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Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

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Will Shakespeare gapes at the manuscript pages in front of him, pondering the question of whether he could fit his head into the pot of ale in front of him if he just tried hard enough, and then up at Kit Marlowe, who is grinning smugly down at him like the cat in the adage, and not the one who wouldn't wet its feet.

"You can't write a history play," he says, after a moment of blank staring at the lines before him. He wonders, yet again, why he thought that working in the tavern was a good idea, although he supposes Kit wouldn't really be above barging into his rooms either, if he had a momentous announcement to make that involves him horning in on the sort of plays that had made Will enough of a success to weather some lean times, what with the plague and what with Lord Pembroke's Men breaking up.

"Can't I?" Kit's eyes appear about ready to leap from his face, but his tone is as good-humored as Kit has ever managed. "Is it for a mere Shake-scene to tell the mighty Christopher Marlowe what he can and can't write?" With a flourish, he places his foot atop the bench opposite Will. "Have I not made blind Homer sing to me -- " he begins, in a pitch-perfect impression of Ned Alleyn, and Will can feel the blood creeping up over what's left of his hairline.

"I don't think it's very sporting to call me a Shake-scene," Will mutters, "when you're the one borrowing my plumes. You know perfectly well I'm almost finished with Richard the Third."

"Because you invented the history play," Kit says. "It's not as if you lined your cheveril glove with scraps cobbled together out of Tarleton's old fustian, after all -- "

"It stuffed the playhouse well enough, didn't it?"

"Oh, all right, I admit it," Kit says, swinging his leg over the bench and sitting down. He reaches across the table and grabs Will's tankard, taking a long draught and wiping the foam from his lips. "I can see which way the wind's blowing."

"Hey!" Will exclaims.

"You looked like you were going to drown yourself in it," Kit says. "It was an act of mercy, I warrant you. Anyway, you've borrowed enough from me. Your Richard the Third could have been one of mine. He's the sodomitical English bastard of my Tamburlaine and Barabas."

"Glad you like it," Will says, rolling his eyes. This is very likely the highest praise Kit Marlowe is capable of, for someone other than himself anyway, and yet it does precisely nothing for his mood.

"Anyway," Kit continues, "you ought to be flattered. You're a trendsetter!"

Will snorts. "Edward the Second, though?" He thumbs through the pages in front of him. "That's going to be a crowd-pleaser."

"Of course it is," Kit says. "When I have ever written anything that wasn't?"

"Well, he's not exactly Tamburlaine the Great, Kit." He raises an eyebrow and narrows his eyes. "There isn't any tobacco in it, is there?"

"Oh, I'm done with that sort of thing now," Kit says airily. "I want to see if I can make them cry. It's easy enough to make people cry for brave Talbot, the terror of the French -- "

"Hey!" Will exclaims again.

" -- but I bet I can make them weep for a deposed sodomite. Or at least make them sick to their stomachs."

"Well, yes, people being buggered to death with a red-hot poker will do that. Christ, Kit, even in Titus I left the rape and mutilation offstage!"

"As I said," Kit says. "I'll make them weep for a deposed sodomite."

Will shakes his head absently. "It's a good play, Kit, I never said it wasn't -- "

Kit slams his hands on the table, hard enough that the boards rattle, the mostly empty tankard leaps in the air, and everyone else in the tavern looks at him. Which is almost certainly on purpose.

"Oi!" the hostess exclaims. "None of that!"

Kit ignores her, and glares at Will in a way that makes him feel like he's stepped too close to the fireplace. "By earth, the common mother of us all," he growls,

"By heaven, and all the moving orbs thereof,
By this right hand, and by my father's sword,
And all the honours 'longing to my crown,
I will have heads and lives for him as many
As I have manors, castles, towns, and towers!"

Everyone is looking at them now. Or rather, they're all looking at Kit as he continues:

"Treacherous Warwick! Traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England's king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursed traitorous progeny,
You villains that have slain my Gaveston!"

There's a long silence, and then a smattering of confused applause, and then Kit flashes Will a shit-eating grin.

Will rubs the bridge of his nose for another long moment, looking down at Kit's manuscript pages, and then over at his own, which don't seem quite so good anymore, never mind that it's the best damned thing he's ever written. He's not sure whether he wants to punch Kit in his smug little face or just kiss him. Not that he'd do the latter in a moderately-populated alehouse. And anyway you can never quite tell what's real, with him -- one moment he's breaking your heart with lines from a play that shows one man's love for another man as something that's true and normal and real, and then he's being all smug about making you feel like that, because he's good at what he does and he bloody well knows it, and you can never be quite sure that he really feels things other than that.

"All right," he says, finally. "That is pretty damned good." Before Kit has the chance to gloat, he adds, "Even if it does sound a lot like the Henry the Sixths."

"Well, you know," Kit says, favoring Will with a crooked smile, "there's actual feelings in my play, as well." Before Will can object, he adds, "But they were pretty good."

This is quite possibly the highest praise Kit Marlowe has ever given to anyone else's dramatic work, ever. Will decides he'll take it.

***

Kit never lives to see Edward the Second on the stage.

Everyone has their theories, of course, about why. The official story is that it was a quarrel over a tavern reckoning, but the whispers run that it's really to do with espionage, that Walsingham had arranged the whole thing, that it was a plot on behalf of the King of Scotland, that Marlowe wasn't dead at all but that the corpse at the inquest was someone else and that the real Christopher Marlowe was now on the way to assassinate the King of France or even the Pope.

Will doesn't think he's about to assassinate the Pope.

Edward the Second and Richard the Third are both runaway hits. Will plays the doomed king's vacillating brother Kent in Kit's play, and it's a true enough bit of casting because he never could figure out whether he loved Kit Marlowe or hated him, stupid bloody infuriating Kit Marlowe who would carp and criticize and blaspheme and then come out and write plays that had the audience eating out of his hand -- stupid bloody infuriating Kit Marlowe who was dead for nothing. He waits in the tiring-house every performance thinking about all of the plays Kit is never going to write and all of the ones he has ahead of him without Kit's work to inspire him.

When he comes back to his rooms he pages through his already-well-thumbed copy of Holinshed and reads about Richard the Second.