do it right, but England’s not coming out the door.
At least he can’t hear the footsteps out here, though that might be because the wind shrieks louder than almost anything else. Jesus. Winters at England’s place aren’t usually this bad—hell, America’s spent balmier winters at Russia’s place. At least he’s a Nation, he reminds himself, not like he can get hypothermia as long as some of his people are warm somewhere.
Unless it’s 1599 after all, in which case America’s not sure if he even has people. He can’t really remember dates until—1607 or so? Something like that. He has memories before then, but they’re about as foggy as America’s breath is right now. Where the hell did England go?
Maybe there’s a door in the back? America squints, tries to make out the shape of the street. He’s been to his share of ren faires and stuff, but this is different: the street twists and turns and narrows in on itself until it becomes this giant mass of crooked shadows, and ren faires don’t usually have giant piles of—America doesn’t even know what, but the wind changes direction and blows the smells right up his nose. He gags. Okay, some of his cities haven’t always smelled like sunshine and roses, either, but America doesn’t even want to know what’s splattered across his shoes right now. “Okay,” he says, coughs to keep the smells from crawling down his throat, “let’s—let’s get out of here.”
He stumbles towards the pale light the lantern’s giving off, hugs the wall until he rounds the corner of the townhouse. Not much room between this one and the one next door, and the squelching noises under his feet make him shudder, never mind the plaster scraping his arms, but at least the walls shield him from the wind some. “England,” he says, “England, where are you?”
No answer. Oh great. America tries to remember what getting lost in a dream means, but all he can come up with is bad news, which sounds about right. He can’t even hear if the other guy’s come out of the house yet, the wind’s picked up and the howls batter his ears—what if he caught up with England? What if that’s the reason England hasn’t come out yet? Or what if England did make it out the back door and the—the whatever it is—is right behind America now—
He yelps and springs forward, right smack in the middle of a group of men.
Armed men, he adds mentally. Men with swords. Men with swords and scowls. Uh-oh.
“God a’mercy, you gave me a fright,” says one of the men, who looks like he’s got a pair of onions strapped to his thighs. (What America wouldn’t do for that cape, though.) “Who are you, pray, and what brings you here?”
I wish I knew. America’s teeth chatter. They’re all looking at him pretty expectantly, and the other two men have moved around to circle him. He’s still strong enough to take all of them, he thinks, and throwing a punch or two might get his blood moving again, but then he’d have to split, and—
He’d have to split. That thought cuts through the numbness. He’d have to run through the freezing cold and he has no idea where to run or where England is and it’s not like he’s never been to London but this sure as hell isn’t the London he knows and the people aren’t really speaking his language and he’d really, really like to go home now.
Surreptitiously, he pinches his leg. Fourth time’s the charm. Or not.
“Have you lost your tongue, man?” one of the men behind him asks.
Right. America clears his throat, tries to grin even if it feels like he cracks his face when he does it. “Uh. Prithee, sirs! I, um. I cometh to—” Christ, he hasn’t talked like this in centuries, if ever. When do you use the –eth, again? “I cometh to attend—no, wait, to wait upon. Uh. Thy pleasure?”
The first guy looks nonplussed. “What manner of speech is this?” he asks.
“I know not,” says one of the guys in back. “I have not heard its like.”
Oops. America grins, holds his arms out to show he’s unarmed. (Ha, arms to show he’s unarmed—oh wow he’s cold.) “Lo, I am—I am a traveler! A traveler dicked around—I mean, cast down by fortune,” he’s sure he read that in one of Shakespeare’s plays, “and uh kind of strandedeth at the moment, so if you—” Crap, should he say thou instead? “Uh. If thou could point me to yon inn, I would be way grateful, because it is cold as balls out here.”
“His speech and dress are passing strange,” the third man says.
“Yeah, well, taketh one to knoweth one, buddy.”
“A traveler, sayest thou?” the lead guy asks. “Show thy papers.”
America grimaces, and not just because of the cold. “Papers?”
“Thou art a traveler, aye? Where are thy traveling papers?”
Jeez, England had bureaucracy this far back? “I, uh, left ‘em in the privy, but if you’ll giveth me one second—”
“Art thou a rogue, a madman, or both, sirrah?” asks the first, and the tip of his sword’s pointed at America’s neck. Not good. “The captain of the town watch bids thee speak, for no God-fearing man walks the streets at this hour.”
“I was walkingeth the alleyways, and did you just call me a hooker?”
The guy blinks, but doesn’t lower the sword.
“Never mind. Look, I apologize most humbly for the confusion, can you please let me go on my merry way, ‘cause uh, there art this other guy waiting for me, and he’s going to be most pissy with all of thou, if you know what I mean.”
“Thou hadst business with Sir Spenser?”
“Yeah! Him! So, uh, pray let me just slip inside and we can forgetteth this whole thing?”
America distinctly feels the points of two swords poke him in the back. Oh boy.
“We shall summon him, and see if he will vouch for thee,” the first man says. “If not—stranger thou art, thou still knowest the penalty for burglary?”
“Most bad,” America guesses, and from the grim smile on the guy’s face, he’s right.
Can’t be worse than the penalty for murder, though, which America remembers right as the captain withdraws his sword and starts to bang on the wall. Spenser’s dead. Really dead. And if America says he meant to call on a guy who’s now dead—well, this might be a couple centuries before Law and Order, but it’s still suspicious.
“Sir Spenser! Sir Spenser!” the man shouts, then: “He answers not.”
“Probably sleeping. Eth,” America adds helpfully.
He’s kind of the perfect fall guy for whoever’s still inside the house, isn’t he? Or whatever, his brain unhelpfully supplies. The next wave of cold hits hard enough to make him weak in the knees. Really might be time to make a break for it after all.
“Come,” the man barks, and the two guys in back begin not-so-subtly nudging America towards the door. The door America forgot to close all the way. The snow’s falling a little harder now, but not hard enough to fill in the faint outline of his footprints.
“What treachery is this?” the man says, his eyes sparking with the lantern’s dying glow, and America really doesn’t like how his blade shines in the starlight. “A good man’s door forced open, and he himself insensible to the world!”
“Whoa, wait, let’s not jumpeth to conclusions,” America says as quickly as he can, forces the words through his chattering teeth, “it looks like yon door was opened from the inside, dude, look at the tracks in the snow, look at the dang door itself—”
“He speaks true,” says one of the men behind America, but the first guy isn’t having it.
“Ay, thou wouldst make it seem so, wouldst not? Sir Spenser!” he calls again. “Sir Spenser, we have apprehended—”
“Look, this is all a huge huge mistake—”
“Ay, and the mistake is thine, as thou wilt see when we drag thee before Sir Spenser—”
“Trust me you really don’t want to do that—”
“Is there a problem, sirs?”
That’s a new voice, and a much quieter one. America twists around as much as he can to see. A man’s standing a few feet away in the street; America can’t see his face too well from here, but he can make out the dark outline of his cloak, the way he carries himself straight as a pole. He draws closer, and now America sees the moustache framing his lips, the hair thinning on top of his head, the beginnings of a beard growing on his chin. There’s something familiar about that face, but America’s brain is too frozen to place it right.
“Nay, good master—” America’s heckler says, squinting at the newcomer. His eyes widen. “‘Pon my honor, ‘tis you, and an honor it is, sir.”
“Nay, I’ll have none of that,” the man says, smiling faintly. “I but do my office—and you yours, it seems. What business have you with my cousin?”
“Your what?” says the guy, who apparently has the same idea.
“Ay, my cousin,” the man repeats, unfazed. “This is the great Master Braun, an actor of no small renown in his native Bavaria.”
America’s about to protest he looks nothing like Bavaria—he’s not wearing any lederhosen, for one—but his teeth chatter too hard for him to get it out. Which might be for the best, on second thought. “Yeah!” he says at last. “Ich bin ein, uh, Bavarianer.”
“I told him I meant to call on Sir Spenser at twelve,” the man continues, and if the corners of his mouth twitch a little, America’s pretty sure he’s the only one who sees. “Alas, he thought I meant midnight and not noon; they refer to both as ‘twelve’ in Bavaria, as a man of learning like yourself must understand.”
“Ay, Master Shakespeare, I do.”
America does his best not to gawp.
Shakespeare That’s Shakespeare?
His face really is going to freeze like this, and not just because of the cold.
“But what of his dress, if it can be called that?” the man continues.
“A traditional Bavarian costume,” Shakespeare says, and if America didn’t know better, he’d say Shakespeare was trying hard not to crack up. But hey, he’s an actor, that’s why they pay him the big bucks, right? Or the living wage, at least. “Pay it no mind, I pray you.”
“If you will vouch for him,” the man begins, half-smiles at Shakespeare and half-scowls at America.
“Ay, that I will.” Shakespeare steps forward, his cloak swirling, and extends his hand; the man’s eyes light up. “I shall escort Master Braun to his lodgings, and you shall save yourself the trouble of taking him to the Gatehouse.”
“Of course, Master Shakespeare.” America can practically see the guy ooze. It’s pretty gross. He turns to America, and the oozing stops. “And if I catch thee on Kings Street again, sirrah—”
Shakespeare coughs, delicately.
“—if I catch you on Kings Street again, man,” the man says, shoots America the stink-eye. “You may be sure it’s the Gatehouse for you—Newgate, if I can manage it!”
The man swirls his cloak, though he doesn’t nearly do it as well as Shakespeare did, and heads down the nearest alleyway-street until the snow and shadows blot him out. Shakespeare holds his own lantern a little higher, enough to cast light on the muddy street beneath them, even if the flame sputters a lot.
“They really like you around here, huh?” America says, fights the urge to curl up on himself like a hedgehog. God, it’s cold. He’s said it before, he’ll say it again, he’ll keep saying it until it isn’t or until he can think of something else, anything else.
“The man is Jakes,” Shakespeare says. “I know him; he owes Burbage some seven pounds.” America swears Shakespeare’s eyes twinkle, if softly. “And I helped him ease that debt, perhaps, if only by a small amount.”
Ease the debt? Wait. America blinks, America blinks, remembers the way Shakespeare and that officer clasped hands. "Wait a second, did you just bribe a cop?"
"A ‘cop,’ did you say?" Shakespeare asks. America can't see him frown, not really, not in the guttering light from the lantern, but he hears how he hesitates.
"An, um. A constable? An officer of the law? That guy back there. Jakes."
The light flickers again, catches Shakespeare's smile. "Aye, I did."
“Is that legal?”
“It is permitted, when a man must scour the streets for vagrants and receive no pay for it. Come, we must not tarry. I have a writ from Her Majesty that lets me travel the streets past curfew; you do not, I’ll wager.”
“Nope,” America says, though he hopes to hell England’ll get him one. He and Elizabeth were tight, right? Real tight. His stomach kind of knots. Where is that guy, anyway? Way to run off and leave America to fend for himself, seriously. Unless there’s some reason he had to haul out of there—but he’s England, he’s older than Christ, he’s not going to let some—some whatever hurt him. Definitely not. America’s skin’s all wet, but his throat’s awfully dry. “So uh,” he says, changes the subject. “You’re Shakespeare.”
“Sweet?” Shakespeare frowns. “I’ve not had that appended to my name often.”
“No, no. Uh. Sweet means—cool.” Crap, he won’t know that either. “Awesome? Something you approve of?”
“Ah.” Now the soft smile’s back. America likes it. Less showy than what you’d expect from like the greatest writer of all time, but it looks like Shakespeare’s content enough with it and doesn’t want to force it further, and who’s America to argue? “You speak a most strange dialect, sir.”
“I guess so.” America cracks a grin of his own. “You guys sound strange to me.”
“Ay, that we must.” Shakespeare hoists the lantern higher, peers at them as they turn right, off of Kings Street and onto somewhere even darker and narrower, where people have doused the lanterns in their windows. “You’re not from Bavaria, I gather—where, if I might ask?”
Good question. Tricky answer. “I’m—I’m Jones,” he says. “Alfred Jones.” Calling himself America would probably raise a whole lot of questions he’s a little too cold to answer right now, even though he suspects Shakespeare would be a pretty openminded guy about that kind of thing. He wrote about fairies and stuff, didn’t he? Nations can’t be that much weirder. “I’m from, uh. I’m from—Schnittelheim,” he says. It’s the most German thing he can come up with on short notice.
“Schnittelheim,” Shakespeare repeats, stumbles over the consonants, not that America blames him. For all that America talks differently than he does, his accent reminds America less of England and more of, well, America himself. Or some kind of freakish hybrid of the Midwest and Scotland, maybe, it’s all about the flat as and the hard, almost rolling rs. “Where is this Schnittelheim?”
“In Germany,” America says. “Way deep in Germany.”
“I had thought it Swedish, perhaps. Or Danish.”
“We’re pretty close to Denmark!” he says. “And we’ve got a lot of Swedes in the village.”
“The village of Schnittelheim.”
“Yeah. You like the way it sounds?”
Shakespeare doesn’t answer, just breathes in and echoes the word again. “It puts me in mind of clipping and scraping,” he says. “Marvelous qualities to evoke, truly.”
“When one needs a word to clip and scrape, I can think of few better suited for the task.” America’s barely tracking the twists in the streets anymore, the number of times he’s had to dodge a wooden overhang or steer clear of brown sludge or cover his nose when a particularly strong wind blows, uh, the reek of dung his way. That’s the one good thing about the cold, it freezes his nose so he can’t pick up the worst of the smells.
Can England track him through all this, he wonders? London can’t be that big in 1599, so he’s got to run into him sooner or later right?
Wow, the cold really is freezing his brain up. This is a dream. Totally a dream. He’ll see England when he wakes up again, and England’ll probably tsk at him for falling asleep on the couch, and then America’ll throw another pillow at him, and maybe England’ll catch America’s wrist before he can, and if he does that—
Shakespeare coughs again.
Whoa. Serious hypothermia moment there. So much for him not getting that cold. America shakes his head. “Sorry.”
“You—” Shakespeare hesitates; even the lantern light flickers. “You said something, I believe. Forgive my enquiry, if they were not words meant for my ears.”
Crap, did he say that aloud? Yeah, he needs to get inside soon before his thoughts start to dribble out of his ears. Or his mouth. “Just, uh, just wondering why you decided to help me out.”
This hesitation’s even longer than the first. “Sir Spenser summoned me to him,” he says. “He said I should come after the first cockscrow.” He shakes his head slowly, like it’s in a fog. “He said it was of the utmost urgency, and that I should tell no one—you will forgive me if I impose, I hope, but I feel as though I can tell you.”
“Yeah, a lot of people do,” America says. Was that what Find Will Shakespeare meant? Seems a lot more likely than this guy killing anyone, at least. Also, he hopes that wherever Shakespeare’s taking him is close. Really close. “So you want to know what I know?”
It’s Shakespeare’s longest hesitation yet. The guy’s a good liar, America’s seen that; what’s bugging him? “Yes,” he says. “I do. And other things besides, but perhaps they would be best discussed in the morning.”
“The morning. Sure.” Heck, by the morning, he might be awake for real. You can’t fall asleep in a dream, can you?
“I will say, for now, that I was told to.” This smile of Shakespeare’s is the softest America’s ever seen it, not that he has a whole lot to compare it to. “And your manner—reminds me of someone.”
Told to? Does that mean he’s run into England?
“This is where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men lodge, when we have need of it,” Shakespeare says, stands under a sign. It’s too dark to make out the symbol well, but if America squints, he thinks it looks like a hand holding—a bird? Something with wings, anyway. He pushes the door open, and America barely has time to mutter thank you before he bolts past Shakespeare into the—
—well, it’s a little warmer inside, at least. No wind, and there’s a roaring fire going in the corner. America doesn’t push his way there, exactly, but he soaks up as much of the light and heat as he can on his way over. There are four other men sitting around the fire, and they sort of jump when America walks over.
“Hi!” he says. “Alfred Jones. I’m Will’s friend from Schnittelheim.”
Shakespeare—Will—draws closer, too, and in this light America can see him trying not to laugh. “He’s a clown like yourself, master Kemp,” Will says, nods to a muscular man with a grizzled beard.
Kemp snorts, his eyes narrowed. “Couldn’t find my better on these fair shores, could you? Had to scour the Continent for my replacement, have you?”
“Gentlemen,” says the man in the back, standing up, “not tonight.” Everything about him droops: his eyebrows, the wrinkles around his eyes, even his moustache.
“This is Richard Burbage, Master Jones,” Shakespeare murmurs. “The principal tragedian of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”
“Cool,” America says, and Burbage frowns. He’s going to have to stop saying that. “I mean, hi, nice to meet you.”
“Schnittelheim?” asks another man, a thin reedy kind of guy with weedlike blond hair. “A Swedish town, methinks.”
“German, actually,” America says. “But we’ve got a lot of Swedes. We’ve got a lot of everything.”
“Thomas Pope,” Will explains, “and John Heminges, and Augustine Phillips,” nodding to the other two.
“And a fine fair lot we make,” Kemp says, stretches his feet towards the fire. “Zounds, it’s devilish cold.”
“Devilish cold?” the man Will called Heminges asks. “But the devil is hot.”
“Ay, but the devil deceives,” Kemp says, “and tells us we shall face the flames eternal, and laughs when we stagger into his realms and beg him for a bit of brimstone to stave off the cold.”
“Our German companion knows!” Kemp crows, thumps America solidly on the back. Looks like he’s not mad about earlier.
“We were discussing thy Henry, Will,” Burbage says.
“Yes, thy Henry,” Kemp cuts in, “and thy Falstaff; you have spoke not a word of what business you mean to give him, and I promised the Curtain their Sir John again!”
Will’s smile doesn’t vanish so much as it sort of slips away, but either way America’s pretty sure the temperature in the room drops a few degrees.
“By your leave, good friends,” Will says, “I must see Master Jones to his bed. His journey has been a long one. After that, I am yours.”
“Oh,” America mutters as Will ushers him up the steps, “you have no idea.”
DIALECT NOTES! There are going to be a lot of those over the course of this fic. Obviously, I'm not writing this thing in full-out Elizabethan, because I'm not that footnote-crazy, and quite frankly I don't trust myself to. I've tried to keep in a few elements of Elizabethan speech for flavor, though, and I'll explain those here.
First, the pronouns! Elizabethan pronouns are pretty similar to ours, except they had an informal "you" pronoun, thou. (It's like the tu/Usted distinction in Spanish.) You use "thou" for inferiors and people you're close to in informal contexts, and it's a bit rude to thou people you aren't familiar with—so when the guards switch over to using thou with America, they're trying to put him in his place. Thou is declined like so:
Subject: thou. (Thou liest, shag-eared villain!)
Direct/indirect object: thee. (I give thee thanks, or Let me clutch thee.)
Possessive: thy (thy face), or thine before a vowel. (thine eye).
They also had ye for the second-person plural, though there's increasing usage of "you" for both singular AND plural second-person.
Verb endings are mostly the same, except for second- and third-person singular. Let's look at the verb to have:
Thou hast/You have
I'm mostly omitting the –eth/th ending on the third person singular in this fic, because it reads weird to modern eyes, but it might crop up with a few words.
More glossary stuff:
Cousin: close friend (or relative)
God a'mercy: god have mercy.
Most: gets used like the modern intensifier "very."
Office: job, duty.
Sirrah: form of address for commoners of inferior status, or an insult.
Zounds: God's wounds, a strong oath.
A pound, in Elizabethan times, was roughly equivalent to about $500 USD today, which means Jakes owes Burbage about $3500.
Also, Europe was going through a "Little Ice Age" during 1599, so it was damn cold.
Actual Elizabethan accent. (The dropped r's don't really come about until the Hanovers in the eighteenth century.)
You'll note that Falstaff, the character Will Kemp originated (and for whom the part was written), isn't in Henry V. The chapter after the next will help explain why.
Chapter 3: O What a Tangled Web We Weave
In which England fights a zombie and converses with a hunchback.
America shoves England aside, and England’s foot naturally chooses the worst moment to catch on the steps. God knows how he manages to fall backwards, but he doesn’t break his nose, though the back of his head smarts like nothing else. “America?” he gasps, once the blackness before him ceases to swirl.
No response. Has he run off on his own, the damned ingrate? He won’t have gone far; England can’t have blacked out for long, and America knows nothing of this London, and it’s beastly cold outside, and America always has hated the cold. He stands, favouring his other ankle. The fae hover about him, chittering, but withdraw when the next footstep shakes the floor above him.
England breathes out slowly, deliberately, and crawls back up the steps, barely places any weight on them at all. The thing upstairs shows no such caution. Thud, thud, thud—the sound drowns out England’s heartbeat.
He nears the top of the steps, barely pokes his head through the opening for all the good it does. The dark remains thick as ever, and at best England can see shadows, shadows rising and falling and blurring. What he wouldn’t do for a Hand of Glory—what he wouldn’t do for any hint, any knowledge, any chance to prepare for what he’s been thrust into.
Were America here, England reflects, no doubt he’d charge blindly into the darkness. Inwardly, England sighs. He ought to track him down, keep him from sowing the sort of disruption he seems to breed, and find some place for them to recover that isn’t a dead man’s quarters—
The fae shriek in alarm, and something slams into England’s temple.
Again, it’s a miracle he doesn’t fall down the steps. He lands hard on his arse, but if it’ll spare him a concussion, he’ll take it. Groaning, he springs to his feet, rubs his head. Fuck, that blow was harder than he’d have liked, whatever struck him felt strong as America—
—and the thing that struck him seizes him by the neck and hauls him into the air, his legs flailing. He claws into the hand throttling him, slams his knees into every inch of flesh he can reach—so the thing’s human, or shaped like one, the part of his brain not desperately searching for air remarks—but its grip doesn’t waver. Stars explode behind his eyes, but it’s hardly light he can see by—
“Light,” he calls out with what breath he can manage, “Joan the Wad—one of you, damn it—”
The flare strikes him unsuspecting, but the effect’s worse on the creature; it staggers backwards, and England slams his head into the thing’s skull. It hurts him more than it hurts the creature, most likely, but it does groan and drop him, and England scrambles to his feet, the pixie-lights keeping the dark at bay.
Shaped like a man, he’d thought, and he was right: the creature is a man, or rather was. The differences are subtle to the mortal eye, perhaps, but England sees them all. Its grubby flesh hangs from it like too-loose clothing in places, the reek of grave-dirt clings to it, and as the creature advances a worm threads through its eyeball.
“Merlin’s beard,” England breathes. This—this is wrong, this is terribly wrong. He remembers no creatures like this from Elizabeth’s England, no, not even the revenants, and he doesn’t need the fae clamoring at him to sense the wrongness the thing exudes with each step. Each quickening step, England might add. The thing’s apparently sensitive to the light, but it’s regaining its footing, and it lunges for England, who slams into the desk as he dodges. The cup crashes to the floor, and Spenser’s body slumps forward.
England calls on the fae again, draws on their power to cast his wards as swiftly as he can, but the thing punches him in the gut before he can incant the last syllable. Good god, is it learning? Fuck. He gasps, ducks under the next blow only to find himself flattened against the edge of the desk, the thing reaching for him, the smell of death drawing nearer.
Forgive me, he thinks, and seizes Spenser’s chair, shoves it—and Spenser—towards the creature. The chair topples onto it, and it’s pinned by Spenser’s corpse, however briefly—really, it’s almost funny, England could laugh except the thought of it hurts his chest. Before the creature flings Spenser aside, England chants the strongest binding spell he knows, chants so quickly he almost slurs the syllables. It still isn’t fast enough, the pixie-light is fading and the creature has him by the arm and is trying to pry it from its socket—he has no time, he needs to draw on what he has—
He bites his thumb until blood wells, smears it on the creature’s chest, and commands, “My blood is the sea, and the sea calls—”
The creature’s dragged back as though by a tide, and England slumps, barely breathing. What water remains in its body surges and swells until the thing looks ready to burst, its skin stretching thinner and thinner.
“Hold,” England commands; the swelling stops, and the creature doesn’t, can’t move with limbs that distended, but the tide drags at England’s bones now. God, he’ll pay the price for this later. For now, while he can still haul himself upright, he grabs the chair and bashes the thing about the head until it stops twitching, or until his arms stop shaking, or both.
“Bugger,” he says, more raggedly than he’d like. He glances out the window: snow settles on the street, but not a person or Nation is in sight. Sodding hell, he’s going to have to chase after America, isn’t he. That damned—he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and with things as they are, England’s not entirely sure he can’t get himself hurt, even with that strength of his, hurt or worse. No, no, it doesn’t bear thinking about, he can’t get morbid even if there are two fucking corpses in the room.
“Look for him,” he says to some of the fae. “One of you, some of you, all of you—I don’t care, however many of you it takes to canvass this city, I just want him found.”
Perhaps a third of them draw closer to England, show him the glamour they wove to hide his fight from prying eyes. They spin the shadows into four silhouettes: three unremarkable, and one all too familiar.
England tells the lump in his throat to stuff it. No, America wouldn’t let himself get abducted. Silly to even think of it. Utterly, wretchedly silly, America himself would decry it as preposterous.
Oh god, what has he gotten himself into?
England swallows, says, “Find those men, and when you do, inform me immediately.”
They depart, and he surveys the corpse—well, corpses—again. Spenser’s he ought to treat with more dignity than this. Grunting, he hauls the dead man onto his bed, and though he can’t quite get the covers to settle over him properly, he can at least cross his arms over his chest—
He stops, turns Spenser’s wrist over. No, that wasn’t a shadow, there is something on the back of his left hand, a symbol burnt into the flesh. Not long before death, from the looks of it; England may not have France’s intimate acquaintance with death, but he knows its signs well enough. This symbol, though, isn’t familiar to him: a figure with eight points, scored through with lines too fine to make out in the still-dim light.
“Oh, Edmund,” England breathes, “what did you do?”
Or what was done to you, he doesn’t say. But the words linger at the back of his mind, unspoken.
He crouches by the creature’s corpse next; now that it’s dead and not merely undead, its appearance is less remarkable, considering. After the job England did on its head, it’s difficult to make out any of the thing’s salient features, but its hair seems to have a reddish tinge to it, one not entirely due to blood. Its clothes are common, if coarse, and England doubts that the man would have been anything to take notice of in life, but well, he’s made a spectacle of himself in death, hasn’t he.
And the dead aren’t prone to doing that. England rubs his palms over his eyes, summons the fae, and sets to work. He found no geas on Spenser, but someone must have been controlling this creature’s actions, dead men aren’t often found lurking in the apartments of the living—God and the Grail, it is almost funny.
“What magic made you walk?” he says, half to the fae, half to himself. “Old or new, human or not?”
The threads of power surrounding the creature are starting to dissolve, and England snatches at their strands and follows them to the source before they can. Enchantments for strength, yes, he recognises those, woven together with spells to grant the creature a base array of senses, but what’s really remarkable is how they’re all linked: an incantation serves almost as a warp for the other spells, strengthening each and strengthened by them in turn until they create a pattern, one that repeats and repeats. There’s something almost iambic about it, in the order of when the magics peak and when they fall. Yes, it’s deft work. He hasn’t seen craftsmanship like this in centuries. England picks at the spells as delicately as he can until the pattern emerges as a stark phrase in his mind: ius sine clementia.
Justice without mercy.
He should know those words. He doesn’t. Shit. England wipes off what’s left of the blood on his thumb, gets back to his examination. He almost loses himself entirely in the subtleties until the fae tug at his sleeves and hair and point out the geas he’d been looking for, slapped over the beautiful spellwork like a crude overlay. Well, that’s simple enough to unravel.
Lie in wait for Spenser’s guest, it says. When he arrives, kill him.
The temperature in the room plummets, or perhaps only England’s stomach does.
He weaves a glamour to hide the creature as quickly as he can; it ought to hold for days, long enough for him to return and get rid of the body properly later. “See if you can trace those spells to their source,” he tells the deftest among the fae, though at the rate the spells are fading, he hasn’t much hope. Again, he rubs his eyes, massages his temples. He’s chasing too many damned threads, and he’s no idea how any of them are bound together.
Time to visit someone who might, then. And should America return to this house—well. England swallows again. The fae will tell him. Perhaps it’s better America didn’t witness this; doubtless he’d have interrupted England every half-minute to tease him. Besides, the walking dead give him nightmares.
(But if he had been there, if he had seen, and wondered, and closed his eyes and truly listened for the fae—England can see his smile shift from astonished to delighted, almost as though America were there before him—)
He ought to go. The second cocks crow is almost upon him, and god help him if he’s caught here then.
It’s only as he creeps down the stairs, carrying Spenser’s pewter cup and muttering Spenser’s verses, that he recalls the origin of that phrase; he nearly drops the cup, but catches himself in time.
Justice without mercy.
“His name was Talus, made of iron mould,” England recites, “immoveable, restless, without end.”
The creature was flesh and not iron, but its similarities to Artegall’s metal servant in The Faerie Queene are—striking, if perverse. But why in god’s name would Spenser weave a spell that led to his own destruction?
“This is Frankenstinian,” England says, “and it sodding well isn’t period-appropriate.”
The hour at which England calls upon Sir Robert Cecil is indecent by any century’s standards, even the twentieth’s. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s secretary of state sleeps lightly, if at all.
“I do wish you would use the door,” Cecil says as England climbs through the window. “The draught is dreadful.”
“My apologies; I had not the time.”
Cecil grunts, makes an effort to climb out of bed. England bids him sit, his twisted back propped against the headboard for support—my pygmy, Bess used to call him, though England has never met a pygmy, he imagines they would look much like Sir Robert: stooped, hunchbacked, stout. But Greece’s pygmies are said to be right fair and gentle, and one doesn’t become England’s spymaster by being gentle, even if the position is inherited. “What business is it that calls you at this hour?” Cecil asks.
“Thou needst not address me so,” England says. “Thou knowest me well, I should think.”
“‘Tis my office, good Nation,” says Cecil, inclining his head. “Thy dress is strange.”
He laughs, briefly. “Wouldst not believe me if I told thee why I was attired so.”
“Would I not? I have seen many a strange sight.”
“And art about to see stranger, I shouldn’t wonder,” England says, takes his seat at last in Cecil’s chair. The speech is coming back to him readily enough; he wonders how America’s faring with it, if America’s had to speak with anyone since he fled.
All right, he supposes he can crack a smile at that thought.
“What news does my Nation have for me?” Cecil asks. The man’s awake now, and from the way his eyes dart England imagines he’s cataloguing what he sees, sorting through the details of this visit and England’s dress and god knows what else and filing them away for future reference. No doubt his father would be proud, were he here.
“What news I have I will share,” England says. “But I require news of thee first. And a blanket, if thou canst spare one.”
“Whatever my Nation requires.” The set of Cecil’s mouth can’t quite be called a smile. He gestures to the trunk at the foot of his bed, which England sets to opening at once. His fingers have stiffened far too much from the cold already. “I am but his servant.”
“Shows of humility suit thee ill,” England says, snorting, and draws out the warmest-looking blanket of all of them, drapes it about his shoulders like a cloak. “Thou knowest me well, aye, and just as well do I know thee.” Hell, he might well know Cecil better than he knows himself, as he’s privileged to know several things about him that Cecil himself won’t discover for a few years. (Perhaps he really ought to have a word with the man about the Gunpowder Plot—but no, there’s time for that later, if at all.)
“Then thou knowest I am thy servant.”
He laughs. “Robert Cecil,” he says, “I know I can trust thee as far as I can throw thee.”
For a moment he wonders if Cecil even knows the meaning of that expression—his eyes narrow, his mouth twisting smaller, but then he too bursts out laughing. “Ay, and thine arm is weaker than even mine.”
“My arm is not weaker than thine.” England crosses them, flexing the muscle just enough. “When didst thou last draw a bloody longbow?” He might not have America’s strength, but—
America. England casts an anxious look out the window, wraps the blanket tighter ‘round his shoulders. The fae did promise to send word when they found him, but few of them like to accompany England into Cecil’s house; it reeks of iron, they tell him, iron and leather and other things crafted by men. Perhaps one of the fae found America, but fears to come in. Well, he oughtn’t tarry long, then. Doubtless Cecil will want his sleep.
“I yield,” Cecil says, holds his hands high, his smile not entirely gone. He ought to do it more often; it doesn’t make him handsome, precisely, but it enlivens his face. “Truly, thou givest me more trust than some.”
Considering how far I could throw you, yes, I suppose it’s nothing to sneeze at, England thinks, but doesn’t say. There are jests, and then there’s cruelty. “I trust thee to be what thou art.”
“And what is that? Nay,” he says, forestalling England, “needst not tell me, I have it from her Majesty and Essex oft enough, my Nation need not join in.”
“Her Majesty and Essex are speaking again?” England asks, tries to recall his own history. This is January of 1599; they’ll have been quarreling recently, though it’s hardly a new state of affairs for them. Again, England sighs. He did warn Bess that young men were not nearly so biddable as she thought them, but they’re all young men now, aren’t they? Leicester, Walsingham, Warwick, Hatton: all dead now, and what have they left behind?
“Ay, of a sort,” Cecil says, and doesn’t mask the note of smugness in his voice. England doesn’t begrudge him it. “He will not apologize for turning his back to her and reaching for his sword, she will not apologize for laying hands on him, but he is returned to court, and she has named him lord lieutenant of Ireland.”
“This does not displease thee.”
“The appointment is doomed,” Cecil says. “The Irish posting is poison, and all the court knows it. And it will keep that impertinent lout from Her Majesty’s side.”
“Ay, it will,” England agrees. “And it’s an ill-favored post, I’ll not argue with that.” Certainly not after knowing where the post leads Essex: to the Tower of London, and the chopping-block.
“And a venture bound to break our banks. We cannot sustain all these wars, my Nation—war with Spain’s merchants, war in the Low Countries—”
“And war with my sister,” England finishes. “I know, Cecil.”
“Had we made peace with Spain before the rout at Blackwater—” Cecil shakes his head, and his hunched shoulders lower. “My father did try.”
“He tried valiantly.”
“Ay, and died in the midst of the trying, only for Essex to take my father’s place by her Majesty’s ear.”
“She listens to thee,” England says, resists the urge to rub his eyes. Oh, what a tangled web is woven here; he navigated it all once, knew the steps to the careful dance Bess played with her court and with the Continent, laughed with her as she withheld and redirected and teased, made thousands of promises that promised nothing. But those days were centuries ago—or were, at any rate, before something dragged him back. And if he is as out of practise as he suspects, he’s buggered.
And America with him. He steals another glance out the window. How long does it take the fae to search a city, even one London’s size? It isn’t as though America’s any good at not drawing attention to himself.
Cecil snorts, scratches his back, winces as the wind beats itself against the window (now closed, thankfully). “Ay, when it suits her. Jesu, hast thou ever met such a woman?”
“Nay.” Nor shall he again. He tears his gaze from the window. “But she is more than woman.”
Cecil makes a dry bureaucratic sound, almost an ah. “Thou hast read Spenser’s poem, then?”
“Of Gloriana?” England would smile, but he can’t remember Spenser’s verses without seeing that black mark seared onto the back of his hand. “Ay. ‘Twas Spenser I came to thee about.”
Cecil glances at his desk, not at the papers scattered atop it but at the drawer on the top right, the one with a false bottom where he keeps the bulk of his correspondences. “He has fallen out of favor with Essex, it seems, or Essex with him. He takes a room on Kings Street and sends letters to his friends at court, seeking loans—but none to Essex, and Essex has sent him nothing.”
“‘Twould do Spenser little good, were he to send it now,” England says. “Spenser is dead.”
“Merciful heavens,” Cecil breathes, and what little colour there is in his face drains from it. “When?”
“Just this night.”
Murder most foul certainly hasn’t crept into the vernacular yet, so England leaves it at, “Murder.”
“Thou art certain of it?”
“Ay,” he says. “I smelt the poison in the cup, and he told me as much with his dying breath.”
“Did he name his killer?”
England shakes his head. “He said only to find Will Shakespeare.”
“Ay, the playmaker. Thy father’s playmaker,” England says, and before Cecil’s eyes can narrow any further, adds, “and he is not the murderer.”
“Were I to die, I would name the man who killed me,” Cecil says, strokes his chin in thought. “And the playmakers are a violent lot.”
“Not all of them—”
“Gabriel Spencer?” Cecil cuts in.
“The man came at him with a candlestick; it was self-defence.”
“And Ben Jonson slew him in self-defence?”
“Ben Jonson is, perhaps, too fond of dueling,” England admits through gritted teeth.
Cecil’s face is at its most placid, which still isn’t very placid at all, not with how his eyes glitter, not with the edge of his nose gleaming sharp in the starlight. “To say nothing of Christopher Marlowe.”
—England stands and slams Cecil’s chair to the side, his knuckles trembling around the wood. “You will do me the courtesy of leaving him be,” he says, emphasizes the you.
“Would that he had done the same—”
“I said enough!” England shouts, and the glass rings with the force of it. Even the fae shrink back, and England’s glare keeps them at bay until the pounding of his heart slows to something manageable. Fuck. He runs his fingers through his hair, looks askance. This has been a fucking awful day, he decides, so fucking awful that he can’t think of a word strong enough to describe it. Well, if he runs into Will, he’ll ask for his help on that.
Kit’s been dead for four hundred six years, you, he reminds himself. Or six, now, but the result’s the same, isn’t it?
“I will never understand your fondness for the theatres,” Cecil says, shifting into the same mode of speech England adopted, and draws his blankets closer to his chin.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” England mutters, “you’re a Puritan.”
“Pay it no mind.”
“My Nation,” Cecil says, a bit stiffly.
“I want your men to search for Spenser’s murderer,” he says, hesitates. “Yours, and Dee’s.”
Cecil blanches; it’s visible even in the silver of the starlight, tinges even his beard ashen. “Dee, my Nation?”
“A mark was burnt on the back of Spenser’s hand,” England says, grimly, “and I was attacked by something that ought to have lain dead.”
England only catches half of the oaths Cecil mutters under his breath, but he’s impressed to see Cecil blaspheme so well. Why, he didn’t know the man had it in him. “A goat, Cecil?”
“Never mind the goat,” Cecil says, jerks his hand to the side as though to brush the matter away, “this is a matter of—”
“I like not what that portends.” Cecil’s fingers curl tighter around the coverlet.
“Nor I, Cecil. Nor I.”
Something tugs at the nape of his neck; England clasps his hand to his hair and pulls a pixie away. She chitters at him, too quickly at first, but once England bids her to slow her speech, he makes out her message.
“It appears I’ve found Will Shakespeare,” he says, just as the cock crows for the third time. Dawn will be breaking soon. Cecil draws his eyebrows together, but says nothing. He’s been privy to such conversations before, he knows how they work. “I will see what part he plays in this. Thank you,” he tells the pixie, “and search for a young man—well, not a man, you know what I—hm?”
“I asked if the magics you saw were familiar to you,” Cecil says.
God, England’s tired, everything makes him want to laugh. The pixie still tugs at his sleeve; he bids her leave for the moment, doubtless he'll have a chance to learn more from her later. “Cecil, this is all most strange and most familiar all at once. Wouldst thou like to know a secret?”
“I am always in the market for new ones,” he admits.
“I’m dressed as I am because I am most strange and most familiar. I come from the future. Thy future,” he continues, and perhaps he’s only confessing this because it’s been centuries since he’s seen Cecil start at anything, but the start he gives is one of the best England’s seen. “I am thy Nation, four hundred years hence.”
“I have never known thee to jest so, my Nation,” Cecil says, as though the words themselves feel strange on his tongue.
“It’s no jest.”
“Then why tell me this?”
“Because if thou speakst of it to anyone, they will think thee mad,” England says quite conversationally. “And to illustrate something, perhaps. I have what I was within me still. I am the Nation you know, and other things beside.” Which would explain why he hasn’t encountered a second version of himself, come to think of it.
“Ay,” Cecil says, his brow still knotted.
“Thy father, likewise, is with thee still—but thou wilt be other things beside him.”
At last, Cecil’s brow softens. “An almost pagan sentiment, my Nation.”
“Oh, it is.”
Judging from the shouts swelling behind the tavern doors, Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men are either rehearsing or arguing. Knowing what England does of actors, he suspects both. Terrible etiquette to interrupt a rehearsal, but he does so regardless, seizes the door’s handle with both hands and heaves it over.
“Sir Kirkland!” Thomas Pope cries, spotting him.
England smiles. “Well met, Master Pope.”
Even Kemp rises from the table, script in one hand, ale in the other. “Welcome, Sir Kirkland!”
“Wait. Sir Kirkland?” America says, spinning around on the bench—
“You!” England shouts.
“Master Jones?” asks Kemp, thumps America on the back to stop him from choking on whatever he’s shoved in his fool mouth.
“Master Jones?” England echoes, the colour rising in his cheeks. Is this the fae's idea of a joke?
Well. Yes, most likely. Damned little buggers.
“Sir Kirkland?” America sputters, attempting to roll his eyes and hack up something at the same time, which fails spectacularly.
Augustine Phillips clears his throat. “Sir Kirkland?”
England gestures violently to America, means to say what the fucking hell is he doing here? but all he manages is, “Master Jones!”
“Master Jones?” Phillips repeats, frowning.
“Yes! Master Jones!”
“I daresay,” says Will Shakespeare, descending the steps and trying desperately not to laugh from the way the corners of his mouth twitch, “that explanations are in order.”
See Chapter One for dialect notes.
Robert Cecil was kind of a dick, but he was good at his job. He took over the position of secretary of state from his father, Lord Burghley, and the position of spymaster from Sir Francis Walsingham, and was Elizabeth's foremost advisor in the last years of her reign. He was also small and hunchbacked, so he didn't quite get the same respect his father got. He and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex really didn't get along. At all. They both vied for the queen's favor, and Bess liked to play them off each other when she could. At the time of the fic, she and Essex were on decidedly cool terms because Essex was a lot less willing to defer to her authority than her other favorites had been, and you can imagine how well she took that.
Also, there's this war with Ireland going on, and it's not going too well. Elizabeth is about to send Essex there as her lord deputy, and Essex is—well, you'll find out more about Ireland soon
And Ben Jonson killed a dude. Actors really were violent back then. Didn't help that most of them knew how to fence and liked to drink.
Chapter 5: Making New When Old Are Gone
The week passes, if not uneventfully, then at least without incursion from the undead. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men put America through his paces, and England catches him muttering Bottom’s lines under his bed at breakfast, humming snatches of that song on the stairs, going over the chancier blocking when they venture onto the streets.
“So if that cart’s the stage left boundary, and the man with the cane is stage right—crap, no, he just moved, he can’t be stage right.”
“Might I suggest you rehearse somewhere with fixed dimensions? Somewhere with a fireplace, perhaps?” England asks through chattering teeth as Fulke Greville’s servant informs them that her master is dining with Sir Christopher Blount (and of course she knows nothing of her master’s correspondence, what sort of girl does England take her for?).
“Just keeping myself busy. How about you?”
“I’m trying to,” England says, “but it feels an awful lot like busywork. None of Spenser’s other contacts seem to have any idea what befell him after he left Ireland, and they all claim they never received any letters. Even if they’re lying, they might not be lying for any reason helpful to us. Dee’s still the best lead we have, and Cecil says he won’t return to Richmond until the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s performance.”
“Right,” America says, “so we’re killing time until then. Well, you are.” He glances down at his shoes and walks forward at the strangest angle.
“America, are you trying to tap-dance?”
“Oh! Uh. No. No, it’s this—I’m trying to do the shoe-flappy-thing.”
“The shoe-flappy-thing,” England says, perfectly straightfaced.
“Uh-huh. The shoe-flappy-thing. It’s supposed to sound really good onstage.”
“America, you’re performing in a hall. The floor isn’t hollow. It won’t resound the same way.”
“—hey, maybe it’ll sound good there, too. Resound. Whatever.”
Well, if it keeps him warm, England supposes.
He’s somewhat less sanguine about America barging into the room they share at the Bird-in-Hand and bellowing, “Thus die I, thus, thus, thus. Now am I dead, now am I fled!” While England is trying to scry, no less. The bowl nearly upends itself.
“America,” England says for what must be the tenth time this evening, “I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Sorry,” America says, holds up his hands. “I’ll let you get back to—uh. Staring into your bowl.”
“It’s called scrying.”
“It’s a kind of magic.” America opens his mouth, some quip no doubt at the ready, but England barrels on. “You asked what it was, I’m explaining, and as you’ve yet to form a reasonable hypothesis—”
“Aliens,” America says, his expression so perfectly straight that England can’t tell whether or not he’s joking. “An advanced alien simulation. Kind of like the Matrix, but without the part about machines using us as giant batteries. Maybe it’s a test.”
England doesn’t dispute the last. “A more scientific version of ‘this is all a dream’. I see.”
“More like a waking fully-sensory hallucination.”
“Exactly,” America says, then frowns. “Hey.”
England glances into the bowl again, now that the water’s stilled. The light ripples over the surface; he strains to see a recognisable silhouette in any of the dancing patterns, but none appears.
“It’s a type of divination,” he explains. “You bespell some clear substance—glass, crystal, I prefer water—and wait for images to take shape in it.”
“So like crystal balls?” America raises his eyebrow and perches on the bed, his legs swinging. “Telling the future.”
England laughs sourly. “Seeing the future is next to impossible. As none of it’s happened yet, you see all that could happen. All. Though some images pop up more frequently than others—the more probable futures, generally. Still there are enough of those that I don’t recommend it.” The corner of his mouth twitches, as do the ribbons of light streaking the water. “It requires a good deal of patience, for one.”
“Right, that,” America says almost airily, and flops backwards onto the bed. “So Miss Cleo’s not gonna have any competition for a while, huh?”
England refrains from telling America precisely what he thinks of the incoherent muddle of misunderstood philosophy and sanitized ritual characteristic of America’s so-called psychics. Instead, he snorts. “As she hasn’t yet been born, no. And no, I haven’t scried anything of use. I’ve barely glimpsed anything at all.”
America forgets to be properly skeptical and asks, “Nothing? Really?”
“Nothing.” England pushes the bowl aside, massages his temples for all the good it does. “I suppose it hangs on Richmond, now.”
His queen didn’t always favour Richmond. Mary imprisoned her there in the early years of her reign, but once Bess was on the throne she reconciled with the palace and even warmed to it as the years wore on. England is glad she did; her warm winter box is a sight to behold now, and as he glimpses the onion-capped towers rise behind the gatehouse, his heart leaps into his throat. Yes, this, this is as he remembers it: the strange almost-harmony of the gold-and-azure weathervanes, the grand sprawl of the outer courtyard, the fair gardens of the inner where he and Bess rested after a stag hunt, or stole a moment away from her throngs of courtiers, or kissed behind the blossoming hedges. He drums his fingers on his thigh, and only the cold outside the carriage keeps him from yanking the reins from the driver and whipping the horses towards the Great Hall.
“Are we there yet?” America asks for the tenth or eleventh time. England shushes him.
He ought to wish the players luck—or ill, rather—before he leaves, but when the door to the carriage opens he tears out of it without a word. The doors to the great hall seem to open of their own accord, welcoming him in once more. Truly, this sight is as welcome as the last. His great kings survey the space, robed in gold, and though they’re only images they have a steadier grip on their swords than most of the nobles milling about. He doesn’t see Bess in their number, and he’s certain he would were she about. She doesn’t like him to miss her, for one.
“Whoa,” America says from behind him, softer than what England’s used to. “Wow.”
“It’s a lovely palace,” England says, can’t help but smirk. “And one of her smaller ones, at that. You ought to see Nonsuch.”
“It’s pretty. Am I going to have to perform with all those kings glaring at me, though?” America wanders over to Henry V and grins, eyes the image up and down. “Not the happiest guys around, huh? I see where you perfected the stiff upper lip.”
“They’re readying themselves for war, they aren’t supposed to look happy. You, on the other hand, ought to be readying yourself to perform.”
He shrugs, rolls his shoulders back, that insolent grin unwavering. “Hey, it’s not like I find myself in an actual palace all the time, you know? Just taking in the sights.”
“I wouldn’t’ve thought you’d care for palaces.” England’s smirk softens; he scans the crowd briefly, but sees no sign of his queen. “No gods, no kings, as I recall.”
“She’s not my queen, she’s yours,” America begins, but Will approaches him from behind and coughs, cutting him off.
“Thou’rt requested by the rest of thy troop, Master Jones,” he says, “and hast thou seen Heminges’s beard?”
“Uh, nay,” America says, scratches his chin. “Did he check with the rest of the props?”
“It ought to be stored with the costumes.” Will frowns. “Ah, well. ‘Tis of little enough consequence; they will know him for who he is by what he does, not by the beard he wears.”
“At least he gets a beard,” America grumbles. “I wanted a beard.”
Will laughs, his hand resting at the small of America’s back as though to steer him. “Thou hast an ass’s head—a more marvelous sight by far, truly.”
“What, no joke?” America asks, grinning at England.
“Too easy. It isn’t sporting.”
“Yeah, yeah. Hey.” America’s grin wavers. “Keep an eye out for me, okay?”
“I doubt I’ll miss you,” England says, but adds, as is the tradition, “Break a leg.”
“Aw, you do care.”
“I care about you maintaining the integrity of my stage.”
“I thought it was a hall.”
Will laughs. England shoots him a glare. Whose side is he on? “Well, he’s as insufferable as any clown I’ve ever met.”
“Then thou must not have known Kemp well,” Will says, almost with a twinkle in his eye. “Come, Master Jones, we shall see thee outfitted.”
England is seated before Bess arrives. “Her Majesty!” the man next to him says, and the audience rises at one, only to bow again as Bess takes her gilded chair at the center of the audience, several rows left and back from where England sits. Even twisting his neck around he can’t see her properly, as the rather full ruff of the man behind him blocks his view. He should run to her now—no, Will’s onstage to deliver the prologue, and England oughtn’t detract from the performance, Will doesn’t deserve that.
Well, he’ll have time after the play to see Bess. He hasn’t seen her for four centuries, surely a few hours is nothing. Surely he has some reserves of patience left. He’s not America, for Christ’s sake.
He can’t recall much of the first scene at all. America’s debut on the Elizabethan stage comes in the next scene, and the thought’s somewhat distracting. Fuck, does he know what half of those words mean? Presumably he had the sense to ask Will, and presumably Will told him. After all, what better authority on Shakespeare than Shakespeare?
England also prays America said nothing of Freud. Or Harold Bloom.
The rude mechanicals enter, and he only half-hears Quince say, “Is all our company here?” He expects he’s anticipating the next line at least as much as America is.
America taps Quince on the shoulder. “You were best to call them generally, man by man, according to the scrip.”
England releases the breath he didn’t know he was holding. He supposes he needn’t doubt America’s ability to play director, or to interfere with someone else’s production. Hell, he barely lets any of the other rude mechanicals get out their lines before he cuts in, bursting with suggestions. But the play’s written that way, England reminds himself, and the audience seems to respond well to the pace he’s setting.
“Let me play the lion, too!” America calls, bounces up and down on the tips of his toes and waves his hand in the air like a schoolboy. “I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me; I will roar, that I will make the duke say 'Let him roar again, let him roar again.”
It reminds England so much of America at world meetings, squirming in his seat and straining to catch Germany’s attention so he can unveil his latest plan, that England can’t help but laugh. The rest of the audience joins him in chuckling, but they do so fondly, as though they’re delighting in something their own child did.
No. Not a child. America might be clean-shaven and beaming—fresh-faced, even—and he might look absurdly pleased with himself, but he doesn’t carry himself like a child. His chest is open and proud, and there’s an easy swagger in his step when he strides over to Quince and declares, “I will undertake it,” but he doesn’t swell on the line the way a child would—or the way Kemp would, for that matter. It’s—
He coughs. It’s insufferable, that’s what it is. Insufferable, and he certainly shouldn’t think on it any further, even if the audience cheers wildly at the close of the scene. England half-expects America to wink at the audience as he leaves, but he refrains. Well. Perhaps he’s learnt some restraint after all.
“They do not keep their clown onstage ‘twixt the scenes?” the man to England’s left asks.
“Nay. Perhaps it is some German innovation,” a lady suggests.
“I never knew the Germans to have clowns,” someone behind him says. “This fellow, what do they call him?”
“A Master Jones,” says the lady.
“Well,” says the first gentleman, “perhaps this Master Jones has some delights yet unseen in store.”
That’s one way of putting it, England thinks.
Two scenes from now until America’s next appearance, and England drums his fingers on his thigh as the lovers chase each other about the forest and Oberon and Titania quarrel. England rather likes the boy-apprentices they’ve brought in to replace Condell and Heminges; they aren’t so insipid as some of the other boys who play the women’s parts. Daft, still, the lot of them, wandering in circles ‘round nonexistent trees and making sheep’s eyes at each other. For all the talk about the flush and vigour of love, England rather suspects being in love catches people at their worst.
That, or the players are playing the idea of being in love rather than the thing itself. He says as much to the gentleman on his left, which proves to be a mistake, as the fellow nods solemnly and replies with a few verses of some of the most godawful poetry England’s had the displeasure of hearing. No surprise to hear the man wrote it himself.
One more speech until America appears again. England does wish they’d clear the playing area faster—ah, there he is, and about to transform into an ass.
He also makes a truly awful Pyramus, but that’s the point. “Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,” he booms, and tries to make the points of his shoes flap against the ground in that distinctive stage-walk. He stumbles, falls, and England jumps in his seat—fuck, at that angle he’ll break his nose unless he’s planned out this fall in advance but England honestly can’t tell—
Thankfully, America recovers, and England sinks back into his chair. The rest of the audience seems to be settling back into their seats, which makes England wonder if it wasn’t a pratfall after all. God knows the court’s seen enough of those onstage, and wouldn’t rouse to this one.
Then again, it’s the stage. What’s real, whatever that means, is secondary to what’s believed.
Of course. Of course. England could slap himself for having missed it. That little upstart, he’s introducing representational theatre a few centuries early, isn’t he. It’s all your fault, England informs the fae, and wishes he could keep a straight face while doing so. You brought him along. Next thing you know we’ll have cinematic realism and you’ll all long for the days when actors didn’t mumble their lines.
America runs back onstage, ass’s head in place. The other players shout and run circles around him, occasionally knocking into each other in the process. America blunders after them, shouting, “I see their knavery! This is to make an ass of me,” and at the note of profound indignation in his voice England has to laugh.
“But I will not stir from this place, do what I can,” America says, pulls himself up from his deflated posture and squares his shoulders again. “I will walk up and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear I am not afraid.”
Or rap, as the case may be, if England recalls what Will told him. Oh, fuck. England covers his eyes, half-waits for America to begin beatboxing.
America’s voice is—well, England hasn’t had occasion to hear it that often, come to think of it. He hums and whistles, and England’s heard him teach snippets of off-colour ballads to his troops before, but he doesn’t often try to sing in England’s presence. And he’s trying now, in a strong clear baritone. “The ousel cock so black of hue, with orange-tawny bill…”
It isn’t a beautiful voice, precisely, but he’s playing Bottom, it oughtn’t be one. Besides, the ass’s head muffles enough of the sound. England shakes his head. It’s America; England would expect him to go for the joke with his usual degree of subtlety, but he lets the image do most of the work.
America, of all Nations, is letting Will’s words speak for themselves. Of all things. England covers his mouth, leans forward.
“Whose note full many a man doth mark, and dares not answer nay—”
The last note hangs almost sweetly in the air, and a lady behind England sighs.
The epilogue concludes, the audience applauds, and England can finally look for Bess again. Bess’s courtiers have the same idea, though, and surround her at all sides. England attempts to dive into the crowd, but the bodies are too thickly packed for him to force his way through, and by the time they all clear, Bess is gone.
Will, however, remains, and the crowd advances on him and the other emerging players next. England beats the rush this time.
“Well, Master Shakespeare?” he asks, low enough that the throngs advancing on the players don’t overhear. “Art satisfied with thy Bottom?”
“Ay,” Will says; he doesn’t beam as America does, but his smile’s no less radiant for it. “I do think he made them believe.”
“He does that,” England says, even more quietly.
“I do what?”
—sweet buggering Christ, America has to stop giving him turns like this. “There is no end to what you do, Am—Master Jones.”
“So I did good, huh?” he asks, fumbling with the seams of his pants as though he’s looking for pockets there to shove his hands into.
“You did well,” England can’t help but correct. “Anachronistically well, I might admit, I don’t know what the rest of the audience—”
“Ah, our German clown!”
“Who, me?” America says, but doesn’t have time for much else before a knot of admirers descends on him, too, peppering him with questions about his hometown and his accent and—England didn’t catch that last, but he’s fairly sure it’s inappropriate.
“I’ll leave you to your admirers,” he says, claps America on the arm. “I must to my queen.”
“We’ll be outside the gatehouse, there’s a kind of inn there,” America says, “and—whoa, hey, carefuleth with that, fair ladies—”
Shadows wreath the hall to Bess’s chambers, shadows England cannot banish with his candle alone. Easy in this shifting light to imagine some of them whispering to him, passing on palace gossip and state secrets. In trying to make some sense of the whispers and give them substance, though, he chases them away.
He rubs his forehead. There are times, even in this age, when it really is just the wind.
“—will not stand for it!”
That, however, most certainly wasn’t.
“Do you presume, sir, to command me?”
And that was Bess. England jogs to her door as quietly as he can, taking care not to spill the candle, and presses his ear to it.
“I do not command—” The other voice is male and young. Most human voices sound young to England these days, granted, but this voice in particular smacks of it no matter how deep the man’s voice gets.
“Yet you persist in defying me. Are you more fit to command than I, then?”
“What, would you lead our troops to tame the wilds of Eire? Nay, you shall stay here—stay, and surround yourself with capering fools and a goatish dissembling pygmy while you cast those who would see England prosper from your graces!”
Essex, England realises. Of course she’s arguing with Essex. She always argues with Essex. This one’s heating quicker than most of the ones he recalls, though, and he wonders if Essex is about to find himself banished again.
“England would prosper more readily,” Bess says dryly, “if you would repay the ten thousand pounds you owe him.”
A pause, then: “That, I owe to you, and not to my Nation.”
“Do you suggest I am not wedded to my country’s interest?”
Wedded to more than that, England thinks, but dares not speak. He daren’t do much in the way of breathing, either, come to think of it.
After an even lengthier silence, the man says, “I suggest it is in your interest, and your Nation’s, to recall what is owed me if this venture is to succeed: an army that can rout the Irish rabble and force their lords to heel.”
“And have I not sent out the muster?”
A snort. “Ay, for men too poor to bribe the officers, or to pay another in their stead. If we but had a true army—”
“One I should entrust to you, aye, to do as you will?”
“If you shall not provide one, Majesty,” Essex nearly snarls, “I shall find one—ay, and one more suited to the occasion than the ragged band of greybeards your muster yields.”
The door slams open, and Essex storms out. England pulls his cloak over his head before Essex can glimpse his face; Essex seems not to note him at all, and nearly knocks England into the wall in his haste to leave, his boots rapping smartly against the floor.
England’s candle gutters and dies. He sets it down and steps inside.
It’s profoundly disingenuous to say Bess looks as he remembers her. He remembers her in so many ways, after all. As a girl, her hair unbound and tangled; as a young woman, her face painted porcelain-white; after the smallpox struck, when she hid the marks under more layers of makeup. But she was Bess through it all and she’s Bess now, and the sight of her before him is more perfect than any portrait could be.
Even if her hands cover her face, her fingers trembling on her temples.
England says nothing.
She lowers them, finally, and smiles at him. “My Nation,” she says, and her voice, at least, holds steady.
His doesn’t. “My wife.” He kneels before her, takes her hand in his—god, it has been centuries since he touched her last, and he fights not to seize her by the wrist and kiss every inch of her hand, settles instead for touching his lips to her knuckles.
“Thou’rt gallant as ever,” she says, but doesn’t withdraw her hand, and England is grateful for it.
“I do not often hear myself called such,” he murmurs into her fingers.
“Few others see thee as I do.”
“Ay, and I could say the same.” He presses the back of her hand to his cheek; her skin’s worn so thin now, like faded parchment.
“Thou couldst,” she agrees, spares a glance at the door. “Thou seest me in a light most becoming; my courtiers would cast me in twilight, which flatters me not. Tell me, husband, whose sight am I to trust, when I receive such different reports?”
“Thy nation’s, good wife, for when thy statesmen behold thee in twilight, they miss much which the day makes clear.”
“And yet it is night now,” she says, her smile stretched, “and thou seest me true, or such is thy claim. Dost recall the lines from our entertainment earlier? Love sees not with the eyes—”
“—but with the mind,” he finishes. “I am no Cupid, wife.”
Her lips twitch, though England isn’t privy to the joke. “Thou knowst the play well.”
“The argument is old.”
“And we who are old know it.” She cups his cheek before he can protest, her thumb soft over his lips. England closes his eyes, perhaps to test that earlier hypothesis. He can fashion an image of her well enough in his mind, the red of her hair and the white of everything else, cuffs and ruff and skin, but surely his eyes do him better service than his imagination now that she’s before him again, before him and real and—well, thinner than he’d like. “Ay,” she says, and when England opens his eyes her smile cracks, “I will say old here.”
And hang any man for slander who says as much, he thinks, but she knows it as well as he, and there’s a difference between honesty and cruelty. “Do the bard’s words still trouble thee?”
“That? Ay, I suppose. It was deftly done. Ah, the things that man fashions from words: rebuilds old Athens for our pleasure, conjures spirits to inhabit it, puts himself in the mouths of God and kings alike.” England again tilts his head towards her face as though to bathe in what it reflects, and she snorts. “Men have been hanged for less.”
The pit of England’s stomach stirs. “Sorcery, lady, or treason?”
“Why, they are the same. Thy playmakers proved it, or ‘twas proved against them.”
Despite the restless motion, his stomach chills with sickening speed. “My queen, we have spoke oft of this—”
“Ay, and perhaps they have ensorcelled you,” she says. Age has not weathered her edge; England ought to have remembered that. “Thou’rt fond of the man William Shakespeare, art thou not?”
Good god, what did Essex say to her? “Ay, my wife,” he says, wary, but there’s little use in denying as much.
“Does he speak for thee now?”
“No!” bursts out before he can think otherwise, but now he must amend it: “Not quite—in part. It’s damnably complex.”
Bess’s lips are nearly as white as the rest of her face.
“My wife,” he says, “why do we argue?”
“I know not,” she says. “Only that I saw thee enter my chambers, and as thou knelt before me I trembled, because I knew thee not.”
“Oh,” England says. His throat tightens too much for anything else.
“I am jealous, husband, I admit, when I think of another knowing thee so well, and I—” She sighs, releases his face, lets her hands fall to her lap. Bess would never slump on a bed; queenly carriage is, if not in her blood, in her bones by now, but her shoulders slip down all the same. “And I at such a remove from thee, that I no longer know thy heart.”
“My heart is thine,” England says, moves to sit on the bed beside her and clutches her hand, presses it to his chest. “As much thine as ever it has been.”
“Then thou’rt the country I wed?”
He hesitates. “I have striven to be so.”
“Striven,” she echoes, her fingers tracing the slit in his shirt. They brush his collarbone, tug the cloth back, and she thumbs the thick white scar there. “Yet this is unfamiliar to me.”
“Shrapnel,” he says, tries not to flinch, and at her questioning look: “It’s a type of explosive—it was a long time ago.” Or well into the future, rather, as the trenches of the Somme are still some three centuries distant. God, there’s a thought.
Bess says nothing, but her fingers tighten.
“My aspect is changed,” he says slowly, works it out for himself as much as for her. He’s half-tempted to call for Will; Will would know the words for this better than he, if there are words for this at all. “And I have seen—I have gained much, my wife, and lost more. But always, always I have tried to be—” Fuck, he’s getting this all muddled, and the burn spreading from his throat to his chest isn’t helping matters. “I have tried to be—”
Still, she says nothing.
“I have tried to be a Nation you would be proud of,” he says at last. “And that is why I say my heart is thine.”
At last, she nods. “How many years gone?” she asks, and England doesn’t need her to clarify.
“Four hundred, almost to the day,” he says.
“Then that I still know thee for what thou art means thou hast not changed overmuch.”
It isn’t quite a smile. “Thou hast no idea what that means to me. The years have not been as kind to me as to thee.”
Hers, however, is. “Flattery, still?”
“Have I changed so much that now I practise it with ease?”
In answer, she trails her fingers up the side of his neck, strokes his jaw, rests her hand at the back of his head. “Nay,” she says. “Thou canst not look upon me and lie.”
“My wife, I never could.”
“But others can, and do as easily as they draw breath.” She sighs. “All the men I trusted are dead, husband.”
“I am not.”
“Thou’rt no man.”
“True enough,” he says, inclining his head.”Regarding thy trust—”
“Thou wilt have heard my dispute with Essex.” Her mouth thins. “Nay, do not tell me how it ends, or where; I will not have my future told to me like a credulous girl giving coin to a gypsy.”
“Thou wert never a credulous girl,” England says. “And I fear I could not, even were I to wish it so. These are strange times we are in.”
“Ay, most strange.” Bess pauses a moment, strokes the coverlet almost absently. “Too strange for we who have lived so long, and seen so many strangenesses become familiar.”
“And wondered when we became so well-acquainted with them.” England smiles.
For a woman of sixty-five, Bess can still manage astonishing coyness when she so chooses: an arch of her brow, a twist of her mouth. “Thou wert strange to me once.”
“Ay, so I was,” he admits.
“And thou became familiar.”
He’d laugh, but the tightness in his chest prevents it. “So I did.”
She brushes her lips to his forehead, dry and soft and feather-light, and it isn’t right that such a little touch should—well. Should make everything inside him shatter all at once. It’s a miracle he doesn’t collapse boneless to the bed, but Bess’s hand is still on the back of his head, steadying him.
“I thank thee,” she says, “for keeping an old woman company, and release thee to thy revels.”
“My wife, I would not leave you.”
“Thou wouldst not,” she agrees. “But I have left thee already.”
See Chapter One for dialect notes.
As I mentioned in the notes to last chapter, the LCM actually performed Midsummer at Richmond on February 20th, not in January, but this entire fic is under the effects of TIME KOMPRESSION anyway.
Also, oh god Ireland. Wiki has more about the Nine Years' War, but basically: Hugh Ó Neill has falling-out with Elizabeth, spearheads Irish rebellion against English rule, the depths of which England completely fails to comprehend, Ó Neill and allies ambush English troops on the way to Armagh and score a big ol' victory, which fucks over Elizabeth and gets the rebellion even more Irish support. The Earl of Essex is sent over in 1599 to un-fuck things up. This does not go so well historically. In this version -- well, you'll see.
Where England got the scar. (Also where he boned France for the first time in 400 years! OMGPARALLELS. Sort of.)