Thomas Fenton was well aware of the fact that the Prince of Wales cheated at cards.
In fact, everybody in Eastcheap knew it. Unfortunately, as he was the Prince of Wales, there was nothing anybody could do about it. Which inevitably meant that nobody would play with him, which inevitably meant that Jack Falstaff, Ned Poins, and Fenton himself would be forced into it by circumstance.
Fenton had secretly hoped that the Prince's adventures in the Welsh Marches might make him less inclined to such frivolous things as cards, but all to no avail. The Prince returned from Shrewsbury with an impressive scar across his face and his appetites unchanged.
That something had happened between him and Falstaff on the campaign seemed certain, and it was Fenton's suspicion--after interrogating Poins--that Falstaff's glorious tale of battling and defeating the Hotspur of the North suffered from some discreet (and indiscreet) embroideries. Not that this came as a surprise, considering Falstaff was involved. Had Fenton been closer to the fat knight, he might have warned him that the Prince of Wales was not the sort of man one trifled with, least of all where killing noblemen was concerned.
Instead, Fenton made a discreet exit from Eastcheap in hopes of finding some means of repairing his tottering fortunes. Poins had suggested Windsor as a place where wealthy young ladies suffered from a distinct dearth of eligible men, and it did seem the sort of subject on which Poins would be an expert. He did have a talent for snaring wealthy patrons, be they mysteriously wealthy ladies or the Prince of Wales himself.
"I suppose it makes sense," Fenton mused, eyeing Poins over a glass of wine. "I did always wonder where you came up with all that money. Aside from that incident with buckram men, that is."
Poins grinned. "I'm still proud of that, I'll have you know. But, yes, Fenton. There are many ways to regain one's fortune in these difficult times, and one of the handy things about Welsh rebellions, inconvenient as they are, is that you find a great many women left with fortunes and nobody on whom to spend them. I offer my charming company--and even you must admit I'm charming; even Hal admits to it, and wringing a compliment out of him is almost as easy as convincing Fat Jack to actually pay for a round of drinks he purchased."
"You make a good point," Fenton said with an appropriately dramatic grimace. "But why Windsor?"
"Because Windsor, old chap, is boring."
Poins had the right of it there. Within about three hours, Fenton had walked from one end of the town to the other and seen absolutely nothing of interest.
It was as he was making his way back to the Garter Inn, however, that a slender shape in green came hurtling past him, shrieking.
"William! Get back here, you horrid boy!"
The horrid boy in question was some fifty feet ahead of her, a green velvet ribbon clutched in his fist and feet pounding as he raced for the fields.
Fenton made his decision in seconds. Leaping over a nearby wall, he cut across what appeared to be somebody's vegetable garden and snatched the boy's skinny wrist as he reached the gate leading to the pasture.
He plucked the ribbon from the boy's fingers, ignoring the baleful glare as the lady reached his side, cheeks flushed from exertion. "Oh, sir, please accept my most grateful thanks." Her eyes narrowed as she turned to the boy. "As for you--"
"My lady, I imagine it was only a bit of fun." Fenton could feel the boy's gaze on him, surprise and suspicion comingling. "And no harm done, as you can see."
When she looked at him, there was laughter in her eyes. "No, indeed, sir. I suppose sisters must allow for such tricks to be played upon them." A moment passed as she took in his attire and bobbed a quick curtsey. "I thank you again, my lord. Come, William."
"Wait!" he called out as she took her brother's arm none too gently. "Your name, lady? If I might be so bold?"
Colour rose in her cheeks again and she lowered her eyes. "Anne Page, my lord."
"Mistress Anne Page." Taking a leaf from Poins' book, he swept her a court bow. "I trust we shall meet again."
She made no response to that, her colour deepening as she hurried her brother away. Fenton watched until they had rounded the corner before laughing, himself. Perhaps Windsor would not be so dull after all.
"Mistress Anne Page, you say?" The Host of the Garter grinned, revealing several missing teeth. "You've got a good eye, lad. And what's more--she'll have seven hundred pounds from her grandfather's will next year."
Fenton could hardly believe his good luck and stammered something he could not remember.
"But keep your wits about you," warned mine host. "Her father watches her like a hawk, and her mother too. Too many nefarious fellers about."
Carefully neglecting to mention that he probably qualified as one of those nefarious types, Fenton bought another mug of ale for the Host and learnt as much about Mistress Anne Page as that garrulous fellow could tell. That night, he wrote to Poins.
The reply took nearly three weeks to arrive, during which time Fenton managed to exchange perhaps ten words with his fair lady while also earning the deep suspicion of her mother. The handwriting was shaky and the paper smelt of sack and for several seconds Fenton desperately wished he were back in Eastcheap where things made sense.
To the most worshipful Lord Fenton on the occasion of his attempted courtship, I give you greetings and salutations. To win a lady, one must be all things at once--one must be charming and aloof, one must worship her and disdain her, &c. I have enclosed a ballad; write it out and send it to your lady. An she falls not into your arms by this, call me a liar.
To the most ignobly favoured Ned Poins, drunken wastrel half-drowned in sack, I call thee a liar.
Fenton resisted the urge to enclose the handkerchief now liberally spattered with blood from the blows dealt him by Master Page. Instead, he sealed the letter and entrusted it to the Host of the Garter.
The ballad, needless to say, had been an unmitigated disaster.
He'd written it out in his best hand, all flourishes and sweeps. Sealed it with the family crest--one of the few scraps of dignity the Prince had yet to win away from him--it was a missive cunningly constructed to catch a lady's eye.
Unfortunately, the eye it caught was not that of the lady, but of her father.
Fenton winced and pressed the handkerchief to his nose. Although it still ached, at least it had stopped bleeding.
And, furthermore, he had the satisfaction of knowing that Anne Page herself had seen him bleeding at her father's hand, and that it had distressed her. Although Fenton could not necessarily decide why that was a good thing, he elected to assume that it was.
Poins never responded to his letter. Instead, Sir John Falstaff arrived in Windsor with Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph in tow and Fenton discovered that through some bizarre machination of Fate and sheer rotten luck, the town doctor's new housekeeper was none other than Mistress Quickly, former landlady of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap.
All he needed now was for the Prince to appear on the doorstep of the Garter, demanding a game of cards.
Instead, it was Anne Page, cloaked and careful, who waited just outside. Too surprised to say anything, Fenton let her lead him to the Host's rather shabby garden where the overgrown hedges proved surprisingly useful.
"Master Fenton," she said, pushing the hood away from her face, "am I to understand that you sent me a letter?"
"Yes. Unfortunately, I believe your father burnt it."
She sighed. "I am sorry for it, Master Fenton. I would fain have read such a letter." A small smile tugged at her lips. "Do you recall the matter?"
"I could be persuaded, my lady," replied Fenton, ignoring the twinge of pain prompted by his own smile. "It was but a little thing, a trifle."
"So you say, but a trifle to a man of the court is a wondrous thing to a girl in Windsor. Was it a poem?"
"Aye, my lady." He lowered his eyes. "A poor one, at that."
"But tell me still, Master Fenton. It is a rare suitor indeed who makes his suit in verse--"
"Stolen verse, I fear, my lady," Fenton confessed. "But sentiments no less true for my thievery."
"Will you tell me of the court, then, Master Fenton? If you will not indulge me with verse?"
That, he happily did, and delighted in her peals of laughter as he spoke of the Prince's adventures, of Fat Jack Falstaff set on by imaginary buckram men, and in her wide-eyed attention as he told her of Shrewsbury.
"Do you think, then, that it was His Grace the Prince who slew the Lord Hotspur?" she finally asked, frowning slightly. "I should think so, were I in your place."
Fenton nodded. "You are wise, my lady."
"Not so," she retorted, laughing. "I am but a silly girl, or so my father insists."
"As you can see, your father and I have many differing opinions."
She brushed her gloved fingers across his lips and he quite forgot that he'd been injured at all. With a wicked smile, she murmured, "Win me, Master Fenton. I should be disappointed else."
"It would be a grave thing indeed to disappoint thee, sweet Anne."
He lingered in the garden for some time after she slipped away,
Despite having taken one of the rooms at the Garter--only the so-called Jacob chamber, in which the Host took great pride, remained vacant now--Falstaff was far too distracted by his own pecuniary worries to notice that Fenton spent much of his time there. Indeed, it seemed certain of his creditors--a Justice Shallow and his nephew--had followed him to Windsor from Gloucestershire in hope of retrieving their money. Or so Bardolph, recently elevated to the Garter's second tapster, told him, having buried his bulbous nose in a large mug of ale.
"'Course, you know how easy it is to get money from Fat Jack. He's thrown Nym and Pistol out on their ears without a penny, and they'll be revenged, mark you--but that's another matter. As for that Master Shallow, he's found a pretty wench to quit his debts withal by marriage to his nephew, that Slender. A Mistress Anne Page--"
Fenton choked on his wine.
"--and her father's given his blessing. T'would seem the lady has attracted a most unfortunate sort of suitor and he'll have none of him."
"And has lady any say in this?"
Bardolph roared with laughter. "What say ye, sir? Give a slip of a girl say in her own marriage with seven hundred pounds at stake? She'll marry the first jackanapes to speak prettily to her and there's an end on it."
Fenton restricted himself to a grunt, well aware that Mistress Anne, were she to overhear such an account of herself, was more likely to upend Bardolph's cup over his head and clout him with it for good measure. Now he thought on it further, the image was rather appealing...
"You say," he finally said, dragging himself out of his reverie, "that Nym and Pistol have vowed revenge upon Sir John?"
"Aye, sir. I've no quarrel with him--the barman's trade suits me well, nay better than carrying on with Sir John. But I cannot fault Nym and Pistol." Bardolph shrugged expansively. "Sir John would do well to beware their mischief."
But Fenton cared little for Falstaff's woes, now that he thought upon it further. "Tell me more of this Slender, Bardolph. What manner of man is he?"
"Man?" Bardolph snorted. "A painted dummy, i'faith. He hath no more wit than a footstool but Master Page will have none other. His wife, mind you, is of a very different mind. I had it from Mistress Quickly herself that Mistress Page has determined to match her daughter with Doctor Caius."
"The Frenchman?" Fenton was aware that his mouth had dropped open in a most undignified manner. "Is she quite mad? Anne will have none of him, by God--"
"Anne, ye say?" Bardolph's eyes had narrowed slyly. "And without her father's consent, I'll wager." Rising, he held out his hand. "Not to worry, Master Fenton. There's no barman worth his salt who can't keep a secret."
Reluctantly, Fenton shook the proffered hand. "I'll hold you to it, Bardolph."
Bardolph, to his great credit, said nothing of either Fenton or Anne Page. Indeed, it was a complicated scheme involving German horse-thieves that positively reeked of Bardolph--a notable stench to be certain--that left the Host of the Garter sitting disconsolate beside his tap and gave Fenton the perfect opportunity to enlist his help after Anne's letter arrived.
...It is a thing to be wondered at, my dear Thomas, that my most esteemed mother and father would go to such lengths to see me wedded against my will. But I assure you I shall marry as it please me, and it pleases me to be Mistress Fenton. Look for me in yellow with red ribbons in my hair, for I shall be as gay a bride as Windsor hath seen.
It was with some trepidation that Fenton approached his new father-in-law; he had no desire to spend his wedding night with his nose bloodied, after all, and Master Page's last indulgence had only recently healed. But the response to Anne's calm greeting from both Master and Mistress Page had pushed him past the bounds of all patience.
"You do amaze her!" he heard himself protest, voice sharp with anger, and proceeded to inform them of precisely what their appearance together betokened. It was to their advantage, Fenton thought grimly, that he and Anne had not intended to remain in Windsor although Master Page seemed to have resigned himself to his daughter's unexpected marriage.
They left for London within the week. As they approached the city, Fenton realised with sudden apprehension that there were bells ringing, and not simply to toll the hour.
The King was dead.
Fenton supposed it ought not to have surprised him that Poins appeared at the door two days after he and Anne arrived. One of his particular talents was for knowing the oddest things.
"I hope you intend to apologise to me," he said without preamble. "Your letter was distressing, to say the least."
"I meant every word and mean it still--"
"But you married her, Fenton! It worked!" Poins clapped him on the shoulder. "Congratulations, my dear sir. You have bent your head to the yoke--" catching sight of Anne on the stairs, his grin widened and he let go of Fenton to greet her, "but what a lovely yoke it is. Mistress Fenton, the honour is all mine."
"You must be Master Poins," Anne said, holding out her hand to him. "Thomas has spoken of you often, although I fear you were responsible for my father deeming him an unsuitable husband."
"Unsuitable? Perish the thought! It was a lovely ballad." Taking a pose Fenton had seen dozens of times on the Prince--he supposed he was the King now, King Henry the Fifth--Poins declaimed, "On a day -- alack the day! -- Love whose month is ever May, Spied a blossom passing fair Playing in the wanton air..."
Anne stifled her giggles behind one hand as Fenton rolled his eyes heavenward. "Just as dreadful as I recall."
"You, Fenton, have no ear for poetry. The lady approves, do you not, Mistress?"
"It is a very silly poem," Anne remarked, "but you speak the verse well, Master Poins."
"As kind as she is beautiful." Turning back to Fenton, Poins paused for a moment before changing the subject entirely. "You've heard, I assume, that we have a new King."
Fenton couldn't hide his laughter, nervous as it was. "Bizarre though it may be, yes. King Henry the Fifth, long may he reign--"
"--and the Lord above protect us from buckram men?"
"One could say that, yes." Fenton shook his head. "I can't quite believe it."
"Nor can I, Fenton, nor can I." There was an odd wistfulness in Poins' voice, although it disappeared so quickly that Fenton wondered if he'd imagined it. "I suspect the only way to believe it is to see it firsthand."
"The coronation?" Anne breathed. "Oh, Thomas, we must! I never thought I'd see the king face to face!"
And so they joined the crowds lining the Strand to watch King Henry ride from the Tower to the Abbey at Westminster. Fat snowflakes had left the ground blanketed in thick, white snow, muffling the horses' hooves as they went past. The King's purple mantle sparkled with tiny, icy stars and his face was one Fenton could not recognise.
It was as though the smile had been set aside, locked away. The King was a man who had never laughed. Hal, Prince of Wales, had always seemed to laugh at the world and Fenton, like Poins, had always been aware of the strange, invisible wall that isolated him from them. It was Falstaff who had never understood---
"Why, Thomas, it's Sir John!"
Anne's cry and a movement of her gloved hand indicated the fat knight who had stepped into the street before the King's horse just at the turning before Charing Cross.
"God save thy Grace, King Hal, my royal Hal!"
His voice boomed out across the crowds, and an odd hush settled upon the spectators. Poins, Fenton, and Anne slipped through the press of people till they were a few scant feet from where the peers of the realm had come to a halt, waiting to see what their King would do.
"My King! My Jove!" The old man's face was shining, pride and love writ large. "I speak to thee, my heart!"
"Oh, Hal," he heard Poins murmur.
The King barely turned, his features carved of marble. "I know thee not, old man." There was nothing in his voice, cold as the wind that swept through the street. "Fall to thy prayers."
Fenton could only watch in silence, Anne clinging to his side. Her breath caught and, from the corner of his eye, Fenton could see tears clinging to her lashes.
"Thus ever for princes," Poins said. Ahead of them, Sir John Falstaff had sunk to his knees in the trampled snow as row upon row of horses trotted by, kicking up clods of mud, until shapes Fenton recognised as Bardolph and Pistol dragged him back into the crowd.
Fenton nodded grimly. "They are not of our world, though we may pretend thus for a time." Turning back to Anne, he hugged her close. "Seen enough, sweeting?"
From somewhere beyond her tears, Anne dredged up a watery smile. "I have, husband. Let's away."