Everyone knows Tamburlaine; there's fresher fare than that upon the stage if you'd like it, the other Queen's Men told Will.
Everyone in London knows it, Will said. I do not.
Before the first act concludes, Will realizes that he could not possibly have known it. He's never seen its like.
Drums and trumpets sound to signal battles, standards flap in the wind, chariots rumble across the stage. Rivers of blood flow from the slain Persian kings, stain the wigs of the Turkish king and his consort when they brain themselves against the bars of their gilded cage. Edward Alleyn strides out from the smoke and swordplay, and his thundering voice could drown out church-bells: he stalks and roars, and conquers the stage as surely as his character conquers Asia. But for all his sound and fury his voice is clear and sharp, and not a word of what he says is lost.
And oh, what words.
To call them words is almost not enough. The rhythm of each line drives the play forward as much as Alleyn's performance does, serves as a heartbeat underneath the action. Will's veins throb to its time; indeed, his very bones seem to pulse with it. Were men something greater than they are, they would speak like this—and the verse transforms them into legends as much as men. The verse carries all who hear into another realm, even, and Will watches enraptured as Tamburlaine seeks to replace God's laws with his own.
Our souls, Alleyn-as-Tamburlaine tells the traitor Cosroe, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all:
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
"Wondrous architecture," Will murmurs: the speech conjures images of stars and planets and man striding among them, of fruit bearing fruition, of ceaseless forward motion.
When the play concludes, the audience bursts into applause and cheers. Will suspects he joins in, but his mind and heart are still in Persia, wondering at this man who would command the stars themselves.
Will knows a name: Christopher Marlowe. But a name could mean anything at all.
Spring must have swept through the fields of Stratford back home and made the trees blossom, but in London winter is slower to relinquish its grip, and as George Peele hurries Will through Bankside a breeze sweeps up from the Thames and stings his cheeks and nose. He draws his cloak tighter, shakes his head. Every time he thinks he's adjusted to the stench of London, its slop-pots and midden heaps and dung collectors, some fresh reek assaults him. But it happens less often these days, and perhaps soon he'll give the smells no more notice than the dirt under his feet. And perhaps the smell of Stratford, of the ripening fields and wet hay and drying leather, will fade then.
"They're a lively lot," Peele is saying, and hustles Will past a narrow cluster of shops. "Robert Greene is, of course, a scoundrel of the first order, and a glutton and a lout besides. Young Nashe unsheathes his tongue more than he ought, but age will teach him—and you must, of course, mind your purse-strings around Thomas Watson. You know, of course, of my disrepute." He laughs, and Will is forced to smile along with him. "Why, next to we disorderlies, Thomas Lodge is almost respectable."
"There is a name you have forgot," Will says, though he can't imagine how that name could have slipped Peele's notice—that name, which is on the lips of every man in every company in London, no matter how mean his part. "What of Christopher Marlowe?"
Peele pauses mid-stride, as though he has forgotten where to set his foot. "Ah, Kit." He sighs, short and forced. "He is—singular."
"Ay." Peele stares across the Thames at the spires of St. Paul's Cathedral, looking either for guidance or a way to avoid meeting Will's eyes. "If I am cautioning you about our circle, I must mention his devil of a temper. We call him Kind Kit for it."
"I should take care not to provoke him, then."
"Oh, only the heavens know what will provoke him. Here we are," Peele says, and gestures to the sign of the tavern in imitation of Alleyn. His stance is too narrow and his wrist angled wrong, but it would not be politic to correct him.
If the air outside is more lively than Will would like, the air in here stirs barely at all: the only movement in it comes from the chatter and laughs of the patrons, their shouts for more food and ale. The fire blazes bright enough to light even the farthest corners of the room, but Will's eye is drawn to the center—as the five men occupying the table there no doubt wish it to be. They laugh, or they shout; at this volume, he can't tell one from the other. As he and Peele draw nearer, one voice rises above the rest, issuing from a broad man with a shock of red hair: "God'a'mercy, I know not whether to applaud thee or have thee clapped in irons!"
"Peele!" The man next to the redhead rises. "Thy entrance is fortuitous—and who is it with thee?"
"Quiet, you lot," the redhead bellows, his previous line of argument abandoned for now. "We have a visitor to our ranks."
"Gentlemen," Peele begins, and adds, "though some of you hardly merit the title—"
"Thou dost not, if the wench at the Ox's Tail is to be believed," the second man cuts in, and as Peele laughs with the rest, Will supposes he ought to as well. Or would it be presumptuous to? They might address each other with such familiarity, but Will doubts they'll call him thee in place of you by the evening's end. A better actor than him could get as much. A better actor than him would know his part already.
"Hold thy tongue, Nashe, if thou canst," Peele continues, and settles his hand on the man's—Nashe's—shoulder. "Thou wilt put off our guest. Gentlemen—"
"Are we now more deserving of the title?" another man asks from across the table.
"Thou'rt not, Watson. Gentlemen, if I may, I present to you William Shakespeare, a player with the Queen's Men and my collaborator on that damnable play about King Henry VI."
"Is he a player, then, or a poet?" another man asks, and Will does his best to feel his tallest under the man's gaze, no matter how much all of them appear to be piecing him over and deciding what size he ought to be.
All save one, that is.
The last man leans back and props his heels on the table, laces his fingers behind his head. He looks Will's age or thereabouts, and both older and younger than that; Will searches for better words for it, but finds none yet. His hair, touched with gold, falls just past his ears, and his smile threatens to tip over into insolence—but doesn't, quite, and Will cannot help but watch to see if it will. That, he suspects, is the point.
"Before we ask who he is," the man says, "let him know who we are."
Peele straightens, coughs. "Nashe and Watson have already been named. The oaf is Greene—" He indicates the redhead, who guffaws. "The frowning one is Lodge, and the one whose feet upon the table keep all of us from eating is Marlowe."
Will could have guessed the last. So this is the mind that birthed Tamburlaine. He clears his throat. "Good evening, gentlemen," he says, and Lodge and Nashe say the same in reply; Watson and Greene merely nod.
Marlowe says nothing at all, and Will, tempted as he may be, stops himself from wiping his damp palms on his britches. A devil of a temper, Peele said, but nothing of this. There is a word for how Marlowe is regarding him now, the lift of his eyebrows and the steadiness of his gaze, but again it eludes him. Why must it elude him now?
Then Marlowe says, "Was Christ a bastard?"
Will finds himself speechless again, but for entirely different reasons.
"Kit," Lodge and Watson say in unison, Lodge groaning and Watson chuckling.
"We were having such a lively debate," Marlowe says. "I would be remiss to leave Master Shakespeare out of it. Therefore: was Christ a bastard? You must understand, I make no judgment upon his character."
Watson bursts out laughing first, and the others join in, the sound swelling to the rafters. Marlowe holds up his hand, and when that doesn't quiet them, his voice cuts through the din. "Nay, hear me," he says. "Did God wed Mary?"
"The Catholics would have it so," Lodge says.
Marlowe's mouth quirks. "Ay, they would, and therefore it's an assertion best not repeated. I ask you again: did God wed Mary?"
Several of the men put their heads together to debate the point, but before the argument can gather any force Lodge says, "No."
"Then Christ was born out of wedlock, and thus, a bastard. I do not doubt God had His reasons, but the fact remains, and I challenge any of you to disprove it."
Watson shakes his head, laughter still on his lips. "Kit, thou'rt worse than a Catholic."
Marlowe's half-smile blossoms into a full smirk, and he makes a flourish with his hand—but his eyes catch Will's, sharp and expectant, and Will finds it impossible to look away or indeed to move at all.
Nashe must notice, because he says, "What, has our player no speech for us?"
They all look at him now. Will swallows, his throat scratched and parched as sand, and says, "My words are but humble, and suited to a different occasion."
"A poet must have words for all occasions, Master Shakespeare." Marlowe swings his boots off the table, leans forward in his seat, and though he's no actor he commands the space better than half the men Will's played with, compels silence from all who hear him. "Be they humble or exalted, earthly or ecclesiastical."
"I," Will begins, and for a moment wishes Marlowe's smile had Watson's cruel edge, or Nashe's satiric twist, anything other than this searing intensity, this inviolable command. Well, those are words enough, but still not words for this occasion.
"Well, Kit, you've struck another lad dumb," Greene says, pounding Marlowe on the back. The rest roar in laughter again like a chorus but Marlowe is silent, waiting.
"Forgive me," Will says quietly, and breaks one of the cardinal rules of playing: he looks down.
"You need not ask his forgiveness," Peele says, and rests what he no doubt thinks is a reassuring hand on Will's shoulder. "He isn't our Lord Creator, no matter how he might style himself."
He remembers Alleyn striding across the stage to chariots and flags, trumpets and blood: Nature doth teach us all to have aspiring minds, he thundered in a voice that seemed meant for the heavens themselves. Did that speech belong to Alleyn? To Tamburlaine? To Marlowe? To all three, or to neither?
At last, Marlowe turns away and signals for another mug of ale, and before Will's gut twists any further he blurts out, "Might our creator's marriage take another form than our own?"
Greene stops ogling a passing barmaid's cleavage long enough to ask, "What?" Even Nashe and Watson spare him a glance from overtop the pamphlet they've been skewering. And Marlowe, Marlowe's hand sinks back to the table as though it drifts through water and Will has to tear his eyes away from its descent.
"You called Christ a bastard," he says, and Lodge mutters, "Jesu, not so loudly, we'll all end up in the stocks or Newgate come dawn."
"Allow me to ask, then," Will continues, and finds the resonance in his voice that carries, "were our Lord to take Mary to wife, might he do so according to other custom?"
"And what other custom is that?" Marlowe asks; one of the maids sets his ale down on the table, but he ignores it.
Will searches his memory of the Bible for any clue any sign. He studied it enough as a child, hunched over his schoolroom desk at Stratford as he translated passages for the tenth time, the eleventh, his fingers stiffening around the quill from bitter cold and hard use. "Man and wife are one flesh when they wed," he finally says. "But the Lord is not flesh, and any union with him must therefore be marked differently."
"With a swelling belly, to hear Kit tell it," Nashe cuts in, but Greene cuffs him across the cheek and bids him to hush.
"Such a union," Will continues, "must needs last after flesh dissolves to dust. Man and wife are bound until death parts them, but a divine union lasts—" Eternally, he could say, but it lacks the magnificence, the beauty, the art and scope of poetry. "Until the stars themselves fade from the heavens, the wind breathes its last, and the seventh day becomes eternal rest."
Marlowe's untouched tankard sweats, drops of ale running down its sides to join the grime on the table. Will is sure he's sweating the same. He dares not dab at the back of his collar to betray as much.
"Well-spoken," Marlowe says at last. "It seems I must come up with some new heresy."
"I'faith, I wish thou wouldst not," Lodge says.
"I'faith, my reputation would suffer most grievously if I did not." Marlowe rises, stretches, and his black clothes suck in the shifting torchlight and give nothing back. "Gentlemen, I must away. There's mischief to be done yet."
"What," says Greene, "can we do no mischief here?"
"I know thou canst." Marlowe flashes that half-smile again, and Alleyn himself could not craft one better. "But I have a mind for other mischief."
This time, Lodge isn't the only one who groans: Nashe, and to Will's surprise Watson, add their voices to his. "I know not to ask," Lodge says.
Marlowe tweaks Lodge's nose before Lodge has a chance to swat his hand away. "Then thou'rt grown wise indeed. Good night, all—ah."
For all that he's seen of Marlowe's eyes, Will cannot fathom their depths.
"Master Shakespeare," he says. "Will I see thee again?"
Thee already. The back of Will's neck heats, and he is thankful his hair's grown long enough to hide it, even if he feels the weight of each strand clinging to his skin. "Ay, I imagine."
"You must play for us again," Nashe again interrupts, indulgence dripping from every syllable. Peele, bless him, snaps, "Zounds, man, does every occasion require some remark from thee?"
I am no dancing ape, nor a bird who has been taught some pretty phrases, nor a pipe to sing if you know my stops, Will is tempted to say, but these men delight in arguments more than he does. "I am glad I can provide some small entertainment off the stage," he says, and lets them make of that what they will.
"Is small all thou aimst for? There are many small men in the world, Master Shakespeare. It is no achievement to be one of them."
Oh, for a quill and paper now to capture the heights of those words, their sweep, their scale. They could fill a stage, and the minds of all those listening. Will plays with them in his head and preserves their sense if not their exact shape, rearranges their order in his head until their rhythm matches his own heart. He's absorbed enough in it that he misses what Marlowe says to the others in farewell, but he watches Marlowe weave his way through the gathering crowd of patrons, past the stairs and hearth until he vanishes into the night.
"That man," Watson says, somewhere between admiration and bemusement, and the others murmur their assent.
"Where is he going?" Will asks Peele, and someday someone must tell the man that when he grips people on the shoulder, he's more likely to leave bruises than comfort.
"Best not to ask," Peele says, but before he can elaborate, Greene's voice booms.
"Well, what is it for Kit tonight, do you think? Tobacco or boys?"
"Tobacco or boys?" Will whispers.
Peele shakes his head. "An old jape of Kit's. Pay it no mind." Then he raises his voice and contradicts his own instructions: "Boys!"
Will swelters under his collar, and doesn't care to trace the cause.
"Does he always behave so?" Will asks.
Peele pauses in his examination of Holinshed's Chronicles, his finger skipping down the page. "Hm?"
"Christopher Marlowe. Does he always behave so?"
Will has noticed Peele's tendency to sigh when Marlowe's name is mentioned, and Peele does not disappoint: he does so again. "It depends on the wind, or the phase of the moon, or something Providence has not seen fit to reveal. Fill full," he says to the maid coming by with a pitcher of ale, and after all he's imbibed, Will wonders that he's able to hold a quill at all. "He and Watson killed a man, you know."
"Ay, last autumn." Peele glances around, lowers his voice. "They were released on grounds self-defense, but Watson spent five months in Newgate for it."
Will's heart hammers. "And Marlowe?"
"Released after thirteen days. Someone paid his bail, and no small bail it was. Forty pounds, if I heard correctly."
Forty pounds? A new house in Stratford is worth nearly as much. Will gapes and must look a fool for it, the very country fool they expect him to be, but even in London forty pounds must be more than most men ever touch. "Where did he find forty pounds?"
Peele shrugs. "He never did say. There's much he doesn't say."
"He'll call Christ a bastard but not name his benefactor?"
"As I said." Peele quaffs his ale at last. "He is free with his blasphemy, and his poetry, and some have called them one and the same. His scorn, too, he'll give you in full measure."
"A man is more than blasphemy and poetry and scorn."
"As you say," Peele says, and Will grinds his teeth. "How go your scenes?"
Will slides his rough papers forward, takes care to avoid the puddle of congealing sauce by Peele's elbow. "I have Gloucester's arrest, and the news of the rebel uprising in Ireland. 'Tis long, but there is much to be covered in it."
"Hm," Peele says, scans the pages and reads aloud:
" I will stir up in England some black storm
Shall blow ten thousand souls to heaven or hell;
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw."
Will waits for Peele's verdict, drums his fingers on his thigh and hopes Peele doesn’t notice the motion.
At last, Peele laughs. "Do you mean to make the Duke of York a Tamburlaine?"
Color creeps up Will's neck. "I know I cannot," he says. "York's vaulting ambition led him to fall, but Tamburlaine seems set to encompass the entire world. There can be only one Tamburlaine, I think." Were all men Tamburlaine, the world would crumble, devour itself. Marlowe must know that—and yet he teases the possibility, or a part of it. Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds, Will remembers. How much of the play is the playwright?
"Tell that to every poet who sticks a tyrant from Asia upon the stage."
Will remembers a draft of a speech from The Battle of Alcazar that Peele showed him, where Thomas Stukeley speaks of his designs on kingship. The metaphors were not unfamiliar. "Not always from Asia," he murmurs.
Will only smiles, and beckons for his papers. Peele hands them over, his eyes still narrowed in suspicion, but another gulp of ale smoothes his brow again. "What do you mean to do with this, if not create a Tamburlaine?"
Will hesitates, scrapes his nail along the paper's edge. "I want to capture something."
"Ay, and what is that?"
"I have not found the words yet," he says, for it's the truest answer he can give.
The torches throw off enough light to guide Will and Peele home, though they'll scarcely be enough when night descends in full—but Will needs no light to spot the two men rushing towards the tavern, for their voices provide guidance enough.
"The devil take thee, Watson, thou'rt not my wet nurse, and I have no need to suck upon thy teats!"
Will flinches, and Peele slams the Chronicles shut. "Ah," he says. "Have a taste of Kit's kindness."
"And thou'rt the most damnably obstinate of fools, and I am hardly the only one to know it!" Watson fires back. "Zounds, Kit, after all he has done for thee—"
Marlowe's laugh is sharp, harsh. "He is not his cousin."
"Then tell him that thyself—" Watson halts in his tracks, peers ahead, and Will wonders if he ought to duck into an alley but none presents itself. "Who goes there?"
"Only myself and Master Shakespeare, and be thankful for it," Peele says. "'Sblood, the two of you would wake the dead."
Marlowe stops too, now; the torches are enough to show Will the flush spreading over his cheeks, the harsh line of his mouth, the disarray of his hair and collar. "Then go forward or back but tarry not, the hour's late."
"And thou shouldst not tarry either, lest the night watch arrest thee for a brawler," Peele says.
"Is my tongue a sword now?" Marlowe asks. "And must I have it inspected for use?"
"I meant disturbance of the peace."
"A thousand plagues on your peace, I'll none of it. Dost thou think anyone is truly at rest in this pestilent city?" Marlowe throws his cloak back, and it snaps angrily in the wind. "How could they be, when the streets are full of gadflies?"
"Jesu, Kit," Watson mutters, and Will stands stock-still in the midst of it all. Strange that such a hot temper should leave him frozen like this—and then Marlowe's glare alights on him.
"What, hast come to chide, too? Then chide, and show me thou hast some tongue in thee at all." Marlowe scoffs, and Will's stomach sinks to his shoes. "Where are thy words for all occasions?"
"I'faith," Will says, quiet enough that he barely hears himself, "you seem to have enough of them, and more besides."
Marlowe's glare intensifies, and for a moment Will fears it will burn clean through him, but Marlowe whips around on his heel and stalks down the street in a manner worthy of Alleyn.
What did Will say? Does Marlowe simply think him not worth treating with? He barely recognizes the man—no, that isn't so. He carried himself this high even at his lowest remarks, and commanded Will's attention then as much as he does now.
"My apologies," Will says, and takes off after Marlowe before Peele or Watson can protest.
Marlowe doesn't appear to notice him, or at the very least he doesn't glance over his shoulder to see if someone follows him; perhaps his business absorbs him too much to do so. Nevertheless, he leads Will away from Bankside and into a twisting warren of streets whose names Will only guesses at. Some of the streets are only bare suggestions, and Will dodges gaping puddles of thawing mud and other things he doesn't care to contemplate. His breath slices through his lungs, but Marlowe marches on untiring, and if he can press on, so can Will.
At last, when Will is sure Marlowe's spent the last few minutes running in circles, Marlowe walks up to an unremarkable house and shoves the door open as though he lives there. Does he live there? Will could have sworn he lodged in the city. He glances at the door, which still swings lazily. Entering would be foolish. Following Marlowe this far was already foolish. If he chased after Marlowe to offer an apology, the apology he'll have to offer now is considerably longer than the one he would have had to at the start. Truly, there is no good reason for him to stay.
"I never thought to see thee in such a place as this," Marlowe says; there is irony in his voice, but no humor.
"And I never thought it would take so much effort to meet with thee," a second voice replies: a man's, clipped and educated. "From what Watson has told me, I suppose I should be glad to see thee at all."
Marlowe laughs. "Ah, so thou'rt glad of me now?"
Step away from the door, Will tells himself. Would that he could listen to his own council.
"This peevishness does not suit thee, Kit."
"So I am peevish, and contemptible, and a selfish short-sighted prick. Indeed, with such a catalogue of faults, I wonder what thou needst with me at all."
The man makes a sound that falls short of a laugh. "So this is jealousy, is it?"
"Jealousy of what, Tom?"
"Of Tom Watson, of Audrey. God alone knows what it is with thee."
None of this is meant for Will's ears, and he lacks the excuse of an open street to listen. A good man would leave in haste. Will closes his eyes, but his resolve falters.
"Thou sayst I am jealous, and on its heels thou dost admit that thou knowst not the cause. I call thee inconstant."
"I, inconstant? I?" Tom's voice rises, though even at its loudest Will doubts it can match Marlowe's. "I am not the man who disregards his oaths to God and Queen and country to sit in Raleigh's parlor and blaspheme!"
Marlowe's voice loses its fire, but not its heat. "I have broken no oaths, sir."
"So thou dost claim."
"I do claim," Marlowe snaps, "and I furthermore declare that thou'rt more jealous than I could ever be."
What green-eyed monster lurks in this house? The night's chill has not yet descended, but Will draws his cloak around his shoulders all the same. Is this a matter of state, or a lover's quarrel, or both?
"There are worse sins than jealousy," Tom says. "Atheism, to name one."
The pause after that remark stretches, long enough that Will can hear himself breathe again, and Marlowe at last breaks it. "I would never have known hadst not told me. What shall I do to express my thanks?"
"Hell scorch thee, Kit, thou canst not jest at such charges—"
"And yet I do. What else wouldst have of me, when thou wilt accuse me of offenses I committed at thy cousin's behest—"
"I am not my cousin."
"No. More's the pity for her Majesty."
A muffled thump echoes from the house, and one man—Marlowe, Will assumes—hisses in pain.
"Thine arm's stronger," Marlowe's voice has a ragged edge, as though he still struggles to regain his breath.
"And thy tongue more provoking." Tom sighs. "Why must thou do this, Kit?"
Will waits for the answer, his fingers knotted in the fabric of his cloak, his heart in his throat.
"Raleigh is a patron and a friend," Marlowe says. "And that is all thou needst concern thyself with."
"Her Majesty has more concern than that."
"Her Majesty, or her Majesty's courtiers?" When Tom makes no reply, Marlowe says, "I thought as much. Hast bedded down with Essex, Tom? Is that why I must forsake Raleigh's company unless I fetch reports of his deeds back to thee like a spaniel?"
Essex, Raleigh, the Queen herself: Will's head spins from the plots wheeling over it. It's a strange dance, subtle and terrifying, and Will wonders where this Tom stands in it. His speech alone marks him as a courtier, and one familiar to Marlowe and Watson both. Will shakes his head, hunkers down in his cloak. It was simpler in Stratford, where people schemed against neighbors instead of factions, where disputes arose over a plot of land and not the land entire. But perhaps such things were echoes of greater movements above, and always have been—or perhaps all slights and jealousies could tear the world asunder, if the bearers of those grudges had the scope to do so.
"I would hope I have treated thee better than that," Tom says.
"Kit, all I want from thee—"
"Has changed. Go to thy new masters, Tom, and tell them whatever will please them most. Tell them I kissed the devil's bunghole, if they'll delight to hear it. Worse than that will be said of me, I have no doubt, if it suits their purpose."
A woman two houses down leans out her window and gives Will a strange look; he scampers to the side of the house as Tom sighs again. "Is it too much to ask for caution from thee?"
"Ay, it is. No one wants me cautious."
Tom's voice quiets, enough that Will has to strain to listen. "Kit, please."
Will had assumed Tom to be Marlowe's senior—and his own—by ten years at least, but he sounds altogether younger now, soft and uncertain. For the first time Will entertains thoughts of Marlowe and this Tom pressed together in confidence, Tom's hand perhaps on Marlowe's cheek, and Marlowe reaching up to pry it away.
"Thou hast made thy choice," Marlowe says, and Will shivers. "Now for God's sake let me make mine."
The door slams open, and Will presses himself flat against the wall as Marlowe stalks out, all of his attention fixed forward. Only after he rounds the corner does Will dare to breathe, and then not for long, because Tom emerges from the house, his hand over his mouth. Will knows that profile: not intimately, but it's a face he's seen in the balconies of playhouses, in at least one noble's hall. Tom is Thomas Walsingham, cousin to the late Secretary of State—and spymaster.
God, let him not be caught here. Will forces his heart to slow as Walsingham passes, for fear its drumbeat will give him away. But Walsingham, like Marlowe, is occupied elsewhere, and Will remains safely in the shadows until down the street a cat whines, a poor substitute for a bell tolling the way clear.
A copy of Tamburlaine lies open on Will's desk, and he reads, scarce notices his candle burning lower until it gutters out completely.
A god is not so glorious as a king, the turncoat general Theridamas says in a speech that would curl the hair of any minister who heard it.
I think the pleasure they enjoy in heaven,
Cannot compare with kingly joys in earth;—
To wear a crown enchas'd with pearl and gold,
Whose virtues carry with it life and death;
To ask and have, command and be obey'd;
When looks breed love, with looks to gain the prize,—
Such power attractive shines in princes' eyes.
Even without an actor's voice, the words ring out bold. Will half-closes his eyes and murmurs the speech to himself. The second line ends on a weak foot, the third on a strong, all the better to contrast heaven and earth. Ask, have, command, obeyed: each word is like a thunderclap, strong enough to shake men where they stand. Marlowe's lines are as unstoppable as his hero, and the rhythm of the lines drives him as much as he does them.
Whose voice is Marlowe writing in? His own? Some long-forgotten chronicler's? Or does he draw on what he's learned from sources other than books, and describe the seething undercurrents other men dare not name?
Is his crime heresy or honesty, and what sort of world is it that one can be mistaken for the other?
For all Will knows, Marlowe and his fellow wits have left the tavern long ago in search of other pursuits—tobacco or boys? he remembers Robert Greene asking, and coughs—but the tavern's as good a place to look as any. Whether that confederation is there tonight or no, the tavern seems lively enough from the sounds drifting up the street. Too lively: those sounds are neither pipe nor lute but shouts, loud enough to rattle the windows of the adjoining houses.
Will frowns and hesitates, not knowing whether to quicken his steps or turn back.
"Kit!" someone roars, and that answers the question for him. Someday, he would like to cross paths with Marlowe when the man isn't in the middle of an argument, but he wonders if such times exist.
This is more than a mere argument. Marlowe staggers into the street cursing, his hand clapped over his eye, blood staining his sleeve. Watson and Peele rush after him; Watson catches Marlowe before he falls into the mud while Peele stands back, his scowl oddly like a Puritan's for a man of his reputation. "Hell," he says, and swats dirt from his cuffs. "Hell and—" He squints down the street. "Shakespeare, is that you?"
"Ay." Will steps forward. "What happened?"
"Nothing you need concern yourself with," Watson snaps, and Will's mouth hardens.
"A man I know is bleeding in the street," he says. "Better I help him than the night's watch."
"Take him home, then," Peele says before Watson can interject. "He's dead drunk, and I've cleaned up enough after him for one night."
"Kit, wake up," Watson says, seizes Marlowe by the shoulders and shakes him, but Marlowe only laughs, breathless and broken. Watson scoffs and hauls Marlowe to his feet, shoves him toward Will. "Have him, then, player, if he scorns the company of friends."
The jibe doesn't sting for long, not when so much of Marlowe's weight rests on Will's shoulder. He is slighter than Will imagined him, but though his cheeks are flushed from drink his hands are cold. Will settles one of Marlowe's arms over his shoulder, and Marlowe's fingers drape across his collarbone. They're a working man's hands, but worn from a kind of labor Will saw so rarely before he came here. Calluses run down the sides of his fingers; ink fills in the creases in his palms. Would that Will could study that hand and recreate it in verse, but now's hardly the time for it. "I still have not heard what happened," he says.
"He drank, he quarreled with a man twice his size, they traded blows, and he should thank the heavens that he doesn't need a surgeon," Peele says. From his tone, Will guesses he doesn't know the nature of the quarrel, or that its nature doesn't concern him.
"And where does he lodge?"
"In Southwark, over a joiner's shop, not far past Bank's End. Do you know it?"
"I feel less new to Southwark than I do to much of the rest of London," Will says. "Ay, I know it."
Marlowe groans. His wine-heavy breath fills Will's nose, but his words are lost. He'll have time to regain them on the way home, Will decides, and makes his farewells before either Watson or Peele reconsiders. They may scorn his craft all they like, but a player worth his salt knows when to leave the stage.
"And a poet knows how to craft an entrance," he murmurs as he half-escorts and half-prods Marlowe down Bankside, past the boats pulling in to dock for the night and past the laborers and women who come to greet them. The Rose has shuttered its doors for the night, and the bull- and bear-baiting rings as well, but if Will looks behind him they peek over the rows of houses, and draw the eye as well as the spires of a church.
"Hm?" Marlowe's head stirs from Will's shoulder, and Will wonders if his cheeks are as warm as they look.
"I was merely thinking aloud," he says. "Forgive me."
Marlowe winces and tries to draw himself up, but cannot release Will's shoulder. He grips at least as hard as Peele does, but Will minds less. "There is nothing—ah, Jesu and all the saints—to forgive."
"You say that now," Will says, more to the dirt under his feet than to Marlowe.
"You," Marlowe begins, then trails off into silence. Bankside peters out as well, splits into Dead Man's Place and Clink Street, and Will walks faster.
"I?" he asks when they've nearly reached the Cathedral, and when he no longer feels so aware of Marlowe's breath on his skin.
"Ay." Marlowe laughs; it rings truer than it did before. "You. Why dost thou address me so?"
Will's pulse quickens, but he keeps his pace steady. He must. "I knew not if you meant such familiarity in jest," he says. It's the easiest reply of all of them, though perhaps Marlowe would be disappointed if he knew Will chose the easier route.
"Ah." Marlowe lapses into silence again until they pass the bridge, stark against the darkening sky. Is his silence from injury or from drink? The latter will pass, but the former is beyond Will's skill to repair.
"A poet must have words for all occasions," he says, and looks to the side to better watch Marlowe's face. "I presume 'drunk and fight-addled' to be among them."
Has he gone too far again? Marlowe's mouth is set as though in stone—and then it cracks, and Marlowe roars with laughter before it turns to coughing. "Mine own words used against me," he says. "Truly, Master Shakespeare, thou hast a gift."
Will thanks the oncoming night for concealing the redness that colors every part of his skin. "Would that I knew what form it took."
But the night doesn't mask the door to the joiner's shop, and Will shoulders it open, escorts Marlowe inside and up the stairs. He pauses at the top and wonders if he should have asked Peele and Watson which room Marlowe lodges in, but the smell of ink from the door to Will's left is too strong to mistake. Marlowe seems to recognize his door, because he fumbles around his belt for the key, and Will bites his lip as he helps Marlowe slip it free.
The room is a riot of books and paper the likes of which Will has only imagined and not seen. He steers Marlowe through the scattered quills and discarded clothes—he avoids looking at those as best he can—and sits him down on his bed beside a battered copy of Holinshed's Chronicles.
Marlowe must have seen Will look at it, for he says, "I had thought to write about our own nation's history. But it's a hopeless project, of late."
"Why?" Will asks.
Marlowe sighs, the shadows under his eyes deepening. A bruise wells over one eye, though it hasn't yet blackened. "I have not found the voice for it."
"But you have Alleyn's voice," Will says.
"Ay, Alleyn's, but Alleyn's alone will not sustain it." Marlowe hisses, claps his hand over his eye again. "Damn. I had hoped to be drunk longer than this."
"Are you no longer drunk, then?"
"I am no longer drunk enough." Marlowe flops back on his bed. "Ah, listen to me. Thou keepst thy counsel so well, Master Shakespeare. What dost thou think of me now, I wonder?"
Will, keep his counsel well, when he's done little more around Marlowe than blush and stammer? Perhaps such things are more apparent to a player than a poet. "I wish I knew what to think of thee," he says.
"Ask anyone. They'll tell thee right enough."
Will shakes his head, crosses to Marlowe's desk, rests his fingers on the Latin dictionary in the corner. "Ay, they'll tell me their thoughts. I wish for thoughts of mine own."
"Perhaps." The dictionary has a paper tucked under it, one fairer than all the sheets surrounding it as though it's been blotted to a ghostly sheen. "But I think—I think thou dost feel the same."
Cover your mouth, part of him chides, but the rest of him overrules it. He waits for Marlowe to speak, but Marlowe says nothing, his gaze hot on Will's back.
Will draws the paper out, and nearly drops it on the floor.
Come live with me and be my love, the poem opens.
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
It goes on, and Will reads on, and his heart keeps pace not with a mighty line but with the simple lilting melodies of Stratford. The narrator weaves a bed and cap of flowers for his love, a gown of lambs-wool and a belt of straw, and Will knows the feel of each in his hands. The narrator calls birds' songs madrigals, and Will's memories of the birds he woke to each morning are transformed. They greeted the sun not with chitters and chirps but with swelling choruses, and he wonders how he could have missed that before. The shepherd swains shall dance and sing—he sees those dances again, those early days of May when the meanest of workers laid their burdens aside and paraded under the sun for all to see.
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
"Oh," Marlowe says, "that," and Will realizes he must have read the last lines aloud, or perhaps recited all of it.
"That?" The paper trembles in Will's hands, and he sets it down with as much reverence as he can muster. "This is—" He swallows. "How didst thou know?"
"The rhythm of the countryside. The dawn of spring in the fields. The birds' songs and the shepherd's dances."
"I was not born in London," Marlowe says, and Will turns at last to look at him. He sits upright in his bed, his back to the wall, his toes fidgeting. "I was born in Canterbury. It used to be a much grander place, but it had beauty enough if you cared to look for it."
"And you—thou—didst look." Will draws closer as though under a compulsion, and even if he knew how to resist it, he doubts he would. "I knew of the cruelties thou hast seen, but not the beauties."
Marlowe's mouth quirks up. "Art thou amazed?"
"I fear thou wilt think less of me if I say yes," Will admits.
"No." Marlowe looks away. "Beauty is a fragile thing, and best guarded, and therefore—" He shrugs, and the stiffness in his shoulders betrays him. "The safest way to hide something is to treat it as though it had no importance."
"But it does." Will's legs will turn to water at any moment, he's sure, but they hold their shape enough for him to stand at Marlowe's bedside. "Surely it does. Why should this be less true than Tamburlaine's speeches?"
Marlowe gives no reply at first, but his toes trace agitated circles in the air. "Few men wish to confront truth," he says at last.
"But I am one of them," Will says, and leans closer to the bed, enough that he nearly kneels on it. Please, he thinks. Please look at me.
Marlowe does, and Will barely has time to register it before Marlowe's fingers tangle in his hair, before Marlowe's lips press against his.
There are a thousand words for this, and none at all. Both are true and it's impossible for Will to contemplate it beyond that with Marlowe's tongue teasing Will's lips open, Marlowe's nails raking Will's scalp. The heat of his mouth sears Will to the quick and blazes a line from his chest to his groin and Will is falling, sinking onto the bed next to Marlowe and kissing deeper. This is Marlowe, Will thinks when scraps of words return to him, this is Kit, and then Kit sees fit to stroke his hand down Will's spine and Will arches, fits himself into the touch.
They break apart for air, though God alone knows how Will can breathe after this.
"Was that thy aim, Master Shakespeare?" Marlowe—Kit—asks, his smile slow and spreading.
"Were it not before, it is now. And thou mayst as well call me Will." Familiar, to be sure, but if kissing Kit is not an act of familiarity Will hardly knows what qualifies.
"Ah. Then I should have asked whether it was thy will."
Will groans, and buries his face in the coverlet.
"Some of my japes are better than others," Kit says, and those may be the truest words Will's heard from him yet.
He looks forward to drawing out more.