You're fond of riddles, aren't you, Will? Solve this:
While I yet lived, they laid me in a tomb. Now I am dead, and travel where I will. The only place I may no longer go is a land of shades, yet my shade lives there still. Who am I?
That was dreadful. Strike it out. You know who I am.
Marlowe goes to the harbour just after dawn, when the sky is edged with gold. It has not rained for weeks and he carries dust in the folds of his shirt. Dust on his eyelashes. He stands in the shadows like a whore and watches the fishing boats, the trade vessels, the sailors. They speak in Italian or Portuguese, in shipboard creole, and he strains his ears but hears no English word.
Well. He can hardly expect an ambassador.
His good eye follows the movement of a dwarfish man from the rigging of the largest ship to its bow, and now to the dock. Perhaps this is the ambassador, some brute carrying a letter sealed with red wax, never knowing what it says or that it's worth more than his life.
The dwarf sees Marlowe watching him, reaches into a pouch tied around his waist. No letter, merely a knife, drawn just long enough to catch the sunlight.
Marlowe turns away, reaches for his purse. He will buy his breakfast from one of the fishermen, watch it gutted before him. So begins another day in exile.
A man has to eat while he awaits his orders. Marlowe is scratching out his living in Venice, sleeping nights on a straw tick in the attic of a merchant's house. For his keep, he tutors the children of the merchant, who hopes that they might pass as nobility one day.
Hopes, hopes, hopes. They're as common as fleas, and they, too, draw blood.
He crosses five bridges on his way back, and he ducks behind the house to enter through the servants' quarters. This is part of the mask he must wear. The game he must play. Get into the spirit of the thing, he orders himself, and bows pleasantly to a passing housemaid.
She frowns at him--he is a foreigner, cannot be trusted. "The signorina has called for you," she says. "Why are you never found when you're wanted?"
Marlowe's Italian is shoddy. He's been patching the holes with Latin and French and an arsenal of smiles. "I'm wanted many places."
Her eyebrows knit together into one black line, but there's a spark in her eyes. Distrust him as she does, she still loves secrets and intrigue as much as any courtesan. "I know this city as a chick knows its eggshell," she says, bracing herself up against the wall of the passage. "I know how to dodge taxmen and thieves. And I know how to tell a man who will strangle his master in his bed, the first chance he sees."
"You needn't be worried," Marlowe says, leaning in close to her, smelling her sour hair. "No man alive would dare to breach your door."
She hisses out a little breath, damp against his cheek, and squirms away. Her dress fades into the dark kitchen. That may not have been wise, but it felt good. It's good to get himself into a little trouble, to keep his skills sharpened for when he needs them. When his queen needs them.
Of course it was me that you saw.
I believed that I was recovered from my wound. I did not understand that my right eye would never open again; I didn't even know enough to fear blindness. All I wanted in the whole of creation was a bundle of unfinished pages. My Passion play.
And so I drank a skin of wine and went creeping through the streets after midnight, wearing a stolen hat so it hung over my nose, feathers tickling my chin. A face like a rooster's arse. Now I can laugh.
By the time I reached the Lion, I was wild with fever and fear, and I smashed in the doors of the wine cellar with one well-aimed kick. Unfortunately, the rest of me followed my boot. That fall ruined me. For my life, I couldn't remember where I'd hidden the script.
I searched as long I dared. I wept. I left empty-handed. It was coming to sunrise when I crawled out of the alley, just as the landlord cleared his stoop of ashes and drunkards.
Of course it was you that saw me.
And the expression on your face, Will! Your eyes screwed up in the sunlight, mouth hanging open like a thirsty dog's. Wherever I go, however long I live, I'll never see a man so well surprised. It's a small comfort set against my losses.
He pauses outside the salon to ready himself, raking a hand through his hair, finishing a yawn. His pupils are just on the other side of the door. Every time he looks into their faces, he feels his thirty years and more, as if their youth is a joke at his expense.
They are a girl and a boy, fourteen and sixteen, so alike in height and features that Marlowe first thought they were twins. He could not make that mistake now. When he enters the salon, he finds them at opposite ends of the table. The girl, Veronica, is sprawling in her chair, skirts askew, brown arms swinging idle at her sides. As always, her lips are fixed in a pout. She'll punish him today because he kept her waiting. Whatever Veronica wants from a man--a lesson, a kiss, a kingdom--she will have it, or be damned. Marlowe might like her better if she didn't remind him of himself.
The boy, though, is a different animal. Giorgio: already at his books, he looks up now with a blooming smile. He's paler than his younger sister, proof that he wastes too many days sitting at his father's right hand, watching him count money. In his whiter face the siblings' black eyes become extraordinary. They have the wet brightness of spilled ink, and the terrible innocence of the blank page. And they watch Marlowe's every move.
These children are the sentence he's serving for his crimes. He straightens his posture and glares at them. "Your Latin," he says, and holds out a hand, snaps his fingers. Never let it be said that he learned nothing at Cambridge.
For this Friday morning they've written him the lives of saints, and he paces past the windows as he reads them, squinting painfully against the relentless sunlight. Veronica's account of Saint Clare is as dry and bloodless as that virgin's bedsheets. From birth to convent to canonisation in the space of one dull page. It's almost funny, remembering that in England this is what's called heresy. People have burnt at the stake for nothing more than these scraps and scribbles in his hands. Marlowe's laugh startles his pupils, and causes a starburst of pain behind his eye-patch. Oh, yes, this is funny.
He licks his thumb, turns to Giorgio's composition, which is a good deal longer, and no surprise. A Catholic schoolboy can truly relish his faith. Such miracles! So many marvelous tortures! And so as the martyr is bound to the stake, and the Romans aim their arrows, Marlowe is interested to find that Giorgio's handwriting falters, his conjugations stumble. There's even a blot on the page that could be a drop of sweat or a tear.
"Odd," Marlowe murmurs. He stops reading and studies Giorgio across the table. "I let you have your pick," he says. "Why did you choose this saint?"
Colour rises into the white face. "Why did our Lord choose him?"
Marlowe stifles a groan. They do persist in answering his questions with questions, and he has to be so cautious with the answers that it isn't even good sport. "I would never demand that Heaven explain itself," he says, and that much is the truth. "But I do have the right to ask you."
Veronica is sitting between Marlowe and the windows, so she's nothing but a blurred silhouette, but he can still tell when she's smirking at him. "Father has a figure of Sebastian," she says. "He's meant to protect our house from the plague. Giorgio finds it quite fascinating."
"And I did not ask you," Marlowe says. He can't quite keep the corner of his mouth from echoing her smirk.
Giorgio huddles over his book. "Only because he--Sebastian--he's a good example to follow. His faith had to be very strong. To suffer so much."
The tremor in his voice matches his written account of Sebastian's demise. He looks stricken, and in fact it would be good to strike him, knock the manners and piety aside and see if there's anything human underneath. Marlowe leans forward, hands flattened on the table. His knuckles are gnarled from breaking and healing, but the true distinguishing mark on him is the thick callus between his thumb and second finger, where he would hold a quill. He has written until his pen splintered in his grip, until his skin split, until his candle sputtered out and he could not tell whether he was writing in ink or in his own blood.
He folds his fingers into a fist. The callus is still there. Like a scar.
"To suffer so much," Giorgio stammers on, head bowed, "and be healed by the Lord, and then to go straight back and challenge the emperor again. That was brave."
Marlowe inclines his head. "Tell me, is that the meaning of bravery? Going to your death?"
"No," Veronica says.
"Yes," Giorgio says. He looks up so that the sunlight flashes out of his eyes. "If it's done for the glory of God. If your choice is to be true and die, or be false and lose your soul."
"A Faustian bargain."
The words leave a spoiled taste on Marlowe's tongue, good wine gone to vinegar. How many times has he been told, not least by Walsingham, not to cut himself on his own sharp wit? His pupils are staring at him, one confused and one amused. They have not heard the name, so they must assume it's some backwater English joke. Well. A joke is what everything comes down to, after all; that's what he is. He smiles at them, no mirth in it, only teeth.
"Tell me what you'd do, signor," Marlowe says. "Make an altar of your prison cell? March up to the executioner singing a hymn?"
Giorgio winces. The shine in his eyes is maddening. "I pray that I could," he says. "I'd like God to make me that good."
"He worries endlessly about the state of his soul," Veronica says. The legs of her chair click against the floor as she rocks forward. She touches Marlowe's sleeve. "Tell him how arrogant that is."
Marlowe turns his head so he can see her, so that she can see him scowling, know that he does not always take her orders. "Signorina, you have masterfully led us to another lesson. Define for me, please, the Greek hubris."
As she begins her recitation he turns his back on the table, walking to the window. It is always so warm, here, so cruelly bright, and the water flings even more sunlight into his face. His good eye waters. His bad eye burns red. Be true and die, Marlowe thinks, and wishes he could spit on the words. It's stupid to pray to the saints, when all saints are suicides.
Here's something I always meant to say to you: Will, you've never so much as crossed the Channel, your Venice is a fairy tale, and you are a fool.
Here is a scene you have doubtless imagined: Marley is stabbed in the face in a tavern brawl, and he lies on his deathbed. Use red silk for his blood. Enter the Queen's man, Danby, to deliver a soliloquy:
Discretion is the better part of valour,
And valour the chief virtue of a spy,
Madame Justice would bid this Marley die,
Yet Madame Merciful could not endure...
Et cetera, ad nauseam. They buried a hanged man under my name, bound me on a ship, and bid me wait for Madame Merciful's next command. And so I wait. I am grateful always for her favour, but I wish she had not made me live like a monk. My pen is so overflowing with ink that I hardly dare touch it, and when I do I worry that my hand will never stop writing.
For a time, you know, you were my quarry. They suspected you of Catholic sympathies, Stuart sympathies, anarchist sympathies. It only took one conversation to see you knew little about politics, and cared less. It took a little longer to find out where you did keep your sympathy.
What did you want from me, that one night? Did you think that you could take wisdom from my mouth with a kiss? Perhaps you thought that in the act of love I might spill a secret into your ear, or that while I slept, afterward, you could rifle my belongings and make away with my gift. Or were you just so deep in your cups that I came to resemble a beautiful woman? Bless Gram Frazier's dagger, no one could make that mistake now.
Confess that you're happy I'm gone, little upstart. Little crow. Let's not pretend that we loved anything in each other, except for the poetry.
On a Sabbath morning, he is crowded into the back of a church, strangers pressing his sides, stuck behind a stone column so that he can't even admire the altar. The air is so thick with incense that he might drown, but he prefers that to smelling the Venetian faithful.
The priest is old, but his voice is fine, and so are the acoustics. And that's all Marlowe hears, since he long ago trained himself to tone out the words of sermons, sacred and secular alike. He tilts his head back, gaze wandering to the image of Christ Pantocrator on the ceiling. A handsome god with a book in his arms. Wouldn't it be lovely to believe in him? Marlowe smirks to himself. He is neither hit by a lightning bolt, nor turned into a pillar of salt.
He closes his eye, imagines himself as a groundling at the Rose. He pays his penny and makes his way to a favourable spot in the yard, a stick in his hand to fend off pickpockets and overzealous whores. The light streams perfectly from the western sky through a scrim of scarlet cloud. And on the stage, when he cranes his neck, he can see Persia, or Paris. No, he decides, on the stage he would have England.
And he would be among friends. This elbow digging into his ribs, now, or the breath touching his ear, these would belong to university men. One would be telling a dirty joke. Another would be tearing the actors to shreds. Someone would have the latest gossip, and someone else would have new work.
A song fills the air, surrounding Marlowe with words that he can't quite understand. There are many poems he'll never read, plays he'll never see. A different sort of loneliness blows into him now, a grievous loss of the mind rather than the flesh. The last he knew, Shakespeare's first was a week or two away from the stage. Marlowe feels as if he midwifed that play into the world, putting up with Henry this and Henry that and Henry the other until his ears were ready to bleed. Shakespeare even pestered him for rhymes. To never see the play full-blown--to never see another play in his native tongue--
He wakes with a snap, dropped back into his body where it rests, in a workingman's stone church in Italy. Someone is standing on his foot, some idiot coming back from the aisle. Communion. He's slept right through it.
He slides forward from the bench, knees touching the stone floor, assuming an attitude of prayer. His eye closes again, but this time he can't conjure the Rose, or even a familiar face. There is only the dark and the burning incense.
Some other time, he'll go through the whole ritual just to see how it turns out. He may even compose some interesting stories for the confessional. Original sins. And if he thinks of a warmer secret while he's in that booth, of other times he has fallen to his knees before other men, no one will know. No man, and no angel. Walsingham once called Marlowe a master of subterfuge. Flattery, but still, the eyes of Christ Pantocrator will never see through him.
They are only paint, and his lovers, his country, only memory.
As he leaves the church, wearing the August heat like a bearskin on his back, he realises that he is being followed. Followed by a rank amateur.
Marlowe dawdles along the edge of the canal, watching the reflective surface of the water. That insolent housemaid hurries after him, her skirt a black flag flying as she tries to hide in the too-narrow gap between buildings. It's charming, in a way, that she's got no idea how obvious she is. He avoids his own reflection and looks straight ahead, examining his mental map of this district of the city. If the maid wants to play at hunters, Marlowe can be a fox, and lead her a merry chase.
Straight ahead, then, until they reach a piazza. He pretends to recognise someone, raising a hand in greeting, dashing across the open square toward a cluster of young men in seminary clothes. He seizes the nearest in a one-sided embrace.
"Pray come along for a moment, the wife's after me," Marlowe mutters. The seminarian starts babbling questions, and Marlowe cuts him off with a squeeze. "Hellfire," he says. "Sanctuary, all right, I cry you sanctuary, just start walking."
He drags his new friend through an archway and into a courtyard, gesticulating broadly with his free hand as they go, telling a noisy tale from the boyhood they did not share. The tiny courtyard is centered on an even tinier fountain, and Marlowe cups his hand under an ugly cherub's mouth in passing, brings a splash of cool water to his lips. The maid has not dared follow him this far, but as they circle back to the archway, he can see that she's found a spot on a bench. There's some kind of bundle of cloth on her knee and a needle moving furiously in her hand, as if it's perfectly ordinary for her to be sewing a handkerchief in public in the midday sun. Marlowe laughs and keeps the seminarian moving, into the thin margin of shadow close to the wall. Close to a door that leads inside.
With one heel on the threshold he releases the seminarian's shoulder. "Thank you for your help," he says. "That woman's no better than a mad dog."
The seminarian rubs his arm and looks around wildly as if a real mad dog is here, and howling. "Who are you?"
Marlowe's hand curls around the handle of the door behind him. He has a plethora of names at his disposal, his Christian name and his current alias and all the others that have followed his career. How is it that so many men settle for only one?
"Tamburlaine," he says, and steps backward to disappear into the building.
It would be useful to know where he is hiding, and how long he'll have before someone comes chasing after him. In point of fact, he may be committing a crime. He's already sampled the water, and he has every intention of claiming the next bottle of drink that presents itself. This is a very dangerous way for a government agent to behave.
This is the only fun he's had in a while.
He sidles through the building, casual, looking as if he has a destination. There's a scullery and a mess hall, both smelling of piss. He tiptoes up a staircase and finds himself in a library, full of beautiful books, huge codexes that doubtless blinded the monks who had to illuminate them. It's irresistible. He's browsing Augustine when he hears people outside, footsteps first, then voices. Though their Italian is flying fast, Marlowe clearly understands the words intruder and catch. He curses to himself and backtracks down the staircase, past the entrance, all the way to the bottom and total darkness. His hands frame out the walls and ceiling of a narrow passageway. It smells like piss, too. That's Venice for you.
He counts every turning he takes, Theseus in the great labyrinth, hoping that instead of a minotaur at the center he will find a wine cellar. Even a root cellar would do. It's well past noon now and Marlowe is not a man of small appetites.
The tunnel extends much farther than the limits of the building he entered. He can hear the humming movement of water beyond the dirt wall. So he is running parallel to some canal, following a route dug by the seminary men. Now where would they be wanting to escape to? Surely not to some bawdy house, some wretched place full of stacked cards and loose women. Marlowe checks the laughter in his throat, both because he wishes to remain hidden and because he does not wish to hear himself sound like a lunatic. At least it's cool, down here, and loose women generally keep good liquor.
He's good at keeping the time with nothing but his own steps to count by. Fifteen minutes pass, then half an hour. The tunnel doubles back on itself, slopes upward and then swoops down deeper into the earth. Now the toe of his boot strikes something solid. He draws back, tests it again. Yes, it is the bottom step of a wooden staircase. He crawls up on his knees, one hand outstretched to grope at the darkness.
The door at the top of the stairs is barred with steel, warm to the touch, so he guesses that it opens on some outside space. He twists the steel bar, crouches down to hear it clink against its fittings. Slowly, tenderly, he brings its notches into alignment and lifts it free.
The door opens a crack, and he peers through it. It takes a moment to see through the sunlight. Another courtyard, but this one is much bigger, decorated with marble statues and neatly trimmed flowerbeds. A lemon tree. Red roses intertwined with white.
A palace. His mental map rearranges itself. He had it backwards. The seminary is the end of this tunnel, not its beginning. This secret passage belongs to a prince.
He wipes sweat from his brow, shakes dirt out of his clothes. It wouldn't do to frighten the quality. He scans the courtyard, trying to choose which direction to go. Before he can decide, one of the doors opens and disgorges a man in a red robe, with several servants trailing in his wake like ducklings after their mother. Marlowe can scarcely believe what he sees. There are no familiar faces to him in Venice, but there are certainly familiar uniforms, and colours. This precise shade of red.
Il Rossi. The Doge's chief Inquisitor.
"Tamburlaine," Marlowe whispers, "you have strange luck."
His stomach aches; his scars ache. There's nothing to do but spy.
You must think yourself very lucky right now. And by must, I mean to say you have no choice. Fortune has never spread her legs so wide for a man as small as you.
I wish that you could write to me and gloat about your stunning success. Tell me how they received your Henry. Tell me how they applauded, wept, how they threw you roses until your arms bled from the thorns. Tell me that Ned Alleyn is beating down your door for more speeches. That Her Majesty, herself--
I could tell you--
But you're so lucky you hardly need a warning.
Power, from what I've seen, is like any other intoxicant: some take their share manfully, some become idiots with a single sip, and some will never stop drinking it until they're pickled and poisoned. You will find all of these at court. Have fun trying to figure out who's who.
Her Majesty provides the rule with one great exception. In her own words: she has the heart and stomach of a king. And though I've never personally known one, I'm sure that the greatest of kings would be outmatched. She sends heretics to their deaths with no more feeling than a cold steel sword. There are times when she is England, and there are times when I have seen a woman's true laughter, true sorrow, glittering in her eyes.
It was my work, William, the work of my life, to serve her in two ways. I brought her information, and I brought her entertainment. I suppose the latter will fall to you, now. Try your country boy's wit at comedy and see if you are able to amuse her. To make her forget. To make her forget me.
I have walked away from this page and now I am returned to admit that you are not unworthy of this honour. There's a reason, after all, that I am writing to you and you alone.
Venice wakes up when the sun goes down. The heat of the day fades, and men and women take to the gondolas, fluffed and jeweled and powdered until they look inhuman, exotic water fowl gliding through the night.
Marlowe has finished the afternoon in wine, served first by a surly barman, and then by himself as the barman lay unconscious on the floor. He leaves the filthy comfort of the tavern, now, wearing a stolen hat with a plume. A stray cat twines about his ankles and follows him down the alley, to the lip of the canal.
Under his breath, he chants a list of names. Il Rossi's list. His prey. Marlowe recognises enough of the names to understand that they're important people. Valuable people. The Privy Council would be glad to hear who the Doge has under his thumb, who might be stirred to revolution.
Marlowe looks down at the cat and repeats the names again. The cat cocks its head, runs away as if it's understood, as if it will pass the message along for him.
There's no moon tonight. The stars are out in glorious profusion. Throughout Europe, people will be charting the skies, studying them for omens. Marlowe looks up and sees no pattern in the pinpricks of light. Only beauty. Beauty suffices.
He steps down into a gondola, making it dip low the water, and apologises most courteously to the startled passengers, a gentleman and his lady. In the forgiving starlight, they mistake his eye-patch for a masquerade costume. They are all laughing together by the time Marlowe excuses himself and stands, careful to balance his weight. He grasps the supports of a bridge and swings himself up over the railing, doffing his hat as he lands on his feet. They are applauding him as the gondola glides away.
The stunt takes most of the drunkenness out of him, and he walks the rest of the way home like a sober man. No, not home, never home. He will not think of his employer's house that way. He has his ticket back now, doesn't he? This list of names for his liberty.
He enters the house. A flame leaps up before his face.
"The master would have a word with you." The housemaid's face appears in the candlelight, flickering, mocking. "And be hasty about it."
"If I were being hasty I'd have drowned you this morning," Marlowe says, and snatches the candle out of her hand. But his heart is beating quickly as he makes his way to the office.
Here is a much larger fire, burning high in its grate as if it were midwinter. The merchant doesn't seem to be aware of the heat, nor does he look up from his ledger. Marlowe tries to arrange his face to appear innocent. If not innocent, at least harmless. "Sir," he says.
The merchant steeples his fingers and greets him by his current name. "It has come to my attention," he says, obviously relishing the phrase, "it has come to my attention that you're spending quite a lot of your time on errands other than my own."
Marlowe approaches him with hands outstretched. "Why, sir, is there something I can do for you?"
"Sit down," the merchant says, indicating a bench near the fire.
Marlowe ignores the gesture. "I would be happy to provide any assistance to you I might--"
"Quiet." The merchant points to the bench again. He's not used to being ignored, and the bafflement shows on his fat face. "I pay you for only one purpose," he says. "To educate my children."
"And their Latin is coming along very well. The Greek, naturally, is a greater challenge."
"Discipline," the merchant says, raising his voice. "Discipline is the challenge, young man. They are spoiled children, dreamers, and what use will they be to me if you fill their heads with knowledge and no sense? They must learn perfect manners and hard work. Above all else, discipline. How are they to learn it from such a disobedient man as you?"
"Excuse me, sir," Marlowe says. "When have I ever disobeyed you?"
The merchant stands up and shoves his chair back. "You have been absent at odd hours, morning and evening. You trouble my servants. They don't know who you consort with, or what lies you are spreading about my business. But they do report that you slept through morning Mass and spent the rest of the Lord's day gallivanting with strangers." He circles his desk and stomps toward Marlowe, slicing the air with his finger, fire gleaming from his bald forehead. "And here you stand, arguing with me as if you are my equal. Is that what you think?"
All at once Marlowe is exhausted in body and in spirit. For his work, he's shed both tears and blood. For his country, he's been slandered and half-blinded. For the Queen who killed him in name so that his life would be spared, for Elizabeth, he has given up art. And that hurts so much more than the loss of an eye. It would have been easier, he thinks for the first time, to die in Deptford.
This little man, this little moneylender, can't take anything from Marlowe. There's nothing left to lose.
He sits down in the glow of the fire and gives the merchant the look that a cat may give to a king. "No, sir," he says. "I am no equal of yours. I beg your pardon if I have given you that impression."
The merchant watches him for a long time, beady eyes trying to read him like a foreign language. "I could cast you out on the street tonight," he says. "But I've no wish to see you suffer. I took you in, remember."
Yes, Marlowe remembers. The merchant swallowed that story whole. He was so proudly sorry for this English refugee, caught at the practice of the One True Faith, tortured by the evil Protestants and lucky to escape with head and shoulders attached. Marlowe folds his hands like a penitent. His throat trembles, and it's disturbingly easy to sound like he's about to weep. "May you know the fullness of my gratitude in this life and the next."
The merchant seems to be appeased. "I would like to continue as your benefactor," he says, puffing out his chest. "But to be worthy of Christian charity, you must be a credit to this house. You must not be idle. Surely you understand that."
Marlowe bites his tongue almost in two to keep silent, keep still. The merchant returns to his desk, putting away his papers, locking up the drawers. When he's finished, he turns his back, as if Marlowe doesn't know he's tucking the key on a chain under his clothes.
"I trust you will behave yourself henceforth," the merchant says. "Devote yourself to the task at hand. I would think a well-trained student is his teacher's reward."
He extends a hand, and Marlowe takes it, bowing so deeply and so abjectly that he might have no backbone. His performance would compete with any of England's finest actors. He even promises to stay and dampen the fire, so that they are not all roasted alive in their beds.
Alone with the dying embers, he shivers. The chill is not in the air, but in Marlowe's blood. He chants his litany of names again. It does not dim his anger or stir his hopes. Venice is merely a pawn on the chessboard of nations, useful in its turn, but easily sacrificed. And even if they come to buy his information, they will simply send him along into some further exile. His name has been chiseled into a tombstone. He can't go home, not as a hero and not as a poet.
Marlowe lifts his head. The little sculpture of Saint Sebastian stands in a niche above the fireplace. A beautiful marble youth, stripped nearly naked, writhing in what any idiot could see is ecstasy, not pain. And the young signor has spent hours contemplating this figure, this fate. Marlowe savors the image. If that's martyrdom, you'd be a fool not to run to it.
A smile spreads slowly across his face. There is no next life, no neat division between Hell and Heaven. In this world, pleasure presents itself right alongside pain. All a man can do is choose between them. Every moment since the dagger pierced his skin, Marlowe has been choosing wrong.
Many men in Venice would want Il Rossi's list, would pay dearly to know whether trouble's coming to their door. To profit from them would be no disloyalty. He'd simply be returning to the service of his first master, his true master that provides him with all his words, all his passions. The master that beats inside his chest.
He kicks over the dead coals of the fire and goes up to his attic. Not to sleep. But to dream.
So what, you wonder, is my purpose? What do I want from you?
All right, I will tell you straight. No more riddles. And you know how hard that is, don't you?
Write well and long, and tear it up, and do better. Write, if you can, until you best me at my own game. You never needed to steal my gift. You have your own. And since you are too stupid to dabble in politics and too provincial to be useful in affairs of state, you should be allowed to exercise it freely. If I prayed at all, I'd pray for that.
Take a lover who outclasses you and let him--or her--break your heart. It will do you good to experience a little grief, if you're ever going to write a tragedy deserving of the name.
As for me? I'll warrant you've told someone by now that you saw me, and they've laughed in your face and said you were drunk. Well, you were very drunk. And you did not see me. But should you go back to the Red Lion, and search that wine cellar, I'm sure that with two good eyes you will find my play. Read it for what it is, a first draft, an unpolished jewel. There are some lines that will make you cry, though. The dying Christ's scene on the cross--I'd have needed the balcony at the Rose for this--when he cries out to Mary Magdalene, renouncing his father by name--
Well, it belongs to you now, little crow, whether you like it or not.
And if you become more famous than I ever did, what of it? We're both going to die. Even if you write something greater than the Gospels, and I change the map of the world, it will not make us immortal. All that will remain are inscriptions on tombstones, and scraps of paper, flitting down through history like ghosts.
You haunt me. I hope that I haunt you.
The next morning, Marlowe does not go to the harbour. Instead, he sets up camp in the salon as soon as he is up and dressed. He watches the sun rise out of the water, burning off the first, tender layer of cloud to expose the truth of the sky.
Giorgio rushes in just after breakfast, smelling of coffee and cream. The sight of Marlowe stops him short. "You're early," he says.
"As are you, Giorgio."
It's the first time Marlowe's called him by name, and he likes the way it rolls off the tongue. Likes, too, the way it gives Giorgio pause. Is he going to be insulted, is he going to be flattered--Marlowe gets to watch him decide.
Giorgio's smile is slow, a little shy, but not uninviting. "I like to be here in the morning," he says. "It gives me extra time to study."
"And what do you study, all on your own?" Marlowe pulls out a chair for Giorgio, and one for himself, side by side at the table. "I hope I'm not working you too hard."
"No, you've been fair. More than fair." A blush appears on the milky face. It's impossible, with that colour, not to notice the fine cut of his cheekbone.
"Good," Marlowe says, drawing his chair a bit closer. "Let me guess, then. You look a bit nervous. Are you poring over your saints again?"
Giorgio ducks his head. There's a quill tucked behind his ear, peeping out from beneath a curl of dark hair. "Veronica said I'm arrogant, but that is not true. I know I am a sinner."
"Ah, well, don't let that trouble you. You're no worse than anyone else."
"No, I--you don't know." Giorgio scrubs his hands over his face. "You don't know what's wrong with me."
While he's not looking, Marlowe permits himself a private grin. He has to temper it quickly, though. It's a painful thing to believe yourself damned. Fortunately, the pain can be relieved. "Is it Sebastian?" he asks, gently. "Is that what's....upset you so?"
Giorgio flinches and wipes his eyes on his sleeve. He has good wrists, strong ones, and he's in need of his first shave. For all that he's naïve, he's nearly a man.
"You can speak freely to me," Marlowe says, putting his hand on Giorgio's arm to steady him. "I work for your father, it's true. But I'm your friend."
Giorgio pulls himself together, sitting up as straight as if he's in church. "I'm not afraid of my father. I'm afraid of damnation. And I am..."
The blush intensifies. His skin looks so warm that Marlowe has to touch it, brushing a finger along the square edge of the boy's jaw. Giorgio blinks rapidly but does not back away.
"I'm afraid," he says, "that I'll never have what I want."
The sunlight reaches across the table to encompass the both of them, and Marlowe stands up and smiles down at Giorgio. He hopes that, in spite of the damage written on his face, in spite of every twist of his life that's led him here, he looks kind. "Don't be frightened," he says. "Where is your sister?"
"Gone to the market," Giorgio says. His black eyes are focused on the finger that touched his cheek. He may never forget that touch, may remember it when he's an old man, and Marlowe long gone.
A well-trained student is indeed his teacher's reward.
Marlowe goes to the threshold, checks the hallway for spies, and shuts the door delicately, cutting them off from the rest of the house. He returns with soft footsteps to the table and leans over Giorgio's back, close enough to smell the sweet tang of his sweat.
He cups Giorgio's face with one hand and uses the other to tease the quill out from behind his ear. It fits between Marlowe's fingers like a key fitting a lock. No matter what name he bears, this will always belong to him. Even after death.
"You've had too much of saints and scriptures," Marlowe says. "Let's try you on some poetry."